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"Unca Ryan, that mama pig has six babies." Five-year-old Faith's pudgy fingers clutched the fence surrounding the Tulsa State Fair's animal birthing pen.
Ryan Jones pushed his straw Stetson to the back of his head. "Yes, she does, darlin'," he answered.
"That's lots of brothers and sisters," Faith continued, her gaze intent upon the plump sow and her suckling brood.
Those who overheard chuckled. Ryan merely smiled, proud of his precocious niece.
When Faith finally looked up, she wriggled her button nose. "It stinks in here."
Ryan laughed. "Yeah. I guess it does." As a vet, he was accustomed to the pungent hay and animal smells, but the air in the huge livestock building had become unusually thick and dank as the number of spectators increased.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the movement of a dark-haired woman at the other end of the barnyard. He froze, then shook his head. Knock it off. It's been eight years, Jones. Time to stop thinking every brunette with a certain gesture or walk is Kait Field.
While he'd routinely convinced himself he was long over his first love, his stubborn heart refused to release her memory.
It didn't help that his imagination worked overtime in crowds. And this was quite a crowd.
He knelt down next to his towheaded niece. "Are you about ready for some cotton candy?"
Faith's wispy ponytail bobbed as she nodded.
"Pink or blue?" he asked.
Dimples appeared. "Pink, please."
It didn't take long to guide her through the jammed arena and back outside to the main strip of the fairgrounds.
Faith ignored the noise of the carnies vying for their attention and the loud barker at the entrance to one of the sideshows. Her short, chubby legs propelled forward on the midway, past the Ferris wheel, carousel and the sweet and greasy trailing aroma of a funnel-cake stand.
When Faith picked up her pace, Ryan reached for her hand before she got too far ahead. Not even a flamboyant clown on stilts could stop the little girl now that she had a mission.
"There." Sugar radar intact, Faith pointed to a concession stand shaded by a bright blue-and-white-striped umbrella.
"Taste good?" Ryan asked as they settled on a bench, out of the wilting heat and humidity. Early autumn in Tulsa, it was still seventy-five degrees in the shade.
Faith nodded, not wasting time on words, simply stuffing pink fluff into her mouth. When the last of the treat disappeared, she licked each finger one by one and looked up.
"I have to go to the little girls' room." She hopped off the bench and straightened her shorts and matching top. "Now," she added.
Ryan stood and glanced around, spotting the nearest facility. They quickly headed over.
He narrowed his gaze, assessing those who came in and out the gray metal door. All he had to do was find a nice elderly lady or a mother with a baby to watch her inside.
"Now, please, Unca Ryan," Faith cried, reaching up to tug on his rolled-up shirtsleeve. "I heard you, darlin'."
"Do you need some help?" His head jerked at the sound. That voice.
The air whooshed from his lungs as he connected with familiar dark eyes. He froze, realizing he'd just been poleaxed by the ghost of Kait Field.
"I we " His thoughts were as muddled as his speech.
One thing was certain. This time it wasn't his imagination. Kait had been in the livestock barn this morning.
Faith released a loud wail and crossed her little legs like miniature pretzels. Though Ryan heard her plea, he couldn't seem to move.
Kait, however, wasted no time. "Jenna, take the little girl into the restroom, sweetie."
"Sure." The young girl at Kait's side smiled at him before she pulled open the door and followed Faith inside. Merely a few years older than his niece, her long hair was the same rich black shade as Kait's. In fact, except for the fringe of bangs, she looked exactly like Kait.
"Jenna," Kait quickly added.
He frowned, trying to piece the picture together. Kait was married and had a daughter? Regret slammed into him with the force of an Oklahoma twister.
"Your daughter is adorable, Ryan."
"Faith is my nieceMaddie's daughter."
Kait shook her head and shifted uncomfortably. When she pushed the long hair off her shoulders in a nervous gesture, he glanced at her hand, noting the light band of skin on her ring finger, evidence she'd recently removed a ring.
Hope flared and his breath tightened in his chest. The last ring he'd seen on Kait's hand was his promise ringeight years ago.
Ryan tensed, clenching his jaw. Was she married or not?
He sure intended to find out. "Um, well, it certainly is nice to see you," Kait finally said.
Numb and speechless, he could only stare. His world had been knocked off-kilter, and she'd just responded like they were old friends who ran into each other once a week at church.
"Come again?" Ryan bit back the slow, simmering anger deep in his gut.
"I said, it's nice to"
"Yeah. I heard you." He jammed his hands into the pockets of his Wrangler jeans and glanced down at the ground. There was no way he could play a game of nonchalance and repartee.
No, this was too cruel, carrying on a polite conversation while sneaking glances to see how she'd changed.
Had she changed? Not really. The woman in front of him was still tall and slim, with high cheekbones hinting at her part-Cherokee heritage. Her hair hung like a satin sheet around her shouldersnot unlike the picture he carried in his heart.
"You look good, Kait. Real good." The words slipped from his lips before he realized he'd said them.
Her face turned pink. "Thank you," she said, while fidgeting with the silver chain tucked inside her blouse. As he recalled, she used to keep her mother's wedding ring on the end of that necklace.
Kait glanced around the fairgrounds, looking anywhere to avoid the intense green eyes of Ryan Jones. What were the odds of finding this particular cowboy among all the cowboys at the Tulsa State Fair?
Yes, she'd come home to deal with the past. But she hadn't expected it would be today, her first day back in Oklahoma.
When she'd spotted Ryan, she and Jenna were walking and chatting. Suddenly there he was, giving life to the memories she'd put on a shelf eight years ago.
The same unruly golden hair peeked out from beneath his hat, and he wore a familiar uniform of a denim shirt rolled up to the elbows, faded but creased Wrangler jeans and dusty boots. Tall and lanky, there was still a sparkle in his eyes and an irreverent grin on his face.
Flustered, and with her blood beating loudly against her temples, Kait scrambled for a course of action. Her initial instinct had been to hide, but Ryan looked in need, as did the child with him. Her heart kicked in well before her brain.
Now as they stood awkwardly, waiting for the girls to come out of the restroom, she tried not to stare, but again and again her gaze returned to the tall cowboy.
"Hey, Doc, how's it going? Good to see you out having fun for a change."
Ryan's head swiveled around as he nodded a greeting to a man passing by.
"Doc?" Kait repeated the word.
"Doctor Jones. Princess says to tell you hello."
"Afternoon, Ms. Anderson." He tipped his hat to an elderly woman
"Princess?" Kait asked.
"Red tabby Persian."
"Excuse me?" Confused, she cocked her head. "I'm a vet, Kait. I told you I was going to go to vet school."
"Your mother said you were going to law school."
He frowned, and his lips became a thin line. "And you believed everything my mother told you?" She looked away, shaken by the harsh reply. "Kait."
Slowly she glanced back to Ryan.
"I " He inhaled then released a breath of air through pursed lips. "I'm sorry."
Kait gave a short nod of acknowledgment. He was angry, and she supposed he had every right to bemore than he realized, in fact.
"Is this the first time you've been back since"
"Yes," she quickly interjected. "I have to empty out the old house before it goes on the market."
"You're selling the house? Your father "
"My father left the house to me."
Ryan flinched. "Seems I'm always shoving my boots in my mouth. I heard he was in and out of the V.A. hospital for treatment. But I didn't realize." He cleared his throat. "When?"
Kait swallowed and stared straight ahead as she struggled to say the words without emotion. "Six weeks ago."
"I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Gotta be tough," Ryan murmured. She lifted her chin. "Time passes. Things change."
"There's an understatement." He took off his Stetson and put it back on his head. "How long will you be in town?"
"Long enough to tie up a few loose ends."
"Loose ends, huh?" A flash of pain appeared in his eyes before he quickly lowered his gaze. "So you weren't going to even stop by and see me?"
She took a deep breath at the accusation.
What could she possibly say? Yes, Ryan. You're the reason I'm here. The reason we're here. I'd like to introduce you to your daughter.
Instead, she barely mumbled out an inadequate response. "I did plan to see you."
Silence separated them. The same silence that had once been a comforting bond between two friends was now an insurmountable wall.
Ryan shuffled his boots on the cement. "Heard you moved East. Buffalo, right?"
"Philly." She pulled open the restroom door. "Jenna, are you coming?"
"We're washing our hands."
"Maybe we could get together later, for coffee?" He suggested.
"Discuss old times?" The last thing she wanted was to discuss old times. There was nothing to be gained from reminiscing. Moving forward was her only hope.
"Yeah. Why not?"
"We were kids, Ryan."
"Is that all we were?" he returned, with unexpected bitterness.
"A lot has happened in eight years," Kait whispered.
"Yeah, it has, and it seems I missed it all, didn't I?"
Her heart lurched. When she looked up, their eyes connected and held for a long moment.
"Kait, you left me a note. A note." The words fairly exploded from his lips. He stood grim and angry, clenching and unclenching his hands.
As she opened her mouth to speak, a giggling Jenna and Faith burst out of the restroom.
Faith's little fingers curled into the palm of his big hand. When she smiled up at her uncle, the tension in Ryan's body slipped away.
Kait melted at the tender smile he gave the child beside him. Finally his gaze returned to her, and his control was back in place. "Thanks for helping me out here."
"No problem." She placed an arm around her daughter's shoulder. "We we should be going."
"Sure." He gave a quick nod. "But I meant it about getting together sometime. Seems to me we have unfinished business."
She bit her lip and shook her head. "Yes. Yes, you're right. We do need to talk."
Ryan stood still for a moment, as though surprised at her sudden acquiescence.
"Ryan, I really did plan to see you."
"I want to believe that." He slowly nodded. "Where are you staying?"
"Out in Granby, at the old house."
"Have you got a phone?"
"I have a cell." Digging in her purse, she pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and wrote the number for him.
When he took the paper, their fingers brushed. Kait stilled for a brief second before pulling away quickly. "I'll give you a call."
"Okay." She looked to the child by her side. Jenna stared curiously at Kait and then at the tall cowboy.
"Hey, there. I'm Ryan Jones. This young lady is my niece, Faith."
Faith released a squeal of childish delight at being included in the conversation, while Jenna hesitantly accepted the hand Ryan offered.
Jenna's soft-spoken words as she leaned toward Kait were loud enough that Ryan could hear. "Momma, is he"
"We'll talk about it later, sweetie." Kait cut off the question and turned to leave.
She glanced over her shoulder at Ryan, her emotions whirling.
"I'm glad you're back."