Chapter 1-- The New Mexico Territory, 1889
An ivory cotton chemise, while appealing to Dillon Hazard’s eye appeared quite out of place, draped over a tumbleweed. He fingered the soft material, and cast a glance around. Other than a watchful hawk on a nearby xxx tree, he was quite alone. He tugged his horse’s bridle and pushed aside some low-hanging branches, grabbing the chemise as he went. He ducked before his head grazed a tree branch, and was surprised to narrowly miss riding into a woman’s white blouse, which dangled on a branch next to a long brown skirt. A pair of neat kid boots hung from another branch by their laces.
“What the…?” He turned around in the saddle, eyes and ears straining for any sign of the mystery clothes’ owner. He was at the far end of his family’s sprawling ranch, and there were no other neighbors for miles, besides Laughing Crow, his father’s good friend, and his family. An outbreak of sweat dampened his shirt beneath his armpits. What were the odds that an unclothed woman just happened to be passing through the ranch?
A sudden splash in the river beyond the trees startled him. His horse, a ten-year old stallion and descendant of his father’s horse, Demon, pricked his ears forward.
“Come on, Chester. I want a drink just as badly as you do.” And with any luck, the owner of the discarded clothing was nearby. He dismounted to better navigate the rocky slope toward the river. His pulse had increased in anticipation of what he would discover. Cutting through some brush, he emerged, nearly breathless, out of the foliage and in plain view. He almost groaned in disappointment. No woman, unclothed or otherwise, occupied the river. He shook his head and rubbed his horse’s nose. “Must’ve been gone longer than I thought. Now I’m imagining things.” But the chemise wasn’t from his imagination. Someone had been here.
Chester pawed the ground, and Dillon laughed. “Go on, boy.” He released the reins and picked his way over the rocks toward the water. He still carried the chemise in his hand. It would make a decent towel for now, and he could always give it to Ma when he got home. He stooped at the edge of the river and slopped the chemise through the water, then swiped it across his hot, sweaty face and gritty hair. Chester stood by the edge, drinking his fill. Dillon’s stomach growled.
“Come on, boy, hurry up,” he scolded the horse. “You know Ma hates to be kept waiting when supper rolls around.” He wrapped the sodden chemise around his neck. It would cool him off on the long ride back to his parents’ house. He scanned the empty river again. Except for a few ducks, he and Chester were the only living things in sight. Annoyance and disappointment flooded him. “Let’s get home.” He scuffed his boots on the rocks as he shuffled toward the trees again.
“Excuse me, but would you mind giving me back my clothes?” A woman’s voice broke the stillness.
Dillon’s neck snapped around. He stared in surprise at the woman who had just appeared around the bend, treading water in the middle of the river, her long, black hair floating around her like a cape. Her dark brows knit in anger, and her red lips pursed together, making her look as if she’d just sucked a lemon. Dillon fought the urge to laugh, and slowly pulled the chemise from his neck. He held it out to her.
“Come and get it.”
She stared at him in surprise, and opened her mouth as if to scold him, but decided against it. She clamped her lips shut, and moved closer to the riverbank, though still keeping below the water line. Dillon watched her gaze dart to the shore. White, lace-trimmed drawers and silk stockings lay on a pile of rocks. He grinned.
“You are no gentleman,” she accused.
He swung the wet chemise around in his hand as if he had all the time in the world. “I may not be a gentleman, but I’m not stupid enough to swim buck naked in a snake-infested river.”
Her eyes, glittering like smoky topazes, narrowed. “The snakes don’t bother me. It’s men like you I try to avoid.” She moved closer, and he sat down on the bank, enjoying the view. He mopped his brow with the chemise again, and she slapped her hands on the water. “Stop that! Give that to me.”
He reached down and gathered the rest of her clothes from the rocks. “You want ’em, come and get ’em.”
She sucked in a breath. “If I get out, do I have your word you’ll give them back?”
He stared at her figure in the water. So far as he could tell from the long, lithe arms and slim neck, the rest of her was probably just as appealing. “You have my word, though, as a gentleman, that point was debated a moment ago.”
“Fine. Do I have your word as a…a cowboy, then?”
Cowboy. He liked the sound of it. “Rancher and we’ve got a deal.”
“Very well. Rancher.” She was growing impatient, and he was enjoying every minute of it. The past few weeks of riding solo and attending various cattle auctions had bored him to tears with only Chester for company. He'd never expected such an attractive diversion on his way home. Good thing Pa stayed home; else I’d be apologizing and hiding my eyes. Not to mention what Ma would do to me if she caught me looking….
“I promise I’ll give you your clothes, ma’am.” He stood expectantly, and watched as she seemed to steel herself for her walk to shore. Her long hair tossed behind her shoulders, she strode through the water, her expression defiant and proud, like some ancient warrior queen.
Dillon realized he was holding his breath. He could just hear his best friend, John Crow, ribbing him once he found out Dillon Hazard had stared at a woman like he’d never seen one before. He swallowed down the nervousness, which clung to his throat like a tough piece of week-old bread. He was no mama’s boy, still wet behind the ears. He’d even had a drink, once, at the House of Diamonds, the town’s saloon, when his Uncle Ty was in town. Of course, he’d been too goggle-eyed staring at all the girls to enjoy his first whiskey, which he’d promptly thrown up as soon as he was outside, but he liked to think he’d grown up since then.
He dangled the chemise. “Hurry up, now, ’cause my supper’s getting cold.”
She emerged from the water, a dazzling sight. Her tawny skin, pale gold like a sunset, glistened as the water ran off her in silvery rivulets. She was perfectly made, like a statue…the Venus de Milo. He thought about one of his pa’s books, filled with drawings of the statues and architecture of ancient Rome. This girl was better than a statue. From the rounded slopes of her exquisite breasts to the flat stomach, the curvaceous hips….He couldn’t breathe, and was unable to tear his gaze from her. He’d have to copy out a few books of the Bible as penance for acting so shamefully, but he would face a week of copying out the Book of Romans just to have this moment.
She raised one black eyebrow and regarded him with disdain. Indian princess, he thought. An ancient spirit of some wandering maiden, lost in the old Navajo lands. His fingers trembled on the garment he was suddenly loathe to part with. The moment he relinquished her clothes, she’d take them and be gone forever. The idea sent him spiraling into despair.
She stood before him, looking up into his face without a shred of embarrassment, as dignified as a queen. Cleopatra. Bathsheba. No wonder many a king had forfeited a kingdom over luscious red lips and bright eyes. But this was no ancient queen. She was flesh and blood, and she was quivering with anger.
“My clothes, if you please.” A long, elegant hand stretched out before him.
“Wait,” he said, then licked his lips. “How about a…a kiss, first?”
He didn’t know where in the name of all things decent, he’d ever come up with that one. The back of his neck burned and he knew it wasn’t from the sun. John Crow would laugh his fool head off.
Her eyes widened a fraction. “You said I had to come out of the water and get my things. You never mentioned a kiss.”
He swallowed to moisten his dry mouth, which felt covered with the same yellow dust on his boots. “I forgot to add that in, I guess.”
She sniffed. “I suggest you give me my clothes and forget about anything else, rancher. If you know what’s good for you.”
He would have obeyed, just from the demanding, haughty tone she applied, but then he saw the sparkle in her eyes. His spirits soared, and he casually stuffed her chemise into his shirt, right next to his thudding heart.
“Just one kiss. You afraid of one, little kiss?”
“A gentleman would at least take off his hat first.”
He tossed his hat as far from him as possible. He was ready to obey any other command. He inhaled the air between them. She smelled of fresh water and flowers and spring….
“You need a bath,” she muttered, her nose crinkled.
“One kiss, and then I’ll throw myself headfirst in that river, or wherever else you tell me.” He gazed down at her face in wonder, marveling at the high cheekbones that contrasted with the soft curve of her jaw. Hell with the river. He’d fly to Mount Olympus for a chance to stay near this alluring girl. He dared to drop his eyes to the peaks of her breasts, and caught his breath. “Please, just one kiss.”
“Fine. But your hands stay down.”
He nodded. If fire walking had been part of the bargain, his boots would be halfway to the moon.
She placed her palms on his belly, slid them slowly up his ribs and across his chest, spanning the breadth of him. His head spun dizzily. The blood rushed through his body, ending at a particularly sensitive spot. His jeans were suddenly too tight, and the discomfort spread as her hands widened their search. Her fingers grazed his neck, and he wished he wasn’t wearing the grit and dust of the road. He stared into her eyes, which burned with liquid fire. She pulled his head down to hers, then rose on tiptoe, leaning slightly into him so that her breasts crushed against his chest. His head was swimming. His hands clenched at his sides with the ache of wanting to touch her, but he’d keep his word. No matter how his body rebelled, he’d keep it. Her long, black lashes closed over her marvelous eyes, and her sweet breath wafted up to him as her lips parted, eager for his.
Too late, his instincts warned him. The teasing fingers on his neck were suddenly bands of iron, holding him in place while her body shifted. He barely moved in time to avoid the full force of the crushing blow of her knee into his groin, but it wasn’t enough.
Gasping and retching, he fell to his knees, his hands cupped over his crotch. She groped in his shirt for her chemise and danced out of his way, snatching the rest of her clothes and boots, and disappeared into the brush, her laughter ringing sickly in his ears.