Spring Storm

by a campbell


Thanks to betas Signe and Elizabeth. Dedicated to Aelora for her kindness.
Feedback will be savored.


Vegetables had taken up Martha's entire morning. Not the main crop, but her kitchen garden on the back side of the house. The sky was clear and the air was cool, but not too chilly for more than a sweater. She'd packed Jonathan off to Olathe that morning after breakfast with a sigh of relief, then headed outside and started digging right away. What a relief it was to be feeling better again and have the day to herself. She'd missed having time and energy for gardening while she worked for Lionel.

New selections this year: chard and eggplant instead of tomatoes and carrots, and she could hear Clark's complaints already. No matter. The Schwan's truck would be by this morning, and she'd make it up to him in advance with Butter Crunch, his current favorite ice cream, or, if that flavor was sold out, Chocolate Marshmallow, a close second. Clark wasn't the only Butter Crunch devotee in Smallville.

This small garden, though useful, was mainly a source of pleasure, providing her the occasional break from some of the harder farm work and the concern over debt. And from the constant worry over Clark's secret, and whether, by autumn, he might be gone. On a day alone, however she might look forward to Jonathan's return that evening, she could just be herself in the interim. And savor all the routine, homespun tasks she'd had to forego when working for Luthorcorp. It was good to be back home, she told herself yet again.

Martha slowed her spade with a sigh and brushed a stray strand of hair from her face. She couldn't delude herself completely. At times she missed her job with a keenness that was close to pain.

Missed Lionel.

He was dangerous. A threat to everyone and everything she loved. She was baffled and confused over what had made her love him, but love him she had.

She swallowed, tears burning behind her eyelids, and just dug harder.

Being around him every day, working with him, advising and conferring, had eroded her defenses. His sense of humor so sophisticated, so unlike Jonathan's, his beautiful voice warm and crisp like fresh honeycomb, whether reciting poetry to melt anyone's heart, or occasionally delivering words that could wound, twist like a knife. As fascinating as Mephistopheles, or even Milton's Lucifer. Nothing ordinary or predictable about him.

Lionel Luthor. The one hedonistic indulgence she'd allowed herself...but no, that was wrong. There'd been nothing to decide. The force of the attraction had been an irresistible tide that had swept her away. And it wasn't as though anyone could say "No," to Lionel anyway, ever. About anything.

But it was over. She intended to meet him as little as possible from now on.

And pain knifed through her at the thought.

She'd had to quit. For the sake of her family and her marriage, it had been the only choice. Despite the constant shortage of money, which would worsen before long. In spite of, and because of, the latest blessing bestowed on her. And it was a blessing, she insisted to herself, however she'd come by it.

Lionel had complimented her on unshakable honesty. If he only knew.

Settling back on her heels with a sigh, she let one hand glide down over the front of her pastel shirt, part of her inaugural order from the Motherhood online catalog. After the UPS truck came and went day before yesterday, she'd hid the package, only opening it after Jonathan had left that morning. She'd been a little shy about letting him see her in her first maternity clothes.

She smiled just a little, then made an effort to clear her thoughts. Despite her pleasure in the new clothing, she wasn't letting herself dwell on the subject. Or perhaps she was. As she returned to her gardening, the smile faded from her face, and she tried and failed once again to force her thoughts in a different direction for the second time.

Jonathan had been unaware of the pregnancy before she became ill a few weeks ago. Keeping it secret was not the best of ideas, but she'd needed time, time to decide what to do. Because I was afraid it would go away, she'd told him in the hospital, along with that wild yarn about Clark's ship and the bright light. If she hadn't been so weak, she'd never have been able to carry it off. Incredibly, he'd believed her, although with all the other weird things that happened in and around Smallville, perhaps it wasn't such a stretch. But after all, she might miscarry, perhaps there'd never be a need to... Liar, she admonished herself. You're lame and a liar. She hadn't told him because, despite the bolt of pure happiness at having it confirmed, of learning she was pregnant at last, at least seventy-five percent of her was sick and scared. Because...

She should be used to dissembling by now. But lying to Jonathan still shamed her, occasioned a heartache that was vague and bleak. Nor had she been honest with Lionel.

And if Clark knew her secret...she wouldn't let her think about that.

Yet Jonathan was a good husband, and despite the occasional closeminded irritability, still the man she'd fallen in love with irrevocably so long ago. She didn't want to leave him or the life they'd built together, centered around the farm, their son, and love for each other. They could have a fresh start. She'd gotten over the brief madness that was Lionel for good. Things would be different, better. The weakness that had possessed her this past fall, before Christmas, had claimed her for the last time.

It was why she'd quit working for the Luthors, after all. That, and because Lionel Luthor was a sneaking, conniving... When it came out that terrible night they were taken hostage at Luthorcorp that he'd privately been investigating Clark, any illusions to which she might have clung were banished. Though Jonathan incredibly wanted her to keep the job, she had to get away. She couldn't work with Lionel any longer.

It had been a mistake: she had to accept that, and move on. The first trimester was over now, the risk of miscarriage fading even as one thought grew increasingly clear. Jonathan must never know. Ethan may have been the culprit last time Lionel landed in the hospital, but if Jonathan learned her real secret now, he'd kill Lionel for sure.

If Lionel didn't kill him first.

She could carry off the deception. Not just of Jonathan,, but of everyone who knew them.: no one would know. The baby was hers and Jonathan's, and that's all there was to it. Time to forget what couldn't be helped and concentrate on what needed to be done today.

Her husband's words echoed in her memory. She tried not to listen. All it takes is one reckless moment to ruin everything.

II

By the time Martha was patting the ground flat over the eggplant seeds and smoothing it over with a trowel, the pale sun was high in the sky. She was tired and thirsty, and where was the Schwan's truck, anyway? She looked up toward the road to see if she could spot it, squinting, shading her eyes with a gloved hand.

Instead of the yellow delivery van, another vehicle was turning into the lane. She tensed as her stomach instinctively did a sick, panicked flip and her mind flashed back to the attack of a few weeks before, when she and Jonathan had wound up hanging on the barn wall. But this was a limousine, its black length advanced steadily up the long driveway, crunching gravel under massive tires, glistening in the lemony springtime sunshine. Martha took a quick breath, then a deeper one to strengthen herself. Only one person would ride out here in a limo in the middle of a work day.

But she was alone out here, the nearest neighbors fields away. Not even a cell phone in case she needed to call anyone. She knew driver and passenger must have spotted her by now, so there was no use pretending not to be at home. She sat back on her heels, brushed the worst of the dirt from her shirt and jeans, and pulled off her gloves as the vehicle pulled up and the window slid down.

No, she thought bleakly. This was not a good idea. Much, much easier to be strong when he was far away.

She straightened up proudly and cleared her throat. "Lionel. What brings you out here?" She kept her face serious as the corners of her mouth tightened. Hadn't they said everything they had to say to each other on her last day of work? This had to be more than a social call. Lionel did nothing without an ulterior motive.

The driver stepped out and opened the back door, and "Good afternoon, Martha," Lionel called in the bluff, sharp tone that usually called board meetings to order

She tried not to notice how attractive he was as he got out of the limo and stood up straight. Due to the sun rather than blindness today, he wore his dark glasses, and the customary long dark coat. Tall, elegant. In spite of herself her heart tightened and she swallowed, hard. Don't say any more than you have to, was Martha's stern warning to herself. Let him do the talking.

Lionel looked off over the surrounding acres and took a deep, theatrical breath. "The air is always bracing, invigorating out here," he observed, stretching out his arm in a sweeping gesture to indicate the farm and surrounding land. He approached, looked down at her, his spare, moustasched mouth curving into a smile.

"Thank you," she said, stupidly, as though she were responsible for the air quality in outer Lowell County. Lionel waved the chauffeur off, and the limo pulled further down the drive to park in the shaded area near the barn.

Martha waited and despite her unease, subdued a nervous chuckle. Could Lionel look more out of place? He resembled an ominous black bird in the sunlight, surrounded by fields green with the mist of young wheat. But so striking, so attractive. He belonged in conference rooms, theaters, high rise office buildings, and opera houses. Not on a humble, working farm on the outskirts of Smallville.

He extended a hand to help her up. She ignored it, and scrambled to her feet a little too quickly. The yellow farmhouse, cloud-studded blue sky, Lionel, and the limo careened crazily around her. I'm going to faint, an inner voice said matter-of-factly, and with a jolt of fear, she reached out to try to grasp hold of something to support herself.

Consciousness didn't desert her entirely. When the spell passed, he was near, steadying her with his arm. Very close. Too close, and peering into her face. She could barely distinguish his expression of concern through the tinted lenses of his glasses.

"Martha, are you ill?" His voice was warm, soft, and right by her ear. She could feel the warmth of his breath as he spoke.

She shook her head as her vision cleared. "Just a white-out. I stood up too quickly." Lionel's scent was dry-cleaned wool and spice, beyond different from Jonathan's blend of fertilizer, grime, and perspiration. Lionel, always elegant and expertly groomed. Sometimes his shirts were scented with lavender. She eased herself free with determination.

Lionel waited a moment. "Let's begin again." His voice was precise, easy, louder and flatter than the intimate tenor of a moment ago. "Good afternoon, Martha." He bent to retrieve the trowel from where it had fallen by her sneakered feet and held it up with a half-smile, half-grimace. She fought the urge to grin back as she reached out to take it. He didn't give the tool over at once, but held onto it, letting his fingers curl over hers for a long moment as they touched the wood, finally relinquishing it with that slightly wicked chuckle of his. His smile distracted her; she tried to drop the trowel in her gardening box and missed.

She repeated her earlier question. "So what brings you out here?" It almost sounded confrontational to her ears. The touch of his hand had been warm, gentle.

"Just checking on a former assistant of mine. I'd grown accustomed to our collaboration, and now, without her to advise me, I'm left to my own devices." He pursed his lips, then thinned them for a smile that was almost wistful. "You're looking well, Martha." He let his gaze travel from her face down the length of her body and back up again. "That is, if you've recovered from your little spell."

"I'm fine." She smoothed her hands down over her shirt, suddenly self-conscious. She knew she should ask him to leave. Instead she heard herself say, "Will you come up to the house for a glass of lemonade?"

Lionel smiled. "Thank you."

III

Seated on the dusty glider, Lionel removed his glasses and laid them on the wicker table. "Your barn has been mended after that unfortunate blaze?" He swirled the pale iced beverage around before lifting the glass to his lips.

Martha followed his line of vision. "As you see. Jonathan did all the repairs himself." Mention of the fire, and that fateful day, still caused her to shudder.

"And you've kept busy otherwise?"

She shrugged. "There's always a lot of work out here." To avoid being close to him on the swing, she leaned on the porch rail near where he sat, trying not to notice again how handsome he was, how distinguished in his well-tailored suit, how crisp and soft his voice.

He looked up at her with an indulgent shake of his head. "What a waste, Martha. With your intelligence, your capability. Filling your days with laundry, gardening...and tractor repair." Lionel sat forward, reaching out for her hand and this time, against her better judgment, she let him take it. He lifted it carefully, smoothing a manicured finger over her chipped nails.

She didn't pull away immediately, though a sad, confused anger rose within her. He could make this life to which she and Jonathan had devoted themselves so unceasingly sound so common and small. And yet--hastily, she rose, slipping her palm from his. "I'll get you a refill." She grabbed Lionel's glass, still half-full, from the table, opened the porch door and slipped inside, the screen door squawking shut behind her.

She leaned against the refrigerator for a moment to gather herself, try to still her trembling hands, banish the memory of his gentle hand on hers. Why did everything she said this afternoon sound as though it had a double meaning? And what in heaven had she been thinking to invite him up to the house, anyway? Martha didn't swear very often, even mentally, but she found herself cursing under her breath as her hand trembled. Ice rattled and liquid sloshed in Lionel's glass as she reached inside the refrigerator for the pitcher of chilled lemonade. She poured hastily, assailed by a sudden, irrational fear that he might follow her inside. The thought did more than make her uneasy. It frightened her, and she wasn't sure why.

And she cursed herself for still wanting to hear what he had to say.

Lionel was still looking out over the wheat fields when she went back out. He turned to her with a smile when she handed him the brimming glass. If he noticed her special care not to let their fingers touch again, he didn't let on.

Maybe she should vary her initial plan and make more conversation, if for no other reason than to cover the fact that she felt unusually ill at ease, that her throat felt thick and almost ached. He sipped, then swallowed, as he studied her.

"You know, Martha, you have a new, special glow about you."

His words made her feel oddly vulnerable all of a sudden. "It's the springtime air," she murmured. "Everything's fresh. The fumes and smoke from certain local businesses don't drift out this far."

She meant it to sting, and Lionel did look for a moment as though he wanted to call her to task on that remark, but he let it go. "Touche," he said with an appreciative chuckle. "I can always trust you to be frank with me. But I think it's more than that." He rose to his feet, set the glass on the table, and stepped toward her.

She drew back, bumping into the rail, and let her eyes drop. "This must have been unexpected," he said in a voice surprisingly gentle, and before she could move, he reached out with the other hand to pluck at the hem of her shirt. She felt blood rise up her throat and climb to her cheeks as if he'd bidden it to do so. Lionel let go of the fabric almost reluctantly and raised his hand to brush fingers across her cheek.

Her breathing quickened, though when she spoke, her voice came out thin and small. "A bit," she admitted.

With a long sigh, Lionel stepped back. He turned away, stroked his wiry, graying beard with thin fingers. She waited, trying desperately, vainly to think of something, anything to say that would fill the silence and change the subject.

"Martha, when you and I would discuss matters, thorny business issues, stalled negotiations, they would suddenly seem manageable. You had a way of putting things into perspective. You made the most complicated problems seem simple. You found answers." He spoke simply and precisely and when he turned to look directly at her as he finished, Martha gazed back at him, mentally ordering herself not to flinch.

"Thank you." She kept her response simple, taking care not to betray her feelings in her tone.

"We were good partners."

Martha shrugged, then nodded slowly and looked away.

"Why did you leave?" Lionel spoke low, beseeching, intimate, and she steeled herself to resist.

"I explained it to you the day I gave notice. What didn't you understand? It was best for everyone. You see--I--"

"I see," he concurred with what sounded like amused appreciation, as though he were enjoying the exchange. "And what have you told the illustrious Mr. Kent?"

"Told him? What should I have told him?"

"That we slept together."

Martha's hands tightened on the porch rail. She hoped her words were appropriately dismissive. "I can't believe you're suggesting that. You know how Jonathan would have reacted. It was over. Why cause trouble?"

"Over, eh?" Even though his tone was light, its brusque edge told Martha that her words had hit home. "I'd have thought otherwise. And you were planning on making the general announcement of your pregnancy, when?"

She sighed and spread her hands. No use pretending: he knew. "It's not a secret. Dr. Bryce knows. And Jonathan, and Clark."

Lionel was quiet for a moment, and when he resumed, sounded almost as though talking to himself. "Then I'll wager Lex knows, too." He turned back to her with eyebrows raised. "And what was Jonathan's reaction?"

"He's excited," and Martha, despite the way her throat clutched and the panicked thud of her heart, smiled as she thought of Jonathan, hauling the old, unused cradle, handmade by Hiram, out of the attic, dragging it downstairs for a fresh, enthusiastic coat of varnish. Smiling warm and proud as he embraced her when the job was done. "Jonathan was always the one who comforted me in those years before Clark came to us, but I think deep down he may have wanted a child of our own more than I did. So, he's happy."

She looked up to find Lionel watching her closely. He frowned and tsked as though he were a parent catching a youngster in a lie. "Even though he was determined sterile nearly twenty years ago?"

Martha just stared at him, wondering how in the world he had found out.

"I've done all the appropriate research." His sigh was exaggerated, theatrical. "I seem to have the opposite problem, myself. As you've no doubt realized."

I should have known, she thought, feeling the blood stain her cheeks once again, dismay a bleak, dull weight in the pit of her stomach. Miles ahead already. "Well, miracles can happen." She tried to speak brightly, all the while knowing she wasn't fooling him, that no one could, for long.

"My dear Martha, you're an intelligent woman. And practical. I pride myself on being the same. You might fool Jonathan with talk of miracles, but I am not Jonathan. What do you think he will say when he finds out? And he will find out." A threat, she knew, even though he delivered it in the same calm tone in which he'd addressed her since he arrived.

Though she knew it was a mistake, she said it anyway. "I hadn't thought about it."

"Ah, yes. For a woman with a remarkable intellect, you haven't been doing much thinking. Your mind must be atrophying out here." He glanced around again, at the house and sheds, shook his head and made a scornful sound under his breath.

Martha gnawed her lip, biting back a sharp retort, fighting for control. She gazed off over the fields to the pine forests on the horizons. The land she'd loved for years, to which she was bound almost as strongly as she was to her husband and son. There was no way she could remain here if Jonathan found out she'd been unfaithful to him. He had many good qualities, but after living with him for over twenty years, she knew he'd never be able to forgive her that. And what could she say to make Lionel understand? Nothing. A choice had been mandatory: both worlds couldn't be hers.

"You know," Lionel moved to stand beside her once again. Close, too close. "I believe a storm may be moving in. Noting was indicated on today's weather report, but..." He gestured to a bank of dark clouds massing on the horizon.

Martha's throat was so tight she could barely swallow. She hadn't intended to acknowledge anything, but Lionel Luthor always did have a way of backing people into a corner. She sighed heavily. Noticed that the leaves on the trees were curling upward to show their gray undersides, that she could scent rain on the cool gusts of air that were blowing past the porch.

"I always let Jonathan think it was my problem," she heard herself confess, letting her mind drift back to that long-ago, unhappy day. "The morning the doctor gave us both the news, he spoke in general terms. And Jonathan had already been hurt so much. I don't know why I'm telling you all this." She tried to call up the buried emotions, the desolation she had felt, for memories of that time were so dismal that she never revisited them willingly.

Lionel fingered his beard again. "You'll lie to your husband, but not to me. Shouldn't that tell you something, Martha?" His sharp assessing glance was anything but benevolent.

"It tells me I don't want to lose what I have."

"But I could give you so much more," he observed, his voice as innocently mystified as a child's.

"That was never an option. Jonathan and I love each other. We've been together for over twenty years. We've put a lot into this farm, this life. We have a son."

"Not a biological son. Were I to adopt him, I'd be as much his father as Jonathan."

"You have a son of your own."

Lionel's response was a dismissive shrug. "That's immaterial."

Martha leveled him a warning, yearning glare. "Lionel. Please. Don't do this. We must put it behind us."

"That might be difficult, considering." He scanned her body again, pointedly, up and down, and she felt heat rising in her cheeks.

"Only if you make it hard." She felt as though she were bargaining for her life, for everything she held dear. And she knew that ultimately she was.

Lionel stepped back to set his glass down by the glider, then casually picked up his glasses and slipped them into the pocket of his coat. Suddenly, before Martha could blink, he was back in front of her, grasping both her arms. "You haven't told Jonathan, you say."

"No." She tensed in his grip and shook her head.

"I could tell him, if you'd like."

Oh, dear God. Despite that she was rapidly growing more angry than scared, the battle of wills sent a charge of determination through her.

"No!" she snapped. "I'll tell him myself, when the time is right."

"Are you quite sure?" Lionel focused, blocking her into a corner of the railed area, effectively holding her in place. "Will you be comfortable letting him know he's been cuckolded? One doesn't hear that word often nowadays, but the concept hasn't disappeared." Martha just stared at him. He reached out to touch an auburn strand of her hair, and smiled. "So like my Lillian," he mused, "Impassioned, and so beautiful. I'm delighted to be able to see you, really see you, again. I can give you a way out of all this, Martha. This hard life--"

"I have the life I want," she choked weakly. She couldn't get around or past him to put some distance between them.

"I still can," he insisted as though she hadn't spoken, and she was dismayed to note that the intimate sound of his voice sent a shiver down her back. "If you just--"

"Please," she broke in, turning away from him. "You must go." He followed, moving behind her, running both hands down her arms to her wrists, then up, then down again. He raised his arm and touched her cheek with gentle fingers. In spite of herself, she relaxed into the caress.

"Jonathan will be home soon, and Clark--"

"Clark," he repeated almost quizzically. "I believe Clark..." and he enunciated the name precisely the second time, "is on his way to Metropolis with my son. As for Jonathan, I know he's in Wichita by now, and won't be home till long after dark." His gentle hand brushed the hair from her throat, and when she felt his lips touch skin, she stifled a gasp. Lionel circled her waist with one arm and let a warm palm rest on the belly that was only just starting to show. He stroked. And she knew she should push him away, but she was powerless. Instead of resisting, she melted into his touch.

Lionel leaned to murmur in her ear, so close she could feel the heat of his breath. "Perhaps we should take our discussion inside?"

"No," she protested in an agonized whisper, but Lionel paid no attention, continued to caress, his hand gliding up her side to her breast. He bent to kiss her neck, thumbed her nipple through the cotton of her shirt, and she tried desperately not to moan.

"Please. Please stop," she muttered through clenched teeth, gripping the rail till her knuckles whitened. "Leave me alone." She felt blood rush to her pale cheeks again, and to other parts of her body, along with shame.

Lionel pressed against her, his hardness evident despite the several layers of clothing that separated their bodies, his roaming, caressing hands everywhere. "Don't send me away, Martha," he whispered in her ear, and the moist warmth of his breath and intimate caressing voice, so close made her wet, as it always did; she couldn't help it. She flashed back to the memory of the day they'd touched, kissed for the first time. He'd been sightless then, appearing so vulnerable that day as he thanked her for everything she'd done to make his business more successful and his life easier. He'd touched her heart as well, made her feel rare, elegant. Had seemed to understand her in ways Jonathan never could, never would. Treated her as though she were giving him the most precious of gifts. Her body remembered the irresistible press of his bearded lips against her bare shoulder, his mouth on her breast, tongue circling, teasing the tip, then on her thigh, her...Martha felt dull heat rising, and once again tried to halt her thoughts. She could not allow herself to surrender again to the bliss and terror of this powerful force that threatened to envelop them both.

Lionel turned her to face him, green gaze burning into hers. He was so beautiful that she had to look away, or she'd have followed him anywhere. "I miss you, Martha," he said quietly. "Daily. I miss your sweet soft voice, your Irish temper, the beautiful strength of your spirit. Your wonderful way of managing things. I never forget," he said, and smiled. "But you should. And come back to me. Your son, my son, your husband...forget them all."

She found strength from somewhere. "I can't," she moaned. "Please, you must go." Her hands were shaking as she pried her wrist from his grip and pushed herself away from him. Reluctantly, he loosened his grasp, letting lingering fingers trail down her forearm.

He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "Intriguing young man, your son."

"So this is why you came," she said, she asked, trying to make her voice as forbidding and her expression as hostile as she could. Though she knew Lionel's mind couldn't grasp the meaning of shame.

It was his turn to step back to the porch railing and look off in the distance, scan from one edge of the horizon to the other. Martha waited for him to speak, fighting to stay calm, only just noticing that the sunlight had faded and the sky had darkened. "What do you suppose your husband will say when you do tell him? Or when he finds out?" There was no mistaking the ominous gleam in his eye, or the intent of his words, though he seemed intentionally to be keeping his tone benign. "You wanted a child of your own blood. So I've really done you a favor, haven't I? I came out here to ask you to leave Jonathan, you know. And you will."

Okay, that was it. He'd pushed it too far. He'd been a decent employer, was the father of Clark's best friend, governed the fortunes of most of the community. And really, for some inexplicable reason, she couldn't help but like him, despite everything. She'd been willing to admit that she'd made a mistake, given in to a temptation she should have resisted. But now he'd gotten up the Irish to which he had just referred. Years of Christmas mornings, fall hayrides and harvests, companionship, suffering and rewards. He wasn't going to destroy them. She wouldn't let him.

She wheeled around, fixing him with her most forbidding glare. "Lionel Luthor, how dare you threaten me. I'll tell Jonathan in good time, and nothing you can do, no kind of coercion, is going to make one bit of difference. Now I think it's time we both got back to work." She took a deep breath to steady herself, thinking in amazement that this really wasn't much different from one of her shouting matches with her husband.

Her tirade didn't seem to rattle Lionel in the slightest, so she was surprised when he nodded. "As you wish," he said. "As I see you're not wearing a watch, you'll have to take my word for it that it's getting late, and I have an appointment." Beckoning the limo, he turned to descend the porch stairs, and then back to her.

"How foolish of me. I almost forgot." He reached into the pocket of his coat and drew forth a slip of paper. "I thought to deliver your final check to you personally." He held it out to her, and she shook her head, sliding hands behind her back as though she were a naughty child.

"You don't owe me anything," She raised her head proudly, jaw tight. "You paid me everything I earned."

"But I insist." He reached for her hand, placed the check in her palm and folded her fingers down over it, heedless of the grime, smoothing a manicured fingertip over the stubby, bitten nails with a smile.

The spell was broken. More than broken: shattered.

Martha unfolded the paper. She looked at it for a moment, shaking her head and biting her bottom lip.

"This is ridiculous. It's too high. Much more than a fair wage. I can't accept this."

She tried to push it back into his hand.

"Nonsense," he scoffed. "Luthors take care of their own. Consider it a gift to the child." He stepped off, then turned about. "Though perhaps the son you already have is more worthy of my attention."

She turned away from him, wrestling with what to say as the limo pulled up to the porch. She made her expression as stern as she could, started to speak then stopped, then started again. "Please don't come back."

He chuckled at that, and walked off to the car as the driver opened the door for him. She almost thought he mouthed her a kiss, but it was semi-dark in the interior of the vehicle, so it could have been her imagination. His hand fluttered out the window. "Till we meet again," he said, as the limo window glided closed.

Tears burned the back of Martha's eyelids as she watched the car amble down the drive to the state road. Lowering thunderheads had gathered in the west, and were now scudding rapidly across the prairie toward the farm. Slowly she crumpled the check in her palm, ragged fingernails biting into flesh as she clenched her hand around the crisp paper.

She couldn't afford to waste this. She smoothed it, straightened it out, fought with herself for a long moment.

Bastard, she thought. As if I'd let you near a child of mine. Either of them.

The Schwan's truck was rumbling up the drive at last. Dazed, Martha fumbled in her pocket with her free hand for her billfold.

Large drops of rain began to splash on the check she still held. She shoved it roughly into her other pocket so the ink would not blur. She could scent sulphur in the air as the first bolt hit.



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