The Author’s Friends

The Author's Friends

Carla Campbell, a successful, dynamic real estate attorney employed by a national firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has always lived a “vanilla” life. Her boyfriend, Dr. Michael Cohen, is a soft spoken, mild mannered therapist, who just so happens to be a strikingly handsome Dominant man. Together, these opposite personalities are in full swing trying to make their new relationship work.

In this second installment of The Author, Michael and Carla recently returned from Richard and Dana McBride’s wedding in Hawaii and quickly moved in together. Carla’s snappy comebacks and sassy attitude certainly pushed all of Michael’s buttons. He loved that she was a strong, intelligent, self-sufficient woman, but worried that her enthusiasm for a DD relationship with him might only be a passing phase. She adored his calm authority, and the passionate gleam in those dark brown eyes turned her on, but wondered what fueled his intense desires. After a long day of supervising staff at the office, his independent girlfriend was expected to hand over control to him – which was easier said than done. Was Carla’s disobedience a cry for dominance or a way of controlling those delicious bare-bottom spankings she was receiving on a regular basis?

This novella contains highly charged erotic material, the consensual spanking of an adult woman, anal play, voyeurism and medical play.
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00OBKH1ZW/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00OBKH1ZW&linkCode=as2&tag=romantspanki-20&linkId=AX5FBUYJFLAXXP2J
Bn: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-authors-friends-blushing-books/1120514364?ean=2940150717824

Sample Chapter

Michael Cohen and his girlfriend, Carla Campbell, drove quietly back home on snow-covered roads after visiting their friends, Dana and Richard McBride.? For the first time in many years, Dana had a desire to decorate for the holidays and asked her best friend to be a part of the festivities.? Unfortunately, Carla was not in a merry mindset that evening, and most of her comments had been sarcastic and biting.? Needless to say, her mood did not sit well with Michael.

“Are you going to speak to me, or am I going to get the silent treatment all the way home?” Carla’s arms were crossed and her tone was defiant.

Michael didn’t take his eyes off the road.? “If I were you, young lady, I wouldn’t try my patience any more than you already have.”

“I didn’t have a great day at the office.? Can my boyfriend, the therapist, ever cut me a break?”

“You know very well that Dana was looking forward to kicking off the Christmas holiday with us.? You couldn’t have put yourself in a pleasant mood for her sake?”? Michael parked the car and gently cupped Carla’s chin in his hand.

“Come on ? lighten up, Mike. I apologized to her and Richard before we left.” Carla paused, her eyes wide. “Wait a minute ? you’re going to punish me, aren’t you?”? They both knew the question was rhetorical as she looked into his warm, dark brown eyes.

“Let’s go in the house and talk.” He slowly disconnected his seatbelt, opened the car door and motioned for her to do the same.

Michael helped Carla remove her coat and hung it up in the closet.? “I’m going to sit in the den and take a deep breath.? You, on the other hand, are going upstairs to shed your clothes, including your panties, and change into a short nightgown.? Use the bathroom if you have to and brush your teeth because after your spanking? you will be going straight to bed.? Have I made myself clear?”

“What happened to our talk?” Carla asked snidely, placing both hands on her hips.

“Oh, we’re going to have that talk, my love ? while you’re over my knee,” he answered calmly.? “You aren’t thinking of making it worse for yourself, are you?”

“No, sir.”? She ascended the stairs with her head down in an attempt to hide her rolling eyes and entered the bedroom, where she begrudgingly shed her clothes and panties.? As Michael rounded the corner upstairs, she quickly slipped into her white cotton nightie.

He walked into the room, shook his head and sat down next to her on the bed.

“Dana is your best friend, and you know how important this party was to her.? I understand you had issues at work today, but your insolent behavior tonight was unacceptable.? You acted like a brat all evening, and you know exactly how l will deal with such a disrespectful display.” His calm and steady voice was well-practiced.?

Carla turned her head and sighed -? the perfect imitation of a bored teenager.

“You’re such an intelligent woman, yet it seems you aren’t processing important information today.? Maybe a new position will help you concentrate.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

Michael helped Carla get settled over his lap and smoothed the back of her nightgown.? Paying attention to detail, he pulled the fabric underneath so that it clung to the outline of her muscular, round bottom.

Without warning, he sharply smacked both cheeks several times, causing her to wince and jump with each contact before trying to escape his grasp.

“Stay in position Carla,” he said softly as he lifted the nightgown to expose her very pink behind.? “Since you asked for conversation ? let’s have one, shall we?”? Each word was punctuated with a crisp, loud crack, similar to a toy cap gun being shot in an empty room.? “When you behave like a spoiled child, you will be taken over my knee and given a good spanking.? Is that clear, young lady?”? Michael’s hand continued to meet dead-on with her tender, bare bottom as his tone remained soft and even.

“Yes, sir,” she managed, her voice trembling.

“You used language tonight – that I never, ever want to hear again.? Is that understood?”

“Yes,” she whined.

“Excuse me?” His hand rested on her rosy backside.

“Yes, sir.”

“Push your bottom up, Carla.”

“Please, I’m sorry,” she wailed as she complied with his instructions, receiving two more smacks on the sensitive skin underneath each vibrant pink cheek.

“I just need to make sure you understand why you’re sorry.” He tenderly ran his hand through her thick, wavy blonde hair before twirling it around his fingers.

“I was a brat ? and disrespectful to you and everyone else ? and I’m sorry, Michael,” she sobbed and looked over her shoulder with teary eyes.

He smoothed his hand over her warm flesh, pulled her nightgown down. As he helped her up, he readjusted his crotch.? “Sit on my lap, sweetie.”

Carla cried in his arms and mumbled through her tears.? “I’m so sorry.? I won’t ever act like that again, I promise.”

“Good girl,” he whispered and kissed her on the top of her head.

Michael helped her off his lap and pulled back the soft down duvet.? “You will go straight to bed now, Carla.”? His demeanor remained gentle as he tucked her in and placed a kiss on her small, red nose.? “I’ll be up in a little while.”

Carla sniffed as she gently rolled onto her side.? He turned out the lights, sighed and closed the door.?

In the dark room, a brilliant smile illuminated her tired face.

*****

“Carla certainly was snippy this evening.”? Richard applied a playful swat to Dana’s rear with a kitchen towel as they exited the kitchen.

“She had a bad day at work.? Her office can be a real zoo, sometimes.” Dana quickly came to her friend’s defense.

“If you’d spoken to me in that tone, your nose would’ve been glued to the corner of our bedroom.” Richard pointed upstairs and raised an eyebrow.

“I wouldn’t want to be in her high heels right now.? The steam rising from the top of Michael’s head was pretty evident as they walked out the door.”? She paused.? “Richard, I’m still a little charged from this evening and want to work for a while, if you don’t mind.”

“Far be it from me to stop your creative juices.? But don’t stay up too late – I don’t want to have to deal with a cranky little girl tomorrow.”? Richard kissed Dana on the forehead, and he and Floyd climbed the stairs to their bedroom.?

Dana closed the door to the den.? Usually, a novel of hers would wrap in ninety days, but having Richard around full time was a distraction.? She wasn’t complaining, though.? Their relationship had encouraged a whole new creative writing experience for her; now she penned books from experience, rather than fantasy.?

Slender fingertips raced across the keyboard of the laptop, her mind was focused.

Bradley Caine moved to New York City right out of college and landed a job as a professional model.? Although he’d been blessed by an early success, modeling jobs were becoming less frequent as he reached the age of thirty.? Brad never had trouble attracting women, and his latest love interest who also made her living as a model, was just one in a long line of many girlfriends over the years.? As a Dominant man, he’d been having trouble finding just the right woman, which was why most of his affairs were short lived.

Kristin was different from many of the co-workers that he’d dated.? There was something mysterious about her.? She’d pushed back from his initial advance and, for the first time in his life, he had to be the one pursuing.

Dana struggled with the storyline.? Brad hadn’t revealed his dominance to Kristin and wondered if she, too, might be interested in his lifestyle.? It was important that he wait for the right moment.?

Did she want them to play a game of cat and mouse or be honest with each other?? Dana stared at the screen.? What would her readers want?? There were so many e-books to choose from; she needed hers to stand out from the crowd.? Suddenly, she was startled. ?Richard’s strong arms were lovingly wrapped around her.?

“Dana, you need to get some sleep, darlin’.? You’ve been at this for a couple of hours.”

“Please, I’m about to have a breakthrough.? All I need is just a little more time.”

Richard shook his finger in warning as he walked away.? “I’m not going to argue with you.? But you know what a lack of sleep will do to you and how I’ll react.”

Dana returned to her laptop.?

Brad asked Kristin to go away for the weekend.? He was surprised she’d agreed to go and decided to make a reservation quickly before she changed her mind.? Immediately, he rented a car to drive up to a bed and breakfast in Connecticut.? He had only requested one room, which was a bit presumptuous, but decided to cross that bridge when they got there.? Truthfully, he worried about how much of himself to reveal that weekend.? Would she accept him for who he was?? Why was he so intrigued by her?? He hoped that this trip would shed light on many questions that still needed answers.

Dana slowly closed up her laptop.? She wanted to sleep on what was about to happen next in her book.? The weekend at the B&B would be explosive.? She had an idea of where she was going, but liked to travel one chapter at a time.

As quiet as a Kitten, she slinked upstairs and undressed herself.? In minutes, she was in bed and snuggled up close to Richard.?

“Do you have it all figured out?” he whispered as she rubbed her face on his cheek, inhaling her favorite scent.

“Mmm hmm, and someone’s life is about to take on an exciting new twist,” she purred in his ear.

He nibbled her neck and pulled her panties down caressing and teasing the smooth cleft of her ass.? His cock was rising quickly and scanned the area for attention.

“I have to wonder if you’re still worried about my lack of sleep, because your ‘friend’ doesn’t seem a bit concerned,” she teased as he spanked her sexy bottom in response.


CAT AND MOUSE

“Why would an intelligent, grown woman behave the way you did last night?” Michael asked as he brought two steaming mugs of coffee to the table.

Carla tried to keep her glossy lips in a straight line as she reached for her cup and gingerly sat down.? “What do you mean, Dr. Cohen?”

“You know exactly what I mean, you little minx.? I hear there’s a casting call for a sequel to ‘The Brat Begged for a Bare Bottom Spanking’.? Do you want to ring Mr. Spielberg’s secretary or should I?”? He waved his cell phone in the air smiling.

“I don’t think he produces that kind of movie, dear.? Aren’t you going to be late for your first patient?” Carla casually checked her watch, hoping the conversation was coming to a close.

“Thanks for your concern, but I have plenty of time.? Was your stress level at the office really that high yesterday, or am I not giving you enough attention?” He passed her the cream and sweetener.

“I don’t know if I can put my feelings into words, Michael.”

“You certainly didn’t need to say anything last night, it was written all over your face.? I must admit; you did play a convincing brat.”

She put her hands up to her cheeks.? “Oh for God’s sake. Was it that obvious?”

“I’m forty-two, Carla – way too old to be playing games.”

“Are you asking me to have a conversation with you about my fantasies?” A beautiful shade of red was rising from her neck.

“This is not one of Dana’s romance books we’re talking about.? This is real life, our life.? I would like to hear about your needs.”

“Can I make an appointment and lie on your couch later?” She crossed her eyes and took a sip from her mug.

He got up from the table and walked to the back of her chair.? “You want more rules, don’t you?” He gently kissed the crown of her head, inhaling her fresh botanical scent.

She didn’t move a muscle.? A deer caught in headlights would have looked more relaxed.

“I’m happy to oblige, my love.? But you aren’t going to be the one in charge; that status you must leave at the office.? My dominance will not be in your control, anymore.” He slowly moved her blonde hair to the side and kissed the nape of her neck.

She savored the chill that ran down her back and then turned to face him.

“Well, is this what you want, Carla?”? There was a dark edge to his voice that matched the color of his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” she whispered in a hushed tone.

He stooped to her eye level.? “Come straight home after work.? I expect to see you sitting at this table no later than six o’clock.”? Collecting his thoughts, he traced the line of her jaw with his finger.? “Do I need to tell you what will happen if you’re late?”

Carla slowly shook her head.

“And just so there’s no confusion, the next time you act like a brat, you will yearn for the day when I bent you over this knee and spanked you with my hand.” He tilted his head and winked.

He must stop using that word, she mused as her pussy clenched.

*****

“Dana Michele McBride, you need to rise and shine.”

She rolled over.? It took a moment for her head to clear.

“What time is it?” she mumbled.

Richard looked at his watch.? “I knew you shouldn’t have stayed up so late.” His arms crossed impatiently.

Dana rubbed her eyes and hoped Richard would leave without much more of afuss.? She had a long day ahead of her.? Floyd wanted some exercise, there was work to be done for the newspaper, and last but not least, she hoped to make a dent in her new novel.

“Richard, I’m sorry; I’ll get a move on.? But don’t you want to snuggle before you head off?”? Dana asked coyly.

“As much as I would like to take you up on that offer, I need to get to a meeting that starts in a half hour.”? Richard bent over, gave her a peck on the lips and rushed out the bedroom door.?

Dana rested her head one more time to gather her thoughts.? As much as she wanted to roll back over, she knew there wasn’t time.? If she hustled, maybe she could run on the treadmill for an hour.? That always helped her focus.? She put on some sweats and dragged Floyd downstairs to feed him, which never took more than thirty seconds.

Moments later they were out the door for their daily walk.? Because it was such a beautiful, crisp morning, they took their time getting around the block.? Of course, one can only go so fast with a dog like Floyd.? The walk was just enough to get Dana’s juices flowing, so as soon as they returned home, she jumped on the treadmill.? The exercise was stimulating; it gave her time to think more about her book and what she was going to write next.? Richard would have been proud since he was always preaching about living a healthier lifestyle.? She would just omit the fact that she hadn’t eaten any breakfast.?

Dana quickly showered, dressed, brewed a pot of coffee and sat down in front of her laptop.? Floyd flopped down and fell fast asleep at her feet.

Dana had a newspaper article due that afternoon, and as she pecked away at a review of the Home and Garden Show that was currently being held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center she wondered if anything could be more boring.? She tried to add some flair to the piece, but knew if she did, the editor would just chop it up and spit it back at her.? She labored away for an hour and sent it to the office for review.? Now she could get on with the exciting work -? her book.

She knew the next scene at the B& B had to be steamy and different from what she’d written in the past.? Being repetitive was tedious, and she wanted her followers to enjoy new twists and turns in the storyline.? What she needed were new ideas that would capture their fantasies.?

Brad picked up Kristin late in the afternoon.? The traffic out of New York City was always difficult to deal with, particularly on a Friday.? The conversation had been downright uneventful, and much to Brad’s surprise, the subject of sleeping arrangements never came up.? That was certainly a hopeful sign.? He had selected a B&B that sat right on the harbor, and they arrived in Niantic just before dinner.?

A middle-aged couple was behind the front desk as they entered through the front door.? The owners introduced themselves as the Wrights and were as friendly as they could be.? Much to Brad’s delight, Kristin asked if they could have a room with a view over the harbor.? The availability of a room with a king-size bed was music to his ears.

They took the elevator up three floors to their room.? As advertised, the room was down at the end of a hallway, and it had a large glass front that overlooked the harbor.? Kristin threw her arms around his neck when they got into the room exclaiming how romantic it was.

Well, Bradley Caine, I think your good fortune is just beginning, Dana thought as the aroma of coffee beckoned from the kitchen.

*****

“Dana, what are you doing for lunch?” Carla’s tone was rushed as she put her cell phone on speaker.

Dana looked at her watch and sighed.? “Well, I guess I’m going to eat a cup of delicious Greek yogurt,” she joked as she continued to type.

“Can you meet me for lunch downtown in about thirty minutes?? I need to see you.” Carla tapped her fingers on the desk.

“Okay, sure.? Hey, what’s going on, Carla?? You haven’t been your usual jovial self.”

“How about the eatery we went to the last time? – the one on Grant Street.? Is that okay?”

“Sure, that’s fine.”

“Thanks.?? See you in thirty.”? Carla put her cell phone in her bag, and reclined in the leather chair at her desk.

A half an hour later arrived at the food court and scanned the tables for her friend.? Carla was sitting alone with her arms crossed.

“Uh oh.? Are you going to spill your guts now, or should we eat first?” Dana asked as she took off her jacket.

“I actually don’t feel like eating, but I will for your sake.”? Carla shrugged as she threw her coat over a chair.? They headed straight to the counter and ordered their usual favorite salads.? When they returned to the table, there was an awkward silence.

Dana cleared her throat.? “Are we going to have a conversation, or am I going to have to conduct this like an interview?”

Carla bit her lip.? “First, let me apologize again for my behavior last night.? You know how I love you guys, and this holiday will be your best ever.? Michael and I very much want to be a part of your happiness.”

“Just for the record, you’ve already submitted an apology and it was accepted.? So, once again, I feel the need to ask what’s going on Carla?? This isn’t like you.” Dana moved her salad around the plate, obviously not intending to eat it.

“Stop playing with your food, Dana.? Did you eat breakfast this morning?? You know how Richard hates when you skip ?”

Dana held her hand up.? “I see you’re still bossy, so that’s comforting.”

“Yes, well that’s part of the problem.”? Carla shook her head.? “Dana, I would love to be a submissive for Michael.? It’s no secret that he wants it, and part of me does too, but I don’t know that I’m capable.? We’re talking about a thirty-five-year-old woman who’s used to running the show.? How can I be responsible for a large staff at work all day and then be taken over a knee for coming home a little late?” She lowered her voice, looking around to make sure no one heard her last words.

“Not that I’m judging, but just to be clear, what the hell happened last night?”? Dana took a small bite of her salad.

“Well, I did have a crazy day at the office and needed a release.? I knew ‘the brat personality’ would get Michael’s juices flowing and seized the opportunity to challenge him.? It was like playing a scene, and we carried it to the end of the night.? I have to admit, it was kind of fun for both of us.? But, of course, you know him; we just had to discuss it this morning.”

Dana stopped chewing.? “He is a therapist.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard.” Carla ran a hand through her wavy hair.

“Jesus, Carla.? You aren’t going to stop there, are you?”

“Dana, do you know why his marriage ended?” Carla took a sip of her Diet Coke and swallowed hard.

“No, but you better tell me right now.”

“After five years, his wife decided she didn’t want to be a submissive anymore.? According to Michael she, too, was a professional and thought it would be wonderful to be taken care of when she got home from work.? But eventually, Lilly tired of her new role and asked for a divorce.”

“So, that’s why he’s been careful with you.? Now I understand.” Dana slowly nodded.

“Yes, and I pushed him last night.? I did it on purpose, and he knew it.? This morning, he asked me if I wanted? more rules.”

Dana leaned forward.? “You know him better than I do, but I’m sensing he’s even more strict that Richard.? Am I right?”

“Dana, there’s a dark edge to Richard personality that I never saw before.? He doesn’t talk much about his background, but important information is there; I can feel it.”

“He’s so sweet and gentle.? What exactly do you mean by dark?” Dana folded her hands and leaned on the table.

“He’s the most even-tempered man I know.? Last night, he spanked me hard and put me to bed, but it didn’t feel ? wrong.? The way he did it, seemed very right.? He’s so good for me.”

“You aren’t answering my question.”

Carla shrugged.? “It’s just a feeling I get.? There’s something about him being in control, something about the gleam in those dark brown eyes.? I can’t describe it.? Am I making any sense?”

“No.? But the important question is, are you okay with it?? Is he scaring you?”

“Dana, he’s turning me on. That’s the scary part.”? She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.

*****

Michael was having a difficult time keeping his head in the game.? He’d seen three patients that morning, but most of his attention had been focused on Carla.?

He could spend many years trying to figure her out. She was such a complicated woman.? But he loved a good challenge.? In fact, it was her strength and self-assurance that he had found attractive in the first place.? He liked her intelligence, unpredictability and humor; he even enjoyed when she crossed the line.? But if the relationship was going to work, their roles needed to be defined.

In all fairness, he hadn’t opened up totally to her either.? He knew there was enough baggage in the recesses of his mind to start up a luggage store.? Pondering those thoughts, he wondered how his honesty would affect their relationship.? It was becoming evident that she was sensing there was another layer to him that he hadn’t revealed.? He wanted to fill her in on his background, but it was just too soon.?

“Doctor, are you listening to me?”?

Michael shook his head and cleared his mind.? “Yes, I’m sorry.? I drifted off for a moment. Please return to what you were saying.”

Self analysis wasn’t one of Michael’s strong suits.? Sometimes even the best therapists needed help, too.? His friend Jason practiced in the same building, so it was easy to stop by for an occasional tune-up.? The fact that he was dwelling on his past meant it was probably time to go see his buddy.?

“Doctor, what do you think about that?” his patient asked.

He looked at the clock on the wall, and luckily, it was the end of his patient’s time.? “Let me give your last statement some thought, and we’ll start there next week.”

He shook hands with his patient, relieved that he had the next hour open.? Without hesitating, he picked up the phone and punched in the numbers.?

“Jason, are you free right now?? I could use some of your expert counseling.”

*****

Michael sat in the spacious waiting area checking his smart phone, as Jason opened the door to his office.

“Michael, it’s always good to see you.? Please come in and have a seat.”

Jason’s assistant sat at her desk and smiled as the heavy door closed behind them.

The two men took a seat on opposite ends of the couch.? Michael looked over at Jason and sighed.? “I appreciate you giving me an opportunity to visit on such short notice.”

“We’re friends, Michael.? I’d do anything for you.”

“I’ve always tried to keep my ‘iron box’ stored safely away.? But now I have a girlfriend ?”

“We’re talking about Carla, of course.”

“Yes.? We all need to have dinner together sometime.? I think Jennifer and Carla would get along great.”

Jason smiled.

“The two of them could talk about legal matters all night.? Every once in a while, they might let us throw an opinion on the fire,” he joked.? “Jennifer practices criminal law, right?”

“That’s right, and if I remember correctly, Carla practices real estate law.”

Michael nodded.

“But we’re not here to talk about our women, are we?”

“Jason, we’re both Dominant males.? And I know the popular discussion today is nature vs. nurture when the talk moves into the direction of where our need to be the Dominant or submissive originated.”

“Not everyone agrees on the answer to that question.? We’re all wired differently.”

“Well, that’s my worry lately.? I think my wiring could be faulty.”

“Michael, I’m not sure I understand.? You’re the most grounded person I know.

“That’s because you don’t know about my family.”

Jason moved closer on the couch and spoke in a soft voice.? “Since when did you start worrying about your background?”

“Since I fell in love again and want to be the head of our household.”

“Why don’t you start by telling me about your family?”

Michael looked at his watch.? “I don’t think we have time to get into that right now, Jason.? I have an appointment in a half an hour.”

“Your office is only upstairs.? We have at least fifteen minutes for you to get started ?”

“I’m going to need a lot more time than that, my friend.”

Daddy Dom Christmas

Daddy Dearest

Chapter 1

  

Ethan smoothed the edge of the patchwork quilt and fluffed the pillows one more time before placing the new doll he’d purchased in prime position on the rocking chair. He looked around the room and felt satisfied. Well, as satisfied as he could be for a twenty-nine-year-old cowboy who had just inherited a child; not just any child but a girl child. What the hell did he know about raising a little girl? That would have to go, too: the language. What the heck did he know about raising a little girl? 

In such a short time, life as it had always been ceased to exist. The day the letter arrived from his old friend, his world has stopped. 

 

If you’re reading this, Ethan, I’ve probably already passed.

 

He felt a jolt of sadness, but as he read on, the sadness turned to shock, although that didn’t begin to cover his rolling feelings as he read the letter.

 

I have a problem to face and if there was another choice, there is no way that I would impose. Trouble is, there is no other way. There are so many children that go astray just because they have been left to a life without guidance too soon. I have no family. We haven’t seen one another for a long while, in fact, you may not even remember me. Your father and I were in Vietnam together and I considered him to be one of my closest friends. Without a doubt, he had the best outlook on life and more importantly, core family values. I know how you would have been raised and you are the closest link I have to your dad. So, I am asking you for a favor that I would have asked of your father if he were still alive. My most precious possession is my little girl, Claire. She can be a little wild but she has a good heart and the things she needs the most are love, a home and a bit of a push in the right direction. I’m sure a life on your ranch, away from the city will give her the stability and security she needs. Please will you take care of my little girl?

 

I have drawn up papers and had them forwarded to the lawyer in town. The bottom line is, Claire’s inheritance will be available to her on her twenty-first birthday. Until then, if you agree to this, I hope you will be able to manage her allowance for her and see that she gets what she needs and I’m not only talking about things. I am leaving her in your care.

 

The rest had been a blur. With his new charge arriving within days, Ethan had been in a whirlwind of preparation. The thought of raising a child without a mama, a child that didn’t even know him, scared him half to death but he would never turn his back on a friend that needed him, so he signed the papers and set himself to making a home for his new daughter. 

He assumed she had her own personal things like clothes but he did his best to decorate her room with little girl things that would make her feel warm and cozy. His housekeeper Mary had been a big help (when she wasn’t adding to the huge amount of baked cookies and other sweet treats that she was certain Claire would need to taste and smell as soon as she came to the door in order to feel welcome). Ethan had one more big surprise, a giant teddy bear he’d bought to take with him to the airport. He was lucky that the lawyer on the other end had agreed to one of his personal staff to travel with the child from California to Missoula Airport. He really couldn’t leave the ranch to travel all the way to California. As it was it would be a four-hour turnaround to collect Claire from there. 

 

 

***

 

 

Claire gave one of the suitcases she was packing a kick. What had her father been thinking? She wasn’t a child that needed someone to look after her. As if losing her only parent hadn’t been enough. It was too much, it was all too much. Why hadn’t he at least told her what he had planned? She could have defended herself, explained why things didn’t have to be this way. Did it really matter that she couldn’t get into a decent college? She would be perfectly fine in this house by herself if she had the funds to feed herself at least but no, it was out of her hands. Claire flopped onto her bed and wept; for her dad, for this home that she would have to leave and for the life that would never be the same again. It didn’t occur to her that her poor attendance at school and a terrible permanent record left her father with not a lot of choice. 

 

The lawyer instructed to read the will had been very clear; if she was to inherit her father’s estate, she was to live with her newly appointed guardian, Ethan West, until her twenty-first birthday—on his ranch—in the middle of nowhere, Montana. She turned over in her bed and opened her eyes wide.

“That’s it!” All she had to do was stop Ethan from signing the papers. If she gave him a hard enough time, he would be glad to send her packing. It wasn’t like she couldn’t compensate Ethan for the trouble once she had her inheritance. Besides, she didn’t have a choice.

 

It was really important that she make a lasting first-time impression. Claire tapped her laptop. Something special and very revealing, her red latex dress. She’d bought it as part of a devil costume for a party. Without the horns and tail, it was just a dress. Of course, it was Montana, so it would be freezing. A floor-length coat that covered everything would work until the very minute she was ready to reveal her special surprise. She would have to take it in her carry-on luggage and change at the airport in one of the bathrooms. Next, she would run up as many charges as she could at the airport on her credit card. It would be fun to watch the look on this daddy dearest’s face when he got the statement. The rest of her planning would have to be on the fly once she got settled. If he made a rule, she would break it. She would do the opposite of anything and everything he told her to do until he was so worn out he could take no more. He would send her packing and go back to whatever it was cowboys did on a ranch.

 

 

***

 

Claire went through her closet one more time to make sure she had everything she needed. Everything was all packed. She had no intention of staying there forever so didn’t need everything in the closet. The dress was in, along with her makeup and as a last-minute touch, false eyelashes. The coat was just not fitting. She was already irritated when the doorbell sounded. “Oh, for fuck sake. Who could that be now?” The coat was dumped. “Who is it?” Her voice was loud enough to carry from the stairs.

“It’s Melanie, from Levi Crane’s office.”

Levi Crane, her father’s lawyer was there? Well, not him but one of his assistants, that was as good as him being there himself, almost, wasn’t it? Could it be that this was some kind of prank her dad had played? Maybe Melanie was here to tell her it had all been a joke and she didn’t have to go anywhere. She swung the door open. “Hey.” Melanie was nice; she had always been nice to her when she’d visited the office with her father growing up. 

“Hi, Claire. I guess you’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.”

“You’re here to tell me this has all been a joke?” Claire held her breath, hoping with all her might that Melanie would laugh, smile, look anything but the way she was looking right now, nervous. It was like she was here to deliver bad news.

“That’s not why I’m here.”

And there it was, just when things couldn’t get any worse. “What now?”

“Ethan has asked me to travel with you to Montana.”

“You’re not serious?” Claire was dumbfounded. “This is ridiculous! I’ve traveled overseas on my own; I’ve been staying on my own here for three days. Look at me! I didn’t starve! I didn’t set the house on fire or turn to prostitution, did I?”

“You really are shooting the messenger, Claire. I’m just doing my job.”

“It’s just not fair!” She folded her arms and stalked away even though her ranting continued in full force. “I’m not a child and I refuse to be treated like one. High and mighty Mr. Ethan has bitten off more than he can chew if he thinks he’s going to control me.”

“I have no control over any of that, honey. I’m just going to travel with you and come home again. Will it be so bad to have a traveling companion?” Melanie asked, trying to calm the situation down.

“I suppose not.”

“We can get to the airport early. You can do some shopping.”

Claire sighed. There was that. Shopping did fit into her plans. “Okay, but no judgement. I have a couple of surprises for my new daddy dearest and I don’t want you to interfere. Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Okay, then. Let’s get this show on the road.” Now that it was settled, Claire was glad Melanie would be along for the ride. She was confident on the outside but her insides were squirming. It would be nice to have someone familiar sitting beside her. For now though, there was a slight adjustment to her plan. She would have to wear her outfit now. 

 

 

***

 

“That can’t be comfortable, Claire.”

“You don’t have to look so horrified.” Claire smirked. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Yes, but I don’t want to offend you, so I’m choosing my words carefully. You know you can get an embolism on a plane from clothes that are too restrictive. That’s why they suggest strongly that people wear comfortable clothes.”

“You promised—no judging.”

Melanie held her hands up. “I’m not judging. I promise, just making an observation.”

Claire narrowed her eyes. “Like I said, I have my reasons.”

 

***

 

The traffic to the airport had been horrible and the dress dug uncomfortably into her thighs. There’s no way Claire was going to admit that or the fact that she was nearly perishing from the heat in the long coat. It was a relief to actually get inside the airport doors. Her irritation soon returned when it became obvious that people found her outfit amusing.

“If one more person gawks at me, I’m going to punch them.”

“Calm down, Claire,” Melanie said, steering her away. “I said I wouldn’t judge you, but I can’t stop the rest of the world from having an opinion. It’s all about the choices.”

“People should just mind their own business.”

 

 ***

 

“Okay, bags checked.” Melanie blew out a sigh of relief once they’d maneuvered their way through the long line and managed to avoid any altercations. “What do you want to do first?”

“Shopping,” Claire said. “I would really like some space though. You don’t have to come.”

“I kind of do. As much as I like you and feel for you, I’m getting paid for this, so I have to take it seriously. I meant what I said though, I won’t judge. You’re obviously up to something but so long as it has nothing to do with actually breaking the law, I’ll stay out of it. Besides, you’re attracting attention in that get up, I’m worried someone might get hurt.”

“I’ll be fine!” 

“It’s not you that I’m worried about.”

Claire tried to sound horrified at Melanie’s sly dig but really, she was over the moon. People staring at her was irritating but at least she was making an impression, which meant she would also make an impression on her new guardian. “Then let’s go shopping.” True to her word, Melanie didn’t interfere. Her eyes opened very wide at some of the purchases Claire made though. 

 

 

***

 

 

Once on the plane, the two settled into their recliners and Claire closed her eyes. There was something about the whir of a plane engine that was soothing. Sleepless nights since all this began had jumbled her thoughts off and on. The big questions rattled around constantly in the back of her mind so when she did manage to drop off to sleep the questions became fragments of a disjointed dream. What kind of a man was Ethan? Why did he put his hand up for this and why did he agree to have her there in his house? Maybe she was supposed to be some kind of maid….

 

***

 

“Get my breakfast!” 

A grumpy old man stood at the end of Claire’s bed. Rude much? “I can’t cook. I don’t want to cook. I just want to sleep. Leave me alone.” 

“Leave you alone? I won’t leave you alone! You belong to me now. I’m your new daddy and you’ll do what I say. If you can’t cook, you better learn. Get down to the kitchen and, mind you, clean up your mess when you’re done.”

“I don’t clean either,” Claire said stupidly. The man flew at her and shouted right in her face. 

“Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter what you like to do! Now get moving, you lazy little ingrate, or you won’t like what happens next!” 

“You don’t scare me, old man!”

“I will scare you! When I cut off the WIFI and throw away your phone!” He snatched up her cellphone…

 

 

“No, no!” Claire screamed.

“Claire, Claire!” 

Claire woke up with relief once she realized her phone was right in front of her on the tray. “I had a nightmare,” she said.

“What about?” 

“There was this horrible old man and he was shouting at me. I think it was Ethan. He wanted me to be his maid and he took my phone!” 

“I think it’s normal for you to imagine the worst Claire but I’m sure he’ll treat you really well.” Melanie took a chance and laid her hand over Claire’s. “I know you must be scared and I know none of this makes sense to you but your dad must have had a great reason for doing all this, he adored you.”

“I can’t imagine what that would be,” Claire said. “I mean I’d hate to think my very own father would sell me into slavery or something.”

Melanie giggled. “Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“That’s okay for you to say. When we get there, you get to turn around and come back. I’m the one who has to live there. I’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no friends and no family.”

“There’s always the internet.”

“Do they even have the internet all the way out there in the country?”

“Yes. Ethan does have email; that’s how we corresponded with him.”

Claire sighed with relief. “Well, that’s something.” She smiled. “You know what I could do with? A drink!”

“I’ll order you a coke.”

“I mean a real drink.”

“No way! Do you want to get me fired?”

The flight attendant smirked as she walked past and not for the first time. It made Claire’s blood boil. “Want to take a picture, honey?” she asked cattily.

“Tone it down,” Melanie said. “None of this is the flight attendant’s fault.”

“I’m sick of them staring.”

“Then, maybe you’re little attention-grabbing costume there could have done with a rethink.”

“I didn’t want to get her attention.”

“Honey, you have everyone’s attention.”

 

 

***

 

Claire scanned the crowd for someone who looked like they might be Ethan. There were so many people waiting, but those she could see were mostly families. “I don’t think he’s here. What happens if he doesn’t turn up? Do you think it’s too late for me to get a ticket to come back with you?” Claire loved the thought of getting back on a plane to go back home.

“He’ll be here Claire.”

“There are no older men here.”

“I think you’ve missed one man. There he is!”

“Who?”

“The handsome cowboy that has a giant teddy bear sitting on his foot and a sign that says ‘Claire White’?” 

Claire followed Melanie’s gaze to the middle of the crowd. “Oh, wow!”

“Well, he’s not old, that’s for sure,” Melanie whispered.

“Nope, he’s not old.” In her wildest dreams, Claire didn’t imagine that Ethan would look like that. She had no idea what the giant teddy bear was about but he was very good looking. He was tall, with a black cowboy hat and just the right amount of stubble. His jeans and shirt clung to him in all the right places. He even wore actual cowboy boots. She stood stock-still unable to make her feet move, but soon found herself being spirited forward until there, directly in front of her, was the man himself. The sign definitely had her name on it. For the first time since she cooked up her plan, she felt silly being caught in the get-up she was wearing but it was too late now, she would have to play it out. 

“Can I help you?” the cowboy asked.

Melanie put out a hand to introduce herself but Claire cut her off. “So, you’re Ethan West?” The man’s jaw dropped. 

“Uh, yes, Ma’am. That would be me. And you are?”

It was Melanie that managed to get a word in this time. “Hi, I’m Melanie from Levi Crane’s. I think there may be some crossed wires here.”

Ethan tilted his head and glanced at her. It was obvious to Claire he wasn’t expecting her. 

“I think so. I’m here to pick up a little girl, Claire?”  

So he was expecting her but not expecting her. Oh, this was great. Claire wanted to jump up and down with glee at the advantage that had fallen in her lap. “Guess you made a teeny tiny mistake. I’m Claire, but as you can see, I’m not a little girl.” She had to give it to him; Ethan seemed to recover quite quickly if his arrogant smirk was anything to go by. 

“If you say so.” He held out the teddy bear. “This is for you, princess. Welcome to Montana.”

What did he mean by that? It was obvious that she wasn’t a child! Maybe he was a dim country person who had to have things explained more clearly. “Thank you, but as you can see, I’m grown and long past playing with teddy bears.” Claire gave him her sweetest smile. 

“Suit yourself, Claire.” 

“I usually do.” She once again flashed him her toothy grin. This was as good a time as any for her to unveil her assets. It would show him that he wasn’t dealing with the minor he was obviously expecting. “My, it’s rather hot in here, don’t you think? I’ll have to take off this coat.” She flipped her long red hair over her shoulder and let the coat drop just enough to reveal her plunging neckline. Before it was off further, it was taken out of her hands and hoisted back on. 

“I’m going to need you to leave that on,” Ethan said in a slightly strained tone. “It’s warm in here but it’s cold outside.”

She tried to wrestle the coat back off, but his hold was firm. “Let go! I want to take this off—”

His tone dropped and so did the smile. “I insist that you leave it on.”

Claire wanted to throw the coat off as soon as his grip loosened but realized the timing could be off. 

 Ethan turned his attention to Melanie and the smile was back. “I’m guessing you have a flight to catch?”

“I do. In fact, I should be heading to the check in counter.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, honestly, I don’t have baggage or anything. I’ll be perfectly fine.”

“If you’re sure, we do still have a long drive back to the ranch.”

“Claire, do you mind waiting here while I have a word with Miss Melanie?”

“I do mind actually.” The two of them chatting about her behind her back wasn’t an ideal situation.

“I was being polite. It wasn’t really a question. Please just stand there for a few moments and behave yourself.”

“Fine.” Who did this man think he was? 

 

***

 

“Thank you for bringing her here. I know December is a busy time of the year. I only asked for a companion because, well—”

“You thought we were sending a little girl on a plane on her own?”

“Frankly, yes. I’m so grateful that you came through, an eight-year old would have been safer traveling alone than this little brat dressed in that get-up.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think she always dresses like that.”

“Thank goodness for small mercies. She looks like she’s come from the set of a hooker movie.”

Melanie smirked. “She’s a little lost and confused. I’m sure you must be too. I think you both have some adjustments to make.”

“You’re right about that. I may have to rethink what my role here is. I mean what her needs are and what I can do for her.”

“You’ll figure it out. She’s been very spoiled. Her father never denied a request from what I can gather.” She put a hand on his arm. “Just remember, she adored her father and in her mind, she’s lost everything she loved.”

 

 ***

 

“All done talking about me?” Claire asked with an eye roll when Ethan came back. “I’m just about melting here.”

“Well, we’ll soon do something about that.” He plopped the teddy bear on top of the baggage cart and wheeled towards the door. “How do you feel about snow, princess?”

“I love to ski!”

“Okay then. I’ll keep that in mind.”

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Live for Love

Chapter One

Dancing

 

Emily

 

Three flutes into something bubbly, the song playing on the dance floor took me back to when my boyfriend George and I hooked up in his pickup truck after Homecoming. When I closed my eyes, it felt like it could’ve been yesterday: the air conditioning rattling up my skirt, the raw groping and giggles against each other’s skin, the squeak of weight shifting back and forth on uneven tires, and even the reapplication of thick lip gloss afterwards so I’d look good when it was over. I still kept tissues, a tube of lipstick, and a comb in his glove box for tidying up after our friskier nights at the drive-in.

In fact, I’d used all three of those things the night I’d found Betty crying over her now-husband in the bathroom and adopted her as my new best friend. Touch-ups could do wonders. Regardless of advertising my services at the salon, my philosophy was that when a person looked and felt good, they lived their best life. They took risks, they had more energy, and they were more likely to be happy or inspired or figure out whatever else they needed.

Most of the time, I didn’t need anything. I didn’t even need George to be dancing with me. We’d done some grinding at the bachelorette party and had years of football games and dances under our belts to the point it felt good just to dance in the crowd, to feel the heat wave around me.

Maybe after we were done enjoying the Parkers’ wedding entertainment, George and I could do some private reminiscing. For the moment, I was happy celebrating my best friend’s lifetime commitment and the best party our town had seen in years. I shimmied so hard my boobs almost flew out of my dress.

Betty beamed as her groom Reed folded her against his chest, their linked – and freshly inked! – hands resting on her midsection while they pretended to be dancing instead of dabbling in light foreplay while she ground back into him. Those two were insatiable. They had already snuck away to fuck each other at their respective bachelor and bachelorette parties.

“Save some moves for the honeymoon!” I teased.

“Here, here!” The groomsman I had walked down the aisle with cheered, unbuttoning his shirt as he worked up a sweat.

For a Rattler, Milo was actually a pretty good time. Most of Reed’s motorcycle gang buddies looked so intense whenever they were milling around town. Even though they all seemed genuinely buzzed, enjoying the wedding, Milo was friendly. Before we walked down the aisle, he’d called me, ‘m’lady’. His slicked-back hair was buzzed on the sides and an earring glinted in one ear.

“Have you always had that?” I shouted over the music, gesturing to his accessory.

Reed just had to butt in, “Yeah, his mom had a really hard labor. It kept getting caught on everything.”

“Reed,” Betty chided, scandalized.

“Now that you’re married, the truth comes out! Reed’s a jackass,” Milo ribbed good-naturedly, then leaned in to answer me properly. “I’ve had it since high school. I only wear it when there’s a low chance someone will rip it out in a fight, though if Betty keeps rejecting me for dances I might have to take it out and fight Reed for the privilege.” My eyes widened and my heart beat faster at the idea of a real fight, which only made him laugh. “That freak you out, Em?”

Em?

His big friend, Chewy, was standing at the edge of the floor, not dancing so much as fist-pumping and rolling his eyes at what he probably thought were Betty’s straight-laced friends.

“No. That’s so cool! I wear earrings all the time and I’ve never had a fight–like, a real fight to test that with.”

“You want me to tug on them for ya?” he teased, reaching up to fuss with my earlobes.

“Stop,” I squealed, waving his hands away. Betty shot me a look but kept dancing with Reed. To be fair, we were being flirty. It was harmless, though. Clearly, Milo enjoyed attention and dancing, like me, whereas George was enjoying the buffet, beer, and easy games like horse shoe and hillbilly golf set up to the side. I wasn’t going to drag him away, especially since he seemed to have a great time recounting man-bonding stories with Frank, Betty’s father-figure who’d also been involved in high school sports and happened to work in a male-dominated industry.

The songs continued, as did the spinning, and soon I was sweaty and nearly falling over. “Easy,” Milo laughed, slinging an arm around my waist. “Ready for a water break?”

“I can take her,” Betty insisted, Reed’s lips at her neck.

“Don’t be silly. This is your chance to make out with no one clinking spoons so you’ll be forced to kiss,” Milo said.

Her eyes narrowed. “She has a boyfriend.”

“It’s just a water break, Betty.”

“Yeah. A water break,” I repeated cheekily, my tongue buzzing. Me and my new friend stumbled off the dance floor towards our table. The centerpieces had classic film reels, books, and flowers. “Everything’s so pretty.”

“Did you help with a lot of the decorating?” He stuck a napkin in his water glass and dabbed it across his face and neck.

Genius, I thought, doing the same with mine. It felt so good. “I did. Betty didn’t want anything over-the-top but I think we did well.”

“It’s the best wedding I’ve ever been to! Though, to be fair, Reed’s the first of my friends to get married. Didn’t think the guy would ever be that happy,” he turned to me mischievously. “Getting laid has been good for him.”

“Obviously.” I laughed. “Have you seen Betty? I’d go gay for her any day of the week.”

“Really?” His eyes lit up with curiosity. “Anything happen at the bachelorette party?”

“No.” I flicked him with some water. “In fact, I’m pretty sure she was kidnapped by Reed.”

He slumped back into his seat, disheartened. “Figures. The guy bailed out on his own bachelor party.”

“Was it totally wild?” Pushing my hair off my neck, I tried to catch my breath. “I can only imagine what the Rattlers get up to on a normal day, let alone a stag night.”

“It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Reed said he’d bounce if any strippers showed up, so we weren’t surprised when he went out the back the second a scantily clad girl came in and caused a distraction. Before that, though, we all had a good time.”

“I’m sure he appreciates it. Reed doesn’t strike me as a bachelor party kinda guy.”

“He’s not. I, however, am a bachelor party kinda guy. Hell, if I was invited, I’d be at bachelorette parties with the penis popsicles and stripping for cash. Free alcohol, dancing, and mayhem? Count me in!”

I slapped his arm. “You should have said something! I could’ve tried to fit you in for Betty’s, although I’m not sure how much Reed would’ve appreciated that.”

Milo pulled at his collar, grimacing. “Pretty sure I’d be talking at a much higher pitch if I wasn’t still face down in a ditch. You didn’t have real dicks at the party, did you?”

“No, we had Shelly around for most of it, so we tried to keep it tame. We didn’t even have any penis cakes.”

He tsked. “Shame.”

“I know!” My hands fell to the table hard enough for the silverware to clatter. “Put in all this time and effort and–well, we did get to see some hot men by the end. We went to the gay bar and my boyfriend and Reed met up with us there.”

Energy dipping, Milo glanced at the dance floor. “When are you and the boyfriend getting married?”

“Oh, no,” I scoffed, waving my hand and taking a sip of water. “We want to travel, first. Experience things.”

“Other people?”

Shocked, I choked on my water, pounding my chest to dislodge it from the wrong pipe.

“Sorry, it just seemed like that’s where that sentence was headed.”

“We’re not…” I glanced over at my boyfriend. “Opposed to that. We talked about it.”

“Really?” Intrigued, Milo leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand and making me feel like my veins became as bubbly as champagne.

“When he first went to college and I went to beauty school, we thought we might have more distance between us than we did at West Ridge.” He nodded along, giving me confidence to go on. “We talked about opening things up a bit. As it turned out, the people at my school thought girls with highlights were so last season and George, although he is and was a catch, he was too busy trying to juggle practice, lectures, and parties to initiate anything. But that’s not why we’re not getting married,” I clarified hurriedly, downing some more clear liquid so I didn’t get myself in too much trouble. In a town as small as ours, someone was always watching.

“You love each other. That doesn’t have to lead to marriage,” Milo reasoned.

“Right! Thank you. Tell that to my mother.” In an attempt to change the subject, I slapped his leg. “Anyway, tonight’s not about that. It’s about honoring the lovebirds and having fun. Do you have any embarrassing stories about Reed you’d like to share?”

“Considering I’m his best man, I probably shouldn’t be talking shit about him. The rest of the Rattlers are fair game, though. As the occasional bartender, I tend to get all the dirt–and my fair share of phone numbers.”

Thoughts swirling, I refilled my water glass. “Isn’t it mostly guys at Sidewinders?”

“That’s not the only place I bartend,” he said, darting his gaze off to the side with a sly smile. Dumbfounded, I stared. “The gay club you mentioned? I’ve done a little work there. It’s not a free-for-all, like, I do have types. Nine times out of ten prefer a girl, but…”

“What’s the one time out of ten guy like?”

Milo shrugged. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“Oh my God, you are probably the most interesting person from West Ridge,” I shrieked.

He raised his eyebrows dubiously. “Because I’ve swung?”

I shook my head. “You’re in a gang, you wear an earring, you tattoo stuff which means you’re an artist, and you bartend and have lots of sex! On Entertainment Center, your life biopic would be like a rock star’s compared to the rest of us.”

“I am kind of a musician.” His diamond earring shone between his fingers.

“See? Holy shit. I’m a beautician. George and I met in high school so most of my raunchy tales are from back then.”

Glancing at Reed, Milo leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know, my man always says something like, ‘We are the authors of our own stories’. Most of the time, I think he’s being pretentious, but I think there’s something to that. If you two want to do something exciting… you could make it happen.”

“Make it happen,” I repeated, nodding solemnly as the water goblet lapped at my lips. There were so many possibilities. Streaking? Singing? Raunchy speeches? “But I can’t do that to Betty,” I reasoned, gesturing to the blonde sweetheart floating around with the love of her life. “Especially not at her wedding.”

“Fair point. We can’t always steal the spotlight.” After a few minutes of drinking water and commenting on the party, he pushed his seat away from the table. “Ready to get back out there?”

I kicked off my shoes, lazily reapplied my lipstick and took his hand in solidarity. “To Parker parties!”

“Parker parties!” he cackled, leading me back into the throng of sweaty bodies.

Eventually, George caught my eye, wandering the edge of the dance floor. He waggled his eyebrows and grinned at my crazy antics. “We’re having so much fun!” I shouted, pulling on his hand. “You have to dance for a minute.”

“Just for a minute. Then, can I take you by the s’more pit?”

“S’more pit?” I balked. “How can you be thinking about marshmallows at a time like this?”

“It’s free,” he explained emphatically. “You can dance at home whenever you want with your Bluetooth speaker.”

“Marshmallows over dancing?” I sighed, trying not to whine as he lifted me up. One of the fun, yet frustrating, things about having a footballer boyfriend was that he picked me up whenever I was on the verge of being disappointed.

He jostled me up higher. “You saying I could use some cardio?” Although he liked his sweets, he wasn’t pudgy. The old football team still hung out at the gym every morning.

“Dance with me.”

Champagne swirled warm in my belly and my feet didn’t hurt anymore. Everything was good. Betty and Reed were happily married. We were at a happening party.

George was a fan of the shimmy and fist pump whereas I tended to spin and stomp. The throng of sweaty guests, most of them Rattlers, rocked out around us. The party blurred as I tried to focus on the people I knew.

To my left, Reed picked Betty up and spun her around until she was laughing, dizzy and free.

Wistful envy buzzed between my ears.

It still seemed crazy that every time they interacted there was that spark of lust and love in their eyes. They were glowing.

Who would’ve thought the same guy who made her cry that first night we met would be the one to make her shine so bright?

Maybe George and I needed more drama. Betty and Reed would randomly try to track each other down and see how long it took for the other person to notice. It had gotten to the point that I was keeping an eye out for him when we went on our bestie dates. As soon as we noticed him, though, I knew it was a losing battle for her attention and left them to make heart-eyes at each other so I didn’t feel like a third wheel, no matter how hard she tried not to put me in that category.

It was fine, honestly. Honeymoon periods were natural and she seemed really happy.

George and I needed some new and exciting experiences to keep us busy and buzzed. Our version of West Ridge was tame. We went to football games at the local high schools, his friends’ houses for casual card games, and hung out and watched TV. The only places we frequented for food were drive-ins, diners and occasionally, dives. Sidewinders seemed too exclusive and intimidating to brave entering with all the giant hulking motorcycles outside.

“Maybe now that we’ve partied with the Rattlers, they’ll let us play pool with them,” I shouted at my boyfriend.

Milo chuckled and leaned in. “You talking about Sidewinders?” When we nodded, he pulled out his phone. “Take my number. Next time you two want to hang out, let me know.”

“What would we even do?”

“Drink.”

George clapped Milo on the shoulder with a companionable grin. “I like this guy! Put in my number, too. We go to this place that plays the game on a big screen TV if you’re ever looking for that kind of action.”

“Thanks, buddy.” Milo narrowed his eyes like he was trying to judge George’s sincerity, so I subtly tried to suggest with a nod and arm rub that my boyfriend was that easy to win over as a friend. “Now let’s show these cameras how to dance.”

Betty must’ve paid a small fortune to hire such a big crew. Everything was going to look fantastic. I clapped Milo’s shoulder as he led us back onto the dance floor while George clung to the seam of my dress. “Do you think they’ll do a showing of the wedding video after all this?”

Milo shook his head and gestured to the newlyweds eye-fucking the hell out of a slow dance. “It would definitely not be PG. My bet is they’ve already had sex twice today.”

“What? When?” I gasped, scandalized and thrilled. “There was no time! Unless they did it in the morning…”

“They definitely did something this morning. My guess is they did it right after the ceremony, too. They probably hopped into one of the dressing rooms.”

George straightened up, face contorted in concentration as he joined the guessing game. “It wasn’t right after the ceremony because Betty was happy-crying and hugging everybody. That was, what, half an hour?”

“If they did do it again, it would’ve had to have been after we ate and they opened up dancing,” I reasoned.

“Why do you say ‘if’?” Milo’s eyes danced with mirth as he turned to take my hand, vaguely dancing with both of us. “Is it even a question?”

“Yes! We don’t know that they snuck off to do things.”

“This is Betty and Reed. I’m talking about wall-pounding orgasms, here.”

George fanned himself with his collar. “Whew! Is it getting hot in here or is it just me?”

“It’s you.” Milo winked, boldly putting a hand on my hip and sauntering closer. “You and Emily.”

Champagne giggles bubbled out of me as I swayed with both of them. “Have you had a few too many to drink? This is my boyfriend behind me. The huge, football player guy doing the two-step in full view of like three cameras.”

“I’m flirting.”

“With both of us?” I asked, grinning. Part of me was flattered but another part wondered if he would stick his dick in anything.

“Why should Betty and Reed be the only ones I admire?”

“Because they’re married.” I chuckled, enjoying the warmth of George’s arm as he slid his hand down my other hip. “This is their day.”

“I guess so.” He sighed wistfully, watching the way Reed gathered Betty’s skirts enough to skim her bare legs. Those muscles looked smooth. The way they were smiling at each other, I half expected her to jump up and wrap her legs around his waist.

“I don’t blame them,” my boyfriend announced. “If I had that kind of energy, I’d be doing Emily every day.”

“I wish. I mean, we should not be talking about this, especially not in front of mixed company when we’ve all been drinking.”

“You can talk about this,” Milo drawled casually. “I wish you would. Energy shifts when people get into a relationship for a long time. Sex becomes a certain expectation or a compromise and not a fuck-a-thon of pleasure with experimenting. You find this pattern and you do it over and over again.” He rolled his eyes to the rhythm. “There are lots of paths to a happy ending and a lot of them can get trampled after years of monogamy.”

“Bet Reed’s gonna give her a happy ending tonight,” George mumbled, resting his chin on my head.

“Stop being weird about Betty and Reed being happy!” I warned the boys as much as myself. “We’re here to support them. They’re our friends and they’re not going to fall into that trap. We have to be optimists.”

“Or realists,” Milo mused, his gaze shuffling down to the cleavage of my dress.

“You’re my friend.” George sighed, slumping until his nose was pressed against my neck. “This guy can be our friend.”

Eyes popping wide, I gripped his hands and led him a few feet away to have a somewhat private conversation on the edge of the dance floor. “Are you saying you’re interested in…?”

“What?” He stretched his spine, blinking slowly in that happy-buzzed way he got after a few drinks. “What am I interested in?”

“Having Milo be our special friend for the night.”

Laughter rattled in his throat. “I am?”

With a fond, exasperated sigh, I smoothed his sleeve over his muscles. “If you want to think about it, we should probably have some coffee. It’s kind of a crazy, champagne-fueled suggestion.”

Twisting his mouth in indecision, he glanced at Milo. “He’s into it?”

“He said we’re hot and asked about our situation.”

“I mean, I always figured if and when we did something like that, it’d be with another girl,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his head. “But I never met one who I thought might be a good fit for us.”

“Oh? And what makes someone a good fit?” I teased, pulling at his blazer in the joy of listening to him plan our sex life like a play. Team sports instilled a great group dynamic in him that we’d never utilized sexually. It wasn’t like I wanted to be gang-banged by all his buddies, but one night with a flirty guy outside of our social group could be interesting.

George’s tongue rolled along his teeth. “I don’t know. Someone hot and relaxed who we never really had to interact with outside of the act itself. They couldn’t try to get more attention or something substantial out of us.”

“Do you think Milo’s hot?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged, appraising. “I’m not really into guys, but he’s good-looking.”

“He’d probably know what he was doing more than us if we did something poly. But that’s an if.”

“I mean, let’s hang out with him some more while I think up some boundaries.”

“Fine by me.”

“Hey, buddy, get back in here!” The way he said buddy made me want to roll my eyes and laugh. He didn’t even know Milo’s name.

Maybe it was better that way. It might be easier as a single-serving situation.

George bit his lip and pushed me back to grind against Milo, carefully processing whatever it was he felt. With his dark gaze, my rolling hips and Milo’s wandering hands, all three of us fell into step naturally.

“This is the best wedding ever,” I shouted at them. The crowd raised their hands and cheered in agreement.

Hopefully, I would remember it in the morning.

 

 

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The Academy

As the small plane whizzed across the sky, Karia watched the clouds from the tiny window next to her seat. She turned her gaze determinedly toward the entrance of a cave at the foot of a mountain, half-expecting the plane to spin into a nosedive. Miraculously, they missed both the cave and the mountain as the pilot veered to the left, taking his passengers to safety by landing on a nearby strip.

Barely able to see through the tears that burned in her luminous green eyes, Karia desperately looked around and breathed a sigh of relief when she realized they had not crashed and that the plane had stopped.

That she had agreed to fly was a miracle in itself, as she had never been intrigued by the deep blue skies. She much preferred driving, where she felt she at least had some control over her situation. And then, suddenly, on her eighteenth birthday, she was told no, ordered by the head of her odd little family to accept the fact that she would not only be going away to school, but she was to fly there. As she closed her eyes, Karia sat for a moment in an attempt to gather the courage needed to face the demons, as she called them. She was less than thrilled about the decision of her parents to send her away to a private, unheard-of college rather than the large university that most of her friends were looking forward to attending.

“No party school for you, young lady. You need discipline in your life if you are ever to succeed,” her father had bellowed when she had begged him to change his mind. “Avalon is the best choice.”

As she opened her eyes, Karia gasped at the view. “The Lake of Diana!” she said excitedly, recognizing the spectacular body of water immediately. She had done extensive research about the area after accepting her fate as best she could.

A splendid, sparkling blue lake lay before her, with mists of green rising to the bright sunlit sky. She sent up a quick prayer of thanks to the skies for the safe landing and smiled at the girl across the aisle as they both stood to gather their baggage.

During her online viewing, she’d realized that the small village of Avalon was located deep in the mountains, with the beautiful lake nearby. It was a very scenic area, and the academy, apparently, was a strict private school, attended by the children of wealthy parents who wished their offspring to learn the meaning of having discipline in their lives while learning one of the arts. Karia’s chosen courses centered on writing—there were also classes in dancing, painting, sculpting, voice and various others to choose from. Supposedly, this disciplinary atmosphere was to ensure that, when they graduated and entered the world, they would be amply prepared and would have the tenacity and strength to do well. Karia wasn’t sure about this at all. Why her parents wouldn’t consent to allowing their only daughter to go to the university with all of her high school friends was beyond the realm of her apprehension. Why did she need discipline? Her parents had indulged her all these years; why stop now? And what was discipline anyway? What was so different about the small academy in the tiny village of Avalon? Well, she was soon to find out, and she’d best be getting off the plane, she decided, as the other passengers had nearly all disembarked already.

She grabbed her bags and got in line behind the girl who had smiled shyly at her. Why did she feel like she was walking to the gallows?

“Are you scared?” the other girl asked when she turned her head and looked at Karia.

“A little. You?”

“Terrified. My folks said I need this.”

“Hmm, so did mine.”

“I think we should stick together then. I’m Colleen, by the way.”

“I agree, Colleen. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Karia.”

“Less chattering and more walking,” the flight attendant said sharply as they brought up the end of the line. “I’d like to call it a day before midnight, ladies.”

When they got off the plane, Colleen whispered, “How rude.”

“I think this plane belongs to the school. If that woman is anything to go by, I think we are in heap big trouble, Kimosabee.”

Colleen giggled.

Once out of the plane, she could see that a great mountain faced them at the northern edge. At the base of the mountain, stood an impressive gray building that resembled a castle, with several towers.

That creepy building couldn’t be the school, could it? As they were led toward it, it soon became apparent that it was.

Once inside the main building, a wiry little man wearing wire-rimmed spectacles hurried them along. “No dawdling. Dean Swisher will speak to all of you, and then you will be shown to your rooms. Hurry along now.”

The group consisted of about twenty new students, ten boys and ten girls. Colleen and Karia took their place with the others and waited for the esteemed dean to begin his speech. At least, her father had said the man was very well-known and respected when he’d first told her about the school he’d enrolled her in without seeking her opinion.

As she proudly raised her chin, quite possibly in defiance, Karia looked around and saw the school’s logo on a large sign in the main lobby. “Avalon Academy of the Arts.”

She didn’t have time to wonder about the logo for long, though, because a tall, gray-haired man entered the lobby and took his place in front of the group of twenty apprehensive young people.

“Good afternoon. I am Dean Swisher, and I want to welcome each and every one of you to the Avalon Academy of the Arts. As I’m sure you know, we only accept twenty new students each fall, and those twenty are chosen very carefully. If your parents applied for you, then you must consider yourselves to be very lucky indeed. Our graduates are among the most successful young artists in the world. Authors, painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, some of whom I’m sure you have heard of. We are unique in that, as well as the arts, we teach discipline. You’ll soon learn what that means. Now, as I call your name, you are to line up and wait for your dormitory leader to escort you to your new home for the next four years. After you are settled, you may go down to the lake for a brief swim if you wish, but dinner is served at precisely six o’clock sharp. I might add that tardiness is not acceptable at Avalon Academy.”

Colleen and Karia exchanged a look and waited for their names to be called. They each crossed their fingers that they would be lucky enough to be placed in the same room but held out very little hope that it would be the case.

“Ginger Longenborg.” The two girls watched as a short, chubby girl walked to the side and stood in line.

“Thomas Steele,” a young man of about twenty called out. A red-haired boy of eighteen made his way to stand in the boys’ line.

On and on, the two leaders took turns calling out the ten names they each were responsible before. When she and Colleen were the last two names called, they wasted no time in moving to the end of the line.

“My name is Cinda, and I’m the dorm leader for the girls’ dormitory. I’m a senior, and I will be in charge of your dorm this year. If you have any questions or problems, you come to me. Now, I’ll take each of you to your rooms. There are two beds per room, so you will each have a roommate. We have five freshman rooms, and they are on the fourth floor. Follow me, please. The elevator is this way.”

“So far so good, but why is everybody here so serious?” Colleen asked. “These people need to seriously loosen up.”

Karia stifled a giggle as she picked up her two suitcases and followed the other girls.

Luck must have been on her side that day, because, when Cinda led her to her room at the end of the hallway on the fourth floor, she learned that Colleen was to be her roommate.

“Remember, you are free until dinnertime. Dinner is served in the main dining room at six sharp, and I would advise you not to be late. You won’t like the consequences, I can assure you,” Cinda said as she opened the door and handed both of them a key. “If you need anything, I’ll be in my room on the first floor, room 101.”

Once they were alone and the door was securely locked, both girls breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“You won’t like the consequences? What the hell are they going to do to us, spank us like little kids?” Colleen asked as she plopped down on the bed nearest the door. “This okay with you, if I bunk here? You can have the bed by the window.”

“Sure, whatever. This place is creeping me out already, and we have barely been here an hour.”

“You are not alone, sister. I say we unpack and head down to that lake.”

“Good plan. It looks like we have two dressers and two small closets. Good thing I only brought two suitcases.”

“Yeah, I about fell over when my mom helped me pack and said I had to limit my wardrobe. I’m surprised we don’t have to wear some sort of ugly-ass uniform.”

“I’m not used to this. That’s for sure,” Karia said as she picked up her bigger suitcase and threw it on the bed. She unzipped it and began to take out her clothes. She had followed the instructions her mother had shown her and packed only what was on the list. She had been shocked to learn that most of her wardrobe would not be coming with her.

Jeans, leggings, skirts, sweaters and blouses came out of the suitcase. They were plain and not at all what she was accustomed to wearing. The smaller of her bags contained her underwear, pajamas and toiletry items. She had one pair of boots because they were in the mountains and it would snow once the winter months arrived. A sensible pair of Mary Janes and a pair of sneakers were the only pairs of shoes she had brought, other than a pair of flip-flops for the lake.

When she began to hang her clothes in the tiny closet, she looked over and noticed that Colleen’s wardrobe was much the same. Well, at least she wouldn’t feel quite so common with everyone else wearing the same things.

Once they were finished and had both shoved their empty suitcases under their beds, Colleen looked around the room. “Not too bad, I guess. The tiny kitchenette is nice. We each have a desk and chair, and the beds look pretty comfy.” She sat down on hers and bounced up and down.

“It is a dorm room after all. Why don’t you go on into the bathroom and get changed? I’ll change into my swimsuit out here.”

“Our lovely one-piece swimsuits,” Colleen said with a laugh as she took hers out of one of her dresser drawers.

Karia rolled her eyes and began to strip off the one dress she’d been allowed to bring with her. It certainly wasn’t her usual style; it was more of a sailor dress, similar to one she might have worn when she was five.

Soon, both girls were ready to walk down to the lake. When they arrived, they saw that some of the other newcomers were also there. They introduced themselves and set down their towels, slipped off their flip-flops, and prepared to get into the sparkling, inviting water for a relaxing swim after the tension of the day.

She entered the water a bit too fast, diving in and almost losing her balance when the force of water met with her speed. Karia steadfastly held on and, with eyes shut from the rush of water, blindly dove down to the bottom of the lake. As the water seemed to go on forever, her lungs began to ache with desperate need for air.

Never doubting her final success, Karia stayed her course. She had, after all, been the most talented young student throughout the UK in her younger years, winning every swim tournament she had ever entered. Of course, that wouldn’t help her much in her studies here. She was sure there was no swim team.

The growing pressure in her lungs pushed such thoughts out of her mind. Within seconds of suffocation, Karia emerged from the water gasping.

When she looked up, she was greeted with the sight of a clear blue sky.

“Are you all right?” one of the boys asked.

“Sure,” she said with a shrug.

The group splashed and played in the water after that for quite some time before someone asked the time.

“Let me look,” Colleen said as she looked at the waterproof watch on her wrist. “Damn! We have to go if we’re going to be ready for dinner in time.”

The new students hurried out of the lake at her words, none of them wishing to be late on their first night.

With heart pounding, she flew up the hill with Colleen by her side. Doubts were soon clouding her thoughts. What if we’re late? What if they laugh at us and turn us away from the dining room? What if they say we can’t have dinner? She was starving by now, having eaten very little breakfast and no lunch, due to nerves. The swim had made her even hungrier.

“Come on; we have to hurry,” she said to Colleen as they entered the dorm and ran for the elevator. She hoped no one had seen them because she seriously doubted that running was allowed, either.

Resolutely stifling her doubts, Karia stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the fourth floor. ” Come on, come on,” she said impatiently as she waited for it to stop so they could get off.

Karia looked both ways before stepping out into the hallway. When she saw no one else around, she took off in a sprint for their room, Colleen close behind.

Karia had never gotten cleaned up and dressed so quickly in her life. She put her sailor dress and Mary Janes back on and asked Colleen if she was ready.

Dressed in a similar style dress, only in a different color, Colleen nodded. “God, I hate this getup.”

“Me, too, girlfriend; me, too. Just go with the flow; it’s all we can do for now.”

“When I realized that no amount of crying or begging was going to change my folks’ mind, I did just that. I decided to go along with the nonsense until I could figure out a way to get out of this place,” Colleen told her in a low voice as they boarded the elevator once more.

Karia gave her a sideways glance and then agreed, “Exactly.”

They made it to the dining room with one minute to spare. Cinda was at the door, and she gave them a look that told them they had better be glad they had made it.

“Find a seat, girls, quickly,” a woman said from behind them. Karia watched as she moved ahead of them and decided that she must be one of the instructors.

They spotted some of the group from the lake and hurriedly walked to their table to join them.

“That was too close for comfort,” one of the boys said. “From what I hear from our dorm leader, we don’t want to ever be late.”

They all nodded and turned as the dean began to speak.

“Good evening, students. For our incoming frosh, you will see that the food is set up on the north wall, cafeteria style. You’ll wait your turn, as we go by table number. Once you have your food, return to your seats. You may talk quietly at your table. No yelling, no cell phones and no food fights. That should go without saying, but you never know when a troublemaker is in the crowd. Enjoy your dinner, and I hope you all have a pleasant year.”

Sounds of glass breaking and something crashing to the floor followed. When Karia looked up, she saw one of the servers had dropped a tray of water glasses. She felt sorry for the girl and hoped she wouldn’t get into trouble. Two other workers quickly helped her, and soon it was all cleared away and a new tray brought out.

“That woke me up,” one of the boys teased.

Dinner that night consisted of pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots and green beans. There was cake for dessert. The food wasn’t bad, she decided, but she would certainly miss having the option to eat anyplace other than the school dining room for the entire school year. This had to be the weirdest school in the world. How had her parents ever found it?

After dinner, she and Colleen were both feeling the effects of the long day and decided to have an early night. They said goodnight to their new friends and went to their room to unwind a bit before falling asleep.

They talked for a while, each one admitting her fears for the next day, when they would meet their instructors and get their class schedules. Finally, Colleen turned out the light, and in no time at all, both girls were fast asleep in their matching twin dorm beds.

* * *

The next morning, they got up when the alarm blared, neither wanting to be late. They took turns in the bathroom and headed down to breakfast, making the seven o’clock meal with time to spare.

Colleen was dressed in a navy blue skirt and light blue blouse, and Karia had chosen a black skirt with a light gray sweater. She’d made a face when she’d looked in the mirror earlier.

“May as well get used to it,” Colleen had said as she picked up her bag and made ready to leave the room. “We can’t change anything yet.”

Resigned to the fact that she was, for the time being, stuck in this odd place, Karia had agreed, and they were now headed to meet with the staff.

Karia was to meet with Professor Evelyn first. She couldn’t help but stare in wonder at the lady waiting by the entrance to her office. Sweeping golden hair framed the professor’s bright blue eyes, and she wore a black dress with a purple jacket draped over her shoulders. Her eyes were kind, with the honored wrinkles of great wisdom, and her aged beauty was still breathtaking. An aura of incredible but calm power emanated from her.

“Welcome, my dear Miss Daly.” The professor’s voice seemed to sing rather than speak as she held her hand out to Karia.

“Thank you, Professor.” As she had been taught by her parents, Karia took her hand and shook it firmly.

“Stand up, Karia.” Professor Evelyn smiled at her warmly. The smile then faded into stern disapproval, and a note of censure crept into her voice. “You were expected ten minutes ago.”

Karia had to bite back a defensive retort that wanted to spring from her lips, but she replied instead, “I am truly sorry. I had to… I was… I got lost—” She searched desperately for some quick, intelligent reply, but none came to her mind, so she went with the truth.

Professor Evelyn interrupted, “I know; I have seen it happen many times before with our new students. You have much to learn, so you will not be punished this time for your tardiness. Follow me.”

As she left Karia sputtering in surprise, the professor turned on her heels and led the way down the massive hallway. With her green eyes flashing indignantly, Karia smothered her pride and followed Professor Evelyn into a great foyer.

“You have an interview with Headmaster Knightson, then, if you are accepted into the classes you wish to take, you will see the Dean of Discipline, Master Armstrong, to set up your class schedule and acquaint you with our rules here.”

Karia worriedly responded, “I thought I had already been accepted for the writing courses. I wish to earn a Journalism degree.”

“You have been accepted into the Avalon Academy. Headmaster Knightson will determine which courses you are best suited for. Almost all with the family background such as yours may attend the academy.” The professor’s censuring look returned as she glanced back at Karia. “You must, however, pass the requirements for your chosen courses before being admitted to them.”

Karia had spent many hours under her father’s patient and caring tutelage, training and studying for entrance into the academy. Being a journalist himself, he had been her best teacher, or so she had thought. What if this headmaster guy didn’t let her take those courses? What, then?

“We shall see. If you have truly reached an understanding of the requirements of your chosen profession, then your testing will soon be over. If not, well, you will choose another future to strive for.” The professor turned and gestured to a golden archway on her right. “Follow this hallway to Headmaster Knightson’s office. You will see a waiting area. There, you may wait for him to see you.”

Karia bowed her head appropriately. “Thank you, Professor.”

She felt a gentle hand pulling her chin up. Karia gazed into the professor’s strong blue eyes. “My dear, you were meant for great things, or you would not be here on this mountain with us today. You will move on to the greatness you were meant for. Choose your path wisely.”

After giving Karia her blessing, the professor turned, leaving the young girl standing speechless and pondering the gravity of the professor’s prophecy. From a very early age, her father had constantly drilled into her the necessity of weighing the consequences of every action and the great responsibility that came with great power. She had never wanted to be anything but a journalist like her beloved dad. And now, she had just been told that dream may never come true and that her future lay in the hands of some headmaster at a weird school in the mountains. What craziness was this?

As she closed her eyes, Karia could almost hear her father’s low, smooth-sounding voice. “No action or inaction is ever inconsequential. A simple smile at a stranger can be so powerful that the course of the future is drastically altered. A small smile today may prevent a great war in a thousand years’ time. A journalist’s job is to report the facts; he or she alone might be able to stop a war with the right facts. Think about that, my darling daughter.”

She opened her eyes to blink back the tears threatening to spill over. It’s true, she thought. My actions today will reflect on the rest of my life, what it will be. I must pass whatever test Mr. Knightson gives to me.

Karia squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. She wanted nothing more in her life than to see pride in her father’s eyes when she graduated with her Journalism degree. He had always been so proud of her and had probably spoiled her a bit too much while she was growing up. She had to trust that he had known what he was doing when he chose this school for her.

As she took a deep breath, Karia began making her way down the grand hallway before her. The walls on her right were lined with full-size portraits of all the great headmasters ever to lead the ancient academy, and to her left, the walls were hung with all the specially honored professors who had taught there. There were also photos of various alumni.

As the hallway stretched on and on, Karia remembered the story she had heard about the magic in this Hallway of Honor. Apparently, over time, so many graduates, professors and headmasters had earned a portrait of honor that the hallway became too short. There was no more room for any more portraits, so the hallway had been made longer to accommodate the ever-growing wall of portraits. By now, it had taken her five minutes to nearly reach the end.

Just before she reached the golden doorway that was elegantly labeled, “Headmaster,” Karia was taken by surprise and shock to see her father’s portrait hanging prominently on her left. He had graduated from this place? Why hadn’t she realized that before now?

She felt a hand come to rest on her shoulder, and as she looked up, Karia saw a man whom she knew must be Headmaster Knightson. He was an awe-inspiring six feet tall, wearing a silver-gray suit and had silver hair and beard to match. From amidst an old and wrinkled face twinkled two blue, kind eyes. In his right hand, he held a gnarled wooden walking staff, a little taller than his six feet. Headmaster Knightson was every bit the picture of the powerful man he was famed to be.

The man placed his hand firmly on the small of her back, guiding her toward the doorway. “Come into my office.”

Karia passed by a group of students seated on large pillows lying about the floor when she entered his office. As soon as he closed the door, Headmaster Knightson turned toward her.

Karia shrank back fearfully and instinctively. His eyes were now shining with powerful anger, and she understood why he was respected, both at the academy and the outside world she had just come from.

“You are ten minutes late!” Headmaster Knightson’s thundering voice set the whole room vibrating.

As he pointed the tip of his staff toward her, he growled, “Bend over the table.”

“B-but I got lost, and Professor Evelyn said I wouldn’t be punished for my tardiness today—”

“Correction,” the headmaster said as his eyebrows raised. “You were not punished by Professor Evelyn. She does not speak for me. Now, are you going to stand there and argue with me, or are you going to take your punishment so we can get on with your interview?”

Karia had no time to comply before he turned her and bent her over in the appropriate position over the dark oak table edged with gold. Before her body could even instinctively struggle, a powerful hand held her arms and head against the table. With her hair plastered to her face, Karia could see nothing in the room, which increased her fear to panic.

I know he would never kill me. I know he wouldn’t kill me. My father would never send me to my death, Karia’s thoughts chanted over and over in her mind, trying to control her panic. She was completely powerless against this powerful man, and her father was not here to protect her.

The man roared, “And still,” the back of her skirt was raised to the middle of her back, exposing her panty-clad bottom, “you have no remorse for your actions.” Her dangling legs were roughly spread out and pinned to the table’s legs.

Karia was already sobbing uncontrollably. Not only did she feel tremendously shocked at learning that her father had earned his degree from this very place and hadn’t told her that was why he was sending her to this godforsaken private school, but she was scared and felt very vulnerable. With her skirt raised, her back and bottom were left to the headmaster’s view. With her legs spread wide open, she could feel the ends of her personal hair rustling from a sudden cold draft of air.

“Ugh, ow, ahh, I-I am s-sorry!” Karia was sure she had never screamed so loudly in her entire life. With all the energy she had put into the scream, it did absolutely nothing to relieve the horrendous pain that had erupted on her backside. It felt like he had used his large staff to beat her, but she could not see anything.

As she lay there panting, shocked out of her sobs, Karia heard the door open. She instantly recognized the singing quality of Professor Evelyn’s voice.

“Mr. Knightson, King George and his son, Prince Henry, have come to the Great Hall. They need to see you immediately.”

Although she could see nothing from under her hair, Karia had the sudden impression that the professor had just seen Karia in her humiliating position. She felt a blush creep up her face and then down to her bottom. For some odd reason, it felt like the professor’s gaze had rested on her private, but presently gaping, bottom hole.

Karia then sensed the breeze of an impatient sigh on her back, and she heard the headmaster order, “Stay there, Karia. We are not finished.”

As if she could move. After some creaking floorboards told her he was walking toward the door, he said, “Lead the way, Professor.”

The door was either left open a crack purposely or incidentally, and she could hear their conversation as they walked down the hallway.

“How many are you giving her?”

“Ten, one for each minute she…” the headmaster’s voice trailed off as they walked out of hearing range, but Karia could figure out the rest.

Nine more! She would never survive! Her father had never punished her during her childhood or adolescence, and she had never felt anything so painful in her life as that one stroke the headmaster had just delivered to her backside.

“By the goddess, you must have done something deliciously naughty to warrant a caning like that!”

A cool hand lightly touched her blazing bottom, and she sobbed out a reply, “Ten minutes late.”

“You’re being punished for being ten minutes late on your first day?” The girl went on before Karia could answer, “My name is Rhiannon Tait. What is your name?” The girl’s voice was chirpy and seemed not to hold Karia’s mortifying position against her.

Karia could only groan her response. “Karia Daly.”

“Daly!” Rhiannon gasped behind her. “Are you Gordon’s daughter?”

“Well, I am trying to be.”

“You must be so proud of your father!” Rhiannon gushed. “Imagine, being Gordon’s daughter!”

Pride was not what Karia was experiencing, but guilt. Guilt for not knowing about her father’s great deeds, his high standing with the academy. How could he send her here without telling her what to expect, that he was held in such high regard here and that she would be expected to live up to that? And why should she be the one feeling guilty about that? She had no way of knowing. But then again, had she ever asked or shown any interest?

“I’m in the School of Dance. My mother was a dancer, graduated from this very academy.”

“Wow, but you knew that going in, didn’t you? Imagine my surprise to see my father’s portrait on the Hallway of Fame this very day.”

Rhiannon sounded a bit shocked. “He didn’t tell you? Wow. I have to go to class. I’ll see you tonight? At the great feast to mark the beginning of the term?”

“Rhiannon, what are you doing in here?” It was the singing voice of Professor Evelyn, followed by the sound of what Karia guessed was a hasty retreat by Rhiannon as she tried to edge past the professor.

“Professor!” Rhiannon gasped. “I—”

“You haven’t been talking to her while she’s being punished, have you?”

Karia whimpered as another cool hand touched her bottom.

“No, Professor! I mean, just a little. I came in to get something I left behind. I am on my way to class.”

“Rhiannon, run along and leave us, and shut the door behind you. We will speak later.”

In her present position, Karia had no idea how to greet the professor. For some reason, the fact that the professor could see her, bent over the table with legs splayed shamefully open, renewed her sobs.

“Headmaster Knightson must attend to the king and the prince. I will be completing your punishment.” Her voice sang gently, and Karia experienced a wave of relief. Surely, nothing could be as bad as the staff of Headmaster Knightson.

The professor must have sensed her thoughts, because she went on, “You may not know, but a punishment given by a professor carries great weight.”

Karia did not know, and she felt her momentary relief fade back into fear.

“Yes, Professor,” Karia practically whispered in fear, wishing both that the punishment would not start any time soon, and that it would start immediately so she could get it over with.

The professor’s voice was gentle and soothing. “When you are ready, you may ask me to begin.”

Could the professor hear every thought in her head? She must know how much worse it was to ask for the punishment, particularly such a harsh punishment. Her legs were cramping from their stretched position, and her face and arms were tired from holding herself in place. But the pain, could she stand it?

Resigned, Karia put up a brave front. “Professor, please begin.”

Crack! Karia jolted and immediately cried out. The pain of this stroke was just as intense as the headmaster’s, but Karia could tell that this was no staff, but a long slat of wood, a paddle, striking down the middle of her bottom.

“I have heard, Karia, what you have done, that you tried to get out of your punishment with excuses. I want to hear you tell me the story.” The professor’s voice was calm, without any trace of effort expended at Karia’s backside’s expense. “I want to know about your spoiled childhood and how you’ve never been punished before, for anything.”

Karia tried to get her sobs under control so she could speak, but she could barely think from the pain in her bottom. The professor waited patiently, and after a long while, Karia began to tell the story.

“I am the only child of Gordon and Rosemarie Daly. I’m sure you know of my father. It seems he is an alumnus of this very school, although I didn’t know that until today. While I was waiting for the headmaster, I saw my father’s portrait on the wall outside the office with the others.”

“Hmm, he didn’t tell you? Very interesting.”

“Anyway, h-he is a very prominent and well-known journalist now. He has taught me from a very young age. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. I have won many writing contests. If I have to change my career choice, I don’t know what I’ll do. Please, can you ask the headmaster to admit me to the journalism classes?”

As Karia continued with her story, she felt the professor’s hand come to rest on the back of her neck.

Crack! Karia was painfully pulled back to the present as another stroke seared into her backside, landing in exactly the same place as the last stroke.

“Ahh, ohh!” Karia gasped for breath and grotesquely bounced her buttocks in the air, looking for relief from the pain. “By the goddess, please, oww!”

Professor Evelyn waited for her screams to die down before she spoke. “And were you a spoiled child?”

“Y-yes, I suppose I was. But I was their only child. I want to follow in my father’s chosen profession. I didn’t understand why he insisted I attend this school, but now I know. I can’t disappoint him. I-I am sorry I was late. I tried to tell the headmaster why I was late, but he didn’t want to hear it.”

Crack! Karia screamed with pain as this stroke scorched her left cheek. With overwhelming humiliation, she felt, almost in slow motion, the paddle snapping down on her cheek, pulling her cheek open and biting into her private crevice.

Before she could finish screaming, another crack burned into her right cheek. Again, she felt, with great mortification, the paddle reaching into her crevice to almost bite her bottom hole.

“Professor, please,” Karia sobbed, begging. “Please show mercy. I am sorry; I truly am. Please don’t paddle me anymore.”

The professor did not answer, and Karia, unable to see her, was fraught with fear of the next stroke. At every second, she felt terrified it was coming, but she didn’t know when or where it would strike next on her throbbing bottom. As a result, Karia was unconsciously wiggling her cheeks in fear.

Again, the professor waited for her sobs to lessen and placed a warm hand on the back of her neck. “Now, tell me again why you wish to become a journalist. You will learn, my dear, that in life there are no excuses.”

Crack! Crack! Two strokes landed precisely where the last two had landed, pulling her cheeks apart and blistering her tiny bottom hole. Karia was overwhelmed with shame, but she was not sure which was the greater pain: the humiliation of her present position or the actual paddling.

This time, it took much longer for Karia’s sobs to die down. As she started to calm down, she realized the professor was rubbing her back, infusing Karia with strength and warmth.

“Professor, I wish to become a journalist because it is in my blood. It is all I aspire to do. I love to write, to investigate and research a story, to put words to paper.”

Professor Evelyn hushed her, “Quiet, child. You deserve the best life has to offer. Everyone does. And you, my dear, have just passed the requirements for admission into your chosen courses. Congratulations. Now, to the corner until the headmaster returns.”

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Daddies of the Castle

The wait was finally over. It was hard to suppress her excitement as Una stepped off the bus and got her first real look at the new and improved Castle. The entrance, at least, didn’t show any visible differences since the remodeling—the impressive portcullis, the colorful koi in the moat, the enormous, bustling, medieval style courtyard. And the tables along one side at which guests had to register before entering.

Before the fun could commence.

Her fingers itched to reach into her bag and check her phone but she managed to stop herself at the last minute. This was the Castle. The moment you left the bus, you had to adhere to their strict rules, one of which was no modern technology outside of specifically designated areas.

It was one of the reasons why she loved it here. This was really the only place where she could unwind for a few days. She adored her job in a prestigious accounting firm so much that she liked to joke she was married to her work but even so, she had seen plenty of friends and colleagues burn out, and was aware of the importance of taking a break every once in a while.

Shifting her bag over her shoulder, she began to walk toward the registration area, inhaling the crisp, fall Ohio air.

Una had been attending the Castle for years, taking the time to get out there every few months as her—and Kurt’s—schedules permitted. When she’d heard the news that some lowlife had set off a bomb in the most legendary BDSM destination in the States, she’d been horrified, especially when she’d read about the extent of the damage online. Selfishly, her first thought had been despair that she would no longer have anywhere to go to escape from the office and clear her mind. But then she had thought about all the people who lived and worked here, some of whom she had gotten to know well, and she’d immediately felt ashamed.

Master Marshall was an incredible man to have weathered the crisis so stoically, she reflected. The Castle was his home, his baby, his life, and instead of beating his chest and throwing in the towel, he’d set right about building it back up.

“Name and pseudonym?” the clerk at one of the tables interrupted her thoughts.

“Una Greaves. I go by Nayla when I’m here.”

“First time here at the Castle?”

“No.”

“Paperwork?”

“Of course. Here.” Removing the file containing her signed accountability waiver and recent medical records from her bag, Una slid it across to the pretty, fair-haired woman.

“Are you here alone?”

“I’m meeting someone. Kurt Carlson. He should have arrived yesterday.”

“All right. What program did you sign up for?”

Just saying the word made Una’s heart speed up. It was her favorite place in the world, the only place where she could truly relax. “The Dungeon.”

“Good call.” The blonde winked. “Here’s your welcome packet and bracelet.”

Taking the black band from the woman, Una slid it over her wrist before shoving the forms into her bag.

“Don’t take it off.”

“I know.” Una grinned. “Um, as I’ve been here so many times before, do I still have to listen to the orientation talk?”

The blonde gave her a wry smile. “I’m afraid so.”

“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.” Una indicated the massive building with a jerk of her head. “Congratulations on the re-opening. You must be so excited.”

“We really are. Everyone’s worked so hard.”

A man in the line behind Una gave a not-so-subtle cough. “Better not waste any more of your time,” she said hastily. “Thank you.”

“Enjoy your stay at the Castle!” the blonde called after her.

Oh, I intend to, Una thought as she made her way to the podium where Miss Hardwick always gave her signature orientation speech, and took a seat on a folding chair near the back.

Fingering the black bracelet around her wrist which signified the Dungeon program, she closed her eyes and forced herself to rein in her excitement.

Physically, Kurt wasn’t her type at all. Nor was she his, which suited them both just fine. She’d met him online, and as soon as they’d discovered how well their proclivities matched, they’d agreed to meet to get to know one another. The problem was, they lived on opposite sides of the country, so the Castle had seemed like a perfect compromise.

Often working fourteen-hour days as she did, Una had no time for a proper relationship. When at home, she wanted to be free to focus on her job. But every now and again, when the desire for pain and sexual release got too strong, she would contact Kurt and they’d agree to meet, sometimes for a weekend, sometimes for longer, depending on their schedules. He was a famous surgeon and an extremely private person. She had no idea about his love life, nor did she ever ask. Their relationship consisted solely of physical release. He was a sadist to the core, and she got off on pain.

A match made in heaven.

Her knee was jiggling so she forced herself to relax and make it still. Miss Hardwick was still talking but the woman’s voice was like white noise, washing over Una, providing the perfect backdrop to her fantasies. Soon, she would be naked and tied to the cross; Kurt would be behind her with the cane. The first stroke would crack through the air like a gunshot and then, a second later, the white-hot burn would slice across her ass and make her forget everything—her impossible boss, her hopeless clients, the piles of paperwork which never seemed to decrease—and the pain would build and build into a delicious crescendo until she was floating, calm, her arousal slick between her thighs…

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Castle!” Miss Hardwick’s ringing voice broke Una out of her reverie and she looked up to see the guests identifying as dominant already being led away.

This was where the unmatched submissives or new arrivals were split into their various programs and given a tour, but Una had been there often enough that she figured she could skip this part. In a hurry to find Kurt, not wanting to waste one more precious minute of her vacation time, she slipped away and entered the Castle proper.

The lobby was filled with people, guests and staff alike, some hurrying to wherever they had to be, others standing around and enjoying the scenery. Una looked around, hoping to spot Kurt. He liked to dress like a pirate whenever he was at the Castle—probably indulging some childhood fantasy, she thought fondly—but while she clocked Vikings, gladiators, people in Bugsy Malone style suits and fedoras, demons, and superheroes, she couldn’t see him.

A tiny kernel of unease lodged itself in her gut but she told herself he was probably waiting for her in their room. Digging the welcome packet out of her bag, she saw the room number—1111—and smiled. It was the one they always tried to reserve whenever they came to stay.

All she wanted to do was head straight there, but as an enchantingly pretty fairy skipped past, her wings reflecting the light like gossamer rainbows, Una suddenly felt decidedly dowdy in her street clothes and decided to head to the Wardrobe. It was time for corporate Una to become Nayla, a wanton Roman handmaiden…

Wardrobe was one of her favorite places in all the Castle. Staffed with several competent attendants, it contained every costume imaginable, as well as outfits which defied belief. Una smiled when she spotted Janice.

“You stayed, then?” she called out, picking her way around a pile of shoes.

Janice shot her a grin. “This is my home. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Waiting for the remodel to be done was its own special kind of torture!”

“I don’t doubt it.” Una enveloped the stunning brunette in a warm hug. “The usual, please, when you have a moment.”

Janice chuckled. “I’m run off my feet. Of course Marshall had to pick Halloween, of all times, for the grand reopening, so people’s requests are even more outlandish than usual, but I have to admit I did miss all this excitement.” She ran an appraising eye over Una’s tailored blouse, pencil skirt, and pumps. “Did you come straight from the office?”

Una felt warmth spread over her cheeks. “I happen to feel comfortable in these clothes,” she said defensively. “I wear them every day.”

Raising her palms, Janice apologized. “I didn’t mean anything bad by it. In fact, I have several secretary costumes which look almost exactly like what you’re wearing now. But you know the rules: nobody gets to wear their own clothes. So, are you going for the Roman slave girl again? Or are we trying something different?”

“Like I said, the usual,” Una said, slightly mollified.

“Well, you definitely have the figure for it.” Janice disappeared between two racks of clothing and emerged a few moments later, clutching the dress triumphantly. “You slip into that, and I’ll go and hunt down your shoes. Size seven, right?”

“With so many people coming and going every day, I’m amazed you can remember that!”

Janice flicked her thick braid back over her shoulder. “What can I say? It’s my job. Besides… you’re a regular.”

She vanished into an adjoining room while Una slipped out of her corporate attire and into the transparent sheath dress. Fastened at one shoulder to leave the other bare, the gauzy material skimmed over her curves and ended just below her groin to display the entire length of her legs. After only a moment’s hesitation, she slipped her panties to her ankles and stepped out of them. Won’t be needing those for a few days, she thought giddily.

“Here we go,” Janice exclaimed, brandishing a stunning pair of pale gold, high-heeled sandals with intricate straps which wove up Una’s lower legs to just below her knees.

Una gazed at herself in the full-length mirror, her heart pounding as she undid her usual bun and let her strawberry blonde hair cascade down past her shoulders.

“Welcome back to the Castle… Nayla,” Janice said.

“It’s so good to be back,” Una murmured.

After months of waiting, she had finally returned, and she now had a rare full week of leisure time. Seven whole days during which she could set aside Una, senior accountant, and become Nayla, sex goddess and painslut. The perfect foil to Kurt, the sadistic pirate.

“You’ve outdone yourself as usual, Janice. Kurt loves this outfit on me.”

The brunette’s chocolate-brown eyes widened. “Kurt? Is he here?”

“He arrived yesterday.” The niggling feeling in the pit of Nayla’s stomach returned with a vengeance. “Didn’t you see him? He must have come here to get changed.”

Janice shook her head. “I didn’t see him. But that doesn’t mean he’s not here,” she added hastily. “Like I said, we’ve been frantic. One of the other attendants could have dressed him.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Nayla said slowly. Shoving her street clothes into her bag and picking up her pumps, she forced herself to smile. “He’ll be waiting for me in our room.”

“Hello-oo? Is there anybody here to assist me?” a voice called.

“I’d better go. And you shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer,” Janice said. “Have fun, okay?”

Nayla barely heard her—she was already walking away. “I intend to,” she called over her shoulder.

She hastened to her room with a single-minded purpose, oblivious to her surroundings. She had been curious to see whether there were any visible changes to the Castle but now, all that mattered was getting to her room and seeing Kurt’s smiling face.

He wouldn’t have stood me up, she thought as she barreled past a couple of tittering women in schoolgirl outfits. If something happened and he had to cancel, he would have let me know. We might not be a real couple, but he would have enough respect for me not to let me arrive here and spend a week by myself.

Once outside the door to her room—their room, she corrected herself resolutely—she paused to catch her breath and smooth down the skirt of her dress. Then, deliberately slowly, she shook out the key from her welcome pack and unlocked the door.

The room was empty. The bed was still neatly made. With a sinking heart, Nayla glanced around, taking in the lack of any bags, shoes, clothing, any sign that someone was staying there. With a final burst of hope, she stalked over to the bathroom and flung open the door. The towels were neatly stacked, there was not a toothbrush or razor in sight. The toilet tissue was still folded into a sharp point.

“Fucking bastard!” she yelled, hurling her bag onto the bed.

The bed she would be sleeping in alone for the next week.

There was no more denying it, no more deluding herself.

Kurt had stood her up.

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Her Texas Dom

Chapter One

 

Cora Barton looked up from the huge oak desk in her home office and sighed. Since she’d opened her own small publishing company a few years ago, she had been working from home, splitting her time between her two small children, the house, her gorgeous lawyer husband/Dom, and work. But now the company was growing by leaps and bounds, and she knew she needed to think about finding office space soon. Thank goodness her good friend Audrey was coming out for a visit. Audrey had been her assistant when she worked for a New York publishing company as the acquisitions editor before moving back to Texas and marrying the love of her life, Dale Barton.

Not only was she looking forward to spending time with her old friend, but she was hoping Audrey would be able to offer some input when choosing a location for her company, Texas Flame Publishing.

Audrey was still working for Cora’s old boss, Camille, in New York City. She had been promoted from assistant to editor when Cora made the decision to leave. Kayla, one of the other editors, now held Cora’s old position. Audrey had indicated to Cora that she was in need of a long vacation and planned to stay in Texas for two weeks. She had sounded restless on the phone, but Cora couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what the problem was. Could it be the job was too much for her, or was it something of a more personal nature? Hopefully, she would find out next week when she picked up her friend at the airport. She had arranged for her mother to watch the children while she enjoyed the day with Audrey. It would be good to catch up. She wondered if Audrey still frequented the BDSM clubs. Since she and Dale had gotten back together, Audrey and Kayla had been very helpful in enlightening Cora as she and Dale pursued a D/s marriage. The lifestyle had been new to Cora, even though she was aware that both Kayla and Audrey were submissives. Dale, when they had reconnected, had finally revealed to her that he was now a Dom. Instead of being turned off by that information, she wanted to explore it with him on a private level. No clubs for her, but she was quite willing to be his submissive in the privacy of their own home.

Cora kept in touch with everyone back in New York. In fact, more than once, Camille had come to her aid when a problem arose in her new company. Her old boss had been the one who had encouraged her to move back home with Dale and start her own small press. Of course, the offer had been open for her to continue with the bigger company and work from home, but once the children had arrived, it seemed to make more sense to follow her dream. But now, Texas Flame Publishing was taking off, and she was going to have to think about hiring some help once she got moved into a real office. Beau Birch was her cover artist. He was a cowboy on a local ranch, but his hobby had always been art and graphics. He helped her on the side and did some of the technical work, too. But a part-time cover artist wasn’t going to be enough to meet the demands of the growing company.

Dale, her husband, handled all the legal work from his law office. He had been extremely supportive of her venture and offered his help on numerous occasions when she had a deadline to meet. The book they’d co-written about their own love affair had made the New York Times bestseller list, and since then, he’d become more and more interested in the publishing world.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the shrill ringing of the telephone. Grabbing the portable on her desk, she answered professionally, “Texas Flame Publishing, this is Cora.”

“Hi, baby,” the deep, sexy voice of her handsome husband replied.

“Hey, are you about ready to head home? I guess I need to start dinner, don’t I?” she asked.

“Actually, that’s why I’m calling. I’ve got a client appointment before I can leave. I thought we could go out for a late supper if you can get one of our moms to watch the kiddos.”

“I’m sure one of them will be more than happy to come over. I’ll make some calls and get finished up here. After I feed the munchkins and get them ready for bed, I’ll meet you. You should be finished by then.”

“Where are they now? It’s awfully quiet.”

“Both of them are on the couch in my office, watching TV. They’ve been absolute angels all afternoon.”

“Of course, they take after their beautiful mama,” he said with a chuckle.

“All these years, and you still know how to get to me,” she teased. “Seriously, little Dale was tuckered out from kindergarten, and Beth Anne was tired from preschool, so it wasn’t hard to convince them to have some quiet time.”

“I’ve got to go. My client just walked in. Let me know if there’s a problem with a sitter, and I’ll bring dinner home.”

“Okay, I will. Later, sweetie,” she said as she hung up.

She dialed her mother’s number, and after she had agreed to watch the children for the evening, Cora told her what time she needed her.

“You and Dale deserve some time alone. You’ve both been so busy lately.”

“Thanks, Mom. You’re right; the business is keeping me hopping.”

“I’ll be glad when Audrey gets here. Maybe she can get you to slow down for a few weeks.”

“We’ll see,” she said with a giggle. “I’ve got to feed the babies; see you soon.”

As she looked over at the two cherubs giggling at something on the television, she asked, “How would you like it if Nana came over for a while tonight?”

“Really?” her bright-eyed son asked. “Will she read me a story?”

“I’m sure she will. Let’s go to the kitchen and find some supper for you guys. Then it’s bath time. After that, Nana will be here. Mommy is going to meet Daddy in town at a restaurant.”

“Can we have mac and cheese?” he asked as he stood up and ran toward the kitchen.

Cora picked up her daughter and followed him. Looking through the cupboards, she found his favorite and proceeded to heat the water.

“Beth Anne, would you like some macaroni and cheese?” she asked.

“Hot gog,” the little girl said.

“A hot dog, I think I can do that,” Cora said as she hugged her daughter.

When she had filled their plates with macaroni and cheese, a hot dog, and a scoop of applesauce, she sat down with a glass of iced tea and supervised their dinner. Beth Anne was still using a sippy cup for her milk, but little Dale had grown into a big boy cup. Still, he had to be watched as he occasionally got a little excited and spilled his drink. Cora smiled as she watched them. It wasn’t long ago she’d thought she would never be a mother. When Dale had come back into her life after twelve years, it had taken a while, but it had all eventually fallen into place. She’d realized that more than anything in the world, she wanted to give up her life as a single thirty-year-old in New York City and settle down in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Texas with the love of her life, her high school sweetheart, Dale Barton. In fact, that’s how she’d come up with the name of her publishing company. She specialized in publishing romance novels, and since she’d married her old flame from Texas and had her happy ending, she wanted to publish books about other couples that did the same. Corny as it may sound, it had paid off. Her small press was thriving, with new authors coming on board every week.

Once the children had finished their dinner, she quickly put the dishes into the dishwasher and ushered them to the bathroom. Little Dale took his bath first, while she and Beth Anne got out their jammies and readied their beds. When the little boy, who thought he was much too old to have help in the bathtub, was finished, he put his nightclothes on and went to the front window to watch for his nana to arrive.

Cora cleaned out the tub and refilled it for Beth Anne. As she popped the little girl into the lukewarm water, she hugged her close to her breast. Her baby was growing up much too fast, having just started preschool a few weeks before. Cora bathed her, washed her curls, and then dried her and wrapped her in a fluffy towel as she carried her to the nursery. She put her into a flowered nightgown, combed her curls and took her back to the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she’d finished, she called for little Dale to come and brush his teeth too.

“Do I have to?” the little boy fussed.

“Yes, you do, now, come on, before Nana gets here.”

She kissed the top of his head as she handed him his toothbrush. He reluctantly brushed, rinsed and spit. When the doorbell rang, he jumped down from the step stool and ran to answer it. Cora sighed and cleaned up after him before picking Beth Anne up and going to meet her mother.

“Hi, Mom, just in time,” she said in greeting. “They’ve been fed, bathed, and teeth brushed. Now I’ve got to finish up something in the office and grab a quick shower before I meet Dale. Are you good here?”

“You go on. We’ll be just fine, won’t we, kids?” Mrs. Watson took Beth Anne’s hand and followed little Dale into the living room. “Let’s play a game while Mommy is getting ready to leave.”

Cora smiled and went back into the office. Hurriedly, she dashed off some emails to some of her authors before shutting down the computer and turning out the lights. She closed the door to the office and ran to the master bedroom. She started stripping off her clothes as soon as she’d shut the door and headed for the shower. When she’d dried herself, she wrapped the towel around her luscious body and went to the walk-in closet to find the perfect outfit. It was early autumn in Texas, still warm outside, so she chose a russet-colored skirt and topped it with a short-sleeved beige sweater. Next, she found russet jewelry and a pair of brown flats. She brushed her long blonde hair until it shone, put on the lightest of makeup and grabbed her purse, running back to tell her babies goodnight before leaving for her date with her hubby.

As she drove into town to meet him at the restaurant, their favorite, she allowed herself to relax and let the tensions of the day slowly ebb away.

By the time she pulled into the parking lot, he was there waiting for her next to his car. When he saw her pull in, he waited until she turned the car off and opened her door. As he took her hand, he pulled her from the car, embraced and kissed her.

“Hi, pretty lady, would you have dinner with me?” he asked when he released her.

“I don’t know. Are you a gentleman, sir?” she teased.

“Not on your life,” he replied with a wicked grin.

“In that case, by all means, I’d love to have dinner with you.” She laughed as she took his arm and walked into the restaurant with him. He’d called ahead for reservations, and the hostess seated them immediately.

Once they’d placed their order and were relaxing over a glass of wine, he asked, “How was your day? Anything spectacular come across your desk?”

“It was a pretty routine day. I worked around the house this morning while the kids were in school, then after I picked them up and we had lunch, they napped. I emailed my authors about my plans for the company, and that was pretty much it. They watched TV after they woke up, so I could finish my work.”

“I like that you limit their time in front of the TV. You always seem to know the right times to let them watch it. And they were fed and ready for bed by the time the sitter got there, I’m sure. Which of our moms got to be the lucky one this time?”

“Yes, they were. My mom is watching them. I called her first, and she was available. And as for the television, I try to make sure they pursue other interests.”

“You’re such a good mother. I always knew you would be.”

“Just like I knew you’d make the best daddy.”

“Are you looking forward to Audrey’s visit?” he asked as the waiter brought their salads.

“I really am. I need her input on some things. And I get the feeling something is off with her. I can’t decide if it’s work-related or personal.”

“I’m sure you’ll pry it out of her before the vacation is over,” he teased. “Maybe she’s having man trouble.”

She shrugged. “So, tell me about your late client. Someone new?” she asked, knowing he couldn’t tell her much.

“Yes, a new client. Run-of-the-mill case. Nothing earth-shattering,” he replied.

“I’ve got to remember to give Beau a call. I need some work from him.”

“Is he going to be able to keep up with the growing demand for book covers, with his other job?” Dale asked as he buttered a roll.

“I hope so. I really need to sit down and talk with him about it.”

“At least, he doesn’t have a social life at the moment to keep him occupied,” Dale said with a grin.

“For now, but you know Beau and the women,” she said with a giggle.

“Oh, yes, I do.”

“I’ve got to figure out some fun things for Audrey to do while she’s here. The first day, I’ll pick her up and we’ll have lunch in Austin and catch up. I want her to help me find a location for the press, and, other than that, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“She may be content to relax. But I do think we need to take her out on the town, at least one night.”

“She’s used to the big city. I’m afraid our small town doesn’t have much to offer a big city girl.”

“Hmm, I seem to recall one big-city gal who decided there was something here for her,” he teased.

“That was different. This is my home. And you were here.”

“And it took a while for you to come to grips with that, didn’t it?”

“But once I did, I never looked back. This is definitely where I belong. We’ve made a beautiful life together, Dale. The way it always should have been.”

“Seven years married and still on our honeymoon. I’d say we’ve definitely made a perfect life.”

They lingered over dinner as long as they could, talking about the children, their work and their lives. He reached across the table several times to caress her hand. Once, he raised her hand to his lips and placed a tender kiss on her palm.

“Mmm,” she said dreamily. “Take me home, Mr. Barton.”

“With pleasure, Mrs. Barton,” he said as he paid the tab and got up to pull out her chair for her.

Arm in arm, they walked out of the restaurant together and drove home. When they entered the house, her mother informed them that both babies were fast asleep in their beds.

“I’ll be going now; have a nice evening, you two,” Mrs. Watson said as she let herself out.

Dale scooped his wife up into his arms and carried her to the bedroom where he lay her gently on the king-sized bed. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt.

“I’m going to grab a quick shower, and I’ll be back,” he said as he headed for the bathroom.

“I’ll be waiting,” Cora replied with a smile.

And when he returned, he playfully paddled her bottom before flipping her over and lifting her up so that she straddled him.

“Now, show me again how much you love your Texas Dom, CB,” he said, using his nickname for her as she moved to take him inside her already-wet entrance.

She moaned as she began to ride her Texan. He groaned and took hold of her generous breasts, rubbing her nipples now pert with desire. His hands then moved to her bottom, still slightly throbbing from the paddle. He rubbed the sting out as she continued to move with him rock-hard inside of her.

Her head thrown back and her blonde hair disheveled, she let out a cry of ecstasy as the first waves began to rock her body. Fast vanilla sex or slow with some kink thrown in, it didn’t matter. They were so in tune with each other’s bodies that their mutual release was always satisfying, and it wasn’t long before her husband/Dom allowed himself to join her in the delights found in their marriage bed.

 

Her Promised Dom

Prologue

It was late August in Fredericksburg, Texas, one of those balmy, sticky, late-summer evenings when clothes cling to the skin and Texans begin to wish for the cooler days of autumn. The year was 2007, and eighteen-year-old Cora Watson was spending the evening with her boyfriend of three years, Dale Barton.

Cora, a cheerleader, had dated Dale, the captain of the school’s football team, since her sophomore year. They were the golden couple, attending every school dance and party together. She was the prom queen, and he was her king, her prince charming on a white horse. He was her everything.

They had become intimate that summer; he was her first, and she had been his.

Cora was in love with Dale and wanted nothing more than to become his wife and make a life with him. Her parents, however, had other plans for her.

“You are much too young to have those ideas in your head, Cora Beth,” her mother had said many times over the last year.

“That’s right. There is a whole world out there outside of Fredericksburg, Cora,” her father had added. “There are plenty of fish in the sea and plenty of time for you to hook the catch of the day.”

“You have to focus on your studies for now. You and Dale aren’t even attending the same college. You’ll never see each other, and there’s no reason to tie yourself down to a long-distance relationship,” her mother stressed as she exchanged glances with Cora’s father.

Now, sitting on a bench in the park near her home snuggling with the love of her life, Cora savored her last night with Dale. He would be leaving the next day to begin his freshman year studying in Waco, and Cora would leave a day later to pursue a journalism degree at Columbia College in Chicago. Her mother’s sister lived there, and her parents had thought it a good idea for her to attend an out-of-state school to put some distance between the two young sweethearts. Cora had reluctantly agreed to go.

She had hoped for a night of romance and promises, but the conversation had suddenly taken a turn that she was not pleased with.

“I think your parents may be right, Cora Beth,” he began. He’d always called her by her full name, for as long as she could remember. She hated it coming from anyone else. It always reminded her of the character on the TV show “The Waltons.” She’d been named for both of her grandmothers, though, so she accepted the name, gritting her teeth when anyone other than Dale used it. “My parents are saying pretty much the same things to me.”

“About what?” she asked, looking at him questioningly as she ran her hand up the length of his thigh.

“We’re young, and we have our whole lives ahead of us. We should take a break from each other, at least for a while.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “What exactly are you trying to tell me, Dale?”

“We have four years of college ahead of us, in different states. How are we going to see each other? We’ll be thousands of miles away from each other. Neither of us needs to be tied down right now.”

“Are you breaking up with me?” she asked, not believing the words coming out of his mouth.

“Don’t you think it makes sense?” He looked at her with a serious look on his face and gently removed her hand from his thigh. He lifted her hand to his lips and planted a tender kiss on her palm.

“No, I don’t. I will always find a way to be with you. We can email and call and get together on holidays,” she argued vehemently.

“Cora Beth, think about it. You’ll be in Chicago, and I’ll be in Waco. We may not even be home at the same times. Yes, we can still email and call, but what kind of life would either of us have if we have to be apart for all important school functions? We won’t be able to attend any of those together. I think it’s for the best that we stay in touch but agree to see other people.”

As tears welled up in her amethyst-gray eyes, she replied, “If that’s the way you want it, then fine. Don’t feel obligated to stay in touch.”

“Babe, don’t talk like that.” He leaned over to kiss her.

She tried to pull away, but he pulled her to him. She gave in to the kiss, losing herself in it as she always did. When he released her, she said, “I love you, Dale, and I always will.”

“You think that now, but you don’t know that once you get to Illinois you won’t meet someone else.”

“I won’t ever love anyone as much as I love you,” she answered softly.

“Then, let’s make a promise.”

“What kind of promise?” she asked, looking at him warily.

“In twelve years, when we both turn thirty, we’ll find a way to reconnect.” He caressed her cheek and went on, “If we are both unattached then, we’ll find out if this is the real thing or not. And if it is, then I’ll buy you the prettiest diamond engagement ring I can find and we’ll get married, just like you want.”

“Twelve years?” She looked at him as if she thought he had lost his mind.

“Yes, Cora Beth, that gives us plenty of time to finish school, establish our careers, and experiment with dating other people, maybe even see the world a little,” he stated seriously.

“Shall we shake on it?” she proposed sarcastically.

“How about we kiss on it?” he asked as he took her in his strong arms again. Dale was a handsome boy, tall and well-built, the typical muscular football type. He had brown hair and brown eyes, the kind a girl could easily get lost in. He would have no problem finding dates at Baylor.

Cora pushed her golden-blonde hair back from her face and tilted her face up to kiss him. “It’s a deal; we’ve sealed our promise with a kiss,” she uttered quietly.

“I’d better get you home. I have some last-minute packing to do before tomorrow.”

“Will you call me next week?”

“I will, babe, I promise to call just as soon as I’m settled.”

He stood up and extended a hand to help her up. Hand in hand, they walked to his car and he silently drove the few blocks to her house. When they arrived, he walked her to the door, kissed her soundly on the lips, and told her goodbye.

As he walked off the porch and to his car, Cora watched. He’s walking away, and I may never see him again. Some girl will snatch him up, and I’ll be alone forever.

Letting herself into the house, she told her parents and her younger sister Cassie goodnight and went straight to her bedroom. She spent the next hour looking through her scrapbooks and photo albums, remembering the good times she’d spent with Dale over the past three years. Then, turning off the light, she crawled between the cool sheets and cried herself to sleep.

The next morning, she informed her parents that she and Dale had broken up and asked her mother to take her to the mall for a last-minute shopping trip.

“Shopping therapy.” Her mother had laughed. “It always works. Yes, honey, I’ll be glad to take you shopping. We’ll get you some new outfits to take to Chicago with you.”

Cora came home with four new outfits and went to her room to finish packing, still reeling from the breakup with Dale.

The next day, her parents drove her to the airport, where she boarded a plane to Chicago. Her aunt and uncle were planning to pick her up at Midway International and take her to dinner and then to her dorm to get settled. Her mother and her aunt had planned every detail, and Cora had dutifully gone along with it. Now, she wondered if that had been a grave mistake.

She was about to begin a whole new life, a life without Dale. She couldn’t fathom it then, but she was to discover a whole new world over the course of the next twelve years.

Chapter One

Cora sighed as she listened to her mother on the phone. When she could get a word in edgewise, she said calmly, “Mom, that’s just not necessary. You have a lot on your plate right now. When my flight gets in to San Antonio from New York, I’ll rent a car and drive to Fredericksburg. I’ll be there in plenty of time for the visitation and the funeral. You don’t need to take time out to drive to the airport to pick me up.”

“Are you sure, honey? Because I don’t mind,” her mother asked again.

“I’m positive. Now, I really have to get off here and finish some work, or I’ll have to bring it with me to finish there.” She grimaced as she looked at the slush pile waiting for her on her desk. “Okay, Mom, I’ll call you when I land and let you know I’m on my way. Give Daddy my love.”

It was January, and Cora’s paternal grandmother had just passed away. She planned to fly home for the funeral and stick around for a few weeks to help her parents get her gram’s house ready to sell. Her parents had devoted their time to caring for Gram since she’d taken ill a few years before, and now, Cora expected they would fulfill their dream of retiring in the San Antonio area to be near her sister, or, if not, she hoped they would take some time to travel, at least.

Picking up the manuscript on top of the stack, she sighed and began to read. It was yet another romance. If only real life could be like the stories these people write about, she thought as she skimmed through the pages.

She’d been the acquisitions editor for a fairly large publishing house in New York City for the past three years. After completing her master’s degree in journalism, she’d worked for a smaller publishing company in Chicago before landing her dream job. She had a wonderful loft apartment, many friends, and traveled considerably, both for work and for pleasure. She had come a long way since her cheerleader days in Fredericksburg. Still an attractive blonde, she wore her hair just slightly shorter now, in a stylish bob cut, and her clothes were from some of the best stores in New York. She had casual dinner or theatre dates now and again but had never had the time or the inclination to pursue a serious relationship—not since her high school romance with Dale Barton. He had been right, of course, about the breakup, even though she hadn’t been able to see it at the time.

She and Dale had stayed in touch for a few years, but eventually the calls and emails became less and less frequent, until one day they had simply ceased to exist. She knew he had obtained his law degree and had passed the bar. The last she knew, he was working for a law firm in the Austin area, having moved there after finishing law school at Baylor. She had no idea if he was still there, if he had married, if he had a family, or anything else about him.

Her perky assistant Audrey walked in with a sandwich from the deli down the street. “I thought you might be hungry. I know you’re trying to get through some of these manuscripts before you leave in the morning.”

“Thank you, Audrey. I doubt I’ll get through more than this one I’m reading now, though. I’ll take some to Texas with me, and Kayla will take the rest.”

“I’m sorry about your grandmother. I hope your visit goes well.”

“Gram was not a young woman, Audrey. And I expect the visit will be fine, once we get through the funeral.”

“I’ll leave you, so you can finish reading. I’ll see you when you get back from Texas, then.” Audrey smiled as she turned to leave.

“Thanks, Audrey,” she replied as she unwrapped the corned beef sandwich and took a bite. She washed it down with a sip of coffee and returned to her reading. Every year, the publishing house ran a three-month open submission promo in order for new, un-agented authors to submit their works in the hopes of being published. Cora had discovered a few with real potential and actually looked forward to reading the submissions when the time rolled around.

Reading until well past closing time, she packed her briefcase with the work she was taking with her, put the others in a stack for one of the other editors, Kayla, and put her laptop in its bag before locking her office and heading to her car. She had driven rather than taking the subway that morning, and now she wondered if that had been a wise decision, as tired as she was. She planned to finish the manuscript before the night was over. She’d already decided to offer a contract for it but wanted to finish the story, anxious to see how it ended.

When she reached her apartment, she decided to soak in a hot bath with a glass of wine before packing and reading.

As she sank into the warm, lavender-scented bubbles, she allowed herself to unwind for the first time that day. Taking a sip of the sweet red wine, she laid her head back and closed her tired eyes. I’m going home, she thought, and sighed. It’s been a while; I wonder if I’ll get to see any of the old gang, besides Tori. Tori White had been her best friend growing up in Texas, and she’d emailed her to let her know she’d be in town. Tori had replied, telling her she would be at the funeral and she hoped they could spend some time together.

Finishing her bath, she warmed up leftover Chinese takeout from the night before, and after donning her favorite pink satin nightshirt, she crawled under the covers with the manuscript and almond chicken. She got up once to take her dishes to the kitchen and throw some things in a suitcase before finishing the story.

At one o’clock, she put the manuscript aside and emailed the legal department to draw up a contract to send to the author. Closing her laptop and turning out the light, she rolled over and was asleep within minutes. The manuscript she had just read had ended happily for the hero and heroine, and Cora dreamed about the couple in the story.

When she awoke to the blaring sound of her alarm clock six hours later, she jumped out of bed and began to hurriedly finish packing for her trip to Texas. Once she had closed the suitcase and dressed in comfortable jeans and a sweater, she threw on a warm jacket and called a taxi to drive her to the airport. She knew that, although it was January, the weather would be mild in Fredericksburg, so she had tried to adjust her packing accordingly.

By the time she arrived that afternoon, she had received the contract from legal and emailed it to the new author and read part of a mystery novel that had been submitted by another prospective new author. Luckily, she didn’t have any more to read, having left the majority of them with Kayla. She could catch up on the rest when she returned to New York in two weeks.

She rented a car at the airport and began the scenic drive to Fredericksburg, savoring the familiar sights she saw along the way. Arriving at her parents’ home a few hours later, she was greeted by her dad, who had walked out to help her with her luggage.

“Sweetie, it’s so good to have you home,” he said as he gave her one of his famous bear hugs.

“Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry about Gram. It’s good to be home, though. Is Mom here?”

“She and your sister have gone out to buy some last-minute things. I believe they were also going to buy an outfit for the baby to wear to the funeral.”

“Ah, my little niece, I can’t wait to see Adele.”

“She’s growing by leaps and bounds.”

Cora’s younger sister Cassie was now married, having met a young architect while attending college. He was from the San Antonio area, and that was where they had settled after their marriage. Cassie was a nurse and had recently gone back to work on a part time basis. Her baby girl Adele had just turned four-months-old.

Clay, Cassie’s husband, was very attractive—light hair, blue eyes, tall, with a delightful dimple in his chin. He and Cassie made a striking couple, as she too had fair hair and blue-gray eyes.

After her dad had deposited her bags in her old bedroom and she had unpacked, she walked downstairs to the kitchen, where he was pouring a cup of coffee for each of them.

“Sit down, Cora; chat with me while the others are gone,” he invited as he handed her a mug of steaming coffee.

“Hazelnut, you remembered that I like it,” she responded as she gratefully sipped one of her favorite brews.

“Now, how could I forget something as important as that?” he teased as he joined her at the kitchen table. “Tell me what’s new in your life, sweetheart.”

“Nothing much; I’m busy with work right now, and I’ll be going to a show for the company in the next month or so in Los Angeles.”

“You lead a pretty exciting life these days, don’t you?”

She laughed. “I wouldn’t exactly call it exciting, but I love what I do.”

“You haven’t mentioned that you’re dating, I noticed. Is there still no one special in your life?” he inquired as he looked at her over his cup.

“No, Dad, there is no one special.”

“Cora, are you planning to remain single forever and not give me any grandchildren?”

“Funny you should say that, because I can remember a time when I would have liked nothing more than to do just that, and you were totally against it,” she reminded him gently.

“If you’re referring to your high school romance with Dale Barton, that was years ago. Surely, you must realize the timing wasn’t right back then,” he replied, surprised she’d brought up the subject after all these years.

“Oh, Daddy, of course, I do. I couldn’t see it then, but I know it was for the best. I have to admit, though, I’ve never met anyone since Dale that I would even consider sharing every aspect of my life with,” she admitted, taking another sip of the hot, flavored coffee.

“He’s an attorney now, in Austin, I believe,” her dad remarked, looking speculatively at his oldest daughter.

“That was the last I knew about him. We don’t keep in touch anymore.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of her mother, sister, and niece then, so the conversation ceased. After hugs and the expected gushing over the baby, Cora asked, “Where’s Clay?”

“He’ll be here in time for the viewing. He had to finish up some things at work before he could get away.”

Cora looked down at the baby she held in her arms. “Are you missing your daddy, sweet thing?”

“Yes, she is. I can’t wait for him to get here and get her to sleep. He does a much better job of that than I do.” Cassie laughed as she took the baby from her sister. “It’s time to get this little princess fed and into her PJs.”

“Mom, is there anything I can do to help you?” Cora asked as her mother put away the groceries she had purchased.

“No, honey, the neighbors have brought dinner, so I just need to warm it up. Just sit and tell me all your news while I get it ready.”

The family got caught up over a delicious dinner, and after the baby had finally settled down, they all tried to get some sleep.

The next few days were busy as they attended the viewing and funeral for her beloved Gram. She saw many familiar faces and shared many memories with the people who had come to pay their respects.

As they were leaving the gravesite after the funeral, Tori stepped beside her and began walking with her. “I’ll call you the end of the week. Maybe we can get together and go out this weekend.”

“That sounds good. I’ll be busy helping clean out Gram’s house and getting it ready to sell, but by the weekend, I’ll be more than ready for a break, I’m sure,” she replied as she smiled at her old friend.

The two women hugged when they reached Cora’s dad’s waiting car.

“I’ll talk to you in a few days,” Cora told her as she got into the car.

“You can count on it,” Tori replied as she started toward her own vehicle.

As the week wound down, Tori kept her word and called Cora. “So, how’s the packing going?”

“I had no idea my grandmother had so much stuff,” Cora told her, laughing.

“Then I’d say you should be about ready for a break any time then, right?”

“Definitely, what do you have in mind? Are we going to the old high school haunts?”

“Oh, no, I’d say we’ve outgrown all those. I’m going to take you out on the town, big girl style.” Tori giggled.

“I can’t wait to see the nightlife in Fredericksburg,” she replied with a laugh.

“I know it won’t compare to the lights of the city, but maybe you’ll see some old friends. Even the married ones go out, occasionally.”

“Well, since it’s Friday night, I guess I can take a break and scope out the local entertainment,” Cora agreed, glad of an excuse to get out of the house and away from the memories.

“Just come to my place whenever you’re ready to go,” Tori told her.

“I’ll finish the room I’m working in, then I’ll go back to Mom and Dad’s to get cleaned up.”

“Okay, take your time. The nightlife doesn’t get going until around nine, anyway.”

“See you in a bit.”

“Bye,” Tori said as she ended the call.

Cora picked up the box of photographs she’d been about to go through before Tori’s call had interrupted her work. She leafed through the first few, and as she picked up the next faded photo, she froze. It was a picture of her senior prom. She was standing in her sequined formal, hair in an updo of cascading curls, with a brilliant smile on her youthful face. Dale was standing next to her with his arm around her waist, looking at the camera with his familiar grin. He was in a tux, and even at eighteen he exuded an aura of sensuality. He’d always been the most handsome boy in the class, and Cora had been the envy of every girl in school.

I wonder what he looks like now, she thought to herself and then giggled. He’s probably gained fifty pounds and has started going bald.

Tucking the photo hurriedly into her purse, she put the remaining photos in the box with the others she had discovered and carried it to the car to take to her parents’ house.

As she drove the distance between houses, her mind wandered back to that August night, twelve years before. I wonder if he ever got married. I’m sure he has by now. And most of all, I wonder if he ever thinks about me the way I think about him.

Shaking her pretty blonde head to rid her mind of the useless thoughts of Dale that had found their way there, she pulled into the driveway and hauled the box of photos into the house.

“Is that the last box of pictures?” her mother asked as she walked in and set the box on the dining room table.

“I certainly hope so,” she replied. “I had no idea Gram had so many of them stashed away like that.”

“She always said she was going to organize them into albums, but apparently, that never happened.”

“Apparently,” Cora replied dryly. “I’m going out with Tori tonight, so I may be in late. She thinks I need to enjoy some Fredericksburg nightlife while I’m in town.”

“Maybe you’ll run into some of your old friends. I’m not sure how many still live here.”

“Tori says quite a few, actually,” she answered as she walked to her old bedroom.

“It probably seems strange to you to be back here after living in New York and Chicago all these years, doesn’t it?”

She thought for a minute before replying, “In a way, yes, and in other ways, it’s as if I never left.”

She walked into the bedroom and gathered her things before heading into the bathroom to shower. As the steamy stream of hot water cascaded onto her luscious body, her mind went back to Dale. I wonder what my life would be like now if I’d stayed here, if I’d followed my heart and married Dale, if he hadn’t broken things off that night. I can’t think about that. Look at the fantastic life I have. I’ve traveled all over the world, met all kinds of people, live in a great place. Alone… I live alone. Stop this, Cora… stop it now.

She hadn’t thought about Dale in months. She should have known coming home would bring back a flood of memories. For years, she had dreamed about him and counted the days and months until they could reconnect. She remembered the promise and the kiss that had sealed it. Then, finally, one day, she didn’t think about him; the next day, she didn’t think about him, and eventually, she’d come to terms with the fact that it really was over and the promise they’d made had been a silly thing between young lovers. They were adults now, leading very different lives in very different cities.

She stepped out of the shower and tied her golden hair up into a towel, turban style, as she briskly dried her body with another towel. She had chosen black jeans and a shimmery black shirt, with designer boots, for her evening out. She then chose her jewelry carefully. As she applied her makeup and dried her hair, she wondered what the evening would bring. Grabbing a small bag and filling it with the essentials, she was ready to go. As she threw a jacket over the shirt, she yelled goodbye to her parents and headed out the door to the Toyota she had rented at the airport.

She arrived at Tori’s and, of course, had to wait for her friend. Tori had never been ready on time a day in her life. She sat down and looked around at the condo her friend owned and smiled. It was modern yet homey. Tori had done a marvelous job decorating it.

When Tori finally appeared, Cora asked, “Is Jonathan meeting us there?”

“Nope, I told him this was our night. I only see you once in a blue moon. I see him every day.”

“Are you two ever going to tie the knot? You’ve been seeing each other—how many years now?” she teased her pretty redheaded friend.

“We probably will, someday. It’s been five years, but neither of us has been in a hurry. He’s been hinting lately, though, so it may not be too far off. I’ll surprise you someday and give you a call, asking you to come home and be my maid of honor.”

“I’m glad you found someone like him. He seems perfect for you.”

“He is perfect for me. But what about you, Cora, is there someone special back in New York?”

“No, there’s no one special at the moment. I go out, but I’ve just never been lucky enough to find Mr. Right. Maybe I’ll be a single career gal all my life.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute. Just look at you. You always were beautiful, but you are absolutely stunning these days.”

“Oh, Tori, you’re still nuts.” She giggled.

“Let’s get out of here. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet him right here in Texas? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?”

“Yeah, that’d be a hoot, all right. I’ll probably meet some cowboy.”

“Maybe those New York guys aren’t right for you, because you really do belong with a good old Texas boy.”

Cora giggled as they walked out the door, but deep in her heart, she knew that what Tori had said was true. She had always belonged with a certain good old Texas boy, and that boy was Dale Barton.

Dominating His Valentine

Amazon:

Sample Chapter

 

Chapter One

 

He was definitely not my type.

I preferred tall men who were built like brick shithouses. Something along the lines of a Jason Momoa, or a Chris Hemsworth—muscles on their muscles, broad, and distinctly Y-shaped.

Not that physicality was really anything I used to judge potential mates, when it came right down to it. After all, I could hardly have any kind of expectations in that area, considering my own situation. Hell, I’ve been known to run from really good looking men, not that I thought they were going to follow me or would ever be interested in me in any way—quite the opposite, in fact. Besides, I was much more concerned that he be able to speak in complete, coherent sentences, preferably comprised of words of more than one syllable, and that those words be as grammatically pristine as possible.

Mea culpa. I’m a grammar Nazi.

He had the tall part down pat, though. If I had to guess, I’d say he was six-two or three, but then, at five-five and a half (I never forget the half), I’m not that great a judge. But he was lean looking, like a greyhound, with wavy black hair that just brushed his shoulders and looked nicer than mine, and bright, intelligent green eyes. He wasn’t classically good looking—he couldn’t have made it as a male model—but he was still disturbingly pleasant to look at, with a ready smile for everyone who swarmed to meet him, and a warm, but wicked, dark chuckle that could be heard across the room.

I turned my head away from him, not wanting to be caught gawking at him. I had suffered quite enough embarrassment in my life; I didn’t need to cause myself any more.

No, he was not for the likes of me.

Oh, and he was late. More points off. Big, big points off.

I’m a punctuality Nazi, too.

More of that laugh of his, intimate yet comforting at the same time, seeped into me like warm broth into a cold belly. But it didn’t soothe me—it made me want to escape from him—to take the easy way out and just go home, which I might have done in another situation. But I couldn’t, being the sister of the guest of honor. So I headed into the kitchen, instead, which was always a great refuge. He’d be shaking hands and laughing like that for a while yet, and I decided—coward that I am—that I’d just see how long I could avoid him—make a game of it, like I had been for a few months now already.

This was supposed to be my moment of truth—when we actually were introduced for the first time. But perhaps I could manage to get out of this place without ever having had what would certainly be the distinct pleasure of meeting him—for everyone but me.

And him, inevitably.

The kitchen was a vibrant mess that I was glad my nasty neat sister couldn’t see. There were five women crowded in there, all in various stages of either preparing, sending out, or cleaning up from having made or brought something to eat or drink.

I heard the buzz in there—the news of his arrival—as if he was a celebrity or something.

“He’s here!”

“Did you see him?”

“What’s he wearing?”

I had to roll my eyes at my friends—such sheep!

Most of them were well into the drink part of things already—which made me relent a bit in my derisiveness about their unbridled enthusiasm for this man. I had a feeling that I was just going to be a bother and an interruption—something I pretty much felt I was all of the time anyway—or worse than that, I was going to get pulled into doing something I didn’t want to do—like meeting him.

So I stole a homemade éclair that I knew Alice Corbin had brought, grabbed a healthy two fingers of excellent Bulleit whiskey, neat, and headed for the welcome quiet—and relative privacy—of the balcony, away from the madding crowd.

I’d always thought that whoever wrote that particular phrase had gotten the adjective wrong—it should have been ‘maddening’. I hate crowds, and I was damned proud of myself that I’d lasted as long as I had. I raised my glass to myself for a job well done, on both points, having avoided him, too, popping all of the small—to me, anyway—homemade pastry into my mouth at once.

It was unbelievably delicious—orgasmic, even!

But I should have known better than to count my chickens so soon.

Seconds later, I heard the door open, as the éclair was looking like a very bad decision and I hurried to chew and swallow it. Forcing myself not to turn my head to see who had joined me, I continued to look out at the beautiful view of the city I would probably never be able to afford for myself, and took another generous sip of my drink.

“I saw you raise your glass to someone and assumed that you had company out here. I hope I’m not imposing.”

Oh, fuckin’ A, it was him. Just my bad luck.

And yes, he was definitely imposing, but I could hardly say that to him, although all of me wanted to.

I swallowed the rest of the éclair mixed with whiskey, hoping I hadn’t gotten a big spot of custard or chocolate on my face or the girls. “I was toasting myself for having managed not to kill anyone at the party—yet, anyway.”

“Oh dear. That bad, is it?” His smile was in his tone. He walked gracefully over to me. I could just see the bastard out of the corner of my eye—everything he did was elegant and graceful, which only made me hate him just that much more, since I tended to lumber awkwardly through life.

“Yeah, well, I’ve never been the most sociable of people.”

He nodded. “Perhaps that’s why we haven’t met yet.”

Not feeling in the least like coddling him, I turned my head to meet those extraordinary eyes of his. “That’s precisely why we haven’t met.”

Damn—that made him laugh, and him laughing up close was a shit ton more potent than him laughing from across the room.

I’d have to be careful about doing that. Unfortunately, being the youngest of four had made me into a bit of a clown, and, if I was feeling comfortable enough, there was nothing I liked more than to make people laugh.

But that would be a very dangerous pursuit with him. I’d known he was the dangerous type even before I’d ever been in the same room with him.

And now, up close and personal, he was utterly devastating.

It took me a minute to get there, as I was bathed in his disturbing presence and my mind completely ceased to function for a long moment. While I was trying to recover, he assumed a posture that mimicked mine, only he did it much, much better than I ever would, bending over at the waist and leaning on forearms that were surprisingly well muscled, lightly haired and tanned, with bulging veins that caught my eye.

Bless him for having jettisoned his suit coat and rolling up his sleeves! Rroarr!

But it was his hands that got me; that I had to drag my gaze reluctantly away from. They didn’t look soft and white, as if he’d never really used them. Instead, they were astonishingly long fingered, with slight calluses at the tips, nails neatly trimmed, with the occasional small nick or scar here or there, which were plentiful enough signs that he had worked for a living, at least at some point in his life.

I forced myself to take a deep breath. The man next to me — who smelled unimaginably good, and to whom I was incredibly attracted, despite the fact that I knew that anything developing between the two of us was a complete and utter impossibility—was off limits. He was fool’s gold, like a fisherman’s fly—a trap that would have me beating my heart against a rock in futile hope of being the target of even the smallest smile, the slightest touch, such that every night for the rest of my life, I would go to bed unfulfilled for want of him.

Yeah, no.

Been there, done that, had the bar tab and the extra! Censored! amount of pounds to prove it.

And I was not going to allow that to happen to me again. I’ve made that mistake too many times before—hung my heart on someone who would either soon tell me he wanted to be ‘just friends’, or worse, someone who would use me and string me along for what he could get out of me.

So I shoved him—mentally—while my mind and my heart and Lord knows my genitals were screaming bloody murder against it—into the ‘potential friend but nothing more and even that is probably not a good idea’ closet, then took a big breath.

It wasn’t easy for me to compartmentalize him like that. In fact, it was hard as hell. But it helped me relax—took a lot of the pressure off. I no longer needed to try with him. I didn’t have to compete with anyone else for his attention—which he would most definitely be likely to lavish on someone who was a lot thinner and prettier than I am. I didn’t have to worry about what he thought of me. He was my sister’s friend, and I didn’t care one whit whether or not he became mine.

There were still the muffled screams from the closet disturbing my supposedly calm mental state, but I ignored them and concentrated on the feeling of freedom I’d just given myself.

I could just be me. Either he liked me or he didn’t, and my bet was that he wouldn’t—although I always bet no one liked me. I’m far from everyone’s cup of tea, nor do I—usually—strive to be. Sometimes I got suckered in by a pretty face, and always ended up regretting it.

Well, that was not going to happen this time.

The voices from the closet mumbled rebelliously that, if there was ever going to be anyone I should strive for, it was him, but I viciously nailed the door shut on their protestations.

“Well, just so that we can get the formalities out of the way, let me introduce myself. I’m Clete Downey.”

He held out one of those gorgeous fucking hands, and I shook it because my Mom’s voice told me I was obligated to—where she came from in this mix I’ll never know! She was still nagging me from beyond the freakin’ grave!

But I touched him for as short a time as possible before releasing him to tuck mine under my arm as I crossed my arms over my chest.

Defensive posture much? I asked myself.

“I know. Someone in your family was a big athletic nut to name you that?”

“It’s a family name from I don’t know where, although it suited me okay when I was in sports in high school and college. Now removed from that, it is a bit questionable, isn’t it?”

“Yup. I’m Nina. Charles.”

“Yes, you’re Georgina’s sister, right?”

I nodded, taking another sip of my whiskey. “You’re right, and Tina’s sister, not that I admit that in public very often.”

He chuckled again, and I frowned up at him. “Your parents named you Gina, Nina, and Tina?”

“Technically Georgina, Christina, and Nina, but yes.”

“That’s adorable.”

“Not so much really—all that rhyming was a pain.”

I stared at him for a sec, then asked, “Can I be straight with you?” I was proud of myself that I had actually asked him before letting loose.

“Sure. I hope you always will be.”

I smirked. “For future reference, that’s probably something you should never say to me. I don’t have much of a filter.”

I leaned my elbow on the railing before I began to speak. I wasn’t nasty; I just said what I was thinking—which is never a good thing.

“You are entirely too easy to make laugh, you know. You oughta cut that shit out. On top of that, you’re really nice looking, but not intimidatingly so, which is even worse. You’re tall, you smell like every man should but rarely does, and you apparently have a good sense of humor. You’re annoyingly close to perfection. You being all of those positive things at once is going to completely fuck up the curve for the rest of the men out there, who are—pretty much the lot of them—schlubs who could never hope to measure up.”

That only made him raise his eyebrows in surprise and chuckle.

I forced myself to look at him dispassionately. He didn’t seem to be concerned in the least by my words or my scrutiny, which was more ammunition against him. “There’s got to be something wrong with you. I’ve only heard truly glowing things from my sister and her friends, who seem to think that you’re the second coming.”

There was no way I could not snort at that—however unintended—double entendre.

Son of a bitch, he had done the same thing, and he was blushing, too. It was terribly charming.

It made me frown and remember.

“Ah—you were late.”

He reached around in his coat pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. And, of course, before he used them, he looked at me. “Do you mind?”

“Absolutely not, but those are even more points off.”

“So, it’s the old point system, is it?”

“No, distinctly not the old one. I go well beyond one to ten. It’s so male to reduce a woman to a number based on her looks. I have my own, private scale—that I think a lot of women have in their heads but probably wouldn’t admit to, especially not to a man.”

“You’re a trendsetter, no doubt.”

I couldn’t discern whether he was being sarcastic or not—probably not. He seemed much too nice for that.

“And lateness and smoking are not acceptable traits in a man, as far as you’re concerned?”

“Oh, we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about what women in general want.”

He nodded. “Okay. I get both of those things not being desirable, although I want it noted that I’m not habitually late. Want more faults? I’m so far from perfect as to be laughable, so I could go on about them all day, but I wouldn’t want to bore you.”

It was terribly sporting of the pain in the ass to offer to catalog his shortcomings for me, and I was just enough of a cretin to let him do it.

“Somehow I doubt that, but more is always better.”

“A generally questionable philosophy, but here goes.” He exhaled a puff of smoke, and I surreptitiously inhaled as much as I could of it. “I’m a procrastinator, I’m probably what most women would consider to be too close to my mother and I bite my nails.”

“They don’t look bitten,” I pointed out—like an idiot letting him know that I had noticed them.

He just smiled at that. Of course he did. “I try to get a manicure every week—it’s helped me stop.”

“No misogyny? No serial killing? No embezzling? Nothing really juicy?”

Unlike me at the moment, but it wasn’t as if I was going to say that to him—hopefully.

“Nope. I’m an only child who was raised by my Mom—hence the closeness and distinct lack of misogyny. I’ve certainly had fights in my life—which, I’ll have you know that I always won—but I’ve never killed anyone. And I’ve worked too hard to cheat myself, since I own the company. It would kinda be counter-productive.”

“Can I have one of those?” I asked impulsively.

“Sure,” he offered me the pack and proceeded to light it for me.

“Thanks very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

When I’d handed them back to him and was very happily puffing away on my own cigarette—after a bit of a coughing spell, since it had been a while—he asked, “Did I give you enough bad things to counter the good?”

“Not really, but you gave me enough for a while, thanks.”

I sensed he was laughing at me—politely, of course—with his grave, “You’re welcome.”

And I could tell he was smiling indulgently down at me even though I wasn’t looking at him. That’s how powerful his smile was!

“Besides, neither of us ever has to see each other again after tonight, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter that I’m allergic to perfection.”

“I-I don’t think I understand.” Even his frowns were beautiful.

Another puff, and another—lesser, thankfully—coughing fit.

“The unvarnished truth is that my sister insisted that I come here tonight. And you are the reason for that insistence. She fancies herself a matchmaker, you see, although, considering what she knows about each of us, she should have known better. She’s been very unsubtly trying to get us together for months now, and I’ve been actively avoiding it.”

He wasn’t smiling, but was gazing down at me with quite a serious expression, one that leaned tantalizingly towards dominant.

I shook my head—literally—the moment that thought popped into my head. Or, more likely, I was just seeing what I wanted to see—wouldn’t be the first time. I absolutely could not go there. If that was true, I’d end up throwing myself at him like an idiot, and with my luck, he’d step aside at the wrong moment to avoid me and I’d end up going over the railing.

“So, you’ve been avoiding meeting me?”

“Hell yes! I’ve seen pictures of you. Why would I want to meet Mr. Perfection,” I motioned up and down at him, “when I am the embodiment of Ms. Imperfection Extraordinaire?” I drew my hands down the outline of my distinctly chubby body as I spoke.

Clete looked even less happy at that description of myself. “I’ve seen pictures of you, too. In fact,” he cleared his throat before continuing, “the way your sister and your friends have spoken about you when I’ve been with them made me ask your sister to introduce us, just about three months ago.”

He took a step closer to me as I let that sink in.

“So you see, it was not your sister who was insisting, really, all that time,” his caramel whisper wormed its way behind all of the defenses I had erected against exactly that. “It was me.”

I moved a bit away from him and took a nervous pull on my cigarette, which resulted in the worst coughing fit yet, doubling me over with it.

“Are you sure you should be smoking?” he asked, sounding much more concerned than he ought to about someone who was, essentially, a total stranger.

Straightening, I smiled, avoiding those potent eyes of his, and answering with great enthusiasm, “Oh, I’m most definitely not supposed to be smoking.”

Any traces of any kind of amusement left his face at that information, and he sounded almost comically aghast. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I have very severe asthma, and if my doctor—or my sisters—knew that I was smoking they’d each predecease me.” I thought about it again. “No, they’d kill me, instead.”

Almost before I had finished my sentence, the cigarette had been quite literally snatched out of my mouth and stomped on, as if it was a particularly odious bug.

That had me gaping up at him, but his next movements caused my jaw to hit the floor.

He turned me towards the railing again, wrapped what was a very strong—if not muscle bound—arm around my waist, and with no further ado, proceeded to heartily wallop my backside several times.

Unfortunately, it was mid-October—still quite warm, especially for Maine—and I was wearing a light skirt. It had the odd effect of making me wish it was the dead of winter, and I was wearing a snowsuit, or something equally protective! That man spanked hard!

He didn’t give me very many swats—and I was too stunned to count—but I knew that, however many he gave me—rapid fire, in a flurry—were going to be the cause of me looking for reasons not to sit down for a while.

When Clete was done, he let go of me completely and stepped a bit away, so that we were no longer in contact with each other.

I was in the act of opening my mouth to scream. Embarrassment be damned; I just wanted the spanking to stop!

He shoved his hands into his pockets, and didn’t look at me at all, at first. “I’m sorry. I should never have done that. But I can’t imagine why an obviously smart girl like you would want to ruin her health that way. I got carried away, and I’m sorry.”

Then he reached into his pocket and found something in his wallet that he handed to me.

“What’s this?” I asked, taking it automatically.

“It’s my lawyer’s business card, in case you want to sue me for what I just did to you.”

I had to snort. “So… I take it you do this a lot?”

“No, I’ve never done anything that was quite so stupid before, probably. Well, not as an adult, anyway. I saw him recently, so I had his card on me, and I figured I’d own up to the fact that I probably just did something that’s going to cost me a lot of money.”

He didn’t sound all that worried about it.

“And flushed my reputation down the toilet at the same time.”

Now that he sounded worried about.

Not that I didn’t want to sue him for being so forward, but what I really wanted to do was reach back and rub my butt so badly that I had to lace my fingers together to stop myself from doing it.

I knew I should—at the very least—have railed against him for what he’d done, but it would have been hard for me to do that and maintain a straight face, since it was pretty much the fulfillment of a dream for someone like him to have spanked me, regardless of the impetus, and regardless of whether or not I thought he was right to do so.

What I did do—to his great surprise—was tear up the card and let the pieces flutter away in the wind.

“So I guess I shouldn’t ask you for another cigarette, huh?” I asked cheekily, instead.

The smile that he’d been wearing disappeared as if it had never been. And was that a growl I heard come out of him? It was unbearably sexy, whatever it was!

The damned man was getting me all hot and bothered, and I was going to end up going home alone to fire up Clark Kent, which was what I’d named my magic wand vibrator.

After I killed my sister for telling him about my proclivities, that was.

“That’s okay. It’s not like I’m not going to pass a zillion convenience stores on my way home,” I grinned up at him. “I should probably tell you to expect a call from my lawyer, but I can’t afford one, so you lucked out. Thanks for the cheap thrill. You’ll forgive me if I leave now and never see you again, I’m sure.”

His hand shot out as I moved past him and those long fingers manacled my wrist carefully.

“Wait, please.”

I looked at his face, then down at his hand, then back again. “Adding kidnapping to the assault charges, Mr. Downey?”

That got those full lips to curve downward.

“I wasn’t kidding when I said that I was the one who was pushing to meet you.”

A loud, uncouth guffaw escaped my mouth that I immediately regretted, then regretted regretting. “Excuse me if I find that extremely hard to believe. Like, downright impossible to believe.”

He stepped in front of me, and suddenly—built like an outhouse or not—he seemed very big to me, indeed. And he was still claiming my wrist, his hold tight enough that I knew I wouldn’t be able to break it if I tried. His grip was still not so tight as to hurt in any way, but I couldn’t escape the knowledge that it was there, either.

I was excruciatingly aware that I was being kept in place for him and by him.

“So, if I asked you to go out with me, you’d turn me down?”

I leaned my head back and forth, as if I was considering my answer very carefully. “Well, let’s see. I already told you that I’m allergic to perfection.”

“And I gave you several ways in which I am definitely not perfect, and I can supply more if you’d like. Although I’d like to point out to you that usually people you want to date want to know good things about you, not bad.”

“I am nothing if not dedicatedly weird, and you didn’t let me finish.”

“I think I’ve noticed that already, but go ahead.”

“You ripped a cigarette out of my lips, killed it with your ginormous foot, then proceeded to spank me.” I scrunched up my face and caught his eye. “You dating someone?”

“No…” He was right to be cautious.

“Engaged?”

“Nooo…”

“Married?”

“No—”

Before he could say anything else, I interrupted him. “Do you see where I’m going here in regards to why you might not have a significant other, considering your behavior towards me? I think Mr. Perfect is in the rear-view mirror at this point.”

Clete’s scowl was quite foreboding. “I don’t regret anything I did. Well… maybe one thing.”

I figured it had to be the spanking. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Giving you the cigarette.”

I sighed, shaking my head dramatically.

“Not quite the takeaway I was hoping for, I have to admit.”

The next thing I knew, he was kissing me. He took that last step towards me, arms wrapping around me and holding me as if I was the most breakable thing on the planet, and claiming my lips the way he’d claimed my wrist and spanked me—firmly, with purpose and determination.

His mouth didn’t turn into a giant tongue on me, either, for which I was grateful. He did, however, make sure that I was all in on it as soon as I got over how startled I was to be kissing him at all.

He was just the perfect height, utterly to my tastes. Not a giant who’d have to contort himself to kiss me, and not a shrimp who’d need a ladder, either.

Clete held me just right, too, one hand respectfully on my lower back, the other coming up to cup the back of my neck.

Much too quickly after he’d slanted his lips even more hotly across mine, he lifted his head to look down at me, causing me to have to stifle a moan of protest at the loss.

“I want you, Nina Charles.” His breath, like mine, smelled of whiskey. “I’ve known it since I first saw your pictures in your sister’s apartment and on her desk at work. And you might not know it, but everyone talks about you in glowing terms, too, which only made me want to meet you even more. As you’ve discovered in the past few minutes, I’m nowhere near perfect, I promise you, and as you get to know me, I’m sure you’re going to find many ways to add to the imperfect list.”

He let me go—slowly, making certain that I was steady on my feet—and holding onto my hands as he stood before me, tipping my chin up to meet his eyes. “If I thought you’d let me, I’d lead you out of this place and have you in my bed inside of fifteen minutes.”

My mouth snapped shut at that, of which I was very glad, because it contained the drool that his words inspired in me.

“But I can’t imagine that you’re any fan of mine at the moment. And besides, I want more than that from you. I would like to take you out sometime. You name the date.”

I’m sure I stood there with my mouth hanging open again like a yokel for much too long a time, which prompted him to give me one of those heart stopping smiles of his.

“I promise you’ll have a good time, and I’m not even talking about being in bed with me.”

My mind was nowhere near as sharp as it had been before he’d kissed me, or I would have already left the scene of this tragedy waiting to happen.

“I — uh… You… um… We… er…”

“Don’t think so hard about it,” he commanded softly. “Just say yes.”

That last statement was made with a distinctly dommish tone that made my eyes flit to his, but all I saw there was what I thought was genuine encouragement.

And that had me teetering on the edge of doing the impossible, the improbable, and the highly unlikely all at the same time.

I was seriously considering saying yes.

“Do I need to spank you again to get you to agree?” he asked, having the audacity to look surprised when I was rightly outraged by what he’d said.

“What? No!”

“I don’t know.” His brow furrowed as if he was in deep concentration, and it only managed to give him that professorish vibe that was horribly hot. “It seemed pretty natural, to me, even though it’s the first time I’d done it to you. I have a feeling that you need a firm hand.”

Holy Christ, I was going to end up in jail because I was going to kill my sister! She’d definitely told him what I liked!

“As a matter of fact, I don’t just have a feeling that you need a keeper, I know it, considering that you bummed a cigarette off me and proceeded to smoke it, when you’re an asthmatic.”

“What did you want me to do with it, eat it?”

I’d forgotten how ass-adjacent his hand was, but I found out quickly enough.

“Ow! Stop that! Clete, cut it out!”

It was a shorter spanking, but my butt was already sore, so it was at least as bad as the first one. And he kept me close to him rather than letting me go when he stopped, capturing both of my wrists and holding them behind my back.

Holy crap, he was close! Every inch of his body was pressed up against mine, and I could tell that he was at least as aroused as I was.

But I couldn’t even begin to come to grips with the idea that he was even talking to me for this long, much less that he was asking me out, or that I’d only known him for seventeen seconds and he’d already spanked me twice!

“Nina.”

My eyes found his immediately. The man knew how to use his voice to its best advantage, that was for sure.

Barely believing that I was doing this, I heard myself say, “All right.”

Again, he did something I absolutely was not expecting, lifting me into the air as if I weighed nothing at all, twirling the two of us around a bit, then putting me down very gently and looking inexcusably smug.

“I’m very happy that you said yes, and I wanted to get that out of the way.”

“What?”

“I figure at some point in the near future, you’re going to try to argue with me that you’re too heavy for me to lift, and now you already know that that’s not true.”

I headed for the door on legs that were shaky on several accounts, letting go sarcastically with, “Yeah, and I’ll be sure to drop by and visit you when you end up in traction a few hours from now.”

Not a smart thing to say when he was behind me.

I outright yelped at the heavy-handed swat he administered as he closed the gap between us.

“Not funny, and not acceptable.” He almost sounded angry. “Don’t do it again, Nina.”

Clete’s hand found the small of my back—which managed to cover an inordinate amount of my back without seeming improper, after it had already covered an inordinately improper amount of my backside—and remained there as we rejoined the celebratory throng.

I felt as if everyone was staring at me, all wondering the same thing I was: what the hell was he doing with me?

But I wisely didn’t say that. I might not have known him for very long, but I knew him well enough not to test the idea of whether or not he’d smack my butt in front of all of these people.

And there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that he wouldn’t hesitate in the least to do exactly that, if he thought the situation warranted it.

***

Don’t do it.

The very autocratic text came through just as I was settling into bed. I’d stayed an unusually long time at the party, and that was entirely due to the fact that Clete was surprisingly reluctant to relinquish his hold on me, and I couldn’t seem to muster the will to even begin to break it. It seemed he was always touching me in some way or the other—an arm looped casually around my waist, a gentle hand on my back, strong fingers entwined with mine.

And it wasn’t just that either.

He paid attention to me—to me! Not to my sister, or her friends, or the innumerable women who flocked around him, who undoubtedly shared the same incredulousness about where they found him as I did. And he was damned solicitous, too, without being obsequious in the least.

He offered to get me another drink and something to eat. I declined both, and he gave me an intent look, as if he was going to object to that, but he didn’t. When we’d wished my sister a happy birthday yet again, and we’d both kissed her goodbye, Clete had held my coat for me. He kept me close in the hallway and elevator, and he put me into my own car as if he was helping a princess into a glass carriage.

Hell, he was apparently that nice to everyone. He’d gone in with me to ask my sister’s friends, who had taken over her kitchen, if there was anything I could do for them, tagging his own offer of help onto mine. And when he was pressed into service—for ‘being tall’, which he joked was one of his best talents—putting away things in the top shelves of the cupboards, washing dishes, and cleaning counters, he did so cheerfully, not seeming put upon in the least, as some men might have.

Clete also took anything that he considered particularly heavy out of any woman’s hands that he could see, scolding them lightly—with a smile and a wink—saying that that was ‘man’s work’.

I was rolling my eyes, but the others were lapping it up.

When I finally got home, I did little other than feed the cat and take a shower before collapsing on my bed. And I was tired—I’d been one of the first people at Gina’s place this morning to help set up and get the food going, since I had a key. But I wasn’t that tired, especially considering what had gone on between myself and a certain incredible man who had surprised the hell out of me in so many ways!

I’d already reached into my nightstand for my favorite lube, and Clark Kent was plugged in and raring to go when the text tone sounded.

And, once I’d read it, I had no doubt who had sent it.

Funny, I didn’t remember giving him any of my information… Not that there weren’t multiple sources of it at the party, or through people who were already friends of his, who were likely my sister, who was already on my shit list.

Who dis? I sent back.

LOLOLOL Dis is Clete, as if you didn’t know. And I meant what I said.

You said, Don’t do it.

That’s right.

Don’t do what?

Coy doesn’t suit you, Nina.

How is it that I could already hear him saying that to me, his voice just slightly stern and a bit deeper than his usual tone?

I don’t remember asking you whether or not it did. I’m asking for specifics about your shockingly demanding, enigmatic text.

Don’t do what I would be willing to bet you’re getting ready to do, and I hope I’ve timed it right to catch you before you’ve done it.

He couldn’t possibly know what I was planning!

I’d bet that you’re tucked under the covers quite comfortably, and that your vibrator, or whatever you usually use to satisfy yourself, is looking pretty good to you about now.

Wow, there’s no ego in your family; you got it all.

LOL I have, on occasion, succumbed to the imperfection of being overconfident. You can add that to your list. So tell me that I’m wrong.

I began to type again, but was interrupted by his, Without lying.

I backspaced over the fabrication I’d begun, but then I just sat there, biting my lip. I really did not want to let him know that he was right. It just seemed like a dangerous precedent.

So? He prodded.

You’re wrong.

Why did I feel as if I wanted to obey him? He might have spanked me, but he wasn’t anyone in particular to me. Why was it that I felt compelled at that moment to do as he asked and tell him the truth?

Finally, I retired the vibrator to my nightstand again, not really understanding why I was doing it.

Huh what? You’ve got Superman there? Why didn’t you say so? I’m a big fan, I’ll be over in a minute!

  1. I was going to say, ‘a Dom’, but I decided against it. For my purposes.

I sent him an ellipsis.

Because you’re submissive. You’d have to be, or I’d be sitting in jail. Thank you for not calling the cops on me because I spanked you, btw.

Biting my lip, I didn’t text anything in return.

I understand why you’re quiet, little one. I do. But I want you to know that I intend to usurp ole’ Clark’s position right out from under him. Therefore, I don’t want you to have any further contact with him.

I couldn’t resist typing, LOL to him, because I was laughing at his portrayal of my vibrator as a rival.

He sent me a smiley emoji, then texted, But I’m not kidding, old Clark is going to have to be happy in your nightstand or your headboard or wherever he hangs out when you’re not using him until we see each other again. And beyond. I don’t need the competition!

I had to give him an LOL againat that.

What?

Tell me that you understand what I just told you you couldn’t do.

It was just a text, for crying out loud, and yet I squirmed against its inherent dominance anyway!

Good girl.

Damn you’re bossy!

I think our encounter this afternoon, and the fact that you agreed to date me despite—or maybe because?—of it kind of proved that that’s what you like in a man, didn’t it? And, frankly, what you like is—as you’ve might have noticed—exactly how I am as a man. I think we’ll fit together very well, especially on that hard to find level. Tell me if I’m wrong in all of this.

I’m definitely taking the fifth.

I sent him a chicken emoji.

But you’re going to see me again, and that kind of says it all for you.

Night, Nina. Sleep well.

Not friggin’ likely since you vetoed what usually gets me to sleep.

I’m sure you’ll sleep fine. Good night.

You, too, Clete.

Oooh, baby, I love how you text my name!

That got me laughing and lol-ing to him.

Night, Niña.

He’d typed my name differently, as if it was the Spanish word instead, which I knew meant that he had called me a little child.

And I wasn’t sure whether I liked that or not.

I knew I didn’t much like being told what to do.

While at the same time, I adored being told what to do!

Needless to say, it took me a while to get to sleep that night.

 

Masters of the Castle: Witness Protection Program

Masters of the Castle: Witness Protection Program

“All right, all right.” Marshall chuckled, waving both hands in an effort to quiet the laughter around the conference table. The sun was just barely peeking above the perimeter wall, the coffee was flowing and they’d just completed a very busy end of July weekend. Summer was starting to wind down, school would be starting up again soon, August always seemed to be one of their busier months and Marshall had no reason to believe this August would be any different. Everywhere he went in the Castle, the energy was as high as it had been over the Fourth of July, and that included here at this table.

Jackson and Kade were cracking jokes, Parker was practically bouncing in his seat with a personal announcement just eating him up inside, and the wind-whipped shadows of at least one banner was fluttering across the far wall, letting Marshall know if he didn’t get everyone back on track, the meeting was going to run over its allotted time. He hated it when that happened, already Grimsley was checking his pocket watch. In addition to those select Masters whom he considered his stalwart right hands—Sam, Jackson, Parker, Kade, Alan, Grimsley, and Miranda, headmistress of the house, all of his left-hand lieutenants were gathered here as well.

Twins Travis and Trevor were harassing the ex-military and part-time screw-ups Erik and Reeve. Nelson was at the coffee pot, refilling his cup. Eamon was yawning, probably after another late night. Even Dominick had showed up on time this morning and he never did that. A ‘waste of precious ass-beating time’ was what he liked to call Marshall’s mandatory Monday-morning meetings. In a few hours’ time, when he was mid-flight on his way to O’Hare International Airport, when Marshall looked back on this exact moment in time, he supposed this was what should have been his first clue that things were due to go cock-up in a hugely spectacular way.

“Let me have your attention,” Marshall said a little louder, bringing reluctant order back to all those still laughing and chatting around the table. “If we can get through this—”

“Marshall?”

Swiveling his chair around, Marshall looked at Kaylee in surprise. His wife had cracked the door far enough to poke her head in. She had a forbidden cellphone in her hand. It was pressed flat to her chest just above her very pregnant belly in an effort to mute what she was saying for whomever was calling.

“You’ve got a phone call,” she said softly.

“I am in a meeting,” he replied, more astonished than he was upset. They’d been married now almost two years. For more than three she had been his personal secretary, and he would have thought this rule well beyond the need for reminders. Apparently not, though, and how fortunate it was for him that his office came fully stocked with all the reminder switches a discipline aficionado should need. Even for a Monday. “Go back to your desk,” he told her gently. “We’ll talk about this—”

“No,” she said, and it wasn’t until then that he realized that expression of grim worry on her face might not be due to the consequences of interrupting the meeting, but rather because of the phone in her hand. “You need to take this.” She held it out to him. “You need to take it right now.”

Kaylee was not and never had been one to exaggerate drama.

Shoving his chair back, only vaguely aware that the room had fallen silent, Marshall crossed to her, already reaching for the phone. He didn’t recognize the number on the digital display and his wife did not offer a name. She didn’t immediately retreat to her desk either, but stood in the cracked-open doorway, worrying her hands and watching him. The only conversation Marshall heard in that room was the one he started when he put that phone to his ear and said, “To whom am I speaking?”

“Is this Marshall Leaf?” a man on the other end asked.

“This is.” A tiny kernel of foreboding dropped into the pit of Marshall’s stomach. The only people he knew who started conversations by clarifying his name were police and hospital emergency staff. “Who may I ask are you?”

“My name is Holt Nequest, I’m a detective for the Wabasha Police Department. Do you know a woman by the name of Grace Barnes?”

That tiny kernel sprouted ice-cold roots, a multitude of which sank all the way down through his gut and into his legs.

“Grace is my cousin,” Marshall heard himself say. The only one he had, though he hadn’t seen her, not for years. Not since she’d lost her sight. What had that been, ten years ago? Fifteen? She’d been a kid, all knobby knees and missing teeth, scrawny uncoordinated limbs and a smile that could have melted even the iciest of hearts. “Why are you asking?”

Those icy roots gripped tighter. His chest felt tight now too. The cold was growing and it was big enough now to blossom. Detectives from distant police stations never called to tell anyone ‘don’t worry, your cousin is doing just fine’. They didn’t even call to say, ‘we just took your cousin into custody’. If she’d been in an accident—if she were lying injured in a hospital somewhere—he’d be getting this call from a doctor. Marshall wasn’t a stupid man. He did his own math, whittling down the possible options until only one thing was left.

“How soon can you come to Wabasha, Mr. Leaf?”

“If you need me to identify her body, you need to say so now.” Marshall was surprised at how calm he sounded. He didn’t think it was obvious yet, but he felt shaken. The urgency to just move—in any direction—was growing in conjunction with the icy weed inside him.

“Mr. Leaf,” the detective said, each word clipped with deepening determination, “believe me, I am doing everything I can to prevent that from happening, but she is not making that easy for me. I need your help, and so does your cousin.”

She was alive, then.

The relief that swept him weakened his knees and very nearly dropped him to them. He gripped the doorjamb with his free hand instead. Behind him, chairs scooted back from the table as other masters stood. Kaylee looked at his hand and then at him, her silent alarm ratcheting that much higher. She probably didn’t even realize she’d just grabbed her stomach.

“I’ll be on the first flight out,” Marshall promised. He was the Master of the Masters, and despite his reputation, he was neither perfect nor infallible, but he did always keep his word. And to that end, he left without pausing even to end the meeting first.

***

Marshall Leaf walked into the busy Wabasha police precinct and was greeted by a cacophony of unpleasant sounds. Phones were ringing, computer keyboards were clacking, and no less than sixty people were crowded into a space meant for twenty. There were ten desks, all of which were occupied. People were giving statements or lodging complaints. Arguments had broken out at two of them, one of which had grown heated. A man banged on the vending machine that had just eaten his money until the officer at the front desk yelled for him to knock it off. But nowhere in any of this mess did Marshall spot his cousin.

It had been a long time since last he’d seen her. He gave every woman with Grace’s chestnut brown hair a searching look, but who knew? She could have dyed her hair. She could be tall and thin by now or short and plump. She hadn’t had all of her adult teeth the last time he’d seen her. What exactly should he be looking for? Not a girl of twelve, like his mind kept trying to match up against all these unfamiliar faces, that much was certain.

“Can I help you?” the cop at the front desk asked, once Marshall made his way to it.

“I believe Detective Nequest is expecting me.” Marshall supplied his ID. He’d been working at the Castle for so long, it always gave him a start when he saw himself in photographs. He frowned as the officer logged his information. He really ought to smile more. He wasn’t yet forty, and already he was developing fine lines.

“One moment, please.” Picking up the interoffice phone, the reception officer dialed an extension. “Marshall Leaf, here to see you,” he said once the other end picked up. A few minutes later, a man in a dark suit and red-checkered tie came striding just a little too purposefully through the chaos of the rest of the precinct. His dark hair was mussed. His coat was unbuttoned and wrinkled, like he’d slept in it, except the dark circles under his eyes argued against that assumption.

“Mr. Leaf?” Detective Nequest stuck out his hand, a greeting Marshall accepted without hesitation. “Come with me please.”

Marshall followed the detective’s hurried stride back through the chaos of the precinct. “My cousin—” he tried to ask, but stopped abruptly when the detective shot him a silencing look.

“Not here,” he warned, his dark eyes sweeping back through the room behind them, checking to see if anyone was close enough to overhear them. Another of those icy kernels dropped into the pit of Marshall’s stomach. Finding no one, the detective said, “Follow me.”

Marshall followed, each step bringing with it another question, all of which he kept locked behind tightly pressed lips. He was brought to an office door with the detective’s name stenciled on the textured glass. Holding the door so Marshall could slip in past him, Nequest took another cautious look around before he slipped inside.

Marshall almost didn’t recognize the young woman huddled on the couch with her knees hugged to her chest. Her long brown hair swept over her shoulders to shield her face like a curtain. “Grace?”

Her head came up, and it was her eyes that finally clued him in. They were his Aunt Sadie’s sea-blue eyes, so much like his mother’s that it was uncanny, with his family’s infamous piercing stare. It was the same one that had damn near made him a legend from the moment the Castle opened its doors. His relief was palpable. It swept over him on waves so overwhelming that he almost didn’t notice how his younger cousin stared just a little too low and off to one side for her truly to be staring at him. Blind since she was twelve, she faked having sight very well. The moment he moved, her ears locked her in to exactly where he was and she reoriented the direction of her gaze as well as the reach of her hand.

“Marshall.” She came up off the couch seconds before their hands touched. Throwing her arms around his shoulders, she clung to him. Which was, apparently, all he needed to lose every stitch of calm and patience he’d been carefully holding on to since that first phone call nearly eight hours before.

“What the hell is going on?” he growled, turning all that fury not just onto Detective Nequest, but the two men now entering the room to join them. “You could not have been more cryptic if you’d tried. Do you have any idea the thoughts you put into my head with that shit you told me this morning? At first, I thought she was dead! Then I thought she must be in some kind of serious—”

“You have no idea the serious trouble your cousin is in,” Nequest snapped back, as only a man with a ton of responsibilities and no sleep to fuel him could. Marshall knew the sound of that when he heard it; he knew how heavy that burden could feel. He shut his mouth, frowning as Grace trembled in his arms, and even went so far as to accept a seat on the couch when Nequest wearily gestured for him to sit. “I’m pretty sure Ohio has its own news and God knows this never went national. Why should it? It’s not like the guy was the president, right?”

“God forbid,” agreed the older of the two new detectives, the one now quietly closing the office door again. The glass in the door was cloudy. No one could make out more than a shadow of those passing by on the other side, but he drew the shade for added privacy anyway. He looked to his companion.

Shrugging one shoulder, knowing some kind of input was expected of him, the younger added, “I voted for the other guy.”

Nequest gave him the most vocal ‘oh for fuck’s sake’ look Marshall had yet seen. It was starting to feel like he was back in the conference, trying to bring order to a room full of the twins, Kade, and screw-ups.

Almost out of habit, Marshall brought the focus back to the target topic he desired. “I feel like we’re all starting in the middle of the conversation. Can we back it up to the beginning?”

Detective Nequest combed both hands through his short brown hair. “Yeah, we can do that. Two months ago, there was a murder.”

“I can almost guarantee Grace had nothing to do with it.” Marshall’s thoughts made incredible leaps, branching out in all directions in search of even a half-assed guess that would make the puzzle-piece that was his cousin fit. He couldn’t find one.

“She didn’t shoot the guy, no,” the younger detective agreed. “But she did walk in on the guy who did. Fortunately for her, the shooter was interrupted again almost immediately, this time by a guy named Harvey Cabena. Followed by another guy named Winston Ollington.”

“I’m sorry,” Marshall said, fighting hard not to feel stupid and yet still not finding a connection. “Who are you, again?”

“Alex Fahey,” the younger detective said.

“Captain Martin Quill,” the older supplied.

Neither offered to shake his hand. Probably because he was still holding Grace. She was still shaking and he wasn’t about to let go first.

“I’m not quite making the connection,” Marshall confessed.

“We didn’t, either,” Nequest said. “See, nobody saw our shooter then. He must have used a silencer, since Grace, Harvey and Winston were all on the stairs between garage levels within seconds of Denton Walding’s assassination.”

For the first time, her voice half muffled against his chest, Grace spoke up. “I didn’t even feel him, Marshall. Usually I can feel it when someone’s around me, especially when they’re trying to be quiet. But I didn’t feel anything.”

That would have meant more to Marshall if only he weren’t already stuck on a different problem. “Denton Walding… why does that name ring a bell?”

“Probably because you read the papers or watch the news,” Captain Quill answered dryly.

“Like I said,” Nequest said, in a tone that matched, “he wasn’t the president, but I’m sure he’s probably sold to a few.” Circling around his desk, the detective gave Marshall a ‘come hither’ look and sat down. A quick dip into a lower desk drawer produced a thick manila file. Out of that file came a small handful of pictures, one of which Nequest dropped face-up on the desk in the corner nearest Marshall.

The only difference between gazing on that photo and watching a murder mystery on late-night television was that Marshall knew without a doubt that was a dead man sitting behind the wheel of that grey sedan, head thrown back against the collage of brains, blood and bone flecks that splattered the headrest behind him. Indeed, it splattered the entire backseat area, including the rear and side windows. He was glad Grace couldn’t see this.

“That’s Denton,” Nequest explained. “He was found within a half hour or so of when it happened. The first unit arrived on the scene twenty minutes after that. It was a week before we knew where exactly the sniper clipped him from.”

“There was zero evidence left at the scene,” Captain Quill added.

“We found shit,” Fahey reinforced.

Marshall’s mind began leaping again. “If you found nothing, no one saw or heard anyone or anything, then how do you know Grace was even there when the shooter was?”

“Because,” Nequest said grimly, producing another picture, “three weeks after Denton, Harvey Cabena was found in his bed with a pillow over his face, shot through the left eye at point-blank range.”

The sinking, dropping, spreading ice-roots sensation came back with a vengeance when he dropped a third photo on his desk in front of Marshall. This was even more gruesome than the first two.

“This is Winston Ollington,” the detective said bluntly. “He was decapitated when his convertible slammed into the back of a semi on the I-235. His brake lines had been cut. He’d been going almost ninety when it happened.”

“Sheared away the entire upper half of the car,” Fahey said helpfully. “Popped his head clean off. We found it in the backseat of the car behind him.”

“The man didn’t have so much as a single speeding ticket,” Nequest said, snapping an exasperated look to his companion. Fahey only shrugged, as if saying ‘only trying to help’. “His accelerator had been tampered with too.”

“And now he’s after Grace,” Marshall said, finally making that heart-stopping connection.

Nequest’s jaw worked, clenching and releasing twice before he forced himself to agree. “We believe so, yes.”

“And you have no idea who this murderer is.” Softly though he said it, it was no less a statement of fact.

“Oh, no,” the detective disagreed. “We know exactly who he is.” He dropped the last picture on the corner of the desk, allowing Marshall a long look at the grainy black and white photo taken by what looked to be a home security camera. “His name is Carmen ‘The Bulldog’ Massino, and he’s about as bad as they come. The kind of bad that doesn’t take chances when it comes to witnesses and getting caught.”

“And he’s after Grace,” Marshall repeated, a tiny drop of anger at last falling in amongst the sea of cold constricting his gut.

“We can stop him,” Nequest said. “We’ve got his face on camera and a laundry list of crimes that will, if he pleads out, put him in prison for the rest of his life.”

“And if he doesn’t plead?” Marshall challenged.

Nequest flexed his fingers before he clasped them. The look on his face was nothing but determination, with only hints of exhaustion creeping in around the edges. “Then he goes straight to death row and I’m happy to drive the bus that takes him there.”

Marshall looked from Nequest to Fahey, and then to his captain. Something wasn’t adding up. “Why was I called?” he asked, suspicions deepening.

“Your cousin,” Nequest said, although to his credit, he did try to soften his reproach with a tight smile. “She won’t cooperate.”

Against his chest, Grace sighed. She raised her head. “They want to put me in witness protection. They want me to sever ties with everyone I know. I have to leave everything—my friends, my job, my apartment.”

Fahey shrugged when Marshall looked at all three of them again. “It’s the safest thing for her.”

“Marshall,” Grace whispered, her hands sliding up his chest to ‘see’ his face. Her fingertips barely caressed the line of his jaw, assuring herself that he was looking at her and taking her seriously. “Carmen the Bulldog? A name could not get any more mafia if it tried.” In that moment, Marshall knew her objection before she could whisper it. His mind had just reached the same conclusion. “They won’t put me in a safehouse here because they say the mafia has police on their payroll. If they have police, they can get to me in witness protection too.”

“You’re not going into witness protection,” Marshall said, putting that entire argument to bed with the tone of a man unaccustomed not to being obeyed.

Nequest frowned. “You’re supposed to be helping us.”

“I intend to,” Marshall shot back. “I’m going to take over, at least where your protection and my cousin are concerned. Witness protection?” He tried not to scoff. “My home is witness protection. I am an expert at preserving the anonymity of my guests’ identities. I have done it for years.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Fahey laughed. “You own a hotel? Is your hotel a fortress, because it would almost have to be to keep out a guy like Massino.”

“Funny you should say that.” Marshall both tsked and winked at the look of confusion and uncertainty that made the younger detective retreat half a step.

“Mr. Leaf,” both Nequest and his captain said in the same hardening tone.

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into,” Captain Quill said.

“You have no idea who I am or what I do for a living.” Marshall’s iceberg stare had the same withering effect here as it did at the Castle. In fact, the only ones who stood up to it without flinching were Grace, because she couldn’t see it, and Nequest. “In my ‘house’, anonymity is key.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Fahey snapped, turning to the captain as if for clarity.

“It means, I’m taking Grace home with me,” Marshall said, staring him coldly into submission before turning the full force of his glare on the police captain, and then finally on Detective Nequest.

“This is a horrible idea,” Nequest tried to warn him.

“Your objection has been noted,” Marshall replied. “Now kindly send someone to fetch her things. I’m taking my cousin to the Castle.”

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Corbin’s Bend Homecoming

“I know, I know,” Norah Walden said soothingly to the large and very angry cat currently bemoaning its fate from inside the carrier in the seat beside her. “We’ll be there soon, I promise.” Maeve’s protestations never faltered. Clearly, she didn’t put much stock in her human’s promises. Norah couldn’t say she blamed her, considering she had made that same promise several times in the last few days. This time, however, they weren’t merely shuffling from one stopping point to the next – an airplane, her parents’ house, another airplane, a hotel room, and finally a car trip. This time, they were actually nearly to their final destination, their new home in Corbin’s Bend, Colorado.

The thought had barely crossed Norah’s mind when the sign announcing the entrance to Corbin’s Bend suddenly appeared up ahead. Norah’s heart immediately sped up at the sight of it. She was finally here. All the months of planning, preparation, hoping, praying, packing, and filling out mound after mound of paperwork had finally come to fruition. She could hardly believe it was real.

She turned into the entrance and made her way down the main street, Spanking Loop. Seeing that name on the sign never failed to amaze her. It seemed unreal that the word that had been Norah’s dirty little secret for most of her life should be right out there in the open as if it were perfectly normal. Except it was perfectly normal here. That was the point of the community and the reason Norah had decided to move. An interest in some form of a spanking relationship was the one thing every member of this housing community had in common, Norah included. The community was specifically designed to be a place where they could live the lifestyle as they chose without fear of condemnation and judgment. As soon as Norah had seen that on the community website during one of her numerous secret late-night forays on the Internet where she lurked anonymously in spanking groups and devoured spanking books and stories by the dozen, she had known she needed to be here. It was time to start over, and Corbin’s Bend was the perfect place to do it.

Not that anyone she knew had understood that, Norah reflected, turning onto the ironically named Main Street, which wasn’t actually the main street in the community – Spanking Loop held that honor – but was where many of the community’s businesses, including her bookstore and its upstairs apartment were located. To hear her mother and her neighbors back East tell it, she might as well have been moving to outer Mongolia. They were scandalized at the idea of her moving out to the wilds of Colorado, as if she were still trying to get there by covered wagon and steam train like the pioneers had done a couple of centuries ago. The fact that Denver was a major city and Corbin’s Bend was only an hour away from it didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. Nor did it matter that she had never really fit in among the university community where her late husband had taught.

John had absolutely thrived among the academic community there. It had been his home in a way it had never really been hers. He had been an academic to the bone, craving the intellectual stimulation the way an athlete needed to compete. Norah might have been the same had she not given up her own studies to go to work and put John through school. She had done it without hesitation, a fully consensual choice, and she didn’t regret it. It was just that spending her days shelving books, scraping old bubblegum from beneath the chairs in the children’s section where some child inevitably deposited it, and selling the very books that John and his colleagues dismissed out of hand simply because they were popular and current as opposed to great literature made it hard for her to relate to their discussions of deep imagery and language in texts hundreds of years old. Norah read and loved books of all kinds and had hated being judged for loving classics and grocery store paperbacks with equal fervor.

That didn’t matter now, she reminded herself. No one was going to judge her here, not for her interest in spanking and not for her books. For once in her life, she was finally free to be herself, without judgments or expectations. Sticking that thought firmly in her mind, she pulled into the small parking lot in front of her store and apartment. She felt a small glow of pleasure at the knowledge that she had managed to make her way unerringly back to her own house. She had always been rather good with remembering landmarks and routes, but it was still no small feat considering she had only been here on short visits months ago. She’d come once for her interview with the housing board and a second time later on after she had been accepted to fill out the paperwork regarding her business. Of course, as much as she had dreamed about this ordinary rather nondescript building, it was no wonder she had practically ingrained the directions into her brain. After all, it might not look like much yet, but it was hers.

“See? I told you we would be here soon,” Norah said to the cat, who had ceased her furious protests when Norah killed the engine. “Just let me get the doors unlocked, and I’ll come back and get you.” After digging around in her purse for her house keys, she pushed open the door and headed rapidly across the parking lot, nearly giddy with anticipation. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Norah opened the front door leading into the lower floor that would become her bookstore.

And stopped dead at the sight of a blond man in jeans and a battered denim jacket standing in the middle of the bare concrete floor. A medium-sized black and white dog immediately jumped up from its place by his side and let out a sharp and surprisingly loud bark. The man turned on his heel, a faint flicker of surprise crossing his eyes at the sight of her.

“What are you doing here?” Norah blurted, too shocked to be worried about being polite.

“I work here,” he replied. “And you?”

“I live here,” Norah told him. Who was he to be questioning whether or not she had the right to be here? He was the interloper. How could he work here anyway? She hadn’t hired any staff yet. Besides, she’d never seen anyone who looked like him working in any bookstore. He was far too muscular to have been doing that kind of work. Why the hell was she noticing what he looked like anyway? Who cared what he looked like? The important thing was finding out what the hell he was doing here.

At her reply, confusion cleared from his face and understanding dawned in his eyes. “Of course you do.” He crossed the room, holding out his hand for her to shake. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know you were coming in today. I’m Caine Landry. I’ll be doing most of your interior finish work.”

His accent surprised her. Though it wasn’t particularly strong, it was faintly southern with a hint of something else running through it. French maybe. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like it belonged in Colorado. “Norah Waldon,” she answered automatically, shaking his hand and valiantly pretending she didn’t notice how warm and strong it was. “I thought Jim O’Brien handled the construction for the community.” It had been Jim with whom she had discussed the construction details, for both the living area upstairs and the store. Jim had never mentioned anyone else.

“He is,” Caine explained. “Jim and his crew do the majority of the work, but he often contracts out with local people for specific jobs. I subcontract with him fairly regularly for specific interior jobs. He knows me and can vouch for me, if that’s what you’re worried about. So could Jerry Douglas or Benjamin Steppings. I’d be glad to give them a call if that would make you more comfortable.”

“No, no, that’s not necessary,” Norah assured him. “I apologize. I’m afraid we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I’m sure you’re perfectly professional. You just surprised me, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” Caine agreed. “I knew that Jim said you would be in Monday, but I had no idea you were moving in this weekend. I’m not technically working. I just wanted to get in here and get a look around while there was no one here so I could get an idea of what needed to be done.” At this point, the dog, who had clearly had quite enough of being ignored, wedged its way between them, demanding to be petted. Norah smiled, kneeling down and sliding her hands over its head and the soft silky ears.

“Who is this?” she asked, grinning as the dog responded to her petting by going into spasms of energetic wiggles, tail wagging frantically.

“That’s Maverick,” Caine replied, smiling fondly at the dog’s antics. “He’s my best assistant.”

“I’ll bet he is,” Norah said, laughing as the dog clambered all over her, licking enthusiastically.

“Hey, Mav, back off,” Caine commanded, grabbing the dog by the collar and hauling him off of Norah. “Sorry,” he told her. “Mav loves people, but he can get a little overly enthusiastic sometimes.”

“It’s fine,” Norah replied. “He doesn’t bother me a bit. I love animals.” She got to her feet and wiped her now rather slobbery hands on the sides of her jeans.

“I can see that,” Caine said, smiling. “Do you have any of your own?”

“Oh crap,” Norah blurted, frantic. “Maeve!” Some kind of responsible pet owner she was. One look at a new guy, albeit a very cute new guy, and his equally adorable dog, and she’d forgotten all about her own pet. Maeve was probably furious by now and rightly so. She spun on her heel, heading for the door, but Caine caught her arm and stopped her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I forgot my cat in the car,” she explained, instinctively pulling away. “I was only coming in to unlock the door so that I wouldn’t have to fumble with the keys and her carrier then I was going to go back and bring her in, but you were in here, and I started talking to you…” And she had completely forgotten her cat. Her closest companion, who had been with her during those awful days after John’s death. Remembering her late husband, her heart sank even lower. What was she doing? She’d been married to the love of her life for ten years and now she was acting like a teenager because the carpenter working on her store happened to be good-looking. What the heck was she thinking?

“Okay,” Caine said calmly. “It’s a warm day, but not unbearably so. I’m sure your cat is fine. Why don’t you let me go up and unlock the door upstairs while you go get the cat? Will the cat be okay with Mav? He’s fine with cats, but if he will bother her, I can put him in the storeroom while we get you settled.

“I’m not sure,” Norah replied. “Maeve hasn’t been around dogs that much.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, considering. “As long as he stays down here, it won’t be a problem,” she said finally. “I’m really only going to be walking through this room. I’m not planning on letting Maeve out until we are upstairs.”

Caine nodded. He held out a hand to her, palm up, and for a moment, she just stared at it, confused. “If you’ll let me use your key, I’ll unlock the doors for you so you can go straight in.”

Of course, he needed a key. Was that really a good idea? Should she really be giving a strange man the key to her house? It would be quicker that way, and he clearly already had access to her shop for work purposes. Besides, it wasn’t as if there was anything up there he could damage or steal. The movers wouldn’t be here for a couple hours yet. Not to mention he had clearly already been vetted by the community. He wouldn’t have been allowed to come and go unsupervised otherwise, and she knew from her own experience that this community took the safety and security of the community seriously. She’d practically had to swear her name in blood to be accepted.

Putting a hand into her pocket, she fished out her house keys and dropped them into his waiting hand. He headed in the direction of the staircase near the back of the store. She watched him go for one lingering moment before heading in the opposite direction to rescue Maeve.

As she had predicted, Maeve was furious, yowling, hissing and spitting in a fierce display of temper. “I know, I’m sorry,” Norah said, trying desperately to placate her. The cat was having none of it, continuing to complain loudly about the injustice of her situation as Norah carried her through the empty expanse that would soon be her bookstore. There wasn’t much to it now, just an empty shell with a bare concrete floor dotted here and there with heavy wood support beams and columns.

Maverick was lying next to the iron staircase that led up to her apartment. His ears pricked up with interest as she came by with Maeve, but he stayed put. She thanked her lucky stars that Caine at least had a cooperative pet, unlike her ornery feline. As promised, Caine had the door open and waiting when she brought Norah up the stairs. To her surprise, however, he had not gone inside. Instead, he was waiting in the small foyer at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wall outside the door. She pushed her way inside and set Maeve’s carrier on the floor with a relieved sigh. The queen might not know it yet, but she was going on a diet at the first opportunity. The cat weighed entirely too much for Norah to be trying to schlep her around.

She looked around, expecting Caine to have followed her inside, but he hadn’t. In fact, he didn’t make a move to join her until he was specifically invited to come in. That puzzled her. She hadn’t exactly planned to be taking her first look at her new home with a strange man standing over her, but she wasn’t about to leave him standing there alone either, as though he were a piece of furniture or a discarded umbrella. That was just rude.

The entry door they’d come through opened into an open plan living room and kitchen area. The living room area was off to her left and the kitchen to her right. A closed door at the end of the kitchen turned out to be a large pantry. A door in the living room led off to her bedroom, and a door directly across from the kitchen revealed the bathroom, which was joined to the bedroom by a large closet. A good-sized laundry room shared a wall with the closet. It wasn’t an overly large living space, but there was plenty of room for just one person. For now, the walls were a simple neutral off-white, plain and rather boring, but that was nothing a few cans of paint wouldn’t fix. She and Maeve would be perfectly comfortable here.

“What do you think?” Caine asked quietly from behind her.

Norah spun around. She had been so absorbed in taking in her new surroundings that she had forgotten he was there. “It’s great,” she told him. “It will do just right for us.” She knelt in front of Maeve’s carrier and opened the door. Maeve didn’t move, but Norah had not particularly expected her to. It would take her a few minutes to get acclimated. In the meantime, Norah removed Maeve’s food and water dishes from the tote bag she had slung over her shoulder. Going to the sink, she filled one of the dishes with water. Setting up both dishes in a corner of the kitchen, she pulled the plastic bag that contained Maeve’s food out of the tote bag and filled up the empty food dish.

“Did you do any of the work in here?” she asked curiously, dropping the tote bag on an empty kitchen counter.

Caine shook his head. “Jim and his crew do all the residential work unless a resident has a particular special request that requires more intricate carpentry than normal. Mostly, he brings me in to work on some of the commercial buildings that need particular requests. I did some small tables for the library in the dome. I did some of the work on Ange’s bakery, special display cases and such. I’ve done some counters and tables for a few of the restaurants, that kind of thing.”

“So you’re more like a specialist then?” Norah commented. Though she was very deliberately not watching, from the corner of her eye Norah could see Maeve beginning to take her first tentative steps out of her carrier. The temptation of food was obviously stronger than her uncertainty of a new and unfamiliar space. Norah didn’t mention this progress, having learned some time ago that Maeve was just contrary enough that if she thought you were watching her she would promptly retreat back to wherever it was you were trying to get her out of.

“I guess you could say that,” Caine agreed. “That kind of specialty work is primarily what I do these days, but I can and have done just about any kind of construction and carpentry. Do you have an idea of what you want as far as shelves and tables for the bookstore?”

“Do I?” Norah replied. “That’s all I’ve got is ideas. I have more ideas than I know what to do with.”

Caine chuckled. “We can work with that. It’s actually easier to help someone narrow down and specify what they want than it is to try to work with someone who has no idea what they want. Believe me, I speak from experience.”

“Oh believe me, I know what I want,” Norah blurted.

A corner of Caine’s mouth quirked up, so briefly it could not have legitimately been called a smile, though it was distinctly amused. “Oh, I just bet you do,” he replied mildly. His eyes—they were deep green, Norah realized abruptly—lit up with equal parts amusement and smugness.

Belatedly, she realized exactly how that must’ve sounded. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she spluttered, feeling the back of her neck and the tips of her ears start to burn.

“If you say so,” Caine said agreeably, though she still had the distinct feeling he was teasing her.

“I do,” Norah said firmly. “I was only talking about what I want to do with the store.” Too late, she realized her stubborn insistence was probably only making things worse, but she plunged on. “I have plenty of ideas there.”

“Good,” Caine said. “Then we probably need to sit down and talk about those ideas sometime really soon. Could you meet with me Monday morning, say around eight?”

“That would be fine,” Norah agreed. “Would you rather meet up here or in the store? I promise I will actually have some furniture up here by then.”

“It’s probably better to meet in the store,” Caine told her, “so that we can actually look around and get a better idea spatially of what we are talking about.”

Norah nodded. That made sense. “That’s fine then. I’ll meet you downstairs Monday morning at eight.”

Caine pulled a small memo pad and pencil out of his shirt pocket, presumably to make a notation of their meeting. When he finished, he tucked both neatly back into his pocket. For a moment it seemed as though he was going to say something else, but he didn’t. He shifted his weight on the balls of his feet, seeming suddenly awkward and unsure of himself now that the formal business conversation was over. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “You said something about furniture? Do you have anything that needs bringing up? I don’t mind sticking around to help if you do.”

Norah smiled. “Thank you. That’s very kind, and I appreciate the offer, but I only have a few bags and personal things in the car.” She’d been forewarned by the locals to stock up on groceries in Denver. Those supplies filled most of the bags in her car. The rest of it was clothes and books she’d kept with her in the hotel along with Maeve’s essential supplies. Though she appreciated his offer, it was nothing she couldn’t handle herself. “The movers should be here with the rest of it sometime this morning.”

“You sure you’ll be okay here until then?” Caine asked.

Norah bit back a very unkind urge to laugh. “I’ll be fine. I live here after all.”

The look Caine gave her was slightly abashed, but not the least apologetic or cowed. “That’s true. I suppose you do. I’ll get Mav and get out of your way then.”

“You’re not in the way,” Norah replied. Somehow, it had slipped out before she even consciously registered the thought.

“It’s okay,” Caine said, turning to go. “It’s probably best Mav and I get moving before he gets restless.” When Norah followed him out the door and down the stairs, he shot her a quizzical look. “Where are you going? I can find my way out. You don’t need to come back down on my account.”

“I’m not,” Norah told him. “I’m coming down to say goodbye to Maverick before you go. Will he be with you on Monday?”

“As long as it’s not a problem for you,” Caine said. “I take him with me everywhere I can. Sometimes, depending on the job, it’s best he stay home, but we both greatly prefer it when he can come with me.”

“Of course it’s fine,” Norah assured him. They had reached the bottom of the staircase now, and the dog leapt up eagerly at the sight of them. Norah knelt in front of him, taking his head in her hands and scratching his ears. “Bye, Maverick, I’ll see you Monday.” Maverick licked her chin, making her laugh. Then, Caine gave a short sharp whistle and clicked his fingers, and Maverick bounded immediately to his side.

Norah got to her feet. “I’ll see you Monday, too,” she told Caine.

“Monday,” Caine said with a brief nod. Then, he disappeared into the dark depths of the store and a moment later she heard the heavy back door close behind him. If she watched out the window as he drove around the building and turned into the street, well, it was natural enough that she watch out for the moving trucks, wasn’t it?

* * *

“There you are,” Jerry Douglas said good-naturedly when Caine slid into a chair at the table across from him. “I was beginning to think you had stood me up.”

The two men had been meeting regularly for lunch for nearly two years now, ever since Mav had stepped on a nail while Caine had been installing a custom railing on the balcony of one of the larger homes in the community. He had taken the dog to Jerry for treatment. Jerry had offered to keep Maverick when Caine was working in the community during the times when his work made it unsafe or inconvenient for him to keep Mav with him, and they’d been friends since.

“I got held up at the bookstore,” Caine replied.

Jerry raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I didn’t think you were working today.”

“I’m not,” Caine said. “I’m not on the clock until Monday, but since I was here, I wanted to run by and get a look at it while it’s unoccupied so that I could have some idea of the kind of work it’s going to take to finish it up.”

“So how did you get held up?” Jerry questioned. “It’s going to be that bad of a job?”

Caine shook his head. “I don’t think so—bookshelves, flooring, checkout counter, probably some tables, probably some crown molding accents on the walls. Nothing I haven’t handled before.” A hundred times over, he added silently. “I won’t know for sure until I sit down with the owner on Monday, but it doesn’t look all that complicated. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, but I don’t anticipate it being one of those nightmares.”

“Let’s hope not,” Jerry said. He trailed off long enough to order his usual from the waitress that came round. Caine did the same. Sometimes, he felt adventurous enough to order one of their specialty dishes, but today he was sticking to simple and familiar, a pulled pork sandwich with fries and iced tea. This was one of the few places in the area where he could get true southern iced tea. He didn’t miss a lot from his childhood in Louisiana. Frankly, for the most part, he couldn’t get the hell out of the Bayou fast enough, but sometimes he missed good tea. Here, with both the chefs and the owner being originally from Mississippi, they understood tea and grits in a way that few people this side of the Mississippi River did.

“So what was the hold up?” Jerry asked when the waitress walked away.

“I met the owner,” Caine replied. “She’s moving in today.”

“Seems like I remember someone mentioning something about that,” Jerry said. “What’s she like?”

That was a loaded question if Caine had ever heard one. She was beautiful—fair skinned, long hair the rich brown color of a dark wood, cherry or maybe mahogany, and green eyes, several shades lighter than his own. They were reminiscent of antique glass, the light semi translucent color he remembered from Coke bottles in his childhood. Not that he was about to tell Jerry any of that.

He shrugged. “She seems nice enough. You’ll probably meet her soon. She has a cat.”

“Does she?” Jerry said. “Good. I’ll probably see her sometime next week then, or if I don’t, I’ll make a note to check in with her. What did Mav think of the cat?”

“He’s fine with cats,” Caine said. “I’m not sure the cat would’ve thought too much of Mav so Mav stayed downstairs while we put the cat upstairs.”

“We?” Jerry asked, one eyebrow raised. Caine was saved from answering when the waitress arrived with their food. Jerry let it go long enough for them to settle down and start eating, but as soon as they had, he asked again, “What’s this we business?”

“Nothing,” Caine said, digging into his food with gusto. “We both took the cat upstairs to her apartment while Maverick stayed downstairs. That’s all, nothing more than that, and don’t you go plotting either.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jerry said. “I haven’t said a word. You’re the one telling me some woman you just met had you upstairs in her apartment.” He picked up a rib from his plate and smirked at Caine over the top of it.

“Don’t go make it something out of nothing, Douglas,” Caine said, exasperated. “It wasn’t like that at all. I offered to go up and open the door while she got the cat out of the car so that she could get the cat settled as soon as possible. That’s all. I was just being polite. You would’ve done the same.”

“Probably,” Jerry agreed, “but I’m married. I’m clearly no threat. Besides, she’s my neighbor. It would’ve been the neighborly thing to do.”

“You don’t live anywhere near her,” Caine scoffed.

Jerry shrugged. “It’s Corbin’s Bend. We’re all neighbors here. Not to mention it sounds like she’s very likely going to be a patient, or at least her cat will.”

“She’s going to be my boss, of a sort anyway, for the next several weeks,” Caine countered. “How is that any different?”

“Not really,” Jerry disagreed. “After all, she’s not paying you, at least not directly. You’re working for the community.”

“She’s still my supervisor,” Caine insisted. “Where’s all this coming from anyway? What does it matter? I’ve done work for any number of people in the community.”

“You know,” Jerry said. “She’s single. You’re single. I just thought maybe…”

Caine set down his glass with a distinct thunk. “I can’t believe you just said that,” he told Jerry, flabbergasted. “Who are you and what have you done with my friend? You sound like a matchmaking old woman.”

“You’ve been alone as long as I’ve known you,” Jerry said. “I just keep thinking maybe one of these days you’ll find someone who will catch your attention.”

“If I do, it won’t be here,” Caine said firmly. “No offense, Jer, but I’m not like you.”

“You wouldn’t be the first to change your mind about that,” Jerry said. “Kieran O’Brien seems to have managed well enough. He didn’t understand it when he first came here either. Heck, he clocked Jim because he walked in on them and thought Jim was abusing Ange. Jim walked around here for days with a black eye.”

Caine snorted, bubbling with laughter. “Really?” While he certainly understood Kieran’s actions and would have very likely done the same himself, he couldn’t imagine the burly Irish footballer turned contractor letting anyone get the better of him, much less his computer geek little brother.

“Really,” Jerry confirmed. “Of course, that was before he met Carla and got into the lifestyle himself.”

“That’s all fine and good for him,” Caine said, “but it’s not for me. What y’all do in the privacy of your own homes and relationships is none of my business, but it’s not something I could ever do myself.” The very thought made him shudder inwardly. He knew a lot of the local surrounding communities thought the people of Corbin’s Bend were rather strange, but he had never had the slightest problem. He’d been hesitant the first time Jim O’Brien had called him, needing some specialized cabinetry for one of the restaurants. He’d heard of Corbin’s Bend, of course. You couldn’t live in this area and not hear something about it, but he had never really given it much thought. As far as he was concerned, what other people did was their business, not his. He’d had far too much of his so-called concerned neighbors making his own life fodder for the gossip mills when he was growing up to ever put much stock in such nonsense himself, but it had given him pause when he was confronted with the idea of working here for days at a time. Could he really handle it? After all, there were nights he still woke in a cold sweat from decades old memories of Ruben’s so-called discipline. Could he really handle being around a community where such a practice was the norm? He had taken the first job purely as an experiment. Their money spent as well as any other, and there was no way he could know if he could handle it without trying it.

To his complete surprise, he’d found the people of Corbin’s Bend to be warm, friendly, and extremely discreet. In point of fact, Corbin’s Bend became one of his favorite places to work. Jim was easy to work with, and the raving and tantrums that often went along with building projects where clients had completely unreasonable expectations were almost nonexistent here. As long as he didn’t think too hard about why that was the case, everything was fine. However, working alongside them was one thing; living the lifestyle himself was another thing entirely. That would never happen.

“All I’m saying is you never know,” Jerry went on. “It could happen.”

“No,” Caine said flatly. “It couldn’t. Not for me.” Please, Jer, just let it go. There were too many things he couldn’t explain. Memories he should of buried years ago. Scars on his body and his mind. Just drop it, please.

Thankfully, Jerry seemed to take the hint. “So what did you do with Mav, anyway?”

“What I always do,” Caine told him, breathing a sigh of relief now that the conversation was headed onto more neutral ground. “I dropped him at your place with Elly. The weather is still too hot for me to leave him in the truck.”

“Oh good,” Jerry said, “I’m sure Jack will be thrilled.”

“Jack maybe,” Caine agreed, “Muffy, not so much.”

While Jerry’s black lab relished the opportunity to play with another dog his own size, Jerry’s wife’s little poodle had a grudging relationship with Maverick, meaning she just barely tolerated his presence and maintained the peace by studiously ignoring him. Maverick was simply too big and too energetic for her to be bothered with. This, in turn, drove Maverick absolutely crazy. The medium-size mutt, who was at best guess some kind of border collie/cattle dog mix, loved to play, and couldn’t understand why anyone, animal or human would ever not want to play with him.

Jerry laughed. “You may have a point there,” he conceded, “but she should at least be used to it by now.”

From there, the meal progressed with companionable ease. Jerry shared funny stories of his most recent adventures with his patients. Caine told him about a custom bathroom vanity he was building for one of his regular customers back in Denver. By unspoken agreement, they left the subject of the new bookstore owner severely alone.

For that, Caine was grateful. He could admit, at least in the privacy of his own mind, that he found her attractive, but that was irrelevant. He’d worked for attractive women before. He’d even had a few try blatantly to come on to him. He knew better than to even contemplate it. He was better off to avoid it like the plague, and this woman was no exception.

If she happened to come to his mind several more times over the course of the rest of the week, that was to be expected. After all, her bookstore would be the focus of his work for the next two months or so. It was only natural that the store, and by extension the owner, would be on his mind. Wasn’t it?