The enticing smell of pancakes preceded me into the kitchen.
“It smells great in here, Soph,” I announced with a smile, before drawing to a halt at the sight of the twenty-one-year-old prince sitting at our kitchen table.
He was lounging in one of the wooden chairs in jeans and a t-shirt, with his stetson resting on the round farmhouse table. I was surprised to see the prince here this early in the morning; it was before sunrise. Even dressed in western wear, he looked out of place in our weathered, country-style kitchen.
The white-washed cabinets were chipped with age, the pale blue walls faded from years of sun exposure and the oak hardwood was dusty and scratched. It was hard to believe he could be so at-ease in our simple, well-loved home, but I had to admit he looked comfortable and perfectly content in his place at our kitchen table.
Ashton sent me a dimpled smile. “Good morning, Brielle.”
“Good morning.” I stood awkwardly in the doorway and chewed on my lower lip, uncertain if I should curtsy or address him as Your Highness.
He seemed to read my expression. Understanding lit up his eyes along with a wicked twinkle. “You can call me His Most Excellent Royal Highness, Prince Ashton.” He winked, a grin tugging at his lips. “I might be a prince, Brielle, but I don’t stand on formality when I’m with friends. Please just call me Ashton.”
I hesitated. “Okay …”
“Ashton,” he prompted, suppressing his smile.
His answering grin was dazzling. “I like the way you say my name, Brielle. Your American accent is very … cute.”
Goodness, was he actually flirting with me? I flicked a glance at Sophie, but she was humming to herself as she flipped pancakes over a griddle, lost in her own thoughts. I moved to sit in the chair across from him and chose to ignore his comment about my cute American accent. “How did you know I was wondering what to call you?”
He leaned back in his chair, his mouth curving in a smile. “Most Americans aren’t familiar with the formality. And I’m very good at reading people.” The intensity in his blue gaze made a blush creep into my cheeks.
I cleared my throat and blurted out the first thought that popped into my head. “Aren’t you supposed to be surrounded by royal guards, being a prince and all?”
Ashton grinned and gestured with his hand. “Oh, they’re around. But if you could spot them, then they aren’t doing a very good job of being discreet.”
“Oh,” I murmured, feeling like an idiot.
Sophie approached and said, “Bree, I hope you don’t mind that I invited Ashton over for breakfast.” She set a plate down in front of the prince that was stacked high with pancakes. “Here you go, handsome.”
He thanked her and dug in, taking a huge bite of pancake coated with fresh huckleberries and syrup. “This is delicious,” Ashton commented, stabbing a huckleberry with his fork and holding it up for inspection. “What are these?”
“Huckleberries,” Sophie answered, flipping more pancakes over the griddle. “A popular Montana staple … and they’re Bree’s favorite.” She readied another plate and set it in front of me, then paused to whisper none-too-quietly into Ashton’s ear, “I’m hoping to butter her up so she’ll let me skip out on my morning chores.” She sent me a pleading look on her way back to the stove.
I sighed and picked up my fork, knowing I couldn’t deny her anything. By her smile, Sophie knew it too. I should have seen this coming. Sophie didn’t usually help with breakfast unless she was hoping for a favor—and pancakes with huckleberries was a sure-fire way to get in my good graces. I could let her out of morning chores if Logan was here to help me …
“Is Logan around?” I asked between bites.
Sophie shook her head. “He and Uncle Cameron are helping with the Jameson’s branding today. They’re in the barn loading the horses.”
“I forgot about that.” I frowned at my plate. It looked like I would be doing the chores on my own this morning.
“Why don’t I help you both with the morning chores?” Ashton offered. “I’d hate to make Bree do it all on her own.”
Gratitude for his thoughtfulness spread through me. Over the last year, Sophie had become too wrapped up in her emotions to be of much help. She’d never enjoyed ranching work, but lately it was a challenge just to get her help with morning chores. It was difficult to hold it against her though, when I knew how much she’d been struggling since our mother had passed away barely over a year ago.
While Uncle Cameron and Logan had thrown themselves into ranching, Sophie had been more than eager to escape the boundaries of Hidden Creek Ranch. She had a sudden thirst to experience everything that life had to offer—before it was gone. As for me, I’d spent the last year trying to fill the void left in our family. I’d done anything and everything in my power to help my loved ones find happiness again. Sometimes it felt like the burden was more than I could carry. There were days when the longing for my mother was more than my broken heart could handle.
Before my thoughts could wander much further in that direction, I smiled at Ashton with genuine gratitude. “Thank you, Ashton. I appreciate the help.”
His dimpled smile was utterly irresistible. For a brief, insane moment, I wished for a chance to pursue my attraction to him. For the first time since my mom’s death, I wanted something more out of life than trying to drown my sorrows in ranch work and being the glue that held my family together. I banished the thought as quickly as it had come: in the blink of an eye. I’d experienced more than enough heartache in my twenty-one years of life. First with my dad, and then my mom. My fragile heart couldn’t risk being crushed again—especially by a handsome prince.
Ashton’s warm voice cut into my dreary thoughts. “You’re very welcome, Bree.”
I peeked up to find his gaze on me.
Our eye contact broke when Sophie joined us at the table. “Let’s eat and get those chores done. The faster we finish, the sooner we can go out to … explore.” The sultry look she sent Ashton made it impossible to misunderstand her meaning.
I could have sworn Ashton blushed, but his olive-toned complexion made it difficult to tell. He stole a glance at me before focusing his attention on the pancakes. We finished our breakfast in relative silence and headed out to the barn.
We made quick work of the morning chores with three sets of helping hands. For a prince, Ashton was not afraid to get his hands—or his brand new Wrangler jeans—dirty. He was very laid-back, and surprisingly down-to-earth; in no time at all I had forgotten to be intimidated by his royal title. As we worked, Ashton entertained us with charming stories of his home. The more he told us, the more I longed for a glimpse of the Mediterranean paradise of Coradova.
A yearning rose up within me, so strong and powerful that it took all of my will-power to restrain it. I was no longer free to travel the world as I’d always wanted. The dreams I’d had to study abroad were gone, along with any hope for a life outside of the Hidden Creek Ranch.
That didn’t restrain my growing interest in Coradova though. I questioned Ashton about the country he called home and delighted in every detail he shared. With a broad smile and eyes full of pride, he seemed more than happy to oblige.
When Sophie grew tired of listening to our chatter, she interrupted and took the shovel from his hands. “Come on, Ashton. Let me show you the creek.” She led him off for some time alone without waiting for his consent.
As I watched them leave, my thoughts wandered over images of a country I’d never seen before, but was quickly falling in love with.