Meredith circled the parking lot, looking for a space close to the entrance of the enormous, sprawling home improvement store. Eyeing the handicapped entrances with a frown, she kept driving. They would need a handicapped plate to park there, and despite the fact that she’d mentioned getting plates to Paolo a few times now, he didn’t want to talk about it. She finally saw a parking space right near the entrance, but as she put on her blinker to take the space, a black sports car zoomed in ahead of her. Slamming on the brakes, she swore under her breath, drawing a low growl from Paolo.
“What?” she snapped.
“You know I don’t like it when you swear.”
“Well, it’s not one of my rules yet,” she muttered, surprised at the sudden irritation that surfaced. He was going to be all macho about the damn parking plate, make her circle the lot, and then criticize her for swearing? Uh uh. It was all his fault anyway. And now he was going to tell her she couldn’t swear? Whatever.
“Look, I can’t park near the entrance. I’m going to have to drop you off at the door,” she muttered.
“You’ll do no such thing.”
Her lips pursed at the tone of his voice. Oh, the nerve! As she drew a shaky breath, she saw a red SUV pull out of a space in front of her, and Paolo pointed.
Duh, she thought to herself as she swung into the empty space.
“I’ll get your wheelchair,” she said, but as she put her hand on the door handle ready to leave, his voice froze her in place.
“Stay right there.”
She clenched her jaw and squeezed her eyes shut. Here they were again. The past few weeks had been incredible, as Paolo and Meredith had begun the journey into their new roles as dominant and submissive. But now, Meredith felt as if they were right back to where they were before, the same place they’d been for the months following his accident. She didn’t like it.
“What?” she snapped.
His voice dropped even lower in response.
“You are dangerously close to finding yourself over my knee,” he said. “What the fuck crawled up your ass?”
She spun to face him. “First of all, you just told me not to swear, but it’s perfectly fine for you to swear?” His eyes narrowed. “Second of all, you told me I only had a few rules, and now it’s like everywhere I turn, there’s a new rule.”
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Is that all?”
“Well. No,” she said, looking away. “It’s really difficult to find a parking space for you,” she said. “I wish we had handicapped plates. I get so nervous about you getting hurt, and I want you to be safe,” she said, as her voice trailed off to a whisper. He nodded slowly.
“Anything else?” he asked.
She was surprised to find her irritation had dwindled and she wasn’t angry anymore. She was ashamed of how short she’d been, and her nerves pulsed at the thought of what he would do when they got home. “I’m sorry, I-I shouldn’t have behaved that way. Am I in trouble?” she asked.
He shook his head, but his lips were pursed tightly and his eyes still narrowed. “Not yet,” he warned. “Keep it up, and you will be.” She let out a breath as he continued. “First of all, I didn’t tell you you weren’t allowed to swear. I just said I didn’t like it. There’s something I find grating about curse words coming out of that beautiful mouth of yours.”
Why did he have to go and do that; make her feel all guilty? Her eyes shifted down to her hands that lay in her lap as he continued. “But one of your rules is that you have to obey me,” he said. “Am I right?”
Meredith nodded but found she was unable to speak. She felt guilty for acting like a child.
Her eyes flew to his. He was staring at her, probing.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” he said. “You’re right about the plates.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I am?”
“Yeah. I’ll look into it in the morning.” He had a resigned look about him, and she felt badly, almost wishing he would spank her. It sucked having to take this step, and she knew it. She knew he’d hoped for a better prognosis, and that the injury from the accident would’ve healed better by now.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He shrugged. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “We good?”
She nodded. “We’re good. Really, I’m sorry I acted like a brat.”
He narrowed his eyes but he reached over, looped one of her curls around his finger, and gave a teasing tug. “Do it again, and you will be. Let’s go.”
She felt heat flush her cheeks as she got his wheelchair for him and they made their way into the entrance. Once inside, they made their way to the section of the store housing carpets and throw rugs, as her mind began to focus on the purpose of their visit. She tapped down the urge to giggle when she saw an employee pass.
Can I help you, ma’am?
Why, yes, I need some throw rugs. My husband said I’ll be spending a lot of time on my knees, so I’d like a nice, thick one, please. And can you throw some knee pads in there while you’re at it?
She jumped, when she heard a familiar voice call her name.
“Meredith! Oh my God!”
Meredith and Paolo both spun around to see a flash of red hair hurtling in their direction. “Oof!” Meredith said as she was pulled into a hug that wasn’t far from a tackle.
“Kirstin!” They pulled back and looked at each other at arm’s length, and Meredith grinned. She hadn’t seen her old college roommate in over a decade. Tall, with a mane of brilliant, wavy red hair, she had large, cheerful blue eyes framed with dark lashes, and a grin that flashed across her face with reckless abandon. She was wearing dark jeans and a black “Harley Davidson” t-shirt stretched across her ample chest. She didn’t look much older than she did when last they met. Kirstin had moved to California when she got married, and although they visited a handful of times, they’d mostly lost touch over the years.
“Didn’t you get my Facebook message?” Kirstin asked.
“She checks like once a year,” Paolo said. Kirstin’s eyes flicked to him, noting the wheelchair, she sent Meredith a look that said fill me in later, as she squealed and threw her arms around Paolo’s neck.
“Paolo!” she said, pulling back and looking at him. “Oh my God, you haven’t changed a bit. Well, except for the gray in your beard, but, seriously,”—she waggled her eyebrows up and down—“It works.”
Paolo grinned back, but his eyes shifted behind Kirstin as he changed the subject. “You gonna introduce us to your friend, or what?” After Kirstin’s running tackle, a tall man with short-cropped dark hair, a dark, scruffy beard, and smooth skin the color of cappuccino caught up to them. He sported worn jeans and a light green t-shirt that matched his eyes. His hands were shoved in his pockets and Meredith could see the thin line of a tattoo crawling down his arm, and from under his t-shirt to his neck.
She shot Kirstin a look that said Whoa, woman.
Kirstin shot one back that said Oh babe, tell me about it.
Kirstin grabbed the man’s hand, yanking him closer.
“Meredith, Paolo, I’d like you to meet Caleb.” She paused, looking up to Caleb, and her voice softened. “He’s my husband.”
Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. Last she heard, Kirstin was married, and it wasn’t to a tattooed hottie named Caleb.
Kirstin turned back to Meredith. “We have some catching up to do.”
Meredith smiled back. “Do we ever.”
Paolo was quiet on the way home. Somehow, running into an old friend who was ignorant about his being wheelchair-bound made it all come back with vivid clarity. He hated the wheelchair. Always having been a tall man, he was accustomed to being taller than most people he met. Having to look up to them was humbling. It made him feel little and insignificant.
As Meredith and Paolo finished their shopping, Kirstin and Caleb tagged along. The girls squealed, giggled, clasped each other’s hands, and talked incessantly in hushed voices while Paolo and Caleb watched in amusement, occasionally shooting one another sympathetic looks. When they reached the flooring department, Paolo had chosen a rich, plum-colored runner for their bedroom floor. But after choosing it, he was left to pushing his chair back and watching as Caleb bent and lifted it into the cart. Paolo hated that he had to have some other guy lift heavy things for his wife. He’d thanked Caleb, and they left the store promising to meet with Caleb and Kirstin again, but now he sat in the car mulling things over.
After the accident, he’d tried to focus on being grateful. His doctor had told him that an injury to his spine could’ve easily caused a more severe paralysis. He could’ve been left completely wheelchair bound, unable to use his legs, with no lower body function whatsoever. However, although he was grateful, he still hated that he had limited function. He’d reached the six-month plateau—the stage at which the return of mobility could best be judged—and although his legs had strengthened, and would continue to do so with therapy, his strength and coordination were still far too unpredictable to even move from the chair to crutches.
He knew it probably would’ve helped him if he had, at the very least, continued to lift weights and strengthen his upper body, but he’d let his exercise routine go. The weights were in the basement, along with his workshop, and he couldn’t trust himself on the stairs. Even if he did manage to get down, he had no guarantee he’d be able to get back up.
“I can’t believe we ran into Kirstin,” Meredith said, shaking her head. “And she looks the same as she did ten years ago!”
Paolo nodded, willing himself out of his rumination he’d been down far too many times now. It normally left him feeling angry and withdrawn, and he had to snap out of it. Meredith needed more from him.
“She does look the same,” he admitted. “Really, not such a bad thing.”
“What? Just stating facts, babe.”
Meredith snorted. “And her new husband! Oh my God!”
Paolo quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah? What’s this ‘Oh my God’?” he muttered.
Meredith looked abashed. “Just… well, you know, it shocked me!”
“Uh huh,” he said.
“I mean, last I heard she and Dennis were doing great. But that bastard cheated on her!” she nearly shouted, quickly clamping a hand to her mouth.
“Mer, watch what you’re doing,” Paolo snapped. “You’re driving. Don’t get all up in arms and crash the car.”
“And watch your mouth.” She swallowed, and nodded again.
“Sorry,” she said.
“He cheated on her?” Paolo asked. The bastard.
“Yeah,” Meredith said, coming to a stop at a stop light. “She caught him in the act. In their house!” Her voice rose an octave as she relayed the story. “She was supposed to be meeting a client to go over plans. Remember she got her degree in interior decorating? Yeah, well, the client got sick and canceled at the last minute, and Kirstin thought he was in work and decided to run home to grab something to eat. And whaddyaknow. She walked in on that—” she paused, as if trying to find a tamer word with which to describe her abhorrence for her friend’s ex-husband’s actions—“cheating jerk was in bed screwing his secretary!”
Paolo whistled softly to himself.
“I know, right?” Meredith said, shaking her head as the light turned green and she accelerated.
“It’s not what he did that shocks me, but that you girls managed to cover all this in a two-minute conversation in the middle of the store.”
She gave him a sheepish grin. “Girls are good at that.”
He snorted. “Guess so. So where’d she meet this Caleb guy?”
“We haven’t gotten there yet,” she admitted with a shake of her head.
“I’m disappointed.” She smiled.
“Oh I bet you will,” he chuckled. Meredith cruised to a stop in their driveway.
“Hey, do you think it would be okay with you if I could go out with her tomorrow? She has the night free, and I’d love to go see her.” She paused and lowered her eyes. “May I? I mean… I’m not sure if…”
“It’s fine,” he said, feeling the trace of his anger beginning to return. Jesus, was she going to ask him permission to do everything? He had no interest in controlling every fucking move she made. They’d gone on perfectly fine for this long without her having to ask him permission for everything. So yeah, he’d given her a few rules. And yeah, he’d still spank her ass if she broke them. He’d said he would, and he was always a man of his word. But he wasn’t going to take command of everything.
“Look, Mer, you don’t have to ask me permission for every little thing,” he muttered. “You want to go out with Kirstin tomorrow, go. I can take care of myself just fine.”
She blinked. A look flitted across her face, but he couldn’t quite identify it. He sighed. He wasn’t up for dealing with her emotions and all that shit. Still, he’d told her she had to tell him what was on her mind, and clearly, something was on her mind.
He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and with forced sternness, gave her a narrowed-eyed look. “Are you spinning? Spiraling? Do you have something to tell me?”
She shook her head. “No. I just… no, it’s nothing.”
He knew there was more to it. But maybe she needed time to think things over. Maybe she wasn’t sure herself yet what was on her mind.
He was more than willing to let it go.
Meredith stood in front of the mirror, drawing a mascara brush through her long lashes. She’d made Paolo his favorite pasta fagiole with homemade bread. He’d eaten his soup, sopped up an ample portion of bread, and praised her for the delicious dinner. She could tell he was trying. It was nothing like it was before, when his somber brooding fit would be all-consuming and piss her off. It was more… melancholy. As she finished applying her eye make-up, she blinked back tears.
Paolo had told her she wasn’t allowed to keep things to herself. He wouldn’t allow her to spin things in her mind, and let her fears consume her.
Then why was he allowed to?
She sighed. She’d have to make some time in the next day or so to try to connect with Little Lady, her friend she’d met on the forum online. Little Lady was submissive to her husband, Master Winston, her dominant. Little Lady was always a good sounding board for Meredith, and Meredith had so much to tell her since the last time they chatted. But going to Little Lady now would mean that she would have to tell her about her betrayal, how she’d intentionally gone behind Paolo’s back and avowed her obedience to Mr. Brookstone. Meredith was ashamed of herself.
But Master Winston and Little Lady had been such amazing friends to her, as she’d uncovered her own desire for to submit to Paolo. They would understand what she did. And they’d be so supportive of her, she knew. Maybe Little Lady would help her sort out the feelings she had. She always had in the past. Little Lady knew about Paolo, and the accident, and she’d been a good friend through Meredith’s turmoil and hurt. Meredith sighed. Although Paolo had told her yesterday she didn’t have to ask his permission for everything—a declaration that had felt, for some weird reason, like a slap across the face—Meredith figured it would probably be wise to ask Paolo before she confided everything to Master Winston and Little Lady.
She applied lip gloss and pursed her lips together, then fluffed her curly hair with her fingertips. She was happy with nearly all of her appearance. But those circles under her eyes. Sigh. She hated them. Going back to her make-up case, she retrieved a tube of concealer, and went to work trying to hide them.
She knew why she had circles under her eyes. She’d gotten a terrible night’s sleep the night before. She had the nightmare again, the one she had over and over again. It always began right before the accident. She’d wake shaking, sometimes crying, and last night had been no different.
Up until recently, she would be left to her own devices after a nightmare, but a few weeks ago, Paolo had realized she needed him. He’d woken with her, soothed her while her heartbeat slowed and her breathing returned to normal, and held her until she’d fallen back asleep. And last night, he’d tried. He’d woken up with her and held her, but he was so tired, he’d fallen back asleep shortly after. She’d lain in bed, listening to his breathing, staring at the wall, unable to fall back asleep until the sun rose and hit her window sill. She stifled a yawn. If Kirstin was indeed the same Kirstin she’d always known, tonight would be a late night. Meredith glanced at the clock, gave herself one more probing look, and left the room.
Paolo was watching the game on TV when she entered the room.
“Hey, sweetie. I’m going to leave now. I need to be there in twenty minutes. You need anything?”
“Come here,” he said, not taking his eyes off the screen. She felt a twinge at his command, a little pang of arousal—would it ever get old, the way he commanded her?—but she stuffed it down and trotted over to his chair. She knelt quickly next to him., perched on the balls of her feet, hands in her lap.
“You rang?” she teased. He pulled his eyes from the screen and smiled.
“No more than two drinks. If I know you, you’ll be out late with Kirstin tonight. I want you parking near the door. In fact, I want you to call her to make sure you two park near each other. No going to your car alone.” She nodded as he continued. “And I want your phone on so I can reach you if I need you. Got it?”
She smiled and nodded again. He raised an eyebrow and her heart fluttered at the stern look on his face.
“Yes, sir,” she said, and she felt a glow of pleasure as his eyes crinkled in a smile. He reached his fingertips to her chin.
“Good girl,” he said. “Go. Have a good time. I’ll see you when you get back.”
She nodded. “Do you need anything before I go?”
He smiled. “All set, babe.”
She stood, but paused to give him a quick kiss before she left. He kissed her back, but his eyes never left the screen. Ignoring the momentary irritation she felt, she focused on the fact that he’d just told her to take care of herself. She wanted to hold onto that, the feeling of protection she got from his command, but it felt too fleeting. She glanced at her watch and without another word, left.