He obeyed, taking the glass in hand. "You shouldn't be here." he said. "Aren't you worried about catching the flu?"
"I never get sick. Besides, I have this compulsion to take care of ailing Travises."
"You would be the only one. We Travises are bad-tempered as hell when we're sick."
"You're not all that nice when you're well, either."
Gage drowned a grin in the glass of water. "You could open some wine," he said eventually.
"You can't drink when you're sick."
"That doesn't mean you can't." He set his water down and leaned his head against the back of the sofa.
"You're right. After all I'm doing for you, you definitely owe me a glass of wine. What goes with chicken soup?"
"A neutral white. Look in the wine refrigerator for a pinot blanc or a chardonnay."
Since I know nothing about wine, I usually choose according to the label design. I found a bottle of white with some delicate red flowers and French words, and poured myself a glass. Using a big spoon, I pushed the dumplings deeper into the pot and added another layer.
"Did you date him a long time?" I heard Gage ask. "Your last boyfriend."
"Nope." Now that the dumplings were all in, they needed to boil for a while. I walked back into the living area, holding my wine. "I never seem to date anyone for a long time. All my relationships are short and sweet. Well.. .short, anyway."
I sat in a leather chair near the sofa. It was stylish but uncomfortable, shaped like a cube and encased in a polished chrome frame. "I guess that's bad, isn't it?"
He shook his head. "It shouldn't take a long time to figure out if someone is right for you. If it does, you're either dense or blind."
"Or maybe you're dating an armadillo."
Gage shot me a perplexed glance. "Pardon?"
"I mean someone who's hard to set to know. Shy and heavily armored."
"Armadillos aren't ugly," I protested, laughing.
"They're bulletproof lizards."
"I think you're an armadillo."
"I'm not shy."
"But you are heavily armored."
Gage considered that. He conceded the point with a brief nod. "Having learned about projection in couples counseling, I'd venture to say you're an armadillo too."
"It means you accuse me of the same things you're guilty of"
"Good Lord," I said, lifting the wineglass to my lips. "No wonder all your relationships are short."
His slow smile caused the fine hairs on my arms to rise. "Tell me why you broke up with your last boyfriend."
I wasn't nearly as heavily armored as I would have liked, because the truth immediately popped into my mind—He was a sixty-eight—and I certainly wasn't going to tell him that. I felt my cheeks heat up. The problem with blushing is the harder you try to stop the worse it gets. So I sat there turning crimson as I tried to think of a nonchalant reply.
And Gage, damn him, seemed to look inside my head and read my thoughts.
"Interesting." he said softly.
I scowled and stood up. gesturing with my wineglass. "Drink your water."
I cleaned and straightened the kitchen, wishing he would change the channel and find a show. But he kept watching me as if he were fascinated by my technique as I sprayed Windex on the counters.
"By the way," he remarked conversationally, "I figured out you're not sleeping with my father."
"Good for you," I said. "What tipped you off?"
"The fact that he wants me to come over every morning to help him shower. If you were his girlfriend, you'd be in there with him."
The dumplings were ready. Unable to find a ladle, I used a measuring cup to transfer the soup into square-shaped bowls. It didn't look quite right, the wholesome chicken and dumplings in ultramod vessels. But it smelled delicious, and I knew this was one of my better efforts. Deducing that Gage was probably too fatigued to sit up at the dining table, I set his bowl on the beveled-glass coffee table. "It's a pain in the ass for you, going over every morning, isn't it?" I asked. "But you never complain."
"My pain is nothing compared to Dad's," he said. "Besides, I consider it payback. I was a pain in the ass to him when I was younger."
"I'll bet you were." I draped a dry dishtowel over his chest and tucked it into the neck
of his tee as if he were an eight-year-old. My touch was impersonal, but as my knuckles brushed his skin I felt points of heat pulsing like fireflies in my stomach. I handed him a half-filled bowl and spoon, along with the advice, "Don't burn your tongue."
He spooned up a steaming dumpling and blew on it gently. "You never complain either," he said. "About having to be a parent to your little sister. And I'm guessing she must have been the reason for at least a few of those short relationships."
"Yes." I got my own bowl of soup. "It's nice, actually. It keeps me from wasting time with the wrong men. If a guy is scared by the responsibility, he's not right for us."
"But you've never known what it's like to be single and childless."
"I've never minded that."
"Really. Carrington is...she's the best thing about me."
I might have said more, but Gage had downed a spoonful of dumplings and closed his eyes in an expression of what could have been either pain or ecstasy.
"What?" I asked. "Is it okay?"
He got busy with his spoon. "I may live," he said, "if only to have another bowl of this stuff."
Two helpings of chicken and dumplings seemed to bring Gage to life, his waxen paleness replaced by a tinge of color. "My God," he said, "this is amazing. You wouldn't believe how much better I feel."
"Don't push it. You still need to rest." I put all the dishes into the washer and ladled what was left of the soup into a container for the fridge.
"I need more of that," he said. "I have to stock a few gallons in the freezer."
I was tempted to tell him any time he wanted to bribe me with another glass of neutral white wine, I'd be happy to make more soup. But that sounded too much like a proposition, which was the last thing on my mind. Now that Gage no longer looked so glazed and listless, I knew he would soon be back to his old self. There was no guarantee the truce between us was going to last. So I gave him a noncommittal smile.
"It's late," I said. "I've got to head back."
A frown worked across Gage's forehead. "It's midnight. It's not safe for you to be out this late. Not in Houston. Especially not in that rust bucket you drive."
"My car works fine."
"Stay here. There's an extra bedroom."
I let out a surprised laugh. "You're kidding, right?"
Gage looked annoyed. "No, I'm not kidding."
"I appreciate your concern, but I've driven my rust bucket through Houston many times, much later than this. And I've got my cell phone." I walked over to him and reached out to his forehead. It was cool and slightly damp. "No more fever," I said with satisfaction. "It's time for another dose of Tylenol. You'd better take it just to be sure." I made a motion for him to stay on the sofa as he started to rise. "Rest," I said. "I'll see myself out."
Gage ignored that and followed me to the door, reaching it at the same time I did. I saw his hand press flat against the door panel. His forearm was densely muscled and dusted with hair. It was an aggressive gesture, but as I turned to face him, I was reassured by the subtle entreaty in his eyes.
"Cowboy," I said, "you're in no condition to stop me from doing a damn thing. I could wrestle you to the floor in ten seconds flat."
He continued to lean over me. His voice was very soft. "Try me."
I let out a nervous laugh. "I wouldn't want to hurt you. Let me go, Gage."
A moment of electric stillness. I saw the ripple of a swallow in his throat. "You couldn't hurt me."
He wasn't touching me, but I was excruciatingly aware of his body, the heat and solidity of him. And suddenly I knew how it would be if we slept together...the rise of my h*ps against his weight, the hardness of his back beneath my hands. I flushed as I felt a responsive twitch between my thighs, soft-secreted nerves prickling, a shot of heat to the quick.
"Please," I whispered, and was infinitely relieved when he pushed away from the door and stood back to let me pass.
Gage waited in the doorway a little too long as I left. It might have been my imagination, but as I reached the elevator and glanced back, he seemed bereft, as if I had just taken something from him.
It was a relief to everyone, especially Jack, when Gage was able to resume his usual
schedule. He showed up at the house on Monday morning, looking so well that Churchill happily accused him of faking his illness.
I hadn't mentioned having stayed with Gage for most of Saturday evening. It was best. I had decided, to let everyone assume I had gone out with my friends as planned. I realized Gage hadn't said anything about it either—if he had, there would have been a comment from Churchill. It made me uneasy, this small secret between Gage and me. even though nothing had happened.
But something had changed. Instead of treating me with his usual reserve. Gage went out of his way to be helpful, fixing my laptop when it froze, taking Churchill's empty breakfast tray downstairs before I could do it. And it seemed to me that he was coming to the house more frequently, dropping by at odd times, always on the pretext of checking on Churchill.
I tried to treat his visits casually, but I couldn't deny that time moved faster when Gage was around, and everything seemed a little more interesting. He wasn't a man you could fit into a neat category. The family, with typically Texan distrust of highbrow pursuits, affectionately mocked him for having more of an intellectual bent than the rest of them.
But Gage had been aptly named after his mother's family, the descendants of warlike Scotch-Irish borderers. Accordine to Gretchen. who had made a hobby of researchine the family genealogy, the Gages' dour self-reliance and toughness had made them perfect candidates to settle the Texas frontier. Isolation, hardship, danger—they had welcomed all of it. their natures practically demanded it. At times you could see the echoes of those fiercely disciplined immigrants in Gage.
Jack and Joe were far more easygoing and charming, both possessing a boyishness that was completely absent in their older brother. And then there was Haven, the daughter, whom I met when she came home on break from school. She was a slim black-haired girl with Churchill's dark eyes, possessing all the subtlety of a firecracker. She announced to her father and anyone else in earshot that she had become a second-wave feminist, she had changed her major to women's studies, and she would no longer tolerate Texas's culture of patriarchal repression. She talked so fast I had a hard time following her, especially when she pulled me aside to express sympathy for the exploitation and disenfranchisement of my people, and assured me of her passionate support for the reformation of immigration policies and guest worker programs. Before I could think of how to reply, she had bounced away and launched into an enthusiastic argument with Churchill.
"Don't mind Haven," Gage had said dryly, watching his sister with a faint smile. "She's never met a cause she didn't like. It was the biggest disappointment of her life not to be disenfranchised."
Gage was different from his siblings. He worked too hard and challenged himself compulsively, and seemed to hold nearly everyone outside his family at arm's length. But he had begun to treat me with a careful friendliness I couldn't help responding to. And there was his increasing kindness to my sister. It started in small ways. He fixed the broken chain of Carrington's pink two-wheeler, and drove her to school one morning when I was running late.
Then there was the bug project. Carrington's class had been studying insects, and every child was required to write a report on a particular bug and make a 3D model. Carrington had decided on a lightning bug. I took Carrington to Hobby Lobby, where we spent forty dollars on paint, Styrofoam. plaster of Paris, and pipe cleaners. I didn't say one word about the cost—my competitive sister was determined to make the best bug in the class, and I had resolved to do whatever was necessary to help.
We made the body of the bug and covered it with wet plaster strips, and painted it black, red, and yellow when it was dry. The entire kitchen had been turned into a disaster zone in the process. The bug was a handsome creation, but to Carrington's disappointment, the glow in the dark paint we had used for the bug's underside was not nearly as effective as we had hoped. It didn't glow hardly at all, Carrington had said glumly, and I had promised to try to find a better quality paint so we could apply another coat.
After spending an afternoon typing a chapter of Churchill's manuscript, I was surprised to discover Gage sitting with my sister in the kitchen, the table piled with tools, wires, small pieces of wood, batteries, glue, a ruler. Cradling the lightning bug model in one hand, he made deep cuts with an X-Acto knife.
"What are you doing?"
Two heads lifted, one dark, one platinum. "Just performing a little surgery," Gage said, deftly extracting a rectangular chunk of foam.
Carrington's eyes were lit with excitement. "He's putting a real light inside our bug, Liberty! We're making a 'lectrical circuit with wires and a switch, and when you flip it the lightning bug's going to flash."
"Oh." Nonplussed, I sat at the table. I always appreciated help whenever it was given. But I had never expected Gage, of all people, to get involved in our project. I didn't know whether he'd been recruited by Carrington or if he'd offered on his own, and I wasn't certain why it made me uneasy to see them working together so companionably.
Patiently Gage showed Carrington how to make the wired circuit, how to hold the screwdriver and twist it. He held the pieces of a little switch box together as she glued it. Carrington glowed at his quiet praise, her small face animated as they worked together. Unfortunately the added weight of the bulb and wiring caused the pipe cleaner legs to collapse beneath the model. I had to bite back a sudden grin as Gage and Carrington contemplated the prostrate insect.
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