Smooth Talking Stranger - Page 3

"I have a cousin Porky?"

"Second cousin, once removed. He's one of Big Boy's sons."

One of the legions of extended family that we'd never had anything to do with. Too many explosive personalities and disorders to put in one room together—we were a living catalog of the DSM-IV, the doctor's manual of mental disorders. Returning my attention to the certificate, I said, "She had him at Women's Hospital. Do you know who was with her? Did she say anything about it?"

"Your cousin Liza was with her," came my mother's sour reply. "You'll have to call her to get the details. She won't tell me anything."

"I will. I . . ." Dazedly I shook my head. "What's going on with Tara? Did she seem depressed to you? Did she seem scared? Did she look sick? "

Mom poured the Big Red over ice, watching the pink foam rise to the rim of the glass. "She was heavy. And she looked tired. That was all I noticed."

"Maybe this is some kind of postpartum problem. She may need antidepressants."

Mom poured a shot of vodka into the Big Red. "Doesn't matter what pills you give her. She'll never want that baby." After taking a swallow of the fizzy-bright liquid, she said, "She's not cut out for having kids any more than I was."

"Why did you have children, Mom?" I asked softly.

"It was what women did when they got married. And I did my best. I made sacrifices to give you the best childhood I could. And neither of you seems to remember any of it. It's a shame, how ungrateful children are. Especially daughters."

I couldn't begin to reply I had no way to describe how I had struggled to collect every good memory possible. How every moment of my mother's affection—a hug, a bedtime story—had been a gift from heaven. But mostly how my childhood, and Tara's, had seemed like a rug pulled out from under us. And how her complete lack of motherly instinct—even the basic urge to protect her offspring—had made it difficult for Tara and me to have relationships with people.

"I'm sorry, Mom," I managed to say, my voice thick with regret. But I was fairly certain my mother didn't understand what I was sorry for.

A high, mewling cry came from the bedroom. The sound chilled me. He needed something.

"Time for his formula," my mother said, going to the refrigerator. "I'll heat it up. Go get him, Ella."

Another cry, this one sharper. It made my back teeth hurt like I'd just bitten into tin foil. I sped to the bedroom and saw a small form on the bed, wriggling like a baby seal. My heart went so fast that I couldn't feel any spaces between the beats.

I leaned over, reaching tentatively, uncertain how to pick him up. I wasn't good with children. I had never wanted to hold my friends' babies—they had never appealed to me. I slid my hands beneath the small flopping body. And the head. I knew you were supposed to support the head and neck. Somehow I gathered him up against me, his weight somehow fragile and solid at the same time, and the crying paused, and the infant looked up at me in a squinty Clint-Eastwood sort of way, and the crying started again. He was so unprotected. Helpless. I had only one coherent thought as I went to the kitchen, and it was that no one in my family, including me, should be trusted with one of these.

I sat and clumsily readjusted Luke in my arms, and Mom brought a bottle to me. Cautiously I put the silicone nipple—which wasn't shaped anything like a normal human one—against the tiny mouth. He latched on and went quiet, intent on feeding. I hadn't realized I was holding my breath until I let it out with a sigh of relief.

"You can stay here tonight," Mom said. "But you have to leave tomorrow and take him with you. I am much, much too busy to deal with this."

I clenched my teeth to hold back a burst of protests—this wasn't fair . . . none of it was my fault. . . I was busy, too . . . I had my own life to get back to. But what kept me silent, aside from the knowledge that my mother didn't care, was the fact that the person who was really getting the raw deal was the one who couldn't speak up for himself. Luke was a hot potato, doomed to be tossed back and forth until someone was forced to keep him.

And then it occurred to me: what if the father was a cokehead or a criminal? How many guys had Tara slept with, and was I going to have to track them all down and have them tested? What if some of them refused? Was I going to have to hire a lawyer?

Oh, this was going to be fun.

Mom showed me how to burp him and to change the diaper. Her competence surprised me, especially since she had never been a baby person, and it had undoubtedly been a long time since she had last done such a thing. I tried to picture her as a young mother, patiently attending to the never-ending tasks of caring for a baby. I couldn't imagine she had enjoyed any of it. My mother, with only a baby for company, a needy, noisy, inarticulate creature . . . no, it was impossible to envision.

I brought in my bags from the car, changed into my pajamas, and took the baby into the guest bedroom.

"Where is he going to sleep?" I asked, wondering what you did when there was no crib available.

"Put him next to you on the bed," Mom suggested.

"But I might roll over onto him, or accidentally push him over the side."

"Then make a pallet on the floor."


"I'm going to bed," my mother said, striding from the room. "I am worn out. I've had to look after that baby all day."

While Luke waited in his plastic carrier, I made a pallet for both of us on the floor. I rolled up a quilt to make a bolster between us. Alter laying Luke on his back on one side of the pallet, I sat on the other side and flipped open my cell phone to call my cousin Liza.

"Are you with Tara?" Liza demanded as soon as I said hello.

"I was hoping she was with you."

"No. I've tried calling her a thousand times and she won't pick up."

Although Liza was my age, and I had always liked her, we'd never had much to do with each other. Like most of the women on my mother's side, Liza was blond and leggy, and possessed a perpetual appetite for male attention. With her long face and slightly horsy grin, she wasn't as pretty as my sister Tara, but she had it, the unmistakable quality that men couldn't resist. You would walk through a restaurant with her, and men would literally turn in their chairs to watch her go by.

Through the years Liza had managed to get access to some fast circles. She dated rich Houston guys and their friends, becoming sort of a playboy-groupie, or to put it more unkindly, a local starfucker of sorts. There was no doubt in my mind that if my sister had been living with Liza, she had been the eager recipient of Liza's leftovers.

We talked for a few minutes, and Liza said that she had a few ideas about where Tara might have gone. She would make some calls, she said. She felt sure Tara was okay. She hadn't seemed depressed or crazy. Just ambivalent.

"Tara was going back and forth about the baby," Liza said. "She wasn't sure she wanted to keep it. She changed her mind so many times the past few months, I gave up trying to figure out what she was going to do."

"Did she get any kind of counseling?"

"I don't think so."

"What about the father?" I demanded. "Who is he?"

There was a long hesitation. "I don't think Tara is all-the-way sure."

"She must have some idea."

"Well, she thought she knew, but. . . you know Tara. She's not very organized."

"How organized do you have to be to know who you're sleeping with?"

"Well, we were both partying a lot for a while . . . and the timing's not easy to work out, you know? I guess I could put together a list of the guys she went out with."

"Thank you. Who are we putting at the top of the list? Who did Tara say the most likely father was?"

There was a lengthy hesitation. "She said she thought it was Jack Travis.

"Who's that?"

Liza gave an incredulous laugh. "Doesn't that name mean anything to you, Ella?"

My eyes widened. "You mean a Travis Travis?"

"The middle son."

The head of the well-known Houston family was Churchill Travis, a billionaire investor and financial commentator. He was on the golden Rolodexes of media people, politicians, and celebrities. I'd seen him on CNN more than a few times, and in all the Texas magazines and papers. He and his children inhabited the small world of powerful people who rarely faced the consequences of their actions. They were above the economy, above threats from men or governments, above accountability. They were their own species.

Any son of Churchill Travis had to be a privileged, spoiled jerk.

"Great," I muttered. "I'm assuming it was a one-night stand?"

"You don't have to sound so judgmental, Ella."

"Liza, I can't think of any way to ask that question without sounding judgmental."

"It was a one-night stand," my cousin said shortly.

"So this will be coming out of left field for Travis," I mused aloud. "Or not. It's possible he gets this all the time. Surprise babies popping up like daisies."

"Jack dates a lot of women," Liza admitted.

"Have you ever gone out with him?"

"We've hung out in the same circles. I'm friends with Heidi Donovan, who goes out with him sometimes."

"What does he do for a living, aside from waiting for Big Daddy to kick the bucket?"

"Oh, Jack's not like that," Liza protested. "He's got his own company . . . something about property management. . . it's at 1800 Main. You know that glass building downtown, the one with the funny-looking top?"

"Yes, I know where that is." I loved that building, all glass and art deco flourishes with a segmented glass pyramid on top. "Could you get his number for me?"

"I could try."

"And in the meantime, you'll work on that list?"

"I guess. But I don't think Tara would be too happy about that."

"I don't think Tara is especially happy about anything these days," I said. "Help me find her, Liza. I need to see if she's okay and figure out what to do for her. I also want to find out who the father is and to work out some kind of plan for this poor abandoned baby."

"He wasn't abandoned," my cousin protested. "A baby isn't abandoned if you know where you left him."

I considered explaining the flaws in her logic, but it was clearly a waste of time. "Please work on the list, Liza. If Jack Travis doesn't turn out to be the father, I'm going to have to force every man Tara slept with last year to take a paternity test."

"Why go stirring up trouble, Ella? Can't you just take care of the baby for a while like she asked? "

"I . . ." Words failed me for a moment. "I have a life, Liza. I have a job. I have a boyfriend who wants nothing to do with babies. No, I can't sign on indefinitely as Tara's unpaid nanny."

"I was just asking," Liza said defensively. "Some men like babies, you know. And I didn't think your job would get in the way . . . it's mostly typing, right? "

I had to smother a laugh. "It definitely involves typing, Liza. But I have to do a little bit of thinking, too."

We talked for a few more minutes, mostly about Jack Travis. Apparently he was a man's man who hunted and fished, drove a little too fast, lived a little too hard. Women were lined up from Houston to Amarillo in hopes of being his next girlfriend. And from what Heidi had confided to Liza, Jack Travis would do absolutely anything in bed, and had an insane amount of stamina. In fact—

"TMI," I told Liza at that point.

"Okay. But let me tell you this: Heidi said that one night he took off his tie and used it to—"

"TMI, Liza, " I insisted.

"Aren't you curious?"

"No. My column gets all kinds of letters and e-mails about bedroom issues. Nothing can shock me anymore. But I'd rather not know about Travis's sex life if I'm going to have to face the guy and ask him to take a paternity test."

"If Jack is the father," Liza said, "he'll help out. He's a responsible guy."

I wasn't buying it. "Responsible men don't have one-night stands and get women pregnant."

"You'll like him," she said. "All women do."

"Liza, I never like the kind of guy that all women like."

After I got off the phone with my cousin, I stared at the baby. His eyes were round blue buttons, and his face was puckered with a disarming expression of concern. I wondered what his impression of life was after his first week in the world. A lot of coming and going, car rides, changing faces, different voices. He probably wanted his mother's face, his mother's tone. At his age, a little consistency wasn't too much to ask. I cupped my hand lightly over the top of his skull, smoothing the black fluff. "One more call," I told him, and flipped open the phone again.

Dane picked up on the second ring. "How's Operation Baby Rescue going?"

"I've rescued the baby. Now I'd like someone to rescue me."

"Miss Independent never needs to be rescued."

I felt the hint of a genuine smile appear on my face, like a crack in the winter ice. "Oh, right. I forgot." I told him everything that had happened so far, and about the possibility that Jack Travis was the father.

"I'd approach that claim with some healthy skepticism," Dane commented. "If Travis is the sperm donor, don't you think Tara would have gone to him by now? From what I know of your sister, getting knocked up by a billionaire's son is the highest pinnacle of achievement."

"My sister has always operated from a system of logic that is nothing like ours. I can't begin to guess why she's behaving this way. And when I find her, I'm not at all certain she'll be capable of taking care of Luke. When we were younger, she couldn't even keep a goldfish alive."

"I've got connections," Dane said quietly. "I know some people who can help place him with a good family."

"I don't know." I glanced at the baby, whose eyes were closed. I wasn't sure I could live with the idea of giving him to strangers. "I have to figure out what's best for him. Someone has to put his needs first. He didn't ask to be born."

"Get a good night's sleep. You'll figure out the right answer, Ella. You always do."


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