"A guy who wanted a trophy?" I suggested. "A guy who wanted someone pretty and fun . . . I wouldn't be too hard on him."

"You're more of a woman than she could ever be. And a hell of a lot more beautiful."

I laughed. "You're just saying that because I got rid of her for you.

He came closer until the baby was caught between us, and he slid his hand around the back of my neck. His fingers were strong and slightly cool as they clasped my tender nape. The sensation, almost unbearably pleasant, made me shiver. "We don't have a problem?" he asked warily.

"Why would we have a problem?"

"Because any other woman I've ever known would have gone ballistic, coming up here and finding Ashley in my apartment."

"It was obvious you didn't want her here." My lips curved with a wry smile. "And for the record, Jack . . . whatever kind of man you used to be, you're not at all selfish or shallow now. I'll vouch for you any time."

Jack bent his head, his breath fanning hotly over my mouth. He kissed me, hard and sweet and long. "Don't ever leave me, Ella. I need you."

Abruptly I felt uncomfortable in his embrace. "Luke's getting squished," I said with a half-laugh, maneuvering away, even though the baby had been resting still and content between us.

TWENTY-ONE

I savored the two weeks that followed with the bittersweet awareness that it was only a brief season in my life. Jack and Luke had become the axis on which the entire world spun. I knew I would lose them both eventually. But I pushed that awareness as far away as I could, and simply allowed myself to enjoy the near-magical quality of those blazing summer days.

It was a busy, bustling kind of happiness, my schedule filled with work, taking care of Luke, trying to keep up with friends, and spending every available moment with Jack. I had never suspected I could become so familiar with someone so quickly. I learned Jack's expressions, his favorite words, the way his mouth tightened when he was deep in concentration, the way his eyes crinkled at the outside corners right before he laughed. I learned that he kept a tight rein on his temper, that he was gentle with people he judged to be more vulnerable than himself, and that he couldn't abide pettiness or small-mindedness.

Jack had a wide circle of friends, two of whom he considered close buddies, but the ones he trusted most were his brothers, especially Joe. His greatest require-ment of others was that they keep their word.

To Jack, a promise was a life-or-death matter, the greatest measure of a person.

With me he was openly affectionate, tactile, a physical man with a strong drive. He loved to play, to tease, and to coax me into trying things that made it difficult to face him in the bright light of morning. But there had been a time or two when sex was not playful at all, when we breathed and moved together until it seemed Jack had brought me to the brink of something, a kind of white-hot transcendence, that startled me with its force, and I drew back and broke the momentum, afraid of what might happen.

"You need a baby of your own, " Stacy told me, when I called her one afternoon. "That's what your biological clock is telling you."

I had tried to describe to her how Luke, in his small and innocent way, had broken down my defenses. For the first time in my life I was experiencing an emotional connection with a child, and it was stronger than I ever could have expected.

I had told Stacy I was in terrible trouble.

I wanted Luke for a lifetime. I wanted to be there at every stage of his growing up. But soon his real mother would come for him, and I would be on the periphery.

It was one hell of a one-two punch, what Tara and Luke had done to me.

"It's gonna hurt bad when you give him up," Stacy continued. "You need to be ready for that."

"I know. But I don't know how you get ready for something like that. I mean, I've told myself that I've only had him for about three months. That's not a huge investment of time. But I've gotten attached to him all out of proportion."

"Ella, Ella . . . there is no proportion with babies."

I gripped the phone tightly. "What do I do?"

"Start making plans. Come back to Austin right after Luke is gone, and stop wasting time with Jack Travis."

"Why is it wasting time if I'm enjoying it?"

"There's no future in it. I admit he's hot, and I'd probably be hit-tin' that, too, if I were single. But Ella, keep your eyes open. You know that kind of man's not in it for the long haul."

"Neither am I. That's what makes it perfect."

"Ella, come back home. I'm worried about you. I think you're fooling yourself."

"About what?"

"About a lot of things."

But privately I wondered if just the opposite was true—that I had stopped fooling myself about a lot of things, and life had been more comfortable and less complicated when I had been mired in self-deception.

I talked with my sister once a week. We had a couple of long, fairly awkward conversations, littered with the inevitable psychospeak that you couldn't help but lapse into after having seen a therapist. "I'm coming to Houston next week," Tara finally told me. "Friday. I'm leaving the clinic. Dr. Jaslow says I've gotten a good start, but I should probably keep seeing someone if I want to make more progress."

"I'm so glad," I managed to say, feeling cold all over. "I'm glad you're better, Tara." I paused before making myself ask, "You'll want to take Luke right away, I guess? Because if not, I could always—"

"Yeah, I want him."

Do you really? I wanted to ask her. Because you hardly ever ask about him, and you don't seem to find him all that interesting. But maybe that wasn't fair. Maybe he meant too much to her . . . maybe she couldn't bring herself to discuss the source of such powerful longing.

I wandered to Luke's crib, where he was sleeping. I reached out to touch one of the honeypots on the mobile. My fingers were trembling. "Can I pick you up at the airport?"

"No, I'm . . . that's being taken care of."

By Mark Gottler, I thought. "Listen, I don't want to be a pest, but. . . that promissory contract we talked about. . . it's here at my apartment. I hope you'll at least take a look at it while you're here."

"I'll take a look at it. But I won't sign it. There's no need."

I bit my lip to keep from arguing with her. One step at a time, I told myself.

Jack and i argued over the prospect of tara's return, because he wanted to be there, and I wanted to face it alone. I didn't want him to be a part of something so painful and personal. I had a pretty good idea of how much giving up Luke was going to hurt, and I would rather not have Jack see me at a moment of such weakness.

Besides, that Friday was Joe's birthday, and they had planned to go fishing on an overnight trip to Galveston.

"You have to be there for Joe," I told Jack.

"I can reschedule the trip."

"You promised him," I said, fully aware of the effect that word had on Jack. "I can't believe you're even thinking of backing out on your brother on his birthday."

"He'll understand. This is more important."

"I'll be just fine," I said. "And I need the private time with my sister. Tara and I won't be able to talk if you're there."

"Damn it all, she wasn't supposed to come back until the next week. Why the hell is she getting out early?"

"I don't know. I can't believe she didn't think to schedule her mental-health issues around your fishing trip."

"I'm not going."

Exasperated, I paced around his apartment. "I want you to go, Jack. I can be stronger about this without you. I need to do it alone. I'm going to hand off Luke to Tara, drink a big glass of wine, have a bath, and go to bed early. If I really need to be with someone, I'll go upstairs and visit Haven. And you'll be back the next day, and we can do the postmortem."

"I'd rather call it the postgame analysis." He watched me intently, seeing too much. "Ella. Stop that damn pacing and come here."

I was still for about ten seconds before I went to him. His arms went around me, and he pressed my resistant body against his at intervals: my shoulders, back, waist, hips.

"Stop pretending everything is fine," he said near my ear.

"That's all I know how to do. If you pretend everything's fine long enough, everything eventually becomes fine."

Jack held me for wordless minutes. His hand continued to move slowly over me, pressing me closer, squeezing, urging, like an artist molding clay. I breathed deeply, letting myself be petted and gently gripped, my nerves leaping as he pulled my h*ps against his, letting me feel how aroused he was.

He pulled off my clothes and then his own, every movement deliberate, and when I tried to say something, he took my head in his hands and kissed me, openmouthed and searing. Pulling me down to the floor, he straddled my hips, his mouth working at mine. I struggled upward, trying to get closer, straining toward the pleasure of his firm body. We rolled slowly, first me on top, then him, and he grasped my h*ps and slid inside me, deeper, deeper, until he was encompassed in wetness and heat. I groaned in satisfaction at the necessary weight of him anchoring me, the feel of his flesh pressing, mine opening.

He reached for a sofa cushion, shoved it beneath my hips, and took me in grinding thrusts, pushing, demanding, making me come with plangent cries. And even then he kept on, making it last, delaying release until it broke over him. He stayed in me for a long time, his strong fingers tangled in my hair, not letting me turn my mouth from his. It seemed as if he were trying to prove something, demonstrate something, that my heart and mind were unwilling to accept.

It was still dark when Jack left on Friday morning. He sat beside me on the bed and pulled my sleeping body upward, holding me. I awakened with a murmur, and he held my head in one hand, long fingers cupping firmly around my skull. His rich baritone was soft in my ear. "You do what you have to. I won't stand in the way. But when I come back, you're not shutting me out, you hear? I'm going to take you somewhere . . . a nice long vacation . . . and we're going to talk, and I'm going to hold you while you cry until you feel better. And we'll get you through this." He kissed my cheek and smoothed my hair, and lowered me back to the mattress.

I was silent, my eyes remaining shut. I felt a caressing stroke of his fingertips along the side of my face, over my body, and then he pulled the covers to my collarbone and left.

I didn't think there was any way to convince Jack that he wanted more than I had to give, that to people who'd been damaged the way I had been, fear and the will to survive would always be more powerful than attachment. I could only love in a limited way, except for Luke, and that had been the miracle I had never counted on.

But I was losing Luke.

I had learned this lesson so many times before. It was the great inner truth that didn't require the support of logic. Every time I loved, I lost, and I was diminished.

I wondered how much of me would be left after tomorrow.

As I dressed Luke in a sailor suit and tiny white sneakers, I tried to imagine how he would look to Tara, how many differences there were between a three-month-old and a newborn. Luke could now grasp an object in his hand, or bat at an object that dangled over him. He smiled at me, and he smiled at the sight of himself in a mirror. When I talked to him, he gurgled and made sounds in response, as if we were having a perfectly fascinating conversation. When I held him up and let his feet touch the floor, he pushed down with his legs as if he wanted to stand.

Luke was at the beginning of infinite discoveries and abilities. Soon there would be milestones such as his first word, the first time he could sit up, the first step. I would miss all of it. He wasn't mine anywhere except in my heart.

I felt the sting of incipient tears, like a sneeze that wouldn't quite happen. But it seemed the mechanism for tears had been shut off in me. It felt awful, wanting to cry but not being able. You'll get to visit him, I told myself sternly. You can find a way to he part of his life. You'll be the really cool aunt who always gives him the best presents.

But it wasn't the same.

"Luke," I said scratchily, fastening the Velcro tabs on his shoes, "Mommy's coming today. You'll finally have Mommy back."

He smiled up at me. I bent and brushed my lips over his petal-soft cheeks, and felt his miniature fingers grip in my hair. Gently disentangling his fists, I picked him up and took him to the sofa. I sat him on my lap and began to read his favorite board book, about a gorilla who let all the zoo animals out of their cages one night.

Midway through the story, I heard the intercom beep. "Miss Varner, you have a visitor."

"Please send her up."

I felt nervous and defeated. And somewhere deep inside, I was aware of lurking anger. Not a lot of anger; just a small, potent kindling, enough to burn out any remaining hint of optimism about my own future. Had Tara never asked me to do this, I would be unaware of this level of pain. And if I ever had to go through this again, someone was going to have to put me in a dirt-filled pot and start watering me three times a week.

A knock at the door, three soft raps.

Carrying Luke, I went to answer it.

And there was Tara, more beautiful than I remembered, with a few hard edges that didn't detract from her looks at all. She was slender, beautifully dressed in a white hammered-silk top and skinny black pants, and black flats with silver studs. Her white-blond hair fell loose in casual waves, and oversized hoops hung from her ears. And her wrist glittered with what had to be a fifteen-carat tennis bracelet.

Tara came into the apartment with a wordless exclamation, not trying to take Luke from me, just putting her long arms around us both. I had forgotten how much taller than me she was. I remembered the time in our teens when I realized she had shot up past me in height, and I had complained that she shouldn't have gotten a growth spurt before I had. And she'd teased me by saying she'd gotten both our growth spurts. The embrace reminded me of a thousand memories. It reminded me how much I loved her.

She drew back to look at me, and her gaze fell to the baby. "Ella, he's so beautiful," she said in wonder. "And so much bigger."

"Isn't he?" I angled Luke to face her. "Luke, look at your gorgeous mommy . . . here, hold him."

We transferred the baby carefully, and as Tara took him, I still felt the imprint of Luke's soft weight against my shoulder. She looked at me with a wet glitter in her eyes, the tops of her cheeks bright with color that burned through her makeup. "Thank you, Ella," she whispered.


Tags: Lisa Kleypas Travises Romance
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