Haylee Hansen has made a career out of caring for and training the dogs and horses on her aunt’s ranch. Part halfway house, part work camp, it also gives troubled kids and adults the tough love they so desperately need. Haylee should know. She was her aunt’s first success story. But now her turbulent past is about to show up on her doorstep . . .
After thirteen years running a level one emergency room in Portland, Dr. Aiden McCall arrives in Sunset Bay a broken man. Anger and anxiety have nearly taken over his life—and could sabotage his new job at the local hospital. Until someone proposes an unconventional solution: a therapy dog.
Haylee has seen her share of damaged people, but no one like Aiden. As she tries to match him with the perfect dog, he’ll help her to see that no one has a perfect life. And that opening yourself up to love is the only way to heal your soul . . .
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"Two thumbs up for Sanctuary Ranch: go for the horses. Stay for the food. Best week ever."
— Dan and Jan
There was a lot to love about ranch life, and as Haylee Hansen breathed in the aromas coming through the open sliding doors to the main house, and listened to the cook and her assistant bantering in the kitchen, she agreed with Dan and Jan's Trip Advisor review.
Horses, dogs and food, she amended.
Best life ever.
"Come on Ju-Jube," she said to the elderly dog at her side. "Let's see what Daphne's got for us tonight."
The dog, who was actually called Jewel but responded to a variety of names including Jay, Sweetie-bear, treat, walkies, car-ride and anything to do with food — perked her ears and wagged her beaver-fat tail, her tongue lolling sideways from her grinning jaw. Jewel was the unwanted product of a classic princess/stable boy romance between a champion pedigreed Labrador retriever and an unknown opportunist, but her accidental life had brought immeasurable joy to dozens of people over the years.
Haylee loved her like a child.
"I hope that animal's feet are clean." Daphne took one hand off a generous hip and pointed at Jewel. "You know where your bed is, Miss Ju-Jube-Bear. No getting in the way, you hear me?"
Jewel ambled to the large pillow in the corner and flopped onto it with a grunt, wagging her tail the whole time. She knew the drill.
Haylee stood on her tiptoes and peeked at the oven. "Is that pot roast I smell?"
"It's the smell of murder." Jamie, the kitchen assistant, stood at the prep station, her pierced eyebrows furrowed, up to her elbows in greens. She'd gone vegetarian three weeks ago and considered it her sacred duty to convert everyone else, as well. A month before that, she'd been all about coconut oil, which Daphne had been surprisingly open to. This, however, was a battle doomed to failure.
"It's pork shoulder and root vegetables roasted in pan drippings." Daphne donned oven mitts, opened the door and lifted the enormous roasting pan onto the stovetop. "Kale salad, too. If Jamie can chop and complain at the same time."
Haylee's stomach growled at the rich, fragrant steam that wafted into the room.
"It smells amazing," she said. "Where are the guys? Still out on the trail?"
The wranglers had taken the foster boys plus a group of horseback riders out that morning.
Daphne nodded. "Olivia suggested they might want to top the day off with a wiener roast at the lookout, so I packed them a basket."
Haylee busied herself pouring a drink, grateful for Olivia's thoughtfulness. Of course, her aunt would be doing it for herself, as much as Haylee. It was a tough day for both of them.
"It's just you, me, Liv and Gayle tonight," Daphne said. "And plenty of leftovers for tomorrow's lunch."
Haylee looked at Jamie. "You're not eating with us?"
The girl lifted her chin with a martyred air. "I'll be enjoying my salad in my quarters."
Jamie Vaughn was twenty-five, with the life experience of a forty-year-old and the attitude of a teen. She had arrived on Olivia's doorstep from Los Angeles several years ago like an oil-slicked seabird, all gawky limbs and tufted, greasy black hair, only tolerating their kindness because exhaustion and misery outweighed her ability to fight it off.
She'd been back and forth a few times but this time she seemed to want to stay. Haylee hoped she would. The ranch was good for Jamie. There was something healing about the Oregon coast. The air had a fresh, stinging bite. Food tasted better. With all the quiet, sound seemed purer, clearer, especially after busy city streets.
The ranch was good for all of them, in different ways.
"Your choice," Daphne said pitilessly. "Everyone's welcome at my table, but I set the menu. Take it or leave it."
"I choose life." Jamie plunked the enormous wooden bowl onto the long wooden dining room table. The salad was gorgeous, fresh curly leaves of kale mixed with sliced red cabbage, shaved Brussels sprouts, slivered almonds and chewy cranberries, all covered with a sweet, tangy poppy-seed dressing.
She served herself a large portion and then looked at Daphne. "Enjoy your flesh."
Daphne gave a low chuckle. "I've always enjoyed my flesh, honey."
Jamie made a face. "Gross. I'm outta here. Oh!" She stopped and turned to Haylee. "Before I forget, there's someone I want you to meet at the shelter. You have time in the next day or two to come with me?"
Haylee winced. Jamie's probation included community service at a variety of animal shelters, and Haylee's intake of potential service dogs had gone up dramatically since Jamie's arrival. She loved the young woman's enthusiasm, and had to admit she had great natural ability with dogs, but Sanctuary Ranch had only so much space.
She sighed. "Sure. Let's talk tomorrow, okay?"
Jamie grinned and bounced out with her plate, the argument with Daphne forgotten.
Olivia and Gayle arrived in time to hold the screen door for Jamie, and managed to hold back their laughter until they got into the kitchen.
"I understand we've arrived at the scene of a crime," Gayle said, giving Haylee a one-armed side hug.
"That girl." Olivia took her usual seat nearest the window, her long, gray-blond braid slipping over her wiry shoulder. "I can't wait until she finds herself. But she's entertaining, no doubt about that."
Daphne glanced out the window. "Don't tell her, but I'm experimenting with some meatless dishes."
Haylee gave a bark of laughter and nearly dropped her water glass. "Seriously? This is going to be awesome." Then she thought for a moment. "The guys are going to hate that."
"So what? We could all do with a little less cholesterol. It's not like I'm going to quit cooking meat entirely." Daphne set the platter of sliced meat and crispy skinned vegetables onto the table. "I was already thinking about it before she went all Tibetan monk on us. Now, she's going to think it was all her idea. She'll never let me hear the end of it."
She surveyed the table. "What am I forgetting? Oh yes, applesauce."
Daphne went back to the kitchen and Haylee watched from the corner of her eye as the cook casually glanced over her shoulder, then set a small plate in front of Jewel. Haylee pretended not to notice.
No one went hungry in Daphne's kitchen. Period. It was an inarguable precept. If Jewel came in, she got fed. Haylee didn't believe Daphne would enforce the ban, but she also didn't want to test it. The compromise was lean meat, vegetables and equivocation. Jewel certainly wasn't complaining.
"Applesauce?" Haylee said.
Daphne laughed. "Behind the bread basket. I guess we're both blind today."
They passed the dishes around family style, laughing and chatting in a way they couldn't quite do when the whole motley staff was present.
Yes, besides the animals, the best part of life on the ranch was the joy of coming together at the end of the day to share food, stories, news, gossip, the little things that make up a day, a week, a life.
Meat or no meat.
"Have you heard?" Gayle was saying. "There's a new doctor in town. I met him today at the department meeting. He comes from Portland with a rock-star reputation. He's also single, gorgeous and let's just say, if I wasn't batting for the other team, I'd be checking him out."
"Hey," Olivia protested. "I've got feelings, you know."
"Your feelings are as fragile as a bull moose," Gayle said with an affectionate smile.
Olivia tilted her head and looked at the ceiling. "True. So tell us more."
"Maybe we could set him up with Haylee," Daphne said, her eyes alight.
"Ooh, good idea," Olivia said. "It's high time."
"They'd look good together," Gayle said. "He's got dark hair and eyes, almost Mediterranean looking."
Daphne put a hand to her chest and sighed. "With Haylee's fair coloring and curls."
"Hello." Haylee waved her fork at them. "I'm right here."
"He's heading up the emergency room," Gayle continued, ignoring her. "Maybe she'll get kicked by a steer again."
"She's awful clumsy," Daphne added thoughtfully. "Just yesterday she stumbled bringing in a bagful of groceries. She could have fallen off the porch and broken her arm."
"I am not clumsy," Haylee said. No one even looked at her.
"Gideon's got that new skittish horse," Olivia said. "Maybe she could help him. That's an accident waiting to happen."
"While I appreciate your good wishes," Haylee broke in, "I'm not in the market for a rock-star boyfriend and have no intention of injuring myself for an introduction."
"Oh, honey," Daphne said with a laugh, "you stick to your animals and leave matters of the heart to the experts."
She lifted a palm and Olivia and Gayle returned air high-fives to her from across the table.
"A lesbian couple and a happily divorced middle-age cook?" Haylee said. "I question your credentials."
"Evil child. I'm in my prime." She got to her feet, her smile gone. "Who wants pie?"
Too late Haylee remembered that Daphne referred to herself as a divorcee but was, in fact, happily widowed, the end of her marriage and the end of her husband occurring around the same time, under circumstances that would have felled a lesser woman.
Haylee carried her plate to the sink, and gave the cook a hug. "Sorry, Daffy," she whispered. Then she straightened and raised her voice. "Dinner was great. I'll have pie later. Right now, Jewel and I need a walk. Come on, baby-girl."
The dog lurched to her feet, casting a longing glance at the plate beside her, licked glistening white, as if nothing had ever besmirched the pristine surface.
Not many people were on the beach, which suited Haylee's mood perfectly. She walked near the shining edge where the sand was surf-hardened and damp, enjoying the solid crunching shift of each footstep and the briny bite of ocean air. Occasionally she landed on a soft spot and her feet sank an inch or two but she didn't care. There were worse things than wet feet.
A lot worse.
There was no point lingering in the past, but memory was cyclical and the calendar didn't lie, so one day a year, she allowed herself to test the heaviness, like a tongue seeking a sore tooth, to see if it was still there, if it still hurt.
It was, and it did.
But a little better each year. And she'd feel better tomorrow.
Jewel gave a muffled woof and Haylee jumped. She lifted her gaze to see the dog loping awkwardly on dysplastic hips to greet a man approaching from the opposite direction.
"Jewel," she called, but the dog ignored her.
By sight, or by the dog they were with, she knew most of the people who frequented the stretch of sand between the town and the ranch property. But this man, she'd never seen before.
He lifted his head and pulled his hands from his pockets as Jewel came nearer, and reached out to pat her. He was tall and broad, his dark hair a fiery halo in the waning light.
"Hey there. This your dog?" His voice was espresso rich, deep and smooth as cream. "She's a real sweetheart."
If this was the rock-star doctor, Gayle hadn't been kidding.
"Yeah." She cleared her throat and swallowed. "Sorry about that. Jewel, come on back. She's very friendly."
"So I see. It's nice." The man squatted on his haunches to give Jewel a good scrubbing on her ribs. The dog groaned, her entire body wagging in delight.
A rock-star doctor who liked dogs.
"Sorry to interrupt your walk," she said, coming close enough to clip the leash onto Jewel's collar. He stood up as she did and she felt the full force of his presence.
There were lines around his eyes and mouth, laugh lines, she guessed, though the shadows dancing across his sculpted features suggested he hadn't been laughing much lately. Her stomach gave a little flip.
Maybe he was just tired.
"Don't apologize." His gaze was direct and appreciative. "A friendly face is just what I needed today."
Haylee looked away, fumbling with the leash. "Good. I'm glad. Well. See you around, I guess."
She tugged gently and led the dog away. He may or may not be the person Gayle described but she had enough sense to know that chatting with a strange man on a nearly deserted beach as the sun went down was a bad idea. Dog lover or not.
Even though she really wanted to stay.
Especially since she wanted to stay.
She angled her path upward so she could keep an eye on him as he walked away and before long, he'd disappeared around a rise of black rock.
"He seemed nice," she told Jewel. "Though I could be biased by pretty packaging and a very nice voice. I'd ask your opinion but you're as subtle as a freight train. You'd snuggle up to Jeffrey Dahmer if you thought he'd feed you."
The dog kept looking behind them, as if hoping the man would reappear. And he hadn't given Jewel any food whatsoever.
"I don't have time for a man," she said. "Or interest." She'd blown through her share of relationships — if you could call them that — years ago and wasn't interested in revisiting that minefield.
Fine. She was a coward.
"On the off chance I read the vibe correctly," she continued, "I'm doing him a favor by shutting this down before it gets started. Trust me."
Jewel wagged her tail, panted and licked her lips.
"Enough arguing," she said. "Time to head on home."
As they retraced their steps to the area where she'd last seen the man, a sound wafted over the water. A voice, calling out. Calling her?
"Did you hear something?"
Haylee squinted against the last rays of gold and scarlet painting the smooth ripples of the bay, in the universal human belief that by straining her eyes she'd be able to hear better.
She glanced at her dog, ambling across the vast, lonely stretch of sand ahead of her.
Of course the dog had heard it. The lapping Pacific surf that muffled sound to human ears was nothing to a dog.
She was probably imagining the distress.
Most likely, she was hearing some kids horsing around up by the cabins, in which case, they'd say hello and call it a night.
But what if it was someone in trouble?
"Find it, Jewel."
Immediately, the dog put her nose to the ground.
Haylee picked up her pace, watching Jewel's tail sweep back and forth, a flesh-and-blood metronome, the tick-tick-tick measuring out a life lived in the moment, anticipation unmarred by dimming vision and arthritic hips, joy untarnished by worry or regret.
She thought of her current fosters: the little terrier cross, so full of attitude. Another Lab–pit bull, who was almost ready to move to his forever home. The Border collie with the thousand-yard stare. None of them compared to Jewel.
She pulled salt air deep into her lungs following as the dog moved upward, scrambling over the surf-scoured rocks gleaming against the fading citrus sky, absorbed, Haylee imagined, not so much in the object at the end of the search, as the search itself. The journey, not the destination.
Jewel glanced back as if to say Pay attention!
"Right behind you, girl."
She'd heard no more calls, but the old dog's zeal was a joy to see. And you never knew.
Like freshwater pearls on a loose string, the Oregon coastline was dotted with beaches, each one a glowing gem nestled against the velvety silhouette of black rock. The wind-and-surf-pounded outcroppings, with their hidden caves and mussel-laden tide pools, all gloriously inviting in the light of day, told a different story when darkness fell.
It wouldn't be the first time an unsuspecting beachcomber or sunbather had miscalculated the tides and spent a chilly night waiting for the ocean to recede.
Newcomers and visitors were especially vulnerable.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Hello? Is someone there?"
In the silent suspension between waves, Haylee listened for the voice, but caught only the pad-pad-swish of foot and paw on sand, empty nothingness.
Not the tall stranger then, with his piercing eyes and soft dog-patting hands who may or may not be Gayle's handsome doctor.
"Ju-Jube, honey, I think we're SOL on this one."
But Jewel bunched her shoulders and clambered ahead. Haylee knew when she was being ignored. She ought to be firmer. She ought to reassert her position as alpha.
Being and doing as she ought to got old. It wasn't as if Jewel sought domination of their little pack, after all. She knew on which side of the pantry door her kibble was buttered.
Just then the ocean paused its breathing and the sound came again, a voice, certainly, his voice, maybe, carried gently over the evening air, but landing not so much like distress as ... the sounds you made when you banged your head getting into your car, cussing yourself out for stupidity. Dumbass noises, she thought.
"Woof," said Jewel, breaking into a stiff old lady's run.
"Please don't throw yourself at him this time," she cautioned. "He could be hurt." More likely a loss of dignity, which did not preclude the need for assistance; however, she knew from experience that where dignity was concerned, the need for assistance was often inversely proportional to its welcome.
Excerpted from "Sunset Bay Sanctuary"
Copyright © 2017 Roxanne Snopek.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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