Almost Forever by Linda Howard

Knowing it was useless, because when Alma used that gentle voice it meant that she’d dug in her heels and wasn’t budging an inch, Claire tried again. “Mother, I don’t like going to parties.”

  “Well, I don’t like giving them. They’re too much trouble, but I do it because it’s expected and helps your father.”

  Which meant that Alma was doing her duty, Martine and Steve were doing their duty by showing up as the supporting cast, and Claire, as usual, was failing to come up to par, by refusing to do her part. Claire winced inside.

  “You can leave early, I know you have to work tomorrow,” Alma soothed, reading her victory in Claire’s silence. “And bring Max Benedict with you—from the rumor flying around town, Harmon and I think we should be better acquainted with him.”

  “What rumor?” Claire asked, horrified.

  “That things look pretty serious between you. Really, you could at least have warned me, so I wouldn’t have to act as if I knew what everyone was talking about.”

  “But we aren’t serious! We’re just friends.” Claire had repeated that statement so often that she was beginning to feel like a parrot who knew only one phrase.

  “You haven’t been seeing him regularly?”

  Only every day, but how could she tell Alma that without it sounding as if there was a passionate romance going, when it wasn’t a romance? It was…well, it was almost like a partnership. They provided each other with companionship, simple, undemanding companionship. “I’ve seen him, yes.”

  “Leigh Adkinson saw you having lunch with him on Monday, Bev Michaels saw you having dinner with him on Tuesday, Charlie Tuttle saw you with him last night in a mall, shopping. Every day! That’s pretty regular, dear. Now, I’m not pushing you—let the relationship develop at its own pace. But, really, it would be so much more comfortable if Harmon and I were better acquainted with him.”

  “I’ll be at the party,” Claire said quietly. She might as well capitulate and get it over with, because Alma wasn’t about to give up.

  “With Max.”

  “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about today. He may have a date.”

  “Oh, I don’t think so,” Alma chuckled. “Thank you, dear. We’ll see you both tonight.”

  Claire hung up, biting her lip in consternation. What a way to begin the morning! Alma’s call had come mere seconds before Claire’s alarm clock had gone off. Well, her mother might be certain that Max didn’t have a date, but Claire wasn’t. Max was too much of a man not to have a love life, and since he didn’t have that sort of relationship with Claire, nor did he seem interested in developing one, it followed that he would be seeing other women. If not tonight, then soon. A rest from strenuous pursuit was one thing, but a healthy man wouldn’t let it go on too long. Max had a man’s needs, and Claire had seen how women followed him with their eyes.

  He couldn’t have made it more obvious that he wasn’t physically attracted to her. He hadn’t kissed her again after that brief kiss on Monday night. As light as it had been, it had sent tingles of electricity shooting all through her body, and she had had to force herself to step away from him, to keep him from seeing how it had affected her. That one small touch and she had been ready to throw herself at him, just like all those other women. She had cried herself to sleep that night, certain she’d made a fool of herself and that he would never come near her again, but he’d called her the next day as promised and didn’t seem to have noticed what had happened. Perhaps she had covered it well enough that he didn’t suspect.

  It didn’t seem possible that it had been only a week since she’d met him. She had seen him every day, usually twice a day, when he met her for lunch, and after work, too. She sometimes felt as if she knew him better than she’d ever known anyone before, even Jeff, but at times Max was like a stranger. If she looked up quickly…she would occasionally catch him watching her with an unreadable expression in his eyes. If crossed, he could be a hard man, but he always kept himself under strict control, and it was that control that made her trust him.

  She thought of not even asking him to go to her mother’s party. She could go by herself, stay long enough to be polite then plead tiredness and go home early. That would satisfy Alma. But it would also mean that Claire wouldn’t see Max that day, and emptiness filled her at the thought. Before she could talk herself out of it, she pushed herself up on the pillows and punched out his number on the telephone.

  It rang only once before he answered it, his voice deep and a little husky with sleep. As always, Claire’s heart gave a tiny leap at hearing him speak.

  “It’s Claire. I’m sorry to wake you,” she apologized.

  “I’m not sorry you woke me,” he said and yawned. “I had planned to call you as soon as I woke, anyway. Is something wrong?”

  “No, nothing like that. Mother just called. She’s giving a cocktail party tonight and insists that I be there.”

  “Am I invited?” he asked with that smooth, cool self-confidence that often amazed and disconcerted her. Max was always so certain of what he was about. It was as if he knew Alma had insisted that Claire invite him and as if he was equally aware that Claire, being herself, would find it difficult to ask him. The more he seemed to see inside her mind, the more Claire tried to keep him from doing just that. She was in love with him; he wasn’t in love with her. If he knew that…he would pity her, and he would also stop seeing her.

  “You don’t mind?”

  “I like your family. Why should I mind?”

  “People are talking about us.”

  “I don’t give a bloody damn what people say,” he said calmly then yawned again. “What time is the party?”

  “Seven.”

  “Of course. Everything starts at seven. I’m going to be a bit tight on time, darling. I have to go out of town today, and I’ll be shaving it down to a whisker if I drive all the way to my apartment, then to your apartment, then to your parents’ house. Would it inconvenience you terribly if I simply got ready at your apartment? It would save almost forty-five minutes in driving time.”

  Her heart gave that stupid little leap again at the thought of his using her bathroom to shower in and then dressing in her bedroom. “No, it wouldn’t be a bother,” she managed to say. “It’s a good idea. What time will you be here?”

  “About six. Will that give you time?”

  “Yes, of course.” She would have to hurry, but she thought she could make it. It usually didn’t take her long to get ready, and she had time to wash her hair before going to work. That would help.

  “I’ll see you tonight, then.”

  It was a horribly busy day; Alma’s phone call had set the tone for the entire day. No matter how she hurried, Claire seemed to be a step behind all day long—even routine tasks developed aggravating complications. Part of her job was to shield Sam from unnecessary interruptions, which meant that she had to handle them herself, and there were some things that simply couldn’t be put off to the next day. She worked through lunch, trying not to wonder where Max was and wishing that she were with him, wherever he was.

  It was midafternoon when the emergency reappraisals arrived by special delivery, and a slow smile moved across Sam’s face when he read them. With a gesture of supreme satisfaction he tossed the reports on his desk and leaned back in his chair, linking his hands behind his head. “Even better than I’d hoped,” he told Claire. “The real estate values have quadrupled in the past year. We’re safe, and I was really beginning to sweat it. Trading has picked up in our stock, though no pattern has developed yet. Someone’s definitely after this company, but they’re not going to get it. Take a look at that reappraisal.”

  Claire read through the documents, amazed at the way the value of the land had skyrocketed. Once again Sam’s instincts had been right. It was really uncanny, the way his long shots all seemed to pan out. He had bought that land as a hedge against inflation, and now the land would probably be what saved the company from an unfriendly takeover attempt, and Sam wou
ldn’t have to entangle himself in government regulations before he was finished with his research.

  Of all days, she was almost twenty minutes late leaving work. It was fifteen to six when she let herself into her apartment, and she pulled off her clothes as she dashed to the bedroom. She jumped in and out of the shower, and had just dried off and pulled on her robe when the doorbell rang. She pressed her hands to her clean face, wishing that she had at least had time to put on her makeup, but there was nothing she could do about that now.

  “I had to work late,” she stammered in explanation when she opened the door to Max. “Let me get fresh towels and the bathroom is yours.”

  He carried a fresh suit and shirt and a small traveling kit. A shadow of beard darkened his jaw, but his smile was relaxed. “Don’t worry, we’ll be on time,” he assured her, following her into the bedroom. He placed his clothing on the bed and carried the kit into the bathroom while she got fresh towels for him. Coming back out of the bathroom, he shrugged out of his suit jacket and tossed it across the bed, then began tugging at his tie. Her breath caught in her chest, and she turned away to sit down at her dresser, picking up a brush and pulling it through her hair without having any realization of what she was doing. She tried not to watch him, but the edge of her mirror caught him, and there was no way she could look away. He pulled his shirt free of his pants then unbuttoned it and pulled it off. For all his leanness he was unexpectedly muscular, his torso roped with long, smooth muscles that rippled when he moved. Dark brown curls grew across his chest, fascinating her with the discovery that his body hair was dark instead of blond, though she should have guessed, because his brows and lashes were dark brown, creating a striking contrast with his golden hair and framing his brilliant eyes.

  To her relief he didn’t take his pants off, though she wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. Max was probably very comfortable with being nude in front of a woman, and he had no reason to be ashamed of his body. He was beautiful, even more beautiful than she’d dreamed, his body rippling with fluid strength that was usually hidden by his clothing.

  He took his fresh pants off the hanger and took them into the bathroom with him. It wasn’t until she heard the shower start that Claire recalled the need to hurry. She forced herself to begin applying her makeup, but her hands were shaking and she botched her eye makeup twice before she got it right. The shower stopped, and her mind immediately supplied a picture of Max standing there naked, drying himself on her towels. Hot color surged into her cheeks. She had to stop thinking about him! She was making a nervous wreck out of herself, when she should be concentrating on getting ready.

  “Bloody hell!” he muttered clearly, then raised his voice. “Claire, I forgot my razor. Do you mind if I borrow yours?”

  “No, go ahead,” she called back. He was shaving; she would have time to dress before he came out. Jumping up, she got out fresh underwear and pulled it on, not taking the time to savor the sensation of cool silk on her skin as she usually did. She smoothed hosiery on her legs, not daring to hurry with that task or she would put a run in the delicate fabric. Now, what to wear? She opened the closet door and hurriedly surveyed the contents—she didn’t have that many dresses suitable for a cocktail party. The water had stopped running in the bathroom; he would be out any moment. She jerked a cream-colored jersey dress off the hanger and pulled it over her head just as the bathroom door opened. Hidden in the folds of material, her face flamed red at the spectacle she was making of herself, with her head and upper torso fighting to emerge from the garment, while her lower body was exposed in only skimpy panties, a garter belt and hosiery. Turning her back on him, she tugged the dress into place and began fumbling with the back zipper.

  “Allow me,” he said, his voice very close. His warm hands brushed hers aside, and he efficiently pulled up the tab of the zipper then hooked the tiny hook at the top. His hands dropped. “There.”

  Keeping her face averted, she muttered a stiff thanks and returned to the dresser to repair the damage she’d just done to her hair. He was whistling under his breath as he finished dressing, and for a moment she envied his casual attitude, which was a measure of how accustomed he was to that type of situation. She leaned toward the mirror to apply her lipstick and saw him unzip his pants to tuck in his shirt. Her hand was shaking, and she had to take extra care with the lipstick to keep from smearing it.

  Then he appeared in the mirror, standing behind her and bending down to check his hair, an abstract frown on his face. “Is everything in place?” he asked, standing back for her inspection.

  She had to look at him then, and her eyes drifted over him. Again his charcoal-gray suit was ultraconservative but extremely well tailored. He knew what looked best on him; with his looks, trendy clothes would have made him too overpowering, like a neon light. The plain, unadorned clothes he chose enhanced rather than challenged his golden Viking beauty. Perhaps the lean, high-cheekboned beauty of his face had a Celtic origin, but there was something, perhaps that touch of ruthlessness that she had sometimes sensed in him, that made her think again that many generations back he might have had a Viking ancestor who had gone raiding on English shores and left behind a reminder of his visit. “No, you’re perfect,” she finally said, and he couldn’t guess how much she meant those words.

  “Let me look at you.” He took her hand, drew her from the chair and turned her for his inspection. “You’re just right—wait, you need earrings.”

  She’d forgotten them. Quickly she slipped pearl-drop earrings into her ears, and Max nodded, checking his watch. “We have just enough time to get there.”

  Perhaps it was just a small cocktail party, but the driveway was already choked with cars when they arrived at her parents’ house. Alma and Harmon were both popular and outgoing, drawing people to them with the magnetism of their personalities. Inevitably Claire felt herself tensing as she walked up to the door with Max close beside her.

  The door opened before they reached it, and Martine stood laughing at them, resplendent in an emerald-green dress that showed off her beautiful figure and made her glow with color. “I knew you’d be here,” she said in triumph, hugging Claire. “Mom has been in a dither that you wouldn’t come.”

  “I told her that I would,” Claire said, reaching deep inside herself for the composure that she kept like a shield between herself and others, even her family.

  “Oh, you know how she has to fret over something. Hello, Max, you’re looking as beautiful as ever.”

  He laughed, a deep sound of true amusement. “You really must work to get over that shyness.”

  “That’s what Steve tells me. Oh, here come the Waverlys. I haven’t seen Beth in ages.” She waved past them to the approaching couple.

  “Is there anything I can do to help?” Claire asked.

  “I don’t know. Ask Mom, if you can find her. She was in the den, but that was five minutes ago, so it’s anyone’s guess where she is now.”

  Max put his hand on her waist as they walked into the crowded living room, and Claire immediately felt the impact of everyone’s eyes as they turned to survey the new arrivals. She knew their thoughts, knew that everyone had heard the rumors and was looking them over, trying to decide if the rumors were true.

  “You did make it!” Alma beamed, sailing across the room to kiss Claire’s cheek. She turned that thousand-watt smile on Max, whose mobile lips twitched into a devilish grin. Before either Alma or Claire could guess what he was about, he took Alma in his arms and kissed her lips, then did it again. Alma laughed, but she was blushing when he released her.

  “Max, what are you doing?” she exclaimed.

  “Kissing a pretty woman,” he replied blandly, the tone of his voice belied by the wicked twinkle in his eyes. He reached out and brought Claire back into the circle of his arm. “Now Claire and I are going to find something to eat. I’m starving, and she didn’t have time for dinner, either.”

  Claire felt frozen as she walked beside him to the kit
chen, feeling the eyes boring into her back like knife blades. He’d kissed Alma twice, which meant that he’d kissed her mother more than he’d kissed her. She had stood to the side, envying the brilliant, easy charm that both Max and Alma possessed, wishing that she had the gift of laughter. Martine could do it, too, have people eating out of her hand within moments of meeting them. All her life she’d been surrounded by beautiful, charming people, but none of that magical self-assurance had rubbed off on her.

  The breakfast bar in the kitchen was crowded with hors d’oeuvres and finger sandwiches, and Max raided it shamelessly, but Claire only nibbled at a sandwich. Automatically she replenished the trays as Max depleted them and finished the condiment tray that Alma had been in the middle of preparing before she had rushed off to greet her guests. Alma rushed back into the kitchen, her glowing smile bursting over her face when she saw that Claire had completed the preparations. “Bless you, dear. I completely forgot what I was doing. You always did keep your common sense. I can’t count the times Harmon has told me to slow down and think before I do something, but you know how deep an impression it’s made.”

  Claire smiled quietly at her mother, thinking that she did love her very much even though it had never been easy, growing up in the shadow of a beautiful mother and an equally beautiful sister. Both Alma and Martine were warm and outgoing people, without an ounce of maliciousness. It wasn’t their fault that Claire had always felt overshadowed by them.

  She picked up the heavy tray, and Max promptly relieved her of the burden. “Show me where you want it,” he said firmly when Claire turned to him with her brow raised in question. “You’re not to try to carry these trays yourself.” He looked at Alma as she began to lift one of the trays, and the cool warning in his eyes made her drop her hands and step back.

  “Masterful, isn’t he?” Alma whispered to Claire as they followed Max’s broad shoulders back into the living room.

  “He has set ideas on what’s proper,” Claire said in understatement.

 
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