“Do you realize how long it’s been?” Dallas spoke, trying to keep her voice as unemotional as possible. Bart hated scenes. Dallas knew she should back off, drop the subject, and leave Bart alone. It was the only safe way to deal with him lately. Tonight was a final, desperate effort on her part. It was their wedding anniversary. If anything was left between them, she should be able to reach it on what was supposed to be a day of celebration. Early returns weren’t promising. Let’s face it, Dallas thought. Your carefully constructed web of pretense is fraying, and fraying fast, with a whole lot of help from your husband. Why can’t you admit it’s over and just take your losses and get out? Because I hate to give up and throw twenty years down the rabbit hole. At least without giving it one last shot. Bart didn’t answer Dallas, didn’t even acknowledge the question. He was staring past her, at a spot somewhere over and slightly to the right of her head. His moods had gotten increasingly dark and difficult lately, his patience with her nonexistent. As Dallas watched him lift the glass he held and drain its contents, she thought, He’s drinking way too much. Dallas looked away, feeling totally defeated. As she did, she heard Bart rattle the ice cubes in his glass. That was her cue to get him a refill. Let him get his own damned refill, she decided, with a rare burst of irritation and rebellion. He has feet. Tonight, as soon as she’d given him his anniversary gift, she knew she’d made a mistake. His face closed up, his jaw tensed, and he acted like she’d handed him a bomb he expected would go off at any minute. The gift still sat, unopened, on the table. At first, Dallas hoped it was because he forgot about the anniversary and didn’t have anything for her. But it was more than that. There was something different about Bart tonight, something Dallas couldn’t identify, something that intensified the uneasy feelings she’d had for the last six months. More and more, she felt like she was living with a stranger. “Doesn’t twenty years of marriage mean a thing to you, Bart?” Dallas asked. At last, Bart decided to acknowledge her presence. He let his gaze drop to her slender ankles and work its way up to her face. His hazel eyes were cold, and his mouth was set in a thin line. “I fail to see twenty years of marriage as an excuse for you to run around dressed like a cheap tramp, Dallas,” he said. “I’m not dressed like a tramp.” Dallas wore a white lace teddy she bought especially for the occasion. It was about as successful as the fancy dinner she cooked and Bart barely touched. Another mistake, obviously, she decided. My whole life seems to be a mistake lately. She sighed. “I wanted you to make love to me. That’s all. Nothing else works. I thought this was worth a try.” Bart’s silence and the unyielding intensity of his gaze made Dallas look away again. She stared past him, out the sliding glass patio doors, where a crescent moon floated on the horizon. It washed the night with pale light and made it look as cold and empty as Dallas felt. “I will make love to you when I want to,” Bart finally said. “Do you understand? And if I never want to again, that part of your life will be over. Whether you like it or not.” Dallas swallowed hard, bit her lip, and fought back the tears of resignation and defeat that gathered on her lower lids. If there was anything her husband hated worse than emotional scenes, it was tears. “You are no different from any other tramp in the world, are you, Dallas? Always willing to get some poor slob to do what you want him to do. Then, when he does, you turn on him. You all turn on him.” Bart’s words, and the vehemence behind them, dried Dallas’s tears up before they had a chance to spill over. What in God’s name is he talking about now? Dallas wondered. Not for the first time in her dealings with Bart lately had she tried to label uneasiness that crossed the line and became something very close to fear. “I don’t know what you mean,” Dallas said, purposely keeping her voice soothing and noncombative. “You’re my husband, it’s our anniversary, and I wanted us to make love. It’s that simple. It’s been over a year, Bart,” she finished softly. Bart stood up and leaned over Dallas, one hand on either arm of her chair. His position pinned her in place, yes, but it was the fanatical light in his eyes that held Dallas motionless. Forget the uneasy. She was definitely frightened now. “And it will be another year, or two, or three. It will be when I say, Dallas. Not a minute sooner. You have nothing to do with it. I control that part of your life.” Bart straightened up but continued to stare at her. Dallas saw disgust and something much more dangerous in his expression. It made her wish, desperately, she could just disappear. If there are black holes in the universe, where are they when you really need them? she wondered. Why doesn’t one of them swallow me up? I shouldn’t have started this. I should have ignored the anniversary. Like he now obviously intended to do. I should have just packed up and left, without this last fawning attempt to salvage the last twenty years of my life. As Dallas shrank back against the chair, her fear growing with every new twist in the strange behavior Bart had exhibited lately, he brought his hands up even with her throat. Mesmerized, like a fly froze in a spider’s web, Dallas watched as they opened and closed convulsively, once, twice, three times. She got the distinct impression it took all the strength Bart had not to wrap them around her neck and strangle her. The fear closed in for real then and paralyzed Dallas. The house held its breath expectantly, a silent witness to sudden violence. Dallas’s whole body reacted. Her pulse raced wildly, and she could feel the adrenaline racing through her system. Just when she was sure Bart was going to reach for her and she would feel his strong hands squeezing her constricted throat until there was no life left in her trembling body, Bart realized what he was doing. With a great effort, he pulled himself back from some frightening abyss that Dallas could only imagine. Bart stood, immobile, menacing, and glared at Dallas for what felt like an eternity. At last, he gave her a look of unmistakable hatred, turned on his heel, and left the room. Dallas held her breath, afraid to even move, while she silently, fervently prayed he wouldn’t change his mind and come back. Thank God, she thought, when she heard him pick his keys up off the hall table. Moments later, the front door slammed with enough force to rattle every window in the house. Dallas heard Bart’s car start up and screech off into the Florida night. Slowly, with him gone, her fear subsided. There was no doubt left in her mind. Dallas barely escaped physical violence this time. And what about next time? she asked herself. Will you be so lucky? There won’t be a next time, she decided. There can’t be. Dallas got up, not at all surprised to find her knees were weak and shaky, and went into the bedroom. Her suitcases were stored at the back of her walk-in closet. She took them out and set them down on the carpeted floor then began to take her clothes off their padded hangers. She willed herself not to cry, not to think about the might-have-beens, the dreams, the hopes. Boo, the Great Dane she had rescued from the pound, was asleep on Dallas’s side of the king-size bed. He opened one eye, looked at her, and boofed. Even that soft noise was jarring in the silent house. “It’s over, Boo,” Dallas whispered. “There’s nothing to salvage. Nothing left. We have to get out of here while we still can.” Dallas threw on some clothes then packed quickly, taking only the bare necessities, anxious to get away before Bart came back. Finished, she sat the bags by the garage door and hurried through the house to her study. She gathered up the tote bag containing the scripts and lessons she’d need for the classes she taught, and then she took a moment to look around the pleasant room. It was, she realized, the only thing she would really miss. And isn’t that a sad commentary, Dallas thought. The date on her desk calendar read October 1. It was circled in red. She stopped and stared at it before she reached over and turned the brass desk lamp off. The pent-up tears finally burned their way back to the surface and overflowed her pale, stone-washed blue eyes. “Happy anniversary,” she whispered. “You’re late,” JJ said. She gave Dallas an accusing look then flicked a crumb off the table with one bright-red, perfectly manicured nail. The collection of bracelets on her tanned wrist sparkled in the sunlight coming through the window beside her. Four of the five fingers on each hand wore a ring of some description. JJ loved jewelry, especially if it was real. All of JJ’s jewelry was real. Dallas pulled out a chair and dropped into it and then gave a tired sigh. “Long night,” she admitted, glancing around Franky’s Restaurant. The morning sun that came in the window behind JJ partially blinded Dallas. The noise from the kitchen blended with the sounds of the customers and accosted her ears. Her head threatened to give birth to a truly awful headache. Normally, the small neighborhood restaurant where Dallas and JJ met for breakfast before they went to work was a friendly haven. It was a break before Dallas had to face the rigors of teaching her class and then shepherding them through rehearsals for whatever play was in the works at Coast Community College. JJ had it a little easier. She was Dallas’s assistant director and closest friend. Over the past year, Dallas and JJ had become regulars at Franky’s. They knew most of the other regulars by name and were friends with the owner, Franky, and his brother Mel. The customers had learned to enjoy the greasy eggs and buttered toast with gusto. Cholesterol be damned. Today, all the confusion was almost more than Dallas could take. JJ raised an arched eyebrow. “Late night, how?” “I left Bart,” Dallas said. “Last night.” “Well, hallelujah. It’s about time.” Dallas waved away the menu the waitress offered and declined the raised coffee pot. “Iced tea,” she said. The waitress nodded and left. “So talk,” JJ said, picking up her cup and sipping the steaming liquid in it. “Something’s wrong, JJ,” Dallas said shaking her head, her blonde hair, streaked almost white by the Florida sun, settling softly on her shoulders. “Something bad. And I don’t know what it is. He’s changed. I mean, really changed.” JJ gave her a cynical look. “How can you tell? He’s always been a horse’s ass if you ask me.” Dallas waited while the waitress put her tea down on the table before she answered JJ. “It’s more than that, JJ. The last six, eight, months, Bart’s gotten stranger and stranger. He’s so damned angry, worse than I’ve ever seen him. And Lord knows I’ve seen him angry enough times to be an expert. I thought I could reach him, make it all better, you know, like always. But I can’t. Whatever it is, it’s grown into something I can’t fix this time.” “Do you think he’s having an affair?” “I don’t know, especially after last night.” “What do you mean?” “He said something about all women being tramps, including me. How we used men and then threw them away.” “Maybe somebody jilted him.” From the twinkle in her eyes, Dallas knew JJ found that amusing. “It could be. Strange thing is I really don’t care. He can do anything he wants to do. I just want out. I can’t take anymore, JJ,” Dallas said. “Twenty damned years down the drain.” “Not quite. You got Dooley out of it.” “True. Right now, she seems like the only good thing the marriage brought about too. God, I’m glad she’s away at school. I thought Bart was going to hit me, JJ, or choke me or worse.” Briefly, Dallas related the whole story to her friend. “So I packed up after he left and took Boo to a hotel.” “A hotel let that big monster in?” “I had to pay a pet deposit, but yes. The Holiday Inn did, finally, after I assured them he wouldn’t eat the maids or the furniture.” “Now what?” Dallas shrugged. “Find an apartment, I guess.” “Need a loan?” “No. I can afford it. Bart never let me contribute to anything around that place. He’s too proud to accept my money, and all that macho bullshit. I have a solid little nest egg squirreled away. That’ll get me started, and my teaching salary will support us. Plus the theatre work.” Dallas sipped at her tea and felt JJ study her. She knew there were deep-blue circles under her eyes. Even her dark tan and carefully applied make-up wouldn’t hide them this morning. “I’m sorry,” JJ finally said. “But I’m also glad. Now I can quit worrying about you.” “I hope. Lord knows how he’ll react when he finds out I’ve left.” Again, JJ’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re still frightened, aren’t you?” “Yes,” Dallas admitted. “I am.” “So get a restraining order.” “Do you know how many women get killed clutching that silly little piece of paper called a restraining order?” JJ gave her a strange look. “Killed? Do you really think Bart’s capable of that?” “I don’t know. After last night, I don’t have a clue in the world as to who he is anymore. He’s a stranger, JJ. A stranger I don’t like and don’t trust. I don’t want to be around him at all for any reason. I was always so afraid to cross him, you know. I was afraid he’d leave me and I’d be alone. Now, being alone seems like a glorious indulgence. It’s what I want more than anything.” “In your case, alone can only be better. Besides, it’s a big world.” JJ grinned. “You’ll find somebody else.” Dallas shook her head. “Trust me, I’m not looking. Not for a long, long, time.” She checked her watch. “Listen, Irma called yesterday afternoon. She’s agreed to see me this morning. Can you handle rehearsals until I get there?” “Ah, yes,” JJ said. “Trying to get the old folk to support a project involving the kids of the community?” She gave a snort that was supposed to pass for a laugh. “Good luck.” “I know, I know. But I have to try.” Dallas pushed her chair back, stood up, rummaged in her skirt pocket, and then dropped two bills on the table. “Later,” she said picking up her bag and heading for the door. Outside, the heat was like some palpable thing. It wrapped itself around Dallas’s face and choked off her breath, like breathing through a steaming, wet sponge. She crossed the lot to her car, opened the door, leaned in and hit the power button rolling the windows down so the heat could escape, and then sat down gingerly and started the engine. She turned the air conditioner on then stepped back outside to wait for it to cool the car down before she sentenced herself to its inferno. While she waited, she looked at the brilliant, blue sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, no relief from the heat anywhere on the horizon. All around the parking lot, flowers wilted in the dusty ground. A sprinkler swished back and forth over parched, brown grass. Even through her sandals, Dallas could feel the blistering heat of the asphalt. “Dallas.” It was a single word uttered into the peace of the morning, but it made Dallas’s pulse race. She whirled around and stared into Bart’s eyes. They were cold and lifeless, a startling contrast to the sunny morning. He still wore the clothes he’d worn when he left last night. They were rumpled and dirty and looked like he’d slept in them. That surprised Dallas. Bart was normally fanatical about his appearance. “When I got home this morning, you were gone. I checked your closet. You’ve left, haven’t you?” He stood ramrod straight and threatening, blocking off any chance of escape. “Yes, I have.” “Why?” “I can’t take it anymore, Bart. It’s over.” “Nothing’s over until I say it is.” Dallas searched his face for any sign of the man she’d married so long ago. There was none. The fear began to send tentative fingers through her slender body again. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Really sorry.” She backed toward the open door of the car and managed to slide in, and then she closed the door before he could stop her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t fast enough to hit the power button on the windows, and he leaned in toward her. She could see the knuckles of his right hand, gripping the glass so hard they were white. “I want you home when I get back from this trip, Dallas. Is that clear?” Dallas shivered despite the heat. “Yes, Bart, very clear, but I won’t be there.” Her heart pounded as she watched his hand on the window. It opened and closed just like it had last night. Once again, she imagined it around her throat, and the fingers of fear became a deep, bottomless pit. She suddenly hit the power button to roll the window up, which caught Bart off guard. He tried to jerk his hand away but wasn’t fast enough. She heard his shocked expletive as his hand was squeezed between the glass and the door frame. “Tramp,” he screamed, extricating his hand and cradling it against his chest. You’ll pay for that.” Dallas threw the small car into gear and accelerated past him. The last thing she saw in her rearview mirror was his tall, frightening form, standing deathly still and watching her retreat. Dallas thought it reminded her of a dark and menacing shadow wavering in the bright sunlight.