"Thanks." I felt a glow of pride, as if Luke were my own child instead of Tara's.
Two new figures entered the hall—Liberty's tall, black-haired husband, Gage, and a young blond girl. Carrington looked nothing like Liberty, which led me to conclude they were half-sisters.
"Jack!" she exclaimed, hurtling toward him, all skinny legs and flying braids. "My favorite uncle."
"I already said I'd help with the boat," Jack said ruefully as she tackled him.
"It's fun, Jack! Gage banged his finger and said a bad word, and let me use the cordless drill, and I got to hammer nails into the side boards—"
"Cordless drill?" Liberty repeated, darting a half-worried, half-chiding glance at her husband.
"She did great." Gage smiled and reached out to shake my hand. "Hi, Ella. I see your taste in company hasn't improved."
"Don't believe anything he tells you, Ella," Jack said. "I am and always have been an angel."
Liberty was trying to look at Gage's hand. "Which finger did you hurt?"
"It's nothing." Gage showed her his thumb, and she frowned as she inspected the place on the nail that had begun to bruise. I was struck by the way his expression changed as he looked at his wife's down-bent head, the way his eyes softened.
Retaining his hand in hers, Liberty glanced at her little sister. "Carrington, this is Miss Varner."
The girl shook my hand and smiled at me, revealing two crooked front teeth. She had porcelain skin and sky blue eyes, and a barely discernable tracery of pink lines on the bridge of her nose and her forehead, as if she'd been wearing a mask.
"Call me Ella, please." I glanced at Liberty and added, "She was wearing protective eyewear, by the way."
"How did you know?" Carrington asked, impressed and mystified. Before I could answer, she caught sight of Luke. "Oh, he's so cute! Can I hold him? I'm really good at holding babies. I help with Matthew all the time."
"Maybe later when you're sitting down," Jack said. "For now, we got work to do. Let's go have a look at the boat."
"Okay, it's in the garage!" She took his hand and tugged eagerly.
Jack resisted for a moment, looking at me. "You okay hanging out with Liberty by the pool?"
"There is nothing I'd rather do."
Liberty took me through the house and out to the back. She carried Luke, cooing to him, while I followed with the diaper bag. "Where is Matthew?" I asked.
"He went down for his nap a little early today. The babysitter will bring him out when he wakes up."
We went through a kitchen that looked like something out of a rustic French chateau. A pair of French doors led to a fenced-in backyard, which was landscaped with a green lawn, flower beds, and a party deck with a grill. The dominant feature of the half-acre yard was a stone-and-tile pool made of two connecting lagoons, one shallow and one deep.
The end of the shallow lagoon ended in a sandy white shore with a real palm tree growing in the center. "Hawaiian sand," Liberty said, laughing as she noticed my interest. "You should have seen us picking it out—the landscaper must have brought twenty samples, while Gage and Carrington tried to figure out which kind would make the best sandcastles."
"You mean it was shipped all the way from Hawaii?"
"Yes. A truckload. The pool guy wants to kill us on a weekly basis. But Gage decided it would be fun for Carrington to have her own little beach. He would do anything for her. Here, let me hand the baby to you, and I'll turn on the misters."
Liberty went to flip a switch near the barbecue pavilion, activating nozzles that had been recessed in the deck to create a light cooling mist around the pool.
I was very nearly awed. "That is amazing," I said. "Don't take this the wrong way, but your life is unreal, Liberty."
"I know." She made a face. "Believe me, this isn't how I grew up."
We settled into a couple of green cushioned patio chairs by the pool, and Liberty adjusted an overhead umbrella to shade Luke as I held him.
"How did you meet Gage?" I asked. Although Jack had told me their father Churchill had introduced Liberty to the family, I didn't know the particulars.
"Churchill got his hair cut at the salon where I worked, and we became friends. I was his manicurist for a while." Liberty glanced at me with a spark of mischief in her eyes, and I knew she was studying my reaction. No doubt most people made a lot of assumptions based on that information.
I decided to be blunt. "Was there anything romantic between the two of you?"
Liberty smiled and shook her head. "I loved Churchill immediately, but not at all in a romantic way."
"He was a father figure, then."
"Yeah, my own dad died when I was young. I guess I always had a feeling of something missing. After we'd known each other a couple of years, Churchill hired me as a personal assistant, and that was when I met the rest of the family." She laughed. "I hit it off with everyone except Gage, who was an arrogant jerk." A pause. "But very sexy."
I grinned. "I'll admit, the Travis men have some great DNA going for them."
"The Travis family is . . . unusual," Liberty said, kicking off her flip-flops and stretching out her tanned, gleaming legs. "They're all very strong-willed. Intense. Jack's the most easygoing of all of them, outwardly at least. He's sort of the mixer of the family—he keeps everything balanced. But he can be stubborn. He does things his own way, and he's willing to butt heads with Churchill when necessary." She paused. "You've probably figured out by now that Churchill is not the easiest of fathers to get along with."
"I know he has high expectations of his children," I said.
"Yes, and he has strong ideas of how they should live, what choices they should make, and he gets mad or disappointed when they don't do things his way. But if you stand your ground with Churchill, he respects that. And he can be incredibly caring and under-standing. I think the more you get to know him, the more you'll like him."
I stretched out my legs and studied my unpolished toes. "You don't have to talk me into liking Churchill or the other Travises, Liberty. I already do. But this relationship between Jack and me isn't going anywhere. It's not going to last."
Liberty's green eyes widened. "Ella . . . I hope you won't let Jack's past reputation get in the way. I've heard some of the stories about him running wild around Houston. He's sown his oats, though, and I think now he's finally ready to settle down."
"It's not that—" I began, but she interrupted earnestly.
"Jack is one of the most loving, loyal guys you could ever meet. I think it's been hard for him to find a woman who could look beyond the money and the Travis name, and want him for who he is. And Jack needs someone who is strong and smart enough to handle him. He would be miserable with a passive woman."
"What about Ashley Everson?" I couldn't help asking. "What kind of woman is she?"
Liberty wrinkled her nose. "I can't stand her. She's the kind of woman who has no female friends. She says she just likes men better. And what does it say about a woman who can't be friends with other women?"
"It says she's competitive. Or insecure."
"In Ashley's case, probably both."
"Why do you think she left Jack?"
"I wasn't around at the time, but Gage was, and he says the problem with Ashley is that she can't ever stick with any guy for long. Once she gets a man, she's bored and wants to move on. In Gage's opinion, Ashley never meant to end up married to Pete. She would have divorced him right away if she hadn't gotten pregnant."
"I don't get why Jack fell in love with her in the first place," I grumbled.
"Ashley is good with men. She knows all the football stats, and she hunts and fishes, and she cusses and tells filthy jokes, and on top of all that she looks like a Chanel model. Men love her." Her mouth quirked. "And I'm sure she's great in bed."
"Now I can't stand her, either," I said.
Liberty chuckled. "Ashley is no competition for you, Ella."
"I'm not competing for Jack," I told her. "He already knows that I'm not interested in getting married, ever." I saw her eyes widen. "It has nothing to do with how great he is," I continued. "I have a lot of reasons for being this way." I gave her a sheepish smile. "And I'm sorry if I sound defensive, but telling a married person you never want to get married is like waving a red flag at a bull."
Instead of looking offended or trying to debate the matter, Liberty nodded thoughtfully. "That must be frustrating. It's hard to swim against the tide."
I liked her even more than I already did, for such ready acceptance of my feelings. "It was one of the great things about my boyfriend Dane," I told her. "He never wanted to get married, either. It was a really comfortable relationship."
"Why did you break up with Dane? Was it because of the baby? "
"Not really." I pulled out of the diaper bag an infant toy, a musical inchworm, for Luke to play with. "Looking back on it, I guess there wasn't enough to hold me and Dane together. Even after all the years we'd spent with each other. And when I met Jack, there was something about him—" I stopped, conscious that for all the variety of words I knew, there was no way to describe why and how I had been so completely captivated by Jack Travis. I looked down at Luke, stroking back the little dark feathers of his hair. "Hey, why are we with Jack?" I asked him, and he gazed back at me as if similarly mystified.
Liberty laughed gently. "Believe me, I know. Even when I couldn't stand Gage, it seemed like the temperature in the room went up about a hundred degrees whenever he was there."
"Yes. That's the fun part, the attraction. But I don't see the relationship lasting forever."
"Why not?" Liberty seemed genuinely puzzled.
Because I lose everyone I care about, sooner or later. I couldn't say that aloud—although it had a potent inner logic for me, I knew it would make me sound crazy. There was no way to explain that the very thing I craved, the intensity of a relationship with Jack, was what I feared most. It wasn't a rational fear, of course . . . it was purely visceral, which made it that much harder to fight against.
I shrugged and made my lips in the shape of a smile. "I think I'm just the flavor of the month as far as Jack is concerned."
"You're the first woman he's ever brought around the family," Liberty said in a low voice. "He could get serious in a hurry, Ella."
As I cuddled Luke and struggled with my thoughts, I was relieved when Liberty's nanny emerged from the house with a robust, handsome toddler. The boy was dressed in a swimsuit and a T-shirt printed with cartoon lobsters.
"Matthew, honey . . ." Liberty hopped up and went to get him, lavishing him with kisses. "Did you have a nice nap? Do you want to play with Mommy? We have a friend visiting, and she brought her baby . . . do you want to see him?" He responded with an enchanting wide grin, conversing with his mother in a few garbled sentences, his plump arms wrapped around her neck.
After giving us a cursory inspection, Matthew decided that playing in the sand was far more interesting than the new baby. Liberty stripped down to her swimsuit and took her son to the edge of the water, where they sat and began to fill a bucket with sand. "Ella, come put your legs in the water," she called. "It feels great."
I was dressed in a printed halter top and matching Bermuda shorts, but I had packed a swimsuit. Pulling it from the diaper bag, I said, "Give me a minute to go and change."
"Sure. Oh, this is our nanny, Tia . . . let her take care of Luke while you put on your swimsuit."
"Is that okay?" I asked Tia, who came forward with a smile.
"Yes, he's no problem," she exclaimed.
"There's a guest bathroom off the kitchen," Liberty told me, "or if you need a little more space, go into any of the upstairs bedrooms."
"Got it." I went into the house, relishing the coolness of the kitchen, and found a small bathroom with earthy-hued striped walls and a stone vessel sink and a black-framed mirror. I changed into my pink swimsuit, a retro-styled one-piece. Padding barefoot through the kitchen, carrying my clothes, I heard the sound of voices, one of them Jack's deep murmur. The voices were accompanied by hammering and sawing, and the occasional squeal of a power drill.
I followed the sound to a partially opened door that led to the spacious garage, where a huge shop fan circulated the warm air. The space was brilliantly lit from the secondhand sunlight that bounced in through the open garage doors. Tapping the door a little wider, I watched unobserved as Jack, Gage, and Carrington worked on the wooden skiff, which was propped up on padded sawhorses.
Both Jack and Gage had removed their shirts in the heat. I wondered wryly how many women would have paid good money to see the two Travis brothers dressed only in jeans, all sun-burnished muscles and long, lean bodies. As my gaze lingered on Jack's sweat-glittered back, I had a flash of recent memory, my hands urgently gripping those hard muscles on either side of his spine, and a pleasant riff of awareness went through me.
Carrington was busy spreading a thick layer of glue on the last of three strips of wood that would be joined and fastened to the top edge of the skiff as a gunnel. I had to smile at the sight of Gage crouched beside her, murmuring instructions, holding back one of the braids that threatened to drag through the glue.
". . . and then at recess," the girl said, squeezing a huge bottle of wood glue with both hands, "Caleb wouldn't let anyone else play with the basketball, so Katie and I went and told the teacher—"
"Good for you," Gage said. "Here, put more glue on the edge. Better to use too much than not enough."
"And then," Carrington continued, "the teacher said it was someone else's turn to play with the ball, and she made Caleb write an essay about sharing and cooperation."
"Did that fix him?" Jack asked.
"No," came Carrington's disgusted reply. "He's still the terriblest boy you could ever meet."
"They all are, honey," Jack said.