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Churchill's wheelchair.

"You been thinking?" he asked.

I nodded. "Churchill.. .some people aren't going to be happy if we go ahead with this."

He didn't pretend not to understand. "No one's going to give you a problem, Liberty," he said. "I'm the big dog here."

"I need a day or two to think it over."

"You got it." He knew when to push, and when to let it be.

Together we looked across the room at Carrington. who chortled in delight as a little cast-iron monkey flipped a penny into a box with its tail.

That weekend we went for Sunday dinner at Miss Marva's. The ranch house was filled with the smell of beer pot roast and mashed potatoes. You would have thought Miss Marva and Mr. Ferguson had been married for fifty years, they were so comfortable with each other.

While Miss Marva took Carrington back into her sewing room, I sat in the den with Mr. Ferguson and laid out my dilemma. He listened in silence, his expression mild, his hands templed on his midriff.

"I know what the safe choice is." I told him. "When you get down to it. there's no reason for me to take this kind of risk. I'm doing great at Zenko's. And Carrington likes her school and I'm afraid it would be hard on her to leave her friends. Trying to fit in at a new place where all the other kids are being dropped off in Mercedes. Ijust...Ijust wish..."

There was a smile in Mr. Ferguson's soft brown eyes. "I have the feeling, Liberty, that you're hoping for someone to give you permission to do what you want to do."

I let my head flop back against the back of the recliner. "I'm so not like those people," I said to the ceiling. "Oh, if you'd just seen that house, Mr. Ferguson. It made me feel so... oh. I don't know. Like a hundred-dollar hamburger."

"I don't follow you."

"Even if it's served on a china plate in an expensive restaurant, it's still just a hamburger."

"Liberty," Mr. Ferguson said, "there's no reason for you to feel inferior to them. To anyone. When you get to my age, you come to realize all people are the same."

Of course a mortician would say that. Regardless of financial status, race, and all the other things that distinguished people from each other, they all ended up na*ed on a slab in his basement.

"I can see how it looks that way from your end of things, Mr. Ferguson," I said. "But from where I was looking last night in River Oaks, those people are definitely different from us."

"You remember the Hopsons' oldest boy, Willie? Went off to Texas Christian?"

I wondered what Willie Hopson had to do with my dilemma. But there was usually a point to Mr. Ferguson's stories if you were patient enough to wait for it. "During his junior year," Mr. Ferguson continued. "Willie went to Spain for a study-abroad program. To get an idea of how other people live. Learn something about how they think and their values. It did him a lot of good. I think you ought to consider doing the same."

"You want me to go to Spain?"

He laughed. "You know exactly what I'm saying, Liberty. You could think of the Travis family as your study-abroad program. I don't think it's going to hurt you or Carrington to spend a little time in a place you don't belong. It may benefit you in ways you don't expect."

"Or not." I said.

He smiled. "Only one way to find out. isn't there?"

CHAPTER 17

Every time Gage Travis looked at me, you could tell he wanted to tear me limb from limb. Not in a fury, but in a process of slow and methodical dismemberment.

Jack and Joe dropped by about once a week, but Gage was the one who came to the house on a daily basis. He helped Churchill with things like climbing in and out of the shower and getting dressed, and taking him to doctor's appointments. No matter how much I disliked Gage, I had to admit he was a good son. He could have insisted that Churchill hire a nurse, but instead he showed up to take care of his father himself. Eight o'clock every morning, never one minute early or late. He was good for Churchill, who was cantankerous from the combination of boredom, pain, and constant inconvenience. But no matter how Churchill growled or snapped, I never once saw one sign of impatience from Gage. He was always calm, tolerant, and capable.

Until he was around me, and then he was a first-class jerk. Gage made it clear that in his opinion I was a parasite, a gold digger, and worse. He took no notice of Carrington other than to demonstrate a curt awareness that there was a short person in the house.

The day we moved in, our possessions crammed into cardboard boxes, I thought Gage would throw me out bodily. I had begun to unpack in the bedroom I had chosen, a beautiful space with wide windows and pale moss-green walls, and cream-colored molding. What had decided me on the room was the grouping of black-and-white photographs on one wall. They were Texas images: a cactus, a barbed-wire fence, a horse, and to my delight, a front shot of an armadillo looking straight into the camera. I'd taken that as an auspicious sign. Carrington was going to sleep two doors down, in a small but pretty room with yellow and white striped paper on the walls.

As I opened my suitcase on the king-sized bed, Gage appeared in the doorway. My fingers curled around the edge of the suitcase, my knuckles jutting until you could have shredded carrots on them. Even knowing I was reasonably safe—surely Churchill would keep him from killing me—I was still alarmed. He filled up the doorway, looking big and mean and pitiless.

"What the hell are you doing here?" His soft voice unsettled me far more than shouting would have.

I answered through dry lips. "Churchill said I could choose any room I wanted."

"You can either leave voluntarily, or I'll throw you out. Believe me. you'd rather go on your own."

I didn't move. "You have a problem, you talk to your father. He wants me here."

"I don't give a shit. Get going."

A little trickle of sweat went down the middle of my back. I didn't move.

He reached me in three strides and took my upper arm in a painful grip.

A gasp of surprise was torn from my throat. "Take your hands off me!" I strained and shoved at him. but his chest was as unyielding as the trunk of a live oak.

"I told you before I wasn't going to—" He broke off. I was released with a suddenness that caused me to stagger back a step. Our sharp respirations pierced the silence. He was staring at the dresser, where I had set out a few pictures in stand-up frames. Trembling. I put my hand on the part of my arm he'd gripped. I rubbed the spot as if to erase his touch. But I could still feel an invisible handprint embedded in my skin.

He went to the dresser and picked up one of the photos. "Who is this?"

It was a picture of Mama, taken not long after she'd married my father. She had been impossibly young and blond and beautiful. "Don't touch that," I cried, rushing forward to snatch the photo from him.

"Who is it?" he repeated.

"My mother."

His head bent as he stood over me, looking into my face with a speculative gaze. I was so bewildered by the abrupt halt of our conflict that I couldn't summon the words to ask what in God's name was going through his mind. I was absurdly conscious of the sound of my breathing, and his, the counterpoint gradually evening until the rhythm of our lungs was identical. Light from the plantation shutters made bright stripes across both of us, casting shadow spokes from his lashes down the crests of his cheek. I could see the whisker grain of his close-shaven skin, foretelling a heavy five o'clock shadow.

I dampened my dry lips with my tongue, and his gaze followed the movement. We were standing too close. I could smell the bite of starch in his collar, and a whiff of warm male skin, and I was shocked by my response. In spite of everything. I wanted to lean even closer. I wanted a deep breath of him.

A frown tugged between his brows. "We're not finished." he muttered, and left the room without another word.

I had no doubt he'd gone straight to Churchill, but it would be a long time before I found out what was said between them, or why Gage had decided to abandon that particular battle. All I knew was there was no more interference from Gage as we settled in. He left before supper, while Churchill, Gretchen, Carrington, and I celebrated our first night together. We ate fish steamed in little white paper bags and rice mixed with finely chopped peppers and vegetables that made it look like confetti.

When Gretchen asked if our rooms were all right and did we have everything we needed. Carrington and I both replied enthusiastically. Carrington said her canopy bed made her feel like a princess. I said I loved my room too, the soft green walls were so soothing, and I especially liked the black-and-white photographs.

"You'll have to tell Gage," Gretchen said, beaming. "He took those pictures in college for a photography-class assignment. He had to lie in wait two hours for that armadillo to come out of its burrow."

A horrifying suspicion darted through my mind. "Oh." I said, and swallowed hard. "Gretchen, by any chance...does that happen to be..." I could barely speak his name. "Gage's room?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," came her placid reply.

Oh, God. Of all the guest rooms on the second floor, I had managed to pick his. For him to walk in and see me there, taking occupation of his territory...I was amazed he hadn't tossed me like a bull with a rodeo clown in a barrel. "I didn't know," I said thinly. "Someone should have said something. I'll move to a different—"

"No. no, he never stays here," Gretchen said. "He doesn't live but ten minutes away. The room's been empty for years, Liberty. I'm sure it will please Gage for someone to get some use out of it."

Like hell. I thought, and reached for my wineglass.

Later that evening I emptied my cosmetics bags beside the bathroom sink. As I pulled out the top drawer, I heard something rattling and rolling around. Investigating, I found a few personal items that looked as though they'd been there a while. A used toothbrush, a pocket comb, an ancient tube of hair gel.. .and a box of condoms.

I turned and closed the bathroom door before examining the box more closely. There were three foil packets left out of twelve. It was a brand I had never seen before, British-made. And there was a funny phrase on the side of the box, "kite-marked for your peace of mind." Kite-marked? What the heck did that mean? It sort of looked like a European version of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. I couldn't help noticing the little yellow sunburst at the corner of the box, printed with the words "Extra Large." This was appropriate, I reflected sourly, in light of the fact that I already thought of Gage Travis as a big prick.

I wondered what I was supposed to do with this stuff. There was no way I was going to return Gage's long-forgotten condoms to him. But I couldn't throw his things away, on the off chance that he might remember someday and ask what I'd done with them. So I pushed them far back in the drawer and put my own things in there. I tried not to think about the fact that Gage Travis and I were sharing a drawer.

For the first few weeks I was busier than I had ever been in my life, and happier than I'd been since before Mama had died. Carrington made new friends quickly, and she was doing well at the new school, which had a nature center, a computer lab, a well-stocked library, and all kinds of enrichment classes. I had braced myself for adjustment problems that so far Carrington didn't seem to be having. Maybe her age made it easier to adapt to the strange new world she found herself living in.

People were usually nice to me. according me the distant friendliness reserved for

employees. My status as Churchill's personal assistant ensured I was treated well. I could tell when a former Salon One client recognized me but couldn't figure out where we'd met. The circles the Travises occupied were filled with high-living people, some pedigreed and wealthy, some merely wealthy. But whether they'd earned or inherited their place at the top. they were determined to enjoy it.

Houston high society is blond, tan, and well dressed. It's also toned and slim, despite the city's annual place on the Top Ten Fattest list. The rich people are in great shape. It's the rest of us, the lovers of burritos and Dr Pepper and chicken-fried steak, who inflate the average. If you can't afford a gym membership in Houston, you're going to be fat. You can't jog outside with so many days of triple-degree heat and lethal levels of hydrocarbons in the air. And even if it weren't for the poor air quality, public places like Memorial Park can be crowded and dangerous.

Since Houstonians aren't too proud to take the easy way out, plastic surgery is more popular here than anywhere except California. It seems like everyone has had some kind of work done. If you can't afford it stateside, you can slip across the border and get implants or lipo at a bargain. And if you put it on your credit card, you can earn enough mileage points to pay for Southwest tickets.

Once I accompanied Gretchen to a Botox or Bangs luncheon, where she and her friends chatted and ate and took turns getting injected. Gretchen asked me to drive her, since she tended to get headaches after Botox. It was an all-white meal, and by that I don't mean the color of the guests but the food itself. It started with white soup—cauliflower and

Gruyere—a crunchy salad of white jicama and white asparagus with basil dressing, an entree of white chicken and pears poached in a delicious clear broth, and a dessert of white chocolate coconut trifle.

I was more than happy to eat in the kitchen and watch the caterers. The three of them worked together with the precision of the parts in a watch. It was almost like a dance, the way they moved and turned and never once bumped into each other.

When it was time to leave, each guest received a silk Hermes scarf as a party favor. Gretchen gave me hers as soon as we got into the car. "Here, honey. This is your treat for driving me."

"Oh. no." I protested. I didn't know exactly how much the scarf cost, but I knew anything Hermes had to be insanely expensive. "You don't have to give me that, Gretchen."

"Take it," she insisted. "I have too many of these as it is."

It was hard for me to accept the gift gracefully. Not because I wasn't appreciative, but because after years of penny-pinching I was bewildered by so much extravagance.

I bought a set of two-way radios for me and Churchill, and I wore one clipped to my belt at all times. He must have called me every fifteen minutes the first couple of days. Not only was he delighted with the convenience of it, but it was a relief to him not to feel so isolated in his room.

Carrington pestered me constantly to borrow the walkie-talkie. Whenever I relented and let her have it for ten minutes, she wandered through the house conversing with Churchill, the hallways echoing with "over" and "copy" and "you're breaking up, buddy." Before long they had made a deal that Carrington would be Churchill's go-to girl during the hour before dinner, and she would have her own walkie-talkie. If he didn't come up with enough tasks for her, she would complain until he was forced to invent things to keep her busy. Once I caught him tossing the remote control to the floor, so Carrington could be contacted for a rescue.

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