Henry led the way to the animal hospital. His voice filled with pride as he talked about the facility. "This place is our lifeline in the bush. State-of-the-art, yet blends with nature."
“How long has it been here,” Dorothy asked.
“I opened it about thirty years ago or so. I can never remember.” He glanced at Lynette. “I worked for another sanctuary for many years until I decided to start one on my own.”
Lynette dropped her gaze to the ground. She knew what sanctuary that was. It was the one where they met when she was in college.
He pointed toward a wall adorned with dozens of photos of animals he’d saved. “It’s been quite the adventure. If you want to follow me, I’ll show you the rest of the hospital.”
Everyone continued through the hospital, past the pens for baby animals and through the operating room, showing them the state-of-the-art equipment he’d acquired over the years. He pointed toward everything, telling different stories about certain animals he’d saved in an emergency.
“This elephant calf was brought in barely clinging to life,” he started. “I honestly didn’t know if he was going to make it. But he did. By the grace of God.”
“What was wrong with him?” Paul asked.
“He’d been shot in the head. He had a tiny hole behind his ear. How it missed his brain and spine, I will never know.”
Lynette glanced at her husband, remembering that afternoon the bull calf had come in and the chaos that had been their lives in the hours and days after. Henry had spent the rest of the night in and out of surgery, trying to save the baby, and Lynette had spent it pacing the floor. They hadn’t been married for more than a day, and it had been the first real emergency since she moved to South Africa to be with him.
She had always loved watching him work, even when she was younger and they first met, and every day since they had reconnected—thanks to Rachel, who had found Henry after digging through her mother’s personal belongings and had secretly conned her mother into taking a trip to the sanctuary.
It had been their last vacation together as mother and daughter, and it was one Lynette knew she would never forget.
“How many animals do you think you’ve saved here,” Dorothy asked, glancing between them. Her question jerked Lynette’s attention back to the fact they were on a tour of the place.
“I don’t think I could even count.”
“What happens to them after they have recovered?” Paul asked.
“We try to return them to the wild, or at least return them to a reserve where they won’t be in danger of meeting the same fate again.”
“So, you don’t keep them?”
“We try not to.” Henry chuckled. “Of course, that doesn’t mean sometimes we have to.” He winked at Lynette. “Especially when someone has a soft spot for animals.”
Lynette smiled, cocking her head to the side as she glanced up at the ceiling and shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a zoologist to the core.”
“How many animals do you have now?” Julia asked.
“About twenty. I think.” Henry clasped his hands together. “And speaking of animals, I think it’s time to show you my pride and joys, two animals that just mean everything to me.”
Once again, everyone followed Henry back outside and across the pens. Lynette brought up the rear, trying to enjoy watching Henry in his element. He had always loved giving tours, and this one was no different; his excitement was palpable. Lynette always enjoyed them, too, but for her, this one was different, and she couldn’t shake the gut feeling that although she knew everyone and had been happy to see them, she suddenly wasn’t sure she even wanted them there anymore. Truth be told, she wanted them all to leave—especially Chloe.
She looked up as they neared Stella’s pen, watching Joshua and his new girlfriend walking in front of her. They seemed absorbed in their own world, whispering and laughing as they pointed around the sanctuary. Every so often, Joshua glanced back at Lynette, but his eyes quickly shifted away, leaving a trail of unspoken words that weighed her gut as though it were full of rocks.
“Stella!” Henry called out. Upon noticing the people approaching her gate, the fat rhino began waddling toward them. Her body swayed from side to side, and her head bobbed. “This is Stella,” Henry said, pointing to her. “She was just a baby when she was found out in the bush alone. Lynette was there. She helped me save her, and she named her. She lives here along with . . .” Henry paused and pointed in the direction over everyone’s shoulders. They all turned, gasping as a giraffe walked toward them. Her long legs flowed across the land.
“What’s the giraffe’s name?” Julia asked.
“Kate,” Lynette said, trying to keep her voice as close to a whisper as she could. She didn’t know why it was so hard to say that name around them, but it was. She wanted to glance around at their faces, but she didn’t. Instead, she focused on the tall creature who walked up to her and lowered her head so Lynette could rub her ears.
“I bought her and her mother from an auction when I worked at the other sanctuary,” Henry said. “The one Lynette worked at back in college, where we met. She was Lynette’s Christmas present.”
“You saved her. You didn’t buy her,” Lynette corrected him. “She was being bid on by a man who wanted to hunt her, stuff her, and put her in his daughter’s bedroom. Henry bid on her so she wouldn’t go to him.”
“That’s disgusting,” Julia said. “Why would anyone want to do that?”
“That was my thought.” Lynette scratched the giraffe’s ears.
“I’m sure Kate was pleased you named a giraffe after her,” Dorothy said. “Did she ever get to see her?”
“Yes, she did when we came here for that vacation before she died.” Lynnette pressed her forehead against the animals, blinking as tears began to threaten. She didn’t want to cry. Not now.
The whole mood around the paddock changed, and after Dorothy cleared her throat, Julia clasped her hands together, giving Henry and Lynette a big smile. “You know I love seeing the animals, but . . . is there any chance we can see where the ceremony will be?” She tried to make her smile bigger as though to exaggerate her attempt to lighten the mood around them.
“Sure.” Henry pointed toward the gate. “We can head up there in the truck.”
A short truck ride later, the group trekked up the small hillside, overlooking the glory that the late afternoon sunset had painted just for them. The sky was in all shades of red, yellow, and orange, dipping what felt like the whole earth in a golden glow while the sanctuary sprawled below them. It was the only patch of green cradled by the vast expanse of the savannah stretching endlessly toward the horizon, and as Lynette heard the gasps around her, she inhaled a deep breath.
“This is perfect,” Julia said. The bride-to-be spun in a few circles and then bounced on her toes as she tugged her fiancé’s arm. “This is going to be the most perfect wedding. I can’t wait.”
“The pictures will definitely be some of the most amazing I’ve ever seen.”
Both sets of parents walked around the couple as Henry and Lynette backed away a few steps, letting them enjoy the grandeur. Henry wrapped his arm around her waist, glancing at her with a beaming smile.
“I think they are happy with it,” he whispered.
“How could anyone not be.”
“True. But still, you never know. I’m sure there are people in the world who would look at that view and not be impressed.”
“So, if this is the highest spot around the sanctuary, then what is that hill over there?”
Lynnette closed her eyes as everyone else looked over toward the direction that Julia pointed. She inhaled a deep breath.
“That? Uh . . . well, that is . . . another hill.” Henry released Lynette and walked toward the couple and the sets of parents. He clasped his hands together. “It’s . . . it’s just another hill.”
“And it’s bigger than this one.” Julia raised one eyebrow.
“Well, yeah, it is. But this one is nicer.”
“Surely, a bigger hill means a better view, which is why I want to get married here. The view.”
“I know. But this hill has . . . the best view, and I know that everything will be perfect.”
“Can we go over to that hill?”
“No, I’m sorry. But we can’t.”
Henry glanced at Lynette, who stared at Julia. A rising hint of annoyance began washing through her chest. Lynette knew what Henry was trying to do. He was trying to smooth over a demanding bride. Kate had always talked about how Julia was used to getting what she wanted. Joshua would mention how it bugged him when they were kids, but he’d also learned to live with it.
Now, this selfish, spoiled brat was after the one thing Lynette would never give her.
“If it’s a better view, then that’s the hill I want to get married on.”
“This hill is the best. Trust me.”
“But I don’t want—”
“You can’t get married on that hill,” Lynette finally said, finding her voice.
“Because that’s Kate’s hill.” Lynette made her way toward them, and although she mainly looked at Julia, she also looked at Joshua. “The last time I was on that hill was with my daughter—my only daughter, who told me that day on that hill that her cancer had returned and she was dying. She also told me that she wanted me to be happy; she wanted me to stay in South Africa and marry the man whom I had loved and lived without for thirty years. That’s HER hill, and I’m sorry, but you’re not getting married there. If you have a problem with that, then you can leave.” She turned toward Joshua. “You can leave too if you don’t like it.”
To be continued . . .