Shay opened her eyes with a low moan. Her ears were ringing, her mouth was dry, and her head pounded with every heartbeat. From the blurry-edged space beside the bed, the telephone continued to shrill.
She blinked until the numbers on the digital clock came into focus: 4:52 a.m.
Reaching out, she fumbled for the receiver. "Hello?" she croaked, rolling onto her back and squeezing her eyes shut as a wave of nausea lapped over her. Her voice sounded like crushed gravel.
Another voice, one that was far more pleasant, low-pitched and even-toned, drifted into her ear, awakening a new level of consciousness. "This is Sheriff Meza with the Tenaja Falls Police Department. May I speak with Shay Phillips, please?"
He paused between her first and last name, as if reading it from a piece of paper. Although he was a complete stranger, he spoke with assurance and authority, like a man who was accustomed to getting what he wanted.
Something about his voice made her toes curl up under the covers.
Her headache throbbed and receded, throbbed and receded. Then the meaning of his words penetrated the fog surrounding her brain. "What?" she said, bolting upright.
"May I speak with . . ."
Barely listening, she dragged her tired body out of bed and stumbled across the room. All knees and elbows in the best of circumstances, she was extra-clumsy after a rare night of overindulgence. She hadn't felt this wrecked since her twenty-first birthday.
Five years ago exactly.
The room shifted, sending her careening into a set of dresser drawers, and she caught her hip on the edge. A bolt of agony shimmied down her leg, but she ignored it, lurching out into the hallway, toward the extra bedroom.
The door that loomed before her was littered with graffiti. A collage of crass bumper stickers, CD album covers, and website graphics ate up every inch of available space. Most of the images were angry and some of the words were profane, but Shay drew the line at pornography. If her little brother wanted to look at naked women, he could refer to the material stuffed under his mattress like a normal teenage boy.
At eye level, a magazine clipping featuring an airborne skateboarder urged her to "Get Bent." Beyond the door, she could hear music, not loud enough to melt eardrums, so he was probably asleep.
She rapped her knuckles against it. "Dylan?"
"Do I have the wrong number?" Sheriff Meza asked.
"Hang on," she said into the phone, twisting the doorknob. A few months ago he'd locked the door and climbed out the window, leaving the music blaring to throw her off. Since then, she'd removed the lock, but she hadn't entered his room uninvited.
She didn't want to walk in on him . . . doing anything.
Dylan was home, to her relief. To her chagrin, he wasn't asleep, nor was he alone. Angel Martinez, her next-door neighbor's dark-haired, wild-eyed daughter, was underneath him, digging her fingernails into his naked back.
The phone fell from her hand, landing with an audible thud on the worn carpet.
Dylan hadn't heard it ring, and he hadn't heard her knock, but he heard that. Looking over his shoulder, he fixed her with a murderous glare. "Get out."
Too horrified to do otherwise, she pulled the door shut and closed her eyes with a wince, trying to dispel the image. It registered, somewhat belatedly, that this was her house and she was in charge. Dylan was underage, and so was Angel, as far as she knew.
"I'm going to open this door again in two minutes," she warned, raising her voice. "Two minutes!"
Her head swelled with pain, making her dizzy. At her feet, Sheriff Meza was silent.
She picked up the phone. "This is Shay Phillips. Sorry about that."
"No problem," he replied smoothly. "I wouldn't have called so early, but we have a wildlife situation, and I was given your name."
She frowned, trying to focus on the conversation -instead of what was going on behind Dylan's bedroom door. Local law enforcement contacted her on occasion, if a mountain lion had been spotted in the area, but that wasn't the kind of news she needed to get out of bed for. This was rural Southern California. Mountain lions lived here.
"This is a lion situation?" she interpreted.
"Yes. I was hoping you could offer your expertise."
"Well, there's been a fatality."
Her jaw dropped. "A human fatality?"
"Oh my God," she said. Mountain lion sightings were infrequent, attacks extremely rare, and fatalities . . . a person was more likely to be struck by lightning. "Are you sure?"
"No," he admitted. "I'd like for you to take a look at the scene."
She swallowed sickly. This hangover was going to get a whole lot worse before it got better. "Of course," she said anyway, her pulse racing. "Where is it?"
"On the outskirts of town. Kind of hard to get to. If you don't mind, I'll pick you up and take you there myself."
"Okay. Let me give you my address."
"I already have it," he said. "I can be there in about ten minutes."
Rubbing her aching temple, she groaned a reluctant agreement.
"See you then," he said, and hung up.
Shay pulled the receiver away from her ear and stared at it in disbelief. Was any of this really happening? She got a flash of how she must look standing outside her brother's room in her underwear, half-drunk, half-asleep.
No wonder the kid had issues.
Shaking her head, which felt too heavy for her shoulders, she stalked back into her own room and returned the phone to its cradle. After tugging on a pair of jeans, she ducked into the bathroom and turned on the fluorescent light.
Upon seeing her reflection, she grimaced. Even blurry, it was bad. Puffy eyelids, raccoon eyes, pale lips. Freckles everywhere. She'd tried to wash off her makeup last night, but the attempt hadn't been very successful.
"Damned waterproof mascara," she grumbled, leaning over the sink to splash her face again. Feeling dehydrated, she drank several mouthfuls of water from her cupped hands. Her stomach lurched in protest.
When it settled, she straightened, studying the woman in the mirror. "I will never drink again," she muttered, lifting a hand to her tangled hair.
It was a promise she'd made more than once, especially in her college days, because she'd never had a head for alcohol. Since coming home to Tenaja Falls she'd had few opportunities to engage in this kind of foolishness. Stepping back into her role as Dylan's caretaker, managing the run-down house her parents had abandoned, and working hard to put food on the table hadn't left her a lot of time to cut loose.
Trying to comb her hair only amplified her headache. Abandoning the effort, she tied it back, brushed her teeth, and called it good.
This was not going to be an "I feel pretty" day.
She sat at the foot of the bed to pull on thick socks and the scuffed hiking boots she used for work. Grabbing one of Dylan's old sweatshirts, a faded black hoodie, she walked back out into the hallway, squaring her shoulders for another confrontation.
She had at least five minutes left before the sheriff came.
Outside her brother's door, she took a deep breath and raised her hand to knock. Before she got a chance, Dylan wrenched it open. He stood there blocking the doorway, trying to look as menacing as possible, which would have worked better for him if he'd been wearing a shirt.
Her brother wasn't exactly a beanpole, but at seventeen, and six-two, he'd yet to grow into his height. He was all raw bones and sharp edges, as skinny as she'd been at that age. Shay's heart ached for him, for what she knew he was going through.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Can I come in?"
In lieu of a response, he shoved the door against the wall and threw himself down on the unmade bed. Tucking his hands behind his head, he scowled up at the ceiling, waiting for his punishment.
Shay didn't know where to begin. She looked around her, as if the answer might be hidden amidst piles of schoolbooks and dirty clothes. Like his choice of artwork on the bedroom door, she didn't hassle him about how he kept his room. He did his own laundry, and judging by the amount of time he spent in the shower, he was the cleanest boy in the neighborhood.
Angel Martinez was gone, having crawled out the window she came in, presumably. Shay sank into the only chair in the room. "How old is she?"
His blue eyes flew to hers in surprise. He must have expected her to talk at him, not to him. "Eighteen," he said.
She was too tired to feel relief. "I don't see her at the bus stop anymore. Did she graduate?"
He shifted on the bed. "No. Her dad makes her stay home."
Shay figured Fernando Martinez needed all the help he could get. His wife had run off a few years ago, leaving him to raise their five children on his own. Speaking of which . . . "Are you using protection?"
His mouth thinned with annoyance. "I would have, but we didn't get that far." He glared at her. "You ruin everything."
Despite her headache, she smiled.
"Where are you going?"
Tension twisted inside her empty stomach, reminding her that she should try to eat something before she left. "The new sheriff called. I guess there's been some kind of freak accident. A lion attack."
His brows lifted. "Really? Cool."
"Someone's dead. Not cool."
He studied her appearance. "You look like crap."
"Yes," she agreed with a sigh, and stood to leave.
"That's it? I'm not in trouble?"
"I don't know," she said, too weary to decide. In a few months he'd be eighteen, and she found herself perpetuating the old double standard. If he were a girl, she'd handle things differently, but he wasn't. If they were closer, she'd ask him if Angel was his girlfriend, or if he was in love with her. But they weren't.
Since Mom died, their relationship had been strained.
She might not like the answers to those questions anyway, or know how to deal with his responses. Was it acceptable for him to have a girl in his room as long as they were "in love"? Jesus, that sounded ridiculous, even to her.
The doorbell rang, signaling the shift from one grueling situation to another.
She closed her eyes, wishing she could go back to bed. Or better yet, go back in time and say no to that last drink.
"Do you want me to answer it while you fix yourself up?" Dylan asked.
Selflessness wasn't usually in his repertoire, so she was surprised by the offer. "Thanks," she said wryly, "but I think I'm beyond repair." Resisting the urge to ruffle his hair, something he hadn't let her do since kindergarten, she left the room.
In the kitchen, she grabbed a Coke and a couple of saltine crackers, pocketed her keys, and went out to face an abominable day. The instant she saw the man on her doorstep, Shay knew the interlude with Dylan had been its highlight. How cruel was fate! To throw her in front of a man who looked this good, when she looked this bad.
Few men towered over her, but he did. Even fewer made a bland uniform look like a million bucks, and he did that, too. Although the star on his breast pocket proclaimed his status, he was younger and more handsome than any sheriff ought to be. His hair was short and black as pitch, his skin was dark against the collar of his shirt, and his arms were sinewy with lean muscle. Unlike the state troopers and sheriff's deputies she saw on occasion, he wore no gun holster or CB radio at his waist, just a plain leather belt and army green trousers.
He was a tall, cool drink of water.
Moistening her lips, she let her gaze wander a leisurely path back up to his face. His jaw was shadowed by a day's growth of beard and his brown eyes were somber, reminding her of his business here.
With a jolt, Shay realized she was staring, and he wasn't flattered by her attention. She blinked a few times, trying to snap out of her lustful stupor.
Ah, that voice. Carefully modulated and unerringly polite. Somehow she got the impression he'd rather chew on nails than converse with her. "Shay," she corrected, offering him her hand.
"Luke Meza," he said, accepting the handshake but releasing it sooner than he had to. Although his touch could only be called perfunctory, at best, a shiver of awareness passed through her. "Are you ready?"
His truck was parked along the gravel road in front of her house, and as she followed him down the cracked cement walkway she was struck again by how surreal the situation was. The sun had just begun to climb over the rock-covered hills in the east, and the first rays of dawn peeked through the cloud cover, casting the world in an eerie yellow light.
"You're tripping," she muttered to herself as she made her way around to the passenger's side. "Try not to puke on his front seat."
The Ford pickup was desert issue, pale green, with the Tenaja Falls Sheriff's Department insignia painted on the door. The logo matched a round patch on Luke Meza's shirtsleeve. Trying to be more subtle, she studied him from beneath lowered lashes as he got behind the wheel. In a town as small as Tenaja, newcomers were always remarked upon, but he'd only been here a few days. So the only thing she knew about him was that he'd been appointed to the position after the previous sheriff had suffered a heart attack, and would serve until the townspeople elected one of their own to do the job.
"So you're the interim sheriff," she said. Way to state the obvious, Shay.
Giving her a curt nod, he started the engine and put the truck into gear.
He had nice hands, she noted, remembering the feel of his palm against hers. They weren't chafed from years of manual labor, like most of the men's around here, but they weren't soft, either. "Where are you from?"
Sin City. Hmm. "Are you going back there?" He might be young, and an outsider to boot, but she figured he had a good shot at staying on as sheriff if he wanted to.
By the way he glanced across the cab, she decided he understood the implications of her question. "No," he said shortly, and didn't elaborate.
The strong, silent type. Check.
Excerpted from Set the Dark on Fire by Jill Sorenson. Copyright © 2009 by Jill Sorenson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.