Best of My Love (Fool's Gold)

An irresistible new love story from the #1
New York Times
bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold series, set in a town
Library Journal
calls “so appealing, readers will want to start scoping out real estate.”

To overcome her painful past, baker Shelby Gilmore goes on the hunt for a friend—a
male
friend—to convince her stubborn psyche that men can be trusted. But where in a town as small as Fool’s Gold will the petite blonde find a guy willing to
not
date her?

Dark, charming Aidan Mitchell puts the “adventure” in Mitchell Adventure Tours...and into the beds of his many willing female tourists. Until he realizes he’s inadvertently become
that guy
—the one-night Casanova—and worse, everyone in town knows it. Maybe Shelby’s boy/girl experiment will help him see women as more than just conquests so he can change his ways and win back his self-respect.

As Aidan and Shelby explore the secret lives of men and women, the heat between them fires up the Fool’s Gold rumor mill. If no one will believe they’re just friends, maybe they should give the gossips something to
really
talk about!

Praise for Susan Mallery
and her
New York Times
bestselling
Fool’s Gold series

“Susan Mallery is one of my favorites.”

—#1
New York Times
bestselling author Debbie Macomber

“Romance novels don’t get much better than Mallery’s expert blend of emotional nuance, humor and superb storytelling.”


Booklist

“Touching, insightful, and funny, this lively romance addresses some serious relationship issues as it delivers another satisfying, page-turning winner.”


Library Journal
on
Kiss Me

“Heartwarming... Deft characterization and an absorbing story line will keep readers coming back.”


Publishers Weekly
on
When We Met

“Ms. Mallery masterfully weaves new characters into the fabric of Fool’s Gold, but always catches us up on the lives of its very unique residents. Fool’s Gold has a certain rhythm that makes it a warm, homey place with a little bit of magic.”


Fresh Fiction
on
Thrill Me

“Mallery delivers another engaging romance in magical Fool’s Gold.”


Kirkus Reviews
on
Just One Kiss

“The wildly popular and prolific Mallery can always be counted on to tell an engaging story of modern romance.”


Booklist

“Mallery infuses her story with eccentricity, gentle humor, and small-town shenanigans.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Summer Days

Also by
Susan Mallery

Fool’s Gold

Marry Me at Christmas

Thrill Me

Kiss Me

Hold Me

Until We Touch

Before We Kiss

When We Met

Christmas on 4th Street

Three Little Words

Two of a Kind

Just One Kiss

A Fool’s Gold Christmas

All Summer Long

Summer Nights

Summer Days

Only His

Only Yours

Only Mine

Finding Perfect

Almost Perfect

Chasing Perfect

Blackberry Island

Evening Stars

Three Sisters

Barefoot Season

Mischief Bay

The Friends We Keep

The Girls of Mischief Bay

To see the complete list of titles available from Susan Mallery, please visit
SusanMallery.com
.

SUSAN MALLERY

Best of My Love

This book is dedicated to Sarah S. You are adorable and charming and I hope you love Aidan and Shelby’s story as much as I do. This one’s for you...

* * *

Being the “mom” of an adorable, spoiled little dog, I know the joy that pets can bring to our lives. Animal welfare is a cause I have long supported. For me that means giving to Seattle Humane. At their 2015 Tuxes and Tails fund-raiser, I offered “Your pet in a romance novel” as a prize.

In this book you will meet a bichon frise named Charlie. He has a sparkling personality and couldn’t be cuter. Every time he appeared in the book, I had the biggest smile. What a sweetie! I loved everything about him—from his trying to drive to his insistence that meals be on time.

One of the things that makes writing special is interacting in different ways with people. Some I talk to for research. Some are readers who want to talk characters and story lines, and some are fabulous pet parents. Charlie’s real-life family adore him and he brings hours of pleasure to them.

My thanks to Charlie’s family, to Charlie himself and to the wonderful people at Seattle Humane (
SeattleHumane.org
). Because every pet deserves a loving family.

CHAPTER ONE

“A
BOUT
LAST
NIGHT
...”

The words were softly spoken. Almost a question. Still, they were enough to make Aidan Mitchell consider pounding his head against the table. Or the wall. He was pretty sure the table was closer. Not that he was going to pick either because he honestly didn’t need any more head pain. Not with the raging hangover he’d more than earned.

“I have nothing,” he admitted, squinting into the, what seemed to him, overly bright light of Brew-haha, the local coffee place. Because when a man felt as bad as he did, coffee was the only solution. “No excuse, no explanation.”

He wanted to say more. That it hadn’t been his fault. Only it had been.

Aidan wanted to point out that he was usually a decent guy. He loved his mom, paid his taxes and ran a successful business, yet somewhere along the way, he’d become a total jerk. But why state the obvious?

The woman standing next to his table pointed to the empty seat across from his. “May I?”

He nodded, then wished he hadn’t when more pain exploded across his eyes. He reminded himself it was a small price to pay for what had happened.

He pushed aside the steady thudding in his temple and did his best to focus on his new tablemate. Shelby Gilmore was petite and blue-eyed. Delicate, he thought. Pretty enough to get a breathing man’s attention. But not for him, because he had it all figured out. No local women. Tourists were easier. And look where that had gotten him.

Her gaze was steady as she sipped her coffee. She seemed to be trying to figure something out. If it was about him, he should save her the trouble.

“Yes,” he said, aware his voice was gravelly. No doubt yet another manifestation of the alcohol probably still processing through his system. “I’m an ass. I’m sure there’s going to be a memo about it in the paper.”

Her mouth curved up. “The paper’s already out and I didn’t see anything. Of course, I generally avoid the whole ‘ass’ section. It can be depressing.”

“Humor at my expense. Go ahead. I deserve it.”

Her hair fell past her shoulders. It was straight and kind of a gold-blond color. Long bangs covered her eyebrows. He knew she had to be in her late twenties, but she looked younger.

“I like that you’re taking responsibility for what happened,” she said. “A lot of guys wouldn’t.”

“Most guys wouldn’t have gotten in trouble in the first place.” He leaned back in his chair and held in a groan. “I had it all figured out. That’s what kills me. I had a plan.”

“The road to hell?”

Despite how he felt, he managed a grin. “Yeah. That was me. The guy with good intentions.” He stopped himself a half second before he shook his head again. “Avoid entanglements. It was working for me, too.”

She held her coffee mug in both hands. “So it’s true. You dated tourists.” The corner of her mouth twitched. “I use the word
dated
out of general politeness. Also, it’s New Year’s Day, which is kind of a holiday.”

“Respect. I like that.” He sighed heavily. “Yes, I was the dog that picked up tourists. They were friendly and willing. Not to mention, only in town for a short time. No one’s definition of dating.”

“I can see the general outline of a plan here. You assumed that by keeping it simple and short-term, you wouldn’t have to deal with anything messy. Like a relationship. Why is that?”

He squinted against the bright light. “No offense, but do I know you?”

She laughed. “You mean beyond saying hello?” One slim shoulder rose, then lowered. “Not really. I admit that this is a very random conversation, but I’d still like you to answer the question.”

His brain was working at about two-thirds speed this morning. He felt like hell, both physically and emotionally. He was the biggest jackass around and he just wanted to crawl into a hole until he figured out how he was going to fix the problem. Which would come after he figured out what had gone wrong.

But all of that didn’t explain why Shelby Gilmore was grilling him. Maybe one of her New Year’s resolutions was to right wrongs. Sort of a seeker of justice for those whose hearts he’d accidentally broken.

He searched his memory for what he knew about her. She’d been in town maybe a couple of years. She worked in the bakery. Or possibly owned it—he couldn’t remember, exactly. He’d seen her around. He was sure she was perfectly nice, not to mention Kipling Gilmore’s sister. Kipling ran the local search-and-rescue department. Aidan knew him from that, and because it was Fool’s Gold—a town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Oh, yeah. He and Kipling were part owners of a local bar. Which explained why he was having this conversation in the first place. Or did it? He looked at her.

“What was the question?” he asked.

The smile returned. “Why tourists? You’re a good-looking guy with a successful business. Why aren’t you married?”

“I don’t want to get stuck,” he blurted before he could stop himself. “Is this a job interview?”

“No. I don’t mean to be intrusive.”

“But you’re going to keep asking questions?”

“Something like that. Stuck how?”

He finished his coffee. Before he could think about standing up to get another, Patience, the owner of Brew-haha, and about forty-seven months pregnant, waddled over with a pot.

“You look awful,” she said cheerfully. “Still hungover?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s not like you. I can’t remember the last time you got drunk.”

Aidan didn’t bother responding. There was no point. He and Patience had known each other their whole lives. One of the advantages—and disadvantages—of living in Fool’s Gold. There weren’t a lot of secrets. Which meant everyone from here to the Nicholson Ranch would soon know exactly what had happened last night.

Shelby frowned at her friend. “Why are you working? You’re due any second.”

“I know.” Patience rested her left hand on her incredibly large belly. “I’m so ready for him to be born. I thought maybe standing on my feet for a few hours would hurry things along. I’m not sleeping, so why make someone else get up early on New Year’s Day?”

Another nice woman, Aidan thought grimly. They were everywhere. He shouldn’t even be looking at her, let alone having a conversation.

“Want some aspirin?” she asked.

“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”

Patience grinned at Shelby. “I don’t believe that, do you?”

“Not for a second, but it’s fun to let him pretend.”

They were mocking him. He was about to protest that he was sitting right there when he remembered that he deserved it. That and more.

Patience finished refilling his mug and then walked back to the counter. Before Aidan could refocus, Shelby leaned toward him.

“How would being married make you stuck?” she repeated.

She wasn’t going away. He got that. So fine. He would tell her the truth. “If you love someone, you’re stuck. You have to do things you don’t want to do.”

“You’re not talking about going to restaurants you don’t like, or taking out the trash, are you?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.” She studied him. “So the tourists were a way to stay safe.” The smile returned. “And get laid. A twofer.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t put it like that.”

“Because it makes you a jerk?”

He thought about what had happened the previous night. “What did you hear? About the woman?”

“This and that. Tell me your version.”

He wasn’t sure if she’d been sent to make sure he got that he deserved to be punished or if this was just one of those happy accidents. Either way, he was going to spill his guts and let fate take care of the rest.

“I was hanging out at The Man Cave for their New Year’s Eve party. With friends.” He’d been drinking beer...at least at first. A hangover hadn’t been part of his master plan.

“This woman walked up to me.”

“Did you recognize her?”

“Of course.” Sort of. “I knew we’d probably hung out over the summer.”

“Hung out being a euphemism for
had sex
?”

He winced. “You’re a lot less delicate than you look.”

“Thank you. So she said hi, and...?”

Aidan sighed. “She didn’t say hi. She walked up to me and said she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me. That the week we’d had together had changed her. She was hoping I felt the same way because she wanted to quit her job and move to Fool’s Gold to be with me.”

Shelby waited. He was pretty sure she knew the punch line to the joke that was his life, but hey, he could say it. In fact, saying it out loud was probably a good thing. Or at the very least, well deserved.

“It wasn’t a
week
,” he said firmly. “If it had been a week, I would have remembered.”

“Her?”

He cleared his throat. “Her name. I couldn’t remember her name. Or when she’d been here. She got that right away. She got mad and started yelling.”

The bar had gone quiet as the scorned woman had called him everything from a rat bastard to a male whore. He’d taken it because he honest to God couldn’t remember her name. He’d spent at least a couple of days with her, had talked to her, laughed with her, had sex with her and walked away without being able to remember who she was.

Which made him everything she’d called him and worse. He didn’t mind that he had had a lot of women in his life, but to not remember their names—that was bad. It was the hookup equivalent of a drunk waking up in a gutter with no recollection of how he’d got there. She was his rock bottom. Not that she would appreciate the fact, unless she could also bury him under said rocks.

“What happens now?” Shelby asked.

“Hell if I know. I didn’t like what I saw in her face. I’m sorry I hurt her. I’m sorry I’ve become that kind of guy. I want to do better. I have to change. I never meant to hurt anybody. That was the point. No one was supposed to get hurt.” He shook his head, held in a groan, then drank more coffee. “What does it matter? I
am
that guy.” He put down the mug. “Or I was.”

“You’re going to change?”

“Yeah. I have to. Not wanting to get stuck is one thing, but to be such an ass... That’s not me.”

Shelby’s gaze was steady. She looked at him for a long time before nodding. “Okay. Thanks for talking to me.”

“You gonna slap me or absolve me?”

“Neither. I was curious.”

“Whatever floats your boat.”

She laughed. “Keep hydrating, Aidan. And the next time someone offers you aspirin, you should probably take it.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“Anytime.”

She stood and carried her mug to the counter and put it in the bin for dirty dishes. Aidan watched her shrug into her coat, then walk out into the cold morning.

Pretty, he thought absently. Not that her appearance meant anything to him because he knew at least part of the solution to his problem. Swearing off women would be drastic, but it would also help make things right. Yup, that was what he had to do. Give them up completely. Forever. Starting now.

* * *

T
HE
SIDEWALKS
IN
town were clear, with snow piled up by the curb. Christmas trees and holly wreaths still hung in store windows, along with banners proclaiming the New Year. Fool’s Gold was a town defined by the seasons and the festivals that went with them. Shelby liked the ever-changing decorations that hung off the light posts. By Monday all the signs of Christmas and New Year’s would be gone, replaced by the bright colors of Cabin Fever Days. Snowmen would appear in front yards and there would be an ice-sculpture competition in the park.

She’d already heard from several of the artists who’d sent her sketches of their designs. From those, she’d created a simple template, which was turned into a cookie cutter. During the popular festival, the bakery would sell the custom cookies in the store and in their two food carts.

This would be their second year operating the food carts and the first offering custom cookies. Both had been her idea and Shelby was excited and nervous about the cookies. Excited because she was sure they were going to be a hit. Nervous because they were her second big suggestion as a new business owner.

Last fall she’d bought into Ambrosia Bakery as a minority partner. There were days she still couldn’t believe she actually owned part of a business. Her! While she’d loved culinary school, she’d quickly realized that the pastry classes were her favorite and had changed her major to baking and pastry arts. Her internship had led to a job and her life had been on track.

For all of fifteen minutes, she thought ruefully. Then her mom had gotten sick and everything had changed.

Shelby paused at the corner. It was still early in the day. The bakery was closed for the holiday, so she could go home and enjoy a rare long weekend. Or, she could go to work and play with cookies—perfecting the decorating of the custom ice-sculpture-inspired shapes.

As
home
was a small one-bedroom apartment where no one waited for her—not even a goldfish—she turned right on Second and walked toward the familiar white storefront with the pretty silver awning. Before she got there, a car pulled up next to her and a blonde woman got out.

Shelby smiled at her friend Madeline. “Shouldn’t you be off being romantic with your movie-star fiancé?”

Madeline hugged her blue coat close and grinned. “I have been, but we’re taking a rest. I came home to get a few things and thought I’d say hi.” She wrinkled her nose. “I just knew you’d be working today.”

Shelby held up both hands. “I’m not at the bakery.”

“You’re three feet away.”

Shelby laughed. “Okay, yes. I’m going to play with the new cookie designs. Why not? It’s quiet and I like baking.”

“Any leftovers for hungry friends?”

“I’m sure there are.”

Shelby locked the front door behind them, then flipped on the lights. She loved being the first person in the building. Everywhere she looked, there was the promise of delicious things to come. The huge bowls, the racks brimming with supplies, the massive ovens—all ready to make magic from a few ingredients.

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