IT WAS THE MORNING AFTER THE Quorum Ball, a Saturday. John Merrivale was in bed with his wife.

"Please, C-C-Caroline. I don't want to."

"I don't care what you want, you pathetic little worm. Do it!"

John Merrivale closed his eyes and moved down beneath the sheets till he was eye level with his wife's neatly trimmed black bush.

Caroline taunted him. "If you weren't such a limp dick, I wouldn't need you to do it. But since you've failed to get it up yet again, it's the least you can do."

John Merrivale began to do what was asked of him. He hated oral sex. It felt disgusting and wrong. But the days had long passed when he was allowed to follow his own desires. His sex life had become a series of nightly humiliations. Weekends were the worst. Caroline expected a morning performance on Saturdays, and sometimes even a Sunday matinee. It was incredible to John how a woman who so patently despised him could still have such a rampant sex drive. But Caroline seemed to get off on degrading him, bending him to her whim.

Feeling her writhe with pleasure against his tongue, John fought the urge to gag. Sometimes he fantasized about escape. I could go to the office one day and never come home. I could drug her, then strangle her in her sleep. But he knew he would never have the balls to do it. That was the worst part of his miserable marriage. His wife was right about him: He was weak. He was a coward.

In the beginning, when they first met, John had hoped that he might draw strength from Caroline's dominant personality. That her confidence and ambition would compensate for his shyness. For a few blissful months, they had. But it wasn't long before his wife's true nature emerged. Caroline's ambition was not a positive force, like Lenny Brookstein's. It was a black hole, an envy-fueled vortex that sucked the life out of any human being who came near it. By the time John Merrivale realized what a monster he'd married, it was too late. If he divorced her, she would expose him to the world as a sexual cripple. That would be more humiliation than even John could bear.

Thankfully it took only a couple minutes for Caroline to reach orgasm. As soon as she had her pleasure, she got up and marched into the shower, leaving John to strip the bed and put on fresh sheets. There was no need for him to perform such a menial task. The Merrivales had a small army of maids and housekeepers on permanent call at their palatial town home. But Caroline insisted he do it. Once, when she considered his hospital corners to be less than perfect, she'd smashed a glass perfume bottle into his face. John had needed sixteen stitches, and still bore the scar on his left cheek. He told Lenny he'd been mugged, which as he saw it, was not far from the truth.

If it hadn't been for Lenny Brookstein, John Merrivale would have killed himself years ago. Lenny's friendship, his warm, easy manner, his readiness with a joke, even when business was going badly, was the most important, treasured thing in John Merrivale's life. He lived for the office and his work at Quorum, not because of the money or the power, but because he wanted to make Lenny proud. Lenny Brookstein was the one and only person who had ever believed in John Merrivale. Awkward and physically unattractive, with red hair and pale, gangly limbs, John had never been popular at school. He had no brothers and sisters growing up with whom to share his troubles, or toast his modest successes. Even his parents were disappointed in him. They never said anything, of course. They didn't have to. John could feel it just by walking into a room.

At his wedding to Caroline, he overheard his mother talking to one of his aunts. "Of course, Fred and I are absolutely delighted. We never thought that John would marry such a bright, attractive girl. To be perfectly honest, we'd rather given up hope of his marrying at all. I mean, let's face it, he's a sweet boy but he's hardly Cary Grant!"

The fact that his own wife despised him hurt John, but it did not surprise him. People had despised him all his life. It was Lenny Brookstein's friendship, the huge trust Lenny had placed in John, that was the great surprise of John's life. He owed Lenny Brookstein everything.

Of course, Caroline didn't see it that way. Her envy of Lenny and Grace Brookstein had grown over the years to the point where she now struggled to conceal it in public. In private, John had grown used to hearing her refer to Lenny disparagingly as "the old man," and to Grace as "that bitch." But recently Caroline had taken to wearing her loathing on her face. For John, this made events like last night's Quorum Ball a terrifying experience. His love for Lenny Brookstein was immense. But his fear of his wife was even greater. And Caroline Merrivale knew it.

AT BREAKFAST, JOHN TRIED TO MAKE small talk.

"We made a r-r-respectable total last night, I thought, all things considered."

Caroline sipped her coffee and said nothing.

"I know L-Lenny was pleased."

"Fifteen million?" Caroline laughed scornfully. "That's nothing to the old man. He might as well just write a check himself and be done with it. But of course, that would mean missing out on all the adulation. All the great and the good telling him what a terrific, philanthropic guy he is. And we couldn't have his darling Gracie go without getting her picture taken six thousand times, could we? Heaven forbid!"

John spread a thin layer of butter on his toast, avoiding his wife's eye. He knew from experience that Caroline's anger could turn on a dime. One wrong move and it would be directed at him. Once again he cursed himself for his cowardice. Why am I so afraid of her?

Hoping to get back into her good graces, he mumbled, "Lenny invited us to Nantucket next week, by the way. Don't worry. I said no."

"What the hell did you do that for?"

"I...well, I...I assumed you..."

"You assumed?" Caroline's eyes bulged with rage. "How dare you assume anything!" For a moment John wondered if she was going to hit him. To his great shame, he heard his coffee cup rattle against its saucer. "Who else is invited?"

"Everybody, I th-th-think. The Prestons. Grace's s-sisters. I'm not sure."

"And you want to let Andrew Preston spend a week sucking up to Lenny, pushing himself ahead of you at Quorum while you sit by and do nothing? Good God, John. How stupid are you?"

John opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. The business didn't work like that. Andrew Preston could never hope to usurp John's position and he wouldn't try. He wouldn't dare. But there was no point trying to reason with Caroline.

"So you want to go, then?"

"I don't want to go, John. Frankly I can't think of anything worse than being cooped up with Lenny Brookstein's inane child bride on some godforsaken island for seven days. But I will go. And so will you." She swept imperiously out of the room.

Once she'd gone, John Merrivale allowed himself a small smile.

I did it. We're going. We're actually going!

The reverse psychology had worked like a charm. All it took was a little courage. Perhaps I'll try it more often?




Line : 31

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