Almost Forever

By: Linda Howard
Chapter One


Anson Edwards sat alone in his big plash office, his fingers steepled as he weighed the strengths of his two lieutenants, wondering which of the two would be best to send to Houston. His own strength was his ability to analyze quickly and accurately, yet in this instance he didn't want to make a snap decision. Sam Bronson was an enigma, a man who played his cards close to his chest; it wouldn't do to underestimate him. Instinct told Anson that an overt takeover attempt on Branson's metal alloy company would fail, that Bronson was wily enough to have hidden assets. Anson had to discover what those assets were, and their value, before he could realistically expect victory in his attempt to take Bronson Alloys under Spencer-Nyle's corporate umbrella. He knew that he could take control simply by offering much more than the company could possibly be worth, but that wasn't Anson's way. He had a responsibility to the stockholders of Spencer-Nyle, and he wasn't reckless. He would do what was necessary to take Bronson, but no more. He could set a team of investigators on the job, but that would alert Bronson, and if Bronson were given any sort of warning he might be able to take evasive action that could drag into months. Anson didn't want this; he wanted things to be over quickly. The best bet would be one man, a man whom he could trust in any situation. He trusted both Rome Matthews and Max Conroy completely, but which man would be the best one for the job?

Rome Matthews was his handpicked, personally trained successor; Rome was tough, smart, fair, and he set out to win at everything he did. But Rome had a formidable reputation. He was far too well-known in business circles, and Houston was too close to Dallas for Anson to hope that no one would know him. Rome's very presence would trigger alarm in the business community.

Max Conroy, on the other hand, wasn't that well-known. People tended not to take him as seriously as they did Rome; it was those male-model looks of his, as well as the lazy, good-humored image he projected. People just didn't expect Max to work as hard at something as Rome would. But there was steel in Max Conroy, a ruthlessness that he kept skillfully disguised. That famous affability of his was only a pose; he kept the almost fearsome intensity of his character under strict control. Those who didn't know him were always completely fooled, expecting him to be more playboy than executive.

So it would have to be Max, who would have a better chance of quietly gathering information.

Anson picked up a file again, leafing through the pages of information about key personnel with Bronson Alloys. Nothing could be learned from Bronson himself; the man was wary, and a genius. But a chain was only as strong as its weakest link, and Anson was determined to find Branson's weak link.

He came to the photograph of Branson's secretary and paused. Bronson appeared to trust his secretary completely, though there was no hint of romance between them. Anson frowned as he studied the photograph; the woman was a pretty, dark-eyed blonde, but no great beauty. There was a reserved expression in her dark eyes. She had been married to Jeff Halsey, the heir of a wealthy Houston family, but they had divorced five years ago. She was thirty-one now and hadn't remarried. Anson checked her name: Claire Westbrook.

Thoughtfully he leaned back in his chair. Would she be vulnerable to Max's seductive charm? It remained to be seen. Then he tapped the photograph in sudden decision. Claire Westbrook just might be the weak link in Branson's chain. Claire slipped through the double doors onto the terrace and walked to the waist-high fieldstone wall that separated the terrace from the flower garden. Resting her hands on the cool stone, she stared blindly at the garden, not seeing the masses of blooms that were highlighted by strategically placed lights. How could Virginia invite Jeff and Helene, knowing that Claire had accepted an invitation? She'd done it deliberately, of course; she'd been gloating at the shock that Claire hadn't been able to hide when her ex-husband arrived at the party with his beautiful, pregnant wife. Tears burned at the back of Claire's eyes, and she blinked to control them. She thought she could have handled an accidental meeting with aplomb, but she was stunned by Virginia's deliberate cruelty. She and Virginia had never been close friends, but still, she'd never expected this. How ironic that Claire had accepted the invitation only at the urging of her sister, Martine, who thought it would do her good to get out of the apartment and socialize! So much for good intentions, Claire thought wryly, controlling the urge to cry. The episode wasn't worth crying over, and it had taught her a lesson: never trust any of your ex-husband's old girlfriends. Evidently Virginia had never forgiven Claire for being Mrs. Jeff Halsey.

"Did the smoke and noise become too much for you, too?" Claire whirled around, startled by the words spoken so close to her ear. She'd been certain no one else was on the terrace. Determined not to let anyone know she'd been upset, she lifted one eyebrow in casual inquiry.

The man was silhouetted by the light coming through the double glass doors behind him, making it impossible to see his features, but she was certain she didn't know him. He was tall and lean, his shoulders broad beneath the impeccable cut of his white dinner jacket, and he was so close to her that she could smell the faint clean scent of his cologne.

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