TEMPTING THE SHERIFF
She didn't ask for a new deputy. Well, technically, she did ask. But Lily Tate didn't expect city cop Vaughn Fulton to come swaggering into her sheriff's office, making her feel things she has no right to feel. Not since she lost what she loved most in a tragedy she should have seen coming. Lily can see exactly where she and Vaughn are headed. As hard as he is to resist—and as much as he seems to want her—Vaughn plans to ditch the small-town life when his stint at the Sheriff's Department is over. Lily's already handled enough heartbreak. What kind of fool would make the same mistake twice?
Vaughn Fulton tossed his shades onto a box marked Kitchen Crap and turned in a slow circle. He’d been played. Suckered, by an eighty-four-year-old man. If Emerson Fulton were still alive, he’d be smirking his ass off because he was about to make good on his promise to see that his nephew stayed in Castle Creek longer than it took to eat a rib eye at the diner and watch a ballgame for dessert.
He pushed a breath through his nose. Yeah, he should have visited more often. No doubt about it. He’d let down the old man.
And his uncle had plotted one hell of a payback.
“Bits and pieces, my ass,” Vaughn said aloud. The echo he should have heard failed to bounce back at him. No surprise, considering the ceiling-high jumble of boxes and furniture crowding the room. A jumble that hadn’t been there two months ago, when he’d stopped in to check on the old man. A week later, Uncle Em was gone.
Vaughn pinched the bridge of his nose.
Near the end, he’d promised to handle the property side of things. Stay at the house as soon as he could manage it. Clear it out and see it sold. Two days max to empty the place, Uncle Em had sworn.
Two days, like hell. It would take two weeks to go through everything on the first floor, and that was just the sorting—he’d have to make arrangements for transportation to the landfill and find a charity to take the rest. No way could he take more than one or two items for himself. His apartment in Erie wasn’t much bigger than a square of toilet paper.
So much for cranking this out over the weekend.
Vaughn linked his fingers behind his neck and exhaled. He missed his uncle. He missed him bad. His aunt, too. He’d spent a lot of uncomplicated summers in this house. But as grateful as he was that the old man had remembered him in his will, he didn’t have time for this. Well, technically he did, since his jackass partner had earned him a thirty-day suspension, but he’d wanted to spend it clearing his name, not clearing a dozen rooms crammed with someone else’s crap.
Don’t be a dick.
He dropped his arms and carefully wound his way back to the foyer. The afternoon light spilling in through the strip of stained glass in the front door scattered jewel tones across the floor and over the toes of his boots. Along with the faint smell of almond pound cake that was baked into the very walls, it made him nostalgic for a childhood he usually did his damnedest to forget.
Sudden exhaustion tugged at his shoulders. He would have leaned against a wall if it weren’t for the piles of junk. Instead he leaned back against the front door and surveyed the hardwood floor, barely visible beneath stacks of old magazines and newspapers, towers of rust-rimmed paint cans and heap after heap of wrinkled clothing.
How had his uncle found the energy to collect all this? What had he done, put up a notice at Cal’s Diner? Help me show my nephew what a jackass he is. Bring your unwanted items, large or small, to 16511 Paisley Place and make him deal with it.
Vaughn huffed a reluctant chuckle. He’d bet his service weapon that was exactly what Uncle Em had done. He could see the old man now, fixing his invite to the corkboard just inside the diner’s door, tongue between his teeth and that tickled-with-himself gleam in his eyes…
Abruptly, Vaughn swung toward the kitchen. He could use a drink. The dust was making his throat scratchy.
The kitchen was the only room in the house that didn’t harbor a maze of boxes. Vaughn grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the tap. After downing it he poured another, butted a hip against the sink and took stock. The room—hell, the whole house—was way overdue for a facelift. Battered white cabinet doors and a scuffed linoleum floor needed to give way to solid maple and Mexican tile, but Uncle Em hadn’t wanted to change anything with Aunt Brenda’s stamp on it. Vaughn couldn’t blame him. Even the thought made Vaughn want to check the wide-eyed ceramic owl cookie jar, see if it held any of the ginger crisps his aunt used to make.
He was stretching toward the jar when his ringtone jolted him upright. Just as well. Considering his aunt had died four years earlier, he doubted he’d enjoy whatever the owl guarded.
He dug his phone out of the front pocket of his jeans. “Fulton here.”
“Vaughn? This is Rick Whitby.”
“Mayor.” Vaughn braced a hand on the edge of the counter. He gazed through the window, studying the generous stretch of brown-tipped grass desperate for a mowing and the intersecting rows of hornbeams that screened the yard from the neighbors. The trees were in serious need of pruning.
For the hundredth time, Vaughn wondered what had drawn his uncle to Whitby, a fifty-year-old player with too much time on his hands, considering he had a county to run. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Son, let me say again how sorry I am about your uncle’s passing.”
“I appreciate that.”
“It’s been a lot of years since he retired as clerk of the court, but folks at the courthouse still talk about him.”
The funeral had been well attended. Vaughn had been touched. “What can I do for you, Mayor?” he asked again.
“In a hurry, are you, son?”
Whitby’s chuckle had Vaughn jonesing for a cup of coffee. Hell, even a soda would do. Anything to wash away the taste of ulterior motive. He pushed off the counter and opened the fridge. Nothing but baking soda and a sheet of paper. Vaughn picked up the paper, hip-bumped the door shut and took a closer look.
An estimate, for replacing the roof. It wasn’t the fact that his uncle had left it in the fridge that sent Vaughn’s oh-shit factor sky-high. It was the total on the dotted line. Five figures.
Vaughn dropped into a chair and double-checked the math.
“Son? You still there?”
Whitby cleared his throat. “Listen, give me a call when you get into town, will you? I’d like to set up a meet. Discuss a proposition.”
Vaughn fought the urge to admit he’d already arrived. “What’s on your mind?”
The mayor hesitated. “What I have to say deserves a face-to-face.”
Vaughn’s Spidey senses started to tingle. “I’d appreciate a heads-up.”
“All righty, then. Our sheriff’s department is understaffed. I’m hoping you’ll help us out while you’re in town.”
He had to be kidding. “You want me to be a deputy?”
“I’d make you sheriff if I could.”
Vaughn wasn’t surprised. He’d never met Sheriff Tate, but he knew she was a hard-ass. From what he’d heard, a man could drop dead in the street and she’d write him a ticket for jaywalking.
Thanks, but no thanks.
“I’ll only be around long enough to clean out the house,” Vaughn said. “Unless I decide to sell it as is.”
“But that’s against the terms of your inheritance.”
Vaughn shifted his weight, and the chair groaned a threat to break into pieces and dump his ass on the floor. “How do you know that?”
“I helped Emerson draft it. Listen, your uncle wanted the house to stay in the family. More than that, he wanted you to stay in Castle Creek. I promised I’d do my best to talk you in to both.”
Tension threaded its way through Vaughn’s muscles. “He knew better.” Besides, the old man had left only half the house to Vaughn—the rest of the estate went to charity. Even if he wanted to, there was no way Vaughn could raise the money to buy the house outright. If Uncle Em had been so gung-ho about Vaughn staying, the old man should have left him the whole house.
Not that Vaughn deserved it.
When Whitby spoke again, his voice carried a pout. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“I’m sorry you’re understaffed, but I don’t have time to help, and I have no interest in relocating.” Even if he did, it would be to another city, not to a geriatric community that was about as dangerous as a stuffed animal. Yeah, Uncle Em had made noises about Vaughn holding on to the house, but he’d been well aware his nephew could only take so much quiet. By the end of every summer visit, Vaughn had been twitchier than a teenage girl caught speeding in her daddy’s brand-new Beemer.
Vaughn liked crowds. Traffic. Noise. Action.
“Emerson said you were going to take a leave of absence.” The mayor’s tone bordered on accusatory.
“I did.” Sort of.
“At least let me set up a tour. Show you the facilities, introduce you around.”
“Maybe another time.”
Vaughn ended the conversation and tossed his phone on the table then zigzagged his way back to the living room. After snagging a box cutter off the tattered seat of a bar stool, he sliced open the Kitchen Crap box. Might as well locate the coffeemaker, because no way was he going to check out the second floor without a hefty dose of caffeine. And maybe a shot of whiskey, if he could find it.
In the dining room behind him, something heavy tumbled to the floor. Vaughn whipped around, automatically slapping a hand to his empty hip. Easy. He squinted across the hall and saw that a box had fallen off a stack. Obviously the contents had shifted and gravity had taken over.
Guilt niggled. Had his uncle really counted on his settling here?
He shook his head. Way to let the mayor work you.
Ten minutes later, he was rifling through dish towels and pot holders when he heard another thud. Next came a series of scraping sounds, like something being dragged across a sandy floor. What the hell?
He grabbed the box cutter and strode into the dining room. “Who’s in here?” he demanded.
More thumping, muted this time. He looked to his right. Another box had landed on its side, spilling half-empty bottles of lotion and shampoo. A third carton had fallen behind it. Whatever was in here had to have been inside for a while—the place had been closed up for weeks.
A vision of a rabid raccoon latching on to his jugular while blood sprayed everywhere had him thinking about calling 911. But only for a split second. He couldn’t let the overzealous sheriff lock up another Fulton for no good reason.
With a tight grip on the box cutter, Vaughn carefully skirted the mess on the floor, bent down and peered into the upended box.
A black cat stared up at him while kneading the lace tablecloth Aunt Brenda had saved for holidays. Sheepishly, Vaughn retracted the blade on the box cutter and slid the tool into his back pocket.
“Uncle Em might be smirking down on me, but Aunt Brenda’s trying to swat you with a broom,” he told the cat. The animal yawned and tugged a paw loose from a clinging thread. Vaughn squatted. “How the hell did you get in here?”
The cat hissed and backed farther into the box. Vaughn held up his hands. “Sorry, buddy. Didn’t mean to make you nervous.”
Jesus. He was talking to a stray cat.
He headed back to the kitchen. As soon as he made this call, the entire county would know he was in town. But someone was missing a pet, and he didn’t have time to go knocking on doors.
“Hello, Miss Catlett? This is Vaughn Fulton, next door.”
“How are you, Vaughn?”
“Good. Thanks. You?”
“Better if you call me Hazel, sweet cheeks.”
While Hazel shared the details of her plantar fasciitis, the cheese ball recipe she’d recently tried and something about a new boyfriend and old lube—wait, what?—Vaughn returned to the dining room and checked on his intruder. The cat remained crouched in the corner of the box.
Hazel took a breath and Vaughn took advantage.
“Did my uncle have a cat?”
“No, hon, not that I know of. You have one hanging around outside?”
“Inside, and I have no idea how long he’s been in here.”
“Oh. Well, if I were you, I’d avoid going barefoot.”
“Thanks,” Vaughn said dryly. “Any clue where he might have come from?”
“What’s he look like?”
“Black, with a white diamond on his chest.”
“That could be Franklin. He belongs to the Hockadays, two doors down. But how on earth would he have managed to get in?”
“Probably through one of the big-ass holes in the roof,” Vaughn muttered.
“Just thinking out loud.”
“Like my Pete.”
“My sweetie. Pete Lowry. Remember him? Runs Lowry’s Garage?”
“Sure do.” With a silent huff of relief, Vaughn perched on the windowsill. That explained the lube comment.
“And yes, we do enjoy wild grease monkey sex.”
“Hazel. I have an idea.” Please stop talking about your sex life. “Mind coming over and taking a look at this cat? See if you recognize him?”
She gave a knowing chuckle. “Sure thing, hon. I’ll be right over.”
Vaughn returned the cat’s wary stare. “Franklin. That your name?” When the cat started working his paws into the tablecloth again,
Vaughn nodded. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
He went back across the hall and resumed his quest for the coffeepot.
It took him a few seconds, but he finally recognized that half-buzzing, half-wheezing sound as the doorbell. He set aside the coffee filters he’d discovered in a box marked Cleaning Crap and maneuvered his way back to the front door.
The Catlett sisters stood on the porch, each holding a foil-covered plate, their grins as wide as their makeup was bright. He smiled back, careful not to peer directly into their eye shadow.
The seventysomething Hazel and June, or Hazel and Nut, as some called them, couldn’t have been kinder to him when he was a kid. They’d made numerous trips across his uncle’s yard during Vaughn’s summer visits, toting cakes and casseroles and platters piled high with those round devil-dog things they called gobs. It wasn’t until after Aunt Brenda died that Vaughn realized the sisters had probably used his growing-boy stage as an excuse to help out his aunt and uncle while they struggled with his aunt’s cancer.
Aunt Brenda’s death had hit Vaughn almost as hard as it had hit Uncle Em. He hadn’t handled it as well as his uncle, though. He’d thrown himself into his job as a patrol officer with the Erie PD, with his sights set on becoming a detective. His visits to Castle Creek had been irregular at best. He wasn’t proud of the distance he’d kept, but it had helped him manage his grief.
“You just going to stand there, Vaughn Fulton, or are you going to give us some love?”
Vaughn started. “My apologies, ladies. Please come in, but watch your step.”
They followed him down the hall and into the kitchen, tut-tutting as they passed the leaning tower of pizza boxes and five buckets of rags that were at the top of his list to go to the dump. The last thing he needed was a fire.
His visitors set their plates on the kitchen table and exchanged nods of approval.
Hazel beamed at him. “Looks like Emerson achieved what he set out to do.”
“It’ll take you weeks to sort this mess.” June lifted her arms. “Hug time.”
Vaughn’s narrowed gaze traveled from Hazel to June and back again. Their sweetly familiar, brightly painted faces made him want to smile, but he suppressed the urge. Coconspirators, both of them.
“You were in on it,” he said sternly.
Hazel blinked her carrot-colored eyelids and pursed her turquoise lips. Vaughn couldn’t help wondering if she’d confused her lipstick for her eye shadow and vice versa. June had avoided that problem by painting both the same color—light purple. Vaughn had to admit it went well with her pink pantsuit.
Hazel patted her short, white hair. “Maybe we were and maybe we weren’t,” she said cagily.
“Oh, we absolutely were,” June said. She wore her silver hair in the same pixie cut as her sister’s. “And we loved every minute of it. Emerson let us take a peek at what people were bringing in and I scored two plastic tubs of summer clothes. I’m going to do a reverse Julie Andrews and patch together a set of curtains out of gym shorts.”
Vaughn let loose his laugh and stepped into her hug. She smelled like peppermint, just as he remembered. Nostalgia backed up in his throat as he bent toward Hazel. She pinched his ass.
“You haven’t changed,” he said, stepping out of reach.
“You have. You’ve been working out. That’s one fine caboose you have there, Officer.”
He gestured at the chaos in the hallway behind them. “You can help yourself to anything here, except my caboose.” He saw her expression and rushed to add, “Or any other body part.”
“Fine,” Hazel sniffed. “Then I suppose we should go find Franklin.”
Vaughn led them to the dining room, where he crouched down to see inside the overturned box. When Hazel and June crowded in behind him, the cat erupted from the box. Front paws scrabbled on dust-covered hardwood as he made for the doorway. The back paws weren’t as efficient, and as the cat shuffled past him, Vaughn discovered why. The animal’s rear left leg hung at an odd angle, slowing his progress up the stairs.
“I wonder if he hurt himself getting in.” He pulled out his cell. “Do you know the Hockadays’ number? They’ll have better luck getting hold of him.”
“I do have their number, but I’m afraid that’s not going to do any good.” June’s hand fluttered to her neck. “Sorry, dear, but that’s not Franklin. Your he is a she. And she’s about to have kittens.”
Vaughn staggered back a step. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
Hazel eyed her sister with pride. “Wilmer Fish always said a vet could never ask for a better assistant than June.”
While June preened, Hazel started rummaging through one of the boxes toppled by the cat.
Vaughn pushed a hand through his hair. “Neither of you has any idea who that cat might belong to?”
Hazel looked over her shoulder. “I’m thinking it’s you.”
“The cat seems to be thinking the same thing.” June sidled around Vaughn to select her own box to pick through. “Ooh.” She held up several pads of paper and a stack of multicolored Post-its. “Would you mind?”
Vaughn shook his head. “Anything else catches your eye, please take it. That includes the cat.”
“Nice try, hon. Our Baby Blue would foam at the mouth if we tried to expand our little family. Schnauzers aren’t usually super-possessive of their owners, but ours certainly is.” Hazel patted him on the cheek. “We need to go. We have a fund-raiser to finalize. Good luck with the house. I’m sure you’ll get a fine price for it after all the repairs are made.”
Vaughn frowned down at her. “I know about the roof. Don’t tell me there’s more.”
“I’m afraid so.” June hugged to her chest the office supplies she’d scavenged. “Your uncle had an electrical fire upstairs a few months ago, and there’s a problem with the plumbing in the master bath.” She squinted up at him. “He didn’t tell you?”
Vaughn shook his head. What else had the old man kept from him?
Hazel grimaced. “The way the market is around here, you’re not going to find a buyer if they have to invest in major repairs.”
Vaughn barely refrained from rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. His halfhearted search for Uncle Em’s whiskey stash had now become critical. He didn’t have the money to invest in major repairs. His chances for getting a loan weren’t good, either. Not when he was already stretched thin. Rent ate up most of his pay.
He thanked the sisters again for the food, apologized for not being able to offer them coffee and walked them out, then shut the front door and glanced at the second floor. That cat could be up there having kittens right this moment. In his bed.
Oh, hell, no. Vaughn grabbed his cell and headed for the stairs. Why hadn’t he asked June for the vet’s number? Before he could do a search on Wilmer Fish, he noticed a text from Whitby.
Forgot to mention it’s a paid position. Let’s talk salary over dinner. Cal’s Diner @7? I’m buying.
He hesitated on the top step. As his thumb hovered over Reply, his ringtone blared into the silence. With a sigh, he lifted the phone to his ear.
“You said you’d call.”
“I got caught up in something.” He worked his way toward the room Aunt Brenda had assigned him during his summer visits. So much for hoping the second floor wouldn’t also be packed to capacity. It was standing-room-only up here. And it reeked of mothballs.
He stopped in the doorway of the guest room and exhaled. Even his bed was piled high with crap. Though maybe that was a good thing, considering the twin-size mattress looked about five times smaller than he remembered.
His mother gave a disapproving huff. “Do whatever it is you need to do and spend the rest of your break with us. Your father has someone he’d like you to meet.”
Vaughn tightened his grip on his phone and swung toward the master bedroom. “I thought I made it clear. Enough with the ambushes.”
“Don’t be stubborn. So we scheduled a few dinners. You have to eat.”
“Mom. I have a job waiting for me in Erie.” At least, he hoped he did. “I’m not changing my career.”
“Plenty of people your age and even older have made the decision to steer their professional lives in a new direction. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed, I’m resolved. I’m proud of what I do. I plan to continue doing it.”
“Vaughn.” His mother’s voice gentled. “You know your father and I would rather you find a job with actual earning potential. We’re trying to look out for you. Don’t you want to be able to afford a house some day? A family? Don’t you want to have money to travel when you retire?”
He did have a house. His uncle’s house. But it was only partly his, and it wasn’t in Erie. Not for a moment would he consider staying.
As his mother talked about the trips she and his dad had taken and all of the places they planned to go, Vaughn peered into his uncle’s bedroom. Score. The bed was empty. No junk, no cat in labor.
He propped a shoulder against the doorjamb and listened to his mother describe the luxury car he could afford if only he earned a decent paycheck.
Most law enforcement parents would worry about their son or daughter getting hurt in the line of duty. Vaughn’s folks worried what the neighbors thought of their blue-collar son.
“So when can we expect you?” his mother asked. “I think you should talk to the man from the securities firm first—he has a personal driver and a summer house in the Hamptons.”
“Not interested, Mom.” Did she ever get tired of hearing it? `Cause he was sure as hell tired of saying it. “Even if I were, I don’t have the time.”
“You don’t have the time to visit your own parents?”
“Not when they won’t stop campaigning against my job.”
“And anyway, how complicated can it be to put up a For Sale sign?”
Basically what he’d said to Whitby. So why didn’t the suggestion sit well?
“It’s more involved than that.” Just to be difficult, Vaughn added, “Plus they want me to pinch-hit as a deputy while I’m here.”
Her reaction didn’t disappoint. “That’s not going to happen,” she said flatly. “As if wasting your potential chasing hardened criminals around the city isn’t bad enough.”
Vaughn rolled his eyes. “There’s a lot more to the job than that. By the way, crime rate’s a lot lower here.”
“So is the standard of living. What’ll I tell the securities broker, that you’re busy breaking up a moonshine ring? Please be serious. You’ll damage your prospects. You know very well your father and I are not going to let you bury yourself in the country playing cops and robbers with your uncle’s cronies.”
She wouldn’t let her brother’s arrest go. Never mind that Vaughn was still holding his own grudge. His mother didn’t blame Sheriff By-The-Book Tate, but Vaughn sure as hell did. “I’m twenty-eight, not twelve,” he said. “If I want to play cops and robbers, I’ll play cops and robbers and you can’t stop me.”
He winced at his juvenile tone. After muttering his goodbye, he straightened, drew in a breath and prepared to flush a pregnant cat from her hiding place.
Or maybe he’d just join her there.
When Speedy Pete drove past Lily Tate sedately enough that she had time to register his smirk, she realized she’d been had.
Squinting after his faded gray Jeep as it disappeared around the bend, she lowered the radar gun and swore. The last time Pete Lowry had driven that slowly, he’d been bringing up the tail end of the Christmas parade, putt-putting down the center of State Street hauling a flatbed crammed with the high school football team, the cheerleading squad, three dozen bales of hay and a celebrity Holstein named Priscilla Mae.
Somehow the smug so-and-so had known Lily was parked at the entrance to the old logging road. But how? The only vehicles she’d seen that afternoon had all been headed in the same direction, away from Castle Creek.
She lifted her hat and blotted the sweat clinging to her bangs. She blinked against the perspiration that stung her eyes and wriggled her shoulders, desperate to free her skin from the short-sleeved uniform shirt plastered to her back. But that wouldn’t happen until she was back in the air-conditioned courthouse, and that wouldn’t happen until she managed to actually write a citation.
Two hours in the August sun and she hadn’t issued the first ticket. Today’s lack of revenue would not please the mayor. He’d probably auction off her parking space again. Not that she minded the walk, but it always seemed to rain the week she’d been relegated to the back of the lot.
She huffed in exasperation and grabbed at the car door. Time to find out why everyone was driving like the road was coated in ice.
The moment she dropped into her seat, she heard a rattling sound. What the—oh. She plucked her cell free of the plastic cup holder. When had she put it on Vibrate? A glance at the screen had her wincing. Burke. Again. She pressed Ignore. The man had to be as tired of hearing no as she was of saying it.
She started the car, then lightly bounced her forehead against the wheel. All she wanted was to do her job. Stay busy. Enjoy her privacy.
But the mayor was determined to make her job harder, Burke Yancey wouldn’t stop asking her out and every time she heard a child laugh—
She pressed her hands against her chest, where sudden pain sliced deep. After a few breathless seconds, she filled her lungs and
sat up straight. Reached for her seat belt.
Focus. She had a job to do. And doing that job meant finding out why every driver in Castle Creek had suddenly developed a feather foot.
It didn’t take long.
Half a mile past the curve that prevented Lily from seeing oncoming traffic—and prevented oncoming traffic from seeing her—she spotted the problem. Jared Ensler.
She should have known.
The skinny preteen stood on the shoulder, his back to Lily. Wincing at his camouflage pants and dark green T-shirt, she pulled off onto the opposite shoulder. At least the kid’s blazing orange skullcap made him stand out. Well, that and the poster-sized sheet of cardboard he was toting.
The sound of her engine must have finally registered because he turned. His eyes went wide, his mouth went slack and his arms collapsed. The bottom third of the sign buckled against his shins. Lily eyed the bright red, hand-painted letters and suppressed a grudging smile.
Speed Trap Ahead.
Jared chewed his bottom lip and let the sign drop to his side, but he stood his ground. Ignoring the hat she’d tossed on the passenger seat, Lily pushed herself once more into the thick, sticky heat of the afternoon. A farm stand just down the highway was selling peaches, and she breathed in the heady scent. A mental image of a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with juicy slices of the ripe fruit was almost enough to forgive the sun its enthusiasm today.
Almost, but not quite.
The harsh cry of a crow on the power lines overhead had her rolling her eyes at herself. Food fantasies were so not her thing. That’s what she got for skipping lunch. And leaving her hat in the car one too many times. With a wistful glance at the distant, dark blue wedge of Lake Erie, she adjusted her sunglasses and crossed the road.
Jared kicked at a dandelion sprouting at the pavement’s edge. Bits of white fluff exploded into the air. When the crunch under Lily’s boots signaled she’d moved from asphalt to gravel, he lifted his head. His mouth formed an arrogant slash, but his eyes held a hint of panic.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked gruffly.
“Depends. Your mother know what you’re up to?”
“I’m used to that kind of trouble. I need to know about the jail kind.”
“Why are you out here, if you thought you might be arrested?”
He stacked his hands atop his skullcap. “Am I? Under arrest?”
“Jared.” Lily bit back her impatience as sweat dripped down the back of her neck. “Are you wearing sunscreen?”
He gave her an odd look and shook his head. He wasn’t wearing shades, either, but at least he’d been smart enough to bring something to drink. A battered handheld cooler rested on the shoulder behind him.
Lily sighed. “What are you doing out here?”
He glanced around, as if for inspiration. “Something’s wrong with our Xbox.” When she crossed her arms, he shrugged. “We got bored watching TV. We heard my mom talking on the phone with someone who’d seen you out here—”
“And decided it would be fun to warn everyone I was using radar.”
“Yeah.” The word carried a lot of duh.
He hesitated. “Scottie’s out here, too, down the road a ways.”
His younger brother, on the road by himself. Fantastic.
“There hasn’t been any traffic from that direction,” she said. “How is that less boring than watching TV?”
Jared smirked. “He’s doing okay.”
“How do you know?” When he pulled a smartphone out of his pocket, Lily nodded, barely resisting the urge to say this duh for him.
“Let’s go get him. I’m taking you two home before you get heatstroke.”
“You’re not taking us to jail?” His mouth tipped up and then down, as if he didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
“I have a feeling any punishment your mother dishes out will be worse than a stretch in one of my holding cells. What you’re doing isn’t illegal, but it is dangerous. What if a car came around that corner too fast and swerved onto the shoulder? What if a driver wasn’t paying attention and drifted off the road?” She broke off. The possibilities had her lungs floundering.
Jared looked unimpressed.
She breathed in, then out. “How did you even get out here?”
“Our neighbor brought us.”
Right. Lily did remember seeing Mrs. Yackley drive by in her lime-green Beetle. “She didn’t ask why you and your brother wanted to be dropped off in different locations?” Or wonder if she should leave a twelve-year-old and an eight-year-old out on the highway alone? “What’d you do, tell her you were on some kind of secret mission?”
Jared shook his head. “We told her the truth. She was cool with it, but she said if her taxes went up she wouldn’t knit us any more hats.”
Lily huffed a laugh. “Okay, then.” Apparently Mrs. Yackley had an issue with authority. Or maybe just a soft spot for restless preteens.
Jared picked up his cooler and followed Lily to her patrol car. She agreed to let him sit up front until they collected his brother. After that, the boys would have to share the backseat—no way was she going to play referee while they argued about who got to sit where.
She drove back to the logging road and eased around the curve beyond it. There stood fair-haired Scottie, wearing a banana-colored T-shirt that hung to his knees and holding a sign identical to his brother’s. Except for the message.
Lily snorted. These kids had the perfect setup. After Jared warned drivers of the speed trap, Scottie asked them to show some gratitude.
He held a bucket in his left hand and in his right a sign that read Tip$.
The moment it registered exactly whose car he was signaling, Scottie dropped the sheet of cardboard. The bucket he hugged to his chest.
Once again, Lily steered the car onto the shoulder. This time she parked behind Scottie on the left, so he wouldn’t have to cross the road. “Clever scheme,” she said.
Jared never glanced up from his perusal of the switches, lights and video screens on her dash. “I know, right?”
Less than five minutes later, Lily had both signs tucked away in her trunk and both Ensler brothers buckled up in her backseat. She nodded in approval at the sound of plastic crackling as they guzzled water. She cranked up the AC and pulled back onto the road, then checked out her passengers in the rearview mirror. “You two trying to earn money for something in particular? A birthday gift for your mom, maybe?”
Jared shot her a disgusted look. “I told you, our Xbox isn’t working.”
“The red ring of death,” Scottie said. His voice was closer than it should be. A glance to her right showed he had his head thrust between the front seats, wide eyes glued to the same panel of switches that had fascinated his brother.
“I need you to sit back, buddy. I know you’re curious, but the time to look around isn’t when the car’s in motion. Jared, make sure your brother’s buckled in. So what’s the red ring of death?”
“Happens when your console’s broke,” Scottie said. “The red lights around the power switch come on. When Dad couldn’t fix it he said it was about as useful as tits on a boar hog.”
Jared hooted, and the sound had her shoulders curving in, her stomach muscles bracing against a surge of acid regret.
Stop that, she told herself firmly.