Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  “Max, stop,” she moaned, tearing her mouth from his. “I can’t…I can’t bear it.”

  His teeth clenched, and an animal sound rose from his throat. “I—can’t stop. Not now, not now—”

  The need exploded, and she did shatter, her body heaving in his arms. He held her and surged into her and met his own shattering, blind with the unbridled fury of what had just happened between them. Claire was limp in his arms, drooping against him, her head on his shoulder. He let his own head drop, resting on the curve of her neck and shoulder, her sweet, female scent rising to his nostrils as he gulped in air. Her skin was fevered, and he felt the way she was shaking, like a leaf in a storm.

  It was a long time before either of them could move, could gather enough strength to do anything except cling to each other for support. Then she began to move, trying feebly to free herself from him, to pull her bodice up and cover her naked breast. She kept her head down, her face averted, unable to face him. She couldn’t believe that she had acted like an animal in heat, moaning and writhing against him, out of control and lost to every thought except the need to satisfy her body.

  “Stop it!” he ordered in a fierce whisper, finally stepping back from her, but instead of being freed she found herself swept into his arms, held high against his chest. He carried her swiftly through the darkened apartment and into the bedroom, with only the small light from the foyer to show him the way. Without bothering to turn on a light even then, he laid her on the bed and stood over her as he tore out of his clothes, popping buttons from his shirt in his haste to get out of it. He was naked before she could control her quaking limbs enough to get off the bed, and by then it was too late. He bent to pull the gown off her, leaving her bare on the satin comforter. The satin was cool on her overheated skin. Then he was on her, and in her, and she was no longer aware of the coolness beneath her. He was slower this time, the urgency gone, his body moving against her with long, slow movements that rubbed his hair-covered chest against her breasts, and she began to move with him.

  She hadn’t realized that such a degree of sensuality even existed, but he revealed to her a new side of her nature, the potential of her woman’s body for pleasure. And he reveled in her, holding her and kissing her endlessly, taking her to the peak of pleasure, letting her rest then doing it again before it all became too much for him, and he began surging wildly as he reached for his own sweet madness.

  She lay in his arms, and he smoothed the sweatdampened hair back from her face. He took small kisses from her lips, her cheek, her temple. “I’ve been going half-crazy, wanting you,” he muttered rawly. “I know this was too fast, that you weren’t ready for it, but I don’t regret it. You’re mine. Don’t try to run away from me, love. Stay with me tonight.”

  She was incapable of running from him, her strength gone, her legs like water, and at the moment she couldn’t think of why she should want to run. He pulled the comforter back and put her between the sheets, resting her head on the pillow. He lay beside her, his body warm and hard, his arm draped over her waist, and exhaustion claimed them. Claire went to sleep right away, sinking into the enveloping blackness and welcoming it. She didn’t want to think, didn’t want to dream. She just wanted to sleep….

  * * *

  She woke in the darkened room and lay staring through the darkness at the blank ceiling. Max still slept beside her, his breathing deep and easy, his strong body relaxed. Until that night she hadn’t realized just how strong he was, but now her body ached in ways that testified to his strength. For all his sophistication and cosmopolitan manners, he made love savagely, as if civilization hadn’t touched him. Perhaps his smooth urbanity was only a veneer, and the real man was the one who had taken her with primitive urgency.

  And perhaps she wasn’t the woman she had always thought herself to be. If he had been wild, so had she. If he had been hungry, so had she.

  He had asked her to stay, but she didn’t know if she could face him in the morning. Every instinct in her wanted to find a place that was quiet and private, where she could come to terms with this new part of herself. A lifetime of reserve hadn’t prepared her for the wildness that had surged within her. It frightened her that he had such power over her. She hadn’t known that this could be a part of love.

  Moving slowly, her body protesting, she slid out of the bed and groped around on the floor until she found the crumpled velvet heap of her gown. At the door she paused, looking back at his barely visible form on the bed, but he still slept deeply. Tears welled in her eyes; was it wrong to leave him now? What would happen if she woke beside him in the morning light, without the shield of darkness to protect her from the possibility that he might see too much? She wanted to creep back to his side and curl up in his arms, but she turned away.

  “Come back here.”

  His voice was low, rough with sleep. She stood there with her back to him. “It’s better that I leave now,” she whispered.

  “No, I won’t let you.” She heard the rustle of the bed as he left it; then he was behind her, his naked body hot against her back. His arms circled her waist, and the gown slipped from her fingers to the floor.

  “Have I frightened you?” he asked, his mouth against her neck. “Is it because I hurt you?”

  Her head moved slowly from side to side in denial. “You didn’t hurt me,” she said.

  “I was on you like a rutting bull, love, and you’re so soft.” His lips moved to her shoulder and found the tender hollow there. His hot breath wafted over her skin like a caress, and she felt her breasts tighten in automatic response. “So delicate. Your skin is like silk.” His hands were on her breasts now, and her head dropped back against his shoulder, her eyes closing as delight spiraled in her again.

  “Come back to bed,” he urged softly. “I know you’re uneasy, but everything will be all right. I promise. We’ll talk in the morning.” Sometime during the next day he would tell her who he really was, and he was glad that this night had happened. It bound her to him, gave him an advantage in handling her. She would be angry, of course, but he didn’t think it would be anything he couldn’t handle.

  She went to him, allowing herself to believe that it really would be all right. And a small while later, lying beneath him with the now-familiar fire burning inside her, she forgot why she had ever been uneasy.

  * * *

  The shrill ringing of the telephone woke her. Beside her, Max uttered an obscenity and sat up in the bed, reaching for the receiver to halt the intrusive noise. Bright sunlight filled the room, and she pulled the sheet higher under her chin then closed her eyes again. She didn’t feel quite ready to face the morning yet, and she wished the phone hadn’t rung.

  “It’s too bloody early in the morning to be funny,” Max snarled into the receiver, running his fingers through his tousled hair. He listened a moment then said, “I don’t give a damn what time it is, whenever I’ve just woke, it’s too early. What is it?”

  When he hung up the phone a few minutes later, he cursed under his breath before rolling over to look at her. Claire opened her eyes and stared at him, uncertainty plain on her face.

  “I have to go to Dallas,” he said, putting out his hand to finger her hair. “This morning.”

  She swallowed and tried for a casual tone. “It must be urgent—this is Sunday.”

  “It is. Bloody hell, what timing! I wanted to spend the day with you. We badly need to talk about what’s happening between us, and there are some other things I wanted to tell you, but now they’ll have to wait.”

  “It can wait,” she whispered.


  But could it? After hurriedly taking her home, Max had left, and Claire hadn’t heard from him since. She hadn’t really been surprised when Sunday passed without a call; his business in Dallas must have been urgent to require him on a Sunday, but she had expected to hear from him on Monday. In such a short length of time he had insinuated himself so deeply into her life and her heart that now things didn’
t feel right without him. She hurried home after work on Monday, afraid that she might miss his call, but her telephone sat in silence, and the longer the silence stretched, the more she became convinced that something was wrong. She didn’t know what it might be, but there was a sense of unease growing inside her. What was it that he had wanted to talk about? She knew it had to be important; his expression had been too serious, even a little grim. But it had all gone unsaid, and it shouldn’t have—whatever it was, that had been the time for it, and now that time had passed.

  She slept badly, too worried to rest, her awakened body reminding her of the pleasure he had given her, the things he had taught her. It was amazing that she had been married to Jeff for years without learning that she could go mad with desire, that a man’s touch could turn her into pure molten need. No, not just a man. One man. Max.

  Why didn’t he call?

  Lack of sleep left shadows under her eyes the next day, and when she looked in the mirror, the sense of impending doom intensified. She stared at the fathomless dark pools of her eyes, trying to see beyond them into the woman she was, deep into herself where she sensed these things without really knowing what they were. Had he found her lacking somehow? Had she been clumsy? Had he been appalled to find that she was just like all the others, easy to bed and easy to forget? Had he done just that, forgotten her?

  But he had been wild to have her, so wild that he hadn’t even taken her to the bedroom, hadn’t even removed their clothing. A hot blush colored her cheeks at the memory. In the foyer, of all places, like savages in evening clothes. Her reserve had been shattered, his control destroyed, and they had merged together with primitive force. It had to mean something to him.

  But he was so sophisticated, while in many ways she was not. Had that night been normal for him? Was it nothing to him but more of the same?

  There were no answers in the mirror.

  It was after lunch when the call came at work, and Sam spent a long time in his office. When he came out, he was pale.

  “I’ve just been notified of a takeover attempt,” he said quietly.

  Claire looked up at him, waiting.

  “It’s Spencer-Nyle, in Dallas.”

  It was an enormous corporation, spreading out into diverse fields, and the chairman of the board was legendary for his crafty moves. Sam and Claire looked at each other, knowing that it was really only a matter of time. Had the takeover attempt been by anyone closer to Bronson Alloys in size, they would have had a good chance to fight, but Spencer-Nyle could swallow them whole and never even strain. Sam might win the first round, because of the real estate values, but the war would go to Spencer-Nyle.

  “They can’t be foreign-backed,” Claire said, shocked and puzzled.

  “No. It seems we were being threatened on two fronts, but I didn’t see it. I was too worried about keeping my research secure.”

  “When will they make their offer?”

  “That’s up to them, but I’d better use however much time we have left to strengthen our position.”

  “Can we possibly win?”

  “Anything is possible.” He grinned suddenly. “If we put up such a fight that the takeover would be more trouble than we’re worth, they might pull out of it.”

  “Or you could find a white knight.”

  “White knight or hostile takeover, the end result would be the same—the company would belong to someone else. I suppose I could give in gracefully, but hell, I’ve always liked a good fight. Let Anson Edwards and his team of hatchetmen work to get us.”

  Now that the moment was actually there, Sam seemed to relish the thought of a fight. Claire wondered a moment at his mentality—he actually enjoyed conflict. But there were people who thrived on challenge; Martine was one of them. Put a mountain in front of her and she climbed it, it was as simple as that. Claire preferred to go around it. She approached a challenge head-on only when the other paths were blocked.

  There was a lot to be done. The board of directors had to be notified, and proper action had to be discussed. Until a firm offer was received, they had little to go on. As the principal stockholder and chairman of the board, Sam’s opinion carried a lot of weight, but he was still answerable to the board.

  The phone rang off the hook. Claire worked late and was even grateful that the pressure kept her mind off Max, at least a little. She was almost afraid to go home, afraid that he wouldn’t call and she would have to spend another night with that silent telephone. At least this way she didn’t know.

  But eventually she had had to go home, so she put on some music to fill the apartment with noise. Odd, but the silence had never bothered her before; she had welcomed it, enjoying the peace and solitude after the hectic pace of her job. Max had changed that, had turned her interests outward, and now the silence grated on her nerves. The music abolished the quiet outside but couldn’t touch the stillness inside.

  He wasn’t going to call. She knew it, sensed it.

  Had she been only the last warm body in a long line of warm bodies in his bed? Was that all she had been to him, a challenge, so that once she capitulated the challenge was gone? She didn’t want to think that; she wanted to trust Max completely, but more and more she remembered those tiny jarring moments when she had seen the hardness beneath his perfect manners, as if the cosmopolitan gentleman were only a veneer. If that were so, then the image he projected was just that, an image, and she didn’t really know him at all. Several times she had thought that, but now she was terrified that it was true.

  * * *

  Max brooded in his office, wishing that he could call Claire, but things were in motion now, and it would be in the best interests of both sides if he had no more contact with her until the takeover was settled. To see her now would put her in an awkward position, possibly subject her to undeserved hostility. Damn Anson for calling him back so soon, before he had a chance to talk to her and explain things! He wasn’t worried about making her see reason; he was very experienced, and he knew the power of the weapon he had over her, the power of sensuality. Beneath that aloof, ladylike exterior was a woman who burned for his touch, whose own sensuality exploded out of control during his lovemaking. No, he could handle Claire’s anger. What worried him was the pain and confusion she must be feeling because he had seemingly walked out of her life after that unbelievable night they had shared. He didn’t want anything or anyone to hurt her, but he was very much afraid that he had, and that thought caused a tightening in his chest. Damn this bloody takeover to hell and back! It wasn’t worth hurting Claire.

  The senior vice president, Rome Matthews, entered his office. It was late and they were both in their shirt-sleeves, and they were friends as well, so Rome didn’t bother with the formality of knocking.

  “You’ve been glaring at that file for the past hour,” Rome commented. “Is something bothering you about Bronson’s?”

  “No. We won’t have any trouble,” Max said, assured on that point, at least.

  “You’ve been edgy since you got back from Houston.”

  Max leaned back in his chair and hooked his hands behind his head. “Isn’t Sarah waiting for you?”

  Rome’s black eyes glittered the way they did when he was on to something, and he had the determination of a bulldog. Sprawling his big frame in an office chair, he watched Max through narrowed eyes. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he drawled. “You’re acting just like I did when Sarah used to drive me crazy. God, I love it! It’s poetic justice. You, my friend, have woman trouble!”

  Max scowled at him. “Funny, is it?”

  “Hilarious,” Rome agreed, a wolfish grin lighting his hard, dark face. “I should’ve guessed sooner. Hell, you were in Houston a week. Something would have been seriously wrong if you hadn’t found a woman.”

  “You have a perverted sense of humor,” Max said without heat, but also without smiling.

  “Who is she?”

  “Claire Westbrook.”

  Because Rome had studied the file
on Bronson Alloys, he knew the name and knew her connection with the company. He also knew that the vital information needed for the takeover to be successful had come from her. One brow lifted. “Does she know who you are?”

  “No,” Max growled, and Rome gave a soundless whistle.

  “You’re in trouble.”

  “Damn it, I know that!” Max got to his feet and paced the expanse of his office, shoving his fingers through his hair. “I can handle that, but I’m worried about her. I don’t want her hurt by this.”

  “Then call her.”

  Max shook his head. A call wouldn’t work, he knew that. He had to be where he could hold her, soothe her with his touch, reassure her that what was between them was real.

  “You’re going to be back in Houston in a couple of days. Anson is really pushing this. She’ll have to know then who you are.”

  “I intend to tell her before anyone else knows.” Frowning, he stared out the darkened window at the myriad lights and angles of the Dallas skyline. He wanted to be with Claire now, lying in bed with her and stroking the intoxicating softness of her skin. He wasn’t sleeping well, wanting her, tortured by his aching loins. If he had had difficulty getting her out of his mind before, it was damned impossible now.

  * * *

  Claire tried to eat the sandwich she had brought for lunch, but it was tasteless, and after a few bites she rewrapped it in cellophane wrap and tossed it into the garbage can. She hadn’t had much appetite, anyway. The office was empty. Sam was at lunch, as was almost everyone else. It was Friday, almost a week since she had seen Max or heard from him. A small eternity. She had stopped expecting the call, but something inside her was still marking time. Two days. Three. Four. Soon, a week. Eventually it would be a month, and perhaps someday the pain would be a little duller.

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