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Winning the Widow's Heart (Love Inspired Historical) Mass Market Paperback – Import, 5 Jun 2012
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About the Author
A wife and mother of three, Sherri's hobbies include collecting mismatched socks, discovering new ways to avoid cleaning, and standing in the middle of the room while thinking, "Why did I just come in here?" A reformed pessimist and recent hopeful romantic, Sherri has a passion for writing. Her books are fun and fast-paced, with plenty of heart and soul. Sherri loves to hear from readers. Visit her at sherrishackelford.com, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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 ...
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