tagLoving WivesVigilantes Pt. 02 of 02

Vigilantes Pt. 02 of 02


From the time I got Lori's letter and learned what she had done, I had thought many times about what I would say to her if I ever saw her again. I had longed for the opportunity to vent my rage, to call her names and demand answers to all the questions she'd left behind. But when it actually happened, I was dumbfounded. I had never expected to see her again, and now that she was here, I was speechless. All I could do was stand there gaping at her.

"Hello, John," she said warily. "May I come in?"

As if on autopilot, I backed away from the door and she entered and sat on the sofa as though nothing had changed between us.

I couldn't help but study her. She was still an attractive woman. She'd gained a little weight, which looked good on her, and her breasts seemed larger than before, and I wondered if she'd had a boob job. "I guess infidelity and betrayal agree with her," I thought bitterly.

Yet she also seemed older: there were lines under her eyes and a few wrinkles on her face I had not remembered. Her hair looked like she hadn't paid much attention to it, which was unlike her. At least her clothes were age-appropriate, I realized, remembering how she used to gall Emily with her too youthful wardrobe.

"You really have a lot of nerve showing up here," I said finally.

"Believe me," she said in a dull voice, "I dreaded this. I know you must hate me; I know how badly I hurt you."

My anger was rising, but I tried to control it. "I don't think so, Lori. I don't think you have any idea what you've done to Emily and me. Forget about the pain of being deserted by my wife and Emily's mother. Forget the humiliation of being left for another man. Forget about the fact that you went without a word, an explanation or even a goodbye. Your disappearance made me the subject of a police investigation. They searched our house and impounded my car to look for blood stains! Thanks to you my reputation has been stained; our friends abandoned me and I almost lost my job at the university. I've gotten crank phone calls and hate mail because total strangers decided I had killed you and hidden your body. There are people out there who would have been willing to lynch me if things had gone on much longer."

I had been shouting, and I caught my breath and lowered the volume. "So no, I don't think you have the slightest idea how badly you hurt me."

As I'd been ranting, her face had grown pale and she'd hung her head, unable to face my anger. When I finished, she looked up and I saw tears running down her cheeks. She pulled a tissue out of her purse, wiped her eyes, and said in a low voice, "I'm so sorry, John. I had no idea about any of that. I'm so sorry."

"I'm afraid saying 'sorry' doesn't cut it," I said harshly.

I should have sent her away at that moment, but after all those months of wondering, I couldn't help asking. "Why did you do it? What made you abandon Emily and me?"

"I didn't intend to do it," she whimpered. "We started with a little flirting and some sexual innuendo, and the next thing I knew I had fallen in love with him and was in a full-blown affair. He was so exciting, and he made me feel so young. I didn't mean for it to happen -- it just did."

"Oh, yes," I said disdainfully, "that's good old Lori, all right: impetuous and carefree, headstrong and unbelievably selfish. So selfish that you were perfectly willing to throw away your husband of twenty years, not to mention abandoning your very own daughter, so you could pursue your little affair!"

"No, you're wrong," she wept. "I hated to hurt you and it killed me to leave Emily, but I just couldn't face her, not after what I'd done."

I'd suspected who her lover was, but now I was certain. "So you seduced Brandon Hilton. You stole your daughter's boyfriend and ran off with him. What a fine mother you turned out to be!"

"That's not true!" she protested. "I was trying to protect Emily. I forced Brandon to break it off with her."

I knew it was a lie the minute I heard it. "No, you weren't trying to help Emily. You forced Brandon to dump Emily to prove you were more desirable than she was. No wonder you couldn't face your daughter! That's just pathetic!"

She didn't try to deny my accusation; she simply covered her face in her hands and sobbed.

But I wasn't done with my questions, not by a long shot. "So after you'd won the competition with your daughter, you just decided to disappear, to vanish without a word of explanation, without even packing a bag?"

"It wasn't like that," she said defensively. "I left work early that day and went to his apartment to . . . well, you know. Anyway, when we were finished and lying there, he told me he was leaving town that afternoon. I begged him not to, but he was adamant. He got up to get dressed, and when I saw the suitcase he had packed, I thought, 'He's dumping me just like he did Emily.'"

"Then he turned and said, 'Well, are you coming or not?' I realized that he wasn't leaving me, he still wanted me with him. I was ecstatic and crazy about him and, well, I just got in the car with him and we left," she said with a shrug, as if that explained it.

I'd known Lori was impulsive, but this was more than I could ever have imagined. "You left with only the clothes on your back?" I asked in amazement.

Her face reddened in embarrassment. "Well, I had some of my clothes at Brandon's apartment that I'd taken over in my gym bag, you know, so I could change if I needed to after, um, after sex."

That little detail just added to my anger, but I ignored it because I still didn't understand. "What did you do for money? You never wrote a check or used your credit cards."

"I felt badly enough about leaving you and Emily," she said quickly. "I couldn't take money you needed to provide for her."

By now I realized just how self-serving she was, so I saw through that explanation instantly. "No, that wasn't the reason. You just didn't want any of us to know where you'd gone and with whom. You decided to take off on your romantic little adventure and you didn't want me or Emily or anyone else to find out what you'd done."

The expression on her face told me I'd read the situation rightly.

"But I still don't know how you did it without any money," I went on.

"Brandon has a trust fund," she said. "He has plenty of money." Then her face reddened again. "And I had a bank account you didn't know about under my maiden name."

I began to pace around the room, trying to control my rage. There was still plenty I didn't know, but I no longer cared about the answers. Each new revelation from her was like a body blow, even after so long. Yes, I'd seen the impulsiveness, the sudden passion and the stubbornness in her, but who could have imagined they would lead to this?

As I walked by the front window, I happened to glance outside and saw an unfamiliar car parked in front. "I guess that's him out there waiting for you," I snarled.

She looked up with a strange expression on her face. "No, that's Jackie. She drove me over here."

"Oh? Where's your lover boy?"

"He abandoned me," she said through her tears. "One day he told me he had a new opportunity and it didn't include me. Then he left, and I was alone in New York. I tried to make it on my own, but it was just too much for me."

"So he wound up leaving you just the way you left me," I said vindictively. "I guess it's true what they say: karma is a bitch!"

"I guess it is," she said quietly. Then she got up, walked over to the window and motioned to Jackie to come. Turning back to me, her voice took on a more urgent tone. "I know I was stubborn and impetuous and all those other things you called me. Yes, I abandoned you, and I regret that now with all my heart. And most of all I regret abandoning Emily. But you've got to understand: I had no choice."

"Of course," I said sarcastically, "what mother wants to tell her daughter she stole her boyfriend?"

"That was only part of it," she said quietly.

Before I could respond, Jackie came in the front door. In her arms was a baby, and I was momentarily confused. But when Lori went over and took the baby from her, all I could do was gasp, "Oh my God!"

Lori looked at me sadly. "Now you see why I couldn't face either one of you."

She must have known what I was going to ask because she went on, "When I left I forgot my birth control pills, and I had trouble getting a new prescription. Brandon wouldn't use condoms, and I thought it wouldn't hurt but . . ." Her voice tailed off.

"So did he abandon you before or after you had the baby?" I asked nastily.

Before she could answer I heard the sounds of Emily coming back from her parenting class. As she came into the kitchen from the garage she yelled, "Hey, Daddy, whose car is that out front?" Then she walked into the living room carrying baby Bridget, only to stop short with a gasp when she saw her mother.

I know I could have done better, should have thought of something to say to try ease into the truth gently. But I was so angry at what Lori had done and so stunned by the awfulness of the situation that I turned to my daughter and blurted out, "Look who your mother brought with her: your new half-sister!" Then, seeing Lori staring at Emily's baby, I said, "Lori, meet baby Bridget, your new grand-daughter."

It took them a moment to comprehend what I had just said, but then they both began to wail. Of course the babies began to cry, and even Jackie was bawling. For that matter, I felt like crying too, but more than anything I felt exhausted. I certainly didn't have the energy to play referee between Emily and her mother. Whatever Emily wanted to say, I felt like her mother had it coming. Finally, I simply walked out of the room, went into the den and slumped on the sofa.

I could hear angry words coming from the other room, punctuated by a couple of anguished cries. I guessed that they had just realized that both babies had a common father. There was a lot more crying from both mothers and babies. But after a while I realized that it had grown quiet in the living room and I began to wonder what was happening. I hesitated, but when I finally stuck my head in the door, I saw Jackie holding Lori's baby and Lori holding baby Bridget, with Emily looking over her shoulder. Spotting me, Emily motioned me back to the den and came to join me.

I had no idea what to say to my daughter. Lori's revelations had floored me; I couldn't imagine the impact they must have had on Emily. Her own mother had stolen her boyfriend and then given birth to his child. How could I possibly ease the anguish Emily must be feeling?

But before I could say anything, Emily stunned me. "Daddy, can Mom stay at our house for a little while with her baby?"

"You must be joking!" I gasped in shock. "After all she's done to you and me?"

"I know, Daddy, and I don't know if I can ever forgive her for that. But she's dead broke, Daddy, and she has no place else to go. Her baby needs a place to live, at least until Mom can get back on her feet. Please, Daddy. After all, her baby is Bridget's half-sister as well as mine."

I shuddered at that realization. "Why can't she live with Jackie?" I protested.

Emily looked at me with exasperation. "Jackie lives in a one-bedroom apartment, Daddy."

"Well then, Lori can go live with her parents. She's their responsibility," I tried.

"Yeah, right, Daddy. As if," Emily shot back sarcastically. We'd tried to shelter Emily from the acrimony of our relationship with the Carletons, but of course she'd picked up on the rift at an early age. We both knew that wasn't a viable answer.

I learned two lessons that day. The first was that I would never understand the relationship between mothers and daughters. I had halfway expected a knock-down drag-out fight to break out when Emily learned the full extent of her mother's betrayal. For Emily to offer Lori shelter -- even temporarily -- was beyond my imagination.

The second lesson I learned was that it is almost impossible for a father to deny his daughter when she really wants something.

I had previously made plans to get together with Bridget the next evening. This was one time when I wasn't looking forward to seeing her. My apprehension must have been obvious because when she opened the door and saw me, Bridget immediately said, "What's happened, John? What's wrong?"

I knew there was nothing to be gained by delay, so I led her to the couch and sat down beside her. "Bridget, I have something I need to tell you. Lori has come back."

Astonishment swept over her face, only to be replaced almost immediately by pain. She caught her breath and then gave a little nod of understanding. "And you and she have decided to get back together . . ."

"No, no!" I almost shouted. "That's not it at all." I went on to explain all that had happened and how Emily was insistent that I help her mother and the baby out temporarily.

Bridget's face relaxed a little, but there was still pain in her eyes as she looked at me. "Don't scare me like that again, John. I've already lost one man I loved -- I don't think I could stand to lose another."

Did she just say she loved me? I'd been feeling closer and closer to Bridget the more we'd seen of each other, but I hadn't been sure how she felt about me. Now, hearing those words, my fears and hesitation seemed to melt away.

I took her in my arms and looked into her eyes. "I lost a spouse too, but I've found another, better one to love. I promise: if you want me, you're not going to lose me."

She didn't say anything, but I thought I sensed something building within her as well. Suddenly she was kissing me, I was kissing her and neither of us could stop. It felt as though a dam had broken somewhere inside, and all the pent up emotions came rushing out and flowed over us.

I felt her pulling on me to stand up, and when I did, she began trying to walk backwards, tugging me toward her bedroom. When I comprehended what she was trying to do, I swept her up in my arms and carried her back to her bed.

Lying beside each other, we continued to kiss as we slowly began to undress each other. There was no hurry, no sense of urgency, just the certainty that this was the right thing to do. When both of us were bare, we clasped each other tightly, our legs and arms intertwining, wanting to be as close to one another as possible.

Abruptly, Bridget rolled me over on top of her, reached down to find me and inserted me where she needed me the most. I could feel how wet she was, and I realized that foreplay at this point was neither needed nor wanted. As I reached the portal of her opening, she whispered, "Please go easy with me, John. It's been a long time."

I understood what she needed, and gently began to penetrate her, going in only an inch or so before pulling back to ensure I was well lubricated before pressing forward again, more deeply this time. When I was finally fully seated within her, we began a gentle rocking motion while clinging tightly to each other and continuing our kisses. After a while, I felt her breathing accelerate, and then she was making little sighs that turned into moans. My own arousal was growing, and I began to speed up my thrusts until she arched her back, gave a cry and came with a shudder. I continued to pulse into her for a minute or two longer before I joined her in my own orgasm.

As we lay there, each struggling to catch our breath, she gripped my face in both her hands. "Thank you, John, thank you. That was my first time since David died. I thought I would never find love again."

I smiled and kissed her again. I felt like my long nightmare was ending too.

Our lives now settled into a new, unfamiliar routine. Bridget and I began to spend every chance we could get together, but we decided to continue living apart, at least for the time being. In the first place, we didn't want to rush things. And secondly, I still had two mothers bustling around our house taking care of two infants, plus a busy nanny that Bridget found who now arrived every weekday to help out. She proved to be a godsend because she enabled Emily to continue taking classes and Lori to start looking for a job to support herself and her little one. I still tried to help out, but in truth I was the odd man out.

That had an unfortunate side effect. With more idle time on my hands, I began to brood about everything that had happened to me. It might seem contradictory, but the happier I felt with Bridget, the more unhappy I became with Lori. Emily had found a way to co-exist with her mother through the shared experience of caring for their infants. But I had nothing to ease the bitterness of my ex-wife's betrayal and my resentment of the harm she'd done, not just by cuckolding me but by disappearing in such a way as to throw threw suspicion on me.

Over time, however, I found the focus of my resentment shifting to the one person who had thus far escaped the consequences: Brandon Hilton. It was he who had seduced my wife, he who had defiled my daughter, and he who had sullied my name, perhaps irreparably.

What made it even more galling was that seduction was no longer recognized as a crime. Apparently society was perfectly willing to have predators like Hilton seduce wives and daughters and then look the other way when they abruptly departed. Shouldn't there be some punishment for all the pain and suffering they left behind?

I went back and reread The Ox-bow Incident. This time I found myself more sympathetic to the members of the posse who had tracked down the "rustlers." Yes, they'd wound up hanging the wrong men, but they'd been forced into action by an ineffectual justice system that couldn't protect them.

Moreover, as I reminded myself, the crimes those men had attempted to redress were no small matter. Rob a rancher of his herd and he might not be able to feed his family when the winter snows came howling across the prairie. Steal a man's horse and you all but certainly condemned him to a slow, lingering death by starvation and dehydration, far from human civilization. No wonder the vigilantes "took arms against a sea of troubles" to go after the ones they believed had wronged them.

I realized that Brandon Hilton hadn't put my family at risk of starvation or left me to wander on foot through the desert looking for a waterhole.. But he had caused me and my family real, tangible harm. He had stained my reputation, made me into a hapless cuckold, and left behind two abandoned women.

Over time I found myself spending more and more of my spare time searching for clues to his whereabouts, not to mention sleepless nights pondering appropriate forms of revenge for what he had done.

Most college professors aren't particularly well paid, especially those in the liberal arts. The loss of Lori's paycheck had significantly reduced our household income, and now I had the added expense of additional mouths to feed plus a nanny to help care for the infants. There was no way I could afford to retain a detective agency to track down my enemy, so I fell back on the poor man's alternative: the Internet.

Brandon had a Facebook account, naturally, but it had not been updated in over a year. Besides, I thought wryly, he wasn't exactly likely to "friend" me so I could follow any activities he might post. A Google search found his name on the class roll of the law school, but little additional information. However, finding that set me off on a visit to our admissions office to see what I could turn up in their records. A friendly administrative assistant let me look at his file (officially, she shouldn't have done that), but the only thing I learned was that he also was originally from Savannah.

That discovery sent a shiver through me: could Lori have known him from back then? But I quickly saw the absurdity of that idea -- she would have been leaving for college when he was only a few years old. That realization caused me to curse Lori again for her foolish refusal to act her age.

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