Authors: Ann Major
oo much was happening to her.
The phone was ringing, but Lizzy ignored it. She was too busy watching the two naked men writhe on her television screen with a total absorption that would have embarrassed her had she been of sound mind, which after the catastrophic events of today—she was not.
The late-afternoon sunlight was still red and sparkling outside her window, and the air was crisp and cool. It was a gorgeous evening for a walk. The smart Lizzy had known she should have gone with Walker and Vanilla when Walker had been nice enough to invite her, but the self-destructive Lizzy had been depressed at the thought of an activity that might cheer her up. That Lizzy had wanted, no,
, to indulge in her very own pity party.
How could such a gorgeous day have been so terrible?
Finally the phone was silent.
For the first time in her life Lizzy wished she’d listened to her friend Mandy and had gotten into astrology or something useful. Maybe then she would have seen some cosmic warning in her horoscope or palm today.
Your life as you know it, as you dream it, is over now
Her life was a joke. First Bryce. Then Nell. And now Walker.
It’s your own fault that you know about Walker.
Curiosity had led her to darker places before this, surely it had, although she couldn’t think of any.
Finding out about Walker’s private tape collection was the last thing she needed tonight. So why had she played the video the second Walker had left with Vanilla?
Because I’m a glutton for punishment. Because like every other female on earth, I’m like Pandora. If you tell me something is forbidden, I just have to open the box.
She remembered her father being hell-bent on making a man of Walker, as he’d put it. He’d made Walker hunt and ride and participate in rodeos. Daddy had bragged and bragged about how Walker had tamed the wildest broncs or killed the most game while both Hawk and Walker had flushed and looked uncomfortable. She thought about how Hawk had always been so protective of Walker.
The phone started ringing again, and Lizzy felt heavy demands from home. She felt guilty about not answering and torn because she actually wanted to talk to her mother. But if she talked to her right now, she’d tell her everything. Maybe she’d even mention Walker.
Mother—get a life
Tough talk for a self-destructive wimp.
How many times had Mother called already? Seven? It seemed to Lizzy the phone had been ringing forever as she stared at her television screen where two men, obviously lovers, embraced. Then almost immediately the men lay down together on the bed again, and their bodies began to writhe.
The phone stopped ringing for at least a whole minute. Not that the lovers stopped what they were doing on that bed.
Just because he has a gay video doesn’t mean he’s gay.
Maybe he was just curious and bought it as a joke. Maybe
some gay guy with a crush on him had slipped it into his luggage…
The phone started again. Mother had to be the most persistent human being in the world. Lizzy knew it was her mother because she’d checked her caller ID twice before when the phone had rung right after Walker had taken Vanilla down for a walk in the park and to buy take-out Chinese. She’d been hoping, of course, that it was Bryce or Nell calling to say they hadn’t meant any of it.
As the phone continued to ring, Lizzy wiped at her damp eyes. One of the men was tall and blond, like Bryce; the other short and dark and very muscular like her cousin, Sam. The darker man had seven little daggers tattooed onto his forearm. Lizzy knew exactly how many daggers—because she’d counted them twice, maybe to keep her gaze there instead of drifting to the lower part of the men’s bodies, which the camera was now focusing upon.
She averted her gaze, but out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of the men’s supple, perfect bodies tensing, coming closer to some fatal edge. She saw all the parts of their magnificent bodies, yes,
all the parts
, those long rigid parts with the thick purple veins, and suddenly she started thinking about how long it had been since she and Bryce had had sex.
Men liked watching women with each other. Why? Should she be turned on by watching two men? Was something wrong with her because she resented this video? She thought about Bryce…about his leaving her…about her being too dull…especially in bed.
It was all her fault. What would a kick-ass fantasy heroine do?
What if…what if she proved to him she wasn’t as dull as he thought she was? What if she made him see her as a completely different kind of woman…the way she was seeing Walker in a whole new light?
The men in the video were shouting at each other, soundlessly, because Lizzy had muted the volume.
Look away. Don’t watch anymore. Don’t torture yourself.
She felt far too insane to take sane advice, even from herself. It made her feel crazy to associate her sweet, wonderful brother with what she was watching. Walker had been so dear and thoughtful before he’d left with Vanilla. He’d sensed something was wrong, but unlike Mother, he hadn’t pushed her. He’d simply offered to take the baby out and buy dinner for them. He’d given her space, a precious commodity in Manhattan if ever there was one. Especially, for a Texan used to wide-open spaces.
“You’re sure Bryce won’t come home starved—”
She mumbled something to Walker about Bryce working late.
“So, if Bryce isn’t coming home, are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” His eyes had been so kind. As if he knew. “It’s a beautiful night.”
“Just go. I’m really tired.”
He’d lingered at the door, tall and cowboy dark in a plaid shirt and jeans, until she’d said, “go,” again.
Walker was all male, tougher than any cowhand she knew. He was! Hadn’t her daddy told everybody that over and over again? Walker wasn’t… He couldn’t be…gay. Not her brother.
But despite her fierce determination to cling to what she wanted to believe about him, her life with him was flashing before her eyes like images on cards. Only now every image had a new meaning as she viewed it with fresh insight.
Walker was as formidably large and male as his brother Hawk and as tough as any man. He could stay on a bucking bronc longer than any of them—but he was so kind and gentle and thoughtful. He never bulldozed over people the way Daddy or Hawk or even Cole sometimes did. He loved art and the theater.
Walker couldn’t be gay. Women threw themselves at him.
They asked him out on dates.
But he never asked them
The big glass doors downstairs opened and crashed closed. Even before she heard Walker’s heavy boots on the carpeted stairs, she jumped up, took the tape out of the player, rushed to the second bedroom and hid it in a drawer.
As her brother strode up the stairs, she ran into her own bedroom and took the phone off the hook, so it couldn’t ring again. If he knew Mother was calling, he’d call her.
By the time Walker walked inside carrying Vanilla, Lizzy was back on the couch with her hands folded primly in her lap.
Vanilla clapped when she saw Lizzy.
Lizzy wished she’d had time to turn the lamp on. She wished she’d grabbed a book or something. It probably looked odd, her just sitting there in the dark.
She steeled herself to look at Walker and felt instantly guiltily disturbed when she did. Instead of his kind, handsome, dark face, she saw those seven tattoos and the joined forbidden parts of those two male bodies.
She took a deep breath.
“You seem in an odd mood,” he said.
“I—I’m fine. H-how come you and Daddy… How come you left Texas?”
“Well, I never was Daddy’s favorite. Maybe I got tired of always having to prove myself.”
“What did you and Daddy fall out over?”
“We had a different vision for the museum.”
“That artist painting the murals was a friend of yours in college, wasn’t he? You brought him home to the ranch once? Were his paintings too abstract or something?”
“Something like that,” Walker agreed vaguely.
Their father had very strong opinions about modern art. If a painting wasn’t like a photograph, he thought it was hogwash.
“You hungry?” Walker asked, changing the subject abruptly, but still in that gentle, comforting tone, as he carried Vanilla to her.
“Starved,” she managed to say as she took Vanilla, who clapped and smiled some more.
Walker made Vanilla a bottle while Lizzy settled Vanilla in her high chair with a cardboard book. She got plates and silverware out, then brother and sister sat down together at the scarred table she and Amanda had bought at a fair in the Village. Vanilla placed the book aside and guzzled her bottle noisily.
Walker spooned steaming rice and vegetables onto their plates. With her chopsticks, Lizzy toyed with her food. Everything was exactly the same between them as it had been before she’d watched the video, and yet nothing was the same.
“I never did find the knack of eating with those silly sticks, either,” Walker said.
Lizzy dropped them with a clatter and picked up her fork. Then she took a deep breath to ward off the panic that threatened to overwhelm her.
He watched her when she set her fork down a few minutes later.
Vanilla pounded her high-chair tray with her bottle, and Lizzy forced a smile.
“You want me to go out and get something else?” Walker said.
“No… No. The food is great…really. I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought I was.”
Her stomach churned. No way could she swallow a bite.
“Well, I reckon I’ll be leaving in the morning,” he said. “Early—before you get up.”
“Are you going home?”
“No. I’ll call from time to time to see how you’re doing. I’ll give you my new address when I have one.”
It occurred to her he was going through some crisis as bad or maybe even worse than hers. But her own pain and inhibitions wouldn’t let her reach out to him.
Maybe that was for the best. She hoped so. Maybe it was better for them both if he kept his secrets and she kept hers. That way, their lives looked perfect…on the surface.
“I’m glad you came,” she said, studying him until he looked up and did the same.
She lifted her fork again and then set it down. “Come back anytime.”
“New York’s a great city. Tell Bryce…”
She bit her lips. Then her hand knocked the fork off the table.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“I know. Everything’s fine. Just fine. Perfect.”
“He’s just working late.”
“Sure. You oughtta take him home to meet the folks some time.”
She drew a deep, shaky breath and looked away. “I—I will. First thing.”
They spoke in generalities until Vanilla started banging her empty bottle on the high chair again and then threw it down on the floor.
Lizzy used that as her excuse to get up. Scooping Vanilla out of the high chair, she gathered her plate and glass and began to wash the dishes. Later, after Vanilla was asleep in her crib, Walker and she finished decorating the table by the door for Halloween. Not that they said much until she came out of the bathroom in her bathrobe and was on her way back to her bedroom to go to bed.
“Your turn to shower,” she said a little too brightly before she headed to bed.
He got up off the couch and went to her and pulled her close. “I guess I’d better say goodbye now.”
“I’m glad you came.”
“I love you, Lizzy. I wish you the best. You take care of yourself. And thank Bryce when he comes home.”
She wrapped her arms around Walker and held his solid, muscular body tightly. “You’re the most wonderful little brother a girl ever had.”
“Little?” He smiled down at her, and when she met his gaze, for an instant she felt incredible pain in his dark eyes.
“I love you,” she said simply, not knowing what else to say.
“I know,” he said, letting her go, but he looked trapped.
“Wherever you go, don’t you do anything wild and crazy.”
“The same goes for you.”
It’s my fault
, Joanne thought coolly as she let out the water and got out of the tub. She reached for a thick towel and wrapped herself in it.
Why had she gone to the board with her demands? Why hadn’t she simply told Caesar privately she couldn’t face the museum opening with him parading around Texas with Cherry on his arm?
He’d seemed to shrink when the board had taken her side. His skin had gone papery dry and bloodless. She’d gone after the one thing besides Lizzy that mattered to him—his control of the ranch. When she’d said Cole Knight did more than Caesar did to run the ranch, she’d probably made him so furious he’d had a stroke.
Was she crazy? After all he’d done, to even question her
own actions? All his life Caesar had done exactly what he wanted, taken what he wanted. Not that he’d seen in that way. He thought he’d martyred himself for the good of the ranch.
Leaving the bathroom, she headed into the bedroom where her nightgown lay spread in a splash of vivid yellow silk across her huge bed. Even after a long hot bath, Joanne felt alienated and all alone in the luxurious, nondescript hotel room Cole had checked her into. She hadn’t spent many nights on her own in such a room where the decor was perfect, if sterile and the same as all other hotel rooms on the floor. He’d offered to call her friends to let them know she was in the city, but she’d said no. Now she felt so alone and afraid she almost wished she was staying with friends.
She slipped the nightgown on and then pulled on the matching robe. No. She wasn’t ready to see or talk to anybody yet.
She moved to the window and drew the curtain back with one hand. Even eleven stories above the city, she could hear the roar of the freeway beneath her and see the dazzle of thousands of headlights rushing about in the night. When she’d been a young mother, raising Lizzy and Mia and the boys and Caesar’s nephew, Sam, she’d never imagined she’d end up alone and second-guessing herself.