"Maybe you shouldn't . . ." I began, but my voice trailed away as he paged through the periodical. I could tell the moment he found my page, with its cartoon portrait of me wearing cartoon high heels and a fashionable swing coat. And I knew exactly what he was reading even before his brows began to inch toward his hairline.
Dear Miss Independent,
I'm dating a fantastic guy—handsome, successful, caring, and good in bed. But there's a problem. He's built on the petite side, sexually speaking. I've always heard that size doesn't matter, but I can't help wishing he had more to offer in that department. I want to stay with him in spite of the fact that he's hung like a cocktail weenie, but how can I stop wishing for a kielbasa? "
Dear Length Lover,
Despite the claims made by a barrage of spam in Miss I.'s mailbox, it is not possible to increase a man's genital size. But here are a few relevant facts to consider: there are approximately 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris, and a lesser concentration in the outer third of the vagina, and virtually none in the inner two-thirds. Therefore, a shorter penis is able to provide all the necessary stimulation that a longer one can.
For most women, a partner's skills are far more important than his size. Try various positions and techniques, emphasize foreplay, and keep in mind that many roads lead to Rome.
Finally, if you want something big to play with during intercourse, bring some toys to bed. Think of it as outsourcing.
Jack's expression was faintly bemused, as if he were attempting to reconcile the persona of Miss Indepen-dent with what he had observed of me so far. Lowering to the small moss-green sofa, he continued to read.
"Come see the kitchen," Haven told me, tugging me toward a tiled area with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. "Would you like something to drink? "
She opened the refrigerator. "Mango iced tea, or raspberry basil?"
"Mango, please." I sat on a stool at the island.
Jack ripped his attention away from the magazine long enough to protest, "Haven, you know I can't stand that stuff. Just give me the regular kind."
"I don't have the regular kind," his sister retorted, pulling out a pitcher of citrus-colored tea. "You can try some of the mango."
"What's wrong with tea-flavored tea?"
"Quit complaining, Jack. Hardy tried this a few times and he likes it."
"Honey, Hardy would like it if you picked up grass clippings from the yard and brewed them. He's pussy-whipped."
Haven bit back a smile. "I dare you to say that to his face."
"Can't," came the laconic reply. "He's pussy-whipped, but he could still kick the crap out of me."
My eyes widened as I wondered what kind of man could manage to kick the crap out of Jack Travis.
"My fiancé used to be a welder on a drilling rig and he's tough as hell," Haven informed me, her eyes twinkling. "Which is a good thing. Otherwise my three older brothers would have run him off by now."
"We've done everything short of giving him a medal for taking you on," Jack retorted.
From their easy manner with each other, it was clear they enjoyed each other's company. Continuing to bicker companionably, Haven brought some tea to her brother and came back to the kitchen.
After giving me a glass, Haven leaned her forearms on the top of the kitchen island. "Do you like the apartment?" she asked.
"Yes, it's terrific. But there are issues—"
"I know. Here's the deal, Ella," she said with disarming frankness. "I've never paid rent for this apartment, since it came with the job. And after I get married, I'm moving into Hardy's place on the eighteenth floor." A self-conscious smile crossed her face as she added, "Most of my things are there already. So what we've got is an empty furnished apartment. I don't see why you shouldn't stay here with Luke for the next few months—taking care of your own utilities, of course—until it's time for you to go back to Austin. I wouldn't charge you anything, since the apartment would go unused in any case."
"No, I'd have to sublet it," I said. "I couldn't take it for free."
She made a little grimace and ran a hand through the layers of her hair. "I don't know how to put this delicately . . . but whatever you paid me would be nothing more than a symbolic gesture. I don't need the money."
"I still wouldn't consider it otherwise."
"Then take the amount you'd like to pay in rent and invest it for Luke."
"Can I ask why you're not turning this apartment into a revenue-producing property?"
"We've talked about it," she admitted. "There's a waiting list. But we're still not sure what we're ultimately going to do with it. When or if we hire a new manager, he or she will have to live on-site, so we'll need to keep this unit available."
"Why would you need a new—" I began, but I thought better and shut my mouth.
Haven smiled. "Hardy and I will probably try to start a family soon."
"A man who actually wants a baby," I said. "What a concept." There was no sound from Jack. I heard the rustling of glossy magazine pages.
I looked at Haven and hitched my shoulders in a helpless shrug. "I'm amazed that you're willing to do this for a complete stranger."
"You're not a complete stranger," she said reasonably. "After all, we know your cousin Liza, and Jack did go out with your sister Tara—
"Once," he interjected from the other room.
"Once," Haven repeated with a grin. "So you count as the friend of a friend. Also . . ." Her expression turned reflective. "Not long ago I was having a tough time, going through a nasty divorce. A few people, including Jack, helped me get through it. So I want to keep the good Karma going."
"I wasn't trying to help you," Jack said. "I needed cheap labor."
"Stay here, Ella," Haven urged. "You can move in immediately. All you need is a crib for the baby, and you're set."
I felt uncertain and awkward. I was not used to asking for help or receiving it. I had to figure out the possible complications. "If I could have just a little time to think about it? . . ."
"Sure." Her brown eyes sparkled. "Out of curiosity, what would Miss Independent say?"
I smiled. "I don't usually ask her advice."
"I know what she'd say." Jack came into the kitchen, bringing his empty tea glass. He braced one hand on the edge of the island, standing so close that I was tempted to shrink away. But I stayed still, nerve endings collecting movement with the acuity of cat's whiskers. The scent of him was fresh and dry, underpinned with a cedary masculine spice that I wanted to breathe in again and again.
"She'd tell you to do what was best for Luke," Jack said. "Wouldn't she?"
I nodded and leaned against the counter, cupping my elbows with my palms.
"So do it," he murmured.
He was pushing again, more insistent than any man had ever been with me. And for some reason, instead of pushing back, I wanted to relax into it.
Since I felt another blush coming on, I didn't dare glance up at him but instead turned my attention to Haven. She was watching her brother with an intense gaze, as if something he had just said or done had not been entirely in character. And then she busied herself with taking her empty glass to the sink, and said it was time for her to get back upstairs to the office, something about contracts and appointments. "I'll leave you to lock up," she said cheerfully. "Take as long as you need to think it over, Ella."
"Thanks. It was nice to meet you."
Neither Jack nor I moved as she left. I tensed on the stool, my toes hooking around one of the lower rungs. He leaned over me until I almost thought I could feel his breath stirring my hair.
"You were right," I said huskily. "I do like her." I sensed rather than saw Jack's brief nod. His silence impelled me to continue. "I'm sorry she had to go through a divorce."
"My only regret is she didn't do it sooner. And that I didn't get to wipe him off the face of the earth." There was no bravado in his tone, only a dead-serious calm that made me uneasy. I looked up at him then.
"You can't always protect the people you love," I said.
"So I've learned."
He didn't ask if I was going to stay. Somehow we both knew.
"This is very different from my life," I said after a moment. "I don't ever get to visit these kinds of places, much less live in one. I don't belong here, and I have nothing in common with anyone who does."
"Where do you belong? Back in Austin with Dane?" "Yes."
"Appears he doesn't think so."
I scowled. "That's a cheap shot."
Jack was unrepentant. "The people in this building are like everyone else, Ella. Some are nice and some aren't. Some are smart, and others are about as bright as a wet match in a dark cave. In other words, pretty normal. You'll get along fine." His voice gentled. "You'll find friends here."
"I'm not going to stay here long enough to get to know anyone. I'll be busy with Luke, obviously, and trying to help Tara get better. And I'll be working, of course."
"Are you going to drive to Austin to get your things, or will Dane bring them here?"
"I don't have a lot of stuff, actually. I think Dane can box up most of my clothes and UPS them. Maybe in a couple of weeks he'll drive over to visit."
I heard Luke waking up in the next room. Automatically I hopped off the stool. "Food and diaper time," I said, striding to the baby carrier.
"Why don't you stay here with Luke and relax while I go to the hotel and get your bags? I'll check you out now so you won't get charged for another night."
"But my car . . ."
"I'll take you to pick it up later. For now, rest."
That sounded good. The last thing I wanted was to get back in the car with Luke and go anywhere, especially in the worst heat of the day. I was tired, and the apartment was cool and serene. I looked at Jack ruefully. "I already owe you too many favors."
"One more won't make a difference, then." He watched as I unbuckled Luke and scooped him up from the carrier. "You got everything you need?"
"I'll be back in a little while. You've got my cell number."
"Thank you. I . . ." Feeling grateful, I reached into the insulated pocket of the diaper bag and pulled out a cold bottle. "I don't know why you're doing all this. Especially after the trouble I put you to. But I appreciate it."
Jack paused at the door and glanced back at me. "I like you, Ella. I respect what you're doing for your sister. Most people in your situation would back down rather than take the risk. I don't mind helping someone who's trying like hell to do the right thing."
While jack was gone, i took care of luke and then carried him around the apartment. We went into the bedroom, which was decorated with a brass bed covered in antique white lace, a rattan chest used as a nightstand, and a Victorian glass globe lamp. I settled Luke on the bed and sat next to him with my cell phone in hand.
I dialed Tara's number, got her voice recording, and left a message.
"Hi, sweetie . . . Luke and I are doing great. We're staying in Houston for the next three months. I was just thinking about you. Wondering how you were. And Tara . . ."—my throat tightened with compassion and tenderness—"I have some idea of what you're going through. How hard it is to talk about. . . well, about Mom and the past and all that stuff. I'm proud of you. You're doing the right thing. You're going to be okay."
As I hung up, I felt hot pressure behind my eyes. But the gathering tears vanished when I saw that Luke had turned his head to watch me with an innocently inquiring gaze. I inched closer and nuzzled his skull, the dark hair flat and silky as bird feathers. "You're going to be okay, too," I told him. And as the warmth of our bodies collected, we dozed together, Luke slipping into his innocent dreams, I into my unruly ones.
I slept far more heavily than I had expected or intended, waking when the room was dark. Surprised that Luke hadn't made a sound, I reached for him and felt a thrill of panic as my hand found nothing but empty space.
"Luke!" I scrambled upward, gasping.
"Hey . . ." Jack entered the room and turned on the light. "Easy. It's okay, Ella." His voice was soothing and soft. "The baby woke up before you did. I took him to the other room to let you get a little more sleep. We've been watching a game."
"Did he cry?" I asked thickly, rubbing my eyes.
"Only when he realized the Astros were having another first-round play-off flameout. But I told him there's no shame in crying over the Astros. It's how we Houston guys bond."
I tried to smile, but I was exhausted and not yet fully awake. And to my horror, as Jack approached the bed I had a terrible instinctive urge to lift my arms to him. But he was not Dane, and it was inappropriate, very nearly appalling, to think of him in the same context. It had taken four years of hard-won confidences and emotional risk for Dane and me to reach the intimacy we now shared. I couldn't imagine having that with any other man.
Before I could move, Jack came to stand beside the bed, looking down at me with soft dark eyes. I fell back a little, my stomach clenching with pleasure as I imagined for a split-second that he was about to lower over me, and his weight would be so hard and satisfying—
"Your car will be at the residents' garage in a couple of hours," he murmured. "I paid a guy at the hotel to drive it over here."
"Thank you, I . . . I'll pay you back. . . ."
"I don't want to be even more in debt to you than I already am."
He shook his head, looking amused. "Sometimes, Ella, you can relax and let someone do something nice for you."
I blinked as I heard chamber music coming from the other room. "What are you listening to?"
"I picked up a DVD for Luke while I was out. Something with Mozart and sock puppets."
A grin rose to my lips. "At this stage I don't think Luke can see more than ten inches beyond his face."