"It's great. Very sturdy."
He met my gaze then. We were sitting very close. The irises of his eyes were amazingly clear and brown, like some exotic spice dissolved in brandy. You need a challenge, he had told me, and I found it right there in his gaze, along with the promise that not only was I going to lose but I would enjoy it.
"Ella has a problem we were hoping you could help with," Haven said from the kitchen, opening the refrigerator.
Jack stared at me steadily, while one corner of his mouth curled upward. "What's your problem, Ella?"
"You want a beer, Jack?" came Hardy's voice.
"Yeah," Jack replied. "Lime wedge if you got it."
"I'm trying to get a meeting with Mark Gottler," I told Jack. "To talk with him about my sister."
His expression softened. "Is she okay?"
"Yes, I think so. But I don't think she's doing anything to secure her own interests, or Luke's. I need to meet with Gottler and pin him down on a few things. He's not going to pay Tara's clinic bill and dust his hands and think he's through with the whole thing. He's going to have to do right by Tara and Luke."
Settling Luke back onto the blanket, Jack picked up a little stuffed bunny and dangled it over him, causing Luke to kick his legs in enjoyment. "So you want me to get you in there," he said.
"Yes. I need to see Gottler privately."
"I can arrange a meeting, but the only way you'll get in there is by going embedded."
I gave him an outraged glance, incredulous that he would have propositioned me within earshot of his sister. "If you think I'm going to sleep with you just so I can see Gottler—"
"I said embedded, Ella. Not 'in bed.' "
"Oh," I said, chastened. "You meant like a computer virus?"
Jack nodded, looking sardonic. "I'll come up with some reason to meet with him and take you along. No sex required. Although if you're feeling grateful . . ."
"I'm not that grateful." But I couldn't help smiling, because I had never met a man who could have exuded such barely leashed sexiness while holding a stuffed bunny.
Jack followed my gaze to the toy in his hand. "What kind of stuff are you buying him? This isn't for boys."
"He likes it," I protested. "What's wrong with bunnies?"
Haven sat on a nearby ottoman, smiling ruefully. "Our brother Gage is the same," she told me. "Very definite ideas on what's appropriate for boys. Although I don't think he would have had a problem with the bunny, Jack."
"There's a bow on its tail," came Jack's grim observation. But he made do with the toy, hopping it across Luke's chest and making it swoop over his face.
Haven and I laughed at Luke's entranced expression. "Men and women relate to children so differently," Haven said. "Gage plays much rougher with Matthew, tosses him in the air, surprises him, and the baby seems to love it. I guess that's why it's good to have both—" She broke off and colored swiftly, recalling too late that Luke didn't have a father to speak of. "Sorry, Ella."
"It's okay," I said immediately. "Obviously Luke's going to be a little short on male influence for a while. But I'm hoping my sister will meet a good man at some point, and maybe Luke will have a stepfather someday."
"He'll be fine," Jack said, holding the bunny still while Luke grasped its ear. "God knows our dad was hardly ever around. And when he was, we could hardly wait to get rid of him. We grew up without a father, most of the time."
"And look how we turned out," Haven said. They glanced at each other, she and Jack, and burst out laughing as if at some absurdity.
We had a casual dinner, and everyone took turns holding Luke. Haven continued to pour the sangria, and I drank until I was pleasantly giddy. I laughed more than I had in weeks. Months. I wondered what it meant, however, that I could enjoy the company of people who were so different from Dane and my friends in Austin.
I was certain that Dane would find much to criticize about Hardy and Jack, both of them well versed in backroom deals and bending the rules. They were older than the men I was accustomed to, and far more cynical, and probably ruthless when it came to getting what they wanted. And yet so damnably charming.
That was the danger, I thought. The affable manners and the charm, blinding you to what they really were. The kind of man who could control you, steer you into compromise after compromise, and make you think you were happy doing it. And only after you had walked into the trap would you realize the mistake you had made. The revelation was that even knowing this, I could be so attracted to a man like Jack Travis.
I sat next to him on one of the deep velvet sofas, trying to identify the feeling that was stealing over me. I finally realized it was relaxation. I had never been an especially relaxed person, always wound tight and waiting for an emergency to strike. But tonight I was strangely at ease. Maybe it was because I was in a situation in which I had no need to protect myself or prove anything. Maybe it was the sleeping baby, warm and safe in my arms.
As I settled back with Luke, I found myself tucked against Jack's warm side, one of his arms extended along the sofa back. Closing my eyes, I let my cheek rest on his shoulder. Just for a moment. One of his hands came up to the side of my face, stroking my hair.
"What did you put in that goddamn sangria, Haven?" I heard him ask mildly.
"Nothing," she said in a defensive tone. "White wine, mostly. I've had just as much as Ella, and I'm fine."
"I'm fine, too," I protested, screwing my eyes open. "Just a Hi—" I paused, having to concentrate to form the words right. My tongue felt like it had been Scotchguarded. "Shleep-deprived."
"Ella, honey . . ." There was a tremor of laughter in Jack's voice, and his hand moved over my hair. His fingers delved through the light, loose strands to my scalp and stroked tenderly. I closed my eyes again and held still, hoping he wouldn't stop.
"What time is it?" I mumbled, yawning.
I heard Haven ask, "Should I make coffee?"
"No," Jack said before I could reply.
"Liquor can hit you like an anvil when you're tired," Hardy said, sounding sympathetic. "It was like that on the rig. A couple of weeks on with a night shift thrown in, and you were so exhausted one beer would lay you flat."
"I'm still getting used to Luke's schedule," I said, rubbing my bleary eyes. "He's not what you'd call a good sleeper. Even for an infant."
"Ella," Haven said, her face kind and concerned, "we've got an extra bedroom. Why don't you crash here tonight? I'll take care of Luke so you can get some rest."
"No. Oh, that's so nice, you're so . . . but I'm fine. I jus' need to . . ." I paused to yawn, and forgot what I'd been saying. "Need to find the elevator," I said vaguely.
Haven came to me, lifting the baby from my arms. "I'll put him in his carrier."
I wished I could have just five more minutes of resting against Jack. The muscles beneath his T-shirt pillowed my cheek so firmly, so perfectly. "Li'l longer," I mumbled, burrowing deeper. I sighed and drowsed, dimly aware of the murmured conversation around me.
". . . hard, what she's doing," Haven was saying. "To put your life on hold . . ."
"What's the deal with the Austin guy?" Hardy asked.
"Wouldn't man up," Jack replied in a tone of unqualified disdain. And although I wanted to say something in Dane's defense, I was too exhausted to make a sound. Either I dozed more heavily or a long silence passed, because I didn't hear anything for a while.
"Ella," I eventually heard, and I shook my head in annoyance. I was so comfortable, and I wanted the voice to go away. "Ella." Something soft and hot brushed my cheek. "Let me take you down to your apartment."
I was mortified to realize that I had fallen sound asleep in front of all three of them, and that I was practically in Jack's lap. "Okay. Yes. I'm sorry." I struggled upward, tried to find my balance.
Jack reached out to steady me. "Lightweight."
Red-faced and groggy, I scowled. "I didn't have that much to drink."
"We know you didn't," Haven said soothingly, and she shot her brother a warning glance. "You're the last person who has any right to tease, Mr. Sleep Inertia."
Jack grinned and told me, "I get up at seven every morning, but I'm not really awake 'til noon." He kept a supportive arm around my shoulder. "Come on, blue eyes. I'll help you find the elevator."
"Where's the baby?"
"I just fed and changed him," Haven said. Hardy lifted Luke's carrier and gave it to Jack, who took it with his free hand.
"Thank you." I gave Haven a woeful glance as she handed me the diaper bag. "I'm sorry."
"For falling asleep like that."
Haven smiled and reached out to hug me. "There's nothing to be sorry about. What's a little narcolepsy among friends?" Her body was slim and strong, one small hand patting my back. The gesture surprised me in its naturalness and ease. I returned the embrace awkwardly. Haven said over my shoulder, "I like this one, Jack."
Jack didn't answer, only nudged me out into the hallway.
I trudged forward, nearly blind with exhaustion, staggering with it. It took extreme focus to keep one foot in front of the other. "I don't know why I'm so tired tonight," I said. "It's all caught up with me, I guess." I felt Jack's hand descend to the center of my back, guiding me forward. I decided to talk to keep myself awake. "You know, chronic sleep deper . . . dep . . ."
"Yes." I shook my head to clear it. "It gives you memory problems and raises your blood pressure. And it results in occupational hazards. It's lucky I can't get hurt doing my job. Unless I fall forward and hit my head on the keyboard. If you ever see qwerty imprinted on my forehead, you'll know what happened."
"Here we go," Jack said, loading me onto the elevator. I squinted at the row of buttons and reached for one. "No," he said patiently, "that's the nine, Ella. Press the upside-down one."
"They're all upside-down," I told him, but I managed to find the 6. Propping myself up in the corner, I wrapped my arms around my midriff. "Why did Haven tell you 'I like this one'?"
"Why shouldn't she like you?"
"It's just. . . if she says it to you, it implies . . ."—I tried to wrap my foggy brain around the idea—". . . something."
A quiet laugh escaped him. "Don't try thinking just now, Ella. Save it for later."
That sounded like a good idea. "Okay."
The elevator door opened, and I tottered out while Jack followed.
Due to luck rather than coordination, I pushed the right combination on the keypad of my door. We went into the apartment. "Have to make the bottles," I said, lurching toward the kitchen.
"I'll take care of that. Go put on your pajamas."
Gratefully I went into the bedroom and changed into a T-shirt and flannel pants. By the time I finished washing my face and brushing my teeth, and went to the kitchen, Jack had already filled the bottles, put them in the refrigerator, and had settled Luke in the crib. He smiled as I approached him hesitantly. "You look like a little girl," he murmured, "with your face all clean and shiny." He touched my face with one hand, his thumb stroking beneath one of my dark-circled eyes. "Tired girl," he whispered.
I flushed. "I'm not a child."
"I know that." He eased me closer, his arms warm and secure, shoring my balance. "You're a strong, smart woman. But even strong women need help sometimes. You're wearing yourself out, Ella. Yeah, I know you don't like advice unless you're giving it. But you're getting some anyway. You need to start thinking long-term about what you're going to do with Luke."
I was amazed that I could reply coherently. "This isn't a long-term situation."
"You don't know that. Especially if it all depends on Tara."
"I know that people can change."
"People can change their habits, maybe. But not who they are deep down." Jack began to rub my back and shoulders, and squeezed the sore muscles at the nape of my neck. I let out a faint moan at the exquisite pressure of his fingers. "I hope to hell that Tara will be able to solve her problems and turn into a half-decent parent and let you off the hook. But I'd be damn surprised if that happens. I think this situation is more permanent than you'd like to admit. You're a new mother, whether or not you had a chance to get ready for it. You're going to burn out if you don't take care of yourself. You need to sleep when the baby sleeps. You need to find daycare, or get a nanny or a go-to babysitter."
"I won't be here that long. Tara will come for him, and then I'm going back to Austin."
"Back to what? A guy who bails on you when you need him? What's Dane doing now that's more important than helping you? Fighting for the rights of endangered ferns?"
I stiffened and pushed away from him, irritation jolting me out of my fugue-state. "You have no right to judge Dane or my relationship with him."
Jack made a scoffing sound. "That half-assed excuse for a relationship was over the moment Dane told you not to bring the baby to Austin. You know what he should have said? . . . 'Hell, yes, Ella, I'll stand by you no matter what you do. Shit happens. We'll make it work. Come home now and get in bed.' "
"There was no way Dane could have handled this and kept his company going, and you have no idea how many causes he has, how many people he helps—"
"His woman should be his number-one cause."
"Spare me the bumper-sticker philosophy. And quit taking cheap shots at Dane. When have you ever put a woman first? "
"I'm about to put you first right now, darlin'."
That comment could have been construed a few different ways, but the gleam in his eyes gave it a positively filthy spin. My thoughts scattered and my pulse went crazy. It wasn't fair for him to make a move on me when I was exhausted. But apparently on Jack Travis's list of priorities, fairness ranked a lot lower than sex. And it was sex we were circling around. It had been since the beginning. There was no way either of us could take it out of the equation.