An empty ache tugged at Samantha Moser as Electra and her mother Alberta Lucci boarded the plane for New York. An hour earlier, her best friend from childhood, Jace, had headed back to Phoenix. Another image flashed through her mind of former fiancé, Kenny, unable to face the harsh winters and tough life of Montana, flying away two years ago. Why do people I love always leave me?
She took a deep breath. Okay, buck up, girl. You’re not entirely alone. You have three rescued horses to care for and great neighbors. And… Brad is still in your life. Her heart tripped a happy beat.
Turning from the window in the Billings airport, she strode toward the parking lot. Places to go, people to see. She had an appointment with her employer’s accountant.
It had been an eventful summer—going to work for Clyde Bruckner on his dude ranch. There, she’d met her teen friend Electra who morphed from sullen Goth girl to a lovely young woman totally obsessed with horses. And she’d met Brad, a free-lance videographer.
She giggled. Boy, had she misjudged him at first. Because he’d been hired to do a documentary for a group trying to buy up ranches to form “The Big Open”—a wildlife refuge in eastern Montana—she immediately pegged him as one of the “enemy.” But he’d won her over by doing another documentary about her rescue horses, Apache and Trixi, and the troubled kids she worked with.
Because of that film, she’d received enough money to take care of her horses and… what else? That part she wasn’t sure of yet.
Sam found a parking spot downtown and then took the elevator to the office of Duncan Soto, CPA. She glanced at her blue jeans and short-sleeved western shirt and bit her lip. Maybe I should’ve worn a dress and heels. She shrugged. Oh well, too late now. As she entered the modest but comfortable lobby, butterflies engaged in a vigorous tennis match in her stomach. Memories of approaching bankers a year ago about getting a loan to breed her Thoroughbred mare, Sugar, lobbed balls of defeat. She squared her shoulders. She could do this. It wasn’t about being rejected. Clyde had assured her that Soto was a good guy and would help her with her investment decisions.
The receptionist showed her into the office, and the accountant stood up from his desk. “Miss Moser? I’m Duncan.” He gestured toward a gray-padded chair. “Clyde told me a little about your situation. How can I help?”
“Well, Clyde probably told you I received donations from Brad’s documentary, and I don’t know what to do with the money. Putting it in savings won’t earn any interest, and I’m afraid it’ll be too easy to spend.” She shrugged. “Some kind of investment, maybe? Clyde suggested we go into partnership, using my rescue horses to work with teens. We’ve already been doing that on his dude ranch.”
“That would be an option.” Soto steepled his fingers. After half an hour of talk about stocks and bonds, examples of non-profits, articles of incorporation, bylaws, and IRS forms, Sam’s head spun.
She gathered up the papers the CPA had given her. “Okay, this is a lot to chew on. I’m going to have to study these and think about what to do.” She stood. “Thank you for your suggestions. I’ll get back to you on what I decide.”
Outside, she blinked in the late summer sunshine as a warm breeze blew strands of chestnut hair from her ponytail. What on earth was he talking about? The hopeful buoyancy she’d felt when she went in had shriveled to a hard lump in her stomach. She didn’t have any more of a clue what to do now than when she went in. Sam pulled out her cell phone and hit Brad’s number.
“Hi,” she said when he answered. “I’m ready for you to buy me lunch now.”
“Great!” His smooth baritone rumbled in her ear. “Meet you at Jaker’s in five.”
She walked a few blocks down the street to the popular restaurant and entered its cool dimness. The rich wood columns and area dividers gleamed under a pressed copper ceiling. The hostess showed her to a table, where she studied the menu. More decisions.
“Hi, gorgeous.” Brad leaned down and brushed the corner of her mouth with a kiss before he sat across from her. “How’d the meeting go?” White teeth flashed in his tanned, clean-cut face.
Warmth grew and rippled across her chest, remembering their first “real” kiss a week ago at the ranch barbecue. She hoped this was the beginning of a more serious relationship. “Am I glad to see you.” She waved the folder from Soto. “I’m totally overwhelmed. I can’t even decide what I want for lunch.”
Brad chuckled. “Well, I can help you with that. Their burgers are the best in town, and the steak taco is my favorite.”
Her stomach rumbled. “The taco sounds good to me.”
When the waiter came by, Brad ordered and then shifted his attention back to her. “Electra and her mom take off okay?”
The ache in her heart returned. “Yes. From a houseful of chattering women—especially that girl—I don’t know. It’s going to be so terribly quiet now.”
Brad reached over and took her hand. “You’ll miss her, won’t you?”
“Yeah.” She forced a smile. “I never would’ve thought it when she first came to stay with me. My, oh my. I thought I’d bit off much more than I could ever chew.”
Electra and her mom had come to the dude ranch to get away from the city and the tragedy of losing her brother in a car accident. Her dad had been driving, he couldn’t deal with the death, and he abandoned them. What a sad thing to have happen. The young teen had been so broken.
Brad’s voice brought her back. “She was a handful, all right. But, as you always say, ‘A girl and a horse is a healing combination.’” He brushed his perpetually wayward lock of dark hair off his forehead. “She sure didn’t like me at first though. Thought I was there to steal your affections away from her.”
“I think she’s changed her mind about you now. But you’re right, rescuing Apache from that horrible situation turned her completely around.” She sighed. “I hope she can come back and help again next summer when school’s out.”
Their food arrived, and while they ate, Sam related some of what she’d talked about with the CPA. “So much paperwork and regulation to forming a non-profit. I really don’t think I’m up for that. I simply want to work with my horses and the kids from the group home and help Clyde on the dude ranch. It’s so hard to visualize the future, especially out there in the middle of nowhere at Ingomar.”
“Yes, but look at what has happened already—people from all over the country are hearing about Bruckner’s ranch, and now because of my documentary skills…” he grinned as he blew on his fingernails and polished them on his green plaid shirt with great exaggeration, “people have heard about you and your horse and kid miracles.”
She laughed and reached across the small table to cuff his shoulder. “Yes, you’ve made me somewhat famous, or maybe ‘infamous’, at least in Montana. But seriously, thank you again for that. It has changed my life.”
“Pfft. All in a day’s work, m’lady.” His face flushed. “Speaking of work… I have to head back to Wyoming to do more filming on that kangaroo introduction project.”
Sam snorted. “Kangaroos in Wyoming. Who knew? But now I know they were serious when they proposed exotic animals, like lions and elephants, for ‘The Big Open’.” She took a sip of her soda. “When are you leaving?”
He looked down at the table and then up at her through lowered lashes. “Day after tomorrow. Probably be gone several weeks again.”
A lead balloon dropped to the bottom of her stomach. “Everybody’s left me. Now you are too.”
He pulled his face into a grimace. “I’m sorry. I’m not leaving you forever. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He covered her hand with his.
She dropped her gaze to their hands. Would he be like Kenny, making promises he wouldn’t keep?
Sam barely registered the two-hour drive home, her thoughts chasing one after another like kittens in the barn. She drove up to the two-story ranch house and stumbled up the steps to her wrap-around porch. As if weighted with a cement block, her purse slipped from her fingers to the floor, and she sank heavily onto the swing. Her head ached with the pounding of a hundred drums.
Just a couple of days ago, she’d been on top of the world, surrounded by her friends, with a new romance, and finally, a few extra dollars in the bank. Now, all this new information and decisions to be made—all alone—paralyzed her. The old dark cloud settled heavily on her shoulders. She was only leasing this ranch; her dream of raising Thoroughbreds had dried up with the sunburned prairie, and she was still only an employee at a dude ranch. Was she really any better off?
A hot breeze blew a tumbleweed across the yard. Sure, she had some money now and could do something… but what? Winter would be here before she was ready, and there would be no more dudes—or few, anyway—for several months. She couldn’t imagine people from California or New York coming to Montana to traipse around in four-foot snowdrifts. The group home in Billings surely wouldn’t be braving icy roads to bring the kids out regularly. Besides, it would be too cold to ride.
Shadows lengthened across the rolling hills. Sam slumped deeper on the swing, absently pushing it with the toe of her boot. Her mind flashed to the cabinet above the refrigerator. A nice stiff drink would taste so good right now. She shook her head abruptly. No. She’d dumped out what was left of the vodka in front of her friends, vowing she no longer needed that crutch.
Alcohol—that’s what had come between her and her best friend. That’s what put Jace in a wheelchair for life. That’s what nearly killed her friend a second time when she spiraled into a life of drinking, drugs, and homelessness. But Jace overcame it. Sam could do that too. Drowning her sorrow, even occasionally, could lead to dependence, and she didn’t want to go there.
A horse whinnied from the pasture, startling her. Oh gee, I almost forgot about my babies. Sam rose from the swing and trudged down the incline toward the barn. Hanging her head over the fence was Sugar, her first rescue—a racehorse scheduled to be put down because of a serious leg injury. Her grandparents, Anna and Neil Moser, had put up the money to buy the mare.
Sam grabbed a handful of grain pellets from the barn and held one out for the mare to lip softly from her palm. She rubbed the horse’s head and ears as her two other rescue horses gathered beside them, nudging each other and nosing her arm for a treat too. Running her fingers through Trixi’s blonde mane, she pulled out a cocklebur and fed her a pellet. Then she gave one to Apache.
“I need another arm to pet you all at the same time.” She chortled at their antics and headed to the barn to get a bit of hay for them. The grass in the pasture was pretty much dried up, so she needed to give them a little supplemental feed.
After making sure the galvanized water tank was full, Sam leaned against the corral fence, taking in the peaceful sight of her horses munching their hay. Simply being near them made her headache subside, and the heaviness on her shoulders eased.
She and Electra had found Apache emaciated and dejected near Forsyth and went to court to gain custody. The buckskin gelding filled out nicely and looked strong and healthy now. He was the love of Electra’s life.
And Trixi. She was the beloved trick horse of Montana’s famous Miss Ellie, who because of declining health, had to move to a retirement facility. They’d hit it off and Ellie was adamant she wanted to sell the light-colored chestnut to her. But Sam didn’t have enough money to buy the horse, and it was slated to go to auction and probably to slaughter. After Brad’s documentary, Ellie had gifted her with the beautiful mare. She smiled, more relaxed now than she had been all day.
The image of Trixi kneeling so Jace could mount brought the sting of happy tears. “For the first time in a long time, I feel normal,” Jace had declared, beaming.
Sam strolled back to the house to prepare a light supper. While she cooked, a motion picture of images moved through her mind: each child who had responded to a horse and come out of a shell, from Electra to troubled kids from the group home, Goth-girl Sapphire and shy Wendy. Even the boys who abandoned a disinterested slouch to brush and care for a horse.
As she swallowed her last bite of supper, the phone rang. “Hi, Sam, ohmygosh we’re finally home!” Electra’s voice echoed over the line. “We had a long layover in Salt Lake and then the flight was delayed because of something wrong with the plane, and we had to wait for another one to come in, and I was so tired, I just wanted to be home, and we finally got on the plane, and now we’re home, and ohmygosh I miss Apache so much, I want to come back!” The girl finally stopped with a sob. “I miss you too.”
Sam wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. This breathless litany was signature Electra. “Oh, my dear, I miss you as well. The house is so empty and so quiet. I don’t know what to do!”
“Is Apache okay? Does he miss me?”
“I think he does. I just fed and watered the horses, and he seemed to need some extra petting.”
A long shuddering sigh came over the phone. “Well, give him a big kiss for me, okay? Here’s my mom. She wants to talk to you.”
Alberta’s voice sounded tired. “Hi, Sam. I wanted to thank you again for the wonderful time we had and for all you’ve done for Electra. She is a totally different girl, and I appreciate you so much.”
“It was my pleasure. We really did have a wonderful time together, and I’m missing her already. You guys will have to come visit again, soon.”
“We will. Electra is already talking about when.” Alberta laughed. “Take care now. We’ll be in touch.”