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'Miss Fletcher?' asked the wizened old doorman, resplendent in a bone-coloured tunic and turban.
Mia nodded, and turned to stare up at the dilapidated hotel before her. The majestic marble columns and crumbling portico plasterwork. The magnificent marble entrance stairs, dulled by age and the passing of many feet
The tangled mess of overgrown garden
'Welcome to Penang, Pearl of the Orient,' he said grandly. 'And the Cornwallis Hotel, lustrous heart of colonial Georgetown.'
The hotel was situated in the heart of the island's colonial district, true enough, and had a certain frayed, yesteryear kind of appealbut lustrous? Mia slid the doorman a bemused glance.
'I know what you're thinking,' he said. 'That the hotel is old and much in need of repair. But sixty years ago, when i first started working here, it was indeed a glory to behold.'
'I believe you.' rajah, according to his discreetly placed name tag, beamed. 'It could be so again,' he said. 'Love could make it so.'
Love and vast chunks of money. 'Just as soon as the curse is broken.' 'There's a curse?'
'But of course. How else would the hotel come to be in such disrepair?'
'Years and years of neglect?'
'That, too,' he said. 'I'll inform Mr Ethan of your arrival. He's been waiting for you. We all have.' Rajah swept open the door for her. 'Miss Fletcher.'
'Mia,' she said, belatedly wondering how he'd known who she was.
'Miss Mia,' he said, his old eyes shining. 'Welcome home.'
This wasn't home.
No matter what the old doorman had implied, this hotel had never been Mia's home. She'd been raised in Sydney, schooled there; she lived there in a sleek upmarket apartment overlooking the Harbour Bridge. She'd chosen the apartment for its spectacular harbour views, and because it was located two blocks away from the Fletcher Corp offices, where she spent a great deal of her time. That was her home. Not this run-down colonial hotel in a city half a world away.
Even if she had just inherited it from the mother she'd never known.
But the old doorman was waiting for her to enter, and his eyes were kind and welcoming. Home or not, this place was hers now, and Mia would do her duty by it.
She was Richard Fletcher's daughterhis only childand heir to significant corporate wealth. She knew a great deal about duty.
She could do this. She could.
How hard could it be to step into a life she'd never known?
But she was used to that, too. With a quick smile for Rajah, Mia took a big breath, squared her shoulders, and stepped inside.
She was the image of her mother. She had the same delicate build, the same hauntingly elfin face as Lily.
Ethan Hamilton stood at the top of the grand stairway and stared down at the woman Rajah ushered into the lobby. He watched from his vantage point, content for the moment to remain unseen, as she stared curiously about the lobby, her gaze lifting skywardsas everyone's didto the antique chandelier hanging from the ceiling. All six thou-sand hand-cut crystal pieces of itnever mind that it hadn't worked in years. Her lips curved into a smilemore wondrous child than calculating heiressand Ethan felt his heart stutter.
He watched as Ayah, the ageing duty manager, hurried towards her. Watched Lily's daughter put her hand out in greeting, only to have Ayah clasp it and press it to her wrinkled cheek. She hadn't been expecting thatdidn't like it, even though she masked her discomfort well enough. Ayah spoke briefly and Mia Fletcher shook her head, her expression faintly wistful. Whatever the question, the answer was no. She disengaged her hand, tucked a shoulder-length strand of glossy black hair behind her ear, and looked around again.
Would she notice the superb craftsmanship of the intricately carved rosewood balustrades that flanked the grand staircase? Would she see past the threadbare Persian runner to the exquisite colouring of the marble stairs beneath? Could she see the magic? he wondered. Or would she only see tiredness and decay?
She looked at him.
After a long, long moment she started up the stairs. He should have gone down to greet her, should have acted the gentleman rather than the statue, but one glance from her and he'd forgotten how. She gave him a careful neutral smile when she reached him, and held out her hand.
'Mr Hamilton,' she said. 'I'm Mia Fletcher.'
'I know.' He took her small warm hand in his, bracing hard against the jolt of desire that ran through him like a blade. He'd known need before, had taken care to control it. He released her hand abruptlypoliteness be damnedbut the memory of her touch remained.
'How did you know who I was?' she asked. 'How did Rajah know?'
'You look like your mother.' Except for her eyes. Lily's eyes had been a rich, warm brown. Her daughter's were grey like a winter sky. Cool, wary eyes that weighed and judged with a thoroughness he'd have welcomed had she not been so thoroughly dissecting him. Her father's eyes, he thought with a vague recollection of a stern, dark-haired man with eyes of bleakest grey. That was why they looked so familiar.
'You've never seen a picture of her, have you?'
'No.' Those haunting grey eyes darkened. 'I know very little about my mother, Mr Hamilton. Until your solicitors contacted me three days ago I'd have told you she was an orphan, who married my father, gave birth to me, and died shortly after.'
'You thought she was dead all this time?' Ethan stared at her in shock.
'My father now tells me she left us just after I was born. Apparently she'd fallen in love with another man. A widower with a small son.'
'You're the son, aren't you?'
'Yes.' There was nothing else to say.
She squared her shoulders, as if bracing for an attack. 'I wondered did she stay with you and your father?'
'She stayed,' he said quietly, figuring at least some of what was going through her mind. 'She died in his arms six days ago.'
Mia nodded and looked away, as if it hurt to look at him. 'My condolences on your loss.'
His loss. Not hers. 'That's it?'
Her almost imperceptible shrug conveyed confusion rather than nonchalance. 'I don't know you. I never knew my mother. I don't know why she never tried to contact me, and I don't know why she left me this hotel.' She looked towards the chandelier. 'I mean, what am I supposed to do with it?'
'That's entirely up to you,' he said, working hard to remain unmoved by her uncertainty. If she wanted to restore it he would help her. Burn it to the ground or sell it outrighthe would help with that, too. He'd promised Lily he would. 'I've put together the financials for the last three years for you.' He gestured towards a bulky black folder on a nearby table. 'The hotel loses money; it always has. The hotel and land valuations are at the back.'
'I don't suppose you have any refurbishment estimates handy?' she said after a pause.
'It's all there. You might want to sit down before you start looking at those particular figures. Have a glass of iced water and a fan handy.'
'Oh.' She smiled wryly. 'That much.'