by Linda L. Rigsbee
It was only a telephone number, and she wouldn't have thought anything of it, if it hadn't been for the way Steven had been acting lately - that and something Steven had said at the supper table last night. They'd only been married three months. Was he already cheating on her? Dana stared at the slip of paper in her hand, dismissing the laundry as her suspicious gaze focused on the feminine handwriting. Something about that telephone number looked familiar. It was long distance - had she seen it on the telephone bill? How many times? And how long had this been going on?
She frowned, trying to remember every word - every inflection that Steven had used last night. They had been discussing the alarming divorce rate, and she had mentioned that most of the women at work had been married more than once. When she had commented that her grandparents had been married for fifty years, he shrugged.
“I'm sure divorce wasn't so common back then, but I'll bet there was just as much cheating going on then as there is now.”
It was an issue she couldn't argue. How could she know what went on before she was born? Anyway, people didn't used to discuss such things - or did they? Since their conversation, she had recalled overhearing several conversations between her mother and aunt. At that time, both women were having marital problems and she figured they were simply down on men. But was it possible that women simply looked the other way back then because they had no choice?
Well, this was the twenty-first century, and she wasn't about to look the other way. If Steven was seeing another woman on his business trips, she was going to find out.
She went to the study and searched through his desk until she found the last telephone bill. Scanning down the numbers, she paused on one and frowned. There it was - three times. Memory returned with a flash and she let out a sigh of relief and smiled. It was the number of the last hotel where he had stayed. No wonder it sounded familiar. She had made two of those calls to him. No doubt the feminine handwriting was that of the woman at the switchboard, who had probably written the number on the paper for him.
Dana wadded the paper up and threw it in the trash. She carefully tucked the bills back into the desk and had the drawer almost shut when she thought of it. The third call was several days later. She jerked the drawer back open and pulled out the telephone bill again. Yes, four days later - on a Sunday. She scanned down the numbers again and found the telephone number two more times - once on a Saturday, and another one on a Friday evening. Why would he need to call that hotel so many times? She threw the bills in the drawer and slammed it. Only one reason came to mind. He had met someone at the hotel - someone who made quite an impression on him. But who? It wasn't like she could call the number and see who answered - or find the address that corresponded with that telephone number. How could she find out who he had been calling?
She dug the paper out of the trash and smoothed it out. There was only one way, and that was to ask him. There was probably a perfectly good explanation for it. Maybe the same reason he had been acting so distant lately. Something was on his mind - probably business. He rarely discussed his business with her, saying that he didn't want to bore her with the details, and he didn't believe in taking his work home with him. It all sounded reasonable enough.
She completed the laundry and left the house to do some shopping. Steven would be home in a couple of hours, and she needed a few ingredients for a new recipe she was trying.
When she returned, Steven's car was in the drive. She glanced at her watch. No, he wasn't early - she was late. She juggled purse and groceries while she unlocked the door and set everything on the kitchen table.
“Steven?” she called. But no one answered. Maybe he was in the den.
As she entered the hall, she heard his voice from the den. Apparently he was on the telephone. She paused outside the door, halted by his words.
“I'll be up that way in another week or so. I'll drop by and see you again.” A pause, then, “I know, this is all new to me as well, and I have to admit I'm a little nervous.” Another pause. “No, I haven't told her about you yet. I promise I will, though. Just give me a little time to work into it. I've been trying to set the scene, so to speak. Kind of prepare her a little. We haven't been married very long, you know, and I don't want to shock her parents. They're kind of conservative and I don't know how they'll react to this kind of thing.”
Dana backed away from the door, her hand over her mouth. So it was true! And he was trying to break it to her gently? Other than his comment last night, what else had he said - what other hints had completely gone over her head?
She dashed to the kitchen and grabbed her purse. Well, he'd better start figuring out what he was going to say to her parents - because that was where he was going to find her. She exited the house and jumped in her car, squealing her tires as she shot away from the curb. Tears stung her eyes. How could he do such a thing - and why hadn't she suspected?
She slowed as she neared her parent's house. What would she tell them? My husband is cheating on me - can I come back home? No, this wasn't their problem. Anyway, they didn't need any fuel for their argument that she had married too young. She'd have to find some other place to stay. And then it hit her. Why not stay at a hotel? Let Steven wonder for once. Let him worry when she didn't come home for a night. Why get mad when it would be so easy to get even?
She drove around the block and headed back toward home, stopping at the little hotel only two blocks from their house. There she parked her car within sight of the road and rented a room. She felt numb as she pulled back the drapes and stared at the road. This couldn't really be happening, could it? Surely she was in a nightmare, and she'd wake up soon.
But it wasn't a nightmare, and the four walls of the apartment already seemed to be closing in on her. It was going to be a long night. How long would it take Steven to decide to look for her - and how long until he found her car?
She sat on the edge of the bed and flipped through the channels on the television. What was on, she couldn't say because she wasn't seeing anything. She stared dry-eyed at the bright screen, keeping her thoughts busy with all the clever things she would say to him. Maybe she was making it easier for him this way. Maybe she should have marched into the den while he was on the telephone. Yes, that's what she should have done. She could picture the startled look on his face when he realized he'd been caught. What would he say? What could he say? That she'd been a lousy wife? Had she? Hadn't she quit her job because he wanted a wife that would be there when he got home? Hadn't she kept the house clean - had food on the table when he came home from work? Where had she failed? And what was she doing here now? She should be facing him - asking him these questions. So why had she run from the house like a scared rabbit?
She considered that question for a long time and finally decided that it was because she was afraid of what he might say - afraid that it was all her fault. Well it wasn't. She threw the remote control on the bed and stood. This was ridiculous. Why was she leaving the warm comfortable house? She was going home to face him - make him own up to his deeds.
She froze as Steven's white Ford Ranger slowed down on the highway and then turn into the hotel parking lot. It hadn't taken him long. She frowned. Why was he coming from that direction? He couldn't have had time to talk to her parents. He must have left the house shortly after she did. And then she remembered the groceries she had left on the table. He must have known she had come home and heard him on the telephone.
As he unfolded his long frame from the truck and glanced around, she knew why she had run from the house instead of facing him. She had often wondered how a woman could continue to love a man who was cheating on her. And yet, here she stood, hoping somehow he could convince her that it was all a mistake. Watching him walk toward the office buildings, so regal - so masculine, she was drawn to him. And at the same time she was filled with fear. Not fear of physical harm or emotional abuse, but fear of looking foolish in his eyes.
She grabbed her purse, mindlessly scheming on darting to her car while he was in the office. But there wasn't time. He was striding toward her hotel room - reaching for the door knob. He didn't knock, but merely opened the door and stood there - staring at her.
She met his puzzled gaze and swallowed a lump in her throat that must have been her heart. She tried to speak, but nothing came out. And then tears finally welled up in her eyes, spilling over and running down her cheeks.
“What happened? Why are you here?” he asked, obviously perplexed.
She dashed the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
“As if you didn't know.”
“Know what?” he asked in a controlled voice. “All I know is I heard the door slam and you took off like the house was on fire. I thought maybe something happened to your parents or something, so I headed over there. When I didn't see your car there, I headed back home.” He frowned. “But what are you doing here?”
“Getting even, I suppose,” she finally ground out. “I wanted to make you think I had someone too.”
He glanced around the room, as if he expected someone to leap from the closet. “What do you mean, too?” His gaze came back to her, perplexed and then annoyed.
“I found her number in your shirt pocket, and I heard you on the telephone with her.”
His face darkened with mounting color. “I was going to talk to you about her.” And then he blinked, as if something had suddenly occurred to him. “It's not what you think. I'm not having an affair.”
It was her turn to stare in confusion. “But I heard you talking to her. I heard you tell her you didn't want to shock my parents.”
His lips twisted in a grimace and the dark eyes softened. “I was kind of shocked myself, to find out I had a sister.”
“A sister?” she gasped.
“Yes. I didn't know until a few weeks ago. I was on that business trip, and I met a lady at the hotel restaurant. She knew my parents - and my real parents.”
Dana frowned. “Your real parents? Do you mean you're adopted?”
Her suspicions melted into the background as she comprehended his dilemma. “But Steven, your real parents are the ones who raised you. And why would you think my family would be shocked about such a thing, anyway? I think it was wonderful that the Dennis' adopted you.” She shrugged. “I guess they should have told you, but....”
“I know,” he interrupted. “It took me a while to get over the shock, and I don't blame them - considering the circumstances. My natural mother had twins, a girl and a boy,” he hesitated and his gaze dropped to the floor - “While she was in prison,” he added in a low voice.
In prison? No wonder he was so concerned. Dana put her hand on his arm. “Steven,” she said softly, and when he lifted his head and gazed at her, his eyes reflected shame. She shook her head. “My family thinks you're the greatest, and that opinion isn't going to change because of something like this.”
He met her gaze. “And you?”
She blushed. “I'm ashamed - of myself. I’m ashamed because I didn't trust you. I'm ashamed of myself because I thought the worst, and didn't even have the courage to confront you about it. I just cut and ran.”
He glanced around the room again, and then smiled wryly. “Was I supposed to think you were here with some guy?”
She ducked her head. “I don't know what you were supposed to think. I wasn't thinking right. I wasn't thinking at all. I was just trying to get even.”
He lifted her chin and gazed down into her eyes. “A good relationship depends on trust. Jealousy will destroy a marriage quicker than anything else.”
She tumbled into his welcoming arms. “Forgive me,” she said against his chest.
He squeezed her close. “Of course I forgive you. I love you. Will you forgive me?”
She lifted her head and stared at him. “For what?”
“For not trusting you to accept me for what I am. For shutting you out when we needed each other most.” His voice was husky with emotion.
“Of course I forgive you,” she mimicked, “I love you.” She smiled up at him. “I guess we're even now.”
His smile was poignant. “Even Steven.”