Outback Cowboy

Farpoint Creek Cattle Station, Book 2

Mari Carr and Lexxie Couper

Prologue

Annie: Mornin’ sunshine!

Dylan: G’day, love. How’re things in your neck of the woods this evening?

Annie: Long-ass day. Started with rain. Ended with rain. The middle bit was filled with my boss calling me Princess in a staff meeting. Grrrrr. I may end up killing him soon.

Dylan: Don’t kill him. I’m too far away to bail you out.

Annie: LOL. Thanks for the offer, but Monet’s already promised to have my back with the bail money.

Dylan: I think I like this Monet.

Annie: Yeah. She rocks. Actually, she might be the only thing rocking in my world these days.

Dylan: That doesn’t sound good.

Annie: It’s not. You ever been sick of your life, Dylan?

Dylan: Me? Sick of life? Nope. Sick of Hunter at times. The bloody bastard’s been giving me a hard time about chatting with a woman in America again. I told him if he says another word, he’s dead.

Annie: Careful. I’m too far away to bail you out. Snort! Sometimes I wish we lived closer.

Dylan: Me too, love. But let’s be serious, a city girl wouldn’t last a day in the Outback.

Annie: What? You must be joking. I’d last a hell of a lot longer on your little ranch than you would in my big city.

Dylan: Station, Annie. Station. We don’t own ranches Down Under. Do you reckon you’d handle the snakes in the loo?

Annie: I deal with the rats in the sewers just fine.

Dylan: I’ll accept your offer of rats in the sewers and give back crocs in the river and spiders on the toilet seat. How’s that sound?

Annie: Deal.

Dylan: Two days. I’d give you two days before you were on a plane heading back to New York. Me, of course, well…I’d make one hell of a city boy. Blend in like I was born and bred there.

Annie: You wouldn’t last a New York minute, tough guy.

Dylan: I tell you what. Let’s see who outlasts the other. A Yank in the Outback or an Aussie in New York. Next week. Game?

Annie: Game on.

Dylan: Let me take a look at the flights online.

Annie: LMAO. Are we seriously doing this?

Dylan: I’ve never been more serious in my life. Okay. I’ll see you in four days, city girl. This Saturday. Qantas. Sydney International. One p.m.

Chapter 1

New York

Dylan Sullivan gazed up at the Empire State Building towering a thousand feet above him and thought, Bugger.

He considered going with the tried and true, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto”, but seeing as he’d never been to the U.S. before now, let alone Kansas, and he didn’t have a little yappy dog prancing around his feet, he decided it was both clichéd and inappropriate.

Dylan’s chest squeezed tight. His dog, Mutt, was on the other side of the world, probably curled up asleep in the back of Dylan’s pickup on the cattle station he and his brother called home. Either that or causing havoc with the wild kangaroos that kept seeking out water around the main house. The fact Mutt wasn’t at his side, where the dog spent pretty much every minute of the day when Dylan was working, just drove home the point that Dylan was out of his comfort zone. Way out.

An Australian stockman had no business being in America. None at all. There wasn’t a cow, kangaroo or shed to be seen.

Reaching up, Dylan removed his hat—a thoroughly beat-up, well-worn Akubra—and dragged his fingers through his hair.

What the bloody hell had he been thinking, flying to America?

What had you been thinking? You’d been thinking about Annie. About finally meeting her face to face. About seeing if she smells as good as you think she does. About finding out if her lips are as soft as they look…

Yeah, that’s what he’d been thinking. Of course, when he’d touched down at JFK International Airport, Annie had been a no-show. Which left Dylan, well…screwed.

Turning away from the Empire State Building, he surveyed the mass of people swarming around him. It had seemed like a good idea at the time to leave the airport. Annie hadn’t arrived but that didn’t mean she’d stood him up. After a few months of talking on the Net, he figured her to be a pretty decent woman. Not the kind to leave a man in the lurch after agreeing to a cross-global meeting. Hell, she’d been all for the challenge of a city girl and a country boy facing off, and he’d told her what flight he was coming in on in his last email. But the moment he’d deplaned, things had started going wrong.

He didn’t believe in omens, not like Aunt Joyce back home who wouldn’t leave her house if she saw a row of ducks break formation, but when he’d gone to collect his luggage—one solitary duffel bag—and found it missing, he should have suspected things wouldn’t go as planned.

After two hours of waiting for Annie, of standing in a busy airport surrounded by people who all looked as if they were in a major rush, Dylan had decided to brave the unknown world beyond the glass doors and seek her out. He had her address. Perhaps there was something wrong? A problem preventing her getting to the airport?

A traffic jam had brought his cab to a halt, however, before he could make it to Annie’s apartment. Determined not to wait in the stuffy vehicle, he’d elected to walk the rest of the way.

He hadn’t expected a doorman who wouldn’t let him pass. Why would he? He’d spent his entire life on Farpoint Creek cattle station, a place half the size of Texas and roughly a thousand kilometers from Australia’s closest high-rise apartment complex.

The man, a round and somewhat squishy bloke decked out in a burgundy suit complete with gold buttons and matching cap, stood in Dylan’s path, staring up at him with unwavering determination. “I’m sorry, sir.” He shook his head, his American accent highlighting how disconnected Dylan felt from everything he knew. “But Ms. Prince is not in residence and I cannot let you pass.”

Dylan frowned, his exhausted brain telling him he’d missed something really important in the man’s statement. “Sorry? What did you say?”

The man straightened a little more. “Ms. Prince is not home.”

Dylan let out a ragged sigh. He removed his hat, raked his fingers through his hair and returned the damn thing to his head. Not home? Maybe she was at the airport waiting for him after all? Could they have just missed each other? “Do you know when she’ll be back?”

If possible, the doorman snapped his spine straighter. Dylan wondered for a jet-lagged second if the bloke thought he was going to throw a crocodile or something at him. “I can’t divulge that information, sir. Now, if you will please step away from the door?”

There was a threat in the words. Even in his tired state, Dylan could hear it. Or a promise. Walk away from the door before I call the authorities.

Dylan walked away from the door. It wasn’t in his nature to back down, but he’d come to New York to meet a woman he’d been flirting with on the Net, not to start an international conflict between Australia and the U.S.

Stepping to the side of the building’s double glass doors, he leaned his back against the cool marble wall. He’d wait it out. Wherever Annie was, she’d come back, find him there—the unmistakable Aussie stockman in a sea of suave New Yorkers—laugh at his obvious fish-out-of-waterness and then they’d go inside and see if they had the same chemistry in the flesh that they did online.

A lifetime on Farpoint Creek had, if nothing else, taught him patience.

Forty-five minutes later the doorman stormed over to him, squishy face set in a menacing glare. “Listen, buddy—”

Dylan stuck out his hand. “Dylan Sullivan.”

The doorman blinked. He jerked his glare—now a slightly confused glower—to Dylan’s extended hand then back up to Dylan’s face. “Err…Tommy. Tommy Taberknackle.”

Dylan gave him a smile and a nod. “G’day, Tommy.”

The doorman blinked again, his hand slipping into Dylan’s. “I…you shouldn’t be…that is, Ms. Prince isn’t…”

A naked, entwined couple moving behind Tommy caught Dylan’s attention.

He frowned, watching the utterly erotic sculpture of a man and a woman making out move along the footpath, wrapped in the slim arms of someone he couldn’t quite see. The sculpture stopped. The arms adjusted the art as a leather-clad knee came up to help balance it precariously before one of the slim arms waved about in the air.

A husky female voice called out, “Taxi!”—a fraction of a second before the sculpture tumbled sideways.

Dylan leapt forward. He snared the sculpture—bronze? Is it bronze?—just as it fell from the unseen husky-voiced woman’s arms.

She spun to face him, a relieved sigh escaping her full lips as Dylan held up the unscathed sculpture. “Don’t worry, love.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “I got it.”

Those full lips curled into a smile. “Thank you,” she said, her accent subtle and—to Dylan’s ears—very, very sexy. She reached out to take the sculpture back but he shook his head.

“It’s all right.” He repositioned the artwork in his arms—definitely bronze, judging by its weight and surface temperature—and smiled some more. “I’ll keep a hold of it until you get a taxi.”

“Thank you again.”

He nodded. “Welcome.” Damn, she was pretty. Even with black sunglasses hiding her eyes, he couldn’t help but notice. The kind of pretty that came from a finely structured face, thick black hair that fell about her shoulders in an unruly mass of waves and a turned-up nose just made for dropping a kiss on.

“Are you Australian?”

Dylan grinned. “The hat doesn’t give it away?”

She laughed, the sound warm and relaxed and thoroughly…stimulating. A twinge of pressure pulled at his groin, making things down there a tad uncomfortable. “The hat may have helped. But I have to admit, it was mainly the accent.”

Dylan did his best to ignore the completely unexpected physical reaction to her laugh. “Bugger. I was hoping I’d blend right in around here.”

The woman’s lips twitched. Dylan got the distinct impression her hidden gaze was taking him in from head to toe. “I think,” she leaned forward as though sharing a secret, “the chance of you blending in anywhere is fairly remote.”

Dylan’s cock jerked. He swallowed, his grip on her sculpture tightening. His sleep-deprived brain told him she’d just paid him a compliment. His red-blooded male hormones told him just as quickly what to do about that compliment. His common sense, however, told him he’d flown halfway around the world to meet with Annie Prince, and whoever the woman with the sexy voice, kissable lips, gorgeous mane of hair and altogether too concealing sunglasses was, she sure as hell wasn’t Annie.

He swallowed again, unable to think of a single bloody thing to say.

“So,” the woman continued. “What’s an Australian cowboy doing in New—”

Her question stopped dead. She stood motionless for a split second, her lips parted, then she pushed those dark sunglasses to the top of her head and stared at Dylan with eyes the color of a cloudless summer day. “You’re Australian.”

Dylan nodded. Hadn’t they already established that?

Her blue gaze roamed over him, from the tip of his hat to his boots and back up to his face. “You’re a cowboy.”

“Stockman,” he said. “We’re called stockmen back home. Or graziers. But yeah, I guess over here you’d call me a—”

“Cowboy,” the woman said, an almost breathless quality to her voice. “You’re an Australian cowboy, the Australian cowboy. Although I have to say, Annie was right. There’s nothing boyish about you at all.”

“Annie? You know Annie Prince?”

“You’re her Aussie cowboy,” the woman continued, as if Dylan hadn’t said a thing, her gaze taking him in again, her eyebrows knitting in a slight frown. “And you’re here. You’re here and she’s…” Her stare returned to Dylan’s face, her teeth—white and even and perfect—catching her bottom lip.

Dylan’s heart beat faster. “She’s what?”

The woman let out a shaky laugh. “Oh shit. You’re here and Annie’s in Australia.”

“She’s where?”

The question burst from Dylan a bit louder than he’d intended. He adjusted his grip on the lovers in his arms, fixing the woman before him with a dumbstruck stare. He knew it was dumbstruck by the way his mouth hung open. If he were back home, he’d be catching flies by now. Of course, he wasn’t back home. He was bloody seventeen thousand kilometers away from home. He was on the other side of the bloody world to see a woman he’d met online and now he was being told that woman was back where he’d come from?

Fuck a duck, his brother was going to laugh his arse off when he found out.

“She’s in Australia,” the woman not seventeen thousand kilometers away told him, an expression—part worry, part mirth—playing with her features. “She flew out yesterday.”

“Why the bloody hell did she do that?”

Once again, Dylan’s voice was louder than he’d intended. Of course, nothing had gone as planned in the last twenty-four hours so why should his voice toe the line?

The woman before him laughed, that deep, throaty laugh that played merry hell with his senses. If he hadn’t been so gob-smacked by what she was telling him, he was pretty certain it’d play merry hell with them some more.

“She went to meet you.”

Monet Carmichael knew she shouldn’t be laughing. Nor smiling. The poor cowboy in front of her truly looked like the definition of confusion. But oh boy, what a beautiful definition it was. Okay, not so much that he was confused, but just the way he looked in general. His strong lips and chiseled bone structure, the perfect growth of honey-brown stubble on his jaw and chin, the hat.

Every inch of him screamed MAN. Virile, potent man.

Having grown up a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, Monet was experiencing her first in-the-flesh cowboy—and what a cowboy.

Stockman, Monnie. He’s a stockman.

She caught her bottom lip with her teeth again, the junction of her thighs doing a funky little twisty thing she enjoyed very much.

Man was correct. A beautiful man. A goddamn gorgeous, sexy man. Complete with a goddamn gorgeous body his faded jeans and well-worn flannel shirt couldn’t hide at all.

If it wasn’t for the fact he’d flown from Australia to meet her best friend, Monet could quite happily stand there and undress him with her eyes. Render him naked and imagine all the things a woman could do to a male body like—

She caught the wildly inappropriate thought before it could form a wildly inappropriate image in her wildly visual mind.

Just.

“Let me get this straight,” the Australian cowboy said, his light green stare doing all sorts of wicked things to Monet’s resolve. Even his eyelashes were perfect. She could imagine drawing each one in charcoal. Imagine even better the way they would feel against her lips as she—

“Annie flew to meet me in Australia yesterday, despite the fact I flew to the U.S. to meet her?”

Monet nodded. “You sent her an IM with flight details. Well, some flight details. The day, the airline, the arrival time. Although you were wrong by an hour on that last one. Her flight didn’t touch down in Sydney until—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” The cowboy’s confused frown grew deeper, his Australian accent turning the word into a drawling song Monet found quite enjoyable to listen to. “I IM’ed her about a Qantas flight to New York. The one I was thinking of getting. And then the next day I emailed her the actual details of the flight I’d booked a seat on.”

Monet blinked. Annie hadn’t said anything about the email. In fact, Monet had been sitting right beside her best friend when she’d bought her airline ticket to Australia, a Qantas flight touching down in Sydney on the day her online Aussie cowboy…friend…had told her. Surely Annie would have known he was flying over here? How could they get their wires crossed so badly?

She opened her mouth—to say what to the man, she didn’t know. Damn, what was his name? Annie had said it enough times over the last few months, but Monet shut her mouth again when the doorman of their building suddenly appeared at the cowboy’s side.

“Everything okay, Ms. Carmichael?” Tommy’s gaze flicked back and forth between the Australian and Monet. “Mr. Sullivan’s not giving you—”

Dylan Sullivan!

The cowboy’s name popped into Monet’s head, along with an image of a clean-shaven man without a hat smiling somewhat nervously into a camera.

Monet shook her head, unable to take her gaze from Dylan’s still troubled face. “Everything’s fine, Tommy,” she assured him, even as she compared the beautiful hat-wearing male before her, his stubble as sexy as his accent, his accent as mesmerizing as his eyes, to the clean-cut man in the photo on Annie’s laptop.

“Are you sure?”

She flicked Dylan a quick look, her pulse beating far too fast for her peace of mind. “I’m sure.”

“’Cause he was asking about Ms. Prince—”

“It’s okay.” She cut him off with a smile. “I know Dylan. We were just going to catch a cab to the gallery.”

Dylan blinked.

“Oh.” Tommy nodded. “In that case…” He stepped one foot off the curb and let out a sharp whistle.

Before anyone could say a thing, a taxi pulled to a quick halt on the road beside them.

Monet gave the doorman another smile. “Thanks, Tommy.” She opened the back passenger door of the cab and extended an arm toward the grimy interior. “After you, Mr. Sullivan.”

The brim of his hat cast his eyes in shadow, and for a brief moment Monet thought he was going to refuse. And then he gave her a loose, lopsided grin that made her want to grin back. “I take it the lovers sit between us?”

She nodded. “The lovers do.”

“It’s probably better you climb in first then, love.”

Her pulse fluttered, and for the first time ever, Monet found herself totally flustered by a man. Love. Who would have thought she’d get excited over an almost antiquated term. She despised pet names—no babes or hons or sweethearts allowed, thank you very much. But the term “love” coming from Dylan’s lips…

Her reaction to it was unnerving. The whole situation was unnerving. Annie on the other side of the world. Dylan here in New York. Her unexpected response to the man.

She dove into the cab before Dylan Sullivan, her best friend’s would-be Aussie cowboy, could see the flush painting her cheeks pink.

Oh boy, this was…inconvenient.

Chapter 2

Annie wasn’t answering her cell, damn it. Monet gnawed on her bottom lip, shooting the man sitting on the other side of the sculpture a quick look. He watched the New York sights stream past, a relaxed casualness radiating from him, that crooked smile she was already halfway addicted to playing on his lips. His hat still sat on his head, almost the traditional cowboy hat she was used to seeing in movies but somehow not. It emphasized how different Dylan was, as if he’d stepped from another world and somehow found himself here in New York. Which was pretty much the case.

For the fourth time, Annie’s cell cut to her message service, her cheery voice telling Monet to leave a name and message unless she was a member of the paparazzi, and if that was the case, go to hell. Monet bit back a sigh. “I assume you know what’s going on by now, Annie,” she said into her phone, flicking another quick glance at Dylan. “So I really need you to call me back ASAP and tell me what you want me to do with the cowboy currently sitting on my right.”

What to do with? How ’bout strip him naked and—

“He’s staying with me until we hear from you, okay?” She was about to disconnect and then changed her mind. “Oh, and your father called this morning, sounding very pissed. As promised, I did not tell him where you were.”

She killed the call, swinging her gaze to a chuckling Dylan. “What’s funny?”

The Australian shook his head, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Trust Annie not to tell her old man.”

Monet shoved her cell back into her bag and snorted. “Mr. Prince isn’t going to think it’s funny.”

“No, I can’t imagine he would.” A quizzical frown pulled at his eyebrows. “So tell me, what do I call you? I’ve just realized I have no idea what your name is. Or how you know Annie.”

She reached around the sculpture and extended her hand to Dylan. “Monet. Monet Carmichael. I live in the apartment next to Annie’s.”

“Ah, her best friend, right?”

“That’s right.” She squirmed on her seat, the skin-to-skin contact with the Australian unsettling. His grip was so firm and warm and…well, nice.

Nice? Wow. That’s an understatement.

Tugging her hand from his, she sat back in her seat. It was better that way. Not looking at him.

Oh, don’t go being attracted to him, Monet. That would be just plain stupid.

It would. As good looking as he was—don’t you mean sexy?—she wasn’t stupid. Creatively flakey at times, yes. Incredibly imaginative, yes. But stupid? No. He was here for Annie. Which meant he could be as sexy as all get out and he was still off-limits.

“The artist called Monet.”

If she wasn’t so unsettled by the man’s unexpected effect on her she would have laughed at his obviously humored clarification. Ever since the day she’d enrolled at Columbia to study fine art, she’d been subjected to mocking derision about her name.

She gave Dylan a pointed look, deciding to shut down any attraction she felt toward him now. “I take it you think my name and profession are funny?”

He shook his head. “Not at all, love. Fitting.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’s an Australian cowboy know about art?”

It was a low blow. One Monet regretted immediately.

“Stockman,” Dylan corrected, that lopsided grin playing with his lips again. “And quite a bit in fact, given that my mum was an art history major at uni before she met my dad and moved out whoop whoop to be with him on Farpoint Creek.”

Monet blinked. Her head was spinning. Firstly, because she didn’t understand half of what Dylan had just said, and secondly, because what she did understand sounded as if he knew about art.

Okay, shutting down any attraction was going to be harder now. How many unpretentious Australian cowboys who knew about art and looked like a sexy-assed, hotter-than-sin Adonis were there in the world?

Very few, she guessed. And this one belonged to Annie.

“So I take it the couple making out between us is your handiwork?”

It was all Monet could do not to groan. Making out. Couple. All words that made her think of sex. She didn’t want to think about sex at this moment. She was bound to blush. Or find herself looking at the Aussie cowboy’s crotch.

Nodding, she pressed her thighs together and searched his face for any kind of flaw. There had to be one.

There wasn’t. Damn it.

“It’s very good,” he said. “Makes me think of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. Just…” Dylan’s gaze moved over the sculpture. “Dirtier.”

Monet ground her teeth. The universe was conspiring against her. Was it his accent? His grin? The unexpected art knowledge? The way he said “dirtier”, as if he knew exactly what had been going through Monet’s mind when she’d created it?

His gaze returned to her face, his green eyes shadowed by the brim of his well-worn black hat. “What’s it called?”

“FWB.”

“Friends with Benefits?”

She shook her head, her mouth dry, her cheeks hot. “Fucking with Beauty.”

Dylan’s nostrils flared. “Is it an autobiographical piece?”

Monet swallowed. Was he flirting with her? Her nipples pinched tight at the ridiculous thought, straining at the lace of her bra and material of her shirt. If Dylan were just some guy she’d met in a bar, she’d be flirting her ass off right back. He was too damn hot not to. But he wasn’t just some guy.

So time to stop thinking about it, Monet Carmichael. Got it?

Tearing her gaze from his face, she pressed back farther into her seat, her heart beating hard. It didn’t help her resolve, however, that every time she pulled in a breath, his subtle scent teased her senses. When Annie got home, Monet was going to kill her. “All art is autobiographical,” she answered, trying to sound enigmatic and aloof. “Especially—”

The cab suddenly stopped, propelling both Monet and Dylan against their seatbelts. Her sculpture slid forward and it was only Dylan’s fast reflexes that stopped it from sliding to the floor.

“That’ll be eighteen dollars,” the driver muttered, looking at Monet in the rearview mirror.

She fumbled for her wallet in her bag, all too aware of Dylan watching her.

“Here you go, mate. Keep the change.” His voice rumbled through the cab as he passed a handful of notes to the driver, friendly and relaxed and—for one brief, completely disorientating moment—Monet couldn’t stop herself imagining him naked. Naked and standing before her, waiting for her to discover all his proportions as he told her about stockmen and whoop whoop and Rodin’s The Kiss in his friendly, relaxed sexy voice.

God! What’s wrong with me? It’s the accent. Gotta be the accent.

She flicked him a look, wishing she could find her snarky I’m-a-successful-artist poise, or even her hey-I’m-a-New-Yorker arrogance. All she could find was the new and highly traitorous I-want-to-fuck-my-best-friend’s-cowboy lust, and that wasn’t any help to her at all.

She released her seatbelt and all but fell from the cab in her hurry to get away from Dylan and the unnerving temptation he presented.

Cool autumn air wrapped around her, icy against the burning heat in her cheeks. She slammed the door, flipped off the driver of a Camaro blasting his horn at her for tumbling into his road, and leaned against the taxi.

She had to get herself under control. The cowboy was off-limits. Off. Limits.

Straightening her spine, she pulled another breath—this one not so shaky—and walked around the trunk of the cab.

To find Dylan standing on the sidewalk, FWB in his arms, hat on his head, his green gaze trained on her. “Ready?”

Bam! Just like that, the traitorous I-want-to-fuck-my-best-friend’s-cowboy lust slammed into her again. Hard, fast and undeniable.

God help her.

* * * *

Dylan watched the bevy of men and women arranging paintings and sculptures under various spotlights in the small art gallery, fussing about as if the artworks were a herd of prize stud cattle about to go to auction.

He stood to one side of the gallery’s main room, between a large painting depicting what he thought was a woman being made love to by a gust of wind, and a sculpture of the same couple from FWB. At least, he assumed it was the same couple. This time they weren’t so much making out as coming out—the male unzipping his torso to expose female breasts and the woman peeling off her legs as if they were jeans to reveal a fat, flaccid cock and a very impressive scrotum.

It was, suffice to say, the most surreal moment of Dylan’s life.

Had he thought he was out of place gazing up at the Empire State Building only an hour ago? Ha. Here he was out of place.

“You okay?”

He turned at the sound of Monet’s voice, finding her standing to his left. She smiled when his gaze fell upon her, the action doing disturbing things to the pit of his stomach. And his groin. “Yeah, I’m good.” He pushed his hat back a bit on his head and showed her his I’m-good grin. “Feeling a little like a shag on a rock, but apart from that, no worries.”

Monet blinked, her cheeks filling with the delightful blush Dylan truly enjoyed. “Feeling like what?”

“A shag on a rock.” Then realization smacked into him. “I mean, out of place. Sorry. Bloody hell, I didn’t mean I wanted a…on a…fuck, I mean… Oh Jesus.”

He ground his teeth, drew a breath, counted to five and started again, far too aware of the sudden stares he was getting from around the gallery. “A shag is a type of water bird that always perches alone on rocks with its wings spread. It usually stands out like dog’s balls—” Heat flooded Dylan’s face. He pressed a hand to his eyes, cursing his stupidity.

You really don’t belong here, mate.

Monet burst out laughing, the relaxed sound echoing around the gallery. “Dylan, talking to you is by far the most educational, visual experience of my life.”

Dylan peered at her through his fingers before dropping his hand. “Ta muchly, love. But I think it’s probably better I just keep my gob shut for a while. At least until I’ve found my dignity. I get the feeling I left it back at Farpoint Creek.”

Monet’s blue eyes twinkled. “Given your situation, I think you’re doing marvelously.”

“My situation? Stood up on the other side of the world, luggage-less and completely incapable of contacting anyone who wants to talk to me? That situation?”

Once again, Monet laughed. “Well, when you put it that way…”

Dylan laughed with her. That he’d unsuccessfully tried to call Hunter three times during the cab ride to the gallery should have bugged the shit out of him. It didn’t. For two reasons—one, had been roughly nine a.m. back home and the Farpoint Creek homestead pretty much emptied out once the sun broke the horizon, every man and his dog getting on with the job of running Australia’s second largest cattle station.

And two, he was enjoying himself. Too much.

Every second with Monet was enjoyable. Not for the fact she made him hornier than sin—although that was pretty bloody enjoyable—but that she made him laugh. It was wrong, of course. He’d flown all this way to meet Annie, a woman he’d described to his brother as “his soul mate”. Hunter had laughed his arse off at that. Had called Dylan a fucking idiot. What would his twin make of the situation Dylan currently found himself in?

He wouldn’t just say, “I told you so”, he’d add “dickhead” just to nail the point home.

“Monnie.” A deep male voice snaked into Dylan’s ears. He turned, watching a man roughly his height dressed in an immaculate steel-gray suit swan toward Monet and place a kiss on her still smiling lips. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Something dark and cold knotted low in Dylan’s gut. Something that had no right being there. Jealousy. He straightened, taking in the way the man’s manicured fingers wrapped loosely around Monet’s upper arms. Watching the way he leaned close to her, how his lips lingered. How clean-shaven his jaw was and how there wasn’t a hair out of place on his head. How he smelled of cologne.

Cologne. Not horse sweat or plain soap, but cologne. No doubt as expensive as his well-tailored suit.

“Phillip.” Monet disengaged herself from the kiss, her cheeks high with color. She flicked Dylan a quick look, an expression he could only describe as uncomfortable pulling at her gaze. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Phillip, whoever the hell he was, obviously didn’t stand for Monet slipping from his grasp. He ran his hands down her arms, caught her fingers and tugged her back toward him. “Why ever not? A Monet Carmichael exhibition is the perfect place for an art collector to be. Even more so when said art collector is the inspiration for her latest work.”

Monet slid another look toward Dylan, her eyes unreadable, her shoulders stiff, before she once again slipped from Phillip’s grip and moved back. “I’m not sure ‘inspiration’ is the right word, Phillip.”

“Oh shush.” Phillip stepped toward her, apparently deciding Dylan didn’t exist.

Dylan decided it was time to fix that problem. Not because he was jealous, but because Monet appeared…ill at ease.

“G’day, mate.” He shoved his extended hand at the man’s chest before Phillip could draw closer. “Dylan Sullivan. How ya goin’?”

Phillip’s eyebrows shot up his incredibly smooth forehead, his stare swinging to Dylan. A plethora of emotions flashed over his suavely handsome face, most making Dylan want to laugh—irritation, shock, curiosity, indignation. The last made him want to ball his fists. Contempt.

“I’m sorry.” Phillip’s top lip curled. “But if you’re speaking to me, I’m not going anywhere.”

Dylan gave the bloke his widest, goofiest grin. For good measure, he even tipped his hat back on his head. “Ah, you’re a funny bugger, are you?” He kept his hand out, letting it speak volumes. He may not be from this neck of the woods, but he knew a handshake left hanging was a sign of utter disdain. As far as Dylan was concerned, he was happy to push Phillip to complete the social tradition whether the man wanted to or not.

Phillip’s top lip continued to curl, the kind of expression Dylan expected to see on a city slicker who’d stepped in a pile of sheep shit.

“Phillip.” Monet moved to Dylan’s side and it was all he could do to keep his doofus grin in place when she ran her hand up his arm. His heart, however, leapt straight into his bloody throat. “This is Dylan Sullivan. From Farpoint Creek in Australia.”

Phillip ran a slow inspection over Dylan, from the tip of his kangaroo-leather boots to the battered peak of his wide-brimmed hat. “A cowboy from Australia?” He flashed Dylan a toothy smirk, took Dylan’s hand and gave it a crushing shake. Or tried to. Dylan spent his days dealing with unruly Angus cattle, unruly jackaroos and—when Hunter was in a competitive mood—an even unrulier twin brother hell-bent on beating him at arm wrestling. “Here to throw a shrimp on the bar-bee, eh?”

The man’s voice dripped with mocking derision and the urge to ball his fist rolled through Dylan again. He let his I’m-a-clueless-country-hick grin turn into the same smile he gave drunken hired hands who thought they’d take him on. The kind of smile that said, “go on, give it your best shot, mate”.

“I’m a stockman, not a cowboy. Haven’t been a boy since my balls dropped and I started shaving. And I’m just here to seduce the beautiful women on your side of the pond. Show them what a real man is like.”

The shocked blanch that twisted Phillip’s face filled Dylan with perverse satisfaction, just as Monet’s choking laugh sent tight ripples of happiness through him.

“I think you had that one coming, Phillip,” she said, her hand still resting on Dylan’s biceps. He liked the feel of it there. A lot. Too much, given why he was here in New York to begin with. It wasn’t to fall head over heels for a woman he’d only just met, that was for bloody sure. “And as for the seducing,” she turned and gave him a wide smile, twinkling mirth in her eyes, “the accent alone is enough to make a New York girl go all wobbly inside.”

The statement was said in jest. Dylan didn’t doubt that at all, but it had a bloody inconvenient effect on him. His balls throbbed, his cock twitched and his throat grew tight.

“Is that all it takes nowadays?” The charming smirk was back on Phillip’s lips, but Dylan couldn’t help notice his spine was straighter, his shoulders squarer. “An accent and a hat? I should have gone to Urban Outfitters months ago.” He turned back to Dylan. “Maybe you can teach me a few choice Australian phrases? The kind to woo Monet into going all wobbly inside, eh?”

Wanker. How’s that for a choice Australian phrase? The thought shot through Dylan’s head, dark and more than a tad aggressive.

Fighting to control the unexpected reaction to Phillip’s obvious pissing contest, he drew a deep breath. “All right. How’s this sound?” He turned to Monet, giving her a crooked smile. “G’day, love. Fancy getting dolled up and joining me on a shindig to the local pub?”

The exaggerated Australianisms, so far removed from how Dylan normally spoke, made Monet laugh, and as it had before, his body reacted to the husky, warm sound. “Oh Dylan. You had me at ‘g’day’.”

He chuckled, his hand instinctually coming up to steady her as she nudged him with her shoulder. The second his palm smoothed over the dip of her slim waist, the second his fingers brushed the subtle curve of the top of her backside, his breath caught in his throat and—completely indifferent to the fact she wasn’t the woman he was here to meet—his cock grew thick in his jeans.

Fuck a bloody duck, Sullivan. Get your hands off her, now.

But he couldn’t. He stared down into Monet’s face, into eyes the color of the Outback sky, and wanted more than life to kiss her.

To slide his arms around her waist, pull her to his body and capture her lips with his. To delve into her mouth with his tongue. To taste her sweetness…

She gazed up at him, her laughing smile slowly fading. Fading until she stared at him, her lips parted, her breath ragged, her hands smoothing over his chest, up to his shoulders—

“Ms. Carmichael?” a female voice shouted behind them. “The caterer’s here.”

Monet all but jumped away from Dylan, as if he’d suddenly started shooting live electricity from his body. She blinked, her teeth catching her bottom lip before, with a glance at Phillip, she hurried across the gallery.

Dylan watched her go, his heart not just thumping in his throat but bloody well slamming around in there. Like a sledgehammer swung by a maniac on steroids.

“Well, that was fun.”

He turned back to the man beside him, Phillip’s smirk once again pissing him off. “Fun?”

Phillip slid his gaze to where Monet stood talking to the caterer. “You know, the whole I’m-a-sexy-Aussie-cowboy seduction thing you got going. Pity it’s wasted on Monet.”

“Stockman,” Dylan said. “And tell me, why’s it wasted?”

It was idiocy of course. There was no point to the conversation. He wasn’t trying to seduce Monet. But for some bloody reason, his brain—perhaps jet-lagged, perhaps still trying to deal with the fact Annie was on the other side of the planet—decided the best course of action right now was to poke at Phillip’s disdainful conceit the way he used to poke at red-belly black snakes when he was a kid, just to see what they would do.

Phillip adjusted his cuffs. “Because Monet is a woman of style, taste and class who needs a man of the same caliber to satisfy her.” He smiled, apparently satisfied with his argument. “And you…are a cowboy.”

“Stockman,” Monet said as she slid between them, saving Dylan from doing something he was bound to regret. Something stupid, like knocking Phillip to the ground with a swift punch. “Now if you’ll excuse us, Phillip, I think we all know this conversation is over.”

Phillip’s eyebrows shot up again. He stared at Monet and then let out a snort. “Now I see why you wouldn’t let me get past first base. You’re not frigid or a lesbo like I thought. You’re just into—”

Dylan smashed his fist into the bloke’s jaw.

He couldn’t help himself. One second he was standing there, listening to the moron carry on and wondering if it was politically correct to tell him he was a dick. The next, shocked hurt crossed Monet’s beautiful face and Dylan was balling his hand into a fist and slamming it hard into Phillip’s clean-shaven jaw.

There was a dull bone-hitting thud, a collective gasp from the people setting up Monet’s exhibition and then Phillip dropped to the floor.

Holy shit, Sullivan. You’re in trouble now.

~

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