Travis, the display read. I felt a little tumble of nerves and curiosity as I picked it up. "Hello?"
"Ella." I heard Jack's distinctive baritone, fluid as molten pennies. "How are you?"
"Great, thanks. Luke and I are apartment-hunting. We've decided to move in together."
"Congratulations. You looking in Houston, or are you heading back to Austin?"
"We're staying here."
"Good." A brief hesitation. "Do you have lunch plans?"
"Let me pick you up at noon."
"I can't afford to have another meal with you," I said, and he laughed.
"This one's on me. There's something I want to talk to you about."
"What could you possibly want to talk to me about? Give me a hint."
"You don't need a hint, Ella. All you need is to say yes."
I hesitated, thrown off-guard by the way he talked to me, friendly and yet insistent, in the way of a man who was not accustomed to being told no.
"Could it be a casual place?" I asked. "At the moment Luke and I don't have anything nice to wear."
"No problem. Just don't put pink socks on him."
To my surprise, Jack picked us up in a small hybrid SUV. I had expected a gas-guzzling monster, or maybe a hideously expensive sports car. I certainly hadn't bargained on something that Dane or one of his friends would have felt comfortable driving.
"You, in a hybrid," I said in wonder, struggling to strap the base of Luke's car seat in the back row. "I thought you'd drive a Denali or a Hummer or something."
"A Hummer," Jack repeated with a snort, handing me Luke in his carrier and gently nudging me aside. He reached in to secure the car-seat base himself. "Houston's got enough toxic emissions. I'm not going to add to the problem."
I raised my brows. "That sounds like something an environmentalist would say."
"I am an environmentalist," Jack said mildly.
"You can't be, you're a hunter."
Jack smiled. "There're two kinds of environ-mentalists, Ella. The kind who hugs trees and thinks a single-cell amoeba is as important as a Nova Scotian elk . . . and then there's my kind, which thinks of regulated hunting as part of responsible wildlife management. And since I like to be out in nature as much as possible, I'm against pollution, overfishing, global warming, deforestation, or anything else that messes with my stomping grounds."
Jack took Luke's carrier from me and carefully locked it onto the base. He paused to murmur to the baby, who was strapped in like a mini-astronaut ready for a dangerous mission.
Standing back and a little to the side, I couldn't help appreciating the view as Jack bent into the car's interior. He was a powerfully built man, tight-loomed muscles encased in boot-cut denim jeans, his big shoulders flexing beneath a light blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves. He had the kind of form ideal for a quarterback, heavy enough to take a hit from a rusher, tall enough to throw an accurate pass over linemen, lean enough to be limber and fast.
As was often the case in Houston, a drive that should have taken fifteen minutes lasted almost a half hour. But I enjoyed the ride. Not only was I happy to be out of the hotel room, but Luke was sleeping, lulled by the air-conditioning and the motion of the car.
"What happened with Dane?" Jack asked casually. "Did you break up?
"No, not at all. We're still together." I paused uncom-fortably before adding, "But we're on . . . hiatus. Just for three months, until Tara comes for her baby and I go back to Austin."
"Does that mean you're free to see other people?"
"We've always been free to see other people. Dane and I have an open relationship. No promises, no commitments."
"There is no such thing. A relationship is promises and commitments."
"To conventional people, maybe. But Dane and I believe you can't own someone."
"Sure you can," Jack said.
I raised my brows.
"Maybe it's different in Austin," Jack continued. "But in Houston, a dog doesn't share his bone."
He was so outrageous, I couldn't help laughing. "Have you ever gotten serious with anyone, Jack? Really serious, like getting engaged?"
"Once," he admitted. "But it didn't work out."
The hesitation before his reply was long enough that I realized this was a subject he seldom discussed. "She fell in love with someone else," he finally said.
"I'm sorry," I said sincerely. "Most of the letters I get for my column are from people on the down side of a relationship. Men trying to hang on to unfaithful women, women in love with married men who are always promising to leave their wives but never do. . . ." My voice trailed away as I watched his thumb move in a restless stroke against the gleaming leather steering wheel, as if there were a rough patch he was trying to smooth out.
"What would you tell a man whose girlfriend slept with his best friend?" Jack asked.
I understood immediately. I tried to keep my sympathy concealed, sensing that he wouldn't like it. "Was it a one-time thing, or did they start dating?"
"They got married," he said grimly.
"That stinks," I said. "It's the worst when they get married, because then everyone thinks it absolves the couple of all wrongdoing. 'Oh, well, they cheated on you, but they got married so that makes everything all right.' So that leaves you having to swallow the bitter pill and send an expensive wedding present, otherwise you look like a jerk. It's a screw job on multiple levels."
His thumb stilled on the steering wheel. "That's right. How did you know?"
"Madame Ella knows all," I said lightly. "I would further guess that their marriage isn't going well now. Because relationships that start out that way always have cracks in the foundation."
"But you don't disapprove of cheating," he said. "Because one person can't own another, right?"
"No, I strongly condemn cheating when the rules aren't understood by both parties. Unless you agree that you're having an open relationship, there is an implicit promise that you're going to be faithful. There's nothing worse than breaking a promise to someone who cares about you."
"Yes." His voice was quiet, but the single word was weighted with an emphasis that revealed how much it resonated with him.
"So am I right about their marriage?" I pressed. "It's not going well?"
"Lately," he admitted, "it looks a little worse for wear. They'll probably get divorced. And that's a shame, because they have two kids."
"When she becomes available again, do you think you'll be interested in her?"
"Can't say I haven't thought about it. But no, I won't go down that path again."
"I have a theory about men like you, Jack."
That seemed to lighten his mood. He slid me an amused glance. "What is your theory, Ella?"
"It's about why you haven't committed to anyone yet. It's really a matter of efficient market dynamics. Most of the women you date are basically the same. You show them a good time, and then it's on to the next, leaving them to wonder why it didn't last. They don't realize that no one ever outperforms the market by offering the same thing everyone else is offering, no matter how well packaged. So the only thing that's going to change your situation is when something random and unexpected occurs. Something you haven't seen on the market before. Which is why you're going to end up with a woman who's completely different from what you and everyone else expects you to go for." I saw him smile. "What do you think?"
"I think you could talk the ears off a chicken," he said.
The restaurant Jack drove us to may have been casual by his standards, but it had valet parking, luxury cars in the front, and a crisp white canopy leading up to the door. We were shown to an excellent table by a window. Judging from the pristine and tasteful decor and the trickle of elegant piano music in the background, I expected Luke and me to be thrown out about halfway through the meal. But Luke surprised me by behaving well. And the food was delicious, and I had a glass of chardonnay that struck a chord of pleasure on my tongue, and Jack was possibly the most charming man I had ever met. After lunch, we drove to downtown Houston and into the underground parking garage of 1800 Main.
"We're going up to your office?" I asked.
"To the residential side, where my sister works."
"What does she do?"
"She handles financial operations and contracts, mostly. Some day-to-day operations, stuff I can't always get to."
"Am I going to meet her? "
Jack nodded. "You'll like her."
We took an elevator up to a small, gleaming marble-lined lobby featuring a contemporary bronze sculpture and a stately concierge desk. The concierge, a young man in a meticulously tailored suit, smiled at Jack and looked subtly askance at the sleeping baby. Jack had insisted on carrying him, for which I was grateful. My arms had not yet accustomed themselves to the new responsibility of hauling Luke and his paraphernalia everywhere.
"Tell Miss Travis we're heading up," Jack told him.
"Yes, Mr. Travis."
I followed Jack through a set of etched glass doors that slid apart with a soft whoosh, and we went to a pair of elevators. "Which floor is the office on?" I asked.
"Seventh. But Haven's going to meet us in her apartment on the sixth."
"It's a furnished non-rev unit—one of the perks of Haven's job. But her fiancé lives in a three-bedroom on an upper floor, and she's already moved most of her stuff to his place. So her apartment is sitting there empty."
As I realized what he was leading up to, I gave him a bemused look. My stomach swooped, although I wasn't certain if it was from the motion of the elevator or from sheer surprise. "Jack, if your idea has something to do with me and Luke living here for the next three months . . . I appreciate that, but it's just not possible."
"Why?" We stopped, and Jack gestured for me to precede him from the elevator cab.
I decided to be blunt. "I can't afford it."
"We'll find a number you can live with."
"I don't want to owe you anything."
"You wouldn't. This is between you and my sister."
"Yes, but you own the building."
"No, I don't. I just manage it."
"Don't split hairs. It's Travis-owned."
"Okay." Amusement edged his tone. "It's Travis-owned. Still, you wouldn't owe me. This is just a matter of timing. You need a place to stay and there's an available apartment."
I continued to frown. " You live in this building, don't you?"
He looked mocking. "I don't have to hand out apartment deals to get a woman's attention, Ella."
"I wasn't implying that," I protested, while humiliation sent a wash of scarlet from head to toe. The truth was, I had been implying it. As if I, Ella Varner, were so irresistible that Jack Travis would go to extraordinary lengths to have me live in the same building. Good Lord, from what part of my ego had that emerged from? I struggled to come up with a save. "I just meant that you couldn't be happy about the prospect of having a noisy newborn in your building."
"I'd make an exception for Luke. After the start he's gotten in life, he's due for a good turn." Jack led the way to an apartment near the end of a gray-carpeted hallway, part of an H-shaped layout. He pushed the buzzer, and the door opened.
Haven travis was slender and so much smaller than her brother that it seemed questionable they had come from the same parents. But the Gypsy-dark eyes were identical. She was fair and black-haired and delicately beautiful. Her expression was vibrant with intelligence and yet there was something about her . . . a hint of bruised vulnerability in a way that suggested she had not gone unscathed from life's sharper edges.
"Hey, Jack." Her attention was instantly captured by the sleeping baby in the carrier. "Oh, what a cute baby." She had a distinctive voice, bright and warm, a little raspy, as if she'd just taken a swallow of expensive liquor. "Give that carrier to me—you're jostling him."
"He likes it," Jack returned calmly, ignoring her efforts to take Luke. He bent his head for a kiss. "Ella Varner, this bossy woman is my sister, Haven."
She shook my hand in a firm and confiding grip. "Come in, Ella. This is such a coincidence—I just started reading your column a few weeks ago."
Haven welcomed us into her apartment, a small one-bedroom unit decorated in shades of white and cream and distressed dark woods. The disciplined color scheme was enlivened by a few jolts of fresh botanical green. A Swedish wooden floor clock occupied the corner. The main living space was filled with a few simple pieces of furniture— antique French chairs, an overstuffed sofa covered in black-and-cream toile.
"My best friend Todd decorated it," Haven told me, noticing my interest.
"It's wonderful. It looks like something out of a magazine."
"Todd says the mistake some people make with decorating small spaces is that they choose too many delicate pieces. You need something substantial like that sofa, or there's nothing to anchor the room."
"It's still too small," Jack said as he set the baby carrier on the low, wide coffee table.
Haven smiled. "None of my brothers," she informed me, "think a sofa is comfortable unless it's the size of a pickup flatbed." She went to the sleeping baby and regarded him with tender concern. "What's his name?"
"Luke." As I answered, I was surprised to feel a flush of pride.
"Jack told me a little about your situation," Haven said. "I think it's terrific, what you're doing for your sister. Obviously it's not the easy road to take." She smiled. "But it's exactly what I'd expect Miss Independent to do."
Jack looked at me speculatively. "I'd like to read some of your stuff."
"There are a couple of issues of Vibe on the side table," Haven told him. "It might be a nice change from Troutmaster Digest."
To my dismay, Jack picked up the most recent issue, which contained one of my more provocative columns.