The Rancher's Christmas Proposal

By: Sherri Shackelford
Chapter One

Train Depot, Wichita, Kansas, 1886

For one brief, idyllic interlude, Tessa Spencer had believed her days of living on the run were behind her.

That time was over.

Perched on her steamer trunk, she considered the list of cities chalked across the destination board, searching for inspiration. Her hasty exit had left her with few options and even less money.

Earlier that morning, a member of the notorious Fulton Gang had been asking some very pointed questions about her at the Harvey House café where she worked serving tables. She’d packed her belongings and set off for the train station before the outlaw’s coffee had cooled. Since her regular shift began with the dinner service, she had until this evening before Dead Eye Dan Fulton discovered she’d flown the coop.

Her stomach pitched. Time was slipping away at an alarming rate.

“Ball,” a small voice said.

She searched for the source of the interruption.

“Ball.”

She glanced down.

A bright-eyed toddler with shiny blond hair smiled up at her. The boy was smartly dressed in a sky blue sailor shirt tied with a red scarf, his feet encased in gleaming black patent leather shoes.

Tessa frowned. “Where are your parents, little fellow?”

“Ball.”

The wooden sphere he proudly displayed was obviously well loved, the painted stripes faded.

“Yes,” Tessa replied. “That’s quite lovely. Except you’ve gone and gotten yourself lost, haven’t you?”

Most likely the boy’s frantic parents had already begun their search. Keeping an eye out for stray members of the Fulton Gang, she studied the passengers milling beneath the awning of the train station, seeking any sign of a disturbance.

The boy tugged on her apricot-colored skirts. “Ga.”

“You’d best be careful,” she admonished gently. “Being lost is a lonely business.”

The toddler extended his chubby hand, offering up his most prized possession.

Tessa waved off his gift. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly take your toy. Although I thank you kindly for the offer.”

The boy grinned. He clambered onto the trunk, and she instinctively aided his ascent. He perched beside her and scooted close, pressing the warmth of his small body against her side.

“Best to stay put when you’re lost,” she said. “Or you only become more lost. That’s what my dad always told me.”

The boy tilted his head and stared at her. “Da-da.”

“Yes, Emmett is my da-da.” Tessa rolled her eyes. “He’s a bit of a rogue. Not that he thinks of himself that way. Oh no. Emmett fancies himself a righter of wrongs, earning his living playing cards with folks who can afford to lose. Except lawmen don’t appreciate that fine moral distinction, do they? And now he’s run afoul of Dead Eye Dan and the Fulton Gang, which is even worse—I’ll tell you that.”

Heedless of her startling confession, the boy merrily kicked his heels against the trunk. She braced her hands on her knees and locked her elbows straight. Yep. She’d gone loopy, all right. At least talking to this little fellow was better than talking to herself, and she’d done plenty of that since Emmett’s disastrous attempt at robbing a bank. He’d been tasked with concealing himself inside and letting the others in after closing. Except the bank vault had already been emptied when the Fultons arrived, leaving Emmett the only suspect.

“As you can imagine,” she continued, “Dead Eye Dan is fit to be tied if he’s come looking for me. I don’t know where Emmett is hiding any more than he does, but I’m not sticking around to argue the point.”

Obviously Dead Eye didn’t know about her falling out with Emmett. Her throat tightened. She hadn’t realized until recently how gloriously unsuited she was to a solitary life. The longing to see Emmett once more had become an almost physical ache. His love had been negligent, but as she’d learned over these past months, a slipshod sort of affection was better than nothing at all.

A nearby commotion snagged her attention. A towering gentleman in a cowboy hat and boots held a crying toddler—a girl, about the same age as the boy who’d taken up residence beside her. Though handsome, everything about the man was slightly askew. His hat sat at an angle, his collar was bent on one side, and the hem of his trouser legs was partially snagged on the stitching of his boot. He frowned and studied the area immediately surrounding his feet.

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