The Lonesome Young
An Excerpt From
The Lonesome Young
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2014 by Penguin Group (USA), LLC

 
CHAPTER 1

VICTORIA

  

Sometimes even other people’s failures can taste like shame in the back of your throat.

I’d learned this the hard way over the past few days, and now the residue of that shame tangled my thoughts into knots as I watched the sun go down and the miles go by on the drive from the Louisville airport to the ranch.

“How is it? Having the entire family living at the ranch full-time?” I turned to look at Pete, Gran’s foreman, noticing lines on his deeply tanned face that I didn’t think had been there only a few months before during our annual summer visit. “Is my dad trying to tell you how to do your job, as usual?”

The shrill sound of fire truck sirens—lots of them—cut off whatever he’d been about to say. Pete finished rounding the curve around the side of the hill and then slowed and pulled off the road. Now that the view opened up, we could see the orange glow of a huge blaze in the distance and a black cloud of smoke silhouetted in the fading light of dusk.

“What the hell?” Pete switched on his emergency flashers and picked up his phone. “What could be burning like that out there? There’s nothing on that hill but trees. Burning trees look different than that.”

Four fire trucks zoomed past us, sirens screaming and lights blazing, chasing each other to the scene. Pete was firing questions at whoever he’d called, so I took the opportunity to step out and stretch my legs, which had been cramped in first the coach-class airplane seat and then the old truck.

The stench hit me first. The smoke was acrid and, even at this distance, burned my eyes and nostrils when I took a breath. There was something different about it from the scent of an ordinary forest fire; I’d smelled plenty of those. This one was metallic, somehow, and almost acidic—reminding me more of chemistry class than of a bonfire.

The roar of approaching motorcycle engines, which had been muffled by the hillside, blew around the curve of the road. I was well away from the edge of the pavement, but I took an involuntary step back. The lead rider, his long, lean body bent forward as if urging the bike to even greater speed, turned his helmeted face toward me, and a shiver danced down my spine—either to warn or to entice me.

The group of riders raced past me, and my momentary sense of danger vanished with them, leaving me feeling off-kilter and my stomach hollow. I shook my head, impatient with my uncharacteristically fanciful thoughts.

“Victoria! We’ve got to go.”

I turned back toward the truck. Pete was waving his hand, beckoning me to “get a move on,” as he liked to say.

I hurried back to my seat and buckled up. “What’s going on?”

“Big fire over at the old Lightwater place. We need to get over there fast.” His face was drawn in grim lines, and I knew it must be bad.

We headed toward the distant flames, following the path left by the speeding bikers. For the first time since Dad had called to tell me I had to leave boarding school, I felt a glimmer of light cut through the darkness of my mood as the memory of that boy on the motorcycle, turning to stare at me from behind the faceless anonymity of his helmet’s dark visor, scratched at the edges of my awareness all the way down the road

Chapter 2

Mickey

 

 

 

I headed for the fire, my mind on the girl. She’d stood there on the side of the road, staring at me as I passed by, her lips parted and her white-blond hair whipping around her face in the breeze. Beautiful. Elegant, even in jeans and a sweater.

And I had no idea who she was, even though the truck had been vaguely familiar. In Whitfield County, we recognized our neighbors by their cars and trucks even before we saw their faces. The faded blue Ford Focus with the dent next to the left tail light was the guy with the drinking problem who always hung out at the Irish pub just a little too long. The red and white Chevy muscle car was the guy who used to like roughing up his girlfriends. The mint-green Escape was the woman who’d fought back one day. Chevy muscle guy’s nose didn’t look nearly as good these days as it once had.

But the girl? My brain didn’t associate her with any car, but for sure she’d looked like money. Elegant. Understated. Probably rich, in spite of the beat-up farm truck. Almost certainly unattainable, at least for somebody like me. The thought pissed me off, and I took the next curve too fast and nearly went into a skid, forcing me to focus on the road instead of thinking about the girl who’d probably only been stretching her legs on a trip to someplace—any place—far away from Whitfield County.

When we arrived, having broken all speed limits, the fire was still raging. My half-brother Ethan and his friends scattered around me, and we all parked on the open area of ground clear over by the trees and well out of the way. The firefighters on the scene, a mix of professionals and volunteers, were wearing masks, and the deputies who worked for my dad were making sure nobody else got anywhere close to the source of the fire, an old trailer that had seen better days even before the explosion.

Ethan stood next to his bike, arms folded over his chest. A picture of casual indifference to anybody who hadn’t been at a “welcome home from jail, Ethan” barbecue with him an hour earlier, or hadn’t seen him and his lowlife buddies take off like bats out of hell when he’d gotten a phone call. He’d shouted “fire” but nothing else before roaring out of there. I’d followed him with some idea that the fire might be at his mom’s place, racing him for the lead in an echo of years-gone-by sibling rivalry, until I’d seen the girl on the side of the road.

But this wasn’t his mom’s place, and old trailers didn’t blow up like that without a reason.

It was a meth lab, in spite of the fact that he’d told me not two hours earlier that he was out of the business.

“Going straight, little brother,” he’d told me.

What a load of horse shit, and I was a fool for even thinking about believing him.

I walked over to him, forcing my hands to unclench. Ethan was older than me, bigger than me, and surrounded by his cold-eyed thugs, all of them covered with tattoos and most of them convicted criminals. But starting a fistfight in full view of my dad, the sheriff, who was pulling up now in his official car, was a bad idea, no matter how much I was itching to do it.

“One quart of ether has the exploding power of a stick of dynamite,” Ethan said as I approached. “Did you know that, little bro?”

His face was all harsh angles in the reflected light of the fire, but his voice was quiet. Almost serene. As if he’d been talking about the weather instead of one of the main ingredients for cooking meth.

“I figure there were maybe sixty quarts in there, give or take,” he continued, still in that dreamy voice.

“Give or take? Give or take? Are you insane?” I was shouting, but I didn’t care. “Somebody could have been hurt, Ethan. You promised Pa—”

Ethan’s harsh bark of laughter shut me up. He was still staring at the fire, still not meeting my eyes.

“Somebody could have been hurt? Look closer, Mickey. They’ve pulled at least five bodies out of that fire,” Ethan said.

My gut clenched. “Five? You—are they yours?”

But he was shaking his head. “This isn’t my place. At least four of them aren’t from around here, but there’s a rumor that a local was in there. Somebody took advantage of my vacation behind bars to move into my territory. Now we’re going to find out who.”

He stood up fast as a rattlesnake strike and grabbed my arm. “You won’t want to mention any of it to Pa.”

I yanked my arm out of his grasp. “Don’t tell me what to do. You did this, didn’t you? To destroy the competition. Only out of jail since yesterday—”

“And I’m not about to go back. So shut your damn mouth. Or are you planning to put me in the hospital like you did those boys at school?”

He waited a beat, as if judging whether he’d unleashed something darker than irritation, but I’d learned my lesson. I kept a white-knuckled hold on my self-control these days, because if I didn’t, I was afraid I’d go too far. If I let the rage loose, I might hurt somebody beyond reason or understanding. Beyond repair or redemption.

They might not end up in the hospital this time—they might end up dead.

“Don’t push me, Ethan,” I finally said, with what I thought was admirable calm. “You might not like what happens.”

“Welcome to my life. I don’t know how to do anything else but push, baby brother,” he said.

When I didn’t reply, he shrugged, dismissing me, and headed off toward Pa.

I followed him, wondering why it had taken Pa so long to get here, when he’d been at the same barbecue as the rest of us. The answer became clear when another man stepped out of the passenger side of Pa’s sheriff car.

This guy was no deputy. He stood ramrod straight like he had a stick shoved up his ass, and the suit he wore fit him perfectly and probably cost more than my bike. Nobody held themselves like that around here unless they were ex-military or blue-blood horse folk who’d had lessons on posture fed to them on silver spoons along with everything else in their lives.

Ethan stopped dead so abruptly I almost ran into him. “What the hell is old lady Whitfield’s son doing here?”

“That’s Richard Whitfield? Are you sure?”

Ethan shot me a scornful look. “I’ve met him before, when Pa used to drag me along to county fairs and crap like that before you came along.”

I caught the unspoken accusation. Ethan and Jeb blamed my mom for taking Pa away from their mom, even though Pa hadn’t even met my mother until a year after he’d divorced theirs. They also blamed me for taking Pa’s attention away from them and their sister, and there was probably some truth to that. In the early days, Pa had just wanted to get as far away from Anna Mae as possible, although he’d tried to stay in touch with the boys and his daughter, my half sister, Caroline.

Caro’d gone a little wild in her teens, though, and now she was a single mom to two sweet, angelic little girls who looked like their fathers. Their two different fathers, neither of whom had been seen or heard from after knocking Caro up. We didn’t see much of Caro, either, these days. A twinge of guilt ran through me at the thought.

Pa must feel like a failure sometimes. He was the sheriff, but his daughter was an unwed mother living on welfare, and his two oldest boys were running drugs with their mother. No wonder he’d lost his mind when I’d had my . . . incident . . . at school.

My steps slowed down as we got close. My father was not happy to see us, if the scowl on his face was any clue.

“What are you two doing here? This is a crime scene,” he snapped. “Out of here, now.”

He moved his stocky body as if to block us from Whitfield, but it was too late. The man’s gaze flashed from Pa to Ethan to me, burning holes of contempt along the way. He pointed at me.

“Another Rhodale in the litter, Sheriff ? When is this one going to end up in jail?” His voice was like a whiplash.

Ethan laughed in his face. “Louisville not work out for you? We heard you had to tuck your tail between your legs and run home to live with your mommy.”

I had a moment to wonder why Ethan would be so knowledgeable about what the Whitfields were up to before Pa knocked him back with a hard shove to the shoulder.

“Why don’t you get out of here? Mr. Whitfield is here to identify the body of one of his employees, not to get in a pissing match,” Pa said, shooting a hard stare at me when neither of the other two were looking.

That stare was the “Mickey, I know you’re the youngest, but please do something with your brothers” expression he’d given me since we were all kids rolling around in the dirt together. I hadn’t seen it since the incident, so he must have been desperate.

Somehow, with Ethan, any ordinary conversation or disagreement could instantly turn into a dangerous brawl. He’d sent my brother Jeb and me to the hospital at least a half-dozen times between us. Finally, when Ethan was sixteen and attending my eleventh birthday party, I’d lost my temper and broken his nose after he’d smashed my cake. It had taken several minutes for them to calm me down and peel me off him, but he’d been too big for me to really hurt him after I’d gotten in that one good shot to his nose.

My mom had cried, drunk half a bottle of wine, and made me write an essay on the evils of violence. Then she’d called Anna Mae and told her Ethan was banned from our house.

Peculiarly enough, that also had been the first time Ethan had ever shown me any respect. And now? Now people painted me with the same brush they painted him:

Just another violent, dangerous, worthless Rhodale, in spite of our father’s job as sheriff. Some reputations were harder to shed than others. And, after all, I had put two guys in the hospital not so long ago.

But I’d do it again.

There was a shout from one of the firefighters.

“Ethan, Mick, you should go. Let my guys and the firefighters do their jobs,” Pa said, moving subtly so he was standing between Whitfield and my hot-tempered brother.

“I’ve heard about you,” Whitfield said, pointing now at Ethan. “Your stellar rise in the criminal underworld. Your time in jail.”

“I think you’ve been watching too many Godfather movies, Mr. Whitfield,” Pa said. “This is Kentucky. We don’t have a criminal underworld. Ethan had a spot of trouble, but—”

Ethan viciously shook off my restraining hand. “Don’t apologize for me, Pa, especially not to this asshole. What was his employee doing at a known drug-cooking location? Are you turning to crystal after you bombed in Louisville, Whitfield?”

Whitfield’s face contorted and I thought he was going to throw the first punch, but after a few tense moments he exhaled and backed down.

“Maybe you should keep a better grip on this lowlife son of yours before he ends up right back in the cage he weaseled his way out of,” he told Pa. “Now, are you going to direct me to the body or not?”

He stalked off toward the fire trucks, where, I now saw, a row of plastic-sheet-covered bodies had been laid out, waiting for the ambulances or the medical examiner to pick them up. I swallowed, hard, past the lump that was suddenly lodged in my throat.

Ethan snarled something under his breath, but he headed the other way, toward his bike.

“Five dead bodies, and I’m pretty sure one of them was Caleb Stuart,” Pa said grimly, as he watched his eldest son stalk off. “The other four I’ve never seen before, although one of them was too badly burned for me to be sure. We’ll have to wait for ID.”

“Caleb? One of the—the bodies?” Caleb had been a year ahead of me in school. He was a good guy. We’d played football . . . and now he was gone?

“He went to work for the Whitfields this summer on the ranch,” I said after a moment, making the connection.

“Yeah. I’m not sure if Richard Whitfield even notices the faces of the hired hands, but their foreman had gone to the airport or something, so I got stuck asking that asshole to come out,” Pa said. “Now get out of here. Make sure your brother goes too, and takes his idiot friends with him. Tell him that if I see a single civilian on this scene after the next three minutes, I’ll have one of my deputies arrest him for obstruction.”

He turned and took a long look at the fire. “That trailer is probably going to blow again, and the explosion could kill even more people if we’re not careful. Who the hell knows what kind of chemicals are in the back where the flames are just reaching now?”

Without another glance at me or at Ethan, Pa took off after Whitfield, leaving me yet again to be the go-between in his weak-willed attempts to control Ethan. The anger caught in my throat dropped down and took up residence in my gut.

I wanted off this merry-go-round.

We’d had months of peace while Ethan had been locked up, especially after I’d finished my required hours of community service. I hadn’t minded the community part of the gig—I’d always gone with Mom to her various causes and events, anyway—but the service part had been cleaning up the side of the highway. Long hours out in the fierce Kentucky summer sunshine hadn’t done much for my mood or my patience, which had been the opposite of what the asshole judge had planned.

“Maybe this will wear you out, so you can stay out of trouble,” he’d said, peering at me over his half-glasses and sneering. I’d heard later that his sister’s nephew had been best friends with one of the guys I’d hurt. Nepotism was alive and well in Whitfield County, and it had jumped up and kicked me in the nuts.

In spite of that, it had been a fairly peaceful summer. While Ethan had been in jail, Jeb had played at being the big boss, but he didn’t have the brains or the balls to take Ethan’s place, and everybody, including Jeb, knew it. Pa had never been able to stand up to Anna Mae, either, but she’d been unusually quiet with Ethan away. Plotting, probably, like a spider in her hillbilly lair.

I headed toward Ethan, picturing his reaction to being threatened with arrest by his own father. Maybe he’d freak out completely, and I’d get to punch him after all, so the evening wouldn’t be a total loss.

Just then, a Chevy rolled up and parked. The truck from the side of the road, I realized. A man I didn’t know jumped out and ran past me toward the fire, and when I turned back toward the truck, the girl who’d silently stared at me before was doing it again.

All thoughts of Ethan and arrests scattered, and I stared stupidly back at her.

Beautiful.

Shouts from behind me snapped me out of it, as the emergency personnel kicked it up another notch in their efforts. The fire roared like a wild, living things and the heat was intense now, even this far away. If county legend was true and Rhodales all did end up in hell, this was a damn good preview.

And yet there she was—looking like a lost angel with her blond hair whipping in the hot wind.

My brother and his goons fired up their bikes, and I ran toward her.

“We have to get out of here. That trailer is going to blow,” I told her. “Get back in your truck and follow me out.”

I was three strides past her when I glanced back and realized she hadn’t moved. I turned around.

“Did you hear me?”

Her cool gaze was like ice shivering over the exposed surfaces of my skin as she studied me. Judged me, maybe.

Dismissed me.

She shrugged—the slightest of movement of her shoulders. Suddenly I wanted to shout at her, or shake her, or throw her in the truck and drive away with her.

I did none of those things.

“My father is the sheriff, and he said anybody who isn’t out of here inside of three minutes will be arrested,” I said, as calmly as I could. “That was two minutes ago.”

She raised one delicate eyebrow. “Then I guess he’ll have to arrest me, because Pete just headed toward the fire and I’m not leaving him.”

Chapter 3

Victoria

 

 

 

He was gorgeous: tall, dark, and definitely dangerous. The gleam in his bright blue eyes told me he wasn’t used to anybody defying him, and his sculpted cheekbones and long, lean body told me that most girls wouldn’t want to even try. But I wasn’t about to leave Pete there, so he’d have to get over it Waves of dark hair brushed the collar of his leather jacket when he turned his head, and suddenly I knew that this was the boy from the motorcycle. I started to say something—what, exactly, I didn’t know—but then he grabbed my arm, and I instinctively shoved him away, pushing against a shoulder that was all hard muscle. He immediately let go of my arm and took a half-step back.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, but it’s not safe here. You need to leave, now,” he said, glancing at the fire and then at me.

“I’ll leave when Pete is ready to go,” I said.

I started to turn away, and the jerk had the nerve to pick me up by the waist and start walking toward the truck. I pushed at the steel band of an arm that was still holding me pinned to his body, but it was like trying to move a thousand-pound horse who’d decided to lean on me while I brushed him.

“Let. Me. Go,” I gritted out from between clenched teeth.

“That trailer might blow up again, and you could get hurt, and then some of these folks would have to waste time taking care of you instead of stopping the fire,” he said, and I could hear the exasperation in his voice. “Is that what you want?”

When he put it like that, it sounded reasonable. “Fine. Let me down.”

He stopped and put me down, but stood staring at me as if he didn’t really believe I meant what I’d said. Suspicion or confusion drew his eyebrows together, and I caught myself wanting to reach up and touch his face. Smooth out the lines of distrust in his forehead. What was the matter with me?

I started running for the truck, just as a group of motorcycles revving nearby roared toward us. One veered close, and the boy grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him. He flipped his middle finger at the guy who’d swerved toward, rather than away from, us.

“I’d rather you keep your hands to yourself,” I said, hating that I sounded like a disapproving schoolgirl.

He laughed and shook his head and pointed to my truck. “After you, Princess.”

I glanced over at the fire. “But Pete—”

“Can catch a ride when the fire is out. Let’s go.”

I finally nodded and ran for the truck and climbed in, and jumped a little in surprise when he appeared behind me and shut my door for me. I turned the key Pete had left hanging, and the truck fired to growling life.

“I don’t even know your name,” I said stupidly through the open window.

He grinned, and something rusty stuttered in my chest as the simple act of smiling took his face from stern to beautiful. I caught the gasp in my throat before it escaped, so it turned into a coughing fit, instead.

No doubt I was impressing him with my smoothness more and more every second.

I resisted the urge to pound my face on the steering wheel and instead turned to look in the rearview mirror so I could back up and get the heck out of there.

He stopped me with a hand on my arm, this time gently, as if afraid I’d bolt again. I stared down at his strong tanned fingers, stark against my too-pale skin.

“My name is Mickey Rhodale.”

“Victoria Whitfield. It’s nice to meet you,” I said politely and completely inappropriately for the occasion, as years of conditioning rose up inside me to turn etiquette into farce, yet again. In Connecticut I’d once said “Bless you” to an indie rocker who’d just slammed too much cocaine up his nose, and I’d been famous around school for it for months.

But Mickey didn’t laugh. Instead, he studied my face as if it held the answer to a question he needed to ask.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Victoria. Now get your pretty ass moving.”

Furious once again, I gunned the gas and got out of there.

 

? ? ?

By the time I pulled up the long, curving driveway to Gran’s house— which I guess was my house now, too—all thoughts of mysterious hot guys scattered, because the sheriff department car parked in the driveway had its lights flashing and a deputy in the driver’s seat.

I left the keys in the ignition and hit the door running. What had Melinda done this time? The front of the house was empty, but I heard voices coming from the room Gran called her parlor, and I ran across the foyer to find out what was going on.

Gran, Mom, Melinda, and Buddy were all grouped on and around the overly formal furniture, and their reactions ranged from surprise to joy to disappointment, depending on the face and who was wearing it.

Buddy hurled his compact body at me and nearly knocked me flat on my butt.

“You’re home, Vivi! I missed you every day, and Mom won’t let me go out to the horses on my own, and Melinda is always grouchy, and so is Dad, but I beat the Elite Four at Pokémon Black on my Nintendo DS!” he rattled off in one long breathless sentence.

My sister walked slowly and carefully across the room to hug me. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused.

“Hello, Victoria. We’re having a tough night around here,” she said, enunciating very carefully in that way she had when she was high or drunk. As if saying, “No. I’m. Not. Drunk,” very precisely would somehow convert wishful thinking—or defiant denial—into fact. I hugged her warily. Some things hadn’t changed.

“Call your sister Victoria, Timothy. We don’t use nicknames,” my mother chided my brother, who’d only and always been called Buddy by everyone else but her.

Buddy rolled his eyes up at me, careful that she wouldn’t see. “Do you want some lemonade? Mrs. Kennedy makes it fresh. I’ll get you some,” he said as he escaped the room.

Mom held out her arms and, after a barely noticeable (I hoped) moment of hesitation, I walked over and hugged her. She’d gotten even thinner since August, but I only had a moment to worry about whether or not she’d been eating before Gran was there, gently nudging Mom to one side and throwing her arms around me.

“I missed you so much, girl,” she said fiercely, and probably nobody but me noticed the shine in her eyes. “What took you so long? I thought your flight got in at four.”

I started to explain about the fire, and Pete, but before I could get to the part about the amazingly bossy Mickey Rhodale, the tension in the room snaked its way past my exhaustion into my consciousness.

“What is it? What’s going on? Why is there a cop out front in the sheriff’s car?”

There was a confusion of voices telling me bits and pieces and rumors and truth. It took me a few minutes to get the story straight, especially because it seemed they were trying to hide what we were talking about from my little brother, who’d come back with a slightly sticky cup of lemonade for me.

The gist was that Caleb, one of our new ranch hands, whom I’d met last summer and remembered as a nice guy with tons of freckles and a big smile, might be a casualty of the same fire I’d been reluctant to leave. My dad had gone with the sheriff to see if he could identify the body, leaving a deputy here, which explained the cop and the car out front. In fact, Dad must have even been there when I was, and we just hadn’t seen each other in the confusion, which wasn’t surprising with all of those fire trucks and so many people running around.

The body.

I started to shiver, and a bone-deep chill settled into me, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast or slept much in days. Gran noticed. She scooped up a quilt from its cherrywood stand and wrapped it around my shoulders, urging me to sit down. Even Mom stepped up, heading to the kitchen to make tea and sandwiches—which was a wasted effort, since nobody seemed to be able to eat. And then we sat, waiting for more news about the fire.

Any news. News about Caleb, or why the sheriff wanted Dad, or whether anybody else was hurt . . . the room was shadowed by the threat of a tragedy we didn’t yet know how to define.

Waiting for Dad or Pete to call. Minutes, quarter hours, and then an hour counted off on the incongruously curlicued art deco clock on the mantelpiece, and still we waited without word.

Finally, as much out of a desire to avoid the sight of Melinda’s strained face as from exhaustion, I leaned my head back on the couch and closed my eyes. Unfortunately, the scene with Mickey immediately started to play itself out in my memory.

Now get your pretty ass moving.

Who talked like that? Especially to someone he’d only met a few minutes before?

“Do you want to play my game with me?”

Buddy, sprawled on the floor playing his video game, glanced up at me hopefully and then snuck a glance at the clock and my mother, clearly expecting her to send him to bed any minute. His mutinous expression said it all: Nine-year-old kids never got to have fun in this family.

I almost smiled, but the weight of the situation and the stern faces of past generations of Whitfields, staring disapprovingly down at me from their gilt-framed glory on the walls, quickly flattened the urge.

The Lonesome Young

The Lonesome Young