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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
September 2010

Chapter One

Finding Perfect, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

"What do you mean she left me the embryos? I'm supposed to get the cat." Pia O'Brian paused long enough to put her hand on her chest. The shock of hearing the details of Crystal's will had been enough to stop the strongest of hearts and Pia's was still bruised from the loss of her friend.

She was relieved to find her heart still beating, although the rhythm qualified more as racing than slow.

"It's the cat," she repeated, speaking as clearly as possible so the well-dressed attorney sitting across from her would understand. "His name is Jake. I'm not really a pet person, but we've made peace with each other. I think he likes me. It's hard to tell—he keeps to himself. I guess most cats do."

Pia thought about offering to bring in the cat so the lawyer could see for herself, but wasn't sure that would help.

"Crystal would never leave me her babies," Pia added with a whisper. Mostly because it was true. Pia had never had a maternal or nurturing thought in her life. Taking care of the cat had been a big step for her.

"Ms. O'Brian," the attorney said with a brief smile. "Crystal was very clear in her will. She and I spoke several times as her illness progressed. She wanted you to have her embryos. Only you."

"But I..." Pia swallowed.

Embryos. Somewhere in a lab-like facility were frozen test tubes or other containers and inside of them were the potential babies her friend had so longed for.

"I know this is a shock," the lawyer, a forty-something elegant woman in a tailored suit, said. "Crystal debated telling you what she'd done. Apparently she decided against letting you know in advance."

"Probably because she knew I'd try to talk her out of it," Pia muttered.

"For now, you don't have to do anything. The storage fees are paid for the next three years. There's some paperwork to be filled out, but we can take care of it later."

Pia nodded. "Thank you," she said and rose. A quick glance at her watch told her she was going to have to hurry or she would be late for her ten-thirty appointment back at her office.

"Crystal picked you for a reason," the attorney said as Pia walked toward the door.

Pia gave the older woman a tight smile and headed for the stairs. Seconds later, she was outside, breathing deeply, wondering when the world was going to stop spinning.

This was not happening, she told herself as she started walking. It couldn't be. What had Crystal been thinking? There were dozens of other women she could have left the embryos to. Hundreds, probably. Women who were good with kids, who knew how to bake and comfort and test for a fever with the back of their hands.

Pia couldn't even keep a house plant alive. She was a lousy hugger. Her last boyfriend had complained she always let go first. Probably because being held too long made her feel trapped. Not exactly a sterling quality for a potential parent.

Her stomach felt more than a little queasy. What had Crystal been thinking and why? Why her? That's what she couldn't get over. The fact that her friend had made such a crazy decision. And without ever mentioning it.

Fool's Gold was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone else and secrets were hard to keep. Apparently Crystal had managed to break with convention and keep some huge information to herself.

Pia reached her office building. The first floor of the structure held several retail businesses. A card store, a gift shop with the most amazing fudge, and Morgan's Bookstore. Her office was upstairs.

She went through the plain wooden door off the side street and climbed to the second story. She could see a tall man standing by her locked office door.

"Hi," she called. "Sorry I'm late."

The man turned.

There was a window behind him, so she couldn't see his face, but she knew her schedule for the morning and the name of the man who was her next appointment. Raoul Moreno was tall, with huge shoulders. Despite the unusually cool September day, he hadn't bothered with a coat. Instead he wore a vee-neck sweater over dark jeans.

A man's man, she thought unexpectedly. Which made sense. Raoul Moreno was a former professional football player. He'd been a quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys. After ten years in the game, he'd retired on top and had disappeared from public view. Last year he'd shown up in Fool's Gold for a Pro-Am charity golf tournament. For reasons she couldn't figure out, he'd stayed.

As she got closer, she took in the large dark eyes, the handsome face. There was a scar on his cheek—probably from protecting an old lady during a mugging. He had a reputation for being nice. Pia made it a rule never to trust nice people.

"Ms. O'Brian," he began. "Thanks for seeing me."

She unlocked her office door and motioned for him to go inside.

"Pia, please. My 'Ms. O'Brian' years are looming, but I'm not ready for them yet."

He was good looking enough that she should have been distracted. Under other circumstances, she probably would have been. But at the moment, she was wondering if the chemo treatments had scrambled Crystal's brain. Her friend had always seemed so rational. Obviously that had been a façade.

Pia motioned to the visitor chair in front of her desk and hung her coat on the rack by the door.

Her office was small but functional. There was a good sized main room with a custom three year calendar covering most of one wall. The squares were half dry-erase material and half cork board.

Posters for various Fool's Gold festivals took up the rest of the wall space. She had a storage room and a half bath in the rear, several cabinets and a filing system that bordered on compulsively organized. As a rule she made it a point to visit rather than have people come to her, but scheduling wise, having Raoul stop by had made the most sense.

Of course that had been before she'd found out she'd been left three very frozen potential children.

She crossed to the small refrigerator in the corner. "I have diet soda and water." She glanced over her shoulder. "You're not the diet type."

One dark eyebrow rose. "Are you asking or telling?"

She smiled. "Am I wrong?"

"Water's fine."

"I knew it."

She collected a bottle and a can, then returned to her desk. After handing him the bottle, she took a seat and stared at the yellow pad in front of her. There was writing on it, very possibly in English. She could sort of make out individual letters, but not words and certainly not sentences.

They were supposed to have a meeting about something. That much was clear. She handled the city festivals in town. There were over a dozen civic events that she ran every year. But her mind didn't go any further than that. When she tried to remember why Raoul was here, she went blank. Her brain was filled with other things.

Babies. Crystal had left her babies. Okay, embryos, but the implication was clear. Crystal wanted her children to be born. Which meant someone was going to have to get them implanted, grow them and later give birth. Although that was terrifying enough, there was also the further horror of raising them.

Children weren't like cats. She knew that much. They would need more than dry food, a bowl of water and a clean litter box. A lot more.

"Oh, God, I can't do this," she whispered.

Raoul frowned. "I don't understand. Do you want to reschedule the meeting?"

Meeting? Oh, right. He was here for something. His camp and he wanted her to...

Her mind went blank, again. Right after the merciful emptiness, there was panic. Deep to the bone, intestine-wrenching, panic.

She stood and wrapped her arms around her midsection, breathing hard and fast.

"I can't do this. It's impossible. What was she thinking? She had to know better."

"Pia?"

Her visitor rose. She turned to tell him that rescheduling was probably a good idea when the room began to spin. It turned and turned, darkening on the edges.

The next thing she knew, she was in her chair, bent over at the waist, her head between her knees with something pressing down on the back of her neck.

"This is uncomfortable," she said.

"Keep breathing."

"Easier said than done. Let go."

"A couple more breaths."

The pressure on the back of her neck lessened. Slowly, she straightened and blinked.

Raoul Moreno was crouched next to her, his dark eyes cloudy with concern. She took another breath and realized he smelled really good. Clean, but with a hint of something else.

"You all right?" he asked.

"What happened?"

"You started to faint."

Pia blinked at him. "I don't faint. I never faint. I—" Her memory returned. "Oh, crap." She covered her face with her hands. "I'm so not ready to be a mother."

Raoul moved with a speed that was a credit to his physical conditioning and nearly comical at the same time.

"Man trouble?" he asked cautiously.

"What?" She lowered her hands. "No. I'm not pregnant. That would require sex. Or not. Actually it wouldn't, would it? This is so not happening."

"Okay." He sounded nervous. "Should I call a doctor?"

"No, but you can go if you want. I'm fine."

"You don't look fine."

Now it was her turn to raise her eyebrows. "Are you commenting on my appearance?"

He grinned. "I wouldn't dare."

"That sounded almost critical."

"You know what I meant."

She did. "I'm okay. I've had a bit of a shock. A friend of mine died recently. She was married to a guy in the army. Before he was shipped off to Iraq, they decided to do in-vitro, just in case something happened to him. So she could have his kids."

"Sad, but it makes sense."

She nodded. "He was killed a couple of years ago. She took it really hard, but after a while, she decided she would have the babies. At least a part of him would live on, right?"

Pia rose and paced the length of the office. Moving seemed to help. She took a couple of cautious breaths, to make sure she was going to stay conscious. Fainting? Impossible. Yet the world really had started to blur.

She forced herself back to the topic at hand.

"She went to the doctor for a routine physical," she continued. "They discovered she had lymphoma. And not the good kind."

"There's a good kind?"

She shrugged. "There's a kind that can usually be cured. She didn't have that one. And then she was gone. I have her cat. I thought I'd be keeping him. We have a relationship. Sort of. It's hard to tell with a cat."

"They keep to themselves."

There was something about the way he spoke. She glared at him. "Are you making fun of me?"

"No."

She saw the corner of his mouth twitch. "Don't mess with me," she told him. "Or I'll talk about my feelings."

"Anything but that."

She returned to her desk and sank into the chair. "She didn't leave me the cat. She left me the embryos. I don't know what to do. I don't know what she was thinking. Babies. God—anyone but me. And I can't ignore it. Them. That's what the attorney hinted at. That I could let it go for a while because the 'fees' are paid for three years." She looked at him. "I guess that's the frozen part. Maybe I should go see them."

"They're embryos. What's there to see?"

"I don't know. Something. Can't they put them under a microscope? Maybe if I saw them, I would understand." She stared at him as if he had the answer. "Why did she think I could raise her children?"

"I'm sorry, Pia. I don't know."

He looked uncomfortable. His gaze lingered on the door. Reality returned and with it, a sense of embarrassment.

"Sorry," she murmured, standing. "We'll reschedule. I'll compose myself and be much better next time. Let me look over my calendar and give you a call."

He reached for the door handle, then paused. "Are you sure you're going to be all right?"

No, she wasn't sure. She wasn't sure of anything. But that wasn't Raoul's problem.

She forced a smile. "I'm great. Seriously, you should go. I'm going to call a couple of girlfriends and let them talk me down."

"Okay." He hesitated. "You have my number?"

"Uh huh." She wasn't sure if she did, but she was determined to let him escape while she still had a shred of dignity. "The next time you see me, I'll be professionalism personified. I swear."

"Thanks. You take care."

"Bye."

He left.

When the door closed, she sank back into her chair. After lowering her arms to the desk, she rested her head on them and did her best to keep breathing.

Crystal had left her the embryos. There were only two questions that mattered. Why, and what the hell was Pia supposed to do now?

#

Raoul arrived at Ronan Elementary shortly before two. He parked in the lot by the playground. No surprise—his was the only Ferrari in the parking lot. He was a guy who liked his toys, so sue him.

Before he could climb out of the car, his cell phone rang. He checked his watch—he had a few minutes before he was due inside—then the phone number on the screen. As he pushed the "talk" button, he grinned.

"Hey, Coach."

"Hey, yourself," Hawk, his former high school football coach, said. "Nicole hasn't heard from you in a while and I'm calling to find out why."

Raoul laughed. "I talked to your beautiful wife last week, so I know that's not why you're calling."

"You got me. I'm checking on you. Making sure you're moving on with your life."

That was Hawk, Raoul thought with equal parts frustration and appreciation. Cutting right to the heart of what was wrong.

"You had some bad stuff happen," the older man continued. "Don't wallow."

"I'm not wallowing. I'm busy."

"You're in your head too much. I know you. Find a cause. It'll distract you. You can't change what happened."

Raoul's good humor faded. Hawk was right about that. The past couldn't be undone. Those who were gone stayed gone. No amount of bargaining, no sum of money, made it better.

"I can't let it go," he admitted.

"You'll have to. Maybe not today, but soon. Believe in the possibility of healing, Raoul. Right now, that's enough."

It seemed impossible, but he'd been trusting Hawk for nearly twenty years. "I'll do my best."

"Good. Call Nicole."

"I will."

They hung up.

Raoul sat in his car for a few more seconds, thinking about what Hawk had told him. Get involved. Find a cause. What the other man didn't know was how much Raoul wanted to avoid that. Getting involved is what had caused the problem in the first place. Life was much safer lived at a distance.

He got out of his car and collected the small duffle he'd brought with him. Whenever he visited a school, he brought a few official NFL footballs and player cards. It made the kids happy, and that's why he was here. To entertain and maybe slip in a little motivation when they weren't looking.

He glanced at the main school building. It was older but well-kept. He usually spoke to high school aged kids, but the principal and class teacher had both been persistent to the point of stalking. He was new to small town life and figuring out the rules as he went. As he planned to settle in Fool's Gold permanently, he'd decided to err on the side of cooperation.

He stepped toward the main walkway, then made his way into the building. Unlike the inner city schools he usually visited, there weren't any metal detectors or even a guard. The double doors stood open, the halls were wide and well-lit, the walls free of graffiti. Like the rest of Fool's Gold, the school was almost too good to be true.

He followed the signs for the main office and found himself in a big open area, with a long counter. There were the usual bulletin boards with flyers for book drives and after school programs. A dark-haired woman sat at a desk, typing on an ancient looking computer.

"Morning," he said.

The woman—probably in her mid-thirties—looked up. Her mouth fell open as she stood and waved her hands. "Oh, God. You're here. You're really here! I can't believe it." She hurried toward him. "Hi. I'm Rachel. My dad is a huge fan. He's going to die when he finds out I met you."

"I hope not," Raoul said easily, pulling a card out of the bag and reaching for a pen.

"What?"

"I hope he doesn't die."

Rachel laughed. "He won't, but he'll be so jealous. I heard you were coming. And here you are. This is just so exciting. Raoul Moreno in our school."

"What's your dad's name?"

"Norm."

He signed the card and passed it to her. "Maybe this will help him deal with his disappointment."

She took the paper reverently and placed a hand on her chest. "Thank you so much. This is wonderful." She glanced at the clock, then sighed. "I suppose I have to take you to Mrs. Miller's class now."

"I should probably get started talking to the kids."

"Right. That's why you're here. It's been wonderful to meet you."

"You, too, Rachel."

She came out from behind the counter, then led him back into the hallway. As they walked, she chatted about the school and the town, all the while glancing at him with a combination of appreciation and flirtatiousness. It came with the territory and he'd learned a long time ago not to take the attention seriously.

Mrs. Miller's class was at the end of the hall. Rachel held the door open for him.

"Good luck," she said.

"Thanks."

He entered the room alone.

There were about twenty young kids, all staring wide-eyed, while their teacher, an attractive woman in her forties, fluttered.

"Oh, Mr. Moreno, I can't thank you enough for speaking with us today. It's such a thrill."

Raoul smiled. "I'm always happy to come talk to kids in school." He glanced at the class. "Morning."

A few of the students greeted him. A few more looked too excited to speak. At least the boys did. Most of the girls didn't seem impressed at all.

"Fourth grade, right?" he asked.

A girl with glasses in the front row nodded. "We're the accelerated group, reading above grade level."

"Uh oh," he said, taking an exaggerated step back. "The smart kids. You going to ask me a math question?"

Her mouth curved into a smile. "Do you like math?"

"Yeah, I do." He looked up at the class. "Who here really likes school a lot?"

A few kids raised their hands.

"School can change your life," he said, settling one hip on the teacher's desk. "When you grow up, you're going to get jobs and work for a living. Today most of your responsibilities are about doing well in school. Who knows why we need to learn things like reading and math?"

More hands went up.

His usual talk was on staying motivated, finding a mentor, making a better life, but that seemed like a little much for the average nine year-old. So he was going to talk about how important it was to like school and do your best.

Mrs. Miller hovered. "Do you need anything?" she asked in a whisper. "Can I get you something?"

"I'm good."

He turned his attention back to the students. The girl in the front row stared at him. There was something intense about her gaze. Oddly enough—she reminded him of Pia. Maybe it was her obvious lack of interest in him as a person. Pia hadn't gushed, either. She'd barely noticed him. Not a real surprise, given how her morning had started. But he'd noticed her. She'd been cute and funny, even without trying.

He returned his attention to the students, drew in a breath and frowned. He inhaled again, smelling something odd.

If this had been a high school, he would have assumed an experiment gone bad in the science lab. Or a batch of forgotten cookies in home ec. But elementary schools didn't have those facilities.

He turned to Mrs. Miller. "Do you smell that?"

She nodded, her blue eyes concerned. "Maybe something happened in the cafeteria."

"Is there a fire?" one of the boys asked.

"Everyone stay seated," Mrs. Miller said firmly, as she walked toward the door.

She placed a hand on it before slowly pulling it open. As she did, the smell of smoke got stronger. Seconds later, the fire alarms went off.

She turned to him. "It's only the second day of school. We haven't practiced what to do. I think there really is a fire."

The kids were already standing up and looking scared. He knew they weren't very far from panic.

"You know where we're supposed to go?" he asked. "The way out?"

"Of course."

"Good." He turned to the students. "Who's in charge here?" he asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the bells.

"Mrs. Miller," someone yelled.

"Exactly. Everyone get in line and follow Mrs. Miller as we go into the hall. There are going to be a lot of kids out there. Stay calm. I'll go last and make sure you all get out of the building."

Mrs. Miller motioned for her students to move toward the door.

"Follow me," she said. "We'll go quickly. Everyone hold hands. Don't let go. Everything is fine. Just stay together."

Mrs. Miller went out the door. The children began to follow her. Raoul waited to make sure everyone left. One little boy seemed to hesitate before leaving.

"It's okay," Raoul told him, his voice deliberately calm. He reached for the boy's hand, but the child flinched, as if expecting to be hit. The kid—all red hair and freckles—ducked out before Raoul could say anything.

Raoul went into the hall. The smell of smoke was more intense. Several kids were crying. A few stood in the middle of the hallway, their hands over their ears. The bells rang endlessly as teacher called for the students to follow them outside.

"Come on," he said, scooping the nearest little girl into his arms. "Let's go."

"I'm scared," she said.

"I'm big enough to keep you safe."

Another little boy grabbed hold of his arm. Tears filled the kid's eyes. "It's too loud."

"Then let's go outside, where it's quieter."

He walked quickly, herding kids as he went. Teachers ran back and forth, counting heads, checking to make sure no one was left behind.

When Raoul and his group of kids reached the main doors leading outside, the children took off at a run. He put down the girl he'd been carrying and she raced toward her teacher. He could see smoke pouring into the sky, a white-gray cloud covering the brilliant blue.

Students flowed out around him. Names were called. Teachers sorted the groups by grades, then classes. Raoul turned and went back into the building.

Now he could do more than smell smoke. He could see it. The air was thick and getting darker, making it hard to breathe. He went room by room, pushing open doors, checking under the large teacher desks in front, scanning to make sure no one was left behind.

He found a tiny little girl in a corner of the third room he entered, her face wet with tears. She was coughing and sobbing. He picked her up, turned and almost ran into a firefighter.

"I'll take her," the woman said, looking at him from behind a mask and grabbing the girl. "Get the hell out of here. The building is nearly seventy years old. God knows what cocktail of chemicals is in the air."

"There might be more kids."

"I know, and the longer we stand here talking, the more danger they're in. Now move."

He followed the firefighter out of the building. It wasn't until he was outside, that he realized he was coughing and choking. He bent over, trying to catch his breath.

When he could breathe again, he straightened. The scene was controlled chaos. Three fire trucks stood in front of the school. Students huddled together on the lawn, well back from the building. Smoke poured out in all directions.

A few people screamed and pointed. Raoul turned and saw flames licking through the roof at the far end of the school.

He turned to head back in. A firefighter grabbed him by the arm.

"Don't even think about it," the woman told him. "Leave this to the professionals."

He nodded, then started coughing again.

She shook her head. "You went back inside, didn't you? Civilians. Do you think we wear the masks because they're pretty? Medic!" She yelled the last word and pointed at him.

"I'm fine," Raoul managed, his chest tight.

"Let me guess. You're a doctor, too. Cooperate with the nice lady or I'll tell her you need an enema."

 

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