"As you know, Mr. Gottler," I said evenly, "my sister isn't in a position to handle her own business. She's vulnerable. Easy to take advantage of. That's why I wanted to talk to you myself."
The pastor smiled at me. "Before we get into this any further, let's take a moment to pray."
"I don't see why—" I began.
"Sure," Jack interrupted, nudging my leg under the table. He sent me a warning glance. Take it easy, Ella.
I scowled and subsided, lowering my head.
Gottler began. "Dear Heavenly Father, Lord of our hearts, Giver of all good things, we pray for Your peace today. We ask You to help us turn any moments of negativity into opportunities to find Your way and resolve our differences . . ."
The prayer went on and on, until I came to the conclusion that Gottler was either stalling or trying to impress us with his elocution. Either way, I was impatient. I wanted to talk about Tara. I wanted decisions to be made. As I lifted my head to steal a glance at Gottler, I found that he was doing the same with me, sizing up the situation, assessing me as an adversary. And still he kept talking. ". . . since You created the universe, Lord, You can surely make things happen for our sister Tara, and—"
"She's my sister, not yours," I snapped. Both men glanced up at me in surprise. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut, but I couldn't stand it any longer. My nerves were as tight as the teeth on a pocket comb.
"Let the man pray, Ella," Jack murmured. His hand settled high on my shoulders, his thumb rubbing the nape of my neck. I stiffened but fell silent.
I understood. Rituals had to be observed. We wouldn't get anything by going mano a mano with the pastor. I dropped my head and waited while he continued. I occupied myself with taking a few yoga breaths from deep down, continuous and easy. I felt Jack's thumb at the back of my neck, circling with agreeable pressure.
Finally, Gottler finished with, "May You grant us wisdom and profiting ears, almighty and merciful Lord. Amen."
"Amen," Jack and I both murmured, and we looked up. Jack's hand slid away from me.
"Mind if I talk first?" Jack asked Gottler, who nodded.
Jack slid a questioning glance at me.
"Sure," I muttered acidly. "You guys just talk things over while I listen."
Relaxed and soft-voiced, Jack said to Gottler, "Don't see the need to spell out the particulars of the situation, Mark. I think we all know what's under the porch. And we want to keep things private as much as you do."
"Good to hear," Gottler said with unmistakable sincerity.
"I figure we're all after the same thing," Jack continued. "For Tara and Luke to get situated, and everyone to go on with business as usual."
"The church helps a lot of people in need, Jack," Gottler said reasonably. "I'm sorry to say there are many young women in Tara's situation. And we do what we can. But if we help out Tara more than we do others, I'm afraid it's going to draw some unwanted attention to her situation."
"What about a court-ordered paternity test?" I asked tautly. "That would draw some attention, too, wouldn't it? What about—"
"Easy, honey," Jack murmured. "Mark's working around to something. Give him a chance."
"I hope he is," I retorted, "because paying for Tara's stay at the clinic is only the beginning. I want a trust fund for the baby, and I want—"
"Miss Varner," Gottler said, "I had already decided to offer Tara an employment contract." Faced with my ill-concealed scorn, he added meaningfully, "With benefits."
"Sounds interesting," Jack commented, gripping my thigh beneath the table and pushing me fully into my seat. "Let's hear the man out. Go on, Mark . . . what kind of benefits? Are we talking some kind of housing deal?"
"That is definitely on the table," the pastor allowed. "Federal tax law allows ministries to provide parsonages for their employees, so . . . if Tara works for us, it wouldn't violate any prohibitions against personal benefit." Gottler paused thoughtfully. "The church has a ranch in Colleyville that includes a private gated community with about ten houses on it. Each one is fenced with a pool, on an acre lot. Tara and the baby could live there."
"By themselves?" I asked. "With things like utilities, landscaping, maintenance all taken care of?"
"That might be possible," he allowed.
"For how long?" I persisted.
Gottler was silent. Clearly there were limits to what Eternal Truth was willing to do for Tara Varner, no matter that one of its chief clergy had knocked her up. Why did I have to be here prying something out of Mark Gottler that he should have already offered?
My thoughts must have shown on my face, because Jack interceded quickly.
"We're not interested in temporary solutions, Mark, since the baby is now a permanent part of Tara's life. I think we're going to have to work out some kind of promissory contract with assurances for both sides. We can offer a guarantee that there'll never be any talking to the media, the child won't be submitted to genetic testing to determine parentage . . . whatever you need to feel comfortable. But in return Tara will need a car, a monthly expense account, health insurance, maybe a 529 for the baby . . ." Jack made a gesture to indicate the list was longer than he cared to enumerate.
Gottler made a comment about having to get clearance from his board of directors, and then Jack smiled and said he couldn't picture Gottler having a problem there, and for the next few minutes I listened, half-impressed and half-disgusted. They finished with the acknowledgment that both sides were going to let their lawyers hash out the details.
". . . have to let me work on this," Gottler was telling Jack. "You did spring it on me with no advance notice."
"We sprang it on you?" I repeated, incredulous and surly. "You had nine months to consider all this. It hasn't occurred to you until now that you might be obligated to do something for Luke? "
"Luke," Gottler said, looking strangely preoccupied. "Is that his name?" He blinked a couple of times. "Of course."
"Why 'of course'?" I demanded, but he only responded with a humorless smile and a shake of his head.
Jack urged me to stand with him. "We’ll let you get on with your business now, Mark. Let's keep that timetable in mind. And I'd like an update as soon as you talk to the board members you mentioned."
"Sure thing, Jack."
Gottler ushered us out of the conference room, past sets of double doors and columns and portraits and plaques. I read the plaques as we walked by, my attention caught by a huge arch of limestone over black walnut doors with stained-glass insets. The stone was engraved : for with God nothing shall be impossible, Luke 1:37
"Where does that door lead?" I asked.
"To my offices, actually." A man had approached the door from another direction. He paused and turned to face us, smiling.
"Pastor Cardiff," Gottler said quickly. "This is Jack Travis, and Miss Ella Varner."
Noah Cardiff shook Jack's hand. "A pleasure, Mr. Travis. I had the chance to meet your father recently."
Jack grinned. "Hope you didn't catch him on an ornery day."
"Not at all. He's a fascinating gentleman. Old-school. I tried to talk him into attending one of my services, but he said he wasn't finished sinning yet, and he'd let me know when he was." Laughing quietly, Cardiff turned to me.
He was dazzling. A big man, though not quite so tall as Jack, and built on a more slender scale. Whereas Jack looked and moved like an athlete, Noah Cardiff had the grace of a dancer. It was striking to see the two side by side, Jack with his sexy, earthy appeal, and Cardiff, refined and austerely beautiful.
The pastor's complexion was fair, the kind that blushed easily, and his nose was narrow and high-bridged. The smile was angelic and slightly rueful, the smile of a mortal man who was all too aware of human frailty. And the eyes were those of a saint, benevolent light blue, his gaze making you feel annointed in some way.
As he stepped close enough to shake my hand, I caught the scents of lavender and amber spice. "Miss Varner. Welcome to our worship facility. I hope your appointment with Pastor Gottler went well?" Pausing, he sent a quizzical smile to Gottler. "Varner . . . didn't we have a secretary . . . ?"
"Yes, her sister, Tara, helped us out from time to time."
"I hope she's well," Cardiff told me. "Please give her my regards."
I nodded uncertainly.
Cardiff held my gaze for a moment, seeming to read my thoughts. "We'll pray for her," he murmured. With a graceful hand, he gestured to the plaque over his doors. "My favorite verse, from my favorite of the disciples. It's true, you know. Nothing is impossible in the Lord."
"Why is Luke your favorite?" I asked.
"Among other reasons, Luke is the only disciple who relates the parables of the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son." Cardiff smiled at me. "And he's a strong supporter of women's roles in the life of Christ. Why don't you come to one of our services, Miss Varner? And bring your friend Jack with you."
As Jack and I went outside, I went over the meeting in my mind, I rubbed my temples, feeling as if rubber bands had been wrapped tight around my skull.
Jack opened the SUV door for me and went to the other side. We both stood with the doors open, letting the heat pour out before we got into the vehicle.
"I can't stand Mark Gottler," I said.
"Really? I couldn't tell."
"While he was talking, I was overwhelmed by the realization that here is this hypocritical as**ole who took advantage of my sister, and I'd like to . . . well, I don't know, shoot him or something . . . but instead there we were, negotiating."
"I know. But he's stepping up to the plate. Let's give him points for that."
"He's only doing it because we're forcing him to." I frowned. "You're not on his side, are you?"
"Ella, I just spent the last hour and fifteen minutes with my boot up his ass. No, I'm not on his side. All I'm saying is, the situation isn't all his fault. Okay, we can get in now." Jack turned on the car. The air-conditioning huffed ineffectually in the scorching heat.
I buckled my seat belt. "My sister is in a clinic with a nervous breakdown after being seduced by a married church pastor—are you somehow claiming that this is her fault?"
"I'm saying there's enough blame to go around. And Tara wasn't seduced. She's a full-grown woman who uses her body to get what she wants."
"Coming from you, that's a little hypocritical, don't you think?" I asked, smarting.
"Here's the facts, Ella: your sister's about to get a house, a new car, and an allowance of fifteen thousand dollars a month, all for the simple reason that she managed to get knocked up by a guy with money. But no matter how good a deal the lawyers work out, she'll have to find another sugar daddy someday. Problem is, it won't be as easy next time. She'll be older."
"Why don't you think she'll get married?" I asked, increasingly irritated.
"She won't settle for a regular guy. She wants a rich one. And she's not the kind they marry."
"Yes, she is. She's beautiful."
"Beauty is a depreciating asset. And that's the only thing Tara brings to the table. In trading terms, that makes her a short sale, not a buy-and-hold."
The blunt assessment took my breath away. "Is that how rich guys really think? "
"Most of us."
"My God." I was fuming. "You must assume every woman you meet is after your wallet."
"No. But let's just say it's easy to spot the ones who would drop me in a red-hot minute if something happened to the money."
"I don't give a shit about your money—"
"I know that. It's one of the reasons I—"
"—and if you hate my sister so much, why are you bothering to help her?"
"I don't hate her. Not at all. I just see her for what she is. I'm doing all this for Luke's sake. And yours."
"For my sake?" Startled out of my rising anger, I gave him a round-eyed glance.
"There's not much I wouldn't do for you, Ella," he said quietly. "Haven't you figured that out yet?"
While I sat there in stunned silence, he pulled the SUV out of the parking space.
Disgruntled and riled and roasting—it would be a while before the air-conditioning would make any headway against the braised interior of the car—I was quiet for a while. I saw my sister differently than Jack did. I loved her. But did that prevent me from seeing the truth? Did Jack have a better grasp of the situation than I did?
I heard my cell phone ring. Reaching for my handbag, I dug around until I found the phone. "It's Dane," I said tersely. He rarely called during the day. "Do you mind if I take this?"
"Go right ahead." Jack continued to drive, his gaze on the midday traffic. Vehicles lurched and clotted like cells pushing through a hardened artery.
"Dane. Is everything okay?"
"Hi, sweetie, everything's great. How did the meeting go?" I gave Dane the in-a-nutshell version, and he listened with reassuring sympathy, making none of the judgments that Jack had. It was a relief to talk to someone who didn't push my buttons. I found myself relaxing, the air-conditioning blowing over me like the breath of a glacier.
"Hey, I was wondering," Dane said, "are you up for some company tomorrow night? I'm driving over to pick up a flowmeter from Katy for a system we're building. I'll take you out to dinner and spend the night. Meet this guy you've been spending so much time with."
I froze until Dane added with a laugh, "But I won't change his diaper."
My answering laugh was a shade too high-pitched. "No diaper-changing required. Yes, we'd love to see you. I can't wait."
"Good, I'll be there around four or five tomorrow. Bye, sweetie."
Closing the phone, I saw that we were back at 1800 Main, pulling into the underground garage.
Jack found a place near the elevator bank, and he stopped the SUV. He turned off the car and stared at me in the shadowy interior.
"Dane's coming to visit tomorrow," I said, aiming for a matter-of-fact tone but only managing to sound tense.