Chapter 19

Churchill told me about strategic inflection points while we wrote the “Why Paranoia Is Good,” chapter of his book. A strategic inflection point, he explained, is a huge turning point in the life of a company, a technological advancement or opportunity that changes the way everything is done. Like the breakup of Bell in 1984, or when Apple came out with the iPod. It can boost a business into the stratosphere or sink it beyond any hope of recovery. But no matter what the results are, the rules of the game are changed forever.

The strategic inflection point in my relationship with Gage happened the weekend after Carrington had turned in the lightning bug project. It was late Sunday morning, and Carrington had gone outside to play while I took a long shower. It was a cold day with hard stinging gusts. The flatlands near Houston offered no obstructions, not even a few lonely mesquite trees to hook the hem of the sky, and the long open fetch gave the wind plenty of room to collect momentum.

I dressed in a long-sleeved tee and jeans, and a heavy wool cardigan with a hood. Although I usually flat-ironed my hair to make it shiny and straight, I didn’t bother that day, letting it curl crazily over my shoulders and back.

I crossed through the visiting room with its towering ceilings, where Gretchen was busy directing a team of professional Christmas decorators. Angels was the theme she had picked that year, obliging the decorators to perch on high ladders to hang cherubs and seraphim and swags of gold cloth. Christmas music played in the background, Dean Martin singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with finger-snapping panache.

My feet bounced to the music as I went outside to the back. I heard Churchill’s scuffly laugh, and Carrington squealing in glee. Pulling my hood up, I wandered toward the sounds.

Churchill’s wheelchair was at the corner of the patio, facing an incline at the north side of the garden. I stopped short as I saw my sister standing at the end of a zip line, a cable that had been mounted on the incline and hung with a pulley that slid from the higher end to the lower one.

Gage, dressed in jeans and an ancient blue sweatshirt, was tightening the end of the line while Carrington urged him to hurry. “Hold your horses,” he told her, grinning at her impatience. “Let me make sure the line will hold you.”

“I’m doing it now,” she said in determination, grasping the pulley handle.

“Wait,” Gage cautioned, giving the cable an experimental yank.

“I can’t wait!”

He started laughing. “All right, then. Don’t blame me if you fall.”

The line was too high, I saw with a jolt of terror. If the line broke, if Carrington couldn’t hold on, she would break her neck. “No,” I cried out, starting forward. “Carrington, don’t!”

She looked toward me with a grin. “Hey, Liberty, watch me! I’m going to fly.”

“Wait!”

But she ignored me, the obstinate little mule, grasping the pulley and pushing off the incline. Her slight body sped above the ground, too high, too fast, the legs of her jeans flapping. She let out a shriek of enjoyment. My vision blurred for a moment, my teeth clenching on a pained sound. I half staggered, half ran, reaching Gage almost at the same time she did.

He caught her easily, plucking her from the pulley and swinging her to the ground. The two of them laughed, whooped, neither noticing my approach.

I heard Churchill calling my name from the patio, but I didn’t answer him.

“I told you to wait,” I shouted at Carrington, dizzy with relief and rage, the remnants of fear still rattling in my throat. She fell silent and blanched, staring at me with round blue eyes.

“I didn’t hear you,” she said. It was a lie, and we both knew it. I was infuriated as I saw the way she sidled up next to Gage as if seeking his protection. From me.

“Yes you did! And don’t think you’re going to get off easy, Carrington. I’m ready to ground you for life.” I turned on Gage. “That…that stupid thing is too damn high off the ground! And you have no right to let her try something dangerous without asking me first.”

“It’s not dangerous,” Gage said calmly, his gaze steady on mine. “We had a zip line exactly like this when we were kids.”

“I bet you fell off it,” I shot back. “I bet you got banged up plenty.”

“Sure we did. And we lived to tell about it.”

My outrage, salt-flavored and primal, thickened with each second that passed. “You arrogant jerk, you don’t know anything about eight-year-old girls! She’s fragile, she could break her neck—”

“I’m not fragile!” Carrington said indignantly, huddling closer to Gage’s side until he put a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re not even wearing your helmet. You know better than to do something like this without it.”

Gage’s face was expressionless. “You want me to take the line down?”

“No!” Carrington shouted at me, tears springing to her eyes. “You never let me have any fun. You’re not fair. I’m going to play on the zip line and you can’t tell me not to. You’re not my mom!”

“Hey, hey…shorty.” Gage’s voice had gentled. “Don’t talk to your sister like that.”

“Great,” I snapped. “Now I’m the bad guy. Screw you, Gage. I don’t need you to defend me, you—” I raised my hands in a defensive gesture, wrists stiff. A cold wind struck me in the face, needling the inner corners of my eyes, and I realized I was about to cry. I looked at the two of them standing together, and I heard Churchill call my name.

Me against the three of them.

I turned away abruptly, hardly able to see through the bitter slick of tears. Time to retreat. I walked with fast, digging strides. As I passed the man in the wheelchair, I growled, “You’re in trouble too, Churchill,” without breaking pace.

By the time I reached the warm sanctuary of the kitchen, I was cold to the bone. I sought out the darkest, most sheltered part of the kitchen, the narrow recessed niche of the butler’s pantry. The space was lined with glass-fronted china cabinets. I didn’t stop until I was hidden at the back of it. I wrapped my arms around myself, shrinking, trying to take up as little physical space as possible.

Every instinct screamed that Carrington was mine, and no one had the right to dispute my judgments. I had taken care of her, sacrificed for her. You’re not my mom. Ingrate! Traitor! I wanted to stomp outside and tell her how easy it would have been for me to give her away after Mama died, how much better off I might have been. Mama…oh, I wished I could take back all the hateful things my teenage self had said to her. Now I understood the injustice of parenting. Try to keep them healthy and safe, and you got blame instead of gratitude, rebellion instead of cooperation.

Someone came into the kitchen. I heard the door close. I held still, praying I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. But a dark shadow moved through the unlit kitchen, too substantial to belong to anyone other than Gage.

“Liberty?”

After that I couldn’t remain hiding in silence. “I don’t want to talk,” I said sullenly.

Gage filled the narrow entrance of the butler’s pantry. Cornering me. The shadows were so thick, I couldn’t see his face.

And then he said the one thing I would never have expected him to say.

“I’m sorry.”

Anything else would have bolstered my anger. But those two words caused tears to spill over the wind-stung rims of my eyes. I ducked my head and let out a shuddery sigh. “It’s fine. Where’s Carrington?”

“Dad’s talking to her.” Gage came to me in a couple of measured strides. “You were right. About everything. I told Carrington she has to wear a helmet from now on. And I just lowered the line a couple feet.” A short pause. “I should have asked you before putting it up. It won’t happen again.”

He had an absolute gift for surprising me. I would have thought he’d be scathing, argumentative. The tightness left my throat. I lifted my head, the darkness thinning until I could see the outline of his head. The scent of outdoors clung to him, wind laced with ozone, dry grass, something sweet like freshly cut wood.

“I’m overprotective,” I said.

“Of course you are,” Gage said reasonably. “That’s your job. If you weren’t—” He broke off with a sharp indrawn breath as he saw a glitter of moisture on my cheek. “Shit. No, no, don’t do that.” He turned to a set of drawers in the pantry, fumbled until he found a pressed napkin. “Damn it, Liberty, don’t. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I put up that fucking zip line. I’ll take it down right away.” Gage, usually so deft, was unaccountably clumsy as he blotted my cheeks with the soft folded linen.

“No,” I said, sniffling, “I want the line to s-stay up.”

“Okay. Okay. Whatever you want. Anything. Just don’t cry.”

I took the napkin from him and blew my nose and sighed shakily. “I’m sorry I exploded out there. I shouldn’t have overreacted.”

He hovered, paused, shifted like a restless animal in a cage. “You spend half your life taking care of her, protecting her, and then one day some asshole is shooting her across the yard on a line five feet off the ground with no helmet. Of course you’d be pissed.”

“It’s just…she’s all I’ve got. And if anything ever happened to her—” My throat constricted but I forced myself to continue. “I’ve known for a long time that Carrington needs a man’s influence in her life, but I don’t want her to get involved with you and Churchill because this won’t last forever, us being here, and that’s why—”

“You’re afraid for Carrington to get involved,” he repeated slowly.

“Emotionally involved, yes. She’ll have a hard time when we leave. I…I think this was a mistake.”

“What was?”

“Everything. All of this. I shouldn’t have taken Churchill’s offer. We never should have moved here.”

Gage was silent. A trick of the light made his eyes gleam as if with their own illumination.

“What?” I asked defensively. “Why aren’t you saying anything?”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“We can talk about it now. What are you thinking?”

“That you’re projecting again.”

“About what?”

I stiffened as he reached for me. My thoughts scattered as I felt his hands, the heat of male skin. His legs bracketed mine, the muscles hard beneath thin worn denim. I gasped a little as his hand slid around my neck. His thumb made a slow pass at the side of my throat, and the light stroke aroused me shamefully.

Gage spoke against my hair, the words sinking to my scalp. “Don’t pretend this is all about Carrington. You’re worried about your own damned emotional involvement.”

“Am not,” I protested through dry lips.

He eased my head back, bent over me. A mocking whisper tickled my ear. “You’re so full of it, darlin’.”

He was right. I had been so na?ve to think that somehow we were going to visit the Travises’ world like a pair of tourists, participating without becoming involved. But somehow connections had been formed, my heart had found purchase in unexpected places. I was involved more than I had ever dreamed possible.

I began to tremble. There was a low tightening in my stomach as Gage’s mouth wandered to the edge of my jaw, the corner of my lips. I backed away from him until my shoulders came up hard against the cabinets, causing a delicate rattle of china and crystal. Gage’s supporting arm forced an arch at the small of my back. With every breath I took, my chest lifted against his.

“Liberty…let me. Let me…”

I couldn’t talk or move, just waited helplessly as his mouth eased over mine.

I closed my eyes, opening to the taste of him, to slow kisses that explored without demand, while his hand moved to cradle the side of my face. Disarmed by his gentleness, I let my body relax against his. He searched more deeply, nudging, caressing, still with that maddening restraint, until my heart was pumping as if I’d run a marathon.

Closing his hand in the heavy mass of my hair, he held it aside and kissed my neck, taking forever to work his way up to the hollow behind my ear. By the time he had reached it, I was twisting to get closer to him, my fingers gripping the unyielding surface of his upper arms. With a murmur, he took my wrists and drew them around his shoulders. I wobbled on my sneakered toes, straining in every muscle.

He held me firmly, anchoring me against the hard framework of his body, and took my mouth again. This time his kisses were longer, grinding, wet, deeply consuming, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I molded all my weight against him until there wasn’t a millimeter of space between us. He kissed me as if he were already inside me, greedy kisses with teeth, tongue, lips, kisses of unbearable sweetness that made me want to pass out but instead I clung to his body and moaned into his mouth. His hands slid to my bottom, cupped me snugly against a hard jutting pressure that felt like nothing else in the world, and the desire turned into madness. I wanted him to bear me down to the floor, I wanted him to do anything, everything. His mouth ate at mine, licked deep, and every thought and impulse dissolved into a hum of white noise, raw pleasure rising to the top of my skull.

His hand slipped beneath the hem of my shirt, finding the skin of my back, which was flushed and tender as if I’d been scalded. The cool brush of his fingers was an unspeakable relief. I arched in frantic welcome, while his hand spread like an unfolding fan, traveling up my spine.

The kitchen door burst open.

We sprang apart, and I lurched a few feet away from Gage, throbbing in every part of my body. I fumbled with my shirt, trying to pull it into place. Gage stayed at the back of the pantry, arms braced on the cabinets, head lowered. I saw the muscles bunch beneath his clothes. His body was rigid with frustration; it came off him in waves. I was shocked by my response to him, the pure erotic burn of it.

I heard Carrington’s uncertain voice. “Liberty, are you back there?”

I emerged hastily. “Yeah. I was just…I needed some privacy…”

I went to the far end of the kitchen where my sister was standing. Her small face was tense and anxious, her hair comically wild like a troll doll’s. She looked as if she were going to cry. “Liberty…”

When you love a child, you forgive her before she can even ask. Basically you’ve already forgiven her for things she hasn’t even done yet. “It’s okay,” I murmured, reaching for her. “It’s okay, baby.”

Carrington rushed forward, her skinny arms closing tight around me. “I’m sorry,” she said tearfully. “I didn’t mean the stuff I said, any of it—”

“I know.”

“I just w-wanted to have fun.”

“’Course you did.” I folded her in the strongest, warmest embrace I could, pressing my cheek to the top of her head. “But it’s my job to make sure you have as little fun as possible.” We both chuckled and hugged for a long moment. “Carrington…I’m going to try not to be a wet blanket all the time. It’s just that you’re getting to the age when most of the things you want to do for fun will also be the things that drive me crazy worrying about you.”

“I’ll do everything you tell me to,” Carrington said, a little too quickly.

I smiled. “God. I’m not asking for blind obedience. But we have to find ways of compromising when we disagree on something. You know what compromise is, right?”

“Uh-huh. It’s when you don’t get to have everything your way and I don’t get to have everything my way, and no one’s happy. Like when Gage lowered the zip line.”

I laughed. “That’s right.” Being reminded of the zip line, I glanced in the direction of the butler’s pantry. From what I could tell it was empty. Gage had left the kitchen without a sound. I had no idea what I was going to say to him the next time I saw him. The way he had kissed me, my response…

Some things you’re better off not knowing.

“What did you and Churchill talk about?” I asked.

“How did you know Churchill and me were talking?”

“And I,” I corrected, thinking fast. “Well, I thought he’d say something to you, since he always has an opinion about things. And since you didn’t come inside right away, I assumed you two were having a conversation.”

“We were. He said I should know that being a parent isn’t near as easy as it looks, and even though you aren’t my actual mom, you’re the best stand-in he’s ever seen.”

“He said that?” I was flattered and pleased.

“And,” Carrington continued, “he said I shouldn’t take you for granted, because lots of girls your age would’ve put me in foster care when Mama died.” She laid her head on my chest. “Did you think about doing that, Liberty?”

“Never,” I said firmly. “Not for one second. I loved you too much to give you up. I want you in my life forever.” I bent and snuggled her close.

“Liberty?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Yes, baby?”

“What were you and Gage doing in the butler’s pantry?”

I jerked my head back, looking, I was sure, as guilty as hell. “You saw him?”

Carrington nodded innocently. “He left the kitchen a minute ago. It looked like he was sneaking out.”

“I—I think he was trying to give us some privacy,” I said unsteadily.

“Were you arguing with him about the zip line?”

“Oh, we were just chatting. That’s all. Just a chat.” Blindly I headed for the refrigerator. “I’m hungry. Let’s have a snack.”

 

Gage disappeared for the rest of the day, having suddenly remembered a few urgent errands that would occupy him indefinitely. I was relieved. I needed some time to think about what had happened and how I was going to react to it.

According to Churchill’s book, the best way to deal with a strategic inflection point is to move quickly past denial into acceptance of change, and plan your strategy for the future. After considering everything carefully, I decided the kiss with Gage had been a moment of insanity, and he probably regretted it. Therefore, the best strategy was to pretend nothing had happened. I was going to be calm, relaxed, and impersonal.

I was so determined to show Gage how unaffected I had been by the whole thing, to amaze him with my cool sophistication, that it was a letdown when Jack arrived in the morning. Balefully Jack said Gage had given him no advance notice, just called him at the crack of dawn and said to get his ass over to help Dad, he couldn’t make it.

“What’s so all-fired important he couldn’t be bothered to come over here?” Churchill asked testily. As much as Jack didn’t want to be there helping him, Churchill didn’t want him there even more.

“He’s flying up to New York to visit Dawnelle,” Jack said. “He’s going to take her out after the shoot at Demarchelier.”

“Just took off with no notice?” Churchill scowled until his forehead was starred with tiny indentations. “Why the hell’s he doing that? He was supposed to meet with the Canadians from Syncrude today.” Churchill’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “He better not have taken the Gulfstream without one damn word of advance notice or I’ll fry his—”

“He didn’t take the Gulfstream.”

The information mollified Churchill. “Good. Because I told him the last time—”

“He took the Citation,” Jack said.

While Churchill growled and reached for his cell phone, I carried the breakfast tray downstairs. It was ridiculous, but the news that Gage had gone to New York to be with his girlfriend had hit me like a gut punch. A great smothering dullness settled over me as I thought of Gage with beautiful whippet-framed Dawnelle, she of the straight blond hair and big perfume contract. Of course he would go to her. I was nothing to him but a momentary impulse. A whim. A mistake.

I was brimming with jealousy, sick with it, over the worst person I could have picked to be jealous of. I couldn’t believe it. Stupid, I told myself angrily, stupid, stupid. But knowing that didn’t seem to make things any better.

For the rest of the day I made violent resolutions and promises to myself. I tried to drive thoughts of Gage out of my mind by dwelling on the subject of Hardy, the love of my life, who had meant more to me than Gage Travis ever would…Hardy, who was sexy, charming, unreserved, as opposed to Gage, the arrogant, annoying asshole.

But even thinking about Hardy didn’t work. So I concentrated on fanning the flames of Churchill’s temper by mentioning Gage and the Citation at every possible opportunity. I hoped Churchill would descend on his oldest son like a plague of Egypt.

To my disappointment, Churchill’s temper vanished after they talked on the phone. “New development in the works with Dawnelle,” Churchill reported complacently. I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but my mood plummeted further. That could mean only one thing—Gage was asking her to move in with him. Maybe he was even proposing to her.

After working all day and helping Carrington practice her soccer moves outside, I was exhausted. More than that, I was depressed. I was never going to find anyone. I was going to spend the rest of my life sleeping single in a double bed until I was a cranky old woman who did nothing but water the plants, talk about the neighbors, and take care of her ten cats.

I soaked in a long bath, which Carrington had garnished with Barbie bath suds that smelled like bubble gum. Afterward I dragged myself to bed and lay there with my eyes open.

The next day I woke up in a sullen simmer, as if sleep had catalyzed my depression into a general state of pissed-offedness. Churchill raised his brows as I informed him that I didn’t feel like running up and down the stairs all day, so I’d appreciate it if he would consolidate his requests into one list. Among the various items was a note to call a newly opened restaurant and make reservations for eight. “One of my friends made a big investment in the place,” Churchill told me. “I’m taking the family to eat there tonight. Make sure you and Carrington put on something nice.”

“Carrington and I aren’t going.”

“Yes you are.” He counted the guests on his fingers. “It’s going to be you two girls, Gretchen, Jack and his girlfriend, Vivian and me, and Gage.”

So Gage would be back from New York by tonight. My insides felt as if they’d been coated with lead.

“What about Dawnelle?” I asked curtly. “Is she coming?”

“I don’t know. Better make it a party of nine. Just in case.”

If Dawnelle was there…if the two of them were engaged…I was pretty sure I couldn’t get through the evening.

“It’s going to be a party of seven,” I said. “Carrington and I aren’t family, so we’re not going.”

“Yes you are,” Churchill said flatly.

“It’s a school night. Carrington can’t stay out late.”

“Make reservations for an early dinner, then.”

“You’re asking too much,” I snapped.

“What the hell am I paying you for, Liberty?” Churchill asked without rancor.

“You’re paying me to work for you, not to have dinner with the family.”

He met my gaze without blinking. “I aim to talk about work during dinner. Bring your notepad.”

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