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News traveled fast in Elk Creek, Montana.
And the presence of a real, live princess in town? That definitely qualified as news.
Her Highness's name was Arabella. Arabella Bravo-Calabretti. And her mother ruled some tiny, rich country in the Mediterranean Sea. Princess Arabella had taken three side-by-side rooms at the Drop On Inn on Main Street. Word was she had a baby in tow. She'd also brought along a big-eyed middle-aged lady and a bodyguard as well.
In Elk Creek, where things tended to get pretty quiet during the long, snowy winter, visiting royalty was big news indeed.
As a rule, horse rancher Preston McCade would have given no thought and less attention to any princess, in Elk Creek or otherwise. However, Her Highness Arabella had been asking questionsabout him. She'd arrived in town on a Sunday in early December. Preston got a call that very evening informing him that the princess wanted to get in touch with him.
And on Monday morning bright and early, when he stopped in at Colson's Feed and Seed to check on an order, Betsy Colson beamed him the biggest smile he'd seen on her freckled face in all the years he'd known her.
"Pres." Betsy slid out from behind the counter. "You heard there's a princess in town?"
"Good morning to you, too, Betsy."
"I heard it from Dee Everhart who got it straight from RaeNell." RaeNell and Larry Seabuck owned and managed the Drop On Inn. "She's from Montedoro, this princess. You ever heard of Montedoro? It's on the coast of France. They say it's beautiful there. Palm trees. Casinos. Balmy beaches, the sun shining practically year-round."
Pres removed his hat and tapped it against his thigh to knock off the snow. "Speaking of weather, it's supposed to snow on and off all day. Tomorrow, too."
Betsy, who'd been trying to push him around since way back when she was two years ahead of him at Elk Creek Elementary, braced her fists on her narrow hips. "Did you hear what I just told you?"
"I heard yesterday. RaeNell called me out at the ranch to tell me some princess was looking for me."
Betsy widened her eyesand lowered her voice. "Dee said that RaeNell says that the princess wants to speak with you, Pres."
"Well, then I'm sure she'll be calling me. I told RaeNell to give her my number."
Betsy's pale brows drew together over her pointy nose. "What do you think a princess wants with you?"
"Not a clue. Any news on those supplements I ordered?"
"They'll be in by Wednesday, guaranteed."
"All right, then." He turned for the door.
Betsy called after him. "She's staying at the Drop On Inn, you know. You could just stop in there, find out what she's after ."
"See you Wednesday, Betsy." He put his hat back on and pulled open the door. Ducking under the mistletoe tacked to the door frame, he got out of there before Betsy could tell him more things he could be doing.
The snow had let up. And the Drop On Inn was down at the end of Main Street. He went ahead and walked over there before stopping in at Safeway to pick up a few groceries. He was kind of curious. Might as well find out what business this princess thought she had with him.
Larry Seabuck, slim and stooped with thinning gray hair, stood behind the check-in desk when Pres entered the motel's pine-paneled lobby. "Preston, how's the world treating you?"
"Can't complain. I heard you had a visitor who's looking for me."
"The princess." Larry said it reverently and just a tad possessively, too.
"What room is she in?" Pres took off his hat again.
Larry frowned. "RaeNell said she called youand when you said it was all right, she gave Her Highness your phone number."
"Could you buzz the lady's room? Tell her I'm here and willing to talk to her."
"Ahem. Well. She isn't in just now."
Pres rested an elbow on the check-in counter, which had fake Christmas garland tacked in loops all around the rim and a small tree decked with blinking lights down at the far end. "You're looking a little squirrelly, Larry. Why don't you just say what's on your mind?"
Larry's wire-rimmed glasses had slid down his nose. He eased them back up. "Well, a woman of quality. An aristocrat. And she's our guest. We've had two calls from reporters, asking if she's staying here. She's asked us to say she has no comment and doesn't wish to be disturbed. We want to respect her privacy."
Pres, who in recent years hadn't found a whole lot to laugh about in life, suddenly realized he was suppressing a chuckle. "She good lookin', this princess?"
"Uh. Well. Very attractive. Of course. Ahem. Yes."
"Larry, I believe you are smitten. You better watch out. Someone will tell RaeNell."
"Oh, now, Preston. It's nothing like that." Larry blinked several times in succession. "No, not at all."
"Just tell me where I can find her. I promise to be on my best behavior."
Larry pressed his thin lips together. "You don't even know how to talk to a princess."
"Suppose you clue me in, Larry?"
"Ahem. Don't sit in her presence unless she invites you to. Call her 'Your Highness' the first time you address her. After that, call her 'ma'am.'"
"She told you all this?"
Larry sniffed. "Of course not. I looked it up. On Wikipedia."
"Well, all right. So where do I find her?"
Larry gave in at last. "Oh, have it your way. Breakfast. She's at breakfast." He threw out a pale, skinny hand in the general direction of the Sweet Stop Diner across the street.
"Thanks, Larry. You have a fine day."
Belle saw him coming. He was tall and ruggedly handsome. He marched right up to the booth where she sat alone, removed his cowboy hat and addressed her politely. "Your Highness, I'm Preston McCade. I heard you've been looking for me."
Her bodyguard, Marcus, who stood near the diner's front door, watched her for a sign that he should intervene. Belle met Marcus's waiting eyes and gave a quick shake of her head. Then she granted the large rancher a cool, pleasant smile. "Yes, I have been hoping to meet you, Mr. McCade." She indicated the empty seat across from her. "Please, join me."
Everyone in the diner was watching them. Belle could feel their breath-held regard. It was so quiet that a person could have heard a feather whisper its way to the floor as the rancher shrugged out of his sheepskin jacket and hung it up on the hook beside the booth along with his hat. Beneath the jacket, he wore a plain cotton shirt that was the same pale, cool blue as his eyes. His jeans were worn and his rawhide Western boots looked lived-in.
Blue eyes, she thought. A lovely light blue just like Ben's .
"The usual, Pres?" the waitress called out from over behind the long counter.
"Sounds good, Selma." He slid into the booth.
The waitress stuck an order on the metal wheel in the window to the kitchen. Then she picked up a coffeepot and sauntered over to the booth. Preston McCade turned his mug up and she filled it. She topped off Belle's cup, too.
The rancher sipped and set down the mug. By then the waitress had left them. "Planning on being in town long, ma'am?"
"Please." She spoke softly. "Call me Belle. My visit here is openended."
They regarded each other. His gaze was level and steady. He had strong, broad shoulders and a square jaw with a nice, manly cleft in it. She could see how Anne might have found him attractive. Any woman would.
And not only was he attractive, but there was also something steady about him. Something thoughtful and dignified and reserved. Her instinctive response was that he would be someone a person could depend on. She felt that it wouldn't be difficult at all to come to like him, to respect him. She was glad for that. She'd been worried about what she would do if she didn't like him.
She'd been worried about a lot of things. She was still worried, if the truth were known, just tied up in knots over this whole situation.
And her heart ached. For her lost friend. For sweet little Ben.
Oh, dear Lord. How could she do this? How could Anne have asked this of her? She shouldn't have to do this____
"You okay, ma'amI mean, Belle?" McCade spoke low, with what really did sound like honest concern. He was leaning toward her a little.
Suddenly, she couldn't bear to meet his eyes. She looked down at his hands bracketing the heavy coffee mug. They were strong hands, big hands. Capable. Calloused. Hardworking hands.
Was his life difficult? Harsh? How harsh?
So very many things she needed to know. Too many, really. Obligation dragged on her like chains.
She composed her expression and then made herself raise her head again. "Yes, I'm all right. Thank you." She glanced out the window. "It's snowing again."
He nodded. "You'd best not make your visit too openended. Stick around another week or so, you won't be getting out of Montana until the spring thaw."
"I think I shall have to take my chances as far as the weather goes, Mr. McCade."
She felt a smile blooming. Almost. "Preston."
He nodded at her nearly full plate. "Eat. Your food will get cold."
She wasn't hungry. Not anymore. At the sight of him striding so purposefully toward her, her appetite had fled. Still, she picked up her fork again.
Pres sipped his coffee and tried not to stare at the princess across from him.
She was good-looking, all right. With all that shiny brown hair and those fine, almond-shaped whiskey-colored eyes. Her skin had a glow to it. He bet it was soft as velvet to a man's touch. And she was classy, too. Polite. Soft-voiced. No wonder Larry had a crush on her.
His food camea thick steak, four eggs, home fries, toast and a generous slice of hot apple pie on the side. He tucked into the meal, thinking that he liked the direct, no-nonsense way she'd met his gaze. She seemed kind of serious, though. Kind of sad. Like something was weighing on her mind.
Then again, he was pretty damn serious himself as a rule. After all, life was tough. Then you died.
"Have you lived here in Montana all your life, Preston?"
"Except for four years of college in Utah. I live at the family ranch. The McCade Ranch. It's a ways out of town. We breed and train horses. Quarter horses, mostly, for ranch work."
"The quarter horse. That most American of breeds. Great sprinters. So agile. Perfectly suited to work on a ranch."
His opinion of her went up another notch. "You know horses."
"My father was raised on a ranch," she said. "In Texas. Near San Antonio. I have a cousin, Luke, who lives on that ranch now. Luke raises quarter horses, too, as a matter of fact."
"Your father's American, then?"
"He took Montedoran citizenship when he married my mother. But yes, he was born here in America. I've ridden since I was small. We all have, my brothers and sisters and me. My sister Alice is the true horsewoman of the family, though. Do you raise cattle also?"
"We do run cattle, yes. A small herd. But we're mostly a horse operation. I'm in partnership with my dad and the ranch has been in the family for four generations. I'm pretty proud of our breeding program. Our horses are steady-natured, good for ranch work. They also perform well in rodeos across a range of events. We have two fine thoroughbreds standing at stud." Whoa. He'd said a mouthful. As a rule, he wasn't a man to fall all over himself bragging about his operation. He concentrated on his food again.
She asked, "Any brothers or sisters?"
"Just me and the old man."
She leaned in a little. "You smiled. Because of your father?"
He shrugged. "You'd have to meet him. My father considers himself a charmer."
"But he's not?"
"I generally let people make up their own minds about that. But be warned. He'll talk your ear off if you give him half a chance."
"And your mother?"
"She passed on."
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago. I was only a kid."
"That must have been hard. For you. And your father."
"Like I said, a long time ago." He had a few questions of his own. One in particular: What was it she needed to see him about? But she seemed to want to get to know him a little, for some reason. And he realized that was just fine with him. He was curious about her, too. "How about your family?"
She sipped her coffee. "Both of my parents are still living and in good health."
"You said you had sisters and you mentioned brothers, too?"
"I have four sisters and four brothers."
"That's quite a royal family."
"Montedoro is a principality," she explained. "That means we, the ruling family, are not, strictly speaking, considered royal."
"So your father's not a king?"
"Actually, it's my mother who rules Montedoro."
Right. RaeNell had told him that, now that he thought about it. "You said your dad was born an American."
She nodded. "They met in Los Angeles. My father used to be an actor. He did well for himself, even won an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role."
"But he gave all that up when he met your mother?"
"Yes, he did. When my mother took the throne he became His Serene Highness Evan, Prince Consort of Montedoroand no, my mother is not a queen. She's the sovereign princess."
"I see," he said. Though he didn't, not really. He only thought that her world and his were galaxies apart.
Which had him feeling suddenly awkward and foolish. He'd been talking way too much, acting like a rube, a hayseed way too full of himself, all puffed up to be having breakfast with this amber-eyed beauty from a long, long ways out of town.
Come on now. Exactly what business did she have with him? Whatever it was, she sure wasn't in any rush to get down to it. He pushed his plate away, wiped his mouth and set his napkin on the table.
The princess could take a hint. "I wonder if we might speak in private." she cautiously suggested. He couldn't say he blamed her for wanting to take the conversation elsewhere. The low murmur of other voices filled the diner now. But he had no doubt that every ear in the place remained cocked toward their booth.
He thought again about how he had nothing in common with her, how she was out of his league and way out of his reach. How he was only here to find out why she was asking around about him. He reminded himself how he had no interest in women anyway, not since his fiancée dumped him for that jackass Monty Polk over two years ago now.
Plus, RaeNell had mentioned a baby, hadn't she? That the princess had a baby with her. She wore no wedding ring. But why would she bring a baby to Elk Creek unless it belonged to her?
He went ahead and asked her. "Belle, are you married?"
She answered without hesitation. "No, Preston, I'm not."
Then what about the baby?
But he couldn't quite get those words out. He'd been raised to mind his manners around a lady. And he didn't know her well enough to ask her something as personal as that.
Instead, he shocked the hell out of himself by asking, "Would you have dinner with me?"