Almost Forever by Linda Howard


  She heard a sound at the door and hastily opened her eyes. Max stood there with his hand on the knob. “Get your bag and come with us,” he said curtly. “You haven’t had lunch, either.”

  “I brought my lunch, Mr. Conroy, but thank you for the invitation.” She kept her voice even as she uttered the careful courtesy, her face a blank wall that hid her thoughts. His mouth tightened, and she knew that her answer had angered him. Without another word he turned and left the office.

  It was a lie that she had brought her lunch. She put on a pot of fresh coffee and ate a pack of crackers that she found in her desk, telling herself that she had to start eating better. She wasn’t going to let herself lapse into a decline like some Victorian maiden. She was going to get through this somehow.

  Her first instinct was to quit her job and get as far away from Max as she could. She wanted to be safe; she wanted to get her emotions back on an even keel and forget about him, if that were possible. She even typed up a letter of resignation, but when she reread it, she knew that she couldn’t do that and deleted it. She wasn’t going to let this take command of her life. She was going to continue just as she always had. She would get on with the everyday business of living. She wasn’t going to run. Running and hiding was a childish reaction. It wouldn’t be easy, facing Max and doing her job without letting him see how he affected her, but she really had no choice if she wanted to face herself in the mirror every morning.

  She had changed a lot in the past few years, changes that hadn’t been easily attained. She was more self-confident now. She would never be as bold and eager for new experiences as Martine, but she had found a quiet inner strength that she’d learned to trust. No matter what it took, or how painful it was, she was going to do her job and ignore Max Conroy as best she could.

  They came back from lunch, and the negotiations resumed. Max somehow maneuvered things so that he was sitting next to her while she took notes, forcing her to concentrate on getting the notes right and not letting him know how his nearness affected her. Whenever she glanced at him, she would find his eyes on her, narrowed and intent, and she knew that he wasn’t going to let the subject of their relationship drop gracefully. She stopped looking at him even when he spoke. That was the only way she could keep her composure—to pretend that he didn’t exist.

  Max watched her, trying to read her expression, but her quiet face was a total blank. If she had been aloof before, she was totally unreachable now, and her distance from him made him furious. She was ignoring him, and that was the one thing he didn’t intend to allow. He was hampered now by the job at hand, but it wouldn’t last forever. When it was finished, he was going to smash down those damned defenses of hers and never let her build them again.

  CHAPTER 8

  It took two long weeks for the negotiations to be hammered out. It was a hard fact for Spencer-Nyle to accept, but Sam Bronson still had a card they couldn’t trump: himself. He was, in effect, the most valuable asset of Bronson Alloys. It was his genius, his instinct, his research, that produced the alloys. They were trying to buy the man as much as the company, and Sam knew it, they knew it, and they knew he knew it. To keep the man, they had to keep him happy, and keeping him happy meant making concessions. The job security of his employees was guaranteed; no one would be brushed aside in the usual house cleaning that came with a takeover. Benefits were sharply increased and raises were given, and even though the overall structure of the company would be changed, the employees would be happy because they would be very well taken care of.

  Yet in the end Max still managed to work out an agreement that cost Spencer-Nyle less than what Anson had feared. He did it with cool, relentless negotiating, not giving in on anything he thought was excessive, and inch by inch working Bronson into a position they both found acceptable. He had to give Bronson credit—the man was as tough as nails, fighting as hard as he could for his company, even though the end had been inevitable from the first.

  And Claire was there every day, calmly taking notes, her very presence controlling the tempers that threatened to flare. There was something about her cameo-smooth features and velvety dark eyes that made people control their anger and their language. Max watched her closely without appearing to, so hungry for just the sight of her that he couldn’t stop himself. He hadn’t tried to call her again. Not only would she probably accuse him of trying to get information from her, but he preferred to wait until he could devote himself completely to making her see reason. Time would work in his favor to blunt the edge of her anger. He watched her closely, incessantly, trying to read the thoughts behind that smooth blank face. She had to be furious with him, but there was no hint of it in her speech or actions. She was as remotely polite with him as she would be with a stranger, as if he meant nothing to her, as if they had never made love with frantic, explosive need. After a week Max decided that he would rather have her scream curses at him—anything—than treat him with that immense indifference. He could handle anger and tears; it was her mental distance that frustrated him to the point of madness.

  Claire knew that Max watched her, though she never reacted to it in any way. The only way she could function was to push all her pain and sense of betrayal into a small part of her mind and lock them away. She didn’t think about them; she didn’t agonize over what might have been. She had survived the destruction of the life she’d built once before, and she was determined to do it again. The end of every day marked a small victory for her: a day that she had gotten through without breaking down. She couldn’t wallow in self-pity. She had to complete the task she’d set for herself, getting through the days one at a time. She couldn’t guess how long the negotiations would continue, so she didn’t try to make plans or look forward to the day when Max was gone. It could be days, or weeks, or even months, if he remained to oversee the changeover to Spencer-Nyle ownership.

  Sam hadn’t discussed Max with her, and he acted as if he had forgotten that she had been involved with him. In actuality, there was little chance for them to talk—it seemed there was never a spare minute, and someone was always in the office. Max and his associates were going over the books, which meant they were constantly underfoot, and Sam, like Claire, guarded his words.

  The final meeting was long and exhausting, the boardroom filled with stale air and the stench of old coffee. Tempers were frayed and voices hoarse from hours of talking. Claire took notes until her fingers cramped, and her back felt as if it were breaking in two from sitting for so long. The odors in the closed room made her stomach roll threateningly, so she hadn’t been able to eat lunch when sandwiches and fresh coffee were brought in. All she wanted was to escape into the fresh air and listen to the silence. Late in the afternoon a thunderstorm hammered the city, washing the streets with a deluge of rain. Sam, with an understanding glance at Claire’s pale face, got up and opened the window to let in a gust of cool, fresh, rain-sweetened air. The heavy purple clouds had completely covered the sky, and the streetlights came on as premature dusk settled over the city. With the breaking of the storm there seemed to come a break in the negotiations; everyone was tired and sleepy, and the pounding of the rain against the windows had a soporific effect. Points that had been crucial just that morning no longer seemed so important—what was important was reaching agreement, getting it over with and going home.

  At last it was done, and they wearily shrugged into their coats, shaking hands and smiling. Claire gathered her notes together, thinking of the chores she had to do before her day was ended. Quietly she slipped from the boardroom and walked to her office—she planned to type the final agreement that night. She was exhausted, her body aching, but she wanted to finish the documents while her notes were still fresh. The contracts would be needed first thing in the morning, so it was either do them immediately or come in to work early. She elected not to put the chore off. It was much more peaceful now than it would be tomorrow morning. The building was empty, except for the weary men who had negotiated the details of the ta
keover. There would be no phone calls, no interruptions, no series of small crises to handle. All she had to do was finish her work and leave.

  She had barely begun typing the documents when the office door opened. She glanced up inquiringly, and an expressionless mask slipped over her face when she saw it was Max. Without a word she went back to work.

  He strolled with indolent grace to her desk and leaned his arm on top of her computer terminal. A frown knitted his brow as he saw what she was doing. “That doesn’t have to be done tonight,” he said.

  “I have to do it now, or come in early in the morning.” She kept her gaze on her work. Why didn’t he go away? His presence made her tense and started that dull ache in her heart that she had briefly forgotten.

  “Let it wait.” It was a crisp command, and he reached down to push the power button on to the terminal. The screen went blank, wiping out everything she had put into the machine. “You’re exhausted, Claire, and you haven’t had anything to eat today. I’m going to take you to dinner, then we’re going to talk. You’ve put me off long enough.”

  She looked at him now, sitting back in her chair and raising cool eyes to his. “I can’t think of anything we could talk about, Mr. Conroy. I don’t have any more corporate secrets you’d be interested in.”

  Dark fury washed over his face. “Don’t push me,” he said in a voice like splintered ice. “I’ve let you hold me off for two weeks now, but that’s at an end.”

  “Is it?” she asked indifferently and reached to turn on the terminal again. “Excuse me, I have work to do.” She couldn’t let herself respond to him, couldn’t react to him in any way, or she would slide out of control. For the past two weeks she’d been holding on by a thread; it wouldn’t take much to snap it.

  Max turned the computer off again, punching the button with controlled violence. His eyes were blue-green fire, burning like lasers. “You’re coming with me. Get your bag—and don’t turn on this bloody damned machine again,” he snarled as she reached for the button.

  Claire stared straight ahead at the blank screen. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

  His eyebrows lifted. “Do you want me to force you? You forget that you’re an employee of Spencer-Nyle now.”

  “I’ve forgotten nothing, but my job doesn’t require me to associate with you away from the office. I’ve gotten very particular of the company I keep.” She faced him calmly, determined never to let him see the desolation inside her. Staring at him, she saw an entirely different man from the one she had thought she knew. He wasn’t the epitome of a controlled, reserved, rather old-fashioned Englishman, after all. He was a fire behind mirrors that reflected the image he chose, a ruthless, determined man who let nothing stop him. His facade was that of an even-tempered and sophisticated man of the world, civilized to his fingertips, but it was a lie. He was an elegant savage, a shark cutting through opalescent seas, dazzling people with his beautiful image before he attacked.

  He was very still, his eyes glittering the way they did when something displeased him. His mouth was a grim white line. “I know you’re angry, but you’ll still listen to me if I have to carry you to my apartment and tie you to the bed.”

  “I’m not angry,” Claire pointed out, and she wasn’t. She hurt too much to be angry. She could feel a tiny trembling beginning deep inside her as her exhaustion grew, and she knew she couldn’t handle this scene right now. “As you pointed out, I’m your employee now. If you don’t want me to work tonight, I won’t. But I won’t go anywhere with you, either. Good night, Mr. Conroy.” She reached for her bag and stood, and Max lashed out, catching her arm in a grip that bruised.

  “Don’t call me Mr. Conroy,” he said evenly.

  “Why? Is that an alias, too?”

  “No, and neither is Benedict—that’s my middle name.”

  “How appropriate. Benedict Arnold was a spy, too.”

  “Damn you, I didn’t spy,” he rasped. “There were no papers gone through, no conversations taped. You gave me that information without any urging on my part.”

  Her dark eyes didn’t even flicker. “You sought me out at Virginia’s party because you knew I worked here.”

  “That’s not important! Yes, I deliberately introduced myself to you. It was possible that you had some helpful information about Bronson Alloys.” He shook her lightly. “What does that matter?”

  “It doesn’t, not at all.” She glanced down at his hands, and her voice was cold. “You’re hurting me.”

  He released her, something shadowy moving in his eyes as he watched her rub her upper arms. “That was business. It has nothing to do with us.”

  “How nice for you, to be able to put areas of your life in tidy little compartments and not let them touch! I’m not like that. I think that if a person is dishonorable in one thing, he will be in another.”

  “Don’t be so damned unreasonable—”

  “That was quite a blitzkrieg you put on,” Claire interrupted, her voice rising as she felt her control slipping. Fiercely she groped to regain it. “Does Anson Edwards know what a prize he has in you? Has any woman ever resisted you when you turn on the heat? I fell for it completely, so you can give yourself a pat on the back. Poor man,” she breathed, her eyes burning. “So handsome that women only treated you like a body without a soul, you were tired of meaningless sex and wanted someone to be a real friend. I must have the word ‘fool’ stamped on my forehead, because you knew just what line to feed me. You turned on the charm, forced yourself into my life and got the information you wanted, then waltzed out again. Fine. I was a fool once, but don’t expect me to be a fool again! I’m not really stupid—I don’t have to have my face rubbed in it!” Breathing hard, she turned away, rubbing her forehead with a trembling hand. Perhaps she was stupid, at that; she hadn’t learned all that much from Jeff’s betrayal. It had made her cautious, but not cautious enough. In the end she’d walked back into the vicious trap of loving a handsome, charming man who could have anyone he wanted and had dreamed the fool’s dream that he might love her in return.

  “I didn’t ‘waltz out’!” he yelled, glaring down at her. Max rarely lost his temper. It was seldom necessary; he usually got what he wanted without having to put out that much effort, simply by using his charm and sensuality. But his reactions to Claire had been extreme from the beginning, and the cold contempt in her eyes triggered something fierce inside him. “I was called back to Dallas. You should know. You were in bed with me when the call came!”

  The little remaining color washed out of her face, and she gave him an uncontrolled look of such naked pain that he halted. “Claire…” he began, reaching out for her, but she recoiled from him so violently that she bumped into the edge of the desk and sent papers flying.

  “How kind of you to remind me,” she whispered. Her eyes were black in her paper-white face. “Get away from me.”

  “No. It was good between us—I want to have it again. I won’t let you push me out of your life.”

  She was visibly shaking, and he wanted to put his hands on her to support her but didn’t dare. All of a sudden her icy reserve had shattered before his eyes, leaving a woman who was almost staggering with pain. The realization struck him like a blow to the chest, taking his breath. She wasn’t an aloof, controlled woman, a little unfeeling, a challenge to his male sexuality. She put a buffer between other people and herself in an effort at self-protection because she felt too much and was too easily and too deeply hurt by life. He hadn’t understood her at all, casually counting on his sex appeal and charm to smooth things over as he’d always done, and so intent on getting her into bed that he’d overlooked all of the small signals she’d given him. God, what had he done to her? How deeply had he hurt her to put that look on her face?

  “You don’t have any choice about it,” she said jerkily. “Do you really think I’d be stupid enough to trust you again? You lied to me, and you used me. It was all in a good cause, though, so that makes it all right in your eye
s. The end justifies the means, right? Please, just leave me alone.”

  “No,” he said harshly, feeling a sudden, intense twist of pain in his gut at the thought that he might have lost her forever. He couldn’t accept that; he wouldn’t accept that! For reasons he couldn’t analyze, Claire had become increasingly precious to him, filling his thoughts during the day and his dreams at night. The night he’d spent with her had made him want more, a lot more.

  “I’d say you’re going to have to, at least for now,” Sam interrupted from the doorway, his voice as cool as the look in his eyes. “Stop badgering her. She’s worn out.”

  Max didn’t move a muscle except to turn his head to look at Sam, but suddenly there was something wild about him, a fine tension in his lean, deceptively muscled body, his eyes icy and lethal. “This doesn’t concern you,” he said, and he was every inch the predatory, aggressive male, with the primitive instinct to fight whenever another male approached the woman he’d marked as his.

  “I’d say it does. After all, it was my company that you took, using the information Claire gave you.”

  Max froze, then looked sharply at Claire. “He knows?”

  Dumbly she nodded.

  “Claire told me right away,” Sam said, leaning against the door. “As soon as she realized who you were. Her sense of honor is too strong for corporate games. She wanted to quit right then, but I talked her out of it.” At Max’s lifted brow, he added, “I knew she’d never let herself make that mistake again.”

  Claire couldn’t stay and listen to them talk about her. She felt exposed and raw, her deepest secrets laid out for the world to examine and chuckle over. A small sound of distress escaped her as she walked past Max, keeping her head averted.

  “Claire!” He moved swiftly, catching her arm again and pulling her to a halt. Desperately she wrenched at her arm, trying to twist it from his grip, but he caught her other arm and held her still in front of him. Biting her lip, she stared fixedly at the knot of his tie and struggled for control. Why did he have to hold her so close? She could feel his warmth, smell the exciting male muskiness of his skin. His nearness reminded her of things she would have to forget in order to survive. Her body felt the touch that had driven her to such feverish heights of pleasure and reacted wildly, independent of her control. Her nipples hardened, wanting the touch of his hands, his mouth; her legs quivered, wanting to wrap about his hips, and the emptiness in her wanted to be filled.

 
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