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The dust from the dirt road billowed out behind Teague's Range Rover. He glanced at the speedometer, then decided the suspension could take a bit more abuse. Adding pressure to the accelerator, he fixed his gaze down the rutted road.
He'd finished his rounds and had just landed on the Kerry Creek airstrip when the phone call had come in. Doc Daley was in the midst of a tricky C-section on Lanie Pittman's bulldog at the Bilbarra surgery, and needed him to cover the call. It was only after Teague asked for details that he realized his services might not be welcomed. The request had come from Wallaroo Station.
The Frasers and the Quinns had been at it for as long as he could remember, their feud igniting over a piece of disputed landland that contained the best water bore on either station.
In the outback, water was as good as gold and it was worth fighting for. Cattle and horses couldn't survive without it, and without cattle or horses the family station wasn't worth a zack. Teague wasn't sure how or why the land was in dispute after all these years, only that the fight never seemed to end. His grandfather had fought the Frasers, as had his father, and now, his older brother, Callum.
But all that would have to be forgotten now that he was venturing into enemy territory. He had come to help an animal in distress. And if old man Fraser refused his help, well, he'd give it anyway.
As Teague navigated the rough road, his thoughts spun back nearly ten years, to the last time he'd visited Wallaroo. He felt a stab of regret at the memory, a vivid image of Hayley Fraser burned into his brain.
It had been the most difficult day of his life. He'd been heading off into abrand-new worlduniversity in Perth, hundreds of miles from the girl he loved. She'd promised to join him the moment she turned eighteen. They'd both get part-time jobs and they'd attend school together. He hadn't known that it was the last time he'd ever see her.
For weeks afterward, his letters had gone unanswered. Every time he rang her, he ended up in an argument with her grandfather, who refused to call her to the phone. And when he finally returned during his term break, Hayley was gone.
Even now, his memories of her always spun back to the girl she'd been at seventeen and not the woman she'd become. That woman on the telly wasn't really Hayley, at least not the Hayley he knew.
The runaway teenager with the honey-blond hair and the pale blue eyes had ended up in Sydney. According to the press, she'd been "discovered" working at a T-shirt shop near Bondi Beach. A month later, she'd debuted as a scheming teenage vixen on one of Australia's newest nighttime soap operas. And seven years later, she was the star of one of the most popular programs on Aussie television.
He'd thought about calling her plenty of times when he'd visited Sydney. He'd been curious, wondering if there would be any attraction left between them. Probably not, considering she'd dated some of Australia's most famous bachelorstwo or three footballers, a pro tennis player, a couple of rock stars and more actors than he cared to count. No, she probably hadn't thought of Teague in years.
As he approached the homestead, Teague was stunned at the condition of the house. Harry Fraser used to take great pride in the station, but it was clear that his attitude had changed. Teague watched as a stooped figure rose from a chair on the ramshackle porch, dressed in a stained work shirt and dirty jeans. The old man's thick white hair stood on end. Teague's breath caught as he noticed the rifle in Harry's hand.
"Shit," he muttered, pulling the Range Rover to a stop. Drawing a deep breath, he opened the window. His reflexes were good and the SUV was fast, but Harry Fraser had been a crack shot in his day. "Put the gun down, Mr. Fraser."
Harry squinted. "Who is that? State your name or get off my property."
"I'm the vet you sent for," Teague said, slowly realizing that Harry couldn't make him out. His eyesight was clearly failing and they hadn't spoken in so many years there was no way Harry would recognize his voice. "Doc Daley sent me. He's in the middle of a surgery and couldn't get away. I'm new."
Harry lowered the rifle, then shuffled back to his chair. "She's in the stable," he said, pointing feebly in the direction of one of the crumbling sheds. "It's colic. There isn't much to do, I reckon." He waved the gun at him. "I'm not payin' you if the horse dies. Got that?"
They'd discuss the fee later, after Harry had been disarmed and Teague had a chance to examine the patient. He steered the Range Rover toward the smallest of the old sheds, remembering that it used to serve as the stables on Wallaroo. Besides that old shack on the border between Wallaroo and Kerry Creek, the stables had been one of their favorite meeting places, a spot where he and Hayley had spent many clandestine hours exploring the wonders of each other's bodies.
Teague pulled the truck to a stop at the wide shed door, then grabbed his bag and hopped out. The shed was in worse condition than the house. "Hullo!" he shouted, wondering if there were any station hands about.
To his surprise, a female voice replied. "Back here. Last stall."
He strode through the empty stable, each stall filled with moldering straw. A rat scurried in front of him and he stopped and watched as it wriggled through a hole in the wall. While the rodent startled him, it was nothing compared to the shock he felt when he stepped inside the stall.
Hayley Fraser knelt beside a horse lying on a fresh bed of straw. She was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, the toes of her boots peaking out beneath the ragged hems of her pant legs. They stared at each other for a long time, neither one of them able to speak. It wasn't supposed to be like this, Teague thought, his mind racing. He'd always imagined they'd meet on a busy street or in a restaurant.
Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, she blinked and pointed to the horse. "It's Molly," she said, her voice wavering. "I'm pretty sure she has colic. I don't know what else to do. I can't get her up."
Teague stepped past Hayley and bent down next to the animal. The mare was covered with sweat and her nostrils were flared. He stepped aside as the horse rolled, a sign that Hayley's diagnosis was probably right. Teague stood and reached into the feed bin, grabbing a handful of grain and sniffing it. "Moldy," he said, turning to Hayley.
"I got here last night," she explained, peering into the grain bin. "When I came in this morning she was like this."
"She might have an impaction. How long has she been down?"
"I don't know," Hayley said. "I found her like this at ten this morning."
Teague drew a deep breath. Colic in horses was tricky to treat. It could either be cured in a matter of hours or it could kill the horse. "We need to get her up. I'll give her some pain medication, then we'll dose her with mineral oil and see if that helps."
"What if it doesn't?" Hayley asked. "What about surgery?"
Teague shook his head. "I can't do surgery here. And the nearest equine surgical facility is at the university in Brisbane."
"I don't care what it costs," she said, a desperate edge to her voice. "I don't care if I need to charter a jet to fly her there. I'll do whatever it takes."
He chuckled softly at the notion of putting the horse on a jet. "We'll cross that fence when we come to it," Teague murmured. "Help me get her up."
It took them a full ten minutes of tugging and prodding and slapping and shouting before Molly struggled to her feet, her eyes wild and her flanks trembling. The moment she got up, she made another move to go down and Teague shouted to distract her, slapping her on the chest and pushing her out of the stall.
He handed the lead to Hayley. "Keep her walking, don't let her go down again. I've got to fetch some supplies."
Teague ran toward the stable door, then glanced over his shoulder to see Hayley struggling with the mare. Thank God they had this to focus on, he mused. It was difficult enough seeing her again without demanding answers to his questions and explanations for her behavior.
He opened up the tailgate on the Range Rover and searched through the plastic bins until he found a bag of IV fluid, which he shoved in his jacket pocket. He took a vial of Banamine from the case of medication. Then he grabbed the rest of the supplies he neededa hypodermic, IV tubing, a nasogastric tube and a jug of mineral oiland put everything into a wooden crate.
When he got back to the stable, he saw Hayley kneeling on the dirty concrete floor with Molly lying beside her.
She looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I couldn't stop her. She just went down."
Teague set the crate on a nearby bale of straw, then gently helped Hayley to her feet. In all the years he'd known her, he'd never seen Hayley cry. Not a single tear, not even when she'd fallen from her horse or scraped her knee. He'd never thought much about it until now, but it must have taken a great deal of strength to control her emotions for so long.
"Don't worry," he said, giving her hands a reassuring squeeze. "We'll get her up."
Then he brushed the pale hair from her eyes, his thumbs damp from her tears. It had been so long since he'd touched her, so many years since he'd looked into those eyes. But it seemed like only yesterday. All the old feelings were bubbling up inside him. His instinct to protect her had kicked in the moment he looked into her eyes and he found himself more worried about Hayley than the horse.
Teague didn't bother to think about the consequences before kissing her. It was the right thing to do, a way to soothe her fears and stop her tears. He bent closer and touched his lips to hers, gently exploring with his tongue until she opened beneath the assault.
Cupping her face in his hands, he molded her mouth to his, stunned by the flood of desire racing through him. They were teenagers again, the two of them caught up in a heady mix of hormones they couldn't control and emotions they didn't understand.
He drew back and smiled. "Better?" Hayley nodded mutely and Teague looked down at the horse. "Then let's get to work."
It was as if the kiss had focused their thoughts and strengthened their bond. Though he wanted to kiss her again, he had professional duties to dispatch first. And saving Molly was more important than indulging in desire. They managed to get the horse on her feet again and pushed her up against a wall to keep her still as Teague inserted the IV catheter into her neck. Drawing out a measure of the painkiller, he injected it into the IV bag.
"There. She should start feeling a little better. Once she does, we'll dose her with mineral oil. If it's an impaction, that should help."
They walked back and forth, the length of the stable, both of them holding on to Molly's halter. At each turn, he took the time to glance over at her, letting his gaze linger.
Without all the slinky clothes and the fancy makeup and hair, she didn't look anything like a television star. She looked exactly like the fresh-faced girl he used to kiss and touch, the first girl he'd ever had sex with and the last girl he'd ever loved. Teague clenched his free hand into a fist, fighting the urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her again.
"So you got home yesterday," he said.
Hayley nodded, continuing to stare straight ahead. He could read the wariness in her expression. If she was feeling half of what he was, then her heart was probably pounding and her mind spinning with the aftereffects of the kiss they'd shared.
"I've seen you on telly. You've become quite a good actress." This brought a smile, a step in the right direction, Teague thought. "I heard you won some award?"
"A Logie award. And I didn't win. I've been nominated three times. Haven't won yet."
"That's good, though, right? Nominated is good. Better than not being nominated."
"It's a soap opera," she said. "It's not like I'm doing Shakespeare with the Royal Queensland."
"But you could, if you wanted to, right?"
Hayley shook her head. "No, I don't have any formal training. They hired me on Castle Cove because I looked like the part. Not because I could act."
He wanted to ask why she had decided to run away from home. And why she hadn't come to him as they'd always planned. Teague drew a deep breath, then stopped. Molly had settled down, her respiration now almost normal. "See, she's feeling better," he said, smoothing his palm over the horse's muzzle. "That's the thing with colic. One minute the horse is close to death and the next she's on the mend. Have you ever twitched a horse?"
Hayley shook her head. "I don't want you to do that. It will hurt her."
"It looks painful, but it isn't if it's done properly. It's going to release endorphins and it will relax Molly so she won't fight the tube."
"All right," she said, nodding. "I trust you."
Three simple words. I trust you. But they meant the world to him. After all that had happened between them, and all that hadn't, maybe things weren't so bad after all.
As they tended to Molly, they barely spoke, Teague calmly giving her instructions when needed. Hayley murmured softly to keep her calm, smoothing her hand along Molly's neck. Once the mineral oil was pumped into the horse's stomach, Teague removed the tube and the twitch and they began to walk her again.
"She is feeling better," Hayley said. "I can see it already." She looked over at him. "Thank you."
Teague saw the tears swimming in her eyes again and he fought the urge to gather her into his arms and hold her. The mere thought of touching her was enough to send a flood of heat pulsing through his veins.
He'd kiss Hayley again, only this time it wouldn't be to soothe her fears, but to make her remember how good it had been between them. And how good it could be again.