Read an Excerpt
Alex Patterson was having doubts. Serious doubts.
On paper the journey had sounded okay. Manhattan to L.A. L.A. to Sydney. Sydney to Albury. Albury to Werarra.
Yeah, well, maybe it hadn't sounded okay, but she'd read it fast and she hadn't thought about it. A few hours before she'd reached Sydney she was tired. Now, after three hours driving through pelting rain, she was just plain wrecked. She wanted a long, hot bath, a long, deep sleep and nothing more.
Surely Jack Connor wouldn't expect her to start work until Monday, she thought. And where was this place?
The child she'd seen on the road a way back had told her it was just around the bend. The boy had looked scrawny, underfed, neglected, and she'd looked at him and her doubts had magnified. She'd expected a wealthy neighbourhoodhorse studs making serious money. The child looked destitute.
Werarra Stud must be better. Surely it was. Its stock-horses were known throughout the world. The website showed a long, gracious homestead in the lush heart of Australia's Snowy Mountains. She'd imagined huge bedrooms, gracious furnishings, a job her friends would envy.
'Werarra.' She saw the sign. She turned into the drivewayand she hit the brakes.
That was pretty much all she was capable of thinking. Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh.
The website showed an historic photograph of a fabulous homestead built early last century. It might have been fabulous then, but it wasn't fabulous now.
No one had painted it for years. No one had fixed the roof, mended sagging veranda posts, done anything but board up windows as they broke.
It looked totally, absolutely derelict.
The cottage the child had come from had looked bad. This looked worse.
There was a light on somewhere round the back. A black SUV was parked to the side. There was no other sign of life.
It was pouring. She was so tired she wasn't seeing straight. It was thirty miles back to the nearest town and she wasn't all that sure Wombat Siding was big enough to provide a hotel.
She stared at the house in horror, and then she let her head droop onto the steering wheel.
She would not weep.
A thump on her driver's side window made her jump almost into the middle of next week. Oh, my
She needed to get a grip. Now.
You can cope with this, Alex Patterson, she told herself. You've told everyone back home you're tough, so prove it. You're not the spoilt baby everyone treats you as.
But this was this was
Another thump. She raised her head and looked out.
The figure outside the car was looming over the car window like a great black spectre. Rain-soaked and vast, it was blocking her entire door.
She squeaked. Maybe she even gibbered.
Then the figure moved back a bit from the car window, letting light in, and she came back to earth.
A man. A great, warrior-size guy. He was wearing a huge, black, waterproof coat, and vast boots.
The guy's face was dark, his thick black hair slicked to his forehead in the rain. He had weather-worn skin, stubble so thick it was close to a beard, and dark, brooding eyes spaced wide and deep.
He was waiting for her to open the car door.
If she opened it, she'd get wet.
If she opened it, she'd have to face what was outside.
He opened it for her, with a force that made her gasp. The rain lashed in and she cringed.
'You're lost?' The guy's voice was deep and growly, but not unfriendly. 'You need directions?'
If only she was, she thought. If only.
'Mr. Connor?' she managed, trying not to stutter. 'Jack Connor?'
'Yes?' There was sudden incredulity in his voice, as if he didn't believe what he was hearing.
'I'm Alex Patterson,' she told him. 'Your new vet.'
There were silences and silences in Alex's life. The silences as her mother disapprovedas she inevitably didof what Alex was wearing, what she was doing. The silences after her father and brother's fights. Family conflicts meant Alex had been brought up with silences. It didn't mean she was used to them.
She'd come all the way to Australia to escape some of those silences, yet here she was, facing the daddy of them all.
This was like the silence between lightning and thunderone look at this man's face and she knew the thunder was on its way.
When finally he spoke, though, his voice was icy calm.
'Yes.' Don't sound defensive, she thought. What was this guy's problem?
'Alex Patterson, son of Cedric Patterson, Cedric, the guy who went to school with my grandfather.'
She put a silence of her own in here.
Okay, she saw the problem.
She 'd trusted her father.
She thought of her mother's words. 'Alex, your father is ill. You need to double-check everything ''
'Dad's okay. You're dramatising. There's nothing wrong with him.' She'd yelled it back at her mother, but even as she'd yelled it, she knew she was denying what was real. Alzheimer's was a vast, black hole, sucking her dad right in.
She hadn't wanted to believe it. She still didn't.
She' d trusted her father.
And anyway, what was the big deal? Man, woman, whatever. She was here as a vet. 'You thought I was male?' she managed, and watched the face before her grow even darker.
'I was told you were a guy. His son.'
'That's my dad for you,' she said, striving for lightness. 'A son is what he hoped for, but you'd think after twenty-five years he could figure the difference.' Deep breath. 'Do you think you could, I don't know, invite me in or something? I hate to mention it when the fact that I'm female seems to be such an issue, but an even bigger deal is that it's raining, I'm not wearing waterproofs and it's wet.'
'You can't stay here.'
This was bad, she thought, and it was getting worse.
But her dad's fault or not, this was a situation she had to face, and she might as well face it now.
'Well, maybe you should have told me that before I left New York,' she snapped, and she hauled herself out of the car. She was already wet. She might as well be soaked, and her temper, volatile at the best of times, was heading for the stratosphere. 'Maybe now I don't have a choice.'
Deep breath, she thought. Say it like it is.
'I,' she said, in tones that matched his for iciness and more, 'am at the end of a very long rope that stretches all the way back to New York. It's taken me three days to get here, give or take a day that seems to have disappeared in the process. I applied for a job here in good faith. I sent every piece of documentation you demanded. I accepted a work visa for six months on the strength of a job with a horse stud that looks' she glanced witheringly at the house 'to be non-existent. And now you have the nerve to tell me you don't want me. I don't want you either, but I seem to be stuck with you, with this dump, with this place, at least until the rain stops and I've eaten and I've slept for twenty-four hours. Then, believe me, you won't see me for dust. Or mud. Now let me inside the house, show me where I can eat and sleep, and get out of my life.'
She'd meant to stay icy. She'd meant to stay dignified. So much for intentions.
Her last words were almost hystericala yell into the silence. No matter. Who cared what he thought? She flicked the trunk lever and stalked round to fetch her suitcase. Her foot hit a rain-filled pothole, she tripped and lurchedand the arrogant toerag caught her and held her.
It was like being held in a vice. His hands held her with no room for argument. She was steadied, held still, propelled out of the puddle and set back.
His hands held her arms a moment longer, making sure she was stable.
She looked up, straight into his face.
She saw power, strength and anger. But more.
She saw pure, raw beauty.
It was as much as she could do not to gasp.
Lean, harsh, aquiline. Heathcliff, she thought, and Mr Darcy, and every smouldering cattleman she'd ever lusted after in the movies, all rolled into one. The strength of him. The sheer, raw sexiness.
He released her and she thought maybe she should lean against the car for a bit.
It was just as well this place was a total disaster; this job was a total disaster. Staying anywhere near this guy would do her head in.
Her head was already done in. She was close to swaying.
Focus on your anger, she told herself. And practicalities. Get your gear out of the car. He's going to think you're a real New York princess if you expect him to do it for you.
But he was already doing it, grabbing her cute, pink suitcase (gift from her mother), glancing at it with loathing, slamming the trunk closed and turning to march toward the house.
'Park the car when it stops raining,' he snapped over his shoulder. 'It'll be fine where it is for the night.'
She was supposed to follow him? Into the Addams Family nightmare?
A flash of lightning lit the sky and she thought it needed only that.
Thunder boomed after it.
Jack had reached the rickety steps and was striding up to the veranda without looking back. He had her suitcase.
She whimpered. There was no help for it, she whimpered.
Her family thought she was a helpless baby. If they could see her now, they'd be proven right. That's exactly how she felt. She wanted, more than anything, to be back in Manhattan, lying in her gorgeous peach bedroom, with Maria about to bring her hot chocolate.
Where was her maid when she needed her most? Half a world away.
More lightning. Oh, my.
Jack was disappearing round the side of the veranda. Her suitcase was disappearing with him.
She had no choice. She took a deep breath and scuttled after him.
He showed her to the bedroom and left her to it. Headed to his makeshift study and hauled open his computer. Grabbed the original letter.
Could he sack a worker just because she was female?
Surely he could if she'd taken the job under false pretences, he thought, reading the first letter he'd received.
My son, Alexander, is looking for experience on an Australian horse stud. Alex is a qualified veterinarian and is also willing to take on general farm work. The level of pay would not be a problem; what Alex mostly wants is experience.
He flicked through the emails, printing them out. After Cedric's first letter he'd corresponded directly with Alex. Her. There was no mention of what sex she was in her emails, he conceded. They'd been polite, businesslike, and they hadn't referred to her sex at all.
Yes, I understand the living conditions may be rougher than I'm accustomed to, but I'd appreciate even a tough job. My aim is to work on horse studs in the States, but getting that first job after vet school is difficult. If I do a decent job for you, it may well give me the edge over other graduates.
He'd expected a fresh-faced kid straight out of vet school, possibly not understanding just how tough it was out here, but ready to make a few sacrifices in order to get the job. Despite the conditions, Werarra produced horses with an international reputation. This would be a good career step.
He'd never have employed a woman.
He hadn't wanted to employ anyone, but sense had decreed he had no choice. This place had deteriorated to the point of being a ruin. The horses took all his attention. The house was derelict and the manager's cottage even more so. Brian, the guy who'd managed the place for his grandfather, preferred to live a half a mile down the road on the second of the farm's holdings. Jack had expected him to keep on working, but the moment Jack arrived he'd lit out, abandoning his wife and kids, disappearing without trace.
The letter from Cedric Patterson, addressed to Jack Connor, had come when he was overwhelmed. Despite his misgivings he'd thought, a vet. .plus someone who could help with the heavy manual work like getting the fences back in order The manager's house was unlivable, but maybe a kid could cope with sharing the big house with him.
He'd written back to Cedric explaining that the Jack he was writing to, the Jack he'd gone to school with, was dead. Cedric had visited Werarra, had stayed here, when he and his grandfather were young men, when his grandmother was alive and making the place a home. The house had deteriorated, he'd told him. There were no separate living quarters, but if Alex was happy to do it tough
Alex himself herself.. .had emailed back saying tough was fine.
What now? He didn't even have a working bathroom.
Asking a guy to use the outhouse was a stretch, but a woman?
He could fix the bathroom. Maybe. But not tonight.
And he still didn't want a woman. The women in his life had caused him nothing but grief and anguish. To have another, sharing his house, sharing his life.
Stop it with the dramatisation, he told himself harshly. She wouldn't want to stay even if he wanted her to. She obviously had a romantic view of what an outback Australian horse stud would be. One look at the outside privy and she'd run.
He didn't blame her.
Meanwhile he needed to feed her. He hurled sausages into the pan, sliced onions as if he could get rid of his anger on the chopping board, tossed them on top of the sausages and fumed. At himself more than her. He shouldn't have tried to employ anyone until he had this place decent, but a woman?