Ruthanne stood over Hannie in the hospital bed, wincing as
the older woman rasped out another bone-jarring cough. Her
employer and friend was still young at sixty-six, but her health
had declined since the hospital admitted her a few days prior.
It was only pneumonia. People—strong, faith-filled people
like Hannie—recovered every day from that illness.
Why did she ask for her lawyer?
Hannie’s nephew, Paul, entered with Vaughn Stanton. Paul
gently slipped his hand into the once-strong palm that even
now looked oddly ready to pitch hay. “Auntie, we’re all here.”
Hannie opened her eyes and removed the oxygen mask,
keeping it near. Vaughn removed a small digital recorder from
his pocket and turned it on.
With a thin voice that sounded like sandpaper on wet wood,
Hannie spoke. “I have a son, and I want you to find him.”
A month later
Skye stood in the doorway, mere feet from his mother in the
hospital bed. The shush-poc of the respirator accused him, as if
it knew what he was thinking.
He should go to her, hold her hand. Let her know he was near.
Pray for her. But who was he kidding? He wouldn’t even have
come if the lawyer hadn’t been so insistent. Truthfully the only
reason he agreed was to ask the woman one simple question.
Skye turned toward the male voice behind him.
“Do you know my aunt?”
“I’m her. . .son.” Skye shook off the spiders of anxiety
clinging to his flesh due to his mother’s nearness and reached
for the man’s outstretched hand. “Skye Randall.”
“Paul Godfrey, her nephew. Her lawyer told me he’d
contacted you yesterday. Thank you for coming so soon.”
Skye searched the younger man for a family resemblance.
Paul’s dark hair matched his own, but Paul’s eyes were a deep
brown while Skye’s were blue.
“We’re not related, are we?” Skye felt disjointed, like a puzzle
not yet completed.
“Not by blood, no.”
The stab of regret surprised Skye.
He glanced at the paper placard outside the door with his
mother’s name. Hannah Godfrey. She must have married
this man’s uncle. He wanted to ask if his mother had other
children but thought better of it. Would the answer be too
much for him to bear?
Skye jerked his head toward the bed. “When can I talk to her?”
Paul looked toward the floor. “They didn’t tell you her
condition when you came in?”
“No. Mr. Stanton gave me the room number, so I found it
on my own.”
“Oh man.” Paul’s gaze darted down the corridor. “The doctor
should be here soon. That’s why I’m here.” He rubbed the back
of his neck. “You should know though. She’s in a coma.”
The four simple words carried the weight of a sucker punch.
The man moved to the side of the bed and lifted her hand. His
fond gaze directed toward his aunt spoke volumes to Skye. “Aunt
Hannie has a tendency to overdo, to the point of exhaustion
sometimes. Add to that her visits to children’s hospitals, nursing
homes, prisons—she ended up contracting a virus that turned
into pneumonia. But then it took a nasty turn.”
The doctor entered, interrupting the list of saintly duties this
woman had supposedly performed. He forced a brief smile to
his lips as Paul introduced the doctor to him.
Dr. Harris lifted the chart at the end of the bed and made
some notations. “Your mother has ARDS, Acute Respiratory
Distress Syndrome. What this means is that the pneumonia is
now in the tissue surrounding her lungs. This takes more time
to heal since it’s impossible to get medicine there. To make her
more comfortable during the process, we chose to put her into
a drug-induced coma this morning.”
“Then she’s not going to die?” Skye’s words spilled out in an
emotionless query. However, when Paul’s head snapped up, he
regretted being so blunt. Sorry, Lord.
The doctor placed his dark hand on Hannie’s white wrist
and inspected her fingers. “Ah, color is coming back.” He
gently laid her hand down and regarded Skye. “I’m not going
to lie to you. This is a very serious illness. The survival rate is
about 60 percent, but that’s better than the 30 percent it’s been
in the past. We’re more aware of the disease now, and we have
better equipment.” He patted Skye’s shoulder on the way out.
“Don’t worry, we’ll do everything we can to keep her in the
Paul walked out behind him, shaking his head and muttering,
“A 40 percent death rate.”
What was he? A glass-is-half-empty kind of guy?
Skye tagged on to the end of the procession, not eager to be
left alone with the stranger in the bed. Coma. He hadn’t expected
that. He’d wanted to get answers from the woman who turned
her back on him, and now all he had was more questions. And a
bit of guilt. This Paul guy really seemed to care about her, yet the
woman he described was nothing like the one Skye had known.
How was he supposed to reconcile the two?
Conviction slowly seeped into his soul. He hadn’t communicated
with God since the lawyer called him. He didn’t
want to pray about the situation. He only wanted to hear his
mother’s story. But things were getting complicated, so he
managed to wring out three words: “God, be near.”
They entered a waiting area with putty-colored faux leather
couches and armchairs. A television droned on in the corner,
with the morning news turned so low it was barely audible.
Large, frameless paintings of flowers hung on each wall. The
cheery yellows, greens, and reds only served to agitate Skye
further, and he clenched and unclenched the car keys in his
hand, making them jangle.
As they sat, Paul seemed to have trouble making eye contact.
“This must be awkward for you.”
“You have no idea.”
“I’m sure Aunt Hannie regrets losing you.”
Skye thrust himself from the chair. “She didn’t lose me.
She. . .”
. . .left me.
It took all his restraint not to throw his keys at the television.
How much did this man know?
After an uncomfortable moment, Paul said, “Did he mention
“He said he wanted to meet with me tomorrow regarding
it. What? Does she own a small plot of land?” He didn’t care
about his mother’s property. With his mother in a coma, there
could be no closure. For either of them.
Why on earth am I still here?
Paul’s eyes flashed. “She owns a ranch.”
Skye’s interest perked up. “A ranch?” Thoughts of bronco
busting evoked a happy memory from his childhood.
Paul’s cell phone rang, and he excused himself to answer it.
Skye heard Paul’s voice in the corridor as it raised in a heated
conversation, but he couldn’t make out the words.
When Paul returned, he was still gripping his cell phone.
“This is Ruthanne, Aunt Hannie’s assistant. She’s been
calling every hour to check on her status. She’s wondering if
you’d like to come out to see the ranch before your meeting
tomorrow. It’s just south of Oakley. Are you free the rest of
With his emotions rising up and down like the parachute
ride at the county fair, Skye wasn’t sure how to answer. On
one hand he didn’t want to have anything to do with his
mother. On the other the thought of visiting a working ranch
intrigued him. Dare he step into her world? Who had this
woman become after all these years?
With a shrug, he slammed his hands into his pockets. “Sure,
Paul nodded. “Great. Would you like to see her again before
The ride plummeted once more. “No.”
“Do you mind if I do?”
He hesitated just a moment. “No, of course not.” The daily
lunch odor wafted from a cart rattling down the corridor and
assaulted his nose. Beef broth. His stomach lurched. “I’ll meet
you in the parking lot and follow you out.”
Paul disappeared down the corridor and into the room. Skye
rattled his keys all the way to his car.
Ruthanne replaced her phone in her pocket and leaned back
against the paddock. She closed her eyes as the humming
of the animals and the scent of fresh hay calmed her soul.
Lavender from the garden had the same effect.
She needed that sense of serenity right now. Paul hadn’t
been happy with her suggestion to bring Hannie’s son over,
but it felt like the right thing to do.
Something woolly brushed her shoulder, and she opened
her eyes. She’d just received an alpaca nudge, a reminder that
she should be forking the hay instead of inhaling it. You’d
think since they grazed all morning that they wouldn’t be so
testy in the afternoon.
She stroked the alpaca’s long russet-colored neck and
looked around at the other teddy bear faces surrounding her.
They all depended on her now.
As she scooped hay into the first manger, she assured the
gathering alpacas that their mommy would be home soon.
Like a mother to her, too. And now Ruthanne could do
nothing to save her.
Except pray. She did that a lot lately. Especially since this
morning, when she received the call that Hannie would be
placed in an induced coma.
She gazed across the green pastureland toward Oregon’s
Siskiyou Mountains. The verse in Psalms about lifting your
eyes to the hills came into her mind, and she drew strength
as she recognized the Creator of those hills.
With a prayer on her lips, a strident chorus of outraged
alpacas drew her away from her meditation. Harriet, a bossy
female who insisted on first dibs at mealtime, had pushed her
dapple gray and black body through the group and now lay on
the feeding trough so no one else could eat. Ruthanne tried to
coax her off but backed away just in time to miss a blast of hay
and spit from the alpaca’s mouth.
“Okay! Have it your way!” Wheelbarrow in hand, she
moved on to the next feeding area. “Sorry, gang, she’ll be full
soon. Then it’ll be your turn.”
A roan-colored mother alpaca named Cinnamon chortled
from another enclosure, cushing with her legs folded beneath
her. She looked like a puffy beanbag pillow with a neck.
Her cria romped nearby, playing a game of “let’s bounce off
Mommy.” Baby Payton ran to the farthest side of the pen,
turned, and with long, spindly legs loped at full speed toward
Cinnamon, landing in her soft fleece and springing off her in
a double roll.
Ruthanne welcomed the comedian’s antics. She entered
the pen and patted his sandy brown neck. “Laughter is good
medicine. I should have named you Isaac.”
She forked hay into their trough and moved on to her own
alpaca, Lirit. Snowy white—and just as pure of heart. Lirit
had a special language all her own. Her humming signaled
a contented soul and often soothed Ruthanne’s emotions.
Hannie had given Lirit to Ruthanne as a cria at an especially
tough time in her life, and the two bonded instantly.
Movement on the main road caught her eye. She pulled off
her work gloves as she walked between the barn and house
and sidestepped the muddy prelandscaped yard to meet them
in front. Soon two cars pulled into the circular gravel drive.
Paul’s blue hybrid whirred in first. The second was a trendy
charcoal gray SUV, one the owner would probably never take
off-roading. No doubt a gas-guzzler, too.
Ever since Hannie’s bombshell, she had puzzled over the
mystery surrounding the son. How did they become estranged?
How does he feel about his mother? Does he truly care about her, or
will he prove to be a vulture, circling above a victim?
She shook her head. Not every man was like Brian.
A tall man dressed in business casual—blue khakis and a
gray polo shirt—followed Paul up the steps to the porch. By
his stormy countenance, he was clearly unhappy. She looked
closely to see if he resembled Hannie. Not in the hair. His
was dark with a slight wave. The tiny bits of silver told her
he was probably in his midforties. Hannie’s short crop was
blond and straight, although streaked with gray. But as he
drew near, she gasped. Those were Hannie’s eyes, curious and
taking in the surroundings. Looking into his clear blue irises
made her wonder if those black clouds circling his head had
a silver lining.
Paul greeted her, but his usual cheerful demeanor seemed
just as morose as that of their visitor. She felt bad for Paul.
With both of his parents gone, Hannie had become a mother
to him. His mother’s bout with lung cancer no doubt colored
his faith now that Hannie suffered from a lung ailment.
She held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Ruthanne Fairfax.” She
noted the smooth warmth of his hand. He obviously didn’t
work on a ranch.
A small grin played on his face. “Forgive me, but I thought
you would be older.”
She flipped her auburn farm-girl braids. Why hadn’t she
taken more time on her appearance this morning? “The name
often fools people. I’m named after my grandmother.”
His gaze roved over the house and surrounding land.
Ruthanne puffed with pride. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
“It’s beautiful. My. . .mother. . .owns all of this?”
How long ago had this man withdrawn from Hannie’s life?
“Twenty acres. She and her husband had the house built to
their specifications. He worked with the architect, and she
made sure her flair was evident.”
As they moved inside, Paul asked, “What do you do for a
“I’m a real estate broker.”
Ruthanne spoke over her shoulder. “Then you should be
very interested in the construction of this house.”
“I noticed the large oak door. That was custom, wasn’t it?”
“The whole house is custom built.” She nodded toward the
sweeping staircase that spilled into the large foyer. “Handcarved
pedestals. There are three bedrooms on the second level,
but Hannie’s room is on the main level, at the bottom of the
stairs.” She pointed to the closed door next to the banister.
“That was their original office,” Paul interjected. “When
Uncle David was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they knew
he wouldn’t be able to navigate the stairs. The office is now
a small room off the kitchen. Which is where I’m headed.
Ruthanne can show you the rest of the place.”
Ruthanne frowned at Paul’s retreating figure. There was
nothing pressing in the office.
They moved into the two-story great room, and she nodded
toward the massive stone fireplace to the right. “This would be
the focal point of the room, but—”
“But”—he finished her thought—“the double french doors
are what capture the eye.”
Ruthanne was impressed. He seemed to know his stuff.
“Yes, the hill behind us is framed in their glass, creating living
art. Hannie and David named it Singing Mountain, the same
name as our ranch. The locals adopted the name and eventually
made it official.”
He nodded his approval as he wandered around the room.
Ruthanne pointed upward. “Hannie made sure nothing but
natural products were used. Those are real wood beams on the
ceiling, not Styrofoam.” Then down. “And instead of a plastic
product on the floor, she insisted on slate.”
“This isn’t what I expected.”
“What did you expect? Something larger?”
“No. Something more—this sounds strange—psychedelic.”
“Ah.” Now she understood. “Your mother was a hippie.”
She chuckled. “She still is but in a mature, healthy way. Let’s
see, did she have long blond hair, granny glasses, and flower
If she expected a pleasant reaction from him, she was mistaken.
He gave a slight nod, but his nose turned up as if he’d
just caught an unpleasant odor; then he turned away and
walked toward the french doors. She found herself whiffing
the air. Only the cheerful aromas of lilac and forsythia floated
in to greet her.
They stepped through the french doors to the redwood back
deck where he could view the entire alpaca herd spread out
before him. He seized the rail with one hand and pointed with
the other. “What are those?”
His face puckered. He watched them grazing, seemingly
disappointed with what he saw, yet too fascinated to look away.
His slouched posture made her think of a child forced to endure
the family vacation.
Under a frown, his eyes searched the grounds. “Aren’t there
any cows—or horses?”
What was wrong with this guy? Most people found alpacas
charming. Perhaps her first instinct had been right, and he was a
con artist after Hannie’s property. A cattle or horse ranch might
be easier to sell.
“No, just alpacas.” With a wave, she said, “Oh, we do have
some Angora rabbits.”
He turned and glared at her. “Rabbits.”
Suddenly feeling like a reprimanded child, she pointed
weakly to the henhouse attached to the far side of the barn.
He shook his head just a fraction. “Alpacas, rabbits, and
Was that a snort? How dare he mock something into which
Hannie and David had poured heart and soul.
Before she realized it, she placed her hand on her hip and
gave him an indignant glare.
“I’m sorry. I expected. . .” His shoulders sagged. “This is all
so surreal to me.”
Ruthanne suddenly wished she knew more about this man’s
history. When had he and his mother become estranged?
Why hadn’t Hannie told her about him? And the question
Ruthanne would rather not explore: What about the past had
Hannie felt necessary to keep hidden?