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Chapter One

Friday Afternoon

"So, it's down to the wire."  Melissa Mitchell looked up to see her co-worker's eager face poking around the corner of her cubicle.  "C'mon, Melissa, what do you say?"

Melissa sighed.  Weeks ago, Terri Coleman had invited Melissa to spend Christmas with her family at her parents' home outside of Asheville, North Carolina, and Melissa had not yet given Terri an answer.  Since this was the last day before the Christmas break began, and Christmas was in five days, Melissa knew she owed Terri a response.  The fact was Melissa was tempted.  More than tempted. 

St. Therese Elementary School, where Melissa worked as a secretary, was closed for two full weeks at the holiday, and if Melissa didn't go with Terri, her choices were limited.  She could be by herself in an apartment in a city where the few friends she'd made – like Terri – would be either out of town or with their families.  Or she could go to a hotel somewhere and … what?  If she went some place warm, she guessed, she could work on her suntan, but that didn't seem much like the holidays.  And, when it came right down to it, she'd still be alone.  At Christmas.   That would give her way way too much time to be pissed off about why she was not with her own family at Christmas this year.  Hell yes, she was tempted.

Melissa looked at Terri.  "Are you sure?  I mean, Christmas is the number one family time of the year.  Is your family really going to want a complete stranger around?" 

"How many times do I have to tell you?   Of course you're welcome.  And honestly, I want you to come.  I need you to come.  You can run interference for me." 

Melissa turned around fully around, her chair squeaking in protest.  "Interference?  You haven't mentioned that before."

Terri yanked a chair away from the desk next to Melissa's, which was currently unoccupied, and pushed it up to Melissa's desk, and sat down.  "I'm joking."  She paused.  "Well, mostly." She cleared her throat.  "Well, kinda."  Another pause for reflection.  "OK, OK, so I'm not joking."  At Melissa's exasperated expression, she went on, not quite meeting Melissa’s eye.  "Look, I'm the little sister.  With three big brothers.  Who have too much time on their hands at Christmas to try to micromanage little sis's life.  With you there, it'll be a lot easier to get away from it.  We can go shopping, take a walk.  Go to a movie or two."  

Melissa’s eyes narrowed.   Terri had talked about her big brothers before, and Melissa knew she was crazy about them.  Still, Melissa had the distinct impression that there was more to the story but when Terri did not elaborate, Melissa let it drop.  "The truth comes out," she teased her friend. "Ulterior motives."

Terri shrugged, unapologetic.  "So will you do it? 

Melissa hesitated one more moment, then nodded her head.  Really, what were her choices?  If she didn't say yes to this, her Christmas would be awful.  And she really liked Terri;  her family was probably just fine.  "OK." 

"Yay!"  Terri's smile was infectious.  "We're going to have so much fun.  My mom's cooking is the best, though you'll gain fifty pounds, I swear it.  And my brother Don and his wife Joannie have three of the cutest kids, it's so much fun to watch them open their presents.  And my brother Carl and his wife?  Well, they don't have any kids, but Carl's wife Marie is tons of fun.  I cannot wait!"

"What about your third brother?"  Melissa noticed that Terri had not mentioned him in her description of all the holiday joy.  "Or is he not going to be there?"

"Oh, Joe?   Yeah he's going to be there. He’s actually the middle brother. Carl is the youngest." 

“Is he married?” Melissa asked. 

“No,” Terri laughed, though Melissa thought she sensed a bit of sourness in her demeanor.  "I don't think any woman would put up with him." 

"Why, what's wrong with him?"

Terri screwed up her face.  "Well, there's nothing wrong with him exactly.  He's just a stick in the mud.  Old-fashioned.  He's a cop, a detective, actually, in Richmond Virginia.  I guess that's a tough town, and I know he's seen a lot, but man, if he can't find something real to worry about, he just makes something else right up.  He's like an old granny.”  She made a mimicking voice.  “'Do you lock your doors?' 'Do you have a security system?' 'Do you wear your seatbelt?' 'Are your friends responsible?' Non stop."   She looked at Melissa.   "But don't worry. He won't bother you.  Much.  Just make sure you wear your seatbelt," she laughed.

"I'll do that."

Out in the hall, a bell jangled loudly.   Terri rolled her eyes.  "Back to the salt mines.  Last afternoon before break.   Yup.   Christmas party for twenty-two third graders.  Ho ho ho." 

Melissa watched her friend's back as she left the school's central office, then turned back to finish the report she was typing for Sister Mary Joan,  the principal and St. Therese's last remaining nun.    She’d gone into the convent in 1962 before “all the changes,” (which was all she’d ever say about Vatican II) and she didn’t care who knew it.  Sister Mary Joan was, to put it mildly, an old-school nun, and no one slacked around her, even on the last day before Christmas break. 

But as much as Melissa tried to work efficiently, she couldn't keep her mind off of what she had committed to do.  She knew she was waffling again, but she couldn’t help it.  She liked Terri fine, but they'd only known each other for four months, just since the beginning of the school year.   And it wasn't like she would be having Christmas dinner with some new folks where you could bail after the peach pie if things were awful.  It was a nearly five hour drive from Charleston SC to where Terri's parents lived near Asheville NC, and Terri said she'd planned on staying at least a week.   Since they’d drive together, probably in Terri’s car, Melissa knew she’d be stuck if things weren’t great.

Terri was great to be with, and Melissa winced as she thought about a couple of Saturday nights when the two of them had gone out and had perhaps too much fun. However, just because Terri was enjoyable to spend time with, did not mean that her friend's family would also be fine. How could she really know that? What if her the Coleman family's idea of a great night of entertainment was to sit around and sing show tunes together?  Yuck.

The office door opened behind her, and Melissa, sure it was Sister Mary Joan, increased her typing speed. 

"Miss Mitchell!  What are you doing in here?"  Melissa turned… and just about dropped her teeth.  It wasn't Sister at all, but Father Pat, in a Santa suit.  Since Father Pat weighed about 92 pounds soaking wet, the effect was a bit off, but it was Santa nevertheless.  "Come with me to the classroom parties, Melissa.  Mrs. Wilcox, Harry's mom?   Fourth grader?   She just brought in an entire tray of her famous almond cookies."

"But Sister Mary Joan…

"… is already going from classroom to classroom.  You're off the hook."

Melissa thought for a moment.  "Is she dressed like an elf?

"Uh, no."  Father Pat chuckled.  "That would be something to see.  Maybe next year." He winked at Melissa.  "We can always hope, right?  Anyway, come on.  Work's over.  You want to be my elf?"  At her inquiring look, he explained.  "I hand out presents in each classroom.  I could use an elf."  

Melissa gamely shut down her computer and followed the old priest.  Sister Mary Joan's report would just have to wait until after Christmas break.   And as she went from classroom to classroom, helping Father Pat give a small wrapped packet of candy and fruit to each child, the misgivings about the trip she'd committed to take with Terri  slipped out of her mind. 


Friday Night


Melissa sat on her apartment's small balcony, wrapped in a fuzzy shawl, gazing at the lights of Charleston spread before her.    She needed to pack, but since Terri didn't want to leave until midday tomorrow, there would be plenty of time to do it in the morning.  

She guessed she'd done the right thing agreeing to go to the Coleman family's Christmas.  Ironically, though, at the last minute, she'd gotten another invitation.  Sister Mary Joan had family in Charleston, it turned out, and she'd invited Melissa to join them for Christmas dinner as well.  Father Pat had seconded the invitation, claiming that nothing beat the spread that Sister's niece would put on the table.   Melissa had gracefully declined, telling Sister Mary Joan about her plans to join Terri's family. 

The elderly nun had patted Melissa's hand.  "That's good.  I'm glad you're getting away."  Then, unexpectedly, she'd given Melissa a small hug.  "You've done a good job here with us Melissa.  We're glad to have you.  I know this has been hard for you."

Melissa's eyes had filled with tears at the unexpected compliment from a woman who reminded one of a drill sergeant more than anything else.  "Thank you, Sister," she'd said. 

Melissa took a sip of her wine, thinking about Sister's comment that it had been hard for her.  She wondered just how much Sister Mary Joan knew.   Melissa was in the Witness Protection Program, and while no one… no one… was supposed to know that, it seemed like Sister Mary Joan knew, or at least suspected, something.   She must have been told something by the agent who helped place Melissa in this job; otherwise, Melissa guessed, she would never have been allowed to work around children without a background check. Plus, part of Melissa's cover story was that Sister Mary Joan was Melissa's aunt; she surely would have had to have been told that.

Unlike many – perhaps even the majority – of people in the Witness Protection Program (or WITSEC as it was officially known), Melissa was not a criminal.  Most protected witnesses were giving testimony in exchange for not being prosecuted themselves, but Melissa was in the minority.  About six months previously, completely by chance, she'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time – a really wrong place at a very bad time – and she'd witnessed a murder.  She still didn't know all the details about who was murdered or why.  All she knew was that, three days later, there was an attempt on her life, which only through sheer coincidence and a massive piece of random luck, failed.   Horrifically, the friend who had borrowed her car had not been so lucky.

A tip had come in from a low-level informant in the Gambino crime family.  There was currently a very violent turf war going on between the old-guard Italian mafia families and the new, ultra-violent Albanian families. The chatter was that the top person in the Duraj group had been personally present at a high level hit, the murder of a top family member who had sold out and had been informing for the Gambinos… and the hit had been witnessed.  The FBI, who'd been trying to infiltrate the Duraj family for years - unsuccessfully - put two and two together.  Melissa was picked up from her job with no warning whatsoever.

Under heavy guard, Melissa had been taken in the middle of the night to her apartment, where no fewer than four U.S. Marshals helped her pack her things, getting her in and out in under an hour.   She was taken to a safe house, somewhere in the Smokey Mountains. For four weeks she poured over photos and video, trying desperately to identify the man she saw.   She never could.  

She worked with several criminal artists, and although she could see the man as clear as day in her own head, she proved a disastrous failure at communicating this to the artist.  The astonishingly life-like sketches that one saw in the movies and on TV did not happen in real life, or at least, in Melissa’s real life.

Finally, her handlers conceded defeat, albeit a temporary one.   She had looked at thousands of photos, of criminals and businessman, of senators and diplomats, and had come up blank.   They couldn’t keep her isolated in a cabin forever and they couldn’t let her go back to her old life.   So one sunny morning in August, she was handed a list of cities.   She’d never been to any of them for more than a few days’ visit in her life.  She knew no one in any of them.  Pick one, the agent in charge had said. 

“Can I visit first?” she’d asked. 

“No,” the agent had answered, seeming surprised at the question.   But, he’d allowed, she could look at pictures on the Internet for a few minutes if she wanted.

Numb, Melissa did, and made a decision.  Charleston, South Carolina.   She’d driven through a couple times as a child and remembered it being nice, and considering the other two options were Binghamton, New York and Kenosha Wisconsin, well, in the end it hadn’t really been a “choice” at all.  At least South Carolina was warm and it had an ocean.

As she was being driven to her new home, he explained how it would be.   She’d have a job, a new modest car, a furnished apartment and a new identity.  She wouldn’t have to change her first name; in the past they had found people had too many problems with that.  So she would still be Melissa, but beyond that nothing would be the same.  She’d have income from a job and a stipend from WITSEC; she would not have financial problems.  She’d have an I.D, a valid driver’s license, and it would be legal; she could drive.  

She’d asked about a passport, but been told no, at least for now, that would not be possible.   Whether it was because they were tricky to obtain even for WITSEC or whether it was because they didn’t want their witnesses disappearing into the mountains of Brazil, Melissa did not know.  Hopefully, he reassured her, things would resolve in a few months … a year at most.   If they did not, after that point, if Melissa desired to travel overseas, they would get her a passport.  

She’d have a contact in WITSEC, and a phone number she could call 24 hours in any emergency.  She’d be provided with a instant alert device as well (like the alert devices advertised on TV for the elderly who lived alone) and she was encouraged to wear it all the time, though it was not required.  Through a contact she could exchange letters and gifts with her family, maybe even do a video conference a few times a year. 

She had to be careful… constantly.   Not only to protect herself, but to protect her family.   It was not impossible, the agent warned Melissa, that whomever was trying to kill her would be watching her family, her mother and her stepfather, her sister and her brother.  Hacking into their computers.   Stealing their mail.   If anyone even suspected that they might know where she was, their lives wouldn’t be worth two cents.  But the converse was also true.   If her family did not  know where she was, the last thing anyone would want to do was act against her family, as that would only serve to drive her deeper underground.  The best way to keep them safe was for her to be absolutely scrupulous about never attempting to contact them. 

Her handler told her that virtually every time a witness’s cover was pierced, it happened because the witness himself thought he could outsmart the system and tried to “secretly” contact family or friends.  Melissa, in reality, didn’t need much encouragement.   Not even two months before, the police had come into her office and told her that one of her fellow real-estate agents, who had chanced to borrow Melissa’s car because her own was in the shop, had been killed.   Two hours after that the FBI had made the connection between the murder three days earlier that Melissa had witnessed and the murder of the friend in Melissa’s car, and picked her up.   Melissa hardly needed anyone to frighten her into compliance.  These people would kill.   Had killed.   They would kill her.   Period.

She shouldn’t travel much, he warned her.   Face recognition software, the agent explained matter-of-factly, was getting better and better and cameras were everywhere.  The top criminal cartels had informants and moles everywhere;  even something as innocent as going through a toll booth, while not exactly forbidden, was something she should avoid if possible.  When she did go out and about, she was encouraged to change her appearance in little ways as often as possible.  A pony tail this week, a bun next.   Wear big cheap sun glasses unless it was night and change the style of the glasses weekly.   Stick your hair under a ball cap if you could.  If it were chilly pull your hood up.  If you went somewhere with friends, get them to drive.   Melissa had listened to the agent explain all this, speechless with horror.

Eventually, though, she’d adjusted.   Charleston South Carolina was actually a very nice city, a lot nicer than Raleigh.  Ironically Melissa had been struggling to make it as a real estate agent, with the economy so poor.   Between the job she’d been given as a secretary at a Catholic elementary school, and the relatively generous stipend she got from WITSEC, she had plenty of money;  that was a definite improvement.    Her initial fear, when they told her what her job would be, which was that she’d be alone in a sea of nuns, turned out to be inaccurate.  In fact, St. Therese only had one remaining nun, the ubiquitous Sister Mary Joan. The rest of the staff were, like Melissa, mostly young women, a nice mix of singles and young newlyweds, and, somewhat to her surprise, Melissa had a small but good circle of friends very quickly. 

She missed her family, but not as much as one might have expected.  Her father had been a busy, successful surgeon who, unfortunately, had an eye that wandered too regularly to the next young nurse.   Her mother had been that next nurse, once, when her father had divorced his second wife when he was forty and her mother twenty-four.   Unfortunately, nine years later Melissa’s mother was on the other side of the coin, and the “next” Mrs. Moffit had been only twenty-two to her father’s nearly fifty.  Melissa’s mother became Dr. Moffit’s third ex-wife, with seven year old Melissa at her side. 

Her father always had been busy and distant, and this hardly improved after the divorce.  He’d already had two children from his second wife, and those children, now in their teens, had more interesting activities than a seven year old.  When Melissa was with her father on “his” weekends, it tended to be a long boring round of going to her half-siblings’ sporting events.  Her father’s new wife was not unkind to her, but her weekends were filled with tennis dates and spa appointments and she made it clear she was not a babysitter for a seven year old.

Her “every weekend with dad,” soon became “one weekend a month.”  He had continued to support her, but when her mother had remarried two years later, and Melissa’s step-father had been transferred from California to New York, Melissa knew that deep down, her father was happy to see her go.    She continued to have phone conversations with her dad, but by the time she’d been taken into WITSEC those calls had diminished to a couple of long chats each year.  

Melissa’s mother’s second marriage, fortunately, had been happy and stable.  She and Melissa’s stepfather, Frank White, had had three more children, all of whom were more than ten years younger than Melissa.  It had provided Melissa with a relatively stable home life during her high school years, but now those siblings, at 11, 13 and 15, were still in middle and high school, and her mother was totally consumed with PTO and bake sales, soccer and swim team, softball and cheerleading.  Melissa knew that her mother loved her and was very worried about her but the life she had with her new family did not readily include an adult daughter from a failed marriage now fifteen years in the past.   Melissa wondered occasionally, alone in the dark, if what had happened to her might not actually be a secret relief to her mother.  

Melissa had gotten a business degree in college, and after she graduated, moved to Raleigh North Carolina but, when due to the economy a finance job had not panned out, she had ended up in real estate.   Over the last few years, she’s only seen her family a couple of times a year – but still they’d always spent Christmas together.   She hadn’t missed them much until now, but as she looked down over Charleston and could see many homes with Christmas lights, and brightly lit decorations, the tears she’d fought back for so long came full-force.  As awkward as it had been at times, Christmases had always been good.  Her mother had loved Christmas and always decorated;  almost in rebellion, this year, Melissa had not even bought a tree.

As Melissa sat on her balcony, sniffing through her lonely tears, she pushed down any misgivings she’d had earlier about spending Christmas with Terri and her family.   In spite of everything, she did not want to be alone.  And although she was not particularly religious, and had little faith that her own prayers did any good, she had a great deal of faith that Sister Mary Joan’s were definitely heard by whatever higher power that existed.  When she got back from Christmas, she’d ask Sister to light a candle for her every day;  maybe by next Christmas she’d be back with her own family. 


Saturday Morning


Melissa sat back in the front seat of Terri’s Toyota, letting her friend drive, watching the miles pass behind them, glad for the break.  It had turned out to be a hectic morning.   She’d assumed that she’d have plenty of time to pack, but after waking up that morning, just a bit fuzzy-headed and grumpy from one too many glasses of wine the previous night, she’d realized belatedly she could hardly go to the Coleman home empty-handed.  She had a gift for Terri, of course, but nothing for the family.   She’d made a quick trip out when the stores opened and picked up a few bottles of wine, some scented candles, and a gourmet cheese cake… just to have a few hostess gifts.   She’d barely made it back to her apartment in time to throw he clothes in a suitcase and grab her laptop and phone charger before Terri was tooting the horn out front.  

She was almost dozing, letting the sound of Terri’s chatter soothe her, when suddenly she was aware Terri had stopped talking. 

“Did you hear what I said?”  Terri asked.

“No.  I’m sorry, Ter.   I almost fell asleep.”

Terri turned her head sharply, and shot Melissa a quick glance.  “I’m trying to explain something.   This is important.” 

Melissa could hear just a touch of an edge in her friend’s voice.  Blinking she sat up a bit straighter and reached for her coffee cup sitting in the cup holder.  It had now grown cold, but regardless she took a swallow and tried to wake up.  “What?  What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.  I just wanted you to know more about my family.  There’s something I need to tell you, Melissa.  This is a bit, I don’t know, awkward.”

Melissa felt some of the doubts and misgivings she’d had about spending the holiday with strangers come back.   Staff at St. Therese’s were not required to be Catholic, but teachers were supposed to be, at least nominally, practicing the faith.  Which meant, of course, that Terri and the rest of the Coleman family were Catholic.  Melissa remembered her earlier speculation that maybe the Colemans entertained themselves by singing showtunes, but now she realized it could be worse than that. There were some very conservative Catholic families out there, Melissa knew. What if their idea of an evening’s entertainment was sitting around reading the lives of saints or saying the rosary in Latin?   Melissa was as respectful of other’s beliefs and practices as anyone but she did not really want to spend a week of her Christmas break in that sort of environment!   “What do you mean?” Melissa asked carefully.   Suddenly, she had a flash of insight, and she remembered Terri’s evasiveness when she was discussing her brothers the previous day.  “Does this have something to do with your brother?” Melissa fumbled for the name.  “Joe?”

Terri shot her another quick glance.  “How did you figure that out?”

Melissa shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Yesterday when I asked about him, it seemed like you didn’t want to talk.”  She waited and Terri didn’t respond.  “So does this have something to do with him?” Melissa prompted.

“Kind of.  Sort of.”  Terri let out a deep sigh.   “I just… Yeah, it does.”  She stopped talking.

Melissa started to get a bit more concerned.   Whatever the problem was that was making Terri uncomfortable, Melissa wanted her to spit it out.  “Terri, come on.  We’ve come this far.   You need to tell me.”

“Something happened between me and Joe last summer.”  Since this was the first inkling that Melissa had gotten that there was anything wrong between Terri and anyone in her family, she was a bit annoyed at the timing, but she stayed quiet as Terri continued to speak.  “It might come up.  Joe might mention it.  Or my dad…   Jesus, my dad.”  She sighed.  “Melissa, my family is, well, old-fashioned.  Old-fashioned values.  You know." She paused. "Old-fashioned.”

Melissa was becoming completely exasperated.   “I know what old-fashioned means, Terri.   You need to be a little more clear.  What, is your family Amish or something?”

She laughed, breaking the tension.  “No, we’re not Amish.  But, last summer, I did something that wasn’t so smart.  I spent a week with some friends at a beach house on the Outer Banks.  More like friends of friends.  I knew one girl pretty well and the rest of them…. Not so much.”  Before Melissa could ask, Terri answered.  “No, you don’t know her.  I don’t see her much anymore.  Well,” she clarified, “I don’t see her at all anymore.  Some pretty wild stuff went on.   Stuff that wasn’t good.  I mean, let’s not mince any words here.  There were some drugs, and not just weed, a few other things.   And, of course, my friend posted some pictures to her Facebook.  I didn’t know anything had even been put up, but I got tagged.   My brother Joe was my friend on Facebook, and in one of the pictures, there were a couple of people in the background.”  She swiveled her head to look over at Melissa. “Doing lines of coke.”

“Oh shit.” Melissa could see where this was going.  “Your brother Joe the police officer.”

“You got it.  It wasn’t really obvious, but when you know what to look for, it was right there behind me, plain as day. And of course, Joe knows what to look for. He saw the pictures, called me up.   I didn’t know he’d seen the pictures, and he was all casual.”  She paused then muttered, “Asshole,” under her breath.  “He acted like he didn’t know a thing.   He told me he was coming to Charleston to visit, and so like a dunce, I told him I was out of town.  I told him where I was, and who I was with, and when I would be back.”  Melissa could see the muscles in Terri’s throat work as she went on.  “I don’t know how he did it, but he found me.  I hadn’t said anything else but that we were at Kitty Hawk and my girlfriend’s name, but, somehow, by God, he found me.  Came to the door by eight o’clock that night.”

“Bet you were surprised.”

Terri gave a short cynical bark of laughter.  “That’s the understatement of the century, believe me.  He didn’t say a word to anyone there, got me, got my stuff.   When one of the guys tried to stop him, Joe broke his nose.  He… threw me in his car, drove me back to Charleston.  Fortunately my friend had driven…  I don’t know what would have happened to my car.

“Didn’t hardly speak to me the whole way.   Eight hours.   When we got back he told me to go to bed and he crashed on my sofa.   Ten o’clock the next morning when I came out he was still there, waiting for me.”  She took a deep breath and looked side long at Melissa, biting her lip.  “This is where the old-fashioned part comes in.   My dad, well both my parents, were big believers in corporal punishment.”

Melissa felt the breath leave her chest.  She gripped her paper coffee cup so hard that she crushed it and the cold coffee sloshed over the top onto her hand.  Her voice sounded strangled, even to herself.  Though she now could immediately see that there was an obvious end to the story, somehow, she had not seen it coming at all. “Corporal punishment?”

“Yeah, corporal punishment.  You know.  Spanking, OK? And we’re not just talking a few swats over jeans.  We’re talking pants down, bare ass, no foolin’ around.  The kind of spanking you might think no one gets anymore.  Well, we did.   My mom and dad had a paddle hanging in the washroom and it got used on me. Back talk, lying, not doing your chores.  You name it, they spanked. And my dad had a strap in the barn for my brothers.  So, in my family…”  She let out a deep sigh.  “Well, let’s just say my brother Joe was waiting for me that next morning.”

Melissa’s mouth was dry.  “He…?”

“Oh, yeah.  And let me tell you, it made every butt whipping I’d ever gotten from my dad look like, well, like child’s play.  He yanked my sweats down, and put my over his knee, and spanked me with his hand and then when his hand got sore, he used a wooden spoon he’d found in my kitchen.  And when the wooden spoon broke, he took off his belt.  Told me if he ever saw anything like that on the Internet again he’d take me home to my parents’ house, lock me in a closet, and to hell with my job.  Told me I had to cancel my Facebook page.  Told me he’d be watching me.  Told me a lot.”  She snorted.  “I didn’t hear the half of it because I was hollering so loud.  My neighbors called the police.  They actually called the cops.”

“What happened?  Did Joe get arrested?”

“Not hardly.”  Terri snorted again.  “When they got there, Joe showed them his badge, told them he was ‘disciplining his sister,’ told them exactly why, and they left.   They fucking left.   And then he left.  I could hardly sit down for three days.   And I haven’t talked to him since.”  She sighed deeply.  “So you can see why I am just a bit nervous about Christmas this year.  It’s going to come up.  I have no idea what, if anything, Joe told my parents.”

After a long second, Melissa saw where Terri was going with this.  “You don’t think your dad…?”

“Paddle’s still hanging there, Melissa, as far as I know.   And if my dad was pissed enough, hell yeah, he’d take another shot at me.  As far as I know there’s no statute of limitations with Dad.”    

“You’re twenty-six years old!”

Terri shook her head.  “Didn’t stop Joe last summer.  I know for a fact that Carl spanks his wife, and she’s thirty.  Or at least he has in the past.  Don’t know about Don…   But age isn’t that important.”  She snorted.  “My parents didn’t think there’s a thing wrong with spanking teenagers.  Unfortunately. And apparently my brothers think you're never too old.” 

“Good grief, Terri.   Are you sure I should have come?”  Melissa didn’t know if she should be shocked by what most people would consider abuse, or pissed that Terri was bringing her into a potentially awkward situation with no warning, or laughing hysterically at the concept that her twenty six year old friend got her bare ass spanked by her big brother as recently as the previous summer.   The truth was, Melissa was feeling none of those things.   What she was, was fascinated.   “Do you really think your dad…?”

Terri glanced over at Melissa again and quickly rolled her eyes before turning her attention back to the road.  “No," she conceded.  "Joe probably didn’t say anything to my parents.  It’ll be fine.”  She paused.  “But I thought I needed to warn you anyway.  Because I’m sure Joe will find some reason to bring it up.   So… Merry Christmas.  Welcome to the Coleman family.  Ho. Ho. Ho.”

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