It was a mark of dane's unfamiliarity with babies that he had suggested, without irony, that I get a good night's sleep. My nephew was a living, breathing sleep disorder. It was without exception the worst night I had ever spent, a series of harsh awakenings and crying and formula-mixing and feeding and burping and diaper-changing, and then after about five minutes of rest it all started again. I didn't know how anyone could live through months of this. After one night, I was a wreck.
In the morning I showered, turning the water up to near-scalding in the hopes that it would ease my aching muscles. Wishing I'd had the foresight to bring a more impressive outfit, I dressed in the only clean clothes I had: a pair of jeans, a fitted cotton shirt, and leather flats. I brushed my hair until it was neat and smooth, and looked at my haggard, stone-white face. My eyes were so irritated and dry that I didn't bother with my contact lenses. I decided to wear my glasses, a pair of sensible rectangular wire-rims.
It didn't improve my mood when I went to the kitchen, bringing Luke in his carrier, and saw my mother sitting at the table. Her fingers were knobbed with rings, her hair curled and sprayed. She wore shorts, her legs smooth and tan, and one of the pedicured toes that peeped from her wedge sandals sparkled with a tiny crystal toe ring.
I set Luke's carrier on the floor at the other side of the table, away from her.
"Does the baby have any other clothes?" I asked. "His one-piece is dirty."
Mom shook her head. "There's a discount store down the street. You can buy some things for him there. You'll need a big pack of diapers—they go through them fast at this stage."
"No kidding," I said wearily, heading for the coffeepot.
"Did you talk to Liza last night?"
"What did she say?"
"She thinks Tara's okay. She's going to make some calls today to try and find her."
"What about the baby's daddy?"
I had already decided not to tell her anything about Jack Travis's possible involvement. Because if there was any way to ensure my mother's interest and unwanted involvement, it was to mention a rich man's name.
"No idea yet," I said casually.
"Where are you going today?"
"It looks like I'm going to find a hotel room." I didn't say it in an accusatory way. I didn't need to.
Her slim body stiffened in the chair. "The man I'm seeing can't find out about this."
"Because you're a grandmother?" I took a perverse pleasure in seeing her twitch at the word. "Or because Tara wasn't married when she had the baby?"
"Both. He's younger than me. Conservative, too. He wouldn't understand there's only so much you can do with rebellious children."
"Tara and I haven't been children for a while, Mom." I took a sip of black coffee, the bitter brew eliciting a judder of revulsion. Living with Dane, I had grudgingly accustomed myself to softening the brew with soy milk instead. What the hell, I thought, and reached for the carton of half-and-half on the counter. I poured a liberal dollop into the coffee.
Mom's lipstick-coated mouth pressed into thin, dry ribbons. "You've always been a know-it-all. Well, you're about to find out how much you don't know."
"Believe me," I muttered, "I'm the first one to admit that I have no clue about any of this stuff. I had nothing to do with it. This isn't my baby."
"Then give it to Social Services." She was getting agitated. "Whatever happens to him will be your fault, not mine. Get rid of him if you can't handle the responsibility."
"I can handle it," I said, my voice quiet. "It's okay, Mom. I'll take care of him. You don't have to worry about anything."
She subsided like a child who had just been mollified by a lollipop. "You'll have to learn the way I did," she said after a moment, reaching down to adjust her toe ring. A hint of satisfaction edged her tone as she added, "The hard way."
The day was already blazing, i took luke into the discount store, while he squalled up and down the aisles, writhing angrily in the ragged foam-lined infant seat that was bolted to the handles of the basket. Luke finally quieted when we left, soothed by the vibration of the basket wheels as they rattled over the rough asphalt of the parking lot.
The outside air was roasting-hot, while the indoors' were chilled by Arctic air-conditioning. As you went outside and inside, alternately sweating and drying, you were eventually covered in an invisible film of sticky salt. Luke and I were heated to the pink of boiled shrimp.
And this was how I was going to meet Jack Travis.
I called Liza, hoping she had managed to get his phone number.
"Heidi wouldn't give it to me," Liza said, sounding disgruntled. "Talk about insecure—I think she's scared I'm going to make a move on him! I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling her about all the times I could have gone after him but didn't on account of our friendship. 'Sides, she knows as well as anyone that there's plenty of Jack Travis to go around."
"It's a wonder the man gets any sleep."
"Jack's upfront about not being able to commit to one woman, so no one expects it of him. But Heidi's been seeing him so long, I think she's convinced herself she can get him to cough up an engagement ring."
"Like a hairball," I said, entertained. "Well, good luck to her. But in the meantime, how am I going to get in touch with him?"
"I don't know, Ella. Short of just barging in there and asking to see him, I can't think of anything."
"Fortunately I have excellent barging skills."
"I'd be careful," my cousin said warily. "Jack's a nice guy, but he's not the kind you can push around."
"I wouldn't think so," I agreed, while my stomach tightened in a spasm of nerves.
* * *
The traffic in Houston had its own mysterious patterns. Only keen familiarity and vast experience would allow you to maneuver through them. Naturally, Luke and I got caught in stop-and-start traffic that turned a fifteen-minute drive into a forty-five-minute one.
By the time we reached the artful, glittering structure of 1800 Main, Luke was howling and a foul smell had filled the car, demonstrating that a baby will inevitably have a dirty diaper at the worst possible time in the worst possible place.
I drove to the underground parking garage, the commercial half of which was completely full, and I had to drive out again. As I drove farther down the street, I found a public paying lot. After parking in one of the street-level spaces, I managed to change Luke's diaper in the back seat of the Prius.
The baby carrier seemed to weigh about a thousand pounds as I lugged it along the street to the building. Icy air hit me in a controlled blast as I entered the luxurious lobby, all marble and brushed steel and gleaming wood. After glancing at a glass-shielded directory of the office floors, I walked briskly by the reception desk. I knew there was no way they were going to let an unidentified woman with no appointment and no connections simply breeze through to the elevators.
"Miss—" One of the men behind the desk gestured for me to approach him.
"Someone's coming down to meet us," I said brightly. Reaching into the bag hanging from my shoulder, I pulled out the Ziploc bag containing the dirty diaper. "We had a little emergency; is there a restroom nearby?"
Blanching at the sight of the bulging baggie, the man hastily directed me toward a restroom on the other side of the elevator bank.
Passing the reception desk, I lugged Luke to the center of the double row of elevators. As soon as a door opened, we stepped inside along with four other people.
"How old is she?" a woman in a smart black skirt suit asked with a smile.
"It's a he," I said. "A week old."
"You're getting around so well, considering."
I briefly considered explaining that I wasn't the mother, but that might have led to another question, and I wasn't about to explain any part of the circumstances that Luke and I had found ourselves in. So I just smiled and murmured, "Yes, thanks, we're doing great." For the next several seconds, I brooded about how Tara might be getting around, if she was healing properly after giving birth. We reached the eleventh floor, and I carried Luke out of the elevator and past the doors of Travis Management Solutions.
We went into a serene area decorated in natural colors, with a small grouping of contemporary upholstered furniture. I set down Luke's carrier, rubbed my aching arm, and approached the receptionist. Her face was a polite mask. The black eyeliner on her upper lids had been extended so it formed little checkmarks at the corners of her eyes, as if they had been part of a list she had gone through that morning. Right eye? . . . check. Left eye? . . . check. I gave her a smile that I hoped conveyed that I was a woman of the world.
"I know this is out of the blue," I said, pushing up my glasses, which had started to slip down my nose, "but I need to see Mr. Travis about an urgent matter. I don't have an appointment. I just need five minutes. My name is Ella Varner."
"Are you acquainted with Mr. Travis?"
"No. I was referred by the friend of a friend."
Her face remained carefully expressionless. I half-expected her to reach under the desk and press a button for security. Any second now, men in beige polyester uniforms would burst through the doors and haul me off.
"What do you want to see Mr. Travis about?" the receptionist asked.
"I'm sure he wouldn't want me to tell anyone until he hears it first."
"Mr. Travis is in a meeting."
"I'll wait for him."
"A long meeting," she said.
"That's fine. I'll catch him when he takes a break."
"You'll have to make an appointment and come back later."
"When's his next opening?"
"His schedule is full for the next three weeks. There may be something at the end of the month—"
"This can't wait until the end of the day" I insisted. "Look, all I need is five minutes. I'm here from Austin. I'm dealing with a pressing matter that Mr. Travis needs to know about—" I broke off as I saw her blank face.
She thought I was crazy.
I was beginning to think so, too.
Behind me, the baby started crying.
"You've got to keep him quiet," the receptionist said with biting urgency.
I went to Luke, picked him up, and grabbed a bottle of chilled formula from the side of the diaper bag. I had no way to warm it, so I pushed the nipple into his mouth.
But my nephew didn't like his formula cold. Pulling his mouth from the plastic nipple, he began to wail.
"Miss Varner—" the receptionist said in agitation.
"His bottle's cold." I gave her an apologetic smile. "Before you send us off, would you mind warming it? Just put it in a cup of hot water for a minute? Please?"
She let out a short, sharp sigh. "Give it to me. I'll take it back to the coffee station."
"Thank you." I offered her a placating smile, which she ignored as she left.
I wandered around the reception area, bouncing Luke gently, humming, doing anything I could think of to soothe him. "Luke, I can't take you anywhere. You always make a scene. And you never listen to me. I think we should start seeing other people."
Aware of a figure approaching from one of the hallways that branched out from the reception area, I turned gratefully. I assumed it was the receptionist, back with the bottle. Instead I saw three men walking out, all dressed in dark, expensive-looking suits. One of them was fair and slim, the other short and a bit portly, and the third was the most striking man I had ever seen.
He was tall and big-framed, all hard muscle and easy masculinity, with dark eyes and heavy well-cut black hair. The way he carried himself—the confidence in his walk, the relaxed set of his shoulders— proclaimed that he was accustomed to being in charge. Pausing in mid-conversation, he gave me an alert look, and my breath caught. A blush crept over my face, and a hectic pulse began at the front of my throat.
One glance and I knew exactly who and what he was. The classic alpha male, the kind who had spurred evolution forward about five million years ago by nailing every female in sight. They charmed, seduced, and behaved like bastards, and yet women were biologically incapable of resisting their magic DNA.
Still staring at me, the man spoke in a deep voice that raised goose-flesh on my arms. "I thought I heard a baby out here."
"Mr. Travis?" I asked crisply, jostling my whimper-ing nephew.
He gave a short nod.
"I hoped I might catch you between meetings. I'm Ella. From Austin. Ella Varner. I need to talk to you briefly."
The receptionist came from another hallway, plastic bottle in hand. "Oh God," she muttered, hurrying forward. "Mr. Travis, I'm sorry—"
"It's okay," Travis said, gesturing for her to give me the bottle.
I took it, shook a few lukewarm drops on my wrist as my mother had told me to do, and shoved the nipple into the baby's mouth. Luke grunted in satisfaction and fell into a busy, sucking silence.
Looking back up into Travis's eyes, which were as dark and rich as blackstrap molasses, I asked, "May I speak with you for a few minutes?"
Travis studied me thoughtfully. I was struck by the contradictions about him, the expensive clothes and bold good looks, the sense of unpolished edges. He was unapologetically masculine in a way that suggested you should either scramble to get on his good side or get the hell out of his way.
I couldn't help contrasting him with Dane, whose golden handsomeness and jaw-softening stubble had always been so soothing and approachable. There was nothing soothing about Jack Travis. Except maybe his deep sugar-maple baritone.
"Depends," Travis said easily. "You gonna try to sell me something?" He had a heavy Texas accent, the kind in which dropped G's hit the floor like summer hailstones.
"No. It's a personal matter."
A touch of offhand amusement lurked in the corners of his mouth. "I usually save personal matters for after five."
"I can't wait that long." I took a deep breath before adding boldly, "And I should warn you that if you get rid of me now, you'll have to deal with me later. I'm very persistent."
The trace of a smile lingered on his lips as he turned to the other men. "Would y'all mind waiting for me at the bar on the seventh floor?"