"That explains his lack of interest. I thought maybe he preferred Beethoven."
He extended a hand to help me from the bed. I hesitated before taking it. I could certainly get off the bed on my own. But it seemed uncivil to ignore the gesture.
My hand felt exactly right in his, his long thumb crossing over mine, our palms converging gently. I pulled away from him as soon as I was upright. I tried to remember if my attraction to Dane had been this immediate and direct. No . . . it had developed gradually, a slow and patient unfolding. I had a solid dislike of fast-moving things.
"Your suitcase is in the other room," Jack told me. "If you're hungry, you can order something from the restaurant on the seventh floor. You need anything else, call Haven. I put her number beside the phone. I won't see you for a few days—I'll be out of town."
I wanted to ask where he was going, but instead I nodded. "Travel safely."
His eyes glinted with humor. "Thanks."
He left with friendly dispatch, his matter-of-fact departure a relief and yet oddly anticlimactic. I went into the main room and found my suitcase, and noticed that the hotel receipt, tucked into a crisp white envelope, had been left on top. Opening it, I saw the final tally, and I cringed. But as I scanned the itemized list of expenses, I noticed something was missing: the room-service dinner.
He must have paid for it, I thought. We had agreed that I would. Why had he changed his mind? Was it pity? Maybe he thought I couldn't afford it? Or maybe he'd never had any intentions of letting me pay for it. Mystified and vaguely annoyed, I set aside the hotel bill and went to gather Luke in my arms. I watched the sock-puppet show with the baby and tried not to think about Jack Travis. Most of all, I tried not to wonder when he would come back.
In the days that followed i called all my friends to tell them what had happened. It seemed I repeated the story of my sister's surprise baby at least a hundred times until I got good at telling the expurgated version. While most of them were supportive, some like Stacy were not at all pleased that I had chosen to stay in Houston. I felt guilty knowing that Dane was getting more than his share of calls and comments. It seemed that our friends' reactions were divided among gender lines. The women said that of course I'd had no choice but to take care of Luke, whereas the men were far more understanding of Dane's decision not to take responsibility for a baby he'd had nothing to do with.
Unfathomably, some of the discussions drifted into a referendum on whether or not I should have gotten Dane to marry me before now, as that would have made the situation very different.
"How exactly would it be different?" I asked Louise, a personal trainer whose husband, Ken, was a LakeTravis paramedic. "Even if Dane had married me, he still wouldn't want babies."
"Yes, but he would have had to help you with Luke," Louise replied. "I mean, a man can't exactly kick his wife out in these circumstances, could he?"
"He didn't kick me out," I said defensively. "And I could never force Dane into doing something he didn't want just because we were married. He would still have the right to make his own choices."
"That's ridiculous," Louise said. "The whole reason you get married is so you can take away their choices. And they're happier that way."
"Does marriage take away our choices, too?"
"No, it gives us more choices, plus security. That's why women want to get married more than men."
I was perplexed by Louise's views on marriage. And I reflected that marriage could devolve into a very cynical arrangement if love was taken from the equation. Like a brick wall with the mortar crumbling out, it would eventually collapse.
Reluctantly I called my mother to update her on Tara, the baby, and the fact that I was staying in Houston for a while to help her.
"After all the years you spent running around in Austin," my mother said, "you have no right to complain."
"I'm not complaining. And I wasn't running around. I was working and studying and—"
"It's drugs, isn't it? Tara was so innocent. She got pulled into that glamorous lifestyle with all her rich friends . . . all that coc**ne dust floating around, she probably inhaled some by accident, and then—"
"There's no such thing as secondhand coc**ne snorting, Mom."
"She was pressured," my mother snapped. "You have no idea what it's like to be beautiful, Ella. All the problems it can bring on."
"You're right, I wouldn't know. But I'm pretty certain Tara wasn't doing drugs."
"Well, your sister just wants attention. You make sure she knows I'm not paying a cent for her to have a three-month getaway. I need a getaway a lot worse than anyone else, let me tell you. All the stress this has caused me—why hasn't anyone thought about sending me to a spa?"
"No one's expecting you to pay for it, Mom."
"Who is, then?"
"I don't know yet. But the main thing to concentrate on now is helping Tara to get better. And taking care of Luke. He and I are staying in a nice little furnished apartment."
"Where is it?"
"Oh, inside the loop somewhere. Nothing special." I repressed a grin as I gazed at my luxurious surroundings, knowing if she found out I was living at 1800 Main, she'd be there within the half hour. "The place needs some work. Do you want to help me fix it up? Maybe tomorrow—"
"I'd like to," she said hastily, "but I can't. I'm too busy. You'll have to do it on your own, Ella."
"Okay. Would you like me to stop by with Luke sometime? I'm sure you want some bonding time."
"Yes . . . but my boyfriend likes to drop in unexpectedly. I don't want him to see the baby. I'll call you when I have a free day."
"Good, because I could use some babysitting—"
She hung up the phone.
When I called Liza and told her that I was staying in an apartment at 1800 Main, she was impressed and wildly curious. "How did you get a deal like that? Did you sleep with Jack or something? "
"Of course not," I said, offended. "You know me better than that."
"Well, I think it's weird, the Travises letting you stay there like that. But I guess they all have so much money, they can afford to make nice gestures. To them, maybe it's like tithing."
The person who helped me the most, not only in an emotional but a practical sense, was Haven Travis. She guided me through the process of having the utilities changed over, told me where to go for things I needed, and even recommended a babysitter her sister-in-law liked.
Haven made no judgments, nor did she want to interfere in anyone else's business. She was a good listener, and she had a quick sense of humor. I felt comfortable around her—nearly as comfortable as I did with Stacy—and that was saying something. I reflected that for all the people you lost touch with or couldn't hold on to, life occasionally made up for it by giving you the right person at the right time.
We had lunch and shopped for baby supplies one afternoon, and walked together a couple of mornings before the daytime heat accumulated. As we cautiously exchanged the details of our lives, we discovered this was one of those rare friendships in which everything was instantly understood. Although Haven didn't say much about her failed marriage, she indicated there had been some kind of abuse. I knew what courage it had taken for her to leave the relationship and rebuild her life, and the process of recovering would take a long time. And whoever she had been before, she was now different in significant ways.
The abusive marriage had distanced Haven from her old friends, some of whom were too uncomfortable to face the issue, and others who wondered what she had done to cause it. And then there had been others who had chosen not to believe her at all, thinking a rich woman couldn't be abused. As if money was a shield against all manner of violence or ugliness.
"Someone said behind my back," Haven told me, "that if I'd been knocked around by my husband, it must have been because I'd wanted it."
We were both quiet as the stroller wheels rattled over the pavement. Although Houston was not a walking city by anyone's definition, there were a few places you could walk comfortably, especially RiceVillage, where there were shade trees. We passed eclectic shops and boutiques, restaurants and clubs, salons, and a children's retail store. The prices made me dizzy. It was unbelievable how much you could spend on children's fashion.
Contemplating what Haven had just told me, I wished I could think of some consoling reply. But the only solace I could offer was to reassure her that I believed her. "It scares people to think that they could be hurt or abused for no reason," I said. "So they'd rather think you caused it somehow, and then they can reassure themselves that they're safe."
Haven nodded. "But I think it must be even worse when it's done by a parent to a child. Because then the child thinks he or she deserves it, and carries that around forever."
"That's Tara's problem."
She gave me an astute glance. "Not yours?"
I shrugged uncomfortably. "I've had a few years to work on it. I think I've whittled it down to a manageable size. I'm not nearly as anxious as I used to be. On the other hand . . . I have attachment problems. It's hard for me to be close to people."
"You've formed an attachment to Luke," she pointed out. "And that's just been a few days, right?"
I considered that and nodded. "I guess babies are exempt."
"What about Dane? . . . You've been with him for a long time."
"Yes, but lately I've realized . . . the relationship works but it isn't going anywhere. Like a car left running in the driveway." And I told her about our open relationship, and what Dane had said, that if he'd tried to confine me in any way, I would have left him.
"Would you have?" Haven asked, opening the door of a coffee shop while I pushed the stroller inside. A life-giving blast of cold air surrounded us.
"I don't know," I said earnestly, my forehead wrinkling. "He may be right. Maybe I can't handle anything more than that. I could be allergic to commitment." I parked the stroller beside a tiny table, lifted the accordion-pleated top, and peeked at Luke, who was kicking his legs happily in response to the coolness.
Still standing, Haven surveyed the chalkboard menu for coffee specials. Her dazzling grin reminded me of her brother. "I don't know, Ella. It might be some deep-seated psychological issue, or . . . it's possible you just haven't found the right guy yet."
"There is no right guy for me." Bending over the baby, I murmured, "Except for you, formula-breath." I caught a tiny bare foot and kissed it. "There is only you, and my passion for your sweaty little feet."
I felt Haven pat my back lightly as she moved around the table. "You know what I think, Ella . . . aside from the fact that I'm going to have an iced mint mochaccino topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings? I think in the right circumstances, you could pull that car out of the driveway any time you want to."
* * *
Jack featured prominently in many of haven's childhood stories. In the manner of older brothers, he had alternately been the hero and the villain. Most often the villain. But now in adulthood, in a family with complex dynamics, a close bond had formed between them.
According to Haven, their older brother Gage had always been the focus of their father's greatest demands, highest praise, and deepest ambitions. The only child of Churchill Travis's first marriage, Gage had worked hard to please his father, to become the perfect son. He had been serious, driven, hyper-responsible, distinguishing himself at an elite boarding school, later graduating from UT and HarvardBusinessSchool. But Gage was not nearly the hard-ass their father had been. He had an innate kindness, an allowance for human frailty, that Churchill Travis found difficult to summon.
Churchill's second marriage had lasted until the death of his wife, Ava, and had produced three children: Jack, Joe, and Haven. Since Gage already shouldered the main burden of expectation and responsibility, Jack had the opportunity to play, experiment, run wild, make friends. He had always been the first to jump into a fight and the first to shake hands afterward. He'd played every sport, charmed his teachers into giving him better grades than he deserved, and dated the prettiest girls in school. He was a loyal friend who paid his debts and never broke his word. Nothing made Jack madder than when someone made a deal with him and wouldn't keep their side of it.
When Churchill had decided his young sons needed to be reminded what hard labor was, he set them to laying sod in the blistering south Texas sun, or building a hand-cut stone fence along the edge of their property, until their muscles were on fire and a dark tan had saturated their skin several layers down. Of the three boys, only Jack had truly enjoyed the outside labor. Sweat, dirt, physical exertion— had all felt purifying to him. His basic need to test himself against the land, and nature, manifested in a lifelong love of outdoor pursuits: hunting, fishing, anything that took him away from the air-conditioned opulence of River Oaks.
Haven had been spared these particular life lessons from her father. Instead, she had been subjected to her mother's notions of how to bring up a girl to be ladylike. Naturally Haven had been a tomboy, forever trailing after her three brothers. Because of the significant age difference between Gage and Haven, he had assumed a vaguely paternal role, intervening on her behalf when he deemed it necessary.
But Jack had warred with Haven on many occasions, such as when she had gone uninvited into his room or played with his train set without asking. For revenge, he had given her Indian burns, and when she had tattled on him, their daddy had beaten him with his belt until Haven had cried. Schooled in the Texan art of manliness, Jack had prided himself on not shedding one tear. Afterward, Churchill had told his wife Ava that Jack was the most stubborn boy alive. "Too damn much like me," the father had said, frustrated that he could not motivate the rebellious Jack the way he had with Gage.
Haven told me she had been miserable when Gage, her champion, had been sent away to school. But contrary to all expectations, Jack had not persecuted her in their brother's absence. When she came home crying one day because a boy at school was bullying her, Jack had listened to the whole story, and rode off on his bike to take care of the problem. The bully never bothered Haven again. Never came near her, as a matter of fact.