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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.
Caressing his daughter's downy-soft hair, Ryan returned his thoughts to the present and sidled up to the counter. "Hey, squirt."
Grace snapped her head up and grinned. "Hey, scuzzy." Then she glanced at Christina, and her hazel eyes turned serious. "Uh-oh, somebody must not feel very good."
"She threw up on my boots. I think she has a fever."
"Daddy " Christina pinched his shoulder. "You said the throw-up word."
"It's okay, bunny. Grace is a trained professional. We can use that word with her." Ryan braced his elbow on the counter. "Any chance you can work us in?"
Grace twisted her strawberry-blond ponytail while she f lipped through screens on her computer monitor. "Dr. Grundmann has an opening. She's seen Christina before, hasn't she?"
"Yeah, when we came in for a checkup and flu shots last fall." Ryan gnawed his lip. "She couldn't be getting the flu this late, could she?"
"Not likely." Grace typed something into her computer then smiled up at him. "It'll be twenty minutes or so. Have a seat and the nurse will call you."
Grace winked. "No prob, scuzzy."
Ryan chuckled to himself. They'd called each other by those "endearments" for ages, almost since their friendship began out at Cross Roads Farm. As a teenager Ryan had been a client at the therapeutic riding center, busing out to the farm with the other messed-up kids from his group home. The little sister of Kip Lorimer, the barn manager, Grace had been a pretty messed-up kid herself when Ryan first met her.
They'd both come a long, long way since then. Ryan had earned a vocational degree in equine management, graduated from farrier school, and now operated a lucrative horseshoeing business. Grace was working toward an exercise science degree at UNC Charlotte with plans to become an occupational therapist. In the meantime, she worked part-time at the clinic and also taught or assisted with the Cross Roads Farm riding classes.
With Christina drowsing against his chest, Ryan made a quick call to Mr. Gardner then picked up a dog-eared Prevention magazine and flipped through the pages. When he came to a full-color advertisement featuring a lithe brunette, Christina popped her head up and stated, "Look, there's Mommy."
Ryan's stomach knotted. "No, honey. It just looks like Mommy. Mommy is in Afghanistan, remember?"
Christina laid her head back on Ryan's shoulder. "Buz-kashi is the national sport of Afghanistan," she said, repeating something Ryan had read to her from a book about horses. "It requires a high degree of horsemanship."
"That's right." Ryan gently stilled his daughter's fluttering hands, the only outward sign of her concern. Christina may not process or express emotions in the same way other children do, but in her own way she missed her mom.
As for Ryan's emotions, he struggled daily. He hated that Christina's mother was clear across the globe, hated the idea of Shana putting her life at risk every day. Why couldn't she have married him five years ago when he'd asked her to? They could have given their daughter the kind of family he'd hoped she'd have. Even more, they could have been there for each other.
"Yes, Mrs. Hodges, we did get that prescription called in. Check with your pharmacy in about an hour, okay?" With a polite good-bye, Grace pushed the disconnect button on her telephone headset. Returning her attention to a mound of insurance forms, she glanced across the rapidly filling waiting room. Good thing all three staff doctors were in today. Must be an epidemic of stomach bugs going around.
When her gaze landed on Ryan O'Keefe, her heart did a tiny flip. All these years later she still hadn't gotten over her teenage crush. The brooding "bad boy" from the group homehence the nickname scuzzyhad always held a certain allure, despite the fact that by the time Grace met Ryan, he was already changing his life for the better.
Yes, Grace's big brother, Kip, definitely had that effect on people. And horses. And dogs. Grace would never forget the day she met her soft-spoken older brother for the very first timeand she'd never forgive their mother for keeping Kip a secret as long as she had.
In fact, there was quite a bit she'd never forgive her mother for. Didn't matter how hard the woman tried to ditch her addictions. Didn't matter how many promises she made. Some things about the woman never changed. Grace had seen her mother fail too many times in too many ways, and she wasn't about to risk getting disappointed again.
By her mom, or anyone else.
"Who's next?" Ivy Sumner, Dr. Grundmann's nurse, stepped up beside Grace and lifted the next file from the appointment slot. "Oh, it's Christina. Such a sweet thing."
"Looks like she might have that stomach virus everyone's been calling in with." Grace peered into the waiting area and saw that Christina had fallen asleep against Ryan's chest. He rested his cheek atop the little girl's head as he browsed a magazine.
Such a good dad. Devoted, attentive, involved. And he did it all by himself. Shana Burch might be serving her country, but there was more behind her choice than just that. How she could have deserted both Ryan and the daughter they shared just blew Grace's mind.
Ivy opened the outer door and softly called Christina's name. Ryan looked up with a start before gently shifting his weight so he could stand without disturbing the sleeping child more than necessary. Christina sagged in his arms like a life-size puppet whose strings had been snipped, her fuzzy pink hoodie drooping off one shoulder.
Ryan caught Grace's eye on his way through and mouthed a thank-you. Grace wished she could soothe away the worry lines around his eyes and remind him how resilient kids are.
The phone rang again, and Grace shifted back into receptionist mode. "Kingsley Community Medical Clinic."
"Kip?" Her brother rarely bothered her at work. Grace swiveled away from the desk. "What's up?"
"Can you put one of the nurses on? We, uh we got problems here."
The tension in Kip's voice sent warning signals through Grace's limbs. "Are you hurt?"
"Not me. It's Sheridan. She's." He gulped, sniffed, cleared his throat.
"Oh, Kip." Grace bit the inside of her lip. "Let me find someone. Hold on." With Kip's line on hold, she buzzed the nurses' intercom.
Seconds later Ivy picked up, and it was all Grace could do to keep from listening in as Ivy took Kip's call.
Dear God, please don't let it be another miscarriage. They've wanted a baby for so long!
Nobody on the planet deserved to be parents more than Kip and Sheridan. Grace hated to think where she'd be today if Kip and the Crosses hadn't taken her in when Mom dumped her off with them before checking herself into a rehab center.
For all the good rehab had done. Six months later Mom was drinking again and shacking up with yet another loser. Grace had lost count of how many times her mother had cycled in and out of bad relationships with both booze and men.
As soon as Grace saw the light on her phone blink out, she ripped off the headset and marched down the hall to the nurses' station. She found Ivy jotting notes in a chart.
"What did Kip say? How's Sheridan?"
Frowning, Ivy gave her head a sad shake, causing tor-toiseshell glasses to slip down her nose. "It doesn't sound good. They should see Sheridan's OB/GYN as soon as possible."
Which meant a half-hour drive to a Charlotte suburb. Definitely one of the disadvantages of small-town living.
Dr. Gloria Grundmann exited one of the exam rooms and crossed the corridor into the nurses' area. She handed Ivy a manila folder and pointed to a yellow sticky note on top. "I think a rep left us some samples of this drug last week. Would you give Ryan a week's worth of the pediatric dose? Then they're free to go."
"On it, Doc." Ivy took the folder. "Oh, and you might want to follow up on this one." She handed the doctor Sheridan Lorimer's chart.
Giving Ivy's notes a cursory glance, Dr. Grundmann drew air between her teeth. She patted Grace's arm. "Tell Sheridan and your brother how sorry I am. Remind them they've got my cell number if the bleeding worsens or if there's anything else I can do."