CHAPTER SIX

People were pressing behind me, trying to get the bartender’s attention. I was about to be trampled. With a murmur, Hardy Cates guided me to the stool he’d been occupying, helping me up. I was too dazed to object. The leather seat was warm from his body. He stood with one hand on the counter, the other on the back of my chair, sheltering me. Trapping me.Hardy was a little leaner than I remembered, a little more seasoned, tempered by maturity. The look of experience suited him, especially because somewhere deep in those eyes, there still lurked a dangerous invitation to play. He had a quality of masculine confidence that was a thousand times more potent than mere handsomeness. Perfect good looks could leave you cold, but this kind of sexy charisma went straight to your knees. I had no doubt every available woman at the bar had been drooling over him.

In fact, just beyond the outline of his shoulder, I saw the leggy blonde in the next chair glaring at me. I had stumbled, literally, into the middle of their conversation.

“Miss Travis.” Hardy looked at me as if he couldn’t quite believe I was there. “Pardon. I mean Mrs. Tanner.”

“No, I’m . . . it’s Travis again.” Aware that I was stammering, I said baldly, “I’m divorced.”

There was no change in his expression except for a slight widening of those blue-on-blue eyes. He picked up his drink and tossed back a swallow. When his gaze returned to mine, he seemed to be looking right inside me. I flushed hard, remembering the wine cellar again.

The blonde was still giving me the evil eye. I gestured to her awkwardly and babbled, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I didn’t mean to . . . please, you go on with your . . . it was nice seeing you, Mr. — ”

“Hardy. You’re not interrupting anything. We’re not together.” He glanced over his shoulder, the yellow bar light sliding over the layers of his shiny dark hair. “Excuse me,” he said to the woman. “I have to catch up with an old friend.”

“Sure,” she said with a dimpled smile.

Hardy turned back to me, and the woman’s face changed. From the look she gave me, I should have dropped dead on the spot.

“I’m not going to take your chair,” I said, beginning to slide off the barstool. “I was just heading out. It’s so crowded in here — ” My breath caught as my legs touched his, and I scooted up onto the stool again.

“Give it a minute,” Hardy said. “It’ll thin out soon.” He gestured for a bartender, who appeared with miraculous speed.

“Yes, Mr. Cates?”

Hardy looked at me, one brow lifting. “What’ll you have?”

I’ve really got to go, I wanted to tell him, but it came out as, “Dr Pepper, please.”

“Dr Pepper — extra cherries,” he told the bartender.

Surprised, I asked, “How did you know I like maraschinos?” His mouth curved with a slow burn of a smile. For a moment I forgot how to breathe. “Just figured you for the type who likes extra.”

He was too big. Too close. I still hadn’t rid myself of the habit of assessing a man in terms of how much damage he could do to me.

Nick had left bruises and fractures — but this guy could kill a normal person with a swipe of his hand. I knew that someone like me, with all my baggage and my possible case of sexophobia had no business being around Hardy Cates.

His hands were still on either side of me, braced on the chair arm and the countertop. I felt the tension of opposing urges, the desire to shrink away from him, and an attraction that prickled like sparks in-side me. His silver-gray tie had been loosened and the top button of his shirt was unfastened, revealing the hint of a white undershirt beneath. The skin of his throat was smooth and brown. I wondered for a second what his body felt like beneath the layers of thin cotton and broadcloth, if he was as hard as I remembered. A tumult of curiosity and dread caused me to fidget on the chair.

I turned gratefully as the bartender brought my drink, a highball of sparkling Dr Pepper. Bright red cherries bobbed on the surface. I plucked one from the drink and pulled the fruit from its stem with my teeth. It was plump and sticky, rolling sweetly on my tongue.

“Did you come here alone, Miss Travis?” Hardy asked. So many men his size had incongruously high voices, but he had a deep voice, made to fill a big chest.

I considered telling him to call me by my first name, but I needed to keep every possible barrier between us, no matter how slight.

“I came with my brother Jack and his girlfriend,” I said. “I work for him now. He has a property management company. We were celebrating my first week.” I picked out another cherry and ate it slowly, and found that Hardy was watching me with an absorbed, slightly glazed expression.

“When I was little, I could never get enough of these,” I said. “I stole jars of maraschinos from the fridge. I ate the fruit like candy and poured the juice into my Coke.”

“I bet you were a cute little girl. A tomboy.”

“Absolutely a tomboy,” I said. “I wanted to be like my brothers. Every Christmas I asked Santa for a tool set.”

“Did he ever bring you one?”

I shook my head with a rueful smile. “Lots of dolls. Ballet outfits. An Easy-Bake Oven.” I washed down another cherry with a swallow of Dr Pepper. “My aunt finally gave me a junior tool kit, but I had to give it back. My mother said it wasn’t appropriate for little girls.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “I never got what I wanted either.”

I wondered what that was, but getting into personal subjects with him was out of the question. I tried to think of something mundane. Something about work. “How’s your EOR business going?” I asked.

From what I knew, Hardy and a couple of other guys had started a small enhanced oil recovery company that went into mature or spent fields after the big companies were through with them. Using specialized recovery techniques, they could locate leftover reserves, called “bypassed pay.” A man could make a lot of money that way.

“We’re doing okay,” Hardy said easily. “We’ve bought up leases for some mature fields, and got some good results with CO, flooding. And we bought an interest in a nonoperated property in the Gulf — we’re getting some good play out of it.” He watched as I drank my Dr Pepper. “You cut your hair,” he said softly.

I lifted a hand and scrubbed my fingers through the short layers. “It was in the way.”

“It’s beautiful.”

It had been so long since I’d gotten a compliment of any kind that I was desperately tongue-tied.

Hardy was watching me with an intent stare. “I never thought I’d have a chance to say this to you. But that night — ”

“I’d rather not talk about that,” I said hastily. “Please.”

Hardy fell obligingly silent.

My gaze focused on the hand resting on the countertop. It was long-fingered and capable, a workman’s hand. His nails were clipped nearly to the quick. I was struck by the scattering of tiny star-shaped scars across some of his fingers. “What . . . what are those marks from?” I asked.

His hand flexed a little. “I did fencing work after school and during summers while I was growing up. Put up barbed wire for the local ranchers.”

I winced at the thought of the wicked barbs digging into his fingers. “You did it with your bare hands?”

“Until I could afford gloves.”

His tone was matter-of-fact, but I felt a twinge of shame, aware of how different my privileged upbringing had been. And I wondered about the drive and ambition it must have taken for him to climb from a trailer-park life, the aluminum ghetto, to where he’d gotten in the oil business. Not many men could do that. You had to work hard. And you had to be ruthless. I could believe that about him.

Our gazes caught, held, the shared voltage nearly causing me to fall off the barstool. I flushed all over, heat gathering beneath my clothes, inside my shoes, and at the same time I was overtaken by a nervous chill. I had never wanted to get away from anyone so fast.

“Thanks for the drink.” My teeth were chattering. “I have to go, I’m . . . It was nice to see you. Good luck with everything.” I got off the chair and saw with relief that the crowd had thinned out, and there was a negotiable path to the door.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” Hardy said, tossing a bill on the counter. He picked up the jacket of his business suit.

“No, thanks, I’ll get a taxi.”

But he walked with me anyway.

“You’ll lose your place at the bar,” I muttered.

“There’s always another place at the bar.” I felt the casual pressure of his hand at the small of my back, and I recoiled instinctively. The light touch was instantly withdrawn. “Looks like it’s still raining,” he said. “Do you have a coat?”

“No,” I said abruptly. “It’s fine. I don’t mind getting wet.”

“Can I drive you somewhere?” His tone had gentled, as if he recognized my increasing distress even if he didn’t understand the reason for it.

I shook my head violently. “A taxi’s fine.”

Hardy said a few words to one of the doormen, who went out to the curb. “We can wait inside,” he said, “until a car pulls up.”

But I couldn’t wait. I had to escape him. I was so full of anxiety standing beside him, that I was afraid I was going to have a panic attack. The side of my jaw was throbbing for no reason at all, and my ribs ached where Nick had kicked me, oven though I was all healed now. The resonance of old wounds. I’m going to fire my therapist, I thought. I shouldn’t be nearly this screwed up after all the time I’ve spent with her.

“Bad divorce?” Hardy asked, his gaze falling to my hands. I realized I was clutching my purse in a death grip.

“No, the divorce was great,” I said. “It was the marriage that sucked.” I forced a smile. “Gotta go. Take care.”

Unable to stay inside the bar any longer, I dashed outside even though the taxi wasn’t there yet. And I stood there in the drizzle like an idiot, breathing too hard, wrapping my arms around myself. My skin felt too tight for my body, like I’d been shrink-wrapped. Someone came up behind me, and from the way the hairs on the back of my neck lifted, I knew Hardy had followed me.

Without a word he draped his suit jacket around me, cocooning me in silk-lined wool. The feeling was so exquisite that I shivered. The scent of him was all around me, that sunny, soft spice I had never forgotten . . . God, it was good. Comforting and stimulating at the same time. Absolute world-class pheromones. I wished I could take his jacket home with me.

Not him, just the jacket.

I turned to look up at him, at the raindrops glittering in the rich brown locks of his hair. Water fell in tiny cool strikes on my face. He moved slowly, as if he thought a sudden move might startle me. I felt one of his palms curve along the side of my face, his thumb wiping at the raindrops on my cheek as if they were tears.

“I’d ask if I could call you,” I heard him say, “but I think I know the answer.” His hand moved to my throat, caressing the side with the backs of his fingers. He was touching me, I thought, dazed, but at that moment I didn’t give a damn. Standing in the rain, wrapped in his jacket, was about the best feeling I’d had in a year.

His head lowered over mine, but he didn’t try to kiss me, just stood looking into my face, and I stared up into intense blue. His fingertips explored the underside of my jaw and wandered to the crest of my cheek. The pad of his thumb was slightly callused, sandpapery like a cat’s tongue. I was filled with mortified fire as I imagined what it might feel like if he —

No.

No, no . . . it would take years of therapy before I’d be ready for that.

“Give me your phone number,” he murmured.

“That would be a bad idea,” I managed to say.

“Why?”

Because there’s no way I could handle you, I thought. But I said, “My family doesn’t like you.”

Hardy grinned unrepentantly, his teeth white in his tanned face. “Don’t tell me they’re still holding that one little business deal against me?”

“The Travises are sort of touchy that way. And besides,” — I paused to lick a raindrop from the corner of my mouth, and his gaze followed the movement alertly — “I’m not a substitute for Liberty.”

Hardy’s smile vanished. “No. You could never be a substitute for anyone. And that was over a long time ago.”

It was raining harder now, turning his hair as dark and slick as otter’s fur, his lashes spiking over brilliant blue eyes. He looked good wet. He even smelled good wet, all clean skin and drenched cotton. His skin looked warm beneath the mist of droplets. In fact, as we stood there surrounded by the city, and falling water and lowering night, he seemed like the only warm thing in the world.

He stroked a sodden curl back from my cheek, and another, his face still, severe. For all his size and strength, he touched me with a gentleness Nick had never been capable of. We were so close that I saw the texture of his close shaven skin, and I knew that the masculine smoothness would he delicious against my lips. I felt a sharp, sweet ache somewhere beneath my rib cage. Wistfully I thought of how much I wished I had gone with him that night at the wedding, to drink champagne under a strawberry moon. No matter how it might have ended, I wished I had done it.

But it was too late now. A lifetime too late. A million wishes too late.

The taxi pulled up.

Hardy’s face remained over mine. “I want to see you again,” he said in a low voice.

My insides turned into a mini-Chernobyl. I didn’t understand myself, why I wanted so much to stay with him. Any rational person would know that Hardy Cates had no real interest in me. He wanted to annoy my family and get my sister-in-law’s attention. And if doing that meant screwing a girl from the other side of the tracks, so much the better. He was a predator. And for my own sake, I had to get rid of him.

So I plastered a disdainful smile over the panic, and gave him a look that said I’ve got your number, pal. “You’d just love to f*ck a Travis, wouldn’t you?” Even as I said it, I cringed inwardly at my own deliberate crudeness.

Hardy responded with a long stare that fried every brain cell I possessed. And then he said softly, “Just one little Travis.”

I went scarlet. I felt myself clenching in places I didn’t even know I had muscles. And I was amazed that my legs still worked as I went to the taxi and got in.

“Where do you live?” Hardy asked, and like an idiot, I told him. He handed a twenty to the cabbie, a huge overpayment since 1800 Main was only a few blocks away. “Drive careful with her,” he said, as if I were made of some fragile substance that might shatter at the first bump on the road.

“Yes, sir!”

And it wasn’t until the cab pulled away that I realized I was still wearing his jacket.

The normal thing would have been to have the jacket dry-cleaned immediately — there was a service in the building — and have someone take it to Hardy on Monday.

But sometimes normal just isn’t happening. Sometimes crazy feels too good to resist. So I kept the jacket, uncleaned, all weekend. I kept stealing over to it and taking deep breaths of it. That damned jacket, the smell of Hardy Cates on it, was crack. I finally gave in and wore it for a couple of hours while I watched a DVD movie.

Then I called my best friend, Todd, who had recently forgiven me for not talking to him in months, and I explained the situation to him.

“I’m having a relationship with a jacket,” I said.

“Was there a sale at Neiman’s?”

“No, it’s not mine, it’s a guy’s jacket.” I went on to tell him all about Hardy Cates, even going so far as to describe what had happened at Liberty and Gage’s wedding almost two years ago, and then about meeting him in the bar. “So I just put on the jacket and watched a movie in it,” I concluded. “In fact, I’m wearing it right now. How far outside of normal is that? On a scale of one to ten, how crazy am I?”

“Depends. What movie did you watch?”

“Todd,” I protested, wanting a serious answer from him.

“Haven, don’t ask me to define the boundaries of normal. You know how I was raised. My father once stuck strands of his own pubic hair onto a painting and sold it for a million dollars.”

I had always liked Todd’s father, Tim Phelan, but I’d never understood his art. The best explanation I’d heard was that Tim Phelan was a revolutionary genius whose sculptures exploded conventional notions of art and displayed common materials like bubble gum and masking tape in a new context.

As a child I had often wondered at the perplexing role reversal of the Phelan household, in which the parents seemed like children, and their only child, Todd, had been the grown-up.

It had only been at Todd’s insistence that the family kept standard hours for eating and sleeping. He had dragged them to parent/teacher conferences even though they didn’t believe in the grading system. Todd had no luck, however, in curbing their wild house decorating. Sometimes Mr. Phelan would pass through the hallway, pause to sketch or paint something right on the wall, and continue on his way. Their house had been filled with priceless graffiti. And at holiday time, Mrs. Phelan would hang the Christmas tree, which they called a bodhi bush, upside down from the ceiling.

Now Todd had become an enormously successful interior designer, mostly because of his ability to be creative without going too far. His father disdained his work, which pleased Todd tremendously. In the Phelan family, Todd had once told me, beige was an act of defiance.

“So,” Todd said, returning to the subject of the jacket. “Can I come over and smell it?”

I grinned. “No, you’d take it for yourself, and I have to give it back. But not until tomorrow, which means I have at least twelve hours left with it.”

“I think you need to talk with Susan this week about why you’re so afraid of a guy you’re attracted to that you can’t handle anything more than fondling his jacket. While he’s not in it.”

I was instantly defensive. “I already told you, he’s a family enemy and I — ”

“I call bullshit,” Todd said. “You didn’t have any problem telling your family to go to hell when you wanted to be with Nick.”

“Yeah, and as it turned out, they were all right about him.”

“Doesn’t matter. You have the right to go after any guy who appeals to you. I don’t think you’re afraid of your family’s reaction. I think it’s something else.” A long, speculative pause, and then he asked gently, “Was it that bad with Nick, sweetheart?”

I had never told Todd that my husband had physically abused me. I wasn’t at the point that I could talk about it with anyone other than Gage, Liberty, or the therapist. The concern in Todd’s voice nearly undid me. I tried to answer, but it took forever to force a sound from my tight throat.

“Yeah,” I finally whispered. My eyes flooded, and I wiped them with my palm. “It was pretty bad.”

Then it was Todd’s turn to wait a while, before he could manage to speak. “What can I do?” he asked simply.

“You’re doing it, you’re being my friend.”

“Always.”

I knew he meant it. And it occurred to me that friendship was a lot more dependable, not to mention long-lasting, than love.

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