Milada enjoyed the drive home, enough to put aside her phobia of open-top automobiles. The city, at street level, was quiet and orderly. Composed like a postcard. The headquarters of the Mormon church occupied several blocks in the heart of downtown, a Vatican City in miniature. Gray granite buildings with heavy stone foundations. A kind of architectural temperance movement.
Back in the suburbs, they’d long since rolled up the sidewalks. Porch lights were on. Bedroom windows glowed behind drawn curtains. Troy drove up Larkspur Lane. He pulled into her driveway and switched off the engine.
“I’ve had a great time this evening.”
Milada smiled at him. “So have I.”
The boy returned the smile sheepishly. He hesitated, making an internal calculation. Milada added up the numbers for him. “Why don’t you come in for a nightcap?”
They got out of the car. Out of the corner of her eye, Milada saw him take a package out from under the front seat. “What is that?”
Troy held up a box slightly bigger than a video case. He seemed pleased she had noticed. “I’ll show you inside.”
The night only gets more interesting.
Contrasted to the desert night, the house felt musty and warm. Milada took off her blazer and went around opening windows. Troy said, “You’ve got a swamp cooler, don’t you? You can air out a house pretty fast at night just turning on the swamp cooler fan.”
As she slept in the basement, Milada rarely bothered with it. The switch was located on the wall at the top of the stairs. She stepped up and turned it on. A gush of cold, damp air poured down from the louvered vent in the ceiling.
“An interesting contraption,” she observed.
“The air in New York is too humid for swamp coolers?”
“Very much so.” In the kitchen, Milada took a bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Catawba out of the fridge.
“Umm—” Troy said.
“Don’t worry. It’s just expensive grape juice. I purchased it the other day on a whim.”
She twisted off the foil-wrapped top. The bottle opened with a pop. She retrieved two glasses from the cupboard and filled each half full. She raised her glass. “Kanpai,” she said.
“Kanpai.” They clinked their glasses together.
“Hmm,” said Milada, “like very good Sprite.” She set down the glass and leaned toward him, her elbows on the counter top. “So what do you have in that box?”
“Oh, yes.” Troy set the box on the countertop and lifted off the cover. It was a book. The book had a black leather cover of middling quality. Her name was embossed in the bottom right-hand corner: Milada Daranyi. Spelled right, even. Milada wasn’t sure whether to be taken aback or amused. She removed the book from the box. Gold-trimmed pages, scriptures of some sort.
“It’s a triple combination,” said Troy, quite proud of himself. “That’s what we call it. The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Three books—”
“Hence, a triple combination. The Mormon canon, I take it.”
She was familiar with the title of the first. “I don’t know what to say,” she said, which was the truth. She idly flipped through the pages as she walked from the kitchen and down the half-flight of stairs to the family room. She flopped onto the couch, kicked off her shoes, and rested her feet on the coffee table.
Troy said, “I think you could read better if you turned on the light.”
She hadn’t noticed the darkness.
He sat on the couch and looked at her like she was a young charge he’d been asked to babysit. He said, “I marked a place. Verse four.”
Milada tugged on the black ribbon. The book opened near the middle. She found the verse and began. “When ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, and et cetera, and et cetera—” She scanned to the end of the selection. “Well,” she said, “that’s nice. To paraphrase André Maurois, in religion as in love, we are readily astonished at what is chosen by others.”
“The things people believe in are often true.”
“Perhaps valid is a more accurate term than true. And perhaps not often. But, yes, they are.” Milada closed the book and ran her fingers across the textured leather. “I am not unsympathetic to the religious impulse, Troy. I was born into what is called the Eastern Orthodox Church. My parents had belief to spare. But belief did not spare them from cholera. I don’t blame God. I don’t even feel that my faith is less now than then. I have only as much as I was born with. No more, no less.”
Troy took the book from her. “I believe this book is true.”
“I respect that. You could say I have faith in other people’s faith. A disciplined passion is an admirable thing. It is good to have believers in the world to keep alive the possibilities of transcendence. My passions, however, tend toward a more earthly nature.”
Milada took the book from Troy and placed it on the coffee table. Her little discourse had left the boy stymied. She gave him a delectable smile. “You Mormons are full of surprises.” She plumped the cushions and snuggled up next to him. She smelled his aftershave and then his apprehension and took it as a challenge. She kissed his cheek, nipped at his earlobe. “But to tell the truth,” she breathed, “I really do not have an overwhelming passion for theology at the moment.”
She draped her arms around Troy’s neck and kissed his mouth. Her weight pushed him back on the couch. His hands played across her blouse, slipping across the silk from her waist to her breasts. He was probably just trying to push her off, but she permitted herself a small, encouraging moan.
His whole body recoiled.
Men simply did not recoil from her. But this man leapt—in a single movement—from the couch and backed away hunched over, hastily buttoning his jacket. Milada could feel the heat beating off his face, the strong scent of testosterone mingled in his sweat. She stared at him, stunned. She came dangerously close to grabbing him and throwing him against the wall and screaming, Where do you think you are going?
Troy turned and fled up the stairs, as Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife. The front door opened and slammed closed. The Wrangler started up and exited her driveway with a screech of tires.
Milada fell back on the couch and covered her face with her hands. Damn, this was embarrassing. Okay, the transition from the sacred to the sensual had been a bit abrupt. But frankly, bringing God into the picture had always been a bit of a turn-on. She’d bedded preachers and priests—she knew damn well that sex and religion were not mutually exclusive pursuits.
A hundred years ago, Mormons were the lechers of the western world. The New York press could not scandalize them enough, Brigham Young and his umpteen wives. Those well-bred men of society—and their mistresses—delighted in being shocked—shocked!—by the immorality of it all.
Who knew Mormons were all a bunch of born-again Victorians underneath? Milada paced a line across the floor, met the wall, paced back. Damn, she said to herself. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! She stopped pacing and put her hand on her stomach. She was hungry. She really was. Well-nigh ravenous. When had she last fed? Three weeks ago? That was pushing it. Garrick warned her about getting wrapped up in her work. She should have just taken the boy and been done with it. Good God, what am I saying? She hunched over, feeling weak. She wasn’t thinking straight.
She headed down into the basement, peeled off her clothes, stalked back and forth. She flung open a drawer, closed it, opened another. There were the BYU sweats Rachel had traded her. Milada held up the top that showed the cougar draped with rapine seductiveness across the block letter Y. She grinned, brushing the tips of her canines against her bottom lip. Yes, this was just right.
She set her wristwatch alarm to four-thirty—always a precaution—and hopped into the Mercedes. The keys were in the ignition, car door remote under the visor. The car glided down the driveway onto Larkspur Lane. She felt extraordinarily good. Her body sensed, anticipated, expected satiation. The adrenaline pumping into her bloodstream gave her an almost giddy high.
She wound her way out of Cottonwood Estates and headed north.