The royals of coradova, BOOK 2

Heart Captivated

I wasn’t looking for happily-ever-after. Then I met the charming second-born prince of Coradova. And he was impossible to resist.

My name is Brielle Parker and I no longer believe in fairytales — not when my life in the country has led to nothing but heartache. All I want is a life of peace and a chance to travel the world, so when the opportunity to spend the summer in Coradova arose, I grabbed it by the bull horns. 

And found more than I was looking for. So much more.

The only problem is . . . my twin sister is in love with Prince Ashton, too.

Now I must choose between my twin, or the prince who made me believe that love is worth the risk. 

EXCERPT FROM HEART CAPTIVATED

CHAPTER ONE:

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.

CHAPTER TWO:

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.

“Okay, Ashton.”

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.

CHAPTER THREE:

We fell into a routine over the next few weeks. Every morning Ashton, and sometimes Mackenzie, came over for breakfast and to help with morning chores. Most days Ashton spent the afternoons with all three of us, wandering through the pastures of both ranches and exploring our small town of Hope Creek. He seemed content to spend time with all of us, but occasionally, an impatient Sophie claimed him all for herself and took him off on outings all throughout the Bitterroot Valley.

After dinner one night, Sophie suggested starting up the fire pit and dragged Ashton outside to help her. Logan was in town with friends and Uncle Cameron had retired to his bedroom after calling it an early night. One royal guard had followed the prince outside, while a handful more were surveying the perimeter. I was surprised by how quickly I’d grown accustomed to their presence after only a few short weeks.

Through the kitchen window, I noticed the silhouetted couple standing close together in the yard. The light from the campfire flickered around them like glowing amber. I wasn’t trying to snoop, but their laughter had caught my attention while I was washing the dishes in the kitchen sink. Before I could turn my gaze away, I saw the smaller shadow reach up on tiptoes to circle her arms around the prince. Their shadows merged in the undeniable act of a kiss.

Blushing, I forced my eyes onto the dinner plate in my hand and scrubbed with extra vigor. Mackenzie moved into place beside me, holding a kitchen towel in her hand. Without a word, she picked up the clean dishes and began drying them with the towel.

We worked in companionable silence for a few minutes before I asked the question that had been bothering me on and off since the prince’s arrival. “Kenzie, is Ashton a bit of a playboy?”

“Ashton?” Mackenzie laughed and shook her head. “No, not at all. I think he’s had one, maybe two, serious relationships.” She put a cup in the cabinet, then reached for another. “Ash is very loyal. When he commits to someone, he’s all in. Alex, on the other hand, was a notorious playboy.”

Ashton’s older brother, Alexander, was the Crown Prince of Coradova. He had been a dashing and charming flirt until he fell in love with Madison Kavanaugh, Mackenzie’s older sister.

I handed Mackenzie a plate to dry. “So you think Ashton honestly likes Sophie? He’s not just looking for a fling before going back to Coradova next week?” While a part of me was admittedly jealous over catching Ashton and Sophie kissing, I was primarily concerned about the prince’s intentions. He’d been flirting with me since the first day we met, and yet now he was kissing my sister under the stars.

Mackenzie answered, “I don’t think Ashton is playing games with Sophie’s heart. If anything happens between them, it’s because he really likes her. Try not to worry.”

“But she’s so impulsive and never thinks before jumping—and she gives up her heart too easily,” I argued, uncertain if I was more concerned for her heart, or mine. “What if he breaks her heart?” My hands clenched over the sponge, dribbling dirty dish water into the sink. “She’s been hurt enough this year. We all have.” The pain in my voice was noticeable. I dropped my head and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to get the stabbing heartache back under control.

I felt an arm slip around my shoulders as Mackenzie hugged me. “I know, Bree. You’ve all been hurt more than enough.” She squeezed my shoulders briefly. “I’ll warn him to be careful with Sophie. I promise he won’t intentionally hurt her.”

But what if he unintentionally hurts her? What if he hurts me? A handsome, dashing prince like Ashton would never be happy with a cowgirl, even one as beautiful and intriguing as Sophie. We were from two different worlds—not to mention he lived thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean and was planning to join the Coradovan Royal Navy in September. It was only a matter of time before he broke one of our hearts. Not that mine was his to break.

Ashton and Sophie entered through the kitchen door on a wave of laughter. The screen door slammed shut behind them, snapping me out of my musings.

I shoved my grief and fears down deep where they belonged and spun around with a smile. “Hey, you two. Thanks for setting up the fire pit. We’re almost done in here.” I gestured to the half-empty sink and kept my expression bright and carefully guarded, as if the turmoil in my heart didn’t exist.

Ashton scanned my face before his eyes drifted over to the dirty dishes in the sink. He grabbed the discarded kitchen towel off the counter and joined me. “Why don’t I dry, while you wash?”

“That’s okay, you don’t have to—”

“I want to, Brielle.” His quiet voice was insistent and held a hint of command. Without waiting for my response, he picked up a wet plate. “Since you made me dinner again, it’s the least I can do.”

I bit my lip. “Have you ever washed dishes before?” I teased, poking fun at him, but honestly curious.

He shot me a look. “Yes, I’ve washed dishes before, Brielle.” That adorable dimple flashed as he dried the plate and set it on the counter. “It’s not like it’s rocket science.”

“You might as well let him help you,” Mackenzie commented from beside the kitchen door. “His Royal Highness is accustomed to getting his own way.” She smiled sweetly at Ashton, grabbed a paper bag off the counter and turned to Sophie. “Come on, let’s go set out the marshmallows. I’m craving a s’more.” Sophie didn’t look particularly enthusiastic, but followed Mackenzie out the door anyway.

“What’s a s’more?” Ashton asked.

“You don’t know what a s’more is?” I pivoted to stare at him in surprise.

“I’m kidding, Brielle.” Ashton smirked, teasing me with only a peek at that adorable dimple. “I know how to wash dishes, and I know what a s’more is. I grew up in Coradova, not on the moon.”

“Oh, right …” I blushed and slowly shifted around to face the sink.

Ashton hid another smile and continued drying the wet dishes.

After a moment, I murmured, “Thanks for your help, Ashton.” My shoulder brushed his arm when I reached for the sponge; such a slight, brief touch. I froze at the tingle of sensation that coursed through me, surprised by my reaction. No one had ever evoked this kind of an awareness in me … before Ashton. I stole a sideways glance at him, and found his eyes on me.

For a moment, the dishes were forgotten.

He studied me in silence, then finally asked, “Is everything all right, Brielle? When we walked in, you seemed … upset.”

My eyes widened. “You noticed that?” No one ever recognized the pain I worked hard to conceal. Yet Ashton, who I’d known for less than one month, had noticed what none of my family ever did.

His dimpled smile was rueful. “Yes, I noticed.” He reached for my hand, holding it gently. His casual touch surprised me as much as his perceptiveness.

“It’s nothing,” I answered, abruptly turning back to the dishes and removing my hand from his grip. I was unnerved by his ability to so easily see past the mask I hid behind—and by the longing his touch had ignited. My words came out more curt than I’d intended. “I’m fine.”

He bristled slightly at my tone. “I’m only trying to help.” Ashton turned back to the sink, his movements brisk as he dried another plate.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” Gathering my courage, I admitted, “Yes, I was upset when you walked in.”

“Was it because of me?” he inquired softly, his eyes on his task.

“No, of course not.” Even though he wasn’t looking at me, I angled my head away in an attempt to hide my face from his soul-searching eyes.

“Does it bother you to see me with Sophie?”

My hands stilled on the casserole dish I’d been scrubbing. How did he do that? Did he have a direct line to my heart or something? “No,” I breathed, although it was a lie. Seeing him with Sophie bothered me for reasons I didn’t want to admit—and I hated that he could recognize it. “Why would that bother me … unless you’re just toying with her.”

“I’m not toying with her.” There was a bite to his voice; I’d obviously insulted him. Ashton turned to look at me, his gaze direct and searching. Too much so. “I was wondering …” He paused and rubbed the back of his neck, looking uncomfortable.

“… if you could have my permission to date my sister?” I suggested, ill at the thought.

Ashton straightened and met my eyes. “… if there was a reason why you wouldn’t want me to.” As he held my gaze, his words reverberated around my head, thick with a seemingly hidden meaning.

“Do—do you like her?” Please, please say no.

He hesitated for a heartbeat and shifted closer, his eyes warming, drawing me to him. “I like—”

The kitchen door slammed open behind us. We jerked apart and returned our attention to the dishes. My heart hammered and thoughts spun as I fought against an embarrassed blush. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Ashton suppress another smile.

“S’mores are ready!” Sophie announced, drawing close to Ashton with a brilliant smile.

I took in the sight of her besotted face and felt a sudden twinge of regret. Even though I was undeniably drawn to him, I could never allow my budding feelings for Ashton to bloom.

We couldn’t both fall for the same man … no matter how alluring his warm blue eyes were.

* * *

Before dawn, Ashton met me out in the barn for morning chores. He was holding a yellow wildflower and offered it to me with a dimpled grin. “I thought you might like this.”

“Oh, Ashton.” I pressed a hand to my chest, touched. “It’s beautiful.” I longed to take it, but squeezed my hand into a fist, knowing I couldn’t accept his thoughtful gesture. Instead of taking the flower, I grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall and refused to look at him when I said, “Ashton … I wanted to tell you that you have my permission to date Sophie.”

He was silent for so long that I chanced a peek at his face. He was frowning.

With the flower still held in his hand, Ashton stepped closer, ignoring my retreat as I pressed my back against the wall. His eyes were intent on my face. “Brielle, I don’t think you really mean that.”

“Yes, I do,” I whispered, unhinged by his closeness. I’d made my decision and refused to allow his gorgeous blue eyes or dimpled smile to change my mind. “Last night you asked if it bothered me to see you with Sophie, and it doesn’t.” Lies, such terrible lies. “I can’t think of a single reason for why you shouldn’t be with her.”

“I see.” His eyes dimmed as he eased away and turned his back to me. He stood still for a long moment, his shoulders tensed. “I guess I should go find Sophie … since there’s no reason for me to stay here … with you.” His eyes met mine, searching, waiting. When I said nothing, he turned and walked out of the barn.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the image of his disappointed expression—as well as the image of the yellow wildflower now lying crushed at my feet.

This was for the best. After only three weeks, it was obvious that Sophie was falling for him, and falling hard—it didn’t matter that I was falling for him, too. I would not risk Sophie’s heart.

My sister deserved every happiness that life had to offer. If a royal prince was what her vulnerable heart desired, then I hoped with every fiber of my being that her dreams would come true … even if I had to sacrifice my own dreams. It’s not like I hadn’t done that once already.

I straightened my shoulders and walked away, leaving the forlorn wildflower broken in the dirt, along with a tiny piece of my heart.

I was surprised by how quickly I’d grown fond of the dark-haired prince with the dimpled smile. His easy-going nature and friendly personality had side-swept my carefully laid intentions of keeping him at a distance. After barely a week, Ashton had become a friend I could count on, and now he was something more.

A week after our … discussion … the prince was due to return home to Coradova. He met us out on the front porch, accompanied by four royal guards. He spoke quietly with Sophie, hugged her close and turned to me while my sister sniffled in the background.

Without a word, Ashton carefully drew me into his arms. Despite the tension that had been present over the last week, his hug was warm and long. When he finally stepped back, his gaze lingered on my face. “Thanks for showing me the ropes around here. I’ll miss it … and your cute American accent.” He winked, making my heartbeat stutter. Then his playful smile grew serious. “Goodbye, Brielle.”

Tears pricked at my eyes. There was so much I could have said to him, but all I could manage was a whispered, “Goodbye, Ashton.”

He nodded, offered up one more smile and sailed down the old, rickety steps.

Standing on the edge of the porch beside Sophie, I took one look at her tear-streaked face and felt my heart squeeze in response to her pain. I slipped an arm around her shoulders in a gesture of love and support. She leaned her head against mine and sniffled again.

Ashton paused at the bottom step and looked up at us over his shoulder, those gorgeous blue eyes taking in the sight of us standing together. Identical in both looks and tears. A soft smile played on his lips. Then he flashed that adorable dimple before turning to stride across the drive to his waiting car.

Together, we watched the handsome and charming prince walk out of our lives and back to his home in Coradova. I wondered if we’d ever see him again.

CHAPTER FOUR:

Sophie moped around the ranch for the following week, lacking her usual chatter and enthusiasm. Her first true smile came on the day when Mackenzie told us about her plans to spend the remainder of the summer in Coradova—and her hope that we might join her.

Sophie had immediately jumped at the idea, her eyes brimming with excitement. It had taken three days of constant nagging for Sophie to wear down my resistance. My adventurous side was more than eager for the chance to explore Coradova over the summer, but my practical side insisted that we couldn’t abandon the ranch. Refusing to give up on the idea, Sophie had relentlessly pleaded with both Uncle Cameron and Logan, with her brown eyes glossy with unshed tears.

“It’s been a tough year,” Uncle Cameron acknowledged during dinner later that night. “I know I’ve asked more of you since Sharon died, and you’ve all stepped up without complaint.” His hazel eyes traveled over each of us in turn, before resting on me. “If you want to spend the summer in Coradova, please don’t worry about the ranch. Logan and I have everything under control.”

A weight lifted from my shoulders. Uncle Cameron had given his approval for us to spend the summer in Coradova. Excitement bubbled up in my stomach. I could hardly wait.

Less than a week later, our private plane was touching down on the runway of Le Mersaille Aéroport in Calais, the capital of Coradova. I stepped out of the plane after Mackenzie and Sophie, and paused, drawn in by the breathtaking beauty of the country before me. We were in the center of Coradova’s largest city, yet throughout the sprawling expanse of buildings and streets we were still surrounded by luscious greenery. Pops of bright flowers seemed to soften the sharp concrete edges and the sea was brilliant in the distance, stretching wide across the horizon with sun rays glinting off the surface.

I stood rooted to the top of the steps, taking in every inch of the scenery beyond the airport, hardly daring to believe that I was really here. It was another moment before I spotted the waiting group at the foot of the steps and forced myself to descend. While I had been distracted by the sights, Mackenzie and Sophie had been joined by Prince Ashton.

Looking sharp and resplendent in a navy business suit and crisp white shirt, he stood next to Sophie, his blue eyes bright with merriment as the warm breeze ruffled his dark hair. “Enjoying the view?” Ashton asked me with a grin.

“Coradova is beautiful,” I replied.

His eyes shone with pride over my assessment of his country. Ashton stepped closer to take hold of my hand and brought it to his lips. The featherlight kiss he brushed against the back of my fingers made my heart flutter. “Welcome to Coradova, Brielle. I hope you find my home as charming as you’ve imagined.”

Even after he released my hand, I could still feel the warmth of his kiss on my skin.

Ashton directed us to follow him, and led us through a side door into the airport. As we moved through an empty hallway, I surveyed the bulky men flanking us. I recognized four of them as his royal guards from Montana, while the other two were unfamiliar. They were all dressed in dark Armani suits, each face alert and scanning the hallway for threats. When he had been in Montana, his personal security detail was so discreet that I’d often forgotten their presence entirely. It had been easy to forget he was a prince most of the time, but here, it was a sharp reminder that he was a beloved member of the Coradovan Royal Family.

We passed through two more vacant hallways before being ushered through a side door and into an alley with a waiting limo. Flanked by two black sedans, we drove out of the airport and through the narrow, packed streets of Calais. Through the tinted windows, I watched the rows of small shops and crowds of people passing by. The buildings were old, but well-maintained with fresh paint and window boxes bursting with flowers. Terra-cotta rooftops zoomed by in an orange blur of fiery-clay. Eventually the shops and crowds thinned until the landscape dropped off on one side to plunge into a swirling blue sea.

“I see we’re taking the scenic route to the palace,” Mackenzie commented from her seat at the front of the limo. “Good idea.”

“I thought Sophie and Bree might enjoy a drive along the coast. There’s nothing better than a seaside drive—unless you’re sailing.”

“You know how to sail?” I asked, finally tearing my gaze away from the view outside the window. Ashton and Sophie were sitting on the seat beside me, with my sister tucked in the middle between us.

Ashton nodded and smiled at me over her head. “I’ll have to take you out while you’re here.”

“Count me out,” Sophie commented, making a face. “I get sea sick and the medicine just makes me tired. Maybe Kenzie and I can have a spa day while you two go sailing.”

My attention was drawn out the window again when the limo slowed and pulled over near a deserted stretch of beach. I turned toward Ashton with eager, questioning eyes.

“Go ahead,” he urged, shooting me a dimpled smile.

I hopped out instantly and didn’t even bother waiting for the others to exit. I yanked off my sandals and raced down the beach to the water’s edge. The surf lapped at my toes as I stood transfixed by the breathtaking sight of the sea rising and falling in hypnotic swells. The water was a shade of pale turquoise that deepened into dark blue farther out to sea. Sailboats bobbed along in the distance, showered in golden sunlight.

It had been years since the one and only time I’d ever seen the ocean … back when my dad was still around. We’d taken a family vacation to the west coast and spent seven amazing days in a beach front cottage. That trip had sparked my love for the sea and adventure. I’d spent the following eight years dreaming about exploring the world—until our family had fallen apart.

With a resigned sigh, I plopped down onto the sand and let my thoughts wash away as the tide washed over my toes. The beach stretched for miles in each direction. I could barely make out the dotted images of surfers riding the distant waves.

Mackenzie lowered onto the sand next to me, a grin on her face. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Now I understand why you had such a hard time moving back to Montana.” Bracing my elbow on a bent knee, I rested my chin in my palm and sighed. “I wish I could stay here forever.”

Movement to our right caught my attention. I looked up to find Ashton’s gaze on me, his blue eyes speculative. He had left his suit jacket in the limo and stood at the edge of the water in bare feet, with the sun glinting off various strands of his black hair. He was so breathtakingly handsome. The sea behind him brought out the deep blue of his eyes, making me want to drown in them. We said nothing and merely stared at each other.

Sophie moved up close to his side. “It’s beautiful here, Ashton.” Never one to hold back her affections, she clasped his hand and smiled up at him in pure adoration.

I looked out toward the sea again, breaking the connection between us, and silently scolded myself to remember that Sophie was head-over-heels for Ashton. I couldn’t afford to lose myself in his glorious blue eyes or charming dimpled smile, no matter how warm his glances occasionally were. The last thing I would ever do is hurt my sister.

END OF SAMPLE

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