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SAFE IN HIS ARMSAn Under Texas Stars Novel
By COLLEEN COBLE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe town of Larson, Texas, was busy on this warm February day. Cowboys in their dusty boots eyed the women attired in their best dresses strolling the boardwalks. Margaret O'Brien strode down the boardwalk in front of the feed store toward the mercantile. Things seemed to change daily with new stores sprouting like winter wheat. Every day more cowmen arrived in Larson, drawn by the lush grazing land and the water of the Red River.
Pa should be around here somewhere. She nodded to the ladies clustered in front of the general store, the familiar discomfort washing over her. Why couldn't she look like them? No matter how hard Margaret tried, she remained what she was: too tall and more at home with her hands gripping horse reins than a teacup. She ducked into the store and inhaled the aroma of cinnamon, bootstrap, sweat, and pickles. She busied herself with collecting material for their housekeeper, who had a bee in her bonnet about making curtains.
A cluster of women were talking in hushed whispers about the latest Zulu atrocity in Africa. These early months of 1879 had been full of bloody battles. Hearing such things always made Margaret wince, remembering her brother's death at the hands of the Sioux. At least a national monument had been established earlier this year in memory of those who fell during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The women fell silent when Margaret paused. "Good morning," she said in as confident a voice as she could muster. "Anyone know what kind of material to buy for curtains? I thought this was pretty."
When she held up a lilac-flowered fabric, one of the women tittered, a tiny blonde Margaret had never seen before. Her face burned, and she put the bolt of fabric back.
"How about this one?" a woman said behind her.
Margaret's heart leaped at the sound of her friend's voice, and she whirled with a smile. "Lucy, I didn't know you were in town today. Should you be riding in a wagon in your condition?"
The blond woman laughed again at Margaret's indelicate mention of Lucy's pregnancy. Lucy linked arms with Margaret. "I feel fine. You like this pattern? I think Inez will love it."
Margaret eyed the red-and-white plaid. "It's a little ... loud."
"Cheerful," Lucy corrected, smiling. Her head high, she led Margaret out of the group. "Silly twits. Now, don't start moaning about how they don't like you. They don't know you." Lucy shook her head. "And they won't bother to get to know you if you don't take a little more care when you come to town."
Margaret smoothed her hands on her rough skirt. They had come after cattle feed, and she had work to do in the barn when she got home, so she hadn't bothered to change. She should have put on a nicer dress. "It was too much bother since I had to help load feed."
"It's worth it, Margaret." Lucy glanced at the watch pinned to her dress. "Nate is going to be looking for me." She hugged Margaret. "I'm so glad I saw you. You're coming to the party, aren't you?"
"Sure. I'm not going to dance, but I'll come keep you company." Smiling, Margaret watched her friend waddle away. Dear Lucy. She had barreled past Margaret's prickly exterior, and they'd become fast friends. Lucy was easy to trust. She was all heart.
Margaret had her purchases put on account, then stepped out into the sunshine.
Cattlemen had driven herds of cattle through here more than an hour ago, but the dust and odor still lingered in the air. Her father motioned to her from in front of the stagecoach station. Calvin stood close behind him.
She started toward them, but the man beside her father arrested her gaze. He was tall, even taller than her father, which meant he had to be at least six foot three or four inches. She guessed he was in his early thirties. The man's Stetson was pushed back on his head, revealing shiny brown hair, and his bronzed face was chiseled with planes and angles that spoke of confidence and determination. He cast a lazy grin her way.
Immediately Margaret's hackles rose. That kind of self-assurance—arrogance, really—always reminded her of her uncle. She'd had to assert herself strenuously with him around the ranch because he thought a woman's place was in the kitchen, not in the stockyard. This man was the same type, the sort of man who would demand to be catered to and obeyed. No one who looked that strong and proud would listen to a woman.
She forced a smile. This man was probably nothing like her uncle. But her trepidation slowed her steps. Her father motioned her forward, though, and she reluctantly moved to join them.
Her father put his hand on her shoulder. "Here's my daughter, Margaret."
The man's gaze swept from the top of her head down to the dusty boots just peeking out from underneath her serviceable skirt, and Margaret's lips tightened. People in Larson were used to her attire, but this man's eyes widened. He'd probably never seen a woman dressed for ranch work. She wore a man's chambray shirt, and her red hair hung over her shoulder in a long braid. The bits of cow manure on her skirt and boots didn't add much to the general picture either. He'd really be shocked if he saw her in her britches when she was helping with the cattle.
She lifted her head and stared him down. His dark eyes betrayed none of his thoughts. She didn't think she'd ever seen eyes that shade. Like a buckeye nut, they were a rich brown color. Heavy brows accented the strong planes of his face.
Margaret thrust out her hand. "Pleased to meet you. And you are ...?"
He could have stared over the top of her head without taking notice of her at all. But he didn't. He gazed straight into her eyes, and her breath caught in her throat as she felt the magnetic pull of the man.
"Daniel Cutler." His handshake was firm and as self-confident as his appearance.
Margaret pulled her hand away. "You been in town long, Mr. Cutler?" He'd given his name but not his business here in Larson. Pa seemed almost proprietorial toward him, but she clamped her teeth against the questions clamoring to escape.
"He just got in today," her father put in eagerly. "He's our new foreman."
"New foreman?" Margaret's heart dipped like a bronco about to arch its back to the sky. "We don't need a new foreman, Pa. I can handle things by myself. I've spent the last ten years of my life proving it."
Their ranch hand Calvin straightened as well. "That ain't right, O'Brien. You said if I did a good job, you'd promote me. This shavetail"—he gestured toward Cutler—"ain't what the ranch needs."
Her father glared at Calvin. "Get that feed loaded and keep your nose out of my business." Her father skewered her with an even sterner stare. "Now, Margaret, I told you it's time you let go of some of these notions about running the ranch by yourself. I'm getting too old to be of much help, and I'd sure like for you to set your mind to finding a husband and giving me some grandchildren."
Her father's gaze traveled over Margaret's apparel and displeasure shone in his eyes. "Though what man would have you when you make no attempt to look like a woman is another concern altogether."
She had begun to find her composure, but at her father's words, blood rushed to her face. They didn't need to air their disagreements in front of this stranger. Pa had never understood how his words burned her spirit like a brand. She never let on how he hurt her, and she didn't now. She narrowed her eyes at this stranger who was set to disrupt her life.
Daniel Cutler seemed to be taking it all in with interest, and a small smile played around those firm lips of his. He probably agreed wholeheartedly with her father's assessment. Like all the rest of the men in her acquaintance, he would be looking for some dainty young thing with a simpering smile and golden curls.
She tossed her head and glared at him. His smile faltered, and she felt a stab of satisfaction. "I'm sorry you've come all this way for nothing," she told him. "But we really don't need a foreman. Not you and not Calvin."
"The thing's done," her father said. "Toss your belongings into our wagon, Daniel. We'll head back to the ranch as soon as we get this feed loaded."
She caught her breath at her father's blatant dismissal. "Pa ..."
He held up his hand. "Enough, Margaret. Daniel is here. Zip your tongue and help get the wagon loaded."
I will not cry. Biting her lip, she walked to the back of the wagon.
Daniel threw his satchel into the wagon. He didn't wait to be asked but went to the pile of feed sacks and began loading them. His muscular arms handled the heavy bags with ease. For a moment Margaret stared at the muscles in his back as they rippled beneath his shirt. In spite of her dislike of the man, he was a fine specimen of masculinity. Other women strolling by paused and cast surreptitious glances his way. Glances he seemed not to notice.
She helped load the sacks, but he threw the heavy bags into the back twice as quickly, with not even a labored breath. She bristled at his strength. He was probably trying to show her up in front of her father. She'd teach him she didn't need his help—not for loading feed and not for running the ranch.
She and Daniel worked side by side for several minutes until all she could smell was burlap. Daniel tossed the last of the feed into the wagon and turned to her with a grin. "What now, Boss?"
Boss. The way he said the word with a hint of mockery made her grimace. Just as she opened her mouth to put him in his place, shots rang out down the street. Five men, their revolvers blasting at anything that moved, rushed out of the bank and mounted their horses. The horses came thundering toward Margaret.
"Get down!" Daniel tackled her to the dusty ground.
The breath puffed out of her as he fell on top of her. She struggled to free herself, but his strong body kept her pinned beneath him. She could smell the clean scent of soap underneath the scent of his skin. Never in her life had she felt so helpless and dependent. And protected. The word whispered through her brain with a gentle allure.
FRANK WAS GOING to ruin everything with his impatience. It was all Daniel could do to hold his anger in check. "Stay here." The young woman glared at him, but at least she stayed under the wagon where he'd pushed her.
He spit the dust from his mouth and rolled out from under the wagon. Shots rang out again, but he didn't duck back into safety. The gang wouldn't shoot at him. Slipping along the side of the building, he made his way to the back of the bank. The last person he expected to see was the beautiful blond outlaw staring arrogantly at him from her perch on a palomino.
"Golda," he said tightly. Her beauty had stirred him once, made him leave a lucrative job in the Austin area and take up a life of crime.
"I didn't expect to see you, Daniel."
Her voice was husky with a smoky quality that froze men in their tracks while she devoured them at her leisure. He moved away, reminding himself that he was no longer her prey. "I don't know why. That was the plan. You moved in too soon, though. I just got here."
She shrugged her slim shoulders and urged her horse closer. "You know my brother. Frank likes to keep everyone off kilter. I think he wasn't sure you'd really show. You've been gone awhile, and he's not sure he can trust you."
"I told him I had a place to scout out the banks, and I do. But I'm going to need a little time."
"I'll tell him."
More shots sounded from out front. "You'd better get out of here." He didn't wait for her to call him back because he wasn't sure of his strength to resist.
MARGARET WIPED DUST from her tongue. She couldn't believe she was still crouching here under the wagon. For more years than she could count she had taken care of herself. She wasn't some squealing miss who ran at the first sign of gunfire. The sooner that bear of a man learned that, the better.
She rolled out from under the wagon as shots rang out again, followed by the sound of men's voices.
Daniel materialized in front of her. "Stay still." He stared down the street. "I think it's safe now."
He gripped her arm and helped her up as though she were a delicate miss dressed in a fine silk dress. Margaret dusted off her skirt and tried to think of something to say to put him in his place. He ignored her as he stared down the street. Several men ran out of the bank, with the bank president, Orville Parker, bringing up the rear.
Orville's cravat was awry, and his black hair stood up in spikes. "Help! We've been robbed!" He waved his arms. "Come on, all of you, we have to catch them."
The sheriff, freeing his revolver from his holster as he ran, came rushing from the other side of town. "I need all the men who can ride and shoot. We might be able to catch them."
Margaret turned to stare at Daniel, but he just stood there placidly as men all around him grabbed horses and guns. She narrowed her eyes at him.
Then Daniel nodded at her pa. "I reckon I'd best ask your leave to join the posse."
Her pa shook his head. "They have enough men, and we need to be getting back to the ranch."
Margaret eyed the relief on Daniel's face. He must be a coward in spite of his hefty size. Why else would he not want to join the chase? If she were a man, she would have been the first one to volunteer. She turned abruptly and began to clamber onto the seat of the wagon, but before she could climb up, Daniel's large hands spanned her waist and lifted her as though she weighed no more than a feather duster.
Margaret jerked away from his grip and would have tumbled to the street except for his steadying hands. "I've been climbing in and out of this wagon for years by myself," she snapped. "I don't need your help."
"Just being mannerly, miss." Curls had escaped Daniel's hat and lay plastered against his broad forehead.
The mirth in his dark eyes set her teeth on edge. She would see him fired and gone from her property if it was the last thing she did. She didn't want him laughing at her every day. Snide smiles behind her back were something with which she was quite familiar, and she didn't need any more of it from the foreman.
"Margaret, quit fooling around. We need to get on the road." Her father climbed up beside her. When Daniel settled next to him, his bulk caused the springs of the wagon to groan.
Her father's voice held a trace of petulance, and she knew he was tired and needed to rest. It was selfish of her to make more trouble. She settled herself on the seat and leaned forward to grab the reins, but before she could seize them, Daniel had them in his large fists.
"Giddup." He slapped the reins against the backs of the horses, and the wagon lurched forward.
Caught off guard, Margaret nearly tumbled into the back of the wagon with the feed sacks. She scowled at Daniel, but he didn't seem to notice. Gripping the side of the wagon, she pressed her lips tightly together.
She glanced back at Calvin and saw him glaring at the back of Daniel's head. At least someone else was hankering to get rid of the man. Daniel clearly thought he was the biggest toad in the puddle, but Margaret would soon set him to rights.
Chapter TwoSeveral shacks were scattered round the small clearing where Charlie Cutler poked at the fire, but most of them were empty at this time of day. The gang had scattered to various perches to watch for the posse. Sparks flared into the air and a bit of ash floated aimlessly in the wind. He'd been like that ash with no purpose. But no more. He finally belonged.
He heard a step behind him and turned to see Golda Munster coming toward him. She had turned every head in camp, and no wonder. Charlie had never seen skin so fair and smooth or lips so full and red. He couldn't take his eyes off her, and neither could the other men. She was ten years older than he was, but he didn't care. Her silky blond hair and big blue eyes mesmerized him.
She lifted her blue skirt clear of the mud puddles. A scowl marred her beautiful face. She scowled more often than not. About the only time Charlie had seen her smile was when she was flirting with someone, but it only added to his fascination. Probably most of the gang longed to bring a smile to her face, to see her white teeth gleaming behind painted red lips.
She settled on a log one of the men had dragged close to the fire. The hem of her skirt was thick with red dirt. "Anything to eat?"
He grabbed a rag and lifted the skillet from the fire. "Got some flapjacks."
She grimaced. "I'm tired of such paltry fare. I'd love a thick beefsteak or poached fish. Just because we're in camp doesn't mean we shouldn't fill our bellies with decent food. I was at the mercantile before the bank robbery, and things were pretty plain there too. Typical of a wide spot in the road like this." Lifting the lid, she sniffed at the aroma, then wrinkled her nose again. "Who made these?"
Excerpted from SAFE IN HIS ARMS by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2013 by Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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