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His hand slipped beneath the hem of my shirt, finding the skin of my back, which was flushed and tender as if I'd been scalded. The cool brush of his fingers was an unspeakable relief. I arched in frantic welcome, while his hand spread like an unfolding fan. traveling up my spine.

The kitchen door burst open.

We sprang apart, and I lurched a few feet away from Gage, throbbing in every part of my body. I fumbled with my shirt, trying to pull it into place. Gage stayed at the back of the pantry, arms braced on the cabinets, head lowered. I saw the muscles bunch beneath his clothes. His body was rigid with frustration; it came off him in waves. I was shocked by my response to him, the pure erotic burn of it.

I heard Carrington's uncertain voice. "Liberty, are you back there?"

I emerged hastily. "Yeah. I was just... I needed some privacy..."

I went to the far end of the kitchen where my sister was standing. Her small face was tense and anxious, her hair comically wild like a troll doll's. She looked as if she were going to cry. "Liberty..."

When you love a child, you forgive her before she can even ask. Basically you've already forgiven her for things she hasn't even done yet. "It's okay," I murmured, reaching for her. "It's okay, baby."

Carrington rushed forward, her skinny arms closing tight around me. "I'm sorry," she said tearfully. "I didn't mean the stuff I said, any of it—"

"I know."

"I just w-wanted to have fun."

"'Course you did." I folded her in the strongest, wannest embrace I could, pressing my cheek to the top of her head. "But it's my job to make sure you have as little fun as possible." We both chuckled and hugged for a long moment. "Carrington...I'm going to try not to be a wet blanket all the time. It's just that you're getting to the age when most of the things you want to do for fun will also be the things that drive me crazy worrying about you."

"I'll do everything you tell me to." Carrington said, a little too quickly.

I smiled. "God. I'm not asking for blind obedience. But we have to find ways of compromising when we disagree on something. You know what compromise is, right?"

"Uh-huh. It's when you don't get to have everything your way and I don't get to have everything my way, and no one's happy. Like when Gage lowered the zip line."

I laughed. "That's right." Being reminded of the zip line, I glanced in the direction of the butler's pantry. From what I could tell it was empty. Gage had left the kitchen without a sound. I had no idea what I was going to say to him the next time I saw him. The way he had kissed me, my response...

Some things you're better off not knowing.

"What did you and Churchill talk about?" I asked.

"How did you know Churchill and me were talking?"

"And I," I corrected, thinking fast. "Well, I thought he'd say something to you. since he always has an opinion about things. And since you didn't come inside right away, I assumed you two were having a conversation."

"We were. He said I should know that being a parent isn't near as easy as it looks, and even though you aren't my actual mom, you're the best stand-in he's ever seen."

"He said that?" I was flattered and pleased.

"And," Carrington continued, "he said I shouldn't take you for granted, because lots of girls your age would've put me in foster care when Mama died." She laid her head on my chest. "Did you think about doing that, Liberty?"

"Never," I said firmly. "Not for one second. I loved you too much to give you up. I want you in my life forever." I bent and snuggled her close.

"Liberty?" she asked, her voice muffled.

"Yes, baby?"

"What were you and Gage doing in the butler's pantry?"

I jerked my head back, looking, I was sure, as guilty as hell. "You saw him?"

Carrington nodded innocently. "He left the kitchen a minute ago. It looked like he was sneaking out."

"I—I think he was trying to give us some privacy," I said unsteadily.

"Were you arguing with him about the zip line?"

"Oh, we were just chatting. That's all. Just a chat." Blindly I headed for the refrigerator. "I'm hungry. Let's have a snack."

Gage disappeared for the rest of the day. having suddenly remembered a few urgent errands that would occupy him indefinitely. I was relieved. I needed some time to think about what had happened and how I was going to react to it.

According to Churchill's book, the best way to deal with a strategic inflection point is to move quickly past denial into acceptance of change, and plan your strategy for the future. After considering everything carefully. I decided the kiss with Gage had been a moment of insanity, and he probably regretted it. Therefore, the best strategy was to pretend nothing had happened. I was going to be calm, relaxed, and impersonal.

I was so determined to show Gage how unaffected I had been by the whole thing, to amaze him with my cool sophistication, that it was a letdown when Jack arrived in the morning. Balefully Jack said Gage had given him no advance notice, just called him at the crack of dawn and said to get his ass over to help Dad, he couldn't make it.

"What's so all-fired important he couldn't be bothered to come over here?" Churchill asked testily. As much as Jack didn't want to be there helping him. Churchill didn't want him there even more.

"He's flying up to New York to visit Dawnelle," Jack said. "He's going to take her out after the shoot at Demarchelier."

"Just took off with no notice?" Churchill scowled until his forehead was starred with tiny indentations. "Why the hell's he doing that? He was supposed to meet with the Canadians from Syncrude today." Churchill's eyes narrowed dangerously. "He better not have taken the Gulfstream without one damn word of advance notice or I'll fry his—"

"He didn't take the Gulfstream."

The information mollified Churchill. "Good. Because I told him the last time—"

"He took the Citation," Jack said.

While Churchill growled and reached for his cell phone, I carried the breakfast tray downstairs. It was ridiculous, but the news that Gage had gone to New York to be with his girlfriend had hit me like a gut punch. A great smothering dullness settled over me as I thought of Gage with beautiful whippet-framed Dawnelle, she of the straight blond hair and big perfume contract. Of course he would go to her. I was nothing to him but a momentary impulse. A whim. A mistake.

I was brimming with jealousy, sick with it. over the worst person I could have picked to be jealous of. I couldn't believe it. Stupid, I told myself angrily, stupid, stupid. But knowing that didn't seem to make things any better.

For the rest of the day I made violent resolutions and promises to myself. I tried to drive thoughts of Gage out of my mind by dwelling on the subject of Hardy, the love of my life, who had meant more to me than Gage Travis ever would...Hardy, who was sexy, charming, unreserved, as opposed to Gage, the arrogant, annoying as**ole.

But even thinking about Hardy didn't work. So I concentrated on fanning the flames of Churchill's temper by mentioning Gage and the Citation at every possible opportunity. I hoped Churchill would descend on his oldest son like a plague of Egypt.

To my disappointment. Churchill's temper vanished after they talked on the phone. "New development in the works with Dawnelle," Churchill reported complacently. I wouldn't have believed it possible, but my mood plummeted further. That could mean only one thing—Gage was asking her to move in with him. Maybe he was even proposing to her.

After working all day and helping Carrington practice her soccer moves outside, I was exhausted. More than that, I was depressed. I was never going to find anyone. I was going to spend the rest of my life sleeping single in a double bed until I was a cranky old woman who did nothing but water the plants, talk about the neighbors, and take care of her ten cats.

I soaked in a long bath, which Carrington had garnished with Barbie bath suds that smelled like bubble gum. Afterward I dragged myself to bed and lay there with my eyes open.

The next day I woke up in a sullen simmer, as if sleep had catalyzed my depression into a general state of pissed-offedness. Churchill raised his brows as I informed him that I didn't feel like running up and down the stairs all day, so I'd appreciate it if he would consolidate his requests into one list. Among the various items was a note to call a newly opened restaurant and make reservations for eight. "One of my friends made a big investment in the place," Churchill told me. "I'm taking the family to eat there tonight. Make sure you and Carrington put on something nice."

"Carrington and I aren't going."

"Yes you are." He counted the guests on his fingers. "It's going to be you two girls, Gretchen, Jack and his girlfriend, Vivian and me, and Gage."

So Gage would be back from New York by tonight. My insides felt as if they'd been coated with lead.

"What about Dawnelle?" I asked curtly. "Is she coming?"

"I don't know. Better make it a party of nine. Just in case."

If Dawnelle was there...if the two of them were engaged...I was pretty sure I couldn't get through the evening.

"It's going to be a party of seven," I said. "Carrington and I aren't family, so we're not

going."

"Yes you are," Churchill said flatly.

"It's a school night. Carrington can't stay out late."

"Make reservations for an early dinner, then."

"You're asking too much," I snapped.

"What the hell am I paying you for. Liberty?" Churchill asked without rancor.

"You're paying me to work for you, not to have dinner with the family."

He met my gaze without blinking. "I aim to talk about work during dinner. Bring your notepad."

CHAPTER 20

I had seldom dreaded anything the way I did that dinner. I fretted about it all day. By five o'clock my stomach felt like it was filled with cement, and I was sure I wasn't going to be able to eat anything.

Pride, however, compelled me to pull out my best dress, a red wool knit with long sleeves and a vee neck that exposed a hint of cleavage. It clung lightly from chest to h*ps and fell in a gently flared skirt. I spent at least forty-five minutes flat ironing my hair until it was perfectly straight. A careful application of smoky-gray eyeshadow, a slick of sparkly neutral lip gloss, and I was ready to go. Despite my moroseness, I knew I'd never looked better in my life.

I went to my sister's room and discovered the door was locked. "Carrington," I called. "It's six o'clock. Time to go. Come out of there."

Her voice was muffled. "I need another few minutes."

"Carrington, hurry," I said with a touch of exasperation. "Let me in there and I'll help you—"

"I can do it by myself."

"I want you downstairs in the family room, in five minutes."

"Okay!"

Sighing heavily, I went to the elevator. Usually I took the stairs, but not when I was wearing three-inch heels. The house was strangely quiet except for the staccato of my metallic slides across marble flooring, clicks softening on hardwood, disappearing in the pile of wool carpeting.

The family room was empty, a fire winking and snapping in the fireplace. Perplexed, I went to the wet bar and sorted through decanters and bottles. I figured since I wasn't driving, and Churchill was forcing me to go out with the family, he owed me a drink. I poured some cola into a glass, added a shot of Zaya rum, and stirred it with my forefinger. As I took a medicinal gulp, the cold liquid slid down my throat with a sparkling bum. Maybe I'd added a little too much Zaya.

It was my misfortune to turn and catch sight of Gage entering the room while I was still in mid-swallow. I struggled for a second to keep from spewing the drink. After managing to force it down, I started to cough violently, setting aside the glass.

Gage was at my side in an instant. "Went down the wrong way?" he asked sympathetically, rubbing circles on my back.

I nodded and continued to cough, my eyes watering.

He looked concerned and amused. "My fault. I didn't mean to surprise you." His hand lingered on my back, which did nothing to restore my breathing.

I noticed two things right away—first, Gage was alone, and second, he was outrageously sexy in a black cashmere turtleneck and gray pants and black Prada loafers.

The last cough sputtered away, and I found myself staring helplessly into light crystalline eyes. "Hi," I said lamely.

A smile touched his lips. "Hi."

I was filled with dangerous heat, standing there with Gage. I felt happy just being near him, and miserable for any number of reasons, and humiliated by the desire to throw myself at him, and the turmoil of feeling all those things at once was almost more than I could stand. "Is.. .is Dawnelle with you?"

"No." Gage looked as if he wanted to say more, but he checked himself and glanced around the empty room. "Where is everyone?"

"I don't know. I thought Churchill said six o'clock."

His smile turned wry. "I have no idea why he was so damned impatient to get everyone together tonight. The only reason I came was because I hoped you and I might find a few minutes to talk afterward." A brief pause, and he added, "Alone."

A nervous shiver went down my back. "Okay."

"You look beautiful." Gage said. "But then you always do." He continued before I could respond. "I got a call from Jack on the way over here. He can't make it tonight."

"I hope he's not sick." I tried to sound concerned, when at the moment I couldn't have cared less about Jack.

"No, he's fine. His girlfriend just surprised him with tickets to a Coldplay concert."

"Jack hates Coldplay," I said, having heard him make comments to that effect.

"Yes. But he likes sleeping with his girlfriend."

We both turned as Gretchen and Carrington entered the room. Gretchen was dressed in a lavender boucle skirt, a matching silk blouse, and a Hermes scarf knotted around her neck. To my dismay, Carrington was wearing jeans and a pink sweater.

"Carrington," I asked, "you're not dressed yet? I laid out your blue skirt and your—"

"Can't go," my sister said cheerfully. "Got too much homework. So I'm going with Aunt Gretchen to her book club meeting, and I'll do it there."

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