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Love Under the Western Star

The Passion Quest : Book Three

By: Sahalie Blue
Published By: Fire Mountain Press
Copyright: Published by Fire Mountain Press
20 Chapters / 72,700 words
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The peace of Pleasant Valley has been shattered. The feud between the Tewksbury and Graham families has escalated from a sheep versus cattle dispute to a war over access to the only water in the valley - the Wide Muddy River. Hope Tewksbury and Joseph Graham have found love, and now they must find peace. 

Dr. Amy Toller is an alien anthropologist studying the fourth planet orbiting the star Chi. She is searching the Galaxy for clues to humanity's past, and the mythical planet called Earth. She and her fellow scientists infiltrate Pleasant Valley, which mimics the American West of the 1880's. Their goal is to discover what these distant cousins know of humanity's birthplace. But first, they must end the bloodshed. 

Will Hope and Joseph's love be thwarted by the hatred their families feel for each other?

Author's Note: This western romance with a sci-fi twist is the third book in the Passion Quest series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. For adults only, it contains spanking, sex, medical play, and a menage. If these scenes offend you, don't buy this book.

Chapter One

Stardate 3583.08.02 – The Planet Chi-4

 

 

Hope Tewksbury allowed her older brother, Zeke, to pull her into a brotherly hug. He was seven years older than her eighteen years of age.

“This is really for the best, you’ll see,” he whispered in her ear. “You need to see life outside this valley, and being educated is what Mother wanted for you. She had high hopes for your future.”

“I know, but—”

“Let’s get going,” their father, Caine, called out. The buggy springs squealed as his heavy frame settled onto the seat. “The train won’t wait for ya.”

Zeke steadied Hope’s arm as she mounted the buggy.

“Goodbye, I’ll see you in two years.” She leaned down and kissed Zeke’s cheek. She pressed close to her father’s side, and added, “I’m ready.”

Zeke tossed her carpet bag into the back, and Caine lightly snapped the reins on the horse’s haunches. The black stallion stepped into a trot and turned toward the gate without further guidance. As the horse and buggy approached the large shade tree at the edge of the yard, Hope placed her hand on her father’s arm.

“Please, Father, can we stop for just a moment?”

Caine grunted, but he pulled back on the reins. The horse stopped beside a small patch of ground surrounded by a low, white picket fence. Hope did not descend from the buggy. As the sun rose over the eastern mountains, a ray of bright morning light shone on the wooden marker, and Hope read the inscription from where she sat—Evelyn Tewksbury, Devoted Wife and Mother. It had been only two weeks earlier they laid her mother to rest.

Hope remembered her mother telling her the origin of her name. “I saw such a bright future in your eyes; that’s why I named you Hope,” Evelyn had said. Hope had been full of excitement as she and her mother had made plans for Hope’s trip to college ‘out east’ in the city of Verden.

Then one morning, her mother was ill. The fever continued to get worse. Old Doc Bellingham had been unable to do anything to break the fever. Evelyn became delirious. As the end neared, she had not been able to recognize her own family.

Following Evelyn’s death, Hope had not wanted to continue with the plan to become a school teacher. To her way of thinking, her father needed her to remain by his side and keep the home for him. Instead, he had hired a housekeeper, and insisted she fulfill her mother’s wishes. So, a reluctant Hope acquiesced to the plan. 

Looking at the grave marker, Hope clenched her eyes tightly shut in an effort to hold back the tears. She patted her father’s arm and gestured for him to continue. Caine eased up on the reins, and the stallion resumed his trot as though he knew the train schedule and their need for haste.

They continued the two-hour, ten-mile ride into town mostly in silence. As they passed through the small town, Hope kept her eyes on her folded hands in her lap. She knew everyone had nothing but compassion for her, following the death of her mother, but she did not want to meet anyone’s eyes.

On the north side of town, the train was already at the station when they arrived. The big engine, eager to continue its journey eastward, was belching plumes of thick black smoke and white steam into the bright blue sky. She was glad there would be no time for a long and painful goodbye.

“Here’s your ticket. It will take you all the way to Verden.” Caine handed the small card to Hope along with her bag. He hugged her close. “We’ll miss you, so you be sure and write lots.”

“Yes, Father.” Hope kissed her father’s cheek. She saw the tears forming in his eyes. She turned away before they both began crying.

“All aboard,” the conductor shouted. The train whistle blew to accentuate the command.

Hope stepped from the platform to the train. She looked briefly over her shoulder and waved one last time to her father before settling into a seat on the opposite side of the car.

***

Father will be angry.

Hope pushed several unruly strands of strawberry-blond hair out of her golden eyes as quickly as she pushed the negative thought from her mind. He'll understand, she reasoned with herself. He needs me at home. That's all there is to it.

On her trip to Verden, Hope had gotten as far as Querque when she decided to return home. She had waited two hours in the Querque train station for the westbound train, which would return to Payson. The hard wooden bench seat offered no comfort as she had tried to rest.

She tugged at the collar of her dress, wishing it wasn't buttoned so tightly against her neck on this hot summer day. She heard the train whistle blow, signaling its approach. She swiveled in her seat to look out the window as the locomotive chugged into the station.

The train hissed, then squealed to a stop, its doors sliding open. A porter stepped out and placed a small footstool on the ground; then he reached his hand to help a woman and her three children step off the train and onto the wooden platform.

Readying herself to board the train, she grabbed her carpet bag and ticket in one hand, and resolutely gathered her skirt and petticoat in the other.

“Miss,” the porter said, touching her elbow. He guided her up the steps and onto the train.

“Thank you,” she said, entering the car. Surveying the interior, she noted the scarcity of vacant seats. She slowly made her way along the aisle. A tall man with a winsome smile rose. He removed his hat and motioned for her to approach.

“Miss, there is a seat, next to me.” She took in his visage. Even though Caine had often cautioned her against talking to strangers, this man had an authoritative look, and his military uniform added a trustworthy air.

“Thank you, sir.” She noticed the captain’s bars on his shoulder boards. “I am not displacing you? Surely you'd like to sit by the window?” Hope asked.

“Not a problem, miss. A gentleman would never let a lady sit on the aisle.”

Hope shrugged and nodded as she slid into the seat, settling next to the window.

The man waited while she put her bag on the floor at her feet. “My name is Joseph,” he said, replacing his hat, gliding over to sit beside her.

“I'm Hope.” She smiled a greeting.

“Hope. That is a lovely name. May I ask where you are headed?”

At that moment, the conductor made his way down the aisle. “Ticket, ma’am.” She handed hers to him, and he punched it with his hand-forged nippers as the train lurched out of the station.

Hope returned her attention to Joseph. “I'm heading home, to Payson.” She removed her bonnet, and placed it on her lap. She gave her curls a gentle shake and waited for the breeze to cool her. “And you, sir? What is your destination?” She asked, not needing conversation, but not wanting to be impolite.

“I am also headed to Payson.” Seeming to need to explain, he added, “I've been discharged from military service, and am looking to purchase a small farm with my earnings.” 

“I see. But, the war is not over, is it?” In school, they had studied about the war. It had been raging for several years, but it seemed so far away in the books and maps her teacher used as she tried to explain it. Now, it was up close and personal, sitting right next to her.

“No, it is not. I was honorably discharged. I was injured; my leg is no longer fully functional.”

“Oh, I'm sorry.” She glanced and saw how he held his leg out straight, then quickly redirected her gaze out the window.

“You don't remember me, do you?” Joseph asked.

Hope turned in her seat to study him. His skin was tanned, indicating many hours spent outdoors. He had a healthy head of long brown hair. His upper lip was capped with a dark bushy mustache. His sturdy chin and neck were covered by a thick bristly beard. Underneath wide and level brows, his silvery eyes were framed by the thickest, longest lashes she had ever seen. Aware she was staring, she flushed slightly.

“No, I'm sorry, should I know you?”

“I remember you. Hope Tewksbury. The little red-haired, freckle-faced girl, with her nose always in the books.” Joseph chuckled. “I was six years ahead of you in Mrs. Greenwood's class. I often got into trouble. Wound up getting paddled at the pillory a time or two.”

“I'm sorry, I don't recall. My mother told me to stay away from boys like you.” She chuckled. “And, in all the commotion, I wouldn't have recognized you.”

Joseph laughed. “No, I suppose not. My backside, more than my face, was visible to most townspeople. Well, not to worry, my dear. My time in the Army has changed me for the better.”

Hope's heart fluttered a bit as she thought, he called me dear. “So, have you been in the Army all this time?”

“Yes, I've been in Bama these last six years. My Pop thought the experience would make a man out of me, so he encouraged me to enlist. Then the war started. I did my duty, and did it well enough to move up to the rank of captain. But, after I was shot, they decided to send me home. Can't say I'm sorry. I've seen enough death to last me a lifetime.” He shuddered.

Hope nodded. And, now he's coming back to Payson—and the feud. While the war was so far away, the on-going battle among the settlers in Pleasant Valley was very close—the cattlemen versus the sheepherders. The valley was anything but pleasant in the days after one sheepherder had been murdered. There were no lawmen in the valley, but a posse had been formed to apprehend the murderer. The official word was that the trail was lost in the mountains, but rumor had it the trail led to the Graham ranch, and so nothing more was done about it.

The Graham clan had been the first family to settle in the valley, and they acted as though they owned all of it. To some extent, they did. They owned most of the businesses in the town, and they controlled the credit the general store doled out to the other settlers. This kept everyone beholden to them.

The Tewksbury family owned the second largest spread. While they were not sheepherders, they sided with them, and thus, bore the brunt of the Graham’s ire.

However, Hope kept her thoughts on the matter to herself.

Joseph added, “And, how is your mother? I remember her coming to collect you at school day's end.”

“Mother's dead.” Hope choked on the words.

Joseph reached over and touched her hand. “I'm so sorry.”

“Thank you. She had the fever, and in the end, there was nothing anyone could do for her.” Hope sniffed. “She was a strong woman; she never cried.” Hope looked out the window. “I did enough crying for her. I miss her so much. It just happened; barely two weeks ago... the funeral was awful.”

A vision flashed through her mind, of her father placing flowers on her mother's coffin before it was lowered into the ground. The frustration and sorrow she felt over the many days during her mother's illness now manifested itself in exhaustion. Hope wept.

Joseph handed her a handkerchief. “Here. It's tattered, but clean.”

“Thank you.” She dried her eyes. “I was on my way to the Coronado State Normal School, but I got off the train in Querque to come back home. I can't bear to leave Father all alone right now. He needs me to take care of him.”

“Doesn't he have a housekeeper? Don’t you have a brother to help?”

“Yes, but—”

Joseph interrupted. “So, he doesn't know you are headed back home?”

“No.”

“He'll probably put you right back on the train, you know. After he puts you over his knee, for disobeying him.”

Hope huffed. “I've never been spanked in all my life.” While corporal punishment was the common mode of discipline for both children and adults along the frontier, her mother had refused to allow Caine to spank Hope.

Joseph smiled. “There's a first time for everything.”

She grunted displeasure at the direction of the banter and stared out the train window. The conversation seemingly over, she watched the landscape roll by. She was looking at the countryside as though for the first time. She had not been paying attention to the view out the window on the trip eastward. They passed craggy, uneven cliffs, forested slopes of evergreen, rocky gorges, and sparse deserts filled with sagebrush and cacti.

Several minutes later, she thought of something she wanted to say. “Father keeps telling me he'll be fine; he's got Mrs. Smathers, that's the housekeeper, and my older brother Zeke to look after him.” She tossed her head. “I told him he was being stubborn.”

Joseph snorted. “He probably said the same thing about you.”

“He did,” Hope admitted. “Mother wanted me to continue my education and become a schoolteacher. After I do that, Father said, I could come back home.” She sniffed. “I was looking forward to going away to school, but, now that Mother's no longer here, I'm worried. Father's been so quiet and withdrawn.”

“Your father misses your mother.”

Hope nodded. “Yes, I think he feels guilty; that maybe he could have done more for her. We both could have done more for her.” A single tear rolled down her cheek.“Despite what he said, I know he needs me.” She blew her nose into Joseph’s handkerchief. Having soiled it, she thought it to be impolite to return it to him; she rolled it into her palm.

“There, there.” Joseph patted her hand. “I'll make sure you get back to him, safe and sound, and then you two can discuss what's best.”

“Well, Captain, I can find my own way home, but thank you all the same.”

The train rumbled along the tracks as the carriages lurched and swayed rhythmically. The young couple passed the rest of the time talking about nothing in particular. 

Hope was used to sitting in close proximity to her brother and father in church pews, and seats of the buckboard wagon, but she was not accustomed to sitting this close to a man not related to her. Now, she was only a hairs breath away from this handsome stranger. She became acutely aware of the feel of Joseph's thigh touching hers, and the unnerving flow of heat spreading throughout her body. Perspiration bloomed from more than the summer's heat.

The conductor walked through the train car. “Next stop, Payson,” he called out, as if he had been doing it all his life. “Payson, next stop.”

Hope had been eight years old when her family moved to the area known as Pleasant Valley. The area sat at a high elevation, but had a mild climate due to its proximity to a colossal, flat-topped plateau to the north called the Mogollon Rim. Heavy afternoon rains were common in the summer, cooling the air temperature, making evenings quite comfortable. Hope recalled many a time sitting on the front porch of her family home, reading her treasured books.

The train rounded the base of the Rim, and Hope smiled. She had a clear view of the Sierra Anchas Mountains to the east, the big, rough Mazatzal Mountains to the south, and the Four Peaks Range to the west. Thick forests of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees flanked the mountains beneath the Rim. The view was breathtaking.

Payson sprawled in the arid valley below, made fertile by the Wide Muddy River. The southward-flowing Wide Muddy was fed by melting snows and underground springs in the hills and buttes between the Mogollon Rim and Pleasant Valley.

When Hope had first come to the valley, there had been no railroad, no stagecoach, and no town. She had watched as more families arrived, bringing all these things with them. 

Would what Father think of her sudden return? Butterflies flitted in her stomach. Would he spank her for her disobedience? He had complained to her mother that sparing the paddle would make her a spoiled brat. Is that what she had become? What would a spanking feel like? She, along with most of the townspeople, had seen spankings doled out at the pillory for transgressions against the town’s civility. She wiped her sweaty palms against her skirt. Her idea to return home had seemed like a good one back in Querque. Now, it had the appearance of being impulsive and foolish.

The train's whistle shrieked, and the iron horse hissed as it chugged to a stop. Hope, Joseph, and two other passengers stepped off the train and onto the station platform at the edge of town.

Hope's breath caught in her throat as she got a better look at Joseph. From the tips of his black leather knee high boots to the top of his brown suede wide brimmed hat, the man was breathtakingly handsome. She guessed his height at well over six feet, taller than that of her father. Joseph's square shoulders and erect posture strengthened her feeling he was a man confident with his place in the world. She stopped herself from gaping, and flashed him an encouraging, friendly smile.

“Miss Hope, why don’t you wait here, in the shade, while I fetch us a buckboard wagon?”

She nodded her agreement and watched as he strode toward the livery stables. She noticed he walked with a limp. He seemed unable to fully bend his right knee. She remembered what he had said about being wounded.

She waited under the station's overhang, adjusting the bustle of her skirt. Squinting from the brightness of the afternoon sun, she surveyed her hometown. All was as she'd left it early that morning, but somehow it was all different. She was seeing the place from a new perspective. Broad, rough-hewn walkways ran along either side of the dusty dirt road connecting the rows of two and three-story buildings. At a glance, Hope saw the general store, seamstress shop, bank, doctor's office and mortuary, schoolhouse and church, blacksmith, stage depot, and post office. To all appearances, everything looked like business as usual. No one seemed to notice her, and that was to her liking.

Hope smiled when her gaze landed on Lila Lee Tewksbury Mason's two-story boarding house with its sign swaying in the breeze. It advertised, Pleasant Valley Boarding House, Room & Board. Lila Lee was her father's first cousin, and widow of Herbert Mason. To support herself after his untimely death, Lila Lee had bought the place, remodeled it, and rented rooms to travelers for short-term stays, or lodgers for longer durations. She served breakfast and dinner to her boarders.

The boarding house was right across the street from the Red Velvet Saloon. Hope had been forbidden to so much as look through the doors of the Red Velvet, but her friends had dared her to enter. “There’s a bordello upstairs,” they had whispered. Hope didn't know what this meant, but she saw the garish painted ladies. Her parents had told her it was a den of depravity; no place for a girl like herself to set foot in. However, she suspected the real reason was because the Red Velvet was owned by Abel Graham.

Then, her sight landed on the pillory. It stood at the edge of town like a bad omen. It was a large wooden structure, placed on a platform, with holes for securing an offender's head and hands. The holes were of varying heights, to accommodate man, woman, or child. Hope was relieved to see all spots were vacant. Discipline within a family was settled at home; however, disputes outside the family were settled publicly. She never enjoyed witnessing public humiliations and punishments. She didn’t recall having seen Joseph being paddled for misbehaving in school, but she had witnessed plenty. The experiences had fulfilled their purpose, and kept her behavior within the rules.

Joseph returned with the wagon. He gripped her hips as he helped her up. For a moment she was unsettled with his forwardness, but then she reasoned he was only being polite. She would have been required to awkwardly expose her legs if she had climbed into the wagon on her own. She relaxed on the wooded seat as he tossed her bag into the back. With a bit of a devilish smile, he hopped up next to her.

“All settled? Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yes, my family's ranch is about ten miles south of town.”

With a flick of the reins, he headed them south along the main street. They passed the commercial buildings, then moved on by a smattering of clapboard-sided cottages with white picket fences lining their parched front yards. Soon they were on the dirt road heading out of town. The horses had no difficulty following the ruts which were worn away by countless wagon wheels traversing this same path.

“I’ll see you safely home, Miss Hope, then I’ll find my own way home.”

She did not think to inquire as to how far this would be out of his path. She imagined he was going to one of the other ranches in the southern end of the valley.

Hope gulped in several breaths of clean, fresh air. She was grateful to once again be out in the open instead of cooped up inside the train. She gazed at the dry land surrounding her. Mesquite shrubs, agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, and cholla cactus dotted the scrubby grassland. Cattle grazed in groupings of two or three on the open range, and desert birds swooped overhead.

About halfway into their journey, they encountered a lone rider approaching them on the road leading to Hope's home. As the rider got closer, she was startled to see the man was neither a Tewksbury nor a ranch hand working for her father. It was, instead, Cody Graham. Her lip curled in distaste.

What is he doing out this way?

“Whoa,” Joseph commanded, as he pulled in the reins.

When the horses halted, Hope stared in disbelief as, simultaneously, Joseph hopped off the wagon and Cody dismounted. She stared, slack-jawed, as the two men embraced each other.

Cody slapped Joseph on the back. “Well, lookie here. My little brother, the Captain. Must I salute you?” He snapped his fingers to the brim of his hat.

Hope fretted to herself, Joseph's a Graham! Suddenly, she remembered who Joseph Graham was.

Joseph replied to his brother, “Naw, no salute's necessary. I'm a civilian now.” He glanced down at his uniform. “I just haven’t any other clothes.”

Cody asked, “How's the leg?”

“A bit stiff, but the doc says it'll be better once it gets done healing.”

Cody glanced at Hope, as if to see her for the first time. Joseph followed his eyes, and said, “Tell Pop I'll see him soon, after I drop off my passenger.”

“Speaking of…” Cody scowled at Hope. “What 'cha doing with her?”

“I met her on the train, and I'm escorting her home.”

“You know who she is, don’t ‘cha?”

“Yes, she’s Hope Tewksbury.”

Cody sneered. “If it were me, I'd let her walk.”

Joseph replied, “It's my duty as an officer and a gentleman to see the lady home, even if she is a Tewksbury.”

Hope was annoyed as the two men talked about her as if she was a side of beef. If Joseph had told me his last name, I'd never have agreed to ride with him.

“What brings you out this way?” Joseph asked his brother.

“Jest checkin' to make sure there aren't any sheep on the open range headed toward Graham land.” Cody leered at Hope.

“Did you find any?” 

Cody said, “Nah. Brother, you'd best get to takin' her home. The family's expecting you.” Cody smiled at Joseph, and mounted his horse. Tipping his hat ever so slightly, he said, “Mizz Tewksbury,” affording her the minimum possible courtesy. Then, Cody spurred his horse and headed north.

Hope grabbed her carpet bag from the back of the buckboard and hopped onto the ground. She resolutely began marching toward home.

“Just what are you doing?” Joseph called after her.

“Your brother said he'd let me walk. Since you are a Graham, I figured you'd want that too.” She grunted. “Why didn't you tell me?”

“What, that I'm a Graham? I didn't think it mattered.”

“Father will be doubly angry with me, knowing I was alone with a Graham.”

Joseph sighed. “No need to get all huffy. I've never done anything to you, or your family. I left the valley long before any of the trouble started.”

“No matter. I'm walking the rest of the way.”  

Joseph sighed and climbed into the wagon. “Your daddy was right. You are one stubborn woman.” He directed the horses to walk around Hope's left side and angled them to a stop in front of her.

He ordered, “Get in. I'm not about to let you walk the five miles or so that's left to your home. It will be dark long before you get there.”

“The moons will light my way,” Hope asserted with more confidence than she felt. She could only imagine the ire her father would raise, knowing a Graham had brought her at least part-way home. That alone might earn her a spanking. Her chin set in a stubborn line, she clutched her carpet bag in her left hand. With her skirt and petticoat held tightly in her right, she brushed around the horses and continued walking.

Joseph repeated the maneuver, putting the wagon in her path. She again skirted around it. He hopped down and walked in front of her to block her path. He placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her from passing.

She glared at him. “So, what have you got against sheep? Baby lambs are so adorable. Have you ever held one?”

He crossed his arms in front of him. “I have nothing against baby lambs, or sheep for that matter. But, you have heard the old saying, haven't you? Cattle and sheep don't mix.”

Hope grunted. “We’ve never had any trouble with them.” She tried to push past him, but he once again gripped her shoulder.

Joseph sighed. “You must know that sheep graze the land clean, leaving nothing for cattle to eat.”

“Yes, that's all you Grahams ever say about them.” Anger bubbled up inside Hope. She released her skirt and pushed his arm away. “My father told me about that poor sheepherder, minding his own business, tending to the flock in the Rim, when your father's men killed him and chopped off his head!” She stamped her foot on the trail, kicking up dust.

Joseph stated, “That isn't true.”

Hope's anger hit a boiling point. Her right hand seemed to have a mind of its own as it reached up and connected with Joseph's right cheek. The resulting thwack seemed to echo off the distant mountains. “That's for calling my father a liar.”

Joseph rubbed his cheek. “I did not call your father a liar. It is true that my father's men killed the sheepherder, and I'm sorry for that, but they didn't behead him.”

His eyes narrowed as he approached Hope. He jerked the carpet bag from her hand and tossed it into the wagon. Taking her by the arm, he led her to the back of the wagon. Pushing her torso onto the wagon, he bent her at the waist. “You shouldn't have done that, young lady. I do not allow myself to be slapped.”

“Mr. Graham! What are you doing?” It took a moment for Hope to understand his intention. He was going to spank her. She squirmed, but he placed his left hand on the small of her back to hold her firmly.

Tossing up her skirt, he said, “I'm going to give you your very first spanking. You certainly deserve it. Let me count the ways. One, for going against your father's wishes.” He smacked her backside with the palm of his hand. “Two, for insisting on walking home.” He smacked her again. “And three, for slapping my face.” His hand came down hard onto her derrière for a third time.

“Ow!” she yelled.

His right hand rested on her bottom, now clad only in frilly petticoat and soft bloomers. “After I finish spanking you, you will calm down, and you will get back in the wagon.”  

“I most certainly will not. Who are you to be giving me orders?” She struggled, but to no avail. Joseph's hand smacked her bottom twice more. She tried kicking him, but he dodged her feet and planted two more, harder swats.

“I'm a friend. Fighting me will only prolong your misery,” he warned. He began spanking her with a continuous volley of swats.

Hope squealed, and reached back to protect her butt.

“Move your hand,” he ordered. “Or, you’ll get extra swats.”

Ignoring his words, she struggled harder. However, he only tightened his hold and pelted her bottom. The intensity of his spanking increased.

“It will only get harder until you accept your punishment.”

“Please, please, no more!” Her bottom got hotter. The tender flesh stung as if she had sat down on a barrel cactus. Recognizing the vulnerability of her situation, she had no choice but to comply.

He gave her backside several more swats. Frustrated at his treatment of her, tears welled in her eyes. She was uncertain if she was bawling from the pain, or the embarrassment of him looking at her underthings. Nonetheless, she stopped her struggles. She resigned her fate to his hand.

“Ouch! I'm sorry for slapping you. I'll get back in the wagon,” she cried, but didn’t resist. “Please stop.”

Joseph’s hand remained on her bottom. No man had ever touched her there before, but she made no attempt to dislodge it. Hope was surprised to feel warmth pooling deep in her belly. His strong hand on such an intimate place set her mind awhirl. A thought of her bare bottom, draped over his strong lap, flashed through her mind. Something like a lightning bolt of desire flashed between her legs. Something she had never felt before.

Are you sorry?” he asked, swatting the backs of her lower thighs.

“Ow, yes, yes!” 

“All right then. Time's a wasting.” He smoothed down her skirt and pulled her upright. “Into the wagon with you.” When she hesitated, he swatted her bottom again. She scurried to her side of the wagon. As he had done before, he held her hips and hoisted her up. He hopped into the wagon, flicked the reins, and urged both horses to a gallop. “For your information, Miss Tewksbury, I may be a Graham by name, but I don't subscribe to many of my family’s notions. I’ve seen the world outside this valley, and I know how petty the feud is. You would do well to get past it as well.”

Hope's bottom smarted as the wagon bounced along. She was conflicted. She liked Joseph's matter-of-fact, quiet, yet authoritative air. This man had brought out feelings and desires in her she had never experienced before. But, she was angry at being spanked like a child. Taking a few deep breaths, she decided it would be best for her bottom if she simmered down.

At the crest of a hill, she gently laid a hand on his arm. “Please stop the wagon,” she said in a calm, even tone.

Joseph complied and stared at her.

She looked down at the Tewksbury's sprawling, white, two-story house overlooking a bend in the Wide Muddy River. She thought of her parents and their dream for her education. She remembered her mother’s vision of a bright future. Sadness overwhelmed her and tears fell from her eyes. She knew what she must do.

She turned to Joseph and said, “I want to get one last look before I head off to Verden.”

Joseph nodded. “Changed your mind, then?”

“Yes.” She wiped her eyes; then turned to stare into his. “Please take me back to town. It’s on your way home, I believe. You can drop me off at the Pleasant Valley boarding house. It's run by my father's cousin, Lila Lee. Then, in the morning, I'll get back on the train.” She knew her cousin would keep her visit a secret; her father would never know about her brief return.

Joseph flashed her a kindly smile. “Good girl. I think you are making a wise decision.”

At his comment, Hope's insides turned to mush. What is wrong with you? For heaven's sake, the man just spanked you. Why does his praise mean so much?

Joseph pulled the reins to turn the horses. As the wagon came around, he flipped the reins smartly on the horses’ haunches. Urging them into a fast trot, he headed them back to town.

They rode silently as the double moons rose. Hope knew the larger moon was more distant than the smaller moon. This created the optical illusion that they were the same size. The larger moon orbited the planet twice a month, while the smaller one completed its passage every three days. It was rare for them both to rise together, and the image of the two moons rising in the east, one silhouetting the other, had always been considered to be a good omen for the coming day.

Hope felt calmer than she had all day. Maybe the spanking helped. She chuckled.

“Look at those beautiful moons. You know, this could be quite the romantic moment, if I wasn't with a man who had just walloped me,” she said.

Did I just flirt with him?

Joseph protested. “Hey, I didn't wallop you. Would you like a demonstration of what a true walloping is?” He chuckled. “Trust me, I know.”

She squirmed in her seat, rekindling the prickly sensation in her bottom. “Um, no, thank you.” Hope was surprised. She had no fear of him, but instead felt a magnetic attraction to him. Sitting beside him felt natural. She thought her mother might have been wrong about the spankings. Yet, she was glad her discipline had not been public. It had been humiliating enough with no witnesses.

The twin moons illuminated their way, but with each passing mile, Hope's sadness grew. She was homesick already, and she hadn't even left yet.

All too soon they were back in the little town of Payson. There weren't many people around. Most businesses were closed for the night, with the exception of the Red Velvet. Hope saw several horses tethered to a long hitching post outside the saloon. Bright lights from the interior spilled out into the street. She smelled cigar smoke, and heard the sounds of clinking glasses, laughter, and piano music.

Joseph stopped the buckboard in front of the boarding house and limped to Hope's side of the wagon. Her stomach fluttered as she placed her hands on his shoulders while he lifted her out. She looked up at him and smiled. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

He nodded. “You're welcome. Good luck at college. I'm sure you'll feel right at home, once you get settled into a routine. Study hard, now.” His hands lingered, holding her waist while he looked up at the stars. The moon cast a silvery glow over his face.

“Hope, you were right, this is a romantic moment.” Before she knew what was happening, Joseph tipped his hat back on his head, lowered his lips to hers, and kissed her.

Hope kissed him back. The swelling in her lady bits created a sense of urgency; it was a feeling she had not felt before. Then, she felt a pang of sorrow realizing she would not see Joseph, or his long lashes, for two lingering years.

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