I was surprised by her ready acceptance. "Thank you. Tell her it's okay to talk to me. She'll want written permission. And the other thing . . . Tara . . . what do you want done with Luke while you're at the clinic?"
There was a silence so prolonged and absolute, I wondered if the phone connection had been broken.
"I thought you would take care of him," Tara finally said.
My forehead felt like it had been tacked against my skull. I rubbed it, moving the tight skin, pressing hard into the little shallow where the top of my nose fused into orbital bone. I was trapped. Cornered. "I don't think I could talk Dane into that."
"You could move in with Liza. Take up my half of the rent."
I stared blindly at the hotel room door and thought it was probably a good thing Tara couldn't see the look on my face. I was already paying half of a monthly rent with Dane. And the idea of moving in with my cousin, who would be bringing men into the apartment at all hours . . . not to mention Liza's reaction to living with a screaming infant. . . no, that would never work.
Tara spoke again, every word pulled tight, like a string of rattling cans. "You have to figure it out. I can't think about it. I don't know what to tell you. Hire someone. I'll ask Mark to pay for it."
"Can I talk to Mark?"
"No," she said vehemently. "Just decide what you want to do. But all I need is for you to take care of the baby for three months. Three months out of your whole life, Ella! Can't you do that for me? It's the only thing I've ever asked from you! Can't you help me, Ella? Can't you?"
Her voice was hemmed with panic and fury. I heard my mother's tone as Tara spoke, and it frightened me.
"Yes," I said gently. I repeated it until she subsided. "Yes . . . yes."
And then we were both wordless, breathing into the phone.
Three months, I thought bleakly, for Tara to come to terms with an entire screwed-up childhood and all its crippling echoes. Could she do it? And could I keep my own life from imploding until then?
"Tara . . . ," I said after a few moments, "if I'm a part of this, I'm a part of this. You'll let me talk to Dr. Jaslow. And you'll let me talk to you. I won't call often, but when I do, don't avoid me. You'll want to hear how the baby's doing, right?"
"And for the record," I couldn't resist adding, "this isn't the only thing you've ever asked of me."
Her papery laugh rustled in my ear.
Before Tara hung up, she told me her room number and a landline I could use to reach her at the clinic. Although I wanted to talk to her longer, she ended the conversation abruptly. I closed the cell phone and wiped its sweaty surface against my jeans, and set it aside with undue care. Dazed, I tried to catch up with everything that was happening. It was like running after a moving car.
"Who the hell is Mark?" I wondered aloud.
I was paralyzed. I didn't move or look up even when Jack Travis's shoes came into my line of vision. Rugged leather slip-ons with heavy stitching. He held something between his fingers . . . a folded slip of paper. Without a word he gave it to me.
Opening the paper, I saw the address of the New Mexico clinic, and below it, the name Mark Gottler, accompanied by a phone number and an address for the Fellowship of Eternal Truth.
Bewildered, I shook my head. "Who is he? What does a church have to do with this?"
"Gottler is the associate pastor." Jack lowered to his haunches in front of me, bringing our faces level. "Tara checked into the clinic with one of his credit card numbers."
"My God. How did you—" I broke off, passing my palm across the sweaty surface of my forehead. "Wow," I said unsteadily. "Your investigator really is good. How did he get this information so fast?"
"I called him yesterday right after I met you."
Of course. With the unimaginable resources at his disposal, Jack would have had everything checked out. No doubt he'd had me checked out as well.
I glanced down at the paper again. "How did my sister get involved with a married church pastor?"
"Seems the temp agency she works for sends her there from time to time."
"To do what?" I asked bitterly. "Pass around the collection plate?"
"It's a megachurch. Big business. They hire MBAs, offer investment counseling, run their own restaurant. It looks damn near like Disneyland. Thirty-five thousand members and rising. Gottler's on TV whenever the main pastor needs a substitute." He watched as I plaited my fingers together, letting the addresses and phone numbers nutter to the floor. "My company has a couple of maintenance contracts with Eternal Truth. I've met Gottler a couple of times."
I looked at him sharply. "Really? What is he like?"
"Smooth. Friendly. Family guy. Doesn't seem like the kind who'd step out on his wife."
"They never do," I muttered. Before I realized what I was doing, I had formed my hands into the children's game—here is the church . . . here is the steeple. . . . I pulled my fingers apart and knotted my hands into fists. "Tara wouldn't admit that he was the father. But why else would he be doing this for her now? "
"Only one way to know for sure. But I doubt he'd be willing to take a paternity test."
"No," I agreed, trying to absorb it all. "Bastard children aren't exactly career-boosters for TV preachers." The air-conditioning seemed to have dropped the room temperature to sub-zero. I was shivering. "I need to meet with him. How would I go about that?"
"I wouldn't advise waltzing in there without an appointment. My office is pretty laid-back about stuff like that. But you'd never get past the front door of Eternal Truth."
I decided to be more direct. "Could you help me get a meeting with Gottler?"
"I'll think about it."
That meant no, I thought. My nose and lips were numb. I looked past Jack's shoulder to the bed, wondering if the baby was cold.
"He's okay," Jack said gently, as if he could read my thoughts. "Everything's going to be okay, Ella."
I jumped a little as I felt his hand close over one of mine. I gave him a round-eyed glance, wondering what he wanted. But there was nothing suggestive in his touch or his gaze.
His hand was startling in its strength and heat. Something about that vital grip animated me like a drug injected straight into my bloodstream. Such an intimate thing, the clasp of hands. The comfort and pleasure I derived from it were unspeakably disloyal to Dane. But before I could object or even fully absorb the sensation, the warm touch was withdrawn.
All my life, I'd had to grapple with the needs engendered by the lack of a father. It had left me with a deeply buried attraction to strong men, men with the capacity to dominate, and that terrified me. So I had always gone in the other direction, toward men like Dane who made you kill your own spiders and carry your own suitcase. That was exactly what I wanted. And yet someone like Jack Travis, unimpeachably male, so damned sure of himself, held a secret, nearly fetishistic allure to me.
I had to lick my dry lips before I could speak. "You didn't sleep with Tara."
Jack shook his head, his gaze locked on mine.
"I'm sorry," I said humbly. "I was certain you had."
"I don't know why I was so stubborn about it."
"Don't you?" he murmured.
I blinked. I could still feel the part of my hand he had gripped. My fingers flexed to retain the sensation. "Well," I said, oddly out of breath, "you're free to go now. Cancel the doctor's visit, you're off the hook. I promise never to bother you again."
I stood, and so did Jack, and his body was so close I could almost feel the solid warmth of him. Too close. I would have stepped back, except the ottoman was right behind me.
"You're taking care of the baby until your sister is back on her feet," he said rather than asked.
"She said three months." I tried to sound collected. "I'm going to be optimistic and assume it won't be any more than that."
You gonna take him to Austin? "
My shoulders hitched in a helpless shrug. "I'll call Dane. I'll . . . I don't know how this will work."
It wasn't going to work. I knew Dane well enough to be certain that there was serious trouble ahead for us.
It occurred to me that I might lose him over this.
The day before yesterday, my life had been great. Now it was falling apart. How was I going to make room in my life for a baby? How was I going to get my work done? How was I going to hold on to Dane?
A little cry floated from the bed. Somehow that sound brought everything into focus. Dane didn't matter at the moment. Logistics, money, careers, none of it mattered. Right now the only important thing was the hunger of a helpless infant.
"Call me when you decide what to do," Jack said.
Heading to the minibar, I rummaged for a bottle of chilled formula. "I'm not going to bother you anymore. Really. I'm just sorry I—"
"Ella." He came to me in a couple of relaxed strides, catching me by the elbows as I straightened. I tensed at the feel of it, being lightly gripped by those warm rough-cast fingers. He waited until I could bring myself to look up at him.
"You're not involved," I said, trying to sound grateful but dismissive. Absolving him.
Jack wouldn't let me look away. "Call me when you decide."
"Sure." I had no intention of ever seeing him again, and we both knew it.
His lips twitched.
I stiffened. I didn't like it when someone found me amusing.
And he was gone.
Luke squawked from the bed.
"I'm coming," I told him, and hurried to get his bottle ready.
I fed Luke and changed his diaper calling Dane would have to wait until Luke was ready to rest again. I realized I was already starting to arrange my life according to Luke's patterns. His eating and sleeping and periods of wakefulness formed the structure around which everything else had to be interpolated.
Settling him on his back, I hung over him, crooning bits and pieces from nursery songs, dredging them up from childhood memory. Luke bobbed and arched, following me with his mouth, his eyes. I took one of his waving hands and pressed it to my cheek. His palms were the size of quarters. He kept his hand on me, staring in absorption at my face, seeking the connection as much as I did.
I had never been so wanted or needed by anyone on earth. Babies were dangerous . . . they made you fall in love before you knew what was happening. This small, solemn creature couldn't even say my name, and he depended on me for everything. Everything. I'd known him for little more than a day. But I would have thrown myself in front of a bus for him. I was shattered by him. This was awful.
"I love you, Luke," I whispered.
He looked completely unsurprised by the revelation. Of course you love me, his expression seemed to say. I'm a baby. This is what I do. His hand flexed a little on my cheek, testing its pliancy.
His fingernails were scratchy. How did you trim a baby's nails? Could you do it with regular adult clippers, or did you need some special tool? I lifted his feet and kissing the little pink soles, innocently smooth as kitten paws. "Where's your instruction manual?" I asked him. "What's the baby customer-service number?"
I realized I had not given my married friend Stacy nearly enough respect or understanding when she'd had her baby. I had tried to work up some sympathetic interest, but I'd had no idea what she'd been faced with. You couldn't until you faced it yourself. Had she felt this overwhelmed, this ill equipped for the respons-ibility of growing a person? I'd always heard that women possessed an instinct for this, some hidden cache of maternal wisdom that unlocked when you needed it.
No such feeling was coming to me.
The only thing I could identify was a powerful urge to call my best friend Stacy and whine. And having always believed in the therapeutic value of the occasional good, thorough whine, I called her. I was in new territory, the perils and pitfalls of which were entirely familiar to Stacy. She had dated Dane's best friend Tom for years, which was how I'd gotten to know her. And then she'd accidentally gotten pregnant by Tom, and he'd done the expected thing and married her. The baby, a girl named Tommie, was now three. Stacy and Tom both swore it was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Tom even seemed to mean it.
Dane and Tom were still best friends, but I knew that privately Dane thought of Tom as a sell-out. Once, Tom had been a liberal activist and rugged individualist, and now he was married and owned a minivan with stained seat-belt straps and a floor littered with empty juice boxes and Happy Meal toys.
"Stace," I said urgently, relieved when she picked up the phone. "It's me. Do you have a minute?"
"Sure do. How are you, girl?" I pictured her standing in the kitchen of her small renovated arts-and-crafts house, eyes bright as lollipops in her smooth mocha complexion, intricately braided hair knotted up to bare the back of her neck.
"Doomed," I told her. "I am absolutely doomed."
"Problems with the column?" she asked sympathetically.
I hesitated. "Yes. I have to come up with advice for a single woman whose younger sister had a baby out of wedlock and wants her to take care of it for at least three months. Meanwhile, the younger sister is going to stay in a mental health clinic and try to get sane enough to be a mother."
"That's tough," Stacy said.
"It gets worse. The older sister lives in Austin with a boyfriend who's already told her she can't bring the baby back to live with them."
"Asshole," she said. "What's his reason?"
"I think he doesn't want the responsibility. I think he's afraid it will interfere with his plans to save the world. And maybe he's afraid this might change their relationship and the girlfriend will start wanting more from him than she has in the past."
Finally Stacy got it. "Oh. My. Lord. Ella, are you talking about you and Dane?"
It was a pleasure to download on someone like Stacy who, as a loyal friend, automatically took my side. And even though I was changing the rules on Dane by trying to bring a baby into our lives, Stacy's sympathies were entirely with me.
"I'm in Houston with the baby," I told her. "We're in a hotel room. He's right next to me. I don't want to do this. But he's the first guy I've said 'I love you' to since high school. Oh, Stace, you wouldn't believe how cute he is."