Clay Ashton peered at the water bill on his desk and frowned. He’d guessed the bill would be higher than usual this time, but he hadn’t thought it would reach four figures. With Texas being in the midst of a drought, nature wasn’t doing much in the way of watering the grasses on the Turning Point Ranch. His new sprinkler system would help keep the cattle’s pastures alive, but it would be a strain on his finances until he made the money back from selling healthy calves birthed the following spring.
He picked up his checkbook and recorded the expense. Most people only just approaching age forty paid their bills online, but Clay liked taking the time to write out his checks and expenses by hand. In his opinion, the ease of paying electronically, which required only one or two clicks to finalize a transaction, allowed for reckless spending. He felt that every expense deserved at least the amount of time and mindfulness it took to write the check.
Plus, doing bills gave him a sense of satisfaction. Bills were straightforward, structured, and always made sense. He would use electricity or water, then he would pay for them, and the same was true for each of his expenses. The transaction always could be boiled down to a mathematical equation.
He glanced at the overflowing trashcan by the door and reminded himself that he needed to hire a housekeeper, soon. He liked cleanliness and order in his house even though he only lived there with another bachelor—his foreman—and rarely had guests. Their days were more than full running the ranch, on both the business and labor side, so cleaning house was low on their list of priorities.
His recent ex-girlfriend had been of no help to him at all in that regard, despite spending her days at the house. He didn’t want a maid for a girlfriend, but he wanted someone who would help him out a little. His ex-girlfriend hadn’t helped and instead had complained about how little time he spent with her, often accusing him of not loving her the second he returned home from a long day at the range. In the end, he supposed she was right about that. He didn’t love the person she’d turned out to be, which was a woman greedy for every second of his day as well as his money.
The phone in his pocket vibrated against his thigh, and he could hear its faint default ring. He added the water bill to the stack on the right side of his desk and fished into his pocket.
“Clay,” he answered, in his typical clipped, businesslike tone.
His foreman’s relaxed drawl spoke to him on the other end. “Hi, Clay. It’s Shane. You’d know that if you looked at your caller ID.”
Clay yawned. His friend never missed an opportunity to needle him about his disdain for technology. “You got a reason for calling, other than to give me a hard time?” he asked good-naturedly.
“Yeah, ‘fraid I do.” Shane’s voice sobered, losing all trace of humor. “Glaze is missing from the barn. Looks like she’s been stolen, if you can believe it. A halter, brush, and hoof pick are also missing.”
Clay scowled into the receiver. “You’re joking.” Glaze was his pinto mare, and she’d been with Clay since he first obtained the loan and purchased the ranch right out of college. “Why would anyone want to steal her?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“I’ll be right there,” Clay said, and clicked ‘end’ on the phone. He strode to the hat rack next to the door of his office and grabbed his gray Stetson.
Gravel crunched beneath his truck’s tires as he drove the short distance to the barn. He thought about the news Shane had delivered. It didn’t make a lick of sense to him that someone would steal his old horse, who was worth nothing to anybody but Clay. There were four other horses on her side of the barn that would fetch a pretty penny. And if someone was looking for a work horse, Glaze would be a poor choice.
It was a sweltering hot day. He parked his truck and ran his sweaty palms down his Wrangler jeans. Even though he spent most days attending to the business side of running a ranch, he hadn’t gotten out of the habit of wearing jeans and boots. He always dressed the same, whether he was in meetings with contractors or out on the range with his hands.
Clay hopped out of his pickup and strode to where Shane stood outside the barn. The two men had known each other for about as long as Clay had owned Glaze, around twenty years, so Shane was familiar with the horse and the sentimental attachment Clay felt for her.
Shane tilted his hat up and shook his head. “It’s the strangest thing. Of all the horses to steal,” he mused.
“It’s strange all right, and it’s got me a bit worried, I must admit,” Clay said. “Don’t like the idea of her being away from home.”
“Well,” Shane said, “I reckon whoever stole her will get caught soon enough. I already called the police. Check this out.” He pointed at the fresh hoof tracks that led down the road Clay had just driven. “Looks like whoever stole her rode her straight to town. Not many places in Brixton you can hide a horse.”
Clay nodded, knowing Shane was most likely right, but he still felt anxious. He stared down the path. “What if whoever took her rides off the main road? There’s a little pig trail that goes to the old bunkhouse.”
Shane shrugged. “It’s possible.”
The trail ended on Clay’s land. Beyond that, rugged terrain led to the next town of Channing. It was doubtful that someone would want to either stay on his land or ride out that way, but it was worth eliminating as a possibility. “Never know what a thief might be thinking. I’ll go check it out,” Clay said, and moved toward his gelding’s stall.
Before long he was on his way to the old bunkhouse at a trot. A half hour later, he was very near the pig trail, and by then his anger had caught up with his worry. How dare someone steal his favorite horse? He would have preferred for the thief to take one of his expensive new colts instead of Glaze.
The late-afternoon heat didn’t do anything to help cool his anger, but as he turned around the bend and took in the view, his spirits rose considerably. Tied loosely to a tree and grazing peacefully stood his old mare. She looked up and nickered at him as he approached.
“There you are, old girl,” he said as he dismounted. He patted Glaze’s neck and checked her for injuries. She didn’t appear harmed in any way and in fact was in quite a relaxed state without signs of lathering. “Well, at least the bastard didn’t ride you hard,” he grumbled.
Clay walked around to the front of the bunkhouse, on high alert for any sound or movement. Upon walking inside, he noticed a bucket of clean water sitting on one of the slatted bunk beds. On another bedframe was a carefully laid quilt and pillow. One of the corners held a neat stack of wood, giving him the impression that the squatter was planning to spend the winter there. The area was surprisingly clean and organized. The room looked recently swept from a makeshift broom fashioned out of a bunch of tiny sticks that was leaning against the wall. A glint of light caught his eye—a necklace hanging over one of the bed posts. He frowned thoughtfully. Was the thief a woman?
He reached up and slid his hand down to the locket that dangled at the bottom. The chain appeared to be made of cheap imitation gold, but the locket itself looked quite expensive. He opened it, revealing two old pictures, one of a man and one of a woman, likely taken sometime in the ‘70s judging by the poor pixel quality.
Clay returned outside to continue his search for the thief. Upon discovering she wasn’t in the general range of the bunkhouse, he decided to wait for her. He concealed his gelding in a thicket of trees a distance away and staked out the place, sitting on a stump for what seemed like an eternity, struggling not to move so as to remain silent. A fly buzzed around his face, and his stomach growled after about an hour. He realized it was suppertime and he was darned hungry. If the thief didn’t show up sometime soon, he would call the police and leave it to them to catch her.
Just when he was about to give up and go home, he saw a flash of blonde hair through the trees and a moment later a woman tiptoed into the clearing. Clay’s eyebrows headed straight for the heavens. He’d been imagining someone older and appearing more down on her luck, but this woman was quite young and walked with purpose.
She glanced around nervously as she headed for Glaze. Clay watched with interest as she held out her palm and allowed the mare to eat an apple from it. She then patted the horse and, with another furtive glance around, disappeared inside the bunkhouse.
Clay was glad the thief had shown some consideration to his horse. Still, she’d stolen from him and he was going to give her a piece of his mind. He strode to the door and called inside. “Hey! Come on out. I know you’re in there and I know you stole my horse.” There was only one way in and out of the bunkhouse, since the windows were too high to reach without something to stand on. He waited for her with his arms crossed. Silence met him. He was hungry and irritated, so his voice was none too friendly when he spoke again. “You have five seconds to come out, and that’s me being generous. Show yourself, or I’ll lock you in there and go get the police.”
He heard some stirring before the woman appeared in front of him. She wore a scowl that could have withered grass, but despite her surliness, she was quite attractive in an unassuming way. Faded denim hugged long, shapely legs. Her t-shirt had holes in it, but it appeared clean. Nary a hint of makeup could be seen on her face, which allowed the freckles across her nose to appear prominently. Her blue eyes flashed defiantly under long, dark blonde eyelashes that matched the shade of her shoulder-length hair.
He’d never seen her before, and though that wasn’t completely out of the range of possibilities in a town of two thousand residents, it was rare. His family had lived in Brixton for generations, and he knew most everyone. Clay was about to tell her just what he thought of thieves, when he noticed something in her eyes that gave him pause.
Her chin jutted out bravely, but there was an unmistakable look of fear—terror even—in her countenance. She looked scared, angry, and defiant all at the same time. She also looked too thin, like she could use a good meal or two, and Clay wondered what circumstances would have led to a young woman taking shelter in an abandoned bunkhouse. Nothing good, he imagined.
“What are you doing here? Who are you?” he asked, his voice stern.
She wrinkled her nose in what looked like a snarl. “What, you want my name? Is that information necessary for you to turn me over to the police?”
Her sarcasm surprised him, considering her fear, and he raised an eyebrow slowly. “All right, don’t tell me your name then. You know you stole my favorite horse? I’d like an explanation.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I didn’t know she was your favorite. I tried to pick a horse no one would notice was missing.”
“Well, you failed.” He nodded in the direction of Glaze, who nickered at him again. “That happens to be a horse I’ve had since I was just out of college. I’m a bit attached.”
The girl snorted derisively. “Impossible. I’ve never known a horse to live that long.”
He stared at her, incredulous. “Did you just insult me by calling me old?”
She tossed her shaggy hair over her shoulder. “Maybe.” Her glare dared him to react.
Clay studied her, hardly believing that the woman had the audacity to try to vex him. It didn’t work, as he had no insecurities about his age or appearance. He’d never had a problem attracting women. This woman was younger than he was, perhaps by quite a bit, but that didn’t mean he was ‘old.’
The fact she was acting like a brat instead of apologizing made him itch to teach her a lesson. He uncrossed his arms and planted his hands on his hips. “I see your manners are about as good as your sense of right and wrong.”
Her nostrils flared like an angry filly’s. “Some of us have more important things to worry about than manners,” she snapped. “Like survival and finding our next meal. I’m sorry I stole your favorite horse, but I was planning on being good to her. I just needed a way to get back and forth from town.”
Though he didn’t appreciate her tone, her response did pull at his heartstrings, just a tiny bit. She wasn’t greedy, and she’d thought she was being considerate by stealing an older horse. It didn’t matter, though. He wasn’t going to allow her to stay in his old, dilapidated bunkhouse. It wasn’t safe.
“I can understand survival,” he responded evenly. “But most folks work for what they got. They don’t go ‘round stealing. You’re young and able-bodied. Get a job and pay rent someplace in town.”
“Oh, spare me the lecture, Dad,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just take me to jail. I don’t want to listen to this bullshit.”
His jaw clenched. “That request can certainly be accommodated.” He pointed a finger at her face. “You should thank your lucky stars I’m not your dad, young lady.”
The woman blinked and stared at him. “Why?” she demanded.
Clay ran his hand along his jaw, trying to determine what to do with her. She didn’t seem remorseful in the least, plus she was defensive and ill-tempered. But there was something about her that he liked. Maybe it was her independence. He couldn’t think of a single woman he knew who would choose to strike out on her own in this way. He realized he wouldn’t have the heart to take her to the police. He would, however, feel no compunction about providing her with some well-earned discipline if she didn’t shape up in a hurry.
“Let’s just say that if I were your daddy, you’d go to bed sleeping on your tummy tonight. There are some things that are just plain wrong, and stealin’ is one of them. Got any more smart remarks for me, little girl?”
She cleared her throat and looked down, finally at a loss for words, and Clay noticed pink spreading over her cheeks. It appeared that a spanking threat was enough to get her in line, temporarily at least. Maybe she wasn’t a totally hopeless case.
He sighed and took off his hat so he could run his hand through his thick dark hair. He’d always had a bit of a soft spot for stray animals, and now that he’d come across a human stray, he found himself wanting to take her home and give her a good meal. But what if he lived to regret it? The woman might not move on after receiving a favor. Maybe she would expect more handouts. It was probably best to take her to the police and let them deal with getting her to a homeless shelter in Dallas. He shuddered at that thought. He doubted a pretty young woman would have an easy go of it in a homeless shelter.
Finally coming to a decision, he said, “Let’s get going.” He clapped his hat back on his head. “You can ride my horse back to the barn and then have supper with me. Her name is Glaze, by the way.”
Her head shot up, and she stared into his eyes. “You’re not going to take me to the police?”
“Nah.” He turned and walked in the direction of his horse hidden in the trees.
“Wait a minute!” she called after him, her voice distrustful. “Why aren’t you turning me in?”
He stopped and pivoted to find her glaring at him with her hands on her hips. He recognized that look of distrust. He’d seen it in abused horses he’d bought and trained, before they knew he wouldn’t trick them with a sugar cube only to harm them later. “I don’t know your story, but I can see you’ve been through some rough times. And because you were decent to my favorite horse, I don’t want to see you punished by the law. That’s the long and short of it. Come along now.”
She frowned thoughtfully and seemed to be considering his explanation, but she made no move toward Glaze. “I hope you’re not feeling sorry for me,” she said at last. “I don’t need your charity.”
Clay shook his head. “You’re being very impolite. How about you say ‘thank you’ instead of making such a fuss?”
“How about you stop the lecturing, Dad?” Her clear blue eyes flashed with annoyance.
He wasn’t pleased with how difficult she was being. Her reticence to accept a handout showed she had an incredible amount of misplaced pride. Though he admired pride in people, he believed she’d do well to humble herself a bit, especially since it was obvious she needed help.
“Look, young lady, you don’t have a choice in this matter. You’re going to get on that horse, ride her back to the barn, and then have some supper. Consider it your punishment for stealing my horse.”
“That’s not a punishment!”
“I wouldn’t think so, but you’re behaving like it’s the last thing you want to do. You’d do well to obey me now.”
“And if I refuse?” she asked.
He placed his hands on his hips, matching her stance, and scowled. “Is that what you’re doing? Refusing? You think you’re in any position to refuse?”
“Uh…” She glanced away, and when she returned her gaze to him, she said in a faux brave voice that didn’t fool him, especially since she stammered her answer. “Yeah… I’m not even hungry. Just take your horse and… and fuck off, okay?”
He’d had enough. She’d stolen his horse and insulted him instead of apologizing, and now she was swearing at him. There was no excuse for any of her terrible behavior, and he wasn’t about to tolerate more of it. “All right, that’s it,” he growled. “Seems like the seat of your jeans is in need of a good dusting. I warned you.” He strode to a stump, sat down, and proceeded to roll up his sleeve. “Come here and lie over my lap.”
Her mouth dropped open. He’d finished securing his sleeve and had splayed his right hand on his knee before she found her tongue. “You’re out of your fucking mind if you think I’m going to just walk to you to get… s-sp…”
“Spanked?” he finished for her. “Watch your language, especially when you’re about to be punished. And you are going to come and present yourself over my knee because if you don’t do so in the next thirty seconds, I’m going to do it for you, and if I have to do that, it won’t be a few swats with my hand. I’ll take my belt to you.”
Her eyes rounded into two large saucers. She shook her head. “Okay, okay. You win. I won’t swear anymore, and I’ll ride back to the barn and accept a meal.”
He almost smiled, remembering how he used to promise to behave in the vain hope it would get him out of a punishment, but it was always too late, just like it was too late for her. “You certainly will, after your spanking.”
She took a step back. “Please… Don’t hurt me.” Her eyes had lost all of their defiance and conveyed only fear.
She was right to be apprehensive about a spanking. Spankings hurt, after all, but he didn’t like that she looked so afraid. He held out his hand, and his voice was gentler when he spoke. “Come here. It’ll hurt, but not too badly and the pain won’t last.” He wouldn’t abandon the discipline. He always followed through on his word, but he almost wanted to forego it after seeing the look of fear in her eyes.
Luckily, his words seemed to allow her fear to abate slightly, though she still looked plenty worried. He was pleased when she walked to him, and when she placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her over his lap, that earned her a ‘good girl.’
Her jeans stretched tight around her cheeks, prominently displaying her feminine curves. She was a pretty little brat, and she seemed so very small and vulnerable now that all her big talk had gone silent and she was positioned to receive a spanking. When he smoothed his hand over her bottom, her breath hitched. His hand looked giant resting on her small form, and it made him aware of how much he would need to hold back in order not to punish her too harshly.
“So, you’ve been calling me Dad like a rebellious teenager and goading me, which makes me believe this kind of paternal discipline is just the thing for you.”
Her legs dangled helplessly in the air, as he positioned her forward a bit and wrapped a hand around her waist to hold her in place.
“I won’t call you Dad anymore,” she whined.
“Probably not,” he agreed.
Without further delay, he set his jaw and began the task of thoroughly whipping her little behind. After less than a minute of applying his palm to her wriggling cheeks at a steady, no-nonsense tempo, she began to show signs of distress. Her little yelps became more drawn out, soon morphing into cries, and she tried to twist out of his grip. She hadn’t asked him to stop, though, so he knew it was her pride that was feeling the most hurt.
“Learning something from this?” he asked, while continuing the spanking.
“Yes!” she said in a strangled voice.
He paused, resting his hand on her bottom. He could feel the heat emanating from underneath her jeans. Her twin cheeks would be a healthy pink color by now, if not red.
“What have you learned?”
“Um, not to steal?”
He landed another swat. “That’s not what this punishment is about.” When she didn’t offer the correct apology after a pause, he continued spanking her.
“Please!” she cried. “I don’t know what you want me to say, I can’t think when I’m… getting spanked.”
“Okay, I’ll make it simple for you. Repeat after me.” He landed a hard swat. “Say ‘I’ll obey you and ride Glaze back to the barn, like you asked me to. Then I will accept a meal from you.’”
She repeated it back to him, word for word in a subdued, respectful tone.
He smiled, pleased that she was complying. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so quick to mock someone trying to help her in the future. With a sudden wicked compulsion to punish her for calling him Dad derisively and pointing out his age, he ordered, “Now say, ‘I’ll be a good girl, Daddy.’”
“Oh, my God. That is so fucked up,” she said in a high-pitched squeak. She squirmed furiously, trying to get up, but he easily kept her pinned over his lap.
“Language!” he barked, and gave her a few more whacks. “You started it. And fucked up or not, it’s teaching you some humility.”
She moaned. “Fine, fine. I’ll be a good girl… Daddy.” The last word was uttered in a sneer, but it was good enough for Clay.
“Then your punishment is over.” He relaxed his hold on her and rubbed his hand around her bottom, soothing the ache he’d caused.
She relaxed over his lap, staring down at the dirt as he traced circles around her punished seat. He had assumed she would fly off his lap at the first opportunity, but she remained resting there, accepting his soothing hand. He loved how she looked and felt. She was so little and yet curvy and sexy as hell. He wondered how much she hated him at that moment. Probably quite a bit.
When she continued to give no sign of wanting up, he asked, “Ready to go, darlin’?”
It was then that she burst into a torrent of tears, surprising Clay. He’d expected her to mouth off to him again or give him the silent treatment. Hearing what seemed to be genuine sobs of grief, he did the only thing he knew to do. He pulled her up and positioned her to sit on his lap. Then he wrapped his arms around her and held her close, allowing her to cry against his shirt. “Shhh,” he said. “It was just a little spanking, not the end of the world.”
“I-I-I never cry,” she managed to say between sobs.
“I can see that,” he said teasingly.
Clay wasn’t used to comforting a girl in such a way. Though he believed the spanking was well deserved, now that she was sobbing against his chest, he wondered if he’d been too harsh with her.
“It’s n-not fair,” she stuttered, hiccupping.
“What’s not fair?”
She drew a shuddering breath and said, “It’s not fair that you punished me. I always wanted a daddy, but if I had a real dad he would take me to Disneyland and give me a pony and shit. He wouldn’t just spank me.”
His initial impulse was to laugh because of the way she’d explained herself, but that was soon replaced with an ache in his chest. She had a good point, and it made him feel bad that he’d taken on a parental role only with punishment, and not with anything more positive.
“I’ll tell you what, sweetheart,” he heard himself saying. “I think you’re right. Daddies reward their little girls when they’re good, and I want to do just that. It’s only fair, since I spanked you.”
She looked at him with such a hopeful expression with her tear-filled blue eyes that he felt a lump growing in his throat. He swallowed it down.
“Like how?” she asked, sounding exactly like a hopeful little girl.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure how yet, but I’ll think of something by the time you prove to me you’ll be a good girl.”
She nodded and blinked a few times, spilling the last of her tears. He stood, walked with her in his arms to Glaze, and helped her up to the saddle. “You okay to ride?” he asked, handing her the reins.
She nodded and sniffled. “M-my necklace,” she said.
Clay nodded. “I’ll get it, one sec.”
“I have a little suitcase under the first bunk,” she told him, as he was walking away.
He retrieved the necklace and the suitcase from the bunkhouse and handed the necklace to her when he walked out. She fastened it around her neck as he secured her suitcase to his gelding. Soon they were on their way.
“So, will you tell me your name now?” he asked.
“Abby,” she said, sounding shy.
“Nice to meet you, Abby. I’m Clay.”
The horses clipped along a few steps before she spoke again. “You own this ranch?”
“Mm hmm,” he answered.
“I used to work on a ranch from age twelve to fifteen. I learned how to ride and take care of horses. I would’ve taken good care of Glaze.”
“Yes, I can tell you would have. How old are you now?”
“Young,” he stated. He hesitated asking the next question, knowing it was personal, but hell, he’d already spanked her and he wanted to understand her situation better. “And where’s your family, Abby?”
“I don’t have one, except for my little sister. She’s still in foster care, living at a crowded home in Dallas.”
Suddenly her rebellion and reticence to accept a favor made quite a bit more sense to him. He didn’t imagine she’d had much in the way of a stable authority figure growing up. They rode in silence the rest of the way.
Clay spotted Shane through the open doors of the barn, tossing hay into the loft. “Hey, Shane, look what I found!” he called out.
Shane walked out as Clay hopped down from his horse. “Found Glaze and the thief. Pretty little thief, ain’t she?” He winked at Abby, who blushed. “Anyway, she decided to return the horse without any trouble. Shane, meet Abby. Abby, meet Shane.”
“Hi,” she said. She swung a leg forward over the pommel and landed on the ground awkwardly.
“That’s no way to dismount a horse,” Clay scolded, unable to resist saying something. It was plumb dangerous, and he intended to see she dismounted properly in the future.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, and if Clay wasn’t mistaken, a note of her former defiance was present in her tone.
Clay directed his attention to Shane. “I’ll explain about the theft later. Will you call the police and let them know the matter has been settled? Abby and I have reached an agreement of sorts.”
Shane gave him a quizzical look but must have read the signals correctly to know not to query his friend on the decision. He agreed to call the police and put the matter to bed, and Clay and Abby headed to the ranch house in Clay’s truck.