Janette Kenny

READ AN EXCERPT from Christmas Showdown

Daniel Creed stared at the faded picture on the wanted poster. Two years past he’d taken an oath to uphold the law, but he never could arrest her. Nope, as soon as he’d realized aloof Katherine Rose was the notorious Mary Kaye Dowd, he’d yanked this poster off his wall and hid it.

The high-class madam had been safe in Campaign, but once she left here—

“Why the hell didn’t I stop her?”

Who was he kidding? Even if he hadn’t been on the wrong side of the law himself at one time, and didn’t still have men gunning for him in a couple of states, he didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being the only man a lady like Katherine Rose would turn to.

He returned the poster to the bottom desk drawer, then walked to the lone window and scraped the frost from it. A wall of snow stampeded down the street, nearly blocking out the row of darkened buildings across from the jail.

Christmas was nigh here, yet not one wreath hung on a door. No piano music drifted from the saloon. No one would wish him a Merry Christmas this year as they passed him on the street. No kind lady would bustle into the jail tomorrow and gift him with a pitying smile and a home-cooked meal.

The wind howled around the jail like a demon galloping out of hell. Ice pellets tore through the driving snow and pelted the wall. Another hour and a man would be hard-pressed to cross the street.

Good thing the last of the townsfolk had skedaddled out of this godforsaken town yesterday before the storm hit. He’d stepped outside as Katherine had left for Abilene under a gray sky swollen with snow.

She’d waved to him. He’d dipped his chin, aching inside and wanting so damned much to call her back. By now, she’d be on the train, heading who knew where.

Dammit, he should’ve stopped her while he had the chance. Now he was stuck here with a handful of memories and a passel of regrets, with his only job being to bury the old woman he’d found this morning in the back room of the hotel. She either had passed on in her sleep or froze to death.

Like him, the old gal had no kin and nowhere to go. Yep, he’d bury her when the storm let up, say a few words over her grave. Until then, she’d keep fine in the hotel.

Daniel caught a whiff of scorched beans, but before he could turn to the potbelly stove, a flash of light caught his eye. Surely, nobody was fool enough to travel in this storm. Even by sleigh a person would likely turn to ice in no time.

He stared into the swirling wall of white until his eyes damn near crossed. Just when he was sure it’d been a trick of the dying sun, fingers of light danced over the ghostly drifts and sprayed a rainbow of color on his window glass.

Daniel pressed his nose to the freezing pane and stared down the street. What the hell?

Lights glowed in the upper window of the two-story house at the end of town. He shouldn’t give a damn if someone had taken refuge at the

Coterie, but the fact remained it was still her house of pleasure. And he was still the sheriff, sworn to protect the people and property of Campaign, any way that the law or his whims saw fit.

Daniel took the pot of beans off the stove and shrugged into his sheepskin coat. He jammed his hat down low, turned his collar up and grabbed his Winchester rifle before pushing his way out of the jail.

A blast of frigid air smacked him upside the head, stealing his breath away. He bent his head to the wind and pushed on.

Daniel reckoned if he stayed close to the buildings and plowed through the knee-high drifts, he wouldn’t get lost in the blinding snow. But even the short time he was out, ice needled his face “˜til he couldn’t feel it. Each breath he took set his lungs on fire.

In the first floor of the Coterie, Daniel saw a lone light pass before the parlor window. A whiff of smoke carried on a frigid gust of wind. Yep, somebody sure as hell had made themselves at home in Katherine’s bordello.

Daniel left the safety of the buildings and struck out down the street. The big two-story house was nigh invisible in the snow. He trudged through drifts nearly up to his crotch. His hands and feet grew numb, his vision glazed.

At the end of the boardwalk, he stared up at the Coterie some hundred feet in the distance. The bottom of the house was dark, but lights glowed from the upper window. Her room.

How many nights had he stood here, hoping to get a glimpse of Katherine?

Daniel kept his eye on that window and forced his boots to plow through the crippling snow. An hour seemed to pass until he pulled himself up onto the front porch and pounded on the door, something he’d only dreamed of doing.

He tried flexing the fingers of his right hand around his rifle, but he couldn’t tell if they moved or not. Shit. If whoever was inside was bent on trouble, he’d be dead before his frozen hand could get off a shot.

Not that it mattered. If he was outside much longer, he’d be a goner anyway. He’d never make it back to the jail.

Through the ice clinging to his eyelashes, he saw the curtain on the door move. A second later, it opened and Daniel stared down the barrel of Fin O’Brien’s pocket pistol.

“By the saints,” Fin said as he lowered the. 38, his weathered face drained of color. “Bring yourself in, and a Merry Christmas to you, Sheriff.”

Daniel staggered inside the near empty house, noting a fire burned in the hearth. “What the hell are you doing back here?”

Fin frowned. “Why indeed.”

A whisper of violets teased Daniel’s nose a heartbeat before he heard the soft swish of skirts on the steps. He looked up into eyes as bright and clear as a spring day.

“Good evening, Sheriff.” Katherine glided down the stairs, her smile an odd mix of welcoming and wary. “I didn’t dream anyone would still be in Campaign.”

“Nobody in town but me, and now you two.”

Instead of dark red curls piled high on her head, her hair hung to her waist in a wavy curtain he longed to run his fingers through. Instead of eyes lined with kohl and cheeks rouged, her face had a fresh, wholesome look.

Damn, Katherine Rose had to be on the dark side of thirty like him, yet she looked young and vibrant and so damned sexy he wanted to howl at the moon. What the hell was going on here? Had he died and didn’t have the good sense to know it?

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