Read The Billionaire Boss's Innocent Bride Online
Authors: Lindsay Armstrong
Alex came back to the present and turned from the painting to the sleeping boy. Although he was so like Max, she did sometimes see his mother in him, and it tore at her heartstrings suddenly to think of him being shuttled backwards and forwards between his father and mother.
They should put aside their differences, she thought, and brushed away a solitary tear. They really should.
She showered and changed into her pyjamas and climbed into bed with her book, only to find it not nearly as gripping as she’d hoped although she persevered, rather grimly, until she felt sleepy. Then she switched off the bedside lamp, and was immediately wide awake but, not only that, in the grip of some sad memories. And she realized it was the memories of Seisia.
No, don’t go down that road, she warned herself. Think of the here and now…
But the house was quiet and there was nothing to distract her. She jumped out of bed as it got harder to breathe. Action or exercise was what she needed—Can’t lie down and let it trap me, she thought chaotically.
She grabbed her glasses, slipped out of her bedroom and ran lightly downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. But she couldn’t find the light and what she really needed was a paper bag to breathe into, but she had no idea where to find that; she could only stand in the middle of the floor, flapping her arms as she fought to breathe.
The central light flicked on revealing the state-of-the-art kitchen in all its glory: black marble counters and floor, cream cabinets, stainless steel appliances—and Max stood there, still fully dressed.
‘Alex?’ he said incredulously. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Can’t breathe,’ she panted. ‘Can’t—a paper—need a paper bag,’ she gasped.
‘Asthma?’ he queried as he strode forward.
‘A panic attack? What—? Never mind.’ He gathered her into his arms. ‘Shush—no one is going to hurt you, I promise. Calm down—no—’ he resisted as she fought to free herself ‘—do as I say, Alex. Relax. You can do it.’
‘A b-bag,’ she stammered.
‘I have no idea where they are, if there are any.’
Her chest rose and fell erratically as she tried to fill her lungs with air, but he started to massage her back and, gradually, her breathing steadied as she felt the warmth and the safe haven of his arms, and after some minutes it slowed to normal. She closed her eyes in sheer relief, and when she opened them it was to see Max Goodwin watching her with a mixture of relief himself, and amazement.
She nodded but sagged a little against him. ‘Thanks,’ she whispered. He picked her up. ‘I think we both need a brandy.’ And he carried her through to the den.
‘What brought that on?’
The den was definitely a masculine room with mocha walls, fishing trophies, a wall of books and an impressive entertainment centre.
Alex sighed and studied her balloon glass, then took another grateful sip.
‘Remembering Seisia,’ she said a little raggedly. ‘It was the last holiday I had with my parents. They died a couple of weeks later.’
He stirred. ‘And you still get panic attacks about—about losing them?’
‘Yes. But I haven’t had one for ages,’ she confessed.
‘I’ve never met anyone who knew Seisia, so that must have triggered it.’
‘Hmm…’ He stood lost in thought for a moment, but didn’t share them with her. He sat down beside her instead and laced his fingers through hers. ‘Do you have any friends, Alex?’
‘Of course,’ she assured him. ‘I went skiing with six of them not so long ago—mind you, that does seem a long time ago now!’ she marvelled. ‘And there’s my neighbour. She’s a widow and a lot older than me, but we get along really well together. We’ve even thought about getting a joint dog.’
He looked askance. ‘A joint dog?’
Alex grinned. ‘A dog to share between us. She loves them, I love them; she doesn’t work during the day, but I do, so it seems like a good idea, but we’ve never got around to it. So—’ she sobered ‘—look, don’t worry about me—’
‘How can I not worry about you?’ he said a shade irritably. ‘I’ve never seen anyone have a panic attack. It’s—it’s bloody scary. And what has a paper bag got to do with it?’
She explained that when you hyperventilated as she had been, you were actually taking in too much oxygen rather than too little, and you became short of carbon dioxide, which made you feel short of air. If you breathed into a paper bag, you breathed in your own carbon dioxide, which helped.
‘You live and learn,’ Max Goodwin commented. ‘But I would have thought, if anything would do it, it would be a fright.’
‘It can be, or it can be underlying stress or it can have nothing to do with what’s going on around you at the time,’ she told him.
‘So you’ve taken medical advice, Alex?’
‘Yes.’ She swallowed. ‘I really thought I was over them,’ she said again and added unthinkingly, ‘I guess there’s more stress in my life at the moment than I’m accustomed to.’
He let go of her hand and turned to look at her with his elbow propped on the back of the settee. ‘Why? Interpreting?’
She looked into his eyes and could have kicked herself because interpreting was a breeze compared to what she was going through on his account. But he was not to know that…
‘Uh—it’s not as easy as it looks.’
His lips twisted. ‘I never for one moment imagined it was. So that’s all?’ He raised his eyebrows and she noticed the little scar at the outer edge of his left eyebrow again.
She looked away and didn’t answer immediately.
‘Alex?’ he said quietly. ‘Tell me.’
‘I think it’s just—I think it’s—’ She stopped. Although the attack was over, she didn’t feel well enough to be inventive or clever or anything. ‘That’s all.’
He watched her intently, then smiled at her. ‘OK. Finish your brandy. Do you think you’ll be able to sleep? Would you like to stay down here? We could fix you up a bed on the settee.’
‘No. Thank you, but I’ll be fine upstairs now.’
‘Not that there’s any hurry.’ He reached for the remote on the coffee table in front of the settee and flicked the television on. ‘Sit down and relax for a little while. Let’s see what we’ve got—ah, movies. Are you a fan?’
‘Sometimes,’ she admitted. ‘Now that is one of my favourites,’ she said about an Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant classic.
‘Let’s watch it. Comfortable? Curl up if you feel like it. What we need is popcorn, which I’m pretty sure we don’t have, but another small tot of brandy won’t go amiss.’
In the end, Alex did fall asleep on the settee in the den although this time it was Max Goodwin not Margaret Winston who slid a pillow under her head and covered her with a warm rug.
She’d been enjoying the movie, and his company, but two thirds of the way through the emotional excesses of the evening got to her and she couldn’t keep her eyes open.
She was not to know that her temporary employer stood looking down at her for a long time after he’d covered her up, then found himself doing some serious thinking. Nothing could have prepared her for the consequences of it…
To complicate matters, Nicky woke up with a fever the next morning.
‘I think it’s chicken pox,’ Alex said to Max in the breakfast room. She was already showered and ready for the golf day—she’d done all that before Nicky had woken—
wearing three-quarter khaki trousers and an Argyle sweater, Margaret’s choice, not hers.
Max was also already dressed for golf in navy trousers and a pale blue polo T-shirt. He’d just come down for breakfast.
He paused in the act of pouring his coffee. ‘Think?’
‘Mrs Mills has sent for the doctor, but we both think that’s what it is. He’s running a temperature, he’s got a couple of itchy spots and it explains the way he suddenly got tired before I would have expected him to, last night.’
Max stirred and she could see him thinking back.
‘The other thing is, he doesn’t want to let me out of his sight.’ She stared at Max Goodwin, her expression concerned and anxious. ‘Six-year-olds are not essentially sensible when they don’t feel well. They usually want their mothers pretty badly.’
‘I’ll come up and see him now. How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thank you. I apologize for falling asleep on your settee, yet again,’ she said ruefully. ‘But I don’t quite know how we’re going to handle this.’
He took in her tied-back hair and the delicate blue shadows beneath her eyes, then he looked away abruptly and squared his shoulders. But all he said was, ‘Let’s go and see him.’
‘Just a moment—have you had chicken pox?’
That brought him up short. He narrowed his eyes. ‘If I did, I can’t remember it.’
‘Is there any way of checking up? Your mother, maybe? Although, if you haven’t had it you are most likely going to get it now, but at least you’ll be forewarned.’
Max Goodwin folded his arms and looked down at her somewhat grimly. ‘Have you got any more good news for me, Miss Hill?’
Alex chuckled. ‘I’m sorry, but it is better to be prepared.’
‘As they say in the Boy Scouts.’ He pulled his mobile out of his shirt pocket. ‘My sister Olivia will know—my mother passed away last year.’
‘Thank you—Livvy, Max,’ he said into the phone. ‘Did I have chicken pox as a kid?’
He ended the call a few minutes later. ‘You’ll be glad to know, well, I’m certainly glad to know, that I did have them. We had them at the same time actually, but, whereas my sister Olivia was a model patient, I was a shocker. Same old story.’ He looked at her expressionlessly except for the wicked little glint in his eyes. ‘It’s amazing I didn’t grow up with some serious complexes brought on by my saintly sister.’
‘Maybe you did. Maybe,’ Alex said gravely, ‘your desire to get your own way is an inverse reaction to a subliminal inferiority complex bestowed on you by your sibling?’
He put his head to one side. ‘Say that again?’
‘I couldn’t,’ she confessed with a grin. ‘It just rolled off my tongue. Well—’
‘What about you?’ he broke in to query. ‘Have you had chicken pox?’
‘Actually I was a model patient too—maybe it’s just girls?’ she added.
‘Maybe. They certainly know how to dent your ego. After you, Miss Hill.’
‘Thank you, Mr Goodwin.’ She led the way to the stairs.
Nicky perked up a bit at the sight of his father.
An hour later Alex joined Max in his study at his request.
Nicky was dozing and the doctor had confirmed the diagnosis.
The study was a mini oval office with tall windows overlooking the water. The oak desk was highly polished, and the wooden-framed chairs were upholstered in a striped fabric, amber on aubergine. The rug was a handmade silk Persian from Isfahan—Mrs Mills had taken her on a tour of the house and pointed out many of the treasures it contained.
‘Sit down, Alex. I’ve pulled out of the golf, which—’ he smiled a lightning smile at her ‘—as you know I wasn’t that keen on anyway. I’ve also found a replacement for you so far as interpreting goes for the rest of the negotiations.’
Alex’s eyes widened. ‘For all the other functions too?’
‘Simon will kill me!’ She looked bewildered and even more anxious as she stopped.
‘Simon?’ he queried with his eyebrows raised.
‘Simon Wellford of the agency I work for. My boss, in other words. He was over the moon about getting this assignment because he thought it could lead to a lot more work.’
‘It can. It will,’ Max said decisively. ‘And it could have happened anyway—it was always written into the contract he signed that you were a temporary replacement. It so happens the interpreter who got sick, whose place you took, has got better a lot sooner than was anticipated. He’s ready to come back to work. But, listen, I’ve got a proposition to make. Come and work for me, Alex.’
‘AS A nanny?’ Alex stared at Max, totally bemused.
‘As my PA, which may—’ he looked humorous ‘—cover mainly child-minding duties over the near future, but from then on will have a much broader scope.’
‘I don’t understand.’
He sat forward. ‘These negotiations are going to be successful, Alex—’
‘I thought you said there was some hard bargaining—and so on?’
‘There is, but I wouldn’t have undertaken them if I hadn’t done my homework and if I hadn’t thought they’d succeed.’ For a moment the tough, successful high-flier he was was very evident in the set of his face. Then he relaxed and continued, ‘Once this is over, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time going backwards and forwards to China so a permanent interpreter, as well as a quick wit, will be an asset to me.’
Alex’s eyes nearly fell out on stalks. ‘M-me?’ she hazarded raggedly. He looked amused as he nodded. ‘What’s so surprising about that?’
She blinked a couple of times. ‘It…I…I just didn’t expect it.’
‘You’d be part of the household,’ he went on and took particular stock of her reaction to that, but he couldn’t decide if it was shock or relief he saw in her eyes.
‘Not only because of Nicky, but because I’ll be spending a lot more time down here so—it would kill two birds with one stone,’ he added.
She took a breath. ‘But Nicky will be going back to his mother. Or—won’t he?’ she asked experimentally.
Max Goodwin took his time about replying and he looked entirely inscrutable at the same time. ‘His mother rang last night, it so happens. Her mother’s operation was a success but she needs a couple more days with her. Until then negotiations have been put on hold, but Nicky will spend time with me whatever happens.’
‘How long would you want me for?’ Alex asked into the silence that had developed after his last words.
He smiled faintly. ‘For as long as you wanted to stay with me.’ He paused, then named a remuneration package that made Alex blink at its generosity. All the same she licked her lips and tried to concentrate on the other aspects of this development. ‘Does this have anything to do with what happened last night?’
she queried straightly, at last.
Max Goodwin rubbed his jaw and wondered what she’d say if he told her that it did. That he now not only felt responsible for a six-year-old son he’d just met, but a girl who suffered panic attacks, a girl, alone in the world, he simply couldn’t bring himself to abandon.
And he wondered what she’d say if he told her that he’d firmly convinced himself that once he got back on a professional footing with her—and since he was not going to receive any encouragement to do otherwise—he would kill stone-dead any passing attraction to her. That was what it had to be anyway.
Of course what would be the wisest thing to do, in other circumstances, would be simply to cut the connection, but he couldn’t do it—not after what he’d seen last night.
He answered obliquely, ‘I wouldn’t like to see that happen to you again, Alex, but, you know, it would be a good step along the road for you. If you do want to go into the Diplomatic Corps, a background in the mining industry, trade experience, the contacts you might make could all be invaluable to you.’
Alex felt her eyes widen as she could only agree with him. It would certainly be an impressive item on her CV. It could open all sorts of doors for her, far more than behind-the-scenes interpreting for Simon…But here she grimaced.
‘I…Simon—’ She looked worried. ‘I—’
‘I will make it up to Simon in return for losing you,’ he said.
‘Part of the household, though—what exactly does that mean?’ she said slowly. He said casually, ‘Much the same as the last three days, when Nicky’s here, at least, but because I’ll be working from down here much more it’ll be like a semi-permanent abode. Whenever you feel you need to go home, though, that’ll be fine.’
Alex relaxed a little and couldn’t control an impulse to smile suddenly.
‘It’s a job that sort of defies description, doesn’t it?’
His lips twisted, then he gave a jolt of laughter. ‘I wouldn’t like to have to advertise it.’ He sobered. ‘But from the moment you made such a hit with Nicky—’
‘My fate was sealed,’ she supplied. ‘Part of my fate was sealed. But you are serious about the other side of it?’
‘Perfectly,’ he assured her.
Alex heard herself say swiftly, ‘Then I’ll do it,’ as if getting it out fast was the only way to do it because once she stopped to let herself think, she’d be tempted to run away and hide. But she couldn’t spend her life running and hiding. She’d decided that only this morning, hadn’t she?
‘Good girl,’ he said briskly. ‘But if we are to have Nicky for extended periods, we’re going to need some back-up for when we’re not here. Any thoughts there?’
Alex chewed her lip before she offered her thoughts. ‘Mrs Mills’ daughter is virtually a single mum—her husband’s in the army and overseas on an extended tour of duty. It’s her son Bradley that Nicky has played with and they get on really well together. I’m just wondering if Bradley’s mum could stand in for me. She seems pretty sensible, she’s nice, she’s young, it would be good for Nicky to have company, it would take the pressure off Mrs Mills—’
‘Don’t go on,’ he murmured. ‘You’ve convinced me. Would you like to go home and collect some more of your things?’
Her eyes widened. ‘Now? How? And what about Nicky?’
‘Mrs Mills and I can cope for a couple of hours. Stan could drive you.’ He stood up. Alex hesitated, then she said candidly, ‘I feel like pinching myself.’
He smiled, but said nothing.
‘I’ll go now, then. Thank you for thinking of me and offering me this job.’ She rose.
‘My pleasure, Alex,’ he murmured.
She hesitated, then made her way to the door.
He watched her go and sat down again behind the desk, leaning his chin on his fingers, his elbow on the desk with his brow furrowed.
He’d handled that rather well, he thought, but something was puzzling him. The fact that he felt strange in a way he couldn’t put his finger on—not strange so much, but different, or was that splitting hairs?
Was it because he really did have a household now? For a long time everything had revolved about him exclusively, but now he was doing the revolving…
Then his eyes fell on the blotter on the desk, and Cathy’s name. He’d taken her call in the study last night after Paul O’Hara had left, and he’d written her name on the blotter with slashing strokes, then drawn a bolt of lightning through the letters. He sat up, then lay back in his chair with his hands shoved into his pockets. What needed to be done, what needed to be sorted out, was an amicable arrangement whereby Nicky got the best of both his parents. What was paramount now was Nicky’s well-being.
And he had to acknowledge he was astonished by the depth of his feeling for a little boy he barely knew. That had actually slammed into his consciousness from the moment he’d laid eyes on Nicky and he’d seen something pretty close to a mirror image of himself. This is my flesh and blood, he’d thought, this child who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap and is trying so desperately to look brave about it!
Was it any wonder he felt different? he reflected.
And what about all the problems he could foresee there? What if Cathy married?
How was he going to feel about another man being involved in the upbringing of his son? And there was Nicky’s inheritance to think about, and his safety. He sat up and ripped the top layer out of his blotter and threw it in the wastepaper basket. Of course the solution to that was simply to ensure it couldn’t happen by marrying her himself…
Alex sat in the back, not of the Bentley, but a Mercedes on the way to Brisbane a little while later.
She and Stan had conversed for a time, but now he was concentrating on his driving and she was thinking her thoughts.
She’d woken early on the settee in the den, and clicked her tongue in exasperation at yet again having fallen asleep thus in one of Max Goodwin’s homes. She’d made herself a cup of tea and stolen upstairs with it. No one had stirred. She’d opened her blinds to admit pre-dawn light, then watched the sun rim the horizon above the casuarinas on South Stradbroke Island across the Broadwater as she’d sipped her tea.
But her thoughts hadn’t been on the fresh, early morning scene, they’d been focused on the state of her life. She’d allowed it to get out of control. She’d allowed herself to imagine she’d fallen in love with Max Goodwin; she’d got all sad and sorry for herself on that account and because of some memories. And it wouldn’t do.
What was more, she knew how to counteract these feelings, didn’t she?
In times like these she’d always gone to her Mother Superior and her advice had always been the same. Stop thinking only of yourself, Alex. Think about others instead and, for yourself, establish goals. Think forward, not backwards. It might have sounded harsh, but it had worked, and because that dear friend and mentor was no longer with her didn’t mean it would no longer work. So far as thinking forwards, unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to distance herself physically from Max Goodwin for the time being, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t practise mental apartheid, she’d thought with a dry little smile. But—and it had struck her that the lack of real goals might have created the vacuum in her life that had precipitated this crisis—she needed more of a challenge in her life than she had at present. Well, not the immediate present, she’d amended her thoughts rather ruefully, but going back to working for Simon was not enough. She really needed to aspire to something higher.
She hadn’t been able to establish that ‘something’ as she’d showered and dressed for the golf day, but at least she’d established the need to do it. And she’d taken a few quiet minutes to think of her Mother Superior, really and deeply. It had brought her a sense of peace.
Then Nicky had woken, hot and fretful and itchy, and that had set in motion the most amazing train of events…
She stared out of the window as the Pacific Motorway flashed past. The traffic was fast and heavy, with that familiar hum of its concrete surface, and the sky was overcast now.
That amazing train of events, she thought, would be the perfect answer to her new resolution, her determination to shape her life differently, to set goals and accept challenges—if only it hadn’t come from Max Goodwin.
But was that not simply a challenge too? It was absolutely no good hungering for a man you couldn’t have, a man you firmly believed should build a life with the mother of his son, anyway, so you nipped all that in the bud. It just took will-power…
Fortunately, Patti was home when Alex got to Spring Hill, so she was able to ask her to water her plants and collect her mail for her. She also gave her her new contact details, then started to pack, this time more than the basics including some books and favourite CDs.
She hesitated over her new clothes, the ones she’d been going to give back, then decided she could need them in her capacity as PA to Max Goodwin. She stopped what she was doing at that point and stared across the room unseeingly. It was hard to believe—it was a bit like a dream, she decided. It was also the answer to one set of prayers, but…
She squared her shoulders resolutely and chided herself, No buts, Alexandra Hill. Just make the best of it.
On the way back she got Stan to stop at a variety store where she made a few purchases.
When she got back to the Sovereign Islands about three hours later, she was greeted with open arms, metaphorically, by her employer and his housekeeper. Nicky did more. He threw his arms around her neck and greeted her like a long-lost friend. Even Nemo looked joyful.
‘OK! OK,’ she laughed as she fended the puppy off. ‘And I did bring some goodies back. We’ve got a new jigsaw puzzle, some Play-Doh and a book about boats. What shall we do first? Oh, and I got a plastic bone for Nemo. It squeaks when it’s chewed.’
‘Was he difficult?’ Alex asked as she and Max sat down to a late lunch a little later. Nicky was asleep again.
He reached for a roll and crumbled it. Mrs Mills had provided a chicken casserole and rice. ‘Not difficult—lost. And sad.’ He picked up his butter knife, but stared at the curls of butter in their fluted silver dish moodily. ‘I was obviously no substitute.’ He dipped his knife in the butter.
‘He’s sick,’ Alex said practically. ‘And Rome wasn’t built in a day.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Another gem of wisdom? You’re full of them.’
‘I know,’ she agreed cheerfully.
He frowned at her. ‘But in your case it happened in a matter of moments, the way he took to you.’
‘I would say—’ Alex sipped her water from a cut-glass tumbler, then picked up her knife and fork again ‘—he’s not much used to men if he’s lived with his mother and his grandmother. And I do have experience with kids of that age. Don’t worry, it will happen, it just takes time,’ she assured him.
His frown deepened. ‘You’re also—like a new person, Miss Hill, if I may say so. Why’s that?’
Alex considered, then told him part of the truth. ‘I took myself to task this morning. Look forward, not backward, seek new challenges and goals and—lo and behold!—what should fall into my lap shortly afterwards but your offer. So I’m feeling really positive, you could say.’
She’d changed her Argyle sweater for a cotton-knit top and hadn’t noticed the streak of Play-Doh on her sleeve. Her hair was in bunches and she wore her glasses. She looked young but very alive and vital. It was hard to compare her with the girl of the night before who couldn’t breathe.
‘Have I said something wrong?’ Alex enquired a little nervously as she put her knife and fork together and pushed away her plate.
His attention came back to her as if from a distance. ‘No. Why?’
‘You were looking at me as if—as if—I don’t know, but it was a little worrying,’ she confessed.
He finished his meal and reached for the coffee pot. ‘Uh—no, nothing momentous.’
He grimaced. ‘But you and Nicky won’t be seeing much of me for the next few days. In fact, probably not at all. I’ve taken more time off than I should have anyway.’