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The Man She Needed by Ruth Staunton
Norah Waldon comes to Corbin's Bend to start over after her husband is killed in a freak accident. She’s determined to fulfill her dream of owning her own bookstore, and for the first time in her life wants to live somewhere where she can be herself as she's been hiding her desire for a DD relationship for far too long.
Caine Landry is the carpenter working on her bookstore. He brings out things in her she hasn't felt in years. There's just one problem. He doesn't live in Corbin's Bend and has no interest whatsoever in anything involving spanking.
Will Caine somehow find a way to become the man she needs?
Delivered to Love by Thianna D. & Jamie Ray
Danny Lawrence used to have a great life, until his parents found him making out with a guy. Now, he’s living in his car while working the same delivery job he’s had since college. A small accident lands him at the Medical Center where he meets Phillip.
Phillip Scott, the new administrator, has an instant attraction to Danny. He opens his home to Danny, when he needs a place to convalesce.
Will their choices solidify their relationship, or destroy what they’ve built?
Deceptive Practices by Tabitha Marks
Despite being a successful doctor, Nancy longs to give up control to her husband and have him spank her when she needs it. Unfortunately, Sebastian doesn’t understand her desires, instead believing an equal partnership is the only path to a successful marriage.
He eventually agrees to give Nancy the occasional spanking, but she wants more, and ends up tricking her husband into moving to the spanking community of Corbin’s Bend. Will this couple find their balance and embrace their new lives in Corbin’s Bend?
A Holiday Ruse by Rayanna Jamison
Cecily has been telling little white lies for years, both to her husband Carlton, and her mother Venia. With her husband on another continent, and her mother across the country in Corbin’s Bend, what could the harm be? Until they decide to visit her mom for the holidays.
Carlton doesn’t tolerate lying—and he refuses to stretch the truth to accommodate the lies she has already told. Since Venia thinks they already live a domestic discipline relationship, Carlton comes up with a solution. When in Corbin’s Bend, do as they do.
Will Cecily’s web of lies lead her to everything she has ever wanted?
Vintage Values by Maggie Ryan
Quincy Lauder runs into a stranger who affects her like no man has since her husband died. So far from home, she tries not to think too much about him, until she runs into him again.
Henry Hopkins is intrigued by the woman he's now met twice. When he walks into a backyard barbeque at his new community and meets her yet again, he feels like he’s won the lottery... especially when her behavior wins her a trip over his knee.
More than sparks fly between them until one question remains. Will the resident matchmaker make her own match?
Her Cowboy by Kate Richards
Felicity Franceaux's new position as head of the Corbin's Bend emergency room meets all her expectations. But losing her late husband left her so heartbroken, she's afraid to try again.
John Estrada, former ranch foreman now successful novelist, also likes what Corbin's Bend has to offer. He'd like to get to know Felicity better… if only they could find a way to connect.
Fire in the Rockies by Holla Dean
Kelly Carmichael is a confident, capable woman, but desires to be dominated in the bedroom. She moves to Corbin’s Bend to be close to family and to work at the Medical Center.
RJ wants nothing more than to find a woman he can take care of and develop a solid domestic discipline relationship with. Kelly catches his interest, but he can’t tell if she is truly willing to submit to him.
When a forest fire cuts them off from all help, it’s them against nature. Will they survive, or will their relationship turn to ash?
“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?
“Beep, Beep, Beep…” Danny’s arm shot out to fumble for the alarm clock on his nightstand.
The noise was louder, longer, and more insistent this time. What the…? He forced his eyes open and then he remembered. There was no nightstand anymore, and he was the one responsible for the horrendous noise. His head lay on the horn. He jerked up, and fumbled in his pocket for his phone, which was also beeping incessantly. Six-thirty a.m. Danny yawned and popped his seat back out of its reclined position. Every muscle in his body screamed in agony. If I had thought for a second, he thought to himself ruefully, that I would one day find myself living in my car, I would have bought something roomier than a VW Beetle.
Turning the key in the ignition, he glanced in the rearview mirror before pulling out of the long empty lot beside the restaurant supply warehouse where he worked. He didn’t have to be at work for hours, but he needed to move his car before the farmers and fisherman started showing up with their daily haul, or before his boss Tony showed up, and realized that he was currently, for all intents and purposes, living in his car outside the warehouse.
At just before seven on a Friday morning, Boulder was still a bustling city. Long lines of traffic lined up the highway exits as people began their daily commutes. Luckily for Danny, he didn’t have far to go. He had this homeless thing down to a fine-tuned routine. It probably didn’t hurt that he had been homeless for all of six days now, had the same full-time job he had had for several years now, and had plenty of money in the bank. What he didn’t have was a plan. At least, not one that went beyond six this evening, when he got done with work for the day.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Danny turned into the lot at his gym, thankful that he had kept up his membership, even though he hadn’t been working out regularly these days. That small mercy was the only thing affording him a hot shower these days, and assuring that he didn’t stumble into work looking as if he slept in his car. Grabbing a backpack out of the backseat, he shoved a clean uniform into it, and locked up his car. He had always been more of an evening workout person, but sleeping in until nine before racing into work was a luxury he didn’t have right now. A quick run on the track and a few reps around the gym would kill just enough time. He would clean up in the locker room and grab a quick breakfast and coffee at the café across the street before clocking in for the day.
As soon as his feet hit the track, Danny woke up. Running had always made him feel alive and free. It was the one thing that cleared his mind, and gave him focus and peace over whatever problem he was facing at any given time. This time was no different. Well, maybe a little. The peace and focus were there, but a solution evaded him. It wasn’t because he didn’t have options. He did. The only option he cared for however, was the nonexistent one. The one that had him going back in time and erasing every decision that had led up to this point.
Danny knew he could easily get his own apartment, or even crash with a friend. Both ideas exhausted him. He wanted to go home to his family, put his feet up on the couch and watch a ballgame with his dad. Eat his mom’s famous lasagna and wrestle with his younger brother Davis. Roll his eyes as his little sister yammered endlessly about who was dating who and who was wearing what. The memories rolled together, tightening his chest, and wetting his eyes. Such little things he had taken for granted all his life. Would he ever get to do any of them again? The way things had gone down, it seemed highly unlikely at this point.
The memory of last weekend flashed before him, and his stomach rolled. He had lost so much, for so little. Danny would have given anything to change the past, but he knew it was time to move on, accept the way things were and make a plan. He couldn’t go on living in his car forever.
An apartment was a good plan. While he had several friends who would let him crash for a while if he asked, there was no one he could really imagine living with on a permanent basis. All of his friends were either married and starting families, or partying like it was 1999 and they lived in Las Vegas. Danny loved a good party, but not every damn night.
Besides that, there was no one on the planet who he wanted to explain his current situation to. If he told any of his friends he needed a place to crash, no less than a hundred questions would follow. Everyone who knew Danny at all knew how close he was to his family. After all, he was twenty-three, a college graduate with a degree in culinary arts, and a steady job with no debt to speak of, and he lived at home by choice. Or he had anyway. Now he lived in his tiny car, showered at the gym, and ate all his meals at the café near his work.
Speaking of meals, Danny thought as his stomach growled. He rounded the track one last time, picking up speed as he pushed thoughts of family, friends, and apartment hunting out of his mind. One last lap, and he would skip the weight room today. Coffee was a priority over muscles at this point. Six nights of sleeping in the front seat of the beetle in an alley was wearing on him. A hot shower and a greasy breakfast, and a gallon of hot black coffee sounded much more appealing than a room full of bodybuilders that smelled of cheap cologne and gym shoes.
Twenty minutes later, he was showered, shaved and dressed in his work uniform that he would wear to make deliveries later, and seated in his usual booth at the diner with a steaming hot cup of coffee in front of him.
Alice, his favorite waitress was working that morning. After ordering an egg white omelet with feta, spinach, and mushrooms, Danny downed his coffee in two large gulps and handed the cup back to Alice who looked at him with furrowed brows. “Keep it hot, and keep it coming,” he told her with a wink.
He had spent over an hour at the gym, and still had an hour and a half to kill before he made it to the warehouse. Getting an early start was tempting, but if he did that Tony would know something was up. Danny was not known for being a morning person.
Even Alice seemed to know that little tidbit about him, if the suspicious glances she was throwing over her shoulder were any indication. He may have been coming in five times a week for over a year, but it wasn’t generally before nine-thirty, and he usually got his coffee to go, taking it with him while he made his morning deliveries. Danny was sure that his now daily visits before 9 a.m. for a full breakfast were beginning to raise questions. Good thing Alice didn’t know he was usually here for dinner too. Maybe it was time to change it up a bit. He did know every restaurant owner within a two-hundred-mile radius.
Alice delivered his breakfast, throwing in a side of bacon for good measure, and Danny smiled up at her expectantly. “Trying to butter me up for a bigger tip, Alice? Don’t I always treat you well? You don’t have to bribe me. Although,” he said with as a smile as he bit into a thick slice of perfectly crisped bacon, “I do appreciate it.”
“Ha!” Alice smirked before lowering herself into the booth across from him, and topping off his coffee mug. “The only thing I am trying to butter you up for is details. You’ve been in here by 8:30 every day, and I want to know what’s up! Spill it, Mister.”
Danny leaned back against the seat and smiled at her, amused. Alice was fifty if she was a day, and he would be highly offended if he didn’t already know that she was like this with all her regulars. She was well known for having a big mouth, but she got away with it because she had an even bigger heart. He knew instinctively that Alice would be a good person to talk to and for a moment he considered doing just that. With so many conflicting feelings and jumbled thoughts bouncing around in his head, he could use a good sounding board.
He opened his mouth to speak, thinking that maybe he could give her details into his current situation without having to give details about how he got there. Those were words he wasn’t quite ready to say out loud yet.
Sensing a good story, Alice leaned towards him conspiratorially and cracked her ever present gum loudly. Before he could say a word, the bell above the door jingled, signaling a new customer. They both turned towards the door at the same time and Danny’s heart sank when he saw the broad shouldered young cop saunter in with a smile. He was not ready to deal with this right now. Not today. His panic must have been plain on his face because Alice quickly poured coffee into his to-go mug, and stood. She smoothed her apron with a smile as she walked towards Simon, all smiles and business while she motioned over her shoulder at Danny to sneak through the back exit. He didn’t need to be told twice. He left a twenty on the table for Alice and walked towards the back of the diner where the kitchen and restrooms were, with his head down.
The cook, who knew him from his deliveries, didn’t say a word as he strode through the kitchen as if he was there on business. He just gave Danny a smile and wave before turning his attention back to the pot of soup he was stirring. Once outside, he leaned against the back door of the building and caught his breath. Bless Alice. Now he would have no choice but to explain—either that or find a new diner to get his coffee from every morning. He had snuck out the back door when a cop came in—alarm bells must have been going off in her head, but she had kept her cool. It was more than he could say for himself. He was covered in a cold sweat and breathing heavily. His hands shook and his heart felt as if it had dropped to his feet.
Despite what it might look like to Alice, he wasn’t running from the police. Just from Simon. His occupation was simply a coincidence. Or maybe it wasn’t. If Simon didn’t look so hot in his uniform, Danny wouldn’t be in his current situation. If Simon wasn’t such a damn flirt, and if Danny himself hadn’t been caught up in a weak moment after a few drinks, he would have done what he had always done, and pretended he was normal. When he noticed the young cop flirting with him after his shift, he certainly wouldn’t have flirted back. He would have laughed it off, and acted slightly offended before assuring the young man that his gaydar was broken, and Danny was straight.
But the tequila shots had gone straight to his head, and Danny had in a weak moment decided that he was tired of pretending to be something he wasn’t. When Simon had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, Danny had caved. He smelled so good, and Danny had a weakness for authority figures. Especially ones in uniform. Danny had kissed him, right there on the street outside the bar. In daylight. In plain view of whoever happened to be walking by. He didn’t know who had outed him to his parents, or to his priest for that matter, but it was a moot point. The next morning after Mass the three of them had cornered him. The fight that followed was an epic one, and one he didn’t want to re-live, even in his memory.
Father James had tempered it down in church, waxing poetic about desires and urges and repentance, but once they were home it had gotten ugly. Shame burned Danny’s cheeks as he remembered his father’s words and the look on his mother’s face. When cornered like that, he had immediately gone on the defensive, and to his horror confessed to things he had never said out loud. Things he wasn’t even sure were true. He had just been stunned to find out his parents were so hateful and close-minded. They weren’t normally that way. Just apparently, when it came to him. Threats had been made, and things had been said, and the next thing he knew he was out on the streets for fighting for a lifestyle he wasn’t even sure he wanted to live. If he could go back in time, and do that night all over again, he wouldn’t have taken even a single tequila shot. He would have laughed Simon off and rejected his advances, and he never would have spoken to his parents the way he did.
A horn sounded on the main road, and Danny realized with horror that he was still leaned up against the back wall outside the diner, and his eyes were full of unshed tears. He expelled the breath he had been holding and pushed off the building quickly. He didn’t want to chance that Alice would come looking for him. This was a story he wasn’t ready to tell.
Not sure what else to do, he headed up the street to the warehouse. Sure Tony would razz him about coming in early, but he wouldn’t ask questions if it was just a one-time thing.
True to form, Tony greeted him with a strange look and an easy smile. He glanced at the clock as Danny entered, but he didn’t say a word about the time.
“Hey, Danno!” Tony said, slapping the back of one of the farmers heartily as he took the box the man was holding. “Enzo was just telling me that Giovanni’s is looking for a new chef! You ready to give up this delivery gig and put your talents to use?”
Danny threw back his head and laughed. “You firing me, Tony? Because unless you are, I’m not looking.” He knew Tony would never fire him, but his boss was forever going to razz him about living up to his potential and putting his degree to good use. He always had a potential new job for Danny to look into, but Danny never took him up on it. “I told you, Tony, you’re stuck with me. The kitchen is too high stress. I get the best of both worlds here. My job is easy, the hours are good, no stress, and I’ve got an in at every good restaurant within a day’s drive. Too many perks in this job to consider giving it up.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tony dismissed him with a wave. “One of these days, I will fire you, and then what will you do? You’ll have no choice but to open your own restaurant, and I’ll be your first customer. If you’re real nice to me, maybe I’ll give you a good discount on the food too, eh?”
“Keep dreaming, Tony, that’s never going to happen. Besides, what makes you think you would be my supplier anyway?”
His boss glared at him good-naturedly. “Go on, now, get out of here. Since you’re here early, may as well make yourself useful and help me get the truck loaded up. You’ve got the Corbin’s Bend beat this morning.”
Corbin’s Bend. That was enough to turn a shitty morning good again. His boss didn’t get it, but the route to the gated spankophile community an hour outside of Boulder was Danny’s favorite to make deliveries to. Danny didn’t really buy into their strange belief system, but he did find it oddly intriguing. And the people there were ones he considered friends, restaurant owners and customers alike. They lived life on their terms, and passed no judgment as long as you offered them the same courtesy. If only the rest of the world would follow suit.
* * *
Fiddling through his shoulder bag, Phillip chuckled at what he found. “A chocolate bar. From who knows when,” he murmured, pulling it out and tossing it in the trash. He hadn’t used this bag since his last position, but now that the Corbin’s Bend Medical Clinic was open for business, he fully intended to put across the appearance of a man totally in charge. Not that it was difficult. It was a part of him that revved naturally, like a well-tuned engine. “Speaking of which,” he murmured, shoving his notes and folders into the bag and closing it. Reaching over, he grabbed his travel mug, already filled with coffee, and headed to his garage, where his fully restored 1968 Porsche 912 sat waiting for him. Beside it, in his two-car garage, was his boring car, the one he drove to conferences and important business meetings. But every once in a while, he just had to pull his baby out of the garage. And today was the day.
After hitting the button to open his garage door, he quickly got into the car, tossing his bag on the passenger seat even as he turned the key and revved the engine a little. Phillip supposed the car stuck out in this little community in the mountains above Denver, but considering everyone here stuck out from normal society, he wasn’t prepared to care. Getting the job as administrator of this new clinic had been a godsend after losing his last position due to small-minded people. Being gay was a unique classification that was too broad. Among other gay men, he appeared conservative with his three-piece suits, hair always kept neat and short, and his shined shoes. Among the gay-hating men, he was all sorts of things, among them names that made him grimace. Add in people who didn’t understand what it meant to be a spanko and desirous of a domestic discipline relationship, and the last few months before he moved to Colorado had been a living hell. “Closed minded idiots,” he grunted as he eased his car out of the garage.
Shaking off the clouded memory of his last job, he hit the button that shut down the garage door and smoothly pulled out onto Verison Drive. Having what was at most a thirty-minute commute, and that wouldn’t be until winter, was a wonderful thing. As he didn’t need to be in his office until nine, he moved slowly through the streets in town. The moment he hit the highway, he opened her up, quickly hitting sixty-five in seconds.
With it being autumn, the air had a delicious cool snap in it that made him grin as he tore down the highway, quickly passing the clinic. There wouldn’t be many more days like this where he could drive this car before he switched to his other—safer—vehicle. From what some of the locals said, snow was right around the corner. And he looked forward to it. Having the world covered in a blanket of white would make up for the fact the fall colors weren’t striking. Having lived in Vermont all his life, he was used to amazing colors in the fall.
Thirty minutes down the road, he slowed down and turned around, his slight melancholy that had hit him when he awoke having dissipated. Pushing his foot down on the gas, he quickly got back up to speed and headed to work. A smile crossed his lips at the thought of where he worked now. “Brent was a genius,” he murmured, thinking of the founder of the place. A whole community where spanking and domestic discipline were not only accepted but expected, had been a bit of a shock when he first heard about it. But now, having lived here for six weeks, Phillip wished he’d known about this place years ago.
Half of their staff lived in Corbin’s Bend and finding out his first week there that their nurse practitioner was gay and one of the doctors was queer and out about it, had made him completely relieved. That none of the housing board had even batted an eyelash about it had been wonderful. Coming from a town that when they found out he was gay and a spanko, they had turned on him so quickly he felt like he had whiplash, he still found himself surprised when someone made a comment that made it obvious they knew his sexual orientation and it didn’t bother them a whit.
Looking up as he walked through the front doors of the clinic, he nodded toward Telly, their front desk receptionist. “Morning.”
Taking the stairs, he made his way to his office, deep in the heart of the small dome. To keep the clinic looking similar to the town, even though it was fifteen minutes away, the hospital had several hallways that jutted off the center, which was a dome, similar to the community center. Phillip had thought it strange at first, but quickly came to enjoy his office having a curved wall.
“Morning, Kate,” he said walking into his assistant’s office.
“Morning, Mr. Scott. Good timing. Dr. Devon wanted a few minutes this morning.”
“What time?” he asked, picking up a stack of papers from his inbox on her desk.
“Sometime before ten.”
“Call his office and tell them 9:30 will work.” As she picked up the phone, he walked through into his office, dropping the paperwork on his desk and his bag on a side table before sitting down and powering up his computer. Putting his to-go mug to his lips, he took a long drink of coffee. Time to start his day.
* * *
It only took fifteen minutes for them to load up the truck, and after Tony double checked all the invoices Danny was on his way. He couldn’t really explain it, but just knowing he was on his way to Corbin’s Bend made all the stress of the morning ease off his shoulders. Maybe if there was time, he would take his lunch there. He could get some sushi at The Ginger Paddle, or some BBQ at The Pit. If he lingered long enough at his deliveries and timed it right, he might see Jonathon and Benjamin or Josh, a relatively new resident. He needed to talk to someone, and he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone from home. He had always gotten the feeling from Jonathon that he wouldn’t be telling the man anything he didn’t already know.
The thought of being able to confide in his Corbin’s Bend friends eased Danny’s mind considerably as he made the hour long drive from Boulder to the private community he had come to know so well. It was Friday, and if he timed it right, he should be able to run into Jonathon and Brent during lunch time. Danny didn’t know Brent, Corbin’s Bend’s founder, well enough to confide in him, but he had nothing but respect and admiration for the man.
Even, Danny reasoned to himself, if he didn’t see Jonathon, there was a number of people he would see whom he might be willing to be open with. Laney from the Ginger Paddle, or Reiny from New Delhi Deli. Each of the restaurant owners held a special place in his heart.
His mind made up, Danny could hardly wait to get started on his deliveries. He made the last turn before the entrance to the community when his phone rang. The screen on his built in GPS lit up showing that it was his brother Davis calling. His heart caught in his throat. He stared at the screen in shock, not sure what to do. Did Davis know the truth about why he had left? The number flashed again and again as the phone continued to ring. Not knowing what to do, Danny just watched it. On one hand, he wasn’t supposed to take personal calls while driving, bluetooth or no. On the other hand, he missed his brother so much. What if it was an emergency? He leaned forward, finger extended to push the answer button, then stopped. If it was an emergency, Davis would leave a voicemail. If it wasn’t an emergency, and Davis was just calling to talk, or worse, to ask questions Danny wasn’t ready to deal with…Danny hit the end button. He would deal with this later.
Turning his attention back to the road, he looked up and swore profusely. Feet away from him, coming straight at him, in the wrong lane was an older beat up Honda Civic. He squinted out the window, unable to believe what he was seeing. The driver was asleep, or unconscious. Danny laid on his horn, hoping the noise would startle the driver awake. No such luck. There was no time left to make a decision. His large delivery truck would mow right over the little car. Bracing himself for impact, he hit the brakes and jerked the wheel as far right as it would go. His last conscious thought was the realization that he had reached Corbin’s Bend. “I hope they forgive me for this,” he said aloud as he closed his eyes and plowed right into the large Welcome sign at the community entrance. The last thing he remembered was the jolt as the truck turned over and feeling as though he was both flying through the air and into a mountain at the same time.
“Wow, that was tough one,” Nancy whispered as soon as she and Regan were out of earshot of the private waiting room they’d just left.
“Yeah, no matter how many times I have to do that it always twists my stomach.” As an emergency room physician, Regan had more experience than Nancy at being the bearer of bad news, though Nancy wasn’t a stranger to it by any means.
They headed down the hall to the elevators without discussing where they were going. Regan and Nancy had a routine for situations like these. Nancy pushed the button to bring the elevator up to the second floor before she spoke. “Those poor girls had such bright futures and now, because of a stupid decision to drink and drive, they’ll be set back years.”
“The one that was driving will probably be arrested, too,” Regan noted as they stepped inside the empty elevator. “What a waste. If I ever have kids, I’m locking them in the house every night until they’re at least thirty.”
Nancy laughed, knowing the chance of Regan slowing down long enough to even become pregnant, let alone give birth, was highly unlikely. “You could try, but I doubt it would work.”
They got out in the lobby and headed straight to the emergency room doors. The cool night air soothed Nancy’s overheated skin as soon as they slid open. She slipped through, hoping nobody noticed them sneaking outside for a break. Although it was after midnight, the city around the hospital still bustled with activity, most of it not good. Friday night meant parties and alcohol and reckless behavior. She saw the same thing every weekend. Teenagers and young adults who imagined they were immortal making terrible decisions that affected the rest of their lives.
Minutes ago they’d given awful, life changing news to two pairs of teary parents. Their brand new high school graduates, who were both supposed to be attending college on full soccer scholarships in the fall, would definitely not be running down a field in few short months. Or possibly ever. She couldn’t be certain without having an orthopedic surgeon take a look, but the x-rays she reviewed indicated severely damaged legs from the front of their car sliding underneath a truck at a high rate of speed. The two back seat passengers had fared better, but were still in serious condition. Unfortunately, a night out to celebrate with friends turned into a nightmare, one that would last long after the sun rose in the morning.
After handling that scene as calmly and professionally as possible, Nancy needed a breather, a second to gather her wits, and her emotions, before she returned to the fray. Even though she’d achieved her dream of becoming a doctor, the stress and environment of a busy, inner city hospital sometimes took its toll. Luckily she had Sebastian at home waiting for her after a long shift.
She’d never given much thought to marriage or a family as a teenager, instead spending all her time studying and participating in activities that would ensure entrance into an excellent pre-med program. When she least expected it, love found her when she met Sebastian Zeal during their undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester. Handsome, supportive, gentle and loving, Sebastian was her rock through her long years of medical school and residency, going so far as to quit his own teaching career when they found themselves unexpectedly pregnant during the last year of her training. Instead of pushing the domestic responsibilities off on Nancy, he stayed home with their beautiful daughter Chloe and assumed all the household duties while Nancy finished her education and started a career.
Sebastian was a loving husband and enthusiastic father, and Nancy felt awful for wanting more from him. But she did. Being the sole provider for their family and working grueling, twelve hour shifts wore on her. After spending all day making life altering decisions for her patients, she wished her husband would take control when she walked through the front door of her home, and sometimes help relieve some of her stress through the application of a hard bare bottomed spanking. Instead of asking for her opinion on every decision about their life, she wanted him to lead so all she had to do was follow.
When she voiced her inner desires to Sebastian, he initially refused, not understanding how a strong woman would want a man to spank her. After much discussion, and a bit of cajoling and begging on her part, Sebastian finally came around and agreed to spank her, if it was what she wanted, but he wasn’t comfortable telling her what to do. That worked for a year or so until the need to shift the power in their relationship again welled up within her.
That feeling grew until she knew she had to take action if she ever wanted to be truly happy. While browsing around on a few of her favorite spanking websites, she stumbled on an employment ad for a radiologist position in a place called Corbin’s Bend, Colorado. She’d never heard of it before, but at once started researching. Turns out it was a community in the Colorado mountains where spanking and discipline were openly practiced, in whatever way the individual couples saw fit. It was a place where Nancy was certain she and Sebastian would flourish as a couple once he discovered that it was a perfectly normal way to live. The fact that they just happened to need a radiologist who was ‘looking for a slower pace and unique way of life’ seemed serendipitous.
That one little phrase in the ad drew her like a moth to flame. She was that radiologist. She wanted to move to a small town in Colorado where the most common things she’d likely see were routine mammograms and the occasional broken arm from a playground accident. She definitely wouldn’t be pinpointing the location of bullets for a surgeon to determine which location to extract from on an almost nightly basis.
Recognizing that Sebastian believed an equal partnership was the only path to a successful marriage, Nancy took matters into her own hands after deciding that the job opening in Corbin’s Bend was the perfect position. She updated her resume and wrote a cover letter that gave a brief background on her family and her experience as directed in the ad and emailed them to the address provided. It was only after she’d hit the send button that she second guessed her decision to submit it without at least running it by Sebastian. But, she reasoned, she had no doubt he’d agree that a lower stress position in a town that would be an awesome place for Chloe to grow up would be the best thing for their family. Besides, she might not even get the job. Why get him excited for no reason?
That was a week ago, and she hadn’t received a response yet. The wait was tortuous. Now that she’d gotten the idea of leaving in her head, she couldn’t wait to get out of here.
“What are you thinking about? You look like you’re a million miles away.” Regan’s voice broke through Nancy’s thoughts and caught her off guard. They’d been standing silently against the building, and she’d forgotten her friend was even there.
“That I need a change.”
Regan turned with an astonished look on her face. “I thought you loved your work, and your job. What kind of change do you mean?”
Regan knew her better than anyone except Sebastian, but Nancy had been afraid to let her friend in on her dreams for a different kind of life. “I do love my work, but I’d like something a little slower paced, and not in the city.” She paused before admitting her secret. “I applied for a job out of state, but I didn’t tell Sebastian so don’t say anything.”
“Wait! What? Are you crazy?”
“Shh, be quiet. You heard me,” Nancy said, glancing around to see if anyone witnessed Regan’s little outburst. “It’s in a small town in Colorado that just built a brand new clinic, and they’re looking for a staff radiologist.”
“That’s great, but I don’t understand why you didn’t tell Sebastian about it. He’s always supported your career decisions.”
Nancy hesitated a second too long before answering, drawing a knowing look from Regan. “It’s complicated.”
“You’re hiding something, Nancy. I can tell. What’s the place called?” Nancy sealed her lips shut, frantically trying to come up with a way around answering Regan’s question. She was absolutely not going to give up that information. Regan would be researching Corbin’s Bend on her phone in the next five minutes, and then she’d discover all Nancy’s secrets.
Nancy’s pager buzzed in her pocket, summoning her back to the ER and saving her from further questioning. The films of a man who had been on the losing end of a fist fight were ready. She suspected his jaw was broken and presumed he wouldn’t be happy when she delivered that news. He looked like a man who enjoyed his food and having to be on a liquid diet for the next several weeks would not be a pleasant experience for him.
“I have to run, Regan,” Nancy said, walking quickly away. “Just don’t say anything to anyone, okay?”
The little square leash buzzed insistently, so Nancy didn’t wait for Regan to respond. They’d been friends for years, and she was confident Regan wouldn’t spill her secret. Hopefully she’d hear from the Corbin’s Bend clinic soon, and then she’d tell Sebastian about the great new life they’d have. One where she wouldn’t be up at one o’clock in the morning, just entering the second half of her shift, ever again. She’d be home, tucked in bed in her new home high in the Colorado Rockies. A girl could only dream.
* * *
The late July sun shone brightly overhead, but a cool breeze coming off the lake made the day bearable, Sebastian thought as he walked up the path to the community center where Chloe attended a half day summer camp program. She didn’t need to go there, he was home all day after all, but with her starting kindergarten in the fall, he and Nancy agreed it would be beneficial for her to spend more time with children her own age. She’d been going to pre-school three days a week for the last two years, but this summer camp was every day until two o’clock in the afternoon.
Sebastian was nervous about how she would react to being away from him so much, but it ended up being harder on him than on Chloe. She said good-bye in the morning and never looked back, her long blonde ponytail bobbing behind her as she raced to join the other kids in whatever activity the staff had come up with for that day. She was just like her mother, both in looks and temperament. Each week had its own theme, with crafts and games and field trips that corresponded. This week the theme was animals, and the fridge at home was already covered with drawings of various creatures, and it was only Wednesday. Tomorrow they would go to the zoo and on Friday the children were supposed to dress up like their favorite animal. Since Chloe still liked lions, she was going to wear her lion costume from Halloween last year, slightly modified to accommodate the warmer weather.
As usual, when Sebastian entered the room, he found Chloe still engrossed in an activity. He called her name, so she knew he was there, then headed over to pack up her stuff. Between the swimsuit and towel, lunch and their arts and crafts from the day, these kids ended up needing luggage to carry all their stuff.
By the time he finished, Chloe had too, and raced over to where he waited, hot pink backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Hey beautiful, how was your day?”
“Good, Daddy. I made a snake out of clay. It’s on the window sill drying and then tomorrow, after the zoo, we’re going to paint them.” Sebastian signed Chloe out as she rambled on, relaying every last minute of her time at camp. Some people might find it tiring, listening to a five year old go on and on about what everybody brought for lunch that day, and who made what animal, but not Sebastian. He’d gone into teaching because he loved children and even though, at first, it burned to give up the job he’d worked hard for to raise Chloe, he didn’t regret a single second of the last five years. She made him laugh, and she made him think, and even when she frustrated him, it was still worth it to spend this time with her and watch her grow up. He wished that Nancy had been around more though, and he feared one day soon she’d look back and realize her daughter had grown up without her noticing.
Not that Nancy wasn’t a loving mother, she definitely loved Chloe. She just hardly ever saw her. When Chloe was up, Nancy was either working or sleeping before working an overnight shift. Sebastian tried hard to make up for Nancy being gone, and it hadn’t seemed to affect Chloe too much. Now she was so used to Nancy not being around that it was the norm.
Sebastian held Chloe’s small hand as they walked to the SUV listening to her ongoing chatter. She’d just started relaying how Jimmy wet his pants and tried to blame it on spilled apple juice when she suddenly stopped, and changed the subject so quickly it took him a minute to catch up.
“What are we having for dinner, Daddy? Do you think Mommy will be home in time? I’m hungry, can we eat right away?”
Sebastian sighed, familiar with this discussion since they had it at least once a week. “Yes, Mommy will be home for dinner, but you know I always wait to see what she wants before cooking. Mommy works hard for us so she should get to pick the dinner when she’s home, don’t you think?”
“But I’m hungry, and she’s always late,” Chloe whined. This was the only problem Sebastian had encountered with these long days at camp. Chloe was so tired by the end of the day she often had a mini-meltdown in the truck on the way home.
“I’ll make you a snack when we get home. How about some cheese and crackers?”
“With apple slices,” she added after a few seconds of contemplating his offer. “And juice.”
“Deal,” he replied, happy she relented easily today. Sometimes he had to promise ice cream with gummy worms to get her to relax. No, it wasn’t the most ideal way to handle the situation, but it worked. And he was certain he wasn’t the only parent that used treats as a method of keeping the peace.
The front door to their rented townhouse banged closed four hours later while Sebastian was giving Chloe her bath. Nancy had actually made it home before seven. She’d called and said she was going to try to leave a little early because she had something she wanted to discuss with him tonight. He really hoped she wasn’t going to bring up the spanking thing again. When she first approached him a few years ago and expressed her desire to be spanked, he’d refused, but that was more of a knee jerk reaction to an unexpected request than any real, personal belief he held about the practice. After doing some reading and trying it in the bedroom, even he admitted that it spiced up their love life. Lately she’d been pushing him to put a more disciplinary spin on it, even to the point of creating rules she had to abide by, but he just wasn’t comfortable with that. He loved that his wife was a smart, independent woman, and didn’t want her turning into a doormat. Even though she claimed that wouldn’t happen, he wasn’t able to grasp how it would work.
After they put Chloe to bed, Nancy poured them each a glass of wine and led him to the couch, where she pulled him down next to her.
“This conversation can’t be good if you see the need to get me drunk first,” he joked, but her actions were making him nervous. They drank occasionally, but not usually on a Wednesday night for no reason. She’d been acting strange for about a week now, more quiet and withdrawn than normal, but he’d brushed it off as stress. Last Friday had been rough on her, he knew, and sometimes her solution was to clam up until she worked it all out in her head. He rolled the last week back in his mind, looking for some other hint of what was going on with his wife. Sebastian didn’t come up with any one particular thing, unless she was about to tell him she was leaving him and Chloe… but he doubted she’d sit down and have a glass of wine with him as she dumped him. It wasn’t Nancy’s style.
“I know that you’re aware I’ve been very stressed about work lately,” she started and he wasn’t sure if he should breathe a sigh of relief or annoyance. She wasn’t leaving him; it was just the spanking thing again. “So I thought that, maybe, I should consider changing jobs. To something more laid back and better for our family.”
A herd of hungry antelope might have walked through their living room right then and Sebastian wouldn’t have noticed, that’s how surprised he was by Nancy’s suggestion. The only thing he managed to come up with to say was, “But you love your work.”
“I do love the work, but my job at the hospital is long hours and the worst cases. I think something a little more routine might be nice. Where I wasn’t working overnights or dealing with patients dying on me every other day.”
His mind raced with possibilities. He’d never dared to hope that Nancy would leave the hospital, even though he secretly suspected it would be better for their family if she slowed down and spent more time at home. She loved the rush of making split-second decisions and dealing with a variety of issues every day. But she seemed serious about giving it up, and he certainly wasn’t going to dissuade her if she’d made her decision.
“I agree that a change of pace would be great for you, babe. You’ve been going full steam ahead for years, barely even slowing down when Chloe was born.” She cringed at his last statement and he almost apologized, but then bit it back. He didn’t want to make her feel guilty, but it wasn’t his fault that it was the truth. She’d been back doing rounds three weeks after giving birth, leaving him home with a fridge full of breast milk. “Where are you thinking of looking for a new job? A private practice somewhere? Or a hospital in the suburbs? Maybe Unity? We could move to Gates then, they have a good school district.”
Sebastian worried about sending Chloe to the local school in the fall and if they moved to a better district, he’d be greatly relieved. Not to mention, they would probably be able to buy a house and stop renting. They’d looked a little over the last year, but hadn’t found anything they liked in the city. The houses they were able to afford were either too run down or in a neighborhood even worse than the one where they now lived. But Nancy liked to live near the hospital so she didn’t have far to drive when she was exhausted, coming off a twelve-hour shift, and how could Sebastian really argue with that?
He was so caught up in the possibilities she’d just opened up for them that he almost missed her next words.
“I thought that a completely new change of scenery might be nice… like a different state.”
He switched his focus from daydreaming about a brand new house in the country to really pay attention to what she was saying. “You want to move out of state?” he repeated, dumbfounded at this turn of events.
“Yes. And I found the perfect position. It’s in a small town in the Colorado Rockies and they’ve just built a new clinic and need a staff radiologist. It’d be brand new equipment for me and a nice community for you and Chloe. Plus the salary is almost double what I make now.”
Sebastian took a moment to absorb the load of information she’d just dropped. They had nothing holding them to Rochester, all their family had long ago moved to escape the snowy winters of the Northeast. He’d grown up in a smaller town a few hours away from the city and fondly remembered a sense of safety and security living in a place where everybody knew everybody else. He wanted that for Chloe. And he’d heard Colorado was a beautiful place to live, so as long as the schools were good, he couldn’t see why not. Though he wasn’t sure how Nancy, a born and raised New York City girl, would take to everyone knowing her name. She’d only come to Rochester for college, then never left, and even this mid-sized city felt like Hicksville to her at first.
“The schools are good there?” he asked, knowing Nancy would have done her research. He trusted her judgment and if she had looked into the place and the opportunity, and was willing to give up her job and move across the country to go there, then he’d be on board too.
“Yes, they’re excellent. Low student to teacher ratio, modern equipment, everything you would want in a school.” A smile broke out on her face since she knew him well enough to guess that he was about to agree to her crazy proposal. She was correct, but really all Sebastian could think about right then was that he hadn’t seen her this happy in weeks, if not longer.
“Well?” she prompted, getting antsy at his silence.
“Yes, go for it. Send in your resume and see if you get the job. I’ll support you one hundred percent.”
She set her wine glass on the coffee table and flew into his arms. “Thank you, thank you!” She peppered his face with kisses then curled up in his lap. “I’m so excited that you want this too, because they want me to do a phone interview tomorrow!”
“What?” He couldn’t possibly have heard her correctly. No way did she just say that she already had the job.
“Yes, I applied a week or so ago, and they just got back to me today.”
Sebastian sat up and set her back on the other side of the couch. “You applied to a job in Colorado without talking to me about it first?”
She looked confused at his obvious irritation. “I don’t have it yet, and I certainly would never accept a job without talking to you first. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I saw the ad online one night after you were asleep and I fired off my resume before I lost my nerve.” She inched back over to him and took his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, Sebastian, I should have told you sooner, but I didn’t want to get your hopes up if nothing came of it either.”
He let her appease him with soft words and touches, but deep down he couldn’t help but still be angry with her for making such a big decision without his input. No, it wasn’t the final decision that would send them packing up and moving, but it was the first step on that path, and she’d taken it without him, and he didn’t like how that made him feel one bit. Not at all.
“That was a bit of an exaggeration tonight, don’t you think?” Carlton’s face remained blank as he slowly rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt.
Cecily gulped, unable to peel her gaze from his forearms as inch by inch his dark skin was revealed in contrast with the crisp white of his pristine shirt. It was an action that normally meant nothing to her, as unambiguous as the straightening of his tie, or the smoothing of his slacks when he stood up.
However, ever since she had read her mother’s latest book, and then others like it, she couldn’t watch the seemingly innocent gesture without sending delicious shivers of anticipation down her spine. Her mouth went dry as he crossed the room to stand in front of her expectantly, eyebrows slightly raised as he waited for her response.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Her voice remained outwardly cool, even as her stomach did flips and her panties moistened just looking at him. She had never really noticed it before, but Carlton was a born dominant. Cecily crossed her legs tightly in front of her, willing her body to stop reacting this way. One thing was certain—she was no submissive.
“You know exactly what I mean,” Carlton persisted, taking her chin into his large hands, and tilting her face upwards to meet his unwavering gaze. “That was a dirty stunt you pulled tonight at the book signing. The plan was to go, surprise her by showing our support, and inform her that we were moving into the area. Maybe invite her to meet us for dinner over the weekend while we were in town, or ask her to help us house hunt. Simple, straight-forward, easy.”
She gulped and nodded curtly, unable to pull her eyes away from his, his pupils seeming to darken with every word he spoke. “You went rogue on me, Cecily. What happened?” Dropping her chin, he stepped away, his hands fingering his belt as he continued the process of undressing.
“I panicked,” she squeaked, her eyes glued to the thick strip of leather at his waist. Every move Carlton made was slow, methodical, and predictable—until it wasn’t.
“Panic? Is that what it was? It seemed a little more like an ambush to me. For god’s sake, Cecily, that was my first time meeting your mother, and now she probably thinks I’m some spank-happy ogre stuck in the dark ages.”
“Oh, that will just make her like you more,” Cecily muttered, quickly dismissing his worries, realizing that he had no idea that her mother didn’t just write spanking fiction—she actually lived it, and had for many years. First with her husband Greg, Cecily’s father, and now with her new husband Jeff. “Besides, it wasn’t a lie!” Her voice rose shrilly to make her point. “Our marriage has improved since we read her book!”
Her husband’s face relaxed some then, as he smirked at her, hands crossed across his chest, his belt dangling from its loops. “Cecily, we have been married for three years, and in that time we have spent a total of four months together, half of which was over the last two. Sharing breakfast two days in a row counts as an improvement!”
Her face flushed as she silently acknowledged the truth in his statement. Their marriage had been sudden and unexpected and had continued out of convenience only for several years.
Things had changed now though. Carlton was finally home, working in the states, and they had been living together for nearly two months this time. They each had their own selfish reasons for staying married, but at least they each knew where the other stood. They had always known. Their commitment to making their marriage work despite its unusual beginnings had, prior to now, taken little effort on their parts.
The last few months? Well, they had certainly been an adjustment. And, Cecily grumbled to herself, the book had helped. Even by just giving them a fantasy to act out, a role to play. Something to make their sex life less tedious and awkward. The truth was, until Carlton had happened upon her reading her mother’s latest book, and taken an interest, reading it himself the next night, their sex life had been as non-existent as their meals together. In three years, they had made love only a half dozen times, and each time only after alcohol had lowered both of their inhibitions, much like what had happened on their wedding night.
“It wasn’t a lie,” she repeated slowly and deliberately, her gaze straying once more to his exposed wrists and dangling belt.
Having had his say, and having heard hers, Carlton relaxed visibly. Following Cecily’s line of vision his eyes narrowed, while a hint of a smile played on his dark features. “Well, it was certainly more lie than truth,” he countered, drawing his belt from the loops and wrapping it around his hand in one smooth motion. “What do you suppose happens to naughty wives who lie to their mothers and throw their husbands under the bus?”
He moved to kneel on the bed where she sat, and even in that position his larger than life frame towered over her petite one.
African by birth, Carlton was tall, well-built, and strikingly handsome. Even as un-traditional as their marriage was, Cecily considered herself a lucky woman. Smiling coolly, and choosing to play along, she batted her eyelashes up at him and put on her best innocent face. “They get ice cream?” she guessed coyly.
Carlton was stoic, staying in character, unreactive to her attempt at sassy humor. “Guess again.” His large hand flexed around the supple leather, and she couldn’t help but get butterflies in her stomach at what she knew would come next.
Thanks to her mother’s books, this was the one area where they were completely in sync.
In one swift motion, her husband scooped her up, flipped her over, and upended her across his lap as he took a seat on the bed.
“Naughty wives get long hard spankings,” he whispered in her ear. His hot breath on her neck sent shivers down her spine as he pinched her bottom tightly.
“Oh, no, not that! I’ll promise to be good!” she whined in a high-pitched falsetto, completely aroused as she waited for what would come.
“Too late.” Carlton’s naturally strong husky voice made him sound deliciously dominant.
His large hand cracked across her bottom, and she squealed in delight. The sting was exquisite. Her bottom warmed under his touch as he spanked her again and again, with just the right mixture of strength and playfulness, until her bottom was hot and achy, and her pussy was dripping with desire.
Just when she thought she would die if he didn’t touch her, or that her ass couldn’t take it for a second more, he stopped. His hand caressed her bottom, traveling lower, finding her creased opening.
“I think you enjoyed your spanking a little too much,” he teased, flicking her clit softly.
“Mmmm,” she mewled, happy at the release from the pressure that had been building all evening.
“Do you want me to touch you here like this? Do you want me to fuck your pussy, you naughty girl?” She couldn’t hold back a giggle, at this change from her husband’s normally dry demeanor.
“Are you laughing at me?”
She bit her lip against the giggles threatening to escape.
“I don’t think you’ve quite learned your lesson. Laughing at your husband will not get you any rewards, little one.”
Withdrawing his fingers from her folds, he stood and undressed before once more sitting on the bed, pulling her to stand in front of him. “On your knees.”
She happily complied, taking him in her mouth greedily. Her hands were frantic, squeezing his thighs, grabbing his balls as she sucked the length of his cock.
“Mmm…” It was his turn to moan. His hands raked her hair, tangled in her curls, and she knew it was time. One last suck, and a few teasing licks around the tip of his member. She looked up into his eyes and took the hand up that he offered.
His arms wrapped around her, folding her into his warmth as he lowered her onto the bed and pushed inside her.
She tightened and convulsed around him, startled at his girth. His size was something she had never gotten used to. The opportunities for them to be intimate were too few and far between.
He went slow, at first, easing her into it, giving her time to adjust, greedy lips claiming hers as their bodies rocked in unison. He waited for her signal, when her kisses became deep and frenzied. She raked her fingernails across his broad back, and hung on for dear life as he began to increase his speed, fucking her harder and faster as she pushed against him.
Their timing was perfect—they were connected in every moan and spasm as they came together, collapsing into one another, spent and panting.
Carlton was still panting as he rolled over her, stretching out across the bed in all his naked unabashed glory. “Okay, I give. You’re right. It did improve certain things,” he admitted with a sly wink.
“I don’t understand why you’re so nervous, Cecily. It’s Thanksgiving with your family and friends, it really shouldn’t be this hard.”
She didn’t respond, staring wordlessly out the window with her jaw set and hard. He wasn’t about to let her go on like that for the entire hour long drive to Corbin’s Bend.
“Remind me again—what’s the connection between you and Cadence?” Carlton knew that Venia and Cece considered Cadence to be family, but he wasn’t sure exactly what the connection was, only that it went back much farther than Corbin’s Bend.
Whatever it was, Cecily’s face softened at the mention of her, if only for a moment.
“Cadence’s mom and my mom were best friends—we were neighbors for as long as I can remember. We were pretty much raised together, they were that close, and so were we. Then, when we were in our teens, her mom got cancer. Towards the end of her life, and after her death, Cadence lived with us. Officially, I’m an only child. Unofficially, Cadence is my sister.”
The soft and thoughtful expression on her face was quickly replaced with one of apprehension, and Carlton winced. Perhaps that hadn’t been the best line of conversation for getting her to loosen up. For reasons he didn’t yet understand, her relationship with Cadence had gotten more strained after Cadence’s move to Corbin’s Bend, and her subsequent marriage.
The sort of complicated relationship Cecily had with her mother and Cadence wasn’t easy for him to understand. He tried to be patient, but with his own family gone, family holidays were a thing of the past, and he had been greatly looking forward to getting to know Cecily’s family. For him, it seemed like a second chance. When Tetra Electronics had expanded into the US, announcing the opening of a new division in Denver, Carlton had leaped at the opportunity to live on the same continent as his wife for the first time in their short marriage. The actual move and setting up of the company had been a long process, and a huge adjustment for he and Cecily to spend so much time together. He had spent the last eight months or so traveling back and forth between Tokyo and Colorado every other week. But, that was over now, and he had some downtime to get settled into what would, from this point on, be their new normal. His new job didn’t begin until after the New Year.
He was grateful for the break—the last few months had been extra stressful, and he felt like they had lost whatever little bit of headway they had made in their relationship, and that was a concession they couldn’t afford to make. For a couple about to enter into their fourth year of marriage, he and Cecily barely knew each other still. Carlton planned on using the next month and a half making it up to his bride, but she wasn’t making it easy for him.
At a stop-light, Carlton paused, stealing a glance at her. Cecily’s beauty took his breath away. Her looks were cool and classic. With her pale complexion, white-blonde hair and blue eyes, the two of them made a rather odd looking couple, catching the stares of passers-by wherever they went. A buddy in college had often referred to Cecily as “The Ice Princess”, and as much as it pained Carlton to admit it, the name fit her, in more than just her looks. He knew better. She had been going through a lot in college, and her icy demeanor had been nothing more than a defense mechanism, one she still fell back on from time to time—when she was feeling scared and insecure. The fact that he knew this about her was more of a throw-back to their college study group days than it was a testament to their marriage. Still, he would use it to his advantage.
Reaching across the large bench seat of the brand new pick-up, he took her hand in his. She jerked slightly, and for a moment he thought she would pull away, but to her credit, she stilled, letting her hand rest in his. A tear trailed down her cheek, and to her credit, she let it fall, rather than let go of his hand to wipe it away.
“It’s only an hour drive, so if you need to talk about anything, now is the time to get it off your chest.”
Cecily sniffled then cast a longing look in his direction. “I know it’s silly, but this was our first Thanksgiving together, and I was kind of looking forward to it. In my mind it was just the two of us, spending the day in the kitchen making a big feast, with the radio blasting, and curling up at the end of the day with a whole pie between us, a pot of coffee and a good movie.”
Carlton stifled a laugh. “Cece, sweetie, that sounds amazing, but my culinary skills don’t extend that far, and you can barely boil water.”
“I know,” she wailed. “I told you it was silly!”
“I thought you would be excited to spend Thanksgiving with your mom. I’m excited to have the whole family Thanksgiving experience, and I didn’t want you to have to change your plans or traditions just because our circumstances have changed.”
“Well, going to Corbin’s Bend isn’t one of my traditions,” Cecily admitted under her breath, leaving Carlton confused.
“What are you talking about? You go there for Thanksgiving every year. You always come back full of stories about your mom, and Cadence, and all of their friends.”
“Those stories are just repeats of things my mom has told me. The truth is, I usually spend Thanksgiving alone at the condo. I order dinner from the market up the street, put my pajamas on and binge-watch Sex and The City re-runs all day. I haven’t had Thanksgiving with my mom since my first year of college, and I have certainly never had Thanksgiving in Corbin’s Bend.” Her voice took on that haughty tone she used when she was being defensive about something.
“What are you talking about? Why would you lie about that, and how have you never been to Corbin’s Bend? Hasn’t your mom lived there for years?” He certainly remembered that Venia had lived there for at least as long as he had known Cecily, since their sophomore year in college.
“I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me when you had to work over holidays. I was just fine on my own, and I didn’t want you to make sacrifices in your work for me.”
Carlton didn’t respond, gritting his teeth as he wondered where to begin.
“Holidays with you would have never been a sacrifice, Cecily. I never really had to stay and work over holidays. I told you that because I thought you were going to be with your family, and I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me, for not having anywhere else to go. Sure, a lot of holidays I did end up catching up on research or paperwork, but it was never anything that couldn’t have waited.”
His wife regarded him with a pained look that reeked of the regret he knew they were both feeling. “But, you were in Japan! It wasn’t Thanksgiving in Japan!”
“I was in marketing and business strategy for the US market. Ninety percent of the people in my department were American.”
Carlton sighed heavily. “Look, we can’t change the past. We both made mistakes and if we were being one hundred percent honest, maybe we just weren’t ready to spend holidays together at that point in our marriage. We didn’t even plan on staying married past a year, so we both had our guards up and were trying for as clean a break as possible at that point.” Even knowing the words he spoke were true, Carlton realized there was a bigger issue that needed to be addressed here. “So, let’s not waste time beating ourselves up for past mistakes. However, between this, the thing at your mom’s book signing and a few other minor situations that I’ve noticed, it’s come to my attention that you have a bit of a lying problem.”
“Oh, Carlton, a little white lie never hurt anyone.” Cecily waved her hand dismissively, but he was having none of it.
“I think the conversation we just got done having is proof positive that that statement bears little truth. Besides, I’m your husband, and I don’t appreciate being lied to, or about. I won’t tolerate it.”
“You won’t tolerate it?” Her tone was cool, and her eyebrow exquisitely arched as she stared at him in disbelief.
Carlton had to bite back a chuckle, both at his own statement, and her reaction to it. He had no idea where it had come from, as the idea that he could do anything about it was absurd. Her behaviors were not his to tolerate or not. He couldn’t take it back now. “No, Cecily, I won’t tolerate it. You’re a grown woman. There is no need for you to tell little fibs every time you turn around. It doesn’t do any good for anybody involved, and it often just breeds the need for more untruth.”
Cecily couldn’t keep the devilish expression off her face as she responded. “Okay, I’ll try to keep the white lies to a minimum, Carlton. But, really, if I accidentally tell a little one, what are you going to do, spank me?”
“I…” He hadn’t really thought that far in advance, and the challenge irked him more than he cared to admit. “I might,” he bluffed. “Don’t test me, Cecily, because I just might.”
His wife couldn’t hide the dark red flush that slowly crept up her cheeks at his answer. “Psshhh. Now I’m tempted to lie just for fun, Carlton. You know I like it when you spank me.”
“That’s because every time I’ve spanked you, we were playing. It was foreplay. You were supposed to like it. If I have to spank you to keep you from telling tales all the time, trust me, baby girl, you’re not going to like it.”
* * *
Damn that man. Her heart was pounding in her chest, racing as she tried her best to keep her expression to one of outrage, so he wouldn’t know just how much the idea of a real spanking turned her on. It was all she had thought about for months, and every fantasy that raced through her head when they were in bed together, or when he was out of town again, and she was alone. Damn her mother’s stupid books, too. They were crazy kinky trash—singlehandedly setting woman back nearly a hundred years—and Cecily couldn’t get enough of them. What in the hell was wrong with her?
Nothing. That’s what her mother would say. Cecily had heard it all before. There couldn’t be two leaders in a marriage. Submission was empowering. Blah, blah, blah. She wasn’t quite sure what pissed her off more these days. That her mother believed these things, or that she herself was beginning to believe them. If she was being totally honest with herself, that was the real reason she didn’t want to go to Corbin’s Bend. It was a matter of being forced to confront her innermost doubts and fears. She was going to spend a whole week amongst a community of spankophiles, and the idea was more exciting than off-putting.
And then Carlton had to go and say something like that—threatening to spank her for real! He wouldn’t, though, and she could prove it.
“Well, since you mention it, Carlton, I may have a few more little white lies that I need to tell you about.” She smirked when Carlton turned a sharp gaze in her direction, still managing to keep one eye on the road. “You know how I said that Corbin’s Bend was an exclusive community for like-minded people?”
“Well, the thing that they have in common is that they are all spankophiles.”
“Spankophiles? What in the heck is a spankophile?”
Cecily bit back a laugh, knowing her husband was being deliberately obtuse. “Carlton, you have a doctorate degree. I’m sure you can figure out the meaning of spankophile.”
“Oh, I can. It’s just…seriously? And you’re telling me this now? We’re going to some kink community for Thanksgiving? Is the turkey going to be trussed up in leather and blindfolded?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been to Thanksgiving in Corbin’s Bend,” she replied sweetly.
Her husband’s only response was a deep throated growl, the likes of which she had never heard from him. Uh-oh.
“Wait a minute, is this some sort of joke? You expect me to believe that your mother, the sweet older lady that I met, is involved in some sort of fetish club? Into leather, and handcuffs, and whips and all that?”
She couldn’t hold back a laugh of disgust at that image. “God, no. It’s not like that. I mean, it probably is for some of them, maybe, but mom is into domestic discipline—kind of like in her book.”
“Domestic discipline? And that means?”
Oh, god. This conversation was just getting weirder and weirder. She should have just kept her mouth shut and let him figure it out for himself. He was staring at her waiting for an answer.
“It means, that one partner is the leader or head of house, and there are rules, and if the other partner, the taken in hand, or submissive partner, breaks those rules, there are consequences.” Phew. She knew that much from the books she had been reading at least.
“And the consequences for breaking these rules is a spanking?” Carlton had his analytical voice on, as if they were calmly discussing the stock market instead of the fate of her mother’s backside. She was thankful for that, as it was making it somewhat easier.
“Yes, um, usually. It depends on the couple, but yes.” Please, don’t ask me to elaborate, she thought desperately. The fact that she was sitting here having a rational matter-of-fact conversation about spanking and discipline was surreal enough, but if she had to explain things like corner time or writing lines, she might die.
“So, your mother, and um, Jeff, they do this? Should we be worried? He’s not taking advantage of her is he?”
Cecily snorted, relieved that they had moved on from the realities of consequences to the macho male protector thing.
“Hardly. You’re forgetting that she lived in Corbin’s Bend long before her and Jeff got together. She and my dad planned to move to Corbin’s Bend together, but he died before it opened, so she just moved there by herself.” Cecily sighed heavily, assaulted by memories of a time she would much rather forget. “You know this, Carlton. I’ve told you this part.”
“You’re right, I did know that part. I’m just piecing it together with the new information.” Carlton reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry. I know that’s a hard time for you to think about. Are there any other little white lies that I should know about?”
Cecily sighed. “Maybe.” She hadn’t planned on admitting to this one. It was a big one, and Carlton wasn’t going to like it.
“Cecily…” His voice was hard with warning.
Oh god. Her hands flew to cover her face, which was already warm with embarrassment. “Just one more,” she admitted.
“And that is?”
She put her hands down in her lap and stared down at them, wringing them together, and playing with the hem of her skirt. “You know when we went to that book signing, and we said that her book had saved our marriage?”
“You mean, when you said that her book had saved our marriage?”
“Yeah, okay, whatever. When I said it.”
“Get to the point, Cecily.”
“So, she might have assumed, from that comment, because her book was about domestic discipline, that we, um, that we were practicing it ourselves.”
“She might have, or she did?” The incredulous look on Carlton’s face was priceless, and if she didn’t know better, she would have laughed aloud. She was laughing on the inside.
“And you know this for sure, how?”
“We’ve talked about it.”
“You’ve talked to her about how you and I practice domestic discipline? Even though we don’t?” If looks could kill… She didn’t know for sure, but she would bet good money that Carlton had that famous HOH look down pat.
It certainly had the same effect. She was instantly filled with shame, regret, and a tingle of anticipation. “Uh-huh,” she squeaked.
“And, you didn’t bother to set the record straight? Instead you just let her assume that and talked to her as if it were the truth? I’m dying to hear how these conversations went.”
“Carlton, it wasn’t like that—it’s not like I went into detail or anything—I just stopped arguing with her about it. I wanted her to feel like we had something in common. When she and Dad first told me about Corbin’s Bend and domestic discipline, I reacted so badly. Then when he died and she moved there without him, I was so mad at her and I was just awful. This is the first time in nearly a decade that she felt like my mom again, and I just wanted that back, especially since we’re going to be living so close.”
Carlton sighed, every trace of anger vanishing from his features. “I get that, Cece, I do. And I’m glad you want to repair your relationship with her. I just don’t see how lying to her about something that is obviously so important to her is going to help you achieve that. How is she going to feel when she finds out?”
“I was hoping she wouldn’t?” It was a statement, but her voice lifted at the end with the unspoken question.
“So, in other words, if it comes up, you expect me to go along with it? Really, Cecily? I’ve barely met your mother, and the first time I have to spend any time at all with her, you want me to be a part of some elaborate scheme you inadvertently signed me up for?”
“I guess I didn’t really think about it. I’m sure it won’t really come up. It’s not like she’s going to question you on what your favorite spanking position or implement is, or anything. Just smack my ass a few times, and act stern.”
Carlton groaned, looking pained. “Oh my god, Cecily. I can’t believe I am saying this—but okay fine—I’ll go along with your crazy scheme on one condition.”
“And that is?”
“You know how I feel about lying. I won’t do it. If I have to do or say anymore than smack your ass and look stern, it gets real. I won’t lie, so if I have to say that we are doing domestic discipline—if it comes up at all in conversation—we really are doing it. At least while we’re in Corbin’s Bend, understand?”
“You mean, you would actually…” Cecily trailed off, a mixture of dread and excitement filling her.
“I won’t lie. It’s your choice. Come clean to your mother as soon as we get there, or do it my way and accept a spanking for all the lying you’ve been doing.”
She should just come clean—she knew she should. It would certainly be the less complicated course of action. But the thought of trying to explain what had possessed her to act that way in the first place, and the thought of going back to having that awkward barrier between them again… She didn’t think she could bear it and still have to face her mom for the next five days. And then, there was the deeply buried part of her that really did want to know what it would be like. Carlton had already promised her a spanking if she agreed. She could take the spanking, find out what it was like, and then be on her best behavior for five days, and they could go back to life as normal. Besides, it probably wouldn’t even come up.
“Okay, fine, I’ll do it your way.”
Carlton nodded knowingly, and pointed out the window at a large sign. “We’re there. You know what they say. When in Rome…”
“How much is this?” Quincy asked, a small ceramic plate swinging about in a circle from where she’d hooked her finger in the curved handle. Given the fact that the beautiful little thing had been found shoved between a disintegrating cardboard box full of chipped mason jars and another box full of rather moldy smelling books, she was pretty positive the seller had no idea what the plate was worth. Her instinct proved true after she forked over a single dollar bill before tucking the antique lemon-dish into her cart. The china plates, none exactly alike, were each carefully hand-painted with flowers, exotic scenes, intricate patterns or even etched in gold-leaf and were becoming increasingly hard to find. Those that had certain markings on the back, such as this one had, were even rarer. The words ‘Made in Occupied Japan’ guaranteed that a collector of what were also referred to as ‘nappies’ wouldn’t hesitate to fork over twenty-five dollars to add this new one to their display. If Abby was having the same sort of luck, they’d have the van full of inventory before they even made it to the auction.
Walking a few yards down the dusty aisle, Quincy’s eyes never stopped roaming. Passing stalls offering homemade candles and soaps, hunting and fishing equipment, and one piled high with an agglomeration of auto parts, she stopped for a moment. Pulling a linen hankie adorned with a border of tatted lace out of her pocket, she wiped it across her face. It felt as if it were hot enough to fry an egg in any one of the iron skillets stacked in piles on the next vendor’s table. She was about to pull out her cell phone to give Abby a call to suggest they take a break when she spied what looked like the corner of a rather intriguing wooden box wedged beneath a table. Leaving her cart in the aisle, she dropped to her hands and knees, pushing aside various cartons in order to get a better look at the box. Bingo! It was indeed old. Dove-tailed joints and the weathered grain of the wood spoke of its age. The box was about two feet long and a foot tall. Brook Meadows Farms was engraved on the front. Removing a few books as well as a rather rusty pair of large scissors off the top, she began to wiggle backwards, dragging the box from its hiding place. Misjudging the distance she’d had to crawl under the table, she gave a sharp grunt when the back of her head connected with the underside of the table.
“Are you all right? Here, let me help.”
Quincy recognized Abby’s voice coming from somewhere behind her.
“I’m fine, just about got it.” Attempting another wiggle backwards only served to prove she wasn’t quite as fine as she’d stated. A sharp tug on her hair had her giving another yelp. “Damn it all to hell, I think I’m stuck!”
Abby squeezed in beside her aunt. “Stay still. Your hair is tangled in the table support.” Reaching up, she carefully pulled the strands free. “Oh my, you’re bleeding!”
It took another minute and the sacrifice of a few gray strands before Quincy was disentangled. With another more cautious wiggle backwards, she took the time to glance up to be sure she’d cleared the table before sitting back on her heels. Triumphant, she glanced over to see her niece kneeling in the dirt beside her.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You hit your head pretty hard.” Abby’s look told of her concern as she had a hand on her aunt’s arm. “Let me look.”
Quincy pushed her handkerchief into Abby’s hand. “Just give it a blot, I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ve got a rather tough skull.”
Abby hesitated. “You know how hard it is to get blood out of linen. Wait here and I’ll get some paper towels.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
The two women looked up to see a large man standing behind them, his face in shadow beneath the cowboy hat he wore. They watched as he pulled a red rag from his pocket. Evidently their faces conveyed their horror as he chuckled. “Don’t worry, I promise it’s quite clean.” He smiled as he offered both the cloth and an unopened bottle of water to Abby. “Besides, it would be a shame to ruin such a vintage handkerchief, don’t you agree?”
“Thank you,” Abby said, pouring some of the water onto the proffered rag and pressing it against the back of her aunt’s head. Quincy winced a little but remained still, allowing her niece to wipe away the blood.
After a moment, Abby removed the cloth and knelt up, using her fingers to part her aunt’s curls. “I think that’s it. You have just a small cut, but I think you’re going to have a nasty bump.”
“All part of the price of victory,” Quincy said, brushing aside Abby’s concern as she took the cloth and patted her head a final time. “How’d you know it was me, by the way?” Before Abby could answer, she continued, “Oh, never mind, I suppose no one could miss my humongous butt wiggling all over the place. I probably looked like an overeager puppy digging for a bone. Here, help me up.”
Instead of a small feminine hand, Quincy found a rather huge one being extended. Laying hers in it, the hand closed to engulf her own. It took a moment before she was able to concentrate on rising to her feet. Once she had, her eyes lifted to find a very handsome face, rather startling blue eyes, and a wide smile revealed.
“Pardon me, but I have to disagree.”
“About the reference you just made,” the stranger said and the look in his eyes had Quincy flushing. “I’d use the term ‘very dedicated treasure hunter’.”
“Oh… um, thank you, kind sir,” Quincy said, pulling her hand away to brush her hair back away from her face, leaving a fresh streak of dirt across her forehead. With a sigh, she shook her head and grinned. “Good grief, I must look like sh…”
When the stranger cocked his left eyebrow, Quincy felt something she’d not felt in years. Her stomach fluttered and her heart skipped a beat. “Um, I mean, I must look quite the sight. Well, thanks again. Come along, honey, I believe a nice little sit down would do me some good.” Quincy turned and barely remembered to grab the handle of her cart, taking a few steps away from the booth when his voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” His question had her mind flying back in time. How many times had she heard those very words coming from a different man’s mouth? A man who would also cock his eyebrow, albeit it had always been his right one, his lips curving into a smile despite his disapproving look as he reminded her that he wasn’t quite ready to dismiss her.
Turning back, she saw that Abby was standing slightly behind the man, her hand on her own cart and her lips twitching as if she found the entire scene rather amusing.
“But I didn’t really curse,” Quincy said and saw Abby’s hand move to cover her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a giggle. The man didn’t even try to conceal his own chuckle.
“I was talking about this.” Stooping down, he pulled the box from beneath the table. “Seems rather a shame to let such a treasure lay unclaimed.” Placing the box on top of a huge stack of magazines, he ran a hand across the lid. “Though, I must admit, if you don’t want it, I do.”
At the possibility of losing custody of the box, Quincy pushed aside the long dormant sensations this man had caused to stir with his touch and his glance. “Oh hell no you don’t,” she said, dropping her hand from the cart and returning to the table. “I saw it first.” Reaching out, she slapped his forearm and attempted to shove his hand off her find.
His eyes locked onto hers as he leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Careful, young lady, better my hand on this box than on your behind.”
Not a woman who ever hesitated to speak her mind, Quincy was absolutely incapable of speaking. Did he really just threaten to spank me! She could feel her face heating but couldn’t seem to tear her eyes from his. Swallowing hard, her hand left the box. She’d never admit the thought of covering her ass ever entered her mind, but she was ridiculously grateful to realize she was still holding his red rag, which saved her from making an even bigger fool of herself. “Here,” she said, pushing it into his hand. “I may owe you a clean hanky, but this box is mine.”
Another long moment passed before he removed his hand and stepped back. “You don’t owe me a thing. I’m not a man who attempts to claim what isn’t mine, no matter how rewarding either might be.” Nodding to her and then to Abby, he turned away. Quincy stared at his back as he took a step into the aisle.
“Wait!” Quincy’s call had him pausing and his head turning to look back. “I’m sorry, that was very rude of me. I don’t want you to think I’m-I’m not grateful. I am… I mean, thank you for your help and for calling me back… I mean, for not giving me a… I mean giving me the box!”
Chuckling, he tipped his Stetson. “Thank you, and you are quite welcome. Perhaps the next time it shall be I who wins the victory.” Without another word, he strode off, Quincy’s eyes never leaving him until he reached the end of the aisle, turned and disappeared from sight.
“Wow,” Abby said. “That was intense. I don’t know about you but I could use a break. How about we get some lunch?”
“Too bad we aren’t at home,” Quincy said, reluctantly dragging her eyes back to the table. “I could sure use a couple of good Orgasms.”
“Aunt Quincy!” Abby squealed, looking around as if expecting to see everyone’s mouths open in shock. Seeing no one who appeared to have overheard, she shook her head and giggled. “You are so bad! If we were at home, your cowboy would be ordering you a Naughty Girl roll as well.”
“Well, it seems the cowboy has walked away into the sunset, and since the Ginger Paddle’s sushi is out of reach, I guess I’ll settle for one of those humongous weenies on a stick.”
“Oh my Lord,” Abby moaned, rolling her eyes. “Are you feeling light headed or dizzy? Maybe we’d better stop at the first aid station and make sure you don’t have a concussion.” Giggling, she suggested, “Or perhaps some tall, dark and very handsome stranger threatening to spank you has gotten you a bit over-heated?”
“I have no idea what you mean, but do believe a lovely cup of lemonade is just the perfect thing to counter this heat.” Quincy looked around and raised her voice, one hand patting against the top of her new treasure. “Hello—anybody care to sell me this old box?” Quincy just smiled as the owner of the booth finally spotted them and offered his assistance. Abby made it a point to mention that he needed to watch his wares a bit more closely as her poor aunt had sustained quite a head injury in her attempt to reach the box. After forking over a crisp ten-dollar bill, Quincy tucked the box into her cart. As the two women began to pull their carts up the slight incline, Quincy reached over and patted her niece’s hand. “I don’t know whether to praise you for your negotiation skills or remind you what Harris might do to your behind if he heard you fibbing.”
Abby blushed but smiled. “I’m only thinking about profit margins and practicing what you’ve preached—never pay the first, second or even third price requested. Besides, by the time we get home, I just might be inventing things to confess. Your cowboy may have disappeared, but I know Harris will be waiting.”
“That’s my girl. Not only a good partner in flea market finds, but a woman who knows what she needs even if that includes a good warming of her backside.” Both women dropped one hand from their cart to rub unconsciously across the seat of their jeans.
Quincy rubbed and then looked a bit shocked. Though she was quite sure her niece could indeed have a tender bum, she hadn’t felt a man’s hand, much less a paddle, connecting to her bottom in almost five years. Not since Joe’s death had she even thought much about those times when an illicit rub or two could help soothe away the hurt of a well-delivered spanking. Jerking her hand off her rump, she used it to push her hair back off her face again.
“All I’ll say is that no matter the circumstances, my instincts about Harris and you were spot on as usual. Now, which direction do you think we need to go to find those nice hot weenies?”
Abby’s giggle had Quincy joining her in laughter as they pulled identical carts behind them. Quincy knew that to most they must seem an unlikely pair. Abby, a woman in the blush of youth, her hair bouncing as she turned her head to look at her aunt, breaking into giggles again. Despite her age and grey hair, Quincy felt as young as her niece and knew in her heart that they made a perfect team.
“God, you are incorrigible. I bet Uncle Joe would have had you over his knee several times already today,” Abby said as she caught her breath. “Promise me you won’t ever change.” Abby lifted her hand and pointed to a sign off towards their right. “I can’t promise how hot they are, but the foot-longs are this way.”
A few minutes later, the two women were seated on chairs beneath a large canvas awning, their lunch before them. Picking up her first jumbo corndog, Quincy dipped it in the large puddle of mustard she’d squirted onto her plate. Abby had chosen a sausage on a stick, her plate sporting a much smaller dab of barbeque sauce.
Quincy reached across the table, her yellow tipped dog in the air. “I propose a toast,” she said. “To a successful shopping trip.”
Abby nodded and tapped her sausage against the corndog. Giving her aunt a grin, she added, “And to naughty girls who enjoy nice fat weenies.”
Quincy grinned, waving her corndog again. “Even if they lack several inches of being a foot long. Hmph, a man must own that food cart.” The two burst into laughter again and then bit into the unhealthy but absolutely delicious flea market fare.
* * * * *
Unseen by the two, Henry grinned as he tossed the wrapper from his hamburger into the trash. Watching the very attractive woman’s mouth part and seeing the tip of her tongue dart out to lick at the mustard coating her corndog, he felt his cock stir. He wished he’d taken a bit longer to arrive at the lunch stand knowing that his meal would have certainly been far more entertaining if consumed while sitting in close proximity of the two. Forget the treasures that still lay hidden beneath tables or buried in any one of thousands of boxes. The true treasure in life was to find an attractive and assured woman who could make something as common as enjoying a hotdog coated in cornmeal so erotic.
Shaking his head, he tucked the red rag he had been about to discard back into his pocket. While not worth more than a couple of quarters and definitely not vintage, it had increased in value simply by means of being touched by such an enchanting woman. He’d watched her eyes widen as he’d cautioned her for her behavior. She’d delighted him with her quick claim of finder’s keepers and intrigued him with her rather disjointed words of apology. It had been a long time since anyone had so captured his attention and his imagination. His fingers twitched as he visualized his hand splayed across the ample and delectable looking rear belonging to the woman wearing a faded pair of jeans and a smear of mustard in the corner of her mouth.
With a final glance, he smiled as the younger woman reached across the table and wiped the stain away with a napkin. Startled, he felt a bit jealous of the simple caring gesture. Too bad he was moving away from the area as he found himself wishing he would indeed run into them again. Shaking his head at life’s fickleness, he attempted to move his mind back to the chores at hand. Striding off, he looked down at his watch. He needed to pick up the items he’d left at a booth and then head home. He had more boxes to pack before the moving van arrived. Grinning, he hoped he’d have enough room in the van for any final inventory before handing over the keys to his house to the new owners. Not knowing what to expect upon his arrival at his new home, he was determined to accumulate as many new projects as possible. Never the type of man who was contented with just lazing about, he wanted to dive full-time into what used to be just a hobby. With a final look at the two women, and another grin, he shook his head. Perhaps if life was good to him, he wouldn’t need to fill every moment with just one hobby. After all, what was the purpose of retirement if he couldn’t have a bit of fun?
By the time he’d reached his destination and arranged for a pass to drive his van through the market to pick up the furniture he’d purchased, his mind had once again returned to the woman who’d beaten him to the box. He hadn’t been lying when he spoke of its craftsmanship. The wood could use a bit of sanding and definitely needed a fresh coating of tongue-oil, but it truly had been a piece that had been well made. The dovetail joints had remained tight despite its age, the letters stained a bit darker than the surrounding area allowing them to stand out clearly. As he often did, he wondered about the history of the box. Who had carved it and when? What treasures had it stored in its lifetime? More importantly, what treasures would it store in the future? He might not be a man who didn’t claim what wasn’t his, but damn if he wouldn’t like to just this once. Or was it perhaps the box’s new owner he’d like to claim?
Shaking his head, he hoped that his new home provided women of the same caliber as those two he’d left behind at the flea market. He’d miss those monthly jaunts to what was called ‘First Monday’ in Canton, Texas, but admitted he was looking forward to a new beginning. Jeffrey had been filling his head with stories about the community where he’d made his home and had urged him to make the move. Retiring from the oil company where he’d worked for over forty years, and getting what was referred to as a very lucrative ‘golden parachute’, he’d gone through the application process and been accepted. He wasn’t sure if he really counted on being as lucky as his friend, but hearing how happy Jeff was with his new love, Venia, he was eager to give Corbin’s Bend a try.
Cooky packed up the last of the utensils then brought up the table, closing the box at the rear of the chuck wagon. Hat low over his eyes, faded calico shirt gaping where buttons needed replacing, he limped to the front and climbed up on the box. No one knew how old the man was, but rumor had it he’d been the trail cook for the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. Slapping the reins on the back of the horses, he started off down the dusty trail. The lingering scent of a range breakfast, boiled coffee, red flannel hash, the bitter edge of over-toasted bread followed him like an old friend. They wouldn’t have a real meal again until after sunset, so, no matter how good or bad, they ate everything the grizzled old cook put before them. No cowboy wanted to insult the cook by leaving anything on a plate.
Tales abounded of the ways the man could repay the slight. The Circle X took care of their men, provided quality foodstuffs, but the man at the stove controlled whether the biscuits were angel light or molar-bustin’ hard; if the coffee boiled past bitter that even cowboys couldn’t swallow. More than one tactless greenhorn had found gravel in his stew.
And, by the end of the afternoon, they’d be ready to gobble boot leather if it came on a tin plate—but nobody’d mention such a dish and give Cooky ideas.
Days on the trail, nights sleeping on hard ground, all for not much money… Earl Hollingsworth didn’t know why he did it. His brother, the fancy lawyer… his best friend from college, the financier. Everyone back East wanted to know, too. None of this was how they—or his parents—had seen his life. Hard riding all day, squatting by campfires at night, and not seeing women for weeks or months at a time.
No… not the life he’d planned either.
But as he slung his leg over his quarter horse and settled in the smooth leather saddle, the sun blazed over the distant hill lighting up spring’s green, blanketing the rolling Texas Hill Country, and he knew again.
Despite his degree, his parents’ expectations of a son who would take his place in East Coast society, no building could enclose him.
Cowboys weren’t made, they were born, and he’d be one until he grew as old and wizened as Cooky, if he had anything to say about it. Until his worn-out legs could no longer boost him into the saddle and his arthritic hands couldn’t tighten on a rope to lasso a calf.
Until a certain snooty young woman with shiny dark hair and eyes as blue as the Texas sky forgot his foolish courtship amid the bliss of her happy marriage to a man with enough money and attitude and a marble mansion good enough for her.
Earl would ride the range for the rest of his life.
And nothing would ever change.
* * *
Except, for a certain twenty-first century cowboy, something had.
John Estrada read over the few hundred words he’d managed to pound out and shook his head. His editor would be pleased to see he’d finally added a “romance element” to this story. Not a big element, but she insisted the romance of the Old West had a place in every tale of the time. “After all, John,” Suzy insisted, “there’s been love as long as there have been people. Reviewers complain your heroes are lonely. They feel bad for them and are starting to wonder if you don’t like women or something.”
He liked women fine, not that you could tell from his social life recently. Hours spent glued to the monitor didn’t leave a lot of time for getting out there and meeting lady friends. But if the women of Corbin’s Bend were anywhere near as pretty as the lady next door, he needed to find the time.
John Estrada grimaced at the congealed remains of a microwave dinner, next to his keyboard. How long ago had he “eaten” it? Six hours or so? Cowboys, or ranch foremen, didn’t cook. They didn’t need to, at least not where he’d worked.
Biscuits. He’d kill for even a gritty, burnt one. Not that Mrs. Carson had ever turned out anything but golden, fluffy biscuits back on the Circle X. Generous breakfasts, packed lunches of thick sandwiches and fruit and homemade oatmeal cookies studded with raisins to tuck in their saddlebags. Big Steve, her rancher husband, had never had trouble getting hands. Well-fed, decently compensated cowboys stuck around.
His stomach growled at the memory.
Succulent beef from their own grass-fed herd and potatoes—creamy mashed, sliced and fried, baked, or his favorite boiled parsley spuds drenched in butter—served with flavorful, peppered gravy and mountains of vegetables along with the lightest biscuits in the Republic. Golden butter and strawberry jam from her beloved garden.
He’d walk twenty miles under the blazing Texas sun for a slice of her mixed berry pie, juices oozing from the flaky crust. Especially topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream churned in her ancient, hand-cranked model on the back porch. Some cowboy would always hang around on a Sunday to take the task. He’d done it many times himself.
Mouth watering, he pushed away from the desk. He’d head out and find something to eat. Maybe the Mexican place would be good. It sure smelled good when he strolled past there. It had to beat cold, disgusting—he tilted the plastic tray, trying to remember what the entrée had claimed to be—probably chicken. Brent Carmichael recommended them highly, when he’d asked where a single guy could get a good meal and nobody knew Corbin’s Bend better than Brent. John didn’t want to overeat, since he’d become sedentary, not out riding every day like he was used to, but he didn’t need to starve either. It didn’t help when his cowboy characters were at least as obsessed with food as he’d become.
Only long hours in the saddle—or on the ATV—had kept him lean and whipcord thin on the ranch. His new home might not be glass and steel, exactly, but walls were walls, and he’d never expected to find himself in a house in town. Corbin’s Bend sat an hour outside Denver, and he’d hoped it would be far enough out of the city to make a difference.
He should have bought a small spread of his own, a few acres, or at least a house in the country, but no. Angry and lost, he’d wanted to get as far from the Circle X—now one more cog in a faceless corporate machine—and everything in his old life as he could. Other ranches in the area had offered him employment, but who was to say he wouldn’t have ended up in the same position again? No, time for a fresh start. Before he was too old to make it happen.
His former hobby turned career miraculously made enough to support him and then some. A blinking envelope at the bottom of the computer monitor let him know he had mail, likely from Suzy. But his editor would have to wait. He’d come right up against a deadline for the first time. He plugged away at it, word after word, but they didn’t flow like they had in his foreman’s cabin. The Legend of Circle X might be late.
He hated the thought.
Corbin’s Bend offered the advantage of a population accepting of his particular interests. Those outside of raising cattle, at least. But, after less than a month, he wanted to run back to the Texas Hill Country. Damn his agent for ever suggesting he take advantage of the opportunity to step away from the day to day of cattle ranching to write full-time.
Having actually purchased the house, he felt compelled to give it a try. Six months. If nothing changed, if he didn’t settle down and step into life in some way, he’d slap a for sale sign on the door and move.
Not too close to the old Circle X. It would hurt too much to see the changes.
It had been five months.
Restless, he paced to the window and looked out to see the pretty lady from next door pull into the driveway of her tidy home. She worked long hours, whatever she did, often coming home well after dark and sometimes leaving before dawn. Not that he was keeping track. Or that he sometimes lifted his head from his work to see her curled on her couch, watching television late at night, alone.
Could someone so beautiful be as lonely as he was?
She opened her car door and stepped out, petite and trim in her neat slacks and pale-blue button-down blouse. She wore her dark hair in a twist at the base of her neck. Wasn’t the weight of those glossy locks too much for her slender neck to bear? What would it look like if he freed it from its pins and stroked it out over her back? His breath harshened as he imagined wrapping her long hair around his fist and drawing her close, asking her desires. He could fulfill them, could make her cry out in pleasure with his hand or his flogger… Would she submit to him? Would she want a man at least ten—maybe fifteen, if he were honest—years her senior, weather-beaten, and coarse, to caress her soft skin with hands rough from decades of hard, manual labor? Neighbor lady looked like someone used to gentle living. She’d probably prefer someone like his brother the corporate attorney. Polished, successful, ready to escort her to the opera or a society dinner.
Sometimes, when he looked from his window to hers, he saw her crying. Who could break the heart of someone so delicate and lovely? It was all he could do to keep from running over there and trying to fix things. If some guy were responsible, he’d kick his ass from here to Texas.
But she might be dismayed he’d seen her pain. Heck, she might not like it that he’d been looking in her window. He wasn’t stalking her, just working at his desk. A man had the right to look out his own window and if the curtains on the one opposite were open…
He shouldn’t be looking.
I hardly know the woman! Sure, living in Corbin’s Bend meant it was darn likely she would share his interests in spanking or domestic discipline, but the pretty lady hadn’t come over to his house, handed him a fresh-baked pie, and bent over his couch begging for a good bottom warming. In his heart of hearts, he’d hoped to find a woman there to do that, and instead he seemed to be focused on a career gal who, so far as he could determine, didn’t cook any more than he did. Most nights she came home carrying some kind of bag or takeout container.
What an attractive filly with those big blue eyes… Maybe he could ask her out, take a chance on getting to know her.
Did she ride?
How would her long brown hair look blowing out behind her on horseback? Of course, her sophisticated appearance and low-heeled, shiny leather shoes didn’t scream rider. Neighbor lady would be more comfortable at a country club fundraiser than eating a box lunch along the trail. He didn’t even know where he could rent a horse around here, anyway.
After so many years on his own, what made him so interested in this woman?
What kind of a job kept her so long—or maybe some of the time she enjoyed a social life. Sure. Women like her didn’t stay single long. But if she had a man in her life, wouldn’t he be picking her up for dates? If he was her man, he’d take her anywhere she wanted to go, show her a real good time, in the bedroom and out. Did her fella make her cry?
Turning back to his computer, he caught sight of his lunch remains again and winced. His fictional cowboys were getting way better eats than him, and while the pizza parlor and Mexican place sounded good, he had a huge craving for cowboy stew and some of those biscuits. He could smell them now…
From his bottom desk drawer, he pulled out a binder and opened the cover. A Christmas gift, one year. Everyone had laughed. To John Estrada, In case you meet Miss Right… Angela Carson. He’d laughed, too, insisting he’d never find another woman who could cook like the boss’s wife, so he’d stay single. The occasional night in town with a willing local girl satisfied most of his baser needs. He’d planned to stay at the Circle X until they buried him on Boot Hill. Eating Mrs. Carson’s food, riding the range, working a job a man could be proud of.
Man plans and God laughs… wasn’t that the adage?
He flipped the page and stared at the first recipe. Big Steve’s Sunday Chili. How typical of Mrs. Carson to begin with the single thing her husband cooked. And it was good! But he wasn’t looking for chili. Not today.
Time to accept his bachelor status, no woman in sight to cook for him. He could hardly march next door, thrust the book into the hands of a perfect stranger, and demand she feed him… could he? Neighbors with benefits—hot meals and spanking—maybe a string of little cowhands tucked into bed at night. Now that carried things too far.
When had he become so sentimental? Marriage and kids had never been on his radar before.
Of course, he’d never been in a position to settle down before. Or had a woman take his fancy for more than a little fun.
But neighbor lady was a real city girl. He’d be wasting his time looking in her direction.
Sweeping the plastic tray of his leftovers into the wastebasket, John shoved to his feet and grabbed his keys. He would stop at the Mexican place and get something for tonight, but this time tomorrow he’d have something hot and rib-sticking in his kitchen. It might be good; it might be bad. No telling without trying.
Wonder if the little lady next door might like to come to dinner?
He didn’t know her well enough to ask. And she didn’t look like a stew-eating type anyway. Dammit. He, for sure, couldn’t take on anything harder his first time out in front of the stove.
* * *
Felicity pulled into her driveway and turned off the engine. She scooped up her purse, briefcase, and the paper bag holding her submarine sandwich dinner and slid out of the car.
Her back ached from standing while taking care of one patient after another, but everyone, even the young bride who’d nearly severed an artery in her hand trying to carve her first chicken and the passing driver who’d suffered steam burns from an overheated radiator he never should have uncapped were well on their way to recovery. Another long day, but a good one.
And more satisfying than when she’d commuted to Denver. The position as head of emergency medicine at the new facility in Corbin’s Bend had allowed her to spend her working day with patients and a great staff instead of wasting a good chunk of it on the highway. The sun fell behind the white-capped mountain peaks with a flare of red as she clicked her car lock—a habit from years of city dwelling—and headed for the house. Fumbling with everything she held and trying to fit the key into the lock, Felicity paused. A delicious fragrance carried on the breeze and she drew a big sniff, swiveling her head right to left. One of the neighbors was baking something, and her low-fat veggie and cheese sub didn’t sound as appealing as it had when she’d picked it up. How amazing would it be to come home to a hot meal after a long day?
She’d done a little cooking, once upon a time, for Pierre. She’d not been good at it, but it had seemed her duty, so she’d given it a try, until he gently told her to stick to what she did well—being a doctor and sex kitten—and leave him to the gourmet cuisine he excelled at.
And now… cooking for one? Nah. Still, she wouldn’t mind if a nice neighbor stopped by to drop off a little taste of whatever made her mouth water. Some of the ladies she knew from work or from the neighborhood took pity on her from time to time. Kirsten in particular, a friend she’d met through her next door neighbor Teri, had a gift for cooking and kept her in mind.
Managing to get the door open, she dropped her briefcase and purse on the hallway table and headed for the kitchen to get a plate and something to drink. On the way, she peeked out the window opposite the couch, but the man next door wasn’t at his computer. Funny how seeing him offered comfort. They’d never shared more than a friendly wave when they were both getting into or out of their cars in their side-by-side driveways. Such a mystery, sitting there until late at night, typing away. Maybe he was some sort of journalist or a professor from an online university? He looked outdoorsy but knowledgeable.
What the hell does that mean, Felicity? She shifted as the type of knowledge she wanted him to have peaked her nipples. What would he think if he knew his tanned face and intent expression featured in her fantasies? Would he know where to touch her? How to warm her bottom until she burst into flame?
She shivered, but not from cold, and turned away from the vacant desk across the yard.
The refrigerator held a single can of iced tea and several takeout containers of suspicious age. She’d have to go shopping. At least for cereal and milk and maybe some eggs. The man next door would want a woman competent in the home, who could cook and keep a house and, if not for her once-a-week housekeeper, the dust bunnies would have chased her out long ago.
Back in the living room, she set the plate and iced tea next to her PC and opened the window to allow in the early evening breeze. Booting the computer up, she sighed at the string of unanswered messages greeting her. Felicity opened the first one and took a bite of her sandwich. The shop next to the hospital made great subs, but compared to the scent of baking bread still pouring in her window…
It had to be coming from somewhere close. Her neighbors on the right, Roy and Teri, were away on some spanking cruise they’d been super excited about—the lucky ducks—so it couldn’t be them. Could a guy who wore beat-up cowboy boots and smiled at her every time she passed also be a genius in the kitchen? A bachelor—at least she’d never seen a woman in his house. And his home had never emitted anything to indicate he baked. Or cooked. She should close her curtains and stop obsessing.
Pierre’s familiar, beloved image swam before her eyes, the framed photo on her desk blurred by tears. “You cooked for me, darling, and you were older, too. But you died and left me and I cannot take a chance on losing another man even if I met someone who touched me as you did.”
So… lonely it was.
Chewing another bite, she tried to focus on the message from a Denver colleague, Eric Clarkson regarding a study they were conducting. Felicity and Eric had begun the project while they were still working at the same Denver hospital, and her job change had made most of their communications and sharing an Internet activity. Emergency medicine presented a constantly changing field and they hoped by the time they completed the process they would have significant results to report to the ER community.
She read over a string of data in his attachment before reading his note.
Eric mentioned looking forward to seeing her to discuss the subject. Perhaps they could grab a bite. They had often done so in the past, but he’d made no secret of his interest in taking their relationship beyond a professional level. On paper, they were the perfect match. Workaholics who loved both patient care and research, they understood the demands of their mutual profession and, best of all, he could make her laugh.
All these things made him a great companion. But lover? Husband?
She pictured the man, a little taller than her and about five years older, a leader in their field. His keen mind had always kept her hopping from the time he’d been her superior when she first arrived at the hospital.
Single. Never married before, so no baggage… unlike her.
Every female nurse or doctor—and some males with an inclination—envied her his interest.
So what was wrong with her? Why didn’t she jump on the opportunity of a lifetime? Maybe a girl got one shot at love, and this time companionship would have to do. Maybe she’d have to settle. But what if he couldn’t meet all her needs? And why did it matter? She had a fulfilling career in a nice place with good neighbors and great coworkers. And she’d had a great love. Asking for more would be greedy. Not many people could have a life as good as hers.
As she typed a noncommittal but professional response, Felicity attempted to make it clear, yet again, their attention must stay focused on work.
His reply: How about Saturday afternoon? We can throw some burgers on the grill and have a few drinks after we go over the numbers. The conference is coming soon and we need all our ducks in a row.
Why protest so hard? They’d met many times before. And they had to eat. A few drinks in the evening could lead to a suggestion she stay overnight rather than make the drive back to Corbin’s Bend.
She typed: Let’s do it around lunchtime. I have plans later on.
Plans? Like a date? Of course not. Maybe she’d give herself a pedicure. Read some journal articles. Better he thought she had a date, though.
See you then! Maybe I’ll be able to convince you to change your plans.
He wasn’t getting it, but when she saw him on Saturday, she’d make it clear they were colleagues and friends.
Plans are set in concrete. See you Saturday at one.
Without waiting for a further response, she clicked the email closed and stood. After a day shut up indoors, who wouldn’t need a little stroll for fresh air before settling in for an evening of paperwork?
Felicity abandoned her dinner and her computer and slid her arms into a fuzzy cardigan hanging by the door then dropped her cell phone in her slacks pocket. She’d loop the block and be back in ten, maybe fifteen minutes and eat her yummy cold sandwich.
Pausing at the sidewalk, she considered her direction and took a left. Then stopped and went in the other direction. Away from the glorious scent of food and the temptation of the neighbor she’d noticed a little more than she wanted to admit. Sandy hair graying at the temples, lines of good humor by his eyes and bracketing his mouth; the smile flashing across his face when he greeted her in the driveway. Tall, lean… but…
Five steps away, she turned again and marched back down the sidewalk, mouth watering. If his way to torture a woman was by making her hungry for home cooking, fine. But she wasn’t going to indulge any of the other appetites he roused. Not now, not ever.
Neighbor… time to say howdy.
Kelly Carmichael just inserted the key into the lock of her apartment when she heard her cell phone ringing from the bottom of her purse. She couldn’t reach it with her arms full of patient files she had to update that evening. Quickly opening the door, she slammed it shut with her foot and dropped everything on her small dining room table. Turning her purse upside down, she grabbed her still ringing cell phone, sure it was going to go to voicemail before she could answer.
Glancing at the number, she saw the call was from a number in Colorado, the same area code as Uncle Brent’s phone. She couldn’t imagine who would be calling from there and briefly wondered if everything was all right with her father and uncle. All family numbers were in her contact list and their names would have come up on her screen.
“Hello, this is Kelly.” She thought she should give her name so the caller would know it was her and save them the trouble of having to ask for her.
“Yes, hello, Ms. Carmichael. This is Phillip Scott, the administrator at the Corbin’s Bend Medical Center. We met about three months ago when I interviewed you for a position.”
Kelly remembered him. She’d taken a chance when she’d gone back to Denver in December to spend the holidays with her family and applied for a job at the new medical center.
“Yes, Mr. Scott. What can I help you with?”
She had no idea why he would be calling her. At the time of her interview, she wasn’t ready to leave Chicago yet and the clinic needed a physical therapist then, not in a few months. The job had gone to another applicant.
“As you know, we hired someone else since you weren’t quite ready to make the move. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out and we’re again in need of a physical therapist. By any chance are you still interested in possibly moving to Corbin’s Bend? Dr. Devon suggested I give you a call before we start a broader search.”
“Um…I haven’t really thought much about it,” she answered.
“I’ve been reviewing our interview and I can offer you substantially more than you’re earning in your current position.”
“Really? You didn’t mention that during our interview.” She wanted to know what he meant by substantially more and was about to ask when he went into greater detail.
* * *
What to do? What to do?
It was all Kelly could think as she paced around the living room of her small one-bedroom apartment. She had what she considered an opportunity of a lifetime and still she couldn’t make up her mind. Leave Chicago and move back to Denver? Or stay in the Windy City and continue on in her present dead-end job.
Her current job as a physical therapist in a prestigious Chicago hospital paid well, but had no opportunities for advancement. Having the wife of the hospital administrator as her boss, all Kelly could ever hope to be was what she was now. Shift manager.
Whoopee…big deal. Increases in her income would only be annual performance increases and cost of living raises. So basically her resume would never show any advancement in her career. But Phillip Scott had just made her an offer she would be stupid not to take.
He had offered to make her head of the rehab department at the new Corbin’s Bend Medical Center. Of course there would be a physician who would be chief, but she would be in charge of the main operation of the department.
It meant more responsibility, more challenges, and nearly double what she was making now. It really was a no-brainer as to what her decision should be. She loved Chicago. There was so much to do and see. You could never run out of going to new restaurants and the museums and Art Institute were wonderful. She had enjoyed living here. But now that her father had moved back to Colorado, maybe the time had come for her to head back home too.
This had all started when she went to spend Christmas with her family in Colorado.
* * *
A few months after her father left Chicago, she made plans to fly to Denver for Christmas. A Carmichael Christmas was not something she ever wanted to miss. She looked forward to seeing her grandparents, her Uncle Brent, Aunt Sophie, and of course her dad.
She learned about the new medical center opening up in Corbin’s Bend while visiting in Denver over the holidays. A little plan began to form in her mind but she didn’t tell anyone about it.
One night she looked up the information on her iPad and filled out the application on-line and submitted it.
It was a surprise when Phillip Scott answered her the next day via email and asked when she’d be available for an interview. After replying that she was in Denver for only a few more days, she found herself sitting across from Mr. Scott the very next day. Sitting in another chair was Dr. Marcus Devon.
After Mr. Scott and Kelly had gone through the interview process, Marcus asked, “Are you any relation to Brent Carmichael?”
“Would it make a difference if I was?”
“No, not at all. We’re hiring people based on their qualifications. I just thought I’d ask because in addition to the same last name, your eyes are the same color, your hair is very close to the color of his, and you certainly have the Carmichael height and build.”
Kelly felt like her secret had been busted. She hadn’t told her father or her uncle about the interview because she wanted to be sure to get the job on her own merits without any interference or pushing on her uncle’s part. Then there was the major teasing her Uncle Brent would dish out if he knew she was thinking about applying for a job at the clinic in his spanking community. It would be payback for all the teasing she and the rest of the family had given him. Plus, she still wanted to think about it. She wasn’t one hundred percent sure she wanted to make such a huge change.
Deciding to be honest with Dr. Devon and Mr. Scott, Kelly said, “Brent is my uncle. He doesn’t know I’m applying for this job and I’d prefer to keep it that way for now. I guess I should tell you I applied sort of on a whim. I’m not sure yet if I even want to make this move. If or when I get the job, will be time enough to let him know.”
Dr. Devon nodded and said, “Fair enough. Does that make you Jack’s daughter?”
“You know my father?” It came as a surprise to Kelly since at that time her dad wasn’t yet a resident of Corbin’s Bend.
“I’ve met him a time or two when he was visiting your uncle.”
Handing her a brochure outlining certain benefits workers at the medical center received as far as discounts in co-op fees should they decide to become residents of the community, Mr. Scott told her, “Read this. I think you’ll find working at the medical center will make living in Corbin’s Bend much more affordable.”
* * *
Now, as she paced her apartment and tried to make the best decision, she thought about the rough patch her dad had gone through getting his life together again after his forced retirement from the U.S. Marshal Service last August and how he blamed himself for the deaths of a couple who had been under his protection. Thinking there was nothing more for him in Chicago, he had packed up and moved back to Denver.
“You’ve got your own life, Kelly,” he had told her when she reminded him she had moved to Chicago to be near him and he shouldn’t make such a decision so quickly.
“Pop, I just think you should get your head together and think about what you want to do before you just pack up and run back to Denver.”
“I get what you’re saying, kiddo, but Denver is my true home and if I stay here, I’ll just mope. And you sure don’t need to be babysitting your old man at your age.”
“I don’t think I’d have to babysit you. But I’m gonna miss you and I think you need to take a little time before you make that decision.”
“I’ll miss you too, honey. But I think it’s for the best.”
As it turned out, it was just as well that he hadn’t listened to her. When she last saw him over the holidays, he had found his life partner, was happily spending most of his time in Corbin’s Bend and had a new career.
* * *
Kelly often thought about their slightly unusual family situation. Her parents, Jack and Dierdre, had gone together to their high school senior prom and like most senior proms, the punch was spiked and they both had a little too much to drink. When the prom ended, they went to a post-prom party at a friend’s house where they had even more to drink and as the old story goes, one thing led to another and they ended up in bed.
Jack and Dierdre weren’t in love—they were just going together, hanging out with their group of friends. Six weeks later when Dierdre realized she was pregnant, they went to their parents and told them about the predicament they were in.
Even though Jack offered to marry Dierdre, it was decided marriage was not necessary and would probably be a mistake. The two were not in love, so why force them into a marriage that would most likely fall apart?
With the support of both Jack’s and Dierdre’s parents, they were able to pursue their educations and fulfill the dreams they had for their futures.
Growing up, Kelly hadn’t really known her dad very well. He sent support money, he made sure to call at least a couple of times a month and talk to Kelly. He never forgot her birthday even though he wasn’t always there on the big day. He sent gifts and cards. Well, he sent Dierdre money for gifts and cards since he thought she’d have a better idea of what Kelly needed or wanted.
She saw even less of him once he was assigned to Chicago. When Kelly was done with college and had her physical therapist license, she sought out a job at one of the major hospitals in Chicago, determined to get to know her dad better.
Their father/daughter relationship blossomed once they had more time to spend together. Even with Jack often out in the field, they saw each other and spoke on the phone much more frequently than they ever had when Kelly still lived in Denver.
She was sorry to see her dad move back to Denver. Yeah, he was right when he said she had her own life. But she enjoyed living close to him and despite having plenty of friends and things to do in the big Windy City, there’d been an empty space inside her once he packed up and moved back to Denver. Truth be told, she kind of felt all alone in Chicago.
After Kelly’s Christmas visit with her family and learning about her father’s relationship with Josh Martin, she couldn’t get Corbin’s Bend out of her mind. She’d seen her dad only briefly before he went out of town for his consulting business for three months.
The new medical center was another sign that Corbin’s Bend was growing and turning into quite a successful community. She had joined her father and the rest of the family in their merciless teasing of Uncle Brent’s spanking proclivities. And when she had learned that he helped start the development, she realized how many people actually practiced a lifestyle that included spanking, domestic discipline, and some form of BDSM.
She teased her dad about his new relationship too.
“So it looks like Uncle Brent’s passion for giving spankings has rubbed off on you, Pop.”
Jack had grinned and said, “Show a little respect, young lady. I’m just trying to give Josh the kind of relationship he wants and needs.”
“Yeah, but you seem to be taking to it like a duck takes to water.”
They had been at Brent’s house and Char spoke up, telling Kelly, “Don’t knock it until you try it.”
* * *
After Christmas she was back in Chicago and the medical center kept wiggling its way into her head and she thought about how nice it would be to live back in Denver, where her home had originally been. She had moved to Chicago just to spend more time with her father.
She would never be sorry she moved to Chicago. It was a wonderful city and she’d made great friends. Getting to know her dad better had been worth the move. She felt they became more than just father and daughter, they had become friends as well.
Phillip Scott had called her in the middle of January to tell her she had the job if she wanted it, but she’d need to be ready to start in two weeks. It didn’t give her enough time to wind things up in Chicago and she had to decline. The job went to the other applicant.
By springtime, she missed her father more and more. He’d been gone from Chicago for seven or eight months now and she missed the lunches that they would have whenever possible. She missed their phone conversations. More and more she began to think about moving back to Denver. She wondered if she could still get a job as a physical therapist at the new medical center. But then that was a long haul to drive every day from Denver into work and back home again. She didn’t think she really wanted to do that.
Of course, there were hospitals in Denver, there were physical therapy clinics and plenty of places where she could apply for a job. She’d miss the big city life of Chicago and the huge variety of things to do there, but Denver wasn’t that small and it wasn’t like there was nothing to do. It wasn’t one of the top ten largest cities in the country, but it was in the top thirty. She laughed to herself at the possibilities of marketing a city as being in the top thirty in the nation.
She had made a few good friends in Chicago, but damn if she wouldn’t prefer living closer to her family. She’d get to see her mom more often and her grandparents on the Carmichael side.
The problem with working in Corbin’s Bend was that long drive every morning and every night to Denver…but wait, could she live in Corbin’s Bend? Her dad and his partner, Josh, were waiting for a new, larger home due to be ready sometime in the summer. She would only need a one bedroom home and it was possible there could be one already available.
So now the question became not only could she live in Corbin’s Bend, but did she want to live there? She’d known about Brent’s spanking lifestyle and had joined in on the family jokes and ribbings. When she first learned about it, it piqued her interest. Even though she wasn’t looking for a domestic discipline situation, the thought of erotic spanking did make butterflies start dancing in her belly. Why that was, she had no idea. She had more than a little bit of the dominant in her.
Kelly had always thought she’d inherited that from her Carmichael side. Both Jack and Brent were classic examples of the alpha male. What she didn’t understand about herself was that while she liked to be in charge and did well at leading people in different projects and tasks, there was something inside her that wanted a man to take her… to dominate her in the bedroom.
No, she didn’t want a bunch of rules and any of that obedience crap. She wanted love, trust, and honesty in her relationship. She needed a man strong enough to not let her walk all over him. That was what she tended to do and her six-foot height often caused a man to back down even if he did try to assert himself with her.
A couple of years ago she’d played around a few times with spanking just to see what her uncle and all those people in Corbin’s Bend saw in it. The first attempt had been with a man she’d gone out with a few times. He was five feet, ten inches tall—two inches shorter than Kelly and she didn’t feel like she fit all that well over his lap. He was thin and bony—she didn’t feel safe when she was over his knee and didn’t know if it was because it was her first time or if he just didn’t make her feel safe.
And then all he did was whale away on her butt. There were no gentle touches, no sweet words or caresses—just smack after smack and there had been nothing erotic or pleasant about it. She’d ended up yelling at him to stop and the night ended as a disappointment. As far as she could tell, if this is what spanking in her uncle’s community was all about, she wanted no part of it.
After the failed experiment, she’d shelved the whole idea of anybody spanking her and never saw that guy again. Months later she tried it again with a new guy she was dating. His name was Brian and their relationship wasn’t anything serious—they’d just go out for dinner now and then and have a little casual sex. One night he ran his hand over her body while she was on her side and said, “You’ve got an ass made for spanking.”
Looking up at him in surprise, she asked, “An ass made for spanking? What does that mean?”
“It means I want to spank you.” He half pushed, half rolled her over onto her stomach, ran his hand down the length of her back, over the rise of her cheeks, and down one long thigh. He came back up her other thigh and when he reached her ass, she felt his hand lift and then suddenly come down in a sharp slap.
It wasn’t that hard of a slap, just sudden and unexpected. He rubbed the sting out and while she was still trying to process her feelings, he slapped her butt again. It went on this way for several more strikes. A sharp smack followed by him rubbing and kneading the sting out of her cheeks before landing another one. It felt good in an odd way and she squirmed as she felt her juices gathering between her legs.
“You like that, babe?”
“Mmm… hmm, it does feel kind of good,” she murmured.
“Have you ever been spanked before?”
“Yeah, I had a guy spank me a while back, and it was terrible. He just pounded away on my poor butt and there was nothing sensual or exciting about it.”
“That’s too bad,” Brian said. “Spanking should be fun.”
His hand dipped into her wetness and he brought her to a nice orgasm before sliding his cock into her and giving her another orgasm.
Later, as they were recovering from their exertions, he asked, “Did that guy want to spank you or did you ask him to?”
“It was my idea, and did I ever feel stupid for suggesting it afterwards.”
Kelly had known Brian for a while and knew him well enough that she didn’t feel uncomfortable telling him about Uncle Brent and Corbin’s Bend. Brian found it interesting, but for him spanking was just for fun and not something he wanted to think about as a lifestyle.
They dated for a few more months, but there was no real spark and the relationship fizzled out. After that she didn’t date anybody else that was into spanking and didn’t even think much about it.
As she considered moving back to Colorado, she thought about Corbin’s Bend, about living there and working at their medical center. It would mean that she would be coming into contact with people who lived that lifestyle on a daily basis. And she suddenly found herself getting hot thinking about it. She would feel her thighs squeeze together a little bit, and even her pussy would get a little damp. Maybe if she moved back to Denver, maybe if she lived in Corbin’s Bend she could find a man who would be able to handle her without her handling him.
* * *
It was decision time. Phillip Scott said he could give her a week to decide, but he’d need her there in a month. Which she thought could definitely work. She could give her two weeks notice at her job, spend a week or even as long as ten days packing up, and still have enough time to drive to Colorado.
It was perfect timing on the lease of her apartment. As long as she gave her notice by the first of April, she wouldn’t lose her security deposit. The lease expired at the end of April.
Yes, everything was falling into place. It was like Fate was giving her a nudge and showing her how easy it would be to make the move now, be back near her family, and have a dream job.
What the hell was she waiting for?
She called Mr. Scott back and when he answered she didn’t even tell him who was calling.
“I’ll take the job.”
There was a slight pause before he answered, “I take it this is Kelly Carmichael?”
She could hear the amusement in his voice and said, “Yes, it is. Sorry, I’m suddenly so excited about the job and moving back to Colorado that I forgot my manners.”
“I’m glad you’re excited. Tell me when you can get here.”
“I’ll give my two week notice at work tomorrow, and give notice on my apartment. Then I’ll start packing and hope to be on my way in about three weeks.”
“Sounds good. I’ll send you all the personnel paperwork in an email and we’ll get started on that so everything will be ready to go when you arrive.”
“Okay. And Mr. Scott? Thanks for thinking of me when the position opened up.”
“You were the one best qualified, Kelly. We’re all looking forward to having you here at the medical center.”
* * *
RJ Butler let himself into his house and took the stairs two at a time to get to the loft. One side of it he used as a half-ass office and the other side was used for camping gear and anything else he hadn’t found a designated spot for.
He’d moved to Corbin’s Bend almost six months ago and he’d bet he hadn’t slept here more than twice a week during that time. There were still unpacked boxes stacked in his bedroom downstairs and up here in the office area and what he called the junk side of the loft.
It was all the fault of his job. He loved his job as a Forest Ranger and wouldn’t want any other job in the world. RJ was an outdoor man; stuffy office jobs and being stuck indoors weren’t for him. But sometimes he wondered if he should have just gotten an apartment in Boulder rather than buying into the Corbin’s Bend co-op.
Living here wasn’t cheap and while he wasn’t hurting financially, he could be putting those extra dollars into his retirement fund or doing other things with it. The shifts he had, put him on duty for anywhere from three to eight days. He always had at least a few days off between shifts, but he sometimes didn’t know how long a shift was going to be until he got to the ranger station.
Part of his job entailed organizing, scheduling, and supervising the volunteers who wanted to be Wilderness Area Interns. These volunteers hiked into the wilderness with a fifty pound pack and did a number of tasks for the Forest Service, including checking on the condition of the trails, constructing new trails, restoring habitats, and other tasks. His job also included manning the watch tower for one shift every month and keeping an eye out for forest fires.
The whole reason he’d moved to Corbin’s Bend was in hopes of finding a woman he could spend the rest of his life with. Not just any woman, but a woman who would be willing to allow him to lead her and their future family through the pitfalls of life.
RJ believed in discipline. Not just for the woman who would one day be his mate, but for himself as well. The only difference would be her discipline would be administered by a trip over his knee and his hand, or other implements, reddening her bottom.
He was a disciplined man. That meant he kept his home orderly, his clothes were always cleaned and pressed, he followed a healthy diet—albeit with a healthy dose of enjoyable foods as well. There were never any dirty dishes in his sink; he always cleaned up after every meal.
And yet, after six months of living here, there were still unpacked boxes in more than one room of his house. Shaking his head, he turned on his computer and then went back downstairs to empty his backpack. He had eight days of dirty clothes to wash, food containers to soak and wash, and then he needed to look through his camping food for the prepackaged meals he would take along on his next shift.
He hadn’t spoken to anyone other than his ranger intern volunteers for over a week and as much as he looked forward to a night of sleeping in a real bed instead of camping out on the hard forest floor, he planned to go to the new BBQ place for dinner and hopefully there’d be a few guys he could shoot the shit with.
RJ threw a load of clothes into the washer and while they washed he cleaned his service weapon and loaded his backpack with the supplies he’d need for his next shift. After the clothes were tossed in the dryer, he took a long hot shower and dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. By the time he was ready to go to dinner, the clothes were dry and he hung up or folded everything and put it away before leaving.
He spotted Benjamin and Jonathan on the outdoor patio of The Pit and was glad when Ben waved him over. Being mid-April, it was still a little too chilly to be sitting outside but The Pit had several propane patio heaters to help keep their patrons warm.
“Where’ve you been, RJ?” Ben asked when RJ reached their table. “It’s been some time since we’ve seen you.”
“Work. I just got back from an eight day shift and I’ll be heading out again in two days. Gotta keep those wannabe rangers under a tight watch or who knows what kind of trouble they’ll get into.”
Jonathan gave a little chuckle and said, “I love our trails here in the community, but the thought of those Wilderness Areas you work in gives me the willies.”
“You definitely have to be careful out there,” RJ replied. “There’s a much greater chance of trouble and help is not too readily available.”
RJ liked Ben and Jonathan. Even though he hadn’t spent much time with them, he sensed the deep commitment between them. Ben was clearly the leader, the HoH, and while Jonathan wasn’t what RJ would call wimpy, he was reserved and RJ was sure he was more comfortable spending time in an urban setting than being out in the wilderness.
Matt Renton came to their table and said, “Hey, what’s going on? RJ, I feel like I’m not doing my job as your mentor. You never call me.”
RJ shrugged and answered, “All I’ve been doing is working. There’s nothing to call you about. I seem to be in a perpetual solo relationship. This time of year is always the busiest with the ranger interns. Hopefully when things settle down I can take some time to meet the single women living here.”
“You know you’re always invited to our BBQs,” Ben said. “We’ll be starting them up again next month just as soon as it’s warm enough. There’s always a few single women that show up and it’s a great way to get know your neighbors.”
“Thanks for reminding me. I’d actually forgotten about your weekly BBQs since they’d already ended last year when I moved in. I’ll take you up on that offer the first weekend I get off once you get them going again.”
Matt left to join his wife, Julie, who was waiting for him at a table inside The Pit. RJ ate a half rack of baby back ribs and then continued to visit with Ben and Jonathan while having a few beers. As other community members stopped to say hi and chat for a moment or two, RJ began to realize he envied the relationships everyone else seemed to have.
Damn, he told himself, you better get your shit together and start meeting some women.
Getting up, he said, “I’m gonna call it a night, guys. I’m looking forward to sleeping in a bed instead of a sleeping bag. I’ll be watching the bulletin board for the notice on your BBQs starting up so I can join in on that fun.”
“We look forward to it,” Jonathan said.