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Xav Phillips had looked long and hard for Ash Callahan, and now, if his luck held, he might have finally caught up to her in a small town in Texas-Wild, Texas, to be precise. She'd done a good job of covering her tracks, but he'd learned a lot of beneficial things in the years he'd worked for the Callahans, and one of them was how to find something or somebody that didn't want to be found.
He wasn't sure what Ash saw in this bucolic place in the Hill Country in the heart of Texas, but he'd be willing to bet the serenity of the place had called to her.
Ashlyn Callahan had been in need of peace for many years.
He knocked on the door of the small, two-story white house perched on a grassy stretch of farmland. He noted the Christmas decorations twining the white posts on the porch and the twinkling tree situated in the window. Back at Rancho Diablo in New Mexico, Christmas would be in full swing. Aunt Fiona Callahan typically planned an annual Christmas ball-this year the ball had a fairy-tale theme-but she was missing the last Callahan to be raffled at one of her shindigs. Ash had left the ranch and the town of Diablo after she'd allegedly shot her uncle Wolf Chacon. Fiona had begged Xav to find her niece, not just because she wanted her to be the final Callahan raffle "victim" at the ball, but because it was the holidays. It was time for Ash to come home, Fiona proclaimed, adding, "I'm not getting any younger! I want my family around."
So that was the excuse that sent him searching for Ash, but it wasn't the real reason he had to find her. Truth be told, he missed her like hell-a fact he wouldn't have admitted to a soul. Her six brawny brothers had no idea of the depth of his feelings for Ash, and there was no reason to share that with his employers.
And there were other urgent motives to find his platinum-haired girl. Most important, Ash didn't know that she had not been the one to shoot her uncle Wolf. She'd certainly tried. But in the melee of her uncle's appearance and Xav firing, Ash had never noticed that her weapon didn't recoil.
If her gun had been loaded, he was certain Wolf wouldn't have gotten off with only a punctured lung. Ash was a crack shooter.
But Ash's gun wasn't the one that fired the shot.
It had been his.
He'd unloaded Ash's gun that afternoon while she'd napped-after they'd made love. He'd unloaded it because they were alone in the canyons, and he'd been about to propose.
One didn't propose to Ash without taking proper precautions.
A man didn't love a woman as long as he'd loved Ash and lay his heart on the line without being fairly sure of himself. But one never knew what Ash would say or do-and so he had to be prepared for a refusal.
He'd planned his seduction carefully. Make love, disarm her, then proffer the best argument he had for hitting up the closest altar.
He'd even had a diamond-and-sapphire ring in his pocket to mark the occasion, if she was inclined to accept his offer of a partnership between them. A joining of the Callahan and Phillips families at long last. A merger between them, a professional alliance-the smoothest lasso he could design to draw Ash over to his side without her kicking and screaming. Ash was a practical woman; since a great many of the Callahan families were living at the Hell's Colony compound in Texas that he and his three siblings, Kendall, Gage and Shaman owned, it made sense to go easy on the emotions and heavy on practical.
But he'd never gotten to the proposal. Wolf had ambushed them, and Ash had shot him-or she thought she had. Xav had fired, too, and in the silence that fell as Wolf crumpled to the ground, Xav had taken her gun, fully intending to leave behind no trace of her involvement. There was no reason for her to be blamed.
Ash had sent him away, telling him this was a family matter, a fact with which he couldn't argue. She was stone-cold in her demand, and he'd departed, fully cognizant that Ash was calling her family to clean up, and no doubt for advice. As an employee of Rancho Diablo, Xav knew very well how the Callahans worked. They'd get there in a flash, and little sister would be up to her delicate shell-shaped ears in backup and support. The Callahans wouldn't let anything happen to Ash-and so he went off to ponder what he'd done over a beer.
He'd been stunned that he'd killed the uncle of the woman to whom he'd been about to propose. On the other hand, better he do it than Ash. As he knew too well, Chief Running Bear had forbidden his family to harm his son Wolf. Doing so would bring the family curse on them.
He'd wanted badly to protect Ash from that.
He'd fired so fast he wasn't sure Ash knew that he had.
But when the dust settled in the ensuing weeks, he'd waited for Ash to seek him out, as she had many times over the years. When she hadn't come, he'd gone looking for her at Rancho Diablo.
To his chagrin, he'd learned that his wild-at-heart angel hadn't been seen since that fateful day. And it turned out Galen's medical expertise had brought Wolf back from the brink. The old scoundrel had recovered and had slowly returned to taunting the Callahans. Yet Ash hadn't been seen or heard from by her family again-except last month when she'd sent a text to her family to wish them happy holidays.
It was that holiday message that had nearly broken Fiona. Fiona had summoned him, sending him off to find her beloved niece.
He'd accepted the mission gladly, knowing it wasn't going to be a cakewalk. Ash wasn't easy to track. She used only cash. There were no phone calls, no computer emails to track. It was as if she'd disappeared-which she'd obviously intended to do.
In the end, he'd gone to Running Bear for direction, only to be amazed that Running Bear hadn't heard from Ash, either. Those two shared the same untamed spirit.
But Xav got a pointer or two from Running Bear that sent him on a path to find her. Now he shifted on the white-painted porch, hearing footsteps inside, hoping his journey wasn't a dead end. It had been too many months since he'd held the love of his life in his arms.
A middle-aged woman opened the door, a questioning frown on her face. "Yes?"
"Hi." He gave her his most friendly smile. "I'm Xav Phillips, from Diablo, New Mexico. I'm looking for a woman named Ashlyn Callahan."
The woman shook her head, glancing over her shoulder when a baby's cry burst in the background. "I'm sorry, no. I've never heard of her."
He couldn't say what made him linger on the porch. Maybe it was because he'd come so far and was so disappointed to find his search turning up a dead end again. Another baby's cries joined the first, sending up a wail of epic proportions between them, which made the woman anxiously begin to back away.
"Excuse me," she said, "good luck finding whomever you're looking for."
She closed the door. Xav hesitated, then leaned his ear against the wood. He heard soft voices inside comforting the babies, and then unbelievably, he heard a voice he'd know any day, any night, whether he was awake, asleep or even in a coma.
"Sweet baby, don't fuss. My little prince," he heard Ash say, and in a flash, he slid over to the enormous glass window framing the Christmas tree so he could peer cautiously inside the house.
Behind the large, ruffle-branched Christmas tree, four white bassinets lay together in a room decorated for the holidays amid beautifully wrapped gifts. He held his breath, watching Ash comfort a tiny infant boy. Ash's shock of pale hair had grown into a waterfall of silver liquid she wore in a ponytail. Xav grew warm all over despite the cold, and Cupid's arrow shot right into his heart, the same way it had every time he'd ever gotten within two miles of her.
He was head over heels in love with her, and nine long months apart had done nothing to diminish those emotions. The ring in his pocket practically burned, reminding him how long he'd waited to ask her to marry him.
She put the baby down and picked up another, a sweet, pink-pajamaed little girl, and Xav's heart felt like it splatted on the ground. She acted as if these were her children, so loving and gentle was she as she held them. Xav was poleaxed with new thoughts of making Ash a mother. Motherhood and Ash weren't a combination he'd ever really put together in his head, but watching her with these children made him realize his original proposal wasn't the one he wanted to offer her.
He didn't want to fall back on a business arrangement to save his ego.
No, he was going all in. He was going to tell her the truth about the shot she'd allegedly fired at Wolf, because clearly that was why she was hiding out here, helping the older lady babysit her family's babies. Or maybe she ran a babysitting service. It didn't matter. The point was, Ash was in hiding and he was going to tell her the truth: she was not the hunted one. She was not destined to bring destruction to Rancho Diablo and her family.
And then he was going to ask her to be his wife. His real true wife, to have and to hold, in sickness and health, in good times and better times, forever.
Xav hadn't realized he'd moved away from the protection of the twinkling Christmas tree in order to spy better, but Ash's suddenly astonished eyes jolted him out of his reverie. She stared at him over the pink blanket-wrapped baby, her lips parted with shock to see him standing among the evergreen bushes at the window. And then, to his complete dismay, Ash snapped the curtains closed.
A screeching siren split the air. Someone had hit some kind of panic button inside the house, which meant police would be on the way. He was certain Ash had recognized him, but just to be certain she didn't think he was an intruder, he leaped up on the porch and pushed the door open.
"Hi, beautiful," Xav said, and she looked at him, completely speechless, and suddenly pain crashed through him. The last thing Xav remembered thinking was how lucky it was that he'd finally located the most footloose Callahan of them all.
He'd succeeded on Fiona's mission.
Callahan bonus points for sure.
"What do we do with him?" Mallory McGrath asked, and Ash tried to force her flabbergasted mind to think rationally. It wasn't easy, and not just because Mallory had set off the panic button on the security system, which was wailing like mad. She crossed to the system pad and shut the silly thing off before staring down at the lean cowboy sprawled on the floor. How many hours had she spent thinking about Xav Phillips over the past few months, especially during her pregnancy? How many times had she wanted to call him to come to her, yet knowing she couldn't place him in that kind of danger? Anyone from Rancho Diablo who had any contact with her would be in jeopardy-the Callahans had learned that the hard way, time and again, over the many years they'd battled Uncle Wolf and the cartel. It was no game they were playing, but a full-fledged fight for survival.
Sometimes it felt as though they were losing. It almost always seemed as if they might not ever defeat an enemy that was determined to destroy the ranch and the Callahan legacy. Good didn't always conquer evil.
Ash knelt down to move Xav's long, ebony hair out of his face. "Poor Xav. I could have told you that you should stay away from me." The tree twinkled, sending soft colorful light against his drawn skin. "What am I going to do with you now?" she asked him, though she knew she wouldn't get an answer.
She was startled when he opened his eyes. "Marry me," Xav said. "You can marry me, damn it, and tell the woman with the wrought-iron Santa Claus she whaled upside my noggin that I come in peace."
"Xav!" She wanted to kiss him so badly, yet didn't dare. Of course his marriage proposal wasn't sincere; clearly a concussion rendered him temporarily senseless. "Can you sit up? Mallory, will you get him a glass of water?"
"Who is he?" Mallory asked, reluctantly setting down her festive weapon.
"Just a family friend," Ash said, her gaze on Xav as his eyes locked on hers.
"Friend my ass," Xav growled. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to find you? Do friends search every nook and cranny of Texas and parts in between to find each other?"
"Definitely a concussion," Ash said, frowning at the big handsome man, all long body and sinewy muscles. "I've never heard him talk like that."
"Hello, I'm right here," Xav said crustily, trying to rise.
Ash pushed him back to the floor. "Take a minute to gather your wits, cowboy."
"My wits have never been so gathered." He sat up and glared at her, then stared at his brown cowboy hat mournfully. "She killed it."
Mallory had the nerve to giggle, and Xav looked even more disgusted, as if he thought it rude that someone laughed at crushing his cowboy hat with a Santa Claus doorstop before they'd been introduced.
"It'll be all right." Ash took the hat from him, put it on a chair, inspected his head. "I do believe that hat saved your thick skull. There's not a scratch on you."
"Well, thanks for that." He stood, and Ash steered him toward one of Mallory's soft, old-fashioned Victorian sofas. Before she could get him past the babies and onto the sofa, Xav stopped, staring down into the bassinettes, transfixed by the tiny infants inside. The four babies slept peacefully, undisturbed by the strong, determined male visitor in their midst.
"Hmm," Xav said, "pretty cute little stinkweeds."
For all the times she'd envisioned introducing the babies to their father, never had she imagined he'd call his adorable offspring stinkweeds. Ash stiffened, her bubble bursting, and Mallory laughed and excused herself, saying she was going to go hunt up some tea and cinnamon cake.
"Stinkweeds?" Ash demanded. "Is that the best you can do?"
Xav hunkered down on the sofa, rubbed his head.
"I think at the moment, yes. In a minute, when the headache passes, I can probably be more creative." He looked at her. "You didn't introduce me to your friend, but I assume these babies are her grandkids?"
He must have noted her astonished expression because he quickly said, "Or are you running a babysitting service?"
Great. He might seem fine after a crack on the head, but the truth was going to blow his mind.
On the other hand, maybe it was best if Xav didn't know he was a father. She could convince him to go on his merry way and never look back.
No. That didn't sound right, either. He'd tracked her down, he was here. These were his children. There was no going back.
"Actually, Xav," she said, "these aren't Mallory's babies."
"Ah, well. It's not important." He reached into a bassinet and touched one baby gently. "If I'd drawn them in a poker game, I'd say they were a perfect four of a kind."
Her heart melted just a bit, dislodged from its frozen perch. "Really? You think they're perfect?"
"Sure. I've seen tons of rugrats around Rancho Diablo. These are cute. Look a bit like tiny elves with scrunched red faces." He stood, picked his hat up off the sofa where Mallory had put it, stared at the damaged crown with a raised brow. "But I didn't come here to admire someone's kids, Ash." He looked into her eyes, and her heart responded with a dangerous flutter. "I've come to take you home for the holidays."