|Your cart is currently empty|
Talia Hansen has not had it easy since her marriage ended in divorce after a tragic event. She has tried to move on with her life, finish college, and meet goals she has set for herself. But she is barely surviving.
Lucas came home a few years ago, after leaving when his young-love marriage fell apart. He is working; in fact, he owns his father’s auto repair business. That is something he swore he would never do and yet he enjoys every minute of it. But something is missing from his life.
When Lucas and Talia meet up after ten years apart, the sparks fly again. However, after only a few weeks, Lucas is trying to take over her admittedly desperate life, and Talia isn’t willing to give up her hard-earned – albeit dismal – independence.
Sometimes your knight in shining armor turns out to be a hard-handed mechanic in well-worn work boots who won’t take no for an answer. Will they find their way back to each other? Or will the past be too much to overcome?
Publisher’s Note: This romance contains sexual scenes and discipline elements. If any of these bother you, please do not purchase.
Talia Hansen flipped her long blonde braid back over her shoulder and washed her hands. How long could she stall? Not long. The Sunrise Cafe buzzed with hungry customers and her co-worker Emily had called in sick. She made a face at herself in the mirror. Suck it up, girl, she told herself. Double the tips. Well, not quite because people wouldn’t be quite as happy with her level of service, but she would do the best job she could, and count her money at the end of the early morning shift. Then she would start her three hours of homework she still had to get done before tomorrow. She enjoyed her job, working in her mom’s diner, but didn’t want to be a waitress, sometimes cook, all her life. Online classes were the only kind she could fit into her schedule, sometimes she opened and sometimes closed, but that was okay. She was happy to finally be back in school. Pasting on her happy server face, she walked back out into the small cafe, and grabbed the tray the owner and cook, and her mom, Donna had put on the counter.
“Thanks,” she said, and took it out. Living in a small town had its perks. She knew many of the customers, especially the early morning regulars. Of course, they had a large college in town, but most of the college kids didn’t come downtown to eat, preferring the fast food places closer to campus.
“Here you go, Stormy,” she said, as she put a big platter of pancakes down. “Yours, too, Cade. You guys planning to run in the Turkey Trot before the Thanksgiving parade this year?” The town always hosted a fun 5K run right before their annual parade, which always ended with Santa showing up in town for the first time. Talia loved the parade, but could see nothing fun about running 5k. To each their own. Her own was working toward her degree.
Stormy nodded, while cutting into her pancake. “We’re taking the two Danes with us. They’ll love it. I have Lily to watch the store while we run, so that’s covered. It's going to be a great time, right, Cade?”
Cade turned to look at Stormy and the look of love he gave her filled Talia’s heart with a tiny bit of envy. No, not envy, happiness Stormy had found Cade, or they had found each other. She knew there had been a stalker who targeted Stormy, but she’d been caught, so everyone who knew about it was breathing a bit easier. No one wanted an arsonist and over all nasty person around. “Yeah, it's going to be a good time, but you promised I’d be done running in time to watch the parade,” he teased her.
Stormy smiled and nodded, “We’re running the same route as the parade goes. All we have to do is stop at the end and stand there. The parade will catch up and maybe they will still have some candy left for you to catch.”
Talia laughed. “I’ll probably watch from that window, but if it's nice, I’ll toss some candy your way.” She pointed to the big window that covered the front of the cafe. “I’ll try to wave if I see you, at least,” she said. “Enjoy your food. Gwen, Kevin, I’ll be over with your to go cups, in just a bit.”
Walking to the hostess station to seat her new arrivals, she frowned remembering she’d forgotten to ask Cade about his mom. Hopefully Joan was doing better after her last cancer treatment. Well, she’d ask when she refilled their coffee, she thought as she got the two police officers their morning to go cup of caffeine on the house. Though Blizzard, SD, was a small town, Donna liked a police presence in occasionally, so offered all on duty cops a free to go cup of coffee or tea once a shift. It gave them all a good reason to drop in, other than the food on their breaks.
“Thanks,” Gwen smiled at her. “It's a little chilly this morning, but supposed to warm up again in a few hours. Usually I love it, but sometimes being outside most of the day isn’t much fun.”
Talia laughed, “It's always warm at the cafe. We’re hiring another server.”
“I think I’ll keep my day job,” Gwen said, dryly, “though sometimes I’m not sure why.”
“Hanging out with me?” Kevin asked her.
“Yeah, I’m here despite that,” Gwen told him, picking up her coffee and heading toward the door.
“Lucas asked about you the other day,” Kevin said to Talia softly. “Wanted to know how you were.”
“Did you tell him that I was none of his business?” Talia said, equally as softly.
“Nope, not my job to do that. Not my brother’s keeper or yours. Just relaying a message.” He picked up his coffee and followed Gwen out the door. “Thanks for the coffee. Call him.”
Talia didn’t even bother to answer but fumed inwardly through the rest of her shift while she smiled and served.
Counting her tips a few hours later, she logged them into the small computer in the back for tax purposes.
“Hey, Charlene,” she said as the second shift was getting ready to start. “You closing tonight?” The Sunrise was open from six am to seven pm, and only served breakfast, and sandwiches, but had a huge variety of sweet and savory items that brought people back again and again.
“Yeah, I heard Emily called in again,” she said, hanging up the coat Talia knew she’d need going home tonight.
They chatted a few more minutes before Charlene went to work. After she called good-bye to her mom, Talia headed home, to her homework. Her small old car sat on the tiny parking lot behind the cafe, and she took a few deep breaths of fresh South Dakota air before getting in and heading to her apartment. Trying to think if she needed anything, she decided the only thing she needed to do was get home and bury herself in homework.
Sometimes she went days without thinking of Lucas Strong. Other times he was the first thing she thought of in the morning and all day long. She was the stupid one. Despite what Kevin said, today, his brother, her ex, never thought of her anymore. He had a life. He never cared about her anyway. She knew that. He’d only married her because she’d gotten pregnant. She knew that, too. When she’d lost the baby, they had drifted apart within the year. He went off to college and she stayed here, and found herself drifting even more.
Why would he be asking about her now? He’d been home from college and whatever he did after that, for a few years, and had taken over his dad’s mechanic shop on the other edge of town, something he’d sworn to her, he would never do. He hated it there growing up and she wondered what changed, and if he had. Didn’t matter though, she didn’t want his bossy self anyway.
He’d been twenty-two and she’d been eighteen when they married. He acted as if he were her parent instead of her husband. He’d been her one and only and she loved the way he handled her in bed. It had been amazing, and during her experimentation after their divorce, no man was the same. She gave up dating, except for the rare set up Stormy or Charlene did for her occasionally. Now, she worked and studied. Studied and worked. Finally getting over the depression her miscarriage brought on, and the feeling of failure her divorce did, she snapped out of her fog and started to focus on getting a life, and there was more to it, than being an employee in a cafe. Unlike Lucas, when she said she’d never take over the family business, she meant it, not that her mom was ever going to retire or give it up. She loved that place.
Letting herself into her small one bedroom apartment, she thought once again about getting a cat. Someone to come home to might be nice. But then she’d have to be responsible for someone and she wasn’t sure she could do that.
Opening the curtains to her little balcony, she looked at the large Silver Maple tree across the road. There were a few leaves starting to turn. Wasn’t it a little early for that? Her friend, Stormy, loved the cold. She tolerated it, she’d lived here all her life and complaining about the weather was one thing Blizzard residents did well. Summer was hot and humid. Winter was just almost inhuman. Spring and fall were lovely, though. She loved fall and decorated her little place in the colors of leaves turning, rusts, greens, browns, yellows and oranges. Watching the tree across the road turn from bare winter to green spring, to lush summer to vibrant fall helped her mark the times of her life.
Looking at her laptop, she knew she should turn it on and start on her homework, but felt restless and uneasy. Lucas. Of course. What would he think of her going to college? She couldn’t help but smile as she pinned her braid up and started making a loaf of bread. Kneading soothed her. Lucas would have an opinion, all right, and he wouldn’t be shy about telling her. The man lived to give her orders and be in control. She often liked that, but, as a teenager, it was hard to handle. What would it be like to be with him now? Had he changed? Had she?
Why was he asking about her?
Why did it matter? It didn’t. She’d been down that road once and now her priority was herself and figuring out her own future. The past was just that.
Lucas Strong sat in his truck and stared toward his shop, the shop he’d hated as a kid, but now loved. Amazing how things changed in life. Five in the morning and he was ready to unlock the doors and head into work. As a kid, he thought bosses had the easy job. Yeah, he had a bit more flexibility than the people that worked the seven to four or nine to six shifts, with a couple fifteen minute breaks and an hour for lunch, but overall, he was here as much as they were, and honestly more. Plus, he was in charge of everything. He loved his mechanic shop though, and had long-term plans. Right now, he had four mechanics, one seasonal detailer, two office staff and was looking to expand. He wanted to branch out from only maintenance, fix and repair. Lucas knew he wanted to work on custom jobs. His fingers ached to rebuild and restore. His fingers also ached to get hold of Talia. He’d tried to put her in the past, but he’d caught a glimpse of her, a few days ago, driving down the road, one hand out her car window and singing along to something on the radio.
He remembered those days. How had he let her go?
He’d been young, it was a bad excuse, but the only one he had. They’d both been devastated over the loss of their baby and both had handled it badly, but he’d been worse and he knew that now. Since then, he’d grown. Figured out what kind of man he was, and he smiled, he knew what kind of woman she was. Some things didn’t change.
Sitting down at his desk, he started looking over the schedule for the day. Monday was always busy, but not as busy as they would be in a few weeks when people wanted to get their cars holiday ready. Mentally, he made a note to hire a detailer. He’d call Hallie and see if she wanted to come back this year. Usually the mechanics did a fine job, but they’d been getting slammed with oil changes, new tires to be put on, and routine maintenance, as well as the usual repairs soon. Holiday travel affected more businesses than the airlines. It was more cost efficient to have someone here during the busy times just to do the clean-up.
Lucas heard a knock on the door and looked up. It was an hour before they opened. Someone must had had an emergency. Walking over, he opened it to find his brother Kevin in full police uniform. “You’re up early. Coffee is done. Want some?”
Kevin shook his head. “I need you to look at a car for me.”
Kevin had done this before. Brought him a car that had been wrecked in an accident, wanting to know if he could fix it. Lucas was always glad he couldn’t reciprocate and send Kevin any business. He didn’t want the kind of life where he saw his brother professionally. “Sure thing. You got it here? Tow truck coming?” he guessed.
“Gwen is driving it up. We wanted it stashed before it got light out,” Kevin said.
“Stashed?” Lucas thought that was an odd term. Kevin nodded.
Lucas squinted in the dawning light as a small car drove up the hill. “At least it drives,” he started.
“Yeah, couple kids were in another car, drinking, and slammed into this one. Driver died and we want the car out of sight until we can notify the family. Can you do that for me?” That was a downside of living in a small town. If someone drove by his shop on their way to work and saw a familiar car bashed up, they’d be on the phone with the family, checking things out.
“Sure can. The kids okay?” he asked, hitting the switch to unlock the garage bays.
“Other than ruining their lives?” Kevin asked, dryly. “Yeah, physically, they are okay, but one stupid decision just changed everything for them.”
“And for that other family,” Lucas added as he waved Gwen into the bay. “I’ll keep it in here until you let me know it's okay to move out back. Don’t imagine the family will want the car back, but we’ll see what we can do for them.”
“Thanks, brother, knew I could count on you,” Kevin said.
“Hi, Lucas,” Gwen said as she got out of the car without her ever present companion.
“Hi, Gwen, where’s Thor?” he asked, looking for the big German Shepherd who also wore a badge.
“He’s resting up. Seems he pulled a leg muscle and Doc Collins wanted him to take a few days off,” she replied. “Come on, Kevin, the Sunrise will be opening soon and I need some coffee if you want an awake partner for the next few hours.”
“I do want that,” Kevin said, winking at his brother. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re awake or not, though.”
“Ha ha. So, funny,” she said, and headed back out to the squad car.
“Told Talia you were asking about her,” Kevin said, too casually.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Lucas growled.
“Thought she might be interested. How long has it been since you two have seen each other? I always thought you made a good pair,” he said, as he started to follow Gwen to the car. “I’ll get back to you on the details for that car later.”
Lucas shook his head and shut the garage bay after he watched his brother drive off, heading toward downtown and decent coffee. He needed some of that.
He needed to stop thinking about Talia, too. Surely, she’d moved on with her life, and probably had someone else by now. His chest tightened at the thought.
What was wrong with him? He didn’t make a move on her, and yet, he didn’t want anyone else to have her? That didn’t make any sense at all.
“Sure, it does,” he said out loud. “Fix it” He wasn’t sure if he was talking to the empty garage or to himself. He had always worked well with his motto of ‘fix it’ and Talia had been the one thing he felt he failed. If he couldn’t fix it, maybe he could find at least a way to make it better. Maybe if he saw her, more than just a glimpse on the road, he’d get her out of his head.
A few hours later, once the front desk crew and the mechanics came in, Lucas headed to the Sunrise Cafe. He didn’t know if Talia was working today or not, but he craved a huge ham and cheese omelet with home fries and Donna’s homemade bread for a late breakfast today. Grinning, he laughed at himself. Sure, that was what he was craving. He hadn’t stopped thinking about Talia since he saw her the other day. He needed to get this craving out of his head. Needed to see her in person. Tall and blonde, she’d always been curvy and he liked that, but she’d probably gained a bunch of weight and a wedding ring. Well, he knew the latter wasn’t true. Word got around in a small town. Someone would have told him if his ex had gotten hitched. Like his brother Kevin who saw her fairly often. People were all friendly like that. Weight gain? Her curves were one of the first things he noticed. If she was a little curvier now, that she wasn’t a teenager, no problem for him. He was a big guy, six two and strong. He could handle a big woman, preferred them. Didn’t want a twig he might snap, because he liked to play hard. Talia had, too.
Driving down the hill toward town, he noticed a car right off the road, in a ditch, and a blonde putting up the hood, the universal sign of distress or needing help. Slowing down, he wondered if she had a flat tire, missed a deer, was distracted or, damn. That was Talia; he would know that ass anywhere. He grinned. Sometimes the universe worked in mysterious ways.
* * *
“Stupid car,” Talia muttered, as she shook herself, trying to make sure she was all right. She had no clue what happened. One minute she was driving down the empty road, when she heard her text tone go off. Next thing she knew she was in the ditch, with her airbag deployed. It stunk in here. The car seemed okay. Did it? Her brain wasn’t wanting to work. Should she get out and make sure she was all right? Or just try to drive out of here? Why had her car died? Maybe, like her, it was just scared because it went in the ditch?
Heart hammering in her chest, she sat and tried to control her breathing. She seemed to be fine, she needed to calm down.
Looking out over the small valley she was in, she noticed the leaves turning. They’d be falling soon, then winter. Why was she thinking of seasons? Instead of her car? And getting back home. This road wasn’t too well traveled. She’d been at the college turning in some paperwork, for her financial aid next semester and took the scenic route back home.
Stupid scenic route. Stupid car. Stupid looking at her phone while she was driving. She knew better than that. She just hadn’t thought. Where was her phone now? Under the car seat probably, where it had flown when she hit the ditch.
She turned the car off, not that it seemed to be running, then got out to look at the damage. Okay, a few dents, but maybe it wasn’t too bad. Maybe her car had just flooded? She didn’t know what flooded was, but she remembered her dad flooding his truck a few times. The only thing to do was to let it be for a while. Her poor car.
She really needed a newer one, she’d driven this one for over ten years now, and she’d bought it used, but vowed not to go into debt other than student loans. She’d have to get it fixed again; hopefully it was okay other than flooding, and the dents. She could drive a dented car. She had no car pride. As long as it got her there and back, for now that was all she needed.
Trying to open the hood, in the vague hope it looked good and nothing was leaking, she saw a truck pull up behind her out of the corner of her eye. Hopefully a Good Samaritan who could get her back on the road again. She looked down at the engine as if it would magically point a finger and say ‘Here! Here! I need this fixed!’ Stupid engines, someone should teach them to speak English.
“Hey, Brunhilda,” came a low rumbling greeting and her heart leaped into her throat as her stomach knotted. She did not need this today. No. Looking around frantically, she wondered where she could run. Umm, nowhere? Fine.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped and stood up, barely missing cracking her head on the hood. That had been a hated high school nickname. Big, blonde and a penchant for singing to herself, it was a given. She’d thought everyone had forgotten it but her. He had called her that during their arguments before the divorce. Ass.
“Sorry, Talia,” he said easily.
She looked up at him and glared. He didn’t look sorry. He looked, oh man, he looked gorgeous. All six two and blue jeaned length of him. He’d built up a few muscles, and his black hair had gotten a little shaggier. She loved it. Liked it. No.
Breathe, she told herself. Taking a deep breath, she looked at him and lied, “I have someone coming to help me. You can go away, Lucas Strong. I don’t need you.”
“Sure, you do,” he said, and took a step closer to her. “Are you okay?” She did not look away, but she nodded. Yeah, she was okay until he showed up. Although, she reminded herself, he wasn’t a young horny kid anymore. He was a grown man who owned a business and wasn’t going to attack her by the side of the road. Damn it anyway.
Staring into his startling ice blue eyes, she still loved the contrast between them and his dark hair. It was odd they hadn’t run into each other in the last few years since he’d moved back to town and opened the shop. She knew he had, but she avoided it, and him, successfully so far. Now, here in the middle of scenic nowhere with no one around and nothing to hide behind, here he was.
Was she afraid of him? Of course not. Was she afraid of herself and her reactions? Oh, hells to the yes.
Abruptly he turned and looked at the engine. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “I heard my phone tone and looked down, and next thing I knew I was in the ditch. I really don’t know what happened.”
“You weren’t paying attention,” he snapped and looked down at the car again. “Why are you driving this piece of shit, anyway?” he demanded, staring at her.
“Because it's paid for,” she said, feeling defensive. “But it's none of your business. I’m doing fine.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” he said in that tone, that same tone that always made her want to smack him. Infuriating man.
Flipping her braid back, she glared at him. “I’m nothing to you, either way. If I’m doing well, or if I’m homeless and living in this piece of shit, what’s it to you?”
“Watch your mouth,” he said, and bent over to look at her engine as she stared at his perfect ass. He was a perfect ass.
“You said it first,” she said and then felt like a toddler. Did not, did too, mine, no, mine.
“Doesn’t matter. Need my tools.”
Did he forget how to speak in complete sentences? Talia felt so irritated she wanted to walk to town and just leave her car. That would not be a smart thing to do though, and she was not stupid, except when it came to Lucas. He always made her stupid. Feel stupid. She wasn’t stupid, no matter how she acted around him. She was no ditzy blonde, though, she knew nothing about cars really, except fill them up and change their oil. Other people had magic car knowledge that was beyond her.
Lucas had gotten some tools from his truck, then fiddled in the engine place for a bit, but then stood up straight and looked at her. Why did men get handsomer with age and women just age? It wasn’t fair. Chewing on the end of her braid, she asked, “Well?”
“You need a tow,” he said and pulled out his phone. “Jasmine, send a tow to pick up a blue ‘05 Taurus on Old 52 East. Haul it back; I’m driving the owner of it into town. I’ll be back later this afternoon.”
“Jasmine?” Talia asked. “Your latest?”
“The front office person, don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Come on, I’ll drive you home or wherever you were going.”
“What am I going to do without a car? Can’t you get it to run?” Talia asked him, trying to keep the plaintive note out of her voice. She lived too far from work to walk, though she could but it would take well over an hour, and she couldn’t afford a taxi every day, plus the bus didn’t run as early as she had to be at work.
“I’ll get your car back as soon as I can. You really need a new one,” he said, slamming the hood.
“Oh, wait. Let me run and pick one off that tree over there,” she said, sarcastically. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“What are you doing with your money, Talia?” he asked as he motioned her to follow him to his truck. Danged if she didn’t follow him like the pitiful puppy dog she felt like she was at the moment.
“Smoking weed and buying booze,” she snapped. “Oh, and paying men for sex, of course. None of your business.”
“Cut down on the weed, and get a new car,” he said, opening the door for her. Why did men need such huge, high trucks? To prove their knees still worked? Probably. Hesitating just a second, he pointed to the handhold and then boosted her as she climbed in. Her mouth went dry, as her parts got moist. That had been, she quit thinking that thought.
“But I like the weed,” she told him, obstinately. “I’d rather have that than a new car, obviously.”
“We all make choices,” he said, slamming the door. Scrambling for her seatbelt, she belted herself in securely, shifted closer to the window, and remembered the days when she couldn’t sit close enough to him. If she could have sat on his lap while they drove she would have. Had she? Well, maybe a few times.
He got in his side of the truck, and started it. Then he turned to look at her. “Nice to see you, Talia.”
Her eyes teared up and she chewed on the end of her braid so she wouldn’t cry.
“Take your hair out of your mouth,” he said, and smiled at her. He knew what that smile did her. That was just mean. She took her hair out of her mouth. “Still like to do what you are told,” he said.
Starting to shake her head, Talia opened her mouth, then stopped. Why did it matter? “You can take me home,” she told him, “412 Robin’s Way.”
He gave her a sharp glance and she opened her mouth again to explain, but shut it. It was none of his business. After she had lost her—their—baby, and he’d left her, she’d spiraled a few years. Gotten involved with a scammer who took her for everything she had, then moved back in with her dad who had finally kicked her out. She bounced around a while and ended up working for her mom and went back to being a short order cook and waiting tables like she had all through high school and had vowed never to do again.
She’d enrolled in school two years ago, and proudly paid almost cash for every semester, with a bit of help from some grants and loans at least. But she borrowed as little as possible, lived as cheaply as possible and worked as much as possible. She was turning her life around. She didn’t need holier than thou Lucas Strong to tell her she wasn’t as successful as he was. Life was a journey not a race. She would get where she wanted to be, sooner or later. Nothing she could do about what happened, all she could do was move on.
“Talia, I’m sorry,” he said, softly, staring ahead, and pulling onto the road. She didn’t know what he was sorry for, and couldn’t help it, but started chewing her hair again, while fighting back tears. Delayed stress reaction from the accident, she lied to herself. Well, maybe it was. She hadn’t had an accident before, other than getting pregnant on prom night.
“You doing okay?” she finally managed. “Hear you bought your dad’s auto shop.”
“Yeah, owned it for three years now and people still call and ask for Dad,” he said. “Got a small used car lot now, too, and hoping to expand again soon.”
“Good for you,” she said. “I know you love your cars, but knew you hated working there.”
“Times change,” he said, shortly.
The silence grew. Her mind raced and she wondered what he was thinking. She wondered what she was thinking, because she really couldn’t think clearly.
He had been her first and only love. She had thought they would be together forever. Two kids, too young, and a few years of struggle, then a great life. Him working with his beloved cars, in a shop that wasn’t his dad’s, and her raising their kids, maybe working the front desk of the shop now and then, and making him happy. It was all she wanted out of life. She’d been a simple thing back then.
He seemed to have easily moved on, after the loss of their baby and the divorce. It took her longer, but she had, and now he was back. Her worst nightmare and biggest fantasy. Hopefully, he wouldn’t wreak havoc on her life again. Or was that what she hoped for?
She watched the rain start and leaves blow across the road. It was fall.
“You can turn right the next block,” she told him, trying to fill the awkwardness, while watching the windshield wipers move back and forth. She liked the rain, as long as she could watch it from somewhere warm and dry. Her friend, Stormy, liked to go out running in it. She was just weird. Talia felt grateful he’d picked her up. She’d hate to be stuck out in the rain.
“I know where Robin’s Way is,” he said. “Talia, I didn’t know you were living there. I just assumed you went back to your folks.”
“I lived on my own for a while, stayed with my dad for a while. He and my mom divorced right after,” she took a breath and couldn’t say ‘after we did’ and instead went with, “you went away to college. Mom still runs the cafe, but you probably know that. Dad remarried and lives a couple hours south of here. He met a lady online and married her, she seems nice.”
“South is good,” he said and she smiled. They had told each other that all the time. Wanting to move south was a frequently announced dream in Blizzard. Most people just stayed though.
“How did you end up here?” he asked, clearly determined to find out why she was living in low-income housing.
“Oh, my husband left me, I had a bad couple of years and voila! Here I am,” she said, as sarcastically as she could muster. Why did she care what he thought? She didn’t. Might as well tell him some of the truth.
“I need a drink,” he said, abruptly, as they pulled up to the low-income apartment complex.
“I’m not having sex with you,” she said, heart hammering. Why had she said that? Now he would know she was thinking of sex with him.
“I never thought that. I’m only going in,” he said, shutting off the truck. He got out and she opened her door, and waited for him to help her down. Why? She didn’t know why. She just knew he would and she wanted him to do it. Quit being a teenager, she scolded herself. He is your past. Not your future. But her knees shook. That delayed reaction thing again. How long could she blame her body’s reaction to him on the accident?
“Come on,” he said, standing before her open door and holding out his hand. She put hers in his and slid down into his arms. He held her, not comfortingly, but possessively. She liked that. She didn’t need comforted. She needed possessed.
Not today. Not by him.
“A drink?” she said, faintly. It was late morning, but it was morning still.
“Yes. I need a drink. You got a beer?” At her nod, he said, “Let’s go in then.” He had grown up so much since she’d last seen him. His dominance had matured. He was not the raw kid he’d been, but matured and aged like a fine wine. Oh, she hoped he didn’t want wine. She didn’t have any wine. He’d always been a beer guy, but, well, he’d matured. Who knew what he liked anymore, other than he’d asked for beer. Did he still like fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? She’d turned him onto those and ended making them for him often.
Who cared? She needed not to.
Sighing inwardly, she led him inside, suddenly worrying how she would pay for her car repair and how she was going to get to work tomorrow. Then she laughed as she heard his stomach growl. “Guess it's your lunch time, huh? Hope I have some food in the house. Still like chicken salad?” Talia felt this odd combination of familiarity and nerves. She knew what he liked to eat, or at least used to, but she wasn’t comfortable with him. Normal. She hadn’t seen him for almost ten years and they hadn’t left each other on good circumstances.
“I do,” he said, in that low voice that made her shiver.
Talia took a deep breath and deliberately didn’t chew the end of her braid as she walked him up the flight of stairs to her small apartment. Usually, she was proud of it. She paid for it herself, had furnished it herself, and it was her study place and sanctuary. She wanted a house with a small yard, at some point. A dog maybe, a cat definitely. One day when she thought she could handle the responsibility of another breathing thing’s life. Right now, getting through school was her priority.
No, not doing her hot ex-husband was her priority. Making him lunch. What was wrong with her brain? He was. His fault. Pulling her spare key out of her purse, she needed to remember to get her house key off the clip that held her car keys soon. She didn’t need it floating around Lucas’ workplace, but she was glad she had a spare.
“Come on. I’ll get us both a drink,” she said. She didn’t care if it wasn’t technically afternoon. She needed a beer to calm her nerves. Dutch courage. Or something like that.
“Right behind you, babe,” he said, motioning her in first. Immediately she felt comforted by going into her safe place, where she could shut out the world and be alone. It had taken her awhile to get used to living here, but she had, and she even liked it now. She knew most people in town looked at this place as where all the druggies and violent people lived, and sure, there were a few of those. Most of them though, were like her—poor, struggling, and trying to get ahead. Poverty didn’t mean you were scum and she straightened her back and flipped her braid as she wondered what he was thinking. Well, that wasn’t unusual. She always wondered what he was thinking. It was like there was a six-year gap before his brain realized that his mouth might want a job other than chewing his food. Well, she smiled, except when she did something he didn’t care for. Then he was very quick to use his words and let her know.
“So, how have you been?” she asked, over her shoulder as she headed to the kitchen to get a couple cold beers from the fridge and pull out the chicken salad she’d made last night.
“Working hard,” he said.
“That’s not really an answer,” she told him, handing him a beer and taking a quick swallow of her own icy cold drink.
“Is to me,” he said, and stared at her so intently it made her uncomfortable. She was no longer the teenager he once knew, and wished she’d put on a bit more makeup this morning before she left on her errands. Who knew she was going to run into her ex? Not her. But, that didn’t matter. Who cared what he thought? She didn’t. Busying herself making a couple sandwiches, she shut her mouth. If he didn’t want to talk to her, she wasn’t going to make him, but she’d promised him lunch. She could do lunch.
“So, what are you studying?” he asked.
“How did you know?” she started, but couldn’t remember if she’d told him she was in school or not, silly brain farts. Then he looked as he gestured toward her open laptop and stack of books beside it.
“Education,” she said reluctantly. “I want to work with kids.”
“Oh,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry again, Talia.”
“Not your fault,” she said, and put his sandwich down in front of him. “Crap happens.”
“I was young and stupid, and handled things badly. I should have been there for you,” he took a drink of his beer and she did the same.
“You were, in your way,” she said. “I was young, too. We both could have done things differently. Like I said, crap happens.” She shivered thinking back to those dark days.
“How far along are you?” he asked, gesturing toward her books.
“Third year,” she said, proudly. “Looking forward to student teaching.” She was, yet, she wasn’t. She knew that in order to do that, she would have to quit the Sunrise cafe and find another job that let her work later into the night, in order to be able to afford to have all her days off. She didn’t mind the work but hated leaving the security of the cafe income. Right now, she liked being off by seven every night, but that wasn’t enough hours to pay her rent if she was working at school till three or four every day, even if she worked open to close on Saturday. Her mom, like most of downtown, closed on Sunday.
“I’m proud of you,” he said.
She rolled her eyes at him, took a bite of her sandwich and after a minute said, “Well, it was a long road to get here. Some of us apparently grow up faster and handle things better than I do.”
“You just need someone to take care of you,” Lucas said.
“I think I’m doing fine,” she shook her head. How dare he.
“Think how well you could be doing with someone to hold you accountable, someone you could submit to,” he raised his eyebrows at her. “You know you like that.” When she shook her head again, he just laughed, and then said, “And someone to give you some much needed support.”
“Lucas, quit being a pain. I am not needing a daddy. I’m a big girl now.” She picked up her beer bottle as if to prove it.
He looked over to the pile of bills by her computer. “Everybody can use a hand now and then, Talia. Your car broke down, and if it wasn’t me who picked you up, that would be a huge bill right there. That power bill is past due.”
Talia took a deep breath and cursed herself for not hiding her bills. Who would have thought she needed to do that? “Lucas, I did fine before you happened upon me. I’ll be fine again.”
“Don’t you want to be doing better than fine?”
“What’s it to you if I do? Anyway, that’s why I’ve gone back to school, so I can be better than fine,” she wanted to cross her eyes and stick her tongue out at him, but refrained. That would probably not prove she was an adult.
“Talia, I want to make up for some lost time. I want to help you,” he rubbed his jaw with two fingers in a way that she remembered meant frustration. Why was he frustrated? She was the one who should be frustrated.
“Why? Some twisted sense of chivalry? You feel like you owe the poor little waitress a hand up because she couldn’t even carry your baby to term? Yeah, I don’t think so.” She stood up, and finished the rest of her beer in one long swallow. His was already gone and she wasn’t going to invite him to have another. That would teach him, well, would teach him nothing, but still, it was the thought that counted.
“Talia, you are pushing your luck.” Lucas had this tone that sent shivers up her spine, in a sort of hot, yet sort of nervous kind of way. She wasn’t really afraid of him, but what might he do? Leave? That would probably be the best thing that could happen, she knew, though she desperately didn’t want it to happen.
It felt just right, him being here. Even though he’d never been here before, and even though he hadn’t been in her life for years, it felt as things had clicked into place. That her life was right, again. She couldn’t imagine how she would feel if he simply walked out the door and she never saw him again.
Oh, he had her car. That probably couldn’t happen.
“When will they look at my car?” She changed the subject, and wisely, she felt, her tone. “I’m off today, but I have to be at work at five tomorrow morning.”
Lucas looked over at the clock on the microwave. “I have to go back to work. I’ll be here tonight with a loaner car for you.”
Talia wracked her brain, chewed the end of her braid trying to figure out how she would pay for a loaner car, get her car fixed and still eat. Then she nodded. What else could she do? She had to have a car for now. She’d pick up some extra shifts and maybe find a second job. Who needed sleep? Vastly overrated. There were a couple overnight places in town, gas stations and things. She could run a register.
Taking two steps toward her, Lucas pulled her hair of out her mouth and her into his arms, in one swift movement. Then before her brain could react, he kissed her. Hard and well and she could feel her thighs tremble with need, her heart raced and she breathed in hard through her nose. He had her mouth full of him. It had been so long, she wanted more.
Unfortunately, he stopped, and grabbed her hair, pulling her face up to look at him. “You worry too much, Brunhilda,” then he gave her a gentle kiss, unlike the last one, and walked toward the door. “Thanks for lunch, I’ll see you tonight. Oh, we will be going out to dinner so wear something pretty.”
All she could do was shut her mouth. Had she just gotten back together with her ex? Did she want to? How could he ask her out and then leave without an answer? Guess he didn’t need one. He just assumed she was going. Was she? Hell, yes. She needed a car to drive and a dinner out that wasn’t the Sunrise. She ate there most days and as she well knew, you didn’t need something pretty to eat there. Most people wore shorts, jeans, or their work uniform. On the rare occasion college kids showed up, they often showed up in their pajamas. Her mom would have blistered her bottom for doing that.
Why was she thinking about getting her bottom blistered?
Yeah, she knew why. And he was taking her to dinner tonight.
* * *
“The bowling alley?” she giggled. “This is your idea of a nice place?”
Lucas smiled at her, with that slow lazy grin she had always loved. “Yeah, I figure this is our second first date, so why not recreate our first, first date?”
“Besides, you want a huge greasy burger, right?” Shaking her head, she got out of his truck and was surprised when he came around, tucking her hand protectively in his. She liked this.
“How did you guess? The Roll On In has some of the best burgers in town. Besides, I like watching you bend over in those tight pants.”
“Well, that was unexpected,” she said and blushed.
“I’ve grown up and know what I want,” he said. “I can’t believe you still blush.”
“Yeah, I’m the same sweet shy little thing I always was,” she said, dryly.
“Good to know.” He opened the door for her and gave her butt a quick smack as she walked through the door. She threw him a look and got an innocent eyebrow waggle in return. Shaking her head, she continued inside. Her stomach nervously flipped around. The man just oozed self-confidence anymore. He had grown up. She felt very attracted to her stupid ex who had hurt her so badly, she reminded herself. Enjoy the moment, but don’t get involved.
“I see Kevin over there, with Stormy and Cade,” she told Lucas, trying not to feel too sad. They would probably end up spending the evening with them, instead of alone. Even after reminding herself, she seemed to be looking forward to some alone time with him. Oh well, group dates were fun too. Did Kevin have a date? She never saw him with anyone but Gwen, who seemed quite uninterested.
After getting their shoes from the counter, they walked over to where the group sat. “Hey, everyone,” Lucas said casually. “No one told me there was a party.”
“Yet you showed up anyway,” Kevin said. “No one wants their brother on a date.”
“You hiding yours?” Lucas asked, as he looked around.
“She’s apparently shy,” Cade said. “I’m Cade, this is Stormy. I know Stormy and Talia are friends, but don’t think we’ve met.”
“I’ve met Stormy, good to meet you, and you all know Talia,” he said.
“Coffee black,” she smiled at them, stating their preferences.
“Well, tonight it's beer cold,” Stormy lifted a small cup. “Want one?”
Talia shook her head; her nerves were too jangly already. She didn’t need to fuel them with alcohol.
“We’ll play a game with you,” Lucas said, “Then Talia and I have some catching up to do.”
Talia noticed that Kevin looked at the clock and sighed then sent off a quick text. “I think I’ll be heading out. My plans changed and I have early shift tomorrow.”
Assuming his date either canceled or stood him up, Talia flashed him a quick smile of sympathy and noticed Stormy did the same. She seemed happier, lately, Talia thought. Her stalker had done some jail time, community service as required and then had left town. It had been scary for a while. The stalker had even tried to burn down her business, Bindi’s Barn, once. Stormy had since rebuilt and reopened, but Talia noticed how protectively Cade still hovered over her and wondered if anything had happened recently she hadn’t heard about. She didn’t know Stormy well enough to ask her such personal things though. Their friendship was more over coffee and breakfast food, and little chats about how the day was going and the occasional meet up like this. Stormy had even set her up a few times with some lonely guy she met hanging out at the pet store. She had no pets, so didn’t really have a reason to go into Stormy’s work, except for an occasional cute gift for someone’s new puppy. But she always liked Stormy, and Cade seemed nice. She didn’t really remember him from school, but they’d probably gone about the same time.
Turning her eyes, she saw Lucas looking at her and smiled. Yeah, all through high school, there had been only one guy for her. The only one she had eyes for, and he was the only thing she wanted. They’d started dating young and married too young.
But now they were older, he, at least, was settled, but she was still finding her way. Her mom called her a late bloomer, but she didn’t care what it was called, it was still a little embarrassing to know many of her peers had career jobs; college professor like Cade, Kevin was a cop and Stormy owned a cute boutique pet store. She was a waitress who was taking online college classes. There was nothing wrong with being a waitress, but this had been her high school job, and other than filling in on the grill now and then, she hadn’t learned anything new there and felt as if she were stagnant most of the time. That was why she started taking classes a few years ago; she did not want to work there until she was retirement age.
Shaking her head, she smiled when Lucas asked softly, “You all right?”
“Yeah, ready to bowl and then someone promised me a burger,” she said brightly.
“Someone always keeps his or her promises,” he said, turning to grab a ball from the ball rack.
“Maybe now,” she whispered under her breath. To be fair, maybe he did now. He seemed changed. Mature, and there was a confidence about him that she envied and gravitated toward. He made her feel safe and protected, which was weird because she didn’t feel scared and she didn’t need protecting. “Oh, a split,” she laughed. “Good luck with that!”
She wasn’t going to think about it. She was going to enjoy her evening, thank him for the rental car, and go home and see where she could squeeze more money from her budget.
On their way home a few hours later, she settled happily into his big comfy truck, “I want one of these one day,” she said. “I need to put it on my goal list.”
“How long is that list?” he asked.
“Pretty long,” she admitted. He pulled out of the well-lit parking lot and she felt comforted by the darkness surrounding them. It was always easier to talk in the dark.
“Tell me a few things,” he coaxed.
Should she? Why not? Well, it was none of his business, but he used to be her best friend and confiding in him seemed easy.
“Finish my degree and get a career job is number one. One day a family, of course. Then a few material things, like a decent place to live and a decent vehicle to get me safely where I want to go. Pay off my student loans.”
“Like car payments and student loans seem to be a fact of life anymore,” he agreed.
Talia hesitated, but she had to ask, “Speaking of car payments, did you find out anything about my car today?”
He didn’t answer, but pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building. “Come on, I’ll walk you up,” he said.
Oh, that couldn’t be good. She began to panic a bit, as they headed up the stairs to her place. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it would be a cheap fix or he just didn’t know yet.
Yeah. That’s how her luck was, all right. It would be inexpensive and ready for her tomorrow. Sigh. Not.
She fumbled in her purse for her keys, and then missed the knob a few times. She was already sweating her book money for next semester, and knew she was going to cut back on her hours at the diner to student teach the semester after that.
Lucas took her keys from her hand and unlocked the door. “Come on in,” he said gently.
“Thanks,” she tried to smile at him, but the tears were threatening. Stupid money stuff.
He shut the door behind him and took her over to the couch where he sat down and pulled her on his lap.
“Umm,” she wiggled a little uncomfortably.
“Settle down,” he told her.
Taking a deep a breath she relaxed in his arms. Or tried to. Who worried about how heavy they were when they sat on a guy’s lap? Her. She’d never been a tiny thing. Raw boned her grandma had called her. She didn’t really know what that meant, except it didn’t mean tiny. If she was too heavy, he’d push her off, though, he was all manly like that.
“Well, you know your car was old,” he started, “and had a lot of miles on it.”
“This isn’t going to be good news, is it?” she said and leaned her head against his shoulder. She didn’t want to hear this, but she felt at home here. What could happen to her in his arms?
“Well, the good news is I have a loaner car for you, till you can figure out what to do,” he said, and stroked her hair.
Dang it, if he was going to be nice to her, she was going to lose it. She stiffened. “So how much is it going to be to fix my car?”
“Way more than it's worth,” he said.
“Probably cheaper than a monthly car payment, though,” she said, desperately.
“It simply isn’t fixable,” he said. “There’s too much wrong with it. It’s totaled, Talia. Cars don’t last forever. You’ve been putting money into for a while now, haven’t you?”
She nodded, not looking at him. “I kept up with the oil changes and did everything I was supposed to, but it's broken down a lot recently. I really need that car to last another year, at least.”
“Well, honey,” he said, and she bristled at the gentle tone of his voice. The same one he had when he’d told her he was leaving her. She hated that tone. “The car is done for. The frame is ruined and the engine is gone. You can’t fix it. It's totaled. I’ll help you file insurance if you need me, too.”
“I don’t need help with that,” she snapped. Insurance! Maybe she would get enough to help her out, buy an old beater car, one that would get her back and forth to work and the occasional trip to the college, but probably not. She didn’t think insurance paid you for dead cars. It would be a few months before she had to start student teaching and she didn’t know where that would be. But she could splurge a dollar a week on a lottery ticket and maybe hit it rich! Dreams sometimes came true!
“Well, good. There’s something else we need to do before we go pick up the car I’m going to loan you,” he said, and before she could even process the thought he was loaning her and not renting her a car, she felt him move. Thinking he was going to stand up, she started to stand too, but he grabbed her arm and flipped her across his lap.
“Uff,” she said, and she very ungracefully tried to scrabble back up. “Lucas!” She knew immediately what he was planning. Even as a young man, he’d had this thing about spanking her. Sometimes for fun, but when he meant it, she knew it. “Why?”
“Texting and driving.” He held her down firmly while she tried to wiggle away from him. “You know better and I need to make sure you won’t do it in the car I’m letting you use.”
Even knowing what was coming, she felt a flood of relief pour through her. Yes, he meant it, he had a car he would be letting her use, not rent her. She would be able to get through the next couple of months, hopefully. She would need details, and she knew he would give them to her, but not till he was good and ready. She would have to get through this first.
“Lucas, I’ll not do it again, I promise,” she begged. Okay, it would do no good, but a girl had to try. The first swat landed on her bottom and she yelped in surprise. She had been ready for a lecture first. “Lucas! I won’t! I didn’t. OW!” Another one. “I was only looking at a text, not texting, OW!”
“Your phone should have been in your purse or pocket. Not where you could grab it and look at it.” Three more smacks but she was ready for these and kept her mouth shut. She wouldn’t complain. He was going to loan her a car.
“You know better than that.” Three more and she could hear them echo across the room. He wasn’t kidding. Another smack made her yelp.
“I do know better, I’m sorry!” She could feel her bottom start to heat up and knew it wouldn’t be long before she couldn’t take it anymore.
Then she heard those dreaded words. “You are going to be much sorrier soon.” Okay, some things never changed.
“Please, please don’t,” she begged, as the next, much harder smack landed. At least he’d left her pants on. She knew from experience that when they came down things were intensified. Everything. The humiliation. The pain. She suspected even the length of her spankings because he just liked looking at her bare butt. Nothing good about the pants coming down. She needed to find words to say to keep them up and be done.
A few minutes later though, words were out of her brain. The only thing coming out of her mouth was sobs and a few times begging, “No, not there! Please! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Still the smacks came down steadily and she squirmed to try to get away. She knew it was useless but her body wouldn’t listen.
“I will not have you put yourself in danger, do you understand me?” He punctuated each word with a smack to her lower bottom where he knew it hurt more.
“No more!” she wiggled and her hand flew back to stop it. She couldn’t help it. It hurt too much. Her face was wet. Oh, yeah, she remembered tears. It had been a while since she’d cried. Nordic Ice Princess, she’d been called. Not anymore. She felt like a naughty child with a very hot bottom, which was exactly how he wanted her to feel.
He grabbed her hand and held it to her back, which only made her wiggle harder. She had to get away from this. “Please, please!” She sobbed, barely able to make out the words.
Her bottom felt on fire and it felt as if she had been over his knee forever. She could barely breathe and time seemed to stop.
Suddenly, the spanking did though.
She tried to get up, but he wouldn’t let her, and held her in the same spot. “Settle down,” he told her. Wasn’t that a few times in the last twenty-four hours he’d told her that? Yeah. It was all she’d ever wanted, to settle down with him and now, all he wanted her to do was stop crying over the spanking he’d given her. That kind of settle down.
She tried to take big breaths with her stomach being compressed against his knees. It was hard. He gave her another hard smack and said, “I told you to settle down.”
She stopped wiggling and knew better than to try to rub her bottom, but thankfully, he did that for her. Nothing felt better than a rub after a blistering. Nothing. Well, there were a few other things. She needed to not think of those things. Why was she thinking when she could barely catch her breath?
“Haven’t lost my touch,” he said, smugly, but kept rubbing.
“May I get up, please?” she asked as meekly as she could. She’d let him have it when she got out of this position maybe, but she wasn’t a fool, and not going to provoke him into doing any more. She sighed. It was always amazing to her how fast her bottom went from on fire to a slow warmth after a spanking. Sure, she’d be sore, but it already wasn’t unbearable. “I need to blow my nose.”
“I need to talk. Sniffle a few minutes,” he said and gave her another smack.
Fine, she wiped her leaky nose on his jeans. Served him right.
“You will not.” He punctuated it with a smack that made her cry out. “Ever text.” Another smack on her other cheek. “Text and drive again.” Three more followed, and she didn’t think she could take it anymore. So much for a slow burning warmth. It took nothing to rekindle the fire.
“I won’t!” she wailed. “I promise! I’m sorry!” Three more smacks and he pulled her up and into his arms. Her stomach felt better but her bottom didn’t.
Handing her a tissue from the box on the coffee table, he said, “Blow. Realize that was a light spanking. You ever do this again; the pants will come off, the paddle will come out and the blisters will rise. Do you understand me?”
See, she was female, she could multi-task, blowing her nose, she nodded frantically. “I understand.”
“Understand what?” He took the tissue and threw it away then moved her head to look at him.
“I understand, sir?” she whispered.
His lips twitched. “That works. Glad we understand each other. Now, go to the bathroom, wash your face, check your butt out and we will go pick up your car.” He bent down and kissed her well and proper, while her mind raced.
Blushing, she ran to the bathroom. Of course, she was going to do those things. What girl didn’t check out her bottom after a spanking? But why would he know that? She didn’t want to know. How many other women had he spanked since they divorced? He was a handsome man with a predilection for spanking, for foreplay and punishment. Probably more women than she even wanted to think about. His technique had been refined. That wasn’t a yank and spank like he’d done when they were married. That was a proper spanking that got his point across. He even knew how to use his words. Once again, she felt behind, lacking. Her handful of dates that she’d been on still left her not as experienced as he was.
After washing her face and checking out her reddened bottom, she frowned into the mirror. It didn’t matter what he had or hadn’t done, whom he’d been with or who she hadn’t. It only mattered he was loaning her a car. She had to get through school, and had to pay her bills. This spanking changed nothing. She still had a future to plan for, and who knew how long he would be here for her.
However, for the first time in ages, she felt safe and cared for. She would never tell him that, but she did.
Talia didn’t know if it had to do with the car, or the kisses, or the spanking.