What Love Sounds Like Online - Alissa Callen

Chapter One

THE ICING on her day-from-hell cake strode into her office like he owned it.

Mia Windsor pushed back her chair and came to her feet. It didn’t matter that the broken air-conditioner rendered the room hotter than a furnace. It didn’t matter that her spilt glass of water had soaked the front of her shirt and turned the client notes she’d been reading into an ink-washed landscape worthy of framing. She was again secure in her comfort zone: she knew how to deal with a man who appeared a carbon-copy of her father.

This client may be a stranger but she knew the exact shade of his power-gold silk tie, the exact angle of his proud chin. The chill of her blouse soaked into her soul. She also knew the meaning of the two body-lengths of distance between him and the wide-eyed child who trailed behind him.

She took a moment to ensure her words emerged clear, concise, perfect, then she stepped out from behind her desk and extended a hand. ‘Welcome to Little Poppies Speech Pathology, Mr. Reid.’

Eyes as blue as an endless outback sky met hers. Masculine lips moved in a barely-there smile before his tanned fingers grasped hers with a surprising gentleness. Too late she felt the weight of the top-knot she’d secured with a pencil shift. Her hair spilled around her shoulders. She closed her fingers around his and squeezed as if her life depended on it. As if her professional hat hadn’t tumbled to the floor along with her makeshift hairpin.

An indefinable expression darkened his eyes before his features again settled in rigid, remote lines. ‘Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Ms. Windsor.’

The velvet-smoothness of his voice washed over her, doing strange things to her sensible knees. His tone was softer, more human, than she’d expected. Strange, since she’d seen the chiselled features of an ice sculpture exude more warmth. ‘Don’t mention it. But after five minutes in this heat you might be retracting your thanks.’

Without waiting for his reply, she turned her attention toward the blonde-haired girl who’d reached her father’s side and now stood as close as possible to his leg without touching him. Anxious fingers tangled themselves in the folds of her white cotton dress.

Compassion melted Mia’s heart. She knew how many butterflies would spread their wings in Tilly’s stomach, how they’d soar to her throat as soon as she tried to speak. And the sickness that would replace them once no-one understood a single word of what she’d uttered.

She’d once been this child.

Mia placed her hands on her knees and bent so her gaze was level with the little girl’s. ‘Hello, Tilly. I’m Mia.’ She smiled. ‘It’s lovely to meet you.’

Large grey eyes fixed on her. Uncertainty anchored the corners of the child’s tiny mouth into a downward curve. In her peripheral vision Mia saw Mr. Reid adjust his tie, with quick, impatient tugs. Her fingernails bit into her skin. So what if such a gesture was as familiar as the freckles across her nose? Just because her father had performed the same action when she’d attempt to talk to him was of no consequence. She relaxed her death-grip upon her knees. Her childhood lay behind her. Dealt with. Finished. She was Mia Windsor. Speech pathologist. Not Amelia Windsor. Stammerer. Failure.

She straightened. ‘Now before we start, Mr. Reid, I must apologise for the temperature. Yesterday’s power surge knocked out the air-conditioner.’

‘Let’s just keep this short and the heat won’t be a problem.’

‘How about we allow Tilly’s needs to dictate this appointment’s length, shall we?’ Despite her best intentions disapproval cooled her words.

‘Fine. But even out here,’ he glanced out the window to where heat mirages would shimmer instead of glass skyscrapers, ‘time is money.’

‘In a population of under a thousand, money soon loses its shine.’

He arched a dark eyebrow as if such a possibility was as likely as a flying pig adding excitement to her dehydrated, red-dust view.

‘Bush spirit is founded on mateship, not millions,’ she added through tight lips. ‘The only currency of any importance this far west of the mountains is…people.’

‘That’s all very commendable but in my experience money is king. The world can’t work without it.’

She looked at the motionless figure standing lost and alone beside her father. Mia’s annoyance ebbed. Just as well in her world people were the only thing that mattered. Not money. Not power. ‘In this temperature any world would have trouble working. So, let’s get started.’

She crossed to the play area brimming with