Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  “Let me go,” she whispered.

  “You’re not in any shape to drive. You haven’t eaten all day, and you look as if you might faint at any moment. I’ll drive you home,” he insisted.

  “I wouldn’t go with you to a dogfight,” she said, using her last ounce of defiance. His grip slackened, and she pulled free, taking the chance to walk out of the office without him. It might be the only opportunity she had, and she was too upset to tolerate any more. Another minute and she would be weeping, completing her humiliation.

  Her hurried steps carried her out of the building and to the parking lot. It was still raining lightly, but gusts of wind battered her, and flashes of lightning in the low-hanging purple clouds lit the darkness with momentary brilliance. The storm intensified the darkness, making the efforts of the streetlights seem ineffective. Her heels tapped sharply on the wet pavement as she ran to her car. She reached it and stopped to unlock it and only then heard the footsteps behind her. Cold terror washed down her spine, and tales of rape and robbery flooded her mind. Grasping her keys like a weapon, she whirled to face any assailants, but there was no one close to her. On the other side of the parking lot Max walked to his car and got in, and Claire sagged with relief.

  Her hands were shaking as she opened the car door and slid behind the wheel, cautiously locking the door again. What if it had been a mugger or a rapist? How many articles had she read that warned women against going to their cars alone at night? She’d been foolish to let her emotions push her into a dangerous situation, and she drew a deep breath. She had to get control of herself.

  She was still shaky, and the rain made the streetlights reflect dizzyingly on the wet streets. She drove with extra care, not wanting to risk an accident. She didn’t notice the car behind her until she turned down the street to her apartment building and the other car turned, too. Nervously she peered into the rearview mirror, trying to tell what kind of car it was, but the headlights were right in her eyes, and she couldn’t see anything. Was she so on edge tonight that she was becoming paranoid? Quickly she found a parking place and pulled into it, deciding to wait until the other car had gone on before she got out.

  But the other car slowed and pulled into the empty parking space beside her. It was a black Mercedes, and the man driving it had golden hair that gleamed like a halo in the silvery artificial glow of the streetlight.

  Still shaking, Claire leaned her head on the steering wheel. He was determined to talk to her, and she was beginning to realize that he didn’t give up once he’d decided to do something. How had she ever thought him civilized? He was as ruthless as any Viking, and she feared him as well as loved him because he would destroy her if she didn’t find a way to keep him at a distance, to protect herself with indifference.

  He tapped on the window, and she jerked her head up.

  “It’s raining harder,” Max said, his voice muffled through the glass. The rain beaded and ran down the windshield, emphasizing his words. “Let’s go in, dear. You’re going to get soaked if you wait much longer—I think a new storm is coming in.”

  She flinched at the endearment, amazed at how easily it rolled off his tongue. How many other women had been fooled by his glib lies?

  He wasn’t going to give up and go away, and she was too tired to sit out in the car indefinitely. Gathering her wavering strength, she got out of the car and carefully locked the door, then hurried up the sidewalk without looking at him.

  He stretched out his arm and opened the door for her and was right beside her in the elevator. Claire clutched her keyring, keeping it ready. Damn him, why wouldn’t he give up? What did it matter to him, anyway?

  Catching her wrist firmly, he relieved her of the keys and opened the door, stepping inside to turn on the lights and pulling her in with him. He released her wrist to close the door, and tossed her keys onto the small table that stood by the door, her catchall table that she had found in a flea market and refinished. Fixedly she stared at the table; it wasn’t a Queen Anne, like the one in his foyer. She remembered the way he had lifted her onto that elegant Queen Anne table and moved between her thighs, and for a moment she thought she really might faint, after all. Her legs felt wobbly, and there was a faraway roar in her ears. She sucked in a deep breath, hoping the extra oxygen would steady her.

  “Sit down,” Max said roughly, propelling her toward the couch. “You look dead white. Are you pregnant?”

  Stunned, she stared helplessly at him, sinking down onto the cushions as her legs folded beneath her. “What?” she gasped.

  “You haven’t eaten. You’re pale. You’ve lost weight, you feel ill.” He enumerated all the things that had been haunting him since that explanation had first blasted into his mind. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice that Sam opened the window for you this afternoon? Why would you tell him and not me?”

  “I haven’t told him anything,” she protested, thrown off balance by his line of questioning. “I’m not pregnant!”

  “Are you certain? Have you had your period this month?”

  For the first time that night color flooded her cheeks. “That isn’t any of your business!”

  His face was grim as he stood over her. “I think it is. I didn’t protect you that night—any time that night—and I don’t think you’re on the pill. Are you?” Her expression was answer enough. “No, I didn’t think so.”

  “I’m not pregnant,” she repeated doggedly.

  “I see. You’re simply on a diet, is that it?”

  “No. I’m exhausted. It’s as simple as that.”

  “That’s another symptom.”

  “I’m not pregnant!” she yelled, then buried her face in her hands, aghast at her loss of control.

  “Are you certain?”


  “All right,” he said with sudden calm. “I apologize for upsetting you, but I wanted to know. Now sit there while I get something for you to eat.”

  The last thing she wanted was something to eat. She wanted him to get out of her apartment so she could fall facedown on her bed and sleep. But she couldn’t chase him out, because her legs were lead weights, and suddenly it wasn’t worth the effort of getting up. She sat there staring blankly in front of her, wondering how she could have been so stupid as not to have considered the possibility of a pregnancy, but the truth was that it hadn’t entered her thoughts at all. Nature had assured her that she wasn’t pregnant, but she hadn’t thought of it even then. It was a good thing, because she wasn’t sure she could have borne the added stress. What if she had been pregnant? Would it have been all right this time? Would she have held her own baby in her arms? Max’s baby, with golden hair and eyes like the sea. Suddenly pain shot through her, because it wasn’t to be, and she wished it could have been.

  She was so completely exhausted that to continue sitting upright was asking too much of her body. With a quiet little sigh she sank back against the cushions of the couch, her eyelashes sinking down as if pulled by a force she couldn’t withstand. With the suddenness of a black curtain dropping down, she was asleep.

  When Max came back into the living room with a tray loaded with a selection of sandwiches, a glass of milk for Claire and a cup of coffee for him, because he was hungry too, he was braced to receive all her hurt accusations, but he was also ready to stay there all night, if necessary, to explain his side of it and convince her that they had something special between them. Then he saw her curled against the cushions, one arm folded in her lap and the other hanging to the side in that limp way that indicated deep sleep. Her hand was lying palm upward, her fingers curled slightly, and he stared down at the peculiar, innocent vulnerability of her open palm, so soft and pink. Memory seared him. Sometime during the night they had spent together, during one of those frantic, greedy matings, he’d taken her hand and carried it down his body, and every muscle in him had jerked in reaction to her gentle fingers closing around him. He jerked now in reaction to the memory, his body growing hard and sweat popping out o
n his brow.

  He swore soundlessly and set the tray down, bringing his surging appetite under iron control. Now wasn’t the time to seduce her, assuming that he could even get her to wake up. He looked at the tray of food, then at Claire, sleeping so deeply. She needed both food and rest, but evidently her body had taken over and given sleep the highest priority. The kindest thing now would be to let her sleep, even though it meant postponing that talk once again.

  Bending down, he gently slid his arms around her, one under her knees and the other around her back, and lifted her easily. Her head fell sideways against his shoulder, her gentle breath warming his flesh through his shirt, and he stood still for a moment with her clasped in his arms, his eyes almost closed as he drank in her nearness, the softness of her body in his arms and the faint, elusive sweetness of her skin. Until then he hadn’t realized quite how much he’d missed her, but now the delicious agony of holding her again almost made him groan aloud. She fit into his arms in a way no other woman ever had. Max had held many soft, trembling bodies against him and beneath him, but now he couldn’t recall any of the others. Only Claire. She made him feel oddly complete, and the thought disturbed him, because that meant he was incomplete without her.

  He carried her into the bedroom and eased her down onto the bed. She was so soundly asleep that she didn’t even murmur but lay exactly as he’d placed her. With the expertise of a man who had undressed many women, Max removed the short lightweight jacket she wore, then pulled her blouse free of the skirt. It was a thin silk blouse, and beneath it he could see the lacy edge of her camisole, reminding him of the marvelously sexy underwear she wore. Reminding him? He wiped his perspiring forehead. His problem was forgetting.

  Reaching beneath her, he unbuttoned and unzipped her skirt then worked the garment down her legs. She wasn’t wearing a camisole, but a full-length slip, all silk and lace. His hands began a fine trembling as he pulled off her shoes and set them aside. He didn’t dare go any farther. Not only would she not appreciate being stripped naked, but he was suddenly afraid that his control would snap if he continued. He thought of the satin and lace garter belts she wore, and the filmy underpants, and his body flooded with heat. Bloody hell! He swore furiously, silently, forcing himself to his feet. Her penchant for sexy underwear was likely to give him a fetish.

  With effortless strength he lifted her and turned the cover back, then placed her between the sheets. She looked so tired, he thought, pushing back a strand of hair from her temple. Her face was pale and strained, with dark shadows under her eyes, but it was a relief to know that it was only exhaustion instead of the strain of early pregnancy that had put those marks there. He had never before lost control like that, not only of his body, but of his mind. He had always made certain that his partner was protected and been more than willing to assume responsibility if she hadn’t taken care of it herself. Then, and only then, would he unleash his sexuality, lose himself in the sensual pleasures of the flesh. But with Claire, he hadn’t even thought of it. He had had only one thought, to penetrate, and had been blind to everything else. Even now he was stunned by the driving urgency he’d felt, the simple and powerful animal instinct to mate that had taken control. He didn’t like the feeling. He’d always thought that the power of his mind could control the lusty appetites of his body. His icy, superlative intelligence had always been in control…until Claire had responded to him, and the restraints he’d been placing on himself had shattered under the violent surge of desire.

  He hadn’t even had the control, the consideration, to take her to bed. He had simply lifted her onto the table in the foyer, pushed her velvet skirt to her waist and thrust into her. She was such a delicate woman, as finely made as the finest porcelain, and he’d taken her with all the finesse of a conquering warrior. The only thing that kept him from being completely disgusted with himself was the memory of her response, the way she had clung to him, twisted against him, the little whimpers in her throat as she met his thrusts, the way she had cried out and the sweet inner clenching that had signaled her peak of satisfaction. Behind her distant manner was a capacity for passion that overwhelmed him and made him hunger for her. He wanted her all for himself.

  Realizing that he was shaking with the need to take her again, he turned away from the bed while he still could. Where Claire was concerned, his self-control was almost negligible.

  He went into the living room, wolfed down several of the sandwiches and drank the pot of coffee he’d made, not worrying about the effect of the caffeine on his system so late at night. A deep frown furrowed his brow as he considered the situation with Claire.

  Until that night he hadn’t doubted his ability to talk her around eventually. Never in his life had he been denied anything he really wanted. Nature had given him an enormous advantage in coupling his face and body with a superior intellect. But for the first time he wasn’t certain that he would win. He had seen behind Claire’s shield and, for the first time, seen the vulnerability of the real woman and realized the necessity for that shield. She felt too much, loved too deeply, gave herself too completely…and betrayal would strike a crippling blow at that too-tender heart.

  Whatever happened, he had to make certain that she couldn’t hide from him, and he knew her well enough to realize that would be her first form of defense. She would do whatever she could to put distance between them, mentally if not physically. Time was on her side. Soon he would have to return to Dallas, and they would be separated by more than two hundred miles. He would be traveling to other cities, putting even more distance between them. He considered his options, and a plan formed in his mind. The thing to do was to take her to Dallas with him—the problem was in getting her there.

  He cleaned up after himself then went into the bedroom to check on her, to assure himself that she was really all right. She was still sleeping soundly, and a healthy pink color was beginning to return to her cheeks as she rested. Thoughtfully he looked at her alarm clock, then picked it up to make certain the alarm was turned off. Let her sleep as long as she needed. He wrote a short note and propped it on the clock, then let himself out of the apartment. He had plans to make, and it wasn’t too late at night to set them in motion.

  A faint grin relieved the grimness of his expression as he drove through the rainy Houston night. It wouldn’t hurt Rome to be jarred out of a sound sleep by a telephone call. After all, it had been Rome’s call three weeks before that had pulled Max out of the bed he’d been sharing with Claire. Fate had a way of evening things out.


  When Claire woke the next morning she felt rested for the first time in weeks, and she lay in drowsy relaxation, waiting for the alarm to go off. The minutes ticked by without the alarm, and finally she opened a curious eye to check the time. The first thing she noticed was that the room was very light for so early in the morning, and the second thing she noticed was that it was almost nine-thirty. “Oh, no!” She hated being late to anything, even by a few minutes, and she was more than a few minutes late. She should have been at work an hour-and-a-half ago!

  She scrambled out of bed, still a little disoriented from sleeping so long, and stared down at herself in confusion. Why was she wearing a blouse and slip instead of a nightgown? Then memory flooded back, and her face heated. Max! She’d gone to sleep on the couch. Max must have put her to bed. At least he hadn’t stripped her; she couldn’t have borne that. It was bad enough that he’d handled her so easily while she’d been asleep, undressing her and putting her to bed as if he had every right to be so familiar with her. She would have preferred that he let her sleep on the couch.

  But that explained why she had slept so late—he hadn’t set her alarm. She looked at the clock then noticed the note beside it. She didn’t even have to pick it up to read it; the handwriting was a series of bold slashes written with a strong hand. Don’t worry about being late. You need the rest. I’ll handle it with Bronson—Max.

  She grabbed the note and crumpled it with a des
pairing cry. That was just what she needed, for him to “handle” it with Sam! What would he say? That he’d left her in bed, and she was so tired that he was going to let her sleep late? Sam would have to pull one of the other secretaries in to handle the office, and the reason why she was late would spread through the office like wildfire.

  Her stomach rumbled, and she realized that she was both very hungry and very grungy from having slept in her clothes and makeup. She was already so late that she would gain nothing by hurrying to work. She decided to take her time. After a long shower, a shampoo and a leisurely breakfast, she would feel better. She wouldn’t go to work looking thrown-together; she would be professional if it killed her.

  It was almost noon when she walked into the office, but her stomach was pleasantly full, her hair washed and pulled back into an attractive chignon, and she wore her favorite dress, a navy-blue blouson with white piping. Her efforts to bolster her spirits had worked, or perhaps it was the extra sleep she’d had. For whatever reason, she felt almost calm. There was indeed another secretary at her desk, a young woman who had been with the company only a few months, and whose eyes widened with surprise when she saw Claire. “Miss Westbrook! Are you feeling better? Mr. Bronson said you fainted last night and wouldn’t be working today.”

  Bless Sam for covering for her! Claire said calmly, “I’m feeling much better, thank you. I was very tired, nothing else.”

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