“What?” he asked, surprising her. She’d have sworn he could pull off stone-faced silence for any length of time.

“You speak Spanish like a white man.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. It was a stupid thing to say, impulsive and presumptuous, but what the hell. She was curious, and he didn’t like her anyway. “I’m Luiseno,” he said, turning his attention back to the road.

“Really?” Her interest was piqued further. The Luiseno tribe, named by the founding fathers of the San Luis Rey Mission, was one of the twenty-six registered tribes in the area. San Diego had a more diverse Indian population than any other place in the United States. “Where were you born?”


Shay was stunned. Pala Reservation was only thirty miles from Tenaja, and one of the poorest communities in the county. Luke Meza wasn’t a well-to-do city boy from the lights of Las Vegas. He was local. Not only local, but Native.

He’d probably grown up with less than she had. Now he thought he was too good for her, and that rankled her hard.

“Who’s Dylan?” he asked, rolling to a stop in front of her house. “You mentioned that name to Fernando’s daughter.”

“He’s my younger brother,” she said, glancing toward the door.

“He lives with you?”


He followed her gaze, assessing the single car in the driveway, rusted basketball hoop above the garage door, and sadly neglected front lawn. “Where’re your folks?”

The question shouldn’t have caught her off guard, but no one in Tenaja Falls ever asked about her parents. They already knew. “Gone,” she said shortly.

He nodded, looking down the road instead of at her face.

She supposed that was his way of saying good-bye, and it left a lot to be desired. “I can’t say it’s been a pleasure,” she muttered, getting out of his truck.

“I can’t, either,” he replied, his eyes licking down her body once more before he slammed the truck into gear and drove away.

Eager to put some distance between them, Luke was driving too fast along the bumpy dirt road, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

He knew he’d done the right thing, but he cursed himself for having the presence of mind to say no when she’d been soft and pliant underneath him, granting him free use of that sweet-looking mouth and luscious body.

He groaned, picturing her pert little breasts, encased in the sexiest scrap of black lace he’d ever laid eyes on, and those pale pink panties, clinging to her ass like wet tissue.

He could have kissed her. Hell, he was almost certain she’d have let him strip off her panties and bury himself in her right there on that sun-warmed rock. He was hard all over again just thinking about it.

His hands curled around the steering wheel until his knuckles went white.

Perhaps it was a poor excuse for the intensity of his physical reaction, but he’d been too long without a woman. Sin City had a way of making a man feel dirty, inside and out, and the last few months in Vegas had really taken their toll. He’d seen enough bachelorettes, strippers, and whores to last him a lifetime.

So why was he panting after this small town bad girl?

Shay was easy on the eyes, to be sure, and she was probably easy in bed, but women like her were hard on men. And Luke had never been into casual sex.

He’d never been tempted to throw down his bone in the great outdoors either, but when the opportunity presented itself, he’d been so goddamned ready. He was still ready. For some reason, her earthy sensuality triggered this utterly primal, embarrassingly powerful, “me Tarzan, you Jane” response.

He couldn’t stop thinking about her wet panties.

Shifting in his seat, he leaned back and eased off on the gas. If he took the turns any faster, he’d end up in the ditch.

He should have gone ahead and given her what she’d been asking for. Never mind that he was on duty. Never mind that until he heard from the county medical examiner, he was supposed to be investigating a possible homicide. Never mind that if the autopsy report indicated wrongful death, he might have to consider Shay Phillips a suspect, along with her “rebel without a clue” boyfriend and gun-toting next door neighbor.

“Goddamn it,” he muttered, hitting his palm against the steering wheel.

Garrett Snell had told him all about Fernando Martinez this morning. Apparently, the man had caught his wife in bed with another hombre a few years back, and according to Garrett, Fernando ran them both out of town with a shotgun.

The quiet, unassuming father of five he’d met a few moments ago didn’t quite match up to Deputy Snell’s colorful description of him. Luke didn’t know who to believe, but his deputy was as shady as they came. He might have to add Garrett’s name to the list of suspects.

Cursing his luck, which had taken a turn for the worse in Vegas a few months ago and gone downhill from there, Luke reached into the glove compartment for his cell phone. As he leaned toward the passenger seat, he got a whiff of Shay Phillips’ sweet herbal scent. His upholstery would probably smell like her for days.

Gritting his teeth, he checked his messages. Two missed calls and no bars. Damned hillbilly town had the least reliable cell phone service this side of the border.

This interim sheriff position was turning out to be a real bitch.

Luke hoped the ME would be able to make an unequivocal decision regarding cause of death, to reconstruct the last moments of Yesenia Montes’s life in a way that explained every unanswered question, and to rule out foul play.

Maybe he was mistaken about the body being moved postmortem, and wrong to think the scene had been staged. Maybe, just this once, good had prevailed over evil, and the most innocent explanation would turn out to be the right one.

The county medical examiner was long gone, so he had to deal with Barry Snell, the funeral home director. In addition to being Garrett’s father, Barry was the mayor of Tenaja Falls and its coroner when no suspicious circumstances were evident. Having already been introduced to him, Luke knew that unlike his son, Barry had an upbeat temperament and perpetual smile. Luke wasn’t sure which man he trusted less.

“Official ruling is accidental death,” Barry said as he opened the door to the morgue’s side entrance, his gentle grin belying the seriousness of his words. Luke wondered if Barry was capable of a suitably grim expression. “But Dr. Hoyt remarked upon a few anomalies.”

Luke followed him to the autopsy room. “Like what?”

“Take a look,” Barry said, ushering him inside.

Luke had seen his share of dead bodies, mostly drunks and vagrants, old men who had succumbed to illness, drug and alcohol abuse, or the elements. He wasn’t a homicide detective, however, and the only time he’d been in this particular situation, standing over the corpse of a young woman in a morgue, he’d been identifying her body.

The memory was painful, to say the least, and carried with it a thousand regrets. Though he’d tried to, he hadn’t been able to save her. Leticia Nunez had been another casualty of Vegas, the city that chewed up beautiful women and spit them out.

Luke pushed the disturbing recollection aside, because the victim before him deserved his full attention. He vowed not to fail her, too.

Yesenia Montes was lying on her stomach on a stainless steel table, her head turned to the side, sightless eyes staring forward. Under the light of the high-powered lamp above her, he could see a number of broad, vertical lines on her naked back, shoulders, and buttocks.

“They’re lividity marks,” Barry explained, thumbing through a three-ring binder.

Luke was no forensic expert, but he knew such marks were common postmortem artifacts. A body often bore signs of whatever it had been resting against, or upon, in the moments or hours after death.

Stepping forward, he studied the darkened bands of flesh. They were widely spaced and evenly distributed, obviously not a result of the lion’s attack or caused by the soft dirt she’d been stretched out on. He frowned,

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