CHAPTER NINE

Vanessa’s warning about staying away from the tenants hadn’t been necessary. I had already decided to take Todd’s assessment of Hardy to heart. I wasn’t going anywhere near him. My rebound guy, when and if I found one, was not going to be manipulative or twisty twisted. He was going to be someone I could handle, someone who wouldn’t overwhelm me. And although Hardy was only about seven or eight years older than me, he’d had infinitely more experience in just about every way. As far as sex was concerned, he’d gone “around the sugar bowl,” as Aunt Gretchen would have put it, just a few too many times.But the day after Hardy had moved into 1800 Main, I found a wrapped package on my desk, tied with a neat red ribbon. Since it wasn’t my birthday or any gift-giving holiday I could think of, I was mystified.

Kimmie stood at the entryway of my cubicle. “It was dropped off a few minutes ago,” she said, “by one of the cutest guys I’ve ever seen. All blue eyes and bronzy muscles.”

“I think it was the new tenant,” I said, approaching the package like it might contain a bomb “Mr. Cates.”

“If that’s the kind of tenant we’re attracting,” Kimmie said, “I will work here forever. For no pay.”

“I’d steer clear of him if I were you.” I sat at my desk. “He’s no respecter of women.”

“One can only hope so,” she said.

I shot her a distracted glance. “Did Vanessa see him bring it in? Did she meet him?”

Kimmie grinned. “Not only did she meet him, she was smacking her lips over him, like Samantha and I were. And she tried her best to find out what was in that package, but he wouldn’t tell her.”

Great, I thought, and repressed a sigh. It didn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be cleaning the coffee machine at least ten times that day.

“Well . . . aren’t you going to open it?”

“Later,” I said. God knew what was in that box — I was going to wait until I could unwrap it in private.

“Haven . . . you’re crazy if you think you can take that present out of the office without letting Vanessa know what it is.” Although Kimmie seemed to like our boss, it was common knowledge that no detail of what went on in the office escaped Vanessa’s notice.

I set the wrapped box on the floor. It was heavy, with a metallic rattle coming from inside. Was it an appliance of some kind? God, please let it not be some bizarre sex toy. “I don’t have to let her pry into the details of my private life.”

“Uh-huh.” Kimmie gave me a skeptical glance. “Wait until Vanessa gets back from lunch. Your privacy will last about as long as an ice cube in Brownsville.”

It was no surprise, of course, when Vanessa came straight to my cubicle when she returned. She was dressed in a pristine white skirt suit, with an ice-pink blouse that matched her nails and delicately glossed lips. I tensed as she half sat on the edge of my desk, looking down at me.

“We had a visitor while you were out,” she remarked with a smile. “Apparently you and Mr. Cates have gotten friendly.”

“I’m friendly to all the tenants,” I said.

She looked amused. “How many of them are you exchanging gifts with, Haven?”

I stared at her without blinking. “Mr. Cates and I are not exchanging gifts.”

“Then what is that?” She pointed to the box beside my desk.

“I assume it’s a thank-you gesture. Because I recommended the interior decorator.”

“You assume?” She laughed gently. “Well, let’s stop assuming and find out what it is.”

I fought to keep the desperation from my voice. “I’m too busy to deal with that right now. I’ve got a lot of — ”

“Oh, there’s always time for presents,” Vanessa said brightly. “Go on, Haven. Open it.”

Silently I damned her, myself, and most of all Hardy Cates for putting me in this position. Reaching for the box, I hefted it to my lap. At the first sound of ripping paper, the other employees, including Kimmie, Rob, and Phil, appeared at the entrance to my cubicle. I now had an audience.

“Hey,” Kimmie said with a grin, “you’re finally opening that thing.”

Grimly I tore off the wrapping, wadded it up and deposited it in the wastebasket. The gift, whatever it was, was inside an innocuous white box. If it was something embarrassing, I thought, I was going to kill Hardy Cates within the hour. Holding my breath, I lifted the lid and discovered a case of sturdy pink molded plastic. There was a tag tied to the handle, with a few words:

Hope this will come in handy.

— H

“Is it bath stuff?” Kimmie prompted. “Makeup? Jewelry?”

“Jewelry, in a box this big?” I unfastened the silver latches.

“This is Texas,” Kimmie said reasonably.

“Go on,” Vanessa prompted, as I hesitated before lifting the lid.

Before I could stop myself, a huge, irrepressible smile spread across my face as I opened the case. It was a tool kit complete with a pink-handled hammer, a tape measure, a screwdriver, and a set of wrenches.

“A tool kit?” Kimmie asked blankly. “Well. That’s different.”

Even Vanessa looked disappointed. No doubt she had been hoping for something scandalous or compromising, or at least expensive. But the gift of a tool kit was hardly something to indicate a hot affair.

Unfortunately in my case, this was more effective than a trunkload of diamonds. It suggested that Hardy Cates understood me, got me, in a way no man ever had. Not even Nick. That scared me almost as much as it pleased me.

“Nice,” I said blandly, turning to hide my hot cheeks. I closed the tool kit and set it on the floor beside my desk.

Vanessa stayed at my desk until everyone else had gone back to work. I could feel her gaze on the back of my head. I ignored her, blindly studying my laptop screen.

“You really are bad with men, aren’t you?” I heard her say in an undertone that no one else could hear. “I could have gotten him to give me something a lot better than that.”

I convinced myself that the only decent thing to do was to thank Hardy for the gift. So I went up to his apartment after dinner that night, hoping he would be gone. My plan was to leave a bottle of wine and a note on the threshold, and avoid any actual contact with him.

But as I walked out of the elevator on the eighteenth floor, I saw Hardy punching the combination code on the door lock. He had just finished a workout — he must have gone to the fitness center on the sixth floor — and he was wearing sweatpants and a damp T-shirt that clung to every line of his body. He was built but not beefy, just . . . powerful. Ripped. I could see indentations of muscle all down his back. His biceps strained the sleeves of his shirt. The hair at the back of his neck was sweat soaked. A sheen of exertion covered his skin.

He was a big, steaming male, and I could almost smell the salt and fresh sweat and hot skin from where I stood. I felt the confusing, opposing pulls of repulsion and craving. I wanted to taste him. I wanted to put my mouth on him, any part of him. I also wanted to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

I managed to smile, clutching the bottle of wine against my front, as he turned to glance at me over his shoulder.

“Hey,” he said softly, his gaze locking on mine.

“Hey.” It seemed to take an absurdly long time to reach him, as if the hallway had become a conveyor belt moving In the opposite direction. When I finally got to him, I held out the wine bottle in an awkward motion. “Thank you,” I said. “For the present. I love it.” He pushed the door open. “Come in.”

“No, thanks, I just wanted to give you this — ” Our fingers touched as he took the bottle from me, and I jerked my hand back.

He looked amused, a flicker of challenge in his eyes. “Don’t you want to see how Todd’s decorating turned out?”

“I . . . yes, I guess I could come in for a minute.” I followed Hardy into the apartment. He switched the lights on, and I almost gasped at the change in the place. It had been transformed into a rustic but sophisticated retreat. The rich earthy tones of the wood and upholstery played off the abundant row of windows. The furniture had been kept to a minimum, a few comfortable oversized pieces, including a deep sofa and chairs and a low, flat ottoman upholstered in caramel-colored leather. A stylized three-panel painting depicting a cattle drive had been mounted on one wall. Perfect.

“Whatever you paid Todd,” I said, “it was worth it.”

“That’s what he told me.” Hardy looked at the bottle appreciatively. “Napa. A mountain wine. I like those, especially the cabs.”

“Did you ever end up going to a wine tasting?” I asked, flushing as I remembered how he had hoisted me up to the table in the wine cellar and stood between my —

“A few.” Hardy set the bottle onto the counter. “I’ve learned a little here and there. Never got the retro-olfaction, though.”

“It’s very subtle. Sometimes it helps if you hold the wine in your mouth and let it warm to your body temperature . . . ” As Hardy moved closer, I completely forgot what I was saying. My gaze went to the tanned skin of his throat, the damp hollow at the base of it.

“So . . .” I said, “I need to get going. I’ll let you take your shower now.” The idea of him naked, with hot water running over all that hard flesh, all that compressed energy, frayed my composure even further.

“You haven’t seen the rest of the apartment,” he said.

“I’m sure it’s great.”

“You should see the bedroom, at least.”

I saw a dance of mischief in his eyes. He was teasing me. “No, thank you.”

Hardy leaned over me, all brawn and hormones, bracing a hand on the wall. “Has anyone ever told you,” he asked conversationally, “that your eyes are the exact color of Dr Pepper?”

I laughed, disarmed. “Do you get far with lines like that?”

He seemed to relish my amusement. “Far enough, with the right woman.”

“I’m not the right woman.”

“You and Todd . . . you been friends for a long time?” I nodded. “Since middle school.”

A frown wove between his dark brows. “You ever go out with him?”

“You mean on a date? No.”

His expression cleared, as if my answer confirmed something he’d been wondering about. “He’s gay, then.”

“Well, no. Todd’s sort of ‘anything goes.’ He’s had relationships with men and women. He’s open to any possibility, because to him the outside of a person is just packaging. It’s a pretty enlightened point of view when you think about it.”

“I’m not enlightened,” Hardy said flatly. “I’m only interested in packaging that includes breasts.” And his gaze dipped briefly to my chest with an interest I found somewhat unwarranted, considering my lack of volume. He looked back into my eyes. “Haven, there’s this thing I’m going to tomorrow night . . . they’re reopening a theater —

“The Harrisburg?” The nationally renowned theater had undergone a year-long reconstruction after the subterranean level had been destroyed by flood waters. The reopening would be attended by local and national celebrities, not to mention the Texas political and social elite. “I’m going to that with Todd.”

“One of my partners made a donation on behalf of our company. So I’ve gotten roped into it.”

I got the impression that Hardy had been about to ask me to go with him. Like on a date. I felt hot and suffocated at the thought. I was not ready for a date with anyone, least of all him. “Maybe we’ll see each other there.” I tried to sound breezy. “But if we don’t happen to cross paths . . . have a great night.”

“You too.”

“Okay. See you later.” I turned and fumbled at the doorknob. He reached around me and grasped it. “Let me get that for you.”

I waited with panicked impatience, ready to flee. But Hardy paused before opening the door.

“Haven.” He waited until I turned toward him, the front of my body aligned with his, not quite touching. The awareness between us was so intense that I could almost feel the pressure of him against my skin, the hardness and weight of him. I couldn’t keep from wondering what sex would be like with him, if he would crush and hurt, if he would be gentle.

And then I wondered if he had ever hit a woman.

Somehow I couldn’t imagine it, those powerful hands inflicting damage on someone more vulnerable than himself, rupturing vessels, leaving bruises. But Nick had taught me that unimaginable things were possible.

When I did gather the courage to try again, it would not be with some excessively masculine creature. But maybe that was part of the attraction, knowing deep down that real feelings, real attachment, could never happen with Hardy.

I looked up into his eyes, mesmerized by the blueness. Even knowing how wrong it was, I wanted to melt into him, just flatten myself against that big, sturdy form and . . . let go. Breathe. Trust.

“Stay,” he said softly, “and share the wine with me.”

“You . . . you need to shower.”

A slow grin crossed his mouth. “You can share the shower too.”

“Right,” I said darkly, while my mind filled with visions of soapy male skin and water-slicked muscles. “As if.”

Hardy opened the door and let me escape. “Would have been fun,” he called after me as I went down the hall.

And I had to hide a smile, not daring to look back.

After that I felt restless all night, my sleep fractured by dreams, and in the morning I woke up aching and moody. I realized that every encounter I had with Hardy Cates was beginning to feel like foreplay.

“Starlight experience” was the theme of the night, featuring singers and musicians all paying homage to the Gershwin brothers. At least five hundred people milled through the building while breezy, jazzy music filled the air. Gershwin was a perfect choice for the evening, giving it a feeling of spontaneous, thrown-together pleasures.

The Harrisburg actually consisted of two stages, the upstairs one about four stories high, a large traditional proscenium theater for spectacle productions. But the lower theater was the one I found more interesting. It was a modular stage with a segmented floor, each section mounted on its own independent pneumatic pistons. That way the floor could be reconfigured into any shape a production required. The walls were segmented too, allowing for a multitude of design possibilities.

Although I was immune to Todd in any romantic sense, I enjoyed the sight of him in a tux. Judging from the looks he got, most other people did too. He was sleek and feline, the tux hanging with elegant looseness on his lean body.

Todd had taken me shopping and picked out my dress, a simple long black sheath with a cowl neckline and black velvet straps. The front was relatively demure, but the back plunged so deeply that I couldn’t wear anything underneath.

“That’s the good thing about not having big breasts,” Todd had told me. “You don’t need a bra to look perky.”

“I’m not worried about the front,” I’d said. “Or looking perky. What worries me is that I’m feeling breezes in places where the sun doesn’t usually shine.”

But Todd had inspected my rear view and assured me that I wasn’t revealing any posterior cleavage. Nothing would show, he said, as long as no one stood above me and looked straight down my back.

As I had expected, most of my family was there, including Dad, Liberty, and all three of my brothers. Liberty looked ravishing in a red silk gown, the shimmering fabric draped and twisted all around her voluptuous body.

“I can’t stop looking at your wife,” Todd told Gage. “It’s like staring into a fire.”

Gage grinned, sliding his arm around Liberty. The band began to play “Embraceable You,” and Liberty looked up at him. “You want to dance,” Gage said, interpreting her expectant glance, and she nodded. He took her hand and murmured, “Come on, then,” in a low tone that made her blush. Their fingers tangled tightly as he led her away.

“She’s got you well trained, boy,” Todd called after them, and sat beside Jack and me. On the other side of the table, a never-ending parade of people came to pay homage to Dad.

“She’s good for him,” Jack commented, watching Liberty dance with his brother. “He’s loosened up a lot since they got married. And I never thought I’d see Gage so crazy about anyone.”

I grinned at Jack. “It’ll be that way for you too. Someday you’ll meet someone, and you’ll feel like you’ve been hit on the head with a two-by-four.”

“I feel like that every Saturday night,” Jack informed me.

“Your date’s a hottie,” Todd said as Jack’s girlfriend-du-jour made her way to our table, back from the ladies’ room. “What’s her name? Is that Heidi?”

Jack paled. “No. God, please don’t call her that. That’s Lola. She and Heidi had a public catfight last week.”

“Over what?” I asked, and rolled my eyes as I saw the guilty look on my brother’s face. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

“There’s something else you probably don’t want to know,” Todd told me.

In response to my puzzled look, he nodded toward the other side of the table, where Dad was still holding court. My heart clutched as I saw Hardy Cates standing there shaking hands with him. Hardy didn’t wear a tux with the languid ease of an aristocrat, but instead with the vague impatience of someone who’d rather be having a cold one with the boys. Leashed and restrained in civilized clothing, he seemed more a force of nature than ever.

My father was staring at him with narrow-eyed interest. As usual, he was as subtle as a pickax. And as usual, everyone held their breath when he spoke. “You plannin’ to mess with the Travises?” Dad asked in a tone of amiable interest. “You tryin’ to put something over on us?

Hardy met his gaze squarely, a young scoundrel sizing up an old scoundrel, not without respect. “No, sir.”

“Then why have you taken up livin’ in my building?”

A slight smile touched Hardy’s lips. “Travises aren’t the only ones who want a view from the top floor.”

I didn’t have to look at my father’s face to know he loved that. Loved it. On the other hand, he wasn’t one to forget old scores. “All right,” he said to Hardy. “You paid your respect to the big dog, you can go along now.”

“Thank you. But you’re not the Travis I came to see.”

And Hardy looked at me.

I was being pursued, right in front of my family. I threw Todd a quick, desperate glance, pleading silently for help. But he was enjoying the show way too much.

While the collective gaze of the Travis clan focused on me, I looked back at Hardy. And in as normal a tone as I could manage, I said, “Hello, Mr. Cates. Are you having a good evening?”

“Hoping to.”

A world of trouble lurked in those two words. “Hey, Cates,” Jack said, standing and clapping Hardy on the shoulder. “What do you say we go get a beer at the bar?”

Hardy didn’t budge. “No, thanks.”

“It’s on me. I insist.”

As if things weren’t bad enough, Gage and Liberty returned to the table. And Gage, who was more than a little territorial where his wife was concerned, fixed Hardy with a stare that promised death.

Liberty seized Gage’s hand and gripped it tightly. “Hardy,” she said with a relaxed smile, “it’s been a long time. How are you?”

“Great. You?”

“Wonderful,” she said. “We have a little boy now. Matthew.”

“I heard about that. Congratulations.”

Gage stared at Hardy in a way that raised the hairs on my arms. “What do you want?” he asked quietly.

Hardy’s gaze turned to me, and held, as he answered. “I want to dance with your sister.”

Before I could even answer, Gage said, “Not a chance.”

And Jack said almost simultaneously, “I don’t think so.”

My father glanced at me from across the table and raised his brows.

And my brother Joe chose that moment to come up behind my chair and rest a hand on my shoulder. “We having a problem?” he asked of no one in particular.

I felt smothered by them, the men in my family, who were so determined to protect me that they weren’t even considering my opinion on the matter. I pulled away from Joe’s hand. “No problem,” I told him. “Mr. Cates just asked me to dance. And I’m going to — ”

“No way in hell,” Joe said putting his hand back on my shoulder. Irritably I dug my elbow into his side. “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“Maybe you should,” Joe muttered, giving me a hard look. “Need to talk to you, Haven.”

“Later,” I said, mortified. We were causing a scene. People were looking.

“Now,” Joe insisted.

I stared at him in disbelief. “For God’s sake,” I said, “even for a family of crazy Texan control freaks, this is ridiculous.”

Hardy had begun to scowl. “While you have a committee meeting to decide if you’re allowed to dance,” he told me, “I’ll be at the bar.”

And he sauntered off while I glared at Joe, who was usually the least interfering brother.

Of course, that wasn’t saying much. But still.

“‘Scuse us,” Joe said to the rest of the Travises, and he led me away from the table.

“What’s going on?” I demanded in a taut whisper as we meandered through the crowd. “Why is it such a big deal if I dance with Hardy Cates?”

“The guy’s trouble,” Joe said calmly, “and everyone knows it. With all the men here to choose from, why give him a second thought? Are you that determined to push the family’s buttons?”

“Newsflash, Joe: there are some things in life I get to decide without taking the family’s buttons into consideration.”

“You’re right,” he allowed after a moment. “But I’m still not going to keep quiet if I see you walking toward another hole in the ground. Not if there’s a chance I can stop you from falling into it.”

“Whatever I do or don’t do with Hardy Cates, it’s my business,”

I said. “I’ll handle the consequences.”

“Fine. As long as you understand that the chances of being set up and used are high.”

I glanced at him sharply. “Why do you say that?”

“Two years ago, not long after you got married, I was called to do the Texas Monthly shoot for the piece they did on Cates. At his request. I spent the better part of the day with him. We talked about a lot of stuff, but what I realized near the end of the shoot was that every thread of conversation had led back to one person . . . he kept asking questions, digging up information, wanting private details . . . ”

“About Liberty,” I muttered.

“Hell, no, not about Liberty. About you.”

“What?” I asked faintly.

“He said you two had met at the wedding.”

My heart seemed to stop. “Did he tell you how?”

“No, but it made an impression on him, to say the least. So I made it clear you were off-limits. Told him you were married. And that didn’t seem to matter to him one damn bit. He still wanted to know more. I got a bad feeling about it, even then.” Joe stopped and looked down at me with eyes the same dark brown as my own. “And now you’re coming off a divorce, and vulnerable, and he’s after you.”

“He’s not after me, he just asked me to dance.”

“He’s after you,” Joe repeated firmly. “Of all the women in this room, you’re the one he went for. Why do you think that is, Haven?”

A wave of coldness went through me. Shit. Maybe I was being the woman in the Astrodome again. Maybe my attraction to Hardy was a form of self-destructive masochism.

“He’s got some kind of plan,” Joe said. “He wants to make his mark, get back at the Travises, get something from us. And he’ll have no problem using you to do it. Because he’s figured out there’s no bigger turn-on for you than a guy your family doesn’t approve of.”

“That’s not true,” I protested.

“I think it is.” Joe dragged his hand through his hair, looking exasperated. “For God’s sake, Haven, find someone else. You want to meet guys, I know a ton of — ”

“No,” I said sullenly. “I don’t want to meet anyone.”

“Then let’s go back to the table.”

I shook my head. The idea of returning to my family’s table like a chastened child was unbearable. “You want to dance?” Joe asked.

That provoked a reluctant grin from me. “With my brother? No, that would be too pathetic. Besides, you hate dancing.”

“True,” Joe said, looking relieved.

“I’m going to the ladies’ room to check my makeup,” I said. “I’ll be back at the table in a few minutes.”

After Joe left me, I wandered disconsolately through the room. Obviously I shouldn’t have gone to the theater opening. I should have stayed home. I needed to think about things, including the question of why, in spite of my better judgment and my family’s conviction that it was a mistake, I was still attracted to Hardy Cates.

But before I was even aware I was doing it, I had gone to the bar.

It was easy to locate Hardy’s tall, rangy form. He was half leaning against the bar, a rocks glass in his hand. It appeared he was talking to someone, although his shoulder blocked the view. I approached him hesitantly, tilting my head a little as I tried to get a glimpse of his companion.

He was talking to a woman. Naturally. It was inconceivable that a man with his looks wouldn’t attract female attention. The woman was slim and busty and dressed in a sparkling gold gown. All that, along with her light blond hair, made her look like an awards show statuette.

I stiffened as I saw her face.

“Hi, Vanessa,” I said weakly.

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