You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Happiest Place right now. If you like what you read, make sure to grab your copy here!
Kate Griffin leaned her head against the cool glass window and watched the horses in the pen as they frolicked in the fresh snowfall. They playfully kicked the white powder over their backs and tossed their manes in delight as it sprinkled down onto their necks. Even from where she was sitting, Kate could practically feel the pure joy emanating from the animals.
Smiling to herself, she wrapped her arms around her shivering body, all the while wishing she could be out there with them. Unfortunately, her work in the stables had been cut short for the day when her mother’s health took another sudden turn for the worse.
Kate lifted her head from the glass and glanced toward the back of the cabin where she could see her mother sleeping on the bed. She’d left the door to the small bedroom open so she could keep an eye on her mom just in case.
For the past few months, they’d been living together in one of the guest cabins at Memory Ranch, a memory care and therapy center outside of Anchorage. Here, Kate worked as a stable hand, and her mother underwent treatment for early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Initially, Kate had obtained the job as a way of checking out the facilities firsthand to see if they’d be a good fit for her mother’s increasingly heavy needs. It didn’t take long to realize it was exactly what they both needed.
The disease had snuck up on both of them. One day her mother was fine, and the next she was forgetting increasingly big details of their lives. Kate didn’t have time to adapt to the news, and her mom didn’t have the capacity to fully understand it. Always a sharp-witted woman, the sudden memory decline frustrated her to tears most days. For her part, Kate prayed that the day would come soon when her mother didn’t remember enough to know she was forgetting.
Of course, that would mean she’d lost the last remnants of herself, too, but at least she wouldn’t be afraid or in pain any longer.
Now that they had settled into the life at the ranch, Kate saw how her mother was receiving the care she needed from the special therapists who were trained to work with people who suffered from memory trauma. And hopefully they could help her, too, as she came to terms with what was happening with her mom.
Turning back to watch the horses playing in the snow, Kate sighed, her breath fogging the window. She let her mind wander back to before everything in her world had fallen apart. Before they’d ever heard the diagnosis.
All her life, it had just been Kate and her mom. Her father had run out when she was just a baby and hadn’t been seen since. Truthfully, Kate didn’t even care. Anyone who could abandon their family wasn’t anyone she wanted to know.
Her mom stepped up to play the role of both parents and had done a phenomenal job. They’d never had much, but her mom had worked hard to make sure they had enough to get by. For many years, her mother had worked as part of the cleaning staff at a ranch in Palmer, Alaska, and Kate had spent many of her earliest days watching the horses and wishing she might someday have one of her own.
Of course, they’d never had enough money to buy one for her—or the space to put one up in their modest apartment. Still, Kate had been content to claim the horses on the ranch as her pets, her friends, and her confidantes.
To this day, she still dreamed of having a horse to call her own, but for now she counted working at this ranch, where she could be around horses all day and still be able to care for her mom, as a massive blessing.
Kate felt blessed for the opportunity, but her heart still cried out in pain at the unfairness of what her mother’s life had become. After everything her mom had been through—being left to care for and raise a child on her own, struggling to make ends meet and never taking time for herself—now the very essence of who she was slowly being stolen from her.
And her disease was moving fast, leaving a shell in place of the woman who’d given Kate her everything—the strong, beautiful woman who had always been her best friend, her cheerleader, and her rock.
The doctors had road-mapped how the disease was most likely to progress and the corresponding issues they would face at each stage. However, none of it had prepared Kate for the emotional strain that came with watching her mother forget even the simplest of things or witness her personality changing practically overnight.
At least through it all, so far, she still remembered Kate.
That awful day would come, though. And soon.
Kate’s stomach churned in agony from the mere thought of becoming a stranger to the person she loved most in this entire world. She would never be ready.
How was she going to live without the one person who loved her beyond reason and who she loved in turn with her whole heart, too? How could she go on with life when so many of her formative memories—the moments that made her her—were rapidly being erased from memory?
Kate reached up to wipe away the tear that slid down her cheek. So many tears had been shed, but the well hadn’t yet dried up.
In the pen, Buddy, the beautiful, kind-hearted tan horse, stopped running and looked over toward the cabin window where she sat, seeming to feel her emotions himself. How she wished she could go hop on his back and ride away from everything that was happening in her life.
But her mom needed her, and this was where she had to be. She would give all of herself until there was nothing left to give, and no one left to give it to.
“Kate? Are you there?” came her mother’s small and scared voice.
Kate quickly turned and walked to the room. “I’m here, Mom. I was just watching the horses playing outside. Did you have a good rest?” she asked as she knelt down at her mom’s bedside.
Her mom sat up, pushing the warm quilt away. Her quiet smile was filled with warmth, and her eyes sparkled with an untold joy. Briefly, Kate wondered how long until that was gone, too.
She nodded. “I did.”
They each sighed and then laughed at this unexpected synchronicity. It had been a joke they’d shared growing up, that their minds were telepathically linked—so similar they were then. Did this mean it was only a matter of time before Kate’s memories began to fade, too?
Her mother was the first to sober from this rare bout of laughter. She frowned as she traced the wrinkles in her night dress with a shaky finger. “I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier. It wasn’t fair. I know you’re only doing what’s best for me. It’s just hard for me to accept sometimes.”
When Kate had been called away from work earlier, it had been to collect her mother who’d wandered outside and was yelling at one of the other guests, wanting to know what he was doing in “her” yard. Mother and daughter had fought as Kate brought her back into their cabin and struggled to explain their situation yet again.
Although Kate had remained calm and kind, her mother’s barbs stung deep. She tried to remind herself that the cruel accusations weren’t coming from her mom, but from the disease that had taken over her mom’s body.
Now that they were both more rested, everything seemed to revert to their old normal. But Kate knew it wouldn’t last long. Already the time between bad spells had shrunk at a shocking pace. Eventually the lucid periods would disappear altogether.
Kate sat down beside her mom on the bed and reached a hand toward hers. Her mother, who had always seemed so big and strong, was now sitting there looking incredibly frail—as if her memories weren’t the only part of her fading into oblivion.
Even with her reduced capacity, she still loved Kate as best she could. And she tried so hard to protect her from what was coming and what had already arrived.
Even in her worst, she wanted Kate to be taken care of.
“It’s okay, Mom. Don’t worry about it. All I want is for you to know how much I love you,” she said, squeezing her mother’s hand and offering a beleaguered smile. “If there’s something you should never ever forget, it’s that.” The words threatened to crack as they left Kate’s lips. There would come a time when even this indisputable fact would no longer be remembered.
Kate sat there for a long time, holding her mom tightly as each woman did her best to not let the other know she was crying, both wishing they could keep holding on to each other forever. Of course, Kate knew that someday she would have to let go. But for now, she was going to enjoy every precious moment she could wrapped tight in her mother’s arms.
mouth toward hers. Polishing off a full bottle of California Zinfandel on his own had taken this guy from slightly irritating to downright obnoxious, and now he had the gall to try to kiss her.
Thrusting her hand out to him in a clearly platonic gesture, she turned to the side and murmured, “I had a nice time, thank you.”
Now please let me leave without either of us making a scene, she mentally finished.
Ellie allowed him to place his hand at the small of her back as they exited the restaurant, but jumped in her waiting car so quickly she almost snagged her skirt in the door.
Her date laughed and pried the door back open, smiling at her the way she imagined a shark might smile at its prey before taking a big, bloody bite. “Oh, c’mon, Ellie.” He frowned and shook his head as if she was the one who had done something ridiculous. “Not even a little kiss after I paid for your dinner?”
Unwilling to take her eyes off him for even a second, she blind-groped for her purse, pulled it onto her lap, and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. She shoved it into his hand, shivering as their skin briefly made contact. “There, that should cover my share. Goodnight.”
Luckily, the suddenness of her gesture caused him to stumble back in surprise, which gave her the perfect chance to slam her door, press down hard on the locks, and speed away.
The nerve of that man!
Why did all her dates go like this now? Despite getting asked out by countless suitors, not one engaged her in fun conversation or really seemed to like any of the same things she did. Not one made her voice catch or her heart skip a beat. Not one felt compelling enough for Ellie to agree to their offers of second dates.
At least none of them had tried to force themselves on her though… well, until tonight. Ugh, he’d been the worst one yet, giving her little hope that she would ever find—and managed to hold onto—the one.
She sighed loudly and leaned back in her seat as she navigated her car back onto the freeway. The rain that poured outside matched her suddenly dark mood.
Why does dating have to be so hard? Ellie Hawkins knew she was a catch by anyone’s standards. In fact, she’d been named as one of the hottest celebs under thirty by a major industry magazine earlier that month. Yes, her star was on the rise, and soon she’d have more money than she knew what to do with. People often referred to her as this generation’s Brooke Shields, which made it easy to book one job after the next, made it easy to succeed in the cutthroat world of modeling.
Yes, Ellie had everything going for her…
Everything except someone to love her.
Her heart somersaulted as she thought about him, the one man she’d let herself love and who she’d once believed actually loved her in return. But her fairytale wasn’t meant to have a happy ending after all. That once upon a time love hadn’t been willing to be the man she needed—and so they’d ended their relationship a couple months back with broken dreams, broken promises, and two very broken hearts.
But two months felt like an eternity ago now. Ellie was determined she didn’t need him, and she was going to prove it to herself by finding a man who would fit in her life. She’d find someone who could love her just as she was and just as she deserved.
Until then, unfortunately, it would just be Ellie and her mom.
Yes, Ellie loved her mother, but she honestly couldn’t be sure the feeling was mutual. Ever since Ellie was a little girl, her mom had been enrolling her in pageants and traipsing her all over the world for opportunities she had missed for herself and would make darn sure Ellie didn’t miss, too.
At first, little Ellie had hated the pageants. She remembered crying and wanting to go home, but her mom never let her give up. She’d spent thousands of dollars on dresses and other accessories Ellie would need to win the top prizes. Her room was now filled with tiaras, crowns, ribbons, and trophies from her years on the pageant circuit. And she’d slowly grown accustomed to the pageants—even if she’d never truly enjoyed them.
Sometimes Ellie still felt like she was racking up Grand Supreme titles as part of her grown-up pageantry. Impress the designer, land the gig, smile, smile, smile, smile. Her mom was still by her side, of course. She’d become the kind of “momager” that could even put Kris Jenner to shame. After all, she only had one child to dote on instead of a whole clan.
But at least she was devoted. Obsessively devoted.
As she transitioned her wipers to high speed, Ellie tried to convince herself that she had everything she needed in her life, that she’d be better off without the man who’d broke her heart. Still, she felt her patience wearing thin. Just how many more miserable dates would she have to go on before she could find someone to help her forget him?
Tears started to blur her vision, so she reached up to wipe at her eyes.
He’s not worth it. I already have everything I need.
As Ellie ran through these affirmations in her head, she closed her eyes for the briefest of moments. When she opened them again, she noticed a wet blur streaking across the curved road in front of her.
She noticed, but she barely had the time she needed to react.
The foolish doe had frozen in fear, and if Ellie didn’t at least try to do something—and fast—they’d both be goners.
She jerked her steering wheel hard, sending her tires skidding across the flash flood that had begun to pool on the lonely road. The sudden motion startled the deer, sending it running back into the trees at the edge of the road.
Ellie continued to hold her breath as she swung the wheel back around, trying to straighten her vehicle as she’d learned so many years ago in drivers ed. Her tires locked in a hydroplane, letting out a ghastly shriek as machine fought nature…
Everything moved in slow motion, and just like that darned deer, Ellie froze. She watched in horror as her trusted car betrayed her, spinning across the road and careening down, down, down.
The giant hunk of metal flipped and twisted around her as they both went over the edge of the road where no guardrail had been placed to prevent their fall.
Clenching her eyes shut, Ellie tightened every muscle in her body as she waited for the impact.
Please, God. Don’t let this be the end. She didn’t know whether she had spoken her prayer aloud, but either way, she hoped God heard it—and hoped He wasn’t too angry with her to intervene and save her from this living nightmare.
The first roll sent Ellie even faster down the edge. Her body slammed against the driver’s side door before being hurled back to the other side like a rag doll. Her hands came off the steering wheel and frantically tried to grab onto something to hold as she spun over and over down the ditch.
Suddenly, the vehicle hit a rock, hurling it into the air again before landing with a hard crash onto the roof. Her head slammed into the corner of the window which was now crushed inside, then bounced back to hit the steering wheel in front.
Excruciating pain shot through her body, and a moment of clarity stopped the world around her for the briefest of interludes.
In that moment, she realized that instead of worrying about whether she’d ever work again, or if she’d suffer some kind of injury that would destroy her modeling career, or even what her mother would think, the only thoughts Ellie had were of him, the one who’d gotten away.
The pain taking over her body was nothing compared to the agony crushing her heart.
She already knew she’d never feel his arms around her again or see his whole face light up when he laughed—and, without the promise of a future together, perhaps it wouldn’t be worth surviving this crash anyway.
Kate woke up the next day surrounded by darkness. Of course, winter in Alaska meant you were normally waking up in darkness and then going to bed in darkness, too. This had never really bothered her before, but these days she viewed everything through the lens of her mother’s illness. How would she handle the dark in the winter? Or for that matter, the sun all summer?
She dressed quickly, mentally bracing herself for the possibility that her mother would wake up confused again. Instead, she opened her mom’s door to find her dressed and reading a thick paperback book.
“Good morning, sleepy head,” her mom called out. “Are you ready to head up to the big house?” The main ranch estate where the owners, Elizabeth Jane and Dorian lived, also hosted their meals and other shared events in their day-to-day lives.
“Sure am. Are you ready for me to come to therapy with you?” Kate asked as she grabbed their coats from the hooks by the front door.
Her mother stepped out into the cold morning air before accepting her jacket and shivered. “No, I think you should just head to the stables.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay with you this time?” Kate asked, pulling her gloves on as she walked beside her mom along the path to the main house. Besides the big dining area, the beautiful, old farmhouse had also been lovingly converted into multiple therapy rooms and rehabilitation stations.
The therapist who oversaw Kate’s mom’s care came out from his practice in Anchorage three times a week to hold sessions for the guests. He was a specialist for patients with memory disorders and had been working with her mother for several weeks. Kate didn’t know much about what took place during the sessions—only that they differed from the occupational therapy her mother had no qualms about inviting her to attend.
“Not this time,” her mom said, tucking her hands into her pockets after finally shrugging on her coat. “But Doctor Jack says I’m going to have to let you start coming to our sessions soon.” She sighed heavily. “I know there are things you need to deal with, too, but right now I still feel like I need to be on my own. I hope you can understand.”
Kate looped her arm through her mother’s as they continued their journey toward the big house. The last part of the season was always the worst of the winter, making the short walk a hazardous one. Soon breakup would be upon them, heralding the beginning of spring, but today the air hung cold and thick around them. At least the day’s forecast called for sunshine, which meant they might get a little extra warmth when it finally shone down on the cold ground below.
When they’d crossed the most slippery part of the path, Kate said, “I understand, Mom, don’t worry. As long as therapy is helping you, don’t worry about me. Right now, you’re the one who needs to be cared for.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. You need to be cared for just as much as I do.” Her mother’s voice shook as she scolded her daughter. “I can see how much this is wearing you down, too. Please promise me you will take care of you first and foremost. I know the day will come that I won’t be myself anymore and I won’t be able to tell you to do things as a mother, so I need you to remember me saying it to you now. Don’t forget to look after yourself. You are the priority.”
Kate swallowed the lump in her throat and gave her mom a brave smile. “I will. I promise.” She hoped the words would convince her mom, even though she wasn’t sure she agreed with them. How could she worry about herself when it was her mom who was losing everything?
They walked up the front steps onto the large veranda and quickly opened the door to get in from the wet cold outside. A long coat rack hung beside the entryway, and Kate helped her mother out of the jacket she’d only just put on a few minutes prior. As she was struggling with the zipper on her own coat, her mother’s therapist, Jack Young, appeared from the back with a warm smile stretched across his face.
Kate had seen him around the ranch quite a few times since she’d begun working here, and he had always extended a smile and a friendly greeting. Every time she saw him, her heart did a little somersault. It frustrated her to know she might have a school-girl crush on her mother’s therapist, especially since this wasn’t really the time to be getting all lovey-eyes with anyone. She needed to focus on her mom and on spending as much time with her as possible.
The last thing she needed was a man intruding on whatever little time they had left.
“Hi, Nancy! Kate.” He nodded a greeting to her, and she found herself holding her breath when he looked directly into her eyes. The smile on his face caused his eyes to crinkle around the edges, and a slight dimple peeked out under the shadow of his whiskers. As long as she’d known him, she’d never seen Jack completely clean shaven. He always had just a hint of a neatly trimmed five o’clock shadow dusting his chin and cheeks.
His dark hair was neatly swept back, except for a small curl that seemed to fall forward on its own accord. Kate found it completely adorable and immediately her cheeks started to burn as she realized she was now staring at that errant curl with a dreamy smile on her face as he continued to speak to her mom.
He probably thought she was the one who should be coming to therapy the way she was standing there staring at him like some kind of uncultured nitwit.
“Are you staying today?” he asked her with what almost looked like a hopeful glance. “I’ve told your mom that she’s going to need you to start coming to at least some of her sessions, too, since you’re her caregiver. Not to mention you’re her daughter and I know the situation has to be difficult for you to navigate through, too.”
Kate’s heart skipped a beat as his deep voice rumbled in her ear.
Knock it off, Kate! He’s a professional therapist working with your mother and that’s what you should be focusing on right now!
She swallowed hard, groping for an answer. “No…um, no. Mom said she’d like another session alone. But maybe next time.”
Why is my voice trembling? She hoped he couldn’t discern her relief at being able to avoid him for at least one more day. Even though she knew she had to take part in a joint session—and wanted to on her mother’s account—she didn’t look forward to spending so much time discussing the most intimate details of her life with Jack.
Sometimes she felt it was just easier to pretend nothing had changed, that one day her mother would wake up and be back to her normal, zany self. Even as she watched her mom’s health decline daily, she still held onto that sliver of impossible hope. Hearing the cold, hard truth from a man she felt inexplicably enamored of would be a double slap to the face.
She wasn’t ready for that.
Besides, stalling her attendance at therapy for one more day wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
“That’s fine. As long as you’re not just trying to avoid me.” He chuckled, giving her a playful pat on the shoulder.
Kate’s stomach knotted and for a moment she wondered if she was going to be sick, but then Jack put his professional face back on and the butterflies winging around in her stomach finally took a rest.
“I’ll walk your mom back to your cabin when we’re finished so you can go back to work, or whatever you were doing,” he said, his fleeting grin lighting up the room once more.
Her mother chose that exact moment to join their conversation, and Kate was grateful for it. “I don’t need you to walk me anywhere, young man. I’m still perfectly capable of getting around on my own. It’s not like I have to ford rivers or climb mountains. It’s just a little path.”
Kate glanced toward Jack who was still smiling at her mom, but his expression seemed a bit sadder now.
“You’re right, Nancy. But you also need to realize that there will be a time when you might not remember exactly where you need to go. It’s too cold outside today for me to risk having today be that day. It would make me feel better if I knew I could get you safely home.” He looked at Kate. “And I know it would make your daughter feel better, too.”
She nodded in agreement, causing her mom to throw her hands up in frustration.
“Fine. It’s not like I have any say anymore in what happens to me,” she spat.
Kate cringed at the show of her mother’s ugly temper coming out so early in the day. This did not bode well for them, but she waited to see how Jack would handle it.
He simply reached out for her mom’s hand and placed it on his arm so he could lead her into his office in the back. As they walked away from her, Kate overheard him say, “Thank you, Nancy. And I know it feels like everything is being taken from you, but you still have control over many things, including how you deal with what’s happening to you. And from what I’ve witnessed so far, you’ve been one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.”
Immediately, her mom’s anger drained from her face and she smiled sheepishly up at him. “I’m not strong. I’m just doing the best I can to be able to stay with my daughter as long as I can.”
It seemed Kate wasn’t the only Griffin woman to be befuddled by his charms. She watched them until the door swung shut behind them. Jack was right about one thing, and that was how strong her mother was now, had always been.
Now she just needed to find her own strength so she could make it through this, too.
Strong arms held her close. She didn’t know who they belonged to or how she had come to be in this place, but this comforting human touch was enough to keep her calm as pain attempted to rip her body apart.
She kept her eyes scrunched tight, not wanting to see the damage, not wanting to know anything beyond that she was alive and safe, and that someone was looking out for her. Her ragged breaths began to match the pace of the strong body beside hers.
Slowly, gently, the arms hugged her tight and then began to let go.
Instantly, the pain returned in full force. She felt as if she was falling clean off the edge of the earth without those arms to anchor her to this realm.
“No, don’t go!” she cried as tears began to push against her eyelids.
But it was too late. She was already falling, falling, falling…
Then suddenly she crashed onto a firm bed, gasping in pain as her consciousness returned.
A dream, that’s all it had been.
What is going on? Why am I hurting so much?
A grizzled face came into her view, staring down at her with concern. It belonged to an older man with graying hair peeking out from beneath a well-worn cowboy hat and bright blue eyes that seemed out of place in his tanned face.
“Ellie?” the man said with a voice that felt familiar, though she couldn’t bring herself to recognize it. “Oh, thank the Lord in Heaven you’re awake.”
Ellie? Is that me?
She blinked, trying to focus her gaze, trying to remember. She tried to sit up but was overcome with pain forcing her back onto the bed.
“Whoa, hey there. You’ve got to be gentle on yourself,” the man said, rushing to her side to help her get settled back in bed. Were these the arms from her dream? Somehow she didn’t think so, but right now, he was the only person in the world she knew.
Turning her head slowly, she realized she didn’t recognize anything in the room. “Where am I?” she whispered, almost afraid to speak the words aloud.
He smiled sadly and scratched at the back of his neck, unwilling to meet her eyes. “You’re in the hospital, Ellie. You were in an accident a couple nights ago.”
Again with the Ellie. That must be me. But who is he?
Her mind frantically searched to pull up any memory of what happened, but she realized she couldn’t recall anything recent.
“The doctors were worried you might not wake up. I’ve been sitting here praying they were wrong. And, see, the Lord answered! Just lay back and relax while I go get the nurses to let them know you’re awake.”
She kept her eyes on the man, noticing the heavy circles under his eyes. He’d obviously been worried about her, but why? Who was he to her, and if it was somebody so important, how come she couldn’t remember ever meeting him before?
“Who are you?” she asked at last.
The silence echoed in the room as he stopped and turned back to face her. His jaw clenched tight, and a shadow passed over his eyes as he looked down to the floor. The speaker in the hallway announcing a code in one of the other rooms finally broke the silence and he lifted his head to look at her. The sorrow on his face was evident, but he did his best to smile through it.
“I’m your father, Ellie,” he explained. “I know you haven’t seen me in quite a few years but I don’t think I’ve changed that much. Maybe got a few more wrinkles and gray hairs, but otherwise I’m the same man you’d remember.” He forced a laugh, then wiped away a tear. Whether it was a happy tear from her finally waking up, or a sad one, she couldn’t say.
Ellie’s mind raced as he waited for her to say something in response. Her father? She had no recollection of this man whatsoever. Should she pretend that it had been a joke in order to spare his feelings?
No, the truth was better—even if it terrified her. Her voice caught as her heart raced in fear. “I don’t remember you, but I do believe you.”
Her father’s forehead furrowed. He took off his hat and bowed his head before speaking. “Ellie, I know I haven’t been the father I should have been. I’ve made mistakes, but Lord knows I tried to make things right. I don’t blame you for not forgiving me, but please don’t make me feel any worse than I already do.”
She shook her head slowly, her heart aching for this dear stranger and fearing for herself. None of it made any sense. “I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I truly don’t remember you. I’m not even sure I remember me.” Her eyes were wide with fear as this realization hit her.
He kept his gaze steady on hers as he walked over and reached for her hand. They both trembled as Ellie’s father took her hand into his strong grip.
“Ellie… how could you not know me?” He didn’t attempt to hide the wetness that clearly shone in his eyes.
She struggled to find the right words, but nothing was right about this situation. Ellie had already done all she could do by speaking the truth.
They both startled when a nurse breezed into the room carrying a fresh IV bag and approaching with a smile. The moment she locked eyes with Ellie, she let out a small cheer. “Oh, you’re awake! Welcome back to the world, darlin’. Now let me get this set up for you real quick, then you’ll have to excuse me while I go page Dr. Crosse and let him know the good news.”
Her father shuffled out of the way to give the nurse access to Ellie’s IV stand. His voice was low, but she had no trouble discerning the words. “She says she doesn’t remember me.”
The nurse hung the bag on the pole beside the bed and deftly switched out the tube extending from Ellie’s left hand. “That’s nothing to worry about,” she reassured him once the set up was complete. “Ellie’s been through quite a trauma, so it might take some time for everything to come back to her. Once the doctor has a chance to look her over, we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on.”
She smiled kindly down at Ellie and reached out to pat her other hand. The warmth of her skin made Ellie realize just how cold her own hands had become. “Don’t worry, dear. I’ll get the doctor in to see you right away. You’ve been through a lot, and the fact that you’re awake is truly a miracle. Somebody out there’s looking out for you.”
Ellie watched the woman’s retreating back as she rushed out of the room to get the doctor. Her heart raced as thoughts swirled around her head in a confusing blur. How could she forget her own father? What other memories had fallen clear from her head? And, most worrisome of all, would she ever get them back?
Her breath caught in her throat as she desperately tried to make some memories come back to her. But all she had were missing pieces and blackness when she tried to think of her past. Her heart clenched as she realized she wouldn’t even have known her own name if her father hadn’t said it.
With a trembling chin, she looked back at her father. “Where is my mom? Is she still alive?” She wanted to cry out loud at the unfairness. How could she not even know if she had a mother? How could she have lost all of her memories?
Her father clenched his jaw tight, the muscles moving as he struggled against his own emotions. Finally, he nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on the corner of the room as he spoke. “Your mother is in Spain. She is on a trip with her new boyfriend.”
His cheeks reddened, and he let out a sudden cough. “I guess if you’re memory’s a bit shaky I probably need to fill you in on a few things, huh?”
Ellie nodded and waited for him to reveal more about the life she couldn’t remember. Did it even truly belong to her anymore?
“We aren’t married anymore,” he continued with a look that suggested he was unhappy about this particular turn of events. “You lived with your mom after the divorce. I moved to Alaska and didn’t get to see you as much growing up as I’d have liked.”
He finally returned his gaze to her, and Ellie smiled encouragingly.
“Umm, we can talk about everything more once you’re feeling better,” he stuttered. “Right now, you need to just rest and focus on getting better.” Her dad took a deep breath and stepped back from the bed, suddenly looking like he’d aged another ten years since she’d woken up. He held his hat tightly in his hands, slowly twisting them until she was sure the hat would rip.
A flurry of doctors and nurses rushed into the room, forcing Ellie’s father back. Everything seemed to slow down around her as Ellie struggled to understand what they were saying—and, more importantly, what it all meant. Her arm was put into a cuff that started to tighten while a bright light was shone into her eyes.
No longer able to stay strong, Ellie finally let the tears flow freely down her cheeks.
“On a scale of one to ten, how much are you hurting, darlin’?” the same nurse from before asked her with that same reassuring smile.
“Ten,” Ellie answered without hesitation. She had to believe that there was no way this could get any worse. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure she’d survive the night—let alone an entire life.
The main thing Memory Ranch was known for was its award-winning equestrian therapy program, and Kate was beyond honored to contribute in her small way, even if it was often just mucking out the stables or giving the horses a bit of exercise. She never would have dreamed she could find work doing what she loved while supporting the person she loved most in this world, too. She found her work with the horses centering in a world that often spun too fast for her to keep up.
Kate grabbed some hay and shook it through the fence into the feeding trough. She laughed as Buddy, the big tan horse, raced over as though he hadn’t eaten for days. The horses were all brought up to live in the stables and pens in the small pasture during the winter. In fact, their state-of-the-art stables were bigger than one of the earlier apartments Kate and her mom had lived in after her father left.
“Buddy, just wait,” she said, grabbing another section of the bale to shake out. “You’ve got to let me spread some of it out in the feeder so some of the others can eat, too.”
She shook her head as she put the hay in the feeder, and the tan gelding followed her with his giant, groping lips. Working outside with the horses provided more healing than she’d ever manage to find stuck between four walls. As long as she could keep herself busy, she didn’t have to think about the future or what might happen next.
For their part, the horses made for the most wonderful distractions, keeping her feet firmly planted in the present moment.
She shuffled the hay around, moving it so the other horses could reach the food, too. Buddy nudged her arm, trying to sneak some more hay. Laughing, she grabbed a little more hay to toss to Buddy.
As she stood back up to toss the hay in, her eyes landed on a figure in a heavy coat walking along the path toward her. Doctor Jack smiled as he approached. White breathy vapors escaped from his mouth as he adjusted his black wool cap to cover his ears.
“I didn’t realize it was this cold outside today,” he called out as he got closer. “It felt a lot warmer when I arrived earlier, but I guess going from my car into the house doesn’t give me much chance to see how cold it really is.” He brought his hands up to cup them in front of his mouth and blow in them. He smiled kindly at her again as she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart.
“You should be wearing gloves. We haven’t even gotten to breakup season yet. It’s going to be cold.” She turned slightly to throw the next bit of hay over the fence, hoping he didn’t catch her rolling her eyes at herself. She sounded like her mother had when she used to remind Kate about how she shouldn’t be outside without her mittens.
Why was she even chiding him? It wasn’t like her silly crush would ever amount to anything more. A doctor like Jack Young probably had women throwing themselves at his feet, flirting and acting coy whenever he was around. Kate knew the type. Jack was a good-looking and educated man who probably viewed her as some kind of small-town country hick who didn’t know how to act around proper company.
Why was she thinking about all of this anyway? He worked as her mother’s therapist, for crying out loud! He was trying to help them deal with just about the worst possible thing a family could go through, and here she was thinking how much he made her pulse quicken whenever he stood near to her.
He made a dismissive gesture, laughing at himself. “Oh, I know. I grew up not too far from here, so you’d think I would know better. But by the end of winter I’m just so ready for spring to be here, I forget it actually isn’t.”
Jack stepped closer to her and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I just dropped Nancy off at your cabin, so I thought you’d like to know. She was pretty tired by the end of the session, so I imagine she’ll sleep for a while, but you might want to check in on her soon.”
She flung the last bit of hay to the other side then leaned against the fence, unable to look him in the eyes as she spoke. “I figure you can’t really discuss much about your sessions with her, but how do you feel about how things are progressing? I’m worried because it just seems like everything’s happening so fast. She’s having more and more bad spells lately. I honestly don’t even like leaving her alone in the cabin for longer than a few minutes.”
He nodded slowly and glanced over toward the row of cabins that could be seen just beyond the trees. “It’s hard to say. Everyone is different, but she’s showing all of the classic signs that the illness is continuing to progress quickly. I wish I could give you a timeline of some sort, but there really are no guarantees. Most patients only have four to eight years from the time of their diagnosis, but some keep going as long as twenty. As long as she’s able to function well enough at home with you, I don’t think there’s any concern.”
He turned back to face her and held her gaze with his deep brown eyes. “Have you been looking into options for more permanent full-time care for her when it gets to that point? I can help you find a suitable placement for her. I’ve worked with most facilities in Anchorage so I know which ones can offer the best care.”
She shook her head firmly and turned to walk back toward the barn. She’d had this conversation many times before—with Jack, with the doctors, even with her own mother. “No. I can look after her. I’m not putting her in a home with people who don’t even know her. She deserves better than that.”
Jack caught up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her. Desperately trying to hold back tears, Kate refused to turn around and look at him.
“I know you want to look after Nancy yourself, but things are going to get harder. As good as your intentions are, you aren’t equipped for the type of round the clock care she’s going to need. Eventually she will get to the point of needing everything done for her. As much as you love her, that’s not what she wants for you. And it’s not something you can handle on your own.”
She knew every word he said was true, but she wasn’t ready to face this particular reality right now. “Mom raised me on her own and did everything all by herself, too. She’s seen me through the roughest points in my life. The least I can do is treat her with the same level of care. If that means finding someone to come in and help, then that’s what I’ll do. But I’m not putting her in some home. I’m going to be there for her like she was for me.” She still refused to look him in the eye.
Jack moved around to the front of her, forcing her to face him. Her eyes were wet from the tears she’d been holding back all morning. She kept them unfocused now, staring off toward the barn doors in the distance.
“Listen, it’s a noble goal, and I know how hard it is. I really do. But I think you should talk to Nancy about this. She’s told me many times that she doesn’t want to be a burden on you.”
He put his hands up to stop her when she glared at him, ready to tell him her mother would never be a burden. “Her words, not mine,” he insisted. “I know you would never think like that, but you need to understand how your mother feels about all this. Please, come to the next session with her so we can sit down and give your mother the chance to talk to you about everything that’s worrying her.”
Kate narrowed her gaze in annoyance. “Do you think we haven’t talked about all of this since she was diagnosed? Do you honestly believe I’ve just lived in a little bubble trying to ignore this disease? Do you think I don’t already know everything she’s feeling? Trust me, we’ve been over it all a hundred times since the diagnosis. I know where things are headed. And I’m going to do what’s best for my mom. Right now, I think—no, I know—that’s for her to be with me.”
Just because Jack was a well-educated therapist didn’t mean he understood what was best for Kate’s family. Still, he had been right about so much, what if he was also right about this? Kate refused to accept that she would one day fail her mother. Even if Jack didn’t believe in her ability to take care of them both, she knew her love for her mother would make all things possible. She had no other option.
Jack held his mouth in a straight line as he listened to her. But before he could respond, they heard a shout from inside the barn.
Howard, the old cowboy who also worked on the ranch, came to the open doorway and let out a shrill whistle, then shouted, “Kate, looks like Scarlett is ready to foal early. I think you better come in here and help. She’s acting pretty distressed.”
Scarlett was a young mare the ranch had rescued from a hoarding situation out in the valley up north. Poor thing had been seriously emaciated when they got her, so all season they’d been working to get her strong enough to carry her foal to term. There should’ve been more time before Scarlett was ready to give birth. Kate feared there wouldn’t be any way to save either of them if things went wrong.
She pushed past Jack, then stopped and turned back. But before she could ask for the favor she needed, he nodded in anticipation.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “I’ll go back and check on Nancy. I can stay for a bit and keep her company if you’re going to be a while.”
Kate wasn’t sure how to say thank you, knowing she hadn’t been very considerate to him before when he was trying to help her by offering his professional opinion. Yet he’d immediately known what she needed and had extended his help without question. Having someone else to count on wasn’t something she was used to anymore. Not since her mother had begun her sharp cognitive decline.
But she didn’t have time to think about what it meant that Jack was so ready and willing to do what he could for them. If he was willing to give her a break so she could tend to Scarlett without worrying about her mom, too, then she was going to take it.