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12 Naughty Days of Christmas 2016

Christmas Anthology : 2016

By: Jenny Plumb, Amelia Smarts, Bethany Leigh, Bryony Kildare, Constance Masters, Delia Grace, Katherine Deane, Kelly Dawson, Lucy Wild, Megan McCoy, Paige Mallory, Sheri Lynn, Vanessa Brooks
Published By: Blushing Press
Copyright: ©2016 by Blushing Books®
13 Stories / 204,800 words
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Cold nights? Do you need something to warm you up? This collection of 13 holiday themed stories will be sure to keep you warm. 13 authors, 13 stories!

 

  • Twenty Four Days by Jenny Plumb
  • Grandma Got Run Over By Raina, Dear by Katherine Deane
  • Christmas With Callie by Amelia Smarts
  • His Christmas Brat by Kelly Dawson
  • Spending Christmas With Jessica by Paige Mallory
  • A Very Georgian Christmas by Vanessa Brooks
  • The Santa Wrangler by Megan McCoy
  • A Very Jackson Christmas by Delia Grace
  • A Merry EX-Mas by Sheri Lynn
  • The Aussie and the Irish Christmas by Constance Masters
  • A Merry Little Christmas by Bethany Leigh
  • A Midwinter Marriage by Bryony Kildare
  • A Carol for Christmas by Lucy Wild

Excerpts from the 12 Naughty Days of Christmas – 2016

 

Twenty-Four Days

By Jenny Plumb

 

Cora reread the letter for the twentieth time, changing a word here and a phrase there while her knee nervously bounced up and down. Her nails were bitten down to nothing, her stomach continued to roll unpleasantly, and her lower lip was going to be bruised if she continued to gnaw on it while typing. But this had to be exactly right. For the thousandth time she imagined all the possible outcomes of this letter.

Her cell phone buzzed, startling her out of her reverie. The name Jay flashed on the screen, and her eyes opened wide when she realized what time it was. Had she really been sitting here for three hours contemplating this letter?

“Crap.” She picked up the phone, brushed her long brown hair away from her ear, and forced a smile on her face. “Hi, honey.”

“I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t pick up, because that would mean you were on your way here.”

“I’m sorry, I got caught up in something here at home, but I’m all dressed and ready. I’ll head your way right now.” She hit the print button on her computer before she lost her nerve, and got up to slip her heels on. She could hear him sigh on the other end of the line.

“Cora, we’ve talked about this.”

She cringed. Considering the letter she just wrote to him, maybe being late to Thanksgiving dinner at his parent’s house wasn’t the best idea. “I know, and I truly am sorry. I didn’t mean to lose track of the time.”

“I know you didn’t. You never do. Just… don’t speed on your way over here, okay? My mom said dinner will be ready in about half an hour, so you should make it here right on time. There are all kinds of drunk drivers out there, so I want you to focus on driving safe, not on rushing.”

She got the papers off the printer and pouted while he lectured. She folded them in half without glancing at the words again, and wrote his name on the back. “I promise not to speed, and I’ll watch out for all the crazies on the road.”

“Okay babe, I’ll see you soon.”

“Bye.”

Once she hung up, she stuck her phone in her purse, and slipped her jacket on. She hastily slapped the papers down on the kitchen table. The white paper starkly contrasted with the brown tablecloth. She turned to leave, but then hesitated for a moment, looking back at the letter. “Stop being such a pussy,” she muttered to herself. That seemed to do the trick, because she was able to force her feet towards the door, and soon she was in her car, driving to her in-laws’ house.

* * *

An hour and a half later when everyone was full, Jay pulled Cora into the hallway to have a private conversation while his parents cleared the table. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asked with genuine concern.

She’d tried to behave normally during dinner, but apparently her fake smile hadn’t fooled him. She’d changed her mind about giving him the confessional letter she’d spent the morning writing, but she couldn’t exactly tell him that. Instead she put a hand on her stomach and said, “I’m not feeling well. I think maybe I need to go home.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. She did feel sick because of her nerves.

“Aw, babe, I’m sorry. You should have said something earlier. Were you feeling sick before? Is that why you were late?”

“That might have been part of it.”

“We’ll go home right now.”

He turned to walk back to the dining room, but she put a hand on his arm to stop him. “No! I mean, you shouldn’t have to leave, just because I’m not feeling well. You haven’t even had dessert yet, and your mom made pecan pie just for you.”

He put a hand on the side of her face. “I’m not going to send you home alone when you’re feeling ill. I’ll get a couple of slices to go.”

“But your parents will be so disappointed if you leave early.”

“My parents love you, Cora. They wouldn’t want you pretending to be okay when you’re feeling sick, and they wouldn’t want you going home alone.”

“But we took two cars, so I’ll have to drive anyway. There’s no reason—”

“No.” He cut her off firmly.

“No?”

“I don’t want you driving if you’re feeling sick. We’ll leave your car here and pick it up tomorrow.”

She put a hand on her stomach, feeling worse by the second. If he drove her home, there was no way to hide the letter before he saw it.

He rubbed her back gently. “Come on, babe, I’ve decided. I’m driving you home.”

She wanted to protest, cause a scene, and rush home to rip up the letter, but that kind of behavior wasn’t in her nature. Instead, she let him take her to the kitchen to say goodbye to his folks, and much too soon she was in her husband’s car going home. She leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and prayed that she’d be able to run in and grab the letter before he saw it. Then she prayed that if he did end up seeing it, that it wouldn’t be the end of their marriage.

They’d only been married for five months, but they’d been in a relationship for two years, and they’d known each other since high school.

Her parents had moved into the house next to his parents’ house in her junior year. She’d been awestruck by him at the time. He was a senior, captain of the swim team, and class president, while she was in the band and the chess club, and too shy to talk to the more popular kids. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, with an athletic build, while she had brown hair, brown eyes, and a curvy figure. They weren’t exactly an obvious match, and back then he never gave her a second glance.

They’d both gone away to college, and didn’t see each other much over the next few years. As luck would have it, they both graduated from college the same year.

A week after graduation, Jay’s parents threw him a huge party, and invited everyone on the block to prevent noise complaints. Cora had no plans to go, but her mother cajoled her into checking it out once the music started.

As she was walking along the sidewalk, she heard loud yelling coming from Jay’s house, and stood still. A few seconds later she saw a woman rushing out of Jay’s house and down the stairs. Jay ran out after her and yelled, “Bess! Bess, don’t leave like this! Come back and talk to me!”

The woman flipped him off, got in her car, and drove off.

“Fuck!” Jay kicked the railing of the porch. He stormed back into his house without noticing Cora, and Cora quickly turned back around and hurried home.

Later that night, as she was getting ready for bed, she heard an odd sound coming from outside. She went to the window and saw Jay sitting in her backyard drinking a bottle of tequila and quietly crying. She went out to comfort him, and they ended up talking the whole night. They watched the sun come up together on his front porch swing, and had been inseparable ever since.

 Cora heard the car shut off, bringing her out of her memories. She didn’t even look in Jay’s direction. She immediately got out of the car, and rushed towards the door to their little townhouse apartment. She heard him call her name, but she ignored that in favor of unlocking the door and running to the kitchen table. She snatched up the letter, crumpled it, and shoved it in her purse.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Jay’s voice asked, directly behind her.

Startled, she gasped and spun around. “What? Nothing! I’m not doing anything.”

His eyes narrowed, and he pointed to her purse. “What are you hiding from me?”

A tiny whimper escaped her throat. “It’s nothing. It’s just… I… I…”

“Cora Ann,” he said, clearly displeased. “We don’t keep secrets from each other. Hand it over. Right now.”

There was no way she could keep it hidden now. Her pulse raced, and her hand shook as she reached in to pull out the wadded up sheets of paper. She handed it over, and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Before he had a chance to even look at the papers, she burst into tears, and ran up to their bedroom. She tossed her purse on the floor, kicked her heels off, and climbed under the covers of their bed with her jacket still on. Covered up in the dark, she let herself cry while all kinds of horrible thoughts circled in her head. What if he laughed at her? What if he ridiculed her and called her names? What if he thought she needed therapy? What if he decided he didn’t want to be married to her anymore?

Five minutes later, she had just barely gotten her tears under control when she heard his footsteps on the stairs. Her entire body tensed, and she pulled the covers up over her head and held tight, not caring if it was a childish move. She heard him flick on the light, and then felt the bed dip beside her as he sat down.

“I never told you the full story about Bess and why we broke up,” Jay said softly.

Surprised by those words, she pulled the covers down to peek at her husband, but his eyes were on her letter.

“She didn’t flip out about me being a controlling asshole because I told her she’d had enough to drink.” He swallowed hard, and then made eye contact. “It was because of what I said after that. I told her I was going to spank her as soon as we were alone.”

Cora’s eyes opened wide.

“She called me abusive for even saying it, and never spoke to me again. That rejection… well it hit me hard, and I was so afraid that you’d leave me if I even suggested spanking for anything other than a light slap during sex.”

He held up her letter and said, “Everything you describe in here is something I want to do with you.” He pointed to the first paragraph and said, “Spanking as foreplay. Yes.” He pointed to the next section. “Spanking for fun when roleplaying. Yes.” He flipped the page and said, “Spanking as punishment.” He looked her in the eye. “Absolutely yes.”

“Really?” she whispered, not quiet believing it could be true.

He nodded. “Really, and to prove I’m serious about it…” He set the papers down by the foot of the bed, scooted himself back a little and patted his thigh. “We’re going to have the rest of this conversation with you over my lap.”

She quickly shook her head. “What, like right now?”

“Yes, right now.”

“But… shouldn’t we talk about it first?”

“We’re going to talk about it a lot over the next few days, but for right now, just a little taste of what’s to come.” He leaned over, and kissed her forehead. “Trust me.”

“Okay, but my clothes need to stay on.”

“Why?”

Unable to make eye contact she said softly, “It’s that time of month, and anyway the lights are on and you’ll be looking right at my fat—”

“Hey!” He cut her off sharply.

She amended her statement. “Well, you know how I feel about my ass and thighs.”

“Yeah I do, and you know that I disagree. I don’t want an anorexic looking woman with no ass. You’re not fat by any stretch of the imagination, and it pisses me off when you put yourself down, so knock it off.”

His scolding made her blush. She didn’t agree with his assessment, but she knew from experience that arguing wouldn’t do any good. Logically she knew she was thinner than a lot of women, but thanks to her mother’s assessment of what it meant to be thin while growing up, she only felt shame when she looked in a mirror.

“Look at me.” His tone was gentle again. When she made eye contact, he said, “We can talk about that later. Tonight I want you to feel comfortable for your first time, so I’ll leave your clothes on. Okay?”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Over my lap.”

With her stomach full of butterflies, she sat up, shed her jacket, and slowly moved to kneel beside him on the bed. Then his hand was on her lower back guiding her down across his thighs, with her body supported on the bed. She shuddered at the feeling of finally being in this position when she’d imagined it more times than she could count. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation of his hand rubbing her behind over her skirt.

The first smack caught her slightly off guard, and she gasped at the light sting. A soft ‘Oh’ came out of her when the second spank landed on the other side. With each successive swat, the tension and nerves of the day started to slowly melt away, and by the time he paused, around swat number forty, she was completely relaxed and pliant.

“I think this is going to be amazing for both of us.” He rubbed out the sting. “I always knew you were on the submissive side, I just didn’t realize you also had a spanking fetish that went with it. I wish I’d been man enough to say something earlier.”

She looked back at him. “The same is true for me. I always knew you were dominant, that’s a big part of what I love about you, but I didn’t know you’d be okay with spanking. There was this guy in college… I told him about it, but he said I was messed up, so that made me reluctant to ever tell someone about it again. I mean, I knew you’d be okay with something light, because you slap my butt playfully all the time, but punishment… that’s different.”

“Speaking of punishment, you lied to me today. You said you were sick, but you weren’t sick, you were nervous.”

She was utterly still and held her breath. Was he actually going to do it? Was she actually going to get the thing she’d desperately wanted for so long?

He wrapped his arm around her waist. “I think six hard spanks for that, and then you can be forgiven. Do you agree?”

Her head dipped down twice in a tiny nod.

The loud clap of hand smacking cloth-covered behind filled her ears while the sharp sensation of a much harder slap to her left ass cheek shot up to her brain. She gasped and her muscles tensed up. Another slap landed on the right, and a small grunt came out of her before she could hold it back. The third smack landed dead center catching some of both cheeks at once, and her right foot came up off the bed a few inches. The next swat hit lower on her left side, right at the point where her ass and thigh met. “Oh!” A matching smack on the right elicited an actual, “Ow!” from her, and the last swat that was up in the center of her butt again, made her wiggle and whine, “Ow, Jay. That really hurt.”

“Yeah, it was supposed to.” He rubbed her behind again. “The question is, how do you feel about it hurting?”

“I… I’m not sure. I’ll need to think about it.”

“Fair enough, I need to think it over too. Sit up so I can give you a hug.”

She pushed herself off his lap, and sat next to him on the bed. He wrapped his arm around her waist, and kissed the top of her head.

“I was so nervous before,” she said, “but now… now I’m just relieved.”

He patted her back. “Let’s go have some pie, and watch a movie, something to help us relax before bed. We can talk about this all day tomorrow since we both have the day off.”

She tilted her head up, and gave him a kiss. “That sounds perfect.”

 

***

Grandma Got Run Over by Raina, Dear

By Katherine Deane

 

Raina Michaels shifted in the corner, glancing around quickly to see if John was there. Nope, he had probably gone to get a drink, or, she shuddered and clenched her poor, already pink bottom, an implement from the kitchen drawer. He had only spanked her with his hand so far, but holy cow, it felt like a paddle. The sheriff of Saukville, Wisconsin wasn’t just a pencil pusher behind a desk. He also ran his family’s small farm, giving him that extra paddle-ability strength and hardness. Her bottom agreed. She winced and rubbed out of some of the soreness.

The door behind her eased open, and she hurried to get back into position, hearing a low chuckle as he entered.

“Naughty girl.” He tsked and massaged her shoulders. “What did I tell you would happen if you rubbed?”

Oh God. She moaned as he ran his fingers down her back, over her curves, squeezing her cheeks. He continued between her legs, and flicked her swollen clit. She couldn’t help it. As much as she hated the pain of being disciplined by this man, she also yearned for it. Her body ached for it. Her pussy clenched and leaked arousal, begging for more of him.

“What happens, little girl?” he growled and smacked her pussy, making her breathless.

“No, please.”

“You don’t get to come, do you?” he said as he started expertly tickling her most sensitive area, scorching her already overheated body.

“Please, John. I’m sorry I rubbed. I’ll get back into position. I won’t move. You can spank me with that horrible brush,” she begged and tried to close her legs around his wrist to alleviate some of the ache.

He gave her a series of hard swats and removed his hand. “You are absolutely right. You aren’t going to move. I am going to use the hairbrush. I’m going to punish your naughty little bottom, and you’re going to be a good girl and take it, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir!” She yelped when he smacked her sit spots.

“I still haven’t decided if I’ll let you have your release or not. But we only have two more hours before Granny gets back with Eli. So we’d better get going.” He pulled her out of the corner and gave her a warm hug, his chest and arms so strong and firm. She felt safe in them. “Why don’t you bend over the bed while I get the rest of your punishment ready?”

She complied quickly, racing to place her hips over the stacked pillows and her feet on the floor.

“We’re going to try something different this time, since you seem to need a little extra incentive when dealing with Grace.”

She turned her head to the side and watched as he pulled a long, pale object out of the glass of water.

“This is ginger root,” he explained, showing it to her. “It goes inside your bottom.”

It was peeled and cut into a shape that made it wider on one end. She shivered and felt her whole body tense. “Will it hurt?” Her voice sounded so little and young.

“You know I would never hurt you, sweet girl.” He wrapped his body around hers, engulfing her in a hug, then patted her bottom gently. “But this will create a nice little heat inside your bottom to remind you to behave around that woman, and to let me do my job. Are you ready?”

“Y-yes, sir.” She was nervous about this heat he had mentioned, but she knew John wouldn’t harm her.

“So, before we begin, why are you in this position, about to have your bottom filled with ginger root, and then paddled?” His clear blue eyes were kind, but held a firm gaze of authoritativeness in them, just like when he’d stopped her the first time, for parking on the wrong side of the road.

“I should have left Grace alone, and let you do your job.”

“Just like I told you the first time.”

She nodded.

* * *

Three weeks earlier:

 

Sheriff John Tate left his pew in the back row, and followed the rest of the congregation out the doors, stopping to shake hands and acknowledge greetings from others. The only person he had eyes for at the moment was the gorgeous strawberry blonde in the red and green dress and elf hat. Her six year old son had placed it on her head right before they walked out, and she had just hugged him and kept it on. John already liked the woman, her keen intelligence, the sweet way she talked to all children, the way she actually listened to Mr. Harper’s old war stories, but this – wearing a silly elf hat amongst a congregation full of people, just to make her son happy –spoke the most to his heart.

Raina Michaels and her son continued out toward the parking lot, and he looked at her old beat-up Ford Escort, remembering their first meeting several months earlier when he had let her off with a warning. Being new to the town, a single mother, and completely alone, he would have felt bad for giving her a ticket just for not knowing not to park on Main Street before seven PM. The way her face had gone from apprehension and fear to gratefulness, then followed by her appraisal of him, made him want to take her in his arms and do delightfully sinful things to her body, just to see what other emotions she showed so easily on her expressive face.

They had connected really well on a coffee date, and John thought they could become a couple after their dinner date right before Thanksgiving. But then she had stopped returning his calls, seeming to shut him down. She looked tired and a bit thinner. Being a single mother must be hard work, but she had seemed to be holding it together when she first moved in. Everyone liked her. She was a godsend to Mrs. Nichols’ kindergarten class. And her weekly visits to the Saukville nursing home kept everyone in smiles.

Everyone except her.

Now that she was almost to her car, a sad, tired look of despondency had affixed to her features, and had probably been there for a few weeks. Damn, he should have called her earlier, visited her at the nursing home, made her tell him what was going on. He hadn’t felt this way about a woman in a long time – too long.

Today, he was going to talk to Raina Michaels. One way or another, she would tell him what was going on. He pasted a smile on his face and jogged over to the tan car.

“Ms. Michaels, good to see you. Let’s have a chat.”

Her eyes went wide, and she swallowed a few times before turning to her son, Eli. “Would you like to go play with your friends for a few minutes while I talk to Sheriff Tate?”

“Yeah! Hey, Sheriff Tate. Bye!” The six and a half year old boy, gave them both a wide front teeth gapped smile, before racing back to the other kids playing in the big meadow in front of the church.

“Am I in trouble, Sheriff?” She smiled, but nervous energy radiated off her.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

***

 

Christmas with Callie

By Amelia Smarts

California, 1871

 

Jude Johnson slotted his foot into the saddle’s stirrup and hoisted himself to the mare’s back. It had been a successful day at his new ranch. With the help of his friend Billy, he’d been able to brand half his herd with the ranch’s unique identifier.

Now the workday was done and he looked forward to getting home to his bride. He nudged the mare into a trot and headed for their log cabin, eager to see Callie’s grin and mischievous dancing eyes. He couldn’t help but smile whenever he thought of her. Before he purchased the ranch, he’d been a stagecoach driver. It was during his journey from Missouri to California that he’d experienced the pleasure and frustration of having Callie as a passenger. When she hadn’t been stirring up trouble and telling tall tales, she’d been weaving her way into his heart.

Jude slowed to a walk to allow the mare to pick her feet at her leisure through the rocky riverbed. He sighed. Callie was just about as loveable as a woman could be, but she was also naughty and, for that reason, she’d been at the receiving end of Jude’s displeasure on more than one occasion. Having grown up an orphan, she hadn’t been exposed to much love or discipline, and she’d been desperately in need of both when Jude came into her life. He’d seen to it that she got what she needed, whether it was a shoulder to cry on or a firm swat to her backside.

He hadn’t spanked Callie for some time, but he feared that spell was coming to an end. She had a penchant for lying and bragging, using it as a way to make herself sound important. She’d gotten better since he married her, but those particular character traits hadn’t fully disappeared.

She’d been lying to Jude every evening since they’d settled at the ranch, pretending she was cooking the meals she clearly was buying from the restaurant on Main Street in Sacramento. Jude had allowed her to continue with the ruse for a couple weeks, hoping she would eventually fess up. A confession still hadn’t happened, though, and enough was enough.

After Jude fed and rubbed down the horse, he entered the cabin to find Callie pouring sautéed onions over restaurant-purchased roast beef. He knew this was another of his wife’s tricks – sautéing spices to fill the cabin with smells that added to the illusion of cooking.

Shaking his head, he removed his Stetson and placed it on the rack while stomping his boots on the rug. Callie turned, uttered a squeal of glee upon seeing him, and launched herself into his arms. He tried to remain strong in his resolve to give her a seeing-to, but he struggled to focus when her young body, which was firm yet soft in all the right places, pressed so enticingly into the planes of his chest and abs.

He wrapped his arms around her. “Hello, little hellion.”

She tilted her head up and smiled the sweetest smile at him, which prompted him to bend and give her a sound kiss. He squeezed her tighter to him.

When their lips unlocked, she said, “I’m glad you’re home. Are you hungry?”

“Yes, I am,” he responded. He brushed some flour off her cheek with his thumb.

She rubbed off the rest with her palm. “I got that flour on my face while baking a peach pie,” she informed him.

He closed his eyes. Billy had just mentioned to him that Eva was serving peach pie all week at her restaurant. She and a couple of her friends in town had some kind of preserving party, and the result was fresh pies for Eva’s customers – and for Callie’s continued deception, it seemed.

Jude walked toward the kitchen with one arm draped around the little liar’s shoulders. That’s a new trick, he muttered to himself. She was creative, he’d give her that, although she could have done a little better with the flour. She gave away that she’d purposely dusted it on her cheek by knowing right away what he was brushing off of her, without him saying. His wife deserved a darned good licking, but first he would eat the supper from Eva’s Restaurant and give her one more chance to come clean.

He sat at the head of the table and watched Callie spoon Eva’s green beans onto his plate.

“How did branding go today?” she asked.

“Just fine. Billy helped me with the design to use for the brand, and we were able to mark about half the herd. I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to make something like that. It takes some fancy blacksmithing.” He gave her a pointed look. “It’s good to ask people for help when you don’t know how to do something.”

Callie nodded, oblivious to his thinly veiled suggestion. “Yes, I agree, it’s good you asked Billy for help with that.” She placed two of Eva’s rolls onto his plate.

“I hope you know you can ask for help if you need it,” he pressed. “Lots of folks would be willing to help you get settled in here, Billy’s wife Annie, for one. I know she took a shine to you on our journey west, and Billy has mentioned to me how much she enjoys your company.”

Callie waved her hand dismissively. “I don’t need help. I reckon anything done at home is easier than cutting cattle.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Cooking seems a mite tricky.” Jude studied her, willing her to come clean.

Callie avoided his eyes and concentrated hard on spooning mashed potatoes onto his plate. Jude watched her silently. After the mashed potatoes, she delivered three slabs of roast beef to his plate and one to her own. He knew that any cut of meat available at Harry’s meatpacking shop would come in a much larger portion. They would have beef for days if she were spending her money on bulk goods, as opposed to spending an arm and a leg on individual meals each day.

Jude set down his water glass with a thud and cleared his throat to give her a good scolding, but then he noticed her flushed cheeks and the worried lines etched along her forehead. His stern words got stuck somewhere in his throat. He knew his wife. He understood how difficult it was for her to admit weakness of any kind. When she was living at the orphans’ home, showing weakness would get her mocked, or worse, abused. Instead of taking the time to teach her, Bentley would have berated her or thrown her in the closet. Growing up without a mother had left Callie lacking in the skills typically imparted from mother to daughter, like cooking, mending, and other such womanly ventures.

He wished he knew how to help her feel better about not being typical. She was different, and that was one of the reasons he loved her. She could shoot a gun about as good as any gunslinger west of the Mississippi, and she had a headful of knowledge about herbs and medicines. He admired that. She was smart and plucky, and that was how she’d survived her terrible childhood. He wanted to give her a much happier future, and he didn’t like seeing worry on her face. He also didn’t like that she felt she needed to lie to him.

“How was your day, darlin’?” he asked, gentling his voice. “Tell me what you did today.”

Callie sat down and sawed into her roast beef as Jude did the same to his. “I was awful busy today. I started baking just right after you left this morning. It takes time for bread to rise.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “I had to get the dough and roll it around, you know? And press my fists into it, then lift it and turn it over and do that again.”

“You mean you had to knead it,” Jude supplied.

“Yes!” she exclaimed, snapping her fingers. “That’s it. I had to knead it something fierce.”

Jude groaned and ate a bite of his roll. He couldn’t allow this to continue, and he needed to make very sure that he punished her firmly enough that she stopped lying to him altogether.

 

***

 

His Christmas Brat

By Kelly Dawson

 “No! I won’t go!” Virginia Stiles was nothing if not spoilt, and with the extra screechy inflection she’d added into her voice, she was certain she’d eventually get her way. But as she stood there, in her father’s office, her hands on her hips, it appeared that her wishes weren’t going to be honoured this time. Her father’s face was set like flint, his lips thin in a grim line of determination. She watched as he leaned back in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, his feet crossed at the ankles.

“Yes, you are,” he insisted.

It was time to take a different tack.

“But Daddy!” she wheedled, changing her outraged, screechy tone to a more civilised, begging one. “I’ll miss you so much! I’ve never spent Christmas away from you before, not in the whole time I’ve been living with you! Besides, there’s that party…”

“No.” It was a word she rarely heard pass Tom Stiles’ lips, and it was spoken in a tone that was so harsh, so final. She flinched. “Everything is arranged. Your grandparents haven’t seen you in ten years – not since your mother passed. Every year, they’ve been asking me to send you home for Christmas, and I keep meaning to do it, but never do. So you’re going now, before they get too old.”

“I want to see them, Daddy, I really do, but can’t I go later in the year? It’s the Bachelor Party, Daddy. It’s the biggest one of the year!” A lone tear trickled down her cheek, but she made no effort to wipe it away. If the tears didn’t work to manipulate her famous father into changing his mind, nothing would.

“You’re not going to that party, Gin. Even if you stay here, you’re not going.”

“What do you mean? Of course I’m going, I’ve got everything all organised!”

Her father shook his head. “No. You’re definitely not going to that party.”

“I’m twenty years old! You can’t stop me from going!” she protested, her voice shrill.

 Her father sighed in that same tired way she’d been hearing for years. Tom was one of Hollywood’s most respected movie producers and had been dealing with divas for decades; that sigh meant he knew he’d lost that particular argument, but hadn’t lost the fight. She watched as he leaned back in his chair and frowned. “Maybe not. But you know what happened last time. I may not be able to keep you out of jail, this time round.”

Virginia shuddered. Yes, she remembered full well what had happened at the last huge rage she’d been to – her face had been plastered over the tabloids for weeks. The paparazzi had had a field day, zooming in on her face with mascara running down her cheeks, showing her stumbling over the kerb on the arm of a man she barely knew, the man who’d been responsible for her almost-demise. Despite not yet being of legal drinking age in California, alcohol was easy to come by in the circles she moved in, and so were drugs. Although she’d never been a user, the man she’d met at the party had changed that. When the tabloids had run the picture of her snorting cocaine through a rolled up twenty dollar bill, it had almost ruined her father. He’d been making a movie at the time, and had fluctuated between spending 24 hours a day on set to avoid both her and the media frenzy, and putting filming on hold completely, hiring Hollywood’s heaviest hitting lawyers to save not only her criminal record, but also her reputation.

Virginia pouted and stamped her foot in frustration. “It’s not fair!”

She watched as her father leaned back even further in his chair, and glowered at her over the rim of wired-framed glasses. “I’ve spoilt you, girl,” he admitted sadly. “You’ve got none of the values that I wanted you to have.” Leaning forward to place both palms on the edge of his desk, Tom rose to his feet. “A laid-back Kiwi Christmas will be good for you – away from the nightclubs and parties of Hollywood, and hopefully away from the paparazzi too. And I will also be introducing a spending limit on your credit cards.”

Virginia gasped. “Daddy! No! I like shopping!”

“You will still be able to go shopping, you’ll just have to start being sensible about it. I said I’m introducing a limit, not cutting it off altogether.”

“Do you want me to be miserable?” Virginia snapped, all pretence of tears gone.

“I want you to stay out of jail. I want you to be safe. And this is the best way I know of doing that. Besides, your Nan and Pop are looking forward to this visit – don’t ruin it for them. You can at least pretend to be happy.” Frowning again at Virginia, her father picked up the phone on his desk and dialled his secretary. “Send him in please,” he ordered into the receiver.

Instantly, there was a knock at the door, just three short, sharp raps, before it swung open.

Spinning around, Virginia watched, her mouth open in surprise, as Tom strode across the room to shake hands with the tall, dark, handsome stranger who stood just inside the doorway. Standing well over six feet tall, his sculpted muscles were visible even through his suit. Stubble darkened his chiselled jaw, and the edge of a tattoo on the side of his neck peeked above the collar of his shirt. Another tattoo covered the back of one hand, disappearing up inside the sleeve of his shirt and ending at the base of his fingers. His dark eyes were smouldering. Virginia licked her lips as her father made the introductions.

“Virginia, this is Shane. He will be your chaperone for your trip. Shane, meet Virginia, my daughter.”

Virginia swallowed hard and stared, wide-eyed, at the impressive specimen of manhood standing before her. “Ch-chaperone?” she stammered, confused. “Why do I need a chaperone?”

“I want to know you’re safe, my love,” her father told her. “Shane is ex-SAS. He’s trained in close combat and in martial arts – he will be your protection. He will also be your chauffeur and tour guide. And he will be responsible for keeping you out of trouble. He’s well versed in—”

“Handling spoilt brats.” Shane finished the sentence and stepped forward, his deep voice a rich baritone, sounding so loud in the small room. His accent nearly made her swoon. What was it? It sounded so familiar, yet so foreign.

“Excuse me? I am not a spoilt brat!” Virginia protested in outrage. But even as she said the words, she knew they weren’t true. Her father had spoiled her. She looked down at her hands that she was wringing in front of her nervously. The tiniest chip on her pinky nail marred the perfect French manicure – a luxury she maintained every week. Hopefully her now-limited budget would extend to regular beauty salon visits. Looking after her appearance was an essential for a socialite of her calibre. She never knew when she would be surrounded by photographers, and every week, she featured in a different magazine. Having her spending reined in was so unfair! It wasn’t like her father couldn’t afford it! Didn’t he know how important it was that she look good?

“We’ll see.” There was that deep voice again, sounding so sexy, spoken in barely more than a whisper. His accent rung in her ears, and it clicked. Aha! He was from New Zealand!

She looked across at him furiously, a death glare plastered to her face. The man was so rude! Shane met her eyes and smirked.

Rummaging around in one of the drawers of his big mahogany desk, her father retrieved a small plastic folder, from which he extracted a slip of shiny cardboard. He held it out to her. “Your ticket,” he told her. “You leave in the morning.”

Virginia gasped again. “In the morning?” she echoed his words, expressing her horror at the news she was travelling so soon. Picking up the ticket, she scanned it quickly. “And you’re flying me commercially?” Looking at the ground, she perfected her pout, before willing herself to cry again, wanting her father to see just how miserable he was making her. “What about your private jet?”

Her father shook his head firmly. “No.” He delved into the little plastic folder again, withdrawing another small slip of glossy cardboard, which he handed to Shane.

Looking at the ticket again, Virginia was too shocked even to cry. Economy. The word jumped off the page at her, mocking her. “You’re not even flying me business class?” she whispered, unable to even find her full voice.

Her father shook his head. “I think treating you like a normal person instead of a celebrity will be good for you.”

Virginia felt all the colour drain from her face as she balled the ticket up in her fists, forming the crinkly cardboard into a tight wad. “I will never forgive you for this!” she screamed. “I hate you! I’m going to ruin Christmas for everyone!” Throwing the balled up ticket at her father, she turned and ran from the room.

* * *

Shane watched Tom run his hands through his hair in exasperation, as the fast, furious click of Virginia’s heels on the tile floor echoed down the corridor. He’d been working as personal security in Hollywood for three years now and come across some real divas, but she was right up there with the worst of them.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Tom asked wearily. The famous movie producer’s face looked haggard and worn, as though he hadn’t slept a wink in days, and the pain his daughter’s parting words had caused him was evident in his grey eyes.

Nothing a good spanking won’t fix. He thought better of voicing his opinion, though, and instead, tried for the encouraging, positive approach. Rubbing his hands together, Shane forced a smile to his face. “We’ll be fine. I like challenges.”

***

 

Spending Christmas with Jessica

By Paige Mallory

December 22, 1873

 

Victor Bodey was relieved that his sweet little mother was out of town for the holidays. She was visiting with his Aunt Laurie. He would join them in Bigsby for Christmas dinner, but for now he was keeping the peace in Guthrie. Christmas was supposed to be a blessed time of year, honoring Jesus’ birth, but the Ames Gang was more interested in stealing the town blind, and snatching two or three girls to warm their beds while they took refuge from the winter in their hideout. Victor wasn’t going to allow that to happen. When he pinned on his badge two years earlier, he’d promised to keep the town and its people safe. He’d been doing pretty darn well at that so far, and he intended to continue in the same vein, keeping his town safe for all its residents.

Just before midnight on December 22, 1873, the Ames Gang rode into town and Susie Baker’s screams reached Victor’s ears. He ran to help her, and realized too late that it was a trap. Mortimer Ames was waiting to gun him down and Victor Bodey died that night.

* * *

December 22, 2016

 

It was late and Jessica Cosgrove was tired as she reached home. She wanted to lock up her weapons, take off her uniform and unpin her hair. Tomorrow would be another long day because the holidays tended to bring out the crazies. Their police force was short-handed due to all the budget cuts the town council thought it prudent to make, but the taxpayers still expected the same protection as always. The Chief of Police was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was working his police officers long hours, and paying more overtime. It was the holidays, and the mayor wanted Guthrie to be the perfect picture of peace and goodwill to all. Jess needed her paycheck, so she didn’t protest the overtime. It wasn’t like she had a husband, or even a boyfriend to care about her. What she did have was parents, nine siblings – some of whom were married or had significant others – and twenty-seven nieces and nephews to buy fabulous Christmas presents for. The extra money for overtime would help – unless she was too darn tired to go shopping in the next couple of days.

Jess was ready to climb the steps to her front porch when she heard a loud moan coming from the side yard. Alert as could be, she drew her gun to go and investigate. She had managed to make a couple of enemies since becoming a police officer, and she was going to proceed with caution. She made her way as quietly as possible around the corner of the house, thankful she could see well in the dark. She heard another groan of pain and to her surprise, she found a very large man lying there on the ground. “Sir, are you all right?” she asked, assuming he was drunk.

“No. I was shot. Get Doc Prentiss.”

“I’ll call for a bus to take you to the hospital.”

“No! I don’t want to die!”

“Who are you? Do you have some ID?”

“I’m the sheriff of Guthrie, Wyoming.”

“I happen to know the sheriff of Guthrie, and you are not him. Can you stand?” The man had to be drunk.

“I am the sheriff; I was shot, ma’am. Please get Doc.” The man’s speech was too clear for him to be a drunk.

“Who shot you? Did you get a look at them?”

“It was the Ames Gang. They abducted Susie Baker. I tried to save her, but they were waiting for me.”

Jess knew the history of Guthrie as well as any other citizen who was raised in the town. Everyone knew that the Ames Gang took Susie Baker, and the sheriff was nowhere to be found in the town. Some people thought he was murdered and his body disposed of. Others said the Ames Gang gave him money to leave town.

Jess’s first thought was that her buddies on the force were playing a practical joke on her. She decided to go along with the joke until she could think of a way to turn it around on the others. “Okay, Sheriff. Let’s get you inside so I can tend your wounds.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Are you new here? I don’t recognize your voice.”

“I have lived here my whole and entire life.” She helped him up, surprised at the size of the man! Next to him, she looked fragile and petite, neither of which were true. Jess was wary of taking a stranger inside her home, but she had her gun, and she knew how to use it if this were anything other than a practical joke. “Here we are. Have a seat.”

She watched him move toward a chair, and then he stopped and looked at her in confusion. “What place is this? Nothing is familiar to me.” His eyes widened as he looked at her. “Why are you dressed in men’s clothing?”

“I am wearing my uniform. I am a police officer, and I think a few of the boys are playing a gag on me. You can tell me; I won’t arrest you for silliness.”

“I am not playing a prank on you.” He was looking around him with eyes full of mistrust. “What is this place? Nothing looks right.”

“What’s wrong? You don’t like the shade of paint I picked?” she asked in good humor. “My sister absolutely hates it. I told her she could repaint it for me as a Christmas present. Why are you wearing a costume? Surely the guys didn’t think I would believe your story that you are a sheriff from 1873?”

“I am the sheriff of Guthrie. My wounds are gone!” he declared. “Mort Ames shot me at least three times, and yet, there is no pain at all.” He looked her quite funny, then asked, “I think I am beginning to understand; I am dead and in Heaven?”

“No!”

“This is Hell?” His dark eyes expressed genuine fright then.

“No! This is not Heaven and it isn’t Hell. This is simply 2016, and I think you must have fallen and hit your head. I am going to call an ambulance and take you to the Emergency Room to be seen by a doctor.”

“No. This cannot be. I am from 1873; why would I be here in your world?”

“I have to give you credit, buddy, you never give up. The gag is over, finished. I am extremely tired. I need a bath and my bed. I have to be on duty again at eight hundred hours. Please go home.”

“I have nowhere to go. I am in a strange situation. I know I am dead to my time and place, but why was I sent here? Do you need protection?” he asked, perfectly serious.

“I can take care of myself. I told you, I am a police officer. I carry a gun and I know how to use it.”

“Do you just shoot men who brawl? Or teens that are rowdy? What of gossiping women? Do you shoot them also?”

“I don’t shoot anyone! I use my brains to handle most situations. If I must arrest someone, I try to do it respectfully.”

“You should not be doing a man’s job. What is wrong with your husband that he permits you to be threatened and pushed about?”

“I have no husband.”

“Why is that? You are pretty enough to be married.”

“I haven’t met the right man,” she answered softly, flattered by his comment. “Please, now, I have had enough of your teasing. Tell the guys they got me good. Tell them also that they should tip you well because you have stayed in character the entire time. Good night now.” She walked over to open the door.

He didn’t budge. “I need answers. How is it you know of the Ames Gang? Are you related to them in some way?”

“Look— What is your name, mister?”

“Victor Bodey, ma’am. If you’ve lived in Guthrie your whole life, then you should know that. You must be telling me the truth about this being in the future.”

“You surely don’t expect me to buy into the lie that you are from 1873?”

“I do not lie. If you accuse me wrongly again, I’ll take you over my knee for a spanking.” Victor meant the words.

“You try manhandling me, and I’ll have you behind bars so fast you won’t know how it happened!”

“It is not manhandling to discipline a sassy redhead.”

“You get out of my house right now!”

“I would not know where to go. Things are very different here. Your lamps have long black whips attached to them.”

“Those are electrical cords,” she answered, then caught herself doing so. “You stop it now! I don’t want to play your game. I am exhausted and I need to sleep.”

“Explain how I came to be here. This is not heard of where I am from.” His dark eyes were compelling her to believe him, even though she knew he was acting.

“No more or I am going to arrest you and let you try to explain yourself to the judge.”

“You cannot arrest me; I am the sheriff!”

“You are not the sheriff; I know the sheriff, and believe me when I tell you that he would not be amused by this entire prank.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” he demanded, his dark eyes full of outrage.

“Yes, if it comes down to it, I am calling you a liar! You are no more the sheriff than I am! I know for a fact that someone is attempting to put one over on me, and it was damn funny at first, but now I am getting pissed off. I want you out of my house, now!”

To her surprise he moved with the swiftness of a rattlesnake and snagged her wrist in his left hand. His right found the buckle on her gun belt, and off it went. Then he sat down on the ottoman and pulled her over his left thigh and used his right leg to pin her calves so she couldn’t kick. Then his powerful right hand slapped against her left cheek and Jess cried out in shock and pain.

“Damn you! Let me go before I hurt you!”

“You should not dare a man, little girl, especially a man who is my size. I warned you not to call me a liar, and now you will pay the price.” He spanked her again and she hollered. “You can yell all you want; it won’t change a thing. You earned a tanned hide.” He spanked her in earnest then.

Jess couldn’t believe this was happening. It was certainly no joke! Not one of the other officers would dare do this to her, especially with her brothers Tim and Mike on the force. They wouldn’t stand for it! No, this guy seemed serious as could be, and it was certain he meant every stinging spank he dealt her poor backside. The spanking hurt like hell! “Stop, please! We need to talk. Please? I am confused as can be. I know— Ouch! Ouch! I know you are serious! Please stop! I didn’t mean to anger you!”

“You called me a liar – after I warned you what to expect.” He spanked her sit spots twice more.

“I’m sorry! I am so sorry!” Jess wasn’t stupid. She needed to apologize or he just might keep right on spanking her. She needed to bring the painful lesson to an end. “Please listen to me; I’ve never had anyone claim to be from another time before! It is hard to believe, but I believe you now! Please stop spanking me and talk to me.”

The sheriff released her and stood her on her feet and the first thing she did was reach back to try and rub the sting out of her cheeks. “You hurt me!” she whispered, tears leaking from her green eyes.

“You should never call a man who is larger than you a liar, Miss— I do not know your name,” he said, suddenly realizing he’d spanked a strange female. Her pa might just take a horsewhip to him!

“I am Jess Cosgrove,” she answered, holding out her hand to shake his. He looked at her strangely. “Women shake hands now? That is so different. Your name, Jess – that is a man’s name.” He gave her another look that said he didn’t approve.

“My name is actually Jessica, but my family all call me Jess. Almost all of us have nicknames.” She cocked her head to one side. “I need to hear your story, beginning to end. Something strange is happening here, and I am at a loss as to how to deal with it. Please talk to me, Sheriff.”

“Sit down,” he invited.

“I cannot sit down right now,” she told him, trying to hide the anger and humiliation she was feeling. “My bottom is bruised and burning.”

“That is why a spanking works. You will feel it for several days and you will remember the lesson, and you will watch your words. You should not be cursing, either.”

“I am frustrated, but that isn’t a good excuse for bad language. I apologize.”

“Would your ma permit that?”

“She doesn’t like it, but she picks her battles. Please tell me what happened to you from the beginning.” She listened as the sheriff told her his story, and she found herself believing him. The details he shared were not available in any of the books she’d studied. Either he was a terrific actor, or she was truly meeting a man from 1873. “Do you think God made a mistake?” she asked.

“God doesn’t make mistakes, unless you know something I don’t?”

“I was taught that God knows everything. He is the beginning and the end, and everything in between. He put you here for some reason.”

“That’s what I figure, and I figure I am here to protect you. Jesus probably doesn’t like little girls trying to do a man’s job.”

“Are you hungry, Sheriff Bodey?” she asked politely.

“I am, and please call me Victor, Jessica. I have spanked you and that makes us friends, I hope?”

“No one has ever spanked me before, although a couple of my brothers have threatened me with a spanking. Just a warning, don’t mention spanking me in front of them. They’ll stomp you. It’s okay if they pick on me, but no one else is allowed to touch me in that manner.”

The sheriff grinned at her. “If they’d done their job, I wouldn’t have had to spank you.”

His words convinced her that he was serious. “That isn’t done these days. You can’t just grab a woman and spank her, Victor. You will get shot or arrested. Another thing, women can do anything a man can do. You might not like it, but that is how it is done.”

“Do you still celebrate the birth of our Lord?” Victor asked.

“We do, but it has become very commercial. People go overboard buying gifts for each other, and most children are quite spoiled on Christmas. I have twenty-seven nieces and nephews to buy presents for, and they expect something really nice from Aunty Jess.”

“What about church?” Victor asked with a worried look.

“My entire family is Catholic; we try to go to Midnight Mass together if we can, but with three of us on the police force, usually one or two of us have to work. My sister Amy is a nurse; she often works Christmas Eve so she can take off Christmas Day. We all try to go to Mom and Dad’s house sometime during Christmas day. My sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law all want to spend time with their families too. It’s crazy.”

“How can everyone leave their animals and be gone so much?” Victor asked, confused.

“You are thinking of animals as in horses, cows, chickens, right?”

He nodded.

“Some of my family and friends have pets, but they find someone to come in and take care of them, or they bring them along. Victor, stay calm now. We don’t use horses. Transportation today is much easier. We drive cars. Or we fly in airplanes. We also have trains. There are buses and taxis too. We can drive to my mom’s from here in less than ten minutes. Would you like to take a ride?”

“No! It sounds dangerous.”

“It can be. There are a lot of idiot drivers out there.”

Victor jumped when her telephone started ringing. She took it out of her pocket, pushed a button and answered, “Hello.” She paused and listened. “I am home, Mama. Planning to take a bath and go to bed, but I need to make some dinner first.” She listened again, and shook her head before saying, “No, Mama, I haven’t finished shopping. I am tired when I get off my shift.” Jess listened some more, and then said firmly, “No, Mother! You do not say anything to either Tim or Mike. They are working longer hours right now too, and I don’t want anyone to think I am complaining. Please let me fight my own battles. I am capable of sticking up for myself when I feel it necessary. I don’t want special consideration just because I am a female. That is the whole point of equality. It means equal. It means I have to work long hours when asked. It is my own fault I don’t have my shopping done. Perhaps I will just stay up all night and go and get it all done.” She listened. “Mama, you have enough on your plate. You aren’t going to do my shopping for me. That just doesn’t cut it, especially when you have a job and work too.” She listened, and finally said, “I love you, Mommy. You have a good night.” She waited, smiled, and said, “I am always careful, darling. I love you.” She ended the call to find Victor staring at her in shock. “This is a cell phone. You talk to other people on it. You can call someone, or they can call you.”

* * *

 

A Very Georgian Christmas

By Vanessa Brooks

 

Yorkshire, England.

Mr. and Mrs. Weston....

Glancing out through the mullion windows of his solid Yorkshire stone house, Oliver Weston watched the softly swirling snow as it settled over the moor. He absentmindedly broke the wax seal upon the letter he held. His gaze withdrew from the mesmerising flakes as he scanned the note. Picking up his unfinished toast whilst he read, his hand froze halfway to his mouth, his fingers still clutching the half eaten slice. He was completely absorbed by his letter and did not appear to notice the butter melting; it dripped down his wrist, staining the edge of his white ruffled cuff.

His wife Harriett glanced up from her own correspondence, her husband’s sudden stillness alerted her to the fact something serious had gained his attention. “Pray, is it bad news, Mr. Weston?” she asked anxiously.

“Hmm?” her husband responded absently.

“Oliver, you are causing me concern, what is in your missive that intrigues you so?”

This time her husband lifted his gaze and seeing her consternation, smiled at her reassuringly. “I am surprised is all,” he answered. “We have been included in an invitation, along with the rest of my family, to Merriton Hall for New Year. I thought Benedict Mortimer would never forgive me for my foolish behaviour with regard to his sister Imogene, but it seems that he has done so.”

“Our sister too, now that she is married to your twin, Charles,” Harriet pointed out.

“Mmm, yes quite so,” Oliver muttered as he reread the letter just to ascertain the facts. It was signed The Right Honourable Rose Countess of Stradock and Rose’s own unmistakably flourishing signature was at the bottom of the letter. He looked at his hand, still clutching his half eaten toast, with surprise; taking a bite, he chewed thoughtfully.

“Well, well,” he said, shaking his head bemusedly. “I confess that I am astonished but singularly gratified by this invitation.” He noticed the melted butter staining his cuff and dropped the toast onto the plate with an irritated “tsk.” Picking up a serviette he dabbed at the yellow stain. “The invitation also includes your sister Helen and her husband Richard.”

Harriett clapped her hands. “Oh Mr. Weston, what a gay Christmastide we shall have to be sure! Could I perhaps have an advance on my dress allowance so that I may look my best amongst such high society?”

Oliver smiled indulgently, nodding affably. “I see no reason why not, Mrs. Weston, but I shall demand a forfeit from you.”

Harriet made a pretty moue.

“Fear not, nothing too strenuous m’dear, merely some kisses from your pretty lips.”

Harriet jumped up from the table and ran around to where her husband sat and planted a kiss upon his cheek. Oliver pulled her in close, whispering against her ear. “No, I will exact payment later, when we are alone and I can put those plump lips of yours to good use.”

“Mr. Weston!” she squealed, scandalised. Oliver chuckled and patted his wife’s well covered rear. For a farmer’s daughter she was easily shocked; it delighted him to tease her and watch as blushes suffused her pretty cheeks.

* * *

Merriton Hall Sussex, England.

The Earl and Countess of Stradock...

 

Breakfast at Merriton Hall was, by the standard of the day, casual. The breakfast fare was served in silver covered tureens set upon a polished wooden sideboard. No servants or butler were present to wait upon the family, who enjoyed the privacy of simply being en famille. They ate with gusto, discussing anything left unsaid when a servant was present. The older two children joined their parents for breakfast, staying until Nanny came to fetch them, then Rose would take baby George and keep him for an hour or two, while the nanny gathered the older children taking them outside for their daily constitution about the grounds of Merriton.

Rose had decided that it would be best to share the news of their New Year visitors with her husband during the general hubbub of breakfast, a time of day she thought her husband would be less likely to overreact.

Rose glanced through her post and noted an invitation that had arrived solely in her name. Sliding it into her reticule she intended studying it later, when she was alone. Thankfully, her husband was distracted by his pamphlet, while the children were too absorbed in their own bickering to even notice her furtive deed.

The moment the words had left her mouth, Rose knew she had been mistaken in her supposition that Benedict would take the news of their impending guests better in front of the children.

“WHAT? No. Absolutely NOT!” Lord Mortimer bellowed, leaping to his feet, startling the squabbling children into shocked silence. The dogs leapt to their feet, sensing their master’s sudden change in mood, they assumed danger approached, but their warning barks frightened the children who burst into tears. Benedict ignored the cacophony and focused his narrow-eyed attentions on his petite blonde wife; she gazed back at him contriving innocence.

“Don’t think that wide-eyed look will save you,” he intoned sonorously, narrowing his eyes just as Rose rolled hers.

“Ah, that is more like the Rose I know and love.” He wagged an admonishing finger at her. “You went behind my back to arrange this visit, knowing full well what my answer would be had you asked my permission and you jolly well should have asked!” He slammed the flat of his hand down upon the table and the entire breakfast porcelain jumped, whilst the silverware rattled, the children wailed, and the dogs bayed. The door opened and a nervous nanny appeared with baby George cradled in her arms. She took in the master’s stormy countenance and called the children over to her. They dashed to her side and clung to her skirts, fearful of their father’s ire. Nanny glanced over at Rose for instruction and Rose waved her away, instructing her to take the children from the room. As the children left, the dogs took their opportunity to escape the overcharged atmosphere, rushing out. They very nearly toppled Nanny over.

Benedict seemed not to notice that everyone had left, so intent was he on his argument.

You know, he knows, just about everyone knows, why I will not have Oliver Weston under my roof!” he bellowed at Rose.

“But he is Charles and Claudia’s brother and now Imogene’s brother-in-law. We cannot invite them here without asking Oliver and Harriett! Surely you see that! After all, you are the English Lord, always so full of what is correct, regarding English etiquette, etcetera, etcetera!” she replied crossly, her American accent coming to the fore in her distress.

“Oliver Weston married my sister as an imposter and—”

“Yes, but now your sister is married to your friend, our brother-in-law, Charles! Imogene accepts Oliver into her household. It was she that he deceived, not you and yet she accepts him, as you need to do without all this blustering. Lawks a mercy, give me strength!” Rose spun away from the table and flung up her hands in frustration.

Benedict moved with surprising agility for such a large man. Rose barely had time to blink before her husband was around the table, her wrist secured within his grasp.

“You will accompany me to my study.”

“Benedict, I am the mother of three children, a matron now, in fact. Your behaviour is not at all appropriate. Release me this instant!” she hissed vehemently.

Her husband snorted. “You don’t look a day over the eighteen years you were when I married you. I wouldn’t care if you were a grandmother of three, you deserve to be soundly spanked, and so you shall be!”

Rose squealed, although secretly she was thoroughly enjoying her husband’s masterful reaction to her underhandedness. He hadn’t shown any inclination to spank her in quite a while, but then, she hadn’t given him any cause to do so. Even now, this unexpected treatment of her person was a surprise. She quite genuinely believed that this kind of husbandly discipline was a thing of the past. After all, she was an established matriarch and, as such, it was refreshingly exciting to rediscover Benedict’s dominion.

“I have a meeting with Cook to go over Christmas and New Year menus, I cannot simply dispense with my duty and disappear into your lair,” she protested weakly.

Benedict tightened his hold on his wife. “I beg to differ, you can and you will.” He tugged open the door. Roberts, their butler, stood aside bowing his head in deference to their sudden appearance. His eyes widened as the master strode past with the mistress in his inexorable grip.

“Roberts, inform Cook that Lady Mortimer will be delayed, she will ring for her when she is ready.” He carried on in the direction of his study, his wife securely in hand.

“Certainly, milord.” The butler watched solemnly as his employer towed his diminutive wife along the polished hallway, her silken slippers sliding in an attempt to keep up with her husband’s stride. Roberts remained stationary until they disappeared around the bend in the passage, then he entered the dining room, snapping his fingers at the footman standing either side of the doorway. The liveried servants cleared away the breakfast debris accompanied by the faint but distinguishable song of a female wailing in distress.

 

* * *

 

The Santa Wrangler

By Megan McCoy

Did Ben know who she was? He didn’t act like it. Nope, he sat there, cool and calm, and if he remembered baring her butt and blistering it as red as the berries on that holly branch decorating his desk, he was an excellent actor. Heather Ryan knew she needed to focus on the interview. It didn’t matter who he was, how hot he was or how her cheeks burned in mortification, she needed this job. Getting fired right before Christmas sucked. Well, it sucked anytime of year, but this was a really bad time. She desperately needed this job, even if it was only a temp job. It was easier to get a job when you had a job, and once she got this one, she could start looking for something long term.

“So I’d basically be wrangling Santa?” she asked carefully, trying not to look into those steel gray eyes, staring at his mouth instead. No, that didn’t work. His kiss had been memorable, just like the spanking he’d given her.

“Santas, multiple. I have a chain of ten stores in this area and I’m having Santas in all of them for the first time. My store personnel are all busy with the holiday season and the extra work that involves and I need someone to make sure the Santas all show up for work, the photographers are there, the elves to pass out candy, the backdrops are set up and,” he continued to talk about the job duties while she kept trying to focus. How soon could she leave? Her head swam and her ears buzzed as she remembered that day.

The day he’d bared her bottom and spanked her until she sobbed like a baby. Then he’d refused to let her pull her pants up; but instead sat her on his lap, and held her there until she finally fell asleep. When she woke up, he’d been asleep too, and she’d slipped off his lap, run out of the room, holding her pants up with one hand and hadn’t seen him again till now.

“Heather, are you paying attention?” he asked sternly.

She nodded, too emphatically. “I am. This is a temp job, then, right?” She stood up. “I really am looking for something permanent.”

“Sit,” he commanded.

She looked at him and didn’t know why she sat. What? She wasn’t a puppy. Yet, she sat there quietly and waited.

“Yes, obviously because of the season, this is a temp position, but I’m always looking for good people for management and I hire from within, if at all possible. If you do a good job with this, there are a lot of opportunities in my company.”

Heather crossed her legs. Okay. She understood that. Plus, it would be a paycheck until she found something else – if it didn’t work out.

“I can wrangle Santas,” she said, looked him right in the eye, ignoring the butterflies in her belly. Did he have to be so darn handsome? Steel gray eyes, dark hair and eyebrows, tall, well muscled, geeze. He should have everyone in the world wanting to work for him.

“You do have a lot of managerial experience,” he said, scanning her resume again.

“I’ve run a small real estate company since I was eighteen,” she said. “I worked for two bosses, and unfortunately, they closed the company when he had a stroke and her mother died in the same week. They sold it to someone else who apparently didn’t need me.”

He made a note on her resume, which made her nervous for some reason, more nervous, extra nervous.

“Are you afraid of snakes?” he asked, turning those eyes on her again. Obviously, he had a direct line to the butterflies in her stomach.

“No?”

“Was that a question?” he asked. “What is your opinion on dog poop?”

“I have none?” What? Had she ever handled dog poop in real life?

“Okay, for one night we’re doing pet pictures with Santa at a couple stores, and I need to make sure that my wrangler won’t run screaming.”

“I rarely run screaming,” she said. That was true. She couldn’t think of one instance where she had. She must have had a charmed life.

“That sounds like a challenge.” He smiled at her and she felt her stomach flip, shivered, and didn’t know what to say.

Heather’s heart raced. Did she even want this job? Did it matter? She needed the money. Her last job had been interesting and quiet, and this one would be fun, challenging and paid well. Something different was always good. Really, though, she just wanted to work for Ben. Even if she thought this job would suck, she wanted to work with and for him. She might as well admit it. She’d figured out that you could lie, if you wanted to, but it never worked out when you lied to yourself. She’d had a crush on him since college.

“Good. Then meet me here tomorrow at eight and we will go visit all the stores. Bring a notebook or tablet so you can take notes. I’ll introduce you to all the managers and show you where the Santas will be set up. Then after that, we’ll meet with the set staging company, and you’ll be overseeing all that, and also the woman sending out the photographers. Wear your walking shoes. Now, go down to HR and get your paperwork done. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, right here, and don’t be late.”

 He got up, gave her a little wink, and walked out of the room as she realized that more than likely he did know who she was, he remembered what she did, and also, that she had a job and would be able to pay her rent. Heather had no idea if she was happy or mortified. Both, she could be both.

***

 

A Very Jackson Christmas

By Delia Grace

 

“They’re here! They’re here! They’re here!” Amelia bounced on the couch looking out the front window of her grandparents’ house. She had been waiting “forever” for her Aunt Bernie and Uncle Levi to arrive. Well, since breakfast, and that’s a very long time when you’re four. She threw open the front door and bounded down the steps to leap into her uncle’s arms. “You finally showed up!” She giggled when he kissed her face all over.

“Yes, we did, little girl, but why on earth are you out here in the snow with no shoes on? Your feet are like ice cubes,” he chided gently.

“I was just too ‘cited to put shoes on! But I took my socks off, so they wouldn’t get wet,” she explained with the logic that only a preschooler has. Well, a preschooler, or her mother when she was feeling “little.” “I made a good choice.”

“I’m not sure we would categorize that as a good choice, little girl.” She heard the gentle tone of her father, Judah, and looked over her shoulder guiltily. “I seem to recall that the instructions were, ‘Wait until they come inside to greet them. You’ve had a cold and we want you to heal so you can go sledding tomorrow.’ It doesn’t look to me like you were making very obedient choices, were you?”

She pouted, but shook her head honestly.

“Give your auntie a kiss, and then I think it’s time for you to go have some rest time.”

She started to fuss, but with one quirk of his eyebrow, she settled down. “Okay, Papa.”

Judah smiled happily at this name. When Amelia had started asking, a couple weeks after she moved in, whether Judah was her daddy now, he and Toni had been unsure what to say. Daddy was a name that they felt was special to them for Nettie to use; so when Amelia said she wanted “Papa” like in Little House on the Prairie one night during family reading, everyone had thought that was a perfect idea.

Amelia threw her arms around her Aunt Bernie and blew a raspberry on her cheek. “I love you the bestest, Auntie B. Is it time for the babies to come out so I can hold them yet?”

Bernie kissed her back, blowing her own raspberry. “No, monkey, not yet. You have to wait until your birthday and then your cousin will come out to play with you. Do you think it’s a boy or girl today?”

“Both!” Amelia stubbornly declared.

Everyone laughed. She had been maintaining that there were twins in there since the day Bernie announced. And no matter how many times they told her that the doctors said there was only one, she continued to insist on two.

“All right, well we’ll see who is right when it’s time for them to come out. For now, go obey your papa, and go rest. After rest time I’ll play a game with you, okay?”

Amelia grinned. “Yes! Hi-ho Cherry O!” She hopped out of Bernie’s arms and sung loudly all the way up the stairs to her room here. “Hi-ho Cherry O! Hi-ho Cherry O!”

Judah chuckled and followed her up to tuck her in.

Levi held the door as Bernie walked in with a small bag. He had a suitcase, a computer bag, and a guitar case. Jacob was sitting on the couch in the living room and jumped up to help him. “Wow son, it looks like you could use some assistance.”

Bernie made a face. “I’d be happy to ‘assist’ him, but he won’t let me carry a damn thing. I keep explaining to him I’m pregnant, not an invalid. People have been doing this for thousands of years, and I highly doubt they went nine months without lifting anything heavier than a purse or exerting themselves more than climbing a flight of stairs. But he won’t budge. He’s driving me crazy.”

Jacob laughed. “I was like that when Maggie was carrying Judah, but by the time this one came around I had mellowed out a lot. I think she was mucking stalls the day she went into labor.”

Everyone laughed at that one.

“Let me help you get situated. Y’all will obviously be in Levi’s old room. Maggie set up all the rooms with fresh linens, and snack baskets, and other frou-frou. You’d think that her children lived on the other side of the country and she only saw them once a year the way she has been preparing for this weekend.”

His sons gave each other knowing looks. “Sure, Mom has been excited at having all of her chicks in one place for the weekend. Dad, I think you’ve put more into this weekend than Mom ever could. You called me three times just this morning to see when we were coming and what our favorite beverages were,” Levi said teasingly.

Jacob’s face reddened a little, but he laughed heartily. “Okay, I might be a bit excited as well. We haven’t had everyone spend the night in a long time, and we’ve never had the wives and a granddaughter for Christmas before. What can I say? I’m a sucker for family gatherings!”

Everyone agreed, but they didn’t mind. It was fun to have the whole family together, and four full days off of work to just enjoy each other’s company did sound delightful.

Levi led Bernie upstairs. “Whoa, your parents replaced the bed in here. Wasn’t it bunk beds last time we were over?” she asked.

Levi grinned. “Yeah. I guess they decided that adult married sons needed something more intimate. I didn’t expect a king, though. This is sweet. And a TV? We never had TVs in our rooms as kids. We weren’t even allowed to have computers or laptops. My parents thought it was better, and safer, to have all media and electronics in the main areas of the house.”

“Oh my god, Levi! There are even chocolates on the pillows and mini toiletries in the bathroom! Your mom is the cutest!”

He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, kissing her head softly. “Not the cutest, because that’s saved for you, my love. But she is pretty intense with her welcoming stuff. Speaking of welcoming, let’s check out this basket. God, it’s like we opened our stockings early. There are Cheez-Its, olives, and cans of Dr. Pepper in here. She even put in Twinkies. Where did that woman even find Twinkies?”

Bernie came up behind him and gasped. “Oh Levi! She even thought of me, look at all that hot cocoa and decaf flavored coffee! I just told her that you banned me from caffeine and it was killing me. God, she is seriously the best! Is that Godiva? I am going to love your mom for life!” She popped a piece in her mouth and closed her eyes, moaning.

He pulled her onto the bed and started nuzzling her neck. “I don’t know how I feel about anyone except me getting that sound, Mrs. Jackson – even ‘divine chocolate perfection.’ I think I’d better see if I can outshine the chocolate.” He kissed her chocolate-filled mouth, and then grunted himself. “Okay, that is pretty amazing chocolate.”

Bernie giggled and started kissing him harder, sticking her tongue in his mouth, making sure he could enjoy every drop like she was.

Across the hall…

(Did you really think I was going to let you into their most intimate moments? What do you take me for – an erotica author? *evil grin*)

“But, I don’t need a rest, Judah! I’m not in Lil’ Nettie mode, and I promised Maggie I’d help her with dinner prep.”

Judah swatted her bottom. “You don’t get to use my name right now, little miss. You might not be in Lil’ Nettie mode, but you’re definitely in Nettie mindset and you know it. You’ve been throwing sass and attitude at me since I walked in here from putting Amelia down. I know you didn’t sleep well last night because you were excited about this weekend, and I know that the adults are going to marathon movies tonight, so unless you want to miss out on that fun, you’ll go lie down and get some rest. Besides, I happen to know that Mom is doing lasagna tonight. She and Ginny already have them in the fridge ready to go into the oven. All they will need help with is bread and salad and they do that right before. So, there is no reason you cannot take a little nap.”

She pouted at him for a moment, and then her face changed and she grinned coquettishly. “Will you lie down with me? I might need some snuggles to get good sleep.”

Benevolently, he kissed her cheek. “Of course, baby. I’m always happy to give you snuggles.” He laid down on the bed and gestured for her to come into his arms.

She crawled onto the bed, but not into his arms, she leaned her face over his belt and started undoing it with her teeth.

“Antoinette! What are you doing?”

“I want your cock. In my mouth. Now.”

He looked at her like she had grown three heads. “Wh-what?” The bipolar change from sassy to sexy was throwing him for a loop.

“I need sex, Judah. I need it now. I need it so bad it’s like I can taste it. If we don’t have sex, I am going to curl up into a little ball and die. Seriously, die.”

He shook his head, speechless. “Okay… I mean I’m not going to deny you sex or ever turn down a blow job.” He wondered what had gotten into her though. She had been increasingly erratic lately. Super happy and then crying, really irritable and then begging for sex, completely irrational and then apologizing for being that way. He had no idea what to make of it. They had only been married for a couple of months, but had lived together since July and this was completely out of character for his little wife. He wondered if she was getting sick.

She undid his belt and then unzipped his pants, pleased to see that he was already mostly erect for her. Sliding his boxers down to his knees she turned so that her butt was in his face and her mouth wrapped around his penis. She began to suck eagerly and moaned as she did so.

He reached up and lowered her panties as well, then stuck his fingers inside of her pussy. She was sopping wet! And had a different aroma than usual. He couldn’t place it. It wasn’t bad, just tangier. He placed his fingers in his mouth and as he tasted her sweet nectar, let out a primal groan. This was heaven to him. His baby’s mouth around his manhood, while he gave her pleasure in her perfect little pussy. He began to rub her just the way she liked it; her ministrations on his cock became harder and more pointed. He felt her teeth a little as she verbally showed her appreciation of his attention to her clit and little hole.

“Don’t bite me, little girl, or I might have to bite you back.”

She slowly and carefully closed her teeth around his cock until it just passed from pleasure into pain and then let up on the pressure.

“Oh you little minx.” He sat up a little and pulled her towards his face. He began lapping at her juices like a starving man, sucking at her cunt until she let out a squeal, then he quickly flipped her over and bit her ass – hard.

She moaned audibly, shrieking, but obviously reveling in it as well.

Then, when she seemed on the edge of completion, he withdrew his mouth and pointed to his bulging manhood. “Finish what you started, please.”

She gaped at him, breathing heavily in and out, but melted at his look and lowered her face back onto his cock, sucking up and down his velvety manhood as if her life depended on it. She gave him a dirty come hither smile as she sucked the tip over and over just the way he liked; her eyes rolled back in her head as he came hard, and she shoved his penis down her throat so she wouldn’t miss a single drop.

Then, once he had spent every ounce of cum he had, he flipped her onto her belly and stuck one finger into her asshole and two fingers into her pussy and began to pump. Using his thumb to rub her swollen clit, he verbally encouraged her. “Come on, baby. Let it all out for me. Let the whole house know that you’re mine and you just gave me all you had and now I’m begging for more.”

Her body shook with the exertion of holding it in, trying to let it build. She wanted to be quiet. She wanted to be silent, but she knew that was not going to be possible. With a deep breath, she allowed the pleasure to flood over her. Screaming at the top of her lungs, she let the orgasm take over her whole body. She let out scream after scream as wave after wave overtook her. She began to cry from pleasure, then sobbed harder and harder as the orgasm took over every fiber of her being. He held her tightly as she wept into his chest until she fell into a deep sleep. He wrapped her up with the blanket and fell asleep with her in his arms.

(Okay, maybe I do like to let you into intimate moments. But it’s on my terms, not yours. Author = Dominant. I’m the boss. I’m in charge. You’ll take what I give you.

***

 

A Merry Exmas

By Sheri Lynn

 

Running around like a mad woman, Jana knew this would happen. It’s not like she could tell her best friend, Macy, vacationing in Greece with her new boyfriend, that she wouldn’t lend a helping hand with her two-year-old daughter over the holidays. If she didn’t have her first Christmas season at the local theater, her stress level wouldn’t be off the charts.

She put the dog’s food out, filled her to-go coffee mug, now if she could just find her stupid boot. Pulling bin after bin out of her closet, she doesn’t understand how her boots didn’t get stored in pairs. She found most of her black ones, but only one gray ankle boot. She must have overlooked it. Taking a seat on the floor, she shoves the items she emptied on the closet floor out the door. No surprise, it magically appears in the last swipe.

Slipping it on, she zips it and makes a beeline for the door, not without grabbing her purse and mug on the way out. Driving over the speed limit, she drives up to the colonel’s house at 7:30 AM. Macy’s father served in the army, a decorated soldier, hence his title. Twenty minutes late has her feeling like a teenager again as she rings the bell.

The door opens to a scowling colonel holding Josie in his arms. In an over-exaggerated motion, he looks at his watch. “I see some things never change, Jana. I certainly hope you are managing the theater better than you are your personal obligations.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” She manages to squeak out. “Been working some real late hours over there.”

Stepping inside the house, he bellows her instructions. “Just inside the door to the study, you will find her diaper bag and suitcase. Go put them in the car. I’ll meet you out there and install the car seat.”

Scurrying past him, she retrieves Josie’s things. “Thank you, sir.”

He blows out a breath as she passes. “No problem, Jana. You look good by the way.”

Not wasting any more time, she has the bags loaded in the trunk and the baby in her arms. The colonel gets the car seat buckled and leans in kissing Josie and Jana both on their cheeks. “Drive carefully.”

She decides to respect the speed limits with Josie in the car. As if seeing the colonel wasn’t enough for one morning, now she gets to see Macy’s ex, Matt. She can’t blame Matt for not wanting to deal with the colonel. He isn’t obligated any longer. He and Macy divorced over a year ago, and Macy never discusses it.

Stuck in traffic, she picks up her phone and texts her stage assistant that she will be late. It’s annoying that she totally bypasses the theater to get to Matt’s on the other side of town. She always loved this part of town though. It’s older renovated homes. Macy hated it. She and Matt bought it together, but they divorced before she ever lived in it.

It’s a craftsman style, not Macy’s style at all. As Jana pulls in the driveway, she’s shocked at the amazing transformation. It’s lovely. He has done a lot of work, excellent work, on it. Opening the car door, she sees him bounding down the front steps. One thing hasn’t changed; he is still hot as hell.

“Hey, you’re late. I was getting worried, but I didn’t have your number to check on you. I had to call the colonel.” He rolls his eyes as he sprints over and opens the door where Josie is.

“She fell asleep. Why don’t I carry her inside and you disengage that contraption from my backseat?” she states, making her way around the vehicle. He kisses Josie’s forehead as he unstraps her and places her in Jana’s waiting arms. Standing this close to him, she smells his cologne, and looking up at his face, notices his hair is longer and he has a close shaven full beard. Without thinking, she asks, knowing he’s a police officer, or was, “Did you lose your job or something?”

Throwing his head back, he laughs. “No, I did not. Her room is up the stairs, a direct right.”

Entering his house, she’s surprised. She doesn’t know why. She never spent much time with him, but it’s immaculate. The wood floors are original she’s sure, and they shine throughout the house, even the stairs. The furnishings aren’t over the top, but appropriate for this style of home.

Her heels click as she walks up the stairs. She finds an upholstered bench on the landing, along with a beautiful rug. Stepping to her right, she finds Josie’s room. It’s perfect. The colors are pink and lavender, and it has everything a baby needs. Laying her in the plush crib, she wonders if he has a woman in his life. She can’t imagine any man decorating a place like this one without help.

Clicking back down the steps, she is greeted by Matt before she takes the last step. Meeting him eye to eye, he informs her, “I hope you don’t think I was looking to steal anything from you, but I got Josie’s bags out of your trunk.”

Stiffening, her chin juts out. “Why would you say that? Of course I wouldn’t think that.”

Crossing his arms across his chest, he smirks at her. “Well, you know… me not having a job and all.”

Moving away from the banister, she attempts to move around him, but he moves too. “I only said that because I’ve never seen any police officers with long hair and facial hair.”

Tilting his head to the side, he raises one eyebrow. “Yeah. Well, not too many upstanding citizens interact with vice cops while undercover. Might be a little hard for me to blend in with the shady sorts looking like a boy scout.”

Feeling uncomfortable, she decides to make amends of sorts and get out of there. “Well, if that’s a promotion of some kind, congrats.”

Striding under the archway to the dining room, he holds out his arm towards the door, indicating she can leave. She feels dismissed, and it aggravates her.

Clearing his throat, his words stop her just as she reaches the door. “Good luck to you on your latest endeavor with the theater.” She hears his steps, then feels his warm breath on the back of her neck. “In case no one has been kind enough to inform you, this isn’t New York, or D.C., or London. It’s certainly acceptable to dress down… maybe a little.”

Not only has he dismissed her, now he’s insulted her. Somehow. In a way. She can’t think straight. She snaps her head around and glares at him. “Quite possibly all the time you are spending with the lowlifes, dealing drugs, selling their bodies, you forgot how a decent person, in a position such as mine should dress. I need to portray an image of an individual that people can trust and respect. I meet with potential investors every day.”

Chuckling, he backs away scrutinizing her from her head to her feet. “Baby, the Showstopper is a community theater. You don’t have to endanger yourself with those stilettos.”

“Don’t call me baby. I’m not your baby.” Huffing, she reaches for the door handle. “You better take care of the little girl up there. I can’t believe Macy didn’t file for full custody. I would never…” Before she finishes her sentence, her feet leave the ground as Matt’s arm snakes around her middle, jerking her hard into his torso. “Wha…aa…tttt are you doing? Put me down! Now!” Beating her fists on his arm and kicking her legs generates no reaction from him.

“I expected more from you, Jana, I really did. If that is how you talk to others in this community, you’d be best off to pack your shit up and go back to the big city.” Stomping to the couch inside the archway across from the dining room, he keeps her legs pinned against the back of it and pushes her chest down over the cushions holding her there with a hand against the back of her neck. She resists until she grows breathless. “You done now? If you think I won’t stand here all day and enjoy watching you wear yourself out, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Standing still, she pants her words, “Okay, you win. Is that what you want to hear? Of course, being close to a foot taller than me and double my weight is to your advantage.”

She should have kept her mouth shut, because she notices his eyes narrow and his jaw twitch. Sliding to her left, he raises his arm and slams his hand across her pencil-skirted ass.

What the fuck was that? Lurching forward with the impact, she shrieks. Her legs lift off the floor, rendering them useless to aid in any escape. Another smack echoes through the room as his large hand slams into the cloth of her skirt in the same spot as the first. She squawks, louder than the first time.

Close to her ear, he whispers in a no-nonsense tone, “Unless you want to wake my daughter, I suggest you keep it down and take your punishment.”

Gritting her teeth, she growls at him, “My punishment? Who the hell—”

Swats rain down on her backside. She bites her lip to keep from yelling out. It hurts more than she wants him to know, and tears form in the corner of her eyes.

He begins to alternate his swats on each of her cheeks, in a very methodical rhythm. Thinking it’s her pride that hurts more than her butt, she starts to feel something else, and it scares the crap out of her. Wiggling side to side to avoid his palm only intensifies the feeling. She’s turned on, and it mortifies her.

“And one more to remind you to not make assumptions about others without at least getting to know them a little first.” He administers the last smack and the only sound in the otherwise silent room is her sobs. Removing his hand from her neck, he flips her over, sitting her on the back of the sofa. Wrapping his fingers around each of her shoulders, he leans in and peers into her face. “Damn, Jana. It’s supposed to hurt, but not that much.”

As she sucks in a breath between each sob, he steps back without releasing her shoulders and assesses her. She’s fighting for control over her emotions, and he makes it all too easy when he releases her and crosses his arms across his chest, scratching his chin with his right hand. This change in action has her look at his face. His eyes are pinned to her chest. Redirecting her focus downward, she sees her bigger than average nipples are enormous and poking straight out under her silk blouse.

Jumping off the couch, she underestimates the height and her left heel twists. Matt catches her and puts her on her feet. Flapping her arms to break any contact with him, she groans, “You are a true barbarian.”

He laughs so hard, with his head thrown back for exaggeration, that without thinking, she slaps him – across the face. Her hand stings like crazy, and vibrations start to run up her arm. They hear Josie’s cries, and both turn their heads in that direction. Jana has never slapped anyone before, and he doesn’t look all too happy to have been the recipient.

Dashing around him, she makes it to the door, but not out of it, before she hears his retort. “Well baby, I may be a barbarian, but you, my dear, are a pain slut.”

She gasps. Without turning back, she runs to her car.

* * *

 

The Aussie and the Irish Christmas

Constance Masters

 

Candace couldn’t explain her confused feelings even to herself. All she knew was the thought of turning up to another family Christmas reunion by herself was making her sick to her stomach. Honestly, there must be something really wrong with her. She just couldn’t find the right man, or any man, that was both attractive to her and the type of person she wanted to be with even a lot of the time, let alone forever. The fact that people were able to find someone they wanted to be with for the rest of their lives amazed her. The fact that it might happen to her one day seemed beyond her imagination.

Marriage and waking up to the same person and being happy about it seemed like a pipe dream that would never happen to her. She just didn’t seem to be able to pinpoint a type to look for. Men that were too nice were boring, really boring. Not that she lived to argue, but everyone liked a bit of challenge didn’t they? Being with a man without any kind of special flavour would be like reading the same book over and over and knowing what was going to happen before you turned each page. Now, bad men, they might give you a thrill or two, but she wasn’t stupid, there would be enough heartache that the thrill would eventually disappear beneath the drama. So what was left? Someone she hadn’t met yet, but someone she would recognize the minute they met, hopefully, or soon after. What was she supposed to do, go on one of those online dating services in the hope that this perfect person would just appear? She wouldn’t even know how to fill out the form; writing what she didn’t want was easy, translating that into what she did want was hard.

All she needed for now was a decent bloke that opened doors and treated her like a lady, even if it was only for show over Christmas, so she didn’t look like such a loser in front of her family – a paid escort maybe? Nah, she couldn’t afford it. Why was she the only sister of five that was perpetually single? What was wrong with her?

* * *

The last few days before Christmas couldn’t go fast enough for Candy. Soon she would be on holidays. She hadn’t made her mind up yet what she was going to do about going home, but at least she didn’t have to come into work.

 Phones rang all around her in the busy call centre, signalling the start of business hours. Luckily for her, not to mention the customers, she was doing the night shift and would finish in an hour. Her mind was simply not where it should be. “Damn it,” she muttered. The stupid switch girl had put a call through to her when she was supposed to be off air, finishing up her paperwork. Not only was her own desk phone ringing and a light flashing, but also an angry looking man was storming towards her with a look of thunder crumpling his otherwise handsome face. She was distracted for a minute by the look of this man, until she realized that he was after her and not in a good way. Oh shit, the only reason she could think of that someone would want to speak to her was because they were mad at her. She picked up the phone and began talking to the caller; dealing with a customer seemed like a better option than facing the man who had made his way to her desk and was now tapping his fingers impatiently and prattling under his breath in a distinctive Irish brogue. She did what she could to drag the call out, but eventually she had to hang up and face her angry visitor. The accent was a dead giveaway to her and she knew exactly who he was and what he wanted.

“Miss Bell? Candace?” he asked, his Irish accent making her name roll off his tongue with a lilt that seemed happier than the look on his face.

“Um, yes? Can I help you?” If this was indeed the road side mechanic she had hung up on in the middle of the night then no, she probably couldn’t help him.

“That would be debatable. You weren’t able to help me when I called in the night. All I wanted to do was remind you to be a little more careful when seeing to directions to call-outs and you hung up me – that was rude.”

“I didn’t mean to hang up, I, um, I got confused.” That wasn’t a lie. She had gotten confused. When the man told her she’d sent him in the completely wrong direction from where he was supposed to be, Candy had panicked. She tried to switch him to hold while she got her thoughts together and opened the file, aka found an excuse, and then bam, she accidentally pressed disconnect and he was gone. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, but it was the first time a mobile mechanic had actually come looking for her.

“That’s just not good enough, now is it?” He pointed a finger at her and continued to berate her like a child. “I wasn’t only concerned for myself and the waste of time and fuel, you know. What about the woman who was waiting in a car? For all we know she could have had babbies in the car or her phone could have run dead. What if she had her weekly groceries in the car and they had all perished? She would have blamed us.”

“Babbies? You mean babies?”

“Don’t try and deflect the attention from you to me by being a smart ass.”

“I wasn’t! I was asking you a genuine question and then the penny dropped what you meant.”

“I’m sure. Listen to me, little miss off with the fairies, maybe when you’re taking a call you could make the time to listen to people and write down what’s being said. Then you might not keep making the same mistakes.”

Her mouth dropped open. She had done this before to him?

“That’s right, this is not the first time you’ve booked me for a job and then sent me on a goose chase! I cannot fathom what would make you so careless.”

 “Geez, it was only a little mistake. How did you know where to find me anyway?”

“It wasn’t hard. I rang and gave your call number and asked for your name and location.”

“Oh okay, I guess.” Surely there was some procedure in place to protect her from a crazy Irishman that went out of his way out to come and yell at her in person. “Look, I’m sorry I gave you the wrong address and I’m sorry that I pressed the wrong button and hung up on you. It wasn’t intentional.”

The irate man ran a hand through his hair. “Are you the full shilling?”

“Huh?” She knew what he was getting at, but she was flabbergasted that he would be so rude as to actually call her stupid.

“It means, are you thick? Really, I can’t even make up my mind if you’re pulling my leg on purpose or if you really are struggling to catch on.”

“Are you finished or are you searching your small Irish mind for yet another way to insult me? I am not a computer, I’m a normal everyday person. I’m sorry if you had to drive a little further than was necessary.” Their argument was drawing interest, so she lowered her voice to a hiss. “Yes, I sometimes make the odd mistake but in case you hadn’t noticed, I work all night. I get tired and it’s easier to get distracted than you think. As for your argument about the poor lady with the babbies in the car and her ice cream melting… have a think, you idiot. People don’t shop with their children for ice cream in the middle of the night.”

“Do the words ‘customer service’ mean anything to you?”

“Do the words, ‘road service mechanic’ mean anything to you? Perhaps you should keep yourself out on the road.”

“You know, someone ought to slap your ass and remind you to use your manners.”

Heat crept up Candy’s neck as a heady cocktail of embarrassment and attraction heated her blood. As annoying as this bossy boots was, there was something about that accent and the muscular forearms at the end of his rolled up shirtsleeves that she found very attractive. Not to mention what he’d just said… yeah, that about the arse smacking, it was hot. “I think that might be against the law.”

“I didn’t say it should be me, although the idea definitely has merit.”

His eyes scanned her and flickered towards her rear, which, luckily, was firmly cemented to her seat. He was checking her out! Her heart stopped for a split second and when it started beating, it just about thumped through her chest. His continued lecture didn’t help matters at all.

 “As for the woman shopping with her babbies, you know full well I was using that for an example. She could have been in real trouble.”

Candy sighed. She would have to concede that one. She would have to pay more attention but she didn’t need to be told over and over like she was some kind of imbecile. “I get the point – what did you say your name was?”

“Rowan, my name is Rowan.”

“Well, you’ve delivered your message now, Rowan; so why don’t you toddle off and get on with saving any damsels in distress that are waiting for your impeccable mechanical skills? I’m sure somebody somewhere is waiting for their superman to show up.” As attractive as this man was, his arrogance overshadowed the appeal.

“Don’t you worry about what I have to do, miss. You’re the one that needs to pull their socks up. That being said, I will happily leave you, I need to sleep.”

“Off you go then. I’m sure you have a little woman waiting at home for you…” Oh my God! Did she just pose that as an open-ended question? The last thing she wanted to do was let this egotistical prat think she was interested in him. Yet she was staring at him, as if she was waiting for an answer. Look away, look away!

“No, as it happens, still single.” He actually chuckled smugly as he turned to walk away.

She searched for the perfect come back that would leave her having the last word. Nothing, she had nothing. Why did she feel kind of empty when he swung through the door and disappeared?

* * *

 

A Merry Little Christmas

By Bethany Leigh

 

Lucinda stepped onto the scales, half hopeful, half fearful. She’d stuck to her fruit and crispbread diet all week, hadn’t slept well most nights due to hunger; surely all that virtue would garner a reward? The scales hesitated for a few seconds before announcing her new weight. Lucinda punched the air like she was a champion gymnast or ice skater and the glowing red numbers had declared her winning score. Eight pounds lost! Huzzah! Take that, body. FINALLY you are being owned!

Lighter in spirit as well as weight, Lucinda dressed quickly for work. She could hear Broderick moving around in the neighbouring bedroom and she didn’t want to end up stuck on the tube with him. Already her skirt was less tight around the tummy. A few more weeks of crispbread and fruit and her clothes would be hanging off her. She’d buy really cool new ones, show off her new figure at Aurora’s New Year’s Eve party.

New Year, new figure, new start. New Lucinda.

Except she had to get through Christmas first.

She eyed herself sternly in the elderly dressing-table mirror, brandishing mascara. “Don’t think about Christmas. It’s still two weeks away.”

She put on make-up, cursing the freckles that covered her nose even in winter, and twisted her dark brown hair into a ponytail. She packed her bag ready for work. Banana – check. Apple – check. Crispbreads – check. Phone – check. Oyster card – check.

She tucked her wallet into her knickers drawer. No money, no credit card, no food.

She pulled on her coat, hurried downstairs and opened the front door. A blast of icy cold hit her. The front lawn and pavement glistened with frost. She turned right towards the main road that led to the Turnpike Lane tube station.

“Hey, Lucinda! Wait up!”

Damn. She hadn’t been quick enough. Reluctantly, she waited for Broderick to catch up. Several people walked past on their way to the tube, rugged up in heavy coats, scarves, beanies, gloves.

“Good morning.” Broderick’s breath plumed like steam in the frosty air. He wore an elegant dark grey coat, leather gloves and a stripy scarf, but his head was bare. Lucinda was struck again by how good-looking he was with his wavy auburn hair, fashionable lumbersexual beard and friendly grin. Most of the women at Clarkson’s had been smitten when he’d snared the job of acting creative manager.

The job she’d wanted. 

“Hey,” she replied, disgruntled. She started walking again.

“Cold morning,” he remarked, falling into step beside her.

“You should go on Mastermind,” she answered. “Name: Broderick Jameson. Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious.”

Careful, she warned herself. He is your boss. You don’t want to get him offside and have him fire you on top of all the other crap things that have happened this year.

But Broderick didn’t appear to have taken offence. He chuckled. “I thought you Poms liked talking about the weather.”

“We like complaining about it.”

“There’s plenty to complain about, that’s for sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks and mostly it’s rained.”

“I don’t understand why you wanted to move over here to our rubbish weather when you have all that sunshine in Australia.” Taking the job that should have been mine, she added silently.

When Lisa had gone on maternity leave and Lucinda had applied for the acting manager role, she’d been confident of getting it. She’d worked for Clarkson’s for almost two years now, since she’d first moved to London. Before that, she’d spent four years working for a marketing agency in Manchester, where she’d grown up. Six years working in graphic design, including on two award-winning campaigns. Her latest award had come only six weeks before Lisa’s maternity leave. Lucinda had been flavour of the month at Clarkson’s. Lisa loved her work. There were rumours human resources wanted to appoint an internal candidate. Lucinda’s interview had gone well, she was sure the position was a given.

But Broderick, who’d worked as a creative team leader for Clarkson’s head office in Melbourne, had applied and gotten the job instead.

Not getting the job had capped what had been a year from hell for Lucinda.

She’d thrown herself into work after Matt had dumped her back in July, when they’d been island hopping in Greece. Her whole life had changed that night on Ios. Forced to move out of his north London flat, she’d ended up in a house-share with two strangers. She’d worked long hours, won the award, set her sights on promotion. The acting manager’s job had given her hope, even if it was only a six-month position. She’d even started looking on real estate websites, because promotion meant more money, and she’d be able to put a deposit on a flat.

Broderick’s appointment had scuppered that.

Even worse, his arrival had coincided with the departure of one of her housemates, and he’d moved into the Turnpike Lane house, saying it wasn’t worth buying a place when he was only in England for six months. He said he didn’t want to live over here on his own, he wanted people around him.

The only good thing Broderick’s arrival had done for Lucinda was to galvanise her into action. She’d started looking for a new job; after all, Lisa was coming back to work and there’d be no more possibilities for promotion at Clarkson’s for a very long time. She’d gone on a diet, determined to get back to her old weight after all the comfort eating she’d done when Matt dumped her. If this year had been rubbish, next year was going to be awesome. She’d make sure of that.

Now, Broderick said, “Oh, the sun doesn’t shine all the time in Melbourne, I can tell you that!” before changing the subject. “I was thinking we might have a house meal tonight and then put up the decorations for Christmas. I spoke to Morag and she’s at home, she doesn’t have a concert or anything.”

Morag was their other housemate, a classical flautist, much in demand in the run-up to Christmas.

Lucinda lied swiftly. “I can’t, I’m having dinner with a friend after work. It’s been arranged for ages.”

“Oh.” Lucinda glanced up at Broderick in time to spot of flicker of disappointment.  “That’s a shame. I’m not a bad cook, you know.”

“I know that,” she said. “I’ve smelt your cooking.” Delicious smells wafted up from the kitchen most evenings since Broderick had moved in. He seemed to enjoy cooking. His shelf in the pantry was filled with jars of spices and herbs, whereas Morag’s contained staples like soup and beans, easy to prepare when on the run between work and concert. And Lucinda’s right now contained… nothing.

They’d reached the tube station. A huge Christmas tree stood in a corner of the concourse area, and tinny Christmas carols blared from speakers as the escalators whisked commuters down to the tube platforms. Lucinda was hit by a wave of nostalgia. As a child she’d decorated two trees every Christmas – their big one at home, and then her gran’s small one, which had stood on a table in the bay window. Lucinda had loved doing it, had her favourite baubles and bells that had always been placed on the tree first.

“I won’t be too late tonight,” she said. They walked onto the platform, hit instantaneously by the familiar blast of wind, smell of dust and rumble of train on tracks that signalled an approaching tube. “I’ll probably be back in time to help with the decorations.”

Broderick smiled. “Great,” he said. He was making a huge effort to be friends with her – Lucinda had to give him credit for that. But she didn’t want to be pals with someone who’d taken the job she’d so badly wanted – even if he was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen.

The tube arrived, already crammed with commuters. As they joined the crush, and Lucinda manoeuvred herself into a position where she could hold on to a strap handle, she and Broderick were separated. She forgot about Christmas decorations and started thinking about her diet plans. Another ten pounds to go and she’d be her ideal weight.

* * *

 

A MidWinter Marriage

By Bryony Kildare

 

It was cold. The Danish ambassador to Bohemia had joked that they would bring Scandinavian winter with them as part of Margrethe’s dowry, and it was beginning to seem more truth than joke. The horses’ breath steamed in the icy air, and Margrethe was entirely wrapped from head to toe in furs, only able to put her head out the carriage to peer at the snow-frosted pines as they approached the castle. She imagined that if she could stretch out her hand far enough to break a sprig of the evergreen tree, it would snap in her fingers, frozen solid. It was Christmas Eve, but cold even for that wintry season.

“Your Highness, you must mind us,” came a gentle voice at her elbow. “What will you do if King Rupert sneaks into your chambers in disguise and you do not recognize him? We will certainly reach Prague Castle today, and he might visit you this very evening!”

Starting from her quiet reverie, Margrethe pulled her head back in and tried to pay attention to Lady Birgitta, who had spoken to her from out of the quiet chatter of her attendants. “Why should he wear a disguise?”

“So that you will fall in love with him without knowing who he is!”

Margrethe’s brow furrowed as she tried to process the logic. “And he will sneak in?”

“Yes, he will come like a paramour from the old romances of chivalry, to steal your heart.”

“So I shall believe a masked scoundrel has come to seduce me on the eve of my marriage to the king, but I am to fall in love with this masked scoundrel, thus jeopardizing the harmonious relations between our countries by betraying King Rupert?”

“But he is King Rupert,” Lady Anneka, one of her youngest ladies, explained, her big blue eyes alight with the excitement. “Only you must pretend not to know him.”

“So I must know him – so that I may properly bestow my affections, but pretend not to know him so I may pretend my heart has been stolen by this masked scoundrel? And then, I suppose, show great surprise and pleasure when I learn who he is?”

“Yes, just that!” Anneka exclaimed.

“That sounds very complicated. Should I give him a favor, or just smile and blush? How do I pretend to love him?”

“Give him a favor,” Birgitta said judiciously, “but make sure he knows you know, or else he may think you light in your affections.”

“Yes, you might say, ‘Oh, Anneka, this gentleman has such a regal form. If this is the type of the Bohemian man, how much more handsome surely will my husband the king be,’” Anneka piped up.

Margrethe rubbed her forehead, exasperated in this new, ridiculous entry to the long list of protocols she was expected to remember and abide by. “He does not speak Danish, Anneka. He will not know what I say if I speak to you.”

“Then say it in Bohemian – it doesn’t matter if we really know what you say,” Lady Cristina, Margrethe’s best friend, suggested. “It is only a sort of game.”

 “Anyway, this sort of comedy hardly accords with what Lord Hevelsheim has told us about the king,” Margrethe reminded them gently. “He said King Rupert was discreet and solemn beyond his years. There is nothing discreet or solemn about coming to bother your bride only a night or so before you will be able to properly enjoy her.”

There was a good deal of giggling at this delicate description of the marriage bed, and Margrethe let her attention wander again. Already the spires of Prague Castle were just within sight, snow-tipped like the sharp pines, and she squinted at them, trying to guess what kind of rooms – and what kind of people – they might house.

Within a few hours, though, the castle loomed hugely before them, and, after a last, frantic effort among the ladies over Margrethe’s hairpins, which had not been disturbed by the journey at all, the princess descended from the coach, laying her hand in Ambassador Hevelsheim’s to accept his assistance. Margrethe looked around and saw a line of liveried servants, both men and maids, waiting for her, but there seemed no personage of importance, and she looked up at the ambassador curiously. “My lord?”

Hevelsheim was frowning, just a little bit – Margrethe could only see the frown in his usually placid eyes; his face was calm. “I am sure you will be properly greeted within, Your Highness.”

Margrethe nodded, for there was no good at all in finding slights in her new home as soon as she set foot on the ground. The people of Bohemia would, naturally, not know what to make of her as a stranger coming to marry their king. It was her duty to make sure they found no fault to complain of in her, not to complain of faults in them. “Of course.”

They were escorted into the enormous hall at the castle’s entrance, and Margrethe’s ladies took her fur wraps and handed them off to some of the Bohemian maids that were in attendance. The young princess straightened herself as tall as she could, but there was no disguising the tight, pale worry on her face. Cristina dared whisper, very quickly, “Your Highness has every perfection of form, education and character that might be desired – surely you know there is nothing to fear.”

Margrethe only had time to give her a smile, but it was hard to do. What Cristina said was, she certainly hoped, true. As the King of Denmark’s eldest daughter, Margrethe had been betrothed to King Rupert – Prince Rupert then – since she was in the cradle, and her father had made sure she had tutors in Bohemian to make her fluent in the language of her future husband. But she knew herself very well; she was not gay, or quick with repartee in company, nor had she the charm that would make a fault seem like a daring innovation. Whenever she made a mistake, Margrethe blushed heavily and could scarcely find her voice. In her own person, although she possessed the smooth, golden hair of her countrymen and intelligent sea-green eyes, Margrethe’s face was very pale and had more than once earned such dubious compliments as “seeming to belong to a statue rather than a living maid” and “the perfection of a master artificer.”

Here she was, though. The whey-faced, fearful Danish princess, ready to be wedded to a strange king. There was no time left to promise herself that tomorrow she would be braver or bolder. Tomorrow was today, and if she was ever to be brave, it must be now. A gray-bearded man in dark, fur-trimmed velvets came down the grand staircase, taking them at a very precise pace. Ambassador Hevelsheim stepped forward. “Lord Gottwald.” Though he was imperturbable as ever, there was unusual coldness in his address, and Margrethe could read the quarter inch he reserved in his bow: he was deeply offended, probably on her behalf. When Gottwald had bowed in return, the ambassador turned to her ostentatiously. “Your Highness, I beg leave to present Lord Gregor Gottwald, Chamberlain to His Majesty King Rupert.”

Margrethe nodded her permission and the thickset Bohemian chamberlain stepped forward and bowed before her. In his bow, there was a good half-inch of insult. Things were going from bad to worse. “Your Highness. It is my privilege to welcome you to your new home. King Rupert is occupied with matters of state, but he will sup with you this evening, and,” he continued, narrowing his eyes a little, “the Dowager Queen Carlotta offers her salutations and asks that you join her for tea this afternoon.”

Everyone was angry now – including Margrethe. To have her betrothed husband too busy to meet her upon arrival was excusable, if unpleasant. But for him to have sent no message, nor any word except that he would sup with her – it was unbearable. The Dowager Queen... that was Margrethe’s future mother-in-law, the notorious Carlotta. She had come from Spain thirty years ago in the state befitting the Infanta and proceeded to gain a reputation as one of the most frightening women in Europe. They said she had ruled her husband, King Ladislaus, absolutely – and some even whispered she had plotted his death, although Carlotta had been on pilgrimage for two months when King Ladislaus fell suddenly ill. There were whispers of poison – there were always whispers of poison. If the king had been poisoned, there was no proof who had arranged it. Nobody benefited, and everyone stood to lose, from open inquiry into the matter. But nothing could stop talk flitting from court to court like a strange butterfly, fertilizing the air with rumor along the way.

But if Margrethe responded to Gottwald’s rudeness with rudeness, things would only deteriorate further. He was obviously predisposed not to like her; that meant his rudeness was impersonal, like a man kicking a stone on the road in frustration. She drew in a deep breath and tried to smile. “Lord Gottwald, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Please convey my best regards to Their Majesties.” She beckoned slightly with her left hand, and Anneka stepped forward, carrying a medium-sized rosewood casket from the luggage. “And, if you will, convey to His Majesty this gift from my father.”

The casket was filled with eighteen rubies as large as hawks’ eggs, and a note reading, I send you one ruby for each year of my daughter’s life, that you may know her far more precious than these. Her father had shown her the note before he put it in the casket, and kissed her very tenderly. Margrethe felt her throat tighten when she thought of it, but she hoped she did not betray her sudden swell of homesickness.

Gottwald flipped open the top of the rosewood box with two fingers, and at that, a spasm of annoyance did pass over her face, but fortunately he only poked at the darkly lustrous gems and grunted. He certainly was not looking at her. He closed the box again and said, “I shall certainly convey them to His Majesty.” A manservant came forward to take the carved jewel coffer. Gottwald gestured to a well-dressed man wearing a heavy steward’s chain. “The steward will convey you to your chambers. If Your Highness will excuse me.” His parting bow was still an insult, but less than the first, and Margrethe chose to understand that as progress.

She followed the steward through the enormous castle, looking around her in quiet wonder at the cavernous halls through which they passed, where dark wood gleamed richly underfoot and the warm fragrance of beeswax filled the air from the prodigal use of candles, lighting the ornately fan-vaulted ceilings. The chambers, when at last they reached them, were warm – that was a relief anyway, and once Cristina and her other ladies had managed to shoo away the Bohemian servants, she gratefully allowed herself to sink into a low chair by the fire. Birgitta, who was a good deal older than Margrethe and so tended to mother her, took her gloves and began making the princess more comfortable.

“That could have gone better,” Margrethe said flatly as soon as they were alone.

“They were so rude,” Anneka burst out, as though Margrethe’s words had removed a cork from between her lips. “That chamberlain didn’t even behave like a gentleman. He was pawing the rubies like...”

“Sweetmeats,” Cristina proclaimed, but she didn’t expand on the point. Her eyes were worriedly fixed on Margrethe, who was staring into the fire, looking very blank. “Princess, are you all right?”

“I am well,” Margrethe answered, but without sounding very convinced. “Somebody had better find out what time tea is served here – and what I must wear,” she added, rubbing her forehead with a sense of nervous fatigue. She had asked Lord Hevelsheim a great many questions about Bohemia, but while he had done his best to answer them, he had not noticed the kind of details that she would be expected to master, including points of fashion.

There was, as it turned out, only about an hour before Margrethe had to be ready to meet her new mother-in-law. There was barely time to press a blue velvet gown and hurry Margrethe into it before she was entering the Dowager Queen’s rooms. Carlotta was a small woman, with dark, intense eyes, which fixed searchingly on Margrethe’s face, though she was all smiles and her voice was very warm.

“My dear Princess,” she said, squeezing Margrethe’s hands, “I have been so looking forward to your arrival. You must forgive my son for seeming so rude. He is just like his father – all work and no sentiment, but I am sure he will be charmed by you. Your portrait hardly did you justice.” Carlotta was heavily perfumed, and the reek of it in the warm room made Margrethe giddy.

Still, she managed a smile of her own and murmured her thanks. She felt an instant dislike toward the older woman, though perhaps she was only prejudiced by all the gossip she had heard. In any case, she could hardly be rude to the one person in the Bohemian court who seemed kindly disposed towards her. “I hope His Majesty will share your opinion. You must tell me all about King Rupert, for I really know little about him.”

Carlotta’s smile broadened. “Poor child, you must be so nervous. And ambassadors are never any help in these matters. My son is very reserved, but he likes being fussed over. I suppose it is my fault – I have always spoiled him. He may have a hundred servants, waiting on his commands, but he had rather be served by his mother – or his wife. But he would never admit it, of course.”

A spoiled young man who wanted to be doted on by his women didn’t sound like the grave, reserved young king the ambassadors had described to her, but then perhaps Rupert gave a different face to his family than he did to his courtiers? That wasn’t unreasonable, and certainly his own mother ought to know him better than an ambassador who, after all, spent most of his time abroad. Margrethe listened intently as Carlotta talked on, serving tea and rich, dense cake which Margrethe only picked at a little, for she was much more interested in what she was hearing than what she ate. Carlotta, with her low compelling voice and quick-moving hands, painted what the princess considered a very strange picture of her future husband.

When the meal was at last done and Margrethe was again with her ladies, she was finally able to pick at the thing that had really bothered her. “Cristina,” she said softly, as she was being bathed. Her best friend was always by her in such quiet moments so that the young princess could speak in confidence. The court in Denmark, being so far north and thus considered scarcely civilized, was a good deal less formal than this place. But Margrethe had still been raised to understand the importance of her duties, so she was very docile while her fair, soft body was washed and perfumed with very little regard for the young woman within. “Cristina, why did he not come to greet me? If he is so eager for women’s love, as the Dowager Queen says?” It was the chief fault in the account Margrethe had been told. For while a man might well behave differently with his family than his ministers, he had already ignored her and sent his chamberlain to greet his betrothed in what was not quite an insult, but neither was it a good beginning to the marriage.

***

 

 

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