Better Than Before: A Look Inside

Snow-capped mountains started to spring up in the distance amid fields of thick waving yellow grasses as Holly coasted down hills and chugged up valleys. The morning sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds and dappled the fields where cows and horses grazed in lazily clusters. Holly had glanced at the GPS frequently during the drive, watching the hours burn down into mere minutes. It had been two long days and nights in the van, only stopping at a Motel 6 when her eyes were so weary, she couldn’t keep them open any longer and the road started to shift and blur. It was the final leg of their journey, and now that they were only a few miles away, she paid more attention to her surroundings, drinking them in as she drove. 

Murph stood at attention on her lap, scraping one paw against the glass and whining, eager to get out and run. Holly rolled down the window a crack, and he pressed his nose into the opening at the top, feasting on the smorgasbord of scents of the West. 

“We’re almost there, buddy,” Holly murmured as she stroked his thick curly fur. “I should have taken you in for a groom before we left.” His brown eyes were practically covered by fur, and the thick knotted coat made him look twice as large as he was. 

“I didn’t expect the mountains to look like bacon,” Dillon piped up from the back seat where he had been sleeping for the last several hours. He sat up and pressed his nose against the glass just like Murph. Holly glanced over at a range of them that lined the road they were on and had to agree. The yellow gravel trails running up the red clay mountains did look like marbled bacon.

“You know what, buddy? They kind of do,” Holly agreed, laughing. “Or are you trying to tell me you’re hungry?”

“That too.” He smiled and stretched his hands above his head. 

“We’re meeting the realtor to get the keys, and then we can celebrate with some pancakes.”

Holly focused intently on the GPS. According to the screen, they were only a mile away from their final destination. The first bit of anxiety and doubt bloomed in her belly and set off a flood of what if’s swirling in her mind. 

What if they don’t like it here?

What if uprooting them was a mistake?

What if Chance relapses?

Her worries popped up like dandelions in the lawn, annoying and relentless, and she chopped them off at the root, one by one.

You don’t have the time or the energy for this pity party. Suck it up, buttercup.

“Take the next right. Your destination is on your left.” The female robotic voice cut in, distracting Holly from her worries. 

She turned off onto the last turn and eased the minivan up the long gravel driveway that curved between banks of pine trees. At the end of the driveway, a gray, fully tricked-out pickup sat parked in front of a log cabin. Holly pulled into the makeshift parking spot beside it and shifted the van into park. 

Forcing a smile on her face and pushing down her anxiety, she turned back to face the boys in the back seat. “Okay, guys, we’re here.” 

“That was the longest drive ever!” Dillon exclaimed and yanked open the door, eagerly putting his feet on solid ground with Murph jumping down behind him.

Inside, Holly’s stomach churned. She was not someone who did things on a whim. She thoroughly researched every move she made carefully—from which brand of dishwasher was the quietest to finding the highest-rated school for the boys. This move felt a little out of control and reckless, and for a second, she was terrified. Frozen in her seat, she let the chill pass through her, and then she plastered another smile on her face and stepped out of the van and onto the red Montana soil. Chance finally woke, stretched with an open-mouthed yawn, and then followed her.  Standing again at his full height, Holly wrapped her arm around him and pulled his shoulders toward hers for a side hug.

“Dang! Did you grow two inches on the way down here?” It always took her breath away that she saw her boys every single day, but at certain moments, when the light hit them just right, a significant change was suddenly blatantly obvious. Most days, transformations went unnoticed, but then Father Time would smack her upside the head and whisper, “You’re running out of time. He’s turning into a man right in front of you.”

Holly smiled and waved a little greeting at the woman standing next to the pickup truck as they walked closer. 

“You must be Holly,” a thick woman stated, dressed simply in what could only be considered semi-formal western wear complete with polished cowboy boots, denim skirt, and bolo tie. She smiled and held up a basket with a purple bow on it. Ever the optimist and desperate for clues from the universe to prove she’d made the right choice, Holly took the bow in her favorite color as a sign. The older woman’s face was sun-bleached beautiful in its unassuming, plain way. She wasn’t the kind of woman who spent a single second twisting self-consciously in front of a hallway mirror. She projected confidence and strength, and her solid handshake reinforced the entire package. It didn’t hurt that she looked like she was strong enough to bench press both the kids.

“I am,” Holly confirmed, offering her a hand.

“I’m Jill. Welcome to your new home!” She held up the keys between her thumb and forefinger and jingled them together, then handed the basket to Holly. Tucked inside were thick packets of beef jerky and candy, paper towels and cleaning supplies, and a bottle of local wine. Practical and useful, the kind of gift Holly appreciated most. 

“This is so kind of you! Thank you very much.”

“The Celtic sea salt caramels are to die for.” She patted her thick denim-covered haunches. “I must confess, I have an addiction, but the first step is admitting you have a problem, am I right?” she asked with an oblivious smile and a carefree wink. Holly glanced over at Chance and saw his shoulders stiffen.  

Addiction. The word stopped her cold, and her smile faded slightly, casting a darkened pall as the sun hid behind a cloud. She used to joke about it, too, but now the word held so much power. She could barely bring herself to say it anymore. Brushing the feeling away, Holly turned the corners of her mouth up into an obligatory smile as Jill dropped the keys in her outstretched palm. “These are my sons, Chance and Dillon.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Are you going to be helping your mom out around the acreage?” Jill asked. 

Around the acreage. It was the first time Holly had heard those words uttered out loud, and it was terrifying to think she was personally responsible for everything she could see. Every one of the twenty-two acres was hers to maintain. 

As a coping mechanism, her worried brain called up an old movie reference from The Lion King. “As far as the eye can see, Simba.” Acres of land stretched and unfurled for several miles. Outbuildings, a barn, and her home, plus two additional cabins on the property, were now entirely her responsibility. When Holly first moved to her home in New Hope, she thought the townhouse would be a lot for her to handle, but this was a whole new level. 

What was I thinking?

She was relieved to hear Chance answer, “Yes. We’re the grunt labor.”

“Well, I won’t keep you,” Jill said. “I bet you’re exhausted. I know you’re at the end of a long journey, so I’ll let you get right to it. Is it okay if I check up on you in a few days?”

The gesture took Holly by surprise. Their real estate transaction was complete, and Jill had fully earned her three percent commission. Holly was so dumbfounded the woman would willingly choose to spend more of her own time on them that she accidentally uttered, “Really?”

“It’s just the way we do things around here,” Jill answered without skipping a beat. “We like to take care of each other.” 

“Well, I have to admit it is going to take some getting used to, but I think that sounds really kind and I would appreciate it.” Holly mused that at least one other person in the world would know where they were and had verbally committed to checking up on them. That small act of kindness put Holly’s jumpy heart a little more at ease. 

Jill turned and hoisted herself up into the pickup truck with the grab bar. It was so high from the ground it looked more like a tank, then disappeared in a cloud of dust as the truck rambled down the long gravel drive. 

“Well, what do you think, guys? Should we go inside?” 

“Yes!” Dillon exclaimed and ran up the wooden stairs of the front porch. The main house was a classic A-frame log cabin, with timbers that were notched together like the Lincoln logs Holly spent hours building with her father when she was a kid. The front porch wrapped around the entire small house, doubling its square footage and taking advantage of the sweeping panoramic views of the prairie grasses and mountains far in the distance. She envisioned rocking chairs and a little table and enjoying her morning coffee outside. Murph would love hanging out there, basking in the sun or tucked under the table by her feet. 

“Wow!” Dillon exclaimed once they were inside. “This is a real log cabin. I’ve never been in one of those before.” His mouth gaped open wide as he stared up at the cathedral ceiling revealing a spacious loft tucked in the second story. Thick branches spiraled up a huge tree trunk, creating the stairway up to the second level. “This is so cool!” Dillon shouted as he raced up the stairs, and Holly fed off his excitement and followed him up the staircase. 

If only I could bottle that energy. 

“So, I was thinking we could put the TV here. You guys can play games and hang out with friends in this space, and then I’ll get a bunk bed for your bedroom.”

Dillon’s excitement faded and his forehead tensed. 

“What is it, buddy?” Holly asked.

“Do you think people will like me at my new school?”

“Doubtful.” Chance’s deepening voice carried from the kitchen below.  

“Be nice to your brother,” Holly reprimanded and waved Dillon close with her fingers. “Come here.” She felt his arms wrap around her middle and bent to kiss the top of his head. 

“It is scary to start all over again, isn’t it?”

His dark blond head nodded up and down.

“You know how to be a good friend, right? All you have to do is talk to people. See if you have common hobbies. Take an interest in them and ask questions to see if you match up on anything. I bet if you ask, there might be one or two boys in your class who like to play video games and fart.” Holly threw the joke in to break through the tension, and it worked. Dillon rewarded her with a mischievous giggle, pulling back in time to shove his hand down his shirt and proudly produce a significant armpit fart.

“See? If nothing else, you can teach them your armpit technique.” She ruffled his thick hair with her hand, and it stood on end. “You’re gonna find your people, honey. I promise. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Dillon Simon?” She smiled and then redirected, hoping his excitement would return. “Let’s go check out your bedroom.”

There were two decent-sized bedrooms on the main floor, an adorable birch kitchen, and a single bathroom. Large windows were cut into the logs, letting enough light in to make it cozy. Thick, knotty beams made up the ceiling and were stained a rich caramel color. Not a single wall was a flat surface. 

How am I going to hang pictures in here? Holly wondered as they descended from the loft. 

“I call top bunk!” Chance announced when they entered their bedroom.

“Oh, man!” Dillon lamented, his age always making him slower on the draw.

“Don’t worry about it. To make it fair, we’ll rotate top bunk every month.”

The concession made Dillon smile knowing he would have a chance at the top bunk, and Holly was surprised that for once Chance didn’t even argue about it. The boys walked into the kitchen and opened up the cabinets one at a time. After looking inside seeing they were empty, they shut them and turned the water on.

“Let’s get Murph’s water and food station set up. Dillon, can you go out and get his dishes?”

“Sure, Mom.” He returned with the dishes a few minutes later and filled the water bowl before setting it on the floor for Murph, who lapped it up eagerly.

The boys ran outside to the back deck, and she followed them, lingering at the rail. It overlooked another incredible million-dollar mountain view. Billowing white clouds danced across a perfect blue sky. Holly couldn’t believe her luck; it was like a little piece of paradise had been gifted to her. The price she had paid made it all worth it. She closed her eyes and breathed in the pristine air. 

Two apple trees studded with baby apples the size of the tip of her thumb and a small overgrown vegetable garden were cut into the backyard. 

“Looks like you boys are going to have to learn to garden. We get to grow some of our own food! I’ve always wanted to try that,” Holly enthused. “We’re going to get a glimpse into what it was like living in the 1800s!” She lapsed into her comfort zone—teacher mode. “It was called homesteading. You either grew your food or you went hungry. It won’t be that dire of a situation for us, but it will be fun to learn how to be more self-sustainable, don’t you think?”

The boys were silent. It was a lot of new information to absorb and a massive change from their lives in New Hope. The weight of it seemed to finally settle on their shoulders, so Holly quickly shifted the subject. “Isn’t it beautiful here? Listen to that!”

The boys strained to hear what she was talking about. Puzzled looks washed over their faces and crinkled their foreheads in confusion.

“I can’t hear anything,” Chance answered.

“Me neither,” Dillon chimed in.

“Exactly! It’s so beautifully quiet here, isn’t it? The serene calm is going to be amazing. We will finally be able to catch our breath.” Chance shot her a look. Quietude definitely wasn’t as big of a priority for her sons as it was for her. Holly glanced down at her watch. “The movers will be here in two hours, so why don’t we drive into town, have some lunch, and grab some groceries. Then we can come back and start unpacking.”

She and the boys jumped back into the van, and Holly set the GPS to drive into Garden Brook. The town was small and quaint, and in the center of it was a square surrounded by tiny mom and pop shops—a handcrafted chocolate candy company, a soup and sandwich bar, and an insurance agent. There wasn’t a single chain store in the mix. Trailing petunias in full showy displays of fuchsia and yellows cascaded down baskets on every lamp post. Small groups of people congregated, chatting on the sidewalks, and waved as Holly drove by. At the main traffic light, cars stopped in all directions to allow a mule deer and its fawn to cross the street. 

“We are definitely not in Indiana anymore,” Holly said out loud as she watched the skittish deer dart past and escort her baby to safety, feeling a kind of kinship with the animal. 

“That’s obvious,” Chance deadpanned. “Is this place for real? It feels like we’re living inside one of those sappy Hallmark movies you make us watch at Christmastime.”

“I’ve never seen so many smiling people in one place,” Dillon observed.

“Yeah,” Chance agreed. “It’s kind of creepy.” 

“Well, I guess that’s something else we’re gonna have to get used to. It’s not the worst thing in the world, is it?” She pulled in front of the general store and parked the car.

“Mom, what’s a general store?” Dillon asked. 

“Well, it’s the kind of store that has a little of everything. It has food, probably camping and hiking supplies this close to a National Park. Maybe some Yellowstone souvenirs. Remember when we read Little House on the Prairie and Pa would ride to town to trade his goods at the general store? It’s kind of like that.”

“Great, so we’re going back in time,” Chance groaned, the teenage snark reflecting the annoyance he clearly felt. 

“No, not back in time, smarty pants.” Holly explained, “But things will definitely be slower here. It will be an adjustment, but it will be awesome.”  

“You keep saying it’s going to be awesome here.” Chance leaned forward. “Are you trying to convince us or yourself?”

Holly pinched her lips together; he had a point.

“It’s just that I think we could all use a little break from the craziness. I know I could.” Chance’s brown eyes met hers then shame darkened them as he broke her gaze and glanced away. “It will be good for all of us,” Holly corrected and tried to reassure him. 

“What’s there to do here,” Chance asked, “besides watching paint dry?”

“There’s so much to do here!” Holly gushed desperately wanting her boys to find solace and fun in their new home. “After we get settled and the movers are finished, we will plan a day trip into Yellowstone, then you’ll see what makes this place so special. But for now, let’s go grab some groceries and get some supplies before the movers arrive.”

The bell attached to the door jingled as Holly walked into the store. Immediately distracted by the colorful rainbow of rock candy and pastel taffies wrapped in wax paper, Dillon stopped the first few feet inside the store. Rough-hewn wood floors that were scuffed and worn from a century of punishment creaked under Holly’s feet. Wooden barrels filled with t-shirts and knickknacks lined the ends of the aisles that were packed with food items arranged in neat rows and minor camping and hiking supplies. A sign advertised park-approved firewood was available outside and permits at the register. Next to the wall of candy was a long vinyl bar with seats that swiveled in circles and an old-fashioned soda machine. Seated on a stool tucked in the corner was an old man nursing a cup of coffee and the last dregs of a sundae in the bottom of a fancy sundae glass. The stretched-out spoon lollygagged to the side then clanged against the glass when he scraped the edges in search of the very last melted drop of ice cream. 

“Look!” She got Dillon’s attention. “I think this is an old-fashioned soda fountain like they had in the 50s! The kind where you could go get an egg cream with two straws for your date.”

“What’s egg cream?” Dillon asked. 

“It’s like custard. Tastes like eggy ice cream.” 

“That sounds disgusting.” His gaze lingered on the candy counter. “Can we get some taffy, Mom?”

“I don’t see why not.” Holly wanted to indulge the kids a bit. She pulled the shopping basket from the pile near the door and began to fill it with the essentials. Cereal, milk, pasta, and sauce. A bag of apples and three pears. A brick of cheese and a bottle of rosé.

The rosé made her heart pang for Stacey.

“Come here, darlin’.” A white-haired old lady wearing an apron and a bun smiled and beckoned her closer. “Pardon my intrusion, but you look a little teary-eyed. Is everything okay?” 

Holly laughed at herself. “Just a little homesick for my best friend.”

“You must be new in town.” A network of lines and wrinkles formed around her bright eyes that rippled and tugged when she smiled to reveal white teeth inlaid with silver and gold fillings. 

“We are. I’m Holly and these are my boys, Chance and Dillon. We relocated from Indiana.”

“Goodness! That’s a long way away. I’ve never been to Indiana. I’m Ruth, by the way.” She turned and pulled out three sticks of rock candy in bright pink, blue, and purple and held them out. “This is to make your first day in Montana a little sweeter.”

“You don’t have to do that. I can pay for them,” Holly offered and quickly opened her wallet to search for cash.  

“Nonsense,” the older woman said abruptly. 

“That is so nice of you. Thank you so much.” The phone vibrated in her purse. “Sorry, I have to take this. I think it’s my movers.”

Holly turned to take the call. “This is Holly Simon.”

“Ms. Simon, this is Pat from Four Brothers Moving Company.”

“Awesome! When can I expect you?”

“I’m sorry to tell you that the truck broke down and the earliest we can deliver is tomorrow by noon.”

“Tomorrow?” Holly repeated, her voice cracking under the weight of the delay. “But all our furniture is… our beds… What are we going to sleep on?” Pure exhaustion from the drive made it difficult to get a full sentence out. 

“I’m so sorry to inconvenience you like this, but we are stuck until the axel can get fixed, and the earliest the repair shop can get the parts is tomorrow morning.”

“Okay. Thank you for the call.” Holly accepted the news with a heavy sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose and closing her eyes to get her bearings. The idea of sleeping on the hard wooden floors of the house with the paper-thin blankets still in the van from the ride down made her cringe. 

I should have been better prepared.

“Well, now I can see things are definitely not okay.”

Holly jumped. “Oh, it’s just my mover, they broke down and our truck full of furniture is stuck on the side of the road.”

“Oh no!” Ruth commiserated.

“What?” Dillon said, instantly teary and worried. “Did they lose all my stuff?”

“It’s just a delay, buddy,” Holly said, ruffling his hair. “They are coming tomorrow.”

“What are you going to sleep on in the meantime?” Ruth asked.

“The floor, I guess,” Holly answered. “It’s just one night.”

“Absolutely not, I won’t hear of it!” Ruth declared. “I’ll have my son, Deacon, run some sleeping bags by tonight. And don’t even try to talk me out of it. I’ve been told I’m a stubborn woman.” She laughed out loud at her own joke. “Right, Al?” she asked the man at the counter.

“They don’t make ‘em any stubborner,” he agreed with a smile and a twinkle in his impossibly blue eyes.

“Wow. Again, so kind of you, Ruth. I feel like I’m already starting this friendship in the hole.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Come winter time, I’ll find plenty of ways for you to pay me back.” Her words were punctuated with a wink.

Holly wrote down her address and handed it to Ruth, who pulled her into a squishy, comforting hug that thankfully dropped her rising blood pressure into the normal digits again. 


A few hours later, after dinner, Holly was kneeling on the bathroom floor, in her yoga pants that never saw the inside of a yoga studio, wearing thick yellow gloves next to a bucket of hot soapy water. She wrung out the sponge and wiped down the floor, blowing a stray curl out of her eyes. It was physical work that was making her sweat. 

Through the open window, she heard the sound of spitting gravel and stood to see a cloud of dust swirling up the driveway as Murph started to howl. She dropped the sponge back into the bucket and swiped her forehead with her forearm. Acknowledging in the reflection of the dusty mirror, she was grubby and frazzled, not exactly ready to make a first impression on anyone. But her desire to sleep on something softer than the hardwood floor won out, and she pulled off the vinyl gloves with a snap and laid them next to the dirty sink. 

“Mom? Mom,” Dillon called from the kitchen. “There’s someone at the door.” 

“At least we’ll always know when someone is coming or going, thanks to our fluffy guard dog,” Holly remarked as she headed toward the door.

She wiped her hands on her pants and opened the screen door. On the porch stood a mountain of a man. Strawberry blond hair tinged with white peeked out from under a well-worn cowboy hat. His cheeks were ruddy and dotted with patches of freckles and stubble that told the story of a man who spent most of his life outdoors. With strong shoulders and thick legs, he was in good shape, but not the artificial cross-fit type that had been the norm in Indiana. This was a guy who was born and raised on meat and potatoes. She could tell he probably wasn’t rocking a six-pack under his flannel shirt and jeans, but every inch of him was solid and he oozed capability and strength. 

“Yes?” Holly asked, tipping her chin up to make eye contact with his toffee-colored eyes. 

“Mama sent me. I’m Deak.” The word Mama made Holly’s heart twinge. She had never heard a grown man use it in reference to his mother, and the man standing in front of her was as grown as they come. 

He thrust out an enormous hand, his thick forearm covered in fine golden hairs. Her hand disappeared into his firmer one. 

“I’m Holly.”

“Well, Holly, I’ve got some sleeping bags for you.” His words were drawn out and deliberate, slow like honey. 

“Oh! Yes! Thank you so much!” Holly smiled, still standing in the doorway holding the screen door open awkwardly. “Your mom is a life saver.”

“She is,” he admitted with a grin. “But it’s amazing how she’s always able to wiggle out of the actual work her good deeds create. I think half the reason she named me Deacon in the first place is because the name means servant.” He laughed a loud booming laugh that echoed into the empty house and instantly reminded her of Ruth. 

“Can I help you unload?” Holly offered. 

“No, ma’am. If that ever got back to Mama, I’d never hear the end of it.” Walking back to his pickup, he gathered all the bags in one hand and a pile of pillows in the other then walked them back to the porch. Dillon appeared next to her, nudging under her arm for protection.

“Whoa!” he said with wide eyes, taking in the pure size and weight of Deacon.

“Dude, that’s rude,” Holly reprimanded then turned to Deacon while hiking a thumb toward Dillon. “Sorry. Apparently, being exhausted also makes this one forget his manners.”

“No worries, ma’am. I’ve been getting that kind of reaction from people since I was twelve.”

“Ma’am?” Holly asked, amused. “You don’t have to call me that.”

His eyes twinkled, and his full lips twisted up in a smirk. “Yes, ma’am, I do.” 

“Let me guess, Ruth?”

“You’re catching on fast. She rules the roost here in Garden Brook and we let her.” He smiled and then added, “If you’ll hold open the door for me, I’ll bring ‘em in.”

Holly held the door open, feeling a tingle when he brushed across her as he navigated the sleeping bags and his huge frame through the small door. Murph wandered over, tail wagging feverishly, and then splayed on his back to offer his belly to the big man who bent down to rub his undercarriage.

“You’re a good boy, aren’t ya?” Deacon asked as Murph became putty in his hands.

“Hey, traitor,” Holly chastised the dog. “Somehow, I don’t think you’re going to make much of a guard dog here in the Wild West.”

“My dogs would eat this one for breakfast,” Deak said with a smile. “Although when it comes to swallowing, that hair might give them a run for their money.”

“His coat is not practical in the country, but we couldn’t leave him behind. He’s part of the family.”

“I hear you. Dogs are better than people any day. All they know is love.” He stood up to his full height Holly guessed was close to 6’5”. “I’ve got to be going.” 

“Thank you and please thank Ruth for me.”

“Of course.” He ambled away in his worn work boots, and Holly marveled again at his sheer size and the length of his limbs. Then she turned back to the task at hand, getting sleeping bags set up for the night for her and the kids.

Order Your Copy Now. Available at all major booksellers Jan 1, 2022.