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Sox was a terrific dog.
She was born to work with sheep, the kind of dog you thanked your lucky stars for over and over again. Brant could send her up the hill and she would muster the mob down to him all on her own. She would tear back and forth, ever alert for breakaways, pushing them toward the yard with scarcely a bark, and working on a level of instinct that training could never fully replicate.
She jumped fences like a kangaroo, and sometimes her eyes begged him with an almost Shakespearean eloquence for more work to do. Ple-e-ease, are we mustering sheep today?
She loved it.
Brant relied on her, and right now hers was the only ear he could confide in.
"Tell me those three lame ewes don't mean anything, Soxie," he said to her.
They were both riding the four-wheeler down the hill at a considerable clip. It was a beautiful afternoon, unseason-ably warm for mid-May. Fluffy white clouds floated in a blue sky, birds sang and in the distance on the road from Holbrook Brant glimpsed the red flash of a fast-moving car heading in this direction. The bright color toned with a pair of crimson rosellas who flew past, weaving an intricate flight pattern in the air and twittering as they went, then the car disappeared behind a stand of breeze-tossed, sunlit trees.
It wasn't the kind of day for bad news about his sheep. Brant straddled the four-wheeler's wide seat, his hands and feet working the controls, and Sox sat crosswise on the back, craning around the side of his body, panting at him, waiting to find out what sheep-related adventure the two of them were going to have next.
Unfortunately, she couldn't reassure him about the lame ewes.
"It's not foot rot," he told her. He'd taken a good look at the hooves in question, had cleaned them out and pared them back, taking care not to draw blood or expose soft tissue. There had definitely been some inflammation and underrunning. "Don't tell me it's foot rot, okay, because I don't want to hear it. I am not contacting the Pastures Protection Board yet."
It could be foot rot.
After a long, crippling drought, there'd been a warm autumn with good rains, the right conditions to activate and spread the bacteria, and if any of those four thousand pregnant ewes he'd just paid top dollar for had been infected when they'd arrived here recently, then his entire acreage could soon harbour the disease.
The implications were too expensive to bear thinking about, and the worst-case scenarios could play out for almost a year.
Sox nudged her compact black-and-tan body closer to Brant, as if she could tell he was worried. He felt her warmth and her panting motion against his back. They swooped down the green, rolling terrain, over a well-worn metal grid and along the fence line toward the house.
Brant kept thinking about sheep feet, thinking about the ghastly prospect of disease, of a third of his stock's value and his year's income getting slashed down at a single stroke — six figures' worth of loss — thinking of all those months of extra work and expense and concern
None of which he wanted to share with his sister, because Nuala and Chris were getting married in a few months, Chris had his own stock and acreage to think about and Brant didn't want to rain on their parade.
And then he saw the bright red car again, just inside his main gate and definitely heading this way. It was a zippy little machine, gleaming and well maintained.
Not a farmer's car.
His spirits sank even further. He knew what kind of a visitor this would be.
A city girl.
Over the past few months he'd met enough women like this to last him a lifetime, and even the nicest of them hadn't struck any meaningful sparks. Recently, one of them — not the nicest — had spread his address around to some of her friends and now he had new ones dropping in unannounced at the most impossible times.
Such as when he'd just discovered that at least three of his new ewes had gone lame.
The red car dipped down into the creek and temporarily disappeared once more. Brant and Sox had almost reached the house. He parked the four-wheeler in the carport, chained the dog and went inside, kicking off his boots in the mud-room on the way. He found a note from his sister on the kitchen countertop. "Don't forget Misha "
Misha. Nuala's friend from Europe.
The red car.
He'd completely forgotten.
"She'll be here around three-thirty or four," Nuala's note continued. "I should be back, but if I'm not, be nice to her."
Be nice to the strange woman in the zippy red car. Great.
Just what he felt like.
Since a self-invited international guest should start off in the right spirit of proving herself useful, Misha had stopped her little red rental car at Inverlochie's roadside mailbox on her way to her friend Nuala's Australian sheep farm and collected the mail.
There was quite a large sheaf of it, bundled together with a brown rubber band. Branton Smith, Inverlochie, Hill Road via Holbrook, NSW 2644, read the address on the topmost letter, in loopy purple handwriting. Misha had stashed the bundle neatly on her front passenger seat, along with the flowers she'd bought in Albury for Nuala. Both items sat on top of the case of wine she'd bought at a drive-through liquor store for Nuala's brother Brant, whom she'd never met.
But when she arrived at Nuala's and found Brant there to greet her, he didn't seem very pleased at what she'd done.
"You have to be Misha," he said to her through the open driver's-side window when she'd stopped the car in front of the low, sprawling house. His broad shoulders hunched with tension, his gray eyes looked smoky and hard, and his expression could only be labelled a scowl.
"I do have to be," she agreed, spreading her hands in mock resignation, "even when I don't want to."
Expecting a smile from him, she didn't get so much as a flicker.
"And I've brought your mail," she said, in case that helped.
He glanced down at the bundle of letters and groaned. Unless he was groaning at the wine and the flowers. "Nuala's not here," he told her. "You're a bit earlier than we thought."
"I probably drove too fast."
"You shouldn't, around here. We don't have those massive autobahn things you're used to in Europe."
"We don't have those massive autobahn things much, either, in Langemark. I'm pretty experienced on rural roads."
He didn't seem impressed.
Although he was impressive, she had to admit — a taller, darker, stronger and way more masculine version of Nuala, who'd never had any trouble attracting the opposite sex. Brant wouldn't, either. He had wind-rumpled dark hair, strong cheekbones and chin, sinful lashes, muscles like braids of thick rope below the rolled sleeves of a gray-green, mud-stained sweatshirt, and that aura of basic maleness that aftershave could never disguise or imitate.
There was something built in to the genes in this family that couldn't be explained purely by their hard-working farm background, their intelligence or their good looks. For a long time, Misha had thought that Nuala — loyal whirlwind, sexy tomboy — would end up with some European billionaire or aristocrat, but although she'd introduced her friend to plenty such men during Nuala's month-long stay in Langemark three years ago, Nuala had never been seriously interested.
"They're too civilized," she'd said. "They're tame." Now she was home in Australia again, and happily engaged to Chris, the Farmer Next Door. Misha looked forward to meeting the man who was uncivilized enough for her friend.
But back to Brant, who had just opened the car door for her.
Used to such attention, Misha dipped her head in acknowledgment, smiled at him from beneath her lashes and began to climb out — knees together, pivot, leg slide, step — only to catch him rolling his eyes and sighing between his nice white teeth. Just in case she hadn't picked up on the subtle body language, he looked at his watch and frowned at the time.
He might be good-looking, but he displayed as much charm as a paparazzo snapping a drunken heiress outside a nightclub bathroom door, which wasn't much charm at all, Misha knew, because she'd witnessed such incidents herself.
"Thank you so much for having me to stay, Brant," she said, keeping her own well-practiced guard of charm firmly in place. "It's so good of you, and it's wonderful to meet you at last."
Reaching a standing position, she held out her hand but he didn't take it. "You wouldn't want to," he said, showing her a dirt-stained palm.
"Hey, I can wash afterward, can't I?"
Misha kept her hand where it was, and finally he responded by stretching out his own. She wished she hadn't pushed the issue. His grip was brief and bone crushing, as if to demonstrate that he was both busier and very much stronger than she was. She knew those things already.
"The wine is for you," she said. "Just a small token of my appreciation that you're able to have me here."
"No problem," he drawled. His mouth barely moved, which allowed her to see its exact shape, and to realize that it was perfect, not too fleshy, not too thin. With a mouth like that, he should have a far better idea about smiling.
"And of course the flowers are for Nu. Will she be long?" she asked, feeling fatigue begin to overtake her like the cold winter mists that rolled over Langemark on dark December days.
Determined to keep the press at bay, she'd flown anonymously in coach class from Europe to Melbourne. She'd had a wait of several hours for her connecting flight to Albury, followed by forty-five minutes of driving on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, to reach Inverlochie.
Her cinnamon-and-cream Mette Janssen skirt and top were limp, and her feet had swollen inside her matching Furlanetto pumps. She should have thought the travelling-coach-class-incognito thing through a little better and worn flats.
It was three in the afternoon here, which meant it was six in the morning in Langemark, and goodness knew what time in whichever time zone Gian-Marco was in today. Spain, still? The Spanish Grand Prix had only just finished.
Nuala's brother looked at his watch again. "Not long. Maybe half an hour," he said.
"Right." At this point, half an hour was twenty-nine minutes too long, and any thought that involved Gian-Marco Ponti was a mistake.
To hide the sudden tears in her eyes, Misha leaned back into the car and snapped the release on the trunk, then walked around to the rear of the vehicle. Brant got there first, lifted the trunk lid and surveyed her Van Limbeck suitcases, her matching carry-on bag and her purse. He held out his dirt-stained hands again.
"Point taken," Misha told him, feigning a cheerful attitude. "I'll bring them in myself."
She'd already heaved the first one onto the ground before he answered. "Sorry, I meant I'd wash these hands, and then I'd do it."
"Well, if you can show me my room, wash your hands, and still beat me back out here, I'll very kindly let you bring the second suitcase, the wine, the flowers and the carry-on bag," she said, counting the seconds until she could be alone.
I'm a surly yob today, I should apologize, Brant thought, giving his hands a rough scrub with even rougher soap. He dried them on a towel he hoped was cleaner than the hands had been, and headed quickly back out to Nuala's friend's car.
He'd arrived first. No dazzling sheaf of silky blond hair, no Scandinavian blue eyes, no hundred-watt smile, no smooth pancake-hued tan or willowy, well-engineered, designer-fashion-clad limbs in sight.
Now he could at least do the decent thing and bring in the gifts she'd brought, along with the rest of her luggage. He took the wine and the flowers first, then went back for a second trip. The heavy, expensive suitcase bulged and so did the carry-on bag, and he wondered what this Misha person had seen fit to bring with her. Twenty pairs of shoes?
What did she expect? Why was she here?
Nuala had been cagey about it. "Personal problems. She just needs to get away for a while. She needs some space and some anonymity."