I found myself scooting behind the coffee table like the outraged virgin in some Victorian melodrama. "Jack, this isn't a good time. I'm really tired and I'm not thinking straight."
"That's what makes it a great time. If you were rested and sober, it'd be a hell of a lot harder to argue with you."
"I don't do things on impulse, Jack. I don't—" I broke off with a swift in-drawn breath as he reached across the space between us and snatched my wrist in his hand. "Let go." There was no force to my voice at all.
"How many guys you been with, Ella?" he asked softly, drawing me around the coffee table.
"I don't believe people should tell each other their numbers. In fact, I once wrote a column—"
"One, two?" he interrupted, bringing me close again.
I was trembling. "One and a half."
A smile touched his lips. "How can you have sex with half a guy?"
"I was dating him in high school. We were experimenting. I was working up to going all the way with him, but before that happened, I came home one day and found him in bed with my mother."
With a sympathetic sound, Jack held me close, the embrace so careful and protective that I had no chance in hell of resisting it.
"I'm over it now," I added.
"Right." He continued to hold me.
"Sex has always been great with Dane. I've never needed to look anywhere else."
"Basically I'm not really driven in that regard."
"Sure." His arms tightened until I had no choice but to rest my head on his shoulder. I relaxed slowly. It was so quiet in the room, nothing but the sound of his breathing, and mine, and the hum of the air-conditioning vent.
Sweet Lord, he smelled good.
I wanted nothing to do with any of this. It was like being strapped into a roller-coaster seat, waiting for the ride to start, knowing it was going to be awful. Death-defying drops. Hematoma-inducing G-forces.
"Ever wonder what it would be like with someone else?" Jack asked gently.
I felt his mouth brush over my hair. "You never had a spontaneous moment when you said, 'What the hell,' and went for it?"
"I don't have spontaneous moments."
"Here's one for you, Ella." Jack's lips found mine, following insistently as I tried to evade him. His hand curled around the back of my neck, his fingers strong. A shock went through me, spurring my heart into a fast, frantic beat. He kissed me repeatedly, long indecent kisses, all slippery friction and hot silk. I gasped at the abrasion of his shaven jaw and cheeks, the insistent exploration of his tongue.
Blindly I reached for his wrists, one behind my neck, one at my side, and I gripped hard, the tips of my nails digging into dense muscle. I didn't know if I was trying to pull his hands away or push them closer. He kept kissing me, exploring roughly, expertly. I let go of his wrists and molded against the arousing terrain of his body. I had never existed in such a purely physical compass, thinking nothing, aware of nothing. Only needing. Craving.
He slid one hand to my bottom, urging me against the stiff, enticing pressure of his erection, and I was panting, arching in a desperate effort to keep him right there. His kisses gentled, his mouth absorbing the sounds that rose in my throat. I strained against him, sensation collecting, muscles tightening as his hand pressed me in a subtle rhythm. Nothing had ever been so delicious as his mouth, his body, the hands that urged me forward until our h*ps were rubbing in a lazy exact pulse.
The tension gathered in a surge that promised release . . . wrenching, out-of-control, in-heat spasms that would cause me to die of humiliation. All that from a kiss and a fully clothed embrace. Not going to happen, I thought in panic, tearing my mouth from his.
"Wait," I said with difficulty, my fingers tangling helplessly in his shirt. My body throbbed in every extremity. My mouth felt swollen. "I have to stop."
Jack looked down at me, his eyes heavy-lidded, his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose burnished with high color. "Not yet," he said thickly. "We're just getting to the best part." Before I could make another sound, he bent to take my mouth again. This time there was intent in the rhythm, a shameless grinding deliberateness. He was pushing me, teasing, letting my squirming body carry the momentum.
Taste, movement, hot rhythmic stroking, all pulled the ecstatic sensations into one forward direction. I jerked against him, giving a low cry. The rush was so powerful that I couldn't keep up with my own heartbeat. I shivered and hunched and clenched my hands in his shirt. And Jack prolonged the pleasure, maintaining the unhurried sliding rhythm, knowing exactly what he was doing. As the last few twitches left my body, dissolving in a white-hot glow, I whimpered and sagged against him. "Oh no. Oh God. You shouldn't have done that."
Jack nipped at my chin, my scarlet cheek, the tender skin of my throat. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's all good, Ella."
We both fell silent, waiting for me to catch my breath. Pressed as close as we were, I could hardly keep from noticing that he was still aroused. What was the sexual etiquette for this? I had an obligation to reciprocate, didn't I? "I guess," I faltered after a long moment, "I should do something for you now."
Jack's midnight eyes were bright with amusement. "That's okay. My treat."
"That's not fair to you."
"Get some rest. Later you can tell me what's on the menu."
I looked at him uncertainly, wondering what he might expect from me. I'd had a normal healthy sex life with Dane, but we had never strayed into what anyone would consider exotic territory. "My menu is pretty limited."
"Considering how much I liked the appetizer, I wouldn't complain." Jack released me cautiously, keeping one hand on my shoulder as I swayed. "Want me to carry you to bed?" His tone was teasing and gentle. "Tuck you in?"
I shook my head.
"Go on, then," Jack murmured. I felt him pat my bottom.
And he left the apartment while I stared after him, feeling dazed and elated and horribly guilty. I bit my lip to keep from calling him back.
I checked on Luke, who was deep in slumber, and then I went to the bedroom and crawled beneath the covers. As I lay in the darkness, my battered conscience crawled out of a trench, waving a little white flag.
I realized Dane and I hadn't talked the previous night, or this one. The familiar pattern of my life was fading like a rub-on tattoo.
I'm in trouble, Dane. I think I'm going to make a terrible mistake. I can't seem to stop it from happening.
I'm losing my way.
Let me come home.
Had I not been so exhausted, I would have called Dane. But I knew I wouldn't be coherent. And in some obdurate, bruised corner of my heart, I wanted Dane to call me.
But the phone stayed silent. And when I fell asleep, Dane had no part of my dreams.
Dear Miss Independent,
I just started going out with a guy I have nothing in common with. He's a few years younger than me and we have different tastes in just about everything. He likes the outdoors, I like to stay inside. He likes sci-fi and I like knitting. In spite of all that, I have never been so crazy about anyone. But I'm afraid that since we're so different, the relationship is doomed to fail. Should I break it off now before we get any more involved?
—Worried in Walla Walla
Sometimes when we're not paying attention, relation-ships happen. There is no rule that requires two people in love to be exactly alike. In fact, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that on a genetic level, the people who are the most opposite are the most likely to have a healthy and long-lasting pairing. But really, who can explain the mysteries of attraction? Blame it on Cupid. The moon. The shape of a smile. Both of you can thrive on your differences, as long as you respect them. You say tomato, he says tomahto. Let it happen, Worried. Dive in headfirst. We usually learn the most about ourselves from people who are different from us.
I stared at my computer screen. "Let it happen?" I muttered. I hated to let things happen. I never went anywhere new without Map Questing it. Whenever I bought something, I sent in the registration and warranty cards. When Dane and I had sex, we used condoms, spermicide, and the pill. I never ate foods containing red dye. I wore sunscreen with double digit SPF.
You need some fun, Jack had told me, and sub-sequently proved that he was more than capable of supplying it. I had a feeling that if I ever let go with him, there would be a lot of seriously adult fun involved. Except that life wasn't about fun, it was about doing the right thing, and if fun was an occasional by-product, you were lucky.
I cringed at the thought of the next time I saw Jack, wondering what I would say to him. If only I could confide in someone. Stacy. But I knew she would tell Tom, who would make some comment to Dane.
Halfway through the day, the phone rang, and I saw Jack's number on the caller ID. I reached for the phone, snatched my hand back, then reached again cautiously.
"Ella, how's it going?" Jack sounded relaxed and professional. An office voice.
"Pretty good," I said warily. "You?"
"Great. Listen, I made a couple of calls to Eternal Truth this morning, and I want to bring you up to date. Why don't you meet me for lunch at the restaurant?"
"The one on the seventh floor?"
"Yeah, you can bring Luke. Meet me there in twenty minutes."
"Can't you just tell me now?"
"No, I need someone to eat with."
A slight smile rose to my lips. "Am I supposed to believe that I'm your only option?"
"No. But you're my favorite option."
I was glad he couldn't see the color that swept over my face. "I'll be there."
Since I was still wearing my pajamas, I dashed to the closet and grabbed a beige twill jacket, a white shirt, jeans, and sandals with wedge heels. I spent the rest of the time getting Luke ready, changing him into a fresh onesie and baby jeans that snapped along the insides of the legs.
When I was certain we were presentable, I put Luke in his carrier and slung the diaper bag over my shoulder. We went up to the restaurant, a contemporary bistro with black leather chairs and glass tables, and colorful abstract artwork on the walls. Most of the diners were business people, women in conservative dresses, men in classic suits. Jack was already there, talking with the hostess. He was lean and handsome in a dark navy suit and French blue shirt. Ruefully I reflected that Houston, unlike Austin, was a place where people dressed for lunch.
Jack saw me and came forward to take Luke's carrier. He disconcerted me by pressing a brief kiss on my cheek.
"Hi," I said, blinking. I was annoyed to discover that I was embarrassed and breathless, as if I'd been caught watching an adult cable channel.
Jack seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. He smiled slowly.
"Don't look so smug," I told him.
"I'm not smug. This is just my way of smiling."
The hostess led us to a corner table by the windows, and Jack set Luke's carrier on the chair beside mine. After seating me, Jack handed me a small blue paper bag with string handles.
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's for Luke."
I reached in the bag and pulled out a small stuffed truck made for infants. It was soft and pliant, sewn with different textured fabrics. The wheels made a crinkling noise when you squished them. I shook the toy experimentally and heard a rattling sound. Smiling, I showed the toy to Luke and placed it on his chest. He immediately began to grope the interesting new object with his tiny fingers.
"That's a truck," I told the baby.
"An articulated front loader," Jack added helpfully.
"Thanks. I guess we can get rid of that sissy bunny now."
Our gazes held, and I found myself smiling at him. I could still feel the place on my cheek where he had kissed me.
"Did you talk to Mark Gottler personally?" I asked.
Jack's eyes glinted with humor. "Do we have to start with that?"
"What else would we start with?"
"Couldn't you ask me something like, 'How did your morning go?' or 'What's your idea of the perfect day?' "
"I already know what your idea of the perfect day is."
He arched a brow as if that surprised him. "You do? Let's hear it."
I was going to say something flip and funny. But as I stared at him, I considered the question seriously. "Hmmn. I think you'd be at a cottage at the beach . . ."
"My perfect day includes a woman," he volunteered.
"Okay. There's a girlfriend. Very low-maintenance."
"I don't know any low-maintenance women."
"That's why you like this one so much. And the cottage is rustic, by the way. No cable, no wireless, and you've both turned off your cell phones. The two of you take a morning walk along the beach, maybe go for a swim. And you pick up a few pieces of seaglass to put in a jar. Later, you both ride bikes into the town, and you head for the outfitters shop to buy some fishing stuff . . . some kind of bait—"
"Flies, not bait," Jack said, his gaze not moving from mine. "Lefty's Deceivers."
"For what kind of fish?"
"Great. So then you go fishing—"
"The girlfriend, too?" he asked.
"No, she stays behind and reads."
"She doesn't like to fish?"
"No, but she thinks it's fine that you do, and she says it's healthy for you to have separate interests." I paused. "She packed a really big sandwich and a couple of beers for you."
"I like this woman."
"You go out in your boat, and you bring home a nice catch and throw it on the grill. You and the woman have dinner. You sit with your feet up, and you talk. Sometimes you stop to listen to the sounds of the tide coming in. After that, the two of you go on the beach with a bottle of wine, and sit on a blanket to watch the sunset." I finished and looked at him expectantly. "How was that?"
I had thought Jack would be amused, but he stared at me with disconcerting seriousness. "Great." And then he was quiet, staring at me as if he were trying to figure out some sleight-of-hand trick.
The waiter approached us, described the specials, took our drink orders, and left us with a bread basket.
Reaching for his water glass, Jack rubbed his thumb over the film of condensation on the outside. Then he shot me a level glance as if taking up a challenge. "My turn," he said.