Blue-Eyed Devil Page 4

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"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 h*ps 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.

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