Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
She could think of nothing to say and it was he who excused himself. He stood up. ‘I’m going to do some work, but please make use of the den—there’s a television in there as well as books—if you’d like. Goodnight.’
He turned and walked away to disappear inside.
Alex stared after him and found herself close to tears. His words, before he’d excused himself, had been even and quiet, but the lines of his face and the shadows in his eyes had revealed an inner tension, a torment even, that had to lead straight back to Cathy Spencer, and her heart bled for him…
It wouldn’t have been much consolation for Alex to know that she was right but also quite wrong…
Max Goodwin poured himself a brandy and closed himself into his study after he walked away from her. He sat down at his desk, threaded two fingers around the stem of the balloon glass and mentally examined several points that had arisen out of his conversation with Alex.
He thought of the highs and lows he’d experienced with Cathy Spencer and the scars they’d left him with. In the six years since he and Cathy had parted ways he’d allowed no woman to get really close to him despite telling himself time and again he was over it.
How ironic that proof of it should come in the form of a girl one would never have thought was his type yet, within a matter of days, a girl who had slipped under his radar and taken a position in his life—in his heart, even?
Why else would he be perfectly content to have her in his home? Why else would he appreciate so much how she was with Nicky, the little boy who had so quickly captured his heart? And there was no doubt he’d looked forward to having her company for dinner, no doubt he wanted to know everything there was to know about her, and he couldn’t deny being physically stirred by her. He took a sip of brandy and crossed his hands behind his head. Why else would he find it annoying to think she sided with Cathy…?
But that was just one example of why Alexandra Hill was not for him, or, more precisely, why he was not for her; this girl who’d only just stepped out of a most sheltered background, who found his past history somewhat distasteful. A girl who’d never even fallen in love—did she deserve someone as world-weary as he was or did she deserve some nice young man with a clean record, in a manner of speaking? A chance to spread her wings and have some fun?
He frowned suddenly as that thought seemed to strike a chord, but he couldn’t place it, and his thoughts wandered on.
Why, he asked himself, had it happened at a time when there was the distinct possibility the only way to work through the Nicky problem was to marry his mother?
THE next three days were mostly peaceful.
Both Jake Frost and Max had gone back to Brisbane and the household relaxed a little.
Alex and Nicky explored the islands with Nemo, they swam, they walked to the nearest shopping village of Paradise Point with its pleasant beach and they fished off the jetty.
The pool area of the Tuscan villa was especially beautiful. Enclosed in a walled garden, the pool was surrounded by thick emerald lawn and the walls were smothered in a variety of creepers; honeysuckle and jasmine scented the air and the starry little flowers of port-wine magnolia studded the dark green of its foliage. There were beds of creamy-white gardenias and glossy-leaved camellia bushes.
In one corner sat a quaint gazebo with a cupola roof. It looked faintly oriental or, Alex thought, like someone’s ‘folly’, but Nicky loved it. He had a toy gun and it gave him a lot of pleasure to clamber around the gazebo or hide under its benches or behind its lattice screens and ambush imaginary villains. Nemo always assisted in these operations, pressing his belly to the ground and creeping forward, then erupting into action with a volley of barks.
A very normal little boy and his dog, Alex thought for the most part, although just occasionally Nicky’s refusal to be parted from Nemo under any circumstances caused even her to think once: Yes, you are a lot like your father, Nicky. He always gets his own way too.
Fortunately, the housekeeper, Mrs Mills, as well as being superb at her job, was also good with both dogs and kids. Between them, she and Alex, they managed to establish some rules for Nemo and Nicky, some absolutely no-go zones and some rituals, frequent walks being one of them. Mrs Mills also had a grandson of Nicky’s age who lived close by, and the two boys had taken to each other. Max came home around four in the afternoon but for the first two evenings he drove back to Brisbane as soon as Nicky had gone to sleep.
On the third day, though, he arrived early afternoon, told them he’d be staying overnight and that Alex would be working with him the next day. He sweetened that news with an offer to take them out on the water.
There was a sleek, fast-looking little boat pulled up on a concrete slipway at one end of the waterfront.
Stan, who was not only car jockey on social occasions but gardener and boat wrangler, released it into the water and brought it up to the jetty. Alex had been very tempted to leave Nicky and Max alone on this expedition, but when Nicky inevitably refused to leave Nemo behind, then made it plain he wouldn’t go without Alex either, she had no choice.
‘This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen,’ she murmured to Max as she climbed into the boat.
‘I think he may be nervous,’ Max replied and turned to Nicky. ‘Have you ever been in a boat before?’
‘No,’ the little boy replied. ‘Is it going to tip over if I move to the side?’
‘No. Look.’ Max moved to the side himself, and Nicky relaxed after a moment. ‘But we will wear life jackets because that’s the law for kids and it’s not a bad idea for adults,’ Max added.
‘What about Nemo?’ Nicky enquired.
‘Haven’t got one for him.’ Max grinned. ‘So we’ll leave his lead on and tie it to this bar.’
A few minutes later they cruised away from the jetty at a sedate speed. Half an hour later, Nicky had released his vice-like grip of Alex’s hand and was standing beside Max in front of the centre console, thoroughly enjoying himself as he steered the boat and the spray divided under the bow and wind whistled through their hair.
Alex patted Nemo, who was quite overwhelmed for once in his life, and watched father and son. She could only approve of Max’s approach to Nicky. He didn’t make a fuss of the boy, but he’d obviously awakened Nicky’s interest. In fact she’d seen Nicky look at him with a tinge of awe last afternoon when Max had come home and had spent the couple of hours before Nicky’s dinnertime showing him how to fly a kite.
He’d brought the kite home with him and they’d gone to the beach, all bundled up, to take advantage of a stiffish breeze.
It was not only Nicky who’d studied Max with a tinge of awe as he’d effortlessly managed to get the kite soaring; she herself had, although for very different reasons.
Nicky had made his sentiments plain when he’d asked Max if he would one day be big and strong and able to fly kites.
‘Sure,’ Max had replied easily and ruffled the little boy’s hair. ‘But you’ll be able to fly kites sooner than that. Here, have a go.’
Whereas she’d had to acknowledge that the sight of his tall, athletic body had sent a shiver down her spine, not of cold or fear, but desire…
When they got home from their spin in the boat, a glowing Nicky was to find another treat in store: an early barbecue dinner for them all. Stan had lit the barbecue on the lawn and Mrs Mills had set all the ingredients out. There were comfortable, cushioned basket chairs around a wooden table, and two more braziers, identical to the ones that lit the steps down to the jetty, had been lit.
‘Steak, sausages, seafood—take your pick,’ Max said.
‘Sausages!’ Nicky chose immediately. ‘On bread with tomato sauce. Yippee!’
‘You’re easy to please,’ Max said and grinned. ‘Alex?’
She chose steak and some fish and they talked desultorily as he cooked the food with Nicky playing happily around them as the stars came out and the wind dropped. Mrs Mills might have thoughtfully provided a typical small boy’s favourite fare, but she’d also provided a green salad and new potatoes drizzled with garlic butter for the adults as well as warm, crusty rolls.
And when Nicky showed signs of flagging, a bit earlier than usual and before Alex and Max had finished their meals, she came to take him to bed.
‘Thanks, that was nice,’ he said to Max.
‘My pleasure, Nicky. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight…’ Nicky hesitated and Alex held her breath as she got the feeling he was toying with what to call Max, but in the end he just said goodnight again. Alex watched him go off with Mrs Mills, then turned to Max. ‘I don’t think calling you Dad is far off,’ she said quietly.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘It hasn’t been that long.’
No, Alex found herself thinking, but then it doesn’t take long—less than a week in my case…
She moved a little restlessly in her chair. ‘No, but I get the feeling he’s impressed.’
She helped herself to some more of Mrs Mills’ delicious green bean salad. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Back at the ranch, as they say?’ He smiled a shade grimly. ‘Some tough wheeling and dealing is taking place, all couched in impeccably polite terms. But tomorrow should be relaxing. It’s the golf day here on the Coast at Sanctuary Cove.’
Alex wondered why he sounded sceptical about the beneficial aspects of a day’s golf, but she said nothing.
‘Do you play golf?’ he queried.
‘Yes. My father was quite a—well, a mad keen golfer. Not that I’ve played for ages.’
She looked at him warily all of a sudden. ‘I’m not expected to actually play tomorrow?’
‘No. You can drive the buggy. It’s only men—playing, that is.’ He pushed his plate away and stretched. ‘I can’t think of anything worse.’
‘Don’t you play golf?’ Alex enquired with a frown. ‘If not, why—?’
‘I play off a three handicap; like your father I can be quite mad and quite keen on my golf, but for some reason I’m not looking forward to tomorrow. What I really like is to be able to concentrate exclusively on my game.’
Alex studied him. He was dressed casually again and his hair was ruffled. He looked anything but a high-flying executive at the moment, but she could picture him on a golf course, driving the ball with flair and putting with precision. Her lips quirked as she said, ‘How did it get onto the agenda, then?’
‘It was requested, that’s how. And it didn’t seem a bad idea at the time.’
‘Would it be impossible to withdraw?’
He cast her a speaking look. ‘No, but I won’t be withdrawing.’
‘You could be tired,’ she suggested. ‘It’s been—hectic.’
He stretched out his legs and clasped his hands behind his head. ‘Hectic,’ he repeated. ‘Not easy to relax, certainly.’
‘How do you relax?’ Alex asked.
‘Wine, women and song,’ he replied flippantly and turned his head to study her reaction.
She looked away awkwardly and he laughed with—not that she was to know it—selfdirected irony. ‘You’re quite safe with me, Alex.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t say that—’ she scowled, suddenly fired from awkward to annoyed ‘—with quite so much conviction!’
‘I thought it would be reassuring.’
‘It’s more than that,’ she stated. ‘I mean, I don’t mind being reassured, but I do object to being made to feel like the last woman on the planet you would find desirable.’
‘I didn’t mean to make you feel like that. Come to think of it, I’ve paid you some extravagant compliments and made it clear you looked sexy enough for most men—’
‘In the most backhanded way,’ Alex broke in.
He sat up. ‘Well, what would you like me to do?’
Alex stared at him, her outrage still plain to be seen, but it was also slipping away fast…
‘Oh, dear,’ she said, looking down the barrel of having made a fool of herself, not to mention quite possibly giving herself away. ‘That may not have come out quite right. Is there any possibility you could understand it was nothing personal?’
‘Nothing?’ he queried.
‘Maybe just my vanity,’ she conceded, after accusing herself mentally of being a liar as well as a fool.
He smiled and watched her for a moment, and thought how young, troubled and essentially innocent she looked. She was also probably the least vain female he knew, yet it was only human to resent being told she was ‘quite safe’ in that context, and curiously lovable.
As for wine, women and song, not that she’d ever know it, but it might not have been so far off the mark. Well, a nightcap maybe, some favourite music in the den, a girl in his arms on the wide, comfortable settee, to relax him from his highpressure business life. This girl?
Especially this girl, he thought with an indrawn breath. How sweet would it be to initiate her into the rituals of love-making? To make her gasp with desire and focus those beautiful eyes solely on him, to very slowly bring alive all her most sensitive erogenous zones. To possess that slender figure, those stunning legs and to be the one to meld the different elements of her personality, her sense of humour, that keen intellect and the scholarly side of her into warm, lovely womanhood…
He gritted his teeth suddenly and forced his mind back to her last remark. ‘Uh—
yes, I understand perfectly. I’m sorry—’ a smile appeared fleetingly in his eyes ‘—I didn’t realize I was making you feel like that. Actually, going back to what led up to this, one thing I really like to do to relax is fish. I even have a favourite spot that I go up to a couple of times a year. Seisia, but not many people have heard of it.’
Alex, who had listened to his apology and deliberate change of subject with an inward sigh of relief, sat up alertly. ‘The port of Bamaga? On Cape York?’
‘The same,’ he agreed with a quizzical look. ‘You know it?’
She nodded. ‘I spent a holiday there with my parents. My father was also—talk about a mad, keen golfer, he was a fanatical fisherman. Oh! I loved it. We drove up in a four-wheel drive we’d hired and we camped at the holiday park, then we went back to Cairns on a cargo ship, the Trinity Bay.’
‘I know it well.’
‘But…’ She looked puzzled, for there was little at Seisia she could associate Max Goodwin with, unless…‘Oh, I get it. You probably hire one of those extremely expensive fishing boats that go out into the Gulf of Carpentaria from Seisia for weeks at a time. Or do you own your own?’
‘I deny that charge. But, yes, I hire one, although I usually only manage a week at the most. How did you fish?’
Alex smiled. ‘Off the jetty—it’s supposed to be the best fishing jetty in Australia—
and the beach. And we took a dinghy trip up the Jardine River. It was so beautiful and so remote.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I’ll never forget the colours of twilight.’
‘Blue on blue?’
Her lashes fluttered up. ‘Yes. Violet, wisteria, slate-blue. So beautiful!’
There was a discreet cough behind them and Alex had no idea that a man had been standing there for about a minute with his eyes fixed on her glowing expression directed at Max Goodwin—Paul O’Hara.
Then they both turned and he came forward. ‘Hi, Max! Mrs Mills let me in and told me I’d find you out here. Hello, Miss Hill!’
‘Paul,’ Max said pleasantly, ‘come and join us. What are you doing down here?’
Paul pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘I booked into the Hyatt at Sanctuary Cove for the night rather than driving down tomorrow morning for the golf. So I thought I’d toddle over and fill you in on the afternoon’s proceedings. I didn’t expect to—’ He stopped.
‘Expect to find Alex here? She’s taken on another job for me,’ Max said unexpansively. ‘How did it go?’
Alex pushed herself upright. ‘If you’ll excuse me I’ll leave you to it,’ she said.
‘You don’t have to go on my account, Miss Hill,’ Paul O’Hara said eagerly, and didn’t see the sudden, narrowed glance his cousin cast him.
For a moment Alex was subject to a lunatic urge to tell him that she thought he was probably very nice and in any other circumstances she’d like to know him better. All she said, however, was, ‘Thanks, but I’ve got a good book calling to me. Goodnight.’ And she walked away.
Nicky was fast asleep with a night light on and with Nemo snuggled up beside him. Alex grimaced. Somehow Nicky was going to have to learn to be parted from the dog but how, she didn’t know.
And she wandered over to a painting that hung on the wall, a small but vibrant canvas of a seashore with two black oyster catchers with their red beaks in the foreground. It was signed in one corner—Cathy Spencer.
When she’d first noticed it she’d asked Mrs Mills about it.
‘Oh, I rescued it from a cupboard,’ Mrs Mills had told her. ‘I remember when she gave it to Mr Goodwin—she told him not to part with it because one day it would be worth a lot of money. He laughed and promised.’ Mrs Mills had broken off with a sigh. ‘They were lovely together then. Perhaps I only saw the good side of them, but I can’t help hoping, well, especially now with Nicky, they could come together again. I think they should. Anyway, I thought Nicky might like to have something of his mum with him.’