Searching for Tess by Lynn Forest – Part One

Chapter One

Tess Carlton yawned and glanced at her watch as she got off the elevator of the underground parking garage with her last piece of luggage to be placed in her Jeep. She looked at her watch and saw that she was leaving at just about the time she hoped, slightly after 4:00 a.m. before the downtown Chicago traffic would build. As she rode the elevator down, she realized that she had not even bothered to take one last look at the apartment she had lived in for the last fifteen years. As it was a furnished apartment, she really did not have much of a sentimental attachment to what was there.

Virtually nothing had changed since the day she had moved in, as the only thing that had even needed to be replaced was the microwave oven, and the mattress for the bed she shared with no one else. Few other furnishings had been used on a regular basis.

A rented apartment, with a landlord’s furniture, and no man in her life. It was a total avoidance of feeling ownership of anything or anyone except for her money. And that seemed to lose its meaning to her day by day. She had devoted two decades to building her banking and investment accounts, only to come to resent what she had allowed to divert her attention, and all of her life for that matter.

Her sedate clothing, her laptop computer and printer, and some dishes and silverware she had purchased at a garage sale years ago would be going with her. She did not even have a television of her own, so while it was a tight fit, everything was going to fit in her newly purchased Jeep SUV for her drive from Chicago to her new home in Oklahoma.

When she reached the second level of the underground garage where her car was parked, as soon as the elevator door opened, a security guard stepped forward to escort her. One thing that she would not miss was having to have a guard go with her from the elevator to her own car or the front door to protect her from being robbed or assaulted as she hailed a cab. Even though her apartment building was rated as a high-security facility, things still did manage to happen from time to time.

When she got to her vehicle, she opened the back liftgate, and the security man helped her stuff the last of her possessions into the large cargo space. When the door was lowered, they had to give it an extra push, but now all that she owned was with her in a vehicle, and the familiar security guard wished her well in her new home, and safety on her journey.

She certainly did not get far on her journey without the first delay. She had found the downtown traffic light at that time of the morning, but when she thought she was home free by getting on the freeway so easily, she came to a stop just a half mile into her trip, due to the breakdown of a large truck that was blocking the freeway as towing vehicles maneuvered around to get the truck out of the way.

As she sat in the traffic and tried to block out the sound of the horns blowing in futility around her, she thought it strange that she felt no sense of sentimentality in leaving the city she had worked in for over twenty years, and lived within thirty miles of all her life. She also wondered why, at her last day on the job, she had felt so little emotion. She had appreciated the well wishes of her coworkers and employees, but she had turned down the offer of having a going away party.

She had conducted business as normal in her role as the pharmacy administrator of the large downtown hospital until late afternoon when she finally boxed up what personal possessions she had not already taken home and at last allowed people to come in and talk to her. They were people who for the most part liked their departing boss, but none of them really got to know her over the course of the years they worked together.

The traffic finally started moving, and she found herself experiencing a bit of an unexpected moment of panic when she came to the next exit ramp and felt a temptation to get off and go back to her apartment, then call the hospital administrator to see if she could keep her position, as it had not been filled on a permanent basis. But she forced herself to hold the steering wheel steady and drive straight, and once she was past that last familiar exit, it took only a few minutes before she felt as if the wind was at her back. Her emotional whiplash over the course of the past thirty minutes was driving her a little crazy.

She turned on the heater in the car, because she had dressed in shorts for comfort, knowing that a spring warm spell was moving in that day from the Great Plains to the upper Midwest, and she knew that she would be more comfortable as the day grew long. And then, just as she hit the edge of the most Western outer belt to leave the Chicago area, she was once again in stalled traffic as a multiple car accident was cleared up, the delay costing her another forty-five minutes.

Finally, she was in the high-speed lane driving west, realizing that she was already in the territory with which she was totally unfamiliar. As she drove on and crossed the border out of Illinois, she found herself breathing a little easier, for she had escaped. She wasn’t certain what she had escaped, but it was the sensation that was overwhelming her nonetheless.

Each exit and grouping of gas stations and fast food establishments looked the same. The first two times she stopped for gas, she had no idea where she really was. All that she knew or cared about was that as she approached each town and passed by it quickly, the landscape was once again green and endless. She wondered if it was her imagination that she was finding it easier to breathe.

She had made visits home on a regular basis to see her parents in the house she had grown up in until they had moved to Florida. But with each visit, the setting grew more and more urban until what used to be the small town of her childhood had become a Chicago suburb.

Now she went past one small town after another, places where people had yards of green grass and could move about as they wished relatively free of any sense of danger. She passed schools with baseball fields, and small football stadiums, places where young people grew up and found love where things still made sense and people found meaning in life. People who had found the things that had evaded her. Actually, the things she had shunned.

And when she finally grew tired that night and pulled into a cluster of motels, when she went to bed she really had no idea as to what state she was even in. She just knew that her GPS that spoke to her from the dash of the Jeep was telling her every route and turn to make.

It had been some time since she had stayed overnight anywhere but her apartment. But as she crawled beneath the covers in the motel room, she felt strangely lonely, as if someone was missing.

In the morning, she woke up to the chiming from her phone, then turned it off and walked sleepily into the bathroom to take a shower. She put on another pair of shorts and a white pullover top, then went down to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. When she looked out the window she was pleased to see that the day was already sunny, and was relieved that it appeared the weather forecast she had seen was going to be accurate. She should be at her new home well before the day was over.

As she got back in her car and began driving once again, she realized that she was as lacking of emotion about going to a new place to live as she was about leaving Chicago. She didn’t really know when her emotion button got turned off, unless fatigue and indifference counted as emotions. In that case, she was saturated.

She would probably determine within a matter of days whether she had made a good decision to accept the new job. She was consoled by her conclusion that nothing could be less desirable than having not left the place that had become stale and uninteresting to her. She wanted to go someplace where she may feel alive again.

***

Tess placed her hand over her mouth as she yawned while stepping outside her car at the interstate highway rest area. She closed the door on the four-wheel-drive Jeep and stretched her 5’3” frame to relieve some of the drowsiness from driving.

The attractive blonde brushed her shoulder length hair back as she stepped up on the sidewalk, the shapely legs and fetching figure displayed by her red shorts and snug white top catching the attention of a pair of truck drivers standing forty feet away.

She laughed to herself as she walked on. She knew that she was an attractive woman, but at the time that fact obviously meant more to those truck drivers than it did to her in that setting. It was not unusual for her to be the object of male gazes. But she did not mind the unspoken flattery. Perhaps she was finally ready to go to some safe place and allow herself to begin looking back with a smile of interest. That would be a change.

She walked inside to use the restroom and to find a coffee vending machine for some much-needed caffeine. Twenty years earlier she would not have hesitated to make the Chicago to Oklahoma drive in one day. But at forty-three, she was a little less adventuresome than she had been as a young road warrior.

She looked at one of the wall-mounted maps showing where she was at in eastern Oklahoma, the green star indicating that she was indeed getting near her destination. She turned around and once again found herself being admired by a rugged looking young man who tried to hide his awkward state of being caught staring by holding up a travel brochure. Finally, being the object of such attention was once again giving her a bit of a welcome taste of being seen as physically desirable. It was not an unpleasant sensation, if she were to be honest with herself.

Holding her coffee, she stretched her body upward once again and leaned back in recognition of some lower back pain. When she did so, she realized the hem of her top had risen part way up her torso, so she slowly lowered her garment lest she once again become the focus of attention, or worse, appeared to be seeking it. The last thing she wanted was some anonymous man at a roadside stop coming on to her. Then keeping her eye on the rearview mirror to make sure she wasn’t being followed by some highway stalker, she resumed her journey.

She did not realize she had stopped at a rest area just two miles from her exit. She then had another thirty miles of state roadway to drive to reach her new home of Montford, Oklahoma. She would arrive at the furnished apartment she had rented, hoping that the photos on the internet accurately reflected what appeared to be a very plain but homey enough two-bedroom dwelling.

In any case, it was not as if there were many apartment listings in the town of any level of elegance. But if she wanted elegance, she would have moved to an even more exclusive high-rise setting in Chicago. She was ready for something modest, simple and real. Not just in a place to live, but in people as well.

She did not mind that the furniture came with the apartment she had rented. That had been the case with her downtown Chicago apartment, for owning possessions such as furniture had little allure for her. She read the clause that allowed her the option to change the rental to a traditional one, and bring in her own things.

Unless the provided furniture was too distasteful, she would make do for a while. After some time, she may look for another place to live, or even have a small home of her own constructed if she liked her new surroundings. After all, the cost of living was dramatically lower where she was going. Then she could have her own little home designed and furnished to her own tastes, where she could live until her retirement when she may very well follow her parents’ footsteps to Florida.

She had always worked such long days that the only possession of meaning to her was her bed, and on that vital piece she had allowed herself to splurge. But she had left her bed behind, and had told her new landlord that she would be purchasing a new bed upon her arrival, so the one that came with her new apartment was likely already in storage or had replaced one in another apartment that had not been treated kindly.

Her keys had arrived by parcel delivery two days before she left Chicago, so she was going to make her first visit in Montford the furniture store she had located on the internet. Of course, it was the only store in Montford that sold furniture, along with clothing, lawnmowers, groceries and sporting goods.

It was what one would expect in the town with a population of just over four thousand. But Montford was the location of her new employer, the Brice Valley Regional Medical Center that served a large geographical area of tiny towns and villages, and countless farms and ranches. It was probably the only modern thing in the town.

After buying her new bed and stopping to see her new apartment, Tess was going to have dinner with Valerie Powell, the retiring pharmacy administrator Tess was replacing. The two had enjoyed so many conversations over the past several months over Skype that they felt they knew each other. In fact, Tess had been interviewed by way of Skype over the winter, because Montford was packed in with a winter storm, and the nearest regional airport an hour away had all flights grounded.

Of course, having spent the past two decades in Chicago, Tess was not about to be intimidated by worries of severe winter weather. All that she really cared about was that she was leaving Chicago for a small town.

Montford, Oklahoma did not hold any particular interest for her. She would have headed in any direction for a position in a rural setting.

She got back in her Jeep for the final segment of the journey to her new life. Montford was a small town in the ranch country of Oklahoma, with no skyscrapers or traffic jams. According to the photos on the internet, Tess would have a window from which she could see the medical center, close enough that she could walk to work if she so desired. And beyond the medical center, there was slightly rolling terrain, appearing to be endless.

There would be no more waiting to leave work until a security guard was available to walk her to a cab stop past inebriated people asleep on the sidewalk, patches of urine to sidestep, and some new fresh gang graffiti every morning when she arrived.

She was not naïve about the state of modern America, even in such an out-of-the-way place as Montford, Oklahoma. She knew there was crime there to some degree, and that some of the drug problems in Chicago would also be present there. But hopefully, she would reach a point once again where the sound of the siren would catch her attention, and perhaps there would be fewer days where medications to treat drug overdoses would reach emergency level shortages.

She pulled into the parking lot of the department store, and headed straight to the minimal furniture section. She bought a basic bed frame, then the most expensive and comfortable mattress set in stock, paying an extra fee to have it delivered the next day. Before she left Chicago, she had purchased an air mattress to get her by for one night, and to accommodate her fantasies of actually spending a night next to a campfire somewhere under a western sky.

She glanced at her watch and checked her navigation app on her phone, and was able to calculate that she was only ten minutes away from the restaurant where she was to meet Valerie Powell for dinner. As she pulled up in front of the modest family restaurant, she realized that most of the vehicles parked there were pickup trucks, along with two horse trailers. It appeared to be a busy Friday night. She took a moment to let the atmosphere sink in, and she felt a remarkable sense of ease.

Just as she got out of her Jeep, she glanced toward the front door of the restaurant to see Valerie waving to her. At long last they were able to be face-to-face, they greeted each other in an embrace and went inside to be seated. As they walked toward a table in the corner of the busy restaurant, Tess was happy to see that people were dressed just as she hoped they would be, with lots of wide brimmed hats, boots and denim everywhere.

A tall young blonde woman brought them glasses of water and took their orders, then Tess leaned toward her new friend and smiled warmly. “I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done to help me get that position. I hope you’re not having any second thoughts about retiring.”

Valerie’s eyes lit up beneath her stylish gray hair, “I have grandchildren to spoil. No second thoughts here. I’ve been looking forward to this for a couple of years now, and, Ted, my husband, always promised that when I retired he was going to teach me to hunt for elk, so I am raring to go.”

Valerie tilted her head and looked at Tess with an expression of puzzlement. “I have so looked forward to sitting down with you, because there were just some things I had wanted to ask you, that I thought should wait until we were face-to-face. That is, if you don’t mind.”

Tess took a sip of water and smiled. “I don’t mind talking to someone like you about personal matters, if that’s what you’re referring to.”

Valerie nodded and laughed softly, “Well, I don’t want to pry, but you could not have come to a place more different than where you have spent the last twenty years. Do you have any concern that you may not be happy in such a small, boring place as Montford?”

Tess closed her eyes and smiled. “Boring… I love the sound of that word. To tell you the truth, Valerie, I think it’s going to take a lot of years of boring life to ever make me want to go back to the big city. I suppose it’s because I have lived life on my own terms to such an extent that, living in Chicago always felt like I was being buffeted by one wind or another, and I’m not talking about the ones that come in off Lake Michigan.

“It seems in a place like Chicago, you’re always having to react to things instead of living life according to your own desires. The traffic flow decides when you can go where you want to without wasting a lot of your time sitting in a cab. When you want to travel by cab or bus someplace by yourself, you have to take into account the areas you would be going through. There seemed to be so many factors that are forced on you by people you will never even meet. I guess that you could say I just wanted more freedom.”

Valerie squinted at her. “Are you a loner?”

Tess pursed her lips and shook her head, “I don’t think of myself that way. I like to be around other people, and one thing I didn’t like about my situation there was that, while I was always in the company of others, everything was so hectic and chaotic that you really weren’t in their presence. I hope you understand what I mean. I just found it remarkable that one could be rubbing elbows with people all day long, but still not form relationships. I want that to change in my life. I think that living here I can still work hard, do a good job for the Medical Center like you have, but have some friends.”

Tess began to laugh. “I guess I have forgotten what it’s like just to hang out with people you like, to sit around and have a drink and just pass a quiet afternoon making small talk.”

Their meals arrived, and they discussed the big day coming up in two days, when Tess would arrive at her new place of employment on Monday morning. Valerie was going to spend part of the week helping her to become oriented, making sure that Tess was well acquainted with the staff who monitored the drug inventory and purchasing. Tess was also very interested in learning the security procedures that would be in place. She would have to become accustomed to not having armed guards patrolling the hospital pharmacy as had been the case in her Chicago facility.

Their dinners finished, they lingered for a few minutes talking about the community, and then Valerie pointed through the window, “I must tell you, Tess, one community institution that you will want to become thoroughly familiar with is that place right there across the street.”

Tess smiled and strained to look. “You mean that tavern over there?”

Valerie patted her on the arm, “Oh, please don’t call it a tavern to any of the locals. That, my dear, is a genuine cowboy bar, the Footloose Bar and Grill. But you don’t have to be a cowboy, or a cowgirl, to go there. In fact, it is one of the most welcoming places that a transplanted big city girl like yourself will ever find west of the Mississippi.”

Tess began to laugh, “Well, I suppose I will have to check that place out.”

Valerie nodded emphatically. “I will give you this suggestion. When people find out you came from a big city, they are going to expect you to be a little standoffish. Sometimes people in places like this have the impression that big-city people look down on them. You might want to go out of your way to put them at ease, and if you do that, you will make some wonderful friends quite quickly. And by the way, Tess, at the Footloose on Tuesday nights, there is a get together for singles. Just in case you’re interested.”

Tess took a deep breath and went silent for a moment. “I must say, Valerie, that would be a big step for me. I haven’t dated in forever, it is just not something that has been part of my life.”

Valerie laughed softly. “Relationships? Dating? Sex?”

Tess shrugged and looked down, “All the above, actually. But I will give some thought to that singles night.”

“You know, Tess, I just saw a very positive sign in something you did, or I should say something you didn’t do. You didn’t really express any evidence of distaste about the idea. That tells me that you don’t look down upon the people you’re going to meet here, including the men. And that’s going to carry you a long way toward making friends, maybe even a special one. You just have to remember, Tess, good people live here. They may be very different than the people you are used to living around, but keep an open mind and you will soon see what I mean.”

Tess glanced across the street. “I guess I’m going to have to spend some time at this Footloose place.”

Valerie’s eyes lit up. “Ted took one of our nephews fishing for the weekend. Let me take you over there and buy you a drink. The beer is cold, and sometimes the men are hot.”

Tess felt herself begin to tense up at the comment. She could not remember the last romantic, let alone erotic, dream she’d had in years until five nights ago. She was suddenly being carried in the arms of a shirtless, broad shouldered man as they stood at the crest of a hill. Below them was a river and green valley, and a small, log house. In her dream, she could not wait for her mystery companion to take her inside it.

It was not an unpleasant fact that since she had made the decision to pack up and move, long dormant interests were awakening. It was as if her libido had sneaked up behind her and whacked her on the fanny to remind her of its existence.

***

Tess felt a sense of unfamiliar exhilaration as she and Valerie sat at a table as far away from the jukebox as possible, so they could talk more easily. She was captivated by the way people were dressed, by the way they danced when the jukebox was playing, and even the peanut shells on the floor. She could not remember the last time she had sat in a genuine bar and sipped on a beer. She was used to the occasional urban nightspot when she could not avoid being dragged there by a coworker or other colleague. But those places seemed to have phony themes. This place appeared to have sprung up around the hitching post. Nothing at all about it seemed put on.

Valerie leaned toward Tess, “In all seriousness, this bar is kind of the heartbeat of the town. On a given night, people will pass through here who are millionaires, but they’ll sit at a table or on the next barstool with someone who lives from one hard-earned paycheck to the next. That’s the kind of place Montford is, and there’s no better place you can go than the Footloose to get to know your new neighbors, and make some friends. And the more often you can come here, the better. Here in Montford, when you become a familiar face, people will start talking to you as if they’ve known you for years.”

Valerie began to chuckle, “Ted and I love to come here. We feel at home with the people who come to this place, and even though the menu can fit on an ace of spades, the food isn’t bad here at all. Try the tenderloin sometime.

“I suppose that since I’m retiring, I may be here quite often. I would be very happy to provide you with some company here on a rather frequent basis. I can help you get to know just about anybody in town or in the neighboring countryside.”

Tess had never felt such gratitude as she felt at that moment toward Valerie. “I believe I will take you up on that offer, Valerie. I never would have thought it was possible for a person to get out of practice making friends, but I believe that has been the case for me for way too many years.”

Valerie shook her head. “I just can’t imagine. With you being single, what did you do with yourself? Hobbies or whatever?”

Tess sighed deeply and shook her head. “I worked. I worked twelve hours a day, most weeks six days, and lots of times seven. I would get up in the morning, go to work all day and evening, and come right home and get to bed. Sometimes late in the evening and on the weekends, I worked on my consulting business. The next morning, it would start all over again. For that matter, weekend days didn’t seem any different from the others. It’s all just a blur… the passing of the years.

“When I did have a day off, I shopped for my groceries. I bought my clothes online, can’t remember the last time I went shopping for anything but food.” Tess suddenly grew quiet, “I can’t remember the last time I went to church. It has to be years since I ever went for a walk in a park.” Her eyes began to brim with tears. “I sure did earn a lot of money, though. Last week I bought a car for the first time in twenty years. I always kept my license up, but I would have to borrow a friend’s car or get a rental to take my test. I just rode cabs and trains and buses. It was almost as if…” She bit down on her lip and went silent.

The uncomfortable silence was broken when a large hand appeared on Valerie’s shoulder, and she looked up to see a man in Western style clothing putting some coins in the jukebox. Before he pressed the buttons to start the music, he leaned down and placed a playful kiss on Valerie’s cheek.

Valerie laughed and grabbed hold of his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Brad Youngblood, you are such a flirt.” Now, Tess was looking up at the rugged, broad shouldered man wearing a Stetson hat with a checkered shirt. “Now, Valerie, you know I’m always hitting on you hot chicks.”

Valerie gestured toward Tess, “Brad, I was just telling my new friend here that there was no better place to meet people than the Footloose. Brad, this sweet thing is Tess Carlton. She’s taking my place at the Medical Center. I believe you are the first person she has been introduced to in Montford.”

Brad arched his eyebrows in obvious appreciation of the fetching stranger. “Then I am certainly privileged. So, are you from around here at all?”

His obvious interest made Tess feel flustered. “Well, I… I’m from Chicago. Just arrived here today.”

Brad tipped his hat. “Then today Montford became a little easier on the eyes. So pleased to meet you, Tess. I hope you like it here. The next best thing to being from Montford is to have moved here.”

Tess nearly stuttered in response, “Thank you very much, Brad. I’m looking forward to getting to know my way around and meeting more people.”

He pressed a button on the jukebox, and the room was filled with a slow and mournful sound. He turned toward the women once again. “Tess, could I have the honor of a dance?”

Tess began to feel a swell of panic. “Oh, I don’t know… I haven’t danced in… I don’t know how…”

Valerie reached across and patted her on the arm reassuringly. “Just follow Brad’s lead, and everything will be fine.”

“But… I’m… all gritty from driving all day, and I’m…”

Brad interrupted, “The prettiest girl here tonight.”

Her pulse racing and her stomach feeling as though it were in her throat, Tess rose on shaky legs, while Brad stepped around the table and took her by the hand. He led her toward the open area, then put one hand on her lower back and smiled. He nodded with his head toward some of the other dancers, “Just do what Jillian in the white top and tight jeans is doing. Just ignore what Lisa in the black dress does. Even in Montford, she may get herself arrested sometime for the way she dances.”

His comments made Tess laugh, and it helped her to relax as she began to move and sway in step, trying to not be overly distracted by what she was finding to be the delicious feeling of his hand on her lower back. “That’s really pretty violin music.”

He nodded and lowered his head, so she could hear his response, “Actually, in a country and western song we call that a fiddle.”

She found herself moving slightly closer to him. “That’s a pretty song. That man has a wonderful voice.”

Brad pressed his hand against her back a little more firmly. “I think that’s my favorite song. It’s called Amarillo By Morning. That’s George Strait singing. He is the best.”

“I like the song, too, Brad. Seems like he’s telling the story of a hard life.”

He held her closer still. “A lot of country and western music is like that. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that it’s so popular around here. Some folks do quite well here, I’m one of the fortunate ones to have a good job and make a good living. But for most people around these parts, life is pretty hard.”

The song came to an end, and he surprised Tess by raising her right hand to his lips and kissing it before he walked her back to the table, even pulling her chair out for her as she sat down. He then leaned down and spoke to her softly, “Thank you for making me the luckiest guy on the dance floor. I hope we can do that again sometime.”

She licked her lips and took a deep breath, before replying, “I would like that. Thank you for asking me to dance, Brad. That was lovely.”

He tipped his hat once again. “That’s funny. Lovely is the word I had in mind, too.”

As he walked away, Tess sat somewhat stunned, but also transfixed. She finally realized she was staring at his form as he walked back to sit at a bar stool. “I must say, Valerie, that was quite a pleasant surprise.”

Valerie laughed softly, “From the color of your face, you haven’t cooled down from that yet.” She laughed and teasingly patted Tess on the arm. “I have known that man since he was a young boy. His late parents were friends of ours. I’ve not seen him react to a woman that way in a long, long time.”

Tess shook her head and whistled softly, “And he certainly laid the compliments on thick.”

Valerie shook her head. “You are misunderstanding him, Tess. Brad is very blunt and to the point. He wasn’t flattering you. He was simply stating his candid observations. You never have to wonder what is on that man’s mind, because whatever he’s thinking, he is simply going to tell you. He is not a rude man or forward, he is just refreshingly honest.”

Tess felt her face flush. “Really, I don’t know when the last time was that I danced. At least, the kind of dance where you actually held each other.”

Valerie took a sip of her beer and winked at her younger friend, “I take it you found that a rather nice feeling, the way he was holding you.”

Tess flushed once again and nodded. “Not a bad feeling at all.”

Valerie shook her head with a teasing expression on her face. “I don’t know, Tess. I’ve seen him dance with other women in this place. I don’t think he held them so close.”

Tess put her hands over her face and moaned in embarrassment.

Valerie resumed giggling, “I could just see it in his face, how much he would have loved to have just crushed you against him. I know men.”

Tess arched her eyes and tilted her head. “Oh, you know men, do you? Anything else you can tell from the way he was holding me?”

Valerie leaned closer, her expression a little more serious. “I know that from the way he looked at you, the way he talked to you, the way he danced with you and the way he treated you… I know that he was very impressed by the way you fill out those red shorts, and how he would like to pursue that matter much further.”

Valerie reached across and took the blushing Tess’s hand in hers. “He’s a man, Tess. A very strong and healthy man who obviously liked what he saw. But the way he walked you back to the table, held the chair for you… I saw how he kissed your hand. A man like Brad Youngblood respects all women, but he treats a woman in a certain way when he thinks that she is something special. And don’t discount the fact that you just spent less than ten minutes with him. He thinks you are something special. And when he gets the chance to spend some time talking to you the way that I have, it’s possible he could fall head over heels for you, Tess. Mark my words, be on the lookout.”

Tess sat in silence for a moment. “I don’t think I’m prepared for something like that. Just not ready.”

Valerie lowered her head and spoke in a whisper, “You may not be, but I think he is.”

“Wow, Valerie. Are you clairvoyant or something?”

“I’m experienced. I’ve had my own good man in Ted for forty years. I’ve lived a lifetime around the men in these parts, and I know how they are. And the day is going to come, probably quite soon, when Brad is going to ask you out to dinner or something like that. But if you’re not inclined to give him a chance, say no right from the beginning. I don’t want to see his heart broken again.”

Tess leaned closer. “Again? What is that about?”

Valerie smiled and took a sip of her beer. “I best let him tell you about all that should the two of you get that far.”


Chapter Two

Tess’s mind was racing over Saturday and Sunday as she settled into her apartment. The bed had been delivered as scheduled, and she felt a sense of comfort as she fitted it with sheets and blankets and pillows, knowing that she would not have to spend another night on the air mattress on a hard floor.

She put away her two boxes of cookware and dishes and silverware, and the other box containing her spices and other kitchen items that could not spoil during her trip. Then she had to go to the store and buy the groceries that would allow her to start all over in life. Of course, none of it was made easier by her lack of concentration courtesy of thoughts of Brad Youngblood.

By the time she was in her mid-twenties, she had shut herself off from most of life’s pleasures, including men. Her vocation had quickly become her obsession, and she found little time in her life for anything else.

At age forty-three, it was hard for her to comprehend that she had not slept with a man since she was twenty-two. She had been resolved to not spend her life being guided, corrected and directed by a man as her mother had been. She loved her parents dearly, and they had cherished her, their only child. But she wanted things to be the way that she wanted them to be, and the last thing she wanted was to be dependent upon or subservient to anyone else.

She had become a hard charging professional, her unquestioned dedication and commitment to her work well rewarded by her employer. Her retirement was already secure at her tender age, and those who worked with her were left shocked by her decision to pursue a job notice for a place she had never been, to work for less than half the salary.

She promised herself that she would be just as dedicated to her new employer and the people they served, but she knew that this new position would not consume her waking hours in the same manner. Now, she was going to have a fairly normal life, and a job with fairly normal hours, as she tried to learn all over again how to enjoy everything and everyone around her.

Of course, having free time would also mean that she would have to grapple with the dilemma of having met that handsome cowboy Brad Youngblood. For all she knew, Brad Youngblood could be a dentist, but he looked like a cowboy, talked like a cowboy and acted like one. And for a woman who had decided so long ago that she did not need a partner in life, Tess certainly was having no success in getting him out of her mind.

Each time she would relive that dance, that one set of clasped hands with the others on each other’s backs, the closeness of their bodies as they swayed together… Tess was simply not accustomed to such feelings. All of those things had been left behind so long ago.

***

She arrived at the hospital on Monday morning thirty minutes in advance of her actual starting time, and just as she was introducing herself to the staff she would be working with, Valerie strolled in and helped her become oriented.

For that part of the state, it was a large hospital. Still, the facility that was the hospital pharmacy would have been dwarfed by the one she left in Chicago. But that was just fine with her.

One thing she noticed right away was the pharmacy staff were either at the age where moving away to another job was not practical or desired, or so young that they were obviously working there until positions came open in a more cosmopolitan setting. The arrival of Tess was definitely contrary to what had been the pattern of staff turnover over the recent years.

Tess got the definite impression that having Valerie show her around was helping her to get off on the right foot. The first three days of the week went by quickly, and Tess was relieved to find that, since the hospital had been built just ten years earlier, the pharmacy division was in a much more modern condition than the one she had left behind.

By Thursday, she was settled in to her new environment, and that afternoon she received a text from Valerie suggesting that they meet once again at the Footloose the following evening, and this time Valerie would be able to bring Ted along and introduce him to Tess. Tess rapidly accepted the invitation, but also felt a bit of a shiver in wondering if she would once again encounter Brad Youngblood. She was apprehensive at the prospect that she would, but knew she would be disappointed if that would not take place.

When she left the office on Thursday, her mind was racing as she wondered how to approach the following evening and the possibility of meeting up with a man she could not get out of her mind, but she also did not know very much about. Valerie certainly was willing to vouch for him, and it had been more than apparent that he found her attractive.

She walked to her car in the parking lot and sat down, feeling somewhat cold and clammy from the anxiety. She was remarkably out of practice dealing with such aspects of life. In over two decades, the only dates she had had were mere formalities in accompanying someone to some type of hospital community function. Romantic pursuits were something she would have to allow her mind to reengage with.

What most rattled her was that it had been so long since she had desired to make an effort to foster an attraction with a man. She was somewhat in disbelief at how rapidly she had come to find herself interested in Brad Youngblood, but there was simply something about him that she had found immediately magnetic.

He appeared to be roughly the same age, perhaps a couple of years older in his mid-forties. He possessed a rugged handsomeness, and she could not help but be impressed by his broad-shouldered physique. But it was his personality, and his chivalry, leaving her to feel as if she had met someone from another era. Back in Chicago, she may have found his mannerisms and his way of speaking to her to be somewhat condescending, but something about the setting she found herself in now made it all seem more natural.

She could not deny to herself that she liked that. She had driven herself to be independent to such an extent that she had burned herself out with her never-ending drive to be in need of no one else. There was something about meeting a man who so obviously saw a major distinction between the genders that she found more enticing than quaint. The way he had approached her and spoken to her made her feel that she was being placed on a pedestal. And she was being driven to distraction by the fact she did not find that objectionable.

Just as she was about to put the car in gear, she realized it was one thing to show up in shorts and a plain blouse after an exhausting day of driving. But now she wanted to consider what she would wear to the Footloose. It was an unfamiliar feeling to her, wondering what she could wear to give a hint to a man who obviously found her attractive that she was appreciative of that attention.

The only skirts or dresses she owned were rather austere garments meant for business attire. When she was doing her online search for an apartment, she remembered some of the ads that popped up for area businesses, one of them being a women’s clothing store in another small town twenty miles from Montford. She recalled the name of the store, and looked it up on her phone to find that if she drove there right away, she could get there before closing time.

***

On Friday evening, when Tess stepped inside the Footloose, her attention was drawn by a waving Valerie. She walked toward the table and hugged Valerie, then shook hands with the tall, silver-haired man introduced as Ted.

As Tess pulled out her chair and began to sit down next to Valerie, Valerie glanced at the sleeveless, pleated orange dress, the hem resting just at mid-thigh, and gave Tess an OK sign with her fingers. Valerie also arched her eyebrows, and gestured toward the bar where Brad Youngblood sat in a gray suit, complete with Western boots and a Stetson hat.

Tess laughed and blushed at Valerie’s antics, then felt her abdomen flutter when Brad turned and tipped his hat in their direction, and she responded with a meek wave in return. Valerie leaned over to her and whispered, “Taking bets on whether he asks you out tonight?”

Tess reached out her intertwined hands and cracked her knuckles nervously. “Not the betting kind.”

A woman walked over to the jukebox, and a moment later the room was filled with a slow piano introduction, followed by a woman’s soft voice floating through the room. Immediately, Brad got up from the barstool and walked toward the women and leaned down. “May I have the privilege?”

Tess nearly stammered, “Of course. Thank you.” She took Brad’s extended hand, rose from her chair and walked with him to the open area of the bar, their hands still joined. This time, Brad did not have to invite Tess to dance closely. They were immediately enjoying the feeling of each other’s warm bodies; Tess enjoying being held rather tightly as they danced.

She was as quickly taken by his leather scented cologne as he was by the lavender scent she had misted on herself before leaving home. He asked her how her new job was going and if she was settled in her new apartment, and just the tone of his deep, rich voice was comforting to her.

He spoke to her just loudly enough for her to hear above the music. “You make orange look good.”

She felt her face flush as she responded, “Why, thank you.”

“I hope you take this the way I mean it, and I don’t come across as fresh, but thank you for wearing that dress. You are a vision.”

She began to giggle and laid her head against his chest. “Thank you. And you are just so welcome. I’m glad you like it.” She stopped herself just before she added that she had bought it purely because of him.

The song was nearing an end, and he leaned his head down closer and spoke to her in a whisper, “Would you like to go to dinner with me tomorrow night?”

Tess looked up and smiled. “You can pick me up at apartment 3-C at Cherokee Village Apartments. Come to think of it, it’s the only apartment complex I’ve seen here in Montford.”

Brad laughed and shook his head. “At least until you get out to the suburbs. How about 7:00?”

Tess felt herself flushing. She had actually accepted a date. “Looking forward to it.”

He began to walk her back to the table, then he placed his hand on her back. “I have to go now, because I promised my son we would watch a movie tonight. But he’s going to be staying with my sister and her husband for the rest of the weekend.”

Suddenly, Tess’ mind was whirling with questions. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow evening.” Brad simply tipped his hat once again, gave her a wide smile and walked toward the door.

As Tess sat down, Valerie laughed and patted her forearm. “I would have won that bet, wouldn’t I?” Tess began to giggle, then the three of them settled in for an evening of conversation.

***

Tess could not remember the last time something had made her so nervous. It did not help that she continued to dwell on the fact that she had not accepted a date with romantic implications for twenty-one years. It was not that she had not been asked. She had become masterful at politely and tactfully saying no.

But she had never met Brad Youngblood before. She had never gone to a Western bar and danced with a man dressed in cowboy style. Her new town and surroundings was simply doing something strange to her. And something wonderful.

She tried reading during the day, even surfing the web. She was going to great lengths to try to shake her case of rampaging nerves.

Several times during the day she walked to her closet to look at the additional three dresses she had bought the evening before. Three times she had reshuffled them in order of preference for wearing on her first date with Brad. And each time the winner was the little navy blue number with a pleated skirt with a silver leaf pattern. It always ended up being ranked above the sleeveless black shift with the red and white floral pattern, and the red two-piece dress that simply screamed at her with a dare to wear it without a shell top beneath it.

Her mind was full of self-doubts. Valerie’s comment about not going out with him unless she would be willing to take the relationship seriously was haunting her. And she was still reeling in curiosity about his mention of having a son. It was going to be an interesting ‘get to know you better’ kind of date.

She watched the clock, her stomach feeling queasy with anxiety as she put on her new dress, something she had been putting off until the last moment to avoid anything getting spilled on it. She stood in front of her full-length mirror, the dress appearing to grow shorter by the second as she second-guessed her judgment. And when the doorbell rang, she nearly squealed, she was so startled in her frightened state.

This simply was not something she was used to. In a panic, she considered not answering the door, then spending the rest of the weekend trying to come up with some fantastic explanation for the next time she encountered Brad. At the same time, she could only imagine the scolding she would receive from Valerie for pulling such a stunt.

She put her hands to her cheeks, took a deep breath and walked toward the door. She opened it slowly as she wondered if her expression would reveal to Brad just how delirious with apprehension she was feeling at the moment.

She nearly wheezed the word “Hello”, and then motioned for him to come inside. He took hold of both of her hands and gazed at her from head to toe: “You look so beautiful, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Tess began to giggle. “I don’t think that any girl objects to hearing that.” Suddenly, her own comment replayed with a jolt in her consciousness. Did she actually refer to herself as a girl? What was happening with her? She caught her breath. “And I must say, Brad, you look very nice yourself.” She found him a pleasant sight in his gray slacks and black leather sport coat, along with his standard dress cowboy boots and Stetson hat.

It was a very mild evening, so she did not grab a jacket or a wrap, even though her dress was sleeveless, somewhat low cut in the front with a scoop in the back. Hand-in-hand, he walked her to his waiting Corvette. As they approach she audibly gasped. “I have always thought these cars were so gorgeous. But I’ve never ridden in one.”

Brad opened the door for her, and gestured to the sports car. “I had wanted one since I was about twelve years old. And then, three years ago, I finally fulfilled that desire.” As she lowered herself into the car, she noticed that Brad turned away while she arranged herself on the low seat while dealing with her short dress. He waited another moment, closed the door, and walked around to the other side and got in.

He started the rumbling engine, then turned to her, almost succeeding in not having his attention diverted by Tess’ shapely limbs. “About ten miles out of town, there is a very nice and rustic restaurant next to a scenic pond. I thought you might like it.”

“Sounds fine. After all, I have to trust you locals to show me the good places around here.”

Brad laughed and pulled away, refraining from displaying the power and speed the car was capable of. He glanced over at her and smiled warmly. “I ran into Valerie today. She told me that the staff in the pharmacy has really taken a liking to you.”

“I’m very pleased to hear that. I know it’s not easy to have a new boss come in from the outside as a total stranger.”

“Actually, I think that you and Valerie had spoken so often that the staff kind of felt they knew you before you even arrived. Valerie is like that.”

Tess nodded and sighed. “She has made the transition rather painless for me.” Tess looked over at him. “You may not believe this, but while you know all about my job, I have no idea what you do for a living.”

Brad began to laugh. “Well, the timing of that comment could not be better.” He pointed toward a large house surrounded by a complex of large barns and other buildings that Tess was unfamiliar with. “That is the Bondero Ranch, Incorporated. And I am the CEO. It’s one of the largest horse ranches within several hundred miles. It is a real privilege, to get to run that enterprise for a man who I respect very much. As a matter of fact, he and his wife live in Arizona for health reasons.”

Tess was astonished by how expansive an operation it appeared to be. It looked like the white fencing that restrained so many beautiful horses went on for miles. There was a parking lot that looked to contain twenty pickup trucks and cars. The graveled lane going back to it was wide enough for vehicles to meet.

Seeing that she was interested, Brad slowed down so that she could get a better look. “And that house is just beautiful. I love those columns out front.”

“Of course, the business is run out of a couple of rooms in that house. At any given time, there will be thirty or so people working at this complex.

“It’s a pretty big enterprise, and in addition to about nine hundred horses, we have over four thousand head of cattle at the other end of the ranch. We also have a lot of acres that we farm for feed and silage.”

Tess could hear Brad’s sigh in contentment. “I’m a very lucky man to get to live there.”

Tess turned quickly to look at him. “You live in that house? My goodness!”

“Well, me and my son Josh, and Helen and Mark. Helen and Mark take care of the house and the landscaping and the cooking.” Brad hesitated for a moment, “Helen is a sensational cook, but I thought it was a little too forward to have her prepare dinner for us tonight. But I would love to have you see the house and meet Mark and Helen.”

Tess finally looked back at him. “I will look forward to that.”

“The owner, Max Carmichael is like a father to me. As a matter of fact, his one son is their only offspring, and he runs a big manufacturing plant in Japan. He has no interest in ranching and farming, and Max told me that this place is to be considered my home as long as he owns it. He has even hinted that if he ever wants to sell it, I have first dibs on it. I will probably take him up on that. But I have other options if it ever becomes necessary. I could just build my own little place and work as a horse and livestock broker and do just fine.”

It only took several more minutes for them to reach the Grill by the Lake, but it gave Brad an opportunity to tell Tess about some interesting places to go and see in the area. When they pulled in the parking lot, Tess was taken by how pretty the setting was, the log and stone building surrounded by trees, and a large shimmering pond behind.

Seeing how many vehicles were there, Tess asked, “Don’t they look awfully busy?”

Brad nodded. “I have reservations.” He got out of the car and quickly stepped around to open the door for her, and she noted that once again he looked away while she navigated getting out of the low-slung car in her short dress.

They followed the stone walkway to the front door, which was opened for them by a man in a crisp black suit. “Good evening, Mr. Youngblood. Thank you for visiting us again. Your table is waiting for you. We have you overlooking the pond as you requested.”

He was amused when Tess looked up at him and arched her eyebrows to indicate how impressed she was as they were escorted to their table and seated. Their server immediately appeared, and she took their order for some wine and their steak dinners.

When the server walked away, Tess leaned forward and said, “I see that they know you here.”

“It’s the only really nice restaurant in the area. I’m always having to entertain horse dealers coming to visit, so we put them up in a special guest addition to the house, and when they’re not being spoiled by Helen’s cooking, I bring them here. No one ever complains.”

Brad’s expression grew more serious. “You are a very polite person, Tess. I’ve made references to my son, but you never asked any questions. Most people don’t have that level of patience.”

Tess shook her head and smiled. “I just assumed that such important things get discussed all in good time.”

Brad cleared his throat. “I have this feeling that you agreed to go out with me so quickly because of my having such an enthusiastic reference in Valerie.” He lowered his head for a moment. “I’m wondering if you can’t tell by now, that I’m not very experienced with the dating thing. I don’t know how much you want to hear, so just tell me to be quiet when you’ve heard too much.”

Tess took his hand in hers. “Actually, I would like to hear all about you.”

Brad nodded dramatically, blew out a deep breath and started talking, “I was married when I was twenty-one. I was dating a girl who lived a little ways out in the country, during my last year of college. I was going to Oklahoma State, and we were seeing each other on the weekends. And I had signed up to join the Army as soon as graduation was over.

“Maybe part of why I was attracted to her was because I felt sorry for her. She came from a rough family, and she had never been well taken care of. She was twenty at the time, and about two months before I was to leave for basic training, she told me she was pregnant.

“We got married in a hurry because I thought that was the right thing to do, and we only lived together as man and wife for two weeks before I had to leave. About a month into basic training, I got a letter from her telling me she had miscarried.

“She told me she wasn’t going to tell her parents about the pregnancy or the miscarriage, because her father would just tell her it was one more thing she couldn’t do right. I knew him, and I could just hear him saying such a thing. She also told me not to call, because it hurt too much to talk about.

“I was so shaken my drill sergeant called me into his office, because he knew I wasn’t concentrating. I told him about the letter, and that hardened, crusty man sat up with me all night, so I could vent.”

Tess squeezed his hand. “I’m so sorry. But now you have a son?”

Brad seemed lost for a moment before he continued, “You see, Tess, when I got home on leave the first time, things just weren’t adding up. Her answers to questions I had about the miscarriage didn’t seem to make sense. Then she confessed that she had lied about being pregnant in the first place, and she wanted me to marry her just so she could break away from her family.

“There never was a pregnancy. I had been rather shook up when she told me she was pregnant, then I got all excited about the prospect of becoming a father. Then I got that letter about the miscarriage and I was just a basket case; I was so sad. Then to find out it was all just a charade, hit me like a hammer.

“I couldn’t deal with that kind of dishonesty in a marriage, and I also came to better understand why I had gone ahead and married her in the first place. She moved in with a cousin, and I left the apartment and moved back home with my parents for a while, and we had our marriage annulled.”

Suddenly a smile spread across his face. “Now, let me explain to you about my son, Josh.” Brad reach for his wallet and began to fish out a photograph. “Josh is ten now, and I adopted him seven years ago.”

He handed Tess the photo of a black child. “When I got back from the Army and the marriage was long over, I decided to go back to college. I already had my bachelor’s degree in agriculture, so I went ahead and got my Masters in business administration. Then I went ahead and borrowed some money and got my PhD in livestock science.

“When I started working at the ranch, I was put in charge of their breeding program. Then I kept getting more responsibilities, and ten years ago I was fortunate that a man who believed in me took a deep breath and put me in charge of everything. “

“Josh’s father came to work for us a few months after I became the CEO. He was one of the finest people I had ever known, and his wife was an absolute gem. They were both in their thirties, and they had seven children, the oldest one being nine at the time, and that included a set of twins.

“Seven years ago, a tornado took down their rented house. They had gotten all the kids into the basement just as the house collapsed around them. Both of Josh’s parents were killed.

“They were very well-liked around here, and they didn’t have any family for several hundred miles around. Nobody wanted to see the kids going to foster homes, but I had been around little Josh several times, and we seemed to just take to each other.

“It was harder on the older children, of course, but all of the kids got adopted by people who live around here. And Josh loves to go visit my sister and her husband, partly because they adopted two of his older brothers. They were a big help to me, because they had a couple children of their own, and I didn’t know much about raising a three-year-old.

“It was a real challenge, even though he was past the diaper stage by then. But the real challenges were trying to get him to understand that he was never going to see his parents again, and every night he cried himself to sleep. I sat there with him almost every night, reading to him, rubbing his back, singing lullabies until he finally went to sleep.

“For a long time, he had nightmares every night. Sometimes he would have two or three the same night, and he kept screaming about this big monster, and I don’t know if a child that young can get into symbolism, but he knew that something horrible and awful came and killed his parents.

“For a while he would throw fits and scream and want to be with his brothers and sisters. We did all we could to get them together as often as we could, but all those kids were going through the loss, the separation from each other and the fear of going to live with people, some of whom they didn’t know very well, and for that matter, nobody who looked like them.

“It took a couple of years for Josh and me to get into a real groove. By the time he was six, he had adjusted pretty well. He knows his dad and I were good friends, and I make sure that we talk about that. I want him to always remember that his parents were real people, and I tried to tell him that they are really still there with him in spirit. But it’s an awful big thing for a little kid to adjust to.

“Most of the kids are still in counseling. We kind of gather that after their parents sheltered them in the basement, they heard their parents screaming before they died. That’s an awful burden for a child.

“It hasn’t been easy for any of the kids for that matter, but we make sure they all get together for a reunion a couple of times a year. They have other visits as possible as well. But I can’t imagine life without Josh. He is such a great little kid. I feel very privileged to be his father.”

Brad squeezed Tess’ hand as the server approached with their dinners. “Next, it will be your turn.”


Chapter Three

Their food was delicious, but Tess found herself somewhat flustered by hearing about the things that had happened in Brad’s past. Because of some of the things that he had disclosed, she became more concerned about telling him part of her own past.

They exchanged small talk while they dined, then ordered dessert which they quickly dispatched. Two more glasses of wine were brought to them, and they sat back to settle in for more conversation as they gazed out on the setting sun brightly illuminating and coloring the pond.

Brad folded his hands together and leaned on his elbows. “And now, I’m ready to hear all that Tess Carlton has to say about herself.”

Tess seemed reluctant at first to speak, then she closed her eyes and forced the words past her lips, “You and I have one thing in common at least, Brad. And that is a minimum of experience when it comes to dating.

“As for me, I have never been married in the usual sense. But everyone who knows me well would be quick to say that I was married to my job. I smothered myself with it, purposefully as I shut out all prospects of devoting my life and attention to anyone else.

“I could never understand why my mother was happy with her marriage. I mean, I love my parents, and I miss them since they moved to Florida several years ago. I miss them terribly.

“My parents are very good people. But I guess that I got caught up in wanting to be independent and liberated to the extent that I could not understand why my mother would be happy subjugating her own will to my father. Now, don’t get me wrong, my father is an honest, kind and caring man. I just love him to bits.

“But I just never wanted to have to share my space, so to speak or subjugate my own wishes to a spouse. I just wanted to show the world that I could be a true independent professional woman, and I didn’t need anyone else giving me direction, I didn’t want to have to ask anyone else’s permission to do anything. I wanted my life on my own terms.” She averted her gaze for a moment. “So, I guess for too many years, I passed on what most people would consider the most important things in life.

“When I was in college getting my degree in pharmacy, I did have a couple of lost weekends you may say. But after that, my contact with men has been negligible aside from working relationships. I just wanted my career and a 401(k) that would someday allow me to actually start enjoying life at some later date and at the time of my choosing.

“Well, I got what I wanted. I got my high-paying job, and stashed away a lot of money. And then, several months ago, I got out of the shower in my apartment and I looked in the mirror, and I really didn’t know where the old Tess had gone. I felt so uncertain about everything, and those feelings wouldn’t go away.

“At some point I came to the conclusion that I had managed to lose myself in my career, and I decided it was time I went out and searched for the person I would like to be. Then I was looking on the internet at job postings in my field, one thing led to the other, and here I am now.”

Brad looked at her with an understanding smile that nearly made her heart melt. “Do you think you’re done searching for Tess?”

She managed to smile, but Brad thought that he saw tears in her eyes trying to escape. “I know that since I left Chicago and came to Montford, I’m a lot closer to finding her. But I’m not proud of many things I did and choices I made.

“You see, Brad, to people who knew me in Chicago, I was this involved member of the community in a key position in an important hospital. The reality was I only interacted with people when it was necessary to preserve my status. When I wasn’t working long hours at the hospital, I was doing consulting work online with other hospitals.

“So, my years passed by, as I stuffed money away in my brokerage account and continued to forsake any opportunities to grow close to anyone else. I was going to do everything on my own, and prove to myself…” She shook her head and seemed to stare into space for a moment. “When I was twenty-three, I had made acquaintance with an OB/GYN, a woman with whom I had established a casual friendship.

“I had my tubes tied at age twenty-three, because there was no way I ever wanted to have children, and even though my lack of social interaction made pregnancy a very remote threat, I wanted to take no chances.

“I kept going to school, and I also ended up getting a PhD, mine being in pharmaceutical management.” She went silent once again. “I don’t know, Brad. Everything that seemed so important to me a year ago, seems alien to me now.”

He reached across and began to stroke her forearm. “I’m not certain I know what you mean.”

She sighed and looked up and around. “For instance, just being here with you. My gosh, today I felt like a fourteen-year-old girl going to her first dance with a boy. It’s like I left Chicago, and all of a sudden, I found myself caring about things that most people care about.

“I mean, even making friends with Valerie… I found out I was going to be leaving Chicago and going to a small town, and leaving behind the person I had become that I really didn’t like anymore, and I made the first close friend I had made… I mean, for as long as I can remember.”

She began to giggle and shake her head. “And then, there’s you, cowboy. It’s like you tapped me on the head with some magic wand, made me like being asked to dance, being held the way you held me while the music played and having a man pull the chair out for me…”

Brad began to laugh softly. “Now, you have me even more intrigued.”

Tess took a deep breath as her face turned pink. “I never imagined I would have so liked having a man being an old-fashioned gentleman.”

Brad shrugged. “That’s how I was raised. A woman such as yourself needs to be treated like a lady. I suppose that to you that sounds like something out of a cowboy movie.”

She laughed and nodded her head. “It does. What I don’t understand is why it makes me feel so secure when you say and do those things. It makes me feel like I…”

Brad spoke up, “I hope it makes you feel like being a woman makes you special to a man who believes that men and women are different for a reason. I hope it makes you feel like it’s okay to enjoy being the special person that a lady is to a man who appreciates her.”

Brad began to laugh again. “Don’t worry, Tess. I’m not going to suddenly pull out a guitar from nowhere and be joined by a group of cowboys singing about the prettiest gal in Oklahoma.”

Tess began to giggle and the two of them doubled over in laughter, as others in the restaurant turned to look at them with smiles. She finally regained her composure and looked at Brad with a smile that he would never forget. “Actually, I would probably like nothing more. I think I’m really losing it.”

Brad began to speak some more about Josh, the things that he enjoyed and the things they enjoyed doing together. Tess picked up the photo and looked at him again. “I would love to meet him. He looks like such a cute little boy.”

Brad nodded and grinned. “He is. But there is something I want you to understand, and I hope you don’t feel hurt by my saying this. Although I hardly ever date, I decided long ago that I would never let him form a relationship with anyone I was dating, until I knew it was… permanent.”

Tess nodded her head and smiled. “Actually, I think that’s very wise. He already lost his mother, so he doesn’t need to bond with another woman unless it’s going to be forever. I think it’s the right thing to do, to protect him that way. I think in today’s society, people treat the matter of having children with way too much of a casual attitude. In reality, raising a child is the most important thing any of us could do.”

Brad exhaled a deep breath as if relieved. “I’m glad you understand that. But, since he so loves his aunt and uncle and getting to spend time with his brothers, he’s at their house most weekends. So, I would be very pleased if you would come to dinner at the ranch next Friday evening, and I will have Helen prepare her legendary lobster bisque. That is, if coming to my house is not too…”

Tess leaned forward and grasped his hand tightly. “Well, now I know where you live, so just tell me what time to be there.”

***

After they left the restaurant, Brad drove her through the nearby countryside before heading back to her apartment. He showed her where some of the neighboring ranches were located, and drove past the house he had grown up in, now owned by people he really did not know.

When they pulled up in front of the apartment, Tess nodded her head toward the building. “The only nightcap I can offer is a can of cola, so what do you say?”

Brad looked at her with a mischievous grin. “If I do come in, what are my chances of putting my arms around you and giving you a nice, long kiss?”

Tess arched her eyebrows. “What comes next after 100%?”

Brad laughed and got out of the car, then came around to open her door. Watching him once again turn away as she got out of the car, when she was out she leaned up and placed a kiss on his cheek. “You are such a gentleman. But really, when I bought this dress, I did so with the understanding that you probably like seeing a girl’s legs. So, Brad, you don’t have to turn away when I’m getting in and out of the car.” She began to giggle. “It kind of defeats the purpose.”

Both of them began to laugh as they walked toward the apartment, waiting for a moment while she unlocked the door and they stepped inside. As soon as the door was closed behind them, she turned around and put her arms around his neck, and he placed his hands firmly on her waist. She looked up at him with fluttering eyes. “I think I promised you something.”

He leaned his head down and she stood on her tiptoes, and Tess experienced something she had not known in so long. The kiss only deepened, and their embrace became tighter until they both needed to breathe. Tess leaned her head against his shoulder: “Wow, I forgot what that felt like.”

She stood on her tiptoes once again as he leaned down. “Actually, Brad, I’ve never been kissed like that before.” And the next one was just as good.

They sat on the sofa for a while, exchanging kisses and caresses, then pausing for a while to talk about everything and nothing. Finally, Brad reluctantly stood up: “Friday, my house, 7:00?”

She closed her eyes and nodded, then they kissed once more before Brad walked toward the door. Then as he was halfway out the door, he turned back, and they kissed once again.

***

As each day went by the next week, Tess was convinced that she had absolutely made the right decision in moving to Montford. After having spent the most relaxed weekend since her college years, she had the most stress-free and smooth week at work that she could remember. She looked back on the days when she had made her initial decision to leave Chicago, and feared in her more insecure moments that there would be so many things that she would miss. So far, nothing of that nature had surfaced.

She desired to establish a balance between maintaining a professional relationship with those she supervised, but still being cordial. The job had its inherent pressures whether in a big city hospital or a small-town facility, but the environment was so much less stressful. And when Friday came along, she went home and soaked in the tub for just a few minutes before getting out and this time opting for the short black dress with the floral pattern.

She could not help but bother over fashion, but she decided that Brad probably would not care what she wore, as long as it was short. As she finished dressing and grabbed her purse and car keys, she felt an excitement at the prospect of seeing where Brad lived.

As she drove to the ranch, she could not get over how safe and secure she felt in his presence. She was also somewhat frightened by how quickly they seemed to be falling for each other. That same factor also excited her greatly.

When she pulled up in front of the stately, columned house, Brad came out of the house to greet her. This time he was more casual, in his denim jeans and western shirt. To her surprise, there was no Stetson hat in sight, and he was wearing loafers instead of boots.

He opened the door of her car for her, and this time when she went to get out he gave her a complimentary whistle. “You certainly do have great legs.” He then received a kiss in return for the observation. They went inside, and she was met by a fifty something woman with short red hair and glasses, a large apron covering her. “Tess, I want you to meet Helen.”

To Tess’ surprise and delight, Helen greeted her with a hug, then they turned toward a man who appeared to be in his late forties, dressed in matching khaki slacks and a shirt: “Tess, this is Mark. These are the two people who really take care of things around here.”

Tess reached out to Mark and shook his hand. “I’m so happy to meet both of you. Brad speaks so highly of the two of you.”

Helen gave a nod. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes, if that is all right.” And then Mark bowed slightly and excused himself, “And I will be heading home now, Brad.”

Tess watched as both of them disappeared in different directions, and Brad placed his hands in his pockets and smiled. “Both of them are like family to me. Mark insisted on hanging around to meet you, and once Helen serves dinner, she will head down the road where she lives with her daughter. But both have rooms here, because their duties are quite variable.”

Brad began giving Tess a tour of the house. They walked out of the foyer and into a spacious but unpretentious living room. Most of the furniture was wood and rustic in style. Then they walked into the dining room, which was slightly more elegant, and included a cupboard with what appeared to be antique china on display. Tess was admiring the wood floors in both rooms.

They walked into the kitchen but stopped at the door, not wanting to get in the way of Helen as she finished preparing their dinner. They walked out, and Brad gestured with his thumb toward the upstairs. “Just bedrooms upstairs, nothing special to see there.” Tess did not know if he was trying to be funny or was attempting to be polite by not putting any emphasis on their location.

They walked back to the living room and Brad pointed to a door she had not noticed before next to the end of the sofa., Before he opened the door, Brad displayed a wide grin. “Now, this is the room in which I really live.” He opened the door, so the Tess could step inside.

She stepped inside and began to laugh as she looked around. “Is this what they call a man cave?”

It was a large room, and she assumed at one point it had been the master bedroom. A large television was mounted on one wall, and two reclining chairs sat in front of it. Behind the chairs was a pool table, and farther back in the room was a ping-pong table.

Brad began to laugh. “Josh and I enjoy this room, of course, and sometimes we have friends in and have a good time. It gets kind of raucous when you have a game of pool and a loud game of ping-pong going on at the same time.”

Tess walked over to the ping-pong table and picked up one of the balls and a paddle and began to bounce the ball into the air. “When I was a kid, we had one of these in our basement. I was never very good at it.”

Brad walked to the other end of the table and picked up a paddle. “Let’s play for a few minutes before Helen calls us.” Tess tried to serve, but she kept hitting the ball into the small net, causing both of them to laugh. Just as she was about to try once more, they heard Helen’s voice calling.

They put everything back on the table and began to walk toward the dining room as Brad placed his hand on her back. “We can try that another time.”

She looked at him with a pout. “I won’t be any more coordinated the next time, but I’ll give it another try.”

Helen was placing two servings of lobster bisque on the table just as they walked in. Of course, Brad pulled out the chair for Tess, and as Helen poured glasses of wine and placed some cheese bread on the table, she told them to enjoy themselves, and wished them good night.

When she tasted the bisque, Tess closed her eyes and moaned in pleasure. They laughed as they enjoyed their meal, lingering over it into the evening, sipping slowly at their wine. Tess was very careful, as she knew that she would be driving home later.

Much of their time was passed by Brad telling Tess more things about her new community, and she found herself roundly entertained as he began to tell comical stories about strange things that had happened through the decades since the town had sprung up around where cattle and horse corrals were built next to the railroad.

She nearly doubled over in laughter as he regaled her with stories about odd and eccentric residents who had given the town character, and some mishaps and strokes of luck that had shaped the destiny of Montford. They talked so far into the evening, that they nearly lost track of time.

They finally went into the living room, and walked toward the sofa. Tess was delighted when Brad sat down first and guided her to sit on his lap. They immediately embraced and began a deep hard kiss. When the kiss ended they talked about how they had met, but then they began to kiss once again.

And that was way the rest of their evening went, talking lightheartedly, caressing and kissing. Tess was very much enjoying the sensations of feeling Brad’s hand stroking her thigh that was revealed beneath the hem of the short dress as she sat curled up on his lap, and how his hand felt almost electric when it would reach back and stroke her bottom. If there were any alarms to go off about this man, she certainly had not noticed.

It was midnight when she finally decided it was time for her to drive back to her apartment. But there was one more long kiss, and one more light whisk of his hand across her thigh before she sighed in disappointment and stood up, so he could walk her to the door.

***

Visits from horse buyers and sellers began to take up more of Brad’s time over the next several weeks. They did manage to see each other at least once during each of those weeks, managing to catch a couple of movies at the small local theater, complemented by a couple of brief times together for dinner. Lengthy dates were simply not in the cards for them during that span of time.

During that busy season for Brad, the best time they spent together were a couple of Sunday afternoon picnics. It gave them the chance to share even more about their lives, but Brad was beginning to notice that when Tess would do so, she did so with a more pronounced hint of sadness each time.

He became concerned that when she would talk, she tended to concentrate on why she had made the choices she had made, and it became obvious there were issues of regret that were troubling her. She would make joking comments about how Brad and her new way of life was transforming her, and in no way, did she seem to be withdrawing from him in terms of her interest and attraction. If anything, when they were together she seemed to not want to be without physical contact with him, not that he minded that at all. But it was obvious to him that she was torn by some of the changes she was going through.

When they weren’t together, Brad pondered what he could do to help her get past some of her issues. The overpowering problem was that she readily and freely spoke of how she had closed herself off from relationships for more than twenty years now, knowing those years could never be regained. When she would speak of this, he would notice tears welling up in her eyes, although she seemed to make it a point to never allow one to run down her cheek. She was wounded, but she tried to put up a front of nonchalance. Brad simply was not buying it.

They were out to dinner once again, but Brad was going to have to be back at the ranch by midnight to greet and settle in a couple of horse buyers flying in from Oregon. Nonetheless, they had an enjoyable dinner and had some time to simply sit and talk over a glass of wine.

Brad grasped her hand in his and gave it a firm squeeze to encourage her to talk. “Tess, I’m past the point of being willing to not want to do anything I can to make you happy. I hope you understand that.”

She nodded and smiled warmly, but she seemed to avert his gaze. “I really do understand that, Brad. I’m very happy to have you in my life, now.”

He began to stroke the back of her hand with his fingertips. “I’m already deeply in love with you now, whether that is logical or not, and a lot of thoughts are rattling around in my brain about the future.”

His comments seem to lighten her countenance. “I’m in love with you, too, Brad. And I think I’m having those same scary ideas. This just isn’t like me. I have always been so cautious and careful.”

Brad hesitated for a moment. “I want you to get past those things that are bothering you, and I have this feeling there are more things that you just really haven’t talked to me about yet.”

Her expression grew somber. “I’m very confused about quite a few things.” She looked at him with a warm smile. “The only thing I’m not confused about, is I have fallen in love with you, and that makes me very happy. You make me feel secure, Brad. Whenever we’re together, I feel like I’m safe from all harm. I feel protected. But I guess that’s part of what I feel confused about.

“I talked to my mother on the phone yesterday. We had another talk about why I felt uncomfortable about her relationship with my father. She didn’t understand why I could not see how happy she was. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know she was happy… I just didn’t understand why she was always so willing to let my father have the final say on things. She just said that’s one thing that made her comfortable, and it was how she wanted to live. And I ended up telling her that I finally understood, and I apologized to her.

“I remember when I was in college, and I really got into some radical feminism in seminars, and even some of my classes. But now I’m coming to understand, that I bought into that ‘I don’t need a man to make me whole’ mentality because I thought I was supposed to. I thought I was supposed to be part of this wave of change in society.

“I guess I was going to show my mom how wrong she was, by showing her I could live such a different life from her. But last year, something just brought it all crashing down. Maybe it was fatigue, but I was just so burned out on being that independent feminist warrior who needed no one else.”

She looked down at the table and drummed her fingers. “I can’t imagine what my mother would say, if she knew I had my tubes tied as a young woman. I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying, Brad. Even if I hadn’t had that done, I don’t think I’d want to start having babies at age forty-three.

“Last year, I woke up one night in the middle of the night and I started looking back on my life, and I realized that I had lived the way I had lived, simply because of expectations I had placed on myself, none of which came from inside my heart. I hope you understand what I mean.” She glanced at her watch. “I know we have to be going, but thanks for listening to me rant some more. I seem to do that every time we’re together, now.”

Brad tilted his head and smiled. “I guess I’m a little concerned that, while you admit to some unhappiness, it’s like you want to blame it on the environment you were in. Tess, I’ve been to Chicago. I’ve visited the Great White Way, and gone with buddies to some of those great ethnic establishments, and gone to baseball games at Wrigley Field. There’s all kinds of things to do in Chicago, and no reason to be secluded in a place like that.

“Tess, we only find happiness from within ourselves. It’s not a job or a ZIP Code that makes us happy. But first of all, we have to be willing to be made happy, but no one else can do that for us.”

Tess closed her eyes and nodded slowly. “I know what you’re saying is logically and factually correct, Brad. I guess I’m just not used to having people speak to me in such a stern manner as you just did. But I must confess, I kind of like that. I remember this torch song from a long time ago, about this woman singing that she wanted someone to watch over her. I just thought that was disgusting.

“Now, I feel like I need to take a break from trying to show how tough I can be on my own. I can’t believe how much I like it when you show such chivalry and treat me the way you treat me simply because I’m a female. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I’m still sitting here with you and I have no reason to walk away from you. I just don’t know where this is all going to go.”

Brad smiled warmly. “What you are saying has a lot of meaning to me. I guess when I think about having a woman in my life all the time once again, I have certain expectations. I have often wondered if there are many women who would be able to live up to my expectations, or agree to those expectations in the first place.”

Tess began to giggle. “Please go on, because now this is getting extremely interesting I mean, if you have the time still.” She arched her eyebrows and smiled back at him.

Brad cleared his throat and placed his hands together on the table. “Well, I will make time. You see, I pride myself on being a blunt man. I want to have a life with a woman who will accept me as the head of the family. I want to be recognized as the one who makes the final decision on things, and sets the rules by which we will conduct our lives. How’s that?”

Tess sat in silence for a moment. “What you just said is contrary to everything I have believed for the past two decades. It sounds very old-fashioned and downright chauvinistic. And I must confess to being fascinated by it all.” Both began to laugh as Tess continued.

“I grew weary of living the way I was living. And I still am stunned by how you have gotten to me by your manners and gentlemanly consideration. I like being complimented, and treated special, Now I have confessed that, and I am very confused. And as shocked as I am at my own words, Brad, I am finding myself very open-minded about all of this. It’s easy for us to develop an arrogance about our own philosophies and way of life, and not give credibility to people who see things differently. I guess that’s you and I right now. Except, I’m not looking at the way you think that things should be in a relationship as some oppositional concept. It’s something for me to consider. And where is Tess and what have we done with her?”

Brad laughed and leaned forward on his elbows. “These are things that people need to come to an agreement on before they end up getting married. It’s not after the marriage license is signed that is the time to find out what the other person is really like and what you agree and disagree on. For so many people, that is way too late. But the things that I have been talking about, are up to a woman to either accept, or say no, I can’t live that way. It has to be an honest exchange of feelings, and if it comes to an agreement to spend your lives together, then it doesn’t get any sweeter than that. But if you come to the point of recognizing, someday out there it’s going all fall apart, then you just don’t go there in the first place.

“Tess, I’m like a lot of other men who live in this part of the world. We have strictly defined boundaries, rather basic values and somewhat stark expectations. There are certain things I feel I simply need to exercise control over, and keep everything in line.”

Tess arched her eyebrows, tilted her head and leaned forward. “I think we are speaking in terms of authority?”

Brad pursed his lips and nodded. “That’s a good choice of words, the word authority. I would have to know that a woman would recognize my authority, as you said, before we got married, That’s the only way I could work in a permanent relationship.”

Tess rested her chin on her clasped hands. “And you would want a woman to agree to this before the relationship went very far I take it?”

He sighed deeply and nodded. “I guess that some of this is even a little difficult for a man who prides himself in being blunt to vocalize. But, yes, I would have to have someone who would concede to my authority as the final decision maker.”

Tess looked at him with a teasing grin. “Now, we’re getting to the heart of it all, aren’t we? So, what would you do if you married someone who agreed to accept your authority, then turned around and, for lack of a better word, disobeyed you?” Tess began to laugh. “Take her across your knees and give her a spanking?”

Brad leaned closer, and Tess was taken by surprise by the serious look on his face as he spoke to her in response, “Without question.”


Chapter Four

Tess leaned back in her chair and her posture stiffened. She also wondered where that outbreak of abdominal fluttering came from. After a long, awkward silence she finally whispered, “Oh, wow. Let me get this straight. If you and I were married, and I went against your stated wishes about something, you would actually spank me?” She was suddenly uncertain as to what she wanted his response to be. Against her wishes she was finding the concept arousing.

Brad nodded slowly. “If you had agreed before we married that you were going to recognize my authority, and assuming I had made it clear in advance that such a thing could result from you not obeying my authority, or even doing something irresponsible or reckless then yes, I would do that. Of course, agreement as to that would be settled long before the marriage.

“You see, Tess, what happened with my first marriage was a case of two irresponsible people coming together. I should have been more careful and responsible, but the fact that I was not gave her the opportunity to do something deceptive and immature.

“Under the circumstances through which we got married, everything happened fast with no ground rules and no understandings about anything. I don’t think either one of us was truly in love with the other. I’m not proud of that part of my life.

“But when I had some time to look back and analyze what had happened, I knew that part of our problem was that neither of us was in charge of the relationship. Neither of us had anyone to answer to, and there were no ramifications established for bad behavior.

“I promised myself, if I ever had the good fortune to fall in love with someone I want to spend my life with, I wasn’t going to do it without the conditions that would prevent that kind of personal chaos ever again. At the same time, I knew it would only work for me if I were the one having the final say when it came to things that could not be agreed upon, or being the one drawing the lines that cannot be stepped over. And I hoped I would find someone who could make a life with me under those terms.

“But then, there was the next matter of what would need to be done to ensure the guidelines and limits I establish would be adhered to. I suppose I have already gone way past the point where you’re considering me to be an outright chauvinist. Well, that’s a label I can live with.

“But I’m a practical man, and I like to address a matter by going straight from point A to point B without a lot of handwringing and analytical nonsense getting in the way. I have never done this, because I’ve never been in that situation, but it came to mind that the most simple and direct remedy for someone not complying with my rules and expectations of good and reasonable behavior would be a good spanking.

“It’s how my parents dealt with me with a trip out to the barn when I did not show obedience to their authority or put my safety or reputation in jeopardy. It’s over and done with quickly, and then it’s time to move on.”

Her expression made Brad begin to laugh. “Please don’t misinterpret my laughter, it’s just that I wish you could see the look on your face. But I wasn’t joking about that, Tess.”

A nervous smile came across Tess’ face and she exhaled a deep breath. “Okay, then!”

Brad reached across the table and took her hands in his. “I have to ask you this, now. Do you want me to take you home and leave everything with us as just being friends?”

“Let’s see, the question is, do I want to continue this relationship, knowing that you would spank me for not recognizing your authority?”

Brad nodded silently.

She shook her head slowly with a flirtatious grin. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy, cowboy. Even what you just told me is not going to chase me away. I know myself, and that means if we keep going, I will without question end up across your knees at some point, sooner or later.” She took a deep breath. “I’m not going to run away. I would rather be unable to sit for a couple of hours than sit around missing you the rest of my life.” She closed her eyes and reached her hands back to her bottom as she giggled. “Ouch!”

She rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands together and rested her chin upon them. “So, if you were to decide that I was in need of a spanking, are you going to toss me over your shoulder and carry me out to the barn?”

He began to laugh and shake his head. “I would imagine that a living room sofa or the edge of a bed would be more than sufficient. But also, I would not expect to have to carry you.” He flashed a wicked grin. “I would expect you to walk alongside of me on our way to your spanking.”

Her face was pink, but she was smiling flirtatiously nonetheless. “If I were listening to another couple talking about this, I would be aghast. Listening to you talk about this in reference to my backside sounds kind of hot despite how painful it might be.” She reached out and placed her hand on his. “I’m just going to trust your judgment on this, and agree that I can go along with all of this. I know you don’t have an abusive bone in your body.

“So, I’m going into this understanding that it is inevitable that sooner or later, in all likelihood sooner, I’m going to get myself spanked. And another thing I sense about you, is that when, not if, you do spank me, it’s likely to be a memorable event from my perspective. Two years ago, this would not have been possible. But I have changed, and I have new priorities and I’m developing new understandings. I’m in a new environment, and most of all, I have never before met anyone like you. So, if that first spanking happens three years from now, or next week, we are in this together. Although I must note that my contribution to the process of a spanking requires a little deeper commitment than yours. And that’s okay.”

Brad’s expression was one of relief. “You have a quirky but enchanting sense of humor that emerges more and more as we’re together, and it suits you well.”

She shrugged and pursed her lips. “Don’t doubt for one minute that I’m not treating this subject with all the seriousness it deserves. Of course, I would find being spanked very painful, and I understand that would be the point. The fact that I am forty-three adds another dimension to it all that is hard to put into words. I know it would hurt like crazy, and I know it would be scary and perhaps embarrassing even though it would be you giving me said spankings. You may note that I am assuming it will happen on several occasions. But, we all want our lives to be interesting, so what the heck? I’m in.”

He responded with a warm smile that made her abdomen begin to flutter considering the topic of conversation. “I’ll tell you what. I told Helen and Mark to take this coming weekend off. And I have the entire weekend free. Do you like pizza?”

She giggled and nodded.

“How about I pick you up late Saturday afternoon, bring you out to the ranch. I’ll call this great pizza delivery place, and I’ll pay them extra to deliver one way out there to the ranch. And you and I can kind of unwind and just spend the whole quiet evening together. Of course, Josh is going to be with his aunt and uncle, his favorite place to be.”

The look in her eyes was nothing but dreamy. “Is this going to be a pizza and beer date?”

Brad laughed and nodded as he began to stand and walk around to pull her chair out for her. “I take it you are accepting the offer?”

She leaned her head against his chest. “I can’t wait.”

***

On Saturday morning, Tess allowed herself to go shopping once again. She went back to the same store where she had gone on her earlier shopping spree, buying two more dresses, three blouses and two new skirts. Just when she thought she was done shopping, her attention was distracted by a display of lingerie, and she bit down on her lip as she picked out a matching set of a beige bra and panties trimmed in flirty lace.

As she carried everything to the checkout counter, her pulse was racing as she considered that she had picked out those delicate underthings with the expectation that it would not be long before Brad would see them. She was anxious to get home and pick out what she was going to wear for their evening at the ranch.

She had grocery shopping to do, so she did not get back to her apartment until late afternoon. She hustled to take a shower, shampoo her hair and begin to pick out her outfit for the evening.

She seemed to enjoy her little ritual of lining up her outfits in her closet, then hanging them in order of their desirability for the upcoming evening. On this day, she had added enough new outfits to make the decision making even more arduous.

She hung things up, then moved them in order, reordering them, and shuffling them around some more and when she was done after about twenty minutes of the process, one of the new dresses purchased that day ended up in first place.

If Brad had loved seeing her in her orange dress, her new light and silky beige dress would have him wrapped around her little finger, as it was at least an inch and a half shorter, and much more sheer. Even though her breasts were not at all large, she had appreciated during the process of trying things on, how it was tailored in a way to show off just enough cleavage to garner a man’s attention. She decided that a lack of size could be somewhat offset by the presence of temptation and mystery.

She laid the dress out on the bed, then it dawned on her that without intending for it to happen, she had picked out the bra and panty set that matched the dress perfectly. She stood for a moment chewing on a fingernail as she tried to slow down her racing mind, possibly, although not likely. It was best to be prepared, just in case. Maybe.

She chuckled as she realized she was at the point in their relationship that as she was selecting a dress to wear, she was trying to determine which dress would most entice Brad to want to remove it. She found the sudden understanding to be a little disorienting.

She felt a cold chill. It was time for her to be honest with herself. She was quite eager for Brad to see these lacy, yummy treats that were her sexy new undies, followed by his stripping them from her body. She was also finding herself perplexed at imagining Brad getting his first glimpse of those panties as she lay across his knees with her dress being shuffled up onto her back while she welcomed being spanked. This was getting out of hand! She had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be significantly horny. And never in her life had she ever associated the concept of being spanked with any erotic yearnings.

It was not as if she were not distracted enough already. As she waited for Brad to arrive, she began to admonish herself, feeling that during their recent times together she had been a wet blanket on their precious and limited chances to interact.

Brad was obviously a patient man, but she had found that, in general, Valerie had been correct about him being somewhat old-fashioned and a man who liked to get right to the point of the conversation. She knew she had been more evasive than he likely preferred, at times, but he was obviously reluctant to press her to talk about things that made her uncomfortable.

Everything had been complicated enough and when his revelations about what he expected in terms of spousal obedience had been brought forth, it made her head spin even more. Tess could not understand why she was not repulsed by the things he had said. Previously, she would have considered the concept of a wife agreeing to submit to being spanked by her husband as the most archaic and barbaric thing imaginable.

Of course, she had never been confronted with imagining a scenario of one very handsome and heartbreakingly desirable man like Brad Youngblood taking her across his knees to paddle, what was for her, a very erogenous portion of her body. For days now, she had been driven nearly mad by trying without success to deny that she would experience a twinge of arousal each time her memory took her back to that conversation.

She looked out the door until she finally saw the Corvette drive up. And before he had even gotten out of the car, she had stepped outside, locked the door and was on her way to greet him with a squeeze and a kiss. It was an exceptionally hot and muggy day in August, and she could not wait to get into the car, because it had a great air-conditioner. He opened the door and she quickly dropped herself onto the seat, not wanting to spend any more time out in the humidity that was only going to ruin the hair she had worked at so long to make it look just right.

They began to drive away, and Brad laughed. “Don’t tell any of my other friends this, but I have some beer that was brewed in Texas. We have to keep that bit of treachery a secret.”

Tess began to giggle in response. “Funny, how I really like beer so much more since I moved here. And I can’t wait to find out how good this pizza is going to be.”

As they approached the ranch, Tess shook her head in admiration. “Those horses are just so beautiful. This whole ranch is beautiful. I even love all the white fencing that goes on forever.”

Brad looked over and smiled as she continued to look around as they pulled into the long lane. He didn’t mind one bit that she was so taken by the setting. “It is a wonderful place to spend your life.” He could not help but notice when she quickly glanced at him and smiled. He was still not very subtle at dropping hints.

They got out of the Corvette, and as soon as the door to the house closed behind them, Brad leaned down and put his arms around her and lifted her into a deep kiss as she laughed and squealed in delight as her feet dangled above the floor. He sat her down, then whistled softly. “You just look so…”

She began to laugh as she reached her arms around his waist and gave him a squeeze. “I was hoping you would say that. Of course, I bought this dress with you in mind, knowing you like my legs and all.” He leaned down and they shared another long and deep kiss. They walked hand in hand toward the living room, and then as Brad pulled out his phone and called the pizza shop, Tess walked to the sofa, kicked off her shoes and sat down with her legs folded beneath her. Brad put away the phone. “Ready for a beer?”

She smiled and nodded, and he came back from the kitchen in just a minute with two bottles of the Texas brewed beer. He sat down next to her as they clinked their bottles together and each took a sip, then they placed the bottles on the table in front of the sofa, before sharing another kiss. She began to laugh. “I think you are spoiling me in the process of turning me into an Oklahoma gal.”

He nodded toward the adjacent room: “Want to try another round of ping-pong before the pizza gets here?”

She shrugged and smiled. “May as well, as if I’m going to be any better at it than the last time.”

He stood up, extended his hand and helped her from the sofa, entranced by the vision of her in the short sheer silky dress. He served first, and they both cheered when Tess actually succeeded in returning it without knocking it into the net or bouncing it out of bounds. He tossed the ball to her, and told her to try serving. She tried several times, but as they both dissolved into laughter, she would either send the ball directly into the net, or flying two feet above it and hitting Brad in the stomach, or forcing him to pick it up out of the corner of the room.

Tess may not have been good at playing ping-pong, but Brad was finding it captivating to watch her scurrying around as she tried in vain to return his volleys, many of which he served extra hard just to entertain her as she waved futilely at the ball after it already had gone past her.

They had just decided to try playing pool, when the doorbell rang, and the pizza had arrived a few minutes earlier than expected. Brad took the box from the delivery girl, handed her enough money for a generous tip, then he and Tess walked into the dining room with their beers.

The pizza was cut into small squares, they laughed as they talked and took turns feeding the small pieces to each other. Brad’s favorite part was when Tess told him that he had some sauce on the edge of his lips, and she got out of her chair, came and sat down in his lap and sensuously put her tongue to work removing the errant tomato paste. And that was the manner in which they completed their meal, Tess on his lap as they sipped at their beer and savored the pizza fed to each by the other.

When they were finished dining, Brad opened each of them another beer and after Tess visited the bathroom, they went back to the living room and sat down on the sofa once again. Brad then reached to the table in front of the sofa and picked up a remote control, and when he pressed a button, the soft sound of a saxophone quietly floated across the room.

Tess beamed, and her eyes opened wide. “You remembered.” Recently, she had told Brad how much she liked what she referred to as ‘cool jazz’, and when she saw him reach for the remote control she expected to hear country and western music begin to play.

She snuggled against him, placed her feet on the edge of the coffee table, her knees raised up, and then she crossed her legs, revealing her upper thighs even more. She was not in the mood to be subtle, when her wisp of a dress slid down almost to her waist she reacted only by cuddling against Brad even closer. He put his arm around her and she placed her head on his shoulder.

They stayed quiet for a moment listening to the soothing music, before Tess spoke, “I know I haven’t been the most pleasant company lately. I’m sorry about that.”

Brad raised his hand that had been around her, and began to gently run his fingers through her hair. “In any case, I can’t have you with me enough. But when there is something bothering you, I expect you to tell me all about it. Understand?”

Something about the way he had just spoken to her made a wave of – something – course through her body. She tilted her head up and looked at him with wide open eyes. “Okay, sir.” She raised her hand and saluted him. “I hear you loud and clear, sir.” She wondered for an instant why she was taunting him. In the next instant, she realized that she knew quite well why she was doing that.

Brad lowered his gaze toward her, and she was taken a bit by surprise that he had such a serious expression. “I’m being serious, Tess. I want you to feel that I’m always here for you, but I can’t help you talk out your issues if you aren’t open with me about everything. I love you, Tess, and I think I have the right to expect that from you.”

She bit down on her lower lip and exhaled a deep breath. “Well, I guess I’m experiencing some of that strong cowboy talk about obedience.” She felt her midsection begin to quiver, but could not refrain from testing dangerous waters. “All of a sudden, I’m hearing this firm and authoritative tone of voice. I think I even heard a warning tossed in there somewhere. It’s kind of hot, if you ask me. Of course, no one is really asking.” She arched her eyebrows and tilted her head at him.

Brad could not help but let a laugh escape. “I hope you like that, because it’s the way I am. You know I’m an old-fashioned fellow.”

“And there will never be any doubt that you are the master of the house?” She cleared her throat. “Or of the relationship?”

He gave her a half serious glare, but detected she was smiling more than she wanted to allow. “I owe you honesty in return. So, yes, that would be part of the deal. I think we should talk about that a little more.”

She started to speak, then caught her breath, then all she could say was, “Wow! We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty.”

He placed his fingers under her chin and raised her face to look at him. “Does ‘wow’ mean I like that, or does it mean you can’t go there? There can’t be any room for misunderstanding.”

She shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you know I am weary from living the way I lived. As I listened to myself talk to you about it, I feel like I’m listening to some stranger. But the bottom line is, Brad, I wouldn’t mind having a strong, good man look over me. But don’t you dare call me a little filly.”

They both began to laugh, and Brad leaned down and kissed her. “Then can I call you a cute little filly?”

She posed as if she were seriously considering a deep question, then nodded slowly. “Yes, that would be fine.” He began to stroke her exposed left leg, and she began to purr in contentment. “I just love the feel of your hand on my flesh.” She thought of his hand on one part of herself in particular.

Brad stopped the stroking, and patted her on the knee. “But I think there are other things you need to talk to me about. And you know what they are.”

She looked down, then closed her eyes and seemed to grimace. “I don’t like having to admit I was wrong. I had known for some time that I should call my mother and apologize to her for really being insensitive over the years for not recognizing her right to be happy the way she was. I feel empty sometimes, Brad. The crazy thing is, I want to adapt to my new life, and you are such a big part of that.

“I feel like there’s just something bottled up inside of me… Oh, I don’t know what to call it. I have these moments when I wish I could just start crying for some reason I don’t understand. I think that if I could just let go and start crying, I would feel better. I’m unhappy with myself, and mad at myself, and I don’t know how to alleviate all this pressure and regret I feel building up inside of me because of it. I don’t know what to do with this disappointment in myself for living the way I lived.”

She looked at him and shook her head and closed her eyes. “I’m ready for any suggestions from you. After all, I know I can count on you to be blunt. I love that about you.”

Brad patted her on the knee again. “You may not be ready for my suggestions.”

She tilted her head and peered up at him. “Try me, cowboy.”

Brad hesitated for a moment. “You said you are disappointed in yourself. You said you think you would feel better if you could have a good cry.”

She nodded and smiled, not knowing where the conversation was going, but certainly hoping for a particular outcome, and confused at doing so. “That pretty much sums it up.”

He put his arm around her again and squeezed her close. “I don’t know if you understand that the world does not revolve around what you want.” She felt her pulse race, wondering where exactly his scolding would lead, and daring herself to push him that far.

She turned slowly and looked up at him, surprisingly pleased with his bluntness. “Go on.”

He shook his head then lowered his gaze to look directly into her eyes. “Do you realize how many times in a conversation you say the word, ‘I’? Tess, you are a warm, lovely and gentle person. But you have also been selfish and self-centered.”

Tess looked at him in silence, her jaw slightly open but listening intently at the hints he was tossing out. “Keep going, Brad. I think I’m hearing some things I need to hear from you.”

He sighed and looked down. “You are so bright, funny, and nothing but a delight to be with. But you have not shared yourself with the rest of the world. You have avoided a family, you have avoided relationships, and when you could have been out there helping society, you were closed away by yourself in some room earning your good salary, and in your free time, working to earn more. All that you had to offer, you kept to yourself. And now you feel hollow, and sorry for yourself.”

Tess looked at him in silence for a moment. “I can’t argue with anything you just said. I don’t know what to do about it, but I guess that’s why I’m talking to you. What do I do now, Brad?” She was definitely going for it against all sense and reason.

Brad’s demeanor was now totally serious. “I think you need to go across my knees and get that good spanking we discussed recently.”

Tess’ eyes grew wider and she pursed her lips, silent for a moment, as everything inside her did pleasant but frightening flip-flops. “A spanking? Right now?”

He placed his index finger under her chin and gazed directly into her eyes. “I think the sooner the better.”

She winced and lowered her head between her shoulders. “I guess you were serious the other day. Would you care to elaborate on this proposed spanking with a little more detail?”

Brad nodded. “Okay, I think you need a rather robust and lengthy spanking. How’s that for detail?”

She responded with a low whistle. “Sounds like it would be your intention to make it a painful and unforgettable experience.”

He nodded solemnly. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t accomplish much would it?”

Tess nervously laughed involuntarily and then simply stared at him again for a moment. “Please, don’t think I’m not taking this seriously. In fact, I’m taking this very seriously, because I only laugh like that when I’m very anxious.

“Obviously, you actually think I need a spanking. A spanking from you, I assume.” Brad could not help but notice the hint of a smile on her lips.

“Yes, that is what I had in mind when I said that. And that is my suggestion. You’re unhappy with yourself, and you feel that you need a good cry. I think I could guarantee you, that if you decided to accept my recommendation, both of those matters would be fully addressed.”

Tess continued to stare at him as she chewed on her lower lip. “So, you would take me across your knees, and paddle my bare bottom until I was crying?”

Brad struggled to keep from laughing. “Let me clear up a couple of matters about what you just said, first, it would be more accurate to say, you would continue to be spanked long after you started crying. That will greatly enhance what you would learn from the experience. And second, I recall I said nothing about a bare bottom, but apparently that technical but crucial detail has been conceded now, hasn’t it?”

She put her fingers to her lips and gasped. “I wonder what Dr. Freud would say about that.”

“I have my theories.”

She muttered softly, “Well, I suppose it’s time you finally saw that thing back there.”

Brad shrugged. “And I’m certain it’s going to be as lovely as I’ve always imagined it to be. And take my word for it, I’ve spent a lot of time imagining it.”

Tess sat silent once again, as Brad seem to examine her face. “Brad, what are you looking at?”

He shook his head and smiled. “I’m just trying to remember if I ever saw that shade of pink on a person’s face before.”

Tess leaned toward him and squinted. “And you are really serious about this idea?”

Brad leaned down and placed his nose directly to the tip of hers. “As serious as a cute woman’s red and sizzling bottom. That serious.”

Tess blew out a deep breath. “You think that would be good for me. You think this will help me stop moping around and bring me to my senses. You think that’s what I need. And you think that’s what I deserve.” She was not certain who she was speaking to.

Brad nodded his head slowly. “Kind of says it all.”

A mischievous smile betrayed Tess as she put her hands out in front to express herself. “I’m just trying to grasp how a forty-three-year-old woman cannot come up with any reasons why she should not be spanked.”

Brad stroked her cheek softly. “Probably because she knows she needs that spanking.”

She stared at him for a moment and then blew out a deep breath. “I know that you’re probably correct. But how do I get over feeling scared about being spanked?”

He ran his fingers through her hair for a moment. “I would imagine that that would take away one of the most important reasons a spanking works the way that it works.”

She closed one eye and arched the other eyebrow as she chewed on her lip. “You are leaving little doubt that you intend to really light up my butt.”

His expression was suddenly very serious. “Otherwise, it would be a total waste of time.”

She placed the palms of her hands on the sofa and gave her head an emphatic nod. “So, it looks like we are really going to do this. Okay, then, let’s get to it.”

She stood up suddenly, and without saying a word she walked into the man cave. Seconds later, she reemerged carrying a ping-pong paddle, slapping it across her open hand as she said over and over again softly, “Losing my mind… Losing my mind… Losing my mind.”

She stood next to where Brad sat on the sofa and handed him the ping-pong paddle. He looked at her with arched eyebrows. “I don’t think that thing is going to last very long, as I plan to whack you pretty hard. But I do have an extra one in the closet.”

She began to lower herself onto the sofa. “I would expect nothing less of you, cowboy. In any case, just humor me. Something about the thought of being spanked with a ping-pong paddle just strikes me as cute.”

Brad patted the paddle on his right knee. “Probably not as cute as what I’m about to…” His comment was halted by Tess’ fingertips on his lips. “I get your point. Don’t tell me you’re not going to enjoy this.”

He took her by the upper arm and gently lowered her across his knees, Tess grabbing his Stetson and putting it on herself on the way down. “I think you may enjoy spanking a cowgirl.”

He chuckled as she looked back at him in the oversized hat and stuck out her tongue. “I promise, sweet Tess, I’ll try not to enjoy this one little bit.”

She looked back at him with a mock scowl as he shuffled her dress up on her back. “Oh, that’s okay. One of us may as well find this fun.”

He heard her suck in her breath as he took hold of the waistband of her panties and slowly lowered them down to the middle of her thighs. “But maybe, Tess, you will end up enjoying this.”

She looked back at him, her face completely pink once again. “I don’t think so.”

He patted her on the bottom with his hand. “Are you certain about that?”

She did not look back, but Brad did hear her laugh softly before she spoke in a near whisper, “Not really certain about that, no.”

He picked up the round paddle that had been lying on her lower back, and she looked back with a smile. “Promise me something. When you’re done spanking me, would you give my bottom a nice massage to make it feel better?”

“It’s a promise. In fact, how about I do that before I spank you, too.” Tess simply moaned softly as he began to gently stroke her bare bottom. He did so for a minute, then felt her tense when he picked the paddle up from her back and began to tap it against the target.

Her tense body jerked the first time the paddle landed with a sharp CRACK. It was immediately followed by a subdued “Ouch!”

Seconds later, the same sound broke the silence of the room, although there was no verbal response this time. And then seconds later, the third, then fourth, and fifth impacts resulted in sounds of breath being sucked in and muted utterances of “Ouch”.

And then, five seconds apart, five more sharp cracks echoed through the room.

Suddenly, he heard Tess speak, “Brad… I think this was a good idea.”

He rested the paddle on her bottom and she spoke again, “I think this is going to be very therapeutic. I just wanted to tell you that.”

She looked back at him again and let out a deep breath. “So now that you know I’m convinced this is going to be good for me, you just have at it, cowboy. I mean that.” She turned her head forward again before she continued speaking, “And something tells me this will hardly be the last time I will need this. So, bring it on, sir. I’m already looking forward to you making me feel better afterward.”

She would later confess to Brad that she felt as if her blood turned cold when he responded by saying to her, “I’m going to take you at your word.”

The ping-pong paddle slammed down with a sound like a gunshot, and Tess’ eyes popped wide open and her jaw dropped. The shock of it nearly took her breath away, but seconds later when one even harder arrived across the surface of her now pink bottom, she emitted a high-pitched squeal.

The next three times the paddle landed on its tender target, it did so with more fiery sting than she had felt previously, and she yelped with each whack. Then Brad gave her the hardest one yet, and when he heard her sniffling, he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to her.

He patted the paddle against her bottom several times, then rested it. “I want you to know, that if any time you shout to me that it’s over, then it’s over. Understand?”

She turned and responded with a shaky voice, “I understand, but don’t expect me to bring it to a finish until you think I’ve had enough. It’s like when I told you that if you look away from my legs after I went to the bother and expense of buying a short dress. It would defeat the purpose of it all. So, if you stop spanking me before I get to the point of thinking I can’t take any more, then I won’t have received the part of the spanking that will do me the most good. I get it now, Brad.”

Brad took a deep breath and brought the round paddle down with another sharp CRACK, generating a loud shout of “Ouch”. Another just like it followed seconds after, and after the following one, he paused and placed the fractured paddle in front of Tess where she could see it. “Didn’t think it was going to survive what I had in mind to give you.”

Without warning, Tess discovered that the sting generated by the ping-pong paddle paled in comparison to what she felt when his large, calloused hand took its place. The first whack of his hand generated a shout of, “Oh, does that ever sting!”

Now, as he spanked her with his hand, her cries of discomfort grew more urgent, and she suddenly burst into sobs, although she never reached back to try to block the impact. Rather, she pressed her forehead into the cushion of the sofa, and reached to the end cushion and grasped it tightly to avoid interfering with what she had signed on for. Every several seconds, his hand slammed down on her flaming bottom, and when she thought she could not cry any harder, each succeeding whack proved her wrong.

And then, as she dissolved into heaving, wracking sobs, it was over, and she felt his hand gently and lightly caressing her inflamed flesh, irritating and soothing the injured surface at the same time. But despite whatever discomfort it brought, she yearned for his hand to continue its soft caressing.

She stayed in place across his knees, her crying gradually subsiding as his left hand stroked her back, and his right hand continued the soothing circular stroking of her bottom. It took several minutes before she was settled down to the point that she began to turn onto her right side, and look at him, a meek smile emerging as she continued to wipe the tears as his caressing continued.

Several more minutes went by and finally she began to sit up, and Brad helped her up to rest on his lap and she did so in spite of the soreness.

Suddenly, she began to chuckle despite the pain. “Here I am, forty-three-years-old and sitting on the lap of a man who just spanked the daylights out of me, and my dress is pulled up and my panties are halfway down to my knees. Oh, how often that happens in life.”

They embraced and began to kiss, and then Brad began to stroke her calf and reach up to take hold of her panties. “Let’s get you back in order here.”

But Tess stopped his hand from moving, and began to kiss him hard. “No, Brad. You’re moving them the wrong way.” She reached down and slid them down her legs and over her feet. She wadded the tiny garment in her hand and reached up and stuffed it into Brad’s shirt pocket. “I won’t need this back until after you take me upstairs to show me that bedroom of yours I’ve never seen before.”


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