Gage nodded, turning his attention to Carrington. who was trying to tell him more about the horses.
"I'll walk you to the door," I said to Hardy, profoundly relieved the encounter was over.
As we walked, Hardy put an arm around my shoulders. "I want to see you again," he said in a low voice.
"Maybe in a few days."
"I'll call tomorrow."
"Okay." We stopped at the threshold. Hardy kissed my forehead, and I looked up into his warm blue eyes. "Well," I said, "the two of you were very civilized."
Hardy laughed. "He'd like to rip my head off." He braced one hand on the doorframe, sobering quickly. "I don't see you with someone like him. He's a cold son of a bitch."
"Not when you get to know him."
Reaching out, Hardy took a lock of my hair and rubbed it gently between his fingers. "I think you could probably thaw out a glacier, honey." He smiled and let go, walking toward his SUV.
Feeling tired and bemused. I went in search of Carrington and Gage. I found them in the
kitchen, raiding the refrigerator and pantry.
"Hungry?" Gage asked.
He set out a container of pasta salad, and another of strawberries. I found a loaf of French bread and cut a few slices while Carrington brought three plates.
"Just two." Gage told her. "I've already eaten."
"Okay. Can I have a cookie?"
While Carrington got out the napkins. I looked at Gage with a frown. "You're not staying?"
He shook his head. "I found out what I needed to know."
Mindful of Carrington nearby, I held back my questions until the plates were fixed and set on the table. Gage poured Carrington a glass of milk and set two small cookies on the edge of her plate. "Eat the cookies last, darlin'," he murmured. She reached up to hug him. then started on her pasta salad.
Gage gave me an impersonal smile. "Bye, Liberty."
"Wait—" I followed him out, pausing only to tell Carrington I'd be right back. I hurried to keep pace with Gage. "You think you've got Hardy Gates all figured out after seeing him for five minutes?"
"What's your take on him?"
"There's no point in telling you. You'll say I'm biased."
"And you're not?"
"Hell, yes, I'm biased. I also happen to be right."
I stopped him at the front door with a touch on his arm. Gage looked down at the place my fingers had brushed, and slowly his gaze traveled to my face.
"Tell me," I said.
Gage replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "I think he's ambitious to the bone, works hard and plays harder. He's hungry for all the visible signs of success—the cars, the women, the house, the owner's box at Reliant. I think he'll throw away every principle he's got to climb up the ladder. He'll make and lose a couple of fortunes, and he'll go through three or four wives. And he wants you because you're his last hope of keeping it real. But even you wouldn't be enough."
Blinking at the harsh assessment. I wrapped my arms across my front. "You don't know him. That's not Hardy."
"We'll see." His smile didn't reach his eyes. "You'd better go back to the kitchen. Carrington's waiting."
"Gage.. .you're mad at me. aren't you? I'm so—"
"No. Liberty." His face softened a little. "I'm trying to figure it all out. Just like you."
I saw Hardy a few times over the next couple of weeks—a lunch, a dinner, a long walk. Beneath the conversations and silences and reconnecting intimacy, I tried to reconcile the adult Hardy had become with the boy I had known and longed for. It troubled me to realize they weren't the same...but of course I wasn't the same either.
It seemed important to figure out how much of the attraction I felt for Hardy came from now, as opposed to the past. If we had met now. for the first time, as strangers, would I have felt the same about him?
I couldn't have said for certain. But Lord, he was charming. He had a way about him. he always had. He made me feel so comfortable, we could talk about anything. Even Gage.
"Tell me what he's like," Hardy said, holding my hand, playing with my fingers. "How much of what they say is true?"
Knowing Gage's reputation. I shrugged and smiled. "Gage is...accomplished. But he can be intimidating. The problem with Gage is, he always seems to do everything perfectly. People think he's invulnerable. And he's very private. It's not easy to get close to a man like that."
"But you have, apparently."
I shrugged and smiled. "Sort of. We'd just started to get close...but then..."
Then Hardy had shown up.
"What do you know about his company?" he asked casually. "I can't figure out why a man from a Texas family with connections to big oil is fooling around with fuel cells and biodiesels."
I smiled. "That's Gage for you." And; with a little prodding, I told him what I knew about the technology Gage's company was working on. "There's a huge biofuel deal in the works. He wants to build a blending facility at this huge refinery in Dallas, and they're going to start mixing biodiesel with all their fuel, and distribute it everywhere in Texas. From what I can tell, the negotiations are pretty intense." I heard the note of pride in my own voice as I added. "Churchill says only Gage could pull it off."
"He must have gotten past some damn big hurdles." Hardy commented. "In some parts of Houston, just saying the word 'biodiesel' will get you shot. Which refinery is it?"
"That's a big one. all right. Well, for his sake. I hope everything works out." And. taking my hand, he deftly changed the subject.
Near the end of the second week, Hardy took me to a supermodern bar that reminded me of a spaceship, the sterile decor backlit with blue and green. The tables were the size of coasters balanced on soda straws. It was the latest place to be seen, and everyone in the bar looked extremely hip. if not exactly comfortable.
Nursing a Southern Comfort on ice, I glanced around the place and couldn't help noticing that Hardy was attracting attention from a few women. No surprise there, considering his looks and presence and charm. And as time passed, Hardy would be even more of a catch, more visible in his success.
I finished my drink and asked for another. I couldn't seem to relax tonight. As Hardy and I tried to talk over the blare of the live music, all I could think about was that I missed Gage. I hadn't seen him in a few days. Guiltily I reflected that I had asked a lot of Gage, maybe too much, in asking him to be patient while I tried to figure out my feelings for another man.
Hardy rubbed his thumb gently over the backs of my knuckles. His voice was soft beneath the biting staccato of the music. "Liberty." My gaze lifted to his. His eyes glowed an unearthly blue in the artificial light. "Let's go, honey. It's time to settle a few things."
"Go where?" I asked faintly.
"Back to my place. We need to talk."
I hesitated, swallowed hard, and managed a jerky nod. Hardy had shown me his apartment earlier in the evening—I had opted to meet him there rather than have him pick me up at River Oaks.
We didn't talk much as Hardy drove me downtown. But he kept my hand in his. My heart beat like a hummingbird's wings. I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen, or what I wanted to happen.
We arrived at the luxury high-rise and Hardy took me up to his apartment, a large space comfortably furnished with leather, hide, and stylish rough-woven fabrics. Wrought-iron lamps with textured parchment shades cast a muted glow through the main room.
"Want a drink?" he asked.
I shook my head, knitting my fingers together as I stood near the door. "No. thanks. I had enough at the bar."
Smiling quizzically, Hardy came to me and pressed his lips to my temple. "Are you nervous, honey? It's just me. Your old friend Hardy."
I let out a shaky sigh and leaned against him. "Yes. I remember you."
His arms came around me, and we stayed like that for a long time, standing together, breathing together.
"Liberty," he whispered. "I told you once that in my whole life, you'd always be what I wanted most. Remember?"
I nodded against his shoulder. "The night you left."
"I won't leave you again." His lips brushed the tender edge of my ear. "I still feel that way, Liberty. I know what I'm asking you to walk away from—but I swear, you would never regret it. I'll give you everything you ever wanted." He touched my jaw with his fingertips, angling my face upward, and his mouth came to mine.
My balance disintegrated, and I held on to him. His body was hard from years of brutal physical labor, his arms strong and secure. He kissed differently than Gage, more direct, aggressive, without Gage's erotic stealth and playfulness. He parted my lips and explored slowly, and I kissed him back with mingled guilt and pleasure. His warm hand moved to my breast, fingers lightly following the round contours, pausing at the sensitive tip. I tore my mouth from his with an agitated sound.
"Hardy, no," I managed to say, desire fonning a hot weight in my stomach. "I can't."
His mouth searched the quivering skin of my throat. "Why not?"
"I promised Gage—he and I agreed—I wouldn't do this with you. Not until—"
"What?" Hardy drew his head back, eyes narrowing. "You don't owe him that. He doesn't own you."
"It's not that, it has nothing to do with ownership, it's just—"
"I can't break a promise," I insisted. "Gage trusts me."
Hardy said nothing, only gave me a peculiar look. Something about his silence drew shivers up from beneath my skin. Dragging his hand through his hair, Hardy went to one of the picture windows and stared at the city spread below us. "You sure about that?" he asked finally.
"What do you mean?"
He turned to face me, leaning back and crossing his legs at the ankles. "The last couple of times I've seen you, I noticed a silver Crown Victoria tailing us. So I got the license plate number and had it checked out. It belongs to a guy who works for a surveillance company."
A chill rushed over me. "You think Gage is having me followed?"
'The car is parked at the end of the street right now." He gestured for me to come to the window. "See for yourself."
I didn't move. "He wouldn't do that."
"Liberty," he said quietly, "you haven't known the bastard long enough to be sure of what he would or wouldn't do."
I rubbed my prickling upper arms with my hands in a futile attempt to warm myself. I was too stunned to speak.
"I know you think of the Travises as friends," I heard Hardy continue in a level tone. "But they're not, Liberty. You think they've done you a favor, taking you and Carrington in? It was no fu**ing favor. They owe you a hell of a lot more than that."
"Why do you say that?"
He crossed the room to me, took me by the shoulders and stared into my bewildered eyes. "You really don't know, do you? I thought you might at least suspect something."
"What are you talking about?"
His mouth was grim. He pulled me to the sofa, and we sat while he gripped my nerveless hands in his. "Your mother had an affair with Churchill Travis. It lasted for years."
I tried to swallow. The saliva would hardly go down. "That's not true." I whispered.
"Marva told me. You can ask her yourself. Your mother told her all about it."
"Why didn't Marva say anything to me?"
"She was afraid for you to know. Afraid for you to get tangled up with the Travises. For all she knew, they might have decided to take Carrington away from you, and you couldn't have done a damn thing to stop them. Later, when she found out you were working for Churchill, she figured he was trying to make it up to you. She thought it best not to intefere."
"You're not making sense. Why would they have wanted to take Carrington away from me? What could Churchill have—" The blood drained from my face. I stopped and covered my mouth with trembling fingers as I understood.
I heard Hardy's voice as if from a great distance. "Liberty...who do you think Carrington's father is?"
I drove away from Hardy's apartment building, intending to go straight to River Oaks and confront Churchill. I was in more turmoil than I had been at any time since Mama had died. I was strangely calm on the outside, even though my mind and heart were in anarchy. // can't be true, I thought over and over. I didn't want it to be true.
If Churchill was Carrington's father...I thought about the times we'd been hungry, the hardships, the times she'd asked why she didn't have a daddy when her friends did. I'd showed her the picture of my father and said, "This is our daddy," and I'd told her how much he loved her even though he was living in heaven. I thought of the birthdays and holidays, the times she'd been sick, all the things she'd had to do without...
If Churchill was Carrington's father, he didn't owe a damn thing to me. But he owed plenty to her.
Before I realized what I was doing. I found myself driving up to the gated entrance of
the garage at 1800 Main. The security guard asked for my driver's license, and I hesitated, thinking I should tell him I'd made a mistake, I hadn't meant to come here. Instead I showed it to him and drove into the residents' parking section, and stopped the car. I wanted to see Gage. I didn't even know if he was home.
My finger was shaking as I pressed the button for the eighteenth floor, a little from fear but mostly from anger. Despite Mexican women's reputation for having hot tempers, I was pretty mild-mannered most of the time. I didn't like getting angry, I hated the bitter adrenaline rush that came with it. But at the moment I was ready to explode. I wanted to throw things.
I went to Gage's door with long, heel-digging strides, and hammered with a force that bruised my knuckles. When there was no response, I raised my fist to hammer again, and nearly pitched forward as the door was opened.
Gage stood there, looking calm and capable as always. "Liberty..." A question tipped the last syllable of my name. His light gaze swept over me, coming to rest on my flushed face. He reached out to draw me inside the apartment. I jerked away from him as I stepped over the threshold. "What's going on, sweetheart?"
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