The Searchby Nora Roberts
The #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a riveting novel of a canine Search and Rescue volunteer who fights danger and finds love in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
To most people, Fiona Bristow seems to have an idyllic life—a quaint house on an island off Seattle’s coast, a thriving dog-training school and a challenging/b>/i>… See more details below
The #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a riveting novel of a canine Search and Rescue volunteer who fights danger and finds love in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
To most people, Fiona Bristow seems to have an idyllic life—a quaint house on an island off Seattle’s coast, a thriving dog-training school and a challenging volunteer job performing Canine Search and Rescue. Not to mention her three intensely loyal Labs. But Fiona got to this point by surviving a nightmare.
Several years ago, Fiona was the only survivor of the Red Scarf Killer, who shot and killed Fiona’s cop fiancé and his K-9 partner.
On Orcas Island, Fiona has found the peace and solitude necessary to rebuild her life. But all that changes on the day Simon Doyle barrels up her drive, desperate for her help. He’s an intensely private wood artist and the reluctant owner of an out-of-control puppy named Jaws.
As Fiona embarks on training Jaws, and Simon begins to appreciate both dog and trainer, the past tears back into Fiona’s life. A copycat killer has emerged out of the shadows, a man whose bloodlust has been channeled by a master with one motive: to reclaim the woman who slipped out of his hands . . .
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY NORA ROBERTS
Born in Fire
Born in Ice
Born in Shame
Daring to Dream
Holding the Dream
Finding the Dream
Jewels of the Sun
Tears of the Moon
Heart of the Sea
From the Heart
Dance Upon the Air
Heaven and Earth
Face the Fire
(WITH J. D. ROBB)
Key of Light
Key of Knowledge
Key of Valor
Dance of the Gods
Valley of Silence
Vision in White
Bed of Roses
WRITING AS J. D. ROBB
Naked in Death
Glory in Death
Immortal in Death
Rapture in Death
Ceremony in Death
Vengeance in Death
Holiday in Death
Conspiracy in Death
Loyalty in Death
Witness in Death
Judgment in Death
Betrayal in Death
Seduction in Death
Reunion in Death
Purity in Death
Portrait in Death
Imitation in Death
Divided in Death
Visions in Death
Survivor in Death
Origin in Death
Memory in Death
Born in Death
Innocent in Death
Creation in Death
Strangers in Death
Salvation in Death
Promises in Death
Kindred in Death
Fantasy in Death
G. P.PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
Copyright © 2010 by Nora Roberts
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The search / Nora Roberts.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18870-5
1. Young women—Crimes against—Fiction. 2. Serial murderers—Fiction. 3. Attempted murder—Fiction. 4. Dog owners—Fiction. 5. Search and rescue operations—Fiction. 6. Search dogs—Training—Fiction. 7. Orcas Island (Wash.)—Fiction. 1. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
HOMER AND PANCHO,
and all who sweetened my life before them
Properly trained, a man can be a dog’s best friend.
On a chilly morning in February with a misty rain shuttering the windows, Devin and Rosie Cauldwell made slow, sleepy love. It was day three of their week’s vacation—and month two of their attempt to conceive a second child. Their three-year-old son, Hugh, was the result of a long week-end on Orcas Island in the San Juans and—Rosie was convinced—a rainy afternoon and a bottle of Pinot Noir.
They hoped to repeat their success with a return visit to Orcas, and happily applied themselves to the mission at hand while their toddler slept with his beloved Wubby in the next room.
It was too early in the day for wine, but Rosie took the quiet rain as an omen.
When they were snuggled up together, loose and warm from sex, she smiled.
“Who had the best idea ever?”
Devin gave her ass an easy squeeze. “You did.”
“Hang on, because I just had another one.”
“I think I need a few minutes, first.”
She laughed, rolled and propped herself on his chest to grin at him. “Get your mind off sex, Sleazy.”
“I think I need a few minutes for that, too.”
“Pancakes. We need pancakes. Rainy morning, our cozy little house. Definitely calls for pancakes.”
He squinted at her. “Who’s making them?”
“Let the fates decide.”
She scooted up, and in a long-standing Cauldwell family tradition they let the balance hang on Rock, Paper, Scissors—best two out of three.
“Damn it,” she muttered when he crushed her scissors with his rock.
“Superior skill wins out.”
“My ass. But fair’s fair—and I have to pee anyway.” She bent down to give him a smacking kiss, then jumped out of bed. “I love vacation,” she said as she dashed into the bathroom.
She especially loved this vacation, she thought, with her two handsome men. If the rain kept up, or got heavier, they’d play games inside. But if it let up, maybe they’d strap Hugh in the carrier and take a bike ride, or just go for a long hike.
Hugh just loved it here, loved the birds, the lake, the deer they’d spotted and of course the rabbits—all brothers to his faithful Wubby.
And maybe he’d have a brother of his own in the fall. She was ovulating—not that she was obsessing about getting pregnant. But counting days wasn’t obsessing, she thought as she caught her sleep- and sex-mussed hair back in a band. It was just being self-aware.
She grabbed a sweatshirt and some flannel pants, glanced back at Devin, who’d gone back to snoozing.
She really thought they’d hit the money shot.
Delighted with the idea, she pulled on heavy socks, then glanced at the watch she’d left on the dresser.
“Gosh, it’s after eight. We must’ve worn Hugh out last night for him to sleep this late.”
“Probably the rain,” Devin mumbled.
Still, she turned out of their room for his, as she did every morning, at home or away. She moved quietly, content to let him sleep—a bonus if she could grab her first cup of coffee before she heard the first Mommy of the day.
She peeked in, expecting to find him curled up with his stuffed bunny. The empty bed didn’t bring panic. He might’ve gotten up to pee, just as she had. He’d gotten so good with his potty training.
Even when she didn’t find him in the little bathroom off the hall, she didn’t panic. Since he was habitually an early riser, they’d encouraged him to play for a bit before waking them. She usually heard him, talking to his toys or running his cars, but she’d been a little distracted having vacation sex.
God, she thought as she started downstairs, what if he’d looked in when they were doing it? No, he’d have walked right in and asked what game they were playing.
With a half laugh, she turned into the pretty living room, expecting to see her little boy on the floor surrounded by the toys of his choice.
When she didn’t, the first fingers of unease tickled up her throat.
She called his name, moving quickly now, sliding a little on the hardwood floors in her socks.
Panic struck, a knife in the belly.
The kitchen door stood wide open.
SHORTLY AFTER NINE, Fiona Bristow pulled up at the pretty vacation house in the heart of Moran State Park. Rain fizzed along the ground more than pattered, but its steadiness promised sloppy tracking. She signaled her partner to stay in the truck, then got out to approach one of the local deputies.
“Hey, Fee. You got here fast.”
“I didn’t have far to go. The others are on their way. Are we using the house for base camp or do you want us to set up?”
“We’re using it. You’ll want to talk to the parents, but I’ll give you the basics. Hugh Cauldwell, age three, blond and blue. Last seen wearing SpiderMan pajamas.”
Fiona saw his mouth tighten a little. Davey had a boy about the same age as Hugh, and she imagined he had a pair of Spider-Man pj’s, too.
“The mother first noticed he was missing at about eight-fifteen,” Davey continued. “Found the back door open. No visible signs of forced entry or an intruder. The mother alerted the father. They called it in right away, and they ran around, calling for him, looking in the immediate area.”
And tracked up the place, Fiona mused. But who could blame them?
“We did a house-and-grounds search, to make sure he wasn’t just hiding.” Davey turned back to Fiona with rain dripping off the bill of his cap. “He’s not in the house, and his mother says he has his stuffed bunny with him. He sleeps with it, carts it around habitually. We’ve got rangers on the search, McMahon and Matt are out there,” he added, referring to the sheriff and a young deputy.
“McMahon cleared me to call in your unit, and assigned me to base.”
“We’ll set up and get started. I’d like to interview the parents now, if that’s good for you.”
He gestured toward the house. “They’re scared, as you’d expect—and they want to go out and look for him. You might help me talk them down from that.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Thinking of that, she went back to the truck, opened the door for her partner. Peck hopped out and walked with her and Davey to the house.
At Davey’s nod, Fiona crossed to the couple, who rose from their huddle on the couch. The woman clutched a little red fire engine.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cauldwell, I’m Fiona Bristow with Canine Search and Rescue. This is Peck.” She laid a hand on the head of the chocolate Lab. “The rest of my unit’s on the way. We’re going to help look for Hugh.”
“You need to go. You need to go right now. He’s only three.”
“Yes, ma’am. The rest of my unit will be here any minute. It would help us if I get some information first.”
“We told the police and the rangers everything.” Devin looked toward the window. “I need to go out there, look for him. We’re wasting time here.”
“Believe me, Mr. Cauldwell, the police and the rangers are doing everything they can to find Hugh. They called us because finding him is everyone’s priority. We’re trained, and your little boy is our only focus now. We’re going to coordinate with the police and the park rangers. I need to make sure I have all the information so we optimize our resources. You realized Hugh was missing about eight-fifteen, is that right?”
Tears swam fresh into Rosie’s eyes. “I should’ve checked on him earlier. He hardly ever sleeps past seven. I should’ve—”
“Mrs. Cauldwell . . . Rosie,” Fiona corrected, using the first name to comfort. “You don’t want to blame yourself. Little boys are curious, aren’t they? Has Hugh ever left the house by himself before?”
“Never, never. I thought he’d come down to play, then I couldn’t find him, and I went back to the kitchen. And the door . . . the door was open. Wide open. And I couldn’t find him.”
“Maybe you could show me.” Fiona signaled to Peck to follow. “He’s wearing his pajamas?”
“Spider-Man. He’ll be cold, and wet, and scared.” Her shoulders shook as they moved back to the kitchen. “I don’t understand what you can do that the police can’t.”
“We’re another resource, and Peck? He’s trained for this. He’s been on dozens of searches.”
Rosie swiped tears off her cheeks. “Hugh likes dogs. He likes animals. If the dog barks, maybe Hugh will hear and come back.”
Fiona said nothing, but opened the back door, then squatted down to take in the view from the level of a three-year-old boy. Likes animals. “I bet you can see a lot of wildlife around here. Deer, fox, rabbits.”
“Yes. Yes. It’s so different from Seattle. He loves watching out the windows, or from the deck. And we’ve taken hikes and bike rides.”
“Is Hugh shy?”
“No. Oh no, he’s adventurous and sociable. Fearless. Oh God.”
Instinctively Fiona put an arm around Rosie’s shaking shoulders. “Rosie, I’m going to set up here in the kitchen, if that’s okay. What I need you to do is to get me five things Hugh wore recently. Yesterday’s socks, underwear, shirt, like that. Five small items of clothing. Try not to handle them. Put them in these.”
Fiona took plastic bags from her kit.
“We’re a unit of five. Five handlers, five dogs. We’ll each use something of Hugh’s to give the dogs his scent.”
“They . . . they track him?”
Easier to agree than to try to explain air-scenting, scent cones, skin rafts. The boy had already been gone more than an hour. “That’s right. Does he have a favorite treat? Something he likes especially, something you might give him when he’s been good?”
“You mean like . . .” Pushing at her hair, Rosie looked around blankly. “He loves gummy worms.”
“Great. Do you have any?”
“I . . . yes.”
“If you could get the clothes and the worms,” Fiona said with a smile. “I’m going to set up. I hear my unit, so I’m going to set up.”
“Okay. Okay. Please . . . He’s just three.”
Rosie dashed out. Fiona shared a brief look with Peck, then began to set up operations.
As her team came in, human and canine, she briefed them and began to assign search sectors while poring over her maps. She knew the area, and knew it well.
A paradise, she thought, for those looking for serenity, scenery, an escape from streets and traffic, buildings, crowds. And for a lost little boy, a world filled with hazards. Creeks, lakes, rocks.
More than thirty miles of foot trails, she thought, over five thousand acres of forest to swallow up a three-year-old and his stuffed rabbit.
“We’ve got a heavy drizzle, so we’ll keep the search grids close and cover this area.” As field OL—operational leader—Fiona outlined their sections on the map while Davey listed data on a large whiteboard. “We’ll overlap some with the other teams, but let’s keep good communications so we don’t step on our own feet.”
“He’s going to be wet and chilled by now.” Meg Greene, mother of two and recent grandmother, looked at her husband, Chuck. “Poor little guy.”
“And a kid that age? He’s got no sense of direction. He’ll wander anywhere.” James Hutton frowned as he checked his radio.
“He might tire out, just curl up and sleep.” Lori Dyson nodded toward her German shepherd, Pip. “He might not hear the searchers calling for him, but our guys will sniff him out.”
“That’s the plan. Everyone has their coordinates? Radios checked, packs checked? Make sure you set your compass bearings. With Mai in emergency surgery, Davey’s solo base OL, so we’ll check in with him as we cover our sectors.”
She stopped as the Cauldwells came back in.
“I have . . .” Rosie’s chin wobbled. “I have what you asked for.”
“That’s great.” Fiona crossed to her, then laid her hands on the terrified mother’s shoulders. “You hold good thoughts. Everyone out there has only one thing to do, one thing on their mind: find Hugh and bring him home.”
She took the bags, passed them out to her unit. “Okay, let’s go get him.”
With the others, she walked outside, hitched on her pack. Peck stood by her side, the slight quiver in his body the only sign he was anxious to get started. She and the others spread out to take their assigned sectors, and like the rest of her unit, she set her compass bearing.
She opened the bag holding a little sock, offered it to Peck’s nose.
“This is Hugh. It’s Hugh. Hugh’s just a little boy, Peck. This is Hugh.”
He sniffed enthusiastically—a dog who knew his job. He glanced up at her, sniffed again, then looked deep into her eyes, body quivering as if to say, Okay, I’ve got it! Let’s move!
“Find Hugh.” She added her hand signal, and Peck lifted his nose in the air. “Let’s find Hugh!”
She waited, watching him scent and circle, let him take the lead as he prowled and paced. The thin, steady rain posed an obstacle, but Peck worked well in the rain.
She remained where she was, giving him verbal encouragement as he tracked the air and the wet pattered on the bright yellow of her wind-breaker.
When he moved east, she followed him into the thickening trees.
At five, Peck was a vet, a seventy-pound chocolate Lab—strong, smart and tireless. He would, Fiona knew, search for hours in any conditions, over any terrain, for the living or for the dead. She had only to ask it of him.
Together, they moved through deep forest, over ground soft and soggy with needles shed from the towering Douglas firs and old-growth cedars, over and around clumps of mushrooms and nurse logs coated with rich green moss, through brambles edgy with thorn. While they searched, Fiona kept an eye on her partner’s body language, made note of landmarks, checked her compass. Every few minutes, Peck glanced back to let her know he was on the case.
“Find Hugh. Let’s find Hugh, Peck.”
He alerted, showing interest in a patch of ground around a nurse log.
“Got something, do you? That’s good. Good boy.” She flagged the alert first with bright blue tape, then stood with him, scanning the area, calling Hugh’s name. Then closing her eyes to listen.
All she heard was the soft sizzle of rain and the whisper of wind through the trees.
When he nudged her, Fiona took the sock out of her pocket, opened the bag so Peck could refresh the scent.
“Find Hugh,” she repeated. “Let’s find Hugh.”
He moved off again, and in her sturdy boots, Fiona stepped over the log and followed. When Peck angled south, she called her new position in to base, checked in with her team members.
The kid had been out for a minimum of two hours, she thought. A lifetime for worried parents.
But toddlers didn’t have any real sense of time. Children of his age were very mobile, she mused, and didn’t always understand the concept of being lost. They wandered, distracted by sights and sounds, and had considerable endurance, so it might be hours of that wandering before Hugh tired out and realized he wanted his mother.
She watched a rabbit skitter away into the brush. Peck had too much dignity to do more than spare it a passing glance.
But a little boy? Fiona thought. One who loved his “Wubby,” who enjoyed animals? One his mother said was fascinated by the forest? Wouldn’t he want to try to catch it, probably hoping to play with it? He’d try, wouldn’t he, to follow it? City boy, she thought, enchanted with the woods, the wildlife, the other of it all.
How could he resist?
She understood it, the magic of it. She’d been a city girl once herself, charmed and hypnotized by the green shadows, the dance of light, the sheer vastness of trees and hills and sea.
A child could so easily lose himself in the acres and acres of parkland.
He’s cold, she thought. Hungry now and scared. He wants his mother.
When the rain increased, they continued on, the tireless dog, the tall woman in rough pants and rougher boots. Her tail of pale red hair hung in a wet rope down her back, while lake-blue eyes searched the gloom.
When Peck angled again, heading down a winding slope, she drew a picture in her mind. Less than a quarter of a mile farther, if they continued in this direction, they’d come to the creek that marked the southeast border of her sector. Chuck and his Quirk searched the other side. Fast water in the creek this time of year, she thought, cold and fast, the verges slippery with moss and rain.
She hoped the little guy hadn’t gone too close or, worse, tried to cross it.
And the wind was changing, she realized. Goddamn it. They’d adjust. She’d refresh the scent again, give Peck a quick water break. They’d nearly clocked two hours in the field, and though Peck had alerted strongly three times, she’d yet to see a sign of the boy—a bit of cloth on a bramble, a print in the softened ground. She’d flagged the alerts in blue, used orange tape to mark their progress and knew they’d cross-tracked once or twice.
Check in with Chuck, she decided. If Peck’s on the scent and the kid crossed the creek . . .
She didn’t allow herself to think fell in. Not yet.
Even as she reached for her radio, Peck alerted again. This time he broke into a run, shooting her the briefest of glances over his shoulder.
And she saw the light in his eyes.
“Hugh!” She lifted her voice over the now pounding rain and whistling wind.
She didn’t hear the boy, but she heard Peck’s three quick barks.
Like the dog, Fiona broke into a run.
She skidded a little as she rounded the turn on the downward slope.
And she saw near the banks of the busy creek—a bit too near for her peace of mind—a very wet little boy sprawled on the ground with his arms full of dog.
“Hey, Hugh, hi.” She crossed the distance quickly, squatted down, pulling off her pack as she went. “I’m Fiona, and this is Peck.”
“Doggie.” He wept it into Peck’s fur. “Doggie.”
“He’s a good doggie. He’s the best doggie ever.”
As Peck thumped his tail in agreement, Fiona pulled a space blanket out of her pack. “I’m going to wrap you up—and Wubby, too. Is that Wubby?”
“Wubby fell down.”
“So I see. It’s okay. We’ll get you both warm, okay? Did you hurt yourself ? Uh-oh.”
She said it cheerfully as she draped the blanket over his shoulders and saw the mud and blood on his feet. “Ouch, huh? We’re going to fix you all up.”
His arms still around Peck, Hugh turned his cheek and sent Fiona a pitiful, bottom-lip-wobbling look. “I want Mommy.”
“I bet you do. We’re going to take you to Mommy, me and Peck. Here, look what Mommy sent you.” She pulled out the little bag of gummy worms.
“Bad boy,” Hugh said, but he eyed the candy with interest while he clung to Peck.
“Mommy’s not mad. Daddy’s not either. Here you go.” She gave him the bag, pulled out her radio. When Hugh offered a worm to Peck, Peck gave Fiona a sidelong glance.
Can I? Huh? Can I?
“Go ahead—and say thank you.”
Peck took the candy delicately from the boy, gulped it down, then thanked him with a sloppy kiss that made Hugh giggle.
With that sound warming her heart, Fiona contacted base.
“We’ve got him. Safe and sound. Tell Mom he’s eating his gummy worms and we’ll be on our way home.” She winked at Hugh, who fed the filthy and wet stuffed rabbit, then popped the same candy into his own mouth. “He’s got some minor cuts and scrapes, he’s wet, but he’s alert. Over.”
“Copy that. Good work, Fee. Do you need help? Over.”
“We’ve got it. Heading in. I’ll keep you updated. Over and out.”
“Better wash those down,” she suggested, and offered Hugh her canteen.
“It’s just water.”
“I like juice.”
“We’ll make sure you get some when we get back. Drink a little, okay?”
He did what he was told, sniffling. “I peed outside, like Daddy showed me. Not in my pants.”
She grinned at him and thought of Peck’s strong alerts. “You did good. How about a piggyback ride?”
As they had at the sight of the candy, his eyes brightened. “Okay.”
She wrapped the blanket securely around him, then turned so he could climb onto her back. “You call me Fee. If you need something, you just say, Fee, I need or I want.”
“He’s coming, too. He’ll lead the way.” From her crouch she rubbed Peck, hugged him hard. “Good dog, Peck. Good dog. Return!”
With the pack slung over her shoulder and the boy on her back, the three of them began the hike out of the woods.
“Did you open the door by yourself, Hugh?”
“Bad boy,” he murmured.
Well, yeah, she thought, but who wasn’t bad now and then? “What did you see out the window?”
“Wubbies. Wubby said let’s go see the wubbies.”
“Uh-huh.” Smart kid, she thought. Blame it on the rabbit.
Hugh began to chatter then, so fast and in the toddlerese that defeated her on every third word. But she got the gist.
Mommy and Daddy sleeping, bunnies out the window, what could you do? Then, if she interpreted correctly, the house disappeared and he couldn’t find it. Mommy didn’t come when he called, and he was going to get a time-out. He hated time-outs.
She got the picture because even saying “time-out” made him cry with his face pressed against her back.
“Well, if you get one, I think Wubby needs one, too. Look, hey, Hugh, look. It’s Bambi and his mom.”
He lifted his head, still sniffling. Then tears were forgotten as he squealed at the sight of the fawn and doe. Then he sighed, laid his head on her shoulder when she boosted him up a bit. “I getting hungry.”
“I guess you are. You’ve had a really big adventure.” She managed to dig a power bar out of her pack.
It took less time to hike out than it had to search through, but by the time the trees began to thin the boy weighed like a stone on her back.
Revived, rested, fascinated with everything, Hugh talked nonstop. Amused, Fiona let him ramble and dreamed of a vat of coffee, an enormous burger and a gallon bucket of fries.
When she spotted the house through the trees, she dug out another gear and quickened her pace. They’d barely cleared the line when Rosie and Devin ran out of the house.
Fiona crouched. “Off you go, Hugh. Run to Mommy.”
She stayed down, slung her arm around Peck, whose entire body wagged with joy.
“Yeah,” she murmured to him as Devin beat his wife by a couple lopes and snatched Hugh up. Then the three of them were twined together in a tangle of limbs and tears. “Yeah, it’s a good day. You’re the man, Peck.”
With her son safe in her arms, Rosie hurried toward the house. Devin broke away to walk unsteadily to Fiona.
“Thank you. I don’t know how to . . .”
“You’re welcome. He’s a great kid.”
“He’s . . . everything. Thank you so much.” As his eyes filled, Devin wrapped his arms around Fiona and, much as Hugh had, dropped his head on her shoulder. “I can’t tell you.”
“You don’t have to.” Her own eyes stung as she patted his back. “Peck found him. He’s the one. He’d be pleased if you shook his hand.”
“Oh.” Devin scrubbed at his face, drew in a couple steadying breaths. “Thank you, Peck. Thank you.” He crouched, offered his hand.
Peck smiled as dogs do and placed his paw in Devin’s hand.
“Can I . . . can I hug him?”
“He’d love it.”
On a deep, shuddering sigh, Devin hugged Peck’s neck, pressed his face to the fur. Over the man’s shoulder, Peck sent Fiona a twinkling look.
Wasn’t that fun? he seemed to say. Can we do it again?
After debriefing, Fiona drove home while Peck sprawled in the back for a quick power nap. He’d earned it, she thought, just as she’d earned the burger she was going to make herself and devour while she transcribed the log onto her computer.
She needed to give Sylvia a call, tell her stepmother they’d found the kid and she wouldn’t need her to fill in for the afternoon classes after all.
Of course, now that the hard work was done, Fiona thought, the rain decided to back off. Already she could see a few breaks of blue in the gray.
Hot coffee, she decided, hot shower, lunch and paperwork, and with some luck she’d have dry weather for the afternoon’s schedule.
As she drove out of the park, she caught the faint glimmer of a rainbow over the rain-churned sound. A good sign, she decided—maybe even a portent of things to come. A few years before, her life had been like the rain—dull and gray and dreary. The island had been her break in the clouds, and her decision to settle there her chance for rainbows.
“Got what I need now,” she murmured. “And if there’s more, well, we’ll just see.”
She turned off the snaking road onto her bumpy drive. Recognizing the change in motion, Peck gave a snort and scrambled up to sit. His tail thumped the seat as they rattled over the narrow bridge spanning her skinny, bubbling stream. When the house came into view, the tail picked up in rhythm and he gave a happy two-note bark.
Her doll-sized cabin, shingled in cedar, generous with windows, grew out of her pretty chunk of forest and field. The yard sprawled and sloped, and held what she thought of as training zones. The sliding boards, teeter-totters, ladders and platforms, tunnels and pass-throughs ranged with benches, tire swings and ramps gave most the impression of a woodsy play area for kids.
Not that far off, Fiona thought. The kids just had four legs.
The other two of her three kids stood on the covered front porch, tails wagging, feet dancing. One of the best things about dogs, to Fiona’s mind, was their absolute joy in welcoming you home, whether you’d been gone for five minutes or five days. There lay unconditional and boundless love.
She parked, and her car was immediately surrounded by canine delight while, inside, Peck wiggled in anticipation of reunion with his best pals.
She stepped out to nuzzling snouts and wagging tails. “Hi, boys.” Ruffling fur, she angled to open the back door. Peck leaped out so the lovefest could begin.
There was sniffing, happy grumbling, body bumping, then the race and chase. While she retrieved her pack, the three dogs charged away, zipping in circles and zigzags before charging back to her.
Always ready to play, she mused as three pairs of eyes stared up at her with hopeful gleams.
“Soon,” she promised. “I need a shower, dry clothes, food. Let’s go in. What do you say, wanna go in?”
In answer, all three bulleted for the door.
Newman, a yellow Lab and the oldest, at six, and the most dignified, led the pack. But then Bogart, the black Lab and the baby, at three, had to stop long enough to grab up his rope.
Surely someone wanted to play tug.
They bounded in behind her, feet tapping on the wide-planked floor. Time, she thought with a glance at her watch. But not a lot of it.
She left her pack out as she had to replace the space blanket before she tucked it away. While the dogs rolled on the floor, she stirred up the fire she’d banked before leaving, added another log. She peeled off her wet jacket as she watched the flames catch.
Dogs on the floor, a fire in the hearth, she thought, made the room cozy. It tempted her to just curl up on the love seat and catch her own power nap.
No time, she reminded herself, and debated which she wanted more: dry clothes or food. After a struggle, she decided to be an adult and get dry first. Even as she turned for the stairs, all three dogs went on alert. Seconds later, she heard the rattle of her bridge.
“Who could that be?”
She walked to the window trailed by her pack.
The blue truck wasn’t familiar, and on an island the size of Orcas there weren’t many strangers. Tourist was her first thought, a wrong turn, a need for directions.
Resigned, she walked outside, gave her dogs the signal to hold on the porch.
She watched the man get out. Tall, a lot of dark hair, scarred boots, worn jeans on long legs. Good face, she decided, sharp planes, sharp angles blurred by the shadow of stubble that said he’d been too busy or too lazy to shave that morning. The good face held an expression of frustration or annoyance—maybe a combo of both—as he shoved a hand through the mass of hair.
Big hands, she noted, on the ends of long arms.
Like the boots, the leather jacket he wore had some years on it. But the truck looked new.
“Need some help?” she called out, and he stopped frowning at the training area to turn toward her.
“Fiona Bristow?” His voice had an edge to it, not anger so much as that annoyance she read on his face. Behind her Bogart gave a little whine.
“I am.” She stepped off the porch as he started toward her, watched his gaze skim over her three guardians. “What can I do for you?”
“Did you train those three?”
His eyes, tawny, like warm, deeply steeped tea, shifted back to her. “Then you’re hired.”
“Yay. For what?”
He pointed at her dogs. “Dog trainer. Name your price.”
“Okay. Let’s open the floor at a million dollars.”
“Will you take it in installments?”
That made her smile. “We can negotiate. Let’s start this way. Fiona Bristow,” she said, and offered her hand.
“Sorry. Simon Doyle.”
Working hands, she thought, as his—hard, calloused—took hers. Then the name clicked. “Sure, wood artist.”
“Mostly I build furniture.”
“Great stuff. I bought one of your bowls a few weeks ago. I can’t seem to resist a nice bowl. My stepmother carries your work in her shop. Island Arts.”
“Sylvia, yeah. She’s great.” He brushed off the compliment, the sale, the small talk. A man on a mission. “She’s the one who told me to come talk to you. So how much of the million do you need up front?”
“Where’s the dog?”
“In the truck.”
She looked past him, cocked her head. She saw the pup through the window now. A Lab-retriever mix, she judged—and currently very busy.
“Your dog’s eating your truck.”
“What?” He spun around. “Fuck!”
As he made the dash, Fiona signaled her newly alerted dogs to stay and sauntered after him. The best way to get a gauge on the man, the dog and their current dynamic was to watch how he handled the situation.
“For God’s sake.” He wrenched open the door. “Goddamn it, what’s wrong with you?”
The puppy, obviously unafraid, unrepentant, leaped into the man’s arms and slathered his face with eager kisses.
“Cut it out. Just stop!” He held the puppy out at arm’s length, where it wagged and wriggled and yipped in delight.
“I just bought this truck. He ate the headrest. How could he eat the headrest in under five minutes?”
“It takes about ten seconds for a puppy to get bored. Bored puppies chew. Happy puppies chew. Sad puppies chew.”
“Tell me about it,” Simon said bitterly. “I bought him a mountain of chew deals, but he goes for shoes, furniture, freaking rocks and everything else—including my new truck. Here.” He shoved the puppy at Fiona. “Do something.”
She cradled the pup, who immediately bathed her face as if they were reunited lovers. She caught the faintest whiff of leather on his warm puppy breath.
“Aren’t you cute? Are you a pretty boy?”
“He’s a monster.” Simon snarled it. “An escape artist who doesn’t sleep. If I take my eye off him for two minutes, he eats something or breaks something or finds the most inappropriate place to relieve himself. I haven’t had a minute’s peace in three weeks.”
“Um-hmm.” She snuggled the pup. “What’s his name?”
Simon shot a look at the dog that didn’t speak of returning sloppy kisses. “Jaws.”
“Very appropriate. Well, let’s see what he’s made of.” She crouched down with him, then signaled her dogs to release. As they trotted over, she set the puppy on the ground.
Some puppies would cower, some would hide or run away. But others, like Jaws, were made of sterner stuff. He leaped at the dogs, yipping and wagging. He sniffed as they sniffed, quivered with glee, nipped at legs and tails.
“Brave little soldier,” Fiona murmured.
“He has no fear. Make him afraid.”
She sighed, shook her head. “Why did you get a dog?”
“Because my mother gave him to me. Now I’m stuck with him. I like dogs, okay? I’ll trade him for one of yours right now. You pick.”
She studied Simon’s sharp-boned, stubbled face. “Not getting much sleep, are you?”
“The only way I get so much as an hour at a time is if I put him in the bed. He’s already ripped every pillow I own to shreds. And he’s started on the mattress.”
“You should try crate-training him.”
“I got a crate. He ate the crate. Or enough of it to get out. I think he must be able to flatten himself like a snake. I can’t get any work done. I think maybe he’s brain-damaged, or just psychotic.”
“What he is, is a baby who needs a lot of playtime, love, patience and discipline,” she corrected as Jaws merrily humped Newman’s leg.
“Why does he do that? He’ll hump anything. If he’s a baby, why does he think about humping everything?”
“It’s instinct—and an attempt to show dominance. He wants to be the big dog. Bogart! Get the rope!”
“Jesus, I don’t want to hang him. Exactly,” Simon said, as the black Lab dashed for the porch and through the open door.
The dog came out with the rope between his teeth, bounded to Fiona and dropped it at her feet. When she reached for it, he lowered on his front paws, shot his butt in the air and wagged.
Fiona shook the rope. Bogart bounded up, chomped down and, snarling and pulling, engaged in a spirited tug-of-war.
Jaws abandoned Newman, made a running leap for the rope, missed, fell on his back. He rolled, leaped again, little jaws snapping, tail a mad metronome.
“Want the rope, Jaws? Want the rope? Play!” She lowered it so he could reach, and when his puppy teeth latched on, she released.
Bogart’s tug lifted the puppy off the ground and he wiggled and clung like a furry fish on the line.
Determined, she mused, and was pleased when Bogart dipped down so the pup hit the ground, then adjusted his pull for the smaller dog.
“Peck, Newman, get the balls. Get the balls!”
Like their packmate, Peck and Newman dashed off. They came back with yellow tennis balls, spat them at Fiona’s feet. “Newman, Peck! Race!” She heaved the balls in quick succession so both dogs gave chase.
“Nice arm.” Simon watched as the dogs retrieved, repeated the return.
This time she made a kissing sound that had Jaws angling his head even while he pulled on the rope. She tossed the balls in the air a couple times, studying his eye line. “Race!” she repeated.
As the big dogs sprinted off, the puppy scrambled after them.
“He has a strong play instinct—and that’s a good thing. You just need to channel it. He’s had his vet visits, his shots?”
“Up-to-date. Tell me you’ll take him. I’ll pay room and board.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” As she spoke, she took the returned balls, threw them again. “I take him, I take you. You’re a unit now. If you’re not going to commit to the dog, to his training, his health and well-being, I’ll help you find a home for him.”
“I’m not a quitter.” Simon jammed his hands in his pockets as once again Fiona threw the balls. “Besides, my mother would . . . I don’t want to go there. She’s got this idea that since I moved out here, I need companionship. It’s a wife or a dog. She can’t give me a wife, so . . .”
He frowned as the big yellow Lab let the pup get the ball. Prancing triumphantly, Jaws brought it back.
“Yes, he did. Ask him for it.”
“Tell him to give you the ball. Crouch down, hold out your hand and tell him to give you the ball.”
Simon crouched, held out his hand. “Give me—” Jaws leaped into his lap, nearly bowling Simon over, and rapped his ball-carrying mouth into his face.
“Tell him ‘off,’ ” Fiona instructed, and had to bite the inside of her cheek as obviously, from his expression, Simon Doyle didn’t see the humor. “Set him down on his rump. Hold him down, gently, and take the ball away. When you’ve got the ball, say, ‘Good dog,’ repeat it, be enthusiastic. Smile.”
Simon did as he was told, though it was easier said than done with a dog that could wiggle like a wet worm.
“There, he’s successfully fetched and returned. You’ll use small bits of food and lavish praise, the same commands, over and over again. He’ll catch on.”
“Tricks are great, but I’m really more interested in teaching him not to destroy my house.” He shot a bitter look at the mangled headrest. “Or my truck.”
“Following any command is a discipline. He’ll learn to do what you ask, if you train him with play. He wants to play—he wants to play with you. Reward him, with play, and with food, with praise and affection, and he’ll learn to respect the rules of the house. He wants to please you,” she added when the pup rolled over to expose his belly. “He loves you.”
“Then he’s an easy target since we’ve had a rocky and short relationship.”
“Who’s your vet?”
“Mai’s the best. I’ll want copies of his medical records for my files.”
“I’ll get them to you.”
“You’ll want to buy some small dog treats—the sort he can just chomp down rather than the bigger ones he’d need to stop and chew. Instant gratification. You’ll want a head collar and a leash in addition to his regular collar.”
“I had a leash. He—”
“Ate it,” Fiona finished. “It’s common enough.”
“Great. Head collar? Like a muzzle?”
She read Simon’s face clearly enough and was unsurprised when she saw him considering the idea of a muzzle. And was pleased when she noted his rejecting frown.
“No. It’s like a halter, and it’s gentle and effective. You’ll use it during training sessions here and at home. Instead of putting pressure on the throat, it puts pressure—gentle pressure—on calming points. It helps persuade a dog to walk rather than lunge and pull, to heel. And it’ll give him more control as well as put you more in tune with your pup.”
“Fine. Whatever works.”
“I’d advise you to replace or repair the crate and lay in a very big supply of chew toys and rawhide. The rope’s pretty much no-fail, but you’ll want tennis balls, rawhide bones, that sort of thing. I’ll give you a basic list of recommendations and requirements for training. I’ve got a class in . . .” She checked her watch. “Crap. Thirty minutes. And I didn’t call Syl.”
As Jaws began to leap and try to climb up her leg, she simply bent over, pushed his rump to the ground. “Sit.” Because she didn’t have a reward, she crouched, held him in place to pet and praise. “You might as well stay if you’ve got the time. I’ll sign you up.”
“I don’t have a million dollars on me.”
She released the pup, picked him up to cuddle. “Got thirty?”
“Thirty for a thirty-minute group session. He’s, what, about three months old?”
“We’ll make it work. It’s an eight-week course. You’re two behind. I’ll juggle in two individual sessions to bring him up to speed. Does that work for you?”
Simon shrugged. “It’s cheaper than a new truck.”
“Considerably. I’ll lend you a leash and a head collar for now.” Still carrying the puppy, she walked to the house.
“What if I paid you fifty, and you worked with him solo?”
She spared him a glance. “That’s not what I do. He’s not the only one who needs training.” She led him into the house before passing the puppy back to him. “You can come on back. I’ve got some extra leashes and collars, and you need some treats. I have to make a phone call.”
She veered off the kitchen to the utility room, where collars and leashes and brushes hung neatly according to type and size, and various toys and treats sat organized on shelves.
It made him think of a small pet boutique.
She gave Jaws another glance as he squirmed in Simon’s arms and tried to gnaw on his master’s hand.
She turned to the pup and, using her forefinger and thumb, gently closed his mouth. “No.” And keeping her eyes on the dog’s, she reached behind her, took a rawhide chew toy shaped like a bone. “This is yours.” When he clamped it, she nodded. “Good dog! Go ahead and set him down. When he chews on you, or something else he shouldn’t, do what I did. Correct, give him a vocal command and replace with what’s his. Give positive reinforcement. Consistently. Find a leash and a collar for him.”
She stepped out into the kitchen, grabbed the phone and hit her stepmother’s number on speed dial. “Crap,” she muttered when it shifted to voice mail. “Syl, I hope you’re not already on your way. I got distracted and forgot to call. I’m home. We found the little boy. He’s fine. Decided to chase a rabbit and got lost, but no worse for wear. Anyway, if you’re on your way, I’ll see you here. If not, thanks for the standby, and I’ll call you later. Bye.”
She replaced the phone and turned to see Simon in the doorway, a leash in one hand and a small head collar in the other. “These?”
“Those should work.”
“What little boy?”
“Hmm. Oh, Hugh Cauldwell—he and his parents are here for a few days’ vacation in the state park. He wandered out of the house and into the forest this morning while they were sleeping. You didn’t hear?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Because it’s Orcas. Anyway, he’s fine. Home safe.”
“You work for the park?”
“No. I’m part of Canine Search and Rescue Association volunteers.”
Simon gestured toward the three dogs, currently sprawled on the kitchen floor like corpses. “Those?”
“That’s right. Trained and certified. You know, Jaws might be a good candidate for S-and-R training.”
He snorted out what might’ve been a laugh. “Right.”
“Strong play drive, curious, courageous, friendly, physically sound.” She lifted her eyebrows as the pup left his new toy to attack the laces on Simon’s boots. “Energetic. Forget your training already, human?”
“Correct and replace and praise.”
“Oh.” He crouched, repeated the series Fiona had demonstrated. Jaws clamped on the toy, then spat it out and went for the laces again.
“Just keep doing it. I need to put some things together.” She started out, stopped. “Can you work that coffeemaker?”
He glanced to the unit on the counter. “I can figure it out.”
“Do that, will you? Black, one sugar. I’m running low.”
He frowned after her.
While he’d only been on the island a few months, he doubted he’d ever get used to the casual, open-door policy. Just come on in, complete stranger, he thought, and while you’re at it, make me some coffee while I leave you virtually alone.
She only had his word on who he was, and besides that, nobody knew he was there. What if he was a psycho? A rapist? Okay, three dogs, he mused, eyeing them again. But so far they’d been friendly, and about as casual as their mistress.
And currently, they were snoring away.
He wondered how she managed to live with three dogs when he could barely find a way to tolerate one. Looking down, he saw the pup had stopped chewing on his bootlaces because he’d fallen asleep sprawled over the boot, with the laces still caught in his teeth.
With the same care and caution a man might use when easing away from a wild boar, Simon slowly slid his foot back, holding his breath until the pup oozed like furred water onto the kitchen floor.
Passed out cold.
One day, he thought as he crossed to the coffeemaker, he’d find a way to pay his mother back. One fine day.
He studied the machine, checked the bean and water supply. When he switched it on the burr of the grinder had the pup waking with a barrage of ferocious barks. Across the room, the dogs cocked their ears. One of them yawned.
The movement had Jaws leaping with joy, then charging the pack like a cannonball.
While they rolled, batted and sniffed, Simon wondered if he could borrow one of them. Rent one, he considered. Like a babysitter.
Since the cupboards had glass fronts, he didn’t have any trouble finding a pair of bright cobalt blue mugs. He had to open a couple of drawers before he found the flatware, but that gave him the opportunity to marvel. Every drawer was tidy and organized.
How did she do that? He’d been in his house for only a matter of months and his kitchen drawers looked like a flea market. Nobody should be that organized. It wasn’t natural.
Interesting-looking woman, though, he decided as he poked around a little. The hair that wasn’t really red, wasn’t really blond, the eyes of absolutely clear and perfect blue. Her nose tilted up a little on the end and sported a dusting of freckles, and a slight overbite made her bottom lip seem particularly full.
Long neck, he thought as he poured the coffee, lanky build with no rack to speak of.
Not beautiful. Not pretty or cute. But . . . interesting, and the few times she’d smiled? Almost arresting. Almost.
He dumped a spoon of sugar from a squat white bowl in one mug, picked up the other.
He took his first sip looking out her over-the-sink window, then turned when he heard her boot steps. She moved briskly, with an efficiency that hinted at athleticism. Wiry, he thought, as much as lanky.
He saw her shift her gaze down, followed it and saw Jaws circle and squat.
Simon opened his mouth, but before he could yell Hey!, his usual response, Fiona tossed the folder she carried on the counter and clapped her hands twice, sharply.
The sound startled Jaws out of his squat.
She moved fast, scooping up the pup with one hand, grabbing the leash with the other. “Good dog, Jaws, good dog. Let’s go out. Time to go out. Pantry, second shelf, canister with mini-treats, grab a handful,” she ordered Simon, and clipped the leash on the collar as she headed out the back door.
The three dogs whooshed after her in a flurry of fur and paws.
He found her gnome-sized pantry as scarily organized as the drawers, dug out a handful of little dog cookies the size of his knuckle from a big glass jar. Hooking the mug handles in one hand, he walked outside.
She still carried the dog, with her long legs eating up the short distance to the edge of trees that guarded the back of her property. By the time she put Jaws down Simon caught up.
“Stop.” She stopped the pup from attacking the leash, rubbed his head. “Look at the big guys, Jaws! What are the big guys doing?” She turned him, walked a few steps.
Obviously, the pup was more interested in the dogs, currently sniffing, lifting legs, sniffing, than the leash. He bounded after them.
“I’m giving him some slack. Thanks.” Fiona took the coffee, drank deep, sighed. “Praise Jesus. Okay, you’re going to want to pick a regular spot for your Pooptown. You don’t want land mines all over your property. So you consistently take him where you want him to go. Then he’ll just start going there. You’re the one who has to be vigilant and consistent. He’s just a baby, so that means you’re going to have to take him out several times a day. As soon as he wakes up in the morning and before you go to bed at night, every time he eats.”
In his mind’s eye, Simon saw his life becoming a revolving door swinging at the whims of the dog’s elimination needs.
“And when he does what he’s supposed to do,” Fiona continued, “be thrilled. Positive reinforcement—lavish. He wants to please you. Wants to be praised and rewarded. See there, the big guys are going, so he’s not going to be outdone.”
Simon shook his head. “When I take him out, he spends an hour sniffing, rolling and screwing around, then cuts loose five seconds after I take him back in.”
“Show him. You’re a guy. Whip it out and pee.”
She laughed—and yeah, he thought, almost arresting. “No, but in the privacy of your own. Here.” She handed him the leash. “Get down to his level, call him. Happy, happy! Use his name, then when he comes, make over him, give him one of the treats.”
He felt stupid, making happy noises because his dog shit in the woods, but thinking of the countless piles he’d cleaned off his floors, he followed instructions.
“Well done. Let’s try a basic command before the others get here. Jaws.” She took hold of him to turn his attention, stroked him until he’d calmed down. She took one of the treats Simon held, palmed it in her left hand, then lifted her right over the pup’s head, extended her index finger. “Jaws, sit. Sit!” As she spoke, she moved her finger over his head so he looked up, trying to follow it. And his butt hit the ground.
“Good dog! Good!” She fed him, petted him, praised him. “Repeat, repeat. He’ll automatically look up, and when he does the back of him goes down. As soon as he sits, praise, reward. Once he gets that, you try it with just the voice command. If he doesn’t get it, go back and repeat. When he does, praise, reward.”
She stepped back.
Since the pup wanted to follow her, Simon had a little struggle.
“Make him focus on you. You’re the boss. He thinks you’re a patsy.”
Annoyed, Simon shot her one cold stare. But he had to admit, when the pup’s rump hit the ground, he felt a little spurt of pride and pleasure.
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