“I got the job, Annie!” Bianca exclaimed triumphantly, punching a fist in the air, as she walked into the lounge of her childhood home where her sister was seated in the leather La-Z-Boy chair, a colourful knitted blanket over her knees, a magazine open on the coffee table beside her. “I start tomorrow.”
Annie smiled up at her. “I’m glad,” she said. “I knew you would.”
“I could tell Mr. Lewis, Tom, was reluctant to take me on, what with me being a girl and all, but he’s prepared to give me a chance, unlike all the other stables around.”
“You’ll do a good job, Bee,” Annie murmured. “You’ve got a gift with horses. Remember that. Don’t let your Tourette’s stop you from following your dreams.” She sighed gently and sagged back in the chair; the effort of talking had exhausted her.
“They don’t know about my Tourette’s,” Bianca admitted.
Annie sat up abruptly. “What? You didn’t tell them? Why not?”
Bianca shrugged. “You know how it is for me, Annie,” she said. “No one even bothers to ask how it affects me, they just assume they know, thanks to the media sensationalising it.”
Annie nodded slightly. “I guess that’s true. But you need to tell them, Bee. Tell them how it is for you. Make sure they understand your quirks, that you can get anxious. Maybe they won’t notice your tics but Bee, you do need to tell them.” There was an urgency in Annie’s tone, and Bianca knew she was right. It had been a long time since Tourette’s had interfered with her life, but she knew how easily and quickly that could change. She sighed.
“Okay, Annie,” she agreed. “I’ll tell them.” Then she smiled. “You know, it’s funny. You’re the sick one, yet here you are, protecting me.” Bianca reached out for her sister’s hand, squeezing it gently. Annie’s grip was soft; she felt so frail. But her smile was warm.
“We’ve always protected each other, Bee; we’ve always been there for each other.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to get on without you, Annie,” Bianca murmured softly, her tone tinged with sadness. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“I’m not dead yet, Bee,” Annie said with determination. But they both knew it was only a matter of time—Annie’s prognosis was not good. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago, and although she had fought bravely, it was clear time was running out. At just twenty-five years old, fifteen months younger than Bianca, Annie was a shell of her former self. The once vibrant young woman had been reduced to a skeletal frame, almost bald from the ravages of ineffective chemotherapy, and unable to walk more than a few steps at a time before her body was overcome with weakness and racked by waves of nausea.
Settling into the sofa next to Annie’s armchair, Bianca stretched out and made herself comfortable to spend the evening with her sister. Now that the disease had progressed so much, and so rapidly, Annie no longer liked being alone, and their workaholic father would no doubt be drowning his sorrows in alcohol down at the local pub right about now. Since leaving them as children, their mother had made a half-hearted attempt to come back into their lives when she found out Annie was sick, but Bianca had rebuffed her advances. She felt only bitterness toward the woman who had abandoned them as small children, leaving them behind with their father to pursue a new life with the yogi guru she’d befriended, taking off to India with him to ‘find herself’ as she liked to put it. Bianca had no idea whether or not she had succeeded in her mission, but she knew that she’d lost her two daughters in the process. Annie was more forgiving than Bianca, but even her tolerance for the simpering, useless woman had its limits.
With her father working such long hours, it had fallen to Bianca to care for Annie in the evenings. Different ladies from Annie’s church came in for a couple of hours during the day, but that was all. The rest of the time, Bianca was it. Not that she minded—not at all. Annie was her sister, her best friend, the most important person in the world to her. But at times, it did get exhausting, and she knew that, before long, Annie would need to be surrendered to full-time hospice care.
After cooking dinner and cleaning up in the kitchen, Bianca curled up with Annie on the queen-sized bed in Annie’s room. She didn’t always share it with her, but tonight, knowing that she would be leaving early in the morning, she wanted to feel the presence of her calm, serene sister.
She arrived at the stables at precisely six a.m., as Mr. Lewis had requested. Even at this early hour, the stable complex was all lit up and the place was a hive of activity.
“G’day, I’m Clay. You must be Bianca? Dad told me to expect you.” The man standing in the open double doorway of the stables smiled and extended his hand to her.
What a hunk! His grip was firm as she shook his hand. She let her eyes wander over his body quickly, trying not to make it obvious that she was checking him out. Long, lean, blue-jean-clad legs disappeared into black boots. He was tall, with broad shoulders that tapered into narrow hips. He wore a blue checked shirt rolled to the elbows, exposing corded muscular forearms. But best of all were the kindest, bluest eyes she’d ever seen, framed by dirty blond, shaggy hair that was falling in his face, with the hint of a goatee shadowing his jaw. Laughter lines crinkled at the corner of his eyes, and he had a great tan. She guessed him to be in his late twenties. Landing the job as apprentice jockey to Tom Lewis’ stable was great all by itself, but this perfect specimen of manhood standing in the doorway, still clutching her hand, was going to make the job even better.
“Uh, yes,” she stammered, forcing back a tic. “I’m Bianca.” Nerves always made her tics worse, and the pressure was building inside her face, behind her eyes, in her jaw, begging to be released. She concentrated on holding it off. She wasn’t ready for this handsome stranger to see that particular side of her just yet. There would be plenty of time for that later.
“Well, come on, dad asked me to show you the ropes. He’ll be in later.”
The moment Clay turned away from her, Bianca released the tic that she’d been suppressing: cracking her neck and jaw, and hiding her eyes behind her hands as she rolled them around in her head in a bizarre formation that involved stretching her eyes wide until they hurt. Then she rolled her shoulders, trying to relax her muscles, knowing that being calm was the key to tic minimisation.
Bianca continued to tic only when Clay wasn’t looking, as he showed her around the stables, introducing her to both the horses and staff, explaining the morning routine to her in detail, pointing out the blackboard listing the rides for the day that hung on the wall outside the tack room.
“You’ll be on the ride-out list tomorrow,” he assured her. “We’ll ease you into it gently today, you can groom and feed the horses, get to know them.”
“Uh-huh,” Bianca murmured absently. He walked with a swagger, and standing slightly behind him, she was thinking about how well his tight butt filled out his jeans. Even from the back, he looked good. His shaggy hair brushed the nape of his neck and she longed to reach up and twirl her fingers in it.
“And here,” he stopped walking and opened a door off the end of the building past the stalls, “is the feed room.” He waved his arm around the room indicating the sacks of feed piled up in one corner, the barrels containing premixed grain feed and vitamin supplement powders lined up against the back wall. Hay nets hung on hooks above the barrels and half a dozen bales of hay were stacked precariously one on top of the other along the side wall.
A hay net had been discarded carelessly in a pile on the floor, looking out of place in the meticulously organised room and Clay bent down to pick it up. He was so close she could smell his deodorant, and a sexual frisson shot through her as his shoulder brushed against her chest. She held her breath as the electric energy charged through her body, making her pulse race and her nipples harden. Had he felt it too? She couldn’t take her eyes off him, hypnotised as he hung the net up on the hook where it belonged. She was mesmerised by the graceful way he moved, by the way his hair swished against his collar. As he turned back around to face her she shook her head to clear herself of the daze she was in and forced her mind to focus. No man had affected her like that, ever. What was it about Clay? Why was it that such a simple touch could have such an effect?
The tour continued, and Bianca was impressed at the way the complex was run. As Clay showed her around, he introduced her to the other stable hands they came across, and the camaraderie between them all was obvious. The work environment was a light-hearted, fun, jokey one, and Bianca knew she would fit in well.
She followed him down the aisle, dodging around the wheelbarrows parked outside the stalls, right to the end. A few young people were hard at work mucking out stalls, and Bianca couldn’t help but imagine what Clay would look like shovelling sawdust… muscles flexing as he manhandled the rake, moving gracefully across the stable floor.
“You can start here and work back up.” Clay took a rake off a hook on the wall and handed it to her. “I take it you know how to muck out a stall?” he asked.
Did she dare? She shook her head, managing to keep a straight face despite the smile that was building up at the corners of her mouth. “No,” she said. “You’ll have to show me.”
She kept a poker face as he looked at her hard for a moment. Surely he didn’t believe her? Just because she’d been in different work recently… she’d worked as a stable hand in school, she could muck out a stall blindfolded! She could feel a tic coming on, but she forced it back, which she knew made her look even more serious. She couldn’t let Clay know about her Tourette’s yet; he would see her fired for sure. It had happened before.
It was all she could do to keep her smile hidden as he entered the stall and demonstrated how to pick up the soiled and wet sawdust and dump it into the wheelbarrow. As soon as his back was turned she let out the tic she’d been suppressing in a violent twisting, jerking, face-scrunching movement. Her neck cracked satisfyingly, and she winced as a sharp pain shot down her neck to her shoulders. But the momentary pain was better than the pressure of built-up tics. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the burning muscles. It worked.
Once her face was relaxed again, she watched, mesmerised, at Clay’s lithe, muscular body moving easily around the large, airy stall, flicking sawdust to the sides to let the wet patches of concrete dry. He’s a mighty fine-looking man! She smiled, pleased. It had been a while since there’d been eye candy as good as Clay to look at.
She stifled a giggle as Clay got rid of the last of the wet sawdust and turned to look at her. “Do you think you can do the next one?” He held the rake out to her again.
She shook her head again, but she couldn’t hide her laughter. “I can’t believe you fell for it!” she exclaimed. “I was a stable hand while still at school before becoming an apprentice jockey; of course I can muck out a stall!” She smiled up at him cheekily. “I just wanted to watch you do it!”
He looked at her for a moment, dumbfounded, then he laughed too, a low, rumbling laughter that came from deep within him and made her giggle even more. “You need your ass smacked!” he admonished her, still laughing.
She was shocked for a moment and stood there looking at him, mouth agape. Had she heard him right? A thrill shot through her. She’d waited her entire life for a man to say that to her.
She was still standing there, speechless but excited, as he grinned at her, winked, and pressed the rake into her hand.
As she watched his retreating back, she wondered why she had such an aching hotness between her thighs. Sure, he was sexy, but so were lots of other men she’d met, and none of them had ever had that effect on her before. It was the spanking threat. It had to be!
“He’s gorgeous, Annie,” Bianca told her sister. She’d come home for lunch. Like every racing stable, it was the early morning and the late afternoons and evenings that were busy, so she had a few hours to herself in the middle of the day, which suited her well to care for Annie.
Annie smiled weakly up at her. “I’m glad,” she said softly. “I hope he’s nice too; you deserve a good man.”
“Well, he’s not my man yet,” Bianca pointed out. Then she squeezed Annie’s hand. “But he seems nice. And he loves horses, so that’s a good start.” Then she smiled and leaned close to her sister. “And I think he’s a spanko.”
Annie’s smile lit up her whole face. “Oh, sis, I’m so happy for you!” she exclaimed. “I can die happy, knowing you’ve found your perfect man.” She gently squeezed the hand she was holding, and even that small squeeze seemed to sap her of strength.
“You can’t leave me yet,” Bianca pleaded, a lone tear trickling down her face. “I’m not ready for you to go yet.” She clasped both of Annie’s hands tightly within her own.
“Not yet,” Annie confirmed. “But soon. It will be a relief, sis. An end to the pain.”
Bianca stretched out on the bed beside her sister. Annie’s health was deteriorating rapidly. The cancer was decimating her body; it was a cruel way to die.
All too soon, the few hours of break were over, and she had to return to work. Annie was almost asleep, but she smiled as Bianca leaned down and kissed her cheek gently, then quietly left the room.
Clay had been watching her work for the past quarter of an hour. He’d deftly thrown her down a bale of hay from the stack in the feed room that reached above her head and had been watching her from the doorway of his office as she moved around the stable, filling up all the hay nets. The easy, mundane work didn’t keep her mind occupied, and her thoughts drifted back to her sister. Life was so unfair! Annie was the most amazing person she knew—beautiful both inside and out—and she was dying. She didn’t deserve to die.
“What’s that thing you do with your face?”
She jumped. She hadn’t heard his footsteps approaching. Then she groaned. He’d noticed it sooner than she’d hoped he would. Her tics must be worse than she’d realised, for him to notice them on her first day at work.
“Well?” Clay prodded, sounding angry.
She sighed and looked down. “Why?” she asked.
Clay glared at her. “As stable foreman here I think I have a right to know. Are you on drugs?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “It’s nothing like that.” Glancing at him, it was obvious he wasn’t going to let it go. She sighed. Not again. Her entire life she’d been fighting the stereotype that the media perpetuated about Tourette’s; she’d been fighting to prove that she was as good as anyone else, despite the fact she did random weird things with her face.
“Well? I’m waiting,” he growled.
“I have Tourette’s Syndrome.”
“So you lied.”
“No.” She shook her head adamantly.
“You were specifically asked on the application form if you had any medical conditions. You ticked no—I read it.”
“No, I was asked if I had any medical conditions that would interfere with my job,” she corrected him. “I don’t. This doesn’t stop me from doing my job.” She spoke firmly, passionately, hoping she sounded persuasive.
“So all the swearing, the whole body tics rendering people effectively disabled, repeating words… all that’s false?” he asked doubtfully, obviously not sure whether or not to believe her.
She shook her head. “No, that’s true, for some people. The thing is, Tourette’s affects everyone differently. The media likes to sensationalise that extreme stuff, but the reality of it is for me that I don’t do any of that. The main way it affects me is what you can see, what you’ve already seen: the facial tics. I did have some vocal tics when I was a kid, but I haven’t had them for years. What you see now is how it is for me.”
“So why didn’t you tell pops that at the interview?” he asked, still sounding annoyed.
“Because he wouldn’t have given me the job!” she exclaimed. “Look, I’ve been down this road before. The discrimination laws in this country don’t work. No employer is going to hire someone with Tourette’s when they have other candidates. They don’t understand enough about it, except for what they hear in the media, and they only hear of the rare, extreme cases. So you would judge me based on that stereotype.”
Clay scratched his chin, looking deep in thought. “So what if you do that when you’re riding? The way you screw up your face like that—that’s a pretty violent movement. If that happens when you’re going full gallop out on the track, you’re liable to lose your balance, fall off and get hurt, or worse, killed. Do you know how much paperwork is involved in workplace accidents these days?” He gave her a wink, along with the hint of a smile at his bad joke, but she didn’t smile back. She couldn’t—he was right, and she knew it. Some of her facial tics were violent movements, and often, they were combined with a head twist that altered her whole sense of perception, throwing her completely off balance.
“It doesn’t happen when I’m riding. Or even when I’m just working with horses, really. It’s the best form of therapy there is, for me, anyway. On horseback, I actually feel normal.”
She crossed her fingers behind her back for luck, hoping that he would give her a chance. He wouldn’t be the first person to fire her for her Tourette’s, and no doubt he wouldn’t be the last. “If you give me a chance at this job, I promise you won’t regret it,” she begged. She didn’t want to sound desperate, but in truth, she was. No other stable had been willing to take her on; most trainers still wanted male apprentice jockeys, even in this day and age of women’s lib and equal rights. And she needed a job, preferably one with hours that would allow her to still care for Annie.
Clay looked at her sternly for a moment before relaxing his features into the barest hint of a grin. “You’re lucky—I don’t do the hiring and firing round here, so you’re safe. I’ll talk to pops and explain.” Then he winked at her. “But if you were mine, I’d turn you over my knee and smack your backside for that deception!”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” She was so relieved, it was all she could do not to throw her arms around him in glee.
It wasn’t until later, much later, when she was tucked up in bed that night, that she remembered the other part of his comment, the ‘turn you over my knee and smack your backside’ part, and a little thrill went through her when she recalled those words, spoken in his deep voice. She hadn’t told Annie about that, but she knew Annie would understand. She was one of the few people who knew about her obsession with spanking. Annie knew all about the websites she frequented late at night, slaking her desires. And perhaps Annie would know whether or not she was reading too much into Clay’s words.
Intrigued, she drifted off to sleep thinking of him, wondering what it would be like to be spanked by him. He was certainly handsome, with big, strong hands, large enough to span her entire bottom. She imagined herself upended over his lap with his big palm reddening her backside, listening to his deep voice scolding her for some imagined misdeed. She fell asleep with a smile on her face, looking forward to the morning, when she would see the handsome stable foreman again.