Taking Dani's PlacebySabledrake©
Letterman was on the bedroom television set with the volume turned low when Joanna realized that Rich was muttering thickly in his sleep. He groaned, a sort of aching, needful groan that made her lower her book and glance over.
He insisted that he liked to watch the evening news, followed by the late night shows, and got haughty with her whenever she pointed out that he was usually sound asleep before the sports and weather, let alone the opening monologues..
Rich was curled on his side, his shoulders a broad beam – still strong and fit at nearly fifty – and his iron-grey hair was an unkempt tuft. He smacked his lips, muttered again, and Joanna was just about to go back to J.A. Jance when her husband distinctly uttered a single word.
“Dani,” he said.
But it wasn’t the word itself that so riveted her attention. It was the tone. A yearning, low, husky tone.
“Dani,” he said again, and rolled onto his back. Bedclothes rustled. The sheet that reached midway up the dense grey mat of his chest hair had developed a noticeable formation a ways lower down.
Joanna shook her head a little, blinked a few times, frowned. Surely she was not seeing what she was seeing.
No, she was. She was seeing it, all right. Which was startling enough on its own. Sex had never been high-priority for either of them. In their fifteen years of marriage, they probably averaged eight times a year.
Now, here like an unexpected guest, was a visible erection tenting the sheet. And, like a most unwelcome guest, that word. That single word.
Her daughter’s name.
“Dani,” Rich said for a third time, and took a deep, snoring breath. His arm fell across his waist, his hand pressed down on the stiff bulge. Rubbed it in a sluggish manner.
At first too shocked to react, Joanna stirred her legs beneath the covers and cleared her throat. Loudly.
Rich coughed, smacked his lips. Beneath closed lids, his eyes moved. Dreaming. But he took his hand away, and rolled again. Onto his side. Toward her.
She inched away before he could touch her. Disgust crept like a slow wave of spiders over her skin.
Dani? Dreaming of Dani? With that kind of result?
For a moment Joanna thought she might throw up. Her evening cup of decaf tea bubbled like acid in her stomach. Her spit tasted sour.
Letterman wrapped up the Top Ten and went to commercial. Rich lay in a deep and quiescent sleep now. No more muttering, no more groaning.
Joanna risked a peek beneath the covers.
No more erection. Just the wilted suggestion of one, his cock drooping from its bushy nest to lay along his thigh.
She slipped from the bed and into the bathroom, where she drank two cool glasses of water and dabbed her face with a wet washcloth. The nausea settled.
A dream, that was all … and certainly not Rich’s fault. Nobody could be held accountable for the strange things their slumbering minds created.
It didn’t mean anything. Least of all anything that Joanna herself had to worry about.
Still, it was unsettling.
What could she do, though? If she asked Rich about it in the morning, he either wouldn’t even remember, or if he did remember, he’d be so embarrassed that he certainly wouldn’t admit to it.
The entire idea was absurd, anyway. He had never been anything but a good stepfather to Dani, and to Kyle. His relationship with her children was similar to his relationship with her, and with his associates. Crisp, professional, businesslike.
Wild passions had never been part of the equation. Evan had been all the wild passion any woman could want, and just look how well that had turned out. Swept into marriage at nineteen, a mother of two by the time she was twenty-one, and a widow before she reached the quarter-century mark of her life.
No wonder she’d been so drawn to Rich. Everything that Evan was not. A father-figure for Kyle and Dani who might actually stick around long enough to see them into adulthood. No crazy, daredevil hobbies.
She went back into the bedroom and surveyed him by the glow of her bedside lamp. He had a strong, lawyerly face. Only in sleep did the stern lines of his features soften. Good man, all clear-headed calm and sound business sense. People sometimes told him he should run for office.
The same circles of people often told her that she’d make the ideal politician’s wife. She’d built a respectable career for herself and was known for being capable. She’d risen to vice president in the company, made a very comfortable salary in her own right, and was an assured, confident woman. Whenever the subject was brought up, she always countered by suggesting that maybe she’d run for office herself. This never failed to make them cough and stammer and apologize.
It wasn’t as if she was worried about Rich straying. He spent his days surrounded by buxom young secretaries and fledgling law-school graduates – barracudas with tits, who’d do anything or anybody to get ahead.
What in the world had gotten her onto this train of thought? A few mumbled words that didn’t mean anything? What was it that she was thinking? That, all along, Rich had been harboring some secret lust for her Dani? That was ridiculous. The most ridiculous thing she could imagine.
Joanna knew that several of her friends had problems galore with their various divorces, re-marriages, stepchildren. She counted herself blessed that Rich and the kids got along as well as they did. There had never been any of the fighting, no “you can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real father” stuff. True, Rich and Kyle had never been the sort to go out and throw around the old baseball, or build model airplanes together. Neither had he spoiled Dani, or been overly strict. They’d all just sort of gotten along, the way passengers on a long train ride did.
He drew in a gasp. “Oh, Dani, yes. Oh, God.”
Joanna, who had been about to get back into bed, froze. This time, there was no mistaking either what he’d said or how he said it. When she did slide beneath the covers, Rich moved toward her. His eyes were still shut, still moving behind their lids, but his erection was back full-force. It jabbed against her hip. He ground against her, and moaned.
“Rich!” She elbowed him in the chest. Goosebumps had broken out all over her.
“Unh.” He snorted. Peeled one bleary, confused eye open. “Sorry … was I snoring?”
“Yes,” she said. Her throat was tight.
“Sorry,” he said again, and heaved himself around so that he was on his side with his back to her. Within seconds, he really was snoring, softly.
Oh, Dani, yes. Oh, God.
A shudder ran through her. Joanna’s face and palms were clammy with sweat. Her nightgown felt pasted to her body.
A dream. That was all.
She turned off the television and the lamp. Her spine was rigid as a crowbar. Her eyes stared wide and unseeing at the shadow-patterns on the ceiling.
It didn’t mean anything.
Only a dream. Dreams, never mind Freud, or Jung, or whoever, had nothing to do with a person’s waking thoughts. Or desires.
Rich and Dani. The whole notion was ludicrous.
Though Dani had been acting funny lately …
Of course she had. Dani was going away to college in less than a week. Her life was one drastic change. She would be leaving the only real home she’d ever known, moving away from all of her friends, starting a challenging new school.
Thank goodness there wasn’t a boyfriend to add to the stress. Dani was pretty and vivacious, dating frequently but not getting serious with any of them. She’d told Joanna flat out that she wasn’t going to even think that way until after college. The last thing she needed or wanted was to be locked in with some high school sweetheart.
Dani hadn’t been dating as much lately, now that Joanna really stopped to consider it. A lot of that was being caught up in other things. College applications, planning, packing, finals, SATs, trying to get in as much fun with her friends as possible.
But some of it … some of it …
Joanna remembered wondering a few times over the past few months if she shouldn’t ought to talk to Dani. All of a sudden, it seemed, Dani had stopped being so concerned about her appearance. Not that she’d let herself go, no, nothing like that … but she’d given up the kicky, stylish outfits in favor of frumpy old jeans and sweatshirts. She’d gotten her long blonde hair cut even shorter than Joanna’s own.
But it had seemed such a petty, silly thing to address. Dani was concerned about more important things. College was going to be a lot harder than high school.
On the one hand, Joanna was worried how Dani was going to cope, being away from home for the first time. On the other, she was worried that Kyle was never going to leave home. He couldn’t live in the basement and take classes at the community college for the rest of his life.
She tried to get comfortable and failed. Her mind was awake, but spinning its wheels.
Rich moved again, and Joanna tensed. He stopped snoring. She tried to brace for his words. He said nothing. His breathing was deep and even.
Her taut limbs relaxed the slightest increment. Only a dream, only a meaningless dream, just as she’d known all along. Embarrassing, to be sure, but nothing she should lose sleep over. So why was she? The digital clock’s cool green numerals told her it was almost twelve-thirty.
When her eyes opened, she wasn’t sure when they had ever closed. One moment, she had been lying there in the fitful dark, and the next it was seven in the morning, the shower was running, and Rich’s half of the bed was empty.
The bedroom was full of diffuse summer sunlight and the house of its usual morning-sounds. She could hear Kyle in the kitchen, no doubt rustling up a healthy breakfast of leftover pizza. It was a miracle that he hadn’t gone the way of so many basement-dwellers, turning pallid and soft like a mushroom. She guessed that he made some use of the exercise equipment he’d built down there after all.
By the time she was up and into her robe, Kyle had vanished back to his subterranean lair. Proof of his presence was indicated by the now-empty pizza box and a note on the fridge telling her that they were out of Dr. Pepper.
Joanna shuffled through the motions of her own routine. Coffee maker, bagel, toaster, jam, paper, radio tuned to the daily traffic reports. Her unease of the night before was a distant thing of the past.
As she headed back to the bedroom to get dressed, all of those feelings came back in a rush by a scene in the hallway. Dani had the air of a trapped animal as she looked up at Rich. Her back was to the wall, near her door. One hand groped for the doorknob, while the other clutched her bulky terrycloth robe at the collar.
Rich seemed to loom over the girl. His shirt was on but unbuttoned over a white undershirt. His chin was freshly shaved, his hair swept back iron-grey. His eyes were those of a hawk. She’d seen him stand that way – looming – in the courtroom, when he felt he had some witness on the ropes and was getting ready to move in for the kill.
The moment broke as Rich saw Joanna at the head of the stairs. He settled into an easier pose and flashed his best L.A. Law smile. Dani shot Joanna a glance both nervous and pleading.
At once, Joanna knew that whatever rationalizations she might have told herself in the small hours of the night, something really was very wrong here. This wasn’t Joanna jumping to conclusions. This wasn’t Joanna reading too much into a discussion over the car, or the phone bills, or misuse of the credit cards.
This was worse.
Rich, still smiling, came to her and brushed a kiss on her cheek as he passed. He smelled of aftershave and shampoo and musky deodorant. A wine-red tie dangled from his hand. He wished her a good morning and asked if coffee was on.
Joanna nodded, and he began whistling as he went down the stairs. Dani, like a deer in the headlights, was rooted to the spot by her bedroom door.
“Dani? Is everything …” She was going to ask if everything was okay, which was stupid. Clearly, everything was not okay.
“Are you still going to San Francisco this weekend, Mom?” Dani asked. No, she didn’t do anything so simple as ask. She blurted the question, and all at once it was as if Dani was seven again. A frightened little girl.
“The conference,” Joanna said. Her insides were knotted. The bagel she’d eaten was a blob of lead in her stomach. “I’m scheduled to be there, yes.”
Dani’s shoulders sagged. Her head bowed. She slumped against the wall. “Okay.” Then she turned and vanished into her bedroom.
Joanna shot a glance back. Rich was down in the kitchen, still whistling. The toaster popped up. The paper – the business section, no doubt – rattled.
She dressed for work, applying her minimal make-up. Silence from Dani’s room. Muted noise elsewhere in the house.
A host of inexplicable and awful suspicious were coming home to roost in Joanna’s mind. She felt memories turning over, little things that she hadn’t even been aware of noticing, but that she must have realized on some level. They occupied her the entire time she was at work, and on her drive home later that evening.
Dani’s change in wardrobe and self-care. Making herself less attractive on purpose? To avoid – dear God! – unwanted attention?
The way Rich watched Dani sometimes, when she was chatting on the phone with her friends, tossing her long hair. The long hair that was now gone, hacked short and swept away in some beautician’s shop-vac. The time she’d seen him standing fixedly at the window, gazing down into the backyard, where Dani and Vickie Anders had been tanning themselves in tiny bikinis.
He was interested in Dani. Had been for a long time now, and Joanna hadn’t seen it. Dani had, though. Dani had sensed it, and started doing what she could to try and deflect him. No more shorts and little tops. No more flitting down to breakfast like a sprite in tee shirt and panties, all long legs and pert bottom.
It dawned on Joanna that these changes had been going on for months. Since February, at least. Since … since when? Since Dani’s birthday. As if Rich, ever the legal eagle, had decided that it was all perfectly okay and aboveboard to ogle a girl once she’d hit that magic age.
“Dani,” Joanna said, covering her mouth with her hand. “Oh, honey.”
Arriving home before Rich, and hearing music from Dani’s bedroom, she rapped on the door.
The room was in transition, much like Dani herself. Cardboard boxes held the things she’d be taking to college with her. Books, CDs, her computer, her stereo, clothes. Other things – her collection of Breyer horses, her boy-band posters, her stuffed animals – had been pushed aside and looked forlorn.
“Dani? I think there’s something we need to talk about.”
The girl’s face was blotched as if she’d been crying, but silently. For the first time? Joanna doubted it, and felt a stab of sharp hate for Rich.
“I didn’t do anything, Mom,” Dani said. Her eyes – huge and blue – welled with renewed tears. “I didn’t do anything.”
“I’m so sorry,” Joanna said. “I didn’t realize. He’s … he’s been bothering you? Rich has?”
Mute, a single tear trickling, Dani nodded.
“Has he …?” She couldn’t say it. Had to say it.
Dani quickly shook her head. “He hasn’t … you know … touched me or anything. He just … he just looks. Always staring at me. Watching me. It’s so creepy, Mom! But I didn’t dare say anything. I mean, I’m leaving in a week and I thought that maybe I was imagining it. He never did anything like this before. I’ve been … I was afraid that you’d … you know, think I was making it up.”
“Yesterday, I might have,” Joanna said, more to herself than to the girl. “I guess I must have thought I was imagining it, too.”
“He’s never tried anything,” Dani said. She sniffled. “Honest, Mom. Except, well … no, never mind.”
“Tell me, Dani.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Some of my … my panties … are gone. I put them in the hamper, but now I can’t find them.”
“Does he say anything?”
“Nothing obvious,” Dani said. “Stuff that, you know, you could take a couple of ways. But it’s been getting worse. And now, with you going to the conference, I … it’s dumb, but I’m scared. Like if he was going to try anything, he’d wait to do it until you were gone.”
“Why haven’t you told me this before?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was crazy, or a liar, or something,” Dani said. “It’s not like there’s any proof, and he’d deny it, and he’d say I was only trying to make trouble. And … I thought you’d believe him instead of me. But then I saw you in the hall, and I saw your face, and I knew. I knew that you might believe me.”
“I believe you, honey. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell him –“
“No!” Dani gasped. “No, Mom, he’ll be so mad!”
“He can’t do this, Dani. It’s wrong. Even if he’s not your biological father, even if you’re eighteen now, it’s still wrong. I should have seen what was going on and stopped it a long time ago.”
“He’ll say it’s my fault,” she said miserably. “He’ll say that I’ve been teasing him and flirting with him, and Mom, I haven’t! Not ever! I never even thought about him that way. I mean, he’s so old!”
Joanna’s lips quirked despite the wretched sickness in her heart. “No one is going to blame you, Dani. I promise.”
A timid hope crept into the girl’s eyes, then died. “But what are you going to do? You can’t divorce him.”
“I certainly couldn’t live with him, not knowing all of this.”
Dani buried her face in her hands. “I knew it. I knew I’d ruin everything if I told. I should have just shut up. I’d have been gone in a few days, and nobody would have had to know, and now it’s all going to be wrecked.”
“Stop, Dani, stop. This is not your fault. I need you to believe that, okay?”
“But you and Kyle … and Rich is a lawyer … he could …”
“We’ll be fine. Rich and I have always been great advocates of prenuptial agreements and separate bank accounts.”
How could it be that she was sitting here on the edge of her daughter’s bed, so calmly and rationally discussing divorce settlements? Had it really come to that point so quickly? But what else was there for it? Damned if she’d continue to live under the same roof as a man who’d think that he had every right in the world to make a play for his stepdaughter once she was of legal age. Damned if she would!
Dani hugged her, and Joanna hugged back, feeling the girl tremble in her arms. Months of feeling alone, frightened and guilty … poor Dani! Suffering like that, and some mother Joanna was for not having a single clue! If not for Rich’s sleep-talk in the night, they wouldn’t be having this conversation. She’d still be blissfully ignorant, while her daughter lived in a state of terror.
She soothed Dani as best she could, while the cold and analytical part of her mind was already taking over and planning what she’d say to Rich. He was a sly one, yes. A lawyer. Good at arguing, at twisting the truth. She had no doubts that he would try to turn it around. Make her feel like she was leaping to crazy conclusions without a shred of evidence.
She’d have to get him in a corner, pin him with logic and fact so that he couldn’t claim any sort of misunderstanding. But how? He was too careful. Always, so careful. So cunning. The bastard!
An idea came to her then. If it was evidence she needed …
“Listen to me, Dani,” she said. “He’s not going to bother you any more.”
The look on Dani’s face would have been comic if the situation hadn’t been so horrible. As if she thought that Joanna was talking about something quite a bit more dire than divorce. Something more like murder. Joanna patted her hand.
“I’m going to make sure he can’t weasel his way out. But I’m going to need your help. Here’s what we’ll do. I want you to call Vickie and arrange to spend tomorrow night at her house. Can you do that? But don’t tell Rich or Kyle, or anyone else. Say that you’ve got a date, you’re going to a movie, you’ll be back late.”