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Over the past two weeks Diana had done upset, disappointed, annoyed, indignant and a dozen other emotions too confusing and complex and maddening to label. Right now, walking through the breezeway in Skylar Fortune's barn, she would have chosen any one of them over her current state of jittery, heart-jumping nerves.
Fitting, she supposed, since Sky's stables were filled with similarly high-strung thoroughbreds.
Not that she could blame her current state on either the location or her semi-fear of horses. Nor could she blame the purpose of her early morning visit to the Fortune estate, which was to shoot her first professional we-payyou photos. Ever. That caused her nerves to hum with barely suppressed excitement not to wail with trepidation.
The wailing and the jittering were all down to one thing.
Here, in the stables that were his domain, she risked running into Max Fortune again.
She hated that his snub at Case's party had tied her in knots for the two weeks since. Had he not recognized her? Did he not remember her? Or had he left so abruptly after their short exchange because he didn't want to acknowledge their history?
Eventually she'd admonished herself for wasting too much emotional energy on an old love affair. After three years of widowhood she'd finally found her feet. Since moving to Sioux Falls she'd lucked upon an occupation she loved and had recently taken up a position at her mentor's studio/gallery.
The last thing she needed was a force of nature like Max Fortune messing with her newly discovered contentment.
For the duration of the twenty-mile drive from Sioux Falls to the Fortune estate, she'd reprised thatlecture. Today was crucial to her aspirations. She needed to remain focused and professional.
But all the self-talk in the world didn't stop her heart from leaping into her throat when she heard the crunch of hooves on aged brick cobblestones. Pivoting on her heels, she looked back over her shoulder at the approaching horse being led byâ€¦Skylar.
Thank you, God.
She released a long breath and smiled as the youngest of Nash Fortune's five children came to an abrupt halt, her brows knit in a frown. "Diana.You're here. Already."
"I know I'm a little early." On her first job she'd thought that infinitely better than tardiness. "I can wait until you're ready. There's no rush."No, it's okay. I'm pretty sure Max has your model all gussied up and ready for the camera."
The impatient horse at Sky's side stamped its feet in unison with the lurch of Diana's heart. She took a half-step back from its large feet, just to be on the safe side. "Max?"
"Max Fortune. Our Aussie cousin. Didn't you meet him at Case's party?" Without waiting for an answer, Sky hurried on. "Not to worry, you'll meet him now. Max and his friend Zack Manning are starting up a stud farm back home and they're over here inspecting the setups and buying stock. Your subject is one of Max's first acquisitions and she's a real beauty. He bought her in Kentucky last week."
"Do you mean that this job is shooting Max Fortune's horse?"
As soon as the words left her mouth, Diana wished them back. Not the question itselfthat was perfectly valid since Sky had made the booking without one mention of a third partybut her horror-struck tone.
Sky's frown deepened. "I didn't realize that would be a problem."
"Oh, no, it's not a problem," Diana lied.
"Really? Because you said poor Max's name as if you'd just as soon shoot him. And I don't mean with your camera!"
Oh, joy. That's exactly what she'd feared. The perfect nonprofessional start when Sky had paid her a huge compliment by booking her instead of an equine specialist.
"Would you prefer if I got someone else?"
"Oh, no, that's not necessary," Diana said quickly. She'd come here as a photographer, not as a womanbruised by a past breakup or a recent snub. She could do this. She could be polite, businesslike, friendly even. "I'm here to shoot whatever you point me atâ€¦and only with my camera."
Diana smiled with what she hoped passed for cheerful assurance while her chest tightened with uncheerful apprehension. "Absolutely. Now, where will I find your Aussie cousin?"
Following Sky's directions, Diana turned from the wide central breezeway into one of two wings added to the original barn when Sky expanded her horse breeding enterprise. Barn hardly described the giant U-shaped dwelling now. The place was five star accommodation, meticulously clean and toasty warm despite the frigid winter's morning outside.
Diana dispensed with her gloves and loosened the scarf she'd wrapped around her neck. So she'd be ready to start work. And because her fluttery fingers needed something further to do, she hitched her camera bag more securely on her shoulder and increased her pace to a confident stride.
One thing she'd learned from her stage-star mother was how to exude presence, even when her insides were trembling up a storm.
At the second to last stable, she stopped and gathered her well-learned poise. Over the high Dutch door all she could see was the tail end of a large horse. The Kentucky beauty, she presumed, although not from her best angle.
Trepidation caused her heart to drum harder as she approached the door. For a second she thought the animal was unattended but then she heard his voice. Too low to make out the words, but she recognized the deep crooning tone.
Unfortunately her hormones recognized it, too, not from the days spent at his outback stables but from the nights spent in his bed. They stretched and yawned and shimmied to life before she could do a dashed thing to control their recollections.
This was not the response she needed right now, not when the rustling of straw announced him moving around beyond the horse's substantial frame.
She took a rapid step backward and drew a deep breath just as he came into view, looking exactly like the Max she'd tried so hard, for so long, to forget.
His suede western jacket and wide-brimmed hat were pure cowboy, although that label had amused the heck out of him whenever she'd used it. Cattleman was the term they used in Australia. And although Max worked his family's outback cattle ranches, he spent equal time running the business side of the operation from behind an office desk.
Or he had.
Past tense, Diana reminded herself. Max Fortune might still wear his tan Akubra low to shade his deep green eyes. He might still wear his hair long enough to curl beneath the broad brim of that trademark hat, but a lot can change in ten years.
A lot had changed, but not her body's elemental response to the man.
Everything tightened and warmed and raced as she watched one large hand smooth a path over the horse's gleaming rump. "You'll do just fine, sweetheart," he murmured, his voice as languid as that slow-moving hand.
Diana felt a shivery pang in the pit of her stomach, a reaction and an anticipation as he started to turn toward the stable door. She caught the edge of his easy grin and her stomach went into free-fall.
This wasn't the grim stranger from the party but the lover she remembered, quick to smile, to tease, to laugh.
Then he caught sight of her and the smile faded from his mouth and his eyes, leaving his expression as cold as a Dakota February dawn.
Diana resisted the urge to rub at her arms or rewrap her scarf. She searched for the right opening line but all she could find was the same simple greeting as two weeks earlier at the party. "Hello, Max."
No hello, just her name spoken in a tone as flat and dry as the outback plains of his home.
That short greeting did, however, answer her earlier unspoken question. He recognized her all right, which meant she hadn't imagined his snub at the party. She couldn't pretend that the knowledge didn't hurt, but today he was her client. She had to forget their past encounters, both recent and distant, and focus on the job.
"Is this the mare you want photographed?" she asked.
"You're the horse photographer?"
She bit back the instant responseis that so hard to believe?because the answer was written all over his face. Way back when he'd teased her about her degreein arts and the classics, about her society-girl lifestyle and lack of a work rÃ©sumÃ© of any description. This was her opportunity to show that she could do something practical, and that she could do it well.
"That is what I'm here for," she said crisply, reaching for the clip on her camera bag.
Alerted by the skepticism in his tone, she looked up and found him eyeing her, head to toe and back again.
"Why else would I be here?" she asked.
"Beats me. From what I remember, horses scare the living daylights out of you."
"That was a long time ago, Max. I'm not that girl any more."
Something shifted in his expression, and Diana stiffened in expectation of what he might say about the past and the hours he'd spent coaxing the horse-shy New Yorker into the saddle on one of his Australian stock horses.
But perhaps all she'd seen was a wall going up, because he said nothing about the past, returning instead to their present situation.
"You don't look like you've come here to work with horses," he pointed out. "You're wearing a skirt."
A frown pinched her brows together as she glanced down at her clothes. Had she broken an unwritten dress code for equine photographers? Yes, she wore a skirt but it was a conservative A-line, teamed with a cable-knit sweater and practical low-heeled boots. The outfit would take her from this job to a charity committee meeting Eliza had roped her into, without needing to go home to change."I understood Sky booked me," she said, cool, polite, restrained, "to take a simple portrait of a horse. She didn't mention it was your horse. Believe me, I am as surprised as you about that! But I am here to do that job and if that requires me to get down and dirty for artistic angles or special effects, just say the word. I'm sure Sky will loan me some jeans."