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"Mama, is he a real prince? Like in my stories, like the one who kissed Sleeping Beauty?"
Jessica glanced up from the sink of dishes to focus on the television on the counter nearest the farmhouse table. She had turned the channel to cartoons for Samantha to watch while the four-year-old ate her breakfast, but the screen displayed no animated figures. Just a tall man in a dark, tailored suit.
As a reporter announced that Prince Sebastian Ca-vanaugh had called this press conference at the sheriff's office, a camera zoomed in on the royal's face. It was all chiseled featuresrigid jaw, aristocratic cheekbones beneath intense, dark blue eyes and his nose was just slightly bent in an arrogant tilt. She doubted it could have once been broken. After all, he was a prince privileged and protected.
He was one of the five rulers of island nations in the Mediterranean, who had, along with their entourages, converged on Dumont, Wyoming, for a summit meeting two weeks ago. That meeting had yet to occur.
Jessica didn't need to listen to the press conference to learn why; she already knew. Too well. Every time she closed her eyes she saw why: the flames illuminating the night sky, rising up from the charred metal of the limousine she'd been following from the Wind River Ranch and Resort. If only the fire was all she'd seen
Her breath hitching, she blinked open her eyes and focused on the television again. And on the prince. She lost herself in the depths of those dark blue eyes as he stepped up to the mic at the podium set up in the sheriff's office, which was located in the Wind River County Courthouse.
"Mama?" Samantha asked, her voice soft with confusion.
Jessica never ignored her daughter, but she still couldn't tear her gaze from the screen.
"I am Prince Sebastian Cavanaugh, coruler with my brother, Antoine, of the island nation of Barajas."
The little girl's breath shuddered out with a gasp of awe. "He is a real prince."
"Yes," Jessica murmuredfinallyin acknowledgment.
"Barajas," Cavanaugh continued, "is part of COIN, the Coalition of Island Nations consisting of Kyros, Nadar and Jamala, that came to your countryand your particular countyfor a special summit to discuss trade agreements that would benefit the United States as well as COIN."
Cameras flashed in his face as reporters interrupted with questions. A burly man, perhaps one of the royal's security detail, stepped closer to the prince and leaned toward the microphone as if to warn the media to back off. But Prince Sebastian turned to him, an intense look in his eyes, and the man shrank back. Then the prince turned that stare on the reporters and the questions stopped, an eerie silence descending on the crowded outer office.
"Since our arrival, we have been under attack." A muscle twitched in his lean cheek just above the tightly clenched jaw. "There have been vocal protests of our visit to your country. And there have been physical protests. On our first night here, an explosion occurred which killed a man."
Jessica flinched but kept her eyes open so that she wouldn't see again that horror. But it didn't matter. The image was forever burned in her mind, like the body had burned.
"We have recently been made aware that there was a witness to that explosion," Prince Cavanaugh continued. "We need this witness to come forward as we believe he or she has vital information."
Jessica gasped. How had they found out? Who else might know that she'd been traveling that same road and had come upon the scene? She shivered.
The camera zoomed in on the prince. While an aura of arrogance and authority clung to the man's broad shoulders and rigidly clenched jaw, he buried that pride as his gaze implored the witness to share what she knew. "This is a matter of life and death. A friend of mine" his voice was gruff with emotion "has been missing since the explosion. I am offering a substantial reward for information that will lead to his return."
After another beat of silence from the reporters, the room erupted with questions. They shouted over each other, so their voices were unintelligible.
Prince Sebastian fixed that stare on the crowd again until they subsided to just excited murmurs. "One question at a time," he directed them.
"How much is the reward?" Danny Harold asked. The reporter from the local television station had pushed closest to the podium.
The prince's reply had the crowd gasping with surprise and awe.
"So it's Sheik Amir Khalid who is missing?" Danny tossed out another question. "Do you believe he's still alive or do you suspect he's dead?"
The intensity of Prince Cavanaugh's gaze changed from intimidation and arrogance to anguish and frustration. "We do not have enough information to determine the sheik's whereabouts or his physical condition."
"And you believe this witness might know where he or his body is?" Although many other reporters crowded the room, it was Danny who asked this question, too. Maybe it was because he was a local that his interest in the story seemed so personal.
The muscle twitched again in the prince's lean cheek.
"That is what we believe and why we are offering such a substantial reward."
Danny snorted. "That substantial reward is going to have every kook coming out of the woodwork with a cockamamie story so they can claim the money."
"Kooks?" the prince repeated, arching a golden brown brow.
"Crazies, crackpots," Danny translated.
Prince Sebastian's lipsthe bottom one full and sensualcurved into a slight grin. "My brother, Prince Antoine, has a way of determining when a person is telling the truth or a lie."
Danny nodded in agreement. "He was an interrogator with military special forces."
The prince neither confirmed nor denied the reporter's statement. He just stared again, his blue eyes unblinking.
"And you were a sniper."
"Any more questions?" Prince Cavanaugh asked.
Jessica had many. So did her daughter.
"What's a matter, Mama?" The little girl slid out of her chair to join Jessica at the sink. She tugged on her soapy hand to gain her mother's attention.
"Nothing," Jessica replied as she turned toward her daughter. The sun streaming through the windows glinted off the little girl's honey brown hair and sparkled in her gray eyes, highlighting the child's concern. Jessica forced a reassuring smile. "I just got caught up in the news, like you sometimes do your cartoons."
"Didn't you ever seen a prince before?"
Jessica wasn't exactly certain what she'd seen that night except that it was probably enough to put her daughter and her in danger. Well, more danger than they were already in.
"There're no such things as princes," a husky but feminine voice murmured as Helen Jeffries joined them in the kitchen. The tall woman stomped her boots on the woven rug at the back door, knocking off mud and straw.
"Is, too," Samantha said, pointing at the television screen. "He's a real prince."
Helen snorted. "He might legally be a prince, but I've yet to meet a man who's a real prince."
The little girl's forehead scrunched up with confusion. "The ones in my books and movies aren't real?"
"Fairy tales," Helen replied cynically. "Not real."
"What about Clay McGuire?" Jessica asked about the rancher Helen dated.
The older woman snorted again. "He's a cowboy."
"Can't princes be cowboys?" Samantha asked.
Jessica chucked her daughter's slightly pointed chin. "You got that backward, honey."
The little girl's forehead wrinkled with confusion.
"Cowboys can't be princes," Helen explained with a grin. She stepped closer to the sink and dipped her hands into the sudsy water.
"You should have let me feed the animals," Jessica said. Then she would have missed that special report.
Helen shook her head. She'd owned and managed the Double J alone for years. The older woman was so fiercely independent and proud that she insisted on doing more of the chores herself. Jessica was proud, too, though and had convinced Helen to accept her help in lieu of the room and board she refused to let Jessica pay her. "I'd rather work in the barn than the kitchen," Helen said as she brushed a fingertip across Samantha's button nose, leaving a dab of foam on the upturned tip of it.
Jessica lifted up her daughter and hugged her sweet-smelling body close. "Sweetheart, why don't you run up to your room and change out of your pajamas and into your clothes?"
"Do I have school today?" Samantha asked, her gray eyes bright with hope.
Preschool was in session today, but Jessica didn't dare bring Samantha into town when it was overrun with media. "No school. You have work to do here instead, young lady. You have to pick up all the toys in your room."
"There're not that many, Mama," Samantha said, wriggling down from her arms.
Jessica's heart clutched with sadness that it was true. She wasn't able to afford everything her little girl deserved. "You still have to pick them up."
Samantha, feet dragging, headed up the back stairwell in the kitchen. The house was a foursquare, two-story farmhouse. It had a large foyer with a grand staircase as well as the back stairwell. It also had more bedrooms than they needed. Now. But the ranch owner had plans to someday turn her home into a women's shelter. She'd put her plan in motion when she'd offered Jessica shelter more than four years ago.
Helen narrowed her eyes and focused on Jessica. "What's going on? You never lie to her."
"I have," Jessica regretfully admitted. Every time the little girl asked about her father.
With understanding Helen nodded. "Why won't you bring her to school?"
"It's too dangerous."
"School is too dangerous?"
"It's too dangerous for us to go to town right now." The prince's press conference had whipped the media into a frenzy, and they'd already been doing too much filming around Wind River County and the town of Dumont.
If she'd been caught on camera.
Helen sighed. "Crazy stuff going on since those damn royals came to Dumont. That explosion. Gunfire. And poor Clay " His family had been among the most vocal protestors of the COIN summit. Now his youngest boy sat in jail.
"Mr. McGuire will be okay," Jessica assured her friend. "He has you."
Helen shrugged as if she wasn't so worried that Jessica usually found her staring at the TV into the early hours of the morning instead of sleeping. "He's busy. I'm busy. We just see each other occasionally, you know. Nothing serious."
Was that really because they were too busy or because they both had their reasons for avoiding involvement? Jessica understood their reasons; she had her own. But then the prince's face filled the television screen again as the station replayed the earlier live broadcast. His deep blue gaze implored the witness to come forward, to ease some of his anxiety over his missing friend.
"Can you watch Samantha for me for a little while?" she asked the older woman.
Helen nodded. "Of course I can. And I don't blame you. That's a lot of money."
"I'm not claiming the reward."
"I need to pick up my last check from the Wind River Ranch and Resort." She'd worked part-time as a dishwasher there because she had thought she would be safe hiding away in the hotel kitchen. She'd been wrong. About everything. "Then I'm packing up Samantha's and my things and leaving the Double J."
Helen gasped in surprise.
"You probably thought that you'd never get rid of us"
"Never wanted to, honey, you know that," her friend assured her. "I don't want you to go now."
"I have to," Jessica insisted. "It's getting too dangerous
here. I should have left earlierright after it happened. Hell, I should have left before the royals even arrived. I knew their meeting would bring the media down on Dumont."
But she hadn't expected the rest of it: the explosion, the murder.
"Prince Sebastian, I wish you wouldn't have done that," Sheriff Jake Wolf said with a long-suffering sigh.
The younger man had had his hands full since they'd come to his county for their summit meeting. According to what the royals had learned, Wolf had already had enough to deal with since getting elected the year before, like corruption within his department and perhaps within the police department of Dumont. That was why Sebastian had chosen the sheriff's office in which to announce the reward for information.
"You agreed to the press conference," he reminded him.
"The amount of the reward you offered is the problem." Wolf groaned. "Danny Harold was right. It'll draw out every kook. Hell, it already is drawing 'em out." He gestured toward his deputies and office staff, all of whom were on a phone.
"It's been a couple of weeks since the explosion, but this witness has yet to come forward," Sebastian pointed out, frustration gnawing at his tense stomach.