I couldn't bear the warmth in his voice, or my own aching need, even now, to bury myself against him. "Don't you dare pretend you're concerned about me," I stormed, throwing my purse to the floor. "I can't believe what you've done, when I've been nothing but honest with you!"
Gage's expression cooled considerably. "It would help." he said in a pleasant tone, "if you'd tell me what we're talking about."
"You know exactly why I'm angry. You hired someone to follow me. You've been spying on me. I don't understand why. I've done nothing to deserve being treated like this—"
Most men don't seem to get that telling a pissed-off woman to calm down is like throwing gunpowder on a fire.
"I don't want to calm down. I want to know why the hell you've done this!"
"If you kept your promise." Gage pointed out. "you have no reason to worry about someone keeping an eye on you."
"Then you admit you hired someone to follow me? Oh, God, you did, I can see it on your face. Damn you, I haven't slept with him. You should have trusted me."
"I've always believed in the old saying 'Trust but verify.'"
"That may work great for business," I said in a murderous voice, "but not in a relationship. I want it stopped now. I don't want to be followed anymore. Get rid of him!"
"All right. All right."
Surprised that he'd agreed so readily, I shot him a wary glance.
Gage was staring at me oddly now, and I realized I was trembling visibly. My rage had fled, leaving me with a sense of sick despair. I wasn't at all certain how I'd gotten to be in the middle of a tug-of-war between two ruthless men.. .not to mention Churchill. I was tired of it. tired of everything, especially the swarm of unanswered questions. I didn't know where to go or what to do with myself.
"Liberty," he said carefully, "I know you haven't slept with him. I do trust you. Damn it. I'm sorry. I couldn't stand back and wait when I wanted something—someone—this badly. I can't let go of you without a fight."
"Is this all about winning? Is it some kind of contest to you?"
"No, it's not a contest. I want you. I want things I'm not sure you're ready to hear about yet. Most of all I want to hold you until you stop shaking." His voice turned hoarse. "Let me hold you, Liberty."
I was still, wondering if I could trust him. wishing I could think straight. As I stared at him, I saw the frustration in his eyes, and the need. "Please," he said.
I went forward, and he caught me tightly against him. "There's my girl," came his low murmur. I buried my face against his shoulder, inhaling the familiar spice of his skin. Relief flowed over me, and I fought to get closer, needing more of him than my arms could encompass.
After a while Gage eased me to the sofa, kneading my back and hips. Our legs tangled together, and my head was on his shoulder, and I would have thought I was in heaven if the sofa hadn't been so hard.
"You need throw pillows." I said in a muffled voice.
"I hate clutter." He shifted to look down at me. "Something else is bothering you. Tell me what it is and I'll fix it."
I longed to confide in him about Churchill and Carrington. but I had to keep it private for now. I didn't want Gage to handle it for me. and I knew he would if I told him.
This was between Churchill and me.
So I shook my head, burrowing closer, and Gage stroked my hair. "Stay with me tonight," he said.
I felt fragile and raw. I savored the hard-muscled surface of his arm beneath my neck, the reassuring warmth of his body. "Okay." I whispered.
Gage looked down at me intently, his hand cradling the side of my face with infinite gentleness. He kissed the tip of my nose. "I have to leave before dawn. I've got a meeting in Dallas, and another at Research Triangle."
"Where is that'1"
He smiled and traced my cheekbone with a lazy fingertip. "North Carolina. I won't be back for a couple of days." Continuing to stare at me. he started to ask something, then checked himself. He lifted from the sofa in a fluid movement, pulling me up with him.
"Come on. You need to go to bed."
I went with him to the bedroom, which was dark except for the glow of a small lamp focused on the ocean painting. Feeling shy, I undressed and put on the white T-shirt Gage handed to me. Gratefully I crawled between the slick, luxurious sheets. The light was extinguished. I felt the weight of Gage's body depress the mattress. Rolling toward him. I snuggled close and hitched my leg over him.
Pressed together as we were, I couldn't help noticing the hard, almost scorching pressure of him against my thigh.
"Ignore it," Gage said.
That made me smile in spite of my fatigue. I brushed my lips furtively against his throat. The warm scent of him was all it took to start my pulse beating in a swift erotic tattoo. My toes delicately explored the hairy surface of his leg. "It seems like a shame to waste it."
"You're too tired."
"Not for a quickie."
"I don't do quickies."
"I don't care." I crawled over him with ardent determination, gasping at little at the flexing power of his body beneath mine.
A chuckle sifted through the darkness, and Gage moved suddenly, turning to pin me beneath him.
"Be still." he whispered, "and Til take care of you."
I obeyed, shivering as he eased the hem of the T-shirt upward, peeling it back over my breasts. The tender heat of his mouth covered a taut nipple. I lifted up to him with a pleading sound.
His lips crossed my chest in a sojourn of half-open kisses, while he crouched over me like a cat. He nibbled on the wing of my collarbone, finding the shallow depressions where my pulse stung, soothing it with his tongue. Lower, where the banded muscles of my midriff quivered at his touch, lower where every lazy exploring kiss turned to fire and I twisted to escape the indecent pleasure, and he held me there, still and tight, while sensation rushed and shattered all through me.
I woke up alone, swathed in sheets that held the incense of sex and skin. Huddling deeper beneath the covers, I watched the first rays of morning creep through the window. The night with Gage had left me feeling steadier, able to handle whatever lay ahead. I had slept against him all night, not hiding, just taking shelter. I had always managed to find strength in myself—but it had been a revelation to draw strength from someone else.
Getting out of bed. I went through the empty condo to the kitchen, and picked up the phone to dial the Travis mansion.
Carrington picked up on the second ring. '"Hello1?"
'"Baby, it's me. I had a sleepover at Gage's last night. I'm sorry I didn't call you—by the time I remembered, it was too late."
"Oh. that's okay," my sister said. "Aunt Gretchen made popcorn, and she and Churchill and I watched the silliest old movie with lots of singing and dancing. It was great."
"Are you getting ready for school?"
"Yes, the driver's going to take me in the Bentley."
I shook my head ruefully as I heard her casual tone. "You sound just like a River Oaks kid."
"I have to finish my breakfast. My cereal's getting soggy."
"All right. Carrington. would you do something for me? Tell Churchill I'll be there in about half an hour, and I need to talk to him about something important."
"Grown-up stuff. I love you."
"Love you too. Bye!"
Churchill was waiting for me near the family room fireplace. So familiar and yet a stranger. Of all the men in my life, I had known Churchill the longest and depended on him the most. There was no getting around the fact that he was the closest thing to a father I had ever known.
I loved him.
And he was going to let loose with a few secrets now or I would kill him.
"Morning." he said, his gaze searching.
"Morning. How are you feeling?"
"Fair enough. And you?"
"I'm not sure," I said truthfully. "Nervous, I guess. A little angry. A lot confused."
With Churchill, you never had to lead gracefully into a touchy subject. You could blurt out just about anything and he would handle it with no problem. Knowing that made it easier for me to walk across the room, stop in front of him, and let it roll.
"You knew my mother," I said.
The fire in the hearth sounded like a flag whipping and flapping on a windy day.
Churchill answered with astonishing self-possession. "I loved your mother." He let me absorb that for a moment, and then gave a decisive nod. "Help me move to the sofa; Liberty. The chair seat's digging into the backs of my legs."
We both took temporary refuge in the logistics of transferring him from the wheelchair to the sofa, more a matter of balance than strength. I fetched an ottoman, propped it beneath the cast, gave Churchill a couple of small pillows to wedge against his side. When he was comfortably settled, I sat next to him and waited with my arms wrapped tight around my middle.
Churchill fished out a slim wallet from his shirt pocket, searched through its contents. handed me a tiny ancient black-and-white photo with tattered edges. It was my mother as a very young woman, beautiful as a movie goddess, and there were words written in her own hand. "To my darling C. love, Diana. "
"Her father—your grandfather—worked for me," Churchill said, taking back the photo, holding it in the palm of his hand like a religious artifact. "I was already a widower when I met Diana at a company picnic. Gage was barely out of diapers. He needed a mother, and I needed a wife. It was obvious from the start Diana was wrong in just about every way. Too young, too pretty, too fiery. None of that mattered." He shook his head, remembering. Gruffly, "My God, I loved that woman."
I watched him without blinking. I couldn't believe Churchill was opening a window to my mother's life, the past she had never talked about.
"I went after her with everything I had," Churchill said. "Whatever I thought would tempt her. I told her right off I wanted to marry her. She got pressure from all sides, especially her family. The Truitts were middle-class, and they knew if Diana married me there was no limit to what I'd give 'em." Without shame he added. "I made sure Diana knew that too."
I tried to think of Churchill as a young man. pursuing a woman with every weapon at his disposal. "Jesus, what a circus it must have been."
"I bullied, bribed, and talked her into loving me. I got an engagement ring on her finger." He gave a sneaky laugh that I found sort of endearing. "Give me long enough and I grow on a person."
"Did Mama really love you. or was it an act?" I asked, not meaning to be hurtful, just
needing to know.
Being Churchill, he didn't take it the wrong way. "There were moments I think she did. But in the end it wasn't enough."
"What happened? Was it Gage? She didn't want to be a mother so soon?"
"No, it had nothing to do with that. She seemed to like the boy well enough, and I promised her we'd hire nannies and housemaids, all the help she'd ever need."
"Then what? I can't imagine why... Oh."
My father had gotten in the way.
I felt instant sympathy for Churchill, and at the same time a jab of pride in the father I had never known, who had managed to steal my mother away from a rich and powerful older man.
"That's right," Churchill said, as if he could read my thoughts. "Your daddy was everything I wasn't. Young, handsome, and as my daughter Haven would say, disenfranchised."
Churchill nodded. "That didn't go over big with your grandfather. In those days, marriage between brown and white was frowned upon."
"That's a nice way of putting it," I said dryly, aware that it had probably been an outright disgrace. "Knowing my mother, the Romeo and Juliet scenario probably made the whole thine even more attractive."
"She was a romantic." Churchill agreed, tucking the photo back in his wallet with extreme care. "And she had a passion for your daddy. Her father warned if she ran off with him, not to bother coming back. She knew the family would never forgive her."
"Because she fell in love with a poor guy?" I demanded in outrage.
"It wasn't right," Churchill admitted. "But times were hard."
"That's no excuse."
"Diana came to me the night she ran off to get married. Your father waited out in the car while she came in and said goodbye and gave back the ring. I wouldn't take it. I told her to trade it for a wedding present. And I begged her to come to me if she ever needed anything."
I understood what those words must have cost him, a man of such enormous pride.
"And by the time my father died," I said, "you'd already married Ava."
I was quiet then, sifting through memories. Poor Mama, struggling to make it on her own. No family to go to. no one to help. But those mysterious disappearances, when she would be gone for a day and then there would be food in the refrigerator and the bill collectors stopped calling...
"She came to you." I said. "Even though you were married. She visited you and you gave her money. You helped her for years."
Churchill didn't need to say anything. I saw the truth in his eyes.
I squared my shoulders and forced myself to ask the big question. "Is Carrington yours?"
Color mounted in his weathered face, and he gave me an offended glare. "You think I wouldn't take responsibility for my own child? Let her be raised in a damn trailer park? No, there's no chance she's mine. Diana and I never had that kind of relationship."
"Come off it, Churchill. I'm not an idiot."
"Your mother and I never slept together. You think I'd do that to Ava?"
"Sorry, but I don't buy it. Not if she was getting money from you."
"Honey, I don't give a fuck-all if you believe me or not," he said evenly. "Not saying I wasn't tempted. But I was physically faithful to Ava. I owed her at least that much. You want me to take a paternity test, I'll do it."
That convinced me. "Okay. I'm sorry. Sorry. I'm just...it's hard to accept that my mother went to you for money all those years. She always made such a big deal about never taking handouts from people and how I needed to be self-reliant when I grew up. That makes her a big fat hypocrite."
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