Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
THE Sovereign Islands sat in the Gold Coast Broadwater and were, Alex knew, arguably one of its most prestigious addresses. Houses that weren’t mansions only fell short of it by a small margin; the rest were. All of them had waterfront access either directly onto the Broadwater or linked to it by a series of canals. The Broadwater itself was protected from the might of the ocean by South Stradbroke Island and was a boating paradise. It shared its bounty, its white beaches, its slate-green mangroves and darker casuarinas, not only with sailors and fishermen, but a rich tapestry of bird life from pelicans and oystercatchers to migratory whimbrels. To Brahminy kites, sea eagles and even, although rarely, the black and white, long red-legged jabiru, big birds that looked as if they were dancing through the shallows as they fished.
There were dolphins in the waters and wild wallabies on shore on South Stradbroke. The City of the Gold Coast to the south was a high-rise Mecca of sophisticated shopping and dining, but out in a dinghy for a day’s fishing north of the Sovereign Islands, in a mangrove inlet, you could feel you were a million miles from anywhere. It had been a swift, fifty-minute drive in the Bentley down the motorway after Alex had thrown some things into a bag. Because of the presence of Nicky, the conversation had been limited to the mundane or to do with the upcoming lunch. Nemo, thankfully, had slept most of the way.
Nicky had imparted the information that Nemo still chewed things and occasionally forgot his toilet training, but he was improving all the time. It also made sense of Nicky’s wanting her as his nanny. Nemo, if Alex was any judge, would be a trial to many, whereas she genuinely loved dogs.
Max Goodwin had absorbed this information without comment, but the little glance he’d flicked Alex, sitting next to him in the front seat, had made her want to laugh. It was the only thing she felt like laughing about, though. She was still annoyed and curiously apprehensive about the situation she’d been landed in. The Goodwin mansion faced north and occupied three blocks. It was Tuscan in design, two-storeyed with terracotta roof tiles and soft apricot plastered walls. The studded double front door was flanked by unfluted columns. It stood open as Max brought the Bentley to a smooth halt on the semi-circular driveway. A car jockey in a red jacket and black trousers sprang into action.
He opened the door for Alex and bowed her out of the car. Max got out and tossed him the keys, greeting him by name: Stan.
Stan saluted and returned the greeting. He also assured Max that he’d put the Bentley in the garage with the utmost care. And he was quite unfazed by the presence of one small boy plus dog, so Alex guessed the news had filtered down. She took a deep breath and climbed the front steps carefully in her unfamiliar high heels with Max Goodwin and his son following her.
The hall was cool and dim, but it led through the width of the house to a vast stoneflagged terrace that was bright and colourful and overlooked the sparkling waters of the Broadwater.
There were no guests present on the terrace, but there was a woman directing several waiters. And Jake Frost was in attendance.
Two long tables were set for lunch, set so beautifully Alex’s eyes widened. Apart from a magnificent dinner service and crystal glassware, the table appointments consisted of long narrow gilded planter boxes crammed with real live pansies and violets.
The cutlery handles were ebony inlaid with gold. The cloths and napkins were linen and the same soft apricot of the walls. The water pitchers were encased in delicate gold filigree.
It was a work of art, Alex concluded, and when you added the lemon and orange trees in terracotta tubs dotted about and the view beyond, it was a magic setting. In fact it was Nicky who summed it all up in one word.
‘Wow!’ he said, and Nemo added his approval.
‘Well, young man,’ Jake said to Nicky, ‘do we have a treat in store for you! Your favourite DVD, I believe, and hamburgers for lunch. Hello, Miss Hill! Now, Nemo, having seen what you can do, a word in your ear.’ And he walked away taking Nicky and the dog with him, but Nicky turned back and waved at Alex. ‘Don’t forget, you’re my real nanny!’
Jake stopped and looked over his shoulder at his employer with a faint frown.
‘Slight change of plan, Jake,’ Max said. ‘I didn’t get a chance to let you know. Alex will—help out. By the way, she’s staying down here for a few nights—her bag’s in the boot. I forgot.’
‘Alex!’ Nicky called.
‘I won’t forget,’ Alex promised. They disappeared indoors and she turned to Max Goodwin.
‘I really appreciate you doing this out of the goodness of your heart, Alex,’ he got in first.
‘I’m only doing it because you gave me no choice,’ she responded tartly. ‘Without being cruel to kids and animals!’ she added with some satire. ‘Look, I appreciate your—’ she gestured as she sought for an appropriate word ‘—dilemma—’
‘For want of a better word?’ he broke in. ‘My disastrous domestic situation could say it better.’
‘Whatever. It’s none of my business, but I don’t appreciate being manipulated like that. What?’ she queried as he looked over her shoulder.
‘The guests are arriving.’
It was a lunch she was to remember with an air of unreality.
Max Goodwin commanded one table with Alex at his side and his vice-president the other with Mr Li next to him. Paul O’Hara was at Max’s table seated opposite Alex and once again he couldn’t conceal the admiration in his eyes when he caught Alex’s gaze.
The fare was on a par with the setting: smoked salmon with lemon juice and capers on wholemeal toast to start and washed down with champagne. The staff, discreetly commanded, were expert. Rack of lamb sprinkled with rosemary followed and individual very Australian pavlovas garnished with passion fruit and cream followed the cheese boards.
The speeches were quite short and had been pre-prepared and distributed in both languages so, again, it was conversation Alex had to deal with. She did so with only a slight stammer or two to start with as she tried to push everything that had happened out of her mind.
And finally it was over and the guests started to depart.
She stood beside Max but a step behind as they bowed their farewells. But as the last of the guests left and Paul O’Hara approached she went to turn away rather precipitously, but her unfamiliar high heels betrayed her and she tripped. She gave a gasp of pain as her ankle twisted.
Whereupon Max Goodwin strode up to her and picked her up in his arms. ‘I’ll catch up with you later, Paul,’ he said over his shoulder But while Max didn’t see it, Alex saw that frown of concern again in Paul O’Hara’s eyes and again she wondered why—
before she turned her head away.
‘I don’t need—’ she began.
‘Don’t say a word,’ Max advised and carried her into a small sitting room, chintzy and comfortable with the blinds half drawn against the afternoon sun. It was a cool, soothing room with a bowl of pink roses delicately scenting the air. He put her down in an armchair, closed the door and pulled up a padded footstool. He pulled off his jacket, loosened his tie, then he sat down on the footstool and lifted the ankle she’d twisted onto his lap and pulled off her shoe, all with careful consideration.
He felt her ankle. ‘We need to talk, anyway, Alex. It would be fair to say I’ve been literally sandbagged, which doesn’t happen to me often,’ he said dryly. ‘So I need all the help I can get.’ He started to massage her ankle, then he said, ‘Does this come off? Your stocking?’
‘I mean on its own or are you wearing tights?’
She grimaced. ‘On its own.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘I wouldn’t have taken you for a suspender-belt girl, but there you go.’
‘You would have been right,’ she replied, but with a scowl. ‘I’m wearing knee-highs.’
She sat up and rolled up her trouser leg to reveal a stocking that ended above her knee.
‘Oh. Well, I’m sure they’re very practical but—’
‘Not essentially seductive? No, they’re not. Ouch,’ she added as he rolled the offending stocking down over her ankle, but said immediately, ‘Why would you be so sandbagged if you’ve known about Nicky for a month?’ She stared at him. ‘I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing and—’ She paused. She’d been about to say it was actually common knowledge anyway, but decided not to.
He didn’t reply immediately. His fingers were cool on her skin as he started to massage again and there was something curiously mesmerizing about it, Alex found, as the pain began to subside.
There was also something entirely unreal about the situation, it suddenly occurred to her. Here she was, extremely annoyed with a man she found diabolically arrogant, but not at all annoyed with his handling of her. She was sitting back with her ankle in his hands being restored by the pressure of his long, strong fingers. It didn’t take a great leap of imagination to imagine those same fingers exploring her body and imparting a sense of well-being if not to say sizzling sensuality—she went hot and cold at the thought.
‘I didn’t want to believe it at first,’ he said eventually. ‘And even when it proved to be true I—I just couldn’t visualize it. I hadn’t seen Cathy for over six years. She moved to Perth, which is a hell of a long way away. It’s almost like a different country, WA, and my headquarters are up here.’ He grimaced.
He stopped massaging and looked into Alex’s eyes. ‘I couldn’t believe it was true at first but I couldn’t argue with the tests. And I was still furious with Cathy but I kept thinking—a son…So I was set to fly to Perth immediately but Cathy asked me not to. She said she needed a bit more time to get Nicky used to the idea.’ He paused and shrugged. ‘I’ve been living on tenterhooks ever since.’
Alex absorbed this and thought a little more charitably about Nicky’s mother.
‘And…now?’ she queried quietly.
‘Now? It was like being punched in the guts. The first words he said to me last night were, “Are you really my father? I didn’t actually believe I had one.” Now?’ he repeated with a nerve flickering in his jaw. ‘I won’t rest until he knows he has a father he can rely on.’
It had all been said quietly, but Alex could see the intensity behind it and the resolution. She looked away and blinked back a tear.
‘So that’s why,’ Max Goodwin said as he resumed massaging her ankle, ‘I’m prepared to go to quite some lengths to make this work out. And you—’ he gazed at her thoughtfully for a moment ‘—seem to have an intrinsic way with kids. How come?’
She explained. ‘We used to get kids from way out west, boarders from Dirranbandi, Thargomindah and so on who were terribly homesick at first—it just seemed to come naturally to me.’
‘Would it be so difficult for you to help me out at least with Nicky?’ he queried.
‘Would you feel it was an awful comedown from your position as interpreter, perhaps?’ He smiled faintly.
Alex shook her head. ‘No, of course not. It was just the way you did it.’
‘I had to think fast and on my feet,’ he murmured, ‘but I apologize.’
‘The only thing is—’ Alex looked uneasy ‘—it’s no good letting him come to rely on me.’
‘No. But by the time this is over, his grandmother should be out of hospital, his mother available and he and I will have got to know each other better.’
Alex reclaimed her foot. ‘Thank you. That feels better and I think an ice pack will fix it. Uh—no, I don’t mind helping out with Nicky for a few days. So long as you understand it—it can’t be more than that.’
Max Goodwin stared at her narrowly and thoughtfully. ‘You say that with more conviction than seems necessary. Why, I wonder?’ he queried.
Alex drew a discreet breath and made a little gesture. ‘It’s just that these things can…balloon. That’s all.’
He stood up and walked over to the window with his hands shoved in his pockets. ‘I guess you’re wondering how this could have happened in the first place.’
‘Not really.’ She had no intention of going into the obviously tortured relationship that had existed between Max Goodwin and Nicky’s mother, although…‘Is there no hope of you putting your differences behind you—for Nicky’s sake?’
He turned away from the window and his face was set in harsh lines. ‘She was right. It was either heaven or hell and very little in between. Anyway—’ he lifted his shoulders ‘—it’s quite conceivable I may never have got to know about him. Would you find that easy to forgive?’
Alex stood up and put some weight on her foot. It didn’t seem to be too bad. ‘Uh—I don’t think it’s a question of that now, it’s a question of what’s best for your son. But, look, it has nothing to do with me. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and find him.’
She got to the door before he spoke, and it was a question that caused her maximum discomfort.
‘What are you running away from, Alex?’
She turned back very slowly and her surprise, although it was surprise that he should have guessed her emotions, not surprise at the question, was not feigned.
‘What do you mean?’
He rubbed his jaw and frowned. ‘I don’t know. I just get the feeling you can’t wait to get away.’
‘No.’ She swallowed. ‘I’m not—I’m fine—I mean I’d just like to get changed, maybe have a cup of tea, that’s all.’
He studied her remorselessly, from head to toe. The amazingly transformed lovely cloud of fair, curly hair, the smart but discreet trouser suit, her shoes in her hand and her expression. That of someone caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, he decided.
Why? A moral sense of disgust? Not so unexpected, perhaps, from a girl with a very religious background. And yet, although he’d mistaken her for eighteen at first sight, she was a very mature twenty-one most of the time. She’d handled herself exceptionally well as an interpreter; he had no doubt there was an excellent intellect there. Matters of the flesh might be—another matter, however, he conceded.
Had she ever responded to a man, given herself in love or lust? Had those lovely eyes ever widened and her lips parted as she’d reached a pinnacle of rapture with a man?
Why was he wondering these things, though? Human nature for a red-blooded male, or a genuine desire to know what made his interpreter tick?