Isabelle was the party girl. Even her sisters worried about her. Whenever she had rough patch, she hit the bars and parties in a big way. Lately, though, she has seemed really down. She won’t talk to anyone about what could be bothering her, but instead has withdrawn from everyone and everything. How could she explain to them what she didn’t understand herself? For years she’d been comparing any boy she dated against Alex, the object of her teenaged fantasies, a man she’d had a crush on for years, but who had moved across an ocean. They still kept in touch through email, but lately, she was even pulling away from him.
And then, suddenly, there he was! She was supposed to meet her girlfriend Elena and her fiance at a restaurant one night, but Alex – Elena’s older brother – was there, too. He had returned form the United States and was now working at a hospital in London. Her heart wanted to believe that things could work out between them, but her brain knew that her feelings for him had all been one-sided. Or had they?
Alex had had feelings for Isabelle as far back as he could remember, but he knew he had to let her grow up. It had been painful moving so far away. He was back now, to see if their youthful attraction could mature into something more… but first, she was going to have to learn that he meant what he said, and would back up those words with a firm hand if she continued her reckless, self-destructive behavior!
"Damn!" Isabelle swore softly to herself as one of her high heels got caught in a crack in the pavement and she tried to manoeuvre it out without ripping the jade green suede. She was already running late, and this was the last thing she needed. It had just been one of those days, although if she were to be honest with herself, every day was ‘one of those days.’
Isabelle knew that she should feel happy and fulfilled. She was thirty years old, a successful writer with her own apartment and a social life that most people would kill for. Her latest novel had practically flown off the shelves and her agent was urging her already to start a huge marketing campaign in anticipation of the sequel she was currently working on. Or, supposed to be. Recently, however, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, and whilst she couldn’t pin point the reasons for her frustration it was affecting her professional as well as personal life. She’d barely started the new novel, even though she was supposed to be nearly half way through it by now and she knew her agent would have a fit if he knew. Similarly, her personal life seemed to be going from bad to worse, on a mission of self-destruction. Practically every man she met she drove away somehow, sometimes literally by provoking argument after argument and then refusing to have anything more to do with them.?
It said a lot about her current frame of mind that she was meeting one of her best friends, Elena, for dinner along with Elena’s newest boyfriend, whilst Isabelle hadn’t even bothered to arrange a ‘plus one’ to accompany her for the evening. There had been a time when she would have lined up half a dozen decent options several days, if not weeks, in advance. Right now, however, Isabelle wasn’t even sure she knew what "decent" meant any more, at least not when applied to the male species.
With a final twist, she wrenched her shoe free from the crack in which it was snared and practically sprinted the rest of the way down the road, rushing into the restaurant where Elena had reserved a table.
As the maitre d’ took her coat, she craned her neck around to search for Elena in the crowd of tables. Puzzled, a frown formed on her forehead. She was almost sure she could make out Elena’s distinctive long blonde mane of curly hair at a table across the room, but she was with not one but two men. The first man she recognised as Philip, Elena’s latest boyfriend, a nice guy whom Elena had met through some friends at her work. The second man, however, had his back to Isabelle and try as she might she couldn’t see his face, although equally she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that there was something about him that looked disturbingly familiar.
Cautiously, more cautiously than she was comfortable to admit, Isabelle made her way over to the table where she had spotted her friend, who was clearly engrossed in conversation with Philip and the mysterious man seated to her right.
Philip looked up and, with a grin, stood to greet her. "Bel!" he exclaimed, "Good to see you again!"
Immediately, Elena swung round and jumped up to give her a hug. "We thought you’d got lost on the way!"
"Sorry," she murmured, "I was running late and there were no cabs."
"It’s good to see that some things haven’t changed in the last few years then," responded a deep, masculine voice from behind Elena.
Jerking her head up, Isabelle’s eyes widened in shock as they drank in the sight of the tall, imposing man with dark blonde hair whose own eyes were twinkling down at her as a sensuous smile tugged at his lips.
"Alex!" she exclaimed in disbelief. "But you’re still in the States!"
"Evidently not," he responded, dry amusement lacing his voice as he stepped forward and swept her into his arms for a hug that, by anyone’s standards, lingered longer than was purely platonic.
"We wanted to surprise you!" Elena’s voice drifted from over Isabelle’s shoulder, "Alex has moved back from the States to take on the Head of Cardiology role at St Mary’s Hospital here!"
"Really? You’re back permanently?" Isabelle couldn’t quite believe her eyes. Was it possible that Elena’s older brother, on whom she’d had a prolonged schoolgirl crush all those years ago, was back in London for good?
"Absolutely," he replied, looking down at her softly and brushed a strand of loose hair away from her eyes, "It’s good to see you again, Bel. I told you that I’d be back once the post in the States ended. Don’t tell me you forgot?"
Flushing, Isabelle averted her eyes and reluctantly pulled away from his embrace. She made her way to the empty seat at the table.
As the waiter arrived to take their orders, Elena chatted away in the background, recounting to Isabelle how a couple of months ago Alex had called her to tell her that he’d been offered the new role back in London, but how she had wanted to keep it a secret to surprise Bel. As Elena gossiped, Isabelle found her eyes increasingly drawn to Alex, who was sitting back in his chair smiling at her appraisingly as he sipped his wine.
"So, Bel," he said, leaning forward and interrupting his sister’s chatter, "aren’t you going to tell me what you’ve been up to lately? Your emails recently hardly told me anything."
"Oh!" she flushed, having been quite happy to let Elena fill the silence while she tried to jolt her brain back into a semi-normal mode and recover from her surprise at seeing Alex back in London after all these years. As children, all four Bentley sisters had grown up close to Elena and Alex, but it was Isabelle who had silently cherished Alex as her first love, even though she doubted that he had had a clue about her teenage feelings and had probably viewed her, along with all her sisters, as an extension of his own family. She hadn’t even confided her feelings to Elena, keeping her secrets close to her heart.
"Well, I guess I haven’t really been doing that much… just carrying on with the writing mainly…"
Elena snorted in the background, "That’s so typical of you, Bel, you underplay everything!"
Elena turned to her brother, "Bel’s last novel topped the best seller list and her agent’s even talking about selling the movie rights!"
"Um, yes, well, it’s still early days with that, who knows what will happen." Isabelle hated being forced to talk about her own achievements. "My agent’s been talking to a few studios who could be interested, but I get the impression it would be a long process, and that’s if anything even does come of it."
"But that’s great, Bel!" Alex exclaimed. "Why didn’t you tell me? I saw that the last book had done really well. It was even topping the lists in the States, but you never mentioned that more might come of it!"
"Well, I guess I didn’t want to tempt fate over it. Besides, there’s been lots of other stuff going on recently."
Although she knew that Alex had kept in touch with her sisters individually, she equally understood that email chat, or even the telephone, just wasn’t the same as hearing first hand from someone about what was going on in their life. She began to recount how her oldest sister Megan had met her fianc?e Luke, and how their youngest sister Lily was now dating a police detective she had met through her work as a teacher in one of London’s rougher inner city schools. As she relayed their stories, she focused her attention on Alex, as Elena and Philip had already met Luke and Tom. Quickly, however, she saw a frown appear on Alex’s face as she described the threats that both Megan and Lily had faced around the times they had first started to date their men.
"Had they taken leave of their senses?" Alex asked seriously, clearly concerned that Megan and Lily had been in such vulnerable positions, Megan with a particularly unpleasant client she had been forced to work for, and Lily with one of the local gangs that had loitered around the new school to which she had moved. "What on earth were they thinking of, letting themselves get into those situations?"
Isabelle sighed and rolled her eyes at Elena, who grinned back at her from over the table, "See, Bel? I told you that Alex was pretty much cut from the same cloth as Luke and Tom! You’re not going to get any sympathy there!"
"I hardly expected any," she retorted, aware that the wine was beginning to go to her head. She was probably revealing more than she should about her own insecurities as she tried to explain how, although she loved Luke and Tom dearly, and they clearly made her sisters happier than she had ever seen them, they tended towards bossy at times. Isabelle worried that they tried to wrap up her sisters in cotton wool. Even with the wine affecting her judgment, she kept silent about the fact that she knew Luke had spanked Megan in the past when she had put herself in dangerous situations, and although she had never asked Lily, she’d put money on her guess that Tom did the same.
"It sounds to me like they’ve had good reason to be bossy with them! If I’d been around when that had been going on, I’d have put them straight over my knee!" Alex said firmly, his usually serene features hardening.
Isabelle paled visibly at his words, wondering momentarily if she’d failed to be as discreet as she had thought, but Elena and Philip laughed out loud. Clearly they thought his threat was more of a joke. Only Isabelle suspected that he really meant it. That look in Alex’s eyes was exactly the same as the one she had seen in those of Luke and Tom when they were worried over her sisters. She had the uncomfortable feeling that Alex’s words had been no joke.
"Nice idea, big brother, but this isn’t the eighteenth century, you know!" Elena teased him. "Life and society has moved on, even in England!"
"From what I’ve seen of Meg and Lily, I doubt Luke or Tom would have any chance of going down that path!" Philip added. Isabelle winced to realise that, although Philip was clearly a nice man, he had no idea what did or didn’t make her sisters tick.
"Hmmm, perhaps," Alex murmured, not committing himself to agree or disagree. Instead he studied Isabelle’s expression and, she knew, took note of the surprise and shock that had fleetingly overcome her features.
"What about you, Bel?" Alex asked, subtly changing the subject. "You rarely mention in your emails whether you’re seeing someone or not?"
Groaning, Isabelle took a swift gulp of her wine. Although Alex had been her confidante when she was younger, and they had been close, she just hadn’t felt comfortable talking to Alex over email about her many disastrous relationships and so had ignored the subject.
"Don’t tell us you haven’t heard how Bel’s become our resident heartbreaker!" Elena giggled, as Alex gazed at Isabelle quizzically.
"There’s no need to exaggerate!"
"There’s nothing to be embarrassed over! You can get practically any date you want, and you know it!"
"Hardly," Isabelle muttered.
Turning to Alex, Elena explained. "Bel’s just going through a phase where the guys she dates don’t really seem to come up to scratch, so she’s been getting depressed over it and says she’s swearing off men for a while, not that I believe her for a moment!"
Unable to break Alex’s steady gaze, she answered as honestly as she could. "It’s not that they don’t come up to scratch, really it’s not. It’s just me at the moment. I don’t really know what I want, and it’s not fair to give anyone the wrong idea if I’m not sure. Besides, I really need to concentrate on my next book. I’m so far behind," she trailed off miserably.
Elena squealed. "Oh, but isn’t this one in a hospital setting? Alex can help you, can’t you, Alex?"
"Sure. What is it you need to know?" He squeezed her hand reassuringly across the table, picking up on her change of mood even though it seemed to have escaped Elena’s notice.
"Oh, no, really, there’s no need," she protested instinctively. "I’m not even at the stage where I know what kind of details or research I need yet!"
"Then why don’t you come to visit the hospital with me and just get a sense of what it’s like, for starters?"
"Oh, well, I guess I could, but only if it’s not too much trouble. I don’t want to be in the way. "
"You won’t be," he said. "We can go tomorrow afternoon." His tone allowed no argument as he held her gaze. She nervously nodded her acquiescence, thankful when the waiter arrived with their food and the conversation moved on naturally.
* * *
"You know, you really didn’t have to spend so long showing me round." Isabelle smiled at Alex as they left the hospital.
He’d picked her up from her apartment that afternoon, which she had discovered was only ten minutes from where he was renting until he found himself something more permanent. They’d spent the last few hours walking round the different departments of the hospital, as he showed her where he worked and how the various units all linked together to form one impressive, organised whole.
He took her arm as he walked her across the car park. "You don’t think I wanted to seize the opportunity while I had it to spend time with you?" he remarked softly.
Shocked at his words, she stumbled briefly. She felt his arm around her tighten to prevent her falling as he paused to make sure she wasn’t hurt.
"Not quite the reaction I’d hoped for," he mused wryly.
"But, what do you mean?" Isabelle gulped nervously. She rebalanced herself by steadying herself on his arm, not quite sure if she had heard his words correctly or if her mind was playing tricks on her.
He chuckled. "I thought I’d been pretty obvious about it, Bel. Aside from all the normal reasons for wanting to come home after so long abroad, one of the big incentives was the opportunity to be close to you again. You were too young when I left?barely out of university?but I’d always hoped that I wasn’t wrong in thinking there had always been something between us, a connection, and that when you were older, when I’d finished all the training and time in the States, that maybe, if I wasn’t too late, we could figure out if our friendship could lead to something more. "
"But… I didn’t think you’d guessed… that is… I thought…" Stunned, Isabelle stumbled over her words, unable to believe that he might have harboured similar feelings towards her after all.
"I guessed that if I’d approached you at the time you might have been willing to consider the idea?" Alex smiled, raising an eyebrow at her that left her in no doubt that she hadn’t been nearly as subtle as she’d hoped!
"You were too young at the time, Bel," he repeated. "You needed to have time to experience life for yourself. Although I hadn’t quite planned on you becoming the serial dater Elena suggested last night!"
Her cheeks flushing crimson, she murmured, "She exaggerated."
"Hmmm. Maybe." He tucked one thumb lightly under her chin while his arm remained firmly around her. He lowered his head and pressed a swift, brief kiss to her startled lips. "Have dinner with me?"
"What?" She looked up at him, dazed.
"It’s nearly seven, Bel. Join me for dinner?"
Wordlessly she nodded, her head spinning from his announcement, and promptly she found herself being buckled into his car as they drove back to his house.
* * *
Isabelle felt, rather than heard, Alex approach her as she stood on the patio that overlooked the small garden of the Georgian house he rented. She turned her head to look round at him just as he looped a light blanket over her shoulders and pressed a glass of chilled white wine into her hand.
"Although its spring now, the evenings still get cold, just as I remember," he said, bringing one hand up to massage her shoulder. "There’s no need to be tense," he added softly. "I’m hardly a stranger, remember?"
"I know. It’s just, well," she moaned as he pressed on one of the knots that seemed to be a constant presence in her shoulders these days. "It’s kind of unexpected, seeing you after so long and then, suddenly, this."
He chuckled, "I guess I caught you by surprise. I’d asked Elena to keep it quiet that I was returning. I thought it would be a nice surprise. Perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to catch you off guard."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, your emails recently had become more and more distant, not the Bel who used to confide everything to me." He looked at her reprovingly.
She lowered her eyes away from his penetrating gaze, knowing that he spoke the truth. In the last year or so, probably since her sisters had begun to meet men who they knew were ‘keepers’, she’d begun to question her own life more and more. She had withdrawn not only from Alex, but from others with whom she was close. Not that she had been pining for Alex from across the seas, but she’d definitely cherished the closeness that they had once shared. Since he’d left, she’d become more solitary and introverted than normal.
"Hey!" A strong hand tenderly stroked her cheek. "You seem lost in thought. Sit down. " He drew her over to the table and the cushioned sofas that rested to the left of the patio and switched on the overhead heater to ensure she was warm enough. "I’ll bring out dinner."
"I can’t believe that you’ve become a chef since you’ve been away," she teased.
"Not a chef exactly." He grinned as he made his way back to the kitchen. "I’ve learned to conjure up the basics." He returned carrying dishes of pasta and a large bowl of salad.
"Mmmm, yum! It looks like it’s more than just the basics to me!"
Alex settled himself next to her, topping up her wine as she picked up her fork.
As they sat together, eating and sipping at their wine, looking out at the twinkling stars that blinked in the dark sky, Isabelle felt them slip easily into the natural comfort of friends who had known each other for years. Still, she couldn’t ignore her enduring underlying attraction to the tall blonde man who sat next to her.
As they finished eating and settled back into the cushions of the small sofa, Isabelle felt him draw her back so that his arm was wrapped round her shoulders. She kicked off her shoes and drew her legs up under her so that she was settled even more snugly against his body, unable to care if she was being too blatant in her attraction to him. After all, it sounded like he had guessed her feelings years ago!
"So, tell me more about what your sisters have been up to. I know that Megan and Luke are getting married soon."
"Yes," she said, unable to keep the slight hint of glumness from her voice.
"Hey, what’s up? I thought you said Luke was a great guy and Meg was really happy?"
She sighed. "He is. And she is. I don’t know." She took a breath, figuring that she may as well tell him, as he’d always had the ability to nudge the truth out of her anyway. "I guess I’d just expected Meg, and Lily too, to go for a slightly different kind of guy. They’re both so independent, with great careers and they’ve always had such a passion for life, that I just worry that being with men so dominating is going to squash all that for them. I don’t see how they can still be independent and the women they’ve always been, if the men they’re with are so protective that they smother them!"
"Oh, Bel," he said softly, drawing her to him, "surely they’re just protective because they love them and won’t see them put themselves in situations where they could get hurt? I know I haven’t kept in touch with your sisters as well as I have with you, but from the emails I have had with them, it didn’t sound like they were any less feisty than they’ve always been. Besides," he added, "if the stories you told me last night are anything to go by, it sounds like they need someone to take them in hand a bit more. They were never that irresponsible when we were kids or I’d have had words with them!"
At his words, Isabelle snorted inelegantly. "Meg’s moved to a different law firm in the last few months, even though she’d been tipped to be made a partner at her previous firm!"
"Well of course she did!" He was clearly astonished and a thread of impatience ran through his voice. "Meg was working at a firm where her boss knowingly made her work with a client who came close to assaulting her! She should have moved firms as soon as she knew what the client, and her boss, were like, and not waited for the inevitable to happen before leaving! If I were Luke, I would have been furious with her. In fact, I’m half inclined to give her a piece of my mind when I see her. She never mentioned to me what had happened, she just made it sound like she fancied a change."
"I think he was furious with her," Isabelle muttered.
After a bit of silence, Alex asked, "Bel, is this about Luke, and from what you’ve said perhaps Tom as well, being protective of your sisters, or is it about how they choose to demonstrate that protectiveness?"
Confused, she looked up him, "What do you mean?"
"Well, I could be wrong here, but when I mentioned last night that if I’d been around when all this happened, I’d have turned them over my knee, the look on your face suggested that I might just have hit the nail on the head. "
Her eyes widened with shock at how he had guessed the truth of the matter. She had to protect her sisters’ privacy. "No!"
"Bel," he warned reprovingly, "you’ve never been able to lie convincingly, so now probably isn’t the best time to start."
Utterly embarrassed, she pulled away from him and brought her hands up to her face in horror that she had unwittingly betrayed her sisters’ secrets.
"Hey," he said, "it’s okay. I didn’t mean to upset you."
"Meg told me in confidence, and I don’t even know for sure about Lily, was I so blatant? Do you think Elena and Philip guessed?" she asked brokenly.
"No, not at all." He pulled her back to him. "They thought it was a complete joke, and I don’t think they even saw the look on your face."
Relieved, although still horrified that she had been so easy to read, she looked up at him beseechingly. "You won’t say anything, will you? Promise me you won’t?"
"Of course not. As far as I’m concerned, what goes on between two adults in a relationship, as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t endanger anyone, is their own business. Although to be honest, I’m glad they’ve both found men who aren’t afraid to take them in hand like that. It will keep them much safer, and likely happier, than they would be with men who let them walk all over them."
"What? Are you joking? How can you possibly say that? It’s not normal Alex, not in this day and age!"
"Really?" he asked mildly, "Are you sure about that? You might find that some of the most solid relationships out there are based on much the same dynamic."
"Where the man thinks it’s his right to hit a woman to keep her in line?"
"Hit her?" he asked, incredulously, "Of course not, Bel. What do you take me for? You surely don’t think I would ever accept a man hitting a woman, in any situation?"
Calmed slightly by his heartfelt denial, Bel felt some of her tension ebb away. "Exactly, which is why I find it difficult to get my head round how Meg and Lily could accept that, and how Luke and Tom, who are amazing guys, could do that to them."
"Oh, Bel. Don’t you see the difference?"
She looked up at him, clearly perplexed and thinking that they were talking in circles.
"The difference between hitting and spanking?" he clarified.
She was baffled, as if he were talking a different language.
"Spanking a woman, someone you love, isn’t about raising your fists to them, or about violence. Sure, it may hurt, but it’s about making that person understand why they need to keep themselves safe and not take unnecessary risks. Making them accountable for their actions. Hitting is an act of anger, but spanking is about love," and, after a deliberate pause, he added carefully, "although I might spank if its needed, I would never hit in anger, Bel."
"What?" trembling slightly, she edged back on the sofa away from him, only to find that his arms were looped solidly round her back, allowing her some space, but not letting her escape him.
"You heard me, Bel," he replied, his voice steady and his gaze strong.
"You mean, you mean you’d do that?"
"That?" he queried, trying to conceal a smile at her reluctance to say the word.
Blushing furiously, she whispered, "Spanking. You mean you’d spank your girlfriend?"
He nodded solemnly, "If I thought she needed it, then yes. But I’d never spank her in anger, and I’d always make sure she knew why she was being spanked, and it would be with her consent."
"You’ve done that before then? With girlfriends in the past?"
He nodded. "I haven’t lived like a monk, Isabelle. I’ve had girlfriends while I’ve been away, and dated just as you’ve dated. Although," he added, "perhaps not as prolifically as you if Elena’s to be believed!"
Bel flushed again. "I don’t think I could cope with that," she murmured, suddenly feeling lost. This evening, for the first time in so long, life had felt good. It had felt so right being here with Alex, her rock, whom she knew she could turn to with anything, properly back in her life again. But now, with his honesty, she felt like that anchor was being ripped away from her again.
"You know why not! It’s not right, Alex!"
"Says who? It doesn’t sound to me like you’ve got much by way of first-hand experience to make that judgement. In fact, from the little I’ve managed to glean from your emails, and Elena, it sounds like you’ve deliberately gone out with men who are easily malleable and would do your every bidding, regardless of your best interests!"
"That’s not fair!" she denied, hotly.
"Really? So you’ve been with a man who’s laid down basic ground rules for you then? Who’s held you accountable and spanked you if you’ve foolishly put yourself in danger or broken the trust that comes with any decent relationship?"
Bel was silent, knowing that he was right, and she didn’t have any experience with that kind of relationship, except for her own heartfelt belief that it would be flying in the face of everything feminism stood for if she were to accept such a relationship.
He sighed. "I know it’s going against the grain for you, Bel, but have you thought that maybe it’s worth being open minded, particularly if it’s made your sisters so obviously happy?"
"That’s not the point," she insisted stubbornly.
"Well, maybe not, but it also seems to me like the alternative hasn’t exactly made you happy either."
"How would you know?" she reacted, irritated at his presumptuousness.
"Well, you admitted yourself that you don’t seem to know what you want from a relationship at the moment, and reading between the lines it seems like your writing has suffered as a result. It’s not like you to be so far behind with your deadlines. What is it you’re so afraid of, Bel?"
"I’m not afraid!"
"Really?" Alex traced his fingers down her spine, aware of the slight tremor that his touch evoked in her. "It sounds like it might be from where I’m sitting. Tell me, have you ever worried that I would hurt you?"
"No. Of course not."
"Then why would you be afraid of anything I’ve said to you this evening?"
"Because you as good as told me that you’d spank me!" she blurted out, then b