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Outside Cimarron Springs, Kansas, 1870s
A shrill scream from inside the homestead split the frosty air.
Jack Elder flattened his back against the cabin's rough-hewn logs, his Smith & Wesson drawn. Icy fear twisted in his gut. He couldn't think about the woman inside, couldn't let himself imagine what had ripped that tortured sound from her.
Head cocked to one side, he strained to hear voices over the howling wind. How many men were inside? Was Bud Shaw one of them?
Dense clouds draped the afternoon in an unnatural twilight. Fat, heavy snowflakes sheeted from the sky, pillowing in heaps on the frozen ground. Jack nudged the deepening slush with his boot. No footsteps showed in the fresh covering. No animal prints, either.
The glass-paned windows had been covered with oilcloth to keep out the cold air and curious eyes. He cautiously edged toward the rear of the house, his shoulders hunched. A sharp gust of wind sucked the breath from his lungs. He stretched one hand around the corner, relieved to feel the raised surface of a door latch.
Another harsh shout mingled with the raging blizzard. The desperate cry hardened his resolve. He didn't care how many men were insidehe couldn't let that woman suffer any more.
Mustering his fortitude, he whipped around to face the door and kicked. Hard. Wood splintered. A gust of warm air scented with fresh-baked bread knocked back his hat. He lunged inside, his pistol arm leveled. A woman's startled blue eyes met his shocked gaze over the silver barrel of her Colt .45.
The lady standing before him was young, and nearly as round as she was tall. Her pale hair clung damply to her forehead, and a shapeless gingham dress in drab hues swathed her from head to toe. She kept her body partially obscured behind a tall chair, as if the flimsy wood might somehow repel a lead bullet.
Her hands shaking, the woman wrestled back the gun's hammer. "Take one more step and I'll blow your head off, mister."
Jack thought he'd planned for everything, but staring down the barrel of a quivering Colt .45 was proving him woefully wrong. An armed woman hadn't been on his list of contingencies.
Carefully pointing his own weapon at the ceiling, he cleared his throat. "I'm a Texas Ranger," he called out loud enough to reach anyone who might be hiding. "You're safe now, miss."
Her face screwed up in pain. She tipped forward, clutching her stomach. Her gun weaved a dangerous path in the air. Fearful of a wild shot, Jack extended his arm toward her.
"Don't touch me!"
He searched her panic-ridden features for any sign of injury. "Where are you hurt?"
"Nowhere." She warned him back with a wave of her gun. "So get out."
His instincts flared. She was obviously in pain, not to mention she'd been screaming loud enough to wake a hibernating grizzly moments before, yet she still refused help. Was she trying to warn him? Had the outlaws set a trap?
Jerking his thumb, he indicated a door on the far side of the room. "Is he in there?" he asked, his voice hushed.
"Where's Bud Shaw?"
"No one here by that name," she gasped. "Now get out. I don't want any trouble."
Liquid splashed onto the wood plank flooring at her feet. Her face paled, and her eyes grew as large as twin harvest moons. Frigid air swept through the broken door.
The truth hit Jack like a mule kick. She wasn't plump, she was pregnant. Very pregnant. He hadn't stumbled into Bud's hideouthe'd barged into a peaceful homestead. The lady of the house was understandably spooked, and about to give birth at any moment.
He didn't need a sawbones to tell him the woman's bag of waters had just broken. Jack raised his eyes heavenward and offered up a quick prayer for guidance.
"Lady, you got a heap o' trouble," he said at last, "but I ain't part of it."
She staggered to the left, the weapon still clutched in her hand.
With a quick sidestep, he dodged the business end of the barrel. "Ma'am," he spoke, keeping his voice quiet and soothing, "I'm holstering my weapon."
She aimed her gun dead center at his chest.
Anxiety rose like bile in his throat. Nothing was more unpredictable than a frightened civilian with a firearm.
Not to mention she was unsteady on her feet and in obvious pain. The sooner he disarmed her, the better.
His decision made, he crept forward, his arms spread wide to display his empty hands. "Where's your husband? Has he gone to fetch help?"
She glanced away, as if considering her answer.
His stomach clenched. "You're alone here, aren't you?"
Her full, rose-colored lips pursed into a thin line. She shook her head in denial.
Annoyed by her refusal to look him in the eye, Jack grunted. He could guess the meaning of those loaded pauses and hesitant answers.
His sharp gaze surveyed the room once more. An enormous cast-iron stove dominated the space to his right. A single pine table and four crude chairs filled the corner behind the woman, a side cupboard and a pie safe flanked the open kitchen area. No masculine boots rested on the rag rug. No overcoat hung on the sturdy hooks beside the door. Ten years as a Texas Ranger had given him a heap of insight into people.
Everybody lied, just not for the same reasons.
He assumed his most charming smile to put her at ease. "I'm Jack Elder, and I'm not going to hurt you. I've been tracking a gang of bank robbers through Kansas. You haven't been robbing any banks, have you?"
She scowled at his joke, then another pain racked her body. She doubled over, pressing her free hand beneath the shelf of her belly.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Jack caught her around the forearm. Her startled gaze flew to his face. Though her wild, frightened eyes pierced his rigid control, he held firm. Careful to keep his touch gentle, he pried the Colt loose from her trembling fingers, swiftly releasing the hammer with a seasoned flick of his thumb.
She narrowed her eyes. "Are you really a Texas Ranger?"
Jack stepped away, hardening his heart against her suffering. Emotions clouded judgmentand poor judgment got people killed.
After hooking his finger into the gun's trigger guard, he flipped back the collar of his jacket to reveal the silver star he'd carved from a Spanish coin. Uncertainty flitted across her face, followed by reluctant acceptance of the tarnished evidence of his profession.
"Ranger or not," she said. "You have no right to be here."
Habits honed from years on the trail had heightened his senses. The woman had a curious lilt to her voice, the barest hint of an accent in the way she spoke. She wasn't from around these parts, but then again, who was?
He let his coat fall back into place. "Ma'am, you need to lie down. That baby is fixing to come."
"No," she cried, stumbling away. "It's not time. I checked the calendar. It's too soon."
"I don't think your baby is on the same schedule."
"But I can't have the baby now. I'm not ready."
Jack heaved an inward sigh. Marvelous. She was delusional and in labor. He definitely hadn't planned for this. She appeared oblivious to the telling mess at her feet, to the growing chill in the cabin, towellto everything. As if ignoring the situation might somehow make it all go awaymake him go away.
He shifted his weight, considering his options. Best not to push her too hard. Mother Nature would deliver the full realization of her circumstances soon enough.
She mumbled something beneath her breath and vigorously shook her head. "No, it's definitely too soon. I have everything planned out for the last week in November."
Another glance at her rounded belly heightened his trepidation. A little nudge in the right direction never hurt. "You look plenty ready to me."
Her expression turned icy. "And what do you mean by that?"
"Well.. " he stalled. "You're, you. "
A flush crept up his neck. While there was no polite way to indicate the most obvious symptom of her condition, she was a little too far along in the birthing process for his peace of mind. Wherever her husband had gone, it didn't appear the man would be returning home anytime soon. Without another person to watch over the woman, Jack's options were limited. Unless he took control of the situation and found a reasonable way to extract himself, they were both in a mess of trouble.
"Do elaborate," she demanded. "I'm what?"
Suddenly hot, he slid the top button of his wool coat free. He'd just come from Cimarron Springs, and it was forty-five minutes to town for the doctor. Leaving the woman alone that long was out of the question. Grateful for the breeze from the busted door, Jack released the second button. Surely someone was watching out for the woman? Even in this desolate land a person was never truly alone. She must have friends or family in the area.
A teeth-chattering shiver rattled her body, buckling her defensive posture. She wrapped her arms protectively around her distended stomach. "This is my home, and I want you to leave."
"You and me both."
He'd rather face an angry rattler than a fragile woman any day. But the sight of her pale face tugged at his conscience. Of course he'd do the right thing. He always did the right thing, especially when it came to women and children.
That code of honor had been ingrained in him since his youth. "I can't go until I know you're settled."
Conscious of the dropping temperature and her growing discomfort, he backed his way to the broken door, his attention riveted on the woman. Snow swirled around his ankles, dusting the cabin floor with white flakes.
Her gaze skittered to the gun in his holster. "You're trespassing on my property." She tightened her arms over her rounded belly, highlighting the swell. "Return my gun this instant."
He nudged the sagging door closed with his heel. Wind whistled through the cracked hinges. "I can't do that. You might need my help, and I can't have you shooting me."
He rested her Colt on the sturdy worktable before the stove, then covered the weapon with his hat. "I might be a Texas Ranger, but my family owns a cattle ranch. I haven't delivered any babies, but I've brought a passel of calves into this world, and I've got a fair understanding of the process. Once your bag of waters breaks, there's no going back."
She started, as if noticing the wet floor for the first time. "Oh, my goodness. What a mess. II need a cloth."
She waddled to the side cupboard, swinging the door wide to rummage through the shelves.
Jack blew out a hard breath, letting her prattle about her chore. He'd seen that same vacant stare plenty of times before. His first year as a Ranger, he'd come upon a homestead after a Comanche raid. The woman of the house was setting the table for supper, her clothing torn and bloodied, while her husband and three young children lay slaughtered on the dirt-packed floor.
His chest constricted at the memory. He'd never forget the mother's dark footprints circling her dead children's bodies. From that moment on, he'd hardened his feelings to the suffering he witnessed in order to preserve his own sanity.
The pregnant woman faced him, her chin set in a stubborn angle, a square of linen clutched to her chest. "The man you're looking for isn't here, so you can leave now, mister."
"What's your name?" he asked, his tone deliberately brusque. Most decent folks responded honestly to a direct question.
"Elizabeth. E-Elizabeth Cole."
He offered her another friendly grin. His questions had the added benefit of keeping her distracted. "See, that wasn't so hard, Elizabeth." He also found people answered to their own name, even when they ignored everything else. "Where's your husband?"
Her eyes welled with tears. Sniffling, she blinked them away. "He's dead."
Jack bowed his head, shielding himself from the agony in her steady gaze. She definitely wasn't lying now. The way her emotions paraded across her expressive face, she'd make a terrible criminal.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he replied.
She was awfully young to be a widow. Jack sometimes felt the good Lord had let evil concentrate west of the Mississippi.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times to speak, finally deciding to give her a moment to collect herself before any more questions. Judging from her condition, the man couldn't have been gone for too long. In this harsh land, it was best not to get attached to anything, or anyone.
When she finally glanced up, he asked, "Do you have any family or friends in the area?"
"The McCoys live just over the rise."
Hope sparked in his chest. "Is there a Mrs. McCoy?"
"There's a Mrs. McCoy, a Mr. McCoy" she ticked off each name with a finger to the opposite hand "and five little McCoys."
Relief weakened his knees. Delivering babies was best left to women and doctorsand he didn't qualify as either. "Thank heaven for the McCoys."
He'd find a way to contact the family as soon as Elizabeth was settled. With his immediate worry eased, he stepped forward, motioning with one hand. "Let's get you someplace where you can rest, Mrs. Cole."
She eyed him with obvious distrust.
Flummoxed by her stubbornness, Jack paused. Now what? Give him a raging outlaw or a drunken killer any day. He wasn't equipped for this kind of sensitive situation. Those teary blue eyes were sorely testing his vow to remain detached.
She lurched to one side, clutching the ladder-back chair for support. "Oh, dear," she moaned.
Feeling helpless and out of his element, he cupped her elbow. Her wary gaze swept over his thick wool coat, lingering on his stamped, silver buttons. Her jaw clenched. He had the uneasy sensation she had just sized him up, and found him lacking.
Jolted by her odd reaction, he dropped his hold. "I'm not going to hurt you, Elizabeth."
She pinched shut her eyes against another pain, then fumbled for his hand, threading her fingers through his in a silent plea for comfort. His heart stuttered at the unexpected gesture.
How long since her husband had died? How long had she been pregnant and alone, solely responsible for the grueling work required to run this homestead?
After a long, tense moment, her delicate features relaxed. The grip on his hand loosened.
"That one wasn't so bad," she said, though her wan smile indicated otherwise.
"Let's get you away from this breeze." He nodded toward the back of the house. "Someone near broke your door in two."
"I hope that same someone repairs the damage before he leaves."
She lowered her head, then yanked her hand free, as if surprised to see their fingers intertwined.
Keeping his gaze averted, he flexed his fist a few times to shake off the lingering warmth of her skin. He didn't want to look at her, didn't want to see the raw edge of fear in her eyes. Didn't she realize he was one of the good guys?