“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.

“Miss Phillips?”

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?”

She nodded.

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

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