Sweet Home Montana, Book #3, Charity, Montana Series for TULE Publishing © 2018

Chapter One

Erin Chase took the day’s schedule from her work cubby in the office and perused it. Dr. Anderson had assigned Erin to giving the next tour for new visitors again. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the job, or that she didn’t understand the importance of explaining the purpose of Healing Heart Acres to potential clients and volunteers. It was because of a little-known fact that Dr. Anderson knew about her and chose to overlook. Erin had become an introvert, who preferred to be alone, working with the animals, not schmoozing with guests. Or humans in general. Except for maybe her three-year-old niece.
There was something Dr. Anderson didn’t know though—Erin hadn’t always been that way.
She had been volunteering at the acres, as the crew called it, for three years, and Dr. Anderson insisted it was time to move on. To finish that degree in business. Get a job that paid more. In the real world. For Erin, Healing Heart Acres was as real world as she wanted to be. Because it was the place that helped put broken people back together.
Maybe I should start telling her how much I love giving the tour and that I never want to work with the animals again. The absurd reverse psychology trick made Erin smile.
“Oh, glad to see you’re happy about your schedule,” Elsbeth Anderson said, stepping out of nowhere, catching Erin mid-grin.
As her smile weakened, she made eye contact with her boss, the woman who knew how to read people as well as her therapy animals. There was no point in protesting. If the good doctor didn’t push Erin, she probably wouldn’t do it on her own.
The gray-eyed woman with pixie silver hair looked pleased with herself. Dr. Anderson knew Erin, of course she did, but with her wisdom she put Erin where she needed to be. How was Erin supposed to jump back into the world at twenty-five if she never tried? She couldn’t keep hiding out with the animals forever, could she? Most days she still wanted to.
“Well, I better pull a comb through my hair, try to look decent, then, since the next group will be here in ten minutes.”
“Don’t stress, you’re a natural beauty.” Elsbeth tapped her lips. “Maybe just a little color?” Though working with barnyard animals, Dr. Anderson wore mascara and lipstick every single day, which had never gone unnoticed by Erin.
Since when did the doctor start recommending lipstick for a tour? It used to be Dr. Anderson was happy if Erin’s work boots didn’t reek of horse manure when she gave tours. Now Dr. Anderson was suggesting makeup? “Do I look sick or something?”
“No, hon. Maybe a little pale. We haven’t had much sun lately.”
“What I’d give for sunshine.” They’d recently gone through a cold snap with overcast skies and chillier than normal weather. Not at all what she expected in Montana with fall approaching. Off she went to grab her purse and brush, and to hunt for colored lip balm. Did she even carry it anymore?
Ten minutes later, wearing a sweater and jeans, plus a thin blue scarf around her neck, she planted her manure-less boots on the top sheetrock step in the center’s main meeting area. There, she waited for the next tour of the morning. She glanced up, standing under the welcome sign – Healing Heart Acres. Leave your worries at the gate. Enter in peace.
She’d been the one coming for a visit three years ago, a complete mess. One semester short of graduation, Erin had dropped out of her business major at twenty-two. She’d been engaged, with plans to marry that summer, when, without warning, a mere week before the wedding, Josh broke things off. How dense did she have to be to not see his change in attitude before then? Had he tried to tell her, but she’d blocked it out? Turned out he wasn’t ready to get married, he’d said. His decision seeming to come out of the blue, or because she’d stubbornly refused to notice, leaving her with parents and bridesmaids to face alone, and invitations to respond to—a hundred “yeses.” The crisis had shocked and shattered her. How could he do that? Everyone she knew pitied her. Her self-esteem vanished. If it hadn’t been for Healing Heart Acres, she didn’t know what she would’ve done.
This place was important. Today’s job, necessary. She took a steadying breath and waited for her tour group. A family of four wandered her way from across the lawn. Parents. Two boys. Teenagers from the looks of them.
A flashy silver sedan drove up and parked in the lot, and a father-son duo straight out of the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine got out. The son was sullen, casting a suspicious gaze, as if thinking this was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard of. Breaking with GQ chic, he wore a silly knit cap that stood out for two reasons; it wasn’t that cold and there was a moose face on it. It took confidence to pull off the look.
The father seemed determined, as many parents were when they arrived, usually after having Healing Heart Acres recommended by someone in the professional community—a teacher, therapist, or pastor. The parents often arrived hoping to find the magic solution to help their kid. Erin knew the look, even though it was on an exceptionally young-looking father’s face.
She also remembered how long it’d taken her to work through her sorrow, anger, and insecurities when she’d come. It had been a slow process, one she hadn’t yet completed, even though she’d come a long way, yet still not quite ready to relaunch her life.
At Healing Heart Acres, gaining the trust of a large animal like a horse required personal growth and a lot of soul searching. When a client learned to trust, then and only then, did the horse or any of the barnyard animals let the clients fully care for them.
Did that kid have what it took? Since he had the nerve to wear that moose cap, he should.
She glanced at her guest tour list. The Pimento family included both parents and twin teen boys, Gary and Gerard. Next to their names it said, seeking volunteer time for school requirements. The acres would be an easy sell for them. Then there was Wade and Brent Conrad. Man, that sophisticated-looking guy seemed young to be a father. Must’ve been a teenage marriage, was all she could figure.
The fine hairs on her arms and at the back of her neck tingled at the sight of the taller, older guy Then she concentrated on the teen, the reason for them being here. According to the guest list, he was coming for equine therapy. Would Healing Heart provide what they needed?
For some crazy reason, not that she ever flirted with any of the fathers who came here, this time she was glad to have put on some lip gloss and to have combed her hair.

End excerpt

©TULE 2018

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