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"How friendly were you to them?" I asked.

Churchill scowled as he used the remote control to flip the channels from his bed. "Let's just say it doesn't matter where I get my appetite, long as I come home for dinner."

"Good Lord. I hope you didn't say that to Vivian."

Silence.

I collected his breakfast tray. "No wonder she didn't stay last night." It was time for his shower—he'd gotten to the point where he could manage solo. "You have any problems getting showered and dressed, just buzz me on the walkie-talkie. I'll get the lawn guy to

come in and help you." I started to leave.

"Liberty."

"Yes, sir?"

"I'm not one to poke in other people's business..." Churchill smiled at the look I gave him. "But is there anything you might want to talk to me about? Anything new happening in your life?"

"Not a thing. Same old. same old."

"You started up something with my son."

"I'm not going to discuss my love life with you. Churchill."

"Why not? You did before."

"You weren't my boss then. And my love life didn't happen to include your son."

"Fine, we won't talk about my son," he said equably. "Let's talk about an old acquaintance who's started up a nice little bypassed-oil recovery outfit."

I nearly dropped the tray. "You knew Hardy was there last night?"

"Not until someone introduced us. Soon as I heard the name, I knew right off who he was." Churchill gave me a look of such understanding, I wanted to cry.

Instead I set the tray down and made my way to a nearby chair.

"What happened, sugar?" I heard him ask.

I sat, my gaze anchored to the floor. "We just talked for a few minutes. I'm going to see him tomorrow." A long pause. "Gage is not exactly thrilled about the situation."

Churchill gave a dry chuckle. "I imagine not."

I looked at him then, unable to resist asking, "What did you think about Hardy'?"

"Got a lot going for him. Smart, nice manners. He'll take a big bite out of the world before he's done. Did you invite him over to the house?"

"God. no. I'm sure we'll go somewhere else to talk."

"Stay if you like. It's your house too."

"Thanks, but..." I shook my head.

"Are you sorry you started up with Gage, sugar?"

The question undid me. "No," I said instantly, blinking hard. "I don't know what to be sorry about. It's just...Hardy was always the one I was supposed to end up with. He was everything I dreamed of and wanted. But damn it, why did he have to show up when I thought I'd finally gotten over him?"

"Some people there's no getting over," Churchill said.

I glanced at him through the salty blur in my eyes. "You mean Ava?"

"I'll miss her for the rest of my life. But no. I didn't mean Ava."

"Your first wife, then?"

"No, someone else."

I blotted the corners of my eyes with my sleeve. It seemed there was something

Churchill wanted me to know about. But I'd had just about all the revelations I could handle for the moment. I stood and cleared my throat. "I've got to go downstairs and make breakfast for Carrington." I turned to leave.

"Liberty."

"Huh?"

Churchill appeared to be thinking hard about something, a frown gathering on his face. "Later I'm going to talk to you about this some more. Not as Gage's father. Not as your boss. As your old friend."

"Thanks," I said scratchily. "Something tells me I'm going to need my old friend."

Hardy called later that morning and invited me and Carrington to go riding on Sunday. I was delighted by the prospect, since I hadn't been on a horse in years, but I told him Carrington had only been on carnival ponies, and she didn't know how to ride.

"No problem." Hardy said easily. "She'll pick it up in no time."

In the morning he arrived at the Travis mansion in a huge white SUV. Carrington and I met him at the door, both of us dressed in jeans and boots and heavy jackets. I had told Carrington that Hardy was an old family friend, that he had known her when she was a baby and had in fact driven Mama to the hospital the day she was born.

Gretchen. wildly curious about the mysterious man from my past, was waiting in the

entrance with us when the doorbell rang. I went to open it. and I was amused to hear Gretchen murmur, "Oh, my," at the sight of Hardy standing in the sunlight.

With the rangy, developed build of a roughneck, those striking blue eyes, that irresistible grin, Hardy had a larger-than-life quality any woman would find appealing. He swept a quick glance over me. murmured hello, and kissed my cheek before turning to Gretchen.

I introduced them, and Hardy took Gretchen's hand with obvious care, as if he were afraid of crushing it. She fluttered, smiled, and played the part of gracious Southern hostess to the hilt. As soon as Hardy's attention was diverted, Gretchen gave me a significant glance as if to ask, Where have you been hiding him?

Hardy, meanwhile, had lowered to his haunches in front of my sister. "Carrington. you're even prettier than your mama was. You probably don't remember me."

"You drove us to the hospital when I was bom." Carrington volunteered shyly.

"That's right. In an old blue pickup, through a storm that flooded half of Welcome."

"That's where Miss Marva lives," Carrington exclaimed. "Do you know her?"

"Do I know Miss Marva?" Hardy grinned. "Yes, ma'am, I do. I had more than a few helpings of red velvet cake at Miss Marva's kitchen counter."

Thoroughly charmed, Carrington took Hardy's hand when he stood. "Liberty, you didn't say he knew Miss Marva!"

The sight of them hand in hand caused a tremor of deep emotion inside me. "I never

talked about you much." I said to Hardy. My voice sounded odd to my own ears.

Hardy stared into my eyes and nodded, understanding that some things mean too much to be expressed easily.

"Well," Gretchen said brightly, "you all go on and have a good time. You be careful around the horses, Carrington. Remember what I told you about not going near the back hooves."

"I will!"

We went to the Silver Bridle Equestrian Center, where the horses lived better than most people. They were kept in a bam that featured a digital mosquito and fly control system, and piped-in classical music, and the stalls had individual faucets and light fixtures. Outside there was a covered arena, a jumping course, pastures, ponds, paddocks, and fifty acres of land to ride on.

Hardy had arranged for us to ride horses that belonged to a friend. Since the cost of stabling a horse at Silver Bridle rivaled some college tuitions, it was clear Hardy's friend had money to burn. We were brought a palomino and a blue roan, both shining and sleek and well behaved. The quarter horse is a big, muscular breed, known for its calmness and good cow sense.

Before we rode out, Hardy sat Carrington on a sturdy black pony and took her around the corral on a lead. As I expected, he charmed my sister completely, praising her. teasing

until she giggled.

It was a gorgeous day to ride, cold but sunny, the air carrying the whiff of pastures and animals and the light earthy fragrance you can never isolate but is really the smell of Texas itself.

Hardy and I were able to talk as we rode side by side, Carrington a little ahead of us on the pony.

"You've done well by her. honey." he told me. "Your mother would have been proud."

"I hope so." I looked at my sister, her hair done in a neat blond braid tied with a white ribbon. "She's wonderful, isn't she?"

"Wonderful." But Hardy was staring at me. "Marva told me some of what you've gone through. You've carried a lot on your shoulders, haven't you?"

I shrugged. It had been difficult at times, but in retrospect my burdens and struggles had been ordinary ones. So many women had to contend with much more. "The hardest part was right after Mama died. I don't think I had a full night's sleep in two years. I was working and taking classes and trying to do my best for Carrington. It seemed like everything was always half-done, we were never on time, I couldn't seem to get anything right. But eventually everything got easier."

"Tell me how you got involved with the Travises."

"Which one?" I asked without thinking, and then my cheeks heated.

Hardy smiled. "Let's start with the old man."

As we talked, I had the sense of uncovering something precious and long-buried, fully formed. Our conversation was a process of removing layers, some of them easily dusted away. Other layers, requiring chisels or axes, were left alone for now. We revealed as much as we dared about what had happened during the years that separated us. But it wasn't what I had expected, being with Hardy again. There was something in me that remained stubbornly locked away, as if I were afraid to let out the emotion I had harbored for so long.

The afternoon approached and Carrington became tired and hungry. We rode back to the barn and dismounted. I gave Carrington a handful of quarters to get a drink from a vending machine at the main building. She scampered off, leaving me alone with Hardy.

He stood looking at me for a moment. "Come here," he murmured, pulling me into the empty tack room. He kissed me gently, and I tasted dust, sun, skin-salt, and the years dissolved in a slow, sure rush of warmth. I had been waiting for him, for this, and it was just as sweet as I remembered. But as Hardy deepened the kiss, tried to take more, I pulled away with a nervous laugh.

"Sorry," I said breathlessly. "Sorry."

"It's all right." Hardy's eyes were vivid with heat, his voice reassuring. He gave me a quick grin. "Got carried away."

Despite the pleasure I took in Hardy's company, I was relieved when he took us back to River Oaks. I needed to retreat, to think, to let all this settle. Carrington was chattering happily in the back seat, about wanting to ride again, having her own horse someday,

Speculating on the best horse names.

"You've launched us into a whole new phase." I told Hardy. "Now we've gone from Barbie to horses."

Hardy grinned and spoke to Carrington. "You tell your big sister to call me whenever you want to ride, honey."

"I want to do it again tomorrow!"

"You have school tomorrow," I said, which made Carrington scowl until she remembered she could tell all her friends about the pony she'd ridden.

Hardy pulled up to the front of the house and helped us out.

Glancing at the garage, I saw Gage's car. He was almost never there on Sunday afternoons. My stomach did one of those funny flips that happens when you're on a roller-coaster ride, heading into the first big drop. "Gage is here," I said.

Hardy appeared unruffled. "Of course he is."

Taking Hardy's hand, Carrington walked her new friend to the door, talking a mile a minute, "...and this is our house, and I've got a bedroom upstairs with yellow striped paper on the walls, and that thing right there is a video camera so we can look at people before we decide to let 'em in—"

"None of it's ours, baby," I said uncomfortably. "It's the Travises' house."

Ignoring me. Carrington pushed the doorbell and mugged for the camera, making Hardy laugh.

The door opened, and there was Gage, dressed in jeans and a white polo shirt. My pulse rioted as his gaze went first to me, then to my companion.

"Gage!" Carrington shrieked as if she hadn't seen him in months. She flew to him and clamped her arms around his waist. "That's our old friend Hardy—he took us riding, and I was on a black pony named Prince, and I rode like a real cowgirl!"

Gage smiled down at her, his arm clasping her narrow shoulders securely.

Glancing at Hardy, I saw the glint of speculation in his eyes. It was something he hadn't expected, the attachment between my sister and Gage. He extended his hand with an easy smile. "Hardy Gates."

"Gage Travis."

They shook hands firmly, with a brief, nearly imperceptible contest that ended in a draw. Gage stood with Carrington still hanging around his waist, his face expressionless. I shoved my hands in my pockets. The tiny junctures between my fingers had gone damp. Both men seemed so relaxed, and yet the air was punctured with conflict.

It was startling to see them together. Hardy had loomed so large in my memory for so long that I was surprised to realize Gage was equally tall, albeit leaner. They were different in almost every way, education, background, experience...Gage, who played by the rules he'd usually had a hand in making, and Hardy, who tossed out the rules like a handful of Texas redbacks if they didn't suit him. Gage, always the smartest one in the room, and Hardy, who had told me with a deceptively lazy smile that all he had to do was be smarter than the guy he was doing a deal with.

"Congratulations on the drilling start-up," Gage said to Hardy. "You've had some impressive finds in a short time. High-quality pay reserves, I've heard."

Hardy smiled and lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. "We've had some luck."

"It takes more than luck."

They talked about geochemistry and an analysis of well cuttings, and the difficulty of estimating productive intervals in the field, and then the conversation turned to Gage's alternative technology company.

"It's gotten out you're working on some new biodiesel," Hardy said.

Gage's pleasant expression didn't change. "Nothing worth talking about yet."

"Not what I heard. Rumor has it you managed to cut down on the NOX emissions.. .but the biofuel itself is still expensive as hell." Hardy grinned at him. "Oil's cheaper."

"For now."

I knew a little about Gage's private views on the subject. He and Churchill both agreed the days of cheap oil were almost at an end, and once we reached the supply-demand gap, biofuels would help stave off an economic crisis. Many oil people, friends of the Travises, said it wouldn't happen for decades and there was plenty of petroleum left. They joked with Gage and said they hoped he wasn't planning to come out with something to replace petroleum, or they'd hold him responsible for lost business. Gage had told me they were only half joking.

After minute or two of excruciatingly careful conversation. Hardy glanced at me and murmured, "I'll head out now." He nodded to Gage. "Nice to meet you."

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