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Chapter One

The first time Kylie met Robert Appleby, he was sitting on her favorite park bench, his black Humphrey Bogart hat resting low over his eyes, his long tweed overcoat turned up against the budding winter’s cold.  A bag of bread crumbs in his weathered hands and no less than ninety good years behind him, he looked like somebody’s grandfather.  Kind and wise and even relatively harmless.  Which was why, with only twenty minutes left on her lunch hour and against all her better 'big city' judgment, Kylie polished off the last of her tuna sandwich and walked over to sit down beside him.

"Hi," she said, laying her book down between them.

The old man didn’t reply straight away, although a gentle smile did tug the corners of his lips upwards.  Tossing the pigeons a handful of crumbs, he eventually leaned slightly sideways, his broad shoulder just brushing hers as he replied, "You shouldn’t ought to talk to strangers, you know."

It was such a lighthearted scolding that Kylie couldn’t help but smile herself.  "That only applies to children; I’m twenty-two.  Not to put too fine a point on it, I can probably outrun you, too."

"Oh ho!" he chuckled, and tossed the cooing birds another loose handful.  "That must make it all right then, I guess."

"We could introduce ourselves."  Kylie couldn’t put her finger on exactly why, but she liked this old man.  It was probably the fastest snap judgment she’d ever made toward another, but there was just something about him...something that was a little bit sad and a little bit lost, with maybe a smidgen of loneliness tossed into the mix.  All three of those were, unfortunately, things Kylie was well familiar with.  It gave her the courage to stick out her open hand.  "I'm Kylie Morgan."

Shifting the bag of bread crumbs to his other arm, he engulfed her much smaller hand in his warm and weathered one.  “Robert Appleby.”

His hold was gentle but firm, too, and surprisingly strong for a man of his years.  And if his grasp lingered just a second or two longer than any normal how-ya-doing handshake should have, well...Kylie didn’t notice.  She was much too distracted by that pins and needles tingling that was creeping up through her palm and fingers.  Every place his skin touched hers felt so shockingly, stunningly...alive!  Kylie breathed in deeply, for a moment unable to move as that electrified tingling moved up through her arm, bringing with it a gentle heat--like warm summer’s sunshine, slowly overwhelming the weather’s chill--and the fresh, rich scent of tree-ripened apples that touched her nose.

She swallowed, hard, practically able to taste those phantom apples, and the old man let go of her hand.  She stared at her hand in wonder, but the scent, the heat and the tingling was already beginning to fade.

Her >little bit lonely’ intuition must have been right on target too, because no sooner did their hands part than, like the opening of flood gates, he began to talk.

“Do you know who you remind me of?” He offered her a dip into his bag of bread crumbs.

Flexing her fingers once to make sure that odd sensation really was gone, Kylie hesitantly accepted a pinch, making very careful not to touch either him or even the bag if she could help it, and made herself comfortable while she fed the pigeons.  “No, who?”

“My wife, the most wonderful woman that ever lived.  Smart as a whip.  Very creative and good with her hands.  She had your hair color.”

Thank you, Clairol bottle number 103.  Kylie sprinkled a few more crumbs for the fluttering, greedy flock before them.

“Your eyes, too,” he added, not looking at her.  Cooing a very close approximation of a warbling pigeon’s call, the old man took the bag by its bottom and sprinkled all that was left on the ground.  “She was the only young lady I ever knew with a heart as big as the whole world.  She literally gave the clothes right off her back to help the less fortunate.  My mother’s best homespun shawl.  Boy, did I lose my temper.”  He looked at the birds, tsking and shaking his head.  “Once I learned the whole story, I was sure sorry for how I handled the matter.  I wonder if she knows that?”

The poignancy she could hear in his words held Kylie spellbound.  Wondering how long he’d been grieving for his paragon wife, and even knowing he was most likely speaking more to himself than her, she nevertheless replied,  “I’m sure she does.  She probably knew it back then, too.”

It was the right thing to say.  A huge smile split his face, and he reached over and briskly patted her knee.  “Smart as a whip, I told you.  Smart as a whip.”  Leaning back against the bench, he brushed off his hands before folding them in his lap.  Quietly, he stared across the park, his dark eyes growing distant as he said, “It was during the second world war.  That’s when I first laid eyes on her.  Ours was an orchard community, you know.  We grew everything in that little town and sold it all to the canning factory just down the road.  Wasn’t a rich living, but we were comfortable.  And nobody starved; that’s the important thing.  We took care of our own back then.

            “Then the war hit.”  In the pause that followed, although his smile remained fixed on his face, there was no amusement left in his eyes.  “Every man who could, my brothers and I included, left the orchards and ran to enlist.  They got killed, so the army sent me home.  I wanted to stay, of course, but the Sullivans and the Borgstroms kind of ruined that for the rest of us.  So, home I went.  Do you know, the Appleby orchards survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression?”

“You were alive back then?” Kylie blurted the words before she could stop herself, but his booming laugh and smart slap on her knee showed he was anything but offended.

“Oh yes.  I remember sitting in our pitch dark schoolroom, all the lights on, a bandana around my face and still unable to breathe for all the dust in the air.  And I remember mama sewing me clothes out of our kitchen curtains because I’d wore my brothers’ handmedowns until there wasn’t anything left of them.  But the victory gardens...oh now, those were, as they say, the final coffin nail for our town.  I came home to a town that was all but dead.  The canning factory closed; people moved away, hoping to find work in California.  There wasn’t another man, other than me, older than eighteen or younger than fifty in more than sixty miles, any direction.  And every time that blasted telegram boy came driving through town, everybody knew that meant one less man would be coming home after the war was done.  We were shriveling up in the sun, turning to dust right along with all our fruit trees.”  The old man blinked twice, then his eyes moved to fix on her face.  He smiled at her and leaned sideways, his shoulder brushing hers again as he said, winking--like the most playful of conspirators--and softly--like the most intimate of lovers.  “That’s when I met my wife.”

He winked again, his smile dancing up into his eyes, as if he could see the havoc his words, charming attitude and very nearness were beginning to wreak upon her insides.  Ninety if he was a day, and here she was, thinking of him in loverly terms.

Get a grip on yourself, Kylie!  She shifted, pretending to turn sideways on the bench so she could face him and at the same time putting a few precious inches of empty space between them.  There.  Now they were newly-met acquaintances again.  Nothing more, nothing less.  What had he been saying?  Oh yes!  His wife.

“Was...” she cleared her throat and tried again, this time without that breathless, slightly aroused hitch in her tone.  “Was it love at first sight?”

“Oh ho!” The old man chuckled again, his lips pursing as he emphatically shook his head.  “I turned her over my knee and paddled the blue blazes out of her.  Let me tell you, she didn’t like it, or me, one bit.”

“You didn’t either!”  Kylie barked out a startled laugh and quickly covered her mouth with one hand when people on a bench further down the park’s path actually looked up and over at her.  In much softer tones, she repeated, “You didn’t either!”

“Absolutely, I did.  She was trespassing, after all.  Stealing apples I could ill afford, and I was barely making ends meet as it was.”  There was that sparkle again, dancing in the depths of his dark and laughing eyes.  He watched her, seemingly waiting for her to be feministically outraged on his unmet wife’s behalf.

“How terrible!”  Unfortunately, her barely mustered defense was completely ruined by the slow blush that was creeping up to pinken her cheeks.  Her gaze dropped to study his hands, large and square, hardened by a lifetime of labor, strong and yet folded so harmlessly in his lap.  That warmth was back in the pit of her belly again, a molten ribbon of desire flowing down to mingle erotically with that answering, languid pulse slowly awakening between her tightly clenching thighs.  “ shouldn’t have done that.”

It was the best rebuke that she could think of and her nervously aroused half-laugh ruined it.

“She forgave me for it.”  His dark eyes twinkled, as if he could see how intently she was fighting the urge to squirm on this very public park bench.  “Eventually.  But, oh, did I keep her sitting gingerly all that first summer!  And don’t you worry.  Sometimes she liked it; the rest of the time...well, we’ll just say I gave her every bit of what she was needing, and leave it at that.”

It really was true: all the good men were either taken or dead...or in this case, about sixty years too old.  Kylie looked at his hands again and tried not to sound as wistful as she felt.  “I guess that served her right for stealing.”

Humming, the old man both nodded and shrugged.  “Those were hard times for everyone.  And I wasn’t as nice then as I’ve since come to be.  She did that, you know.”  He tossed her another cavalier wink.  “Softened me around the edges.  Good woman.  The best that ever lived.”

“I’m sorry she’s gone.”  Kylie barely refrained from wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

He swivelled slightly to look at her from out beneath the broad rim of his felt hat.  “Would you like to see a picture?”

Kylie perked.  “Yes, please.”  And when he reached into his coat pocket, she gave up those few buffering inches of self-respect in favor of scooting closer.  To see the pictures better, she told herself.  But instead of wallet photos, the old man withdrew a silver, heart-shaped locket. It looked at least as old as he was, with engravings that scrolled all across both the front and back, the quality of craftsmanship the likes of which were rarely practiced anymore.  “Wow, that’s pretty.”

“The clasp is fragile,” he cautioned.  “Forgive me.  While I would love to show this to you, it is very precious to me.  I couldn’t bear the thought it might accidentally be dropped.  Therefore, if you want to see it, you must let me put it around your neck first.  Now,” he held up his hand, halting her before she had a chance to answer either way.  “You absolutely cannot keep the thing, you understand.  I warn you, young lady, if you try to abscond with my locket, I will tackle you straight to the ground.  And having talked with me now for these past few minutes, you can’t say you don’t know how I would deal with said thievery or how that little scuffle would surely end.”

The image of this ninety-something-year-old man being able to catch her, much less tackle her to the ground, was absurd enough to make Kylie laugh out loud all over again.  She covered her mouth, but too late.  People were looking around at them again, but thank goodness no one was even remotely close enough to overhear them.  Kylie quickly chanced a quick glance behind her just to make sure, and then stare at him again.  She pressed her hands to her cheeks, hoping they weren’t as bright red as they suddenly felt.  By the look on his face, they must have been, but there was no way--absolutely no way at all--that he could possibly know the images his words were conjuring in her mind.  Or the way her bottom tingled as she envisioned being held down on the ground, her hands pinned behind her while the back of her winter jacket was tossed up out of the way long enough for the flat of his broad hand to descend half a dozen times or more all across her jean-clad rump.  The whole scenario was ridiculous.  Ludicrous.  Absurd!  If she weren’t such a firmly-closeted spankophile, this otherwise very innocent conversation would never have been twisted into flirtation in her mind. 

She took her hands from her face in the hopes that she wouldn’t seem so incredibly, guiltily embarrassed, and said, “I promise I won’t steal your locket.”

That promise was, apparently, good enough for him.  With slightly trembling hands, he unfastened the clasp while she gathered her shoulder-length blonde hair up and pulled her jacket’s collar out of the way, turning her back to him long enough to allow the locket to be slipped around her neck.  The intricately engraved silver charm settled warm against her skin as he secured it at her nape.

“There,” he said, lightly patting her shoulders with hands that made her tingle when he was finished.  “Open it up.  Tell me what you think of my wonderful wife.”

Setting herself to be properly nostalgic, Kylie cradled that beautiful silver heart between her hands while carefully unhooking the latch and prizing the two halves apart.  There were two pictures inside.  On the left, four children ranging in ages from two to ten, stood together on white-washed front porch steps, dressed in their Sunday best.  On the right, the woman who looked just like Kylie smiled comfortably out into space.

Kylie blinked in surprise and lifted the picture for a closer look.  The woman’s hair was brown.  As brown as...well, Kylie’s roots.  She looked a little older, too, perhaps by as much as ten years.  And yet her unmistakable resemblance to that black and white face was more than just uncanny.  Apart from a few laugh lines around the pictured woman’s eyes and a good ten years difference in their apparent ages--not to mention the massive gap in time between now and whenever this photo had been taken--they could very well have been twins.

“Wow,” Kylie said again.  “Deja vu.”

Studying that picture, Kylie didn’t realize the old man had reached for her until she felt the tingling shock of his bare hand against her equally bare cheek.  This touch was ten times stronger than what she had felt in her fingers and a hundred times more vivid that his pat upon her shoulders.  She gasped outright, feeling electrified when he lifted her chin and turned her face to his. 

“I almost sent you packing,” he said, staring intently into her wide and startled eyes.  “The only reason I didn’t was because you wept and said you had no place else to go.  Remember that, Kylie.”  His thumb caressed the curve of her cheek, as if once more wiping away those long-ago tears.  “You had no place else to go.”

            The old man kissed her then.  Every bit as warm and as passionate as the kisses she read about in the pages of every historical romance she’d ever read.  The kind of kiss that most women ached to experience just once in the whole of their lives, and only with the one they loved above all others.  Kylie had read about kisses like this, kisses that made every nerve and fiber inside her cry out, kisses that curled every single one of her toes and scattered her thoughts to the skies the way the pigeons suddenly scattered from around their feet, flapping noisily away.  Reading about them, and experiencing them firsthand were two devastatingly different things--and all from a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Her lips felt like they were sparking; the whole world spun.  Quite literally, in fact.  And that sudden, sharp shift in vertigo pulled queasily at her stomach until it felt as if she were standing in a rapidly falling elevator.

Robert’s hand against her cheek disappeared, as did the touch of his withered lips upon her own.  She couldn’t feel the locket in her hands anymore, either.  Nor the cold of the weather, or the park bench beneath her.  Kylie opened her eyes with a gasp, seeing nothing of the park at all, but blinded instead by streaks of the most brilliant light shooting past her at speeds that would make a military jet seem as if it were standing still.

Kylie sucked a fast breath to cry out, but it was like screaming into a vacuum.  There was no sound, there was no touch.  There was only the light, flashing past her faster and faster until,  just as suddenly as it had started, everything instantly went black.

* * * * *

Kylie woke up slowly.  Gone was the park and the winter-bound city where she worked.  Instead, she found herself lying on a bed of tall yellow grass, with the heat of summer sunshine burning into the legs of her jeans and the tickle of a bug’s legs crawling over the backs of her fingers.  She blinked once, then twice, trying to bring the red and gold apples in the branches above her into focus.  There was a persistent ringing in her ears, and it took nearly a full minute for her to realize the sound wasn’t ringing, but the persistent near-deafening shrill of unseen katydids in the brush.

Groaning, she pushed herself to sit up, her movement sparking a flood of grasshoppers to take flight in all directions.  Kylie barely noticed them.  She reached under her hip to dislodge a lump and pulled an apple out of the grass.  It was round and full, slightly bruised from either its fall or hers, the yellow and red of its skin only sporadically pock-marked by bugs or some past weather storm.  Above her, splashes of blue sky and white clouds could be glimpsed between the full, leafy boughs of a tree, heavily laden with more sun-ripened fruit.  She was in an orchard and the sweetness of the apples carried easily on the soft breeze that rustled her hair.

“Hello?” she croaked, but the only thing she heard in return was the shrill of the katydids and the whisper of the wind-swept grass.  Exactly how long she’d been lying here was impossible to tell, but as hot as her shoes and jeans felt, she imagined she could thank of the shade of the apple tree for the lack of sunburn on her hands and face.

The noon day sun positively sweltered the air, and Kylie shrugged out of her winter jacket.  Belatedly, she pulled her feet into the shade with the rest of her and looked around again, turning her face into the heat of the breeze as she stared left down one long, unkempt orchard row, and then right.  Straight ahead, the trees and grass were too thick to make out anything beyond another aisle or two, and the same was true directly behind the trunk she leaned against.  But her ears told her what her eyes could not confirm.  Beyond the crickets, the katydids and the whisper of gently waving grass, there were no sounds of habitation.  No planes or cars, no people talking or children playing.  There wasn’t even a barking dog out there in the unseen distance, and Kylie swallowed hard as a very real and icy fear inside her began to counter the heat of the sun.

A sudden heavy thump hit the ground not far behind her, sending her scrambling to her feet.  “He-hello?”

Ducking beneath a low branch, she waded through the knee-length grass until she reached the center of the next aisle over, then looked around again.  Still nothing; still no one.  Just more trees in need of picking and trimming and tall grass that hadn’t been cut down in years as far as her eyes could see in every direction she turned.

Hugging her arms despite the sun, Kylie backed into the nearest shade.  She jumped at the sudden flash of red that dropped just past her shoulder, thumping into the ground beside her.  Looking down, she bent to pick up another mottled red and greenish-gold apple.  It felt very solid, which was the first nail in her hope-filled coffin that all this might be just one really vivid hallucination.  Slowly, she brought the fruit to her nose, breathing in not only the warm, sweet scent, but the undeniable reality of what she was seeing.  As impossible as it was to believe, this was not a hallucination.  Maybe...maybe it was something more.  Kylie turned all the way around, her wide eyes searching the rows upon rows of trees.  Maybe she’d been clocked over the head and was now lingering in a hospital somewhere, deep in a coma.  Certainly that explanation was preferable to the alternative, a starkly irrational conclusion that, try though she might, refused to be dispelled in her mind: she had gone back in time.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Kylie nearly jumped out of her skin.  She spun around, taking a giant step backwards when she saw the tall, angry man half obscured by the trees two rows behind her.  As he started slowly forward, recognition dropped Kylie’s jaws and stole the sturdiness right out of her knees.  If she hadn’t grabbed onto the nearest tree trunk, she’d have dropped straight to the ground.

Robert Appleby--or at least a much younger and much angrier version of the man that she had sat next to on that old park bench--was standing not twenty feet away.  This Robert was lean and muscular, with a full head of thick black hair and dark snapping eyes that bored into her with a furious intensity that was at the very least breathtaking and at the most more than a little frightening.  This Robert was dirty, hot and sweaty.  This Robert looked haggard and tired, with a bucket full of apples dangling from each hard and sinewy arm.  His jeans were patched.  So was his dirty, white t-shirt, the short sleeves of which did not come down anywhere near far enough to cover the eagle tattoo that began somewhere near his right shoulder and ended midway down the bunched muscle of his biceps.

“You hear what I just said to you?”  He started menacingly forward and Kylie fell back a step, but they were both standing under the shade of the same tree by the time he stopped again.  “I’m talking to you!”

“I-I--“ Kylie stammered, but the only thoughts in her head were of the conversation she’d had on that distant park bench.

Was it love at first sight?

Oh ho!  I turned her over my knee and paddled the blue blazes out of her.  She was trespassing, after all.  Stealing apples...

Kylie looked down at the apple in her trembling hand, and his gaze followed suit.  A good twelve feet still separated them, and yet she could all but feel the jolt of anger that made his fingers clench on the handles of those wooden buckets.

His eyes stormed and before her very eyes, he swelled with the surge of barely contained anger.  Teeth gritted, he seethed, “Like this isn’t hard enough without you robbing me blind!”

Kylie’s trembling intensified as two-plus-two finally became a solid, unwavering four in her mind.  Somehow she had been transported sixty-some-odd years into the past.  Somehow, that woman pictured inside of Robert Appleby’s beautiful antique locket was her.  And that rocky first meeting that he had so flirtingly related as an old man was about to play itself out right here. In the flesh, so to speak.  Into her flesh.  Kylie swallowed hard, somehow it didn’t seem quite so erotic anymore.

That same shock of fear that probably made her look guilty as hell to him, sparked through her on electric waves that centered, of all places, in the flesh of her bottom.  Her skin there crawled with dread; tingled with an ominous anticipation so intense that she could swear she already felt that first stinging blow from his hard, square hand.

Paddled the blue blazes...

Blue blazes...

Panicking, Kylie dropped the apple and ran.

Two buckets hit the ground a half second later as he shot after her in hot pursuit.  “Get back here! Hey!  Hey, thief!  I’m not through with you!”

Ducking low hanging branches, she tore through that knee-high grass with absolutely no idea where she was going.  She didn’t even know where she was!  But in the end, it didn’t matter. She barely took more than a dozen steps, zigzagging from one orchard aisle into the sun of the next, when his strong right arm hooked around her waist.  She screamed as his chest crashed into her back and down to the ground they tumbled.  They rolled once in the tall grass, and regardless of all her kicking and screaming, Robert came up on top. 

“I wasn’t stealing!  I wasn’t stealing!”  She just couldn’t think of anything else to say, but this younger, angrier version of that smiling, laughing old man wasn’t in any mood to listen.  Fight though she did to avoid it, he still flipped her from her back to her stomach and pinned her into the grass.

            It was the same position she had so breathlessly envisioned back in the park; belly to the ground, helpless to stop what was about to happen.  She was breathless now, too, but not for the same reason.  Her sneakers dug into the ground, kicking up clods of grass, but his weight held her down.  He grabbed her right arm when she slapped back at him, and that too became pinned, tucked into his left-handed grasp at the small of her back.

Her mind screamed for him to stop, but the vocalization that spilled out of her mouth, high-pitched and panicked though it was, didn’t form any coherent words.  No one was around to hear them anyway.  And though she flailed and jerked her left arm all over the place, even going so far as to tuck her hand underneath her, he eventually caught that wrist, too.  Both hands were pinned together behind her back, just above the vulnerable swells of her denim-clad bottom.

Heaven help her, she was going to get spanked.  Heaven help her further, the very idea of it wasn’t as hideously appalling as it probably would have been to just about any other woman in existence.  She had dog-eared way too many spanking scenes in all the romance novels she’d read back home not to, despite all of his anger and all of her fear, be just the tiniest bit curious.  At least until the broad width of his work-calloused palm cracked hard into the denim seat of her jeans.  It brought home to her a startling realization: there was a world of difference between erotically-written spankings in romance books and the real thing, delivered in a moment of anger, for the sake of serious discipline.

Robert the younger did exactly as his older counterpart had chucklingly related.  He lit a fire under the pockets of her jeans the likes of which not even the sun could rival.  Hard and fast, his hand beat a furious tattoo all over her unprotected backside.  It wasn’t over quickly, either, no matter how she bucked and shrieked, flattening the grass all around her kicking, scrambling legs. Rather, it became rapidly and painfully--very, very painfully--clear that this was a punishment sparked not from the result of any wrong-doing, imagined or otherwise, on her part.  This was a man who had been taken to the absolute limits of what he could handle, making Kylie the vessel into which he vented his frustration.

And it hurt.  It hurt beyond anything she ever imagined a spanking to feel like.  But it was what he needed, and because Kylie had neither the strength nor the leverage to break away, she took every blistering swat he dealt her.

Beyond wailing, beyond screaming, beyond kicking and crying, he spanked her again and again, until the heat and the throbbing, blistering pain was all she could feel.  In the end, it stopped only because the strength of his arm was finally fell exhausted.  A man broken by unrelenting strain and grief and the times in which he lived, Robert finally let go of her hands and pushed back onto his feet.  He walked a few feet away, leaving Kylie lying in the grass, clutching her wounded bottom and soaking the broken grass with her tears.

His breathing was almost as labored as hers as he ran his hands through his hair and held them there, clutching his head as if in disbelief of what he’d done.  No apology was forthcoming, however.  He didn’t even look at her.

It was a long time before either one of them spoke, although it was Kylie who, crawling back onto her knees, finally managed the first garbled words.  “That wasn’t over your knee!  You lied!”

His eyes were still angry when he swung back to glare at her, his brow quirking into a still furious semblance of confusion.  “What?”

She only cried, shaking her head wordlessly, and he quickly gave up trying to figure it out.  Instead, he marched back to grab her arm and hauled her roughly to her feet.

“The gate,” he growled, pushing her stiffly in the right direction, Ais that way.  I ever see you on my property again, and I’ll have you arrested for trespassing.”

Turning on his heel, he stalked back to his fallen buckets.  Righting them impatiently, he scooped up scattered apples, throwing them back on top of one another, too mad to care if he bruised them or not.  Until in a sudden explosion of limbs, he jumped back up and kicked one of the buckets violently across the row.  The tall grass kept the bucket from flying far, but the apples went everywhere.

Hands on his hips, chest heaving, Robert stared at the ground.  Not moving, other than the labor of each hard breath, he turned to fix her with another hard stare.  “Why are you still here?”  He retrieved the abused bucket, leaving the battered apples on the ground as he waved an arm at her.  “Get out of here.  Go!”

Holding her bottom in both hands, Kylie followed the direction he indicated, but there was no sign of a fence, much less a gate.  There was nothing but trees and grass, bugs and the relentless summer sun.  Sniffling, she scrubbed the sleeve of her long shirt across each tear-stained cheek in turn and didn’t move.

Returning to pick up his other fallen bucket, Robert paused to glare at her and then erupted with another bellow, “I said, go!”

Go?  Go where?!  Even if there was a town somewhere beyond all these trees, what then? What family or friends did she have to fall back on?  Where could she go?  What could she do with just her good looks and a wallet in her coat pocket, laden with two credit cards, twenty-five bucks of worthless money and a futuristically dated ID card? Rubbing her bottom with both hands, Kylie turned in a full circle, stopping only when she found herself staring at Robert again.  According to that locket, they were going to marry and have a family together.  According to that grandfatherly Robert, sitting on her favorite park bench back home, they were going to fall in love.

Softened me around the edges.  Smart as a whip.  My wonderful wife.

The prospect was enough to reduce her to tears all over again.  But she could see no other choice ahead of her.  Her wounded bottom pulsing and burning beneath the ministrations of her gentle hands, and with a fresh new flood of tears pouring down her cheeks, she cried, “I have no place else to go!”

Leaving both buckets in the grass, Robert stood up.  His hands braced against his hips as he stared at her.  Despite all of Robert the older’s assertions to the contrary, this one wasn’t softening.  Not around the edges, or otherwise.  Not until he finally blew out an exasperated sigh, briefly turning his back to her as he muffled a curse.  For the span of several breaths, he argued with himself, shaking his head twice, before grudgingly turning back to face her again.  He still looked mad as hell, but now she thought she also glimpsed a glitter of resignation in his eyes.  Without a word, albeit with another shake of his head, he picked up his buckets and walked away.

For one horrible moment, Kylie thought he was going to leave her there, despite what the old man had told her.  But this Robert only walked as far as the next row of trees over before he, half obscured by thick, apple-laden branches, paused to glare back at her over one broad shoulder.

“Well,” he demanded impatiently.  “Are you coming or not?"



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