~ THE BRIDESMAID'S BEST MAN ~

 

Sundown in the Outback…


As the shadows grow long and the sun melts behind the hills, it’s just another day for cattleman Mark Winchester. But nothing has been the same since he was best man at a wedding in London six weeks ago and met bridesmaid Sophie Felsham…

A rainy morning in London…


On the other side of the world, city-girl Sophie is about to make the most difficult phone call of her life. The one beautiful night she shared with rugged Mark has resulted in pregnancy – and now it’s time to tell Mark that he’s going to be the father of her child…

 


 

 

MILLS AND BOON  ROMANCE

- UNITED KINGDOM  January 2008 -

 

HARLEQUIN ROMANCE

- NORTH AMERICA January 2008 -

 

MILLS AND BOON SWEET

- AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND February 2008 -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             
   

 

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As dusk settled over the mustering camp, Mark Winchester stepped away from the circle of stockmen crouched around the open fire. He turned his back on them and stood very straight and still, staring across the plains of pale Mitchell grass to the distant red hills.

The men shrugged laconically and let him be. After all, Mark was the boss, the owner of Coolabah Waters and everyone knew he was a man who kept his troubles to himself.

But as Mark shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his jeans, he was grateful the men couldn’t guess that his thoughts were centred on a woman. He couldn’t quite believe it himself. It didn’t seem possible that he was out here, in the middle of the first big muster on this newly acquired cattle property and still haunted by memories of a girl he’d met in London six weeks ago.

The focus of his life was here – caring for his stock and his land, building an Outback empire. Until now, women had only ever been a pleasant diversion at parties or race meetings, or during occasional trips to the city. But no matter how hard he’d tried to forget Sophie Felsham, she had stayed in Mark’s head for six long weeks.

Even now, at the end of a hard day’s muster, he was staring at the fading sky, at the copper tinted plains and burnt ochre hills, but he was seeing Sophie as he’d seen her first in London. He could see her coming down the aisle in a floaty, pale pink bridesmaid’s gown, her arms full of pink flowers, her grey eyes sparkling and her lips curved in an impossibly pretty smile. Her English skin clear and pale as the moon. So soft.

The crazy thing was, they’d only spent one night together. When they’d parted, they’d agreed that was the end of it. Their night had been just a bit of fun and to Mark’s eternal surprise, he’d managed to sound as casual about that as Sophie had – as if one night of amazing passion with a beautiful stranger was nothing out of the ordinary.

The next day he’d flown back to Australia. There’d been no fond farewells, no promises to keep in touch. They’d both agreed there wasn’t much sense.

Which was exactly how it should have been. It made no sense at all that he’d been tormented and restless ever since.

“Hey, boss!”

Mark swung around, jerked into the present by the excited cry of a young jackaroo, a newly apprenticed stockman.

“There’s a long distance phone call for you,” the boy shouted, waving the satellite phone above his head. “It’s a woman! And she’s got an English accent!”

A jolt streaked through Mark like a bullet from an unseen sniper. A stir rippled through the entire camp. The quiet chatter of the men around the fire stopped and the ringer mending his saddle paused, his long iron needle suspended above the leather. Everyone’s amused and curious glance swung to Mark.

He knew exactly what the men were thinking. Why would an English woman be ringing the boss all the way out here?

He was asking the same question.

And he was struggling to breathe. He only had to hear the words English and woman in the same sentence and an avalanche of adrenaline flooded his body.

But this phone call couldn’t possibly be from Sophie. The only person in England who knew the number of his sat phone was his mate Tim – and Tim knew that only very urgent calls should be made to this remote outpost.

If a woman with an English accent needed to contact him very urgently, she had to be Tim’s new bride, Emma. Mark had flown to England to be best man at their wedding and only last week he’d received an email from the happy couple reporting that they were home from their honeymoon and settling into wedded bliss with great enthusiasm. So what had gone wrong?

Keeping his face impassive, Mark hoped the men couldn’t sense the alarm snaking through him as he watched the grinning jackaroo run from the horse truck, waving the phone high like an Olympic torch.

He knew that Emma would only ring him out here if something serious had happened and his stomach pitched as he was handed the phone.

The boy’s eyebrows waggled cheekily and he muttered out of the side of his mouth, “She’s got a very pretty voice. A bit la-di-dah though.”

A cold glance silenced him and Mark swept an equally stern glare over the knowing smirks on the faces around the fire. Then he turned his back on them again, looked out instead over the holding pens of crowded and dusty cattle, restless after the day’s muster.

An unearthly quiet settled over the camp. The only sounds were the lowing and snorting of the cattle and the distant trumpets of the brolga cranes dancing out on the plain.

Holding the phone to his ear, Mark heard the line crackle. He swallowed, tasted the acid that always comes with the anticipation of bad news and squared his shoulders. “Hello? Mark Winchester speaking.”

“Hello?”

The woman on the other end sounded nervous. And the line was bad. Was the blasted battery low?

“Is that Mark Winchester?”

“Yes, it’s Mark here.” He fixed his gaze on the red backs of the cattle and lifted his voice. “Is that you, Emma?”

“No, it’s not Emma.”

He frowned.

“It’s Sophie, Mark. Sophie Felsham.”

Mark almost dropped the phone.

He swallowed again, which did little to help the sudden tightness in his throat, the flare of excitement leaping in the centre of his chest.

“I don’t suppose you expected to hear from me,” she said, still sounding very nervous.

He threw a wary glance over his shoulder and the men around the campfire quickly averted their eyes, but he knew damned well that their pesky ears were straining to catch every word. Gossip was scarce on an Outback mustering camp.

Fighting an urge to leap on a horse and take off for the distant hills, he strolled away from the camp. Small stones crunched beneath his riding boots, but the crackling in the line eased. He cleared his throat.

Cautiously, he said, “This is a nice surprise, Sophie.” And then, because she’d sounded so nervous, “Is everything OK?”

“Not exactly.”

A vicelike clamp tightened around Mark’s chest as he kept walking. “Nothing’s happened to Emma and Tim? They’re all right, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes, they’re fine. Fabulous actually. But I’m afraid I have some rather bad news, Mark. At least I don’t think you’ll like it.”

A fresh burst of alarm stirred his insides. How could Sophie’s bad news involve him?

On the far horizon, the sun was melting behind the hills in a pool of tangerine. He pictured Sophie on the other side of the world, her pretty, heart-shaped face framed by a glossy tangle of black curls, her clear, grey eyes uncharacteristically troubled, her determined little chin beginning to tremble as her slim, pale, fingers tightly gripped the telephone receiver.
“What is it?” he asked. “What’s happened?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

He came to an abrupt halt. Went cold all over.

This wasn’t real.

“Mark, I’m so sorry.” There were tears in her voice.

He dragged in a desperate breath, tried to stem the rising cloud of dismay. Couldn’t think what to say.

Behind him the cook yelled “Dinner’s up!” The ringers began to move about. Chatter resumed. Boots shuffled and cutlery clinked against enamel plates. Someone laughed a deep belly chuckle.

Around Mark, the red and gold plains of the Outback stretched all the way to the semi-circle of the blazing sun fast slipping out of sight. A rogue breeze stirred the grass and rattled the tin roof on the cook’s shelter. A flock of white cockatoos flapped heavy wings as they headed for home.
The rest of the world continued on its merry way, while a girl in England began to cry and Mark felt as if he’d stepped into an alternate reality.

“I – I don’t understand,” he said and then, hurrying further from the camp, he lowered his voice. “We took precautions.”

“I know.” Sophie sniffed. “But it – something mustn’t have worked.”
He closed his eyes.

The very thought that he and the gorgeous English bridesmaid had created a new life sent him into a tailspin. He couldn’t take it in, was too stunned to think.

“You’re absolutely certain? There’s no chance of a mistake?”

“I’m dead certain, Mark. I went to a doctor yesterday.”

He wanted to ask Sophie how he could be sure that this baby was his, but couldn’t bring himself to be so blunt when she sounded so very upset.

“How are you?” he asked instead. “I mean – are – are you keeping well?”
“Fair to middling.”

“Have you had a chance to –” The line began to break up again, the crackling louder than before.

Sophie was saying something, but the words were impossible to make out.
“I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.”

Again, another burst of static. He walked further away, fiddled with the setting and caught her in mid-sentence.

“– I was thinking that maybe I should come and see you. To talk.”

“Well – yes.” Mark looked about him again, dazed. Had he heard correctly? Sophie wanted to come here? To the Outback?

He raised his voice. “I’m stuck out here, mustering for another week. But as soon as I get back to the homestead I’ll ring you on a landline. We can make arrangements then.”

There was more static and he wondered if she’d heard him. And then the line went dead.

Mark cursed. Who the hell had let this damned battery get flat? He felt rotten. Would Sophie think he was deliberately trying to wriggle out of this conversation?

It was almost dark.

A chorus of cicadas began to buzz in the trees down by the creek. The temperature dropped as it always did with the coming of night in the

Outback, but that wasn’t why Mark shivered.

A baby.

He was going to be a father. To a little English kid.

Again he saw pretty, flirtatious Sophie in her pink dress, remembered the flash of fun in her eyes, the sweet curve of her smile, the whiteness of her skin. The breathtaking eagerness of her kisses.

She was going to be a mother. It was the last thing she wanted, he was sure.

It’s the bullet you don’t hear that kills you.

He gave a helpless shake of his head, kicked at a stone and sent it spinning across the parched earth. Being haunted by memories of a lovely girl on the other side of the world was one thing, but discovering that he’d made her pregnant felt like a bad joke.

Was she really planning to come out here?

Sophie, the elegant daughter of Sir Kenneth and Lady Eliza Felsham of London and a rough-riding cattleman from Coolabah Waters, via Wandabilla, in Outback Australia?

Parents? It was crazy. Impossible.

 

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From “The Bridesmaid's Best Man"
By: Barbara Hannay
Mills and Boon Romance
January 2008
ISBN: 978 0 263 19726 6
Copyright: © Barbara Hannay
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com

 

 

 

             
 

 

 

 

 

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