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Slade Donaldson switched off the engine and glanced toward his eight-year-old daughter. "Ready, Mindy? Are you sure you want to do this? I'll be gone for about an hour."
Mindy nodded, her face brightening with a huge grin. "Tor-ee needsmyuhhelp, Dad-dy."
Every time he heard his daughter struggle to say something, his heart twisted into a knot that he feared would never unravel. "Then I'd better meet this Tory Alexander." Since his housekeeper had taken Mindy to her physical therapy for the past few months, he'd never met the woman who had brought her pony into the hospital to cheer up the children and captured his daughter's interest.
Mindy pointed toward a petite woman emerging from a barn, leading a horse on a rein. "There." Her grin widened, her brown eyes sparkling.
"Then let's go. I need to be at the bank in twenty minutes for my meeting." He thrust open his car door, then hurried around to help his daughter.
"I candothis." Mindy pulled herself to a standing position using the door.
The tightness in his chest made his breathing difficult. He offered his daughter his arm. She clasped it to steady herself, then began to make her way toward the woman by the opening into the barn. Two weeks ago his daughter had declared she didn't want to use her walker anymore. Each day since, Mindy had leaned less and less on him as she'd walked. Progress, Slade thought, due partly to this woman before him. She and her pony, Mirabelle, have been the reasons Mindy tolerated her physical therapy at the hospital over the past few months. He was in Tory Alexander's debt.
Tory saw Mindy approaching and tied the reins to the fence of the riding ring. Then she strode toward the girl with a smile of greeting. Slade was surprised by how small the woman was. The horse she'd been leading was at least seventeen hands tall, towering over her. Her long auburn hair was swept back in a ponytail with a few stray strands curling around her oval face. Freckles sprinkled her turned-up nose and her large brown eyes drew a person to her. Fringed in dark lashes, Slade felt their pull as she came to a stop only a few feet from Mindy and him.
Tory looked at his daughter. "I'm so glad you didn't have to cancel, Mindy." Then she turned those large brown eyes on him. "I'm sorry to hear about Mrs. Watson's emergency. Will her niece be okay?"
"She just went into labor a little early. My housekeeper assures me everything will be all right and she'll be back in a week or so."
"That's good to hear. I know she was excited about her niece's pregnancy. First in the family." Tory lifted her arm toward Mindy to take over being her support if she needed. "Come on, Mindy. Let's show your father the barn."
"I have a meeting I need to go to."
"Dad-dy, just" Mindy swallowed several times "see Bel-le."
Slade stared at his daughter's face, lit with hope and eagerness, and he couldn't refuse the invitation even though it would make him late. After all, she was the reason he worked fourteen-hour days. He wanted only the best care for Mindy, and that cost money. "Lead the way." Sweeping his arm toward the barn, he followed the pair.
As he entered, surprisingly the only scents to assail him were hay and leather. Scanning the darker interior, he noticed how clean the barn was. A few stalls had horses in them but most were empty. "Where are your horses?"
"In the pastures."
"How many do you have?"
"Fifteen and one pony, Mirabelle, or, as Mindy loves to call her, Belle."
"Th-ere," Mindy said, gesturing toward the last stall. She hurried her pace, her left foot dragging in the dirt.
Mindy stumbled. Slade lurched forward to catch her, but Tory had already steadied her. Mindy continued her fast pace toward Mirabelle, towing Tory behind her.
Tory quickened her step to keep up. "Whoa. Mira-belle isn't going anywhere."
"Haven't seenher inlo-ong time."
Slade scooped Mindy up in his arms and continued toward the stall at the very end of the barn. "It's only been five days, sweetie."
While Tory swung the stall door open, he went inside with Mindy. She squirmed.
"Dad-dy, put me down."
He settled his daughter in front of Mirabelle and kept his hands on her shoulders so she wouldn't fall as she found her balance. Even though her surgery had been eight months before, it was still hard for her to keep her equilibrium at times.
She bent forward and threw her arms around the pony's neck. Nuzzling the animal, Mindy giggled. "Isn't she ugly? No" she shook her head "pret-ty?"
Slade inspected the pony's golden brown coat and big brown eyes that suddenly reminded him of Mirabelle's owner. "Very pretty."
"You know Mirabelle has been waiting just for you so you could give her a good brushing. No one does it better." Tory produced a curry comb and passed it to Mindy.
Tory helped Mindy position herself so she could start on the pony's left side. With one hand clutching the mane, Mindy began her task. Tory stepped back toward the entrance, motioning for Slade to follow. Outside the stall she paused. Reluctantly Mindy's dad joined her.
"Do you think we should leave her alone like that?" he asked, a frown creasing his brow.
"She'll be fine. She's done that half a dozen times now and loves to. It's her private time with Mirabelle." A giggle drifted to her, and Tory smiled. "See. I think she tells Belle her secrets."
"What secrets?" Panic laced his question.
"All little girls have them. Who's her favorite movie star? What songs does she like? Who's her best friend at school?"
"She didn't go to school this year. She's being tutored at home."
"Is she going to attend in the fall?"
Slade opened his mouth to answer, then clamped it shut. He glanced away. "I don't know. It depends on her therapy and how fast she recovers."
"Mindy's so good with the other children who come for riding lessons. She misses her friends."
Slade straightened, his jaw clenched. "I won't have her go to school and be teased because she talks too slow and walks funny."
"Kids can be very accepting."
"And kids can be very cruel. Mindy's gone through so much this past year because of the car accident that took her mother and caused her epilepsy."
"But didn't the surgery make the epilepsy better?"
"She hasn't had a seizure, but at what cost?" Slade waved his hand toward the stall where his daughter was talking to the pony, frustration in every taut line of his body.
"Do you regret agreeing to the surgery?"
Slade plowed his fingers through his hair. "Yesno. The doctors told me this was best for Mindy, that given time she would recover most of her speech and physical abilities. A few years from now we'll hardly know she had part of her brain removed."
"But it doesn't make it any easier right now?"
"No," he clipped out.
"I didn't mean to intrude, but Mindy has become very important to me. I was hoping she could come more often to the stables to help out. She asked me to talk to you about it."
"She did? When?"
"She called me this morning and asked."
"So that's who she was talking to on the phone. I thought it was one of her girlfriends. When I made that assumption, she didn't correct me."
"She wants to be my assistant and go with me to the hospital when I take Mirabelle next time."
Slade relaxed the tensed set to his shoulders. "It's hard for me to say no when Mirabelle is the reason my daughter would cheerfully go to the hospital for her physical therapy. Before Mirabelle, Mrs. Watson and I had a horrible time getting Mindy to go. Now with the promise of seeing the pony, she'll do just about anything."
"Animals can be great therapy for people. That's why I started my riding stable for people in need, especially children. So what do you say about Mindy helping me out?"
"Let me think about it. That's asking you to do a lot for Mindy."
"I don't mind. If I didn't want her to be my helper, I wouldn't have asked."
"Still " Slade checked his watch. "I'd better get going. I'm already late as it is. I'll be back in an hour."
"We'll be in the riding ring."
Slade strode toward his car, feeling the touch of Tory's gaze on his back. It took a supreme effort not to turn around and look at her. She was an attractive lady who obviously loved animals and children. Very appealing qualities in a woman, he thought, then shook his head. What in the world was he thinking? After this past twenty-two months piecing his life back together, he didn't think he could deal with anything that required his emotions be involved. He had all he could handle with Mindy and her recovery. But first, he had to secure the loan for the second phase of the expansion of his company.
"You're doing great, Mindy. Sit up straight. Take command." Tory watched the young girl walk her horse around the riding ring. The child's face glowed, her proud expression attesting to one of the reasons Tory spent so much time and money on her Bright Star Stablesthe looks on her riders' faces when they were successful. "Okay, Mindy, that's it for today. You need to cool Paint down now."
"Dad-dy say yes?"
Tory assisted Mindy in dismounting, then handed the child the reins. "He's going to think about you helping me at the hospital with Mirabelle."
The girl's lower lip stuck out in a pout. "Why?"
"Because your day is full as it is. With your schooling and therapies, Mindy, you don't have a lot of extra time."
The sudden sound of Slade's voice made Tory stiffen. The erratic beat of her heart crashed against her chest. With her attention totally focused on Mindy, Tory hadn't heard him approaching. She didn't like being caught unaware. It emphasized her vulnerability. Swinging around toward him, she took in his tall height, over six feet, and muscular frame that even his suit couldn't conceal. She stamped down her alarm. This was Mindy's father.
The little girl gripped Tory's arm and twisted about to face her father who stopped a few feet from her. "Summeris al-mosthere. No sch-ool then."
One of Slade's dark brows arched. "Who said that?"
"You'll have one, a short one. But you have some catching up to do, young lady."
Mindy sighed heavily. "I can't" The young girl paused and swallowed several times "help Tor-ee?"
"No, I didn't say that."
A bright gleam shone in Mindy's eyes. "I can!"
"I didn't say that, either. I'm still thinking about it."
Instantly the child's expression crumbled and her shoulders sagged.
"Take care of your horse and let me talk with Tory for a minute. I won't be long."
Mindy led Paint toward the barn, her left foot leaving a drag mark in the dirt. The little girl's head was lifted. Tory had been working the past month on instilling confidence into the child, something that had suffered after her operation.
The second Mindy disappeared into the barn, Tory swung around, prepared to defend her reasons for wanting the girl to work with her. Slade cut her off with "Mindy won't make her next lesson."
His words took the steam out of her. Surprised, she grappled for something to say. "Why?" was all she could manage to think of.
"With Mrs. Watson gone I don't have the time to bring her out here next Tuesday. As it is, I'm having a hard time getting help to take care of Mindy while my housekeeper's away. I thought today I had everything arranged, but my arrangements fell through."
"I can help," Tory said without really thinking through the consequences. But she adored the child and didn't want her to miss her twice-weekly riding lessons.
"I couldn't ask you"
"You didn't. I volunteered to help. Mindy wants to spend more time here. I could use her help and watch her at the same time. It's perfect for everyone."
Slade shook his head, deep lines in his forehead. "But"
Tory held up her hand to stop his flow of words. "Who are you going to get to sit with Mindy? Someone from a baby-sitting organization? Mindy and I are buddies. I would love to help her out. I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it."
"I don't know how long Mrs. Watson is going to be gone. Everything happened so suddenly. She said a week or maybe longer."
"One thing I've learned taking care of animals is to go with the flow. One day at a time. Don't worry. The future will take care of itself." At least that was what she was counting on. Because right now she wasn't sure how long she could keep Bright Star Stables operational.
"Not without a lot of help from me." He took a deep breath and blew it out between pursed lips. "Okay. If you're sure."
"Then I'll bring her first thing Monday morning."
Slade peered toward the barn, his eyes narrowing as though he were trying to see into the dark shadows. "I'm afraid seven. I have an eight o'clock meeting I need to attend."
"That's fine by me. I'm usually up by five. I'll have the stalls clean by that time." Mindy's presence reinforced all the reasons she worked long hours to keep Bright Star Stables going.
"That's mighty ambitious."
"There's nothing ambitious about it. I'm usually the only one to do it. I depend on volunteers to help. Otherwise, this is a one manor rather, womanshow."
"Thanks. You're a lifesaver." Slade stuck his hand out.