He thrust strongly, rooting deep, a primal sound vibrating in his throat. His shaking hands clenched in my hair, and he took my mouth with bruising kisses. The rhythm began with a hammering, almost vicious power, and I answered every visceral stroke with tender acceptance. Grasping his head in my hands, I pulled his ear close to my lips, and I whispered how much I loved him, loved him beyond anything. He tensed and gasped out my name, his body shuddering with the violence of his release.
Some time before morning I woke with the hazy awareness of warm hands drifting over me, fingertips gliding and playing. Jack was cuddling me from behind, his knees drawn up beneath mine as we lay on our sides. In contrast to his earlier ferocity, his touch was extraordinarily light, teasing out sensation. I felt the hardness of his chest against my back, the soft mat of hair brushing my shoulder blades and raising gooseflesh. His mouth touched the back of my neck, teeth closing tenderly on the thin, hot skin, sending a shiver along my spine.
"Easy," Jack whispered, soothing me with his hands, kissing my nape, stroking it with his tongue. But it was impossible to stay still as he caressed my br**sts and stomach and between my thighs, long fingers slipping into the core of my body. I moaned and reached blindly for his wrist, gripping it, and feeling the subtle, clever play of muscle and bone. His lips curved against my neck.
He eased his hand away, and his strong arm hooked beneath my top thigh, levering it upward. Positioning himself, he shunted deep and easy, whispering, I love you, just let go, Ella, let me have you. . . . He was so deliberate, the pace dreamy and delayed, and the more I struggled, the more time he took. We began the incremental climb, rising gradually on every throb, pulse, breath.
Withdrawing slowly, Jack turned me onto my back. He spread me wide and helpless beneath him. Incoherent sounds rose in my throat as he entered me again. His mouth took mine with erotic gentleness, while the urgent cadence of our bodies never ceased, the sleek undulations drawing out more pleasure, and more.
Our gazes locked, and I sank into the darkness of his eyes, feeling him all around me, inside me. He quickened, deepening the strokes, following the inner pulse of my body, pursuing my pleasure with hard, assuaging thrusts until he had driven me into a cl**ax higher and stronger than anything I had ever felt. I cried out at the summit, twining my limbs around him, while Jack breathed my name and tumbled with me in the rush, the voluptuous undertow, the slow, rich ebb.
For a long time afterward, Jack held my shivering body and stroked me into stillness.
"Did you ever think it could be like that?" I whispered.
"Yes." He smoothed my hair and kissed my forehead. "But only with you."
We slept until hot blue morning pressed against the shuttered windows, light filtering into the bedroom. I was dimly aware of Jack leaving the bed, the sounds of a shower, coffee being made in the kitchen, his quiet voice as he called the hospital to check on Joe's condition.
"How is he?" I asked drowsily when Jack returned to the bedroom. He was wearing a plaid flannel robe, carrying a mug of coffee. He still looked a little worse for wear, but sexier than any man had a right to be after what he'd been through.
"Stable condition." Jack's voice was still roughened from the ordeal. "He's going to be fine. Tough as hell."
"Well, he's a Travis," I said reasonably. Climbing out of bed, I went to his dresser and pulled out a T-shirt, which hung past the tops of my thighs when I put it on.
When I turned to face Jack, he was standing right there, tucking a lock of my hair behind my ear, and gazing down at me. No one had ever looked at me with such tender concern. "Tell me about Luke," he said gently.
And as I stared into those velvety-dark eyes, I knew I could share anything with him. He would listen, and he would understand. "Let me get my coffee first," I said, and went to the kitchen.
Jack had set a cup and saucer beside the coffeemaker. I saw a piece of notepaper, folded lengthwise, standing in the empty cup. Perplexed, I opened the note and read:
Dear Miss Independent,
I've decided that of all the women I've ever known, you are the only one I will ever love more than hunting, fishing, football, and power tools.
You may not know this, but the other time I asked you to marry me, the night I put the crib together, I meant it. Even though I knew you weren't ready.
God, I hope you're ready now.
Marry me, Ella. Because no matter where you go or what you do, I'll love you every day for the rest of my life.
I felt no fear, reading those words. Only wonder, that so much happiness could be within my reach.
Noticing something else in the cup, I reached in and pulled out a diamond ring, the stone round and glittering. My breath caught as I turned it in the light. I tried on the ring, and it slid neatly onto my finger. Picking up a nearby pen, I turned over the paper and wrote my answer in a flourishing scrawl.
I poured my coffee, added cream and sweetener, and went back into the bedroom with the note.
Jack was sitting on the edge of the bed, his head tilted slightly as he watched me. His simmering gaze took me in from head to toe, lingering at the diamond sparkling on my hand. I saw his chest rise and fall with a quick breath.
Sipping my coffee, I approached him and handed him the note.
I love you, too.
And I think I know the secret to a long and happy marriage— just choose someone you can't live without.
For me, that would be you.
So if you insist on being traditional . . .
Jack let out a pent-up sigh. He took my h*ps in his hands as I stood before him. "Thank God," he murmured, drawing me between his thighs. "I was afraid you were going to give me an argument."
Taking care not to spill my coffee, I leaned forward and pressed my lips against his, letting our tongues touch. "When have I ever said no to you, Jack Travis?"
His lashes lowered as he glanced at my damp lower lip. His accent was as thick as sorghum. "Well, I sure as hell didn't want you to start sayin' it now." Taking the coffee from me, he finished it in a few swallows and set the cup aside, disregarding my laughing protest.
He kissed me until my arms were twined around his neck and my knees threatened to buckle.
"Ella," he said, finishing the kiss with a gentle nuzzle, "you're not going to take it back, are you?"
"Of course not." I was filled with a sense of rightness, of calm certitude, and at the same time I was as giddy as a kaleidoscope of butterflies. "Why would I?"
"You told me you believed marriage was for other people."
"You're the only man who could make me believe that it's for me, too. Although when you get down to it, love is what's real. I still say marriage is just a piece of paper."
Jack smiled. "Let's find out," he said, and he pulled me down to the bed with him.
It occurred to me much later that the people who said marriage was just a piece of paper were usually people who had never done it. Because that cliché discounted something important—the power of words . . . and I, more than anyone, should have understood that.
Somehow the promise we had made on that piece of paper gave me more freedom than I'd ever known before. It allowed both of us to argue, to laugh, to risk, to trust—without fear. It was a confirmation of a connection that already existed. And it was a bond that extended far beyond the borders of a shared living space. We would have stayed together even without a marriage certificate . . . but I believed in the permanence it represented.
It was a piece of paper you could build a life on.
At first my mother had been incredulous that I had managed to catch a Travis, and she had tried to descend like a plague of Egypt in hopes of profiting from my new connections. But Jack handled her adroitly, using a mixture of intimidation and charm to keep her in line. I didn't see or hear from her often, and when she did get in touch, she was oddly subdued and respectful.
"I wonder what's going on with her," I told Jack in bemusement. "She hasn't said anything about my weight or my hairstyle, and I haven't had to listen to any gross stories about her sex life or grooming habits."
"I promised her a new car if she managed not to piss you off for six months," he said. "I told her if I ever saw you frowning or unhappy after you got off the phone with her, the deal was off."
"Jack Travis!" I was amused and indignant. "Are you going to start buying her big-ticket items every six months as a reward for impersonating a decent human being?"
"I doubt she'll last that long," he said.
As for Jack's side of the family, I found them colorful, affectionate, argumentative, fascinating. They were a real family, and they made a place for me, and I loved them for it. I quickly grew fond of Churchill, who was a kind and generous soul despite the fact that he didn't suffer fools gladly. We debated various subjects and annoyed each other with dueling political e-mails, and we made each other laugh, and he insisted that I sit right next to him at family dinners.
After two weeks at GarnerHospital, Joe came home to recuperate at the mansion in River Oaks, which delighted Churchill nearly as much as it aggravated his son.
Joe said he wanted privacy. He didn't like it that when anyone came to see him, they visited with his dad first. But Churchill, who hardly minded having so many attractive young women come to the house, retorted that if Joe didn't like it, he'd better get well faster. As a result Joe was a model patient, determined to recover his health as soon as possible and get away from his interfering parent.
I married Jack two months after he proposed, which shocked all of my friends and most of his, who had come to think of him as a perennial bachelor. I'd heard some speculation that his near-death experience had helped him to readjust his priorities. "My priorities were fine," Jack told everyone innocently. "It was Ella's that needed straightening out."
The night before the wedding, my sister Tara came to the dinner for out-of-town guests. She was beautifully dressed in a pink suit, her hair upswept, diamond studs sparkling at her ears. And she was unescorted. I wanted to ask her how she was, if she was being treated well, if she was happy in her arrangement with Noah. But all thoughts of Tara's relationship with Noah Cardiff disappeared as soon as I realized she had brought Luke.
He was a gorgeous blue-eyed cherub who reached and grabbed for things, grinned, and drooled, and looked too adorable for words. I held out my arms eagerly, and Tara handed him to me. The cuddly weight of Luke on my chest, the scent and warmth of him, the round, searching eyes that tried to take everything in, all of it reminded me that I would never be quite whole without him.
During the two months we had been apart, I had tried to console myself with the thought that in time the pain of Luke's absence would fade, that I would forget and move on. But as I snuggled him close and smoothed his soft black hair, and he smiled as if he remembered me, I knew nothing had changed. Love didn't move on.
I held Luke in my lap all during the formal dinner, once getting up to walk around with him, another time taking him upstairs to change his diaper, despite my sister's protest that she could do it. "Let me," I told her, laughing as Luke grasped the strand of pearls I was wearing and attempted to cram some of them into his mouth. "I don't mind at all, and I want to spend every possible second with him."
"Be careful," Tara warned, giving me the diaper bag. "He rolls over now. He'll roll right off the bed."
"Do you?" I asked Luke, enchanted. "Can you roll? You'll have to do it so I can see, sweet baby."
He gurgled in agreement, gnawing on the pearls.
When Luke was freshly diapered, I took him toward the stairs, heading back down to dinner. I paused as I saw Jack and Tara ascending to the top of the flight, both of them absorbed in conversation. Jack glanced at me and smiled faintly, but his eyes were alert, and intent, and it seemed there was something he wanted to tell me. And Tara looked guarded.
What in the world could they have been talking about?
"Hey," I said, forcing a smile. "Were you afraid I'd lost my touch?"
"Not at all," Jack replied easily. "You've changed enough diapers, I didn't think you'd forget so soon." He came to me and brushed a warm kiss on my cheek. "Darlin', why don't you let me take Luke for a few minutes? He and I got some catching up to do."
I was reluctant to let the baby go. "Maybe a little later?"
Jack looked directly into my eyes, his face right above mine. "Talk to your sister," he murmured. "And tell her yes."
"Tell her yes about what?"
But he didn't answer. He pried the baby away from me, laid him against his shoulder, and patted his diapered bottom. Luke conformed to him bonelessly, content in Jack's secure grip.
"This won't take long," Tara told me, looking uncertain and almost bashful. "At least, I don't think it will. Is there somewhere quiet we can talk? "
I led her to a little upstairs sitting area, and we settled into soft leather-upholstered chairs. "Is it about Mom?" I asked in concern.
"Lord, no." Tara raised her eyes heavenward. "Mom's fine. She doesn't know about me and Noah, of course. All she knows is that I've got a rich boyfriend. She's telling everyone that I'm secretly dating one of the Astros."
"How are things with Noah?" I hesitated, uncertain if I should use his name.
"Wonderful," she said without hesitation. "I've never been so happy. He's real good to me, Ella."
"I have a house," Tara continued, "and jewelry, and a car . . . and he loves me, he says it all the time. I hope he can keep his promises to me . . . I believe he wants to. But even if he can't, this has been the best time of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's just . . . I've been thinking about things lately . . ."
"You're going to leave him?" I asked hopefully.
A wry smile curved her lacquered lips. "No, Ella. I'm going to be spending more time with him. He's started traveling a lot. . . he'll be going across the country to present programs in big stadiums, and he'll also be touring in Canada and England. His wife is staying here with the kids. I'll be going as part of his entourage. And I'll be with him every night."
I was speechless for a moment. "You want to do that?"
Tara nodded. "I'd like to see some of the world, learn new things. I never had the chance to do anything like this before. And I want to be with Noah and help him any way I can."