As I might have expected, Carrington had gotten extra dirty that day. She had grass stains on the knees of her jeans and splotches of poster paint down the front of her T-shirt. I picked her up at the door of her classroom and steered her into the nearest girls’ room. Quickly I wiped her face and ears with paper towels, and brushed the tangles from her ponytail. When she asked why I was trying to make her look nicer, I explained we were going to dinner at a friend’s house, and she’d better be on her best behavior or else.
“What’s the ‘or else’?” she asked, as always, and I pretended not to hear.
Carrington erupted with squeals of delight when she saw the gated estate. She insisted on climbing out of her seat to push the buttons through my open window while I read the code to her. For some reason it pleased me that Carrington was too young to be intimidated by the lavish surroundings. She rang the doorbell five times before I could stop her, and mugged for the security camera, and bounced on her heels until her light-up sneakers flashed like emergency signals.
This time an elderly housekeeper answered the door. She made Churchill and Gretchen look like teenagers. Her face was so gnarled and grooved she reminded me of one of those dried-up apple dolls with the tufts of white cotton for hair. The bright black buttons of her eyes were set behind glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. She had a Brazos Bottom accent that swallowed up her words as soon as they came out. We introduced ourselves, and she said her name was Cecily or Cissy, I couldn’t tell which.
Then Gretchen appeared. Churchill had come downstairs in the elevator, she said, and he was waiting for us in the family room. She looked over Carrington and reached out to cup her face in her hands. “What a beautiful girl, what a treasure,” she exclaimed. “You call me Aunt Gretchen, honey.”
Carrington giggled and played with the hem of her paint-splotched shirt. “I like your rings,” she said, staring at Gretchen’s glittering fingers. “Can I try one on?”
“Carrington—” I began to scold.
“Of course you can,” Gretchen exclaimed. “But first let’s go in to see Uncle Churchill.”
The two of them went hand in hand down a hallway, and I followed close behind. “Did Churchill tell you what he and I talked about?” I asked Gretchen.
“Yes, he did,” she said over her shoulder.
“What do you think about it?”
“I think it would be a fine thing for all of us. With Ava gone and the children away, the house is too quiet.”
We passed rooms with lofty ceilings and tall windows hung with silk and velvet and tea-stained lace. The walnut floors were scattered with Oriental rugs and clusters of antique furniture, everything done in muted shades of red, gold, and cream. Someone in the house loved books—there were built-in bookcases everywhere, filled from top to bottom. It smelled good in the house, like lemon oil and wax and antique vellum.
The family room was big enough to host an auto show, with walk-in fireplaces set on opposite walls. A circular table occupied the center, bearing a massive fresh flower arrangement of white hydrangea, yellow and red roses, and spikes of yellow freesia. Churchill was at a seating cluster on one side of the room, beneath a big sepia-toned picture of a tall-masted sailing ship. A pair of men rose from their chairs as we approached, an old-fashioned courtesy. I didn’t look at either of them. My attention was riveted on Carrington as she approached the wheelchair.
They shook hands solemnly. I couldn’t see my sister’s face, but I saw Churchill’s. He fixed her with an unblinking stare. I was puzzled by the emotions that crossed his face: wonder, pleasure, sadness. He looked away and cleared his throat hard. But when his gaze returned to my sister, his expression was clear, and I thought maybe I had imagined the moment.
They began to chat like old friends. Carrington, who was often shy, was describing how fast she could roller-skate down the hallway if roller-skating was allowed in the house, and asking the name of the horse that broke his leg, and telling him about art class and how her best friend, Susan, accidentally spilled blue poster paint on her desk.
While they talked, I dragged my attention to the pair of men standing beside their chairs. After having heard about Churchill’s offspring over a period of years, I experienced a mild jolt to have them abruptly made real.
Despite my affection for Churchill, it had not escaped me that he’d been a demanding father. He had admitted to being overzealous in his efforts to make certain his three sons and his daughter did not become the soft, spoiled children of privilege he had seen in other wealthy families. They were brought up to work hard, achieve the goals he set, live up to their obligations. As a parent Churchill had been spare in his rewards, tough in his punishments.
Churchill had wrestled with life, taken some hard blows, and he expected that from his children too. They had been raised to excel in academics and sports, to challenge themselves in every aspect of their lives. Since Churchill had a horror of laziness or a sense of entitlement, any flicker of it had been extinguished beneath his booted foot. He had been the easiest on Haven, the only daughter and the baby of the family. He’d been toughest on the oldest, Gage, the only child by his first wife.
After listening to Churchill’s stories about his children, I had found it easy to discern that the greatest pride and highest expectations were reserved for Gage. At age twelve, while attending an elite boarding school, Gage had risked his life to help save other students in his dorm. A fire had broken out in the third-floor lounge one night, and there had been no sprinklers in the building. According to Churchill, Gage had stayed behind to make certain every student had been awakened and got out. He’d been the last to leave and had barely made it out, suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns. I found the story telling, and Churchill’s comment on it even more so. “He only did what I would have expected of him,” Churchill had said. “What anyone in the family would have done.” In other words, saving people from a burning building was no big deal for a Travis, barely worthy of notice.
Gage had gone on to graduate from UT and Harvard Business School, and now did double duty working at Churchill’s investment firm and also at his own company. The other Travis sons had followed their own pursuits. I had wondered if it had been Gage’s choice to work for his father, or whether he had simply stepped into the place he had been expected to fill. And if he nurtured a secret grievance about having to live under the considerable burden of Churchill’s expectations.
The younger of the two brothers came forward and introduced himself as Jack. He had a firm grip and an easy smile. His eyes were the color of black coffee, twinkling against the sun-chapped complexion of an avid outdoorsman.
And then I met Gage. He was a full head taller than his father, black haired and big framed and lean. He was about thirty, but he had a seasoned look that could have allowed him to pass for someone older. He rationed out a perfunctory smile as if he didn’t have many to spare. There were two things people immediately comprehended about Gage Travis. First, he wasn’t the kind who laughed easily. And second, despite his privileged upbringing, he was a tough son of a bitch. A kennel-bred, pedigreed pit bull.
He introduced himself, reaching out to shake my hand.
His eyes were an unusually pale gray, brilliant and black needled. Those eyes allowed a flash of the volatility contained beneath his quiet fa?ade, a sense of tautly restrained energy I had only seen once before, in Hardy. Except Hardy’s charisma had been an invitation to draw closer, whereas this man’s was a warning to stay back. I was so shaken by him, I had a hard time taking his hand.
“Liberty,” I said faintly. My fingers were swallowed in his. A light, burning clasp, and he released me as quickly as possible.
I turned away blindly, wanting to look anywhere other than into those unsettling eyes, and I discovered a woman sitting on a nearby love seat.
She was a beautiful tall waif with a delicate face and puffy pneumatic lips, and a river of highlighted blond hair that streamed down her shoulders and over the arm of the sofa. Churchill had told me Gage was dating a model, and I had no doubt this was her. The woman’s arms, no bigger around than Q-tips stems, hung straight from their sockets, and her hipbones protruded beneath her clothes like can-opener blades. Had she been anyone other than a model, she would have been rushed to a clinic for eating disorders.
I have never worried about my weight, which has always been normal. I have a good figure, a woman’s shape with a woman’s breasts and hips, and probably more of a rear end than I would have wished for. I look good in the right clothes, not so good in the wrong ones. Overall I like my body just fine. But next to this spindly creature I felt like a prizewinning Holstein.
“Hi,” I said, forcing a smile as her gaze swept me up and down. “I’m Liberty Jones. I’m…a friend of Churchill’s.”
She gave me a disdainful glance and didn’t bother introducing herself.
I thought of the years of deprivation and hunger it would require to maintain such thinnness. No ice cream, no barbecue, never a wedge of lemon pie or a fried chile relleno pepper stuffed with melting white cheese. It would turn anyone mean.
Jack broke in quickly. “So where you from, Liberty?”
“I…” I cast a quick glance at Carrington, who was examining a panel of buttons on Churchill’s wheelchair. “Don’t push any of those, Carrington.” I had a sudden cartoonish vision of her triggering a catapult device in the seat cushion.
“I’m not,” my sister protested. “I’m just looking.”
I returned my attention to Jack. “We live in Houston, near the salon.”
“What salon?” Jack asked with an encouraging smile.
“Salon One. Where I work.” A short but discomforting silence followed, as if there were nothing anyone could think of to say or ask about a salon job. I was compelled to throw words into the void. “Before Houston, we lived in Welcome.”
“I think I’ve heard of Welcome,” Jack said. “Although I can’t remember how or why.”
“It’s just a regular little town,” I said. “Got one of everything.”
“What do you mean?”
I shrugged awkwardly. “One shoe store, one Mexican restaurant, one dry cleaner’s…”
These people were used to conversation with their own kind, about people and places and things I had no experience with. I felt like a nobody. Suddenly I was annoyed with Churchill for putting me in this situation, among people who were going to make fun of me the minute I left the room. I tried to keep my mouth shut, but as another mesh of silence settled, I couldn’t stop myself from breaking through it.
I looked at Gage Travis again. “You work with your dad, right?” I tried to remember what Churchill had said, that although Gage had a hand in the family investment business, he had also started his own company that developed alternative energy technologies.
“It looks like I’ll be stepping in to do Dad’s traveling for a while,” Gage said. “He was scheduled to speak at a conference in Tokyo next week. I’ll be going instead.” All lacquered politeness, no hint of a smile.
“When you make a speech for Churchill,” I asked, “do you say exactly what he would have said?”
“We don’t always share the same opinions.”
“That means no, then.”
“That means no,” he said softly. As he continued to stare at me, I was surprised by a mild, not unpleasant squirming sensation in my abdomen. My face turned hot.
“Do you like to travel?” I asked.
“I’ve gotten tired of it, actually. What about you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been outside the state.”
I didn’t think it was such a weird thing to say, but the three of them looked at me like I had two heads.
“Churchill hasn’t taken you anywhere?” the woman on the love seat asked, toying with a lock of her own hair. “Doesn’t he want to be seen with you?” She smiled as if she were making a joke. Her tone could have stripped the fuzz off a kiwi.
“Gage is a homebody,” Jack told me. “The rest of the Travises have a big dose of wanderlust.”
“But Gage does like Paris,” the woman commented, giving him an arch glance. “That’s where we met. I was doing the cover for French Vogue.”
I tried to look impressed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Dawnelle…” I repeated, waiting for her last name.
“She’s just been chosen for a big national ad campaign,” Jack told me. “A major cosmetics company is launching a new perfume.”
“Fragrance,” Dawnelle corrected. “It’s called Taunt.”
“I’m sure you’ll do a great job,” I said.
After drinks we had dinner in an oval-shaped dining room with a two-story ceiling and a chandelier with crystals hanging down like strands of raindrops. The arched doorway on one side of the dining room led to the kitchen, while the one on the other side featured a wrought-iron gate. Churchill told me there was a dine-in wine cellar beyond the gate, with a collection of about ten thousand bottles. Heavy chairs upholstered in olive velvet were pulled up to a mahogany table.
The housekeeper and a young Hispanic woman poured inky red wine into large-bowled glasses and brought a flute filled with Seven-Up for Carrington. My sister sat at Churchill’s left, and I took her other side. I reminded her in a whisper to put her napkin on her lap and not to set her glass so close to the edge of the table. She behaved beautifully, remembering her pleases and thank-yous.
There was only one worrisome moment when the plates were brought out and I was unable to identify their contents. My sister, although not a picky eater, did not have what anyone would call an adventurous palate.
“What is this stuff?” Carrington whispered, staring dubiously at the collection of strips and balls and chunks on her plate.
“It’s meat,” I said out of the side of my mouth.
“What kind of meat?” she persisted, poking at one of the balls with the tines of her fork.
“I don’t know. Just eat it.”
By this time Churchill had noticed Carrington’s frown. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
Carrington pointed to her plate with her fork. “I’m not gonna eat something if I don’t know what it is.”
Churchill, Gretchen, and Jack laughed, while Gage regarded us without expression. Dawnelle was in the process of explaining to the housekeeper that she wanted her food taken back to the kitchen and weighed carefully. Three ounces of meat was all she wanted.
“That’s a good rule,” Churchill said to Carrington. He told her to move her plate closer to his. “All this stuff is what they call mixed grill. Look here—these little things are venison strips. This is elk, and those are moose meatballs, and that’s wild turkey sausage.” Glancing up at me, he added, “No emu,” and winked.
“It’s like eating a whole episode of Wild Kingdom,” I said, entertained by the sight of Churchill trying to talk a reluctant eight-year-old into something.
“I don’t like elk,” Carrington told him.
“You can’t be sure of that until you try some. Go on, take a bite.”
Obediently Carrington ate some of the foreign meat, along with some baby vegetables and roasted potatoes. Baskets of bread were passed around, containing rolls and steaming squares of cornbread. To my consternation, I saw Carrington digging through one of the baskets. “Baby, don’t do that,” I murmured. “Just take the top piece.”
“I want the regular kind,” she complained.
I looked at Churchill apologetically. “I usually make our cornbread in a skillet.”
“How about that.” He grinned at Jack. “That’s the way your mama used to make it, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” Jack said with a reminiscent smile. “I’d crumble it hot into a glass of milk…man, that was good eating.”
“Liberty makes the best cornbread,” Carrington said earnestly. “You should ask her to make it for you sometime, Uncle Churchill.”
Out the corner of my eye, I saw Gage stiffen at the word “uncle.”
“I think I just might,” Churchill said, giving me a fond smile.
After dinner, Churchill took us on a tour through the mansion, despite my protestations that he must be tired. The others went to a sitting room for coffee, while Churchill, Carrington, and I went off by ourselves.
Our host maneuvered the wheelchair in and out of the elevator, along the hallways, pausing at the doorways of certain rooms he wanted us to see. Ava had decorated the whole place by herself, he said with pride. She had liked European styles, French things, choosing antique pieces with visible wear and tear to balance elegance with comfort.
We peered into bedrooms with their own little balconies, and windows made of diamond-cut glass. Some of the rooms had been decorated like a rustic chateau, the walls aged with hand-sponged glaze, the ceilings crossed with hammerhead beams. There was a library, an exercise room with a sauna and a racquetball court, a music room with furniture upholstered in cream velvet, a theater room with a TV screen that covered an entire wall. There was an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, the latter centered in a landscaped area with a pavilion, a summer kitchen, covered decks, and an outdoor fireplace.
Churchill turned his charm up to full wattage. Several times the crafty old scoundrel gave me a meaningful glance, like when Carrington ran to the Steinway and plunked a few experimental notes, or when she got excited at the sight of the negative-edge pool. She could have this all the time, was his unspoken subtext. You’re the only one keeping it from her. And he laughed when I scowled at him.
His point had been made, however. And there was something else I noticed, something he might not have been fully aware of. I was struck by the way they interacted, the natural ease between them. The small girl with no father or grandfather. The old man who hadn’t spent enough time with his own children when they were young. He regretted that, he had told me. Being Churchill, he couldn’t have taken any other road. But now that he’d finally gotten to where he’d wanted to go, he could look back and see the distant landmarks of what he’d missed.
I was troubled for both their sakes. I had a lot to think about.
When we were sufficiently dazzled and Churchill had begun to tire, we went to join the others. Seeing the grayish tint of his face, I checked my watch. “It’s time for more Vicodin,” I murmured. “I’ll run up to your room to get it.”
He nodded, his jaw set against the oncoming ache. Some kinds of pain you have to catch before it starts, or you never quite get the better of it.
“I’ll go with you,” Gage said, rising from his chair. “You may not remember the way.”
Even though his tone was pleasant, the words bit through the comfortable feeling I’d gotten from being with Churchill.
“Thanks,” I said warily, “but I can find it.”
He wouldn’t back off. “I’ll start you off. It’s easy to get lost in this place.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s real nice of you.”
But as we walked together out of the living room, I knew what was coming. He had something to say to me, and it wasn’t going to be remotely nice. When we reached the foot of the stairs, reasonably out of earshot of the others, Gage stopped and turned me to face him. His touch made me freeze.
“Look,” he said curtly, “I don’t give a damn if you’re banging the old man. That’s not my business.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“But I draw the line when you bring it into this house.”
“It’s not your house.”
“He built it for my mother. This is where the family gets together, where we spend holidays.” He looked at me with contempt. “You’re on dangerous ground. You set foot on this property again and I’ll personally throw you out on your ass. Understand?”
I understood. But I didn’t flinch or step back. I had learned a long time ago not to run from pit bulls.
I went from crimson to skull-white. The rush of my blood seemed to scald the insides of my veins. He knew nothing about me, this arrogant bastard, knew nothing about the choices I’d made or the things I’d given up and all the easy ways out I could have taken but didn’t, didn’t, and he was such a complete and unredeemable asshole that if he’d suddenly caught on fire, I wouldn’t have bothered to spit on him.
“Your father needs his medicine,” I said, stone-faced.
His eyes narrowed. I tried to hold his gaze but I couldn’t, the day’s events had drawn my emotions too close to the surface. So I stared at a distant point across the room and concentrated on showing nothing, feeling nothing. After an unbearably long time I heard him say, “This better be the last time I lay eyes on you.”
“Go to hell,” I said, and went upstairs at a measured pace, while my instincts urged me to bolt like a jackrabbit.
I had another private conversation that evening, with Churchill. Jack had long since departed, and mercifully so had Gage, to take his size-zero girlfriend home. Gretchen showed Carrington her collection of antique cast-iron banks, one shaped like Humpty-Dumpty, another like a cow whose back legs kicked a farmer when you dropped a coin in. While they played on the other side of the room, I sat on an ottoman beside Churchill’s wheelchair.
“You been thinking?” he asked.
I nodded. “Churchill…some people aren’t going to be happy if we go ahead with this.”
He didn’t pretend not to understand. “No one’s going to give you a problem, Liberty,” he said. “I’m the big dog here.”
“I need a day or two to think it over.”
“You got it.” He knew when to push, and when to let it be.
Together we looked across the room at Carrington, who chortled in delight as a little cast-iron monkey flipped a penny into a box with its tail.
That weekend we went for Sunday dinner at Miss Marva’s. The ranch house was filled with the smell of beer pot roast and mashed potatoes. You would have thought Miss Marva and Mr. Ferguson had been married for fifty years, they were so comfortable with each other.
While Miss Marva took Carrington back into her sewing room, I sat in the den with Mr. Ferguson and laid out my dilemma. He listened in silence, his expression mild, his hands templed on his midriff.
“I know what the safe choice is,” I told him. “When you get down to it, there’s no reason for me to take this kind of risk. I’m doing great at Zenko’s. And Carrington likes her school and I’m afraid it would be hard on her to leave her friends. Trying to fit in at a new place where all the other kids are being dropped off in Mercedes. I just…I just wish…”
There was a smile in Mr. Ferguson’s soft brown eyes. “I have the feeling, Liberty, that you’re hoping for someone to give you permission to do what you want to do.”
I let my head flop back against the back of the recliner. “I’m so not like those people,” I said to the ceiling. “Oh, if you’d just seen that house, Mr. Ferguson. It made me feel so…oh, I don’t know. Like a hundred-dollar hamburger.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Even if it’s served on a china plate in an expensive restaurant, it’s still just a hamburger.”
“Liberty,” Mr. Ferguson said, “there’s no reason for you to feel inferior to them. To anyone. When you get to my age, you come to realize all people are the same.”
Of course a mortician would say that. Regardless of financial status, race, and all the other things that distinguished people from each other, they all ended up naked on a slab in his basement.
“I can see how it looks that way from your end of things, Mr. Ferguson,” I said. “But from where I was looking last night in River Oaks, those people are definitely different from us.”
“You remember the Hopsons’ oldest boy, Willie? Went off to Texas Christian?”
I wondered what Willie Hopson had to do with my dilemma. But there was usually a point to Mr. Ferguson’s stories if you were patient enough to wait for it. “During his junior year,” Mr. Ferguson continued, “Willie went to Spain for a study-abroad program. To get an idea of how other people live. Learn something about how they think and their values. It did him a lot of good. I think you ought to consider doing the same.”
“You want me to go to Spain?”
He laughed. “You know exactly what I’m saying, Liberty. You could think of the Travis family as your study-abroad program. I don’t think it’s going to hurt you or Carrington to spend a little time in a place you don’t belong. It may benefit you in ways you don’t expect.”
“Or not,” I said.
He smiled. “Only one way to find out, isn’t there?”