Prickly and sarcastic, Erin has made keeping people at arm's length an art form. A disastrous first marriage left her with nothing but bitter memories? and a son she adores. She has no time for or interest in another man in her life. But a weekend caving trip puts Erin in intimate range of Cokely Tanner, a man with a devastating smile and a confident manner she finds unexpectedly beguiling. He is gentle and responsible and fair. But will Erin be able to handle Tanner's version of fairness when it includes spanking?
BDSM category: spanking only
NO EXPLICIT EROTIC SCENES but not suitable for under age 18
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But then, those things always did. "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt," her father used to say. This was right up there with "You'll put someone's eye out" as a warning universally ignored. She should have listened to the little voice that warned this might be too far outside her comfort zone.
Now, instead of spending a quiet Friday night in front of the TV watching Monsters' Inc. or Spiderman with her son, Erin was headed to some godforsaken hole in the ground in West Virginia with a guy she barely knew. Not her finest moment, she would have to acknowledge. But it could be worse. In fact, it was bound to be.
Just two weeks earlier, she had been sitting at a conference table with a dozen other people in the newly-formed single parents' support group when the subject had turned to weekend activities that would bring the group together outside office hours. Started by their company's employee services organization, the group met twice monthly over lunch to exchange ideas and offer support to each other, and somehow Erin had become one of the unofficial leaders--making reservations for the conference room and sending out the meeting reminders to a growing but largely apathetic membership. Everybody seemed to think it was a good idea to have a support group, but no one had the time or inclination to plan a program. And without a program the meetings tended to degenerate into male-bashing by the largely female and recently-divorced attendees. Deadbeat dads and restraining orders were hot-button issues, and there was little to be gained by griping en masse, as far as Erin was concerned. It also meant that the occasional dad that showed up didn't return to a second meeting. Nobody needed that kind of hostility.
So Erin had arranged for a demonstration of relaxation techniques, a visit from an official with the county daycare licensing board, and a display by an employee who sold Discovery Toys as a sideline. She also had a short list of topics to redirect discussion when it began to degenerate. So, in a sense, it was all her fault. Erin herself had been the one to say, "So, does anyone have any ideas about weekend activities so we can get to know each other with the kids we've heard so much about?" There were a handful of suggestions--a picnic in the park, bowling, a museum visit--but it was the one that came from Cokely Tanner, the custodial parent of an 8-year-old little girl, that brought her to West Virginia.
Tanner had mustered the nerve to come back to a third session, outlasting any of the other men who had made an appearance, and he seemed to be trying to make a constructive contribution, so when he suggested a Saturday caving trip, Erin jumped on it. Sure, it sounded like a great idea! Several of the other women agreed, too, and the details went out in email the following day. There was an organized tour of an undeveloped cave, perfect as a novice trip and suitable for kids as young as 6. It would not be especially demanding physically, and it was one Tanner had been in before. "You can stand up all the way through," he assured them, as though it would have occurred to them otherwise. "Oh, and it's in West Virginia. I know that's a long drive, but there's a cabin nearby that we can stay in. If we go out Friday night, everyone will be well rested and ready on Saturday morning. We enter the cave at 8 a.m."
In the two weeks that followed, the other participants dropped out one by one until there were only four left. She wished she had bailed early on, before the excuses had begun to sound so lame, but by the end, she couldn't do that to him. She knew too well the frustration of planning an activity only to have other people take it for granted--as though they were doing you a favor by accepting your hospitality.
Well, she was committed now ... Or should be committed, she thought wryly.
They were now 45 minutes into a drive that was bound to be at least 4 hours. By the time they met for what should have been a caravan of four cars, two more families had dropped out, leaving just Erin and Tanner and their kids. With just the four of them, it seemed silly to take two cars. She had to agree that it made more sense to travel together in his Explorer. The final 10 miles or so were over rough ground, and her little sub-compact wasn't built for that. On top of that, trying to follow him for miles in the dark would have added more difficulty than necessary.
She had no real fear for her safety. They both worked for the same Department of Defense contractor, and she knew the "top secret" level clearance he held made it unlikely that he was a serial killer or kidnapper. The background checks they did for those projects were far more detailed than she could hope to duplicate. And, with a discrete call to a friend in the personnel department, Erin had confirmed that he'd been employed there for 10 years without any negative remarks in his file. There was no safety reason she should not go with him.
Yes, it made good sense, and that's why she had agreed, transferring their few bags into his Explorer in the commuter parking lot. It made sense, but she felt a queasy sense of vulnerability not having her car or the privacy it afforded. Instead, she struggled to make small talk.
"So, how long have you been doing this?"
"Caving, spelunking, whatever it's called."
"Since I was a kid. My granddad had a big, sprawling piece of property up in Pennsylvania, and I used to spend the summers with him. Mostly, it was farmland, but there was this one area that was kind of hilly and rocky. Nothing grew there, but it was like a magnet for me. As soon as chores were done, I was out there. Sometimes my cousins would come too; sometimes I'd meet kids from town. But I was always there. There were a couple of small hollows--good places to hide--and we used to play hide-and-seek and army a lot. I discovered this gap high on the wall of one of the caves, and I figured that it probably connected to one of the other hollows. I really wanted to know--I needed to know--where that led. So, we started digging at it. It took most of the summer to make that gap big enough to get through, but eventually we got it. And, I was hooked."
"So," she prodded, surprised to find herself genuinely interested. "Where did it lead?"
He laughed in rueful remembrance. "To another little hollow barely big enough to stand up in. But to me, it might as well have been Luray Caverns. I had this incredible sense of discovery. I was the first one to ever see that cave. The first one." He flashed her a self-satisfied smile, and she had a glimpse of the triumphant boy he must have been.
"I took Declan to Luray last summer," she said, glancing to the back seat reflexively. Seven-year-old Declan was scowling in concentration over the GPS receiver that Claire had shown him almost as soon as they were moving. He didn't usually have much use for girls, but Claire had probably won him over forever by offering, unasked, the one thing he would never turn down: a new gizmo. "Remember, Declan?"
"What?" he mumbled. He was oblivious to the question, busy pressing buttons to see what effect they had.
"Luray Caverns. You remember going there last summer, don't you? And seeing the stalagmites and stalactites? And the organ? Remember?"
"Mmm-hmm." That might have been agreement, or it might have been a polite version of "Go away, you're bothering me."
Either way, Erin turned back around in her seat and said, "Well, we did, and he really enjoyed it."
Tanner's eyes left the road briefly a couple of times as he eyed her across the front seat, but it was half-a-minute before he spoke. "This isn't that kind of cave, you know. Luray, Crystal Cave, and Seneca Caverns are all commercial caves. This is nothing like that. You know that, right?"
"Sure." Of course, she did. Sort of. All those cavern systems had tour guides and paved paths and railings, and you stood in line to buy a ticket. What they would be doing was much more ... undeveloped ... that was the word. This is why Tanner had advised her to pack warm comfortable clothes that could get ruined. Folded into the duffle she had transferred from her car were jeans that were just weeks away from the rag-bag, T-shirts, turtlenecks, and flannel shirts to layer over top.
It was fully dark, and the late rush-hour traffic was miles behind when he broke the silence again. "So, how'd you end up being the only one that didn't back out on this trip?"
"Um, well, I don't know. Just lucky I guess." Silence. "I guess maybe it seemed like too much of a commitment for some of the others--you know, a whole weekend, four hours away, a little too much like roughing it, maybe. I think we'll have a better turnout for bowling next month." When he still didn't answer, she continued, "But I thought it would be fun, and I really appreciate your organizing everything. I can't really seem to get anyone else to pick up the slack. They keep saying they want a program, but they're too busy because they're single parents."
That got the first smile from him. She didn't realize until he turned its full effect on her that she had never really seen him smile fully before. She'd seen his mouth quirk in wry amusement during group, she'd seen the half-smile of recognition as they passed in the cafeteria at work, and she had seen the fond smile of a father's affection when he spoke to and about his daughter, Claire. But this, this was something else. In the fraction of a second before his eyes returned to the road, she had the feeling that they were facing the world together, sharing the joke and an innate understanding of their place in it. It was a startling moment, but it was gone before Erin could analyze it.
"Yeah, I noticed that," Tanner said casually, as though the earth still turned normally on its axis. "I'm really not too sure what some of those people want from the group. It seems like they expect you to provide everything from legal advice to babysitting."
That was true. There was no shortage of ideas for programs, but no one was willing to take point, so it was coming down to only the activities that Erin was willing to arrange. One of the women had even had the nerve to demand that coffee be provided; Erin had told her sweetly (through gritted teeth) that she was free to arrange for coffee herself but if she was under the impression that doing so was Erin's job, she was sorely mistaken. It was quintessential Erin: all the right words, said in a quiet but somehow threatening tone that left the unfortunate recipient apologizing and backing away carefully as though fearful a sudden movement might set her off. She was rarely crossed twice by the same person. No coffee was provided at subsequent meetings.
"So what are you looking to get out of the group?" Erin asked, as Tanner was the only other one to make any sort of an effort.
"Seriously?" he asked with a self-deprecating smile. "I was hoping to find some other parents of kids the same age to trade practical advice with. I tried to trim Claire's bangs last month and made a mess of it. She kept wiggling, and I couldn't cut straight. They kept getting shorter and more uneven. I thought maybe somebody else could show me how to do her bangs, and, well, then she wouldn't feel so different," he finished softly, conscious that his voice not carry to the backseat. Between the road noise and the beep-beep-beep of the video game Claire was hunched over, that didn't seem likely, but all the same, Erin found herself dropping her own voice.
"Her bangs look fine," she reassured.
"Yeah, I know. I took her to a stylist to have them fix it. She was in tears. Said all the kids would tease her, and she felt like a freak. She's saving her allowance so when they need trimming again, she can get it done herself."
Erin stifled a smile over the thought of this big hulk of a man crouching down to meticulously snip at his daughter's curly hair. "I can help you there," she offered easily. "I'm pretty good at haircuts."
He flashed a smile of gratitude and patted her hand where it sat on the seat. "Thanks," he said warmly. "That'll help." His hand returned to the wheel. "It's the things like that that I think Claire misses. Someone to help her with her hair, to take her shopping for a new dress, stuff like that. I'm fine with supervising homework and bedtime stories and soccer practice and all the rest, but the hair-and-clothes thing is just not something I'm learning."
"How long have you been widowed?" she asked gently.
He shot her a quick look. "I'm not a widower. I'm divorced." He glanced again, curious whether that made a difference in her reaction to him. "What made you think I'm a widower?"
What was it? He had never mentioned a wife--ex- or otherwise. So many newly-divorced men tended to rip their wives apart in even casual conversation, but he hadn't done that. Maybe it was just his natural reticence that made him seem the grieving widower. Could it be something as sexist as assuming that children would naturally be with their mother, that a father would have them only if there were no mother? That was not something she was ready to admit to a relative stranger. "I don't know. I guess I just assumed. How long have you been divorced?" Yes, much safer territory.
"Oh, about a year," he answered, oblivious to the re-analysis being conducted by the woman in the passenger's seat. "And we were separated for a while before that. Claire and I have been on our own together almost since she started school."
"That must be hard on you," Erin offered.
Tanner shrugged. "Not over-hard. 'Cept when her bangs need cutting," he said with a quick smile.
Oh man, that smile ought to have a Surgeon General's warning on it, Erin mused. Maybe it could say something like "Women are strongly cautioned that they may lose all restraint under the influence of this smile." Erin had always been a fool for a beautiful smile. A guy could be 80 pounds overweight, balding, and walk with a limp, but if he had a natural, unaffected smile that lit up his eyes, she was captivated. But she didn't want to be captivated by Cokely Tanner, she reminded herself. She was just there to be polite so he would feel his time was well-spent planning the caving trip.