Preemptive Strike


And he left the bedroom.


God knows why—the second, third, and fourth balls he hit at the range were pure, perfect drives, nearly 250 yards, right down the middle. The next 50, he pretty much sprayed all over the place. But he worked up a sweat, and the hour spent not thinking about his marriage was a relief.

The relief ended on the drive back home, though, even though he took the long way, out around the park, enjoying the bright sunshine and the sight of all the joggers and bikers taking advantage of the day.

What to do now? His questions to Emily had not been rhetorical. He'd done what he'd set out to do—his preemptive strike had put an end to her sleazy affair with that prick, and put the fear of God into her.

Now that seemed as though it was the easy part. How did they put their marriage back together?


Emily had made a paella, with shrimp and Chorizo sausage, that was one of Nick's favorite meals. They ate it in near-silence, with her examining his face anxiously for clues as to his mood. When they'd cleared the plates he said, "let's go sit on the deck, Em."

She brought out two cups of coffee and they sat at the little table.

"Okay," he said, "the ball's in your court. You fucked things up—how are you going to fix them?"

"Do you ... want to stay with me, Nick?"

"Yes. I love you, Emily—you and the boys. I don't want to be a divorced dad in a small one-bedroom apartment, seeing his kids on alternate weekends. But you just blew this marriage up—how do you propose to put it back together?"

She started to cry again, and waved her hand at him. "Wait, please—wait." She took a shuddering deep breath, and brushed the tears off her face. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry any more, just give me a minute."

She stood up, her arms folded tightly across her chest, and walked a couple of times around the deck before coming back to sit down facing him again.

"Here's how," she said, in a tight, almost strangled voice.

"First, I confess everything to you, every part of my foolish, stupid behavior. I've tried to do that in the letter—and if you have any more questions, now or later, just ask and I'll answer them.

"Second, I apologize to you. Not just once but as many times as it takes, until you really really know how sorry and ashamed I am. Ashamed of what I did, and sorry for the pain I caused you."

She knelt before him then, putting her arms on his knees and looking up at him. "I am so sorry, Nick. I hurt you very badly, and there's no excuse. I was a selfish idiot. I hope there will be a time when you'll be able to forgive me—but I know it's not now, not yet."

Still watching him, she got up and returned to her chair.

"Third, I make it up to you—every single day. By showing you that I can be a loving wife who is devoted to you, who appreciates you, who wants to make you happy. And who is happy just being your wife."

Ticking them off on her fingers, she said, "I'm going to be loving, patient, supportive, attentive, and fun. I'm going to pamper you, cater to you, and make sure you're getting what you need."

She reached over and took his hand. "And that includes in the bedroom. I know things have gotten a little ... not dull, maybe, but routine. But no more!

"If I have to read books, buy sexy underthings, get you to screw me on the kitchen floor...all of that sounds good to me, Nick."

"And what about Di—, what about the other woman I'm interested in?" He gazed at her, keeping his face blank.

Emily bit her lip. She said, "I don't have any control over that, Nick. I'd like you to never see her again, but it isn't up to me, is it?

"But I know what I'd like. Do you think you ... well, if ..."

She shuddered, then shook herself. "Do you think we could try it for a month, maybe? Just you and me? Me doing everything I can to make you happy, keep you interested and satisfied at home? Showing you how sorry I am, and how much I adore you?"

Nick got up and walked to the far end of the deck, his back to Emily, grinning to himself. He was feeling a strange mixture of anger, excitement, and pride in himself. He'd done what he always did: figured out what he wanted, gone after it, and gotten it. Or at least it seemed that way ....

He turned around. "Okay, Em. I'll give it a month. It's not like I was in a big hurry to walk out of this house and away from the boys. And I won't see her again, while we're trying to fix things."

She jumped up with an eager smile and came towards him, but he raised a hand to stop her.

"But don't you think for a minute that I'm not fucking furious at you, or that I trust you one inch. Because I don't. What you did with that asshole was shabby and cheap. It was unworthy of you, and sure as hell unworthy of the love I've given you. It fucking sucked!"

He turned away from her and stomped back into the house.


A month went by, and then a couple of weeks more. Nick didn't bring up the deadline, and Emily certainly wasn't going to.

It was okay. Things were "okay," it seemed to him. They were getting along, and Charlie and Ben seemed totally unaware of any problems. That at least was a good thing.

Emily was attentive, devoted, loving. They had a ton of sex, at least as much as Nick could have wanted, and she was almost desperately eager to please him. She offered new positions, surprised him in the shower, bought some wonderfully trashy lingerie. She may even have gone online to read about fellatio techniques, because her blowjobs were deeper and more pleasurable than ever.

And it wasn't just the sex. There were backrubs, there were special desserts, there was the weekend away she planned for them at a really nice Bed & Breakfast on a lake while her parents took the boys. Emily watched him constantly and catered to him; she tried to please him as though she were a king's concubine and one false move could lead to her exile, if not her execution.

So why wasn't he happier?

Nick reflected on this. He was in the middle of a fairly frantic afternoon at work, but he couldn't concentrate. He shoved his paperwork aside, leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk, giving himself 15 minutes to think.

One thing was obvious: he still didn't trust her. The betrayal with Pritzker, even though it hadn't gone all the way, still left him feeling bitter every time he thought about it. His rational brain said that Emily would never, EVER try something like this again—but the fact that she'd done it once was a brutal kick in the ribs. His raging anger at her was never all that far from the surface, though it had calmed down a lot.

But he realized that there was another issue: he almost didn't have a wife anymore—he had a servant. Emily was nervous, always walking on eggshells, constantly checking his face for any sign of disapproval or anger. Her mantra seemed to be, "Please Nick." Or maybe even, "Don't Piss Off Nick." Or "Give Nick Absolutely Everything He Wants, Even Before He Knows He Wants It."

Back in the happier days of their marriage, Emily had been a delightful partner. She was energetic and funny and feisty—no pushover. She stood up for herself, she disagreed with Nick when she thought he was wrong, she mocked him at times. They had been equals, loving partners unafraid to take each other down a peg. Now that was all gone.

Nick was sure that he had changed too. He was harder, more closed. He didn't come home every day and tell Emily all about work, or engage her in conversation about their relationship. He watched her coolly and let her serve him—whether it was a nice dinner, or a nice fuck from behind with her bent over the living room couch. It was one of his favorite ways to do it, actually, but she'd never liked it all that much; it felt humiliating to her. Now she'd let him do it five nights a week if he wanted.

He realized that he didn't want a submissive concubine—he wanted his old wife back. But he was self-aware enough to see that it wasn't just her behavior but his own that had changed; and he was clear-sighted enough to realize that he didn't have any idea how to get back to what they'd once had.


It was the third week of September. Emily was back to teaching, but she was still managing special dinners, still keeping up with the Victoria's Secret nightwear and energetic sex, still being cheerful and loving and attentive. And he could see the strain of it on her face, when she didn't know he was watching her.

Until he came in the door on a Thursday around 6:30 and ran into a buzz-saw. As he approached her in the kitchen with a "hi, honey" and reached to give her a kiss, she backed away coldly.

"I understand someone's had a promotion," she said from between clenched teeth. She looked and sounded like a Marine drill sergeant—a seriously pissed-off one. "Were you ever planning to tell me about it?"

And before Nick could reply she turned away, waving a hand dismissively at him. "No, don't even say a word. I'm going to get the boys." And she stormed out into the yard, calling for Charlie and Ben.

All through dinner as they ate and the boys chattered away, Emily leveled murderous glances at him. It was almost funny, and Nick realized that he hadn't seen his wife angry at him—not once—in something close to two months. He was sort of enjoying it, God knows why.

Emily rejected all of Nick's help in getting the boys to bed, so he gave up and watched a re-run of "NCIS." When she came into the living room around 9, he could see she was all set to let him have it. Fine, he thought. Let's fight—let's see what that's like.

"Do you know how embarrassing it was, talking to Suzanne today?" Emily glared at him. She didn't even sit down, instead standing over him with her arms folded.

"She told me she needed to remind you to bring your passport in so she could arrange for the visas you need for the next few months, all those trips to Japan and Singapore.

"And then she said, 'oh Emily, you must be so proud of him, with this big promotion and all. Did you guys have a big celebration?' And I was so stunned, I didn't know what to say.

"Finally I sort of stammered, 'uh, yeah, it's been great,' or something like that. I felt like a goddamned IDIOT, Nick! And I'm sure Suzanne could tell I had no idea what she was talking about.

"She said you were promoted back in July! And here it is, more than two months later, and you haven't said Word One to me! Was I supposed to go the rest of my life not knowing I was married to the Vice-President for Far East Sales? Is that none of my business all of a sudden?"

She paced around the room, then sat down in the armchair across from the sofa. Nick hadn't opened his mouth. She went on for another few minutes in the same vein: she couldn't believe he'd kept this from her, she'd been so humiliated, etc. She was utterly furious, and it seemed like her anger was letting her discharge some of the tension of the past few weeks.

"I know our marriage is on thin ice—and I know it's because I screwed up. Believe me, there's not an hour that goes by when I don't think about that! But you promised that we'd both give it a try, staying together. And I would have thought that meant talking to each other, sharing the news about minor things like, oh, I don't know, A HUGE PROMOTION!"

Emily's mouth snapped shut and she sat glaring at him. Nick could see her eyes were tearing up.

"Well," he said, "you certainly seem to be worked up about this—"

"Ya THINK?" she interrupted.

"But I wonder whether Suzanne mentioned exactly WHEN I got the promotion?"

Emily shook her head. "She just said it was in July sometime."

"And do you happen to remember anything else I found out about in July?"

Her face got pale, and she looked down. "Yes—yes, of course I do."

"I learned about you and Pritzker before I got a chance to tell you about the promotion," he said, letting his voice get hard. "And, by the way, I learned about it the SAME DAY—I came home at lunchtime and found your email open, and saw your messages to that cocksucker!"

Emily gasped, and stared at him. He had never told her this before.

"And when I realized that you'd been keeping something from me—something pretty fucking important to our marriage!—I didn't exactly feel like sharing my news with you. Is that so hard to understand?"

She shook her head, looking miserable. All the fight had gone out of her.

Now Nick was on his feet, pacing. "So yeah, you're right, I should have told you. But I guess I was enjoying keeping my secret from you, Em—a little bit of 'tit for tat.' Plus, at least my secret was something good, not something sleazy and selfish.

"I'm going for a walk," he said, and headed out the door, not looking back to see her crying quietly.


The next morning, getting breakfast on the table and Ben and Charlie dressed and fed and out the door, was almost entirely silent. Emily and Nick moved around one another smoothly, efficiently, without friction but without warmth, either.

Nick didn't know what Emily was feeling. He himself was calm, even relaxed—their argument the night before, and then his long walk around the neighborhood, had brought some things into focus for him.

When she came back into the house after seeing the boys onto the school bus, she headed for the bedroom without a word.


His voice startled her, and she jumped a little. She turned and looked at him, appearing unhappy and wary.

"How about if I bring home some take-out tonight, so you don't have to cook?"

"That would be ... nice, Nick—thanks," she said carefully. They talked about Chinese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and decided on Five Guys hamburgers, which the boys adored.

Then he said, "and I'd like us to spend some time together tonight when the boys are in bed, okay?"

Looking even more concerned, she nodded. Nick came over, held her gently and kissed her, feeling her standing as rigid as a statue in his arms.


The boys loved the hamburgers, predictably, and Nick and Emily collaborated on bathing them and getting them into bed, smiling at one another when the usual bathtub water fight soaked the bathroom floor. When both kids were sleeping soundly, Nick settled himself and Emily at opposite ends of the living room couch.

The warm, comradely feeling they'd had while taking care of Ben and Charlie had dissipated, and he could feel the tension coming from her.

"Okay," he said, watching her wary eyes. "Last night was good, I think."

Emily looked surprised for a moment, then her face softened and she nodded. "Yes, I think so too. We—"

"I—" They both stopped, then laughed. Nick said, "I have some things to say, but you can go first."

Emily said, "the reason I think it was good is because it hurt me so much. SO much.

"I mean, there you were with this huge promotion, this exciting new job, and probably lots more money, and—

"And I didn't know anything about it! You'd kept this huge secret from me, and I ..." She looked right into his eyes. "I felt so excluded and so betrayed, and I was so angry—and then you told me exactly when you found out, and of course I understood why you hadn't told me."

"And all this time I thought you only learned about my, my—affair—when I told you, in the letter. I had no idea you'd found it out on your own. My God, Nick, I am so sorry for that!"

She sighed. "So THAT took the wind right out of my sails. But when I thought about it later, I realized what a good lesson it was for me. For weeks I've been feeling so terrible about what I did, about how badly I've hurt you, and terrified you're going to leave me, and—

"And this, this is the first time I just felt hurt myself. How could you do that to me? And then I realized, well Emily, maybe for the first time you're getting a little tiny taste of how Nick has been feeling all this time. Betrayed, left-out, kept in the dark. Except the secret I kept from you was a thousand times worse."

She stopped, looking down. He could see the tears on her cheeks. "So I figured, anything that hurts me THAT way, that lets me be in your shoes a little bit, is probably good for me. I've been feeling so guilty and frightened, I haven't spent enough time actually thinking about how YOU must be feeling."

She laughed sadly. "After last night THAT problem is gone!"

Nick waited, but Emily was done talking. He said, "yeah, I think so too. That's one of two reasons last night was good.

"But the other, strangely enough, is that it was the first time in more than two months you've stopped cringing around me. You were furious—you really let me have it, and—guess what?—I realized I missed it."

They smiled at each other, both amused.

"I mean, I WANTED you submissive, for a while. I wanted you feeling guilty and ashamed, and terrified I was about to walk out the door. But it's starting to get old, you know? Obsequious Emily is not the woman I married—she's not the woman I love.

"And I realized that while you keep wanting me to trust you again, you haven't been trusting me—not to leave, I mean. You don't trust that I love you and I'm trying to give you another chance."

He was getting a little agitated now, and he took a breath. "Why should I trust you, after what you did, when you won't trust me? So you need to do that, Em; you need to start being yourself, and remember how long I've loved you."

He paused again. "Maybe you were being a doormat because you thought I was insisting on it, but I'm done with that. The month I promised you has stretched to seven weeks and I'm still here. I'm still here, I'm sleeping in bed with you every night, and I'm not seeing ... anyone else."

He watched her, thinking about it; and then she nodded her head. "Okay," she said. "I'll work on that."

They spent the rest of their evening apart. At 10:20 Nick was suddenly so exhausted he couldn't hold his head up, so he undressed and brushed and went to sleep. Some time he later he felt Emily slide into bed behind him. She kissed the back of his neck, then snuggled up to spoon him.


Nothing particularly dramatic happened after that, nothing sudden, but things got better. He noticed after about a week that he felt warmer towards Emily, that their conversations were easier and a little less stilted.

One night when he forgot to stop for the dry-cleaning he said he'd pick up she snapped at him for being thoughtless—then stopped, looking at him a little worried—then shrugged her shoulders and went back to her cooking.

He said, "you're right, Em. Sorry. I'll get it tomorrow, I promise." He watched her look back at him with a little half-smile. "Okay," she said, and they let it drop.

When she got into bed that night, wearing nothing special, just one of her everyday nighties, she snuggled up against him and put her head on his chest. She said, "let's make love tonight. Like the old days, okay?"

It wasn't great—it was kind of awkward, in fact. They kissed and touched, sweetly, a bit carefully, and finally he was between her legs, thrusting, in good old missionary position. Nothing unusual, nothing at all like the wild sex-fantasy stuff of recent weeks.

When it was over, she clung to him tighter than usual, and whispered, "I love you." They fell asleep entwined, as they hadn't done in a long time.


"I did it today," she said quietly. Her back was to him, facing the stove; he'd just come home from work.

He knew right away what she'd meant. They'd discussed it and planned it a few days ago—how Emily was going to contact Pritzker's wife, in case she didn't already know what a cheating asshole she was married to.

"How did it go?" he asked.

She came and gave him a quick kiss, looking tired and little pale. "Not as bad as I was afraid it would be. When I explained why I was calling there was this long silence, and then she said, 'actually, this isn't the first time I've heard this story.'

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