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Chapter One


He crawled into bed behind her, her favorite, soft, lily of the valley scent wafting to him along with the warm essence that was hers alone, drawing her back against him as he had a habit of doing with a strong but infinitely gentle arm around her waist.  Never hurtful, but brooking no resistance, either.

His hot breath stirred the baby hair at the back of her neck as he breathed – not in warning, but in promise, “We’re going to have to have a talk about this you know.”

He was fully prepared for the squirming he knew that that statement would elicit from her, his hold loose but firm, one hand cupping a full breast in soft possession, fingers just hinting at how they’d like to claim that already peaked nipple but not quite doing the deed just yet, the well calloused fingers of his other hand curving around what he considered to be a too thin hip.  He feared a stiff Wyoming winter wind would blow her over, and he couldn’t have that.

But he was ever grateful for whatever change had been wrought within her that had driven away the shadows that used to appear in her eyes whenever their eyes collided, forcing hers to skitter away from his nervously, as if merely looking at him caused her pain.

As always, the hands that held her couldn’t be happy with merely that, wandering here and there, brushing the hair back from her face, rubbing her arms in case she was cold, hugging her tightly, almost compulsively, as if he still couldn’t quite believe she was here, with him, in his bed.

And she was his.

Ava snuggled under the thick goose down coverlet, the cream colored hand crocheted lace trim tickling her nose and making her sneeze.

Her husband was instantly on alert.  “Are you all right?  Do you feel sick again?”  That huge palm reached up to feel her forehead, covering most of her face in the process.

Although it was a bit like a flea trying to fight off a grizzly bear, Ava none the less tried to bat his hand away.  “Stop it!  I’m fine.”

But Stone wasn’t having any of that, as if she didn’t know he wasn’t going to put up with her protestations, especially after she’d been so sick recently.  She found her hands trapped more quickly than she wanted to admit, and no amount of struggling – she knew from experience – was going to get him to let her go until he was damned good and ready.

Sighing – and hoping he hadn’t heard the slight wheeze that accompanied it, left over from the pneumonia that had laid her low for so long – she relaxed back against him, having neither the strength nor the will to fight him, knowing she was always going to lose in the end.

“That’s better, my love,” he chuckled.  “You’re wheezing.  Are you all right?”

She should have known better than to think that his eagle ears – at least as far as she was concerned – would miss anything having to do with her health.  “I’m fine.  Just some left over stuff in my lungs.  It’ll go away soon enough.”

“Not if you overdo it like you did today, my love.  I didn’t like hearing from Eli that you were bounding up and down the stairs all day, and I know for a fact that you didn’t take a nap, as I asked you to do this morning.”

Stone asking her to do something was the same exact thing as him telling her to do something.  Asking just sounded nicer to his own ears, apparently, she frowned.

And she often forgot that his spies surrounded her here – well meaning spies, but spies none the less.  Louisa was probably the culprit.  She’d been the family’s housekeeper since Stone was a baby, having traveled out to the wilds of Wyoming with them from Boston without a second’s hesitation, and her loyalty to the family – and Stone as the current head of that family – was unquestionable.

Trying desperately to ignore the disapproving tone in his voice, and what she knew that meant for her, Ava stretched, arching her toes into what should have been the ice cold territory of her own side of the bed, but then she already knew that he was continuing the tradition he’d established early on in their new marriage of playing lady’s maid for her, tearing himself away from where he’d cloistered himself away from everyone in his study and bounding up the stairs to load hot coals from the fireplace into the bed warmer, running it under the covers on her side to make sure that she was comfortable when she joined him there, even using it on his own side a bit, despite the fact that he generated more than enough of his own heat.

She’d seen him come down the stairs from having done just that this evening, knowing exactly what his next move was going to be, and not in the least disappointed when he crossed the parlor to stand before her, his hand outstretched towards her as he looked imperiously down at her.  And Ava knew that he’d seen her bite back the urge to snort at him because that full brow had risen into the tangle of jet black hair that fell in an unusually messy style over his forehead – a sure sign he’d been wrestling with the books this evening. . . and that the books had been winning.

In truth, she’d seen that he’d was having a hard time marshalling his own face into its usual fierce scowl as she screwed her own into various contortions designed to make him crack a smile, or better yet give in to a belly laugh, which she would have considered to be more of a feather in her cap than any of the inane goals her mother had set her towards as a young girl learning how to entice a man.

But Stone Carmichael wasn’t just any man to her.  He never had been, and he never would be.  Getting him to laugh was worthy of ignoring any cautions about how her face might one day stay that way, worth bearing pretty much any humiliation.

The problem was that he’d had much more practice at dampening his sense of humor than she had had at coaxing it to the forefront.  It was going to take some time, but she knew she was up to the task.

When she’d resorted to sticking her thumbs in her ears, flailing her outspread fingers, crossing her eyes, curling her lips and sticking out her tongue, he put an end to her wacky attempts by saying, in a deceptively mild tone and with a half smile on his lips, “Mrs. Carmichael.”  His hand hadn’t moved one iota; his palm and fingers making two of hers at least.

“What are you doing over there?” Rachel, who had come home to help nurse her sister in law, asked, her curiosity getting the better of her as she saw parts of her friend’s silly faces around her brother’s not inconsiderable bulk, and leaned so far out of her seat that she was in grave danger of falling out of it altogether and landing her head.

At least until her other brother leaned over and hefted her up again, none too gently, as an older brother would.  “She’s attempting the impossible.  She’s trying to get a stone to crack a smile,” Eli teased, inordinately pleased at himself and his own wordplay, as usual.

Ava, meanwhile, had seen that her new husband was at the end of what there was of his patience and had absolutely no interest in pushing him past it.  So she placed her small hand in his, allowing him to assist her up, and didn’t utter a word of protest even when he swept her into his arms, going so far as to rest her head against his shoulder, sighing just slightly, one hand curling into the hair at the nape of his neck and the other clutching just barely at the crisp collar of his shirt.

Stone found he could not suppress the low growl that rumbled through his chest at her innocent movement, hoping that the two of them were the only ones that had heard it but not really giving a damn if they weren’t.  Without another word to either of his siblings, damn the proprieties, he turned and whisked her away up the stairs, taking them two at a time even as his rascal brother moved to the arched doorway and leaned casually against its columned frame, fixing them with his usually mocking gaze.

“I would swear I saw her going up and down that staircase on her own two little feet today, several times, even, without so much as a huff or a puff . . .” he needled, grinning broadly. 

“Get your own woman, Eli.”  Now that growl Stone intended every male within a hundred mile radius to hear, including his irascible younger brother.

Somehow Eli managed not to look very intimidated.  “Just how long are you going to keep carrying her around like that, big brother?”

Stone threw a very deliberate look over his shoulder, “Till my last breath, little brother,” he answered, topping the look off with an enormously broad grin just to prove the annoying git wrong as he ducked down the hallway with his treasure secure in his arms.

“Thank you for warming the bed,” Ava said primly.  “I appreciate it.”

She was rewarded by a long, sultry kiss.  “You’re very welcome, Mrs. Carmichael.”  Those long, rough fingers lay along the delicate side of her jaw as he gazed down into her eyes in the lamplight.  “But don’t think that you’re going to be able to distract me, woman.  You were supposed to be resting today, weren’t you?”

Ava hated rhetorical questions like that.  Exactly how was she supposed to answer that?  She had been resting for the past month, for pity’s sake.  She was bored to tears.  She wanted to do something.  But Stone was treating her as if merely walking across the room was going to put her at death’s door.

It was wonderful to be coddled and cosseted and well cared for, especially by a man like Stone who was as attentive out of the bedroom as he was in.  But she really had recovered quite fully, only no one could seem to convince him of that fact, least of all her.

She opened her mouth to make the same arguments as usual, only to find it covered again by his; the kiss much more demanding than it had been since she’d taken ill.  Ava responded to him with all of the pent up, untaught eagerness she could muster, her lithe body stirring restlessly beneath his until he wrenched himself away with obvious reluctance, making her groan out loud in frustration and him chuckle softly at that overt demonstration of her need for him – as if the way she melted against him every time he took her into his arms wasn’t enough.

Ava tried to kiss him, but he easily dodged her amateurish attempts, grinning down at her like the beast he was all the while.  “Dammit, kiss me already!” she hissed up at him.

Now that got a laugh out of him, splashing waves of mortification over her.  Stone watched her expression draw tightly closed and knew he’d chosen the worst moment to let his sense of humor get the better of him, but she had just looked too cute for words trying to demand that he kiss her.  All that was missing was the stomping of her small, slipper clad foot and the tantrum would have been complete.

Thinking of her throwing a tantrum brought him back to the matter at hand.  If she was well enough to want to make love with him, and, as Eli had mentioned, to go up and down the stairs without succumbing to a coughing fit halfway through – or, when she was first recovering, after only a step or two – then she was well enough to face the consequences of her disobedience.

Healthier or not, she had known from this morning that he had expected her to rest today and not exert herself, and that included staying downstairs until he came home as well as taking a nap this afternoon in the back parlor on the comfortable overstuffed sofa, neither of which had she done.

So, when he reached for her this time, bringing her to him as if he was going to give her exactly what she had demanded from him, his stubborn little wife instead found herself very carefully laid across his lap.

It was a position with which she was not entirely unfamiliar, and her protestations began immediately upon realizing that she was not going to enjoy one of his luscious, soul bending kisses, but rather a kiss of an entirely different sort, on the entirely opposite part of her person.

“Stone, no!  You can’t spank me!” she whined, hating the way her voice sounded even to herself.

Her husband, who had been adjusting the covers around her, making sure she was as comfortable as she could be – prior to the spanking, anyway – immediately stopped what he was doing.  “Why not?  Are you feeling ill?”

He had been too devastated by her illness to fake feeling sick now, dammit.  Ava couldn’t bring herself to fib to him and answer yes to that question.  Could she?  “No,” she answered truthfully, really not wanting to worry him at all, her heart still aching for him as she remembered the tender way he had nursed her through her illness, staying up nights with her, sitting up in their bed and letting her fall asleep against him when that was the only position in which she could draw a full breath. 

But then she remembered how much his spankings hurt and certain portions of her anatomy begged her to reconsider clinging quite so tightly to her morals - quickly.  “But . . . uh . . . well . . .”

Stone knew exactly the dilemma his wife was trying to work her way through, and decided to help her with her decision.  “If you’re really not feeling well, then it’s bed rest for you for the rest of the week.  Definitely no visit from Mrs. Corey tomorrow.  You’re much too sick.  Must be having a relapse.  No getting out a bit to tend to your gardens, no short ride with me down by the river, no spending time in the stables with me or church picnic on Sunday . . .”

He’d promised her that she’d be able to do all of those things with him as she got better, as long as they didn’t tucker her out, of course.

He’d boxed her in quite neatly, the rat!  If she agreed that she was too sick to have the spanking, then she’d be stuck in bed for at least another week, and driven out of her mind with boredom, despite Rachel’s patient company.  If she said she was healthy enough, then she was already in place and she knew that, despite the thick comforter over his legs and how careful he would be to make sure that no other part of her was touched while he punished her, and that he’d keep a weather eye on her breathing, her bottom was going to be blistered, and blistered good for disobeying him.

Stone Carmichael was a quiet man.  He did not speak just to hear himself talk.  When he gave an order – whether it was an out and out command, as he gave the hands or his foreman - or phrased as a polite request to his pert little wife, he expected that, when he got around to checking – and anyone who knew him knew that he would check – that it would have been completed, and to his considerable standards, too.

She was wearing one of those beautiful, lacy nightgowns again, that covered her practically from her jaw line to the tips of her jellybean toes.  Later, when she’d had a chance to become more comfortable with him – a process that had been rudely interrupted by her illness, which was another situation that needed to be dealt with – he would probably outlaw such things in their marriage bed.  But for now, he wanted her kept warm, and he’d put up with the slight inconvenience as his thick wrist caused its delicate hem to pool around it on its way to that beautiful, generous bottom of hers.

It had been a while, and he realized quickly that he was going to have to clamp down very firmly on his own desires before they got the better of him.  He’d never had to wrestle with himself like this, but his desire for her had always been hard to control, and the unexpected enforced abstinence had only made it that much more so.  But there was no question of touching her sensually while she was fighting to keep from bringing her lungs up with coughing so violent that the doc had said she’d actually separated some cartilage from her ribs, making each spasm even that much more of a painful pursuit.  He had been her nurse and her comfort, he hoped, but his role as lover had definitely taken a back seat.

Until now.

If she was well enough to be thoroughly punished, then she was well enough to be loved.

Albeit on a sore bottom, but then, it wouldn’t be the first time, and, if he knew Ava, and he did, he knew it wouldn’t be the last.

“Stone, no!  I’m sorry!  I’ll go to sleep right now!  I’ll take a nap tomorrow!  I’ll stay in bed all day tomorrow!  I don’t want to be spanked!”

She knew better than to whine, and her heartfelt begging wasn’t going to earn her one bit of leniency, she must have known, but he certainly did love hearing it, especially as his big palm claimed the entirety of her wonderfully blessed backside.  It went right to where he didn’t necessarily want it to go at this stage of the game, since he needed to discipline her before he could indulge either of them, but he clenched his teeth and stroked the perfection that was presented to him, almost unable to believe that she had been entrusted to him, to love and care for, to cherish and guide – including such intimacies as what they were involved in now, as well as what he intended for later. 

In truth, he wasn’t sure which was really more intimate.

But Stone thought it was cruel to give her the idea – even for just a moment – that she was going to be able to do or say anything – that was going to get her out of this punishment.  It didn’t work like that.  He didn’t work like that, so, although he knew he was dashing her hopes, he let her know immediately that neither of her suggestions was going to be accepted by giving her the first of many flat palmed swats, hearing its sharp crack resound around the room as she sucked in her breath in surprise.

“No.”

“But -”

Another hard, uncompromising smack.  “No.”

“Ow!  Stone!” 

She was butterfly kicking her feet, his little butterfly wife, for all the good it did her, drumming them against their bed.

Stone had the urge to rub her butt, but suppressed it.  “It’s very early for that, Ava Gabrielle.  You’ve got a long way to go.”

And with that threat, he began to spank in earnest, no more pauses, no more discussion, quickly changing the color of that beautifully rounded peaches and cream skin to a thoroughly uncomfortable looking shade of nearly cardinal red before he even began to slow down, still peppering her backside with well placed swats as he lectured sternly, “You know better than to ignore what I tell you to do, Ava.  Especially when it concerns your health, which has been anything but robust lately.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry!  Please!  I won’t do it again, I promise!”  She was thoroughly humiliated and disappointed in herself, realizing just how desperate she sounded, but she was well past desperate, and he was only using his hand, damn the man!  And oh, how she hated it when he used that tone of voice, sounding like a disappointed father chastising his little girl instead of a husband speaking to his wife.

But she couldn’t help begging any more than she could help the tears that had dampened the antique coverlet beneath her face, or the groan that left her lips with each and every searing contact of his hard, flat palm with her tenderized bottom.

And then, finally, he stopped, but what he asked then, in that deep, bass tone, nearly had her howling worse than the spanking itself.

“Do I need to have you get your paddle?”

“NO!” Ava fairly yelped, all attempts at dignity long since abandoned in favor of concern for the condition of her backside.  “No, Stone, please.  I’ll be good.  I will.  I’ll do everything you ask me to.”

He wasn’t saying anything, as if he was hesitating, and that just would not do.  “I won’t even argue with you about it.  I’ll be just as meek and mild . . .” she offered desperately, sniffling at little, hoping against hope that she could actually live up to her promises, as much as they went against her grain.

But her hasty assurances had an unexpected effect, making him laugh heartily.  “Oh, I don’t think you have to go quite that far, honey.  I wouldn’t want you to do anything that might kill you, after all . . .” he teased, tugging her up into his arms, arranging her so that she was perched atop him, her legs caught between his, his blatant desire pressed insistently into her tummy as his hands claimed the bottom they had so recently chastised.   His hold on those radiating mounds allowed him to adjust her carefully, gently, until he could press himself slowly and insistently inside her, keeping their eyes locked as he claimed her, watching hers grow impossibly wide, drinking in each caught breath, each slight whimper, each sigh until he could bear it no longer and flipped her beneath him, making sure to take her with him to the heights of ecstasy.

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