Dr. Rachel Harper just wanted to escape her busy emergency ward and her home life for a weekend. Now she's stranded in the Outback, working with the area's only doctor, the powerfully charming Hugo McInnes.
Rachel and Hugo's mutual attraction is soon raging as strongly as the bushfires around town. Hugo has every reason to stay away from Rachel - and Rachel's secret means she can't give in to her awakened feelings. But as the firestorm closes in on Cowral Bay, the heat between the two doctors is burning out of control.
The thin blue line rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell.
How long did love last?
The girl by the bed should surely know. She sat and watched now as she’d sat and watched for years.
`I love you, Craig,’ she whispered but there was no answer. There was never an answer.
Dappled sunlight fell over lifeless fingers. Beloved eyes, once so full of life and laughter, stayed closed.
The blue line rose and fell. Rose and fell.
`I love you, Craig,’ she whispered again and blessed his face with her fingers. `My love...’
How long does love last?
`She might be beautiful but I bet she’s stupid.’
Dr. Rachel Harper’s hamburger paused midway to her mouth. Tomato sauce oozed onto to her T-shirt, but her T-shirt was disgusting already. The sauce was the same colour as her pants. Hey - she was colour co-ordinated!
She was also distracted.
`Look at her hair,’ the voice was saying. `It’d cost a fortune to keep it like that, and what for? She’s a blonde bimbo, Toby, mark my words. A gorgeous piece of fluff.’
`But she’s got lovely legs.’ The child’s words were a thoughtful response to the man’s deep rumble. `And she’s got really nice eyes.’
`Never be taken in by appearances, Toby,’ the deep voice decreed. `Under that gorgeous exterior, she’s nothing but a twit.’
Enough! Rachel might be a reluctant protector, but she was here to defend and defend she would. She hitched back the curtain and faced the world.
Or, to be precise, she faced the Cowral dog show.
The pavilion was packed and she’d retreated with her hamburger for a little privacy. The cubicles behind each dog weren’t big enough to swing a cat – or a dog – but at least they were private.
Who was criticising Penelope?
`Hey!’ she said, and a man and a child turned to stare. She wiped a smudge of tomato sauce from her chin and stared right back.
Penelope’s detractor was in his mid thirties, she guessed. Maybe he was a farmer? That’s what he looked like. He was wearing moleskins and a khaki shirt of the type that all the farmers around here seemed to wear. His curly, black hair just reached his collar. He had deep brown, crinkly eyes, and, with his deeply tanned skin, he looked...
Nice, Rachel decided. In fact, if she was being critical – and she was definitely in the mood for being critical - he looked more than nice. He looked gorgeous! The small boy beside him was aged about six, and he was a miniature replica. They had to be father and son.
Father and son. Family. The man was therefore married.
Married? Why was she wondering about married?
She gave herself a swift mental swipe for thinking of any such thing. Dottie had been doing her work too well. Why would Rachel possibly be interested in whether a complete stranger had a partner?
She was here with Michael.
But then, who was she kidding? It was thanks to Dottie’s persuasions that she was here with Michael, and therefore she was interested in anyone but Michael! Married or not.
The fact that she was married herself didn’t – couldn’t - matter. Dr. Rachel Harper had reached her limit.
`I need to show Penelope to gain championship points,’ Michael had told her one day at Sydney Central Hospital, where they both worked, and Dottie had pushed her to go. `Get a life,’ she’d said. `It’s time to move on.’
So she’d allowed herself to be persuaded. Rachel had imagined an hour or two displaying a beautiful dog, a comfortable motel in the beautiful seaside town of Cowral and the rest of the week-end lazing at the beach. Maybe Dottie was right. She’d had no holiday for eight years. She was exhausted past imagining. Maybe Dottie’s edict that it was time to move on was worth considering.
But Michael’s dream week-end had turned out to be just that – a dream. Reality was guilt. It was also a heat wave, a motel that refused to take dogs and an entire week-end guarding Michael’s stupid dog from supposedly jealous competitors.
Where was Michael? Who knew? She sighed and addressed Penelope’s critics.
`Penelope’s a three-time Australian champion,’ she told the stranger and his child, and she glared her very best putting-the-peasants-in-their-places glare.
`She’s a very nice dog,’ the little boy said. He smiled a shy smile up at Rachel. `Can I pat her nose?’
She softened. `Of course you can.’
`She might bite,’ the man warned and Rachel stopped smiling and glared again.
`Stupid dogs bite. Penelope’s a lady.’
`Penelope’s an Afghan Hound.’
The man’s lips twitched. There was laughter lurking behind those dark eyes and the beginning of a challenge. `So she’s dumb.’
Rachel brightened. A challenge? Great. She’d been here too long. She was bored to screaming point. Anything was better than retreating to her soggy hamburger and yesterday’s newspapers.
In truth, what she was aching for was a fight with Michael but he wasn’t here. However this man was the same species – male - and the laughter behind his eyes told her he was fair game.
`You’re not only rude,’ she told him, her gaze speculative. `You’re also racist.’
He raised his brows and his brown eyes creased into laughing disbelief. `You’re saying she’s smart?’
`She’s a sweetheart.’ Rachel gave the great white hound a hug and then winced as a smear of ketchup soiled her immaculate coat. Whoops. Michael would be out with his pistols.
Where was Michael?
`You don’t need to take my word for it,’ the man was saying. A small crowd was gathering now. The judging heats were over; final judging wasn’t for another two hours and things were slow in the dog shed. Rachel wasn’t the only one who was bored. `There’s tests for dog intelligence.’
`You’re going to implement the MENSA quiz?’
`Nothing so complicated. Lend me a piece of your hamburger.’
`Lend... Hey, get your own hamburger.’
`It’s in the interest of scientific research,’ he told her.
`My daddy’s a doctor,’ the little boy said, as if that explained everything.
`Yeah? Doctor of what?’ Rachel grinned down at the kid, beginning to enjoy herself for the first time all week-end. `It sounds a sneaky way to get some of my hamburger.’
`It’s a simple experiment,’ the man told her, refusing to be side-tracked. `See my dog?’
The stalls and their associated sleeping quarters were raised almost three feet above the ground. Rachel peered over the edge. A lean, brown dog of indeterminate parentage gazed back at her. As big as a collie, the mutt was all legs, tail and eyes. As Rachel gazed down at him, he raised his back leg for a weary scratch.
`Charming,’ Rachel said. `Great party trick.’
`Digger doesn’t do party tricks.’
She nodded in sympathetic understanding. `I guess you need to be house-trained to be let into parties.’
The man’s grin matched hers. War wasn’t just declared; the first shots had been fired. `Are you implying Digger’s not house-trained?’
`Seeing is believing.’ This was okay, she decided. For the first time since she’d been conned into coming to this last bastion of civilisation, she was having fun. Guilt could be forgotten – for the moment. Penelope against Digger. It was a crazy conversation; she wasn’t sure how it had started but she didn’t intend to stop. `Breeding will out,’ she declared.
`There’s been more go into Digger’s breeding than your mutt.’
`My mutt’s name is Penelope,’ she said haughtily. `And she’s no mutt. She comes from long line of Australian champions. Whereas your mutt...’
`Digger also comes from a long line of champions,’ the stranger told her. He smiled again, and it was a heart stopper of a smile. A real killer. `We’re sure there’s a piece of champion border collie in there somewhere, and a champion kelpie...’
`And a champion dachshund?’ Rachel watched as Digger’s tiny pointy tail stuck straight up. `Definitely dachshund.’
`That’s silly,’ the little boy said. `Dachshunds are long and flat and Digger’s high and bouncy.’
`Right.’ She was trying not to laugh. Both the man and the boy were entrancing. Two gorgeous smiles. Two sets of deep, dark eyes ready to spring into laughter. She was bored out of her brain and this pair were a diversion sent from heaven.
`So what do we do with my hamburger?’ she asked and the man’s smile deepened. Honestly, it was a smile to die for.
`We put it under a feed dish.’
Rachel raised her eyebrows, then shrugged and handed over her burger. A fair amount of ketchup came, too.
The man looked down at his hand – ketchup with hamburger attached. Ugh. In truth it had been a very soggy hamburger and Rachel wasn’t all that sorry to lose it. `You like your burgers well sauced?’
`Yes,’ she told him and went back to glowering.
`My Dad says tomato sauce has too much salt and salt’s bad for blood pressure,’ the little boy ventured.
`People who say rude things about dogs are bad for blood pressure,’ Rachel retorted and there was a general chuckle from their growing audience. `So what are you intending to do with my hamburger?’
`Watch.’ The man stooped and placed a piece of hamburger underneath an upturned dog dish. Then he stood back and let Digger’s lead go slack.
`Dinner,’ he said.
Digger looked up at him. Adoring. Then the skinny, brown dog gazed around the crowd as if ensuring each and every eye was on him. He sniffed, placed a paw on top of the dish, crouched down, pushed with the other paw... The dish toppled sideways to reveal the piece of hamburger.
Digger looked around again as if awaiting applause. It came. He received his due and then delicately ate the hamburger.
`Now it’s Penelope’s turn.’
`She’ll get dirty,’ Rachel said and there was a trace of desperation in her voice. Penelope might be lovely, but her opposition was seriously smart.
`We’ll put it up on her platform.’ The stranger’s smile was growing broader. `I’ll even wipe the ketchup off. Or maybe you could do it on your T-shirt.’
Ouch! `Watch your mouth.’
Another grin, but the entire pavilion was watching now and he didn’t stop. He placed the dish in front of Penelope’s nose. He broke a second piece of hamburger, showed it to Penelope and popped it underneath.
He backed away and left her to it.
Penelope sniffed. She sniffed again.
She lay down in front of the dish. She stood up and barked. She shoved the dish sideways with her nose and barked again.
Nothing happened. She lay down and whined. Pathos personified.
`So your dog’s hungrier than mine,’ Rachel told him with a touch of desperation, and there was general laughter. `You must starve Digger.’
`Do I look like a man who’d starve a dog?’
No. He didn’t. He looked really nice, Rachel decided, and she wished all of a sudden that she wasn’t in soiled jeans and sauce stained T-shirt, that her mass of deep brown curls were untangled and not full of the straw that the organisers had put down as bedding and that she looked...