Chapter One, continued:

(Miss the first excerpt? Read it here:)

“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.

copyright © 2017 by Roxanne Snopek

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