I was vaguely surprised that I wasn't crying. It seemed there was a small but crucial distance between me and what was happening. I was grateful for that. "Let's sit down."

Tara followed me. "Living in 1800 Main and trading up for a rich guy like Jack Travis . . . you sure landed on your feet, Ella."

"I didn't start going out with Jack because of his money," I protested.

Tara laughed. "If you say so, I believe it. Although you got this apartment from him, didn't you?"

"It was a loaner," I said. "But now that you're back and I'm not taking care of Luke anymore, I'm going to live somewhere else. I'm not sure where yet."

"Why can't you keep staying here?"

I shook my head. "It wouldn't feel right. But I'll figure it out. A more important question is, where are you staying from now on? What are you and Luke going to do?"

Tara's expression became guarded. "I've got a nice house not far from here."

"Mark arranged it for you?"

"Sort of."

The conversation went on for a little while, with me trying to nail down any specifics of Tara's situation: her plans, her situation, how she was going to get money. She didn't want to answer me. Her evasiveness was maddening.

Sensitive to the tension between us, or perhaps tiring of the unfamiliar arms, Luke began to writhe and fret. "What does he want?" Tara asked. "Here, take him."

I reached out for the baby and settled him against my shoulder. He went quiet and sighed.

"Tara," I said carefully, "I'm sorry if you think I overstepped by getting that promissory contract from Mark Gottler. But I did it for your protection, to get you and Luke some kind of guarantee. Some security."

She gazed at me with baffling serenity. "I have all the security I need. He promised to take care of us, and I believe him."

"Why?" I couldn't help asking. "Why are you so willing to take the word of a man who runs around on his wife?"

"You don't understand, Ella. You don't know him."

"I've met him, and I think he's a cold, manipulative as**ole."

That made her temper flare. "You're always so smart, aren't you, Ella? You know everything, don't you? Well, how about this? . . . Mark Gottler isn't Luke's father. He's covering for the real father."

"Who is it, Tara?" I asked with weary anger, covering the back of the baby's head with my hand.

"Noah."

I was silent, staring at her. I saw the truth in her eyes. "Noah Cardiff?" I asked hoarsely.

Tara nodded. "He loves me. He is loved by tens of thousands of people, he could have anyone, but it's me he wants. Or do you think it's impossible for a man like that to love me?"

"No, I . . ." Luke was falling asleep. I stroked his small back. Luke . . . his favorite disciple.

"What about his wife?" I had to clear my throat before continuing. "Does she know about you? About the baby?"

"Not yet. Noah's going to tell her when the time is right."

"When is that? " I whispered.

"Some time in the future, when his kids get a little older. He's got too many responsibilities now. Noah's real busy. But he's going to work it all out. He wants to be with me."

"Do you think he'll ever risk his public image by getting a divorce? And how often will he see Luke? "

"Luke's going to be little for a long time. He won't need a father 'til he's older, and by then Noah and I will be married." She frowned as she saw my face. "Don't look at me like that. He loves me, Ella. He promised to take care of me. I'm safe, and so is the baby."

"Maybe you feel safe, but you're not. You have nothing to bargain with. He can dump you at any time and leave you high and dry."

"And you think you've got a better deal with Jack Travis?" she asked. "What do you have to bargain with, Ella? How do you know you won't get dumped? At least I've got Noah's baby."

"I'm not dependent on Jack," I said quietly.

"No, you don't depend on anyone. You don't trust anyone or believe in anything. Well, I'm different. I don't want to be alone—I need a man, and there's nothing wrong with that. And Noah's the best man I've ever known. He's good and smart, and he prays all the time. And I bet he's got more money than Jack Travis, and he knows everyone, Ella. Politicians and business people, and . . . just everyone. He's amazing."

"Will he put any of his promises in writing?" I asked.

"That's not what our relationship is about. A contract would make it cheap and ugly. And it would hurt Noah's feelings if he thought I didn't trust him. He and Mark know that contract was something you pushed for, not me." Reading my expression, she tried to set her mouth against a quiver of frustration. Tears weighted the delicate rims of her lower lids. "Can't you just be happy for me, Ella?"

I shook my head slowly. "Not like this."

She dashed at the moisture beneath her eyes with her fingertips. "You try to control people just like Mom does. Do you ever think about that?" Standing, she reached for Luke. "Give me the baby. I've got to go. I have a car and driver waiting."

I surrendered Luke, who had fallen asleep, and gathered up the diaper bag, tucking the board book inside. "I can help you get the stroller down to the car—"

"I don't need it. I've got a whole nursery filled with brand-new baby stuff."

"Don't leave angry," I said, suddenly breathless, my chest filled with cold, dry pain.

"I'm not angry. It's just. . ." She hesitated. "You and Mom are toxic to me, Ella. I know that's not your fault. But I can't see either of you and not remember the hell of our childhood. I need to fill my life with positive things. From now on it's going to be just me, Noah, and Luke."

I was so stricken that I could hardly speak. "Wait. Please." I leaned over the carrier and clumsily pressed my lips to the sleeping baby's head. "Goodbye, Luke," I whispered.

And then I stood back and watched my sister carry Luke away. She took him onto the elevator, and the doors opened and closed, and they were gone.

Moving like an old woman, I went back into the apartment. I couldn't seem to think of what to do. Mechanically I wandered into the kitchen and began to make tea that I knew I wasn't going to drink.

"It's over," I said aloud. "It's over."

Luke would wake up and I wouldn't be there. He would wonder why I had left him. The sound of my voice would fade from his memory.

My boy. My baby.

I accidentally scalded my fingers with the hot water, but the pain didn't really register. Some part of my mind worried over how badly I was dissociating. I wanted Jack . . . he might know how to break through the layers of ice around me . . . but at the same time, the thought of being with him filled me with dread.

I changed into my pajamas, and for the rest of the afternoon I watched TV without seeing or hearing anything. The phone rang, and the answering machine picked up. Before I glanced at the caller ID, I knew it was Jack. There was no way I could talk to him, or anyone, at the moment. I turned the volume down completely.

Recognizing that I needed to go through the motions of a normal routine, I made soup with powdered chicken broth and consumed it slowly, and followed it with a glass of wine. The phone rang again, and again, and I let the answering machine take it each time, until a half-dozen messages had been left.

Just as I considered going to bed, there was a knock at the door. It was Haven. Her dark brown eyes, so like her brother's, were filled with concern. She made no attempt to come inside, just slipped her hands in the pockets of her jeans and regarded me with infinite patience. "Hey," she said softly. "The baby's gone?"

"Yep. He's gone." I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but the last word stuck in my throat.

"Jack's been trying to call you."

The shadow of an apologetic smile crossed my lips. "I know. But I'm not in the mood for talking. And I didn't want to ruin his fishing trip with my bad mood."

"You wouldn't ruin his fishing trip—he just wants to know you're okay. He called me a few minutes ago and told me to come down here and check on you."

"Sorry. You didn't need to do that." I tried to smile. "I'm not outside on the ledge or anything. Just really tired."

"Yeah, I know." Haven hesitated. "Want me to stay with you for a little while? Watch a late show or something?"

I shook my head. "I need to sleep. I . . . thanks, but no."

"Okay." Her gaze was warm and searching. I shrank from it like a nocturnal creature avoiding sunlight. "Ella. I've never had a baby, and I don't know exactly what you're going through . . . but I do know about loss. And grief. And I'm a good listener. Let's talk tomorrow, okay?"

"There's really nothing to say." I had no intention of talking about Luke ever again. It was a closed chapter in my life.

She reached out and touched my shoulder lightly. "Jack's getting in around five tomorrow," she said. "Maybe even sooner."

"I probably won't be here," I heard myself say distantly. "I'm going back to Austin."

She looked at me alertly. "For a visit?"

"I don't know. Maybe for good. I keep thinking . . . I want to go back to the way things were before." I had been safe in Austin, with Dane. I had not felt too much, given too much, needed too much. There had been no promises.

"Do you think that's possible?" Haven asked softly.

"I don't know," I said. "I may have to try it. Everything feels wrong here, Haven."

"Wait before deciding anything," Haven urged. "You need time. Give it some time, and you'll know what to do."

TWENTY-TWO

In the morning i woke up and went into the main room. There was a protesting squeak beneath my foot. I reached down to pick up Luke's stuffed bunny. Holding the bunny tightly, I sat on the sofa and wept. But it wasn't the good, gusty cry I needed, only a slow anguished drizzle. I took a shower, standing in the hot water for a long time.

I realized that no matter how far away from me Tara was, no matter where she and Luke were or what they did, I would still love them. No one could take that from me.

Tara and I were fellow survivors, responding to our wasteland of a childhood in opposite ways. She feared being alone just as much as I feared not being alone. It was entirely possible that time would prove us both wrong, and the secret of happiness would always elude us. All I knew for certain was that the boundary of isolation was the only thing that had ever kept me safe.

I dressed and put my hair in a ponytail, and I began to fold my clothes in neat piles on the bed.

The phone stayed silent. I guessed that Jack had given up on calling me, which made me perplexed and uneasy. As much as I didn't want to talk about Luke, or how I was feeling, I wanted to know how Jack was. As the local news came on, the weather forecast showed a storm pattern forming in the Gulf. That would make it a bumpy return ride for the Travis brothers, unless they had gotten in front of the system. A half hour after the first report, the tropical depression had been upgraded to a forty-five-mile-per-hour storm.

Worrying, I picked up the phone and called Jack, and got his voice mail. "Hi," I said, when the beep signaled to leave a message. "I'm sorry I didn't answer last night. I was tired, and . . . well, anyway, I saw the weather report, and I want to make sure you're okay. Please call me."

There was no return call, however. Was Jack mad that I hadn't talked to him the previous night, or was he simply busy trying to get the boat safely to harbor?

When I heard a ring early in the afternoon, I hurried to the phone and picked it up without even checking the ID. "Jack?"

"Ella, it's Haven. I was wondering . . . by any chance did Jack leave a copy of the float plan with you?"

"No. I don't even know what that is. What does it look like?"

"Nothing fancy, just a couple of pieces of paper. It's basically a description of the boat, and it tells where you're heading, the rig numbers along your course, and what time you expect to get back."

"Can't you just call Jack and ask him?"

"He and Joe aren't answering their cell phones."

"I noticed that. I tried to call Jack earlier because of the weather report, but he didn't pick up. I thought he was probably busy." I hesitated. "Should we be worried?"

"Not really, it's just. . . I'd like to find out what their exact schedule is.

"I'll go up to his apartment and look for the float plan."

"No, that's okay, I already did that. Hardy's going to call the harbormaster at the marina they left from. They probably left the information with him."

"Okay. Call and let me know, will you?"

"Absolutely."

Haven hung up, and I stood frowning at the receiver in my hand. I reached up and rubbed the back of my neck, which was prickling. I dialed Jack's cell phone again, and his voice mail picked up immediately. "Just checking in again," I said, my voice taut. "Call and let me know how you are."

After watching the weather channel for a few more minutes, I picked up my purse and left the apartment. It felt weird to go out without all the paraphernalia I usually dragged around because of Luke. I went up to Haven and Hardy's apartment, and Haven let me in.

"I'm really getting worried," I told her. "Has anyone gotten hold of Jack or Joe?"

She shook her head. "Hardy's talking to the harbormaster, and they're looking for the float plan. And I talked to Gage, and he said he thought they should have been back by now. But the marina guys said the boat slip is still empty."

"Maybe they just decided to prolong the fishing?"

"Not with the weather. Besides, I know for a fact that Jack was planning to come back early today. He didn't want to leave you alone for too long, after what you went through yesterday."

"I really hope he's okay, so I can kill him when he comes back," I said, and Haven managed a laugh.

"You may have to get in line for that."

Hardy hung up and reached for the TV controller, turning the volume up as another weather report came on. "Hey, Ella," he said absently, his gaze on the TV. Contrary to his usual relaxed charm, Hardy looked troubled, the lines of his face hard and stern. He half-sat on the back of the sofa, his long form tensed as if ready for action.


Tags: Lisa Kleypas Travises Romance
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