Jessica Hart

Outback Bride

Release Date: 1997


'I ... I wanted to talk to you on our own.'

'About our marriage?'


Without a word, Mal swung easily off the horse and led it into the paddock. Copper had to wait and watch as he took off the bridle and hung the saddle over the fence. The men were notoriously unsentimental about the animals they worked with, but she was oddly touched to see that Mal fed Red something from his shirt pocket and let the big horse nuzzle his arm before he gave it a final pat and a slap on the rump to send it cantering off into the field.

Only then did he close the gate behind him and join Copper where she stood watching the way Red kicked up his heels and revelled in his freedom. He leant his arms on the fence and glanced at her from under his dusty hat.

'Well?' he said.

'There's no need to sound so anxious to find out what I've decided,' snapped Copper, whose nerves had snarled up again as soon as Mal came near her.

Mal sighed. 'What would be the point of me getting in a state about it?' he asked. 'Nothing I can do is going to change your mind, whatever you've decided.'

'That's good coming from a man who wrapped up a proposal of marriage in a neat bit of blackmail!'

'It wasn't blackmail,' said Mal evenly. 'It's your choice whether you marry me or not.'

'Some choice!' muttered Copper.

His eyes rested on the grazing horses beneath the trees. 'Are you trying to tell me that your answer's no?'

'Are you sure you can be bothered to hear the answer?' she retorted and he frowned. 'What do you mean by that?'

'You make me a bizarre offer of marriage and then ignore me for the next two days,' she accused him. 'Hardly the action of a man who's particularly interested one way or another!'

Mal's jaw tightened ominously. 'I've been mustering for the last two days,' he pointed out. 'How could I ignore you when I wasn't even here?'

'You ignored me all evening before you left,' Copper countered sullenly. 'And this afternoon! You've been back for hours but you never even tried to find me!'

'I've been back just over half an hour,' said Mal, tight-lipped. 'I brought in the stragglers at the rear, so I've only just got them in and finished checking the others. That hasn't left me much time to ignore you, but since you ask, even if I'd got back with the others, I wouldn't have rushed straight up to the homestead to demand an answer only to be accused of pressurising you! I reckoned you needed time to think things through and I was prepared to wait until you were ready to tell me what you'd decided.' His voice acquired a certain steel. 'Now that you are ready - presumably - perhaps you could tell me what you've decided, or am I expected to guess?'

'Under the circumstances, that shouldn't be too hard,' she snapped back without thinking.

At least she had the satisfaction of provoking Mal to exasperation. 'Look, Copper, why don't you just give me your answer?' he sighed. 'Are you going to marry me or not, yes or no?'

There was a pause. This wasn't how the conversation had been meant to go, Copper thought desperately. She had intended to be cool and crisply business-like and look what had happened! She had ended up sounding like a petulant child instead.

She scuffed one foot against the bottom rail of the fence. 'Yes,' she muttered. Oh, God, she still sounded like Megan after a tantrum. She cleared her throat. 'Yes, I will marry you,' she said more clearly. 'But only if you sign a formal agreement allowing Copley Travel access and control over the site.'

'Fine,' said Mal.

Copper waited for more, but apparently that was it. 'Fine?' she repeated, her voice rising in outrage. 'Fine? Is that all you can say?'

'What else do you want me to say? I've got no objection to a formal agreement - quite the opposite. I suggest that before we get married, we get a legal contract drawn up that specifies the conditions that we've both agreed to in advance. I'm not risking another divorce settlement like last time so when we agree a date to end the marriage, we can agree the financial implications as well.'

'I don't want your money,' said Copper with distaste. 'All I'll want is assurance that Copley Travel can continue to use Birraminda after the marriage is over.'

'That's something that can be discussed when we draw up the contract,' said Mal indifferently. 'All I'm saying is that we know exactly where we stand before we get married. I'm sure a woman of your business acumen will see the sense in a legal contract.'

The prospect of reducing a marriage to a number of clauses in a contract chilled Copper to the bone, but having brought up the idea of a written agreement, she was hardly in a position to object. 'Right now I think we've got more important things to discuss than a pre-nuptial contract,' she said.

'Like what?'

'Like ... well, like everything!' said Copper in frustration. She lifted her arms and then let them drop helplessly to her sides. 'For a start, what are we going to tell everybody?'

Mal turned so that he was leaning back against the fence and considered her. 'We just tell them we're getting married,' he said, and Copper hugged her arms together edgily.

'We'll need to do more than that to convince my parents that I'm serious about going to live with a perfect stranger! They'd be horrified if they knew why we're getting married,' she pointed out. 'I'll only marry you on the condition that they never, ever guess what I'm doing, and that means convincing them that we're a genuine couple.'

'What's a genuine couple?' asked Mal with a sardonic look. 'Every marriage is different, so why should we be any less genuine than the others?'

'You know what I mean!' said Copper crossly. 'My parents need to believe that we're getting married because we're madly in love, not because we've agreed some cold-blooded business deal.'

Mal hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his dust-encrusted jeans. 'That's not a problem, is it?'

How could he sound so casual about it? Copper eyed him resentfully. 'No, but I'm wondering how good your acting is!'

'We're both going to have to get used to acting,' said Mal, unperturbed. 'There's no point to the whole exercise unless everyone believes that you're a suitably loving wife - particularly Brett. Do you think you'll be able to convince him that you're more interested in me than you are in your business?'

'That depends on whether you'll be able to convince him that you're a suitably loving husband,' she said tartly.

'I expect I can manage that.'

Copper was stung by his laconic attitude. They might have been discussing the chances of rain - although come to think of it, Mal would probably get a lot more excited about that! 'There's a bit more to marriage than just behaving affectionately in front of other people, you know! I think we should establish now just how "married" we're going to be. Real wives aren't just housekeepers with rings on their fingers,' she went on with some difficulty. 'They share things with their husbands in private as well as in public ... like bedrooms, for instance.'

'We're not likely to persuade Brett that you belong with me unless we share a bedroom,' Mal agreed dryly. 'And a bed.' He glanced at Copper who was picking a splinter of wood out of the fence post, her face averted. 'Or is that the problem?'

'It's not a problem,' Copper said, flustered now that she had finally come to the point. She pushed her hair awkwardly behind her ears. 'It's just ... well, yes, I think we should decide now whether ... you, know whether you ... whether we ...'

She could hear herself floundering and risked a peep at Mal. There was the faintest suggestion of a smile bracketing his mouth. That meant he knew exactly what she was trying to say, but wasn't going to make it any easier for her. He was just leaning back against the rail, looking cool and calm and completely relaxed and watching her with those infuriatingly unreadable brown eyes. A spurt of real anger helped Copper pull herself together and she turned to face him directly.

'What I'm trying to ask,' she said icily, 'is whether you're expecting us to sleep together?'

'Why not?' said Mal with the same aggravating calmness.

'Well, we ... we hardly know each other.'

'That didn't stop us before, did it?'

There was a long, long silence. Copper froze and then, very slowly, she turned her head to look at him. 'So you do remember!'

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