• "Like slipping into a warm bath, Herkness eases readers into her story. She’s spot-on when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings, and the vibrant setting of the West Virginia mountains is perfect for characters who will haunt readers long after the last page is turned. Animal lovers will be especially delighted."
• "Nancy Herkness pens a beautiful fairy-tale love story with charismatic characters woven into a gorgeous setting. I really enjoyed reading Claire and Tim’s story. But I also enjoyed the secondary characters. There are so many real life situations in this charming tale that I could easily relate to most of them. I laughed at the antics and witty remarks. I got teary-eyed at some of the situations and when true love conquered all."
• "This story is real and can penetrate a soul because so many difficulties are shared in depth of the many facets of relationships. The [secondary] characters' lives have the potential for some great stories of their own should the author ever want to continue these characters in future stories."
• "Lively, and emotionally refreshing."
• "There is a timeless, comforting nobility about both mountains and horses. … I look forward to more touching reads in the "Whisper Horse" series from author Nancy Herkness."
• "A nice balance of drama and romance."
• "I just had to read the next chapter and the next to find out what was going to happen to Claire Parker who has come back to her hometown."
• "Herkness livens it up with casual humor and an occasional belly laugh. Oh, yes - throw in a real hunk of unmarried widower and a couple of home town matchmaking friends."
• "TAKE ME HOME by Nancy Herkness was in one word, wonderful!"
Breathing in the scent of fresh hay and saddle soap, Claire felt the knots of tension loosen their grip on her shoulders. She stood just outside the stable door, her face tilted up to let the early summer sunshine stroke her cheeks and forehead, its warmth suffusing the cotton of her tee shirt and the denim of her jeans.
The stable had become her refuge in the past few weeks. The well-kept brick buildings, the bluish green mountains rising behind them, and the constant motion of powerful, glossy horses pushed her problems away for an hour or so.
“Another candidate for my whisper horse?” Claire called, smiling. Her friendship with the horsewoman was another reason Claire came here. Sharon had become the rock she clung to in her sea of failures.
Thick pine bark muffled the fall of her boots, but the barn was far from silent as the clank of halters against water buckets and the affectionate banter of stable hands with their charges drifted around her. She took another deep, grateful breath before she joined her friend.
Claire fell into step beside her, almost jogging to keep up with her six-foot-tall companion’s athletic stride. “Is the horse one of your rescues?”
“Yup. Just came in this morning. She’s a Thoroughbred, a former racehorse. Ought to be a sympathetic listener for your troubles.”
“If you say so.” Claire wasn’t clear on why a former racehorse would understand her problems with her ex-husband or her younger sister, but she humored Sharon.
“You said the horse was in bad shape, so I made time for her.” The voice emanating from within the stall was deep, with a touch of the local West Virginia mountain drawl.
The stall door swung open, and a man the size of a small mountain stepped out. Backlit by a slanting shaft of afternoon sun, the ends of his straight hair glowed deep red while the edges of his plaid shirt blazed blue and gold. In one large fist, he hefted an oversized tan duffle bag with “Sanctuary Veterinary Hospital” embroidered on it in dark green letters.
Claire had heard about the new veterinarian in Sanctuary, but she hadn’t encountered him in the few weeks she’d been back in her hometown. No one had mentioned he wouldn’t look out of place on a football team’s defensive line. Yet something about the calm, deliberate way he moved inspired a sense of security rather than a threat of physical dominance. She could picture him holding up the world if Atlas got tired.
“Dr. Tim, this is my friend Claire Parker,” Sharon said. “She works at Davis Honaker’s art gallery in town. She just relocated here from up north of the Mason-Dixon line last month. Worked in a fancy gallery before, so Davis feels real lucky to have her.”
“Nice to meet you,” Claire said, blushing slightly at Sharon’s praise, as she stepped forward with her hand extended. The vet’s duffle hit the ground with a thud and a puff of pine bark dust. For an awkward moment, Claire stood with her hand out, while Dr. Tim seemed frozen.
“Sorry, ma’am, it’s a pleasure,” he said, finally moving to wrap his strong, calloused fingers around hers. “For a minute there, I thought I’d met you before.”
* * *
As Claire Parker stepped out of Sharon’s shadow, Tim saw Anais. He knew his mind was playing tricks on him, but something about the dramatic lighting and the way the woman moved evoked the image of his wife as she had looked onstage, maybe because that was how he kept dreaming about her.
He looked desperately for the differences there must be between this woman and his dead wife. Yes, Claire had shining dark hair smoothed back into a sleek bun, the way his wife had often worn hers, and they shared a certain husky timbre to their voices. But Anais’s eyes were blue while Claire’s were velvet brown, and under her tee shirt and jeans, Claire had more curves than the slender actress would ever allow herself.
Yet he, the rational scientist, was blindsided by the resemblance. He thought leaving New York would save him from the constant reminders, yet even here in the wilds of West Virginia he got yanked back into the nightmare.
Claire looked up at him with a question in her eyes, and he realized he was still holding her hand. He gave her an apologetic smile as he released his grip.
Her gaze became intent, as though she was trying to read something in his face. With a sense of disquiet, he wondered what his expression revealed. Most people had given up on offering sympathy that thinly disguised their curiosity about his wife’s death, but Claire Parker was new here. She might not know he preferred to avoid the subject.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, giving Claire a polite nod before he turned away to face to Sharon. He pulled a prescription pad and pen from his pocket and began to write, covering three sheets before he tore them off and held them out. As he refocused on the condition of the mare he’d just examined, clean, strong anger boiled up again. “Whoever owned this horse should be prosecuted for criminal negligence.”
“You won’t hear any argument from me.” Sharon took the papers with a sigh. “Add this visit to my monthly bill.”
“This one’s on me,” Tim said. “I can’t charge you in good conscience when you’ll never get any useful work out of this horse. She’ll just eat your feed and take up a stall.”
“She’ll help Claire. That makes her worth the room and board.”
He caught Claire’s little gesture of embarrassment from the corner of his eye, and turned back to her. “Is Sharon trying to match you up with a whisper horse?”
“Oh, so you know about Sharon’s theory,” she said, looking relieved. Then her eyes lit with a gleam of mischief. “Do you have a whisper horse yourself?”
“Not yet,” Sharon interjected.
He shook his head. “I figure the animals I treat have enough problems of their own without adding mine.” Even his worst enemy didn’t deserve to listen to what he’d have to say.
“At least there’s no danger they’ll post your true confessions on Facebook,” Claire said.
“That’s an advantage I hadn’t considered,” he admitted, his attention caught by the undercurrent of laughter in her tone.
“You two aren’t taking this seriously,” Sharon said. “Everyone needs someone to tell their troubles to, and horses have broad backs to help carry your burdens.”
“I know, just whisper your worries into your horse’s ear and they’ll magically disappear,” Claire said, throwing a smiling glance in Sharon’s direction. “Is there a horse who knows all your secrets, Sharon?”
“I have a whole stable full of whisper horses,” Sharon said with a grin as she unlatched the stall door. “Let’s see what you think of Willow.”
“Now?” A shadow of discomfort crossed Claire’s face as her gaze cut toward him and back. “Isn’t it supposed to be a private thing, just me and the horse?”
So the self-assured Claire Parker didn’t want to meet her potential whisper horse in front of a stranger. Maybe she wasn’t quite the skeptic she pretended to be.
He didn’t want to get tangled up with that kind of neediness again. “I’ll look in on your pregnant mare, and then come back to discuss Willow’s diagnosis.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sharon said.
Claire’s brown eyes were warm with appreciation, and he was startled by the little flicker of heat they kindled in his gut.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m not sure what happens when one finds the right horse. It might not be pretty.”
“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” he quoted.
With a chuckle, she bared her teeth and clicked them together a couple of times before slipping into the stall.
He was left to think about how the shape and color of her lips remained crystal clear in his memory.
* * *
Claire relinquished the veterinarian’s company with a strange reluctance. His smile came slowly, but held the same warmth as the afternoon sunshine. She found his solidity comforting; it would take a disaster of epic proportions to throw Dr. Tim off-balance. However, his calm rationality seemed incompatible with whatever mystical connection she was supposed to make with Sharon’s abused racehorse, so she was grateful for his tact in withdrawing.
As she stepped into the dimly lit stall, she laid her hand on the horse’s flank to let the mare know she had company. Willow’s brown coat was rough and prickly, her tail a mere stub. As she slipped her hand forward, Claire felt the sharp jut of the horse’s hipbone. “She’s awfully thin.”
“Her owner neglected her after she pulled up lame in a race. Once we get her healthy, she’ll be a beauty.”
“I’ll have to take your word about the beauty. Right now she looks terrible, poor thing.” As Claire gently stroked the horse’s brittle coat, pity and rage twisted together in her chest. “How could someone treat a living creature this way?”
“Yeah, I’d like to lock the bastard in a stall without any food and see how he liked that kind of treatment for himself.”
Claire ran her fingers along Willow’s neck. The mare stood with her head hanging down as though it was too heavy to lift. Claire knew that feeling; she’d felt that way after her divorce. “I think maybe Willow needs a whisper human. She doesn’t look capable of taking on any more worries than her own.”
It’s not that Claire wasn’t willing to discuss her problems, even with a horse, but she had never had much luck with counseling. Her high school guidance counselor had advised her to go to secretarial school when Claire asked for college scholarship forms. Her marriage counselor had been helpless in the face of the relationship’s death throes. The divorce mediator had been unable to prevent her ex-husband from walking off with most of her small but precious art collection.
Now Sharon thought she should use a horse as a therapist. Well, at least Willow wouldn’t charge for her time.
“Why don’t you give her a treat?” Sharon suggested.
Claire had forgotten the baby carrots she’d shoved in her jeans pocket as she walked out of her rented house for her precious afternoon ride. Her life in New York City hadn’t allowed for horseback riding, and now it was the one indulgence she allowed herself between work and helping out her sister.
Claire dug out one of the carrots and held it on her flattened palm. “Go ahead, sweet girl, just enjoy it.”
Willow blew a moist breath against Claire’s skin, but didn’t take the treat.
“Do you think her teeth are bothering her, so she doesn’t want to chew on something so crisp?” Claire asked.
“I’ll ask Dr. Tim when he comes back.”
“Does he have a last name?”
“It’s Arbuckle, but no one calls him that. He took over Dr. Messer’s practice about six months ago. I’m surprised you haven’t heard all the talk around town about him.”
“I guess I’m not part of the grapevine yet.”
In fact, Claire hadn’t gotten involved in Sanctuary’s activities at all. When she found out her younger sister Holly had acute Lyme disease, Claire had come back to her old hometown to take care of her, hoping to mend their strained relationship at the same time. Despite all the time and energy she focused on both tasks, she wasn’t much nearer her goal than when she arrived three weeks ago.
Claire wanted to know more about the veterinarian, but Sharon was focused on her relationship with the horse.
“Willow looks less tense now. You’re doing her good. Now you have to let her take care of you in return.”
As Claire scratched gently around the base of Willow’s ears, the horse gave a deep sigh and leaned her head against Claire’s stomach, making her stagger slightly. She felt a prickle of tears behind her eyes at this small sign of trust. If only she could get Holly to feel the same faith in her.
“Now look at Willow’s eyes,” Sharon said. “That’s what will tell you.”
Since the horse’s head was still drooping, Claire dropped to one knee in the deep, fragrant straw. With what looked like a huge effort, Willow lifted her head slightly and Claire saw her eyes: dark, liquid, with a plea in them.
Claire wanted nothing more than to pour words of comfort into the mare’s heart and soul, to tell her she didn’t need to have that look in her eyes ever again. Claire leaned her forehead against Willow’s, and squeezed her eyes shut against the tears threatening to roll down her cheeks.
She knew then what Sharon was talking about. This was her special horse, whether she needed Willow or Willow needed her.