Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
Come to think of it—he steered the Bentley round a roundabout—he hadn’t taken a female companion there for ages, although it had not been so much the lack of females to escort around. No, there had been a plethora of upmarket social events on his calendar, and several perfectly groomed, expensively dressed, perfumed women on his arm, one at a time naturally, to share them with him, but looking back had it all seemed curiously—empty?
Which raised the question—was the way that Alexandra Hill seemed to be beckoning him an indication he was tired of the high life or perhaps specifically
‘glamorous, sophisticated women of the world’—to quote Miss Hill herself. He frowned suddenly because that, of course, led him straight back to the thorny question of one particular sophisticated, glamorous woman of the world…
But although Alex was not privy to Max Goodwin’s rather surprising train of thought, she was still puzzled as she closed her front door on the wet night. What had she sensed in the moment when he’d studied her so carefully? Some sort of a frisson between them?
She touched her cheek with her fingertips where he had touched it, and found herself breathing deeply as she recalled the tall, exciting essence of her new employer; the deep blue of his eyes, how they crinkled when he laughed, his broad shoulders, his hands…
She stared into space, then shook her head as she warned herself not to get fanciful.
She’d redecorated the house herself gradually, using white for the walls to show off the interesting artefacts and pictures gathered from all over the world in her earlier life.
There was a lovely kelim rug hanging on one wall of the lounge and she’d made the covers of her scatter cushions for her ruby settee from songket, hand-woven Malay fabric threaded with silver and gold, that she’d bought in a market in Kuantan. It had been a wonderful life, her earlier life. Not only had her father achieved consul status in the diplomatic service, but she’d grown up sharing both her parents’
interest in scholarly pursuits. She’d also inherited their talent for languages. Then it had all come crashing down.
Her parents had been killed in a train crash a long way from home. She probably would have been on the train herself if it hadn’t been decided she should complete her last couple of years of schooling in Australia. It had been a life-saving decision, although it had been hard to handle at the time; it had also been a wise one. She’d made some long-term friends close to home who had been denied to her in her globe-trotting childhood.
So she hadn’t been entirely alone and, of course, there’d been her father’s cousin, the Mother Superior of her convent.
But as the only child of only-child parents, whose own parents had all passed away, it had been a crushing blow. And although out of the tragedy a habit of fortitude and independence had grown, she still, in her innermost moments, suffered from it. She told herself it was foolish to fear getting too close to anyone in case they too were wrenched from her, but that cold little fear persisted.
And she knew it was why she was fancy-free at twenty-one, and wondered if she’d always be the same.
But she had been fortunate to inherit that fairly substantial nest egg and to be able to put herself through university and, later, acquire her house and finally put her convent days behind her. Not that she’d found them a trial. When she’d finished school and gone straight on to university, she’d been taken on as a lay member of the staff and in return had helped out with the younger boarders. She was handy with kids, especially tearful, a-long-way-from-home ones, probably because she’d been through a lot of school changes and scene changes herself.
And it had been quite a change, moving into her flat after convent life even as a lay member of the community where one could never be lonely or idle. But after the first sense of disorientation, she’d grown to value her very own space and the things she could do with it.
She was also fortunate to have a congenial neighbour. Patti Smith was an energetic widow in her late fifties and she was fun to be with. They looked after each other’s gardens, mail and so on when either of them were away. Patti, a former nurse, was now retired.
Alex put her keys down on the dining-room table, her bags on the settee and moved around, switching on a couple of lamps.
In the warm soft light the room looked peaceful and inviting, and it brought her a special pleasure to know that she’d bought some of the furniture second-hand and restored it herself.
She slipped her boots and several layers of clothing off, although she’d reduced some of what she’d been wearing while shopping, and took a shower. Then she padded through to the kitchen, which was possibly her greatest triumph. She’d transformed it from a dark and dingy nightmare to light and white with openfronted shelves to show off her colourful crockery and basket containers. She made herself a cup of tea and a sandwich, and carried it all through to the bedroom where she emptied her carrier bags onto her bed.
She looked down at the pile and thought with a tinge of irony that she might have been a restraining influence but the clothes were lovely all the same. Margaret Winston might have accepted her suggestion that she shouldn’t outshine the guests, that perhaps dark colours and simple lines would be the most suitable, but she’d insisted on the best quality available.
Alex had quailed inwardly at the prices, but Margaret had confided that they’d be but a drop in the ocean for Max Goodwin.
The result was beautiful materials, linen, silks, fine wools and crêpes. There were three pairs of new shoes and sets of exquisite underwear.
But a frown grew in her eyes as she stared down at it all. Very lovely, but quite different from her normal attire. Would the flair to wear them come from them?
Then a strange little thought struck her. How would Max Goodwin view her in these elegant clothes?
To her amazement she felt her pulse beat a little heavily at the thought, and she had to take several deep breaths. She had also to remind herself that she needed to be very, very professional in her dealings with him…
The next day seemed to fly past.
The cocktail party was to be held in the penthouse, starting at six p.m. but Margaret Winston had asked her to be there by five-thirty. In the meantime, she did have a bevy of appointments and there’d been a message from Simon on her answering machine requesting her to pop in and see him.
But before she went anywhere, her neighbour Patti popped in for a few minutes.
‘Knock, knock! I peeked, I cannot deny it, although I wasn’t going to admit it,’ she said dramatically, ‘but I’m dying of curiosity! Who was the gorgeous man who brought you home in a Bentley, no less, last night?’
Alex had to laugh. ‘My new boss,’ she explained. ‘My very temporary boss, so don’t get your hopes up.
Patti sighed regretfully, then she brightened. ‘You never know!’
At midday, Alex stared at herself in something like disbelief. The foils had come out of her hair, it had been trimmed, washed and blow-dried and the result was rather incredible. Not only that, her eyebrows had been neatened, her lashes had been tinted and her nails manicured.
But most of all it was her hair that amazed her. No longer mousey and unmanageable, wheat-fair highlights had lifted the colour, it now had body, bounce and shape as its slight tendency to curl had been taken advantage of.
‘Like it?’ Mr Roger, the hairdresser, enquired.
Alex swung her head and watched her hair sway elegantly. ‘It’s—I can’t believe it. But—’ she turned to him urgently ‘—I won’t be able to keep it looking like this!’
‘Of course you will!’ he replied, looking a little hurt. ‘It’s all in the cut and what I cut stays cut until the next cut, believe me. And you can still tie it back, put it in bunches, whatever! Mary,’ he called to the make-up girl over his shoulder, ‘let’s do her face. Really go for the eyes, talk about amazing, they are!’ He turned back to Alex. ‘And please don’t tell me you’re going to wear those glasses, lovey, because I couldn’t bear it!’
‘I won’t,’ Alex promised with a laugh. ‘I wouldn’t dare—I’ve brought my contacts.’
He patted her shoulder. ‘Anyway, come in and get it combed before any of your big
“do’s” if you’d like to.’
‘Oh, my goodness!’ Simon Wellford said and dropped his pen as Alex slid into a chair across his desk. ‘I mean—’
‘It’s OK!’ Alex smiled at him sympathetically and explained rather humorously about the makeover she’d undergone. ‘I got a bit of a shock myself,’ she added. ‘To think, I’ve been battling with my hair for as long as I can remember and all it needed was one man to cut it, style it, and colour it. Mind you,’ she confided, ‘it cost an arm and a leg.’
‘It’s not only your hair.’ Simon’s gaze took in her carefully made-up face. ‘It’s your face and—no glasses now. It’s amazing. Although—’ his gaze dropped lower ‘—same kind of clothes.’
‘Ah. Not this afternoon, though. So what did you want to see me about?’
Simon reached for a folder. ‘Goodwin Minerals faxed through a confidentiality clause. I’ve had our lawyer have a look at it and he sees no problems, but it means that anything you learn during these negotiations has to stay confidential.’ He handed her a pen.
Alex signed the document with a flourish. ‘Of course.’
‘And they faxed through the programme of engagements you’ll be required to attend.’ He pushed another piece of paper across the desk to her.
‘Cocktail party tonight, lunch tomorrow at the Sovereign Islands, then a three-day break until a golf day at Sanctuary Cove, a day out on a boat on the river, a day at the races and finally a dinner dance—Sovereign Island again,’ Alex read and ticked off her fingers.
Simon looked a question at her.
‘I have seen this—Mrs Winston went through it with me. I was just going through the outfits we got for each occasion,’ she explained and added, ‘I think I’m going to enjoy the three-day break after tomorrow’s lunch. But what’s at Sovereign Island?’
‘It’s on the Gold Coast. He has a house down there—make that a mansion.’ Simon looked wry, then opened a drawer and produced a gold badge with her name in navy enamel letters and the company logo artfully inscribed on it. ‘What do you think?
Alex ran her fingers across the surface. ‘Yes.’ She put it in her bag.
‘So—’ Simon sat back and looked at her narrowly ‘—you reckon you can handle this, Alex?’
‘Have I ever let you down, Simon?’
‘No, but telephone interpreting and document translation is not the pressure thing on-site interpreting is.’
‘I know,’ she agreed. ‘But I spent a couple of hours last night immersing myself in a Mandarin DVD—I feel quite ready.’
He gazed at her. ‘Well, it’ll be mostly small talk, I imagine, but—good luck! You do realize this could bring us a lot of work?’
Alex rose. ‘Simon, that must be the sixth time you’ve told me that—I do. And if you don’t mind I’m off to smell the roses, metaphorically speaking, so—’
‘What’s he like? Max Goodwin?’
Alex turned back to him and searched her mind. ‘Very—clever, I would say. Very used to getting his own way. Very rich.’ She turned towards the door.
‘That I never doubted,’ Simon said dryly. ‘It’s an old family and there’s been a lot of wealth in it for a long time. His grandmother was the daughter of an Italian count and his sister is married to an English baronet. Still, there’s a rumour going round town that a son he never knew existed has made an unexpected appearance in his life.’
Alex turned back again and blinked at her boss. Simon Wellford had a sister, Cilla, who had married rather spectacularly and he often shared titbits of celebrity gossip with his staff.
‘Never knew existed?’ she repeated. ‘How on earth can that happen?’
Simon shrugged. ‘Who knows? There’ve been a few women in Max Goodwin’s life. But word has it, he was, to put it mildly, not amused.’
Alex sat down again. ‘How could you be “not amused” about your own child?’
Simon drummed his fingers on the table. ‘Don’t ask me, Alex. Cilla is a bit piqued because she hasn’t, to date, got any further details.’ He pulled a face as if struck by a sudden thought. ‘And if I were you I wouldn’t put the question to him either.’
Alex sat back. ‘As if I would,’ she said tartly.
‘Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve got the feeling you’re something of a—’ Simon Wellford hesitated ‘—a “do-gooder”.’
‘I’m not. I am,’ Alex corrected herself, ‘but in a strictly non-meddling way. And this has nothing to do with me, although I still can’t understand it.’ She frowned. Simon sat up and pushed his fingers through his gingery hair. ‘I’m sorry I ever told you! Look, don’t let it affect your dealings with Goodwin,’ he requested urgently.
‘Of course I won’t. I intend to be entirely professional about this, Simon,’ she told her boss, ‘believe me.’
At five-thirty, as the autumn dusk was gathering, Alex arrived at the penthouse and her jaw dropped at what she saw.
The last time she’d visited the curtains had been closed on the side of the lounge that led to a pool deck. Now they were open and the pool sparkled with underwater lighting. Not only that, the deck had been screened from the cool night air and bore a startling resemblance to what could be a set of the musical South Pacific. There was a dugout canoe bobbing on the pool, there was a small sandy beach, tropical foliage—real palm trees and hibiscus bushes. There were waiters and waitresses wearing leis, sarongs and grass skirts, there was the lovely music playing softly in the background. The tables that bore the canapés and drinks were covered in palm thatch and strewn with frangipani blooms.
It was all so professionally done, so real, you could imagine yourself on an island in the South Pacific.
Alex closed her mouth and turned to find Margaret Winston at her elbow. ‘This is just brilliant,’ she breathed.
Margaret smiled. ‘We do our best. Now, let me look at you.’
Alex looked down at herself. She wore a filmy black blouse dotted with coin spots of pale grey over a black camisole and a fitted black skirt that came to just above her knees. Her legs gleamed smooth and long beneath sheer stockings and she wore black suede pumps.