Page 28

"Churchill has been worried half to death." I hunted in my bag again. "I'm going to call him and let him know you're still alive."

"That phone won't work in the hallway." He turned and went back into his condo, leaving the door open.

I followed and closed the door.

The condo was beautifully decorated with hypermodern fixtures and indirect lighting, and a couple of paintings of circles and squares that even my untrained eyes could discern were priceless. There were walls of nothing but windows, revealing wide views of Houston as the sun sank toward a bed of thickening color on the distant flat horizon. The furniture was contemporary, made of precious woods and natural-colored fabrics, no extra ornamentation of any kind. But it was too pristine, too orderly, without a cushion or pillow

or any hint of softness. And there was a plasticky staleness in the air as if no one had lived there for a while.

The open kitchen was fitted with gray quartz countertops, black-lacquered cabinets, and stainless steel appliances. It was sterile, unseasoned, a kitchen where cooking was rarely done. I stood beside a counter and dialed Churchill on my cell phone.

"How is he?" Churchill barked when he picked up.

"Not great." My gaze followed Gage's tall form as he staggered to a geometrically perfect sofa and collapsed on it. "He's got a fever, and he's too weak to drag a cat."

"Why the hell," came Gage's disgruntled voice from the sofa, "would I want to drag a cat?"

I was too busy listening to Churchill to answer. I reported, "Your dad wants to know if you're taking any kind of antiviral medication."

Gage shook his head. "Too late. Doctor said if you don't take it within the first forty-eight hours, it won't do any good."

I repeated the information to Churchill, who was highly annoyed and said if Gage had been such a stubborn idiot to wait that long, he damn well deserved to rot. And then he hung up.

A brief, weighty silence.

"What did he say?" Gage asked without much curiosity.

"He said he hopes you feel better soon, and remember to drink lots of liquids."

"Bullshit." He rolled his head on the back of the sofa as if it were too heavy to lift. "You've done your duty. You can go now."

That sounded good to me. It was Saturday night, my friends were waiting, and I could hardly wait to leave this elegantly barren place. But it was so quiet. And as I turned to the door. I knew my evening was already ruined. The thought of Gage sick and alone in a dark apartment was going to nag at me all night.

I turned back and ventured into the living area, with its glass-fronted fireplace and silent television. Gage remained prone on the sofa. I couldn't help noticing the snug fit of his T-shirt against his arms and chest. His body was long, lean, disciplined like an athlete's. So that was what he'd been hiding beneath those dark suits and Armani shirts.

I should have known Gage would approach exercise as he did everything else, no quarter asked, none given. Even at death's door he was strikingly handsome, his features formed with a strong-boned austerity that owed nothing to boyishness. He was the Prada of bachelors. Reluctantly I acknowledged that if Gage had had one teaspoon's worth of charm, I would have thought he was the sexiest man I'd ever met.

He slitted his eyes open as I stood over him. A few locks of black hair had fallen over his forehead, so unlike its usual strict order. I wanted to smooth it back. I wanted to touch him again.

"What?" he asked curtly.

"Have you taken something for the fever?"


"Do you have anyone coming to help you?"

"Help me with what?" He closed his eyes. "I don't need anything. I can ride this out alone."

"Ride it out alone." I repeated, gently mocking. "Tell me, cowboy, when was the last time you ate anything?"

No reply. He remained still, the crescents of his lashes heavy against his pale cheeks. Either he had passed out or he was hoping I was a bad dream that would disappear if he kept his eyes closed.

I went to the kitchen and opened the cabinets methodically, finding expensive liquor, modern glassware, black plates shaped like squares instead of circles. Locating the food cabinet, I discovered a box of Wheaties of indeterminate age, a can of lobster consomme, a few jars of exotic spices. The contents of the refrigerator were just as pitiful. A bottle of orange juice, nearly empty. A white baker's box containing two dried-up kolaches. A pint of half-and-half, and a lone brown egg in a foam carton.

"Nothing fit to eat," I said. "I passed a corner grocery store a few streets away. I'll run out and get you—"

"No, I'm fine. I can't eat anything. I..." He managed to raise his head. It was clear he was trying desperately to find the magic combination of words that would make me leave. "I appreciate it, Liberty, but I just..."—his head dropped back down—"need to sleep."

"Okay." I reached for my purse and hesitated, giving a wistful thought to Angie and my friends and the chick flick we had planned to see. But Gage looked so damn helpless, his big body folded on that hard sofa, his hair messed up like a little boy's. How did the heir to an enormous fortune, a successful businessman in his own right, not to mention a highly eligible bachelor, end up sick and alone in his five-million-dollar condo? I knew he had a thousand friends. Not to mention a girlfriend.

"Where's Dawnelle?" I couldn't resist asking.

"Cosmo shoot next week," he muttered. "Doesn't want to catch this stuff."

"I don't blame her. Whatever you've got doesn't look very fun."

A shadow of a smile crossed his dry lips. "Trust me. It's not."

The brief hint of a smile seemed to wedge into some unseen fissure of my heart and widen it. Suddenly my chest felt tight and very warm.

"You need to eat something," I said decisively, "even if it's just a piece of toast. Before rigor mortis sets in." I held up my finger like a stern schoolteacher as he began to say something. "I'll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes."

His mouth turned sullen. "I'm locking the door."

"I've got a key, remember? You can't keep me out." I slung my purse over my shoulder with a nonchalance that I knew would annoy him. "And while I'm gone—I'm trying to put this diplomatically, Gage—it might not be a bad thing if you took a shower."


I called Angie in my car and apologized for bailing on her. "I was really looking forward to this," I said. "But Churchill's son is sick, and I need to run a few errands for him."

"Which son?"

"The oldest one. Gage. He's an as**ole, but he's got the worst case of flu I've ever seen. And he's Churchill's favorite. So I've got no choice. I'm so sorry. I—"

"Way to go, Liberty!"


"You're thinking like a sugar baby."

"I am?"

"Now you've got a Plan B in case your main sugar daddy dumps you. But be careful.. .you don't want to lose Daddy while you're reeling in the son."

"I'm not reeling anyone in." I protested. "This is simple compassion for a fellow human being. Believe me, he's not a Plan B."

"Sure he's not. Call me, sweetie, and let me know what happens."

"Nothing's going to happen," I said. "We can't stand each other."

"You lucky girl. That's the best kind of sex."

"He's half dead. Angie."

"Call me later," she repeated, and hung up.

In about forty-five minutes I returned to the condo with two bags of groceries. Gage was nowhere in sight. As I followed a trail of wadded-up tissues toward the bedroom. I heard the sounds of a shower running, and I grinned as I realized he had taken my suggestion. I went back to the kitchen, picking up tissues along the way, and deposited them in a garbage disposal that looked as if it had never been used. That was about to change. I took the groceries out of the bags, put about half of them away, and rinsed a three-pound chicken in the sink before setting it in a pot to boil.

Finding a cable news channel on TV, I turned up the volume so I could hear while I was cooking. I was making chicken and dumplings, the best cure I knew of. My version was pretty good, although nothing came close to Miss Marva's.

I made a hill of white flour on a cutting board. It felt like silk in my fingers. It seemed

like forever since I'd cooked anything. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it. I pinched butter into the flour until it formed tender crumbs. After making a little well in the top of the mound, I broke open an egg and poured its gelatinous contents into the depression. I worked quickly with my fingers, mixing the way Miss Marva had taught me. Most people use a fork, she had said, but something about the warmth of your hands made the dough better.

The only difficulty came when I hunted around the kitchen for a rolling pin and there was none to be found. I improvised with a cyndrilical highball glass, coating it with flour. It worked perfectly, creating a flat, even sheet that I cut into strips.

Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye, I glanced toward the hallway. Gage stood there looking baffled. He was wearing a fresh white tee and ancient gray sweatpants. His long feet were still bare. His hair, shiny as ribbons, was damp from a recent washing. He was so different from the starched, polished, and buttoned-up Gage I was accustomed to, I think I probably looked as bewildered as he did. For the first time I saw him as an approachable human being instead of some kind of ubervillain.

"I didn't think you'd come back," he said.

"And miss my chance to boss you around?"

Gage kept staring at me as he lowered himself carefully to the sofa. He seemed enervated and unsteady.

I filled a glass with water and brought him two ibuprofen tablets. "Take these."

"I've already had Tylenol."

"If you alternate with ibuprofen every four hours, it'll bring the fever down faster."

He took the tablets and washed them down with a big gulp of water. "Where did you hear that?"

"Pediatrician. It's what they tell me every time Carrington has a fever." Noticing the goose bumps on his skin, I went to light the fireplace. A flip of a switch, and real flames spurted out from between sculpted ceramic logs. "More chills?" I asked sympathetically. "Do you have a lap blanket?"

"There's one in the bedroom. But I don't need—"

I was halfway down the hallway before he could finish.

His bedroom was decorated in the same minimalist style as the rest of the condo. the low platform bed covered in cream and navy, with two perfect pillows positioned against the gleaming wood-paneled wall. There was only one picture, an oil painting of a quiet ocean scene.

Finding an ivory cashmere throw on the floor, I brought it back to the living area along with a pillow. "Here you go," I said briskly, covering him with the blanket. I motioned for him to sit up, and I tucked the pillow behind his back. As I leaned over him, I heard a quick hitch in his breathing. I hesitated before pulling back. He smelled so good, so clean and male, and there was the same elusive scent I had noticed before, like amber, something warm and summery. It lured me so strongly that I found it difficult to move away from him. But the closeness was dangerous, it was causing something to unravel inside, something I wasn't

ready for. And then the strangest thing happened.. .he deliberately turned his face so a loose lock of my hair slid against his cheek as I drew back.

"Sorry," I said breathlessly, although I didn't know what for.

He gave a brief shake of his head. I was caught by his gaze, those hypnotic light eyes with the charcoal rings around the irises. I touched his forehead with my hand, testing his temperature. Still too hot, a steady fire beneath the skin.

"So.. .you got something against throw pillows?" I asked, withdrawing my hand.

"I don't like clutter."

"Believe me, this is the most z/ncluttery place I've ever been in."

He glanced over my shoulder at the pot on the stove. "What are you making?"

"Chicken and dumplings."

"You're the first person who's ever cooked in that kitchen. Besides me."

"Really?" I reached up to my hair and refastened my ponytail, pulling back the stray pieces that had fallen around my face. "I didn't know you were handy in the kitchen."

One of his shoulders lifted in the barest twitch of a shrug. "I took a class with a girlfriend a couple of years ago. Part of couples counseling."

"You were engaged?"

"No, just going out. But when I wanted to break up. she wanted to try counseling first. and I thought why the hell not."

"So what did the therapist say1?" I asked, amused.

"She suggested we find something we could learn together, like ballroom dancing or photography. We decided on fusion cuisine."

"What's that? It sounds like a science experiment."

"A mixture of cooking styles...Japanese, French, and Mexican. Like a saki-cilantro salad dressing."

"So did it help?" I asked. "With the girlfriend. I mean?"

Gage shook his head. "We broke up midway through the course. It turned out she hated cooking, and she decided I had an incurable fear of intimacy."

"Do you?"

"Not sure." His slow smile, the first real smile I'd ever gotten from him, caused my heart to thud heavily. "But I can make pan-seared scallops like nobody's business."

"You finished the course without her?"

"Hell, yes. I paid for it."

I laughed. "I have fear of intimacy too, according to my last boyfriend."

"Was he right'1"

"Maybe. But I think if it's the right person, you wouldn't have to work so hard at intimacy. I think—hope—it would just happen naturally. Otherwise, opening up to the wrong person..." I made a face.

"Like putting ammo in their hands."

"Exactly." Reaching for the TV controller. I handed it to him. "ESPN?" I suggested, and headed back to the kitchen.

"No." Gage left it on the news channel and turned the volume down. "I'm too damn weak to get worked up over a game. The excitement would kill me."

I washed my hands and began to lay the dumpling strips on top of the simmering chicken broth. The air was filled with a homelike smell. Gage shifted on the sofa to watch me. Acutely conscious of his unbroken stare. I murmured. "Drink your water. You're dehydrated."


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