Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  The most important thing was to keep her time filled, to stay busy. She began typing a stack of letters. Correspondence had doubled this week in direct relation to the notification Spencer-Nyle had given that it was interested in Bronson Alloys. It really couldn’t have happened at a better time, she told herself—it left her less time to brood.

  It was amazing how happy Sam seemed to be. He was preparing for this like a football coach preparing his team for the annual game against an arch rival, with almost unconcerned enthusiasm. He was actually enjoying it! The stockholders were coming out pretty well, too. The price of the stock had shot up as soon as the news got out.

  Sam had been doing some research into Spencer-Nyle in general, and Anson Edwards in particular, and had come up with an impressive array of articles on the man. His desk was littered with them when Claire carried the letters in to leave them for his signature. A business magazine lay open on his desk, folded to an article on Spencer-Nyle, and Claire curiously picked it up. A color picture of Anson Edwards was on the first page. He didn’t look like a corporate shark, she thought. He was trim and nondescript, with no outstanding features, the sort of man who blended into a crowd, except for the sharp intelligence obvious in his eyes.

  The article was surprisingly interesting and went into some depth. She carried the magazine back to her desk to finish reading it. Then she turned the page, and Max’s face stared up at her.

  She blinked, stunned, and tears blurred her eyes. She closed her eyes, willing the tears away. Just a picture of him stirred up a whirlwind of pain and memories and aching love. If only she knew what had happened!

  Opening her eyes, she looked at the picture again. There was another picture beside it of a dark man with penetrating dark eyes, and beneath both photos was the caption: “Roman Matthews, left, and Maxwell Conroy, are Anson Edward’s handpicked lieutenants, and corporate America generally considers Spencer-Nyle to have the nation’s best team of executives.”

  They had his name wrong. He was Maxwell Benedict, not Maxwell Conroy. Her hands shook as she held the magazine, her eyes skimming to find the text concerning him. There it was. She read it then reread it, and finally the truth sank in. He was Maxwell Conroy, not Benedict at all, and he had romanced her so intensely in hopes of getting information about Bronson Alloys from her. Perhaps he’d even planned to snoop in her papers, but that hadn’t been necessary. She had given him the information he needed. She had a vivid memory of herself talking to him, trusting him, never dreaming that he was a spy for another corporation! After he had what he wanted, he had left. It was that simple, and that terrible.

  Slowly, painstakingly, Claire reread the entire article, some tiny part of herself hoping against hope that she had misunderstood, but the second reading was even worse, because the details she had skipped the first time only supported the facts. Maxwell Conroy was an Englishman who had emigrated first to Canada, where he had been employed at a branch of Spencer-Nyle and had swiftly climbed the corporate ladder. He had been transferred to the Dallas headquarters four years ago, gained American citizenship, and was acquiring a reputation for engineering lightning-fast takeovers, moving in and taking control before the target company could be warned and devise any sort of defense.

  She felt numb all over, as if paralyzed. Even her face was still, and it was an effort to blink her eyes, to swallow. Lightning-fast takeovers. He moved in; he took control; he walked away. Yes, he had done exactly that. She hadn’t had a chance. He had played her like the expert he was, reeling her in so gently that she hadn’t even realized she’d been hooked. She thought of her gullibility in swallowing that line he’d fed her, about how tired he was of being pursued as a sexual object, how he just wanted a friend. She had actually believed it! How had he kept from laughing in her face?

  She couldn’t have been much of a challenge to him, she thought, cringing inside at how stupid she’d been. She had fallen in love with him almost immediately and fell into bed with him the first time he’d made the effort. He hadn’t had to make love to her, she thought painfully. She had already told him about the land reappraisal. That must have been the icing on his cake, to see how easily he could topple her into bed.

  Her eyes were dry, burning, and her throat hurt. She realized that she was breathing in quick, hard rasps, and a hard chill shook her. Betrayal burned like acid inside her.

  The magazine had slipped from her cold, numb fingers, and she sat there in numb shock. That was how Sam found her when he came back from lunch.

  Her face was white and still, and she didn’t seem to see him, even though she was looking straight at him as he came in the door. Sam frowned, walking toward her. “Claire?”

  She didn’t answer, and he squatted down in front of her, lifting her hand in his and chafing her cold fingers. “Claire, what’s wrong? Has something happened?”

  Her lips barely moved, and her dark eyes were black as she stared at him. “Sam, I’ve betrayed you.”

  Slowly, like someone who was old and feeble, she leaned down and picked up the magazine. With great care she leafed through it until she came to the article on Spencer-Nyle and folded the pages back to Max’s photograph. “I’ve been seeing him,” she whispered, pointing to him. “But he told me his name was Max Benedict, not Max Conroy, and he…he knows about the property.”

  Sam took the magazine from her, his face set, and Claire wondered if he hated her. He should; he’d probably fire her on the spot, and it was nothing less than what she deserved. She had cost him his company with her stupidity, her incredible, inexcusable stupidity.

  “How did it happen?” he murmured.

  She told him, sparing her pride nothing. Max had made a fool of her, and she had fallen for every word he’d said. Tears began to slide down her pale cheeks, but she didn’t notice them. Sam reached out and held her hand, and when it was over he did something incredible. Gently he took her in his arms and held her head to his shoulder. His tenderness, when he should have hated her, when he should have railed at her, broke what little control she had left, and sobs began tearing from her throat. She cried for a long time, rocked in Sam’s arms, and he stroked her hair and whispered soothing words to her until at last her body stopped shaking from the force of her crying, and she raised her wet, tear-swollen face from his shoulder.

  “I’ll get my things and leave,” she whispered, wiping her face with the heel of her hand.

  “Why?” Sam demanded calmly.

  “Why?” she echoed, her voice cracking. “Sam, I’ve lost you your company! You can’t possibly want me around now—I’ve proved that I can’t be trusted.”

  “Well, now, that’s where you’re wrong,” he said, taking his handkerchief out of his pocket and offering it to her. “It’s true that the property was our ace in the hole, but it’s also true that if Spencer-Nyle really wants us, we don’t have a prayer. They’re just too big, too powerful. The best I hoped to do was make them pay more than they’d wanted to. As for trusting you—” he shrugged “—I’d say you’re the most trustworthy employee I have. You made a mistake, and I think you’d walk over live coals to keep from making another.”

  “I don’t see how you can possibly forgive me, because I’ll never forgive myself.” She dried her eyes then knotted the handkerchief in her hands.

  “You’re only human. We all make mistakes, some of them more serious than others. Examine your mistake from another point of view. Will any jobs be lost because of what you told Conroy? Probably not. Spencer-Nyle will need our expertise; they won’t run in a whole new set of employees. Did your mistake affect the outcome of the takeover attempt? I don’t think so. I think they have us, one way or the other, and to tell you the truth, I almost feel relieved. The only thing that’s changed is the timetable.” A ghost of a smile touched his hard mouth, and his eyes took on a certain faraway look. “I wish that the mistakes I’ve made were no more serious than that.”

  “He used me,” she whispered.

  “That’s his lo
ss,” Sam said. “He’ll be back, Claire—this is his baby. He’ll be here, negotiating, supervising the takeover. You’re going to have to see him, work with him. Can you handle that?”

  Part of her said no, shrinking from the idea of seeing him again. How could she bear to look at him, knowing that he had used her, lied to her, betrayed her, and knowing deep inside that she still loved him, because love didn’t die easily for her? But if she ran, where would she run to? She had to have a job, and running wouldn’t change anything. She would still have to face herself in the mirror in the morning; she would still carry inside herself the knowledge that it had all been a lie.

  She should have known better. How could she ever have been blind enough to really think a man like Max would be interested in her? He would want someone sleek and sophisticated and beautiful, someone who wore experience like a luxurious mink on smooth, suntanned shoulders. Her only attraction for him had been that she gave him an inside contact in Bronson Alloys.

  But she had loved him and trusted him.

  She had spent the past five years slowly and painfully rebuilding her life, her sense of worth and self-respect. If she ran now, it would all be for nothing; she would be a rabbit, hiding from herself. No, not again. Never again. She would not let Max Benedict—no, Max Conroy—destroy her.

  “Yes, I can handle it,” she told Sam.

  “Good girl,” he said, patting her shoulder.

  She got through the day…and the night. The night was the worst. At least during the day she was distracted by the necessity of doing her job, but at night there was nothing, and she was alone with herself. She lay awake, as she had done every night since Max had left, trying to marshal her strength for the grueling days that lay ahead. She tried to plan the future, because she knew that, despite Sam’s effort to cheer her up, there would be changes made at Bronson Alloys. Sam would almost certainly leave management entirely and devote himself to his research. That would suit him—he was happier in his laboratory, anyway. Where would that leave her? Would he need a secretary then, even taking for granted that he would want her if he did? Would the new CEO want her for a secretary? Would Spencer-Nyle allow her to work in any position where she would have access to sensitive information? After all, she had already proved herself untrustworthy! All a man had to do was pay attention to her and she would tell everything she knew! She thought bitterly that they would be justified in taking that position.

  Alma called over the weekend, inviting Claire and Max to dinner. Claire accepted, but calmly told Alma that she hadn’t seen Max lately. It was inevitable that then Martine would call, trying to find out what had happened.

  “I tried to tell you and Mother that there wasn’t anything serious between us,” Claire pointed out. How true that was! But her voice was even, almost casual, and she was proud of herself.

  “But he acted so…so wild about you. He hardly took his eyes off you. Did you have a fight or anything?”

  “No, no fight. There was just nothing there.” On his part, at least. It was just like Martine that she had hit on the crux of the entire situation: Max had been acting, and he was so good at it that he had fooled everyone.

  * * *

  Late Sunday night, just as she was finally dozing off to sleep, the telephone rang. Sleepily she propped herself on her elbow and reached for it, thinking it would be a wrong number. None of her family ever called that late, and Claire wasn’t the type to think that every late-night call meant an emergency. “Hello,” she sighed, pushing her tangled hair out of her face.

  “Claire. Did I wake you, darling?”

  She froze, horrified, that familiar deep voice with the crisp-edged accent making chills run down her body. She didn’t think, she simply reacted, replacing the receiver in its cradle so gently that it didn’t even click. A soft whimper rose in her throat. How dare he call her after what he’d done? Was he back in Houston? Sam had warned her that Max would be back, but she hadn’t thought that he would have the arrogance to call her.

  The ringing began again, and she reached out to turn on the lamp, staring at the telephone with pain and indecision etched on her face. She had to cope with him sometime, and perhaps it would be better to do it over the phone rather than in person. It was cowardly of her, but she had endured a lot of pain; she wasn’t certain how much more she could take, and pride demanded that he not know how badly he’d hurt her. If she broke down in front of him, he would be able to see how horribly foolish she’d been.

  “Hello,” she said again, picking up the phone and making her voice brisk.

  “The connection must have been bad,” he said. “I know it’s late, darling, but I need to see you. May I come over? We have to talk.”

  “Do we? I don’t think so, Mr. Conroy.”

  “Damn it, Claire—” He stopped, realizing what she had called him. “You know,” he said, his voice changing as tension edged into it.

  “Yes, I know. By the way, the connection wasn’t bad. I hung up on you. Goodbye, Mr. Conroy.” She hung up again, as gently as before. Crashing the receiver down would be too mild to even begin to express the way she felt, so she didn’t waste the effort. She turned off the lamp and made herself comfortable on her pillows again, but her former drowsiness was gone, and she lay awake, her eyes open and burning. The sound of his voice reverberated in her mind, so deep and smooth and so well remembered that it hadn’t been necessary for him to identify himself. She had known who it was, from the first word he’d said. Had he really thought he could take up where he’d left off? Yes, probably so. She had been such a pushover for him the first time that he wouldn’t have foreseen any difficulty in seducing her again.

  Why did she still have to love him? It would be so much easier if she could hate him, but she couldn’t. She was hurt and angry and betrayed—she had trusted him, only to have that trust thrown in her face. But she didn’t hate him. There wasn’t a night that she didn’t cry for him, that her body didn’t ache with an emptiness that wouldn’t go away. Well, if she couldn’t hate him, she could at least protect herself by never, never letting him get close enough to hurt her again.

  In his apartment, Max cursed viciously and threw the telephone across the room in a rare fit of violence. The instrument jangled crazily then lay on its side with the receiver beside it. Damn it. Damn it! Somehow she’d found out who he really was and probably put the worst possible connotation on it. He’d intended to tell her that night rather than walk into the offices of Bronson Alloys the next day and hit her with it cold, but at least then he would have been with her, able to hold her and love her out of her anger. Now it would be hell getting through her door again. She’d probably slam it in his face.

  The telephone began a raucous beeping to signal that it had been left off the hook, and he swore again, stalking over to pick it up and crash the receiver down on the button. This damned job had been nothing but trouble. It had brought Claire into his life, but it had also been between them from the start, and now he had to get the merger negotiations out of the way before he could approach her again. He sat down, frowning at the carpet. He missed her more than he’d ever missed anyone in his life.

  * * *

  She looked up from the computer when the office door opened, and her heart stopped. Max stood there, flanked by two men who carried bulging briefcases. His face was expressionless, his turquoise eyes guarded. There was no point in playing games, so he said bluntly, “I’d like to see Sam Bronson.”

  Claire didn’t betray her feelings by even a flicker of emotion. “Yes, Mr. Conroy,” she said neutrally, as if there were nothing unusual in his presence there, as if she had never lain naked in his arms and burned with desire. She got to her feet without another glance at him and knocked briefly on Sam’s door, then entered and closed it behind her, leaving Max and his associates to wait. She came out after a moment. “Go in, please,” she said, holding the door open for them.

  His gaze lingered on her face for a fraction of a moment as he passed her, a
nd there was something hard and threatening there, something that frightened her. She kept her face blank; he might have been a stranger to her. When the door closed behind them, she sat down at her desk again and clasped her shaking hands to still them. Seeing him had been like taking a knife in the chest, a sharp, brutal pain that almost doubled her over. Odd, but she’d forgotten how handsome he was, or perhaps that had been blanked out. The lean, chiseled planes of his face had stunned her anew, and underlying that was the memory of how he’d looked in the throes of passion, his hair damp with sweat, his eyes burning in his taut face. He’d braced himself above her, and the muscles in his torso had rippled with power—

  Stop it! she ordered herself, biting down on her lip hard enough to bring blood. Wincing, she grabbed a tissue and blotted the tiny drop of blood away. She couldn’t let herself keep thinking about him. There was no point in it, no use in tormenting herself with memories of that one night. She had a job to do, and if she concentrated on it she just might get through the day.

  But the day was a nightmare. She was called in to take notes, and it was almost more than she could bear to sit so close to Max, feeling his eyes on her as she scribbled page after page. Sam was a hard-nosed negotiator, and he was determined to win everything he could. An emergency meeting of the board of directors was called, and the office hummed with activity.

  Finally they went out for lunch. As soon as the office was empty, Claire collapsed into her chair, her eyes closed in relief. She hadn’t known how hard it would be to see him again. He hadn’t said a personal word to her, but she had been vividly, painfully aware of him.

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