“Things to do,” Travis said. “I know. And I don’t have any greater desire to go back to Espada for a dress rehearsal of King Lear than either of you guys, but—”
“I hate to tell you this, my man,” Slade said, “but this is Texas we’re talking about, not Stratford-on-Avon.”
“What I meant was that Jonas is starting to feel mortal.”
Slade snorted. “Our father’s figuring on making it to one hundred, and you know what? My money’s on him.”
“Still, I bet he’s looking around, taking stock of that little spread of seven zillion acres he calls home, sweet home, and figuring it’s time he made plans on how to divvy up the kingdom.”
“Well, I don’t need to spend a miserable weekend at Espada to know that I don’t give a damn how he does it,” Gage said gruffly. “You two enjoy the party without me.”
Slade could feel Travis waiting for him to say something. Dammit, he was making him feel guilty about cutting out on Catie, and leaving Trav to face the old man all by himself. He flipped the pages in his appointment book, searching for something substantive. A trip. A conference. Anything…
His stomach dipped. He’d almost forgotten. There it was, in black-and-white. His meeting with Dobbs.
“I can’t,” he said. “I’m going to be in Baltimore that weekend.”
“Or in the Antarctic,” Travis said, “anywhere it takes to avoid this shindig, right?”
“Wrong,” Slade said—and hesitated. If he went to Espada, he couldn’t go to Baltimore. He wouldn’t have to spend two days in the same city as Lara, thinking about her, wondering where she was and who she was with…“Listen,” he said, with all the conviction he could muster, “I just put in eight weeks on plans for a new bank.”
“Dammit, Slade.” Travis took a deep breath, then blew it out. “Sorry, kid. I have no right to twist your arm.”
“Forget it. Truth is…”
Slade hesitated. The truth was, he really could blow off the Baltimore weekend. A quick meeting, just to touch bases, would be enough. Ted or Jack could go in his place. Dobbs would understand. Who wouldn’t? An eighty-fifth birthday celebration was a big thing. And it wasn’t cowardice making him do it, either. Catie had planned a big party. Gage sounded definite about not attending. Could he really let Travis get trapped at Espada for a couple of days, without moral support?
Slade sat up straight. “The truth is,” he said briskly, “I was lying through my teeth. I can get out of the Baltimore trip.”
“Amazing,” Gage said. “Three grown men, all of us falling over our own feet in a rush to keep clear of the place where we grew up.”
“The thing is,” Travis said, “eighty-five is a pretty impressive number.”
“The old man was never impressed by other numbers,” Gage said bitterly. “Your eighteenth birthday. Slade’s two years in grad school.”
“Or your fifth anniversary party. I know, but what the hell, gentlemen, we’re bigger than that, right? Besides, we’re young, he’s old. That’s a simple fact. And then there’s Caitlin.”
“Trav got that right,” Slade said. “I do hate to disappoint her.”
“Me, too,” Gage muttered, “but I just don’t see a choice here.”
“Right,” Travis said. “There isn’t any choice. We have to show up. We’re not kids anymore. Jonas can’t get under our skin and make us miserable. And think of the plus side. We get to swap war stories and put a smile on Catie’s face at the same time. Is that really so much to ask?”
“I’m in,” Slade said.
“Not me,” Gage said. “I don’t have a weekend to spare.”
“Gage,” Travis said, “look—”
“No, you look! I’m too busy for this stuff. I have some sensitive things going on here. You got that, or do I have to put it on a billboard in Times…Oh, hell. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. But I can’t go. I just can’t.”
“Sure,” Travis said, after a minute.
“Understood,” Slade said, a beat later. “Well…”
There was silence, the sound of a throat being cleared. “Well,” three voices said, and then there were hurried goodbyes and the brothers all disconnected. Slade waited a second, then punched the button that automatically dialed Gage’s number.
“Are you okay?” he said, without any preliminaries.
“I’m fine,” Gage said, in a voice that didn’t sound fine at all.
“You sure? Because if you need anything—”
“I’ll call you.”
Slade frowned. “Just remember that.” He disconnected, waited a minute, then hit the button to phone Travis. “I called him back,” he said, without bothering to say hello.
“Uh-huh. So did I.”
“Something’s wrong, Trav. I’ve never heard Gage sound like that.”
“Yeah. But whatever it is, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“Trav? You don’t think there could be trouble between Gage and Natalie, do you?”
“No way. That marriage was made in heaven. Natalie’s wonderful.” Travis’s tone flattened. “She’s not the sort of woman who’d ever make a man jump through hoops. She’s like an open book. No games. No secrets.”
And no attitude that said, “You were good enough to sleep with but now I can’t bear the sight of you,” Slade thought, and forced a laugh.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
“They’re all impossible. They run hot, they run cold. A man never knows what to expect.”
“You’ve got that right,” Slade said darkly. “No matter what you say or do, it’s never enough.” He hesitated. Now that he thought about it, Travis sounded pretty glum, too. “Trav? Uh, are we talking about your ex?”
“No, we’re not. And, before you ask, I don’t feel like discussing it any further.”
Slade sighed. Three grown men with problems, and he’d have bet his life the problems all wore perfume.
“Okay,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned, “suit yourself, pal.”
“Slade?” Travis’s voice softened. “I’m looking forward to seeing you, kid.”
Slade smiled. “Yeah,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Yeah, Trav. Me, too.”
He hung up the phone, swung his chair around and gazed out the window at the river. Sighing, he steepled his fingers against his lips. He hadn’t wanted to go back to Texas but now he was almost looking forward to it.
A weekend with the old Los Lobos pack—Gage, and Travis and, once her mother had married Jonas, Caitlin had become a pack member, too.
Slade smiled. Hey, it was just what he needed. Swimming in the creek. Sprawling in the grass for some lazy talk. Goofing around on the deck. And, best of all, having a logical reason not to keep that appointment in Baltimore.
Not that he was afraid of seeing Lara Stevens again. It was just that a man who wanted to hang onto his sanity could do nicely without any further run-ins with a woman who seemed intent on messing not just with his sex drive, but with his head.
Lara looked up from the notes she’d been reading. Her secretary stood in the doorway, smiling ruefully.
“Don’t tell me,” Lara said, and tossed down her pencil.
Nancy grinned. “Okay, I won’t. I’ll just point out that you told me to let you know when I was leaving. And, if I’m leaving, it must be six o’clock.”
“Yes, okay.” Lara sighed, propped her elbows on the desk and cupped her face in her hands. “Thanks, Nancy. Is Mr. Dobbs back yet?”
“No. I just checked. His secretary says the plan is still for Mr
. Haggerty to meet you here, and for the two of you to go on to The Flying Fish. Mr. Dobbs will join you as soon as he can.”
“Great,” Lara said glumly.
“Too bad it’s not that Mr. Baron flying in for this appointment.”
Lara shot the other woman a look. “Why would you say that?”
“Well, the guy is hunky. I mean, if I had to stay late on a Friday night for a business dinner, I’d at least want to enjoy the view.”
“This is a business meeting,” Lara said, more sharply than she’d intended. “I mean,” she added, softening her words with a smile, “who cares what a man looks like when you’re looking at him over a plate of shrimp and discussing the cost difference between marble and granite?”
“Ah, the joys of a romantic evening.” Nancy rolled her eyes. “I guess it won’t matter even if this Mr. Haggerty ends up bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Wookie.”
Lara grinned. “Be careful, or I’ll report you to Wookies Anonymous. Good night, Nancy. Say hi to Kevin for me. And have a great weekend.”
“Same to you, Ms. Stevens. G’night.”
The door swung shut, and Lara let the smile slip from her face. It had been a long week. A long two weeks, actually. The last thing she felt like doing was spending a couple of hours making polite small talk with some guy named Jack Haggerty from Baron, Haggerty and Levine, but she was stuck.
Dobbs had been apologetic when he’d called this morning. He’d launched into a lengthy explanation that came down to the fact that he had a dinner appointment with one of the partners from Slade’s firm but that he was going to be delayed and would she kindly greet Mr. Haggerty, take him to The Flying Fish and keep him occupied until he, Dobbs, could join them?
No, Lara had longed to say, sorry, but I can’t. I just want to go home, to Michael.
Lara sighed, propped her elbows on the desk again and rubbed her temples.
Yes, she’d said, lying through her teeth, it would be a pleasure.
At least it wouldn’t be awful, considering that she’d be dealing with a man named Haggerty and not Baron. If Dobbs had said Slade was flying in, that she’d have to spend even two minutes alone with him, she’d have said no and to hell with the consequences. It wasn’t that Slade was a problem. She simply didn’t like him. All that ego. That—that disgusting machismo.