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The virgin of small plai.., p.1
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       The Virgin of Small Plains, p.1

           Nancy Pickard
 
The Virgin of Small Plains


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-one

  Chapter Forty-two

  Chapter Forty-three

  About the Author

  Also by Nancy Pickard

  Copyright Page

  For Mary and Nick

  Acknowledgments

  Special thanks to David Phillips for his expertise, to Karen Phillips and Denise Osborne for the Fridays that refresh, and to all my other friends—in person and online—who lift me out of the page and back into life. Special thanks always to my patient and wise editor, Linda Marrow, and to my agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein.

  Chapter One

  January 23, 2004

  Abby Reynolds braked her truck on the icy highway, startled by what she imagined she saw off to the side of the road. That can’t be, she thought, as she squinted into the snow, trying to see more clearly. When the wind blew an opening in the blizzard, Abby realized that it was not a hallucination. It was not an impossible illusion sketched on the early morning air by the gusting snow. It was…good grief!… it was Nadine Newquist in a bathrobe, surrounded by swirling white, struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, as if she were determined to visit a particular grave on this particular morning.

  My God! It was Nadine: the judge’s wife, Mitch’s mom, Abby’s own late mother’s lifelong friend. It really was Nadine, a woman who was sixty-three years old and speeding toward early Alzheimer’s at about the same rate that Abby’s pickup truck was sliding sideways on Highway 177.

  What the hell was Nadine doing out there?

  She was all by herself, in a bathrobe, for God’s sake, in a blizzard…

  Abby pumped her brakes with a light touch of her foot, didn’t slam on them like a fool, but her truck started to spin anyway, going round and round on the two-lane blacktop like a two-ton skater on ice.

  She let her steering wheel alone, waiting for it to stop spinning before she touched it again. Coffee sloshed out of her lidless thermal cup in its holder by her knee; the smell of it filled the cab of her truck. She could still taste her last sip of it, along with the fruit and cereal she’d had for breakfast—all of which was now threatening to come back up her throat.

  With a shudder, the truck came out of the spin and started sliding sideways again, skidding in a long diagonal across the yellow line into the eastbound lane. A heavy drift of snow slowed it down and changed the direction of the slide, until it was going backward. The skid went on and on, picking up speed as it backed into the crest of a rise, then dropped down again, taking the bottom of Abby’s stomach with it. And still the truck stayed on the pavement, hemmed in by snow, avoiding the shoulders, the deep culverts, the barbed wire fencing beyond. People thought Kansas was all flat, but it wasn’t, and especially not in the heart of the Flint Hills. The roads in this part of the state were long and straight, but they soared up and plunged down like curved ribbons of hard taffy.

  Abby felt a wild hopeful moment of wondering if her truck could somehow manage to slide its way safely all the way back into town on the wrong side of the road. That would be a miracle. As she sat helplessly moving back the way she’d come, like a passenger on a roller coaster in reverse, she looked up the highway to the west, hoping not to see headlights coming at her. That way looked clear. In this strange, slow motion, made to feel even more eerie and timeless in the swirling snow, she felt as if she had all the time in the world before whatever was going to happen in the next few moments happened. She felt strangely calm, even curious about the possibility of crashing, but she didn’t feel calm about Nadine out there in the snow.

  She grabbed her cell phone from the seat beside her.

  In the uncanny suspension of time, as her truck drew two long parallel lines in the snow on the highway, Abby realized she might be able to get out of her seat belt, throw open her door, and dive out. But if she did, what if her cell phone broke in her fall, or she hurt herself too badly to call for help? Then nobody would know about Nadine. Mitch’s mom could fall out there in the cemetery, be covered by snow, she could die…

  If I don’t jump, I’ll crash with the truck.

  Nadine…

  Heart pounding, stomach queasy, no longer feeling calm about anything, Abby gave up the idea of trying to jump to save herself. Instead, she punched in the single digit that called the Sheriff’s cell phone. It was on auto-dial, because Rex Shellenberger was as long and close a friend to her as Nadine had been to both of their mothers, as close as Mitch had been to Rex and Abby, once upon a happy time, a long time ago.

  “Sheriff Shellenberger,” he said, calm as toast. But it was his recorded message. It went straight from those two words to the beep, wasting no time for people in emergencies.

  “Rex! It’s Abby! Nadine Newquist is wandering in the snow in the cemetery. Come help me get her out of there and take her home!”

  She felt the truck veer left, and then felt it in her back and bottom first as the ride got rough and the rear tires slid onto gravel underneath snow.

  Her roller-coaster ride, her trip back through time, was almost over.

  Nobody would believe she had traveled so far on ice without crashing, Abby thought as the ride got rougher.

  Panicked thoughts flashed through her brain, images without words. Should she call Nadine’s husband, Tom? No, the judge was a notoriously bad driver in the best of weather, and a veritable menace at the first hint of moisture on the roads. Everybody knew that. Nobody with any sense ever consented to step into a car if Judge Tom Newquist was driving it, especially if it was raining, snowing, or sleeting. She’d only get him—or somebody else—killed if she called him out in this storm.

  Frightened, Abby looked out the windshield just before it tilted up toward the sky.

  In that split second, she glimpsed Mitch’s mom again. Nadine’s bathrobe was a tiny slash of deep rose on white, a hothouse flower inexplicably set outside on a winter’s day. Abby knew the robe was expensive, soft and silky to the touch. She’d seen Nadine wearing it a lot lately, because she insisted on spending her days and nights in lingerie. It hardly mattered, since she didn’t seem to be able to distinguish night from day anymore. When the judge or the nursing attendants he hired to watch her tried to get her into other clothes, she fought them. Abby knew the robe was made of thin material. The body under it was also thin, with hardly an ounce of fat to pr
otect Nadine from the fierce cold that wrapped around her now.

  At sixty miles an hour, Abby’s truck hit the far side of the cement culvert with a crash that telescoped the exhaust pipes, flattened half of the metal bed, tore through the transmission, ripped out the gears, and shut the engine off. It was a ten-year-old truck with no air bags. Her seat belt saved her from being thrown into her windshield, but not from being slammed sideways into the window.

  Chapter Two

  January 23, 1987

  “Mmmm.”

  Abby kept up a steady “mmm,” while Mitch kissed all around her upper lip from the left side to the right, and then all across her lower lip from the right side to the left, and then again and again, around and around her mouth until she thought she might expire from the pleasure of it.

  He was eighteen, a soon-to-graduate senior.

  She was sixteen, the one who had to stay behind to finish high school.

  She adored kissing him. Loved making out with him. Could have spent the rest of her life lying on her back in her single bed in her room with her head on her pillow and Mitch propped over her on his elbows, nonstop kissing her, pausing only for sweet little licks of his tongue between her lips.

  She started mmming with such an intensity that he went Shhh into her lips. That made her lips tickle, which made her mouth curl up, which felt funny under his lips, which made him smile, which made both of them giggle, and then finally laugh so hard that Mitch had to fall away, onto his back, squeezed up against Abby on her narrow bed.

  “Shhh!” they urged each other, and had to push their faces into each other’s collarbones to keep the noise down. With her nose pressed down in the sweet hollow of his neck, Abby could smell his scent that was part spicy deodorant, part sandalwood aftershave, and all Mitch. He was laughing so hard at their attempts not to laugh that he snorted into her neck, which made her arch her back with her own less-than-silent laughter. Tears ran down both of their faces, moistening everything they touched, most of all each other.

  Finally, when it died down, they snuggled in each other’s arms.

  Mitch had football shoulders, and eight inches over her five feet four, but his waist and hips were narrow and he had the long, slim leg muscles of a distance runner, so it was really only the top half of them that was crowded in the bed. Abby knew how to solve that by rolling toward him so he could wrap his arms around her while below their legs entwined. Wound around each other, they commenced plain old smooching again, silently meeting lips to lips again and again, working up to longer kisses, greater intensity, which was sure, eventually, to lead to more almost-out-of-control hilarity. Or, to more serious things, if they weren’t careful. On this night, Abby didn’t want to be careful, but Mitch didn’t know that yet.

  They were about halfway to something when there was a loud rap on the door to Abby’s bedroom.

  They froze in each other’s arms.

  The doorknob rattled as somebody tried to get in.

  They were fully dressed, lying on top of the covers, with Bruce Springsteen in the background singing “Badlands” on an album turned up just loud enough to cover suspicious noises.

  “Abby?” It was her mother’s voice. “Why’s your door locked, honey?”

  “Don’t come in, Mom!”

  “Why not?”

  “Because…I’m working on your birthday present!”

  “Oh!” They heard her mother, Margie, laugh on the other side of the door. “In that case! I wondered where you had disappeared to. I haven’t seen you in hours.” Her tone turned teasing. “Mitch’s not in there, is he?”

  “Mother!”

  “When did he leave? I didn’t hear him go.”

  “Hours ago!”

  “Are you sure I can’t come in, Abby? Maybe you need some help getting those diamonds glued onto that gold necklace?”

  “You wish!” Abby called back. “With my allowance?”

  “Okay, then.” Her mother feigned a martyred tone. “If you won’t let me help…”

  Mitch slid one hand up under Abby’s sweater, over her ribs under her loosened bra, then onto her left breast, and she moaned softly.

  “What?” her mother called from the other side of the door.

  Abby closed her eyes in bliss, then opened them, and forced herself to say, “Mom?”

  Mitch lifted her sweater, exposing her bare breast, and brought his mouth down onto it.

  “What, honey?”

  Abby felt as if her entire body was a single nerve cell vibrating from her left nipple.

  “Is Dad here?”

  Mitch’s other hand began a slow descent under the waistband of her blue jeans, sliding lower, lower, stopping when it reached its destination. Unable to bear the torture, Abby put her hands on each of his and pressed, making him stop right where he was.

  He grinned, and waited.

  “Dad’s back,” her mother answered. Abby had seen her father leave the house on a medical call several hours before, and he hadn’t been home for supper, but she hadn’t paid attention to when he came back. Her mother said, “Hey, have you looked outside? You know it’s snowing, don’t you?”

  “Really?” Abby turned her head toward her windows and then Mitch did, too. Together they looked out at snow falling heavily in the glow of the driveway lights. Abby turned back to call to her mom, “How much are we going to get?”

  “Enough to close school tomorrow.”

  “Yippee!”

  They heard her mom laugh again. “You sound like a little kid when you do that. I’ll have to take you sledding and give you hot chocolate in the morning. We’re going to bed, sweetheart. You go ahead and work all night on my gift, if you have to.”

  Abby laughed, and called out, “Night! Love you!”

  When she said the last words, she looked into her boyfriend’s eyes.

  “Love you, too,” her mother’s disappearing voice called back, as Mitch mouthed the exact same words to Abby. They didn’t move until they heard the door to her parents’ bedroom shut. Then Abby wiggled under him, encouraging him. “Let’s take our clothes off,” she whispered, and he didn’t need to be asked twice.

  They had never had intercourse. They had been boyfriend and girlfriend forever, stealing kisses when they were only eight and ten years old. By junior high, they were petting until they were both crazed. Through the years, they had made out as if they were going for advanced degrees in kissing. They had been totally naked together as many times as they could get the privacy to strip. Mitch’s fingers had been inside of her, her hands had taken him to climax, but they had never had intercourse.

  “I do love you,” Abby promised him.

  “I do love you, too,” Mitch said, with as much fervor as if he was taking an oath on a Bible.

  “Stay with me all night,” she said, in a rush of words.

  “I don’t know if I can stand it,” he said, and laughed quietly. “I’d better go.”

  “No.” Abby looked directly into his beautiful brown eyes that were gazing so tenderly back at her. “Stay. You don’t have to stand it anymore.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

  “Let’s…do it.”

  “You’re kidding. Tonight?”

  For answer, she stroked him where he could least resist her.

  Mitch moaned, and said, “Oh God, Abby.”

  But he pulled away from her. “Listen. Are you sure?”

  “Yeah, let’s get it over with.”

  Mitch pulled back again. “Get it over with?”

  “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said quickly. “I just mean, we’ve made it into such a big deal. Maybe that’s a mistake. It kind of scares me, that it’s such a big deal. I mean, maybe it’s not that big a deal after you actually do it. Billions of people have done it, right? Millions of people are probably doing it right this minute, all over the world. In London and Paris. In Singapore and Bangladesh. And right here, this very night, in Small Plains.”

  “No way!” he exc
laimed in mock shock.

  “Even here,” she assured him. “I’ve thought about this a lot.”

  “I can tell.”

  “So maybe we ought to just—”

  Mitch leaned toward her and began to kiss her gently. Then he whispered, “I thought we were going to wait for a special time, so we could plan it and do it right. Candles and shit.”

  Abby laughed and covered her mouth.

  “Candles and shit? Geez, you’re romantic!”

  Mitch laughed, too. “You know what I mean. Valentine’s Day. Or New Year’s Eve. Like that. A fancy dinner, then we’d go someplace where nobody knew us.”

  “And I’d be so nervous I’d mess everything up,” she told him, confessing her fear.

  He pursed his lips in thought, which forced her to lean forward to plant a kiss on them.

  “Hm,” he said, after a moment, “too much pressure, you mean?”

  “Yeah, too much pressure for something that’s supposed to be so natural.”

  “This isn’t about me going to college, is it, Abby?”

  “Cripes!” she exclaimed in a loud whisper. “I can’t believe this! I have to convince you? I have to sell you on the idea of having sex with me?”

  “Shhh! I’m sorry!” he told her. “I’m surprised, that’s all. Of course I want to do it, but geez, Abby, your folks are right down the hall.”

  “With a noise machine that covers every sound but the telephone.”

  “Okay, but what about B.C.?” he whispered into her left ear.

  Abby rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you!”

  B.C. was their private shorthand for birth control. It had always felt sexy to talk of doing what they weren’t allowing themselves to do. It had made them feel mature, superior, horny. Three girls they knew of had gotten pregnant in the last few semesters at Small Plains High School. Abby and Mitch knew they couldn’t let that happen. They had to face parents who would kill them, or be horribly disappointed in them, if it happened to them.

  “Don’t you have one, like, in your wallet?” Abby whispered back to him.

  “Me?” Mitch looked offended. “Do you think I carry them around?”

  “I thought all guys did. Rex has one in his wallet.”

 
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