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Romantic Signs

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Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 56,866
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No star-crossed lovers here, just five couples guided by some unseen hand to find affection and acceptance. Some have known each other just weeks or months, others for fifteen years or more, but for each there is some barrier to understanding. How can a spanking remove that barrier? In different ways for different people. Amid a tentative friendship formed during a summer job, the careful negotiations of young married couples, the disruptive influence of serious illness, or the fond reminiscence of a middle-aged mother, each spanking sparks conversations and reflections, sometimes in unlikely directions. For each, the signs of romance are in the air.

BDSM Category: spanking only.

Professional Reviews

Excerpt

Memory is funny. The things you remember, the things you forget--sometimes there's no rhyme or reason--and it's something that, as a parent, plagues me. I know that no matter how many times I've done the right thing, the indelible image in my kids' minds when they're forty-five might be of that one awful episode that I regret. Or, more likely, some incident that I'll never remember because it didn't seem important at the time.

When I was about ten, my family went to Orlando, Florida, for about a week. But is it Space Mountain or the Jungle Cruise or Pirates of the Caribbean that I remember? No. Pictures tell me we saw all those things, but what I remember is stopping at a diner with my mom to get dinner one evening. The plan was to pick up chicken to take back to the hotel room for the rest of the family. But despite the "Take-Out Chicken" sign that had given us the idea, the diner seemed ill-prepared for actual take-out customers. They took our order and money readily enough, but then we waited. And waited. I tried to quell childish impatience but was enormously relieved when my mom, the most patient of souls, finally sighed, "What do they have to do? Defrost it?" Over the next fifteen or twenty minutes, we came up with increasingly far-fetched speculations, from predicting that they had forgotten that "carry-out" was on the sign to wondering if, perhaps, there was someone out back desperately trying to catch an aged rooster. I believe there was even the suggestion that the eggs had not yet hatched. We whispered and giggled and were terribly silly. And that wonderful half-hour is what I remember best from our Disney World trip, though we never talked about it again.

Rituals and traditions are a conscious effort to make sure that at least some of our kids' memories are the right ones. So we use the good china for holidays, and we put out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer on Christmas Eve. We celebrate birthdays with a homemade cake and a dinner of the honoree's choosing. (Some people would consider French toast and onion rings a weird combination, but, well, those're Samuel's favorites.) Spring cleaning and Fall Festivals, back-to-school shopping and walking to McDonald's during the first heavy snow of the year--these are the things I know my kids will remember just from sheer repetition.

It's the other things I wonder about.

"Remember that park we went to, the one with the blue and yellow slides and the high swings?" I have no idea. We've been to a lot of parks.

"Remember that time you said if I didn't finish my book report you were going to string me up by my toes in the back yard until I begged to be allowed to do a dozen book reports?" one son asked with feigned innocence when I was giving parenting advice to a friend. (I don't really, but it sounds like something I would have said. And he'd have laughed, not cringed. Honestly.)

"Remember that time we played Yahtzee for hours and hours when the lights went out?" (I do, though I also remember the disquiet of that hurricane and the power outage; I'm glad their memories are more positive.)

As they've grown, I've become more aware that that time for making childhood memories is very short compared to the time to reflect on those memories. JD, our oldest, is nineteen now and as I took him back to campus for his sophomore year recently I spent much of the four-hour drive looking back over the years that will be the source of his memories, and my own. There was none of the anxiety of wondering if it was a mistake for him to go so soon, to go so far, to go. In the year since he first went away, we had all made our way forward. And, between vacations and visits, even the long drive itself had settled into something of a routine: listening to music, talking easily.

That first year away from home seemed to have given JD a renewed appreciation for home and family. It was a welcome turnabout from the sometimes-insolent persona he'd adopted at sixteen and seventeen. Then, he'd often distained my company and certainly hadn't wanted my opinion or insights. It was nice to have my son back, even if he was taller and broader and more confident than the little boy he would always be in my mind. There had been a time when it was just the two of us facing the world together. And however moody and irritable--even irritating--he had been at seventeen, I always had that reference point to fall back on, that of a sweet, loving little boy when it was just the two of us. He had given me strength and endurance then. Perhaps it was so that I could get through his teen years when he would test them both.

But those struggles were behind us, apparently. On each visit home during his freshman year I had enjoyed him more. In May he had returned home with a burning ambition to get a summer job and sock away as much money as he could to help pay for tuition. That was a striking improvement from the kid who had once said, with what I dearly hoped was false indifference, "Well, it's not like I have to go to college." We hadn't wanted to push him, my husband and I, but of course he had to go. Not everyone did, but for JD it was the straightest, most certain path to the future. He was unquestionably gifted (which made his arguments, when he chose to voice them, disturbingly persuasive), and his gift was in science. And you just don't become a chemist or a physicist or biologist without college. I knew by then not to argue, and JD came to the same conclusion on his own, thank goodness. Applications were filed and decisions made, and ultimately he packed his trunks and we drove the four hours to Bucknell in September.

Here it was another September.

Happier now, more content, and certainly more appreciative, JD sat in the passenger seat telling me stories about the roommates he would be moving in with and fiddling with the radio as we drifted in and out of the signals' reach. Finally, he turned it off as the miles of farmland stretched on and on and all he could get was static.

"There are some CDs in the back seat," I reminded him.

"It's okay. It's just noise. I like to hear the quiet," he said with a smile, and I knew he was quoting me to me.

I smiled. Yes, I like to hear the quiet. It lets my mind drift more freely, sort and analyze, plan without pressure. Like yoga without the stretching. Very calming. Even the changing speed limits--45, 55, then 20 for a half-mile as we drove through another small town--took on a Zen-like quality of inevitability. It picked up to 55 again and we were back among the farms.

"So what are you thinking about, Deep Thinker?" I teased.

"Oh, just stuff. It's funny, is all ... how I can think back ten years like it was yesterday. But I can't really imagine what things will be like ten years from now."

"I can go back a lot longer than ten years," I agreed, "but you're right that it's harder to see forward." What would he be in ten years? Happy, accomplished, healthy, settled--those kind of prosaic aims came to mind easily; but the concrete reality was harder to pin down. Where would he be living and with whom? How might the economy or politics or technology alter his world? The past, yes, the past was clearer. "Can you really only remember back ten years?" I asked curiously.

"Not only, no," he said thoughtfully. "I remember when Shawn was born. I remember when we moved. I remember little things from earlier, but after about nine or ten it's all pretty clear. I know who I hung out with, who my teachers and coaches were. I remember the trouble I got into," he acknowledged with the mischievous grin that made me smile too. "Before that, though, it's a little murkier."

We fell back into easy silence again, both thinking about the past, I suppose. Corn as tall as the car blocked the view on both sides for minutes at a stretch. It must be nearly ready to harvest, I thought. When the corn was left behind, the farms were dairy or beef. There were clusters of cows grouped around feeding stations.

Then, as though somehow anticipating my thoughts, JD said suddenly, "Remember that time the bull chased us across the field?"

Oh, God, did I!

* * * *

Christmas Day the year JD was four. It had been a hard day in a series of hard days, but I was determined to salvage it, if only for the little boy in the seat beside me. Trying to be all things to everyone had left me ragged as usual. I had worked a double shift the night before, needing every cent I could eke out in tips, even on Christmas Eve. Childish enthusiasm got me through the few presents that Santa had left, and for a brief couple of hours all the sacrifices and make-do efforts seemed worthwhile. There were no video game consoles or pricey ride-on cars, but the things I could manage were a hit. We had to leave behind his favorite--a cardboard fort--but he took his new harmonica and his superhero cape with him to my parents' house where I spent several strained hours watching them dote on their grandson and shoot absent waves of disapproval in my direction.

I steeled myself against even more of it when JD asked innocently, "Are we going to see my other grandma and grandpa tonight too?"

I hadn't told him it was a secret, but I had certainly hoped he wouldn't mention it. "Yes, sweetheart. We'll be leaving right after dinner. Christmas dinner was usually an early-afternoon affair and I expected to be on the interstate by four o'clock. Somehow it was almost seven before we were pulling out of the driveway, a dozen subtle rebukes still ricocheting in my mind. Do you really think it's wise to maintain contact with those people? What kind of influence do you think they'll be? And on Christmas? You should stay here. Wouldn't it be better to leave the past in the past? I had finally snapped at that. "Should I leave you in the past, too? Don't you want to see JD? Don't you think that's your right? Well, so do they!"

Happy goddamn holidays. Why I should have expected things to be different, I don't know. We headed north on a gloomy winter night into the damp, cool air of a threatening storm.

"Merry Christmas!" JD piped up from the seat beside me and pointed. There, dangling from an outstretched construction crane was a Christmas tree outlined in lights. So. His grin always undoes me and I found it easy to bury my anger and fears. Merry Christmas. We sang "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night," and I felt better than I had all day. He was a sweet and wonderful boy, and I sure as hell wasn't letting anything destroy the one pleasure I had left in life, time with my son. Working two jobs, trying to make ends meet, and dealing with the conflicting demands of everyone else slipped to the edges of my mind for a while, and JD and I were happy.

Then the engine sputtered.

It was just a momentary loss of power, and I hoped for an instant that I had imagined it. But no, it hesitated again with an audible drop in the engine's sound. When the motor stopped a second later, I bowed to the inevitable and pulled onto the shoulder.

Ten minutes of futile troubleshooting and consulting the ragged owner's manual finally led me to the realization that it was not some inconvenient but inevitable failure of a critical belt. It was not the cumulative strain of 120,000 miles on an economy car. No, it was something far more basic than that. We were out of gas.

How could I have let that happen? I had set aside gas money; it was in my pocket. I had meant to fill the tank on the way to my parents, but the station closest to our apartment was closed for the holiday; I told myself I'd stop the first chance on the interstate. Then forgot. It took a mental effort to silence the disparaging voices that told me what a stupid, irresponsible thing that was to do. It was too late to prevent the problem, but I could still cope, I told myself. If there was one parental lesson I had taken to heart it was that mood was contagious. Fears and anxieties were best kept to myself. In fact, I had discovered that simply adopting a faade--of someone happy, brave, or friendly--often made me feel that way. That night we needed patience and confidence so I played patient and confident.

"Well, JD, it looks like we'll be stuck here for a little bit. But that's okay because I'm sure a policeman will be by soon. He'll help us." With the flashers on and the car pushed all the way to the edge of the shoulder, I still felt uncomfortably close to the traffic lanes. Every time someone sped by in the right lane, our little Honda Civic pitched slightly in its wake. How long could it be before a patrol car happened by?

I tried to remember how far we were from the last exit but really couldn't. As many times as I'd driven this route (and that was more than my parents were aware), it just wouldn't click. Looking around gave no clues. It was just an anonymous patch of blacktop and concrete that dropped off quickly in the dark. I didn't know how far I was from the last exit or how far I was from the next. On my own, I might have just picked a direction and started walking, maybe even hitchhiked to the next exit, but, my mother's opinion to the contrary, I had become much more responsible with JD in my life. We would wait for the police.

* * * *

Two hours later I wasn't quite so sanguine. The highway was practically deserted. The rain had subsided to drizzle, but fog moved in and I became increasingly afraid that someone would crash into us just trying to find lane markings in the poor visibility. Abandoning my earlier resolve, I tried to flag someone down, but either they didn't see me or they were so startled by the apparition that they didn't know what to do. No one stopped. Which was almost a relief because I didn't relish the idea of explaining my problem if someone did. Hello, stranger. I'm stranded out here and no one knows where we are--including me. We're completely at your mercy. Logic tells me that there are more good people out there than bad, that someone who stopped would likely be trying to help ... but the cynical part of me wondered who would be out on a night like this and why would they stop on this deserted stretch of highway to help a stranger. Where the hell were the state troopers? I climbed back in the car.

JD had stopped seeing it as an adventure and begun to show signs of fear. I wasn't sure how much longer my own bravado would hold up.

We were equipped more for cold than for rain, but we bundled up as best we could and gathered the essentials. In my case that meant my ID and forty dollars in cash in my pocket and a small flashlight in my hand. For JD, it apparently meant his superhero cape and harmonica. Thus provisioned and standing in the drizzle, I tried again to decide whether north or south would be a better bet. An eighteen-wheeler made the decision easier for me by flying by at probably eighty miles an hour, inches away from the car. I had visions of being run over, squished like a squirrel before the driver even knew we were there. Screw that. We were not going either north or south. No, we would not walk along the highway to be hit, and we would not sit in the car and wait to get rear-ended.

We would go east. There was light in the distance, though it was hard to tell how far. It vanished and reappeared with the shifting fog. The wise men had followed a light, right? And I didn't need a king or even a savior. Just a gas station, or maybe shopping center. Anything with a phone. That light had to represent some sort of civilization. People, telephones, relief.

"We're going there," I declared with considerably more enthusiasm than I felt, and pointed into the darkness.

"Cool!" he answered and darted off, his cape peeking incongruously beneath his jacket.

The first discouraging sign that my new plan might be lacking some of the key elements for success was that less than fifty yards from the road we encountered a fence. Probably put there by the state to limit access to the highway, I decided. The single strand of barbed wire across the top didn't seem too threatening and the fence was only about four feet high. Not much of an obstacle. JD scrambled up and over in a matter of seconds. I was a little slower and clumsier--and I lost a glove in the process--but hit the ground in one piece with a slight feeling of triumph. I look back to my little Civic. I couldn't really see the car but the amber pulse of the flashers marked its location. The flashing red-and-blue of a police car, however, was still missing.

I wondered if I should have left a note in case the police finally came. Maybe one of the cars that didn't stop still called for help. Wouldn't that have been nice of someone? Well, I wasn't going back over the barbed wire to leave a note for an imaginary cop, I told myself. I was committed. Or should be.

We walked for several minutes through tall, wet grass, then hit another fence. The field was rough and scraggy and smelled strongly of fresh fertilizer. Who, I wondered, would be fool enough to fertilized farmland in December? "Try breathing through your mouth," I advised JD when I saw in his face the same wrinkled-nose revulsion that I felt. We pressed on.

"How much further?' he whined, as we wriggled through the rails of a third fence. Damn good question, and given the hour and the cold dampness, I couldn't even fault the tone.

"Not much further, kiddo." I tugged him for a few steps into the field. Bits of the buildings were coming into focus. I'd accepted that we weren't going to find a gas station. It looked, instead, like a farm, with its patchwork of fences and sheds sprinkled about. Finally we were close enough to see that the light we had been following was a porch light. "See, there's a house," I pointed out.

A split second later, all hell broke loose.

The cacophony seemed to come from several directions at once and it was a moment before I could identify the sound as dogs--several dogs. I snatched up JD and held him close, waiting for the pack to close in. Visions of pit bulls tearing us apart flashed through my mind, but I stood, stupid with fear, unable to see an out. We were in the middle of a large field. The only fence I could see was a split-rail construction that would offer no protection, and the normal place of safety--the house--seemed to be where most of the barking was coming from.

JD began to cry and despite the temptation to join him, I said with what sounded like confidence. "It's all right; they're just coming out to meet us." Or eat us, or something. While I hadn't exactly expected a warm welcome, this was worse than I had imagined. Lights began to go on all over the house, and still the barking reverberated in the night. When a door swung open, I felt an odd mix of relief and dread. Whoever it was wasn't likely to be too pleased to have us show up, uninvited, at nearly midnight on Christmas Day. Why I thought we'd be any safer approaching a strange house than accepting help from a stranger on the road I couldn't tell.

When a man stepped out the door carrying a shotgun, I realized that my worst fears showed a definite lack of imagination.

He was dragging on a jacket as more lights went on, illuminating the dooryard and a teeming pack of dogs. Several flew off into the dark at an imperious gesture from their master. Two others kept pace with him as he set off toward us at a half-run, still struggling into one sleeve, the gun seesawing in his other hand.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he bellowed as he raced toward us. "You damn fool! Get out of there!"

It was in my mind to turn tail and run, scale the fences, and return the comparative safety of my broken-down car. It was in my mind but not in my legs, which had somehow turned to jelly.

This was it. I was going to be shot for trespassing in some deserted field. They'd probably never even find the body.

"Mommy?" in the anxious, wavering alto of a four-year-old shook me out of my stupor.

I set him on his feet and ordered "Run!" with a slight shove to send him on his way. I intended to get his out of harm's way and lead the nut with a shotgun off in a different direction. To my horror, JD spun away and headed directly for the house. "No!" I started out after him, but a four-year-old is a wily lot. He was nearly to the fence line when the gun-toting man vaulted over it. He grabbed JD as though he were a sack of meal, hefted him over the fence, and dropped him to the ground, all while glaring angrily at me. I veered off as he headed directly for me.

Sheer pandemonium. The barking of the dogs, the man's shouting, and JD's crying all reverberated off a huge barn wall, making it hard to understand anything other than noise and fear. By force of effort I could make out two things he'd been saying since the beginning: "Get out!"

Would that I could. "Not without my son!"

"Bull!" he shouted, rather nonsensically to my mind.

One of the dogs came racing toward me and I braced for attack--then stumbled in confusion as it shot past me, still barking furiously. Anticipating attack from behind, I spun to fend the dog off again. But what I saw wiped all thought of dogs and shotguns and, God help me, JD completely from my mind. There was a huge, hulking mass emerging from the misting fog, and I could hear with sudden clarity the deep raspy breath of it. The stunned realization--oh, a bull--came an instant before a hard hand clamped down on my arm and began to drag me to the fence. Or at least I assumed it was the fence as my view was fixated on the bull. It stood still, one hoof pawing at the ground. My knowledge of bulls being limited to Bugs Bunny and the good folks at Looney Tunes, even I knew that wasn't a good sign. So I did the only thing I could think of to do.

I screamed.

That didn't sit too well with ole-gun-totin'-maniac, who tried to cover my mouth but only succeed in banging the rifle into my face and making me see stars. With little grace and less courtesy, he shoved me through a narrow gap in the fence that I had not even seen.

* * * *

"We've never been back to that park, have we?" JD asked.

"What park?"

"The one with the bull. I can remember going to petting zoos and naturalist parks when we were little. There's the one with an elephant Shawn liked to ride near Leesburg, but that's not it. And a safari park we went to once, but that wouldn't have had cattle, would it? And it couldn't have been a school field trip because I'm almost certain it was night. Did we take a trip out west? Maybe a dude ranch?"

I'm not sure whether I was more surprised he remembered it at all or that he didn't remember in more detail.

"Do you know how old you were?" I asked, bargaining for time.

"No. Little. Four, five, six, something like that. You don't remember? Shoot. I'll ask Dad. I bet he does."

"Oh, no, I know what you're talking about," I corrected. Did I remember the time the bull chased us across the field? God, yes! I'd never been so scared or so furious in all my life. "That's the night we met your dad."

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