Smooth Talking Stranger - Page 26

We dressed clumsily and went down to my apart-ment, and Jack overpaid the babysitter, who pretended not to notice how disheveled we were. After checking on Luke, who was down for the count, I told Jack that he was welcome to spend the night with me, except the baby would probably wake him up.

"No problem," Jack replied, kicking off his shoes. "Wasn't planning on doing much sleeping anyway." He stripped off his jeans and T-shirt, climbed into bed, and watched me change into my pajamas. "You don't need those," he said.

I smiled at the sight of him leaning back against the brass headboard with his hands clasped comfortably behind his head. He was brawny and tan, incongruously masculine against all the frilly antique fabric and lace.

"I don't like to sleep naked," I told him.

"Why? It's a great look for you."

"I like to be prepared."

"For what?"

"If there's ever an emergency—a fire or something. . . ."

"Jesus, Ella." He was laughing. "Think of it this way—going to bed na*ed is better for the environment."

"Oh, shut up."

"Come on, Ella. Sleep green."

Ignoring him, I got into bed wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts printed with penguins. I reached over to the nightstand and flipped off the lamp.

A moment of silence, and then I heard a lecherous murmur. "I like your penguins."

I snuggled back against him, and his knees tucked under mine. "I'm guessing your usual female company doesn't wear boxer shorts to bed," I said.

"Nope." Jack's hand settled on my hip. "If they wear anything, it's usually some kind of see-through nightgown."

"That sounds pretty pointless." I yawned, relaxing into the warmth of his body. "But I'll wear one someday if you want me to."

"I don't know." Jack sounded pensive. His hand circled my bottom. "I'm kind of partial to these penguins."

My God, I thought, I love talking with you. But I stayed silent, because I never used the word "love" with a man.


I woke up alone and worried, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. The source of the worry was the bright glitter of sunshine coming through the shades. I hadn't heard the baby. Luke never slept this long.

Galvanized, I leapt out of bed and flew to the main room, only to stop like a cartoon character quivering at the edge of a cliff.

There was a mug of half-finished coffee on the table. Jack was on the sofa, dressed in his jeans and T-shirt, with Luke cuddled on his chest. They were watching the news.

"You got up with him," I said bemusedly.

"I thought I'd let you sleep." His dark gaze slid over me. "I worked you out pretty good last night."

I leaned over both of them, kissing Luke and teasing a gummy smile out of him.

Luke had awakened once in the middle of the night, and Jack had insisted on getting up with me. While I had changed the diaper, he had warmed the bottle, and sat with us until Luke had finished feeding.

We had gone back to bed, and Jack had held me and caressed me with artful stealth. He had slid along my body, his lips parted, tongue stroking and darting for long minutes of refined torture. He had lifted me, turned me over and around, and we'd had sex in positions I wouldn't have thought were possible. As it turned out, Jack was an athletic and highly creative lover, and it was only at my insistence that we had finally stopped. Exhausted and sated, I had slept without stirring for the rest of the night.

"I haven't slept in this late forever," I told Jack earnestly. "This was the nicest thing you could have done for me." I went to pour myself some coffee. "I am chronically sleep-deprived. I can't tell you how good last night was."

"The sleep or the sex?"

I grinned. "The sex, of course . . . but by a narrow margin."

"What about getting your mom to help with baby-sitting?"

I stirred cream into my coffee. "She could probably be talked into it, especially if it's on the right day and it's not interfering with something else. But the amount of gratitude you have to shower on Mom for something like that is exhausting. I mean, you owe her forever. And the other thing is . . . I don't trust her with Luke."

Jack watched intently as I came to the sofa. "You think she'd hurt him?"

"Oh, not physically, no. Mom never hit me or Tara, or anything like that. But she was a drama queen, and she yelled a lot—which is why, to this day, I can't stand raised voices. I don't want her to do that to Luke. And basically, if I don't want to be alone with her, I can't imagine subjecting Luke to it." I set my mug on the coffee table and reached for the baby. "Here's my boy," I murmured, snuggling his warm, wriggly body against my chest. I glanced at Jack. "How often do you raise your voice?"

"Only at football games. No, that's not true—I also yell at contractors." He leaned over and kissed my temple. His hand closed lightly in my hair. "Do you have plans for the day?"


"You want to spend it with me?"

I nodded immediately.

"I'd like to take you and Luke to LakeConroe," Jack said. "I keep a boat there. I'll call ahead to the marina and they'll pack lunch for us."

"Would it be okay to take Luke out on a boat?" I asked uncertainly.

"Yeah, he'd be safe in the cabin. And when he's on deck, we'll put him in a life vest."

"Do you have one his size?"

"We’ll get one at the marina."

Lake Conroe was about forty miles north of the Metroplex, and it was unofficially known as Houston's playground. The lake was approximately twenty-one miles long, vaguely scorpion-shaped when seen from overhead, with a third of its shoreline bordered, by the SamHoustonNational Forest. The rest of the area featured high-priced residential communities and almost two dozen golf courses. I had never actually been to Conroe, but I had heard about the lavish water-color sunsets, the luxury resorts and fine restaurants, and its reputation for world-class bass fishing.

"I don't have any experience with boats and fishing," I told Jack on the drive up. "So I'll help as much as I can, but I just want to make certain you understand that I'm flotationally challenged."

Jack grinned, setting his cell phone in one of the cupholders between the front seats of his SUV. Wearing black rimless aviator sunglasses, board shorts, and a fresh white polo shirt, he radiated sexy vitality. "There are boat valets to help us launch. Your only job is to have a good time."

"I can do that." I felt cheerful, alight with a sense of impatient happiness I had never felt before. I actually found it difficult to stay still in my car seat—I was tempted to wriggle like a child on the last day of school with five minutes to go before summer began. For the first time in my life, there was no other place I would rather have been and no one else I wanted to be with. I twisted around to look at Luke's car seat, which was facing backward.

"I should check on him," I said, reaching to unbuckle my seat belt.

"He's fine," Jack said, reaching over to take my hand. "No more crawling back and forth, Ella. Stay buckled in and safe."

"I don't like it when I can't see Luke."

"When do you get to turn him around?"

"He'll have to be a year old, at least." Some of my happiness dimmed. "I won't have him then."

"Have you heard from Tara lately?"

I shook my head. "I'm going to call her tomorrow. Not only do I want to know how she's doing, I want to give her an update on Luke." I paused reflectively. "I have to admit, I'm surprised by how little interest she seems to have in him. I mean, she wants to know if he's basically okay, but all the details—how he's feeding and sleeping, how long he holds his head up, that kind of stuff—she doesn't seem to care.

"Did she ever have an interest in babies before Luke?"

"God, no. Neither of us did. I always thought it was as boring as hell when other people talked about their babies. But it's different when it's your own."

"Maybe Tara didn't have him long enough to feel a bond with him."

"Maybe. But by the second day I was taking care of Luke, I'd already started to—" I stopped and flushed.

Jack glanced at me quickly, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses. His voice was very gentle. "Started to love him?"


His thumb rubbed an easy circle over the back of my hand. "Why does that embarrass you?"

"I'm not embarrassed, it's just . . . it's not easy for me to talk about that kind of thing."

"You write about it all the time."

"Yes, but not when it involves my own feelings."

"You think of it as a trap?"

"Oh, not a trap. But it gets in the way of things."

I saw the flash of his grin. "What does love get in the way of, Ella?"

"When I broke things off with Dane, for example. It would have been messy and difficult if we'd ever gotten to the point of saying we loved each other. But because we hadn't, it was much easier to detach."

"You're going to have to detach from Luke at some point," Jack said. "Maybe you shouldn't have said it to him."

"He's a baby," I said indignantly. "He has to hear it from someone. How would you like to come into the world and not have anyone say they loved you? "

"My parents never said it. They thought you shouldn't wear out the words."

"But you don't agree?"

"No. If the feeling is there, you might as well admit it. Saying the words, or not saying them, doesn't change a damn thing."

It was a hot, hazy day. The marina was busy, the weathered gray docks creaking beneath the weight of hundreds of feet. There were boys in shorts but no shirts, girls in swimsuits made of strings and scraps, men wearing T-shirts featuring slogans such as "Shut up and fish" or "Kiss my Bass." Older men wore polyester shorts and Cuban-style shirts with embroidery running down both sides of the chest, and older women wore skorts and tropical-colored shirts and large brimmed sunhats. A few ladies with teased and frosted bouffants wore visors, over which hair billowed like little atomic mushroom clouds.

Smells of water and algae hung in the air, along with scents of beer, diesel, bait, and coconut sunblock. A busy dog trotted back and forth from the marina to the docks, appearing to belong to no one.

As soon as we entered the marina, a boat valet dressed in red and white came to greet us enthusiastically. He told Jack the boat was fueled and clean, the battery was charged, food and drinks were stocked, everything was ready to go. "What about the infant life vest?" Jack asked, and the valet told him they'd found one and it was on board.

The transom of Jack's boat was emblazoned with the name Last Fling. The vessel was about twice the size I had anticipated, at least thirty-five feet, sleek and white and showroom-perfect. Jack helped me through the open transom door, and took me on a brief tour. There were two staterooms and heads, a full galley equipped with a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, and a sink, a main saloon with gleaming woodwork and rich fabric, and a flat-screen TV.

"My God," I said, dazed. "When you said there was an indoor cabin, I thought you meant a room with a couple of chairs and some vinyl windows. This is a yacht, Jack."

"More like what they call a pocket yacht. A nice all-around boat."

"That's ridiculous. You can have pocket change or a pocket watch. You can't put a yacht in your pocket."

"We’ll discuss what's in my pockets later," Jack said. "Try the life vest on Luke and see if it's okay."

At cruising speed the ride was quiet and smooth, the hull of the Last Fling cutting decisively through the dark blue water. I sat on the flybridge, one of the boat's two helms, on a wide cushioned bench seat next to the skipper's chair. Luke was bundled in a blue nylon life jacket with a huge rounded notation collar. Either it was more comfortable than it looked, or the baby was distracted by the new sounds and sensations of being on a boat, because he was surprisingly unfussy. Holding the baby on my lap, I put my legs up on the bench.

As Jack took us around the lake, pointing out homes, mini islands, a bald eagle hunting for catfish, I sipped from a glass of chilled white wine that tasted like pears. I was overtaken by the kind of ease that could only come from being in a boat in sunny weather, the air humid and beneficent in my lungs, the warm breeze rushing continuously over us.

We anchored in a cove shaded by abundant pine and cedar, the shoreline still undeveloped. I unpacked an enormous picnic basket, discovering a jar of creamed honey, crisp pale baguettes, disks of snowy-white goat cheese and a wedge of Humboldt with a thin line of volcanic ash, containers of salad, sections of gourmet sandwiches, and cookies the size of hubcaps. We ate slowly and finished the bottle of wine, and I fed and changed Luke.

"He's ready for a nap," I said, cuddling the sleepy baby. We took him inside the air-conditioned cabin to one of the downstairs staterooms. I laid him carefully in the center of the double berth. Luke blinked at me, his eyes staying closed longer each time, until finally he was fast asleep. "Sweet dreams, Luke," I whispered, kissing his head.

Straightening, I stretched my back and glanced at Jack, who was waiting near the doorway. He had propped his shoulders against the wall, and stood with his hands in his pockets.

"Come here," he murmured. The sound of his voice in the darkness sent a pleasant shiver across my skin.

He took me to the other stateroom, cool and shadowy, and scented of polished wood and ozone and the slightest hint of diesel.

"I get a nap?" I asked, slipping off my shoes and crawling onto the bed.

"You get whatever you want, blue eyes."

We lay on our sides facing each other, skin releasing heat, retaining the flavor of salt as our perspiration dried. Jack stared at me steadily. His hand lifted to the side of my face, the tip of his middle finger following the wing of a brow, the soft ridge of a cheekbone. He touched me with absolute absorption, like an explorer who had discovered a rare and fragile artifact. Remembering the devilish patience of those hands, all the intimate ways he had touched me last night, I flushed in the semidarkness. "I want you," I whispered.

All my senses turned acute as Jack slowly undressed me. He covered the erect tip of my breast with his mouth, his tongue a soothing swirl. His hand moved to the small of my back, finding the sensitive hollows of my spine, caressing until I was filled with hot sparks.

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