Blue-Eyed Devil Page 25

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Settling the baby back in the chair, Gage leaned down to kiss his wife, sliding his hand behind the back of her neck. It was more than a casual kiss, turning harder, longer, until she reached up and stroked his face. Breaking it off, he continued to look into her eyes, and it seemed an entire conversation passed between them.

Liberty waited until Gage had gone to take a shower before telling me gently, "He was so upset after he brought you home. He loves you. It drives him crazy, thinking of someone hurting you. It's all he can do to stop himself from going to Dallas and . . . doing something that's not in your best interests."

I blanched. "If he goes to Nick — "

"No, no, he won't. Gage is very self-controlled when it comes to getting the results he wants. Believe me, he'll do whatever is necessary to help you, no matter how hard it is."

"I'm sorry for involving you in this," I said. "I know it's the last thing you or Gage need."

"We're your family." She leaned over and gathered me into another of those long, comfortable hugs. "We'll figure it out. And don't worry about Gage — I'm not going to let him bully you. He just wants you to be safe . . . but he's got to let you be in charge of how it's handled."

I felt a wave of affection and gratitude for her. If there was any lingering trace of resentment or jealousy in my heart, it vanished in that moment.

Once I started talking, I couldn't stop. I told Liberty everything, the way Nick had controlled the household, the shirts I'd had to iron, the way he called me "Marie." Her eyes widened at that last, and she said in a low voice, "Oh, Haven. It's like he was trying to erase you."

We had laid out a big quilt with a barnyard design, and Matthew had crawled among the hand-stitched animals until he drifted to sleep on top of a flock of sheep. Liberty opened a bottle of chilled white wine. "Your prescription instructions say that alcohol may magnify the effects of the medication," she warned.

"Good," I said, holding out my glass. "Don't be stingy."

Lounging on the quilt with the sleeping baby, I tried to find a comfortable position on the pile of pillows Liberty had set out for me. "What's confusing," I told her, still pondering my relationship with Nick, "are the times when he's okay, because then you think everything is getting better. You know what buttons not to push. But then there are new buttons. And no matter how sorry you are, no matter how hard you try, everything you say and do builds up the tension until there's an explosion."

"And the explosions get worse each time," she said with a quiet certainty that got my attention.

"Yeah, exactly. Did you ever date a guy like that?"

"My mother did." Her green eyes were distant. "His name was Louis. A Jekyll and Hyde type. He started out charming and nice, and he led Mama step by step into the relationship, and by the time things got bad enough for her to leave, her self-esteem was shredded. At the time I was too young to understand why she let him treat her so badly."

Her gaze wandered over Matthew's slumbering body, limp and heavy as a sack of flour. "I think the thing you've got to figure out is if Nick's behavior is something that could be helped with counseling. If your leaving him would he enough to make him want to change."

I sipped my wine and considered that for a while. Was Nick's abusiveness something that could be peeled away like an orange rind? Or was it marbled all the way through?

"I think with Nick, it's always going to be about control," I finally said. "I can't see him ever admitting something is his fault, or that he needs to change in any way. The fault is always mine." Set-ting aside my empty wine glass, I rubbed my forehead. "I keep wondering . . . did he ever love me at all? Was I anything more than just someone to push around and manipulate? Because if he never cared about me, it makes me even more of an idiot for having loved him."

"Maybe he cared about you as much as he was capable," Liberty said.

I smiled without humor. "Lucky me." I realized we were talking about my relationship with Nick as if it were already in the past tense. "If I had known him longer," I continued, "dated him longer, maybe I would have seen through the facade. It was my fault for rushing into marriage so quickly."

"No it wasn't," Liberty insisted. "Sometimes an imitation of love can be pretty damn convincing."

The words reminded me of something I'd heard her say a long time ago on her wedding night. A lifetime ago. "Like the imitation you had with Hardy Cates?"

She nodded, her expression turning thoughtful. "Yes, although I wouldn't care to put Hardy in the same company as Nick. He would never hurt a woman. In fact, Hardy had the opposite problem . . . always wanting to rescue someone . . . I forget the name for it . . ."

"A white knight complex."

"Yes. But after the rescue was done, that was Hardy's cue to leave."

"He wasn't such a white knight when he ruined Gage's business deal," I couldn't resist pointing out.

Liberty's smile turned rueful. "You're right But I think Hardy considered that a shot against Gage, not me." She shook her head dismissively. "About you and Nick . . . it's not your fault that he went after you. I've read that abusers choose women they can easily manipulate — they have a kind of radar for it. Like, if you filled the Astrodome with people and put one abusive man and one vulnerable woman in there, they'd find each other."

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