A dark, lone figure watched me from the edge of the trees. He stood unmoving, his face half obscured by shadows and a scruffy beard. In his forest-green shirt and faded jeans, he blended in perfectly with the dark tree line at his back. I’d only noticed him because of the breeze that had rippled the leaves above his head, unintentionally drawing my eye.
Normally, I would have assumed that he was a trespassing fisherman in search of a good spot along the creek—if it weren’t for the intent way that he watched me. We were on three-thousand acres of private land, alone in the back pasture between two isolated cattle ranches. Even if I screamed, no one would hear me except the small herd of cattle grazing over fifty yards away. Sudden alarm stole the breath from my chest.
Who was this man—and why was he watching me so intently?
The loud moo of a nearby heifer startled me. It reverberated across the wide, open pasture, disturbing the silence. I practically jumped out of my skin, and lost sight of the man as I glanced at the heifer trying to nibble on the hay bale from the bed of my truck. By the time I had shooed her away and looked back over to the tree line, I saw nothing but the beautiful, rustic nature of my Montana home.
The man was gone.
I searched the surrounding pasture, just in case. After finding nothing, I tried to dispel the image of the lone figure from my head. It was unusually warm for early June in western Montana. From a cloudless sky, the sun was beating down in a relentless wave, and my typical outfit of a long-sleeve shirt, jeans and cowgirl boots weren’t helping to combat the heat. I was overly warm, and must have been seeing things. I must have imagined the man in the trees—like a desert mirage.
I shook away the lingering flicker of alarm and forced my attention back on the task at hand. A section of our fencing was damaged and needed repair. I crouched down in the tall grass and tugged down on the brim of my cowgirl hat, casting my face into shadows and blessed relief from the glaring sun. Long strands of auburn hair kept falling over my shoulder and into my face. With impatient movements, I bound my hair into a ponytail and resumed my work.
Finally ready to replace the damaged post with a new one, I slammed the metal post into place with several good hits from the post driver, feeling the familiar burn in my arms and shoulder muscles. I’d grown accustomed to the intensity of ranching work after all these years.
We had moved to my uncle’s cattle ranch when I was ten-years-old. After getting married at eighteen, my mom never planned on returning to her family’s ranch in the small town of Hope Creek, tucked away in the Bitterroot Valley west of Missoula. But life hadn’t turned out as expected, and we’d been forced to move in with Uncle Cameron in order to survive.
Life on a ranch was challenging. We’d seen many tough years, our finances struggling to the point where my uncle was forced to accept help from the women of the family. He’d warned us that ranching work was not for girls, but my sister Sophie and I had proven him wrong on all accounts. In his quiet way, Uncle Cameron had praised us for helping to keep the family cattle ranch afloat.
For the last eleven years it had been the five of us: Uncle Cameron, Mom, and her three children. Now … there were only four of us. I swallowed back the bitterness of grief and tossed aside the post driver a little harder than I’d intended. After burying my sorrow deep within, I went back to work.
Hidden Creek Ranch was spread over three-thousand acres of land. Wide, open pastures merged into the forest along the base of the mountain, where a mixture of evergreen and deciduous pines intermingled with firs and cedars. Hidden along the back five-hundred acres, a small creek wound through clusters of aspen trees and yellow-flowered arnica forbs.
Loaded down with tools—and now partially eaten bales of hay—my faded blue pick-up was parked a few feet away. The soft sounds of country music drifted out from the rolled down windows, and I hummed along to a familiar tune as I worked. The fencing I was repairing was on the border between our property and the Kavanaugh Ranching Company. Two of the aged metal posts had fallen over, the barbed wire lines dipping low in multiple places. With the fencing down, our cattle could cross over to mix in with the Kavanaugh herd, or a horse might get a leg tangled in the barbed wire.
I was threading the wire ends through a wire stretcher when I heard footsteps approaching through the grass on the other side of the fence. Moments later, a shadow fell over me.
Panicked, I shot a glance upward and caught sight of the tall cowboy looking down at me. Appearing as if he had all the time in the world, his stance was relaxed with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, and his plaid short-sleeve shirt untucked. The light-colored stetson he wore was a striking contrast to the black hair it covered, and his wide eyes were a dark blue, like the deep ocean.
His handsome face was unfamiliar. Relief coursed through me when I realized that he wasn’t the same man I’d caught watching me from the trees. He must have been one of the new ranch hands for our neighbors, the Kavanaughs. After their home and barn had burned down last summer, they’d hired extra workers in order to help with the rebuild, as well as the usual ranch work.
“Hello,” the cowboy said, shooting me a smile.
“Hey, you must be new here.” I tried not to stare at the charming dimple that appeared when he smiled. “I’m Brielle.”
One dark brow arched. “Brielle? That’s an interesting name.” He grinned, flashing that charming dimple again. “I like it. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Brielle.”
I blushed at the warm way he said my name, and with a slight European accent that was unusual for a cowboy. Wondering where he was from, I turned my attention back to the fencing. The handsome, dark-haired cowboy watched me for a quiet moment before stepping around the post to crouch down beside me. He was close enough that I could feel the warmth radiating from his body.
“Were you looking for Mackenzie?” I asked, trying to calm my sudden nerves. His proximity was making my pulse race. “She went to the house for some drinks and should be back any time.”
Mackenzie Kavanaugh was my neighbor and best friend, apart from my sister.
“All right,” he replied. “Would it bother you if I waited here?”
“No, not at all.” I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Can you hand me the pliers?”
Our fingers brushed when he handed me the tool, and based on his smirk, the touch had been deliberate. Was he flirting with me? I had little—actually, zero—experience with dating. Growing up, I’d been too preoccupied with life on the ranch to even think about dating. Then in high school, my gorgeous sister had captured the eye of every guy in school. No one was interested in dating quiet and boring Brielle when they had a chance to be with the alluring Sophie Parker.
After both wires were in place, I cranked the lever until the ends pulled together and worked on tying them. The cowboy watched over my shoulder in apparent fascination; I wondered if this was his first ranching job. As I worked, I blathered on in an attempt to distract myself from his nearness. I told him about the type of work expected on a ranch, ranging from the excitement of a cattle drive to the unpleasant job of mucking out horse stalls.
He listened quietly, with rapt attention and the occasional dimpled smile. At one point, I peeked over my shoulder to find his eyes fixed on me. If that wasn’t obvious interest showing in his blue eyes, then my chances at dating were beyond hopeless. This handsome cowboy with the dimpled smile was making my heart somersault within my chest—and I didn’t even know his name.
Right when I turned to ask him, I noticed Mackenzie, Sophie and my brother Logan approaching with a jug of lemonade and plastic cups. Mackenzie took one look at the cowboy, then launched herself across the pasture and into his arms. They hugged in a gesture that was obviously familiar.
A twinge of embarrassment stabbed my chest. He hadn’t been flirting with me; he obviously had a special relationship with Mackenzie. I was naive to think he was showing any interest in me. I really was clueless when it came to dating.
My siblings set the drinks on the tailgate of the pick-up and moved to stand near my side while we waited for an introduction.
“What are you doing here—and what are you wearing?” Mackenzie asked when she finally stepped out of the cowboy’s embrace. She was a petite little thing, with curly brown hair framing a heart-shaped face and eyes so dark they were nearly black.
The cowboy grinned. “It’s my last summer of freedom before I join the Royal Navy and I decided to surprise you.” He struck a pose and winked. “Don’t you think I look good in this outfit? I blend right in.”
The Royal Navy? This cowboy was clearly not a new ranch hand as I’d assumed. Was he someone Mackenzie knew from Coradova? The Kavanaughs had spent ten years in the small kingdom of Coradova, an island in the Mediterranean Sea near France. When they moved back to Montana four years ago, Mackenzie had missed the country she’d called home for most of her life and often spoke fondly of the friends she’d made, including the royal children.
My spine stiffened. No, I thought with a sudden sense of horror. He couldn’t possibly be …
Mackenzie turned a beaming smile on us and tugged the cowboy forward. “I want you all to meet Ashton. Ash, these are the Parkers.”
Ashton. As in, His Royal Highness, Prince Ashton of Coradova?
Color bloomed in my cheeks. I refused to make direct eye contact with the blue-eyed prince, feeling utterly embarrassed over the way I had spoken to him as if he were a normal ranch hand instead of royalty. My embarrassment grew tenfold over my ridiculous notion that he had been flirting with me. As if a royal prince would have any interest in a cowgirl like me.
“It looks like you’ve already met Bree,” Mackenzie continued, unaware of my humiliation. Ashton nodded and smiled at me before following Mackenzie’s gesturing hand toward my siblings. “This is Logan, and that’s Sophie.”
Watching Ashton, I recognized the look of surprise that crossed his face as he stared at Sophie. My sister was beautiful with her high cheekbones, rich auburn hair and wide brown eyes. I guess that meant I was beautiful too, since we had the exact same face.
Ashton turned his blue gaze on me once again, his mouth curving into an amused smirk. “It looks like you were holding out on me, Brielle. Not only is your name interesting, but now I find out that you’re an identical twin.”
The blush that deepened my cheeks turned to chagrin when Sophie laughed and drew his attention with little effort. If any country girl could turn his head, my twin sister would be the one to do it.
“You have no idea how much fun it is being an identical twin. Bree and I used to love playing tricks on people when we were little. Unless you’re looking closely, it’s very difficult to tell us apart.” Her long hair fell over her shoulders in an auburn curtain, softening her features and making her appear as lovely as ever.
Even though we were identical twins, I felt plain and drab in comparison; coated with dirt and grime after working on the fencing for the last few hours. Ashton studied Sophie’s face for a long moment, then turned a scrutinizing eye on me. I tried not to squirm under his gaze.
“I can’t see any differences,” he said eventually.
“You’ll have to get to know us better first.” Sophie smiled, her eyes playful and inviting, drawing him to her like a moth to flame.
I recognized the look of interest that crossed Ashton’s face. My heart squeezed briefly with remorse, although I honestly wasn’t the least bit surprised. It was what I’d expected. Ashton had seemed to show interest in me … until he met my sister.
Cheerful, vibrant, charismatic Sophie.
We might have been identical, but people didn’t look at me the way they looked at Sophie.
“Hey, Bree,” Sophie called out. I looked over to see her link arms with Ashton, completely at ease despite the fact that he was a royal. “It looks like you don’t need my help with the fencing, so I’m going to show Ashton around the ranch.”
“Unless you’d like to come with us,” Ashton interjected.
I wanted to say yes—but my darn practical nature wouldn’t allow it. I sighed, genuinely contrite, and waved a hand toward the solitary post. “Thanks for the invite, but I really need to finish the fencing.”
Ashton’s smile faltered, then brightened as he stepped toward me. “Would you like some help? I don’t know anything about fencing, but I’d be more than happy to lend a hand.”
Before I could respond, Sophie waved her hand in dismissal and crooned, “That’s so sweet of you to offer, Ashton. But Bree prefers to take care of things by herself. She won’t mind if I give you a tour. Right, Bree?” Her brown eyes flitted to my face, pleading for my agreement.
I bit back a sigh. “Sure, Soph. I’ve got this handled.” All by myself, as usual.
“Thanks, Bree!” She smiled widely and tugged on the prince’s arm. “Let’s start with the stables.”
“All right,” Ashton acknowledged, though his gaze was still on me. “I guess I’ll see you later then, Brielle.” He shot me a crooked smile before returning his attention to Sophie.
They meandered back through the pasture. Mackenzie bobbed alongside them, caught up in Sophie’s enthusiasm. A moment later, I spotted the two men in black suits that followed behind at a discreet distance. I hadn’t even noticed them earlier; Ashton’s presence had captured my complete attention.
His Royal Highness, Prince Ashton of Coradova.
What was I thinking? I turned away with a small shake of my head and realized that Logan was standing near my pick-up truck.
My big brother was a genuine cowboy. He was dressed in his usual Wranglers and boots, with a straw-colored cowboy hat tipped low over his face. His wide hazel eyes were exactly like our mother’s, while Sophie and I had our father’s soft brown eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want any help, Bree?”
“It’s all right, Logan. I’m almost done.” I attached more wire to the wire stretcher and cranked the lever, then glanced up at my brother, still hovering near the truck.
“Thanks for taking care of this, Brielle. I know I can always count on you.” He pulled off his hat and rubbed a freckled hand over short auburn hair that was more brown than red. He replaced the hat and shot me a grin. “I’m going to ride through the herd and check on the calves. I’ll see you at lunch.”
He sauntered away through the grass, heading toward the barn. Logan was a rancher through and through. He enjoyed nothing better than riding his horse through the herd or driving cattle along dirt roads. It was hard and dirty work, with long hours and livestock that required daily care. Sometimes it was a thankless, back-breaking job, with the strong smell of manure thick in the air and herds of cattle that were stubborn, powerful, and even dangerous under certain circumstances.
There were times when I wished for a chance to escape this country life. If I could, I would venture out to the west coast where the ocean spread out in an endless stretch of adventure and possibilities. Longing surged through me. I tried to remind myself that it was no longer an option. The ranch needed me. My family needed me. As much as I longed for travel and adventure, my life was here in Hope Creek, Montana. The desire to explore the world was nothing but a dream now, like a vapor in the wind … utterly and completely untouchable.