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Книга Third Degree. Страница 9

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The temptation to turn north on Highway 24 was strong. All Laurel had to do was send a reply, and Danny would be waiting in the clearing he had cut out of the forest just for her. Ostensibly a “feed plot” designed to attract deer, the clearing was a circular opening in the trees about fifty feet across, covered with clover a foot deep. Laurel had often lain in that fragrant green lake with Danny inside her, watching the clouds drift from one edge of the sky to the other. To get to the clearing, she used a small gate in the barbed-wire fence that lined Deerfield Road. Danny had given her a key, which she kept in the inside zip pocket of her purse, but whenever he knew she was coming, he unlocked the gate, so that she could nose her Acura through it without even getting out. Thirty seconds later, she would be in the clearing, where Danny sat on his four-wheeler, waiting to chauffeur her up to his house.

Sometimes, sitting behind him, she would open his belt and squeeze him as he drove along the trail. On rainy days, he’d let her drive and cup her breasts to protect them as the four-wheeler bounced along the deep ruts like a tractor crossing rows in a cotton field. If he sensed that she was in the mood, he would rub gentle circles around her nipples as she drove, so that by the time they reached the house, she was well and truly ready.

Laurel shifted on the seat as she stopped for a traffic signal. Five weeks without Danny had given her a constant low-grade ache down low, and sex with Warren had done nothing to alleviate it. The stoplight was a Robert Frost moment: a left turn would take her home; a right would carry her toward Danny’s property. Even with blank spots floating before her eyes, she felt compelled to turn right. Two or three shattering orgasms might just nip her migraine in the bud. But then where would she be? Back in an affair with a man who wouldn’t leave his wife-or his son, rather. Whichever, the result was the same: the second-class citizenship of Other Womanhood.

Laurel turned left and angrily gunned the motor, her mind on the Imitrex waiting at home. As she neared the stately new homes of Avalon, the seemingly idyllic sameness of the place began to close in on her: perfectly manicured lawns, oceans of pink azaleas, well-placed magnolias, brick border walls, wrought-iron gates, and cookie-cutter Colonials that held every antique armoire, top-end deer rifle, and flat-screen television that the upper crust of Athens Point could buy on credit. Much of it had been purchased to distract the owners from marriages in various states of decomposition, or so it seemed to Laurel, who heard the inside story on every couple in the teachers’ lounge at school.

As she turned onto her street, Lyonesse Drive, instinct suddenly got the better of her pride. She took out her clone phone and texted Danny without taking her eyes off the road. She had sent so many text messages in the past year that she could work the keypad as effortlessly as any high school girl at Athens Country Day.

Give me 30 mins, she typed.

Driving as swiftly as she dared between the mountainous speed humps, she slid the Razr back into her pocket. She needed Imitrex in her system as fast as she could get it, but she needed Danny just as bad. Images of past lovemaking fragmented into another shower of sparkles, and she clenched her shoulders against what could be the first hammer blow to the side of her head.

Why am I going to Danny’s place? she wondered. To pour out my heart to him?

So what if she was pregnant? Would Danny abandon his autistic son to take care of a child that only might be his? What if he suggested that she get an abortion? She’d probably kick him in the balls-something to hint at the pain she would have to endure on an abortionist’s table. There was no equivalent analog of the emotional loss she would endure in that case, not for a man.

With that thought, Laurel’s father popped into her mind. This was strange, because she hadn’t seen him for more than three years. God, would he rant if he knew about her situation. At least she didn’t have to worry about that. The “Reverend” Tom Ballard was off on a “missionary trip” in Eastern Europe, an endless one, apparently. He’d tried to explain his goals before he left, but the more he’d told Laurel, the more it had sounded like recruitment for some sort of Christian cult, so she’d tuned out. Her father was a lay minister who’d spent more time and money on other people’s children than he ever had on his own. Nominally Baptist, but really more of a roving tent show built around his own unconventional beliefs, Tom’s ministry was based in Ferriday, Louisiana, forty miles up the river from Athens Point. This one-horse town had also produced Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Tom carried the spirits of both men within him. Itinerant by nature, he traveled ceaselessly to spread his version of the Good News, which always included music and sometimes involved an intimate laying on of hands.

Laurel’s clearest and most embarrassing childhood memories were of squatting on the shoulders of highways in half the states in the union, while her father tried to repair whatever broken-down junker he happened to be driving at the time. Laurel would wait in mute rage, sweating or freezing as the case might be, while her mother implored her father to let her flag down a passing motorist (translation: a man with more practical sense than the one she’d entrusted her future to). Tom wasn’t a bad man, but he was a poor father. About the only two benefits Laurel had derived from his peripatetic lifestyle were world travel and books. Their rickety old house in Ferriday contained more books than many of the big houses by the country club in Athens Point. She had spent her preteen years reading a moth-eaten Cambridge History of the Ancient World-all fifteen volumes-and vowing to marry a man opposite from her father in almost every way.

In Warren Shields, she had found that man. Warren was so organized that at twenty, he’d kept meticulous records of his mileage and car maintenance. In hindsight, that should have signaled a seriously anal-retentive personality, but to Laurel Ballard, those records were flags marking a safe harbor. Warren hadn’t come from a rich family, but during his first year of medical school he was already buying bargain stocks and calculating which specialties would allow him to retire soonest. (Only later did she begin to see the dark side of these traits, such as being kept on a strict household allowance, one that barely allowed her enough money to buy decent clothes.) Warren also attended a real church with hardwood pews and stained glass, not a one-room saltbox with an aluminum steeple clapped on top with baling wire. In Warren’s church, the congregation spoke softly and needed hymnals to follow the hymns. The minister always acted with great rectitude, and no one ever-ever-danced or fainted in the aisles.

By marrying Warren, Laurel got exactly what she’d thought she wanted. And then she’d begun the long, slow realization that financial security could be expensive to the soul. Warren, too, discovered that life didn’t unfold according to even the best-laid plans. During the second year of his surgical residency-in Boulder, Colorado, which Laurel had loved-Warren’s mother had been diagnosed with a progressive nerve disease. Warren’s father, a school principal who’d preached “toughness” his whole life, had proved unequal to the task of caring for his wife as she moved toward death. And because Warren’s mother refused to move to Colorado for palliative care (she claimed she had to take care of her husband while she could), Warren decided to “take a sabbatical” from his residency to return home and care for his mother. Laurel understood his motives, but she had taught special ed for years to put Warren through medical school, and she finally had a year of architecture school under her belt. She didn’t think either of them should stop their educations, even for one year. But when Warren pressed her, she gave in, and they returned to Athens Point.

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