Welcome to Del Sol,
a town full of sunshine,
fresh air, and friendly faces.
(Barring three or four old grouches.)
Sunshine Vicram pushed down the dread and sticky knot of angst in her chest and wondered, yet again, if she were ready to be sheriff of a town even the locals called the Psych Ward. Del Sol, New Mexico. The town she grew up in. The town she’d abandoned. The town that held more secrets than a politician’s wife.
Was she having second thoughts? Now? After all the hubbub and hoopla of winning an election she hadn’t even entered?
Hell yes, she was.
But after her night of debauchery—a.k.a. her last hurrah before the town became her responsibility—she thought she’d conquered her fears. Eviscerated them. Beaten and buried them in the dirt of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Either Jose Cuervo had lied to her last night and given her a false sense of security, or her morning cup of joe was affecting her more than she thought possible.
She eyed the cup suspiciously and took another sip before looking out the kitchen window toward the trees in the distance. The snow had stopped last night, but it had restarted with the first rays of dawn. Snowstorms weren’t uncommon in New Mexico, especially in the more mountainous regions, but Sun had been hoping for, well, sun her first day on the job. Still, snow or no snow, nothing could stop the brilliance that awaited her along the horizon.
Thick clouds soaked up the vibrant colors of daybreak and splashed them across the heavens like a manic artist who’d scored a new bottle of Adderall. Orange Crush and cotton candy collided and dovetailed, making the sky look like a watercolor that had been left out in the rain. The vibrant hues reflected off the fat flakes drifting down and powdering the landscape.
Sun was home. After almost fifteen years, she was home.
But for how long?
No. That wasn’t the right question. Somewhere between her karaoke rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”—which bordered on genius—and her fifth shot of tequila, she and Jose had figured that out the night before as well.
This was the opportunity she’d been both anticipating and dreading. Since she had a job handed to her on a silver platter, she would stay until she found the man who’d abducted her when she was seventeen. She would stay until he was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. She would stay until she could shed light on the darkest event of her life, and then she would put the town in her rearview for good.
The right question was not how long she would stay but how long it would take her to bring her worst nightmare—literally—to justice.
She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear and appraised the guesthouse her parents had built, studying it for the umpteenth time that morning. The Tuscan two-bedroom felt bigger than it was thanks to the vaulted ceilings and large windows.
All things considered, it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. It was shiny and new and warm. And the fact that it sat on her parents’ property, barely fifty feet from their back door, was surprisingly reassuring.
She’d worked some long hours as a detective. Surely, as a sheriff, that wouldn’t change. It might even get worse. It would be good to know that Auri, the effervescent fruit of her loins, would be safe.
The kid felt as much at home in the small tourist town as Sun did, having spent every summer in Del Sol with her grandparents since she was two. The fact that she’d twirled through the apartment when they first saw it like a drunken ballerina? Also a strong indicator she would be okay.
Auri loved it, just like Cyrus and Elaine Freyr knew she would. Sun’s parents were nothing if not determined.
And that brought her back to the malfeasance at hand. They were living in an apartment her parents had built. An apartment her parents had built specifically for Sun and Auri despite their insistence it was simply a guesthouse. They didn’t have guests. At least, not guests that stayed overnight. The apartment was just one more clue they’d been planning this ambush for a very long time.
They’d wanted her back in Del Sol. Sun had known that since the day she’d left with baby in hand and resentment in heart. Not toward her parents. What happened had not been their fault. The resentment that had been eating away at her for years stemmed from a tiff with life in general. Sometimes the hand you’re dealt sucks.
But if she were honest with herself—and she liked to think she was—the agonizing torment of unrequited love may have played a teensy-tiny part.
So, she ran, much like an addled schoolgirl, though she didn’t go far. Also, much like an addled schoolgirl.
She’d originally fled to Albuquerque, only an hour and a half from Del Sol. But she’d moved to Santa Fe a few years ago, first as an officer, then as a detective for SFPD. She’d only been thirty minutes from her parents, and she’d hoped the proximity would make her abandonment of all things Del Sol easier on them.
It hadn’t. And now Sun would pay the price for their audacity, their desperate attempt to pull her back into the fold. As would Auri. The fact that they didn’t take Auri’s future into consideration when coming up with their scheme irked. Just enough to cause tiny bouts of hyperventilation every time Sun thought about it.
Auri’s voice drifted toward her, lyrical and airy like the bubbles in champagne. “It looks good on you.”
Sun turned. Her daughter, short and yet somehow taller than she had a right to be at fourteen, stood in the doorway to her room, tucking a T-shirt into a pair of jeans and gesturing to Sun’s uniform.
Instead of acknowledging the compliment, Sun took a moment to admire the girl who’d stolen her heart about three seconds after she was born. Which happened to be about two seconds before Sun had declared the newborn the most beautiful thing this world had ever seen.
Then again, Sunshine had just given birth to a six-pound velociraptor. Her judgment could’ve been skewed.
Though not likely. The girl had inherited the ability to stop a train in its tracks by the time she was two. Her looks were unusual enough to be considered surreal. Sadly, she owed none of her features to Sunshine. Or her grandparents, for that matter.
Auri’s hair hung in thick, coppery waves down her back. Sunshine’s hair hung in a tangled mess of blond with mousy brown undertones when it wasn’t French braided, as it was now.
Auri’s hazel eyes glistened like a penny, a freshly minted one around the depths of her pupils and an aged one that had green patina around the edges. Sun’s were a murky cobalt blue, much like her grandmother’s collection of vintage Milk of Magnesia bottles.
Auri’s skin had been infused with the natural glow of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. Sunshine was about as tan as notebook paper.
The girl seemed to have inherited everything from her father. A fact that chafed.
“Mom,” Auri said, pursing her pouty lips, “you’re doing it again.”
Sun snapped out of her musings and gave her daughter a sheepish grin from behind the cup. “Sorry.”
She dropped her gaze to the spiffy new uniform she’d donned that morning. As the newest sheriff of Del Sol County, Sun got to choose the colors she and her deputies would wear. For both their tactical and dress uniforms, she chose black. Sharp. Mysterious. Slightly menacing.
And because she wanted to look her best first day on the job, she’d opted for the Class A. Her dress uniform. She ran her fingertips over the badge pinned above the front pocket of her button-down. Inspected the embroidered sheriff’s patch on her shoulder. Marveled at how slimming black trousers really were.
“I do look rather badass, don’t I?”
Auri adjusted the waist of her jeans and offered a patient smile. “All that matters is that you think you look badass.”
“Yeah, well, it’s still crazy. And if I’m not mistaken, illegal on several levels.” How her parents got her elected as sheriff when she’d had no idea she was even running was only one of many mysteries the peculiar town of Del Sol had to offer. “Your grandparents are definitely going to prison for this. And so am I, most likely, so enjoy my badassery while it lasts.”
“Mom!” Auri threw her hands over her ears. “I can’t hear that.”
“Badassery?” she asked, confused. “You’ve heard so much worse. Remember when that guy pulled out in front of me on Cerrillos? Heavy flow day.” She pointed to herself. “Not to be messed with.”
“Grandma and Grandpa won’t go to prison. They’re too old.”
Unfortunately, they were not too old. Not by a long shot. “Election tampering is a serious offense.”
“They didn’t tamper. They just, you know, wriggled.”
Sun’s expression flatlined. “I’ll be sure to tell the judge that. Hopefully before I’m sentenced.”
Auri had been about to grab her sweater when she threw her hands over her ears again. “Mom!” she said, her chastising glare the stuff of legend. The stuff that could melt the faces off a death squad at fifty yards. Because there were so many of those nowadays. “You can’t go to prison, either. You’ll never survive. They’ll smell cop all over you and force you to be Big Betty’s bitch before they shank you in the showers.”
She’d put a lot of thought into this.
Sun set down the cup, walked to her daughter, and placed her hands on the teen’s shoulders, her expression set to one of sympathy and understanding. “You need to hear this, hon. You’re going to have to fend for yourself soon. Just remember, you gave at the office, never wear a thong on a first date, and when in doubt, throw it out.”
Auri paused before asking, “What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s just always worked for me.” She walked back to her coffee, took a sip, grimaced, and stuck the cup into the microwave.
“Grandma and Grandpa can’t go to jail.”
Sun turned back to her fiery offspring and crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to acknowledge the apprehension gnawing at her gut. “It would serve them right.”
“No, Mom,” she said as she pulled a sweater over her head. “It wouldn’t.”
Sun dropped her gaze. “Well, then, it would serve me right, I suppose.” The microwave beeped. She took out her cup and blew softly, having left it in long enough to scald several layers off her tongue, as usual. “But first I have to check out my new office.”
While she’d been sworn in and taken office on January 1, she had yet to step foot inside the station that would be her home away from home until the next election in four years. Barring coerced resignation.
She and Auri had taken an extra week to get moved in after the holidays. To prepare for their new lives. To gird their loins, so to speak.
“I need to decorate it,” she continued, losing herself in thought. “You know, make the new digs my own. Do you think I should put up my Hello Kitty clock? Would it send the wrong message?”
“Yes. Well?” Auri stood up straight to give her mother an unimpeded view. She wore a rust-colored sweater, stretchy denim jeans, and a pair of brown boots that buckled up the sides. The colors looked stunning against her coppery hair and sun-kissed skin.
She did a 360 so Sun could get a better look.
Sun lowered her cup. “You look amazing.”
Auri gave a half-hearted grin, walked to her, and took the coffee out of her mother’s hands. That kid drank more coffee than she did. Warning her it would stunt her growth had done nothing to assuage the girl’s enthusiasm over the years. Sun was so proud.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
Auri lifted a shoulder and downed half the cup before answering, “No. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You are definitely my daughter. Indecisiveness runs in the family.”
“It’s weird, though. Real clothes.”
Auri had been in private school her entire life. She’d loved the academy in Santa Fe, but she’d been excited about the move regardless. At least, she had up until a few days ago. Sun had sensed a change. A withdrawal. Auri swore it was all in her mother’s overprotective gray matter, but Sun knew her daughter too well to dismiss her misgivings.
She’d sensed that same kind of withdrawal when Auri was seven, but she’d ignored her maternal instincts. That decision almost cost Auri her life. She would not make that mistake again.
“You know, you can still go back to the academy. It’s only—”
“Thirty minutes away. I know.” Auri handed back the cup and grabbed her coat, and Sun couldn’t help but notice a hint of apprehension in her daughter’s demeanor. “This’ll be great. We’ll get to see Grandma and Grandpa every day.”
Just as they’d planned. “Are you sure?” Sun asked, unconvinced.
She turned back and gestured to herself. “Mom, real clothes.”
“I swear, I’m never wearing blue sweaters again.”
Sun laughed softly and shrugged into her own jacket.
“Plaid?” Sun gasped. “You love plaid.”
“Correction.” After Auri scooped up her backpack, she held up an index finger to iterate her point. “I loved plaid. I found it adorable. Like squirrels. Or miniature cupcakes.”
“Oh yeah. Those are great.”
“But the minute plaid’s forced upon you every day? Way less adorable.”
“Okay,” Auri said, facing her mother to give her a once-over. “Do you have everything?”
Sun frowned. “I think so.”
Sun patted her pants pocket. “Check.”
She tapped the shiny trinket over her heart. “Check.”
She scraped a palm over her duty weapon. “Check.”
Sun’s lids rounded. She whirled around, searching the area for her soundness of mind. She only had the one thread left. She couldn’t afford to lose it. “Damn. Where did I have it last?”
“Did you look under the sofa?”
Keeping up the game, Sun dropped to her knees and searched under the sofa.
Auri shook her head, tsking as she headed for the side door. “I swear, Mom. You’d lose your head if that nice Dr. Frankenstein hadn’t bolted it onto your body.”
Sun straightened. “Did you just call me a monster?”
When her daughter only giggled, she hopped up and followed her out. They stepped onto the porch, and Sun breathed in the smell of pine and fresh snow and burning wood from fireplaces all over town.
Auri took a moment to do the same. She drew in a deep breath and turned back. “I think I love it here, Mom.”
The affirmation in Auri’s voice eased some of the tension twisting Sun’s stomach into knots. Not all of it, but she’d take what she could get. “I do, too, sweetheart.”
Maybe it was all in her imagination, but Auri hadn’t seemed the same since she’d let her go to the supersecret New Year’s Eve gathering at the lake. The annual party parents and cops weren’t supposed to know about. The same parents and cops who began the tradition decades ago.
She’d only let Auri stay for a couple of hours. Could something have happened there? Auri hadn’t been the same since that night, and Sun knew what could happen when teens gathered. The atmosphere could change from crazy-fun to multiple-stab-wounds in a heartbeat.
“You know, you can stay home a few more days. Your asthma has been kicking up, hon. And your voice is a little raspy. And—”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to get behind,” she said.
“Do you have your inhaler?”
Auri reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the L-shaped contraption. “Yep.”
A woman called out to them then. A feisty woman with graying blond hair and an inhuman capacity for resilience. “Tallyho!”
They turned as Elaine Freyr lumbered through the snow toward them, followed by her very own partner in crime, a.k.a. her roughish husband of thirty-five years, Cyrus Freyr.
Sun leaned closer to Auri. “Did your grandmother just call me a ho?”
“Hey, Grandma. Hey, Grandpa,” Auri said, ignoring her.
The girl angling for the Granddaughter of the Year award hurried toward the couple for a hug. “Mom’s worried you guys are going to prison.”
Elaine laughed and pulled the stool pigeon into her arms.
“Snitches get stitches!” Sun called out to her.
“Your mother’s been saying that for years,” Elaine said over Auri’s shoulder, “and we haven’t been to the big house yet.” She let her go so Auri could give her grandfather the same treatment.
Cyrus took his turn and folded his granddaughter into his arms. “Hey, peanut. What are we going to prison for this time?”
Auri pulled back. “Election tampering.”
“Ah. Should’ve known.” Cyrus indicated the apartment with a nod. “What do you think of her?”
“She’s beautiful, Grandpa.”
His face glowed with appreciation as he looked at Sun. “And it’s better than paying fifteen hundred a month for a renovated garage, eh?”
He had a point. Santa Fe was nothing if not pricey. “You got me there, Dad.” She gave them both a quick hug, then headed toward her cruiser, the black one with the word SHERIFF written in gold letters across the side.
“Sunny, wait,” her mother said, fumbling in her coat pocket. “We have to take a picture. It’s Auri’s first day of school.”
Sun groaned out loud for her mother’s benefit, hiding the fact that she found the woman all kinds of adorable. She was still angry with them. Or trying to be. They’d entered her into the election for sheriff without her consent. And she’d won. It boggled the mind.
“We’re going to be late, Mom.”
“Nonsense.” She took out her phone and looked for the camera app. For, like, twenty minutes.
“Here.” Sun snatched the phone away, fighting a grin. It would only encourage her. She swiped to the home screen, clicked on the app, and held the phone up for a selfie. “Come in, everyone.”
“Oh!” Elaine said, ecstatic. She wrapped an arm into her husband’s. “Get closer, hon.”
The cold air had brightened all their faces. Sun snapped several shots of the pink-cheeked foursome, then herded her daughter toward the cruiser, her father quick on her heels.
When Auri went around to the passenger’s side, Sun turned to face him.
He offered her a knowing smile and asked, “You okay? With all of this?”
She put a hand on his arm. “I’m okay, Dad. It’s all good.” She hoped. “But don’t think for a second you’re off the hook.”
“I rarely am. It’s just, I know how much you enjoyed putting this place in your rearview.”
“I was seventeen. And one shade of nail polish away from becoming goth.” She thought back. “Nobody needed to see that.” After sliding him a cheeky grin, she stomped through the snow to the driver’s side.
He cleared his throat and followed again, apparently not finished with the conversation. “Well, good. Good,” he hedged before asking, “And how are you sleeping? Any, you know, nightmares?”
Ah. That’s what this was about. Sun turned back and offered him her most reassuring smile. “No nightmares, Dad.”
He nodded and opened the door as Elaine called out, “You and Auri have a good day. And don’t forget about the meeting!”
Sun looked over the hood of her SUV. “What meeting?”
Elaine sucked in a sharp breath. “Sunshine Blaze Vicram.”
She hopped inside the cruiser before her mother could get any further with that sentiment. Nothing good ever came after the words Sunshine Blaze Vicram.
She gave her eagle-eyed father one last smile of reassurance as he closed the door, then backed out of the snow-covered drive, confident she’d done the right thing. Telling him the truth would only exacerbate the guilt she could see gnawing at him every time he looked at her. There was no need for both of them to lose sleep over something that happened in Del Sol so very long ago.
Copyright © 2020 by Darynda Jones.