From the time she was seven years old, Natalie Winthrop had wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. At twenty-nine, she liked to imagine that her childhood self was proud of the woman she had become. She was a lawyer, and a damn good one. She had been made junior partner at her firm Briggs & Spric two years earlier and knew that full partnership was in her distant future.
Before she walked out the door each morning, she knew the image she presented to anyone who would cross her path. She was polished, put together, sure of herself. And why wouldn’t she be? She was successful, doing what she loved, and young. What else could anyone ask for? But she didn’t get down on her knees and thank her lucky stars—she had earned this. She had created it for herself.
There was no official uniform at Briggs & Spric, but Natalie always wore a dress suit—freshly pressed, of course. And her black tresses were wound into a tight bun, never a hair out of place. She took pride in her position at the prestigious law firm, and she wanted her appearance to reflect that.
It was a busy day, per the usual. She had just told her assistant, Michael, that she would take her lunch break when her boss, Mr. Dawson, burst into her office without so much as a knock to announce his presence. If it had been anyone else, she would have been offended, but Mr. Dawson didn’t believe in doors and had his own taken off the hinges ages ago.
“Yes, sir?” she asked, setting her apple down on the desk.
As usual, his hair was wild, his eyes roving and never settling on one place for too long. “Natalie, have you spoken to Mr. Felton yet?”
“Not yet. I—”
“Well, when were you planning to? We need to get him on the phone about those contracts.”
“Yes, sir. It’s the next thing on my to-do list.”
His bushy gray brows furrowed together as he cast a reproving look at her half-eaten apple. “Fine. You’re entitled to a lunch hour. Just see that it gets done.”
Natalie coughed to cover up a laugh. She hadn’t taken a lunch hour in the last five years, and he knew it. He wouldn’t have made her junior partner if she had. At Briggs & Spric every hour was billable and her boss would have preferred that the ten minutes it took to eat a piece of fruit was used charging a client. He cared more about those numbers than her or any employee’s peace of mind. It used to bother her, but not anymore. Once upon a time, she would have railed at the unfairness of it all, but now she was a robot, like all the rest of them.
Mr. Dawson was a man always on the go with an arm-long to-do list running through his mind, so it struck her as strange when he continued to hover in the doorway. “Was that all, sir?”
“Ah, well, actually…”
She forced herself to be patient as he shifted from foot to foot. Out of habit her eyes had gone to the clock and it was with a sinking heart that she saw she only had twenty minutes left. She depended on her lunch break to refocus and shake off any negative encounters that had happened earlier in the day. It looked like she would have to make do without it today.
“I wanted to… well, all the partners, really…”
“Yes?” she prompted, forcing her voice to remain respectful.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
She did a double-take before she could stop herself. Mr. Dawson never sat. But she nodded, gesturing to the stately but comfortable chair across from her.
“Nice desk,” Mr. Dawson commented, tapping the top.
She smiled. Her parents had bought it for her when she had graduated in the top five percent of her class from law school. It was an antique, beautifully maintained with lovely brass fixtures. She kept the surface shining, each of her files in nice, neat piles.
“Alphabetized,” her boss muttered approvingly.
“Just like you taught me, sir.”
He grinned at her. “You learn fast. Always have. Which makes it all the more… unfortunate…”
Her earlier irritation vanished at the single word. “Unfortunate, sir?”
“Erm, well…” He shifted in the chair.
Natalie’s brow furrowed as she surveyed his odd behavior. “What is unfortunate?”
“Uh, perhaps I should wait… what I came in here to say is that, ah, I would—well, not just me, all the partners, actually, would like to have a… a meeting. Later.”
The furrow in her brow deepened. “What kind of meeting?”
“Well… perhaps I… I mean…”
She ignored his stammering. “I didn’t know of any meeting.” Fast as lightning, her fingers were on the keyboard, checking her calendar. When she saw that it was indeed clear of any meetings for the day, she relaxed. “There’s nothing in the schedule.”
“Well, yes… that is, I know that, but…”
Another glance at the clock showed that another five precious minutes had passed. It was time to get to the bottom of this. “Mr. Dawson, what’s going on?”
“I really should wait for the other partners.”
She forced herself not to show the annoyance she was feeling. “If you tell me now, there will be no need of a meeting later. That will save time, surely.” She knew she had said the exact right thing and saw it on his face as he debated what she had said. After what felt like forever, he nodded and she braced herself for whatever he would say.
“I suppose that’s true.” He sat up straight and faced her gaze head-on this time. “Listen, Natalie, you know how valuable you are to us here at Briggs & Spric.”
Uh-oh. She felt her pulse begin to race. He always called her Nat. That had been his pattern since she’d first joined the firm. She found this change more unsettling than all the others put together. Not to mention the fact that he was beginning this—whatever it was—by reminding her of her importance to the firm. That never boded well.
“We have been very pleased with the work you’ve done for the firm, the accounts you’ve brought in. You’re very dedicated and organized. Which makes it all the harder…” He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably.
“All the harder?” she prompted, surprised she was even capable of speech given how hard her heart was pounding. “Please, Mr. Dawson. I need to be going back to work soon.”
Those seemed to be the magical words capable of loosening his lips where all others had failed. He turned his steely gaze on her and now she was the one squirming before he even spoke. “You lost us the Cooper account.”
She froze, her spine becoming rigid as his words sank in. No. It wasn’t possible. She would have heard… “I don’t understand,” she said, trying to keep her voice from wavering. “You were pleased with the work I did on that case.”
He gave her a sharp nod. “I was. We all were. You have proven yourself so exemplary through the years that perhaps the final product was not checked as thoroughly as it should have been. You left out the clause that guarantees the client a return if the original deal falls through.”
She was shaking her head, her manicured hand reaching for the Cooper file even as he spoke. She began to flip through it to the appropriate page, her eyes scanning desperately. Then she saw it. A simple error to some, perhaps, but a huge one for an experienced lawyer to make. Her stomach plummeted.
“But it did fall through. And now Mr. Cooper—”
“We can appeal. We can argue that—”
Mr. Dawson held up a hand to silence her. “It’s already been done. We rectified the mistake.”
Relief flooded her with such strength that for a moment she thought she might be sick. “Well, that’s wonderful! Then—”
But he wasn’t done. “He still moved his account to another firm.” Mr. Dawson’s lips pressed together in a thin line.
Natalie felt like the air had been knocked out of her. She knew all too well how much money the firm had just lost. She felt sick. “I could call him. I could explain—”
She flinched, though his voice was not harsh. Far from it. He spoke gently, and it hurt all the more because she knew she deserved to be yelled at. “I don’t know. Maybe if I promise him some free hours, maybe—”
“And where will you fit those in? You already work seventy-five-hour weeks.”
“Well, I’ll just have to—”
He shook his head, and she trailed off. “No. Like I said, you’re known around here for your stellar work ethic and a flawless product.”
The ball in her stomach churned. She sensed a but coming. They wouldn’t fire her for one mistake, would they? Not after all the years she’d put in?
“The partners and I all agree that you’re working too hard as of late.”
“Well, I guess I can… scale back.” The words left a bitter taste in her mouth.
The thin line of Mr. Dawson’s mouth did not relax. “Actually, I was thinking—well, all of us partners, actually—that maybe it’s time for a vacation.”
For the first time that she could remember since she’d forgotten all of her lines on opening night of the junior high production of Harriet the Spy, Natalie was struck speechless. She had never heard of anyone being encouraged to take a vacation, unless they were being phased out. But that was reserved for the partners that had refused to retire. Surely they couldn’t mean to replace her in lieu of a vacation?
Her hand went to her bun, and feeling the silky smooth, perfectly pulled back hairs relaxed her, as order always did. “I don’t think that this is the right time for taking time off. Actually, I can’t think of a worse time—”
“You need me here. I can fix this. Please, Mr. Dawson, let me fix this. I—”
“Please, you’re not listen—”
“I have worked so hard for this firm. I deserve this chance. I—”
“Natalie!” he boomed across the desk from her, effectively shutting her up. He paused for a moment, then seeing that he had succeeded in getting the silence he needed, he cleared his throat. “I understand your desire to make this right, I truly do. It’s part of what makes you so good at your job. You’re a valuable part of this firm, and each of us recognizes that. This is not a punishment—”
“Hard not to see it that way from this side.”
Those bushy brows drew together again as he scowled at her. “Listen, Nat, it’s already been decided. The partners and I have seen you overworking yourself these last few months, and I am not the only one who’s talked to you about it. You’re heaping too much onto an already overflowing plate, and if you don’t stop, there’s bound to be more mistakes like this one.”
She swallowed hard. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a point.
“We truly appreciate everything you’ve done for us, and we want to give you a chance to take the rest you need.”
Natalie let out a shaky exhale. It was a done deal then. There was nothing she could do about it. “Okay. I mean, thank you.”
But Mr. Dawson wasn’t finished. “We have even gone to the liberty of scheduling you a four-day retreat at the Discipline Ranch.”
“The… what? Discipline Ranch? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, me either, to be honest but Roger Neilson has a nephew who swears by it.”
“I see.” She forced a smile. She would rather stay home and catch up on all the studies she had earmarked to read when she finally had a chance, but she knew she couldn’t say so. They had gone to the trouble of making these plans for her, and she wasn’t about to be labeled ungrateful. She didn’t need a vacation, but if they had scheduled one, she would go. She would get some sun, maybe a massage or two, and come back singing their praises and ready to get back to work.
“And one more thing—I’ve heard that cell reception can be a bit spotty.”
Her mouth dropped open. “But then how can I—”
“So don’t worry about checking in on us. We’ll be fine, and your cases will be handled until you get back.”
She wanted to object further, but Mr. Dawson had risen from the chair and she knew what that meant. Conversation over.
She knew she was supposed to feel grateful. After all, after working seventy-five-hour weeks, often pulling all-nighters to get her work done on time, a vacation was long overdue. Not only was Briggs & Spric paying for her to have the time off, they were paying for the vacation itself.
But what choice did they have? They had practically ordered her to go. She supposed that was what rankled the worst. Had she made a mistake? Sure. But which of them could say they were immune from that? No one who had been working for a decade, she knew that much. So why was she being punished?
She had lost them an account. A very important, lucrative one. The reminder made her wince. Natalie prided herself on perfection, but it seemed that she’d fallen short this time. Now they were sending her away like a naughty child that needed a timeout.
She supposed she should feel relieved that was all they were doing. They had fired other lawyers for lesser mistakes, after all.
Still, she was less than thrilled as she tossed clothes into a suitcase. She wished she’d been brave enough to argue the point further with her boss, but as good a lawyer as she was she had seen clearly that he was going to turn deaf ears to any argument she could make.
Which was why she found herself in her car, driving to some obscure vacation spot that didn’t even have a website. Honestly, how did they stay in business?
Probably have a deal with all the major law firms to bully their employees into visiting, she thought bitterly.
When Natalie was twenty-seven minutes away according to her GPS, she noticed that she only had one bar on her cell. Fantastic. This day just kept getting better and better.
Relax. They’ll have Wi-Fi. After all, what kind of barbaric place didn’t? She had to be kept up to date on her cases, vacation or no. What Mr. Dawson didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
“This will be good,” she said aloud to her empty car. “I’ll fall in line, get through the next week, and go back to work as normal. I’ll thank them for the ‘opportunity’ and life can go back to normal.” Natalie’s lips drew into a firm line and her hands tightened on the wheel. She was having a hard time convincing herself.
At least if she had to go, she was traveling in style. She lived a modest life—she had been hired by Briggs & Spric right out of law school with a whopping two hundred grand in student loan debt. Natalie loved setting goals and following a plan, which was why she lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and only ate out during the company’s annual Christmas party. Otherwise, she lived off cartons of yogurt and pre-packaged salad, paying down her loans as quickly as she could with her generous salary. There would be time to live in the lap of luxury later, when she’d earned it.
But her car was the one extravagance she’d allowed herself, the gift she had bought to celebrate being made junior partner. It was a silver Spider, the newest model, with all the latest features. The seats were a butter-soft upholstery, and one of her favorite things to do when she had a rare hour or two off work was to go for a drive with the sunroof open, the wind whipping through her black hair.
Unfortunately, even that option was out on this road trip. She had known that the minute asphalt had given way to red clay dirt. No way was she going to let that stuff kick up and fly into the car, staining her seats. It would cost a fortune to get out.
As she made another right turn onto yet another narrow dirt road, she couldn’t help but feel confused. Where was she? Signs of civilization had given way to thickets of trees and long stretches of fenced-in farms long ago, without her seeing so much as a gas station. She had seen a few cows, however.
“What kind of vacation is this?” she muttered. When her boss had mentioned ‘ranch’ being in the name she’d assumed it was supposed to be cute and whimsical, but she was beginning to have her doubts. Natalie snatched up the phone from the passenger side, her finger already on speed dial for Briggs & Spric when she saw her phone still had only a single bar. “Great. Just great.”
She thought about turning back, but a quick glance at the gas tank showed that she would end up stranded on the road before she ever reached the city limits. Freaking fantastic. There was nothing to do but plow ahead and see what delights were in store for her at the… what did the paperwork say? Oh, yeah. Discipline Ranch. It wasn’t exactly catchy, was it?
Just as the thought crossed her mind, she saw a sign come into view bearing that very name. She slowed down as she eyed it. The wooden sign dangled from a post by links, making it look very old-fashioned. Maybe old man Dawson was a secret fan of Westerns who celebrated a big win with a trip to the Discipline Ranch. The thought made her smirk as she pulled into the parking lot, which was surprisingly full in spite of the empty roads she’d encountered on her drive in.
Here goes nothing. Natalie took a deep breath to fortify herself before she swung the car door open. She’d only brought a single duffle bag for her trip, which made for a quicker exit than she would have wished. If it was up to her, her gas tank would magically fill and she would drive off into the figural sunset. She’d go to a spa—which this obviously was not—and return to the law firm refreshed and rejuvenated. She could use the break to catch up on the growing stack of mystery novels she had on her nightstand and she’d have a full seven days to come up with some stories about how much she’d enjoyed her time at the ranch. Hell, she’d even buy a pair of cowboy boots to really sell the story.
“Why didn’t I think of that earlier?” she asked herself as she shut the door behind her and clicked her fob to lock the car.
Natalie whirled around at the sound of the voice. It was deep and gravelly, and the owner of the voice was tall and muscular with a dazzling smile and dreamy eyes. And those shoulders. A girl could pile all her problems on them without any doubt that she could sleep easy, that he had it covered. For the first time since she’d been ordered to take a vacation, Natalie realized how desperately in need of rest she was.
“Did you say somethin’?”
His prompting made her realize that she had been staring. Natalie averted her eyes and tried to stave off a blush. “Sorry. I was talking to myself, that’s all.”
“Is that somethin’ you do a lot of?”
There was amusement in his voice, but warmth too, which kept her from feeling embarrassed. “I’m not a people person. I prefer my own company.” She smiled to show that she was kidding, and allowed herself another look. Natalie was used to seeing men in crisp, pressed business suits and ties. That was the standard and never in her wildest dreams would she have thought that an outfit of worn jeans, a white undershirt, and an open flannel shirt would be more attractive. Of course, it might have a little something to do with the abs displayed than the shirt itself.
“Hmm, they didn’t mention that when they called to tell us you’d be comin’.”
Her smile widened. “So, you’ve been expecting me?” She batted her eyelashes, then immediately felt like an idiot. It had been at least a good decade since she’d attempted to flirt, and she had a feeling she was doing it wrong.
Not that you’d know it from the warm smile he gave her. “I have at that. Miss Natalie, isn’t it?”
Hearing him say her name did something funny to her insides. She felt squirmy for some reason and was sure she would soon lose the battle not to blush. “Yes. That’s right.”
“Good. Let me take your bag. Is that all you have, or is there more in the trunk?”
She shook her head. “That’s it.”
“You pack light, huh? I like that.” He reached for her bag.
“That’s okay, it’s not heavy. I’ve got it.”
But he surprised her by taking it by the strap and lifting it from her shoulder anyway. “We’re a full-service place here,” he explained. “And I insist.” He flashed her a knee-weakening smile, but Natalie was smart—too smart not to see that there was something more behind those pearly whites.
Her cowboy escort held back, gesturing with an arm swept wide that she should go ahead of him. She hesitated for a moment. For some reason she couldn’t name, Natalie felt like it would be a mistake to go in.
I have to do this, she reminded herself. They sent me here to relax. That doesn’t sound so bad, now does it? Besides, I don’t have enough gas to go anywhere else.
But in the end it was wondering what was behind his smile that convinced her to step inside.
Natalie wasn’t sure what she had expected, only that what she found wasn’t it. Her mind had pictured some sort of dark, dank lodge with dead animals lining the walls. But the lobby of the ranch was light and airy with gleaming windows. There was a stone fireplace, but it was done in a more modern style, with round stones in a neutral palette. The floors were gleaming hardwood and the inviting scents of jasmine and gardenias made her smile despite her misgivings.
“What do you think?”
“It’s nice,” she found herself answering honestly without evaluating her words beforehand. That wasn’t something Natalie did often, and she immediately reminded herself to be on her guard. She didn’t want to say the wrong thing, lest it get back to Mr. Dawson.
“I’m Thomas, by the way. Can I show you to your room?”
Right at that moment, she spotted a deer head and burst into laughter.
“What? What is it?”
“Nothing,” she giggled. She’d counted out the dead animals too soon, it seemed.
They didn’t have far to go. Once upstairs, Thomas stopped only a short way down the hallway and inserted a key into the lock, opening the door. Once more he stepped back, waiting for her to enter first.
Natalie walked in, pleased to see that the bed had regular white sheets. The only thing that set it apart was the quilt at the end of the bed. There was also a rocking chair by an open window and more lilac blossoms on the desk. “Sweet,” she muttered, reaching to take her bag from Thomas.
He set it down, and she could feel his eyes on her as she rifled through its contents. She felt her entire body relaxing as soon as her fingers brushed against the smooth surface of her laptop.
“What’s the Wi-Fi password?” she asked as she carried it over to the desk and began to set it up.
“I don’t know.”
Brow furrowing, she turned to look at him. “What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you work here?”
“Of course I do. And I don’t think I like your tone.”
Her dark brows rose and her mouth dropped open in surprise. Before she knew it, she was uttering a little laugh. In that moment, she could think of a hundred more cutting things to say, but she shook her head, dislodging them. Defensiveness and the desire to argue her point was a reflex and one that she was supposed to be discarding for this trip.
“Sorry. Is it on a card somewhere?” Without waiting for his answer, she began searching the desktop for a piece of paper that would bear the login information.
“The whole point of coming to the ranch is to unplug. So we don’t hand out the Wi-Fi password.”
Her head swiveled to him, her eyes wide. “You can’t be serious.” But even as the words left her mouth, she realized that he didn’t seem amused. Despite the cheerful demeanor he’d displayed when he’d greeted her, he didn’t seem like the kind of man to joke around.
“Afraid I am, ma’am.”
“But… you run a business.”
“Well, I don’t, but I get your meaning. But our guests don’t use the internet while they’re here.”
She ignored him. “Every business has to have the internet… which means someone knows what the password is.”
“Well, of course, but as I said, that isn’t—”
“So, who is it? Whose palm do I have to grease to get such a basic amenity?”
Thomas frowned at her, and it gave her pause. Either his frown was just as imposing as his smile had been hospitable, or it was the absence of it that made his featured appear fearsome. Either way, she felt herself tensing up once more.
“I feel as though I’ve been pretty clear, Miss Natalie. You are not entitled to Wi-Fi privileges during your stay. Our owner, Nate, is the only one who—”
Finally having the information that she had been waiting for, Natalie spun around and began backtracking.
“Where do you think you’re goin’?”
But she didn’t pause to answer. She was a woman on a mission, and she always got what she wanted. It was another trademark of the business she’d chosen. She didn’t pause to explain herself when she didn’t find it necessary.
“Nate!” she called out once she was back in the hallway. She headed for the staircase, taking them two at a time. “Nate!” She could hear Thomas behind her, giving chase, so she sped up. “Nate!”
Once she had descended the stairs, she knew she had to move fast. She veered left and was gratified to see what looked like an office straight ahead. The door was closed, but that was a simple fix. “Nate!”
Thomas had feet as silent as a cat—had to, or else she wouldn’t have been so shocked when she felt his fingers grasp her upper arm.
Gasping in surprise, she tried to wrench away from him but found that she could not shake free of his grip. “Let go of me!” she demanded.
“‘Course, once you agree to let me escort you back to your room. Then we’ll sit ourselves down and have a nice talk.”
Something about the way he said talk made her freeze. That, and the fire she could see in his blue eyes. Oops. She’d made yet another mistake, it would seem. She tried to push it aside, but she could no more shake off the feeling than she could his relentless grip. “Listen, I just need to talk to Nate. Just for a second. Once I get the—”
“I’ve tried to be patient, Miss Natalie.” The way his lips pressed together told her his patience was running thin. “I tried to explain guests of Discipline Ranch do not receive the Wi-Fi password. There are several reasons for this, and I’m happy to explain them, the same way I would have if you hadn’t taken off.”
There it was: a flash of fire in his eyes again that simultaneously made her uneasy and yet jolted a nameless something inside of her awake. She wished she knew what the feeling was, but having never felt it before, it was hard to say.
“What’s going on here?”
Both she and Thomas turned to look at the speaker. When his grip slacked on her arm, she took the opportunity to break free and rush forward. “Hi. I’m Natalie.”
The speaker was a tall, stern-looking man who glanced from her to Thomas. “First-timer, I take it.”
She smiled wryly. “Yes, as it happens, and I just can’t believe that you have some… policy… that keeps your guests from using the Wi-Fi. You might be surprised to learn that almost ninety-eight percent of hotels offer it for free now.”
He was a good-looking man, she could see that right off, but he was staring at her with an impassive expression that made her uneasy. “Is that so?”
Natalie got the distinct impression that it was a rhetorical question, but her training as a lawyer bid her answer anyway. “Yes. I mean, I’ll pay for it if I have to, money isn’t a problem, it’s just the principle of the thing. Having to chase down the owner just to get—”
“We would never dream of charging a guest for a Wi-Fi password,” he interrupted smoothly.
Natalie’s brow furrowed, because while he’d said what she wanted, she felt sure that he didn’t mean it the way she hoped.
“Our rules state that we do not allow internet access for our guests,” he continued, confirming her worst fears.
He gave a shake of his head that silenced her at once. “No buts. Why don’t you come in, and I’ll explain how things work around here?” He held out his arm to indicate his office.
Natalie hesitated. His offer didn’t sound any better than the ‘talk’ Thomas had mentioned. She glanced back at him and saw the same stoic expression as was on Nate’s face. Swallowing hard, she nodded. It didn’t seem like she had much choice, after all.
But she must have hesitated too long because next thing she knew, Thomas was putting a hand on her upper arm and directing her into the open office. The door shut behind her with a foreboding thud. Without warning, her mouth went completely dry.
And that was even before she saw it, though she typically liked to examine other people’s offices, mentally comparing the size, the brand, and cleanliness to her own. She took pride in her system of organization. Then she would normally turn to survey the bookcases. But in the case of Nate’s office, she didn’t do either of those things. Her eyes were caught by the centerpiece of the room, her gaze sliding right by the desk without even seeing it.
In her own office, much like the other partners at Briggs & Spric, you would see framed diplomas and certificates. If Nate had those, however, he kept them elsewhere. Her mouth had dropped open, and she knew it, but Natalie felt powerless to change it. Every time she tried to work it closed, it fell open once more.
She couldn’t help it. She was stunned. More than stunned. What a businessperson kept displayed in their office was a testament to what he loved, and seeing Nate’s passion laid out so brazenly made her want to turn on her heel and run. She would have done, but in the same way that she couldn’t seem to control her jaw, her feet were also immobile.
Natalie couldn’t look away, either. It was like a train wreck—she knew she should flee the scene, but it was such an anomaly, so ugly, she couldn’t look away.
“What…” She tried to make her tongue work, but found she wasn’t sure what words she was even searching for. Instead, she reached out a finger and pointed.
Both men followed her gesture to the wall behind Nate’s desk. She knew they were looking at the same thing her brain was trying to convince her was an optical illusion, yet both of them wore neutral expressions in the face of her own disbelief.
She had never seen anything like it, nor had the imagination to dream such a thing up. There were two dozen gleaming silver hooks on the wall above the desk, and from each one dangled a paddle. Some were leather, looking stiff and stingy, some polished wood varying in length and width. There were even two with holes drilled into the surface. There was a pair of hairbrushes—one with a large, flat plastic head, the other a thick mahogany. There was something that looked like a belt, but wasn’t. It was black leather, but the leather was braided in a way that should have been pretty but instead put a strange foreboding in the pit of her stomach.
Though she’d pushed Thomas to the back of her mind, he must have been paying very close attention to her, because he walked over and caressed the length of the tawse, his eyes on her the entire time.
“What…” She licked her dry lips. “What is that thing?”
“This?” He tugged a bit on the implement, his expression innocuous. “It’s called a tawse.”
“What does it… I mean, what is it for?”
She watched the men exchange a look, and suddenly, she knew she didn’t want to hear the answer.
It was Nate who answered. “It’s to keep our guests in line.”
Natalie was very good at schooling her expression. She’d always been gifted at keeping her thoughts off her face, and a career in law only honed the skill. She turned her attention to Nate, and gave him a once-over that was at once discreet, but thorough. He was attractive, rugged where Thomas was all-American good looks.
“Are all the workers here former Calvin Klein models?” She grinned, hoping to lighten the mood.
No such luck. Both men’s expressions remained somber.
“Please, take a seat.” Nate gestured toward the chair opposite his desk, but his voice made it clear it wasn’t an invitation. It was an order.
What choice did she have? She minced toward the chair and took a seat, though her butt was propped on the very edge in case she needed to make a hasty getaway.
Nate followed and leaned against the desk, his arms folded across his chest, looking every inch the scolding papa as he surveyed her.
She could feel Thomas move behind the chair, though she refused to look at him. Why bother, when all she would see was the same disapproving scowl? She hadn’t liked it when she saw it the first time.
“I think it’s time we discuss the rules of Discipline Ranch,” Nate began.
Natalie swallowed hard. Something told her she wasn’t going to like what he had to say. But she strove to keep her voice light nonetheless. “I take it this isn’t your typical spa, huh?”
Nate’s brow furrowed. “Spa? Who told you that?”
Now that she thought about it, she wasn’t quite sure where she’d gotten that idea. “A girl can hope, right?”
He offered a small smile. “Well, sorry to say this isn’t anything like a spa. In fact, it’s not your typical vacation spot in any respect.”
“Then how do you stay in business?” Her curious nature took over, despite her misgivings. “You seem to do well. You must offer something people want.”
“You could say that.”
“Well? I’m dying of suspense over here.”
Thomas cleared his throat from behind her, directing her attention to him. “The service we offer is discipline.”
“Discipline,” she echoed, drawing the word out slowly.
“I don’t understand,” she said, though her eyes were inexplicably drawn back to the hanging implements, her brain screaming at her that she was being dense in a way that defied her advanced education.
“People come here, or are sent here, when there is a specific need in their lives for—”
“Discipline,” she completed Nate’s sentence.