Chapter 23

From what I gathered, Churchill’s evening hadn’t been much better than mine. He and Vivian had ended the night with a brawl. She was the jealous type, Churchill said, and it wasn’t his fault if other women had been friendly to him.

“How friendly were you to them?” I asked.

Churchill scowled as he used the remote control to flip the channels from his bed. “Let’s just say it doesn’t matter where I get my appetite, long as I come home for dinner.”

“Good Lord, I hope you didn’t say that to Vivian.”

Silence.

I collected his breakfast tray. “No wonder she didn’t stay last night.” It was time for his shower—he’d gotten to the point where he could manage solo. “You have any problems getting showered and dressed, just buzz me on the walkie-talkie. I’ll get the lawn guy to come in and help you.” I started to leave.

“Liberty.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m not one to poke in other people’s business…” Churchill smiled at the look I gave him. “But is there anything you might want to talk to me about? Anything new happening in your life?”

“Not a thing. Same old, same old.”

“You started up something with my son.”

“I’m not going to discuss my love life with you, Churchill.”

“Why not? You did before.”

“You weren’t my boss then. And my love life didn’t happen to include your son.”

“Fine, we won’t talk about my son,” he said equably. “Let’s talk about an old acquaintance who’s started up a nice little bypassed-oil recovery outfit.”

I nearly dropped the tray. “You knew Hardy was there last night?”

“Not until someone introduced us. Soon as I heard the name, I knew right off who he was.” Churchill gave me a look of such understanding, I wanted to cry.

Instead I set the tray down and made my way to a nearby chair.

“What happened, sugar?” I heard him ask.

I sat, my gaze anchored to the floor. “We just talked for a few minutes. I’m going to see him tomorrow.” A long pause. “Gage is not exactly thrilled about the situation.”

Churchill gave a dry chuckle. “I imagine not.”

I looked at him then, unable to resist asking, “What did you think about Hardy?”

“Got a lot going for him. Smart, nice manners. He’ll take a big bite out of the world before he’s done. Did you invite him over to the house?”

“God, no. I’m sure we’ll go somewhere else to talk.”

“Stay if you like. It’s your house too.”

“Thanks, but…” I shook my head.

“Are you sorry you started up with Gage, sugar?”

The question undid me. “No,” I said instantly, blinking hard. “I don’t know what to be sorry about. It’s just…Hardy was always the one I was supposed to end up with. He was everything I dreamed of and wanted. But damn it, why did he have to show up when I thought I’d finally gotten over him?”

“Some people there’s no getting over,” Churchill said.

I glanced at him through the salty blur in my eyes. “You mean Ava?”

“I’ll miss her for the rest of my life. But no, I didn’t mean Ava.”

“Your first wife, then?”

“No, someone else.”

I blotted the corners of my eyes with my sleeve. It seemed there was something Churchill wanted me to know about. But I’d had just about all the revelations I could handle for the moment. I stood and cleared my throat. “I’ve got to go downstairs and make breakfast for Carrington.” I turned to leave.

“Liberty.”

“Huh?”

Churchill appeared to be thinking hard about something, a frown gathering on his face. “Later I’m going to talk to you about this some more. Not as Gage’s father. Not as your boss. As your old friend.”

“Thanks,” I said scratchily. “Something tells me I’m going to need my old friend.”

 

Hardy called later that morning and invited me and Carrington to go riding on Sunday. I was delighted by the prospect, since I hadn’t been on a horse in years, but I told him Carrington had only been on carnival ponies, and she didn’t know how to ride.

“No problem,” Hardy said easily. “She’ll pick it up in no time.”

In the morning he arrived at the Travis mansion in a huge white SUV. Carrington and I met him at the door, both of us dressed in jeans and boots and heavy jackets. I had told Carrington that Hardy was an old family friend, that he had known her when she was a baby and had in fact driven Mama to the hospital the day she was born.

Gretchen, wildly curious about the mysterious man from my past, was waiting in the entrance with us when the doorbell rang. I went to open it, and I was amused to hear Gretchen murmur, “Oh, my,” at the sight of Hardy standing in the sunlight.

With the rangy, developed build of a roughneck, those striking blue eyes, that irresistible grin, Hardy had a larger-than-life quality any woman would find appealing. He swept a quick glance over me, murmured hello, and kissed my cheek before turning to Gretchen.

I introduced them, and Hardy took Gretchen’s hand with obvious care, as if he were afraid of crushing it. She fluttered, smiled, and played the part of gracious Southern hostess to the hilt. As soon as Hardy’s attention was diverted, Gretchen gave me a significant glance as if to ask, Where have you been hiding him?

Hardy, meanwhile, had lowered to his haunches in front of my sister. “Carrington, you’re even prettier than your mama was. You probably don’t remember me.”

“You drove us to the hospital when I was born,” Carrington volunteered shyly.

“That’s right. In an old blue pickup, through a storm that flooded half of Welcome.”

“That’s where Miss Marva lives,” Carrington exclaimed. “Do you know her?”

“Do I know Miss Marva?” Hardy grinned. “Yes, ma’am, I do. I had more than a few helpings of red velvet cake at Miss Marva’s kitchen counter.”

Thoroughly charmed, Carrington took Hardy’s hand when he stood. “Liberty, you didn’t say he knew Miss Marva!”

The sight of them hand in hand caused a tremor of deep emotion inside me. “I never talked about you much,” I said to Hardy. My voice sounded odd to my own ears.

Hardy stared into my eyes and nodded, understanding that some things mean too much to be expressed easily.

“Well,” Gretchen said brightly, “you all go on and have a good time. You be careful around the horses, Carrington. Remember what I told you about not going near the back hooves.”

“I will!”

 

We went to the Silver Bridle Equestrian Center, where the horses lived better than most people. They were kept in a barn that featured a digital mosquito and fly control system, and piped-in classical music, and the stalls had individual faucets and light fixtures. Outside there was a covered arena, a jumping course, pastures, ponds, paddocks, and fifty acres of land to ride on.

Hardy had arranged for us to ride horses that belonged to a friend. Since the cost of stabling a horse at Silver Bridle rivaled some college tuitions, it was clear Hardy’s friend had money to burn. We were brought a palomino and a blue roan, both shining and sleek and well behaved. The quarter horse is a big, muscular breed, known for its calmness and good cow sense.

Before we rode out, Hardy sat Carrington on a sturdy black pony and took her around the corral on a lead. As I expected, he charmed my sister completely, praising her, teasing until she giggled.

It was a gorgeous day to ride, cold but sunny, the air carrying the whiff of pastures and animals and the light earthy fragrance you can never isolate but is really the smell of Texas itself.

Hardy and I were able to talk as we rode side by side, Carrington a little ahead of us on the pony.

“You’ve done well by her, honey,” he told me. “Your mother would have been proud.”

“I hope so.” I looked at my sister, her hair done in a neat blond braid tied with a white ribbon. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”

“Wonderful.” But Hardy was staring at me. “Marva told me some of what you’ve gone through. You’ve carried a lot on your shoulders, haven’t you?”

I shrugged. It had been difficult at times, but in retrospect my burdens and struggles had been ordinary ones. So many women had to contend with much more. “The hardest part was right after Mama died. I don’t think I had a full night’s sleep in two years. I was working and taking classes and trying to do my best for Carrington. It seemed like everything was always half-done, we were never on time, I couldn’t seem to get anything right. But eventually everything got easier.”

“Tell me how you got involved with the Travises.”

“Which one?” I asked without thinking, and then my cheeks heated.

Hardy smiled. “Let’s start with the old man.”

As we talked, I had the sense of uncovering something precious and long-buried, fully formed. Our conversation was a process of removing layers, some of them easily dusted away. Other layers, requiring chisels or axes, were left alone for now. We revealed as much as we dared about what had happened during the years that separated us. But it wasn’t what I had expected, being with Hardy again. There was something in me that remained stubbornly locked away, as if I were afraid to let out the emotion I had harbored for so long.

The afternoon approached and Carrington became tired and hungry. We rode back to the barn and dismounted. I gave Carrington a handful of quarters to get a drink from a vending machine at the main building. She scampered off, leaving me alone with Hardy.

He stood looking at me for a moment. “Come here,” he murmured, pulling me into the empty tack room. He kissed me gently, and I tasted dust, sun, skin-salt, and the years dissolved in a slow, sure rush of warmth. I had been waiting for him, for this, and it was just as sweet as I remembered. But as Hardy deepened the kiss, tried to take more, I pulled away with a nervous laugh.

“Sorry,” I said breathlessly. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Hardy’s eyes were vivid with heat, his voice reassuring. He gave me a quick grin. “Got carried away.”

Despite the pleasure I took in Hardy’s company, I was relieved when he took us back to River Oaks. I needed to retreat, to think, to let all this settle. Carrington was chattering happily in the back seat, about wanting to ride again, having her own horse someday, speculating on the best horse names.

“You’ve launched us into a whole new phase,” I told Hardy. “Now we’ve gone from Barbie to horses.”

Hardy grinned and spoke to Carrington. “You tell your big sister to call me whenever you want to ride, honey.”

“I want to do it again tomorrow!”

“You have school tomorrow,” I said, which made Carrington scowl until she remembered she could tell all her friends about the pony she’d ridden.

Hardy pulled up to the front of the house and helped us out.

Glancing at the garage, I saw Gage’s car. He was almost never there on Sunday afternoons. My stomach did one of those funny flips that happens when you’re on a roller-coaster ride, heading into the first big drop. “Gage is here,” I said.

Hardy appeared unruffled. “Of course he is.”

Taking Hardy’s hand, Carrington walked her new friend to the door, talking a mile a minute. “…and this is our house, and I’ve got a bedroom upstairs with yellow striped paper on the walls, and that thing right there is a video camera so we can look at people before we decide to let ’em in—”

“None of it’s ours, baby,” I said uncomfortably. “It’s the Travises’ house.”

Ignoring me, Carrington pushed the doorbell and mugged for the camera, making Hardy laugh.

The door opened, and there was Gage, dressed in jeans and a white polo shirt. My pulse rioted as his gaze went first to me, then to my companion.

“Gage!” Carrington shrieked as if she hadn’t seen him in months. She flew to him and clamped her arms around his waist. “That’s our old friend Hardy—he took us riding, and I was on a black pony named Prince, and I rode like a real cowgirl!”

Gage smiled down at her, his arm clasping her narrow shoulders securely.

Glancing at Hardy, I saw the glint of speculation in his eyes. It was something he hadn’t expected, the attachment between my sister and Gage. He extended his hand with an easy smile. “Hardy Cates.”

“Gage Travis.”

They shook hands firmly, with a brief, nearly imperceptible contest that ended in a draw. Gage stood with Carrington still hanging around his waist, his face expressionless. I shoved my hands in my pockets. The tiny junctures between my fingers had gone damp. Both men seemed so relaxed, and yet the air was punctured with conflict.

It was startling to see them together. Hardy had loomed so large in my memory for so long that I was surprised to realize Gage was equally tall, albeit leaner. They were different in almost every way, education, background, experience…Gage, who played by the rules he’d usually had a hand in making, and Hardy, who tossed out the rules like a handful of Texas redbacks if they didn’t suit him. Gage, always the smartest one in the room, and Hardy, who had told me with a deceptively lazy smile that all he had to do was be smarter than the guy he was doing a deal with.

“Congratulations on the drilling start-up,” Gage said to Hardy. “You’ve had some impressive finds in a short time. High-quality pay reserves, I’ve heard.”

Hardy smiled and lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “We’ve had some luck.”

“It takes more than luck.”

They talked about geochemistry and an analysis of well cuttings, and the difficulty of estimating productive intervals in the field, and then the conversation turned to Gage’s alternative technology company.

“It’s gotten out you’re working on some new biodiesel,” Hardy said.

Gage’s pleasant expression didn’t change. “Nothing worth talking about yet.”

“Not what I heard. Rumor has it you managed to cut down on the NOX emissions…but the biofuel itself is still expensive as hell.” Hardy grinned at him. “Oil’s cheaper.”

“For now.”

I knew a little about Gage’s private views on the subject. He and Churchill both agreed the days of cheap oil were almost at an end, and once we reached the supply-demand gap, biofuels would help stave off an economic crisis. Many oil people, friends of the Travises, said it wouldn’t happen for decades and there was plenty of petroleum left. They joked with Gage and said they hoped he wasn’t planning to come out with something to replace petroleum, or they’d hold him responsible for lost business. Gage had told me they were only half joking.

After minute or two of excruciatingly careful conversation, Hardy glanced at me and murmured, “I’ll head out now.” He nodded to Gage. “Nice to meet you.”

Gage nodded, turning his attention to Carrington, who was trying to tell him more about the horses.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” I said to Hardy, profoundly relieved the encounter was over.

As we walked, Hardy put an arm around my shoulders. “I want to see you again,” he said in a low voice.

“Maybe in a few days.”

“I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Okay.” We stopped at the threshold. Hardy kissed my forehead, and I looked up into his warm blue eyes. “Well,” I said, “the two of you were very civilized.”

Hardy laughed. “He’d like to rip my head off.” He braced one hand on the doorframe, sobering quickly. “I don’t see you with someone like him. He’s a cold son of a bitch.”

“Not when you get to know him.”

Reaching out, Hardy took a lock of my hair and rubbed it gently between his fingers. “I think you could probably thaw out a glacier, honey.” He smiled and let go, walking toward his SUV.

Feeling tired and bemused, I went in search of Carrington and Gage. I found them in the kitchen, raiding the refrigerator and pantry.

“Hungry?” Gage asked.

“Starving.”

He set out a container of pasta salad, and another of strawberries. I found a loaf of French bread and cut a few slices while Carrington brought three plates.

“Just two,” Gage told her. “I’ve already eaten.”

“Okay. Can I have a cookie?”

“After lunch.”

While Carrington got out the napkins, I looked at Gage with a frown. “You’re not staying?”

He shook his head. “I found out what I needed to know.”

Mindful of Carrington nearby, I held back my questions until the plates were fixed and set on the table. Gage poured Carrington a glass of milk and set two small cookies on the edge of her plate. “Eat the cookies last, darlin’,” he murmured. She reached up to hug him, then started on her pasta salad.

Gage gave me an impersonal smile. “Bye, Liberty.”

“Wait—” I followed him out, pausing only to tell Carrington I’d be right back. I hurried to keep pace with Gage. “You think you’ve got Hardy Cates all figured out after seeing him for five minutes?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your take on him?”

“There’s no point in telling you. You’ll say I’m biased.”

“And you’re not?”

“Hell, yes, I’m biased. I also happen to be right.”

I stopped him at the front door with a touch on his arm. Gage looked down at the place my fingers had brushed, and slowly his gaze traveled to my face.

“Tell me,” I said.

Gage replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “I think he’s ambitious to the bone, works hard and plays harder. He’s hungry for all the visible signs of success—the cars, the women, the house, the owner’s box at Reliant. I think he’ll throw away every principle he’s got to climb up the ladder. He’ll make and lose a couple of fortunes, and he’ll go through three or four wives. And he wants you because you’re his last hope of keeping it real. But even you wouldn’t be enough.”

Blinking at the harsh assessment, I wrapped my arms across my front. “You don’t know him. That’s not Hardy.”

“We’ll see.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “You’d better go back to the kitchen. Carrington’s waiting.”

“Gage…you’re mad at me, aren’t you? I’m so—”

“No, Liberty.” His face softened a little. “I’m trying to figure it all out. Just like you.”

 

I saw Hardy a few times over the next couple of weeks—a lunch, a dinner, a long walk. Beneath the conversations and silences and reconnecting intimacy, I tried to reconcile the adult Hardy had become with the boy I had known and longed for. It troubled me to realize they weren’t the same…but of course I wasn’t the same either.

It seemed important to figure out how much of the attraction I felt for Hardy came from now, as opposed to the past. If we had met now, for the first time, as strangers, would I have felt the same about him?

I couldn’t have said for certain. But Lord, he was charming. He had a way about him, he always had. He made me feel so comfortable, we could talk about anything. Even Gage.

“Tell me what he’s like,” Hardy said, holding my hand, playing with my fingers. “How much of what they say is true?”

Knowing Gage’s reputation, I shrugged and smiled. “Gage is…accomplished. But he can be intimidating. The problem with Gage is, he always seems to do everything perfectly. People think he’s invulnerable. And he’s very private. It’s not easy to get close to a man like that.”

“But you have, apparently.”

I shrugged and smiled. “Sort of. We’d just started to get close…but then…”

Then Hardy had shown up.

“What do you know about his company?” he asked casually. “I can’t figure out why a man from a Texas family with connections to big oil is fooling around with fuel cells and biodiesels.”

I smiled. “That’s Gage for you.” And, with a little prodding, I told him what I knew about the technology Gage’s company was working on. “There’s a huge biofuel deal in the works. He wants to build a blending facility at this huge refinery in Dallas, and they’re going to start mixing biodiesel with all their fuel, and distribute it everywhere in Texas. From what I can tell, the negotiations are pretty intense.” I heard the note of pride in my own voice as I added, “Churchill says only Gage could pull it off.”

“He must have gotten past some damn big hurdles,” Hardy commented. “In some parts of Houston, just saying the word ‘biodiesel’ will get you shot. Which refinery is it?”

“Medina.”

“That’s a big one, all right. Well, for his sake, I hope everything works out.” And, taking my hand, he deftly changed the subject.

 

Near the end of the second week, Hardy took me to a supermodern bar that reminded me of a spaceship, the sterile d?cor backlit with blue and green. The tables were the size of coasters balanced on soda straws. It was the latest place to be seen, and everyone in the bar looked extremely hip, if not exactly comfortable.

Nursing a Southern Comfort on ice, I glanced around the place and couldn’t help noticing that Hardy was attracting attention from a few women. No surprise there, considering his looks and presence and charm. And as time passed, Hardy would be even more of a catch, more visible in his success.

I finished my drink and asked for another. I couldn’t seem to relax tonight. As Hardy and I tried to talk over the blare of the live music, all I could think about was that I missed Gage. I hadn’t seen him in a few days. Guiltily I reflected that I had asked a lot of Gage, maybe too much, in asking him to be patient while I tried to figure out my feelings for another man.

Hardy rubbed his thumb gently over the backs of my knuckles. His voice was soft beneath the biting staccato of the music. “Liberty.” My gaze lifted to his. His eyes glowed an unearthly blue in the artificial light. “Let’s go, honey. It’s time to settle a few things.”

“Go where?” I asked faintly.

“Back to my place. We need to talk.”

I hesitated, swallowed hard, and managed a jerky nod. Hardy had shown me his apartment earlier in the evening—I had opted to meet him there rather than have him pick me up at River Oaks.

We didn’t talk much as Hardy drove me downtown. But he kept my hand in his. My heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings. I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, or what I wanted to happen.

We arrived at the luxury high-rise and Hardy took me up to his apartment, a large space comfortably furnished with leather, hide, and stylish rough-woven fabrics. Wrought-iron lamps with textured parchment shades cast a muted glow through the main room.

“Want a drink?” he asked.

I shook my head, knitting my fingers together as I stood near the door. “No, thanks. I had enough at the bar.”

Smiling quizzically, Hardy came to me and pressed his lips to my temple. “Are you nervous, honey? It’s just me. Your old friend Hardy.”

I let out a shaky sigh and leaned against him. “Yes. I remember you.”

His arms came around me, and we stayed like that for a long time, standing together, breathing together.

“Liberty,” he whispered. “I told you once that in my whole life, you’d always be what I wanted most. Remember?”

I nodded against his shoulder. “The night you left.”

“I won’t leave you again.” His lips brushed the tender edge of my ear. “I still feel that way, Liberty. I know what I’m asking you to walk away from—but I swear, you would never regret it. I’ll give you everything you ever wanted.” He touched my jaw with his fingertips, angling my face upward, and his mouth came to mine.

My balance disintegrated, and I held on to him. His body was hard from years of brutal physical labor, his arms strong and secure. He kissed differently than Gage, more direct, aggressive, without Gage’s erotic stealth and playfulness. He parted my lips and explored slowly, and I kissed him back with mingled guilt and pleasure. His warm hand moved to my breast, fingers lightly following the round contours, pausing at the sensitive tip. I tore my mouth from his with an agitated sound.

“Hardy, no,” I managed to say, desire forming a hot weight in my stomach. “I can’t.”

His mouth searched the quivering skin of my throat. “Why not?”

“I promised Gage—he and I agreed—I wouldn’t do this with you. Not until—”

“What?” Hardy drew his head back, eyes narrowing. “You don’t owe him that. He doesn’t own you.”

“It’s not that, it has nothing to do with ownership, it’s just—”

“Like hell.”

“I can’t break a promise,” I insisted. “Gage trusts me.”

Hardy said nothing, only gave me a peculiar look. Something about his silence drew shivers up from beneath my skin. Dragging his hand through his hair, Hardy went to one of the picture windows and stared at the city spread below us. “You sure about that?” he asked finally.

“What do you mean?”

He turned to face me, leaning back and crossing his legs at the ankles. “The last couple of times I’ve seen you, I noticed a silver Crown Victoria tailing us. So I got the license plate number and had it checked out. It belongs to a guy who works for a surveillance company.”

A chill rushed over me. “You think Gage is having me followed?”

“The car is parked at the end of the street right now.” He gestured for me to come to the window. “See for yourself.”

I didn’t move. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“Liberty,” he said quietly, “you haven’t known the bastard long enough to be sure of what he would or wouldn’t do.”

I rubbed my prickling upper arms with my hands in a futile attempt to warm myself. I was too stunned to speak.

“I know you think of the Travises as friends,” I heard Hardy continue in a level tone. “But they’re not, Liberty. You think they’ve done you a favor, taking you and Carrington in? It was no fucking favor. They owe you a hell of a lot more than that.”

“Why do you say that?”

He crossed the room to me, took me by the shoulders and stared into my bewildered eyes. “You really don’t know, do you? I thought you might at least suspect something.”

“What are you talking about?”

His mouth was grim. He pulled me to the sofa, and we sat while he gripped my nerveless hands in his. “Your mother had an affair with Churchill Travis. It lasted for years.”

I tried to swallow. The saliva would hardly go down. “That’s not true,” I whispered.

“Marva told me. You can ask her yourself. Your mother told her all about it.”

“Why didn’t Marva say anything to me?”

“She was afraid for you to know. Afraid for you to get tangled up with the Travises. For all she knew, they might have decided to take Carrington away from you, and you couldn’t have done a damn thing to stop them. Later, when she found out you were working for Churchill, she figured he was trying to make it up to you. She thought it best not to intefere.”

“You’re not making sense. Why would they have wanted to take Carrington away from me? What could Churchill have—” The blood drained from my face. I stopped and covered my mouth with trembling fingers as I understood.

I heard Hardy’s voice as if from a great distance. “Liberty…who do you think Carrington’s father is?”

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