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On a scale of one to ten, Sage Benedetto would probably rate the concept of jogging before sunrise every day somewhere around a negative twenty.
While she highly doubted she would ever evolve enough that she could wholly enjoy these runs, after a month, she had at least grown to tolerate the activity. Her gut didn't automatically cramp at just the idea of throwing on her running shoes and her muscles no longer started to spasm after the first few steps.
She supposed that was a good thing.
This would probably never be her favorite thing to do, but she had promised, she reminded herself. And while she had many faults-all of which somehow seemed more glaringly obvious in the pale light of early morning-breaking her word was not among them.
Despite the random muscle aches and her inherent dislike of just about any activity that involved sending her heart rate into heavy exertion mode, she had even come to discover an ethereal beauty in these quiet early-morning runs.
The towering sea stacks offshore glowed pink in the first, hesitant rays of the sun; this wide, gorgeous stretch of Oregon beach was empty, at least for a little while longer.
Soon the beach would be crowded with treasure hunters looking for shells or colored glass or any other gift the sea surrendered during the night. But for now it was hers.
Hers and Conan's, anyway.
A huge red beast emerged from behind a cluster of rocks and shuffled to her, scaring up a seagull.
She sighed. This was the reason she was here before sunrise, her thigh muscles burning and her breath sawing raggedly. This rangy, melancholy creature was her responsibility, her curse, her unexpected legacy.
"There you are. You can't keep slipping off your leash or we won't do this anymore."
Abigail's big mutt, rescued from the pound right around the time Abigail rescued Sage, cocked his head and gazed at Sage out of doleful eyes the murky dark green of the sea in a November storm.
Some days these jogs along the shore seemed to lift his spirits-the only reason she carried on with them when she would much rather be home in bed for another hour.
This apparently wouldn't be one of those days. "I know," she murmured, rubbing his chin as she slipped the leash back on. "She loved these kind of mornings, didn't she? With the air clear and cool and sweet and the day just waiting to explode with possibilities. Anything-can-happen days, that's what she called them."
Conan whined a little and lowered himself to the sand, his head sagging to his forepaws as if he were entirely too exhausted to move.
"You've got to snap out of it, bud. We both do." She tried to swallow down the lump of grief that had taken up permanent residence in her throat during the past month. Her eyes burned and she wondered when these raw moments of sorrow would stop taking her by surprise.
She blinked away the tears. "Come on, dude. I'll race you home."
He gave her a long, considering look, then heaved to his feet and shuffled off in the direction of Brambleberry House, still a mile down the beach. Even at his most ponderous pace, Conan could outrun her. A pretty sad state of affairs, she decided, and tried to pick up her speed.
Focusing on the sand in front of her, she had only made it a few hundred yards down the beach, when she heard a sharp bark. She turned in the direction of the sound; Conan was at the end of his long retractable leash, sitting with a small figure above the high-tide mark in the sand.
The figure was a young girl, one she wasn't even sure was old enough to be considered a tween. A young girl who was wearing only a pale green nightgown and what looked to be seashell-pink flip-flops on her feet.
To Sage's deep surprise, Conan's tail wagged and he nudged at the girl's hand in a blatant invitation to pet him. She hadn't seen Conan greet anyone with this kind of friendly enthusiasm for the better part of a month.
Sage scanned the beach looking in vain for the girl's companion. She checked her watch and saw it was barely 6:00 a.m. What on earth was a young girl doing out here alone on an empty stretch of beach at such an hour, and in nightclothes at that?
"Morning," she called out.
The girl waved. "Is this your dog?" she called to Sage with a big smile. "She's so pretty!"
Conan would just love being called pretty. When he wasn't grieving and morose, the beast had more prickly pride than a hedgehog with an attitude. "She's a he. And, yeah, I guess you could say he's mine."
Partly hers, anyway. Technically, she shared custody of the dog and ownership of Brambleberry House. But she wasn't about to let thoughts of Anna Galvez ruin one of Abigail's anything-can-happen days.
"His name is Conan," she said instead. "I'm Sage."
"Hi Conan and Sage. My name's Chloe Elizabeth Spencer."
The girl had short, wavy dark hair, intense green eyes and delicate elfin features. If she'd been in a more whimsical mood, Sage might have thought her a water sprite delivered by the sea.
A cold, wet breeze blew off the Pacific and the girl shivered suddenly, drawing Sage's attention back to her thin nightgown and her nearly bare feet. "Chloe, what are you doing out here by yourself so early?"
She shrugged her narrow shoulders with a winsome smile. "Looking for sand dollars. I found four yesterday but they were all broken so I thought if I came out early enough, the tide might leave some good ones and I could get them before anybody else. I promised my friend Henry I'd bring one back to him and I can't break a promise. He lives in the apartment next door. He's only seven and won't be eight until December. I've been eight for two whole months."
"Where's your mom or dad? Do they know you left?"
"My mom's dead." She said the words in a matter-of-fact way that Sage was only too familiar with. "She died when I was six."
"What about your dad, then?"
"I'm not sure. He's probably still asleep. He got mad at me last night because I wanted to find more sand dollars so I decided to come by myself this morning."
Sage looked around at the few isolated cottages and guesthouses on this stretch of beach. "Are you staying close by? I thought I knew all the eight-year-olds in town."
"Every one?" With a lift of her dark eyebrow, the girl somehow managed to look skeptical and intrigued at the same time.
"I do," Sage assured her. "The ones who live here year-round, anyway. I'm sure I don't remember meeting you."
Cannon Beach's population was only a couple thousand year-round. In the summer, those numbers swelled as tourists flocked to the Oregon shore, but they were still a week or so away from the big crowds.
"We're only here for a few days. Maybe a week. But if it's longer, then my dad says he'll have to send me to stay with Mrs. Strictland so he can get some work done. She's my dad's assistant and she hates me. I don't like going to her house."
Though she knew it was unfair to make snap judgments about a man she had not even met, a clear image of the girl's father formed in Sage's mind-a man too busy to hunt for sand dollars with his motherless child and eager to foist her on his minions so he could return to conquering the world.
She fought down her instinctive urge to take Chloe home with her and watch over her like a sandpiper guarding her nest.
"Do you remember where you're staying, sweetheart?" Chloe pointed vaguely north. "I think it's that way." She frowned and squinted in the opposite direction. "Or maybe that way. I'm not sure."
"Are you in a hotel or a condo?"
The girl shook her head. "It's a house, right on the beach. My dad would have liked to stay at The Sea Urchin but Mr. Wu said they were all booked. He didn't look very happy when he said it. I think he doesn't like my dad very much."
No wonder she had always considered Stanley Wu an excellent judge of character. She hadn't even met Chloe's father and already she disliked him.
"But what I don't get," the girl went on, "is if he doesn't like my dad, why is he going to sell him his hotel?"
Sage blinked at that unexpected bit of information. She hadn't heard Stanley and Jade Wu were considering selling The Sea Urchin. They had been fixtures in Cannon Beach for decades, their elegant boutique hotel of twenty or so guest rooms consistently named among the best accommodations along the coast.
"Do you know if your rental is close to The Sea Urchin?"
Chloe screwed up her features. "Pretty close, but I think it's on the other side. I didn't walk past it this morning, I don't think."
Though she seemed remarkably unconcerned about standing on wet sand in only her nightgown and flipflops, she shivered a little and pulled Conan closer.
Sage sighed, bidding a regretful goodbye to any hopes she might have entertained of enjoying a quiet moment for breakfast before heading to work. She couldn't leave this girl alone here, not when she apparently didn't have the first clue how to find her way home.
She shrugged out of her hooded sweatshirt and tucked it around Chloe's small shoulders, immediately shivering herself as the cool ocean breeze danced over her perspiration-dampened skin.
"Come on. I'll help you find where you're staying. Your dad will be worried."
Conan barked-whether in agreement with the plan or skepticism about the level of concern of Chloe's father, she wasn't sure. Whatever the reason, the dog led the way up the beach toward downtown with more enthusiasm than he'd shown for the ocean-side run. Chloe and Sage followed with the girl chatting the entire way.
In no time, Sage knew all about Chloe's best friend, Henry, her favorite TV show and her distant, work-obsessed father. She had also helped Chloe find a half-dozen pristine sand dollars the gulls hadn't picked at yet, as well as a couple of pieces of driftwood and a gorgeous piece of translucent orange agate.
"How do you know so much about shells and birds and stuff?" Chloe asked after Sage pointed out a surf scoter and a grebe.
She smiled at Chloe's obvious awe. "It's my job to know it. I'm a naturalist. Do you know what that is?"
"Somebody who studies nature?"
"Excellent! That's exactly what I do. I work for an organization that teaches people more about the world around them. When I'm not working on research, I get to show people the plants and animals that live here on the Oregon Coast. I even teach classes to kids. In fact, our first nature camp of the summer starts today. That's how I know so many of the local children, because most of them have been my campers at some time or another."
"Really? That's so cool!"
She smiled back, charmed by the funny little creature. "Yeah, I think so, too."
"Can I come to your camp?" The girl didn't wait for an answer. "My dad has another hotel in Carmel. That's in California, too, like San Francisco where we live. Once I went with him there and my nanny took me to see the tide pools. We saw starfish and anemones and everything. It was supercool."
Her nanny, again. Did the girl's father even acknowledge she existed?
"Did you at least tell your nanny where you were going this morning?" she asked.