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His Outback Cowgirl

By:Alissa Callen

the last thing she’ll want is a babysitter. She’ll be more than capable of looking after herself while she explores. So short straw or not, you’re not getting rid of me yet.”

Instead of answering him, Henry turned his good ear toward the oversize kitchen window beside them. The clear glass provided a framed view of the scenic drive through the rolling foothills into Larkspur Ridge Ranch. A white pickup navigated its way toward the ranch house.

Henry grinned. “That’s Zane’s pickup. If I was a betting man, I’d say it was his sister behind the wheel.”

Ethan’s fingers tightened around his coffee cup. He had no doubt it was the Australian cowgirl driving. Whenever Zane visited, the truck’s wheels didn’t kick up such a thick plume of pale dust. For a road Bridie didn’t know, she sure drove fast.

Gravel crunched beneath tires as the truck approached, slowed and then parked beneath a cottonwood tree. Rocket leapt to his feet and sped out the kitchen doorway. Milo yipped and followed, his small paws sliding on the polished floorboards. Henry made no effort to stand. Instead he stared through the window as Bridie left the truck, shut the door and strode toward the ranch house.

The summer breeze caught in the loose fall of her dark hair and she lifted an impatient hand to drag the glossy strands off her face. Bridie was dressed in fitted denim and a pale pink shirt, and every sure stride showcased her lithe curves and the energy that shrouded her. Ethan swallowed.

Beautiful and spirited, this woman would lead from the front foot and embrace all that life offered. Just like his brother, she’d be a risk taker and live dangerously. A strange sense of loss slipped through Ethan. She wasn’t the type of girl who’d fall for a boring and reliable rancher.

A smile shaped Henry’s lips. “Yep. She’s an Ashton all right.” He made no effort to stand. Expression deadpan, he looked at Ethan. “Off you go. Go and greet her. You know the Doc said I’m to take it easy. It’s a long walk to the front door.”

Ethan settled for an exasperated eye roll. Even when just home from hospital, Henry hadn’t taken it easy. Ethan placed his mug and plate on the bench and at the kitchen doorway turned to waggle a finger at his father.

“You had better be sitting there when I get back. No truck driving until next Thursday.”

Henry scowled but not before Ethan caught a glimmer of laughter in his eyes.

The doorbell rang, triggering a chorus of excited barks. Rocket’s deep woof was interspersed by Milo’s higher pitched yip. Ethan made his way down the long hallway. His gut told him Zane’s sister’s outback home would ice over before she’d allow herself to be babysat. He rolled his shoulders to disperse the sharp bite of tension. There was no cause for alarm. He’d only have stubborn Henry to watch over. He wouldn’t be spending the summer keeping a headstrong and gorgeous cowgirl out of trouble.

Bridie Willis dragged in a long breath and quelled her impatience. Behind the wooden door in front of her she could hear dogs barking. If the dogs were inside, somebody was home. A mountain breeze swirled around her and brought with it the promise of rain. She briefly closed her eyes. In Australia, where rain was scarce, such a scent carried with it both hope and happiness.

The grief buried deep within her twisted and writhed. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her emotions at bay. The aroma of rain now only reminded her of what she’d lost. No longer did she have a father to discuss rainfall figures with, to plan what crops they’d plant in the damp soil or what pastures to graze their cattle on. Stomach cancer had made sure that never again could she smell rain without weeping tears on the inside.

She opened her eyes and gave in to the restlessness that, since they’d buried her father, she couldn’t exhaust. She tapped the toe of her boot. How long was the ranch hallway? The door was taking forever to open. Her gaze slid from the door to the high-country peaks to her left. Their silence and solitude called to her. The sooner she spoke to Henry Watson, the sooner she could disappear into the backcountry and allow herself to grieve.

The tears she’d refused to cry banked like a summer storm. The desperate whispers that she needed time and space alone now howled through her head like a gale wind. She’d been in Montana two weeks and she was yet to get to the mountains. Edgy and agitated, she was close to snapping. Last night in Grey’s Saloon when Nick’s overfriendly hand had brushed her butt while offering pool advice, she’d elbowed him way too hard.

The dog barking intensified and the door finally swung open. A black and white dog, and similar colored puppy, spilled out from the ranch house. The pup jumped and planted two small paws on her knee. A whistle sounded and the two dogs left her side to sit on the porch, their eyes trained on the front door.

Broad shoulders filled the doorway. Then, movements measured as though he had all the time in the world, a man stepped outside. She looked into the stranger’s face and stared into eyes as flawless and as blue as the cloudless canopy above them.

At first she thought she’d met this man last night at Grey’s Saloon but subtle differences suggested this wasn’t Cordell Morgan but his twin. The two men might share the same handsome and even features but this man’s dark blond hair was short and neat and his eyes were as calm as a still pond. Her heart beat a little faster. This might be the steady and serious brother but he was just as drop-jaw gorgeous as Cordell.

“Welcome to Larkspur Ridge Ranch. I’m Ethan. You must be Zane’s sister, Bridie?”

She nodded. Even this cowboy’s words were unhurried and quiet. Her gaze lingered on his clean-shaven chin. She hadn’t been formally introduced to Ethan last night but she had seen him. Cordell had pointed his twin out sitting with his back to her at the edge of the crowd, engrossed in conversation with a starr