In Texas there is an obligatory sixty-day waiting period after you file a petition for divorce. At some point someone in the state legislature had decided that a legally mandated cooling-off period was a good idea for people who wanted a divorce. I’d rather they had left it up to me to decide whether I needed cooling off or not. Once the decision had been made, I wanted to get it over with quickly.On the other hand, I made pretty good use of those two months. I healed outwardly, the bruises fading, and I started going twice a week to a therapist. Having never been to a therapist before, I expected I was going to have to lie back on a sofa and talk while some impersonal white-coated professional took notes.
Instead I was welcomed into a small, cozy office with a sofa upholstered in flowered yellow twill, by a therapist who didn’t seem all that much older than me. Her name was Susan Byrnes, and she was dark-haired and bright-eyed and sociable. It was a relief beyond description to unburden myself to her. She was understanding and smart, and as I described things I had felt and gone through, it seemed she had the power to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Susan said Nick’s behavior fit the pattern of someone with narcissistic personality disorder, which was common for abusive husbands. As she told me about the disorder, it felt as if she were describing my life as it had been for the past year. A person with NPD was domineering, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ needs . . . and they used rage as a control tactic. They didn’t respect anyone else’s boundaries, which meant they felt entitled to bully and criticize until their victims were an absolute mess.
Having a personality disorder was different from being crazy, as Susan explained, because unlike a crazy person, a narcissist could control when and where he lost his temper. He’d never beat up his boss at work, for example, because that would be against his own interests. Instead he would go home and beat up his wife and kick the dog. And he would never feel guilty about it, because he would justify it and make excuses for himself. No one’s pain but his own meant anything to him.
“So you’re saying Nick’s not crazy, he’s a sociopath?” I asked Susan.
“Well . . . basically, yes. Bearing in mind that most sociopaths are not killers, they’re just non-empathetic and highly manipulative.”
“Can he ever be fixed?”
She shook her head immediately. “It’s sad to think about what kind of abuse or neglect might have made him that way. But the end result is that Nick is who he is. Narcissists are notoriously resistant to therapy. Because of their sense of grandiosity, they don’t ever see the need to change.” Susan had smiled darkly, as if at some unpleasant memory. “Believe me, no therapist wants a narcissist to walk in the door. It only results in massive frustration and a waste of time.”
“What about me?” I brought myself to ask “Can I be fixed?” At that point my eyes stung and I had to blow my nose, so Susan had to repeat her answer.
“Of course you can, Haven. We’ll work on it. We’ll do it.”
At first I was afraid I was going to have to work on forgiving Nick. It was an indescribable relief to hear Susan say no, I didn’t need to stay trapped in the cycle of abuse and forgiveness. Victims of abuse were often burdened with the so-called responsibility of forgiving, even rehabilitating, their tormentors. That wasn’t my job, Susan said. Later we could find some level of resolution so the poison of my relationship with Nick wouldn’t spill into other areas of my life. But right now there were other things to concentrate on.
I discovered I was a person with weak boundaries. I had been taught by my parents, especially my mother, that being a good daughter meant having no boundaries at all. I had been raised to let Mother criticize and have her way all the time, and make decisions for me that she had no business making.
“But my brothers didn’t have that kind of relationship with her,” I told Susan. “They had boundaries. They didn’t let her mess with their personal lives.”
“Sometimes a parent’s expectations of sons and daughters are very different,” Susan replied wryly. “My own parents insist that I’m the one who should take care of them in their old age, but they would never think of demanding that from my brother.”
Susan and I did a lot of role-playing, which felt mortifyingly silly at first, but as she pretended by turns to be Nick, my father, a friend, a brother, even my long-gone mother, I practiced standing up for myself. It was hard, muscle-knotting, perspiration-inducing work.
“No is a vitamin.” That phrase became my mantra. I figured if I told it to myself often enough, I would start believing it.
Gage handled as much of the divorce proceedings as I would allow. And, possibly because of Liberty’s softening influence, he changed his approach to me. Instead of telling me how things were going to be, he patiently laid out choices and explained them, and didn’t argue with my decisions. When Nick had dared to call the condo and demanded to talk to me, and I’d said all right, Gage had forced himself to hand the phone to me.
It had been quite a conversation, mostly one-sided, with Nick talking and me listening. My husband poured it on, progressing from guilt to fury to pleading, telling me it was my fault as much as his.
You couldn’t just give up on a marriage when you hit a rough spot, he said.
It was more than just a rough spot, I said.
People who loved each other found a way to work things out, he said.
You don’t love me, I said.
He said he did. Maybe he hadn’t been the best husband, but I damn sure hadn’t been the best wife.
I’m sure you’re right, I told him. But I don’t think I deserve get-ting a cracked rib.
He said there was no way he’d cracked my rib, that must have happened accidentally when I fell.
I said he’d pushed me, hit me.
And I was astonished when Nick said he didn’t remember hitting me. Maybe one of his hands had slipped.
I wondered if he really didn’t remember, if he could actually rewrite reality for himself, or if he was just lying. And then I realized it didn’t matter.
I’m not coming back, I said. And every comment he made after that, I repeated it. I’m not coming back. I’m not coming back.
I hung up the phone and went to Gage, who had been sitting in the living area. His hands had clenched so hard in the arms of the leather chair that his fingertips had riveted deep gouges in the smooth hide. But he had let me fight my battle alone, as I had needed to.
I had always loved Gage, but never so much as then.
I filed for a divorce on the grounds of insupportability, meaning the marriage had become insupportable because of personality conflicts that had destroyed “the legitimate ends of the marriage relationship.” That was the quickest way to end it, the lawyer said. If Nick didn’t contest it. Otherwise there would be a trial, and all kinds of nastiness and humiliation in store for both parties.
“Haven,” Gage said to me in private, his gray eyes kind, the set of his mouth grim. “I’ve tried my best to hold back and do things your way . . . but I have to ask you for something now.”
“What is it?”
“You and I both know there’s no way Nick’s going to let the divorce go uncontested unless we make it worth his while.”
“You mean pay him off,” I said, my blood simmering as I thought of Nick getting a financial reward after the way he’d treated me. “Well, remind Nick that I’ve been disinherited. I’m — ”
“You’re still a Travis. And Nick will play his part to the hilt . . . a poor hardworking guy who married a spoiled rich girl, and now he’s being tossed aside like a bartender’s rag. If he wants, Haven, he can make this process as long and difficult and public as possible.”
“Give him my share of the condo, then. That’s all the community property we’ve got.”
“Nick will want more than just the condo.”
I knew what Gage was leading up to. He wanted to pay Nick off, to keep him quiet long enough to let the divorce go through. Nick was about to get a big fat reward, after all he’d done to me. I got mad enough to start shaking. “I swear,” I said with blistering sincerity, “if I manage to get rid of him, I will never get married again.”
“No, don’t say that.” Gage reached for me without thinking, and I shrank back. I still didn’t like to be touched, especially by men, which Susan had said was a protective mechanism and would get better in time. I heard Gage utter a quiet curse, and he dropped his arms. “Sorry,” he muttered, and heaved a sigh. “You know, putting a bullet in his head would be a lot cheaper and quicker than a divorce.”
I glanced at him warily. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Right.” He made his expression bland, but I didn’t like the look in his eyes.
“Let’s stick with the divorce option,” I said. “I’d prefer Matthew and Carrington not to have to visit you in prison. What kind of terms are you thinking? And am I supposed to go crawling to Dad for money to give to Nick? . . . Because I sure don’t have any.”
“You let me worry about the terms. We’ll settle up later.”
Realizing my brother was not only going to assume the expenses of my divorce, but also the settlement, I gave him a wretched look, “Gage — ”
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “You’d do it for me. You’re not causing hardship for anyone, sweetheart.”
“It’s not right for you to pay for my mistakes.”
“Haven . . . part of being strong is being able to admit you need help sometimes. You went into this marriage alone, you suffered through it alone, you damn sure don’t have to get out of it alone. Let me be your big brother.”
His quiet certainty made the ground beneath my feet feel solid. Like someday everything might actually be okay.
“I’m going to pay you back someday.”
“I guess the only time I’ve ever felt more grateful,” I told him, “is when you pulled Bootsie out of the ligustrum bush.”
I swallowed my pride and called Dad the day after my divorce was final in February. To my profound relief, Nick hadn’t appeared at court when the judge signed the decree. Two people had to show up to get married, but only one had to for a divorce. Gage had assured me that Nick would stay far away from court that day. “What’d you do, threaten to break his legs?” I asked.
“I told him if I caught sight of him, his guts would be strung on the courthouse gate within five minutes.” I had smiled at that until I realized Gage hadn’t been joking.
Gage and Liberty had let my family know that I was back in Houston, but that I wouldn’t be ready to see anyone or do any telephone-talking for a while. Naturally Dad, who wanted to be in the center of whatever was going on, took offense at my elusiveness. He told Gage to tell me that any time I was ready to get off my high horse, he would like for me to come see him.
“Did you tell him I was getting a divorce?” I asked Gage.
“Yes. I can’t say he was surprised.”
“But did you tell him why?” I didn’t want anyone to know about what had occurred between Nick and me. Maybe in time I would tell Jack or Joe, but for now I needed it to be kept private. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or helpless, a victim, ever again. Most of all I didn’t want to be pitied.
“No,” Gage said, his tone reassuring. “I just told Dad it didn’t work out — and if he wanted any kind of relationship with you at all, to keep his mouth shut about it.”
So I finally called Dad, my sweaty hands gripping the phone. “Hey Dad.” I tried to sound casual. “Been a while since I talked to you. Just thought I’d check in.”
“Haven.” The sound of his gravelly voice was familiar and comforting. “You took your sweet time. What have you been doing?”
“Getting a divorce.”
“I heard about that.”
“Yeah, well . . . it’s all over between me and Nick.” Since my father couldn’t see me, I wrinkled up my face as if I’d chomped on bitter dandelion greens as I forced myself to admit, “It was a mistake.”
“There are times I take no pleasure in being right.”
“Like hell,” I said, and was rewarded by his scratchy chuckle.
“If you really got rid of him,” Dad said, “I’ll call my lawyer this afternoon and have you put back in the will.”
“Oh, good. That’s why I called.”
It took him a moment to realize I was being sarcastic.
“Dad,” I said, “you’re not going to hold that will over my head the rest of my life. Thanks to you, I’ve gotten a great education, and there’s no reason I can’t hold down a job. So don’t bother calling the lawyer I don’t want to be in the will.”
“You’ll be in the will if I say so,” Dad retorted, and I had to laugh.
“Whatever. The real reason I’m calling is to say I’d like to see you.
It’s been way too long since I’ve had a good argument with someone.”
“Fine,” he said. “Come on over.”
And with that, our relationship was back on track, as flawed and frustrating as it had ever been. But I had boundaries now, I reminded myself, and no one was going to cross them. I would be a fortress of one.
I was a new person in the same world, which was a lot more difficult than being the same person in a new world. People thought they knew me but they didn’t. With the exception of Todd, my old friends were no longer relevant to the new version of me. So I turned to my brothers for support, and I discovered that adulthood had done nice things for their personalities.
Joe, a commercial photographer, made a point of telling me that he had a big house and there was plenty of room if I wanted to stay with him. He said he was gone a lot of the time, and we wouldn’t infringe on each other’s privacy. I told him how much I appreciated the offer, but I needed my own place. Still, it wouldn’t have been bad at all, living with him. Joe was an easygoing guy. I never heard him complain about anything. He took life as it came, which was a rare quality in the Travis family.
But the real surprise was Jack, the brother I’d never gotten along with — the one who’d given me a bad haircut when I was three, and scared the wits out of me with bugs and garden snakes. The adult Jack turned out to be an unexpected ally. A friend. In his company I could fully relax, the haunted, anxious feeling burning away like water drops on a smoking griddle.
Maybe it was because Jack was so straightforward. He claimed to be the least complex person the Travis family, and that was probably true. Jack was a hunter, comfortable with his status as a predatory omnivore. He was also an environmentalist and saw no conflict in that. Any hunter, he said, had better do his best to protect nature since he spent so much time out in it.
With Jack, you always knew where you stood. If he liked something, he said so without hesitation, and if he didn’t, he’d tell you the truth about that too. He stayed on the right side of the law while admitting that some things were just more fun when they were illegal. He liked cheap women, fast cars, late nights, and hard liquor, especially all together. In Jack’s view, you were obliged to sin on Saturday night so you’d have something to atone for Sunday morning.
Otherwise you’d be putting the preacher out of business.
After Jack had graduated from UT, he’d gone to work at a small property management company. Eventually he’d gotten a loan, bought the company, and expanded it to four times its original size.
It was the perfect occupation for Jack, who liked to fix things, to tinker and problem-solve. Like me, he had no interest in investment lingo and all the sophisticated financial strategies that Gage and Dad so relished. Jack preferred the nuts-and-bolts issues of working and living. He was good at backroom deals, cutting through legal bullshit, talking man-to-man. To Jack, there was nothing more powerful than a promise made over a handshake. He would have died — literally chosen death — before breaking his word.
In light of my hotel experience at the Darlington, Jack said I’d be perfect working for the residential side of his management company, which was headquarters at 1800 Main. His current on site manager was leaving on account of pregnancy — she warned to spend the first few years of her child’s life at home.
“Thanks, but I couldn’t,” I said when Jack first broached the idea of my taking the job.
“Why not? You’d be great at it.”
“Reeks of nepotism,” I said.
“So there are other more qualified people for the position.”
I began to smile at his persistence. “And they’ll complain if you hire your sister.”
“See,” Jack said easily, “that’s the whole point of having my own company. I can hire Bozo the fu**ing clown if I want.”
“That’s so flattering, Jack.”
He grinned. “Come on. Give it a shot. It’ll be fun.”
“Are you offering to employ me so you can keep an eye on me?”
“Actually, we’ll hardly see each other, we’ll both be so damn busy all the time.”
I liked the sound of that, being busy all the time. I wanted to work, to accomplish things, after the past couple of years of being Nick’s personal slave.
“You’ll learn a lot,” Jack coaxed. “You’d be in charge of the money stuff — insurance, payroll, maintenance bills. You’d also negotiate service contracts, purchase supplies and equipment, and you’d work with a leasing agent and an assistant. As the on-site manager, you’d live in a one-bedroom unit in the building. But you wouldn’t be stuck in the office all the time . . . you’ll have a lot of outside meetings. Later, when you’re ready, you could get involved in the commercial side of things, which would be a help since I’m planning to branch out into construction management and then maybe — ”
“Who’d be paying my salary?” I asked suspiciously. “You, or Dad?”
Jack looked affronted “Me of course. Dad doesn’t have shit to do with my management company.”
“He owns the building,” I pointed out.
“You’re employed by me and my company . . . and believe me, 1800 Main is not the only client we’ve got. Not by a long shot.” Jack gave me a look of exaggerated patience. “Think it over, Haven. It’d work out great for both of us.”
“It sounds great,” I said. “And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. But I can’t start out at the top, Jack. I don’t have enough experience. And it doesn’t look good for either of us, for you to give me a job like that when I haven’t paid any dues. What if I start out as the manager’s assistant? I could learn from the ground up.”
“You don’t have to pay dues,” Jack protested. “You ought to get something for being a Travis.”
“Being a Travis means I should pay extra dues,” I said.
He looked at me and shook his head, and mumbled something about liberal Yankee shit.
I smiled at him. “You know it makes the most sense. And it’s only fair to give the manager’s job to someone who’s really earned it.”
“This is business,” Jack said. “Fairness doesn’t have crap to do with it.”
But he relented eventually, and said far be it from him to keep me from starting at the bottom, if that was what I really wanted.
“Hack it all off,” I told Liberty, sitting in her bathroom, draped in plastic. “I’m so sick of all this hair, it’s hot and tangly and I never know what to do with it.”
I wanted a new look to go with my new job. And as a former hairstylist, Liberty knew what she was doing. I figured anything she did to me was bound to be an improvement.
“Maybe we should go in stages,” Liberty said. “It may be a shock if I take too much off at once.”
“No, you can’t donate it if it’s less than ten inches long. Just go for it.” We were going to give the foot-long rope of hair to the Locks of Love program, which made wigs for children who suffered from medical hair loss.
Liberty combed my hair deftly. “It’s going to release some curl once I shorten it,” she said. “All this weight is dragging your hair down.”
She plaited it and sawed the entire length off at the nape. I held the braid while Liberty brought a Ziploc bag, and I dropped it inside the plastic pouch and sealed it with a kiss. “Good luck to whoever wears it next,” I said.
Liberty spritzed my hair with water and moved all around my head with a straight razor, slicing off angled pieces until there were heaps of hair on the floor. “Don’t be nervous,” she said as she caught me examining a lock that had fallen onto my plastic-covered lap. “You’re going to look great.”
“I’m not nervous,” I said truthfully. I didn’t care how I looked, as long as it was different.
She blow-dried my hair using a round brush, ran her fingers through it to make it piecey, and beamed in satisfaction. “Take a look.”
I stood and got a mild shock — a nice one — at my reflection. Liberty had given me long bangs that swept across my forehead, and a short layered bob, the feathered ends turning up gently. I looked stylish. Confident. “It’s flippy,” I said playing with the layers.
“You can turn the ends under or out,” she said, smiling. “Do you like it?”
“I love it.”
Liberty turned me around so we could both see the cut in the mirror. “It’s sexy,” she said.
“You think so? I hope not.”
She smiled at me quizzically. “Yes, I do think so. Why don’t you want to look sexy?”
“False advertising,” I said.
The manager that Jack brought over from the other office was named Vanessa Flint. She was one of those highly groomed and put-together women who had probably looked thirty-five when she was twenty-five, and would still look thirty-five even when she was fifty-five. Although she was only medium height, her slimness and good posture fooled you into thinking she was a lot taller. Her face was fine-boned and serene beneath a sweep of ash-blond hair. I admired the composure she wore like a high-buttoned blouse.
There wasn’t much substance to her voice, which was crisp and soft, like ice wrapped in velvet. But somehow it forced you to pay more attention, as if you shared in the responsibility of Vanessa making herself understood.
I liked her at first. At least, I wanted to like her. Vanessa was friendly, sympathetic, and when we went out for drinks after our first day at work, I found myself confiding more about my failed marriage and divorce than I should have. But Vanessa had recently been divorced too, and there seemed to be enough similarities between our two exes that it was a pleasure to compare notes.
Vanessa was frank about her concern over my relationship with Jack, and I appreciated her honesty. I reassured her that I had no intention of coasting by, or running to Jack just because he was my brother. Just the opposite, in fact. I was going to work a lot harder, because I had something to prove. She seemed satisfied by my earnest declarations, and said she thought we would work well together.
Vanessa and I were both given apartments at 1800 Main. I felt a little guilty about it, knowing that no other manager’s assistant would have gotten an apartment, but it was the one concession I’d made to Jack. He had insisted on it, and the truth was, I liked the security of living so close to my brother.
The other employees lived off-site and came in each day, including a petite blond office manager named Kimmie; the leasing agent, Samantha Jenkins; the marketing agent, Phil Bunting; and Rob Ryan in accounting. We contacted Jack’s commercial office whenever there was a need for legal resources, tech questions, or something we weren’t equipped to handle on our own.
It seemed that everyone who worked for Jack at the commercial office had acquired his personal style . . . everyone was relaxed and almost jovial, in comparison to our office. Vanessa ran a tighter ship, which meant no casual-dress Fridays, and a “zero error tolerance” policy that was never exactly spelled out. However, everyone seemed to regard her as a good boss, tough but fair-minded. I was ready to learn from her, follow her example. I thought she was going to be a great new influence in my life.
But in a matter of days, I realized I was being gaslighted.
I was familiar with the tactic, since Nick had done if a lot. A bully or someone with personality disorder needs to keep their victims confused, off balance, perpetually unsure of themselves. That way he or she could manipulate you more easily. Gaslighting could be anything that made you doubt yourself. For example, a bully would make a statement about something, and when you’d agree with it, he’d disagree with his own original statement. Or he’d make you think you’d lost something when you hadn’t, or accuse you of forgetting something when he’d never asked you to do it in the first place.
What worried me was that I seemed to be Vanessa’s only target. No one else seemed to be having a problem with her.
She would misplace a file and tell me to get it for her, turning up the tension until I was scrambling to find it. If I couldn’t come up with it, she accused me of hiding the file somewhere. And then the file would turn up in some weird place, like beneath a plant on top of a cabinet, or wedged between the printer cart and her desk. She gave people the impression that I was scatterbrained and disorganized. And I had no proof of her mischief-making. The only thing that kept me from doubting myself was my own shaky sense of sanity.
There was no predicting Vanessa’s moods or requests. I learned to save everything, after she asked me to write three different drafts of a letter and then decided on the first version after I’d deleted it. She would tell me to be at a meeting at one-thirty, and when I arrived, I was a half hour late. And she swore she’d told me one o’clock. She said I must not have paid attention.
Vanessa let it drop to me that she’d had an assistant named Helen for years, and she would have brought Helen with her to the new job, except that I’d already been given the position. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have broken up a long-running professional partnership, and robbed someone of a position they deserved. When Vanessa had me call Helen, who was still at the old office, to find out the name and number of Vanessa’s favorite manicurist, I took the opportunity to apologize to Helen.
“God, don’t be sorry,” Helen said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I wanted to quit right then. But I was stuck, and Vanessa and I both knew it. With my skimpy resume, I couldn’t quit a job right after starting one. And I didn’t know how long it would take me to find something else. Complaining about Vanessa was out of the question — it would make me look like a prima donna, or paranoid, or both. So I decided I would stick it out for a year. I would make some contacts and dig my own way out.
“Why me?” I asked my therapist, Susan, after describing the situation with Vanessa. “She could focus on anyone in that office as a target. Do I give off ‘victim’ signals or something? Do I seem weak?”
“I don’t believe so,” Susan said gravely. “In fact, it’s most likely that Vanessa sees you as a threat. Someone she has to subdue and neutralize.”
“Me, a threat?” I shook my head. “Not to someone like Vanessa. She’s confident and put-together. She’s — ”
“Confident people aren’t bullies. I’ll bet Vanessa’s apparent confidence is really nothing but a front. A false self she’s constructed to cover her deficiencies.” Susan smiled at my skeptical expression. “And yes, you could be a big threat to an insecure person. You’re bright, educated, pretty . . . and there’s the little matter of your last name. Conquering someone like you would be a big bolster to Vanessa’s sense of superiority.”
My first Friday after starting at Travis Management Solutions, Jack came to my cubicle carrying a large shopping bag tied with a bow. “Here,” he said, handing it to me over a mountain of paper on my desk. “A little something to celebrate your first week.”
I opened the shopping bag and unearthed a briefcase made of chocolate-colored leather. “Jack, it’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“You’re coming out with me and Heidi tonight,” he informed me. “That’s the other part of the celebration.”
Heidi was one of a virtual harem of women that Jack dated interchangeably. Since he was so open about not wanting to be tied down, none of them seemed to expect any form of commitment from him.
“I don’t want to be a third wheel on your date,” I protested.
“You won’t bother us,” he said. “And you’re not even a full-sized wheel. More like a training wheel.”
I rolled my eyes, having already accepted a long time ago that being the target of short jokes from my towering brothers was an inescapable fact of life. “I’m tired,” I said. “Trust me, I’m not up to partying with you and Heidi. One drink and I’ll probably pass out.”
“Then I’ll put you into a cab and send you home.” Jack gave me an inexorable look. “I’ll haul you out of here if I have to, Haven. I mean it.”
Even though I knew he would never use force on me, I felt myself blanch, and I went stiff in my chair. Don’t touch me, I wanted to say, but the words were locked behind my teeth, thrashing like caged wild birds.
Jack blinked in surprise, staring at me. “Hey . . . I was just kidding, honey. For God’s sake, don’t look at me like that. It makes me feel as guilty as shit, and I don’t even know why.”
I forced myself to smile and relax. “Sorry. Bad memory.” I reflected that Nick wouldn’t have wanted me to go out tonight, having fun, meeting people. He would have wanted me to stay at home, isolated. Just for that, I decided, I would go out to spite him.
“Okay,” I heard myself say. “Maybe for a little while. Is what I’m wearing all right?” I was dressed in a black turtleneck and a simple skirt and pumps.
“Sure. It’s just a casual bar.”
“It’s not a meeting-people type of bar?”
“No. This is an after-work bar where you get a drink to unwind. After that, you leave for the meeting-people type of bar. And if you pick up someone good there, you go to a nice, quiet gonna-get-laid bar, and if that works out, you take her home with you.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” I said.
Vanessa came to the opening of the cubicle, slim and sleek and poised. “What fun,” she said, her gaze moving from Jack to the present on the desk. She confused me with a warm smile. “Well, I guess you deserve a reward, Haven . . . you did a great job this week.”
“Thanks.” I was surprised and gratified that she would praise me in front of my brother.
“Of course,” she added, still smiling, “we’ll have to work on using your time more productively.” She winked at Jack. “Someone likes to e-mail friends when she should be working.”
That wasn’t true — I was outraged — but I couldn’t argue with her in front of Jack. “I don’t know how you got that idea,” I said mildly.
Vanessa gave a gentle laugh “I noticed the way you click on the minimizer whenever I walk by.” She turned to Jack. “Did I hear you say you two were going out?”
My heart sank as I realized she wanted to be invited along. “Yeah,” Jack said easily. “We need a little family time together.”
“That’s nice. Well, I’ll be home, resting up and getting ready for next week.” She gave me a wink. “Don’t be too much of a party girl, Haven. I’ll need you to get up to full speed by Monday.”
Implying, I thought darkly, that I hadn’t been at full speed so far. “Have a nice weekend,” I said, and closed my laptop.
Jack had been right — it was a fairly casual bar, even if the parking lot did look like an impromptu luxury-car show. The interior was trendy, unromantic, and crowded, with dark paneling and low lighting. I liked Jack’s girlfriend Heidi, who was bubbly and giggly.
It was one of those winter evenings when the Houston weather couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to do. It rained on and off for a while, a few sideways gusts hitting us beneath the shelter of an umbrella as Jack guided us inside. I gathered Jack was a regular at this place — he appeared to know the bouncer, two of the bartenders, a couple of waitresses, and pretty much everyone who passed by our small table. In fact, Heidi seemed to know everyone too. I was introduced to a steady parade of overworked Houstonites who were all desperate for their first Friday-evening cocktails.
A couple of times Heidi nudged me under the table when a nice-looking guy had stopped by. “He’s cute, isn’t he? I know him — I could fix you up. And that one over there — he’s cute too. Which one do you like better?”
“Thank you,” I said, appreciating her efforts, “but I’m still not over the divorce.”
“Oh, you’ve got to get a rebound guy,” Heidi said, “Rebound guys are the best.” “They are?”
“They never even think of getting serious, because everyone knows you don’t jump into a relationship right after a divorce. They just want to be your welcome wagon when you start ha**ng s*x again. It’s your time to experiment, girl!”
“The world is my petri dish,” I said, raising my drink.
After slowly drinking one and a half vodka martinis, I was ready to go home. The bar was getting more crowded, and the groups of bodies moving by our table reminded me of upstreaming salmon. I looked at Jack and Heidi, who appeared in no hurry to go anywhere, and I felt the kind of loneliness that can happen in a roomful of people when everyone but you seems to be in on the good time.
“Hey, you two . . . I’m heading out.”
“You can’t,” Jack said, frowning. “It’s not even eight o’clock.”
“Jack, I’ve had two drinks and met three hundred and twenty-eight people,” — I paused to grin at Heidi — “including a couple of potential rebound guys.”
“I’ll fix you up with one of ’em,” Heidi said enthusiastically. “We’ll go on a double date!”
When hell and half of Texas freezes over, I thought, but I smiled. “Sounds great. Let’s talk later. Bye, y’all.”
Jack began to stand. “I’ll help you get a cab.”
“No, no . . . stay with Heidi. I’ll ask one of the door guys to help me.” I shook my head in exasperation as he still looked concerned. “I can find the front door and get a cab. In fact, 1800 Main is close enough I could even walk.”
“Don’t even think about it,” he said.
“I’m not planning to walk, I was just pointing out . . . Never mind. Have fun.”
Relieved at the prospect of going home and taking off my high-heeled pumps, I plunged into the mass of jostling bodies. It gave me a clammy feeling, being close to so many people.
“I don’t think it’s an outright phobia,” Susan had said when I’d told her I thought I’d developed sexophobia. “That would put it on the level of a disorder, and I’m not convinced the problem is that deep-seated. What happens is, after an experience like you had with Nick, your unconscious mind says ‘I’ll attach feelings of aversion and anxiety to the opposite sex, so I’ll avoid ever being hurt again.’ It’s just a matter of rewiring.”
“Well, I’d like to wire around it, then. Because I don’t think I have it in me to go gay.”
“You don’t have to go gay,” Susan had said, smiling. “You just have to find the right man. It’ll happen when you’re ready.”
In retrospect, I wished I’d had sex with someone before Nick, some positive association that would help me get back in the saddle, so to speak. Bleakly I wondered how many men I was going to have to sleep with before I started to like it. I wasn’t good at acquired tastes.
The mass of people inched by the bar. Every stool was occupied, hundreds of drinks set along the expanse of glittering mosaic table-top tiles. There was no way to get to the door other than follow along with the herd. Revulsion spiked in my stomach every time I felt another impersonal brush of someone’s hip, someone’s stomach, someone’s arm. To distract myself, I tried to calculate how many people beyond the acceptable fire code level had been admitted to the bar.
Someone in the herd stumbled or staggered. It was a domino effect, one person falling into another until I felt the impact of a shoulder against mine. The momentum pushed me into the line of barstools, causing me to drop my purse. I would have bumped hard into the bar if someone sitting there hadn’t reached out to steady me.
“Sorry, ma’am,” someone called from the crowd.
“It’s okay,” I said breathlessly, hunting for my purse.
“Here, let me get that,” the guy on the barstool said, bending down to retrieve it.
As the guy straightened and handed me the purse, I looked up into a pair of blue eyes, and everything stopped, the sound of voices, the background music, every footstep, blink, breath, heartbeat. Only one person I’d ever met had eyes that color. Dazzling. Devil-blue.
I was slow to react, trying to jump-start my heart back into action, and then my pulse hammered too hard, too fast. All I could think of was that the last time — the only time — I’d seen Hardy Cates, I’d been wrapped around him in my family’s wine cellar.