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The Australian's Convenient Bride
By Lindsay Armstrong
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSTEVE KINANE turned off the highway, swore beneath his breath and pulled his Range Rover off the dirt road towards the girl thumbing a lift on this isolated out-back road.
Country ethics dictated that you didn't ignore any travellers in distress but it had been a long day and he got the feeling he was about to be taken out of his way. Then he noticed - and this slightly qualified his 'damsel in distress' reading of the situation - that she had an efficient and fit-looking bodyguard: a blue heeler with black points on a lead. While only medium-sized dogs, their devotion to duty was legendary.
He opened his door cautiously and the dog barked but, at one word from its mistress, sank silently to its haunches, Steve firmly in its sights.
"Hello," he said, approaching the girl. "Where are you headed?"
She was a cool, young blonde - in her early twenties, he guessed. Her hair was long, fair, curly, and tied back under a blue linen sunhat. Her eyes were grey and direct and her figure in jeans and a T-shirt - his eyes widened - was slim and curvy.
"Afternoon," she replied. "Thanks for stopping. I'm headed for Mount Helena station. I think it's about ten miles down the road."
He frowned. "Are they expecting you?"
"Does that mean you know it?" she countered politely, taking in his stained, frayed jeans, his bush shirt, battered boots and dirty hands.
He looked down at himself and said, not entirely truthfully, "I - work there." Then immediately wondered why he was being selective with the truth - obviously some instinct he couldn't pinpoint was directing him.
But the girl seemed to relax. "I'd really appreciate a lift, then. This isn't the busiest of roads, is it?" She looked nervously at the empty landscape before turning to look straight back at him. "I'm Charlotte Winslow, by the way," she said without dropping her gaze and while confidently putting out her hand.
He took it, noticing that her arm was lightly tanned with skin as smooth as silk. The dog growled warningly.
"It's OK, Rich," she murmured, but instantly withdrew her hand.
"I'm sorry, but Charlotte Winslow doesn't ring a bell," he said.
"Please call me Chattie, everyone does," she invited.
"Uh - they may not have had time to discuss me with - uh - you."
"They may not have," he replied sardonically and allowed his cool, dark gaze to drift down her figure again.
She took a sharp breath as she suffered the paralysing experience of being mentally undressed before his eyes narrowed and focused on hers again. "Are you after Mark Kinane, by any chance?"
She hesitated. "What makes you think that?"
"It's been known," he replied. "Are you?"
Chattie debated for a moment, and decided the simplest way to go would be to admit to it and let this man make whatever he liked of it. "Yes."
She chewed her lip. "We, that is, Mark, talked a bit about the place and he issued an open invitation, so here I am!" Surely he can tell I'm lying, she thought.
"How the hell did you get this far?" Steve Kinane asked incredulously.
"I got a lift from Brisbane with a friend who was going through to Augathella. He would have brought me the whole way but it wasn't a four-wheel-drive and he didn't want to risk his suspension off the highway on this kind of road."
She looked expressively westward along the dusty red road with its potholes, gutters and ridges.
"What would you have done if no one had come along?"
She shrugged, hopefully disguising her own surprise that her friend had just abandoned her here. "I was going to give it another hour, then walk back to the highway. I'd have had no trouble getting a lift to the nearest town and - tomorrow is another day."
"OK," he said at last. "The dog can go in the back with your bag." He heaved up her holdall.
Five minutes later they were all aboard and under way with the dog planted alertly in the back seat. To his irritation, Steve could feel it breathing down the back of his neck.
Chattie, on the other hand, couldn't help but be impressed by his expert handling of the vehicle on such a difficult road and it came to her unwittingly that this employee of Mount Helena station, with his strong hands and long lines, was rather a fine figure of a man. She even felt herself blush as these thoughts brought back the memory of his visual exploration of her body earlier.
Stunned by the direction of her thoughts, she immediately and sternly told herself she must be out of her mind, this was not the time or place for anything of that nature, and she concentrated fiercely on the countryside instead. Still vast, it wasn't quite so empty now, she noticed, with some interesting rocky outcrops and more trees.
Then her lift said, "How long have you known Mark, Chattie Winslow?"
She thought back carefully. "A few months, I guess."
He flicked her a glance. She'd taken off her hat and her profile was delicious. A short, straight little nose, lovely curving mouth, delicately sculptured jaw and a smooth, slender throat. Even her ear, and it occurred to him he'd never really considered ears before, was pretty with that riotous fair hair tucked behind it.
I have to hand it to you, Mark, he thought, you sure can pick 'em, although why do I get the feeling you may have bitten off more than you can chew here?
"How did you meet Mark?" he asked.
"At a party," Chattie answered honestly but conscious at the same time that, in her quest to keep things simple, she was presenting herself in the light of Mark Kinane's girlfriend, which could complicate things for her. She added, with a smile curving her lips to take the sting out of it, "Why do I get the feeling you're interrogating me?"
A corner of his mouth twitched; it had been an enchanting smile. "Just interested. I guess you're a bit of a diversion from damn cows." He waved a hand at a mob of cattle gathered around a small dam. "Some-times they're enough to send you stir-crazy."
Chattie looked ahead and laughed, an attractive musical sound. "I guess I can understand that. I believe Mark felt the same." She stopped and bit her lip. Until she found Mark Kinane, she didn't want to discuss him with anyone, let alone an employee, so why did she keep bringing up his name?
"I could tell you something about me," she offered.
"I'm a teacher."
The Range Rover veered off course briefly until he corrected it.
"What's so surprising about that?" she asked, amused at his reaction.
"You don't look like a teacher." He flicked her another glance, but this time she met it and their gazes caught and held for a brief, but telling, moment.
Trying not to sound as shaken as she felt, she said, "Thanks, but your ideas about teachers could be a bit outdated."
Excerpted from The Australian's Convenient Bride by Lindsay Armstrong Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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