I knew from a glance that he was a good ol' boy, able to hunt, play football and poker, and hold his liquor. Not my type. I was interested in something more.
Even so, he was a compelling figure. He was good-looking, handsome if you overlooked the crook in a nose that had once been broken. His dark brown hair, as thick and lustrous as mink fur, was cut in short layers. But it was the eyes that seized my attention, blue even at a distance, a volatile color you could never forget once you'd seen it. It gave me a little shock when his head mined and he stared right at me.
I turned away immediately, embarrassed to have been caught staring. But awareness continued to spread over my skin, a heat so insistent that I knew he was still looking. I drank my champagne in fast swallows, letting the arid fizz soothe my nerves. Only then did I risk another glance.
Those blue eyes glinted with an uncivilized suggestion. A faint smile was tucked in one corner of his wide mouth. Definitely wouldn't want to be alone in a room with that guy, I thought. His gaze moved downward in a lazy inspection, returned to my face, and he gave me one of those respectful nods that Texan men had raised to an art form.
I deliberately turned away, giving full attention to my boyfriend, Nick. We watched the newlyweds dance, their faces close. I stood on my toes to whisper in Nick's ear. "Our turn next."
His arm slid around me. "We'll see what your father has to say about it."
Nick was going to ask Dad for permission to marry me, a tradition I thought was old-fashioned and unnecessary. But my boyfriend was being stubborn.
"What if he doesn't approve?" I asked. Given our family history, of me rarely doing anything that warranted parental approval, it was a distinct possibility.
"We'll get married anyway." Drawing back a little, Nick grinned down at me. "Still, I'd like to convince him I'm not such a bad deal."
"You're the best thing that's ever happened to me." I snuggled into the familiar crook of Nick's arm. I thought it was a miracle that someone could love me the way he did. No other man, no matter how good-looking, could ever interest me.
Smiling, I looked to the side one more time, wondering if the blue eyed guy was still there, I wasn't sure why I was so relieved that he was gone.
My brother Gage had insisted on a small wedding ceremony. Only handful of people had been allowed inside the tiny Houston chapel, which had once been used by Spanish settlers in the seven-teen hundreds. The service had been short and beautiful, the air suffused with a hushed tenderness you could feel down to the soles of your feet.
The reception, by contrast, was a circus.
It was held at the Travis family mansion in River Oaks, an exclusive Houston community where people told a lot more to their accountants than their ministers. Since Gage was the first of the Travis offspring to get married, my father was going to use the occasion to impress the world. Or at least Texas, which in Dad's view was the part of the world most worth impressing. Like many Texans, my father firmly believed if our state hadn't been annexed back in 1845, we probably would have ended up in charge of North America.
So in light of the family reputation and the fact that the eyes of Texas would be upon us, Dad had hired a renowned wedding planner and given her a four-word instruction: "The checkbook is open."
As all creation knew, it was a big checkbook.
My father, Churchill Travis, was a famous "market wizard," having created an international energy index fund that had nearly doubled in its first decade. The index included oil and gas producers, pipelines, alternative energy sources, and coal, represented by fifteen countries. While I was growing up, I never saw much of Dad — he was always in some far off place like Singapore, New Zealand, or Japan. Often he went to D.C. to have lunch with the Federal Reserve chairman, or to New York to be a roundtable commentator on some financial show. Having breakfast with my father had meant turning on CNN and watching him analyze the market while we ate our toaster waffles.
With his full-bodied voice and outsized personality, Dad had always seemed big to me. It was only in my teens that I came to realize he was a physically small man, a bantam who ruled the yard. He had contempt for softness, and he worried that his four children — Gage, Jack, Joe, and me — were being spoiled. So when he was around, he took it upon himself to give us doses of reality, like spoonfuls of bitter medicine.
When my mother, Ava, was still alive, she was an annual co-chair of the Texas Book Festival and went for smoke breaks with Kinky Friedman. She was glamorous and had the best legs of any woman in River Oaks, and gave the best dinner parties. As they said in those days, she was as fine as Dr Pepper on tap. After meeting her, men would tell Dad what a lucky bastard he was, and that pleased him to no end. She was more than he deserved, he announced on more than one occasion. And then he would give a sneaky laugh, because he always thought he deserved more than he deserved.
Seven hundred guests had been invited to the reception, but at least a thousand had shown up. People milled inside the mansion and out to the enormous white tent, which was webbed with millions of tiny white fairy lights and blanketed with white and pink orchids. The humid warmth of the spring evening brought out the pillowy-sweet fragrance of the flowers.
Inside the air-conditioned house, a main buffet room was divided by a thirty-two-foot long ice bar laden with all kinds of shellfish.
There were twelve ice sculptures, one of them formed around a champagne fountain, another featuring a vodka fountain studded with pockets of caviar. White-gloved waiters filled frosted crystal cylinders with biting-cold vodka, and ladled caviar onto tiny sour cream blinis and pickled quail eggs.
The hot buffet tables featured tureens of lobster bisque, chafing dishes filled with slices of pecan-smoked tenderloin, grilled ahi tuna, and at least thirty other entrees. I'd been to many parties and events in Houston, but I had never seen so much food in one place in my life.
Reporters from the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly were there to cover the reception, which included guests like the former governor and mayor, a famous TV chef, Hollywood people, and oil people. Everyone was waiting for Gage and Liberty, who had stayed behind at the chapel with the photographer.
Nick was a little dazed. Coming from a respectable middle-class background, this was a shock to his system. I and my fledgling social conscience were embarrassed by the excess. I had changed since going to Wellesley, a women's college with the motto non ministrari sed ministrare. Not to be served, but to serve. I thought it was a good motto for someone like me to learn.
My family had gently mocked that I was going through a phase. They — especially my father — thought I was a living cliché, a rich girl dabbling in liberal guilt. I dragged my attention back to the long tables "I loud. I had made arrangements for the leftovers to be taken to a number of Houston shelters, which my family had thought was a fine idea. I still fell guilty. A faux liberal, wailing in line for caviar.
"Did you know," I asked Nick as we went to the vodka fountain, "that you have to sift through the equivalent of a ton of dirt to find a one-carat diamond? So to produce all the diamonds in this room, you'd have to excavate most of Australia."
Nick pretended to look puzzled. "Last time I checked, it was still there." He ran his fingertips over my bare shoulder. "Take it easy, Haven. You don't have to prove anything. I know who you are."
Although we were both native Texans, we'd found each other in Massachusetts. I had gone to Wellesley and Nick went to Tufts. I'd met him at an around-the-world party that was held in a big rambling house in Cambridge. Each room was designated a different country, featuring a national drink. Vodka in Russia, whiskey in Scotland, and so forth.
Somewhere between South America and Japan, I'd staggered into a dark-haired boy with clear hazel eyes and a self-confident grin. He had a long, sinewy runner's body and an intellectual look.
To my delight, he spoke with a Texas accent. "Maybe you should take a break from your world tour. At least until you're steady on your feet."
"You're from Houston," I'd said.
His smile had widened as he heard my accent. "No, ma'am."
"Austin? Amarillo? El Paso?"
"No, no, and thank God, no."
"Dallas, then," I said regretfully. "Too had. You're practically a Yankee."
Nick had led me outside, where we'd sat on the doorstep and talked in the freezing cold for two hours.
We had fallen in love very fast. I would do anything for Nick, go anywhere with him. I was going to marry him. I would be Mrs. Nicholas Tanner. Haven Travis Tanner. No one was going to stop me.
When I finally had my turn to dance with my father, Al Jarreau was singing "Accentuate the Positive" with silky cheerfulness. Nick had gone to the bar with my brothers Jack and Joe, and he would meet me in the house later.
Nick was the first man I'd ever brought home, the first man I'd ever been in love with. Also the only one I'd ever slept with. I had never dated much. My mother had died of cancer when I was fifteen, and for a couple of years after that I'd been too depressed and guilty even to think about having a love life. And then I'd gone to a women's college, which was great for my education but not so great for my love life.
It wasn't just the all-female environment that kept me from having relationships, however. Lots of women went to parties off campus, or met guys while taking extra courses at Harvard or MIT. The problem was me. I lacked some essential skill for attracting people, for giving and receiving love easily. It meant too much to me. I seemed to be driving away the people I most wanted. Finally I had realized that getting someone to love you was like trying to coax a bird to perch on your finger . . . it wouldn't happen unless you stopped trying so hard.
So I'd given up, and as the cliché went, that was when it happened. I met Nick, and we fell in love. He was the one I wanted. That should have been enough for my family. But they hadn't accepted him. Instead I found myself answering questions they hadn't even asked, saying things like "I'm really happy," or "Nick's majoring in economics," or "We met at a college party." Their lack of interest in him, in the history or future of our relationship, aggravated me beyond bearing. It was a judgment in itself, this ominous silence.
"I know, sweetie," my best friend, Todd, had said when I called to complain. We had known each other since the age of twelve, when his family had moved to River Oaks. Todd's father, Tim Phelan, was an artist who'd been featured at all the big museums, including MoMA in New York and the Kimbell in Fort Worth.
The Phelans had always mystified the residents of River Oaks. They were vegetarians, the first ones I had ever met. They wore wrinkly hemp garments and Birkenstocks. In a neighborhood where two decorating styles predominated — English Country and Tex-Mediterranean — the Phelans had painted each room of their house a different color, with exotic stripes and swirling designs on the walls.
Most fascinating of all, the Phelans were Buddhist, a word I'd heard even less often than "vegetarian." When I asked Todd what Buddhists did, he said they spent a lot of time contemplating the nature of reality. Todd and his parents had even invited me to go to a Buddhist temple with them, but to my chagrin, my parents said no. I was a Baptist, Mother said, and Baptists didn't spend their time thinking about reality.
Todd and I had always been so close that people assumed we were dating. We hadn't ever been romantically involved, but the feeling between us wasn't strictly platonic either. I'm not sure either of us could have explained what we were to each other.
Todd was probably the most beautiful human being I had ever seen. He was slim and athletic , with refined features and blond hair, and his eyes the opulent blue green of the ocean in Caribbean travel brochures. And there was a feline quality about him that set him apart from the big shouldered swagger of other Texan men I knew. I had asked Todd once if he was gay, and he had said he didn't care if someone was a man or a woman, he was more interested in the person's inside.
"So are you bisexual?" I had asked, and he had laughed at my insistence on a label.
"I guess I'm bipossible," he had said, and pressed a warm, careless kiss on my lips.
No one knew me or understood me as well as Todd did. He was my confidant, the person who was always on my side even when he wasn't taking my side.
"This is exactly what you said they would do," Todd said when I told him that my family was ignoring my boyfriend. "So, no surprise."
"Just because it's not a surprise doesn't mean it's not aggravating."
"Just remember, this weekend's not about you and Nick. It's about the bride and groom."
"Weddings are never about the bride and groom," I said. "Weddings are public platforms for dysfunctional families."
"But they have to pretend it's about the bride and groom. So go with it, celebrate, and don't talk to your dad about Nick until after the wedding."
"Todd," I had asked plaintively, "you've met Nick. You like him, don't you?"
"I can't answer that."
"Because if you don't already see it, nothing I say could make you see it."
"See what? What do you mean?"
But Todd hadn't answered, and I hung up feeling mystified and annoyed.
Unfortunately, Todd's advice went by the wayside as soon as I started a foxtrot with Dad.
My father was flushed from champagne and triumph. He'd made no secret of wanting this wedding to happen, and the news about my new sister-in-law's pregnancy was even better. Things were going his way. I was pretty sure he had visions of grandchildren dancing in his head, generations of malleable DNA all at his disposal.
Dad was barrel-chested, short-legged, and black-eyed, with hair so thick you could hardly find his scalp beneath. All that and his German chin made him a striking man, if not a handsome one. He had some Comanche blood on his mother's side, and a bunch of German and Scottish ancestors whose futures had been hamstrung back in their native countries. So they had come to Texas looking for cheap, winterless land that only needed their labor to bring forth prosperity. Instead they got droughts, epidemics, Indian raids, scorpions, and boll weevils the size of their thumbnails.
The Travises who had survived were the most purely stubborn people on earth, the kind who relied on their backbones when their wishbones were broken. That accounted for Dad's stubbornness . . . and for mine too. We were too much alike, Mama had always said, both of us willing to do anything to get our way, both of us eager to hop over a line the other one had drawn.
"Punkin." He had a gravelly voice, edged with the perpetual impatience of a man who never had to ingratiate himself with anyone. "You look pretty tonight. You remind me of your mama."
"Thanks." Compliments were rare from Dad. I appreciated it, even though I knew my resemblance to my mother was, at best, slight.
I was wearing a light green satin sheath, the shoulder straps fastened with two crystal buckles. My feet were strapped in delicate silver sandals with three-inch heels. Liberty had insisted on doing my hair. It had taken her about fifteen minutes to twist and pin the long inky locks up into a deceptively simple updo that I could never hope to reproduce. She was only a little older than I, but her manner had been maternal, gentle, in a way my own mother had seldom been.
"There," Liberty had murmured when she was finished, and picked up a powder brush to dust my nose playfully. "Perfect."
It was really hard not to like her.
As Dad and I danced, one of the photographers approached. We leaned close and smiled into the blinding white flash, and then resumed our previous distance.
"Nick and I are going back to Massachusetts tomorrow," I said. We were flying commercial — I had put two first-class tickets on my credit card. Since Dad paid my Visa bill, and went over it personally, I knew he was aware that I'd bought Nick's ticket. He hadn't said anything about it. Yet.
"Before we leave," I continued, "Nick's going to have a talk with you.
"Looking forward to that."
"I'd like you to be nice to him," I said.
"Sometimes I'm not nice for a reason. It's a way to find out what someone's made of."
"You don't need to test Nick. You just need to respect my choices."
"He wants to marry you," Dad said. "Yes."
"And then he reckons he'll have a first-class ticket for life. That's all you are to him, Haven."
"Have you ever thought," I asked, "that someone could actually love me for myself, and not for your money?"
"He's not the one."
"I get to decide that," I shot back. "Not you."
"You've made up your mind," Dad said, and although it wasn't exactly a question, I said yes, I had. "Then don't ask for my permission," he went on. "Make your choice and accept the consequences. Your brother sure as hell didn't ask what I thought about him marrying Liberty."
"Of course he didn't. You've done everything possible to push them together. Everyone knows you're crazy about her." Appalled by the edge of jealousy in my own voice, I continued quickly. "Can't we just do this the normal way, Dad? I bring my boyfriend home, you pretend to like him, I go on with my life, and you and I call each other on all the major holidays." I made my mouth into the shape of a smile. "Don't stand in the way, Dad. Just let me be happy."
"You won't be happy with him. He's a nonstarter."
"How would you know? You've never spent more than an hour in Nick's company."
"I've been around long enough to know a nonstarter when I see one.
I didn't think either of us had raised voices, but we were getting a few curious glances. I realized out mutual haranguing didn't have to be loud for other people to notice. I struggled for calm, and kept my feet moving in a "dancing out of rhythm but by God still dancing" kind of shuffle. "Any man I wanted would be a nonstarter to you," I said. " Unless you got to pick him."
I thought there was just enough truth in that to make my father mad. "I'll give you a wedding," he said, "but you'll have to get someone else to walk you down the aisle. And don't come to me later when you need money for a divorce. You marry him, I'm cutting you off. Neither of you will get a plug nickel from me, you understand? If he has the balls to talk to me tomorrow, I'm going to tell him that."
"Thanks, Dad." I pulled away from him just as the music ended. "You do a mean foxtrot."
As I left the dance floor, I passed Carrington, who was running to my father with her arms outstretched. She was Liberty's little sister. "My turn," she cried, as if dancing with Churchill Travis were the best thing in the world.
When I was nine, I thought bitterly, I'd felt that way about him too.
I pushed my way through crowds of people, and all I could see were mouths and more mouths . . . talking, laughing, eating, drinking, air-kissing. The accumulated noise was mind-numbing.
I glanced at a wall clock in the hallway, an antique Ball regulator that had once belonged to the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway. Nine o'clock. In about a half hour, I was supposed to meet Liberty in one of the upstairs bedrooms to help her change into her going-away outfit. I couldn't wait to gel through that particular ritual. There was only so much misty-eyed happiness I could take in one evening.
The champagne had made me thirsty. I went to the kitchen, filled wall to wall with caterers and their staff, and managed to find a clean tumbler in one of the cabinets. Filling it with water from the sink, I drank in big quenching gulps.
"Excuse me," a waiter said urgently, trying to push by me with a steaming chafing dish. I shrank back to let him pass, and wandered into the oval dining room.
To my relief, I saw the familiar outline of Nick's head and shoulders near the dark arched doorway that led to the dine-in wine cellar. He had gone through the small wrought-iron gate and left it ajar. It looked like he was heading into the vault, which was lined with oak barrel stays that sweetened the air. I figured Nick must have gotten tired of the crowds and had come early to meet me. I wanted him to hold me. I needed a moment of peace in the middle of the cacophony.
Skirting around the dining table, I went to the wine cellar. The gate closed behind me with a smooth clack. Reaching for the light switch, I flipped it off and went into the cellar.
I heard Nick mutter, "Hey — "
"Just me." I found him easily in the darkness, giving a low laugh as my palms slid over his shoulders. "Mmmn. You feel nice in a tux."
He started to say something, but I tugged his head down until my half-open mouth skimmed the edge of his jaw. "I missed you," I whispered. "You didn't dance with me."
His breath caught, and his hands came to my hips as I wobbled a little in my high heels. The wine sweet air filled my nostrils, and something else . . . the scent of male skin, fresh like nutmeg or ginger . . . a sun-warmed spice. Exerting pressure on the back of his neck, I urged his mouth to mine, finding softness and heat, the tang of champagne melting into the intimate taste of him.
One of his hands traveled up my spine, coaxing out a shiver, a sweet shock, as the warmth of his palm met my bare skin. I felt the Strength of his hand, and the gentleness, as it closed over my nape and tilted my head back. His mouth barely grazed mine, more a promise of a kiss than an actual one. I made a little sound at the brush of his lips and kept my face upturned, straining for more. Another lush descent, a dizzying pressure as he opened my mouth with his. He reached deeper, his tongue finding ticklish places that drew a shivering laugh from my throat.
I tried to curl around him, holding him with my arching body. His mouth was slow and searching, the kisses hard at first, then loosening as if unraveling from their own heat. The pleasure thickened, hard flushes rising through me, bringing the desire to full-slip ripeness. I wasn't aware of moving backward, but I felt the frame of the lasting table high against my bottom, the sharp edge digging into my flesh.
Nick lifted me with astonishing ease until I sat on the chilled table. He took my mouth again, longer, deeper, while I tried to catch his tongue, tried to draw him as far inside as possible. I wanted to lie back on the table, an offering of aching flesh on sterile marble, and let him do anything he wanted. Something had been cut loose in me. I was saturated with excitement, drunk with it, and part of it was because Nick, who always seemed so in control, was fighting for self-restraint. His breath came in ragged puffs, his hands gripping my body.
He kissed my throat, tasting the thin, susceptible skin, his lips stroking the throb of my pulse. Panting, I slid my hands up to his hair, so soft and thick, layers of heavy silk in my palms. Not at all like Nick's.
A cold shot of horror went down to my stomach. "Oh, God." I was barely able to force the words out. I touched his face in the darkness, encountering hard, unfamiliar features, the scrape of shaven bristle. The corners of my eyes stung, but I wasn't sure whether the imminent tears were caused by embarrassment, anger, fear, disappointment, or some unholy combination of all of them. "Nick?"
My wrist was caught in a powerful hand, and his mouth dragged softly over the insides of my fingers. A kiss burned the center of my palm, and then I heard a voice so smoky and deep I would have sworn it belonged to the devil.