Almost Forever by Linda Howard


  “Then what is the issue? I’d like to take you to the dinner party and dance with you afterward. I think we’d have fun, don’t you?”

  “I’m monopolizing your time—”

  “No, dear,” he interrupted gently. “I’m monopolizing yours. I like being with you. You don’t have emotional fits all over my jacket. I freely admit to being selfish, but I’m comfortable with you, and I like being comfortable.”

  Claire gave in, knowing that for her own emotional safety she should stay as far away from him as possible, but she simply couldn’t. She wanted to be with him, see him, talk to him, even if only as a friend, and the need was too strong to be controlled.

  After lunch he walked her across the street. While they had been eating, the sky had rapidly filled with dark clouds, promising a spring shower. Max glanced up at the sky. “I’ll have to run to beat the rain,” he said. “What time are we having dinner tonight?”

  Claire turned to stare at him in disbelief. “Dinner tonight?” Three nights in a row?

  “Unless you have other plans. I’ll be the chef. After all, it’ll be the first meal in my new apartment. You don’t have other plans, do you?”

  “No, no other plans.”

  “Good. Strictly casual tonight, too, so you can relax. I’ll collect you at six-thirty.”

  “I’ll drive,” she said hastily. “That way you won’t have to leave in the middle of cooking.”

  He gave her a cool, deliberate look. “I said I’ll collect you. You’re not driving home alone at night. My mother would disinherit me if I allowed such a thing.”

  Claire hesitated. She was beginning to learn how determined Max was to have things his way. He was unyielding once he’d made up his mind. Behind the pose of sophisticated indolence was pure steel, cold and unbreakable. She had glimpsed it a few times, so briefly that she had never been quite certain of what she’d seen, but she was too intuitive not to sense the strength of the man behind the image.

  Max tilted her chin up with his finger, bringing his charm into play as his eyes twinkled at her. “Six-thirty?”

  She glanced at her wristwatch. She was already late and didn’t have time to argue over such an unimportant detail. “All right. I’ll be ready.”

  He was an expert at getting his way, she realized some ten minutes later. If charm didn’t work, he used that cold authority that appeared without warning, and vice versa, but usually the charm would be enough. How often had anyone refused him, especially a woman? Probably not in this decade, Claire thought ruefully. Even as wary as she was of handsome charmers, she hadn’t been immune to him.

  She rushed home after work, alive with anticipation. Quickly she showered and shampooed and was just beginning to blow-dry her hair when the telephone rang.

  “All right, spill your guts,” Martine drawled when Claire answered the phone. “I want to hear all about that gorgeous man.”

  When Claire thought about it, she realized that it was nothing less than a minor miracle that Martine had curbed her curiosity for as long as she did, instead of calling Claire at work.

  Claire paused, and a tiny frown pulled at her brow. What did she know about Max? That he had three sisters and a brother, was from England, and dealt in real estate. Her family already knew that much, from the adroit answers he’d given them the day before. She knew that he had expensive tastes, dressed elegantly and had impeccable manners. Other than that his life was a blank. She remembered asking him questions, but oddly enough, she couldn’t remember his answers. She didn’t even know how old he was.

  “He’s just a friend,” she finally answered, because she didn’t know what else to say.

  “And the Mona Lisa is just a painting.”

  “In essence, yes. There’s nothing between us except friendship.” He’d never even kissed her, except for those sexless pecks on the cheek and forehead, and it wasn’t that he didn’t know how to go about it. He simply wasn’t interested.

  “Ummm, if you say so,” Martine said, her skepticism evident. “Are you seeing him again?”

  Claire sighed. “Yes, I’m seeing him again.”

  “Aha!”

  “Don’t ‘aha’ me. We’re friends, without the capital F that Hollywood uses so meaningfully. You saw him, so I’m sure you won’t have any trouble imagining how he’s chased. He’s tired of it, that’s all, and he feels comfortable with me because I don’t chase him. I’m not after a hot romance.”

  On the other end of the line, Martine raised her expressive eyebrows. She readily believed that Claire wasn’t after a hot romance, but she didn’t for one minute believe that Max Benedict was seeing her sister merely because he was “comfortable” with her. Oh, he was probably used to being chased, all right, and every hunting instinct man possessed would have been aroused when Claire looked right through him as if he were sexless. Martine knew quite a lot about men, and one look had told her that Max was pure male, more predatory than most, smarter than most and possessed of a sexuality that burned so vividly she wondered how Claire, who was so unusually sensitive to other people, could fail to see it. But perhaps Claire was too innocent to recognize that energy for what it was. Even though she’d been married to Jeff Halsey, there had always been a certain distance to her, a dreaminess that separated her from other people.

  “If you’re certain…”

  “I’m certain, believe me.”

  She finally got off the phone with Martine and glanced anxiously at the clock. It was almost six. She hurriedly finished drying her hair, but she didn’t have time to do anything with it except leave it loose. He’d said to dress casually, so she pulled on beige linen pants and topped them with a loose blue sweater with a deep neckline and a shawl collar. Was that too casual? Max was always so well dressed, and he had the English sense of formality. Another look at the clock told her that she didn’t have time to dither over her clothes; she still had to do her makeup.

  Just as she pulled a brush through her hair one last time, the doorbell rang. It was six-thirty exactly. She picked up her bag and hurried to open the door.

  “Ah, you’re ready, as usual,” he said, and fingered the collar of her sweater. “You’ll need a jacket. The rain has turned chilly.”

  Tiny raindrops glittered on his tweed jacket and in his golden hair as he leaned against the doorframe, waiting for Claire to get a jacket. When she rejoined him, he draped his arm over her shoulders in a friendly fashion.

  “I hope you’re hungry. I’ve outdone myself, if I do say so.” His smile invited her to share his good humor, and when he hugged her into his tall body as they walked, she was content to lean against him. To be that close to him was a painful pleasure that she knew she should resist, but for the moment she simply couldn’t pull away. She felt the heat of his body, the strength of the arm that lay so casually over her shoulders, and smelled the warm, clean scent of his skin. Her eyes closed briefly on the longing that welled inside her but she pushed it away. It would do no good to pretend, even for a moment, that the way she felt could ever come to anything—all it would bring her was pain. She was destined to be Max’s buddy, and that was all the arm around her shoulders signified.

  “I hope you like seafood,” he said as they entered his apartment. The gilt-edged mirror over the Queen Anne table reflected their movements as he took her jacket from her and shrugged out of his then hung both in the small coat closet in the foyer. Attracted by the mirror, Claire watched him in its reflection, noticing the grace of his movements in even that small chore.

  “This is Houston. The Gulf is at our back door. It would be unpatriotic or something not to like seafood.”

  “Shrimp in particular?”

  “I love shrimp in particular.” She licked her lips.

  “Would that include shrimp creole?”

  “It would. Are we having shrimp creole?”

  “We are. I got the recipe in New Orleans, so it’s authentic.”

  “It’s hard for me to imagine you puttering around in a kitc
hen,” she said, following him into the narrow, extremely modern kitchen, where everything was built-in and at his fingertips. A delicious spicy aroma filled the air.

  “I usually don’t but when I develop a taste for a certain dish, I learn how to prepare it. How else could I have shrimp creole when I’m in England for a visit? It’s a certain thing my mother’s cook has never prepared it. Then again, I had to learn how to do Yorkshire pudding for the same reason—different continent. The table is already set, will you help me carry all this through?”

  It was difficult for her to believe that he had moved into the apartment only that morning. He seemed so at home there, and the apartment itself bore no signs of unpacking. Everything was in place, as if it had all been waiting for him, and he’d simply strolled in. The table was perfectly set, and when they were seated, Max uncorked a bottle of white wine and poured it into their glasses. The wine was crisp and clean, just what she wanted with the spicy shrimp creole and wild rice. They were relaxed together, and Claire both ate and drank more than she usually did. The wine filled her with warmth, but pleasantly so, and after dinner they both continued to sip the wine while they cleaned up the dinner dishes.

  Max didn’t insist that she leave the dishes for him, and that amused her—he wasn’t that domesticated. He saw no reason why she shouldn’t help him. It was difficult for two people to maneuver in the narrow kitchen, and they were continuously bumping into each other, but even that was pleasant. The brush of his body against hers gave her such secret pleasure that a couple of times she deliberately didn’t move out of his way. Such behavior was uncharacteristic of her, because it bordered on flirtatiousness, and Claire had never been a flirt. She wasn’t good at it, like Martine. Martine could smile and bat her eyelashes and make teasing little innuendos, but Claire wasn’t at ease with sexual games, even when they weren’t meant to be taken seriously.

  The wine had relaxed her even more than she had realized. As soon as they sat down in the living room, she felt her muscles begin to turn into butter, and she sighed drowsily. She took another sip of the golden wine, and Max took the glass from her hand to set it on the coffee table.

  “I think you’ve had your limit. You’re going to go to sleep on me.”

  “No, but I am tired,” she admitted, leaning her head back. “It was a busy day, even for a Monday.”

  “Anything unusual?” He sat down beside her, his eyes shielded by lowered lashes.

  “You might say that. Sam—that’s Mr. Bronson, my employer—heard a rumor that we may be the target of a takeover attempt.”

  “Oh?” His attention was focused on her, his body tense despite his relaxed pose. “How did he hear that?”

  “Sam has remarkable sources and remarkable instincts. What bothers him the most is the possibility that a foreign company may be behind it.”

  His face was expressionless as he reached behind her and began kneading the muscles of her neck and shoulders, his fingers making her give a quiet mmmm of pleasure. “Why is that particularly disturbing?”

  “Because Sam is in the process of developing an alloy that could have far-reaching possibilities, especially in space,” she murmured, then heard her own words echoing in her ears, and her eyes popped open. “I can’t believe I told you that,” she said in horror.

  “Shh, don’t worry. It won’t go any further,” he soothed, resuming the massaging motion. “If the production of the alloy is that important to national security, why isn’t it classified? That would protect him from a takeover by a foreign company.”

  “Sam is a maverick. He doesn’t like rules and regulations or the strict supervision he knows would come with government intervention and protection. He wants to perfect the alloy first, do all of his research and experimentation at his own speed, under his own rules. He’ll go to the government, of course, if the rumor turns out to be true. He won’t let the alloy go to another country.”

  Spencer-Nyle had been buying stock in Bronson Alloys, but very quietly, in small amounts. Anson wasn’t quite ready to make his move, but if Bronson had also heard the rumor that foreign interests were backing a covert takeover, that gave the speculation a certain credence and Spencer-Nyle might have to step in sooner than Anson had planned. The danger was that now Bronson would be on the alert for any movement of his stock, and Claire had confirmed that Bronson worked best on his own. He wouldn’t welcome a takeover by Spencer-Nyle any more than he would by a foreign interest. The company, though publicly held, was his baby, and Sam Bronson was known as a tough, gritty fighter. Max made a mental note to call Anson after taking Claire home.

  He eased Claire down on the couch, stretching her out full-length on her stomach. “What’re you doing?” she asked, her eyes widening.

  “Just rubbing your back,” he said, keeping his voice low and soothing. He used the strength of his hands to find the kinks left by tension, and silence fell between them, except for the gentle sound of Claire’s sighs. Max noticed her eyelids drooping again, and a smile tugged at his chiseled lips. She was actually going to go to sleep on him. That had never happened to him before, at least not this early in the evening. Women had gone to sleep in his arms, after the loving, but Claire seemed totally unaware of his sexuality. Even when their bodies had brushed in the kitchen, while they were cleaning up, she’d given no sign that she noticed it; it was as if she didn’t even know sex existed.

  He looked down at her, her honey-blond hair spread out across the couch, her lips soft and relaxed, those enormous, velvet-brown eyes closed. His hands looked big against her slender back; if he put his thumbs together on her spine, his spread fingers would reach around to the sides of her breasts. He could feel the fragile cage of her ribs beneath the soft fabric of her sweater and the even softer silk of her skin. She was asleep, in more ways than one—he wanted to wake her up and take her to bed, then wake her up sexually. He wanted to make her aware of him, so that she never again looked at him with that maddening distance in her eyes. But not yet. Not quite yet. He couldn’t take the chance of frightening her off until he had found out all he needed to know for that bloody damned takeover. But then…then he would move, and Claire Westbrook would find out what it was like to be a woman in his bed.

  His hands trembled as he looked down at her, and for the first time he wondered what she would say when she discovered his true identity. She would be angry, of course—he couldn’t imagine her not being angry—but he thought he could handle her anger. It was the thought that she might be hurt that disturbed him. He didn’t want to hurt her in any way. He wanted to hold her, make love to her, cherish her, damn it! It was insupportable that he might lose the trust he had so slowly earned from her, that she would no longer give him any of her slow smiles or quiet company. He’d met no other woman like Claire, no one so gentle or remote. He never knew what she was thinking, what dreams went on behind those dark eyes. Max was extraordinarily acute where women were concerned. Only Claire eluded him, and every smile, every thought, she gave him was like a treasure, because it allowed him closer to the secret woman behind her aloof facade.

  Tenderness filled him as he watched her. She really was exhausted; if he couldn’t take her to his bed, then she needed to be in her own. Gently he woke her, enjoying the way she blinked her dark eyes at him in confusion. Then she realized where she was, and a blush of mortification spread over her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, scrambling to her feet. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

  “Don’t worry about it—you were tired. What are friends for? I’d have let you sleep on the couch, but I thought you’d be more comfortable in your own bed.” They walked to the foyer, and he held her jacket for her. He was quiet on the drive back to her apartment, and Claire was still too sleepy to be interested in talking, either. It was raining again, a slow drizzle that kept the streets wet, and the chill made her huddle deeper into her jacket.

  He checked her apartment while she watched, knowing that he would get that arrogant look if she suggeste
d that he didn’t need to do it. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, coming back to her and cupping her chin in his hand.

  “Yes,” she agreed softly, feeling that each hour until she saw him again would seem a year long. “Max?”

  He lifted a brow at her hesitant tone, waiting.

  “What I said about the alloy…”

  “I know. I promise, I won’t say a word about it. I understand how sensitive that information can be.” It was a promise he felt safe in giving, since he had no need to discuss the alloy with anyone. Anson already knew about it. Their problem now was the possibility—no, the probability—that a foreign interest, almost certainly unfriendly, was working behind the scenes to gain that technology through a takeover using a domestic company as a front. Bronson would move swiftly to protect his company from such a threat, and in doing so also protect it from other takeover attempts.

  She looked so incredibly soft and sleepy, her defenses down. He tilted her chin up and bent to kiss her lightly, his mouth closing over hers before she realized he wasn’t going to give her another brotherly peck on the cheek. He kept the contact light and swift, but almost immediately she stiffened and backed away from him, that damned blank look coming over her face. He dropped his hand and stepped away from her, as if he hadn’t noticed anything, but a primal rage burned in his gut. Damn her, someday soon he’d make her see him as a man!

  “I’ll call tomorrow,” he said again. “I have to investigate a few details, so I’ll be busy until early afternoon, but I’ll call you before you leave work.” Without waiting for her agreement, he let himself out and walked away.

  CHAPTER 5

  “Claire, dear, I don’t see why you’re being so stubborn about this,” Alma argued gently. “It’s just a small party to repay some social favors, and I’d like for you to come. Your father and I would both like you to come. We don’t see enough of you. Martine and Steve will be there.”

 
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