Hannah wasn’t left alone, though, in the large residence. Two other young women—Mia Start and Fila Sahar—had moved in, too, for the time being. Each of them needed a cheap place to stay and Autumn had jumped on the chance to make even a small profit off of three of the empty guest rooms. Come spring when things picked up again they’d all have to move, but Hannah was confident she’d have things figured out long before then.
Although confident might be too strong a word.
The truth was, she wasn’t exactly sure how she’d handle her upcoming expenses. She was still paying off her student loans from her undergraduate years. She had a lot of those. Her parents would have loved to put her through school, but with her father’s medical expenses they were hard pressed to pay their own way. She’d been ten when her father was first diagnosed with cancer, and twelve when she began to babysit every weekend night for spending money. As her parents’ savings slipped away on ever-increasingly expensive treatments, she bought her own clothes and paid for her school supplies. As soon as she was legal, she picked up a part-time job and took over the family’s car insurance payments. When she graduated, her parents downsized and moved in with her uncle in Billings to cut costs and be nearer to her Dad’s specialists and a hospital. She wished she could help them more, but at the very least she wouldn’t burden them with her own expenses.
“Hannah! Good, you’re home. Dinner’s just about ready,” Autumn called. A small woman with lovely brown hair and delicate features, she was moving around the kitchen area of the open-plan main floor. Hannah cursed that open plan every day for just this reason.
“Hi, Autumn.” She hung up her coat, kicked off her boots and made her way over to the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. Autumn bent over the open oven door and awkwardly pulled out a roast. Six months pregnant, her belly was beginning to counteract some of her natural gracefulness. She refused to take it easy, though. In fact, she seemed invigorated by it all.
“It’ll just be a minute while I mash the potatoes,” she said. “Fila and Mia will be down shortly, too.”
“I keep telling you not to cook for me. You’re not my housekeeper, Autumn. If anything, I should cook and clean for you since you’re putting me up here.”
“You’re paying rent,” Autumn said. “Dinner and clean sheets comes with the room. That’s just the way it works around here.”
“I’ll go wash up. Be back in a minute.” Hannah headed upstairs to the room she’d occupied on the second floor.
A familiar feeling of dissatisfaction washed over her when she thought about her life. She’d started well, but somehow things had gotten off track. When she’d graduated from college with a degree in biology, the recession made it hard to find work, so when Bella Chatham offered her a position as the receptionist at her veterinary practice and animal shelter, Hannah had taken it, thinking it was temporary. Soon work and life swallowed her whole. The job was busier and more interesting than she had imagined, and when she started dating Cody, he took up the rest of her time. She loved working with Bella and she loved the way she got to help with the veterinary tasks. Unfortunately, her limited education held her back from taking a more active role with the animals’ health care. Although she enjoyed interacting with Bella’s clients all day, she wanted to do more.
She wanted a career. Something challenging. Something that used every shred of her ability. She had already taken the first step toward that career—getting accepted at Montana State.
After she changed her clothes and washed up for supper, she met Fila in the corridor outside her room. Fila was a new arrival in Chance Creek. Born of Afghani parents in the United States, she’d traveled to Afghanistan when she was twelve years old to attend a funeral and ended up staying there against her will for the next decade after her parents were killed. Seized by Taliban relatives, she’d been forced to knuckle under and became a model Afghani woman, but she never forgot her true home in the United States, and she’d managed to escape with help from an organization started by Aria Cruz, Ethan’s mother. Once she made it back to the States, Fila had come to the Cruz ranch in the hopes that Aria’s daughters would help her learn to raise funds for their mother’s organization. She’d ended up moving in.
Hannah found Fila a bit of a mystery. On the one hand she dressed and acted like any other American. She’d quickly lost all trace of the accent her years in Afghanistan lent her, and when she went shopping she gravitated toward the latest styles, although she avoided miniskirts, and the necklines of her blouses and T-shirts remained high. On the other hand, there were gaps in her knowledge of modern life. She’d never used an up-to-date cell phone, iPads and tablets baffled her, and even her skills on desktop computers were hopelessly slim. They all tried to help her acclimate to these most important modern conveniences, but Hannah could see it would be a long haul. Soon after her arrival, some Taliban men had tracked Fila down and come to get her back. The resulting shootout was one of the deadliest nights in Chance Creek history and affected many of them. Hannah had been at the scene of the shooting with Fila and another friend, Rose. Most of the men from the Cruz ranch and the Double-Bar-K had been there, as well.
Hannah still had nightmares about that night and she knew Fila suffered, too. While Fila told them every day how grateful she was to be here, Hannah sensed the woman also felt a profound loss—not for her old life in Afghanistan, exactly, but for all the years she’d spent there, the years she’d never get back. She said she felt like she didn’t exactly belong anywhere. Hannah hoped she set down some roots, fast.
“Looking forward to tonight?” Hannah asked her. About an hour after dinner people would begin to show up for Poker and Pool night. Hannah enjoyed these get-togethers, but she wasn’t sure if Fila did.
“Yes.” Fila’s face told a different story.
“If it gets too much for you, it’s okay to head up to your room.” Fila had done so on previous occasions, and Hannah wanted her to know no one held it against her.
“This time I intend to stay. I’m getting used to it.”
Hannah took her hand and squeezed it. “I’m glad. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me, too,” Fila said, but she sounded wistful.
Mia met them by the stairs.
“Long day?” she asked Hannah.