Kimberly Welch lost her husband to a heart attack in the blink of an eye. But she’s losing her daughter slowly, in the day-to-day tension. In three difficult years, Kimberly has gone from Seattle socialite to Kings Meadow charity case, and her daughter is not responding well to the changes. She’s becoming a sullen, cantankerous teen.
Chet Leonard lost his teenage son in a car accident. Then his wife abandoned him and their two remaining boys. He tries to keep his mind on the family ranch, but if the last two years have taught him anything, it’s that sometimes you just have to let the memories hurt. Let the memories hurt, and leave well enough alone.
But when Chet volunteers to help tame Kimberly’s daughter’s horse, everyone gets more than they bargained for . . . especially when eighty-four-year-old Anna McKenna shows up.
Nana Anna has reappeared in Kings Meadow after decades away, bringing with her the magnetism and transformative joy that come from a life well lived . . . just the kind of magic that a couple of unlucky-in-love single parents need to conjure up a little courage and raise a new family from the ashes of tragedy.
"Hatcher crafts a lovely installment of the Kings Meadow Romance and readers will want more of the Idaho ranchers. It takes us into the healing power of horses and God's ability to create community where it is most needed." —Romantic Times, 4-1/2 star review
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Love Without End
A Kings Meadow Romance
By Robin Lee Hatcher
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Robin Lee Hatcher
All rights reserved.
Chet Leonard watched the automatic doors leading from the concourses of the Boise airport, hoping he would recognize Nana Anna when she came into view.
How much could she have changed in ten years? Perhaps a lot. The last time he'd seen her was about a decade ago when he and his family took a vacation to Disney World in Florida. They'd taken one day off from rides and games to spend an afternoon with Anna and her husband, Walter.
Anna McKenna wasn't any blood relation to the Leonards, but Chet considered her family all the same. And now, after the death of her husband, she was coming home to Idaho. Coming home to live once more on the Leonard ranch. A place she belonged.
He caught sight of a white-haired woman in a wheelchair. Was that her? If so, he might need to rethink where she would stay. The automatic doors opened and he took a step forward, then stopped. It wasn't Anna. He could see that now. Anna McKenna was in her eighties, but aging didn't change a person's looks as much as that.
"Chet Leonard. Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."
His gaze moved a few steps beyond the woman in the wheelchair. A grin split his face. This was Nana Anna. Older, yes, from the last time he was with her, but he would know that smile and those merry blue-gray eyes anywhere. Not to mention that dark red hair—which these days came from a bottle.
A few quick strides carried him to her, and without any forethought, he lifted her feet off the floor as he gave her a tight hug. She laughed. He recognized that about her too. Setting her on her feet again and holding her at arm's length, he said, "You made it here fine, I see."
"Of course I did." She patted her collarbone. "And my, my. I swear you grew taller since I last saw you."
"I doubt it. I stopped growing years ago, Nana Anna."
Color bloomed in her cheeks. "Goodness gracious. It's good to be called that to my face again. I've missed it."
He held out his hand to take her small carry-on. "Let's go down to baggage claim. I assume you've got some bags checked."
"I do indeed."
Chet took Anna by the crook of her arm, and they walked toward the escalator.
"Can't believe how much this airport has changed," Anna said on the ride down.
He looked around. "Yeah. Guess it's a lot different from the last time you were here."
"I expect more than this airport's different. Time marches on."
They stepped off the escalator in companionable silence and followed other passengers toward the luggage carousels.
"Do you want to sit down while we wait?" he asked her.
"No, thank you. Been sitting too many hours as it is. Need some movement in my giddyup."
He grinned, remembering Anna as she'd been thirty years ago, before she married Walter Cunningham and moved to Florida. Already in her fifties—which had seemed ancient to Chet at the time—she'd been as active and hardworking as any man they had on the ranch. She could ride a horse all day, make a campfire, sleep on the ground, mend fences, and fix a mean breakfast.
"I know I said it over the phone, but I want you to know how sorry I am about all that's happened to you in the last few years. Rick and Marsha and all."
He nodded, words caught in his throat. He'd learned there was no escaping the sadness when it swept over him. He could go days without consciously thinking about the son who'd died in a car crash or the marriage that had ended despite his attempts to salvage it. But the memories and the heartache were there all the same, hidden in a deep corner of his heart.
Anna laid a wrinkled hand on his forearm. "One day at a time, Chet. That's all God asks of any of us. Just one day at a time."
Chet nodded again.
The warning light flashed and a loud beep sounded, then the conveyor belt went into motion. A short while later, bags appeared and plopped onto the oval-shaped carousel.
"What am I looking for?" Chet asked.
"Two purple bags with a bright red band around each one."
Black suitcases. Green duffel bags. Small and large boxes. One after another dropped into view. And then at last the awaited purple bags. The color was brighter than any other he'd seen so far. Appropriate for the colorful, much-beloved Nana Anna.
At the start of their drive north, Anna expressed amazement at how much Boise had grown in the years she'd been away, but when they passed through Kings Meadow a little better than an hour later, she smiled and said, "This place hasn't changed all that much, has it?"
"You might be surprised. New library. New schools. New houses. We even have a couple of subdivisions. More changes than you'd think." He glanced at his passenger.
Anna's eyes were awash with tears, though her smile was broad. "It's good to come home, Chet. No place else ever felt quite right to me, no matter how much I loved Walter. Thanks for letting an old woman come back."
Chet felt a little choked up himself. Anna McKenna was the nearest thing to a grandmother—great-grandmother—his boys would ever know. Though she might not realize it, she was the one doing him a favor, not the other way around. Sam and Pete could use a woman in their lives again. Chet did his best, but he was a poor replacement for the mother who'd abandoned them.
It took another twenty minutes to reach the Leonard ranch, their land tucked between pine-covered mountains to the north, east, and west.
"Look at that," Anna whispered as the truck passed beneath the sign proclaiming: Leonard Ranch Quarter Horses. "Would you look at that? Prettiest sight I ever did see. And you've got several new outbuildings too."
By the time Chet's black Ford pulled up to the house, Sam and Pete were standing outside.
A soft gasp escaped Anna, and she covered her mouth with one hand. When she lowered it again, she said, "Look at those boys. They've grown so tall since you came to visit me and Walter in Florida. They look like you when you were their age. The photos you've e-mailed didn't do them justice."
"Yeah, they're Leonards to the core. No doubt about it. But I see more of my dad than me in Sam."
"And there's lots of Abe in Pete. I didn't know your grandfather when he was sixteen, of course, but I can still see it."
Chet chuckled. "Nothing wrong with your eyesight, is there, Anna?"
"Not a blessed thing. Eighty-four and almost perfect vision. 'Cept when I'm reading. Need glasses when I want to read fine print."
"So do I." Chet opened the door and hopped down from the cab. With quick strides, he rounded the front of the truck, opened the passenger door, and helped Anna descend. Then he took her by the arm and drew her toward the house. "Sam and Pete, do you remember Ms. McKenna?"
Sam stepped forward. "I remember. You showed us an alligator sunning himself near the road."
"Gracious. I'd forgotten that. But I'm not surprised a boy of seven would remember."
Sam leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Good to see you again, Ms. McKenna."
"I'd prefer to be Nana Anna to you boys. Or just Anna, if you're not comfortable with that."
"We're glad you're here ... Nana Anna." Pete repeated the actions of his older brother.
Sam said, "I'll get your bags."
Chet watched his older son stride toward the pickup, then said, "Anna, you'll be staying in the main house with us until we can clear out the cottage. To be honest, it hasn't been a guesthouse since that first year after you moved away. We've used it for storage ever since you left. There's quite a collection of junk after three decades."
"That's fine with me. If you're sure I won't be in the way."
"Not possible. You're family. You belong with us." He gave her another grin. Then the sound of wheels on gravel drew his attention back to the long driveway. An older model blue sedan was approaching. "Excuse me, Anna. I'd best see who that is. Pete, you show Nana Anna into the house. I'll be along soon."
The blue car came to a halt near the barn. Chet was about halfway to it when the driver's door opened, and an attractive woman got out. Tall and lithe, she had long, curly dark-brown hair, the sides caught back with clips. She was a stranger. If they'd met before, he would remember her.
She saw his approach and lifted a hand to shade her eyes from the afternoon sun. "Mr. Leonard?"
"That's me, ma'am. How can I help you?"
Her eyes narrowed slightly, and she worried her lower lip with her teeth before answering, "It's about a horse."
"We've got plenty for sale. What are you—"
"No. No, I don't want to buy a horse. We ... I mean, my daughter ... she was given a horse."
Chet stifled a groan, pretty sure he knew what was coming.
"It's a wild horse. Well, not a wild horse like the mustangs you read about in the newspaper, but almost the same thing. Anyway, it needs gentled, and my daughter needs to learn how to work with it. My friend said you were the man to see. Chet Leonard, right?"
Maybe one of his buddies was playing a prank on him. "Who's your friend?"
Not a prank, then. Janet Dunn went to his church, and he knew her well. She wasn't the prankster type.
"I ... we ... my daughter and I are staying with Janet for ... for a while."
She was a pretty thing. No doubt about it. But she also looked as skittish as a green-broke colt. The way her voice broke. The way her eyes couldn't stay on him more than a second or two at a time. "Listen, Miss ...?" He paused and waited for her to answer.
"Welch. Kimberly Welch."
"Miss Welch, I don't do that sort of thing anymore. Too much work around the ranch as it is."
"Please, Mr. Leonard. Please don't decide against it so quickly. Life has been hard in the last few years for my daughter. Her father died suddenly and ... and we had to move from our home. We've had to move more than once in the last three years." She spoke rapidly, as if terrified he would interrupt to refuse again. "My daughter's lost so much. Her father. Her friends. Her school. I can't bear for her to lose one thing more. Tara's always wanted a horse, and now this gelding has been given to her by a friend of Janet's. Only I don't know the first thing about horses. I don't know if he is in good health or safe for her to be around or ... or anything."
Against his better judgment, Chet asked, "How old is the horse, Ms. Welch?"
"He's three, I think."
"And why did you call him a wild horse?"
"As I understand it, he was born on a ranch over near the ... what are they called? The Owyhee Mountains. He and the other horses on the ranch ran free over hundreds of acres. We were told this colt had no contact with humans for the first two years of his life. Then the man who bought him used punishment rather than patience and kindness to try to break him. I'm not sure how the horse went from that man to Janet's friend, but in the end, he was gifted to my daughter. And if Tara has to give him up now, it will break her heart. Please, Mr. Leonard. Don't make me have to break her heart all over again."
Good sense demanded he send Kimberly Welch packing. Good sense told him that he didn't have time to look at her gelding, let alone to train a horse that had been mistreated and a rider who knew little or nothing about horses. But he always had been a sucker for a damsel in distress, and he couldn't say no to the pleading look in this woman's eyes. "All right. I'll have a look at him and talk to your daughter. Then I'll make my decision. No promises. Would tomorrow be okay?"
"Tomorrow would be fine. Thank you, Mr. Leonard. Thank you so very much."CHAPTER 2
Halfway back to Janet's house, Kimberly pulled off to the side of the highway, pressed her forehead against the steering wheel, and wept. She wouldn't have been able to pinpoint one exact reason for her tears. It was a pent-up accumulation of life and hardships, loss and disappointments, and fear. Plenty of fear.
People always talked about addicts needing to hit bottom. Kimberly wasn't an addict, but she had definitely hit bottom. A person couldn't sink much lower than where she was right now. Once she'd been the stay-at-home wife of a prosperous businessman and the mother of a bright and popular daughter. Now she was a financially struggling widow, unable to find employment after too many years out of the job market, and mother to a hurting, sometimes sulky teenager whom Kimberly hardly recognized as the joyful child she'd raised.
Tears spent at last, Kimberly straightened, wiped her eyes with a tissue, then looked around at the valley that was surrounded on all sides by tall, tree-covered mountains. This valley was now home to her and Tara—thanks to Kimberly's best friend's generosity. Without Janet's help, they might be living out of their car on the streets of Seattle. The memory of their narrow escape from that end made her shudder. But even so, she wasn't as grateful as she should be.
"How did it come to this?" she whispered. The answer was, a hundred different ways. Little things, many of them, but when added together they became big and overwhelming.
Kimberly didn't want to be here, in Idaho, in Kings Meadow. The scenery that surrounded her was beautiful. She didn't argue with that. But it was also remote, and she hadn't grown used to the lack of sounds, both day and night. The prevailing silence made her feel even more lost, uncertain, abandoned. She missed her beautiful home in the exclusive neighborhood. She missed the theater and the opera. She missed Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. She missed dining out with friends in fine restaurants. She even missed the crowded freeways.
"I miss my life."
Perhaps if Tara weren't so temperamental, everything wouldn't feel this hopeless. Lately, her daughter seldom talked to Kimberly. It hurt all the more because they had been exceptionally close throughout Tara's childhood, and after Ellis died and their finances unraveled, mother and daughter had only had each other to cling to. They'd been inseparable. But since coming to Kings Meadow things had changed between them. Sometimes Kimberly felt as if Tara blamed her for Ellis's death.
She couldn't help wondering how much of this was normal behavior for an almost-sixteen-year-old girl and how much was the result of the upheaval in their lives.
With a sigh, Kimberly started the engine and pulled back onto the deserted highway. The drive to Janet's house on the edge of Kings Meadow took another ten minutes or so. Long enough for Kimberly to feel more in control of her emotions. When she got to the house, she was relieved to see her friend's SUV in the driveway, meaning she was home from work. Kimberly steered her car to the side of the small garage and cut the engine. A glance toward a neighboring house, located halfway up a gentle slope, found her daughter, seated on the top rail of a corral, looking at the horse inside.
I never should have let her have it.
Kimberly got out of the car and stared a short while longer at her daughter. Tara didn't move, too mesmerized by her horse to have heard her mother's return. Kimberly sighed, then headed for the house. Janet was stirring something on the stove when Kimberly entered through the kitchen door. "Hey, there." Janet set the spoon on a holder. "Did you go out to see Chet?"
Kimberly nodded. "Yes."
"He agreed to come look at the horse and to meet Tara. But he says he doesn't do training anymore."
"Don't you worry. He'll do it."
"I forgot to ask what he charges. Once he knows I don't have a job or any money to spare ..." She let her voice trail into silence.
Janet took up the spoon and stirred some more. "Don't you worry. I've known Chet Leonard a long time. He's got a good heart. You'll see. We'll work something out. I know how important this is to you and Tara."
It would be nice to be as confident as her friend. About anything.
"Tara's up at the Lyles' corral," Janet added.
"I know. I saw her when I pulled in." Kimberly dropped her purse onto the small desk near the back entrance. "Can I help with dinner preparations?"
"Nope. Got it all under control."
"You never let me do enough around here."
Janet threw her a smile. "Not true. You're a big help."
"You should make up a chart of chores for me and Tara. We don't want to freeload. We're enough of a burden as it is."
"You aren't freeloading, and you aren't a burden. I asked you to come. Remember?"
"I remember. But it's still freeloading if I don't have a job or any money of my own." The words tasted bitter on her tongue. She supposed she should have grown used to poverty, used to needing help from others, but she hadn't. She hated it. Hated every bit of it.
"I wouldn't want your money even if you had some."
"And now there's that horse. It's got to have food too."
Excerpted from Love Without End by Robin Lee Hatcher. Copyright © 2014 Robin Lee Hatcher. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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