Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  What sort of life would they have together? She didn’t even know if she could expect him to be faithful. Women melted around him—how could a man not be tempted when he was surrounded by constant opportunities to wander? Given that, she would be incredibly foolish to stop being self-supporting. She only hoped he would be sensible about it.

  She didn’t have time to call Alma that morning, but found time at lunch and sat chewing her lip, listening to the ringing on the other end of the line. At last she hung up, both relieved and disappointed that Alma wasn’t at home. She didn’t know how she felt about marrying Max, either. Part of her was ecstatic because she loved him so much. Another part was plain terrified. What if she couldn’t make him happy? He was so intelligent and sophisticated and supremely self-confident. He made Jeff look like a lightweight, and Jeff had turned from her to someone more poised and polished.

  Max was waiting in the office for her when she returned from lunch, and a warm, intimate smile touched his chiseled mouth when he saw her. “There you are, darling. I’d hoped to take you to lunch, but I couldn’t get clear in time. Was your mother pleased?”

  Claire glanced at Theo’s office, relieved to see that he hadn’t returned from lunch. “I just tried to call her, but she wasn’t at home. I’ll call her tonight.”

  He put his hands on her waist and drew her to him for a quick kiss. “My mother was all but dancing on the table,” he said in amusement. “By now half of England knows.”

  He was in a good mood, his eyes sparkling like sunlight on the ocean, and she felt her heart give that little jolt again. Uneasily she watched the door, trying to draw back from him. “Should you be in here?” she asked, worried. “What if someone saw you kiss me?”

  He actually laughed. “Is it supposed to be a secret that we’re getting married? I told Rome this morning, and he’s already called Sarah to let her know. Then I told Anson, who asked if I couldn’t have proposed to you in Houston, rather than rearranging the entire office to empty a position for you. So you see, it’s already common knowledge. The news will have gone around the office at the speed of sound.”

  Claire flushed, staring at him in mortification. “You made this job me?” And did the entire office know that he’d brought her to Dallas for himself?

  “No, love, the job is a legitimate one. I simply made it available by promoting and shifting some people who, incidentally, are all thrilled with their new positions.” Gently he touched her pink cheek. “You don’t have any reason to feel embarrassed.”

  He kissed her again then reluctantly let her go. “Have you been thinking about the type of ring you would like?”

  She hadn’t, and surprise was plain on her face. “No, not really. I think I’d like a plain wedding band, though.” The rings Jeff had given her had been encrusted with yellow diamonds, and she had never really cared for them. The stones had been so large, almost ostentatious, as if they were only what was expected of the Halseys. She had returned them to him after the divorce and never missed them.

  He watched her, wondering what memories had caused the brief sadness that darkened the soft brown of her eyes. “Whatever you want,” he promised, wishing that he would never see sadness on her face again. For a brief moment she had drifted away in her thoughts, leaving him behind, and he resented even a minute when she wasn’t with him.

  Max was at her house that night when she finally got Alma on the phone, and he lounged across from her, smiling as he listened to the conversation. Alma laughed, then she cried. Then she had to speak to Max, who assured her with quiet sincerity that he would take care of Claire. When he gave the phone back to Claire, she gave him a look of gratitude for being so understanding with Alma.

  “Have you set a date?” Alma asked excitedly.

  “No, we haven’t had time to talk about it. How long will it take to arrange a church wedding?” Claire listened then turned to Max. “How many of your family do you think will attend?”

  He shrugged. “At an offhand guess—seven hundred, give or take a hundred.”

  “Seven hundred?” Claire gasped, and on the other end of the line Alma gave a small shriek.

  “I’ve mentioned that I have a large family. That also includes friends—Mother will be able to give us a list in a week or so.” He motioned for the telephone, and Claire gave it to him again. “Don’t panic,” he said soothingly to Alma. “Perhaps it would be easier if we were married in England. How many people would we have to transport?”

  Claire tried to think of how many people would be invited to her wedding. Her family was small, but there were friends of the family who would have to be included. But if they were married in England, how many of them would be able to attend? And if they were married in Texas, how many of his family and friends wouldn’t be able to make a transatlantic trip? Suddenly the wedding was assuming horrendous proportions.

  “Accommodations aren’t a problem,” Max was saying soothingly, so Claire guessed that Alma was having hysterics at the thought of moving the family, lock, stock and barrel, to England. “There are plenty of spare bedrooms scattered around the family. The church? Yes, the church is large enough to handle a wedding of that size. It’s an enormous old rock pile.” He listened a moment, then laughed. “No, I don’t care where we’re married. England or Texas doesn’t matter to me, so long as I get Claire and it doesn’t take an eternity to do it. How long? Six weeks is my limit.”

  Even sitting across from him, Claire heard the loud protest that Alma was making. Max merely said patiently, “Six weeks. I’m not waiting any longer than that. Claire and I will visit this weekend, and we’ll make our plans.”

  Claire stared at him in horror as he hung up with an air of patent satisfaction. “Six weeks?” she echoed. “It’s impossible to put on a wedding for more than seven hundred people in six weeks! That takes months of planning!”

  “Six weeks, or I’ll carry you before a judge and do the deed. I’m being generous, at that. My inclination is to marry you this weekend, and it’s damned tempting. The only thing is, a lot of people would never forgive us.”

  He flashed her a brilliant smile, standing and holding his hand out to her. Claire put her hand in his, and he pulled her to her feet and into his arms, kissing her long and hard. “Don’t worry. Between your mother and mine, this wedding will be perfect. Nothing would dare go wrong.”

  To Claire’s consternation, he didn’t take her to one of the small jewelry stores she’d anticipated. Instead she found herself seated in a luxurious salon while the manager brought trays of glittering jewels for her inspection. What on earth was Max thinking about? Surely he didn’t think he had to compete with Jeff Halsey in the material things he could give her? Claire knew that Max was certainly not poor; his salary was far more than comfortable, but it didn’t make him a millionaire. He didn’t have to compete with Jeff in anything, because he had Jeff outclassed in everything.

  But there the rings were, waiting for her to make a selection. “What I really want is a plain simple old-fashioned wedding band,” she said, frowning slightly.

  “Certainly,” the manager said politely, starting to take away the tray of diamonds and emeralds and rubies.

  “No, leave that,” Max instructed. “We’ll look these over again while you’re bringing the tray of wedding bands.”

  Claire waited until the manager was out of hearing then turned to Max. “I prefer a wedding band, truly.”

  He looked amused. “Darling, we’ll have our wedding bands, and don’t look so surprised. Of course I intend to wear a ring. I’ve waited long enough to be married. I’m not going to waffle about it. But this is for your engagement ring.”

  “But I don’t need an engagement ring.”

  “Strictly speaking, no one needs any sort of jewelry. An engagement ring is just as old-fashioned and traditional as a wedding band, a symbolic warning to other primitive and marauding males that you aren’t available.”

  Despite her misgivings Claire couldn’t keep hersel
f from smiling in answer to the twinkle in his eyes. “Oh, is that what you’re doing, warning off other primitives?”

  “One never knows what caveman instincts lurk beneath a silk shirt.”

  Claire knew. She looked at him, and her breath caught as she remembered the wild sensuality behind his calm mask. Most people would never realize just how primitive he really was, because he disguised it so well with his lazy, good-humored manner. He was tolerant, so long as he could get his way with charm and reason, but she sensed the danger in him.

  “That was supposed to be a joke,” he said lightly, touching her cheek to dispel the look she was giving him. “Take another look at these rings, won’t you, before the poor man gets back with that other tray.”

  She did look at them then shook her head. “They’re too expensive.”

  He laughed—he actually laughed. “Love, I’m not a pauper. Far from it. I promise you that I won’t have to go in debt for any of these rings. If you won’t choose, I’ll do it for you.”

  He bent over the tray, eyeing each ring carefully. “I really don’t care for diamonds,” Claire tried, seeing that he was determined.

  “Of course not,” he agreed. “They wouldn’t suit you, not even with that sexy black velvet gown of yours. Pearls are for you. Try this ring.” He plucked a ring from its velvet bed and slipped it on her finger.

  Claire looked down at it, and a feeling of helplessness came over her. Why couldn’t it have been a truly hideous ring that she would have hated on sight? Instead it was a creamy pearl, surrounded by glittering baguettes, and it looked just right on her slender hand.

  “I thought so,” he said in satisfaction as the manager returned with a tray of wedding bands.

  Claire was silent as they left, still trying to come to terms with the changes this wedding would bring in her life, had already brought even though they weren’t married yet. Max put his arm around her and held her close, as if trying to shield her from the worries that darkened her eyes.

  “What is it, love?” he asked, following her into the tiny house that she liked so much, but which had turned out to be only a temporary stopping place in her life.

  “There are so many problems, and I’m not certain how to deal with them.”

  “What sort of problems?”

  “The wedding for one thing. It seems impossible, with so much to be done and the distance involved, the problems of transportation and housing and getting everything coordinated. The cake, the dresses, the tuxedos, the flowers, the receptions. Not only that, I’ve been divorced, and a white wedding is out of the question, if we can even have a church wedding at all.”

  He held up his hand, halting her tense litany. “What did you just say?” he asked politely.

  She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “You know very well what I said.”

  “Then let me reassure you on two points, at least. One, we will be married in my family church, and no one will think anything of the fact that you’ve been married before. Two, you will definitely wear white.”

  “That’s totally unsuitable.”

  “Let’s talk it over with your mother, shall we? I think she’ll agree with me.”

  “Of course you think that! Has any female ever not agreed with you?” she said with a groan.

  “You, love,” he teased. “Is there anything else bothering you?”

  It was obvious that she wasn’t getting anywhere with him. She sat down and twined her fingers together, watching him with somber dark eyes. “I’ve been thinking about my job. I realize that it’s only reasonable that I leave the company after we’re married, and I certainly haven’t been there long enough to get attached to the job, but I do want to continue working somewhere.”

  He watched her in silence for a moment, as if trying to read her thoughts. “If that will make you happy,” he finally said in a gentle tone. “I want you to be happy with our marriage, not trapped in a gilded cage.”

  She was wordless; he’d never suffered from self-doubt, so how could she tell him that she wasn’t worried about herself being happy but rather that he wouldn’t be happy with her? He sat down beside her and eased her into his arms, cradling her head against his shoulder. “Don’t worry about any of that, love. Let our mothers worry about the wedding, and we’ll just enjoy watching them run about. I expect we’ll have our share of problems after we’re married, but let’s not anticipate them, hmmm? They may never materialize.”

  Whenever he had her in his arms, Claire felt reassured. Her hand drifted across his chest, absently stroking the hard muscles she found there. Beneath her ear his heartbeat picked up a beat in speed.

  “I believe we’ve found another subject that needs discussing,” he muttered as he tightened his arms around her. “How likely is it that you’re pregnant after last night?”

  She caught her breath then concentrated and counted in her mind. “It isn’t likely, not right now.”

  His mouth nuzzled under her ear, finding the soft little hollow there and filling it with kisses. Claire caught her breath again, her eyes closing as pleasure began heating her blood. Her breasts tautened, aching for his touch, and his uncanny sense of timing told him exactly when to cup his palm over her.

  “I’ll be more cautious until after we’re married, then, but I damned well refuse to do without you for six weeks.” His mouth was at the corner of hers, his breathing mingling with hers. Blindly Claire turned her head until the contact was complete, her arms sliding around his neck.

  Much later he swore softly as he got out of bed. “I’m not fond of this business of leaving you in the middle of the night,” he said in sharp displeasure. “Why don’t you move in with me?”

  Claire drew the sheet up to cover her, a little alarmed by the thought of living with him. Of course they would live together after they were married, but she would have six weeks to get used to the idea. She had lived alone and liked it for quite some time now. The loss of privacy wouldn’t be an easy thing to handle. “Where would I put my furniture?”

  “Don’t be logical,” he said in frustration, buttoning his shirt. “Bloody hell, we do have some details to work out, don’t we? Would you prefer to live in my apartment, or should we go house hunting?”

  “I’ve never seen your apartment,” she pointed out.

  He shrugged. “I suppose we should begin looking for a house, as we’ll need one eventually.”

  For the children he planned, she thought. She lay on the bed watching him dress, her body nude and still throbbing from the power of his lovemaking, and she thought of being pregnant with his children, of nursing them and watching them grow. “How many children do you want?” she whispered.

  He looked down at her, seeing her soft, slim body outlined by the sheet, and the dark wells of her eyes. His hands stilled on the buttons. “Two, I think. Perhaps three. How many do you want?”

  “That doesn’t matter. I would be content with one, or half a dozen.” No, the number wasn’t important at all.

  Slowly he began undoing his buttons and stripped off his shirt again. Tossing it aside, he unzipped his pants and stepped out of them. “You make me react like a teenager,” he said, his eyes narrow and bright. Lowering himself onto the bed with her again, he forgot the irritation of living apart, and Claire forgot to worry. When he was making love to her, nothing else was real.

  * * *

  Instead of making the long drive to Houston, they flew down that Friday afternoon, and Max rented a car at the airport. It was already night, but the humid heat enveloped them like a wet blanket, and Claire sighed tiredly. It had been a hectic week, though they hadn’t really done anything. But, rather than wait for the weekend, Alma had called every night about some detail that had to be discussed immediately.

  She closed her eyes, wanting to rest on the drive to her parents’ house. As excited as Alma was, Claire had no hope of getting to bed before midnight—there would be endless discussions about subjects they had already discussed endlessly.

We’re here, love,” Max said, touching her arm to wake her.

  Claire sat up, startled that she had dozed so quickly. She started to get out of the car, then sank back against the seat. “We aren’t at Mother’s.”

  “No, we aren’t,” he agreed, taking her hand and urging her from the car.

  “You kept the apartment?”

  “It seemed reasonable. I knew I would have to be coming here on business several times a year, and we’ll be visiting your parents. Until the original tenant returns, I see no reason to give it up.”

  Claire was oddly reluctant as they went up in the elevator. She hadn’t been in his apartment since the night they had first made love. Her face was burning as he opened the door and she stepped into the elegant black-tiled foyer, with the gilt-framed mirror over the lovely Queen Anne table. She had a vivid memory of her underwear lying discarded on the black tile.

  Max dropped their overnighters where he stood and locked the door. His eyes were hot. “We’ll go to your parents’ house tomorrow.”

  By now Claire was intimately familiar with that look. She retreated, her heart pounding, and stopped abruptly when she came up against the table.

  “Perfect,” he crooned, his strong hands closing on her waist and lifting her up.

  She buried her hot face against his shoulder. “Here?”

  “It’s my favorite memory, darling. You were so beautiful…so wild…so ready for me. I’ve never wanted any woman the way I want you.”

  “I hated myself for being so shameless,” she confessed softly.

  “Shameless? You were so beautiful, you took my breath.”

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