A slight smile rose to his lips. "What's your problem with electric drills, darlin'?"
"I don't know. I'm not used to them, that's all. They make me nervous. I didn't grow up with a brother or a father who used stuff like that."
"Well, you missed out on some important protocol, Ella. You can't stand between a Texan and his power tools. We like them. Big ones that drain the national grid. We also like truck-stop breakfasts, large moving objects, Monday night football, and the missionary position. We don't drink light beer, drive Smart Cars, or admit to knowing the names of more than about five or six colors. And we don't wax our chests. Ever." He hefted the drill. "Now let me do the guy stuff while you go to the kitchen. Trust me, it's a perfect arrangement."
"Luke's going to cry," I said darkly.
"No, he won't. He'll love it."
To my disgust Luke didn't make a sound, watching contentedly as Jack built the crib. I heated a plate of spaghetti and sauce, and set a place for Jack at the kitchen island. "C'mon, Luke," I said, picking up the baby and carrying him into the kitchen. "We'll entertain Cro-Magnon while he has his dinner."
Jack dug into the steaming pasta with gusto, making appreciative noises and finishing at least a third of it before coming up for air. "This is great. What else can you cook?"
"Just the basics. A few casseroles, pasta, stew. I can roast a chicken."
"Can you do meat loaf?"
"Marry me, Ella."
I looked into his wicked dark eyes, and even though I knew he was joking, I felt a wild pulse inside, and my hands trembled. "Sure," I said lightly. "Want some bread?"
After dinner, Jack was back on the floor, putting together the crib with a deftness born of vast experience. He was good with his hands, confident and capable. I had to admit, I enjoyed watching as he rolled up his sleeves over hair-dusted forearms and knelt in front of the wooden frame, his body athletic and superbly conditioned. I sat nearby with a glass of wine and handed screws to him. Every now and then he got close enough that I caught the scent of him, a sexual incense of male sweat and clean skin. He swore a couple of times as a couple of screws were stripped, the fluent profanity immediately followed by a beg-pardon.
Jack Travis was a novelty in my experience, an old-fashioned man's man. None of the boys I had gone to college with had been anything more than that, just boys trying to figure out who they were and what their place in the world was. Dane and his friends were sensitive, environmentally aware guys who rode bikes and had Facebook accounts. I couldn't imagine Jack Travis ever blogging or worrying about finding himself, and it was pretty certain that he didn't give a damn about whether or not his clothes were sustainably produced.
"Jack," I said thoughtfully, "do you think of women as equals?"
He fitted a support bar against the frame. "Yes."
"Do you ever let a woman pay for dinner?"
"Is that why the room-service meal wasn't on my hotel bill?"
"I never let a woman pay for my food. I just said dinner was on you because I knew it was the only way you'd let me stay."
"If you think of women as equals, why didn't you let me buy you dinner?"
"Because I'm the man."
"If you had a choice between hiring a man or a woman to manage one of your projects, but you knew the woman was childbearing age, would you choose the man over her?"
"No. I'd choose the best person."
"If they were equal in every way . . . ?"
"I wouldn't hold the potential for pregnancy against her." Jack gave me a quizzical smile. "What are you trying to find out?"
"I'm wondering where to put you on the evolutionary scale."
He tapped a screw into place. "How high have I gotten so far?"
"I haven't decided yet. What's your stand on political correctness?"
"I'm not against it. But a little goes a long way. Hold on a minute—" The drill whirred and screeched as Jack attached a frame bracket. He paused and looked up at me with an expectant grin. "What else?"
"What are you looking for in a woman?"
"Someone who's loyal. Loving. Likes to spend time together, especially outdoors. And I sure wouldn't mind if she hunts."
"Are you sure you wouldn't be happier with a Labrador retriever?" I asked.
It seemed to take Jack no time at all to finish the crib. I helped to hold the large sections together while he attached them and even added extra reinforcing. "I think a baby elephant could sleep in that crib without breaking it," I said.
"Want it here or in the bedroom?" Jack asked.
"The bedroom's so small, I'd rather keep it in here. Is that weird, having a crib in the main room?"
"Not at all. It's Luke's apartment, too."
With Jack's help, I moved the crib beside the sofa and put a sheet over the mattress. Gently, I lowered the drowsy baby into the crib and covered him with a blanket, and started a mobile playing overhead. Bears and honeypots circled slowly, accompanied by a gentle lullaby. "Looks comfortable," Jack whispered.
"Doesn't it?" Seeing how cozy Luke was, how safe, I felt a rush of gratitude. The dark city was seething outside, scored with traffic, people swarming, drinking, dancing, while the ground slowly released the heat of the day. But we were tucked away in this cool, protected place, everything as it should be.
I needed to fill Luke's bottles, and get ready for the night. We had a routine. I found something deeply comforting in the rituals of bath and bedtime.
"It's been a long time since I was in the habit of taking care of a child," I said, barely aware I was speaking aloud. My hand gripped the top of the crib rail. "Not since I was a child."
For reply, Jack slid his hand over mine, engulfing it with warm pressure. Before I could look up at him, he let go and went to pack up his tools. Methodically, he dumped all the scraps of cardboard and plastic into the flat rectangular box the crib had come in. Lifting the box with one hand, he carried it to the door. "I'll take this out for you."
"Thank you." Smiling, I went to see him out. "I appreciate this, Jack. Everything. I—"
The wine must have eradicated every last atom of common sense I possessed, because I reached up to give him a hug in the same way I would have done with Tom or one of Dane's other friends. A buddy hug. But every nerve from head to toe screamed "Mistake!" as soon as the front of my body met his, adhering like wet cottonwood leaves.
Jack's arms went around me, clasping me against a wall of muscle, and he was so big and warm, and it felt so scary-good that I stiffened all over. The hot drift of his breath against my cheek made my heartbeat go crazy, and instant arousal filled the space between every thump. I gasped, ducking away, my face crammed against his shoulder.
"Jack . . ." I could hardly speak. "I wasn't making a pass at you."
"I know." One hand slid to the back of my head, fingers lacing through the silky-fine locks. Gripping gently, he guided me to look at him. "It's not at all your fault that I'm taking it that way."
"I like these," he murmured, touching the rectang-ular rim of my glasses, carefully grasping an earpiece. "A lot. But they're in the way."
"Of what?" I tensed as he pulled off my glasses and set them aside.
"Hold still, Ella." And his head lowered.
If i'd been thinking rationally, i never would have allowed it. Jack's mouth brushed slowly over mine before settling with gentle pressure. I moved against his unyielding weight until I found some perfect, unexpected alignment that sent heat jolting through me. My knees gave out, but it didn't matter because he was holding me so securely. One of his hands came up to my jaw with extreme care.
Every time I tried to finish the kiss, he pressed harder, coaxing me to stay open, tasting slowly. This was so different from what I was accustomed to, it seemed like something other than kissing. I realized that my kisses with Dane had become a form of punctuation, the quotations or the hasty dash at the end of a conversation. This was softer, more urgent and relentless. Wild, fresh, tumbling kisses, eroding my balance. I groped Jack's shoulders, my fingers curving over the hard nape of his neck.
He took a quick breath and reached down, his hand sliding over my pajama bottoms as he coaxed my h*ps high and tight. The full-on pressure of him was stunning, galvanic. He was unbelievably hard. Everywhere. He was in control, infinitely stronger, and he wanted me to know it.
He kissed me until the sensations flowed in directions I couldn't go, spilling and sliding darkly. As I felt a desperate ache cambering low in my body, I finally understood that if I slept with this man, he would take everything. All the defenses I had built would be destroyed.
Shaking, I pushed at him and managed to turn my head long enough to gasp, "I can't. No. That's enough, Jack."
He stopped at once. But he kept me against him, his chest moving hard and fast.
I couldn't look at him. My voice was hoarse as I said, "That shouldn't have happened."
"I've wanted this since the first second I saw you." His arms tightened, and he bent over me until his mouth was close to my ear. Gently he whispered, "You did, too."
"I didn't. I don't."
"You need some fun, Ella."
I let out an incredulous laugh. "Believe me, I don't need fun, I need—" I broke off with a gasp as he pressed my h*ps closer to his. The feel of him was more than my dazzled senses could handle. To my mortification, I hitched up against him before I could stop myself, heat and instinct winning out over sanity.
Feeling the reflexive response, Jack smiled against my scarlet cheek. "You should take me on. I'd be good for you."
"You are so full of yourself . . . and you would not be good for me, with your steaks and power tools and your attention-deficit libido, and . . . I'll bet you're a card-carrying member of the NRA. Admit it, you are." I couldn't seem to shut up. I was talking too much, breathing too fast, jittering like a wind-up toy that had been wound to the limits of its mechanism.
Jack nuzzled into a sensitive place behind my ear. "Why does that matter?"
"Is that a yes? It must be. God. It matters because—stop that. It matters because I would only go to bed with a man who respected me and my views. My—" I broke off with an inarticulate sound as he nibbled lightly at my skin.
"I respect you," he murmured. "And your views. I think of you as an equal. I respect your brains, and all those big words you like to use. But I also want to rip your clothes off and have sex with you until you scream and cry and see God." His mouth dragged gently along my throat. I jerked helplessly, muscles jolting with pleasure, and his hands gripped my hips, keeping me in place. "I'm gonna show you a good time, Ella. Starting with some take-no-prisoners sex. The kind when you can't remember your own name after."
"I've been with Dane for four years," I managed to say. "He understands me in a way you don't."
"I can learn you."
It seemed as if something inside me had started to unravel, weakness spreading, all my body tightening against it. I closed my eyes and bit back a whimper. "When you offered me the apartment," I said weakly, "you implied you had no ulterior motives. I don't appreciate the position this puts me in, Jack."
His head lifted, and his lips brushed the tip of my nose. "What position would you prefer?"
My eyes flew open. Somehow I managed to twist away from him. Half-sitting, half-leaning on the arm of the sofa, I pointed to the door with a trembling finger. "Go, Jack."
Jack looked as sexy as hell, rumpled and aroused. "You're kicking me out?"
I could hardly believe it myself. "I'm kicking you out." I went to get my glasses, fumbling to put them back on.
His mouth had turned sullen. "There's more we need to talk about."
"I know. But if I let you stay, I don't think we'll do much talking."
"What if I promise I won't touch you?"
As our gazes caught, it seemed the entire room was filled with volatile heat. "You'd be lying," I said.
Jack rubbed the back of his neck and scowled. "You're right."
I tilted my head toward the door. "Please go."
He didn't move. "When can I see you again? Tomorrow night?"
"I have work."
"The day after?"
"I don't know. I've got a lot of stuff to do."
"Damn it, Ella." He went to the door. "You can put it off for now, but you'll just have to deal with it later."
"I'm a big believer in putting things off," I told him. "In fact, I even put off procrastinating."
He gave me a smoldering glance and left, carrying the empty crib box with him.
Slowly I cleared away the clutter in the kitchen and wiped the counters, and made Luke's bottles. I kept stealing glances at the phone—it was about time for my nightly talk with Dane—but it remained silent. Was I obligated to tell him what had happened between me and Jack? . . . Did an open relationship allow for secrets? And if I confessed to Dane about the attraction I felt for Jack Travis, what good could possibly come of it?
As I pondered the situation, I decided the only reason to tell Dane about the kiss was if it was leading to something. If I was becoming involved with Jack. And I wasn't. The kiss was meaningless. Therefore, the wisest option—not to mention the easiest one—was to pretend it had never happened.
And put off talking about it until the whole thing was forgotten.
The next day i called my sister, i was frustrated but not especially surprised that Tara was dragging her feet on giving Dr. Jaslow permission to talk to me.
"You know I'm not going to do anything that's against your interests," I told her. "I want to help."
"I'm doing fine by myself. You can talk to my doctor later. Maybe. But it's not something I need right now." There was a defensive brittleness to Tara's tone that I understood all too well. I had felt that, lived in that feeling, for a year or so after I had started therapy. Once you started to realize that you had a right to your own privacy, you became rabidly protective of it. Of course, Tara didn't want my interference. On the other hand, I needed to know what was going on.