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(Kendrick/Coulter #1)
October 1999
ISBN-10: 0380799375
ISBN-13: 978-0380799374

"Either shut that kid up, or out it goes, lady!" another man yelled. "I'll throw it off, and don't think I won't! This ain't no place for a brat, anyhow."

Rafe froze with the whiskey bottle midway to his lips. Even in the poor light, the girl's face looked milk white, her eyes huge splashes of darkness and fear. Staring at the man who'd just threatened to toss her baby from the car, she drew the windbreaker over her shoulder and began to fumble beneath it.

Rafe clenched his teeth to bite back a curse. Of all the things she might do to fix the problem, that ranked way low on the smart chart. Although, to be fair, he guessed she didn't have an option. If a baby was hungry, you had to feed it.

The other men snapped to attention like retrievers that had spotted a plump goose, their stares riveted to the activity going on under the girl's jacket. Her stiff movements spoke for themselves. Rafe found himself gaping right along with the others as she unbuttoned her blouse. Even with the nylon to block his view, he knew the exact instant when her breast popped free from her bra. As though plugged with a cork, the kid suddenly stopped screaming.

"Say now, honey. Whatcha got under that there coat?" one man asked.

The girl drew her knees higher and bent her head, her long, dark hair falling forward to further conceal her motherly undertaking. Rafe saw that she was shaking, whether from terror or the cold, he couldn't be sure. She looked so pathetic that his heart twisted.

The baby started to screech again. Her movements frantic, she jiggled the infant and cuddled it closer.

One of the bums laughed. "Say now, sweet thing, if the brat don't want it, I sure as hell won't turn it down."

Shit. Rafe really didn't want to mix it up with these lowlifes, but there were some things a man just couldn't walk away from. Four slimeballs raping a defenseless girl was one of them. Even more alarming, Rafe doubted it had been that long since she'd given birth.

He screwed the cap back on the whiskey bottle. The other men were undoubtedly packing switchblades. Just that morning, he had hocked his own knife to buy the booze.

He could think of better ways to die than with his guts spilled all over the filthy floor of a boxcar. But hey, better him than the girl. She might hemorrhage to death if those creeps got hold of her. Besides, it wasn't as if he honestly cared all that much if he died—or how he went. Quick and painless would be nice, but a man didn't always get his druthers.

One of the bums pushed to his feet and moved toward her. The other three rose to follow him.

This really isn't my problem, Rafe tried to tell himself one last time.

The man in the lead grabbed her roughly by her arm. She lost her hold on her baby, and the kid rolled from her lap onto the dirt-encrusted wooden floor. That cut it. Rafe could ignore a lot of things, but watching a baby get a raw deal wasn't on the list.

He was on his feet before he even realized he'd moved. He shifted his grip on the neck of the half-gallon jug and bent to set it on the floor, thankful for once that his taste ran to Early Times and not one of the cheaper brands bottled in plastic. Going to a knife fight with nothing but his fists had never been one of his aspirations. First though, he had to move the child out of harm's way.

After wrapping the infant in his coat and carrying it to the opposite end of the boxcar, Rafe retrieved his whiskey bottle and returned to help the child's mother. With the loud clackety-clack of the train to muffle the sound, he felt as if he were watching an eerie scene in a silent movie as he strode the length of the enclosure. The moonlight painted the men at the opposite end of the car in shades of white, gray, and black, and the shuddering of the train lent their movements the jerky rapidity common in dated films.

Only this was no scene being played out on a screen. It was real. Unless he intervened, that girl didn't have a prayer. With vague surprise, Rafe realized he was no longer staggering. Fury could be damned sobering.

He didn't bother to announce himself before busting up the party. He just gripped the glass bottle as though it were a club and waded in.

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