Chapter 25

The sensible thing would have been to wait for Gage to come back to Texas. But in light of the fact that he’d tolerated more than a few blows to his pride and an even bigger blow to an important business deal, all for my sake, I knew it was no time to be sensible. As Churchill says, sometimes grand gestures are called for.

I made one stop on the way to the airport, at Hardy’s downtown office. It was located on Fannin in a towering aluminum and glass building with two halves that locked together like two giant puzzle pieces. The receptionist was a predictably attractive blond woman with a smoky voice and great legs. She showed me in to Hardy’s office as soon as I arrived.

He was dressed in a dark Brooks Brothers suit and a vivid blue tie the exact shade of his eyes. He looked confident, sharp, a man who was going places.

I told Hardy about my conversation with Churchill, and what I’d learned about his part in trying to ruin the Medina deal. “I don’t understand how you could have done such a thing,” I said. “I would never have expected it from you.”

He looked unrepentant. “It’s just business, honey. Sometimes you have to get a little dirt on your hands.”

Some dirt doesn’t wash off, I thought of saying. But I knew he would have to find that out for himself someday. “You used me to hurt him. You figured it would break us up, and on top of that, it would put Victory Petroleum in the position of owing you a favor. You’d do just about anything to succeed, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll do what has to be done,” he said, his face smooth. “I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize for wanting to get ahead.”

My anger drained away, and I stared at him compassionately. “You don’t have to apologize, Hardy. I understand. I remember all those things we needed and wanted and could never have. It’s just…it’s not going to work for you and me.”

His voice was very soft. “You think I can’t love you, Liberty?”

I bit my lip and shook my head. “I think you loved me once. But even then it wasn’t enough. Do you want to know something?…Gage didn’t tell me about what you’d done, even though he had the perfect opportunity. Because he wasn’t going to let you drive a wedge between us. He forgave me without being asked, without even letting me know I’d betrayed him. That’s love, Hardy.”

“Ah, honey…” Hardy took my hand, lifted it, and kissed the inside of my wrist, at the tiny whisk of blue veins beneath the skin. “One lost deal doesn’t mean shit to him. He’s had it all since the day he was born. If he’d been in my shoes, he’d have done the same thing.”

“No, he wouldn’t have.” I pulled away from him. “Gage wouldn’t use me for any price.”

“Everyone has a price.”

Our gazes met. It seemed an entire conversation took place in that one glance. Each of us saw what we needed to know.

“I have to say goodbye now, Hardy.”

He stared at me with bitter understanding. We both knew there was no room in this for friendship. Nothing left but childhood history.

“Hell.” Hardy caught my face in his hands, kissing my forehead, my closed eyelids, stopping just short of my mouth. And then I was wrapped in one of those hard, secure hugs I remembered so well. Still holding me, Hardy whispered in my ear. “Be happy, honey. No one deserves it more. But don’t forget…I’m keeping one little piece of your heart for myself. And if you ever want it back…you know where to find it.”

 

Having never been airborne before, I white-knuckled it all the way to Raleigh Durham. I sat in first class next to a very nice guy in a business suit, who talked me through the takeoff and landing, and ordered me a whiskey sour during the flight. As we deboarded, he asked if he could have my number, and I shook my head. “Sorry, I’m taken.”

I hoped I was right.

I’d planned to take a cab to my next stop, a small public airport about seven miles away, but a limo driver was waiting for me in baggage claim. He held up a sign with the handwritten letters JONES. I approached him tentatively. “Are you by chance looking for Liberty Jones?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That would be me.”

I guessed Churchill had arranged for the ride, either out of thoughtfulness, or the fear that I couldn’t have managed to get a cab by myself. Travis men are nothing if not overprotective.

The driver helped me with my suitcase, a Hartmann tweed Gretchen had loaned me and helped pack. It was stuffed with light wool pants and a skirt, some white shirts, my silk scarf, and two cashmere sweaters she swore she had no use for. Optimistically I had also packed an evening dress and heels. There was a brand-new passport in my purse, along with Gage’s, which his secretary had provided.

It was nearly dusk by the time I was dropped off at the small airport, which had two runways, a snack bar, and nothing remotely resembling a control tower. I noticed how different the air smelled in North Carolina, salty and soft and green.

There were seven aircraft on the ground, two small and five mid-sized, one of them the Travises’ Gulfstream. Next to a yacht, the most blatant exhibition of extreme wealth is a private jet. The superrich have planes with showers, private bedrooms, and wood-paneled workstations, along with fancy stuff like gold-plated cup holders.

But the Travises, mindful of maintenance costs, had been conservative by Texan standards. That’s sort of a joke if you’ve ever seen their Gulfstream, a luxury long-range aircraft fitted with fiddleback mahogany and soft wool carpeting. Also leather swivel seats, a plasma TV, and a curtained-off divan that folds out into a queen-sized bed.

I boarded the plane and met the pilot and copilot. While they sat in the cockpit, I had a soda and waited nervously for Gage. I practiced a speech, a hundred versions, searching for the right words to make Gage understand how I felt.

I heard someone boarding the plane, and my pulse went crazy and the speech flew right out of my head.

Gage didn’t see me at first. He looked grim and tired, dropping a shiny black briefcase into the nearest seat, rubbing the back of his neck as if it were sore.

“Hey,” I said softly.

His head turned, and his face went blank as he saw me. “Liberty. What are you doing here?”

I felt an overwhelming rush of love for him, more love than I could contain, rising off me like heat. God, he was beautiful. I groped for words. “I…I decided on Paris.”

A long silence passed. “Paris.”

“Yes, you know you asked me if I…well, I called the pilot yesterday. I told him I wanted to surprise you.”

“You did.”

“He’s worked everything out so we can leave straight from here. Right now. If you want.” I offered him a hopeful smile. “I’ve got your passport.”

Gage removed his jacket, taking his time about it. I was reassured by the way he seemed to fumble a little as he laid the garment over a seat back. “So now you’re ready to go somewhere with me.”

My voice was thick with emotion. “I’m ready to go anywhere with you.”

He looked at me with brilliant gray eyes, and I caught my breath as a slow smile curved his lips. Loosening his tie, he began to approach me.

“Wait,” I choked out. “I have to tell you something.”

Gage stopped. “Yes?”

“Churchill told me about the Medina deal. It was my fault—I’m the one who tipped Hardy off about it. I had no idea that he would…I’m sorry.” My voice broke. “I’m so sorry.”

Gage reached me in two strides. “It’s all right. No, damn it, don’t start crying.”

“I would never do anything to hurt you—”

“I know you wouldn’t. Hush. Hush.” He hauled me close, wiping at my tears with his fingers.

“I was so stupid, I didn’t realize—why didn’t you say anything to me about it?”

“I didn’t want you to worry. I knew it wasn’t your fault. I should have made certain you understood it was confidential.”

I was stunned by his belief in me. “How could you be so sure I didn’t do it on purpose?”

He cradled my face in his hands and smiled into my streaming eyes. “Because I know you, Liberty Jones. Don’t cry, sweetheart, you’re killing me.”

“I’ll make it up to you, I swear—”

“Shut up,” Gage said tenderly, and kissed me with a blistering heat that made my knees buckle. I wrapped my arms around his neck, forgetting the reason for tears, forgetting everything but him. He kissed me over and over, deeper, until we both staggered in the aisle, and he was forced to brace a hand on one of the seats to keep us from falling over. And the plane wasn’t even moving. His breath rushed fast and hot against my cheek as he drew back enough to whisper, “What about the other guy?”

My eyes half closed as I felt the heel of his hand brush the side of my breast. “He’s the past,” I managed to say. “You’re the future.”

“Damn right I am.” Another deeply uncivilized kiss, full of fire and tenderness, promising more than I could begin to take in. All I could think was that a lifetime with this man wouldn’t be nearly enough. He pulled away with an unsteady laugh and said, “There’s no getting away from me now, Liberty. This is it.”

I know, I would have said, but before I could answer he was kissing me again, and he didn’t stop for quite a while.

“I love you.” I don’t remember who said it first, only that we both ended up saying it quite a lot during the seven-hour-and-twenty-five-minute flight across the Atlantic. And it turned out Gage had some interesting ideas about how to pass the time at fifty thousand feet.

Let’s just say flying is a lot more tolerable when you’ve got distractions.

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