Home > Captivated by the Cowgirl(4)

Captivated by the Cowgirl(4)
Author: Jody Hedlund

They’d met at Cambridge, and Declan had easily become one of his best friends. The fun-loving American had gone home with him the summer after their graduation and had been there when Philip’s entire world had crashed down.

At the time, Gustaf had been king of Lapland for approximately a year after their father’s passing, and Philip hadn’t been aware of the trouble his older brother had been causing. But it hadn’t taken long after his return to Lapland to discover Gustaf had dissolved the modern bicameral parliament that their father had established. Not only had he disbanded parliament, but he’d dismissed the prime minister as well as the cabinet.

Gustaf had also begun imprisoning his political opponents and any dissidents to his regime. Worst of all, he’d locked up a group of poor rebels who’d protested his callous disregard of their fishing rights, and he’d hanged several to make an example of them.

Numerous politicians, including the prime minister, had approached Philip about taking the throne in Gustaf’s place. No one had said they were planning a coup to overthrow Gustaf, but it was clear that people were dissatisfied with Gustaf’s heavy-handed methods and his disregard for the government. His wasteful spending and attempts at raising taxes had made him even more unpopular.

Philip had been home less than a month when Gustaf had learned of the secretive meetings taking place to oust him and make Philip king. And Gustaf’s reaction had been less than pleased. He’d hired an assassin to attack and kill Philip in his bedchamber.

And that’s when the prime minister and other officials had advised Philip to go into hiding, at least until the rebellion had the chance to gain more ground and support. Once the rebels found a way to overthrow Gustaf, the leading government officials planned to call Philip home as the next king of Lapland. But of course, Gustaf didn’t want that to happen and had continued his efforts to remove the threat Philip posed.

“What do you say?” Declan waggled his eyebrows. “One last meal?”

“Certainly. Why not.” Philip had grown weary of American fare almost from the start of his journey. But Declan had an easy way about him that had made him the perfect traveling companion, always willing to try new things, be independent, and live simply.

Declan was well aware of the danger involved in traveling with Philip. But his friend had insisted on accompanying him anyway, helping him navigate through America and proving to be a lively and interesting companion.

Only this morning, Declan had realized he’d run out of funds. Coming from a well-to-do Eastern family with several homes and many servants, he’d telegrammed his parents, who were more than willing to continue to supply the necessary money for his traveling. But they’d sent the money to a bank in Denver rather than Fairplay, just in case anyone was surveying Declan and his family for ties to Philip.

Now, with the need to go to the bank in Denver, they really had no more reason to delay their departure from Fairplay.

Whenever Philip ran low on funds, he didn’t need to say anything. An envelope addressed to him with more cash always showed up at his residence. It was uncanny. But he accepted the money gratefully.

With a happy whistle, Declan started across the street toward Hotel Windsor, and Philip fell into step beside him. As nonchalantly as possible, he searched for any sign that someone was spying on him. But the spine-tingling feeling of being watched was gone. If anyone had been there, they no longer were.

Not for the first time since he’d fled from his country, the doubts rose to taunt him. Had he done the right thing in siding with parliament and the prime minister? Should he have supported his brother instead? Could he have worked to influence Gustaf to do better and be a fairer king, as their father had been before them?

Declan opened the door of the hotel and held it for Philip. Even though Philip had urged Declan not to show him preferential treatment, Declan hadn’t been able to toss aside the manners and formalities entirely.

Philip breathed in the waft of chicken stew—a common meal at the hotel—and started through only to find himself face-to-face with Felicity Courtney. Again.

He hadn’t anticipated seeing her in Simpkins General Store earlier—had gone in to read the newspaper that came up from Denver, always searching for news about his country and his brother. But as usual, there hadn’t been anything.

He actually hadn’t seen Felicity as often as he would have liked over the past three weeks since she’d left Mrs. Bancroft’s and returned to her home—only occasionally around town and at church. One time he’d purposefully set up his camera on the road leading to her home so that he’d be able to encounter her. Okay, maybe he’d done it twice.

But this second meeting in a day was more than he could have hoped for.

Not that he’d been hoping to see her again. But he wouldn’t complain about having another chance to take in her stunning features, so delicate and yet so strong at the same time. Her skin was creamy, contrasting her rich auburn hair. And her eyes . . . the brown was as luxurious as the softest and warmest sable.

He could admit that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. Since he was leaving so soon, there was no harm in acknowledging such a thing now, was there?

“Miss Courtney.” He eyed her with a quirked brow. “If you want to hire me, you could just ask me instead of manufacturing all of these accidental meetings.”

She released a low scoffing sound, one that never failed to rub against him and stir the insatiable need to banter with her. “Why, Mr. Berg. I didn’t realize you were so desperate for work that you had to follow me around.” She fisted a hand on her waist, outlining the gentle curve of her hip and length of her thigh.

If he were a mutt, his tongue would be hanging out and he’d be panting for her. No, he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. She was every man’s dream. And it was no wonder that Weston Oakley and most of the single male population of Colorado drooled over her.

The problem was that Weston couldn’t handle Felicity’s sharp mind and spunk. She needed someone who could dole out the boldness in the same measure while also being able to temper her spirit without destroying it.

The dozen or so round tables were filled with customers—mostly men—taking their noon meal. The hum of voices was low, so that the clank of silverware against porcelain rang out. All eyes seemed to be upon Felicity. And him.

Their sparring was no secret.

Others seemed to find as much entertainment in watching them as Philip did in riling her up. “Just admit it, Miss Courtney. All along you’ve been looking for a way to get me out to your boardinghouse so you can have me all to yourself.”

A lovely shade of pink infused her cheeks at his insinuation. And although he never crossed the line into impropriety, he guessed this time he was toeing it a little too closely.

She lifted her chin, and her eyes flashed with a spark he relished seeing there. “Mr. Berg, if I need a doormat, have no fear, I’ll call upon you to provide your services.”

How did she always have such witty replies? He loved it and couldn’t hold back his smile of appreciation.

She pressed her pretty lips together in self-satisfaction. Then she took a step to pass by him. Except that she wobbled, and her hand fluttered to her temple. At the same time, she closed her eyes but wavered again.

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