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CHAPTER ONE

“Two thumbs up for Sanctuary Ranch: go for the horses. Stay for the food. Best week ever.” –DanandJan

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, grey-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.

copyright © 2017 by Roxanne Snopek

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