Authors: Emily Tilton
“And your editor…?”
“I couldn’t convince him to let me do a positive story. He wanted to ‘expose a deviant lifestyle.’”
“But you don’t think it’s deviant?”
Jack snorted. “I don’t think anything is deviant when grown-ups do it because they want to do it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Standing on his porch, sipping a cup of coffee with a little whisky in it, Ross watched the lights of Jack Riley’s pickup approach down the long driveway toward the ranch house. His head was full of cattle: how the steers were grazing, whether he needed to call the vet for the one who was hanging back from the herd. What space the steers didn’t occupy Ross gave to the saddle horses—was he going to sell Sophie to the rodeo rider who had offered him two thousand dollars?
Not much room, then, for this handful of a girl whom Jack Riley brought to him. Ross had sworn off girls for the last year or so, since Sally Mae had moved to New York City to be closer to her family. Not that there weren’t a lot of girls around Pleasant Hill who would gladly have kept company with him, and even been interested in a little ageplay, but as he got older and more set in his ways, Ross had understood that he could only be happy with a woman who lit up like a Christmas tree when she called him ‘daddy.’ Ageplay ran so deep for Ross that he knew it would be better to remain alone, rather than to marry someone who had to pretend to be a little for him. If he did marry, he would marry a girl who really did want to sit in his lap while he read her a story—who really did want to act like a little lady, and have him as her stern protector.
Sally Mae had almost been that: almost. “Daddy,” she had said when she left. “If I had something of my own, for when we weren’t playing… but I hope you understand—I mean, in a way I’m not strong enough to be your little girl.” She laughed ruefully, standing right there on the porch, where Ross stood now with his coffee.
Ross did understand. Being little actually took a lot of strength all on its own. A woman had to start, he believed, by acknowledging that she had a part of her that didn’t really look like what she had been raised to think she should be. Sally Mae was most definitely not a weak woman; she knew what she wanted from ageplay, and she could tell Ross what she needed from him.
But Sally Mae did not have it in her to tell him No. She wanted a daddy whom she could obey without question. She needed to feel that her daddy needed that obedience; if Ross had to spank her, it would be because she had forgotten some duty like ironing his shirts. She had no interest in bratting, let alone in asserting her modern adulthood in the face of Ross’ stern demand that she be a proper old-fashioned little lady.
Ross needed to feel, well, resistance. And so Ross and Sally Mae didn’t feed each other’s needs the way both of them knew they needed from their lovers and play partners, going forward, if they were to tie the knot.
Also, though a gentleman like Ross would never speak of it to his lover except in euphemisms, and would certainly never refer to it in the presence of anyone else, bedroom time with Sally Mae hadn’t been the kind of thing he had really hoped for, but had never yet experienced despite playing that seriously with two other littles as well as Sally Mae, and having really quite a bit of bedroom time with them.
It wasn’t supposed to be like the kind of sex he had had with the two girls he had dated normally, before he let his daddy side come out, he thought, but really with the exception that the three littles called him ‘daddy’ sometimes, it was—not boring, really, but definitely vanilla. Did his need for something more go along with his wish that Sally Mae would brat sometime so that he could teach her a real lesson?
The pickup pulled up in front of the ranch house. Ross stepped down off the big wrap-around porch as Jack and the girl got out.
“Thanks so much, Ross,” Jack said. “Meet Victoria Mason.”
The girl, a stunningly beautiful woman in her late 20s, stuck out her hand. She wore tight jeans and a green T-shirt with the name of some band Ross had of course never heard of printed on it. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. MacGregor. Thanks so very much for doing this. You’re literally saving my life.”
Victoria’s grip was firm. Her blue eyes met his confidently, with an air of slight superiority: she was young, and she had something to prove. Young, professional, and smart—definitely much smarter, she clearly knew, than any rancher.
“It’s my pleasure,” Ross said simply. “I owe Jack here a big favor, and I mean to repay the debt.” He turned to Jack. “You’ll stay the night, of course?”
Jack nodded. “Thanks, that would be great, Ross.”
“Have you eaten?”
“We had a burger on the way,” Victoria put in. She had reached into the truck to get a plastic shopping bag that bore the logo of a big-box store. Ross fixed her with a look that stopped her in her tracks. He intended the look to say, “Did I speak to you, darlin’?” and it clearly did. Victoria blushed.
Ross turned back to Jack, who wore a puzzled smile. “Yeah, we had a burger,” he said.
“A burger’s not much when you’ve had a long drive. I’ve got a pie I was fixin’ to get into. Mrs. Stovall, the librarian in town, likes to bake ‘em for me since I give her and her husband a good deal on stablin’ their saddle horses.”
“Pie sounds great,” Victoria said. “Got any decaf?”
Ross turned to look at her again. He could tell immediately that she would not have interrupted about the pie if he hadn’t first told her with his eyes that he didn’t approve of other people putting their oars into a conversation he was having. She had sensed that disapproval, and whether consciously or, more probably, unconsciously, she had decided to put her oar in again, immediately. Very interesting.
“Nope, darlin’,” Ross said. “No decaf here. But you may have a little whisky in yours if you like.”
Victoria made a face. The sourness of the expression definitely made her features less beautiful, but it also increased Ross’ interest in figuring her out. A handful—yup, he could certainly see that.
“Have you tried it, Miss Mason?”
Victoria gave a little start at being called ‘Miss Mason.’ “What?”
“A little whisky in your coffee.”
“Oh… call me…” Something about Ross calling her ‘Miss Mason’ had definitely thrown her off her stride. Ross felt his mouth twist into a smile. “I mean, no. And please call me ‘Victoria.’” Ross got the very distinct sense that the request that he call her by her first name had less to do with wanting to be casual and familiar with him than it did with not wanting to let him call her what he wanted to call her.
“I apologize, miss, but I can’t do that. I’m old-fashioned.”
Pink spots appeared in Victoria’s cheeks, and she positively glared at Ross. He felt his lopsided smile twist higher on the left side. She seemed to be looking very hard for something to say. “Well, Mr. MacGregor, I don’t like whisky. So I’ll have water, please.”
“Suit yourself, darlin’,” Ross said. He reached out for the shopping bag. “Let me take that up to your room for you.”
But Victoria drew the bag back. “Please just show me where that is? I can carry the bag.”
“Alright,” Ross said, marveling at how her demeanor seemed so opposite to what he expected from a person coming to stay on a ranch. She seemed wound as tight as the mainspring in the old clock up in the tower of town hall. Part of it must be whatever she was running from—but another part seemed to come from the deepest reaches of her personality.
He led them through the dark great room. The kitchen light shone invitingly through the door at the other end, but Ross flipped on the light at the bottom of the stairs. “Miss Mason, you’re up at the top to the right. Jack, you’ll be in the room to the left.”
“Why do you call him ‘Jack’?” Victoria suddenly demanded, as he drew back to let her pass up the stairs. “Why not Mr. Riley?”
Had she really been stewing about that? “Because he’s a man, darlin’, and because I’ve known him a while.”
“Why do you call me ‘darlin’’? Isn’t that even less respectful and old-fashioned than calling me by my first name?”
Ross laughed and looked at Jack. Jack shrugged, lifting his eyebrows. “Well, Miss Mason, I can see you’re a very good reporter,” Ross said. “‘Darlin’’ is just one of those liberties that everyone takes and no one really thinks about, I guess. I suppose you’re right, though, and I promise not to call you that again.”
Victoria’s brow furrowed. She clearly had been expecting a very different answer.
“Thank you, Mr. MacGregor,” she said finally.
“Come on down for pie when you freshen up, Miss Mason,” Ross said. “Would you like a glass of milk with it, since we don’t have decaf?”
Even that question seemed to touch some strange nerve in the girl. “No… no, thank you,” she said. “I’ll have coffee… with whisky. You’re right—I haven’t tried whisky that way.” She looked into his eyes, and he watched her assert her adulthood there, to herself, thinking—Ross was sure—about whisky, and probably thinking about ‘darlin’.’ Her nostrils gave a tiny flare, and then she walked by and up the stairs, brushing against the flannel of his shirt as she did.
When she was out of sight, Ross chuckled. “She’s a little prickly, isn’t she?”
“She’s really a wonderful kid,” Jack said. “She just… well, she’s had a really bad scare today.”
Ross led him into the kitchen and got the coffeepot off the stove to rinse it out.
“Sit yourself down, Jack, please,” he said, “and, if you don’t mind, tell me what you can about Miss Mason’s situation.” He gave the pot a good rinse and got the coffee canister.
“Well,” said Jack. “Victoria saw something that a certain powerful person didn’t want anyone to see, and he knows that she saw it.”
Ross measured the coffee and the water into the pot and put it on to boil. Then he got three plates down from the cabinet and three spoons and started to slice the custard pie.
“So she’s going to be very anxious,” Ross said. “She’s probably not going to want to lay low and let others deal with the problem.” He put a big piece of pie in front of Jack, with a spoon on the plate as Jack reached for a paper napkin from the holder on the table, and pulled two more out for Victoria and Ross.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to sort the situation out, and Victoria’s never been a patient girl.”
“How well do you know her?” Ross asked pointedly. There was no reason to beat about the bush, he figured.
Jack’s jaw seemed to set slightly. “We were together. As a couple, for a year, but that ended two years ago. She was… pursuing other opportunities.”
The coffee boiled, and Ross poured three cups and put them on saucers. Something in the way Jack said ‘opportunities’ made it clear that those opportunities had led directly to the trouble in which Victoria now found herself.
Ross put the coffee cups and saucers on the table, then pulled his flask from his back pocket. He looked at Jack inquiringly, and seeing Jack’s nod, he poured a bit of whisky in all three cups. He sat down in his own place and looked at Jack. He could tell that there was something else the man wanted to say—some recommendation, maybe, that he wanted to make about Victoria.
“Go ahead and taste Kelly’s pie,” Ross said. “I don’t know how long the little lady is going to take, but I’ll never wait my pie for a girl who’s powdering her nose.”
Jack took a bite of pie and a swallow of coffee. His face lit up. “That’s real coffee,” he said, clearing his throat at the burning of the whisky. “And oh, my—that’s quite a pie.”
Ross dug in himself, and the two men chewed in silence for a few moments.
Then Jack said what he’d been meaning to. “I think she’s going to fight you, and frankly I’m hoping you’ll show her that sometimes you have to let somebody take care of you.”
“So,” Ross said, “if she ended up over my knee, you’d be alright with that?”
Jack chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “I’d be alright with that.”
When Victoria came into the beautiful kitchen, she found Ross and Jack sitting companionably at the table, chuckling over something.
“What’s funny?” she asked. She felt almost human after changing into a pair of the jeans she’d bought on the way, and a plain blue cotton top. Not to mention the new underwear, considering her body’s stupid reaction to Ross saying, “Because he’s a man, darlin’.” Why? Why had that made her wet?
Why had it made her think of Senator Bob Austin telling Cynthia Loper that her panties were going to come down if she came over to his house?
“Oh, nothing you need to worry about, Miss Mason,” Ross said affably as she sat down at the table, “if you behave yourself.”
Jack seemed to choke a little on his coffee at that.
“Behave myself? What’s that supposed to mean?” Victoria decided to try to keep a bantering tone with this strange man. ‘Special,’ Jack had called him. She could definitely see ‘different,’ at the very least. ‘Sexist,’ too.
Ross looked her straight in the eye, and as it had when she first saw him stepping down off his porch, his sheer physical presence nearly took her breath away. This man was a real live cowboy, without any need to wear a Stetson or fancy boots. The only thing that even suggested he might have a bit of swagger in him was the silver belt buckle with the galloping horse on it. His craggy face—craggy though he couldn’t be over forty—under dark brown hair, out of which eyes of nearly the same color peered intently and steadily into her own, said that, without the slightest hint of corniness, he had made his home on the range.
Jack said, sounding a little less than completely comfortable, “I, um…”
Ross glanced at him, as if to ask whether Jack would forgive him offering some assistance.
Jack said, “Well, maybe Ross should tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Victoria had thought that the situation, staying with this rancher, would probably have its challenges. She had thought, as they drove into the cattle-and-horse country, that she would keep herself to herself and help out with the chores, though she had no idea really what ‘chores’ meant if it didn’t mean vacuuming the floor of your apartment once a week and putting the dishes in the dishwasher.