Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  The safe thing to do would be to run, to simply stop seeing him. She had lain in her bed and turned the idea over and over in her mind, but when morning had come she had admitted to herself that she couldn’t do it. She loved him, and perhaps he was coming to care for her a little. There had been something hot and a little frightening in his eyes before he’d masked his expression, an almost predatory look of hunger. A man didn’t look like that if he wasn’t interested. That look gave her hope.

  Now she came out of her thoughts to find him watching her with wry amusement, and color tinted her cheeks. Had he been able to tell the direction of her imaginings?

  “You aren’t eating at all. You’re dreaming,” he said, taking the fork from her hand and placing it on the mat. “Shall we go?”

  On the drive home he asked quietly, “Claire, I didn’t intend to make you uneasy with me. I apologize for putting you in a difficult spot. If you aren’t attracted to me, I understand. We’ll simply continue being friends—”

  “Oh, please,” she sighed, interrupting him. “Do you honestly believe I’m not attracted to you?”

  He glanced sharply at her then returned his attention to his driving. “You’ve made it fairly obvious that you don’t want me to touch you. In fact, at first you didn’t want to have anything to do with me at all. I all but begged to get you to accept me as a friend.”

  She was silent. She couldn’t tell him that she had been afraid of his charm, afraid that she would fall in love with him, because she’d done exactly that. Finally she turned her head to look at him, his perfect profile etched in silver against the darkened window, and her heart gave that funny little leap that she’d come to expect. Was he asking her to believe that dreams came true? It was hard for her to trust, to let anyone get behind the emotional barriers that protected her from hurt. She didn’t think she was the type who could recover from one heartache after another, bouncing right back to take another try at true love, trusting that eventually everything would work out. Claire loved too deeply; it took her too long to recover from heartbreak.

  She wasn’t a gambler, but she didn’t see that she had much choice. She couldn’t walk away from him now. Her heart had known it almost from the beginning, and now she acknowledged it in her mind. She had to try again; she had to reach out or despise herself for the rest of her life. Max was worth the risk, and perhaps she might win.

  “I’m very attracted to you,” she finally said, her voice so soft that he wasn’t certain he’d heard her. His head jerked around, his eyes narrowing, and she steadily met his gaze.

  “Then why have you held me away?”

  “It seemed safer,” she whispered, tightly knotting her hands together in her lap.

  His chest expanded as he drew in a deep breath. They were near her apartment building, and nothing more was said as he parked the car. The silence extended, then he reached out and gently drew her into his arms. She didn’t see his head coming down, but she felt the warmth of his body close to her, the controlled strength of his arms wrapping around her, and then his mouth was on hers. Her head tilted back to fully accept him, and her lips parted softly, her response slow and tender. He took her mouth in the same way, taking his time about it, not bruising her soft flesh. The way was open for his tongue, and he probed her mouth, feeling the quiver of her body at the deepening intimacy of the kiss. He held her closer, arching her to him, and another quiver ran along her body at the sweet, heated pleasure of feeling her breasts pushing against his chest. A small groan rose in his throat. With a sure, experienced motion he covered her breast with his hand.

  Her hands clenched his sleeves, her fingers shaking. Max lifted his mouth from hers and began nuzzling her jawline, seeking the delicate fragrance of her skin. He tasted her flesh as he went, discovering some of the soft places that had been driving him wild for a week: the small hollow below her ear, the length of her neck, the ultrasensitive hollow above her fragile collarbone. And all the time her small, firm breast nestled in his palm, the nipple already peaked, inviting a more intimate touch.

  “Put your arms around me,” he said, his voice one of quiet demand. He wanted to feel her clinging to him, all weak with wanting. She fit into his arms as if no other woman had ever been there; he wanted it to be the same way for her. He wanted her to hold him, feel how perfect it was, their two bodies pressed together. Slowly her fingers released his sleeves, and her arms slid upward. One twined around his neck and the other around his shoulder. A shuddering breath eased out of her.

  Slowly he massaged her breast, taking care not to hurt her or to scare her by losing control and grabbing at her. His own breathing didn’t sound quite steady, and he knew that he had to stop or lose control. He wasn’t accustomed to celibacy, and since he had met Claire, his only lovelife had been in his imagination. Reluctantly he eased away from her, his body on fire with a burning hunger that bordered on violence. He would have to get himself under control before he dared make love to her. She was so soft, so fragile; he didn’t want to take the chance of hurting her, and he was very much afraid that he would.

  “It’s time to call a halt to this, while I still can,” he admitted ruefully, his sharp, knowing gaze taking in the dazed look of passion on her face. Delight filled him that Claire wasn’t a cold woman, merely a deeply reserved one, and she was finally responding to him.

  His words recalled her from the warm, drifting world of physical pleasure where he had carried her, and she sat up straighter, her glance darting away from him, her hands going up to smooth her hair, as if by tidying herself she could deny what had just happened. Max took her hand and carried it to his lips. “Don’t,” he whispered.

  He got out of the car, walked around to open the door for her and helped her out, his hand under her elbow as she maneuvered the long skirt she’d worn to the symphony. His arm went around her waist as they entered her apartment building and remained there during the short elevator ride to her floor. Some of Claire’s distress at herself began to fade. His attentiveness was doing something to her, slowly making her feel more certain of herself, and it was like the first hesitant flutterings of a butterfly’s new wings.

  He checked her apartment then came back to her. The usual lazy, good-humored smile was on his lips, but his eyes were vivid and intent as he bent down to kiss her again. “I won’t stay, not tonight. I want you to be comfortable with me, and frankly, my self-control is wavering. I’ll see you tomorrow night. How formal is Mrs. Adkinson’s dinner party?”

  Claire remembered Leigh’s inclinations well. “Very.”

  “White dinner jacket?”

  He had been wearing a white dinner jacket when she had met him exactly a week ago, and her senses gave a brief whirl as she recalled the way he had looked, with the lights caught in his golden hair like a halo, his eyes as brilliant and glowing as gemstones, the white jacket molded to his broad shoulders. She hadn’t been the same person since that night.

  “That would be perfect,” she said. He didn’t know how perfect.

  He kissed her again and left, and Claire went through the motions of getting ready for bed, but her mind was drifting, floating, recalling every sensation, every moment of his kisses, his touch on her breast. Her natural human need to be touched had been suppressed for a long time by her driving need to prove to herself that she could be independent, but now her body was aching and burning as it came alive after being dormant for so long. She lay in bed, and she dreamed of him.

  The gown she wore to Leigh’s dinner party the next night was almost nine years old, but she had seldom worn it before, and it was one of those simple styles that couldn’t be dated. It was black velvet, with only a little fullness to the skirt, and the bodice hugged her lovingly. It wasn’t particularly lowcut, revealing only a hint of the beginning curve of her high breasts, but it was held up only by two thin straps, leaving her shoulders and back bare. Jet earrings dangled from her ears, and she wore no other jewelry. Her mirror told her that she had never looked better, a
nd her fingers loved the soft, lush feel of the velvet. All her senses seemed to be more alert, and she was achingly aware of her own body in its casings of silk and velvet. When she opened the door to Max, his pupils expanded until the black almost swallowed the sea-colored irises, and the skin seemed to become taut across his cheekbones. Tension hummed from his body.

  But if he thought of reaching for her, he controlled the impulse. “You’re lovely,” he said, his eyes never leaving her, and she felt lovely.

  Claire enjoyed the dinner party more than she had expected, even though her pleasure was dimmed by the presence of Virginia Easley. It would be a long time before she’d forget Virginia’s maliciousness in inviting Claire and Jeff to the same party. Max felt Claire’s slight stiffness and glanced at her in question. Then he saw Virginia, too, and his eyes narrowed. “Don’t let her bother you. She isn’t worth the effort.”

  Leigh Adkinson sailed up to greet them and hug Claire, exclaiming how glad she was to see Claire again. Max stood close to Claire, a little behind her, his presence like a solid wall of strength in case she needed him. He had met several of the other guests at Virginia’s party, so people drifted over to speak to him and Claire, but most of the guests were strangers to him. For a time he and Claire merely stood still, like royalty holding court, surrounded by people who hugged and kissed Claire and told her how much they had missed her. The women would glance slyly at him, waiting for an introduction, but there was no hint of flirtation in his manner. As he had before, he made it perfectly clear that he was with Claire and had no intention of straying from her side.

  Virginia came up, all smiles and dripping sweetness. “Rumors about you two are all over town,” she cooed. “Why, I hear you’re practically living together! I’m so proud that you met at my party!”

  Claire’s smile went brittle, and Max stepped forward, his hand touching her arm. He pinned Virginia with a narrowed, deadly look that made her smile fade, and a waiting silence descended over the guests nearest them. “Rumors have a way of turning on those who repeat them,” he said in a tone laced with contempt. He was furious, and he had no compunction about letting others see it. “Especially jealous bitches who lack both breeding and manners.”

  Virginia went pale, then beet red. Leigh, sensing a budding scandal, came up to hook her arms through both Max’s and Claire’s. “There’s someone you just have to meet,” she chattered gaily as she led them away. Her quick action defused the situation, and the party resumed its normal buzz of conversation. After dutifully introducing them to someone, she darted away to make certain Virginia wasn’t seated close to them at the table.

  Except for that one scene, it was an enjoyable dinner. Claire found that she wasn’t as upset as she would have expected. She was with Max, and that was the most important thing. When she remembered how difficult she had found dinners like this when she was married to Jeff, she wondered at the difference. She had proved to herself that she was capable of managing her own life, and somehow it no longer seemed so important if she accidentally picked up the wrong fork.

  The woman on Max’s other side leaned across to get Claire’s attention. “Do you still play tennis? We miss you at the club, you know.”

  “I haven’t played in years. I was never any good at it, anyway. I didn’t keep my mind on the game.”

  “Dreaming?” Max teased.

  “Exactly. My mind wanders,” she admitted, laughing at herself.

  “I concentrate as hard as I can, and I’m still not any good,” the other woman admitted with a chuckle. Claire couldn’t remember her name but had often seen her at the country club where the Halseys had belonged. The woman sipped her wine then set the glass down, but it caught the edge of her bread plate and toppled over, sending her wine splashing over Max’s white jacket.

  The woman blushed crimson. “Oh, Lord, I’m so sorry. Now you see why I’m not any good at tennis. I’m too clumsy!” She grabbed her napkin and began trying to blot the wine from his jacket.

  “It’s only a jacket,” he soothed, his face calm. “And you’re drinking white wine, so it won’t stain. Please, don’t let it upset you.”

  “But it’s all over you!”

  He took the woman’s hand and kissed it. “It isn’t important. Claire and I will stop by my apartment on the way to the hotel and I’ll change.”

  His manner was so unruffled that it reassured the woman, and the meal continued without further mishap. When dinner was finished, he quietly made his excuses to Leigh, and he and Claire left.

  “I always had a horror of spilling my wine on someone,” she mused in the car. “It never happened, but I was always terrified that it would.”

  He was philosophical about it, and there was a slight smile on his lips. “I poured my wine in a lady’s lap on one occasion. Her dress became transparent when wet, so it was truly memorable. Then, too, I’ve dandled my nieces and nephews when they were babies, and everyone knows what complete barbarians babies are, no shame or manners at all, so in comparison wine is definitely preferable.”

  At his apartment, he went into the bedroom to change while Claire checked her appearance in the gilded mirror in the foyer, reapplying her lipstick and tucking a strand of hair away from her face. Max took only a moment, reappearing in a stark black evening jacket that intensified his golden beauty. Looking at him, Claire caught her breath. Dressed all in black, except for the snowy expanse of his tucked dress shirt, he was overpoweringly male. His eyes drifted over her as she returned the tube of lipstick to her tiny evening bag. “We’re a matched pair,” he said.

  Claire glanced down at her black gown as she preceded him to the door. “Yes, we are. Perhaps it was a happy accident at that.”

  He paused with his hand on the door handle, giving her another appreciative look. Releasing the handle, he turned to face her, tilting her chin up with his hand. His lips brushed lightly over hers. Then he lifted his head and their eyes met, hers wide and dark, his brilliant, narrowed. He kissed her again, molding her lips with gentle pressure. She responded, returning the kiss, standing quietly before him. As if he were cupping a fragile flower, he put both hands on her face, his thumbs meeting under her chin, and continued to kiss her with long, slow, leisurely kisses, their tongues meeting in play. His taste filled her mouth, and with a sigh of pleasure Claire put her hands on his shoulders.

  He murmured something unintelligible, moving his hands from her face and putting his arm around her to pull her closer. With that utter assurance of his, he put his free hand on her breast, the warmth of his fingers heating her through the velvet of her gown.

  She trembled, and shivery desire began to grow inside her. Lifting herself up on her toes, she pressed against him, needing to feel his hard body and the strength of his arms enfolding her. Their mouths clung together, the contact hungry, his tongue thrusting into her mouth. His hand delved inside her bodice and cupped her naked breast, his thumb rubbing over the sensitive nipple and sending heated sparks racing along her nerves. She whimpered a little, unprepared for the sudden flood of passion that swept over her flesh. Her body arched against him, and she felt his hardness, and suddenly they both exploded with need, fierce and uncontrolled.

  His mouth ground into hers, his lips hot and firm, his arms straining her to him so tightly that she couldn’t take a breath. Her senses spun wildly, overwhelmed by the sudden excess of pleasurable messages that were ricocheting along her nerves. She could feel his steely strength in the muscles of his shoulders, taut under her clenched fingers. He was boldly, obviously, aroused, his flesh pushing against her. An insidious weakness began to creep through her bones and muscles, and deep inside her there was heat and a burning, writhing need.

  She hadn’t expected this wild hunger in him, or in herself, and she was helpless to stop it. She hadn’t been prepared for the intensity of his touch, or the way in which she was responding to him, as if her body had taken charge, and she could no longer control it. He moved his hands down to cup her buttocks and b
ring her against him in a movement so blatantly sexual that she couldn’t stop the moan of pleasure that broke from her throat. She loved him, she wanted him, and nothing else mattered.

  “Claire,” he muttered, his breath rasping as it left his chest. The thin strap had drooped off her right shoulder, letting her bodice slip, and he brushed the strap completely down until her breast was exposed. He stared down at her naked flesh, and she felt seared by his gaze. His face was hard, taut, like that of a man on the verge of agony. She was a doll in his grasp, completely helpless against his strength, as he bent her back over his arm and arched her breast up for his mouth. He wasn’t gentle now; his mouth closed hotly over her nipple, suckling at her and making her cry out.

  His hand was under her skirt, smoothing over her thighs, her bottom, between her legs. A thin, wordless cry broke from her lips, but it wasn’t a cry of protest. She was beyond protesting. His touch intensified the torrent of sensation inside her. She felt afire, literally molten with need, and he was wild with the need to get at her. His hard fingers closed on her panties and garter belt and jerked them down with one movement, tugging them off. Then she felt the hard edge of the table behind her, and he lifted her onto it. His hand was there now, touching her intimately, stroking and rubbing and probing, doing things to her that pushed her intolerably close to the edge. She cried out again, clutching at him, so empty and aching that she couldn’t stand it any longer and tears seeped out from under tightly closed lids.

  “Claire,” he said again, his voice no longer recognizable. It was rough, raspy, and as her name left his lips, he was tearing at his clothing. In a fever, he pushed her skirt to her waist then spread her legs and put himself between them. For a frozen moment in time she felt the shock of his naked flesh against her, then he drove into her, and her body jolted from the impact. She ceased to exist as a person; she was only heat and need, her bare legs wrapped around his waist, her arms around his shoulders, crying out and twisting to meet his thrusts. He caught her mouth with his, and her breathing stopped, taken away by his wildfire. The pressure and aching need were building inside her, and it was more than she could stand. It was going to kill her, shatter her into a thousand tiny pieces.

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