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Callie Jones knew trouble when she came upon it. And the thirteen-year-old who stood defiantly in front of her looked like more trouble than she wanted on a Saturday morning. For one thing, Callie liked to sleep later on the weekend, and the teenager with the impudent expression had banged on her door at an indecently early 6:00 a.m. And for another, the girl wasn't anything like she'd expected. Her long black hair was tied up in an untidy ponytail revealing at least half a dozen piercings in her ears, plus another in both her brow and nose. And the dark kohl smudged around her eyes was heavier than any acceptable trend Callie had ever seen.
"I'm Lily," the girl said, crossing her thin arms. "I'm here for my lesson."
Callie opened the front door fractionally, grateful she'd had the sense to wrap herself in an old dressing gown before she'd come to the door. It was chilly outside. "You're early," she said, spotting a bicycle at the bottom of the steps.
The teenager shrugged her shoulders. "So what? I'm here now." Callie hung on to her patience. "I told your father eight o'clock."
Lily shrugged again, without any apology in her expression. "Then I guess he told me the wrong time." The girl looked her over, and Callie felt the burning scrutiny right down to her toes.
Callie took a deep breath and glanced over the girl's head. Dawn was just breaking on the horizon. Another hour of sleep would have been nice, but she wasn't about to send Lily home.
"Okay, Lily. Give me a few minutes to get ready." Callie pointed to the wicker love seat on the porch. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
The girl shrugged. "Whatever."
Callie locked the security mesh screen as discreetly as she could and turned quickly on her heels. She didn't want an unsupervised teenager wandering around her house while she changed her clothes. Dashing into the bathroom, she washed her face and brushed her teeth and hair before slipping into jeans and a T-shirt.
She skipped coffee, grabbed a cereal bar and shoved it into her back pocket. She really needed to do some grocery shopping. But she was too busy. Busy with her students, busy trying to ensure the utilities were paid, busy not thinking about why a recently turned thirty ex-California girl worked twelve-hour days trying to make a success of a small horse-riding school situated a few miles from the eastern edge of the Australian coastline.
Callie grabbed her sweater from the back of the kitchen chair and headed for the front door. Once she'd locked up she pulled her muddy riding boots off the shoe rack, quickly tucked her feet into them, snatched up her battered cowboy hat and placed it on her head. She turned around to find no sign of her visitor. Or the expensive-looking bicycle.
Obviously the teenager wasn't keen on following instructions.
She put the keys into her pocket and headed for the stables. The large stable complex, round yard and dressage arena were impressive. Callie had spent nearly every penny she had on Sandhills Farm to ensure it became a workable and viable business.
Okay kidwhere are you?
Tessa rushed from around the back of the house. Still a pup, the Labrador/cattle dog cross bounded on lanky legs and yapped excitedly. Obviously no kid was back there, or Tessa would have hung around for attention.
So, where was she? Callie's intuition and instincts surged into overdrive. Miss Too-Many-Piercings was clearly looking for trouble. She called the girl's name. No answer.
When Callie opened the stable doors and flicked the lock mechanism into place, a few long heads immediately poked over the stalls. She looked around and found no sign of Lily.
Greatthe kid had gone AWOL.
And where on earth was Joe, her farmhand? She checked her watch. Six-twenty-five. He was late and she'd have to attend to the feeding before she could start the lesson with her missing student.
First things firstfind Lily um whatever-her-last-name-is. She clicked her fingers together. HahPreston. That's right. Lily Preston.
She's got the father with the sexy telephone voice, remember?
Callie shook some sense into her silly head when she heard a vehicle coming down the driveway. Joe good. She swiv-eled on her heel and circumnavigated the stables, stopping abruptly, mid-stride, too stunned to move.
Indianaher beautiful, precious and irreplaceable Hanoverian geldingstood by the fence, wearing only an ill-fitting bridle. Lily Preston was straddled between the fence post and trough as she attempted to climb onto his back.
Think and think quickly.
Callie willed her legs to move and raced toward the girl and horse, but it was too late. The teenager had mounted, collected the reins and clicked the gelding into a trot Callie knew she would have no hope of sustaining.
She's going to fall. And before Callie had a chance to move, Lily Preston lost control, tumbled off the horse and landed squarely on her behind.
She was gone. Ditto for her bike. Noah Preston cursed and headed back into the house. The last thing he'd told his angry daughter the night before, just as she'd slammed her bedroom door in his face, was that he'd take her to Sandhills Farm at seven-forty-five in the morning. She hadn't wanted him to take her. She wanted to go alone. Without him. He should have taken more notice. The time was now six-thirty-three and Lily had skipped. In typical Lily style.
"Daddy, I'm hungry."
Noah turned his head. His eight-year-old son, Jamie, as uncomplicated and placid a child as Lily was not, stood in the doorway.
"Okay," he said. "I'll make breakfast soon. But we have to go find Lily first."
Jamie rolled his big eyes. "Again?"
Noah smiled. "I know, mate, but I have to make sure she's safe."
"She is," Jamie assured him in a very grown-up fashion. "She's gone to see the horse lady."
"She told you that?"
His son nodded. "Yep. Told me this morning. She rode her bike. I told her not to."
The horse lady? Callie Jones. Recommended as the best equestrian instructor in the district. He'd called her a week ago, inquiring about setting Lily up with some lessons. Her soft, American accent had intrigued him and he'd quickly made arrangements to bring Lily out to her riding school.
So, at least he knew where she'd gone and why. To make a point. To show him he had no control, no say, and that she could do whatever she pleased.
Noah spent the following minutes waking the twins and making sure the three kids were clothed, washed and ready to leave. Jamie grumbled a bit about being hungry, so Noah grabbed a few apples and a box of cereal bars for the trip. He found his keys, led his family outside, bundled the children into his dual-cab utility vehicle and buckled them up.
He lived just out from Crystal Point and the trip took barely ten minutes. Sandhills Farm was set back from the road and gravel crunched beneath the wheels when he turned off down the long driveway. He followed the line of whitewashed fencing until he reached the house, a rundown, big, typical Queenslander with a wraparound veranda and hat-box roof. Shabby but redeemable.
So where was Lily?
He put Jamie in charge of four-year-old Hayley and Matthew, took the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the vehicle. A dog came bounding toward him, a happy-looking pup that promptly dropped to Noah's feet and pleaded for attention. Noah patted the dog for a moment, flipped off his sunglasses and looked around. The house looked deserted. An old Ford truck lay idle near the stables and he headed for it. The keys hanging in the ignition suggested someone was around. He spotted Lily's bicycle propped against the wall of the stable. So she was here.
But where? And where was Callie Jones? He couldn't see a sign of anyone in the yards or the stables or in the covered sand arena to the left of the building. The stable doors were open and he took a few steps inside, instantly impressed by the setup. A couple of horses tipped their heads over the top of their stalls and watched him as he made his way through. He found the tack room and small office at the end of the row of stalls. The door was ajar and he tapped on the jamb. No one answered. But he could see inside. There were pictures on the wallall of horses in varying competitive poses. The rider in each shot was female. Perhaps Callie Jones?
Noah lingered for another few seconds before he returned outside. The friendly dog bounded to his feet again, demanding notice. The animal stayed for just a moment before darting past him and heading off around the side of the building. Noah instructed the kids to get out of the truck and told them to follow him. As he walked with the three children in a straight line behind him, he heard the sound of voices that got louder with every step. When he turned another corner he stopped. The breath kicked from his chest.
A woman stood by the fence.
Was this Callie Jones? Not too tall, not too thin. Curves every place a woman ought to have them. Her jeans, riding low, looked molded onto her hips and legs. Long brown hair hung down her back in a ponytail and his fingers itched with the thought of threading them through it. Noah's heart suddenly knocked against his ribs. Lightning, he thought. Is this what it feels like to be struck by lightning?
Noah probably would have taken a little more time to observe her if he hadn't spotted his daughter sitting on the ground, her clothes covered in dust and a big brown horse looming over her.
"What's going on here?"
Callie jumped and turned around on her heels.
A man glared at her from about twenty feet away.
"Hey, Dad," called Lily.
Uh-oh. The father? He looked very unhappy. Callie switched her attention back to the girl sitting on the ground. She was sure Lily's butt would be sore for a day or so. And she was thankful Indiana had stopped once he'd realized his inexperienced rider was in trouble. Which meant all that had really happened was Lily had slipped off the side. It wasn't a serious fall. And she intended to tell him so.
Callie wiped her hands down her jeans. "Hi, I'm"
"Lily," he barked out, interrupting her and bridging the space between them with a few strides. "What happened?"
She made a face. "I fell off."
"She's okay," Callie said quickly.
"I think I'll decide that for myself," he said and helped his daughter to her feet.
Lily dusted off her clothes and crossed her thin arms. "I'm fine, Dad."
Indiana moved toward Callie and nuzzled her elbow. "Good boy," she said softly, patting his nose.
"You're rewarding him for throwing my daughter?"
Heat prickled up her spine. "He didn't throw her."
Silence stretched like elastic between them as he looked at her with the greenest eyes Callie had ever seen. It took precisely two seconds to register he was attractive. It didn't matter that he scowled at her. She still had enough of a pulse to recognize an absolutely gorgeous man when faced with one. If she were looking. Which she wasn't.
Then she saw children behind him. A lot of children.
Three. All blond.
A familiar pain pierced behind her rib cage.
"Lily, take the kids and go and wait by the truck."
"Go," he instructed.
Callie clutched Indiana's reins tightly. Gorgeous, maybe. Friendly, not one bit.
His daughter went to say something else but stopped. She shrugged her shoulders and told the smaller children to follow her. Once Lily and the children were out of sight the man turned to her. "What exactly do you think you were doing?"
"My daughter gets thrown off a horse and you just left her lying in the dirt. What if she'd been seriously injured?"
Callie held her ground. She'd handled parents before. "She wasn't, though."
"Did you even check? I'll see your license revoked," he said. "You're not fit to work with children."
That got her mouth moving. "Just wait one minute," she said, planting her hands on her hips for dramatic effect. "You don't have the right"
"I do," he said quickly. "What kind of nut are you?"
Callie's face burned. "I'm not a"
"Of all the irresponsible things I've"
"Would you stop interrupting me," she said, cutting him off right back. It did the trick because he clammed up instantly. He really was remarkably handsome. Callie took a deep breath. "Your daughter took my horse without permission."
"So this is Lily's fault?"
"I didn't say that."
He stepped closer and Callie was suddenly struck by how tall he was and how broad his shoulders were. "Then it's your fault?" He raised his hands. "Your property, your horse it's not hard to figure out who's to blame."
"She took the horse without my permission," Callie said again, firmer this time, making a point and refusing to be verbally outmaneuvered by a gorgeous man with a sexy voice.
His green eyes glittered. "So she was wandering around unsupervised, Ms. Jones?"
Annoyance weaved up her spine. Ms. Jones? Nothing friendly about that.
She took a deep breath and willed herself to keep her cool. "I understand how this looks and how you must feel, but I think"
"Are you a parent?" he asked quickly. "No."
"Then you don't know how I feel."
He was rightshe didn't have a clue. She wasn't a parent. She'd never be a parent. Silence stretched. She looked at him. He looked at her. Something flickered between them. An undercurrent. Not of angerthis was something else.
He's looking at me. He's angry. He's downright furious. But he's checking me out.
Callie couldn't remember the last time she'd registered that kind of look. Or the last time she'd wanted to look back. But she knew she shouldn't. He had children. He was obviously married. She glanced at his left hand. No wedding ring. Her belly dipped nonsensically.
His eyes narrowed. "Have you any qualifications?"
She stared at him. "I have an instructor's ticket from the Equestrian Federation of"
"I meant qualifications to work with kids?" he said, cutting off her ramble. "Like teaching credentials? Or a degree in child psychology? Come to think of it, do you have any qualifications other than the fact you can ride a horse?"
Outraged, Callie opened her mouth to speak but quickly stopped. She was suddenly tongue-tied, stripped of her usual ability to speak her mind. Her cheeks flamed and thankfully her silence didn't last long. "Are you always so so rude?"
He smiled as though he found her anger amusing. "And do you always allow your students to walk around unsupervised?"
"No," she replied, burning up. "But you're not in possession of all the facts."
He watched her for a moment, every gorgeous inch of him focused on her, and she experienced a strange dip in the pit of her stomach, like she was riding a roller coaster way too fast.
"Then please.enlighten me," he said quietly. Callie bit her temper back. "When Lily arrived early I told her to wait for me. She didn't."
"And that's when she took your horse?"
"Why didn't you tell her to get off?"
"I did," Callie replied. "Although I've discovered that sometimes its better practice to let people find out just how"
"You mean the hard way?" he asked, cutting her off again.
Callie nodded. "But she wasn't in any danger. Indiana wouldn't have hurt her."
"Just for the record," he said quietlyso quietly Callie knew he was holding himself in control"Lily knows all about hard life lessons."
She's not the only one.