This collection of a dozen wonderfully sweet love stories from USA Today and bestselling romance authors will warm your heart. Each story in this anthology will take you on a journey that reminds you how it feels to take the chance and how sweet it is to fall in love with the one person who makes your heart flutter. Whether it’s a firefighter who loves to cook, a doctor who loves his family, a small town sheriff, a reunion between high school loves, a second chance to make things right, a man determined to pull a woman from her survival guilt, a chemo-nurse who knows healing takes more than medicine, or a man determined to help a new neighbor feel welcome, every single tale will find these men loving and guiding the women they love to a their own happy ever after. This is a perfect collection to curl up with and celebrate the love in our lives.
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THE WRIGHT RECIPE by Maggie Ryan
ON THIN ICE by Stevie MacFarlane
FINDING SYDNEY by Adrienne Blake
I BELONG HERE by Misty Malone
ALWAYS YOU by Anna Kristell
LOVE TASK by Vanessa Brooks
SOCK IT TO ME by Rayanna Jamison
MID-WINTER MELT DOWN by Beth Bennett
MOMENTS by Paige Parsons
PIPER IN A PICKLE by Chula Stone
THE ART OF LOVE by Alyssa Bailey
PANTIES ARE NOT OPTIONAL by Georgia St. Claire
Please enjoy this free preview of Sweet Town Love:
The Wright Recipe by Maggie Ryan
Max spends his days as a fireman, putting his life on the line for others. He not only believes in protecting his community, he believes in protecting the love of his life.
Cara loves this wonderful man with her entire soul and has no doubt that Max loves her as well. She enjoys every moment she spends with him, especially the cooking classes they’ve enrolled in together However, the day he sits her down for a serious discussion, she is floored. While she has no problem in accepting his role as the head of their relationship, she has definite doubts about the dynamics of domestic discipline.Will Max’s patience, love, and guidance bring her around? Can he convince her that all they need for their relationship to work is The Wright Recipe?
Cara’s grip on the two heavy bags was slipping as she attempted to insert her key into the door of Max’s house. Her mumbled curse had her turning her head as if to reassure herself that no one was within hearing distance. Her sigh of relief came at the same moment the lock clicked open and she managed not to drop the bags as she entered the code to disable the alarm on the keypad. Kicking the door closed, she shifted her load and hurried across the living room towards the kitchen. Her next curse was very audible as she tripped and several items spilled from the tops of the overloaded grocery sacks.
“Damn it!” she said again, barely managing to keep herself from falling to the floor. “What the hell?” Looking back, she saw that the ottoman that was supposed to be tucked close to the chair was sitting in the middle of the room. It was too heavy to move back with just a nudge of her foot and her arms were full and beginning to feel as if they’d drop from her shoulders at any moment.
Her huff had the soft brown curls on her forehead lifting a bit. Placing the bags on the kitchen counter, she shook out her arms and returned to the living room. She dropped to her hands and knees in order to rescue the jar of artichoke hearts that had rolled beneath the dining room table and then crawled around to add the loaf of French bread, the bulb of garlic and a plastic bag of green beans to her load. Standing again, she returned to the kitchen and had just opened the refrigerator when a ringtone shrilled, causing her to almost drop the chicken. Putting it on the shelf, she slammed the door and grabbed her purse, digging through it until she found her phone.
“Hey, what’s up with moving the furniture around? I almost killed myself falling over the ottoman!”
“I moved it for a reason,” Max said. “You and I are going to have a little discussion when I get home.”
She didn’t like the sound of that as a memory of the last time they’d had a “discussion” played in her head. It had involved his sitting on the ottoman and her being draped over his knees. Her nerves kicked in as she looked at the bags of food. A definite change of subject was needed.
“You wouldn’t believe how long it took to shop. It took me forever to pick through all the beans.” She winced as a nervous giggle erupted but she plowed ahead. “Oops, I mean haricot vert! Isn’t that a funny name for green beans? Anyway, I knew you’d want only the best so I didn’t mind picking through the huge bin. Oh, I also got those special artichoke hearts but had to ask for them. They were way up on the top shelf so I didn’t see them but the nice store clerk helped me. I got everything else too-“
“Cara, slow down.”
His tone gave nothing away about how he was feeling or what he was thinking. As always, just hearing his deep voice had her tummy flipping and her heart rate accelerating. She’d willingly sit and listen to him read names out of a phone book just so she could hear the treacle tone sliding over her body and warming her… Thoughts of warming had her blurting out her newest diversionary ploy.
“How are you feeling? I know you must be tired after your shift. How about you just take a nice long nap and I’ll take care of prepping for class? Oh, I’ve got a better idea. How about I just meet you there? That way you won’t have to come all the way out here to change and then pick me up at my apartment-“
“Cara, I want you to take a deep breath and listen to me-“
“But, I have-“
“Now.” Though his tone didn’t change, the one word had her closing her mouth and taking the breath he’d ordered. He evidently heard her obeying as he said, “Good girl. Now, take another. Are you ready to listen?”
Oh, God. His question-in that tone-confirmed what she’d feared. She was in trouble… big trouble.
“I meant, yes, sir.”
“That’s better. What are you wearing?”
His question threw her and she actually had to glance down to see what she’d donned that morning. “Um, blue jeans and a t-shirt, why?”
Max’s side of the conversation kept her off-balance when he didn’t answer her question but instead said, “I want you to take the shears and go into the backyard-“
“But I need to put the groceries up and prep-“
“Cara Alexandria Fischer, if you interrupt me again, I assure you that you won’t be a happy camper. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, but what’s in the yard? Oh, I know! You finally got me a puppy!” God, had she really just said that? She could almost see his dimples appear with his grin at hearing her pretend she didn’t know what he intended.
“Cara, you are just too cute, but that isn’t going to save you this time. Take the shears I left on the ottoman and go to the backyard. You’ll find a nice big tree sitting right in the middle of the yard. I want you to cut a switch and strip it properly. Are you with me so far?”
Releasing any hope she had to “cute” her way out of what was coming, her answer took a moment as she swallowed hard. “Ye-yes, sir.”
“Good. After you have your switch prepared, go on and use the bathroom if you need and remove your shoes and your jeans. Fold your jeans neatly as you’ll need them for class tonight.” She wondered if her soft moan was audible and decided it hadn’t been as he continued. “Then, go into the living room and stand in your naughty corner. I want your nose pressed against the wall and your panties pulled down beneath your sweet cheeks. Hold your switch behind your back. I want it touching your pale little bottom as you think about why I am going to take it from you, bend you over your punishment ottoman and blister your butt. Do you have any questions?”
Yes, why does hearing you speak of “my” panties, “my” switch, “my” naughty corner, and call the padded footstool “my” punishment ottoman have my bottom clenching and yet I’m not bolting for the door?
Of course, she didn’t voice a single one of those questions. Instead, she took another deep breath and answered, “No, sir.”
“Go ahead and put the groceries away-“
“Should I prep-“
“Honey, I won’t warn you again not to interrupt me.” He paused as if to allow her to finally grasp his words before he continued. “We’ll prep them later. Put them up and then do as you’ve been instructed. And, young lady, I suggest you be ready to tell me exactly why you’ll be squirming on your stool during class tonight. I’ll be there shortly. I love you, sweetie.”
“I love you too,” she said. After he’d said goodbye, she hung up the phone. There was still time to grab her keys and flee. She was a grown woman who didn’t have to accept the switching she had just been informed was coming. Sighing, she knew the only door she’d be exiting would be the one in the kitchen that led to the backyard to do exactly as he’d instructed. Max might be planning on setting her butt on fire but he was the love of her life. If he were going to punish her, especially if he were going to switch her, he had a very good reason for doing so. To be honest, she had been waiting for the shoe to drop ever since she’d awoken with a horrid hangover two days ago. Regret instantly flooded through her as she began to put the groceries away. Folding the brown sacks took only another minute, and then she sighed. It was time.
Going into the bathroom, she washed not only her hands but also her face in an attempt to calm herself. Not yet emotionally ready to face the music, she pulled her hairbrush through her curls and then decided she should brush her teeth. The shrill of the phone had her spitting out the foam in her mouth and dashing back to the kitchen.
“I was just going outside, I promise!” she said, rushing into the living room and grabbing the shears off the ottoman. “I’ve got the shears-“
“Bridget? Oh, I thought you were Max. I didn’t even register the ringtone.”
A giggle came from the receiver. “Yeah, I sort of figured that when your voice was all apologetic and you mentioned shears. Does that mean what I think it does?”
Cara thought of spinning some tale about going outside to prune the rose bushes, but knew her best friend would easily see through any attempt to lie. “If you think it means your brother-in-law ordered me to cut a switch, then, yeah.”
“Poor baby,” Bridget said. “What did you do this time?”
“What do you think?” Cara asked, sinking down on the ottoman. “Wait, how come you don’t sound like you are in trouble?”
“Perhaps because I’m smart enough not to confess? Gee, Cara, how many times do I have to tell you that Max does not need to know every single thing you do?”
Slightly irritated, Cara sat up a bit straighter. “I didn’t say a word about what happened. I haven’t even seen Max since last Friday. He’s been on shift at the firehouse. Same as Tony.”
“Well, I don’t know then,” Bridget said. “Besides, I can’t imagine them being that upset. It was a bachelorette party after all.”
“Yeah, one that got out of hand,” Cara said. “We all pinky swore not to breathe a word of what happened. When I find out who ratted us out, I’m going to be cutting another switch to use on their behind!”
“It wasn’t me and I haven’t heard of anyone getting into trouble. Well, except for you, of course,” Bridget clarified with a laugh. “Listen, I was just calling to make sure your plans for Max’s birthday came through. I didn’t want to slip up and say something about it if you hadn’t gotten things worked out.”
A smile lit Cara’s face as she thought of her planned surprise. “Yes, I finalized them today. I’ve got the card in my purse. I was planning on giving it to him tonight but maybe if I just leave it out and he sees it before he-“
“Not a good idea, honey,” Bridget interrupted. “You know how our men feel if they think we are attempting to manipulate them, especially if it comes to punishment.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Cara said, her smile disappearing. “Speaking of which, I’ve gotta go. If I’m not in the… um, ready when Max gets here, my butt will be sorer for sure.”
“Okay, I understand. Oh, are you still coming to class?”
On Thin Ice by Stevie MacFarlane
Charlene Elliott, “Charlie” is the junior reporter of a small town newspaper. As such she gets stuck with all the jobs no one else wants. Frustrated beyond belief when she’s railroaded into reviewing a school play she has no desire to see, and on a Friday night no less, she annoys the hell out a man sitting next to her and everyone in the general area.
The handsome doctor came from out of town to see his niece, Emma, in the lead role. Mark can’t believe the attractive woman beside him has such a poor attitude. After missing a good deal of the play, he decides to teach the young woman a lesson in one of the empty classrooms during intermission.
Mortified, Charlie leaves the school and meets up with some friends for a drink. She does not watch the rest of the play. However, she writes a glowing review extolling the acting skills of the young Emma, never realizing the ‘star’ went home sick during the first act or that the high-handed man with the paint stick is none other than her boss’s brother, a man she’s supposed to work with at the upcoming Winter Festival. Charlie soon finds herself on thin ice, professionally and personally when she can’t deny her attraction to the man who has no problem pulling her over his knees. Sparks and spanks fly as romance blooms.
Charlie was so angry her ears were hot. It was Friday night, which everyone with half a brain knew was singles night. The one night of the week she could hit the clubs with her friends and have fun without feeling like a third wheel. Her friends would be getting ready to strut their stuff and where was she? Stomping down the aisle of the Cassville Middle School auditorium to sit through the sixth grade production of Annie!
Hell yeah, the sun would come out tomorrow, but she would wake up in bed alone having missed out on a possibly life-changing hook-up. Not that she’d found any recently, but hey, there was always a chance, right? This very night could be “the night” and she was missing it all because of her civic-minded boss and his daughter, Emma.
Emma was a cute kid, but this sure as hell wasn’t Broadway. Why her boss thought his small town newspaper needed to review every school function, she’d never know and how she’d gotten roped into it was still a mystery. As the junior reporter she was the one who got stuck with all the crap jobs, and apparently that wasn’t going to change in the near future.
Only a few weeks ago she’d been forced to walk through yards of muck at the county fair, been splattered with mud from the demolition derby, and nearly puked watching the pie eating contest. What a disgusting spectacle that was! The photographer who usually tagged along with her got out of that one quickly. He snapped a couple of shots and split while she had to wait to interview a guy who had chocolate pudding dripping out of his nose. She shivered at the memory as she sank into an aisle seat and slumped back with a groan.
The next disaster-in-waiting was the Winter Festival. For that she’d be required to dress as a Polar Bear in a little pink skirt and have her picture taken with all the little kiddies, on skates no less. Daniel McClellan, her boss, thought it would be good publicity for the paper and he was big on community events. His brother, the doctor, like she hadn’t heard that a million times, would be there, handing out poison control information printed out on magnetic bears.
Jeez, you’d think he was a famous brain surgeon, instead of a country doctor running a one-man practice in the neighboring town. Although she’d never met him, she pictured a slightly overweight do-gooder with glasses. It just wasn’t fair! Daniel should be here tonight, after all, it was his daughter, but his wife, due to have their third child at any moment, was on bed rest.
Tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder she reached into her bag for her cellphone and popped in her earbuds. It was going to be a long night. Closing her eyes, she let her mix take over as she tried to imagine herself on a deserted beach, the warm breeze caressing her body and the sound of the waves…
“Excuse me, miss, would you mind moving over a seat?”
Charlie jumped when a hand touched her shoulder and she yanked out her earbuds.
“What?” she demanded, looking up at the tall man waiting in the aisle.
“I asked if you’d mind moving over a seat,” he drawled, indicating the empty seat beside her.
“My niece is performing tonight and with my height these seats are pretty uncomfortable in general. At least on the aisle I can stretch my legs out now and then,” he explained.
“Yes, I know what you mean,” she replied, indicating her own long legs. “That’s why I came early,” she lied, turning back to her phone as a text came through.
“I can see you’re quite tall,” the man persisted, “especially with those shoes, but I believe I have you by several inches.”
“I didn’t know this was a contest,” Charlie snapped getting to her feet feeling sure she was nearly as tall as he. She wasn’t. Not only did he top her by at least six inches, he was much broader. Clearly he needed the end seat more than she did, and what did it matter anyway? She was stuck here for the next two hours, at least. If she wasn’t in such a bad mood, she might find him somewhat attractive. His voice was deep and smooth with a slight country twang she normally found appealing and he did ask nicely.
“Oh all right,” she sighed. Snatching up her bag, she plopped into the next seat.
“Thank you,” Mark replied, turning his head to hide his grin. Boy, talk about a bad attitude. She was gorgeous. Her long wavy blonde hair and those endless legs were spectacular. In her short skirt he couldn’t help but notice her sweet little butt when she bent over for her purse, but on a scale of one to ten her personality was a negative two. No wonder she was at a kid’s play instead of out on a date.
Glancing at her left hand as her fingers flew over her tiny keyboard he saw there was no ring. Not surprising. Her long manicured nails made clicking sounds that were slightly aggravating. He ignored it; surely she would stop once the play started. He was wrong.
From the time the curtain went up she was like a crazed teenager with a new toy. With the house lights down, each text made her cell bright and the little tinkling sound over and over set his teeth on edge. Completely oblivious to the disapproving glances and glares being directed at her, she giggled, snorted and even laughed out loud in response to one text. Finally, Mark had enough.
“Do you have someone in the play?” he whispered, frustrated beyond belief.
“No. Why?” she asked without bothering to look at him.
“I was just wondering why you’re here annoying the rest of us?” he asked, not bothering to keep his voice soft.
Several other patrons murmured their agreement, with a loud “Amen” coming from behind her.
“It’s open to the public,” she hissed. “I’ve just as much right to be here as anyone else.”
“You haven’t taken your eyes off that phone since I sat down and certainly not to watch the play. You’re being rude and disrespectful to the kids who worked so hard to put this on,” he insisted, leaning closer to her.
“They can’t even see me with the lights down,” she sassed back.
“Well, I can see you and so can other people. I want you to put that phone away, no better yet shut the damn thing off. I don’t want to hear every missed call and text.”
“No,” she replied, whispering “asshole,” under her breath.
Mark heard her and so did a few others by the gasps. Slipping his arm along the back of her seat he dropped it around her shoulder and pulled her close. His mouth nearly nuzzled her neck as he whispered in her ear.
“What’s your name?” he breathed.
“Charlene,” she replied with a gulp.
“That’s a very pretty name, and I don’t have to tell you how lovely you are.”
Charlie almost relaxed against him. The timber of his deep voice, the warmth of his breath, sent a thrill down her spine and she shivered. The scent of his cologne was crippling. Tilting her head to look at him, she felt his slight stubble scrape against her soft cheek and sighed. Wouldn’t it be funny if she met Mr. Right at this silly play, she thought. His next words burst her bubble.
“However, despite all your physical attributes,” he drawled in her ear, “your manners are deplorable and unless you put that phone away right now, come intermission I will take you out to my truck, or find a quiet little corner in this great big school and spank you to tears. Do I make myself clear, sweetheart?” he asked, brushing his lips against her cheek.
“You’re not serious,” she said with a shudder, but somehow she knew he was.
“As a heart attack,” he replied, chucking her under the chin to close her mouth. “And it won’t be a few swats over your little skirt, it will be skirt up, panties down,” he promised.
There was a challenging gleam in his dark eyes Charlie couldn’t fail to miss it. She tried once again to break his hold without causing a scene and failed as he pulled her even closer.
“Just one more text to let my friends know I’m shutting down,” she pleaded, her blue eyes wide.
“I have to go to the ladies’ room,” she said quickly.
“No,” he replied, crossing his long legs and completely blocking her exit.
Charlie knew the only way she was getting out of this row was to hike her skirt to her crotch and climb over him, and that was if he decided to let her.
“Who are you anyway?” she demanded sarcastically. “The etiquette police?”
“My name is Mark and I’ve traveled quite a distance to see my niece perform. You’ve already spoiled my enjoyment for the first two acts so we may as well step outside now,” he sighed heavily, starting to rise, his hand moving to her wrist.
“No, wait, I’ll shut it off,” she pleaded.
Mark released her and watched as she sent one last mass text to whoever she was talking to before stuffing her phone in her purse. She placed it on the floor between them and moved as far away from him as possible. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glared at him.
“That was your second mistake,” he said quietly as she sent out the text. Three minutes later he clearly felt and heard the cell phone vibrating. “And that was your third.”
Charlie bent over, shut the phone completely off with a huff and waited nervously for intermission.
Finding Syndey by Adrienne Blake
Chandler returns to his small-town home where he hopes to find Sydney, his darling baby from his college years. But three years is a long time to stay away, and a lot of water has gushed under the bridge.
Finding her again is proving a lot trickier than he imagined, but while he hunts for the love of his life, he’s reminded of all the things that tore them apart in the first place.
Hearts and Gyros
Chandler dropped his brown leather bag at the ATM and punched in his PIN number. 0822. Her number. Well, her birthday anyway. Funny, he had first used it the year he met Sydney and in the last ten years had not seen fit to change it. He took the cash, slipped his card back in his wallet, and collecting his bag, sauntered over to the rental place. First things first-he had been traveling for two whole days now and he was damned hungry. The diner on Main Street had been pretty awesome in its day. He hoped it was still there, still serving the same Greek gyro and cheesy fries. He hoped a lot of things were just as they were back then. So many things had changed already.
He picked up the rental Beemer and stashed his gear in the trunk before setting off along the familiar road. Past the house his grandmother lived in. Past the drug store where he’d worked his first job. He wondered if Old Bones still worked there? It was the nickname they all used for his first boss. Hell, for all Chandler knew, he could be dead by now. He drove past the hardware store, the florist, and his dad’s machine shop. He had mixed feelings regarding that. Even after all this time, he could still smell the machine oil on his late father’s hands. He breathed in deeply as if he could still smell the old man on his skin. At times, his dad at been such a gentle man. Yet his preferred method of discipline was the belt. Even now, Chandler could still recall the sting of the lashes as his father had thrashed his backside raw. But he hadn’t come back to relive that part of his past. He had come back for her.
And there it was, the silver diner, set a little back from the road. He parked the car in the rear and set the alarm. The high pitched beeps sounded out of place in this sleepy little backwater town. The car wasn’t the only thing out of place. As he climbed the ramp to the diner entrance, he saw himself reflected in the windows. Westwood suit. Expensive haircut. Pricey-de-cologne. His shoes cost more than most people in this town made in a month. Things had certainly changed but he hoped the townspeople wouldn’t resent him for it. So much had changed for him, and yet he’d never become ashamed of his roots. In fact, he was proud of them.
Nothing about the diner had changed. He suspected if he went back fifty years in time it would look exactly the same as it did now, though maybe with slightly fresher paint. The only thing special about it now were the multitude of tacky pink love hearts suspended from the ceiling. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day. He bit his lip. He had returned for the sake of the day after all.
He recognized the waitress as she sauntered over to the table. It was old Mrs. Pike, his former eleventh grade teacher. She was in her forties now; and her once sharp academic eyes had narrowed and dimmed-he’d heard about the premature stroke-someone had told him about it in a letter. Fortunately, her face showed no sign of it, but there was a tremor in her hands now. How well he remembered them.
She whipped out her order form.
“What can I get you to drink, dearie?” Her voice was scratchy and low from smoking one pack too many a day.
“A coffee will be fine. Do you still do that amazing gyro and cheesy fries combo?”
He stared straight at her but there was no glimpse of recognition in her tired eyes. Instead, she looked right through him; not even trying to put his face to her past. This town did that to some people. Others thrived in it. He hoped Sydney would be one of the latter.
“Sure. That all you want?”
In the booth in front of him were a young couple, as young as he’d been when he’d first met Sydney.
“If I were on that dating show, would you pick me?”
“Course I would, babe.”
“Fibber. You’d go for someone with bigger boobs.”
“Maybe at first. But I’d come back to you in the end.”
“You love it.”
They were laughing and joking about some reality show they’d watched the night before on Netflix or cable or something. He rarely watched TV himself and they were discussing the very kind of show he took pains to avoid. He closed his eyes. Ten years before, he and Sydney had sat in that exact same booth, arguing over something just as banal. It wasn’t the show that mattered, it was just the act of sharing something-an intimacy-a connection. And then they would go back to his place and make love like rabbits. Always his place-never hers. Eighteen years old and her parents barely let him in the front door, let alone allow him to go upstairs. He was never good enough for their darling baby.
A few minutes later Mrs. Pike deposited his order in front of him then sauntered off to serve the couple at the other table. Hungry, he picked up the gyro and tucked right in. Odd. It was good, but nowhere near as good as he remembered it. The cheesy fries were better. After chomping on a few, he pulled a napkin out of the cheap brown dispenser and dabbed at the corner of his mouth. The couple in front were kissing, but it was the vulgar, animal kind of kissing that reminded Chandler of the rhythmic spin-cycle of a cheap washing machine. Mrs. Pike watched them, order book in hand, with a resigned but bored expression on her face. He knew how she felt. Her current job sucked enough without being subjected to this kind of nonsense.
The enchantment was snapped; the couple separated and continued with their order.
It had been a little like that with Sydney. Her mouth was a honeyed oasis in the desert; he couldn’t help but be drawn to it. When he kissed her, he would fall into delirium, one he hoped never to wake from. Perhaps looking from the outside in, they too had been just as ridiculous as the couple in the booth. But it never had felt absurd to him. All he remembered was how good she made him feel.
Outside it was spitting. Oh well, it had threatened to rain all day. Sydney hated the rain. Not for its own sake-but she had a morbid fear of thunderstorms. He could still smell the apple shampoo in her hair as trembling, she’d clung to him during that first storm, her eyes wide with fear before she turned to bury her head into his chest.
He finished his meal and Mrs. Pike sauntered over. “Are you finished with that?”
“Sure. Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know if the Miles family is still in town?”
Her eyes narrowed and she looked at him properly for the first time. “Who wants to know? Are you the police? You don’t look like police.”
He snorted. “No, I’m not the police. I’m an old friend.”
She looked even more skeptical than before. But then there was the tiniest spark of recognition in her eyes. “Do I know you?”
“I think so, Mrs. Pike, though it’s been a long time since you last saw me.”
“You were one of my students?”
“Yes, but a very long time ago. You probably don’t remember me. Chandler Kane.”
She squinted, trying to find the boy in the man’s face. “The name rings a bell, sure. But sorry-I forget a lot these days.”
“I’m trying to find an old friend. Sydney Miles. We dated for a time and I was hoping to catch up with her while I’m in town.” He didn’t tell her he came specifically to find her in case she thought he was a bit odd. A stalker or something detestable like that. Someone not to be trusted.
“Oh Sydney. Yeah, she’s still in town. Lives over on Broad Street. Don’t recall the number.”
“She still lives with her parents?”
“Her parents? No. They passed away. She lives there all by herself these days.”
“Thank you.” How quickly she moved from distrustful to trusting. It was so very different up in New York City. But he wasn’t there now, and his heart skipped a beat. He had just taken a step closer to finding her again. “May I have my check please?”
I Belong Here by Misty Malone
Sheriff Matt Byler knows his neighbor is gone for the winter, so when he sees a car pull into her lane and not return, he goes to check it out. Matt finds the driver of the car trying to enter the house by crawling through a back window. Halfway in, however, the pretty little lady gets stuck in her precarious, yet oh so adorable position. He is able to quickly get some questions answered. It turns out she’s there to visit her grandmother, who not only lives in the next house down, but is a good friend of Matt’s. She’s also in Florida for the winter.
He helps her out of the window and they call her grandmother. She gives Elsie her blessing to stay in her house while she’s in Florida, and asks Matt to look out for her. He agrees, and as they grow closer, her past becomes the first thing they have to overcome.
Sheriff Matt Byler made the turn off of Route 6, glad to be about home. It had been a long day and he was looking forward to a quiet evening. He had some leftover pot roast from his mom, and his mouth had been watering all afternoon. He loved his mom’s pot roast, and the idea of a quick meal after a long day sounded wonderful.
As he turned off the main road he was a little surprised to see the car behind him turn off as well. There were only nine houses on this road, and he not only knew the people who lived in all nine of them, but the vehicles they drove, as well. Someone must be getting company. His mind wandered back to the pot roast waiting for him at home, until he passed all six of the houses at the end of the road.
The car was still following him. The other three houses on this road were his own, followed by Theodore Winston, an older gentleman who had recently moved to an assisted living facility, and Louise Prescott, a retired widow who had flown to Florida two weeks ago to spend the winter with her daughter. She usually spent the winters down there, but she left a couple weeks earlier this year so she could spend some time with her grandson, who was in the army and about to be sent to Germany for a year.
Matt pulled into the garage, but rather than go into his house, he walked out to the end of the lane to get his mail. While looking through his mail, he looked toward the car, and noticed it pulled into Mr. Winston’s lane. It pulled around behind the house, however, so Matt couldn’t see it. He checked his watch. Whoever it was would more than likely find no one at home, and would be leaving within a few minutes. He turned his attention back to his mail. After checking it thoroughly, he slowly walked around the house to the back door and unlocked it. He stepped one foot inside the kitchen and set the mail on the counter, while listening for the sound of the car returning.
He looked toward his neighbor’s house again, but there was no car coming back down the road, so whoever had pulled in was still there. How long did it take to realize no one was home, and leave? He was becoming concerned. Not only was Mr. Winston a good neighbor, but how would it look if he, the local sheriff, stood idly by while his neighbor’s house was being vandalized? He glanced at his watch again, and reached a decision.
He started walking, and five minutes later he was standing in Mr. Winston’s lane, ready to check out the mystery car. It was still there, setting in his drive, but he didn’t see the driver. No one was standing at the front door, so he went around to the back of the house. Again, there was no one around. He became a bit more alert as he walked around the corner of the house, and froze. He found the visitor, but certainly not where he expected.
The visitor, who he could now tell was a female, appeared to be stuck, half in and half out of a window. A bucket sat underneath the window, but she had apparently lost her footing and slipped. The bucket was flipped on its side, leaving her stranded, with nothing to get her feet on to push her way into the house.
She was squirming and flailing, trying to get in, or maybe back out. He wasn’t sure which. Regardless, she wasn’t having any luck going either way. It was pretty obvious to him what was happening, but he would keep an open mind and give her the benefit of the doubt, at least for a short time. Besides, the view she was presenting him with wasn’t at all hard to look at. It was a rather nicely shaped, rounded bottom. He found himself wishing all break-ins could be this inviting.
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said calmly. “Anything I can help you with?”
“You are so not funny,” said an angry-sounding lady. “Would you please help me out here?”
“Maybe. Mind if I ask what you’re doing, and what kind of help you’re looking for?”
She sighed very dramatically. “Okay, you’ve had your laugh. Now could you please help me get in here?”
Matt’s eyebrows raised. “You want me to help you inside?”
She sighed loudly again before answering. “If you don’t mind.”
“Actually, ma’am, I might mind. Why do you want inside? What do you want to do?”
“I hardly see that that’s any of your business. Now, are you going to help me inside, or are you going to continue being a jackass and just stand there?”
Matt’s smile quickly turned to a frown. “Okay, I’ve tried to be patient, but you’re starting to push my buttons now. I don’t care for your attitude, or that kind of language, especially from a young lady. Now, you don’t belong here. What’s your name, and what are you doing here?”
“Like I said, I hardly see that that’s any of your business. Damn pervert. Now, you’ve stared at my ass long enough, so would you please just help me in?”
“And like I said, I’m trying to be patient, but you’re making that very difficult. Let me introduce myself. My name is Matt Byler, Sheriff Matt Byler. I will ask you one more time. Who are you and why are you trying to break into this house?”
There was a lot of noise and much more wriggling, as the mystery lady tried to turn enough to look at the man she’d been conversing with. “Seriously, you’re the sheriff?”
“Seriously. Would you like to see my badge?”
“No, I believe you.” She paused, while she tried again, unsuccessfully, to wriggle into the house. “Well, shit.”
Now it was Matt’s turn to sigh. “Miss, I really don’t like to hear that kind of language.”
“Is it illegal?”
“Well, no, of course not.”
“Then I think you need to get over it, and help me out.”
He swallowed, and tried to gain control of his temper. “While it’s not illegal, I don’t like hearing it, and I really don’t think you want to upset me any more right now than you already have. Now, I’ll ask you one more time, what is your name, and why are you trying to break into this house?”
“My name is Elsie Wintock, and I’m not breaking in.”
“I see. Is there a reason you’re not using the front door, like most people, or maybe the back door? Does your key not work, for some reason?”
She sighed again. “Look, I’m not breaking in. Well, okay, I guess technically I am, but it’s not what you think. I do belong here. Grandma wouldn’t care, I’m sure. I’ll call her as soon as I get in. I didn’t think of her not being here, because she’s always home. I was planning on surprising her, but I guess maybe I should have called first.”
“Little lady, I’m trying, but my patience is just about shot. Who is your grandmother and what does she have to do with you breaking into this house?”
“Apparently having brains isn’t a requirement for being a sheriff around here. This is my grandmother’s house. Now, would you please help me in?”
“All right, that does it,” Matt said, as he reached up and pushed the window a bit higher. He then lifted her around her waist, and brought her back out of the window, standing her up on her feet. In one smooth movement he turned her around, pulling her hands behind her, and fastened a pair of handcuffs on her wrists.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Unless you have a better explanation, I’m arresting you for breaking and entering.”
“But I told you, this is my grandmother’s house. I came to visit her for a while.”
“Is your name really Elsie Wintock?”
“Yes, of course it is. I’m not a liar.”
Matt had to chuckle. “This coming from a lady who’s breaking into a house she claims is her grandmother’s, that is actually owned and occupied by a single man.”
Elsie swung around to look at him. “A single man? Are you sure? I was positive this was my grandmother’s house. It’s a different color, but I figured she painted it. It’s the last house on this road.”
Matt narrowed his eyes as he looked at the little lady. “What’s your grandmother’s name?”
“Louise Prescott. Are you sure this isn’t her house?”
“I’m positive. I live in this house next door, and I suggest we go there and sit down. Maybe we can sort this out.”
He left her car in the driveway and walked her down to his house, where he sat her down at the kitchen table. “If I take these handcuffs off will you behave yourself?” She nodded, and he took the cuffs off, and sat down across from her. “Now, describe your grandmother to me.”
She looked at him, confused. “Why?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “Do you ever do as you’re asked? You claim the house you were trying to break into is your grandmother’s, and her name is Louise Prescott. If that’s true, describe her for me. Tell me what she looks like, or what she’s like.”
“She’s wonderful. She’s about the same height as me, and her hair used to be about the same color as mine, but it’s a real pretty white now. Her hair turned from brown to white, never gray, which she was happy about.”
“You don’t have any idea where she may be right now?”
Always You by Anna Kristell
Lydie Granger is going home. There is nothing for her in New York since the death of her husband/Dom. She sold her home and her business, returning to the small Midwestern town she grew up in, leaving behind the life she has known with Paul.
Rance Kimball is going home, too. After a failed relationship and many years on a ranch in Wyoming, it’s time to make a fresh start.
When Rance meets Lydie, he realizes that she is the same girl he has always dreamed about, since high school. And when he teasingly threatens to spank her, he finds out that all she really wants is for someone to take care of her. Is he the man for the job? Will Lydie fall for the numbers geek who idolized her twenty years ago, when she didn’t even know he existed?
Rance Kimball veered onto the exit ramp and glanced at the road sign. With a sigh, he pulled into the lot of the first gas station he saw. Getting out of his car to fuel up, he stretched his tight muscles and looked around. He’d been on the road for two days, and he was tired. The sedan he drove was comfortable enough and afforded enough leg room for his tall frame, but he was more than ready to check into the bed and breakfast in his home town and call it a night.
Returning the nozzle to its proper position, he went inside to grab a cup of coffee before hitting the road again. He had a good two hours of driving time still ahead of him.
Stepping outside the building, he lit a cigarette and took a deep, satisfying drag. Why he had started smoking again, after all these years, was a mystery to him. Well, actually not, considering what he’d gone through in the last few months. As soon as he was settled, he fully intended to stop the filthy habit again, this time for good.
He thought about his life and wondered what awaited him in good old Bloomdale. After twenty years away, he was going back. Not something he had ever imagined doing, but he was doing it just the same. They say you can never go back. He guessed he’d find out if that was true, soon enough.
His life had been busy from the time he left at the age of eighteen to attend college until recently when everything had changed abruptly.
He ground out the cigarette and disposed of it, took a healthy swig of his coffee, and headed to the car. No use dawdling, the decision had been made. May as well get on with it.
Back on the road again, his thoughts went to his life in Wyoming where he’d made his home for the past fifteen years. The life he was leaving behind… He had sold his share of the ranch after his partner and long-time girlfriend, Ellie, announced that she was getting married… to someone else.
Rance hadn’t seen it coming although he supposed he should have. The signs were all there. He and Ellie had met when he first moved to the area to take a position in a local accounting firm. She was the daughter of a local rancher and worked in the same firm as he did. As time went by, the two formed a pleasant, casual relationship.
When Ellie’s father passed away unexpectedly, she had left the firm to help her mother and her brother run the family business. Eventually, she’d asked Rance to come on board to take care of the finances and learn the business. After a while, he had purchased shares in the ranch and became a partner. Everyone naturally assumed that he and Ellie would someday marry, including Rance.
Not that they shared any sort of passionate, all-consuming, mutual love, but they just… fit. They were compatible.
There was only one woman-and she had been a girl at the time-who had ever come close to making Rance Kimball’s heart do the dance. Whenever he was near her, his body, as well as his soul, reacted.
Her name was Lydia Rose Sharp. Long, blonde hair, blue twinkling eyes, petite and popular, that was Lydie. Everyone called her Lydie. Not the type of girl who would waste her time on a slightly chubby numbers geek, that’s for sure. No, basketball players were her usual escorts. Homecoming queen, prom princess, cheerleader, Lydie was everybody’s high school crush. He never stood a chance. Nowadays, he looked nothing like that chubby geek. He was tall, muscled and good-looking. Working on a ranch, even as the accountant, had afforded him some time to ride and be more athletic over the years. He’d slimmed down. He wore his dark hair in the latest casual men’s style and many a girl in Wyoming had been jealous of Ellie. Everyone knew he was off limits. What a surprise for all of them when she chose someone else!
But enough about Lydie and the old days and the other girls in Wyoming, he thought as his mind returned to Ellie and the situation at hand. She’d met someone else, a newcomer to the town, Erik Johnson. Rance had wished them well, sold his shares in the ranch back to Ellie, traded in his trusty pickup truck for a sedan and packed his belongings. All that he could fit in the car, that is, his furniture was sold, along with most of his other possessions.
He intended to make a fresh start, and he was going back home to do it. His family was ecstatic and had already helped secure a place for him in the local accountant’s office. He was to begin his new job in one week. Rance thought he might like to purchase a small farm, maybe raise some cattle and get a few horses. But, for now, he had rented a room at the bed and breakfast in town. His sister and her husband owned it, and he could stay there until he decided on a more permanent living arrangement.
Ten more minutes on the road and he would be home. He visited twice a year, and the family had all, at one time or another, been to the ranch. However, he knew this was going to be an adjustment for all of them no matter how enthusiastic they were about his moving home.
The old hometown was aglow with updated streetlights when he exited the interstate and drove the few remaining miles to Bloomdale. The town must have installed the new lights since his last visit. He had to admit they looked nice. He recognized some of the old businesses that were, surprisingly, still around. New ones were scattered up and down both sides of the street, as well. The town had grown in the twenty years he’d been away. That was good, he supposed, but he hoped he would still find the homey, small town atmosphere he had left behind.
His sister Annie and her family were waiting when he pulled into the drive. He saw the front door of the B and B swing open as his niece and nephew ran out to greet their favorite uncle.
“Uncle Rance, you’re finally here,” Gracie said as she hugged him tightly.
“Let me look at you, Gracie girl,” he said as he held her at arm’s length. “You’re taller than you were last Thanksgiving, I believe.”
Not to be outdone by his older sister, Gregory gave him a high five. “Hey, man.”
“Mom’s got supper ready. It’s just the five of us tonight. Mom thought you’d be tired, so the rest of the family will be here tomorrow night,” Gracie told him.
“Yeah, Dad will help you with your stuff later,” Gregory added.
“Okay, let’s go. Can’t wait to dig into some of your mom’s home cooking,” he said as he followed them into the house.
Annie’s husband Bart met them in the foyer. “Hey, Rance, good to see you, hope your drive wasn’t too bad.” He extended a hand, which Rance shook heartily.
“Not too bad, traffic was bad in St. Louis, but other than that, I made pretty good time. Feels good to get out of the car, though,” he replied with a grin.
“I’ll bet. Come on in the dining room. Annie is putting the food on the table. She made all your favorites. I can’t begin to tell you how excited she is that you’re back to stay.”
When they entered the spacious dining room, his younger sister looked up and smiled. “Hi, big brother, just in time.”
“No guests tonight at the B and B?” he asked.
“I fed them earlier. They are all off doing their own thing. Only two couples right now; it’s a slow time of the year,” she said. “Now, sit down. I know you have to be starving, after eating on the road for two days.”
After Gracie and Gregory said a prayer over the food, they began passing bowls and platters around the table. Succulent roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, a broccoli and cheese dish and brown sugar glazed carrots graced the table. Gracie was right, all of his favorites. His sister was an excellent cook; their mother had taught her well.
“Are these rolls homemade?” he asked as he bit into a hot buttered yeast roll.
“What kind of question is that? Of course, they’re homemade,” Annie answered with a giggle.
“Wait till you see what she made for dessert,” Gregory said.
“He’s been trying to get into it since school let out for the day,” Annie said.
Bart laughed before taking on a more serious tone. “So, Rance, how are you doing?”
He took a sip of iced tea before he answered. “All in all, I think I’m okay. It was a shock and happened so fast, I barely had much time to think about things, until the drive out here.”
“I’m so sorry about Ellie. I know you thought that, eventually, you would be the one she married,” Annie said sympathetically.
“Looking back, I see many things I did wrong. I procrastinated, telling myself neither of us was ready. Apparently, that wasn’t true. But, I don’t think we were truly meant to be, either, now that I think about it. It all happened the way it was supposed to happen. I wish nothing but the best for the two of them. Ellie is a great gal; she just isn’t the gal for me.”
“You’ll meet the right one, maybe right here in Bloomdale, who knows?” Bart said.
“So, are you coming to my game next week?” Gregory asked, shifting the conversation.
“You’re playing baseball?” Rance asked. “I played a few years in high school, believe it or not.”
“Yeah, baseball, got a game on Monday night.”
“Sure, I’ll be there, count on it, buddy.”
Gracie helped herself to more potatoes and said, “My friend, Lisa, says her aunt is moving back home, too. Isn’t that funny? She’s been in New York for a long time.”
“Oh, I guess maybe I’m not the only one starting a new life then, huh?” he said as he grinned at his niece. “Now, don’t go trying to fix me up with this aunt, okay, munchkin?”
“Oh, I won’t,” Gracie said quickly, with a distinct gleam in her eye. “Her name is Lydie, Aunt Lydie.”
Rance looked up, startled. Could it be? “What’s her last name?” he asked casually. “Do you know?”
“Um… not sure,” Gracie said. “She got married but her husband died, so she’s moving back.”
“I’m so sorry for her,” Annie said.
“He was sick for a long time. They don’t have kids, so she decided to come home. Lisa says she’s pretty cool.”
“Well, I’m sure if Lisa says she’s cool, then she is,” Bart said with a chuckle. He turned to Rance to explain. “Lisa is at that stage where not many adults are cool. She and Gracie have made that abundantly clear.”
“I see. Well, munchkin, when you meet Aunt Lydie, you’ll have to let us know how cool she really is,” Rance teased.
“Oh, you two, leave her alone. You know it’s normal at their age,” Annie said in defense of her only daughter. “As long as they are polite, I don’t see any harm in letting them voice their opinions in private.”
Love Task by Vanessa Brooks
Sophie cannot come to terms with the loss of her dear friend in an accident whilst on a skiing holiday in Colorado. She met Scott on the holiday that claimed her friend’s life. After the disaster she shuts down and refuses to return Scott’s calls. She has devised a way to rid herself of her feelings of guilt but finds that a year after the event, her way is not working.
Scott is determined that she should not push him out of her life and throw away any future they might have together. He decides to use old fashioned methods, convinced that domestic discipline will rid her of her survival guilt but he is up against one stubborn girl! What Sophie doesn’t realise is that Scott is a force to be reckoned with and he is determined to convince his beautiful girl that she deserves a future of happiness with him by her side. It is to be a clash of strong wills.
He watched her as she sashayed across the street wearing her classic 1950s outfit with the ease of a second skin. The full-skirted dress swayed with the unconscious, sensual movement of her hips. The other girls arriving for work at the vintage themed diner appeared awkward and self conscious in their own dated get up, but Sophie looked as though she had stepped directly out of that era. She certainly wouldn’t look out of place on a 1950s film set. Her resemblance to actress Doris Day struck him afresh. The likeness to the star of stage and screen who’d played in so many Hollywood films had been the first thing that Scott had noticed about her in Colorado, she even had the same mesmerizing eyes as the blonde, fresh faced actress. It had been over a year since they had last met on that fateful day in Colorado.
He leaned back into his car seat and closed his eyes. Immediately the images replayed across his eyelids in relentless Technicolor, the same as they always did whenever he thought about those two terrible days. Was he ready for this encounter-was she? He opened his eyes and cast one last longing look over at the diner before starting the car and pulling away, driving in the direction of his newly rented house.
He wondered if Sophie would feel uncomfortable with him living in the same small town that she lived and worked in. Hell, she was the only reason he was here at all. He would just have to convince her that they should be together. Scott had not been able to get her out of his mind after they had parted which was why he had finally decided that he had to try one last time to convince her of their joint destiny.
The house that he’d rented was on the edge of the small township of Honeoye in Monroe County, not far from the town of Rochester, New York State. It was a small friendly place that attracted holiday makers to its pretty waterfall. Scott, a dog handler in the K-9 unit, had put in for a transfer to Henrietta, the nearest that he could get to Honeoye. He’d applied some nine months previous and when nothing came up, he’d put it to the back of his mind. Nobody was more surprised than him when the papers for his transfer came through. It seemed that the team in the sheriff’s office wanted a K-9 unit situated in the county. Hell, they had just about everything else, including a scuba unit, which was kinda necessary with all the lakes and waterfalls situated in the Lake Ontario area. Scott was more than happy to leave the precinct in Denver where all he and Diesel, his dog, seemed to do was sniff out narcotics at the Denver airport.
Scott turned into Lake Gardens, a cul-de-sac of a new build mix of smaller family type houses and ranch homes. He pulled up at number ten and switched off the engine just as another car swung into the road and parked in front of his. It was the agent who was due to meet him for the orientation on his new property.
“So that’ll be the breakfast special and stack?” Sophie confirmed as the man leered at her bosom.
“I’ll definitely take the stack!” he quipped.
Sophie grinned at the customer whilst thinking, what a jerk. Just because the diner favored the vintage style, some of the men who ate there turned into chauvinist pigs as soon as they walked through the door and saw all the prettily dressed waitresses in their 1950s get ups.
She moved off to stick the order on the pin ready for the chef to grab and moved to pour coffee ready to take back to her chauvinistic pig at table three. She had been working at the diner part time for six months but that was only because she felt uncomfortable taking money from her father. Her vintage clothing shop in Brighton, England, was doing really well despite her absence. Her co-owner and best friend Kim was somehow managing to run the shop and the on-line business alone and she appeared to be making a great job of it too if sales were anything to go by. Sophie knew she would have to make a decision about her future very soon as her tasks were completed. She couldn’t remain in the States indefinitely, not with a shared business to run back in the U.K., but it was simply easier to remain here because nothing in the U.S.A. reminded her of Rupert. There were no memories in America, well, apart from the terrible ones in Colorado. Her mind shut down and she turned her thoughts back to her father.
James Jackson was an archivist now working at the brand new Rochester Library. He collated and cared for precious film dating back to the beginning of celluloid. He met Sophie’s mother Sarah whilst on exchange from Stony Brook University in the State of New York, to Brighton University Sussex, England, during in the 1970s. James and Sarah met on campus, fell in love, married and settled for a time in Britain. Sophie and her brother Simon had come along in rapid succession, and for a while, they were the picture of an archetypal family until James was offered a job back in the U.S. and life changed for the family. After the move, things were never the same between Sophie’s parents, which led eventually to James and Sarah becoming divorced.
Sarah returned to England, taking her two children with her. After a time both James and Sarah re-married and both couples appeared to be settled. Sarah had contracted breast cancer, and after losing her battle with the horrible, debilitating disease, she’d died three years ago. Simon lived in Scotland and Sophie was the only member of her family who remained living in Sussex. She continued to visit her father at least once a year but Simon rarely found the time to get away from his corporate position in Edinburgh.
Sophie and her long time boy friend from University, Rupert Templeton, came over to spend New Year with Sophie’s father and stepmother Mae, some eighteen months previous. James had generously agreed to treat them all to a skiing holiday in honor of Sophie’s twenty-first birthday that year. Simon had been invited but had declined. Sophie knew it was because Simon now had a permanent new partner, Carl, and Simon had not yet informed their father that he was gay. So it had been the four of them staying at the hotel set high in the Colorado Mountains.
As usual, whenever her mind strayed to the disastrous ski trip, Sophie erased her line of thought and got busy. As she flew between patrons, refreshing coffee and taking orders, she found herself humming, “busy doing nothing, nothing the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do!” The words of the stupid song churned repetitively around in her head until she was certain she would scream and then to top it all, he walked in.
Sock It to Me by Rayanna Jamison
It all started with a pair of socks- and it looked like it might end that way too.
Joey had fallen for Jake at the tender age of nineteen. He had saved her life, both figuratively, and, as her chemo nurse, literally as well.
After beating the ovarian cancer that had brought them together, Joey grabs life by the horns and doesn’t look back, often dragging Jake along for the ride. Jake’s always there to drag her back to safety with his tender love and a firm hand.
But when Joey decides to open a business-a sock store of all things-without consulting her husband, their relationship is put to the test. Can Joey chase her dreams without Jake’s full support, and remind him what their relationship has always been based on?
Sock It To Me is a love story told through socks and spankings.
“Jolene Marie Ryan.” The words were spoken in a terse growl, and Joey winced when she heard them. He seldom called her Jolene, and when he did, it was always a bad sign. She much preferred Joey, which was what he usually called her. He was, in fact, the one who had given her that nickname.
Raised in a failing foster care system, she had been on her own from the moment she turned eighteen. Tossed out on her ear by the last crappy family in a long line of the same with $1,000 dollars to her name, and a suitcase full of tattered belongings, she had done okay, at first. She had long ago learned how to stretch a dollar, and she had managed quickly to find a good job. One that had required her to submit to a physical. That’s when she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She didn’t get the job, but the nice woman in HR had at least pointed her in the right direction for care and coverage.
She had been alone in the world, and scared out of her mind-one hundred percent certain that she wouldn’t survive simply because she had nothing to live for. Her first day of chemo, she had sobbed hysterically, actually contemplating suicide for the first time in her very traumatic life. Jake had been her chemo nurse, and he had saved her life, both literally and figuratively.
It was a fact she reminded herself of often, anytime he got that look on his face like he was seconds away from flipping her over his knee and spanking the living tar out of her. He had that look right now. Since her remission, on her nineteenth birthday, she had grabbed life by the horns and approached it with a take no prisoners attitude. Her motto was jump first, think later. Okay, so that wasn’t actually her motto, but he swore that it must be.
Her adrenaline-fueled life approach landed her in a pickle more often than not. Jake always came to her rescue, just as he had been doing every day for the past six years. This time, though, she didn’t need his help, and she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had been telling him that for the last fifteen minutes. So far, he didn’t seem to agree.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” she repeated, raising her voice for good measure.
“So you keep saying,” he deadpanned, unruffled.
Even in the midst of her most epic escapades, he had been her unflappable rock. He’d listen patiently, bail her out of whatever jam she was in without batting an eyelash. Until they got home. Then it was always the same. The crook of the finger as he pointed to the corner. The lecture that made her feel two inches tall while he paced the living room behind her. Then he’d sigh loudly, walk up behind her, and pull her panties down to her knees, give her a few swats for emphasis, and continue the lecture until he was one hundred percent certain that she truly understood the gravity of the situation. Then, and only then, would the spanking begin.
This time was different. They were already at home. And she wasn’t going to give in. There was nothing he could say that would make her sorry for what she had done.
“We’re married, Jolene Marie. Husband and wife. That means everything we do individually potentially affects the other one. I wouldn’t even take an extra shift at work without asking you first. And you bought a business without telling me. You bought a business without even a mention to me that it was so much as a thought in your head. I would never do that to you. Never.”
Except maybe that. When he put it that way, she stopped in her tracks. Her stomach dropped to her knees and she began to wish for the spanking that would undoubtedly happen before the day was done. When he looked at her like that, she finally got it. She had the sudden urge to walk over to him, lower her pants, and drape herself across his lap.
While she loved their relationship, even that part of it, she hated this feeling. Fighting against it, she slammed her hand town on top of the stack of papers that had started this whole mess in the first place. “I did not BUY a business, Jake! I leased a building! There is a freaking difference, you know.”
“Not a big enough one.” His retort was flat and tired sounding. “You leased a building with the intention of opening a business. Without talking to me.”
“It’s my money,” she growled, knowing that it was unfair. Her settlement money was hers, but they had both agreed to save it for a rainy day. The fact that their definition of a rainy day differed should not have come as a surprise to either of them.
“We’re married,” he repeated. This time it did not have the same heart softening affect that it had had before.
“Don’t remind me!” She hurled the insult without abandon, regretting it only after it was too late.
Jake’s face finally showed a smidge of emotion, contorting in shock and hurt. It passed quickly, and his eyes narrowed to slits. He made a twirling motion in the air with his finger, and she shook her head in denial.
“Jake, no! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
His face showed no change, and the action was repeated. She knew from experience that pleading would only make it worse.
Squinting her eyes shut, she stood, walked slowly around the side of the table to stand in front of him, and turned so that her back was to him.
His hand was hard and unforgiving, but this wasn’t a real spanking. That would come later. This was only, quite simply, what her stubborn husband referred to as an attitude adjustment.
“Watch. Your. Self! No matter what you happen to think of me in the moment, I am your husband, and I’m a damn good one. Show me some respect!”
Only three quick swats, but they were hard, and her bottom tingled as she walked away, tears pooling in her eyes. They weren’t at all from the pain of the spanking-those never made her cry, as she was simply too damn stubborn.
His words on the other hand, that tangible disappointment, the pooling of remorse in her belly? That got her every single time.
He grabbed her hand just before she got out of reach, and pulled her back to him, turning her body so that he saw her face. He didn’t mention the wetness in her eyes, or the fact that she didn’t look nearly as smug as she had two minutes ago. It wasn’t his style.
“Do you have an idea of what you are going to sell at this store?” he asked hesitantly, his expression hopeful.
It was the question she had been waiting for. She knew that the answer would make him smile, and he would see the same potential in the idea as she had. “Socks!” she exclaimed triumphantly, her excitement bubbling over as she waited for that smile she loved so much. The one that had so many years ago, had the instant power over her tears, and had melted her heart every day since.
It never came.
Mid-Winter Melt Down by Beth Bennett
Sharon Blake is still hurting from a difficult divorce when she moves back to her old hometown along with her children, Bobby and Megan. A winter storm has blown into town and the city streets aren’t the only things that have frozen over.
Sharon can’t believe her eyes when Tom Sydney, her old high school flame, comes knocking at her front door. Despite her frosty reception, Tom, the town’s police chief, sets about turning up the heat.
Will Tom’s love be able to melt even the iciest of hearts? Come join the fun as Sharon finds herself in the middle of a full blown, mid-winter melt down.
I can’t believe I chose the worst winter on record to move back to this crummy old town. Sharon Blake was busy trying to shovel through three feet of snow. She felt as though her heart was going to pound right out of her chest. Who knew shoveling snow made you feel like you were going to keel over after only five minutes? She’d finally managed to get a path from the backdoor to her garage, but the shovel suddenly hit solid rock. What? She brushed away a bit more snow. There was an entire sheet of ice beneath all the loose powder. It made her want to scream. I could just kill Jerry the Jerk for forcing us to move here!
Recently divorced, Jerry’s name had become synonymous with jerk and a lot of other four letter words. She’d managed to keep her thoughts and her words to herself for the kids’ sake, but it hadn’t been easy. I’ll spread some salt and hope the sun comes out enough to do the rest. She leaned the snow shovel against the back door and whacked an icicle off the house for good measure. Stomping the snow off her boots, she entered the utility room. Stuff sat everywhere. They’d only moved two weeks ago. Just ahead of this storm, she thought wryly. All the disorder was driving her crazy. Putting on the coffee pot, she rifled through the cabinet for something to eat. Geez, I need to go the grocery store.
Sharon could hear Bobby and Megan screaming as they played out front in the snow. The best sledding hill in the whole town ran right past their house. She went to look out the front window to make sure the screams were ones of joy and not of pain. Good grief. There were so many kids out there. They looked like colorful, squirming ants, against a backdrop of white.
Just yesterday, her mother had brought two brand new sleds by the house. “They’re calling for the biggest snowstorm in a century. This will be so fun for your kids.”
“Mom,” Sharon had complained. “That’s going to make a huge mess. They’ll freeze to death out in that stuff. Did you have to go and buy them sleds?”
“Yes, I did. That’s what grandmothers are for.”
The kids had jumped up and down, fist pumping the air, and screaming in joy. There was no way Sharon could say no. “All right. Take them out to the garage.”
Now they were out on the hill, having the time of their lives. It made Sharon happy to watch them. Bobby and Megan had been through a lot. They had all been through a lot. Everyone said it got better after the first year. Well, two years had gone by since she and Jerry had separated, and still, Sharon barely felt like she had her head above water. At least the divorce was final. She spied little Megan clambering up on top of Bobby’s sled. It seemed she was happier making him haul her up and down the hill than walking and riding on her own sled. The little imp was wearing a double pair of socks on her hands instead of gloves. Her mittens were lost in the moving mess. Just one more thing to add to the list of her, “bad mother of the year,” award thought Sharon.
She took a sip of coffee and watched as a group of kids narrowly missed hitting a tree. Another group was involved in a snowball fight. Megan and Bobby were riding down the hill together. Bobby was such a good big brother. Ever since the divorce, he had tried to be the man of house, but he was only ten. Hence, the reason they had moved back to Flat Rock. He doesn’t need to be the man of the house. He simply needs to be a little boy. Sharon took another sip of coffee. Thank goodness Mom still lives here. She’ll be a big help. Besides, living in a small apartment isn’t the way I want to raise the kids, and the schools are better here. There is a sense of community here. The kids will be safe here. Sharon breathed out a big sigh. And I will be bored out of my cotton pickin mind, here. Oh well, Bobby and Megan’s well-being is the most important thing.
Sharon suddenly noticed a town police car. It was parked at the top of the sledding hill and an officer was getting out of the car. Oh great, they can’t even let the kids have a little fun. Right at that moment, Bobby and Megan’s sled was hit by a fast moving teenager on a boogie board. It was a total wipeout. Megan was thrown off one side and Bobby the other. It all happened so fast, she wasn’t sure if they were okay or not. She ignored the coffee spilled on the windowsill and took off out the front door.
Bobby was slowly getting up, but Megan wasn’t moving. One of those panicked screams from deep inside was forming in Sharon’s throat. Before it could make it out her mouth, the police officer was kneeling in the snow and helping Megan up. Sharon raced toward them.
“Baby, baby, are you all right?”
Megan giggled. “That was fun.”
“Good grief, Megan, you scared me out of my mind.” Sharon laid her hand across her chest to try to still her pounding heart. She reached out to brush the snow from Megan’s hair. A sock lay dejectedly over to the side. Megan’s hat was a few feet in the other direction. “You all have been out here long enough. I think it’s time you came in.” Sharon went to pick up the scattered clothing items. By this time, Bobby had trudged over, dragging his sled behind.
“Aw, Mom. We’re not even cold yet.”
The police officer interjected. “I think the little girl is okay, ma’am.” He turned to Bobby. “How about you, son?”
“Aw, I’m fine. One little wipeout ain’t nothing.”
“Isn’t,” Sharon corrected. “You two have just given me the scare of my life. I need a break, even if you don’t. To the house, now.”
Bobby and Megan looked dejected, but obediently trudged toward the house. It was Sharon who was freezing now. She couldn’t feel her toes at all. Her snow boots had been untied, and her feet were completely wet. She stood out in the middle of the freezing cold without a coat.
The policeman tipped his hat. “I’ll get their other sled. The kids left it at the top of the hill. You better go inside. I’ll bring it to the front door.”
Before Sharon could protest, the cop turned and jogged away. She caught up with Bobby and Megan and hustled them into the house. “It’s freezing out there. How did you kids stand it?”
“For one thing, we had a coat on,” Bobby said.
“Yeah, well, that’s true. Just leave your wet things here by the front door. There’s some hot chocolate warming on the stove. You go get changed, and I’ll meet you in the kitchen in a minute.” Sharon hurried to her room and put on some wool socks. I may have to put my feet in a hot bath.
The doorbell rang. What is it now? Sharon stomped to the front door. I swear, if it’s those neighborhood kids wanting Bobby and Megan to come out again, I’m going to scream. She opened the front door in a huff. Her hair was flat, and needed a good shampoo. She wore a big droopy sweatshirt, no bra, and baggy old jeans. There stood the cop holding Megan’s sled by its pink rope. His breath made frosty clouds around his head and he was grinning a very familiar grin. She immediately crossed her arms in front of her chest.
Oh no, it can’t be.
“Hi, Sharon. I thought it was you.”
Moments by Paige Parsons
A family crisis brings her home. A gift of love brings them back together. Share in the moments that take them from friends to lovers. Beulah Isabelle Grayson and Jacob Martin meet in the seventh grade and experience life side-by-side from puberty to college. A broken heart and misunderstandings tear them apart, after their high school graduation, and Belle decides she never wants to see him again. Ten years later, Jake is back in her life and saving the day. Belle knows she owes him the one thing she hasn’t been ready to give, a chance to explain. Clearing up the past finally gives them the opportunity to create the future they’ve both desired.
Chapter One – Meetings
Mrs. Ross was set up to welcome another year of brand new seventh graders to her class. The transition from elementary school to middle school was a tough one and she hoped, like she did every year, that each child would find their niche for a happy and successful school year. She also hoped for no fights, no overbearing parents, and a quiet class (that hated excessive chatter as much as she did). The last one was unlikely, but she held out hope.
The morning went well and she was thrilled that her only new student, Jacob Martin, was off to lunch with a great group of kids and their gregarious little leader. Beulah Isabelle Grayson was the daughter of a Black, stay at home mom, who was a painter, and a White, physician father. She was smart, funny, friendly, and a force. She was small in stature, but huge in spirit. A bit of a tomboy, Belle (who refused to use her first name) never shied away from a challenge. The last one in class who would turn twelve, she was younger than her peers and a little bit smaller, with a head full of tightly wound curls and huge eyes. She worked as hard on her dribble in PE as she did in her advanced math class. If she were determined to make something happen, nothing could deter her. Mrs. Ross was glad that Belle wanted the handsome boy to be a part of their group.
“Come on, you have to have lunch with us,” Belle said, taking Jacob’s hand without any of the reservation of a typical eleven-year-old girl.
A tall, lanky Black boy came up and clapped him on the back. “If Belle-of-the-Ball says so, it’s so. Come on. I snuck a family size bag of chips out of the house this morning. We might as well enjoy them because my mom is going to kill me when she finds out.”
On the other side of Belle was a pixie of a girl. She was shorter than everyone in their circle and looked closer to nine than twelve. She wore her jet-black, waist length hair in a single braid and her red glasses covered her face from brow to cheek.
“This is Axe and this is Kasey. Kasey and I are best friends and he just follows us around everywhere.”
“Ah, ah, ah! Wounded to the core.” Axe proceeded to die a very dramatic death right at the classroom door.
Mrs. Ross was not amused. “Axel Asa West, get yourself off of that floor right now. And, the rest of you get going to the cafeteria.”
“Lead the way,” Jake said.
“Right, we do not want to be last in line on tater tot day.” Belle dragged her new companion to the cafe-gym-a-torium.
Jake followed. He couldn’t wait to get home and tell his parents about his first day at Tucker Junior High.
Chapter Two – Dance
“Mama, I have to wear my hair out.”
“Okay, honey, so let’s go get it straightened.”
“Oh no, the last time grandma did that my ears were burnt for weeks. No thank you.”
“How about we go to the salon in the city then? I’ll even spring for you to get a manicure.”
“Mama, I love my curls.”
“I love them too, baby, but neither of us will survive another bout of detangling. You wear it straight or it goes up in a bun. Your choice.”
“Can I get my nails painted any color I want?”
“Okay, deal.” Belle was glad she and her mom were getting along so well and that she was even willing to splurge so much on the dance. Mrs. Grayson did not embrace the idea of a fancy dance for eighth graders.
Belle felt her parents out, where having an actual date was concerned, but when her dad balked at even the idea of a girl having a serious date at thirteen, she quickly reminded him that her friends would be going as a group.
She might be arriving as a group, but Belle planned on letting every girl know that Jacob (everyone calls him Jake now) Martin was all hers.
The dress, the hair, and even the scent she wore, were all chosen with his likes in mind. Unfortunately, across town Jake was preparing, in a less aware manner, oblivious of the importance of the evening ahead.
Chapter Three – Tryouts
Belle was doing everything in her power to convince Kasey to tryout for cheerleading with her.
The summer between ninth and tenth grade hadn’t been as generous to the friends as they’d been to others. Puberty was a mystery. The boys seemed to suddenly look like men. Jake and Axe came home from football camp huge, and all of the girls entered the fall season with sweaters full to the brim. Everything was bigger on everyone, but puberty had left the girls behind. Kasey handled it a little better than Belle, but only because she knew genetics worked against her. Being Vietnamese, she came from a tiny people. Her own mother was only five feet tall. So, Kasey created her big through her hair, her make-up and her personality. When it came to Belle, well the only thing bigger than her hair was her attitude and her temper. She wasn’t really a mean girl, but she was a tough one. Belle mostly fought with words, but they could be biting and cruel. Her parents were told to encourage her to participate in a school activity, so she would become more a part of the high school experience, instead of railing against it all of the time.
“Belle, cheerleading? You can’t be serious? We don’t do rah-rah high school stuff. They won’t pick us anyway. You’re great at basketball and they didn’t pick you for that.”
“Yeah, I’m good, not great. You can knock the skin off a softball and they didn’t pick you. So what? We’re still athletes. I don’t want to do this without you. Besides, you’re always saying you need every advantage for your college applications. Schools love spirit and nothing says spirit more than pom-poms and tiny skirts.”
“What is this really about? Tell me or it’s an automatic no. Spill it!”
“It’s Jake. He doesn’t even notice us.”
“You. You think he doesn’t notice you. Why is cheerleading going to change that? Unless?” Kasey smirked and tossed her friend the box of tissues on her nightstand.
“I don’t plan on stuffing my bra. But, he’s always tied up with practice and team activities. Cheerleaders participate in a lot of those activities. I just need more face time, with him during the season.”
“So, this would be sanctioned stalking.”
“Smart ass! Look, if I’m being honest, this gets my parents off my butt and my butt closer to Jake. I need him to start seeing me as more than another one of the boys.”
“I tried to get you to wear a little lip gloss and if you let me do your eyes-“
“I’ll do both, if you come to tryouts.”
“Blackmail of the highest order. Fine. I’m in. But, you better get me some time with Axe too.”
“Um, what? Axe? Really?”
“Done. I don’t know how, but done!”
Piper in a Pickle by Chula Stone
Piper Gowan regretted her decision to turn Blake down when he asked her for a date, but having the handsome doctor rescue her from being stranded by the side of the road wasn’t how she wanted to let him know she had changed her mind. In typical Piper fashion, she put off doing anything about it at all but Blake had no intention of wasting the opportunity that had come his way. He was back in her life and meant to stay there. He just hoped that his inclination to turn her over his knee when she needed a firm hand wouldn’t come between him and his old-fashioned girl.
“I’ll be perfectly safe walking back to the intersection, Mr. Silberman.” Piper Gowan tried again to get out of her old clunker, but her passenger was the strongest ninety-year-old she had ever met. He grasped her seatbelt and held on, effectively trapping her in the car. In a strange and ironic counterpoint, the radio was blaring one of her favorite songs. I’m just an old-fashioned girl…
“On a road with no shoulder and no streetlights? Little lady, if you were mine, and if I still had knees, I’d turn you over them and paddle your fanny but good! Don’t you even think about trying it!” His strong fingers patted the clasp of the seatbelt as if in emphasis while the song continued. Living in a hurry-up, modern world.
She turned the radio off, preparatory to leaving the car. “But we’ve been out way too long and you’re out of insulin. We’ve got to get back to your apartment.”
He popped the knob and the song rang out again. “We’ll be fine here until somebody drives by.” With the lights too bright… “Put on your flashers and tie something to the radio antenna. Somebody will stop. This is Brampton, for goodness sakes. We’ll have ten people lined up along the road trying to help within twenty minutes.” And the jeans too tight and the lights too bright…
“We would if it were twelve noon, but I don’t think our luck will be quite the same at twelve midnight.” She turned the music down so they could understand one another, but the words were still clear. And good-byes too easy to say…
“I shouldn’t have kept you out at the lake so long. I’m sorry, little lady. It’s all my fault.” Fast living it up is getting me down.
“I’m glad to do it, Mr. Silberman. I enjoyed watching the moon rise over the water as much as you did.” A pause in the conversation let the song’s lyrics ring out. A string of broken hearts left all around town.
Not for me. I’m longing to be an old fashioned girl all the way. He seemed to be trying to keep a comment quiet, but eventually it burst out of him despite his efforts. “You should be watching it with a boyfriend, not some old codger like me who can’t even walk out of the trouble he causes.” The elderly man banged frustrated fists on the stubs of his legs.
“If I didn’t drive such an old bucket of bolts, there wouldn’t be any trouble. I had more fun with you tonight than I’ve had on my last three dates combined,” Piper retorted. Was there a hint of resignation in her tone? She tried to make it brighter. “Now, you just sit tight. I’ll be back in no time.” Again, she turned off the music and tried to exit the car.
Again, he held her seatbelt in place. “Get my wheelchair out. I can roll myself down to the intersection a lot faster than you can walk.”
“Really, Mr. Silberman! They’d never let me take you out again if they found out I’d let you roll down this road at night.”
“The administration at Shadestone Senior Living Apartments has no say in what I do or who I go out with,” the older man shot back.
“Wait, look! Who’s that?” Piper shaded her eyes in a futile attempt to identify the lights that were glaring in from behind them. They were shining right into her eyes, which told her that it must be some sort of sport utility vehicle, or some other kind of car that sat higher on the road.
They didn’t have to wait long to find out. Piper rolled her window down, but the dark figure approached Mr. Silberman’s side of the car. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Dr. Karn? Is that you?” Piper asked.
Piper could picture the incredulity on the handsome face she knew went with the voice. Dr. Karn was certainly memorable, with his thick, black hair and kind blue eyes. Too bad they had to meet again under such embarrassing circumstances. “Piper? What do you think you’re doing out here this late at night?”
Piper answered a bit defensively. “We didn’t mean to stay out this late. We broke down.”
“Well, I can’t take you both in that thing.” He indicated the all-terrain vehicle he was driving. Now that his lights were off she could see that it only had two seats and only roll bars overhead. “I’ll head back to my ranch and get my truck so I can get you two wherever it is you’re headed. Where are you going, anyway?”
Mr. Silberman put his arm out the window and the two men shook hands. “Dr. Karn, is it? I’m Harold Silberman. She was taking me home to the Shadestone. Piper, why don’t you ride with the good doctor? I can wait here on my own.”
Piper knew the gleam that was in his eye, though it was too dark for her to see it. It was the expression he always wore when he was trying to fix her up with someone, which was any time he met a man of suitable age and unmarried status. She could only hope Dr. Karn didn’t notice Mr. Silberman’s matchmaking face. “We can’t wait that long, Mr. Silberman. You need your insulin now. Dr. Karn, you don’t have anything to help him in your emergency bag, do you?”
“I wish both of you would call me Blake,” the doctor answered, “And it would be better if he had his own medication. How overdue are you? Are you having any symptoms?”
“None at all. I feel fine. Well, as fine as any ninety-year-old codger like me has a right to feel.”
“He’s sweating, Blake.”
“And your hands were a bit clammy, Mr. Silberman,” Blake put in, his tone matter of fact, his words neither unkind nor patronizing. “No use John Wayning it out when it comes to insulin.” He opened the door. “You two can take the ATV back to town and call a tow truck after you get your shot. I’ll wait here.”
“I can’t drive a stick shift and now’s not the time to learn.” Piper told him. “Please, can’t you just bring him something?”
Mr. Silberman shook his head. “He could lose his medical license, Piper. It’s not a life or death thing. You two go on together. I’ll be fine. Piper knows where my kit is and what to bring.”
“I don’t think you’ve got that long, Mr. Silberman. Surely you can drive a stick? If you’ve let your driver’s license expire, that’s okay. You don’t have to drive on the roads. You can take a dirt track to my house and hop in my little pickup. It’s automatic.”
“I can’t hop anywhere, young man,” Mr. Silberman remarked. He patted the stumps of his legs which an ironic cackle of laughter. “But thanks for not noticing. It’s nice to be treated like a normal person for a change.”
“You are a normal person, Mr. Silberman,” Piper objected hotly.
“And you don’t patronize me when it comes to most things, Piper.” Turning to Blake, the older man went on. “She really is an amazing girl, you know. You ought to see her.”
“Not now, Mr. Silberman, please. This is serious,” Piper begged. “Now do you see why you’ve got to…” Her voice trailed off. There was no getting him into that ATV. The two of them could just barely manage the transfer between her car and his wheelchair with the help of his strong arms and a transfer board, but up into that ATV? Just then, Mr. Silberman gave a little gasp and leaned heavily forward, breathing hard. Piper reached over and took his shoulder. “Mr. Silberman? Can you hear me? Blake, please, do something.”
Blake was already in motion and had the door open before Piper knew what he was going to do. He reached over, popped the seatbelt open and jerked the elderly man out of the car as Piper got out on her side. “There’s no time to argue. Stay put! I’ll be back for you.” Blake tossed Mr. Silberman into the ATV as if he weighed nothing.
“He’s waking up,” Piper informed Blake as she leaned into the ATV from the driver’s side and rooted around between the seats. “But he’ll need help staying in. Where’s the seat belt?”
Blake shot her an “I’m not kidding” glare. “There aren’t usually seatbelts in an ATV.” He had produced a bungee cord from the back and was stretching it around the seat and hooking it so that it supported Mr. Silberman’s chest, keeping him upright.
“I’m all right,” Mr. Silberman declared. “Just fell asleep for a minute. No need to make a federal case out of it.” He grabbed the handholds in front of the seat. “But I would like to get home and get that shot if I can.”
“I’ll have you there in no time,” Blake declared. “In this thing, I can cut across country here and be at the intersection in a couple of minutes. From there, it’s a straight shot to Shadestone, five minutes tops.”
Piper scrambled out of the ATV and headed back toward her car. “Will that cord hold if you go through the woods?” As she spoke, Piper slung the wheelchair out of the back of her car.
“I’ll be fine,” Mr. Silberman told her, but he was forming the words with extra deliberation, as if it cost him great effort to speak loudly enough for her to hear him.
“Give me that.” Blake met her half way between the car and the ATV.
“I can manage it,” she objected, tugging to keep her hold on the wheelchair.
He wrenched it smoothly from her grasp. “Not while I’m around, you can’t. I’ll hold it while you clamp it into the cargo area.” As if it weighed no more than his emergency medical bag, he threw the chair into the thin cargo hold of the ATV. She saw the clamp he meant and snapped it shut.
That really did make sense, for him to do the heavy lifting. She would have struggled for quite a while if she had needed to wrestle that chair into that space. Still, it gave her a strange, roiling feeling in the pit of her stomach, to hear his words and accept his help. “He needs that chair. It’s important to him. Without it, he feels helpless.”
The Art of Love by Alyssa Bailey
Willow Ashcroft, an internationally acclaimed artist, lived in the little Alaskan island community of Eagle’s Landing. Until her vehicle was broken into, Willow had not thought herself lonely or at risk. Then she looked into the eyes of the town’s newest trooper and she knew her life was about to change forever.
Trooper Investigator Tristan Hart had only begun to settle into his new assignment when a call came in for a vandalized auto belonging to one of the artists in town. He arrived on the scene to find a free spirit with sass. All of his of protective instincts emerged, especially when Willow seemed so naïve about the world of crime and criminals. Incredibly, the culprit kept returning. Even more incredible was Willow’s determination to live life as usual.
Tristan wanted Willow to be his to love and protect. Willow wanted Tristan to be hers to love, but she didn’t need protection.
Sunrise on a clear morning in southeast Alaska was still one of the most beautiful visions Willow had ever seen. The rugged beauty of the shore before her called to her spirit, offering peace and tranquility. This place, as in most of Alaska, was rough but serene. The purity of the wilderness was never more pronounced than when the sunrise appeared on a calm morning in unobstructed splendor, like today. This picturesque island community on the Inside Passage had always been home. While content, she was of the belief that two enjoying the beauty together was better than one. Someday, she told herself, someone will enjoy it with me.
Willow raced to pull off her night flannels. She threw on her sweats and runners, securing her long dark hair in a ponytail as she went. She grabbed her fleece-lined lighter jacket, and knit gloves, knowing she would have to put it away for heavier wear soon. She hurried to the cove where the sunrise with its brilliant colors would dance over the landscape for a short time, kissing the frigid lips of the ocean that lay cradled in the protective arms of the snow-tipped mountains.
She kept her art supplies and her cameras in a bag at the door for just such an occasion. It had been raining hard the whole week, but today, the sky was clear and the sun was working its way up. She had to wait until past eight o’clock these days to run anyway because running in the dark was ill advised in Alaska.
Each Alaskan season had its own mystique but being a bear’s lunch was not one of them. It had been an uneventful autumn so far with more rain than expected. However, with bears less afraid of humans on the island, they were becoming more adventuresome and, therefore, more dangerous. Her ex-husband hated their wild home, the land covered with evergreens showing signs of too much old growth and patches of clear-cutting that grew back quickly in the rainforest.
Her ex even hated the ocean that was full of wildlife. Who did that? Unfortunately for him, the mountains surrounded and sheltered them, and the sea’s bounty was at their doorstep. She wondered what had attracted her to him and knew it had been his lack of community history. Simply put, he didn’t come from here, and that appealed to her. However, the fact that he was part of her history saddened her. She would go slow the next time around. She was determined there would be a next time.
Willow drove her car to the lookout point on the edge of the cove, her landing spot for rejuvenation outside of her own beach. She took pictures of the beauty before her. Those who had never experienced Alaska didn’t know the absolute awe seeing eagles circle the blue glaciers in search of prey amidst the blackened angular outline of the predawn mountains. Those sentinels stood stark and powerful, dominating the scene amidst a background of watercolor wisps of light. The glistening ocean so blue at times, it challenged the belief that perfection didn’t exist.
She was like the salmon in the summer, herself. She left for adventures away only to return to her place of origin, Eagle’s Landing. She sat a moment to sketch, and her muse must have been excited because the drawing was perfect to frame in its raw state. She was going to compete, possibly for the last time, in the Art of Alaska Show later this month. She loved it when her artwork seemed to create itself. She might even submit this piece instead of the one she had been working on. Whichever one she didn’t present she would sell and could expect a good price for it. As was her routine when setting any of her work aside, she took pictures of her art, quickly saved them to the cloud before locking her vehicle up. Settling her music and cell phone on her body, she happily took off to enjoy the run.
Nearly an hour later, tired but rejuvenated and proud that she had stayed the course missing most of the mud puddles today Willow leaned over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath and finished listening to the last song. Unlocking her car, she stared at the scene before her. Her chest tightened as she tried to process what she was actually seeing. The inside of her car looked as though a cyclone had passed through, leaving no survivors. Seconds ticked by. She’d never experienced any type of vandalism before, and very few people she knew had either. What should she do? Did she call the troopers and report it? Was this enough to report?
It had to be enough. Part of her livelihood was in this car, and she needed to get it back. She felt violated even though it wasn’t her person ravaged. Her sketchpad was gone, her work stolen. She sighed watching the ocean’s waves caress the shore, trying to focus on the peaceful display before putting in a call to the trooper station. The dispatcher told her not to bother anything inside the car.
“My coat is in the car.”
“They are on their way, hon.”
Willow lived about fifteen miles outside of the largest community on the island, but when the weather was bad, it might as well be fifty miles. She figured the borough had to have about ten thousand in it now, during the winter. Half of them lived in the town proper, the rest on either side of it. She loved her island home.
She was beginning to chill from the cool down after her short run when a vehicle with two troopers arrived. They stepped out, and she stood from her seat on a damp log.
“Thanks for coming,” she said as though she had invited them to a cookout.
“Are you Willow Ashcroft?” A tallish trooper she had never met before was speaking to her. His deep voice was reminiscent of a creamy chocolate fondue, warm and decadent creating a surprising need to take a lick. His dark, vivid blue eyes seemed to mesmerize her. Lulled by the vibrant depths, Willow didn’t notice the chill.
She nodded, reaching her hand down to still a twinging tummy. “Yes.”
“Hey, Willow. What happened here?” asked Jonathon Matheson, another trooper stepping out of the vehicle’s passenger seat.
“Oh.” Willow gave herself a mental shake. “Hi, Jon, I don’t know for sure.” Willow tried to ignore the appreciative look of Jon, the same one since high school, and the impatient look of trooper number one.
“I took some pictures and sketched the sunrise before I went on my run. When I came back, I opened the door, to see my car ransacked and work gone.”
The unnamed trooper asked some questions. “Did you lock your doors?”
“My equipment was in it, so yes, I locked my doors. Who are you again?” Willow was irritated that someone she didn’t know would be so rude as to not introduce himself and then to act as though she was an idiot. This was rural Alaska; no one locked their doors.
“I’m Trooper Hart, ma’am, my apologies for not introducing myself.” Arrogant, but he apologized nicely. He had a killer smile that caused little crinkles in the olive complexion around his eyes. As tasty as he looked, though, attitude was everything, and he was flunking that part in a major way. She was willing to overlook it if the man found her things.
“Oh, sorry, Willow. He’s the new investigator transferred from Nome. He’s only been here a few weeks. He’ll get used to the place.”
“Oh, right. Does this rate an investigator?”
“You’d be surprised what we investigate.”
Willow nodded her understanding. “So what about my car, guys, my things?”
“Well, let’s look at it,” offered Jon.
“Ma’am, did you see anyone around here when you parked or at any other time?”
“Nope, don’t usually this far out of town this time of year.”
“Willow has the big stone and wood homestead at the end of the road. Her family has been on the island for generations. They were here before most people could find Alaska on a map. She’s one of the town’s most famous artists. In an area full of artists, that’s saying something.” He announced it with communal pride in his voice. “She wins most competitions she enters in the state such as the Art of Alaska Show. My sister Amy says since Willow’s gotten national mention now, she should bow out and let the amateurs compete,” Trooper Matheson said with a laugh.
Willow blushed. “I might do that actually, after this year. Amy has a good chance of winning this year.”
Trooper Hart nodded and then stopped writing in his little notebook.
Turning towards her with dawning realization he asked, “Wait, Willow Ash? That’s you?”
She smiled and inclined her head. “Yep, that’s me.”
“You do incredible work, ma’am.” Trooper Hart’s voice was appreciative, and Willow’s cheeks heated to a deeper red.
“Thank you and please, call me Willow, everyone does.”
He nodded in acknowledgment. “Now Willow, what about this break in? Anyone angry with you or anyone you owe money or art, maybe? Anything people might want to break into your car over?”
“No, I mean I’m on the borough council and some people might not like how I vote but this is a small community, and actually, I’ve lived here my whole life except for Art College back east and my little jaunts to travel. Most people know me.”
“Well, then might be kids or something. Is there anything missing?”
“Don’t know except my sketchpad seems gone.”
“What?” asked Officer Hart.
“You told me not to touch it and when I could see it had been gone through, I never opened the door all the way. I try to do what I’m told if it’s reasonable. Even as an unruly artist, I do respect authority and the law.”
“I didn’t mean…”
She waved his words off with a dismissive hand and a shake of her head.
“Right,” Officer Hart continued, “let’s look then shall we?”
As they sifted through the SUV, Willow’s teeth started to chatter. Officer Hart looked alarmed and asked in a gruff voice that had a touch of accusation in it, “You cold?”
“J-j-j-ust a little,” she answered. He looked annoyed and began to take off his jacket.
“No, I have a c-c-oat inside my car.”
“Put this on, we’ll be done in a minute.” Authority had spoken.
Willow sniffed. “No, I’m-“
Officer Hart leaned into her while he put his coat around her shoulders. “No arguing, just do it.”
“Okay,” she whispered in response. Her knees almost buckled when he smiled.
Panties Are Not Optional by Georgia St. Claire
Kathy Wilson has to find a new place to live and the immaculate town of Menton, with its abundance of flowers, nice people and ideal room rental seems like just the place. When she meets a great guy over lunch on a park bench and he brings her flowers for their dinner date that night, she is hooked. What’s not to love?
Nate Burrows spots the cutest gal having lunch in the park and knows that she is new to town – he’d remember if he’d seen her before and Menton was too small for her to have stayed hidden for any length of time. As he’s watching her while contemplating how to introduce himself, she antagonizes one of the town’s most powerful citizens and he intervenes to smooth things over. Nate is smitten and secures her agreement to have dinner with him. It’s his big chance to convince her to make Menton her new home, but first he needs to explain how old-fashioned the townsfolk tend to be and what’s likely to happen to misbehaving women. There’s a very real reason why panties are not optional.
“I’m one short, Dottie. Would you check the ladies room please? I’m already behind schedule, I can’t afford to lose any more time.”
“Sure.” The diner owner put down the cloth she was using to wipe down a freshly cleared table and headed to the back of the building. She returned almost immediately. “Sorry, Cliff, no one in there. Which one are you missing? Maybe I overheard something.”
“She didn’t come directly in when I unloaded the passengers. She looked pretty green around the gills. I’m guessing she’s one of those folks who get bus sick. Last seen, she was headed back up the street.”
“Uh oh. I had a cousin like that. Based on what I saw with her, she would do anything to avoid getting back on the bus once the nausea set in. How far is she riding?”
“She didn’t actually buy a ticket. A car came tearing up as I was about to pull out of the station and the driver basically pushed her on board. Gave me some bills and told me to drive her as far as the money would take her. She’s a little thing. Oh, don’t get me wrong, she’s of age, I’m sure, but she didn’t try to argue, just walked to the very back of the bus and took a seat. The woman stayed until I pulled out and then flipped the bird as I drove away. Can’t help thinking that little gal’s out of a bad situation, but I hate to continue on and leave her stranded here. She doesn’t need another hard knock right now.”
“I can ask the sheriff, in case he knows something, but I doubt it. This stop wasn’t for much more than an hour. How much trouble could she get into?”
They looked at each other and shook their heads. Just then a tall man wearing a sheriff’s uniform entered the diner. He removed his Stetson and nodded to them as he headed to a table.
“Wait, Will. One of Cliff’s passengers has wandered off. He needs to get back on the road; he’s running late. Do you know anything to shed some light on the matter?” Dottie asked.
He shook his head. “Not a thin’. It’s been a quiet mornin’. Anythin’ you want me to know once she does show up?”
The bus driver shook his head. “She was quiet, no problem on the bus. I think that she was suffering from motion sickness, so she probably hasn’t just mistaken the time.” He pulled some cash from his pocket and handed it to Will. “She didn’t purchase a proper ticket, so here’s what I was given. I’d appreciate it if you would return it to her when you see her. It’ll ease my conscience some, since I’m gonna head out and leave her behind. I just can’t afford to fall any further behind schedule.” He nodded goodbye and went out to the idling bus.
The sheriff followed him out of the diner. “Drive careful, now. No speedin’ to try to make up the lost time. Word has it that 83 has a bad accident near Springfield, so if you take 126 instead, you should avoid the slow down.”
“I appreciate the information. Thanks.” Cliff climbed aboard the bus, closed the doors and pulled away from the curb, carefully checking his mirrors for his errant passenger.
After taking a moment to study the length of Main Street looking for anything out of the ordinary, Will went back inside the restaurant. “Let me know if you see her, won’t you, Dottie?”
“Sure thing, Will. Feeling like the special today?”
“Yup, and about a gallon of coffee. Ray bought the cheap stuff again for the station.”
Kathy turned her face to the sun, eyes closed, and let the soothing warmth ease her spirits. She leaned back on the park bench and surrendered to the peace of the moment. The bees were buzzing from flower to flower in the carefully tended beds, birds were chirping and she could smell that the grass had recently been mowed. There had been so much chaos in her life recently that she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the simple serenity of taking the time to enjoy nature. Well, with the events of the last few hours, her life had obviously just undergone a drastic change and it was up to her to make the decisions going forward that would bring her what she wanted. No more letting other people push her in whatever direction they wanted. This small gem of a park was only two blocks from her new home; she would make it a point to take time to smell the flowers from now on.
Her stomach rumbled and she sighed as she opened her eyes. The fresh air had restored her normal good health and her appetite was reminding her that she had missed dinner the night before. She opened the plastic bag and fished out the sandwich makings that she had just purchased down the street.
Things were already starting to look up. So far her new town was really pleasing her. The buildings were well kept up with lots of window boxes and flowering containers. There was no sign of litter anywhere. The town was small, but had all the necessary shops near her rented room. It was unusual to find a decent size grocery store right in the middle of downtown-a real lifesaver when one has to function without a car. The room she’d rented was nicely appointed and the landlady seemed friendly. Now she just needed to find a job. Since she was willing to do just about any kind of scut work, she wasn’t expecting that to be a problem.
Flattening the bag to make a work surface next to her on the bench, she opened up the bread and took out two slices. Then she picked up the peanut butter, unscrewed the lid and removed the foil cover underneath. She dipped in the paring knife she’d also purchased and used it to spread a thin coat on the first piece of bread. It would be wise to be sparing with her resources until she had a steady paycheck coming in. She carefully cleaned the utensil on the other slice to make sure that no peanut butter was wasted and then turned her attention to the jar of cheap grape jelly.
Normally she would use a bottle opener to lift the lid slightly and break the airtight seal, making it easy for her small hands to twist it open. But she hadn’t wanted to spend money buying something that she would rarely use. She’d just have to hope that desperation would give her strength. She took a deep breath and gave it her best effort. She couldn’t feel even the slightest bit of yield. “Damn!” Gathering the hem of her tee shirt, she fitted it over the jar, hoping to get a better grip, and tried again. No luck. “Shit and double shit! What am I supposed to do now?” she asked the cosmos.
“I beg your pardon! What did you just say?” demanded the man sitting on the next bench as he looked at her with a displeased expression.
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