Blue-Eyed Devil - Page 4

Dressed in pink and purple, her pale golden hair caught in a high ponytail with a huge sparkly bow, Carrington was the picture of nine-year-old haute couture. She was carrying the bridal bouquet, the smaller version that had been made for Liberty to throw. "I'm gonna toss this," Carrington announced. "Liberty can't throw near as good as me."

Gretchen came forward, beaming. "You were the prettiest bride I've ever seen," she said, hugging Liberty. "What are you going to wear for your going-away outfit?"

"This is my going-away outfit," Liberty replied. "You're wearing pants?"

"It's an Escada suit, Aunt Gretchen," I said. "Very stylish."

"You need more jewelry," Gretchen told Liberty. "That outfit's too plain."

"I don't have much jewelry," Liberty said, smiling.

"You've got a diamond ring the size of a doorknob," I remarked. "That's a great start." I grinned at Liberty's wince of embarrassment over the engagement ring she thought was too big. Naturally my brother Jack had compounded her discomfort by nicknaming the diamond the "pet rock."

"You need a bracelet," Gretchen said decisively, holding out something in a little velvet pouch. "Take this, Liberty. A little something jangly to let people know you're in the neighborhood."

Liberty opened the pouch carefully, and my heart contracted as I saw what it was: the gold charm bracelet Gretchen had worn forever, strung with charms from all the exotic places she had gone in her life.

She had promised it to me when I was five years old.

I remembered the exact day — she had brought me a junior tool kit complete with a leather belt with loops and pockets. They were real working tools, including a C-clamp, an awl, saw, pliers, level, hammer, eight wrenches, and a set of Phillips-head screwdrivers.

As soon as Mother had seen me strapping on the tool belt, she had gone bug-eyed. She had opened her mouth, and before a single syllable came out, I knew she was going to tell Aunt Gretchen to take the gift back. So I clutched a handful of tools and ran to Dad, who was just coming into the family room. "Look what Aunt Gretchen brung me!"

"Well, isn't that nice," Dad had said, smiling first at Gretchen, then at my mother. The smile had ossified as he saw her face.

"Gretchen," Mother had said crisply, "I'd like to be asked the next time you buy a gift for my daughter. I'm not planning on raising a construction worker."

My heels had stopped bouncing. "I'm not giving 'em back."

" Don't sass your mother," Dad said.

"Land's sake," Gretchen had exclaimed. "They're toys, Ava. Haven likes to make things. Nothing wrong with that."

Mother's voice had been full of prickly burrs. "I'm the one to decide what's best for my own daughter, Gretchen. If you know so much about children, you should've had one of your own." She had stalked from the room, past me and Dad, leaving a chill of silence in her wake.

Gretchen had sighed, shaking her head as she looked at Dad. "Can I keep the tool kit?" I had asked.

Dad had thrown me an exasperated glance and gone after Mother.

I had gone to Gretchen slowly, my hands clenched tight in front of me. She was quiet, but I knew what I had to do. I unstrapped the tool belt and laid it carefully back into the box. "I guess you should have gotten me a tea set," I said glumly. "Take it back, Aunt Gretchen. She'd never let me play with it anyway."

Gretchen had patted her knee, and I crawled into her lap, snuggling into the scents of powder and hair spray and Rive Gauche perfume. Seeing how intrigued I was by her charm bracelet, she took it off and let me look at it. She'd bought herself a charm every time she went to a new place. I found a tiny Eiffel Tower, a pineapple from Hawaii, a Memphis bale of cotton, a matador with a little swirling cape, crossed snow skis from New Hampshire, and too many others to name.

"Someday," Gretchen had said, "I'm going to give this bracelet to you. And you can add your own charms."

"Will I go as many places as you, Aunt Gretchen?"

"You may not want to. People like me only travel because they don't have enough reasons to stay put."

"When I'm big," I'd said, "I'll never stay put."

Gretchen had forgotten that promise, I thought. It wasn't her fault. She'd forgotten a lot of things lately. It's okay, I told myself. Let it go. But I knew the story behind every charm. And it seemed as if Gretchen were taking those handfuls of memories away from me and bestowing them on Liberty. Somehow I forced a smile and held it.

My aunt made a show of fastening the bracelet on Liberty's wrist. Carrington danced around the two of them with excitement, demanding to see the charms. My smile didn't feel like it was part of my face. It hung there like a picture on a wall, suspended by tacks and wires.

"I think I'm supposed to be doing something with this," I said lightly, picking the veil up from the bed, draping it over my arm. "I'm a lousy maid of honor, Liberty. You should fire me."

She threw me a quick glance. Despite my cheerful mask, she saw something that caused her to look troubled.

When we all left the room, Carrington and Gretchen went first and Liberty stopped me with a light touch on my arm. "Haven," she whispered, the bracelet jingling, "were you supposed to have this someday?"

"Oh, no, no," I said at once. "I'm not a fan of charm bracelets. They catch on things."

We walked downstairs, while Gretchen and Carrington waited for the elevator.

As we got to the bottom step, someone approached in a long, relaxed stride. I looked up and saw a pair of startling blue eyes. A thrill of alarm ran through me as he stopped beside the newel post and leaned against it comfortably. My face turned aspirin-white. It was him, the guy from the wine cellar, Mr. Blue-Collar-in-a-Tux, big and sexy and as cocky as a junkyard dog. He gave me a brief and impersonal glance, his attention focusing immediately on Liberty.

To my astonishment, Liberty regarded him with no awe or curiosity whatsoever, only a resigned grin. She stopped and folded her arms across her chest. "A pony, for a wedding present?"

A smile touched his wide mouth. "Carrington liked him when we went riding." His accent was a little more pronounced than it had been in the wine cellar, melting into the hot-tar drawl you mostly heard in small towns or trailer parks. "Figured you already have everything you need, so I got a little something for your sister."

"Do you know what it costs to stable that 'little something'?" Liberty asked without heat.

"I'll take him back if you want me to."

"You know Carrington would never forgive us. You've put my husband in a difficult position, Hardy."

His smile turned gently mocking. "You know how I hate to hear that."


I turned my face away and closed my eyes sickly, just for a second. Shit. Just . . . shit. Not only had I kissed someone other than my boyfriend, he also happened to be an enemy of the family. My brother's worst enemy, who had deliberately ruined a huge biofuel deal that had meant a lot to Gage personally and professionally.

From what little I knew, Hardy Cates had once been in love with Liberty, but he'd left her and broken her heart, and now he'd come back to make trouble. That kind always did.

It was humiliating to realize that he hadn't been attracted to me at all, that his proposition in the wine cellar had been designed as another strike against the Travises. Hardy Cates wanted to embarrass the family, and he had no problem using me to do it.

"Haven," Liberty said, "this is an old friend of mine. Hardy Cates, this is my sister-in-law, Haven Travis."

"Miss Travis," he said softly.

I braced myself to look at him. His eyes were an astonishing blue-upon-blue in his sun-cured complexion. Although he was expressionless, I noticed the tiny laugh lines that whisked outward from the corners of those eyes. He extended a hand, but I couldn't take it. I was actually afraid of what might happen, how I might feel, if I touched him again.

Smiling at my hesitation, Hardy spoke to Liberty while his gaze remained locked on mine. "Your sister-in-law's a mite skittish, Liberty."

"If you're here to make a scene — " she began calmly.

His gaze moved to her. "No, ma'am. Just wanted to give you my best wishes."

Something softened in her face, and she reached out to clasp his hand briefly. "Thank you."

A new voice entered the conversation. "Hey, there." It was my brother Jack, looking relaxed. But there was a glint in his hard black eyes that silently warned of trouble to come. "Mr. Cates. I've been told you weren't included on the guest list. So I have to ask you to leave."

Hardy gave him a measuring glance.

In the silence that followed, I went tense in every muscle, praying silently that a fistfight wouldn't break out at Gage's wedding. Glancing at Liberty, I saw she had mined pale. I thought vengefully that Hardy Gates was a selfish bastard, turning up at her wedding like that.

"No problem," Hardy said with soft insolence. "I got what I came for."

"Let me show you out," Jack said.

Liberty and I both let out our breaths as they departed. "I hope he's gone before Gage sees him," Liberty said.

"Believe me, Jack will make sure of that." Now I understood why she had chosen my brother over that rascal. "Cates is obviously a guy on the make," I said. "He could probably sell butter to a cow."

"Hardy's ambitious," Liberty admitted. "But he came from nothing. If you knew some of the things he had to overcome . . . " She sighed. "I bet within a year, he'll marry some River Oaks debutante who'll help take him to the top."

"He'd need a lot of money for that. We River Oaks debutantes are expensive."

"Of all the things he wants," Liberty said, "money's the easiest to get."

Carrington ran up to us, having finally emerged from the elevator. "Come on," she said in excitement. "Everyone's going outside, The fireworks are about to start!"

Just what I need, I thought. More fireworks.

The next morning I was packing a suitcase in my room when Nick came in. We had occupied separate bedrooms during our stay in River Oaks, which Nick had said was just line because there was no way he was going to touch me when we were under the same roof as my father.

"He's old, and he's only half your size," I had told Nick, laughing. "What do you think he's going to do, beat you up or something?"

"It's the 'or something' that scares me," Nick had said.

As soon as Nick came into the room, I knew he had talked to my father. The stress showed on his face. He was hardly the first to come away looking like that after a heart-to-heart with Churchill Travis.

"I told you," I said. "Dad's impossible. He wouldn't accept you no matter how wonderful you were."

"Were?" He gave me a comical look.

"Are." I put my arms around him and laid my head on his chest. "What did he say?" I whispered.

"Basically a variation on the 'not a plug nickel' theme." Nick eased my head back and looked down at me. "I told him I was going to put you first, always. That I will earn enough to take care of you. I told him I just wanted his approval so there wouldn't be conflict between you and your family."

"Travises love conflict," I said.

A smile entered Nick's hazel eyes, all green and gold and brown. There was a touch of color on his high cheekbones, a remnant of the confrontation with my bulldog of a father. The smile vanished from his eyes as he smoothed my hair back, his hand curving gently over the back of my skull. He was handsome, grave, concerned. "Is this what you want, Haven? I couldn't live with myself if I did something to hurt you."

Emotion made my voice unsteady. "The only thing that would hurt is for you to stop loving me."

"That's not even possible You're the one, Haven. You're the one for me, always." He bent his head, his mouth taking mine in a long, slow dream of a kiss. I responded avidly, lifting against him.

"Hey," he said softly. "What do you say we get out of here and go get married?"


Contrary to my expections of elopement as a furtive Elvis-supervised ceremony in Las Vegas, there were hotels in Florida, Hawaii, and Arizona that offered "elopement packages" including the wedding service, the hotel stay, massages, and a meal plan. Gage and Liberty paid for our elopement to the Keys — it was their wedding present to me and Nick.Having taken a stand against my marriage to Nick, Dad went through with his threat to cut me off entirely. No money, no communication. "He'll come around," my brothers told me, but I said emphatically that I didn't want Dad to come around, I'd had enough of him and his controlling ways for a lifetime.

Liberty and I had our first argument when she tried to tell me that Churchill still loved me and always would.

"Sure he does," I told her curtly. "As a pawn. As a child. But as an adult with my own opinions and preferences . . . no. He only loves people when they spend their lives trying to please him."

"He needs you," Liberty persisted. "Someday — "

"No he doesn't," I said. "He's got you." It was unfair of me to lash out at her, and I knew it, but I couldn't stop myself. "You be the good daughter," I said recklessly. "I've had enough of him for a lifetime."

It was a long time before Liberty and I spoke again.

Nick and I moved to Piano, north of Dallas, where Nick worked as a cost estimator at a construction firm. It wasn't something he wanted to do forever, but the pay was good, especially the overtime. I got an entry-level position as a marketing coordinator for the Darlington Hotel, which meant I assisted the director of communications with PR and marketing projects.

The Darlington was a sleek, modern hotel, a single elliptical-shaped structure that would have looked phallic enough, except it had also been covered in a skin of pink granite. Maybe that subliminal suggestion was partly responsible for the Darlington having been voted as the most romantic hotel in Dallas.

"You Dallasites and your architecture," I told Nick. "Every building in town looks like a penis or a cereal box."

"You like the red flying horse," Nick pointed out.

I had to admit he was right. I had a weakness for that neon Pegasus, an iconic sign that had perched on top of the Magnolia Building since 1934. It lent a lot of personality to an otherwise sterile skyline.

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