Foreign Affairs, Book 4
Lexxie Couper and Mari Carr
Harper Shaw hitched her bag farther up her shoulder, smiled at the Australian cowboy standing before her and thought, This is not what I was expecting.
The cowboy’s own smile spread wider over his brown, leathery face. He leaned forward, hooking his fingers around the handle of her suitcase. “You must be the American teacher, right? Welcome t’ Australia.”
“Thank you, Mr…err…” She gave the cowboy an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name yet.”
The cowboy pushed his very worn hat back on his head. “Ronnie will do nicely, miss.”
Harper wasn’t sure which was drier, the gravelly sound of his voice, the red dirt surrounding her or the air she pulled into her lungs with every breath.
So far autumn in the Outback wasn’t anything like what she’d told her fifth graders. It wasn’t as hot, she hadn’t seen any kangaroos bouncing around and no one had tried to make her eat Vegemite, something every Australian celebrity who went on Leno insisted was delicious.
Nor was the cowboy in front of her anything like the two cowboys her Australian best friend, Amy Wesson, had said would be collecting her from the airport. Not that she’d told her students how she’d expected the cowboys to look. That conversation had been reserved for after-work cocktails with the few girlfriends she had back in Chicago. In those chats, the cowboys who collected her at the airport—Keith Munroe and Marc Thompson—looked like Ryan Gosling, sounded like Chris Hemsworth and removed their shirts the second they saw her.
This cowboy was more…homely.
Oh God, Harper, are you really so superficial?
Disgusted with herself, she bit back a soft snort. She was here to teach a small group of Australian elementary-aged children, not have a trans-global affair, no matter how erotic it sounded.
Okay, that was kind of what she was here for. She had, after all, promised herself and her best friend she would do the opposite of everything she’d normally do back home, and back home she was damn near close to being a shut-in. The only boyfriend she’d had in the last four years had been scared off by Andrew—who was the other reason she’d journeyed so far away from home. She needed to get away from her brother. He was on the verge of delivering one of his “big brother knows best” lectures and, by the serious tone in his voice during their last phone conversation, it was going to be a doozy.
Spending two weeks teaching in a small school on an Outback ranch was just what she needed. A chance to prove she was capable of standing on her own two feet. Of being independent. Of being a woman, damn it.
It had sounded so exciting when she and Amy had discussed it. The young teacher Harper had met online a year ago had painted such an evocative picture of life in the Australian Outback, Harper couldn’t resist suggesting a “life swap” for two weeks. A brief escape to cloudless sweeping skies, air so fresh it was sweet, young students enamored with everything American, cowboys so sexy they hurt to look at, kangaroos, Tim Tams and an adventure beyond her imagination.
Now, standing on the dusty runway of the airport at Cobar, the small town closest to the ranch, out in the middle of nowhere with not a tree—or kangaroo—in sight, let alone a building higher than two stories, Harper wondered if she’d been too eager to pursue the exchange.
“Shell-shocked, ’eh love?” Ronnie grinned. “Yeah, reckon the Outback is a bit different to where you’re from. But don’t panic yet. Wait until you get to Farpoint.”
Harper adjusted the brand-new designer sunglasses she’d bought just for this trip, the brilliant autumn sky bright against her eyes. Eyes that had grown accustomed to spending the last twenty-six hours either inside a plane or an airport terminal. “It’s very…different.”
Ronnie laughed. “City sheila?”
He laughed again, the sound close to boisterous guffaws. “Sorry, I’m messin’ with ya. You’re a city girl, yes? Never been outta the big smoke?”
Harper was sure he was speaking English. Maybe?
“You’ll love Farpoint,” he went on. “Promise. I’ve worked there for the last fifteen years and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Started as a wet-behind-the-ears jackaroo when I still sounded like a girl.” He turned and began walking toward some sort of red-dirt-covered vehicle that looked as if it wanted to be a pickup when it grew up.
Harper didn’t follow. Not straightaway. She stood and stared at the alien world she’d committed to spending the next fourteen days in. A world, it seemed, without green. Red dust blew around her ankles. A flock of bone-white birds flew overhead, their screeching calls harsh on her ears.
She started. “Um, Amy said Keith Munroe and Marc Thompson would be—”
“They got caught up with a cow,” Ronnie cut her off. “I’m a better driver anyway.”
Harper chewed her lip for a second before giving the waiting man a nod. She’d never get in a car with a stranger back home. Ever.
The opposite of everything, remember?
She tilted her chin and smiled at Ronnie. “Coming.”
By the time she’d caught up to the cowboy, he’d placed her suitcase in the back of the baby pickup and was holding the passenger door open for her. A little giggle bubbled up in Harper’s throat as she climbed inside. The left door. How weird was it going to be sitting on the left side of a car and not driving?
Oh if Andy could only see me now.
Harper suppressed another giggle. If Andrew Shaw could see her now, he’d skin her alive. Her loving but thoroughly overprotective big brother had no idea she was flying to Australia, let alone spending time on a ranch out in the middle of the Outback. And he wouldn’t know either. She’d be home before he returned from his location shoot in the South Pacific. There’d be nothing he could do except scowl and take the boomerang she’d already bought for him in one of the Sydney Airport’s many gift shops. Even if he did talk to Amy, Harper had sworn her best friend to secrecy.
She’d never kept secrets from her big brother before. What a way to begin.
“Whaddaya know about Farpoint, miss?”
She looked up from buckling her seat belt. “It’s the second largest cattle ranch in Australia, so big it has its own small school for the children of the people who work on it. The staff include over twenty hired hands to help with the cattle, a resident veterinarian, a cook for the hands, a mechanic, maintenance crew of five, laundry staff of two and numerous teenage boys training to be cowboys—I mean jackaroos.
“It follows an Aussie tradition of allowing employees and their families to live on the property, making Farpoint Creek one of Australia’s most respected working ranches by government-supported family groups. There are seven separate living quarters, along with the main homestead where the owners live. It uses light planes most times to muster up the cattle, which are predominately Black Angus. Horses are used for rounding up smaller herds in the closer fields. It employs up to seventy people during peak birthing and mustering season, the closest town is Cobar, it’s been owned by the same family—the Sullivans—for over two hundred years and is now run by identical twin brothers, Hunter and Dylan.”
Ronnie let out a whistle. “Well done!”
She shrugged with a smile. “We teachers do our homework.”
“So y’know to keep a lookout for the drop bears when walkin’ outside then?”
Harper raised her eyebrows. She’d taught her class all about the poisonous snakes and spiders that inhabited the Australian Outback, but drop bears? What on earth were drop bears? “The what?”
Sliding the key into the ignition, the cowboy chuckled. “Nasty buggers, those drop bears. Best remedy to keep ’em away is to smear a dab of Vegemite behind your ears.”
If it was possible, Harper’s eyebrows lifted farther up her forehead. “Are you serious?”
Whatever Ronnie said was lost to her as he started the engine, filling the cabin with a roaring grumble.
Thirty minutes later, Harper knew she’d never complain about traveling on the infamous Chicago L train again. The baby pickup, or “ute”, as Ronnie called it, bounced and bumped and shuddered over a length of corrugated dirt apparently considered a road in this part of Australia. Red dust poured in through the open windows, making her cough and splutter. When she’d attempted to close hers, Ronnie mentioned the air conditioner in the ute was “on the fritz” and it would be better to leave it down.
Shifting on her seat, she clung to the seat belt as if it were a lifeline. And with the way the cowboy was driving, it probably was. Ronnie, however, didn’t seem ruffled at all by the clunking noises coming from the vehicle. He spent the entire trip filling her in on everything he figured she needed to know about Farpoint Creek, such as not to call it a ranch but a “station” or “property”; not to walk around outside barefoot; not to go swimming in the “billabongs”—natural swimming holes on the property—before checking for snakes.
Finally, after what felt like an interminable distance, he settled on his current subject—Amy’s friends, Marc Thompson and Keith Munroe.
“You gotta watch out for ’em,” Ronnie said, his gaze on the road as they all but became airborne driving over what looked like a shallow, dried-up creek. “They’re cheeky buggers. They take little in life serious and they know how to charm the ladies, but…”
“But?” Harper prodded.
He slid her a sideways look. “They’re…well, y’know…that way inclined.”
The tone of Ronnie’s voice piqued Harper’s interest. It wasn’t condemning or contemptuous. More like humored. Gay cowboys? Amy hadn’t mentioned anything about Keith and Marc being gay. She’d mentioned a lot of things about them—that they were awesome fun to be with, that they made Amy laugh all the time. Keith had considered a career in the professional rodeo circuit after winning the amateur championships five times running. Marc once wrestled a massive croc to save a dingo pup stuck in mud. But gay? Amy had never discussed their sexual orientation.
Of course, her friend also hadn’t said anything about drop bears, whatever the hell they were. “Why do I need to watch out for them?”
“They make a joke out of leadin’ the ladies on,” Ronnie answered with a smirk. “See who can suck ’em in first. Get the first kiss. Thomo is leadin’ the count at the moment, but Blue is catching up.”
“Kiss? Thomo?” Harper blinked again. “Blue?”
Ronnie chuckled. “They don’t think anyone knows and I reckon the bosses would give ’em a right bloody serve if they found out, but just you be watching out for ’em, okay, miss? In fact, it might be for the best if you let me look out for you for a few days. I can come and collect you from Miss Wesson’s place every mornin’ for breakfast if you like?”
Before she could formulate anything more intelligent than that, something slammed into the ute.
A deafening crunch filled the cabin as Harper and Ronnie were thrown forward against their seat belts. Ronnie let out a “Shit!” and then they were motionless.
“What the hell was that?” Harper burst out, swiping her hair from her eyes before snaring her sunglasses where they’d tumbled to her feet.
“Bloody hell.” Ronnie shoved opened his door and scrambled out of the ute. “Think we hit a ’roo.”
Harper’s stomach lurched. A ‘roo? Kangaroo?
She struggled with her seat belt then pushed open her door and tumbled out, dirt puffing up around her wrists in tiny clouds as her hands hit the road. Damn, her head swam.
“Nope.” The cowboy’s voice came from the front of the ute. “It’s gone. Must have only clipped the bugger.”
Harper pushed herself to her feet, massaging her neck where the seat belt had rubbed against it. Moving to where Ronnie stood scratching the back of his head, she turned her attention to the front of the ute. “Holy crap!”
Ronnie chuckled. “Yeah, they’ll do some damage, the big reds. I’m guessin’ that’s what we hit.”
Harper gaped at the twisted bull bar and crumpled right fender. “It got away? The truck looks like that and it got away? How big is a big red?” She swung around to stare at him, her stomach rolling. “Is it going to be okay?”
Ronnie took off his hat, swiped at his forehead with his arm and returned his hat to his head. “It’s nowhere around, which means it’s fine. I’ll let one of the hands know when we get back to Farpoint to come take a look, just in case.”
Harper’s stomach rolled some more. “In case what?”
The cowboy shrugged. “In case it hasn’t got as far as we think and needs to be put down.”
“Welcome to the Outback, miss. Let’s go. Mrs. Sullivan is waitin’ for you and she’ll have my arse if I take too long gettin’ you there.”
He turned and climbed back into the driver’s seat, giving her an expectant look from behind the wheel.
Harper ran a slow inspection over the arid, flat terrain surrounding them; red dirt, a few ash-gray eucalyptus trees, red dirt, some kind of spiky straw grass and red dirt. Not a kangaroo to be seen.
She frowned, unable to comprehend it. What kind of animal got up and bounced away from being hit by a goddamn pickup? Sorry, ute? What kind of animals did they breed in this part of the world?
Big ones, apparently.
With one last futile scan for a wounded kangaroo of any color, she made her way back to the passenger seat.
“Wrong side, miss.” Ronnie looked up at her from behind the steering wheel.
Biting back a sigh, Harper stomped her way from the right side of the ute to the left, yanked open the door and dropped into the seat, choking on the cloud of dust that billowed up around her the second her butt hit the vinyl. This was so not what she had expected when booking her flight.
Welcome to Oz, Harper Kirsten Shaw. Are you ready to live in Opposite Land?
* * * *
Keith Munroe climbed down from his horse, wiped his hands on his arse and fixed his hat. He was hot, sweaty, stinky and in a bad mood. Not good for the beginning of the weekend.
“I’m going to bloody well thump the shit out of Big Mac when he gets back here.”
Marc Thompson climbed down from his own horse, a young stallion called Kilowatt. “Why? ’Cause you were stupid enough to believe him when he told you a cow was stuck in the old eastern-side billabong? Or because he collected the American instead of us?”
Keith snorted, giving Whippet a pat on her neck before walking her into the stable. “Both. But mainly the first. Bloody bastard.”
“Yeah, well, he pulled the wool over my eyes too.” Marc followed, leading Kilowatt into his pen. The stallion snorted, nudging Marc in the shoulder before giving Whippet a baleful glare.
Settling Whippet in her pen, Keith began to hose her down. “You think Big Mac sent us off on a wild goose chase to get back at us for the YouTube clip?”
Marc raised his head from Kilowatt’s saddle. “Yeah, reckon so. You think he’s going to develop a sense of humor one of these days?”
Keith stroked Whippet’s neck. “Nope. Although this one, I kinda understand. There’s not many blokes who want footage on the ’net for the whole world to see of them singing the national anthem while pissed as a fart, wearing nothing but an Australian flag around their shoulders. He might have a point this time.”
Marc’s face—deeply tanned by a lifetime working in the Outback sun—twisted into a mask of mock dismay. “Oi, there’s footage of me doing the exact same thing and you don’t see me pitching a fit about it, do you?”
Keith rolled his eyes as he hung up Whippet’s bridle. “That’s because you were the one who uploaded it, dickhead. And, unlike Ronnie, you’re hung like a bloody horse.”
Marc repositioned his hat farther back on his head. “That I am, Blue. And thank you for noticing.”
Keith threw his grooming brush across the aisle at the smirking jackaroo, who snatched it out of the air. “Jesus, how big is your ego?”
Marc lobbed the brush back at him. “As big as my dick, mate. As big as my—”
Without finishing the sentence, Marc dropped behind Kilowatt’s side, disappearing from sight.
Keith frowned. “What the bloody hell are you doing now?”
“I would suggest,” a soft but supremely authoritarian female voice uttered to Keith’s left, “wasting time in the stables gloating when he should be collecting an American from Cobar.”
Keith started, swinging his head toward Hazel Sullivan, his gut knotting.
The matriarch and owner of Farpoint Creek Cattle Station stood at the mouth of Whippet’s pen, her expression set in a disarming mix of curiosity and disappointment. Keith fought the urge to fidget.
Since Dylan and Monet—Hazel’s son and his new wife—were in Paris on their honeymoon, Hazel had taken over the job of keeping the hired hands and jackaroos in line. Dylan was a hard but fair boss who demanded perfection from the men and women who worked on Farpoint. Hazel was equally tough. However, whereas the hands and jackaroos knew if they slacked off with Dylan, he’d make their lives hell with a grueling workload, no one wanted to let down his mum. She was just so bloody warm and caring.
Except when she caught someone being a bludger. If that happened, if she came upon one of the hands or jackaroos not working when they should be, no matter how long they’d been at Farpoint, well…suffice to say, Keith had seen grown men sobbing after Hazel was done with them.
It was a bloody good thing she had a soft spot for Marc.
“You can come out now, Mr. Thompson,” she called, a twinkle in her faded-green eyes. “I can see you hiding behind your horse.”
Keith bit back a chuckle as his friend—who’d grown up on Farpoint, just like Keith himself—slowly straightened.
“Mrs. Sullivan,” Marc murmured, tipping the brim of his hat.
Hazel threw a quick smile at Keith, so quick he wasn’t sure if it was a smile. “Mr. Thompson. Do you mind telling me why you and Mr. Munroe are here and the American is not?”
Marc flicked a look at Keith. “Big Mac sent us out to rescue a cow stuck in the old eastern billabong, Mrs. Sullivan.”
“And did you rescue the cow?”
Keith stepped forward, running his palm over Whippet’s flank. “There wasn’t one, Mrs. Sullivan.”
Hazel Sullivan had changed his nappy as a baby, bandaged his knees as a snot-nosed kid learning to ride, and hosed him down more than once as a teenager when he’d come home drunk as a skunk from the local Bachelor and Spinster balls in town. Keith’s mum and dad had passed away years ago, but Hazel had filled the void. That didn’t mean she wasn’t likely to chew his arse off for not doing the job she’d given him.
“Mr. McNamara sent you to rescue a cow,” she repeated, her unwavering gaze sliding between Keith and Marc. “A cow that wasn’t there.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Marc answered, still standing behind his horse.
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the YouTube clip, would it?”
Keith couldn’t stop his snort at Hazel’s mild question.
Marc stared at the grandmotherly woman waiting patiently for his answer. “Ummm…”
Hazel let out a sigh. “Okay, boys, let me make this clear. While Dylan is away, Hunter is the boss of the hands. Not Ronnie. He may think he is because he’s older than most of you, but he’s not. The chain of command here at Farpoint during moments of crisis—such as Dylan being out of town, it seems—goes me, Hunter, you Keith, and then Ronald McNamara.”
Keith started again. “Me?”
Hazel nodded. “Ronnie was trucking the south paddock mob to Darwin when Dylan was in New York, so he didn’t get the memo.”
“There’s a memo?” Marc asked, his eyebrows so high Keith couldn’t see them behind the shaggy strands of his dark-brown fringe.
Hazel’s lips twitched. “There will be when I get back to the house and tell Hunter to write one.” Her attention returned to Keith. “And of course, Mr. Munroe, when you’re not acting the goat and fooling around with Mr. Thompson, you’re a pretty decent stockman. One of these days you’ll figure that out and we’ll all be bereft of your company when you start up your own station.”
For the first time in his twenty-eight years, Keith blushed. “I don’t…”
“And,” Hazel turned her direct green gaze back to Marc, “you’ll be next on that list, Mr. Thompson, instead of Ronnie, if you keep pleasing my sons. Of course, beating Dylan at poker the night before his wedding probably wasn’t wise. Nor was causing havoc in town when Hunter sent you to Cobar last week for a supply run. I know you two lads have a very close relationship and get up to some rather…dubious carrying-on at times, but you both forget I know everything that has anything to do with Farpoint. Do I make myself clear?”
“Now,” the steely edge in Hazel’s voice made Keith want to fidget once again, “as for the American, or lack thereof, I’m assuming Ronnie collected her himself, is that correct?”
Marc nodded again. “Yes, ma’am.”
“How long ago?”
“’Bout four and a half hours,” Keith supplied.
“And they’re not back yet?”
Keith shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
Hazel pursed her lips. “Hmmm, this is not good. I’m going to try to track them down on the satellite phone. If I’m not successful, or they’re not here in fifteen minutes, I’ll need you two boys to go out and find them.”
“In the chopper?” Keith’s heart thumped fast. As much as he was bellyaching about Big Mac, he didn’t really want anything to happen to the man, and a lot could happen to a person in the Outback when things went askew. Death by snakebite, death by spider bite, death by dehydration. Hell, even death by sun exposure. Added to the fact Ronnie was driving back with the teacher from America, a woman who, according to Amy Wesson, rarely set foot outside of Chicago, and Keith began to worry. Big-time.
“In the chopper,” Hazel echoed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to let Hunter know what’s going on.” A scowl pulled at her softly seamed face. “He’s not going to be happy.”
She turned on her heel and strode from the stables, heading in the direction of the main homestead. Keith watched her go for a second, his hand resting on Whippet’s shoulder, before turning back to Marc. “What’s your gut telling you?”
Marc walked out from behind his horse, removed his hat, dragged his fingers through his shaggy hair and stuck it back on his head. If it weren’t for the sudden foreboding turn of the afternoon, Keith would have given him a hard time about getting a haircut. “Could be anything,” the jackaroo said. “Ronnie’s a shit driver though. Knowing him, he’s hit a ’roo and flipped the bloody ute.”
“Christ. What are we going to tell Amy if something happened to her best friend? She’s already had a gutful of living out whoop whoop. She’ll never come back to Australia if the American gets—”
The sound of a door slamming outside the stable brought Keith to a halt. He exchanged a look with Marc then spun on his heel and strode outside.
Only to stop two steps out in the scorching midday sun, his stare locked on the woman alighting from the station’s communal work ute. A woman who looked so damn out of place in the Outback, Keith’s mind couldn’t comprehend it.
A woman dressed in black leather knee-high stiletto boots, leg-hugging black jeans, a black long-sleeve shirt so snug it could almost be a second skin, black sunglasses, and a black scarf that wrapped her creamy neck, its feathered ends brushing the tops of her thighs.
A woman with full lips glossed a deep plum-red, long waves of thick honey-blonde hair and a body most men would give their left nut just to gaze at.
A woman, Keith suspected—by the way she was dressed, the way she scanned the immediate area around her, the way her lips parted when her hidden gaze fell on him and Marc—who was just dying to be kissed by a sexy Aussie cowboy.
“Oh man.” Marc chuckled from Keith’s right, reaching up to adjust the hat on his head. “I look forward to kissing this one, Blue.”
Keith studied his best mate’s profile for a long second before turning back to the American standing beside the dented ute. “You know the rules, Thomo,” he said, watching Ronnie fuss over the vision in black. “First kiss claims the prize.”
Marc’s laugh was low. Dirty. Suggestive. “Game on, mate. Game on.”
The leaner of the two cowboys sauntered over to her. There was no other way to describe the way he walked. Like sinful temptation, mischievous charm and cocky indolence.
Low-slung, faded jeans that had no hope of concealing the sizable bulge of his crotch hugged long, muscular legs. An equally faded chambray shirt wrapped a torso so perfectly proportioned—wide shoulders, flat stomach and narrow hips—that for a moment, Harper forgot how to breathe.
Her pulse kicked into overdrive and her mouth went dry. Her pussy, on the other hand, grew damp. Damp and tight.
Now that’s a cowboy.
“Thomo,” Ronnie muttered at her shoulder, turning his back on the approaching sex god in denim and a hat. “Watch out, he’s the smooth-talker of the two.”
Thomo—surely that had to mean Marc Thompson—stopped but a foot away from her, his sapphire-blue gaze roaming over her from head to toe. He touched the tip of his index finger to the brim of his hat, his lips curling in a smile. “G’day, love. You must be the American.”
Harper oozed poised calm and aloof indifference. Well…tried to. It was goddamn hard when her heart was thumping fast in her throat and her nipples were pinching in her bra. Holy crap, she’d never seen such a sexy example of maleness. Everything about the cowboy radiated testosterone, pleasure and carnal delight. And his accent? Oh God, after listening to Ronnie talk for the last four hours, she’d figured she was over the Australian accent already, but it seemed not.
“Hello,” she croaked back, her mouth dry. Damn, was she flushing? “I am.”
The cowboy’s lips curled a little more, turning the smile into a very seductive grin. “Welcome to Farpoint. I hope Big Mac here has been treating you right so far?”
Harper nodded. It was the only thing she could do. That and stare with helpless lust at the man in the hat before her, reminding herself he was gay. That seemed so unfair. Who said God didn’t have a sense of humor, putting a man like this on the planet and then making him off-limits for…
The wild mental tantrum faded out of Harper’s mind, her stare falling on the other cowboy she’d noticed earlier as he joined Marc.
She let out a soft gasp.
Christ, he was—
“G’day.” The cowboy stuck out his hand. Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of his hat. “I’m Keith Munroe, one of the hired hands here at Farpoint. Welcome to Australia, Ms. Shaw.”
If Harper didn’t love her brother so much, she’d curse him black and blue. She’d never been more aware of the fact she’d lived a very sheltered life until now. She wasn’t prepared for exposure to such raw manliness. If Marc Thompson was sinful temptation, mischievous charm and cocky flirtation wrapped in tight denim, Keith Munroe was potent strength, concentrated sexuality and rugged masculinity.
She stared at the cowboy, never more grateful for wearing sunglasses, even ones that cost her damn near a week’s pay.
He was broader in the chest than his companion and wider in the shoulders, but just as exquisite in his physique. His biceps strained against the cotton of his shirtsleeves, highlighting the sculptured form of his strength. The same potent power was barely concealed by tight jeans, the corded muscles of his thighs evident despite the material covering them.
Unable to stop herself, Harper slid her gaze to the cowboy’s groin. And jerked it up to his face again at the sight of a bulge as large as Marc’s trapped beneath his jeans.
Realizing Keith still stood waiting for her to shake his hand, she snagged it in both of hers, giving it a somewhat frantic shake. “H-hello.” Damn it, her voice was still croaky. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Keith laughed. “Nice to be met.”
Warm heat filled Harper’s cheeks at the greeting. She smiled at him, unable to tear her stare away. A lock of blond hair—tinged with faint copper-red—tumbled over his forehead from beneath his hat, brushing long, thick lashes a shade darker. His face was more tanned than Marc’s, a little more creased, but none the lacking for it, and he had a hawkish nose, adding to the air of absolute control and power the man exuded. A fine strawberry-blond stubble dusted a square jaw and chin, drawing her eye to the open collar of his shirt where a hint of a tattoo peeked out at her.
Men like this didn’t exist in Chicago. At least, if they did, she’d never met them.
Of course you haven’t. Why would you? With the way you live? The way you cower in shadows? The way Andrew guards over you whenever he’s in town?
She slid her stare to Marc, fighting the urge to moan. The dark-haired cowboy with the cocky grin and devilish eyes was studying her, the faint hint of a dimple creasing his cheeks.
Damn it, unprepared or not, overprotected or not, inexperienced or not, if it wasn’t for the fact they were gay, she’d throw herself at both of them and offer her body for their pleasure. That was the complete opposite of her normal reaction to a gorgeous guy, and these two guys were more than gorgeous.
Of course, they were gay, which, Harper guessed, made them the perfect company, especially for one as unprepared, overprotected and inexperienced as she. She could visually caress them all she wanted without fear of being—
“Found that stuck cow, Big Mac,” Keith suddenly said, his focus moving to Ronnie.
For a jarring moment, Harper found herself at a loss, wishing his gaze was still holding hers.
Behind her, Ronnie let out a choked cough. “You did?”
Marc laughed, and Harper had to bite her lip at the longing that rained through her at the sound. “Bloody wanker.”
Keith’s gaze returned to Harper’s face. “Would you like to take a shower, Ms. Shaw? Freshen up after your long flights?”
She nodded, caught off guard by the question. And the disarming, unexpected notion of sharing a shower with Keith Munroe…and Marc Thompson.
Holy crap, even her imagination was taking this whole opposite thing to surreal levels.
“Excellent.” Keith smiled at Ronnie, an unreadable expression crossing his features, before swinging to face Marc. “Thomo, can you take Ms. Shaw to the homestead to meet Mrs. Sullivan? Big Mac and I need to have a talk about the cow.”
Marc tapped the brim of his hat. “Surely can, Blue.”
“I can do that,” Ronnie said, and for the first time it dawned on her the verbose cowboy who’d collected her from the airport had hardly said a word since alighting from the pickup. “I thought I saw Hazel’s truck here when we drove through the gates, otherwise I would have taken Ms. Shaw there straightaway.”
“You just missed her.” Marc slid his hands into his hip pockets, and it was damn near impossible for Harper not to notice the front of his jeans pulled tighter over his groin. “She was wondering why we were here.” His dimples flashed again. “And not at the airport.”
To Harper’s surprise, Ronnie let out a muttered “shit”.
Marc laughed. “Wanker,” he said again.
Harper frowned. She’d need to find out what that word meant. It seemed important.
Keith’s focus returned to Harper and once again her body responded. “The homestead is just a quick drive up the road. Hazel will no doubt show you around the place when you get there. She’s a top sort and loves having the chance to show off Farpoint.”
Determined to restore some decorum to her demeanor, Harper gave Keith a wide smile. “I can understand that. What I’ve seen so far is lovely.”
Marc Thompson eyed the truck. “By the state of the ute’s bonnet, you’ve already seen a ’roo. Is that right, Big Mac?”
Ronnie shuffled his feet. “We hit one just past Wallaroo Crossin’. Nothin’ too bad. It was long gone by the time we got out and looked for—”
The shout came from behind Harper. She started, as did Ronnie.
“Oh thank God,” the female voice called again, this time closer. “I was beginning to worry.”
Before Harper could even finish turning around, two warm palms pressed to either side of her face and, without warning, a soft pair of lips pressed to hers.
“Welcome to Farpoint!” said a woman Harper recognized as the owner of the cattle station—and her new boss for the next two weeks. She held Harper out at arm’s length. “I’ve heard so much about you, I feel like we’ve known each other forever.”
On Harper’s right, Marc laughed. “Looks like the boss got the first kiss, Blue.”
Harper didn’t get the chance to comment on the statement. Hazel Sullivan wrapped her arms around her, enveloping her in a hug. “Of course I get the first kiss,” the older woman said. “You think I’m going to let you two have your fun?”
The station owner smiled at Harper. “Amy tells me you’ve never left America before, Harper. I so hope you enjoy your time here.”
“I was just goin’ to bring her up to you, Mrs. Sullivan,” Ronnie offered.
Hazel gave the cowboy a quick look. “Yes, of course you were, Mr. McNamara. Now if you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, I’m going to take our guest—and new teacher—for a little tour of Farpoint. I’d suggest you all get back to work.”
And before anything else could be said, Hazel turned on the spot, her arm still snug around Harper’s shoulders, and walked away from the three men.
“Oh, and Mr. McNamara?” the matriarch called over her shoulder as she led Harper to a cherry-red Toyota pickup parked a few yards from the stables. “There’s a cow stuck out in the eastern billabong. See to it, will you? So I don’t have to tell Hunter?”
Behind them, Marc started laughing. As before, Harper felt her body respond in an entirely sexual way to the devilish sound.
“Is the cow going to be okay?” she asked the woman still hugging her close, needing the distraction.
Hazel gave her a wide smile. “The cow will be fine, dear. Don’t worry about it at all. Now tell me, how do you feel about snakes?”
Marc watched his boss walk away with the American woman who was about to spend a fortnight at Farpoint. “Okay,” he turned to Keith, “she’s either really shy or we just scared the shit out of her.”
“She’s lovely,” Ronnie piped up, “and not shy at all. But she is gay, so maybe your particular type of charm isn’t working.”
Ronnie laughed at Keith’s blunt response. “I spent the last few hours with her. She told me. Leavin’ her girlfriend behind in the U.S. was hard.”
Marc tossed Keith a quick look. Amy hadn’t told them Harper Shaw was gay. All she’d specifically said about the American—in the days of raving about the woman leading up to this teacher exchange—was that Harper was “lovely”, “an amazing, dedicated teacher” and “so excited about coming to Australia”. She’d never mentioned a girlfriend.
But then, she’d never mentioned the entirely sexy way Harper looked either.
Maybe Amy didn’t know?
That’s also bullshit. The way Amy talked, the two of them are damn near sisters. If Harper Shaw’s a lesbian, Amy would know.
“So you’re telling me,” Marc narrowed his eyes at Ronnie, “the kiss from the boss was more to Harper Shaw’s tastes than a kiss from either of us?”
The other man smirked. “I stand more of a chance of kissing her than you do, Thomo.”
Marc raised his eyebrows, folding his arms. “Is that right?”
“It is. And despite the fact I’m in the shit with the boss now, I’m glad I sent you two on a bum steer. At least Harper didn’t have to put up with you playing your game like you do.”
“Our game?” Marc affected a wounded expression. “Ah, Big Mac, you hurt me, mate. You really do. Blue and I don’t play any games. We are who we are and that’s just the way it is.”
Ronald McNamara snorted. “Who you are? Yeah, I know who you two—”
“Aren’t you meant to be dealing with a cow in the old eastern billabong right about now, Ronald?”
Keith’s calm voice cut over Ronnie’s sneer. The man stopped, sliding his stare from Marc to Keith. “You telling me what to do, Blue?”
Keith nodded. A single dip of his head.
“Since when are you—”
“Since about fifteen minutes ago,” Marc answered, uncrossing his arms to drape an elbow on the roof of the beat-up ute. “The boss told us. Apparently there’s a memo.”
Ronnie’s jaw bunched.
Marc was enjoying himself. He shouldn’t be. Not really. He got why Big Mac was pissed at him—the YouTube clip had been pretty bloody hilarious after all—but Ronald brought it all on himself. For starters, he’d covered Marc’s saddle in superglue the morning of the last south-herd roundup. For seconds, he’d used Marc’s toothbrush to clean his work boots after mopping up the mess of a calf being born.
Marc considered himself a pretty easygoing bloke, but when it came to Ronald…well, as his dead dad had always said, not everyone was meant to get along in this world. Farpoint Creek was no different, even if it was heaven on earth.
“Probably best you bugger off, Ronnie.” Keith’s voice was still calm, but Marc didn’t miss the edge to it. His friend had reached that point most of the hired hands recognized straightaway. The point where they shut up their yapping, quit their whining, put their heads down and got their arses out of there.
Marc couldn’t help but smile, a sense of pride rolling through him for the other man. There was a reason Hazel Sullivan had called Keith a born leader; it was just a matter of time before he decided to actually be one.
A cold finger of foreboding slipped up Marc’s spine at the thought. Fuck, what happened when Keith did head off to run his own station? Did Marc follow him? They never discussed any plans beyond the next day. Life was, in Marc’s opinion, too short to get serious about shit like that, but what would he do if faced with the choice of Keith on a station somewhere else and Farpoint, the place he’d spent his entire life? His only real home?
“You two think you’re so bloody funny, doncha?” Ronnie’s sneer yanked Marc away from the disquieting thought.
“Nothing funny about me, mate,” Keith was saying, his eyes lost in the shadows of his hat. “But Thomo’s a bloody riot.”
For a still moment, Ronnie didn’t move. Marc tensed, his body flooding with adrenaline at the distinct possibility the other man was going to try to slam one into Keith. It wouldn’t be the first time he and Keith had been in a fistfight. Just the first one with Big Mac.
And then, with a grunt, Ronnie stormed around to the driver’s side of the ute and yanked open the door.
“Don’t think you’re going to fit the cow in the back.”
Ronnie glared at Keith over the roof. “You know there’s no cow, right?”
Keith’s lips pulled into a slow smile. “Of course I do. But I’m still sending you out to look for one at the billabong.” He paused a beat. Long enough for Marc to see his knuckles whiten. “On foot.”
With a muttered curse, Ronnie slammed the door shut, shot one last glare at Keith—threw one Marc’s way for good measure—and then stormed away, fists clenched.
“Fuck a duck, Blue.” Marc let out a ragged breath. “That was tense.”
Keith let out his own breath, a long, slow exhalation that saw his broad shoulders loosen. “Remind me to punch the crap out of Dylan when he gets back from his honeymoon, will you? None of this would have happened if the bastard hadn’t taken off now.”
“Oh yeah, you really think I’m going to encourage you to hit the man who pays my wage?”
Keith snorted, removing his hat to drag a hand through his hair. “Hunter pays your wage, Thomo. He’s the brother in charge of the money.”
“Hey, you hit Dylan, you may as well be hitting Hunter. And I’m not letting you do either, ’specially now you’re third in charge. I plan on milking that position of power as much as I can.”
Keith cocked an eyebrow at him. “Is that right? And how exactly are you planning on doing that? Seeing as I’m the one in that ‘position of power’?”
Marc grinned. “I’m not telling you, mate. You’ll spoil all my bloody fun if I do.”
Keith rolled his eyes, tugging his hat back on. “Why do I put up with you?”
“Because I’m hung like a horse. You said so yourself.”
Keith walked around the ute’s bonnet and opened the driver’s side door. “Mention your dick one more time, Thomo, and it’ll be you I punch the crap out of.”
“What? You know you want it.”
Keith gave him steady look. “Shut the fuck up and get in, Marc. We’ve got to drop off Harper Shaw’s luggage to Amy’s place before Mrs. Sullivan finishes giving her the tour.”
Marc smirked. “Is that all we’ve got to do?”
Keith’s answering smile was close to a grin. “No. We’ve got to call Amy while we’re there. There’re a couple of questions I want to ask that girl.”
Marc opened the passenger door and dropped into the seat.
Ten minutes later, his cock painfully hard thanks to a filthy line of thought he’d kept to himself, they pulled up outside the small cottage Amy called home.
A traditional settler’s cottage dating back to the early 1800s, it had been the residence of the Farpoint Creek teacher since the Sullivan family established the cattle station. Over the years, each teacher living there had placed her mark on the quaint cottage, as the various paint colors adorning its exterior surfaces attested—sky-blue window frames, deep-green door, a red porch rail. It stood amongst a grove of willow gums, the shade of the ancient trees painting it in dappled shadows.
To Marc, it was as close to a home base as he could imagine. His mother had been the resident teacher until she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d grown up within its walls. Had spent night after night listening to the dingoes call during mating season. Had danced in the rain in the small yard outside during the wet season, his mum swinging him about as they both laughed, his dad off doing what stockmen do, regardless of the weather.
When Amy—the daughter of a Farpoint mechanic—became the teacher after four years studying in the big smoke, he’d gravitated to the cottage once again, returning to his childhood home as a guest of his friend. The nights the three of them had spent dancing to Lee Kernaghan under the stars were some of Marc’s favorites.
And now Amy was in Chicago, attempting to appease her need for adventure, and Harper Shaw was going to be living in the small cottage.
All in all, it was kinda weird.
“You reckon an American is going to handle the ankle biters we breed here?” he asked, climbing out of the ute to throw a curious look at Keith.
His best mate leaned over the side of the tray and retrieved a small suitcase from the back. “Dunno. Though I don’t think Amy would have set up the swap if she didn’t think Harper could handle it. Amy may have a bloody hard case of wanderlust, but she’s more dedicated to those kids than most of the blokes working here are to their job.”
Marc snorted. That was true. Amy may be a bit flakey every now and again, but he’d pit her work ethic against that of most the hired hands employed on Farpoint. And that was saying something, given that the Sullivan brothers only employed the best. Well, maybe with the exception of Big Mac.
Another snort left Marc, this one turning into a chuckle as they reached the front door of the cottage.
“Like the flowers.” Keith nodded at a wattle spray painted with exquisite detail on the bottle-green door next to the slightly rusted, slightly dented knob. “Amy’s latest effort?”
Marc let his gaze roam over the yellow puffballs depicted on the wood. “Guess so. She said she was making sure Harper knew she was in Australia no matter where she looked.”
Keith laughed. “Sounds like Amy. You reckon the Yank’s got a hope of forgetting where she is? Can’t imagine a plain green door’s gonna make her think she’s back in the U.S.”
Marc shook his head as he reached for the beat-up old doorknob. “Nope. But y’know Amy. Any chance to teach something new. Any surface too, apparently.”
He turned the knob and pushed open the door.
The interior was bathed in cool shadows, the wide verandah and overhanging trees outside keeping the high Outback sun and heat at bay. The gentle scent of acacia filled Marc’s breath.
“Looks like she was determined to keep that Australian botanical lesson going inside as well.” Keith slipped past Marc to enter the cottage. “How many bloody bunches of wattle can one woman need?”
Marc skipped his gaze around the small living area and eat-in kitchen. Keith was correct. There were at least four vases of acacia scattered around the place, although, he noted, each vase contained a variant of the flower. At the base of each one was a little white card, on which he could see Amy’s neat handwriting. He’d bet his left nut if he picked one up and read it, it would be both the common name and scientific name for the particular flowers in the vase.
Ah, Amy, he thought. God, I love ya.
“I’m just going to dump this suitcase in the bedroom,” Keith’s voice dragged his focus from the closest vase, “and we can get going. The mob marked for the Cobar sale yards needs to be counted and as far as I know, they’re still in the south paddock.”
“Great.” Marc followed him toward the cottage’s only bedroom. “Think we can round ’em up by bike? My arse is still aching from the saddle.”
Keith threw him a smirk. “Is that what it’s aching from?”
Without slowing down, Marc snared a cushion from the small sofa he was passing and flung it at his friend’s head. “Shut the fuck up, Blue.”
Keith ducked the cushion, which then promptly slapped against the closed bedroom door with a soft thud. “Told you not to try to beat Hunter last week. He may be more a desk jockey nowadays than a cattleman, but he’s still a bloody good bull-rider.”
“You didn’t tell me not to do it.” Marc shoved his hands into his back pockets as Keith deposited the American’s suitcase on the foot of Amy’s double bed. “You just told me I’d be…”
His words faded away, his pulse slamming in his neck, his heart in his throat, as a door in the bedroom swung open. The door leading to the small adjoining bathroom.
The door in which Harper Shaw now stood frozen, as naked as they come, her hair wrapped in a towel, her lips parted in a stunned O, her stare jerking from Marc to Keith and back to Marc again.
“Shit!” Keith burst out, his strained voice shattering the silence. “Shit, we’re sorry. Sorry. We thought—” He spun away from her, his face redder than the dirt outside. “We thought you were still with the boss.”
Marc couldn’t move. He knew he should. He knew he should do exactly what Keith was doing—looking away. It was only polite. But he couldn’t. Harper Shaw’s body held him prisoner.
Her legs were long and toned, her pubic area trimmed to a narrow rectangle, her stomach flat with that subtle, shallow line running from her navel to just below her ribs that spoke of many sit-ups and ab exercises. Her breasts were full and round, each tipped with a dusky nipple so puckered he imagined they would be hard to the touch.
Something throbbed deep within him. Something carnal.
Saliva filled his mouth. His pulse beat faster.
And then something soft smashed into the side of his head and he blinked, the hypnotic spell of Harper’s nudity destroyed. “For fuck’s sake, Thomo,” Keith muttered, “look away.”
Marc dropped his stare to his feet, his cheeks on fire. A pillow rested on the toe of his right boot, no doubt the weapon of distraction Keith had hurled at him. “Sorry, miss,” he said, wishing to hell the urge to raise his head and devour Harper with his eyes would just go away.
“It’s okay,” Harper said, the softest chuckle in her voice.
The sound of cotton rasping over flesh singed his nerves, and—unable to stop himself, no matter how hard he tried—he peeked up from under the brim of his hat at the naked American standing but a few feet away.
She was no longer naked, the towel now wrapped about her, clinging to her curves as only a wet towel could. “Really,” she said, her accent making Marc’s head spin.
Or maybe that was the way she looked.
She smiled, and Marc couldn’t help but notice how different she looked without makeup. How lushly pink her lips were, how creamy her skin. Her hair tumbled around her face and bare shoulders in a tangle of damp strands, more than a few brushing at her eyes, which were a shade of blue deeper than either his or Keith’s.
He lifted his head completely and gave her a wide smile back. If she wasn’t stressed about the whole thing, he wasn’t. Hell if he wasn’t one for going with the flow. It was how he lived his life, after all. “Did you enjoy your tour of the homestead?” he asked, noting how her nipples strained at the pink cotton of the towel.
Beside him, Keith bit back some kind of mutter. From the corner of Marc’s eye, he saw his mate was still facing the bed.
Harper dipped her head. “I did.”
“Did you meet Hunter? Annie?”
She nodded again, the corners of her mouth curling.
“She’s from New York,” he went on, wanting her to speak. Her accent was different from Annie’s in some subtle way he couldn’t discern. It was…intriguing. “And you’re from…”
“Chicago,” Harper supplied.
Silence stretched for a second, and for some stupid reason Marc’s stomach decided to churn. As though he was…what? Nervous? He flicked a sideward glance at Keith, who seemed to be completely entranced with the handle of Harper’s suitcase.
“I’ve heard all about you two.” Harper’s voice jerked Marc’s stare away from Keith and he grinned at the American.
“Really?” He cocked an eyebrow. “From who?”
Marc smirked. “Ahh. None of it good, I bet.”
A faint pink tinged her cheeks. She shifted her feet, her gaze moving between him and Keith. Her teeth caught her bottom lip.
Marc continued, “Don’t believe everything you hear, Ms. Shaw. We’re not that—”
“So who’s going to try to kiss me first?”
“That’ll be me.” Keith’s voice cut through Marc’s shock at Harper’s unexpected question.
Before Marc could utter a word, Keith spun on his heel, destroyed the distance between the foot of the bed and the American, wrapped one arm around her waist and hauled her against his body.
He cupped her jaw in his free hand, traced her bottom lip with the pad of his thumb and then, as Harper gazed up at him—an expression close to amazement on her face—lowered his head and claimed her mouth.
Raw lust detonated in Marc at the sight of his best mate kissing the towel-clad woman. Hot and absolute. He bit back a groan, a surge of liquid steel flooding into his cock. His reaction stunned him. Left him reeling.
He’d seen Blue kiss more than one woman, but there was something about the sight of him kissing this woman that was so fucking hot to watch.
What did that mean?
Harper’s soft whimper sent fresh heat to his dick. Eyes closed, she leaned into Keith’s embrace, and Marc couldn’t miss the roll of her hips. Nestling her sex closer to his best mate’s groin.
Keith groaned, his hand bunching the towel at the small of her back, his other skimming down the column of her throat, over her bare shoulder, down the curve of her breast trapped beneath pink cotton.
Marc swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. Holy. Fuck.
Harper whimpered again, snaking her arms up around Keith’s shoulders, her hands burying in his hair at this nape. It sent his hat tumbling off his head to fall at his feet.
It also broke the concentrated rapture of the moment. Keith burst out laughing against Harper’s mouth, his chuckles echoed by hers as he stumbled back a step.
“How was that?” he asked, bending at the waist to scoop his hat from the floor.
“That was,” Harper cleared her throat, flicking Marc a look, “not at all what I was expecting.”
“That good, ’eh?” Keith placed his hat back on, a crooked grin on his lips. Lips still glistening from the kiss. He slid his stare to Marc for a heartbeat, and if Marc hadn’t known him so well, he would have missed the expression in his eyes.
Marc’s already racing heart beat faster.
He’d never seen that look in Keith’s eyes after a mere kiss.
“So who is the boss then?” Harper looked up from tidying the small collection of art supplies she’d been using during her first day teaching the Farpoint class, giving Annie Prince a frown. “I’ve heard the cowboys call Mrs. Sullivan ‘boss’, Hunter ‘boss’ and the brother who’s not here—what’s his name…Dylan—‘boss’. Which one is it?”
Annie laughed. “Don’t call them cowboys. They don’t like that.” She plucked a paintbrush from the long table the students had been sitting at during their craft time and fanned its bristles with her thumb. “Technically I guess it’s Hunter and Dylan.”
Harper still couldn’t believe she was in Annie Prince’s presence. Talking to her. The daughter of one of America’s richest men. While in Australia.
“But when it comes to the last word on Farpoint, no one, not even the brothers, are going to argue with Hazel.”
Harper narrowed her eyes, contemplated what Annie said and then scooped up the postcards and travel pamphlets of the U.S. she’d had the small group of children cutting from. “So Hazel tells Hunter and Dylan what to do and they do it? Is that how it works?”
“No. Hunter runs the business side of the station, the money side, the paperwork, and Dylan does the sweaty work. He’s in charge of the jackaroos, jillaroos and hired hands. Hazel lords over them as only a mother can. She knows they know how to run Farpoint, but she likes to keep them on their toes. And the hands call her ‘boss’ because she’s their bosses’ boss. Make sense?”
Harper chuckled. “I think so.”
Annie replaced the paintbrush and plucked a roll of tape from the table. “I have to say, it’s great to hear another American accent again. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss Monet until she left. How are you settling in? Is everyone being nice to you?”
“Everyone is amazing.” Harper dropped herself onto the chair opposite Annie. “And the children in the class are so cool. It still messes with my head I’m teaching in a classroom on a ranch.”
“Station,” Annie corrected.
“Station,” Harper echoed, smacking her palm to her forehead. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. It took me a while to get used to it as well.” Annie turned the tape in her fingers. To Harper, she looked very content. Relaxed. Nothing like the tense woman who used to grace the pages of the celebrity gossip magazines. “The Sullivans are big on family,” she went on. “Farpoint Creek is the only station in Australia—whether cattle or sheep—to keep the practice of a resident teacher alive. Dylan says it’s because their great-grandfather didn’t like the idea of his twin daughters going to a boarding school in Sydney and being seduced away from Farpoint by big-city boys.”
At the word “seduced”, Harper’s belly fluttered. Since Keith Munroe had kissed her two days ago, she’d spent too many moments fantasizing about being seduced by the gay cowboy and his partner.
She’d also fantasized about seducing them.
In those fantasies, instead of wrapping the towel around her body after finding them in her bedroom, she’d dropped it to her feet, smoothed her hands over her hips and made some intelligent, innuendo-heavy comment that made them both fall instantly in lust with her. After Keith kissed her—something that, in real life, was only spurred by his competition with Marc—his hands roamed her body, his worship joined by that of Marc, whose lips journeyed her throat, her breasts.
Then both cowboys removed their clothes and made love to her over and over again, bringing her to orgasm time and again with their hands and mouths and tongues and—
Harper started, jerking her stare to Annie’s face. “I’m…I’m sorry,” she stammered, her cheeks filling with heat. “I wigged out a little. I think I must still be jetlagged.”
“I understand. I was exhausted my first few days here. It takes the body clock a while to adjust.” Annie’s smile turned to a smirk. “Plus you spent most of yesterday being pursued by one very persistent stockman, yes?”
Harper resisted the urge to fidget on her small seat. Ronnie McNamara had collected her from the cottage for breakfast yesterday morning a little after sunrise. She’d still been in her PJs when he’d knocked on the door, a bunch of pretty blue daisy-like flowers in his hand. He’d waited outside while she’d dressed and then driven her to the main homestead, pointing things out as they went. Leaving her at the homestead front door, he’d promised to collect her again for lunch, asking if she’d fancy a picnic. Annie had saved her from answering, the American heiress telling Ronnie that Hazel had already planned lunch.
But Harper had to give it to the man; he was tenacious. Rather than be dissuaded, he’d suggested a picnic dinner instead. “Nothin’ like eating under the stars in the Outback,” he’d said, offering to come get her from the cottage. “I’ll teach you how to make a bush-oven damper if you like.”
The picnic under the stars never eventuated. Hazel spent the day showing Harper everything she could around Farpoint, regaling her with utterly delightful tall tales about life on the station. It wasn’t until Harper was halfway through the most delicious roast beef dinner she’d ever eaten, her mouth full of tender meat smothered in rich brown gravy, that it dawned on her she hadn’t seen Ronnie.
With a guilty start, she’d mentioned it to those at the table. Annie had winked at Hunter, who’d scowled at his mother when Hazel proclaimed, “As if I’m going to let Ronald McNamara poison you with that gutrot he calls damper. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood, not even Dylan’s dog will eat it!”
Still, Ronnie had been waiting for Harper when dinner finished, removing his hat and smiling at her when she and Hazel exited the homestead. “I’ll take her back to Miss Wesson’s place, Mrs. Sullivan,” he’d said to Hazel. “I’ve got to check the fence line along the Kangaroo Creek track anyways.”
“How’s the cow you rescued from the billabong?” Hazel had asked, and Harper had been intrigued to see his face turn flame-red.
“It’s aw’right,” Ronnie had answered.
Hazel had narrowed her eyes. “How ’bout you go check on it? Just to be sure. I’ll drive Harper home.”
With a muttered, “Yes, ma’am,” the cowboy had climbed back into the same pickup in which he’d collected Harper from the airport and driven into the night.
“Those boys don’t know what they’ve done,” Hazel had muttered with a shake of her head before turning back to Harper. Harper wanted to ask which boys. For some reason, her pulse had started racing.
For some reason? Harper fidgeted a little on her seat. Huh, maybe it’s because the last two nights you couldn’t stop thinking about Keith Munroe and Marc Thompson.
“And,” Annie said, the word laced with good-natured humor, “he drove you here this morning, correct?”
Harper fiddled with the pile of postcards and pamphlets on her lap. “Yes, he did.” She didn’t add how disappointed she’d been to open the door and see Ronnie when she’d been hoping to find Keith and Marc. Annie didn’t need to know she was harboring pornographic fantasies about the two cowboys.
It also didn’t help she hadn’t seen either of them at all yesterday. It was as if, after the kiss from Keith, they’d run from her. Hell, they’d damn near sprinted from the cottage after it happened, Marc with a speculative look on his face and Keith with a hasty apology.
Maybe the kiss unsettled him? Maybe it really did make him wonder what it would be like to make love to a woman instead of—
“And I’ve lost you again, haven’t I?”
Harper blinked at Annie’s question. “I’m sorry. Truly.”
The heiress tilted her head. “Anything you want to talk about? I know how jarring it can be, being alone in a strange place.”
Harper shook her head. “Just feeling a tad out of sync. Does that make sense?”
“Absolutely. You’re in a different country, away from your family and friends, where the people seem to speak a different language despite the fact they’re speaking English. You’re allowed to feel out of sync. Have you spoken to anyone back home since getting here? That would help, I’m sure.”
Harper fought the guilty blush heating her cheeks again. “My brother doesn’t know I’m here. He’s what you’d call a bit overprotective.” Ha, that’s an understatement. “If I called him, he’d be on the first plane over here to drag my ass back…why are you laughing?”
Annie dropped her hand from her lips, her grin wide. “I’ll tell you one day. Promise. Suffice to say, your secret is safe with me. Does Amy know you’re here on a secret mission?”
“Hee! Secret mission, I like that. And yes, she does. I spoke to her last night and she promised she wouldn’t tell Andrew where I was.”
The eleven p.m. conversation had been an odd one. She was sure Amy wanted to tell her something important but hadn’t. And Harper had almost asked if Keith and Marc were gay, but she didn’t want to give away her lustful interest…in both of them. At the last moment, she’d bitten her tongue. Amy knew about Harper’s ménage fantasy, but surely she’d never expect her to fall for her best friends. How awkward would that confession be?
And by the way, Amy, I want to experience the ultimate female fantasy and bang both your sexy mates.
Too embarrassing to say out loud, even if it was true. Besides, Harper knew there was a lot more driving her desires than just sex.
I want to prove to Andrew I’m capable of looking after myself, even if having a threesome he’ll never, ever know about isn’t the way to do it. Just like taking off to Australia without his knowledge is teaching him a lesson?
Too close to the bone and probably too petulant was the real truth. The one she'd never speak aloud.
Because thanks to my fucking stepfather, I can’t trust anyone and I feel like I’m dying inside from not living my—
“Good for Amy.” Annie’s laugh cut the bleak thought short, a fact Harper was more than grateful for. Thoughts of her perverted stepfather only made her sick. “She’s a bit of a wild one but so much fun. I fear this trip may mean we lose her here at Farpoint, especially if she meets an equally adventurous American guy. I suspect Hazel thinks the same thing.”
“She loves it here,” Harper said. “I can’t imagine her anywhere else. She’s so vivacious. So…so…”
“Australian?” she offered. “I know the kids love her. She’s an amazing educator. She also keeps Blue and Thomo in line…most of the time. God knows what they’ll get up to while she’s away.” A curious frown pulled at Annie’s eyebrows. “Have you met Blue and Thomo yet? Keith Munroe and Marc Thompson?”
A vise wrapped around Harper’s chest. She stared at Annie, her lips tingling. “I have,” she answered, modulating her voice. She didn’t want Annie to know that at just the mention of their names her head exploded with debauched fantasies. “On Saturday. They seem friendly.”
“We are friendly.”
Harper jumped at Marc Thompson’s deep voice, the pile of collage fodder on her lap sliding to her feet. She heard his chuckle. Heard Annie’s answering one. But for the life of her, she couldn’t look at him. Not yet. Not until she got the flame in her cheeks under control.
The sound of the floorboards creaking told her Marc had entered her small classroom. “G’day, Ms. Prince. How’s the book going?”
“The book is going well, thank you. Revised Chapter 4 last night.” Annie’s answer was directed above Harper’s head. Which meant Marc was standing directly behind her.
Her heart beat harder and faster, hammering against the vise trying to compress her chest. Oh God.
“Still reckon you should dedicate it to me and Blue. We were the ones who told you to write it.”
Annie’s eyes twinkled. “If I recall correctly, Thomo, you told me to write ‘a book like that fifty shades of sex thing’, not a recount of growing up famous. And Blue told you to shut up and get back to work.”
The chuckle behind Harper was relaxed. Devilish. It made her pussy contract. “It was worth a shot. I’d read it.”
“Yes.” Annie’s smile turned into a smirk. “I bet you would. Now do you mind telling us why you’re here? Can’t we American women take a break for a while from all the Aussie testosterone?”
Marc laughed again. “Nope. ’Fraid not.”
Annie cocked an eyebrow.
“Actually, you can have a break if you like, Ms. Prince.” Marc’s voice stroked over Harper’s fraying composure. “It’s Harper I’m here to collect.”
Annie looked at Harper, her expression naughty. “Really now? And what do you plan on doing to Harper once you collect her?”
“Ah, you know us testosterone-filled Aussie blokes when it comes to American women. Take her somewhere private and—”
“Enough, Thomo.” Annie held up a hand, shaking her head. “Just tell me, okay?”
“Swimming,” he answered. “In the eastern billabong.”
Harper’s heart leaped up into her throat. Swimming. She hadn’t packed a bathing suit. Oh God, why hadn’t she packed a bathing suit?
“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” Annie said. “And it’s my cue to get back to writing. Chapter 4 isn’t going to revise itself, you know.”
And before Harper could say a word, the other woman rose and walked past her, out the door. Leaving her alone with Marc.
“So?” His deep voice seemed to envelop her. “You keen for a dip?”
Stealing herself against the inevitable tummy clenching that came at the sight of him, she twisted in her seat.
The tummy clenching came. As she knew it would. How could it not, when he looked so goddamn sexy? His hat was still on his head, its brim throwing a shadow over his brilliant sapphire eyes. His hands were on his hips, accentuating the broad expanse of his chest and the lean tapering of his torso. He was, simply put, sex in denim.
And waiting for her to say something.
“Err…” Her brain went blank. What had he asked?
“Swim?” Marc prompted. “In the billabong? With Blue and I?”
“I don’t have a bathing suit,” she answered, her cheeks heating again. God, since when did she sound so pathetic and lame?
Marc’s white teeth flashed. “And you think Blue and I do?”
Harper’s belly didn’t just flip-flop. It flip-flopped, sank, knotted and fluttered.
Skinny-dipping? With Keith and Marc? Oh boy, they may be gay and not interested in her sexually, but how was she to keep the abject lust out of her eyes when she stared at them naked? Which she would. A lot.
“C’mon,” he gave her shoulder a gentle nudge with the back of his hand, “it’ll be fun. Promise.”
Harper gazed up at him, her pulse doing an insane rendition of the Riverdance in her throat.
Do it. You wouldn’t do it at home, which means you have to do it here.
“You can wear your undies if you want,” Marc went on, the tone of his voice cajoling. Playful. “And if it helps, we promise we won’t look. Much.”
Before any rationality could stop her, Harper nodded. Goddamn it, she’d come to Australia to have an adventure. To prove to her brother—and herself—she was a woman capable of making her own decisions. Of living with those decision. Swimming naked with two gay Aussie cowboys was the perfect way to do that. Right?
“Bewdy,” Marc said. Harper assumed it was an approval of her acceptance. “Now, next question, do you want to go in the ute or on horse?”
Harper blinked. “I’ve never ridden a horse in my life.”
Marc’s laugh was relaxed. “Yeah, we figured as much. Blue’s waiting in the ute outside. Ready?”
He didn’t let her ponder an answer. He reached down, threaded his fingers through hers and tugged her to her feet.
Harper’s heart smashed into overdrive. “But…but I-I have to lock up,” she blurted, tripping over her feet as he began to pull her toward the open door, through which she could see a dust-covered white Australian version of a pickup.
“Nah you don’t.” Marc tossed a smirk over his shoulder. “No one’s gonna steal anything. Trust me.”
And then they were outside, the warm breeze blowing over Harper’s arms and face feeling nothing like autumn.
“Up you go,” Marc said when they reached the side of the pickup.
Harper looked at him. “Up I go where?”
He nodded toward the empty pickup bed. “In the back.”
He moved before she knew what he was doing, placing one open hand on her butt, the other around her upper arm. “In we go.”
Harper let out a yelp at his unexpected shove on her ass and her unexpected momentum upward. Her brain—stunned senseless for a split second—scrambled into gear and, with a laugh she also hadn’t expected, she tumbled into the back of the pickup.
“All right, Blue,” Marc called as he lobbed himself into the truck bed beside Harper. “Let’s go.”
The engine started with a deafening growl and as the pickup shot forward, propelling Harper backward onto her ass, squeals of delight burst past her lips.
Watch out, living. Here I come.
Keith shot his rearview mirror a quick look, his chest tight. Harper clung to the side of the ute’s tray, her smile stunning, her hair whipping about her head like strands of spun gold.
Fuck, she was beautiful.
Gone was the polished, all-in-black city woman he’d first laid eyes on two days ago. Today she was dressed in faded jeans and a loose white shirt left unbuttoned over a pale-pink tank. The outfit was simple and pretty—and made the way his body was responding all the more confusing.
He’d understood the purely sexual reaction when she’d first arrived on Farpoint. Hell, how could a bloke with a working dick not be turned-on by the way she’d looked on Saturday? He’d understood the undeniable lust surging through him when he and Thomo found her naked in her bedroom. He’d never been immune to a naked woman, especially one who looked as though she should grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in a bikini.
But the Harper in the back now, the one who looked sweet and innocent and very feminine…
Christ, his dick was so damn hard it was a wonder there was any blood left in his brain to drive.
When was the last time he’d been turned on by a sweet, innocent anything?
He flicked a look at Marc, who sat beside the American. The wind tugged at his shirt, giving Keith flashes of the tattoo on Marc’s chest. He’d been with the stupid bastard when Marc had gotten the tat. Paid for it, in fact, when Marc realized he’d left his wallet back at Cobar’s main pub.
It seemed Thomo was just as taken by Harper Shaw as Keith was.
The idea made his already throbbing cock throb harder.
He didn’t allow himself to think too much about that. In fact, he’d refused to think about Harper and her effect on his body since he’d kissed her.
Okay, that was bullshit. He’d jerked off the last couple nights to the thought of that kiss, keeping his actions clandestine. Thomo slept in the room next to his. The walls of the hired hands’ houses weren’t exactly soundproof and Keith didn’t want his mate, or the two new young jackaroos in the room on his other side, to hear him.
He didn’t consider himself the kind of man who took pleasure in the body of a woman he’d barely met. That wasn’t the kind of man his parents had raised him to be. His dad—Cobar’s police sergeant—saw firsthand how poorly a lot of women in the Outback were treated and certainly expected better of his son.
Life in the Outback wasn’t easy for anyone. It turned boys to men quickly. It turned men hard equally fast. Could turn them into bastards if they weren’t careful. Keith knew that all too well. He’d watched his uncle, Farpoint’s one-time horse-breaker, become bitter and violent and contemptuous. Had bore witness when his father had come to Farpoint thirteen years ago and arrested his own kid brother, Keith’s uncle, for domestic violence.
His dad had hated to do it, hated even more that Keith—who lived on the station with his mother, the station’s resident cook—had seen it all. The violence, the rage, the impotent self-hate.
For Keith, a young boy of fifteen, it had been a brutal lesson.
Nothing sweet or innocent belonged in the Outback.
And yet, here was Harper Shaw, looking sweet and pretty and innocent and so bloody feminine he could barely breathe.
No wonder he was messed up.
He looked at Marc in the rearview mirror again, the young man’s cheeky grin sending a tight, indefinable shard through Keith’s chest.
Marc was his best mate. They did everything together.
As if aware of his gaze, Marc swung his attention to the ute’s rearview mirror, his stare connecting with Keith’s in the glass.
Hurry up, Marc mouthed before turning back to Harper.
Gritting his teeth, ignoring the pulse of straining pressure in his groin, Keith pressed his foot harder to the accelerator. The main billabong on Farpoint Creek Station was five kilometers up the road. The sooner he got into the cool water, the better.
Of course, that would be tricky while he was sporting a bloody inconvenient hard-on. He didn’t want to scare Harper. Stripping off and plunging into the water had seemed like a good idea when Marc suggested it an hour ago. “Let’s take Harper for a swim. Show her what life on Farpoint is like. She spent all day Sunday with the boss and all day today teaching. Bet she’s keen to blow off some steam.”
Neither Keith nor Marc addressed Big Mac’s claims the American woman was gay, and when Keith had tried to call Amy in Chicago yesterday to ask, she hadn’t answered. Didn’t surprise Keith in the slightest. It had been one a.m. where she was. She was either sound asleep or partying hard.
So here they were, with a woman who may or may not be gay, about to swim buck-naked together.
Brilliant. Bloody brilliant. How the fuck did he let Marc talk him into stuff like this?
Because he makes your life fun, dickhead. That’s why.
Chuckling to himself, his pulse pounding far too fast in his ears, his dick far too hard for his jeans, he directed the ute under the old ghost gum tree growing beside the billabong, applied the brakes and killed the engine.
“Here we are,” he heard Marc say a second before the ute dipped a fraction to the side and Marc jumped out of the tray.
He opened his door, watching Marc run toward the large body of still water, stripping as he went.
“Oh God, he’s…”
Keith leaned out of the driver’s seat and looked toward Harper. However she would have finished her exclamation, it never made it past her lips. She stood frozen in the ute’s tray, her stare locked on Marc’s naked backside.
The splash of Marc diving into the water, followed by his shouted “Holy fuck that’s cold!” jerked her from her stunned state.
She burst out laughing. “And you want me to swim in that?” She glanced at Keith, her eyes sparkling, her hair a wild tumble of golden-blonde waves around her face and shoulders. “Is he serious?”
Christ, she’s gorgeous.
The thought stole Keith’s reply. Thankfully, Harper returned her attention to Marc before his silence became obvious.
“Get your arse in here, Ms. Shaw,” Marc called.
Keith turned his gaze on his best mate, finding him standing waist-deep in the water, his upper body glistening in the sun’s rays. The tattoo on his chest—a red-back spider building its web in between the stars of the Southern Cross—seemed to ripple over his flesh.
As always, the sight of the ink made him remember the night Marc had gotten it. The night Marc had celebrated his eighteenth birthday in Cobar. The night Marc’s dad had been killed by a bike-gang member a mere block away from the tattoo parlor in which Marc and Keith sat, waiting for Marc’s turn to go.
The night Keith promised the devastated young man he’d always be there for him, that he was his mate, that he’d never let him down. And he’d proven it by getting a tattoo on his own chest—a red-back spider perched above his heart.
“You too, Blue.” Marc grinned at him from the billabong. “Before my dick shrivels up to nothing and you embarrass me with that—”
“Shut the fuck up, Thomo,” Keith called. He turned back to her. “I’m going in. I apologize in advance for the view.”
She frowned at him. “The view?”
For an answer, Keith stood, shucked off his boots, removed his hat, yanked his shirt over his head and, with a quick breath, unzipped his fly and slid his jeans down his legs.
He heard Harper’s gasp. Heard Marc’s laugh.
He felt the warm autumn air wrap around his suddenly exposed erection. And then he was ignoring it all, running toward the billabong, his attention set on nothing but the water and its depths. He dove in, piercing the surface with his hands. His dick strained against the cool water, dragging like a bloody anchor as he plunged toward the billabong’s silted bottom.
The dull splash behind him indicated someone had broken the water’s surface in another dive. Lungs burning, he touched the bottom of the billabong, let out a short stream of breath then planted his feet on the silt and propelled himself upward.
Marc was laughing when he broke the surface. As was Harper. Treading water, Keith turned, finding them both a few feet away. If Harper was naked, Keith couldn’t tell. The only thing above the water was her head, her wet hair clinging to the shape of her skull before floating on the surface behind her like a golden fan.
“It’s freezing!” The smile in her eyes belied her complaint.
Keith chuckled. “It’s not exactly warm.”
“Quit your bellyaching, you two.” Marc splashed water at Keith. “And live in the moment.”
Harper splashed him back, the move disturbing the water enough for Keith to notice a hint of dusky shadow where her nipples would be.
His groin tightened, the cold water having fuck-all effect on his hard-on. Jesus, what the fuck was he doing? What would he say when—
Water splattered against his face. He threw a warning glare at Harper, his pulse quick. “Oh, you wanna start a war, do you? Think a lone American woman can defeat two Aussie blokes?”
She splashed him again. “Bring it on, Kangaroo Jack.”
“Right, that’s it.” Keith threw a look at Marc. “Ready, Thomo?”
Marc nodded. “Ready, Blue.”
Keith lunged for Harper. As did Marc. At the exact second Harper disappeared under the water with a squeal.
The water fight lasted a good fifteen minutes. By the time it was finished, Keith had not only seen Harper’s exquisite breasts more than once, he’d felt them squashed against his back as she’d tried to dunk him under water. If it wasn’t for Marc “saving” him by snaring her around the waist and hauling her off his back, Keith would have gladly gone under, just to experience the sensation of them brushing the back of his head.
It was a giddy moment. A wonderful moment.
He’d never had so much fun with a naked woman, let alone one he barely knew. And despite the furious water fight, he was still as erect as ever.
Was Marc in the same state?
And if so, what did they do about it?
“Time out!” Harper called, the words almost lost in her laugh. “Time out.”
Keith shot Marc a look as she ducked under the water.
His best mate looked back at him, his expression unreadable.
“Okay,” Harper resurfaced, smoothing her wet hair down the back of her head and neck, “I call uncle. You win.”
Marc chuckled. “Ah, the Australian brilliance is too much for the Yank. Onya, Blue. We win.”
Harper bobbed in the water, the tops of her shoulders peaking above the surface. “Why Blue? Is it your eyes?”
Marc directed a splash at Keith’s head. “It’s his hair.”
Keith tried not to laugh at Harper’s puzzled frown. “But his hair is a reddish-blond,” she pointed out.
“Yep.” Marc dropped her a wink and began swimming toward the far bank. “That’s why we call him Blue.”
Harper turned her frown on Keith. “I don’t get it.”
Keith shrugged, the feel of the water on his balls and cock more than a tad distracting. Or maybe it was the way drops of water clung to Harper’s eyelashes. Or the way she was slowly swimming closer to him, so close the ripples she made from each gentle dog-paddle stroke lapped against his chest. “It’s an Australian thing.”
She looked at him for a long moment, an ambiguous expression clouding her eyes. And then she said, “Is kissing an American woman until she almost passes out an Australian thing?”
He nodded, fighting to keep his own expression composed. “It is.”
She caught her bottom lip with her teeth, dipping down into the water enough to cover her chin as she did so. “Can I confess something?”
Keith nodded again. His chest was tight. His heart beating fast.
The sounds of Marc’s strokes seemed distant. Another world away.
Harper’s lips curved. “I didn’t think I would get so turned-on being kissed by a gay cowboy.”
“A what?” Marc’s shout punched the tranquility of the billabong.
Keith blinked. “A what?”
Harper stared back, her eyes wide. “A gay cowboy. Oh God, I mean a gay stockman. I’m sorry.”
Keith’s breath caught in his throat. “Who said I was gay?”
This time, Harper blinked. “Ronnie McNamara. On the drive from the airport. He said you two have a contest to see who kisses the female visitors first and that you’re gay lovers. And Amy always talks about how close you two—”
“Fucking Big Mac!” Marc’s shout made Harper flinch. Keith wasn’t surprised. The tone of his best mate’s voice was scary. He flung the jackaroo a quick look, watching him swim toward them both, strokes fast and powerful before he disappeared beneath the water.
“Don’t worry,” Harper said, her voice flustered, her eyes wider by the second. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise. Your secret’s safe with—”
“We’re not gay, Harper,” Keith interrupted, keeping his own voice calm.
The water suddenly stirred beside Harper, Marc surfacing from beneath to tower over her. “Does this feel like we’re gay?” he asked, a heartbeat before he lowered his head and captured her lips.
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