Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  Max asked her several questions about her day, distracting her. She was still unfamiliar with the city, so she wasn’t concerned with where they were going until she noticed they were in a residential section. “Where are we?” she asked.

  “We’re almost there.”

  “Almost where?”

  “At Rome’s house. We’re having dinner with him and his wife, Sarah.”

  “What?” Claire asked faintly. “Max, you can’t just take me to someone’s house when they haven’t invited me!” And Rome Matthews’s house, of all people! She wasn’t comfortable with him; he was the most overpowering man she’d ever seen.

  He looked amused. “They have invited you. Sarah told me that if I didn’t have you with me tonight, not to come myself.” There was an unmistakable note of affection in his voice. He turned into the driveway of a sprawling, Spanish-style house, and Claire tensed.

  He put his hand on her back as they walked up the brick walk to the front door, and if it hadn’t been for that pressure at her back, Claire would have turned around and left. He rang the bell, and in a moment Rome Matthews opened the door himself.

  Claire stared, almost not recognizing the high-powered executive in the man who stood there, clad in tight-fitting jeans that molded his powerful hips and legs, and a red polo shirt. His face was infinitely more relaxed, and there was amusement in his dark eyes. Even more amazingly, he held a chubby toddler in one strong arm and a tiny elfin girl in the other. Somehow Claire hadn’t imagined him as a family man, especially one with young children. Then her eyes were drawn to the two children, and she gasped. “They’re beautiful,” she whispered, automatically reaching out her hands. The children both had their father’s black hair and eyes and olive complexion, with the gorgeous rosy cheeks that only young children have. Two pairs of wide inquisitive dark eyes stared at her. Then the baby gave a chuckle and launched himself out of his father’s arms, straight into hers, his fat hands outstretched.

  “Thank you,” Rome said, his amusement deepening, and Claire flushed. She cuddled the little boy to her, loving the feel of his sturdy, wriggling little body. He smelled of baby powder, and she wanted to bury her face in his fat little neck.

  “Here you go sweetheart,” Max said, holding out his hands to the little girl, and with a giggle she, too, abandoned her father. She hugged Max around the neck and kissed his cheek. Max settled her comfortably on his arm and carried her into the house, keeping his other hand at Claire’s back.

  “The little tank you’re holding is Jed,” Rome said, reaching out to tickle his son. “The flirt around Max’s neck is Missy. She’s three, and Jed is almost one.”

  Claire was gently rubbing the baby’s back, and he had nestled down against her as if he’d known her all his life. He was incredibly heavy, but his weight felt good in her arms. “You darling,” she crooned to him, kissing his soft black hair.

  Max looked up from the game he was playing with Missy, and his eyes flickered as he watched Claire playing with the baby.

  A low laugh reached them, and Claire turned as a slim, delicate woman with white-blond hair came into the room. “I’m Sarah Matthews,” the woman said warmly, and Claire looked into the most serene face she’d ever seen. Sarah Matthews was lovely and fragile, and when her husband looked at her it was with an expression in his dark eyes that made Claire want to turn away, as if she had witnessed something terribly intimate.

  “Sarah, this is Claire Westbrook,” Max said, his hand warm on Claire’s arm.

  “You have beautiful children,” Claire said sincerely, and Sarah beamed with pride.

  “Thank you. They’re quite a handful. Your arrival has given Rome a rest,” Sarah replied, slanting a teasing look at her husband. “They’re always wild when he first gets home, especially Jed.”

  At that moment Jed was lying adoringly against Claire, and Rome laughed at his son. “He can’t resist a pretty woman. He’s the biggest flirt ever born, except for Missy.”

  Missy was perfectly content in Max’s arms, and Claire noticed the tenderness with which he handled her, and the calm capability. She had noticed his skill with children before, soon after they had met. It had been while he was playing with Martine’s children at the cookout that she had fallen in love with him. It had been that simple, that easy and that irrevocable.

  “Enjoy the peace,” Sarah advised, breaking into Claire’s thoughts, and Jed chose that moment to lift his head from Claire’s shoulder and look down at the scattered toys on the floor. With a grunt he pushed himself out of her arms. Claire gave a gasping cry and grabbed for him, and Rome did the same, leaping to snag his son out of the air. Sighing, he placed the baby on the floor. His attention completely on his toys, Jed toddled over to the red plastic truck he’d selected.

  “He has no respect for gravity, and no fear of heights,” Rome said wryly. “He’s also as strong as a mule. There’s no holding him when he decides he wants down.”

  “He scared me to death,” Claire gasped.

  “He’s been scaring me since he learned to crawl,” Sarah said with a chuckle. “Then he started walking when he was eight months old, and it’s been even worse since. All you can do is chase after him.”

  It was impossible to believe that such a delicate woman had given birth to such a sturdy little boy who showed every sign of inheriting his father’s size. The children resembled Sarah very little, except for Missy’s delicate stature, and something in the shape of her soft mouth.

  It was such a relaxed household, filled with the high-pitched giggles of happy children, that Claire forgot to be intimidated by Rome. Here he was a husband and a father, not an executive. It was evident that Max was a close friend who visited often, because the children climbed over him as enthusiastically as they did over their father, and he not only tolerated it, he seemed to enjoy it.

  The children were fed and put to bed, then the adults sat down to dinner. Claire couldn’t think when she had enjoyed an evening more; she didn’t even shrink when Rome teased her. “I had to check you out this morning,” he said, his hard mouth quirked in amusement. “Sarah was dying of curiosity.”

  “I was not! Max had already told me all about you,” Sarah told Claire. “It was his own male curiosity Rome wanted to satisfy.”

  Rome shrugged lazily, smiling as he looked at his wife. Claire wondered what Max had said about her, and why he would talk about her, anyway. She glanced at him and blushed when she found him watching her intently.

  It was late when Max drove her home, and Claire was sleepily curled in the corner of the seat. “I really liked them,” she murmured. “I can’t believe he’s the same man who terrified me so this morning!”

  “Sarah tames him. She’s so incredibly serene.”

  “They’re very happy together, aren’t they?”

  Max’s voice roughened a little. “Yes. They’ve gone through some rough times. If they hadn’t loved each other so much, they wouldn’t have made it. Rome was married before and had two children, but his wife and sons were killed in an automobile accident. He was terribly scarred by it.”

  “I can imagine,” Claire said, pain grabbing at her. She had never even held her child—it had been gone almost before she had been able to do more than dream of its existence. What would it have been like to have had two children taken from her in such a tragic way? She thought of the way Jed had nestled against her, and tears burned her eyes. “I miscarried. Right before my divorce,” she whispered. “And losing the baby nearly killed me. I wanted it so badly!”

  Max’s head jerked around, and he stared at her in the dim, flickering glow of the streetlights they passed. An almost violent jealousy filled him because she had been pregnant, and it hadn’t been with his child. He wanted her to have his baby; he wanted his children to be her children. She was a natural mother, so loving with children that they instinctively clung to her.

  When they reached her house, he went inside with her and quietly locked the door behind him. Claire watched
him, her dark eyes becoming enormous as he came to her and caught her hands in his.

  “Max?” she whispered, her voice shaking.

  His face was both tender and wild, and his eyes glittered. He put her hands around his neck, then drew her close to lie full against him.

  “I’m going to take you to bed, love,” he said gently, and a hot tide of pleasure surged through her body at his words. She drew a deep breath and closed her eyes, the time for protests gone. She loved him, and now she realized exactly what that meant; she loved him too much to preserve any distance between them.

  He carried her to her bed, and this time he was slow, gentle, taking his time to kiss her and caress her, arousing her to fever pitch while he kept tight control over his own body. Then he eased inside her, and Claire cried out as he filled her. Her nails dug into his back; her hips arched wildly toward him. Max’s control broke, and he gave a hoarse cry as he grasped her hips and began driving into her. That same wild, ungovernable need exploded between them, just as it had the first time. They couldn’t get enough of each other, couldn’t get close enough. Their joining was as elemental as a storm, and as violent.

  In the silent aftermath Max held her close, his hand on her stomach. It had happened again, and he couldn’t regret it. This woman was his; he could never let her go. She was tender and loving, sensitive and vulnerable and easily hurt. He would gladly spend the rest of his life protecting her from those hurts, if she would only stay with him.

  Claire watched with wide, unfathomable eyes as he rose on his elbow and leaned over her. He was very male, and never more so than when he was nude, the power of his body exposed. She put her hand on the brown tangle of hair that covered his chest, stroking gently. What was he thinking? He was serious, almost stern, his sea-colored eyes narrowed to brilliant slits, and he was so beautiful that he took her breath away.

  “I may have made you pregnant tonight,” he said, his fingers sliding over her stomach. Claire inhaled slightly, her eyes widening. His hand slid down even farther to touch her intimately and explore her in a way that shot rockets along her nerves, making her arch and twist against his fingers. He leaned even closer, his mouth finding hers. “I want to make you pregnant,” he groaned, the thought so erotic that his body was hardening again. “Claire, will you have my baby?”

  Tears streaked silvery trails down her cheeks. “Yes,” she whispered, reaching up to hold him with both hands as he rolled onto her. He thrust deeply into her, and they stared into each other’s eyes as they made love, moving together and finding incredible magic. If she could have his child, she would never ask anything more of life. She moved under him. She felt; she loved; she experienced; and she cried.

  He lay on her, still deep within her, and kissed away her tears. Incredible contentment filled him. “Claire,” he said, holding her face still in his hands, “I don’t think anything but marriage will do.”


  Claire felt as if her heart had simply stopped beating. Everything inside her went still, waiting for that moment when time would begin again. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Then, with a little jolt, her heart resumed its function, freeing her from the temporary paralysis. “Marry?” she asked faintly.

  “My mother will be in ecstasy if you make an honest man of me,” he said, tracing her lower lip with his finger. “She’s quite given up on me, you know. Marry me, and have my children. I find that I want that very much. When I saw you holding Jed tonight, I thought how perfect you look with a baby in your arms, and I want it to be my baby.”

  There was nothing about love in his proposal, but Claire found that there didn’t have to be. She could accept the fact that he didn’t love her. She would take whatever he offered her and do anything she could to make him happy with his decision. Perhaps she should have more pride than to settle for anything less than love, but pride wouldn’t gain her anything except an empty bed and an empty life. Happily ever after was a fairy tale, after all.

  “All right,” she whispered.

  His shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly, and he eased away from her to lie beside her, hugging her against him. His free hand absently stroked her satiny shoulder, and his handsome face was thoughtful. “Does this mean you’ve forgiven me?”

  She wished he hadn’t asked that; it touched on a wound that hadn’t healed, reminded her of pain that still lingered. She didn’t want to think of the past, not now, when she had just agreed to take a step into the future, a step that terrified her with its enormity. If Max were just an ordinary man perhaps she wouldn’t feel so uncertain, but Max was extraordinary in every way, and she was filled with doubts that she would ever be able to satisfy him.

  “It seems I have to, doesn’t it?”

  “I never intended to hurt you. I wanted only to get the business part of things over with, so I could concentrate on you. I’ve wanted you pretty desperately from the first,” he admitted wryly. “You wreck my self-control, but that’s obvious, isn’t it?”

  Her head found the hollow of his shoulder, nestling there comfortably. “Why is it obvious?”

  He gave a short laugh. “Bloody hell, you can’t believe I normally go about attacking women on a table in the foyer? You kissed me back, and I went mad. I couldn’t think of anything but being inside you. It was like being picked up by a storm, unable to do anything but go along for the ride.”

  It had been like that for her, too, an explosion of the senses that obliterated everything else in the world except that moment, this man. The memory of that first lovemaking would make her blush for the rest of her life, because she hadn’t known she was capable of such passion. Since then she had come to expect that inner burning whenever he touched her.

  She sighed, suddenly so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open. Max kissed her then untangled himself from the bed and got up. Claire opened her eyes, watching him in bewilderment as he sorted out his clothing and got dressed.

  “If you weren’t half-asleep already, we’d make wedding plans,” he said, bending over to tuck the sheet around her naked body. “But you’re tired, we have to work tomorrow, and all my clothes are at my apartment, so it’s best that I leave.”

  There would be a thousand-and-one problems to work out, some small and some not so small, but she couldn’t think of them now. She was drowsy, her body satisfied, and though she was disappointed that he wouldn’t be spending the night with her, she realized that it wasn’t practical. He kissed her, his hand stroking over her body in blatant possessiveness.

  “I hope you like big weddings,” he murmured.

  Her lashes fluttered. “Why?”

  “Because I have hundreds of relatives who would die of terminal dudgeon if they weren’t invited to my wedding.”

  She chuckled, snuggling deeper into the bed. Max kissed her again, so reluctant to leave her that he considered saying to hell with work and climbing back into bed with her. She was so warm and rosy and relaxed, and he knew it was from his lovemaking. There was nothing quite like the feeling of certainty that he had left her satisfied, and his emotions ran the gamut from pride to possessiveness to wonder. Under all that lay his own bone-deep satisfaction. Beneath her cool, self-possessed mask was a passionate nature. Other people saw only the mask, but she burned for him with a sweet fire that left its scorch marks on his heart and branded him as hers.

  She was asleep, her breathing soft and even. With one last look at her, Max quietly turned out the light and left the bedroom. Soon they would be sharing a bedroom and a name, and his ring would be on her hand.

  When she woke the next morning, Claire had the confused feeling that it had all been a dream, a wonderful, impossible dream. Had Max actually asked her to marry him, or had her imagination conjured up the fantasy? Then she moved, and the startled realization that she was naked brought back clear memories of the night before. He had made love to her; then he’d asked her to marry him, and she had agreed. Panic twisted her stomach. What if it didn’t
work out? What if they got married and he decided that she didn’t suit him, after all? What if she failed to satisfy him, just as she had failed with Jeff? What if he already regretted asking her? Men sometimes said things in the heat of passion that they later wished had never been said.

  The phone rang beside her, startling her, and she almost dropped the receiver as she grabbed it. “Yes? Hello?”

  “Good morning, love,” Max said, his voice warm and intimate. “I wanted to make certain you didn’t oversleep. I forgot to turn on your alarm when I left last night.”

  Even though he couldn’t see her, a deep blush covered her body, and she pulled the sheet up high under her chin. “Thank you,” she said, not hearing the uncertainty in her voice.

  Max paused. “We’ll go tonight to pick out the rings, shall we? Are you going to call your parents today, or wait until the weekend when you visit them?”

  Claire closed her eyes on an almost painful surge of relief—he hadn’t changed his mind. “I’ll call them. Mother wouldn’t forgive me if I kept it a secret until the weekend.”

  He chuckled. “It’s the same with my mother. I’ll call her in a moment, and she’ll be on the phone for the rest of the day calling everyone in the far-flung family. How soon do you think we can manage the deed? Poor Theo. He’s just gotten you, and now he’ll have to find another assistant.”

  “Another assistant?” Claire echoed in surprise.

  “Of course. You can’t continue to be his assistant after we’re married. We’ll decide tonight on a date for the wedding, and you’ll know when to turn in your notice. I’ll see you at work, love. Take care.”

  “Yes, of course,” she said, still holding the receiver after he’d hung up and the dial tone was buzzing in her ear. Slowly she hung up, a frown pulling at her brow. She was expected to give up her job when they were married?

  She fretted about it while she showered. On the one hand, she could see that it wouldn’t work for both of them to be employed by Spencer-Nyle, and as his salary was far more than hers, it was logical that she should be the one to quit. On the other hand, she had struggled for years to establish her own independence, and it was important to her own sense of self-worth that she continue to support herself, or at least feel as if she were making a contribution to their lives. It wasn’t just that Max expected her to quit Spencer-Nyle; Claire had the feeling that he expected her to quit working completely, and the thought made shivers of alarm race down her spine.

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