This story is dedicated to HardDaysKnight who first suggested I start writing and post some stories on this website. Thanks for the encouragement, pardner. I really appreciate it.
The week before Christmas:
Steve Curtis had a smile pasted on his lips but he wasn't really enjoying himself. He'd come to the party with his wife, Barbara, cheered by the holiday season and hopeful the coolness between him and Barbara was coming to an end. It had been a couple of months since he'd first noticed but he had no better idea now of what was causing it than he'd had at the beginning.
Tonight should have been a warm, Christmassy evening out with Barbara's coworkers and friends. Steve had made a connection with a few of them at past get-togethers, but he'd thought this would be a good time to improve on that. Instead, his smile was increasingly a forced one.
For some reason, the boss's nephew--he'd made a point of introducing himself as such--had made a beeline for this table when he came in the door. Swiping a chair from an adjacent table, he'd maneuvered himself into a scant opening on Barbara's other side.
It had irritated both Steve and the man who had to scoot his chair to the side to accommodate the intruder.
What was worse, "Jimmie," as Barbara referred to him, was blatantly doing everything he could to occupy Barbara's complete attention. Incredibly, Barbara seemed to be enjoying it, welcoming every new morsel of undisguised, sometimes surprisingly personal flattery.
Jimmie and Barbara were laughing, their heads inclining toward one another as they shared a joke about "trailer trash." Steve dropped all pretense. He let the false smile fade and die. Of the nine partiers at the table, only Steve's wife and Jimmie saw the humor in the joke. Steve cleared his throat and let the sour look on his face give his opinion.
Jimmie looked around at Steve and grinned broadly.
"Hey, Stevie, loosen up a little eh? It was just a joke." Barbara turned to her husband.
"Steve," she admonished, "don't take things so serious. Jimmie was just trying to make a point about people with low standards and stuff. For goodness sake."
"Yeah," Jimmie joined in. "What she said!" His coarse laughter spilled out all over the immediate vicinity, joined half a beat later by Barbara's giggles.
"Actually," Jimmie quipped, "I wouldn't expect you to understand a joke like that. It's not your fault…it's just that there are too many nuances in it for construction workers," Jimmie said with satisfaction. He showed a smiling face to everyone around the table, inviting them to share in putting Steve in his place.
Barbara giggled again. She shot her husband an impatient look.
Steve worked hard to hold in his temper. It wasn't easy. He took a moment, deliberately slouched lower in the straight-backed chair and tried to relax. He toyed with the base of the wineglass to have something to do with his hands instead of wrapping them around Jimmie's neck.
"The point he was trying to make, dear--in addition to calling me an idiot--is that there are people who don't have enough money to buy a big house, or rent a luxury apartment in a high rise on the "right side" of town. Jimmie-boy thinks those people are stupid, lazy drunks and they deserve to be laughed at." Steve had lost the battle to keep his anger in check.
"As it happens, you know, I work in a converted mobile home," Steve continued lazily, but very precisely. It was a warning sign to those who knew him. When Steve got very formal and his voice softened to little more than a whisper…those were the times people needed to back away. It had been that way since his first schoolyard confrontation.
"That's what we do on construction projects," Steve continued. "We move a trailer onto the site so we can have immediately available, low cost office spaces and places where we can work administrative issues." He looked up to find Barbara glaring at him.
"Now…a lot of the guys and their families who work on the construction site I'm supervising right now also live in mobile homes because that's all they can afford. You see, they want--what do they call it? The American Dream? Yeah, that's it. They want the American dream of owning their own home but times are tough for them…always have been…it's nothing new. What it is…is that these folks haven't earned enough of a nest egg yet to put a down payment on a big house in the suburbs."
"And they weren't born with a rich uncle either," Steve added. No one missed the scorn in his tone.
"Jimmie-boy" watched Steve with his mouth gaping. Jimmie's uncle owned the company and no one dared talk to Jimmie with such naked contempt in his voice. Jimmie started to fume.
"As for me," Steve said, "I would never be so crude as to ridicule honest, hardworking men and women who are doing the best they can with what they have. It's just not something I could do and still call myself a man."
With his last words, he glanced up from the wineglass to look intently into Jimmie's eyes. Steve wasn't trying to hide his anger now. Actually, he was hoping Jimmie would take offense. Two of the other three husbands around the table surreptitiously readied themselves to interpose themselves between their wives and the coming physical altercation.
Ashen faced, Jimmie began to stand. He wasn't that much smaller than Steve and he worked out four afternoons a week. Jimmie didn't know the difference between work-hardened muscles and barbell muscles. He was about to find out.
"I COULDN'T AGREE MORE, YOUNG MAN," came the booming voice. Steve glanced around to find a short, balding man in an expensive suit standing at his shoulder. Well past middle age, he still held his slender body stiffly erect.
"My mother and father were living in a small trailer when I was born and some of my happiest memories are from when we lived there," the unknown man said forcefully. He had his eyes fixed on young Jimmie. He was not happy with the younger man. Jimmie looked like he'd suddenly tasted something foul. He sat down hard.
"Jonas Reynolds," said the older man by way of introduction.
He held out his hand to Steve. They shook hands; their was grip firm but not confrontational. Steve appreciated that. Too many men tried to make it a challenge. It was a contest he usually won, but he never liked doing it.
"Steve Curtis," he said, introducing himself. Reynolds nodded.
"And this would be your wife…the lovely Barbara?" he asked. He offered his hand to Barbara. She aborted a move to rise; there wasn't room to move her chair back and rise without bumping into Jonas. Flustered, a blush began color her throat.
Steve's irritation with Jimmie had been deflected. Belatedly, he was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Since the firm his wife worked for was "Reynolds And Sons," he presumed this was the senior Reynolds standing beside him. Steve was wondering if his hotheadedness would cost Barbara a lucrative job. He glanced at Barbara in time to catch a fleeting look of fury in her eyes before she turned away.
"Jimmie?" Mr. Reynolds said quietly. "I think you should go find your Aunt Jenny and see if she needs anything." Jimmie's face changed. There was a hint of desperation there, along with protest.
"Now, Jimmie." The whip crack authority in Jonas Reynolds voice was unmistakable.
Jimmie got to his feet, pushing his chair back with a loud screech, and turned away. With the tip of his ears colored a dark crimson, he stalked away toward the opposite corner of the ballroom. Jonas, and everyone at the table, watched as he moved away.
"I'm afraid Jimmie won't be with us much longer," Jonas said. "One tries to do what one can for family…but sometimes it just doesn't work out," he remarked musingly. Jonas held out his hand to Steve again. This time, Steve got to his feet. At six feet and a bit more, he towered over the much slighter CEO.
"I hope you won't judge all the Reynolds by one insolent pup," Jonas said. "Barbara is a valuable member of our team and we'd hate to lose her because of an…indiscretion on Jimmie's part," he remarked. He threw Barbara a hooded look. His face was bland, impossible to read. Jonas turned so he could see all of the partygoers around the table.
"Ladies…gentlemen…I hope you will forgive me for intruding into your party. Please, enjoy the rest of your evening." He smiled warmly, touched Steve's forearm companionably and walked quietly away.
The conversation around the table took a few minutes to resume, but it was lighter and there was more laughter interspersed between the words now. The men all found an opportunity to shake Steve's hand before the party ended. Two of the women patted Steve's shoulder when they passed behind him on their way to the restroom; one touched his cheek and smiled warmly.
They all noticed, but none commented on the fact that Barbara had nothing to say the rest of the evening. Jimmie didn't make an appearance for the rest of the night.
The silence lasted until they got home. When the front door closed behind them, Barbara's frustration boiled over.
"You just had to embarrass me in front of all my friends, didn't you," she said bitterly.
"That's all you do anymore. You don't like my friends and you put them down every chance you get. That…that macho act you did with Jimmie…why do you always have to do that? Jimmie is nice. He didn't deserve that."
Steve looked at her in amazement. It took a few seconds but anger chased the disbelief from his features.
"Excuse me?" he said. "You were the one embarrassing yourself out there. I didn't do a damn thing except watch you make a spectacle of yourself. What the hell did you think you were doing hanging all over that asshole and giggling like a schoolgirl whenever he made one of his stupid jokes? Shit…you were hovering over him like he was some kind of movie star or something."
Barbara was taken aback. Steve rarely counterattacked so vigorously in their arguments. When he did, it was because he took the matter under discussion very seriously. She seldom came out on top in a discussion where he dug in his heels.
"I…he was just trying to make conversation," she said defensively. "I don't know why you have to be so mean to me. Jimmie is just a really nice guy who makes an effort to come by and talk to me sometimes. What's wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with me having friends?"
"Not a thing in the world," Steve replied, "until it gets to the point where you hang on every word he has to say…until you can't be bothered to talk to your husband the whole evening long…or until you start getting so cozy with some guy nobody can ignore it." He glared at her for a long moment.
"What the hell were you going to do next…climb up in his lap and play kissy-face with him? You were damn near already doing that. Hell, I couldn't see under the table but I wouldn't doubt you were playing footsy too." Barbara's face whitened, then reddened in the space of two heartbeats.
"Well, maybe I was," she said sarcastically. "Maybe next time I will get on his lap," she said defiantly. "Jimmie knows how to be nice to a woman…he's not just some itinerant construction worker!"
Steve's lips tightened. He stared at his wife. Suddenly he didn't know this woman.
"Barbara," he said quietly. "You sat there tonight and let some other man disrespect me right in front of you. You let it happen and laughed about it. Everyone at the table saw it. I think I was pretty darn gentlemanly about it…and that was because I was thinking of you. Any other time, I'd have yanked "Jimmie" up by the scruff of his neck and taken him out back behind the trash dumpsters to teach him a little respect."
He walked slowly toward where his wife stood just inside the hall leading back to their bedroom.
"But if I'd done that," he said slowly, "it would have been unfair to him, wouldn't it?"
His wife stared at him without understanding.
"Barbara," he said gently, "if I was to beat that piss-ant to a bloody pulp for saying what he did to me, I'd have had to leave you lying in the dust right beside him, wouldn't I? After all, it was both of you disrespecting your husband, wasn't it?" He watched her for a long moment. Neither spoke.
"But we both know I couldn't do that, don't we?" he growled. "My dad wasn't much, but he taught me a man who strikes a woman is lower than cow dung."
They were both quiet. It seemed all the longer because silences didn't usually develop in their conversations.
"Barbara?" Steve said quietly. "Do you want a divorce?" Barbara's eyes widened.
"I…no…uh…how can…I think you're overreacting, don't you?"
She'd stuttered at first, then flashed on a good comeback. She delivered the final words triumphantly and waited for her husband to back down. Instead, he continued looking at her somberly.
"Woman," he remarked, "overreacting or not, the next time you take another man's side against me like you did tonight…the next time you laugh when another man insults me and demeans me…the next time you play up to some other man like he means everything in the world to you and I mean nothing…that's the day I assume this marriage is over and I will divorce your ass before you can whistle Dixie. Believe it, Barbara! It will happen."
Barbara whirled and fled down the hallway. Steve followed more slowly, almost wearily. He'd been so optimistic about the evening. His hopes had all been crushed and he was left feeling more depressed than he'd already been for the past few weeks. The bedroom door slammed shut. The sound reverberated in the quiet house.
When he got there, Steve tried the doorknob and found it locked. He'd expected it. He almost turned to the hall closet and took out a couple of blankets and a spare pillow. He was resigned to sleeping on the living room couch tonight. At least he could turn on the Christmas tree lights. They were nice. They would provide some degree of companionship through the night.
Abruptly, the anger he'd felt earlier came back full force. Without letting himself think it over, he put his back against the wall opposite the door, took a quick step, and put his shoulder into the door a couple feet above the doorknob. The door crashed open and slammed against the wall behind it. Splinters from the shattered door and frame flew across the room.
Barbara's scream lasted for a long moment. The surprise had been complete; the violence unnerved her. She backed away from her husband, her arms pushing out from her body in an unconscious protective posture. Steve, after propping the remains of the door against the outside wall looked at his wife in disgust.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" he asked. "If I didn't do anything to you earlier tonight, you know damn good and well I'm not going to touch you now." He went to the walk-in closet and began to disrobe, carefully hanging his suit coat and slacks on the hangers they'd come from just hours before.
"I don't want to sleep with you," Barbara said. Her voice was husky and unsteady. Steve snorted.
"So don't!" he retorted. "But I didn't do a Goddamned thing wrong tonight. You did. If you don't want to sleep with me, so be it. But I'm going to sleep in my own bed tonight. If you don't want to, you know where the spare sheets and blankets are."
Barbara said nothing. After a while, Steve resumed preparing himself for bed. He ignored his wife standing in the corner. When she slipped past him and out of the door, he made no move to stop her.
It was lonely in the bed by himself. It took him a long time to calm himself enough to sleep. Sometime before dawn, he was awakened when Barbara got into bed with him. She stayed as far away from him as she could. Steve snorted, rolled away from her, and was asleep before he completed the move.
Chapter 1 - Mid June
Cheaters are exposed in so many ways. Sometimes it's an overheard phone call, an email left visible on a computer monitor, or text messages not deleted from a cell phone memory. There's always the chance a friend, a business associate, or a family member will see the wayward wife or husband with the other person. Occasionally, the cheaters are discovered in flagrante delicto--when a spouse comes home early, for instance. And God help cheaters who talk in their sleep.
When you think about it, there are thousands of ways for an affair to be exposed. Steve Curtis, for instance, read of his wife's infidelity in the newspaper.
He didn't normally read newspapers. He got all his news online or from the occasional nightly news broadcast. His brother didn't try to hide his disgust at Steve's way of informing himself. Jon was the news director at the local Fox TV station and took it as a personal affront when Steve refused to watch the local news.
On the other hand, a man will do just about anything to distract himself in a dentist's waiting room. He'll read every magazine on the rack, count the holes in the ceiling tiles--heck, he'll do anything to keep his mind off the drill's shrill whine coming from the hidden treatment rooms. He will even read a two day old newspaper if he has to.
When Steve did read a newspaper, it wasn't the society section. He'd read the national news, of course, and then skip to the sports section, but he had no interest whatsoever in the affairs of the city's high and mighty socialites. Steve read all the want ads he could stomach first. He even found one for a bass boat he found interesting and wrote down the phone number to follow it up when he had the time. The whirring of the dentist's drill back there increased to a scream. He hoped it was the drill.
Steve had to find something to do. Against his will, he picked up the section labeled with a big "C" at the top. On the first inside page, below the fold, was a series of pictures taken at a local socialites' estate. The first picture of the overweight host at the event was unspectacular. Steve decided that instead of adding ten pounds, this picture must have added fifty or sixty. He was trying to be charitable.
In the second picture of the obese host, off to the side and behind him, Steve's wife was clearly visible walking away from the photographer's vantage point. Her head was turned toward the guy she was with. There was a happy, almost an adoring look on her face. Steve clinched his jaws tight to control a rising anger. He looked closer.
There was another problem--a big one. The man's left arm was extended down at an angle in the picture. It looked like the photo had been edited. If it hadn't been cropped, it appeared the man's hand would be just about in the right place to be fondling Barbara's ass. His wife's smile said she was enjoying the illicit contact.
Steve's world turned bleak. Without warning, he was plunged into a darkness he'd never experienced before. He was numb; he couldn't feel his hands. They were lifeless. The newspaper dropped from fingers no longer strong enough to hold it. His surroundings blurred as unshed tears watered his eyes.
He couldn't think. Nothing would process. Disoriented, he could see only the section of the room directly in front of him. He was on automatic pilot, able to feel only the cramping tightness in his chest.
He responded when the dental assistant called his name. He walked, he smiled at a comment she made, he sat in the chair and waited quietly while she fastened a paper bib around his neck. He seemed to be alert and cooperative with the staff in the clinic, but he wasn't really there.
It was the least painful tooth filling he'd ever known. He literally didn't feel anything at all. By the time Doctor Willis guided the chair back up to an upright position, it was clear the chunk of ice in his gut had taken up permanent residence.