All A Man Is
(The Mysteries of Angel Butte)
Harlequin Superromance #1908 (March 4, 2014)
Is this reward worth the risk?
Big risks hold no appeal for Julia Raynor after losing her husband to his high-danger career. And his vice cop brother, Alec, doesn't seem much different—although he is there for her and the kids. So when her son is headed for big-city trouble, Alec voluntarily becomes police chief in Angel Butte, Oregon, to remove him from temptation.
But temptation stalks more than her son. Living close to Alec, the long-denied attraction Julia harbors won't be ignored. And Alec's actions say it's not one-sided. Can she believe in another Raynor man? Yet, when a threat catches up with her family, Julia knows Alec is the only one she can trust!
"Ew, gross! Mo-om! Mattie just spit on the floor," Liana whined.
"Tattletale," her brother snarled. "And don't call me Mattie again or I'll make you sorry!"
The dull throbbing in the left side of Julia Ray-nor's skull sharpened until she felt as if a drill bit was viciously driving through her forehead. She stole a glance in her rearview mirror to see her children glaring at each other.
She should have separated them by letting one ride in front, but she'd lost her temper this morning when they started fighting about whose turn it was.
"Both of you," she'd snapped, "backseat. No argument. We're not doing this."
She'd wonder why Matt wanted to ride up front, given how thoroughly he seemed to detest her, except she knew. Keeping his sister from getting what she wanted seemed to be one of his few pleasures.
Julia's only consolation was that she was pretty sure the sibling warfare was normal, no matter how aggravating it was from her point of view. So little about Matt seemed normal now, she'd take what solace she could.
The entire trip had been the closest thing to hell she could imagine. A step beyond purgatory. It should have been fun, an adventure. Not that long ago, it would have been.
Before Josh died. Before Matt became so angry.
Silence simmered behind her. It was like driving with a feral animal in a trap on the backseat right next to a fluffy, cheerful Maltese terrier now getting whiny and snappy out of fear, and Julia was beginning to wonder if the trap door was secure.
We could have flown. Been here in a few hours instead of the longest two days of my life.
Clenching the steering wheel, she wished she'd followed Alec's example and sold the damn car and bought a new one when they arrived. She'd been worrying about how much life her eight-year-old Volkswagen Passat still had in it anyway. Clinging to the familiar was one thing; clinging to a cantankerous car that would not like cold winters was something else again.
"We're almost there," she said, hoping to stir some tiny remnant of excitement. Not that Matt had ever felt any. He was bitterly resentful about the move.
So what else is new? she asked herself wearily. For the past year and more, her son had bitterly resented every word she spoke, every decision she made.
"You keep saying that," Liana said sulkily. Even Julia's good-natured daughter was wearing down.
"Because we are getting closer. The sign we just passed said eighteen miles."
This time, a glance in the mirror assured her that they were both at least looking out their respective windows, as if some curiosity had surfaced.
The landscape was intriguing and very different from the brown hills and canyons of their most recent home. No ocean beaches here in central Oregon, either, although Alec assured her there were countless clear, cold lakes. The highway had been following a beautiful, tumbling river for some miles now. This stretch of Highway 97 was wooded and…knobby. Those lumps couldn't all be volcanic cinder cones, could they? If so, they'd become overgrown with pine trees.
The fact that she was moving her children to a spot in the heart of volcano country made her a little nervous, especially now that they were here and she could see the evidence of it all around. Earlier they'd passed signs pointing to Crater Lake, which was the water-filled caldera of a truly monstrous volcano that had wrapped the entire world in black ash when it erupted 7,700 years before. She was already planning a trip back to the park in the next few weeks. Even Matt would be impressed, surely.
To the east was Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which was described in the literature as "potentially active." The smaller cinder cones in the area-including Angel Butte-were like pimples scattered on the edges of Newberry Volcano, which didn't rear into the sky like Mount Rainier or Saint Helens. It was a shield volcano, she'd read, primarily made up of lava flows.
Julia had educated herself about volcanoes before agreeing to this move. In the end, she'd decided that her family was in more danger from earthquakes in Southern California than they would be from the unlikely event of a volcanic eruption.
Of course, Minnesota didn't have either. But it also didn't have Alec, which was the deciding factor.
The truth was, she would admit only to herself, she'd have gone anywhere he'd chosen.
Not because she needed him, although she did, but because Matt needed him, too.
"It's kind of pretty," Liana said timidly.
"There's nothing here." Matt sounded stunned. "It's, like, the middle of nowhere."
Short of moving to a village in Alaska accessible only by fishing boat or small plane-and, oh, how tempting that idea was-Angel Butte was the closest she and Alec had been able to find to the middle of nowhere. Or so they'd convinced themselves. Alec was discovering this town had considerably more crime and corruption than he'd imagined. She could only pray it didn't reach the middle school, where Matt would start eighth grade this fall.
The silence in the car had a different feel when they saw the sign for the turnoff to Angel Butte. They really were only minutes away from their new home. Julia was only sorry they'd have to wait a few days for their furniture and other possessions to catch up with them. Although Alec had bought the duplex where they were going to live, she and the kids would have to stay in a motel until their beds arrived.
The narrower two-lane highway swept through forestland that gradually became more open. To each side were Old West-style ranches with split-rail fences and a few horses drowsing in the midday heat. Horse-crazy Liana gazed in delight. More houses appeared, closer together, and finally a Shell gas station. With startling suddenness after that, Julia felt as if they could be back in Southern California. Alec had said a little drily that she'd be able to buy anything she needed when she got here, but he hadn't mentioned that their small town in the middle of nowhere had Target and Walmart stores, a Petco, Staples, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Red Robin.
"I'm hungry," her daughter whined, predictably.
How could she be, after snacking all day long?
"You know Uncle Alec is eager to see us. He said he'd take us to dinner."
Matt didn't say anything. His respect for Alec was the only hope keeping Julia going, but he'd even been sullen with Alec during the occasional weekend visits he'd managed these past few months. Julia wasn't sure whether Matt was afraid Alec was trying to ditch them or whether he was mad at Alec, too, because he'd conspired with Julia to move him away from his new and not-so-savory friends.
Maybe she should have stayed in San Diego after Josh died instead of uprooting the kids to Los Angeles almost right away so that she could lean on Alec.
As exhausted as she was, she wasn't going to let such a well-worn worry take root. It was too late. She and the kids had moved, and the truth was she hadn't wanted to stay in San Diego when all of her friends were the wives of navy SEALs. As a widow, her very presence would cast a shadow on them, and she hadn't liked thinking about what Josh had done for a living.
"There really is an angel up there," Liana said suddenly. "I can see her."
"Where?" her brother demanded.
Julia, too, lifted her gaze to the top of the small butte with steep sides made up of rusty red cinders partially masked by clusters of small pine trees. Yes, there it was. She, too, caught a glimpse of white, almost a gleam, although she couldn't make out details, not without taking her eyes from the road longer than she dared.
"Weird," Matt pronounced. Occasionally he forgot his angry persona and still sounded like the thirteen-year-old boy he was.
"Get Uncle Alec to tell you the story of how the angel came to be there," Julia suggested.
"You mean, she didn't fly down from on high?" her charming son sneered, having recollected himself.
Poor Liana, stuck back there with him. Poor me, stuck with him. Immediately Julia felt guilty for the unmaternal thought.
Julia spotted the sign for the hotel where Alec had made reservations. She found a parking spot, set the emergency brake and reached for her phone.
Alec answered on the first ring. "Julia?"
"We're here," she said simply, with vast relief complicated only a little by her apprehension and guilt.
Alec used the excuse of steering her through the restaurant door to lay a hand on Julia's back. Feeling the small flex of muscles beneath his fingertips filled him with exultation. He was embarrassed by the strength of it. He felt like an idiot teenager whose crush had finally agreed to go out with him. This was ridiculous. Nothing had changed between them.
He couldn't seem to squelch it, though, damn it. He all but had neon lights in his head flashing, Julia is here, at last!
Trouble was, he'd spent months living for this day.
Waiting for the kids to emerge from the restaurant behind them, the two of them paused. He reluctantly let his hand drop.
"Let's at least drive by the duplex," Julia suggested, and after a moment Alec nodded.
He wasn't looking forward to showing her, never mind the kids, their new home. Compared to the one they'd left, it wasn't very impressive.