Hot in Hellcat Canyon (Hellcat Canyon #1) - Julie Anne Long

CHAPTER 1

Britt burst out her front door, stag-­leaped her sagging front step, scattered three deer and that blue jay whose hobby was harassing her cat, and finished yanking her blue camisole down over her head before she hit the ground.

“Don’t eat my roses!” she implored the deer over her shoulder. In vain, probably.

She was going to have to run to make it to work on time, and the merciful morning cool was already beginning to give way to merciless summer heat.

A half mile down the dirt road Roy and Willa Boyd’s dog Jet exploded off his porch to chase her, yapyapyapping and out of his head with excitement, but then he felt that way about nearly every moving creature. He was the love child of a basset hound and a standard poodle and frankly looked more like a caterpillar than a dog. Britt slowed down a little just to give him hope that he might one day catch up to her on his four-­inch legs and bite an ankle. Because everyone needed hope.

He gave up after about a hundred yards, satisfied he’d acquitted himself well in defense of his porch.

Which was her cue to pause and catch her breath.

She tilted her head back and rested her hands on her hips as she gulped in air. A red-­tailed hawk was circling lazily above in the empty, dazzling blue sky, looking for breakfast.

Behind her the hills rose up and up in a glorious tangle of every kind of green: pines, redwoods, oaks, manzanita, Indian paintbrush. Off to the east, scattered along the canyon’s edge and overlooking the Hellcat River, the windows of the rustic palaces belonging to tech billionaires and other people who had money up the wazoo glinted like diamonds in the rising morning sun.

She got moving again.

A few feet later the tamped dirt road turned into pavement and became the main road into town.

She jogged down the gently winding main street, past long rows of Victorian storefronts faded to muted butter mint shades by weather, time, and dust. She held her hand up to her face like a horse blinder when she passed Kayla Benoit’s boutique so she wouldn’t have to see that white dress in the window. Kayla was opening up and thought she was waving, so she waved gaily back.

The Misty Cat Cavern looked like a saloon because it had always been a saloon, and its placement at the end of Main Street was strategic, or so legend had it: inebriated miners who stumbled (or were thrown) out the door only had a short distance to roll right back down to the main gold mining camp. Some of its long, lurid history lingered in the décor and the alleged ghost of a prostitute named Nimble Nellie, shot by a jealous miner. She was the original Hellcat, or so it was said. Britt was grateful she hadn’t yet met Nellie. She certainly sympathized with her, though.

She swung around back and jabbed her key into the lock in the back door, and wove her way through the kitchen into the main restaurant.

A row of windows set high in the wall showed the tops of pines and fragments of blue sky. A kindly, dusty, golden, tree-­filtered light poured through them early in the morning, but by late afternoon the summer sun was as brutal as an X-­ray. A collective howl of torment rose in the Cavern if anyone dared crack the blinds then.

The spinning blades of the ceiling fan casually slaughtered flies, which plummeted to the floor and tables below to be swept up or wiped away by bar rags, to be replaced by intrepid new flies slipping in the door with customers. It was the circle of life in the Misty Cat Cavern. Britt pulled all the chairs down and grabbed a soapy rag and pushed a few little carcasses off tables, then grabbed a broom to do a quick sweep, called “Hey Giorgio!” when she heard rustling in the back room, and got a grunt in reply.

Giorgio was dragging the cover off the pool table and plugging in Glenn’s prized vintage beer signs, which lent a luridly cheery glow to the murk. When the sheriff was in for lunch Giorgio surreptitiously disconnected the old Hamm’s sign, a signal to put the kibosh on any obvious betting. Britt was positive the sheriff wasn’t that unobservant. He probably just picked his battles. There were plenty to choose from in Hellcat Canyon.

Giorgio hailed from way up in the hills in the Coyote Creek