Read The Billionaire Boss's Innocent Bride Online
Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
‘All right,’ he said abruptly. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll have the housekeeper show you to your room. I’ve got a couple of free hours to spend with Nicky. I think I’ll take him, and the dog—’ he grimaced ‘—to the beach, so you can relax and put your foot up.’
Not only did the housekeeper show Alex to her room, she brought her tea and an ice pack for her ankle.
It was a delightful guest room. The walls were saffron and the three tall windows had cream wooden frames and calico roman blinds. The floor was wooden and pale smooth beech had been used for the double bed and bedside tables. There were two thick taupe rugs on either side of the bed, and a glass vase crammed with creamy pink-edged tulips on a dresser.
The bedspread was slightly darker than the walls, closer to sandalwood, and the bed was heaped with silk-covered cushions in the pale bluish green of beryl, and lavender.
The en-suite bathroom was a highly polished affair of marble, glass and chrome. There was an inter-leading door to another bedroom. She looked through it to see Nicky’s things in place.
She took a quick shower. Her clothes were already unpacked for her, and she changed into jeans and a jumper. She took her contact lenses out and breathed a sigh of relief as she slipped on her glasses. Then she sank into a linen-covered wingbacked armchair that looked out to a view of an area of the Broadwater known as the Aldershots.
She could see a curve of green channel markers and a yacht travelling north keeping them to its starboard side, which must mean shallow water and sand banks on the starboard side of the markers. The water was glassy and there was little breeze so the yacht was having to tack. Where were they headed? she wondered. She stirred and poured her tea. There was a selection of petit fours to go with it. But it wasn’t the question of which delicious pastry to select that exercised her mind—she ignored them completely—it was the question of how Max Goodwin had read her so accurately.
She was running, in her mind. Running away from a powerful attraction to him that was threatening to overwhelm her, threatening to explode like wild fire through her veins.
She sipped her fragrant tea, then laid her head back. How could it have happened in such a short time, though? She barely knew him—but a part of her mind mocked her as she thought that. Because the fact of the matter was, she apparently absorbed the essence of Max Goodwin through her pores.
And it wasn’t only his physique or those austere good looks either. She enjoyed his company. Sitting beside him at lunch today had seen her, surprisingly, forget all about her feelings of ill-use. Even as she’d had to concentrate, it had been an experience to savour. She’d appreciated his quick wit and she had to acknowledge he had a charismatic side to him that was fascinating and not only to her. But the physical had touched her too: his hands, the way he put his head on one side and propped his jaw on his fingers when he was in contemplation mode—why should that affect her physically? she wondered. Give her a little frisson down the length of her spine? Yet it had…
Then the curious encounter she’d just left behind her, when the feel of his fingers on her ankle had brought her a bouquet of sensations, a flowering of feelings that gave every intimation of heart-stopping delight.
It had never happened to her before, partly, no doubt, because she’d never let any man get really close to her, but had that lulled her into a false sense of security, so to speak? Had she come to doubt her capacity for these feelings?
She rubbed her forehead and thought suddenly of Paul O’Hara. It was hard not to feel vaguely complimented by his unspoken admiration, she mused. And he’d been a pleasant lunch companion, well spoken, well read, witty at times, and there was obviously a rapport between him and Max, but it had drawn no similar response from her other than rather liking him. Paul’s almost instantaneous attraction to her had reminded her of her father, though, she realized with her lips curving into a smile. He’d always claimed he’d seen her mother’s profile at a crowded New Year’s Eve party and fallen in love with her before he’d even been able to battle his way to her side.
But there was also the concern she’d seen twice now in Paul O’Hara’s gaze; something seemed to tell her it was concern for her. Yes, possibly over a twisted ankle today, but yesterday there’d been that question mark, the definite question mark, about her relationship with Max Goodwin.
She went still as it occurred to her that, as part of the family, Max’s cousin probably knew better than most that Max and Cathy would never get over each other.
But they’d been apart for six years, hadn’t they? And not that long ago he’d claimed he hadn’t even thought about her for a long time.
She stared out of the window unseeingly. On the other hand, he hadn’t married anyone else in six years and, surely, if there was a significant woman in his life she’d be part of these social functions for the Chinese consortium delegation?
She shook her head and forced herself to concentrate on what was the crux of the matter for her—if Max Goodwin was not for her, she’d learnt one thing in life painfully well and it was that losing people you loved could be agonizing. Even four years on she remembered all too well the sudden void in her life brought on by the loss of her parents. The disbelief, the certainty that it was a nightmare, and the way she’d expected them to walk through the door for months and months. The loneliness, the panic attacks because you were so alone.
Her Mother Superior’s passing had not been so completely unexpected, but it hadn’t been a long illness, and then that terrible void again that had reminded her so much of the first one.
And surely Max Goodwin had all the hallmarks of not being for her…
She moved restlessly and thought, It’s not only that.
Apart from those few fleeting moments when she’d thought she’d sensed something between them, he’d given no other sign he’d been struck by this strange fever, this unquenchable thirst…
She had to smile slightly at her flowery imagery, but it was a wistful little smile all the same. And she found herself wondering if there was a current woman in his life, perhaps not significant but…?
She sat up and put her cup down as she heard sounds indicating that Nicky and Nemo had returned from the beach. She would have to be very careful there. Bad enough to have his father clutch her heartstrings, but both of them!
So, yes, it could be well and truly said that she was running away. She’d just have to be less obvious about it. She’d have to be on guard, but at least for the next three days she could also be her practical, down-to-earth self.
She didn’t meet Max again until dinner.
She hadn’t planned on eating alone with him, but when she’d suggested to the housekeeper that she might eat with the rest of the staff, the idea had been knocked smartly on the head.
She was told that Mr Goodwin had ordered dinner for seven-thirty, with Miss Hill. They were seated on the terrace at a small table. The larger tables had been cleared away and the clear plastic blinds had been lowered to keep out the cool night air. The lights on the jetty were reflecting in the indigo waters beyond and two flaming braziers lit the steps down to it.
They were consuming another elegant meal, seafood chowder followed by a veal and mushroom casserole—Alex had the feeling that nothing less than elegant and delicious was ever served in this house.
‘How did you get on with Nicky after I brought him back from the beach?’ Max queried and looked around with a grimace. ‘It’s very quiet and peaceful.’ Max’s hair still looked wind-ruffled, Alex noted.
‘Fine. We drew and coloured in—he’s very artistic. We played Snakes and Ladders and Snap and that took us up to his supper time.’ She smiled suddenly. ‘He requested fish fingers, to the horror of your housekeeper—she didn’t have any—
but in the end he was perfectly happy with fresh fish and home-made chips.’
Alex paused and laid down her knife and fork to raise her wine glass to her lips. After she’d sipped the golden liquid, she added, ‘His previous nanny, if not his grandmother or his mother, seems to have instilled a good routine. By seven o’clock, after we took Nemo for a walk, he was ready for bed with no fuss, no bother.’ She paused again. ‘He calls you Max.’
Max Goodwin studied her thoughtfully. Gone were the elegant outfits—she was back to ultra-casual: jeans and a jumper. Gone also was any semblance of makeup, although she hadn’t been able to restore her hair to its former unmanageable, mousey knot. And her glasses were back on. But without the layers of extra clothing she’d worn the first time he’d met her, her lean, slim lines were evident and easy on the eye. He even caught himself on the thought that it was a pity those long, slim, gorgeous legs were covered up…
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘There seemed to be a bit of difficulty with Dad, so I suggested it.’
Alex glanced at him, then resumed eating her veal. ‘How did you get on with him?’
she asked presently.
Max Goodwin pushed his plate away. ‘He’s disconcertingly like me in some ways.’
‘That’s not so surprising,’ she said with a humorous little look and couldn’t help herself asking, ‘What way, particularly?’
Max stared towards the braziers and Alex followed the line of his gaze to watch their pale smoke wreath against the navy sky and to see the hearts of the orange flames resemble molten gold. ‘He doesn’t take much on trust.’
‘Do you think she, his mother—?’ She stopped and looked down at her plate.
‘What?’ he queried, returning his gaze to her.
‘Nothing,’ she murmured, and pushed her own plate away. ‘That was delicious. Would it be too much to hope one isn’t about to be tempted by a dessert you simply can’t refuse?’
‘Do I think his mother—what, Alex?’
‘Look, it’s none of my business.’
‘You’ve told me that before, but you are virtually replacing her and we have spent several hours now, you and I, virtually joined at the hip.’
She looked up to see him watching her with a noticeable spark of irony in his eyes. She took a little breath. ‘That doesn’t mean to say—’
‘Oh, for crying out aloud! You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t curious.’ He thumped his empty glass down on the tablecloth.
She scowled suddenly. ‘All right! I was just wondering how she explained your absence at the same time as telling him you were wonderful!’
‘I have no idea,’ he said moodily. Then he closed his eyes briefly. ‘Cathy was, probably still is, like Scheherazade. She’s an artist, she paints, and if there’s such a thing as an artistic temperament she has it in spades. She’s quixotic, she can turn life with her into an Aladdin’s cave of delight or the opposite. She comes and goes between you and her art—or whatever takes her fancy. She’s impossible to pin down but she can be irresistible. She’d have spun Nicky some tale. What she may not have taken into account is—’ He stopped and shrugged.
‘Just as there was a threshold over and above which you couldn’t suspend disbelief, Nicky has his own thresholds?’
The only sound for a long moment was the water lapping against the jetty. Then the soft chink of crockery came from the direction of the kitchen and the lovely aroma of fresh coffee wafted on the air.
And Max Goodwin said, ‘You’re extraordinarily perceptive for a twenty-one-year-old with such a convent background. How come?’
Alex pushed her wine glass away and looked at him with the slightest hint of hauteur. ‘I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on my convent background. I was reading widely, and discussing it with my parents, from an early age. You could say they gave me a classic education. Enough to know, anyway, that relationships come in all shapes and sizes. Besides which you only have to look at her to see the allure she possesses and you only have to listen to her to know there’s a passion, a fire in her, whether it’s misdirected or not.’
She paused for a moment. ‘And if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Mr Goodwin, one doesn’t have to know you for long to realize that if you don’t get what you want, your tolerance threshold is quite limited.’
‘Thank you,’ he said courteously. ‘You say that as if it’s something you’ve been dying to get off your chest. So that’s it,’ he added.
‘That’s what?’ She looked puzzled.
‘Feminine solidarity. You have me well and truly figured for the villain of the piece despite your wide and classical education.’
Alex was forced to wait as the housekeeper appeared to clear their dishes and bring a fruit bowl together with the coffee and some hot biscuits. As she waited she reflected that it was not a judgement she would make, that he was the villain of the piece—she was fairly sure there were two sides to the story, and feminine solidarity was not something she indulged in mindlessly. But it also occurred to her that to have him think this might provide her with some camouflage…
She couldn’t quite bring herself to say it, though, so as she plucked a bloomy purple grape from the fruit bowl she simply shrugged.
‘So be it,’ he murmured, and raked his hand through his hair in a gesture of savage impatience.
For some reason Alex felt a smile tremble on her lips.
‘I don’t see anything amusing,’ he remarked cuttingly.
‘No. It’s just—’ she hesitated ‘—well, if you thought I’d been dying to get something off my chest, I thought I detected a heartfelt urge in you to say—women!’
He stared at her expressionlessly, his eyes dark and moody. Then the ghost of a smile touched them. ‘You were right.’ But the smile disappeared and any common amusement they might have shared was stillborn.
Alex laid her napkin on the table and wondered how to excuse herself.
‘Have you ever been in love?’ he said out of the blue and his sombre gaze captured hers.
‘No.’ She looked away as soon as she said the word and blinked. Why had it come out sounding curiously forlorn?
‘Or anywhere close to it?’ he persisted.
Unwillingly she returned her gaze to his. ‘Not really, but why do you want to know?’
He watched her narrowly, in silence, for a long moment. ‘Perhaps you should take into consideration, then, that even a classical education doesn’t quite prepare you for—’ he paused ‘—for the highs and the lows, not to mention the mysteries of it.’