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Page 23

"Yes. That's his favorite color. Oh, Ella, this is going to be fun."

"For you, maybe," I said dourly, and Haven snickered.

The only conceivable zip code in Houston for Churchill Travis to live in was 77019, since you couldn't move up from River Oaks. Located in the geographical center of Houston, it was one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. According to Haven, for sale signs were never allowed in River Oaks. When a home became available it usually received multiple offers and sold within days. Lawyers, businessmen, hedge-fund operators, surgeons, and sports stars had all elected to live in the pine-and-oak-shaded paradise, which was close to the Galleria and Rice, and the best private schools in Texas.

Some of the houses in 77019 were thirty thousand square feet or more, but the Travis mansion was relatively small in its category, at twelve thousand square feet. It was blessed, however, with a remarkably good view of the board-flat city, being located on a bluff by the bayou. As we passed lush gardens and esplanades, all glowing in the light of a wine-colored sunset, my eyes widened at the rows of neo-Georgians, Taras, colonial revivals, Tuscan villas, and French chateaus. There didn't seem to be one indigenous Houston style, but rather a sampling of time periods and places, all built on a grand scale.

"You'll enjoy this, Ella," Haven said reassuringly, twisting around from the front seat of Hardy's Mercedes sedan. "Vivian throws great parties—the food and music are always terrific. She's only had one bomb that I know of, and it was so epic that it actually ended up being sort of cool."

"Why was it a bomb?"

"Well, Peter Jackson was one of the guests of honor, so Vivian did a Lord of the Rings homage. She dug up the whole backyard and had it redone with waterfalls and rock formations."

"That doesn't sound so bad," I said.

"No, the bad part was that Vivian got a local Boy Scout group to dress like Hobbits and wander through the party. They shed all over the house, and Dad was allergic to the fur. He complained for weeks." Haven paused. "But I'm sure she won't do anything like that tonight."

"Start drinking as soon as you get there," Hardy advised me.

The Travis mansion, a stately European stone structure, occupied a three-acre lot. We passed through a set of open iron gates and approached a parking area filled with pricey vehicles. A massive garage with huge glass remote-control doors that displayed a Bentley, a Mercedes, a Shelby Cobra, and at least seven other cars, looked like some gigantic vending-machine-of-the-gods. White-coated valets steered the shining vehicles into neatly marked places with the tenderness of parents tucking beloved children into bed.

I was a little dazed as I accompanied Haven and Hardy along the walkway to the milling, glittering crowd. Live music filled the air, a boisterous horn section backing a well-known big-band singer who had recently won acclaim as a supporting actor in a Spielberg movie. The singer, still in his twenties, was crooning "Steppin' Out With My Baby" in a silky semiscat patter.

I felt like I had stepped into some alternate reality. Maybe a movie set. The scene was gorgeous, but it seemed bizarre that people really lived this way, that such excess was commonplace to them.

"I've been to parties before . . ." I started, and fell silent, afraid of sounding gauche.

Hardy glanced down at me, his blue eyes gleaming with humor. "I know." I realized that he really did understand, that while this scene was entirely familiar to Haven, it was a far cry from the east-of-Houston trailer park he had grown up in.

They were an interesting couple, Hardy so big and all-American, Haven petite and exquisite. For all their size difference, however, they seemed remarkably well matched. Any outsider couldn't help but be aware of the glimmering chemistry between the two, a feisty appreciation of each other's intelligence, a mutually provocative awareness. But also tenderness. I saw it especially when Hardy stole glances at Haven while her attention was focused elsewhere. He looked like he wanted to carry her away and keep her all to himself. I envied their ability to stay so close and yet not feel trapped or suffocated.

"Let's get Dad out of the way first," Haven said, leading the way into the house. She looked amazing in a short dress made of crinkled bronze organza, the skirt festively tacked and gathered in a style that could only be worn by an extremely slender woman.

"Do you think Jack is here yet?" I asked.

"No, he never comes to a party early."

"Did you tell him you'd invited me?"

Haven shook her head. "I didn't get a chance. He's been out of reach most of the day."

Jack had called me in the morning, but I had been in the shower and let the machine pick up. He had left a curt message that he had a meeting at the Woodlands north of Houston, and would be gone most of the day. By the time I called back, I had gotten his voice mail. I didn't leave a message, figuring he deserved some payback after he'd avoided my calls the previous day.

It took a while for us to make our way through the main circuit of rooms. Between the two of them, Haven and her fiancé knew everyone. A waiter came by with a tray of champagne in iced glasses. I took one and drank gratefully, the vintage dry and sparkling-crisp on my tongue. Standing near an original Frida Kahlo painting, I took in my surroundings while Haven skillfully fended off a woman who was determined to have her join the Houston Orchid Society.

The guests encompassed a wide variety of ages, the women all wearing perfect makeup and impossibly high heels, the men carefully groomed and well dressed. I was glad I was wearing my best dress, a fluid pale blue knit that wrapped across my br**sts in a figure-flattering vee. It was a simple, classic dress that made me look voluptuous, the knee-length hem showing off my legs. I was wearing silver high-heeled sandals, which I had worried were a little over the top until I saw what the other women were wearing. The Houston definition of semicasual seemed to include a generous quantity of jewelry and embellishment, in contrast to Austin semicasual, which basically entailed wearing a shirt and shoes.

I had put on more eye makeup than usual, using smoky gray eyeshadow and two coats of mascara. My lips were slicked with delicate pink gloss. I had turned the ends of my bob up into a neat flip, which I could feel swinging against my cheeks every time I turned my head. There had been no need for blush—my cheeks were touched with a natural flush that was fever-colored in its intensity.

I knew something was going to happen that night, something either very good or very bad.

"He's outside," Hardy reported to Haven, who gestured for me to come with them.

"Jack?" I asked bemusedly.

"No, my dad." Haven grinned and made a comical face. "Come on, you're going to meet some Travises."

We pushed our way through the back of the house out to a vast landscaped lawn. Trees had been webbed with white lights, glittering canopies stretched high over a crowded dance floor. Guests sat on chairs and swarmed around food-laden buffet tables. I was awestruck by the sight of the birthday cake positioned on its own table, a four-foot-tall chocolate creation tied with gum paste ribbons and littered with fondant butterflies.

"Wow," I remarked to an older man who had just turned away from a group. "That's what I call a birthday cake. You think someone's going to jump out of that thing?"

"Hope not," he said in a gravelly voice. "They might catch fire from all the candles."

I laughed. "Yes, and all that frosting would make the stop, drop, and roll so messy." Turning toward him, I extended my hand. "Ella Varner, from Austin. Are you a friend of the Travises? Never mind, of course you are. They wouldn't invite one of their enemies, would they?"

He smiled as he shook my hand. His teeth were a scrupulous shade of white I always found mildly startling in a person his age. "They would especially invite one of their enemies." He was a good-looking old guy, not much taller than me, his steel-colored hair cut short, his skin leathery and sun-cured. Charisma clung to him as if it had been rubbed in like sunscreen.

Meeting his gaze, I was arrested by the color of his eyes, the bittersweet dark of Venezuelan chocolate. As I stared into those familiar eyes, I knew exactly who he was. "Happy birthday, Mr. Travis," I said with an abashed grin.

"Thank you, Miss Varner."

"Call me Ella, please. I think my crashing your party puts us on a first-name basis, doesn't it?"

Churchill Travis continued to smile. "You're a lot prettier than my usual crashers, Ella. Stick with me and I'll make sure they don't throw you out."

The flirty old fox. I grinned. "Thank you, Mr. Travis."


Haven came up to her father and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Happy birthday, Dad. I was just telling Vivian what a great job she's done with the party. I see you found Ella. You can't have her, though. She's for Jack."

A new voice entered the conversation. "Jack doesn't need another one. Give her to me."

I turned to the man who was just behind me. I was startled to see a younger, lankier version of Jack, still on the early side of his twenties.

"Joe Travis," he said, shaking my hand firmly. He was nearly a head taller than his father. Joe hadn't yet grown into the seasoned masculine prime that his older brother Jack had attained, but he was a charmer, and a head-turner, and he knew it.

"Do not trust him, Ella," Haven said severely. "Joe's a photographer. He got his start by taking embarrassing candid shots of the family—me in my underwear, for example—and bribing us for the negatives."

Hardy heard the last comment as he joined the group. "You got any of those negatives left?" he asked Joe, and Haven elbowed him sharply.

Joe kept my hand in his and gave me a soulful glance. "I'm here alone. My girlfriend left me to work at a hotel in the French Alps."

"Joe, you fink," Haven told him, "don't even think of hitting on your brother's girlfriend."

"I'm not Jack's girlfriend," I said hastily.

Joe shot his sister a triumphant glance. "Looks like she's fair game."

Hardy interrupted the brewing squabble by handing a leather double-finger cigar case to Churchill Travis. "Happy birthday, sir."

"Thank you, Hardy." Opening the case, Travis drew out one of the cigars and sniffed with an appreciative sound.

"There's a full box of those for you in the house," Hardy told him.

"Cohibas?" Churchill asked, inhaling the fragrance as if it were the finest perfume.

Hardy admitted nothing, just regarded him with a devilish glint in his blue eyes. "All I know is they got Honduran wrappers. Can't account for the insides."

Definitely contraband Cuban cigars, I thought, amused.

Serenely the old man tucked the cigar case inside his jacket. "We'll share a couple of these on the porch later, Hardy."

"Yes, sir."

Glancing around Joe's shoulder, I caught sight of someone standing beside one of the open French doors, and my heart clutched. It was Jack, his lean athletic form clad in a black knit shirt and black pants. He looked sexy, lithe, ready to commit some hi-tech heist. Although his posture was relaxed, one hand shoved casually into a pocket, the tense dark line of his body cleaved the sparkling scene like a rip in a glossy magazine photograph.

Jack's mouth held a brooding tension as he conversed with the woman who stood with him. I felt a little sick as I watched the two of them. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, with a long fall of buttermilk-colored hair, and sculpted screen-goddess features, and an ultra-slim body displayed in a tiny scrap of a black dress. They appeared to be together.

Joe followed my gaze. "There's Jack."

"He's brought a date," I managed to say.

"No, he hasn't. That's Ashley Everson. She's married. But she heads for Jack like a barracuda whenever she sees him."

"Is she the one who broke his heart?" I whispered.

Joe's head bent. "Uh-huh," he whispered back, "and she's having problems with her husband, Peter. Headed for divorce. Serves 'em right, after what they did to Jack."

"Do you think he . . ."

"No," Joe said instantly. "Jack wouldn't have her on a silver platter, honey. You got no competition."

I was about to protest that I wasn't competing, but at that moment Jack looked up and saw me. I couldn't even breathe. His midnight eyes widened. His gaze dragged slowly down to my silver sandals and back up again. Straightening, he pulled his hand from his pocket and started toward me.

Looking perturbed, Ashley Everson caught at his arm and said something to him, and he paused to reply.

"Ella." Haven's voice drew my attention.

Someone new had joined the group, yet another tall dark-haired man, who could only have been a Travis. The oldest, Gage. Although he bore his father's stamp, he didn't resemble the other two sons nearly as much. There was nothing of the cowboy in him . . . his features were refined and reserved, his handsomeness nearly prodigal. The eyes were not coffee-brown but an unusual light gray, the color of dry ice contained in dark rims. When he smiled, I felt as if I'd been given a reprieve from something.

"Gage Travis," he introduced himself, and put his arm around a woman who had just come to him. "My wife, Liberty."

She was a gorgeous woman with a perfect oval face and an easy smile, her skin a pale, shimmery butter-scotch. As she leaned forward to shake my hand, her dark hair moved around her shoulders like liquid. "Nice to meet you, Ella," she said. "I hear you're dating Jack."

I certainly didn't want to present myself as Jack's girlfriend. "We're not dating, exactly," I said uncomfort-ably. "I mean, he's a terrific guy, but I wouldn't presume to . . . you see, we've only known each other for a few weeks, so I wouldn't claim that we were together in any way, but—"

"We're together," I heard Jack say behind me, his voice quiet but firm.

I turned toward him, my pulse rioting.

A strong arm slid around my back. Jack's head lowered, his lips brushing my cheek in a social kiss. Nothing untoward, just two friends meeting. But then he moved lower and brushed a brief, hot kiss at the side of my throat. It was unspeakably personal, a declaration of intimacy.

Astonished that Jack would do such a thing in front of his family's collective gaze, I felt myself turn white then scarlet, my face changing colors like a neon sign in a diner window. Shaken, I saw Haven and Liberty exchange a quick, significant glance.

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