Read The Billionaire Boss's Innocent Bride Online
Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
‘Thanks, mate. Appreciate that. I’ll take it.’
The driver handed the bag over and left. Max closed the door as it started to rain again—and Alex stood transfixed.
‘A dog?’ she said incredulously then, and sat down unexpectedly. Max nodded and looked at her dryly. ‘What did you expect?’
‘I—I don’t know,’ she stammered, ‘but not this.’
The little dog looked around, eyed Max rather suspiciously, then spied Alex and trotted towards her.
‘She’s a Bichon Frise. They used to be favourites of French Royalty, trust Olivia,’ he said wryly. ‘But they’re a gentle, cheerful, non-hair-shedding breed. She’s about nine months old and well trained.’
Josie sat down in front of Alex and looked up at her out of beautiful melting brown eyes—eyes that would melt a heart of stone.
‘But—but how come?’ Alex had difficulty with her voice as she raised her eyes to his. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Livvy and Michael usually divide their time between here and the UK, but this time they’re going back to the UK for two years at least. Livvy just happened to mention to me a week or so ago that they were looking for a good home for Josie, therefore.’
‘And—and you thought of me?’
‘I was afraid she might have already been placed but Livvy is particularly fussy.’ He shrugged. ‘I’ve seen for myself how much you love dogs, and you told me you and your neighbour had talked about sharing one, so, yes, I did think of you. She apparently prefers women to men.’
If Alex had felt the pressure to keep her emotions in check before, it was nothing to the surge of love and misery that welled up in her now. Love because Max Goodwin could be so nice as well as setting her alight; misery because he never could be for her…
Josie raised her paw at that point and put it delicately on Alex’s knee, and Alex could have sworn there was a pleading look in those liquid brown eyes.
‘Well—well, sweetheart, in that case how can I say no?’ And she bent down to run her fingers through the little dog’s curly white coat. Josie shut her eyes in sheer ecstasy.
And, although Alex didn’t see it, Max Goodwin watched the girl and dog, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.
‘Th-thank you,’ Alex said tremulously. ‘You’ve really taken me by surprise. She’s gorgeous. I could end up like Nicky and Nemo if I’m not careful.’ She got up. He smiled perfunctorily and didn’t say anything.
Alex swallowed and knew instinctively what she had to do. ‘So, unless you have any more surprises up your sleeve, I guess it’s time to say goodbye, Mr Goodwin.’ She held out her hand.
He didn’t take it. He studied the brave face she was putting on, the lovely hair, the figure that had so surprised him, her stunning eyes behind her glasses, the fact that she was pale with the effort of being brave and composed.
‘Alex,’ he said on a harsh breath, then forced himself to relax, ‘you will get over this. You’re so young, you’re lovely and fresh—believe me, this will go. You’re also far too sensible not to be able to put it behind you.’
Her lips parted. ‘Am I?’ she said, but immediately shook her head. ‘Don’t answer that. Look, thank you for everything—and I’m sure I will. I just wish—’ She stopped and bit her lip.
‘Alex,’ he said ominously, ‘you know that never works with me.’
She closed her eyes in sudden frustration. ‘All right!’ Her lashes flew up. ‘I just wish I had something to give you. There, that sounds incredibly silly, no doubt.’ She shrugged.
His eyes softened. ‘No, it doesn’t, but you have. You’ve given me…wisdom where I least expected it.’ He paused, then pulled his car keys out. ‘Take care, Alexandra Hill,’ he said very quietly.
‘You too, Mr Goodwin.’ She couldn’t help the tears that welled in her eyes and slid down her cheeks beneath her glasses. ‘You too.’
He hesitated one short moment longer, then turned and let himself out. Alex stood where she was and swayed like a young tree in a gale as the door closed behind him. She put her hands up and removed her glasses and wept until Josie came to stand beside her and she rubbed her head on Alex’s leg. Alex bent down and picked her up, and cried into her fur. Then she took her over to the settee and apologized.
‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ she said as she dried her eyes and blew her nose. ‘I don’t think I ever believed I would feel like this about a man. I hope he’s right, about it passing.’
She laid her head back and Josie curled up beside her.
‘I hope he’s right,’ Alex repeated as she stared at the ceiling with a terrible, lurking fear in her heart.
FOUR months later Alex had a busy and fulfilling lifestyle.
Her job at the Chinese Consulate as assistant to the Liaison Officer had proved to be a treasure. Whereas at Wellford’s she’d worked alone and often from home, in this job she was required to be out and about and to deal with the public. She’d had to acquire a working wardrobe and, while it didn’t equal the wardrobe Max Goodwin had provided her with—she’d left all those clothes behind—she bore little resemblance to the girl who’d looked like a bluestocking and dressed that way. She’d also made friends at work.
At home, as she’d foreseen, Patti had been delighted with Josie, and Josie had taken to her new lifestyle of having two homes, two mistresses, with aplomb. She’d also been a lifesaver. Coming home to the little dog rather than an empty flat had made a difference. Riding around with her in her bike basket on the weekends was fun.
Knowing she had someone to leave her with during working hours was a relief. Not that it had been easy at first. The gap Max Goodwin had left in her life had felt like losing a part of herself. It still amazed her that so much feeling had been generated within her in such a short time, a matter of weeks. And she’d had to admit it wasn’t only Max she missed. It was Nicky, Mrs Mills, Margaret, even Stan and Jake—they’d all felt like family in the incredibly short time she’d spent with them.
But it was Max who haunted her dreams, Max who brought her heart-stopping moments. Like the day when she thought she was doing really well, had been for a while, until she thought she saw him going down an escalator ahead of her, a tall, dark man who caused her heart to start to pound, her mouth to go dry and her pulses to hammer.
And although she had no idea what she would say to him if she caught him, she pushed her way past people to get to him because all of a sudden she wasn’t going well at all. Life was like a desert without him, and just to see him, just to say, ‘Hi!’
would be like coming to an oasis, coming to a rich, meaningful landscape. Like coming in from the cold, she thought dizzily without even noticing how she’d mixed her metaphors…
It wasn’t him.
And she’d been lonely and depressed for days before, once again, she’d pulled herself out of it.
As the weeks had slipped by she’d braced herself to read that Max Goodwin had married Cathy Spencer, but if he had done so there’d been no publicity. She’d thought once that Simon would probably know, via his sister, then thought immediately that it made no difference.
Unless she was trying to persuade herself that he’d killed any feelings he had had for her stone-dead because he was going to have to marry Cathy?
Don’t go down that road, Alex, she’d warned herself. It will kill you if you ever find out he didn’t marry her but he never comes back to you.
Much better to accept, here, now and for ever that, while you fell in love, he may have fallen a little in lust, that’s all.
It did get easier as the months slid by and winter turned to summer. It even got to the stage where she thought of it all rarely and mainly when she was over-tired and couldn’t keep her guard up. Or when some man made advances and she could barely control her distaste.
Otherwise, she kept herself busy, everyone at work thought she was bright and bubbly and didn’t realize, because they hadn’t known her long, that it was somewhat manufactured. And when it was discovered at the consulate that she didn’t drive, which would be an asset in the job and give her the use of a consulate car, she started driving lessons.
It was supremely ironic that the first person she bumped into, literally, was Simon Wellford during one of her lessons after work. She reversed out of a parking spot, slammed on the brake at a sharp warning from the instructor sitting beside her, but it was too late.
The car she hadn’t seen collided with the rear end of the driving-school car. An hour later she was sitting with Simon in a bar having a brandy to settle her jangled nerves.
‘Look, don’t worry about it,’ Simon said. ‘They’ve got insurance, I’ve got insurance, no one was hurt and there’s not much damage anyway.’
‘Except to my reputation.’ She grimaced. ‘Will any instructor take me on again?’
Simon grinned. ‘If you recall I had a wee accident getting you to the Goodwin interview, and I’d had my licence for years.’
Alex perked up. ‘I do remember! What a day that was!’
‘See anything of Max Goodwin?’ he queried.
She shook her head and sipped her brandy.
‘He was pretty good about putting a lot of work my way,’ Simon reminisced. ‘Still is, but I was a little piqued he steered you to the Chinese Consulate rather than back to me,’ he confessed ruefully. ‘Didn’t he have some plans for you to work for him?’
He looked at her curiously.
‘It fell through,’ Alex murmured.
Simon stretched and regarded her for a couple of moments. She wore a plain, straight, round-necked beige linen dress with a cropped corn-gold short-sleeved jacket.
She looked smart and pretty, he thought. She’d maintained her new hairstyle and her make-up was discreet and expertly done. No glasses either, so her eyes were stunning. But did she look—older? he wondered. Not quite the humorous, candid girl he’d employed? Almost as if she might have grown up in a hurry. Why? he wondered.
‘Do you? Have any contact with him?’ Alex heard herself asking.
‘No. It’s all done through staff. Matter of fact, he seems to have been off the scene for a while. Cilla hasn’t had any news lately. She was expecting him to marry the artist, Cathy Spencer. You’ve probably heard of her—she’s making a bit of a name for herself. She’s also apparently the mother of the son I told you about, but it didn’t happen.’
Alex’s heart knocked a couple of times, then settled back into its rhythm.
‘But guess what? Rosanna is expecting, not one baby, but twins!’ Simon added. Alex was disproportionately delighted with this news. Not that she wasn’t happy for Simon, as she asked for all the details, but it was a change of subject she desperately needed. And it got her through the rest of their time together until he gave her a lift home.
‘Josie,’ she murmured, after collecting her from Patti when she got home, ‘I may not be the best company tonight, sweetheart. I don’t know why, I always knew he wasn’t for me, but when is it going to stop hurting so much?’ she asked with a break in her voice.
Three weeks later, it was a glorious Saturday morning and Alex took Josie to New Farm Park beside the Brisbane River. She also took a picnic lunch and she found a bench under a tree after Josie had had a fine old time chasing seagulls. The blue sky, the mown grass, the flower beds, the river traffic, the children enjoying the park all contributed to a feeling of well-being for Alex. She’d brought a book to read later.
She was wearing short denim shorts, sneakers and a hot pink halter top. Her hair was in a bunch.
She unwrapped her sandwiches and poured herself a cool drink. Josie had a bone that would keep her occupied for a while and her own bowl of water. Alex was choosing between an egg and lettuce sandwich or ham and tomato, when a pair of jean-clad legs ending in brown deck shoes hove into view. She looked upwards and gasped. ‘Y-you?’ she stammered.
‘Yes,’ Max Goodwin agreed as he dropped down on the bench beside her, and Josie was momentarily distracted. She curled her lip at him, revealing her sharp white teeth, then went back to her bone.
‘I see nothing has changed there,’ he said with a grin. ‘She’s still anti-men. How are you, Alex?’
Alex stared at the choice of sandwiches in her hands for a second, then put them back into the plastic container, and for a moment wondered, in a panic-stricken kind of way, if she’d been struck dumb.
She swallowed and blinked, then looked at him at last. ‘I’m fine, thank you! What a coincidence, meeting you here in the park. Is Nicky—?’ She broke off as the thought struck her and she looked around.
‘No. He’s with his mother at the moment. You’ll be pleased to hear he divides his time between us quite happily.’
‘You didn’t—’ She hesitated.
‘No, I didn’t marry Cathy.’ He paused and waited, but Alex was unable to do more than moisten her lips. ‘We came to an agreement,’ he said then. ‘If there’s one thing that’s sacrosanct between us, it’s Nicky.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s amazing how everything else seems to have fallen into place. Oh, we go our own way, but on that we’re united.’
‘I’m so glad,’ Alex said. ‘I’m so very glad. Would you like a sandwich?’ She proffered the plastic container. ‘There’s egg and lettuce or ham and tomato.’
‘Thank you.’ His long fingers hovered, then he made his choice. ‘But I’d really like to know how you’re going, Alex.’
She chose her sandwich blindly as her mind raced, and her senses reeled. Nearly five months had seen some changes in Max Goodwin. Still as tall, of course; still with that elegant physique, but some of his vitality seemed to be missing. His nightdark hair was shorter and those dense blue eyes were—what? Uncharacteristically weary? As if he was under some kind of pressure again, as she’d seen him once before…
None of it made the slightest difference to his impact on her, however. It was like reaching an oasis in the desert just to be with him, talking to him, breathing him in. It was like coming in from the cold, as she’d suspected it would be when she’d followed a stranger who’d looked like him down an escalator.
But what could this turn out to be? she suddenly asked herself. A chance meeting in the park and then, for her, a whole new battle to wage with herself? That was going to happen anyway, but what could he do if she showed him how affected she still was by him?
What would it do to her if she allowed herself to hope there was more to it than met the eye and those hopes were dashed again? In the five months that he hadn’t married Cathy Spencer, he’d made no effort to contact her…
So, it stood to reason she was going to be alone, again, and the sooner she came to terms with it, the better.
She looked up at last and smiled suddenly. ‘Sorry, I was just looking back, but you were right, you know. I’m fine. I think falling prey to something like that—’ she looked rueful ‘—for the first time at the fine old age of twenty-one made it feel worse, perhaps.’
‘A crush?’ he suggested.
She nodded. ‘But I’m all together again,’ she assured him blithely and stopped, to look serious. ‘Although I have to say thank you. You were amazingly tactful, and giving me Josie, and my job, was inspired.’
‘Is there someone in your life, Alex?’ he queried.
‘Well, I haven’t quite got that far,’ she conceded. ‘But while twenty-one might be a fine old age to suffer your first crush, it’s not exactly old—it’ll come. In the meantime, I’m off to Beijing for a holiday in a month, and I’m preparing my CV for the Diplomatic Corps. I’m also taking driving lessons, or I was.’ She looked comically put out for a moment.
‘What happened?’ He glanced at her bicycle leaning against the tree.
‘I had an accident. I bumped into Simon, of all people. By the way, thanks also for all the work you’ve given him. He really appreciates it. But tell me—’ she looked at him warmly ‘—how is everyone? Margaret? And Mrs Mills? I do miss them.’
‘And the Chinese venture?’
‘It’s all on track. So, no more panic attacks?’ His eyes were narrowed and watchful. He’d finished his sandwich and he stretched his long legs out. She shook her head and managed to look completely carefree. ‘I really am fine.’
‘You look it,’ he murmured, taking in her skimpy outfit and the smooth creamy skin of her shoulders and arms and her legs. ‘Still the best pair of legs in town.’
Alex laughed. ‘You were very annoyed with my legs, if I recall.’ She shrugged. ‘But it’s good to be able to laugh about it in hindsight.’
‘Yes. Well—’ he pushed his fingers through his hair ‘—I can’t offer you a lift home because of the bike, but it’s been really good to see you, Alex.’
‘You too!’ she said enthusiastically.
‘Don’t get up.’ He heaved himself upright. ‘Thanks for the sandwich,’ he said down to her with a grin. ‘It’s years since I had egg and lettuce. Uh—by the way, Nicky sends his love. He said if ever I bumped into you to tell you that.’
‘Oh, please give him my love,’ Alex responded affectionately. ‘Goodbye then, Mr Goodwin.’
Max Goodwin touched the top of her head with his fingertips. ‘Bye, Miss Hill.’
Alex watched him walk away and felt like fainting. It had been a bravura performance, all lies, she thought dizzily, and where had she acquired the acting ability from to see it through?
She put her hand over her heart because it seemed to be beating lightly but raggedly somewhere up near her throat. And she watched Max Goodwin until he was out of sight. But there was a slightly puzzled look in her eyes, because there was something different about him, something she couldn’t put her finger on…
Then he was gone and the whole picnic idea had palled so she packed up and rode home. Josie looked almost humanly worried all the way back.
‘Knock, knock!’ Patti came through the front door to find Alex and Josie watching television that evening. ‘Did he find you?’
Alex reached for the remote and flicked the TV off. ‘Did who find me?’
‘Your ex-employer. The guy with the Bentley—Max Goodwin.’
Alex frowned, her hand still poised in the air with the remote in it. ‘I didn’t know he was looking for me.’
‘Well, he was. I told him you were going to New Farm Park. Didn’t he find you?’
‘Yes, he did,’ Alex said in a voice that didn’t sound like her own. ‘But I thought it was by accident, a coincidence. He didn’t say otherwise.’
Patti gestured and sat down at the dining table. ‘Doesn’t look the type you’d find in the park unless he had a kid or a dog. And he doesn’t look the type who’d have to exercise his own kids or dogs.’
‘No,’ Alex said slowly. ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Well, I did at first but…’ She trailed off.
‘Has he been ill?’
Alex’s eyes widened. ‘He also looked different to me but—what makes you say that?’
Patti shrugged. ‘I was a nurse. Sometimes you get a sixth sense.’