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Page 39

“When you were growing up,” I asked, “did you have the usual fights and sibling rivalries?”

Joe’s mouth twitched as if he were amused by a distant memory. “You could say that. Jack and I nearly killed each other a couple of times. But whenever we got too rough, Gage would come and beat on us until we settled down. The way to earn a surefire killing was to do something mean to Haven – kidnap one of her dolls or scare her with a spider – Gage would come after us like the wrath of God.”

“Where were your parents when all of that was happening?”

Joe shrugged. “We were left on our own a lot. Mom was always cochair of one charity or another, or busy with her friends. Dad was usually gone doing TV appearances or flying overseas.”

“That must have been difficult.”

“The problem wasn’t Dad being gone. The problem was when he tried to make up for lost time. He was afraid we were being raised soft.” Joe gestured with the bag of clubs. “See that retaining wall over there? One summer Dad had a truck unload three tons of stone in the backyard, and he told us to build a wall. He wanted us to learn the value of hard work.”

I blinked at the sight of the dry-stacked wall, three feet high, extending approximately twenty feet before tapering to the ground. “Just the three of you?”

Joe nodded. “We cut rock with chisels and hand sledges, and stacked it, all in hundred-degree heat.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten.”

“I can’t believe your mother allowed that.”

“She wasn’t happy about it. But once Dad put his foot down, there was no changing his mind. I think when he’d had a chance to think about it, he was sorry about having made the job that big. But he couldn’t back down. To him, changing his mind was a weakness.”

After setting down the clubs, Joe went to pour the golf balls into a painted wooden container. He glanced at the wall, squinting against the sun. “It took the three of us a month. But when we finished building the son of a bitch, we knew we could rely on each other. We’d made it through hell together. From then on we never raised a fist against each other again. No matter what. And we never took Dad’s side against each other.”

I reflected that while the family’s wealth had conferred many advantages, none of the Travis offspring had escaped the pressures of expectation and obligation. No wonder they were close – who else would understand what their lives had been like?

Pensively, I wandered to the first hole of the mini golf course. The ramp on the diver’s helmet didn’t look quite straight, and I went to fiddle with it. I rolled a ball up the ramp and frowned as it bounced off the edge of the helmet’s porthole. “I hope this is going to work.”

Joe pulled a club from the bag, dropped a ball to the green, and putted. The ball rolled neatly across the green, up the ramp, and into the porthole. “Seems fine.” He handed me the club. “You want to give it a try?”

Gamely, I placed a ball on the green and took a swing. The ball careened up the ramp, bounced off the helmet, and rolled back to me.

“You’ve never played golf before.”

“How can you tell?” I asked dryly.

“Mostly because you’re holding the club like a flyswatter.”

“I hate sports,” I confessed. “I always have. In school, I avoided gym class whenever possible. I faked sprains and stomachaches. On three different occasions, I told them my parakeet died.”

His brows lifted. “That got you out of gym class?”

“The death of a parakeet is not an easy thing to get over, pal.”

“Did you even have a parakeet?” he asked gravely.

“He was a metaphorical parakeet.”

Laughter danced in his eyes. “Here, I’ll show you how to hold the club.” He reached around me. “Wrap your fingers around the handle… No, left hand. Rest your thumb farther down the shaft… Perfect. Now take hold below with your right. Like this.” He shaped my fingers around the grip. I took an extra breath to make up for the one that had stuck in my throat. I could feel the rise and fall of his chest, the solid, vital strength of him. His mouth was close to my ear. “Feet apart. Bend your knees a little and lean forward.” Releasing me, he stood back and said, “Swing easy and follow through.”

I swung, connected gently, and the ball rolled into the porthole with a satisfying plunk. “I did it!” I exclaimed, whirling to face him.

Joe smiled and caught me close, his hands at my waist. I looked up at him and time stopped, everything stopped. It seemed as if an electric current had locked up every muscle, and all I could do was wait helplessly with the awareness of him flooding me.

His dark head lowered, and his mouth came to mine.

In the privacy of my imagination, I had relived his kisses, I had tasted them in my dreams. But nothing was close to the reality of him, the heat and soft, searching pressure, the intense sensuality of the way he brought up the desire slowly.

Gasping, I managed to pull back. “Joe, I… I’m not comfortable with this, especially in front of your family. And my employees. Someone might get the wrong impression.”

“What impression would that be?”

“That there’s something going on between us.”

A series of expressions crossed his face: puzzlement, annoyance, mockery. “There’s not?”

“No. We’re friends. That’s all it is for now, and that’s all it’s ever going to be, and… I have to work.”

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