It’s in His Arms

Is Red River’s bad boy back in her life for good?

Lorenda Lawson has built a safe, sheltered life for her two young sons since their father was KIA several years ago. A beautiful cottage, a support network of family and friends. No one in Red River suspects that her marriage to Cam, was ever less than perfect. Nobody, that is, except the gorgeous ex-SEAL who’s shown up after a long absence: Cam’s notorious twin brother, Mitchell.

Mitchell Lawson was a teenage rebel who fled town after the local watering hole burned down, choosing the military over jail. Now he has a new mission: making amends with the town and his sheriff father for his hell raising days while resisting the woman he’s always wanted. Between Lorenda’s warmth and sensuality and her boys’ mischievous matchmaking ploys, it won’t be easy.

When a string of fires breaks out, suspicious eyes turn toward Mitchell. Lorenda risks her reputation for his sake—but she’ll need to risk her heart, too, to bring this onetime bad boy home for good.

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The Red River Valley Series

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It’s in His Arms

Chapter One

“Bullshitz For Sale!”

Holding the shoebox that contained her kids’ deceased guinea pig, Lorenda Lawson read the flyer that advertised the ugliest puppies she’d ever seen. She picked it off the oak dinette table and stared at the picture. Apparently, crossing a French bulldog with a shih tzu didn’t produce the most attractive canine gene pool.

Did she really need more bravo sierra in her life?

She snorted at the code system she’d developed so the kids wouldn’t know she was cussing. The military alphabet seemed appropriate since their father had been a Navy SEAL.

One thought of her late husband, and the sting of disappointment and rejection made her stomach burn.

She glanced out the window to where Jaycee and Trevor flew a remote-controlled helicopter in the front yard. Specks of morning sun danced across the property, the trees heavy with the lush green leaves of late summer.

Nope, she didn’t need more bravo sierra, especially if she had to pay for it. Keeping up the pretense that Red River’s fallen war hero had actually loved his wife and kids—totally free bravo sierra. Having to raise two boys on her own even before Cameron was KIA was quite enough bravo sierra, thank you very much.

But Jaycee and Trevor’s little hearts were going to be crushed when they found out that Checkers had gone to that big spinning wheel in the sky. With the cardboard casket balanced against her hip, she stared out the window just as Jaycee crashed the helicopter into the giant cottonwood tree that shaded the driveway.

Trevor’s seven-year-old face, sprinkled with light-brown freckles, crumpled. Jaycee, two years older, rushed to the crash site and seemed to be assessing the damage.

Oh sierra. Their beloved guinea pig and their favorite toy totaled in the same day?

She hurried to the kitchen bar and snatched her new phone off the granite counter. She held down the button at the bottom until the OS assistant’s voice came through the speaker. “How can I make your day?” Minx purred like a sex kitten.

Really? Maybe she shouldn’t have settled for the cheaper phone service. But it was so much more cost effective since she’d decided to add Jaycee and Trevor to the plan.

Lorenda held the phone close to her lips. “Is it possible to resuscitate a guinea pig?” She’d just found Checkers a minute ago in his cage when she went into Jaycee and Trevor’s room to clean out their closet. Maybe there was a chance . . .

“Neutering a guinea pig should not be attempted at home. Here is a list of veterinarians in your area,” Minx said.

Lorenda closed her eyes and tapped the phone against her forehead.

“It sounds like you’re hammering something,” Minx said. “Do you need instructions?”

Lorenda looked at the phone. She wasn’t pushing the button anymore, so it must be malfunctioning. It was brand new! And how was it possible that an OS assistant had a voice so sultry that it made the word hammering sound naughty?

She heaved out a breath and tried to decide how to break the news about Checkers to the boys. Jaycee and Trevor started toward the house, their little shoulders slumped.

“Delta,” Lorenda cursed.

She glanced around the open floor plan of her pretty little cottage, frantic to find a way to delay the inevitable. She didn’t want Checkers’s untimely death to ruin the fun she had planned. Not yet. With a new school year starting on Monday, she’d planned to drop off a suitcase full of the kids’ old clothes at the rummage sale, take the kids to Cotton-Eyed Joe’s for lunch, and maybe ride go-carts at the arcade.

Checkers, God rest his soul, could piss off for a few hours before he got a proper mourning.

The suitcase of old clothes snagged her attention. Perfect! Dashing to the back door, she unzipped the suitcase and stuffed the little coffin inside. The orange Nike lid slid off and made a hollow thud against the beige ceramic tile.

Double delta. There was no time to replace it. The zipper whizzed, concealing Checkers’s brown, black, and white patchwork fur, just as Jaycee and Trevor threw open the back door.

“Mom!” Trevor howled. “Jaycee ruined the helicopter Uncle Langston gave us.”

Her brother, Langston, was a lot of things—fantastic uncle, annoying brother, firefighter turned EMT, and since two years ago, a flight paramedic on a medical rescue helicopter. He spoiled his two nephews as much as Lorenda would allow. He’d probably buy Jaycee and Trevor a hundred toy helos if they asked, which she’d taught them not to do.

“It was an accident.” Jaycee frowned. “You were the one that wanted me to fly it in between the trees,” he said to his little brother. “If we’d taken it to the meadow like I wanted, it wouldn’t have crashed.”

Amazing how they both looked so much like their dad. Mocha eyes, boyish grins. Their wavy chestnut-brown hair was a mixture of her blonde and Cameron’s black, and they were tall for their age, getting their height from both her and Cameron.

That was one of the things she’d loved about Cameron when they’d become high school sweethearts. They’d been friends since childhood, and when she’d sprouted into a tall, lanky teenager, he was one of the only boys who hadn’t been embarrassed to dance with her because she was a little over five feet nine.

Since Jaycee was older, he was a few inches taller than Trevor. Otherwise, they could pass as twins. Funny since Cameron had an identical twin brother who never came around anymore, preferring to spend his time with his SEAL team, same as Cameron had.

She knelt and gathered them both into a hug. The feel of their little arms around her pushed out any regret about Cameron. Sure, she’d married too young, and a honeymoon pregnancy meant no more college, but those little arms around her? She breathed the boys in. She couldn’t regret them, no matter the lonely price she’d had to pay as Cameron’s wife.

“Hey, how about we go get a burger and a shake?” She rumpled their hair. “And then we can play some games at the arcade.”

Trevor sniffled. Jaycee’s frown morphed into a smile.

“Can we take our phones?” Trevor wiped a finger under his nose with another sniff, obviously trying for sympathy points.

“Nope.” Lorenda tweaked his nose. “You know the rule. I got you the phones for when you’re not with me. Today we’re having family time without electronics.”

Especially with Minx offering unsolicited conversation in a porn-flick voice.

She grabbed the handle of the suitcase. “First we need to stop by the rummage sale.” She’d have to find a way to ditch Checkers. “Then it’s fun, fun, and more fun the rest of the day!”

The boys tore out the door, all energy and smiles again. They yipped and yayed all the way to her Nissan Pathfinder and scrambled into the backseat. And her? She blew out a weighty sigh. For her it was business as usual.

Or should she say bravo sierra as usual?

Always covering. Always keeping a brave face. Always pushing her own wants aside.

That was motherhood. That was single motherhood.

Slinging her purse over one shoulder, she glanced at the flyer that advertised the bullshitz puppies one more time.

Hiding the painful truth from her boys had, sadly, become her specialty. If the town found out that Cameron, their hometown hero, hadn’t always been so heroic, well, then the boys would find out too. There would be questions. There were always questions, with the way gossip traveled at the speed of light in Red River. What could she tell the kids? Their father never wanted them? Refused to come home to be a husband and father?

She wheeled the suitcase outside and locked the door.

No, she’d built a nice, sheltered life for her and the kids in this perfect little cottage-in-the-woods. She didn’t need the hassle that dredging up ancient history would cause.

As she headed toward the SUV, she pushed the remote, and the trunk lifted.

She could keep up the charade that painted Cameron as a doting father forever if it meant shielding Jaycee and Trevor from the painful rejection she knew all too well. They’d been so young when Cameron was KIA, and before that he hadn’t come home much. So the only mental image they had of their father was the one she created. Cameron’s Trident and posthumous Bronze Star sitting right inside on the fireplace mantel was the father they needed to remember—the man Red River had on a pedestal.

And wasn’t that just a bunch of bullshitz?

 


 

“We want a bullshitz! We want a bullshitz!” Jaycee and Trevor chanted over the crate of ugly puppies. The rummage sale was in full swing at one end of Brandenburg Park, and a pet adoption had the other end in a tailspin with barking dogs, hissing cats, and people either awwing over the animals or wrinkling their noses at the disagreeable mixture of pet odors.

The breeze shifted, rustling the leafy trees and blowing the offensive smells upwind toward Wheeler Peak, which loomed large over Red River.

Clifford, the maintenance man who serviced most of Red River’s businesses, sat behind a sign that said “Too pooped to scoop? Doody Calls, Inc.” He handed out cards along with chocolate kisses.

Lorenda would’ve snorted if her boys weren’t shouting “bullshitz,” while a teacher from the elementary school gave her the evil eye from two booths down.

Lorenda gripped the handle of the suitcase, trying to figure out how to unload the clothes at the rummage sale without the kids seeing Checkers’s furry corpse. “Guys, we really don’t have time to house train a dog right now.” Good Lord, she’d just gotten the boys to stop leaving the seat up.

“We’ll train it.” Jaycee picked up one of the puppies.

“They’re all weaned and ready to go with their first shots.” A portly woman with frizzy hair and wearing a “Red River Animal Shelter” T-shirt stood beside the crate.

Lorenda studied the dog as it licked Jaycee’s smiling face.

Big sweet eyes. Innocent face. Loads of trouble. Puppy odors mixed with the unusual scent of rambunctious boys did not a pleasant home make. No, freshly baked cookies and homemade apple pie would better suit the peaceful, happy atmosphere she’d spent years creating.

Both boys squealed when Trevor leaned in to give the puppy a hug and got a wet willie instead.

Their laughter knocked a chip from her resolve. But really, how could she handle a puppy on top of everything else? She’d become a master at keeping her sierra together no matter how many piles life lobbed at her. Cleaning up after a dog might be the thing that tipped the scale.

“I don’t think—”

“Please, Mom, please.” Trevor’s eyes glistened under the clear, blue New Mexico sky, and he stroked the dog’s head. The puppy whined and licked his hand, then strained toward Jaycee to lick his face.

“Seriously, guys. A dog is a lot of work.” Lorenda was about to start ticking off a list of responsibilities on her fingers when her mother shouted her name from across the park. The puppy whined. “Um, you can play with him while I talk to Grandma, but that’s it.”

Her words didn’t seem to register.

“Lorenda!” Her mother practically skipped across the park to meet her.

Suitcase dragging behind her, Lorenda walked to meet her mother halfway. Blonde, fair, and tall like Lorenda, she looked much younger than her sixty-three years. And at the enthusiastic rate she was power walking, Lorenda was afraid she might fall and break a hip.

“Whoa, what’s up, Mom?” Lorenda asked when her mother nearly plowed her over. “I thought you and Dad were spending the week in Denver?”

“We came home early.” Her mother sucked in a breath and held it until Lorenda thought she might burst.

“I hope it wasn’t because of the two vacation properties that just sold, because I can handle that on my own.” Since her parents were mostly retired, Lorenda was the primary agent for their company, Brooks Real Estate. Selling vacation homes in Red River had been good for her and the kids financially, once she’d dropped out of college. And she did like her job. She just didn’t love it.

“Of course you can handle it. That’s not why we came back.” A coy smile found it’s way to her mother’s lips like she had big news and was playing hard to get.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why?” Lorenda put a hand on her hip.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Her mom winked. “We may have found a donor for the after-school music program you’re trying to start.”

Lorenda’s heart skipped. “Someone wants to donate?”

Lorenda could play just about any instrument. It was a gift she’d been born with, and the reason she’d started college to become a music teacher. Starting an after-school music program at the new rec center her friends Miranda and Talmadge were building was the next best thing. She could still teach music, even if it were as a volunteer instead of a certified educator with a degree.

Her mother pretended to examine her manicured nails. “Maybe.”

Lorenda tapped her foot and leveled a stern look at her mom, trying to act tough. If only she really were a badass. Or bravo alpha. But she was a total pushover. She knew it. She just hoped no one else knew it, because a single woman with two kids couldn’t afford to be a wimp.

“Oh, alright.” Her mother huffed. “The new conductor of the Albuquerque Symphony e-mailed your father about a vacation cabin on our website. They’re looking at the place as we speak, and your dad is going to drop a few hints about the music program.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “When your father asked if the conductor’s wife would be joining them to look at the cabin, he said he didn’t have a wife.”

Here it came—her mother’s annoying, albeit well-meaning, quest to find Lorenda a suitable man. She fought off an eye roll, because the last time her mother had made a desperate attempt to set Lorenda up on a date, she’d ended up eating frozen pizza with Clifford the maintenance man while he discussed the best methods of cleaning a toilet. For three foxtroting hours.

As if Lorenda weren’t already the queen of toilet cleaning, seeing as how she had two boys.

“You know I’m not in the market for a relationship. Not until the boys are grown.”

“If you met the right man, the boys would benefit too,” her mother argued.

“If I met the wrong man, they would suffer.”

“You’re young and beautiful, Lorenda. There’s no need to keep martyring yourself on the sword of motherhood.”

Lorenda glanced over her shoulder at Jaycee and Trevor. They sat on the ground, and the puppy crawled all over them. Satisfying warmth spread through her. They were good kids. But rambunctious and full of energy and always looking for an adventure. Like their dad and his twin brother.

Fear skated through her.

She did not want them to turn into restless, alpha war junkies like their father.

A classical musician probably wouldn’t be a thrill-seeker, but one disastrous marriage was enough. She couldn’t . . . she wouldn’t chance putting the boys through that kind of turmoil. Being alone until they were grown was a sacrifice she’d decided to make a long time ago.

She shook her head. “If he really wants to help with the program, I’ll take it, but not if there are strings attached. No matchmaking, are we clear?”

Her mother’s lips thinned. “Fine.”

Lorenda pointed to the boys. “Can you keep the kids occupied while I dump these clothes at the rummage sale?” Wheeling around a dead animal was starting to creep her out. And added to her guilt of not letting the boys get a dog. She didn’t want the critter to come back and haunt her either. She had enough imaginary ghosts to live with every time she thought of Cameron.

Her mother pinched Lorenda’s cheek. “Anything for my boys.” Without so much as a goodbye her mother skittered around Lorenda and darted for Jaycee and Trevor.

Lorenda turned her attention to the far side of the park, her gaze skimming along the rows of rummage-sale booths. Okay, time to find one that wasn’t overrun with shoppers. The park was crowded, but a few booths at the north end were vacant and . . . aha! She could slip behind one of the ponderosa pines at that end of the park and unload the suitcase without anyone seeing Checkers.

She tugged the suitcase toward the rummage sale, but a thin guy with a hoodie pulled up and draped over his forehead got in her way. His hands were crammed into the pockets of the thick hoodie like he was cold. Strange. Nights were always cool in Red River, but it was a sunny afternoon in August. “Excuse me.” She tried to step around him, but he matched her step and blocked her path again, glancing at her.

His messy black hair hung in his eyes. His face was gaunt, and the look in his eyes was disturbing because it was like he knew her even though she didn’t recognize him. Before she could maneuver around him again, he grabbed the suitcase and pushed her.

“Ooph!” She hit the ground, and the thief darted toward Main Street.

Bart Wilkinson, the elementary-school principal and a guy Lorenda had known since kindergarten, seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Lorenda! Are you okay?” He put an arm around her waist to help as she scrambled to her feet. Others yelled and pointed to the man as he ran with her suitcase. And Checkers.

Her lips parted. She’d just been mugged for a dead guinea pig and worn-out kids’ clothes.

Wasn’t the mugger going to be surprised?

As the thief bounded past Clydelle and Francine—two senior citizens who kept the locals so far up on their toes that most of Red River might as well wear stilettos—Clydelle thumped him on the leg with her cane, and Francine took a swing at him with her purse.

“Ow!” He dropped the suitcase but kept on running, only with a limp because of Clydelle’s handy-dandy cane. Lorenda should get one of those. Might come in useful since she was single. But in Red River, where crime was usually less than zero, who needed weapons?

A few men took off after him, but from the side, a man came out of nowhere and tackled the mugger. The familiar build—big, broad . . . badass—made blood pound through her veins.

A crowd swarmed the mugger and the man who had stopped him.

Several of the ladies who had been milling around the park ran over to offer Lorenda assistance, but Bart hadn’t let her go. His arm was still firmly around her waist.

“I’m fine,” Lorenda mumbled, trying to see through the growing crowd. Trying to step out of Bart’s hold. As nice as it was for him to help, she was fine, but he followed her step and stayed right at her side.

“Are you okay, hon?” Her mother darted over, Trevor, Jaycee and the puppy trailing behind with rounded eyes.

Trevor threw his arms around her waist, which forced Bart to step back. “Are you hurt, Mom?”

“No, sweetie. I’m okay.” She threaded an arm around his shoulder. She pulled her phone from her purse, but before she could get the sheriff’s number typed in, blue-and-red whirling lights raced around the corner. As fast as news traveled in Red River, the sheriff had probably heard about the incident before Lorenda had even hit the ground.

“Who was that, Mom?” Jaycee said, scooping up the puppy like he was protecting it.

She shook her head. “No idea.”

“Here comes Grandpa,” Jaycee said around the puppy’s head as the sheriff’s car pulled up.

“Yay! Grandpa to the rescue!” Trevor clapped with adoration.

Sheriff Larry Lawson unfolded himself from the car. And he looked pissed. Then again, her father-in-law had looked pissed for as long as Lorenda could remember. Losing one of his twin to war and the other to blame and bitterness had only hardened him more. But he did love his grandsons and would do anything for Lorenda and the boys.

“Stay back, boys.” Lorenda stepped in front of the kids like a shield.

The crowd around the mugger parted, and Sheriff Lawson stepped into the inner circle.

Francine used the opportunity to retrieve Lorenda’s suitcase, and Clydelle tried to poke the mugger with her cane. The sheriff scowled at her and waved them both back. Through the shuffling legs of the crowd, Lorenda caught a glimpse of the man who had tackled the thief. He had the mugger pinned to the ground with one knee. Her rescuer’s head was pitched forward as he held the squirming mugger in place with a hand pressing the weasel’s cheek into the grass.

One of the ladies standing around Lorenda said, “Looks like you have a new hero, dear.”

Lorenda wanted to roll her eyes, because heroes weren’t all they were cracked up to be. She craned her neck to get a better look.

A black T-shirt stretched taut across her hero’s wide shoulders and muscled back that angled down to a trim waist and nicely broken-in Levi’s. But even hunched over, Lorenda would recognize that build anywhere. Would know the person anywhere. Had grown up with him, been sweethearts with him . . . married him.

Her hand, still holding the phone, went to her mouth, and she stumbled toward the crowd that surrounded her supposed hero until she stood at its edge.

The sheriff glowered down at both men. “Step back. I can handle it from here.” But her hero didn’t move until Sheriff Lawson slapped cuffs onto the thief.

The crowd whispered and buzzed.

“Is that . . . ?” someone said, their shocked whisper trailing off.

“That troublemaker is back in town,” Bart said from just behind her.

Lorenda’s heart contracted right along with her hero’s bulging biceps, which made the familiar crown-of-thorns tattoo around his upper arm flex as he straightened. Which seemed to take about a decade, because he was tall. Six three, in fact. Lorenda knew his height, his weight. His shoe size.

And like it was in slow motion, yet happening at the speed of light, he turned and locked gazes with Lorenda. No one else. Just her. And a familiar smile, the one that had won her heart when she was a teenager, then broken it just a few years later, made her heart thump and bump in an odd rhythm like it would stop at any moment.

Her head told her that it was Mitchell, Cameron’s twin brother. Had to be, because Cameron was dead. Mitchell’s features were identical to Cameron’s, yet there were subtle differences she had always been able to pick out, even though no one else besides their mother could. But seeing him after so many years was like stepping back in time.

The bright afternoon sun grew dim, and the faces around her turned fuzzy. Except for his. His was as clear as the sky. She meant to say his name—Mitchell. But when he took a step toward her, she whispered, “Cameron.”

The last thing Lorenda remembered was his smile fading along with the sunlight, and then her world went dark.

End of excerpt