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Strings had been pulled.
Aurora Bravo-Calabretti, Princess of Montedoro, knew this because Walker McKellan was waiting for her right there on the tarmac when the private jet her mother had insisted Rory use taxied in for a landing at the Denver airport.
Irritation at the sight of himand at her mother, toohad her chewing her lower lip. God forbid she should be allowed to get off a plane and walk all the way to customs without some big, strong man watching over her, making sure she got there safely.
Tall and lean, wearing old jeans, battered boots and a heavy shearling coat, Walker had his arms folded across his broad chest, and he was leaning against his camo-green SUV. In the thin winter sunlight, he looked so Americana rancher fresh off the range, or maybe a mountain man taking a short break from wrestling grizzlies and taming bobcats. As frustrated as she was with the situation, Rory couldn't resist whipping out her trusty Nikon D700 and snapping several shots of him through a passenger window.
Walker was a great guy. Rory adored him. He'd been a very good friend to her over the seven-plus years she'd been visiting Colorado on a regular basis. People should not take advantage of their very good friends. Rory would never have done such a thing by choice.
But her mother, who usually had the sense to mind her own business, had gone over to the dark side for no comprehensible reason and taken advantage of Walker for her. And Walker had let Rory's mother do it.
The more Rory thought about that, the angrier she became with both of themwith her mother, for roping Walker into being responsible for her. And with Walker, too, for not allowing Rory to back out of the unfair arrangement gracefully.
She pulled on her coat, stuck her camera in her tote and headed for the exit, pausing to thank the flight steward and the pilots as she left.
When she started down the airstairs, Walker straightened from the SUV and strode toward her. "My favorite princess. Lookin' good." Those blue eyes with the manly crinkles at the corners swept over her red pea-coat, long sweater and thick winter leggings tucked into a nice, warm pair of Sorel boots. He reached for a hug.
"Hey." She went into his arms for maybe half a second before ducking free.
His eyes narrowed briefly at her sullen greeting, but then he only asked, "Good trip?"
"It was fine," she said without even trying to sound as though she meant it. He gave her another swift, questioning glance. She ignored it. "There will be customs," she said. "But it should be quick."
A half an hour later, her luggage had been checked and loaded into the back of the SUV. They set out for the small town of Justice Creek, where her Bravo cousins lived.
As they sped down the interstate, he tried to get her talking. He teased her about the number of suitcases she'd brought and then about how he planned to put her to work cooking and cleaning out at his ranch, the Bar-N. She returned brief responses and stared out her side window at the high, flat land rolling off toward the distant gray humps of the mountains.
Eventually he gave up, turned on the radio and hummed along in his slightly off-key baritone to country-western Christmas music.
Her sulky act wouldn't last. Rory came at life full out, and nothing got her down for long.
He let her sit there and stew until they turned off the main highway onto the state road, heading northwest. When she still refused to snap out of it, he switched off the radio. "Come on. It's not all that bad."
She made a low, unhappy sound and slid him a grumpy glance. "Did you at least take the money she offered you?"
"I turned the money down."
A gasp of outrage. "Now, that's just wrong."
"She sent a big check anyway."
"Don't you dare send it back." Rory leveled a stern glance on him. "It's bad enough that you have to babysit me. No way are you doing it for free."
"I like babysitting you."
A scoffing noise escaped her. "The way you say that? Doesn't lift my spirits in the least. You know I hate it when you treat me like a baby."
"Whoa. Was I the one who called it babysitting?"
She let out a grouchy little grunting sound and stared straight ahead.
He kept after her. "What I mean is I like hanging with you." When she only gave him more of the silent treatment, he added, "And it doesn't seem right to take money just for keeping an eye on you."
"But I don't need anyone keeping an eye on me. And what if some camper gets lost in the mountains?" He headed up the Justice Creek search-and-rescue team. "Or if there's a forest fire?" He also volunteered with the fire department during emergencies. "What are you going to do then?"
He shrugged. "Camping's more of a summer activity. And forest fires are down in the winter, too. But if something happens, we'll work it out."
Next, she tried threats. "I mean it, Walker. You put that check she sent you in the bank or I may never speak to you again."
Two could play that game. "Keep acting like this and I won't care if you never speak to me againand I have to ask. Is it my fault your mother insists that you have security?"
"No, and I didn't say it was."
"So why are you blaming me?"
"Walker, I'm not blaming you."
"Then cut this crap the hell out."
"Great." She threw up both hands. "Now you're acting like you think you're my big brother. The last thing I need is one of those. I already have four, thank you very much."
Enough. "Okay, Rory. I've about had it. Knock it off."
She pinched up her full mouth. "See? What did I tell you? 'Knock it off.'" She faked a deep voice. "Just like a know-itall, fatheaded, domineering big brother."
By then, she was really starting to get on his nerves.
"Fine. I give up. Sulk all the way to the Bar-N if that's your pleasure."
They subsided into mutually pissed-off silence. He didn't even bother to turn on the radio and pretend that her bad attitude didn't bug the hell out of him.
It took ten minutes of both of them staring out the windshield, acting as if the other wasn't there, before she couldn't take it anymore. She swiped off her red wool beanie and scraped her fingers back through her long brown hair. "I mean, the whole point of my coming alone was that I get to look out for myself. I'm an adult, but my mother won't stop thinking of me as the baby of the family. It's not right." She had the beanie in her lap and she was alternately twisting and smoothing it. "I really thought I was getting through to her, you know? She finally admitted that maybe, just possibly, my having a bodyguard everywhere I go outside Montedoro was overkill. Think about it. How many of us need that kind of security? It has to stop somewhere. I have eight siblings ahead of me in line for the throne, not to mention all my nieces and nephews, who are also ahead of me. I want to go where I need to go for my work." Rory was a talented photographer. "A normal lifeit's all I'm asking for. I just don't need all that protecting. Not only is it unnecessary and a waste of money, it seriously cramps my style."
He suggested, "Look at it this way. It's a step. You are here without a bodyguard."
More scoffing sounds. "Because you 're my bodyguard."
"We'll be spending a lot of time together, anyway. Isn't that what the best man and the maid of honor usually do?"
She blew out a hard breath and slumped her shoulders. "You're not going to cheer me up, Walker. Stop trying."
"Have it your way."
She said nothing. For about five minutes.
Then she shook her head. "I don't know
So far, she'd jumped his ass every time he tried to cheer her up, so he considered not trying again. But then, why prolong a stupid fight any longer than necessary? "Okay. I'll bite. You don't know what?"
"About Ryan and Clara getting married. I can't believe it's actually happeningand out of the blue this way. It's weird, seriously weird." His younger brother and her favorite Bravo cousin had surprised everyone just two weeks before with the news that they would tie the knot on the Saturday before Christmas. "I keep wondering what's really going on with them, you know?"
So, then. It looked as if she'd finished with the sulking. About time. He hid his grin of satisfaction. And then he thought about Clara and Ryan and he was frowning, too. "Yeah. Rye's been pretty cagey about the whole thing." Walker's brother had been claiming he was in love with Clara since high school. And Rye had proposed more than once in the past nine or ten years. Clara kept turning him down, saying how she loved him and always would, but not in that way.
"What changed all of a sudden?" Rory asked, her mind evidently moving on the same track as his. "And do you really think Ryan's ready to settle down?" Rye always claimed he loved Clara, but he hadn't exactly waited around, pining for a chance with her. He liked women and they liked him. The girlfriends never lasted longa month, maybe two, and Ryan's latest ladylove would move on. A few more weeks would go by and he would turn up with someone new on his arm.
Walker said, "I don't know what changed. And I'm with you. I hope he's ready."
not like Clara to suddenly decide Ryan's the guy for her after all these years of saying he's not. On the phone, she told me she was wrong before, that she really loves him and she knows they'll be happy together."
"She told me the same thing. She said she finally got smart and decided to marry her best friend."
Rory scrunched up her nose. "Well, I can see that. I guess
" And then she shook her head again. "No. I don't get it. If I can find the right moment, I'm going to try to talk to her some more, try to find out if she's sure about this."
"Better talk fast. It's two weeks until the wedding."
She dropped her head back and stared at the head-liner. "Ugh. You're right. I don't want to make that kind of trouble. Ryan's always wanted to marry her, so no big surprise there. And Clara's no flake. She's strong and steady. If she's doing this, it must be what she wants."
They were climbing up into the mountains, the highway twisting through rocky moraine, pine-covered slopes rising to either side. Here and there, wide patches of snow from last week's storm caught the sunlight and sparkled like sequins on a pretty girl's white party dress.
"You want to stop at Clara's?" he asked as they began to descend into the Justice Creek Valley.
"It's after four." The sun had already slipped behind the mountains. "It'll be dark soon. Let's just go on to the ranch. I'll see her in the morning."
Rory admired the view as they approached the Bar-N. Nestled in its own beautiful, rolling valley with mountains all around, the Bar-N had been a working cattle ranch for five generations. The N stood for Noonan, which was Walker's mother's maiden name. The place had come down to Walker and Ryan from their mother, Darla, and their uncle, John Noonan. Four years ago, Ryan had sold his interest to Walker and moved into town.
Walker still kept a few horses, but the cattle were long gone. Nowadays, the Bar-N was a guest ranch. The homestead, in the center of the pretty little valley, contained a circle of well-maintained structures. Over the past couple of decades, Walker and his uncle before him had built five cozy cabins. There were also four full-size houses. The houses, constructed over the generations, had once served as homes for various members of the Noonan clan. Walker offered two of the houses, the cabins and the fully outfitted bunkhouse as vacation rentals.
Of weathered wood and natural stone, the main house had a wide front porch. Walker's German shorthaired pointer, Lonesome, and his black cat, Lucky Lady, were waiting for them when they arrived.
Rory laughed just at the sight of them. They were so cute, sitting patiently at the top of the steps, side by side. When Walker got out, the dog came running and the big black cat followed at a more sedate pace. He greeted them both with a gentle word and a quick touch of his hand. Then he started unloading her things.
Rory grabbed her tote and went to help, taking a suitcase in her free hand and following him into the house and up the stairs. He led her to a room in front. She hesitated on the threshold.
He set down the suitcases on the rag rug and turned to her. Rory met his eyesand felt suddenly awkward and completely tongue-tied. Bizarre. She was never tongue-tied.
"There are hangers in the closet and I emptied out the bureau," he said. "I'll just get that last big bag for you." He eased around her and headed back toward the stairs again.
Once he was out of sight, Rory entered the room that would be hers for the next two weeks. It had a big window on the front-facing wall and a smaller one on the side wall. There was a nice, queen-size bed with a patchwork quilt, a heavy bureau of dark wood, a small closet and a bathroom.
The bathroom had two doors.
She opened the outer door and found herself staring across a short section of hallway into another bedroom, a small one with a bow window overlooking the backyard. Not Walker's room, she was reasonably sure.
Curiosity had its hooks in her. She zipped across the hall to have a quick look around that other room.
Definitely not Walker's. Walker liked things simple and sparebut this room was too spare, too tidy. Not a single item on the dresser or the nightstand that could be called personal.
She went back to the bathroom and stood frowning at her reflection in the mirror over the sink. Seven years of knowing Walker and this was the first time she'd been upstairs in his house. She wondered if this might be the only upstairs bath.
Would she and Walker be sharing? That could get awkwardwell, for her, anyway. If Walker saw her naked, he'd probably just pat her on the head and tell her to get dressed before she caught a chill.
The front door opened downstairs. Rory shut the outer door, ducked back into her bedroom and got busy putting her things away.
Walker appeared in the doorway to the hall. "Alva left dinner, so that's handled." The Colgins, Alva and her husband, Bud, helped out around the ranch and lived in the house directly across the front yard from Walker's. He rolled in the last bag. "Where do you want this?"
"Just leave itanywhere's fine." Was she blushing? Her face felt a little too warm. Would he guess that she'd been snooping?
If he guessed, he didn't call her on it. "Hungry?"
"Starved. I'll finish unpacking and be right down."
He left and Rory continued putting stuff in drawersuntil she heard his boots moving across the floor below. Then she shut the door to the hallway and zipped back into the bathroom.
She opened the medicine cabinet and the cabinet under the sink. There were the usual towels and washcloths. Also, bandage strips and a tube of antibacterial ointment, a bottle of aspirin long past its use-by date and a half-empty box of tampons.
Tampons left there by a girlfriend?
Walker with a girlfriend.
He didn't have girlfriends. Or rather, if he did, Rory had never met any of them.
He did have an ex-wife, Denise. Denise LeClair was tall, blonde and smoking hotand long gone from Justice Creek.