Almost Forever by Linda Howard


  Suddenly aware from the silence that had fallen between them that her thoughts had wandered again, Claire stopped on the sidewalk and held out her hand. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Benedict. It was nice meeting you.” Her tone was polite but final, making it clear that she considered the evening at an end.

  He took her hand but didn’t shake it. Instead his fingers clasped hers lightly, warmly, a touch that didn’t demand anything. “Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night, Claire?” he asked, then added, “Please,” as if he sensed the refusal that she’d been about to make.

  She hesitated, vaguely disarmed by that “please,” as if he didn’t know that he could have the company of almost any woman he wanted, whenever he wanted. Almost. “Thank you, but no.”

  His eyebrow lifted slightly, and she saw the glitter of his vivid eyes. “Are you still carrying a torch for your ex-husband?”

  “That’s none of your business, Mr. Benedict.”

  “You didn’t say that a moment ago. I rather thought you were relieved by my interference in something that is now none of my business,” he said coolly.

  Her head lifted, and she took her hand from his. “Payback time, is it? Very well. No, I’m not still in love with Jeff.”

  “That’s good. I don’t like rivals.”

  Claire looked at him in disbelief, then laughed. She didn’t want to dignify that last statement by challenging him; what did he think she was, the biggest fool alive? She had been, once, but not again. “Goodbye, Mr. Benedict,” she said in a dismissive tone and walked to her car.

  When she reached out to open the car door, she found a lean, tanned hand there before hers. He opened the door for her, and Claire murmured a quiet thank-you as she got in the car and took her keys from her bag.

  He rested one arm on the roof of the car and leaned down, his turquoise eyes narrowed and as dark as the sea. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Claire Westbrook,” he said, as cool and confident as if she hadn’t already dismissed him.

  “Mr. Benedict, I’ve tried not to be rude, but I’m not interested.”

  “I’m registered,” he replied, amusement twitching at his mouth, and despite herself Claire found herself staring at his lips, almost spellbound by their seductive perfection. “I’ve had all my shots, and I’m reasonably well mannered. I’m not wanted by any law-enforcement agency, I’ve never been married, and I’m kind to children. Do you require references?”

  A warm laugh bubbled past her control. “Is your pedigree impressive?”

  He squatted in the open door of the car, smiling at her. “Impeccable. Shall we discuss it over dinner tomorrow night?”

  There was a small, curious softening inside of her. Without allowing herself to dwell on it, she’d realized for some time that she was lonely. What harm could there be in having dinner with him? She certainly wasn’t going to fall in love with him—they would talk and laugh, enjoy a nice meal, and perhaps she would make a friend.

  She hesitated a long moment then gave in. “All right. Yes, thank you.”

  He laughed outright now, his white teeth gleaming. “Such enthusiasm! My dear, I promise I’ll be on my best behavior. Where shall I pick you up, and at what time? Eight?”

  They agreed on the time, and Claire gave him directions to her apartment. A moment later she was driving away, and by the time she stopped at the first traffic signal, her brow was furrowed in consternation. Why had she agreed to go out with him? She’d sworn to avoid his type like the plague, yet he’d neatly worked around her defenses and made her laugh, and she found herself liking him. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, which would have made her run at top speed in the opposite direction. He’d also shown kindness in coming to her rescue….

  He was far too dangerous to her peace of mind.

  By the time she let herself into her apartment, she had decided to cancel the date, but as she closed the door and locked it, the empty silence of the rooms rushed at her, overwhelming her. She had refused to get a cat, feeling that would be the crowning symbol of her aloneness, but now she wished that she had some sort of pet, anything, to welcome her home. A cat or a dog wouldn’t care if she never quite measured up to expectations. A full belly, a warm bed and someone to scratch it behind the ears was all a pet would expect. Come to think of it, she thought tiredly, that was all humans needed. Food, shelter and affection.

  Affection. She’d had the food and shelter, all the material trappings of an upper-middle-class childhood. She’d even had affection, but it had been the absentminded, exasperated crumbs of the doting love that her parents had given to Martine. Claire couldn’t even blame them; Martine was perfect. Some sisters might have lorded it over a shy, gawky younger sister, but Martine had always been kind and patient with Claire and even now worried about her. No matter how busy Martine was with her thriving law practice, her popular, outgoing children and her equally busy husband, she always made time to call Claire at least twice a week.

  Still, something inside Claire had always shriveled at her parents’ obvious preference for Martine. She could remember staring at herself in a mirror as a child and wondering what was wrong with her. If she had been ugly or possessed a nasty disposition, at least then she would have been able to find some reason for not being quite good enough to please her parents. But even though she hadn’t been as beautiful as Martine, she’d still been a pretty child, and she’d tried so hard to please everyone, until she’d realized that her best wasn’t going to be good enough and began to withdraw. That was what was wrong with her: she simply wasn’t up to par. Martine was beautiful; Claire was merely pretty. Martine was a sunny, outgoing child; Claire was prone to unexplained bouts of tears and shrank from people. Martine was talented, a marvelous pianist and an outstanding art student; Claire refused to study any sort of music and often hid herself away with a book. Martine was brilliant and ambitious; Claire was bright but didn’t apply herself. Martine married a handsome, equally ambitious young lawyer, went into practice with him and had two gorgeous, happy children; Claire had married Jeff—the one time in her life she’d ever pleased her mother—but the marriage had fallen apart.

  Now, from a distance of five years, Claire had a very clear view of her marriage and the reasons it had failed. Most of it had honestly been her fault. She had been so terrified of failing to live up to what she thought everyone expected of her as Mrs. Jefferson Halsey that she had dashed around trying to be the perfect social hostess, the perfect homemaker, the perfect sport and had spread herself so thin that there had been almost nothing left over for Jeff. At first he’d tolerated it; then the gulf between them had widened and his eye had begun wandering…and settled on Helene, who was beautiful, older than Claire and marvelously self-assured. Only Claire’s unexpected pregnancy had prevented a divorce right then. To his credit, Jeff had been tender and kind to Claire, even though her pregnancy had been the end of his relationship with Helene. He loved Helene, but Claire was his wife and carried his child, and he refused to devastate her by asking for a divorce.

  Then she had miscarried. He waited until she had recovered physically then told her that he wanted out. Their divorce had probably disappointed half of Houston in its lack of acrimony. Claire had known that it was over before she’d ever lost the baby. They divorced quietly, Jeff married Helene as soon as it was legally possible, and within a year Helene had presented him with a son. Now she was pregnant again.

  Claire washed her face and brushed her teeth, then got into bed and picked up her book from the night table, trying not to think of the baby she’d lost. That was the past, as was her marriage, and really, the divorce had been the best thing that had ever happened to her. It had forced her to wake up and take a good look at herself. She had been wasting her life trying to please everyone else, rather than herself. She was going to be herself, and for the past five years, she had been. On the whole, she was content with the life she’d made for herself. She had a good job; she read when she liked and as much as she liked. She
listened to the music she preferred. She was really closer now to Martine than she’d ever been before, because Claire no longer felt threatened by her older sister. She was even on better terms with her parents…if only her mother would stop pushing her to “find a nice young man and settle down.”

  Claire didn’t go out a lot—she couldn’t see any point in it. She wasn’t inclined to settle for a lukewarm marriage based on common interests, and she wasn’t the type to inspire red-hot passion. She had learned control and how to protect herself with that control. If that made her cool and unresponsive, that was fine. Better that than to leave herself open to the devastating pain rejection brought.

  That was the life she’d chosen and deliberately built for herself; why, then, had she accepted a dinner date with Max Benedict? Despite his sense of humor, he was still a playboy, and he had no place at all in her life. She should politely but firmly break their date. Claire closed her book, unable to read it, after all; Maxwell Benedict’s handsome face kept swimming before the print. Her brown eyes were troubled as she turned out the lamp and pulled the sheet up to cover her. Despite all the warnings of her instincts, she knew that she wasn’t going to break the date.

  * * *

  Max sat in his hotel room, his feet propped on the coffee table and a pot of coffee at his elbow. His brow was furrowed with an intense frown as he read one of the thick reports he’d received in the mail. One lean forefinger stroked his left eyebrow as he read; his reading speed was phenomenal, and he had almost finished. Absently he reached for the coffeepot, and the frown turned impatient as he realized that the pot was nearly empty. He replaced the pot on the tray and pushed it aside. Coffee! He’d become addicted to the stuff, another American habit that he’d acquired.

  Swiftly he finished the report then tossed it aside. His eyes narrowed to slits. Anson had picked up hints that another company was after Bronson Alloys. That was a disturbing development in itself, but even more alarming were the rumors that this company had ties to China. If the rumors were true, then word had somehow gotten out that Bronson had developed an alloy that was lightweight and almost indestructible, superior to the alloy used for spy planes. So far, the alloy itself was only a rumor—nothing had been announced, and if anything had been developed, Sam Bronson was keeping it to himself. Still, the rumors were persistent.

  He didn’t like it. Any move by another company would force him to make his own move, perhaps before he was ready, which would increase the chance for failure. Max didn’t intend to fail. He despised failure; his personality was too intense and fiercely controlled to accept anything less than total victory in whatever he attempted.

  He picked up the report again and thumbed through it, but he allowed his thoughts to drift. The woman, Claire Westbrook…she wasn’t quite what he’d expected. Anson had thought that she might be the weak link, and Max had coolly expected that he could charm her as effortlessly as he did every woman. It hadn’t worked out that way. She was cool and calm, almost too controlled, and unresponsive. Even though she had eventually accepted his dinner invitation, Max had the impression that she’d done so for her own reasons.

  His eyes narrowed. From the time he’d reached puberty, the female sex had practically been at his feet. He appreciated women, enjoyed them, desired them, but women had come easily for him. This was the first time a woman had looked at him with a cool, blank expression then turned away in total disinterest, and he didn’t like it. He was both irritated and challenged, and he shouldn’t feel either of those responses. This was business. He would use his charm to get the needed information without a qualm—corporate war was just that: war, despite the outward civility of three-piece suits and board meetings. But seduction had never been a part of his plan, so his unwilling attraction to her was doubly unwelcome. He couldn’t afford the distraction. He had to concentrate on the job at hand, get the information in a hurry and make his move.

  He knew his nature was intensely sensual, but always before, his physical needs and responses had been controlled by the power of his icy intellect. He was master of his body, not the other way around. That was part of his character; nature had given him both a towering intelligence and a sexual appetite that would have taken control of a man of lesser intellect, but he was brilliant, and his mental capacities were so intense and focused that he controlled his physical needs and never unleashed the driving power of that portion of his nature. His unwilling attraction to Claire Westbrook both angered and disconcerted him. It was totally out of place in this situation.

  She was pretty, but he’d had women who were far more beautiful. She hadn’t responded to him or flirted or in any way indicated that she was attracted to him. The only unusual thing about her were her eyes, huge and velvety brown. There was no reason for him to be thinking about her, but he couldn’t get her out of his mind.

  CHAPTER 2

  The shrilling of the telephone startled Claire out of sleep the next morning, and her soft mouth curved in a wry smile as she rolled over to lift the receiver and stop the intrusive noise. “Hello, Martine,” she said, her voice husky with sleep.

  There was a short pause, then Martine laughed. “I wish you wouldn’t do that! How did you know?”

  “I thought you might call this morning to check up on me. Yes, I went to Virginia’s party, and no, I wasn’t the belle of the ball.”

  “You’re answering my questions before I ask them,” Martine said in fond exasperation. “Did you enjoy yourself anyway?”

  “I’m not the social type,” Claire hedged, sitting up in bed and stuffing a pillow behind her back. She didn’t mention meeting Max Benedict or that she was having dinner with him. Martine would ask a thousand questions and become all excited over something that was basically unimportant. Claire didn’t expect the dinner date to be the beginning of a fabulous romance. Max could have any woman he chose, so he wasn’t likely to settle for anything but the best. This was just a dinner date, nothing more or less, an evening out with a man who was new in town and didn’t know many people. It was probably a respite for him to meet a woman who didn’t chase him.

  Martine sighed. Experience had taught her that if Claire didn’t want to talk about something then no amount of prying or badgering could change her mind. For someone so retiring and unassuming, Claire was stubborn. Because Martine loved her sister and recognized how vulnerable and sensitive Claire was, she refrained from badgering her and instead gracefully changed the subject, laughing as she recounted a horrendous piece of mischief that her eight-year-old son had gotten into that morning.

  They chatted for a few moments then said goodbye. Claire hung up the receiver and lay back on the pillows, her dark eyes reflective as she stared at the ceiling. Her thoughts kept going back to Max Benedict, and his features formed in her mind; she saw his eyes, vivid turquoise, but the shade of turquoise kept changing. Sometimes they were more green than blue, sometimes more blue than green, and twice she had seen a flash of something in his eyes that had startled her, but she hadn’t recognized it. It was as though she’d seen a shadow in the sea that was gone in an instant and left behind only the swirling, breathtaking turquoise waters, yet reminding the observer of the dangers of the sea. Perhaps he had dangers hidden in his depths, hidden behind the beauty that nature had given him. All human beings had hidden depths, of course, but some people were deeper than others, and some very shallow, but all had their private defenses. Did he use his appearance as a barrier, deflecting interest with his looks the way a mirror turns back the sun?

  He was surprisingly controlled; perhaps some people wouldn’t see that, but Claire was more sensitive than most. She recognized control because she had had to learn it. As a child, she had seethed with pent-up emotion, a wild flood of love and devotion just waiting to be given to someone who would love her for herself. She had thought Jeff was that person, and she had released the torrent of passion, driving herself to be the perfect wife for him, only to fail again. Now she no longer waited for that one person.
She had been hurt, and she refused to let anyone hurt her ever again. She had locked her emotions and passions away and was more content without them.

  But how would those turquoise eyes look if that cool control were banished and passion heated their depths? How would he look while making love?

  Claire sat up, pushing away the disturbing mental image. It was Saturday. She had chores to do. She pulled off her nightgown and let the wisp of silk fall across the bed, and for a moment her eyes enjoyed the contrast of the pink silk lying on the white eyelet lace of the comforter. She loved pretty things. That part of her personality was carefully hidden away and protected, but it was expressed in her preference for exquisite lingerie, in the harmonious colors that she gathered around her. Her bed was white, the carpet a soft color, and around the room were touches of rose and jade. The bath towels that she bought were thick and lush, and she enjoyed the feel of them on her skin. So many things delighted her: fresh rain on her face, or the warm sunshine; a ray of light through a jar of plum jelly; the translucent beauty of a green leaf in spring; the plush texture of carpet beneath her bare feet. Because she hung back, she saw more than the people who hurried through life.

  She had slept late, so she had to hurry through the housekeeping and laundry that she did every Saturday in order to allow herself enough time to do her hair and nails. She was restless and on edge, all because of a man with vivid sea-colored eyes and sunshine in his hair, and that response was unusual enough to bring all her instinctive defenses springing into place. She would have to be on guard every moment, against herself more than Max. The weakness was hers, the same weakness that had let her believe that Jeff loved her as much as she loved him, because that was what she had wanted to believe. Jeff hadn’t misled her; she’d misled herself. Never again.

 
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