Chapter 20

I had seldom dreaded anything the way I did that dinner. I fretted about it all day. By five o’clock my stomach felt like it was filled with cement, and I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to eat anything.

Pride, however, compelled me to pull out my best dress, a red wool knit with long sleeves and a vee neck that exposed a hint of cleavage. It clung lightly from chest to hips and fell in a gently flared skirt. I spent at least forty-five minutes flat ironing my hair until it was perfectly straight. A careful application of smoky-gray eyeshadow, a slick of sparkly neutral lip gloss, and I was ready to go. Despite my moroseness, I knew I’d never looked better in my life.

I went to my sister’s room and discovered the door was locked. “Carrington,” I called. “It’s six o’clock. Time to go. Come out of there.”

Her voice was muffled. “I need another few minutes.”

“Carrington, hurry,” I said with a touch of exasperation. “Let me in there and I’ll help you—”

“I can do it by myself.”

“I want you downstairs in the family room, in five minutes.”

“Okay!”

Sighing heavily, I went to the elevator. Usually I took the stairs, but not when I was wearing three-inch heels. The house was strangely quiet except for the staccato of my metallic slides across marble flooring, clicks softening on hardwood, disappearing in the pile of wool carpeting.

The family room was empty, a fire winking and snapping in the fireplace. Perplexed, I went to the wet bar and sorted through decanters and bottles. I figured since I wasn’t driving, and Churchill was forcing me to go out with the family, he owed me a drink. I poured some cola into a glass, added a shot of Zaya rum, and stirred it with my forefinger. As I took a medicinal gulp, the cold liquid slid down my throat with a sparkling burn. Maybe I’d added a little too much Zaya.

It was my misfortune to turn and catch sight of Gage entering the room while I was still in mid-swallow. I struggled for a second to keep from spewing the drink. After managing to force it down, I started to cough violently, setting aside the glass.

Gage was at my side in an instant. “Went down the wrong way?” he asked sympathetically, rubbing circles on my back.

I nodded and continued to cough, my eyes watering.

He looked concerned and amused. “My fault. I didn’t mean to surprise you.” His hand lingered on my back, which did nothing to restore my breathing.

I noticed two things right away—first, Gage was alone, and second, he was outrageously sexy in a black cashmere turtleneck and gray pants and black Prada loafers.

The last cough sputtered away, and I found myself staring helplessly into light crystalline eyes. “Hi,” I said lamely.

A smile touched his lips. “Hi.”

I was filled with dangerous heat, standing there with Gage. I felt happy just being near him, and miserable for any number of reasons, and humiliated by the desire to throw myself at him, and the turmoil of feeling all those things at once was almost more than I could stand. “Is…is Dawnelle with you?”

“No.” Gage looked as if he wanted to say more, but he checked himself and glanced around the empty room. “Where is everyone?”

“I don’t know. I thought Churchill said six o’clock.”

His smile turned wry. “I have no idea why he was so damned impatient to get everyone together tonight. The only reason I came was because I hoped you and I might find a few minutes to talk afterward.” A brief pause, and he added, “Alone.”

A nervous shiver went down my back. “Okay.”

“You look beautiful,” Gage said. “But then you always do.” He continued before I could respond. “I got a call from Jack on the way over here. He can’t make it tonight.”

“I hope he’s not sick.” I tried to sound concerned, when at the moment I couldn’t have cared less about Jack.

“No, he’s fine. His girlfriend just surprised him with tickets to a Coldplay concert.”

“Jack hates Coldplay,” I said, having heard him make comments to that effect.

“Yes. But he likes sleeping with his girlfriend.”

We both turned as Gretchen and Carrington entered the room. Gretchen was dressed in a lavender boucl? skirt, a matching silk blouse, and a Herm?s scarf knotted around her neck. To my dismay, Carrington was wearing jeans and a pink sweater.

“Carrington,” I asked, “you’re not dressed yet? I laid out your blue skirt and your—”

“Can’t go,” my sister said cheerfully. “Got too much homework. So I’m going with Aunt Gretchen to her book club meeting, and I’ll do it there.”

Gretchen looked regretful. “I just remembered my book club meeting. I can’t miss it. The girls are very strict about attendance. Two unexcused absences, and—” She drew her coral-manicured finger across her neck.

“They sound ruthless,” I said.

“Oh, honey, you can’t imagine. Once you’re out, you’re out for good. And then I’d have to find something else to do Tuesday nights, and the only thing going on besides the book club is Bunko Group.” She looked at Gage apologetically. “You know how I hate Bunko.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Bunko makes you fat,” she informed him. “All that snacking. And at my age—”

“Where’s Dad?” Gage interrupted.

Carrington answered innocently. “Uncle Churchill said to tell you his leg is bothering him so he’s going to stay in tonight and watch a movie with his friend Vivian when she gets here.”

“But since you two are dressed up so nice,” Gretchen said, “you go on without us and have a good time.”

They disappeared like a vaudeville act, leaving us standing there in bemusement.

It was a conspiracy.

Stunned and mortified, I turned to Gage. “I had nothing to do with this, I swear—”

“I know. I know.” He looked exasperated, and then he laughed. “As you can see, my family doesn’t give a crap about subtlety.”

The sight of one of his rare grins sent a rush of delight through me. “There’s no need to take me to dinner,” I said. “You must be tired after your trip to New York. And I’m guessing Dawnelle wouldn’t be too happy about the idea of us going out.”

His amusement faded. “Actually…Dawnelle and I broke up yesterday.”

I thought I hadn’t heard right. I was afraid to assume anything from that spare handful of words. I felt my pulse jumping beneath my skin, in my cheeks and throat and the insides of my arms. No doubt I looked pitifully confused, but Gage said nothing else, only waited for me to respond.

“I’m sorry,” I eventually managed. “Is that why you went to New York? To…to break up with her?”

Gage nodded, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear, letting his thumb touch the edge of my jaw. My face burned. I stood tensely, knowing if I relaxed even one muscle, I would wilt entirely. “I realized,” he said, “if I’d become so obsessed with a woman I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about her…it didn’t make sense for me to be going out with someone else, did it?”

I couldn’t have said a word to save my life. My gaze fell to his shoulder, and I was overcome with the longing to rest my head against it. His hand played in my hair with electrifying lightness.

“So…do we go along with the setup?” I heard him ask after a moment.

I brought myself to look up at him. He was gorgeous. The fire shed hot colors across his skin and lit tiny rushlights in his eyes. The angles of his face were thrown into sharp relief. He needed a haircut. The thick black locks were starting to curl over the tips of his ears and the back of his neck. I remembered the feel of it in my fingers, like coarse silk, and I ached with the desire to touch his head, tug it down to mine. What was his question? Oh, yes…the setup. “I’d hate to give them the satisfaction,” I said, and he smiled.

“You’re right. On the other hand…we do have to eat.” His gaze swept down my body. “And you’re too pretty to stay home tonight.” He settled a hand at the small of my back, pressed gently. “Let’s get out of here.”

His car was parked in the front drive. It was typical of Gage to drive a Maybach. It’s a car for rich people who don’t like to flaunt it, which is why you don’t see many Maybachs in Houston. For about three hundred thousand dollars you get an exterior so understated that parking lot attendants rarely put it in the front along with the BMWs or Lexuses. The interior is fitted with glove leather and glossy amboyna hardwood carried out of an Indonesian jungle on the backs of elephants. Not to mention two video screens, two champagne flute holders, and a built-in minirefrigerator designed to hold a split of Cristal. And all of it can go from zero to sixty in less than five seconds.

Gage helped me into the low-slung car and reached in to buckle my seat belt. I relaxed into the seat, breathing in the smell of polished leather and staring at a front dash that resembled the interior of a small aircraft. The Maybach purred as we pulled away from the house.

Driving with one hand, Gage picked something up from the center console. He held up a cell phone and gave me a brief glance. “All right if I make a quick call?”

“Of course.”

We went past the front gate. I looked at the mansions we passed, the bright yellow rectangles of windows, the sight of a couple walking a dog along the quiet street. Just an ordinary night for some people…where as for others, unimaginable things were happening.

Gage speed-dialed a number, and someone picked up the line. He spoke into the phone without even saying hello. “You know, Dad, I just got back from New York two hours ago. I haven’t even had time to unpack my luggage. This may be a shocker, but I don’t always do things according to your timetable.”

A reply from Churchill.

“Yeah,” Gage said, “I got that. But I’m warning you—from now on take care of your own damn love life and don’t mess with mine.” He closed the cell phone with a snap. “Old geezer,” he muttered.

“He meddles with everyone,” I said, breathless at the implication that I was part of his love life. “It’s his way of showing affection.”

Gage gave me a sardonic glance. “No kidding.”

A thought occurred to me. “Did he know you were going to break up with Dawnelle?”

“Yes, I told him.”

Churchill had known, and he hadn’t said a word to me. I wanted to kill him. “So that’s why he calmed down after he talked to you,” I said. “I guess he wasn’t a big fan of Dawnelle’s.”

“I don’t think he cared much about Dawnelle one way or the other. But he cares a lot about you.”

Delight seemed to be spilling inside me like close-held armfuls of fruit that had become too heavy to carry. “Churchill cares about a lot of people,” I said in an offhand tone.

“Not really. He’s pretty guarded with most people. I take after him that way.”

It was dangerous, this temptation to tell him anything, to relax completely in his presence. But the car was a luxurious dark cocoon, and I was steeped in a feeling of intimacy with this man I barely knew.

“He told me about you for years,” I said. “And about your brothers and sister. Whenever he visited the salon, he’d give me an update on the family, and it seemed you and he were always in the middle of some kind of argument. But I could tell he was proudest of you. Even when he was complaining about you, it sounded like bragging.”

Gage smiled slightly. “He’s not usually that talkative.”

“You’d be surprised what people say across the manicure table.”

He shook his head, his eyes on the road. “Dad is the last man in the world I’d ever expect to go for a manicure. When I first heard about it, I wondered what kind of woman could get him to do such a thing. As you can guess, it caused more than a little speculation in the family.”

I knew it mattered too much, what Gage thought of me. “I never asked him for anything,” I said, my voice weighted with anxiety. “I never thought of him as a…you know, sugar daddy…there were no presents or—”

“Liberty,” he interrupted gently, “it’s okay. I get it.”

“Oh.” I let out a long sigh. “Well, I know how it looked.”

“I realized right away nothing was going on. I figured any man who slept with you would never let you out of his bed.”

Silence.

The deliberately provocative remark split the course of my thoughts into two channels, one of desire, the other profound insecurity. I had seldom, if ever, wanted any man as much as I wanted Gage. But I wasn’t going to be enough for him. I wasn’t experienced, I had no skills. And during sex I was too easily distracted, I could never block the caprices of a mind that, right in the middle of the action, would summon up worries such as Did I sign Carrington’s form for the school field trip yet? or Is the dry cleaner going to be able to take the coffee stain out of my white blouse? In short, I was bad in bed. And I didn’t want this man to find out.

“Are we going to talk about it?” Gage asked, and I knew he meant the kiss.

“About what?” I countered.

He laughed softly. “I guess not.” Taking pity, he asked how Carrington was doing in school. Relieved, I told him about the problems my sister was having in math, and the conversation turned to our own memories of school, and soon he was entertaining me with reminiscences of all the trouble he and his brothers had gotten into when they were younger.

Before I knew it we were at the restaurant. A uniformed valet helped me out of the car while another received the keys from Gage. “We can go anywhere,” Gage said, taking my elbow. “If you don’t like the look of this place, just tell me.”

“I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

It was a contemporary French restaurant with light-colored walls and tables covered in white linen, and piano music. After Gage explained to the hostess that the Travis party had gone from nine to two, she led us to one of the small tables in the corner, which was partially concealed by a curtainlike panel to allow for privacy.

While Gage looked through a wine list the size of a phone book, a solicitous waiter filled our water glasses and draped a napkin across my lap. After Gage chose the wine, we ordered artichoke soup sprinkled with shreds of caramelized Maine lobster, plates of California abalone, skillet-roasted sole from Dover accompanied by a hot salad of New Zealand eggplant and peppers.

“My dinner is going to be more well traveled than I am,” I said.

Gage smiled. “Where would you go, if you could choose any place?”

The question made me animated. I had always fantasized about traveling to places I had seen only in magazines or movies. “Oh, I don’t know…to start with, Paris, maybe. Or London, or Florence. When Carrington gets a little older I’m going to save enough to take us on one of those bus tours through Europe…”

“You don’t want to see Europe through a bus window,” he said.

“I don’t?”

“No. You want to go with someone who knows the right places.” He pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open. “Which one?”

I smiled and shook my head in confusion. “What do you mean, which one?”

“Paris or London? I can have the plane ready in two hours.”

I decided to play along. “Are we taking the Gulfstream or the Citation?”

“For Europe, definitely the Gulfstream.”

Then I realized he was serious. “I don’t even own a suitcase,” I said, stunned.

“I’ll buy whatever you need when we get there.”

“You said you were tired of traveling.”

“I meant business traveling. Besides, I’d like to see Paris with someone who’s never been there before.” His voice gentled. “It would be like seeing it for the first time again.”

“No, no, no…people don’t go to Europe on the first date.”

“Yes they do.”

“Not my kind of people. Besides, it would scare Carrington for me to do something spontaneous like that—”

“Projecting,” he murmured.

“All right, it would scare me. I don’t know you well enough to take a trip with you.”

“That’s going to change.”

I stared at Gage in amazement. He was more relaxed than I’d ever seen him, a dance of laughter in his eyes. “What’s gotten into you?” I asked dazedly.

He shook his head, smiling. “I’m not sure. But I’m going to go with it.”

 

We talked all through dinner. There was so much I wanted to tell him, and even more I wanted to ask. Three hours of conversation wasn’t even a scratch on the surface. Gage was a good listener, seeming genuinely interested in the stories about my past, all the details that should have bored him silly. I told him about Mama, how much I missed her and all the problems we’d had with each other. I even told him about the guilt I had harbored for years, that it was my fault Mama had never gotten especially close to Carrington.

“I thought at the time I was stepping in to fill a gap,” I said. “But after she died, I wondered if I hadn’t…well, I loved Carrington so much right from the start, I just sort of took over. And I’ve wondered so often if I was guilty of…I don’t know the word for it…”

“Marginalizing her?”

“What does that mean?”

“Putting her on the sidelines.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s what I did.”

“Bull,” Gage said gently. “It doesn’t work that way, sweetheart. You didn’t take anything away from your mother by loving Carrington.” He took my hand, wrapping his warm fingers around mine. “It sounds like Diana was occupied with her own problems. She was probably grateful you were there to give Carrington the affection she couldn’t.”

“I hope so,” I said, unconvinced. “I…how did you know her name?”

He shrugged. “Dad must have mentioned it.”

In the warm silence that followed, I recalled Gage had lost a mother when he was only three. “Do you remember anything about your mother?”

Gage shook his head. “Ava was the one who took care of me when I was sick, read me stories, patched me up after I’d been in a fight and gave me hell for it later.” A reflective sigh. “God, I miss her.”

“Your father does too.” I paused before daring to ask, “Do you mind that he has girlfriends?”

“Hell, no.” He grinned suddenly. “As long as you’re not one of them.”

 

We got back to River Oaks at about midnight. I was slightly tipsy from two glasses of wine and a few sips of the port they had brought out with dessert, which had consisted of French cheese and paper-thin slices of date-nut bread. I felt better than I had in my entire life, maybe even better than those halcyon moments with Hardy so long ago. It almost worried me, feeling that happy. I had a thousand ways of making sure a man could never really get close. Sex was not nearly as difficult, or dangerous, as intimacy.

But the vague worry couldn’t quite take root, because something about Gage compelled me to trust him despite my best efforts not to. I wondered how many times in my life I had done something just because I wanted to, without weighing the consequences.

We had both fallen silent as Gage pulled up to the house and stopped the car. The air snapped with unspoken questions. I sat still in my seat, not meeting his gaze. A few raw, coursing seconds, and I fumbled blindly for the buckle of my seat belt. Without hurry, Gage got out of the car and came around to my side.

“It’s late,” I remarked casually as he helped me out of the car.

“Tired?”

We walked to the front door. The night air was cool and sweet, clouds brooding across the moon in transparent layers.

I nodded to indicate yes, I was tired, although it wasn’t true. I was nervous. Now that we were back in familiar territory, I found it difficult not to slip into my old cautions. We stopped by the door, and I turned to face him. My balance was uncertain in the high heels. I must have swayed a little, because he reached out and took my waist in his hands, fingers resting on the upper slope of my hips. My closed hands formed a small barricade between us. Words tumbled from my lips—I thanked him for dinner, tried to express how much I’d enjoyed it…

My voice faded as Gage pulled me close and pressed his lips to my forehead.

“I’m in no hurry, Liberty. I can be patient.”

He held me carefully, as if I were fragile and in need of shelter. Tentatively I relaxed against him, nestling, my hands inching up his shoulders. Everywhere we pressed, I felt the pure physical promise of how good it could be, was going to be, and something began to uncoil in all the vulnerable places of my body.

His wide, firm mouth moved to my cheek, touched it in a gentle brand. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

And then he pulled away.

Dazed, I watched him start down the steps. “Wait,” I said lamely. “Gage…”

He turned back, his brows lifting in a silent question.

Embarrassed, I mumbled, “Aren’t you going to kiss me good night?”

His quiet laugh curled through the air. Slowly he came back to me, bracing one hand on the door. “Liberty, darlin’…” His accent was heavier than usual. “I can be patient, but I’m not a saint. One kiss is about all I can handle tonight.”

“Okay,” I whispered.

My heartbeat turned unruly as his head bent over mine. He touched me with nothing but his mouth, tasting lightly until my lips parted. There was the same elusive flavor that had haunted me for the past two nights, it was in his breath, on his tongue, something sweet and drugging. I tried to draw as much of it in as possible, wrapping my arms around his neck to keep him there. A soft, dark sound came from his throat. His lungs moved in an uneven surge, and he clamped an arm low on my hips and caught me against him.

He kissed me longer, harder, until we were leaning against the door. One of his hands slid upward from my waist, hovered at my breast and snatched back. I put my hand on his and clumsily urged it to where I wanted it, until his fingers were cupped beneath the round weight. His thumb circled, rubbed slowly, until the flesh tightened into an aching bud. He took it in his fingertips, tugged with exquisite gentleness. I wanted his mouth on me, his hands, all his skin against mine. I needed so much, too much, and the way he touched me, kissed me, made me crave impossible things. “Gage…”

He wrapped his arms around me in an effort to still my helpless writhing. His mouth was buried in my hair. “Yes?”

“Please…walk me up to my room.”

Understanding what I was offering, Gage took his time about replying.

“I can wait.”

“No…” I wrapped my arms around him as if I were drowning. “I don’t want to wait.”

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