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She sat straight as a warrior on the horse, her hair gleaming like liquid gold under the baking Argentine sun.
When he'd first noticed her in the distance his reaction had been one of irritation, partly because the horse had been galloping hard in the ferocious heat, but mostly because he'd been seeking solitude, not company. And if there was one thing that the Argentine pampas offered in abundance it was the opportunity for solitude.
Endless grassland stretched far into the distance, the horizon so perfectly straight and flat that it might have been drawn with a ruler.
Irritation had turned to concern as horse and rider had drawn closer and he'd recognised the animal she was riding.
He felt a flash of anger towards whomever had allowed her to take that particular horse out alone and made a mental note to find the culprit. And then anger faded to slow, simmering masculine appraisal as he scanned the delicate lines of her features.
He had spent his life surrounded by exceptionally beautiful women, all of them more groomed than this girl, and yet he couldn't drag his eyes away from her face. She was fair-skinned and delicate, her body a mouth-watering combination of slender limbs and perfect curves. It was as if she'd been created by the gods and thrown onto Earth for the simple purpose of tempting man.
Her creamy skin and flushed cheeks gave her an air of innocence and he gave a wry smile, surprised that he was even capable of recognising that particular quality given how rarely he'd met with it before.
In fact his cynicism was so deep-rooted that his first thought when he'd noticed her on the horizon had been to assume that she'd somehow tracked him down and followed him. But he'd dismissed that possibility instantly, knowing that her presence could only be coincidence.
A happy coincidence, he thought idly, his eyes resting on her soft mouth. A very happy coincidence indeed.
The horse flattened his ears, arched his back and gave a ferocious buck that should have unseated her.
Faith gritted her teeth and managed to stay glued to the saddle. 'You really are in a horrible mood today, Fuego. It's no wonder everyone is afraid of you,' she muttered. 'I'm not falling off here. We're miles from home. Wherever you go, I go and the sooner you realise that the better for both of us.'
The heat was stifling and she reached for her bottle of water and then froze as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head, the breath jamming in her throat as she saw a man watching her.
She'd been concentrating so hard on not falling off the horse, that she hadn't noticed him.
But she noticed him now.
He was the most staggeringly handsome man she'd ever met and since she'd arrived in Argentina, she'd met quite a few. His body was lean and hard, his shoulders broad and powerful but what really disrupted the steady rhythm of her heart was the sheer raw sexuality that surrounded him like a forcefield.
'You're staring, signorina.' His deep, male voice trickled through her veins like a drug and her limbs weakened.
Her horse, sensing a lack of concentration on her part, chose that moment to give another determined buck and Faith flew into the air and landed on her bottom in the dust.
'For crying out loud!' Pain shot through her and she sat for a moment, working out whether anything was broken. 'That horse needs a psychiatrist.'
A pair of strong male hands closed around her waist and lifted her easily to her feet. 'He needs a male rider.' His eyes blazed fiercely into hers and she felt her heart stumble and trip.
'There's nothing wrong with my riding. It's your fault for jumping out on me with no warning ' Her voice tailed off because the sudden narrowing of his beautiful, sexy eyes drove all thoughts from her head.
'I assumed you'd seen me. The Argentine grassland hardly offers a large number of hiding places.'
'I was concentrating on my horse.'
'You were riding too fast.'
'Tell that to the horse, not me. I suppose that's why they called him Fuegomy Spanish isn't great, but I know it means "fire".' Faith dragged her gaze away from his handsome face in the hope that not looking at him might help her slow the crazy beating of her heart. 'I didn't choose the pace. With that particular horse, you always get more than you bargain for.' What was the matter with her? She felt lightheaded and dizzy and her body felt alarmingly lethargic.
It was the heat, she told herself quickly. Just the relentless, baking heat that turned the entire landscape into a throbbing, sultry outdoor sauna.
'You are staying at the Estancia La Lucia?' He glanced behind him even though the elegant colonial house was over an hour away. 'You shouldn't be riding alone. What happened to the rest of your party? You should have a groom with you.'
'Oh, please.' Baking hot from the relentless sunshine and aching from her fall, Faith shot him a warning look. 'I'm just not in the mood for all that macho Argentine-man thing. Not right now.'
He lifted an eyebrow in silent mockery. 'Argentine-man thing?'
'You know what I mean.' She rubbed at the dirt on her breeches. 'The mega-macho approach. The "sling a woman over your shoulder" method of communication.'
'Interesting description.' His eyes laughed into hers. 'This is South America, cariño. Men know how to be men.'
'I'd noticed. Ever since I stepped off the aeroplane I've been surrounded by so much testosterone that it's driving me mad.'
'Welcome to Argentina.' There was gentle mockery in his sexy, accented drawl and suddenly she felt impossibly awkward and shy and her reaction to him infuriated her because she'd always thought of herself as a confident person.
'Do you work here?'
His hesitation was so brief she decided that she must have imagined it. 'Yes.'
'Lucky you.' She assumed he must be one of the gauchos, the cowboys who worked with the nine-hundred head of cattle that grazed this land. Dragging her eyes away from his, she wondered why this particular man was having such an effect on her. Yes, he was good-looking but so were many of the men she'd met since she'd arrived in South America.
But there was something about him
'Your English is amazing.'
'That's because I sometimes talk to women before I throw them over my shoulder.' He studied her for a long disturbing moment, a powerful, confident male totally at home in his surroundings. Then his gaze dropped to her mouth and lingered there, as if he were making up his mind about something.
The heat went from oppressive to unbearable and the chemistry between them was so shockingly intense that she actually felt herself sway towards him in anticipation.
She desperately wanted him to kiss her and the strength of that need shocked her because she'd been pushing men away since the day she'd arrived at Buenos Aires. She was here to work, study and learn, not to meet a man. But suddenly her lips were tingling with anticipation and she found herself trapped by the lazy, knowing expression in his dangerously attractive eyes. It was as if he was savouring the moment and she knew that he'd read her thoughts. Her sense of anticipation exploded into an all-consuming sexual excitement that she'd never before experienced.
She waited breathlessly, knowing that she was poised on the brink of something wickedly exciting and sensing that this man was going to change her life for ever.
But instead of kissing her he gave a slow, expressive smile and turned his attention to her horse. 'Your horse needs a drink.'
Released from the force of his gaze, Faith felt her entire body go limp and her face flood with colour. 'My horse needs a lot of things.'
What had happened just then?
Had she imagined the connection between them? Had it all been in her head?
Her eyes slid to his broad shoulders and the long, lean length of his strong legs as he led her horse to the river.
No, she hadn't imagined it. But this was no teenage boy eager for a quick grope and instant satisfaction; she was dealing with someone else entirely. He was all man, from the glossy black hair and darkened jaw to the powerful muscle that hardened his unmistakably male physique. He was cool, sophisticated and experienced and her stomach curled inside her because he carried himself with such confidence and she knew, she just knew, that he was playing with her.
Feeling as though the temperature had just shot up by a hundred degrees, Faith glared at his broad back and then bit her lip, wishing she could get rid of the agonising sizzle that was burning inside her.
Angry with herself and with him, she lifted her chin and strolled towards him, determined not to let him see how much he'd affected her.
'I need to be getting back.' She took Fuego's reins and vaulted into the saddle, taking some satisfaction from the way the man's eyes lingered on her slim thighs.
She hadn't imagined the chemistry. The searing attraction wasn't all on her side.
'Wait.' He closed a hand over Fuego's reins, preventing the horse from moving. 'You say that you work at the estancia. In what capacity? Do you work in the guest quarters?'
'You're showing your prejudices again.' Agonisingly aware of him, she rubbed a hand over the horse's neck to focus herself. All the Argentine men I've met so far seem to think that a woman's place is in the' She stopped herself just in time, but he lifted an eyebrow, his eyes gleaming with wicked humour.
'You were saying? We Argentine men think a woman's place is in the ?'
He was so desperately attractive that for a moment she couldn't speak and she certainly didn't want to finish her sentence. It would draw the conversation towards an extremely dangerous area that she knew was best avoided. 'Kitchen,' she said lamely. 'Kitchen.'
His smile deepened. 'Kitchen? If that's what you think then you obviously haven't yet deciphered the workings of the average male mind here in South America.'
That smile connected straight to her nerve endings and she was infuriated with herself for being so susceptible to his charm and masculinity.
'The average male mind is of absolutely no interest to me,' she said sweetly, 'unless the mind belongs to a horse.'
'Is that what brought you to Argentina? Our horses?'
Faith glanced around her, at the endless sweep of grassland that surrounded them. 'I came because I read about Raul Vásquez.'
The man stilled. 'You travelled thousands of miles to meet Raul Vásquez?' There was a coolness to his tone that had been absent before. 'You are hoping to catch yourself a billionaire, perhaps?'
Faith gazed at him in astonishment and then burst out laughing. 'No, of course not. Don't be ridiculous. Billionaire polo-patrons aren't exactly my style, and anyway, I've never even met the man. He's off in the States at the moment, negotiating some high-flying deal or other and he employs thousands of people. I don't expect our paths are ever going to cross.'
He studied her with disturbing intensity. 'And that would disappoint you?'
'You misunderstand me. I'm not interested in the man, but I am interested in his polo estancia. That's why I'm here. Raul Vásquez breeds horses and trains them and his vet facilities are the best in the world. I read a paper in a journal written by Eduardo, his chief vet. I contacted him. Landing a job here is my dream come true.'
'Eduardo employed you?' That statement was greeted by incredulous silence. 'You're a vet?'
'Yes, I'm a vet.' Watching the frank astonishment in his eyes, Faith gritted her teeth. 'Welcome to the twenty-first century. Women do become vets, you know. Some of us can even walk and talk at the same time, although news of that accomplishment clearly hasn't yet reached South America.'
'I'm aware that some women become vets,' he said smoothly, 'But this is a busy, commercial stud-farm, not some small-animal practice in the city.'
'I wasn't interested in a small-animal practice. For me it's always been about horses.'
His gaze slid to her arms and lingered. 'I don't doubt your commitment or your enthusiasm, but sometimes physical strength is required, especially out here in the pampas where we deal with powerful stallions and hormonal mares.'
Her heart rate suddenly doubled. 'Here we go again. You think it's all about muscle, aggression and domination, but what you need to realise is that there's more to horsemanship than brute strength. And Raul Vásquez understands that. He has some revolutionary training methods.'
'I'm fully aware of his training methods. Answer me one question ' His tone was soft and deadly and his gaze returned to her face. 'Who was in charge when you were galloping across the pampas with the wind in your hair? You or the horse?'
'Oh, the horse,' Faith admitted, her eyes sparkling with humour. 'But brute force wouldn't have changed that fact.'
'He needs to be ridden by a man. A man with sufficient skill and strength to control him.'
Faith came back at him instantly. 'He needs to be understood. If you want to change behaviour, then you have to first try and understand the reason behind that behaviour. Horses do things for a reason, just like humans.'
She'd spent her life studying and all her spare time around horses. No man had ever captured her attention.
His confidence and sophistication tied her in knots and she felt horribly self-conscious and more than a little confused by her own reaction.
She would never in a million years have described herself as shy, but suddenly she was agonisingly aware of her own naivety when it came to men like him.
'I'd better be going. I have to ride back and ' Her voice tailed off and she wondered whether he was going to stop her.
But he didn't.
He let his hand drop from Fuego's bridle and stepped away. 'Ride carefully,' he said softly and she gave a puzzled smile because she'd been so, so sure that he was going to stop her or at least suggest that they meet again.
And she'd wanted him to.
She'd really wanted him to.
The Vásquez Polo Cup was an important annual part of the Argentine polo circuit and it was the most glittering, glamorous affair Faith had ever attended.
She was only there in her official capacity as a vet of course, but she couldn't help glancing towards the spectators who were gathering in the stands. 'How come the women are all so stunning?' she wondered out loud. 'And how do they achieve such straight hair? In this heat my hair just curls.'