Almost Forever by Linda Howard


  I don’t want to love him, she thought in despair, but it was already too late. How could she not love him? His laughter as he rolled on the grass, wrestling gently with the four giggling, shrieking youngsters, undermined her defenses far more quickly than any attempt at seduction would have.

  She was still in a state of shock when Max drove her back to her apartment that night. It was almost ten o’clock, as everyone had been reluctant to let the day end.

  “I like your family,” Max said as he walked her to the door, rousing her from her thoughts.

  “They liked you, too. I hope all those questions didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

  “Not at all. I’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t been interested in your well-being. They love you very much.”

  Startled, Claire paused with the key in her hand. Max took the key, unlocked the door and reached in to turn on the light then ushered her inside with his hand on her back. “They think I’m an idiot and can’t do anything by myself,” she blurted.

  “That’s not what I saw,” Max murmured, cupping her bare shoulders in his warm hands. Claire’s pulse suddenly throbbed, and she glanced down to hide the response that she couldn’t control. “If you think your family is overprotective, I shudder to think how you’d react to mine. My entire family is so incredibly nosy that I sometimes think the mob would have more finesse.”

  She laughed, as he’d meant her to, and the way her face lit suddenly made his loins throb. He clenched his teeth, restraining himself from grabbing her and grinding his hips against her soft curves. “Good night,” he said, bending to press his lips against her forehead. “May I call you tomorrow?”

  “Again? I mean, of course, but I thought you’d be tired of my company.”

  “Not at all. I can relax with you. If you have other plans…?”

  “I don’t,” she said hurriedly, suddenly terrified that now he wouldn’t call at all. The thought of a day without seeing him made her feel bleak.

  “Then have lunch with me. Is there a restaurant close to your office?”

  “Yes, just across the street. Riley’s.”

  “Then I’ll meet you there at noon.” He touched her cheek briefly then left. Claire locked the door behind him, her eyes filling with unexpected tears and her throat clogging. She was in love with him, with a man who, by his own admission, wanted only the refuge of an undemanding friendship. What a stupid thing for her to do! She had known, by her unusual response to him, that he was a danger to her and the quiet, uncomplicated life she’d built for herself. By not making any demands at all, he’d taken far more than she would ever have offered.

  CHAPTER 4

  When Claire entered the office, she saw at once that Sam had spent the night there again. File drawers were open, the lights were on, and a pot of old coffee was scorching on the warming pad of the coffee maker. Wrinkling her nose, she poured out the old coffee and put on a fresh pot, then set about restoring order to the office. The door of Sam’s office was closed, but she knew that he would either be sprawled on the sofa or slumped over his desk. He spent a lot of nights in the office whenever he was working on a new alloy; his delight was in the development of new metals, not in the day-to-day routine of running the business he’d founded. For all that, he was a cagey businessman, and nothing escaped his attention for long.

  When the coffee was finished, she poured a cup and carried it through to Sam’s office. He was asleep at his desk, his head resting on his folded arms. A legal pad crowded with numbers and chemical symbols lay beside him, and five Styrofoam cups with varying levels of cold coffee was scattered around the desk. Claire set the cup of steaming coffee on the desk and crossed to the windows to open the curtains, flooding the office with light. “Sam, wake up. It’s almost eight o’clock.”

  He woke easily, yawning and stirring at her voice. Sitting up, he yawned again and rubbed his face, eyed the fresh cup of coffee with appreciation and drank half of it. “What time did you say it is?”

  “Eight.”

  “Almost five hours’ sleep. Not bad.” Five hours’ sleep was really a lot for him—he often functioned on less. Sam was something of an enigma, but she was fond of him and intensely loyal. He was lean and gray haired, and his face had lines that told of hard living sometime in his fifty-two years, making her suspect that he had quite an interesting past, but he never talked about it. She knew little about him other than that his wife had died ten years before and he still mourned her, having no interest in remarrying. Her photograph still sat on his desk, and Claire had seen Sam look at it with an expression of such pain and longing that she’d had to turn away.

  “Have you been working on something new?” she asked, nodding toward the legal pad.

  “I’d like to make that new alloy stronger, but so far all I’ve done is make it brittle. I haven’t hit on the right combination yet without making it heavier, too.”

  The challenge was to develop a metal that was both strong and light, because the heavier a metal was, the more energy was required to move it. The advanced metal alloys had practical applications more far-reaching than simply making a long-lasting I-beam for construction; the sophisticated alloys were used in space and opened up new opportunities in land travel. After an alloy was developed, ways had to be found to produce it cheaply enough that industry could use it. When Claire had first begun working, it had seemed like a routine job to her, like working in any steel mill, but she’d soon discovered her error. The security was tight and the research fascinating.

  She loved her job, and that morning she was especially grateful for it, because it took her mind away from Max and gave her some breathing space. He had occupied both her time and her thoughts since she had first met him Friday night, overwhelming her with his sleek sophistication and wry good humor, inserting himself into her life so neatly and firmly that even in her sleep she couldn’t quite escape from him. Claire had slept badly the night before, waking to tell herself over and over that she didn’t love him, she couldn’t love him, but then her traitorous mind would form his image in her thoughts, and her body would react wildly, growing warm and heavy, and she was afraid. Loving him was both reckless and foolish, especially for a woman who prized the secure, even tenor of her life and never again wanted to risk the pain of loving. It was even more foolish because Max had told her from the outset that he only wanted to be friends. How awkward it would be if he guessed that she was just like all the others, mooning over him like a starstruck teenager! Goodbye friendship, goodbye Max.

  Sam called her into his office late that morning to take letters, but dictated only a few. Leaning back in his chair, he steepled his fingers and peered at her over them, frowning. Claire sat quietly, waiting. Sam wasn’t frowning at her; he was lost in his thoughts and probably didn’t even see her. At last he roused himself and got to his feet, groaning a little as his stiff muscles protested. “Days like this remind me of my age,” he growled, rubbing his lower back.

  “Sleeping at your desk reminds you of your age,” Claire corrected, and he grunted in agreement.

  “I heard some rumors over the weekend,” he said, walking to the window to look down at the roof of his laboratory. “Nothing concrete, but in this case I tend to believe them. Some foreign interest seems to be interested in buying up some of our stock. I don’t like that. I don’t like it at all.”

  “A takeover?”

  “Could be. There’s no active trading in our stock, no sudden surge in demand or price, so the rumor could be groundless. Still, there is something else that makes me uneasy. Another rumor is also circulating, about the new titanium alloy I’m working with now.” His lined face was taut with worry.

  They stared at each other in silence, both aware of the implications. Sam had developed an alloy so superior to its predecessors in strength and lightness that the possibilities for its use were so far-ranging they were almost beyond belief, though he still wasn’t satisfied with the production process. That was still in the experim
ental stage, and security had been especially tight on its development. By necessity the lab people knew about it, though Sam was the only one in possession of all the information, and the people in production also knew about it. Information, once leaked, took on a life of its own and spread rapidly.

  “This is too sensitive,” Claire finally said. “The federal government wouldn’t allow a foreign-held company to buy access to this alloy.”

  “I’ve always tried to stay independent,” Sam mused, staring out the window again. “This research should have been classified, and I knew it all along, but I was too much of a maverick to do the sensible thing. I thought we were too small to attract notice, and I didn’t want the hassle of government security clearance. It was a mistake.”

  “Are you going to contact the government?”

  He thrust his fingers through his gray hair. “Damn, I hate to! I don’t want all that going on right now, distracting me. Maybe…”

  Sam was a maverick all right, with his unorthodox genius and his impatience with boundaries and restraints. Claire watched him, already knowing what his decision would be. He would wait and watch. He wouldn’t allow the alloy to fall into the wrong hands, but he was going to conduct his research in private for as long as possible.

  “Any takeover attempt right now would probably fail. We have some property that has skyrocketed in value, but it hasn’t been appraised in years. An offer wouldn’t take that into account.”

  “I’ll have it reappraised,” Claire said, making a note.

  “Tell them to rush it. I hope it’ll be enough to keep us safe. I just want time to finish my research before I turn this over.” He shrugged his broad shoulders, looking tired. “It was good while it lasted, but I’ve known for some time that we were getting too close to an important breakthrough. Damn, I hate to complicate things with bureaucratic nonsense!”

  “I suspect it isn’t nonsense, but you just hate for anyone to tell you what you have to do, bureaucrat or not.”

  He scowled at her, a look that Claire met with complete serenity, and a moment later the scowl faded into wry acceptance. That was one of the things she liked most about Sam. He had the ability to see the truth and accept it, even when it was something he didn’t like. Whatever blows life had dealt him, he’d learned from every one of them. He was a genius, locked into his creative dreams, but he was also a cautious, scrappy street fighter. Sam would never be a nine-to-five button-down executive; paperwork and corporate decisions, as important as they were, didn’t interest him, and he did them only out of duty. His ambition, his life, was in his laboratory.

  Despite the distractions of the morning, Claire was always aware of the passage of time, bringing her closer and closer to lunch, when she would see Max again. At last it was time to leave, and she grabbed her purse and darted out of the office. Her flesh was burning and her heart was pounding as she crossed the street, and she took several deep breaths in an effort to calm herself. This would never do. This was a simple lunch date between friends, nothing more. She didn’t dare let it appear to be anything else.

  Max stood up as she wove her way through the maze of crowded tables. She was flushed from hurrying, and his eyes dropped momentarily to her mouth, parted because of her rapid breathing. Her lips were wide and soft, and his senses jolted. He wanted to taste her, not restrict himself to those chaste, monumentally unsatisfying pecks on her cheek or forehead. He wanted to strip off her clothes and taste her, from her head all the way down to her pink toes, with a hungry urgency that threatened to shred his self-control. Damn her, he couldn’t get her out of his mind, but he didn’t dare make a move on her. She was so skittish that she would retreat from him again, and he wouldn’t be able to get any information from her at all. He didn’t have a lot of time, anyway, and he was hampered by not knowing exactly what he was looking for, but Anson was certain that Bronson would have hidden assets, and Anson Edwards’s hunches were never wrong.

  The trouble was that when he looked at Claire, it was difficult to remember that business was supposed to be his primary reason for being in Houston. The entire thing was beginning to leave a bad taste in his mouth. Corporate maneuvering was one thing, but he didn’t like the idea of involving Claire, of using her. Only his loyalty to Anson Edwards kept him on this particular job, and for the first time Max felt that loyalty wavering. He didn’t want to waste his time searching for information; he wanted to fold Claire in his arms and hold her so tightly that there could never be any distance between them again. A sharp longing knotted his insides as she finally reached his table and he stood to welcome her, but he schooled his features to reflect only the light, casual friendliness she seemed to prefer.

  “Busy morning?” he asked, leaning down to kiss her cheek before seating her. His gesture was smooth and casual. He probably kissed every woman he met, Claire told herself painfully, but that didn’t stop the surge of warmth that suffused her body.

  “It’s a typical Monday. Everything was in perfect order when I left Friday afternoon, but over the weekend it somehow turned into chaos.”

  A waitress appeared with the menus, and they were silent while they made their selections. They ordered, and Max turned his attention back to her. “I moved into the apartment this morning.”

  “That was fast!”

  “All I had to relocate was my clothing,” Max pointed out, amused. “I’ve stocked the pantry and bought new sheets and towels—”

  The waitress whisked up with their coffee, sliding the cups and saucers in front of them with practiced ease. Riley’s was famous for fast service, and today the waitress was outdoing herself. They tried several times to begin a conversation, but each time they were interrupted as their coffee cups or water glasses were refilled. The restaurant was crowded and noisy, and the clatter of plates and glasses was incessant, forcing them to raise their voices in an attempt to be heard.

  “Claire! And Mr. Benedict! I’m so glad to run into you here!”

  Max politely got to his feet, and Claire turned to see who had addressed them. The pretty brunette beaming at them was Leigh Adkinson, a member of the Houston social stratosphere to which Claire had belonged when she’d been Mrs. Halsey. Leigh was cheerful and lacking in malice, but they had been acquaintances rather than friends, and after Claire’s divorce she’d almost completely lost contact with all of the old crowd. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d talked with Leigh in the years since her divorce, but there Leigh was, smiling at her as if they were the best of friends. And how did Leigh know Max? she wondered.

  “Do you remember me, Mr. Benedict? We met at Virginia’s party Friday night,” Leigh chattered.

  “Of course I remember. Won’t you join us?” He indicated an empty chair, but Leigh shook her head.

  “Thank you, but I have to run. I know it’s short notice, but I wanted to invite you to a dinner party I’m giving Saturday night. Actually, it begins as a dinner party at my house then we’re moving it to the Wiltshire Hotel for dancing in the ballroom. Tony’s kicking off his candidacy for the governorship. Please say you’ll come, both of you. I noticed at Virginia’s party how well you dance together!”

  Max glanced at Claire, his eyebrows uplifted. “Claire?”

  She didn’t know what to say. Leigh had somehow assumed that they were a couple, but that wasn’t the situation at all. Perhaps Max would prefer taking someone else to the dinner party, if he wanted to attend at all.

  “It isn’t a fund-raising dinner,” Leigh said, laughing. “It’s a party for friends. You’ve been hiding yourself away for far too long, Claire.”

  Claire hated it when anyone made it sound as if she’d buried herself in deep mourning after her divorce, which wasn’t what had happened at all. She stiffened, withdrawing from them, and a refusal began forming on her lips.

  Max put his hand on hers, stalling her. “Thank you, we’d love to attend.”

  “Oh, good. We’re having an early dinner, at seven. Claire knows where we live
. I’ll see you Saturday, then. Bye!”

  Max resumed his seat, and silence fell briefly between them. “Are you angry that I accepted for both of us?” he asked, forcing her to look at him.

  “I’m embarrassed. Leigh assumed that we’re an item, and you were too polite to tell her the truth.”

  His eyebrows arched, and suddenly the languid, cosmopolitan gentleman was gone, and in his place was a man with cool, almost ruthless eyes. “Do you really think I’d care about being polite if I didn’t want to attend? I can be a bloody bastard on occasion.”

  Claire felt mesmerized, staring into his turquoise eyes and suddenly seeing someone else, but abruptly the ruthlessness was gone, and in its place was the familiar calm control, making her feel as if her mind and eyes were playing tricks on her.

  “Why don’t you want to go?” he probed.

  “I don’t belong to that social set any longer.”

  “Are you afraid you’ll see your ex-husband again?”

  “I’m certainly not interested in socializing with him and his wife!”

  “You don’t have to socialize with them,” Max persisted, and Claire felt the steely purpose in him. “If they’re there, simply ignore them. Divorce is too rampant nowadays for it to be practical to split friends and acquaintances into warring factions.”

  “I’m not at war with Jeff,” Claire denied. “That isn’t the issue at all.”

 
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