Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  He fit in easily with her family, joking and conversing as effortlessly as he had before. They didn’t know that this congeniality was a disguise for the driving power of his true personality. She watched him, but didn’t talk to him except to answer direct questions and she sensed that he was watching her, too. She’d thought that he’d given up, but now she remembered telling Martine that he wasn’t even familiar with the term. He hadn’t given up—he’d simply been waiting. He calmly wrote down her unlisted telephone number, copying it off the telephone, and when he looked up to find her watching him, he lifted an eyebrow in silent invitation for her to make an issue of it. Claire simply turned away to continue her chores. Attacking him now over a telephone number would make her look like an ungrateful wretch after he’d worked tirelessly most of the day, helping her get settled.

  It was late when everything was put in its place, and everyone was yawning widely. Rather than attempt the long drive back to Houston that night, her family had elected to stay in a motel and drive back the next morning. Somehow Claire found herself waving goodbye to them from her new porch, with Max standing beside her as if he belonged there.

  “Why did you come here?” she asked quietly, watching the taillights disappear down the street. The warm night sounds of chirping insects and the rustle of leaves in the trees from a slight breeze surrounded them, where only a moment ago there had been laughter and noisy yawns and enthusiastic cries of “Bye! Take care now. I’ll call you tomorrow!”

  “To help you with your things,” he said, holding the screen door open for her as she reentered the house. She didn’t trust his bland tone for a minute. “And to make certain that you’re comfortable. Nothing more sinister than that.”

  “Thank you for your help.”

  “You’re welcome. Is there any coffee left in the pot?”

  “I think so, but it is probably undrinkable by now. You drink too much coffee, anyway,” she said without thinking, going into the kitchen to pour out the stale coffee. He stopped her as she was beginning to make a fresh pot.

  “You’re right. I don’t need any more coffee,” he said, taking the pot out of her hand and placing it in the sink. Grasping her elbow, he pulled her around to face him. “What I need is this.”

  His other arm went around her waist, bringing her up against him, and he bent his head. His mouth closed over hers, and the hot, heady taste of him filled her. He kissed her with deep, greedy hunger, until a painful hunger of her own began to coil in her body. Both angered and alarmed by the desire he could arouse so effortlessly, she jerked her mouth from his and pushed against his shoulders, feeling the heavy muscles beneath her palms.

  To her surprise he let her go easily, releasing her and stepping back. Satisfaction was plain in his eyes, as if he’d just proved something to himself. He must have felt her response; for a brief moment she hadn’t been able to prevent herself from melting against him, her body seeking his.

  “I wish you hadn’t come,” she whispered, her dark eyes locked on him. “Why involve yourself with my family? How do I tell them that you aren’t Max Benedict, after all?”

  “You don’t have to tell them anything—they already know. I’ve explained it to your mother.”

  Shocked, Claire stared at him. “What?” she stammered. “Why? When did you tell her? What did you tell her?”

  He answered readily enough. “I told her that the takeover of Bronson Alloys by my company has complicated our relationship, but that I transferred you to Dallas so we would still be together and could work out the problems.”

  He made it all sound so simple, as if he hadn’t abandoned her as soon as he’d gotten the information he wanted! It was true that he hadn’t been expecting the phone call that had forced him to return to Dallas, but it was also true that he hadn’t made any attempt to contact her after that until the actual mechanics of the takeover had put him back in Houston. Now, in his typical high-handed fashion, he believed that all he had to do was move her to Dallas and the “complications” would be settled.

  Her expression was so troubled, for once so easily read, with all her doubts and hurt there for him to see, that he had to fight the urge to pull her against him and shelter her in his arms. Max had never known failure with a woman he wanted; they came easily into his arms and his bed, and they had always been so easy to read. It was ironic that Claire, the one woman he couldn’t easily understand, should be the woman he wanted more intensely than he’d ever dreamed he would want a woman. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking—her defenses were too strong, her personality too complex. Yet every glimpse he had of the inner woman only made him hungrier to find out more about her, to get deeper into her mind. Looking at her now, with her clothes grimy from the day’s labors, her hair straggling down from its topknot, her face free of makeup and her velvety dark eyes full of pain and uncertainty, Max felt something jolt in his chest.

  He was in love with her.

  The realization stunned him, though now that he recognized it for what it was, he knew that the feeling had been there for some time. He had labeled it as attraction, desire, even challenge, and it was all of those, and more. Of all the women in the world, he hadn’t loved any of the soft, willing beauties who had shared his bed and would have done anything for him. Instead it was a difficult, aloof, yet extraordinarily vulnerable woman who made him feel as if he would explode with joy if she smiled at him. He wanted to protect her, he wanted to discover all the hidden depths of her character, he wanted to lose himself in the unexpected and shattering passion she had to offer.

  Claire moved away from him, rubbing the back of her neck tiredly and not seeing the arrested expression on his face. “How did you explain your change of name?”

  It took a minute before he could gather himself and make sense of what she had asked. “I told her the truth, that I had been looking for certain information and didn’t want Bronson to know my true identity.”

  Claire thought Alma was so charmed by Max that she would be prepared to believe anything he said. “What did she say?”

  An appreciative smile quirked Max’s mouth as he remembered exactly what Alma had said. That lady did have a way with words, though he could hardly tell Claire that her mother had said, “If you hurt my daughter, Max Benedict, or Conroy, or whoever you are, I’ll have your guts for garters!” Claire didn’t seem to realize how fiercely protective her entire family was of her.

  “She understood,” was all he said, watching Claire as she retreated even more, continually expanding the distance between them. She was so wary!

  “I’m sure she did,” Claire sighed.

  Impatiently Max closed the gap between them, his quick strides carrying him to her side. Claire looked up, startled by his sudden movement, then gave a soft cry as he put his hands on her waist and lifted her up so her eyes were level with his. “Yes, your mother understood—it’s a pity you don’t!” he muttered, then put his mouth on hers.

  There was a tiny, despairing cry deep inside her mind. How could she keep control of herself if he kept kissing her? Especially kisses like these, deep, hungry kisses, as if he couldn’t get enough of her taste. His lips released hers and slid down to her throat, nipping at her skin as they went. He held her so firmly that his hands were hurting her, and she didn’t care. Her eyes closed firmly, and tears welled beneath her lashes.

  “Why do you keep doing this to me?” she cried rawly. “Do you just chase anything that runs? Did it hurt your pride that I told you to leave me alone?”

  He raised his head; his eyes were burning green fire. He was breathing harshly. “Is that what you think? That my ego is so enormous I can’t stand for a woman to turn me down?”

  “Yes, that’s what I think! I’m a challenge to you, nothing more!”

  “We burned each other up in bed, woman, and you think it was nothing more than gratifying my ego?” He put her on her feet, infuriated that she continually put the worst interpretation on his actions.

  “You tell
me! I don’t know you at all! I thought you were a gentleman, but you’re really a savage in a tuxedo, aren’t you? Your instincts are to win, regardless of how ruthless you have to be to get what you want!”

  “You know me pretty well, after all,” he snapped. “I go after what I want, and I want you.”

  Claire shivered, alarmed by the hard expression on his face. Swearing under his breath, he took her in his arms again, holding her head against his chest, his fingers threading into her soft hair. “Don’t be afraid of me, love,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you. I want to take care of you.”

  As what? As a mistress? She shook her head blindly, the motion limited by the way he held her to his chest.

  “You’ll trust me again, I promise.” He murmured the words against her hair, and his hands slid down to stroke her back. Claire found that her hands were clenched on his shirt and that she was clinging instead of trying to push him away. “I’ll make you trust me, love. We’ll get to know each other. We have the time. There will be no more masks between us.”

  He bent his head and kissed her again, and this time Claire’s self-control wasn’t strong enough to keep her from responding. Blindly she rose on tiptoe, straining against him, her mouth opening under the probing of his tongue. She kept making foolish mistakes where Max was concerned, and the latest one was the idea that she would be able to keep him at a distance. Shaking with love and pain that mingled into a tangled knot, she let the pleasure sweep through her, because there was nothing she could do to stop it. His hand was on the buttons of her shirt, and there was nothing she could do to stop that, either. She trembled, waiting in an agony of anticipation for his touch, her body craving his heat and strength. Then his fingers were on her, sliding inside her opened shirt to cup her naked, swelling flesh, and electricity shot from her hardened nipples straight to her loins.

  “I know you’re tired, but I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing gentleman,” he said harshly, lifting his head to look at her. “If you don’t stop me now, I won’t be leaving tonight at all.”

  She couldn’t deny it, even to herself. He was giving her one last chance to reconsider. For a moment she almost pulled his head back down to her. Then common sense asserted itself, and she pushed at his arms until they fell away from her. Her fingers trembled, and she couldn’t look at him as she fumbled with the buttons of her shirt until at last she was covered again.

  “Thank you,” she said, meaning it. She felt exposed and vulnerable, because only his self-control had given her the chance to reconsider—she had had none at all, and he knew it.

  He had offered, but that didn’t help the frustration raging through his body. He glared down at her. “Don’t thank me for being a bloody stupid fool,” he said, his tone savage with temper. “I have to get out of here before I change my mind. Be ready at six-thirty tomorrow night. I’m taking you out to dinner.”

  “No, I don’t think—”

  “That’s right,” he interrupted, catching her chin in his hand. “Don’t think, and above all, don’t argue with me right now. I want you so much that I’m hurting. I’ll be here at six-thirty. If you want to go out, be dressed. If not, we’ll stay here. The choice is yours.”

  She shut her mouth. His mood was dangerous, his eyes glittering. He kissed her again, hard, then stalked out of the house.

  When he was gone the house echoed strangely. She locked the doors and checked all the windows to make certain they were secure, then showered and got ready for bed. The furnishings were all familiar, and the bed was the one she had slept in for five years, yet she lay awake staring into the darkness. It wasn’t the unfamiliarity of her surroundings, but her thoughts that prevented her from sleeping. Why had he given her the chance to stop? He’d said that he wasn’t noble or self-sacrificing, but then he had made a self-sacrificing offer. He could have taken her to bed, and they both knew it. He had wanted her; there hadn’t been any secret in the way he had pushed against her, letting her feel his arousal. So why had he given her that last opportunity to stop?

  Pain squeezed her chest. Who was the biggest fool? Him for giving her the chance to stop, or herself for taking it? He had hurt her, and he had made her so angry that she had wanted to throw things at him, but none of that had stopped her from loving him. She wanted to cling to her anger, to use it as both a weapon and a defense against him, but she could feel it ebbing away from her and leaving her vulnerable to the truth. She loved him. No matter what happened, even if he wanted her only for a brief affair, she loved him. With that acknowledgment she felt her last defenses crumble inside her.

  Nothing was working out the way she had planned. She hadn’t intended to go out with Max again; she had intended to do her job and ignore him, but he hadn’t given her a choice about that. He was taking over again, and with her defenses down she was helpless to do anything about it. All her intentions had gone down the drain with her anger. She could no longer make any plans or form any intentions. All she could do was face the fact that she loved him, and take each day as it came.

  * * *

  Claire was so nervous that she kept dropping the pins she was using to put up her hair. It was her first day on a new job, and Max was taking her out to dinner. She needed to concentrate on the job, but she kept thinking of Max. He simply wouldn’t leave her head.

  A pin flew from her trembling fingers again, and she muttered an impatient “damn!” as she leaned down to retrieve it. She had to calm down, or the day would be a disaster.

  Finally she got her hair securely pinned, and with a frantic glance at the clock she put on the jacket that matched her gray skirt, grabbed her purse and left the house at a run. She wasn’t certain how long it would take her to drive to the Spencer-Nyle building in the early morning traffic, so she had cautiously allowed an extra fifteen minutes, then used most of that picking up hair pins. What an impression it would make to be late on her first day!

  But she made it with five minutes to spare, and a smiling receptionist directed her to Theo Caulfield’s office on the fifth floor. A tall, dark man with a face like granite paused in passing, his dark eyes on Claire. She felt his gaze and glanced at him then quickly looked away. He was vaguely familiar, but she was certain she’d never met him. There was an almost visible force about him, and the receptionist became obviously nervous when she realized that the man was listening.

  “Are you Claire Westbrook?” he asked abruptly, moving to Claire’s side.

  How had he guessed, unless he was Theo Caulfied? She looked up at him, feeling dwarfed by his powerful build despite the three-inch heels she wore, and hoped that he wasn’t her new boss. He couldn’t be a comfortable man to work with. Because he made her nervous, too, she reacted by hiding behind her usual mask of composure.

  “Yes, I am.”

  “I’m Rome Matthews. I’ll show you to your office and introduce you to Caulfield. Good morning, Angie,” he said to the receptionist as he led Claire away.

  “Good morning, Mr. Matthews,” the receptionist said faintly to his back.

  His name was familiar, too. Claire darted another look up at that hard, almost brutally carved face and remembrance shot through her. His picture had been beside Max’s in that article she’d read, when she had discovered Max’s true identity. He was executive vice president and Anson Edwards’s right-hand man, his chosen successor. How did he know her name, and why was he personally escorting her to her office?

  Whatever his reason, he wasn’t inclined to make explanations. He asked polite questions, whether she liked Dallas, had she gotten settled yet, but she could feel him watching her. His hand was on her elbow, and she was surprised by the gentleness of his touch.

  “Here it is,” he said, drawing her to a halt and reaching out to open a door. “You’ll have your hands full, you know. Your predecessor had to be on her new job today, so you’ll be training yourself.”

  Claire thought of running while she still could, but a man came out of the inner office on hearing their voices, an
d she was trapped. To her relief Theo Caulfield was an ordinary man, middle-aged and thin, without the intimidating force of Rome Matthews. He, too, seemed nervous at the other man’s presence and visibly relaxed when the short introductions were performed and the executive vice president took himself off to his own office.

  To her relief her duties were fairly routine, and she settled in quickly. Theo Caulfield was quiet and meticulous, but not fussy. She missed Sam, but he was far happier in his laboratory than he had ever been in an office. Perhaps the takeover had been best for him, as well as for the company.

  * * *

  Max called her just before the day was over—the only time she had heard from him—to tell her to dress casually for dinner. Claire hurried home to her little house, afraid that he would take it as a signal that she wanted to stay in if she weren’t ready when he arrived. How casual was casual? She opted to play it safe with a plain skirt and blouse and flat heels, and was waiting to open the door before he could knock.

  “Where are we going?” she asked, eyeing his slacks and open-neck silk shirt.

  “We’re having dinner with some friends of mine,” he said, drawing her to him for a quick kiss. “How did it go today? Any trouble settling in?”

  “No, it wasn’t difficult. It’s mostly the routine work of an assistant.”

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