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Mail Order Brat by Loki Renard – Sample

mailorderbrat_second_detailPrologue

Remnants of an enjoyable dinner sat uncollected at the table while the rhythmic sounds of skin meeting skin could be heard coming from the next room over, muffled but in no way muted by the wall between. Tall, broad, and serious, Pastor Soames sat in a comfortable armchair, his eyes and ears politely engaged by the television while one of the wayward women in his congregation was spanked.

The door was cracked slightly. Through the open space one could see the long slim thighs and bouncing red cheeks of a wife receiving a good sound spanking. From time to time her legs would splay, revealing a glimpse of her womanhood. Modesty was not a significant concern for the lady in question. What was of great concern was the fire being spanked into her rear by her very stern husband.

The reason for the disciplinary interlude was still sitting on the dining room table in the form of a collapsed pool of icing and rubber, the remains of a cake that was not a cake. For reasons best known to herself, Sarah Brown had decided to serve up a fake to her husband and pastor. It had popped when Jeremy had sliced into it, spreading sprinkles and chocolate goo all over the table and those dining at it.

It was a harmless prank, and a fairly amusing one. It wasn’t the prank she was being spanked for. It was what had happened after the pop, when her husband lectured her for tricks involving sharp knives and loud sounds. She’d laughed in his face and told him not to be such a… well, something that was best not repeated.

Suffice to say, she deserved every last swat she was receiving with yelping good grace. It was quite a while before the sounds of spanking stopped and all that could be heard was a commentary on the latest replacement kicker coming from the television.

Soon the man of the house came back into the living room. “So sorry,” Jeremy said, rolling his sleeve back down his forearm. “I really don’t know what’s gotten into Sarah these days.”

“Are you two quarreling?” Steven asked the question with genuine concern.

“No.” Jeremy shook his head. “She’s just naughty. Last week I came home three times and she’d not prepared so much as toast for dinner. We agreed when we were married. She’d take care of things at home, I’d make sure the bills were paid. Traditional, I know, but she agreed to it.”

“Perhaps she’s tired.”

“She’s not tired. She laughed at me when I asked why there wasn’t any dinner. Said she was too busy. Well, I took your advice. I put her smart little bottom over my lap and spanked her until it was good and bright.”

“And that had the desired effect?”

“The next five nights, dinner was on the table when I got home. But last night I got back and she was watching television. She said dinner was in the oven. I opened the oven and guess what I found?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“A sack of bread and a can of tuna.”

Steven smiled slightly. “Sounds like she needs more regular discipline.”

Jeremy’s thick brows drew into one hard, determined line. “She’s going to have her bottom spanked every night this week. And if that doesn’t sort her out, I told her I’d send her to you.”

“Really,” Steven chuckled.

“That seemed to have some effect. I reckon she doesn’t much want another taste of the pastor’s paddle.”

“Jeremy, please quit talking about that.” A pretty brunette with a figure of a 1950s pinup entered the room carrying two Scotch on the rocks for the men. Sarah was a spirited young lady. Most of the women in Sweetville were. She seemed to have recovered remarkably well from her trip over her husband’s knee; there wasn’t so much as a hair out of place as she crouched to place the men’s drinks neatly on coasters.

“The pastor asked how we were doing. I told him,” Jeremy said.

Sarah blushed. “The pastor doesn’t want to hear about our private affairs.”

“No, you don’t want the pastor hearing about how much of a bad girl you’ve been—or how many spankings you’ve been catching lately.”

“You did vow to obey Jeremy when you married him,” Steven reminded her gently. “It was important to both of you to keep that vow, if I recall correctly.”

He had counseled Jeremy and Sarah prior to their marriage. They were both young, both from good families, and both wanting to live traditional roles. Sarah had lived at home until her wedding day, but seemed to be having some trouble adjusting to her husband’s authority. Steven had already surmised that the real purpose of this dinner was for the young couple to be reassured that they were on the right path.

Steven had never set out to become a disciplinary consultant, but part of his spiritual practice had led him to the realization that most of the parishioners in Sweetville, New England, wanted to follow traditional gender roles. A backlash against the permissiveness of the ’80s and ’90s, he supposed. Unfortunately, most of them had not the slightest idea how to be equals and still assume the naturally asymmetrical roles of provider and keeper.

Sarah pouted as she sat gingerly in an armchair and folded her heels neatly to one side. “I never had to cook every night at home. It’s hard work.”

“Keeping a house can be hard work,” Steven agreed. “But I don’t think that’s why you haven’t been keeping up with meals.”

“Why haven’t I been keeping up with meals then?” There was challenge in her gaze.

“You’ve been married six months. The honeymoon phase is starting to fade, real life is starting to settle in, and perhaps you’re worried that Jeremy isn’t going to be able to keep you in hand when you’re really bad. So you’re testing him with little things.”

Sarah lowered her eyes. “Maybe,” she admitted.

“Every couple goes through these stages,” Steven counseled the pair. “It’s in a woman’s nature to test her husband’s limits to make sure he’s still in control. Do you think Jeremy is in control, Sarah?”

She nodded mutely, an adorable red hue creeping up from the neckline of her dress.

“You’re doing a fine job,” Steven reassured Jeremy. “Don’t take her need for discipline as an insult, or a sign it’s not working. She’ll settle down again soon enough once she realizes the rules are the same after the honeymoon as they were during.”

“Good,” Jeremy said, sipping his Scotch. His eyes were locked firmly on his wife with a certain resolve that spoke volumes.

“I’m, er… going to do the dishes,” Sarah said, rising from the chair. Sitting probably wasn’t comfortable.

“And I should be taking my leave,” Steven said, standing as she did. “Thank you both very much for your hospitality.”

“Thank you very much for your advice,” Jeremy said, shaking his hand. “We both appreciate it, don’t we, Sarah.”

“We do,” Sarah said, a little smile leaping to her lips. Her eyes were sparkling with fresh mischief already. Somebody was going to be getting another spanking that night, Steven was sure of it.

He bade the couple a good night and returned to the church house where he lived alone. It had been many years since the laughter of a woman had filled that place. Steven had been married once, what seemed like a lifetime ago, even though he was only in his mid-thirties.

Usually he was quite content to go through life as a single widow. The parish kept him thoroughly occupied and the people of Sweetville took wonderful care of their pastor. But when it was very quiet and the cheer of the couples he helped seemed in stark contrast to the quiet solitude of the church house, he did feel the pangs of a lonely heart.

“What will I do with myself, Amelie?” He opened a locket and directed the question to the woman with the dark hair and laughing eyes in the picture contained within. She didn’t answer. She hadn’t been able to answer him in twelve long years. It didn’t matter. He knew what she would say. Find a wife, silly!

“I know,” he murmured down at her. “But wives don’t just fall out of the sky, do they? It’s not as easy as all that.”

She smiled on as always. He closed the locket and went to bed alone.

Chapter One

“That will be thirty-three fifty, pastor.”

Having paid the cashier, Steven Soames picked up his sack of groceries and walked out through the parking lot. Sun beamed down on well-scrubbed asphalt and reflected off neatly parked, perfectly groomed late model cars. Here and there, well-dressed middle-aged men and women meandered toward the mall, preparing for an afternoon’s retail therapy at one of New England’s foremost boutique shopping centers.

The air was perfumed with maple and rose, the last blooms of summer boldly displayed in well-tended beds surrounding the parking lot. In the distance green hills were beginning to burnish gold. Soon the riotous reds would sweep down into Sweetville Valley and consume the foliage of the leafy behemoths that populated the town more densely than people.

A wisp of cold nipped at Steven’s neck and nose, rebelling against the heavenly glow from on high. The breeze played through his neatly styled dark hair, just beginning to show signs of graying at the temples. Steven Soames had a kind, strong, handsome face. A face that had rejuvenated interest in the parish of St. John and brought the once-dwindling Episcopalian congregation back from the brink of extinction.

“Pastor Soames!” A woman with flowing blond locks and a suspicious lack of tell-tale wrinkles about her eyes and mouth waved at him, then rushed up. “Pastor, have you given any thought to this Sunday’s sermon yet?”

“Hello, Mrs. Mills,” Steven said. “Actually, yes. I had.”

“You should give a sermon on truth,” she said, ignoring his answer. “Seems to me, not everyone remembers how important truth is these days. Certainly not my ex-husband, or that strumpet…”

“That’s an interesting idea, Mrs. Mills,” Steven said. “I’ll pray on it.”

Mrs. Mills pursed her lips together and nodded. She would probably have pursued the matter further, but she spotted something amiss in the distance. “Those pink flyers don’t belong there,” she huffed before sailing off to put the papers in proper chromatic order.

Steven made for his car, parked at the back of the lot underneath the shade of an elm. He’d been running errands for what felt like hours and was looking forward to a quieter afternoon. As he took his keys out, he noticed something in the back. Something that definitely hadn’t been there when he’d parked.

A young woman was curled up on the back seat, sleeping soundly. She had a sweet expression on her face, light freckles dappling her nose and reddish brown hair that waved around her shoulders. She was wearing a sinfully short denim skirt that barely covered the rounds of her cheeks. A light cardigan covered her shoulders.

Forgetting the key, Steven opened the door. Someone else had obviously already unlocked it. He was guessing his little visitor was responsible for that. She better have a good reason for that, or she’d soon discover she was heading the right way to a very well-spanked bottom.

“Hey,” he said, leaning over the back seat and shaking her arm. “Wake up.”

She opened her eyes. He looked into her hazel-green gaze, slightly confused, slightly impudent.

Da?”

“This is my car,” he explained. “How did you end up in here?”

“This… car…” she said, her voice thick with a Russian accent. “Was open.”

It hadn’t been open, and Steven was sure nobody else had unlocked it. There weren’t many people in Sweetville capable of breaking into a vehicle. It wasn’t that sort of neighborhood. All the lawns were sowed with the same bright green grass that had been trucked in from the same sod company an hour out. The picket fences were whitewashed with uniform care and the houses were in compliance with the local HOA, which restricted roof colors to forest green or forest green, and letterboxes to khaki beige. It was an area where every kid had a 4.0 grade average, worked for extra credit, and kept a Labrador puppy named Max or Sam or Rover. Names were not dictated, but they may as well have been. Steven had several golden hairs still sticking to his slacks from his last encounter with a good-natured furry beast.

The woman in his car did not belong in the neighborhood. The look in her wicked, cat-like eyes was unlike what other women gave him. It was appreciative, but appraising. Reserved, but vulnerable. She was a mass of foreign contradictions curled up against his leather options.

“Where are you from?”

“Samara.”

“That’s not around here, is it?”

“Russia.” Her lips quirked at his ignorance. Her stomach growled audibly, undermining her triumph. She was skinnier than she should have been, and by the stains on her tennis shoes and long socks, she had been living rough.

“How old are you?”

“Old enough.”

“Why did you get into my car?”

“I was tired,” she shrugged. “It looked like a good place to sleep.” She sat up and stretched, yawning into the back of one hand. “I go now, thank you.”

“Are you hungry?”

A ravenous look came into her eyes. She nodded quickly.

Steven reached into his grocery bag, drew out the chicken salad sandwich he’d planned to snack on himself, and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said, ripping through the foil. She stuffed the corner of the sandwich into her mouth, watching him with those wide eyes as she chewed.

“There’s a homeless shelter in Brighton,” Steven said. “I’ll take you there.”

“No,” she said through a mouthful. “I go now.”

Steven hit the locks, earning himself a venomous look.

“Don’t panic. I’m not going to hurt you. But you’re too young to be running around all on your own. You need a bath and a meal and a warm bed. You’ll get all three at the shelter.”

The young woman banged her fist against the inside of the passenger window. “I don’t want shelter! I take care of myself!”

“No, you break into cars to sleep. That’s no way to take care of yourself.”

“I can’t go to a shelter! I don’t have… I don’t have papers.”

Most homeless people didn’t have papers. It wasn’t going to matter that she wasn’t a legal immigrant, not to the people who would help her. It mattered to her though. She was scared. She was alone. She was lost.

Steven had long ago taken a vow to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the dying. She was about one and a half of those things. Definitely hungry. Maybe not quite naked, but a more modest skirt and a blouse wouldn’t have gone amiss. There would no doubt be something more suitable in the donation box at the church.

“What’s your name?”

“Annika.”

“My name is Steven Soames. I’m a priest.”

Annika eyed him suspiciously. “You don’t look like a priest. What did you do with your dress?”

“Episcopalian priests don’t wear robes except during ceremonies,” he explained. “Listen, I have a house at the church. It’s not much, but you can have a bath and eat something and we’ll go from there.”

She looked at him with curiosity and mistrust. Then she nodded. “Take me to church.”

It was probably just the language barrier that made her sound so demanding.

He started the car. “Put your seat belt on.”

“Is okay. I don’t need one.”

“It’s the law of the land here, young lady. Please put your seat belt on.”

She looked at him blankly.

“Do you know what a seat belt is?”

“Yes.”

“Then put it on.”

Her freckled nose screwed itself up in irritation, but she did as she was told and pulled the belt across her body. He waited until she was buckled up before leaving the parking lot.

“Do you still have your passport?” He asked the question as they drove down tree-lined lanes toward the church.

She shook her head. “My husband took it.”

“You’re married?”

“No.”

Steven frowned. “But you said your husband…”

“I came here to marry. I didn’t marry.”

The pieces fell into place. Of course. She was a mail order bride, one of Russia’s many desperate, attractive young women who flooded into the country every year in the hopes of gaining a handsome, rich American husband.

“How long have you been in America?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Weeks? Months?”

“Five or six weeks,” she said. “You ask too many questions.”

“I need to get to know you to help you.” He flicked his indicator to the left and turned down the yew-lined drive that led to the little white church of St. John.

“Is nice,” she observed flatly.

“Was your fiancé from around here?”

She shrugged. Steven gave up on the questions and instead concentrated on getting her comfortable and cleaned up. They pulled up around the back of the church where the parish house stood. It was a modest building, but the generosity of the parishioners ensured that it was well appointed. Four bedrooms made it much larger than Steven needed.

“Come on,” he said, getting out of the car. “You must be hungry. I doubt that sandwich did much.”

The kitchen had sealed wooden counter tops, neat white cabinets, a cooker, and a refrigerator. The cooker was spotless as it was hardly ever used, but the fridge was well stocked with all manner of covered dishes. The local ladies loved to bestow their culinary gifts upon the pastor. Steven had put on at least ten pounds since coming to Sweetville. Fortunately, his 6′4″ frame could take the weight, and frequent workouts kept further pounds from creeping up.

He held the refrigerator door open wide to let his guest look in. She stood with her cardigan clasped around her, looking cold and concerned.

“See anything you like?”

* * *

Annika saw one thing she liked; a tall, handsome American man. Steven Soames had warm brown eyes and a broad strong face with a nice square jaw. He smelled nice too. It had been the first thing she noticed when she got into his car, the soothing masculine scent tinged with cologne. She’d not been able to sleep for days, but she’d fallen asleep within minutes of being bathed in his smell.

He was clean-shaven, clean-cut, and dressed in a neatly pressed shirt and slacks. Preppy, that’s what the Americans called it. She thought he was probably in his early thirties, older than her, but not by as much as he seemed to think.

“Annika? What would you like to eat?”

She shrugged. He smiled that reassuring, nice smile, and picked something out for her.

“This will take a little while to warm up,” he said. “Do you want to take a bath or a shower first? Maybe change your clothes?”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“Nothing, of course,” he lied. She had seen the disapproval written in his eyes already. “But if you’ve been wearing them for days and days, it might feel nice to wear something else. We have plenty of donated clothes. They’re all clean, and a lot of them have never even been worn. This is a well-to-do area. The parishioners are very generous.”

Wearing the cast-offs of the privileged didn’t appeal to Annika, but she didn’t like feeling grimy either and she had been wearing the same clothes for almost a week straight. She probably smelled like something out of the gutter.

“Come on,” Steven said, turning the oven on to heat. “I’ll show you to the spare room. There’s a private en-suite.”

Annika walked down the hall, noticing that every room in the house appeared to be a spare room. There was no sign of any family, not even a sign of a woman. The rooms were all furnished neatly, but the bedspreads were too neatly tucked, the linen too straight. It looked more like a hotel than a home.

“How long have you lived here?”

“Five years,” Steven said. “Here’s the spare room. Give me a minute and I’ll get you a towel and some clothes to choose from.”

The room was nice, like all the others. The carpet was a salmon pink color, the curtains a similar shade. The bed looked comfortable, but she did not want to sully it with her filth. A little exploration revealed that the bathroom was likewise colored. A pink shower curtain and pink shower caddy made it clear that whoever had decorated was determined that the room be occupied by a woman.

A tap at the bedroom door distracted her. “Annika? Are you decent?”

She smiled a little at the question. No, she wasn’t decent. But that wasn’t what he meant. Years of English scholarship had taught her that ‘are you decent’ was actually polite code for ‘are you wearing clothes?’ Funny how Americans liked to make everything nice like that. They had a culture of euphemisms and shadow language. It made it difficult for a foreigner sometimes.

“I’m in the bathroom.”

“I’ll leave the towels and clothes out here.” Steven’s voice floated around the corner of the room in a respectable baritone. “Come out to the kitchen when you’re ready.”

Annika showered at length, then went to pick amongst the clothes left for her. There were none she liked, of course. There were jeans that were too baggy and high-waisted, skirts that were too long, and dresses that she would only have worn if she intended to drive around on a horse-drawn buggy.

In the end, she settled on a pale blue blouse and a similarly colored gypsy skirt that fell to her knees in a plethora of pleats and folds. The hem was uneven, sweeping around the back of her calves and curving up to wrap around in front of her knees.

Barefoot, she padded out to the kitchen, where Steven was waiting for her. He was even more attractive when she laid eyes on him the second time. While showering she had thought she must have imagined his appeal, but he was just as handsome as she remembered.

“Why are you not married?”

One dark brow lifted slightly. “Did you have a nice shower?”

“Yes,” she said. She said nothing else, waiting for him to answer her question.

“Food will be ready soon,” he said. “Would you like some iced tea?”

He wasn’t going to answer the question as to why he wasn’t married.

“Are you gay?”

The brow rose higher. For a minute, he looked stern. Then the expression faded to compassionate understanding. “It’s not polite to ask that kind of question in America.”

“It’s not polite in Russia either,” she grinned wickedly.

The smile slipped from his lips. The stern man came back, the one whose dark eyes made her feel nervous in a fun sort of way.

“Would you like some iced tea?”

The deflection felt like rejection. Annika didn’t know why, but it did. She felt a hollow feeling in her stomach, a feeling that wasn’t hunger. Or maybe it was, just for something else. She didn’t answer his question, just avoided his gaze for a moment, then made a decision.

“Thank you for the shower,” she said. “And the clothes. I am going to go now.”

“Sit down, Annika.”

She sat down on a stool almost reflexively, feeling as if he had some sort of verbal override to her mind. Steven poured some iced tea and put it in front of her. With nothing else to do, she lifted it to her lips and drank. It tasted sweet and cold and sort of gross, but also sort of nice.

Silence stretched out between them, making her nervous. He didn’t like personal questions, so obviously this wasn’t personal for him. He hadn’t taken her home to have his way with her, or to get to know her. He was rescuing her the same way he might rescue a lost puppy. Annika didn’t like that. She didn’t want to be pitied or thought of as a charity case.

“Good?” Steven’s smile was friendly, but it left her cold.

“Yes, thank you,” she said sweetly, playing the game as he seemed to want to play it. Polite platitudes, nice little comments, no real depth to the conversation.

All of a sudden she felt stifled. It was a nice place, nicer than any she’d ever been in, but she had to get out of there.

“I forgot… something,” she said, slipping off the stool. “I will be right back for more lovely tea.”

Steven made no objection as she walked down the hall to the bedroom. He was probably sitting in the kitchen feeling smug and self-satisfied. Annika knew it was churlish to be irritated at someone who was trying to help her, but she couldn’t stop her feelings.

She walked into the pink room, the space designed to shelter someone’s little walking cliché, picked up her purse, put on her shoes without any socks, and made for the window. She had pushed the sash open quietly and had her left foot on the ledge when Steven’s low baritone interrupted her.

“Annika.”

She paused and looked over her shoulder. Steven was at the door, watching her. His expression was keen, not precisely stern, but not happy either. Maybe he wasn’t as stupid as he made himself out to be. The handsome lines of his face seemed harder than before, more chiseled. He was quite a chameleon, this pastor.

“Yes?” She pulled her leg back inside casually, as if nothing untoward had been happening.

“Why are you trying to run away? Have I frightened you somehow?”

There it was again, the softer, almost pitying tone that only served to irritate.

“No,” she said snappishly. “But I am not a dog.”

“Of course you’re not a dog,” he said, his brow and lip quirking at the same time. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t need to be rescued and put in a pretty pink box,” Annika said. “I am not…” She trailed off because she didn’t know how to finish the sentence. I am not… pathetic? Maybe she was pathetic. Maybe she was every bit as feeble and pitiful as he seemed to think she was.

“We all need a hand sometimes,” Steven said kindly. “I don’t think you’re any less of a woman for it, or any less of a person, for that matter. I know it’s hard to accept help. Especially when you’re fighting for some kind of control in your life.”

Annika cocked her head and looked at him suspiciously. It was as if he was somehow reading her thoughts directly from her brain. He seemed to have an instinctive understanding of how she was feeling, what made her tick—and that made Annika feel more vulnerable than ever.

“How did you know what I was doing?” She glanced toward the window, in case he didn’t know what she was referring to.

“Runaways tend to keep running away,” he said. “But you’ve got nothing to run away from here. You’re free to go any time.” He paused and gave her a wry look. “And you can use the front door. Now come and get something to eat. You’re starving.”

You’re starving. It wasn’t a question. It was an observation. A correct one, at that. Again, he knew precisely how she felt right down to her hunger. Either she was much more of an open book than she thought she was, or there was some organic connection between her and this handsome pastor.

Curious, Annika returned to the kitchen, sat back down on the stool, and waited for whatever was going to happen next. It turned out to be delicious, hot, hearty meatballs and spaghetti. She ate two large platefuls before she was so full she couldn’t stomach another bite.

“Go take a nap,” Steven said, giving yet another order that, annoyingly, she wanted to obey. She was feeling sleepy. Worse than that really, she was exhausted. She could barely keep her eyes open. But she also couldn’t just fall asleep in a strange man’s house and in a strange man’s bed. As nice as Steven seemed and even though he was a pastor, she couldn’t just trust him after knowing him for only an hour. Falling asleep in parked cars was one thing. Trusting someone in their house was something else.

“I’m not…”

“You’re tired,” he said. “If it makes you feel safer, I’ll call one of the deacons to come over.”

“What is a deacon going to do?”

“She’s one of the women in the church. She can stay in another room, make sure you’re not alone.”

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“No,” he said firmly, his lips clamping all thin. He really didn’t like questions about his love life. “Speaking of family, yours must be worried sick about you.”

“I have no family,” she said. “My mother died. I do not know who my father was. No brothers or sisters. Just me.”

Steven nodded. “That we have in common.”

“You have no family?”

“I was orphaned as a child. I grew up in the church.”

“My mother died two years ago,” Annika shared. “It was lonely without her. I looked for a better life, here in America.”

“And you’ve found it,” Steven reassured her. “Don’t you worry about that.”

That was a big promise to make. Annika wasn’t sure she trusted it, but she certainly wanted to. Maybe she’d fallen on her feet. Maybe there really were good people left in the world. Steven Soames made her consider the possibility. The only thing she didn’t like was the way he gave orders as part of casual conversation. They were strangers, but he had taken control of her in a way that left her head spinning. Really, she had practically been kidnapped—except for the door being open and her being able to leave any time she liked. The only thing stopping her was him telling her not to go—and for some reason, she listened to him.

Steven made a call, and about five minutes later a bright, bubbly, round-faced, round-bodied woman practically tumbled into the house. She was about the same age as Steven, very pretty with bow-shaped lips and wide blue eyes and a beaming good nature that made the whole world seem a little bit brighter. Annika could not help but return her smile.

“Mary,” Steven said. “This is Annika.”

“Hi, Annika!” Mary beamed. She was perky. A typical American cheerleader type, albeit with a few more mature pounds and curves. She was practically dancing on the spot, beaming so wide her cheeks looked like blushing apples.

“Mary stays over sometimes when her husband is out of town,” Steven said. “She’ll stay over tonight so you feel more comfortable.”

“I hate being alone in the house,” Mary said. “I can’t sleep and I end up doing silly things. So now I stay with Steven and he makes sure I behave myself.”

“A married woman can behave how she likes, no?”

“No,” Mary giggled. “I wish.”

Annika was confused. American women had always seem so liberated. But this one clearly obeyed her husband, and her pastor too, for that matter.

“I spoke to John,” Steven said. “He was more than happy for you to stay over, Mary, as long as you keep to your routine.”

“Routine?” Annika asked the question.

“I stay up all night playing games on BookFace,” Mary confessed. “I like the one where you raise chickens. Chickenville.”

Annika stared at the woman. “Chickenville? You raise chickens… on a computer… all night?”

“Precisely,” Steven said in that stern voice. “It’s an unprecedented waste of time, and not a proper sort of pastime at all.”

“I cross-stitch now,” Mary said demurely.

“Chickens?”

“Sometimes,” Mary giggled. “I like chickens.”

“You should get a pet chicken,” Annika suggested.

Mary’s eyes went wide. “I should!”

“Not two minutes and you’re being a bad influence,” Steven drawled. “Go and take your nap, Annika.”

Annika scowled at him. “I don’t need a nap.”

“Oh, you should go have a nap,” Mary said. “Naps are nice.”

“I don’t want a nap.” She was tired, but something was going on, and Annika wanted to know what. Why did Mary so willingly obey Steven? She seemed like every woman Annika had ever seen on television, well dressed and well fed, with no need to be beholden to anyone. But she talked as though the men in her life had significant authority. Annika didn’t know what to make of that.

“Annika, you’re going to crash soon if you don’t get some sleep,” Steven said kindly. “Just go lie down for a bit, okay?”

“Wow, he asks you nicely,” Mary observed. “If it were me, he’d be getting out the wooden spoon.”

“For what?”

“Mary, hush.”

Now Annika was even more certain something was going on. “What is this talk of spoons? Tell me.”

“There’s no need for you to know, as long as you behave yourself,” Steven said.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then he’ll spank you.” Mary said the words so casually it took Annika a moment to understand the significance. The word came up in her mind’s eye like an entry from a dictionary. Spanking. To strike on the buttocks, generally the bared buttocks.

Annika stared at Steven. “You will not. I will…”

“Run away. Yes. I know. Annika, please, go get some rest,” Steven said calmly. “No harm is going to come to you. As for you, Mary, I asked you here to make Annika feel more comfortable, not to scare her. If anybody is going to be spanked, it will be you.”

Mary giggled and again, Annika was confused. Spanking was painful. Why did she look so excited about the idea of it happening to her?

“I should go,” Annika said again. “You have given me food and clothes. That is more than enough. I take no more from you.”

“You’ll take a nap,” Steven said firmly. “You’ll feel better afterward.”

Annika looked from Mary to Steven and back again. Two complete strangers. They both seemed kind enough, but there was that dynamic that Annika still did not understand. Steven threatened Mary with spanking, and not only did Mary not mind it, she seemed cheerful about it. Maybe the woman was simple. Or maybe Annika herself had missed something in her studies of American culture. She knew all about football and apple pie and July 4th, but nobody had mentioned the spanking. In Russia, sometimes women where whipped or caned by Cossacks, but they were cruel, shouting men who carried heavy whips wherever they went. Steven didn’t seem to have any implements at hand, though Mary had mentioned a spoon.

“You’ve scared her,” Steven said to Mary. “Listen, Annika,” he said kindly. “You’re not going to come to any harm here, okay?”

“He’s telling the truth,” Mary agreed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m always saying things I shouldn’t.”

Annika could relate to that a little. She was tired. Her eyelids were drooping and her entire body felt heavy. Even her thoughts were running slower than usual. The idea of curling up in a real bed between clean sheets was actually quite attractive.

“I’ll sleep,” she relented.

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