I called Angie in my car and apologized for bailing on her. “I was really looking forward to this,” I said. “But Churchill’s son is sick, and I need to run a few errands for him.”
“The oldest one. Gage. He’s an asshole, but he’s got the worst case of flu I’ve ever seen. And he’s Churchill’s favorite. So I’ve got no choice. I’m so sorry. I—”
“Way to go, Liberty!”
“You’re thinking like a sugar baby.”
“Now you’ve got a Plan B in case your main sugar daddy dumps you. But be careful…you don’t want to lose Daddy while you’re reeling in the son.”
“I’m not reeling anyone in,” I protested. “This is simple compassion for a fellow human being. Believe me, he’s not a Plan B.”
“Sure he’s not. Call me, sweetie, and let me know what happens.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” I said. “We can’t stand each other.”
“You lucky girl. That’s the best kind of sex.”
“He’s half dead, Angie.”
“Call me later,” she repeated, and hung up.
In about forty-five minutes I returned to the condo with two bags of groceries. Gage was nowhere in sight. As I followed a trail of wadded-up tissues toward the bedroom, I heard the sounds of a shower running, and I grinned as I realized he had taken my suggestion. I went back to the kitchen, picking up tissues along the way, and deposited them in a garbage disposal that looked as if it had never been used. That was about to change. I took the groceries out of the bags, put about half of them away, and rinsed a three-pound chicken in the sink before setting it in a pot to boil.
Finding a cable news channel on TV, I turned up the volume so I could hear while I was cooking. I was making chicken and dumplings, the best cure I knew of. My version was pretty good, although nothing came close to Miss Marva’s.
I made a hill of white flour on a cutting board. It felt like silk in my fingers. It seemed like forever since I’d cooked anything. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it. I pinched butter into the flour until it formed tender crumbs. After making a little well in the top of the mound, I broke open an egg and poured its gelatinous contents into the depression. I worked quickly with my fingers, mixing the way Miss Marva had taught me. Most people use a fork, she had said, but something about the warmth of your hands made the dough better.
The only difficulty came when I hunted around the kitchen for a rolling pin and there was none to be found. I improvised with a cyndrilical highball glass, coating it with flour. It worked perfectly, creating a flat, even sheet that I cut into strips.
Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye, I glanced toward the hallway. Gage stood there looking baffled. He was wearing a fresh white tee and ancient gray sweatpants. His long feet were still bare. His hair, shiny as ribbons, was damp from a recent washing. He was so different from the starched, polished, and buttoned-up Gage I was accustomed to, I think I probably looked as bewildered as he did. For the first time I saw him as an approachable human being instead of some kind of ?bervillain.
“I didn’t think you’d come back,” he said.
“And miss my chance to boss you around?”
Gage kept staring at me as he lowered himself carefully to the sofa. He seemed enervated and unsteady.
I filled a glass with water and brought him two ibuprofen tablets. “Take these.”
“I’ve already had Tylenol.”
“If you alternate with ibuprofen every four hours, it’ll bring the fever down faster.”
He took the tablets and washed them down with a big gulp of water. “Where did you hear that?”
“Pediatrician. It’s what they tell me every time Carrington has a fever.” Noticing the goose bumps on his skin, I went to light the fireplace. A flip of a switch, and real flames spurted out from between sculpted ceramic logs. “More chills?” I asked sympathetically. “Do you have a lap blanket?”
“There’s one in the bedroom. But I don’t need—”
I was halfway down the hallway before he could finish.
His bedroom was decorated in the same minimalist style as the rest of the condo, the low platform bed covered in cream and navy, with two perfect pillows positioned against the gleaming wood-paneled wall. There was only one picture, an oil painting of a quiet ocean scene.
Finding an ivory cashmere throw on the floor, I brought it back to the living area along with a pillow. “Here you go,” I said briskly, covering him with the blanket. I motioned for him to sit up, and I tucked the pillow behind his back. As I leaned over him, I heard a quick hitch in his breathing. I hesitated before pulling back. He smelled so good, so clean and male, and there was the same elusive scent I had noticed before, like amber, something warm and summery. It lured me so strongly that I found it difficult to move away from him. But the closeness was dangerous, it was causing something to unravel inside, something I wasn’t ready for. And then the strangest thing happened…he deliberately turned his face so a loose lock of my hair slid against his cheek as I drew back.
“Sorry,” I said breathlessly, although I didn’t know what for.
He gave a brief shake of his head. I was caught by his gaze, those hypnotic light eyes with the charcoal rings around the irises. I touched his forehead with my hand, testing his temperature. Still too hot, a steady fire beneath the skin.
“So…you got something against throw pillows?” I asked, withdrawing my hand.
“I don’t like clutter.”
“Believe me, this is the most uncluttery place I’ve ever been in.”
He glanced over my shoulder at the pot on the stove. “What are you making?”
“Chicken and dumplings.”
“You’re the first person who’s ever cooked in that kitchen. Besides me.”
“Really?” I reached up to my hair and refastened my ponytail, pulling back the stray pieces that had fallen around my face. “I didn’t know you were handy in the kitchen.”
One of his shoulders lifted in the barest twitch of a shrug. “I took a class with a girlfriend a couple of years ago. Part of couples counseling.”
“You were engaged?”
“No, just going out. But when I wanted to break up, she wanted to try counseling first, and I thought why the hell not.”
“So what did the therapist say?” I asked, amused.
“She suggested we find something we could learn together, like ballroom dancing or photography. We decided on fusion cuisine.”
“What’s that? It sounds like a science experiment.”
“A mixture of cooking styles…Japanese, French, and Mexican. Like a saki-cilantro salad dressing.”
“So did it help?” I asked. “With the girlfriend, I mean?”
Gage shook his head. “We broke up midway through the course. It turned out she hated cooking, and she decided I had an incurable fear of intimacy.”
“Not sure.” His slow smile, the first real smile I’d ever gotten from him, caused my heart to thud heavily. “But I can make pan-seared scallops like nobody’s business.”
“You finished the course without her?”
“Hell, yes. I paid for it.”
I laughed. “I have fear of intimacy too, according to my last boyfriend.”
“Was he right?”
“Maybe. But I think if it’s the right person, you wouldn’t have to work so hard at intimacy. I think—hope—it would just happen naturally. Otherwise, opening up to the wrong person…” I made a face.
“Like putting ammo in their hands.”
“Exactly.” Reaching for the TV controller, I handed it to him. “ESPN?” I suggested, and headed back to the kitchen.
“No.” Gage left it on the news channel and turned the volume down. “I’m too damn weak to get worked up over a game. The excitement would kill me.”
I washed my hands and began to lay the dumpling strips on top of the simmering chicken broth. The air was filled with a homelike smell. Gage shifted on the sofa to watch me. Acutely conscious of his unbroken stare, I murmured, “Drink your water. You’re dehydrated.”
He obeyed, taking the glass in hand. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Aren’t you worried about catching the flu?”
“I never get sick. Besides, I have this compulsion to take care of ailing Travises.”
“You would be the only one. We Travises are bad-tempered as hell when we’re sick.”
“You’re not all that nice when you’re well, either.”
Gage drowned a grin in the glass of water. “You could open some wine,” he said eventually.
“You can’t drink when you’re sick.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t.” He set his water down and leaned his head against the back of the sofa.
“You’re right. After all I’m doing for you, you definitely owe me a glass of wine. What goes with chicken soup?”
“A neutral white. Look in the wine refrigerator for a pinot blanc or a chardonnay.”
Since I know nothing about wine, I usually choose according to the label design. I found a bottle of white with some delicate red flowers and French words, and poured myself a glass. Using a big spoon, I pushed the dumplings deeper into the pot and added another layer.
“Did you date him a long time?” I heard Gage ask. “Your last boyfriend.”
“Nope.” Now that the dumplings were all in, they needed to boil for a while. I walked back into the living area, holding my wine. “I never seem to date anyone for a long time. All my relationships are short and sweet. Well…short, anyway.”
I sat in a leather chair near the sofa. It was stylish but uncomfortable, shaped like a cube and encased in a polished chrome frame. “I guess that’s bad, isn’t it?”
He shook his head. “It shouldn’t take a long time to figure out if someone is right for you. If it does, you’re either dense or blind.”
“Or maybe you’re dating an armadillo.”
Gage shot me a perplexed glance. “Pardon?”
“I mean someone who’s hard to get to know. Shy and heavily armored.”
“Armadillos aren’t ugly,” I protested, laughing.
“They’re bulletproof lizards.”
“I think you’re an armadillo.”
“I’m not shy.”
“But you are heavily armored.”
Gage considered that. He conceded the point with a brief nod. “Having learned about projection in couples counseling, I’d venture to say you’re an armadillo too.”
“It means you accuse me of the same things you’re guilty of.”
“Good Lord,” I said, lifting the wineglass to my lips. “No wonder all your relationships are short.”
His slow smile caused the fine hairs on my arms to rise. “Tell me why you broke up with your last boyfriend.”
I wasn’t nearly as heavily armored as I would have liked, because the truth immediately popped into my mind—He was a sixty-eight—and I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that. I felt my cheeks heat up. The problem with blushing is the harder you try to stop the worse it gets. So I sat there turning crimson as I tried to think of a nonchalant reply.
And Gage, damn him, seemed to look inside my head and read my thoughts. “Interesting,” he said softly.
I scowled and stood up, gesturing with my wineglass. “Drink your water.”
I cleaned and straightened the kitchen, wishing he would change the channel and find a show. But he kept watching me as if he were fascinated by my technique as I sprayed Windex on the counters.
“By the way,” he remarked conversationally, “I figured out you’re not sleeping with my father.”
“Good for you,” I said. “What tipped you off?”
“The fact that he wants me to come over every morning to help him shower. If you were his girlfriend, you’d be in there with him.”
The dumplings were ready. Unable to find a ladle, I used a measuring cup to transfer the soup into square-shaped bowls. It didn’t look quite right, the wholesome chicken and dumplings in ultramod vessels. But it smelled delicious, and I knew this was one of my better efforts. Deducing that Gage was probably too fatigued to sit up at the dining table, I set his bowl on the beveled-glass coffee table. “It’s a pain in the ass for you, going over every morning, isn’t it?” I asked. “But you never complain.”
“My pain is nothing compared to Dad’s,” he said. “Besides, I consider it payback. I was a pain in the ass to him when I was younger.”
“I’ll bet you were.” I draped a dry dishtowel over his chest and tucked it into the neck of his tee as if he were an eight-year-old. My touch was impersonal, but as my knuckles brushed his skin I felt points of heat pulsing like fireflies in my stomach. I handed him a half-filled bowl and spoon, along with the advice, “Don’t burn your tongue.”
He spooned up a steaming dumpling and blew on it gently. “You never complain either,” he said. “About having to be a parent to your little sister. And I’m guessing she must have been the reason for at least a few of those short relationships.”
“Yes.” I got my own bowl of soup. “It’s nice, actually. It keeps me from wasting time with the wrong men. If a guy is scared by the responsibility, he’s not right for us.”
“But you’ve never known what it’s like to be single and childless.”
“I’ve never minded that.”
“Really. Carrington is…she’s the best thing about me.”
I might have said more, but Gage had downed a spoonful of dumplings and closed his eyes in an expression of what could have been either pain or ecstasy.
“What?” I asked. “Is it okay?”
He got busy with his spoon. “I may live,” he said, “if only to have another bowl of this stuff.”
Two helpings of chicken and dumplings seemed to bring Gage to life, his waxen paleness replaced by a tinge of color. “My God,” he said, “this is amazing. You wouldn’t believe how much better I feel.”
“Don’t push it. You still need to rest.” I put all the dishes into the washer and ladled what was left of the soup into a container for the fridge.
“I need more of that,” he said. “I have to stock a few gallons in the freezer.”
I was tempted to tell him any time he wanted to bribe me with another glass of neutral white wine, I’d be happy to make more soup. But that sounded too much like a proposition, which was the last thing on my mind. Now that Gage no longer looked so glazed and listless, I knew he would soon be back to his old self. There was no guarantee the truce between us was going to last. So I gave him a noncommittal smile.
“It’s late,” I said. “I’ve got to head back.”
A frown worked across Gage’s forehead. “It’s midnight. It’s not safe for you to be out this late. Not in Houston. Especially not in that rust bucket you drive.”
“My car works fine.”
“Stay here. There’s an extra bedroom.”
I let out a surprised laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
Gage looked annoyed. “No, I’m not kidding.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’ve driven my rust bucket through Houston many times, much later than this. And I’ve got my cell phone.” I walked over to him and reached out to his forehead. It was cool and slightly damp. “No more fever,” I said with satisfaction. “It’s time for another dose of Tylenol. You’d better take it just to be sure.” I made a motion for him to stay on the sofa as he started to rise. “Rest,” I said. “I’ll see myself out.”
Gage ignored that and followed me to the door, reaching it at the same time I did. I saw his hand press flat against the door panel. His forearm was densely muscled and dusted with hair. It was an aggressive gesture, but as I turned to face him, I was reassured by the subtle entreaty in his eyes.
“Cowboy,” I said, “you’re in no condition to stop me from doing a damn thing. I could wrestle you to the floor in ten seconds flat.”
He continued to lean over me. His voice was very soft. “Try me.”
I let out a nervous laugh. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you. Let me go, Gage.”
A moment of electric stillness. I saw the ripple of a swallow in his throat. “You couldn’t hurt me.”
He wasn’t touching me, but I was excruciatingly aware of his body, the heat and solidity of him. And suddenly I knew how it would be if we slept together…the rise of my hips against his weight, the hardness of his back beneath my hands. I flushed as I felt a responsive twitch between my thighs, soft-secreted nerves prickling, a shot of heat to the quick.
“Please,” I whispered, and was infinitely relieved when he pushed away from the door and stood back to let me pass.
Gage waited in the doorway a little too long as I left. It might have been my imagination, but as I reached the elevator and glanced back, he seemed bereft, as if I had just taken something from him.
It was a relief to everyone, especially Jack, when Gage was able to resume his usual schedule. He showed up at the house on Monday morning, looking so well that Churchill happily accused him of faking his illness.
I hadn’t mentioned having stayed with Gage for most of Saturday evening. It was best, I had decided, to let everyone assume I had gone out with my friends as planned. I realized Gage hadn’t said anything about it either—if he had, there would have been a comment from Churchill. It made me uneasy, this small secret between Gage and me, even though nothing had happened.
But something had changed. Instead of treating me with his usual reserve, Gage went out of his way to be helpful, fixing my laptop when it froze, taking Churchill’s empty breakfast tray downstairs before I could do it. And it seemed to me that he was coming to the house more frequently, dropping by at odd times, always on the pretext of checking on Churchill.
I tried to treat his visits casually, but I couldn’t deny that time moved faster when Gage was around, and everything seemed a little more interesting. He wasn’t a man you could fit into a neat category. The family, with typically Texan distrust of highbrow pursuits, affectionately mocked him for having more of an intellectual bent than the rest of them.
But Gage had been aptly named after his mother’s family, the descendants of warlike Scotch-Irish borderers. According to Gretchen, who had made a hobby of researching the family genealogy, the Gages’ dour self-reliance and toughness had made them perfect candidates to settle the Texas frontier. Isolation, hardship, danger—they had welcomed all of it, their natures practically demanded it. At times you could see the echoes of those fiercely disciplined immigrants in Gage.
Jack and Joe were far more easygoing and charming, both possessing a boyishness that was completely absent in their older brother. And then there was Haven, the daughter, whom I met when she came home on break from school. She was a slim black-haired girl with Churchill’s dark eyes, possessing all the subtlety of a firecracker. She announced to her father and anyone else in earshot that she had become a second-wave feminist, she had changed her major to women’s studies, and she would no longer tolerate Texas’s culture of patriarchal repression. She talked so fast I had a hard time following her, especially when she pulled me aside to express sympathy for the exploitation and disenfranchisement of my people, and assured me of her passionate support for the reformation of immigration policies and guest worker programs. Before I could think of how to reply, she had bounced away and launched into an enthusiastic argument with Churchill.
“Don’t mind Haven,” Gage had said dryly, watching his sister with a faint smile. “She’s never met a cause she didn’t like. It was the biggest disappointment of her life not to be disenfranchised.”
Gage was different from his siblings. He worked too hard and challenged himself compulsively, and seemed to hold nearly everyone outside his family at arm’s length. But he had begun to treat me with a careful friendliness I couldn’t help responding to. And there was his increasing kindness to my sister. It started in small ways. He fixed the broken chain of Carrington’s pink two-wheeler, and drove her to school one morning when I was running late.
Then there was the bug project. Carrington’s class had been studying insects, and every child was required to write a report on a particular bug and make a 3D model. Carrington had decided on a lightning bug. I took Carrington to Hobby Lobby, where we spent forty dollars on paint, Styrofoam, plaster of Paris, and pipe cleaners. I didn’t say one word about the cost—my competitive sister was determined to make the best bug in the class, and I had resolved to do whatever was necessary to help.
We made the body of the bug and covered it with wet plaster strips, and painted it black, red, and yellow when it was dry. The entire kitchen had been turned into a disaster zone in the process. The bug was a handsome creation, but to Carrington’s disappointment, the glow in the dark paint we had used for the bug’s underside was not nearly as effective as we had hoped. It didn’t glow hardly at all, Carrington had said glumly, and I had promised to try to find a better quality paint so we could apply another coat.
After spending an afternoon typing a chapter of Churchill’s manuscript, I was surprised to discover Gage sitting with my sister in the kitchen, the table piled with tools, wires, small pieces of wood, batteries, glue, a ruler. Cradling the lightning bug model in one hand, he made deep cuts with an X-Acto knife.
“What are you doing?”
Two heads lifted, one dark, one platinum. “Just performing a little surgery,” Gage said, deftly extracting a rectangular chunk of foam.
Carrington’s eyes were lit with excitement. “He’s putting a real light inside our bug, Liberty! We’re making a ’lectrical circuit with wires and a switch, and when you flip it the lightning bug’s going to flash.”
“Oh.” Nonplussed, I sat at the table. I always appreciated help whenever it was given. But I had never expected Gage, of all people, to get involved in our project. I didn’t know whether he’d been recruited by Carrington or if he’d offered on his own, and I wasn’t certain why it made me uneasy to see them working together so companionably.
Patiently Gage showed Carrington how to make the wired circuit, how to hold the screwdriver and twist it. He held the pieces of a little switch box together as she glued it. Carrington glowed at his quiet praise, her small face animated as they worked together. Unfortunately the added weight of the bulb and wiring caused the pipe cleaner legs to collapse beneath the model. I had to bite back a sudden grin as Gage and Carrington contemplated the prostrate insect.
“It’s a lightning bug with sleep inertia,” Carrington said, and the three of us snorted with laughter.
It took Gage another half hour to reinforce the bug’s legs with clothes hanger wire. After setting the finished project in the middle of the kitchen table, he turned the kitchen lights off. “All right, Carrington,” he said. “Let’s give it a test run.”
Eagerly Carrington picked up the small wired box and flipped the switch. She crowed in triumph as the lightning bug began to flash in a steady repeated pattern. “Oh, it’s so cool, look, look at my bug, Liberty!”
“It’s great,” I said, grinning as I saw how elated she was.
“High five,” Gage said to Carrington, holding up his hand.
But to his astonishment, and mine, Carrington ignored the high five. Instead, she threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“You’re the best,” she said against his shirtfront. “Thanks, Gage.”
He didn’t move for a second, just looked down at Carrington’s small blond head. And then his arms went around her. As she grinned up at him, still hanging around his waist, he ruffled her hair gently. “You did most of the work, shorty. I just helped a little.”
I stood outside the moment, marveling at how easily the connection between them had been formed. Carrington had always gotten along with grandfatherly men like Mr. Ferguson or Churchill, but she’d been standoffish with the ones I had dated. I couldn’t fathom why she had taken to Gage.
She couldn’t become attached to him, when there was no chance of him becoming a permanent fixture in her life. It would only lead to disappointment, even heartbreak, and her heart was too precious for me to let that happen.
When Gage thought to glance at me with a quizzical smile, I couldn’t smile back. I turned away on the pretext of cleaning up the kitchen, picking up bits of wire with fingers that clenched until they whitened at the tips.