How do you describe the feeling you get the first time you drive down a long, winding road to a place that is all yours? To Andy Friessen, this wasn’t just a house or a piece of land: he had staked a claim in another state, in another part of the county, uprooting his family and selling everything, all for a brand new beginning.
Andy took in the miles of vast hillside and the cleanest pastures he’d ever seen. The green grass swayed in the wind and, for the first time, he sensed the sun, the moon, the stars and the changing of the seasons more deeply than he ever had before. This was a part of the country he had never travelled, but it felt like coming home. He glanced over at his wife, Laura, asleep in the passenger seat, her head resting against the door, her breath whispering softly in and out. He always knew when she was overtired, as she snored in her soft, delicate way. This time, she stirred a bit before settling into a deep sleep, as if her body had finally run out of steam.
She was on edge and had been for some time, but that wasn’t unusual for a mother of newborns. For Andy and Laura, there was twice as much stress with their six-week-old twins, Chelsea and Jeremy, who were sound asleep in the backseat of the truck. Their five-year-old big brother, Gabriel, Laura’s son from a pregnancy at fifteen, sat beside them.
Laura was so young but had lived through more heartache, rejection and struggle than most people would in a lifetime. As a teenager, she had been tossed out onto the street by her judgmental parents, who thought she was a bad influence on her younger brothers. Laura had only mentioned it once to Andy, and only when he pushed. He wanted to know what had happened, to know everything about her family, but he saw the deep hurt like a tread mark on her soul. No matter what he did, he wondered if that was something she’d never be able to make peace with. Andy wouldn’t, not in this lifetime. In fact, George and Sue Parnell were the first people Andy had ever hated without even meeting them.
They had come so far, Laura and him. At first, the only reason he had married her was to save her son when the state took him away. Laura and Gabriel had been living in her car, and Andy had married her because he felt responsible for the entire mess. After all, it had been his mother who fired Laura from her position as a maid in the Friessen house. Andy had treated her horribly at first, but so much had changed since then. He loved her—his child bride, as everyone teased him. She had recently turned twenty-one, legal in every state, and Andy would soon be thirty-three.
Andy pressed the brakes to slow his pickup as the ruts deepened on the driveway. The horse trailer rattled, and he glanced in the side mirror and rolled down his window just as his three-year-old buckskin mare, Ladystar, nickered. Apparently, she’d had enough of this two-day trip, leaving North Lakewood behind and moving two states away to a seventy-two-acre spread Andy had purchased outside of Columbia Falls, Montana.
“Where are we?” Laura said. She didn’t open her eyes as she yawned. Her short bob was a tangled mess, but it was cute. Andy had been irritated when she cut off all her hair, saying it was easier to look after. Maybe so, but he liked her long hair. “Andy?” she said. The leather seat rustled as she sat up.
Andy had to clear his throat. “We should be close.…”
He stepped on the brakes when a sprawling one-story ranch house came into view. It had a light wood finish and a post-and-beam front deck, but something about the place didn’t look right. The railing appeared broken, with pieces of wood scattered here and there. Everything looked unkempt. Piles of debris littered the yard, including a rusted-out pickup with missing wheels parked in waist-high grass that was now weighted down by the melting snow. Maybe he had the wrong place? He eased on the gas pedal and started up the slight incline that circled the house. It was similar to the photos he had seen, but the house in the photos had been newer than this. A couple of the shutters were hanging sideways, and the fence surrounding the house was falling down, as was the corral, but it was the junk, the debris, the plastic, garbage and scattered metal parts, that pissed him off.
“What the hell is this?”
He’d bought the place unseen. The Montana realtor had sent photos of the exterior and interior, and maybe Andy should have asked when they had been taken, but he’d been in a hurry to get Laura and the kids as far away from his family as he could. He parked in front of the house and spotted the red and white realty sign leaning against the front step.
“Andy, this doesn’t look like the pictures the realtor sent,” Laura said. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
One of the babies started fussing, and Ladystar nickered from the trailer.
“Andy, are we here?” Gabriel called out from the backseat, rubbing his eyes.
“Yeah, just stay there, bud,” Andy said as he opened his door. Laura was reaching over to unbuckle Jeremy from his car seat, his tiny hands flailing. “He hungry?”
Laura appeared so tired as she nodded. “I think so. Wet, too.” She patted his bottom and rested him on the seat. “Andy, can you reach the diaper bag on the floor in the back?” She had already unfastened his sleeper as Andy lifted the blue bag, shut the back door and set the bag on his seat.
“Just stay in here until I check things out,” he said.
Laura glanced up with a weary smile. “Okay.”
He shut the door and stepped around the truck, taking in the mess. Ladystar nickered again. “Okay, girl,” he murmured, unlatching the horse trailer and leading his horse out before tying her to the side and bringing out a flake of hay for her. “Better find you some water, too,” he said, pulling out his bucket. Around the side of the house, he found a barn with a missing door, another gated pasture, and a round ring. As he stepped closer, he noticed the round pen appeared intact, with no missing posts and all the rails up. It was probably a safe bet for tonight, at least for Ladystar, until he got a better look around.
He found a water tap at the back of the house and turned it on, but rusty water poured out. “Crap!” he muttered, waiting for it to run clear before he filled the bucket. When he took it back to the trailer where Ladystar was tied and eating, Laura opened the door of the truck and called out, “Andy, Gabriel has to go to the bathroom, and so do I. Can we go inside?”
Andy took in what was supposed to have been a ten-year-old sprawling rancher, with a wraparound deck where they could spend evenings and mornings looking out over their spread. Instead, it resembled the kind of house his cousin Jed would have picked up for a good price to gut and renovate—not something Andy was interested in doing.
“All right,” Andy said. He opened the back door and lifted Gabriel, who was already unbuckled and waiting. “Stay here, Gabriel. Hey, Laura, Chelsea is still sleeping.” Andy lifted his very quiet daughter from the car.
Laura slid down, carrying Jeremy, who was fussing again. She had on just a beige sweater. “Ooh, it’s cold,” she said. She reached in the truck for her tan jacket and pulled it out, holding it out to Andy so he could help her as she juggled the baby.
Laura started up the steps, and Gabriel and Andy followed. At the sound of a vehicle coming down the road, they both turned to see a newer pickup truck flying over the ruts and then pulling in just behind the horse trailer. A woman with a round face, bright smile, and dark hair tied back in a ponytail stepped out, wearing a sheepskin coat and blue jeans.
Laura shrieked behind Andy. He turned just as the screen door Laura had pulled fell over and crashed to the front deck. Chelsea, who had been sleeping, whimpered and then started howling along with her brother.
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