A gripping, sensuous journey!
EXCERPT 1 "Look, señorita." Raul Villanueva braced a large, bear-like hand on the boy’s shoulder and forced him to his knees. "I found him sneaking around the reservoir."
Frowning, Cassie Taylor gazed into a pair of familiar, glacier-blue eyes. "That’s Jesse Pruitt." She looked at her range boss, eliciting a grunt of acknowledgement from the stocky man. "Isn’t he working for Barrington now?"
"Si, patrona," Raul said, using the Spanish term for "boss-lady" as was customary of the ranch hands when addressing her, "and it looks like he is doing Barrington’s dirty work, too."
"What were you doing out there, Jesse?" Cassie asked the young intruder. She tucked her brown slicker behind her gun belt and revealed the single-action .44 Schofield holstered at her hip.
With a nervous glance directed at the exposed weapon, the boy swallowed hard. His chin quivered, and he ducked his head to stare at the ground, a mass of blond curls tumbled around his shoulders. Cassie reckoned he was anywhere between twelve and fourteen years of age, though she doubted even Jesse knew for sure.
"Well," she asked amid his continued silence, "you got anything to say for yourself?"
"Patrona, you leave him to me, si? I know how to make this one talk." Raul lifted Jesse by his shirt collar.
"No, I’ll handle this," Cassie said. "Fetch me Paco and Mario. Then get back to work."
Raul glowered at her through narrowed eyes, a tacit challenge simmered in their obsidian depths. Pressing his lips into a bloodless line, he marched by her, grunting an expletive Cassie deemed best to ignore.
"Nobody’s gonna hurt you," she said to Jesse, in a softer tone. "Just tell me what you were doing out there."
The boy continued to stare at the ground. "N-nothin’."
From behind her, the sound of jangling spurs drew Cassie’s attention. She turned, eyeing the two men approaching her. Mario, short, rotund, and painfully shy, ducked his coffee-colored eyes the moment they met hers, a deep blush rose from his neck to stain his cherubic face. Paco, a year older than his brother, Mario, gave her an acknowledging grin. The pole opposite of Mario in every way, he was tall and slender, but there was strength in the ample breadth of his shoulders, self-assurance in his stance. With features carved from stone, he looked older than his twenty-two years.
"You called for us, patrona?" Paco asked.
"Escort Jesse here to the gates," she ordered. "Make sure he leaves."
Paco cut a scathing look at the golden-hair trespasser. "Andale, gringo!"
Jesse was quick to comply. He hurried along the rocky path, flanked by the disparate pair of brothers. Cassie watched the trio disappear around the bend, and then took a deep breath, her lungs swelled with the gritty afternoon air. Striding back to her house, she smiled at the woman standing on the covered front porch, holding the wooden, mesh door open.
"Is everything okay, señorita?"
Cassie looked at her housekeeper and trusted confidant. "Not really, Juanita."
"Come," Juanita said with a wave of her hand, "I have something that will cheer you up, si?"
Trailing Juanita into the kitchen, Cassie inhaled the sweetly mingled aromas of freshly brewed coffee and her favorite, apricot fritters.
"Mmm..." she purred, taking a seat at the rectangular, wooden table. Her gaze flitted from the potbelly stove to the wooden cupboards, in search of the delectable treats.
Smiling, Juanita shook her head, her thick braid swinging like an onyx pendulum across her back. "They were for dessert tonight," she said, scooping the plate of fritters, obscured behind the lace-trimmed curtains, from the kitchen window. "But I think we can enjoy them now."
Watching Juanita set the fritters on the tabletop, Cassie rubbed her hands with unabashed relish. "Now’s a good a time as any," she agreed, wasting no time digging into the warm, flaky pie. "Honestly, Juanita," she mouthed between bites, "every time you make these, they seem to taste even better."
At the potbelly stove, Juanita poured two cups of coffee. She returned to the table and handed one to Cassie. "I am glad you like them, señorita," she said, taking a seat beside her. "I do not like to see you upset."
Cassie licked apricot jam from her fingers. "I’m not upset, Juanita. Just worried, is all."
"What was the boy doing?" Juanita asked.
"He wouldn’t say, but I reckon checking on the water level."
Juanita’s brown, acorn-shaped eyes flared with indignation. "Barrington again?"
"Who else?" Cassie said, pursing her mouth with distaste. "None of the other ranchers are this much trouble, except for Amos. He’s convinced I’m bilking him on his share of the water, and Jesse works for him now."
"Barrington is el Diablo himself!" Juanita’s tone was pure venom.
"Worse than the Devil," Cassie said, taking a sip of her coffee. "But this drought ain’t making things any easier. Another month without rain and I’ll have to start rationing everyone’s share."
"That will only make Barrington angrier."
Cassie nodded. "I know. I’m not looking forward to making that announcement at the next meeting. But I don-" The sound of a single gunshot outside severed her words.
With a startled gasp, Juanita dropped her cup on the floor. Cassie sprang to her feet, drawing her weapon.
"No matter what happens, stay inside, Juanita," she demanded, stepping over the porcelain fragments.
"Si, señorita," Juanita said in a tremulous voice.
Cassie sprinted outside, just as the sound of another gunshot pierced the still air. It came from the side of the barn, and she followed it, skidding to a sudden halt when she encountered a man on horseback. With a gun in each hand aimed at her men, the stranger appeared to have gotten the better of Raul, Paco, and Mario. On the ground, well out of reach, were the trio’s gun belts. The weaponless men stood with arms raised in surrender.
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