Chapter 17

Every time Gage Travis looked at me, you could tell he wanted to tear me limb from limb. Not in a fury, but in a process of slow and methodical dismemberment.

Jack and Joe dropped by about once a week, but Gage was the one who came to the house on a daily basis. He helped Churchill with things like climbing in and out of the shower and getting dressed, and taking him to doctor’s appointments. No matter how much I disliked Gage, I had to admit he was a good son. He could have insisted that Churchill hire a nurse, but instead he showed up to take care of his father himself. Eight o’clock every morning, never one minute early or late. He was good for Churchill, who was cantankerous from the combination of boredom, pain, and constant inconvenience. But no matter how Churchill growled or snapped, I never once saw one sign of impatience from Gage. He was always calm, tolerant, and capable.

Until he was around me, and then he was a first-class jerk. Gage made it clear that in his opinion I was a parasite, a gold digger, and worse. He took no notice of Carrington other than to demonstrate a curt awareness that there was a short person in the house.

The day we moved in, our possessions crammed into cardboard boxes, I thought Gage would throw me out bodily. I had begun to unpack in the bedroom I had chosen, a beautiful space with wide windows and pale moss-green walls, and cream-colored molding. What had decided me on the room was the grouping of black-and-white photographs on one wall. They were Texas images: a cactus, a barbed-wire fence, a horse, and to my delight, a front shot of an armadillo looking straight into the camera. I’d taken that as an auspicious sign. Carrington was going to sleep two doors down, in a small but pretty room with yellow and white striped paper on the walls.

As I opened my suitcase on the king-sized bed, Gage appeared in the doorway. My fingers curled around the edge of the suitcase, my knuckles jutting until you could have shredded carrots on them. Even knowing I was reasonably safe—surely Churchill would keep him from killing me—I was still alarmed. He filled up the doorway, looking big and mean and pitiless.

“What the hell are you doing here?” His soft voice unsettled me far more than shouting would have.

I answered through dry lips. “Churchill said I could choose any room I wanted.”

“You can either leave voluntarily, or I’ll throw you out. Believe me, you’d rather go on your own.”

I didn’t move. “You have a problem, you talk to your father. He wants me here.”

“I don’t give a shit. Get going.”

A little trickle of sweat went down the middle of my back. I didn’t move.

He reached me in three strides and took my upper arm in a painful grip.

A gasp of surprise was torn from my throat. “Take your hands off me!” I strained and shoved at him, but his chest was as unyielding as the trunk of a live oak.

“I told you before I wasn’t going to—” He broke off. I was released with a suddenness that caused me to stagger back a step. Our sharp respirations pierced the silence. He was staring at the dresser, where I had set out a few pictures in stand-up frames. Trembling, I put my hand on the part of my arm he’d gripped. I rubbed the spot as if to erase his touch. But I could still feel an invisible handprint embedded in my skin.

He went to the dresser and picked up one of the photos. “Who is this?”

It was a picture of Mama, taken not long after she’d married my father. She had been impossibly young and blond and beautiful. “Don’t touch that,” I cried, rushing forward to snatch the photo from him.

“Who is it?” he repeated.

“My mother.”

His head bent as he stood over me, looking into my face with a speculative gaze. I was so bewildered by the abrupt halt of our conflict that I couldn’t summon the words to ask what in God’s name was going through his mind. I was absurdly conscious of the sound of my breathing, and his, the counterpoint gradually evening until the rhythm of our lungs was identical. Light from the plantation shutters made bright stripes across both of us, casting shadow spokes from his lashes down the crests of his cheek. I could see the whisker grain of his close-shaven skin, foretelling a heavy five o’clock shadow.

I dampened my dry lips with my tongue, and his gaze followed the movement. We were standing too close. I could smell the bite of starch in his collar, and a whiff of warm male skin, and I was shocked by my response. In spite of everything, I wanted to lean even closer. I wanted a deep breath of him.

A frown tugged between his brows. “We’re not finished,” he muttered, and left the room without another word.

I had no doubt he’d gone straight to Churchill, but it would be a long time before I found out what was said between them, or why Gage had decided to abandon that particular battle. All I knew was there was no more interference from Gage as we settled in. He left before supper, while Churchill, Gretchen, Carrington, and I celebrated our first night together. We ate fish steamed in little white paper bags and rice mixed with finely chopped peppers and vegetables that made it look like confetti.

When Gretchen asked if our rooms were all right and did we have everything we needed, Carrington and I both replied enthusiastically. Carrington said her canopy bed made her feel like a princess. I said I loved my room too, the soft green walls were so soothing, and I especially liked the black-and-white photographs.

“You’ll have to tell Gage,” Gretchen said, beaming. “He took those pictures in college for a photography-class assignment. He had to lie in wait two hours for that armadillo to come out of its burrow.”

A horrifying suspicion darted through my mind. “Oh,” I said, and swallowed hard. “Gretchen, by any chance…does that happen to be…” I could barely speak his name. “Gage’s room?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” came her placid reply.

Oh, God. Of all the guest rooms on the second floor, I had managed to pick his. For him to walk in and see me there, taking occupation of his territory…I was amazed he hadn’t tossed me like a bull with a rodeo clown in a barrel. “I didn’t know,” I said thinly. “Someone should have said something. I’ll move to a different—”

“No, no, he never stays here,” Gretchen said. “He doesn’t live but ten minutes away. The room’s been empty for years, Liberty. I’m sure it will please Gage for someone to get some use out of it.”

Like hell, I thought, and reached for my wineglass.

Later that evening I emptied my cosmetics bags beside the bathroom sink. As I pulled out the top drawer, I heard something rattling and rolling around. Investigating, I found a few personal items that looked as though they’d been there a while. A used toothbrush, a pocket comb, an ancient tube of hair gel…and a box of condoms.

I turned and closed the bathroom door before examining the box more closely. There were three foil packets left out of twelve. It was a brand I had never seen before, British-made. And there was a funny phrase on the side of the box, “kite-marked for your peace of mind.” Kite-marked? What the heck did that mean? It sort of looked like a European version of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. I couldn’t help noticing the little yellow sunburst at the corner of the box, printed with the words “Extra Large.” This was appropriate, I reflected sourly, in light of the fact that I already thought of Gage Travis as a big prick.

I wondered what I was supposed to do with this stuff. There was no way I was going to return Gage’s long-forgotten condoms to him. But I couldn’t throw his things away, on the off chance that he might remember someday and ask what I’d done with them. So I pushed them far back in the drawer and put my own things in there. I tried not to think about the fact that Gage Travis and I were sharing a drawer.

For the first few weeks I was busier than I had ever been in my life, and happier than I’d been since before Mama had died. Carrington made new friends quickly, and she was doing well at the new school, which had a nature center, a computer lab, a well-stocked library, and all kinds of enrichment classes. I had braced myself for adjustment problems that so far Carrington didn’t seem to be having. Maybe her age made it easier to adapt to the strange new world she found herself living in.

People were usually nice to me, according me the distant friendliness reserved for employees. My status as Churchill’s personal assistant ensured I was treated well. I could tell when a former Salon One client recognized me but couldn’t figure out where we’d met. The circles the Travises occupied were filled with high-living people, some pedigreed and wealthy, some merely wealthy. But whether they’d earned or inherited their place at the top, they were determined to enjoy it.

Houston high society is blond, tan, and well dressed. It’s also toned and slim, despite the city’s annual place on the Top Ten Fattest list. The rich people are in great shape. It’s the rest of us, the lovers of burritos and Dr Pepper and chicken-fried steak, who inflate the average. If you can’t afford a gym membership in Houston, you’re going to be fat. You can’t jog outside with so many days of triple-degree heat and lethal levels of hydrocarbons in the air. And even if it weren’t for the poor air quality, public places like Memorial Park can be crowded and dangerous.

Since Houstonians aren’t too proud to take the easy way out, plastic surgery is more popular here than anywhere except California. It seems like everyone has had some kind of work done. If you can’t afford it stateside, you can slip across the border and get implants or lipo at a bargain. And if you put it on your credit card, you can earn enough mileage points to pay for Southwest tickets.

Once I accompanied Gretchen to a Botox or Bangs luncheon, where she and her friends chatted and ate and took turns getting injected. Gretchen asked me to drive her, since she tended to get headaches after Botox. It was an all-white meal, and by that I don’t mean the color of the guests but the food itself. It started with white soup—cauliflower and Gruy?re—a crunchy salad of white jicama and white asparagus with basil dressing, an entr?e of white chicken and pears poached in a delicious clear broth, and a dessert of white chocolate coconut trifle.

I was more than happy to eat in the kitchen and watch the caterers. The three of them worked together with the precision of the parts in a watch. It was almost like a dance, the way they moved and turned and never once bumped into each other.

When it was time to leave, each guest received a silk Herm?s scarf as a party favor. Gretchen gave me hers as soon as we got into the car. “Here, honey. This is your treat for driving me.”

“Oh, no,” I protested. I didn’t know exactly how much the scarf cost, but I knew anything Herm?s had to be insanely expensive. “You don’t have to give me that, Gretchen.”

“Take it,” she insisted. “I have too many of these as it is.”

It was hard for me to accept the gift gracefully. Not because I wasn’t appreciative, but because after years of penny-pinching I was bewildered by so much extravagance.

 

I bought a set of two-way radios for me and Churchill, and I wore one clipped to my belt at all times. He must have called me every fifteen minutes the first couple of days. Not only was he delighted with the convenience of it, but it was a relief to him not to feel so isolated in his room.

Carrington pestered me constantly to borrow the walkie-talkie. Whenever I relented and let her have it for ten minutes, she wandered through the house conversing with Churchill, the hallways echoing with “over” and “copy” and “you’re breaking up, buddy.” Before long they had made a deal that Carrington would be Churchill’s go-to girl during the hour before dinner, and she would have her own walkie-talkie. If he didn’t come up with enough tasks for her, she would complain until he was forced to invent things to keep her busy. Once I caught him tossing the remote control to the floor, so Carrington could be contacted for a rescue.

Early on I did a lot of shopping for Churchill, trying to find solutions for problems caused by the hard cast. He resented the indignity of being forced to wear sweatpants all the time, but there was no way he could wear regular pants over the bulk of the cast. I found a compromise he could live with, a few pairs of zip-off hiking pants that allowed him to take one leg off to expose the cast, and leave the other long. They were still more casual than he would have preferred, but he admitted they were better than the sweatpants.

I bought yards of cotton tubing to cover Churchill’s cast every night, to keep the fiberglass from wearing holes in the eight-hundred-thread-count sheets on his bed. And my best find was at a hardware store, a long aluminum tool with a handle on one end and a pair of jaws on the other, allowing him to grip and pick up things he couldn’t otherwise reach.

We fell quickly into a routine. Gage would visit early each morning and return to 1800 Main, where he worked and lived. The Travises owned the entire building, which was located near the Bank of America Center and the blue glass towers that had once been Enron Centers North and South. It had once been the most nondescript building in Houston, a plain gray box. But Churchill had gotten it at a steal, and had redesigned and rebuilt it. It had been stripped, re-covered with a blue skin of Low-E glass, and topped with a glass segmented-pyramid that reminded me of an artichoke.

The building was filled with luxury office space, a couple of upscale restaurants, and four penthouse suites priced at twenty million dollars apiece. There were also a half-dozen condos, relatively cheap at five million each. Gage lived in one of those and Jack in another. Churchill’s youngest son, Joe, who didn’t like high-rise living, had opted for a house.

When Gage came by to help Churchill shower and dress, he often brought research materials for his book. They would go over the reports, articles, and estimates for a few minutes, debating one issue or another. They both seemed to take great enjoyment in these arguments. I tried to move unobtrusively through the room, taking away Churchill’s breakfast tray and bringing him more coffee, and setting out his notepad and recorder. Gage made a point of ignoring me. Understanding that the very fact of my breathing was an irritant to him, I tried to stay out of his way. We didn’t speak if we passed each other on the stairs. When Gage left his keys in Churchill’s room one morning and I had to chase after him to return them, he could barely bring himself to thank me.

“He’s that way with everyone,” Churchill had told me. Even though I had never said a word about Gage’s coldness, it was obvious. “Always been standoffish—takes a while to warm up to people.”

We both knew it wasn’t true. I was the focus of a targeted dislike. I assured Churchill it didn’t bother me one bit. That wasn’t true either. It has always been my curse to be a pleaser. This is bad enough, but when you’re a pleaser in the company of someone who is determined to think the worst of you, you’re miserable. My only defense was to muster a dislike that equaled Gage’s, and to that end, he was being very helpful.

After Gage had left, the best part of the day began. I sat in the corner with a laptop and typed in Churchill’s notes and handwritten pages, or worked from his recordings. He encouraged me to ask about anything I didn’t understand, and he had a gift for explaining things in terms I could easily grasp.

I made calls and wrote e-mails for him, organized his schedule, took notes when people came to the house for meetings. Churchill usually presented foreign visitors with gifts such as bolo ties or bottles of Jack Daniel’s. To Mr. Ichiro Tokegawa, a Japanese businessman Churchill had been friends with for years, we gave a chinchilla-and-beaver Stetson that cost four thousand dollars. As I sat quietly in those meetings, I was fascinated by the insights they shared and the different conclusions they drew from the same information. But even when they disagreed, it was clear that people respected Churchill’s opinions.

Everyone remarked how good Churchill looked despite what he had gone through, that obviously nothing could keep him down. But it cost Churchill to maintain that appearance. After his guests left, he seemed to deflate, becoming weary and querulous. The long sedentary periods made him cold, and I was constantly filling up hot water bottles and putting throw blankets on him. When he had muscle cramps, I massaged his feet and his good leg, and helped him with toe and foot exercises to prevent adhesions.

“You need a wife,” I told him one morning as I came to take his breakfast tray.

“I had a wife,” he said. “Two good ones, as a matter of fact. Trying for another would be like asking fate for a kick in the ass. Besides, I do well enough with my lady friends.”

I could see the sense in that. There was no practical reason for Churchill to get married. It wasn’t like he had a problem finding female companionship. He got calls and notes from a variety of women, one of them an attractive widow named Vivian who sometimes stayed overnight. I was pretty sure they slept together, despite the logistics of maneuvering around the broken leg. After date night, Churchill was always in a good mood.

“Why don’t you get a husband?” Churchill countered. “You shouldn’t wait too long or you’ll get set in your ways.”

“So far I haven’t found one worth marrying,” I said, making Churchill laugh.

“Take one of my boys,” he said. “Healthy young animals. All prime husband material.”

I rolled my eyes. “I wouldn’t have one of your sons on a silver platter.”

“Why not?”

“Joe’s too young. Jack is a ladies’ man and isn’t nearly ready for that kind of responsibility, and Gage…well, personality issues aside, he only dates women whose body fat is in the single digits.”

A new voice entered the conversation. “That’s not actually a requirement.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Gage walking into the room. I cringed, fervently wishing I had kept my mouth shut.

I had wondered why Gage would date someone like Dawnelle, who was beautiful but seemed to have no interests other than shopping or reading Hollywood gossip sheets. Jack had summed her up best: “Dawnelle is hot. But ten minutes in her company and you can feel your IQ dropping.”

The only possible conclusion was that Dawnelle was going out with Gage because of his money and position, and he was using her as a trophy, and their relationship consisted of nothing more than meaningless sex.

God, I envied them.

I missed sex, even the mediocre sex I’d had with Tom. I was a healthy twenty-four-year-old woman, and I had urges with no means to satisfy them. Alone-sex didn’t count. It’s like the difference between thinking to yourself or having a good conversation with someone—the pleasure is in the exchange. And it seemed everyone had a love life but me. Even Gretchen.

One night I’d downed a mug of the tension-tamer tea I often made for Churchill to help him sleep. It had done nothing for me. My sleep had been restless, and I woke with the sheets twisted into ropes around my legs, and my head had been filled with erotic images that, for once, had nothing to do with Hardy. I sat bolt upright from a dream in which a man’s hands had been playing gently between my thighs, his mouth at my breast, and as I had writhed and begged for more, I had seen his eyes flash silver in the darkness.

Having an erotic dream about Gage Travis was about the stupidest, most embarrassing and confusing thing that had ever happened to me. But the impression of the dream, the heat and darkness and clutch-and-slide, lingered in the corner of my mind. It was the first time I’d ever been sexually attracted to a man I couldn’t stand. How was that possible? It was a betrayal of all the memories of Hardy. But here I was, lusting after a cold-faced stranger who couldn’t have cared less about me.

Shallow, I scolded myself. Mortified by the direction of my own thoughts, I could hardly stand to look at Gage as he walked into Churchill’s room.

“That’s good to hear,” Churchill said in reference to Gage’s earlier comment. “Because I don’t see how a woman shaped like a Popsicle stick is going to give me healthy grandchildren.”

“If I were you,” Gage replied, “I wouldn’t worry about grandchildren for a while.” He approached the bed. “Your shower’s got to be fast today, Dad. I’ve got a meeting at nine with Ashland.”

“You look like hell,” Churchill said, giving him an appraising glance. “What’s the matter?”

At that, I overcame my self-consciousness long enough to look up at Gage. Churchill was right. Gage did look like hell. He was pale under his tan, his mouth bracketed with harsh lines. He always seemed so inexhaustible, it was startling to see him drained of his usual vitality.

Sighing, Gage dragged his hand through his hair, leaving some of it standing on end. “I’ve got a headache that won’t quit.” He rubbed his temples gingerly. “I didn’t sleep last night. I feel like I’ve been hit by an eighteen-wheeler.”

“Have you taken something for it?” I asked. I rarely spoke to him directly.

“Yeah.” He looked at me with bloodshot eyes.

“Because if not—”

“I’m fine.”

I knew he was in considerable pain. A Texan male will say he’s fine even if he’s just had a limb severed and is bleeding to death in front of you.

“I could get you an ice pack and some painkillers,” I said cautiously. “If you—”

“I said I’m fine,” Gage snapped, and turned to his father. “Come on, let’s get started. I’m running late as it is.”

Jerk, I thought, and took Churchill’s tray from the room.

 

We didn’t see Gage for two days after that. Jack was enlisted to come in his place. Since Jack had what he called “sleep inertia,” I had genuine worries for Churchill’s safety in the shower. Even though Jack moved, talked, and gave the appearance of a functioning human being, he wasn’t all there until noon. In fact, sleep inertia looked a lot like a hangover to me. Swearing, stumbling, and only half listening to what anyone said, Jack was more of a hindrance than a help. Churchill remarked testily that Jack’s sleep inertia would improve a hell of a lot if he didn’t go out tomcatting half the night.

Gage, meanwhile, was bedridden with the flu. Since no one could remember the last time he’d been sick enough to take a day off, we all agreed it must have hit him pretty hard. No one heard from him, and when forty-eight hours had passed and Gage still wasn’t answering the phone, Churchill began to fret.

“I’m sure he’s just resting,” I said.

Churchill replied with a noncommittal grunt.

“Dawnelle’s probably taking care of him,” I said.

That earned me a glance of sour skepticism.

I was tempted to point out that his brothers should visit him. Then I recalled that Joe had gone to St. Simon’s Island with his girlfriend for a couple of days. And Jack’s caretaking abilities had been pushed to their limits after helping his father shower two mornings in a row.

I was pretty certain he would flat-out refuse to go to any more trouble for ailing family members.

“Do you want me to check on him?” I asked reluctantly. It was my night off, and I had planned to go out to a movie with Angie and some of the girls from Salon One. I hadn’t seen them in a while and I was looking forward to catching up with them. “I guess I could stop by Eighteen hundred Main on the way to see my friends—”

“Yes,” Churchill said.

I was instantly sorry I had made the offer. “I doubt he’d let me in.”

“I’ll give you a key,” Churchill said. “It’s not like Gage to hole up like this. I want to know if he’s all right.”

 

To reach the residential elevators of 1800 Main, you had to go through a small lobby with marble flooring and a bronze sculpture that looked like a hunched-over pear. There was a doorman clad in black with gold trim, and two people behind the reception desk. I tried to look like I belonged in a building with multimillion-dollar condos. “I’ve got a key,” I said, pausing to show it to them. “I’m visiting Mr. Travis.”

“All right,” the woman behind the desk said. “You can go on up, Miss…”

“Jones,” I said. “His father sent me to check on him.”

“That’s fine.” She motioned me toward a set of automatic sliding doors with etched-glass panels. “The elevators are over there.”

I felt like I needed to convince her of something. “Mr. Travis has been sick for a couple of days,” I said.

She looked sincerely concerned. “Oh, that’s too bad.”

“So I’m just going to run up and check on him. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

“That’s fine, Miss Jones.”

“Okay, thanks.” I held up the key just in case she hadn’t seen it the first time.

She responded with a patient smile and nodded toward the elevators again.

I went through the sliding glass doors and into an elevator with wood paneling and a black-and-white tiled floor and a bronze-framed mirror. The elevator whooshed up so swiftly, I barely had time to blink before it reached the eighteenth floor.

The narrow windowless hallways formed a big H. It was unnervingly quiet. My footsteps were muffled by a pale wool carpet, its pile spongy underfoot. I went to the corridor on the right and scrutinized door numbers until I found 18A. I knocked firmly.

No response.

A harder knock produced no results.

Now I was starting to get worried. What if Gage was unconscious? What if he’d gotten dengue fever or mad cow disease or bird flu? What if he was contagious? I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of catching some exotic malady. On the other hand, I’d promised Churchill I would check on him.

A rummage through my purse, and I found the key. But just before I inserted it into the lock, the door opened. I was confronted with the sight of Gage Travis ? la death-warmed-over. He was barefoot, dressed in a gray T-shirt and plaid flannel pants. His hair hadn’t been combed in days. He stared at me through bleary red-rimmed eyes and wrapped his arms around himself. He shook with the tremors of a large animal at slaughter time.

“What do you want?” His voice sounded like the crush of dry leaves.

“Your father sent me to—” I broke off as I saw him tremble again. Against all better judgment I reached up and laid my hand across his forehead. His skin was blazing.

It was a sign of how sick Gage was that he let me touch him. He closed his eyes at the coolness of my fingers. “God, that feels good.”

No matter if I might have fantasized about seeing my enemy brought low, I couldn’t take pleasure in seeing him reduced to such a pitiful state.

“Why haven’t you answered the phone?”

The sound of my voice seemed to recall Gage to himself, and he jerked his head back. “Didn’t hear it,” he said with a scowl. “I’ve been sleeping.”

“Churchill has been worried half to death.” I hunted in my bag again. “I’m going to call him and let him know you’re still alive.”

“That phone won’t work in the hallway.” He turned and went back into his condo, leaving the door open.

I followed and closed the door.

The condo was beautifully decorated with hypermodern fixtures and indirect lighting, and a couple of paintings of circles and squares that even my untrained eyes could discern were priceless. There were walls of nothing but windows, revealing wide views of Houston as the sun sank toward a bed of thickening color on the distant flat horizon. The furniture was contemporary, made of precious woods and natural-colored fabrics, no extra ornamentation of any kind. But it was too pristine, too orderly, without a cushion or pillow or any hint of softness. And there was a plasticky staleness in the air as if no one had lived there for a while.

The open kitchen was fitted with gray quartz countertops, black-lacquered cabinets, and stainless steel appliances. It was sterile, unseasoned, a kitchen where cooking was rarely done. I stood beside a counter and dialed Churchill on my cell phone.

“How is he?” Churchill barked when he picked up.

“Not great.” My gaze followed Gage’s tall form as he staggered to a geometrically perfect sofa and collapsed on it. “He’s got a fever, and he’s too weak to drag a cat.”

“Why the hell,” came Gage’s disgruntled voice from the sofa, “would I want to drag a cat?”

I was too busy listening to Churchill to answer. I reported, “Your dad wants to know if you’re taking any kind of antiviral medication.”

Gage shook his head. “Too late. Doctor said if you don’t take it within the first forty-eight hours, it won’t do any good.”

I repeated the information to Churchill, who was highly annoyed and said if Gage had been such a stubborn idiot to wait that long, he damn well deserved to rot. And then he hung up.

A brief, weighty silence.

“What did he say?” Gage asked without much curiosity.

“He said he hopes you feel better soon, and remember to drink lots of liquids.”

“Bullshit.” He rolled his head on the back of the sofa as if it were too heavy to lift. “You’ve done your duty. You can go now.”

That sounded good to me. It was Saturday night, my friends were waiting, and I could hardly wait to leave this elegantly barren place. But it was so quiet. And as I turned to the door, I knew my evening was already ruined. The thought of Gage sick and alone in a dark apartment was going to nag at me all night.

I turned back and ventured into the living area, with its glass-fronted fireplace and silent television. Gage remained prone on the sofa. I couldn’t help noticing the snug fit of his T-shirt against his arms and chest. His body was long, lean, disciplined like an athlete’s. So that was what he’d been hiding beneath those dark suits and Armani shirts.

I should have known Gage would approach exercise as he did everything else, no quarter asked, none given. Even at death’s door he was strikingly handsome, his features formed with a strong-boned austerity that owed nothing to boyishness. He was the Prada of bachelors. Reluctantly I acknowledged that if Gage had had one teaspoon’s worth of charm, I would have thought he was the sexiest man I’d ever met.

He slitted his eyes open as I stood over him. A few locks of black hair had fallen over his forehead, so unlike its usual strict order. I wanted to smooth it back. I wanted to touch him again.

“What?” he asked curtly.

“Have you taken something for the fever?”

“Tylenol.”

“Do you have anyone coming to help you?”

“Help me with what?” He closed his eyes. “I don’t need anything. I can ride this out alone.”

“Ride it out alone,” I repeated, gently mocking. “Tell me, cowboy, when was the last time you ate anything?”

No reply. He remained still, the crescents of his lashes heavy against his pale cheeks. Either he had passed out or he was hoping I was a bad dream that would disappear if he kept his eyes closed.

I went to the kitchen and opened the cabinets methodically, finding expensive liquor, modern glassware, black plates shaped like squares instead of circles. Locating the food cabinet, I discovered a box of Wheaties of indeterminate age, a can of lobster consomm?, a few jars of exotic spices. The contents of the refrigerator were just as pitiful. A bottle of orange juice, nearly empty. A white baker’s box containing two dried-up kolaches. A pint of half-and-half, and a lone brown egg in a foam carton.

“Nothing fit to eat,” I said. “I passed a corner grocery store a few streets away. I’ll run out and get you—”

“No, I’m fine. I can’t eat anything. I…” He managed to raise his head. It was clear he was trying desperately to find the magic combination of words that would make me leave. “I appreciate it, Liberty, but I just…”—his head dropped back down—“need to sleep.”

“Okay.” I reached for my purse and hesitated, giving a wistful thought to Angie and my friends and the chick flick we had planned to see. But Gage looked so damn helpless, his big body folded on that hard sofa, his hair messed up like a little boy’s. How did the heir to an enormous fortune, a successful businessman in his own right, not to mention a highly eligible bachelor, end up sick and alone in his five-million-dollar condo? I knew he had a thousand friends. Not to mention a girlfriend.

“Where’s Dawnelle?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Cosmo shoot next week,” he muttered. “Doesn’t want to catch this stuff.”

“I don’t blame her. Whatever you’ve got doesn’t look very fun.”

A shadow of a smile crossed his dry lips. “Trust me. It’s not.”

The brief hint of a smile seemed to wedge into some unseen fissure of my heart and widen it. Suddenly my chest felt tight and very warm.

“You need to eat something,” I said decisively, “even if it’s just a piece of toast. Before rigor mortis sets in.” I held up my finger like a stern schoolteacher as he began to say something. “I’ll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes.”

His mouth turned sullen. “I’m locking the door.”

“I’ve got a key, remember? You can’t keep me out.” I slung my purse over my shoulder with a nonchalance that I knew would annoy him. “And while I’m gone—I’m trying to put this diplomatically, Gage—it might not be a bad thing if you took a shower.”

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