Haley cried and sniffled while standing naked and red bottomed in the corner. Laura ignored her daughter and focused her attention on Trevor and Eliana. “Is the apartment really that bad?”
“I don’t mean to complain,” Eliana said. Haley’s condition in the corner was first and foremost on her mind. Still, the small apartment’s deficiencies were something she could list off in her sleep. She would have spilled them all without a second thought if not for Trevor’s sharp squeeze on her thigh beneath the table.
He said, “The heater is on the fritz and Dan is so swamped he told us he won’t be able to give it a look until late next week.”
Laura shifted her gaze toward Eliana. “Definitely not a place for small children then is it? Why don’t you stay with us? At least until the heater is fixed.”
Trevor cleared his throat and shifted forward in his seat. His hand remained firm on Eliana’ s thigh. “Thanks, Mom, but we’re alright. What we need is a house of our own.”
Chuck flashed a grin and said, “My dad is breaking ground on a new family neighborhood off the north end of the lake this spring. The first homes will be ready come the fall. If you’re in a rush, there is the old Sander’s house off Pine Rock. Nobody has lived there for years. It needs a lot of work, but it’s available right now. I can take you guys out there tomorrow if you like.”
Paul settled back in his chair at the end of the table. “Son, there is no good reason for you and Eli to be staying in that apartment, especially with a broken heater. You’ll stay here tonight and Eli can supervise bringing all your things over tomorrow. It may not be all the privacy you want, but your health and safety are more important. And Chuck is right. Those new homes are coming and we’ll get you and Eli into the perfect one once they’re ready.”
Trevor tightened his grip on Eliana’s thigh. “We have a lease, Dad. We’re fine where we are.”
“Without functioning heat your lease in null, son. I’ll take care of it and the move. No more arguments, you’ll move into the guest room until we can get you into a nice home of your own.”
Eliana was torn. The only good thing about the apartment was the separation it provided from Trevor’s family. But if a few months living with them would net a new house, it seemed a small price to pay. Her gaze turned to Haley in the corner. Then again, if living under her in-laws’ roof meant submitting to their brand of corporal punishment, she wasn’t keen on the experience. Trevor was clearly against the move. To Paul she said, “We like our independence.”
Laura smiled and leaned closer. “Of course you do and we’re not trying to take it away. This is a temporary arrangement that will make your lives better in both the short and long term. Besides, we’ll get to know each other better in the interim.”
Paul said, “And you’re family.”
“Eli and I know what is best for us,” Trevor said.
“Then it’s settled.” Laura stood. “Eli, come with me and we’ll get the guest room setup.”
“Stop being stubborn, Trevor.” Laura took Eliana by the arm and guided her out of the room.
The guest room was upstairs with a small balcony overlooking the backyard. It had it’s own bathroom, a large walk-in closet and was only slightly smaller than Eliana and Trevor’s entire apartment. The sparse furnishings made it seem even larger. A king-size bed with a leather padded headboard and a sleigh shaped footboard was the central feature. On the wall opposite the foot of the bed was a matching 12 drawer dresser with dual mirrors. Light beige carpet covered the floor. The walls were painted in a creamy coffee color and accented with bright white floor and ceiling moulding.
Laura slipped into the closet and emerged with a stack of sheets. She deposited them on the dresser and extricated the fitted sheet, tossing it onto the mattress. Eliana took the right side and together they quickly stretched and tucked the bedding into place. Laura fetched the flat sheet and said, “You’re uncomfortable staying here.”
Eliana singled out the top corner of the sheet and pulled it toward the headboard. “We moved here to be helpful, not to be treated like a couple of kids.”
“Then maybe you should consider acting like adults.” Laura mirrored Eliana’s efforts tugging the sheet taut.
Eyeing her mother-in-law, Eliana said, “Excuse me?”
“I think you very much know your comment about the apartment was both petty and inappropriate.” Laura moved to the foot and tucked the sheet beneath the mattress.
Eliana took a breath. She couldn’t blame Laura for being a little miffed. It would have been better to have just commented on the timing not being right for having kids. But with her own parents that always led to more arguments on the subject. “You’re not wrong. I would have apologized straight away, but Trevor wanted me to drop it. We’re not ready for kids and I’m maybe a little too sensitive about being pressured on the topic.”
Laura stepped back and appraised their progress. “One or two blankets?”
“How cold does it get overnight?”
“Never below 60 in the house.”
“One should be fine.”
Laura disappeared into closet and returned with a thick brown blanket. “I wasn’t trying to pressure you into anything you’re not ready for.”
“Every time I talk to my mother it’s the main topic of conversation.”
“So you were responding to your mother and not me?”
Eliana sighed and she helped smooth the blanket in place. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“Can we at least agree it was inappropriate?” Laura asked.
Eliana nodded. “I am sorry.”
“I appreciate that, but in this family we expect apologies to be more sincere.”
Eliana blinked at her mother-in-law. Had her tone or infliction been off or was Laura trying to create a problem between them? She took a steadying breath and said, “It was sincere. I know I shouldn’t have said what I did and I am sorry about it.”
Laura presented a gentle smile. “I’m sure you are sorry, Eli, but what I’m talking about is your apology lacks the motivation needed to keep this sort of thing from happening again.”
“Well, I can’t promise I’ll never say the wrong thing again. That’s not practical, but I can promise I will try my best to minimize it.”
“You’re part of our family and Paul and I have a responsibility as parents to provide correction, guidance and motivation when you need it. I’m sure that’s not what you want hear, but if you and Trevor want to lead a happy life and takeover the business, you’re going to have to embrace the values of our family and this community. Otherwise you might as well pack up your things and head out to find whatever community it is that you want to embrace.”
Eliana stepped back. “The whole reason we moved here is because you told Trevor it was time for you to pass the reigns to him. You’ve been dragging your feet on making it official for months and now you’re going to try to blame changing your minds on me because I was a little short with you at dinner?”
“What happened at dinner is just a symptom of the larger problem. You’re not invested. And it’s not just you, Trevor is barely any different.” Laura sat on the edge of the bed. “Our family business is crucial to this community. You don’t seem to understand what that means and Trevor has lost sight of it. We can’t put everyone’s future in the hands of two people who don’t really care about that future.”
Eliana balled her hands into fists as she stomped around the foot of the bed to stand in front of her mother-in-law and glare into her eyes. “So, you don’t trust me. You believe I’ve corrupted your son. You disrupted our lives. Wasted our time. And you have the nerve to suggest we’re the ones that don’t give a damn about other people’s futures? Who the Hell do you think you are?”
Laura met Eliana’s gaze with squared shoulders and a stiff back. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you have a job before moving here?”
“A career that I gave up to support Trevor’s desire to help his family.”
Laura nodded. “You’re angry about what you gave up to be here. That’s not what Paul and I wanted.”
“What did you think was going to happen?”
“We thought you would join Trevor at the company. Learn our business and eventually run it together like Paul and I have done for the last 30 years.”
Eliana’s brow furrowed and she shook her head. “What?”
“We thought it was something you both wanted. Trevor is invested in your happiness more than anything else. You’re not happy and you’re not invested in being happy here. You’ve got both feet out the door and Trevor is just a half step behind you. We’re not going to stop you from leaving, but we aren’t going to put the fate of this entire community in your hands either.”
Eliana relaxed her hands and sat on the bed beside Laura. “Trevor and I have been trying to make this work, but no one ever said there was a place for me in all of this.”
Laura took hold of Eliana’s hand. “There is if it’s what you want. You don’t have to work at the company. There are other ways to be a part of the community, but if you aren’t a part of any of it there is nothing to motivate you and Trevor. We just need to know that you care about more than yourselves.”
Eliana sighed. “And actions speak better than words.”
Laura smiled. “I know you care about Trevor because you’re here with him. I want to believe you can care about our business and the people here, but I haven’t seen any indication of it. So show us what you care about and then we’ll all know whether or not bringing the two of you home was worthwhile.”
Eliana and Laura returned to the dining room. Haley remained naked and red bottomed in the corner, though her sniffling had subsided. If the guys had been talking they silenced themselves before they could be heard. More likely, they’d focused on clearing away the wrapping paper and Haley’s gifts. It also appeared one of them had wiped down the table. The two women took their seats.
“All good?” Paul asked.
Laura smiled. “The bed is made.”
Eliana said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready for some cake.”
Trevor cleared his throat and reached for Eliana beneath the table.
Paul chuckled and said, “I think you’re right. Haley, are you ready to blow out your candles?”
Trevor relaxed and patted Eliana’s thigh.
Haley said, “Yes, Dad.”
“Join us,” Paul said.
Haley turned away from the corner and tiptoed to her place at the table. It was only then Eliana noticed her sister-in-law’s chair had been withdrawn and tucked into the alcove next to the sideboard. Haley’s clothing was also gone and nowhere in sight. If Haley was the least bit concerned, she gave no outward sign of it. Under the circumstance, she was probably more concerned about the paddle still laying on the table and her undoubtedly throbbing buttocks.
Paul retrieved a lighter from the top of the sideboard and ignited the numbered candles on the cake. At the same time, Laura fetched an actual camera and a tripod. While the flames danced atop the candles, everyone posed individually and in various groups with Haley. Laura and Paul took turns snapping the shots and then set a timer for a full group picture. Wax dribbled onto the top of the cake for the final few snaps.
Laura led the family in a rowdy rendition of Happy Birthday. The song ended with laughter, applause. Haley leaned down and blew out her candles while Paul captured the action shot. For Eliana it was a disconcerting series of events. The pink flush brightening Haley’s cheeks and forehead reflected the obvious embarrassment—humiliation even—of the situation.
Haley remained elevated on her tiptoes. Her hands pressed firmly to the back of her head. The stance emphasized her nakedness throughout everything. It was an obvious intentional accompaniment to the punishment evident in the glow and heat emanating from her buttocks. And yet everyone, Haley included, exuded the feelings of genuine happiness and celebratory delight. Positions reversed, Eliana would have been enraged or defiant or running away.
Paul turned to Chuck and asked, “Would you like to help the birthday girl out and cut the cake or shall I?”
“I’ll do it.” Chuck rocketed out of his chair and sidled himself next to Haley. He kissed her cheek and carefully lifted the 5 candle from the top. Chocolate frosting clung to the bottom. He brought it to Haley’s mouth and she licked the frosting clean while his fingers massaged her back. And then he placed it on a white paper napkin and repeated the process with the 2. He picked up the cake knife and methodically marked the top edge of the frosting with a shallow cut every 30 degrees. Only then did he carve out slices for everyone and serve them onto the decorative plates. Chuck passed the plates around with the final one resting in front of Haley. Finished, he sat down.
Eliana hesitated expecting Haley to pick up her plate and take the first bite. That was how it always worked in her family. But Haley didn’t move from her punitive stance. Only her eyes moved toward the slice of cake.
Laura noticed and said, “Don’t worry, someone will help Haley enjoy her birthday cake in a little bit.”
“Oh,” Eliana said, “I’m just used to the birthday girl or boy getting the first bite.”
Paul said, “We consider that a privilege and it’s one Haley didn’t earn this year. Hopefully, she’ll be a little more dedicated to good and responsible behavior over the coming year once her birthday punishment has concluded.”
“I promise I got the message, Dad,” Haley said.
Laura said, “I hope so, but your track record over the last three years isn’t encouraging.”
Haley sighed. “You have to admit I’ve already improved a lot since the holidays.”
“True,” Paul said, “however, a couple months of good behavior doesn’t erase everything that’s happened. We want you to believe you’re on the right track and if you are it’ll become obvious over the next year.”
“I know and come next year, you’ll be proud of me.”
“We’re already proud of you,” Laura said. “But you have some growing up to do and it’s our job to help correct, guide and motivate you when you need it. Right now, as unpleasant as it is, you need some of that.”
“I assure you the loss of my clothes and the application of the paddle has provided me with an abundance of all three. Any chance you’ll turn the heat up? My rear is burning, but the rest of me is freezing.”
Paul shook his head. “You know the rules. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of a punishment if you were comfortable, now would it?”
Haley let out a shallow huff. “No, I guess not.”
Paul flashed his daughter a sympathetic smile. “At least you’re going to be well motivated.”
All except Haley dug into their slices of cake. Eliana couldn’t help glancing at her sister-in-law from time to time. In part, she wondered how Haley managed to hold her position. Of course, with closer inspection, there was obvious strain and effort involved. Haley’s legs and arms trembled. And she swayed ever so slightly shifting her weight from left to right. There were occasional blips of vertical movement too as Haley no doubt attempted to assuage her exhausted calf muscles.
Eliana’s also wondered what it would feel like to be in Haley’s place. Not just the physical taxation, but more the emotional state. Exposed. Humiliated. Helpless. Punished. Beyond the blushing and pursed lips, Haley didn’t reveal much of what she was feeling. Was it because Haley had grown accustomed to being in such situations or was she merely putting on a stoic face that would fall away as soon as she was secure in the privacy of her bedroom? The latter seemed more likely.
When Chuck finished his slice of cake, he began feeding Haley hers. She bent down, keeping her head up. Chuck delivered bite after bite to her lips, slow and steady. His free hand massaged her back, occasionally dipping to her reddened buttocks.
After Haley swallowed the last bite, Paul said, “I think it’s time to retire for the evening. Haley, you’ll clean everything up here and, when you’re finished, take the paddle back to the shed.”
“Yes, Dad.” Haley appeared relieved as she lowered her hands and collected plates from around the table.
Chuck stood and said, “I should be heading home.” He interrupted Haley’s work to give her a kiss and Paul walked him to the front door.
Upstairs in the guest room, Trevor shut the door and sat on the bed beside Eliana. “I’m sorry about this. If you really want to leave, we’ll leave.”
Eliana shook her head. “It’s fine. Maybe better than fine. I had an interesting talk with your mom.”
Trevor raised an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”
“I don’t know.” Eliana shrugged. “What has your dad said about why he hasn’t handed over the reigns to you?”
“Not a lot, but I’ve been getting the impression he’s afraid I’m not going to stay. The thing is, I’m not going to stay if he doesn’t start trusting me. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about this earlier. I think I need to give my parents a deadline. Make it clear they can’t just string me along.”
“From what your mom told me tonight, I think they’d tell us to just go then.”
Trevor cocked his head to the side. “What did she say?”
“Your parents don’t believe we’re invested in making a life here and they won’t turn the company over to us until they’re convinced otherwise.”
He grunted and said, “They’re not wrong, are they?”
“Yeah, but neither are we. We have no guarantees from them and tonight is probably the most honest your mom has ever been with me. And it wasn’t pretty from either of us. I’m glad it happened in private because I think we both had some serious misunderstandings we needed to clear up.”
“What are you thinking?” Trevor asked.
Eliana shrugged. “Your mom made it clear they aren’t handing the company over to you. They want to hand it over to both of us, but only if we’re committed to the company and the community. So, can we trust your parents?”
“Right.” Trevor took a deep breath. “Before we moved back here, I would have said absolutely. Now, I just don’t know. We’ve already sacrificed a lot and if we leave, it’ll have been for nothing. And it will take it us a year or two to get back to where we were. I don’t know if I’m willing to commit without some kind of certainty about our future here.”
“I agree,” Eliana said. “I’m willing to go to work for the company, learn the ropes and whatever else we need to do to build a life here, but not without assurances that we won’t be spending the next decade or two living under your parents’ thumbs.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. You don’t want to work for my parents.”
She took his hand. “If I don’t, we might as well leave.”
“We talked about this. My parents barely cut Haley any slack at the office. They won’t cut you any. I won’t put you through that.”
“I’m not that fragile. If this is really what you want, I’ll play their game. But only if we get a formal commitment from them. They can’t expect us to be all in if they’re not willing to do the same.”
“They might tell us to take a hike.” Trevor exhaled and shook his head.
She shrugged and squeezed his hand. “Then we call their bluff.”
“And if it’s not a bluff?”
“Then we prove we’re not bluffing either. Or we cave to their demands. It depends on if this is what you want and how badly you want it. I’ll follow your lead and do what you need me to do.”
“What about your family?” Trevor asked.
She chuckled at him. “This morning wasn’t about my family. It was about me feeling isolated and lonely. You mom presented a pretty good solution to that.”
“OK, let’s try to make this work. I’ll talk to my dad tomorrow about the four of us having a private meeting.”
“I’ll get our stuff moved over here.”
Eliana raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“We don’t even have pajamas for tonight.”
“I can think of worse things than sleeping naked with you.”
He pulled her to him, ran his hands through her hair. She nibbled on his earlobe. He kissed her neck. She unbuttoned his shirt. He unzipped her dress. She let the dress fall to the floor and kissed his lips. He tossed his shirt across the room and finished undressing her. She unfastened his belt. He pushed her onto the bed and shimmied out of his pants and boxers. Somehow his socks were still on. She cared only enough to smile as he climbed atop her and pinned her to the bed. His lips caressed her neck, her breasts, her navel…
Her eyes fluttered shut, she gasped and arched her back into the mattress. She bit into her lip. His tongue sent the first wave of euphoria rippling through her naked body. His hands forced her hips still. She strained against him. Two shuddered breaths later, she surrendered to him.
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Haley cried and sniffled while standing naked and red bottomed in the corner. Laura ignored her daughter and focused her attention on Trevor and Eliana. “Is the apartment really that bad?”
Saturday, March 4, 2023
Her husband, Trevor, joined her at their black barstool table just off the kitchen. He spread an unhealthy gob of cream cheese onto his cinnamon raisin bagel and dropped a half dozen brown sugar cubes into his travel mug coffee. “It’s Haley’s birthday, so yeah.”
Haley was Trevor’s sister. Eliana recalled her own twenty-fifth birthday. She couldn’t imagine wanting to spend it with her parents and brothers. Instead, she’d partied half the night away with friends and the rest had been spent more intimately with Trevor, first in a hotel hot tub and then onto a plush sofa before ultimately ending in naked, euphoric exhaustion on the suite’s carpeted floor. Parents and siblings didn’t leave much room for that sort of fun.
She set aside her mug and hugged her red winter robe tighter. “It’s really not a party? I mean doesn’t she want to celebrate with her friends?”
Trevor chuckled. “Haley has never been much for parties. It’s just going to be dinner and dessert. Other than Chuck, it’ll just be family and that’s how she wants it. I don’t know why it bothers you.”
Eliana sighed and shrugged. “It doesn’t really. I guess I’m just not big on feeling like we’re obligated to do all this stuff. When I agreed to move here, you promised we’d still live our own lives.”
He pushed his half eaten bagel aside and frowned. “I don’t think of celebrating my sister’s birthday as an obligation.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what do you mean? I thought you liked Haley.”
“What I’m saying is the only time we do anything social anymore it involves your family. We haven’t spent anytime with my family since our wedding.”
“Your closest family lives fifteen hundred miles away. Mine is less than a mile. You want me to pretend it’s all equal?”
Eliana groaned. “Just forget it. I’m wrong, you’re right, same as always.” She grabbed her mug and took a big sip that burned her tongue. It didn’t matter. Nothing she felt mattered.
“You know what?” Trevor slid out of his chair and pressed the lid onto his travel mug. “If you don’t want to come tonight, then don’t. I’ll tell everyone you’re sick or something.”
“You’re not getting what I’m trying to say to you and I don’t know how to make it clearer. That’s why I told you to forget it. We’ll go, make everyone happy. It’s all fine.”
“Obviously it’s not all fine.”
“Yeah, well it’s not going to get fixed before dinnertime either.”
He took a deep breath and stepped back from the table. “If you’re going to be in a bad mood—
“I’m not. I told you it’s fine.”
“Look, it’s Haley’s birthday, don’t ruin it.”
“Is that what you really think of me?”
Trevor grabbed his car keys from the nearby junk counter. “I’ll be home around 5:30. If you want to go, be ready and be in a better mood. Otherwise, I’ll go by myself.”
Eliana glared at his back as he walked to the front door. When he turned back with his hand on the knob she fluttered her eyelashes and said, “Love you.”
“Same, Babe. See you tonight.” Shaking his head, he left and locked the door behind him.
Eliana donned her favorite sweater dress for the evening and matched it with tights and a pair of suede boots. Her husband’s family didn’t really do formal outside of weddings. Something else she missed about life before moving to Trevor’s hometown. She pushed the thoughts aside. He’d be home any minute and she didn’t want another fight. Especially since she couldn’t articulate the problem. It was real. It needed to be dealt with. But not before dinner on Haley’s birthday. Patience and a little extra time to understand what she was feeling wouldn’t hurt.
Trevor came through the front door, punctual as always. He looked tired. His hair was windblown as if he’d drove with the windows down. He stripped off his tie and threw it on the back of the couch. It slid over and pooled onto the left cushion. “You ready to go?”
Eliana smiled and took his hand. “Bad day?”
“I’m beginning to think Dad is never going to trust me to run the place on my own.”
She slipped her hand onto his back and massaged. “Probably not a good night to have this conversation.”
He forced a chuckle and kissed her. “You’re right. But we do need to talk about all this. I didn’t move us back here to be miserable.”
“I know and I’m really sorry about this morning. I’m not angry with you.”
He put on a smile and said, “It’s OK. Are you ready?”
She picked up the wrapped present for his sister from table and nodded. “I am if you are.”
Soon after Eliana and Trevor arrived, his mom, Laura, called the family to dinner. Laura had prepared a feast of beef ribs, baked beans and corn on the cob. The aroma of smoky barbecue permeated the entire house. It was self serve with Haley getting first pick on account of being her birthday. Her boyfriend, Chuck, complimented Laura on the meal following his first taste of the meat. Eliana assumed he’d have praised the culinary skills even if it had tasted of charcoal and sand. Not that it did.
Trevor’s dad, Paul, raised his glass of beer and said, “Happy birthday to my baby girl!”
Haley smiled and took a sip of her red wine. “I’m not a baby anymore, Dad.”
Paul shrugged. “No need to throw a tantrum.”
Haley shook her head and picked up the spoon beside her plate. “Would you rather I catapult some beans your way?”
Paul laughed. “If you did that I’d have to send you for the paddle.”
“Aren’t you going to anyway?” Haley asked with a raised eyebrow.
Chuck shifted in his seat.
Paul said, “I would think by now you’d know the difference between a birthday spanking and a punishment.”
Haley set the spoon down with a short giggle. “You’re too easy to tease, Dad.”
Paul leaned back and smiled at Haley. “Probably true, but as I recall, about a decade ago, you actually flung those beans.”
Haley nodded. “Gotta watch that memory in your old age. It was nine years ago on my sweet sixteen.”
Chuck blinked. “Seriously?”
Laura said, “She did indeed.”
Eliana leaned forward. “I can’t imagine that ended well.”
Paul polished off another rib. “Just a spot of fun, Eli. Don’t tell me you’ve never enjoyed a good food fight?”
Laura shook her head at the ceiling. “Only someone who has never scrubbed the stains out of laundry can call a food fight fun or good.”
Haley laughed. “That’s not true. I helped scrub those stains out.”
“You mean you helped smear them in better,” Trevor said.
Haley shrugged. “Six, half dozen.”
Laura said, “Yeah, like cleaning your room is synonymous with shoving everything under your bed or into your closet.”
“Whatever works, right Dad?” Haley said.
“I’ve never said anything of the sort.” Paul chomped into his corn.
Haley said, “Agree to disagree, I guess.”
“So you weren’t punished over it?” asked Chuck.
Laura said, “Only if you count making her help me with the laundry as a punishment.”
“Don’t let Mom fool you. She’s a real taskmaster when it comes to chores.” Haley eyed her mom as she sipped her wine.
Laura shook her head.
Paul said, “I would never punish my daughter over a joke. Even a bad one.”
Chuck said, “I don’t think my parents would have considered me throwing food at them a joke.”
Eliana said, “Mine would have definitely sent me to my room to think about my behavior.”
Paul finished the last of his beer. “I’m not going to punish my kids for having fun. I’m going to laugh and have fun with them.”
Haley said, “And that’s why we love you, Dad.”
Eliana helped Laura clear away the dinner dishes. Paul and Trevor repopulated the table with gifts. And Laura brought out a homemade chocolate birthday cake with a pair of numbered candles. Originally the candles indicated 52. Haley popped up from her seat and hunched over taking small steps and rubbing her lower back. In a creaky voice, she said, “I gotta stretch the old bones out.”
Everyone laughed. Paul switched the candles around. “To have a baby girl that old, I’d had to have been robbing the cradle when I was still in the cradle.”
Laura grinned. “The perfect cover for a cradle robber.”
Haley straightened and put her hands on the back of her chair. “Please, I don’t need to picture my parents in diapers together.”
Trevor nodded. “It’ll happen soon enough.”
Laura laughed. “I better have a house full of grandkids before that day.”
“Not as long as we’re still living in a crappy apartment,” Eliana said.
The laughter faded.
Trevor said, “I think it’s time for my baby sis to open her presents.”
Eliana bit her lip. Apologizing seemed like it would only make things more awkward.
Haley slipped back into her seat and picked up the biggest box. She shook it and frowned. “No rattle.”
Chuck leaned into her. “Three guesses.”
Haley sized up the package. “Something small wrapped in too much packaging.”
“What makes you say that?” Chuck asked.
“It’s about as heavy as the box should be.” Haley sat it down and carefully peeled the tape on the end.
“You haven’t guessed yet.” Paul said.
Haley waggled her head. “It’s jewelry.”
Chuck exhaled. “How do you do that?”
Haley laughed and finished unwrapping the box. A second rectangular box rested in the center of it surrounded by wads of tissue paper. She slipped the lid off the second box exposing a heart-shaped locket on a thin gold necklace. Three small diamonds were set in the face of the locket. She leaned into Chuck and kissed him. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
Eliana watched the couple with a smile. Chuck wasn’t her type, but he was sweet. His love for Haley was obvious. The way he looked at Haley reminded her of Trevor back in their dating days. Somewhere along the way the magic had faded. Maybe what they had now was better, but she missed that spark in her husband’s eyes whenever he looked her way. Was it wrong to want the thrill again?
Trevor pushed their gift toward his sister. “Eli insisted on wrapping it.”
Haley took the gift and locked eyes with Eliana. “You’d think boys would understand that unwrapping is half the fun.”
Eliana nodded. “Trevor is still on the fence when it comes to trusting my judgment.”
Haley sighed. “So, it’s a gift card instead of something for Chuck to unwrap later.”
Eliana laughed. “I tried to tell him.”
Haley turned to her brother. “Next year, trust your wife.” She unwrapped the small box and removed the plastic gift card. “Well, at least you let her pick the store.”
“As long as you’re happy,” Trevor said.
Haley got up and rounded the table. She kissed her brother’s cheek and hugged Eliana. “Thanks.”
“Happy birthday,” Eliana said.
Haley returned to her seat and spent the next several minutes unwrapping gifts from her parents. She guessed each item with unwavering accuracy. They’d loaded her up with a variety of new clothes and an expensive new phone. She gave her parents each a hug and a kiss with her thanks.
Paul leaned back and asked, “Did you get everything you wanted?”
“I can’t complain.”
Laura said, “It’s almost time for cake then.”
“Right,” Haley said. She chewed on her lip for a moment while staring at the table. “I suppose I should go get the paddle.”
Paul said, “You’ve got a few things to work on for the year ahead, most notably, punctuality. If not for that, tonight really would be just a few token swats.”
“I know.” Haley nodded. “I’ve only got myself to blame.”
Eliana raised an eyebrow, but decided to keep her mouth shut. She wasn’t entirely up on the Hanson family traditions, but she’d never considered a birthday spanking to be more than a lighthearted joke. Between the expressions on Haley and Paul’s faces, she gathered they weren’t discussing a joke. Or maybe the somberness was part of their family joke. She wasn’t sure and didn’t want to spoil anything.
Haley got to her feet. “Be right back.”
“Hold up,” Laura said. “I think this lesson needs to have a clock and some urgency on it. You need to be back with paddle in less than five minutes or you’ll be getting double the swats. And before you head out to the shed for it, I want you to strip down to your birthday suit and fold all you clothes neatly onto the seat of your chair.”
Haley gawked at her mom.
Paul eyed his wristwatch and said, “The clock starts now.”
Haley whirled toward her dad and seemed to realize her parents weren’t joking. Her cheeks flushed. “It’s freezing out.”
“All the more reason to be quick,” Laura said.
“Please,” Haley said with her big eyes focused on her dad, “I promise I won’t waste a second.”
Paul shook his head. “You’re already wasting time. Keep it up and this punishment could follow you to office as well.”
Haley’s jaw quivered.
Eliana watched in a combination of shock and fascination as Haley looked from her mom to her dad and then sighed. A moment later Haley was tugging her boots off. Her jeans followed. She folded them into a square and placed them on the seat of her chair. Her shaking hands pulled her thick sweater up over her head and tugged it free of her wavy hair. It took her three attempts to fold it properly. She kept her gaze low and away from everyone else at the table. Her socks went next.
Haley’s hand hovered with momentary indecision and then quickly moved to unlatch her bra. She hid her breasts from view as long as possible and then gave up as she laid her fold bra atop her sweater. Her fingers found the waistband of her panties and she yanked them south. It was clear there was no longer a point in stalling or trying to hide anything. Naked and red faced, Haley stood still for a moment with her hands dangling beside her legs.
Laura huffed and her lips parted as if to say something.
Haley jolted. She popped up on her tiptoes and raised her hands to the back of her head.
Laura settled back in her chair.
Paul said, “Best get moving. You’ve got less than the two minutes to get back here with the paddle.”
Haley sucked in a deep breath, turned and darted from the room on her toes. A moment later, the back door off the kitchen rattled open and clapped shut.
Eliana tried to ease her discomfort with the situation by shifting in her seat. It didn’t help. She wanted to ask Trevor about the situation, but feared it would spark trouble with his parents. The last thing they needed. Not to mention Trevor had good reason to still be frustrated with her, given her thoughtless response to his mom’s desire for grandkids.
Paul focused on Trevor. “Something on your mind?”
“I guess I was just hoping things had changed a bit more than they have.”
Laura said, “Haley has known for a good month that tonight was going to involve a motivational birthday spanking. She agreed it was deserved.”
“Would her disagreeing change anything?” Trevor asked.
Paul sighed. “It’s a parent’s job to give their kids what they need even when it’s not what they want. One day you’ll understand this.”
Trevor grabbed Eliana’s hand under the table and squeezed. “I just hope she doesn’t catch a cold. It really is freezing out there.”
“A couple minutes chill isn’t going to hurt her,” Laura said. “However, the paddle striking her cold butt will light a fire she won’t soon forget.”
Chuck said, “I’m not thrilled about the situation either, Trevor, but she really does need to learn to be on time.”
“I suppose it’s not really any of my business,” Trevor said.
The kitchen door rattled open and slammed shut. Haley tiptoed back into the room shivering. Her skin was covered in goosebumps. She still held her hands to the back of her head with the paddle’s handle pinched between them. Her cheeks were rosier than when she’d left.
Paul looked at his watch. “14 seconds to spare.”
Haley’s teeth chattered.
Paul stood and took the paddle from her. “Let’s get this over with. Touch your toes.”
Haley didn’t hesitate. She bent forward and dropped her arms to stretch out toward her feet. The paddle crashed into her buttocks. She whimpered. Paul raised the paddle and swung it down. It impacted like thunder. Haley’s body swayed under the force. She grunted and sniffled. Paul drew the paddle back and slammed it into her buttocks.
“Oh! Ow!” Haley stretched and wavered.
Paul was unfazed. He delivered three more swats in quick succession.
“Ow! Oh, it burns! Ow! Ow! Ow! Oh, please!” Haley wriggled and swayed under the onslaught.
“It’s only going to get hotter,” Paul said. “Hopefully, you’ll learn the lesson this time.”
Haley sniffled. “I have, I swear.”
“Not yet,” Paul said. He delivered six more swats in the same harsh fashion. The thunderous claps echoed off the walls.
Haley’s movements intensified as did her yelps and pleas for mercy.
Paul ignored them. He rested the paddle against her buttocks. “What time should you arrive at work?”
Haley choked back tears and gasped for air. “8 AM.”
“Wrong.” Paul delivered two hard swats. “Try again.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. At least five minutes before 8.”
“Better,” Paul said. “How long do you have for lunch?”
She sniffled. “An hour.”
Paul laid on two more swats. “You’re to be back at your desk within an hour. If you spend an hour away, you’ll be late. Understand?”
Haley’s body jiggled. “Yes, Dad. I’m sorry.”
He delivered three hard swats. “Don’t be sorry, be punctual.”
Haley yelped and squirmed. Her voice squeaked as she said, “I will. I swear.”
Paul raised the paddle. He brought it down six more times hard and fast. Haley gasped for air between sobs as her body roiled under the swats. Paul raised the paddle high and paused. His jawline hardened. “Last one, to think and grow on.”
The paddle clapped against her reddened buttocks. Ripples jolted through her body. Her head jerked up. She cried out in shock and pain. Fresh tears burst from her eyes. New sobs racked her body.
Paul lowered the paddle and said, “Up you get.”
Haley gasped for air and sniffled a few times before raising herself upright. Her hands wriggled in the air near her waist as her legs trembled. She looked around the room, face flushed red and tears streaming down her cheeks. Her gaze lowered. “I’m sorry.”
Paul touched the bottom of her elbow and she immediately moved her hands to the back of her head. A breath later and she was back on her tiptoes. He placed the paddle on the table next to the cake. “I think you could use a few minutes in the corner to collect your thoughts and fully appreciate the motivating power of a well-spanked butt.”
Her lips quivered. “Y—Yes, Dad.” She tiptoed into the corner.