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Her lips were soft and inviting against his as she sighed, then whispered, "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, too, Sage."
Smiling, she folded her arms around his neck and placed her lips on his again, putting more passion into their kiss . . . or trying to. "Travis!"
"I mean, really kiss me," she said and growled sexily. "You're allowed to kiss sexy, you know, even though it is Christmas."
"Sage, please." Nervously the young man glanced toward the windows. A party was underway inside the house. "Somebody might see us."
She removed her arms from around his neck and blew out a gust of air. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Travis, you're so damn proper! Nobody is looking. And if anyone is, who would care if we're out here necking?"
"Mother would care. Do you like your bracelet?"
Temporarily distracted, she replied, "Of course I like the bracelet. What woman wouldn't? It's beautiful."
Raising her arm, she shook the heavy gold bangle around her wrist. "I'm glad you let me open my present tonight instead of waiting for Christmas Day."
"This way you can enjoy it over the whole holiday."
"That was very thoughtful of you. Thank you."
"I still sense that you're disappointed."
Sage Tyler looked up at him through her dense lashes and made a softly spoken confession. "I thought you might give me my engagement ring for Christmas."
Before he could say anything, she rushed on. "But it's not as though we've already picked out rings. Who knows? I might not even want a traditional engagement ring. I'll probably flaunt convention and choose something radically different. Maybe a colored stone instead of a diamond."
Travis cast his eyes down to the white leather pants she was wearing. Her sweater was appropriate enoughwhite angora with a tasteful amount of glittering studs and rhinestones sprinkled over the shoulders and upper bodice. The pants, however, were definitely a fashion risk.
He smiled weakly. "Nobody ever accused you of being conventional, Sage."
"Thank heaven for that." A movement of her head sent her mane of dark blond hair swinging over her shoulders. "I thought your mother was going to have heart failure when I came downstairs and joined the party wearing these pants."
"Well, she, uh, associates leather clothes with Hell's Angels and rock stars, I guess."
"Hmm. Maybe I should have worn something in a nice pastel taffeta."
He frowned in disapproval of her sarcasm. "Mother is Mother. She and her friends are more or less alike. They do the same things, go to the same places, wear basically the same kind of clothes. She's accustomed to certain things."
"If I'm going to be her daughter-in-law, she had better get accustomed to me, hadn't she? I hope she doesn't expect me to start wearing long plaid skirts and respectable navy flats when I become your wife. All I'll be changing the day we get married is my last name. Speaking of which," she added on a burst of inspiration, "Valentine's Day would be such a romantic date to get officially engaged. Even better than Christmas."
Sage had dragged Travis outside for a breath of fresh air on the long, wide veranda of the Belcher home. The redbrick Georgian structure was strung with twinkling Christmas lights. In the living room behind them, an enormous Christmas tree, arranged by a decorator who favored lace, pearls, and butterflies, commanded attention from one of the wide windows overlooking the veranda.
Three evergreens had been temporarily transplanted in the front lawn and decorated for the benefit of passersby who came from all points of Harris County to view the elaborate Christmas displays the residents of this affluent Houston neighborhood put up each year. A trail of bumper-to-bumper cars snaked along the street, their headlights blurred by the mist.
Though the temperature was relatively mild, Travis hunched deeper into the collar of his dark suit coat and slid his hands into his pants pockets. This belligerent stance never failed to irritate Sage, who thought it made him look like a sulky rich kid. It usually meant he had something unpleasant on his mind that he dreaded discussing.
"The fact is, Sage, I'm wondering if we're not jumping the gun to announce our engagement."
The statement caught her off guard, but instantly captured her full attention. "What do you mean?"
Travis cleared his throat. "Well, after the spring semester, I've still got internship and my year of residency ahead of me. After that, there's all the specialty courses in dermatology to get through."
"I know exactly what's required before you can open a practice, Travis. We'll be all right. Now that I've got my master's degree, I'll find a good job."
"I'm not worried about money. My parents will support me until I set up a practice."
"Then what are you worried about? Lighten up. It's Christmas!"
He glanced at the line of cars crawling past the house. "I don't think you understand what I'm trying to tell you, Sage."
Her wide smile faltered. "Apparently not, but it must be something terrible. You look like you're about to throw up. Don't torture yourself any longer or keep me in suspense. If you've got something to say, let's hear it."
He scratched his head, he coughed behind his fist, he shuffled his feet. "I've given this a lot of thought lately, and . . ."
"And I don't think . . . It's not that you're . . . Sage, we're just not . . ."
He floundered, opening and closing his mouth several times before blurting out, "Suited. We're just not suited to each other."
Having said that, he relaxed his shoulders. He exhaled a deep breath. By all appearances, he had relieved himself of a tremendous burden.
Dumbfounded, Sage stared at him. She couldn't believe her ears. She had been dating Travis exclusively for more than a year. It had been understood that they would get married when she earned her master's degree. The semester was ending, and she had been expecting an engagement ring and a formal announcement of their impending marriage during the holiday season. It was preposterous to think he was dumping her. Her! Sage Tyler! Surely she had misunderstood.
"You can't mean you're breaking our engagement?"
He cleared his throat again. "I think we ought to think about it some more."
"Don't beat around the bush, Travis," she said testily. "If you're dumping me, at least have the guts to come right out and say so."
"I'm not dumping you. Exactly. Mother thinks"
"Oh, 'Mother thinks . . .' Mother thinks that I'm not good enough for her little boy."
"Don't put words in my mouth, Sage."
"Then spit it out."
"Mother thinks, and I agree, that you're, well, a little too rowdy for me."
"Because I wear leather pants?"
"Sage, be fair," he protested.
"Fair be damned. I'm mad."
"You've got no right to be."
"If you'll think back, I never officially asked you to marry me. Did I?" he asked uncertainly.
"Of course you did!" she cried. "We talked about it all the time. My family"
"Will be delighted if it never comes off," he interrupted. "Your brothers think I'm a wimp. Your mother only tolerates me because she's nice to everybody. That sheriff who's always hanging around harrumphs and shakes his head with what appears to be disapproval every time he looks at me."
"You're imagining all of that," she averred, though she knew he wasn't.
"Well, whatever," he said impatiently, "I think we need a rest from each other."
Her anger gave way to hurt. "I thought you loved me."
"Then why are we having this conversation? I love you, too."
He looked earnestly miserable. "I love you, Sage. You're beautiful and sexy. You're the most unpredictable, fascinating woman I've ever met. You make my head spin. You're exuberant. You like pushing people around, bending them to your will."
"You make me sound like a longshoreman!"
"I don't intend to. You've got a zest for life that I can't match. I'm tired of trying. You're spontaneous and impetuous. I'm methodical and careful. Your politics are liberal. Mine, conservative. You believe wholeheartedly in a personal God. I have my doubts. All things considered, I'd say our differences are irreconcilable."
"I'm beginning to think not."
"This is all crap, Travis. You're trying to sugarcoat it, aren't you? You're lining up your justifications. If you're going to jilt me, at least dignify it by not being so mealymouthed."
"Don't make this harder for me than it is," he complained.
Hard on him? Sage formed a fist as though preparing to sock him. "You don't love me anymore. Isn't that what this is really about?"
"No. Everything I said before is true. I do love you, Sage. But, damn, it takes so much of my energy just keeping up." He gave a helpless laugh. "You're like a playful puppy. You require constant attention and affection."
"I haven't noticed you complaining about my affectionate nature before," she said coolly. "In fact, you've begged for more on numerous occasions."
He had the grace to look chagrined. "I deserved that. The fact is, Sage," he said, sounding dispirited, "I've run out of steam. You've drained me. I can't keep up with you and devote the time and attention to my studies that they demand. I think we should take a break from each other and give ourselves time to reassess the situation before we jump into marriage."
He touched her for the first time, placing his hands lightly on her shoulders. "When you've had time to think about it, I'm sure you'll agree with me. I'm no more right for you than you are for me. You might believe you love me, but I think you've only talked yourself into it."
She jerked her shoulders free. "Don't start doing my thinking and believing for me, Travis." This must be a bad dream, a nightmare, she thought. Soon she would wake up, call Travis, and tell him about the bizarre dream she had had and warn him never to make it come true.
It was too real, however, to be a dream. Holiday lights twinkled all around her. She could smell evergreen boughs and hear carols playing over the stereo system inside the house. She could feel the pressure of tears behind her eyelids. Humiliation had a brassy taste. She had always been the one who told admirers when it was over. If there was any breaking off to be done, she was the one to do it.
Travis, even-tempered and ambitious, had been positively crazy about her. She couldn't believe he was dumping her. Why, several months ago, he had pleaded with her to share an apartment with him, which she had declined to do. After sulking for a few days, he claimed to love her all the more for her strong moral fiber.
They rarely quarreled. He had his moments of pique when he could stubbornly take a position and refuse to give way. Like now. When backed into a corner, however, he usually surrendered to her stronger will.
"To tell you the truth, Travis, I'm not big on postponements. Either you love me and want to marry me, or you don't." She tossed back her hair and confronted him challengingly. "Make up your mind. It's now or never."
He looked pained as he studied her determined expression and the belligerent angle of her chin. Finally, he said, "If you put it that way, I guess it's never, Sage."
That knocked the wind out of her, though she managed to maintain a proud posture. Such bald rejection was inconceivable. He couldn't do this to her!
When he had time to think about it, he would regret it. He would come crawling back on hands and knees, begging her to share his bright future as a successful dermatologist. Until then, she'd be damned before she would show him how much he had hurt her. Not a single tear would he see.
Mrs. Belcher was no doubt behind his unheralded decision. His mother could cow Travis with one imperious glance, but Sage wasn't afraid of her. Her hauteur only made Sage want to provoke her furtherby doing things like wearing leather pants to her dinner party. When Travis finally came to his senses and crawled back, she would marry him and have six children, evenly spaced ten months apart.
In the meantime, she wasn't going to let Travis off easily. Defiantly she said, "That's fine with me. I'll get out of your life as soon as I pack my things."
"Now?" he exclaimed. "But you can't go now, Sage. Your car's in Austin. Where will you go?"
He shook his head with diminishing patience, as though he were dealing with a willful child. "You can't leave now."
"The hell I can't," she fired back, knowing that Laurie Tyler would cringe if she could hear her daughter's language.
"Look, Sage, there's no reason why we can't enjoy the holidays together as we planned. As friends. I still want to be friends."
"Go to hell."
"If you don't come back inside, it'll spoil Mother's party. There'll be an odd number at dinner."
"I don't give a damn about your mother's dinner!" she shouted. "Those stupid little chickens she serves every year are always stringy and tough. I wouldn't go back in there if my life depended on it. It was a stifling, dull, boring party to begin with. I should thank you for giving me a good excuse to get out of it."
Uneasy with the volume of her voice, he glanced over his shoulder. Formally attired guests were milling around the opulent living room, nibbling canapés served by white-coated waiters and toasting the season and one another with highballs and spiked eggnog.
"Sage, be reasonable. I . . . I wasn't going to discuss this with you until after the holidays, but you, well, you sort of forced the issue tonight. I don't want you to feel badly."
"Badly?" she scoffed. "I feel marvelous. Now I can enjoy Christmas without wondering if a society grande dame is going to approve of my wardrobe. Not that I give a fig."
"Don't behave this way," he pleaded.
One of her brows arched malevolently. "What way?"
"Like a high-strung brat."
"First you make me sound as pushy as a Roller Derby queen, then you compare me to an annoying pet, then a simpleton who doesn't know her own mind, and now I'm a high-strung brat. And you claimed to love me!"
"There's no reasoning with you when you get like this." Travis cursed beneath his breath and turned away from her. "Mother will start missing us. I'll see you inside after you've thrown your little temper tantrum." Righteously indignant, he went through the front door.
"Don't hold your breath," she called after him.
The door was decorated with a wreath that in Sage's opinion was extravagant to the point of vulgarity. So was the Christmas tree in the living room. Where were the Santas and candy canes and tinsel they decorated with at her home?