"Can you tell me just a little about what you've been doing?"
An unenthusiastic silence passed before Tara replied. "I've started taking an antidepressant."
"Good," I said. "Can you tell a difference?"
"It's not supposed to kick in for a few weeks, but I think it's helping already. And I've been talking with Dr. Jaslow a lot. She says the way we were raised was definitely not normal or healthy. And when your own mother is crazy and neglects you and competes with you, you have to figure out what that did to you as a child, and then you need to work on fixing it. Or . . ."
"Or we might end up repeating some of her patterns," I said softly.
"Yeah. So Dr. Jaslow and I are talking about some of the things that have always bothered me."
"Like . . ."
"Like the way Mom always said I was the pretty one and you were the smart one . . . that was wrong. It made me believe I was dumb and there was no chance of getting smarter. And I made a lot of stupid mistakes because of that."
"I know, sweetie."
"Maybe I'll never be a brain surgeon, but I'm smarter than Mom thinks."
"She doesn't know either of us, Tara."
"I want to confront Mom, try to make her understand what she did to us. But Dr. Jaslow says Mom will probably never get it. I could explain and explain, but Mom would deny it or say she doesn't remember."
"I agree. All you and I can do is work on our own issues."
"I'm doing that. I'm finding out a lot I didn't know. I'm getting better."
"Good. Because Luke misses his mommy."
Tara responded with a shy eagerness that touched me. "Do you really think so? I had him for such a short time, I don't know if he'll remember me."
"You carried him for nine months, Tara. He knows your voice. Your heartbeat."
"Does he sleep through the night?"
"I wish," I said ruefully. "Most nights he wakes up about three times at least. I'm getting used to it—I've started to sleep so lightly that as soon as he makes any noise at all, I'm instantly awake."
"Maybe it's better that he's with you. I've never been good at waking up fast."
I chuckled. "He gets loud in a hurry. Believe me, he'll have you popping out of bed like a toaster waffle." Pausing, I asked cautiously, "Do you think Mark will want to see him at some point?"
Abruptly the warm communication stopped. Tara's voice turned flat and cold. "Mark's not the father. I told you, there is no father. Luke's just mine."
"I'm not buying that Luke came from the cabbage patch, Tara. I mean, someone participated. And whoever it was, he owes you some help, and more importantly he owes Luke."
"That's my business."
It was difficult to keep from pointing out that since I'd been recruited to take care of Luke at my own expense, it was partly my business, too. "There are a lot of practical considerations we haven't begun to talk about, Tara. If Luke's daddy is helping you, if he's made promises . . . well, those promises need to be made legal. And someday Luke's going to want to know—"
"Not now, Ella. I've got to go—I'm late for an exercise class."
"But if you'll just let me—"
"Bye." The phone went dead in my hand.
Fuming and worried, I went to a pile of bills and catalogs on the kitchen island, and found the piece of paper Jack had given me with the number for the Fellowship of Eternal Truth.
I wondered what my responsibility was. It was clear to me that Tara was not at the point at which she could make decisions about the future. She was vulnerable, and she was probably being deceived by Mark Gottler into thinking that he would take care of her, that he would provide for her and the baby indefinitely. Maybe he had preyed upon her and taken advantage, thinking there would be no repercussions because she had virtually no family to speak of. But she had me.
For the next two days i called the fellowship of Eternal Truth, requesting a meeting with Mark Gottler. I got nothing but evasions, silences, or implausible excuses.
I was being stonewalled. I knew it would be impossible for me to get a meeting with Gottler on my own. He was way up in the adminisphere of the church, secluded and sheltered from the reach of mere mortals.
When I told Dane about the problem, he said he might have a helpful connection. The church had an extensive network of charities, and an old friend of his had something to do with Eternal Truth's Central American outreach. Unfortunately those efforts fell through, and I was left at square one again.
"You should ask Jack," Haven said on Friday after she got off work. "This is the kind of problem he's really good with. He knows everyone. He's not shy about calling in favors. And if I'm not mistaken, I think the company has a couple of contracts with that church."
We were having drinks in the apartment she shared with her fiancé, Hardy Cates. Haven had made a pitcher of white sangria, stirring Riesling together with chunks of peaches, oranges, and mangoes, and a liberal splash of Peach Schnapps.
The three-bedroom apartment featured a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlooked Houston. It was decorated in a sophisticated natural palette, with oversized furniture covered in rich fabrics and soft leather.
I had only seen that kind of apartment on TV shows and in movies. I distrusted the pleasure I got from being in such beautiful surroundings. It had nothing to do with reverse prejudice or envy. It was just that I understood how temporary my presence was in this world, and I didn't want to get used to it. Although I had never considered myself an ambitious person, I was discovering the terrible allure of luxury. With a private grin, I thought of how much I needed Dane to readjust my priorities.
Luke lay on a blanket on the floor, resting on his tummy. I watched, fascinated, as he briefly lifted his head. He was getting stronger, focusing more on his surroundings. It seemed he changed a little every day. I knew he wasn't doing anything that millions of babies didn't already do, that most people would have said he was ordinary . . . but to me he was amazing. I wanted so much for him. I wanted Luke to have every advantage in the world, and instead he had gotten less than average. No family, no home, not even a mother yet.
Patting his diapered rear end, I considered what Haven had just said about Jack. "I know he could help," I said. "But I'd rather find some other way around it. Jack has done enough for me and Luke."
Haven brought her own glass of sangria and sat on the floor beside us. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind. He likes you, Ella."
"He likes all women."
That drew a wry smile from Haven. "I won't argue with that. But you're different from the usual buckle-bunnies I've seen him with."
I shot her a quick glance and opened my mouth to protest.
"Oh, I know you're not with him," she said. "But it's obvious there's interest. At least on his part."
"Really?" I struggled to keep my tone and expression neutral. "I haven't gotten that. I mean, Jack's been really nice about helping me get settled in here . . . but he definitely understands that I'm going back to Dane, and that I'm not available, and . . . what's a buckle-bunny?"
She grinned. "It used to be a description of the girls who hung around rodeo cowboys looking to hook up. Now it means any Texas gold digger who's looking for a sugar daddy."
"I'm not a gold digger."
"No, you advise them in your column. You tell them to support themselves and get their priorities straight."
"Everyone should listen to me," I said, and Haven laughed, lifting her glass.
I shared the toast, and took a sip.
"Have as much as you want, by the way," Haven told me. "Hardy won't touch it. He says he'll only have a fruity drink if we're on a tropical beach and no one we know is looking."
"What is it with Houston guys?" I asked in bemuse-ment.
Haven grinned. "I don't know. I have an old college friend from Massachusetts who visited recently, and she swore the men around here were a subspecies."
"Did she like them?"
"Oh, yes. Her only complaint was that they didn't talk enough for her taste."
"Obviously she didn't get them started on the right subjects," I said, and Haven snickered.
"No kidding. Last week I had to listen to Hardy and Jack discuss all the ways you can start a fire without matches. They came up with seven."
"Eight," came a deep voice from the doorway, and I turned to see a man walking into the apartment. Hardy Cates had the rangy, muscular build of a roughneck, a surplus of sex appeal, and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. His hair wasn't the inky black of Jack's, but a rich mink brown. Setting down a bulging leather briefcase, he went to Haven. "We remembered," he continued laconically, "that you could polish the bottom of a Coke can with toothpaste and use the reflection to light tinder."
"Eight, then," Haven said, laughing, and lifted her face as he bent over her for a kiss. When he lifted his head, she said, "Hardy, this is Ella. The woman who's staying in my apartment."
Hardy bent and extended a hand to me. "Nice to meet you, Ella." His smile widened as he saw Luke. "How old is he?"
"About three weeks."
He gave the baby an approving glance. "Good-looking boy." Loosening his tie, Hardy glanced at the pitcher of pale liquid on the coffee table. "What are y'all drinking?"
"Sangria." Haven smiled at his expression. "There's beer in the fridge."
"Thanks, but tonight I'm starting with something stronger."
Haven watched alertly as her fiancé went to the kitchen. Although Hardy seemed relaxed, Haven must have been keenly attuned to his moods, because a furrow corrugated her forehead. She got up and went to him. "What is it?" she asked, while he poured a shot of Jack Daniel's.
Hardy sighed. "Had it out with Roy today." Glancing over at me, he explained, "One of my partners." His attention returned to Haven. "He's been analyzing cuttings from an old well, and he thinks we're going to hit a good pay zone if we keep on drilling. But the fingerprints on the cuttings—that's a way of measuring the quality of the oil—show that even if we find a reservoir, it's not going to be worth it." "Roy doesn't agree?" Haven asked.
Hardy shook his head. "He's fighting to keep the checkbook open. But I told him the budget's gonna stay ribs-and-dick until—" Pausing, he threw me an apologetic grin. "Pardon, Ella. My language gets kind of rough when I've been out with the field guys."
"No problem," I said.
Haven ran a light hand over his arm after he tossed back the shot in one swallow. "Roy should know better than to argue with you," she murmured. "Your instinct for finding oil is practically legendary."
Setting aside the glass, Hardy gave her a rueful smile. "According to Roy, so is my ego."
"Roy's full of it." She leaned closer to him. "Need a hug?"
I leaned over Luke and played with him, trying to ignore what was quickly becoming a private moment.
I heard Hardy murmur something to the effect that he would get what he needed later, followed by absolute silence. Glancing at them, I saw his head bent over hers. Quickly I returned my attention to the baby. They should have some time alone, I thought.
As they came into the living room, I began to pack up the diaper bag. "Time for us to go," I said brightly. "Haven, that was the best sangria I've ever—"
"Oh, stay for dinner," she exclaimed. "I've already made a ton of chicken escabeche—it's a cold Mediterranean salad. And we'll have some tapas and olives and Manchego cheese."
"She's a great cook," Hardy said, crossing an arm around her front and pulling her against him. "Stay, Ella, or I'll end up having to drink that damn sangria with her."
I looked at them doubtfully. "Are you sure you don't want some privacy?"
"We wouldn't have it even if you left," Hardy said. "Jack's coming up here."
"He is?" Haven and I asked at the same time. A jolt of anxiety went through me.
"Yeah, I saw him in the lobby, told him to come up for a beer. He's in a great mood. He just met with some zoning lawyer about the building renovations for the McKinney Street
"They can bypass the restrictions?" Haven asked.
"The lawyer says so."
"I told Jack not to worry. Houston zoning is a myth. It never actually happens." Haven gave me an encouraging glance. "This'll work out perfectly, Ella. You can ask Jack about getting into Eternal Truth."
"You want Jack to go to church?" Hardy asked blankly. "Honey, he'd be struck by lightning as soon as he went in the front door."
Haven grinned at him. "Compared to you, Jack is a choirboy."
"Since he's your big brother," he told her kindly, "I'll let you keep your illusions."
The doorbell rang, and Haven went to answer it. I was annoyed to feel my pulse beginning to drum. The kiss meant nothing, I told myself. The feel of his body against mine had meant nothing. The sweet intimate taste of him, the heat—
"Hey, boss." Standing on her toes, Haven hugged Jack briefly.
"You only call me boss when you want something," Jack said, following her into the apartment. He stopped as he saw me, his expression inscrutable. He must have taken a moment to change clothes after work, because he was wearing faded jeans and a fresh T-shirt that seemed to glow optic-white against his cinnamon tan. I was unnerved by a response that cut deeply into my composure. He had an irresistible combination of vitality, confidence, and masculinity, blended like some perfectly proportioned cocktail. "Hey, Ella," he murmured, giving me a brief nod.
"Hi," I said feebly.
"You and Ella are staying for dinner," Haven informed him.
Jack glanced alertly at her and then back at me. "Are we?"
I nodded, reaching for my sangria, managing by some miracle not to knock it over.
Easing down to the floor beside me, Jack picked Luke up and tucked him against his chest. "Hi, little guy." The baby looked up at him intently, while Jack played with his tiny hand. "How's the crib working out?" Jack asked me, his attention still focused on Luke.