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On the first Wednesday in September, temptation came looking for Alice Bravo-Calabretti.
And she'd been doing so well, too. For more than two weeks, she'd kept her promise to herself. She'd maintained a low profile and carried herself with dignity. She'd accepted no dares and avoided situations where she might be tempted to go too far.
It hadn't been all that difficult. She'd spent her days with her beloved horses and her nights at home. Temptation, it seemed, presented no problem when she made sure there was none.
And then came that fateful Wednesday.
It happened in the stables well before dawn. Alice was tacking up one of the mares, Yasmine, for an early-morning ride. She'd just placed the saddle well forward on the mare's sleek back when she heard a rustling sound in the deserted stable behind her.
Yasmine twitched her tail and whickered softly, her distinctive iridescent coat shimmering even in the dim light provided by the single caged bulb suspended over the stall. A glance into the shadows and Alice registered the source of the unexpected noise.
Over near the arched door that led into the courtyard, a stable hand was pushing a broom. He was no one she recognized, which she found somewhat odd. The palace stables were a second home to her. Alice knew every groom by name. He must be new.
Gilbert, the head groom, came in from the dark yard. He said something to the man with the broom. The man laughed low. Gilbert chuckled, too. Apparently the head groom liked the new man.
With a shrug, Alice gave the beautiful mare a comforting pat and finished tacking up. She was leading Yazzy out of the stall when she saw that Gilbert had gone. The stable hand remained. He'd set his broom aside and lounged against the wall by the door to the courtyard.
As she approached, the man straightened from the wall and gave her a slow nod. "Your Highness." His voice was deep and rather stirring, his attitude both ironic and confident. She recognized his accent instantly: American.
Alice had nothing against Americans. Her father was one after all. And yet
As a rule, the grooms were Montedoran by birthand diffident by nature. This fellow was simply not the sort Gilbert usually hired.
The groom raised his golden head. Blue eyes met hers. She saw mischief in those eyes and her heart beat faster.
Temptation. Oh, yes.
Down, girl. Get a grip.
So what if the new groom was hot? So what if just a glance from him had her thinking of how boring her life had become lately, had her imagining all kinds of inappropriate activities she might indulge in with him?
Nothing inappropriate is happening here, she reminded herself staunchly.
And then, in an attempt to appear stern and formidable, she drew her shoulders back and gave the man a slow once-over. He wore a disreputable sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, old jeans and older Western boots.
Hot. Definitely. Tall and fit, with a scruff of bronze beard on his lean cheeks. She wondered briefly why Gilbert hadn't required him to dress in the brown trousers, collared shirt and paddock boots worn by the rest of the stable staff.
He stepped forward and her thoughts flew off in all directions. "Such a beautiful girl," he said in a tender toneto the mare. Alice stared, bemused, as he stroked Yazzy's long, sleek face.
Like most of her ancient hotblood breed, Yasmine was a fiercely loyal, sensitive animal. She gave her trust and affection to very few. But the bold and handsome American worked a certain magic on the golden mare. Yazzy nuzzled him and nickered fondly as he petted her.
Alice permitted his attentions to the horse. If Yazzy didn't mind, neither did she. And watching him with the mare, she began to understand why Gilbert had hired him. He had a way with horses. Plus, judging by his tattered clothing, the fellow probably needed the work. The kindhearted head groom must have taken pity on him.
Finally, the new man stepped back. "Have a nice ride, ma'am." The words were perfectly mundane, the tone pleasant and deferential. Ma'am was the proper form of address.
The look in his eyes, though?
Anything but proper. Far from deferential.
"Thank you. I shall." She led the mare out into the gray light of coming dawn.
* * *
The new groom had disappeared when Alice returned from her morning ride. That didn't surprise her. The grooms were often needed outside the stables.
Her country, the principality of Montedoro, was a tiny slice of paradise overlooking the Mediterranean on the Cote d'Azur. The French border lay less than two kilometers from the stables and her family owned a chain of paddocks and pastures in the nearby French countryside. A stable hand might be required to exercise the horses in some far pasture or help with cleanup or fence repair at one of the paddocks.
And honestly, what did it matter to her where the handsome American had gone off to? He was nothing to her. She resisted the urge to ask Gilbert about him and reminded herself that becoming overly curious about one of the grooms was exactly the sort of self-indulgence she couldn't permit herself anymore.
Not after the Glasgow episode.
Her face flamed just thinking about it.
And she needed to think about it. She needed to keep her humiliation firmly in mind in order to never allow herself to indulge in such unacceptable behavior again.
Like most of her escapades, it had begun so innocently.
On a whim, she'd decided to visit Blair Castle for the International Horse Trials and Country Fair. She'd flown to Perth the week before the trials thinking she would spend a few days touring Scotland.
She'd never made it to Blair Castle. She'd met up with some friends in Perth and driven with them down to Glasgow. Such fun, a little pub hopping. They'd found this one lovely, rowdy pub and it was karaoke night.
Alice had enjoyed a pint or two more than she should have. Her bodyguard, huge, sweet old Altus, had caught her eye more than once and given her the lookthe one meant to warn her that she was going too far, the one that rarely did any good.
As usual, she'd ignored the look. Repeatedly. And then, somehow, there she was up on the stage singing that Katy Perry song, "I Kissed a Girl." At the time, it had seemed like harmless fun. She'd thrown herself into her performance and acted out the lyrics.
Pictures of her soul-kissing that cute Glaswegian barmaid with her skirt hiked up and her top halfway off had been all over the scandal sheets. The paparazzi had had a field day. Her mother, the sovereign princess, had not been amused.
And after that, Alice had sworn to herself that she would do better from now onwhich definitely meant steering clear of brash, scruffy American stable hands who made her pulse race.
The next morning, Thursday, the new groom appeared again. He was there, busy with his broom, when she entered the stables at five. The sight of him, in the same disreputable jeans and torn sweatshirt as the day before, caused a thoroughly annoying flutter in her solar plexus, as well as a definite feeling of breathlessness.
To cover her absurd excitement over seeing him again, she said, "Excuse me," in a snooty abovestairs-at-Downton-Abbey tone that she instantly regretted, a tone that had her wondering if she might be trying too hard to behave. "I didn't catch your name."
He stopped sweeping. "Noah. Ma'am."
"Ah. Well. Noah
" She was suddenly as tongue-tied as a preteen shaking hands with Justin Bieber. Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. "Would you saddle Kajar for me, please?" She gave a vague wave of her hand toward the stall where the gray gelding waited. As a rule, she personally tacked up any horse she rode. It helped her read the horse's mood and condition and built on the bond she established with each of the animals in her care.
But once she'd opened her mouth, she'd had to come up with a logical excuse for talking to him.
And she was curious. Would he work the same magic, establish the same instant comfortable rapport with Kajar as he had with Yazzy?
The groomNoahset aside his broom and went to work. Kajar stood patiently under his firm, calm hands. Noah praised the horse as he worked, calling him fine and handsome and good. The gelding gave no trouble through the process. On the contrary. Twice Kajar turned his long, graceful neck to whicker at Noah as though in approval and affection.
Once the job was done, the groom led the horse from the stall and passed Alice the reins. His long fingers whispered across her gloved palm and were gone. For a moment she caught the scent of his clean, healthy skin. He wore a light aftershave. It smelled of citrus, of sun and cedar trees.
She should have said, "Thank you," and led the horse out to ride. But he drew her so strongly. She found herself instigating an actual conversation. "You're not Mont-edoran."
"How did you guess?" Softly. With humor and a nice touch of irony.
"That's right." He looked at her steadily, those eyes of his so blue they seemed almost otherworldly. "I grew up in California, in Los Angeles. In Silver Lake and East L.A." He was watching her in that way he had: with total concentration. A wry smile stretched the corners of his mouth. "You have no idea where Silver Lake is, or East L.A., do you? Ma'am." He was teasing her.
She felt a prickle of annoyance, which only increased her interest in him. "I have a basic understanding, yes. I've been to Southern California. I have a second cousin there. He and his family live in Bel Air."
"Bel Air is a long way from East L.A."
She leaned into Kajar, cupping her hand to his far cheek, resting her head against his long, fine neck. The gelding didn't object, only made a soft snuffling sound. "A long distance, you mean?"
One strong shoulder lifted in a shrug. "It's not so far in miles. However, Bel Air has some of the priciest real estate in the worldkind of like here in Montedoro. East L.A.? Not so much."
She didn't want to talk about real estate. Or class differences. And she needed to be on her way. She went as far as to stop leaning on the horsebut then, what do you know? She opened her mouth and another question popped out. "Do your parents still live there?"
"No. My father was killed working construction when I was twelve. My mother died of the flu when I was twenty-one."
Sympathy for him moved within her, twining with the excitement she felt at his nearness. Kajar tossed his head. She turned to the gelding, reaching up to stroke his elegant face, settling him. And then she said to Noah, "That is too sad."
"It is what it is."
She faced the groom fully again. "It must have been horrible for you."
"I learned to depend on myself."
"Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"A younger sister. Lucy is twenty-three."
She wanted to ask his agebut somehow that seemed such an intimate question. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes. He had to be at least thirty. "What brings you to Montedoro?"
He seemed faintly amused. "You're full of questions, Your Highness."
She answered honestly. "It's true. I'm being very nosy." And it's time for me to go. But she didn't go. She kept right on being as nosy as before. "How long have you been here, in my country?"
"Not long at all."
"Do you plan to stay on?"
He didn't answer, only held her gaze.
She felt the loveliest, most effervescent sensation. Like champagne sliding, cool and fizzy, down her throat. "You love horses."
"Yes, I do. And you're wondering how a guy from East L.A. learned to handle horses
Tell him that you really do have to go. "I have been wondering exactly that."
"When I was eighteen, I went to work for a man who owned a horse ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. He taught me a lot. And I learned fast. He kept warm bloods. Hanoverians and Morgans, mostly."
"Excellent breeds." She nodded in approval. "Strong, steady and handsome. Not nearly so testy and sensitive as an Akhal-Teke." All her horses were Tekes. Akhal-Tekes were called the "heavenly horses," the oldest breed on earth. Originating in the rugged deserts of Turkmenistan and northern Iran, the Teke was swift and temperamental and very tough. Both Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great chose Akhal-Tekes to carry them into battle.
"There is nothing like an Akhal-Teke," he said. "I hope to own one someday."
"An admirable goal."
He chuckled and the sound seemed to slide like a sweet caress across her skin. "Aren't you going to tell me that I'll never be able to afford one?"
"That would be rude. And besides, you seem a very determined sort of person. I would imagine that if you want something strongly enough, you'll find a way to have it." He said nothing, only regarded her steadily through those beautiful eyes. She was struck with the sense that there was much more going on here than she understood. "What is it?" she asked finally, when the silence had stretched thin.
"I am determined."
She found herself staring at his mouth. The shape of itthe slight bow of his top lip, the fullness belowwas so intriguing. She wondered what it might feel like, that mouth of his touching hers. It would be so very easy to step in close, go on tiptoe and claim a kiss
Stop. No. Wrong. Exactly the sort of foolish, bold, unprincess-like behavior she was supposed to be avoiding at all costs.
"I." She was still staring at his lips.
"Yeah?" He moved an inch closer.
She clutched the reins tighter. "
really must be on my way."
He instantly stepped back and she wished that he hadn'twhich was not only contrary but completely unacceptable. "Ride safe, ma'am."
She nodded, pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling. Then she clucked her tongue at Kajar and turned for the wide-open stable door.
Once again he was gone when she returned from her ride. That day, she worked with a couple of the yearlings and put one of the show jumpers through his paces. Later she went home to shower and change.
In the afternoon, she met with the planning committee for next year's Grand Champions Tour. Montedoro would host the sixth leg of the tour down at the harbor show grounds in June. Through the endless meeting, she tried very hard not to think of blue eyes, not to remember the deep, stirring sound of a certain voice.
That night, alone in her bed, she dreamed she went riding with Noah. She was on Yasmine and he rode the bay stallion Orion. They stopped in a meadow of wild-flowers and talked, though when she woke she couldn't remember a thing they had said.
It was a very tame dream. Not once did they touch, and there was none of the heated tension she had felt when she'd actually been near him. In the dream they laughed together. They were like longtime companions who knew each other well.
She woke Friday morning as usual, long before dawn, feeling edgy and dissatisfied, her mind on the American.
Why? She hardly knew this man. She didn't know him. She'd seen him twice and shared one brief conversation with him. He should not have affected her so profoundly.