Jennifer McLeod rammed the heels of her hands against her eyes and pressed, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stem the flood of tears that burst out of her in shuddering, wretched sobs like a river that just burst its banks. You idiot! she told herself over and over again, like it would somehow help to be reminded just how far she’d fallen, thanks to her own stupidity. You absolute idiot! she chided herself again.
She’d known it would happen eventually—one day she knew she’d get busted. But as time passed and she didn’t get caught, she’d grown bolder. And now it was all over. The cash crop she’d been growing in the wardrobe of the small one-bedroom flat attached to the stables that went with the job had been discovered. She was to appear before the magistrate next week; she knew it was unlikely she would be let off with just a fine. She’d been growing for supply—she’d be lucky to get off without a jail term. And when today’s drug test came back positive—which she was sure it would—it would be even worse for her. She’d be suspended from racing for a year at least, most likely, maybe even fined.
Knowing that she would no longer have a job or a place to live by the end of the day, she’d bet everything she had on the horse she was riding, and lost. Now she had nothing left. No job, no home, no money, and no way to pay for Bobby’s care. Her life may as well be over.
What would happen to Bobby? Her severely disabled twin brother was thriving and starting to make friends in the private establishment she’d found for him. It came highly recommended; the care was top-notch. It wasn’t just an institution, but a community, where the residents could be as independent as they were able to be, while still fully supervised and assisted in every aspect of life. Renwick Park was a Godsend for Bobby, he was finally talking and smiling again, but it came with a hefty price tag. A price tag she could no longer afford to pay.
What the hell am I going to do? she wondered, despair washing over her again. This time, she didn’t even try to stop the tears; it was futile. Instead, she crouched down on the ground, rested her forearms on her knees, covered her face with her hands and cried.
Luke Lewis, of the prestigious Tom Lewis Stables, led the last horse up the gently sloping ramp of the horse truck and secured it inside. As he stood quietly, refilling the hay net for the horse and savouring the feeling of the end of another successful day at the races, the sound of a muffled sob filtered through the air vents of the truck. He frowned, listening, but he didn’t hear it again, not over the sound of the horses snorting, stamping, and munching.
He lifted the heavy ramp and locked the latches. Where was Cody? In the bar no doubt, helping the owners celebrate their wins—they’d brought six horses along today and had four wins. Not bad! Cody didn’t always come to the races with him. In fact he hardly ever did—although the brothers had all grown up together in the stables with the horses, Cody had always been more keen on running the farm than the stables. But with Tom, their father, trying to retire, Cody had stepped up to the plate, attending races with Luke when no one else was available to assist.
The muffled sob sounded again. Luke looked around. There, leaning against the fence at the far side of the parking lot, was a woman. He couldn’t see much of her—she was leaning forward, her head resting on her bent knees, and her face was completely covered by a tangle of long, dark hair. She was clearly distressed; even from where he was standing several metres away, he could see her shoulders shaking. He had no clue who she was; he couldn’t see enough of her clearly to identify her. He contemplated going to her, to see if he could help, then he shook his head. No. Cody’s better at that sort of stuff than me, he decided. If she’s still here when I drag him out of the bar, we’ll talk to her then.
Opening the drivers’ door of the horse truck, he threw his wallet carelessly inside, chucked his jacket on top of it, and swaggered off to the bar without a backward glance.
Jen knew the tall, ruggedly handsome man with the shaggy dark blond hair had been watching her, but whether his expression had been pity or contempt, she wasn’t sure. Contempt, probably, if he’d been near the bar. She knew that, by now, news of her disgrace would have spread far and wide.
She knew Luke from years ago; they’d flirted with each other quite a bit back then, when she’d still been at the top of her game. Then her losing streak had started and she’d withdrawn into herself, losing interest in casual flirtations. That was when she’d started growing dope to supplement her income. Bobby’s care had not come cheap; even the private carers she’d hired initially had been expensive, although still substantially cheaper than Renwick Park. But the carers had never worked out; Bobby’s needs were too complex and his behaviour too challenging for any one person to cope with for long.
She knuckled back her tears as she watched Luke stride away, his tight butt filling out his Wranglers so nicely. His shoulders were still as huge as she remembered; he was a very well-built man with a powerful physique, honed from years of hard physical work. He’d had the sexiest smile, too—she remembered how his grin, his deep blue eyes crinkling at the corners, had made her weak at the knees and sent shivers down her spine.
Luke hadn’t bothered to lock the truck after he’d thrown his belongings inside, she’d noticed. He’d always been the trusting sort, generous to a fault and always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. She pushed away the prick of her conscience as she scurried to the truck, eased the door open, and fumbled around on the seat under the coat for Luke’s wallet. He can afford it, she told herself, as she backed carefully out of the truck, sliding to the ground. The step was higher than she’d thought; she tripped and nearly fell as one foot landed on solid ground.
“Oi!” The angry shout caught her by surprise and she stumbled as she spun around, ready to run. Righting herself quickly, she took off, dodging between vehicles, trying to elude the two men chasing her. Her heart pounded and her throat burned as she ran, clutching the wallet tightly, then the air was knocked out of her with a whoosh as someone tackled her from behind. Her tackler twisted in the air, shielding her body from the hard ground and she landed, her torso half on his, her head cradled in the crook of his arm. She struggled, but found herself held fast.
“Don’t move,” a deep voice ordered. She lifted her head to look into the smouldering dark eyes of a man who looked suspiciously like Luke… but wasn’t.
“Cody Lewis,” the man who wasn’t Luke introduced himself. “That’s my brother’s wallet you’ve got there.” His strong fingers enclosed around hers, prying the leather wallet from her grasp, and he deftly flung it toward the man standing a metre or so away from them, his hands on his hips, his face stern.
Luke. Her heart skipped a beat. Still as devilishly handsome as I remember. She watched, her heart in her throat, as he opened the wallet, checking its contents were all still there. He nodded in satisfaction and slipped the wallet into his back pocket, extending his hand to help her up. His hands were rough, callused, and strong as he hauled her to her feet and she could feel his intense gaze raking over her body. I’m a mess, she knew. She’d been crying for the past half hour just about, and the parts of her body that hadn’t already been spattered with mud from the race were now covered in dust from where Cody had launched her into the dirt. Behind her, she could hear Cody slapping the dust off his pants.
“Jen. It’s been a long time.” Luke’s deep voice rumbled through her, sending shivers down her spine, just as it had once done long ago. His tone was warm, much warmer than she deserved. She held her breath. What would happen now? Would he call the cops?
“You know this woman?” Cody sounded surprised. “Is she the one I’ve been hearing so much about, in the bar?” He was still standing behind her; she turned to look at him. Although he did look similar to Luke, there were definite differences. Cody was slightly bigger, for starters, with a scruffier, more rugged appearance. Where Luke was clean-shaven, Cody had a goatee, and his hair was lighter in colour, shorter, and sun-bleached at the tips. The sleeves of the black shirt he wore were rolled to the elbows, exposing deeply tanned forearms, corded with muscle. His shirt was open at the neck, revealing an intricately carved bone fishhook pendant hanging on a leather cord just below his throat. He caught her eye. A shiver went down her spine as he looked her over with his authoritative stare; he had even more of a commanding presence than Luke did. She gulped, then stayed poised, her muscles tense, ready to run. These were two powerful men.
“Yes,” she admitted, her hoarse voice barely above a whisper. “That’s me.”
“She’s a jockey,” she heard Luke explain to Cody. “One of the best in the country.”
“I was a jockey,” she corrected him. “Right now, I’ll be lucky not to go to jail.” Her breath caught in her throat and she gave a strangled cough as she choked back a sob.
Luke touched her arm. “Are you in trouble?”
Behind her, Cody snorted. “She’s in trouble all right,” he growled, disapproval dripping from his voice. “Growing for supply—in the accommodation supplied by her boss.”
“Why?” The question was so simple, it took her by surprise.
“It doesn’t matter.” She swiped her nose with the back of her hand and tried to still her trembling body. She’d never felt so helpless in all her life. She was terrified of what the future held for her. What did it matter now, why she’d done it?
“I think it does.” Cody’s voice was a low, rumbling tone that made her knees quake. His commanding presence intimidated her, but comforted her at the same time. There was something about him that made her feel safe. He stepped in front of her then, and put a finger under her chin, tilting her face up, forcing her to meet his steely gaze. She gulped.
“For starters, you stole my brother’s wallet. I think you owe us an explanation for that. Don’t you?”
His stern stare bored right through her, and she felt instantly ashamed. She wasn’t a thief. She’d never been a thief. She might supplement her income using dodgy means occasionally, but she wasn’t a thief. Taking things that didn’t belong to her wasn’t her style. At least, it hadn’t been her style. But she’d never been this desperate before, either.
“Besides,” he continued, his voice gruff. “Sometimes there’s very good reasons behind very bad decisions. If you tell us about it, we might be able to help you.”
She wrenched her face free of his grasp. “I doubt it,” she snapped, her fear and shame coming out now as anger.
“Try us,” Luke suggested.
If it had been anyone else, she would have kept quiet. But she had history with Luke. Not much, but enough for her to know that he was a good man, a steady man, the type of man she thought she could trust. Besides, an explanation could hardly make things worse, could it? Things couldn’t get any worse.
Sometime later, having told her story, she looked up at the two men staring down at her. Both had their arms crossed against their chests, their stances dominant, masculine to the core. She was trembling; she felt so vulnerable and afraid. She held her breath. Her future hinged on what the brothers said next.
“I think we can help you,” Cody announced. “Can’t we, Luke?”
“We can,” Luke agreed. “But whether or not we do is up to you. I don’t think we need to get the police involved, but you do need to be taught a lesson. Don’t you?”
She let out the breath she’d been holding, relieved. The last thing she needed was more trouble with the police.
“You stole from me,” he reminded her. “It is only fitting that you be punished for that, before we help you.”
She raised her eyebrows. She was definitely interested in hearing what they had to say—after all, she had no other choice. She was homeless and destitute. If Luke and Cody were willing to change that for her, she would happily discuss terms with them.
“What do you mean by a punishment?” she asked curiously.
The relief that washed over her was so intense that she burst out laughing. “A spanking? Are you serious?”
“We are,” Cody confirmed. “But I can assure you, you won’t be laughing.”
“You will submit to a bare-assed spanking,” Luke clarified. “Do you understand?”
Her heart pounded rapidly, as she realised the two powerful, dominant men standing in front of her were serious. They weren’t going to the cops. There were all sorts of nasty things they could have demanded from her, but they didn’t suggest any of those things. All they wanted to do was smack her ass. They were both sexy as hell; she could think of worse things than being spanked by them. A shiver went down her spine.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I understand.”
“Come on then.” Placing his large hand firmly in the small of her back, Luke guided her toward the side door of the horse truck with ‘Tom Lewis Stables’ emblazoned across the side, and Cody locked it securely behind them.
Luke sat down on the futon and watched as Jen’s eyes darted nervously around the small space. It had been a long time since she’d been in a horse truck with accommodations this spacious. A ladder led to the alcove above the cab that housed a double bed, and the mini kitchen was complete with a gas cooker and small fridge. There was a fold-out table affixed to the wall and next to that was a door, presumably leading to the horse compartments. Although the horse truck was big and modern, the three of them in there made the living quarters cramped.
“What’s going to happen now?” Jen asked, her voice breaking. Was it nerves? Guilt? Fear? For the fraction of a second, he felt sorry for her. Then he remembered why they were here—what she had done.
“Cody’s going to put you across his knee and spank your bare bottom,” he informed her. “And I’m going to watch.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath, saw the colour drain from her face. He watched her stiffen when Cody first took her hand but she visibly relaxed when he stroked her knuckles with his thumb. And she didn’t appear to struggle as Cody tugged her gently down across his lap. She didn’t move when Cody eased her pants down her thighs, sliding both her jodhpurs and knickers down to her knees, and then locked her legs in place beneath one of his.
Cody rested his palm on her naked bottom, waiting. The whole time, Jen stayed frozen, her eyes wide in shock, her hands trembling. Luke could see her biting her lower lip; any harder and she’d put her teeth through it.
“Give me your hands.” Reaching forward, Luke picked up her fingers, entwining them in his, holding them gently, feeling her trembling hands still as he held them. “Look at me,” he commanded softly.
She looked at him through her lashes, her eyes showing just the hint of fear. He felt the tiniest thrill of satisfaction at her panic. It was nothing less than she deserved—she’d stolen from him, after all.
“You are to hold my gaze while Cody turns your bottom red. I want you to look into my eyes while you are being punished and remember why you are here—that you attempted to steal from me.”
Her eyes dropped to the floor as her face turned beet red.
“Jen,” he prompted, injecting just enough sternness into his tone to be taken seriously.
Cody’s hand landed sharply on her bare bottom, the crack of flesh upon flesh echoing loudly around the small room. Jen jumped, her mouth falling open in shock.
“Look at me,” Luke commanded.
Cody’s flattened palm fell again and again, peppering her bottom with swats in a fast, regular rhythm. Jen flinched with every smack, but now that she held Luke’s gaze, it didn’t waver. Her eyes filled with tears as the spanking continued, but still she kept looking at him.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, as Cody put more force behind the spanking. Tears spilled over and down her cheeks, but she didn’t move her eyes away from Luke’s, even though hers were filled with pain and sorrow.
She was squeezing his hands so tightly her knuckles were white, as the pain Cody was building in her rear end intensified. She gasped as an extra-hard smack fell, but she didn’t cry out. She was clearly one determined woman, and she was taking her punishment well. Luke knew she had to be hurting—it didn’t look like Cody was holding much back, and from where he was sitting, her bottom was as red as her blushing face.
“She’s just about had enough, I reckon,” Luke murmured.
Cody stopped the spanking for a moment to inspect her, running his fingers across the crest of her bottom and around the edge of her reddened skin.
“I reckon you’re about right,” Cody agreed. “Just a few more.”
At Cody’s announcement, Jen’s bottom lip quivered and she looked down, taking her eyes off Luke. He almost felt sorry for her; she looked so forlorn.
“Jen, look at me,” he reminded her, transferring both her hands into one of his, and cupping her chin in his other hand. “I want you to look into my eyes while you’re being punished.” She did; she lifted her head and met his gaze again, but he continued to hold her chin.
Cody flexed his hand and raised it high before bringing it down hard right in the centre of her bottom four times in quick succession. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and he could see her pressing her lips firmly together, flinching every time Cody’s hand landed.
“I think that’ll do ya,” Cody said softly, as he rested his hand lightly on her bottom again, his long, strong fingers rubbing in big circles to soothe the sting he’d inflicted.
Gradually, Jen relaxed and her tears dried on her face. Cody lifted her to her feet and she quickly pulled up her knickers and pants, wincing as the fabric chafed against her inflamed skin. As she fastened the button, Luke took her wrist and guided her to sit beside him on the futon, opposite the bed Cody was sitting on.
“Do you have anywhere to go?” he asked her gently.
She shook her head no. Tears pooled in her eyes again and a small sob escaped her as she sat there, perhaps pondering her predicament. Not only was she still homeless, jobless, and destitute, now she also had a stinging ass.
She wrenched her hands from his grasp and buried her face in them, her shoulders shaking once again.
“Don’t cry,” Luke said softly, gently removing her hands from her face and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. He drew her into his chest, holding her close, offering her what comfort he could. She felt so tiny snuggled against him, so lost and vulnerable. He wanted to protect her.
“I think we can help you with that,” Cody volunteered. “We can help you with everything, if you want us to. A place to live, a job, a way of paying for your brother’s care. We can help you with all of it, if you let us.”
Leaning against Luke, feeling his strong arms around her, Jen felt safe. Safer than she had felt in a long time. For years, she was all she had. She was all that Bobby had. She’d been carrying her burdens alone, doing everything alone, reaching success, and then failing, alone.
More than anything, she wished she could turn back the clock and be a child again; go back to when life wasn’t so hard. They’d only been babies when their parents had been killed in a car accident and they’d gone to live with their grandparents. Life had been good, then. She had no memory at all of her parents, but would always remember Nan and Grandpop’s loving kindness. As a child, everything had been taken care of for her; she didn’t need to worry about anything. Bobby had been at home at first, too; it wasn’t until she reached high school age that her aging grandparents’ failing health meant he’d needed to go into care. And when they’d died just a few years later, and she’d been alone, the weight of her newfound responsibilities had been heavy on her shoulders. The burden had been heavy ever since.
And now these men were offering her a lifeline.
“I want your help,” she whispered. “What do I have to do?”
She felt Luke’s hand on her face, his strong fingers under her chin, tilting her face up to look at him. “You used to like it when I took charge, didn’t you, Jen?”
She nodded. His dominant side had always aroused her.
“When we were dating, wasn’t that when you were the happiest? When I was in control?”
“Yes.” Her voice was just a whisper as a shiver went down her spine. She had a feeling she knew where this was going…
“So let us take charge now,” Luke said softly. “Give us complete submission.”
“Give us control,” Cody said at the same time.
“Submit to our authority,” Luke clarified.
“Obey our rules.”
“Accept our punishments.” A shiver went down her spine.
Her head swung side to side as she looked back and forth between the two men as each one spoke, expanding on the criteria behind their offer of help. Her mind whirled.
“You need a daddy, don’t you, little girl?” Luke asked. “You need a daddy to take care of you, to sort your life out for you, to cherish you, to discipline you. Don’t you?”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. Had he read her mind? Was her innocent wish, her longing to turn back the clock, so obvious? But at the same time, she didn’t see how she could willingly hand over control of her life to someone else. She’d always considered herself to be a strong, independent woman who’d been standing on her own two feet for a long time. She hadn’t gotten to be one of the top jockeys in the country by being a doormat. She’d got there by fighting tooth and nail every step of the way. She’d fought gender discrimination, worked hard to build up her physical strength so she was strong enough to do the job she wanted to do. She’d been fighting on the track to hold her own amongst tough, experienced, often aggressive jockeys. She had guts—she wasn’t afraid to take on anyone who stood in her way. And she’d been protecting Bobby for years. Why, now, after all the fights she’d won on her own, was she even considering this?
Because you don’t have a choice, her inner voice reminded her. You’re doing a pretty shitty job of running your life by yourself. Look at you! Homeless, destitute, about to end up in the clanger. You need a daddy. Actually, you need two of them.
She shook her head, trying to make her rational side shut up, but it wouldn’t—it just got louder and more insistent. So, although she really had no idea of exactly what it was they were proposing, she realised that being cared for might be rather nice. And having a place to live and the means to pay for Bobby’s care would be even better. She nodded slowly, apprehensively.
“Well, me and Luke,” Cody started, his deep voice sounding gruff, “we’re looking for a little girl to take care of.”
She looked at him. As she met his eyes, he smiled; the kindest smile she’d seen in a long time. Where their suggestion had frightened her at first, now she felt reassured. “We’ll be your daddies,” he offered. “If you want us to.”
What other choice have I got? she admitted to herself. She tried to smile, but faltered. Swallowing hard, she took a deep breath. “Yes,” she whispered. “I want you to.”
Her heart raced as the reality of her situation sank in. What, exactly, had she just agreed to? She knew Luke well enough to know that he was a good man; his family were well-known in the racing industry. But she didn’t know Cody at all. All she knew about him was that he had a very hard hand and he sure knew how to spank!
“But can you tell me…” she faltered. How on earth did one ask for clarification of such a proposition? Especially when one had such limited options?
“What being our little girl would mean?” Luke finished for her, smiling. Like his brother, Luke’s whole face softened when he smiled. He squeezed her shoulders as he looked down at her, reassuring her.
“It would mean that at home, in private, you can let go of all your responsibilities and let us take care of you. As our little girl, even in your adult role, you will follow our rules, and when you choose to disobey, you will be punished. We will support you in everything you do—including being with you in court.”
She could feel both men’s eyes boring into her. A shiver went down her spine. “And what if I change my mind?” she asked. “Will you let me go?”
“Of course!” Cody insisted. “You’ll be free to leave at any time. We won’t do anything against your will. We’re making this offer—whether or not you accept it is up to you.” He crouched in front of her and took hold of her hands. “It will always be up to you.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, considering what Cody had just told her. “I accept your offer.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
Protective feelings rose up within Cody as he watched Jen accept their offer. Her emotions had played out clearly on her face as she’d wrestled with the conflicting feelings within while considering their offer. Even though she clearly had nowhere else to go, he hadn’t been sure she would accept what they offered. He smiled. Bianca, the woman who’d stolen the middle Lewis brother’s heart, inspired his protective instincts, too. And Jen was very much like Bianca in so many ways. She’d fit in well with their family.
She sat in the middle seat, sandwiched between Luke and Cody. The air was electric, tingling with tension. She still had no idea what she had let herself in for, and she didn’t know whether or not the decision she’d made to go home with the Lewis brothers was the right one, but she had no alternative. She could accept their help, and their terms, or sleep under a bridge somewhere. It wasn’t even really a choice.
Even with the intimidating, masculine energy zinging through the cab, and the humiliating punishment she’d just endured, Jen felt safe. Trapped between two sets of broad shoulders, with nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride, she felt her racing heart finally begin to slow down, and her breathing become easier.
Cody drove. Jen kept sneaking shy glances across at him, just checking him out. His hands were huge—he kept one on the gear stick, and the muscles in the back of his hand would flex every time he changed gear. The other, he kept on the steering wheel. He drove like that most of the way, controlling the big vehicle easily in his casual manner.
She yawned. It had been a long day, and an emotional one. She was completely wrung out.
“Tired, baby girl?” Luke asked. “Here, lean on me. Have a sleep. We’ve got a fair way to go, still.” He patted his shoulder, smiling kindly at her as he did so. She felt her face flush. She was still embarrassed about the spanking they’d given her. How could he strip her of her dignity so completely then be so kind and gentle, as though nothing had happened?
She yawned again. Cody took his eyes off the road for a moment to look across at her briefly, one eyebrow raised. “Have a sleep, little girl,” he ordered sternly. “You need it.”
He was right; she did need a sleep. Wriggling around to find a more comfortable position for her still-tender bottom, she rested her head on Luke’s shoulder and closed her eyes. The muscles in his upper arm beneath the soft fabric of his shirt cushioned her head and the scent of horses ingrained in his shirt and skin wafted up her nostrils. She smiled; there were few scents better than the smell of horses on a man. Luke’s arm slid around her, holding her still as she leaned against him and slowly the roar of the truck’s engine and the gentle bouncing motion of the cab lulled her to sleep.