Jack took off his own clothes, his body sleek and unbelievably strong. He arranged me in revealing positions, each one more open and vulnerable than the last, exploring with his hands and mouth until I was breathing in ragged gasps. Pinning my wrists to the mattress, he stared down at me. I moaned and tilted my h*ps upward, waiting tensely, my arms straining in his grasp.
I gasped as I felt the low, heavy penetration, his body sliding over mine until I was stroked inside and out. Hard flesh over pale curves, heat against coolness. Every thrust translated skin into sensation, form into fire. Jack held still, panting, trying to stave off the cl**ax, make it last. Letting go of my wrists, he laced all of his fingers through all of mine with painstaking deliberation.
I lifted up against him, wanting to go on, and he inhaled sharply, trying to hold back. But I kept nudging upward, pushing him, until finally he lost all restraint and began to thrust deep and steady, taking my sobs into his mouth as if he could taste them. Since I couldn't hold him with my arms, I used my legs, twining them around his back. He gritted his teeth and buried himself over and over, stoking the sensation, driving me into long, silky spasms, and then he let himself come, too, growling his pleasure against my throat.
Afterward we lay together, limbs tangled, my head resting on his shoulder. How strange it was to lie there with a man who wasn't Dane. Stranger still was that it felt so natural. I thought of what Dane had told me, that although he didn't want a traditional relationship, it was okay if I wanted to explore that with Jack.
"Jack," I said drowsily.
"What?" His hand sifted slowly through my hair.
"Are we having a traditional relationship?"
"As opposed to what you had with Dane? Yeah, I'd say that's what we're having."
"So . . . it's sort of an exclusive deal, the two of us?"
Jack hesitated before replying. "That's what I want," he finally said. "What about you?"
"It makes me uneasy that we're doing this so fast."
"What does your gut tell you?"
"My gut and I aren't currently speaking to each other."
He smiled. "Mine's almost always right. And it's telling me this is a good thing." Jack traced the ladder of my spine, his fingertips raising gooseflesh. "Let's try it with just you and me. No other people, no distractions. Let's find out what that's like. Okay?"
"Okay." I yawned. "But just to be clear, I'm not going to get serious with you. There's no future in this."
"Go to sleep," he whispered, pulling the covers farther over my shoulders.
I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. "Yes, but did you hear—"
"I heard you." And he held me as I slept.
My relaxed mood was shattered as soon as we got back to 1800 Main, and I listened to the messages on the answering machine. Tara had called three times, sounding increasingly agitated as she told me to call her back no matter what time it was.
"It's about our meeting with Mark Gottler," I told Jack glumly as he set down Luke's carrier and lifted the baby to his shoulder. "About the promissory contract. I'm sure of it. I wondered if he would say something to her."
"Did you tell her that we'd seen him?"
"No, I didn't want Tara to be bothered with it. She's supposed to be getting her head together . . . she's vulnerable. . . . If Gottler got her all upset about this, I'm going to kill him."
"Call her right now and find out," Jack said calmly, taking Luke to the changing table.
"Does Luke have a dirty diaper? I'll take care of it."
"Call your sister, darlin'. Believe me, if I can field-dress a deer, I can handle changing a diaper."
I gave him a grateful glance and called Tara.
Tara picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Tara, it's me. I just got your message. How is everything?"
Her tone sounded like breaking glass. "Everything was great until Mark called and told me what you'd been up to."
I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry he bothered you with that."
"You should be sorry you did it in the first place! And you knew it was wrong, or you would have said something to me. What's going on, Ella? And what are you doing, dragging Jack Travis in on my business?"
"He's a friend. He was there for moral support."
"It's too bad you wasted his time, and your own. Because it was all for nothing. I'm not signing any contracts. I don't need your help, especially that kind of help. Do you know how much you've embarrassed me? Do you know what's at stake? You're going to ruin my life if you don't shut up and mind your own business."
I was silent, trying to regulate my breathing. Tara, when she was angry, sounded too much like our mother. "I'm not going to ruin anything," I eventually said. "I'm only doing what you asked, which is to take care of Luke. And I'm trying to make certain you get the help you're entitled to."
"Mark's already promised to help me. There was no need for you to get lawyers involved!"
I was astounded by her naïveté. "How much stock are you going to put in the promises of a man who cheats on his wife?"
I heard her gasp of outrage. "It's not your business. This is my life. I don't want you to talk to Mark ever again. You don't understand the situation at all."
"I understand a lot more than you do," I said grimly. "Listen to me, Tara . . . you need protection. You need guaranteed support. Did Mark tell you what we were negotiating for?"
"No, and I don't want to hear it. I know what he's promised me, and that's enough. Any contract you give me, I'm going tear it up and throw it away."
"Can I just tell you a few of the things we talked about?"
"No. I'm not interested in anything you have to say. I'm finally getting what I want, for once in my life, and you're judging and interfering and spoiling everything. Just like Mom."
I recoiled. "I'm not like Mom."
"You are! You're jealous like her—you're jealous of me because I'm prettier and I had a baby, and I have a rich boyfriend."
Right then I discovered that you actually could see red, if you were angry enough. "Grow up, Tara," I snapped.
I looked at the dead phone in my hand. I dropped my head in utter defeat. "Jack."
"I just told my sister—who's in a mental health clinic—to grow up."
He came up to me with the freshly diapered baby. His voice was soft and amused. "I heard."
I looked up at him bleakly. "Do you have Mark Gottler's number? I have to call him."
"Got it right here on my cell phone. You're welcome to it." Jack studied me briefly. "Would you trust me to take care of it?" he murmured. "Can I do that for you?"
I considered the offer, knowing that even though I could handle Gottler on my own, this was precisely the sort of thing Jack was good at. And right now it was nice to have the help. I nodded.
He handed Luke to me, went to the table where he had left his wallet, keys, and phone. In about two minutes he had Gottler on the phone.
"Hey, Mark. How are you doing? Great. Yeah, things are okay, but we have an issue here, and we need to get it straightened out. Ella just got off the horn with Tara . . . about that meeting we had, the contract. . . yeah. Ella's not too happy, Mark. Tell you the truth, neither am I. Guess I should have made it clear that it was confidential. But I didn't expect you to go talking out of school." He paused to listen. "I know why you did it, Mark." His tone was quiet but blistering. "And now you got these sisters as aggravated as two cats in a bathtub. No matter what Tara says she wants right now, she's not in any shape to make those decisions. You don't need to worry about if or when she signs the contract. Once my lawyer sends it over, you have your boys look it over, you sign the fucker, and you send it to me." Jack listened for a moment. "Because Ella asked me to be in on it, that's why. I don't know how you usually handle these things . . . yeah, that's what I'm implying. . . . Fact is, Mark, I'm here to make sure Tara and Luke get their due. I want them to have what we talked over and what we shook on. And you know what it means to cross a Travis in Houston. No, of course that's not a threat. I consider us friends, and I know you won't back down from doing what's right. So let's be clear on how the next couple of months will play out: you're not going to bother Tara with this stuff again. We're going to nail down this contract, and if you cause any problems for our side, I guarantee you're going to have even bigger problems. And I don't think any of us want to go there. Next time you want to talk about any of this stuff, you call me or Ella. Tara's out of the loop until she gets well enough to leave that clinic. Good. I think so, too." He listened for a half minute or so, looked satisfied and said goodbye, and closed the phone with a decisive snap.
Looking at me, he raised an expectant brow.
"Thanks, Jack," I said softly, the tight feeling easing from my chest. "You think he was paying attention?"
"He was paying attention." Jack approached me as I sat on the sofa, lowered to his haunches, and looked into my face. "It'll be fine," he murmured. "You don't waste one minute worrying about it."
"All right." I reached out and stroked the dark layers of his hair. I felt oddly bashful as I asked, "Do you want to spend the night with me, or would you rather—"
A crooked grin spread across my face. "You want some time to think about it?"
"Okay." He squinted thoughtfully as if mulling it over, and a split second later, he said, "Yes."
During the next month we spent every night together, and all the weekends, and still it seemed that I could never see Jack enough.
There were moments when I hardly recognized myself, laughing and playing like the child I had never been. We went to a roadhouse honky-tonk, where Jack led me onto the wooden dance floor, sticky with the residue of beer and tequila, and taught me how to two-step.
Another day we went to an indoor butterfly garden and let hundreds of colorful wings flutter around us like confetti. "He thinks you're a flower," Jack whispered in my ear as one of the butterflies perched on my shoulder.
He took Luke and me to an arts and flowers market, where he bought me a huge basket of handmade soaps and two pails of melting-ripe Fredericksburg peaches. We dropped off one of the pails at his father's home and visited for about an hour, going out to the back with him to view a putting green that had just been installed.
Discovering that I had never played golf, Churchill gave me an impromptu putting lesson. I told him I didn't need to take on a new hobby that I was bad at, and Churchill told me that golf was one of the two things in life you could enjoy even if you were bad at them. Before I could ask what the other thing was, Jack shook his head with a groan and dragged me out of there, but not before his father had made him promise to bring me back soon.
There were elegant occasions when Jack and I attended a charity event for the Houston Symphony, or went to the opening of an art gallery, or out to dinner at a luminous restaurant located in a renovated 1920s church. I was amused and also annoyed by the reactions of other women to Jack, the way they fluttered and flirted. He was courteous but distant, but that only seemed to encourage them. And I realized Jack was not the only one with a possessive streak.
I relished the weekend afternoons when I hired a babysitter to look after Luke, and I went up to Jack's apartment. We lay together for hours, talking or having sex, sometimes at the same time. As a lover, Jack was inventive and skillful, guiding me into new levels of sensuality, easing me back carefully. Day by day I felt myself changing in ways that I couldn't bring myself to examine. We were getting too close, I knew that, but I couldn't think of how to stop it.
I found myself telling Jack everything about my past, things I had previously confided only to Dane, memories still painful enough to make my eyes water and my voice crack. Instead of saying something philosophical or wise, Jack simply hugged me, offering the comfort of his body. It was what I needed most. But I often felt the tension of conflicting desires when I was with Jack. I was so powerfully drawn to him, and yet also trying hard to maintain any fragile barriers I could. And he was so damnably smart, too smart to push me. Instead, he seduced me constantly, with gentleness and strength, with sex and charm and steely patience.
* * *
One day jack brought luke and me to gage and Liberty's home in the Tanglewood subdivision, for an afternoon of swimming and relaxation. He explained that he would have to spend part of the time helping his brother Gage work on a twelve-foot salt bay skiff they were building in the garage. It had started as a project for Liberty's eleven-year-old sister, Carrington, whom Liberty had raised since birth. Gage was helping her to make the small boat, but they needed an extra pair of hands to get the job done.
Tanglewood was in the Galleria area, the residential lots generally smaller than River Oaks, the main boulevard lined with live oaks and wide paths and benches. Gage and Liberty had bought a tear-down property, one of the last few crumbling "rambling ranch" homes built in the fifties, and they had built a European-style mansion of limestone and stucco, with a black slate roof. The entrance featured a two-story rotunda and a curving staircase with a wrought-iron balustrade, and more ironwork at the circular balcony of the second-floor level. Everything was serene, agreeably textured and roughened, as though it was a centuries-old home.
Liberty welcomed us at the door, her hair pulled back in a pony-tail, her slim but curvaceous figure dressed in a neat black swimsuit and a pair of frayed denim shorts. She wore flip-flops decorated with sequined fake flowers. Liberty had an interesting quality I could only describe as wholesome sultriness, a sort of clear-eyed, sexy niceness.
"I love your shoes," I said.
Liberty hugged me as if I were an old family friend. "My sister Carrington made them for me at summer camp. You haven't met her yet." She stood on her toes to kiss Jack's cheek. "Hi, stranger. We haven't seen much of you lately."
He grinned at Liberty while he held Luke against his shoulder. "Been busy."
"Well, that's good. Anything that keeps you out of trouble." She took the baby from him and cuddled him. "You forget how little they are at the beginning. He's adorable, Ella."