Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
Sitting up straighter, the boy shrugged. “I guess that would be okay.”
“We’d better catch up with the group or we’ll miss the tour.”
“I’m not really interested in it anyway.”
“You don’t like horses?”
“Their big size can make them scary.” Brian tipped the wheelchair backward slightly freeing the front wheels.
“I’m not scared of them.”
“You’re not? That’s good. My name is Brian. What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mark.”
“How’d you hurt your leg?”
Taken aback, Brian hesitated before answering. He’d forgotten how forthright children could be. “I hurt it in a car accident.”
Mark’s eyes widened. “Me, too. Was it a drunk driver?”
“No, it was my own fault.”
“Will you get better?”
“I’m afraid this is as good as I’m going to get. I’ll always need a cane.”
“I got hit by a drunk driver when I was riding my bike home from school. Do you like horses?”
“I like them very much.” Brian followed the abrupt change of subject easily.
“Does anyone make fun of you because you can’t ride?” Mark’s dejected tone told Brian how much the earlier gibe had hurt.
Brian let the group move farther ahead. “I don’t pay any attention to them if they do. Besides, being handicapped doesn’t mean you can’t ride a horse.”
Catching Lindsey’s eye, he motioned for her to continue with her tour. She nodded and began walking.
“All our tack repairs are done here in the leather shop. This is Corporal Shane Ross. He’s going to explain the different types of leather we use and show you how we repair our harnesses,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey stepped aside as the group crowded into the small room where Shane sat behind a large sewing machine. She walked back to where Brian had stopped pushing Mark.
Looking up with a mixture of disbelief and interest, Mark asked, “How can someone like me ride a horse?”
“I have a friend who runs a riding stable just for kids with disabilities. She has special saddles that will hold you strapped in place. Her horses are very gentle. All kinds of kids learn to ride there.”
“Is it far away?” Mark’s tone was wistful.
“It’s only a half-hour drive from here. Why don’t I give you my card. Have your parents call me and I’ll tell them all about it.”
“I don’t know. Mom is funny about me doing stuff.”
“Tell her that it’s a very safe place and they have trained therapists there.”
Lindsey dropped to one knee beside the boy. “How would you like to meet one of our horses up close and personal?”
He nodded eagerly. “That would be totally sweet.”
“Good.” She sent a questioning look at Brian. He nodded his approval.
“Right this way.” Standing, she led them to Dakota’s stall and opened the door.
Brian maneuvered the chair into the stall and Lindsey closed the door, shutting him and the boy inside. Dakota limped a few steps forward to investigate his visitors.
Mark held out one hand. “Come here, fella.”
Lowering his head, Dakota sniffed at the boy’s hand and then took another step closer so that Mark could pet the side of his face.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mark gestured toward the cast.
“He broke his ankle and Dr. Brian fixed it for him,” Lindsey said from the doorway.
Mark looked up with interest. “You’re a horse doctor?”
Brian nodded. “I’m a veterinary surgeon and I specialize in horses.”
“That’s tight, dude.”
Brian glanced back at Lindsey. She grinned. “That means he thinks you have a cool job.”
“We should get on with the tour,” she said, holding open the door.
“Aw, do we have to?”
“I think we should.” Brian waited until the boy said goodbye to Dakota and then pushed his chair out of the stall.
Outside the leather shop, he waited until the rest of the children came out and then followed the group and listened intently as Lindsey talked about the unit’s job, their performances and the history of Fort Riley. It was obvious by the way she answered the children’s questions that she enjoyed sharing her knowledge.
It wasn’t until the last child was herded onto the bus and the vehicle pulled away that he saw her sag with relief and rub her arm.
“Are you hurting?”
“A little. Tell me more about the riding stable for disabled children.” They began walking back into the barn.
“It isn’t just for children. Hearts and Horses is run by a woman I met when I treated one of her horses for colic. What she does is called hippotherapy.”
“What is that exactly?”
“Hippotherapy uses the movement of the horse as a treatment in physical, occupational and speech therapy for people living with disabilities. It has been shown to improve their muscle tone, balance, coordination and motor development, as well as emotional well-being.”
“That sounds like you have some firsthand experience.”
“I volunteer at Hearts and Horses on the last Saturday of each month. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.”
“I’ve heard of places like that, but I didn’t know there were any near here.”
“Actually, there are a half dozen such stables in the eastern part of Kansas. Some are members of the American Hippotherapy Association. Others belong to NARHA, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.”
“I wonder if something like that would help my brother?”
“Every case is different, but didn’t you say he lived in Washington, D.C.? I know they have a center that works with veterans.”
“I’ll tell my sister-in-law to look into it. I think it would do Danny a world of good to be around horses again.
“Places like that would need very calm horses. We have a horse named Tiger who is getting ready to retire. I’ll mention your friend’s place to the Captain. Tiger might be a good fit for that kind of work.”
“They also need trained volunteers to work with the children. Unfortunately, both good horses and volunteers are in short supply.”
“That’s a shame. I could see how eager Mark was to ride and yet how guarded he was about expressing his desire. I know it was because he was afraid of being disappointed.”
“You should have children of your own,” Brian said.
The second the words were out of his mouth he knew it was the wrong thing to say. It was a very personal comment. He glanced at her to see her reaction. Other than looking bemused, she didn’t seem upset by his odd statement.
“I’m afraid children aren’t on my agenda for quite a few more years.”
Not exactly sure why he felt compelled to press the issue, he said, “Agendas can change.”
“Yes, they can, but I don’t have a reason to change mine.”
“I forgot. The army is your life. Is that enough?”
She cast a sideways glance at him. “I’ve always thought it would be.”
He decided to change the subject. “I haven’t seen Karen for a while. How is she?”
“Karen’s fine. She’s gone home for the holidays, but she is actually thinking of moving here and attending college next semester. She wants to become a grief counselor.”
Brian looked down and used the tip of his cane to draw circles in the dirt. His family in Montana had tried to get him to see a grief counselor after Emily’s death, but he had refused. He deserved the pain his grief brought. “What do you think of the idea?”
“Karen has a good heart and a great faith in God. I think she is taking my brother’s tragedy and turning it into something positive. I really respect her for that.”
He considered the idea that he hadn’t allowed anything positive to come from Emily’s death. He had wanted to stay wrapped up in his grief, but was he doing an injustice to Emily’s memory?
He cocked his head to one side as he studied the woman who seemed so in control of her life.
“You did a good job with those kids today. Keeping a bunch of ten-year-olds interested in history for an hour is no easy feat.”
She patted the holster at her side. “I wouldn’t attempt it if I wasn’t armed.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.”
She held up her free hand in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, you’ve found me out. I like kids. Arrest me.”
Her smile was so adorable that he leaned in and kissed her.
indsey was so startled by Brian’s kiss that she froze for an instant. Her next thought was how right it felt.
Abruptly, he took a step back. He looked as surprised as she was. She smiled shyly and touched her fingers to her lips.
Without a word, he began walking again. Not understanding exactly what was going on, she followed, perplexed by his silence.
“Brian, wait. Would you like to talk about what just happened?”
He stopped and faced her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”
Disappointment followed close on the heels of his words. “That is not exactly what a woman likes to hear after a man kisses her.”
“You’re a very attractive woman, but that isn’t any excuse. I was way out of line. It won’t happen again.”
“So I guess we’re clear on that?” About as clear as mud, she decided.
“Absolutely clear. I value your friendship and I admire you as a person. I hope my lapse won’t affect how we work together.”
“Of course not.” She had no idea what else to say.
“Good. That’s good,” he muttered.
At the barn door, Shane stood waiting for them. “I heard you needed some help with your X-ray equipment.”
Brian nodded. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you what I need.” The two of them walked to Brian’s truck.
Lindsey entered the barn and walked into Dakota’s stall. She began rubbing his cheek. Glancing around to make sure she was alone, she leaned forward and whispered in the horse’s ear. “Brian just kissed me.”
A happy glow swelled from within and she couldn’t keep her smile contained any longer.
“As kisses go, it was pretty nice until he opened his mouth and began apologizing.”
Her glow dimmed by several watts. He had certainly backpedaled quickly enough. Obviously she shouldn’t read more into it, but she wouldn’t mind if it happened again. She had begun to care a lot for Brian, but it was foolhardy to think that anything could come of those feelings. No, the best thing would be to put the episode firmly out of her mind.
If only it hadn’t been such a nice kiss.
In a few minutes, Shane came in carrying several black cases. He and Brian were laughing about something and her heart quivered at the sound. Putting his kiss out of her mind wouldn’t be easy.
Brian produced a tall block of wood from one case. “Lindsey, can you put this under his hoof, please?”
He was all business again. She did as he asked and tried to be as professional as possible. “Yes, sir.”
“Now that Dakota is doing so well, you’ll be seeing less of me. Once a week should be often enough for follow-up visits. My students can handle those.”
“We’ve gotten kinda used to your company, Doc,” Shane drawled from the stable door.
Lindsey realized with sudden clarity that Brian might simply fade out of her life the way numerous other friends had done over the years. Dakota was the reason they had spent so many hours together. When the horse was healed, their paths might never cross again. The happy glow she had been basking in went out like the flip of a switch.
Brian soon had his portable X-ray machine set up. By positioning Dakota’s hoof on a block of wood to raise it off the ground, they were able to get the views Brian wanted while Lindsey kept the horse still by talking to him and scratching him behind his ear.
Shane watched from outside the stall. “Do you have big plans for Christmas, Doc?”
“No. I usually take call so that the other staff with families can have the day off.”
“You’re welcome to join us for dinner,” Lindsey offered, and then thought of slapping her forehead with her hand. Would he think she was desperately trying to hold on to the relationship?
“Sure,” Shane chimed in. “We’re on duty, too. We usually get together in the ready room and bring in all the fixings.”
Brian slanted a look at Lindsey. “Will you be doing the cooking?”
Her heart lightened at the sight of the humor glinting in his eyes. He was thinking about her burnt cookies. She grinned back. “No, my contribution will be two pumpkins pies from the commissary—already baked.”
“I don’t know. I hate to intrude on your party.”
“You won’t be intruding, Doc,” Shane assured him. “After all you’ve done for Dakota, you’re practically a member of the unit yourself.”
“Thanks, I’ll think about it.”
“You could bring Isabella along,” Lindsey suggested with a cheeky grin. “Dakota has been missing her.”
Now that was desperate, but if it enticed him to come to dinner, she didn’t care.
“I think she’s been missing him, too. At least, she has been pouting about something.”
“Who’s Isabella?” Shane asked.
Lindsey winked at Brian. “She’s Dakota’s new friend, and she’s as cute as a bunny.”
Shane looked interested. “Is she that pretty blond secretary at the clinic?”
Brian shook his head. “She’s much cuter than Jennifer.”
Sending him a chiding look, Lindsey said, “Oh, I’m going to tell Jennifer you said that.”
His eyes widened in mock alarm. “Please don’t. I shudder to think what she might do to me.”
“All right, I won’t squeal on you if you promise to join us for dinner on Christmas Day.”
“Barring the need for my services at the clinic, I promise to try.”
“We plan on eating about six, and don’t feel that you have to bring something. We’ll have more than enough.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Lindsey grinned as she rubbed Dakota’s neck. Suddenly, this holiday had become something special to look forward to, and Brian was the reason.
* * *
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear with just enough bite to the cold air to remind Brian that winter had arrived. As he scraped the frost from his truck’s windshield, he still hadn’t decided whether to accept Lindsey’s invitation to dinner.
He tried telling himself that she had only offered out of kindness. It certainly couldn’t be construed as a date even if it was a dinner invitation. After all, a half dozen other men would be there, too. He would go, and he would give her the present he had found for her. The trinket had caught his eye in the window of a gift shop downtown. The moment he saw it, he knew Lindsey would love it.
On the drive to the clinic with Isabella beside him, he passed one of the local churches. The tall white spire silhouetted against the clear blue sky looked Christmas-card perfect. The parking lot was already filling with early worshippers.
Lindsey would be at the fort chapel this morning.
He envied her certainty, her belief in God’s love above all else. Brian knew his heart was made of weaker clay. He had turned his back on God after Emily’s death. He didn’t expect his feelings would change anytime soon. He drove past the church without stopping, but the image of Lindsey bowing her head to pray stayed with him. That and the memory of their kiss.
Suddenly, he began to think of all the reasons he shouldn’t go to Christmas dinner. One by one they crowded into his mind. He didn’t belong to their group. He was an outsider invited out of charity. His presence would put a damper on their camaraderie and fun. His gift would seem too personal. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became—he wouldn’t go.
Although the clinic was officially closed and he could have taken call from home, he decided to go in to catch up on some work. No holiday was complete without someone needing a vet in a hurry. If he was at the clinic already, it would speed up his response time. Throughout the day he glanced frequently at the clock. By noon he hadn’t seen a single patient or taken a single call. His conference presentation had been worked and reworked until he couldn’t stand looking at the numbers and slides another minute.
Around two o’clock he decided there wasn’t any reason his holiday should turn into a total waste. He could enjoy a meal that wasn’t takeout or warmed up in a microwave for a change. He didn’t have to stay long and make small talk. He would go.
As the afternoon dragged on, he finished reviewing a stack of odds and ends of paperwork, checked the clock, and then his watch a half dozen times. Isabella did nothing but nap in her box so he didn’t even have her antics to help pass the time. After sharpening all his pencils and straightening his desk, he checked the clock again. It was four-fifteen and he finally made up his mind.
He wasn’t going.
At five-thirty he closed the clinic doors and carried Isabella to his truck. Setting her in her carrier, he climbed in and shut the door. With his hands on the steering wheel, he sat in his parking space without starting the engine. It had turned colder outside. Gray clouds had moved in and occasional snowflakes drifted earthward to vanish as soon as they touched anything. It might be snowing, but the forecast was only calling for a trace of the white stuff.
“We should get going,” he told Isabella. But he didn’t move. The thought of heading home to an empty house tonight left him feeling forlorn.
I don’t have to be alone tonight.
He had spent so much time avoiding people that he wasn’t sure he knew how to interact in a purely social situation. Especially with a woman as lovely and lively as Lindsey. The last thing he wanted to do was to stir up feelings that were better left buried.
Who was he kidding? Those feelings had been coming to life since the first day he met Lindsey Mandel—and it scared him half to death.
* * *
Lindsey’s anticipation slowly seeped away as six o’clock, then six-thirty slipped past. She tried to enjoy the feast brought together by the men, but disappointment made even the cranberry salad taste bland.
Why hadn’t Brian come?
Maybe he’d had an emergency surgery. If she knew that for certain she might be able to enjoy what was left of the day, but something told her he wasn’t tied up at work. Some small part of her knew that Brian didn’t want to see her. He had kissed her, but it had meant nothing to him. If only it had meant nothing to her, too.
“How about some dessert, Lindsey?” Lee held out a paper plate loaded with a huge slice of pie and mounds of whipped cream.
She held up her hand. “No, thanks. I’m full.”
“Full? You hardly touched a bite of the Captain’s smoked turkey.”
“I ate my share. Just because I can’t put away as much chow as you do is no reason to imply that I’m finicky.”
“Leave her alone,” Shane said as he snagged the plate from Lee’s hand. “She has to watch her girlish figure.”
He forked a piece into his mouth as he whirled away from Lee’s attempt to grab the plate back. “Hey, fix your own!”
Lindsey smiled at their foolishness but didn’t feel like joining in as they returned to the folding chairs positioned in front of the small portable TV Avery had provided for the evening. Instead, she began to gather up the dirty paper plates and toss them in the trash.
“Is something wrong, Lindsey?” Captain Watson moved to help her clean up.
“I thought maybe your arm was hurting.”
“It aches, especially with the weather turning colder.”
“Are you getting any feeling back in your hand?”
“A little, but I still don’t have any kind of grip.”
“Dakota looks like he’s doing well.”
“I think so, too. How are you doing, sir?” She had heard through the grapevine that he and his wife had separated.
He looked at her sharply. “You mean on my first major holiday as a divorced man?”
“Something like that. Not that I want to pry.”
“It’s okay. No, it’s been rough.”
“Do you have kids?”
“Two. My son is fifteen and my daughter just turned thirteen. I’ve been gone for so many holidays during my career that I doubt they even miss me tonight.”
“I’m sure that isn’t true.”
“Maybe not, but I wasn’t there much for my kids when they were little. I can’t blame them if they ignore me now.”
“Don’t let them. Nothing is more important than your family. Pick up the phone and give them a call. Let them know you care.”
Indecision crossed his face, followed by a growing look of determination. “Thanks, I think I will.”
As he walked away to his office, Lindsey thought back to all the times her father had been gone when she was little. He had missed more than his share of Christmas days even after their mother left. That had left Lindsey, Danny and Karen to fend for themselves. They had worked hard at making presents for each other and even harder at sneaking around to fill stockings when no one was looking. They had made the holidays something special for one another.
Did her father regret those missed opportunities the way Captain Watson did? She wanted to believe that was true. There was really only one way to find out. Talking to her father wouldn’t change the past, but it might make the future brighter for both of them.
Pulling out her cell phone, she walked into the hall away from the noise and laughter and dialed her father’s number. The least she could do was follow the advice she gave out so freely.
He answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Dad, it’s Lindsey.”
“Lindsey, honey, it’s so good to hear your voice.”
She relaxed at the sound of his genuine happiness. “It’s good to hear you, too. I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas, only...it doesn’t feel right to be celebrating.”
“I know.” His voice became choked with emotion. “But life goes on.”
“Yes, it does.” She wanted to cry away the pain she had been holding inside. She wanted to feel the comfort of her father’s arms around her.
After a long pause, he asked, “How’s your arm?” His voice sounded more in control.
“I got my cast off last week, but my arm is still pretty weak and I can’t use my hand much. Will you be coming to the parade?” she asked quickly.
“Of course. You’ll still be riding, won’t you?”
“Yes, Dakota and I will be there.”
“So the horse is doing better?”
“Karen told you?”
“She did. I agree with you. As long as things look like they’re going to work out, I don’t think we should tell Danny. The last thing he needs is to start fretting about the animal. Are things looking good? Because if they aren’t, I can’t keep that from him.”