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"In two hundred meters, turn left."
Lucy grinned lopsidedly in the direction of her GPS sitting on the dash. "Thank you, Bob," she replied with mock seriousness, looking up the long stretch of road for the intersection her "companion" kept insisting was approaching. The freedomthis wide-open spacewas a revelation compared to how claustrophobic she'd felt lately.
"In one hundred meters, turn left."
She obeyed the monotone instruction and put on her turn signal. A small sign announced a numbered road. Thank goodness she'd been able to program in a waypoint for the Prairie Rose Ranch. Otherwise she would have kept driving the rented SUV through this fairly empty landscape for God knew how long. Not that she'd have minded; there was something comforting in the rolling green hills, their undulating curves broken only by random fences and trees.
She turned onto the road, only to discover after the first few seconds it had gravel instead of pavement. She rolled up the window against the dust curling up from her tires.
Prairie Rose Ranch was out in the middle of nowhere, just as Mr. Hamilton had said in his e-mail. All that isolation and space had sounded wonderful to her ears after the scrutiny she'd experienced the past few months. She couldn't wait to get there, away from all the prying eyes and whispers from behind hands. In Canada there would be no expectations, even for a short time. At Prairie Rose she would just be Lucy Farnsworth.
Whoever that was.
She frowned as Bob announced he'd lost the satellite signal, grateful he'd got her this far. She was here to buy horses, to look into Hamilton's breeding program and negotiate stud fees. It was her first real responsibility and one she was more than equipped for. Granted, she couldn't shake the feeling that King Alexander was placating her, but it didn't matter. For the first time in a long time she felt in control of something. No one to tell her who she was or how to act.
And no one at the ranch need know who she really was. The last thing she neededor wanted for that matterwas for everyone to look at her as if she had some invisible tiara perched on her head.
No, this was her chance to get away from all of the curiosity and assessments and do what she knew how to do. Nothing made sense to her anymore, but at least this trip, short as it was, might offer her a bit of a reprieve. Might offer her a chance to shake off the pervading sadness. She'd been thrown from one unimaginable situation into another without time to catch her breath. When Alexander had suggested this trip, she'd left a vapor trail that rivaled the one from the 777 she'd flown in.
On the left up ahead she caught sight of a group of buildings big buildings. With a rumble of tires, the SUV ran over a Texas gate, leading her up to a graveled drive. A wood and iron arch embraced the entrance, and she knew she was in the right place when she looked up and saw a uniquely shaped iron rose in the centre. Bob came back to life and announced she was arriving at her destination, but she reached over blindly and shut the unit off.
Her eyes assessed the ranch as she drove slowly up the long, straight lane. It was neat, well kept, with a rambling two-story farmhouse hidden behind a long barn and corral. The immediate fences were in good repair and freshly painted; nothing seemed out of place. So far so good.
The land here was different from where she'd grown up, yet somewhat the same, and very different from the sun-baked countryside in Marazur. The sky here was broad and robin's-egg blue, in contrast to the piercing blue of the Mediterranean sky. Horses dotted the landscape, up a hill and beyond, grazing on rich grass, reminding her of her childhood home in Virginia. It was comforting and unsettling at the same time. It was what she knew. Yet everything she thought she knew about herself had been a lie, and she wanted to run away even as the ranch beckoned to her. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
Nothing made sense, and that was the only consistent thing these days.
She pulled in next to a white truck with the same Prairie Rose brand painted on the side, got out and shut the door. The polite thing to do would be to introduce herself at the house, she supposed. But then what? The west wind buffeted her curls about her face and she pushed them aside. The wind carried with it the sound of voices, coming from the open sliding door of the barn. Thankful she'd changed clothing before the drive, she straightened her T-shirt. At least someone in the barn could point her in the right direction.
Lucy heard the man before she saw him, his voice a low, warm rumble as he spoke. Her sneakers made soft padding noises on the concrete floor; for a moment she stopped and closed her eyes, drinking in the mellow smell of hay and straw and the warm pungency of horse, the one true thing that she associated with home. Perhaps that was what kept her going during all the dark days and uncertainty. The one constant she'd always had. The one place where she'd always belonged, no matter where she was. In a barn with the horses.
She knew it, and resented it. Resented that it was the only thing she seemed to have left. The male voice said something else, punctuated like a question. He was answered by a distinctly female voice, who laughed a little, though Lucy couldn't make out what they were saying. She paused, wondering again if she should have made herself known at the house first. She didn't want to intrude. But she turned a corner and suddenly two pairs of legs were before her and she couldn't pretend now that she hadn't come in.
He the owner of the voice stood upright, his weight planted squarely over his booted feet. One hand was resting on the withers of a splendid-looking chestnut mare. Lucy was first aware of his considerable height. Which made her realize how long his legs were in his faded jeans. Which led to his T-shirt. And how the worn cotton emphasized an impressively broad chest.
Color flooded her cheeks. Her assessment had taken all of two seconds, but it was complete, right down to the hot rush of appreciation.
"Can I help you?"
Lucy swallowed against the spit pooling in her mouth. She shot out her hand. "Lucy Farnsworth." Please, please let him not be Brody Hamilton, she prayed silently, with her hand suspended in midair. It wasn't possible that the man she'd just been caught blatantly staring at was the man she'd been sent here to broker deals with.
At her revelation he removed his hat, revealing a dark head and even darker eyes that crinkled at the corners with good humor. Her heart thumped at the courtesy it was natural, not a put-on gesture, she was sure. He smiled as he stepped forward and took her small hand in his large one. "I beg your pardon, Miss Farnsworth. I'm Brody Hamilton. You made good time."
So this was Hamilton. So much for answered prayer. His fingers wrapped around hers and her tummy turned over.
Prairie Rose was a reputable operation. She'd expected the owner to be older. Certainly more plain looking, like most of the ranchers she'd grown up knowing. She hadn't expected him to be tall and sexy and all of what, thirty? Thirty-five? She kept the polite smile glued to her face, but inside she was growling to herself. Acting like a blushing schoolgirl. She was beyond that, wasn't she? And she was here to do a job, for Pete's sake!
"My flight was a little early."
She withdrew her hand, giving it a small tug. His fingers were warm and callused and had covered hers completely. She'd enjoyed the sensation, too much. Knowing it made her uncomfortable. There was no reason on earth why a single handshake should cause all this commotion within her.
It's just a physical reaction, she told herself. He was a fine-looking man, there was no sense denying it. She'd always admired that rugged, large, capable type, and he certainly fit that category. Any woman would have reacted the same way.
"This is my farrier, Martha," he introduced the woman holding the halter of the mare. Martha was taller than Lucy, sturdy, with slightly graying hair and was at least forty-five.
"You're from Marazur," Martha announced, releasing the halter and shaking Lucy's hand. "The Navarro family is renowned for their royal stables. It's a pleasure."
Why Lucy felt a tiny shaft of pride at that statement she had no idea. She'd been in Marazur all of two months and certainly couldn't take any credit for the stock owned by His Highness. It wasn't as if she belonged there or anything. Alexander had merely indulged her by letting her potter around; she'd heard him telling his eldest son that very thing. He'd let her come on this trip just for appearances. He hadn't known what to do with her and this was easy. But that didn't matter. She was here now, and she would surprise them all by making the visit a success. Hamilton didn't know who she was. He wouldn't suspect her credibility, and she'd make sure it stayed that way.
"Brody's been telling me about you coming," Martha continued.
"It's not every day we get to do business with a royal family," Brody admitted, smiling down at her. It was slightly crooked, and her heart gave another traitorous thump.
Brody Hamilton was a charmer. With the realization of it, Lucy immediately felt better. Charm she could deal with. Charm only went so far, like good looks. It was blood that would tell. And unlike her mother, she wasn't going to fall for a wink and a smile. His would be wiped off his face soon enough, when he realized she actually knew what she was doing.
"Yes, well, I'm far more interested in the stock." She moved ahead and rubbed her hand on the hide just above the mare's nose. She closed her eyes briefly, smiling at the way the mare rubbed into her hand, enjoying the attention. "What's up with you, lovely? Hmm?"
"A bruise, nothing more. She stumbled during a trail ride yesterday."
"We do give them now and then, a couple of hours and most people have had their fill of horseback. It keeps some of the older stock exercised. Besides it's fun. Martha assures me a day or so in her box and this girl'll be right as rain." He rubbed the mare's neck as he said it.
There was that crooked grin again, accompanied by the crinkled corners of his eyes that seemed to be teasing. She turned away from him.
"And this beautiful girl is what" she made a cursory examination "sixteen? Seventeen?"
"Sixteen." Brody's smile had faded slightly.
Lucy ran her hand down the gleaming neck, her gaze taking in the shape of the ears, the forehead, the wide-set eyes. There was no doubt about it. She'd know that head anywhere. A smile flirted with her lips. What a pleasant surprise.
"Which would make her one of Pretty Colleen's," she announced triumphantly. His flirtatious grin wouldn't get far with her, and she would make sure he knew it. She knew her business, and he needed to know that. She wasn't just an emissary sent to broker a deal.
Brody's smile disappeared completely. He stared at Miss Farnsworth, trying to puzzle her out. How on earth could she tell that? He'd bought Pretty Piece from a farm in Tennessee when she was eight one of his first purchases on his own. This little moppet with the red curls, Lucy, she would have been a child when Pretty foaled. And she was from Marazur. The Mediterranean was a long way from backroads Alberta. Yet her accent didn't bear it out. She wasn't native to Marazur. He was as certain of that as he was that Pretty Piece was indeed of Pretty Colleen. A fact she couldn't have known before today, not unless she'd had a look at his records.
Who was Lucy Farnsworth? His brows snapped together. There was more to her than first appeared. He wondered how much more.
"How did you know?"
"It's her head. Looks just like her mum."
Brody shook his head while Martha laughed. "Congratulations, Miss Farnsworth. I think you've rendered him speechless. Quite a feat, because most of the time he has something to say."
"Martha!" Brody frowned. Never mind that at one point, Martha had been his babysitter and had changed his diapers.
Martha reached down for her bag. "Oh, pipe down, Junior. The girl knows her stuff, that's all. I'll be back in a few days to check on the mare."
She blustered out leaving Brody and Lucy in the gap, each with a hand on Pretty.
Somewhere outside a soft whicker echoed.
"I'll admit, Miss Farnsworth, you surprised me just now." He put his hat back on his head.
"I have that effect on people."
"Maybe sometime you'd care to explain that." He let a little humor sneak into his voice; she piqued his curiosity plain and simple. She'd clearly been around the industry a long time.
Despite her youth, she seemed knowledgeable. And her accent was State-side. Southeast somewhere, he gathered. "Where are you from, anyway?"
For a moment their eyes clashed and he sensed she was deciding how to answer what should have been a simple question. He tried a smile, inviting her to speak. To his surprise her eyes immediately cooled and her lips thinned.
"You must have work to do," she offered stiffly.
"There's always work, but I expect you know that." She didn't want to answer. He wondered why, but there'd be time to get that information. She was supposed to stay several days.
"I'll just" She swallowed, let the sentence hang.
"You've had a long flight and drive. You probably want to rest. I'll take you up to the house."
"You said you had work."
He angled his head slightly. He couldn't quite figure out Lucy Farnsworth. She was younger than he'd expected, especially to be so involved with such a renowned stable. It was clear she'd been sent because she could do the job. He wasn't sure why, but he'd expected someone taller, with dark hair and a remote manner.
The only thing that bore out his expectations was the manner. There could be no mistaking the coolness, the only warmth she'd shown was in the caresses she'd spared Pretty. But tall and elegant she was not. She was barely up to his shoulder, and her hair was a tangle of gingery ringlets that flirted with her cheekbones until she tucked them behind her ears.
"I do, but that doesn't mean I can't get you settled in the house first."