Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  She relieved the young woman and sent her back to her own job. When she sat down at her desk, Claire felt more normal, as if things were settling back into their rightful place. Then the door to Sam’s office opened, and someone stood there watching her. It wasn’t Sam—she had never felt that tingle of awareness sweep over her from Sam’s gaze. Without looking at Max, she gathered her notes on the documents that needed typing.

  “Leave those,” he ordered, coming to stand behind her. “I’m taking you to lunch.”

  “Thank you, but I’m not hungry. I’ve just had breakfast.”

  “Then you can watch me eat.”

  “Thank you, no,” she repeated. “I have a lot to do—”

  “This isn’t personal,” he interrupted. “It concerns your job.”

  Her hands stilled. Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Sam would no longer need a secretary, so she would no longer have a job. The guarantees that applied to the others could hardly be expected to apply to her. She raised shocked eyes to Max, trying to cope with the idea of being so abruptly unemployed. There were other jobs, of course. Houston was a boomtown, and she would find other work, but would she enjoy it so much and would it pay so well? Though her apartment wasn’t an expensive one like Max’s, it was nice and in a good section of town. If she had to take a large cut in pay, she wouldn’t be able to afford it. For a terrible moment she saw herself losing not only her job but her home.

  Max reached down and pulled her to her feet. His eyes were gleaming with the success he’d had in putting his plan into motion. “We’ll go to Riley’s. It isn’t quite noon, so we should get a good table away from the crowd.”

  Claire was silent as they left the building and crossed the street. It was a hot spring, with the daytime temperatures already climbing into the low nineties, and though the sky was a deep, clear blue now, the forecast was for more thunderstorms in the afternoon. Even on the short walk to Riley’s her navy-blue dress began to feel too warm. Worry ate at her. How much notice would she be given? Two weeks? A month? How long it would take to move Sam completely into research?

  They just beat the lunch crowd at Riley’s and got one of the secluded booths in the back. Claire ordered a glass of iced tea, earning a hard look from Max. “You might eat a little something—you’ve lost weight, and you had precious little to spare.”

  “I’m not hungry.”

  “So you said. The point is, you should eat even though you aren’t hungry to gain back the weight you’ve lost.”

  Why did he keep harping about her weight? She had lost only a pound or two, and she had always bordered on thinness, anyway. She had other things to worry about. “Are you firing me?” she asked, keeping her expression blank.

  His eyebrows lifted. “Why should I fire you?”

  “I can think of several reasons. The most immediate is that my job is being phased out, since Sam won’t need a secretary in research, and whoever takes over as CEO will probably bring his own.” She met his gaze squarely, her dark eyes fathomless and a little strained, despite her efforts to keep all expression from them. “There’s also the fact that this would be a good opportunity to get rid of a bad security risk.”

  Swift anger darkened his eyes. “You’re not a bad security risk.”

  “I leaked confidential information. I trusted the wrong person, so I’m obviously a terrible judge of character.”

  “Damn it, I—” He interrupted himself, glaring at her from narrowed, brilliant eyes. “You aren’t being fired,” he finally continued in a clipped voice. “You’re being transferred to Dallas, to Spencer-Nyle headquarters.”

  Stunned anew, she opened her mouth to say something then closed it when nothing came to mind. Transferred! “I can’t go to Dallas!”

  “Of course you can. It would be foolish of you to refuse this opportunity. You won’t be executive secretary to the CEO, of course, but there will be a substantial increase in salary. Spencer-Nyle is much larger than Bronson Alloys and pays its employees well.”

  Panic edged into her eyes, her voice. “I won’t work for you.”

  “You wouldn’t be working for me,” he snapped. “You’ll be working for Spencer-Nyle.”

  “In what capacity? Shoved into a closet sorting paper clips, so I can never get my hands on any valuable information?”

  He leaned over the table, rage turning his eyes dark green. “If you say another word about being a security risk, I’ll take you over my knee wherever we happen to be, even if it’s the middle of the street—or in a restaurant.”

  Claire sank back, warned by the look and the barely controlled ferocity in his face. How had she made the colossal mistake of thinking him civilized? He had the temperament of a rampaging savage.

  “Now, if you’re through with the sarcastic remarks, I’ll give you your job description,” he said icily.

  “I haven’t said I’ll take the job.”

  “It would be foolish of you to turn it down. As you pointed out, your job at Bronson Alloys will no longer be there in a short while.” He named a figure that was half again as much as she was currently making. “Can you afford to turn down that much money?”

  “There are other jobs in Houston. My entire family is here. If I moved to Dallas, I’d have no one.”

  His jaw tightened, and his eyes went even darker. “You could visit on weekends,” he said.

  Claire sipped at her tea, not looking at him. It would be foolish to turn down that much money, even though it meant moving to Dallas, but her instinct was to turn it down, anyway. If she relocated to Spencer-Nyle’s headquarters she would be in Max’s territory, seeing him every day, and he would have authority over her. It wasn’t a decision she could make immediately, even though logic said she should jump at it.

  “I’ll have to think about it,” she said with the quiet stubbornness that her family had learned to recognize.

  “Very well. You have until Monday.”

  “That’s just three days, counting today!”

  “If you decide not to take the job, another person will have to be found,” he pointed out. “Your decision can’t be very complicated—you have to relocate or join the unemployment lists. Until Monday.”

  She saw no sign of relenting in his eyes, even though three days seemed like no time at all to her. Claire didn’t hurry toward change; she liked to do things gradually, becoming used to changes by slow increments. She had lived all of her life in or near Houston, and to move to another city was like asking her to change her entire life. Things were difficult enough now without being lost in a totally new environment.

  Max’s prime rib was served, and he devoted himself to it for a few minutes while Claire nursed her tea and turned the idea of moving over and over in her mind. At last she pushed it away. She couldn’t decide now, and she had other things she wanted to ask him.

  “What did you tell Sam?”

  He looked up. “Concerning what?”

  “Last night. The fill-in secretary said that Sam told her I’d fainted and wouldn’t be working today.”

  “Embellishment on his part. When he asked me this morning what the hell I was doing following and harassing you last night, I told him to mind his own bloody damn business and that it was a good thing someone made certain you got home safely because you collapsed.”

  “I didn’t collapse.”

  “Really? Do you remember when I undressed you?”

  She looked away, her cheeks heating. “No.”

  “I didn’t cheat. I don’t take advantage of unconscious women. When I make love to you again, you’ll damned well be awake.”

  She had noticed that the more irritated he was, the more crisp his accent became, and he was practically biting off his words now. “If I don’t go to Dallas,” she whispered, getting up from the booth, “it will be because of you, because I can’t stand being near you.” Then she walked off before he could say anything, fleeing back across the street to the relative safety of the office.

Max watched her go, his face stiff. He hadn’t thought that she would reject the job offer, but now it seemed that she might, and he was afraid that if he lost track of her now he might lose her forever. Damn it, after all the strings he had pulled, she had to take the job!

  Rome hadn’t been pleased by the late phone call the night before. “Damn it, Max, this had better be good,” he’d growled. “Jed is cutting teeth and raising hell about it, and we’d just gone to sleep after getting him settled.”

  “Kiss Sarah good-night for me,” Max had said, amused by Rome’s grouchiness.

  Rome told him where he could go and how he could get there, and in the background Max had heard Sarah’s laughter. “This is important,” he’d finally said. “Is there a job opening in the office? Any job?”

  They worked so well together that Rome hadn’t wasted any time asking unimportant questions, like for whom, and why. They trusted each other’s instincts and plans. Rome had been silent for a moment, his steel-trap brain running through the possibilities. “Delgado in finance is being transferred to Honolulu.”

  “Good God, what strings did he pull to get that?”

  “He understands money.”

  “All right, who’s taking his place?”

  “We’ve been talking about bringing Quinn Payton in from Seattle.”

  Max had been silent in his turn. “Why not Jean Sloss in R and D? She has a degree in business finance, and she’s done a damned good job. I think she’s executive material.”

  By that time Rome had seen a pattern in all this moving around. “Who do you suggest to replace Jean Sloss? I agree that she deserves a promotion, but she’s good enough that replacing her won’t be easy.”

  “Why not Kali? She’d love to work in R and D, and it would be a chance for her to eventually move into a managerial position. She knows the company.”

  “Damn it, she’s my secretary!” Rome had roared. “Why don’t you move your own secretary?”

  Max had considered that, but didn’t think Claire would take the job. On second thought, being Rome’s secretary would be too close and make working difficult, too. “Forget Kali, then. Caulfield, the general office manager…what’s his secretary’s name? Her qualifications are good, and she’s ambitious. Carolyn Watford, that’s it.”

  “I’m taking all this down. We’re not in the habit of playing musical offices. Who takes Carolyn Watford’s place?”

  “Claire Westbrook.”

  After a long pause of silence Rome had said, “I’ll be damned,” and Max had known he didn’t have to make any further explanations.

  “I’ll see what I can do. It won’t be easy, moving this many people around on such short notice. When can I let you know?”

  “Sometime before lunch tomorrow,” Max had said.

  “Hell!” Rome had snorted, and hung up, but he had been on the phone before ten o’clock with the all-clear. Rome Matthews was a mover and a shaker; when he decided something would be done, it was better not to stand in his way, and Anson Edwards generally gave him a free hand.

  Max hadn’t considered that he would have more trouble convincing Claire to move than Rome had had in shaking up an entire office, but he should have known. He had made enough mistakes in dealing with her, mistakes that had come back to haunt him, that he should have been expecting it. If he could just get her to Dallas, he would have plenty of time to convince her that he wasn’t a complete bastard after all. If it took time to rebuild her trust in him, he was willing to take that time. He had hurt her, and the knowledge was eating away at him. It had been true when Claire accused him of compartmentalizing his life. He hadn’t allowed for the possibility that Claire would think he had used her solely for the purpose of getting that information. Now he couldn’t get her to listen to him, and he had the cold feeling inside that even if she did, she wouldn’t believe him. He had destroyed her trust in him, and only now was he realizing how rare and precious that trust was.

  * * *

  Claire did her usual Saturday morning chores, finding comfort in the routine while she tried to get her thoughts in order and make a logical decision. She scrubbed and waxed the kitchen floor, cleaned the bathroom from top to bottom, did her laundry, and even washed the windows, trying to burn up the anger that consumed her. With a shock she realized that she was not just angry, she was furious. She was usually calm—she couldn’t even remember the last time she had been truly angry, so angry that she wanted to throw something and scream at the top of her lungs. Damn him, how dare he! After using her as callously as he had, now he actually expected her to uproot herself and change her entire life, agree to move to another city and in doing so throw herself into continuous contact with him. He had said she wouldn’t be working for him, but she would be in the same building, in the same city, and he had made it plain that he didn’t consider things over between them. How had he said it? “When I make love to you again, you’ll be awake.” Again. That was the key word.

  His gall made her almost incoherent with anger, and she muttered to herself as she cleaned. It was odd, but she couldn’t remember being angry when Jeff had left her for Helene. She had been tired and grief-worn over the baby, and bitterly accepting that Jeff should want someone else, but she hadn’t been angry. Only Max had touched her deeply enough to find the core of passion inside her. He brought out all the emotions and feelings she had spent a lifetime controlling and protecting: love, fierce desire, even anger.

  She still loved him; she didn’t even try to fool herself on that score. She loved him, she burned for him, she wanted him, and the flip side of the coin was her deep anger. It was nature’s decree that for every action there should be a balancing reaction, and that was also true of emotions. If she hadn’t loved him so deeply, she would have been able to shrug away his betrayal and accept it as a lesson in trusting the wrong person. But because she loved him, she wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. She wanted to scream at his arrogant assumption that she was his for the taking, and she wanted to show him just how wrong that assumption was.

  She could tell him to keep his job, turn her back on him, and walk away—that would show him that he couldn’t use her and expect her to fall back into his bed whenever he beckoned. That would show him that she was perfectly capable of living without him…or would it? Wouldn’t it instead be admitting that he had hurt her so badly that she couldn’t face seeing him every day? She had to admit that joining the unemployment line when she had the offer of a good job was a drastic, illogical move. He would know how much he had hurt her, and her pride demanded that she put up a good front. It was somehow essential to her self-esteem that she prevent him from knowing that his betrayal had hurt her so deeply that the wound was still bleeding.

  But what other choice did she have? If she went to Dallas, she would be playing right into his hands, dancing to his tune like a marionette on a string.

  Claire straightened from her dusting, her mouth set firmly and her eyes deeply thoughtful. What she had to do was not allow Max to be a factor in her decision at all. This was her job, her financial future, and she shouldn’t allow anger to cloud her judgment. Even if she went to Dallas, she wouldn’t have to dance to Max’s tune; when it came down to it, she was a woman, not a marionette. The choice, and the decision, were hers.

  Looking at it like that, from a logical point of view, she knew that she would take the job. Perhaps that would be the best way of putting up a good front. If she went on about her life as normal, it would seem as if Max hadn’t made such a disastrous impact on her heart, and only she would know the truth.

  Once the decision was made it was as if a weight had lifted. The difficult part would be telling her family, and Claire chose to tell Martine first. That afternoon she drove out to Martine’s house in the suburbs, a ritzy location that accurately reflected Martine’s and Steve’s dual success. Martine’s house wasn’t cool and picture-perfect, though. It reflected Martine’s warmth and outgoing personality, as well as her joy in her children.
A tricycle was parked next to the first step, and a red ball lay under a manicured shrub, but most of the cheerful tangle of toys was in the fenced backyard that surrounded the pool. Because it was a warm, sunny Saturday, Claire directed her steps toward the back. As she rounded the corner of the house, the tapping of her heels on the flagstones warned Martine of someone’s presence, and she lazily opened her eyes. Just as Claire had expected, her sister was stretched out on a deck chair, lazing in the sun in a diminutive white bikini that had to make Steve choke whenever he saw it. Even wearing no makeup and with her golden blond hair pulled back in a haphazard ponytail with an ordinary rubber band, Martine was gorgeous and sexy.

  “Pull up a chair,” she invited lazily. “I would hug you, but I’m slimy with suntan oil.”

  “Where are the children?” Claire asked, sinking onto a deck chair and propping her feet up. The sun did feel good, all hot and clean, and she turned her face up to it like a flower.

  “Skating party. It’s Brad’s best friend’s birthday. It’s an all-day skating party,” Martine said gleefully. “And Steve is playing golf with a client. This may be the only day I have alone again until both children are in college, so I’m making the most of it.”

  “Shall I go?” Claire asked teasingly.

  “Don’t you dare. With our schedules, we don’t see enough of each other as it is.”

  Claire looked down, thinking of the decision she’d made that morning. She was only now beginning to realize how close-knit her family was, without living in each other’s pockets. Moving away from them was going to be a wrench. “What if you saw even less of me? What if I moved to Dallas?”

  Martine shot upright in the deck chair, her blue eyes wide and shocked. “What? Why would you move to Dallas? What about your job?”

  “I’ve been offered a job in Dallas. I won’t have my job here much longer, anyway.”

  “Why not? I thought you and Sam got along like a house on fire.”

  “We do, but Sam—the company has been taken over by Spencer-Nyle, a conglomerate based in Dallas.”

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