Cowboy Daddy, Jingle-Bell Baby

By: Linda Goodnight

CHAPTER ONE





LESSON NUMBER ONE in birthing class: never drive a car cross-country alone. Especially during the ninth month of pregnancy.

But Jenna Garwood had never taken a birthing class.

For the tenth time in as many minutes, she cast an anxious glance in the rearview mirror, relieved to see that no one had followed her when she’d exited the interstate some miles back.

Since her escape from the Carrington Estate, she’d zigged and zagged from the east toward the west, careful to cover her tracks. After three days, she shouldn’t be so worried. But the long arm of the Carrington family reached far and wide. And they didn’t give up easily.

When she’d heard the plans they had for her unborn child, Jenna had done the only thing that made sense. She’d run.

She had always been weak, but the little girl beneath her breast had given her strength. After the humiliation and sorrow of the last two years, the baby had given her a reason to try again.

A moan slipped past a bottom lip raw from constant gnawing. She bent forward over the steering wheel to stretch the kink in her back wishing she hadn’t spritzed the car’s interior with eau de parfum this morning. The stench of dirt and oil intermingled with the honeyed notes of orange blossom rose from the floorboard like an unwanted visitor. Saliva pooled in her mouth. As she tried to focus on the road, she swallowed, regretful, too, of the hamburger she’d eaten for breakfast.

Somewhere in this empty Texas landscape, there had to be a quiet little town where she could rest…and hide…until the ache in her back subsided.

“Only a little farther, darling,” she murmured to the hard ball around her middle. “Mommy’s tired, too.”

Tired was an understatement of monumental proportions.

Her back had hurt nonstop throughout the duration of her pregnancy but during the last twelve hours the discomfort had grown steadily worse. If it had been her belly instead of her back, she would have been scared.

In conjunction with long hours behind the wheel, stress was the likely culprit. She hadn’t relaxed once since leaving the estate. Even sleep was accomplished with an ear to the door and her eyes half-open.

The stretching, pressing ache deepened. She really needed to find that town.

She reached for her handbag, a pink crocodile spy bag her mother had purchased for Jenna’s twenty-second birthday six weeks ago. The purse, stuffed full of the very best cosmetics, a spa coupon, and a five-thousand-dollar shopping card, had been nothing short of a bribe and Jenna knew it. Unfortunately Mother never understood that monetary possessions had ceased to inspire loyalty in her daughter. Only one thing had her complete and utter devotion—the tiny person who, at this very moment, was causing a great deal of discomfort to Jenna’s body.

As her fingers flipped open the purse flap, Jenna hissed a frustrated breath between her teeth. She no longer owned the elegant slider phone, complete with GPS and remote Internet access. Still fully charged and activated, she’d donated it to a bewildered but grateful soldier at an airport in Philadelphia. By the time the device had been located, it would be somewhere in the Middle East.

“Who would you call anyway?” Even 9–1-1 was fraught with difficulties. Though the Carringtons disdained public attention, choosing to deal with their scandals in a more discreet and private manner, Jenna would allow no chance of alerting anyone to her whereabouts.

She forced herself to breathe slow and deep. The tense, tense muscles in her back only grew tighter.

A flutter of panic trembled in her stomach. What if she went into labor out here alone?

She turned on the radio, praying for a distraction, while also pressing the car’s accelerator. She needed to get somewhere fast.

A male voice, rich in Texas twang, came through the speakers to announce a fall festival at Saddleback Elementary School and a garage sale at 220 Pinehurst behind the Saddleback Pizza Place.

Saddleback must be a town. But where was it?

She gave the radio a pleading glance. “Can’t you be a bit more specific?”

The pressure inside her body increased. A new and more insistent discomfort had moved around front to a spot low in her belly. Very low. She gasped and shifted sideways onto one hip. The pressure mounted, deeper, harder, stronger.

A guttural groan erupted from Jenna’s throat. The sound was foreign, so different from her normal modulated tone.

From the radio pounded a driving beat of electric guitar and bass. The intensity echoed in her body.

The road ahead seemed to waver.

Fingers of iron gripped her abdomen. She was in trouble. Real trouble.

She blinked, panting, fighting the pressure. Sweat stung her eyes. Texas weather was cool, though not nearly as cold as a Pennsylvania November, and yet, Jenna was roasting inside the small blue economy. She reached for the air-conditioning controls and saw, with concern, how pale and shaky she’d become.

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