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Office of the CEO, Howlcat Industries, Sydney Harbour, the present day
'Why, Bren? Why the—?' Mark skidded to a mental halt, remembering his three-year-old niece was sitting on his lap. Shelby was prone to repeat anything he said and then bat her long golden eyelashes at her father when she got in trouble for it, saying, 'But Unca Mark says it.' He amended his words. 'You think she'll do, so why do I have to interview this woman? She's a housekeeper. I have better things to do with my time than—'
Brenda Compton, née Hannaford, pulled her thick dark-blonde hair back off her face and fanned her neck, but grinned at Mark's careful pruning of his language. 'Well, of course, if you want me to conduct the interviews for you, find another… um… suitable woman…'
He set his jaw at the reminder. He might be CEO of Howlcat Industries, Australia's most successful engineering firm, in total control of the company he'd built from the ground up— but at home he had too many reminders of his humanity. His family knew him well, as no one else did—his hidden weaknesses, the way he spaced out when caught by an idea…
And they never failed to reminder him of the promise he still hadn't kept. But why had Bren chosen now, today, to make that reminder, to find him another suitable woman?
Today was his wedding anniversary. In six weeks it would be the anniversary of the day he'd become a widower.
His mother and his sisters had interviewed every housekeeper he'd ever hired. Before he gave them a contract he had them vetted by the best security firms in the country, and he paid them well. Healso forced them to sign a confidentiality clause.
None of his precautions had stopped his employees selling their story about him to the tabloids, or bringing along their daughters or nieces, who happened to be pretty and single and, who'd love to be taken out on the town, marry a multimillionaire and give him the family and kids his parents and sisters so romantically believed was in his future.
Today was a reminder that he'd never risk his heart and soul again. He'd never risk becoming a person so lost in grief that he'd almost—
Grimly he blocked out the memory, and answered Bren. 'I'll interview her myself… but she can wait in the outer office until I'm da—good and ready.'
Bren grinned and pretended to bow to him—which earned her a paper bird tossed in her hair. He often made origami when he was thinking up the dimensions of new inventions, needing to keep his hands busy while his mind worked.
His family were the only ones who could get away with any kind of irreverence with him. Everyone else was too afraid of his cool sarcasm. 'Heart of Ice' was his nickname in the press, and he was happy to keep it that way. It kept the nice women away from him—and fame-and-fortune-hunters deserved all they got—which was nothing but an occasional good time and their faces in the glossies.
'What's da—good, Unca Mark?' Shelby's big bright eyes were alight with curiosity.
He grinned down at his niece and pulled her ponytail, until she mock-shrieked and tugged hard at his nose. 'It means really, really good.'
'Okay,' Shelby replied, her face thoughtful. She knew he'd covered the truth and was trying to work out what he'd been about to say. She was a Hannaford, all right.
Bren got to her feet, rubbing her very pregnant belly. 'I'll tell Sylvie to wait. You'll pick me up tonight? Glenn felt so bad about asking, but since his trip is for Howlcat—'
He smiled, soft as he only ever was with his family, and handed Shelby to her mother. 'Can it, Bren. I can handle a couple of Lamaze classes as long as you introduce me as—'
His sister rolled her eyes. 'Yeah, yeah—as if calling you George is going to fool anyone when your face is in the papers every week.'
'Not every week,' he retorted mildly. He liked being called George every now and then. It made him smile.
She'd been waiting almost an hour.
Sylvie Browning smiled to herself. If he expected her to be put off or storm off he'd be disappointed. In the initial interview his sister Brenda had warned her that meeting her prospective employer would be no picnic. Mark Hannaford was hard-edged and cold, and he didn't like his routine or privacy challenged—he had no use for women, apart from the obvious.
That was why she was here. She had a fifteen-year-old promise to keep.
After ninety minutes, the fanatically neat secretary rose to her feet, and said, 'Mr Hannaford will see you now.'
The older woman showed Sylvie in through the massive oak double doors, opulent without ostentation. 'Ms Browning to see you, sir.' Then she closed the doors behind her.
Feeling the nervous grin stretching her face—she always laughed or joked through stress, and this was a tremendous moment—Sylvie walked on low-polished floorboards and for a few moments looked anywhere but at the CEO of Howlcat Industries. There was a soft blue and grey scatter rug on the floor. Pictures of the harbour and the Blue Mountains lined the walls, comfortable in their places.
What a lovely office, she thought to herself. It suits—
She blinked, and focussed on the sole occupant of the office. 'I beg your pardon?' she said softly, putting her hand out to him.
With the golden-brown hair and eyes, the lithe, athletic male body obvious even beneath the designer suit, she recognised him at once… But then, what Aussie wouldn't know him? He was one of the most famous men in the country. He hadn't inherited his empire, but pulled himself up by the bootstraps to this level of success by sheer brilliance. Inventor and lone wolf—tagged 'Heart of Ice' because no woman had ever come close to him.
Only his family—and she—knew better than that.
But at the moment he was living up to his reputation. He didn't stand to shake her hand, didn't touch her. His eyes were frozen as he said, with chilling clarity, 'I said, no. If you're Sylvia Browning, you are not being offered the position of housekeeper.'
Unfazed, she lifted her brows. This, too, she'd expected. She would change his attitude soon enough. She'd done it before, and she'd do it again. 'I know I look young, but I'm twenty-eight.'
Eyes filled with scepticism roamed her face. 'Twenty at the oldest. No.'
Since it was obvious he wasn't going to observe the most basic of social niceties, she dropped her hand and sat in the chair facing his desk. She rummaged in her handbag, pulled out her wallet and handed him the driver's licence and birth certificate from her CV packet.
He read them in silence, and handed them back without changing expression. 'Your age changes nothing, Ms Browning.'
'I was under the impression it changed everything.'
Her gently amused tone seemed to perturb him, for he frowned at her. 'Don't be impertinent.'
'I beg your pardon, Mr Hannaford,' she said gravely, but her telltale dimple quivered—she had only one, in her right cheek. Her brothers swore it gave her away when she was teasing. 'But, since you are not employing me, I'm free to be as impertinent as I like.'
His face stilled, then his mouth moved in a half-smile, slow as a rusted gate. 'Touché, Ms Browning.'
Sylvie grinned at him, rose to her feet, and again put her hand out to his. 'It was nice meeting you, Mr Hannaford. I hope you find a housekeeper of the right age and appearance for you.' Her heart raced so fast she could barely keep up to breathe. Would it work?
He stood, too, but was still frowning. 'You're not going to try and convince me to give you the position?' he asked abruptly, again not taking her hand.
Her heart kicked up yet another notch—yes, there was the faintest tone of challenge there, as well as surprise. She made herself shrug. 'What's the point? I can cook and clean—but you don't care about that. I can make a home for you—but that isn't why you rejected me. I can only grow older in time, and I can't change the way I look.'
'There's nothing wrong with the way you look.'
His tone was still abrupt, but again something faint beneath it made her breath catch and her pulse move up a touch. 'Thank you,' she said as she turned towards the doors. 'I like to think I'm not totally repulsive.'
'You have to know you're a pretty woman.' But the comment was so far removed from a compliment—almost an insult in the hardness of his voice—that she didn't thank him.
'Are the curls natural?' he asked as he followed her to the door—he was actually coming with her. She wanted to rejoice. Yes, she'd intrigued him.
'Yes, they are.' The answer was rueful. She touched the tumbling dark auburn curls escaping from her attempt at a chignon and looked up at him…really up. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. 'Any attempt to straighten them only makes them frizz. Combine that with freckles, being only five-one and size eight, and I have to put up with everyone thinking I'm sixteen.'
She'd used the number deliberately, to see how he'd react. It was why she was here—why she'd come on this particular day—and she might as well start now.
His mouth tightened, but he only nodded. Then he frowned again, as if the number had triggered something inside him. 'Pardon me, Ms Browning, but I'm having the strangest sense of déjà-vu. Have we met?'
He'd remembered! She nodded, with a grin that felt silly on her face. He remembered her… 'For years I've wanted to thank you for all you did for my family. You'll never know what it meant to us—giving us the house, setting up the trust fund to send Simon to medical school, Joel to university, Drew to engineering college. When I found out this job was for you, it seemed a good chance to meet you again and thank you.'
For the first time he looked in her eyes, and she saw the change as he took in the face, the curls, and emotion dawned in him—recognition. 'Shirley Temple?' With his low growl, it was as if deep winter broke, giving way to a reluctant spring, and the warm-hearted boy she'd known when she was a girl peeked at her from beneath the frozen heart of the famous man.
'I go by Sylvie now.' For the third time she put her hand out, hoping he'd take it. She needed to know if the illusion she'd held for so many years would crumble under the force of reality—if she'd shrink or find him as terrifying as every other man she'd met since she turned fifteen.
'Sylvie?' His voice was deeper, rougher than she remembered it, but a warm shiver still ran through her. 'But your name's Mary Brown.'
'It's Mary Sylvia, actually, and we—the boys and I—liked Browning better. It was less common—especially for me, with a name like Mary.' Feeling embarrassed by the admission, she shrugged. 'I changed my name by deed poll, and the boys did the same.' She'd never tell him why she'd done it, or why the boys had followed her lead without hesitation. Although none of them had changed their first names, as well, as she had….
'Then Joel must have changed his only a few months ago.'
He knows how old we all are. He's kept up with us. The knowledge that he cared enough to know them, even from a physical and emotional distance, made her feel—feel—
Just feel. He hadn't forgotten her—as she'd never forgotten him.
Looking dazed, he put his hand in hers just as she was about to drop it. 'Look at you. You're all grown up.'
'So are you.' Her voice was breathless—but how could she help it? He was touching her again… and for the first time since she was fifteen a man's touch didn't repulse or terrify her. She felt warm and safe—and, given what her life had been, those feelings were as precious as gold to her.
From the first time she'd seen him at the hospital, when she'd been only eight, the prince of her fairytale dreams had changed from black-haired to dark blonde, from blue-eyed to golden-brown. Every time she'd met him after that, though months had passed, she'd felt the connection deepen, and when he'd held her in his arms and let her sleep the day her mother had died she'd known that, though it was the last day she'd see him for a very long time, no other boy would ever take his place.
Quiet lightning still strikes once—and never in the same spot. But he had lovers in abundance—all far more beautiful than she'd ever be—and they didn't come with her issues. Years ago she'd accepted that he was her impossible dream. That wasn't why she was here.
'So you really are twenty-eight?' He shook his head, as if trying to clear it.
'Yes.' As the juxtaposed longings to reach out and touch his face and to jerk her hand out of his and run all but overwhelmed her, she had to force her hand to stay where it was. Though she'd never been to counselling, she'd learned to conquer her fear to a manageable degree, by dint of the simple need to eat. If an employer thought she was crazy, he wouldn't employ her, and she couldn't always work with women.
His gaze swept her again. 'Your hair grew darker.'
'Red hair quite often does that.'
He was still holding her hand. Looking at his expression as they touched, she sensed that it had been a long time since he'd truly touched anyone. 'Strawberry blonde.' He was smiling. 'You looked like a china doll.'
'According to some people I still do,' she said, sighing. 'Sometimes I'd give anything to be a few inches taller, if nothing else.'
'People don't take you seriously?' His voice held sympathy.
'You didn't,' she retorted, disliking the tone that seemed too close to pity, too close to how she'd been treated for so many years of her life. She pulled her hand from his.
'You're right.' He was looking at the broken connection, a strange expression in those frozen dreamer's eyes. 'Why do you want this position—or did you only come to thank me?'
His tone had lost the gentle warmth that made her glow. He wanted to be thanked even less than he'd appreciated her pointing out when he'd been in the wrong. By the look in his eyes, he also didn't want to hear any personal reasons for her answering his advertisement, on this of all days.
'I need the job,' she said abruptly. 'I'm in the final year of my nursing degree. I need somewhere to live and I need to pay the bills.'