Jackson Kane leaned back against the leather of the chair, observing his foreman pacing back and forth in front of the long mahogany desk. It was the third time Ryder had complained about Lydia Morgan in as many days, and Jackson was unimpressed with his foreman’s inability to rein in a troublesome employee. He crossed his arms and scowled. “You broke a dozen fillies last spring, Ryder, and you’re telling me you can’t teach a girl how to be a good runner?”
Ryder stopped pacing, quieting the clicking noise of his boots across the hardwood floor. His jaw clenched. “A horse can be tamed, but that girl is either daft or ornery. This time she let loose fifty head of cattle we’d corralled for branding. I don’t see how we have any choice but to fire her, Jackson. Having her work here is costing us labor, not the other way around. Like right now, I should be out rounding those cattle again for branding, but instead I’m in here talking to you.”
Jackson rubbed the short beard covering his jaw, thinking about what he should do. He generally had low tolerance for employee misconduct. If a cowhand had messed up as many times as Lydia had, Jackson would have fired him weeks ago. It was different with Lydia, though. As the daughter of the previous foreman, she’d lived in a cabin on the ranch her whole life, and he’d known her since she was born, when he was fifteen and learning the ropes from his own father to eventually take over the business. He didn’t have the heart to simply dismiss her from the only home she’d known, even if he wanted to.
Jackson had watched Lydia grow from a child to a woman right before his eyes. And what a woman she turned out to be. Her long blonde hair, once captured in tight plaits, now flowed around her shoulders in soft tresses. Her mischievous grin had transformed into a plump-lipped, seductive smile. Her childish skip had become a hypnotic sway of hips and ass. On top of that, she was strong, energetic, and smart. Still, Jackson was well aware she was a handful. She’d made a game of taunting him relentlessly, teasing him in a daring, sexually charged manner to try to get a reaction, which thus far he’d been able to avoid. Her energy bordered on reckless, and she was undisciplined. Jackson secretly blamed her parents, both now dead, who had never taught her responsibility growing up.
Now she was twenty years old with plans to attend a university in California the following spring, and Jackson wanted her to remain at the ranch until that time and learn how to be responsible. He had figured that the best way to do that was to employ her and leave her in the hands of his housekeeper, Harriet.
She’d only managed to bother Harriet, so he’d told Ryder that Lydia was to be a runner to the hands, a job normally reserved for a man hoping to work his way up to cowhand. This, he was certain, would be a good fit for her, since she’d always been a bit of a tomboy and was a distinguished equestrian. But Ryder didn’t agree that she was a good fit. Like the housekeeper, Ryder complained about her many mishaps.
“I’ll talk to her,” Jackson said with a sigh. “Perhaps she can do something else at the ranch.”
Ryder scoffed. “Maria won’t let her set foot in the kitchen, and Harriet’s still holding a grudge over when she broke that nineteenth-century vase while dusting. We’d be better off if she stayed locked in her fancy cabin where she can’t bother anyone.”
Jackson bristled over his foreman’s harsh words. “You seem to dislike her an awful lot.”
Ryder narrowed his eyes. “It’s not about whether I like or dislike her, Jackson. It’s about her disrupting our day-to-day work and the smooth operation of this ranch. That should bother you as well.”
Jackson let the subject drop, though he suspected that Ryder was exaggerating Lydia’s blunders due to a grudge. Lydia was still living where she’d lived all her life with her mom and dad—in the cabin on the ranch normally reserved for the foreman—while Ryder was living in an apartment on the outskirts of town.
“When you see her, tell her I’d like to speak with her.” Jackson picked up a pencil and returned to tallying up expenses in the giant green ledger spread in front of him. He was making little headway. The numbers were giving him a headache, and he wished he could switch places with Ryder. He would prefer to be out branding cattle rather than stuck in an office trying to steer the business in the right direction.
“I’ll do that,” Ryder growled. He slammed a piece of paper on the desk. “There’s a list of everything that girl has done wrong during the course of her working at the ranch. I’ve put down her blunders as a runner of course. I also got the scoop from Harriet and Maria about her many mistakes doing more domestic duties, so those mishaps are all there in black and white too. Do with that list what you will.” He turned and strode out of the room, closing the office door behind him with a little more force than necessary.
Jackson studied the list. As he read each error Lydia had made, he grew more perplexed. It seemed impossible that anyone would make so many careless mistakes, let alone Lydia who, although undisciplined, had always been bright and capable. He knew she was not a dunderhead, like the list would seem to indicate. Still, she was silly and unfocused. She wasn’t one to take things seriously, which was the exact opposite of Jackson, who took everything seriously. Maybe if Lydia’s father hadn’t succumbed to alcoholism, things would be different.
Before Chet Morgan’s death, Jackson hadn’t considered Lydia’s behavior his business. But now, how she performed her work on his ranch was literally his business, and he intended to get to the bottom of why she wasn’t doing it properly.
Later that day, Jackson stared with dismay at the stack of bills covering half of his desk. The Kane Ranch was suffering the leanest period since his father bought it in the 1970s. It had taken two years for the senior Kane to get the ranch up and running, and it had been profitable ever since. Now, though, the expenses were exceeding the income. Seemingly overnight, the prices of fuel and equipment had risen higher than the market value of cattle, and Jackson felt the weight of responsibility to rectify the problem. But he hadn’t figured out how.
Jackson was good at wrangling cattle, horse-training, carpentry, and other more physical pursuits, but the business side of affairs was not his strong suit. The stacks of paperwork on his desk made his eyes glaze over with boredom and bewilderment. His parents were retired and living in Florida, and Jackson’s pride wouldn’t permit him to call up his dad and ask for help. He had to prove, if only to himself, that he could solve problems on his own.
A tap on the office door broke his concentration. He put aside his worries over the business to focus on the more immediate problem. “Come in.” He stood from his chair and rounded the desk as Lydia appeared in the doorway. “Close the door behind you, please,” Jackson said as she stepped in.
She was wearing masculine clothing to perform her task as a runner, which only served to enhance her femininity. Her breasts strained against her button-up shirt, exposing gaps between the buttons that made Jackson’s imagination go wild. He wished she’d chosen to wear a less form-fitting shirt. The thought of his cowhands seeing what he was seeing made him feel something akin to anger.
He squashed his feelings, reminding himself that he was the owner of the ranch having a meeting with a troublesome employee. The clothes she wore were not his concern. But that was another problem with Lydia. She always managed to inspire inappropriate thoughts in him.
Lydia shut the door and turned to face him. “Ryder said you wanted to speak with me. I was busy filling canteens, you know.” Her words were spoken sullenly, as though it were a great inconvenience to talk to the person who employed her.
He was surprised by her tone. The last time he’d spoken to her—several months ago—she’d been pleasant, even flirtatious. It was, in fact, her teasing flirtation that had caused him to distance himself from her while still ensuring she was well taken care of. He had to maintain control, and getting involved with Lydia scared him. She was too beautiful, too wild. She made him half-crazy with lust, and a half-crazy ranch owner could not keep focused. He especially needed to be focused at this time, when the ranch was spiraling downward at breakneck speed.
Jackson pulled out the chair opposite his at the desk and motioned for her to sit. “Have a seat. It shouldn’t take too long for us to sort through this problem, and then you can go back to work.”
Lydia plopped down with an affronted sigh as he returned to his own chair. He frowned at her, and she stared back at him with a lift of her chin.
He didn’t like that she was being rude, and he felt a prick of irritation over her lack of respect. He picked up the list Ryder had composed and held it up for her to see. “Do you know what this is?”
She leaned forward to read the words. Slowly, her red, pouting lips twisted into a smirk. “Looks like a list of all my fuck-ups,” she said, before slumping back down in her chair.
Jackson was temporarily struck dumb by her language, but he recovered quickly. He pointed a finger at her. “Mind your tongue, Lydia. You were raised better than that, and I don’t tolerate that language from any of my employees, let alone you, whose behavior and well-being are my concern.”
She shrugged in a perfect display of ambivalence, her mouth still curved up in a smirk. “Don’t concern yourself with my well-being, Jackson.”
Jackson’s palm twitched, and he suddenly wanted to haul her over his lap for a good spanking. Though she filled out her trousers with womanly hips and her button-up work shirt with generous-sized breasts, her expression reminded him of a petulant child.
He had many memories of her as a child. More than once he’d spotted her dashing through the sunlit range, her hat nowhere to be seen as she acquired more freckles on her cute button nose. She’d always been a bit of a wild child, but she had never before seemed prone to misbehavior as she appeared in front of him that day.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, Lydia Morgan, but I do know I’m not impressed with your behavior,” Jackson said. “Now, I’m going to read out each blunder on this list, and you’re going to tell me whether it was done on purpose or by accident. Tell me the truth, or you will be disciplined. Do you understand?”
Her smirk vanished, and she scowled. “How will you know if I’m telling the truth?”
He pinned her with a stern look. “I’ve known you since you were a kid, and I think I’ll be able to tell whether you’re being honest with me, though admittedly I’m a little perplexed by your current behavior. In a way, I feel as though a stranger is sitting in front of me, not the sweet young woman who lives in the cabin across the creek.”
She crossed her arms. “If you don’t like how I’m behaving, fire me and evict me from the cabin.”
“Why not? You fired my dad,” she sneered.
Jackson glared at her. “So you’re angry at me because I fired your dad several years ago, despite the fact that I also allowed you both to stay and live at the cabin for free? Is that what this is about?”
She didn’t answer right away. Slowly, her face lost its rebellious sneer and slackened with what appeared to be exhaustion. “Oh, I don’t know, Jackson. I should be angry at you. He was a drunk, but he was my dad and I miss him. He worked for your dad for a long time. Being a foreman on this ranch was his whole identity. You took that away and he went downhill fast. If I weren’t angry with you, what would that say about me as a daughter?” She kicked the leg of his desk without much fervor and looked down, avoiding his eyes.
Jackson studied her, thinking about what was prudent to say. What Lydia didn’t know, and what he had no intention of telling her, was that he’d caught Chet Morgan stealing from the profits of the ranch. If the man had been merely an incompetent drunk, Jackson might have tried to overlook it and let him keep his job. Jackson couldn’t abide by theft, though, and he’d fired him without remorse. Chet was lucky Jackson hadn’t reported the theft to the police.
“Look,” he said slowly. “I can’t change the past and I can’t say I regret firing your father, but I assure you that I have always wanted what’s best for you. I know you’ve had it hard, losing both your parents, and there’s no way I’m going to evict you from the ranch that has always been your home. I want you to stay here until you go off to college.”
She nodded and looked down, appearing contrite.
“And I want you to feel a sense of purpose, which is why I’ve included you in running the ranch. But the reports I’m getting tell me you’re not taking your tasks seriously.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m not,” she admitted. “Sorry,” she added halfheartedly.
“You can save your apology for after you’ve informed me of your motives during each of your blunders,” he said, focusing once again on the list. “As I said, I want to know whether you’ve acted intentionally or if you’re merely making mistakes that I will excuse because of the recent upheaval in your life.”
“You mentioned discipline,” she said. “How will you discipline me, if not to fire me?”
Jackson smoothed the paper down on his desk and picked up his pencil. “How about you just tell me the truth, and you won’t need to find out.”
Jackson hadn’t determined how he would discipline her and hadn’t spent much time thinking about it, in the hopes that it wouldn’t be necessary. In that moment, he felt inclined to tan her hide, but it would be highly improper for him to punish an employee that way. Still, Lydia was more than an employee to him. She was, through no formal arrangement, his unofficial charge. She was also the prettiest young woman he’d ever known, and being in her presence made his heartbeat quicken and his carefully contained composure threaten to crack.
“But… What if I’ve done one of those blunders on purpose and I answer honestly about that? Will you discipline me then?”
Jackson considered that. “I think I probably should,” he admitted. “Doing your job wrong on purpose is a nuisance at best and dangerous at worst. Still, it will be worse for you if you lie to me right now, so be honest if you acted intentionally.”
“But you won’t punish me for accidents?”
“That’s right. Accidents aren’t punishable offenses. Shall we begin?”
Lydia blinked, and a look of anxiety passed through her eyes. “I don’t want to go through this list, Jackson.”
“I don’t either, to be honest, since I’m afraid of the answers I’m going to receive. But often we must do things we don’t want to do. That’s just the way life is, you know?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Daddy. Thanks for the lesson on life.”
Jackson’s temper flared and the desire to spank her increased tenfold. Along with ire, he felt the unmistakable flame of desire. He wondered if she knew how titillating her sarcastic words were to him. He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “Careful who you call Daddy. I might be inclined to act like one, little girl.”
“Ha!” she scoffed dismissively, but Jackson noticed the gulp in her throat and the pink stain blooming over her cheeks. She was not unaffected by his words. Good, the little brat needed to be put in her place. Who did she think she was, mouthing off to him sarcastically?
“Number one,” Jackson said, clearing his throat. “You dropped a pitcher of lemonade in the kitchen, distracting the cook and causing her to burn dinner. On purpose or by accident?” He looked across the desk at her and waited for an answer.
She fidgeted in the chair before she finally said, “I did that on purpose.”
“Really?” Jackson asked, surprised even though he had suspected it.
She nodded and sank down into her chair, looking like she wanted to disappear.
Jackson wrote an X next to the first point. “Well, thank you for being honest. I can’t see a reason for you doing something so ridiculous, but we’ll return to that later. Second on the list: You broke the vase in the dining room while dusting the furniture. Intentional or accidental?”
Silence followed. He studied her carefully, and when she didn’t answer after some time, he said, “That was on purpose?”
She nodded slowly.
Jackson wrote another X. He knew he would have to discipline her as promised, but first he wanted to understand the reason for her behavior. To him it seemed especially spiteful, and he didn’t think he’d done anything to warrant her treating him and his staff this way.
“Is there any use going on,” he asked, “or can I assume you will have the same answer for each point on the list?”
Lydia looked down and said nothing.
“The next question is ‘why?’, young lady,” he said, his voice hardening. “I expect an explanation. Why would you purposely wreak havoc on my home and business, when I have done all I can to care for you?”
“No one cares for me,” she said. She straightened in her chair, and some of her rebellion reappeared on her face. “You have basically forced people to take me on as an employee. No one wants me around.”
Jackson frowned. “I’m sure that’s not true, but you must prove yourself to be a good worker before your company will be valued by the staff. I’m sure if you behaved properly, they would want you around as much as I do.”
She scoffed. “Whatever, Jackson. This is the first time you’ve spoken to me in months. I have no friends here. Ryder hates me, and so does the new cook, Maria. I miss Louisa’s fried chicken. I miss my mom and dad and the way things used to be around here. Everyone’s new. I don’t know hardly anyone but you, and you’re always too busy to pay me any mind.” Her lips formed into an angry pout, making her appear a decade younger.
Jackson hadn’t been subjected to such childish folly and spite for a long time—not since he was a child himself and dealing with other children. He certainly wouldn’t have expected it from a woman of twenty years, but suddenly her behavior made sense. Clearly, she was lonely after suffering from the losses in her life. The ranch was a good distance from town and she didn’t own a vehicle, so she didn’t have the opportunity to socialize outside of the ranch. There had been a lot of turnover, so the people she’d grown up around were mostly gone. And she lived alone in the cabin where her father and mother had once lived. Jackson had kept his distance from her on account of his own lustful feelings for her, and that was exactly what she hadn’t wanted.
Jackson set his pencil down. “I will apologize for not showing you enough attention, Lydia. I wasn’t aware it was required for you to be happy. Rest assured that you have my full attention now.”
“Yeah, that’s just great. When I do get your attention, it’s just so you can yell at me.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. “I have not once yelled at you, but yes, you’re right that the attention you’re getting from me now is entirely negative. What did you expect, honestly? You could have come and told me how you felt, instead of behaving like a little hellion and upsetting my employees.”
He held up his hand. “I’ve heard enough from you. Now you must face some consequences.”
She pursed her lips together as he stood from his chair. He walked from one side of the room to the other, stroking his beard. He could feel Lydia’s eyes on him and could sense her anxiety. She was nervous about how he would discipline her, and he was conflicted about his inclination to give her the spanking her childish actions had warranted.
No other punishment seemed more appropriate. It was an intimate punishment, and it was something he would enjoy giving in a more playful scenario with a lover. But she wasn’t his lover. She was a naughty little girl who needed a hard spanking, not a few erotic swats.
His mind made up, he stopped pacing and addressed her, standing upright with his arms behind his back in a formal pose. “Well, Lydia, before we get to your punishment, I’d like to clarify the nature of our relationship.”
Her eyebrows pulled together, and she cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
Jackson thought about how to form everything he was thinking into words. He felt compassion for her, but he wasn’t going to let her off easy. That would as good as guarantee that the next time she felt sad or lonely, she would act out again. Her behavior had been inappropriate and childish, and he was going to nip it in the bud. He was going to teach her a lesson she should have learned years ago.
“Here’s the deal, young lady. You referred to me as Daddy. I know you spoke in jest, but I don’t think it was too far off. I have taken responsibility for your care and well-being. I have kept you fed and housed. I’ve given you a job. In a nutshell, I have acted as your unofficial guardian. As such, I expect to be treated with respect, both in the way that you speak to me and in how you carry out your duties on my ranch. Do you understand?”
She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. He too felt like he was seeing her in a new light. He saw her as a wayward girl he must set straight, as opposed to an independent woman he enjoyed lusting after from a distance. It didn’t diminish his affection for her, but it certainly affected how he intended to deal with her.
“Yes, I understand,” she said, sounding subdued.
“Stand up.” His tone of voice was stern, and she didn’t question his order. She stood without taking her eyes off of him. He strode to her as he rolled up his right shirtsleeve. Taking hold of the straight-back wooden chair she’d been sitting on, he moved it to the center of the room, where there would be no interference from other furniture. He set it down with the thunk and took a seat.
“Come and lay yourself over my lap, Lydia,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “I think a good old-fashioned whipping is just what you need.”
Her hands covered her bottom reflexively. “Oh God, no, please, Jackson. I’ll be good, okay? I won’t cause you any more trouble.”