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'"So you're one of those." Gage said, looking amused as I gathered and folded our discarded clothes.

"One of what?" I paused to admire the sight of his long body barely covered by the white sheet, muscles bunching beneath his skin as he propped up on one elbow. I loved the disorder my hands had wrought in his hair, the relaxed curve of his mouth.

'"One of those women who gets revved up after sex."

"I've never gotten revved up by it before," I said, placing the folded clothes on a chair. A quick self-evaluation caused me to admit sheepishly. "But right now I feel like I could run ten miles."

Gage smiled. "I've got a few ideas about how to wear you out. Unfortunately, since I didn't know what would happen tonight. I only had one in-case-of-emergency condom."

I half sat on the edge of the bed. "Was I an emergency?"

He pulled me across his chest and rolled back until I sprawled over him. "Since the first moment I saw you."

I grinned and kissed him. "You do have more condoms," I told him. "I found some in the bathroom when I moved in. I hadn't planned on returning them to you. it would have been too embarrassing. So I left them where they were. We've been sharing the drawer."

"We've been sharing a drawer and I didn't even know about it?"

"You can have the condoms back now," I said generously.

His eyes sparkled. "I appreciate that."

As the night unfolded, we established that not only was I not bad in bed, I was phenomenal. A prodigy, Gage claimed.

We shared a bottle of wine, showered together, and got back into bed. We kissed voraciously, as if we hadn't already kissed a thousand times. And by morning I had done things with Gage Travis that were illegal in at least nine states. It seemed there was nothing he didn't like, nothing he wasn't willing to do. He was wickedly patient and so thorough that I felt as if I had been taken apart and reassembled in a different way.

Exhausted and sated, I slept curled against his side. I woke as weak morning sunlight pushed through the window. I felt Gage yawn over my head, and his body tensed in a shivering stretch. It all seemed too wonderful to be real, the heavy masculine form beside mine, the subtle stings and aches that reminded me of the night's pleasures. The hand that rested gently on my bare hip. I was afraid he might vanish, this lover who had possessed and

explored me with such gentleness, and he would be replaced by the cool-eyed and distant man I had known before.

"Don't go away," I whispered, reaching to cover his hand with mine, pressing it tightly against my skin.

I felt the shape of Gage's smile in the sleep-wanned curve of my neck. "Not going anywhere." he said, and settled me back against him.

Houstonians like to do things in a big way. and a River Oaks mansion debut is no exception. There were many events taking place on Saturday night, but the guest list everyone wanted to be on was for a big charity gala at the home of Peter and Sascha Legrand. The oil company executive and his wife, a city councilwoman, were using the occasion to introduce their brand-new mansion, an Italian-Mediterranean palace with ten antique porticoes imported from Europe and a thirty-six-hundred-square-foot ballroom that covered the entire second floor.

The Travises had been invited, of course, and Gage had asked me to go with him. It wasn't exactly your average second date.

The life section in the Chronicle had shown preview pictures of the mansion, including the fourteen-foot-high Chihuly chandelier that hung in the grand foyer. The amazing glass creation looked like a cluster of giant half-open flowers of blue, amber, and orange.

Intended for the benefit of a charitable foundation for the arts, the gala was opera

themed, which meant singers from the Houston Opera would entertain. With my limited knowledge of opera, I imagined singers in Viking helmets and long braids who would blow our hair back with their voices.

The four alcoves of the grand foyer had been decorated to represent famous opera houses in Venice and Milan. At the terraced back yard of the mansion, piazzas had been specially built on platforms just for the party, with buffets offering specialties from different regions of Italy. Armies of white-gloved waiters were available to serve the guests' every need.

I had spent the equivalent of two weeks' salary on a white Nicole Miller dress with a halter top that wrapped and twisted neatly down to my hips, then fell in soft folds to the floor. It was a sexy but ladylike dress with a vee neckline. My shoes were Stuart Weitzman, a pair of clear Lucite sandals with crystals on the heels and toe straps. Cinderella shoes, Carrington had said when she saw them. I had scraped my hair back so it was flat and shining against my head, and twisted it into an artfully messy knot in back. After carefully applying sooty eye makeup, delicate pink lip gloss, and subtle blush, I stared at my reflection critically. I had no earrings that went with the dress. But I needed a little something else.

After a few seconds' thought, I went to Carrington's room, looked in her art supplies box, and found a sheet of self-adhesive crystals. I took one of the smallest ones, not much bigger than the head of a pin. and applied it near the outside corner of my eye like a beauty mark.

"Does it look trashy?" I asked Carrington. who couldn't keep from jumping up and down on the bed. Asking an eight-year-old girl if something is a little over-the-top is like asking a Texan if there are too many jalapenos in the salsa. The answer is always no.

"It's perfect!" Carrington was ready to launch herself into orbit.

"No jumping." I reminded her. and she flopped down on her stomach with a grin.

"Are you going to come back here tonight," she asked, "or are you going to have a sleepover at Gage's?"

"I'm not sure." I went to sit on the edge of the bed beside her. "Baby, would it bother you if I slept over at his place tonight?"

"Oh. no," she said cheerfully. "Aunt Gretchen says if you do; I'll get to stay up late and we'll make cookies. And if you want your boyfriend to ask you to marry him, you have to sleep at his house. So he can see if you look pretty in the morning."

"What? Carrington, who told you that?"

"I figured it out by myself."

My chin quivered as I held back a laugh. "Gage is not my boyfriend. And I'm not trying to get him to ask me to marry him."

"I think you should," she said. "Don't you like him. Liberty? He's better than any of the other ones you dated. Even better than the one who brang us all those pickles and funny-smelline cheeses."

"Brought us." I stared closely into her small, earnest face. "You seem to like Gage a lot."

"Oh. yes! I think he'd be a good dad for me after I teach him more about kid stuff."

The observations of a child can knock you flat before you even know what's coming. My heart twisted with guilt, pain, and worst of all, hope.

I leaned over her and kissed her very gently. "Don't expect anything, baby," I whispered. "We'll just be patient and see what happens."

Churchill, Vivian, Gretchen, and her date were having cocktails in the family room before they left. We'd had to send Churchill's tuxedo pants to the tailor, to put Velcro seams in on the side he wore the cast. Vivian had been entertained by the idea of the rip-off pants, claiming she felt like she was dating a Chippendale dancer.

As I came downstairs and stepped out of the elevator, I found Gage waiting for me. Magnificent man. all elegance and testosterone contained in a scheme of flawless black and white. Gage wore a tux like he did everything else, looking relaxed and unselfconscious.

He stared at me with a faint smile. "Liberty Jones.. .you look like a princess." Taking my hand carefully, he raised it to his lips and pressed a kiss into the cup of my palm.

This wasn't me. It was far removed from any reality I had ever known. I felt like the young girl I had once been, the one with the frizzy hair and the big glasses, watching a beautifully dressed woman who wanted to be in the moment, to enjoy it. but wasn't quite able. And then I thought, Damn it all, I don't have to be an outsider.

I deliberately leaned the front of my body against Gage's, watching his eyes darken. "Are you still aggravated with me?" I asked, making him smile ruefully.

We had argued earlier in the day about Christmas, which was coming soon. It had started when Gage had asked what kind of present I wanted.

"No jewelry," I had said instantly. "Nothing expensive."

"Then what?"

"Take me out for a nice dinner."

"All right. Paris or London?"

"I'm not ready to take a trip with you."

That had produced a frown. "What's the difference between sleeping with me here or sleeping with me in a hotel in Paris?"

"A fortune, to start with."

"This has nothing to do with money."

"To me it does." I'd said apologetically. "It doesn't matter that you're one of those people who never has to think about money. Because I do. So for me to let you spend so much on me.. .it would throw everything off balance. Don't you see?"

Gage had gotten more and more irritated. "Let me get this straight. You're saying you'd

go somewhere with me if we both had money, or if neither of us had it."

"That's right."

"That's stupid."

"You can say that because you're the one with the money."

"So if you were dating the UPS guy: he could buy you whatever the hell he wanted. But I can't."

"Well...yes." I gave him a cajoling smile. "But I'd never date the UPS guy. Those brown shorts are just not a turn-on for me."

He hadn't smiled back. His calculating gaze had made me uneasy, with good reason. I knew Gage well enough to be certain that when he wanted something, he would find a way over, around, or through all obstacles. Which meant he wouldn't be satisfied until he had found a way to separate my working-class feet from American soil.

"When you think about it." I'd said, "it's actually a good thing, my wanting to take the money out of this... this..."

"Relationship. And you're not taking the money out of it. You're putting it right in the middle."

I had tried to sound as reasonable as possible. "Look, we've only just started seeing each other. All I'm asking is that you don't buy me extravagant presents or try to arrange some big expensive trip." Seeing his expression, I added reluctantly. "Yet."

The "yet" had seemed to pacify Gage a little. But his mouth had retained a hint of

brooding.

Now, as he held me in a light clasp, I saw his usual self-control had returned. "No, I'm not aggravated," he said calmly. "Travises like a challenge."

I didn't know why the touch of arrogance, which used to annoy me, had become so absurdly sexy. I grinned at him. "You can't always have things your way, Gage."

He eased me closer, the heel of his hand brushing the side of my breast. An intimate whisper that kicked my heart into a new, urgent beat. "I will tonight, though."

"Maybe," I said, my breath quickening.

One of his hands ran down my back in a restless stroke, as if he were contemplating ripping the dress off me right there. "I can't wait for this damn party to be over with."

I laughed. "It hasn't even started yet." My eyes half closed as I felt his mouth searching the side of my throat.

"We'll have our own party in the limo."

"Aren't..." I caught my breath as he found a sensitive nerve. "Aren't we going to share it with Churchill and the others?"

"No, they've got their own." Gage lifted his head, and I saw the bright, hot flicker in his eyes. "Just you and me," he murmured. "Behind a nice dark privacy screen. And a bottle of chilled Perrier Jouet. Think you can handle it?"

"Bring it on." I said, and took his ami.

Limos were parked three deep on the street outside the Legrand mansion. The building was remarkable in its scale and style; it seemed more a place for people to visit than to actually live in. I started having fun the moment we entered the grand foyer, which seemed like some elaborate European carnival. The crowd of men dressed in black formal wear were a perfect backdrop for the women's colorful evening gowns. Jewels glittered at throats and wrists and fingers and ears, and light scattered like falling jewels from the overhead chandelier. Music from a live orchestra was piped into every part of the house.

Sascha Legrand, a tall, slim woman with frosted hair cut in stylish angles, insisted on taking us through a partial tour of the house. She often paused to plunge us into conversation with one group or another, then withdrew us before the conversation became too involved. I was amazed by the variety of guests...a small group of young actors, producers, and directors who had moved to Hollywood and called themselves the "Texas mafia." an Olympic gymnastics gold medalist, a Rockets guard, the pastor of a nationally known megachurch, some people rich from oil, some people rich from ranching, and even a foreign aristocrat here or there.

Gage was accomplished at this kind of situation, knowing everyone's names, remembering to ask about their golf games or their hunting dogs, or how dove season had gone, or did they still have that place in Andorra or Mazatlan. Even in this high-impact crowd, people were excited and flattered by his interest. With his cool charisma and elusive smile, his aura of breeding and education. Gage was dazzling. And he knew it. I might have

been intimidated, except that I still carried in my mind the images of a very different Gage, not nearly so self-possessed, shivering at my touch. The contrast between our formal circumstances and the memory of him in bed caused a hum of arousal inside. Nothing anyone else could perceive, but I became more aware of it every time I felt the brush of Gage's arm against mine, or the heat of his breath as he murmured in my ear.

I found it relatively easy to make small talk, mainly because I didn't know enough to do anything other than ask questions, and that seemed to keep the conversation flowing. We made our way through the sparkling sea of guests, following a current that led to the terraced exterior at the back of the house. A trio of covered wooden pavilions featured cuisines from different regions of Italy. After filling their plates, people sat at tables covered in yellow cloths and lit with Italian glass oil candles, filled with fresh flowers suspended in clear liquid paraffin.

We sat at a table with Jack and his girlfriend, and some of the Texas mafia, who entertained us with accounts of an indie film they were making and talked about going to Sundance in just a couple of weeks. They were so irreverent and funny, and the wine was so good, I felt giddy. It was a magical night. There would be some opera singing soon, and dancing after that, and I would be in Gage's arms until morning.

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