Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  How could Max not have mentioned all of this? It wasn’t as if it were an insignificant detail. She had worried about living up to the Halseys, and now she had fallen in love with a man who made the Halseys look like Johnny-come-latelies.

  She took a quick shower, unable to stand the grime of travel a moment longer. A thick, fleecy toweling robe hung on a hook behind the door, and Claire wrapped herself in it rather than try to hunt hers out of the pile of luggage. Leaving the bathroom, she stopped short when she saw Max lounging in the reading chair. He looked up, that intent look coming into his eyes when he saw her shiny face and warm, damp body wrapped in the robe.

  “My mother can have the most perverse sense of humor at times,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “Come here, love, and let me hold you for a little while before I’m banished to Hayden Hill.”

  She put her hand in his and found herself gathered close, then perched on his lap. Sighing, Claire put her head on his shoulder and felt his arms close around her with steely strength.

  “You’ve been quiet since we left New York,” he murmured. “Is something wrong, or is it just jet lag?”

  While he held her, nothing was wrong, but she couldn’t spend the rest of her life in his arms. “No, there’s nothing wrong.”

  He slipped his hand inside the robe and cupped her breast, stroking her flesh with gentle fingers. “Shall I leave you to your nap, then? Your mother and father have already gone to their room. The telephone is ringing constantly, but Mother is fending everyone off.”

  She clutched at his shoulders. “Don’t go, Max, please. Hold me for a little while longer.”

  “All right, love.” His voice was low. He tipped her face up and kissed her slowly, his tongue probing into her mouth, and his hand was no longer quite so gentle. “This is going to be an endlessly long week,” he said, moving his lips down her throat. “I may kidnap you one afternoon and take you to a place where we can be alone.”

  If only he could kidnap her and take her away now. If only the wedding were behind them and they could return to Dallas.

  * * *

  It only got worse. Sometimes it seemed as if she never had a moment to herself, and every day there were more and more people to meet. Max’s wedding was an excuse for a party every night as the celebration escalated. Alma was in her element, and Harmon was perfectly comfortable with the life of an English country gentleman. Then Martine and Steve arrived with the children, and they were exuberantly welcomed. Martine got on like wildfire with Max’s outgoing sisters, Emma and Patricia and Victoria, and Prescott House rang with their chatter and laughter.

  There were lunches, afternoon teas and endless visits sandwiched between appointments with the photographer, the caterer and the florist. The gowns were pressed and ready, and the tuxedos had arrived from the drycleaners. The most amazing thing to Claire was that no one had had to rent one. It was a gracious, cushioned life, marching to a well-ordered beat, with privileges taken for granted.

  There was no time to see Max alone, but becoming acquainted with his background told her more about him than what she had learned before. He had been born superior and saw nothing unusual about his life, even though he was the family maverick. He was a Conroy of Hayden-Prescott. The earldom was a rich one, and his family estate had not been opened to tourists in an effort at survival. Max’s inheritance made him independently wealthy; it was only his own restless genius and drive that sent him first to Canada then to the States to take on the challenge of high-level corporate dealings. Centuries of aristocratic breeding ran in his veins.

  She couldn’t fit into his world. A man in his position needed a wife who was comfortable in society, and Claire knew that she would always prefer a far more private life. She had driven herself into the ground trying to be suitable for the Halseys and had failed. How could she possibly measure up to the standards of the Conroys of Hayden-Prescott? They were the elite, and she was an assistant from Houston, Texas.

  The celebrations going on around her took on an unreal, circus quality, and she went through the motions, doing as she was told, going where she was guided, while the certainty grew inside her that it was all a mistake. Max would soon come to see how unsuitable she was, and he would be impatient. She knew all the stages well, having suffered through them before. First he would be impatient because she wasn’t living up to expectations; then would come indifference, when it no longer mattered. And, finally, he would pity her. She didn’t think she could bear that, to have him pity her. Isolated from him, without even the reassurance of his passion, Claire withdrew as she had always done in an effort to protect herself. Their marriage wouldn’t have a firm base even under the best of circumstances, with only a lopsided love holding it together. Max’s reasons for proposing to her weren’t clear. Perhaps he thought she would be suitable; perhaps he was ready to begin his own family. But he hadn’t proposed out of love. Even during all the times when they had made love, with passion burning so high between them that sometimes she felt she would shatter in his arms, he’d never said anything about love.

  She had to call it off before it went any further. When she thought of what she was about to do, of the scandal it would cause, Claire went cold, but she couldn’t see any other alternative. The marriage simply wouldn’t work, and it would destroy her if one day Max despised her for her inability to be what he wanted, what he expected, what he deserved.

  She reached that conclusion the day before the wedding, but she had no opportunity to talk to him. They were always surrounded by family, both his and hers, and Rome and Sarah had arrived to add to the crowd. The wedding rehearsal went off without a hitch. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing and joking, and the ancient enormous stone church echoed with their joy. Claire watched it all with dark, stricken eyes, wondering what they would all think of her when they knew the wedding had been called off.

  Dear God, she couldn’t just leave him standing at the altar. His fierce pride would never forgive her for that, and she couldn’t live if he hated her. Determined to talk to him, Claire threaded her way through the crowd and caught his sleeve. “Max?”

  He smiled down at her. “Yes, love?” Then one of his cousins hailed him, and she lost his attention. Her nails bit into her palms as she stood beside him, trying to smile and act normally when she felt brittle inside, as if she would shatter at the slightest touch.

  “Max, it’s important!” she said desperately. “I have to talk to you!”

  Max looked down at her again, and this time he saw her pale, taut face, the tension in every line of her body. He covered her hand with his, holding her fingers to his arm. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

  “It’s private. Can we go somewhere we can talk?” Her eyes begged him, and automatically he put his arm around her as if he could shield her from whatever was bothering her. “Yes, of course,” he said, turning to walk with her to the door.

  “Oh, no, you two lovebirds!” someone called. “You can’t sneak out on the night before your wedding!”

  Max looked over his shoulder. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, ushering Claire out the door. “Of course I can.”

  He led her outside into the cool English night, and the darkness folded around them as they walked down the lane toward Prescott House, leaving behind the brilliantly lit church. Their steps crunched on the loose gravel, and Max pulled her closer in an effort to keep the chill from her bare arms. “What is it?” he asked quietly.

  She stopped and closed her eyes, praying for strength to get through this. “It’s all a mistake,” she said in a muffled tone.

  “What is?”

  If only he didn’t sound so patient! Tears blurred her eyes as she looked up at him in the darkness. “This is,” she said, waving her hand at the church behind them. “All of it. You, me, the wedding. I can’t go through with it.”

  He drew in a sharp breath, and tension invaded his muscles. “Why is it a mistake? I thought everything was going along well. My family likes you,
and you’ve given the impression that you like them.”

  “I do.” Tears were making her voice ragged, and she wondered how long she could hold out before dissolving into sobs. “But can’t you see what a mismatch we are? I told you the first time we went out together that I’m not in the same league with you, but I didn’t know how right I was! I don’t fit in here! I can’t be more than what I am, and I’ll never be the aristocratic wife you need. Your…expectations are too high.” She choked and couldn’t say anything else, but perhaps it was just as well. Wordlessly she pulled off the pearl-and-diamond ring and extended it to him. He didn’t take it, only stared down at it as she held it out in her shaking hand.

  Claire couldn’t hold back the sobs any longer. Grabbing his hand, she put the ring in it and folded his fingers over it. “It’s for the best,” she wept, backing away from him. “I love you too much to disappoint you the way I would.”

  She fled down the dark lane, too blinded by tears to be able to see where she was going, but she knew that Prescott House was down the lane, and she would eventually get there. Misery choked her; she didn’t hear the running footsteps behind her. A hard hand grabbed her, swinging her around, and a small scream broke from her throat. She had a glimpse of his face, hard and furious, before he tossed her over his shoulder and started back up the lane.

  “Max—wait!” she gasped, startled out of her tears. “You can’t—what are you doing?”

  “Taking my woman away,” he snapped, his long legs eating up the distance as he strode toward the church.

  People were milling around in front of the church, chatting before going on to Hayden Hill for the after-rehearsal party. When Max strode into view, there was a moment of dead silence, and Claire buried her face against his back.

  “I say,” his brother Clayton drawled. “Isn’t there time enough for that tomorrow?”

  “No, there’s not,” Max snapped, not even looking around. “I’m taking your car.”

  “So I see,” Clayton said, watching as Max opened the door of a Mercedes and put Claire inside. Claire dropped her face into her hands, so miserable that embarrassment was only a small part of her woes.

  Rome Matthews grinned, thinking of a time when he had carried his woman away from a party.

  Standing on the steps, elegant in an oyster-white linen suit and pearls, Lady Alicia watched her son drive way with his intended bride. “Do you suppose,” she mused, “there’s any point in waiting for them? No, of course not. We’ll have the party without them,” she decided.

  * * *

  Max drove for a long time, his temper crackling around him like a visible flame. Claire sat silently, her eyes burning, wondering if he were taking her anywhere in particular, or if he were simply driving aimlessly, but she didn’t dare ask him. She had the answer to her question when he pulled into the courtyard of a small inn.

  “What are we doing here?” She gasped as he got out of the car and reached in to pull her out. Roughly he put the pearl ring back on her finger.

  He didn’t reply but pulled her into the inn. It was small and rustic, just the sort of inn that had lined England’s roads for centuries. It was a pub on the bottom, with rooms on top. Max signed the register, paid the landlord and towed Claire after him up a narrow flight of stairs, while the landlord watched them with mild curiosity. Stopping before a door, Max unlocked it and pulled Claire inside, then turned to lock the door again.

  “Now,” he said, his voice almost guttural with rage. “Let’s talk about this. To begin, the only standards and expectations you are measuring yourself against are your own. No one else expects or wants you to be anything other than yourself. I don’t want you to be perfect. That would be bloody hell for me to try to live up to, because I’m not perfect. I don’t want a china doll who never makes mistakes—I want you. As for that garbage about the aristocratic wife I deserve—” He broke off, his fists clenching with rage. Claire found that she had backed across the room, her eyes enormous as she stared at him. She couldn’t believe the fury that burned in him. His eyes were like lasers, searing her.

  He began unbuttoning his shirt with rough movements. “I’m a man, not a title, and the bloody damned title isn’t mine anyway. My brother is the earl, and thank God he’s healthy, with two sons to inherit before it would come to me. I don’t want the title. I have American citizenship now. I have a job with a lot of damned responsibility that keeps me interested the way an earldom never would, and I have a family I love. I also have the woman I love, and I’ll be bloody damned to hell and back before I let you walk out on me now.” He pulled his shirt off and tossed it aside then unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants.

  “If you don’t want to get married, all right,” he bit out, stripping naked. Claire stared at him, her mouth going dry. “We’ll just live together, but don’t ever think that we won’t live together, married or not. You’re the only woman I’ve ever met who can drive me so wild that I lose control, and you’re the only woman I’ve ever met whom I love so much I ache with it. I nearly ruined it in the beginning by not being completely honest with you, and you stopped trusting me. You’ve never trusted me again, have you? Too bloody damned bad, because I’m not letting you go. Is that clear?”

  Claire swallowed, looking at him. He was so beautiful that she hurt. “Do you know how many ‘bloody damns’ and ‘bloody hells’ you’ve just said?” she whispered.

  “What the bloody hell difference does it make?” he asked, stalking across the floor to grab her and toss her onto the bed.

  She bounced and grabbed at the covers to keep from flying off. “You never told me before that you loved me.” Her voice sounded strange, too high and tight.

  He glared at her, reaching behind her for the zipper on her dress. “Is that an unforgivable sin? You never told me that you love me, either, until you blurted it out at the same time you said you couldn’t marry me. What do you think that did to me? I’ve been trying for weeks to make you trust me again, wondering if you’d ever love me, and you throw it at me like that.”

  He pulled her dress off, and Claire put her hands on his chest, her heart pounding so hard that she could barely think. “Max, wait. Why are we here?”

  “It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m having my wedding night, even if you’re determined not to have a wedding. I love you, and, I repeat, I’m not letting you go.”

  “What will everyone think?”

  “I don’t care.” He stopped, looking down at her with burning eyes. “I love you. You’re more important to me than anyone else on this earth, and I’d walk on live coals to get to you.”

  He had managed to strip her completely, and his gaze wandered down her slim body. He had been rough before, but his touch now was so gentle that it was almost like a whisper of wind as he parted her legs and eased into her. Claire accepted him, her body arching in pleasure, her hands clinging to him. She loved him so much that she thought she would burst with it, and it was in her eyes as he propped himself on his elbows over her.

  “Let’s try this again,” he whispered. “I love you, Claire Westbrook, for all the things you are. You’re gentle and loving, and you have dreams in your eyes that I want to share. Will you marry me?”

  She would never have believed that she could soar so high. With her arms locked around his neck, straining up to put her mouth to his, Claire looked up into those brilliant sea-colored eyes and said, “Yes.”

  * * *

  She walked down the aisle of the huge, drafty old church with her cream-colored satin gown rustling and the veil trailing behind her. Her father’s arm was steady under her hand. Familiar and beloved faces turned toward her as she walked: the faces of the many people she had met this past week, all beaming at her; Sarah Matthews, pale and serene, with her children beside her; Derek Taliferro, his golden eyes wise beyond his years, smiling as he watched her. Alma, smiling and crying at the same time and still looking lovely while she did it. Lady Alicia, her eyes brimming with pride. At the altar, wai
ting for her, were Martine, and Max’s sisters, four heads in varying shades of blond. Rome Matthews stood beside Max, his dark eyes seeking out his wife where she sat in the pews, and a silent message passed between them. Clayton also stood there, and two of Max’s cousins.

  And Max. Tall, impossibly handsome, and so beloved that it hurt her to look at him. His image was blurred by the veil she wore, but he watched her, and there was a moist glitter in his eyes, like that of the sea.

  Her father gave her hand to Max, who moved to stand by her side. The pearl on her hand gleamed in the golden candlelight of the many tapers that flickered throughout the church.

  Max pressed her hand warmly, and she looked up at him. His eyes were steady. Hers were dark, secretive pools, but there were no more secrets between them. Turning toward the altar, they began speaking their vows.

  * * * * *

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