A city girl. A cowboy. A marriage of convenience.
Jannette Tanner is ready for the next step of her life plan – a baby. But when she’s called back to her family farm to help her brother, she suddenly finds herself unsure of her plans. Especially when she sees her brother’s best friend for the first time after seventeen years and discovers those secret childhood feelings for him have only grown stronger.
Shannon Hopkins is happy and content with his life – or so he’d thought. It wasn’t until his best friend’s little sister showed up that he realises there’s been a big hole in his life. And the longer Jannette is around, the smaller that hole feels. Only problem is, she’ll be headed back to the city before too long, and he’ll be the sorry fool left heartbroken in the country.
But when it seems that Jannette might have a stalker and Shannon finds himself needing to marry to access an inheritance from his traditionalist grandfather, there’s only one possible solution – a marriage of convenience.
How could that not be a good idea?
The last time Jannette had been home was a long time ago. Almost fourteen years, to be exact. The strong scent of manure and hay drifted to her nostrils as she stared at the sight in front of her, bringing back memories of her childhood. Memories of her parents. She swallowed. For some things, fourteen years wasn’t long enough.
But it was long enough for the exterior of the farmhouse to deteriorate. The wooden steps up to the porch were worn and some of the balusters were broken, the railing collapsing in places. The weatherboard exterior of the main house was damaged from age and rotting in places, and the garden surrounding the house that had once been a beautiful array of roses and an assortment of colourful plants was overgrown and uncared for.
She sighed. Her mother had always been the one to care for the garden, but when she’d begun her losing battle with breast cancer, the plants had soon been forgotten. Only a couple of years later, when Jannette was almost eighteen, her father had died from a quad-bike accident and her brother, Robbie, had taken over the farm. It had hurt too much to stay home, and Jannette had moved to Perth to study fashion design as soon as she’d graduated from high school.
And now, fourteen years later, she was back.
She hadn’t known what to expect when Robbie had called her saying he’d had an accident—on a quad bike, no less—and had broken his left leg and crushed his right hand. As far as she was concerned, he was lucky that was all he’d suffered. Why he would ride a quad bike after what had happened to their dad was beyond her, but what was the point in telling him off when he’d already been injured? And his timing …
She’d still been dealing with the aftermath of her bridal shop being broken into and the fact that she hadn’t had her heart in it for a while before that. So when he’d asked her to come home and help out around the farm for a while, she’d welcomed the change. She’d taken a few weeks to tie up loose ends before leaving, but she’d needed to get out of Perth and a trip to the beautiful countryside had sounded appealing. She eyed the overgrown garden again, the smell of manure still rich in the air and cows mooing in the background. Well, there were some things it seemed she’d forgotten about Tanner Station.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Jannette took the steps slowly and set her luggage down on the porch, the weakened wood creaking under the weight. She puffed her cheeks out, adjusted her ivory satin shirt, and was just wondering whether or not she needed to knock when the front door flung open and a border collie breezed past her. It took her a second to make sure she didn’t lose balance before she came face to face with blue eyes almost as pale as hers and dark blond hair that was already starting to grey.
‘Well, well. Just in time.’
She smiled. While she hadn’t been back home in a long time, she had seen her brother a few times since then and had spoken on the phone to him regularly enough. But seeing him again now, leaning on a crutch and with a leg and a hand both in casts, it made her wonder if she should have made more of an effort to come home. Maybe if she’d occasionally visited, she could have talked him out of using a quad bike before he’d hurt himself. But they’d both been busy, and time had flown.
The dog that had almost bowled her over raced back and circled around them before running off again. Robbie cleared his throat and started moving forward again. Jannette wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be offering to help him or not, but he looked like a man on a mission, regardless of how uncomfortable he seemed.
‘You coming or what?’ he called over his shoulder, following the dog to the shed.
‘Robbie?’ She caught up to him when she realised that, though he was hindered with injuries and a crutch, the man was still moving pretty quickly. ‘Coming where?’
He surprised her by stopping suddenly, leaning all of his weight on his good leg, and removing his good hand from the crutch to lift her arm up. Her eyebrows shot up as he twisted her arm from side to side and frowned at her long acrylic nails.
‘That’ll do fine. But the nails will have to go.’
As quickly as he’d lifted it, he dropped her arm and started moving forward again. She cradled her hand protectively, glancing down at the pale blue acrylics. Her heart started racing and she felt a prickle at the back of her neck as she caught up to her brother again.
‘Um, Robbie, why do the nails have to go?’
He gave her a look as though it was a stupid question. ‘They’re too long, for starters. They could cause serious damage to the cow’s uterus. But it’s okay, I have clippers in the shed.’
The prickle on her neck spread through the rest of her body as she tried to catch Robbie’s eye. ‘Okay, sure, but what will I be doing near a cow’s uterus?’
‘Because, kid, you’re about to birth a breech calf.’
Jannette skidded to a stop, her mouth falling open. A what? She couldn’t recall him mentioning that as part of the job description when he’d asked her to help on the farm. In fact, she was pretty sure she’d never been near the rear end of a birthing cow before. Her childhood was full of hugging calves and being around cows, but the actual care and general looking after of them had always been a job for the men of the house. After her mother had passed, she’d taken over looking after the household, cooking and cleaning when she wasn’t at school or doing homework.
‘But I don’t know how to birth a breech calf!’ she yelled, catching up to him again. Boy, the man could move fast, considering.
‘You’re about to learn.’
She followed him through the door of the shed and was hit with a more pungent odour than she’d smelled when she’d first got there. This had an odour of its own—wet hay, urine, manure, and something that smelled somehow both sanitary and a little disturbing. She assumed the entire combination must be unique to that of a cow’s birthing experience. Staring at a cow that looked distressed in the pen in the corner, she followed Robbie to a bench along one wall where he picked up a pair of hoof clippers and handed them to her.
‘For your nails,’ he said by way of an explanation.
‘I can’t use these,’ she said, her voice reaching a pitch it normally didn’t.
‘You have to, kid. I’ll find you some nail cutters at the house later, but right now we don’t have much time. This cow needs to give birth, and she needs to do it now.’
‘Shouldn’t we wait for a vet or something?’ Her voice came out more as a squeak than anything else.
‘No time,’ he repeated, lifting up her right hand between them. ‘Now clip.’
Wincing, she held the clippers to her freshly done acrylic nails, then moved them away. ‘Can’t you birth her? You’d have more experience than I do.’ His eyebrow shot up, and he held his right hand up between them to emphasise his cast. She sighed. ‘Right. Of course not. So there is no one else who can do this?’
‘You have to do it, kid. I need you to.’ He pointed to the cow in the corner as the poor girl let out a pained cry. ‘She needs you.’
Jannette looked over at the cow and felt her stomach twist. The poor darling was obviously in pain and distressed, and Jannette was apparently the only one who could put her out of her misery. She sighed, bringing the clippers to one of her nails again. ‘And you’ll tell me exactly how to do it?’ He nodded. ‘Fine,’ she muttered, closing her eyes, then opening one to make sure she didn’t snip her finger off in the process.
Before long, her nails were all roughly clipped and she was standing behind the cow that was a whole lot bigger up close than she’d seemed from the other side of the shed, wearing long gloves that came up to her shoulders on each arm. She stared at the cow’s backside and raised an eyebrow as Robbie squirted a whole lot of lube all over the glove and spread it evenly.
‘Tell me, how far am I going in?’
‘As far as you need to.’
She puffed out her cheeks and let out a long breath.
‘Now, listen closely,’ Robbie said. Jannette nodded, trying her best to psych herself up for what she was about to do. ‘From what I can tell, this is a hip flexion breech, meaning the calf is backwards and has one leg in position and the other stuck.’ He handed her a chain. ‘You need to find the stuck leg and manoeuvre it so it sticks out like the other one.’
‘Then we’ll have to help her give birth.’
She turned to face him. ‘You mean—’
‘We pull. And you catch the calf.’
She swallowed, feeling the tiny bit of courage she’d built up dissipating. She couldn’t do this! She hadn’t set foot on a farm for fourteen years, had never birthed a cow—or any animal, for that matter—and had spent the most part of those fourteen years dressing brides and grooms and their wedding parties for their special day. Birthing a calf had never been on her agenda.
‘I can’t do it,’ she said, stepping backwards.
‘Jannette, you have to. If you don’t, mum and bub could be in danger.’
She let out a shaky laugh, staring back at the cow’s backside again. ‘No pressure.’ Robbie placed his good hand on Jannette’s shoulder. ‘You’ve got this, kid. Now, reach in with your right hand and hook one end of the chain on the first leg you feel, just above the hoof.’
Taking a deep breath, she pushed her arm in, trying not to be grossed out that she was so close to a cow’s rear and had, in fact, an arm up its nether regions. It didn’t take her long to find the first foot and hook the chain on, but the other foot was harder to find. She had to close her eyes to concentrate on what she was feeling as Robbie spoke out instructions. Jannette could feel the muscles contracting around her, her arm feeling as though it was being crushed. Riding out the contraction with the cow, she pushed against the calf’s rear and managed to squeeze further in to feel down its leg and, finally, wrap a hand around its hoof.
‘Got it?’ Robbie said.
‘I got it,’ she said, probably a little too excitedly. ‘Now what?’
‘Now pull it back. Keep it close to its body so it doesn’t bend weird. Think how it would naturally move back.’
She squeezed her eyes shut tighter and tugged on the leg, feeling another of the cow’s contractions crushing her arm. She clenched her jaw, determined to get through this. The cow’s cry was loud and rang through her head, and as the contraction eased, she felt the calf move, the hoof slipping from her hand.
‘Damn it, I lost it!’
‘All good. Just find it again.’
It took her another long moment to find the hoof again, and this time she managed to manoeuvre the calf’s foot into position and loop the other end of the chain to it.
‘Great! Good job, kid,’ Robbie said. ‘Now walk the calf out by alternating which leg you’re pulling on.’
She did as he instructed, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead and into her eyes. She would have rubbed her eyes with her shoulder had she not been so deep inside the cow only moments before. Instead, she squinted, pushing through the discomfort to get this baby born. By the time the hips were out, another set of hands took over from the hoofs and she moved her hands up the calf’s body to shimmy it out. And in another short moment, the calf slipped into her arms with a gush of birthing fluid splattering onto the ground. As her brother cheered her success, she felt the warmth of the fluid soak her jeans and, after she lowered the calf to the ground, her heart dropped at the sight of her light grey Louboutin suede ankle boots, now utterly destroyed.
‘Oh no,’ she whined, stepping away from the pool of birthing fluid and finding herself pressing back into a brick wall—or as good as. Eyes wide, she turned against the wall and lifted her gaze from the solid expanse of chest to see his coy smile, his stubbly chin, and his striking green eyes.
He lifted a strong, suntanned arm and tapped the brim of his Akubra hat as he nodded, not breaking eye contact. ‘Welcome home, Jenny.’
He still had that same country twang as he spoke, much like he’d had when they were kids, and he’d called her Jenny like he used to. He was the only one to ever call her that, and she was surprised to feel the flutters in her stomach and her hair standing on end like it had when she was younger.
Back then, she’d only been a kid with a ridiculous crush on her brother’s best friend. But those flutters and the way she’d inadvertently clenched her thighs together as his gaze roamed over her body, the way her toes curled in her destroyed designer shoes, and the way she couldn’t help but bite into her lower lip, then feel completely embarrassed by the state she must be in—that was nothing like a silly childish crush. That was all woman. And she wasn’t sure what she should make of that.