~ Black River, Utah 1993 ~
Cliff reined in the big gray quarter horse on the fringe of the rocky ledge. Raising the binoculars, he scanned the far ridge and the meadow below searching for twenty head of wayward cattle. He pushed up the brim of his weathered cowboy hat and wiped a sleeve across his sweat-covered brow. Three days of easterly winds, storms brewing, he thought.
Off in the distance a hawk screeched and swooped toward something hiding amongst a clump of white Sego lilies. His gaze swept across the meadow below, coming to rest on the tattered tin roof of a little house in the distance. The old homestead wasn’t much more than a tarpaper shack and neglected barn. The scattered outbuildings had been empty since its owner, Millie Pearson, moved into town. It wasn’t the buildings Cliff coveted but the land. If he could get his hands on this section, he could expand his ranch, his private world. He’d shut out everyone, those who judged or criticized him for being half white and half Ute Indian.
A movement alongside the house caught his attention. Raising the binoculars, he spotted a naked woman lying on a blanket. Drawing in a deep breath and holding it, he watched as the woman leisurely rolled over and settled onto her back. A sour taste rose and burned the back of his throat. Every muscle in his body stiffened with indignation. His horse, Sonny, tossed his head and pawed the earth in restless anticipation.
Who the hell is that? What’s she doing on my land? Well, land that would soon enough belong to him when he finally persuaded that crotchety old woman into letting go of it. The horse sidestepped, anxious to be on the move, and that was all the encouragement Cliff needed. Irritated that someone had the nerve to be on that property without his knowledge or permission stuck in his craw. He maneuvered his horse down the narrow rocky trail that led to the deteriorating homestead.
He should have called out as he approached and moved around to the other side of the house to give the woman a moment to cover herself, but the one thing Clifford White Fox had never been accused of was being a gentleman.
With the sun at his back, he rode into the yard and halted several feet in front of the naked woman. Dark brown hair fell around her shoulders as she leaned on one elbow and attempted to shade her eyes against the bright sun.
She made no attempt to cover herself.
His muscles twisted into painful knots.
“What are you doing here?” His dry voice growled.
The woman frowned, as her gazed darted from one side to the other. “I’m staying here while I do some work.”
“Who are you?” His question slipped between clenched teeth and parched lips.
“My name’s Catrina. This is my grandmother’s place.” Her brows furrowed into a deep crevasse. “I have permission to be here. You don’t!” Her sharp response sliced through the air like a stray spark from a campfire. “And I don’t have to answer any of your questions.”
She stood and wrapped the blanket around herself. Her neck, shoulders and slender arms remained uncovered, and Cliff struggled to deflect his eyes from her bare flesh. His gaze shot to her full lips and flawless complexion. His groin swelled, pressing against his jeans. He shifted his weight in the saddle. The fringe of his chaps flapped, and his spurs jingled, causing the big gray to toss his head and prance in place.
Cliff learned a long time ago not to trust women, especially naked women. They were nothing but trouble, and the sooner he sent this one packing―the better.
“Are you out here alone?” he asked, cursing himself for being too distracted by her naked curves to notice if anyone else was around.
The woman’s back stiffened, and her chin cinched up a notch as she adopted that all-too familiar attitude women reverted to as a defense mechanism. Silence hung heavy in the parched heat between them.
She stood her ground, yet something flashed in her dark eyes, confirming his suspicion that she was alone. It was dangerous for an inexperienced woman to be out here on her own. But then again, he’d never met a woman who had the sense God gave a newborn colt.
She glanced around and gripped the blanket tighter. Her arched neck convulsed in a strained swallow as he watched the anger in her eyes turn to fear. Good. It’s not safe to be laying naked out in the open. Lord only knows what sort of dangerous creatures are sneaking around―like him.
The sight of her exposed flesh stirred up long forgotten and buried emotions. He’d let his guard down―not a smart move. He vowed a long time ago that he would never let another woman get close enough to have that kind of effect on him. An odd feeling he couldn’t name slithered up his sweat-soaked spine.
Unclenching his jaw, he snarled, “Who knows you’re out here?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she sidestepped closer to the weathered door of the shack. “Several people know where I am,” she replied, with false bravado.
His horse pranced in place, anxious to be on the move.
“It’s dangerous for you to be out here. Whatever your business is, woman, do it from town.” He spun his horse around, but before he could sink his spurs into Sonny’s flanks, the horse bolted.
Catrina gasped. One hand shot up to shield her face from flying dirt and the cloud of dust from the horse as he spun around and fled. When she shielded her eyes in hopes of getting a look at the man’s face, as if on cue, his horse sidestepped, keeping the sun at his back.