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Granted, she'd been preoccupied—and tired, actually, of giving yet another version of the same scripted "For the Glory of Queen and Country" speech she'd delivered at heaven only knew how many other ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Still, that didn't excuse what she'd done.
With that painful little detail nagging at her, she listened to the engines of her small private jet change pitch as it touched down. She knew she should have simply bitten her tongue, smiled and offered something Royal Press Office approved. It was just that the frustration she usually buried at having to keep her personal opinions to herself had apparently leaked past her guard when the sole reporter present had asked the same inane questions about how it felt to see yet another garden planted in a traffic circle. It hadn't occurred to her, however, that the honest comment that had slipped out, about failing to see the need to replace perfectly lovely Val-dovian flower bulbs with the less vibrant imported ones, would get her called onto the carpet.
That particular carpet had been the antique Aubusson in the drawing room of her grandmother, the Queen of Valdovia. Her Majesty had promptly informed her that the bulbs had been a gift from Luzandria last year and that Sophie's comment had insulted the Luzandrian ambassador and nearly destroyed what apparently were extremely delicate and lucrative trade negotiations between Valdovia and the other small, European nation.
Sophie hadn't been told beforehand that they were a gift. She hadn't even known the countries were in negotiations. Unlike her mother, the Crown Princess, and her older brother, Prince Nathaniel, whowould someday be Prince Royal, as far down the line of succession as she was with four siblings and their children ahead of her, she wasn't privy to matters of national importance, or their details. Her job was to fill in at events not deemed important enough for those higher up the royal food chain.
Her appearance at those events, however, had been cancelled. Specifically, the opening of an equestrian park, standing in as a royal substitute for one of her sisters at an arts luncheon and her weekly reading at the Royal Library for Children. The Queen had regally accepted Sophie's sincere apology, but she'd also ordered her out of public view. The Royal Press Office had received no fewer than a dozen requests for interviews with her from European media since learning of the ambassador's snit and it was deemed best that she avoid microphones for a while. Especially since the press had dug up a few of her less recent gaffes and were reminding the public all over again of her unfortunate taste in suitors. Her grandmother's advisors had thought it best that Sophie go where she couldn't be trapped by a reporter into compromising herself, or saying something else that might jeopardize the nation's economy. All had agreed that somewhere off the continent would be best—which was why she'd just landed on a dirt runway in what appeared to be the Middle-of-Nowhere, Montana, USA.
Her American uncle's uniformed pilot emerged from the cockpit. The copilot rose to retrieve her luggage. Both men, equally trusted, had apparently been in her uncle's employ for years.
"There's Mr. Mabry's place." The gray-haired pilot nodded at the view visible through the small oval window beside her. "On that rise."
The leaden sky threatened rain. Beneath those heavy clouds, spring-green prairie stretched toward jagged, snowcapped mountains. The sole structure visible, a spectacular glass and log lodge in the distance, belonged to Sophie's Aunt Brianna and Uncle Matthew Mabry. Aunt Bree, her mother's younger sister, had caused a bit of a stir herself when she'd broken her engagement to a duke and married the rich, now-retired American actor-turned-philanthropist. Her aunt had warned her that their summer lodge was quite remote, and that the amenities and staff were not what she was accustomed to at the royal palace in Valdovia.
As hemmed in and controlled as Sophie had felt lately, she had assured her aunt that she didn't mind being banished to Montana's legendary, wide-open spaces. What she hadn't said was how relieved she was to be away from the palace's oppressive formality for a while. There was something almost stifling about having people scramble to do things for her that she could easily do herself.
It occurred to her, vaguely, that she wouldn't mind fleeing her life in general when she noticed a silver-gray, bull-nosed pickup truck bounce along the dirt road toward the private airstrip.
"That," the pilot announced, with a nod for the driver's punctuality, "should be your ride."
Thoughts of escape surfaced once more as she thanked both men for their assistance and insisted politely that she could manage the bags herself. The notion of permanent liberation had been dismissed, however, by the time she descended the short flight of stairs with a suitcase in each hand and her oversized purse slung over her shoulder.
She felt utterly certain that her dissatisfaction existed only because of her mortification over having embarrassed her grandmother, her mother and her country. Her present situation excluded, she didn't doubt that she would live within the same narrow parameters in the future as she had in the past.
Reaching the ground, she popped up the bags' handles and pulled them toward the waiting truck. As she did, a chill breeze whipped the ends of her dark, low ponytail against her cheek. She let the wind push them back, resignation in her every step. When she was summoned, she'd go home, dutifully stick to "correct" responses when in public—and probably in private, just to be safe—and ultimately settle into the dutiful sort of marriage her parents had existed in for forty years. It wasn't that she didn't want to marry. She just wanted a man who loved her, not her title or royal bloodlines. Because of who she was, though, she would never know if it was her or her connections anyone cared about. At least by marrying one of the dukes or princes on the royal short list, both would know the match took advantage of neither party.
She'd just admitted she'd give anything to know just once what it would be like to live like a normal, almost twenty-nine-year-old woman whose blood would matter only if it needed to be typed for transfusion when she lifted her head.
Her steps faltered.
Aunt Bree had told her she would be met by the caretaker of their retreat, an older gentleman of average height and build with gray hair by the name of Dave Bauer. But the six-feet, four inches of muscle and testosterone in denim and a heavy oilskin jacket climbing from the truck couldn't possibly be that man. There was nothing average—or old—about him. Not the width of his shoulders, the rugged features below the curled brim of his cowboy hat or the long-legged stride that carried him to a halt in front of her.
Blocking her view of everything but the heavy fabric covering his impossibly broad chest, he gave a quick tug on his hat's brim.
At the deep, smoky rumble of his voice, her focus jerked up. The shadow of a beard lingered on his recently shaved face. A small scar hooked from the corner of his carved, decidedly sensual mouth.
Unreadable gray eyes shot with shards of silver moved from hers to graze the length of her body. That jarringly thorough appraisal lasted barely long enough for her to draw a breath of the clean, damp air. Yet, he left her feeling as if he'd just dismissed her as being of no particular interest at all as he reached out his big, work-roughened hand.
Years of breeding masked hesitation as she extended her own hand, palm down, prepared to accept his grasp and bow.
"This all you have?" he asked, grabbing the bags she'd released.
He wanted her luggage.
Disconcerted by his lack of response to her automatic, courtly formality, feeling oddly awkward, she curled her fingers into her palm.
"Let's go then."
Uncertainty kept her where she was. The rich and royal— even those of little significance—were raised to be aware of their personal security. When arrangements changed without notice, little red flags went up. "But you're not Mr. Bauer."
"The name's Carter McLeod."
"I was expecting Mr. Bauer."
"I'm aware of that, miss," he told her, sounding as if he wished she'd hurry up. "But Dave couldn't make it. His wife asked me to meet your plane."
Carter glanced toward the small jet on the runway he shared with the Mabrys, nodded to the pilot he'd helped with a fuel-line problem last year. Recognizing him as a friend of his employer, the pilot waved back and pulled up the flight stairs.
Carter's attention swung back to his passenger. He couldn't tell if he'd heard accusation in her voice, or something more like disquiet. He caught an accent, though. Something light on Rs and long on vowels.
In too much of a hurry to wonder about it, he looked from the narrow black slacks and gray tweed jacket covering her slender frame, then motioned to the large, utilitarian vehicle parked beyond the airstrip. "If this is all you've got, go on and get in." He lifted his chin toward the sky. "Those clouds are about ready to open up."
Leaving her to follow, Carter headed across hard-packed earth with his passenger's designer luggage in hand. Personally, he saw no point in advertising other people's brands. To his way of thinking a brand should identify what belonged to a person; cattle, equipment. Relying on someone else's initials to make a statement seemed to impress certain other people, though. He didn't get it, but his ex-wife definitely had.
Scowling at the reminder of his not-so-distant past, he stowed the luggage in the crew-cab. The door closed on the unwelcome thought with the crisp report of a gun shot.
The woman hadn't budged. She stood right where he'd left her, twenty feet away, her hands clasped loosely in front of her. His inclination was to holler at her to hurry up, but it wasn't his habit to be rude. Not deliberately, anyway.
Her long, shiny brown ponytail swayed as she warily checked to make sure the plane hadn't moved.
Jenny Bauer's call to him had been quick and urgent. She hadn't told him who this woman was, other than that she was a guest of the Mabrys. As preoccupied and upset as she'd been, Jenny had been sparing of details on all fronts.
He truly didn't have time for this.
With a mental sigh, he headed across the ground he'd just covered. This particular guest of the Mabrys didn't strike him as being one of the glitterati in Matthew's illustrious inner circle. Not that Carter knew many of those guests. He'd only met a few who'd managed to mistake a cow path for a bridle trail and wound up at the Mother Lode's compound needing directions back. He really only knew Matt. And, then, only as a man he respected for what the retired actor had done to keep development from encroaching on Carter's own 32,000-acre spread. Unlike some of his employees, he had no interest at all in the privileged lives of the rich and famous and paid little attention to the flutter and buzz in town when the Mabrys or their guests were around. All he knew from what he'd overheard was that the majority of women who arrived there tended to be beautiful, sophisticated and stylish—and that they always arrived with staff.
This woman was stylish, he supposed, though sedately so. And she wasn't unattractive—though he thought her more pretty than beautiful, and then in an average, unassuming sort of way. Since she was alone, he figured she must be part of the Mabry's or a guest's staff herself. Maybe some sort of aide who'd arrived early to make sure things were in order. There was a definite air of professionalism about her. Or, maybe it was breeding. Whoever and whatever she was, it was as clear as her reluctance to move that she was not a country girl. A country girl would have the sense to get in the truck before it started to rain and soaked her good jacket.
Or so he was thinking when he stopped in front of her.
"Do you work for the Mabrys?" she asked, her expression cautious.
"I'm a neighbor."
In his hurry to get back to his own emergency, which had struck before he'd responded to the Bauers' crisis, his only interest had been in hustling this woman into the truck so he could get back to his ranch. That was all that interested him now as his glance fell to her full, unadorned mouth.
He felt a quick tightening low in his gut.
Overlooking the unexpected sensation, he took a step toward her. "I own the ranch next to their place."
The best way to get her moving seemed to be to nudge her along himself. "Dave is in the hospital. He had a heart attack last night," he told her, more bluntly than he might have had she allowed him to ease into the news. Taking her by the elbow, he steered her toward the passenger door. "Jenny called me when she remembered she had a guest coming and asked me to meet your plane.
"Now, if you don't mind," he continued, doing his best to ignore the feel of her slender arm beneath soft wool, "we really do need to get going here."
With her now hurrying beside him, she darted a glance toward his chin. "Will he be all right?"
He had the truck's passenger door open when he finally looked at her. Even in boots with three-inch heels, the top of her head barely reached his shoulders. There were also little flecks of gold in her eyes. He noticed them as the concern in those pretty brown depths knitted the wood-brown wings of her eyebrows.
"It's too soon to tell."
"When will you know?"
Soft. Her unadorned mouth looked impossibly soft, he thought—and promptly jerked his glance from the appealing fullness of her lower lip.
His voice bore a faint edge. "Jenny said she'd call me later."
"Is the hospital nearby?"
"Can we have this conversation inside the truck?"
As frustrated as he already felt, the last thing he needed were reminders of how long it had been since he'd felt a woman's mouth—much less her body—moving beneath his own. He was a normal, red-blooded male, with a normal, red-blooded male's needs. The fact that those needs had been sorely neglected in the past couple of years wasn't anything he cared to consider. Especially because he had no intention of doing anything about them. Most especially because he wouldn't be doing anything about them with a city-type woman who wasn't the sort to attract him even if he had been looking for one.
Not sure why he was wasting time on such thoughts, frustrated with that, too, he started to help her inside.
Before he could, she'd murmured, "Of course," as if she couldn't imagine why he'd think otherwise—and climbed into the cab with far more grace than most women could have managed, considering the height of the running board and her heels.
He only had to deliver her to her destination. Reminding himself of that, he took off his well-worn Stetson so it wouldn't bump on the interior roof and climbed in on the other side. With his hat covering the small box on the seat between them, he started the engine.
"They air-evaced him to Missoula," he continued, picking up where he'd left off. "That's where Jenny called from."
She seemed fascinated by his hat. "Is that far?" she asked, looking up at the hat-dent in his dark hair.
"About two hundred and fifty miles."
He didn't mention how concerned he was about the older guy, or how he now needed to figure out what to do with his daughter. Jenny had watched his shy little Hanna for him since his housekeeper had quit a couple weeks ago. Right now, Hanna was with Kate Swenson, his ranch foreman's wife and part-time-cook-and-den-mother to the dozen hands it took to keep up his spread this time of year. Today, though, he needed Kate to run lunch out to his men before she left for her part-time job at the feed store that afternoon. It was spring roundup for branding and every hand was out bringing the calves and their mamas closer in. May weather was always a crapshoot and he had heifers with late dropping calves out there. The rain that had let up that morning could return as sleet by afternoon.
The woman beside him shifted in her seat and politely folded her hands in her lap. Her scent drifted toward him, something fresh, light, and like the woman herself, unexpectedly arousing.
Posted September 15, 2011
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