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Secretly Hers

By´╝ÜJamie Beck

Chapter One

Kelsey adjusted her plastic tiara and entered Sweet Cakes bakery, smiling. Her niece, Fiona, clutched the cheap satin skirt of Kelsey’s Sleeping Beauty costume with one hand while the other waved a bejeweled princess wand through the air.

The child’s blond curls bobbed as she bounced on her toes, her pale blue eyes—the same icy color as her own princess costume—twinkled as she studied the rows of cupcakes behind the glass display case.

Kelsey could practically hear the Ballard sisters raising their eyebrows as they snickered in the corner. It wasn’t the first time Kelsey had been ridiculed in the tiny Rocky Mountain ski town of Sterling Canyon, and she doubted it would be the last. Not that she cared one whit about other people’s opinions of her or of her tendency to go overboard for the people she loved.

And there were few people she loved as much as she loved Fee. So if Fee wanted them to dress up as princesses on her fifth birthday, then Kelsey would happily grant her wish.

“Priiiiin-cess Fee-yoh-na,” she announced, “which do you prefer: chocolate, vanilla, or red velvet?”

“All of them!” Fee pressed her little nose against the glass before glancing upward, shamelessly batting her lashes. “Please, Aunt Kelsey.”

Kelsey grinned even though she could hear her older sister, Maura’s, exasperated voice echoing in her mind. If she hadn’t come from my body, I’d swear Fee was your daughter. The thought prompted both a surge of pride and a pang of jealousy. She and Fee did look and act like mother and child, but they were not.

Kelsey ached to be a mother, but today she’d content herself with being the best darn aunt this side of the Mississippi. Tomorrow she’d heed her panicky biological clock and resume her search for a happily-ever-after with someone worthy, whoever he turned out to be.

“All three?” Kelsey pretended to carefully consider the idea. “Sprinkles, too, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes!” Fee jumped twice.

“Okay, pumpkin.” Kelsey fingered Fee’s curls. “But don’t tell your mom I gave you three cupcakes, or this will be our last princess birthday.”

Kelsey could imagine Maura lecturing her about healthy habits, but spoiling Fee was an advantage of being an aunt.

Kelsey paid for the small box of cupcakes then considered her surroundings. She didn’t regret coming to town midweek, dressed like a buffoon, but she didn’t need to prolong the spectacle, either. After all, she had current and future clients to consider. Her real estate business was taking off, and she intended to keep it that way. Contrary to most people’s opinions, being blond, buxom, and big-hearted didn’t make her stupid. Kelsey understood that faux-crystal-embroidered costumes did not scream “professional.”

“Shall we take these home to eat?” She affected a British accent. “We can dine on the balcony and preside over our royal subjects.”

“And watch for Prince Charming!” Fee twirled on one foot, her wand once more slicing through the air.

“Oh, honey, I think Prince Charming and all his brothers have fled the land.” She grinned at Fee’s pout. “But never fear! We princesses will take control of our own destinies.”

Fee’s forehead creased in confusion as they departed the store. I know. Prince Charming does have his benefits.

Kelsey lifted the hem of her gown, focusing on her stiletto-clad feet while descending the two steps leading to the sidewalk of the old silver mining town, with its one-hundred-thirty-year-old Victorian buildings nestled in the shadows of the San Juan mountain range. Her gaze remained fixed on the rhinestone ankle clasps of her awesome new shoes until she collided with Trip Lexington and stumbled backward.

“Gotcha.” Trip’s hands gently squeezed her waist until she wriggled free. To her irritation, her pulse sped up when his cool green eyes sparkled with amusement and testosterone.

At least he’d caught her before she landed on her butt.

The box of cupcakes? Not so lucky. “Sorry.” She tipped up her chin and, once more, straightened her loosened tiara.

She expected Fee to wail over the smashed goodies, but her niece’s gaze seemed riveted on Trip, who was a stranger to Fee.

Oh, dear. She really is just like me. Kelsey shook her head, knowing the wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve romantic mentality would probably hurt Fee one day, just as it had stung Kelsey over and over again.

Fee’s eyes widened; her little cheeks pinked up, too. Nearly breathless, she said, “Look, Aunt Kelsey! Prince Charming!”

Trip shot Kelsey another curious look before facing Fee. “At your service, little lady.”

Of course, Trip did look like Prince Charming and Adonis rolled into one, with a hefty dash of feral vitality thrown into the mix.

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