Authors: Elizabeth Lennox
James leaned forward so his elbows were resting on his knees, the drink half forgotten between both his hands. “Clarissa needs to find a husband.”
Max gritted his teeth. “You’ve already mentioned that, James,” he replied with as much patience as he could muster under the circumstances. Instantly, he didn’t like the path this conversation was taking. He didn’t like the idea of another man touching Clarissa. A husband would have every right to touch her, caress her, show her all the passion she was craving.
“I’ve seen the way Clarissa looks at you,” James started out, glancing up at Max to see how he was reacting. James noticed the shuttered eyes and gritting teeth. If his instincts were right, Max was the perfect man for the job he had in mind. “Clarissa doesn’t want anything to do with my businesses. But they’ll need someone strong enough to take over when I’m ready to retire. I think that person should be you. What do you think?” he asked, letting his words sink in. “Would you marry Clarissa and take over my companies when I’m ready to fade out of the picture?”
Max immediately shook his head. “Clarissa doesn’t need a husband to be bought for her. She’s beautiful enough to find her own husband.”
Those words only confirmed James’ opinion and forced him to continue. “So don’t think of it as a business deal. Think of it as a continuation of a legacy.”
“I’m not for sale,” Max reiterated harshly. Just the thought of this man trying to buy a husband for Clarissa set his teeth on edge. She deserved so much more than that, didn’t her father realize it?
James eyed the younger man closely, then shrewdly changed tactics, understanding that each person had their own weak points. He hadn’t gotten this far in the business world by ignoring that salient point and had learned to read people accurately in order to guess what those weak points were. “Then how about because you’re perhaps feeling the same thing Clarissa is?” As soon as the words were out, James knew that he’d hit on the right approach. Smiling with satisfaction, he leaned back in his chair and enjoyed watching Max’s inner struggle.
Max leaned back against his chair and rubbed his forehead, a small but insistent headache had started forming behind his eyes.
Unfortunately, the man had a point. He definitely felt something for Clarissa although he wasn’t sure he was ready to define what those feelings were quite yet. She was beautiful and desirable, not that he would admit to Clarissa’s father that he desperately wanted to take her to bed for days on end and explore her incredible, lush body with his hands and his….Max fought to gain control once again. No father wanted to know a man was thinking in those kinds of terms about his daughter, Max acknowledged.
Sighing deeply, and trying to understand why he was so angry, he finally turned to James, his eyes shuttered in an effort to hide the confusion from the world. “I’m not ready to marry yet. Maybe in a couple of years, but not right now.” He had too many things to do and a wife would get in the way.
James shrugged his shoulders. “Fair enough. I can certainly understand your point of view. Marriage is a big step and I’m glad you’re being honest with me and with yourself. I wouldn’t want anything less for Clarissa.” James sighed and extended his hand. “I appreciate your honesty. I’ll see who else might be ready and will introduce Clarissa to them. Maybe they’ll pique her interest as much as you do.”
Max gnashed his teeth but he extended his hand to Clarissa’s father. Max knew exactly what James was doing and he didn’t appreciate it. He refused to be manipulated, no matter how angry the thought of another man touching Clarissa made him. “Good luck to you,” he said evenly, not rising to the bait.
Max wanted to smash something as James walked away. Clarissa deserved to be married to a decent husband. Not someone who worked eighteen hours a day and traveled just as often as he was home. He had no doubt that James would eventually find someone who would be interested in Clarissa. Who wouldn’t? She was every man’s fantasy! She was smart, beautiful, incredibly sexy and all of that was wrapped up in package of kindness with lots of spirit to spare.
But would she be interested in whoever her father found for her? James wouldn’t push her into a marriage simply to get a grandson or granddaughter, would he?
Whoever James found, would he find someone who could appreciate her sense of humor? Who wouldn’t crush her spirit by dominating her gentleness? He doubted it. Men at his level aren’t known for their compassion.
As Max ducked into the back of his waiting limousine, he thought about someone else being privileged to the same offer Clarissa had given him. Sure, she could probably find someone who would be willing to initiate her into the sexual world. If he hadn’t arrived in Rome at just the right moment, she might have even offered that slimy Romeo the option. And Max was sure that the guy wouldn’t have a qualm about taking her up on the offer.
Max went back to his office, trying to lose himself in work. It had always been more than enough in the past but tonight, as he sifted through the latest information on an upcoming merger, he just couldn’t concentrate. He read the same paragraph four times without absorbing any of the information. Finally, he tossed the document down to his desk in disgust and shoved out of the chair to stare into the black night. The lights of the city were far below him and he could see the river and the boats coasting back and forth carrying tourists and dinner guests.
He contemplated the night and all that he’d learned during the day. James would never win father of the year but he now understood that he cared in some sort of odd, warped way for Clarissa. James genuinely wanted what was best for his daughter and would go to great lengths to make her happy, even if he had no understanding of what that could be.
Max wondered if he would be able to stand by and watch while James put one man after another in front of Clarissa in the hopes that she might find him attractive and husband material. Max guessed that he’d probably be invited to the wedding when it happened. That thought infuriated him and he was stunned. Taking a mental step back, he contemplated everything he’d been experiencing for the past several weeks. He wanted Clarissa sexually, that was a given. He liked and respected her and instinctively knew that she would be a wonderful mother. So what was holding him back from marrying her himself? Why did he have to wait a couple more years before he married? Obviously there were no financial issues since the latest magazine poll put him in the top ten wealthiest men in Europe. Since they had miscalculated his net worth by several decimal points, he might even be at the top.
There was the time issue. He liked working and enjoyed the cut throat world of business. But would that ever stop? Would he be satisfied to settle down without the intellectual stimulation in a couple years? Probably not. Business was instinctive in him and he craved the excitement of the next business deal like some people breathed.
Despite that need, he could do more of his work at home so he could be with his wife, more specifically, Clarissa. There were resources at his fingertips that he could implement that allowed him to work from any place in the world. And he definitely wouldn’t mind delegating some of his responsibilities now, rather than later. That would free up some of his time and would allow him to spend more time on his family, something his mother had been begging him to do for years.
Besides, he was starting to understand that Clarissa was becoming just as strong of a need as the next business negotiation. Her smiles and soft, fluttery touches were almost constantly on his mind. As was her perfect figure. A figure he wanted to caress with more than a fluttery need, he thought grimly. His body was already reacting to the idea of touching her soft, full curves and pulling her against him….He had to stop thinking along those lines. He was going to drive himself crazy.
So what was holding him back?
Max couldn’t come up with a single answer.
The realization struck him like a punch in his stomach. When it occurred to him, he instantly felt a huge sense of relief. All the anger that had been building up inside of him since James’ party dissipated and he contemplated how much his idea made sense. Which meant he could pursue the slender beauty immediately.
That realization hit him hard and every cell in his body relaxed with that knowledge. He wanted her and now that he was going to marry her, he’d eventually have her. In his arrogant mind, her acceptance of his proposal was a foregone conclusion. She wanted him just as much, they had several things in common and he knew they would get along well.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed her number. “Clarissa?” he said as soon as she answered her phone. He liked the breathless quality of her tone as she responded.
“I wanted to know if you’d meet me for dinner tomorrow night. Are you free?” Of course she responded affirmatively. “Good. I’ll send my driver to pick you up at six-thirty.”
He snapped the phone closed and nodded, already making plans for the following night that would segue easily into a marriage proposal. Romance, he knew, would be key. Clarissa might have espoused some silly ideas about not wanting to marry but every woman wanted to marry. He’d had enough experience avoiding the various ploys of aggressive women over the years to know that they pursued that state with an almost single minded determination in some cases.
Looking around his office, he felt his breathing come more easily. The sunset over the horizon was a bit brighter now that he’d made his decision. The knowledge that he wouldn’t have to fight his attraction to Clarissa any longer was powerful and hit him suddenly.
Smiling, he picked up the phone and dialed.
Clarissa hung up the phone and hugged a pillow to her chest in her excitement. Could his request for a dinner date mean what she hoped it meant? Would he actually accept her proposition? She could hardly sleep that night as the hope and anticipation spiked through her body. When she woke the following morning, all she could think about was buying a sexy new dress for the occasion. She dressed quickly, then grabbed her purse and headed for the stores, stepping out of a cab just as the first one was unlocking their doors.
As she sifted through the various boutiques, she considered and discarded more than forty different dresses. Some were too obvious, others not obvious enough. Too garish, too conservative, too tight…or just not right. By two o’clock that afternoon, she was becoming discouraged. She only had four hours and she still hadn’t found anything that would work. Tonight had to be perfect, she thought with frustration.
She trudged on, determined to find a dress that would work.
An hour later, she found it and almost melted into a heap of excitement as she pulled the zipper closed and surveyed her figure in the mirror. The silk black fabric clung to her curves, making her feel and look like a temptress. The cut of the dress was perfect, clinging to her waist and her breasts, then flaring out at her hips to end mid-calf. Since it had spaghetti straps, she couldn’t wear a bra underneath, but there was enough support in the bodice that she didn’t really need to. Going without a bra made her feel decadent, and oh, so very sexy!
She found a pair of sling-back shoes with a sexy heel in the next store and, with her precious purchases, she hurried back to her cottage. After showering, she dried her hair and curled the ends, flipping the mass back so she looked like one of the models in the underwear catalogs. She applied more makeup than usual and loved the seductive look it gave her. She looked sophisticated. Now if only she could feel the part as well, she thought, putting a hand to her stomach as the butterflies danced around excitedly.
The car arrived at exactly six-thirty but she was disappointed to not find him in the back waiting for her. But that was just as well, she thought. He was so intent on making her into some sort of Mother Theresa, he might have taken one look at her dress and marched her back inside to change. She didn’t want to change. She wanted to see his reaction when he saw her dressed like this. She just knew that he would see her in a different light once he saw her like this and it would reinforce his decision to accept an affair with her.
The car pulled up outside a beautiful house with so many windows in the front, she couldn’t even count them. It was three stories high with lovely landscaping highlighted by subtle outdoor lighting. She was impressed that Max lived in an actual house, well, mansion, she corrected, and not a penthouse apartment some place in town.
The door was opened as soon as she stepped on the top step and she was escorted into the house by a stately butler. She found Max in a cozy family room in the back of the house. As soon as she stepped into the room, Clarissa gasped in delighted surprise. Since it was the middle of summer, there were candles in the fireplace instead of a fire. But it still cast a romantic glow over the room. There were candles on the mantle and on a table set up in the corner with flowers. As she looked around, her eyes instinctively turned to find Max who was behind a bar opening a bottle of champagne. The doors were closed quietly behind her and her mouth felt dry as she looked across the room at the man who had haunted her dreams for so long. Tonight was finally going to show her what she’d been missing for so long.
“Good evening,” Max said and poured two glasses of champagne. His eyes flared as he looked down at her dress and she could tell that he liked it. A lot. “You look lovely.”
Nervously, she clenched at her small, beaded purse. “Thank you,” was all she could get out.