WE FOUND LOVE
10 YEARS LATER
“Come on, girl.” Ford opened the door and ushered Kismet inside. They had a walk around the lawn every morning together. Old now, she had a grey face and stiff legs. He knew she wouldn’t be around much longer, but didn’t want to contemplate life without the dog that had been an important part of their family for years.
She’d helped him and Autumn raise three kids. He bent to rub her soft head, and when he was done, she wandered away to find her bed and curl up to sleep away most of the day.
The thud of feet had him looking at the door. His youngest appeared clutching a purple jacket. She had a head of red curls like her Aunt Maggie, and an attitude to match.
“I don’t want to wear my jacket, Daddy!”
“It’s cold out, baby. Come here, and I’ll help you put it on.”
“I can dress myself.”
“I know you can. I’m just helping with the zipper.”
She dragged her feet to where he stood. Ford took the jacket and held it out. Ivy then stuffed her arms into the sleeves.
“Stand still. Dressing you is like a wrestling match with your Uncle Nash, but you smell better.” He dropped to his knees and looked at the four-year-old that was going on fifteen and had been a hell of a surprise when they realized Autumn was pregnant.
“It’s not cold.”
“It’s cold outside, Ivy. Listen to Daddy, he knows this stuff.”
Her lip jutted out, which he ignored.
“In here, Amy,” Ford called back to his eldest daughter.
It was a big day in the Winter household. Ritchie was coming home from a year’s work experience on a ranch in Texas. Ford had set it up with a friend when he’d said he wanted to see how other ranches operated. Now at seventeen, he was ready to come home and start work at SRR. Nash and Ford couldn’t wait to welcome him on board.
Autumn had been in a frenzy of excited planning all week. She’d stocked their freezer, cleaned Ritchie’s rooms twice, and got him some new clothes because apparently he’d grown at least two sizes since they’d last seen him.
“I just told you I was in here, honey,” he called.
“Can Mandy come and stay next Saturday?” Amy appeared in the doorway.
This daughter had his coloring and, like her little sister, attitude. At eleven, she’d gone from daddy’s little girl to a hell child in the space of a few months.
“I heard you. I’m just working through if there’s anything going on next Saturday. How about for today at least, you drop the attitude and be happy?”
After pulling on Ivy’s knit hat, Ford let his youngest go. She instantly started moving, which was pretty much what she did all day, until she crashed into bed to recharge her batteries each night.
“I know that. I’m happy.” Amy frowned.
She had sweet cornflower blue eyes and argued about everything from the clothing they’d brought her to the chores she had to do.
“I hate these jeans. And this sweater is lame.”
“Maybe you should go ask Uncle Nash for more work around the ranch and then you could buy your own clothes and save your parents some money.”
“Da-ad,” she said, giving the word two syllables.
“Amy,” he parroted in her exact tone.
“I’m just saying that Mandy’s mom lets her wear her shorts short.”
“And I’m just saying that we are your parents, not Mandy's, and you’re only eleven. When you’re old enough to buy those short shorts and move out of home at thirty, you can wear them.”
Ford lunged at her. She squealed like the little girl she’d once been. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged. He did this at random times when she wasn’t expecting it. Autumn told him it was important his girls knew their dad loved them and that he was in their corner supporting them. Showing them his love was a big part of that.
“Tell me how much you love me and I’ll think about letting you go.”
Her arms snuck around his waist and he felt her sigh. “I love you, dad.”
“Love you too, baby.”
“I want a hug!”
Amy reached out a hand and hauled her little sister into the circle. This, Ford thought, was one of those moments where everything felt right with the world. All the dramas an eleven- and four-year-old could give you slipped away when you were holding them like this.
“Hey. I want some of that.”
Autumn stood in the doorway wearing her blue coat and smiling. Her hair was cut shorter these days because she said it was easier to manage. He didn’t care if she was bald. She was still the most beautiful woman he knew. His love for her just kept growing. Yes, they debated, and sometimes argued, but that was what relationships were all about. They couldn’t run smooth all the time. Autumn was his best friend, lover and soul mate.
“Come here, pretty girl,” he said, holding out his arm this time. Amy made a gagging sound, but she hugged her mom when she stepped into the circle.
Ford held his girls close and then kissed his daughters on the head. Autumn he kissed softly on the lips, before releasing them all.
“We need to get going or the bus will have arrived.”
“I can’t believe he’s finally coming home,” Autumn said.
He kissed her again. “He is, and we need to get moving, so we’re the first people he sees when he gets off that bus.”
“Nana just texted to say she’ll see us at A.S.,” Amy said. “I think she’s excited.”
“More grandchildren to spoil,” Autumn said.
“So, can Mandy come over on Saturday?”
“Okay,” Autumn said before Ford could say we’ll think about it.
They headed outside, and he felt that little tug of pride he always got when he looked at what he and Autumn had created. They’d put in a large outbuilding, and paths. Trees had grown, but the view was still there, just as the swing seat they’d built together was. He and Autumn still took a glass of wine outside when the weather allowed, and sat to talk over their day. It was something they’d started early in their married life and kept it going.
“Do you think Ritchie like the double bed we got him?” Autumn asked.
“He’ll love it and the new sheets, curtains, bed covers, pillows—”
“Okay, I get it,” she punched his shoulder.
“Good. Now get in the car before our daughters start arguing.”
Autumn watched the scenery pass as Ford drove them into Ryker Falls. She loved this place because it was home. They’d put down roots in Ryker and on the ranch, and she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Ford’s large hand settled on top of hers.
Ritchie was coming home today.
“I’m sorry I’ve been acting a bit crazy, Ford. But I’m excited he’s coming home.”
“A bit crazy, but understandable. Our first baby is coming home. The house will be full again. It’ll be an adjustment, especially considering the hell that’s in the back seat.” He said that last part softly.
Autumn snorted. They’d made two beautiful girls who were both challenging in different ways. But they’d teach them to harness that wonderful spirit, even if it killed them.
“And you’d have them no other way.”
“An attitude change now and then would be nice.” He gave her his gentle smile.
Ford was an amazing father. He loved with all of his big heart. Stepping in to help her raise Ritchie had come naturally to him, just as being a husband had. He’d adjusted to being surrounded by girls and even read the book she’d given him on what happens to girls when their hormones hit hard, so he was prepared.
He slept now too. All night and usually she was in his arms if a child wasn’t between them.
She looked at him as he drove. The years had given him a few more lines and grey hairs, but he was still the big handsome rancher she’d married.
“Ritchie is coming home!” Ivy shrieked from the backseat.
“Yes he is,” Autumn said.
The girls loved their big brother, and he loved them. She wondered how Ritchie would find living back in their busy, noisy household after a year away.
“I love you.”
Ford always knew just the right time she needed to hear those words.
“I know you do, because you never let me forget it,” Autumn said softly.
His eyes studied hers briefly before returning to the road.
“Loving you is the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Autumn pressed a hand to her chest. “And you say you’re not romantic.”
“I can pull it out now and then.”
“I’ve said it before, but thank you again for loving Ritchie like he was yours.”
“He is mine.” The smile was slow. “Just as you are.”
After all these years, those simple words could make her melt.
“I know, and we love you so much.”
“Ew, you guys are so yucky when you talk like that,” Amy said from the back seat. “Mandy’s parents don’t talk like that.”
“Yeah, well, when the day comes that you walk inside with a guy, holding hands and making kissy faces at each other, we’ll see how you feel about love,” Ford said. “Not that I’m letting you do that for twenty years.”
“Harris asked me to go to the school dance with him.”
“Who?” Ford barked.
“Daad,” Amy said in that tone she’d perfected. “Don’t be embarrassing.”
“Who is this Harris kid?” Ford shot Autumn a look.
“You know she’ll date one day, right?”
His jaw hitched.
“No boy will get past her attitude,” Ford said, unclenching his facial muscles.
Her daughter’s eyes roll was a standard response to most things these days.
“Ivy, do not put that pen up your nose,” Ford said, looking in the mirror. “How did she get a pen, anyway? I thought after that last time, when her nostrils were stained blue for days, we hid them all?”
Amy wrestled it out of her sister’s hands and the shrieking started. They drove into Ryker Falls with Ivy screaming, Amy shouting and their parents wanting out of the car.
“Ritchie is behind us,” Ford said, which had Ivy stopping her tantrum.
“Ritchie!” she wailed.
“I’m not sure which one is the easiest. The sullen eleven-year-old with attitude or the four-year-old with tantrums,” Autumn said.
“They’re both wonderful,” Ford said with determination.
“You two,” Ford said when he’d found a park, “need to be on your best behavior.”
“I’m not sure about her,” Amy said, pointing to her sister, “but I’m always good.”
“I am,” Amy muttered, getting out of the car.
Autumn took Ivy’s hand and headed to where the bus was stopping.
“Is he coming or what?”
“Hi, Uncle Nash,” Amy said to the big man stepping out of Tea Total with a coffee in his hand. With him was his son, Mitch.
“Hey little girl.” Nash grabbed his niece and hugged her.
The middle Winter child had softened with age and family. Plus, there was his wife Luna, who he’d walk across fire for. Still a surly grump to those that didn’t know him, his hair was greyer than Fords, which caused plenty of discussion at the ranch.
“You get us one of those?” Ford said, nodding to the coffee.
“Aren’t we going to A.S.?” Nash frowned.
“You have one.”
“Early start,” Nash said.
“Same.” Ford took the coffee and a mouthful. He then handed it back. “Ritchie is on that bus.”
Autumn kissed her nephew and Nash’s cheek and then turned back to look at the bus. Her eyes on the doors waiting for them to open. A big arm wrapped around her and she leaned into her man. Amy stood just in front of them. Not close enough for touching, but close enough that Autumn knew she was feeling unsure.
The sob left her mouth when Autumn saw her son appear in the doorway. Tall now, his rangy frame was clothed in jeans and a black sweater. On his head was a cap.
“Where has our little boy gone?” Ford asked.
“Ritchie!” Ivy shrieked.
They all moved as one to reach him. Then there was hugging and laughter. Her boy was home.
“Hey, baby.” She kissed his cheek and then held him close. “I’m happy you’re home.”
“Okay, let the others get at him,” Ford said.
He took her place to wrap Ritchie in a bear hug. “How was your trip?”
“Long. It’s good to be home, dad. Real good.”
It had been Ritchie’s choice to call Ford dad. Neither of them had pushed it, but one day about a year after they were married he’d said ‘Dad, can I ride Peanut today?’ Ford hadn’t missed a beat and just answered the question, but later the big strong rancher had cried, as had Autumn.
“You hungry? We’re heading to A.S. I think Nana and Grandpa are there,” Ford said.
“Cool. I’d love a burger,” Ritchie said.
“Bud. Come hug your favorite uncle and future boss,” Nash said.
After the next round of hellos was done, they herded their offspring toward A.S.
The town was pretty much as it had always been. A few of the shops had changed hands, but most of the occupants were family of those that had started them. Autumn knew each one now by name.
She had friends here, good ones. People who were there if she needed them. Autumn was now living a life with Ford that she’d never dreamed possible many years ago.
“Stop dragging your feet, Autumn.” Ford’s hand settled on her back. “We need to feed the feral little beasts before they find something else to argue over.
She laughed. All her babies were home and would be under the same roof tonight. Hers and Ford's roof. She couldn’t wait.
Ritchie was tall now, and could look Ford in the eye. He may not have had a hand in the creating this child, but he loved him just as fiercely as the other two. He’d taught Ford a lot about being a parent. The kid had been raised by his mom, so the change was not all on Ford’s side, but they’d done it together.
“Carry me, Ritchie.”
“Ivy, you’re four, you can walk.”
“I got her, Dad.” Ritchie picked up his little sister, and she settled against his shoulder with a sweet smile that was fooling no one.
“So, Amy, how’s school?” Ritchie then asked.
While his kids walked ahead with their cousin, he walked with Nash and Autumn.
“You doing okay there?” He slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her in to his side.
“Yes.” She sniffed loudly.
“Seeing them all together is special, right?” Nash said.
She nodded. “It’s only been a year, but they’ve changed so much in that time.”
“I know. Come on, Autumn, let’s get you a drink,” Ford led her inside A.S.
“There he is!”
The shriek came from Ford’s mom. She’d taken to being a nana with ease, like they’d all known she would. Most days she saw one of the three lots of grandkids she now had, and usually at some stage they all congregated somewhere to catch up every other week.
“Hi, Nana,” Ritchie walked into her arms.
Ford’s dad was next.
They all came. Autumn’s family and his, over the next hour, to welcome home Ritchie. Friends too. Soon A.S. was full.
“How is it that boy has grown even more?”
“Yeah, he’s a man now, or well on the way to being one,” Ford said to Joe Trainer.
Friend, Ford thought. He and Autumn had them everywhere in this town.
After she’d entered his life, he’d let people in. He’d opened up about what happened in college and a therapist had helped him work through things. The nightmares had stopped, and he now slept.
“I made him a sweater,” Jack Trainer said, moving to Ford’s other side. “I made in forest green with SRR on the shoulder.”
“Nice,” Ford said. “Why?”
“Well, we were thinking,” Luke Trainer said from beside his oldest brother. “You know how your kid is a whizz with computers and ranch work?”
“The station needs someone to come in and update shit. We’re dinosaurs in there and the programs are changing and I’m not going to lie, Ford. The thought of doing it scares me spit-less.”
“Don’t you have children for that kind of thing?” Ford asked.
“Sure, but they don’t love us enough to help out.”
“I need some help here too,” Joe said. “It’s like every time I open my laptop, there’s a new update.”
Jack sighed. “I try to keep up with this kind of thing and usually do. But after that virus wiped out everything I could do with someone looking at the ranch system.”
“And I repeat, don’t you have children? At least one of your brood must know about IT stuff?” Ford said.
“You’d be fooled into thinking that,” Joe said. “But you know what kids are like. Getting them to actually do something for you is like wading through jello carrying them on your back—”
“While they tell you in detail how Sarah Lee’s father was really cool and would never make you—”
“Do something that was actually useful in contributing to the family,” Jack interrupted Luke. “All the while lamenting the hell, that was the life they were forced to live with the people that love them unconditionally.”
They all sighed.
“Maybe he could take a look before he starts at the ranch,” Ford said. “You have to ask him nicely, though.”
“We’re always nice,” Joe said.
“Hey, Amy.” She moved to stand before the middle Trainer, a small smile on her face.
Ford waited for his daughter to acknowledge her father and the two other Trainers.
“How’s things?” Jack asked her.
“Great, thanks. I’m coming for a lesson next week.”
“I know. Gracie is excited.”
“Cool. See you, Jack.”
The four of them watched her walk a few feet away to speak with Mitch.
“Did she not see us?” Luke asked.
“The cloak of invisibility,” Joe said.
“What?” Ford asked.
“Most households with kids over ten have them. It’s when your children don’t see you or anything they don’t want to see, like dirty laundry and dishes,” Joe added.
“So that’s what it’s called,” Luke said.
“Amy!” Ford watched his daughter turn to look at him. “You didn’t say hello to Luke and Joe.”
She raised a hand and turned back to her cousin.
“That’s the best you’re going to get, I’m afraid,” Ford said.
“Better than nothing, I guess,” Joe said.
“Why are you four standing in a line looking like you broke your favorite train set?” The deep voice of Autumn’s father said from behind them.
“Well, hell, it’s the Lyntacky boys,” Ford said, holding out his hand to the man and his nephews. Autumn spent a lot of time with her family, and they usually made their way to Lyntacky twice a month, or her father and cousins came to Ryker.
“I better go help Bailey. She’s giving me that look she gets,” Joe said.
“Bailey has a look?” Luke asked. “I thought she was too sweet to have one of those.”
“Believe me, there’s a look,” Joe said.
Ford talked with friends and family who had all come to welcome Ritchie home.
“What happened to you?” He bent at the waist when Ivy came up crying.
“A-Amy said I couldn’t have her fries.”
“Because you ate all yours and wanted hers?”
She nodded. Picking her up, Ford settled her in his arms. Hers wrapped around his neck.
“Well, you rest for a while, and we can get more fries soon.”
He walked and rocked her, and soon she was out. The noise didn’t bother her. When Ivy slept, she didn’t wake.
“She’s exhausted,” Autumn said, joining him on one of Joe’s sofas.
“How about you?” He kissed her.
“I’m happy, exhausted, and living my best life.” Her smile was sweet.
“He’s happy to be home.” Ford found Ritchie. He was sandwiched between the Trainers, who were no doubt asking his advice on their systems.
Autumn’s head settled on his other shoulder, and they stayed there, surrounded by their people, happy and content.
Living their best life.
READ THE COMPLETE RYKER FALLS SERIES