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Something yanked Easton Springhill out of a sound sleep.
She rolled over and squinted at her alarm clock, which glowed the dismal hour of 4:26 a.m. Her curtains were open, as usual, so she could wake to a view of the mountaintops still covered in snow. But from her bed she could only see a bright glitter of stars pinpricking the dark sky.
With a heavy sigh, she flopped back onto her pillow. She wouldn't be going back to sleep anytime soon, especially since her dratted alarm was set to go off anyway in little more than an hour.
What a pain. She really hated waking up before her alarm clock, especially when she had a feeling she'd been smack in the middle of some sort of lovely dream. She could only hang on to a few wispy tendrils of memory about what the dream might have been about, but she could guess that somehow he was involved.
She rolled over. Probably better, then, that she woke up. Whenever she dreamed of him, she spent the next day in a strange, suspended statepartly elated at having something of him again, even if only through her subconscious, but mostly depressed that she had to wake up and face the endless work of running an Idaho cattle ranch.
Alone, as usual.
The cotton pillowcase rustled as she shook her head a little, annoyed at herself.
She had a wonderful life here. She loved the ranch, she loved her friends, she had an honorary niece and nephew she adored.
So she didn't have the one thing she had wanted since she was just a silly girl. Was that any reason to fret and fuss and pine over the impossible?
She sat up, wondering what had awakened her. Jack and Suzy, her border collies, were barking outside, but that could mean anything from a loose cow to a hapless rodent foolish enough to enter their territory.
Whatever it was, she knew she would never go back to sleep now. Better to just take advantage of the unexpected hour to get some work done before she had to go out and take care of the chores. The Winder Ranch accounts were always waiting, unfortunately.
She slid out of bed and was just feeling around for her robe when she heard a sound that seemed to echo through the huge, empty ranch house.
She froze in the dark, ears straining. What the heck was that? It sounded like a cross between a shriek and a yowl. A moment later, something clattered downstairs, a jangly, ringing sound, as if a hard plastic bowl had somehow fallen out of one of the cupboards onto the kitchen floor.
Her heart pounded and her stomach curled and she wished she had brought one of the dogs inside. Since Chester, her ancient border collie who had been more pet than working dog, died over the winter, she had been alone in the house.
The ranch house sometimes creaked and groaned, as old houses were wont to do, but this was more than the normal settling noises.
She shoved on her slippers and grabbed the robe by her bed to cover the ancient John Deere T-shirt one of the guys had left years ago and grabbed her uncle's favorite old Benelli that Brant insisted she keep under the bed.
She lived alone on an isolated ranch where her nearest neighbor was almost a mile away. Only a supremely foolish woman would neglect to take basic defensive measures. She had been raised with three overprotective foster cousins and she was far from stupid.
About most things anyway.
Her heart pumped pure adrenaline as she fumbled for the shotgun shells in the drawer of her bedside table and loaded one each in the dual chambers.
As a precaution, she picked up her cell phone by the bed and slipped it into her pocket, not quite ready to call 9-1-1 yet until she checked out the situation to make sure she wasn't imagining things. She would hate having to explain to Trace Bowman why she had called the police to deal with a raccoon in her kitchen.
She pushed open her bedroom door, chiding herself again for her stubbornness in staying in her upstairs room after Jo died. It would have been more convenient all the way around if she had moved downstairs to one of the two bedrooms on the main floor, but she had been obstinate in clinging to her routine, staying in the same room she had moved into as a grieving, lost sixteen-year-old after her parents died.
She started down the stairs and had almost reached the squeaky stair that had caused the boys such headaches back in the day when she suddenly heard that yowly sound again. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and she gripped the Benelli more tightly.
That wasn't any raccoon she'd ever heard. Danged if that didn't sound like a mountain lion.
That would certainly explain the dogs barking. She thought of the tracks she had seen the afternoon before, but that had been clear on the edge of the north pasture, on the other side of the fence line.
Would a cat actually come into a house, even if she might have been foolish enough to leave a window open or something, which she was almost positive she hadn't done?
She had never heard of one of the big cats breaking into an occupied house. They were reclusive, wandering creatures who avoided human contact whenever possible.
A bit like Cisco.
See what dreaming about the man could get her? she chided herself. Even when she couldn't remember the content of her subconscious meanderings, she still spent the entire next day thinking about him, even at ridiculously inappropriate times like this one.
That couldn't be a mountain lion in her kitchen. She refused to believe it. Despite her usual precautions, she had probably just forgotten to close the kitchen window she'd opened to the May air and the breeze was moving the blinds, which were subsequently knocking down the hand lotion and soap she kept in the windowsill.
It was a good explanation and one she was sticking to. If it didn't quite explain the yowly sound, well, she wasn't going to fret about that, yet.
She reached the bottom of the steps and her pulse kicked up a notch. She could swear she hadn't left the kitchen light on when she went upstairs to bed. Part of her nightly ritual was to walk through the house to make sure it was closed up, the lights out, the doors locked.
She wouldn't have forgottenand unless she was dealing with a mountain lion who had particularly dexterous paws, she doubted any animal turned the light on.
The tinkle of breaking glass sounded from the kitchen followed instantly by a muffled curse.
Not a mountain lion. Definitely an animal of the human variety.
Her hands tightened on the shotgun and she flattened herself against the hallway wall. Should she sneak into her office, bolt the door and call 9-1-1? Or stick around and hold the intruder at bay with the shotgun until the authorities arrived?
But what if there were more than one? No, her best bet was the office route. She could avoid the kitchen altogether that way and let Trace and his police officers handle things.
She took a step toward the office and then another. When she had covered half the distance toward the open doorway, she heard a tiny squeaky sound, almost like a giggle, and then a gruff voice in response.
A giggle? What on earth?
She knew two adorable babies with that same kind of laugh, but she hadn't been expecting either of them to be visiting her anytime soon, at least as far as she knew.
Joey Southerland, Quinn and Tess's ten-month-old, was sleeping soundly in his Seattle bedroom right now and little Abby Western was in Los Angeles with Mimi and Brant.
If not them, who was currently giggling in her kitchen?
She had to find out.
She heard another giggle, which made up her mind for her. She would call 9-1-1 after she figured out who was breaking into her house.
She inched forward, pumping the shell into the Benelli's barrel in that unmistakable che-che sound, then rounded the corner of the kitchen.
"If you make one move, I'll take you out," she snapped. "Don't think I won't."
After the dimness of the stairs and the hallway, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light, before she could finally see who was standing in her kitchen.
The instant she recognized him, she knew without a doubt she would have preferred the mountain lion. When it came to dangerous beasts, any smart woman would far rather tangle with a ferocious carnivore on a rampage than the hard, dangerous man standing before her holding a
"Dammit, East. You scared the life out of me!"
Her cheeks suddenly felt hot and then ice-cold. This couldn't be real. Maybe she was still stuck in some weird dream about him. Why else would Cisco del Norte be standing in her kitchen holding a dark-headed pre-toddler wearing a pink velour sweatsuit with a bright yellow duck printed on the front?
No. The shotgun felt only too real to her, hard and cold and resolute, and he was definitely standing in her kitchen, though he looked bleary-eyed and tired, as if he hadn't shaved in days, and his clothes had certainly seen better days.
And he definitely had a baby in his arms.
She took another step into the kitchen, ejecting the shells from the chamber of the shotgun as she went.
"I just about shot your family jewels off, Cisco. What are you doing here? Why didn't you call me? And who's the
The child in question giggled and Easton could see her skin was dusky like Cisco's and she had huge blue eyes with long, inky lashes that matched her curly hair and a couple of darling dimples in her cheeks.
She appeared to be around the same age as Joey and Abby, which would probably put her on the short side of a yearbut then, Easton wasn't the greatest judge of those things. Show her even a photograph of a calf and she could guess how old it was within a few days either way, but human babies weren't as easy.
"It's a long story. I promise, you can put away Guff's Benelli."
She wasn't so sure about that and figured she would keep the shells close, just in case. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning. What's going on, Cisco? You want to tell me why I haven't heard from you in months and suddenly you show up at the ranch out of the blue before 5:00 a.m., looking like you barely survived a tornado. And with a baby to boot."
He sighed and she saw new lines around his mouth, another thin, brittle layer of hardness covering the sweet charmer he'd been as a boy. He looked as tired as she'd ever seen another person.
"Sorry about that. We probably should have found a hotel somewhere on the way. But we flew into Salt Lake late last night from Bogotá and Isabella fell asleep in her carseat the minute I picked up the rental car. I just figured I would keep driving until she woke up, but she slept the whole way, even when I stopped for gas in Idaho Falls."
"Which explains exactly nothing, except that the baby's name is Isabella and you've just flown in from Colombia," she muttered. As he probably knew full well.
Cisco had always been very good at convoluting reasons, spinning stories and rationalizations until a person couldn't remember her own name, forget about any information she might be trying to squeeze out of him. His particular gift had come in handy when he was still in school, but for personal relationships, those who knew and loved him found it frustrating in the extreme.
"Sorry. What was the question again?"
She might have thought he was being a smartasshe had always been pretty darn good at that, tooif not for the utter exhaustion on his features, the gray cast to his normally dark tanned skin.
When he swayed a little and had to catch himself with his free hand on the edge of the kitchen table, Easton finally set the shotgun on the table and reached for the baby, so they both wouldn't go down if he toppled over.
She tried to ignore the sharp little gouge to her heart as the little girl giggled a greeting, at the soft, sweet weight of her.
"When was the last time you slept?"
He blinked at her, the lines around his mouth and eyes looking even more pronounced than they had a few moments earlier. "What day is it?"
She had a strong suspicion he wasn't joking. "Wednesday. And if I had to guess, I would say by your bleary eyes, it was probably Sunday or Monday when you last had the luxury of sleep."
"Not quite true. I slept a little on the plane."
The baby patted her little chubby hands on both sides of Easton's face and giggled again. She smiled in response, then shifted to glare at Cisco.
"What were you thinking? You could have been killed, driving when you're obviously exhausted. And with a baby in the car, too!"
"I was fine." He gave her a forced smile. "You know me. I can always manage to find my second wind somewhere."
No. She didn't know him. Not anymore. Once he and his foster brothers Brant Western and Quinn Southerland had been her best friends, sharing secrets, trading dreams. She had adored Cisco from the moment he arrived at Winder Ranch.
And then everything changed.
The baby grabbed a lock of Easton's hair and yanked. Everything inside her wanted to weepand not at the physical pain. She couldn't shake the image of another beautiful dark-haired baby whom she had held for only a brief moment.
"Sorry to barge in on you like this, East. I should have called, but it was late when we got into Salt Lake."
Again, no real explanation about what he was doing there with a strange baby. He had become even better at evasive tactics, it that were possible.
"I didn't know where else to go," he continued. "Any chance you have room for us here at the ranch for a few days?"
She wanted to shut the door firmly against him and especially against this little girl in her arms who dredged up old sorrows. But she straightened her spine. She was tougher than this. If she could run a cattle ranch by herself, surely she could handle a few days with Cisco del Norte and this mysterious child.
"You know you don't have to ask. It's only me in this big rambling house. There's plenty of room. And anyway, you know you own a part share of the ranch, just like Brant and Quinn. I can't kick you out."
"Even when you'd like to?"
She opted to ignore his wry tone as the baby beamed at her with a grin that showed off two tiny pearl teeth on her bottom gum.
"Is she yours?"
She was relieved to see a little color return to the gray cast of his tired features.