With Open Arms

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CHAPTER ONE

Arizona Territory
March 1866
 

     The warmth of day vanished with remarkable speed, shrouding the desert under a bone-chilling twilight.  Murky shadows crept across the Rincon’s rocky ridgeline as Jackson Neale slipped into the concealing darkness. Fortified by four years of war, his body tensed with a caution that defined survival. His fingers folded around the worn, wooden grip of a well-oiled Colt. He could count on one hand the people he’d befriended on the trek westward from Virginia, and knew with absolute certainty the person riding into camp tonight wasn’t one of them. Only a fool would enter without hailing first, yet this stranger displayed a boldness that amazed him. 

     In stony silence, the uninvited guest guided a horse toward the saddlebags by the fire. Small, flickering flames inside the ring of fieldstones washed a glow across the bay’s ruddy flank.  

     His gaze moved upward. 

     Mexican spurs strapped around the heels of silver-tipped boots caught the fire’s glint. Leather batwing chaps encased long legs. And despite the chill, a jacket hung open to reveal a .44-caliber Remington strapped around denim-covered hips. A flat-brimmed hat, its crown encircled with a concha band of hammered silver, hid the face of the evening caller. 

     The visitor dropped to the ground, the rowels on the spurs chinking when they hit the sand. He glanced around, then crouched on a knee beside the saddlebags.

     Jackson tightened his lips as all caution evaporated. He knew full-well how to deal with bandits, having met a few already on his ride westward. He bolted from the shadows and slammed full-force into the unsuspecting thief. Momentum drove them both to the ground. In an instant, he pinned the fool against the sand. His right hand rose in a tight fist, his left shifting across the cotton plaid shirtfront to seek a firmer grip. In an instant, all the fight, all the pent-up energy, everything inside him dissolved.  He’d never be too cold or too tired to forget the lushness of a female breast.

     His eyes widened as his arm dropped to his side.   

     On a sharp breath, he rasped, “You’re…you’re a woman. I thought you were–”

     “Get off me you stupid son of a…” 

     The profanity spilled from her mouth with such ease that Jackson swallowed a lungful of air. Indigo eyes blazed up at him like shards of broken glass, and wild wisps of sun-stained hair danced against the curve of her cheek. Swathed beneath layers of trail dust, the hellion’s hard edge and tone of voice contrasted sharply with what his eyes told him about the rest of her. His heart responded with an engaging hitch, but he blamed the rush of heat that flushed his face on the nearby campfire, not the comical fact that this frosty little tart had taken him by complete surprise. 

     He gained control of his emotions. “Why are you riflin’ through my gear?”

     Leather-gloved hands rose to thump against his chest. ““I said get off me.  I…can’t breathe.” 

     He shifted sideways, pushing against the ground to stand.  With a muffled oath, he staggered back another step as she bolted to her feet. She bent to retrieve her hat and slapped it against her thigh. As she did, his gaze raked down the noteworthy curves of her body. Her masculine outfit provided a disguise, yet closer inspection did little to hide her figure. The fringe on her leather chaps rode both shapely legs, and the sight reminded him of the pleasures a woman could offer…sultry, sexy, and full of endless possibilities. In this particular woman, however, all softness appeared to end with the supple leather. 

     Anger sealed her mouth, and the scowl that creased her features indicated not a drop of sweetness filled her body, either.

     An involuntary clench seized his jaw. “I nearly killed you.”

     She issued an impatient huff. “I live with danger every day, so your words barely register.”  With a quick flick of her wrist, she twisted her hair into a knot atop her head, then jammed her hat back over the tarnished curls.

     Jackson had never expected to see such a raw woman, and the enmity in her bright eyes held all the subtlety of baying hounds. She cursed smoother than a Boston whore, but she’d die young if she needed to steal from passersbys to survive. He peered into the darkness but heard no other threatening sounds. She obviously rode alone.

     His attention drifted back.  “Since you’re so nicely groomed now, start explaining what you’re doing in my camp.”

     “Your camp?”  Her razor-sharp laugh bit straight through him. “You might think this is your camp, but you’re standing on Cutteridge land and I own every damn acre.”  The heat in her eyes branded him where he stood. “And, I sure don’t recall giving you permission to trespass here or anywhere else.”

     Her statement brought Jackson up short. He’d ridden more than twenty-five miles today, but hadn’t figured on reaching Cutteridge property until sometime tomorrow morning. The image on a faded daguerreotype, tucked beside the worn map in his saddlebag, flashed across his mind. The woman’s likeness, given to him months ago by his colonel, had been branded into memory. There was barely a whisper of resemblance between the serene beauty reflected in his picture and the foul-mouthed hellion who stood before him now. Somehow, Jackson kept the blistering bile of disappointment from reaching his voice. “Cutteridge land is it?”   

     “You heard me clear enough.”  Her expression hardened as she pressed closer. She brought her point closer still. “All Cutteridge. And all mine.”

     From somewhere beyond the campfire’s light, the forlorn howl of a coyote underscored her words. Smoke curled upward in lazy tendrils.  Jackson’s nerves constricted as the woman’s words slipped around him like a noose.  And tightened.  He tipped back his head and stared at the wide expanse of stars inundating the ebony canvas.  “Good God,” he mumbled, the lump in his throat refusing to move.  “Please don’t let this shrew be Colleen Cutteridge.”

                                                                        ***

     A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Callie when the sound of her given name spilled from the tall, hard-angled man. Her pulse hammered in her chest. She squared her shoulders, her chin jutting higher as his gaze reconnected with hers.

     “We’ve never met,” she snapped. “I’d have remembered you.”  Obviously, he wasn’t some cowpoke looking to encroach on her land. Not this one. A red flag rippled inside her, and she pointed to the campfire in an attempt to hide her unease. “I spotted this a half-mile away. A fire this bright’s a blatant invitation for Apache lookin’ to lift a scalp.” 

     Stupid oaf.

     A smug smile lifted the man’s lips and a slash of white appeared. “I appreciate the warning.”  

     From his chiseled jaw carved straight from granite, to his cool, collected calmness, the man possessed an ease of manner that unnerved Callie, and she didn’t appreciate the feeling one bit. A stubborn spirit, her companion and strength these past five years, spiked through her. She rubbed her midriff where his thighs had bruised her ribs. And for one disturbing moment, she couldn’t help but admire his impressive strength. Granted, he’d bruised her ego more than her body, but–

     Callie caught her thoughts and jerked them back into control, exactly where she liked things best. She took a full step backward, the rowel on her boot heel chinking across the tension. “Look, mister, I don’t give a squat if the Apache scalp you this night or the next.  I just don’t want the bloody deed done on my ranch.”  Her fingers curled around the grip of her revolver as her gaze scanned his belongings, then moved on to his horse waiting in the shadows. “I could shoot you myself for trespassing and spare the Apache the trouble of killin’ you. Or,” her gaze drifted back to lock with his, “you can gather your gear, saddle that fine Morgan you’ve got line-tied over there, and get the hell off my land.” 

     Seconds passed like hours before the dark-haired man bent to retrieve his hat.

     He straightened slowly, pulling the brim of the sweat-stained Stetson low upon his head. Through dark, cold eyes, he stared at her.

     With each thump of her heart, the stranger’s unnerving quiet further frayed her nerves. A log from the campfire shifted deeper into the flames, sending a shower of sparks heavenward. The pungent aroma of burning mesquite filled her nostrils and fused with a raw, unspoken awareness that sizzled from the man. 

     He leaned forward, the brim of his hat bumping against hers. The thinnest hint of amusement lifted his lips. “It appears I won’t be riding from your life quite so soon.” His words were too soft, too controlling. “And this land isn’t just your land any longer.”  Without removing his gaze, he reached into his frock coat. With the speed of a striking diamondback, a bulky envelope appeared in his large, leather-gloved hand, then rose between them until level with her eyes. “The name’s Jackson Neale and this makes me your new partner.”                                                                                           

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