An hour later, Dermot helped Isabelle slide off Star’s back, and made a mental note to save up for a second horse. As they rode, he’d felt her body moving as an experienced horsewoman’s would. If she was going to stay, she needed her own—
If she was going to stay. Big ‘if’.
Letting the discouraging thought drift away, he opened his arms wide. “What do you think?”
Isabelle walked a few steps away, too many as far as he was concerned, but he let her go. She spun a slow circle, and by the time she completed it, her mouth hung open in awe.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
Dermot breathed a sigh of relief. “I thought the same thing when I discovered it earlier. I took a wrong turn on the way home, and ran across this hidden gem. It’s my new favorite place.”
Isabelle’s shining eyes met his. “Mine too.”
He fought the powerful urge to pull her into his arms, and instead laid a small blanket out for them to sit on. The tundra almost crunched under his weight. It wasn’t like the soft, pliable grass he’d grown up running barefoot through, but he rather liked how tough Yukon tundra felt, how it resisted when you tried to crush it. It reminded him of Isabelle.
“Dermot, do you mind if I ask why you became a Mountie?”
He’d practiced his answer so many times for so long that it rolled off his tongue before he knew it had. “Mounties are heroes.”
One look into her shrewd eyes told him she wasn’t falling for it, as everyone else had. He shook his head in amusement. They really were exactly the same, which meant he couldn’t pull the wool over her eyes as he had with others. She knew his games and was brave enough to call him on them. But that didn’t mean he’d just roll over.
“What made a wealthy, beautiful young socialite become a mail-order bride?”
Isabelle’s eyes grew to the size of saucers, and she coughed in discomfort. True to form, she deflected his question brilliantly.
“Your parents must be so proud of you.”
She hadn’t won the game, but he respected her tactic enough to answer honestly. “I couldn’t say. My father was supportive of my decision, but he’s what you might call…enigmatic. I have no idea if he’s ever been proud of me. I rather doubt it.”
The most adorable crease furrowed her otherwise perfect brow. “How could he not be proud? You’re serving your country!”
Dermot shrugged his ambivalence, but deep down his gut churned with regret.
“What about your mother?” Isabelle continued. “She must be over the moon.”
“You might think that, but you’d be wrong. At least I think so.”
“No, she must be delighted. What mother wouldn’t be?”
“The kind of mother who prefers the company of a bartender over that over her son.” He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he could tell by the sympathetic look in her eyes, he’d failed. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“My mother paid little attention to me as a child. I was mostly raised by a nanny who thought I was the most perfect angel.”
The way Isabelle’s eyes flashed reminded him of the Northern Lights. “Me too! Nanny Biggs was the most wonderful, most loving, kindest…”
She trailed off and a profound sadness chased away the brilliance. An overwhelming urge to take away that sadness came over Dermot. Hooking a finger under her chin, he tilted her head up until her entire face was exposed to him. His hand skimmed along her impossibly smooth cheek and held her steady, as he lowered his head and let his lips brush across hers in the lightest kiss he’d ever given a woman. Drawing away, he waited for her reaction.
Her eyelids fluttered, and a rapturous sigh escaped her perfect, rosebud lips. He was about to go in for another, deeper kiss when her eyes blinked open and she pulled away.
“This view is so amazing!” she said, her voice much too high and much too strained.