"I told him you were going to take me fishing," Carrington went on indignantly, "and you know what he said?"
"That girls aren't good at fishing?" Jack guessed.
"How did you know?" she asked in amazement.
"Because I was a terrible boy once, and that's probably what I would have said. But I'd have been dead wrong. Girls are great at fishing."
"Are you sure about that, Uncle Jack? "
"Of course I—wait a minute." Together Jack and Gage lifted the assembled wood strips and fit them to the edge of the boat.
"Sweetheart," Gage murmured to Carrington, "bring that bucket of clamps over here." Carefully he placed clamps along the gunnel, pausing to adjust the wood strips when necessary.
"What were you saying, Uncle Jack?" Carrington pressed, handing him some paper towels to wipe up dripping glue.
"I was about to ask you: Who is the fishing expert in this family?"
"That's right. And who's the expert on women?"
"Uncle Joe," she said, giggling.
"Joe?" he asked in feigned outrage.
"Humor him, Carrington," Gage said. "Otherwise we'll be here all day."
" You're the expert on women," Carrington told Jack promptly.
"That's right. And I'm here to tell you, some of the best anglers in the world are women."
"They're more patient, and they don't give up easy. They tend to fish an area more thoroughly. And women can always find the spot with the hidden boulders or underwater weeds where fish are hiding. Men, we just look right past those spots, but women always find 'em."
As Jack spoke, Carrington caught sight of me in the doorway, and she threw me a grin. "Are you gonna take Miss Ella fishing?" she asked Jack, who had picked up a Japanese saw and was cutting off the protruding end of the gunnel at an angle.
"If she wants to," he said.
"Is she gonna catch you, Uncle Jack?" Carrington asked slyly.
"She already did, darlin'." At the sound of her titter, Jack paused in his sawing, followed her gaze and saw me standing there. A slow smile spread across his face, and his gaze turned dark and hot as he glanced over my pink swimsuit and bare legs. Dropping the saw, he muttered to the other two, " 'Scuse me, I've got to talk to Miss Ella about something."
"No, you don't," I protested. "I just wanted a peek at the skiff. It's beautiful, Carrington. What color are you going to paint it?"
"Pink like your bathing suit," she said cheerfully.
Jack was coming toward me. I retreated a few steps.
"Don't take him away for good, Ella," Gage said. "We still need to fasten the gunnel on the other side."
"I'm not taking him away at all, I . . . Jack, get back to work." But he headed for me without pausing, and I giggled and retreated into the kitchen. "Leave me alone, you're all sweaty!" In a few seconds, I found myself pinned against a countertop, his hands gripping the beveled granite edge on either side of me.
"You like me sweaty," he murmured, his denim-clad legs corralling mine.
I leaned backward to avoid contact with his damp chest. "If I have caught you," I told him, still giggling, "I'm going to throw you back."
"You only throw the little ones back, darlin'. The big ones you keep. Now give me a kiss."
I tried to stop smiling long enough to comply. His lips were warm as they moved over mine, the kiss erotic in its careful lightness.
* * *
After the boat-builders had finished gluing and nailing the gunnels in place, they cooled off in the pool, and we spent the rest of the afternoon lazing and swimming. Lunch was brought out, big bowls of field greens tossed with grilled chicken, red grapes, and walnuts, and we shared a bottle of ice-cold white burgundy in chilled glasses. The nanny took the children inside the cool house, while Gage, Liberty, Jack, and I ate at a table shaded by a huge umbrella.
"I'm making a special toast," Gage said, lifting his glass. We paused and looked at him expectantly. "To Haven and Hardy," he continued, "who by now have become Mr. and Mrs. Gates." He smiled as we all stared at him in surprise.
"They got married?" Liberty asked.
"I thought they were going to Mexico for a long weekend," Jack said, looking torn between pleasure and annoyance. "They didn't say anything to me about any wedding plans."
"They had a private ceremony at Playa del Carmen."
Liberty was laughing. "How can they get married without us? I can't believe they wanted privacy for their own wedding." She turned a mock-scowl on Gage. "And you didn't say anything to me. How long have you known?" But she was glowing with obvious happiness.
"Since yesterday," Gage said. "Neither of them wanted a big show. But they're going to plan a big celebration party when they get back, which I told Haven was a fine idea."
"I think that's great," Jack said, raising his glass to the unseen couple. "After everything Haven's been through, she deserves any kind of wedding she wants." He took a swallow of his wine. "Does Dad know?"
"Not yet," Gage said ruefully. "I guess I'm going to have to tell him . . . but he won't like it."
"He approves of Hardy, doesn't he?" I asked with a touch of concern.
"Yeah, he's given his blessing to the match," Gage said. "But Dad never misses the opportunity to turn a family event into a three-ring circus. He wanted to be in charge of it."
I nodded, understanding immediately why Haven and Hardy hadn't wanted their wedding to be a big production. For all that they were a friendly and gregarious couple, they were both protective of their private life. The feelings cut too deep for them to be put on display.
We all drank to the newlyweds and talked for a few minutes about Playa del Carmen, which apparently was known for its beaches and fine fishing, and was far less touristy than Cancun.
"Have you been to Mexico, Ella?" Liberty asked.
"Not yet. Eve wanted to go for a while."
"We should go one of these weekends, all four of us, and take the kids," Liberty told Gage. "It's supposed to be a good place for families."
"Sure, we'll take one of the planes," Gage said easily. "Do you have a passport, Ella?"
"No, not yet." My eyes had widened. "The Travises have a plane?"
"Two jets," Jack said. A smile touched his lips as he saw my expression. He picked up my free hand and played with it lightly. I supposed that by then I should have been used to the little shock that occurred whenever I was reminded of the financial stratosphere the Travises occupied. "Gage," Jack said to his brother, still staring at me, "I think the mention of the planes is scaring Ella. Tell her I'm a regular guy, will you?"
"He's the most regular guy in the Travis family," Liberty told me, her green eyes twinkling.
I couldn't help laughing at the qualifier.
Liberty smiled. And I realized she understood how I felt. It's okay, her gaze seemed to say. You'll be fine. She lifted her glass again. "I've got some news to share, too . . . although it's not a surprise to Gage." She glanced at Jack and me expectantly. "Guess."
"You're pregnant?" Jack asked.
Liberty shook her head, her smile widening. "I'm going to start my own salon. I've been thinking about it for a while . . . and I thought before we had another child, I'd like to do this. I'm going to keep it small and exclusive, just hire a couple of people."
"That's wonderful," I exclaimed, clinking my glass with hers.
"Congratulations, Lib." Jack extended his own wineglass and followed suit. "What are you going to call the place?"
"I haven't decided yet. Carrington wants to call it Clippety-Do-Da or Hairway to Heaven . . . but I told her we have to be a little bit classier."
"Julius Scissors," I suggested.
"Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow," Jack joined in.
Liberty covered her ears. "I'll go out of business in the first week."
Jack raised his brows into mocking crescents. "The big question is, how is Dad going to get more grandchildren? That's a Travis wife's job, isn't it? You're wasting prime childbearing years, Lib."
"Stow it," Gage told him. "We're just now starting to catch up on our sleep, with Matthew getting a little older. I'm not ready to go through it again just yet."
"No sympathy from this side of the table," Jack said. "Ella's been going through all of it—the sleepless nights, the diapers—for a kid who's not even hers."
"He feels like mine," I said without thinking, and Jack's fingers tightened protectively on my hand.
There was silence except for the quiet spray of the misters, and the splashing waterfall.
"How long do you have left with the baby, Ella?" Liberty asked.
"About a month." With my free hand, I reached for my wineglass and drained it. Ordinarily I would have put up a bright false smile and diverted the subject. But in the company of sympathetic listeners, with Jack beside me, I found myself saying what I really thought. "I'm going to miss him. It's going to be hard. And lately it's started to bother me that Luke won't remember the time he spent with me. The first three months of his life. He won't know any of the stuff I did for him—I won't be any different to him than a stranger off the street."
"You won't be seeing him, after Tara takes him?" Gage asked.
"I don't know. Probably not often."
"He'll remember deep down," Jack said gently.
And as I looked into his steady dark eyes, I found solace.
Luke lay on the floor of my apartment in a baby gym, a floor quilt with two crossed arches featuring rattling beads, spinning birds and butterflies, crinkly leaves, and cheerful electronic music. He loved it nearly as much as I loved watching him. At two months, he laughed, smiled, made noises, and was able to raise his head and chest.
Jack lay on the floor beside him, lazily reaching up to flick the toys or to push a button for new music. "I wish I had one of these," he said. "Strung with beer cans, Cohibas, and those little black panties you wore Saturday night."
I paused in the midst of putting away dishes in the kitchen. "I didn't think you noticed them, you took them off me so fast."
"I'd just spent a two-hour dinner looking at you in that low-cut dress. You're lucky I didn't jump you in the parking garage again."
I bit back a smile and stood on tiptoe to slide a glass pitcher on a tall shelf. "Yes, well, I usually like a little more foreplay than the jingle of car keys and two-and-a-half kisses, and—" I jumped as I felt him behind me, having moved so swiftly and silently that I hadn't even noticed him entering the kitchen. The pitcher wobbled in my grasp, and Jack reached up to push it firmly onto the shelf.
I felt his mouth at my ear. "I took care of you, didn't I?"
"Yes." I gave a throaty laugh as his arms closed around my front. "I'm not saying I was shortchanged. I'm just saying, you didn't waste any time getting down to business . . ." The words dissolved into a sigh as I felt him bite and lick my neck gently, his tongue playing in a gentle swirl that evoked scalding memories. My glasses slipped down my nose, and I pushed the frames back into place. One of Jack's arms crossed beneath my breasts, while his free hand slipped beneath the waistband of my shorts.
"You want foreplay, Ella?" His h*ps pressed against me from behind, and I felt the hard shape of him through the layers of our clothing.
My lashes lowered, and I gripped the edge of the countertop as his hands played over my body. "The baby," I said breathlessly.
"He won't mind. He's doing his workout in the baby gym."
Laughing, I pushed his hands away. "Let me finish the dishes."
Jack pulled my h*ps back against his, wanting to play.
But we were interrupted by the shrill ring of the phone. I reached for it and hissed, "Be still," to Jack before answering. "Hello?"
"Ella, it's me." The voice was my cousin Liza's, flat and sheepish. "I'm calling to give you a heads-up. I'm so sorry."
I stiffened, and Jack's hands went still. "What kind of heads-up?" I asked.
"Your mom is coming to see you. She'll be there in fifteen minutes to a half hour. Sooner, if traffic's good."
"No, she's not," I said, blanching. "I didn't invite her. She doesn't know where I live."
"I told her," Liza said guiltily.
"Why? What possible reason could you have for doing that to me?"
"I couldn't help it. She called me all fired-up because she just talked to Tara on the phone, and Tara told her she thought something might be going on between you and Jack Travis. And now they both want to know what's going on."
"I don't owe either of them explanations," I burst out, going crimson. "I've had it, Liza. I'm tired of Tara's messes, and I wish Mom was even half as concerned about her grandson as she is about my sex life!" Too late, I realized the slip, and I covered my mouth with my hand.
"You're ha**ng s*x with Jack Travis?"
"Of course not." I felt Jack's mouth brush gently over the nape of my neck, and I shivered. Holding the phone against my chest, I twisted to face him. "You have to go," I told him urgently.
I brought the phone back up to my ear. ". . . he there with you?" Liza was asking.
"No, it's the UPS guy. He wants me to sign something."
"Down here," Jack murmured, pulling my free hand along his body.
"Go," I muttered, pushing hard at his chest. He didn't budge, only eased my glasses off and cleaned the smudged lenses with the hem of his T-shirt.
"Is it a serious thing?" Liza asked.
"No. It's a shallow, meaningless, purely physical relationship that's heading absolutely nowhere." I flinched as Jack leaned over to nip my earlobe in retaliation.
"Cool! Ella, do you think you could get him to fix me up with one of his friends? I've been having kind of a dry spell lately—"
"I've got to go, Liza. I've got to clean up and figure out what to . . . oh, hell, I'll talk to you later." I hung up the phone and grabbed my glasses from Jack.