It still wasn't too late. I could insist that he cancel my half of the order and replace it with a green salad, a plain potato, and steamed vegetables. But I had gone weak-kneed at the thought of a rib eye.

"How long until they bring my steak?" I asked.

"Thirty-five minutes."

"I should have told you to go to hell," I muttered.

He smiled smugly. "I knew you wouldn't."

"How?"

"Because women who are willing to cheat a little can always be talked into cheating a lot." Jack laughed as I frowned at him. "Relax, Ella. Dane never has to know."

FIVE

A pair of waiters brought a feast to the hotel room and arranged it in the sitting area. They unfolded the hot cart into a table, draped it in white linen, and brought out silver-domed plates. By the time the wine was poured and all the dishes were uncovered, I was trembling with hunger.

Luke, however, became fractious after I changed his diaper, and he howled every time I tried to set him down. Holding him against one shoulder, I contemplated the steaming grilled steak in front of me and wondered how I was going to manage with only one hand.

"Let me," Jack murmured, and came to my side of the table. He cut the steak into small, neat bites with such adroitness that I gave him a look of mock-alarm.

"You certainly know how to handle a knife."

"I hunt whenever I get the chance." Finishing the task, Jack set down the utensils and tucked a napkin into the neckline of my shirt. His knuckles brushed my skin, eliciting a shiver. "I can field-dress a deer in fifteen minutes," he told me.

"That's impressive. Disgusting, but impressive."

He gave me an unrepentant grin as he returned to his side of the table. "If it makes you feel better, I eat anything I catch or kill."

"Thanks, but that doesn't make me feel better in the least. Oh, I'm aware that meat doesn't magically appear all nicely packaged in foam and cellophane at the grocery store. But I have to stay several steps removed from the process. I don't think I could eat meat if I had to hunt the animal and . . ."

"Skin and gut it?"

"Yes. Let's not talk about that right now." I took a bite of the steak. Either it was the long period of deprivation, or the quality of the beef, or the skill of the chef . . . but that succulent, lightly smoked, melting-hot steak was the best thing I had ever tasted. I closed my eyes for a moment, my tonsils quivering.

He laughed quietly at my expression. "Admit it, Ella. It's not so bad being a carnivore."

I reached for a chunk of bread and dabbed it in soft yellow butter. "I'm not a carnivore, I'm an opportunistic omnivore." I bit into the dense bread and savored the sweet richness of fresh butter. I had forgotten how good food could taste. Sighing, I forced myself to go slowly and appreciate it.

His gaze didn't stray from my face. "You're a smart woman, Ella."

"Are you intimidated by a woman with a big vocabulary? "

"Hell, yes. Any woman with an IQ higher than room temperature, and I'm gone. Unless she's paying for dinner."

"I could play dumb and you could pay for dinner," I offered.

"Too late. You already used a five-syllable word."

Feeling how heavy Luke had gotten, I realized he was asleep. Time to put him down. "Excuse me . . ." I tried to push away from the table. Instantly Jack was by my side, pulling back the chair.

I went to the bed and gently laid the baby down, covering him with a knit blanket. Returning to the table, where Jack was still standing, I sat while he pushed the chair in for me. "This experience with Luke," I said, "has confirmed everything I've ever thought about motherhood. Mainly that it's something I'll never be ready to do."

"So if you marry Dane, you'll wait awhile before having one of those?" He nodded in Luke's direction.

I dug into my potato, picking up a forkful of fluffy white starch saturated with butter and covered with melted aged cheddar. "Oh, Dane and I won't ever get married."

Jack gave me an alert glance. "Why not?"

"Neither of us believes in it. It's just a piece of paper."

He appeared to consider that. "I've never understood why people say something is just a piece of paper. Some pieces of paper are worth a hell of a lot. Diplomas. Contracts. Constitutions."

"In those cases, I agree the paper is worth something. But a marriage contract and all that goes with it, the ring, the big meringue-puff wedding dress, doesn't mean anything. I could make Dane a legal promise that I would love him forever, but how can I be certain I will? You can't legislate emotions. You can't own someone else. So the union is basically a property-sharing agreement. And of course if there are children, you have to work out the terms for co-parenting . . . but all of that can be handled without marriage. The institution has outlived its usefulness." I took a bite of buttery cheese-topped potato, which was so rich and delicious that eating it seemed like something I should be doing in private with the shades down.

"It's natural to want to belong to someone," Jack said.

"One person can't belong to another person. At best, it's an illusion. At worst, it's slavery."

"No," he said. "Just a need for attachment."

"Well . . ." I paused to take another bite of the potato. "I can feel plenty attached to someone without needing to turn it into a legal agreement. In fact, I could argue that my perspective is a more romantic one. The only thing keeping two people together should be love. Not legalities."

Jack drank some wine and leaned back, watching me speculatively. He continued to hold the glass, his long fingers curved lightly around the crystal bowl. It was not at all what I would have expected a rich man's hand to look like, brown and roughed-up, nails clipped close to the quick. Not a graceful hand, and yet attractive in its calloused power . . . holding the fragile glass so gently. . . . I couldn't help staring. And for one second I imagined the touch of those blunt-tipped fingers on my skin, and I was instantly, disgracefully aroused. "What do you do in Austin, Ella?"

The question ripped me away from the dangerous thoughts. "I'm an advice columnist. I write about relationships."

Jack's face went blank. "You write about relationships and you don't believe in marriage?"

"Not for myself. But that doesn't mean I disapprove of marriage for other people. If that's the format they choose for their commitment, I'm all for it." I grinned at him. "Miss Independent gives great advice to married people."

"Miss Independent."

"Yes."

"Is it some kind of male-bashing column?"

"Not at all. I like men. I'm a big fan of your gender. On the other hand, I often remind women that we don't need a man to feel complete."

"Shit." He was shaking his head and smiling faintly.

"You don't like liberated women?"

"I do. But they take a lot more work."

I wasn't sure what kind of work he was talking about. And I certainly wasn't going to ask.

"So I guess you know all the answers." Jack leveled a steady gaze at me.

I made a face, disliking the implication of arrogance in that. "I would never claim to know all the answers. I just want to help other people find answers, if possible."

We talked about my column, and then discovered that we had both graduated from UT, although Jack's class had been six years ahead of mine. We also found that we shared an appreciation for Austin jazz.

"I used to go listen to the Crying Monkeys whenever they played the Elephant Room," Jack said, referring to the famous basement room on Congress Street

, where some of the top musicians in the world performed. "My friends and I would sit there for hours, taking in that easy-sprawl jazz and drinking straight Jim Beam . . ."

"And picking up women left and right."

His mouth tightened. "I date a lot of women. But I don't have sex with everyone I go out with."

"That's a relief," I said. "Because if you did, you should probably get more than your inner cheek cells tested at the doctor's office."

"I have other interests besides chasing women."

"Yes, I know. You also chase terrified deer."

"And again, for the record, I did not sleep with your sister."

I sent him a skeptical look. "She said you did. Your word against hers. And you wouldn't be the first guy to duck and dodge a situation like this."

"She wouldn't be the first woman to lie about who knocked her up."

"You took her out. You can't deny that you were interested in her."

"Sure, I was interested. At first. But five minutes after the date started, I knew I wasn't going to sleep with her. There were warning signals."

"Such as?"

His gaze turned contemplative. "It was like she was trying too hard. Laughing too loud. Constantly nervous. The questions and answers didn't connect."

I understood what he was trying to express. "Hyper-vigilant," I said. "Manic. Like any little thing might make her jump out of her skin. Like she was always trying to think two steps ahead."

"Exactly."

I nodded as I sorted through memories that were never far below the surface. "It's because of how we were raised. My parents divorced when I was five and Tara was three, and after that Dad was out of the picture. So we were left alone with my mother, who makes everyone around her crazy. Explosions. Drama. There was no such thing as a normal day. Living with her all those years trained Tara and me to expect disaster at any moment. We both developed a lot of coping mechanisms, including hyper-vigilance. It's a hard habit to get rid of."

Jack watched me intently. "You did, though."

"I had a lot of counseling in college. But mostly I'm okay because of Dane. He taught me that living with another person doesn't have to mean daily chaos and drama. I don't think Tara has ever had someone stable like Dane in her life." I nudged my wineglass toward him, and he obligingly refilled it. Staring moodily into the inky depths of cabernet, I continued. "I feel guilty for not staying in touch with her the past couple of years. But I was tired of trying to save her. It was all I could do to save myself."

"No one could blame you for that," he murmured. "You're not your sister's keeper. Let it go, Ella."

I was puzzled by a sense of connection, of being understood, that made no sense at all. He was a stranger. And I was telling him far too much. I decided I must have been even more tired than I'd thought. I tried to summon a casual smile. "I have to work up my daily quota of guilt over something. Today it might as well be Tara." Picking up my wine, I took a swallow. "So," I said, "what's a guy from a family of financial gurus doing in property management? Are you the black sheep?"

"No, just the middle sheep. I can't stand talking about investment strategies, leveraging, buying on margin. . . . None of it interests me. I like building things. Fixing things. I'm a nuts-and-bolts guy."

It occurred to me as I listened to Jack that he and Dane had one rare quality in common: each man knew exactly who he was, and was entirely comfortable with it.

"I started working at a management company out of college," Jack continued, "and eventually got a loan and bought the business."

"Did your dad help you?"

"Hell, no." A rueful grin. "I made mistakes he probably would have steered me away from. But I didn't want anyone saying he'd done it for me. I took responsibility for all the risk. And I had a lot to prove, so I sure as hell didn't want to fail."

"Obviously you didn't." I studied him. "Interesting. You seem like the alpha male type, but you're the middle son. Usually middle children are more laid-back."

"For a Travis, I am laid-back."

"Eek." I grinned and began on my chocolate cake. "I'm kicking you out after dessert, Jack. I have a long night ahead of me."

"How often does the baby wake up?"

"About every three hours."

We finished dessert and the rest of the wine. Jack went to the phone, dialed for room service to collect the table, and picked up his jacket.

Pausing at the door, he looked down at me. "Thanks for dinner."

"You're welcome. And I warn you, if you back out of the doctor's visit after this, I'm going to take out a hit on you."

"I'll pick you up at nine." Jack didn't move. We were standing close, and I was disconcerted to feel my breath quicken. Although his posture was relaxed and easy, he was so much bigger than me that I had a subtle sense of being physically dominated. What surprised me was that the feeling wasn't entirely unpleasant.

"Is Dane the alpha type?" he asked.

"No. Beta all the way. I can't stand alphas."

"Why? Do they make you nervous?"

"Not at all." I gave him a mock-threatening glance. "I eat alpha males for breakfast."

There was a spark of mischief in his dark eyes. "I'll be over here early, then." And he left before I could manage a reply.

SIX

I wouldn't have believed it possible, but my second night with Luke was even worse than the first. The glow of contentment I'd gotten from an amazing steak dinner, fine wine, and lively conversation was completely gone by the second feeding. "You're a real mood-killer, Luke," I told the baby, who didn't seem concerned in the least. I lost count of how many times he woke and how many diapers I changed, but it seemed like I didn't get more than twenty minutes of continuous sleep. When the wake-up call came at seven-thirty, I crawled painfully out of bed and staggered to the bathroom to brush my teeth and to take a shower.

A fifteen-minute shower and two cups of stale-tasting coffee from the miniature countertop coffeemaker revived me somewhat. I dressed in khakis and a light blue shirt with elbow-length sleeves, and flat braided-hemp sandals. I debated whether or not to blow-dry my hair, afraid the noise would wake the baby, and then I decided grimly that he would damn well have to cry.

After drying my hair into a smooth bob, I switched off the appliance.

Silence.

Had something happened to Luke? Why was he so quiet? I rushed into the bedroom and checked on him. He was lying peacefully on his back, his chest rising and falling, cheeks watercolor-pink. I touched him just to make sure he was okay. He yawned and closed his eyes more tightly.


Tags: Lisa Kleypas Travises Romance
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