American heiress Payton Harwell is on the runfrom her parents, from her fiancé, from her life! So the last thing she expects is to land in the arms of a rugged stranger in the Australian outback! And like it!
Former football star Brody Quinn is dying for some excitement. After an injury cut short his career, he came home to his family's remote cattle station. And he's bored. At least, he is until he meets Payton in the local jail and decides to take her home with him!
It's instant attractionfor both of them. And they make short work of getting to know each other very, very well. But when their pasts catch up to them, will their hearts be able to keep the promises their bodies have been making ?
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Queensland, AustraliaJune, 2009
His body ached, from the throbbing in his head to the deep, dull pain in his knee. The various twinges in betweenhis back, his right elbow, the fingers of his left handfelt worse than usual. Brody Quinn wondered if he'd always wake up with a reminder of the motorcycle accident that had ruined his future or, if someday, all the pain would magically be gone.
Hell, he'd just turned twenty-six and he felt like an old man. Reaching up, he rubbed his forehead, certain of only one thinghe'd spent the previous night sitting on his arse at the Spotted Dog getting himself drunk.
The sound of an Elvis Presley tune drifted through the air and Brody knew exactly where he'd slept it off the Bilbarra jail. The town's police chief, Angus Embley, was a huge fan of Presley, willing to debate the King's singular place in the world of music with any bloke who dared to argue the point. Right now, Elvis was only exacerbating Brody's headache.
"Angus!" he shouted. "Can you turn down the music?"
Since he'd returned home to his family's cattle station in Queensland, he'd grown rather fond of the accommodations at the local jail. Though he usually ended up behind bars for some silly reason, it saved him the long drive home or sleeping it off in his SUV. "Angus!"
"He's not here. He went out to get some breakfast."
Brody rolled over to look into the adjoining cell, startled to hear a female voice. As he rubbed his bleary eyes, he focused on a slender woman standing just a few feet away, dressed in a pretty, flowered blouse and blue jeans. Her delicate fingers were wrapped around the bars that separated them, her dark eyes intently fixed on his.
"Christ," he muttered, flopping back onto the bed. Now he'd really hit bottom, Brody mused, throwing his arm over his eyes. Getting royally pissed was one thing, but hallucinating a female prisoner was another. He was still drunk.
He closed his eyes, but the image of her swirled in his brain. Odd that he'd conjured up this particular apparition. She didn't really fit his standard of beauty. He usually preferred blue-eyed blondes with large breasts and shapely backsides and long, long legs.
This woman was slim, with deep mahogany hair that fell in a riot of curls around her face and shoulders. By his calculations, she might come up to his chin at best. And her features were odd. Her lips were almost too lush and her cheekbones too high. And her skin was so pale and perfect that he had to wonder if she ever spent a day in the sun.
"You don't have to be embarrassed. A lot of people talk in their sleep."
Brody sat up. She had an American accent. His fantasy women never had American accents. "What?"
She stared at him from across the cell. "It was mostly just mumbling. And some snoring. And you did mention someone named Nessa."
"Vanessa," he murmured, scanning her features again. She wasn't wearing a bit of makeup, yet she looked as if she'd just stepped out of the pages of one of those fashion magazines Vanessa always had on hand. She had that fresh-scrubbed, innocent, girl-next-door look about her. Natural. Clean. He wondered if she smelled as good as she looked.
Since returning home, there hadn't been a single woman who'd piqued his interestuntil now. Though she could be anywhere between sixteen and thirty, Brody reckoned if she was younger than eighteen, she wouldn't be sitting in a jail cell. It was probably safe to lust after her.
"You definitely said Nessa," she insisted. "I remember. I thought it was an odd name."
"It's short for Vanessa. She's a model and that's what they call her." Nessa was so famous, she didn't need a last name, kind of like Madonna or Sting.
"She's your girlfriend?"
"Yes." He drew a sharp breath, then cleared his throat. "No. Ex-girlfriend."
"Sorry," she said with an apologetic shrug. "I didn't mean to stir up bad memories."
"No bad memories," Brody replied, noting the hint of defensiveness in his voice. What the hell did he care what this woman thought of himor the girls he'd dated? He swung his legs off the edge of the bed, then raked his hands through his hair. "I know why I'm here. What are you doing in a cell?"
"Just a small misunderstanding," she said, forcing a smile.
"Angus doesn't lock people up for small misunderstandings," Brody countered, pushing to his feet. "Especially not women." He crossed to stand in front of her, wrapping his fingers around the bars just above hers. "What did you do?"
"Dine and dash," she said.
Her eyes dropped and a pretty blush stained her cheeks. "II skipped out on my bill at the diner down the street. And a few other meals in a few other towns. I guess my life of crime finally caught up with me. The owner called the cops and I'm in here until I find a way to work it off."
He pressed his forehead into the bars, hoping the cool iron would soothe the ache in his head. "Why don't you just pay for what you ate?"
"I would have, but I didn't have any cash. I left an IOU. And I said I'd come back and pay as soon as I found work. I guess that wasn't good enough."
Brody let his hands slide down until he was touching her, if only to prove that she was real and that he wasn't dreaming. "What happened to all your money?" he asked, fixing his attention on her face as he ran his fingers over hers. It seemed natural to touch her, even though she was a complete stranger. Oddly, she didn't seem to mind.
Her breath caught and then she sighed. "It's all gone. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I'm not a dishonest person. I was just really, really hungry."
She had the most beautiful mouth he'd ever seen, her lips soft and full perfect for He fought the urge to pull her closer and take a quick taste, just to see if she'd be different. "What's your name?"
"Payton," she murmured.
"Payton," he repeated, leaning back to take in details of her body. "Is that your last name or your first?"
"Payton Harwell," she said.
"And you're American?"
"And you're in jail," he said, stating the obvious.
She laughed softly and nodded as she glanced around. "It appears I am. At least for a while. Angus told me as soon as he finds a way for me to work off my debt, he'll let me out. I told him I could wash dishes at the diner, but the owner doesn't want me back there. I guess jobs are in short supply around here."
Brody's gaze drifted back to her facehe was oddly fascinated by her features. Had he seen her at a party or in a nightclub in Fremantle, he probably wouldn't have given her a second glance. But given time to appreciate her attributes, he couldn't seem to find a single flaw worth mentioning.
Brody glanced over his shoulder and watched as Angus strolled in, his freshly pressed uniform already rumpled after just a few hours of work. "Are you sober yet?"
"You didn't have to lock me up," Brody said, letting go of the bars.
"Brody Quinn, you started a brawl, you broke a mirror and you threw a bleedin' drink in my face, after insulting my taste in music. You didn't give me a choice." Angus braced his hands on his hips. "There'll be a fine. I figure a couple hundred should do it. And you're gonna have to pay for Buddy's mirror." Angus scratched his chin. "And I want a promise you're gonna behave yourself from now on and respect the law. Your brother's here, so pay the fine and you can go."
"Teague is here?" Brody asked.
"No, Callum is waiting. He's not so chuffed he had to make a trip into town."
"I could have driven myself home," Brody said.
"Your buddy Billy tried to take your keys last night. That's what started the fight. He flushed the keys, so Callum brought your spare." Angus reached down and unlocked the cell. "Next time you kick up a stink, I'm holding you for a week. That's a promise."
Brody turned back and looked at Payton. "You can let her out. I'll pay her fine, too."
"First you have to settle up with Miss Shelly over at the coffeeshop and then you have to find this young lady a job. Then, I'll let you pay her fine. Until you do all that, she's gonna be a guest for a bit longer."
"It's all right," Payton said in a cheerful voice. "I'm okay here. I've got a nice place to sleep and regular meals."
Brody frowned as he shook his head. It just didn't feel right leaving her locked up, even if she did want to stay. "Suit yourself," he said, rubbing at the ache in his head.
Payton gave him a little wave, but it didn't ease his qualms. Who was she? And what had brought her to Bilbarra? There were a lot of questions running through his mind without any reasonable answers.
He walked with Angus through the front office toward the door. "Let her out, Angus," he said in a low voice. "I'll fix any mess she's made."
"I think she wants to stay for a while. I'm not sure she has anywhere else to go. I figure, I'll find her a job and at least she'll eat." He cleared his throat. "Besides, she doesn't complain about my music. She actually likes Elvis. Smart girl."
When they reached the front porch of the police station, Brody found his eldest brother, Callum, sitting in an old wooden chair, his feet propped up on the porch railing, his felt stockman's hat pulled low over his eyes.
Brody sat down next to him, bracing his elbows on his knees. "Go ahead. Get it over with. Chuck a spaz and we'll call it a day."
Callum shoved his hat back and glanced at his little brother. "Jaysus, Brody, this is the third time this month. You keep this up, you might as well live here and save yourself the trouble driving the two hours into town every weekend. At least I wouldn't worry about how you're getting home."
"It won't happen again," Brody mumbled.
"I can't spare the time. And petrol doesn't come cheap. And it's not like I don't have enough on my mind with this whole land mess boiling up again."
Callum had been a grouch for the past month, ever since Harry Fraser had filed papers in court to contest what had to be the longest-running land dispute in the history of Australia. Harry ran the neighboring station and the Frasers and the Quinns had been feuding for close to a hundred years, mostly over a strip of land that lay between the stationsland with the most productive water bore within a couple hundred kilometers.
Ownership of the property had passed back and forth over the years, dependant on the judge who heard the case. It was now the Quinns' property to lose.
"He's lost the last three times he tried. He hasn't been able to find any decent proof of his claim. What makes you think that will change now?"
"I'm still going to have to hire a bloody solicitor and they don't come cheap." Callum sighed. "And then this genealogy woman just shows up on the doorstep yesterday morning and expects me to spend all my time telling stories about our family history."
"I said I was sorry."
"You're turning into a fair wanker, you are. You could find something better to do with yourself. Like lending a hand on the station. We could use your help mustering now that Teague's practice is starting to take off. He's been taking calls almost every day. And when he's home, he spends his time doing paperwork."
"I haven't decided on a plan," Brody muttered. "But it bloody well doesn't include stockman's work. Now, can I have my keys? I've got some things to do."
"Buddy doesn't want you back at the Spotted Dog. You're going to have to find yourself another place to get pissed" Callum paused "or you could give up the coldies. It would save you some money."
Brody's brother Teague had been back on Kerry Creek for about a year after working as an equine vet near Brisbane. He'd taken up with Doc Daley's practice in Bilbarra, planning to buy him out so that the old man could retire. He'd saved enough in Brisbane to purchase a plane, making it possible to move about the outback quickly and efficiently.
Callum's income came directly from working Kerry Creek, the Quinn family's fifty-thousand-acre cattle station. Part of the profits went to their parents, now living in Sydney, where their mother taught school and their father had started a small landscaping business in his retirement.
And Brody, who'd once boasted a rather impressive bank account, was now unemployed, his million-dollar contract gone, many of his investments liquidated and his savings dwindling every day. He could survive another three or four years, if he lived frugally. But after that, he needed to find a decent job. Something that didn't involve kicking a football between two goalposts.
When Brody had left the station as a teenager, there'd been no other choice. He'd hated station life almost as much as his mother had. And though he'd wanted to stay with his brothers, his mother needed someone to go with her, to watch out for her. It had been a way to realize his dream of a pro-football career and he'd grabbed the chance. If it hadn't been for the accident, he'd still be living in Fremantle, enjoying his life and breaking every last scoring record for his team.
One stupid mistake and it had ended. He'd torn up his knee and spent the last year in rehab, trying to get back to form. He'd played in three games earlier in the season before the club dropped him. No new contract, no second chance, just a polite fare-thee-well.
"I'm sorry you're not doing what you want to do," Callum said, reaching out and putting his hand on Brody's shoulder. "Sometimes life is just crap. But you pick yourself up and you get on with it. And you stop being such a dickhead."
Brody gave his brother a shove, then stood up. "Give it a rest. If I needed a mother, I'd move back to Sydney and live with the one I already have." Brody grabbed his keys from Callum's hand then jogged down the front steps and out into the dusty street. "I'll catch you later."
As he walked down the main street of Bilbarra, his thoughts returned to the woman sitting in Angus's cell. "Payton," he whispered. He hadn't been attracted to any woman since Vanessa had walked out on him a year ago, frustrated by his dark moods and eager to find a bloke with a better future and a bigger bank account.
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