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I'm a father!
Four years now and Ryan still felt like pinching himself every time he laid eyes on his precious little girl. With chocolate-brown hair and eyes the color of Carolina pines, Christina Hope O'Keefe could dazzle the socks off a stone-cold statue.
"Christina, honey, grab your backpack. We gotta go."
Ignoring him, Christina skewed her mouth to the left and concentrated even harder on the horse drawing she'd been working on instead of finishing a bowl of frosted wheat squares that grew soggier by the minute.
Ryan hauled in a breath and prayed for an extra dose of patience, something he'd needed plenty of since his little girl had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome a few months before her fourth birthday.
Which was about the time Shana had decided she couldn't handle being a mom anymore.
"That's a fine horse, sweetie." Slipping into his denim jacket, Ryan peered over Christina's shoulder at a detailed sketch that would have been considered exceptional for a kid twice her age. Gently he slid the pencil from between her fingers. Would he ever remember the direct approach worked better for Aspies? "Christina, it's work time, not drawing time. Put your tablet and pencils in your backpack."
"This is a mare. She has thirty-six teeth." Christina scooted off the chair.
"Yep, and we've got thirty-six minutes to get over to Mr. Gardner's place so I can shoe Velvet." Ryan held his daughter's backpack open while she shoved her sketchbook inside. "Now get your jacket so we can go, kiddo."
"Velvet is a Friesian mare." Christina worked one arm and then the other into a pink fleece hoodie. "Friesians are good carriage horses."
"Indeed they are." Tucking his daughter's hand into his own, Ryan opened the back door of his rented two-bedroom bungalow, where he'd settled in Kingsley, North Carolina.
The spring-fresh morning carried the scent of dewy grass and damp earth. A little brown bird poked its beak at the cake of suet hanging from a low tree branch.
Christina pointed. "There's our Carolina wren. Its eggs should be hatching very soon." A few days ago Ryan had spoken those very same words, cadence and all, when he'd shown her the tiny domed nest the wrens had built in the ivy planter outside the kitchen window.
"Maybe we'll get to watch. That would be fun, huh?" Ryan guided his daughter down the porch steps. He did his best to make sure Christina had every opportunity to stretch and grow, to challenge that bright little mind. So she wasn't exactly like other kids. So she had some social development issues. Like he didn't? At least his child wasn't growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who couldn't cope.
Okay, maybe Shana wasn't exactly coping either, begging him to take Christina and then requesting transfer from Army Reserves to active duty. But Ryan could hardly blame her for panicking. The Asperger diagnosis, though on the milder end of the autism scale, had knocked them both for a loop.
Halfway to the driveway, Christina jerked on Ryan's hand. "Daddy, we should go back in the house."
"No, honey. I told you; we're going to see Mr. Gardner's mare." Ryan tried to urge his daughter toward the pickup, but she'd planted her pink sneakers firmly into their scrag-gly lawn.
She shook her head. "I need to go in the house."
Now what? Ryan was still learning the ins and outs of parenting an Asperger child. Was she just being stubborn, or
Without warning, Christina bent forward and upchucked what little breakfast she'd eaten all over the toes of Ryan's boots.
"Aw, honey!" He scooped her into his arms and marched to the house. After setting her down on the porch, he tried not to inhale while hurriedly shucking his befouled boots. "Why didn't you tell me you felt sick?"
She shifted her mouth sideways, her fingers flicking rapidly. "I can't talk about it."
"Of course you can. You can talk to me about anything." Ryan made sure his hand was clean before digging his keys from his pocket.
"But you told me not to say the throw-up word."
"I did?" Racking his brain for when he could possibly have imparted this bit of parental guidance, Ryan unlocked the door and ushered his daughter inside.
By the time they reached the bathroom, he'd remembered. Several weeks ago they'd been on a farrier call at Cross Roads Farm. Nathan Cross and his wife, Filipa, were watching Ryan trim Shadow's hooves, when suddenly Filipa thrust a hand over her mouth and bolted from the barn. Grinning sheepishly, Nathan had mumbled something about morning sickness, and of course Christina wanted to know what that meant.
Now, as he brushed a wet washcloth across Christina's face, she looked up at him with a worried frown. "Velvet needs her shoes in thirty-six minutes."
"We can't give Velvet her shoes if you're sick, honey."
"But Velvet needs her shoes!" Christina's hands flapped at her sides, a habit she'd developed to help calm herself.
Ryan's heart melted. "Velvet will be okay. I'll call Mr. Gardner and tell him we'll come another day. I'm more worried about you right now." He pressed the back of his hand against Christina's forehead then her cheeks. Definitely warm. Why hadn't he noticed earlier? And she always ate all her breakfast. The fact that she hadn't this morning should have clued him in.
He hadn't been a dad long enough to second-guess his kid's health. Better head to the clinic and have her checked out. He led Christina to the kitchen, where he found a small plastic pail under the sink and then grabbed a wad of paper towels, explaining to her the reason for each item as they went. Over the past few months he'd learned, often the hard way, that the best way to keep Christina calm was to be very clear and direct.
He trotted to his closet for a clean pair of boots, crow-hopped to the kitchen while working his feet into them, and then headed out the door again with Christina.
Reaching his red extended-cab pickup, Ryan yanked open the rear door and buckled Christina into her booster seat. Without taking time to unhitch his mobile farrier trailer, he backed down the gravel driveway and turned toward downtown Kingsley. Ten minutes later he pulled the rig to the far edge of the parking area beside Kingsley Community Medical Clinic.
At least Christina hadn't thrown up again, which he hoped was a good sign. Ryan stuffed the paper towels into his jacket pocket just in case before hefting Christina onto his hip. His heart shivered when she snuggled her head against his shoulder.
Thank goodness he found Grace Lorimer behind the reception counter this morning. Unlike her counterpart, a seasoned mother of four, Grace wouldn't give him grief about being a neurotic, overprotective dad.
Not to mention Grace had owned a big chunk of Ryan's heart for years now. Not that she had any clue, of course. But if circumstances had been differentif they'd been different
He had to keep reminding himself that if he'd never met Shana, they wouldn't have Christina, and the precious little girl cuddled in his arms meant more to him than anything or anyone.