Chapter 22

I was paralyzed as I tried to take him in, this stranger I had loved so dearly. Hardy Cates had grown into all the promise of his younger years. He was a big, bold-looking man. Those eyes, blue upon blue, and the glossy brown hair, and the beginnings of a smile that sent a ripple of wonder through my soul…All I could do was stare at him, submerged in fearsome pleasure.

Hardy was still as he looked back at me, but I sensed the vibration of hard-running emotion beneath his exterior.

He took my hand gently, as if I were a small child. “Let’s find a place to talk.”

I clung to him, not caring that Jack might see us leave, not really aware of anything except the clasp of those callused fingers. Hardy drew me away by the hand, away from the tables, to the waiting darkness of the outside grounds. We skirted the crowd, the noise, the lights, cutting around to the side of the house. It seemed the light tried to follow, stretching weakening tendrils after us, but we headed into the shadows of an empty portico.

We stopped in the lee of a column as thick as an oak trunk. I was winded and trembling. I don’t know who moved first, it seemed we reached for each other at the same time. I was seized full-length against him, mouth to mouth, bruising each other’s lips with kisses too hard for pleasure. My heart thundered as if I were dying.

Moments of silent ravaging, and then Hardy tore his mouth away, whispering it was all right, he wasn’t going to let go. I began to relax in his arms, feeling the heat of his mouth as he followed the tumble of wetness on my cheeks. He kissed me again, slow and easy, the way he had taught me so long ago, and I felt safe and young and suffused with a desire so straightforward it seemed almost wholesome. His kisses tapped into deep mines of memory, and the years that had separated us fell away as if they were nothing.

After a while Hardy cuddled me in the loose sides of his tux jacket, his chest hard beneath the intricately tucked shirt.

“I had forgotten how this feels,” I said in an ache of a whisper.

“I never forgot.” Hardy touched the shape of my waist and hips through the folds of the white silk gown. “Liberty. I shouldn’t have come to you like this. I told myself to wait.” A catch of laughter. “I don’t even remember crossing the room. You were always beautiful to me, Liberty…but now…I can’t even believe you’re real.”

“How did you get to be here? Did you know you’d see me? Did you—”

“There’s too much to tell you.” He rested his cheek on my hair. “I thought you might be here, but I wasn’t sure….”

He spoke in the voice I had craved for so long, deeper now than in his youth. He was here at the invitation of a friend, he said, also in the oil business. He told me about starting work on the drilling rig—difficult and dangerous—and the contacts he’d made, the opportunities he’d watched for. Eventually he’d quit the rig and started a small company with two other men, one a geologist, the other an engineer, with the goal of finding new pay zones in mature oil fields. At least half the oil and gas in every field in the world was overlooked, Hardy said, and there was a fortune for those willing to go after bypassed pay. They had raised about a million in financing, and on their first try in a spent Texas field, they’d found a new zone worth an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand barrels of recoverable crude.

Hardy explained enough that I understood he was already rich and going to get a lot richer. He’d bought his mother a house. He had an apartment in Houston, which would be his home base for a while. Knowing of his fierce hunger to succeed, to rise above his circumstances, I was glad for him and I said so.

“It’s not enough,” Hardy said, taking my face in his hands. “The biggest damn surprise of it all is how little it means once you’ve got it. For the first time in years I finally had a chance to think, to take a deep breath, and I…” A frayed exhalation. “I’ve never stopped wanting you. I had to find you. I started by going to Marva. She told me where you were, and…”

“And that I’m with someone,” I said with difficulty.

Hardy nodded. “I wanted to find out if…”

If I was happy. If I still needed him. If it wasn’t too late for us. If and if…

Sometimes life has a cruel sense of humor, giving you the thing you always wanted at the worst time possible. The irony of it split my heart open, setting loose more bitter regret than I could bear.

“Hardy,” I said unsteadily, “if only you’d found me a little sooner.”

He was quiet, holding me against his chest. One of his hands ran down my bare arm until he reached the tight curl of my fingers. Silently he lifted my left hand, running his thumb over the bareness of my ring finger. “Can you tell me for certain it’s too late, honey?”

I thought of Gage, and I was swamped in confusion. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Liberty…let me see you tomorrow.”

I shook my head. “I promised Carrington I’d spend the day with her. We’re going to an ice-skating show at Reliant.”

“Carrington.” He shook his head. “My God, she must be eight or nine by now.”

“Time passes,” I whispered.

Hardy held my knuckles up to his cheek, pressed his mouth to them briefly. “What about the day after tomorrow?”

“Yes. Yes.” I wanted to leave with Hardy right then. I didn’t want to let him go and be left to wonder if I had imagined him. I told him my number. “Hardy, please…go back inside first. I need a couple of minutes by myself.”

“All right.” His arms tightened around me briefly before he let go.

We drew apart and looked at each other. I was confounded by his presence, this man who was so like the boy I had known and yet so unlike him. I didn’t know how the connection between us could still be there. But it was. We were the same, Hardy and me, we communicated from the same center, we had come from the same world. But Gage…the thought of him wrenched my heart.

Whatever he saw in my face caused Hardy to speak very gently. “Liberty. I’m not going to do anything to hurt you.”

I gave a little nod, staring blindly into the darkness as he left.

But he had hurt me in the past, I thought. I had understood his reasons for leaving Welcome. I understood why he’d felt he had no choice. I didn’t blame him. The problem was, I had gone on with my life. And after years of struggle and considerable loneliness, I had finally connected with someone else. My feet ached in my Cinderella shoes. I shifted my weight and wiggled my toes beneath the cutting Lucite straps. My Prince Charming had finally showed up, I thought wretchedly, and he was too damn late.

Not necessarily, my mind insisted. It was still possible for Hardy and me. The old obstacles were gone, and the new ones…

There is always a choice. It’s a damned uncomfortable thing to know.

I ventured toward the light, fishing in the tiny purse hanging from my arm on a silk loop. I didn’t know how I was going to repair the damage done to my makeup. The friction of mouth and skin and fingertips had erased the carefully applied film of color. I powdered my face, and used the tip of my ring finger to wipe smudges of liner from beneath my eyes. I reapplied my lip gloss. The tiny crystal near the corner of my eye was gone. Maybe people wouldn’t notice. Everyone was dancing and drinking and eating; surely by now I wasn’t the only one with faded makeup.

As soon as I reached the back terrace I saw Gage’s dark form, tall and precise as a knife blade. He headed for me in a leisurely stride, catching my chilled upper arm in his hand.

“Hey,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

I forced a quick smile. “Just needed a little fresh air. Sorry. Were you waiting long?”

Gage’s face was shadowed. “Jack said he saw you leave with someone.”

“Yes. I ran into an old friend. Someone from Welcome, if you can believe it.” I thought I’d done a pretty good job of sounding casual, but Gage, as always, was terrifyingly perceptive. He turned me toward the light, exposing my face.

“Darlin’…I know what you look like when you’ve been kissed.”

I couldn’t say anything. The tiny muscles of my face twitched with guilt, my eyes turned wet with a pleading glister.

Gage surveyed me without emotion. In a moment he pulled his cell phone from inside his jacket and said a few words to the limo driver about meeting us out front.

“We’re going?” I asked around the spiky ball in my throat.

“Yes.”

We went around the side of the house instead of going through it. My Lucite heels sounded brittle on the pavement. Gage made another call as we walked. “Jack. Yeah, it’s me. Liberty’s got a headache. Too much champagne. We’re heading home, so if you could say something to…Right. Thanks. And try to keep an eye on Dad.” Jack made some comment, and Gage laughed shortly. “Figures. Later.” He closed the phone and replaced it in his jacket.

“Is Churchill okay?” I asked.

“He’s fine. But Vivian’s pissed because of all the women hitting on him.”

That almost made me smile. Without thinking I reached for Gage as my heel hit an uneven patch in the pavement. Immediately he took hold of me, his arm fitting across my back as we continued to walk. Even though I knew Gage was furious, he wasn’t going to let me fall.

We got into the limo, the plush dark cocoon insulating us from the noise and activity of the party. I was a little worried about being closed away in there with Gage. It hadn’t been that long ago that I’d been exposed to the lash of his anger, on the day I’d moved into the mansion. Although I’d managed to stand up to him, it wasn’t something I was eager to go through again.

Gage spoke casually to the driver. “Phil, drive us around for a while. I’ll let you know when to head downtown.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gage flicked a few buttons, locking the privacy screen in place, opening the minibar. If he was angry, I couldn’t tell. He was relaxed, sort of scary-calm, which was beginning to seem worse than shouting. He took out a highball glass, poured himself a finger of hard liquor, and downed it without seeming to taste it. Silently he poured another shot and offered it to me. I took it gratefully, hoping the alcohol would thaw me out. I was freezing. I tried to down the drink as quickly as Gage had, but it burned my throat and made me sputter.

“Easy,” Gage murmured, settling an impersonal hand on my back. Feeling the goose bumps on my skin, he took off his jacket and settled it around me. I was wrapped in the soft silk-lined fabric, warm from his body.

“Thanks,” I wheezed.

“No problem.” A lengthy pause. The sudden cold-steel impact of his gaze made me flinch. “Who is he?”

In my rambling stories of my childhood, all the details about Mama and my friends, everyone and everything in Welcome, I hadn’t once mentioned Hardy. I’d talked to Churchill about him, but I hadn’t yet been able to bring myself to do the same with Gage.

Trying to keep my voice steady, I told him about Hardy, that I had known him since I was fourteen…that aside from my mother and sister, he’d been the most important person in the world to me. That I’d loved him.

It was so strange, talking to Gage about Hardy. My past and my present colliding. And it made me realize how different the Liberty Jones from the trailer park was from the woman I’d become. I needed to think about that. I needed to think about a lot of things.

“Did you sleep with him?” Gage asked.

“I wanted to,” I admitted. “I would have. But he wouldn’t. He said it would make it impossible for him to leave me. He had ambitions.”

“Ambitions that didn’t include you.”

“We were both too young. Neither of us had anything. As things turned out, it was for the best. Hardy couldn’t have pursued his goals with me hanging like a millstone around his neck. And I could never have left Carrington.”

I had no idea how much Gage had read in my expressions, gestures, the razor-thin spaces between my words. All I knew was that as I talked, I felt something cracking, an inflexible mettle breaking like ice over moving water, and Gage trampled through it ruthlessly.

“So you loved him, he left you, and now he wants another shot.”

“He didn’t say that.”

“He didn’t have to,” Gage said flatly. “Because it’s obvious you want another shot.”

I felt drained and irritable. My head was a merry-go-round. “I don’t know if that’s what I want.”

Thin shards of light from the minibar broke his face into harsh slats. “You think you’re still in love with him.”

“I don’t know.” My eyes watered.

“Don’t,” Gage said, his calmness vanishing. “I’d do almost anything for you. I think I’d kill for you. But I’m not going to comfort you while you cry in my arms over another man.”

I pinched the corners of my eyes with my fingers, swallowing back tears that burned like acid in my throat.

“You’re going to see him again,” Gage said after a while.

I nodded. “We…I…need to get things straight.”

“Are you going to fuck him?”

The crude word, used to deliberate effect, was like a slap in the face. “I’m not planning to, no,” I said stiffly.

“I wasn’t asking if you’re planning to. I’m asking if you’re going to.”

Now I was getting mad too. “No. I don’t fall into bed that easily. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know that. I also know you’re not the kind who goes to a party with one guy and ends up making out with another one. But you did.”

I colored with shame. “I didn’t mean to. It was a shock to see him. It just…happened.”

Gage snorted. “As far as excuses go, sweetheart, that bites the big one.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. It’s just that I loved Hardy a long time before I ever met you. And you and I…we’ve only just started a relationship. I want to be fair to you, but at the same time…I have to find out if what I felt for Hardy is still there. Which means…I need to put things between you and me on hold until I can figure this out.”

Gage was not accustomed to being put on hold. It didn’t sit well with him. In fact, it sent him over the edge. I jumped a little as he reached out and hauled me close.

“We slept together, Liberty. There’s no backtracking from that. He doesn’t get to come in and derail us that easily.”

“We only slept together one time,” I dared to protest.

He lifted a dark brow, looking sardonic.

“All right, several times,” I said. “But it was only one night.”

“It was enough. You’re mine now. And I want you more than he ever did or ever will. You remember that while you’re getting your head straight. While he’s telling you whatever the hell it is you want to hear from him, you remember—” Gage stopped abruptly. He wasn’t breathing well. His eyes were so hot you could have lit kindling off them. “Remember this,” he said in a guttural voice, and reached for me.

His arms were too tight, his mouth punishing. He had never kissed me like that before, with hunger scalded by jealousy. Gage had been driven beyond his limits. His breath came hard as he bore me down to the soft leather upholstery, our bodies stretched full-out, his lips never breaking from mine.

I bucked beneath him, not knowing if I wanted to throw him off or feel more of him. With every movement I made, Gage sank more heavily between my thighs, demanding that I take him, feel him. The hard imprint of his body reminded me of things he had done to me before, the gut-wrenching pleasure, and every thought and emotion was swamped in a rush of desire. I wanted him so badly, I went blind with it, I began to shake from head to toe. I writhed against the pressure of his flesh burgeoning hard and thick beneath the thin black wool. With a low moan, I slid my hands to his hips.

The next few minutes were like a fever dream as we grappled frantically. The fine mesh of my panties caught on the delicate buckled strap of my shoe, resisting Gage’s efforts to untangle it until he finally tore the fabric with his fingers. He pulled my dress up to my waist, my skin sticking to the cool leather beneath me, one of my widespread legs dangling wantonly to the floor, and I didn’t care, the need was pulsing everywhere.

His fingers gripped the top of my dress, yanking it down until my breasts were freed with a delicate bounce. I groaned at the heat of his mouth at my breast, the edges of his teeth, the flicking tongue. Reaching between us, he tugged at the fastenings of his pants. My eyes widened at the feel of him, hot and ready, demanding entrance…then everything blurred as my body yielded to the wet slide, the stunning invasion of hardness within softness. My head fell back over the unyielding bar of his arm and his mouth raked greedily over my exposed throat. He began to thrust in a heavy rhythm that made me squirm and pant.

The car stopped at a red light and all was still except the push and stroke inside me, and then the vehicle was turning, gliding forward with increasing momentum as if we were on a highway. I took him again and again, straining to pull him as close as possible. I clawed at his clothes, I needed his skin, couldn’t reach it, needed, needed…his lips returned to mine, his tongue plunging into my mouth. He was filling me everywhere, driving deeper until the low sweet spasms started, ricocheting from my body to his. I shuddered, breaking the kiss as I pulled in huge lungfuls of air. Gage caught his breath, let it out like the hiss of a greenwood fire.

Drunk with endorphins, I was as slack as an empty pillowcase as Gage lifted me from the seat. He swore, bracing my head on his arm. I’d never seen him look so upset. The black pupils of his eyes had nearly swallowed the silver irises. “I was rough with you.” His voice was ragged. “Damn it. I’m sorry. I just—”

“S’okay,” I whispered, the last tremors of delight still echoing through my body.

“It’s not okay. I—”

He was silenced abruptly as I pulled up enough to kiss him. He let my mouth move against his, but he didn’t respond, only held me and pulled the gown back over my chest and down my naked legs, and wrapped me back up in his tux jacket.

Neither of us spoke after that. I was still on sensation overload, barely registering when Gage pressed a button and spoke to the driver. Still cradling me in one arm, he poured another drink and consumed it slowly. His face gave nothing away, but I felt the ferocious tension in his body.

Held securely in Gage’s lap, I drowsed a little, lulled by the car ride and the warmth of his body. It was a rude awakening when the car stopped and the door was opened. I blinked as Gage jostled me awake and helped me out.

Knowing how messed up I was, how obvious the reason for our dishevelment, I shot a quick embarrassed glance at Phil the driver. He made a point of not looking at either of us, his expression strictly marshaled.

We were at 1800 Main. Gage stared at me as if he expected me to object to spending the night at his condo. I tried to weigh the consequences of staying or leaving, but my mind was too addled. In the welter of my thoughts, only one stood out: however I chose to deal with Hardy, this man was not going to stand aside politely.

Wearing Gage’s tux jacket over my dress, I went through the lobby and into the elevator with him. The rapid ascent of the elevator caused me to sway on my high heels. Gage reached for me, kissing me until I was red-faced and out of breath. I stumbled a little as he pulled me from the elevator. With an easy motion, he picked me up and carried me—actually carried me—down the hallway to his condo.

We went straight to the waiting silence of the bedroom, where I was undressed in the darkness. Now, after the hasty coupling in the car, the urgency had eased into tenderness. Gage moved over me like a shadow, finding the softest places, the most acute nerves. The more he soothed, the more I ached. Breathing in long sighs, I reached for him, thirsting for the hard planes of muscle, the resilent flesh, the midnight silk of his hair. He coaxed me open, his mouth and fingers harrowing delicately until all my limbs were widespread and my body rose in a shuddering plea to receive him, and I moaned each time he slid inside me. Again, and again, until he had gone past all boundaries, inside me, immersed, possessing and possessed.

 

As the cowboy saying goes, a horse shouldn’t be ridden hard and put away wet. That also applies to girlfriends, especially those who have gone a while without sex and need a little time to get back into the habit of it. I couldn’t say how many times Gage reached for me in the night. When I woke up in the morning, muscles I didn’t even know I had were aching, and my limbs were strained and stiff. And Gage was being very considerate, starting with bringing me coffee in bed.

“Don’t bother trying to look remorseful,” I said, leaning forward as he tucked an extra pillow behind my back. “It’s obviously not a natural expression for you.”

“I’m not remorseful.” Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Gage sat on the edge of the mattress. “I’m grateful.”

I hitched the sheet higher over my naked breasts and took a careful sip of the steaming coffee. “You should be,” I said. “Especially after that last time.”

Our gazes held, and Gage laid his hand over my knee. The warmth of his palm penetrated the thin fabric of the sheet. “You all right?” he asked gently.

Damn him, he had an unerring ability to disarm me, showing concern just when I expected him to be arrogant or bossy. The nerves in my stomach tautened until my insides felt like a trampoline. Everything was so good with him, I wondered if I could give him up for the man I’d always wanted.

I started to say I was fine, but instead I found myself telling him the truth. “I’m scared of making the biggest mistake of my life. I’m just trying to figure out what the mistake is.”

“You mean who the mistake is.”

That made me wince. “I know you’ll be angry if I see him, but—”

“No I won’t. I want you to see him.”

My fingers tightened on the heated sides of the cup. “You do?”

“It’s obvious I won’t have what I want from you until the situation is resolved. You need to find out how he’s changed. You need to see if any of the old feelings are still there.”

“Yes.” I thought it was very evolved of him to show such understanding.

“That’s fine with me,” Gage continued, “as long as you don’t go to bed with him.”

Evolved, but still a Texan.

I gave him a quizzical smile. “Does that mean you don’t care what I feel for him, just as long as you’re the one I’m having sex with?”

“It means,” Gage said evenly, “I’ll take the sex for now and work on getting the rest later.”

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