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Chapter One

“Ethan, I…I need your help.”

“OK. What’s going on, Sara? Where are you?”

“I…I was on the w-way home. I got pulled over…for speeding. And running a stop sign. And…I think I’m over the limit.”

When I hung up the phone from talking to my wife only minutes ago, I could tell she was scared. Sara’s never gotten so much as a parking ticket before, so I’m sure she’s thinking she’s going to be locked away for the next ten years. It would be a little funny, if I weren’t so mad at her right now.  

I don’t know what I’m going to do with that woman, I think to myself as I pull out of the driveway. Well, actually, I know exactly what I’m going to do to her. I’m going to spank her butt until she can’t sit down long enough to drive! That’s apparently what she needs. Tickets for speeding, running a stop sign and driving while under the influence prove that.

            I clenched my jaw just thinking about the mess she’s gotten herself into. I’d known she was in need of a spanking for awhile now, but if I’d known this is where she was headed I certainly would have taken care of it days ago! I had been trying to stay out of her way and give her the space she seemed to need to be able to think things through. She hadn’t seemed happy with the way things had been going, so I figured giving her some time might help.

            Apparently, I never should have stopped. In fact, I probably should have stepped the number of swats, if her behavior is any indication. I slam on the brakes as the light in front of me turns red, and begin tapping my hand on the steering wheel in frustration. At the rate I’m going, I might get there faster if I jog. At the moment, I’m wishing for the ability to fly, or teleport, whichever would get me there faster. Thinking of Sara alone and scared, probably crying…it makes my heart hurt. She needs me right now, and I want to be her white knight, riding to her rescue. The problem with my wife is so often the one she needs rescuing from is herself.

Sure, I’m furious with her right now, but I’m even madder at myself. That’s what I hate about being the Head of the family. I have to question everything, and I never know if I’m doing the right thing. Most of the time I just have to take it on faith that she will learn her lesson and be the good girl I know she can be.

            Sara never seemed to have to try to be a good girl. She was an honor student in high school, and never got a single demerit, much less an actual detention. In college she’d been on the Dean’s list every semester. No one ever would have suspected that she possessed the headstrong defiance that lurked beneath that innocent looking exterior.

            Maybe she should have been paddled occasionally, or served a detention, I muse grimly. Just because she’s basically a good girl didn’t mean she didn’t need the discipline. That had never been more true, I suspect, than in the case of my bratty bride.

Watching the cars pass as I wait for the light to change, my mind wanders back to the day that we first met: Sara was working at Brown Bear elementary school, teaching the third graders how to draw. I was there to pick up my little sister to take her out to lunch. I found myself immediately struck dumb by this beautiful, vivacious teacher. Mandy, bless her, introduced us before we left to go to lunch. My tongue had felt flat and useless in my mouth. Still, I’d at least gotten my name out.

I’d spent the entirety of lunch trying stealthily to work Sara’s name into the conversation. Unfortunately, Mandy didn’t know much about her, so there wasn’t much to pry out of her. Apparently Sara was volunteering as a student from the local community college while the regular teacher was recovering from surgery.

“She’s nice,” Mandy had offered as she dipped one of her French fries into her milkshake. “And pretty,” she added, giving me a sly look as she took a bite of her Vanilla coated fry.

I’d shrugged at her, trying to play it cool, but she’d just giggled. After I drove her back to school, I couldn’t seem to make myself leave. I knew that I needed to get back to work, and my phone kept buzzing in my pocket as a constant reminder, but I couldn’t tear myself away before I at least talked to her. Sara didn’t even seem to take notice of my presence, and all but ignored me as she busied herself around the room, checking each kid’s paper and making suggestions and offering encouraging comments.

Each time she glanced my way, I found the corners of my mouth inexplicably drawn up into a goofy smile. I was perfectly aware that I probably looked like an idiot, grinning at her like a clown. My sister had even shot me a mortified look, and I could see her eyes begging me to leave, but I just couldn’t help myself. Just having Sara’s eyes on me seemed to bring out the village idiot lurking deep down inside.

The clock on the wall told me that my lunch break had ended fifteen minutes ago, but I couldn’t just leave. What if the regular teacher was back tomorrow, and I hadn’t talked to her? Not that I was sure I would be able to work up the nerve to talk to her. I was very shy in those days, and I didn’t have any clue as to how I should act, or how to grab her attention. With each passing minute that I watched her, the urge to get closer to her got stronger. She obviously loved what she was doing, and the kids clearly adored her.

I was beginning to get a strong suspicion that I looked like an idiot standing there and doing nothing. Or a creepy stalker. Or both. I had just made up my mind to make a silent, hasty exit when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her walking toward me.

 “Hey,” she grinned, giving me a little wave. “You stayed.” Her voice sounded like soft, soothing music to me. When she smiled, her entire face came alive, transforming her from another pretty girl into the most beautiful woman I’d ever met.

“I…well, yeah. You’re um…well, I mean, my sister asked…” I broke off abruptly, and ran my hands through my hair, silently cursing myself. What was wrong with me? Why was I always putting my foot in my mouth? Being a mute would be better than making such an idiot of myself!

Sara had a knowing gleam in her eye as she let her eyes travel up and down my body unabashedly. She was still smiling when she met my eyes again. “Yes, well, it’s nice to have another adult in the room. Especially…” she smirked at me, with laughter in her eyes, “since your sister asked you to.”

“There it was, right there!” I say out loud, coming back to the present. It was right there in my memories—she’d always been a brat, I’d just been too love-struck to see it at the time. Of course, I’d thought it was fun when she teased me and we bantered back and forth—which had only began to happen after I’d relocated my voice box, of course. But now that I thought about it, hadn’t there always been something about her that implied a bratty side?

Whatever the word for it, there were days when I couldn’t believe she’s taken me in so completely and hidden it so well. I’d been hers, heart and soul, from the very moment I’d first laid eyes on her. From the first look into her beautiful, doe brown eyes, she had my heart, lock, stock, and barrel. Sure, she had a temper on her…but didn’t most women? Yes, she liked getting her own way, but she was the only girl and the youngest. Besides, I loved being able to spoil her. I loved her excitement and enthusiasm for life. She was always on the move, and trying new things…so what if she had a few minor meltdowns? Didn’t loving someone mean loving all of them?

I’d always had an excuse ready to dismiss any behavior that bothered me. There was only once that I couldn’t sweep her behavior under the rug. In truth, I hadn’t even known what the behavior was, just that it was pulling us apart. We hadn’t been dating for more than a few months when I began to notice that she only ordered salads whenever we went out to eat. At first, I thought it was just a female thing, and dismissed it, assuming that the salad diet was big in Cosmo that month or something. When she began getting thinner, well, it didn’t bother me all that much. Sure, I’d always thought she was beautiful just the way she was, but if she wanted to modify her appearance, what right did I have to say anything?

As the weeks went by just eating a salad wasn’t good enough. She began to obsess over everything she ate. Sara wouldn’t let anything pass her lips without first checking the fat content. She made sure that she never had a full serving of anything. She ordered two glasses of water before she would order a meal. It just kept getting worse with each passing day.

It was a little embarrassing to sit at a table and have to wait until she finished her water before I could order, but more than that, I was worried about her. Whenever I commented on it, always making certain that my voice was casual, and non-confrontational when I did, Sara would dismiss my concerns with a wave of her hand. Time and time again she assured me that she was just trying to be healthy, and that she was happy with the way she looked. The thinner she got, the more intense she became about losing weight. Her clothes already hung loose on her frame, but it was like every mirror she passed belonged in a Halloween fun house, because she couldn’t see the truth when she looked in them.

I didn’t have the first clue what to do. Sara constantly seemed so tense and stressed, and every time I looked at her, her face looked sharper and more angular than the day before. It had gotten to the point that I thought I would probably have to break up with her—sure, I loved Sara, but I was in no way prepared for this kind of relationship. We weren’t having fun when we were together anymore, and she didn’t seem to feel comfortable talking to me about what was behind these sudden changes.

I can’t help her, I told himself as I was driving to her house. It’s for the best. Really. She’ll find someone that she can talk to, and I…I… I couldn’t even finish the thought, because I suspected my heart might break before I could even get the words out. It wasn’t like I truly believed that there was anyone else out there for me, but I was determined to do the right thing for Sara, knowing that I wasn’t the man she needed. I was finding it impossible to protect her from something only she seemed able to see.

I stood fidgeting on the doorstep, waiting for the door to be opened. When it was, I was relieved to see Mr. Cochran. At least he could provide a buffer for a few minutes.

“Well, hello there, Ethan,” he greeted me with surprise. “What are you doing here, son? Do you and Sara have a date I don’t know about?”

“No, sir. I just…I need to talk to her. I just thought I’d swing by, if that’s OK.”

Mr. Cochran eyed me curiously for a moment before opening the door wider. “That’d be alright, I guess. Come on in.”

            I followed Sara’s dad into the house and joined him on the couch. We bantered a bit about football, and the Heisman nominees, but I was only half listening. I don’t think either of us was really invested in the conversation. We both kept glancing toward the staircase waiting for Sara to materialize. Of course, she wasn’t expecting me. I knew I should call out to her, and let her know that I was here to see her, but given the unpleasant task ahead of me, I couldn’t think of a good reason to hurry the inevitable.

            “She should be here in a minute,” Mr. Cochran said, reading my thoughts. “She’s in the bathroom. She spends a lot of time in there these days.”

            I smiled weakly. “Women, I guess.”

            Sara’s dad stared at me in stunned silence until I squirmed. I didn’t have a clue what I’d said that had upset him, but there was no doubt in my mind that I had. I had always been a little intimidated by Mr. Cochran, even though he was nice enough to me. Now that I was painfully aware that I was being put on the top of his crap list, he seemed downright scary.

            “You do know what she does in there, don’t you, Ethan?” he asked, breaking the silence.

            “Um…” My mouth felt dry as sandpaper. I knew that an answer was expected of me, but the question caught me off guard as much as a pop-quiz I’d forgotten to study for. The truth was, I had no idea. In that moment I felt like a fraud sitting on her couch when everyone, including her dad, knew that I couldn’t take care of her. “I…”

            “She’s throwing up.” Mr. Cochran said it so calmly that I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.

            “I’m sorry, sir? Did you…”

            “Isn’t that what she does these days? Eats an apple, or a piece of celery, and throws it up?”

            “I…um…I didn’t…”

            “You didn’t know,” he stated flatly. “How much attention do you pay to my daughter, Ethan?”

            “I…I know something’s been up with her but I thought…she said she was on a diet. She said she was happy,” I muttered, feeling more stupid with every word I uttered.

            “You’re going to have to learn to do better than that. My Sara is a tricky one,” Mr. Cochran advised. “She needs to be looked after, and protected. She has a good heart, but she loses her way sometimes.”

            I nodded, but couldn’t meet his eye. “Yeah…I guess. I just…I’m not sure I’m the one to, you know…watch her.”

            “Is that so?” he asked, his voice gruff. “Why is that?”

            “I’ve tried, I really have, but…she just won’t talk to me. I’ve tried everything I can think of. I’ve given her gifts, complimented her, taken her out, and begged her to talk to me. Nothing works.” I looked up, hoping for some sort of sympathy, or at least understanding but Mr. Cochran had turned back toward the staircase.

Several minutes passed without either of us speaking and I was starting to feel more uncomfortable with each moment that passed in silence. My palms had started to sweat, and I wanted more than anything to get out of there. Would he even stop me if I got up to leave?

            “So that’s it then?” he asked, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was better at talking than long, uncomfortable silences. “You’re just going to leave her when she needs you? I have to admit, I thought you were better than that.”

            “It’s not like that!” I protested. “I told you, I’ve tried.”

            “You don’t know much about women, do you, son? If she won’t talk to you, you have to make her.”

            “No offense, sir, but I don’t think anyone could make Sara do something she didn’t want to.” I almost laughed at the thought, but managed to choke it down at the last minute. When I looked up again Mr. Cochran was giving me a small, sad smile.

            “Do you love her?”

            The question was posed quietly without malice, but it tore at my heart all the same. “Of course I do.”`

            “If you did, you’d be willing to do whatever it took to make things right again,” he stated matter-of-factly.

            “There’s nothing I can do,” I said, my voice rising in desperation. “This isn’t something I’ve done…I can’t fix it.”

            “You have to help her.”

            He said it like it was simplest thing in the world, but I had no clue what I could do to help her. “How?”

            “Tell her you’re not going to allow it anymore. Tell her to stop, and make her stop.”

            Yeah, right. No way was I going to touch that. The one and only time I’d ever took the authoritative role with Sara was when I found out how little studying she’d done for her test the next morning. I told her that I was ending our date early and her dropping her off at home so that she could hit the books. She protested in a high-pitched screech the entire ride home, and wouldn’t take my calls for two days afterward until I promised I would never boss her around again.

            “I don’t think I can do that, sir. I’d really like to, but in this case, I don’t think there’s anything I can do.” I jumped to my feet, and with one last, lingering glance toward the staircase, I walked to the door. Usually Mr. Cochran walked me out, but he didn’t move this time. I could feel the disapproval radiating from him no matter how many feet separated us. I knew I’d still be feeling it long after I got home. And truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed in myself, too. If I let this girl go, I knew I’d never find one I loved quite as much.

***

            Two days later, I was scribbling aimlessly on a yellow notepad while the computer hummed in the background. I didn’t seem to be getting much work done lately. I had a word document open, but only two sentences typed on the page. I’d read them so many times they no longer made sense, but I couldn’t bring myself to erase them. I wasn’t doing very well. I had shadows under my eyes, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered or shaved. I couldn’t believe how much hair had grown on my face in forty-eight hours.

            I was pondering whether or not to clean my desk, and running down a mental list of all the reasons why I could put it off until tomorrow when the phone rang. I glanced at it balefully and then did a double take when I saw Sara’s name flashing on the screen. I hurried to pick it up so quickly that I almost dropped it.

            “Hello?”

            “Hi,” she replied meekly, and hearing her voice sent a tremor of excitement coursing through my body. “How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a little bit…”

            “Yeah, um, sorry…work…and stuff.”

            “I understand. Would you be interested in maybe…grabbing coffee? We could catch up?”

            “I’d love to,” I accepted eagerly. “When?”

            “Well, I was thinking maybe tomorrow afternoon or—”

            “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Usual place?” The sound of her tinkling laughter was music to my ears.

            “Sure. Yeah, that sounds fine.”

            My eyes were hungry for the sight of her, so I got to the little café we loved almost as soon as I hung up the phone. She was on time, for once, and I rose as soon as she walked in the door. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—she looked even prettier than I remembered. Her clothes seemed to hang on her a bit less, and even though she was still painfully thin she seemed…relaxed.

            “Sara,” I called to her, waving.

            She beamed at me as she walked over. “Ethan,” she greeted me, leaning in for a hug. I held her close to me, and her arms came around me. Her embrace felt tentative at first, but it gradually tightened in response to my own

“You look…amazing.” I whispered in her ear.

She was smiling when she pulled back, and scrutinized my face. “Thanks. I wish I could say the same, but you look like you could use some sleep,” she teased.

I knew that she was seeing the bags under my eyes. I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. “Can I order you some coffee? Or, um…a water?”

She smiled shyly. “Coffee is fine.”

I took her hand in mine and walked to the counter. I noticed that she was looking pretty hard at the display of snacks.

“Can I get a muffin, too?” she asked when I caught her eye. “I’m starving.”

I arched an eyebrow. Was she…what…what had happened? “Of course. Yeah, that’s…fine.”

            I was still staring at her in astonishment when she started biting her lip. I knew she only did that when she was worried, and it had the immediate effect of making me want to comfort her. When our order arrived on the counter in front of us, we found a table by the window and sat down to talk. At first, neither of us said anything beyond “how’s your coffee”? We both seemed to be waiting, apprehensive of each other.

            “So…” I said, at a loss for words and unable to take my eyes off her. She was twirling a shiny lock of brown hair around her finger, and I wanted to lean across the table and kiss her. I couldn’t believe she was actually here, sitting right in front of me when I thought I’d never see her again. “Thanks for meeting me,” I said at last.

            “Oh. Yeah, of course. Thank you for asking me.” There she was, biting her lip again. “I didn’t…I didn’t think you’d want to hear from me.”

            “Really?” My brow furrowed. “Why would you think that?”

            “Well…you know, my dad said you stopped by…and you left without seeing me, you didn’t call…so I just thought…”

            “Right. Well, ah,” I cleared my throat, not sure how to explain, or if I should. “I just wanted to stop by and…but he said you were busy, so…”

            She blushed a pretty shade of pink. “Right,” she echoed in a whisper.

            I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to reach across the table and take her hand. The touch of her soft, delicious skin sent a tingle throughout my body. “Hey, don’t. You don’t have to…you know. Be embarrassed.”

            If anything, her face turned a deeper shade of pink. “It is embarrassing, Ethan,” she whispered. “I’m ashamed of myself. And…I thought…I thought you didn’t want to see me anymore because…” She stopped and shook her head. She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

            “You thought?” I prompted, keeping my voice as gentle as possible.

            “I thought you were ashamed of me, too.”

            “God, no!” I exclaimed. “I mean, you know, I care a lot about you, Sara…”

            She looked up, her eyes shining. “Really?”

            “Of course! Sara, I love you.”

            She sucked her breath in a gasp, and stared at me with wide eyes.

            I could have kicked myself. This wasn’t how I’d wanted the first I love you to go. It should have been special, said over a meal of steak and lobster and wine, not coffee and half a muffin. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…”

            “You didn’t?”

            “I mean, I did, I do, but…I just wanted it to be…romantic.”

            Sara burst out laughing, and it was my turn to feel embarrassed.

            “Sorry,” I muttered.

            “No,” she said, giggling. “I just…I’m so happy.”

            I looked back up at her and saw that her eyes were dancing, her face was glowing with a wide, radiant smile. “Next time I’ll say it over a nice meal, and…” I trailed off, uncertain.

            Sara pulled her hand away and wouldn’t look at me. “It’s OK. I’m eating again.”

            “You are?” The relief in my voice was palpable.

            “Yes.”

            “How…?”

            “My dad and I had a…talk.”

            I nodded, waiting for more, but as usual she was keeping her cards close to the vest.

            “You wanna get out of here?” she suggested.

            “Sure. What did you have in mind?”

            “What about a walk? It’s really nice out.”

            I noticed that she’d only eaten half of her muffin, but her coffee was gone and it was more than I’d seen her eat in weeks. “Sure. Let’s go.”

            When we walked outside I was suddenly struck by how beautiful the day was. The air was warm and crisp, the sky a bright, clear blue. The sun was shining and the leaves even seemed to be greener than usual. It was a nice day, the perfect day for new beginnings.

            Sara tucked her arm inside mine and matched her pace to my long strides. “The thing is, Ethan… my dad was pretty upset about my…”

            “Diet?” I offered helpfully.

            “Yes.” She smiled at me gratefully. “My diet. He said that he thought it had gone on long enough. I guess he’d been trying to talk to me about it for a few weeks, but I wouldn’t listen. That doesn’t go over too well with Daddy.”

            I couldn’t help but notice how she winced, but I let it slide by without commenting. I didn’t want to say anything to distract her now that she was finally opening up—I needed to hear the whole story.

            “He sat me down the night after you stopped by…he had a steak and a loaded potato and a piece of chocolate cake. He said I wasn’t leaving the table until I ate everything.”

            “Did you?” I asked in surprise.

            Her expression was rueful. “Not exactly. I have a stubborn streak and sometimes…I can be a bit…willful, I guess. I refused to eat it.”

            I arched an eyebrow at her, and thought of the intense, powerful man I’d sat next to on the couch. I couldn’t imagine that he’d taken her disobedience very well.

            “I tried, at first, a few forkfuls. But Daddy insisted I eat everything and I just couldn’t. I begged, and cried, but he wouldn’t let me get up from the table. He was afraid I’d…get rid of it.”

            I nodded for her to continue. I didn’t need to hear her say it, I didn’t want her to feel any more embarrassed than she already did. I just felt grateful that she was talking to me again, and letting me in. “What happened?”

            She blushed again. “He, um…handled it.”

            I stopped walking and turned toward her. “Meaning?”

            Her blush was deepening, and she dropped her eyes. “He punished me.”

            My brow crinkled in confusion. “Punished you? For having an eating disorder?” What kind of man does that? I asked myself.

            Sara must have known what I was thinking, because she shook her head. “It’s not what you think…he wasn’t mean to me, or…anything like that. He just…” she lowered her voice and whispered something so low that I couldn’t understand her.

            “I’m sorry, what was that?”

            She glared at me and started tapping her foot, getting fidgety. “Ethan! I just told you!”

            “I couldn’t hear you, Sara.”

            She sighed and rolled her eyes, and it occurred to me that she looked a bit like a petulant child. I dismissed it instantly. “He spanked me,” she hissed. The words were barely out of her mouth when she began power walking ahead of me.

            For a moment, I stood rooted to the spot as the word reverberated in my head again and again. I felt a shock go through my body that was equal parts surprise and excitement. I snapped out of it when I realized that Sara was getting a good bit ahead of me. It took four long strides to catch up to her. When I was behind her, I grabbed her arm. She stiffened defensively under my touch.

            “I’m sorry,” I whispered, pressing my lips to the top of her head. The words seemed to have a soothing effect on her, and she relaxed.

            “It’s alright. I just… I didn’t want anyone to know.”

            “I can understand that. It’s um…does he do that often?” I increased my strides unconsciously and Sara was practically skipping to keep up.

            “Um…no, not really.” She was still whispering, and I had to strain to hear. “Just when…sometimes, when he thinks talking isn’t working.”

            I nodded, deep in thought. “If I had a daughter…I don’t think I’d spank her past ten.”

            “Shhh!” she commanded, looking around self-consciously.

            “Sorry,” I said, trying to sound contrite while hiding a tiny smile. It was cute how paranoid she was about it. “I just think you’re a little old for that.”

            “Well, you won’t get any argument from me!”

            “Did it hurt?” I asked cautiously.

            “Oh, yeah,” she groaned. “I probably won’t be sitting comfortably for a few days.”

            “But you’re eating better?”

            “Yeah, I’m trying to.”

            “What made you stop in the first place?”

            “I just…I’m heavy,” she said, and I could hear the tension in her voice.

            “You are not,” I protested vehemently. “You are beautiful, Sara, and the perfect fit for me.”

            “For you, maybe,” she said, unconvinced. “Most guys want thin girls, and—”

            “I’m not most guys,” I interrupted. “And you don’t have to worry about them, anyway. I’m not going anywhere.”

            She didn’t reply, but when I looked over at her I could see that she was glowing again with a happy smile on her lips.

            “And another thing. I will be talking to your father. I intend to tell him that I don’t like what he did to you.”

            “Oh, Ethan, please don’t—”

            “I don’t like it,” I repeated, my jaw clenching. “I don’t want any other man touching you, and definitely not like that. You should be treasured, and that’s not the right way to help you,” I insisted, ignoring the fact that just a few weeks earlier I’d sought advice because I didn’t know how to help Sara.

            “My white knight,” she teased, bumping my side playfully.

            I reached over and smacked the back of her jeans playfully, and when she gasped excitement coursed through me again. “Oh, sorry. I forgot.”

            “It’s OK. And Ethan?”

            “Yes, baby?”

            “I love you, too.”

            I’d fully intended to have a heart to heart with Mr. Cochran. I’d picked up the phone at least half a dozen times planning to call up Sara’s house and ask to speak to the man himself. I’d managed it twice, but the first time I got the answering machine, and the second time, when I heard Mr. Cochran’s booming, self-assured voice come over the line all the words caught in my throat.

            What I wanted to tell him was that Sara was much too old to be subjected to such infantile punishments. What I wanted to get across was that it was his duty, as her father, to help her, not to harm her. Somehow I never managed to work up the courage to say it out loud. It crossed my mind more than once that the best thing to do would be to have the conversation face to face, but that required significantly more courage.

Mr. Cochran, who had once been at least polite and friendly seemed to have chilled a bit toward me since our last talk. If I’d been awestruck when the man was friendly, I could barely find my voice with the cool reception I was getting from him at the moment. Mr. Cochran had always seemed to like me well enough, but now he barely seemed to tolerate me. Whether it was because I hadn’t known how to help his daughter or because he knew I don’t like him spanking Sara I wasn’t sure.

            When I did finally locate my courage, it materialized in the form of shoptalk. Mr. Cochran had mentioned that he’d taken his car into Autozone, seeking advice on how to fix the problem himself. I jumped in and asserted that he needed to take it into the shop for a professional opinion.

“I don’t have time for that,” he scoffed. “I have to get it up and running soon.”

“Just because the quick fix is the easiest doesn’t mean it will stop the problem from happening again,” I said. “You could risk doing more damage in the long run if you rush things. You may need the help of a professional in this case.”

Mr. Cochran narrowed his eyes. “It’s my car, and I think I know what’s best for it, Ethan. While I’m sorry if you don’t agree, you really don’t have a say in the matter.”

I ignored the barb. “It’s too old for you to be treating it like this. You need to be more careful, and realize that it’s not a little…I mean, new anymore.”

“Is that so? Well, maybe when you’ve been around the car for as long as I have, maybe you’ll become more aware of the problems I have, and you might see why I handle things the way I do.”

“I doubt it,” I replied stiffly. “Your methods aren’t…conventional, Mr. Cochran.”

“When convention fails you, you have to have something to fall back on.”

Sara and her mother were both staring at the scene in surprise. It was clear that things were getting heated. I’d been clenching and unclenching my fists throughout the conversation.

“If I had a car like yours, I’d take better care of it.”

Mr. Cochran offered a small smile. “I’m sure that you feel that way now, but I don’t think I’d ever let you take my car, Ethan. I’m not sure it’s the one for you.”

“I assure you that it is, Sir. And I will take very, very good care of her.”

Sara’s dad watched me speculatively for several long minutes. Sara wasn’t even trying to hide her interest--you could hear a pin drop from the silence. Finally, Mr. Cochran nodded and I felt like I could relax.

“We’ll see, son. You may be right. When the time is right, maybe I’ll let you give it a shot.”

“That’s all I can ask for, Mr. Cochran. I appreciate it.”

Sara crinkled her nose in distaste. “Ethan, my dad’s car is not my idea of a nice ride.”

Mrs. Cochran glanced at her daughter, and then back to her husband. “I don’t know much about mechanics, dear, but I believe the men have everything worked out now.”

We never mentioned the spanking again. Eventually, she was able to sit just fine, and since things went back to normal for the two of us, it faded to the back of my mind. Despite my protests, I couldn’t ignore the changes I saw in Sara since her dad had punished her. At least for a little while she was more careful choosing her words, and she certainly didn’t skip meals anymore. Her dad watched her carefully, and without her knowing it, I did, too. There were moments when Sara became belligerent or angered quickly, and I idly wondered if she needed a spanking. I never allowed it to be anything more than a thought, and anyway, her moods passed quickly. I was so deeply in love with her that I could forgive her anything.

Nobody’s perfect, I would excuse her. I always found some way to dismiss her behavior. Four months later, I got down on one knee and proposed. When we went to tell Sara’s parents, I casually mentioned that I was looking to buy a car.

“Really?” Mr. Cochran asked, raising an eyebrow. “Brand new? Any mileage?”

“A little, but nothing I can’t handle.”

“Now are you sure about that?” He asked mildly.

“I’m sure, Sir. I really love this model.”

“All you two ever talk about is cars!” Sara exclaimed in annoyance, anxious to share our big news.

“We don’t ever talk about cars,” Mr. Cochran replied, and when her mother was the first one to laugh I had to wonder if she’d understood all along.


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