It had been fifteen years since Pierce Westin stepped foot on the Open Sky Ranch. But after a mysterious phone call disrupted a life lived on the edge, the security expert agreed it was time to come home. And although his presence in Wyoming was only temporary, Pierce fell back into the easygoing lifestyle he'd once been desperate to escape. Unfortunately, that peace was shattered when gorgeous Princess Analise showed up, claiming she'd angered all the wrong people and needed his protection. As cases went, it certainly wasn't his most dangerous. But after a day spent looking into her crystal-blue eyes, and stealing breathtaking kisses, Pierce knew the outcome of this mission would change his life. Forever.
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September 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Westin's Wyoming by Alice Sharpe
Pierce Westin stared down at the cattle gate for a long time. Was his brain frozen, were aching muscles clouding his vision or had someone cut the chain and wrapped it back around the steel railings to make it appear it was still secure?
He swung himself off his horse, waded through the snow that had backed up against the gate and grabbed the metal with gloved hands. The last links on either end dangled loose when shaken. It had been cut, all right.
Well, maybe the winter policy had changed since he'd lived and worked on the ranch. Maybe it was always kept this way now. He'd only been back a few days--how did he know?
Except the cuts looked new. He studied the snow, both on his side of the gate and on the Bureau of Land Management side where the ranch had grazing rights. He couldn't see any fresh tracks besides his own.
His horse, a tidy pinto named Sam, bumped Pierce's hat off his head and whinnied softly against his neck, his exhalations forming a cloud of vapor in the cold air. Pierce caught the hat before it hit the ground and pulled it back on. Okay, okay, no time to worry about this now, he had a chopper to meet and Sam was apparently on duty to remind him of it. Back in the saddle, Pierce moved off down the canyon.
He'd been away from the ranch for most of fifteen years, hence the protesting muscles in the saddle. He wouldn't be here now except for Cody's call, and for a second he flashed on the situation he'd left behind in Italy. He immediately pushed aside those concerns--no use stewing about something he couldn't change from thousands of miles away.
An hour later, Pierce reached the airfield in time to witness a huge helicopter descending from the turbulent skies--there was a storm predicted for late the next day. No point in muttering curses at Cody for leaving nothing but cryptic notes about who was arriving on the chopper, but man, it would have been nice to have a name or a reason for the visit. Even a contact number so he could cancel would have been nice.
The blades were still whirling when Pierce pulled his horse to a halt beside Jamie Dirk. Two generations of Westin men had depended on Jamie's common sense and work ethic to keep the Open Sky running, but the old guy hadn't changed much in the past fifteen years.
Jamie stood beside his bay mare. Pierce knew the preferred mode of transportation had shifted from horseback to ATVs over the years. He was riding the pinto for old time's sake. He suspected Jamie was riding the mare because that was what a ranch hand was "supposed" to ride and there was little doubt that a horse was better with a cow than a machine or even a man if it came to that.
Jamie looked up at Pierce from beneath the brim of his disreputable brown hat, shifted the ever-present toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and grumbled, "'Bout time you showed up."
"You know anything about the gate over past Saddleback?" Pierce asked as he dismounted. His boots landed on a thin layer of day-old crunchy snow, a far cry from the three-foot drifts he'd steered clear of at higher elevations.
"The one leading to the BLM land? What were you doing all the way out there?"
"Just looking around, getting a feel for things again. It's been a while, you know."
"What about the gate?"
"The chain's cut."
Jamie's brow wrinkled. "That's odd."
"I thought so, too." Pierce tried to catch a glimpse of who might be inside the chopper. "I wish I knew who the hell we were standing here to greet."
"Maybe I should take off and see about that gate." The old guy was happier in a saddle than on the ground.
"Stick around," Pierce said, handing Jamie the pinto's reins. "These people won't be here long, not when I explain about the storm."
"Speaking of that storm, I sent a few of the men to the higher pastures to bring the heifers closer to the ranch. Those first-time mothers need help now and again."
Pierce nodded. He understood Jamie was keeping him in the loop and he appreciated it, but except for that chain being cut, there wasn't a thing he could tell Jamie that Jamie didn't already know.
Pierce had taken a dozen steps onto the field when he heard another engine and turned to see the arrival of a ranch vehicle. The young driver looked sullen as though being asked to transport visitors was beneath him.
The sound of the helicopter door opening reclaimed
Pierce's attention and he turned in time to see a man jump out of the chopper. Dressed in black from the sunglasses plastered on an expressionless face to the leather coat strained across burly shoulders, he scanned the field like a vulture, shaved bald head reflecting what little light fought its way through the gloom. Other than the old hangar, which housed the ranch helicopter, and a wind sock whipping around as the weather picked up, there wasn't a heck of a lot to see.
Which begged the question in Pierce's head: What was he doing standing out here in the frickin' cold, waiting for a bad version of Mr. T to give the place a once-over? He took a deep breath of icy air. "Welcome to--"
"Stop right there," the man growled.
Pierce felt his forehead furrow. "Excuse me?"
"I said stop. Let me see some ID."
The corners of Pierce's lips lifted. "You're kidding, right? You land on private property and then go ordering me around? Who are you?"
At that moment, a child appeared in the open door of the chopper. Hands from inside reached as if to detain him, but the boy slipped away easily, hitting the ground with a thud and taking off at a sprint, his face split with a big old grin.
All things considered, he was an astonishing-looking kid. About eight or so, bright red hair, decked out in a buckskin jacket, cowboy boots, spurs and two tin six-shooters that banged against his skinny legs as he ran. A blue cowboy hat flew out behind him, tethered by a cord around his neck.
The bald man tried a full body block, but the kid was wily and darted away until he all but slammed into Pierce's legs.
"Whoa, partner," Pierce said, catching the small shoulders in his hands, ignoring the twinge in his heart. Eight. That's about how old Patrick would have been.
The child looked up at him with silver dollar eyes. "Are you a real cowboy?" he said.
Behind them, Jamie snickered and Pierce threw him a dirty look. To the boy, he said, "Of course I'm a real cowboy." He looked the kid over and added, "From the size of those spurs, so are you."
He glanced up from the child in time to see an older man with deep lines running down pale, gaunt cheeks standing at the chopper door. He wore a fur cap and military-looking wool coat over what appeared to be a uniform and stood like a conquering hero awaiting a ticker-tape parade. Upon making eye contact with Pierce, he nodded curtly, but when he hit the ground, he made his way toward the bald man who was in the process of slipping a very small derringer into his jacket pocket.
Pierce smiled. Not exactly the kind of weapon he would have pegged the big guy to carry. Soon the men were deep in conversation, smoke from the bodyguard's burning cigarette wreathing their heads.
"I have six-shooters, too," the boy said, looking up at Pierce.
Was it possible Cody had set him up for some elaborate joke?"What in the daylights is going on?" he grumbled.
"Beats me," Jamie murmured from behind him. "Cody didn't tell you anything about this?"
"Like I keep telling you, he said nothing." Movement at the chopper door signaled another newcomer. This was beginning to remind Pierce of a clown car at the circus where characters kept popping out, each more bizarre than the one before.
That comparison flew out the window as a woman wearing a white hooded jacket nipped in at the waist stepped onto the field. As she pushed back the hood, shiny ebony hair cascaded to her shoulders.
The woman paused as if to assess the situation and then immediately began walking toward Pierce and the boy.
At first he was just mesmerized by her long, slender legs and the curves the tight jacket couldn't conceal. But the closer she got the more his gaze zeroed in on her face. Damn near aqua eyes, the color of an alpine lake and just as clear. Lips full, beautifully curved, painted red. Skin that wasn't really skin; it couldn't be. It had to be satin or silk.
There was something about her that seemed familiar. Had he seen her on the cover of a magazine near a supermarket checkout lane? It had been a while since he'd been in a movie theater, but if she was an actress and these people were in the movie business, it might explain things.
"You must be Cody," she said, extending a cashmere-covered hand. Her accented voice held the tiniest trace of an edge as though she was exerting a lot of effort into sounding casual.
"No," he said, taking her hand, "my brother was called away. I'm Pierce Westin. And you are--"
"Hold it!" the older man called and immediately strode across the field toward them. The hulk stayed behind. "I thought we agreed you would wait inside the chopper until we establish security. I'm informed this man will not show his ID."
"Why the hell should I show you my ID?" Pierce said evenly. "Seems to me it ought to be the other way around."
"You don't expect trouble here, do you?" the woman asked, glancing left and right, those beautiful eyes suddenly flooded with anxiety. She withdrew her hand from Pierce's grasp and anchored it in front of her chest with the other.
"After Seattle, I expect trouble everywhere which is why I made sure you have a new bodyguard." The older man nodded at the bald guy. Then, with thin lips pressed together, he shifted his hooded gaze to Pierce.
Beautiful woman and interesting undercurrents aside, this was all just too bizarre. "Listen, folks," Pierce said calmly, "this has been...well, interesting, anyway, but there's a storm approaching. I don't know what kind of deal you made with Cody, but I don't have time to--"
"There isn't a doubt in my mind you're one of Melissa Browning's sons," the woman said. "You look just like her. Same dark hair, same gray eyes."
"You know my mother?"
"No, not exactly, but I do see you bear a striking resemblance."
She had dazzled him with her looks, aroused his curiosity with a couple of telltale signs of apprehension, but to hear her accented voice speak his mother's name--her maiden name at that--just kicked it all into overdrive. "How in the world do you know what my mother looks like?"
"I've upset you," she said softly.
"Nothing about her can upset me," he said as his gut clenched. Liar...
"I'm so relieved. Actually, I saw a photograph of her taken when she was young."
He stepped back a few inches. "Who are you? What are you and all these other people doing here?"
She rested her hands on the boy's shoulders. "This is my cousin, Toby."
"No, Analise," the child protested, looking up at her. "You promised you'd call me Tex."
She smiled down at him. "My mistake, Tex. And this gentleman--" here she nodded at the older man "--is General Kaare. I am Analise Emille." She frowned, her forehead wrinkling just a little, her luscious lips slightly puckered. "You weren't expecting us?"
"Not exactly," he admitted. "See, Cody didn't say much before he.left."
The aqua eyes widened. For a second he wondered if she and his brother were fooling around, then he remembered she hadn't known Pierce wasn't Cody until he'd announced it. Besides, Cody was still married and he wasn't the kind of man to get involved with another woman even if he and his wife were estranged.
"Princess Analise," the general said smoothly. "Let's at least get you out of the open."
"Princess?" Pierce said softly as the woman reacted to the general's warning by flinching.
When she met Pierce's gaze again, she tried a smile but it looked forced. "You didn't know that, either, did you?"