“Let me get this straight,” I said to Jack, standing at his apartment door. “You’re not going to cut Hardy any slack even though he saved my life two weeks ago? What does he have to do for you to treat him politely? . . . Come up with a cure for cancer? Save the world from an asteroid?”My brother looked exasperated. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to be polite. I can do that much.”
“Gee, that’s big of you.”
That night Hardy and I were going to a rigs-to-reefs party, which was being sponsored jointly by a couple of major oil companies.
Rigs-to-reefs was a program in which companies chopped off the tops of their used platforms and left them on the ocean floor to create an artificial reef. Since the entire Gulf of Mexico was mud bottom, the rigs created a supportive environment for the fish.
Despite protests from naturalists, fish seemed to like the abandoned platforms. And oil companies loved the program because it saved them millions in lieu of platform recovery. So they had donated an exhibit to the Houston Aquarium to display how much, in their opinion, rigs-to-reefs benefited the Gulf.
My family would be at the exhibit opening. And I had done my best to make it clear that not only would I attend with Hardy Cates, but I expected the Travises to behave like reasonable human beings. Apparently that was asking a lot. I had called Joe, who had informed me darkly that I was being used by Hardy, just as he had predicted. And now Jack was being stubborn. I certainly didn’t expect anything different from my father, whose opinions were as unalterable as his blood type.
That left only Gage to worry about . . . but I felt certain he would be decent to Hardy, if only for my sake. He’d indicated as much when I had talked to him after the elevator incident.
“All I said was,” Jack continued, “Cates doesn’t get extra credit with the Travises just for doing what any guy would have done. I told you before, if you’d called me or Gage, either of us could’ve gotten you out of that elevator just fine.”
“Oh. I get it.”
His eyes narrowed. “What?”
“You’re mad because you didn’t get a chance to do macho stuff and show off. You can’t stand for anyone else to be a hero. You’re the head caveman, and no one’s club is bigger than yours.”
“Damn it, Haven, quit fighting like a girl. It has nothing to do with the size of my club.” He glanced up and down the hallway. “Come inside for a minute, will you?”
“No, I don’t have much time to get ready. I’m going up to my place. I only wanted to stop by and tell you to be nice to my — ” I broke off abruptly.
“Your what?” Jack demanded.
I shook my head, disconcerted. God knew what word or phrase I should apply in Hardy. “Boyfriend” sounded so high-schoolish.
And inappropriate, since Hardy was fat from a boy. Lover . . . well, that was old-fashioned and melodramatic. Significant other? Friend with benefits? No, and no.
“My date,” I said, and gave him a warning frown. “I’m serious about this, Jack. If you’re a jerk to him tonight, I’m going to skin you like a buffalo.”
“I don’t get what you’re asking for. If you want my approval, you’re not getting it. I don’t know enough about the bastard yet . . . and what I do know isn’t consistent.”
My temper ignited at his assumption that my love life depended on his good opinion. “I don’t want your approval,” I said curtly. “Just basic good manners. I’m just asking you not to be an as**ole for two hours. Think you can manage that? ”
“Shit,” Jack muttered, drawing the word out to a full two syllables. “Bossy as you’re getting, I almost feel sorry for the guy.”
The aquarium had a nice view of the Houston skyline from a third-floor ballroom lined with glass windows. There was a reception for at least six hundred people, who entered a foyer with a large cylindrical tank, went to a shark-voyage ride, and browsed past exhibits designed to imitate a shipwreck, a sunken temple, a swamp, and a rain forest.
The concerns I had over attending a reception with Hardy were gone within five minutes of arriving. He was relaxed and fun, chatting easily with people, taking me around. As Hardy introduced me to his business partners and their wives, and several other friends, I realized he was far from an outsider in this crowd. Although he hadn’t yet become part of the established circles like my family’s, he was part of a group who ran the smaller, more nimble companies that were finding new niches to fill.
Hardy and I even knew some of the same people, a few of whom laughingly advised me that he would be a good catch for a woman who could manage to keep him in line. I realized that in his deceptively lazy way, Hardy was working the crowd as adeptly as anyone I had ever seen. He seemed to know everyone’s name, and he had the knack of focusing on the person he was talking to as if he or she were the most important person in the room.
At the same time, Hardy was an attentive date, getting me a drink from the bar, keeping a light hand on my back, whispering things to make me laugh. As we stood in a group and talked, he idly straightened a kink on the gold chain of my evening bag as it dangled from my shoulder.
I had wondered how Hardy would treat me when we were with other people, if he would want me to act as his satellite. That was what Nick had always demanded. But to my surprise, Hardy didn’t seem to mind me having my own opinions. When the conversation turned to oil shale, for example. One of Hardy’s business partners, a geophysicist named Roy Newkirk, was talking enthusiastically about the possibilities of developing shale as an alternative to conventional oil. But I said I’d read that it would be as bad for the environment as open-pit mining. And furthermore, the processing of shale would dump huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which I thought was criminal. Unless one thought that global warming wasn’t coming along fast enough.
Roy received my comments with a forced smile. “Hardy, didn’t I warn you not to date a woman who reads?”
Hardy seemed amused by my outspokenness. “Keeps the arguing to a minimum,” he replied. “No point in trying when I know she’s going to win.”
“I hope I didn’t annoy you,” I murmured to Hardy afterward. “I’m sorry I didn’t agree with Roy.”
“I like a woman who speaks her mind,” Hardy replied. “Besides, you were right. Technology is nowhere near where it needs to be, for the extraction to be worth it. As things stand, it’s bad for the environment and it’s too expensive.”
I gave him a speculative glance. “If technology made the process cheaper but it was still bad for the environment, would you go for it?”
“No — ” he began, but before he could explain why, we were interrupted by a booming laugh. A heavy hand on my shoulder turned me around.
“Uncle T.J.,” I exclaimed. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
T.J. Bolt wasn’t really my uncle, but I’d known him since I was born. He was Dad’s closest friend, and I suspected he’d always had a crush on my mother. He liked women a little too much, having been married five times. T.J. was one of the more colorful characters in the oil patch.
As a young man in East Texas, T.J. had gotten his start by working at a drilling equipment supplies company. Somehow he’d found the money to buy land and mineral rights for some productive fields, and he’d used the profits to buy more land, and more. He had his fingers in a lot of pies. And he was courted by landmen from every major development company, all eager to negotiate for potentially priceless leases.
I’d never seen T.J. without his signature white beaver-felt hat with five inch brim and six-inch crown. A Western hat of those dimensions would have looked ridiculous on a regular-sized man, but T.J. was a mountain of a human being. He was taller than Hardy, and outweighed him by at least half again. One of his beefy wrists was weighted with a yellow-gold and diamond Rolex. A sausage-sized forefinger sported a gold nugget ring shaped like Texas.
Even as a child I had been subjected to T.J.’s disconcerting habit of kissing females of all ages on the lips. Tonight was no exception. He planted a wrinkly kiss on me, smelling like saddle leather and sweet cologne and La Unica cigars. “What’s my favorite girl doing,” he boomed, “keeping company with this rascal?”
“Evening, sir,” Hardy said with a smile, reaching out to shake his hand.
“You’ve already met Mr. Cates?” I asked T.J.
“We did some talkin’ on my Gregg County property,” T.J. allowed. “Couldn’t quite settle on terms.” He winked at me. “Man’s gotta have deep pockets, dealing with me.”
“T.J. doesn’t want the pockets,” Hardy said ruefully. “He wants the whole pair of pants.”
The old man chuckled richly. He put a fleshy arm around me and squeezed. He gave Hardy a meaningful glance. “You treat this little girl right,” he said. “She was brought up by the greatest lady ever to grace the state of Texas.”
“Yes sir, I will.”
After T.J. left us in his shambling, gouty stride, I turned to Hardy. “Why couldn’t you come to terms with him?”
Hardy shrugged slightly, his smile wry. “It all got hung up on the bonus.” Seeing my incomprehension, he explained. “When the landowner signs the lease, he usually gets a bonus from the buyer.
Sometimes he’s entitled to a pretty substantial one, if the land looks good and there are producing wells nearby. Hut the bonus is always low if the land doesn’t warrant it.”
“And T.J. wanted a big bonus?” I guessed.
“Bigger than any sane man would pay. And I believe in calculated risks, but not crazy ones.”
“I’m sorry he wasn’t willing to be reasonable.”
Hardy shrugged and smiled. “I’ll bide my time. It’ll work out sooner or later. And God knows I’ve got enough on my plate already.” He regarded me with impeccable politeness. “Feel like going home now?”
“No, why would I — ” I broke off as I saw the glint in his blue eyes. I knew exactly why he wanted to go home.
Demurely, I said, “We haven’t seen the whole exhibit yet.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t need to see the rest of the exhibit. I can tell you anything you want to know about rigs-to-reefs.”
My smile turned into an outright grin. “So you’re an expert?” Having become familiar with his solid recall of facts and details, I wasn’t all that surprised.
“Ask me anything,” he said readily.
I toyed with a button on the front of his shirt. “Do the rigs actually do anything to enhance the fish population?”
“According to a biologist who works for the Marine Science Institute, yes. The reefs attract some fish, but there’s no way you can get such huge numbers to come randomly from all over the ocean to gather at the rig. So fish are definitely being created there.” He paused and asked hopefully, “Heard enough yet?”
I shook my head, staring at the front of his throat, where the skin was smooth and brown and appetizing. I loved the sound of his voice, the thick honey of his accent. “Does the rig still belong to the oil company after they cut the top off” I asked.
“No, it’s donated to the State, which takes title to it. Then the company donates half the savings to the Artificial Reef Program.”
“How long does it take for the fish to come to the . . . the structure they leave in the water?”
“It’s called a rig jacket.” Hardy fingered the edge of the flutter sleeve on my dress. “After the rig jacket’s been toppled and placed for about six months, you get all kinds of plants and invertebrates attaching to it — a lot of hard coral recruits near the top, where there’s more light, and then the fish come along.” He leaned closer to me and let his mouth touch the tip of my eyebrow. “Want to hear about the food chain?”
I breathed in his scent. “Oh, yes.”
His hand came to my elbow, stroking gently. “There’s a little fish swimming along, and then comes a big hungry fish . . . ”
“Haven!” A high, cheerful voice cut in, and I felt a pair of small arms wrap around my waist. It was Liberty’s little sister, Carrington, her pale gold hair hanging in two neat braids.
I hugged her and bent to kiss the top of her head. “Carrington, you look so stylish,” I said, viewing her miniskirt and clogs.
She flushed in pleasure. “When are you going to come for a sleepover at my house again?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe — ”
“You’re here with Hardy?” she interrupted, having glanced at my date. She went to hug him, chattering all the while. “Haven, did you know Hardy drove my mama to the hospital the night I was born? There was a storm, and it was flooding everywhere, and he got us there in an old blue pickup.”
I glanced at Hardy, smiling, “He’s pretty good at rescuing people.”
His gaze turned wary as we were joined by two more people Gage and Liberty.
“Hardy,” she said, reaching out for his hand, pressing it affectionately.
He flashed her a grin. “Hi, Liberty. How’s the baby?”
“Fine. Matthew’s at home with his grandfather. Churchill likes to look after him.” Her green eyes twinkled. “He’s the cheapest babysitter we’ve got.”
“Liberty,” Carrington said, tugging at her hand, “do you want to come see the piranhas? There’s a whole big tank of them over there.”
“Okay,” she said, laughing. “Excuse me, y’all. We’ll be right back.”
As Liberty left, Gage contemplated Hardy for a moment. Tension strung through the air, until my brother reached out to shake Hardy’s hand. “Thank you,” Gage said. “I owe you for helping my sister out of that elevator. If there’s anything I can do to repay you — ”
“No,” Hardy said at once. He seemed to be caught somewhat off guard by Gage’s sincerity. It was the first time I had ever seen a trace of awkwardness in him. “You don’t owe me a damn thing. I . . . after the stunt I pulled with your biofuel deal . . . ”
“You more than made up for that two weeks ago,” Gage said. “Haven’s safety — and happiness — mean everything to me. As long as you’re good to her, you’ve got no problem with me.”
I didn’t like being discussed as if I weren’t there. “Hey, Gage,” I asked, “have you seen Jack yet? He was supposed to he here tonight.”
“He’s here. He met an old girlfriend at the bar. Looks like they’re getting reacquainted.”
I rolled my eyes. “You could form a chain from here to El Paso with Jack’s old girlfriends.”
Just then I heard the ring of a cell phone, and Hardy reached inside his jacket pocket. Glancing at the number, he did a quick double blink. “Excuse me,” he said to Gage and me. “I have to take this one. Would you mind if I — ”
“Go right ahead,” I said immediately.
“Thanks.” Hardy flipped the phone open and moved through the crowd to a door that led to an outside wraparound balcony.
Left alone with Gage, I smiled up at him uncertainly, wondering if I was about to get a lecture.
“You look great,” my brother said, running an appraising gaze over me. “You look happy.”
It had been a long time since anyone had said that to me. “I am happy,” I admitted, feeling a little sheepish. “Gage, I’m so sorry if it makes things difficult for you, me taking up with someone from Liberty’s past . . . ”
“It doesn’t make things difficult for me,” Gage said gently. He surprised me by adding, “You can’t always choose who you’re attracted to. When I first met Liberty, I thought she was one of Dad’s side dishes — and I’m sorry to say I behaved like an as**ole.” He smiled wryly. “But even then, there was something about her that got to me, every damn time I saw her.” He slid his hands in his pockets and frowned slightly. “Haven, considering how Cates helped you at Buffalo Tower, I’m sure as hell inclined to give him a break. But if he hurts you . . . ”
“If he hurts me, you have my permission to beat the tar out of him,” I said, making him grin. I drew a little closer, mindful of the possibility of being overheard. “If it doesn’t work out, though . . . I’ll be okay, Gage. I’m stronger than I was a few months ago. He’s helped me get over some of the problems I had after Nick. So no matter what he does in the future, I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”
Hardy returned, and I knew from looking at him that something was terribly wrong. There was no expression on his face, but he was chalk-white under his tan, and he had the distracted tension of a man whose mind was working on a multitude of levels.
“Haven.” The voice, too, was different, as flat and scratchy as a sheet of sandpaper. “I just got a call from my mother. There’s some family stuff I’ve got to deal with, and it can’t wait.”
“Oh, Hardy . . . ” I wanted to pull him close, do something to ease him, comfort him. “Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she’s fine.”
“We’ll leave right now — ”
“No,” Hardy said at once. Hearing the unnecessary force in his own voice, he made an effort to relax. “This isn’t the kind of thing you need to be bothered with, honey. I need to handle it alone.”
Gage broke in. “Is there anything I can do?”
Hardy nodded. “Please take care of Haven. Make sure she gets home safe.” He looked at me, his eyes opaque. “I’m sorry. I hate to leave you like this.”
“Will you call me later?” I asked.
“Of course. I — “He stopped, as if words had failed him, and he
glanced at Gage once more.
“I’ve got Haven,” Gage said immediately. “Don’t worry about her.
And Hardy left us, his head bent, his strides eating ground as if he were preparing to plow through obstacles ahead.
“Maybe one of his brothers is sick, or was in an accident,” I fretted.
Gage shook his head. “No telling. Except . . . ”
“If it was something like that, I think he would have said so.”
I was swamped in worry for Hardy’s sake. “He should have taken me with him,” I muttered. “I hate being left out of things. And it’s not like I’m going to have a good time here when I know he’s out there dealing with some mystery problem. I should be with him.”
I heard my brother sigh. “Come on, let’s go find Liberty and Carrington. I’d rather be watching a tank of man-eating fish than wondering what trouble Hardy Cates might be getting into.”