They had lost touch for a while after Haven married a man her father hadn't approved of. "I didn't let anyone know what I was going through," she said ruefully. "I'm pretty stubborn, too. And I was too proud to let everyone find out what a mistake I'd made. And by then my husband had crushed my self-confidence until I was too afraid and ashamed to ask anyone for help. But eventually I broke away, and Jack offered me a job to help me get back on my feet. We became friends . . . buddies, sort of . . . in a way we never had before."
I was curious about the "eventually I broke away" part, knowing something pretty major had happened. But that was a conversation that would take place in its own time.
"What do you think about his love life?" I couldn't resist asking. "Will he ever settle down?"
"Absolutely. Jack likes women—I mean truly likes them, not in some misogynistic notch-on-the-bedpost way. But he's not going to commit until he finds someone he's sure he can trust."
"Because of the woman who married his best friend?"
She shot me a wide-eyed glance. "He told you about that?"
"Jack hardly ever mentions her. It was a huge deal for him. When a Travis falls for someone, he falls hard. They get really intense. Not everyone is ready for a relationship like that."
"Certainly not me," I said with a stale laugh, while something in me recoiled at the idea. Jack Travis getting all intense was not something I'd ever care to see.
"I think he's lonely," Haven said.
"But he's so busy."
"I think the busiest people are often the loneliest."
I changed the subject at the first opportunity. Talking about Jack made me restless and vaguely irritable, the way I felt when I wanted something I knew was bad for me.
I talked with Dane on the phone every night telling him about my new surroundings and about Luke. Although Dane didn't want to have anything to do with a baby personally, he certainly didn't mind hearing about Luke and the experience of caring for him.
"Do you think you'll ever want one?" I asked Dane, relaxing on the sofa with Luke draped on my chest.
"I can't say no definitively. There might be another phase in my life when I might. . . but it's hard to imagine. The things I'd get out of it, I'm already getting now from my environmental work and the charity groups."
"Yes, but what about raising a child who will care about those things, too? That's a way to make the world a better place."
"Come on, Ella. You know that's not what would happen. Any child of mine would end up being a Republican lobbyist or a chemical company CFO. Life always screws your best intentions."
I chuckled, envisioning a toddler—Dane's toddler—dressed in a miniature three-piece suit and carrying a calculator. "You're probably right."
"Are you thinking about having one someday? "
"No, God no," I said at once. "I'm trying to hang on until I can give Luke back to Tara. I'm dying for a good night of sleep. Or an uninterrupted meal. And just once, I'd like to go out without all this paraphernalia. It's insane. The stroller, the diapers, wipes, burp cloths, binkies, bottles . . . I've forgotten what it's like to just pick up the keys and walk out the door. And there are all these pediatric visits I've had to schedule—developmental assessments and screenings and shots— so it's a good thing I'm not sleeping, because I'll need the extra time to work."
"Maybe the best part is that you're finding all this out now, so you'll never have to wonder."
"I think it's like rhubarb," I said. "You either love it or you hate it. But you can't ever make yourself acquire a taste for it if you're not naturally predisposed."
"I hate rhubarb," Dane said.
By the end of my first full week at 1800 main, i was still mastering the trick of carrying a bag of groceries and pushing a stroller while getting through doorways. It was early Friday evening. The traffic was so bad that instead of driving anywhere, I had decided to walk a quarter of a mile to an Express grocery and deli, and back. After the short walk in the heat, Luke and I were parboiled. The plastic handles of the grocery bags were slipping in my wet palm and the diaper bag threatened to slide off my shoulder as I maneuvered the stroller into the lobby. And the baby was making fretful noises.
"You know, Luke," I said breathlessly, "life's going to be a lot easier for all of us when you can walk. No, damn it. . . don't start crying, there's no way I can pick you up right now. God. Luke, please hush. . . ." Swearing and sweating, I pushed the stroller past the concierge desk.
"Miss Varner, do you need help?" the concierge asked, beginning to rise.
"No, thanks. Got it. We're fine." I lurched past the etched glass doors and reached an elevator just as it opened.
Two people stepped out, a gorgeous redhead wearing a skimpy white dress and strappy gold sandals . . . and Jack Travis in a lean black suit, a crisp white shirt open at the throat, and sleek black oxfords. In one glance he took in my dilemma. Simultaneously, he reached for the grocery bags and used his foot to keep open the elevator door. His dark brown eyes sparkled. "Hey there, Ella."
My breath stuck in my throat. I found myself smiling at him idiotically. "Hi, Jack."
"You heading up? Looks like you could use a hand."
"No, I'm fine. Thank you." I pushed the stroller onto the elevator.
"We'll help you get to your apartment."
"Oh, no, I can manage—"
"It'll only take a minute," he said. "You don't mind, do you, Sonya?"
" 'Course not." The woman seemed friendly, and nice, giving me a wide-open smile as she stepped back into the elevator. I couldn't fault Jack's taste. Sonya was a stunner, with gleaming perfect skin, vivid red hair, and a magnificent figure. As she bent over to coo at the fussy baby, the combination of her abundant cl**vage and beautiful face was enough to make Luke quiet. "Oh, he's the cutest little thing," she exclaimed.
"He's cranky from being out in the heat."
"Look at all that dark hair . . . he must take after his daddy."
"I think so," I said.
"How have you been?" Jack asked me. "Settling in okay?"
"We couldn't be better. Your sister has been great—I don't know what we would have done without her."
"She says the two of you have been getting along."
As Sonya listened to the brief conversation, she gave me a quick, wary glance, as if she were assessing what kind of connection I might have with Jack. I saw the exact second that she decided I was no competition. With my face shiny-clean, my hair cut in a plain bob, and my figure obscured by an oversized T-shirt, my fashion look screamed "new mom."
The elevator stopped at the sixth floor, and Jack held the door while I pushed the stroller out. "I'll take the bags," I said, reaching for the groceries. "Thanks for the help."
"We'll walk you to your door," Jack insisted, keeping hold of the bags.
"Have you moved in recently?" Sonya asked me as we proceeded down the hallway.
"Yes, about a week ago."
"You're so lucky to live here," she said. "What does your husband do?"
"I'm not married, actually."
"Oh." She frowned.
"I have a boyfriend in Austin," I volunteered. "I'm moving back there in about three months."
Sonya's frown cleared. "Oh, that's wonderful."
We reached my door, and I pushed the combination on the keypad. While Jack held open the door, I wheeled the stroller inside and lifted Luke out. "Thanks again," I said, watching Jack set the grocery bags on the coffee table.
Sonya cast an admiring glance around the apartment. "Great decorating."
"I can't take any credit for that," I said. "But Luke and I are making our contribution." With a wry grin, I gestured to the corner of the room, where a large cardboard box and rows of wooden and metal pieces had been laid out.
"What are you putting together?" Jack asked.
"A crib with a changing table attachment. I bought it at RiceVillage the other day when I was out with Haven. Unfortunately, they charge a hundred bucks extra if you want it assembled, so I said I'd rather do it myself. The delivery guys brought this box of parts with some instructions, and so far I'm still trying to figure it out. I think it would be easier if I could read the manual. So far I've found the Japanese, French, and German pages, but nothing in English. Now I sort of wish I'd gone ahead and paid the extra hundred bucks." Realizing I was chattering, I smiled and shrugged. "But I like a challenge."
"Let's go, Jack," Sonya urged.
"Right." But he didn't move, just looked from me and Luke to the pile of crib parts. The odd moment of expectant silence caused my heart to lurch with an extra thud. His gaze returned to mine, and he gave me a brief nod that held an implicit promise: Later.
I didn't want that. "You two go on," I said brightly. "Have fun."
Sonya smiled. "Bye." Taking Jack's arm, she tugged him from the apartment.
Three hours later luke watched from an infant bouncy seat while I sat on the floor surrounded by crib parts. I was finished with dinner, which had consisted of spaghetti with tomato sauce, ground beef, and fresh basil. When the leftovers were cool, I was going to freeze them in individual-size portions.
Having grown tired of Mozart and the sock puppets, I had hooked up my iPod to the speakers. The air was filled with the raw, sexy purr of Etta James. "The thing that's great about the blues," I told Luke, pausing to sip from my glass of wine, "is that it's about feeling, loving, wanting without the brakes on. No one's brave enough to live that way. Except maybe musicians."
I heard a knock at the door. "Who could that be? Did you invite someone without telling me?" Rising with my wineglass in hand, I padded barefoot to the apartment entrance. I was wearing a set of pajamas the color of pink cotton candy. I had taken out my contacts and put on my glasses. Standing on my toes, I looked through the peephole. My breath quickened as I saw the familiar outline of a man's head.
"I'm not dressed for company," I said through the door.
"Let me in anyway."
I unlatched the door and opened it to reveal Jack Travis, now wearing jeans and a white shirt, holding a small canvas case that was frayed from heavy use. His gaze coursed slowly over me. "Got that crib put together yet? "
"Still working on it." I tried to ignore the heavy pounding of my heart. "Where's Sonya?"
"We had dinner. I just took her back home."
"Already? Why didn't you stay out later?"
He shrugged a little, staring at me. "Can I come in?"
I wanted to refuse him. I sensed there was something between us, something that required negotiation, compromise . . . but I wasn't ready for it. I couldn't think of a reason to keep him out. I took an uncertain step back. "What's in the bag?"
"Tools." Jack walked inside the apartment and closed the door. His movements seemed cautious, as if he were venturing into some new environment that might present hidden dangers. "Hey, Luke," he murmured, lowering beside the baby. Gently he set the bouncy seat bobbing, and Luke gurgled and kicked enthusiastically. With his attention remaining on the baby, Jack said, "You're listening to Etta James."
I tried to sound flippant. "In assembly-required situations, I always play the blues. John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt. . ."
"You ever listen to any of the Deep Ellum boys? Texas blues . . . Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, T-Bone Walker?"
I was slow to respond, my attention snared by the way his shirt had tightened across his broad shoulders and powerful back. "I've heard of T-Bone Walker, but not the others."
Jack glanced up at me. "Ever heard 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' ? "
"I thought that was a Bob Dylan song."
"No, that was just a cover. It came from Blind Lemon. I'll burn a CD for you—he's not always easy to find."
"I wouldn't have thought a River Oaks boy would know so much about the blues."
"Ella, darlin' . . . the blues is all about a good man feelin' bad. Plenty of that in River Oaks."
It was crazy, how much I loved his voice. The baritone drawl seemed to reach inside and linger in impossible-to-reach places. I wanted to sit on the floor beside him and run my hand over the thick, efficiently short layers of his hair and let my fingers rest against the hard nape of his neck. Tell me everything, I would say. All about the blues, and the time your heart was broken, and what scares you the most, and the thing you've always wanted to do but haven 't yet.
"Something smells good," he said.
"I made spaghetti earlier."
"Is there any left?"
"You just went out to dinner."
Jack looked aggrieved. "It was one of those fancy places. I got a piece of fish the size of a domino, and maybe a spoonful of risotto. I'm starving."
I laughed at his pitiful expression. "I'll fix you a plate."
"While you do that, I'll work on the crib."
"Thanks. I laid out all the pieces according to the diagram, but without the directions in English—"
"No need for directions." Jack glanced at the diagram briefly, tossed it aside, and began sorting through the painted wood pieces. "This is pretty straightforward."
"Straightforward? Did you see how many different kinds of screws are in that plastic bag?"
"We'll figure it out." He opened the canvas bag and pulled out a cordless power drill.
I frowned. "Do you know that forty-seven percent of all hand injuries are caused by using power tools at home?"
Jack expertly inserted a drill bit into the chuck. "A lot of people get hurt getting their hand closed in the door, too. But that doesn't mean you should stop using doors."
"If Luke starts crying because of the noise," I said sternly, "you'll have to use a regular screwdriver."
His brows lifted. "Doesn't Dane use power tools?"
"Not usually. Except one summer when he helped build homes in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity . . . and that was because he was three hundred and fifty miles away and I couldn't reach him."