Top-Notch Doc, Outback Bride

Harlequin

Available: 10/01/2009

ISBN-10: 0263868370

ISBN-13: 978-0263868371

ASIN: B002SVQDL4

When Dr. Kellie Thorne arrives in the Outback she’s prepared for the sun’s heat–but not for her sizzling attraction to brooding new colleague Matt McNaught!

Matt knows people think he’s arrogant, but that’s the way he likes it–his work comes first. The death of his fiancée left him shattered and, six years on, he still prefers being alone. Until Kellie whirls into his life! A breath of fresh air, she sees through his tough exterior….

But Kellie’s stay is meant to be temporary. Matt must figure out how to make this new light in his life permanent …

An Excerpt from Top-Notch Doc, Outback Bride

It wasn’t the worst flight Kellie had ever been on but it certainly came pretty close. The three-hour delay at Brisbane airport had been annoying enough, but when she had finally boarded the twenty-seat regional service area plane she found a man was already sitting in her window seat.

‘Er… excuse me,’ she said, holding her boarding pass up. ‘I think you are in the wrong seat. I am 10A, you must be 10B.’

The man looked up from the thick black book he was reading. ‘Would you like me to move?’ he asked in a tone that seemed to suggest he thought it would be totally unreasonable of her to expect him to unfold his long length from the cramped space he was currently jammed into.

Something about the slightly arrogant set to his features made Kellie respond tartly, ‘I do, actually, yes. I always have a window seat. I specifically ask for it each time. I feel claustrophobic if I can’t see outside.’

Using his boarding pass as a bookmark, the man got to his feet and squeezed out of the two-seat row, his tall figure towering over Kellie as he brushed past her to allow her room to get in.

She felt the warmth of his body and her nostrils began to flare slightly as she tried to place his aftershave. Living with six men had made her a bit of an expert on male colognes, but this time she couldn’t decide if the primary citrus scent was lime or lemon based.

She gave him a cool little smile and wriggled past him to sit down, but just as he was about to resume his seat she realised she didn’t have enough space under the seat in front for her handbag as well as her hand luggage. ‘Um…’ she said, swivelling back around to face him. ‘Would you mind putting this in the overhead locker for me?’

He did mind, Kellie could tell. He didn’t say a word but his impossibly dark blue eyes gave a small but still detectable roll of irritation as he took her bag and placed it in the compartment above.

He sat back down beside her and, methodically clipping his belt into place, returned to his book, his left arm resting on her armrest.

Kellie inwardly fumed. It happened just about every time she flew and it was always a man, although she couldn’t help noticing that this one was a great improvement on any of the passengers she’d been seated next to in the past. He even smelt a whole lot better too, she decided as she caught another faint but alluring whiff of lemon-lime as she leaned down to stuff her handbag underneath the seat in front.

While she was down there she noticed he was wearing elastic-sided boots. They weren’t dusty or particularly scuffed, which probably meant he was a cattle farmer who had dressed in his best to fly down to the big smoke on business and was now returning home. His long legs were encased in moleskin trousers and the sleeves of his light blue cotton shirt were rolled halfway up his lean but strong-looking and deeply tanned forearms.

Yep, definitely a farmer, Kellie decided, although she couldn’t see any sign of him having recently worn a hat.

Didn’t all Queensland cattle farmers wear hats? she mused. She noted his dark brown hair wasn’t crumpled but neatly styled, so neatly styled, in fact, she could make out the tiny grooves from a recent comb that had passed through the thick wavy strands.

She sat back in her seat and for the sake of common politeness forced herself to give him a friendly smile. ‘Thank you for moving. I really appreciate it.’

His dark eyes met hers and assessed her for a moment before he grunted, ‘It’s fine,’ before his head went back to the book he was holding.

Right, then, Kellie thought sourly as she searched for both ends of her seat belt. Don’t make polite conversation with me, then. See if I care.

She gave the left hand belt end a little tug but it wouldn’t budge from where it was lodged. ‘Er…excuse me,’ she said with a frosty look his way. ‘You’re sitting on my seat belt.’

The man turned to look at her again, his tanned forehead frowning slightly. ‘I’m sorry, did you say something?’ he asked.

Kellie pointed to the unclipped device in her hand. ‘I need the other end of this and, rather than go digging for it myself, I thought it would be polite to ask you to remove it yourself,’ she said with a pert tilt of her chin.

Another faint flicker of annoyance came and went in his gaze as he removed the buckle and strap from the back of his seat and handed it to her silently.

‘Thank you,’ she said, her fingers brushing against his in spite of her effort to avoid doing so. She gave her fingers a quick on-off clench to remove the tingling sensation the brief touch had caused, but still it lingered under the surface of her skin as if he had sent an electric charge right through her body.

That he wasn’t similarly affected couldn’t have been more obvious. He simply returned to his book, turning the next page and reading on with unwavering concentration, and even though the flight attendant asked for everyone’s attention while she went through the mandatory safety procedure, he remained engrossed in whatever he was reading.

Typical thinks-he-knows-it-all male, Kellie thought as she made a point of leaning forward with a totally absorbed expression on her face as the flight attendant rattled off her spiel, even though Kellie knew she herself was probably better qualified if an emergency were to occur given what had happened two years ago on another regional flight.

But, then, after four years in a busy GP practice she felt she had enough experience to handle most emergencies, although she had to admit her confidence would be little on the dented side without her well-equipped doctor’s bag at hand. But at least it was safely packed in the baggage hold along with her four cases to tide her over for the six-month locum in the Queensland outback, she reassured herself.

Once the flight attendant had instructed everyone to sit back and enjoy the one-and-a-half-hour flight to Culwulla Creek, Kellie took a couple of deep calming breaths as the plane began to head for the runway, the throb and choking roar of the engines doing nothing to allay her fears. She scrunched her eyes closed and in the absence of an available armrest clasped her hands in her lap.

You can do this. She ran through her usual pep talk. You’ve flown hundreds of times, even across time zones. You know the statistics: you have more chance of being killed on the way to and from the airport than during the actual flight. One little engine failure in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, right?

The plane rattled and rumbled down the runway, faster and faster, until finally putting its nose in the air and taking off, the heavy clunk of landing gear returning to its compartment making Kellie’s eyes suddenly spring open. ‘That was the landing gear, right?’ she asked the silent figure beside her. ‘Please, tell me that was the landing gear and not something else.’

The bluer-than-blue eyes stared unblinkingly at her for a moment before he answered. ‘Yes,’ he said, but this time his tone contained more than a hint of sarcasm. ‘That was the landing gear. All planes have it, even ones as small as this.’

‘I knew that’ Kellie said huffily. ‘It’s just it sounded as if… you know… something wasn’t quite right.’

‘If everything wasn’t quite right, we would have turned back by now,’ he pointed out in an I-am-so-bored-with-this-conversation tone as he returned his attention to his book.

Kellie glanced surreptitiously at the book to see if she recognised the title but it wasn’t one she was familiar with. It had a boring sort of cover in any case, which probably meant he was a boring sort of person. Although he was a very good-looking boring person, she had to admit as she sneaked another little glance at his profile. He was in his early thirties, thirty-two or -three, she thought, and had a cleanly shaven chiselled jaw and a long straight nose. His lips were well shaped, but she couldn’t help thinking they looked as if they rarely made the effort to stretch into a smile.

Her gaze slipped to his hands where he was holding his book. He had long fingers, dusted with dark hair, and his nails were short but clean, which she found a little unusual for a cattle farmer. Didn’t they always have dust or cattle feed or farm machinery grease embedded around their cuticles? But perhaps he had been away for a week or two, enjoying the comforts of a city hotel, she thought.

Kellie shifted restlessly in her seat as the plane gained altitude, wondering how long it would be before the seat-belt sign went off so she could visit the lavatory. She mentally crossed her legs and looked down at her handbag wedged under the seat. She considered retrieving the magazine she had bought to read but just then the flight attendant announced that the captain had turned off the seat-belt sign so it was now safe to move about the cabin.

Kellie unclipped her belt and got to her feet. ‘Excuse me,’ she said with a sheepish look at the man sitting beside her. ‘I have to go to the toilet.’

His gaze collided with hers for another brief moment before he closed the book with exaggerated precision, unclipped his seat belt, unfolded himself from the seat and stood to one side, his expression now blank, although Kellie could again sense his irritation. She could feel it pushing against her, the invisible pressure making her want to shrink away from his presence.

She squeezed past him, sucking in her stomach and her chest in case she touched him inadvertently. ‘Thank you,’ she said, feeling her face beginning to redden. ‘I’ll try not to be too long.’

‘Take all the time you need,’ he said with a touch of dryness.

Kellie set her mouth and moved down the aisle, her back straight with pride, even though her face was feeling hot all over again. Get a grip, she told herself sternly. Don’t let him intimidate you. No doubt you’ll meet thousands…well, hundreds at least… of men just like him in the bush. Besides, wasn’t she some sort of expert on men?

Well…apart from that brief and utterly painful and totally embarrassing and ego-crushing episode with Harley Edwards—yes, she was.

When Kellie came back to her seat a few minutes later she felt more than a little relieved to find her co-passenger’s seat empty. She scanned the rest of the passenger rows to see if he had changed seats, but he was up at the front of the plane, bending down to talk to someone on the right-hand aisle.

Kellie sat back down and looked out of the window, the shimmering heat haze of the drought-stricken outback making her think a little longingly of the bustling-with-activity beach-side home in Newcastle in NSW she had left behind, not to mention her father and five younger brothers.

But it was well and truly time to move on; they needed to learn to stand on their own twelve feet, Kellie reminded herself. It was what her mother would have wanted her to do, to follow her own path, not to try and take up the achingly empty space her mother’s death had left behind six years ago.

The man returned to his seat just as the refreshment trolley made its way up the aisle. He barely glanced at her as he sat back down, but his elbow brushed against hers as he tried to commandeer the armrest.

Kellie gave him a sugar-sweet smile and kept her arm where it was. ‘You have one on the other side,’ she said.

The space between his dark brows narrowed slightly. ‘What?’

She pointed to the armrest on his right. ‘You have another armrest over there,’ she said.

There was a tight little silence.

‘So do you.’ He nodded towards the vacant armrest against the window.

‘Yes, but I don’t see why you get to have the choice of two,’ she returned. ‘Isn’t that rather selfish of you to automatically assume every available armrest is yours?’

‘I am not assuming anything,’ he said in a clipped tone, and, shifting his gaze from hers, reached for his book in the seat pocket, opened it and added, ‘If you want the armrest, have it. It makes no difference to me.’

Kellie watched him out of the corner of her eye as he read the next nine pages of his book. He was a very fast reader and the print was rather small, which impressed her considering how for years she’d had to bribe and threaten and cajole each of her brothers into reading anything besides the back of the cereal packet each morning.

The flight attendant approached and, smiling at Kellie, asked, ‘Would you like to purchase a drink or snack from the trolley this afternoon?’

Kellie smiled back as she undid the fold-down table. ‘I would love a diet cola with ice and lemon if you have it.’

The flight attendant handed her the plastic cup half-filled with ice and a tiny sliver of lemon before passing over the opened can of soda. ‘That will be three dollars,’ she said.

Kellie bit her lip. Her bag was stuffed as far under the seat in front as she could get it and, with the tray table down, retrieving it was going to take the sort of flexibility no one but Houdini possessed. ‘Er… would you mind holding these for me while I get my purse from my bag?’ she asked.

He took the cup and can with a little roll-like flutter of his eyelids but didn’t say a word.

Kellie rummaged in her bag for her purse and finally found the right change but in passing it over to the flight attendant somehow knocked the opened can of cola out of the man’s hand and straight into his lap.

‘What the—’ He bit back the rough expletive that had come to his lips and glared at her as he got to his feet, the dark bubbles of liquid soaking through his moleskins like a pool of blood.

‘Oops…’ Kellie said a little lamely.

‘I’ll get some paper towels for you, Dr McNaught,’ the flight attendant said, and rushed away.

Kellie sat in gob-smacked silence as the name filtered through her brain.

Dr McNaught?

She swallowed to get her heart to return to its rightful place in her chest. It couldn’t be… could it?

Dr Matthew McNaught?

She blinked and looked up at him, wincing slightly as she encountered his diamond-hard dark blue glare. ‘You’re Dr Matthew McNaught?’ she asked, ‘from the two-GP practice in Culwulla Creek?’

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“…a contemporary story that heals the soul and romances the heart.”

—Cataromance

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