Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
‘But—’ she licked her lips ‘—you went out of your way to distance yourself. You made sure there could be no delusions for me. You—’
‘Alex,’ he intervened, ‘I convinced myself I wasn’t for you. I did know that it would have been all too easy to drown my sorrows, my burdens in you—’ He broke off and shook his head.
Her lips formed a perfect O.
‘Don’t look so surprised. I did kiss you.’
‘I know,’ she breathed, ‘but that was heat-of-the-moment stuff. That was probably gratitude and affection that got a little out of hand, that’s all.’
He smiled dryly. ‘It wasn’t, and it wasn’t the first time I’d thought of you in that way either. Oh—’ he grimaced ‘—I told myself the same thing then. I also told myself—’ He stopped and got up and came round her side of the table. He pulled out a chair, turned it and sat down facing her. ‘Alex, I kissed you because I couldn’t help myself, but then I knew I had to end it before you got seriously hurt. That’s why I did what I did. I didn’t know,’ he said intensely, ‘how I was going to handle Cathy and Nicky, most particularly Nicky, without marrying Cathy and somehow trying to make a go of it. I didn’t know then,’ he added barely audibly,
‘how, once you were gone, I was going to feel.’
‘How did you feel?’
He sat forward with his hands on his knees. ‘I woke up one morning and thought—if I don’t ever see her smile at me again, suddenly and when I’m least expecting it, my life’s not going to be worth living.’
Alex looked astonished.
‘It took me by surprise too,’ he said ruefully. ‘It also opened the floodgates. I think I recalled with perfect clarity just about every word you ever said to me. I remembered the couple of times I’d held you in my arms, and, not only the lovely feel of you, but every time I remembered them, I got worried in case you were having panic attacks and I wasn’t there to help you.
‘I couldn’t walk into the green room in Brisbane without picturing you; same for the pink room here, same for the barbecue and the den. Mrs Mills asked me what to do with the clothes you’d left behind. I told her to leave them where they were—I sometimes went in and looked at them.’ He lifted his shoulders. ‘Every time I touched the first outfit you wore to the cocktail party, I thought of your legs—
although, actually, it was your eyes that got me in first.’
‘Remember the first interview?’
‘When I asked you to take off your glasses? That’s what changed my mind about you, Alex, those beautiful eyes. They exerted a strange power over me then and have done so ever since. So—’ he sat back and folded his arms ‘—after working things out so neatly, like distancing myself from you, like organizing things to help you over it, what should happen?’
He let a beat go by, then answered his question with obvious irony. ‘I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I was restless and edgy—someone actually called me a difficult, dangerous bastard to my face—but not over the things everyone thought I was restless and edgy about.’ He shrugged. ‘I was lonely, so damn lonely.’
Their gazes locked and Alex felt a tremor of hope run through her, but there were still questions on her mind.
‘But…but Cathy,’ she said, then couldn’t go on.
‘Cathy was at a low ebb when she suggested we get married. Not only was her mother a real prop—and losing her father before she was born had to contribute to that—but, unlike you, it was Cathy’s first close-up brush with mortality. I think all of that made her rethink things like our core differences and convince herself we could overcome them and—and made her try to rekindle the spark.’
Alex’s eyes widened.
‘It didn’t work,’ he said. ‘And she worked out why.’
Alex looked a question at him.
‘Yes, you,’ he replied. ‘Cathy’s no fool. She was also—gallant. She said how fortunate it was someone Nicky seemed to love. And she’s been very generous over the practicalities of bringing up Nicky. She’s moved to Brisbane—I know it’s to her advantage as well, but it means I won’t have to fly to Perth for school sports days, birthdays and so on.’
‘I hope she finds someone,’ Alex said.
‘Yes. And Nicky, well, he may question things when he gets older, but he seems to love me and he seems to trust me now. We got to do a lot of things together before the accident, and even after it he brought me jigsaw puzzles and books and we took up model-making. He even offered me Nemo for company when he couldn’t be there.’
‘I wish I’d known,’ Alex said involuntarily. ‘About the accident.’
He sat forward again. ‘I nearly sent for you so many times but I was gripped by all sorts of doubts. Would I ever be able to walk again? Was I the right person for you, anyway? Had it been a fleeting crush? According to Mr Li you were doing just fine.’
‘I wondered about that,’ she murmured.
‘If I was keeping tabs on you? I was.’ He looked grim for a moment. ‘If I was expecting to hear you’d gone into a decline, that wasn’t the news I got. But…’ he paused ‘…Alex, my biggest doubt the more I thought about it was—even if it had happened for you, you hadn’t wanted to fall in love with me.’ He frowned. ‘I know circumstances made it a highly questionable thing to do at the time, but—was there more to it?’
A deep tremor ran through Alex, a feeling of having been understood that was extraordinarily precious. ‘Yes. After my parents and my Mother Superior died I couldn’t bring myself to get too close to anyone. So I was petrified over what I felt for you. Even up until yesterday, I think the last remnants of that fear made me say the things I did, but afterwards I realized I was only thinking of me, and that was cowardly.’
She saw him take an uneven breath.
‘Yesterday,’ he said, ‘my worst nightmare seemed to come true. That it was all over for you.’
‘Yesterday I didn’t know what I know now,’ she said quietly. ‘Yesterday, and so many yesterdays, have been like a living nightmare, without you.’
He stared into her eyes as if he couldn’t quite believe his ears. ‘Are you very sure, Alex?’
‘Quite sure, although I do have one last concern,’ she said gravely.
She smiled unexpectedly. ‘You seem to be able to keep your hands off me with the greatest of ease.’
She saw the little flare of shock in his eyes, then they changed and this time, when he said it, it was with love and laughter. ‘If only you knew…’ Before he swept her into his arms.
‘Yes.’ They’d moved to the den and they’d brought the wine and canapés with them. They had their arms wrapped around each other and Alex had just been deeply and most satisfyingly kissed. ‘Oh, yes.’ She moved her cheek on his shoulder, then, ‘Tell me something—why yesterday?’
‘It was my birthday. It suddenly seemed a matter of incredible urgency to find out if my life could be made worth living again or…’ He shook his head.
‘Happy birthday for yesterday,’ she said softly, ‘but will today do for the first day of the rest of our lives?’
He rubbed his chin on the top of her head. ‘Yes, oh, yes. When will you marry me?
She looked up and laughed into his eyes. ‘Damn what?’
‘I’m not fit to be married for six weeks.’ He looked thoroughly annoyed with himself.
‘Never mind. Perhaps these things should be taken slowly anyway.’
He cupped her cheek. ‘Promise me one thing?’
‘Of course. What?’
‘Tell me if ever I’m going too fast for you.’
‘Ah, if you’re worried about my convent background—’
‘Yes, I have wondered,’ he broke in. ‘I thought maybe matters of the flesh—that’s how I put it to myself for some reason—were a bit daunting for you.’
Alex thought for a moment, then chuckled suddenly.
‘I actually mentally undressed you only the third time I met you—that was my green-room drama. Believe me—’ she looked into his eyes, her amazement still showing in hers as she remembered ‘—it came as quite a shock.’
‘I wish I’d known.’
‘It was hard enough to handle without you knowing. So, yes, I’m inexperienced, but not exactly daunted. And if you had problems with the pink room, I came out of it after I twisted my ankle conscious of the fact that what you did to me filled me with desire that was running like wildfire through my veins.’
He hugged her suddenly and fiercely. ‘How could I have been such a fool?’ he marvelled.
‘But I was also convinced you weren’t moved by me at all, that I must have imagined it.’
‘On the contrary. I’ve had an enduring fantasy about you.’ He ran his fingers through her hair. ‘Well, several. Finding myself wanting to run my hands through your hair was one.’
‘And the others?’
He paused and looked at her reflectively. ‘I think I might wait until just the right moment before I tell you that.’ He bent his head and kissed her lightly. ‘So, how are we going to cope for the next six weeks?’
‘Plenty of this?’ she suggested and snuggled up to him. ‘I could quite happily stay like this for hours.’
‘Alex,’ he said in a suddenly different voice, pressing and a little rough. She drew away and looked at him anxiously. ‘What’s wrong?’
He shook his head. ‘I just can’t seem to believe it. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.’
Alex couldn’t doubt the urgency about him. She slipped out of his arms, but only to kneel in front of the settee. ‘Max,’ she said with her heart in her eyes, ‘believe it. I do and I never thought I would say that to anyone. Besides which—’ her lips trembled, then she smiled that unexpected smile that enchanted him so much ‘—
I’ve finally called you Max, Mr Goodwin! That’s got to mean something.’
He growled her name, then pulled her back into his arms as if he’d never let her go.
THEY got married eight weeks later.
Some cameos of those eight weeks as she prepared for her wedding, Alex knew she would never forget.
Margaret Winston’s delight was one.
‘I knew you were the right one for him, Alex,’ she said joyfully when presented with the news. ‘I knew it right from the start!’
Alex blinked at her, but Max did more.
‘I thought so,’ he said. ‘I got the distinct feeling that when she turned up at the cocktail party looking so drop-dead gorgeous you might have had a hand in it, Margaret!’
‘I did. The minute I saw those legs and that lovely figure I decided to make the best of it. Actually Alex was a bit of a hindrance there,’ she admitted. ‘But what impressed me first was the way she stood up to you at that interview.’ She hugged Alex and kissed her warmly. ‘Of course, that’s how I handle Mr Goodwin myself—I wish!’ she added humorously.
‘Mr Goodwin’ looked slightly put out. ‘I’m not that hard to handle, am I?’
‘Yes,’ his fiancée and his principal private secretary chorused.
‘I’m not really,’ he said to Alex that evening.
He’d taken her to dinner at Sanctuary Cove and they were leaning on a railing watching the million-dollar boats in the marina.
Alex was wearing her cocktail-party outfit and while she didn’t know if she looked a million dollars, she felt it. And the diamond on her engagement finger sparkled with a mysterious blue fire beneath the overhead lights of the walkway. She turned to him. ‘Hard to handle? I’ll tell you, in ten years I’ll either be worn to a shadow or blooming.’
He cupped her face and kissed her lightly. ‘You’re blooming now, Alex.’ He studied her. The lovely hair, her eyes, the figure he was little by little coming to know beneath Margaret’s inspired choice of clothes.
‘I feel as if I am,’ she told him and dropped her voice. ‘Thanks to you, Max.’
He was assaulted by a powerful urge to lean her back over his encircling arms and to kiss her witless. In deference to his back, and the good citizens of Sanctuary Cove, he resorted to humour instead. ‘Well, I can’t be so bad, then.’
‘You can be awful,’ she contradicted. ‘The trouble is you can also be awfully nice—
Margaret would lay down her life for you. Should we go home?’
He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘That sounds like a rather pointed—suggestion.’
‘It is,’ she said gravely. ‘I’d like very much to be kissed but—in private.’
‘My thoughts, entirely, Miss Hill,’ he replied seriously, but he grinned then and kissed her, lightly, but all the same.
His sister Olivia provided another cameo, or rather his reaction to his sister Olivia. He snapped his mobile shut after talking to her in the UK, and swore. Alex, curled up in a basket chair on the lawn after a lazy Sunday-morning breakfast, looked a question at him.
‘She’s all set to fly out and take over. Considering the fact that not so long ago she told me I was mad not to be marrying Cathy, I find that incredible.’
‘The wedding. You don’t know my sister Olivia.’ He stared moodily out over the Broadwater.
‘I do. As a matter of fact I had the pleasure of her company at the dinner dance.’
‘Oh. I forgot. What did you think of her?’
‘Well, she didn’t intimidate me, if that’s what you’re wondering.’
‘Did she have a go?’
‘Not really, but she was a bit surprised and put out to find out who I was, Nicky’s nanny, your PA, et cetera. But one thing I did notice about her, Max. She seemed to be genuinely concerned about you. She seemed to read—do you remember what kind of mood you were in that night?’ He nodded after a moment. ‘Well, she seemed to read it and I’m sure she was really worried for you.’
He said nothing as he watched a bay cruiser steam past, then, ‘Why do I get the feeling you’ll even be able to handle Livvy?’
‘I don’t know.’
He reached over and took her hand. ‘I do. You really think about other people, don’t you?’
‘I guess I do.’
‘It’s one of the things I love about you.’
Meeting Nicky again had been delightful.
He’d greeted her like a long-lost friend and told her please not to go away again, he didn’t like it and neither did Nemo.
‘Well, look at you, Nemo! Goodness me! You’ve grown!’ she enthused.
‘And he does tricks now. Watch this!’
Nicky made an imaginary gun of his hand and pointed it at the dog saying, ‘Bang!
Nemo keeled over and played dead.
‘I’m just so impressed,’ Alex said through her laughter. ‘Did you teach him that all on your own?’
‘No. My dad did it. He used to have a dog when he was a kid like me,’ Nicky said with unmistakable pride.
Alex had expected that meeting Cathy again for the first time would be difficult, but it had proved easier than expected.
‘I should probably feel like scratching your eyes out,’ Cathy said, ‘but some people are just so damn genuine you can’t be annoyed with them. What made him finally admit he couldn’t live without you?’ she asked curiously.
‘It was his birthday,’ Alex replied, then looked a little embarrassed. ‘That doesn’t make much sense, probably.’
Cathy shrugged. ‘So long as it does to you.’
Alex hesitated. ‘How are you? I hope you’ll forgive me for laying down the law the way I did the last time we met?’
‘Yes,’ Cathy said briefly, then sighed. ‘Between you and my mother’s passing away, I got a wake-up call. I think I’ve got my priorities sorted out now. And I have to say Max has—well, he’s shown no desire to use Nicky like a tool between us or to alienate him from me. Above all, Nicky is happy, he’s happy with me, he’s happy with Max.’ But she looked faintly troubled.
‘Cathy, I will never try to take your place with Nicky, I swear,’ Alex said quietly. Cathy Spencer showed her own moment’s hesitation, then she put her hand over Alex’s. ‘Thanks.’
But the next cameo was harder to handle.
Since they’d found each other, Alex had resigned her job because the thought of being apart was intolerable, but living together in the same house, or the penthouse, while not sharing a bed, had its own strains.
And one evening when they’d been lying in each other’s arms in the den, listening to music, Alex detected tension in the air between them. It was hard not to when he got up rather abruptly and said he was going out for a breath of air. If he was sharing the same level of wildfire in his veins as she was, she reasoned, if he was tingling with desire too, under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make love. They were engaged, it was three weeks to the wedding but, as it was, he was still wearing a brace and had been specifically warned not to do certain things. Sex was one of them.
But there would be ways, she thought, and wished suddenly she weren’t so completely inexperienced, ways to provide relief for him at least. She got up slowly and went to find him.
He was standing on the jetty staring out over the dark waters and the rhythmically flashing green lights of the Aldershots channel.
She hesitated, then went up to him and slipped her arm around his waist. ‘Max—’
her voice was husky and a little uncertain but she persevered ‘—is there anything I could do to help? I know how you must be feeling.’
She felt him stiffen in surprise, then he put his arm round her shoulders. ‘I can’t thank you enough for that, Alex,’ he said, ‘but no. It wouldn’t do anything for you and we’re in this together. I can wait.’ He dropped a light kiss on her hair. And even after he was able to cope without the brace and he was pronounced back to normal and was experiencing no more back pain, and there were still two weeks to go the wedding, he was content to wait.
‘Has it occurred to you we might be the most old-fashioned couple around, Alex?’ he said.
‘Are you happy about that?’
She looked into his dark blue eyes. ‘Yes,’ she said honestly. ‘I’ve loved our engagement. I’ve loved really getting to know you. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to go to bed with you, but—it will be something very special when it’s on our wedding night.’
‘So be it.’
Finally, the day dawned.
Once again the Tuscan villa was the venue and it went through another of its amazing transformations.
The theme colour was ecru and the soft sage-green of wattle leaves dotted with tiny yellow powder-puff flowers filled the standard vases and transformed the terrace into a bower.
The cake was three-tiered and decorated with icing wattle leaves and flowers. The bride wore a long, slim, strapless white dress with a filmy overdress exquisitely self-embroidered. Her veil was antique lace and had been handed down to Goodwin brides from Max’s grandmother, the daughter of the Italian count. The old lady was present at the wedding. Alex had already met her, and been told not to delay starting a family because the younger you were, the better it was!
Mrs Mills was there, as well as Jake and Stan, all having been relieved of their usual duties. Margaret was there, beaming with happiness. Simon had brought his wife, Rosanna, but left his three-week-old twin sons with his in-laws. He still looked stunned by the news of Alex’s marriage. Even Mr Li was there, along with many distinguished guests.
Patti was there and she’d brought Josie. Alex had given her the little dog, although with a lump in her throat. But Patti had been almost tearfully grateful, since, as she’d said, she was losing Alex.
Cathy and Nicky were there.
Only family and closest friends and staff had attended the church service, which had been deeply moving.
Alex had been attended by Olivia’s son and daughter, and Nicky, and she’d entered the church on Sir Michael’s arm. She’d never forget, she knew, the moment when Max had turned and seen her walking down the aisle towards him, never forget the slightly stunned look in his eyes.
Nor would she forget the moment when he’d put back her veil and she’d seen so much love in his blue eyes in the moment before he’d bent his head to kiss her. And many guests, Olivia, Mrs Mills, Margaret and Patti quite openly, had been dabbing their eyes as they’d walked down the aisle as man and wife. The reception passed in something of a blur with cutting the cake, throwing her bouquet being amongst the highlights, and everyone agreeing it was a lovely, lovely wedding.
They spent their wedding night in the penthouse; they were due to fly out on an extended honeymoon the next morning.
They were lying side by side on a sumptuous bed in the master bedroom, all cream on the colour of rose gold.
They’d behaved with conspicuous decorum on the trip up from the Coast in the Bentley—after they’d stopped to brush off most of the rose petals and confetti that had been thrown over the car as they’d driven off.
They’d taken the lift and not said a word to each other as they’d ascended to the thirty-fifth floor. They’d stepped into the foyer, looked into each other’s eyes for a long, burning moment, and decorum had fled from them…
Alex stirred on the bed, and smiled.
‘What, my love?’ he enquired, and drew his fingers down her slim, sated body.
‘I think we may have left a trail of clothing almost from the lift.’
‘I think we may have,’ he agreed. ‘It doesn’t matter—we’re alone. How was that?’ He propped his head on his elbow and watched her.
Alex looked back at their love-making and trembled inwardly. ‘Honestly?’
‘Honestly.’ But he looked faintly alarmed.
‘It was—almost indescribable. It was hot and sweet and gentle, then astonishingly beautiful…’ She was lost for words for a moment. ‘It was everything I’ve thought it would be but didn’t really know, it was more, it was very, very special.’ She turned to face him and for a moment her eyes gleamed with unshed tears at the power of her emotions. ‘Thank you.’
He relaxed and pulled her close. ‘Don’t thank me. It was us. You’re so lovely, my sweet Alex, and, not only that, I can now die a happy man.’
Alex lifted her head. ‘Don’t you dare!’ she remonstrated and they both subsided laughing. ‘What do you mean, though?’ she asked.
‘I had this fantasy that one day I would make you gasp with a desire you’d never known, and focus those beautiful eyes solely on me. It happened just now.’
Then he added, ‘Know something?’ He didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘I’ve never felt like this before in my entire life. I always assumed I was pretty much OK, but now I know I’ve never felt so much peace, so much pure pleasure and pride, so much—’ he paused and looked deeply into her eyes ‘—confidence in the future, so much love.’
‘It’s been like a miracle for me too,’ she murmured and held him close. ‘I love you.’