Appointment at the Altar
For Stella and Julia, my City Screen plotting team
LUCY leant on the fence and watched Kevin, perched on a rail on the far side of the corral, waiting his turn at bareback bronc riding. In his Akubra hat, checked shirt and dusty boots, he was outback man incarnate. Strong, silent, lean-jawed, quiet-eyed…he made all her other boyfriends look like silly boys.
Not that he was a boyfriend, exactly, much as she would want to have been able to say so. But she was madly in love with him, and he had kissed her the other night. Things could only get better.
She sighed happily. In London now it would be cold and grey, but here she was in the red heart of Australia with its bright, brassy light and its fierce heat. Closing her eyes with a blissful shiver, Lucy turned her face up to the sunlight and breathed in the smell of dust and horses. She could hear the ‘hup! hup!’ cries of the men coaxing reluctant animals into the chute and feel the sun beating on to her borrowed hat.
I’m happy, she thought.
‘Well, if it isn’t Cinderella!’
The amused voice in her ear froze her smile and her eyes snapped open. She didn’t need to turn her head to know who was standing beside her. There was only one person out here with that accent.
That English accent, reeking of privilege and the most expensive education British money could buy.
She had been delighted that morning to find herself squeezed into a truck with Kevin and the other stockmen when they left Wirrindago. There had been no sign of either her intimidating boss, Hal Granger, or his deeply annoying English cousin, which meant that they could all relax and have a good time at the rodeo. But now here was Guy, after all, looking irritatingly handsome and sophisticated and utterly out of place in the outback.
‘Oh,’ she said, not bothering to disguise her lack of enthusiasm. ‘It’s you.’
‘It is,’ Guy agreed.
Lucy hated the way he could say something perfectly unexceptional like that with a straight face and yet still make it sound as if he were laughing at her. It was something to do with the ripple of amusement in his voice, or maybe it was to do with his blue, blue eyes, currently hidden by ridiculously mirrored sunglasses, where a smile always seemed to be lurking even if he was only asking her to pass the toast.
What’s so funny? she wanted to yell at him, but she had the nasty feeling that the answer would be her. Nobody else at Wirrindago seemed to find him annoying. They all thought he was great.
Lucy couldn’t understand it. Guy had the kind of assurance that she always associated with generations of privilege and a gold-plated trust fund, and she didn’t trust his practised charm for a moment. The self-deprecating humour and oh-so-engaging smile were completely wasted on her.
‘Why do you always call me Cinderella?’ she asked irritably.
‘Because you’re very pretty and you never seem to be allowed out of the kitchen,’ said Guy.
‘I’m a cook,’ she reminded him with a touch of sarcasm. ‘Providing three meals a day for eight men—and the occasional visitor like you—tends to mean that you spend a lot of time in the kitchen.’
She was rather pleased with the subtle way she had managed to dismiss him as an ‘occasional visitor’. It made her feel better to remember that he was just passing through, while she had every intention of staying for ever.
‘You certainly seem to work very hard,’ Guy agreed. ‘I’d say a day out is the least you deserve. I quite like the idea of a local rodeo as the outback equivalent of going to the ball, don’t you?’ he said, with one of those smiles that Lucy was sure was meant to have her swooning with delight. ‘Hal gets to be the fairy godmother who says you can go, the stockmen’s old truck is the pumpkin that brought you here…now all you need is a Prince Charming!’
He made a show of patting his pockets. ‘You know, I’m sure I had a glass slipper somewhere…’
‘I’ve already found my Prince Charming,’ said Lucy crushingly, and looked pointedly across the ring to where Kevin was watching a snorting stallion being coaxed into the chute. ‘You just get to be an ugly sister,’ she said.
To her annoyance, Guy’s good humour wasn’t even dented, let alone crushed by her dismissive comment. He just laughed, and she sucked her teeth in irritation. Prince Charming indeed! Of course, he would think that was his role. The man was unbelievably conceited. Yes, he was remarkably handsome—even she couldn’t deny that—but that smooth, blond, blue-eyed look didn’t do it for her. She preferred her men rather more rugged.
Like Kevin, in fact.
‘I didn’t realise that you were coming today,’ she said frostily as she turned back to the arena.
‘Hey, the ugly sisters always get to have a good time,’ he reminded her. ‘And rodeos are always fun—to watch, anyway,’ he added as the stallion made short work of bucking the latest rider off his back. Guy winced as he hit the ground with a thud. ‘Ouch,’ he said. ‘It’s something different, too,’ he went on. ‘We don’t get a lot of rodeos at home, do we?’
Lucy hated the way he said ‘we’ like that, as if they had something in common. He was always doing that, reminding her—and everyone else—that she was English too and didn’t really belong out here any more than he did.
She had been having such a lovely time at Wirrindago. Employed as a cook-cum-housekeeper, she had been thrilled by the isolation and the fact that the men still found horses the easiest way to move around the wild country. It was all so different from the way she had grown up in England, and she had been quite carried away by the romance of it all.
Until Guy had turned up.
Lucy wasn’t used to not liking people but from the moment Guy had strolled into the kitchen a few days ago and introduced himself with that smile—the one that seemed to assume that any woman on the receiving end would instantly swoon at his feet—her normally sunny nature had deserted her. There was just something about him that rubbed her up the wrong way, leaving her irritated and edgy.
Guy might be Hal Granger’s cousin, but it was hard to imagine anyone more different or more out of place in the outback. He was so…so…so English, Lucy decided in frustration. He just didn’t belong, and she wished he would go back to London and stop getting on her nerves.
The way he was doing right now.
‘I wouldn’t have thought rodeos were your kind of thing,’ she said.
‘Oh, I don’t know…’ Casually, Guy leant on the rails next to her. The sleeves of his pristine white shirt were rolled up to reveal surprisingly powerful forearms, covered with a fuzz of golden hairs that drew Lucy’s eyes in spite of herself as they glinted in the bright light. There was something overwhelming about him when he was that close, and she found herself edging away.