The Kentucky Cowboy’s Baby
Angel Crossing, Arizona, Book 4

Read the Excerpt

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

EllaJayne was gone. The car seat in the back of the battered king-cab pickup was empty, the door hanging open. Even flat-as-a-pancake Oggie, her toy doggie, had vanished. AJ had been right there, fixing the loose hose while his daughter slept in her safest-for-its-price-tag car seat. He’d been standing right there. He hadn’t heard a damned thing. He should have a loyal dog so no one could sneak up and—call the cops, his mind snapped.

He pulled out his phone as he scanned the dusty lot stretching behind a stuccoed cement-block building. Empty, except for a purple SUV. He ran, his well-worn boots kicking up whirls of bleached-out grit. No EllaJayne in or behind the small SUV. How could he have forgotten she was Houdini in a diaper? No sign of her in the dirt-and-gravel parking lot baking in the Arizona high-noon sun. The emergency operator picked up as he raced back to his grimy truck for one more check in every nook, cranny and crevice.

“What’s your emergency?” the operator asked.

“My daughter’s gone.” He ran for the short alley that ran along the building and onto the main street. “Shit,” he said.

“Excuse me, sir?”

He kept moving. “Get the police out here. She might have gone onto the road.”

“I’ll need your location, please.”

Her voice was too calm. He wanted to reach through the phone and tell her that his baby girl had disappeared. Instead, as he panted for breath against the heat and the pain in his hip, he said, “I’m in Angel Crossing. I only stopped for a minute to check the truck before I went to find Gene’s—” He stopped the rush of words. None of that mattered. “My daughter is 16 months old. She has dark hair and eyes.”

“What’s she wearing, sir?”

“Purple shirt with sparkles.”

“A little more information, then the police will contact you. I’ll need your full name, place of—”

He hung up. He couldn’t run and talk. They should be sending police, the K-9 unit, not asking him stupid questions. He stared up and down the uneven, broken sidewalk that stretched in front of the bright-colored facades of empty buildings. Had someone driven in and stolen his daughter while he’d had his head under the hood? A wailing, escalating cry drifted to him. He squinted without his hat brim to shade his McCreary-gray eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sturdy toddler daughter, with hair as dark as his own, its straight-as-a-preacher silkiness direct from her out-of-the-picture mama. He took off, ignoring the sharp bite of pain in his hip and back.

Was the crying closer? The familiar piercing sob was one he’d come to dread, his daughter letting him know he had no business calling himself her daddy.

“EllaJayne. Where are you, baby?” He kept moving as he yelled, not caring that his Kentucky twang had thickened. The cries stopped. He stopped. Where the hell was she? Dear lord, he’d been so sure he was better than any foster parent or her mama could be. Now, he’d lost his baby girl.

After searching another five minutes without hearing her voice again, AJ turned back the way he’d come, moving as fast as he could down the uneven concrete. Where the heck was she? He stepped into a hole where there should have been sidewalk and sharp pain shot down his leg. He hobbled two more steps until the sign for the police department and town hall sprang up like an oasis in the desert. He raced toward it and yanked open the door into a narrow lobby with plastic signs lining the walls. He scanned them looking for…on the right, a small sign in red declared: POLICE. He hurried to the door. Beyond it, a battered metal desk with neat in and out trays stood empty. He didn’t hear anything.

“I want to report a missing child.” He raised his voice, needing to talk with someone, right now, or he’d—

“What the hell’s going on?” asked a tall, blond, unexpectedly familiar man. “AJ? What are you doing here?”

“My daughter.” He pulled in as deep a breath as he could with his heart pounding enough to hurt his ribs. “Are you a cop now? I need a search party.”

“Not a cop. Mayor. So you’re the daddy.”

“Where is my daughter?” he asked slowly, with menace. He wasn’t playing here. No matter this was Danny Leigh, his old partner in crime. The big blond angel—fitting that he was mayor of a place called Angel Crossing—to AJ’s dark-haired and black-hatted devil.

“Pepper said she found the baby walking around by herself.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t mean to tell you your business, but—”

AJ had been right there under the hood while Baby Girl slept, after hours of crying. He’d been right there. “I’m getting my daughter.” AJ turned from Danny, who he’d last seen at a rodeo in Tulsa. Now it seemed neither of them was following the money on the back of a bull.

AJ listened for his daughter’s cries, but the blood roared so loudly in his ears he wouldn’t have been able to hear a jet take off.

“Let me get the chief,” Danny said, his hand on AJ’s arm. Tight. AJ hadn’t lost an ounce of muscle since “retiring.” He used it to throw off his friend. Danny let go but stayed beside AJ, saying, “I heard them talking about calling Child Services.”

Every one of AJ’s straining muscles tightened until his back sent a shooting pain down into his still-aching hip. Even if he’d been able to speak, he wouldn’t have known what to say to such crap, except a lot of four-letter words, which he tried not to use anymore because of EllaJayne. Everything he did now was to protect her. He’d quit riding bulls and wrangling for the rodeo.

No one was taking his daughter. He’d rescued her once. He’d do it again. AJ moved past Danny to the doorway beyond the desk. Finally, he heard voices and—“EllaJayne,” he shouted, except he felt like he’d been gut-punched and only had enough air for the shout to be a strained whisper.

Danny moved past him in the narrow hallway, through an open archway on the left and said, “She belongs to my buddy. He’s one hell of a bull rider.”

AJ followed him into the room with a fridge and microwave. There she was. Baby Girl in the arms of a woman wearing scrubs and her hair in a no-nonsense golden-brown ponytail. The disapproving line of the woman’s mouth couldn’t mar its soft pink charm. He held out his arms for his daughter. EllaJayne lifted her head from the woman’s shoulder, tear tracks silvery bright on her rounded cheeks where strands of her McCreary raven-black hair lay in a sticky mess. His heart hurt. His baby girl had been crying…again. He sucked at this father stuff.

“She was wandering around on her own. She could have ended up getting hit by a car or kidnapped,” said the woman’s voice, firm and soft at the same time.

“My daughter,” AJ said as he continued to hold out his now shaking hands. The woman glared at him.

“Absolutely not,” she said, clutching the girl tighter to her.

He dropped his arms. “I was fixing a hose. She was asleep.”

“You should have been paying more attention,” whispered the woman as she patted the little girl’s back, soothing her into laying down her head. “I found her wandering and brought her to the police. I could probably report you for neglect. I’m a physician’s assistant and we’re obligated by law to—”

“Neglect?” AJ didn’t try to keep his voice down and Baby Girl’s head popped up. He moved closer to snatch EllaJayne away.

A large man stepped in front of him. Where had this guy come from? “Now, sir, I’m Chief Rudy and we need to have a talk before I can release your daughter to you.”

The man, just shy of AJ’s six feet two inches with close-cropped, cop-style graying brown hair, took AJ by the shoulder with a big hand and steered him out of the break room and down the hall. He directed him into a cramped office. “Sit.” The chief pointed to a chair across from a wooden desk that nearly filled the room, his steel-blue gaze clearly telling AJ he was taking the situation seriously. “Seems like you know our mayor, but I still want details and information so I can check your background.” The man pushed a paper across the desk.

AJ felt a yawning chasm of fear and despair opening at his feet. The same one that had been showing up in his nightmares as he and his daughter worked their way across the country, and before that, when he’d learned he had a daughter in foster care. He’d hooked up with her mother during a stint in Kentucky when he’d been drinking more than he should. When he’d first seen EllaJayne…he couldn’t think about that now. The police chief wasn’t fooling around, no matter this town wasn’t much more than a wide place in the road. Then there was the woman who didn’t look old enough to be such a…stick in the mud. Why hadn’t she just found him and chewed him out instead of going to the authorities? He focused again on the paper asking for his vital details. He filled it out quickly and handed it to the uniformed chief.

“Stay here while I run this.”

AJ stood and paced in what space there was in the room. What the hell would he do if they didn’t give him back his daughter? He didn’t have money for an attorney. Nothing like this had been covered on any of the parenting sites he’d been reading every night. Other parents didn’t lose their kids.

He’d had to fix the truck and she’d been sleeping after screaming at the top of her tiny lungs on their trip into Angel Crossing. He’d only stopped here to pay his respects at Gene’s memorial, then they’d head to California where an old rodeo buddy had promised him work and regular hours. He wasn’t going back to Kentucky no matter what.

When he’d found out about EllaJayne less than three months ago, he’d vowed he’d be a better father than any of the long line of McCreary men had been. He’d ditched life on the road and promised himself no women who would come into and out of the little girl’s life. She’d already had more knocks than any child deserved.

“Mr. McCreary,” the police chief said. “Your record looks clean, other than two drunk and disorderlies. Mayor Leigh said those were ‘misunderstandings.’”

AJ relaxed by a millimeter. “I’ll take my daughter and be on my way.”

“Before you do that, I’d like you to talk with Miss Pepper. I know a little one can be tough to keep track of—you’re not the first daddy I’ve had in here. But…Miss Pepper’s heart and her worries are in the right place. Plus being a medical professional, she’s got to be extra careful about these kinds of situations.”

AJ stayed silent, following the chief back to the break room. The Pepper woman was seated at a table, holding his daughter. EllaJayne didn’t even turn to him when he said her name. That hurt.

“The little darling’s daddy checks out. He’s here to take her back.” The officer hovered just behind AJ.

“Did you hear that? Daddy’s here,” Pepper said, turning her head, pinning AJ with a glare of condemnation from her autumn-brown eyes.

“Baby Girl,” he said, walking to the woman, holding out his hands for his daughter. Contrary as any McCreary, she pulled away and buried her face in the stranger’s shoulder.

♥ ♥ ♥

Pepper Bourne held tight to the little girl. No matter what this tall man with his worn jeans and boots said now, he couldn’t be much of a father if he hadn’t even known his child had wandered off. She’d seen plenty of cowboys like him over the years, especially friends of Daddy Gene’s. Just thinking that name still hurt. She snuggled the toddler closer.

“Hand her over,” said Chief Rudy. “Kids wander off. It’s happened to every parent.”

“Are you sure? Her diaper was dirty.”

“That happens to all kids, too,” the cowboy said swiftly. “I was right there. Under the hood.”

“And that worked so well, didn’t it? She didn’t even have a hat or shoes. What are you doing in town?” Not that it was really her business.

“Come to pay my respects to Gene Daniels. Got word he’d passed, and there was a memorial.”

Pepper squeezed the little girl who squeaked in protest. Daddy Gene had been gone for a month. Tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t choke out the words. A tiny hand patted her cheek. Pepper feared she would burst into ugly sobs.

“How did you know him?” she asked to distract herself.

“Barely kissin’ cousins and the rodeo,” the man answered. “Now, if I can have my daughter, I’ll be going.”

“Chief, I don’t know that I’m comfortable with the situation.” She stared hard at the toddler’s daddy, while ignoring the muscled strength and length of him. “Where’s your wife? Your daughter’s mother.”

“None of that’s your business, lady. The police chief here says I’m good to go,” he snapped back, his storm-cloud-gray eyes locked on hers.

“That may be but as a health care professional, I have a duty to ensure that any child is not being abused or neglected.” She made sure her tone let this cowboy know that he wasn’t fit to care for a chicken, let alone a precious little human being.

“Mama,” the toddler whimpered and rubbed her forehead into the crook of Pepper’s neck.

“Chief, you’ve got to let me examine her. Who knows how long she was in the sun.”

“Fine. Come on, Mr. McCreary, let’s get this settled,” Rudy said.

Pepper hesitated for a second. McCreary. That last name struck a chord. She needed to focus on the little girl. Her daddy didn’t look like a bad guy. He had dark hair like his daughter’s, though his had an unruly curl around his nape and ears. But the little girl hadn’t gotten her mink-brown eyes from him. He didn’t look or act like an abuser. An outlaw maybe, a bad-boy rodeo cowboy. Still, it was her duty to make sure the toddler was being cared for properly. She had to give the girl a good once-over.

Followed by the chief and the cowboy holding his daughter’s stuffed animal, Pepper carried EllaJayne on her hip, coming out of the building that housed the town hall, the police station, a real estate office, and a law office. The clinic was half a block down on the right, across from the Angel Crossing Emporium of Wonders. The sign, with its painted road runner and mountain lion, always made her smile, even though the emporium had closed long ago. The mayor was trying to get a grant to hire artists to paint the plywood and “refresh” the sign to make the town look less abandoned.

The facades along the main road, which was picturesquely called Miners Gulch, had been added in the 1970s to entice tourists to the town, as the nearby mine and the county’s biggest employer started to close its operations. Tourists hadn’t been lured in, but the townsfolk had come to love the signs that gave the vibe of a Spaghetti Western set. Or a bona fide ghost town. The problem was a ghost town was a dead town. With no good jobs, Angel Crossing was edging toward that as the younger residents scattered to the wind. Pepper was the exception, rather than the rule. Although technically, she wasn’t local, not having moved to town until she was seven.

Today wasn’t the day to worry about Angel Crossing. She had a little darling in her arms who needed her attention. Like the old-timey facades, her clinic had the feeling of a bygone era. It served residents well enough, even if it housed more than one piece of equipment that should have been in a museum. She did what she could for her patients, many of them retired and living on minuscule pensions and Social Security. She regularly had to beg, borrow and nearly steal supplies, especially free samples. She knew of more than one patient who skimped on medications to pay for food. That’s why the garden would make such a difference.

“Oggie,” EllaJayne said into Pepper’s ear, reaching out with her hand and flexing her fingers. Pepper followed her gesture and saw the girl’s cowboy daddy, still holding onto the flattened stuffed animal she’d given him. The man had a hitch in his step that didn’t keep her from noticing his rodeo swagger. He needed a hat. What cowboy didn’t have a hat? It would have shaded his handsome face. Pepper knew trouble and she didn’t need anyone to tell her this guy was that plus more. She also didn’t need anyone to tell her that his kind of trouble could give a woman memories to warm up her nights.

Pepper focused on the bundle in her arms as she walked into Angel Crossing Medical Clinic. “I’m going to Exam One,” she said to Claudette, her right-hand woman at the reception desk.

“Who is this?” asked Claudette, her short dark hair streaked with highlights and spiked to fit her warrior-woman attitude in a grandmother’s body.

“We’ll give you everything as soon as I’m done with the exam.” The ring of boot heels followed Pepper. An uneven sound. She glanced back and caught the man grimacing. No time to worry about that.

“Okay, little darling, let’s just see how your ‘daddy’ was caring for you.” She ignored the snort from the cowboy.

She put him and everything else out of her mind, concentrating on the girl and the exam. She didn’t want to miss anything. But other than the dirty diaper—which Pepper changed from her own supplies—and a little diaper rash, the toddler was fine.

“So?” he asked when she finished with the final tug of the girl’s T-shirt.

“What about her vaccinations?”

“I…I…Of course she’s had them. I have papers in the truck.”

He didn’t know. “Allergies?”

He stood feet planted and long fingers tapping against his leg. “It’s all in her records. She’s fine. You just said so.”

She’d been working with patients ever since she’d started as an EMT in her teens, and read annoyance in the tightness of his mouth. She also saw fear in the tilt of his head. What to do? The child looked fine.

“You’re good to go then, but little ones are quicker than their parents think and can easily get into things they shouldn’t. Let’s go see if Claudette can’t find cream for the rash.” Pepper scooped up the girl and walked out. The exam room as they’d stood there had suddenly gotten smaller. She’d started to think trouble might be what she needed in her life. Because trouble had started to look a lot like a good time, which she hadn’t had since…forever. Then smart Pepper reminded not-so-smart Pepper he was a patient’s father…and a cowboy. The kind of man she’d long ago figured out wasn’t for her. They might look pretty, but the shine wore off quickly.

She kept her gaze on Claudette and glanced at Chief Rudy, who had an odd look on his face as he stared down at his phone.

“What?” she asked because it was obvious that something had just popped up on the screen.

“I ran his name, but, well, I didn’t connect it…hell—”

This was bad. The chief didn’t swear. It was a contest in town to see who could make him curse when they got pulled over or visited the station. The man just didn’t get provoked, and if he did, he didn’t say bad words. So that meant whatever he’d just discovered was horrible.

“His name is Arthur John McCreary.”

“Everybody calls me AJ,” the cowboy said irritably.

“You’re Daddy Gene’s cousin.” The words popped out of her mouth in shock as the connection fell into place.

“Yeah, Gene is…was my cousin. I told you that.” His voice had thickened with true emotion.

“Welcome to Angel Crossing,” Rudy said. “Sorry the circumstances aren’t better. Gene was a good man and a good friend.”

“Thanks,” AJ said and added, “I should have known. How many Peppers could there be in Angel Crossing?” He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “Gene talked about you and your mama. Please accept my condolences.”

She nodded. Now she remembered him. He rode bulls and had dragged Daddy Gene from the ring when the animals had nearly stomped him to death. The one or two pictures she’d seen of AJ, his black hat had nearly covered his face.

“I guess I should take you to the ranch. Faye would never forgive me if I didn’t bring you out to say hello. Daddy Gene hoped you’d come for a visit one day, but I don’t think this is how he imagined it.”