A Question of Pride(9)

By: Michelle Reid


'No,' she lied again, finding it easier each time. 'I have a man waiting for me, you happen to be disturbing us.' Of course she was alone! she scorned silently. Wasn't she always alone without him?

'Don't tease, Clea.' His voice was pitched low and husky, creating within her a desperate need to see him, touch him. 'I was worried about you. I've been worrying about you all evening. Are you sure you're OK?'

She took in a steadying breath, sucking her lips back against her teeth to stop herself from saying something she would regret, from blurting out the whole sad mess to him. 'I'm fine ... really, Max,' she assured him when she could trust herself to speak. 'Just tired. I was on my way to bed.'

Another silence, a strange, loaded silence that she couldn't decipher. What was the matter with him?

Could he be drunk? It would be a first if he was. Max knew his own limits.

'Can I come?'

Clea stared blankly at the phone. Never—never had she heard him sound like this! Never had he called her up to invite himself around like this.

'What is this, Max?' she enquired suspiciously. 'Aren't you supposed to be hosting a business dinner?

It's only—' she glanced at the gold carriage clock sitting on the mantel '—nine-thirty. You can't possibly have wrapped things up this early.'

She could almost see him shifting uncomfortably where he stood. It was certainly novel, Max feeling uncertain.

'It—it didn't work out,' she heard him mutter.

'What—what didn't work out?'

'The dinner. Look, for God's sake, Clea—I need you!' he bit out, rushing through the words.

Angry—with himself, she guessed. If what he was saying was the truth, then he wouldn't be enjoying the feeling. 'I—I've needed you all damned day! I'm coming around now. I want to—'

'No.' She cut in on him tersely, and felt his surprise ricochet down the line. 'I'm tired,' she elaborated coldly. 'And I planned on a early night... I'll see you tomorrow.'

The receiver went down with a crash—before Max had a chance to argue with her. She couldn't cope—not tonight. She just couldn't.





CHAPTER THREE


Someonewas leaning on the doorbell. Clea swam up from a heavy sleep to register the familiar but unwanted sound. She groped blindly for the bedside-lamp switch, drenching the room in painful light, peering at her alarm clock. Ten o'clock—the earliness of the hour surprised her. She must have fallen into heavy sleep the moment her head had hit the pillow.

The shrill noise continued throughout her struggles out of her warm bed and into her dressing-gown.

Whoever it was, there was a grim determination about the way they kept the bell ringing! She padded into the hall, wincing a protest at the din. The safety chain was on. She opened the door the few inches the chain allowed, and peered, sleepy-eyed, through the gap.

Max stood there, leaning against the doorframe, his hands pushed into the trouser pockets of his black evening suit. His bow-tie had been discarded, and the top few buttons of his dress-shirt had been tugged open to reveal some of the dark, taut skin beneath. His face was grim. There was a tense pause while they stared silently at each other, then, still without a word, Clea closed the door to remove the chain and stepped back to let him enter, her gaze lowered from his.

He came in slowly, slouching past her to take the door from her hand and close it quietly behind him.

'I w-was asleep.' She ran an unsteady hand through her tumbled hair.

Silence.

Clea swallowed thickly to remove the uncomfortable lump from her throat. She was feeling a trifle woozy, which didn't help the situation, and she knew her eyes must look red and puffy because they felt that way. She felt a wreck—and in no way fit to deal with an angry Max.

He, on the other hand, looked magnificent, his hard, handsome face unfairly alluring. Her heart gave a painful squeeze. Would he always have this kind of effect on her? she wondered. This heady kind of excitement, tinged with the desolation of self-inadequacy?

'What's the matter, Clea?' he enquired softly, when it seemed like the silence would shatter into a million screams of pain around her.

She lifted her unhappy gaze to his, to find him studying her with those long, thick lashes of his shrouding his eyes. He wasn't angry, as she'd thought him to be. He actually looked concerned, and for some reason that made her feel more depressed. She had no answer to give him, and her head simply dipped again so that she didn't have to look at him.

'You look pale and miserable,' he observed gently, when no reply was forthcoming. 'You were strange this morning when I left here, you were the same at work ... and quiet. I know I'm a self-centered swine most of the time,' he added on a heavy sigh, when she still made no sound, 'but I'm not so bad that I couldn't sense a difference in you ... Can't you tell me what's wrong?'

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