Zane (The Morgans of Rocky Ridge)
The west is a dangerous place, especially for a lawman. Zane Morgan, sheriff of Rocky Ridge, Colorado has accepted this and has resigned himself to being alone. He won’t ask a woman to share his life when the odds of him living long enough to raise a family are slim.
Priscilla Rowan is on the run. Pregnant and fleeing her preacher ex-husband, she’s on her way to California when nature ruins her plans and her child decides to be born sooner than expected. Although she doesn’t trust any man, she has no choice but to accept Zane’s help and protection until she can move on.
As Zane and Priscilla grow closer, Zane discovers protecting her becomes much more than his duty. But when the threat is eliminated, can he convince her to stay without giving up who he is?
The pain sliced through her again. She wrapped her arms around her swollen stomach and curled into a ball, pressing her lips together so she wouldn’t scream. Even though the air inside the livery stable was frigid, perspiration beaded on her forehead and trickled down her back.
It wouldn’t be long now. The pains were coming so close together, she knew it was only a matter of minutes before her baby would be born.
And then what? She was alone, with no money, no family, no home. Where would she go? How could she possibly raise a child?
But how could she give her baby away?
Until two years ago, she would have advised any woman in her condition to go to the nearest church. There, she’d find compassion and mercy. But that was before …
Another pain consumed her, and any thought of how she and her child would survive was buried in agony. She cried out. Again and again, the pain engulfed her until finally, the child was born.
Tears mingled with sweat as she gazed down on her newborn daughter. Love swelled in her heart, and she knew in that moment that nothing could separate her from her child.
Tenderly, she cradled the infant against her breast and covered her with her cape and a horse blanket she’d found hanging over one of the stalls.
Exhaustion claimed her, and she slept.
Sheriff Zane Morgan shivered as he made his way down Rocky Ridge’s main street toward his house at the outskirts of town. His boots clacked on the boardwalk, the light from the saloon a few doors down dying out and leaving the street in shadowy darkness.
It was still early in November, but he smelled snow in the air. He didn’t mind. Snow kept folks inside, not out getting into trouble. And that made his job a lot easier.
A gust of wind whistled down the alley between the undertaker’s shop and the livery stable, carrying with it another sound. He paused, looked around. No sign of anyone. He strained to listen, and a few moments later, he heard it again.
Realizing the sound was coming from inside the livery, he crossed to the door and listened. Sure enough, there it was again, a soft, mewling that sounded like an injured kitten.
Still, he wasn’t about to take any chances. Wrapping his hand around the butt of his Smith & Wesson, he slid it out of the holster and quietly opened the door.
The smells of hay, manure and horse met him as he stepped inside. A shaft of moonlight through a window high in the wall cast shadows on the empty stalls. He moved forward, his senses alert.
Then he heard it. A woman’s voice. “Shh,” she whispered. “It’ll be all right.”
What the hell was a woman doing in the livery at midnight?
The straw-covered dirt floor muffled his footsteps as he picked his way toward the back of the building. He was ready to shoot if he had to, even if the intruder was a woman.
But when he rounded the corner and looked into the stall, his arm fell to his side. Huddled beneath a saddle blanket, a woman was cradling a baby in her arms. Her head was bowed, and long, dark hair tumbled around her shoulders, hiding her face as she whispered and tenderly caressed the infant’s face.
The woman’s head jerked and she let out a small squeal, her arms tightening around the bundle she held in her arms. She tried to scramble even further into the corner of the stall, but her feet couldn’t gain traction on the straw.
Even in the darkness, he could see the terror in her eyes. “Please … don’t hurt us …”
Zane slid his gun back into his holster. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said softly. “I promise.”
He turned away and crossed to where he knew Hank kept a lantern. He struck a match and lit the flame, then brought the lantern closer to the stall and hung it on a nail.
He moved closer to the woman. Even in the dim light, he could see her face was deathly pale. A sheen of sweat covered her skin even though the temperature was barely above freezing. He didn’t need Doc Leonard’s medical diploma to know the woman was either sick or hurt and if he didn’t get her into somewhere warm, she was going to get a lot worse.
“My name’s Zane Morgan,” he said. “I’m the sheriff here in Rocky Ridge.”
She seemed to relax a little. She shifted, and the baby let out a wail.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. I needed a place to rest—“
He slid a glance at the baby’s face. A wrinkled, newborn face.
“You just had the baby, didn’t you?”
She nodded, her curls bouncing. Even in the dim light, her face took on a tranquil expression as she gazed down at the infant. “A girl.”
“Where’s your husband?” he asked, his voice rushing out on a harsher note than he’d expected. He peered into the silent shadows. Anger churned in his stomach. “What the hell kind of man leaves his wife to have a baby in a livery stable?”
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’ll go. I didn’t mean any harm …” She’d barely moved before her eyelids fluttered closed, she swayed and crumpled onto the dirty straw.
Zane grabbed for the baby before the woman dropped her and scooped the bundle into his arms. The baby looked up at him, frowned and let out a lusty wail.
“Sorry, little girl, but I need to tend to your mama first,” he said gently, then set the bundled infant on a layer of dry straw close by.
Crouching beside the woman, he rested his fingers on her forehead. Hell, she was burning hot! How long had she labored in this filth?
Who was she? Where had she come from? And he had noticed she’d never answered him about a husband.
He couldn’t very well leave her here to die, he reasoned, which left him with no choice. Scooping her up as carefully as possible, he slung her over his shoulder. With one hand holding the woman in place, he gathered the blanket-wrapped baby to his chest, turned down the wick on the lantern and strode outside. In the darkness, he scanned the street.
Empty. No sign of the woman’s husband. If there was one.
“Probably going to regret this,” he muttered as he turned and carried the woman down the street toward his house.