Liam Smythe sat in the waiting room of the vet surgery at Spring Downs, a small town in the middle of outback New South Wales. He’d been there for two hours and was getting antsy. Along with the embarrassment that heated his neck every time someone smiled at the cute little dog asleep on his lap—the furthest from a working dog you could imagine—he was losing his cool with the long wait. He didn’t have time to hang around in town. When he had arrived in response to Gran’s urgent summons last summer with Seb and Lucy, his cousins, and Jemima, his sister, they had each agreed to work the property for three months until they all met at the end of a year. As a family they would then decide whether to keep or sell the farm. Now that Pop was sure that Liam could cope, he and Gran had headed off on their cruise of the Pacific; Liam was working the farm single-handedly for a couple more months. Seb had taken the photography contract in Europe and it had been extended. Lucy had married Garth, her old flame from next door, and only had a few weeks to go before she gave birth to their first child. Jemima was in New York; the offer of a six-month contract with the Eileen Ford agency had been too good to refuse. Gran and Pop were cruising the world, with Liam settled on the farm, treating this year as a break. Gran and Pop deserved a holiday. They’d worked hard their entire lives, and it was giving him a chance to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Liam pondered the change in direction his life had taken over the past year. The deal had been that the four cousins would take turns to look after the farm for a year, before their grandparents decided what to do with it. Sell it or keep it in the family. Pop was getting too old to do the heavy work, and his knees had just about worn out. Liam couldn’t believe how quickly he’d taken to farm life again, and how much he was enjoying the work, but he had to stop playing farmer and get back to his real life sooner rather than later. He squirmed on the hard plastic chair and his dusty work boots scuffed on the shiny linoleum floor. Every so often the receptionist would shoot him a glance along with a placating smile, but when he went to the desk to ask how much longer the wait to see the vet would be, the woman would either pick up the phone or disappear out the back. He was the only one waiting now, so surely he would be next in. In a way, he was sorry he’d said the dog’s injury wasn’t urgent, but there had been some very sick animals come in. God, this is what I get for being a good Samaritan. A whole bloody wasted afternoon. He was supposed to be moving the cattle from the back paddock to the yards near the hayshed, ready for the truck to take them to the cattle sales in Coonamble tomorrow. He’d have to be up at the crack of dawn to move them if he didn’t get out of here soon. “Oh, Mummy, look. What a cutie pie.” Great. Just great. Just what he needed to top off an already shitty day. More comments about his cute dog. Every pet owner or cattleman who had passed through the waiting room in the last two hours had commented—some cute, some smart—about his fine-looking working-dog pup. In Liam’s books, the thing sitting on his lap wasn’t a dog. It was a toy. It had no place in his life, in his work ute, or anywhere near a farm. He resisted the eye roll that threatened when the small girl stood in front of him and tickled the puppy’s chin. “Oh, he’s so beautiful. What sort is he? We’ve got a Dalmatian. His name is Brutus.” Liam looked over to the doorway where a slightly built woman was attempting to wrestle a huge black and white spotted dog into the waiting room. “Here, you can hold him for me.” He passed the still sleeping puppy to the child and crossed the room to hold open the door for the woman as she dragged the dog inside. “What’s his name?” The little girl’s voice followed him. Liam shrugged. “I don’t know.” “Why don’t you know?” Another shrug. “He’s not my dog.” He held the door wide as the woman managed to entice the Dalmatian into the waiting room. He bounded over to Liam and before she could pull the lead short the dog’s nose dived straight for Liam’s crotch. Can this day get any worse? He stepped back from the nose probing his privates. “Sorry. And thank you,” the woman said. The door closed behind her and she dragged the monster dog to the chair on the other side of the waiting room. Liam went back to his seat. Finally, the receptionist came through the door behind the desk. “Hello, Sally. Hi, Lily. Bring Brutus over to the scales and we’ll weigh him and then you can come into the examination room.” “But—” Liam bit off the words as the vet nurse looked at him over her square black glasses. The receptionist nodded at him but wouldn’t meet his eye. “Then it’s your turn, Mr. Smythe.” Suitably chastised, Liam leaned back and closed his eyes, thinking about everything he had to get done before dark. Prickle Creek Farm was a good half hour’s drive out of town. If he’d known this visit to offload the damn dog was going to take so long, he would have left the pup in the laundry while he finished his chores. Who the heck would dump a cute little thing like this in the middle of a dusty outback road anyway? And it was a cute dog. As far as cute went. The flash of dark brown had caught Liam’s eye at lunchtime when his quad bike had rolled over the cattle grate in the stand of willows at the edge of the house paddock. He’d picked up the pup and noticed its back leg was at a funny angle. After two hours of waiting, he now realised he should have rung and made an appointment., rather than driving into town to see Rod, the local vet. A year ago, if anyone in London had told him he’d be sitting here in a small veterinary practice in the wilds of Australia, nursing a toy dog, he would have laughed at them. ### Liam mulled over the months that had passed since he’d come back to the farm as the woman, and the child, and the bloody great Dalmatian, disappeared into the surgery. So much for the quick visit he’d planned—both at the vet and the farm. It had turned into almost ten months. Gran’s original request to have each of the four cousins spend three months looking after the farm had been changed every few weeks as life had intruded. Lucy had gone back to Sydney early and then come home and married Garth, who owned the property next to Gran and Pop’s. Sebastian had picked up a contract with an Italian magazine that had been too good to let go. Jemima’s career was on fire and there were no catwalks out in the outback. “I hate to ask you, Liam, but how would you feel about staying out there for a few more months?” The call from Sebastian had come after an email from Liam’s journalist friends in London. The work situation over there was dire. Newspapers were cutting staff and amalgamating as the digital readership grew, and the night editions were cut. The newspaper world was changing rapidly and Liam was starting to think maybe a change of direction would be a wise move. Problem was, he had to find a replacement career. All he knew was news and media; he loved the rush of a good news story. Staying in Australia was enticing, and he’d pretty much decided he’d chase up a job in Sydney when Sebastian and Jemima came back to take over the farm work. He still had connections and he’d made a couple of early calls, checking out the work situation. Even though there were jobs available now, he couldn’t commit until he had a firm date for Sebastian’s return. “Not a problem,” he’d said to his younger cousin. “Do what you have to do, mate. I’m happy to see the year out. When do you think you’ll be back here?” “Contract winds up at the end of November. So I should be back in Australia by Christmas.” “That suits me fine. Jemima is due back before Christmas. I might even stay out here for a couple more weeks and chase up a job in the city in the New Year.” “Are you sure?” Sebastian sounded worried. Liam smiled. He and Sebastian had made their peace in those first couple of weeks last summer when the four cousins had been at the farm together. “Absolutely. Garth and I have been helping each other out with the cattle.” “How’s Lucy?” Liam smiled. “She’s huge. It’s hard to believe she’s still got a couple of months before the baby’s due.” Sebastian laughed. “It’s hard to believe she’s going to be a mum. She and Garth didn’t muck around with starting a family.” Liam shook his head. “Reckons she’s going to have six kids.” “Bloody hell, she can have that on her lonesome.” Sebastian’s voice was full of disbelief. “I can’t believe she’s given up her career and settled in so well to farm life.” Liam had walked across to the kitchen window and stared out at the golden heads of wheat shimmering in the stiff spring breeze. He had settled onto the cattle property as though he’d never left the outback. The anticipation he felt each morning as he planned the cattle work and the planting of the wheat still surprised him. “Yep, amazing what changes we can accommodate, isn’t it?” “It is. Thanks, mate. I’ll talk to you soon. Say hello to Lucy for me.” “I will.” Liam laughed. “And you stay away from those Italian girls. Talk to you before Christmas.” “Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m looking forward to it.” The way Liam felt at the moment, he was more than happy to see the year out. He was doing a damn good job of managing the farm. Yep, he’d give it till Christmas and then consider his options. Then get back to real work. Social issues, tackling big things out in the real world. Leaving the Pilliga Scrub far behind him. His working-the-farm holiday would be over before he could snap his fingers. He glanced at his watch and looked down at his right thigh where the pup was sprawled. His leg was getting warm—oh, shit—and wet. Liam lifted the dog off his lap and stared at the wet patch on his work pants. The little pup yawned and licked his hand.