Read an Excerpt
Morning sun splashed into the room moments before the first notes came from the clock radio. David Shelton, eyes still closed, listened for a few seconds before silently guessing Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, probably the Summer concerto. It was a game he had played nearly every morning for years. Still, the occasions on which he identified a piece correctly were rare enough to warrant a small celebration.
A soothing male voice, chosen by the station to blend with the dawn, identified the music as a Haydn symphony. David smiled to himself. You’re getting sharper. The right continent—even the right century.
He turned his head toward the window and opened his eyes a slit, preparing for the next guessing game in his morning ritual. Hazy rainbows of sunlight filtered through his lashes. “No contest,” he said, squinting to make the colors flicker.
“What did you say?” the woman next to him mumbled sleepily, drawing her body tightly against his.
“Sparkling autumn day. Fifty, no, fifty-five degrees. Nary a cloud.” David opened his eyes fully, confirmed his prediction, then rolled over, slipping his arm beneath her smooth back. “Happy October,” he said, kissing her forehead, at the same time running his free hand down her neck and across her breasts.
David studied her face as she awoke, marveling at her uncluttered beauty. Ebony hair. High cheek bones. Full, sensuous mouth. Lauren Nichols was by all standards a stunning woman. Even at 6:00 A.M. For a moment, another woman’s face flashed in his thoughts. In her own special way Ginny, too, had always looked beautiful in the early morning. The image faded as he drew his fingers over Lauren’s flat stomach and gently massaged the mound beneath her soft hair.
“Roll over, David, and I’ll give you a back rub,” Lauren said, sitting up suddenly.
Disappointment crossed his face, but was instantly replaced by a broad grin. “Ladies’ choice,” he sang, rolling over and bunching the pillow beneath his head. “Last night was really wonderful,” he added, feeling the thick muscles at the base of his neck relax to her touch. “You are something else, Nichols, do you know that?”
Out of David’s field of vision, Lauren forced the smile of an adult trying to share a youthful enthusiasm she had long outgrown. “David,” she said, increasing the vigor of her massage, “do you think you might be able to get a haircut before the Art Society dinner dance next week?”
He flipped to his back, staring at her with a mixture of confusion and dismay. “What has my hair got to do with our lovemaking?”
“Honey, I’m sorry,” she said earnestly, “I really am. I guess I have a thousand things hopping around in my head today. It was beautiful for me, too. Honest.”
“Beautiful? You really mean that?” David said, immediately regaining his élan.
“There’s still a hell of a lot of tension in your body, doc, but less each time. Last night was definitely the best yet.”
The best yet. David cocked his head to one side, evaluating her words. Progress, not perfection. That was all he could ask for, he decided. And certainly, over the six months since they had met, progress there had been.
Their life together was often an emotional roller coaster, quite unlike the easy, free-flowing years with Ginny. Still, their differences had not been insurmountable—her judgmental friends, his cynicism, the differing demands of their careers. As each crisis arose, was dealt with, and passed, David sensed their caring grow. Although there were things he wished were different, he was grateful just to feel the caring, and the willing ness to try.
It was willingness David thought had died for him eight years before in screams and glass and twisted metal.
Realizing that Lauren had said all she was going to on the subject of their physical relationship, David flipped over once again. The back rub continued. Maybe you’re finally ready, he thought. Maybe it’s time. But for God’s sake, Shelton, don’t rush it. Don’t push her away, but try not to smother her either. As he played the feelings through in his mind, the apprehension surrounding them faded.
“You know,” he said after a while, “of all the bets and guesses I’ve ever made with myself, you’ve been the most striking loss.”
“Well, I think it’s safe to tell you now. On our first date I bet myself a jumbo Luigi’s special-with-everything-except-anchovies pizza that we would run out of things to say in a week.”
“I just couldn’t imagine what an unsophisticated, stripes-with-plaids surgeon was going to find to talk about with a chic, jet-set newspaper reporter, that’s all.”
“And now you know, right?”
“What I know is that my body turned you on so much you couldn’t resist trying to play ’enry ’iggins with the rest of me.” He laughed, spinning around to give her a bear hug, a maneuver that usually led to an out-and-out wrestling match. When Lauren showed no inclination to join in, he released her and leaned back on his hands.
“Something the matter?” he asked.
“David, you started crying out in your sleep last night. Was it another nightmare?”
“I … I guess so.” David answered uncertainly, testing the muscles in his jaw. Only then did he realize they were aching. “My face hurts, and that usually means I spent most of the night with my teeth clenched.”
“Can you remember what it was this time?”
“One I’ve had before, I think. Fuzzier than other nights, but the same one. It doesn’t happen so often anymore.”
David felt the concern in her voice, but her expression held something more. Impatience? Irritation? He looked away. “The highway,” he said softly. “It was the highway.” The tone and cadence of his words took on an eerie, detached quality as he drifted back into the nightmare. “All I see for a while is the windshield … the wipers are thrashing back and forth … faster and faster, fighting to keep pace with the rain. The center line keeps trying to snake under the car. I keep forcing it back with the wheel. Ginny’s face is there for a moment … and Becky’s, too … both asleep … both so peaceful.… ” David’s eyes had closed. His words stopped, but the memory of the dream was unrelenting. Out of the darkness and the rain, the headlights began coming. Two at a time. Heading straight for him, then splitting apart and flashing past, one on either side. Wave after blurry wave. Then, above the lights, he saw the face. The crazy drunken face, twisted and red with fire, eyes glowing golden in the flames. His hands locked as he prayed the oncoming lights would split apart like all the others. But he knew they wouldn’t. They never did. Then he heard the brakes screeching. He saw Ginny’s eyes open and widen in terror. Finally, he heard the scream. Hers? His? He could never tell.
“Lauren’s voice cut the scream short. He shuddered, then turned to her. Droplets of sweat had appeared on his forehead. His hands were shaking. He took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. The shaking stopped. “Guess I got lost there for a moment, huh?” He smiled sheepishly.
“David, have you seen your doctor lately? Maybe you should get in touch with him,” Lauren said.
“Ol’ Brinker the Shrinker? He tapped me dry—head and pocketbook—about three months ago and told me I had graduated. What are you worried about? It’s only a nightmare. Brinker told me they’re normal in situations like mine.”
“I’m worried, that’s all.”
“Lauren Nichols, you’re frightened that I might come apart in the middle of the Art Society banquet and get your life membership canceled!”
Lauren’s laugh lacked conviction. After a few seconds, she stopped trying to pay homage to his sense of humor. “David, is there anything at all that you take seriously? In just one sentence you manage to poke fun at me for being concerned about your health and for caring enough about art to be active in the Society. What is with you?”
David started to apologize, but swallowed the words. The look in her eyes told him that some very basic issues were suddenly on the griddle. Something more than a simple “I’m sorry” was needed. For several interminably silent seconds their eyes locked.
Finally, he shrugged and said, “There I go again, huh? An ounce of flippancy is worth a pound of facing up to real feelings. I know I do it, but sometimes even knowing isn’t enough. Look, Lauren, what I said wasn’t meant maliciously. Truly it wasn’t. The nightmares still scare me. It’s hard for me to face that. Okay?”
Lauren was not yet placated. “You haven’t answered my question, David. Is anything significant enough to keep you from joking about it?”
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “most things are significant to me. Shit, you should know that by now.”
“But only you know for sure which is which, right?”
“Dammit, Lauren, I’m a doctor—a surgeon—and a damn good one. Of course things are important to me. Of course I care. I care about people and pain, about suffering, about life. My world is full of injury and disease and no-win decisions. The day I lose my ability to laugh is the day I lose my ability to cope.” He fought back the impulse to continue, sensing he was already guilty of attacking their morning spat with a sledgehammer.