Cassie (Chapter One, page 1 of 10)

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Cassie leaned forward on the wagon seat, squinting anxiously into the incandescent sunrise. The riders were a blur in the heat waves, but she was certain that one was Pete. More than likely the unidentified rider was only another drifter. Still, her stomach would be tied in a knot until she was sure it wasn't her father. Not that she was likely to see him again…especially out here in the desert, hundreds of miles from their little Texas ranch.

As she watched, the horses plunged down a dune, sending a spray of white sand into the dry air. No, it wasn't her father. Even at a distance it was obvious that the man was much taller and he rode with a proud kind of grace that her father never possessed. Her breath escaped in an unexpected sigh. That familiar yet annoying pang of disappointment took its place. Was it the little girl deep inside of her that still longed for Daddy to come home - even after being abandoned?

She removed her sombrero and mopped her forehead with the rolled up portion of her shirtsleeve. Ridges of sparkling white sand surrounded the camp like a sleeping dragon, soaking heat from the sun - resting now so it could spit its fiery breath at them later in the day. The gypsum sands of New Mexico Territory were relentless in their search for new victims.

Tucking a wayward strand of curly brown hair back into her bun, she replaced her hat and wrapped the lead lines around the wagon brake. With a final glance at the approaching figures, she dropped from the wagon seat and sauntered over to join the men at the cook fire.

Davis handed her a scalding cup of coffee, his chocolate gaze scrutinizing; probably searching for some indication of congeniality. A resolute shrug indicated his search was futile. Undaunted, he opened the conversation.

"It looks like we've got company."

She accepted the coffee and scowled into the tin cup.

"Probably another greenhorn Pete had to pull out of a scrape. We're already late getting started on account of him and the saddle bum will probably use up another half-hour of daylight eating our food."

Fritz shot her a sour look.

"What made you so bitter about men?"

The big German accepted a cup of coffee from Davis and squatted beside Royce at the fire. His dark eyes reflected the disapproval in his tone.

"A woman your age ought to be looking for a husband, or already married, not chasing all over creation in pants, trying to act like a man."

"I wouldn't think of acting like a man," she answered in a flippant tone. "I can do better than that." His caustic expression served as a catalyst to her boredom. "Anyway, what's so terrible about a woman wearing pants?"

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