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Alexandra Hill arrived home in Brisbane on a particularly chilly May morning.
She'd been on a skiing holiday in the Southern Alps with a group of friends. And while it had been freezing in Canberra when she'd boarded the flight muffled up in a scarf and ski jacket, she hadn't expected to be grateful for these items of clothing in sub-tropical Brisbane even in winter.
But as it went on to be the coldest May day on record, she was still wearing her coat when she stepped out of the taxi she'd taken from the airportto find her boss waiting for her on the doorstep of her small terrace house in Spring Hill.
Simon Wellford, ginger-haired and chubby and whose brainchild Wellford Interpreting Services was, threw his arms around her. 'Thank heavens! Your neighbour wasn't sure if you were due home today or tomorrow. I need you, Alex. I really need you,' he said passionately.
Alex, who happened to know Simon was happily married, removed herself from his clutches and said prosaically, 'I'm still on holiday, Simon, so'
'I know,' he interrupted, 'but I'll make it up, I promise!'
Alex sighed. She worked for Simon as an interpreter and had come to know him as somewhat impulsive. 'What emergency this time?' she enquired.
'I wouldn't call it an emergency, definitely not,' he denied. 'Would you call Goodwin Minerals anything but an absolute coup?'
'I don't know anything about Goodwin Minerals and I don't know what you're talking about, Simon!'
He clicked his tongue. 'It's huge, it's a blue-chip mining company and it's going into China. Well' he waved a hand 'they're about to embark on negotiations here in Brisbane with a Chinese consortium, but one of theirMandarin interpreters has fallen sick and they need a replacement. Almost immediately,' he added.
Alex dropped her tote bag onto her roller suitcase. 'On-site interpreting?' she queried.
Simon hesitated. 'Look, I know you've only done document and telephone work for me, Alex, but you're damn good at it!'
Alex put her hands on her hips. 'If we're talking mining here, are we also talking technical terms?'
Simon glanced at her keenly as he thought, I wish we werethen said, 'No. It's for the social events they need you. They ' he hesitated ' wanted to be assured you'd be comfortable in formal social circumstances.'
'So you told them I don't eat my peas with my knife,' Alex remarked, then started to laugh at his injured expression.
'I told them you came from a diplomatic background. That seemed to reassure them,' he said a little stiffly because, if the truth be told, he did have one reservation about Alex and this job and it was neither her manners nor her fluency in Mandarin it was the way she dressed.
He'd never seen her in anything but jeans, although she did have a variety of long scarves she liked to wind round her neckand her hair was obviously a bit of a trial to her. She also wore glasses.
A classic bluestocking, one could be forgiven for thinking. Not that it had ever mattered how she dressed, because telephone interpreting and document translation were all behind-the-scenes stuff. In fact she did a lot of it from home. You would expect no less than a high social scene from the prominent Goodwin Minerals, though.
He broke his thoughts off with a jerk of his chin. He could sort that out later; getting the job was the important thing and he was running out of time.
'Hop in the car, Alex,' he instructed. 'We've got an interview with Goodwins in about twenty minutes.'
She gazed at him. 'Simonyou're joking! I've just arrived home. I need to shower and change at least and I'm not even sure I want to do this!'
Alex ' he strode across the pavement and opened the passenger door of his car ' please.'
'No, hang on, Simon. Do you mean to tell me you committed me to an interview and you committed Wellford's to this job with Goodwin Minerals when you weren't even sure I was coming home today?'
'I know it sounds a bit, well ' He shrugged.
'It sounds exactly like you, Simon Wellford,' she told him wearily.
'Great men seize the moment,' he responded. 'This could lead to an awful lot of work coming our way from Goodwins, Alex. It could be the making of Wellfordsand,' he paused suddenly before saying, 'Rosanna's pregnant.'
Alex blinked at her boss. Rosanna was Simon's wife and this would be their first child so the future of the interpreting service would be especially important now.
'Why didn't you say so at the beginning?' she demanded, then her gaze softened and she beamed at him. 'Oh, Simon, that's wonderful news!'
Once in the car, some of the difficulties associated with this mission came back to her, however.
'How am I going to explain the way I'm dressed?'
Simon glanced at her. 'Tell 'em the truth. You've just arrived back from a skiing holiday. We'll be dealing with a Margaret Winston, by the way. She's Max Goodwin's principal private secretary.'
'The driving force behind Goodwin Mineralsdon't tell me you haven't heard of him either?'
'Well, I haven't. Simon' Alex clutched the arm rest as he wove his way through the city traffic 'do you have to drive so fast?'
'I don't want to be late. He's a very powerful man, Max Goodwin, and'
'Simon!' Alex interrupted urgently, but it was too late. A delivery truck pulled out unexpectedly in front of them and, despite a liberal application of the brakes, they bumped into the back of it.
Simon Wellford clutched the steering wheel and groaned heavily as he stared at the crumpled tip of his bonnet. Then he turned his head to Alex. 'Are you all right?'
'Fine, slightly jolted, that's all. How about you?'
'The same.' He flinched as the driver of the truck, a burly annoyed-looking man, hove into view. 'But this just about wrecks it all.'
'How far away are we?'Alex asked.
'Only a block but'
'Why can't I go on my own? You won't be able to leave the scene for a while but I can go, can't I? What's her name again?'
Simon sat up. 'Margaret Winston, and it's Goodwin House, next block on the left, fifteenth floor. Alex, I'll really owe you if we get this,' he said intensely.
'I'll do my best!' She got out of the car, but before she closed the door Simon said, 'If all else fails, dazzle 'em with your Mandarin!'
In the event it wasn't only Margaret Winston Alex found herself confronting, it was Max Goodwin as well, and a Chinese gentleman, Mr Li, all of which contributed to her rather breathless disarray on top of having run the last block to Goodwin House.
But it was Margaret Winston, middle-aged, her brown hair exquisitely coiffured and wearing a tailored olive-green suit, who showed Alex into Max Goodwin's impressive office.
A wall of windows looked down on the Brisbane River as it flowed around leafy Kangaroo Point beneath the Storey Bridge. A sea of royal-blue carpet covered the floor. There was a vast desk at one end and some fascinating etchings of Brisbane, in its early days, framed in gold on the walls. At the other end there was a brown leather buttoned three-piece lounge suite set about a coffee table.
And Max Goodwin himself was impressive.
For some reason Simon's brief summing-up had led Alex to expect a tough, rugged man, even perhaps leathery, as the billionaire mining magnate who headed the company.
Max Goodwin was anything but that. In his middle thirties, she judged, he was the most intriguing-looking man she'd seen for years. Not only was he a fine physical specimen beneath the faultless tailoring of his navy-blue suit, he also had rather remarkable dense blue eyes. His hair was dark and the planes and angles of his face were sculpted finely and his mouth was thin and chiselled.
There was absolutely nothing gnarled and leathery about him, although he could well be mentally tough, she thought, even downright dangerous. There was a kind of eagle intensity to those dark blue eyes that gave every intimation of a man who knew what he wantedand got it.
Her next thought was that she wasn't what he wanted at all
It was a feeling he confirmed when, following the introductions and after a lingering assessment of her, he rubbed his jaw irritably and said, 'Oh, for crying out loud! Margaret'
'Mr Goodwin,' Margaret Winston broke in purposefully, 'I have not been able to get anyone else, tomorrow afternoon is approaching fast and Mr Wellford assured me Ms Hill here is extremely competent and has a comprehensive command of the language.'
'That may be so,' Max Goodwin stated, 'but she looks about eighteen and as if she's run away from her convent school.'
Alex cleared her throat. 'I can assure you I'm twenty-one, sir. And forgive me for suggesting this but is it wise to judge a book by its cover?' She paused, then bowed and said it all over again, in Mandarin.
Mr Li stepped forward at this point and introduced himself as one of the interpreting team. He engaged Alex in a detailed conversation, then bowed to her and said to Max Goodwin, 'Very fluent, Mr Goodwin, very correct and respectful.'
The silence that followed was filled with tension as Max Goodwin locked gazes with her, and then he studied her comprehensively from head to toe again.
Maybe not eighteen, he decided. But without any trace of make-up, with her slippery, shiny mass of mousey hair coming loose in all directions from the knot she'd tied it in, with her steel-rimmed spectacles, her tracksuit and sheepskin bootsshe'd taken off a bulky jacket on arrival but there was still hardly any shape to hershe did not look soignée and that was what he needed!
Unlesshe had another look at Ms Hillwell, it mightn't be impossible. She was fairly tall, always a plus when you were a little on the dumpy side, figure-wise. Her hands were actually slim and elegant, her skin was actually rather creamy, and her eyes
He narrowed his own and made a request. 'Would you take your glasses off for a moment?'
Alex blinked, then did as requested and Max Goodwin nodded. Her eyes were a clear, fascinating tawny hazel.
'Uh,' he said, 'thanks, Margaret, I'll handle this for the moment. Thank you, Mr Li. Please sit down, Miss Hill.' He gestured to a brown leather armchair.
Alex took a seat and he sat down opposite and laid his arm along the back of the settee. 'Tell me about your background,' he went on, 'and how you come to speak Mandarin.'
'My father was in the Diplomatic Corps. I had' she smiled 'what you could call a globe-trotting childhood and languages seem to come easily to me. I picked up Mandarin when we lived in Beijing for five years.'
'A diplomatic background,' he said thoughtfully. 'So, do you see yourself working as an interpreter as your career?'
'Not really, but it is a good way of keeping up my skills, and keeping the wolf from the door,' she added humorously. 'But I'm thinking of aiming for the Diplomatic Corps myself. I haven't long been out of university, where I majored in languages.'
He ruffled his dark hair. Then he said abruptly, 'Would you object to a makeover?'
She stared at him and the silence lengthened during which she, quite ridiculously, noted his pale grey tie with navy polka dots and the fact that he had a small scar at the outward end of his left eyebrow.
She cleared her throat. 'You obviously don't think I look the part. I'
'Do you think you'd feel the part?' he broke in. And he reeled off a list of functions that made Alex blink: cocktail parties, a luncheon, a golf day, a river cruise, a dinner dance amongst them.
'Look,' she interrupted in turn, 'I think we may be wasting each other's time, Mr Goodwin. I simply don't have the wardrobe to cater for all that and I may not have thewhat's the word?elan for it either. Straight interpreting is one thing, this is quite another.'
'I'd provide the wardrobe. You could keep it.'
'Oh. No. I couldn't,' she said awkwardly. 'It's kind of you but, no, thank you.'
'It's not kind at all,' he replied impatiently. 'It would be a legitimate expense in this instance, therefore tax deductible. And it's not as if it would be part of me "keeping" you in return for specific favours.'
Alex's lips parted. 'Definitely,' she said tartly.
He grinned suddenly, his eyes alight with wicked amusement. 'Why not, then?'
Alex wriggled in her chair, then folded her hands in her lap. 'I would feelI would feel uncomfortable. I would feel bought even if not for the usual reasons.'
Max Goodwin eyed the ceiling. 'Give 'em all back to me, then. I'm sure I could find someone who'd appreciate them.'
'That would be more appropriate,' she mused, 'but there's something else. To be perfectly honest, I would feel a certain amount of chagrin that you don't consider the real me good enough.'
'It's not that,' he said through his teeth. 'I just don't want you to feel like Cinderella. OK, yes' he raised his hand 'I also need the other side to take you seriously, therefore a slightly more sophisticated aura would be a help.'
Alex chewed her lip. Part of her would like to decline, she decided. There was plenty about Max Goodwin that rubbed her up the wrong waysheer arrogance, for one thing. How pleasant would it be to turn the tables on him, though? To prove to him she would not be an embarrassment to him, something he'd barely, just barely, stopped short of saying?
She looked down at herself rather ruefully at that point. She'd had no opportunity to explain why she looked rather dishevelled or why she was dressed the way she wason a point of pride she wouldn't deign to do so now anyway.
But it was a challenge and it could be really interesting.
And there was Simon and his company to consider, not to mention the coming baby
'I guess I could give it a go,' she said, 'although' she shrugged 'I didn't that long ago leave my convent, for what it's worth, Mr Goodwin, only about a year ago.'
Something like amazement touched his eyes. 'You were a nun?'
'Oh, no. But my parents died when I was seventeen and a boarder at the convent, so I stayed on. The Mother Superior was related to my fathermy only living relative. And I boarded with them during my time at university. She died last year.'
'Isee. Well, I was going to say that explains it, but what does it explain?' he asked himself rhetorically and smiled whimsically.
'It probably explains why I'm a bit of a plain Jane, why I'm used to a simple, useful life,' she told him gravely. 'It doesn't mean to say I can be imposed upon.'
He stared at her. 'You're worried that I might be tempted to take advantage of you, Miss Hill?'