It was cold, they were trapped and Rory Buchanan had made love to a perfect strangerand enjoyed it way more than she should have. But how was a regular girl from Whitehorse supposed to know the royal protocol for dealing with a fantasy one-night stand?
It soon became clear that Devlin Barrow would slay any dragon for local girl Rorya court full of nobles had even descended on the small Montana community. But this relationship was no fairy tale. Because someone was willing to kill to keep Devlin's secret past from toppling the royal hierarchy. And with Rory pregnant with his surprise heir, her life was at stake as well.
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The narrow slit of light between the partially closed bedroom curtains drew him through the shadowed pines.
He moved stealthily, the moonless darkness heavy as a cloak. The moment he'd seen the light, realized it came from her bedroom window, the curtains not quite closed, he'd been helpless to stop himself.
He'd always liked watching people when they didn't know he was there. He saw things they didn't want seen. He knew their dirty secrets.
Their secrets became his dirty little secrets.
But this was different.
The woman behind the curtains was Rory Buchanan.
He began to sweat as he neared the window even though the fall night was cold here in the mountains. The narrow shaft of light from between the curtains spilled out onto the ground. Teasing glimpses of her lured him on.
As he grew closer, he stuck the wire cutters he carried into his jacket pocket. His heart beat so hard he could barely steal a breath as he slowly stepped toward the forbidden.
The window was the perfect height. He closed his left eye, his right eye focusing on the room, on the woman.
Inside the bedroom, Rory folded a pair of jeans into one of the dresser drawers and closed the drawer, turning back toward the bed and the T-shirt she'd left lying on it.
He didn't move, didn't breathedidn't blink as she began to disrobe.
He couldn't have moved even at gunpoint as he watched her pull the band from her ponytail, letting her chestnut hair fall to her shoulders.
She sighed, rubbing her neck with both hands, eyes closed. Wide green eyes fringed in dark lashes. He watched breathlessly as she dropped her hands to unbutton her jeans and let them drop to the floor.
Next, the Western shirt. Like her other shirts and the jackets she wore, it was too large for her, hid her body.
Anticipation had him breathing too hard. He tried to rein it in, afraid she would hear him and look toward the window. It scared him what he might do if she suddenly closed the curtains then. Or worse, saw him.
One shirt button, then another and another and the shirt fell back, dropping over her shoulders to the floor at her feet. She reached down to retrieve both items of clothing and hang them on the hook by the door before turning back in his direction.
He sucked in a breath and held it to keep from crying out. Her breasts were full and practically spilling out of the pretty pink lacy bra. The way she dressed, no one could have known.
She slid one bra strap from her shoulder, then the other. He could hear her humming now, but didn't recognize the tune. She was totally distracted. He felt himself grow hard as stone as she unhooked the bra and her breasts were suddenly freed.
A moan escaped his throat. A low keening sound filled with lust and longing. He wanted her, had wanted her for years, would do anything to have her
Instinctively, he took a step toward the back of the ranch house. Rory was alone. Her house miles from any others. Her door wouldn't be locked. No one locked their doors in this part of Montana.
The sound of a vehicle engine froze him to the spot. He dropped to the ground behind the shrubs at the corner of the house as headlights bobbed through the pines. The vehicle came into view, slowed and turned around in the yard. Someone lost?
He couldn't be caught here. He hesitated only a moment before he broke for the pines behind the house and ran through the woods to where he'd hidden his car.
As he slid behind the wheel, his adrenaline waned. He'd never done more than looked. Never even contemplated more than that.
But the others hadn't been Rory Buchanan.
If that pickup hadn't come down the road when it did
The sick odor of fear and excitement filled the car. He rolled down his window, feeling weak and powerless and angry. Tonight, he could have had herand on his terms. But at what cost, he thought as he reached for the key he'd left in the ignition of the patrol car, anxious to get back to Whitehorse.
He froze. The wire cutters. He didn't feel their weight in his jacket pocket. His hand flew to the opening only to find the pocket empty.
Rory Buchanan hunkered down in the dark beside the stables as six royal guards trooped past, all toting semiautomatic rifles.
To say she was in deep doo was an understatement. Not only was it now completely dark, but a storm had blown in. She felt the chill on the wind only moments before the first stinging drops of rain began to fall.
Shivering, she checked her watch. Earlier, she'd left her ranch with only a lightweight jacket, planning to return long before dark. The sky had been clear and blue, not a cloud in sight. But this was Montana, where it could snowand did in any month of the year.
According to her calculations the next set of guards wouldn't come past for another three minutes. Fortunately, most of the grooms and trainers had left the stables, but she could still hear someone inside with the horses.
Rory waited until the guards disappeared into the dark before she made a run for the woods.
She'd never done anything like this in her life and hated to think what her parents would have said had they still been alive. But Rory doubted her new neighbors would be trying to take her ranch if her father were around.
A duke and duchess or prince and princessshe didn't know or care which and wouldn't know a duke from a drug lord and doubted anyone else in Montana would eitherhad bought up all the ranches around hers.
An emissary for the royals had been trying to buy her ranch, putting pressure on her to sell. Clearly they were rich and powerful and had built a palace with all its trapping just miles from her ranch.
Rory had turned down the first few offers, saying her ranch wasn't for sale at any price. But the offers had kept coming, and just that morning she'd seen tracks again where someone had been snooping around her place.
The footprints in the dust definitely weren't hers, and since she hadn't had any male visitors for so long she couldn't remember
She didn't even want to think about that.
Her mare was where she'd left her, hidden in the ponderosas. Retrieving her horse, Rory swung up into the saddle thinking maybe she would try to outrun the worst of the storm.
But she hadn't gone fifty yards when the sky above the pines splintered in a blinding flash of lightning followed in a heartbeat by a boom of thunder. From over by the stables, she thought for a moment she saw a dark figure standing in the shadows watching her.
Her horse shied and she had to rein in the mare to keep her seat and the mare from taking off for home. When Rory looked toward the stables again, the figure was gone. Had the person gone back inside to call the guards?
With a shudder of both cold and fear, she pulled down her cowboy hat to the storm and took off at a gallop, praying she hadn't been seenand could get away.
Rain ran off the brim of her hat as she spurred her horse, racing toward her ranch. She regretted that she hadn't even had the sense to grab a slicker earlier. It had been one of those beautiful fall Montana days, the stands of aspens glowing red-gold in the sunlight and the air smelling of the fallen leaves, while over the tops of the ponderosa pines, clouds floated in a sea of blue.
Lightning lit the western horizon ahead of her. She tightened the reins as thunder exploded so close it made the hair on her neck stand up. Glancing back, she could see the lights of Stanwood, a blur in the pouring rain, disappear. If she was being followed, she couldn't tell.
Suddenly being caught by armed foreign soldiers didn't seem as dangerous as trying to get to the ranch in this storm.
Better Safe Than Sorry had never been Rory Buchanan's motto. But in this case, trying to get home in the storm and darkness was crazier than even she was normally. Especially when there was an old line shack just up the mountain in a grove of aspens.
The fact that the line shack was on royal property gave her a little pause. But she valued her neck and her horse's more than she feared her neighbors at the moment. Not only was the line shack much closer than her ranch house, but also there was an old lean-to that would provide some shelter for her horse and get her out of the weather, as well.
She doubted the royal owners even knew the shack was there given the enormous amount of property they'd bought up around her. Just the thought forced a curse from her as she rode through the drowning rain and darkness to the shack.
Rory's head was still swimming with the excessiveness she'd seen only miles from her century-old ranch house. The new owners had built a palace that would rival Montana's capital. Behind it was a private airstrip, stables with an arena and a colony of small cottages and a dormitory that could house a small armyand apparently did given the number of armed soldiers she'd seen on the grounds.
Of course what had caught her eye were the horses. She'd watched a dozen grooms at least exercising the most beautiful horses she'd ever seen. She hated to think what even one of those horses might cost.
All that wealth and all these armed soldiers had her even more worried that her royal neighbors wouldn't stop until they forced her off her ranch. That and the fact that someone had definitely been snooping around her place.
She'd always felt safe on the ranch.
Another burst of lightning splintered the dark horizon. Thunder ricocheted through the pines. A blinding flash of lightning exposed the line shack in eerie two-dimensional relief. Rory braced herself for the thunderous boom that wasn't far behind. She hated storms worse than even the idea of spending a cold rainy night in a line shack. Her baby sister Brittany had disappeared on a night like this and just four years ago Rory's parents had been killed in a blizzard on their way back to the ranch. It had come right after she'd graduated from college and had left her with no family and a ranch to run alone.
Dismounting, she hurriedly unsaddled her horse, hobbling the mare under the lean-to and out of the downpour.
Soaked to the skin, she carried her saddle and blanket into the shack, stomping her feet on the tiny wooden porch to make sure any critters living inside would know she was coming and hopefully evacuate the premises.
The shack was about ten feet by twelve and smelled musty, but as she stepped in out of the rain, she was glad to see that there didn't seem to be anything else sharing the space with her.
It was warmer and drier inside, and she was thankful for both as she put down her saddle and slipped the still-dry horse blanket from under her arm to drop it on a worn spot on the floor next to the wall that appeared to have the least amount of dust.
Chilled, she had just started to strip off her soaked jean jacket when a flash of lightning shot through a crack in the chinking between several of the logs of the line shack, making her jump.
Outside, her horse whinnied as thunder rumbled across the mountaintop. She froze at the sound of an answering whinny from another horse nearby.
Drawing her wet jacket around her, she opened the door a crack and peered out.
A beautiful white horse with leopard spots stood in the trees below the shack. Rory caught the flash of silver from the expensive tack and saddle as lightning sliced through the darkened sky. The horse started, then bolted, taking off into the trees back the way Rory knew it had come.
She recognized the horse from earlier. A Knabstrup. She'd only read about the horses before she'd seen the groomers working with them at her royal neighbors'. Not surprising since the horses were originally from Germanythe Knabstrup breed having always been a symbol of the decadence of the aristocracy in Europe.
But where was the rider?
Rory swore as she turned back inside the shack to button her jacket and grab her hat, knowing even before she stepped into the pounding rain that the rider of the horse had been thrown and was probably lying in a puddle on the ground with his fool neck broken.
As much as she disliked stormsand the kind of neighbors who'd bought up half the county to build a palace in the middle of good pasture land that they wouldn't live in for more than a few weeks a year, if thatRory couldn't let another human die just outside her door.
The temperature had dropped at an alarming rate, signaling an early snowstorm. Anyone left out in it was sure to freeze to death before morning.
"It would serve the danged fool right," she muttered to herself as she stomped down the mountainside to where she'd seen the horse. "Who with any common sense would go out in this kind of weather?" Unless they were trespassing on their royal neighbors' property, of course.
In a flash of lightning, she spotted the man lying in an open spot between the trees, surrounded by a bed of soft brown pine needles and a thick clump of huckleberry bushes, both of which, she hoped, had broken his fall.
She heard a groan as she neared, relieved he was alive. As he tried to sit up, she saw the blood on his forehead before the rain washed it down onto the white shirt and riding britches that he wore. He saw her and tried to struggle to his feet and failed.
"Easy," she said as she dropped down next to him on the ground.
A lock of wet black hair had tumbled over his forehead. She brushed it back to check the source of the blood and found a small cut over his left eye. There was also a goose egg rising on his temple.
Neither looked fatal.
He turned his face up to her and blinked into the driving rain. His dark hair fell back and she saw the dazed look in his very dark blue eyes. His lips turned up in a ridiculous grin as those eyes locked with hers.