"No hardship," one of them said in a brisk British accent. "We never mind loitering in the bar. Shall I order for you, Travis?"
"Yeah, I don't expect this'll take long. Dos Equis, lime wedge, no glass."
As the men left, Jack Travis turned his full attention to me. Although I was medium height, hardly a short woman, he towered over me. "My office." He motioned for me to precede him. "Last door on the right."
Carrying Luke, I went to the corner office. A large fanned wedge of windows revealed the skyline, where relentless sunlight ricocheted off a stand of glass-skinned buildings. In contrast to the sterile reception area, the office was comfortably cluttered, with deep leather chairs, and piles of books and folders, and family pictures in black frames.
After positioning a chair for me, Travis half-sat on his desk, facing me. His features were emphatically defined, the nose straight and substantial, the jaw nearly lacerating in its precision.
"Let's make this fast, Ella-from-Austin," he said. "I got a deal on the stringer, and I'd rather not keep those guys waiting."
"You're going to manage property for them?"
"Hotel chain." His gaze flickered to Luke. "You might want to tilt that bottle—she's getting air."
I frowned and adjusted the bottle upward. "It's a boy. Why does everyone assume he's a girl?"
"He's wearing Hello Kitty socks." There was a distinct note of disapproval in his voice.
"They were the only ones available in his size," I said.
"You can't put a boy in pink socks."
"He's only a week old. Do I have to worry about gender bias already?"
"You really are from Austin, aren't you?" he asked wryly. "How can I help you, Ella?"
The task of explaining was so considerable, I hardly knew where to start. "Just so you're prepared," I said in a businesslike tone, "the story I'm going to tell you ends with a stinger."
"I'm used to that. Go on."
"My sister is Tara Varner. You went out with her last year." Seeing that the name didn't ring a bell, I added, "You know Liza Purcell? . . . She's my cousin. She fixed you up with Tara."
Travis thought for a moment. "I remember Tara," he finally said. "Tall, blond, leggy."
"That's right." Seeing that Luke had finished the bottle, I put the empty container in the diaper bag and draped the baby over my shoulder to burp him. "This is Tara's son. Luke. She gave birth to him, left him with my mother, and took off somewhere. We're trying to locate her. Meanwhile I'm trying to secure some kind of situation for the baby."
Travis was very still. The atmosphere in the office took on a hostile chill. I saw that I had been identified as a threat, or perhaps just a nuisance. Either way, his mouth was now edged with contempt.
"I think I get the stinger you're working around to," he said. "He's not mine, Ella."
I forced myself to hold that unnerving black gaze. "According to Tara, he is."
"The Travis name inspires a lot of women to notice a likeness between me and their fatherless children. But it's not possible for two reasons. First, I never have sex without holstering the gun."
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, I wanted to smile at the phrase. "You're referring to a condom? That method of protection has an average failure rate of fifteen percent."
"Thank you, professor. But I'm still not the father."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I never had sex with Tara. The night I took her out, she drank too much. And I don't sleep with women in that condition."
"Really," I said skeptically.
"Really," came the soft reply.
Luke burped, and settled into the curve of my neck like a sack of pinto beans.
I thought of what Liza had told me about Jack Travis's hyperactive love life, his near-legendary womanizing, and I couldn't prevent a cynical smile. "Because you're a man of high principles?" I asked acidly.
"No, ma'am. It's just that I prefer the woman to participate."
For just a moment I couldn't stop myself from imagining him with a woman, what kind of participation he required, and I was disgruntled to feel scalding color rushing over my face. It only got worse when he gave me a coolly interested glance, as if I were an inept criminal he had just collared.
That made me increasingly determined to stand my ground. "Did you have anything to drink the night you were out with Tara?"
"Then your judgment was impaired. And possibly your memory. There's no way you can be absolutely certain that nothing happened. And there's no good reason for me to believe you."
Travis was silent, still staring at me. I realized that no detail escaped his notice—the dark circles under my eyes, the scurf of dried baby spit-up on my shoulder, the unthinking way I had curved my hand over Luke's head.
"Ella," he said quietly, "I can't be the only guy you're approaching with this."
"No," I admitted. "If it turns out that you're not the father, then I'm going to have the other lucky candidates served and made to take paternity tests. But I'm giving you the chance to get it done right now, with no fuss and no publicity. Take the test, and if it goes your way, you're out of the picture."
Travis looked at me like I was one of those tiny green lizards that loved to skitter across the thresholds of Texas homes. "I got lawyers who could make you run around in circles for months, honey."
I gave him a mocking smile. "Come on, Jack. Don't deprive me of the pleasure of watching you donate a DNA sample. I'll even pay for it."
"That offer might interest me," he said, "if it involved anything more exciting than a buccal swab."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could take your word about not having slept with Tara. But if you did, you don't have much incentive to admit it, do you?"
He stared at me with eyes the color of burnt coffee. A hot, unfamiliar riff of sensation chased down my spine.
Jack Travis was a big, sexy tomcat, and there was no doubt in my mind that my sister would have given him anything and everything he wanted. And I didn't care if Travis had holstered his gun, doublebagged it, or tied it in a knot. He could probably get a woman pregnant just by winking at her.
"Ella, if you'll allow me . . ." He stunned me by reaching out and gently pulling the glasses from my face. I looked at him through the bewildered blur, and perceived that he was cleaning the smudged lenses with a tissue. "There," he murmured, and replaced them on my face with care.
"Thank you," I managed to whisper, now seeing him in new, breathtaking detail.
"What hotel are you staying at?" I heard him ask, and I struggled to collect my thoughts.
"I don't know yet. I'm going to find something after I leave here."
"No, you won't. There are two conventions going on in Houston. Unless you've got some strings to pull, you'll have to drive clear to Pearland to get a room."
"No strings," I admitted.
"Then you need help."
"Thanks, but I don't—"
"Ella," he interrupted, his tone uncompromising. "I don't have time to argue with you. Complain all you want later, but for now, shut up and follow me." Standing, he reached for the baby.
Mildly startled, I clutched Luke a little more closely.
"It's okay," Travis murmured. "I got him."
His large hands slid between me and the baby, deftly cradling Luke's slumped body and transferring him to the carrier on the floor. I was surprised by the ease with which Travis handled the baby, and also by my own intense awareness of him. The scent of him, fresh like cedar and clean earth, sent pleasure signals to my brain. I saw the shadow of whisker-grain that even the closest shave would never completely remove, and the way the thick locks of black hair had been cut in short, no-nonsense layers.
"You've obviously had experience with babies," I said, fumbling for the diaper bag, making certain the zipper was closed all the way.
"I have a nephew." Travis strapped Luke in securely and lifted the heavy carrier with ease. Without asking permission, he led the way to the front of the office, pausing at one of the doors in the hallway. "Helen," he said to the auburn-haired woman seated at a desk piled with folders, "this is Miss Ella Varner. I need you to find her a hotel room for the next couple of nights. Something close by."
"Yes, sir." Helen gave me a neutral smile and picked up her phone.
"I'm paying for it," I interjected. "Do you need my credit card number, or—"
"We'll take care of the details later," Travis said. He guided me out to the reception area, set Luke down beside a chair, and gestured for me to sit. "Wait here like a good girl," he murmured, "while Helen makes the arrangements."
Good girl? The deliberate chauvinism caused my jaw to drop. My gaze shot up to his, but my indignant reply was forestalled as I saw that he had known exactly what my reaction would be. He also knew that I wasn't in a position to take offense.
Reaching for his wallet, Travis pulled out a business card and handed it to me. "My cell number. I'll be in touch later this evening."
"So you're agreeing to the paternity test?" I asked.
Travis slanted a look at me, his eyes filled with a simmer of challenge.
"I wasn't aware I had a choice," he said, and left the office with long, easy strides.
The hotel room helen had reserved for me was a luxurious suite with a separate sitting area and a kitchenette outfitted with a sink and a microwave. One look at the hotel—a European-style resort located in the Galleria area—and I knew my credit-card balance was going to be maxed out in a matter of hours. Maybe minutes.
But the suite was gorgeous, the floors thickly carpeted, the bathroom lined with marble tiles and stocked with spa products.
"Time to party," I told Luke. "Let's raid the minibar." I opened the cans of formula I had brought up from the car, made several bottles, and stocked them in the tiny fridge. After lining the sink with a white towel, I filled it with warm water and gave Luke a bath.
When he was clean and fed and drowsy, I laid him in the center of the king-sized bed. As I pulled the curtains over the windows, the afternoon blaze was extinguished by a shroud of slick, heavy brocade. Relishing the cool and quiet of the hotel room, I headed toward the bathroom to take a shower. But I paused as I glanced at the baby again. Luke was so alone and small, blinking up at the ceiling with quiet forbearance. I couldn't bring myself to leave him while he was still awake. Not while he was waiting so patiently for whatever would happen to him next. I crawled onto the bed and lay next to him, stroking the dark fluff on his head.
Living with Dane, I had heard and discussed and pondered any number of injustices in the world. But it hardly seemed that there could be anything worse than an unwanted child. Lowering my head, I pressed my cheek against his pale baby skin, and kissed the fragile curve of his skull. I watched his lashes lower, and his mouth compress like a grumpy old man's. His hands rested on his chest like tiny pink starfish. I touched one of them with my finger, and his hand closed around it with surprising tightness.
He fell asleep holding my finger. It was an intimacy unlike anything I had ever felt before. And an unfamiliar, sweet pain spread in my chest, as if my heart were cracking open.
I dozed for a little while. After that I took a long shower and dressed in an oversized gray T-shirt and a pair of denim cutoffs. Returning to the bed, I opened my laptop and checked my e-mail. There was one from Liza:
dear ella, this is a list of guys i know for sure tara went out with, i'll send you more names when i remember them, i feel awful doing this behind tara's back, she has a right to privacy you know . . .
"Like hell," I murmured aloud, reflecting that my sister had given up her right to privacy as soon as she'd left her baby at my mother's house.
. . . i think i know where tara might be, but i'm waiting for someone to call me back before i know for sure, i'll let you know some time tomorrow.
"Liza," I said ruefully, "didn't anyone ever show you how to push the shift key to make a capital letter?"
I opened the attachment containing the list of names and shook my head with a groan, wondering how the file had made it past the size restrictions of the e-mail provider.
I closed and saved it.
Before I got to my other e-mails, I clicked on Google and looked up Jack Travis, curious about what it would bring up.
There was a long list of results, cluttered with references to the father, Churchill Travis, and the oldest brother, Gage.
But there were a few interesting links to Jack, one of them to an article in a national business magazine. It was titled "A Son Also Rises."
Until Recent years, Jack Travis, middle son of billionaire Churchill Travis, has had a higher profile on Houston's club scene and nightlife than in the business community. All that is about to change as Jack Travis comes into his own with a slew of projects and public-private ventures that promise to launch him into the top ranks of Texas developers.
Although he is in a different trade from his father, Jack Travis has proved the rule that the apple never falls far from the tree. Yet when asked about his ambitions, Travis presents himself as an accidental businessman. The facts tend to belie his laid-back demeanor and what some label as false modesty.
Exhibit A: Travis Capital, a recently formed subsidiary of Travis Manage ment Solutions, just acquired Alligator Creek, a 300-acre golf course in South Florida for an undisclosed amount after months of negotiations. The coursewill be managed by a Miami partner company.
Exhibit B: TMS is currently developing a section of downtown Houston, the equivalent of ten Manhattan blocks, into office buildings, apartment buildings, a retail concourse, and a cinema complex, all of which will be managed by a newly formed TMS division....
The article went on to describe other projects in the works. Going back to the results list, I saw a row of thumbnail pictures and clicked on a few of them. My eyes widened as I beheld a photo of a shirtless Jack waterskiing, his body lean and powerful, his stomach a virtual abacus of muscle. Another of Jack and a popular sitcom actress lounging on a Hawaiian beach. Jack and a female news anchor, dancing at a local charity event.
"You're a busy boy, Jack," I murmured.