Before I could open any more pictures, I was interrupted by the ring of my cell phone. Scrambling for my purse, I fished out the phone, hoping the noise wouldn't wake the baby.


"How's it going?" Dane asked.

I relaxed at the familiar voice. "I'm having a fling with a younger man," I told him. "He's kind of short for me, and there's a little incontinence problem . . . but we're working to get beyond all that."

Dane chuckled. "Are you at your mom's?"

"Ha. She kicked me out first thing this morning. But Luke and I are staying at a chichi hotel. Mr. Travis had his secretary find it for us. I think the per-night cost would just about cover my monthly car payment." As I went on to describe the events of the day, I poured a cup of coffee for myself. I couldn't help grinning privately as I emptied a couple of tiny presealed containers of half-and-half into the brew.

"So Travis agreed to take a paternity test," I finished, sipping the coffee. "And Liza's still trying to track down Tara. And my column is late, so I'm going to have to finish it up tonight."

"You think Travis was lying when he said he didn't sleep with Tara?"

"Maybe not deliberately lying. But I think there's a chance he's mistaken. And obviously he thinks so, too, otherwise he wouldn't have agreed to the paternity test."

"Well, if it is his kid, it'll be a lottery win for Tara, won't it?"

"She would probably look at it that way." I felt a frown tug between my eyebrows. "I hope she won't try to use Luke to get money out of the Travises whenever she wants it. He deserves more than to be treated like an ATM card." I glanced at the small, sleeping form on the bed. Luke was twitching as he slept and dreamed. I wondered what kind of dreams you had when you were only a week old.

Carefully I leaned over and adjusted the baby blanket higher over his chest. "Dane," I said softly, "remember that thing you told me about the duck and the tennis ball? About how baby ducks get attached to the first thing they see after they're born?"


"How does that work again? . . ."

"After the duckling is hatched, there's a window of time during which another creature, or even an inanimate object, is stamped onto his nervous system, and he becomes bonded to it. In the study I read, a duckling became imprinted to a tennis ball."

"How long is the window of time?"

Dane's voice was half-wary, half-amused. "Why? Are you afraid you're the tennis ball?"

"I don't know. It's possible Luke is the tennis ball."

I heard him swear softly. "Don't get attached to him, Ella."

"I won't," I said quickly. "I'm coming back to Austin as soon as possible. I'm certainly not going to—" I was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Wait just a second," I told Dane. Padding barefoot through the suite, I unlatched the door and opened it.

Jack Travis stood there, his tie knot loosened and his hair rumpled in waves that fell partially over his forehead. He glanced over me, cataloguing my clean-scrubbed face, my bare legs and feet. Slowly his gaze traveled back up to mine. I felt a dart of heat low in my stomach.

My fingers clenched on the cell phone. "It's room service," I said to Dane. "Let me call you later."

"Sure, babe."

Closing the phone, I took an awkward step back and gestured for Jack to enter the suite. "Hi," I said. "When you said you would be in touch, I was sort of expecting a phone call."

"I'll make it quick. I just dropped off my clients. They're staying here, too. Both of 'em are jet-lagged and ready to call it a day. Your room okay? "

"Yes. Thanks."

We stood facing each other in the thickening silence. My bare, unpolished toes dug into the velvet-pile carpet. I felt at a disadvantage being dressed in shorts and a T-shirt while he was in his business clothes.

"My doctor will see us tomorrow morning for the paternity test," Jack said. "I'll pick you up in the lobby at nine."

"Do you have any idea how long it will take to get the results?"

"Usually three to five days. But the doc's going to fast-track it, so the results might be in as early as tomorrow night. Any word on your sister yet? "

"I think I'll hear something soon."

"If you have any problems, I've got a guy who can find people pretty fast."

"A private detective?" I regarded him doubtfully. "I don't know if he could do anything—there's not much to go on at this point."

"If your sister has a cell phone with her, it would take about fifteen minutes to locate her."

"What if the phone is turned off?"

"If it's one of the newer ones, you can still track it. And there are other ways to get a bead on someone . . . ATM transactions, SSN trace, credit-card records . . ."

Something about his cool, rational tone made me uneasy. He had the mind-set of a hunter, I thought.

Thinking of Tara, worrying, I rubbed my sore temples and closed my eyes for a few seconds. "If I can't reach her by tomorrow," I said, "I'll start thinking along those lines."

"Have you eaten yet?" I heard Jack ask.

"Other than snack food from the minibar, no."

"Do you want to go out to dinner?"

"With you?" Caught off guard by the question, I looked at him in surprise. "You must be having a slow night. Don't you have a harem to get back to or something?"

Jack regarded me with narrowed eyes.

I was instantly contrite. I had not meant to sound bitchy. But in my current state of physical and mental exhaustion, I had no conversational red flags left.

Before I could apologize, Jack asked in a low voice, "Have I done something to you, Ella? Other than help you get a hotel room, and agree to take an unwarranted paternity test?"

"I'm paying for the room. And the paternity test. And if it was all that unwarranted, you wouldn't be taking it."

"I may back out of it now. There's only so much I'll put up with, even for a free buccal swab."

An apologetic grin pulled at the corners of my mouth. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm hungry and sleep-deprived. I've had no time to prepare for any of this. I can't find my sister, my mother is crazy, and my boyfriend is in Austin. So I'm afraid you're dealing with all my accumulated frustration. And I think on a subconscious level, you represent all the guys who might have knocked up my sister."

Jack gave me a sardonic glance. "It's a lot easier to knock up someone when you actually have sex with her."

"We've already established that you're not one hundred percent certain whether you slept with Tara or not."

"I am one hundred percent certain. The only thing we've established is that you don't believe me."

I had to bite back another smile. "Well, I appreciate the dinner offer. But as you can see, I'm not dressed to go out. And not only am I tired of lugging around this eighty-five-pound baby but there's no place you could take me to because I'm a vegan, and no one in Houston knows how to cook without animal products."

The mention of dinner must have revved up my appetite, because my stomach chose that moment to emit a loud, embarrassing growl. Mortified, I clutched a hand over my midriff. At the same time, an impatient mewl came from the bed, and I looked toward the sound. Luke was awake, his tiny arms waving.

I hurried to the fridge, got a bottle, and put it into a sink of hot water. While the formula was warming, Jack went to the bed and picked up Luke. Holding him in a secure and competent grip, Jack murmured softly to the baby. It made no difference. Luke started squalling, his mouth wide open and his eyes screwed shut.

"There's no use in trying to quiet him." I rummaged in the diaper bag for a burp cloth. "He just screams louder and louder until he gets what he wants."

"Always works for me," Jack said.

After a couple of minutes I took the bottle from the sink, tested it, and went to an upholstered chair. Jack brought Luke to me, settling him in my waiting" arms. The baby clamped his gums on the silicone nipple and began to feed.

Jack stood over me, his gaze shrewd. "Why are you a vegan?"

I had learned from experience that a conversation beginning with that question never tended to go well.

"I'd rather not go into that."

"Not an easy diet to stick to," Jack said. "Especially in Texas."

"I cheat," I confessed. "Just in little ways. A pat of butter here, a French fry there."

"You can't have French fries?"

I shook my head. "You never know if they've been cooked in the same oil as fish or meat." I looked down at Luke, brushing my fingetip over the tops of the miniature hands that had clamped on the sides of the bottle. My stomach growled again, even more loudly than the first time. I flushed in embarrassment.

Jack's brows lifted. "Sounds like you haven't eaten in days, Ella."

"I'm starving. I'm always hungry." I sighed. "The reason I eat vegan is because my boyfriend Dane does. I never feel full for more than twenty minutes, and it's hard to keep up my energy."

"Then why do you do it?"

"I like the health benefits. My cholesterol and blood pressure are really low. And my conscience feels better when I eat an animal-free diet."

"I know of some good remedies for an active conscience," he said.

"I'm sure you do."

"It sounds like if it weren't for your boyfriend, you'd be eating meat."

"Probably," I admitted. "But I agree with Dane's take on the issues, and most of the time it's not a problem for me. Unfortunately, I'm temptable."

"I like that in a woman. It almost makes up for your conscience."

I had to laugh at that. He was a rascal, I thought. It was the first time I had ever found that quality appealing in a man. As our gazes caught, he gave me a dazzling grin that could have qualified as a fertility-enhancing treatment. My stomach paused in mid-growl.

Magic DNA, I reminded myself ruefully.

"Jack, you should probably go now."

"I'm not going to leave a starving woman with nothing to eat except stale chips from the minibar. And you sure as hell won't find anything vegan in this hotel."

"There's a restaurant downstairs."

"It's a steakhouse."

"I'm sure they'll have a green salad. And maybe a fruit plate."

"Ella," he chided, looking me over. "Surely you've got a bigger appetite than that."

"Yes. But I have principles. And I try to live by them. Besides, I've learned that every time I fall off the wagon, it's a lot harder to get back on."

Jack stared at me with the smile playing on his lips. Slowly he reached for his tie, pulled the knot free, and removed it. A flush climbed up to my hairline as I watched him. He folded the tie in a leisurely manner and tucked it into the pocket of his suit jacket. "What are you doing?" I managed to ask.

Jack shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the arm of a nearby chair. He had the build of an avid outdoorsman, his body lean and tough-looking. Without a doubt there was some serious muscle packed beneath the conservative business attire. As I stared at the robust male in front of me, I felt the involuntary pull of millions of years of evolutionary baggage.

"I'm finding out how temptable you really are."

I let out an unsteady laugh. "Listen, Jack, I don't—"

Holding up a silencing finger, he went to the phone. He dialed, waited a moment, and flipped open the leather-bound guest-services book. "Room service for two," he said into the phone.

I blinked in surprise. "I'm not really comfortable with that idea."

"Why not?"

"Your playboy reputation."

"I had a misspent youth," he conceded. "But it makes me an interesting dinner companion." He returned his attention to the phone. "Yeah, charge it to the room."

"I'm not comfortable with that idea, either," I said.

Jack glanced at me. "Too bad. I'm making it a condition of my doctor's visit tomorrow. If you want a sample of my inner cheek cells, you're going to buy me dinner."

I considered that for a moment. Dinner with Jack Travis . . . alone in a hotel room.

I looked at Luke, who was smacking busily at his bottle. I was holding a baby, I was tired and cranky, and I couldn't remember the last time I had brushed my hair. God knew I was not going to inspire any sexual interest from Jack Travis. He'd had a long day, and he was hungry. He was probably the kind of person who didn't like to eat by himself.

"Okay," I said reluctantly. "But no meat, fish, or dairy for me. That includes butter and eggs. And no honey."

"Why? Bees aren't animals."

"They're arthropods. Just like lobsters and crabs."

"For God's sake—" His attention was diverted by the person on the phone. "Yeah. We'll have a bottle of the Hobbs cabernet."

I wondered how much that was going to cost me. "Could you find out if it's made with animal-derived lining products?"

Jack ignored that and continued to order. "We'll start with the slow-cooked duck eggs on a bed of chorizo sausage. And two bone-in cowboy rib eyes of grass-fed Angus. Medium."

"What?"'My eyes went huge. "What are you doing?"

"I'm ordering a couple of slabs of USDA Prime beef," he informed me. "It's called protein."

"You sadistic bastard," I managed to say, while saliva spiked in my mouth. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a steak.

Reading my expression, Jack flashed a grin and turned his attention back to the phone. "Baked potatoes," he said. "The works. Sour cream, bacon . . ."

"And cheese," I heard myself say dazedly. Real cheese that actually melted. I swallowed hard.

"And cheese," Jack repeated. He glanced at me, an evil gleam in his eyes. "What about dessert?"

All thoughts of resistance fled. If I was going to break every vegan rule and dietary principle, betraying Dane in the process, I might as well do a thorough job of it.

"Something chocolate," I heard myself say breathlessly.

Jack scanned the menu. "Two pieces of chocolate cake. Thanks." Setting the phone down, he sent me a triumphant glance. Copyright 2016 - 2024