"Tara, do you really think—"
"I'm not asking for permission," she said. "And I don't want your opinion, Ella. I'm making my own decisions, and I have the right to do that. After growing up with Mom, you know how important it is to get to decide things for yourself."
That quieted me as nothing else could have. Yes, it was her right to make her own decisions, even her own mistakes. "Are you telling me goodbye?" I asked huskily.
She smiled and shook her head. "Not yet. It'll take a few months to arrange. The reason I'm telling you now is . . ." Her smile faded. "God. It's not easy to say what I really feel, instead of what I think I should feel. But the truth is, I've been taking care of Luke, spending a lot of time with him, and it's still like it was in the beginning. He doesn't feel like mine. He never will. I don't want children, Ella. I don't want to be a mother . . . I don't want to relive our childhood."
"But it's not like that," I said urgently, taking her long, slim hands in mine. "Luke has nothing to do with that old life."
"That's how you feel," she said gently. "It's not how I feel."
"What does Noah say?"
Tara looked down at our entwined hands. "He doesn't want Luke. He's already got children. And having a baby around makes it hard for us to be together."
"Luke'll get older. You'll change your mind."
"No, Ella. I understand what I'm doing." She gave me a long, bittersweet glance. "Just because a woman can have children, it doesn't make her a mother. You and I know that, don't we?"
My eyes and nose stung. I swallowed against the tightness of my throat. "Yeah," I whispered.
"So what I'm asking, Ella, is if you'd like to take Luke for good. Jack said he thought you might. It's the best thing for Luke, if you're willing."
The world seemed to stop. I was caught up in a suspended moment of wonder and fearful longing, thinking maybe I hadn't heard right. She couldn't really have offered me something so precious. "If I'm willing," I repeated thickly, fighting to control my voice. "How do I know you won't want him back someday?"
"I wouldn't do that to you, or the baby. I know what Luke means to you. I see it on your face whenever you look at him. But we'll make it a legal adoption. We'll have all the papers drawn up. I'll sign everything, and so will Noah, as long as his part of it's kept private. Luke is yours if you want him, Ella."
I nodded, covering my mouth to hold in a sob. "I do," I managed to say between sharp breaths. "I do. Yes."
"Don't, you'll ruin your makeup," Tara said, using her finger to swab a pooling tear beneath my eye.
I reached for her, and hugged her fiercely, heedless of makeup and hairstyles and outfits. "Thank you," I choked.
"When do you want to take him? Some time after you get back from the honeymoon?"
"I want him now," I said, and burst into tears, unable to hold them back any longer.
Tara let out a startled laugh. "The night before your wedding?"
I nodded emphatically.
"I can't think of worse timing," Tara said. "But it's fine with me, as long as Jack agrees." She fished in the diaper bag and found a dry burp cloth, and handed it to me.
As I blotted my eyes, I was aware of someone approaching. I looked up and saw Jack coming back with Luke. His gaze read every detail of my face as if it were a familiar and beloved landscape. He saw everything. A smile crept into the corners of his mouth, and he whispered something in the baby's miniature ear.
"She wants him right now," Tara told him. "Even though I told her we can wait 'til after the wedding."
Jack came to me and lowered Luke into my waiting arms. His long fingers slid beneath my chin, tilting my face upward, thumb gently brushing away a lingering streak of dampness on my cheek. He smiled down at me.
"I don't think Ella wants to waste time," he murmured. "Do you, sweetheart?"
"No," I agreed in a whisper, the world around me shimmering through a hot ebullient glaze, the sound of his voice and my own ragged heartbeat mingling like music.
Jack picks me up at the airport after my conference in Colorado, where I attended some workshops, pitched ideas to magazine editors, and sold a freelance piece tentatively titled, "Six Strategies for Finding and Keeping Happiness." It was a good conference, but I'm more than ready to go home.
After nearly a year of marriage, these four days have been the longest separation Jack and I have ever gone through. I have called him frequently, told him about the people I've met, the things I've learned, my ideas for future articles and columns. In turn, Jack has told me about the dinner he had with Hardy and Haven, and that Carrington just got her braces on, and Joe's checkup went well. Every night, Jack gives me a detailed account of Luke's day, and I am hungry for every bit of news.
My breath catches as I see my husband waiting for me at baggage claim. He is handsome and sinfully sexy, the kind of man who attracts female gazes without trying, but he is oblivious to everything except me. As he sees me walking toward him, he reaches me in three strides, and his warm mouth crushes mine. His body is hard and sheltering. And although I don't regret having gone to the conference, I realize I haven't felt this good since I left him.
"How is Luke?" is the first thing I ask, and Jack entertains me with a story of how he was spoon-feeding applesauce to the baby, and how Luke took a handful and smeared it into his own hair.
We collect my luggage, and Jack drives me back to our apartment at 1800 Main. We can't seem to stop talking, even though we've talked every day we've been apart. I keep my hand on Jack's arm the whole way, and I notice that his bicep feels huge. When I ask him if he's been working out harder than usual, he says it was the only way to deal with his pent-up sexual frustration. He says I'm going to be busy for a while, making it up to him, which I say is just fine.
I stand on my toes and kiss him during the entire elevator ride, and he kisses me back until I can hardly breathe.
"Ella," he murmurs, holding my flushed face in his hands, "four days without you, and it felt like four months. All I could think was, how did I make it for so long before I met you?"
"You went out with a lot of placeholders," I tell him.
A grin crosses his face before he kisses me again. "I didn't know what I was missing."
While Jack carries my suitcases, I hurry down the hallway to our apartment, my heart beating in anticipation. I ring the bell, and the nanny opens the door just as Jack catches up with me.
"Welcome home, Mrs. Travis," she exclaims.
"Thank you. It's good to be back. Where is Luke?"
"In the nursery. We were playing with his trains. He's been a good boy while you were gone."
Dropping my purse beside the door, tossing my suit jacket onto the sofa, I go to the doorway of the nursery. The room is painted in pale shades of blue and green, one wall a mural of cars and trucks with cheerful faces, and a rug printed with roads and train tracks.
My son is sitting up by himself, gripping a wooden train engine in his hands, trying to spin the wheels with his fingers.
"Luke," I said softly, not wanting to startle him. "Mommy's home. I'm here. Oh, I missed you, sweet boy."
Luke looks at me with round blue eyes and drops the truck, his small hands remaining suspended in midair. A wide grin spreads across his face, revealing one pearly tooth. He lifts his arms to me.
"Mama," he says.
I thrill to the word. And I go to him.