Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  Even so, pride wouldn’t allow her to look anything but her best when she went out with Max, and she took a long time over her makeup. Her features were delicate, with high cheekbones and a wide, soft mouth—blusher brought color to those cheekbones, and lipstick made her mouth look even softer. Smudged eyeliner and smoky shadow turned her dark eyes into pools of mystery. After putting up her honey-blond hair, leaving a few tendrils curling loosely at her temples, she slipped pearl-drop earrings in her ears and stared at her reflection in the mirror. The old-fashioned hairstyle suited her, revealing the clean lines of her cheek and jaw, the slenderness of her throat, but she looked disturbingly solemn, as if secrets were hiding behind her eyes.

  She was ready when the doorbell rang at exactly eight o’clock and had been ready long enough to become nervous; the peal of the doorbell made her jump. Quickly, before her nerve failed her, she opened the door. “Hello. Come in, please. Would you like a drink before we go?” Her voice was calm and polite, the voice of a hostess doing her duty without any real enthusiasm. Instinctively Claire moved a little away from him. She’d forgotten how tall he was, and she felt dwarfed.

  His pleasant expression didn’t waver as he held his hand out to her, palm up. “Thank you, but we haven’t time. On such short notice, I had to take reservations that were somewhat earlier than I’d planned. Shall we go?” His outstretched hand was steady and unthreatening, but the gesture was a command. Claire had the distinct impression that he had noticed her withdrawal and was demanding her return. He wanted her to step within reach of his hand, his touch, perhaps even place her hand in his in a gesture of both trust and obedience.

  She couldn’t do it. The small confrontation took only a moment, and she ended it when she stepped away to get her bag and the waist-length silk jacket that went with her oyster-colored silk chemise. It wasn’t until she turned around and found herself staring at his chest that she realized he hadn’t let the moment end. She froze.

  He plucked the jacket from her hands and held it up for her to slip her arms into the sleeves. “Allow me,” he said in his cool, precise voice, so devoid of any real emotion that Claire wondered if her reaction had been an overreaction, that his out-held hand had been a mannerly gesture rather than a subtle command. Perhaps if she had gone out more, she wouldn’t be so wary and skittish now; Martine had probably been right in urging her to become more socially active.

  She let him help her with the jacket, and he smoothed the small collar, his touch brief and light. “You look lovely, Claire, like a Victorian cameo.”

  “Thank you,” she murmured, disarmed by the gentle, graceful compliment. Suddenly she realized that he had sensed her agitation and was trying to put her at her ease, using his almost courtly manners to reassure her, and the odd thing was that it worked. He was controlled, unemotional, and she liked that. People who acted on the urges of their emotions and glands were unreliable.

  His hand was on the small of her back, resting there with a slight warm pressure, but now it didn’t disturb her. She relaxed and found that she was looking forward to the evening, after all.

  His choice of car further reassured her. She would have been suspicious of a flamboyant sports car, but the sedate, solidly conservative black Mercedes-Benz wasn’t the car of someone who was attracted to flash and glitter. He was dressed as conservatively as a banker, too, she noticed, glancing at his gray pin-striped suit. It was wonderfully cut, and his lean, elegant frame gave the suit a look of dash and fashion that it wouldn’t have possessed on any other man, but it still wasn’t the peacock attire of a playboy.

  Everything he did put her more at ease. He carried on a light, casual conversation that put no pressure on her; he didn’t use innuendos or sly double meanings or ask any personal questions. The restaurant he’d chosen was quiet, giving the impression of privacy but not intimacy. Nothing he did was in any way meant to impress her; he was simply dining out with a woman, with no strings attached, and that was immensely reassuring.

  “What sort of work do you do?” he asked casually, dipping an enormous Gulf shrimp into cocktail sauce before biting into it with frank enjoyment. Claire watched his white even teeth sink into the pink shrimp, her pulse speeding up in spite of herself. He was just so impossibly handsome that it was difficult to refrain from simply staring at him.

  “I’m a personal assistant.”

  “In a large company?”

  “No. Bronson Alloys is small, but growing rapidly, and we have outstanding prospects. It’s a publicly held company, but I work for the major stockholder and founder, Sam Bronson.”

  “Do you enjoy your work? Being an assistant seems to have lost all its attraction for a lot of people. The push is to be an executive, with an assistant of your own.”

  “Someone has to be the assistant,” Claire said, smiling. “I don’t have either the talents or the ambition to be an executive. What company are you with? Will you be in Houston permanently?”

  “Not permanently, but I could be here for several months. I’m investigating certain properties for investment.”

  “Real estate?” Claire asked. “Are you a speculator?”

  “Nothing so dashing. Basically what I do is make feasibility studies.”

  “How did you come to be transplanted from England to Texas?”

  He gave a negligent shrug. “Business opportunities are more plentiful over here.” Max studied her smooth, delicate face, wondering how she would look if any real warmth ever lit her dark eyes. She was more relaxed now than she had been, but there was still that lack of response from her that both irritated and intrigued him. So long as he kept the subject impersonal and made no move that could be interpreted as that of an interested male, she was relaxed, but she withdrew like a turtle into its shell at the least hint of masculine aggressiveness or sexuality. It was as if she didn’t want anyone to be attracted to her or even flirt with her. The less masculine he was, the better she liked it, and the realization angered him. What he wouldn’t give to force her out of that frozen nunnery she’d locked herself into, to make her acknowledge him as a man, to make her feel some sort of passion!

  Claire looked away, a little rattled by the cold, unreadable expression in his eyes. For a moment his face had lost its expression of suave pleasantness and taken on the hard, determined lines of a Viking warrior. Perhaps that was the ancestry that had given him his golden hair and sea-colored eyes, rather than an Anglo-Saxon heritage.

  What had she said to bring that expression to his face? It had been only a polite question; she’d been so careful not to step over the bounds she’d set for herself, saying nothing that could be construed as reflecting a personal interest in him.

  “Last night,” he said abruptly. “That was deliberate viciousness, wasn’t it? Why?”

  Claire’s head jerked around, the only sign she gave that she was disturbed by the change of subject. Her dark eyes went blank. “Yes, it was deliberate, but nothing came of her efforts. It isn’t important.”

  “I don’t agree.” His crisp accent bit off the words. “You were upset, though you carried it off well. Why was that little scene staged?”

  She stared at him, that blank look still in her eyes, as if a wall had been erected in her mind. After a moment he realized that she wasn’t going to answer him, and a powerful surge of anger shook him, made him want to grind his teeth in frustration. Why was she so damned aloof? At this rate he’d never get close enough to her to get any of the answers he needed! He wanted this damned thing over with—with business out of the way, he could concentrate on Claire and his irritating attraction to her. He had no doubt that if he were able to devote himself fully to her, he would be able to get behind those barriers to the woman. He had never yet failed to get a woman he wanted; there was no reason why Claire should be his first failure. She might be the most challenging woman of his experience, though, and the thought quickened his interest.

  How could he gain her trust if she retreated every time he advanced? A s
mall frown furrowed his brow as he studied her openly, trying to read her mind. If she retreated, then she must feel threatened by him, yet he hadn’t done anything to warrant that reaction. Most women were attracted to him on sight, gravitating to him like a compass needle to the magnetic north pole, but Claire made an obvious effort to keep a certain distance from him. In a flash of insight Max realized that it was his looks that made her so wary, and his frown deepened. She had seen the playboy persona and felt threatened by it; she was probably determined not to become another one of his women. Bloody hell! She would run like a frightened rabbit if she realized that her reaction was attracting him far more surely than a blatant play for him. Max was accustomed to being pursued by women; a woman who retreated from him brought out the primitive male urge to chase fleeing prey.

  She was soft, tender prey, he thought as he watched a delicate tinge of color sweep over her cheeks. She was disconcerted by the way he was staring at her, but he liked looking at her. She had a gentle, intelligent face, and he kept getting caught by those enormous dark eyes, as velvety as melted chocolate. Her coloring was exquisite, like delicate china. Did she have any idea how enormously appealing her dark eyes were? Probably not. Her ex-husband’s wife was a real beauty, but if he’d been given the choice between the two women, Max would unhesitatingly have chosen Claire. He’d been stunned by the courage and dignity with which she’d handled the situation at the party the night before. How many other women would have kept their poise under those circumstances? Watching her coolly, deliberately, he knew that he wanted her.

  He’d have her, too, but first he had to get past those damnable barriers.

  “Talk to me,” he said softly. “Don’t treat me as everyone else does.”

  Startled, Claire looked at him, her eyes widening. What did he mean? How did everyone else treat him? “I don’t understand,” she finally murmured.

  His eyes were green ice, with no hint of blue in them. “It’s poetic justice, my dear. My face makes me a target, a sexual trophy to be nailed on the wall above the bed, figuratively speaking, of course. Most women have no interest in me other than as a stud. I could be brainless for all the concern they have in me personally. I enjoy the sex, yes—I’m a healthy man. But I also enjoy conversation, music and books, and I would damn well prefer being considered as a person as well as a warm body.”

  Claire was stunned, so stunned that she forgot the alarm that had been racing up and down her spine as he had stared at her with such cold ferocity. “But I’m not—that is, I haven’t been chasing you,” she stammered.

  “No, with you it’s the opposite. You took one look at me and decided that with this face I can’t possibly be anything more than a playboy, letting myself be used as a living ornament in any woman’s bed.”

  She was aghast; that was exactly what she’d thought at first, and now she was ashamed of herself. Claire was unusually sensitive, and because she was so easily hurt she went out of her way to keep from hurting anyone else. The idea that she had so casually labeled this man as pretty but useless appalled her. She had other reasons for wanting to keep her distance from him, but he didn’t know them—to him, it must seem as if she had simply written him off as being shallow and immoral, without getting to know him at all. He was angry, and he had every right to be.

  “I’m sorry,” she apologized in a soft, earnest voice. “It’s true that I did think you were a playboy, but it’s also true that I realize I’m not in your league.”

  He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by that? Just what is ‘my league’?”

  Claire dropped her eyes, unable to meet that piercingly bright stare, and found that his hands were in her line of vision. They were lean, aristocratic hands, beautifully fashioned, but strong for all that. Was the man like his hands?

  “Claire,” he prompted.

  At last she looked up, her face composed, as usual, but her eyes revealed some of her vulnerability. “You’re far more sophisticated than I, of course, and far more beautiful. I’m sure women chase you unmercifully, but the other side of the coin is the fact that you can probably have any woman you want. I really don’t want to be your next target.”

  He didn’t like her answer at all; his facial muscles didn’t move, but still his displeasure was a definite chill brushing across her skin.

  “Then why did you come out with me? I realize I was being a trifle persistent, but you allowed yourself to be persuaded.”

  “I was lonely,” she said, then looked away again.

  At that moment the waiter appeared with their dinner, and the interruption gave Max time to control the explosion of fury in his mind. Damn her to hell! So she accepted his invitation only because she was lonely? Evidently he rated above television, but only just! He wondered savagely if his ego could take much more.

  When they were alone again, he reached across the table and caught her hand, holding her delicate fingers firmly when she automatically tried to draw away. “You aren’t a target,” he said tersely. “You’re someone I met and liked, someone who looked at me without any hint of speculation about how well endowed I am or how bloody versatile I am in bed. Do you think I don’t get lonely, too? I wanted to be able to talk to you. I want a friend. Sex is something that can be had whenever I take the urge.”

  There was color in her face again, as if she were faintly embarrassed, but suddenly there was a twinkle in her eyes. He’d seen it briefly the night before, and its reappearance caught his attention, made him realize how really lovely she was with that light dancing in her dark eyes. “Do they really?” she asked in a scandalized whisper.

  He felt a bit disoriented, as if he’d just had a blow to the head. A moment before he’d been angry, but now he found himself completely bemused by the teasing humor of her expression. He shifted his grip on her hand and rubbed his thumb across the back of her fingers, absently savoring the feel of her soft flesh. “Ladies have become incredibly bold. It’s disconcerting to meet a woman and five minutes later find her hand inside my trousers.”

  She laughed, and he felt himself become warm. At last he was gaining some ground with her! That was the way—she was lonely and badly needed a friend, while all her defenses were set up to deflect any romantic or seductive move. She wanted a friend, not a lover. Max didn’t agree with her choice, but he would have to go along with it for now or risk frightening her away.

  “Could we be friends?” he asked gently, determined to act with restraint. Claire simply wasn’t like the women he had pursued with single-minded intensity; she was softer, more sensitive, with secret dreams in her eyes.

  Claire’s lips still held a little smile. Friends? Was it possible to be friends with a man who was as sleek and beautiful as a cheetah? And why would he want to be friends with her? She was nothing out of the ordinary, while he was completely unordinary. Yet perhaps he really was lonely. Claire understood loneliness. She had chosen it as the safest course in life, but there were still times when she longed for someone to whom she could talk without guarding all but her shallowest layers. It wasn’t that she wanted to unburden her heart; it was the simple, everyday conversation of friends that she needed so badly. She had never had that even with Martine, dearly though she loved her. Martine was so courageous and outgoing that she couldn’t understand the hurts and fears of someone who lacked that courage. Nor had Claire ever been able to confide in her mother, because she had always feared and flinched from the inevitable comparison with Martine. Even when there was no comparison, fear of it had kept Claire silent.

  “You could help me look for an apartment tomorrow,” he suggested, drawing her back from her thoughts. “A week in a hotel is straining my tolerance.”

  His tone was testy, and Claire smiled at his accent, more clipped than usual. “I’d be happy to look with you. Do you have anything in mind?”

  “My dear, I don’t know anything about Houston. I’m totally in your hands.”

  “Buy a newspaper tomorrow and circle the
apartments that you like best, and we’ll drive around to see them. What time would you like to start?”

  “As early as it’s convenient for you—after all, I’m at your mercy.”

  She doubted that he was ever at anyone’s mercy, but a light, happy feeling was swelling in her. His eyes were a warm, brilliant turquoise now, and his smile would have turned the head of a statue. She wasn’t proof against his charm, and suddenly it didn’t worry her.

  Their food had been cooling in front of them, and they both realized it simultaneously. As they ate, Claire began to watch him with growing amazement. How could someone so lean eat so much? His manners were faultless, but nevertheless the amount he ate would have done a stevedore proud. His metabolic rate had to be high, because his movements were characterized by an indolent grace; he didn’t burn off calories with nervous energy.

  She said as much, and he smiled at her. “I know. My mother used to scold me for eating too much in company. She said it made it appear as if they kept me in a dungeon on starvation rations.”

  “Do you have a large family?”

  “There seem to be hundreds of us,” he said blithely. “Aunts and uncles and cousins by the score. In the immediate family, I have one brother and three sisters, and eight assorted nieces and nephews. My father is dead, but my mother still rules us all.”

  “Are you the eldest?” Claire asked, fascinated by his large family.

  “No, my brother is the eldest. I’m second in line. Is your family a large one?”

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