Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  “I’ll take it,” he said easily, interrupting the manager’s spiel. “Are the papers ready to sign now?”

  They were, but there was the matter of references. Max squeezed Claire’s shoulder, smiling warmly at her. “While I take care of this, will you look about the place and decide what extras I’ll need to buy, other than linens?”

  “Of course,” she agreed, wryly aware that now she was spoiling him, too. He had been polite and logical in his request, but the simple fact was that he’d expected her to agree to do that chore for him. If she hadn’t been there, he would have done it himself, but she was there, and therefore available to do his bidding. Max went with the manager down to the office, and Claire took inventory of the apartment, making note of what he would need.

  She was bemused by the luxury that he took for granted. Her background was in no way deprived. She was the product of an upper-middle-class upbringing, used to a certain amount of luxury herself. And she had been married for almost six years to a wealthy man and had lived in the center of the lap of luxury, yet she had transplanted herself without problem into a four-room apartment that could best be described as cozy. Having refused alimony, not wanting the link of financial dependence to tie her to Jeff, she had found a job and begun living on a budget, and not once had she missed the money that had enabled her to buy anything that took her fancy. Max’s income was obviously far larger than hers, but still his attitude was an aristocratic expectation that his comfort be assured.

  Sometime later he found her standing in the middle of the bedroom, her shoes off, her stockinged feet sunk into the thick dove-gray carpet. Her eyes were open, but that dreamy far-away look was in them again, and he knew that she was unaware of his presence. She was motionless, the tiniest of smiles on her face as she drifted in her thoughts. He stopped, watching her, wondering what dreams pleased her so much and if she wore that same look of contentment after lovemaking, when everything was quiet and dark and the frenzied heat had passed. Had she worn that look for her ex-husband or for another man? The sudden twist of jealousy in his gut was unwelcome and left a bitter taste in his mouth.

  He crossed the room and put his hand on her arm, determined to draw her away from those dreams and back to him. “All finished with the paperwork. Are you ready to go?”

  She blinked, and the dreams vanished from her eyes. “Yes. I was just enjoying the room.”

  He looked down at her bare feet. “Especially the carpet.”

  She smiled. “The colors, too. Everything blends together so nicely.”

  It was a mellow room, large and well lit, with the soothing gray carpet and pale-blue walls. The bed was covered with a thick comforter, and a large ceramic urn in the corner held an enormous philodendron. The bed was oversize, piled high with pillows. It was perfect for a tall man, and more than roomy enough for two people. He looked at the bed then at Claire as she bent down to slip on her shoes. He would have her in that bed before this was finished, he promised himself.

  She gave him the list she’d made of what he would need to buy. He read it briefly then folded it and put it in his pocket. “We’ve certainly made short work of this—we have most of the afternoon left. Would you like to have a late lunch or an early dinner?”

  She thought of inviting him home to eat dinner with her but hesitated; she had never before invited a man to eat at her apartment. The apartment was her place of privacy, and she had been reluctant to share it. But she didn’t want the day to end, and somehow she didn’t mind the thought of his presence in her home. “Why don’t we go back to my apartment?” she offered a bit nervously. “I’ll cook dinner. Do you like orange-glazed chicken?”

  “I like food,” he stated, glancing at her as they left the apartment and wondering at her obvious unease. Was cooking dinner for him such an ordeal? Both the invitation and the occasion were casual yet something about it bothered her. A woman with her social experience should be completely relaxed with such a simple evening, but nothing about Claire was as it should have been. He wondered if he would ever understand what went on in her mind.

  The telephone began ringing as they entered her apartment, and Claire excused herself to answer it.

  “Claire, guess what!” her mother said enthusiastically. Claire didn’t even attempt to guess, knowing from experience that her mother wouldn’t pause long enough to allow an interruption, and she was right. Alma rushed headlong into her next sentence. “Michael and Celia are being transferred to Arizona, and they’ve stopped to visit on the way through. They’ll only be here this one night, and we’re having a family cookout. How soon can you be here?”

  Michael was Claire’s cousin from Michigan, and Celia was his wife. Claire was fond of them both, but she had already invited Max to dinner, and she couldn’t just throw him out now, even though Alma took it for granted that Claire would drop everything and rush right over. “Mother, I was just about to cook dinner—”

  “Then I’ve called just in time! Martine and Steve are already here. I tried to call you earlier, but you were out.”

  Claire took a deep breath. She didn’t want to tell her mother that she was entertaining, because she never did so, and Alma would immediately attach far greater significance to it than it warranted, yet she didn’t see any way out of it. “I have company. I can’t just rush over—”

  “Company? Anyone I know?”

  “No. I’ve invited him to dinner—”

  Immediately Alma’s maternal curiosity switched on. “Who?”

  “A friend,” Claire said, trying to evade any further questions, but knowing it was a hopeless maneuver. She looked up to see Max grinning at her, his turquoise eyes twinkling. He signaled that he had something to say, and she interrupted Alma’s barrage of questions before her mother could get up speed. “Hold on just a minute, Mother. I’ll be right back.” She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “My cousins have arrived from Michigan, and they’ll only be here overnight, so Mother wants me to come over for a cookout,” she explained.

  “And you have already invited me to dinner,” he finished, coming close to her and taking the phone out of her hand. “I have the perfect solution.”

  “Mrs. Westbrook,” he said into the phone, “my name is Max Benedict. May I offer a solution and invite myself to your cookout, if it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition on you? Claire really would like to see her cousins, but she has me on her hands, and she’s too well mannered to withdraw her invitation to dinner, and I’m too hungry to do the polite thing and take myself off.”

  Claire closed her eyes, not having to hear the other half of the conversation to know that Alma had completely melted at the sound of Max’s deep, smooth voice and that seductive English accent. Part of her was amused, but another part of her went into a panic at the thought of taking Max to meet her family. Everyone in her family was outstanding in some way, and she tended to fade into the background, overshadowed by their more exuberant personalities. Max perceived her as quiet—if he saw her with her family, he would realize that mousy was a more accurate description, and suddenly she knew she couldn’t bear that. Something in her would die if he compared her to Martine, then looked back at her as if wondering what had gone wrong with the family genes.

  “Thank you for taking pity on me,” Max was drawling. “I’ll have Claire there shortly.” He hung up the phone, and Claire opened her eyes to find him watching her intently, as if wondering why she was so reluctant to attend her family’s impromptu outing. “Don’t look so frightened,” he advised, winking at her. “Perhaps I don’t have on my best bib and tucker, but I’ll be on my best behavior.”

  There was still a residue of terror in her eyes as she turned away. “It isn’t you,” she confessed, trying to make light of it. “Family gatherings tend to overwhelm me. I’m not at my best in a crowd.” That was a massive understatement, she thought, resigning herself to the bleak hours ahead of her. “Excuse me while I change clothes and—”

  “No,” he said, reachin
g out to take her hand and effectively halting her flight. “You look wonderful as you are. You don’t need to change clothes, brush your hair, or freshen your lipstick. Waiting will only make you more nervous.” He watched her thoughtfully, wondering at the sudden urge he had to protect her, but there it was. There was something about her that made him want to gather her close and keep everything hard and hurtful away from her. The realization that he wasn’t being completely honest with her gave him a tight feeling in his chest—what would happen when she found out who he really was? Would she withdraw completely from him, her soft, dark eyes becoming cold and remote? A chill ran down his back at the thought, and he knew he couldn’t let it happen. Somehow, some way he had to engineer the takeover without alienating Claire.

  His eyes were narrowed and brilliant as he watched her, and Claire felt uneasiness grow in her. He saw too much, read her too well. The realization that she was so vulnerable to him frightened her, and instinctively she withdrew behind a quiet, polite, blank wall as he led her back out to the car, his hand still clasping hers in what would have been a comforting grip if she had noticed it, but she paid no attention to his touch. Her mind was already constructing painful scenarios in which Max fell in love with Martine on sight and spent the entire afternoon staring at her with an adoring expression in his turquoise eyes. He would be in pain, too, because Martine wouldn’t return the emotion. Martine was deeply in love with her husband and never seemed to be aware of her devastating effect on the male sex.

  Claire automatically gave directions, and too soon Max was turning into the driveway of her parents’ home. The drive was already crowded with her father’s BMW and her mother’s small Buick, Steve’s Jeep, and a loaded-down blue van with Michigan license plates. Max parked his car off to the side, under a tree. Claire stared blindly at the roomy Tudor-style house where she had grown up, almost paralyzed with dread of what was to come. Everyone would be in the large backyard, under the enormous chestnut trees; it was too early in the year for the pool to be uncovered, so the children would be running wild on the grass instead of swimming. The adults would be sitting lazily in the chairs grouped under the trees, and her father would be guarding the steaks and hamburgers slowly smoking on the grill. It would look like suburban heaven, but everything in Claire shrank from the ordeal of walking across the grass toward the small group, knowing that everyone would be avidly staring at the handsome man walking beside her, wondering why on earth he was with someone as ordinary as she, when he could obviously have any woman he wanted. Oh, God, she couldn’t do it.

  Max opened the car door, and Claire got out. The shouts and laughter of children at play came from the backyard, and he grinned at her. “That sounds like home. My nieces and nephews are hellions, every one of them, but there are some days when my sanity slips away and I miss their chaos. Shall we?”

  His hand was warm on her back, and now she was aware of his touch, because he’d put his hand between her shoulder blades, and his fingers were resting on her bare skin, revealed by the low back of the cheery yellow-striped sundress. As they walked through the gate and came in view of her family, seated beneath the trees just as she’d pictured them, his thumb rubbed gently across her spine, and the sensation fractured the icy dread that had gripped her stomach. She was helpless against the surge of warmth that washed through her, tightening her nipples and making her breasts feel heated and full. That small touch had thrown her completely off balance. All her defenses had been raised against the dread of having Max meet her family and compare her to them, and she’d been totally unprepared to deal with the way she responded to him despite the caution of her common sense.

  Then they were surrounded by her family, and Claire heard herself making the introductions automatically. Alma was practically beaming at Max, her beautiful face aglow with enthusiasm, and Claire’s father, Harmon, was both dignified and warm as he greeted his new guest. There were hugs and kisses as Claire greeted Michael and Celia, conflicting exclamations, the noise of the children as Martine’s two rowdy youngsters, followed closely by Michael’s two children, charged into the group to hug and kiss Claire, who was their favorite aunt. Martine, who was unbelievably gorgeous in a dazzling white knit top and white shorts that hugged her lithe figure and exhibited the golden length of her long, perfect legs, began good-naturedly trying to bring some sort of order to her children. Celia did the same, but it was several minutes before things settled down. Through it all, Claire was aware of Max standing closely beside her, smiling and chatting with that incredible charm of his that already had everyone eating out of his hand.

  “Have you known Claire long?” Alma asked, smiling at Max, and Claire tensed. She should have known that Max would be grilled on his life from birth to present. It was her own fault—since her divorce from Jeff, she’d stubbornly resisted the efforts of her family to plunge her back into the social scene, so it was out of character for her to show up with a man in tow. Virginia’s party had been the only party she’d attended in years, except for small family get-togethers, and Claire had no doubt that Martine and Alma had discussed at length the fact that she’d finally given in to Martine’s urgings. Their curiosity over Max would be running high.

  His eyelashes had drooped over his brilliant eyes, as if he were a little drowsy. “No, I haven’t,” he said, his tone gentle and faintly amused. Claire wondered if she were the only one who heard that amusement, and she darted a quick look at her mother. Alma was still smiling, and she wore that slightly dazed expression Claire had seen before on women’s faces when they saw Max for the first time. Suddenly Claire relaxed, no longer worried about any interrogation Max might face from her family; she sensed that he was perfectly at ease, as if he’d expected to be questioned.

  “Max is new in town, and I’ve been showing him around,” she explained.

  Both Alma and Martine gave her intensely pleased looks then glanced at each other as if congratulating themselves for a job well-done in finally getting Claire out of her shell. Now that she was older, Claire often found this silent communication between her mother and sister amusing, though when she was a child it had intimidated her, making her feel left out. Her lips twitched in a smile—really, there was something comforting in knowing your family so well that you could almost read their thoughts. Martine looked back at Claire and saw her sister’s amusement, and a sunny smile broke over her lovely face. “You’re doing it again!” she said, laughing.

  “What’s that?” Steve asked, leaning toward his wife.

  “Claire’s reading my mind again.”

  “Oh, she’s always done that,” Alma said absently. “Harmon, dear, the steaks are on fire.”

  Claire’s father calmly sprayed water on the flaming charcoal. “What type of work are you in, Mr. Benedict?” he asked, keeping an eagle eye on the coals in case they flamed up again.

  “Investments and real estate.”

  “Real estate? That’s a volatile profession.”

  “Speculating in real estate certainly is, but I’m not in that area of the business.”

  “When we get settled in Arizona, I’m going to begin studying for my real estate license,” Celia put in. “It’s a fascinating career, and now that the children are both in school I want to get back into it. I worked in a real estate office in Michigan,” she explained to Max. “I was planning to get my license then, but two babies persuaded me to put it on hold until they were older.”

  Martine leaned forward, her dark blue eyes sparkling as she leveled them on Max. “Do you have any children, Mr. Benedict?” she asked sweetly, and Claire closed her eyes, wavering between horror and a bubble of laughter. Martine didn’t believe in tact when she was engaged in protecting her younger sister, and right now that protection took the form of digging all the information she could from Maxwell Benedict.

  Max threw back his golden head and laughed, a deep, rich sound that made Claire open her eyes. “No children, and no wives, either present or past, to the despair of my mother,
who thinks I’m a disobedient reprobate for not providing her with grandchildren as my brother and sisters have done. And please call me Max, if you’d like.”

  After that, everyone was eating out of his hand. Though she’d seen it before, Claire was still amazed at his talent for striking just the right note. His relaxed laughter and the fond references to his family had assured everyone that he was perfectly normal, not a con man, an ax-murderer or a heartless womanizer who would take advantage of her. Sometimes Claire thought that her family must consider her an absolute nitwit, incapable of taking care of herself, and she couldn’t think what she’d ever done to deserve that opinion. She lived quietly, she worked and paid her bills, she never got into any trouble, and she handled the varied crises at work with serene aplomb, but none of that seemed to matter to her family. One and all, they seemed to think that Claire “needed looking after.” Her father wasn’t quite as obvious as Alma and Martine, but he still had a habit of regularly asking her if she needed any financial help.

  Max lightly touched her arm, bringing her thoughts back to the laughing, chattering group, and his turquoise eyes were warm as he smiled at her. He never lost pace with the conversation swirling around them, and he promptly removed his hand, but that small touch told her that he was aware of her.

  The afternoon was a revelation to Claire. Max was friendly and relaxed with her family, but he wasn’t bowled over by Martine’s classic golden beauty, as most men were. He was there with Claire. He sat beside Claire while they were eating at the redwood picnic table, he joined Claire in entertaining the restless children after they had been fed, and soon he was romping on the grass with all the aplomb of a man who was accustomed to being swarmed by his energetic nieces and nephews. Claire watched him playing with the children, this beautiful, elegant man who seemed to care not at all that his golden hair was tousled, or that his pants were now stained with grass. The setting sun made a gilt halo of his hair and caught the brilliant sea-colored sparkle of his eyes, and as she looked at him Claire felt her heart swell until it was almost on the point of exploding, and everything went dim for a moment.

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