Outback Princess

Farpoint Creek Cattle Station, Book 1

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

Annie Prince sank on to one of the hard plastic seats at Sydney Airport, giving in to exhaustion. She looked down at her very wet, now defunct iPhone—she vowed she’d never text on the toilet again—and decided this trip had been cursed from the word go.

In the past twenty-four hours she’d run the gamut of emotions—anger, frustration, annoyance, disappointment, excitement, happiness, sheer panic and now…nothing but numbness.

She studied the hubbub of the airport again. How the hell did she get here?

She’d roamed the International Arrivals area for nearly an hour before giving in to the realization he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Dylan wasn’t waiting for her.

When she’d replayed this scenario in her mind three thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven times—it had been a long-ass flight to Sydney—she’d always seen him standing in front of the crowd of families and friends waiting to welcome loved ones home. In her mind’s eye, he’d been smiling widely, holding flowers, maybe even a balloon. She’d imagined he’d give a true cowboy woot when she stepped through the doors and every woman around them would watch with jealousy as he rushed over to pick her up, spin her around and kiss her.

Instead, she’d watched all her fellow travelers receive those warm welcomes while she stood completely alone, in a foreign country.

How the hell did I get here?

She closed her eyes wearily, thinking of that fateful night when she’d met Dylan online, the night that had set her on this misguided, insane path.

It was all Monet’s fault.

“I can’t tell you how much better I feel. Thanks for coming over, Monet.”

“Wine cures everything,” Monet announced. “You know that.”

She and Monet had been neighbors in their high-rise Manhattan apartment building for nearly a year. They’d met on the elevator the day Monet moved in, and had clicked. Their friendship had flourished through numerous nights of drinking, broken hearts and, “oh my God, I just had awesome sex” chats.

“It cured my lousy day.”

Monet topped up her wineglass. Annie winced when she noticed it was empty. Hadn’t she just filled it up a few minutes ago?

“Damn.” Monet squinted at the bottle. “That one went fast. Should we go for broke and make it a three-bottle night?”

Annie giggled. “Sure. Why not? My hangover is pretty much guaranteed at this point.”

“So what’s wrong?”

“My boss skipped over me for another big assignment, the paparazzi were out in full-force this afternoon and I dumped Joel.”

Monet reared back. “That’s a lot of shit for one day. Let’s tackle this one at a time. Your boss is a prick. Why are you still working there?”

“Because it’s one of the few magazines in New York my father doesn’t own. You know how I feel about making it without his help.”

“Pardon me, Annie, but you’re not ‘making it’. That asshole boss of yours is working against you.”

Annie sighed. “I know.”

“What’s the deal with the paparazzi? Thought they’d become bored with you lately.”

“That’s actually connected to my breakup. Joel did a tell-all interview with People magazine where he casually hinted there may be wedding bells in our future. What the fuck is that about? We’ve been dating five months and I have zero intention of locking myself in wedded hell with anybody right now. He knows that.”

Monet took a sip of wine and looked at her sympathetically. “You think he was trying to force your hand?”

Annie was too familiar with the Joels of the world. Unfortunately, she also sucked at recognizing them until after they’d screwed her—figuratively and literally. “He wants a piece of the Prince pie. I’m freaking done with men.”

Monet rolled her eyes. “No, you’re not. You enjoy sex too much.”

“I’ll hire a paid escort.”

Monet laughed. “You’re a romantic at heart and it’s pretty obvious that’s never going to change. If all your asshole exes haven’t beaten that out of you, we can assume it’s a character flaw that will stick.”

“Great. So I’m destined for life as an old maid because every man in America wants my family’s money a hell of a lot more than they want me.”

“So broaden the search.” Monet leaned over and grabbed her laptop from the coffee table.

“What are you doing?”

Monet didn’t answer. Instead, she quickly tapped several keys on the computer then turned the screen around so Annie could see it.

“An online dating service? Be serious.”

Monet raised an eyebrow. “I’m one-hundred-percent serious. I never joke around about getting laid. Let’s assume that every man in the United States knows your family’s name.”

“Prince Incorporated has large holdings in Europe and Asia too,” Annie pointed out. Her buzz was now full force. “So unless that service can find me a man on Mars, this is a waste of time.”

Monet kept typing. “So we’ll go extreme.” Her eyes widened as her gaze landed on something on the screen. “Ooo la la. What do we have here?”

Annie tried to peer at the laptop, but Monet turned it away from her.

“What is it?”

Monet grinned. “What’s your stance on a sexy Australian cowboy?”

“Jesus. They have those on there? Sign me up.”

Monet giggled—and then she did just that.

Annie sighed and glanced around the airport once again. Sitting and sulking was accomplishing nothing. There were a thousand possible scenarios for why Dylan wasn’t here. Maybe something had come up at the ranch.

Crap. Station. She’d never remember that.

Or maybe he was stuck in traffic, his car broken down. Maybe he’d gotten a nasty stomach flu. She’d walked by a customer service desk at least a dozen times during her trips around the terminal searching for her cowboy. She’d ask them to do an all-call over the intercom. She needed to determine Dylan truly wasn’t here before she tried to figure out her next move.

As she waited in line to speak to the representative, she remembered the morning after her impulsive, drunken decision to join the world of international online dating. She’d woken up bleary-eyed, with a pounding headache, and had decided to call in sick to work. Annie had never taken a sick day, but her boss’s determination to treat her like a nonentity and her queasy stomach made the choice to remain home an easy one.

She walked toward the kitchen for a handful of saltines, stopping to power up her laptop on the way. When she returned to her desk, she discovered an email from someone she didn’t know. Dylan Sullivan. Her hand hovered over the button that would send Mr. Sullivan straight to the trash, but something stopped her. Some niggling memory from the previous night.

She and Monet had drunk way too much and stayed up far too late. Monet had consoled her over work and Joel.

Oh fuck! The online dating gag. Monet had signed her up and then…

Some Aussie cowboy had expressed interest. Monet had talked her into sharing her personal information.

Annie rubbed her aching head. How could she have been so stupid? If the tabloids caught wind of the “practical Prince sister” soliciting for dates online, they’d be ruthless. She might as well give up any hope of avoiding the limelight. Maybe she should just pack it in and join her ditzy sisters’ ridiculous reality show, Life with the Princesses. It’s not like she’d ever be taken seriously after this little tidbit leaked out.

Her hand hovered over the mouse, and then she quickly clicked to open the email. She’d gone this far. She might as well see what she was risking her reputation for. She read Dylan’s message.

His email was nice, well written and humorous. It also seemed pretty clear he had no idea who Annie Prince was.

Feeling like she’d dodged a bullet, Annie responded, explaining nicely that she’d been tipsy when her friend talked her into signing up for the service. She let him down as gently as she could, turned off the computer and crawled back into bed with a couple of aspirin and a tall glass of ice water.

When she awoke later that afternoon, she was surprised to find a very funny response from her would-be Aussie suitor. Dylan had taken her rejection with good grace and he’d even sent her a list of ingredients for the Sullivan family hangover cure. Against her better judgment, Annie tried the hangover recipe, which worked, and then wrote Dylan again, thanking him.

After that, they’d fallen into a pattern of emailing every day. If anyone asked her to list her three closest friends at the moment, Dylan would be included on the list. For the past few months, they’d talked about anything and everything. She’d even taken a huge leap of faith and told Dylan about her family and their money. Monet had been correct. Australians—at least those in Dylan’s neck of the woods—didn’t have a clue who the Prince family was.

“May I help you, miss?”

Annie glanced up and discovered she was next in line. “Yes. I was hoping you could page someone for me. My friend was supposed to pick me up about an hour ago, but I can’t find him.”

The airport employee nodded and gave her what looked like a pitying smile. “Of course. What’s your friend’s name?”

“Dylan Sullivan.”

“I’ll page him right away. Should I have him meet you here?”

Annie murmured a quiet “yes, thanks,” then stepped away from the desk to wait as Dylan’s name was broadcast throughout the airport.

Please God, let him hear it. Let him be here.

Not only was her sex life depending on him being the good guy she believed him to be—she’d foolishly hitched the success of her career to Dylan’s wagon as well.

Miraculously, she’d managed to convince her editor, Mr. Lennon, to let her write a four-part series for the magazine about life on an Australian cattle station. It was the only way she’d managed to swing the trip across the ocean and the time away from work on such short notice. He’d only agreed because his boss saw the picture of Dylan that she’d attached to the proposal. Apparently the editor-in-chief had a thing for Aussie cowboys too. She’d demanded Lennon give Annie the assignment, and he’d begrudgingly complied.

There was no way she could go home without the articles and expect to keep her lousy job.

“Come on, Dylan,” she muttered. “Where the hell are you?”

* * * *

Hunter ran his finger down the pretty blonde’s arm, enjoying the flirting and easy banter. He’d hit the bar after seeing his idiot brother off at his gate. They’d flown the station helicopter to Sydney, leaving so early this morning it had still been dark. Hunter had a couple of hours to kill while he waited for the flight mechanic to refuel the chopper and clear him for takeoff.

“So you live on a cattle station?” the blonde asked. He’d forgotten her name the second she’d said it. One of these days he was going to have to learn to pay attention to details like that.

“Yep. Farpoint Creek. My family’s owned it forever. Established it back in the 1800s.”

The woman feigned interest, but Hunter could see the disdain in her eyes. She was clearly a city girl and the idea of living out whoop whoop in the Outback was less than appealing to her. Lucky for both of them, he wasn’t considering taking this game of slap and tickle out of the airport.

She leaned closer, accidentally brushing the side of his arm with her breast. They’d started their flirting at different tables. Then he’d joined her. After a few minutes of sexual innuendoes, he’d given up his seat across the table and moved over to share her side of the booth.

“You know, I’m a member of the Qantas Club.”

“Is that right?” he asked.

“I was actually thinking of heading over there and freshening up before my flight. They have showers in the lounge.”

“Showers, eh? Bit bloody fancy.”

She dragged her hand along his leg, starting at his knee and working her way up. He liked a woman who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to grab it. His dick twitched when her hand crept closer.

“Wish I had someone to wash my back,” she purred.

He started to offer his sudsy services, but something on the PA caught his attention. “What did she say?”

“What did who say?”

The PA announcement was repeated. Dylan Sullivan, please meet your party at the customer service desk located at terminal one.

What the hell? Dylan wasn’t here. At least, he bloody well shouldn’t be.

Hunter reluctantly pushed the woman away while silently cursing his brother. “Sorry, love, but I gotta go do something.” Dylan would pay dearly for costing him a shower with this beauty in the high flyer’s club. He retrieved his hat from the table and put it back on his head.

“You’re leaving?”

Hunter nodded regretfully. “Yeah. Afraid it can’t be helped.” He threw enough cash on the table to cover both of their drinks and a generous tip for the waitress. “Sorry.”

He walked toward terminal one, trying to figure out why Dylan wasn’t jetting away from Sydney, getting closer to making one of the dumbest mistakes of his life. He’d loaded his brother on a plane headed for New York over an hour ago.

Hunter had spent most of their morning trek to Sydney trying to convince Dylan that taking off halfway around the world to hook up with some broad he’d met on one of those stupid online dating services made him look pretty desperate.

He’d also pointed out that precious little could come of this trip, besides getting a piece of New York tail. Dylan lived and worked on Farpoint Creek cattle station. In Australia. Trying to hook up with some American chick wasn’t exactly practical.

Dylan, ever the romantic idiot, seemed to think Annie had the potential to be his soul mate. Jesus, his brother had actually used those words—soul mate—and was supposed to be headed to New York to prove that asinine fact.

Had Dylan missed his plane? Hunter couldn’t figure out how. They’d made it to the departure gate in plenty of time. And if so, why would he page himself rather than ask the customer service rep to page Hunter? Maybe Dylan had given his own name as well and the lady had fucked it up.

He glanced at the crowd standing around the service desk as he walked toward the terminal. He and Dylan weren’t lacking in the height department. If his dickhead brother was around, he sure as hell wasn’t standing up; he’d tower over these people. Add the fact he and Dylan hardly ever took off their bloody hats and Hunter should be able to spot him a mile away.

He started to get in line at the desk to ask who’d paged Dylan when a woman walked up to him.

“You’re here!” she said.

Hunter tried to place the woman’s face. She looked vaguely familiar. “I am?” His mother claimed he’d been cursed with a sarcastic streak as wide as Farpoint since the day he was born. While his mum found it annoying, Hunter had never found a good reason to curb that personality trait.

The pretty woman smiled. “I was starting to worry.”

Before he could tell her she had the wrong bloke and should go ahead and hang on to her anxiety, she took a step closer and threw her arms around him.

The hard-on Hunter had managed to batten down as he’d walked away from his potential shower partner reemerged when her firm breasts brushed against his chest. Bloody hell. Who knew the airport was such a great place to pick up women? He might have to fly to Sydney International more often.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, he accepted the embrace, loosely wrapping his arms around her back. The lovely lady was just the right height for him and had some sexy curves. He liked a woman with meat on her bones.

She pulled away slightly and he started to release her, but she kept her arms wrapped around him and upped the ante, kissing him.

It started as a sweet, friendly kiss, but Hunter wasn’t having any of that shit. She smelled and tasted too good. He grasped her soft face and held her close. He turned his head and deepened the kiss, pressing her lips open so he could get an even better taste. He was thrilled when her tongue met his halfway. Jesus. This chick could kiss.

The flash of a camera distracted him and he felt the woman stiffen slightly. He ignored both, pressing his lips more firmly against hers. She relaxed—then another camera flashed. And another.

He thought he heard the woman mutter the word “fuck” as she stepped away.

“We need to get out of here,” she said.

With some distance between them, Hunter’s brain reengaged. It was clear she had the wrong guy, but it was going to be awkward to admit that, given the liberties he’d taken with her mouth.

“Listen, love—” he began.

She ignored him. Bending over, she retrieved her suitcases. Handing one to him, she briskly walked away from the service desk. He dragged her bag and tried to keep up.

“Where’s your car?” she asked.

“Don’t have one.”

That admission stalled her for a moment. “Dylan, the paparazzi have spotted me. We’ve gotta get out of here.”

Two words resonated in his brain. “Dylan” and “paparazzi”.

Who the bloody hell was this woman?

More flashes. Hunter glanced over his shoulder and saw three men with cameras following them. People turned to stare, curiously trying to determine which famous person was walking through Sydney airport.

Hunter grabbed her hand. “Here, this way.”

He led her toward the terminal where his helicopter awaited. He glanced at the time as they passed under a clock. The thing should be fueled up and ready by now. The cameramen continued to dog their steps. There were nearly a dozen people trailing them now as cameras continued to flash. He showed his ID at the terminal, they were ushered through a doorway and, at last, the paparazzi were shut out.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked as they paused in the small hallway that led to the tarmac and his helicopter.

She pulled her hand from his grip and frowned, clearly unhappy about his question. “I told you about my family, Dylan. I warned you this could happen.”

“Love, you didn’t warn me about a damn thing. Why don’t we start at the beginning? I’m Hunter Sullivan.” He stressed his first name. “Now, who are you?”

The woman paled slightly. Hunter was impressed when she recovered quickly. She looked like she’d been run through the wringer but she clearly wasn’t beaten yet.

“You’re Dylan’s brother.”

He nodded. “We’re twins. Obviously.”

Annie studied his face. “Identical.”

He didn’t respond. She clearly knew his brother’s face well enough to know there wasn’t much to distinguish one from the other. Apart from the fact Dylan shaved less than him, they were mirror images. “And now that we’ve determined who I am, who are—”

“Why did you kiss me back there?”

Shit. Hunter was hoping she’d forget that little tidbit. The answer was simple—pure, instant animal attraction. He’d been worked up and horny as shit after his encounter with the blonde in the bar.

What he told her was different, and he tried not to wince at his own cocky, arrogant tone. “When a pretty broad throws herself at me, I’m not likely to refuse.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I didn’t throw myself at you. If you were any sort of gentleman, you would have told me who you were right away.”

“Kind of hard to talk when someone’s got their tongue in your mouth.”

“You put your tongue in my mouth first.”

Hunter grinned and took a step closer, looking at her lips once more. He raised his eyebrows as if to say he’d do it again if given the chance.

She glanced at the door they’d just walked through. Hunter could read the indecisiveness on her face. He wondered if she’d subject herself to another dash through the airport with the paparazzi hot on her heels or if she’d tough it out with him. Given his current behavior, he’d choose the cameramen if he was her. He was being a right bloody arsehole.

“Listen, maybe if you told me who you were, I could help you get where you need to be. You’re obviously not from here. American, right?” But as soon as he asked the question, a horrifying reality crashed down on his head. “Annie?”

The woman nodded.

“You’re Dylan’s Annie? From New York?” The fact she was here wasn’t sinking into his thick skull as quickly as it should.

“Yes. Is he okay? Is there a reason why he sent you to pick me up? He’s not ill, is he?”

Hunter shook his head. “No. He’s not sick. He’s on his way to see you.” Hunter glanced at his watch. “His plane will land at JFK in about eighteen hours.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. I’d say you two crossed wires somewhere. Ordinarily I’d suggest we head to the terminal, hit a bar and make a plan about where to go from here, but I suspect you don’t want to go back there with all those cameramen breathing down your neck.”

Annie shook her head.

“Is there anyone you can call?”

She repeated the headshake. “I dropped my phone in the toilet when I was texting Dylan to find out where he was. It’s officially dead.”

Hunter bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. The poor woman was having a rough day.

“Is there somewhere more private we can hide out?” she asked. “Until I figure out what I’m supposed to do now.”

Hunter pointed down the corridor. “I guess we could sit in the chopper.”

“Chopper?”

He grasped the handles on both her suitcases and began dragging them as he walked toward the runway. He was pleased when Annie followed rather than run in the opposite direction.

“Dylan and I came to the airport in a helicopter.”

Annie gave him a funny look. “You have a thing against cars?”

“You have any idea how big Australia is? We live damn near in the middle of it, love. We could either fly the chopper to the airport in four or five hours or drive to Sydney in just under a dozen. I can’t afford to be away from work for so long, so it was a pretty easy decision. I flew Dylan here early this morning and intend to fly home later today.”

“This can’t be happening,” Annie muttered behind him. “How could this all get so fucked up?”

Hunter picked up the bags and carried them down the stairs to the tarmac, where his chopper sat waiting.

A flight mechanic approached. “You’ve got a full tank, Mr. Sullivan, and I gave everything a quick inspection. It’s ready to roll. Just radio the air traffic control room when you’re ready for takeoff.”

“Thanks, mate. Will do.”

Hunter threw her luggage in the back. Annie paused when he opened the passenger door of the helicopter for her. “Who flies this?”

“I do.”

“Jesus. Are you serious?”

Hunter suppressed a grin. Her American accent was cute. “Yes, Annie. I’m a fully qualified helicopter pilot. Not that you need to worry. We’re just hiding out in here, right?”

Annie bit her lip as she looked up at the propellers nervously. Rather than reply, she tried to climb into the passenger seat. The devil prodded him forward and he gave her a boost, using her arse for leverage. It was firm, tight. It took all this strength not to give it a good squeeze.

She startled when he placed his hands on her rear end, but accepted the momentum he provided to claim her seat. “Thanks.” Her slightly narrowed eyes and sardonic tone almost made him laugh.

“My pleasure.” He crossed in front of the chopper and took his place behind the controls. “So I guess we need to figure out how you ended up here when Dylan said he was going there.”

“He didn’t say he was going to New York. We were chatting on IM and he said something like ‘put your money where your mouth is’. Then he said Qantas, Sydney Airport, November twentieth, and gave me a time. I booked the flight, even though the arrival time he listed was a bit off, but I figured that’s because airlines are constantly changing their schedules.”

Hunter frowned. “I was there when he sent that stupid—Ahem.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I saw him send you the flight details—his flight details—in an email about an hour after that. He forwarded you the information from the airline.”

Annie looked around the helicopter and he wondered what she was thinking. “I never got that email.”

“Well, he sent it.” Hunter didn’t want to mention that satellite reception on Farpoint Creek was sketchy at best. There was a very good chance Dylan’s email was still bouncing around somewhere in space.

Annie sighed. “I swear to you I never got it. I just said ‘challenge accepted’ or ‘game on’ or something in our chat.”

He nodded. “Yeah, Dylan took that to mean you were excited about his visit. Bloody dickhead.”

“But I meant I was coming here. I thought he’d invited me to Australia.”

“Well, I don’t mean to criticize, love, but what woman accepts an invitation to visit a bloke she’s never met in a foreign country and only gives herself four days to prepare? Didn’t your family and friends try to talk you out of this?”

Annie’s shoulders straightened and he could see she was pissed off. “I know Dylan.”

He rolled his eyes. “A few emails and IMs and—”

“We’ve been corresponding for months. Plus we’ve Skyped and talked on the phone and exchanged pictures. I feel like I do know him.”

“And I suppose from that kiss you gave me back in the terminal, you didn’t intend for this to be just a friendly visit.”

She bit her lip again. Hunter wished he didn’t find the gesture so cute. “That’s none of your business.”

He let her off the hook. Her blush answered his question just fine. “What’s the deal with the paparazzi? You an actress or something?”

“Dylan didn’t tell you about my family?”

Hunter shook his head. “Nope. Dylan didn’t share much about you at all. Showed me a photo of you a few weeks ago. Besides that and the fact you don’t read your emails carefully, I don’t know a thing about you.” Hunter didn’t mention the soul mate comment.

“I’m a journalist. I work for a magazine in New York.”

“Didn’t realize journalists were so popular in the States.”

She flashed him a dirty look. “It’s not my job that interests the press, it’s my name. I’m Annie Prince.”

He shook his head. “I’m still not following you.”

“Prince Incorporated?”

Hunter recognized that name even less. “Nope. Haven’t got a bloody clue what you’re talking about.”

“I guess Monet was right. She said there had to be somewhere on the planet where I could live incognito. Go Australia.” She raised one fist in a cheer for his country.

“I don’t know who this Monet is, but that’s not exactly true. You’re in Sydney and there are cameramen following you.”

She blew out a long, frustrated breath. “Yeah. My family owns and operates a huge conglomeration of newspapers, magazines, hotels and other properties. Our net worth is in the billions. For some insane reason, this makes us interesting to people. Not to mention the fact my dad is a bit of a glory hound, constantly doing stuff to draw attention to himself. My two sisters have followed in his footsteps and now star on the most inane, idiotic reality series ever to air on television. And I suppose everyone expects me to be the same, to want the same spotlight cast on my life.”

“But you don’t?”

God no. Did you see me pose for photos? Your ranch in the middle of the desert actually sounds like paradise.”

Hunter scoffed. “I think you’re the first woman, besides my mother, to ever feel that way. And it’s not a ranch. It’s a station.”

Annie ignored his correction. Maybe she was used to it. He’d heard Dylan tell her a time or two when he’d accidentally eavesdropped on their chats. She let out a wobbly sigh. “What the hell am I going to do now?”

Hunter studied her desolate face and was sorry Dylan hadn’t invited her for a visit. The idea of Annie spending a week or two on their family’s cattle station was very appealing.

Then he recalled Dylan’s comment. She could be my soul mate. He couldn’t poach on his brother’s girl.

“Seems to me your answer’s simple. Go back inside and catch the next flight out of Sydney. Chances are it won’t leave until tomorrow, so you could book a hotel in the city and take in a couple of the sights. No reason the trip has to be a total waste. You’ll only be a day or so behind Dylan. Once you get back, the two of you can take New York by storm. No harm, no foul.”

Annie didn’t respond for several moments. Finally she released another sigh, this one less wobbly. “I can’t go back to New York right away.”

Hunter frowned. “Why not? If you’re worried about those wankers with the cameras, I can talk to security, get you an escort.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m here for work as well. On an assignment for the magazine. It was the only way I could miss two weeks of work. I haven’t been there long enough to build up any real vacation time.”

“What’s your assignment?”

“I’m writing a four-part series about life on a cattle station. And I’m supposed to interview a real live Aussie cowboy.”

She looked at him hopefully—and he knew he was in trouble.

“I’m a stockman, Annie. We’re called stockmen over here, or grazier, if we’re being more formal. Which we’re not.”

“Oh. Okay. Then I need to shadow a stockman.”

“Me?”

She lifted one shoulder as if to ask why not. “I’d intended to interview Dylan, but he’s not here and likely won’t be for a while. The first piece is due in three days and once I start, I sort of need to stick with the same cow…er, stockman.”

She really expected him to take her back to the cattle station? Let her follow him around for two weeks watching him work? How was he supposed to keep his hands off her if she was under his roof and his bloody brother was half a world away?

Dylan better get his arse back Down Under, and quick.

Otherwise, this was not going to end well.

Chapter 2

You should have told me you were afraid of flying, love. This isn’t a short flight.”

Annie slowly lifted her eyelids and forced herself to take a steadying breath. Her eyes had been pressed firmly closed for at least half an hour. She wasn’t used to being able to see so much while in the air. Typically she opted for an aisle seat on airplanes, careful to keep her eyes glued to the back of the seat in front of her. That way she could pretend she was on the ground instead of thousands of feet above. Between that and the drowsiness caused by the Dramamine she’d taken, she’d managed to remain somewhat calm during the long flight to Oz.

Unfortunately, the large windows in the helicopter didn’t afford her the luxury of forgetting where she was.

“I was afraid you’d make fun of me.”

From her peripheral vision, she could see him staring at her. She wanted to yell at him to keep his eyes on the road or the air or whatever.

“I don’t find other people’s fears funny. I hate snakes. Hate them. Dylan used to catch ’em and stick ’em in my bed all the time when we were kids. Do you think that’s funny?”

She shook her head. “No, but maybe that’s because I’m afraid of them too.”

He shook his head and snorted. “So who’s the arsehole who’s been giving you shit about your flying issues? Want me to beat him up?”

“It’s more like three arrrs-holes,” she mimicked. “Though I don’t suppose I should use that word when speaking of my dad and sisters.”

Hunter’s scowl grew. “Your family makes fun of you because you’re afraid of flying?”

“Maybe that’s the wrong expression. They just seem to find humor in my fear of flying because our father owns a private jet, and he would prefer to take it to the grocery store rather than drive if given the choice. My entire family is made up of jetsetters. And then you have me. The daughter who’s a bit out of place. Odd guy out. As always.”

He continued to look at her closely. “You don’t seem that odd to me. Although given the fact you’re lost in Oz at the moment, I’d agree with the misplaced part.”

“Would you mind watching where you’re going? I really can’t concentrate on what you’re saying when you’re looking at me instead of out there.” She waved her hand toward the front window, pointing at the sky before them.

Hunter chuckled. “Sorry, love. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She sucked in another ragged breath, relieved when he faced forward once more.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

Hunter fiddled with a button near the controls. “Is that what that was? Snapping? Hell, love, spend a few days with my mum and you’ll learn how to really give a man a piece of your mind.”

Dylan had mentioned they lived on Farpoint Creek with their mother. Now Annie found herself a new thing to worry about. What if Mrs. Sullivan didn’t like her? Obviously the family wasn’t expecting company for two weeks. Not only was she imposing on Dylan’s brother, she was inflicting herself on his mother as well.

Hunter distracted her when he asked, “Why were you on a Qantas flight if your dad owns a jet? Wouldn’t he let you borrow it?”

They were getting into slightly more personal territory. Annie had lived most of her life on guard, holding her cards close to her chest, not giving too many people a peek. Monet knew most of her issues regarding her family and she’d also confided a few things to Dylan. She’d stressed her desire that he not tell anyone about the secrets she’d divulged and, given Hunter’s obliviousness regarding her life, she’d been right to trust Dylan. He hadn’t betrayed her, not even to his own family.

“I try not to take advantage of my father’s wealth.” While that statement was the truth, it was also a lie in terms of this trip. She hadn’t used the jet because she hadn’t told her family she was leaving the country.

“Sort of cutting off your nose to spite your face, wouldn’t you say? If my dad had billions, I think I’d find it hard not to indulge every once in a while.”

Annie rolled her eyes. “I’m not saying I’m not totally spoiled. I grew up with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. I went to the best private schools in the States. Spent my summers on yachts and vacationing in some of the most beautiful places in the world. All my clothes had designer labels dangling from them and my primary mode of transportation was a limousine.”

“I’m struggling to find a problem in all that, love.”

She leaned her head against the headrest. “All of that comes with a cost. The paparazzi trail me everywhere—practically night and day—thinking my life is lived for their entertainment. They tend to be cruel on bad hair days or if I wear something they deem to be in poor taste. I can’t go to the grocery store without makeup or they start rumors that I’m sick or suffering from depression or a broken heart or something stupid like that. Usually the truth is I was too lazy to shower and get all dolled up just to run out for a lousy gallon of milk.”

“Yeah, that would get old quick.”

Annie remembered how Hunter had gone into protector mode at the airport. He’d kept a cool head and gotten them away from the growing pack of rabid cameramen. “You were really great back there, by the way. I don’t think I said thank you for getting me away from those damn flashing lights. I hate cameras almost as much as flying.”

Hunter gave her a crooked grin. “No worries.”

He was easy to talk to, like his brother. She wasn’t sure what the difference was between the Sullivan men and all the other guys she’d ever dated, but there was definitely something that set them apart. Maybe it was that they didn’t look at her and see dollar signs. More than that, they both seemed genuinely interested in her as a person. It was unique and very, very attractive.

She closed her eyes once more, but not out of fear as much as an attempt to relax. It has been a long journey and they still had a ways to go. She felt like she’d been in the air for days.

They continued chatting for a while. The helicopter was warm and the sound of the propellers created a soothing rhythm in the small space and, before she knew it, Annie found herself telling Hunter things she’d never told anyone, not even Monet or Dylan. She spoke of her childhood friends, summer camp and raucous college parties.

“Uni girl, eh? Dylan and I sort of skipped that part in our education and went straight to work on the station.”

“That’s a shame. You missed some awesome fraternity parties.”

He shook his head. “You’ve obviously never gotten drunk by the campfire with a bunch of rowdy jackaroos after long weeks of mustering.”

“Our lives seem to be as different as sardines and caviar. I remember the night I graduated magna cum laude at college—”

“Magner cum who?” he interjected.

Annie giggled softly. “I graduated with honors. Top of the class. Like how I managed to work that into the conversation?” she joked.

Hunter gave her a solemn nod, those his eyes twinkled with mirth. “Very smooth. Only took you about an hour. Congrats on being a smart arse.”

She narrowed her eyes, pretending to be insulted, though she suspected her grin was giving away how much fun she was having. “Anyway, to recognize my undisputable brilliance, my father threw a way-over-the-top party to celebrate. There were hundreds of people in attendance, most of them I didn’t even know. We were in the giant ballroom of a grand hotel Dad had recently purchased. He pulled me aside, said he had a gift for me. He handed me a contract that said The New York Bulletin was mine.”

Hunter frowned and she was reminded they really did live in two different worlds. “Bulletin?”

“It’s a major newspaper in the city. My dad owns it.”

“Don’t you mean you own it?”

She shook her head. “I turned it down. A light went on in my head that night. I’d worked my ass off all through high school and college, earning good grades because I wanted to make him proud of me. I chose journalism because that was my dad’s major. He’d started his career as a reporter at the Bulletin, working his way up through the ranks until he was the owner of that and at least twenty other media—newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, cable channels. From there he branched out into real estate—rentals, office buildings, hotels.”

Hunter took off his hat and tossed it on the backseat. He ran his hand through his light brown hair. Now that she studied him, she could see slight differences between him and his brother. Hunter’s hair looked a wee bit longer than Dylan’s and even though he was laughing with her, there was a seriousness around his eyes that she’d never noticed in his more easygoing brother.

His jaw was covered with stubble that indicated he hadn’t bothered to shave before leaving the house this morning, but she suspected that wasn’t normal. Dylan liked to joke about Hunter’s fastidious morning routine, which apparently always included shaving. She ached to reach out and rub her hand along the rough shadow. Every time he smiled at her, it framed some of the sexiest dimples she’d ever seen.

Annie watched him with hooded eyes, wishing he wasn’t so freaking gorgeous. With or without the hat, he took her breath way.

“Don’t you think your father’s gift was sort of special?” Hunter asked. “If the Bulletin was where he started, it had to have some sentimental value to him.”

“Maybe. But that wasn’t the point of all my hard work, was it? I didn’t want him handing me my future on a silver platter. I wanted to earn it, the same way he did.”

“I can understand that.”

“Yeah, well, my dad didn’t. Apparently he’d invited a ton of press to the party and he’d planned some grand announcement about me following in his footsteps. My refusal to accept the gift screwed up his moment in the sun.”

Hunter looked at her once more, but this time she didn’t complain about his lack of attention on where they were going. Instead she met his gaze, touched by the compassion she found in his deep-green eyes.

“My dad died of a massive heart attack when Dylan and I were fourteen. We had to find our footing fast. Luckily we had Mum. She’s a tough bloody bugger and a force to be reckoned with. She guided us, taught us how to run Farpoint, but she also let us find our own way with it, let us make it our own. She never told us we had to do things a certain way because that’s how Dad did it.”

“Your mom sounds awesome.”

The cutest crinkles appeared by Hunter’s eyes. When he smiled, his whole face expressed happiness. “She’s all right. I guess what I’m saying is no one ever told me who to be or how to live my life. If I fuck up, the blame’s all mine, but at least I had the chance to make the mistake in the first place.”

He did understand. Completely.

“That’s what I want, to have the chance to succeed or fail. My dad doesn’t agree. He says he’s worked hard all his life so I won’t have to.”

“I can understand wanting to take care of your kids, but you’re an adult now. I mean at, what, twenty-three, twenty-four, you’re ready to stand on your own two feet.”

He was fishing for her age, so she gave it to him. “I’m twenty-eight.”

“Ah, only a couple years behind me and Dylan. So what happened after you turned down the gift?”

“My dad wasn’t happy about it, but eventually he accepted my decision. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand exactly how hard it was going to be to cut ties to my family’s name. I managed to land a job at a small, independent magazine my dad doesn’t own, but now my boss, Mr. Lennon, seems to think I’m just slumming it. I sort of suspect the editor-in-chief pressured him to hire me as a favor to my dad or maybe as a feather in her cap, but I have no proof of that. Mr. Lennon has zero expectation that I’ll stick it out because, as he says, ‘It’s not like I need the money.’”

“Wow, what a wanker.”

“Plus, I sort of failed at the living-on-my-own thing too. I found an apartment in Brooklyn I could afford on my salary, but it didn’t have the best security and tabloid reporters broke in a few times and stole some personal stuff. The third time, I came home in the midst of the robbery. The guy freaked out about being caught red-handed. He shoved me down trying to get away and I ended up with a concussion when my head hit an end table.”

Hunter’s expression was thunderous. “Bloody hell! Hope they caught the fucker.”

Annie nodded. “They did, but my dad put his foot down after that and insisted I move somewhere safer.”

“Good for him.”

Annie’s heart warmed at how intently he listened. She genuinely liked Hunter Sullivan. He reminded her a bit of his brother, but she sensed there were some definite differences in their personalities too. Hunter’s sense of humor seemed slower to come and more sarcastic, where Dylan was clearly a fun-loving guy who was quick to laugh and joke. Hunter also had a bit of a bad-boy edge Annie had never seen in Dylan. His easy acceptance of a kiss from a strange woman in the airport and the way he’d turned her friendly buss into pure lip sex proclaimed that loud and clear.

“Now I live in a high-rise Manhattan apartment with top-notch security that my dad pays for. It makes it hard for my colleagues and Mr. Lennon to accept my assertions that I want to be self-sufficient.”

“The old damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, eh?”

“Yeah. Something like that.” She yawned. The helicopter was surprisingly comfortable. She felt like she was in a cozy cocoon. Hunter had offered her a blanket prior to takeoff.

“Here.” Hunter reached behind his seat for a pillow. “Close your eyes. You’ve already had a long trip and we’ve got more than a few kilometers to go before we get to Farpoint. Try to get some sleep.”

“I wanted to keep you company, so you don’t get tired.” Even as she spoke, her head was sinking into his proffered pillow.

“I’d planned to make this return trip alone, remember? Besides, I had a good night’s sleep in my own bed last night. I’m fine.”

She’d barely scraped a few hours of restless sleep on the plane. She felt like she should resist the temptation. God knew if she weren’t so fatigued she’d never be able to fall asleep in the helicopter. Exhaustion was winning over fear.

She closed her eyes and the last thing she heard was Hunter saying, “Sweet dreams.”

* * * *

When she woke up much later, it was dark. “What time is it?”

“G’day, love. I was about to check your pulse to make sure you were still breathing. It’s nearly nine.”

“How long did I sleep?”

“About three hours. I think you might have managed a bit more, but my fiddling with the controls probably woke you up. I’m getting ready to land.”

“Now? We’re here? At Farpoint?” Annie gripped the door handle and tried to calm her suddenly racing heart. She wished she’d managed to remain unconscious through this part. Takeoffs and landings were always the worst for her.

“Yep. Home sweet home. I’m sorry we’re not landing in the daytime. I would have woken you earlier so you could see the spread. Now it’s just a whole lotta black and the homestead in the middle of it. The station’s fairly large; in addition to the helicopter pad, we have a landing strip. A plane arrives once a week to deliver mail and supplies. If you want, I’ll take you up again in a couple days and let you get a feel for the land.”

The idea of spending any more time in the air was as appealing as a trip to the gynecologist, but she held her peace. Hunter appeared to be concentrating on bringing the chopper down. If she weren’t already so terrified, her anxiety would have exploded at the idea of landing in a place so isolated, they had to bring stuff in by air and only got mail once a week. As it was, she was at maximum capacity on the freak-out scale, so Hunter’s latest revelation barely made a blip on her radar.

For the next half hour, neither of them spoke as Hunter radioed someone at the cattle station and she silently prayed not to die in a fiery crash. She tried to make out the ground, but everything around her was pitch black. Darkness didn’t really exist in New York City. Even at night, it tended to be fairly light. Right now, it felt like she’d been sucked into a giant black hole.

The egg-shaped helicopter reminded her of the old Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme and the “had a great fall” line played over and over in her mind. She couldn’t let go of the idea she was definitely spiraling out of control.

As the helicopter landed in the middle of a field, Annie took her first peaceful breath since waking, grateful to still be alive. She looked around but couldn’t see much of the ranch in the darkness.

The same thought she’d had at the airport returned.

How the hell did I get here?

She wasn’t sure what had possessed her to convince Hunter—a virtual stranger—to agree to take her over four hundred miles away from the airport and easy access to a return flight home. Clearly she had snapped.

“You can let go of that door handle.” Hunter grinned. More dimples. He’d been very sweet earlier, distracting her with talk about family while trying to take her mind off the fact she was hovering far too high above the ground with nothing but propellers keeping her there. Her white-knuckle grip on the door hadn’t relaxed since she’d woken up and heard they were about to land.

“I don’t think I can.” She wasn’t joking, but Hunter chuckled just the same. He leaned over her, a whiff of his far-too-sexy cologne wafting in the air.

“Here.” He gently pried each of her fingers away from the handle. Once her hand was free, he rubbed her palm, the massage easing the tingles there while creating some new ones in her girlie parts.

The breath she’d recovered upon landing was sucked away again. Hunter’s face was close to hers and she recalled the kiss he’d given her at the airport. She wasn’t sure she’d ever been the recipient of such a passionate, all-in sort of embrace. Hunter hadn’t held back anything.

She moved an inch closer and licked her lips.

Hunter’s gaze flew to her mouth. Did he know what she wanted? He moved the slightest bit nearer and she could smell peppermint on his breath. He’d offered her one at the beginning of the flight, claiming it calmed nervous stomachs. She could use a bit of that cure now. Their close proximity had her tummy doing major flip-flops. Maybe she could steal some of the flavor from him. She closed the distance between them even more.

Hunter still held her hand and his grip tightened slightly. Her eyes drifted shut, waiting, wishing, praying for his kiss.

Instead, Hunter sighed. “Fuck.”

Her gaze lifted to his, confused.

“You’re Dylan’s girl, Annie. You’re here for him.”

She winced with the realization. She’d flown halfway around the world because of Dylan’s friendship, his kindness, his sweet flirting. Didn’t she owe it to him not to throw herself at his brother?

“I’m sorry. I’ve been traveling for two days and I’m not thinking straight. Nothing’s gone the way I expected. I just…”

Hunter lifted her hand and placed a soft kiss on her palm. “No worries, love. We’ll get a cup of hot tea and some supper in you. That cures everything.”

“Food sounds nice.”

Hunter unfastened her seatbelt. “I called ahead while you were sleeping. Told Mum you were with me. She’s out of her head with excitement about meeting you.”

“She is?” His words eased her initial anxiety about inconveniencing Mrs. Sullivan.

“She tried to convince Dylan to invite you here to begin with, but Dylan said there was no way he could subject you to that long trip.”

Annie laughed. “Bless Dylan for trying.”

Hunter hopped out of the helicopter then came over to lift her out. She figured it was her pent-up sexual need that made her believe his hands lingered on her waist a second longer than necessary. Suddenly she was glad she’d thought to pack her vibrator. Something told her she was going to need it.

Hunter grabbed her luggage and led her from the landing pad to a jeep parked nearby. “The house is about a kilometer away.”

“Damn metric system. I suppose that means it’s close?”

Hunter chuckled. “Very close. Come on.”

They rode the rest of the way to the Sullivan ranch house in silence. It was a dry, hot night and an odd smell—eucalyptus maybe?—hung in the air. She felt sticky beneath her long-sleeve sweater and jeans. She was dressed for late autumn in New York, not summer in Oz.

The jeep didn’t have a top and the wind whipped through Annie’s hair. She didn’t even want to know what she looked like right now. So much for making a good impression on Hunter’s mom.

When Hunter parked the jeep in front of the house, Annie tried to hastily finger-comb the mass of brown waves into submission, with little success. Hunter came around to her side of the vehicle.

“You look fine,” he said.

“Dylan didn’t tell me about your propensity for lying.”

Hunter reached up and pushed a stray lock away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. Then he picked up where she’d left off on the grooming, running his fingers through her shoulder-length tresses. She didn’t resist since he had the added benefit of actually seeing what he was doing.

“Mum will no doubt talk your ear off all through dinner. Maybe we should work out a signal. You can stomp on my foot or wink or something when you get too tired. I’ll step in and insist you need a shower. I’ll strong-arm you away from her and show you to the guest room, where you can take a long, hot bath and relax in silence. Sound like a plan?”

Annie nodded.

“Good girl. Come on.”

As they walked up the steps toward the front door, Annie nervously wiped her palms on her jeans.

Hunter reached over and took her hand. “There’s nothing to be worried about.”

He suspected that was true. While Hunter had talked his mouth dry trying to convince Dylan he was making a mistake flying to New York, their mother had proclaimed just the opposite. It was Mum who’d talked Dylan into signing up for the online dating service to begin with. In fact, she’d tried to convince both of them to try it, but Hunter had shot down the idea immediately.

Hunter’s mother despaired of her sons ever finding a “good woman” to settle down with. Hazel Sullivan had regretfully come to the conclusion several years earlier that there were no neighboring women who were the right age or had the correct disposition for her boys.

Undeterred, she’d broadened her search. She had even gone so far once as to fly in potential candidates under the guise of hiring someone to work in the kitchen. Hunter had withstood the sexual advances of no less than six so-called station cooks before he cottoned on to his mother’s game. The women had been nieces or daughters of dear friends; one was his mum’s hairdresser’s niece’s best friend. Only one of them could actually fix anything mildly edible.

Finally, Hunter put his foot down and hired a cook himself. Bruce Hernan had been feeding the hands successfully for nearly a year now.

Hunter opened the front door and there stood Mum with Dylan’s dog, Mutt.

Hazel behaved just as Hunter knew she would—the moment Annie crossed the threshold, his mother embraced her like she was some long-lost beloved daughter. Then she proceeded to tell her every embarrassing secret about Hunter and Dylan’s childhood she could remember. Hazel took her on a tour of the living room, pointing out all the framed pictures of him and Dylan during various stages of growing up.

His mother was in fine form tonight. Poor Annie.

“And I’ve heard all about you,” Annie said, bending down and petting Mutt. The dog was part dingo, part mythological beast. Hunter had protested the dog—even as a puppy—was too big to be a house pet, but when it became apparent the huge creature wouldn’t part from Dylan’s side, even at bedtime, the battle had been lost. Now it looked like Mutt had found a surrogate to guard during Dylan’s absence, as the dog planted himself at Annie’s feet.

Hazel watched Annie and the dog appraisingly. Annie had been nothing but courteous thus far, but Hunter could see his mother taking stock of the American. Hazel was one of the strongest women he’d ever known but her personality could be overwhelming for strangers. She was far too opinionated, spoke her mind and never minced words. While Annie was clearly tough in her own right, Hunter had spent more than a few minutes of today’s long, quiet flight wondering what Hazel would think of her.

He told himself his concern was on Dylan’s behalf. If his brother was serious about Annie, he’d obviously want their mother’s approval. That was a lie though. Hunter wanted the New Yorker and his mum to get along because he genuinely liked Annie.

After forty-five minutes of conversation and two cups of tea, he decided to throw her a lifeboat.

“Mum, I’m sure Annie’s knackered and hungry. She’s been traveling for nearly two days straight.”

“Oh my goodness. Where are my manners?” Hazel rose quickly. “Dinner is in the oven and probably just about finished. Let me go check. I’ll call you both in when it’s on the table.”

Hazel left Hunter alone with Annie. He walked over to sit beside her on the couch. “Sorry. Mum can be too much to handle at times.”

“I think she’s wonderful. She sure does love her sons.”

Hunter grinned. “She loves us a bit too much.”

Annie tried to stifle a yawn. The dark circles under her eyes told him exactly how exhausted she was.

“You more hungry or tired? You don’t have to eat now if you’d rather get some sleep. I’m sure Mum won’t mind if you come down later for a midnight bite to eat.”

“Oh no,” Annie said. “She’s taken special pains to make the meal for me. I’m okay. I’d rather hang in there as long as possible. Figure it’s the best way to get myself acclimated to this time zone.”

He could see the reason in that, especially if she was serious about following around tomorrow as he did his chores. “I should warn you. The days start bloody early here on Farpoint. You still gung-ho on shadowing a stockman?”

She turned to face him, her knee brushing against his upper thigh. The light contact spurred a strong reaction. He’d been far too busy with work and too celibate lately. He needed to get laid…and soon, or he was bound to do something he’d regret. Like Annie.

“You’re not going to get rid of me that easy. This is the first big assignment Mr. Lennon has given me. I’m not about to give up.”

“I’d say that’s pretty obvious, given the fact you got in a helicopter with a man you’ve never met and let him fly you to his home in the middle of nowhere.”

Annie laughed and Hunter relished the sound. He tried to tell himself it was only attractive because there weren’t a lot of available women his age at Farpoint, but he knew better. She had a nice laugh. And a pretty smile. And a gorgeous face.

Fuck.

“You have a very good point,” she said. “I have no doubt my father will kill me when he hears where I am.”

“Your dad doesn’t know you’re here?”

Annie shook her head. “As you pointed out, it was a pretty impulsive trip. I left a message with his secretary that I was traveling on assignment the morning I flew out, knowing he was in meetings all day.”

“Coward,” Hunter teased.

“When it comes to my dad, I’ve learned it’s easier to apologize after than ask permission before.”

“You need to ask permission? At your age?”

“It’s just an expression. My dad’s got a fairly strong personality so I’ve learned to avoid annoying confrontations by employing stealthy measures.”

Was it Hunter’s imagination or had Annie touched his thigh as she spoke? “Ah, so you’re a bad girl.”

During their conversation, they’d somehow managed to move closer, the tenor of their words becoming more flirtatious.

Annie leaned even nearer. “I’m very good at being naughty.”

“How naughty?”

She flushed, but didn’t move away from him. They were treading a thin line between playful banter and outright seduction.

“I liked the way you kissed me in Sydney.” It was a charming admission—and all Hunter needed to hear. He leaned forward and captured her lips. The kiss at the airport had merely whetted his desire for more.

Annie met him halfway, her mouth opening eagerly when he touched her lower lip with his tongue. For several minutes, they lived in the moment, all thought washed away by sensation and lust.

He pulled her shirt hem out of her pants and dipped his hand beneath, savoring the feeling of the warm skin at her waist. With one smooth motion, he pulled her over him until she straddled his thighs. Gripping her arse, he ground his cock against the vee of her legs. She moaned then added more pressure, gyrating against him sinuously until the friction was almost unbearable. During it all, their lips never parted.

Annie retreated first. “What are you doing to me?” Her whispered question was murmured against his mouth, her breathless gasps driving him back for another taste.

She didn’t resist the second round, either; the longer, deeper kisses as they continued to rub against each other hard…harder.

Hunter was lightheaded with need. He gripped her face in his palms, holding her close. Her skin was soft, her breath sweet. When they parted again, he responded between panting breaths, “I think I’m the one who should be asking that question.”

Annie froze and he watched her hooded, hungry eyes widen with shock as she realized what she was doing.

With regret, he let her crawl slowly off his lap, reclaiming her seat beside him. “I’m not usually quite this…forward.”

He believed her. He felt the same. He’d only met her this morning and twice he’d held on to her like the world would end if she weren’t snug in his arms. It was odd, unsettling.

“You’re tired. You planned a trip and nothing’s turned out the way you’d intended. I’ve had an unusual day too, a break from my same old, boring routine. I have a feeling things will be normal again after we’ve both had a good night’s sleep.” Christ. He hoped that was true. He’d been seconds from peeling Annie out of her jeans and fucking her senseless on the family couch with his mum in the next room.

Annie tilted her head. Hunter suspected she wanted to dispute his explanation. Instead, she said, “Maybe you’re right.”

Hazel called them in for dinner and the conversation turned into the interrogation Hunter had been waiting for. Hazel launched no less than three dozen questions at Annie. Their American guest answered all of his mother’s questions regarding her schooling, her career at the magazine and her family with ease and even humor. Hunter noticed she didn’t go into as much detail with Hazel, shielding some of the more private things she’d shared with him in the helicopter.

Hunter was pleased she’d told him more. He waited for Annie to give him one of the signs to call a halt to the third degree, but she never winked, never stomped on his foot. Despite the dark circles and obvious tiredness in her eyes, Annie didn’t try to break away from his mother’s lengthy conversation.

“Mum, it’s getting late. I’m going to take Annie and her luggage to the guest room so she can get a bath and some rest.”

He expected Annie to look grateful for his reprieve, but instead she seemed disappointed to leave. Hazel shared the look.

“Forgive me, Annie, I’ve been terribly rude keeping you up so long.”

“Not at all. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. You have a lovely home, Mrs. Sullivan. I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay. Is there anything worse than an unexpected guest showing up for a two-week visit?”

Mum waved Annie’s words away with the flick of a wrist. “Nonsense. We’re glad to have you. And none of this Mrs. Sullivan bull. Hazel will do just fine.”

Annie and his mum hugged good night and Hunter led her to the guest room at the far end of the hall. Unfortunately it was right next to his bedroom, and his dick thickened at the thought of Annie sleeping only one thin wall away.

As they walked into the bedroom, he placed her luggage near the dresser. He pointed to a door in the corner. “The bathroom’s in there. Knowing Mum, there are fresh towels and extra toiletries and God knows what else set up for you. I radioed the station about an hour after you fell asleep. Got an earful from Mum about not giving her enough notice.”

“And yet she managed to make up this room and prepare a yummy dinner.”

Hunter shrugged. “She wanted to make sure the place was nice for you.”

“Your mother is…” Annie paused. Hunter held his breath, waiting for her to finish the thought. “She’s just amazing. My mother left us when I was seven. Took off to Europe with a much younger lover. I only see her every three or four years at most.”

“That must’ve been tough.”

Annie shook her head. “Hard to miss what you never had.” She looked toward the doorway. “But I think your mother made me miss what could have been.”

Hunter couldn’t stop himself from responding to Annie’s wistful face. He walked over and hugged her. She accepted the embrace, wrapping her arms around his waist. “I’m glad you and Dylan fucked up the details.”

Annie laughed. “I’m glad we did too.”

He pulled away and resisted the urge to kiss her again. He’d already taken too many liberties, come on far too strong. While he was no stranger to one-night hookups, Annie wasn’t that kind of woman. For one, she’d come here to meet Dylan, and secondly, she was staying in his family’s home for two weeks.

Hunter knew all the way to his gut that it wasn’t going to be long enough.

He needed to get in touch with Dylan.

~

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