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Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, Christmas season of 1892
For Dillinger Kent, retired gunslinger, life was quiet on his thousand-acre spread on the outskirts of the Texas Panhandle town of Christmas River. Winter with its promise of bitter cold and occasional snow, unlike the rest of the state, made his solitary lifestyle even more remote. Springtime brought fullness to his ranch, with trees and grasses dressing the stark landscape in glorious greens; summer and fall brought their own lustrous hues to warm the countryside.
But the Christmas season was a harbinger of the icy cocoon soon to envelop him for the next three months. It was the middle of December, and deep winter crept closer.
He'd chosen a life of loneliness when he'd lost his wife, Polly Hartskill Kent. They'd made plans for a family out here, a big home to raise them in. Christmas on the ranch, Polly said, would be so much fun with lots of little feet running around. Polly had a beautiful soul and Dillinger had loved her as he would never love anyone again. But his darling wife had taken ill with pneumonia during the last Christmas season, and having a beautiful soul hadn't saved her.
He picked up a self-portrait Polly had drawn for him, which he'd put in a wooden frame. She was luminous, even in charcoal. Her kindness and grace of spirit was captured in the lines of her likeness. He set the picture down and picked up a pair of small, dangling earrings with tiny golden bells. They were delicate, like Polly. He'd given them to her two Christmases ago, a wedding gift he'd picked up on his last trip to California. She'd been thrilled with them, giggling when they lightly tinkled at her ears. The earrings felt like a tiny memory between his rough fingers. He would never give them to another woman, would never part with them.
Dillinger forced his mind away from Polly. He wondered if he might go crazy one day in this isolated countryside. But he knew it was just the date on the calendar he'd bought at Gin's Feed Store that was making him maudlin. He'd make it to springtime—he swore that he would. He curled his fingers around the earrings, then set them back on the desk, barely able to turn them loose.
The wind whipped around outside the nine-room home he'd built with his own hands. No chill would seep in—he knew every inch of his house and it was tight against the elements. Dillinger closed his eyes, wondered if he should go check the livestock, which would be huddled in close groups for warmth. They were more than likely fine.
Still, he had the urge to look outside.
Then he heard the wailing.
It came thin at first, carried by the wind. It wasn't an animal's cry—it sounded human. But at this time of night, nearly ten o'clock, there would be no people around. His ranch was far from town, hardly a convenient place for someone to stop by.
Yet he heard it again. He buttoned his long oilskin coat, which reached below his knees. Grabbing gloves and setting his cowboy hat tight on his head, he prepared for the gusts of wind that would tear at him. He stepped out and nearly onto a basket that had been laid on his porch. By God, it was a baby, a pink-wrapped thing in a wicker basket.
Dillinger looked in all directions, but there were no footprints in the snow leading away from the house. Yet the baby couldn't have been there long. "Hey!" he called into the darkness. "You can't leave this here! Come back!"
The poor woman who had left her child here didn't understand. He lived alone. He went to town only four times a year. He was basically a pariah.
The gossip mill of Christmas River had turned on him after Polly's death, and to his shock, it was said that Polly had died of pneumonia after trying to flee from him one cold December night. Her parents had claimed that he was jealous, had become aware that another man wanted to court Polly, and that Dillinger had chased her down, intending to murder her in cold blood.
Now he was a man with no town.
"Come back here!" he yelled into the breath-stealing chill of the snowstorm. But there was no answer, just the cries of the desperate baby at his feet.
So he picked up the basket, cursing it, cursing himself, his life… and found himself in a shootout straight from the Old West. Three gunslingers he'd never seen before aimed pistols at him. Gaudily attired saloon women screamed and ran for cover. With his holster and gun missing, he had no choice but to do what he could to save the baby in his arms.
He jumped off the stage and into a seated throng of clapping women, men and children. Popcorn flew, but there was no time to apologize; he expected a bullet in his back any second. Somehow he had to get the baby to shelter. He ran to the nearest safe place he could find—a theater box with a sign on it that read Security, empty for the moment—and looked down at the baby.
Dillinger's chest heaved, but the infant looked up at him, calm now and gazing at him reverently.
"Hey." A saloon woman squeezed into the box with him. "You're going to be in big trouble with Harry."
He stared at his unwanted companion. Her long, whiskey-colored hair fell in cascading curls, her green eyes huge.
"Yeah. He's not going to be happy that you rewrote the script. Nor that you had a baby onstage."
Dillinger held the infant closer.
"Couldn't you find a sitter?" she asked. "I know it's late at night, but surely a teenager would have been willing to watch your baby."
He couldn't speak, his world changing so fast he couldn't take it in. He felt himself shift into survival mode. He studied the woman's painted lips—a sweet, shiny cherry—and her long, long lashes. He'd never seen a woman wear so much face paint and yet have so little need of it.
Whoever she was—whatever she was—he needed her right now.
She shook her head. "I've only been here a few weeks and you're clearly real new, but if I were you, I'd go to Harry after the act is over, apologize like hell and beg him not to fire you. Six Flags is crawling with people looking for work, even at Christmastime."
Dillinger frowned. "I wouldn't beg for anything. And what do you mean, when the act is over?"
"That was the last scene, the grand finale." She shrugged pale, softly rounded shoulders. "Suit yourself on the begging part, but you can't perform with the baby." She cast a glance over him. "You may look like the real McCoy, but Harry's not going to bend rules even for you, I bet."
The infant began to cry, a wail that suggested she was hungry and didn't care to wait. "I'm not in an act. I'm lost," he said, and the saloon dancer laughed.
"No kidding, cowboy," she said. "You're just one egg shy of a dozen, aren't you?"
"I need help."
He watched, fascinated, as she pulled a black mole off the skin above her gently curved lips. "Let's get out of here. I need to wash my face, and we'll figure out where to find baby formula and Pampers. Unless you're going to surprise me and say you've got some in your car."
He shook his head, not certain what she had just asked him. She sighed and motioned for him to follow her from the box.
"What about Harry?" He presumed Harry employed her, but maybe there was more to it than that.
"To hell with him," she said, "we need to feed Princess Squall. I feel sorry for her." She smiled down at the baby and her face softened. "Thank God I never had one of these or I might not have ever had the courage to back out of my wedding at the last minute. You're a sweetie," she said, lifting the baby from his arms. "You should have gummed on Daddy's nose for forgetting your bottle, honey."
He watched protectively as she cuddled the infant. The baby stopped crying and Dillinger relaxed slightly.
He needed one person on his side right now. As much as he might not like it, the saloon dancer would have to do, at least until he figured out exactly how the hell he'd gotten here.
Okay, the gunslinger was an odd bird and she didn't need drama right now—staying in hiding would be harder with a baby—but he seemed harmless, and if nothing else, at least not a perv. He hadn't so much as glanced at her low-cut gown—the gaudy yellow polyester thing—so she could do worse than odd.
At the moment, she couldn't really be picky about who she hung around with. In spite of her tough words, this was her last night in the show. She'd been here a month; it was time to move on if she wanted to stay ahead of her ex-fiancé. After she'd left Bradley in New York City, she'd developed an itch to keep putting distance between them.
She carried the baby like a treasured artifact through the crowds, leaving the man to follow, as she knew he would. The tall, dark, handsome stranger hadn't wanted to part with the baby, but like any wise female, she employed the carrot-and-stick approach when necessary. The baby was the carrot, and the cowboy stayed glued to her heels.
He was a delicious, if silent, specimen. Dark hair flowed to the nape of his neck; black brows scowled over denim-blue eyes that seemed confused, yet missed nothing. He was a good six feet four, a foot taller than her, yet he moved gracefully, even when running with a baby. She could only hope he looked as good when he took off his costume. What was it about her and bad boys, the rougher and tougher, the better? She'd snatched him before any other "lady" in the show could—never let it be said that Auburn McGinnis ran from all men. Just the last man. And she planned to keep running, with this baby and her handsome daddy, if her lucky stars were out tonight.
They didn't speak much in the car. He seemed preoccupied and Auburn was relieved when she pulled into the penthouse parking lot twenty minutes later. They'd purchased diapers, formula and sundry baby things, since the cowboy seemed to have nothing with him. She was a tad suspicious that he'd snatched the baby from its mother, but kept her thoughts to herself. He'd flee if he suspected she was going to call the police, and the best thing to do would be to protect the baby. She could watch the news tonight and see if there was an Amber Alert. She'd cast a quick eye at the lighted overhead sign as they'd driven along the highway, which flashed with a description when a child had been stolen.
There'd been no warning.
"What's your name?" Auburn asked.
The cowboy had been turned around in his seat, staring at the baby in the back, almost as if reassuring himself that she was there. "My name?"
"Yes." Auburn sighed. "You can relax. She's not going to disappear."
Her words seemed to agitate him and he once again stared back at the newly purchased car seat containing the baby. He was edgy, and it began to occur to Auburn that she had to be an idiot for picking up a man who had no car—claimed he didn't—no diapers or food for a baby— bad sign—and had a major possessive streak going on.
"You're not that child's daddy," she said, blurting out her thoughts as she turned off the car.
To her shock, he didn't look as if he was about to grab the baby and dash off.
"I know," he said. "She was given to me."
"People don't give away babies."
"Trust me, I tried to give her back."
Auburn considered that as she got out of the car. "Be careful when you take her out. Remove the entire carrier and bring it inside. I don't have a crib, but she can sleep in her carrier if she's comfortable, at least for the time being. We can make her a nice, soft pallet on the floor if we need to."
Auburn watched as he picked up the carrier, handling it as if the baby were gold. A deep breath escaped her. Maybe he was telling the truth; most single men probably wouldn't be thrilled to have a baby thrust upon them. And he didn't look exactly scary. If anything, he was eye candy, the kind of man women would jump all over to have his child.
Unlocking the door to her apartment, Auburn said, "Back to your name."
"Dillinger Kent." He waited beside her, curious as she opened the door. "What kind of place is this?"
"My name's Auburn McGinnis," she said calmly, closing the door behind them, "and this is called a penthouse. Is that what you're asking?"
He seemed overwhelmed. "I don't know," he said, sounding tired as he carefully set the baby down. "Have you ever had a dream that felt like it was real?"
She eyed him suspiciously. "I'm going to get out of this costume. Make yourself at home. There's a powder room down the hall."
Maybe his family called them something else. "A place to freshen up."