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PETA'S head came up sharply. Hoof–beats coming up the hill? Who the hell could it be? Not Ian, who'd be driving his ute. Her mouth tightened into a straight line. So it had to be Curt Blackwell McIntosh—the owner of Tanekaha Station, hunk, tycoon, and adored brother of Gillian Matheson.
A convulsive jerk beneath her hands switched her attention back to the calf.
"Just stay still," she told it in her most soothing tone while she eased a rope around it, 'and we'll have you out of this mud in no time—oh, damn!" as the dog let out a ferocious fusillade of barks.
"Shut up, Laddie," she roared, but it was too late; thoroughly spooked, the calf found enough energy to thrash around wildly, spattering her with more smelly mud and water and embedding itself even further in the swamp.
Muttering an oath, she lifted its head so that it could breathe, then snapped a curt order to 'Get in behind' at the chastened dog.
If Curt McIntosh was as big as he looked in photographs, he was just the man to help her drag this calf out!
Her mouth relaxed into a scornful smile. 'Not likely," she told the calf, now quiescent although its eyes were rolling wildly. 'Far too messy for an international magnate. Still, he might send a minion to help."
And that would be fine too, provided the minion wasn't Ian.
She squinted against the sun. Like a storm out of the north, Curt McIntosh and his mount crested the hill and thundered towards her, a single, powerful entity both beautiful and menacing.
An odd chill of apprehension hollowed out her stomach. To quell it, she sniffed, 'Take a good look, Laddie. That's what's known as being born to the saddle!"
But Curt McIntosh hadn't been. He was an Aucklander, and the money that financed his pastoral empire came from the mysterious and inscrutable area of information technology; his firm was a world leader in its field. He might ride like a desert warrior, but his agricultural and pastoral interests were a mere hobby.
Horse and rider changed direction, slowing as they came towards the small patch of swamp. A primitive chill of foreboding shivered across Peta's nerve ends; as well as being a brilliant rider, Curt McIntosh was big. Quelling a crazy urge to abandon the calf and get the hell out of there, she watched the horse ease back into a walk. At least Curt Etc McIntosh and his horse weren't pounding up with a grand flourish that would scare the calf into further suicidal endeavours.
"Of course it's black," she murmured to the dog bristling with curiosity at her heels. 'Raiders always choose black horses—good for intimidation. Not that he's going to find any loot here, but I bet you an extra dog–biscuit tonight that horse is a stallion."
She'd heard enough about Curt McIntosh to be very wary; his reputation for ruthlessness had grown along with his fortune, but he'd been ruthless right from the start. Barely out of university, he'd manoeuvred his father out of the family firm in a bitterly fought takeover, dragged the company into profitability, then used its resources to conquer the world.
"The dominant male personified," she stated beneath her breath. It hurt her pride to remain kneeling in the mud as though waiting for a big strong man to come and rescue her and the calf, but she didn't dare loosen her grip on its slippery hide to grab the rope.
"Hang on, I'll just tie the horse." A deep voice, cool, authoritative, completely lord–of–the–manor.
It should have set Peta's teeth on edge; instead, it reached inside her and tied knots in her system. Without looking up she called, 'OK."
Cool; that's all she had to do—act cool. She had no need to feel guilty; for all McIntosh's toughness and brilliance he couldn't know that his brother–in–law had touched her cheek and looked at her with eyes made hot by unwanted desire and need.
Thank heavens for that pigeon in the puriri tree! Its typically tempestuous interruption had stopped him from doing anything they'd both regret.
Until then she'd had no idea that Ian had crossed the invisible line between friendship and attachment. Shocked and alarmed, since then she'd made darned sure that he hadn't caught her alone.
As though her turbulent thoughts had got through to the calf, it suddenly bawled and tried to lever itself further into the sticky clutches of the mud.
Clutching it, she said, 'Calm down, calm down, I'm trying to help you. And Laddie, if you bark again there'll be no snacks for a month!"
Laddie, barely adult and still not fully trained, tried to restrain himself as Peta struggled with the demented calf. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the tall rider come towards her; Laddie gave up on silence and obedience and let rip with another salvo of defiance. The calf thrashed around, and a lump of smelly goo flew up and hit Peta on the jawbone.
Furious with everyone and everything—most of all with herself—she shouted, 'Quiet!" at the dog, wiped the worst of the mud off onto her shoulder, and bent again to the calf.
Still murmuring in her softest, most reassuring tone, Peta ignored the icy emptiness beneath her ribs. It was, she thought bitterly, utterly typical that the landlord she'd never met should find her spattered in mud and dealing with something no respectable farmer would have allowed happen.
It had to be a McIntosh thing. For all her charm, his sister always managed to make her feel at a total disadvantage too.
Silence echoed around her, while the skin on the back of her neck and between her shoulder blades tightened in a primitive warning. Laddie made a soft growling noise in his throat.
"I'll do that," a deep voice said. Although she fiercely resented that uncompromising tone, a bolt of awareness streaked down Peta's spine, setting off alarms through her body. As well as that peremptory command, his voice was textured by power and sexual confidence. It set every prejudice she had buzzing in outrage.
Slowly, deliberately, she turned her head and took in the man behind her with one calm, dismissive survey.
At least that was what it was meant to be. Maddeningly, cold blue eyes snared hers before she'd got any further than his face—handsome, superb bone structure—a face where danger rode shotgun on authority.
Damn, she thought helplessly, he is gorgeous! Her throat closed. And up close he was even bigger than she'd suspected, long–legged and lithe, with shoulders that would be a credit to a rugby player. Clear and hard and ruthless, his gaze summoned an instant, protective antagonism.
Curt McIntosh's formidable toughness hammered home her acute vulnerability. Oh, what she'd have given to be able to get to her feet and look him in the eye!
"Thank you," she said. 'I almost had her out, and then the dog barked—' Shocked, she stopped the excuse before it had time to shame her.
"Just keep her head above the mud." He picked up the rope she'd been trying to get under the calf's stomach.
Heart contracting in her chest, Peta ran a swift glance over his clothes. Well–worn the checked shirt and faded jeans might be, but they'd been made for his lean body and long, strongly muscled legs. Of course, his sister patronised the best designers.
It was probably this thought that loosened the links of her self–control. 'You'll get covered in mud," she pointed out.
His smile narrowed into a thin line. Another shiver—icy this time—scudded down Peta's backbone.
"It wouldn't be the first time," he said. 'I'm not afraid of a bit of dirt, and you're not strong enough to haul it out by yourself."
True, and why shouldn't he experience first–hand what rural life could be like? 'It needs know–how, not just brute strength." She summoned a too–sweet smile, inwardly flinching when his eyes turned into ice crystals. 'Although the brute strength will be very useful."
The calf chose that moment to kick out in a desperate surge forward. Peta made a swift lunge at it, lost her balance and pitched towards the smelly mud. Just before the point of no return, a hard hand grabbed the waistband of her shorts, another scooped beneath her outstretched arms, and with a strength that overwhelmed her Curt McIntosh yanked her back onto firm land.
Gasping, she struggled to control her legs. For one stark second she felt the imprint of every muscle in his hard torso on her back, and the strength of his arm across her breasts. Although the heat storming her body robbed her of breath, strength and wits, instinct kicked in. Move! it snapped.
"I—thanks," she muttered. But when he let her go she stumbled, and he caught her again, this time by the shoulders.
"Are you all right?"
The level detachment of his voice humiliated her. 'Yes, thank you," she said, striving for her usual crispness.
He loosened his grip and she stepped away. With the imprint of his knuckles burning the skin at her waist, she blurted, 'You've got fast reactions for such a big man."
Oh, God! How was that for truly sophisticated repartee? His brows rising, he squatted to reach for the calf. Holding its head above the mud he said, 'I hope this isn't one of my calves."
A spasm of apprehension tightened her nerves another notch. More mildly she said, 'Yes, it's one of yours. If you can lift her enough to get her belly free of the mud, I'll slide the rope under her."
Be careful, she told herself as he crouched down beside her. Clamp your mouth on any more gauche remarks, and remember to be suitably impressed by his strength and kindness once the calf's out of the swamp.
This man could make her life extremely difficult. Not only did she lease ten vital hectares from him, but her only income this year was the money she'd earn from that contract. As well, sole access to her land was over one of his farm roads.
With two rescuers, one of them impressively powerful and surprisingly deft, freeing the calf turned out to be ridiculously simple. Curt McIntosh moved well, Peta thought reluctantly as they stood up, and he was in full control of those seriously useful muscles. She was no lightweight, and he'd saved her from falling flat on her face in the mud with an ease that seemed effortless, then hauled the calf free without even breathing hard. Clearly he spent hours in the gym—no, he probably paid a personal trainer megabucks to keep him fit.
Ignoring the odd, tugging sensation in the pit of her stomach, she bent to examine the calf, collapsed now on the ground but trying to get to its feet.
"Where do you want her?" Curt asked, astonishing her by picking up the small animal, apparently not concerned at the liberal coating of mud he'd acquired during the rescue.
Infuriatingly, the calf lay still, as though tamed by the overwhelming force of the man's personality.
And if I believe that, Peta thought ironically, I'm an idiot; the poor thing's too exhausted to wriggle even the tip of its tail.
She'd been silent too long; his brows lifted and to her irritation and disgust her heart quickened in involuntary response. The midsummer sun beat down on them, and she wished fervently she'd worn her old jeans instead of the ragged shorts that displayed altogether too much of her long legs.
"On the back of the ute." She led the way to the elderly, battered vehicle.
He lowered the calf into the calf–cage on the tray of the ute. 'Will she be all right there?"
"I'll drive carefully," she said. The manners her mother had been so fussy about compelled her to finish with stiff politeness, 'Thank you. If you hadn't helped I'd have taken much longer to get her out."
He straightened and stepped back, unsparing eyes searching her face with a cool assessment that abraded her already raw composure. 'So we meet at last, Peta Grey," he said levelly.
Pulses jumping, she could only say, 'Yes. How do you do?" Mortification burned across the long, lovely sweep of her cheekbones. Bullseye, she thought raggedly; yet another supremely sophisticated bit of repartee!
He smiled, and she almost reeled back in shock. Oh, hell, she thought furiously, he could probably soothe rattlesnakes with that smile—female ones, anyway! 'How do you do?" he replied courteously.
Just stop this idiocy now! she ordered herself. Your heart is not really thudding so loud he can hear it.