Chapter 15

After four years, I had finally become a full-fledged stylist at Salon One. Most of my work was as a colorist—I had a talent for highlights and corrections. I loved mixing liquids and pastes in a multitude of small bowls like a mad scientist. I enjoyed the myriad small but critical calculations of heat, timing, and application, and the satisfaction of getting everything just right.

Churchill still went to Zenko for his cuts, but I did his neck and eyebrow trims, and I did his manicures whenever he wanted them. And there were the infrequent lunches when one of us had something to celebrate. When we were together, we talked about anything and everything. I knew a lot about Churchill’s family, particularly his four children. There was Gage, the oldest at thirty, whom he’d had by his first wife, Joanna. The other three he’d had with Ava: Jack, who was twenty-five, Joe, who was two years younger, and the only daughter, Haven, who was still in college. I knew Gage had become reserved since he had lost his mother at the age of three, and that he had a hard time trusting people, and one of his past girlfriends had said he had commitment phobia. Being unacquainted with psychospeak, Churchill didn’t know what that meant.

“It means he won’t talk about his feelings,” I explained, “or allow himself to be vulnerable. And he’s afraid of being tied down.”

Churchill looked baffled. “That’s not commitment phobia. That’s being a man.”

We discussed his other children too. Jack was an athlete and a ladies’ man. Joe was an information junkie and an adventurer. The youngest, Haven, had insisted on going to college in New England, no matter how much Churchill begged her to consider Rice or UT, or even, God help him, A&M.

I told Churchill the latest news about Carrington, and sometimes about my love life. I had confided in him about Hardy and how he haunted me. Hardy was every loose-limbed cowboy in worn denim, every pair of blue eyes, every battered pickup, every hot cloudless day.

Maybe, Churchill had pointed out, I should stop trying so hard not to love Hardy, and accept that some part of me might always want him. “Some things,” he said, “you just have to learn to live with.”

“But you can’t love someone new without getting over the last one.”

“Why not?”

“Because then the new relationship is compromised.”

Seeming amused, Churchill said that every relationship was compromised in one way or another, and you were better off not picking at the edges of it.

I disagreed. I felt I needed to let Hardy go completely. I just didn’t know how. I hoped someday I might meet someone so compelling that I could take the risk of loving again. But I had serious doubts such a man existed.

And that man was certainly not Tom Hudson, whom I’d met while waiting for a parent-teacher conference in a hallway at Carrington’s school. He was a divorced father of two, a big teddy bear of a man with brown hair and a neatly trimmed brown beard. I’d gone out with him for just over a year, enjoying the comfortable nature of our relationship.

Since Tom was the owner of a gourmet food shop, my refrigerator was constantly filled with delicacies. Carrington and I feasted on wedges of French and Belgian cheese, jars of tomato-pear chutney, Genovese pesto, and double Devon cream, coral-colored slabs of smoked Alaskan salmon, bottled cream of asparagus soup, jars of marinated peppers or Tunisian green olives.

I liked Tom a lot. I tried my best to fall in love with him. It was obvious he was a good father to his own children, and I felt sure he would be just as good to Carrington. There was so much that was right about Tom, so many reasons I should have loved him. It’s one of the frustrations of dating that sometimes you can be with a nice person who is obviously worth loving, but there isn’t enough heat between you to light a tea candle.

We made love on the weekends when his ex-wife had the kids and I could get a babysitter for Carrington. Unfortunately the sex was lukewarm. Since I could never come while Tom was inside me—all I felt was the mild inner pressure you feel from the speculum at the gynecologist’s office—he would start out by using his fingers to rub me into a climax. It didn’t always work, but sometimes I achieved a few gratifying spasms, and when I couldn’t and began to feel irritated and chafed, I faked it. Then he would either gently push my head down until I took him into my mouth, or he would lever himself over me and we would do it missionary style. The routine never changed.

I bought a couple of sex books and tried to figure out how to improve things. Tom was amused by my abashed requests to try a couple of positions I had read about, and he told me it was all still just a matter of putting tab A into slot B. But if I wanted to do something new, he said, he was all for it.

I was dismayed to find Tom was right. It felt awkward and silly, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t come while we were arranged in those yogalike tangles. The only new thing Tom wouldn’t try was going down on me. I stammered and turned crimson when I asked him for it. I would say that was the most embarrassing moment of my entire life, except it was even worse when Tom replied apologetically he had never liked doing that. It was unhygienic, he said, and he didn’t really enjoy how women tasted. If I didn’t mind, he would rather not. I said no, of course I didn’t mind, I didn’t want him to do something he didn’t like.

But every time we slept together after that and I felt his hands urging my head down, I started to feel a little resentful. And then I felt guilty, because Tom was generous in so many other ways. It didn’t matter, I told myself. There were other things we could do in bed. But the situation bothered me enough—it seemed I was missing some essential understanding—that I told Angie one morning before the salon opened. After making certain everything was set up for the day, the carts well stocked, the styling tools cleaned, we all took a few minutes to primp.

I was spritzing some volumizer in my hair, while Angie reapplied her lip gloss. I can’t remember exactly what I asked her, something like had she ever had a boyfriend who didn’t want to do certain things in bed.

Angie’s gaze met mine in the mirror. “He doesn’t want you to blow him?” A few of the other stylists glanced in our direction.

“No, he likes that,” I whispered. “It’s…well, he doesn’t want to do it to me.”

Her smartly penciled brows twitched upward. “Doesn’t like eating tortilla?”

“Nope. He says”—I could feel red flags of color forming on the crests of my cheeks—“it’s unhygienic.”

She looked outraged. “It’s not any more unhygienic than a man’s! What a loser. What a selfish—Liberty, most men love to do that to a woman.”

“They do?”

“It’s a turn-on for them.”

“It is?” That was welcome news. It made me feel a little less mortified about having asked Tom for it.

“Oh, girl,” Angie said, shaking her head. “You’ve got to dump him.”

“But…but…” I wasn’t certain I wanted to take such drastic measures. This was the longest I’d ever dated someone, and I liked the security of it. I remembered all the revolving-door relationships Mama had gone through. Now I understood why.

Dating is like trying to make a meal out of leftovers. Some leftovers, like meat loaf or banana pudding, actually get better when they’ve had a little time to mature. But others, like doughnuts or pizza, should be thrown out right away. No matter how you try to warm them up, they’re never as good as when they were new. I had been hoping Tom would turn out to be a meat loaf instead of a pizza.

“Dump him,” Angie insisted.

Heather, a petite blonde from California, couldn’t resist breaking in. Everything she said sounded like a question, even when it wasn’t. “You having boyfriend problems, Liberty?”

Angie answered before I could. “She’s going out with a sixty-eight.”

There were a few sympathetic groans from the other stylists.

“What’s a sixty-eight?” I asked.

“He wants you to go down on him,” Heather replied, “but he won’t return the favor. Like, it would be sixty-nine, but he owes you one.”

Alan, who was smarter about men than the rest of us put together, pointed at me with a round brush as he spoke. “Get rid of him, Liberty. You can’t ever change a sixty-eight.”

“But he’s nice in other ways,” I protested. “He’s a good boyfriend.”

“No he isn’t,” Alan said. “You just think he is. But sooner or later a sixty-eight will show his true colors outside the bedroom. Leaving you at home while he goes out with his buddies. Buying himself a new car while you get the used one. A sixty-eight always takes the biggest slice of cake, honey. Don’t waste your time with him. Trust me, I know from experience.”

“Alan’s right,” Heather said. “I dated a sixty-eight a couple years ago, and at first he was, like, a total hottie. But he turned out to be the biggest jerk ever. Major bummer.”

Until that moment I hadn’t seriously considered breaking up with Tom. But the idea was an unexpected relief. I realized what was bothering me had nothing to do with blow jobs. The problem was, our emotional intimacy, like our sex life, had its limits. Tom had no interest in the secret places of my heart, nor I in his. We were more adventurous in our selection of gourmet foods than we were in the hazardous territory of a true relationship. It was beginning to dawn on me how rare it was for two people to find the kind of connection Hardy and I had shared. And Hardy had given it up, given me up, for the wrong reasons. I hoped to hell he wasn’t finding it any easier than I was to build a relationship with someone.

“What’s the best way to end it?” I asked.

Angie patted my back kindly. “Tell him the relationship isn’t going where you hoped it would. Say it’s no one’s fault, but it’s just not working for you.”

“And don’t drop the bomb at your place,” Alan added, “because it’s always harder to make someone leave. Do it at his place and then you’re out the door.”

Soon after that I worked up the courage to break up with Tom at his apartment. I told him how much I had enjoyed our time together but it just wasn’t working, and it wasn’t him, it was me. Tom listened carefully, impassive except for the movement of tiny facial muscles anchored beneath his beard. He had no questions. He didn’t offer a single protest. Maybe it was a relief for him too, I thought. Maybe he’d been bothered as I was by the something-missing between us.

Tom walked me to the door, where I stood clutching my purse. I was thankful there was no goodbye kiss. “I…I wish you well,” I said. It was a quaint, old-fashioned phrase, but nothing else seemed to capture my feeling so exactly.

“Yes,” he said. “You too, Liberty. I hope you take some time to work on yourself and your problem.”

“My problem?”

“Your commitment phobia,” he said with kind concern. “Fear of intimacy. You need to work on it. Good luck.”

The door closed gently in my face.

 

I was late getting to work the next day, so I would have to wait until later to report on what had happened. One of the things you learn about working in a salon is that most stylists love to dissect relationships. Our coffee or smoke breaks often sounded like group therapy sessions.

I felt almost lighthearted about breaking up with Tom, except for that shot he’d taken at the end. I didn’t blame him for saying it, since he’d just been dumped. What troubled me was the inner suspicion that he was right. Maybe I did have fear of intimacy. I had never loved any man but Hardy, who was secured in my heart with backward barbs. I still dreamed of him and woke with my blood clamoring, every inch of my skin damp and alive.

I was afraid I should have settled for Tom. Carrington would be ten soon. She had been deprived of so many years of fatherly influence. We needed a man in our life.

As I walked into the salon, which had just opened, Alan approached with the news that Zenko wanted to talk to me right away.

“I’m only a few minutes late—” I began.

“No, no, it’s not about that. It’s about Mr. Travis.”

“Is he coming in today?”

Alan’s expression was impossible to interpret. “I don’t think so.”

I went to the back of the salon, where Zenko stood with a china cup filled with hot tea.

He looked up from a leather-bound appointment book. “Liberty. I’ve checked your afternoon schedule.” He pronounced it the British way, shedule. It was one of his favorite words. “It seems to be clear after three-thirty.”

“Yes, sir,” I said cautiously.

“Mr. Travis wants a trim at his home. Do you know the address?”

I shook my head in bewilderment. “You want me to do it? How come you’re not going? You always do his trims.”

Zenko explained that a well-known actress was flying in from New York, and he couldn’t cancel on her. “Besides,” he continued in a careful monotone, “Mr. Travis specifically asked for you. He’s had a difficult time since the accident, and he indicated it might do him some good if—”

“What accident?” I felt a nasty sting of adrenaline all over, not unlike the feeling of saving yourself from a fall down the stairs. Even though you avoid the tumble, your body still gets ready for catastrophe.

“I thought you would already know,” Zenko said. “Mr. Travis was thrown from a horse two weeks ago.”

For a man Churchill’s age, horse accidents were never minor. Bones were broken, dislocated, crushed, necks and spines were snapped. I felt my mouth gather in a soundless “oh.” My hands shifted in a mosaic of movement, first going to my lips, then crossing over to the upper arms.

“How bad was it?” I managed.

“I’m not aware of the particulars, but I believe a leg was broken, and there was some surgery…” Zenko paused as he stared at me. “You look pale. Do you want to sit down?”

“No. I’m fine. I just…” I couldn’t believe how afraid I was, how much I cared. I wanted to go to Churchill right then. My heartbeat was a painful throb in my chest. My hands came together, fingers laced like those of a praying child. I blinked against the pictures that flashed through my mind, images that had nothing to do with Churchill Travis.

My mother wearing a white dress splashed with daisies. My father, accessible only in a two-dimensional layer of black-and-white silver halide. Tawdry fairground light shivering across Hardy’s resolute face. Shadows within shadows. I found it hard to breathe. But then I thought of Carrington. I held on to that image, my sister, my baby, and the panic eddied and washed back.

I heard Zenko asking if I was willing to go to River Oaks to do the trim.

“Sure,” I said, trying to sound normal. Matter-of-fact. “Sure I’ll go.”

After my last appointment Zenko gave me the address and two different security codes. “Sometimes there’s a guard at the gate,” he said.

“He has a gate?” I asked. “He has a guard?”

“It’s called security,” Zenko said, his impersonal tone far more withering than sarcasm. “Rich people need it.”

I took the slip of paper from him.

My Honda needed a run through the car wash, but I didn’t spare the time. I needed to see Churchill as soon as possible. It took only fifteen minutes to get there from Zenko’s. In Houston you measure distance by minutes instead of miles, since traffic can turn a short commute into a stop-and-start journey through hell, where road rage is just a driving technique.

I’ve heard people compare River Oaks to Highland Park in Dallas, but it’s bigger and even more expensive. You could call it the Beverly Hills of Texas. River Oaks consists of about a thousand acres located halfway between Downtown and Uptown, with two schools, a country club, upscale restaurants and shops, and esplanades of brilliant flowers. When River Oaks was established in the 1920s, there was what they called a gentleman’s agreement to keep out blacks and browns, except for those living in the maids’ quarters. Now those so-called gentlemen are gone, and there’s more diversity in River Oaks. It’s no longer all-white, but it is definitely all-rich, with the cheapest homes starting at a million dollars and going up from there.

I guided my battered Honda along streets of two-story mansions, past Mercedes and BMWs. Some of the homes were designed in the Spanish Revival style, with flagstone terraces, turrets, and ornamental wrought-iron balcony railings. Others had been modeled after New Orleans plantation homes, or New England colonials with white columns, gables, and banded chimneys. They were all large, beautifully landscaped, and shaded by oaks that lined the walks like giant sentinels.

Although I knew Churchill’s house was going to be impressive, there was no way I could have been adequately prepared for it. It was an estate, a stone house designed like a European chateau and set back on a three-acre bayou lot. I stopped at the heavy iron gates and entered the code. To my relief, the gates opened with majestic slowness. A broad paved drive led to the house and split into two roads, one encircling the house, the other leading to a separate garage big enough for ten cars.

I pulled up to the garage and parked at the side, trying to find the least conspicuous place. My poor Honda looked like something that had been left out for the garbagemen to collect. The garage doors were made entirely of glass, showcasing a silver Mercedes sedan, the white Bentley, and a yellow Shelby Cobra with Lemans stripes. There were more cars on the other side, but I was too dazed and anxious to look at them.

It was a relatively cool autumn day, and I was grateful for the diffident breeze that cooled my perspiring forehead. Carrying a bag filled with supplies, I walked to the front door.

The plants and hedged sections of lawn around the house looked like they’d been watered with Evian and trimmed with cuticle scissors. I could have sworn the long, silky drifts of Mexican feather grass bordering the front walk had been tended with a Mason Pearson pocket comb. I reached for the doorbell button, which was located beneath an inset video camera just like the ones you see at ATM machines.

As I rang the bell, it caused the video camera to whir and focus on me, and I nearly recoiled. I realized I hadn’t brushed my hair or touched up my makeup before leaving the salon. Now it was too late, as I found myself standing in front of a rich people’s doorbell that was looking right back at me.

In less than a minute the door opened. I was greeted by a slim elderly woman, elegantly dressed in green pants and beaded mules and a patterned chiffon blouse. She looked about sixty, but she was so well kept I guessed her real age was probably closer to seventy. Her silver hair had been cut and teased into the Drain Clog style, not a hole to be found in the perfect puffy mass. We were nearly of a height, but the hair gave her at least three inches on me. Diamond earrings the size of Christmas ornaments dangled halfway to her shoulders.

She smiled, a genuine smile that made her eyes crinkle into familiar dark slits. Instantly I knew she was Churchill’s older sister Gretchen, who had been engaged three times but never married. Churchill had told me all Gretchen’s fianc?s had died in tragic circumstances, the first in the Korean War, the second in a car accident, the third from a heart defect no one had known about until it killed him without warning. After the last one Gretchen had said it was obvious she was not meant to marry, and she’d stayed single ever since.

I had been so moved by the story I’d almost cried, picturing Churchill’s sister as a spinster dressed in black. “Doesn’t she find it lonely,” I had asked tentatively, “not ever having…” I paused as I considered the best way to phrase it. Carnal relations? Physical intimacy? “A man in her life?”

“Hell, no, she doesn’t find it lonely,” Churchill had said with a snort. “Gretchen kicks up her heels every time she gets a chance. She’s had more than her fair share of men—she just won’t marry any of ’em.”

Staring at this sweet-faced woman, seeing the twinkle in her eyes, I thought, You are a hot ticket, Miss Gretchen Travis.

“Liberty. I’m Gretchen Travis.” She looked at me as if we were old friends and reached out to take my hands in hers. I set my bag down and awkwardly returned her grip. Her fingers felt warm and fine-boned amid a clatter of chunky jeweled rings. “Churchill told me about you, but he didn’t say what a pretty little thing you are. Are you thirsty, honey? Is that bag heavy? Leave it there and we’ll have someone carry it up for us. Do you know who you remind me of?”

Like Churchill, she cast out questions in clusters. I hastened to reply. “Thank you, ma’am, but I’m not thirsty. And I can carry this.” I picked the bag up.

Gretchen drew me inside the entrance and retained my free hand as if I were too young to be trusted to wander through the house alone. It felt odd but nice to hold the hand of an adult woman. We walked into a marble-floored hall with a ceiling that was two stories high. Niches featuring bronze sculptures were embedded all along the walls. Gretchen’s voice echoed slightly as we headed to a pair of elevator doors tucked beneath one side of a horseshoe-shaped staircase.

“Rita Hayworth,” she said, answering her own previous question. “Just like she looked in Gilda, with that wavy hair and those long eyelashes. Did you ever see that movie?”

“No, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. I don’t recall it ended well.” She released my hand and pushed the elevator button. “We could take the stairs. But this is so much easier. Never stand when you can sit and never walk when you can ride.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I straightened my clothing as discreetly as possible, tugging the hem of my black vee-neck T-shirt over the top of my white jeans. My red-polished toes peeked out from a pair of backless low-heeled sandals. I wished I had chosen a nicer outfit that morning, but I’d had no idea how the day would turn out. “Miss Travis,” I said, “please tell me how—”

“Gretchen,” she said. “Just Gretchen.”

“Gretchen, how is he? I didn’t know about his accident until today, or I would have sent flowers or a card—”

“Oh, honey, we don’t need flowers. There have been so many deliveries we don’t know what to do with them all. And we’ve tried to keep it quiet about the accident. Churchill says he doesn’t want anyone making a fuss over him. I think it embarrasses him to death, what with the cast and the wheelchair—”

“A leg cast?”

“A soft one for now. In two weeks he’ll get a hard cast. He had what the doctor said was…” She squinted in concentration. “A comminuted fracture of the tibia, and the fibula broke clean through, and one of his ankle bones is busted too. They put eight long screws in his leg, and a rod on the outside they’ll take off later, and a metal plate that’ll stay in him for good.” She chuckled. “He’d never make it through airport security. Good thing he’s got his own plane.”

I nodded a little but I couldn’t speak. I tried an old trick to keep from crying, something Marva’s husband, Mr. Ferguson, had once told me about. When you think you’re about to cry, rub the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, back where the soft palate is. As long as you do that, he’d said, the tears wouldn’t fall. It worked, but barely.

“Oh, Churchill’s as tough as they come,” Gretchen said, clicking her tongue as she saw my expression. “You don’t need to worry about him, honey. It’s the rest of us you should be concerned about. He’ll be laid up for at least five months. We’ll all be crazy by then.”

The house was like a museum, with wide hallways and towering ceilings, and paintings with their own little spotlights. The atmosphere was serene, but I was aware of things happening in distant rooms, phones ringing, some kind of tapping or hammering, the unmistakable clank of metal pots and pans. Busy unseen people doing their work.

We went into the largest bedroom I had ever seen. You could have fit my entire apartment inside it and had room to spare. Rows of tall windows were fitted with plantation shutters. The floor, made of hand-planed walnut, was covered in places with artfully faded kilim rugs that each cost the equivalent of a brand-new Pontiac. A king-sized bed with spiral-carved posters was positioned diagonally in one corner of the room. Another area featured a seating arrangement of two love seats and a recliner chair, with a flat-panel plasma TV on the wall.

My gaze immediately found Churchill, who was in a wheelchair with his leg elevated. Churchill, who had always been so well dressed, was wearing cut-up sweatpants and a yellow cotton sweater. He looked like a wounded lion. I reached him in a few strides and wrapped my arms around him. I pressed my lips against the top of his head, feeling the hard curve of his skull beneath the fleece of gray hair. I inhaled his familiar leathery smell and the hint of expensive cologne.

One of his hands came to the back of my shoulder, patting firmly. “No, no,” came his gravelly voice. “No need for that. I’ll heal up just fine. You stop that, now.”

I wiped at my wet cheeks and straightened, and cleared my tear–clotted throat. “So…were you trying some kind of Lone Ranger stunt or what?”

He scowled. “I was riding with a friend on his property. A jackrabbit jumped out from a patch of mesquite and the horse spooked. I went head over heels before I could blink.”

“Is your back okay? Your neck?”

“Yes, it’s all fine. Just the leg.” Churchill sighed and grumbled, “I’ll be stuck in this chair for months. Nothing but crap on TV. I have to sit on a plastic chair in the shower. Everything brought to me, can’t do a damn thing for myself. I’m sick and tired of being treated like an invalid.”

“You are an invalid,” I said. “Can’t you try to relax and enjoy the pampering?”

“Pampering?” Churchill repeated indignantly. “I’ve been ignored, neglected, and dehydrated. No one brings my meals on time. No one comes when I holler. No one fills my water jug. A lab rat lives better than this.”

“Now, Churchill,” Gretchen soothed. “We’re all doing our best. It’s a new routine for everyone. We’ll get the way of it.”

He ignored her, clearly eager to air his grievances to a sympathetic listener. It was time for his Vicodin, he said, and someone had set it so far back on the bathroom counter, he hadn’t been able to reach it. “I’ll get it,” I said immediately, and went into the bathroom.

The enormous space was lined with terra-cotta tiles and copper-flecked marble, with a half-sunken oval bathtub in the center. The walk-in shower and window were made entirely of glass blocks. It was lucky the bathroom was so big, I thought, in light of Churchill being wheelchair-bound. I found a cluster of brown medicine bottles on one counter, along with an ordinary plastic Dixie cup dispenser that looked out of place in the magazine-perfect surroundings. “One or two?” I called out, opening the Vicodin.

“Two.”

I filled a cup with water and brought the pills to Churchill. He took them with a grimace, the corners of his mouth gray with pain. I couldn’t imagine how much his leg must be hurting, his bones protesting the new arrangement of metal rods and screws. His system must have been overwhelmed with the prospect of healing so much damage. I asked if he wanted to rest, I could wait for him, or come back some other time. Churchill replied emphatically he’d had enough resting. He wanted some good company, which had been in short supply lately. This with a meaningful glance at Gretchen, who replied serenely that if a person wanted to attract good company, he had to be good company.

After a minute of affectionate squabbling, Gretchen took her leave, reminding Churchill to buzz the intercom button if he needed anything. I pushed his wheelchair into the bathroom and positioned him next to the sink.

“No one answers when I buzz,” Churchill told me testily, watching as I unpacked my supplies.

I shook out a black cutting cape and tucked a folded towel around his neck. “You need a set of walkie-talkies. Then you can contact someone directly when you need something.”

“Gretchen can’t even keep track of her cell phone,” he said. “There’s no way I’d get her to carry a walkie-talkie.”

“Don’t you have a personal assistant or secretary?”

“I did,” he allowed. “But I fired him last week.”

“Why?”

“He couldn’t handle being yelled at. And he always had his head up his culo.”

I grinned. “Well, you should have waited until you hired someone else before you got rid of him.” I filled a spray bottle with tap water.

“I have someone else in mind.”

“Who’s that?”

Churchill made a brief, impatient gesture to indicate it was of no importance, and settled back in his chair. I dampened his hair and combed it carefully. As I cut his hair in careful layers, I saw the moment when the medication took effect. The harsh lines of his face relaxed, and his eyes lost their glazed brightness.

“This is the first actual haircut I’ve ever given you,” I remarked. “Finally I can list you on my r?sum?.”

He chuckled. “How long have you worked at Zenko’s? Four years?”

“Almost five.”

“What’s he paying you?”

Mildly surprised by the question, I considered telling him it was none of his business. But there was hardly any reason to keep it a secret from him. “Twenty-four a year,” I said, “not including tips.”

“My assistant got fifty a year.”

“That’s a lot of money. I bet he had to work his tail off for it.”

“Not really. He ran some errands, kept my schedule, made phone calls, typed on my book. That kind of stuff.”

“You’re writing another book?”

He nodded. “Mostly investment strategies. But part of it is autobiographical. I write some pages in longhand, others I dictate into a recorder. My assistant types it all into the computer.”

“It would be a lot more efficient if you typed it yourself.” I combed his hair back again, searching for the natural line of his part.

“Some things I’m too old to learn. Typing is one of them.”

“So hire a temp.”

“I don’t want a temp. I want someone I know. Someone I trust.”

Our gazes met in the mirror, and I realized what he was working up to. Good Lord, I thought. A frown of concentration wove across my forehead. I sank to my haunches, hunting for the right angles, my scissors making precise snips around his head. “I’m a hairstylist,” I said without looking at him, “not a secretary. And once I leave Zenko, that door is closed for good. I can’t go back.”

“It’s not a short-term offer,” Churchill countered in a relaxed manner that gave me an inkling of what a smart business negotiator he must have been. “There’s lots of work around here, Liberty. Most of it will challenge you a hell of a lot more than fooling with people’s cuticles. Now, settle your feathers—there’s nothing wrong with your job, and you do it well—”

“Gee, thanks.”

“—but you could learn a lot from me. I’m still a ways out from retirement, and I’ve got a lot to get done. I need help from someone I can depend on.”

I laughed incredulously and picked up the electric clippers. “What makes you think you can depend on me?”

“You’re not a quitter,” he said. “You stick with things. You meet life head-on. That counts a hell of a lot more than typing skills.”

“You say that now. But you haven’t seen my typing.”

“You’ll pick it up.”

I shook my head slowly. “So you’re too old to learn your way around a keyboard, but I’m not?”

“That’s right.”

I gave him an exasperated smile and turned on the clippers. Their insistent buzz forestalled further conversation.

It was obvious Churchill needed someone a lot more qualified than me. Minor errands I could do. But making calls on his behalf, helping with his book, interacting even in small ways with the people in his sphere…I would be out of my depth.

At the same time I was surprised to discover a stirring of ambition. How many college graduates with their tasseled caps and crisp new diplomas would kill for a chance like this? It was an opportunity that wouldn’t come again.

I worked on Churchill’s hair, tilting his head down, shaping carefully. Eventually I turned the clippers off and began to brush the shorn hair from his neck. “What if it didn’t work out?” I heard myself ask. “Would I get a couple weeks’ notice?”

“Plenty of advance notice,” he said, “and a good severance package. But it’s going to work out.”

“What about health insurance?”

“I’ll put you and Carrington on the same policy as my own family.”

Well, hell.

Except for the WIC vaccinations, I’d had to pay for every medical and health expense Carrington and I had ever had. We’d been lucky, healthwise. But every cough, cold, or ear infection, every minor problem that could turn into a major problem had nearly killed me with worry. I wanted a white plastic card with a group number in my wallet. I wanted it so badly my fists knotted.

“You write out a list of what you want,” Churchill said. “I’m not going to peck over the details. You know me. You know I’ll be fair. There’s only one nonnegotiable.”

“What’s that?” I still found it difficult to believe we were even having this conversation.

“I want you and Carrington to live here.”

There was not one thing I could say. I just stared at him.

“Gretchen and I both need someone at the house,” he explained. “I’m in a wheelchair, and even after I’m out of it, I’ll have a hitch in my get-along. And Gretchen’s been having some problems lately, including memory loss. She claims she’s going back to her own house someday, but the truth is she’s here for good. I want someone to keep track of her appointments as well as mine. I don’t want it to be some stranger.” His eyes were shrewd, his voice easy. “You can come and go as you please. Have the run of the place. Treat it like your own home. Send Carrington to River Oaks Elementary. There’s eight free guest rooms upstairs—you can each take your pick.”

“But I can’t just uproot Carrington like that…change her home, her school…not when I have no idea if this would work out or not.”

“If you’re asking for a guarantee, I can’t give you one. All I can promise is we’ll do our best.”

“She’s not even ten yet. Do you understand what it would be like, having her in the house? Little girls are noisy. Messy. They get into—”

“I’ve had four children,” he said, “including a daughter. I know what eight-year-olds are like.” A calculated pause. “Tell you what, we’ll hire a language tutor to come here twice a week. And maybe Carrington will want piano lessons. There’s a Steinway downstairs no one ever touches. Does she like to swim?…I’ll have a slide put in at the pool. We’ll throw her a big swim party on her birthday.”

“Churchill,” I muttered, “what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m trying to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

I was afraid he had done exactly that.

“Say yes,” he said, “and everybody wins.”

“What if I say no?”

“We’re still friends. And the offer stands.” He shrugged slightly and indicated his wheelchair with a sweep of his hands. “Pretty obvious I’m not going nowhere.”

“I…” I raked my fingers through my hair. “I need to give this some thought.”

“Take as long as you need.” He gave me an amiable smile. “Before you decide anything, why don’t you bring Carrington here to get a look at the place?”

“When?” I asked dazedly.

“Tonight for supper. Go pick her up from her after-school program and bring her here. Gage and Jack are coming. You’ll want to meet them.”

It had never occurred to me to want to meet Churchill’s children. His life and mine had always been strictly separate, and the mingling of their elements made me uneasy. Somewhere along the way I had absorbed the notion that some people belonged in trailer parks and some people belonged in mansions. My concept of upward mobility had its limits.

But did I want to impose those same limits on Carrington? What would happen if I exposed her to a life so different from the one she had always known? It was like bringing Cinderella to the ball in a coach and sending her back in the pumpkin. Cinderella had been a pretty good sport about it, but I wasn’t sure Carrington would be so complacent. And actually, I didn’t want her to be.

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