"Yes, but—” Maureen wasn’t allowed to finish. Karen flew across the kitchen at breakneck speed and threw her arms around her mother’s waist with such ferocity that it nearly toppled Maureen.
"Oh, Mom! You’re the most wonderful mother in the whole world. Riding lessons! Do I get to pick which horse I get to ride? Where is this place? How did you find out about it?”
"Settle down, sweetheart. One question at a time.”
Maureen couldn’t remember when her daughter had been more animated. She asked a dozen questions at least that many times until Maureen was thoroughly sick of the subject.
Karen went to bed without an argument and was up the next morning at the crack of dawn.
"Mom, Mom, wake up!”
Maureen managed to raise one apathetic eyelid to find her daughter standing next to her mattress, fully dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. Her hair was combed and her teeth brushed. The newspaper was tucked in one hand, and her other sported a steaming cup of coffee.
"What…time…is…it?” Maureen didn’t lift her head from the pillow, and the question came out slurred and pathetic sounding.
Maureen groaned. "Honey, even the horses are still asleep.”
"But they won’t be by the time we arrive. Come on, Mom, it’s a beautiful day. Rise and shine.” The twelve-year-old set the frightfully thick newspaper and coffee on the nightstand. Before Maureen had time to prepare herself, Karen leaped on the bed, buckling the mattress.
"How long have you been up?” Maureen wanted to know.
"Since three-thirty. I couldn’t sleep,” Karen explained, tossing her arms into the air. "I tried and tried, but every time I closed my eyes all I could think about was learning to ride, and sleeping was impossible.”
"All right.” Maureen could see she was fighting a losing battle, although she refused to show up on Thom Nichols’s back step before the sun rose. "Give me a few minutes to wake up.” She struggled into a sitting position and pulled the hair away from her face.
"I can cook us breakfast. What would you like?”
Maureen shook her head. "Just coffee for now, thanks.”
That Karen managed to get her out of bed, dressed, and fed before seven on a Sunday morning was little short of a miracle as far as Maureen was concerned. The last time she’d been up this early on a weekend, she’d been nursing Karen.
By sheer force of will she was able to hold her daughter off until nine, but it demanded every trick she had up the sleeve of motherhood.
Using the detailed directions Thom had given her, Maureen easily found her way to Nichols’s Riding Stables. The sprawling adobe building was set back from the corral, which housed five or six horses.
Karen was out of the car and racing toward the corral as fast as her legs would carry her by the time Maureen had parked. Before she could so much as object, Karen had stepped onto the bottom rung of the fence and had folded her arms over a post as if she were born to be a buckaroo. By the time Maureen caught up with her, Karen was rooted to the spot, a look of sheer bliss over her face.
"Mom, look. Aren’t they the most beautiful creatures you’ve ever seen?”
"Sweetheart, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be standing up there like that.”
"I’m fine. People do this in the movies all the time.”
"Can I help you?” a deep, resonant male voice asked from behind her.
Maureen turned around, prepared to apologize for the way Karen had instantly made herself at home, but the words never made it to her lips. Before her stood the embodiment of every cowboy hero she’d ever dreamed about as a teenage girl. He was Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one hunk of a man. He stood at least six inches taller than Maureen, and his hat added an additional four or five to that. His face was as tanned as soft leather and marked with the most striking pair of blue eyes Maureen had even seen.
"I’m Maureen Woods,” she said when she could manage to stop staring. Her business acumen rescued her, and she stepped forward and offered him her hand. "I believe we talked yesterday.”
"Thom Nichols,” he said, removing his glove in order to shake hands with her. His palms were covered with thick calluses. "You’re the divorcée, right?”
"I didn’t tell you that,” Maureen said defensively.
"No, I don’t suppose you did,” he said. "No offense meant.”
"How’d you know?”
He removed his hat and slapped it across his thigh. "Can’t rightly say. It must have been something you said.”
"What are the horses’ names?” Karen asked, jumping down from the corral.
"First off, they aren’t just horses. The black one out there is Midnight, and he’s a gelding. The spotted one’s a mare named Thunder. The one in the corner’s a roan. These are all terms you’ll be learning later as part of the class.”
"How long have you been operating Nichols’s Riding Stables?” Maureen asked.
"A year or so now.”
"Dad.” A girl raced from inside the barn and stopped abruptly when she saw her father with Karen and Maureen.
Thom placed his arm around the girl. "This is my daughter, Paula.”
"Hello, Paula,” Maureen said.
"Hi.” Karen raised her right hand in greeting. From the look she gave the other girl, one would think Thom Nichols’s daughter was the luckiest girl alive.
"Why don’t you give Karen a quick tour while I talk to her mother?” Thom suggested.
"Sure. Come on,” Paula said, immediately taking charge. "Our cat, Tinkerbell, just had a litter of kittens, and I found them in the barn.”
"Really? I’ve never seen newborn kittens before.”
"That should keep those two entertained for a few minutes,” Thom said. "Why don’t I pour us each a cup of coffee and describe the riding course to you, and then you can decide if you want to sign Karen up for lessons or not.”
Actually a cup of coffee sounded wonderful. "I don’t mean to interrupt your morning. It’s just that Karen was so excited, she all but dragged me out of bed at five-thirty. I’m sure you and your wife have better things to do than entertain me.”
"It’s no bother,” Thom assured her, leading her toward the house. "By the way, I’m a widower.”
"Why would such a thing happen to Madge?” Bernard asked, leaning forward on the hard, plastic hospital chair and wringing his hands. "She was in so much pain already. Did God think she needed more?”
"I don’t know why God allows anyone to suffer,” Paul confessed to the older man. He felt bitterly inadequate to comfort the long-standing church member. All Paul had to offer Bernard was his presence, and frankly he wasn’t sure he was doing anyone a favor. Least of all Madge and Bernard.
Paul checked his watch. It was close to four. He’d been at the hospital the better part of three hours. Most of that time had been spent waiting for word from the doctors. They’d come ten minutes earlier with the news that Madge was resting comfortably.
"She isn’t, you know,” Bernard murmured.
"I’m sure she’s sedated,” Paul said.
"Yes, but the pain’s still there. Beneath all that medication the pain’s there.”
Paul understood. Pain was a fiend, ever present, ever ready to devour one’s strength. One’s peace of mind. One’s serenity. It had eaten away at Barbara like a voracious monster, never satisfied, never content, until Paul couldn’t bear to see the suffering in his wife’s eyes any longer.
"She’s sleeping now,” Paul said gently. "Let her rest. Go home and rest yourself.”
"I couldn’t sleep.”
Paul knew about that as well. He’d felt guilty about sleeping when he knew Barbara couldn’t. Guilty about being healthy when she was so desperately ill. Guilty about being alive when she was dead.
He’d wanted to stay awake with her, wanted to spend every precious moment she had left at her side. Yet he slept. The sleep of the damned, he suspected. Those damned to grieve. Those damned to be left behind. Those damned to live the rest of their lives alone.
"I’ll drive you home,” Paul offered, patting the older man’s shoulder.
Bernard clasped his hands together and nodded slowly, as if the effort drained him of every ounce of strength he possessed.
"Hello, Mrs. Johnson,” Joe Morris said, sticking his head in the door of the church office. "Have you see my father around?”
"Joe.” The woman who’d served as his father’s secretary for as long as Joe could remember stood up behind the desk, walked around, and hugged him. "When did you get home?”
"Late yesterday afternoon.”
"My, my, but you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said, sounding genuinely pleased to see him.
Joe buried his hands in his pants pockets. It embarrassed him to have the women of the church make a fuss over him. He liked Leta Johnson better than most. At least she didn’t pinch his cheeks and tell him what a handsome boy he’d turned out to be. Boy indeed! Last summer he’d been forced to bite his tongue to keep from reminding the church ladies he was twenty-one. Soon he’d be married. That should set matters straight once and for all.
"Have you seen my dad?” Joe repeated. Annie was waiting for him at the house, and he didn’t want to get involved in a lengthy conversation with Mrs. Johnson.
"Not this morning,” the secretary said with a thoughtful look. "Could you come in and talk a minute, Joe?”
Joe looked at his watch. "I don’t really have a lot of time.”
"That’s fine. I’ll only keep you a few moments. It’s rather important.”
"Okay.” He walked inside the office and pulled a chair up to the secretary’s scarred mahogany desk.
For someone so keen on talking to him, Mrs. Johnson didn’t seem overly eager to start. Nor could Joe imagine what could be the problem. "Have you noticed any changes in your dad over the last year or so?” she asked.
"Changes? What sort of changes?”
"He’s lost weight, hasn’t he?”
"Oh, that,” Joe said, relieved. "I suppose he isn’t eating properly since Mom died. He walked into the house last night with a hamburger and fries. I think he intended on having that for dinner.”
"Yet he’s turned down a dozen dinner invitations last month alone,” Leta murmured under her breath. "There are a host of families who’d be delighted to have your father join them once a month or so. He could eat a home-cooked meal every night if he wanted.”
Joe didn’t blame his father for preferring his own cooking. "He doesn’t want anyone else to cook for him. Dad’s too independent for that.”
Leta Johnson found it necessary to store a couple of pens in her top desk drawer. "He seems to have gotten forgetful of late. More often than not I have to remind him of church meetings, and even when I do, he arrives late. The finance and worship committees have decided to start without him, and frankly I don’t blame them. It’s frustrating to arrive on time and then be kept waiting a half hour or longer.”