"Aren't you asleep yet, Luke?" I asked softly. "What are you waiting for?"
The second he saw me, he moved and kicked, and his mouth curled in a baby-grin. His first smile.
It startled me, that spontaneous reaction to seeing me. It's you. I've been waiting for you. And I felt a lovely ache that went right down to my soul, and I forgot everything except that moment. I had earned that smile. I wanted to earn a million more from him. Without thinking I reached for Luke and lifted him from the crib, exuberantly kissing his warm little face, his smiling mouth. I inhaled his powdery, diapery, innocent smell.
I had never known such happiness.
"Look at you," I murmured, nuzzling into his neck. "Look at that smile. Oh, you are the sweetest boy, the sweetest baby . . ."
My boy. My Luke.
"Wow," Dane said when he walked into the apartment, after a prolonged hug at the door. He glanced at the designer decorating, the big windows and show-off view, and gave an appreciative whistle.
"It is pretty cool, isn't it?" I asked with a grin.
Dane was the same as always, warm and easygoing and handsome. He was shorter and leaner than Jack, with the result being that we fit together perfectly when we hugged. Seeing him reminded me instantly of all the reasons I had gotten together with him in the first place. He was the man who knew me better than anyone, who never set me off-balance. It was rare to find people in life you knew were never going to hurt you, or screw you over with moral manipulations. Dane was one of them.
I showed Luke to him, and he admired the baby dutifully, watching as I settled Luke into his baby bouncer. I attached a hoop of interesting toys for Luke to look at, and sat next to Dane on the sofa.
"I had no idea you were so good with babies," Dane said.
"I'm not." I took Luke's hand and showed him how to push a plastic puppy from one side of the hoop to the other. Luke flailed at it with a grunt. "I'm getting pretty good with this one, though. He's training me.
"You look different," Dane observed, settling in the corner of the sofa to get a better vantage.
"Tired," I agreed ruefully. "Dark circles."
"No, not that way. You look great. Kind of . . . bright-eyed."
I laughed. "Thanks. I can't imagine why. Probably because I'm so happy to see you. I've missed you, Dane."
"I missed you, too." He reached out and pulled me over him until I was half-sprawled, my hair falling into his face. The top two buttons of his hemp shirt were undone, revealing his smooth golden chest. I got a familiar clean, acrid whiff of his salt rock deodorant. Affectionately I bent to kiss him, those lips I had kissed so many thousands of times. But the gentle contact didn't bring the same sweetness and comfort it always had. In fact, it produced a strange ticklish aversion.
I lifted my head. Dane pulled me closer, and that sent a thrill of something unfamiliar and not at all pleasant through me.
How was that possible?
Feeling the way I stiffened, Dane loosened his arms and looked at me quizzically. "What, not in front of the baby?"
I drew away from him in confusion. "I guess. I . . ." My throat had cinched tight. My lashes closed in a few peppery blinks. "I have some stuff to tell you," I said hoarsely.
"Okay." His tone was gently encouraging.
Did I have to tell him what I had done with Jack? How could I explain any of it? Helplessly I sat there and stared at him. It seemed as if every pore in my body went through a quick-freeze and a rapid thaw, drawing out an uncomfortable film of sweat.
Dane's expression changed. "Sweetie, I'm pretty good at reading between the lines. And I can't help but notice that every time you and I talk, someone else's name keeps coming up in the conversation. So let me start this off for you: 'Dane, lately I've been spending a lot of time with Jack Travis. . . "
"Lately I've been spending a lot of time with Jack Travis," I said, and a couple of tears spilled over.
Dane looked patient and unsurprised. He took one of my hands and held it in both of his. "Tell me. I can be your friend, Ella."
I sniffled. "You can?"
"I've always been your friend."
I hopped up and went to the kitchen for a paper towel, and came back blowing my nose. I nudged Luke's bouncy chair until it bobbed, and he stared alertly at the jiggling toys on the hoop. "Everything's fine, Luke," I told the baby, even though he was oblivious to my emotional crisis. "Grown-ups cry, too, sometimes. It's a very natural and n-normal process."
"I think he's handling it okay," Dane said, looking into my woeful face with a wry smile. "Come here and let's talk."
I sat next to him and let out a wobbly sigh. "I wish you were a mind-reader. I want you to know everything but I don't want to have to tell you. Because there are some things I don't want to say out loud."
"There's nothing you can't tell me. You know that."
"Yes, but I've never had to explain about an involvement with another guy. I feel so guilty, I can hardly stand it."
"Your guilt threshold's always been pretty low," he said kindly.
"It's wrong to want Jack, and it's stupid, but I can't make myself stop. I'm so sorry, Dane. I'm sorrier than I could ever imagine being—"
"Wait. Before you go on . . . no apologies. Especially no apologies for your feelings. Feelings are never wrong, they're just feelings. Now tell me."
I didn't tell Dane everything, of course. But I said enough for him to understand that my carefully considered approach to life was unraveling, and I was obsessively attracted to a man I should never have been attracted to, and I was at a complete loss to know why.
"Jack's smart," I said, "but he can be crude. And he's macho and traditional. He's like the football jock in high school that all the girls lined up for, and I always hated that kind of guy."
"But Jack surprises me sometimes with a comment or insight that's just dead-on. And he's honest, and talkative, and curious, and possibly the least self-conscious person I've ever met. He makes me laugh. He says I need to be more spontaneous."
"Well, there's a time and a place for spontaneity. And this is not a phase of my life when I need to think about fun. I have a lot of responsibility."
"What does he think about the baby?"
"Jack likes him. He likes kids."
"Being a traditional guy, he probably wants a family of his own," Dane commented, watching me closely.
"I've already told Jack how I feel about marriage and family. So he knows that would never happen with me. I think the attraction is that I'm a novelty. I'm a turn-on mainly because I'm not chasing after him."
"You'd be a turn-on for anyone, Ella. You're a beautiful woman."
"Really?" I looked at him with a shy grin. "You've never told me that."
"I'm not good about that stuff," Dane admitted. "But you are. In a hot librarian kind of way."
My smile turned wry. "Thanks. I guess it works for Jack."
"How much do you have in common with this guy?"
"Not much. Basically we're polar opposites. But do you want to know the main attraction, the weird part? . . . It's the talking."
"Talking about what?"
"About anything," I said earnestly. "We get started and it's like sex, this back-and-forth, and we're both so there, do you know what I mean? We rattle each other. And some conversations seem to be happening on a few different levels at once. But even when we're disagreeing on something, there's a weird kind of harmony in it. A connection."
Dane stared at me thoughtfully. "So if the talking's like sex, what is the sex like?"
My mouth opened and closed. Chagrined, I contemplated various ways to explain that so far we'd had what could only have been described as one hell of a good-night kiss, and also a parking-garage quickie. And both times had been spectacular. No, there were no words.
"Classified information," I said sheepishly.
For a moment we sat silently, both of us a little taken aback that I was withholding something, when I had always told Dane everything without reserve. Our relationship had always been completely transparent. This was new, this concept that there was some part of my life Dane couldn't casually riffle through.
"You're not angry?" I asked. "Not jealous?"
"Jealous, maybe," Dane admitted slowly, as if it surprised him. "But not angry. And not possessive. Because it comes down to this: I don't want a traditional relationship and I never will. But if you want to explore that with Travis, you should. You don't need permission, and it's not mine to give. And you're going to do it anyway."
I couldn't help but reflect on the contrast between Dane and Jack, who was infinitely more demanding and possessive. So much more to contend with. A jolt of uneasiness went through me. "To be honest," I half-whispered, "I don't feel as safe with him as I do with you."
A ghost of a smile touched my lips. "How do you know?"
"Think about what safety is, Ella."
"Yes, partly. But also an absence of risk." He unstuck a strand of hair from my damp cheek and tucked it back. "Maybe you need to take a risk. Maybe you need to be with someone who rattles you a little."
I crawled over to him and put my head on his chest. We sat like that for a while, still except for the occasional sigh. Both of us were quiet with the recognition that something was ending, and something was beginning.
Dane touched my chin and lifted my face upward, and kissed me gently. Only then did I understand that Dane had always been a friend I had slept with, and how entirely different that was from having a lover who could be a friend.
"Hey," Dane said softly. "You think we should do it one more time, for old times' sake? As a send-off? A bon voyage?"
I looked at him with a rueful grin. "Couldn't I just hit you with a bottle of champagne instead?"
"By God, let's at least open some," he said, and I got up to get us a couple of drinks we badly needed.
* * *
I tried calling Jack the next day. After leaving two messages on his cell phone, I realized he was in no hurry to call me back. That worried and annoyed me.
"I knew something was going on," Haven said when I called her in the afternoon. "Jack's been in a bitch of a mood. In fact, everyone in the office was relieved when he left to go to a construction site for a project he's managing. Otherwise I think his secretary Helen was going to knock him unconscious with the laminating machine."
"I had to resolve a couple of things with Dane when he came to visit," I said. "So I asked Jack for a little space. Guess he didn't take it well."
Haven's voice was laced with amusement. "No, he did not. But I've never gotten the impression that he's especially good at backing off when he wants some-thing."
"Well, he's backing way the hell off now," I said ruefully. "He's not returning my calls."
"Ella, I probably shouldn't stick my nose in Jack's business, since I've always been so pissed off when he's done that to me—"
"Go ahead," I urged. "I'm asking for your opinion. It's not sticking your nose in when you've been invited."
"Okay," Haven said cheerfully. "I think Jack is so twisted up and turned around, he doesn't know what to do. He's not used to feeling jealous about anyone. He always plays it cool, always has the upper hand, and I think you've gotten to him in a major way. And I have to say, I'm enjoying this."
"Why?" I asked, giddy with hope and nerves.
"I've always seen Jack go out with the career heiress types, or airhead actresses or models, and I think it's because he wanted to avoid this . . . being completely crazy about someone, and being vulnerable. Travis men hate that. But I think a little suffering might be good for Jack, shake things up in a good way."
"Can I tell you something confidential?"
"Jack made a huge deal out of the fact that Dane was staying at my apartment. He wanted Dane to stay in a hotel room."
"Well, that's stupid. You've lived with Dane for years. If you wanted to have sex with the guy, it wouldn't have made a difference whether he stayed at your place or a hotel room."
"I know. But Dane did stay at my apartment last night. And I'm wondering if Jack might have found out."
Haven chuckled. "Ella, nothing goes on in this building that Jack doesn't know about. He probably told the concierge to let him know the exact time Dane left."
"I didn't have sex with Dane," I said defensively.
"You don't have to explain anything to me."
"It was terrible. Dane started off sleeping on the sofa, but the baby's crying kept him awake, until finally I sent Dane into the bedroom and then I stayed on the sofa. I can tell you with authority that after last night, Dane will never voluntarily reproduce. So now Dane's fled back to Austin, and Jack apparently isn't speaking to me."
Haven laughed. "Poor Ella. My guess is that Jack is just trying to figure out his next move."
"If you get a chance, will you tell him to call me?"
"No, I've got a better idea. My dad's birthday is tomorrow night. The woman he's dating—Vivian—is throwing a party for him at the family home in River Oaks. All the Travises are going to be there, including Jack and my other brothers and my sister-in-law. Come with me and Hardy."
"I don't want to crash a family event," I said uneasily.
"You'll be my guest. But even if you weren't, half of Houston is crashing."
"I don't have a present for your dad."
"Vivian requested that in lieu of presents, everyone make donations to one of Dad's favorite charities. I'll give you a list and you can donate online if you want to."
"You're really sure it's okay?" I was dying to go to the party. I was wildly curious to meet the rest of Jack's family, and to see the home he had grown up in.
"Yes. It's semicasual—do you have a cute dress to wear?"
"I have a light blue wrap dress."