He followed as I ran to the bedroom. "What are you doing?"
I yanked the sheets and covers over the unmade bed. "My mother's going to get here any minute, and it looks like we had an orgy in here." I paused long enough to glare at him. "You have to go. I mean it. There is no way you're meeting my mother." I tossed the pillows onto the bed. Hurrying back to the main room, I whisked clutter into a giant wicker basket and shoved it into the coat closet.
The intercom by the door beeped. It was the concierge, David. "Miss Varner . . . you have a visitor. It's—"
"I know," I said, slumping in defeat. "Send her up." Turning to Jack, I saw that he had picked up Luke and was cuddling him against his chest. "What can I do to get rid of you?"
He smiled. "Not a damn thing."
In about two minutes, I heard a determined knock at the door.
I opened it. There was my mother, in full-face makeup and high heels, and a snug red dress that displayed the figure of a woman half her age. She sailed in on a cloud of department-store perfume, hugged and air-kissed me, and stood back to give me an assessing glance.
"I finally got tired of waiting to be invited," she told me, "so I decided to take the bull by the horns. I'm not letting you keep my grandson away from me any longer."
"You're a grandmother now?" I asked.
She continued to look me over. "You've put on weight, Ella."
"I've lost a few pounds, actually."
"Good for you. A few more, and you'll be back to a healthy size."
"A size eight is healthy, Mom."
She gave me a fond, chiding glance. "If you're that sensitive about it, I won't mention it anymore." Her eyes widened theatrically as Jack approached us. "Well, who is this? Why don't you introduce me to your friend, Ella?"
"Jack Travis," I muttered, "this is my mother—"
"Candy Varner," she interrupted, going in for a hug, crowding the baby between them. "We don't need to bother with handshakes, Jack . . . I've always been crazy about Ella's friends." She winked at him. "And they've always been crazy about me." She pried the baby from his arms. "And here is my precious grandson . . . oh, I don't know why I let Ella keep you away from me this long, you little sugar lump."
"I said you were welcome to babysit any time," I muttered.
She ignored that, venturing into the apartment. "How cozy this is. I think it's so sweet, the two of you taking care of Luke while Tara is on her spa vacation."
I followed her. "She's at a clinic for psychologically and emotionally disturbed people."
My mother went to the windows to check out the view. "It doesn't matter what you call it. Places like that are so in, nowadays. The Hollywood stars do it all the time—they need a little escape from the pressure, so they come up with some made-up problem, and they get to relax and get pampered for a few weeks."
"It's not a made-up problem," I said. "Tara—"
"Your sister has stress, that's all. I was watching a program the other day about Cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and they said coffee drinkers have a lot more Cortisol than the average person. And I've always said you and Tara drink too much coffee, both of you."
"I don't think Tara's problems—or mine—occurred because of one too many lattes," I said darkly.
"My point is, you bring on your own stress. You've got to rise above it. Like I do. Just because your father's side was weak-minded, doesn't mean you have to give in to it." As my mother chattered, she wandered around the apartment, looking at everything with the atten-tiveness of an insurance assessor. I watched her uneasily, longing to take the baby back. "Ella, you should have told me you were living here." She cast a grateful glance at Jack. "I want to thank you for helping my daughter, Jack. She has a vivid imagination, by the way. I hope you don't believe everything she says. When she was a child, she'd make up such stories . . . if you want to get to know the real Ella, you need to talk to me. Why don't you take us all out to dinner, and we'll get better acquainted? Tonight would be fine."
"Great idea," Jack said easily. "Let's do that sometime. Unfortunately, tonight Ella and I have plans."
My mother handed the baby to me. "Take him, sweetheart, this is a new dress. He might spit up." She sat gracefully on the sofa and crossed her long, toned legs. "Well, Jack, I'm the last one to interfere in someone else's plans. But if you are getting involved with my daughter, I'd feel more comfortable about it if I knew you and your family a little bit better. I'd like to meet your father, to start with."
"You're too late," I said. "His father's already got a girlfriend."
"Why Ella, I didn't mean . . ." She laughed lightly and shot Jack a commiserating, conspiratorial glance—look at what we have to deal with—and her tone became maddeningly sweet. "My daughter has always resented that men like me so much. I don't think she brought a single boyfriend home who didn't make a pass at me."
"I only brought one home," I said. "That was enough."
She gave me a chilling glance and laughed, her mouth a wide, taut pouch. "No matter what Ella says," she told Jack, "don't take her word for it. You ask me."
Whenever my mother was around, reality took on the dimensions of a fun-house mirror. Insanity was simply a result of being a frequent Starbucks customer, size eight was a stage of obesity that required medical intervention, and any man I dated was clearly having to make do with a second-rate substitute for Candy Varner. And anything I had ever done or said could be conveniently rewritten to suit whatever spin she had chosen.
For the next forty-five minutes, it was the Candy Varner Show with no commercial interruptions. She told Jack that she would have offered to take care of Luke, but she was just too busy, and she'd already done her duty, working and sacrificing all those years for her daughters, neither of whom were appropriately grateful and were both more than a little jealous. And imagine Ella giving advice to people for a living, when Ella hardly knew what she was talking about—you had to do a lot more living than Ella had before you knew who was who and what was what. Whatever Ella knew about life, it had come from her mother's imparted wisdom.
Mom proceeded to present herself as the desirable original, the brand name, with me as a failed copy. She tried to do some heavy-handed flirting with Jack. He was polite and respectful, occasionally glancing at my stony expression. When Mom started to name-drop, pretending she knew some of the same rich people Jack did, it was so mortifying that I felt myself shutting down. I stopped protesting or correcting, just occupied myself with Luke, checking his diaper, putting him back into the baby gym, and playing with him. My ears felt hot, the rest of me ice-cold.
And then I registered that, like clockwork, she had shifted the conversation to the inappropriately personal, revealing that she'd recently signed on for laser hair-removal treatments from an exclusive Houston spa. "I've been told," she was telling Jack with a girlish giggle, "that I have the cutest coochie in Texas—"
"Mom," I said sharply.
She glanced at me, her eyes sly and laughing. "Well, it's true! I'm just saying what other people—"
"Candy," Jack interrupted briskly, "this has been fun, but it's time for Ella and me to get ready for our evening out. Great to meet you. Why don't I take you down to the concierge, and he'll show you out?"
"I'll stay here and watch over Luke while you're gone," my mother insisted.
"Thanks," Jack replied, "but we're taking him with us."
"I haven't had any time with my grandson," she protested, frowning at me.
"I'll call you, Mom," I brought myself to say.
Jack went to the door and opened it. Keeping it open, he stepped out into the hallway. His tone was friendly and inexorable. "I'll wait here while you get your purse, Candy."
I stood while my mother came to embrace me. The perfumed smell of her, the warm proximity of her, made me want to cry like a child. I wondered why I would always long for her to love me in a way she wasn't capable of, why Tara and I were nothing more to her than collateral damage from a marriage that had gone bad.
I had learned that there were substitutes for a mother who couldn't be a mother. You could find love with other people. You could find it in places you weren't even looking. But the original wound would never heal. I would carry it with me forever, and so would Tara. That was the trick . . . accepting it, going on with your life, knowing it was part of you.
"Bye, Mom," I said thickly.
"Don't give him everything he wants," she said in a low voice.
"Luke?" I asked, puzzled.
"No. Jack. You'll hold on to him longer that way. Don't be too smart with him, either. Try to put some makeup on. And take off those glasses, they make you look like an old maid. Has he given you any presents yet? Tell him you want big stones, not little ones—it's a better investment."
A brittle smile worked across my face, and I drew back from her. "See you later, Mom."
She picked up her handbag, and sauntered out into the hallway.
Jack looked around the doorjamb, his gaze sliding over me. "I'll be back in a minute."
By the time Jack had returned, I had downed a shot of tequila from the pantry, hoping the liquor would burn through my head-to-toe numbness. It hadn't. I felt like a freezer that needed to be defrosted.
Luke fretted in my arms, making impatient noises, wriggling.
Jack came to me and touched my chin, forcing me to meet his searching gaze.
"Now aren't you sorry you didn't take my advice and leave?" I asked morosely.
"No. I wanted to see what you grew up with."
"I guess you can tell why Tara and I both needed therapy."
"Hell, I need therapy, and I only spent an hour with her."
"She'll say or do anything for attention, no matter how embarrassing." I looked at him sharply as a hideous thought occurred to me. "Did she make a pass at you in the elevator?"
"Nope," he said, a little too smoothly.
"Yes, she did."
"It was nothing."
"God, how awful," I whispered. "She makes me so angry."
Jack took the fussing baby from me, and Luke quieted immediately.
"Not the regular kind of angry," I went on. "It's the kind that makes you tired and cold all the way through and you can't feel anything. Not even your own heartbeat. I want to call Tara and download on her, because I think she'd understand."
"Why don't you?"
"No, she's the one who sicced Mom on me. I'm mad at her, too."
Jack studied me for a moment. "Let's go up to my apartment."
"I'm going to thaw you out."
I shook my head at once. "I need alone-time."
"No, you don't. Come on."
"Dane always let me have alone-time when I needed it." I was in a terrible, sullen mood, and anything he did was only going to irritate me. "Jack, I don't need to be held or comforted, or have sex or talk. I don't want to feel better right now. So there's no point—"
"Bring the diaper bag." Still carrying Luke, he went to the door, held it open, and waited patiently for me to join him.
We went up to his apartment, and Jack took me straight to the bedroom. He turned on a lamp, and went into the bathroom, and I heard the sounds of water and steam. "I don't need a shower," I said.
"Get in there and wait for me."
I heaved a sigh. "What about the baby?"
"I'm putting him down. Go on."
I removed my glasses and stripped off my clothes, and trudged into the shower room. It was dimly lit and filled with a hot eucalyptus-scented mist. Jack had laid a fluffy white towel out on the long built-in tile bench. I sat and breathed deeply. In a minute or two, I began to relax. I was surrounded by fragrant steam, my pores opening, muscles softening, lungs filling with moist heat. The tequila hit my system, and my entire body seemed to sigh, and I felt my heart start again.
"Oh, this is better," I said aloud, and lay face down on the towel. There was no sound except the soft rush of steam. I felt color rising to the surface of my skin. I lay there tranquilized by the warm mist, losing all sense of time. I had no idea how many minutes had passed before I was aware of Jack sitting next to me, his hip lean and smooth next to mine.
"How's Luke?" I mumbled.
"Down for the count."
"I wonder if—"
"Hush." His hands settled on my back, sliding easily over the wet skin. He started at the shoulders, rubbing, drawing the soreness out of my tense muscles. The pressure deepened. I felt the circling of his thumbs against the muscles and connective tissue, working steadily, rolling out pleasure until a helpless groan slipped from my throat.
"Oh, that feels so . . .Jack . . . I didn't know you could do this."
"Shhh." He worked down my back, his hands gliding, sweeping in long strokes, then kneading in deeper, shorter strokes, coaxing out tension, easing the knotted muscles. I gave myself over entirely to those strong, deliberate hands, my body lost and flung and heavy. He worked on my bottom, thighs, calves, and turned me over and pulled my feet into his lap. I made a little sound of pleasure as I felt him run his thumbs along my arches.
"Sorry I was bitchy," I managed to say.
"You had cause, honey."
"My mother's awful."
"Yeah." He wiggled my toes individually. His voice was steam-blended and soft. "That advice she gave you was crap, by the way."
"You heard that? Oh, God."
"You should give me everything I want," Jack informed me. "You should spoil me rotten. And it's too late to play dumb, and you're cute as hell without makeup."
I smiled, my eyes still closed. "What about my glasses?"
"Everything's a turn-on for you," I said languidly.
"Not everything." Laughter thickened his voice.
"Yes. You're like one of those pharmaceutical commercials where they warn about four-hour erections. You need to go see your doctor.