Liam looked up from where he was seated behind his desk, his breath catching in his throat. Though she was an adult of twenty-four, today, standing with her fingers twisting in her plaid skirt, her feet shifting, her body trembling slightly, she looked absolutely perfect in the role of a naughty schoolgirl. Giving her a nod, he heard her clearing her throat.
“You wanted to see me, Daddy?”
“Yes, sit down, Elena,” Liam said, gesturing to a chair.
Keeping her eyes on his, she walked to sink down onto the straight-back chair, primly crossing her ankles and folding her hands in her lap. Taking another deep breath, she looked up at her daddy.
“What do you have to say for yourself, little girl?” He loved the flush that immediately colored her cheeks.
“I-I can explain—”
“Can you?” he asked, his eyebrow lifting in a way that he knew had her tummy doing flips. “Well, by all means, Elena, please, explain.”
Elena squirmed and then froze when she saw his lips twitch. His hand lifted, gesturing toward her.
“I’m waiting, young lady.”
Her eyes were locked on his hand, and he had to bite back a grin. It was obvious that she understood that she’d soon feel his hand being applied to her behind—her bare behind. All coherent thought seemed to disappear as she only stammered.
“No? You have no explanation?” Liam said.
Auburn pigtails swayed as she shook her head.
“So you admit that you had to go see Principal Jenkins today?”
His sharp tone had her jumping a bit in her chair.
“I mean yes, sir.”
“And today’s little trip to his office wasn’t the first one this week, was it?”
“Um… no, sir.”
“In fact, this was the third time this week you were sent to the principal’s office, wasn’t it?”
He saw her emerald green eyes widen and could guess she was most likely thinking that his declaration sounded bad… really bad.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Oh, I’m sure you are. And do you know why I’m so sure?”
Elena’s eyes remained on his as he stood and walked around the desk. “No, sir.”
Liam leaned against the desk and unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt. As he began to roll it up, she squirmed and pressed her hands against her tummy, which was most likely doing somersaults by now.
“Because I’ve found that when my little girl knows that she has been naughty, knows that her daddy knows she’s been naughty, she becomes very, very apologetic. But sweet apologies aren’t enough are they, Elena?”
“No… no, sir.”
“That’s right. Daddy needs to remind you that when you are naughty, when you don’t do your assignments, when you whisper with your friends instead of listening to your teacher, there are consequences, doesn’t he?” His sleeve was now above his elbow, his forearm bare and he heard her soft gasp as he flexed his hand.
“Y… ye… yes, sir.”
“And how is your daddy going to do that, Elena? How is he going to help you be the very best little girl you can be?”
She lifted her eyes to find his blue ones and seemed to accept her fate. “You are going to spank me, Daddy.”
“That’s right. Daddy is going to spank your little bottom.” He straightened. “Come here, Elena.”
She was the picture of a naughty little miscreant as she stood and slowly walked toward him. He patted his palm against the surface of his desk. “Put your hands right here.”
She obeyed, bracing herself against the wood. She mewled when he lifted the back of her skirt to tuck it into her waistband. Putting his hands on her waist, he could feel her tremble beneath his fingertips as he slowly stroked along her skin a moment before he hooked them in the fabric of her white panties. As he peeled them slowly down, he said, “Daddy is going to spank your naughty bare bottom until you are one very contrite little one indeed.”
“Yes, Daddy.” She couldn’t contain a soft moan when his hand caressed her flesh, rubbing across the pale hillocks that he would soon turn crimson. When he lifted it, he heard her catch her breath. It was time.
Three months later
Yanking the strap of the duffle higher on her shoulder, Elena used the tip of her boot to kick over yet another rock. Seeing nothing but little multi-legged bugs immediately rolling into tight black balls, she huffed.
“Yes, it is freaking cold, isn’t it? At least you’ve got armor to keep you warm,” she mumbled, her windbreaker doing next to nothing to keep the chill caused by gusts of frigid wind from seeping into her bones.
Damn it, where the hell was the key? The fake rock holding a spare key to the cabin was not where she’d been expecting to find it.
The light was beginning to fade fast and she was running out of rocks to kick over. Glancing up at the cabin, she pondered how difficult it would be just to break in. Sure, it might be considered breaking and entering, but really, who would blame her? At least a jail cell would be warmer. As it stood, she would soon be nothing but a frozen corpse anyway.
When a shriek rent the silence, she jumped two feet into the air and echoed the unholy sound. Okay, that did it. While it might be acceptable to be found, covered in ice crystals, a frozen statue as testament to her law-abiding ethics, she was not the least bit willing to be found… in pieces, scattered across the forest floor by some creature with pointed teeth and sharp claws that was stalking her just out of sight.
“Stop it!” she softly chided. “You are not some kid who is afraid of the dark. You are a grown ass woman.” The words meant to steady her only served to have her turn toward the woods and yell, “Stay away! I’m a pissed off girl with a gun.” When that didn’t sound very threatening even to her own ears, she added, “And a very itchy trigger finger!”
Not sure if the fact that there was no reply, nor the sound of anyone or anything retreating, meant her threat had been taken seriously or if some mysterious menace was simply attempting to keep amusement from being heard before calling her bluff, she cursed beneath her breath and kicked another rock. Instead of barely moving as the multitude of others had done, this one took off as if she were some football player trying for the league record in field goal distance. Elena knew it was the fake rock as it was so much lighter than the rocks it had been surrounded by. She watched it arc up and up and up, flying toward the trees before it disappeared from sight.
“Fuck!” Finding the expletive wasn’t quite enough, she felt it necessary to repeat it. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! This entire idea is fucked.”
Dropping the duffle, she dug her cell phone out of her pocket. Enough with this shit. She wasn’t going to freeze or find herself the tasty delicacy of the day. How many signs did a girl need to understand this was the stupidest thing she’d ever done… or tried to do? Cold fingers began typing in the search field of Google. She’d find the name of the nearest taxi service and get the fuck out of Dodge. Shit, she’d even push aside her apprehension of climbing into some car driven by a stranger who’d decided to earn a few bucks by joining the Uber network.
Oh, that’s a great idea. If he finds out you did, your ass is grass.
“Shut up,” she said to that little voice in her head. “He’d have to actually care about my ass to get pissed off.”
Isn’t that why you’re here? To find out?
“Yes, but since I’ve decided this whole plan is insane, his caring is a moot point, isn’t it?”
When no voice answered, she shook her head. “Great, even you agree this is dumb.”
It didn’t take her but a few keystrokes before she realized that the little wheel that continued to rotate on her phone’s screen was yet another obstacle in her ever worsening life. When even that disappeared and she saw that she didn’t have as much as a single bar, she almost threw the phone to follow the rock’s path. Only the fact that her ring snagged in her hair as she pulled her arm back kept her from following through. Gently untangling the strands of auburn tresses from the prongs of the ring she wore on her right hand, she bit her bottom lip and blinked hard, feeling defeated. She was not only frozen; she was hungry, thirsty, she had to pee, and exhaustion was threatening to drop her to her knees… in the snow.
What? Fuck! It was snowing… of course it was snowing! Though the last of the light was dimming through the trees, she could see big fat, wet, cold snowflakes. From the speed at which they were falling and the rapidness of the accumulation, she feared this wasn’t some little flurry. Nope, this looked like the beginning of what would likely become a thick white cloak covering every inch of her surroundings.
“Okay, think. What would he do?” She snorted at her question. “Fuck him. You saw what he would do… he’d put the spare key in some stupid rock a gazillion paces away from the freaking door. No, the real question is what would MacGyver do?” Picturing the character who managed to escape some pending danger or save the world from everything from floods to the apocalypse with nothing more than a paper clip (that he, of course, had to fashion out of some found piece of wire), she closed her eyes. “Mac, don’t fail me now,” she said. “Show me that you’re more than some hunk with a brain.”
A face popped into her head and it wasn’t that of Lucas Till, the actor chosen to reincarnate the once very popular television series. No, while the man belonging to the face was a hunk of the highest order and had the intelligence and quick wit that had made for some very interesting conversations, Elena was pretty sure he wouldn’t lift a finger… well, not one intending on helping her escape.
“Look, it took a lot of courage to get my ass here. Can’t a girl get one little break?” No answer was audible and yet, when a swirling leaf fell onto the surface of her phone, she grinned. “Right, a bit obvious, but thanks anyway.” There might be no service in these godforsaken woods, but she still had battery power. Though she was sure that MacGyver could have had the iPhone dismantled and turned into some sort of luxurious RV where she could spend the night in warmth, with or without the benefit of strong arms wrapped protectively around her body…
Funny choice of word. You didn’t seem to consider it as protection before. No, as I recall, you found it restrictive…
Forget the fact that she was standing in the middle of the woods in a snowstorm; even if she’d been standing on some sunny beach in the Bahamas, she’d still have felt the shudder as it ran through her body as the words seemed to float on the air. She’d spent months attempting to forget that face, that voice, those arms and yet here she was.
“I’m trying,” she whispered, “but I’m hanging on by a thread.” Her heart skipped a beat when a light pierced the growing darkness. It took her a moment to realize it was coming from her phone. Not wanting to consider the fact that her finger had been stroking across the screen as if down an arm or a cheek prickly with the stubble of a beard, she just accepted the fact that her mind wasn’t so far gone that it had forgotten the handy-dandy flashlight icon on her phone.
Moving the phone up and down, to make sure she could not only see where she was walking, but to keep from knocking herself out on some low overhanging tree branch, she moved toward the last spot she’d seen the rock. It took her a half hour and cost her a great deal of her courage to block out the rustles and sounds from things she had no wish to consider moving just out of sight among the trees before she finally saw the grayish-black rock. A small ridged panel on the underneath told of its true purpose. Lifting her eyes, ignoring the fact that the trees were so thick she couldn’t see even a patch of the sky, she prayed, “Please, please let there be a key.” Elena almost rolled her eyes remembering such inane prayers throughout her life, the outcomes weighing far heavier on the ‘no answer’ than the ‘your wish is my command’ side of the scales. With fingers that were so frozen she was surprised they didn’t snap off like a bean from a vine, she finally managed to shove the panel to one side. She would have cried with gratitude except she was sure the tears would freeze to her cheeks. Pumping her fist in the air, the key pressing against her skin, she turned to the forest.
“Have fun, all you furries; too bad you’re gonna freeze your asses off!” She might have said more but when a branch twitched, she whirled around. Her pace out of the trees was far less cautious than her trip into them had been. Once back in the clearing, she snatched up her duffle, noticing it already had an inch or so coating of snow and tromped up the steps to the front door. She shoved the key into the lock and her heart stopped when she twisted it and nothing happened. “Oh, come on, I’m begging here!” Holding her breath, she had the fortitude to twist the opposite direction. With a click, her salvation was at hand. Pushing against the heavy wood, she stepped inside and slammed the door. Fuck, it was darker inside than out. Running her palm over the wall next to the door, she found the switch and flipped it up. Down. Up. Down. Nothing happened.
Not a goddamned thing.
Too tired to even care, she swept her phone back and forth, lighting her surroundings. She was standing in the living area. The furnishings hadn’t changed; the sofa sat straight ahead, its back serving as a room divider. Two overstuffed armchairs faced the huge stone fireplace, logs neatly piled in a recess waiting to provide warmth. A chocolate brown bearskin rug lay on the wood flooring, providing a soft surface to kneel when… Forcing her thoughts away from the visual she saw in her mind’s eye, she turned toward the kitchen across the room. She smiled, thinking that anyone who stood outside and saw the roughhewn walls, the porch railings formed from tree branches, the steps to the porch fashioned from thick cedar planks would never think that inside was a kitchen fit for even the most demanding chef. Stainless steel appliances gleamed in the light of her phone. The range had six burners as well as a grill top and a large oven. A commercial-sized refrigerator would hold a plethora of common ingredients that with a dash of this and a pinch of that, he’d turn into some culinary masterpiece while she sat at the island, watching in amazement. With that thought, her stomach growled.
Opening the refrigerator didn’t produce a light source much less some perfectly prepared rack of lamb or a dish of those thin slices of potatoes baked in a nest of cheeses that had always made her mouth water. Hell, there wasn’t even one plastic container or box that you’d find in most people’s fridges. Evidently he still didn’t take fondly to keeping leftovers or choose to waste money on electricity. At least there were several bottles of water. Grabbing one, she twisted off the cap and took several long swallows. Thirst abated, she replaced the cap and yanked on the door next to the refrigerator only to find it locked. Well, she’d heard that people were warned time and time again to keep their foodstuffs locked away to keep them safe from marauding bears.
“Great, that’s just brilliant. Bring bears into the equation right before you try to sleep!” Moving back through the room, she lifted her hand to direct the light and stepped around the island to move toward the back of the cabin. Pausing with her hand on the knob of the guestroom, she looked back toward the large picture window where she knew the woods lay just beyond. “Okay, higher ground will be much safer, right?”
Safety… another rather curious choice of words. Bears? Seriously? Let’s be honest… what are you really worried about?
She shuddered, her teeth worrying her lower lip. “You aren’t making this easy—”
If you want easy, turn around and go back to wherever you’ve been hiding. You know damn well I’d never risk your safety, but, if you stay, all bets are off about easy.
She didn’t need his physical presence before her. She could easily see a dark head shaking back and forth, eyes so blue and intense as his gaze locked onto hers that she felt he was looking directly into her soul. His eyebrow… the left one would be quirked as he wondered exactly how delusional she was willing to be.
“I have no choice,” she whispered. “God help me, but I’m staying.”
Since when had she started holding entire conversations with herself? Not wanting to truly consider the answer, she blamed it on the exhaustion that was pulling at her. Retracing her steps, she wearily climbed the steep stairs, one hand gripping the banister, the other holding out her faux flashlight, her duffle thumping against her back with each step. She gave a little yelp when a squeak sounded, her heart pounding until she realized it wasn’t some wild animal, but the stair she’d just put her weight on.
Once at the top, she moved across a small open area where the only thing that kept a person from plummeting to the floor below was a railing. She didn’t have to shine her light around to know that the open area served as an office, his desk dominating the space, shelves containing books and board games behind it. A braided rug in rich jewel tones padded the floor, a thick cushion and throw pillows waited in the bay window, ready to provide a seat or even a pallet to curl up and nap.
She continued down the hall, hesitating at the first door she came to. Had he managed to do what she hadn’t? Had he successfully erased her from his life? Closing her eyes, she fought back the tears that welled. Though her fingers hovered above the latch, she couldn’t make her fingers touch it. There was only one room left and her steps took her to the door at the end of the hall. She knew it was one thing to help herself to shelter and quite another to invade his personal space. But she also knew that she didn’t have the courage to open the other door. If she’d found it emptied—changed—she would know and, for tonight, she simply didn’t have the courage to discover the answer.
Opening the bedroom door, she stepped inside. The bed beckoned, offering escape from her thoughts in sleep, but her bladder was screaming for relief so she walked into the adjoining bathroom.
This room was as modern and elegant as the kitchen below. Dropping her duffle, she practically whined, her feet shuffling as she scrambled to get the zipper of her jeans down with her frozen fingers. Shoving pants and panties down, a small shriek escaped as she sat down, her bare ass instantly pebbling with gooseflesh as it met the cold seat.
After using the bathroom, her attempt to wash her hands had her cursing again as nothing but frigid water sputtered from the faucet. Deciding hygiene wasn’t all that vital, she stripped out of the windbreaker. It had become soaking wet from the snow. Grateful the jacket had kept the sweatshirt she wore beneath it dry, she tossed the windbreaker over the towel rod then moved back into the bedroom again. Without electricity, there was no heat and her fire-building skills could be considered dismal at best. Her boots were the only other items she bothered to remove. As she pulled back the quilt and sheets, crawling beneath them, she could practically hear the animals of the forest chortling, snorting, huffing, or conversing in whatever means they would use to mock her. They might be outside, but dammit, they were covered in nice thick, warm fur coats!
It took several minutes and pulling the hood of her sweatshirt over her head before she stopped shivering. The last time Elena had been at the cabin, it had been in the daytime and in late summer. She’d never really considered how much a few months could change everything, and she wasn’t just considering that, instead of sunshine, there was a blizzard outside the window. Turning onto her side and curling tightly into a ball that was reminiscent of the pill bugs under that rock, she pulled the covers up and over her mouth. She’d cover her nose as well but wanted to breathe without worrying about inhaling the carbon dioxide she was creating with every exhale.
“Good grief, first bears and now noxious air? What’s next? Some psycho wearing a field-hockey mask and carrying a butcher knife? Fuck! Stop! Just stop and turn off your brain.”
When that demand didn’t work, she began to take long, deep breaths. Even though it was cold as a witch’s teat… she groaned at the ‘witch’ and switched analogies. Okay, so it was cold enough to hang meat on those giant hooks… another groan and another switch.
“Fine, it’s fucking cold but there are four solid oak walls surrounding you. There is a thick door and a roof. You’ve no reason to believe you are in danger…”
The chuckle that rang out loudly in her head had her flinching. He was right. She wasn’t worried about bears or a serial killer. What refused to leave her in peace was the worry that this was all for naught. It had been a long time… months during which she’d not answered phone calls. Months in which she’d refused to open emails or texts.
Turning on her other side, she sighed deeply, tucking her head a bit lower, allowing the tip of her nose to seek warmth beneath the quilt. Air be damned. She’d rather slip into eternal slumber than continue to quake with the cold. Part of her demanded she get her ass out of a bed where she no longer belonged and just go. If she were smart, she’d face the fact that while she’d finally stopped running and admitted that she had to finish this, that didn’t mean that he hadn’t taken her silence as a sign that it was time to move on.
Still, she didn’t get up. Looking out the window and seeing the snow falling, she whispered, “I know it won’t be easy. I don’t need easy. I just have to know… is it… am I too late?”
No answer came and yet when she closed her eyes, she found sleep.