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Authors: Patricia; Potter

Wanted

BOOK: Wanted
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF PATRICIA POTTER

“Patricia Potter is a master storyteller, a powerful weaver of romantic tales.” —Mary Jo Putney,
New York Times
–bestselling author

“One of the romance genre's finest talents.” —
Romantic Times

“Patricia Potter will thrill lovers of the suspense genre as well as those who enjoy a good romance.”
—Booklist

“Potter proves herself a gifted writer as artisan, creating a rich fabric of strong characters whose wit and intellect will enthrall even as their adventures entertain.” —
BookPage

“When a historical romance [gets] the Potter treatment, the story line is pure action and excitement, and the characters are wonderful.”
—BookBrowse

“Potter has an expert ability to invest in fully realized characters and a strong sense of place without losing momentum in the details, making this novel a pure pleasure.” —
Publishers Weekly
, starred review of
Beloved Warrior

“[Potter] proves that she's adept at penning both enthralling historicals and captivating contemporary novels.”
—Booklist
, starred review of
Dancing with a Rogue

Wanted

Patricia Potter

PROLOGUE

West Texas, 1844

A scream of agony came from inside the adobe building.

John Davis felt the cry vibrate through him. Rivulets of sweat ran down his body and soaked the back of his rough cotton shirt.

He wasn't a praying man. But as he searched the hot, dry country outside the way-station compound, he prayed as he had never prayed before. A few hours, God. Only a few hours.

He looked at his friend, Ranger Callum Smith, who had galloped in on a horse now heaving with exhaustion.

“The Comanches are raiding this whole area,” Cal said. “You have to get the hell out of here.”

“Susan …”

John didn't have to say anything else. Another scream did it for him.

“Christ, John, but she picked a poor time for birthing.”

John wiped his forehead with his bandanna. He had to do something; he didn't like feeling this helpless.

He had quit rangering because of Susan, because Susan had worried herself sick about him. Ten months ago the Overland Stage Company had offered him the job of managing this way station on the mail route. It was a chance to build a home and a future, and he had taken it because he could finally spend time with his wife, and the children who were at last on their way.

And now …

The Comanches hadn't come this way in over ten years, not since the Ranger post had been established twenty miles away. But its manpower had been drained in the past months, most of the Rangers having been pulled down to the border, where Mexican bandits were laying waste to the new settlements there.

“I've got to go,” Callum said. “I have to warn the settlers. But I'll get back as soon as I can.”

John nodded. “I'll saddle you a fresh horse. You get some water from the well.”

Callum nodded as another scream came from the house.

“How long …?”

John shook his head. “Labor started late yesterday. Month early. Thank God some woman on the stage agreed to stay over.”

He hurried to the barn, remembering how he had planned to take Susan to El Paso in three days, to the nearest doctor in a hundred miles. But then the pains had started just as the stage arrived. The lone woman passenger, a pretty but sad-looking woman dressed in black, offered to stay and help. Fleur Bailey, she'd said her name was, and she was returning home to Ohio after having lost her husband and two-day-old child.

Now she was in danger too. John cursed the Comanches, cursed himself for bringing Susan out here to this desolate place, as he finished saddling the pinto. He decided to get the wagon ready, too, so they could leave for the Ranger post as soon as the baby was born.

He watched as Callum mounted the pinto, gave him a brief salute, and spurred his horse into a gallop, disappearing quickly in the endless tall grass of the prairie. With any luck, John thought, by the time Callum returned from alerting the Kelly and Marshall families, he and Susan and the baby would be gone.

The baby. His child. He prayed again, then went back to the barn for two horses to hitch to the wagon. He set the other horses loose. He didn't want them trapped inside if there was an attack.

He heard the loud plaintive cry of a child.

Thank God, he thought gratefully. Perhaps prayers were answered after all.

He hurried to the cabin and opened the door. Fleur was holding a small bundle, a look of possessiveness on her face. He felt sudden apprehension, but then the woman smiled so sweetly at him, he immediately dismissed the momentary fear.

“A boy,” she said as she cleaned the newborn with a wet cloth. Then she handed him to John, who stood awkwardly, feeling like a giant holding a baby bird.

When Susan screamed again, the woman stooped down over her and then looked up at John with a wondrous expression. “Dear heaven, there must be another.”

Astonished at the unexpected news, John held his child as he listened worriedly to the continued groans and cries of his wife. Then there was one last scream, part agony, part triumph. Fleur, a stranger no longer in this most intimate of all dramas, straightened, holding a child. “Another boy. Twins.”

John leaned down and kissed Susan, placing the first baby in her arms as Fleur cleaned the second one. She stopped in the middle of wiping one of the tiny feet. “Birthmarks,” she said. “Almost like half hearts on their feet, one on the left, one on the right.”

That observation meant little to John Davis. All that mattered was that his children were healthy despite the fact that they had come early. Now he had to make sure they stayed that way. He took Susan's hand in his. “Are you strong enough to move?”

Her blue eyes widened slightly in question.

“A small renegade bunch of Comanches,” he said. “Probably nothing to worry about, but you and the babies would be safer at the Ranger post.”

She swallowed. Her face was smudged from sweat and tears, and she looked tired, but she gave him a weak smile and nodded.

“I'll put a mattress in the buggy,” he said, watching as her fingers ran over the older twin.

“Morgan,” she whispered. They had already settled on that name if the baby was a boy. But the other? They hadn't expected him. Something to brag about at the Ranger post Papa. At forty-three, he had become a papa twice over!

He knelt next to the bed and moved aside the brightly colored rug there to reveal a trapdoor. Below was a room he had made himself. Eight feet long, six feet wide, and five feet deep, it served several functions: a fruit and cheese cellar, a storage area for mattresses for those occasions when stagecoach passengers stayed overnight, and a hiding place in case of Indian or outlaw attack. The wood trapdoor was underlaid with layers of tin to protect the occupants from fire.

He carried two mattresses to the buggy, a double layer to make his wife more comfortable on the jolting ride.

When he returned, Fleur had diapered one of the babies. “You take the twins,” John told her. “I'll bring my wife.”

But Susan refused to relinquish the child in her arms. “I want to hold him,” she insisted.

He turned to Fleur. “Can you take your valise and the other child?”

She nodded and quickly grabbed her valise. She had caught John's urgency. In the two days she had been there, she had learned that he was not a man who frightened easily. She had lost one husband and a baby. She didn't want to lose the one she held in her arms. The child felt so good. Just as her own son, Nicholas, had such a short time ago.

She nearly ran to the wagon, where she set the baby down and stowed the valise. She'd barely climbed in when the horses stamped nervously. She lost her balance and fell, just as she heard the sound of hoofbeats and a godforsaken yell.

She gathered the infant in her arms and ducked down underneath the seat. The wagon moved as the horses tried to pull loose from where they were hitched. She thought about returning to the cabin and peered through a crack in the wagon. A dozen or more painted Indians were racing toward her. She would never have time. She could only hide here and hope they didn't find her.

“Don't cry,” she whispered to the child. “Please don't cry.”

There were shots then. So many shots. They seemed to surround her as she huddled deeper under the seat. And then she heard the snorting of the horses, felt the jerking of the wagon, back and forth at first, and then wildly. Somehow the horses had gotten loose.

With one hand she clutched the seat while with the other she held on to the baby. The wagon swayed and rocked as it hurtled across the prairie, and Fleur desperately tried to keep from rolling over on the infant. The shots faded behind her, and she concentrated her whole being on protecting the child, the little boy so much like her own.

She didn't know how long the wagon plunged across rocks and indentations. It seemed forever. And then there was another jolt and the wagon careened even more wildly. She knew the horses had broken free of the traces and that she and the child were passengers aboard a runaway vehicle.

The wagon hit a deep rut and stopped abruptly, and she was thrown against one of its sides, but the baby was pillowed by her body. Agonizing pain stabbed through her shoulder, but she managed to lift herself slightly to look up. The way station was no longer visible, but she saw smoke coming from its direction. So much smoke that the sky was dark with it.

She saw no savages, but they might be coming soon to look for the wagon, for the horses. That was what they wanted. She'd heard the Rangers talk about that.

BOOK: Wanted
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