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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction

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BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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God bless Dara Rose’s generous soul.

Sawyer cleared his throat, a reminder, apparently, that she’d neglected to answer his cranky question. “Clay will be coming back—when?”

“I don’t know,” Piper said honestly. “Soon, I hope.”

His frown deepened as he looked around again. “Where did you sleep last night?”

She measured coffee into the pot and set it on the stove to boil. “You needn’t concern yourself with that,” she said sunnily.

He gave a gruff chortle at her response, completely void of amusement. Then he pushed back the chair and stood, with an effort he clearly wanted very much to hide. “I suppose the privy is out back?” he asked.

Piper kept her face averted, so he wouldn’t see her blush. “Yes,” she said. “But the snow is deep and the path hasn’t been cleared yet.” She paused, mortified. “There’s a chamber pot under the bed.”

“I’m not using a chamber pot,” he informed her, each word separated from the next by a tick of the Regulator clock. Slowly, he crossed the room, snatched up the same blanket she’d used earlier, in lieu of a coat, wrapped it around his mostly naked upper body like an enormous shawl, and left the schoolhouse.

The door slammed behind him.

Piper hoped he wouldn’t collapse in the snow again, because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get him back inside the schoolhouse if that happened. She waited tensely, added water to the coffeepot when it bubbled, and resisted the urge to stand at the window and watch for his return.

He did reappear, after a few minutes, and he kept the blanket around him as he made his way back to the desk chair and sat down.

Piper poured coffee for him—the grounds hadn’t settled completely, but that couldn’t be helped—and set the mug on the surface of the desk.

“Breakfast?” she asked.

He finally smiled, though grudgingly. “More beans?” he countered.

“I have some salt pork and a few eggs,” Piper responded. “Would that do, or should I risk life and limb to fetch something more to your liking from the hotel dining room? I could just hitch up the dogsled and be off.”

He laughed, and it seemed that his color was a little better, though that could probably be ascribed to the cold weather outside. “You don’t lack for sass, do you?” he said.

don’t lack for rudeness,” Piper retorted, but, like before, she was softening toward him a little. There was something about that smile, those intelligent, blue-green eyes, that supple mouth…

ordered a voice in her mind, bringing her up short.
Forget his smile, and his mouth, too.
Silently, Piper reminded herself that, to her knowledge, Sawyer McKettrick had just one thing to recommend him—that he was Clay’s cousin—which most definitely did
mean he was the same kind of man. Families, even ones as illustrious as Clay’s,
have black sheep.

“Sorry,” he said wearily, with no hint of actual remorse.

She fetched the salt pork and the eggs, which were kept in a metal storage box in the cloakroom, that being the coldest part of the building, and proceeded to prepare breakfast for both of them.

“There’s a little house for the marshal to live in,” she said busily, after a few stiff minutes had passed. “The town provides it.”

“I know,” Sawyer said. “I was here in Blue River once before.” Now that he had coffee to drink, his temperament seemed to be improving. A hot meal might render him tolerable. “Dara Rose lived there at the time, with her daughters.”

“Oh,” Piper said, apropos of nothing, turning slices of salt pork in the skillet, then cracking three eggs into the same pan, causing them to sizzle in the melted lard.

“These accommodations of yours are pretty rustic,” he said, evidently to make conversation, which Piper could have done without just then. “The bed feels like a rock pile, and there’s no place to take a bath.”

Piper, who yearned for an indoor bathroom like the one Dara Rose had now, in her lovely new ranch house, and a feather bed, and many other things in the bargain, took umbrage.
These accommodations of hers,
humble as they were, had very probably saved his life. “I manage just fine,” she said coolly.

Sawyer sighed wearily. “I didn’t mean it as an insult,” he said.

Piper plopped the salt pork and two of the eggs onto a tin plate—also provided by the good people of Blue River—and carried it over to him, along with a knife and fork.

She set the works down with an eloquent clatter and rested her hands on her hips.

“Would you like more coffee?” she demanded inhospitably.

He grinned up at her, enjoying her pique. “Yes, ma’am, I would,” he said. “If you please.”

She stormed back to the stove, took up a pot holder, and brought the coffee to the desk that doubled as a table. There was a heavy clunking sound as the base of it met the splintery oak surface.

“Thank you,” the new marshal said sweetly.

“You’re welcome,” she crabbed.

A knock sounded at the schoolhouse door just then, and hope filled Piper, displacing her irritation and her strangely injured pride. Perhaps Clay had returned, or Doc Howard—

But when she answered the firm rap, she found Bess Turner standing on the step, looking poised to flee if the need arose. Bess ran the brothel above the Bitter Gulch Saloon, and if she’d ever tried to look respectable, she’d given up on it long ago.

Her hair was a brassy shade of yellow, her thin cheeks were heavily rouged, and her mouth was hard, not with anger, Piper had often thought, but with the strain of bearing up under one tribulation and sorrow after another.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Bess said, almost meekly. She wore a pink satin cloak, completely inadequate for a December day, and her dancing shoes were soaked through.

“Come in,” Piper said quickly, stepping back. “There’s coffee made—I’ll pour you some.”

Bess’s tired gaze strayed past Piper, dusted over Sawyer, and came back to Piper again. “Thank you,” she said, very quietly.

“Stand over here by the stove,” Piper urged, with a shiver, hastening to rinse out a coffee cup. “You must be freezing!”

Bess sidled close to the fire, and Piper noticed that the woman’s hands were gloveless, and blue with cold. “I can’t stay long,” she said, stealing another glance at Sawyer. Naturally, she’d be curious about his presence, but she wasn’t likely to carry tales, like some of the other townswomen would have done. “My Ginny-Sue is hectoring me something fierce about the Christmas program,” she added fretfully. “She’s learned the whole second chapter of Luke by heart, that being her piece for the recital, and she’s afraid school won’t take up again before then, because of the snow.”

Piper was touched. Ginny-Sue, a shy ten-year-old, was one of her brightest pupils. Except for Madeline Howard, she was the best-dressed, too, always neatly clad in ready-made dresses, with her face scrubbed and her brown hair plaited. Her shoes were the envy of the other girls, sturdy, but with buttons instead of laces, and always polished to a high shine.

“Christmas is still more than a week away,” Piper said gently, handing Bess the coffee. “I’m sure we won’t have to cancel the program.”

Bess nodded, looking straight at Sawyer now and making no effort to hide her curiosity. “Now, who would you be?” she asked him, straight out.

He’d risen to his feet, abandoning his breakfast for the moment. “Name’s Sawyer McKettrick,” he answered cordially. “I’m the new town marshal.”

“He’s Clay’s cousin,” Piper added hastily, as though that explained what he was doing in the schoolhouse at this hour of the morning, wearing nothing but boots, trousers and a blanket.

“Howdy,” said the local madam. “I’m Bess Turner. Miss St. James here teaches my girl, Ginny-Sue.”

Sawyer dropped back into his chair. “Good to meet you,” he said, and resumed eating, though he continued to take an undisguised interest in the visitor.

“He was shot,” Piper went on anxiously. “Clay and Dr. Howard said he couldn’t be moved, so he spent the night here—”

Bess smiled, and a twinkle appeared in her faded eyes, just for the briefest moment. “Shot, was he?” she replied, looking Sawyer over again, this time more thoroughly. “You’d never guess it.”

Piper thought of Dara Rose’s late husband, who had died in Bess’s establishment, and wondered if the two of them had been together at the time of his scandalous demise. Not that she’d ever be so forward as to ask, of course. There were some things a body had to be content to wonder about in perpetuity.

Piper looked back at Sawyer, who moved the blanket aside just enough to show the bandage and part of his sling. He’d guessed that she was embarrassed, evidently, and the fact seemed to amuse him.

“Did you see who shot you?” Bess asked. It was a question Piper hadn’t thought to ask, and neither, as far as she knew, had Clay or Doc Howard.

“The snow was too thick,” Sawyer answered, with a shake of his head.

“Well, I’ll be,” marveled Bess, finishing her coffee. “Blue River’s always been a peaceful town, for the most part. I hope we’re not drawing in all sorts of riffraff, like some other places I could name.”

The corner of Sawyer’s well-made mouth quirked up in a semblance of a grin, probably at the term “riffraff,” coming from someone like Bess, but he didn’t say anything.

Bess handed over the empty mug and smiled at Piper. “So I can tell my Ginny-Sue there’ll still be a Christmas?” she asked.

“I’m sure of it,” Piper said, though that was mostly bravado. Inwardly, she wasn’t so sure that the warmer weather would hold—but she
it would, and fiercely.

Bess nodded a farewell to Sawyer and walked purposely toward the door, Piper following.

On the threshold, Bess paused, lowered her voice and said, “If you need any help, Teacher, just send word over to the Bitter Gulch. My girls and me, we’ll do whatever we can to lend a hand.”

Piper’s throat tightened, and the backs of her eyes burned a little. She wondered how many of the other women of Blue River, besides Dara Rose, of course, would have made such an offer. “Thank you, Mrs. Turner,” she said warmly.

“Bess,” the other woman corrected, patting Piper’s hand before taking her leave. “I never was nobody’s missus, and I won’t pretend I was.”

With that, she started down the slippery steps of the schoolhouse porch, drawing her tawdry cloak more closely around her. The sun glinted in her dandelion-colored hair, and she looked back at Piper, smiled once more, and waved.

Piper waved back, and closed the door slowly.

When she turned around, she saw that Sawyer had finished his breakfast. Still seated at her desk, he watched her over the rim of his coffee mug.

“Christmas,” he said, in a musing tone, his gaze skimming over the undecorated tree leaning forlornly against the far wall, slowly but surely dropping its needles. Piper had sent the bigger boys out to find it the previous week, thinking they’d all be able to enjoy it longer that way, though now she wished she’d waited. “I forgot all about it.”

“You’ll be at Clay and Dara Rose’s place by then,” Piper said, holding on to blind faith that it would be so, “probably much mended.”

“I’ll need to round up some presents for those little girls,” Sawyer mused.

“I wouldn’t worry,” Piper counseled, liking him again. Sort of. “They’re well provided for, Edrina and Harriet.”

He smiled. “Yes,” he said. “They would be, with Clay for a father.”

The remark stung Piper a little, on Dara Rose’s behalf, dampening her kindly inclination toward Mr. McKettrick, even though she sensed no rancor in the remark. Her cousin had had a difficult life, almost from the first, but Dara Rose was and always had been a devoted mother. “If Clay were here,” she said moderately, “he’d tell you that he’s the fortunate one.”

Sawyer sighed. He looked paler than before, though breakfast and the coffee must have braced him up. “I’ve managed to get on the wrong side of you again,” he said. “I
Clay loves his wife, and he considers those girls his own, as much as he does the baby he and Dara Rose are expecting.”

Piper bit her lower lip for a moment. “I apologize,” she said. “I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I confess that I’m worried that I might have spoken out of turn to Bess Turner—” She paused, swallowed. “If there’s another storm, Christmas will have to be canceled and the children will be so disappointed.”

His grin flashed again, brief but bright as the sunlight on the snow outside. “Christmas happens in the heart,” he said. “
the heart of a child.”

She regarded him for a long moment. “That’s a lovely sentiment,” she said, taken by surprise, “and I’m sure it’s true, for fortunate children like Edrina and Harriet, and Doc Howard’s little girl, Madeline, but there are others, like Ginny-Sue Turner, who need more.” She inclined her head toward the forlorn little tree, leaning against the schoolhouse wall. “They need the sparkle and the carols, the excitement and, yes, the oranges and the peppermint sticks, because the other three-hundred-sixty-four days of the year can be bleak for them.”

Sawyer, clearly tiring, leaned against the framework of the bedroom doorway again, and smiled sadly. “You really care about these kids,” he said.

“Of course I do,” Piper replied.

“What do
want for Christmas, Miss St. James?” he asked quietly.

She hadn’t thought of her own secret wishes for a long time, and the question unsettled her. “You need to rest,” she hedged. “Go in and lie down.”

“Not until I get an answer,” he replied, folding his good arm across the sling that held his injured one in place.

Piper blushed. “Very well, then,” she said, throwing out the first thing that came to mind so he would drop the subject and leave her in peace. “I’d like a new cloak, since you bled all over mine and I had to burn all but a few scraps of it.”

Sawyer McKettrick smiled again. “Done,” he said. And then he turned around and went back to bed.


lay returned shortly
after noon, at the reins of a sledge improvised from lengths of lumber, probably left over from the building of his house and barn, with two enormous plow horses hitched to the front. He grinned and waved when Piper stepped out onto the schoolhouse porch, shielding her eyes from the bright sun with one hand.

“How’s that ornery cousin of mine faring?” he called, bringing the team to a halt. The back of the sledge was piled high with an assortment of things—crates and boxes, a supply of hay for Sawyer’s horse, a few bulging feed bags and, most notably, the parts of an iron bedstead and a mattress secured with rope.

“He was up and around earlier,” Piper replied, staring at the bedstead and wondering whether Clay planned to leave it at the schoolhouse for her or use it to transport Sawyer to the ranch, “but he’s resting at the moment.”

“Up and around?” Clay echoed, pleased. He climbed off the strange conveyance and approached through the knee-deep but already-melting snow. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Sawyer always had more gumption than good sense.”

“He’s wanting his trunk from the depot,” Piper said, as Clay reached her and she stepped back so they could both go inside, where it was warmer.

“I figured as much,” Clay told her, taking off his hat and hanging it from a peg near the door. He’d stomped most of the snow off his boots out on the porch. “Picked it up before I came here.”

Sawyer, who must have heard the commotion, appeared in the doorway to Piper’s room, looking rumpled and grim. He obviously needed more laudanum, and Piper made up her mind to fetch it and supervise the dosage this time, make sure he didn’t guzzle the stuff down again.

“You ready to make the trip out to our place?” Clay asked his cousin, looking doubtful even as he spoke. “I can haul you out there today if you want to go, and in style, too, like Caesar reclining on Cleopatra’s barge.”

Piper felt a pang of sadness at the thought of Sawyer’s leaving the schoolhouse, which was just plain silly, because she ought to be relieved instead. She
ought to be relieved.

Sawyer frowned, puzzlement personified. “Caesar? Cleopatra’s barge? What the devil are you yammering on about?”

“Either way, I came prepared,” was all the answer Clay gave. He was still grinning, proud of his resourcefulness, and he waxed unusually loquacious, for him. “I brought along a kind of sleigh I rigged up last year, out of some old boards—normally use it to haul feed out to the cattle on the range when the wagons can’t get through—even brought a bed along, in case you were ready to head out to the ranch sooner than expected. There’s hay and some grain for your gelding, too, if you’d rather stay put a while longer. In that case, I’ll set the bedstead up for Piper, so she won’t have to sleep on the floor until you’re out of her hair.”

Piper blinked.

“You slept on the floor?” Sawyer asked, practically glowering at her, as though accusing her of some unconscionable perfidy.

“Where did you
she was sleeping?” Clay inquired good-naturedly. “This is a one-room schoolhouse, Sawyer, not a big-city hospital or a grand hotel.”

“I cannot have a bed in my schoolroom,” Piper put in hastily, though neither man seemed to be listening.

“I’ll go back with you,” Sawyer said to Clay, though when he took a step, he winced and swayed on his feet so that his cousin immediately stepped forward and took him by the arms, lest he collapse.

Sawyer flinched and his face drained of color.

Chagrined, Clay loosened his grip, though he didn’t dare let go completely. “I don’t believe you’re ready quite yet,” he said reasonably.

“My .45,” Sawyer said, looking dazed. “She—took it.”

“Never mind that,” Clay told him. “Right now, we’ve got to get you back to bed.”

Sawyer allowed himself to be turned around and led in the other direction, most likely because he didn’t have much choice in the matter. “My
” he insisted.

Piper glanced toward the cloakroom, where she’d hidden the weapon, climbing onto the food box to push it to the back of a wide, high shelf. She wanted that dreadful thing out of sight
out of reach, so none of her students would stumble upon it, once they returned to school, and bring about a tragedy.

For all that, something in Sawyer’s tone bothered her. Was he afraid the man who had shot him would return, make another attempt on his life and, this time, succeed in killing him?

Maybe, she concluded, but the fact remained that Sawyer wasn’t in his right mind, given all the blood he’d lost and the pain he’d suffered. By now, the shooter was surely putting as many miles as he could between himself and Blue River, no doubt believing that his quarry was dead.

She shuddered, hugged herself against an inner chill.

What if she was wrong? What if, by hiding the gun, she was putting both Sawyer and herself in danger?

In the next room, Clay murmured something, and then the bedsprings creaked as Sawyer lay down again.

Piper paced. She’d ask Clay what to do with the gun when he came back.

He took his time, though, speaking quietly to Sawyer, probably giving him laudanum from Doc’s bottle. By the time he returned to the schoolroom, Piper had reheated the coffee left over from breakfast and poured some into a mug for him.

“Thanks,” Clay said, accepting the cup and taking a restorative sip before going on. “Has Doc been back? Sawyer’s in bad shape.”

Piper shook her head no. “He’ll be here,” she said, with confidence. Weather or no weather, Doc Howard was not the kind to stay away when he was needed. “Clay—?”

He raised one eyebrow. “If you’re worried about me setting up that bedstead in the schoolroom—”

Again, she shook her head. “Sawyer’s been asking for his gun,” she said. “I put it away, but now I’m wondering if I ought to give it back to him. In case—in case—”

Clay’s expression was a solemn one. “Where is it?” he asked.

She led the way into the cloakroom and pointed upward.

Clay was so tall that he didn’t need anything to stand on to reach the Colt .45 in its hiding place. He extended one hand, felt around a little, and found the pistol. Bringing it down to eye level, he examined it, expertly checking the cylinder to see that there were bullets inside.

“Better give it back to him,” he said. “I know Sawyer, and he won’t get any real rest as long as this thing is out of his reach.”

Piper’s heart pounded. “But—” She paused, swallowed, tried again. “He’s not himself. What if he doesn’t recognize you or me or Doc and shoots someone?”

To Piper’s surprise, Clay chuckled, though it was a raspy sound, not really an expression of amusement. “Sawyer’s himself, all right,” he assured her. “Always is, no matter what. And he won’t shoot anybody who isn’t fixing to shoot
no matter how delirious he might be.”

“How can you be so sure?” Piper persisted. She hated guns. These were modern times, for heaven’s sake, and they were not the Old West but the new one.

“I know my cousin,” Clay replied matter-of-factly. “We grew up together, he and I. He’s been shooting almost as long as he’s been riding horses, and he showed a unique talent for it from the first.”

Again, Piper shuddered. “You’re saying that he’s a—a gunslinger?”

“I’m saying he’s good with a gun. There’s a difference.”

“But what if he’s a criminal? You’ve said it yourself—no one is sure, including you, that Sawyer isn’t an outlaw.”

Clay held the pistol carefully but competently, keeping the barrel pointed toward the floor as he passed her, leaving the cloakroom. “Even if he
an outlaw,” he replied easily, “he wouldn’t shoot anybody down in cold blood. He’s also a
after all.”

Piper was exasperated. The McKettrick family had their own distinct code of ethics, hammered out by the patriarch, Angus, and handed down to his sons and their sons after them, but it seemed obvious that Sawyer might not subscribe to that honorable philosophy, given his secrecy about his vocation. On the other hand, Clay trusted his cousin enough to hand over his own badge, and that was no small matter.

Clay carried the pistol to Sawyer’s bedside and came back, intent on the next task. “I’ll see to my cousin’s horse,” he said, “and unload the supplies.”

Doc Howard showed up while Clay was outside, and the two of them carried the bedstead and mattress, still roped together, into the schoolhouse.

The bed wasn’t very wide—it probably belonged to either Edrina or Harriet—but there was no room for it in front, so they took it into the teacher’s quarters. Piper fussed and hovered like a hen chased away from its nest, but Clay only said, “You can’t sleep on the floor,” and proceeded to set the thing up in the little space available—crosswise at the foot of the bed where Sawyer lay, sound asleep.

It made a T-shape, and Piper figured that T stood for

“You’ll be quite safe,” Doc added, in fatherly tones, after helping Clay assemble the second bed. Sawyer’s eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t stir otherwise. The pistol rested, a daunting presence in its own right, on the night table. “Mr. McKettrick here is an invalid, remember.”

An invalid? Piper thought. Sawyer had gotten out of bed without help just that morning, visited the shed where his horse was kept as well as the privy, and returned to the schoolhouse with enough strength to drink coffee and eat breakfast.

“Safe?” Piper challenged, folding her arms. “By now, my reputation must be in tatters.”

“Nobody knows Sawyer’s here,” Clay reasoned, unwinding the rope that left a deep dent in the middle of the bed. “I haven’t said a word to anybody but Dara Rose. She sent some things for you, by the way, staples, mostly, and a book she ordered from back East. Says she’ll read it when you’re finished.”

Piper thought of her cousin with both gratitude and frustration. If only Dara Rose were here, too. As a respectable married woman, she could have defused any gossip by her mere presence.

Doc wouldn’t look at Piper, though it took her a moment to notice, and when she did, she saw that his neck had reddened above his tight celluloid collar. He’d told Eloise, of course—his wife would have demanded an explanation for his leaving the house when everyone else was staying home, close to the fire.

“Doc?” Piper prodded suspiciously.

“I’ve sworn Mrs. Howard to secrecy,” he said, but he still wouldn’t meet her gaze.

Some things, like a mysterious man occupying the schoolmarm’s bed, able-bodied or not, were simply too deliciously improper to keep silent about, especially for people like Eloise Howard. Bess Turner, by ironic contrast, wouldn’t say a word to anyone—Piper was sure of that.

She groaned aloud.

“It’s too late anyhow,” Clay observed lightly, straightening after he’d crouched to tighten a screw in the framework of the bedstead. “If there’s damage to your good name, it’s already been done.”

Piper flung out her hands. “Well,” she sputtered, “thank you very much for
Clay McKettrick. But why should
not the one who’ll wind up an old maid and maybe even lose her job!”

He chuckled and shoved a hand through his dark hair. “I reckon it’s a certainty that I’ll never be an old maid,” he conceded. “But you probably won’t, either. There aren’t so many women way out here that men can afford to be choosy.”

Doc Howard closed his eyes, shook his head.

Piper would have shrieked at Clay if it hadn’t been for Sawyer, placidly sleeping nearby. She didn’t want to startle him awake—he might grab for his pistol then and shoot them all.

she fired back, in a ferocious whisper.

Doc Howard put a hand to each of their backs and steered both Clay and Piper out into the schoolroom. “Now, Clay,” the dentist said, in a diplomatic tone meant to pour oil on troubled waters, “any man would be proud to have a lovely woman like Piper here for a wife. Piper, Clay’s going to pull his foot out of his mouth any moment now and apologize for the thoughtless remark he just made.”

Clay did look sorry. Deflated, too. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he said. “I do ask your pardon.” When Piper just glared at him, not saying a word in reply, he sighed miserably, turned and headed outside, ostensibly to bring in Sawyer’s trunk and the things Dara Rose had sent in from the ranch.

Doc smiled and touched her upper arm. “There, now,” he told her. “Matters are rarely as bad as they seem.”

Piper opened her mouth, closed it again, remembering childhood counsel. If she didn’t have something nice to say, she shouldn’t say anything at all.

“I’m going back in there to check the wound and change the bandages,” Doc said, leaving Sawyer himself completely out of the equation, it seemed to Piper.

She busied herself building up the fire. Clay carried in a crate filled with supplies, and she spotted not only the promised book, one she’d been yearning to read, but a bag of coffee beans, tea leaves in a tin canister, several jars of preserves, two loaves of bread, and even part of a ham, with the bone intact, so she could make soup later.

Piper said nothing.

Clay, resigned, went out again, lugged a sizable travel trunk over the threshold and on into the little room that now contained two beds instead of one.

As if she’d consider sleeping in such close proximity to a man, an armed
no less, of dubious moral convictions.

Spending another night on the floor wasn’t a happy prospect either, though, so she put that out of her mind, along with thoughts of Sawyer McKettrick.

Doc and Clay conferred again, and soon came out of the bedroom, single file. Doc’s hands were wet from a recent washing—he must have used the basin on Piper’s bureau—and he was rolling down his sleeves, shrugging back into his coat to make his departure.

Most likely, he would go straight home and tell Eloise that the problem of sleeping arrangements over at the schoolhouse had been solved. Now the teacher would have a bed of her very own.

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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