A Texas Prince Meets His Match...
Cimarron County knows the youngest son of the fabled Prince family as a womanizing hell-raiser, but Luca has changed and he intends to prove it. There's just one problem—a woman with sparkling eyes and more fight than a barnyard cat.
After a childhood of living in foster homes, Ella Kendall has exactly three things to her name: A dog, a pig, and the rundown house she just inherited. Luca may not remember her from high school, but she definitely remembers him. He is as seductive as he was then, but Ella isn't about to fall for his flirting. She recognizes a playboy cowboy when she sees one.
Luca knows Ella has learned the hard way to trust no one but herself. Yet the closer he gets to Ella, the more he wants to be the only one she leans on. Because Ella is the only woman for him, and he wants to be the man who finally gives her the home she truly deserves.
About the Author
Julia London is the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of numerous romance novels and women's fiction. She is also the recipient of the RT Bookclub Award for Best Historical Romance and a six-time finalist for the prestigious RITA award for excellence in romantic fiction.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Julia London
Everyone knows how intense a high-school crush can be. When every waking moment is consumed with the awareness of the crush, when a smile, or a brush of the fingers from the crushee could carry the crusher for a day. Maybe even a week if you re-examined it ad nauseum with your best friend and roommate, Stacy, while your foster parents yelled at each other in the living room.
That’s how Ella Kendall had felt about Luca Prince in high school. He’d transferred into Edna Colley High School in the middle of their junior year, coming from wherever insanely rich kids came from. He was tall and muscular, dark hair streaked with gold, and hazel eyes that changed from blue to green to brown. He was so handsome and so exotically perfect that Ella’s hormones had stacked up like discarded tires and had burned for the next eighteen months. It was a fire that could not be doused.
Not that Luca Prince ever noticed.
Everyone in the town of Three Rivers knew about the Prince family and the famed Three Rivers Ranch for which the town was named. They’d filmed Hollywood movies there. They’d hosted a summit between the president of the United States and the president of Mexico about some trade thing. The ranch was massive in size and supposedly, if you wanted to see it all in one day, you needed a plane.
Ella and Stacy had never seen the ranch except in pictures, because they sure didn’t run in the popular kids’ circle. But they’d heard about the fabled fortress. It was tucked away behind a big fancy gate, nestled on the bank of the river at the foot of the hills. Mariah Frame, nee Baker, their only friend in high school, had seen the ranch, and she’d said it was a like a castle. A Spanish castle. “It’s so big,” she’d said. “And it has so many horses.” Apparently it also had a pool, tennis courts, cars, and Ella could no longer remember what all. But she used to imagine that it was just like the castles in all the princess movies she’d watched as a kid.
Ella, Stacy, and Mariah had called him Prince Luca. He was so dreamy, with those mesmerizing eyes and wavy hair that brushed his shoulders. He and his twin sister, Princess Hallie, had ruled Colley High. They were the homecoming queen and king, a stratosphere of popularity so high above Ella that she must have looked like a speck to them.
Once, Luca had asked Ella for her notes from algebra, and Ella had gotten so tongue-tied that she’d just shoved them at him. And of course she’d completely lost her mind on the night of the senior dance when he’d grabbed her hand—without asking, now that she thought about it, but that was a minor detail—and pulled her onto the dance floor. And then, just like in the movies, after a bit of swaying around, he’d kissed her.
Out of the blue, with no warning, Prince Luca had kissed her, right in the middle of the dance floor, beneath the piñatas. Ella had been kissed many times since, but she remembered everything about that one. His hand had cupped her face; his other had rested on the small of her back. His lips had lingered on hers for what seemed like forever, soft and tender, like he’d landed there and liked it. He had not kissed her in the urgent, demanding way that Clint Adams had kissed her their sophomore year. Prince Luca’s kiss was a proper knee-melting, heart-exploding kiss.
And then, just as suddenly, he’d lifted his head, touched her cheek, and walked off. He’d left her bobbing there like a tethered float in the Macy’s Day Parade, unable to understand what had just happened. It wasn’t until Frank Cash bumped into her that Ella had woken from that dream, still standing in the middle of the dance floor.
Naturally, she and Stacy had dissected every moment of that phenomenal event over the weekend that followed, and Ella was prepared for Monday. She knew what she would say. Stacy had coached her at flirting, because she and Mariah understood Ella was the worst when it came to flirting.
But Monday came and went and there had been nothing from Luca.
He hadn’t even looked her way. It was like he didn’t even see her.
Then had come graduation, and they’d all gone their separate ways. Ella and Stacy had aged out of foster care and she’d hied herself up to Dallas and college, later transferring to San Antonio on a scholarship to a small college. She’d worked a lot in the last twelve years, had struggled to finish her accounting degree, but she’d done it. She’d had a couple of serious boyfriends. There was Jake, who ended things with her when she wouldn’t move in with him. Jake never did understand how she needed her own place after being moved from one foster home to the next since the time she was six.
The other was Mateo. About a year ago, Mateo told Ella that he felt like she was using him for sex and nothing more. “You don’t really let me see you,” he’d said.
Ella was a little stunned by that and swore it wasn’t true. But later, she’d asked Stacy if it might be true.
“Oh yeah,” Stacy had said. “You’ve got a wall up, El. I mean, everyone does, really, but yours is like, super high. Like border wall high.”
“Okay, all right,” Ella had said, not liking the idea of surrounding herself with a border wall.
Mateo was still her friend and, in fact, had gotten her the hostessing job at the Magnolia Bar and Grill when she’d moved out to the farm.
That had been it on the steady boyfriend front. She didn’t have a lot of time for dating between her two jobs and trying to strike out on her own with a new bookkeeping and accounting business. And truthfully, no guy had ever made her heart flutter or her palms sweat quite like Prince Luca had. No guy had loomed as large in her thoughts—the legend of Prince Luca had lived on long after graduation, and he was still her ultimate fantasy. She hadn’t seen him in twelve years, but she’d seen pictures of him online and had heard about him from time to time. Always with a beautiful woman, usually blond. Always at some swank location. Always gorgeous.
So what were the odds that he would be standing before her now? How impossible was it that he would come riding to her rescue?
There was no mistake—Luca Prince standing before her, here and now, and Ella felt like a ridiculous, dopey teenager all over again. A little thrilled, a little scared, a lot baffled. And totally afraid that if she opened her mouth, she might humiliate herself.
So she just stared at him, and he stared back at her. Which seemed like an odd thing for either of them to be doing on an old county road with nothing but buzzards around. Luca had come riding on a horse across the open range wearing a white T-shirt, jeans so tight she wondered how he sat on that horse, and chaps. Chaps. He had a few days’ worth of beard on his face, a hat stained with sweat around the crown. He looked like he’d come off a movie set. He’d ridden right up to her, did that acrobatic move off the horse, stuck his landing right in front of her, and said, “Well, hello there,” like he’d been missing her all these years.
Here’s the other thing about high-school crushes. When you see your crush after twelve years, you’re supposed to look amazing. He’s supposed to realize he was an idiot back then. But Ella was dressed like a dumpster diver. Not totally her fault, because she’d been caught up in a little problem prior to this meeting. Ella was a person who prided herself on having pulled herself up by the bootstraps and making her own way in this world. If she ran across a difficulty, she handled it, no complaints. She needed no one, expected nothing, and was, according to Stacy, self-sufficient to a fault.
Still, there were a few things Ella couldn’t deal with. Like snakes, thank you to Folsom Elementary and her second-grade field trip to the snake farm, and the nightmares that had followed. Or liars. She definitely couldn’t deal with liars. To paraphrase Mr. D’arcy, once her good opinion was lost, it was lost forever. And she definitely couldn’t deal with Mama Tia’s taco stand on North Alamo Street in San Antonio. That place had almost killed her.
Last, but not least, she could not deal with cars. Cars, those stupid, lumbering, rusty, necessary beasts and their long slate of problems. She didn’t care how vehicles worked. She didn’t care how many horses they took the place of, or how many miles she could get from a tank of gas. All she wanted was to get in her old SUV, stick a key in the ignition, crank it up, and go. Was that asking too much? Apparently so. The car gods were exacting their revenge on her for her less-than-stellar maintenance plan, because on top of the many, many home repairs she’d not counted on when she’d recently moved back to Three Rivers, she’d also had plenty of car trouble.
This morning, the faucet in the kitchen sink came off and sprayed water all over her. Ella had managed to turn the water off. She’d YouTube’d a video, Repairing a Kitchen Faucet, and was on her way to the hardware store to get what she needed to fix that damn faucet when the check engine light came on and her car just stopped running. While it was running.
“Please don’t do this to me,” she’d begged, and had spread her arms across the hood and lay her cheek against the metal. “I am living on fumes right now.”
When the car didn’t answer, she kicked it. When the car still didn’t answer, she shouted, “Dammit!” and gave the hood a whack with both fists. And then she’d looked around for her phone to call someone and discovered that of course she’d left it on the kitchen counter.
So her fists hurt and her car still didn’t work, and she didn’t have her phone. She’d climbed onto the hood and slumped against the windshield and pulled her hat over her face. “Okay, well, this is a good lesson on why you should always have a plan B,” she’d said aloud. “You have to figure something out, because if you don’t, you’ll be late to work, and besides, there is a strong possibility you could be eaten by a coyote out here, because I know what I heard last night.”
Ella had been talking to herself a lot since moving to the country, but sometimes, extreme situations warranted a full discussion.
Anyway, she’d sat up and stared down the road. It was what, a mile at most to the highway? She figured she could walk to Timmons Tire and Body Shop and get a tow. Or, she could walk back to her house—a little more than a mile—and call someone to come get her. “But then your car is sitting here in the road,” she’d pointed out to herself. “Okay, Timmons it is.” She’d slid off the hood, stomped around to the passenger side of her car, opened the door with a vengeful yank, grabbed her tote bag, which she slung violently over her shoulder, kicked the door shut, and stepped around to the road.
That’s when she saw a horse and rider cantering across the field toward her. She’d been living out here only a couple of weeks, but she rarely saw anyone, and a slight panic suddenly surged in her—there was no one to hear her if she screamed.
“Don’t be paranoid,” she’d chastised herself. Just because a man was riding toward her didn’t mean he intended to chop her into pieces and scatter the bits for the buzzards. A rider wasn’t exactly uncommon around here, either. Cows needed punching, and some places couldn’t be reached by vehicle. She’d seen Three Rivers ranch hands on horses and all-terrain vehicles a couple of times out her back window.
As the person drew closer, she could see the cowboy hat, the white T-shirt, the chaps. She’d experienced a vague niggle in the back of her head that he looked strangely familiar. She’d lifted the brim of her sun hat to have a clearer look as the rider trotted right on up as if he knew her.
And then her belly did a somersault. The rider did know her, and she knew him. Holy hell, she hadn’t seen him in a dozen years, but she’d known exactly who he was.
He lifted his hat off his head, dragged his fingers through his hair—still dark brown, still sun-streaked, still gorgeous—reseated the hat, then stuck his thumbs into the string that tied his chaps around his waist and flashed a dazzling smile, his teeth all snowy white against his tanned face. “Well hello there.”
That was the moment the world stopped spinning and the sun shone brighter.
Ella wanted to speak up, but she was so stunned she couldn’t stop gaping at Prince Luca. Her thoughts were doing a mad dash back to high school, slipping and colliding into each other as they went.
“Did I startle you?” he asked in a voice that was sexier and deeper than in high school.
Ella blinked. Yes! “No,” she lied, in spite of all the obvious signs of being startled, such as eyes wide and staring and her heart fluttering so badly she could only sip in tiny gulps of air.
His gaze drifted down her body to the snow boots she was wearing. His smile deepened and his hazel eyes crinkled in the corners with amusement. “Expecting a norther?”
Ella glanced down. Oh, no. Oh God. It was worse than she thought. Did she really have to rush out to the hardware store so quickly that she couldn’t have at least put on a dry shirt or wiped mud off her thigh or dashed on a little mascara? And was it really easier to shove her feet into snow boots than to find some flip-flops? Because news flash, it never snowed here.
This, she decided, was the height of unfairness, for the universe to dump her out on this road like she’d been living in a cave just as her high-school crush rolled up. “They were handy,” she said vaguely. Aaand, here she was again, displaying her inability to be charming or erudite or even the slightest bit flirty.
Luca didn’t seem to think that was a strange answer. He shrugged, and his gaze moved to her car. “Having trouble?”
“Umm . . . a little.” God help her, but Luca the man was even sexier than the boy. He’d filled out in the last decade to the point that his T-shirt hardly fit across his chest and arms now. He was muscular, but not in a gym-rat kind of way. In a it’s-natural-to-be-so-damn-strong kind of way.
“Do you need a ride?” he asked.
What she needed was a do-over. She would like for him to go back across the pasture, then come back when she was wearing the cute red dress she’d bought at the vintage shop in town and her hair was not a half-wet, half-frizzy hot mess and probably sporting a few cobwebs from her time under the sink.
“Hello?” he asked, dipping down for a moment so that they were eye level. “Are you okay?”
Ella snapped out of it. “What? Oh, yes. Fine. Um, thanks. No, ah . . . I’ll just walk.” She meant to point toward town but unthinkingly pointed toward her house.
He looked in the direction she pointed, understandably confused. “The old Kendall place?”
Well, of course the old Kendall place, seeing as how it was the only place out here, and she was a Kendall . . .
Wait just a dadgum minute. Oh, God, no. No! She wanted to die. At least crawl under her car. Ella’s heart slammed against her ribs and she felt her face flood with the heat of embarrassment because he didn’t recognize her. He had no idea who she was.
Okay, well, move over senior dance, because this moment was now the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to her.
And then she instantly chastised herself. Jesus, Ella, why would he remember you? He’d never noticed her, save that one night on the dark dance floor, and that kiss, while pretty darn memorable to her, what with all the fireworks and fizzy explosions inside her, had probably been one of dozens he’d bestowed on girls that week alone.
Ella thought she’d overcome all her high-school insecurities, but they were suddenly roaring back to life and flaring into two spots of mortification in her cheeks.
“I can give you a ride if you need it,” he said again, and his gaze slid over her, taking in her floppy hat, her half-wet T-shirt, cut off just above her belly button, her jeans, similarly sheared off at the knees. And, of course, her snow boots.
Yeah, well, there was no way she was getting on that horse with all those muscles and abs as she recalled all the sparks he’d sent showering through her twelve years ago while he didn’t remember her at all. “I’m good,” she said with as much nonchalance as she could muster. She adjusted her tote bag on her shoulder. “I’m going to walk to town.”
“You’re at least a mile away,” he pointed out. “That’s a hike in snow boots.”
Okay, buh-bye. She needed to get as far away from him as she could get before she started whimpering. “Nope. Not a hike. Okay! So, hi and all that, but I’m good. Have a good day,” she said with moronic aplomb, and started walking.
“Hey, wait,” he said, and the next thing she knew, he and his horse were walking along beside her. He was a mountain, a tall, fit, hot-as-hell mountain of a man, and her skin was tingling just being near him, just like it used to tingle when he sat next to her in algebra. She stole a look at his waist and had the insane urge to bury her face in his abs.
“I didn’t realize anyone was living at the old Kendall place,” he said. “I understood the owner had died.”
“She did,” Ella said.
“So, are you renting, or . . .?”
Or what? Squatting? Did he think she was squatting? “Or,” she said curtly.
“Okay.” He bent his head in another attempt to make eye contact.
Ella looked down.
“You must think I’m pretty darn nosy,” he said. “I don’t blame you. I’m curious, that’s all. My family owns the land around the Kendall place.”
“I know,” she said, and stole another look at him from beneath the brim of her sun hat. He was smiling, but his brows were dipped, as if he was unsure what he was smiling about. Even when he frowned he was good-looking. How did the Princes get so lucky? It wasn’t fair.
She walked a little faster.
“That makes us neighbors,” he said, easily keeping pace. “But I must be a pretty awful neighbor, because I’ve never seen someone so desperate to get away from me. If you weren’t wearing those snow boots, you might have succeeded.”
She laughed, the sound of it all hahaha like she was on stage. “I’m not trying to get away from you. I’m just in a rush,” she said, and wished to God above he’d stop smiling like that. “Super busy,” she added for emphasis.
“Are you sure that’s all?” he asked with a lopsided smile. “Because I would hate to leave a pretty woman stuck on the road because she’s upset with her neighbor.”
Oh no. No, no, no. She would not fall for the random compliment tossed out to make her smile, to do the old, “Who, me?” Okay, so her heart had fluttered a little when he said she was pretty. But Ella wasn’t crazy. She was a poster child for practical. And she was wise to the ways of the world. So she stopped midstride to face him. “Look, seriously, I’m not stuck. Thanks for stopping to check on me, but I’m good. And I need to run. I don’t mean run, precisely,” she said, bowing to his observation of her snow boots. “I mean hurry.”
Luca Prince looked confused, as if he’d missed the stage instructions and didn’t understand what was happening in his movie just now. “Well,” he said, and swept his arm toward the road before her. “If you refuse the help of me and my trusty steed, then please, carry on,” he said. “But do you mind if I ask a question before you go?”
His eyes were rimmed with dark lashes that made the hazel really stand out. Ella could remember staring at those lashes in science class. “Okay.”
“When I was a kid, there was a natural spring behind the Kendall place. About the size of a small lake. Is it still there?”
“Ah . . . yes.” She dropped her gaze to his feet. In spite of how mortified she was, she was also suddenly and incomprehensibly horny.
“Mind if I come have a look at it sometime?”
Ella didn’t understand him. Look at what? She glanced up. “Huh?”
His gaze fell to her mouth, and he said, “I’d like to have a look at your spring.”
What did that mean? Was it a euphemism? Was she supposed to know what that meant like she was suddenly supposed to know what ghosting and submarining and breadcrumbing meant? “Umm . . . I guess?”
He smiled, and it was charmingly lopsided, a level of handsome that could not be fabricated or feigned, a smile that easily put him up against the featured actors and musicians on the pages of Entertainment Weekly she fantasized about while funneling corn chips into her mouth. “Thanks,” he said.
“Okay, well . . .” she gave him a weird salute that she had never, ever done in her life, and started walking, this time with a determined stride.
“Will you at least tell me your name?” he called after her.
She paused. Her heart was racing again, and she imagined all the things he would say when he heard her name, how he would tumble over his own words trying to apologize. She glanced back. “Ella.” Ella Kendall. You kissed me at your senior dance, remember?
But there was no flicker of recognition, no hand slapped to forehead with an “Ah, of course!” He just kept smiling sexily and said, “Nice meeting you, Ella.”
He did not remember her. He had no clue who she was. He did not remember the notes, or algebra and science, or that kiss. Nothing. She was a big fat nothing in his memory.
Ella whipped around, determined to put as much distance between them as she could in the next five minutes so she could scream.
When she glanced back—because she couldn’t help it, she had to have one last look at charming Luca Prince, had to know if he was watching her, had to know if this had really just happened or if she was suffering sunstroke—he was already on his horse, probably having somersaulted into the saddle, and was cantering across the pasture, disappearing into the winter grasses and oaks.
She wouldn’t have been surprised to see the credits roll now to indicate the end of this little movie.
“Well, congratulations, Ella Kendall, once again, you’ve made a smashing impression,” she muttered. She shifted her tote bag to the other shoulder, and resumed her march toward town. She guessed a high-school crush didn’t go away over twelve years. It hibernated and came out hangry.
When Luca was nine years old, he got in trouble at school. His mother, made hysterical by the words “inability to focus” and “may be held back,” had accused Luca of a desire to destroy his future and, by extension, her happiness.
His father had taken a more practical, if somewhat unorthodox, approach. He’d asked Luca into his study, had poured himself three fingers of whiskey, had offered Luca a sip, which he’d declined. His father had sat down in front of him, had templed his fingers, and said, “Son, very rich men with very good looks can get away with a lot.”
Luca had thought maybe his father was confused about why they were having their chat.
But his father had leaned forward, and with a gleam in his eye, he’d reiterated, “A lot. You’ll know better what I mean when you’re a little older. But what I’m saying is, you need to find a girl and copy her homework. Comprender?”
Luca hadn’t understood him at all, but he’d been afraid to admit it then and had nodded.
“Good, good,” his father had said, and had leaned back in his leather armchair and picked up his whiskey. “Don’t tell your brother what I said,” he’d added before tossing the whiskey down his throat. “Nick’s a fine-looking boy, don’t get me wrong. But he doesn’t have your looks, Luca. He’s the smart one, so he’ll be all right. You’re the charmer, Luca. You’ll go just as far.”
Luca had considered his father’s prediction without taking offense. He’d asked, “What about Hallie?” referring to his twin sister.
“Hallie!” His father had chuckled. “Hallie’s a girl, son. That’s a whole different ball game.” His parental duty discharged, his father had patted Luca on the shoulder then said, “Go on, get out of here. But word to the wise, boy—I’d avoid your mother today if I were you.”
Luca had left his father’s study not understanding what he was supposed to do. At nine years old, girls were still creatures that did not fit anywhere in his world view. But he was thirty now, and he got it.
He also got that he was lucky, first and foremost, blessed with both money and good looks. He could honestly say, and without much shame, that the last ten or so years of his life had been something akin to a perpetual airing of The Bachelor. He’d waded through so many pretty women with bikini bodies and Brazilian blowouts across Texas that they were all starting to look alike in his memory.
But it hadn’t been all rose ceremonies, either. Luca had made plenty of mistakes along the way, had probably been a dick more often than he realized. He wasn’t proud of that and wished he could take back some of the things he’d said or done. C’est la vie.
He’d learned a few things, too.
One was to always listen when a woman spoke, which he was doing at this very moment, as Karen explained to him over the phone that she had better things to do than sit around and wait for him. He was due to be at her house in half an hour, but he hadn’t even showered yet.
“I am a very busy woman, Luca Prince.”
“I hear you,” he said. If Luca was going to grade himself on listening—and he would, thank you, because he was not crazy enough to ask an ex—he would give himself a high score.
Except that he wasn’t actually listening to Karen as she berated him, because he knew what she was going to say. She’d said it before. That was another thing he’d learned—women did not like to be stood up. Now, Luca had never actually stood a woman up, but on occasion, he had some time management issues that had kept one or two women . . . okay, a few . . . waiting past the point of forgiveness. He would have to grade himself as a “work in progress” on that.
This problem of his didn’t just affect his personal relationships. He owned a car dealership now—no thanks to Uncle Chet, who’d been trying to do him a favor, but had saddled him with a car dealership—and his inability to show up on time had caused some hurt feelings around the conference room. Honest to God, he wasn’t doing it on purpose. It was like his internal clock was haywire, and when he thought he had plenty of time to get somewhere, he didn’t.
Victor, his general manager, wore an expression of extreme crabbiness on those days Luca did show up to flip through catalogs and sign off on things. He said things like, “Should we schedule the meeting for Friday, or do you need more time?”
Yeah, he was not cut out to be a car salesman. Especially electric cars, even if they were better for the environment. He was all for the environment, but he’d rather have a tooth pulled than sell a car. And the Sombra electric car was still in its infancy. Designed and developed out of Mexico, it was supposed to be the car to rival Tesla. But it wasn’t him.
Which logically lead to the question, what was him?
Luca’s internal jury was still out on that. All he knew was there was one thing he could be on time for, and that was the meetings that he and his lifelong best friend, Brandon Hurst, had been holding to explore the idea of how to rebuild the ecosystems on both of their family ranches. Most people thought it was an odd thing for a couple of born and bred cowboys to be interested in, but they were two men who shared a love of the outdoors and a despair over the depletion of nature in the hands of humans.
“I’ll be there in an hour,” Luca promised Karen.
Karen sighed heavily. “If you’re going to be even a minute longer than an hour, don’t bother showing up.”
“Thanks for understanding, Karen,” he said, and hung up before she could object.
Some people thought Luca was irresponsible. His dad said he was a free spirit. The truth was that he was disorganized. He was late today, thanks to a date last night that had ended in his bed in his San Antonio loft. Three Rivers Ranch was the sort of mansion built to house generations of a family. He had plenty of space there, but like Nick, who lived in a smaller house on the opposite side of the ranch, Luca was too old to be living in the family compound. So he’d bought a loft in San Antonio. It came in quite handy for nights like last night.
He would make it up to Karen. A smile could go a long way toward easing a woman’s ire, and so could cupcakes. Karen’s sweet tooth was off the chain.
When Luca was showered and dressed, he passed through the kitchen, gave Frederica, the family cook, a big bear hug, and then went out to the multi-car garage that housed all their expensive vehicles. His mother’s Mercedes. Hallie’s Range Rover. His dad’s King Ranch pickup, just like the one Nick drove.
Luca had a truck, too, which he much preferred. But as the owner of a Sombra dealership, he felt like he had to walk the talk.
He drove his Sombra into Three Rivers and parked across the street from Jo’s Java. Jo Carol was behind the counter, a pencil stuck behind her ear and another pencil stabbed into the mess of platinum blonde hair she wore on top of her head. On weekends, Jo Carol let that mane down, and she and her husband, Bill, did a little boot-scooting up at the Broken Wagon. “Good morning, handsome!” she said brightly. “The regular?”
“The regular,” Luca confirmed, and eyed the cupcakes in the pastry case.
“Got your favorite,” Jo Carol said as she filled a to-go cup with coffee. “Chocolate with crème filling.”
“I might have to take about four of those with me,” he said with a smile. “You know I can’t walk away from your cupcakes, Jo Carol.”
“You mean you can’t walk away from a whole lot of woman,” she said, gesturing to her ample figure. “I know your type, baby. If you want to play like it’s the cupcakes you’re after, I’ll go along.”
She fit the lid on the cup of coffee and reached for a sleeve. “Guess what? My daughter Hannah is moving back to Three Rivers, all the way from Dallas.”
“Is that right?” Luca asked. He quickly sorted through his ex file. Had he possibly dated Hannah from Dallas at some point?
“Yep.” Jo Carol looked up and met his eyes as she handed him the coffee. She retrieved a box from the top of the pastry case. “You seeing anyone, Luca sweetie?”
Oh, so she wanted him to date Hannah, which meant he hadn’t dated her. He smiled. “Now, Jo Carol. You know I’m never single.”
She put the cupcakes in the box. “You’re a dog, Luca Prince.”
“Guilty,” he agreed.
“But I’ve taught Hannah how to train dogs,” she said with a wink. “I’ll let you know when she gets in town. Put it on your tab?”
“Thanks,” he said. He didn’t really have a tab. Three Rivers Ranch had a running account with Jo’s Java for meetings and charity functions. The ranch had accounts all over town. All over San Antonio. All over the state.
He turned away from the counter and was sipping his black coffee on his way out when he happened to spot Randy Frame sitting near the window. Randy was a big guy, hard to miss. He was married to Mariah Frame, who owned a little clothing boutique with an attached hair salon on the town square.
But what caught Luca’s attention was who was sitting across from Randy.
It was her again. The woman he’d met with the broken-down car on the county road that cut through their land. He’d seen her since that afternoon. He’d seen her a lot and everywhere. It was like that phenomenon of seeing the same number everywhere you look, but in this case, he kept seeing the same woman. And every time he saw her, she either pretended she hadn’t seen him at all or slipped away before he could speak. She was avoiding him.
Luca was starting to get a complex, and he did not get complexes.
He’d seen her at the corner gas station where everyone got their coffee in the morning. He’d pulled into the electric charge stations and she’d been at a pump. He knew damn well she’d seen him, too, because their eyes locked. But before he could say a word, she had scrambled into that beat-up SUV, that by some miracle was even running, and had peeled out of there like he was carrying the plague.
Then he’d seen her coming out of the feed store as he and Nick were going in. She’d been struggling under the weight of a heavy bag of feed. “Hey,” he’d said, but she’d ducked behind another man who was exiting at the same time and escaped.
Nick had looked at her sprinting across the parking lot, then at Luca. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman run from you, Luca. What’d you do?”
“Nothing,” he said, truly baffled.
“You must be off your game, dude.”
But he wasn’t off his game. There were at least two women blowing up his phone right now, not to mention the wild sex he’d had last night. Luca didn’t get it—why wasn’t this woman behaving the way women generally behaved around him? He riffled through his mental catalog of women again—it was a big one and encompassed a huge geographical area—and he could honestly say he’d never known a woman to look at him in the way she looked at him.
It bugged him. It was like she found him . . . revolting.
Nah. What reason could she possibly have to be revolted by him? She didn’t even know him.
As he was standing there staring at her, she happened to glance up, and then jerked her gaze back to Randy.
Okay, all right, that was just downright hurtful.
Luca decided to clear it up then and there, and started in the direction of their table. Little Miss Hates-Me sat up a little straighter. She looked pretty damn gorgeous today, definitely a step up from the Who from Whoville he’d met on the county road. His first impression of her that day was that she was cute. But this woman was hot. Her coffee brown hair was in a sleek ponytail, and she was wearing a red dress that accentuated a very nice figure with curves in all the right places. He’d have to make a better impression, he supposed. What was her name? What. was. her. name?
She was listening intently to Randy as Luca strolled up to their table. She did not look up, did not acknowledge him in any way. Her fingers curled tightly around her napkin.
Randy noticed him. “Luca!” He moved to stand up, but his bulk rattled the table, and the woman caught it.
“Don’t get up,” Luca said, and put his hand on Randy’s shoulder. “I’m surprised to see you here. Didn’t know you were a coffee man.”
“I’m killing a little time,” Randy said, and glanced at his watch. “Mariah and I have a meeting at the bank.” He suddenly looked up, remembering he was not alone. “Oh, sorry—this is Mariah’s friend—”
“We’ve met,” the woman said cheerfully to Randy, still refusing to make eye contact with Luca.
Anna? Emma? Something like that.
“You have?” Randy asked.
“We sure have.” She began to gather her things like a fire was spreading through the coffee shop.
“Where was that?” Randy asked.
“We met very briefly when I was riding the west side acreage,” Luca said. “She was broke down.”
The woman smiled at Randy. “I think he means my car,” she said, and picked up her purse.
Randy laughed. “Well, Luca, I hope you helped a lady out,” he said. “Have a seat. We’re just finishing up here.”
“Have mine!” She stood, pushing her chair in Luca’s direction. “I’ve got to run. Thanks again, Randy. I’ll give you a call?”
“Sure,” Randy said. “But hey, don’t run off—Luca won’t bite. Least not in public,” he added, and chuckled hard enough to make his belly jiggle.
“Thanks, but I’ve really got to go,” she said. “Super busy.” She reached across the table to shake Randy’s hand. She barely looked at Luca when she said, “Nice seeing you again,” and started walking.
“Yeah, I . . .” Luca didn’t finish his thought because she was already slaloming through the tables in her haste to get out of there, and he had hardly turned around.
What the hell?
Dumbfounded, he watched her walk out the door, and through the window watched her jog across the street to her faded SUV.
“Close your mouth or you’ll let the flies in,” Randy advised.
Luca blinked. He gathered himself, hitched up his cool guy pants, and sat down across from Randy. “How do you know her?” he asked.
“Mariah’s friend,” Randy said, referring to his wife. “She’s looking for work.”
“Oh yeah?” Luca asked. “What sort of work?”
“Accounting. Bookkeeping. She works part-time for some firm in San Antonio, part-time at Magnolia’s Bar and Grill, but she’s just moved out here and wants to hang out a shingle.”
The sound of a motor that had seen better days roared to life. Her SUV began to coast down the street. As it passed Jo’s Java, Luca could swear that Anna or Emma glowered at him through the driver’s window.
“You offering me a cupcake?” Randy asked.
“Huh?” Luca turned his gaze from the window and glanced at the box. “Sorry, pal, those are for someone else.”
“Oh yeah? Someone I know?” Randy asked, waggling his brows.
Randy laughed. “Going at it hard, huh?”
“Trying to,” Luca said. “Speaking of which, I’m running late.” He stood up. “Good seeing you, Randy,” he said, and clapped Randy’s thick shoulder before walking out with a wave at Jo Carol.
He drove to Karen’s house by rote, because his mind was stuck on the fact that Anna or Emma didn’t like him. He was mystified, could not grasp why, could not fathom what would make a woman unable to bear even the sight of him.
Karen was standing behind her screen door when he pulled into the drive. She viewed the pink box he held in his hand with skepticism as he made his way to the door, one hand on her ample hip, one on the screen door handle, as if she were holding it closed. She stared hard at him. “Do you honestly think cupcakes are going to work with me, Mr. Prince?”
“I do not,” he answered honestly. “But I’m optimistic and I’ve got nothing but hope going for me right now.” He held up the box. “They’re from Jo’s Java House.”
“I know where they’re from,” she said. “There’s a big fat sticker right there,” she said, pointing to the box.
“I’m sorry, Karen,” he said. “I don’t even have a good excuse for being so late. If you end this now, it’s my own damn fault.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, and folded her arms across her chest.
Luca braced his arm high against the doorjamb and glanced self-consciously at his feet. Karen could read him like an open book. “I really am trying.”
“Not hard enough,” she said curtly. She shoved the screen door open hard enough to force him back. “Give me those cupcakes,” she said as she grabbed the box from his hand, turned around, and marched off into the interior of her house.
“Does this mean I can come in?” Luca called after her.
“Just get in here!” she shouted from somewhere in the kitchen.
Once a teacher, always a teacher.
Luca stepped inside, put his hat on the little console next to the vase of paper flowers and beneath the hand-stitched sign that read, Welcome to our happy, crazy, fun (loud) family home. An array of framed family pictures cluttered the top of the table—pictures of Karen and her husband, Danny. Of her two grown kids, Dustin and Mandy, and their kids, a gaggle of babies and toddlers and boys in baseball uniforms and girls in dance costumes.
Sometimes, Luca fantasized what it would be like to have lived in this little farmhouse as part of this family. He imagined home-cooked meals that were not a fancy chef’s creation, or pizza night when the strongest thing anyone drank was beer and there was no one to serve them. He imagined everyone sitting around the table doing homework or laughing at the day’s events without fighting.
He followed Karen into her cheerful little kitchen with the strawberry print curtains, the tiled countertops, and the white GE appliances. As she fit the cupcakes onto a serving plate, Luca noticed the kitchen table had two pads of paper, one thick book, and a colorful chart next to a pitcher of lemonade.
“I’ve got to leave in forty-five minutes, so let’s make good use of our time.” She set the plate down on the table and fit herself into her seat.
Luca took his place next to her. He reached for the chart, but Karen put a hand on his arm and pierced him with her brown-eyed gaze through her rectangular wire-rimmed glasses. “Now look here, mister. I’ve known you since you were in the sixth grade, and I know how you operate. I am not one of those silly girls who can be soothed with sweets and a handsome man’s pouty lips.”
“Pouty lips? I don’t have—”
“You best be on time from here on out, or you’re going to have to learn to read on your own.”
He held up a hand, duly chastised and embarrassed for it. “Say no more,” he said contritely.
She nodded to the chart. “Let’s begin.”
The chart was a rudimentary learning tool, one that connected sounds in common words to the actual letters. The sounds were illustrated on the chart with ducks and teddy bears, choo-choos and swings.
Unfortunately, Luca’s lifelong battle with dyslexia had caught up with him as an adult. It was amazing to him that a man with all the advantages he’d had in his life could arrive at the age of thirty and not be able to read worth a damn. Oh, sure, he could make out a menu or a greeting card. But reading about adult topics with dense, tiny text was mind-boggling to him. The letters danced around on the page, shifting and moving so that he couldn’t pin them down.
When he was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fifth grade, his mother was so relieved he wasn’t a delinquent that she’d brushed off the learning disability. “You’re just going to have to work extra hard,” she’d said. “But you’re a Prince, and that’s what the Princes do—we work harder than anyone else.”
“Leave him alone, Delia,” his father had said, and had tousled Luca’s hair. “He’ll be fine. It wasn’t like he was ever going to be book smart anyway, was it? Not my boy, Luca—he’s destined for great things and won’t have his nose in a book.”
His father was right—Luca was never book smart, because he never really did conquer the dyslexia. He’d charmed his way through school, and when his charm didn’t work, his parents’ influence and a sizable donation had. He’d bounced from one school to the next, going wherever money could put him, until he’d run out of options and had to leave St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio and ended up at the public Edna Colley High School in Three Rivers. He’d graduated by the skin of his teeth.
His teachers, his parents, had all breathed a collective sigh of relief when he’d walked across that stage. All they’d wanted was for him to graduate—from their perspective, the hard part was over, the battle won. He didn’t need to worry about his illiteracy anymore, because he was a Prince. His future had already been handed to him.
But it was at that point that he really started to bounce. From this so-called job to that woman. He never stayed in a job or with a woman long, because it was too shameful to admit he couldn’t read. And Luca was self-aware enough to know that his family’s wealth had made it possible for him to avoid settling on a life path. Otherwise, he’d probably be living on the streets of San Antonio about now.
Luca could point to the precise moment he knew he had to wake up and do something about his disability. It was when his uncle Chet, of Chet Applewhite Chevrolet fame, had saddled Luca with that Sombra dealership. Uncle Chet had meant well—it was a job that, in his eyes, married Luca’s interests with an actual occupation. But sitting at a desk and selling cars was the last thing he wanted to do. He had realized that he’d be doing exactly that for the rest of his life if he didn’t face his aimlessness, admit his true desires, and conquer his shameful little secret.
What he wanted was to be a naturalist. An environmentalist. A leader in ranchland conservation. But he couldn’t pursue that because he couldn’t read. He might not be book smart, but he desperately wanted to put his nose in a book.
He would be eternally grateful to Karen, previously known to him as Mrs. Gieselman, his sixth-grade teacher. She’d taken a liking to him all those years ago and had finally agreed to tutor him as an adult after a fair amount of begging on his part.
“You’ve always skirted by,” she’d said skeptically when he approached her about it the first time. “Why do you want to learn now?”
Because he’d grown up. Because there were things he wanted to accomplish, and he was being held back by his inability to read documents that didn’t result in a major headache and only a cursory understanding. Luca had ideas. He had dreams. He didn’t know how he was going to do it all, but he wouldn’t accomplish a damn thing if he couldn’t even skim a contract for a new car. He needed to learn, to absorb.
So he picked up the color-coded chart and began to review the letters and sounds, stumbling more than once, feeling like an idiot when he did.
“Great job!” Karen said, grinning. “You’re getting it. You ready to read?” She picked up the book he’d been struggling to comprehend. “Let’s start where we left off last week,” Karen said. “Do you remember what the chapter was about?”
Of course he did. “Conservation easements and Texas law.” When Luca had borrowed the book from the Saddlebush Land and Cattle Company, the family business headquarters, his brother Nick said it was the most boring book in the history of books.
“Did you read it?” Luca had asked, surprised.
“Of course I did,” Nick said impatiently, as if it was required reading for every man and Luca had missed the assignment again.
Luca was desperate to read it, to know what his brother knew. He wanted to know everything he could about land conservation and ecosystems and minerals and soil and grass and wildlife refuges. He wanted to do something meaningful with his life, and to him, that meaningful thing was taking care of what God had given them.
Karen helped herself to a cupcake, then held up the plate to him and said, “I still don’t see why we can’t accomplish your goals with a good romance novel or a mystery.”
“Because I want to know this stuff,” Luca reminded her. “I want to put these principles into practice.”
She shook her head. “I always knew the Princes had more money than the US Treasury, but if you ask me, it’s a waste of good land to let it sit and do nothing but grow weeds.”
That’s not what conservation was about, but Karen was not alone in her opinion. Everyone in Luca’s family felt the same way—why conserve land when you could make money from it?
“All I know is, I am never going to get back the hours I’ve spent on this book with you.” She winked at him. She was over her mad. “Turn to page sixty-three.”
Luca forgave Karen her narrow view of the world. But he’d lived a good chunk of his life outdoors with Brandon. They’d camped out under the stars of Texas’s big sky, searching for Indian hieroglyphics or arrowheads, inventing invading armies creeping toward them through the woods, imagining monsters clawing their way up from the spring. They would pull the stalk from the yucca plants and turn them into swords and guns. They rode horses down to the river and swam, hunted for rabbits and squirrels, and generally ran wild over tall grass prairies and wild-flowered hills.
He’d never tired of it. If anything, the land had only become more magical to him the older he got. But the land was changing. It was overused and depleted, beaten up by drought and erosion and rapid development. Wildlife didn’t come around as it once had. Some birds and reptiles were in danger of extinction. Grasses didn’t grow as tall. Trees were stunted and springs and lakes dried up.
He began to read, clumsily. Laboriously. “The Texas snow . . . bell, or St-st wreck—”
“Styrax,” Karen said.
“Styrax is the . . . most . . . threet?”
Karen pointed to one of the sounds on the chart.
Luca stared at it. Then at the word. “Threat . . . threatened,” he said, pleased with himself. “One of the most threatened na . . . tive . . . spee-sis.”
“Species,” she said, and pointed to the chart again.
It was so hard, like part of his brain was an unformed, unused blob. He thought of Hallie, who devoured novels, and wished reading came as easily to him.
He looked at the sentence he just read, his mind memorizing the letters. The Texas snowbell is one of the most threatened native species. He knew where a patch of it grew on the ranch. He knew where everything was on that ranch, all seventy-five thousand acres.
He had a painting that hung in his room at the ranch, rescued from a trash heap intended for burning when he was twelve. He’d shown it to his paternal grandmother, and she’d laughed. “This is the work of your great-great uncle, Leroy Prince. What a character he was! He used to take the farm girls down to the potting shed and diddle them there.”
“Dolly!” his mother had yelled from her place behind the enormous, marble-topped kitchen island. “You do not have to voice every thought aloud to these kids.”
“Oh, who cares,” Grandma had said with a flick of her wrist. “Lucas will hear about it eventually.”
“I don’t know why he would, as you are the only person who keeps that sort of family lore alive, and for the thousandth time, his name is Luca.”
“It ought to be Lucas,” his grandmother had said, and had winked at Luca as if they shared the same desire.
“For the love of God, you know I named him Luca because Charlie’s cousin Lucy named her baby Lucas a month before I had mine. She did that on purpose,” she’d added for Luca’s benefit, pointing an accusing finger at him, as if he’d somehow brought this tragedy to her by entering this world a month too late.
“Good ol’ Leroy,” his grandmother had said, ignoring her daughter-in-law. “He wasn’t what you’d call a good citizen, but he was a decent artist.”
“I found it on the burn pile,” Luca had reported.
“Right where I tossed it,” his grandmother had said, and tapped her highball glass, indicating Luca’s mother should pour a little more bourbon into it. “I figure we have enough landscapes hanging around this gaudy hacienda. This place used to look like a ranch house, you know. Now it looks like some antebellum mansion straight out of Gone with the Wind.”
“Luca, honey?” his mother had said sweetly, as she’d swiped up her own highball of bourbon. “I’m going to walk down to the horse tank and hang myself. Tell your father,” she’d said, as she sashayed from the room.
“You don’t have to tell him,” his grandmother had whispered conspiratorially. “She’ll start to smell after a couple of days and he’ll find her.”
Luca hadn’t paid either woman any attention. Their bickering was standard operating procedure around the house, and besides, he’d been too enthralled with his find. Even at his young age, he knew precisely the spot of Prince land his great-great uncle Leroy had captured. The painting depicted a natural spring, surrounded by natural grass, with bluebonnets and Indian blanket and Mexican hat and pink evening primrose wildflowers. A jackrabbit sat up on its hind legs and looked over a rusting plow at a pair of horses grazing in the distance. The sky was a splash of orange and yellow giving way to the pale pink and dusty gray blue of dusk. In the distance were dark hills, dotted with cedar and oak, and on the top of one hill, so tiny that you had to squint to see it, a campfire.
He’d asked the family’s majordomo, Martin, to hang it in his room, and there the painting had remained for nearly twenty years.
As the years passed, that painting had begun to represent an ideal to Luca, the way the land was supposed to look, the way God intended it to be. That was his goal—to convince his father to turn back some of the land the Princes had overused to its natural state. Not all of it—he liked money as much as the next guy—but enough that the wildlife would come back, and the wildflowers would grow, and the birds would nest. He could create a slice of heaven. He could do something meaningful, something he truly cared about.
But he had to learn it first.
No one but his twin knew about his reading lessons. Luca intended to surprise his family when he could finally read from this book. He intended to make a strong case for his vision, and he had just the place to do it. Brandon, who had become an environmental lawyer, had bought five hundred acres of parched ranchland out near China Grove. It was all used up, even sporting a couple of capped oil wells. It wasn’t perfect for an ambitious environmental project—it was too small and really too far off the beaten path to get people out there to work. But it was all they had, and they were determined. They’d been talking about hosting a fundraiser to ask for donations that would fund the equipment and manpower they needed to clear out invasive species and the cedars that suffocated everything green around them. To repopulate creeks and lakes, to clear out the silt and runoff that was choking the natural spring. To bring students and environmentalists in to study the effects of ranching and farming practices on the land.
It wasn’t sexy, but it was the thing that made Luca want to get up in the morning. No matter how embarrassing it was to read like a first grader, he was going to conquer this hill.