Naomi couldn’t sleep. She jumped at every sound, even ice falling from the automatic ice maker. Finally, around 7:00 AM Saturday, she couldn’t stay in bed any longer. Throwing back the covers, she went to take a bath and get dressed.
In well-worn jeans and a T-shirt, she sat at the kitchen table and worked on lesson plans for the coming week for her students. She loved teaching and she loved her students. They eagerly returned the affection with hugs and smiles. They soaked up learning like little sponges.
She’d taught fifth grade in San Antonio, but at that age students could be defiant. After the past years dealing with her ex-husband, Gordon, she wanted as much peace as possible. She’d jumped at the chance to teach a lower grade level. Now, since Kayla was a kindergarten student, they were on the same hall and Naomi could watch over her. As expected, Kayla made friends easily and loved school. As Richard had said when they first met, Kayla was a loving and affectionate child.
Naomi’s fingers paused in making a notation. She often wondered if Richard ever realized the strong impression he’d made on Kayla. Almost from the moment they’d met, they’d become fast friends. Considering how her own father had yelled at her, it had surprised and pleased Naomi.
It was always Dr. Richard this and Dr. Richard that. Kayla had already decided to be a veterinarian and follow in Richard’s footsteps. She liked Luke and his brothers, but her face didn’t light up when she saw them the way it did when she saw Richard.
The phone rang on the kitchen counter. She tensed for a moment on seeing UNKNOWN on the caller ID, then chastised herself. Richard and Catherine both had unlisted home and cell phone numbers. “Hello.”
“Good morning, Naomi. Is Kayla ready for her big day?”
Hearing Richard’s voice, Naomi smiled and admitted her daughter wasn’t the only Reese female who enjoyed being around Richard. “She’s still asleep, which isn’t surprising. She could hardly fall asleep last night because she was so excited about today.”
“I wanted to be there, but I’m headed to a ranch thirty miles away. I don’t think I’ll be back in time.”
Concern knitted her brows. Richard knew how much the day meant to Kayla. He’d be there if he could. “What happened?”
“A rancher’s horse tangled with a mountain lion” came the succinct answer. “He’s usually a levelheaded guy, but he sounded frantic. I’m hoping it’s not as bad as he believes. You know how owners can be.”
“I remember.” The people who brought their beloved pets to the clinic were often overly concerned, but that was better than not caring at all. Richard understood that. His compassion and understanding were just two of the reasons he was such a great vet and in such high demand. He wouldn’t leave the ranch until he knew the animal was all right.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, but I’m not sure how long this will take” Richard said. “Please explain to Kayla.”
“You know I will.”
“Tell her to have fun. Bye.”
“Bye.” Hanging up, Naomi took her seat, leaned back in the cushioned, iron-backed chair and stared out the small window.
The morning haze had cleared and the sun was shining. Weather in Santa Fe could be unpredictable, but that was a small price for the beautiful scenery and the friends she and Kayla had found there. Kayla would be disappointed that Richard wouldn’t be there. He’d come to mean a great deal to both of them.
She glanced at the clock. It was almost nine. She needed to wake Kayla, help her with her bath, then cook breakfast. They had a busy day ahead of them.
Standing, she heard muffled footsteps on the carpeted floor and smiled as Kayla hurried into the kitchen, her arm around Teddy’s fat waist. Bending, Naomi kissed her daughter on the head, brushed her hand over Teddy’s. The teddy bear had been her companion since Catherine gave her the stuffed toy shortly after they met. Catherine was also the reason her daughter liked butterflies. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, Mama. The big hand is almost on the nine. Me and Teddy need to get our bath and get dressed so we won’t be late.”
“You won’t be late,” Naomi said, but she took Kayla’s free hand and started toward her daughter’s bedroom. Two months ago they’d moved from the second floor to the first floor because it was bigger, and Kayla had her own bathroom—which she loved. Naomi tried not to think that the back door also gave her ex another entry into their apartment.
“You can just run the water, Mama. I can do it by myself,” Kayla said. “Teddy can watch me.”
Kneeling on the rug with the butterfly appliqué next to the tub, Naomi turned on the water. “I know he can, but I’m sure he won’t mind if I stay.”
Kayla sighed. “I guess, but I can dress us by myself.”
Testing the water, Naomi turned off the faucet and stared at her daughter. She was growing up and becoming independent much too fast. The need to cling was difficult to control. “After you take your bath, we’ll see.”
Sighing again, Kayla placed Teddy on the top of the commode, then reached for the hem of her nightgown. Naomi resisted helping when the neck opening hung briefly on Kayla’s chin. Seconds later, Kayla’s face popped though and she was smiling. “See, I can do it.”
“I see. You did good.” Naomi brushed her hand across Kayla’s hair again. It was as thick as hers. “Richard called. He had to go out of town to take care of a sick animal. He’ll try to make it, but he’s not sure.”
Kayla’s head lowered briefly. “He told me that animals depend on him to help them get better. They don’t want to be sick any more than people do. When I grow up, I’m going to be a vet and help animals get well, too.”
No tears, no pouting, just simple understanding. Whatever she had done wrong by choosing the wrong man, having Kayla in her life had made up for it. “And you’ll be very good at it, just as Richard is. Now, let’s get you into the tub.”
Naomi helped Kayla get settled, then picked up Teddy and took a seat on the commode top. Her baby was growing up. More important, she was growing up happy. “Teddy and I will be right here if you need us.”
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Naomi was in the kitchen starting breakfast. After her bath, Kayla had wanted to pick out clothes for herself and Teddy. After her last birthday that wasn’t a problem.
Of course Kayla had invited Richard and Catherine. He’d given Kayla the rocking chair in her bedroom so Naomi could read to her at night. From Catherine there were several outfits for Kayla with matching tops for Teddy, and a complete set of her published books for children. Luke had given Kayla the practical gift of a savings bond.
There were also gifts from other members of the Grayson family that Kayla had met through Catherine. There was no way Naomi could have refused any of the gifts. They loved Kayla. She’d be forever thankful that her car had chosen Santa Fe to break down in.
A knock on the back door startled her. Despite her earlier chastisement, fear had her gripping the spoon in her hand as she whirled from the counter, only to relax seconds later. Placing the spoon back in the pancake mix, she went to the door. Gordon’s knock wouldn’t be that light, and after the last time, he’d probably bang or burst in. Still, she looked through the peephole Richard had installed for her.
Seeing Fallon Marshall, Naomi smiled. Naomi had few female friends. They’d want to talk about their family, ask you about yours. She hated it when she had to lie, and she was tired of evading. Just saying she was divorced didn’t always satisfy some women’s curiosity. Fallon, a travel writer, had moved in the apartment next door a month ago. Like Catherine, Fallon didn’t push or ask questions.
Fallon had knocked on Naomi’s door the day she moved in to introduce herself. Naomi, usually cautious even with women, had liked the warm and friendly Fallon immediately. They’d begun their friendship over coffee and the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies Fallon had brought with her.
Opening the door, Naomi smiled and stepped aside. “Good morning, Fallon.”
“Good morning,” Fallon cheerfully greeted as she stepped inside. She wore a shirt with SANTA FE in colorful letters on the front, slim black jeans, and flip-flops. “I was hoping you were up and still here.” She ruefully lifted her mug, decorated with a string of peppers, in one hand and a plastic cup in the other. Inside was a spoon. “Coffee, please.”
“Help yourself.” Naomi waved Fallon to the coffee carafe. One cup was all she needed. Like Fallon, she wanted cream and sugar in her coffee. Although she’d tried to dissuade Fallon from bringing her own, she continued to do so.
“Thanks. I was on a deadline and forgot to go to the store yesterday.” Pouring the coffee, then adding the cream and sugar mixture from the plastic cup, Fallon took a sip, closed her eyes, and savored. “Good coffee. I finished the piece this morning and sent it off, thank goodness.”
Knowing Fallon would need a couple of sips to be fully alert, Naomi continued stirring the pancake mix. The quietness in the kitchen didn’t make Naomi nervous. Another thing she liked about Fallon—as with Richard and Catherine, she didn’t need to fill the silence with conversation.
Fallon was easy to talk to and fun to be around. She and Kayla had hit it off immediately. Fallon had probably never met a stranger. It wasn’t just the incredible, long-legged beauty and body to go with it that attracted people; she genuinely cared about people, and it showed. She probably knew everybody in their unit, whereas Naomi only knew the elderly couple on the other side of her.
“Can you stay for breakfast?” Naomi asked, already reaching for the refrigerator door.
“You don’t have to ask twice. Thanks.” Fallon topped off her coffee cup, added more cream-and-sugar mixture.
“We like having you.” Removing the packages of pan turkey sausages and bacon from the refrigerator, Naomi added some to the skillet, then reached for the box of pancake mix.
“I’ll say it again, you’re my lifesaver.” Fallon picked up the spatula from a spoon rest to tend the sausages. “My last neighbor was a man who wanted to hit on me on one side, and a jealous girlfriend living with her boyfriend who refused to pop the question on the other.” She sipped her coffee. “The apartment gods were definitely smiling on me when I moved in next to you.”
“It works both ways,” Naomi said, adding more mix to her bowl. “I know they didn’t mind keeping Kayla, but Mrs. Grayson and Catherine are busy. You take good care of Kayla for me when I have to work late at school. I didn’t like having her stay at school with me. Now she doesn’t have to, and I can volunteer at the Women’s League.”
“She’s a sweetie and an asset to my business. That’s why I pay her,” Fallon responded with a grin, then tested the red potatoes frying in another skillet.
“The fun she has and the places you take her are enough. You don’t have to pay her,” Naomi protested, aware that it wouldn’t do any good. Just like it didn’t do any good to protest the coffee or food Fallon brought over. She said that way it didn’t make her feel like a moocher when she showed up unexpectedly wanting coffee or a hot meal. Fallon always paid for Kayla’s admission when required, purchased her food, plus gave her five dollars for each research outing.
Fallon shook her head, her long naturally curly hair brushing against her high cheekbones and slim shoulders. “My research assistant deserves every dollar. Because of Kayla, I’m able to write about local attractions for children. My travel blog got tons of hits and I sold more articles. One of these days in the far-distant future, I might have a little girl myself … after I snag a rich husband, of course,” she said with a laugh.
Removing the sausages to drain on a paper towel, she didn’t see the frown on Naomi’s face as she poured pancake mix onto the hot griddle. Naomi knew she was kidding. Fallon wasn’t the money-hungry type. Naomi just prayed that when she did find a man, he would love her and not use her as Naomi had been used.
“For now, I’m having too much fun traveling the world and getting paid for living my dream.” Fallon stirred the potatoes again. “Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the nearby Native American pueblos, are a virtual gold mine for me. However, I plan to be in Aspen for the first snow, then in New York for Christmas Eve, before flying to Austin to be with my family for Christmas.”
Naomi’s frown cleared as she placed the pancakes on the platter. Fallon was too smart to let a smooth-talking man use her. Lots of men had tried to pick her up while they were out, and she always effortlessly brushed them off in a way that didn’t offend them.
“We’re ready,” Kayla exclaimed as she rushed into the kitchen with Teddy under her arm.
“Good morning, Kayla. Teddy. He looks even more handsome this morning,” Fallon greeted, bending down to eye level with Teddy to touch his red bow tie, then the red ribbons securing Kayla’s two fat ponytails. “You both do.”
“Hi, Fallon,” Kayla replied with a big grin. “Me and Teddy have to look extra special because we’re going to be on stage with Mrs. Catherine when she reads the book I’m in.”
Naomi walked over to her daughter. She did look cute in the red-and-white sundress and red leather sandals. Teddy had on a red-and-white sweater. “She dressed herself and Teddy all alone.”
“I’m a big girl just like the one in the story Mrs. Catherine is going to read,” Kayla announced proudly. “She didn’t have Teddy when she got lost, but she was brave when the gray wolf came to help her.”
“You’re brave as well,” Fallon told her. “Who held my hand when the train at the fair went through the dark tunnel?”
Kayla’s smile broadened. “Me and Teddy.”
Naomi gazed lovingly down at her daughter, thankful that she was outgoing and ready to try anything. The book signing had been all Kayla had talked about for weeks. Catherine was a past UCLA professor of psychology, renowned child advocate, and New York Times best-selling children’s author. She lectured all over the country on child psychology. “Let’s eat breakfast.”
Kayla took her seat at the small table for four and placed Teddy in the booster seat that Brandon Grayson, Catherine’s brother-in-law, had given her along with a reloadable gift card to his restaurant, the Red Cactus. Kayla loved their hamburgers.
Naomi blessed the food then tucked a large napkin beneath Kayla’s chin while Fallon placed food on her daughter’s plate. “My nephew loves Catherine Stewart-Grayson books as well. He’ll be happy to hear I’m a personal friend of one of the book’s characters.”
Kayla grinned. “My teacher and some of my friends from school are coming today.”
“You and Teddy certainly look impressive.” Fallon picked up her fork. “You deserve to be chauffeured, and I volunteer.”
“That isn’t necessary,” Naomi said. “You must have things to do on a Saturday.”
“Nope.” Fallon forked in pancakes. “That’s why I worked so hard to finish. I plan to go to the signing and get my nephew a copy of The Guardian.”
“You can ride with us,” Naomi offered, watching to ensure Kayla didn’t pour too much syrup on her pancakes.
“Not on your life,” Fallon said, taking a bite of her sausage. “You cook. I drive. House Rule.”
Kayla offered a bite of sausage to Teddy, then took a bite herself. “Dr. Richard was coming, but he had to take care of a sick animal.”
Fallon grinned. “Emmm. The good vet with the Y factor.”
Naomi barely kept from squirming. The Y was for “yummy.” “You know he’d be here if he could.”
“I know. I just wish he was here with us.”
Naomi wished he was there, too. His presence seemed to make everything easier. She wasn’t as tense when he was with them. Not daring to look at Fallon, Naomi reached for her fork.
* * *
Richard loved being a veterinarian. It was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do with his life. Since he was single and not in a serious relationship, there were few times in his life when his profession had interfered with his personal life.
Today was one of those rare times.
He turned into the gate of the Bar S ranch and continued down the dusty road. He’d wanted to be there today for Kayla, but also for Naomi. There would be a lot of people at Catherine’s signing.
The citizens of Santa Fe had embraced her not only because she had married into the beloved Grayson family and she was famous in her own right, but because they could tell she genuinely cared about children. More than once he’d seen a concerned mother approach her while she was eating to ask a question or get an autograph. She always responded with a smile.
One day he hoped Naomi would be that free and easy with a smile. She was doing better, but she still didn’t like crowds. She had good reason for wanting to know who was near her. He hoped his presence helped. Until the unexpected phone call this morning, he’d thought he’d be there for her.
Seeing the ranch house, he continued around back to the barn. Several ranch hands were there. Their facial expressions warned Richard that Ted, the owner of the Bar S, might have reason to be worried. One came to the door of the truck before he stopped completely.
“The boss is inside with Foxtrot, Dr. Youngblood. He raised him from a colt. I’ll show you.”
“Thanks.” Grabbing his bag, Richard followed the short, wiry man into the barn. Sunlight streamed through the hayloft opening, but it was still dim inside. A short distance farther on, he saw Ted and his signature black Stetson.
Opening the stall door, the ranch hand stepped aside. Richard’s gaze went to the horse’s bloody flank first, then to the worried eyes of the owner. “’Morning, Ted.”
“’Morning, Doc,” the older man greeted, his voice thicker than usual. “Thanks for coming.”
“Thanks for the extra light and the blanket.” Placing his bag on the blanket, Richard snapped on a pair of gloves. “I’ll try to be gentle, but this is going to hurt a bit.”
Ted nodded. “Doc’s gonna help, Foxtrot, so don’t act up.”
Richard probed the deep lacerations on the animal’s flank, stopping occasionally as the horse shied away. Ted had been right. The lacerations would have to be sutured. There was no way he’d make it back to Santa Fe in time.
“Damn horse, she’s too old to be so stupid,” Ted growled, but his voice was as shaky as the hand that repeatedly brushed down the trembling horse’s blazed face. “You should have picked up the cat’s scent and run like the other horses.”
Richard snapped off the gloves, then clasped the older man on the shoulder. “I’ll be as quick and as gentle as I can.” He placed the soiled gloves into a bag and reached into his open medical bag. “I’m glad you found her or those lacerations would have become infected. She’s not going to like what we have to do, but she’ll be all right.”
The older man swallowed visibly. “You hear that, you old nag? Doc Youngblood is going to fix you up, and next time you better run.”
Richard sanitized his hands, prepared a hypodermic needle, then put on a fresh pair of gloves. Some wounds were easier to treat and heal than others. He couldn’t help but think of Naomi. He just prayed that one day she could put the past behind her and look at him as more than just a friend. He hoped it was soon. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hide his feelings for her.
He pushed to his feet. “Let’s get this done.”
Copyright © 2013 by Francis Ray