Sweet Home Montana

by

Lynne Marshall

Entrepreneur Wade Conrad is called home to act as a temporary guardian for his teenage half-brother, who’s acting out and needs strong guidance. Wade feels they are both floundering, so he seeks help for Brent at Healing Heart Acres, an equine therapy center.

Erin Chase has been working as an equine therapist since her fiancé called off their wedding with no explanation three years ago. She personally enjoys the peace found through animal therapy and believes in passing on the gift. When Erin meets Wade, she’s instantly drawn to his concern for his brother, as well as his kindness and charm.

Wade treasures time spent with Erin. They both long for more, but Wade’s leaving for California soon and his brother’s needs come first. Will he take a chance on love before it’s too late?

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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.

After the usual welcoming remarks for the acres each person introduced themselves. She saved the father and son for last.

“I’m Wade Conrad. Grew up in Charity, around an hour from here. Heard about Healing Heart Acres and wanted to check it out.”

He seemed pleasant enough, but got his story out fast, probably out of courtesy, unlike Mrs. Pimento who’d gone on and on. Yet, watching and listening to Wade excited Erin, a feeling she’d nearly forgotten where men were concerned. The immediate excitement he provoked in her, was also terrifying. Fortunately, she’d only have to deal with the younger version of him.

“Brent?” Wade said. “You want to say something?” He probably prodded Brent because she’d gone quiet and was staring at him. Get a hold of yourself!

“Not really.” The kid didn’t make eye contact with anyone, except for sneaking looks at Erin.

She knew because she’d caught him twice earlier.

“Okay, then, now that everyone has had the opportunity to introduce themselves, let’s take the tour.” She began at the exterior of the white ranch-styled house, with rolling grass grounds and several corrals and pens of varying shapes and sizes on site. It was the weekend, which meant they were open to the public, and several groups with lots of small children roamed around the complex, making it much noisier than usual. The classic barn at one end of the lot was always a point of interest so that was where she officially started.

She had to raise her voice to be heard. “This is where we hold our end of day meetings.” They never called them group sessions, preferring to refer to them as check-ins. “It’s also where we take lunch and we’ve been known to hold a wedding or two here as well.” She glanced around at the group, and realized it didn’t hurt like it used to, to mention weddings. “Weather permitting, of course.” She gave them a slow walk-through leaving plenty of time for everyone to see the charm of the well-preserved space.

“I have a question.” The mother of the twins lifted her hand. “Is there a cafeteria on site?”

“At this point no, but we order food from local venues for our planned lunches. We encourage folks to brown bag it, but we do have some great pies delivered a couple times a week, from a lady down your way.” She glanced at Brent rather than Wade, thinking she’d work on him making eye contact, also to avoid the tall, handsome man that made her nervous. The man she had no business reacting so strongly to. “Wood’s Café has the best pies made by a lady named Tracy, who happens to be Mrs. Woods now. If you have a chance later, grab a coffee, which we brew all day long, and try one.”

“Why use someone so far away, why not a local pie maker?” Mrs. Pimento sure enjoyed asking questions.

“I think it’s because her husband has been a long-time volunteer here, he personally delivers them, and seriously, try one, then you’ll understand why we love them.” She gestured for everyone to follow her but continued the tour as she did. “This two-story barn is made of thick wooden planks that have lasted over a hundred years through the tough Montanan winters. It has been reroofed and fastidiously cared for by Dr. Anderson since she bought this place thirty years back, and we expect the historically registered barn to last another hundred.”

“It is beautiful,” Mrs. Pimento concurred.

Erin took them outside, grateful at least one person was listening to her practiced talk.

On the back side of the main building were the petting stations filled with smaller animals. Even more families than earlier were congregating around the popular petting zoo area because it was Saturday. “All of our animals have been abandoned in some way. We offer them safety here at the ranch.”

A sheep shared a pen with a small goat. “You’re probably thinking, what a pair.” She smiled, understanding their sad looks since the goat missed one ear and the sheep only had one good eye, but their lives were different now. Much better. Wasn’t that the message of Healing Heart Acres? “You’ll notice, considering their prior circumstances, instead of being wary of people, these animals are very trusting. That’s because we spoil them. Go ahead, you can pet them, they’ll let you.”

She stood to the side and noticed that Brent held back, seeming to have little interest in the animals. Or the center, for that matter.

“These two are Harold and Maude,” Erin continued with her usual speech. “Harold is a buckling or billy goat that we acquired from a shelter in Billings, and Maude is our grand dame, otherwise known as a brood ewe, though I think her days of making baby lambs are long over.” Erin smiled and accidentally locked eyes with Wade Conrad.

A jolt of something cut down her center and she couldn’t look away fast enough.

“Where’d the sheep come from?” Wade spoke up, not letting her get away with ignoring him.

“A farmer delivered her here after finding her this way. She’s turned out to be one of our best therapy animals, too. She has a way of calming our most challenging clients.” Her hand slid over Maude’s thick, tight fleece searching for the comfort and calm she’d just touted, the natural lanolin feeling oily and reassuring.

Why did the man make her edgy? Probably because she’d rarely been around such a devastatingly handsome male. She glanced to Brent, sure to become as commanding as his father as he matured. He, unlike his attentive father, watched a ground squirrel instead of the corralled animals, probably not listening to a word she said.

She showed everyone how to hold grain on a flat palm, so the sheep only ate the food and didn’t nibble their fingers. Everyone always got a kick out of that, except Brent, who clearly wasn’t interested.

“What’s your background with this place?” The mother of the twins broke in.

Erin believed in honesty as the best policy, as she’d learned here. “I was one of the folks seeking equine therapy a few years back. I don’t know what I would’ve done without Healing Heart Acres.” Honesty, yes, but she wasn’t about to tell them she’d been stood up at the altar, well a week short of it anyway, and how it had left her doubting every aspect of her life. If she couldn’t read the man she planned to marry, how could she trust herself to ever recognize true love?

Rather than give the woman a chance for a follow-up question, not wanting to delve too deep into her private life with a group of strangers, she moved right along. “Next, I’ll introduce you to a few of our horses.” She headed toward the other favorite gathering place for visitors on the opposite side of the lot, the open-ended horse stables. The barn and stables, like bookends, completed a traditional portrait of a Montana countryside homestead.

“This is Marguerite, our oldest mare.” Not afraid to use shock value, she continued. “She’d been abandoned in winter by an uncaring owner close to four years ago.” Erin pet the side of the horse’s neck as it nickered.

Marguerite nuzzled Erin’s shoulder, knowing she always brought a treat. She let the horse nudge her again, pushing her off-balance, strictly for the entertainment value to the visitors. She liked how Wade smiled easily, along with the others. As with everything else about him, his smile was divine, and even that set her on edge. Only after the second push from Marguerite, did she produce a fruity chew made by the volunteer who delivered his wife’s pies, Hunter Wood, and who happened to be a chef himself down in Charity. He’d owned his own café and was a busy new father, yet he still faithfully came at least once or twice a month to muck the stalls and leave a good supply of treats for the stable animals. She’d heard he’d once been in prison, had first come here as part of his parole, but now his life had completely changed. These days, he often brought his adopted toddler son, Michael, leaving their new baby girl home with his wife, Tracy.

The treats were a recipe of mixed oats, finely chopped apples and carrots, a little whole wheat flour, molasses, and dried huckleberries baked together, complements of Hunter. They were the kind of treats that got the animals at the acres on their best behavior.

“Can’t sneak anything by you, can we?” Erin said, admiring the tan horse with huge brown eyes and a hay-colored mane.

Marguerite’s immediate stall mates perked up when the treat appeared. Erin walked down to the next stall. “This is Satin.” A beautiful midnight-black colt stuck out her head, clearly interested by the latest group of guests. Maybe out of curiosity, or more probably because the horse knew that often meant getting a treat. “She was abandoned when her mother died on the range, so we took her in.” One of the things Erin loved most about Montana was seeing the wild horses run free on the land. But with that came the realities of nature, which could be cruel.

She fed the still-skittish colt the expected treat, then moved on to the next stall. “And this here is Barney our blind burro. You know what I’ve got, don’t you, boy?” The small burro’s long ears twitched, he pushed his muzzle through a gap in the weathered wood boards of his stall, then against her palm. “Wrong hand,” she teased. His spiky forelock twitched along with his ears, and she quickly rewarded him with one of Hunter’s special treats. “When he went blind, his owner didn’t want him anymore, so he lives with us now.” She scratched his cheek, and as always, she swore that when he pulled his lips back, he smiled.

By the reaction of the tour guests, Barney’s goofy and toothy expression tickled them too. And by accident, her glance overlapped with Wade’s as his amused smile seemed to wrap around her like a blanket, making her feel all warm inside and happy on the outside. Without even trying, he set off reactions that clued her in to how long she’d been keeping a low profile and hinted at how much she’d been missing. Not that guys routinely got these kinds of reactions out of her in the big, wide Montana world. No, what she was experiencing could only be described as unique. Still, it woke her up and made her question the wisdom of overstaying her time at the acres, the same thing Dr. Anderson had been harping on for months.

Boy, she was a slow learner.

While recovering from the latest stealth charm assault from Wade Conrad, Erin led the group past the remaining stalls and horses and back outside. The distant hills and mountains of Glacier National Park acted as their backdrop on this gorgeous September day, making everything seem even more special today. Regrettably—the first time ever that feeling accompanied this portion of her job—she prepared to end the tour.

“I’ve only given you a taste of what goes on around here. For those of you who are interested in getting more involved, we show a fifteen-minute video about the benefits of barnyard animal and equine therapy in the main house in ten minutes. I hope you’ll all consider sticking around.”

The family of four thanked her profusely and immediately headed toward the house to Dr. Anderson who waited for them, but Wade hung back with Brent. They’d moved out of her earshot, and she didn’t want to appear nosey while they carried on their heated conversation, so she started slowly strolling back to the horse stalls. She’d talk with one of the other regular volunteers and hand out more treats to the other horses while waiting for their decision.

A sharp whistle pierced the air, the kind cowboys used on cattle drives. “Erin!” Wade’s voice called out before she stepped inside.

She stopped, turned, waited for the tall, dark-haired and green-eyed man to reach her. Again, an unwanted reaction circled her skin. But she wasn’t here to swoon, she was here to be helpful. He obviously had a problem with his son.

To keep communication open, nervous as she was to have a conversation alone with him, she smiled and widened her eyes. “Need some extra encouragement?” Hoping he couldn’t pick up on her reaction to him.

He was probably used to it with all women. How could he not be, growing up looking like that? He probably didn’t even notice anymore.

“How’d you guess?”

“I’ve been reading Brent’s body language. He’s not here voluntarily, is he.” It wasn’t a question.

Wade pressed his lips in a straight line and shook his head. “More by ultimatum. Mine. A counselor at school said he’s been acting out, starting arguments, and causing trouble, and our family’s chaplain told me about this place. Maybe you can make it sound worth his while?”

“Everyone has to want to come here or it won’t work, but I’ll be happy to let your son know a bit more about what to expect.”

“Would you?” he said, accompanied by an amused expression.

“Absolutely, you got it.”

“I’d really appreciate it.” He scratched the side of his mouth, as though he wanted to say more. “And, just so you know, he’s not my son. He’s my brother.”

Her brows shot up before she could stop them. Brother? No wonder he looked too young to be a dad. But how embarrassing she’d assumed he was and now he knew. Her cheeks went hot.

“Half-brother. It’s a long story, but I’m his guardian for another month. He’s got a lot of stuff to work through and some of it has to do with me.”

He’d most definitely piqued her interest with that bit of information. What was the story between brothers so far apart in age? Had to be a second marriage since they were half-brothers. “Why don’t you let me talk to him alone. See if I can get him to cowboy up and give the place a chance.”

He nodded. “Can I go visit Barney and Marguerite again?”

“Absolutely.” She dug into her pockets. “Oh, and here, while you’re at it, give the other horses some treats, too.” She tried not to touch his hand when she gave him the goodies, but his fingers overlapped hers for an instant, and the sensation of his warm hand set her back, snapping her to full attention. She did her best to hide her reaction, but his questioning glance made her wonder if he’d felt something, too. Thank goodness he wasn’t Brent’s father!

Once Wade took off, Erin recovered and wandered over to Brent, who sat on a bench staring at his boots. “Mind if I join you?”

He glanced up. Rather than answering, he tipped his chin up, as in yes.

She sat gingerly on the other end of the bench. “I guess I read you wrong.”

He tossed her a confused and perturbed glance. “He tell you I don’t talk to him because he doesn’t like being my brother?”

“No. He mentioned the counselor at school was concerned about you picking fights, though. It’s quite clear to me he’s worried about you, and that’s why he brought you here.”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to be here.” He lobbed a petulant stare at her.

“That part I read easily enough. What I got wrong was thinking you might be an animal person.”

“Why would you think that?” He pulled in his chin.

“Because of that moose cap you’re wearing.”

His tense gaze relaxed. “They’re okay.”

“What about horses?” She knew a lot of people were afraid of the size of horses. “Do any riding?”

“Not since I was ten. I got thrown from a horse. My father said it was my fault. I don’t think horses like me much.”

For a kid who didn’t talk much, he’d just said a lot. “Horses are smart. They can tell when a person’s afraid. Some horses are ornery, too, but that’s not the kind we keep here at the acres.”

“What’s the point of this place? Why should I come here?”

“How about, for starters, for the sake of a new experience? We offer a chance for people to learn about themselves by participating in activities like daily care routines with our animals. It’s a chance to do something good, too. Then all we do is talk about it afterward.” She carefully left out the part about talking about their feelings. “It’s no biggie.” She played it down, knowing how resistant some teens were about anything they were uncomfortable with. “A lot of teenagers wind up really enjoying it. By the way, the horses would rather hang out with their peers, too.”

That got a tiny acknowledgment out of him, but she hoped to convince him a bit more. “You won’t be riding them, either. That’s not part of the deal.”

He glanced up, appearing interested, or relieved, so she went in for the big sell. “And Dr. Anderson makes the best cookies and muffins every weekend. Not to mention the fabulous pies by Tracy, that lady from where you live, Charity. Right?” She passed a lazy glance, hoping to reel him in since he wasn’t about to give up until she did. “You might consider our weekend program. If you’d like to try it out, you can come on a visitor pass for Saturday next week. Oh, and we’ll be setting up for our annual harvest festival for the following weekend, so we could use the extra help. If you decide you like it after that, you can sign on for a month at a time. It’s totally up to you…and your brother.”

He looked questioningly at her, as if wondering what his brother had to do with any of Brent’s decisions.

“Do you drive?”

He shook his head. “Not much. My dad started taking me out and was going to take me for the test, but other stuff came up.”

“Then I guess your brother will have to drive you, right?”

He nodded again.

“Maybe you can ask him to take you to get your permit, then he can let you drive some of the way for practice?”

She saw the light go off in his gaze. Maybe there was something for him in this arrangement, after all? Understanding eased the tension around his eyes as he watched her talk, studying her face. Erin was completely aware she looked young for her age at twenty-five, especially without makeup and her hair pulled back in a quick braid. He probably thought she was still a teenager, too. She’d clue him in soon enough. But first, it was obvious the kid needed to open up and talk about what was bothering him. She knew from her own mistakes, spending his time sulking and withdrawn was a waste.

“You want to come with me and watch that movie?” Maybe all he needed was an invitation. “I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have afterward.”

He tilted his head in a cool way and sighed. “I guess.”

As they walked toward the main house, she glanced over her shoulder in the direction where Wade stood by the stalls, watching curiously. Wanting to send him a message without being obvious, Erin moved her hand behind her back and gave the thumbs-up sign giving the digit an extra wiggle to make sure Wade saw it.

End of Excerpt