Page 27

Early on I did a lot of shopping for Churchill, trying to find solutions for problems caused by the hard cast. He resented the indignity of being forced to wear sweatpants all the time, but there was no way he could wear regular pants over the bulk of the cast. I found a compromise he could live with, a few pairs of zip-off hiking pants that allowed him to take one leg off to expose the cast, and leave the other long. They were still more casual than he would have preferred, but he admitted they were better than the sweatpants.

I bought yards of cotton tubing to cover Churchill's cast every night, to keep the fiberglass from wearing holes in the eight-hundred-thread-count sheets on his bed. And my best find was at a hardware store, a long aluminum tool with a handle on one end and a pair of jaws on the other, allowing him to grip and pick up things he couldn't otherwise reach.

We fell quickly into a routine. Gage would visit early each morning and return to 1800 Main, where he worked and lived. The Travises owned the entire building, which was located near the Bank of America Center and the blue glass towers that had once been Enron Centers North and South. It had once been the most nondescript building in Houston, a plain gray box. But Churchill had gotten it at a steal, and had redesigned and rebuilt it. It had been stripped, re-covered with a blue skin of Low-E glass, and topped with a glass segmented-pyramid that reminded me of an artichoke.

The building was filled with luxury office space, a couple of upscale restaurants, and four penthouse suites priced at twenty million dollars apiece. There were also a half-dozen condos, relatively cheap at five million each. Gage lived in one of those and Jack in another. Churchill's youngest son, Joe, who didn't like high-rise living, had opted for a house.

When Gage came by to help Churchill shower and dress, he often brought research materials for his book. They would go over the reports, articles, and estimates for a few minutes, debating one issue or another. They both seemed to take great enjoyment in these arguments. I tried to move unobtrusively through the room, taking away Churchill's breakfast tray and bringing him more coffee, and setting out his notepad and recorder. Gage made a point of ignoring me. Understanding that the very fact of my breathing was an irritant to him, I tried to stay out of his way. We didn't speak if we passed each other on the stairs. When Gage left his keys in Churchill's room one morning and I had to chase after him to return them, he could barely bring himself to thank me.

"He's that way with everyone." Churchill had told me. Even though I had never said a word about Gage's coldness, it was obvious. "Always been standoffish—takes a while to warm up to people."

We both knew it wasn't true. I was the focus of a tareeted dislike. I assured Churchill it didn't bother me one bit. That wasn't true either. It has always been my curse to be a pleaser. This is bad enough, but when you're a pleaser in the company of someone who is determined to think the worst of you, you're miserable. My only defense was to muster a dislike that equaled Gage's, and to that end, he was being very helpful.

After Gage had left, the best part of the day began. I sat in the corner with a laptop and typed in Churchill's notes and handwritten pages, or worked from his recordings. He encouraged me to ask about anything I didn't understand, and he had a gift for explaining things in terms I could easily grasp.

I made calls and wrote e-mails for him, organized his schedule, took notes when people came to the house for meetings. Churchill usually presented foreign visitors with gifts such as bolo ties or bottles of Jack Daniel's. To Mr. Ichiro Tokegawa, a Japanese businessman Churchill had been friends with for years, we gave a chinchilla-and-beaver Stetson that cost four thousand dollars. As I sat quietly in those meetings, I was fascinated by the insights they shared and the different conclusions they drew from the same information. But even when they disagreed, it was clear that people respected Churchill's opinions.

Everyone remarked how good Churchill looked despite what he had gone through, that obviously nothing could keep him down. But it cost Churchill to maintain that appearance. After his guests left, he seemed to deflate, becoming weary and querulous. The long sedentar\' periods made him cold, and I was constantly filling up hot water bottles and putting throw blankets on him. When he had muscle cramps, I massaged his feet and his good leg. and helped him with toe and foot exercises to prevent adhesions.

"You need a wife," I told him one morning as I came to take his breakfast tray.

"I had a wife," he said. "Two good ones, as a matter of fact. Trying for another would be like asking fate for a kick in the ass. Besides, I do well enough with my lady friends."

I could see the sense in that. There was no practical reason for Churchill to get married. It wasn't like he had a problem finding female companionship. He got calls and notes from a variety of women, one of them an attractive widow named Vivian who sometimes stayed overnight. I was pretty sure they slept together, despite the logistics of maneuvering around the broken leg. After date night, Churchill was always in a good mood.

"Why don't you get a husband?" Churchill countered. "You shouldn't wait too long or you'll get set in your ways."

"So far I haven't found one worth marrying," I said, making Churchill laugh.

"Take one of my boys." he said. "Healthy young animals. All prime husband material."

I rolled my eyes. "I wouldn't have one of your sons on a silver platter."

"Why not11"

"Joe's too young. Jack is a ladies' man and isn't nearly ready for that kind of responsibility, and Gage...well, personality issues aside, he only dates women whose body fat is in the single digits."

A new voice entered the conversation. "That's not actually a requirement."

Glancing over my shoulder. I saw Gage walking into the room. I cringed, fervently

wishing I had kept my mouth shut.

I had wondered why Gage would date someone like Dawnelle, who was beautiful but seemed to have no interests other than shopping or reading Hollywood gossip sheets. Jack had summed her up best: "Dawnelle is hot. But ten minutes in her company and you can feel your IQ dropping."

The only possible conclusion was that Dawnelle was going out with Gage because of his money and position, and he was using her as a trophy, and their relationship consisted of nothing more than meaningless sex.

God, I envied them.

I missed sex, even the mediocre sex I' d had with Tom. I was a healthy twenty-four-year-old woman, and I had urges with no means to satisfy them. Alone-sex didn't count. It's like the difference between thinking to yourself or having a good conversation with someone—the pleasure is in the exchange. And it seemed everyone had a love life but me. Even Gretchen.

One night I'd downed a mug of the tension-tamer tea I often made for Churchill to help him sleep. It had done nothing for me. My sleep had been restless, and I woke with the sheets twisted into ropes around my legs, and my head had been filled with erotic images that, for once, had nothing to do with Hardy. I sat bolt upright from a dream in which a man's hands had been playing gently between my thighs, his mouth at my breast, and as I had writhed and begged for more, I had seen his eyes flash silver in the darkness.

Having an erotic dream about Gage Travis was about the stupidest, most embarrassing and confusing thing that had ever happened to me. But the impression of the dream, the heat and darkness and clutch-and-slide, lingered in the corner of my mind. It was the first time I'd ever been sexually attracted to a man I couldn't stand. How was that possible? It was a betrayal of all the memories of Hardy. But here I was, lusting after a cold-faced stranger who couldn't have cared less about me.

Shallow, I scolded myself. Mortified by the direction of my own thoughts. I could hardly stand to look at Gage as he walked into Churchill's room.

"That's good to hear," Churchill said in reference to Gage's earlier comment. "Because I don't see how a woman shaped like a Popsicle stick is going to give me healthy grandchildren."

"If I were you," Gage replied, "I wouldn't worry about grandchildren for a while." He approached the bed. "Your shower's got to be fast today, Dad. I've got a meeting at nine with Ashland."

"You look like hell." Churchill said, giving him an appraising glance. "What's the matter?"

At that, I overcame my self-consciousness long enough to look up at Gage. Churchill was right. Gage did look like hell. He was pale under his tan, his mouth bracketed with harsh lines. He always seemed so inexhaustible, it was startling to see him drained of his usual vitality.

Sighing. Gage dragged his hand through his hair, leaving some of it standing on end. "I've got a headache that won't quit." He rubbed his temples gingerly. "I didn't sleep last night. I feel like I've been hit by an eighteen-wheeler."

"Have you taken something for it?" I asked. I rarely spoke to him directly.

"Yeah." He looked at me with bloodshot eyes.

"Because if not—"

"I'm fine."

I knew he was in considerable pain. A Texan male will say he's fine even if he's just had a limb severed and is bleeding to death in front of you.

"I could get you an ice pack and some painkillers," I said cautiously. "If you—"

"I said I'm fine," Gage snapped, and turned to his father. "Come on. let's get started. I'm running late as it is."

Jerk, I thought, and took Churchill's tray from the room.

We didn't see Gage for two days after that. Jack was enlisted to come in his place. Since Jack had what he called "sleep inertia." I had genuine worries for Churchill's safety in the shower. Even though Jack moved, talked, and gave the appearance of a functioning human being, he wasn't all there until noon. In fact, sleep inertia looked a lot like a hangover to me. Swearing, stumbling, and only half listening to what anyone said, Jack was more of a hindrance than a help. Churchill remarked testily that Jack's sleep inertia would improve a hell of a lot if he didn't go out tomcatting half the night.

Gage; meanwhile, was bedridden with the flu. Since no one could remember the last time he'd been sick enough to take a day off, we all agreed it must have hit him pretty hard. No one heard from him, and when forty-eight hours had passed and Gage still wasn't answering the phone, Churchill began to fret.

"I'm sure he's just resting," I said.

Churchill replied with a noncommittal grunt.

"Dawnelle's probably taking care of him," I said.

That earned me a glance of sour skepticism.

I was tempted to point out that his brothers should visit him. Then I recalled that Joe had gone to St. Simon's Island with his girlfriend for a couple of days. And Jack's caretaking abilities had been pushed to their limits after helping his father shower two mornings in a row. I was pretty certain he would flat-out refuse to go to any more trouble for ailing family members.

"Do you want me to check on him?" I asked reluctantly. It was my night off, and I had planned to go out to a movie with Angie and some of the girls from Salon One. I hadn't seen them in a while and I was looking forward to catching up with them. "I guess I could stop by Eighteen hundred Main on the way to see my friends—"

"Yes," Churchill said.

I was instantly sorry I had made the offer. "I doubt he'd let me in." "I'll give you a key," Churchill said. "It's not like Gage to hole up like this. I want to know if he's all right."

To reach the residential elevators of 1800 Main, you had to go through a small lobby with marble flooring and a bronze sculpture that looked like a hunched-over pear. There was a doorman clad in black with gold trim, and two people behind the reception desk. I tried to look like I belonged in a building with multimillion-dollar condos. "I've got a key." I said, pausing to show it to them. "I'm visiting Mr. Travis."

"All right." the woman behind the desk said. "You can go on up. Miss..."

"Jones," I said. "His father sent me to check on him."

"That's fine." She motioned me toward a set of automatic sliding doors with etched-glass panels. "The elevators are over there."

I felt like I needed to convince her of something. "Mr. Travis has been sick for a couple of days," I said.

She looked sincerely concerned. "Oh. that's too bad."

"So I'm just going to run up and check on him. I'll only be a few minutes."

"That's fine, Miss Jones."

"Okay, thanks." I held up the key just in case she hadn't seen it the first time.

She responded with a patient smile and nodded toward the elevators again.

I went through the sliding glass doors and into an elevator with wood paneling and a black-and-white tiled floor and a bronze-framed mirror. The elevator whooshed up so swiftly, I barely had time to blink before it reached the eighteenth floor.

The narrow windowless hallways formed a big H. It was unnervingly quiet. My footsteps were muffled by a pale wool carpet, its pile spongy underfoot. I went to the corridor on the right and scrutinized door numbers until I found 18A. I knocked firmly.

No response.

A harder knock produced no results.

Now I was starting to get worried. What if Gage was unconscious? What if he'd gotten dengue fever or mad cow disease or bird flu? What if he was contagious? I wasn't too crazy about the idea of catching some exotic malady. On the other hand, I'd promised Churchill I would check on him.

A rummage through my purse, and I found the key. But just before I inserted it into the lock, the door opened. I was confronted with the sight of Gage Travis a la death-warmed-over. He was barefoot, dressed in a gray T-shirt and plaid flannel pants. His hair hadn't been combed in days. He stared at me through bleary red-rimmed eyes and wrapped his arms around himself. He shook with the tremors of a large animal at slaughter time.

"What do you want?" His voice sounded like the crush of dry leaves.

"Your father sent me to—" I broke off as I saw him tremble again. Against all better judgment I reached up and laid my hand across his forehead. His skin was blazing.

It was a sign of how sick Gage was that he let me touch him. He closed his eyes at the coolness of my fingers. "God, that feels good."

No matter if I might have fantasized about seeing my enemy brought low. I couldn't take pleasure in seeing him reduced to such a pitiful state.

"Why haven't you answered the phone?"

The sound of my voice seemed to recall Gage to himself, and he jerked his head back. "Didn't hear it," he said with a scowl. "I've been sleeping."

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