Almost Forever by Linda Howard


  “No, not really. Just my parents, and my sister Martine and her family. There are cousins in Michigan and an aunt who lives in Vancouver, but the relationship isn’t close.”

  “A large family has its advantages, but there are also times when it closely resembles a zoo. Holidays are chaos.”

  “Do you go home for all the holidays?”

  He shrugged. “Sometimes it isn’t possible, but I pop over on the odd weekend.”

  He made it sound as if it were only a matter of getting in a car and taking a half-hour drive, instead of “popping over” on a transatlantic flight. She was still marveling at that when he turned the conversation to her job. He asked interested questions about the sort of work done at Bronson Alloys, the market for special alloys and the uses for them. It was a fairly complicated subject, and Claire had studied intensely when she’d first gotten the job as Sam Bronson’s assistant, trying to understand the processes and the practical applications of Sam’s metallurgical genius. She knew her ground well but had to make a special effort to keep abreast. The ease and rapidity of Max’s understanding was amazing; she could talk to him as naturally as if he also worked in the field, without having to pause continually for complicated explanations.

  Then they began talking about real estate, and the way Max explained it, it sounded fascinating. “You don’t actually buy the real estate yourself?”

  “No. I act as a consultant, investigating properties for people who are interested buyers. Not all property is suitable for investment or expansion. There are the geological considerations, first of all—some land simply isn’t stable enough to support large structures. There are other variables, of course: the depth of the water table, any bedrock, things that effect the price effectiveness of locating a building on that particular plot of ground.”

  “You’re a geologist, too?”

  “I’m a gatherer of facts. It’s like putting a puzzle together, with the difference that you have no idea what the finished product will look like until it is finished.”

  They lingered over coffee, still talking, and gradually Claire realized how hungry she’d been for simple conversation, for the sharing of ideas and opinions. He was extraordinarily intelligent, but he didn’t parade his mental capabilities about for anyone to admire; his intelligence was simply there, a part of him. For her part, Claire had always been unusually studious, losing herself in the varied worlds offered by books, and she was both astonished and delighted to discover that one of his favorite writers was Cameron Gregor, a wild Scotsman whose books were horribly difficult to find and who was her own favorite.

  They argued fiercely for almost an hour over which book was Gregor’s best. Claire forgot her reserve, leaning toward him with her eyes shining, her face lit with pleasure. After a while Max realized that he was arguing for the sheer pleasure of watching her, not because of any real difference of opinion. When passion brightened her face, she was almost incandescent. Jealousy began to eat at him, because all of that fire was for books, and none for him.

  Finally he held up both hands, laughing. “Shall we stop trying to change the other’s mind and dance instead? We’ve totally ignored the music.”

  Until that moment Claire hadn’t even realized that a band was playing, or that the dance floor was crowded with people swaying to the slow, bluesy tunes. A saxophone was crying pure mournful notes that almost brought tears to her eyes; it was her favorite type of music. He led her to the dance floor and took her in his arms.

  They danced well together. He was tall, but her heels brought her up to a comfortable height, allowing her to nestle her head just under his chin. He knew just how to hold a woman, not so tightly that she couldn’t maneuver and not so loosely that she was unable to follow his lead. Claire gave a quiet sigh of pleasure. She couldn’t remember enjoying any evening more. The firm, gentle clasp of his fingers around hers told her that she was in capable hands, and still there was the sense of control about him that reassured her. Unconsciously she breathed in the faint scent of his cologne, so quiet that it was just barely there, and beneath that was the warm, musky scent of his skin.

  Somehow it felt right to be in his arms, so right that she failed to notice her reaction, the way the rhythm of her heartbeat had increased just a little. She felt pleasantly warm, even though the restaurant was cool and her shoulders bare. They laughed and talked and danced together, and she hated for the evening to have to end.

  When it did end, he walked her to the door of her apartment and unlocked it for her, then returned the key to her. “Good night,” he said in an oddly gentle tone.

  She lifted her head and smiled at him. “Good night. I enjoyed the evening very much. Thank you.”

  That breathtaking, whimsical smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “I should be thanking you, my dear. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Good night again, and sleep well.” He bent and pressed a light kiss on her cheek, his mouth warm and firm; then the brief pressure was lifted. It was a kiss as passionless as that of a brother, asking nothing of her, not even response. Smiling at her, he turned and left.

  Claire closed and locked the door, a smile still on her lips. She liked him, she really liked him! He was intelligent, humorous, widely traveled, and remarkably comfortable to be with. He had been a perfect gentleman toward her—after all, he’d as much as told her that he could have sex any time he wanted it, so perhaps she was a welcome change for him. She was a woman who wasn’t after him. There was no pressure to perform, no sense of being pursued because of his startling physical beauty.

  While they’d been dancing, Claire couldn’t help noticing that other women had followed him with their eyes, sometimes unconsciously. It was true that some women stared at him openly, with curiosity and even hunger evident in their expressions, but even those who would never think of leaving their own escorts hadn’t been able to keep from looking at him periodically. His golden good looks drew the eye like a natural magnet.

  Even her own. Lying in her bed, pleasantly tired and relaxed on her silk sheets, she kept seeing his face in her mind’s eye. Her memory was a loop of film spliced to run endlessly, and she replayed every changing expression she’d seen, from anger to humor and every nuance in between. His eyes were green when he was angry, blue when he was thoughtful, and that vivid, wicked turquoise when he was laughing or teasing.

  Her cheek tingled warmly where he’d kissed it, and sleepily she pressed her fingers to the spot. Sharp curiosity and a sense of regret pierced her—what would it have been like if he’d kissed her mouth, if there had been passion in his touch instead of the cool pleasantness with which he’d ended the evening? Her heart leaped at the thought, and her lips parted unconsciously. She wanted to know the taste of him.

  Restlessly she turned on her side, forcing the thought away. Passion was one of the things she’d forced out of her life. Passion was dangerous; it made sane people suddenly turn into unreasonable maniacs. Passion meant a loss of control, and a loss of control ultimately led to terrible vulnerability. She was sometimes lonely, she admitted to herself, but loneliness was better than leaving herself open to the sort of devastating pain she’d barely survived once before. And she was afraid. That was another, more difficult thing that she admitted, lying there in the darkness. She lacked the self-confidence with which Martine faced every morning. She was afraid to let anyone get too close to her, because she might not be all they had expected, and she didn’t know if she could bear the pain of rejection.

  It was far better to be friends rather than lovers. Friends didn’t risk as much. Friendship lacked the intimacy that necessarily gave lovers the sure, deadly knowledge of where and how to inflict the most hurt when the relationship went bad.

  And friendship was what Max wanted, anyway. If she threw herself at him, he would probably turn away in disgust. He didn’t want passion, and she was afraid of passion. Daydreams—or nighttime fantasies—about him were a waste of time.

  CHAPTER 3

  Until she
answered the telephone the next morning and heard his voice, Claire hadn’t realized just how much she had been looking forward to seeing him again. Her heart gave a little leap of joy, and her eyes closed for the briefest moment as she listened to his cool, deep voice, and his clipped, exceedingly British upper-class accent that delighted her ear. “Good morning, Claire. I’ve realized that we didn’t set a time for me to pick you up today. What would be good for you?”

  “Noon, I think. Have you seen any likely prospects in the paper?”

  “I’ve circled three or four. Noon it is, then.”

  It disturbed her that just the sound of his voice could affect her. She didn’t want to miss him when he wasn’t there, didn’t want to look forward to seeing him again. Just friends. That was all they were going to be, all they could be.

  But when she dressed, she once again found herself paying far more attention to her hair and makeup than usual. She wanted to look good for him, and the realization caused a small pain deep inside her chest. There had been times before when she’d hovered anxiously before her mirror, wondering if she would come up to par, if the Halseys would approve of her, if Jeff would look at her with desire in his eyes again.

  The situations weren’t the same at all—at that time she’d been desperately trying to hold together a disintegrating marriage, and now she was simply going to spend the day with a friend, helping him look for an apartment. If Max made her heart beat faster, that was something she would have to ignore and never, never let him see.

  Telling herself that was one thing, but schooling her features to reveal only a pleasant welcome when she opened the door to him was another thing entirely. She’d seen him in a formal white dinner jacket and in a severely conservative gray suit and had thought at the time that nothing could make him look any better, but in casual clothes he was almost breathtaking. His khaki pants, crisp and neat, outlined his lean hips and belly. The emerald green polo shirt he wore had a double impact: it revealed the surprising muscularity of his arms and torso, and intensified, darkened, the shades of green in his eyes until they were the color of some paradise lagoon. Those eyes smiled down at her, and deep inside her something stirred.

  “I’m ready,” she said, picking up her lemon-yellow garden hat. It matched her yellow-and-white striped sundress, which Martine had persuaded her to buy more than two years ago, insisting that the sunny color suited her. Claire had to admit that Martine’s taste, as usual, was impeccable. She didn’t wear the dress often, preferring more businesslike attire, but the morning was so bright and warm that nothing else had seemed suitable.

  He put his hand on her bare arm, his lean fingers gently curving around her elbow. It was only a polite gesture, but Claire felt her skin tingle under his touch. An instinct of self-protection told her to move away from him, but it was only a small voice, easily swamped by the disturbing rush of warmth generated by the light touch of his hand. Just walking beside him gave her pleasure.

  He opened the car door for her, and when she was seated, he leaned down to tuck her skirt out of the way, another of his casually courteous gestures that disturbed the even rhythm of her pulse. Thank God he didn’t have any romantic interest in her! If she responded to him this strongly when he was merely being polite, what would it be like if he were making an effort to charm her? With an almost helpless fear, she realized that she wouldn’t stand a chance against him.

  Lying on the seat between them was a newspaper, folded open to the ads for apartments for rent, and several of them had been circled. Max pointed to the first one. “This seems suitable. Are you familiar with the area?”

  Claire picked up the newspaper and glanced at his choices. “Are you certain you want to look at these?” she asked doubtfully. “They’re terribly expensive.”

  He gave her an amused glance, and Claire looked up in time to see it. She flushed suddenly. If she’d thought about it, she would have realized that he had no need to worry about money. He wasn’t flashy, but the signs were there for anyone to read. He dressed well—his clothing was tailored instead of bought off the rack. All the trappings of wealth were there, from his Italian shoes to his impossibly thin Swiss wristwatch, as well as being evident in his speech and manner. Perhaps he wasn’t rich, but he was certainly comfortable—companies must pay dearly for his services. She’d made a fool of herself by fretting about what he could afford to pay for an apartment.

  “If I must travel so much, the people who pay me must be prepared to keep me in comfort,” he said with a chuckle in his voice. “I need privacy, but enough space to entertain when it’s necessary, and the apartment must be furnished, as I refuse to cart my furniture about the country.”

  She gave him stilted directions to the first apartment he’d circled, her cheeks still warm. He began to tell her amusing tales of the pitfalls he’d encountered when he first came to the United States, laughing at himself, and gradually Claire began to relax. She had a horror of making social gaffes, a fear that had been born in the early days of her marriage when it had seemed as if everyone was pressuring her to “live up” to her newly acquired position as Jeff Halsey’s wife. As one of the Halseys, even by marriage, she’d been expected to be socially perfect. Even the smallest mistakes had been so terribly public that every social function had become an exercise in endurance for Claire.

  But Max didn’t let her retreat into her shell. He talked to her easily, without letting awkward silences fall between them. He sprinkled small questions through his conversation, compelling her to answer them and in that way contribute, until the last traces of embarrassment had faded and she was smiling naturally again. He watched her carefully, gauging her reactions. He’d be damned if he would let her draw back behind those cool, blank barriers of hers. He had to teach her to trust him, to relax in his company, or he would never be able to get any information from her. This damned takeover irritated him. He wanted it out of the way so he could concentrate on Claire and discover more about the woman behind the defenses. He was becoming obsessed with her, and that knowledge irritated him, too, but he couldn’t simply shrug it away. Her cool, distant manner attracted him even while it drove him mad with frustration. She had a habit of drifting away in her thoughts, those deep brown eyes revealing secrets that he couldn’t read and she wouldn’t share with him. His reaction to her confused him. He wanted to make love to her until all the shadows in her eyes were gone, until she burned for him, until she lay warm and helpless beneath him, her skin dewy from the heat and violence of his possession…and he wanted to protect her, from everything and everyone except himself.

  She didn’t want him in either capacity, as lover or protector. She wanted him only for companionship, which was almost as exciting as warm milk.

  The first address he’d marked was a group of condominiums, turning their bland identical faces to the street. They were new and expensive, but they were nothing more than brick growths on the Texas soil. Claire glanced at Max, unable to imagine him living there. He surveyed the condos; then his aristocratic brows climbed upward. “I think not,” he said mildly and put the car in reverse.

  Absurdly pleased that she had been right in her estimation of him, Claire picked up the paper and studied the addresses of the other apartments he’d marked, trying to place them. Houston had grown so rapidly that she wasn’t certain where two of the apartments were, but one address she did recognize. “I think you’ll like the next one better. It’s an older building, but the apartments are very exclusive.”

  Once again, she was right. Max looked pleased when he saw the mellowed building with the wrought-iron gate at the entrance and the brick-paved courtyard. There was private underground parking for the tenants. Max stopped the car before the office and came around to open the door for Claire. His fingers were warm on her elbow as he helped her from the car; then his hand moved to the small of her back. Claire didn’t even try to move away; she was becoming used to his touch, to his more formal European manners.

  Even in his casua
l clothing, Max had an air of authority that commanded the attention of the apartment manager. The man bubbled over with enthusiasm, showing them about the vacant apartment, pointing out the old-fashioned charm of the oak parquet floors and the high, arched ceilings. The windows were wide and tall, flooding the apartment with light, but the rooms were rather small, and Max politely thanked the man for his time.

  When they were in the car, Claire said casually, “You do believe in being comfortable, don’t you?”

  He laughed aloud. “I’m fond of the creature comforts, yes. Being cramped is one of the things I hate most about hotels. Does that make me horribly spoiled?”

  She looked at him. The bright sun was caught in the golden cap of his hair, framing his head in a gilt halo. He was relaxed, smiling, his vivid eyes sparkling, but still there was something about him, perhaps a natural sense of arrogance bred into him by the same aristocratic ancestors who had given him that hard, lean, graceful body and sun-god face. She had no doubt that he was spoiled; probably from the day of his birth, women had been dashing about to satisfy his smallest whim. What truly surprised her was that he had the ability to laugh at himself, as if he accepted his looks and the attention they brought him but didn’t take them too seriously.

  He reached out and took her hand. “What are you thinking? You’re looking at me, but you’ve drifted away.”

  “That you are incredibly spoiled but rather nice in spite of it.”

  He threw back his head on a shout of laughter. “Aren’t you worried that such lavish compliments will go to my head?”

  “No,” she said serenely. A warm sense of happiness was filling her again, making the bright spring day take on an incandescent glow. She let her hand lie in his, content with the touch.

  “Direct me to the next apartment on the list while I still have a healthy ego.”

  The third apartment was being sublet by an artist who was taking a sabbatical on a Greek island. The decor was understated and sophisticated, from the black slate tiles in the entry to the light-colored walls and the tracks of indirect lighting overhead. The rooms were large; Claire’s entire apartment would have fit easily into the enormous living room. Max wandered into the bedroom to inspect the bed, and Claire knew that he was pleased. His tastes were sophisticated, but never avant-garde. The almost spare luxury of this apartment would appeal to him.

 
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