A Question of Pride(4)

By: Michelle Reid

'Ready now?' He looked up, his eyes narrowing suddenly as he caught her pained expression. Then he blinked to dismiss the vague idea that she wasn't the girl he was used to seeing at this time of the day. 'Six copies,' he murmured, sliding several documents over the desk towards her. 'To go to ...' And the afternoon began.

It was five o'clock before either of them came up for air. They had worked quietly and effectively together throughout the afternoon. The pace of work and Max's usual dynamism had helped Clea to forget her personal problems, but the paleness must still have been there in her soft ivory skin, because Max paused by her desk as he came out of his office. She guessed that he was seeing her clearly for the first time now that the hectic day was drawing to a close.

'Clea, are you feeling OK?' He leaned his knuckles on her desk, dipping his dark head a little to see her face better.

If she had been in the right frame of mind, she would have appreciated his concern. Instead, she pinned a smile on her face and lifted her head to show it to him. 'I'm fine,' she lied, and forced the smile wider to prove the point. 'Just one of those days, I think ... I'll be glad to get home tonight and put my feet up.'

He was frowning in usual 'Max' style, his blue eyes dark with the glimmer of affection, and her heart squeezed—going out to him, because she loved him, and this warmer Max was the one she couldn't help responding to.

'Beautiful Clea,' he murmured deeply, then took her by surprise by reaching out to gently touch her cheek. 'Beautiful—beautiful Clea, I think I'm ...' He stopped himself, fingertips tensing against her skin just before he snatched them away, straightening, his expression odd—shocked, almost.

Tension seemed to leap up from nowhere, and Clea felt puzzled. What had he been about to say that had brought him up short like that? She felt a burst of panic—he couldn't know, could he? He couldn't have guessed? No, of course he hadn't.

Max was giving himself a mental shake. She actually saw it happen, although he showed no physical signs of doing so, and his smile held its normal teasing quality. Gone was the look of intensity.

Clea's own lack of self-awareness meant she had no idea what Max actually saw when he looked at her.

The 'beautiful, exotic gypsy', as he liked to teasingly call her, was not far from the truth. Jet-black, curling hair pulled into soft, lively waves by the sheer weight and length of it meant that she had to keep it severely confined when at work and, though Max adored her hair when it was loose and wildly free, worn in its tight knot, it only helped to accentuate the perfect oval of her face and her ivory smooth skin.

Her eyes were large and dark, their colour a fascinating mixture of lavender and midnight-blue depending on her mood, and they tilted slightly at the outer corners to add a little mystery to the gypsy quality in her.

Her nose was small and straight, her mouth generous, sensually so. She was tall and slender, but beautifully curved. Clea had the ability to stir the male senses without even being aware of doing it. She did that to Max every time he looked at her, and that made him angry. He didn't like the vulnerability it revealed in his implacable character.

'Have you nearly finished?' He glanced at his watch, obviously eager to get off.

'Ten more minutes, that's all,' she assured him. Remembering his dinner date tonight, she gave him a reassuring smile—Max didn't like to think that she was working late when he wasn't. He was a conscientious enough boss to think it unfair to expect his staff to do more than he was prepared to do himself. 'Have a nice evening,' she added as a final push for him.

'I'll pick you up tomorrow night.' He seemed reluctant to go now, his stance hesitant—restless.

Tomorrow was a Saturday, and they were going to the theatre. Clea had booked the tickets herself earlier in the week, to see the latest Tim Rice musical. The song that had been haunting her all day came from it. 'We could go on to a club later if you wish ... have some supper—maybe dance a little?'

What was the matter with him? Clea felt confused by this unusual show of hesitance.

'Are you sure you're all right?' He must be feeling confused, too, to ask the same-question twice, she noted wryly. Max wasn't the type to repeat himself. Maybe some of her distress was showing, and Max was unconsciously picking up on it.

Nerves made her resort to mockery. 'What in heaven's name could be wrong with me, Max? You'll have me wondering if you're suffering from a guilty conscience if you keep this up!' They never shared this kind of conversation here in the office.

He didn't like that; it stiffened his spine, his face hardening. 'Anyone would think I'm cruel to you, to hear you,' he muttered and turned to stride angrily for the door.

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