Almost Forever by Linda Howard

  Max carried all the trays in, then became immersed in a conversation with Harmon, Steve and several other men. Periodically his eyes sought out Claire, wherever she was in the room, as if reassuring himself that she wasn’t in need of him.

  Claire sipped on a margarita and surreptitiously checked the time, wondering when they would be able to leave. The cocktail party wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, but she was tired. The pressure of the hectic day, the hectic week, was telling on her. Bracing herself, she tried to concentrate on the conversation around her.

  Someone turned on the stereo, but since Harmon was an ardent blues fan, the selection was limited. The smoky, mournful wail of a saxophone lured several people into dancing. Claire danced with Martine’s law partner, then with her father’s best friend, then with an old friend from school. She was on her second margarita when it was taken from her hand, placed on the table, and Max turned her into his arms.

  “You’re tired, aren’t you?” he asked as they swayed to the low music.

  “Exhausted. If tomorrow weren’t Friday, I don’t think I could make it.”

  “Are you ready to leave?”

  “More than ready. Have you seen Mother lately?”

  “She’s back in the kitchen, I think. The nation’s dairy farmers would be in ecstasy if they could see the amount of cheese that has been consumed tonight,” he said dryly.

  “You ate your share, I noticed.”

  His mouth quirked. “I burn off the calories.”

  Sighing, she stepped back from his embrace. “Let’s find Mother. I think we’ve stayed long enough to be polite.”

  Alma was indeed in the kitchen, dicing cheese into another heap of small squares. She looked up when they entered, and a mixture of dismay and resignation crossed her features. “Claire, you can’t be leaving!” she protested. “It’s still early.”

  “I know, but tomorrow’s a working day.” Claire leaned forward to kiss her mother’s cheek. “I’ve enjoyed myself. Really.”

  Alma looked at Max for reinforcement. “Can’t you get her to stay a little longer? She has that stubborn look, and I know she won’t listen to me.”

  Max’s arm went around Claire’s waist, and he, too, bent to kiss Alma’s cheek. “That isn’t a stubborn look—it’s a tired look,” he explained easily, employing his charm as he smiled at Alma, pacifying her. “It’s my fault. I’ve had her out every night this week, and the lack of sleep is catching up with her.”

  It worked, but then, Claire had never doubted him. Alma was beaming at him. “Oh, all right, take her home. You must come back—we haven’t really had a chance to get to know you.”

  “Soon,” he promised.

  It was a silent drive back to Claire’s apartment, but when she offered him coffee he came inside with her. After making the coffee and carrying the cups into the living room, they sat on the couch and sipped quietly. Claire kicked off her shoes, sighing in relief and wiggling her toes.

  Max’s gaze was on her slender feet, but his mind was on other matters. “What happened that you had to work late today?”

  “Everything. It was just one of those days, and it didn’t help that Sam was so edgy. He’s almost certain there’s going to be a takeover attempt, and soon—there’s been increasing trading in our stock. Even though he has an ace in the hole, the waiting and wondering are nerve-racking.”

  “What’s his ace in the hole?” Max asked, his voice sleepy, almost disinterested.

  It was a new situation for Claire, actually being able to sit down and discuss her day at work with someone. She had never talked about her day before—she couldn’t remember if anyone had ever asked. Small talk was a subtle sort of intimacy, letting someone into her mind by sharing the details of her life with them, and she had always instinctively kept to herself. But it was so easy to talk to Max. He listened, but he didn’t make a big deal of it.

  “Real estate,” she said, smiling a little. His lashes lifted to reveal a lazy gleam of interest. “I thought that might interest you.”

  “Ummm,” he said, an indistinct sound of agreement.

  “Sam invested in some property that has quadrupled in value. The reappraisal came in today, and it was even better than he’d hoped.”

  “Land values can do that. They go up and down like a roller-coaster. The trick is to buy just before the price bottoms out, and sell just before it goes over the top. The value must really be astronomical to be enough to protect him against a takeover.” He sat up more alertly and finished his coffee.

  “I’ll get you a refill,” Claire said, getting up and going into the kitchen before he could refuse. She reappeared almost immediately with the pot, and Max watched her walk toward him, her slender body moving gracefully. She looked so quiet and restrained, but he knew what was beneath that ladylike dress. He’d seen the satin panties, the shockingly sexy garter belt and filmy hosiery. A garter belt, for God’s sake! His body jolted with response now just as it had then, and he clenched his teeth. He’d had a difficult time keeping his mind off her underwear and his hands off her body. He kept seeing her with that dress over her head, baring her slender hips and legs to his view. The need to take her to bed was growing out of control, fed by frustration that she was so unaware of him as a man and by anger that she would freeze up on him if he tried to change the situation. He wasn’t accustomed to abstinence, and he didn’t like it one damned bit.

  Claire picked up the conversation where they had left off, sitting down beside him again. “I wouldn’t call the land value astronomical, but we’re a small enough company that it doesn’t have to be. Anyone making a bid for the company is going to come short by several million dollars.”

  He jerked his thoughts back to what she was saying. Damn it, she was practically handing him the information he needed on a silver platter, and he couldn’t keep his mind on the conversation. He wanted very much to stretch her out on the couch and lift that dress over her head again, to run his hands over her and feel the softness of her skin, but that would have to come later.

  “How much was the appraisal?” he asked. He watched her closely, wondering if she would answer him. It was a bold move, asking outright for the information he needed, but she had already given him the major part of it, and the actual appraisal would only fill in the details. He kept his face carefully blank, hiding his intense interest in her answer.

  “In the millions.”

  Damn, that would make a difference! “What did they do? Find oil on it?” he muttered.

  She laughed. “Close.”

  Mingled satisfaction and relief filled him; the job was done. It hadn’t taken long, and had been relatively easy. The difficult part had been restraining himself from making a move on Claire and scaring her off, but now the job was out of the way and he could concentrate on her. She could try hiding behind that shell of hers, but he was free to pursue his own interests now, and Claire was his interest. He wanted her. He had no doubt that he would have her. He was a master at seduction, and no woman had ever resisted him for long when he made the effort to charm her into his bed. But with Claire, he’d been handicapped by his professional concerns, forced to restrain himself. She was already accustomed to his company, and she had come to accept his casual touches. It wouldn’t be long before she was also accepting the most intimate touches between a man and a woman.

  His hunger, his need, for her were becoming more urgent. It wasn’t just the physical need for release, though that was strong enough—he wasn’t accustomed to celibacy. No, his strongest need was the primitive urge to bind her to him now, before she found out the truth, but he found himself uncharacteristically hesitant, his usual self-assurance fading. What if this wasn’t the right time? What if she rebuffed him? What if she retreated completely? He would have lost even her friendship, and to his surprise he wanted her friendship very much, as much as he wanted her physically. He wanted all of her, her mind as well as her body.

  She smothered a yawn, and he laughed, reaching out
to massage her shoulder, the light touch filling him with pleasure. “You need to be asleep. Why haven’t you told me to leave?”

  Claire curled up on the couch, tucking her feet under her, and sipped her coffee contentedly. It was so peaceful, sitting there together and drinking their coffee, making desultory conversation. Her heart was beating in that slow, heavy way it did whenever she was with him, and in that moment she was happy. “I’m comfortable with you,” she replied, and knew that she was lying. Her nerves were alive and acutely tuned to him, her senses assailed by his nearness. She could smell him, feel his warmth, look at him, and her flesh ached to be even closer to him. How foolish she was to love too fast, too much, but it was out of her control and perhaps had been from the very beginning.

  He reached out and took her hand, folding her fingers in his and rubbing his thumb over her silky skin. “Claire,” he said in a quiet voice, drawing her gaze to him. Her eyes were dark pools, soft and velvety. “I want to kiss you.”

  He felt the way her hand jerked in his, and he tightened his grip just enough to hold her. “Do I frighten you?” he asked, amused.

  Claire looked away from the laughter in his face. “I don’t think it would be a good idea,” she said, her voice going stiff. “We’re just friends, remember, and—”

  He got to his feet, laughing at her as he pulled her up and took the coffee cup from her free hand to set it down. “I’m not going to bite you,” he said and kissed her.

  It was a light, swift touch, exactly the way he had kissed her before. “There, did that hurt?”

  His vivid eyes were dancing. He was teasing her, and she relaxed. She had thought that he meant a different kind of kiss, and she didn’t dare let him kiss her deeply. She wasn’t certain of her control—if he kissed her with any degree of passion, she felt that she would explode in unbridled response. He wouldn’t have any doubt then about the way she felt. He was too experienced, had been with too many women who were desperate to hold him, not to recognize the same lovesick symptoms in her. It was far better that he tease her rather than feel sorry for her.

  Then he kissed her again.

  It was an admirably restrained kiss, but it lingered, and he opened his lips over hers. Automatically she parted her own lips to adjust the fit. His taste filled her mouth, his lips firm and warm. Pleasure rose in her, and for a moment she almost melted against him, almost raised her arms to twine them around his neck. Then panic twisted her stomach. She didn’t dare let him know, or she would never see him again! Swiftly she turned her head away, breaking the contact of their mouths.

  He pressed his lips to her temple, and his strong hands rubbed up her back in a long, slow sweep. He didn’t want to push her too far. Just for a moment she had responded to him, and the taste of her had gone to his head like a potent wine. His body was responding strongly to her nearness. He didn’t dare hug her to him the way he wanted, because there was no way he could hide his arousal. Reluctantly he let her go, and she immediately took a protective step away from him, her face set in a blank mask. Suddenly he was determined not to let her retreat, as she had done so many times before. He was a man; he wanted her to see him as one. “Why are you so uneasy whenever I touch you?” he asked, tipping her chin up with his finger so she couldn’t hide her face from him. She was too good at hiding her thoughts, anyway, and he needed every little clue he could get. He wanted to be able to see her face, her eyes.

  “You said you wanted to be friends,” she replied stiffly.

  “Friends aren’t allowed to touch?”

  His whimsical tone made her feel as if she were making far too much of things, and perhaps she would have been—if she hadn’t felt far more for him than just friendship. But she was in love with him, and even his most casual touches tormented her with mingled pleasure and longing.

  “You told me that you wanted a friendship without sex.”

  “Surely not. I don’t believe I’ve taken leave of my senses.” Gently he rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. “What I said was that I was tired of being pursued simply as a sexual trophy.”

  Claire was both astounded and alarmed. Had she so completely misread the situation? He was looking down at her with amusement, and she began to tremble. “Don’t look so frightened,” he soothed, moving his hand down to stroke her bare arm. “I’m attracted to you, and I’d like very much to kiss you occasionally. Is that so alarming?”

  “No,” she stammered.

  “Good, because I intend to continue kissing you.” His lashes veiled his eyes, allowing only a thin glittering line of turquoise to show, but Claire sensed his burning triumph and satisfaction, and she became even more uneasy. It was just like those times when she had glimpsed something ruthless in him, as if he weren’t what he seemed at all. It didn’t help that his look of triumph was immediately gone, because it left her feeling disoriented, not knowing anything for certain.

  He bent and kissed her again, then left, and Claire stood staring at the door long after it had closed behind him. He seemed to have decided that he wanted more than simple friendship from her, and she didn’t know how to protect herself. She was without any emotional defenses and so terribly vulnerable to any hurt he might give her. She loved him, but she felt that she didn’t know him at all.


  Max placed a call to Dallas as soon as he got back to his apartment, wanting to pass along the information Claire had given him as soon as possible. He knew that Anson would take action on it first thing in the morning; by Monday, the takeover would be in motion. His job wasn’t finished, of course—he would have to oversee the transfer of ownership and negotiate the endless details that were always so important to the anxious personnel of the acquired company, but the major hurdle had been cleared. Max Benedict could become Max Conroy again, and he could turn his attentions on Claire.

  Claire. She was the most complex, elusive woman he’d ever known. She kept herself hidden away, not letting anyone get close enough to really know her, but that was about to change. The irritating restraint he’d placed on himself was at an end. He would take it slow with her, gradually getting her accustomed to his touch. As torturous as this past week had been, it had had a positive side in that she was already used to his company. She was relaxed with him, and despite his frustration, the undemanding companionship he’d shared with her had had its own charm. Claire wasn’t a chatterbox, and the time he spent with her had been punctuated by peaceful silences. He wanted her more than he’d ever wanted any other woman, and he didn’t know why.

  She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. She was quietly pretty, with a fragile bone structure and eyes as dark as midnight pools, eyes that were full of dreams. She wasn’t voluptuous—her body was almost reed slender, yet undeniably feminine. There was a softness to Claire that he found very appealing. He wanted to take her in his arms and make love to her, get behind the blank wall that she kept between herself and other people; he wanted to know her thoughts, what she felt, what dreamworld she drifted away to when those dark eyes turned shadowy and faraway.

  Added to that, he liked her as a person. Max was passionately fond of women in general, but his intense sexuality sometimes got in the way of friendship—a woman was in his bed before they had a chance to know each other as people. The restraints that had been necessary in his relationship with Claire had allowed liking and friendship to grow. He liked talking to her; she was thoughtful and never malicious, and she wasn’t uncomfortable with occasional silences. It would be extremely pleasant to wake up next to Claire, to spend lazy mornings with her, reading the newspaper and lingering over breakfast, talking if they felt like it and simply being silent if they didn’t.

  There had been only one other woman he had liked in the same manner, and he thought about her for a moment. Sarah Matthews, his friend Rome’s wife: she was incredibly gentle, and incredibly strong. Max had been on the verge of loving her, and in fact did love her for the very special person she was, but she had made it p
lain from the beginning that Rome was the only man in the world for her, and the way Max felt about her had never grown into the area of intimacy. Now she and Rome were his closest friends, and their marriage was stronger than ever, more passionate than ever.

  He would like to have that with Claire.

  The thought jolted him. He kicked his shoes off and stretched out on the bed, staring at the ceiling. The scenario he had just imagined had a powerful charm to it, too powerful. Claire tugged at something in him. He wasn’t certain that he liked what he felt, but he was completely certain that he had to do something about it. Claire Westbrook was going to be his.

  * * *

  The next night he took her to the symphony, which she loved, and afterward they ate at a tiny Japanese steakhouse. Claire had been nervous at first, and because she was nervous she became quieter, more remote, but the music had helped to relax her. Max seemed just as he always had: cool and controlled, watching the world with lazy amusement. She felt safe when he was like that.

  She had slept restlessly the night before, her imagination picturing again and again the way he had kissed her, what he had said, like a loop of film on a projector that ran continuously. Every time she woke it was to find her heart racing with excitement, her body warm and yearning for him. She’d had no lovers since the divorce. She had drawn so deeply into herself, trying to build strength and recover from the shattering emotional blow of losing her baby and watching her marriage disintegrate, that there had been nothing left, no passion to give to a man. But without her being aware of it, time had worked its healing process, and she was alive again. Her nature was warm, passionate, and she trembled inside with need whenever she remembered his mouth on hers.

  It hadn’t even been a passionate kiss, but she had wanted to lace her arms around his neck and stand on tiptoe to press herself against him. She had wanted to lose herself in him, to give him everything that she was. It was a primitive, unconquerable urge, the need to lie in his arms, to mate, an urge that was inborn. Just as strong was the need to protect herself, and the two needs were warring inside her. Claire’s capacity to love was so enormous that she was instinctively wary, backing away from any threat to her emotions. Because she loved so deeply, she was acutely vulnerable to him. He had the power to hurt her so badly that she might never recover.

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