“That’s right,” her father’s lawyer told her. “Your father was so deeply in debt that the bank will foreclose on everything he has.” The lawyer’s beady, dark eyes fixed on her with a stare that suggested this was all her fault.
Melanie swallowed. She would not cry. Not here. Not in front of this heartless man who clearly seemed to blame her for this whole mess. She fixed her eyes on the narrow moustache sitting just above his upper lip and took a deep breath.
“How can that be?” she asked, her voice quavering. “He had a good job. A nice house. A nice car.” She fidgeted, twisting the rings on her fingers in despair. None of this made any sense. How could her father possibly be broke?
The lawyer waited, tapping the tip of his silver pen against his huge solid oak desk, watching her with a look of contempt, almost a sneer, on his face.
“I don’t understand! He wasn’t a gambler… was he? He didn’t have any vices that I don’t know about?” He didn’t. She knew he didn’t. Her father was the kindest, most honest, upstanding man she’d ever met. It didn’t seem possible that he’d blown all his money, but yet here she was, listening to the reading of his will, hearing for the first time that she was flat broke, and the plans she’d had for her father’s estate would never be coming to fruition.
“No, he wasn’t a gambler.” The lawyer’s voice cut through her like a knife. “And as far as I know, he didn’t have any vices. Not expensive ones, anyway.”
As she watched him, his lips curled up into the smallest of smiles that didn’t reach his eyes. “Your father was a good man,” he said, but his nasally voice was devoid of any fondness, suggesting that her father had been nothing more to him than one of many clients, a number, not anyone important.
“Your father lost his job a couple of years ago,” the lawyer informed her, his tone cold. “As you can see here,” he thrust a stack of papers at her with neon plastic sticky flags marking various pages, “he took on a lot of debt to keep you in the lifestyle to which you had become accustomed.” The lawyer raised his eyebrow at her then, a clear sign of disapproval, before clearing his throat. “It appears he had trouble finding another job.” Reaching for the stack of papers he’d just thrust at her, that she hadn’t yet touched, he thumbed through the pile. “Credit cards. Bank loans. Refinancing on the house. Personal loans. Overdrafts. Defaults. Default fees. It’s all here.”
Melanie reeled back in her chair, speechless. She felt like she’d been punched in the guts. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart stilled. She’d had no idea…
“Why didn’t he tell me?” she whispered, unable to hold back the tears that now streamed down her face unchecked.
“Maybe he didn’t want you to know?” the lawyer suggested coldly.
“No!” she whispered. “This can’t be right.”
“I assure you it is, miss,” the lawyer insisted.
She was going to be sick. This could not be happening! She had to get out of here. The uncomfortable wooden chair she sat in scraped roughly across the plushly carpeted floor of the lawyer’s office as she stood up quickly, spun on her heel and fled.
There was very little in her father’s house that she wanted, which was good, because there was very little there that she was allowed to take. A few photos, a few mementoes, and that was it. All her father’s belongings, all her belongings, were to be sold with the house. Even her Mustang convertible, a graduation gift from her father, the car that she’d taken away to college, the car that had been their transport to numerous frat parties and weekend trips, the car that she’d used to cut class and go shopping on a regular basis, was to be sold. She ran her hand along the sleek metal sadly. She’d just heard the engine purr for the last time. Turning away, she knuckled back a tear.
Her swanky Louis Vuitton luggage set waited by the door. Filled to overflowing with the clothes, shoes, and makeup she couldn’t live without, the zips bulged at the seams, threatening to let her precious cargo burst out. The suitcases were stuffed so full, there wasn’t room for even a single item to be added. Every gap had been filled. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs. How was she supposed to pack up her entire life? How was she going to say goodbye?
There was a honk as a cab pulled up to the kerb outside the house. The driver got out, took a suitcase in each hand, loaded them into the vehicle. She trudged along behind, towing the largest suitcase on its wheels behind her, struggling with the huge carry-bag slung over her shoulder. She didn’t dare look back.
Tears streamed down her face the entire way to the airport. Her body shook, not just with grief, but with fear. She had no idea what she was in for and even worse, the life that awaited her in New Zealand was the only choice she had.
The phone conversation she’d had with her mother days earlier replayed itself over and over in her head. Part of her wished she’d refused the plane ticket. Part of her wished she’d been brave enough to stay in America, to stay with the friends she knew and loved, in the country she knew and loved, instead of flying halfway around the world to live in the country she’d left when she was seven. But realistically, she knew that was impossible. She had no money. No job. No prospects. No options. Her father had been paying for college for her, footing the bill for her room on campus, her tuition fees; he’d covered everything, while she’d partied and shopped and had fun. She’d never had to work. She’d tried once, but it hadn’t worked out, and since then, her father had provided her with a very generous allowance as well as several credit cards. Getting a job with her limited skill set, especially one that would pay enough for her to live on, would be next to impossible. If her very qualified, experienced, hard-working father hadn’t been able to find employment, what hope did she have?
The plane ticket had not been without conditions. I’ve got you a ticket home and a job, she’d said. Accommodation goes with it. But you’ll have to work hard, Melanie. Work hard and be prepared to learn. Can you do that? She remembered nodding dumbly, resignedly, because she had no other choice. A plane ticket. A home. A job. A future.
You can’t stay with me, her mother had said, only half apologetically. I’ve just got the one room here, right behind the rest home. I don’t suppose you want to work here? She shook her head emphatically—she definitely did not. No way was she lowering herself to wiping the bums of geriatrics. She had standards.
Her mother had read her silence correctly. It’s not that bad, Mel, she’d said. Some of the residents are absolute sweeties. They make the job worthwhile.
Relieved to not be destitute and homeless, Melanie hadn’t even asked what her new job entailed. She supposed it didn’t really matter. Anything was better than living under a bridge or in a homeless shelter and fishing for food out of garbage bins, both of which were possible options if she stayed where she was.
Thirteen hours on the plane should have given Melanie plenty of time to think, but she was too numbed by grief and shock to think about anything. Her father’s death had been sudden and she hadn’t had a chance to mourn him properly. The call from the hospital telling her that they had her father there, that he’d collapsed on the street and a passer-by had called an ambulance, had turned her life upside down. When he’d passed away not long after being brought in, she’d gone into shock, and never really recovered.
Her head was fuzzy. She felt like she was swimming upstream through glue, maybe weighed down with bricks as well. Her world had been tipped over and she was powerless to right it, no matter how much she fought. Everything was unfamiliar to her. Everything felt wrong.
Trudging down the wide, carpeted corridor of the Auckland International Airport, balancing her precariously stacked luggage carefully on the trolley as she navigated through the crowd stopping off to buy duty-free, she wondered what kind of life awaited her here in New Zealand. Would her mother be here to meet her? She didn’t know. Nor did she care. If she had her way, she’d crawl into a tunnel and curl up into a ball and hide. Basically overnight, she’d lost everything that mattered to her and now all that was left was the dregs of the life she’d once had. Memories. Grief. An uncertain future.
The man leaning against a dirty blue sedan was the sexiest man she’d seen in a long time. Blue jeans clung to his long, lean legs that he’d crossed at the ankles. A sleek black jersey stretched across broad shoulders, down a well-built body. Under that body, she just knew there would be muscles. Lots of them. He gave off that type of vibe: confident, sure of himself, capable, dominant. Even leaning back slouched against the car, she could tell he was tall. His arms were crossed in front of his body, but from the little she could see of his hands, they were huge. His chiselled jaw was clean shaven. Dark hair that was a fraction too long touched his collar, partially hid his ears, and his fringe flopped down over his eyes. He had to be waiting for her—she was the only person who’d gotten off the bus at this remote stop, and the small, muddy carpark was deserted. She looked him up and down and licked her lips. So this was her new boss.
Wind whistled around the corner of the buildings, sending a shiver through her, despite the winter coat she wore. Damn, it was cold. So very different from the middle of the hot California summer she’d just left.
The man straightened up, walked toward her, held out his hand.
“Blake Howard,” he introduced himself in a deep, gravelly voice.
Her eyes met his, she shook his hand. His grip was strong, his palm rough, leathery. He held onto her fingers for a fraction too long. The directness in his gaze as he scrutinized her the same way she’d been scrutinizing him made her tremble slightly.
“So you’re my new farmhand, huh?”
Melanie’s head spun in horror. “Your new what?” What on earth had she just gotten herself into?
Blake watched in amusement, then anger, at the emotions that played out across the face of the young woman standing in front of him. As soon as she’d stepped off the bus, with her sleek black chin-length hair cut that looked like it had taken hours to style and her black boots with the impossibly high heels that just begged to get bogged down in the mud, he’d known she wouldn’t be any good for the job. But he’d held his tongue. He would give her the benefit of the doubt.
But now? Now that he’d held her beautifully soft hands that clearly hadn’t done a day’s work in their life, with the perfectly French-manicured nails, and the body that looked attractive but not strong, he was certain she was totally wrong. He needed strong. He needed fit. He needed a hard worker. Someone who was willing to learn. What he didn’t need was the attitude of someone who thought this sort of work was beneath her, if the sneer curling up one side of her pretty mouth was anything to go by.
He looked her up and down and groaned audibly. How had he ended up with her? He couldn’t have found anyone more unsuitable if he’d tried.
She clearly had expensive tastes. Rings graced several fingers of each hand. A gold watch was visible on her left wrist, just under her coat sleeve, and as the sleeve on her right arm rode up a bit, he could make out at least one bracelet that looked expensive, maybe more. Sparkly earrings dangled from her ears. Totally impractical for the farm.
She turned slightly, looking around her. She had the cutest ass. The winter coat she wore belted at her waist flared out at her hips so he couldn’t actually see much of it, but what he could see, he liked. Tight black pants hugged her curves, accentuating her hourglass shape. A light smattering of freckles dusted her nose. They were probably on her cheeks too, under all the makeup. He felt a twinge in his groin. He was a sucker for freckles.
A different emotion flashed across her face. Just briefly, but it was enough: despair. Sadness and fear shone in her eyes and his heart went out to her. People might call him a hard man, but he wasn’t heartless. The poor girl looked as unhappy at this arrangement as he was.
“What did you think you’d be doing?” he asked her gently, deliberately softening his tone. Her lower lip was quivering and it looked like she was about to cry.
“I don’t know,” she admitted in a quavering voice. “I didn’t think to ask. I was so relieved to not be homeless and destitute.” Her voice trailed off and her shoulders shook. She turned away from him, shielding her face from his gaze. “My mother arranged this for me, when I was still in America.”
“I know, I paid for your ticket,” he told her. And by the looks of you, it was a waste of damn money, his inner voice growled.
She carried on as if she hadn’t even heard him. “All she told me was that I’d have to work hard and be willing to learn.”
“Yep, that about sums it up,” he agreed. “Can you do that? I can teach you everything you need to know, if you can work hard and learn.” He expected the learning curve would be much steeper for her than he’d originally figured it would be, and maybe it would be too steep and she’d quit. But right now, he was out the cost of the plane ticket, and he had no other options for staff, so he may as well try and make the most of it.
“I don’t know.” Her voice was small; she sounded scared. “I’ve never had to work hard before. I didn’t even work at college, all I did was party.”
He watched her, getting more and more furious at whatever fates had sent him Melanie to work for him, as she swallowed repeatedly, fighting back the tears that shone brightly in her eyes. If he hadn’t been so frustrated at his own foolishness for not only hiring someone he’d never met, but also shelling out for a plane ticket for her, he would have felt sorry for her. She was obviously way out of her depth, and carried a whole heap of baggage. For her to end up here, like this, she’d obviously believed she had no other option. She needed a counsellor, not a boss; therapy, not a job. And he was going to have to find a hell of a lot more patience than what he currently possessed if they were going to have any hope of this working out at all.
He knew he was glaring at her, and tried to relax his face, but he couldn’t do it. Deliberately, he unclenched the fists he held tightly at his sides and rolled his shoulders, relaxing them, trying to make himself look a bit less intimidating and a bit more friendly. But he couldn’t hide the anger that he felt.
“I can try,” she offered hesitantly. “Is that good enough?”
“It’s all I can ask,” he said gruffly.
She looked like she wanted to run away, like she wanted to be anywhere but here.
“Well, let’s get you loaded up and home,” he said brightly, trying to put her at ease. At the word ‘home’ she stifled what sounded like a sob. Oh, god. What had he said? Sighing, he grabbed her suitcases, one in each hand, and loaded them into the boot, fitting them carefully around the groceries he’d picked up earlier. He shook his head wearily. This day really couldn’t get much worse.
“You hungry?” Blake intentionally interjected as much kindness into his voice as he could. He didn’t know anything about her past, or about her, but it seemed like she could do with a bit of kindness right about now.
Without looking at him, she shook her head. She looked small. Broken. “You sure? The farm’s about an hour away, and there are no shops between here and there. If there’s anything you want, speak up now.”
She didn’t sound fine. Her voice sounded strangled.
“All right.” He suppressed a sigh. This was not going well at all. “So there’s nothing you want from town then, before we leave? Last chance.” He hoped there wasn’t; he’d spent enough time away from the farm already. He was aching to get back to it, to get Melanie working, to get on top of all the things that needed to be done.
“Alcohol,” she blurted out. “Is there any place to buy alcohol around here?”
Blake groaned. Alcohol. Really? He’d somehow got himself an inexperienced, bratty farmhand with a bad attitude and an alcohol problem? How did he get to be so unlucky?
Clenching the steering wheel tighter, he steered the car out of the deserted carpark, heading for the main shopping street in the small town. “I’ve got wine and beer at home,” he said. “Anything in particular you want?”
Wordlessly, he drove to the bottle shop, as dread knotted his insides.
The bottle of vodka in the plastic bag on the floor between her feet gave Melanie a tiny bit of comfort. Still jetlagged and worrying about her future, the knot in her stomach grew tighter as they left the small town further and further behind. The road was narrow and winding, surrounded by green hills and trees bare of leaves, and they drove on the wrong side of it. When Blake had pulled out of the carpark on the left hand side of the road she’d nearly freaked out, certain they were going to crash, when she remembered her childhood. They drive on the left in New Zealand, her subconscious reminded her in a snarky tone, as if she was stupid. She kicked the hard bottle gently, just to remind herself it was there. She needed a drink to settle her nerves, and she was tempted to open the bottle right now and take a swig, but somehow she got the impression that her sexy, stern new boss wouldn’t approve.
“How much further?” she asked, leaning back in the seat and stretching out her legs, trying to get comfortable. She’d never been much of a traveller, and after flying halfway around the world, sleeping on an uncomfortable couch, then a bus trip, she was over it. All she wanted to do was get to her new home, unpack her bags, put her feet up, and have a drink.
Twenty minutes? He really did live in the middle of nowhere.
“So this place you’re taking me. Are there any restaurants nearby?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Nightclubs? Bars? Theatres?”
The corner of his lips curled up in the barest hint of a smile and he chuckled. Why the hell was he chuckling? Did he think it was funny, living so far out the back of beyond they were completely cut off from civilisation?
“There’s nothing like that,” he told her, amusement lacing his voice. “There’s a petrol station, takeaway shop, and dairy further out, about a ten-minute drive from the farm. There’s a town hall. They occasionally do a movie night. There’s social tennis. But that’s about it. The closest town is the one we just left, and there’s no movie theatre there either.”
Horror filled her. Her vision blurred as frustrated, desperate tears stung the back of her eyes. He could not be serious. No way could she live like this!
“Please tell me you’re joking,” she whispered. “This has to be a mistake. I can’t do this.” She shook her head and buried her face in her hands. “I can’t do this. I just can’t. I don’t know the first thing about farming. I’ve never set foot on a farm in my life. Big animals scare me. I don’t want to be your new farmhand. I can’t!” She didn’t even try to keep the despair out of her voice. There was no point. She was literally living her worst nightmare, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it.
“Look, I’ve got a pretty shitty deal too, little girl,” he growled, his gruff tone startling her out of her self-pity. “I’m out of pocket for your plane ticket, not to mention I’ve taken the day off from the farm and made a special trip into town to get you, and just spent forty bucks on your alcohol. I’ve got a new farmhand who doesn’t want to work for me, and somehow, you think this is all my fault.”
He made her sound like such a burden, and she felt bad enough as it was. She hadn’t even started working for him yet, and already she was in his debt. She was tempted to tell him to just leave her there, then, if she was so terrible… but what would she do if he did? Then she’d be truly screwed.
Instead of directly challenging him, she glared at him, as bravely as she dared, out of the corner of her eye. “It’s not my fault either, you know.”
She shrank back in her seat. Couldn’t he cut her a bit of slack? So what if he was right? So what if he was getting the worst end of the deal? How about her? She’d been through so much in the past week; her entire life had been thrown into turmoil.
She took a deep breath. All she needed was a bit of time to get her head around it all and she’d be fine. At least, she hoped she would be. Right now, she wasn’t sure about anything.
As they reached the brow of a hill Blake pointed off to the right to a patch of blue visible between the hills. “That’s the harbour. The other side of that is the airport, where you flew in. And just around this next corner, if you look off to the left, you’ll see the Tasman Sea.” His voice was softer now, kind. The way he spoke, it sounded like he genuinely wanted her to be happy and interested.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She’d loved the beaches in California. Her father’s house had overlooked the water and the balcony from her upstairs bedroom had had a perfect view of the waves breaking onto the golden sand below. Looking around her at the spectacular scenery, rolling green hills with the sea in the distance, she started to relax the tiniest bit. Maybe this farming gig wouldn’t be so bad after all, if there were beaches nearby.
“Is your farm near the beach?”
“Yeah.” He turned to her proudly. “The back of the farm leads directly onto the west coast. It’s no good for swimming. But this is a peninsula, so there’s heaps of really good swimming beaches a short drive away.” He smiled. Damn, he was handsome when he smiled! Her heart skipped a beat.
“Why can’t I swim in the beach at the back of your place? That would be awesome, our own private beach.”
“It’s too dangerous,” he rumbled, his deep voice washing over her. “There’s rips. Holes. Huge waves. A strong undertow. The Tasman is notorious for being wild. And there’s no lifeguards.”
“We do have dangerous beaches in California too, you know,” she snapped, the snark in her voice making her sound far bitchier than she’d intended to. “I’ll be fine.”
She watched as his grip tightened around the steering wheel, the veins popping out along the backs of his fingers and hands. His smile faded.
“No,” he growled. “You’re to stay out of the water there, little girl, unless I’m with you. Do you hear me?”
His stern tone sent tingles all the way from her head to her toes, making heat pool in her core. But competing with the lust rising up inside her was indignation. Who did he think he was, ordering her around like that? She wasn’t a child!
“I’m an adult,” she corrected him. “Not a little girl. And while I might consider taking your orders during working hours, outside of them, I’ll do as I damn well please.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, little girl.” The emphasis he put on the words little girl, especially after she’d just corrected him on his choice of language, made her tummy flip. “If you’re going to be working for me, you’re going to do as you’re told. At all times, working or not. And there will be consequences if you don’t.”
If she’d thought he was handsome when he smiled, it was nothing compared to the way her body reacted to his sternness. She wanted to be outraged, but she was too busy trying to hide her traitorous body’s arousal from him to speak her mind. If she spoke, he would hear the high, nervous pitch to her voice. If he looked at her, she knew he would see her hands trembling. He would see the flush that coloured her heated face. If he listened, he would hear her quick, shallow breathing. And he would know exactly what she thought of his threat.
She knew she should stay silent, but after several minutes bravery got the better of her. “What kinds of consequences?” she asked sassily, not daring to look at him.
“Unpleasant ones,” came his gruff reply. “Very unpleasant ones.”
She giggled. “Sorry, you haven’t convinced me. As soon as the weather warms up, I’m going for a swim. In that wild, dangerous beach of yours. And there isn’t anything you can do to stop me.”
Sparks shot down her spine as he turned to her slowly with one eyebrow raised. She gulped.
“I’ve been breaking rules all my life,” she explained. “I don’t do what’s expected of me, or what I’m told. My father let me do whatever I wanted.” Including partying your way through college and failing all your courses, and sending himself broke in the process, her inner voice chided her. A pang of guilt clenched her chest. She’d had no idea about her father’s precarious financial position. He’d been one of the most successful real estate agents in the entire state of California. He sold multimillion-dollar homes. It was his passion, he was good at it. The commissions he got were huge; she’d never had to think twice about her spending.
She didn’t know he’d lost his job. She didn’t know he’d nearly bankrupted himself to keep spoiling her. He hadn’t told her. Nor had he asked her to curb her spending.
“That’s all about to change, little girl. I expect you to obey me on this.” He gave her another hard look, sending more sparks through her, before turning his attention back to the road ahead. “So tell me. Are you going to obey me or do I have to smack it into you? Because if you don’t promise me, right now, that you’re going to stay out of that water, I’m going to stop this car, bend you over the bonnet, and take my belt to your ass.”
“You wouldn’t.” Would he? She didn’t know. Maybe he just would.
The world around her started to spin, just a little bit. His threat was heavy between them, filling the air with electricity. She snuck a peek at his belt. It was wide, thick brown leather, embossed along the middle. In the right hands, it looked like it would be a fairly lethal weapon. Her gaze slid up his side, up his arm that looked brawny under the jersey, and the shoulder that was clearly well muscled and strong. They looked to be the right hands to wield such a weapon.
Her heart raced, she couldn’t speak. She didn’t want to back down, but she was afraid not to. She’d never listened to authority in her whole life. What if she made a promise it turned out she couldn’t keep?
“I need an answer, little girl,” he drawled, sounding more amused than anything else.
“Don’t call me that!” she snapped. “I’m not a little girl. I’m an adult.”
“You’re about to get your butt whipped, if you don’t agree to mind me on this one thing,” he growled. “Just around this next corner there’s a place I can pull over. If you want to save your backside, I need to hear your promise.”
She squirmed involuntarily, her butt cheeks clenching of their own volition. His threat was kind of hot, but a bit scary at the same time. That belt looked like it would hurt. Especially if he put any amount of power behind the swing.
“You don’t understand,” she pleaded, wringing her hands nervously in her lap, twisting her rings the way she always did when she was tense. “I don’t follow rules. I never have. I don’t think I know how to.”
“Looks like I’ll have to teach you then. You’ll be getting fairly well acquainted with the business end of my belt fairly soon, I reckon.”
“No. Please.” Her voice sounded small, frightened.
“Then you’d best agree to obey this one rule,” he snarled, his tone harsh, his patience clearly running out. “No swimming in the coast by yourself. People drown along the west coast all the time. Volunteers risk their lives to save them, but most of the time they’re too late. So stay out of the water, Melanie. Promise me.”
Melanie laced her hands together in her lap, squeezing them together and cracking her knuckles loudly. “Okay. I’ll try,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I need more than that, little girl. I need your word.”
He braked then, ready to pull over onto the wide shoulder just ahead, and her stomach knotted in fear.
“Okay, okay, I promise!” she yelled quickly. She crossed her fingers in her lap, her old childhood tactic of negating the vows she was making. “I’ll stay out.”
“Good girl,” Blake acknowledged, his rumbly tone of approval washing over her. The car accelerated away from the wide shoulder and Melanie relaxed, uncrossing her fingers.
“I didn’t want to start our relationship off by smacking your ass, but I will if I have to. Remember that, little girl. If you need a spanking, you will get one. And from what I’ve seen of you so far, there isn’t a little girl alive more in need of a spanking than you.”
Melanie looked out the window, trying to hide the blush she knew was creeping over her face. Her bottom clenched again, thinking about Blake’s words. If you need a spanking, you will get one went round and round in her head, doing delicious things to her insides, spinning her inside out and upside down, taking away her breath and making her heart pound erratically. She couldn’t keep the tremble out of her fingers.
She knew she should be offended by Blake’s observation of her, but she couldn’t deny that he was right. She didn’t follow rules. She rebelled against authority. She didn’t always do what was expected of her. Too often, she did whatever she wanted, regardless of the consequences, with no thought to anyone else. He was right: she did need a spanking. But in her dysfunctional childhood, nobody had ever thought to give her one. She’d spent a lifetime doing whatever she pleased.
Very carefully, trying not to let him notice, she stole another sneaky glance at Blake’s belt. She wondered what it would feel like, slapping against her bare skin, raising welts with each stinging kiss. How long would it be until she felt it?