Keeping an arm around me, Jack reached out to shake his father's hand. "Happy birthday, Dad. Brought you a present—it's in the house."
The Travis patriarch looked at us both speculatively before saying, "You know what present I want? For you to settle down and get married, and give me some grandbabies."
Jack greeted this outrageous lack of tact with an equanimity that revealed such complaints were nothing new. "You've already got a grandson," he pointed out calmly.
"I'd like more before I go."
Jack looked sardonic. "Where you planning on going, Dad?"
"All I'm saying is, I'm not gettin' any younger. And if you want the next generation of Travises to have my influence, you'd better get busy."
"Good Lord, Dad," Joe said. "If Jack got any busier in that department, he'd have to carry around a deli-counter ticket machine—"
"Joe," Gage murmured, and that was enough to quiet the youngest brother.
Churchill cast a pointedly approving glance at me. "Maybe you'll be the one to bring Jack up to scratch, Ella."
"I'm not the marrying kind," I said.
Churchill's brows lifted as if he'd never heard a woman say such a thing. "Why not?"
"I'm very into my career, for one thing."
"Too bad," Jack said. "The first requirement of marrying a Travis is, you have to give up your dreams."
I laughed. Jack's expression softened as he looked down at me, and he stroked back a strand of light, glinting hair that had fallen over my forehead. "You want to dance," he murmured, "or stay here for more grilling?" Without waiting for an answer, he began to draw me away with him.
"I wasn't grilling her," Churchill protested. "I was having a conversation."
Jack paused and shot him an ironic glance. "It's only a conversation when more than one person is doing the talking, Dad." As he pulled me away, Jack said, "I'm sorry."
"About your father? . . . No, don't be sorry. I liked him." I glanced uneasily at his hard profile. This was a version of Jack I hadn't seen before. He had always had a sort of I-don't-give-a-shit cockiness, an air of not letting anything matter too deeply. But that was gone. Right now he was angry all the way down to the marrow. Something mattered very much.
We reached the dance floor. Jack took me into his arms in a natural, experienced movement. The band was playing "Song for You," as if they were all having the same long, bluesy dream. Jack's shoulder was hard beneath my hand, his arms steady as he led me without hesitancy. He was a seriously good dancer, his movements fluid but not showy. I wished I could have told his mother that those long-ago dance lessons had paid off handsomely.
I concentrated on relaxing and following him, keeping my gaze on the place where his shirt collar opened. The lowest point of the vee revealed a tantalizing hint of chest hair.
"Dane spent the night with you," Jack said flatly.
I was relieved at this blunt opening gambit, eager to get things resolved. "He slept at the apartment, yes. Although there wasn't much sleeping involved. You see, the—oof!"
Jack had stopped abruptly, and I had walked straight into him. Glancing up at his face, I realized what conclusion he had drawn. "Because of the baby," I said hastily. "Luke was crying. I stayed on the sofa, and Dane was in the other room. Jack, you're hurting my hand."
He loosened his grip immediately and tried to moderate his breathing. We resumed dancing for a full minute before he brought himself to ask, "Did you have sex with him?"
Jack nodded slightly, but the set of his face remained austere, rigid, as if it had been fired in a kiln.
"No more Dane," he eventually said with unnerving finality.
I tried to be funny. "I can't decide if that means you don't want me to see him again or if you're planning to kill him."
"It means if the first thing happens, the second thing is likely to follow."
I was privately amused. And I was aware of a new kind of power, a seductive power, over someone who was stronger, worldlier, more unpredictable, more testosterone-fueled than any man I'd ever known before. It was like sitting behind the wheel to test a race car. Scary and exhilarating all at once, especially for someone who had never liked to travel fast.
"You're a big talker, Jack Travis. Why don't you take me home and back up those words with some action?"
He glanced down at me sharply. I didn't think either of us could believe I had said it.
And from the look in his eyes, it was clear I was about to get all the action I could handle.
The music flowed into a slow molten-glass version of "Moondance." Jack eased me closer until I felt his breath at my temple, and the brush of his thighs against mine. We danced and I followed blindly, a little unsteady, as if we were on the deck of a ship rather than solid ground. But his hold on me was secure, and he balanced every subtle pitch of my weight. Breathing deeply, I drew in the spicy richness of his scent. A light mist of perspiration bloomed over me everywhere, all at once, as if my skin were coming alive.
The song ended. The applause and the beginning of a new, energetic set was intrusive. In fact, it was like being awakened with a dash of cold water in the face. Blinking, I went with Jack through the densely packed crowd. We were obligated to stop frequently to chat with Jack's acquaintances. He knew everyone. And he turned out to be far more adept than I was at putting on a friendly social mask. But I felt the ferocious tension in his arm as he guided me through the gathering, finding narrow channels of unoccupied space through which we could move.
The birthday cake was lit, and the band accompanied the crowd to a tipsy but vigorous version of "Happy Birthday to You." Slices of cake stuffed with ganache and jam and whipped cream were passed around. I could only eat a bite, the rich fluff sticking in my throat. After I washed it down with a few swallows of champagne, my mood was bright-leavened with sugar and alcohol. I followed easily as Jack led me by the hand.
We paused to say goodbye to Churchill and his lady-friend Vivian, caught sight of Joe in a corner with a young woman who appeared to have great sympathy for his girlfriend-gone-to-France story, and I waved to Haven, Hardy, Gage, and Liberty across the room.
"I feel like we should give them some kind of excuse about leaving early," I said to Jack. "Tell them I need to check on the baby, or—"
"They know why we're leaving."
There wasn't much conversation on the way back to 1800 Main. The feelings between us were too raw. I hadn't yet known Jack long enough to feel much comfortable ease with him.—our relationship needed to be broken in.
But I did tell Jack about the talk I'd had with Dane, and he listened closely. I realized that although Jack comprehended Dane's views, on a visceral level he didn't get him at all. "He should have fought for you," Jack said. "He should have tried to hand me my own ass."
"What would that have accomplished?" I asked. "It's ultimately my choice, isn't it?"
"Yeah, you get the choice. But that doesn't change the fact that he should have come after me like a damn Viking for taking his woman."
"You haven't taken me," I protested.
He slid me a purposeful glance. "Yet."
And my heart lurched in a ramshackle rhythm.
We went up to his apartment, which I had never seen before. It was several floors up from mine, big windows open to a view of Houston, city lights glittering like diamonds scattered on velvet.
"What time did you tell the babysitter you'd be back?" Jack asked, while I investigated the apartment. It was stylish and spare, with dark leather furniture, a couple of pieces of graphic statement art, a few touches of deco design, fabrics in shades of chocolate, cream, and blue.
"I said about eleven." I touched the edge of a blue Depression-glass bowl imprinted with a swirly pattern. My fingers were trembling visibly. "This is a nice apartment."
Coming up behind me, Jack touched my shoulders with his palms and let them coast down my upper arms, the warmth of his hands making the cool skin prickle pleasantly. He took one of my hands in his. Folding my icy fingers more tightly in his, Jack lowered his mouth to the vulnerable curve of my neck. There was a sensual promise in the way his lips grazed my skin.
He continued to kiss me there, searching for the most acute place, and when he found it, I backed up against him reflexively.
"Jack . . . You're not still mad because Dane slept over, are you?"
His hand wandered along my front, charting every curve and plane, pausing at every flicker of response. My body caught a tense, pleasured arch. Dimly I realized he was gathering information, softly winnowing out the pulses and twitches from all the places I was most vulnerable.
"Actually, Ella . . . every time I think about it, I want to bend a crowbar in half."
"But nothing happened," I protested.
"That's the only reason I haven't hunted him down and dropped him."
I couldn't tell how much of the macho bravado was for show, or how much Jack actually meant. I strove for a reasonable, ironic tone, which was difficult as I felt his fingers slip beneath the edge of my neckline. "You're not going to take it out on me, are you?"
"Afraid so." His breath fractured as he discovered I wasn't wearing a bra. "Tonight you're in for it, blue eyes." With indecent slowness, his hand slid over the round, cool weight of my breast. I leaned back against him, teetering on the heels of my silver shoes. The tip of my breast pricked up between his fingers, and he fondled it tenderly, his thumb spurring it into a resilient bud.
He turned me around to face him. "Beautiful," he whispered. His hands went lower, following the clingy knit of my dress. His expression was intent, his lashes half-lowered until jagged shadows scored down his lean cheeks. And he breathed another word so softly I almost didn't hear it. "Mine."
Mesmerized, I stared into those dark eyes and shook my head slowly.
"Yes," Jack said, and he brought his mouth to mine. I responded helplessly, my hands clutching the front of his shirt. His fingers threaded through my hair, fitting over the curve of my scalp, and he concentrated on my mouth, finding deeper angles, more intimate tastes, until my entire body was radiating heat.
Taking my hand, Jack pulled me to the bedroom. He flipped on one of a trio of light switches, and a discreet glow filled the room from some unidentifiable source. I was too unstrung to register much about the surroundings, other than to note that the bed was big and covered in amber quilts and miles of white linen.
I cleared my throat and tried to sound casual, like this was no big deal. "I don't even get cheesy seduction music?"
Jack shook his head. "I usually do this a cappella."
"You mean unaccompanied?"
"No, I haven't done this unaccompanied since I was fourteen."
My breathless laugh ended with a gasp as Jack reached out and tugged gently at the tiny snaps that held the front of my dress closed. The sides listed open, unveiling the full round shapes of my breasts, my white silk panties.
"Look at you," he whispered. "It's a crime for you to wear clothes." He eased the dress off my shoulders until it dropped to the floor. A severe blush spread from head to toe as I stood there in high heels and panties.
Clumsy with urgency, I tugged at his black shirt, and Jack moved to help me strip it off. His chest was powerful and emphatically defined, the large muscles mortared with smaller ones in between. Hesitantly I touched the rough dark hair on his chest, drew my fingers through it. He felt maddeningly good. I let him pull me closer, his arms wrapping around me, and my hands slipped around to his back. The tickling brush of hair against my breasts, the long, delicious kisses, flooded me with sensation.
Feeling the way I had molded myself against his body, my h*ps urgently cradling the shape of his erection, Jack eased me back with a smothered laugh. "Not yet."
"I need you," I said, red and shaking. It was something I had never said to a man before. And even as I said it, I remembered what Jack had said in the parking garage: ". . .you know if you start something with me, it'll go to a place you and Dane never went. " It was true. It was absolutely true. I was going to let Jack get close in much more than a physical sense. The enormity of the risk I was about to take scared the hell out of me.
Feeling the reverberations of my panic, Jack pulled me between his thighs and gathered me against his chest. He held me wordlessly, with infinite patience.
"I guess . . . ," I managed to say eventually, "I don't feel all-the-way safe."
"Probably because you're not." Jack hooked his fingers at the side of my panties, drawing them down. "But in a few minutes, darlin', you're not going to give a damn."
Feeling dazed, I let him take off the panties, and I obeyed his urging to sit on the edge of the bed. I tried to reach for one of the silver shoes.
"No," Jack murmured, sinking to his haunches in front of me. He pushed my thighs open with his hands, his face intent.
I tried to close against him. "The light," I said bashfully But Jack pinned me in place, and despite my wriggling objection, he leaned forward and pressed his mouth against me, there, in a full searching kiss. In a matter of seconds I was moaning, frozen in place as the pleasure surged and buzzed with each silky flick of his tongue. It went on and on until the desire was too much, and I clutched his head hard and close. He took my wrists, pulling them down to my sides, and just held them there.
Manacled in his grip, spread open, I breathed in low cries as he gnawed and licked and ate gently into the softness, and the sensation built until my inner muscles began a frantic, involuntary clenching.
Jack pulled back, leaving me floundering. I was weak, desperate, my pulse brutal in its force. As he stood between my thighs, I reached for the front of his pants to unfasten them. My hands felt encumbered, as if I were wearing mittens.
Jack was heavily aroused, his erection taut and dusky. I touched him in wonder, gripped the pulsing heft, breathed against the engorged head. He went still, and I heard a faint groan. He tolerated my careful touch, the warm suction of my mouth as I tried to taste as much of him as possible. But in a matter of seconds he was easing me away, muttering, "No ... I can't. I'm too close. I'm too . . . wait, Ella . . ."
Stripping off his clothes, he joined me on the bed and tugged me toward the center of the mattress. He took interminable minutes to remove my shoes, unbuckling the tiny straps when it would have sufficed to slip them over my heels. And then he was over me again, his mouth at my breasts, one of his thighs nudging insistently between mine. I reached up to him, my palm flattening on the flexing surface of his back. His mouth found mine, and I went pliant, supine, moaning and resistless. Clasping me securely, he eased us to our sides, his hands venturing everywhere.