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"Oh man. There are good ideas and bad ideas, and believe me, sending your sister here so that I can chaperone her is an unbelievably bad idea." Owen Michaels leaned back in his chair and propped his boot-clad feet up on his desk.
"Nonsense, Owen, it's a master plan," the voice on the other end of the line said.
Owen glanced out the window at miles of empty space. Beautiful stuff, if solitude was what you craved. He did. Most people didn't. No denying that. "You been hitting the cognac, Dré? Or it has been a long time since you've been to Montana. Maybe you've forgotten that while I may be a wealthy man, the Second Chance is a working ranch. It's pretty isolated. Your sister's a princess. This isn't what she's used to."
Oh no, Owen thought. A woman like that is used to a heck of a lot more. She would crave culture and the excitement of being at the hot, happening center of things. She'd expect to take part in events that involved the cream of society. He already knew too much about women like that. Women didn't transplant well here, as evidenced by his mother, who had run away, and his wife, who had divorced him after
Owen swore beneath his breath, halting the painful thought. The point was that everything he knew told him that bringing a princess here was a recipe for doom and disaster. "Nope, buddy. What you're asking it's just not happening. You can't send her here."
"Owen, stop. Let's talk. Or I'll talk. You listen. This plan is perfect. Absolutely perfect," Owen's former college roommate said, excitement evident in his voice. "And in answer to your question, I've never been more serious, and no, I haven't been drinking even a little. At least, notsince I came up with this solution. Before that, I was going mad trying to figure out what to do with Delfyne."
Andreus's groan brought a frown to Owen's face. "Why do you have to do anything with her?"
His friend sighed. "Because she is a princess, one who's getting married soon. As such, she's demanding the summer of freedom from royal life that the rest of us had. It's her right. We all get that opportunity to shake off our bonds oncejust once before we settle in to live our fate."
Owen watched as the almost-too-bright-to-look-at sun began to sink over the landscape, painting the work vehicles red as it began its retreat. When it was finally gone, the darkness would be a black blanket, thick and impenetrable out here where there were no streetlights of any kind, no neighbors for miles. And the silence well, a person couldn' t get much farther from the royal life than this, but Owen was pretty darn sure that that wasn't the kind of vacation Andreus's sister had in mind. "She wants a few months off before she gets married? A trip away from her life? So, what's the problem? Send her on some exotic retreat, or on a cruise or a trip to Manhattan."
The word seemed a bit too emphatic, and Owen swung his feet off the desk and stood up, dragging the telephone over to the window where he stood in the gathering darkness, watching the clouds turn fiery oranges and purples. "Why?"
Andreus uttered an audible sigh. "Delfyne is "
Owen was getting a bad feeling. He turned away from the setting sun and gave all his attention to his friend. "What about Delfyne?" He vaguely remembered meeting Andreus's sister seven years ago when he had been twenty and visiting Andreus in Xenora on spring break. All he remembered was that she had been seventeen, thin and pale, with a posture that had been far more perfect than that of any seventeen-year-old he had ever met. She'd left to visit a cousin in Belgium soon after his arrival. He'd had the feeling that she'd been sent away so that she wouldn't be tainted by the American cowboy running loose in the palace. Even he had to smile at that. Still.
"Delfyne " Andreus was saying. "My younger sister is The problem is that Delfyne isn't like our other brothers and sisters. She's lived a sheltered lifea spoiled life in many waysand she's impetuous and naive. She knows no boundaries and doesn't believe that anything bad can happen to her. She's the girl who had to learn that fire is hot by touching it. Warnings were never enough. Send her out into the world with a total freedom pass and well, I'm pretty sure you can imagine what could happen."
Silence settled in. Owen could imagine all kinds of things, none of them good.
"So what you're asking me to do is to babysit your little sister," he said finally.
"Well, I wouldn't put it that way. At least, not to Delfyne's face. She has a temper."
Great. Owen wanted to groan, but, sensitive to the fact that this was his good friend's sister they were talking about, he held back. Just what he needed. A princess with no common sense and a bad temper.
"Andreus " he tried. "Hell, Dré, you know how unpolished and rough I am. I'm not cut out to take care of a princess."
"Nonsense. Your rough edges will be a boon. You won't let her get into trouble."
"You want me to ride roughshod over a woman?"
Andreus hesitated. "I want you to restrict her a bit."
"Sounds like major babysitting."
"She won't be a problem."
"You just said she was a handful."
"With other people. Not with you."
Owen couldn't hold back a chuckle. "Are you trying to snow me?"
His friend sighed. "Owen, buddy," he said in that stilted way he had. Andreus was a prince through and through. Americanisms didn't come easily to him. "My friend, I'm sure it sounds terrible, but I'm not trying to to snow you, as you say. You're very good at getting your way and barking orders, aren't you? Remember when I showed up in your dorm room when we were freshmen at the university? I'd been raised a prince, destined to take over the throne. Power was in my blood, but I'd barely made it through the door when you told me which bunk was going to be yours, that you liked quiet when you studied and that you intended to study a lot."
"Yeah, well, I didn't know you were a prince."
"Maybe, but my being a prince didn't seem to matter to you. You treated me like an equal. Like an ordinary person. I appreciated that more than you can ever know. You became my friend. My best friend," he stressed.
Owen finally gave in and groaned. "And you saved my butt when four guys jumped me outside a bar. You flew halfway around the world when "
The pain was still searing even though years had passed. Owen still couldn't say the words. "You helped me when I needed you to," he finished lamely. "I owe you."
"You owe me nothing," Andreus said. "You know I don't operate that way. That's not what this is about. I'm not calling in a favor."
No, that wasn't the kind of man Andreus was. And, Owen remembered, he wasn't the kind of man who asked for favors lightly, either. Despite the lightness of his tone, this couldn't have been easy for him.
"You're really worried about your sister, aren't you?" he asked his friend.
"She holds a special place in my heart, Owen. Delfyne is sunshine. She's special. And then, too, I know just what she's feeling right now. Being royal has many benefits, but it also provides iron bars that separate a person from the world. Permanently. Freedom to choose one's life is an illusion for a prince or a princess. Her life will never be her own after this time. She knows that."
And what was a man to say to that? Owen valued his freedom and his open spaces above all else. He'd sacrificed other peoples' happiness to that freedom.
And even if his friend would never call his cards in, he owed Andreus his sanity.
"Send her," he said. "Do it. I promise you I won't let anything happen to her and I'll return her to you just as she is now."
"Thank you, Owen. You'll never know what this means to me. You are a saint, my friend."
Owen couldn't help chuckling. "If you think I'm a saint, then you're delusional. But then, I must be delusional, too, saying yes. I hope neither of us ends up regretting this decision."
Of course, it was too late for that, Owen thought as he hung up the phone. Regrets were already pouring in. He'd been called many things in his life. Stubborn, arrogant, rough, a loner. Despite his millions, which would have enabled him to live anywhere he wanted to, he liked his silence and the relative peace he found on the ranch. He'd sacrificed everything for this and he always would.
His peace and his loner status were about to end. A princess was coming to visit the Second Chance Ranch.
"A princess?" Owen muttered when he hung up the phone. "On a ranch? That's crazy talk. Maybe she'll hate it and go back home right away."
A man had to have his hopes and dreams.
Delfyne emerged from her family's private jet, took one look at the very tall man waiting for her and instantly knew that she was in trouble. It wasn't because she found him physically attractive, although she did. What woman wouldn't respond to long legs encased in form-fitting denim, broad shoulders, dark hair and silver-blue eyes? But good looks could be ignored.
What couldn't be ignored was something much more difficult to describe. The expression on his face this man was a wall, even more of a wall than she remembered from the time he'd visited Andreus years ago. He was a warrior. Stubborn. What's more, he didn't look especially pleased to see her, and she was pretty sure she knew why.
Her brother had told Owen Michaels to look after her. There was no question of that. Because, despite the fact that for her entire life she had been promised this time outside her princess skin, when it came to actually granting her this freedom, every member of her family had been nervous. They'd fussed, they'd tried to give helpful advice without looking as if they were giving helpful advice. Delfyne had come upon her father and Andreus whispering and then acting as if they hadn't been whispering all too often. Because of that and because all her suggestions for places she wanted to stay had been brushed aside with carefully planned criticisms, she'd known months ago that no one was ever going to let her have a true taste of freedom.
They were afraid she was going to make an impetuous mistake again. Like the time she had slipped away to go swimming alone in the middle of the night and nearly drowned, or the night when one of her maid's daughters had talked her into going to a local town party unescorted and she'd almost been abducted. And yet they didn't know even half the mistakes she'd made as she struggled against the bonds that had always kept her from joy and freedom. She was never going to let them know the very worst thing that had happened to her. She didn't want to think about it herself and she wouldn't, Delfyne thought as the old panic began to rise up.
Still, that didn't mean she was going to spend her life hiding away from the world and from life. She needed this time away from who she was. Just this once to live in the real world, to experience the heady freedom of normalcy, to know what ordinary people knew. She craved that desperately.
But now they had assigned her two bodyguards and a reluctant babysitter and She glanced at Owen Michaels's square, solid jaw, noting the tension visibly coiled in every muscle in that lean, tough body.
For a moment she felt sorry for him for being stuck watching over her, but she was never going to say that. That would be admitting that he was in charge of her. That wasn't acceptable. She appreciated his hospitality even if it was done as a favor for an old friend, but he was standing between her and her dreams. At least until she could come up with a plan.
Taking a deep breath, Delfyne pasted on the smile she had been trained to wear almost before she had learned to walk and talk. She lifted her head, automatically slipping into regal mode.
"You're Owen, aren't you?" she said, moving toward the man and holding out one hand in a gracious, queenly gesture. "How very kind and generous of you to offer me lodging during my time here in your United States."
A hint of an amused look lifted the warrior's lips slightly before his grim expression returned. He raised a brow. "You're Delfyne? I was under the impression that you weren't especially pleased about coming here."
Her exact words had been that she would rather rot in the royal dungeon than spend a summer on a secluded cattle ranch. Even though it had been a childish statement to make and even though there was no royal dungeon and never had been. It was simply an expression she and her siblings had used to protest parental rule. It had seldom worked and obviously hadn't worked this time.
Andreus had sung the praises of Montana's wide-open spaces, blue skies, starry nights and the proud, nurturing nature of the people, especially Owen. Her parents had been completely sold on "the Montana plan."
Delfyne had wanted to protest, but a part of her had also been won over, at least a little. She couldn't help being curious about Montana, too, after she'd heard that parts of this place were still wild and untamed. Like me, she'd thought.
"I hadn't fully researched the situation at that time," she said pleasantly. "I hadn't examined the upside of the location. Now I have."
"Ah. The upside. You'll have to tell me later what you think that is." The warrior gave a terse nod loaded with meaning, if only she knew what that meaning was. He looked down at her hand. "Meanwhile I've never actually touched a princess and I'm a bit rusty on my royal etiquette. Do I shake your hand or kiss it?"
His deep voice rumbled, and something primal and earthy and terribly unnerving simmered through Delfyne. She lowered her hand to her side. "I think we'll settle for hello for now. Touching isn't really necessary." This man, after all, was her jailer, even if he was a reluctant one. She could not and would not allow herself to feel an attraction for him. That would be wrong and foolish in so many ways. He was her brother's friend. He was a commoner, and she was soon to marry a man she barely knew but who would bring great connections to her people. She would, of course, do her duty after she had her taste of life.