A devil in her path...
No one cheats on a Prince and gets away with it. And Hallie—Texas socialite, would-be ballerina, and the only daughter of the renowned Prince family—is ready to give her two-timing fiancé a piece of her mind. But fate plants hot, sexy ranch hand and ex-Army Ranger Rafael Fontana quite literally in her way. Her childhood friend is all grown up. He’s sexy, he’s handsome, and suddenly, after all these years, Hallie is taking notice.
A princess in his heart...
Rafe has been in love with Hallie since they were kids, but he was always the help—and she was glamorous and popular, seemingly off-limits to a lowly cowboy. But now he’s back at Three Rivers Ranch to help his family and Hallie is there too—and she needs his support. Soon long-buried feelings boil to the surface, and the desire between them is hot and palpable and undeniable. Rafe realizes he wants Hallie—and her adorable puppy—for keeps… he just has to convince her to give true love another shot.
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The dreams that happen just before waking, the ones that take weird turns into hippie-dippie landscapes, are the strangest of all. When Hallie Prince could recall her dreams, which wasn't often, as she was not a morning person and her first thought was usually coffee, it seemed she was always looking for something. Like her ballet shoes in a stranger's house. Her phone in a foreign country. Sometimes she was in the company of people she seemed to know well, but then again, knew not at all. Sometimes she was in places unrecognizable to her, but that she seemed to know.
Other times, she was doing something out of character, like hiding in a warehouse. That was the dream that was waking her this particular day. She didn't know where the warehouse was, or why she was there, but she knew she was hiding from Anna, a friend she'd known long ago in New York, and had not had occasion to see in several years. She also knew that it was imperative she hide, even though she was going to be late. She was supposed to dance, she was supposed to be at the theater, but she was folded into a small dark space, pressed up against something scratchy and sort of soft. But also hard. Soft and hard and scratchy.
Hallie opened her eyes, and the warehouse fluttered into the ether. She tried to blink away what looked like a caterpillar that draped one eye, but it stubbornly held on. Oh. Not a caterpillar. A strip of false lashes.
"Are you okay?"
The deeply masculine voice startled Hallie, and with a gasp of surprise, she pushed up to her elbows. The scratchy part of her dream was a plaid wool shirt. The soft and hard part of her dream was apparently the body of a man. And though a tangle of hair covered half her face, she could see she'd slept in the heavily beaded gown she'd meant to wear to her wedding reception.
But there wasn't going to be a wedding reception, so why . . .
The memory of last night slowly began to seep into her brain. Damn tequila.
Hallie knew that voice. She slowly turned her head and pushed hair from her face. "Rafe?" Her old friend, handsome, sexy-as-hell cowboy and ex-Army Ranger Rafe? She thought he was in Chicago or somewhere.
A sudden image of Rafe came roaring back to her. Rafe, standing in the driveway, illuminated by the headlights of her car, his weight shifted to one hip, holding a saddle on his shoulder and looking bemused. And she remembered thinking how relieved she was that Rafe had come. Rafe would fix things. Rafe knew what to do.
Oh please, dear God, she hadn't actually gotten behind a wheel, had she? Yes. Yes, she had. But wait! She remembered-she'd never left the garage. She'd never even put the car in gear.
Rafe's handsome face came into view. He used to be so skinny, a scarecrow of a boy, but now he was all filled out with a square jaw covered by the morning growth of a beard. He squinted caramel-colored eyes at her, examining her face. "You look like crap," he said, and plucked the strip of lashes from her eye.
"I feel like crap."
"Are you going to make it?"
No. She was most definitely not going to make it. A swell of nausea made her whimper.
"Oh no. Please don't-" A small trash can appeared in her line of vision.
It was too late-she retched into the trash can. "Nononono!" Rafe exclaimed. "Oh, man!" he said desperately as she retched, and then he made a hacking noise like he was trying to keep from vomiting, too.
When she had emptied the contents of her stomach into that can, Hallie collapsed, facedown, onto her pillow. "I thought you were supposed to be a tough army guy."
"I am a tough army guy. But my gag reflex is a baby."
She felt his weight lift up off the bed with the can. "Don't throw up until I get back," he warned her. She heard him go into her bathroom, heard water running, heard him muttering.
Why was Rafe still here? What was good ol' Rafael, the ranch majordomo's very hot oldest son and Hallie's lifelong friend, doing at Three Rivers at all? She thought he split his time between San Antonio and Chicago. Wasn't he moving there soon?
When they were children, Martin would bring his kids-Rafe, who was her brother Nick's age; and Rico, who was the same age as Hallie and her twin, Luca; and Angie, the youngest of them all-to the main compound on weekends, and they would swim or her dad would grill burgers for them. Rafe was a lot like Nick, the steady, dependable son in the family. Rico was a party animal, and if he were around last night, he would have told her to move over and let him drive to Houston. Angie was the squirt some adult was always shouting at them to watch.
Thank God it was steady Rafe who'd happened upon her last night. Hallie couldn't begin to remember what she'd done, but whatever it was, she was pretty sure she was going to want to open the window and dive headfirst into the bushes below.
Rafe reappeared, sans can, and stood over her, studying her very closely, like a lab specimen.
"Stop looking at me like that. I'm hideous. I could die," she said, mortified.
"You're not hideous," he said, as if she still had a few steps to go before she reached the certifiably hideous level. "You just look a little beat up. I think the dark circles under your eyes-"
"Okay," she said, weakly waving her hand at him. "Don't tell me."
He patted her shoulder. "Look at the bright side-you're probably going to live."
"Do I have a choice?"
"What's the dark side?"
"The dark side is you won't believe you're going to live until tomorrow."
"Maybe you should have a little hair of the dog that bit you. You might feel better."
"Nooo," Hallie moaned, and squeezed her eyes shut as she swallowed down a swell of nausea. "Don't even say it."
"How about food? Do you think you could keep something down?"
"Stop talking." She rolled over onto her back and squinted up at him. "What happened last night?"
Rafe smiled. Very slowly and very sexily. That smile used to drive her friends crazy with lust. "I don't even know where to begin."
"Must have been epic." No wonder her head was pounding.
"Pretty spectacular," Rafe agreed.
Hallie groaned and rolled onto her side, away from him. She wasn't much of a drinker, so she would lay the blame for however she might have humiliated herself squarely at the feet of her recent ex-fiancé, Christopher. Everything was his fault. Her terrible, piteous mood was his fault. Her five-pound weight gain was definitely his fault. She wouldn't be the least bit surprised if even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be traced back to him.
She could clearly remember rambling around the twenty thousand square feet of the main house at Three Rivers Ranch, where she, a grown woman of thirty years, was living with her mother (God help her), and her grandmother (adding salt to the wound since 1936). Nick and Luca came by a couple of times a week to check on things, but all of them, all of them, had been out last night and left Hallie alone in abject peril, because without any good reality TV to distract her, she had only her thoughts to keep her company.
Anyone who knew her knew that being alone with her thoughts was a train wreck waiting to happen. Well, she'd pumped that locomotive right into a ditch.
Oh, but she'd worked herself into a good lather over Chris. She could remember coming up with the brilliant idea that she ought to drive to Houston and confront him and her supposed bridesmaid, Dani, whom she'd last seen naked beneath Chris. Hallie could even remember convincing her weakly responsible self that she wasn't that drunk, that she could make the three-hour drive to Houston, no problema.
She could vaguely remember putting on her reception dress with the dumb idea that Chris ought to see what he would be missing-her looking exquisite on her wedding day to be precise, but not in her actual wedding dress, because he'd lost that privilege when he pile drove his body into Dani's. But she hadn't been able to fix her hair, and this was not the sort of dress one could don without assistance. In fact, she could feel the cool air the ceiling fan kept pushing against her bare back.
Who really understood the power of tequila until one had empty shot glasses up to her elbows? She couldn't remember much of anything after squeezing herself into this dress. Mostly just snatches of Rafe, now that she thought about it.
"Want me to get Frederica?" Rafe asked.
Frederica had been cooking the meals at Three Rivers Ranch since Hallie was a little girl. "She's probably not here. Mom cut her to three days a week."
"You're kidding," Rafe said flatly.
That's what everyone said-Frederica was like family. But when Hallie's father had died so unexpectedly earlier in the year, things changed. The Princes were having to do a lot for themselves around the ranch, which none of them were really accustomed to doing. "I'm not kidding," Hallie said. She wrapped her arms around a pillow and lay on her side. "Did you really stay with me all night?" she asked, feeling immeasurably pathetic.
"You insisted," he said. "But now that I have assured myself you are breathing, I'll just tiptoe on out of here." He made a move toward the door.
"No, wait," she said. "Don't go yet."
He glanced at her sidelong, clearly debating. She didn't blame him-babysitting hungover debutantes was probably not his cup of tea. But Hallie didn't want to be alone again. Not until she could at least drag herself to the bathroom by her own power. "At least tell me how we ended up in my room."
"You want to hear the truth, huh?" he said, smiling a little. "That might take a minute."
"What else am I going to do while I die my slow and agonizing death?"
He chuckled softly. "Okay," he said, and turned around, easing himself onto the foot of the bed. "Shall I start with the cows?"
"Great," Hallie moaned. "It's even worse than I feared. I don't remember any cows."
Rafe gave her foot a squeeze. "Last night, Mr. Creedy's cows got out."
"Again?" Hallie was immediately struck with the realization that her world had gone from high-society parties and charity events to knowing how often the Creedy cows got out. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
"Yep. About a dozen of them sauntered through a hole in the fence, I presume because they thought the eating would be better on the other side of the road. But they must have taken a moment to contemplate just how small they were in the vast cow universe, because they were bunched up on the road and wouldn't move."
In spite of herself, Hallie smiled. "Can't blame them-it is a pretty big universe. And besides, I don't know why Mr. Creedy won't fix that fence, because those cows keep getting out."
"Mrs. Bachman wondered the same thing," he said, and crossed one booted foot over his knee. Had he left his boots on all night? Rafe had to be the most respectful man she'd ever known.
"By all accounts, she was pretty upset," he said. "Those cows were blocking her path to bridge club."
"Oh, no. Mrs. Bachman does not miss bridge club."
"No, she does not. She was fit to be tied and called the new sheriff. What's his name?"
"That's right. Well, Sheriff Richards called Dad. He said he'd drive a patrol car down here to take care of it, but they were all tied up at the Broken Wagon."
The Broken Wagon was an old-style honky-tonk on the highway to San Antonio. They had live music most nights, a washer's pit, a pool hall, and a dance hall where they still sprinkled sawdust on the floor for all the scooting boots that went round it. "Why?" Hallie asked. "What happened?"
Rafe leaned forward and said, "Now, this is all secondhand, as told by Sheriff Richards to my dad, who, I have to tell you, doesn't always appreciate the nuance of a well-told tale. But the sheriff said they had their hands full putting down a brawl."
"A brawl?" Hallie asked, perking up. "That sounds juicy. What started it?"
"If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it was probably a woman. Saturday night brawls at the Broken Wagon are usually about a woman."
Hallie smiled a little. "Spoken like someone with personal experience."
"I am man enough to admit that I may or may not have gotten tangled up by a woman on occasion," he said with a wink.
She would love to hear that story. In high school, Hallie and her friends would openly swoon as they lay around the pool while Rafe walked around with a weed eater in his hand. He would roll his eyes at them and tell them to get a job. Kara Mapplethorpe was absolutely tongue-tied whenever she saw him in a sweaty, threadbare T-shirt and jeans. She definitely would have thrown down for a chance with Rafe. "I haven't been to the Broken Wagon in ages," Hallie said through a yawn.
"It's a good thing you didn't choose last night for your return," Rafe said.
He was right. "So far you've told me about a brawl, some contemplative cows, and a mad Mrs. Bachman," she said, lifting three fingers as she counted them off. "But what has that got to do with me?"
"Nothing," Rafe said. "But that's why I happened to be close by last night. Dad and I saddled up a couple of horses and rode out to move the cows and patch the fence. When I brought the horses back, there weren't any lights on in the house and it looked like no one was home."
"Just me and the blues," Hallie muttered.
"You and a blue streak, you mean," Rafe said. "When I first heard it, I thought it had to be Miss Dolly. No disrespect, but your grandmother can get a little salty."
Hallie snorted. "Tell me about it."
"But Miss Dolly doesn't generally cry. And whoever was cussing was sobbing."
"Okay, thank you, that's all I need to hear," Hallie said, and, mortified, turned her face into the pillow. "Just shoot me, Rafe. Find a gun and take me out back and shoot me."
"Nah," he said, and shifted on the bed. "You're too pretty to shoot. Anyway, I went to have a look," he continued, "and as I got closer, who should I see but Hallie Prince hobbling out to the garage like she had a peg leg."
"I wasn't hobbling," Hallie said. Give her a little dignity in this tale, please.