Bella Sullivan’s bottom twitched as she followed the century-old wooden fence line to the Cloudcroft Ranch parking lot. Despite a little chill in the air, late spring in Wyoming held tremendous promise for the summer warmth to come, but her immediate problem took precedence over her hatred of cold weather. Six feet five inches of Cloudcroft’s very angry resort manager was a few hundred yards behind her, and she didn’t need to understand every word Marcus Greene was saying to recognize the scolding tone. “Get… ass… gardens… damn cell phone…” were enough to keep her five foot frame moving. Fast.
She turned the corner by the barn, but took a wide berth away from her handsome husband’s office. Jackson Sullivan would likely have a strong opinion on Marcus’ message and all it would take was one short text before he would search for her as well. Both men had very big hands and a history of applying them to her backside when she annoyed them, so dodging all ranch authority figures was a key short-term goal.
It was also necessary to stay away from the main house and her brother-in-law, Lincoln Sullivan. By far the scariest of her three roommates, Linc was likely neck deep in his own paperwork keeping Cloudcroft’s complicated finances and personnel straight. While he didn’t have any eggs in her current predicament basket, she worked for the ranch, and he controlled her trust fund, so there was no reason to see his pissed-off face either.
Keep moving. Head down. Don’t make eye contact. She’d already said her goodbyes to keep a late lunch date in Jackson with her friend, Tami Canton. To avoid her dominant companions, she needed to get to her car before anybody got to her and leave the stone ranch house behind in a Wyoming cloud of dust. She would not have to deal with any of them until dinner when reasonable heads and gentler hands would hopefully prevail. It was always easier to postpone the inevitable than face that much testosterone before lunch.
As Marcus’ long legs closed the gap between them, his demands grew increasingly louder, but the complete message remained thankfully unclear. Like her husband and his brother, Marcus Greene was a natural dominant, but he also had a very gentle side. He’d never acted as guardian during her first year at Cloudcroft so his control was usually just part of the BDSM scene the ranch used to supplement their income. Bella and Jack had played with him many times, and he’d explored Bella’s tiny frame down to the meticulous details. His current attitude, however, revealed one angry Filipino-American giant, and Bella had no desire to face his discipline.
The whole mess was clearly not her fault. When a ranch labor shortage resulted in her assignment to work in his coveted gardens, he’d given clear directions in a long boring dictate. Marcus took his landscapes seriously. Their elegant beauty provided an upscale contrast to the utilitarian sections of the working ranch, but Bella didn’t share his knowledge or his dedication.
In her defense, texting Tami on their lunch details had been an immediate priority even after he’d scolded her to put the phone away. An excellent multitasker, she’d clearly heard him say, “Prune back the wisteria and the clematis.” Wisteria and clematis were her goals during the two-hour chore, but the angry voice coming from the gardens implied that she’d pruned something else. Something really, really bad. In retrospect, cutting off buds before they’d bloomed didn’t make a lot of sense, and she really wasn’t sure what a wisteria was; a fact she probably should have revealed under the persistent lecture at breakfast.
Her shiny red Jeep Wrangler was only ten feet away, and she closed the gap quickly to leap into the front seat while the noisy blast from the radio eliminated another layer of admissible culpability. Freedom close, she pulled onto the relative safety of the ranch road as her husband came out of the barn and waved. Jack Sullivan was an amazing man and her soulmate in more ways than one, but his persistent scowl increased her desire to put some serious distance between them.
Out of necessity, his ‘get your ass over here’ gesture was interpreted as a gentle goodbye. Waving her own retreat with a bright and hopefully ignorant smile, she didn’t fully breathe until she’d hit the main highway and left their anger behind. Problem solved.
It was a two-hour drive to Jackson, and she easily buried any regret. Her cell phone rested peacefully in her bag, but the driving and texting ban clearly worked to her advantage and avoided any demands to return home. With a whole afternoon ahead of her, she turned the music up louder and breezed happily along the highway with a renewed commitment to postpone the day of reckoning.
When she finally reached the elegant resort community, Tami was quickly spotted leaning lazily against her car in the restaurant parking lot. Dressed casually in jeans, boots, and a pink yoga shirt, her bubbly personality matched her curly brown hair and bright eyes. Formally a ranch employee, she and her husband had taken higher paying jobs in Jackson a few months earlier and settled happily into the much bigger community. Bella still missed her daily presence even though a very competent Carly Finnegan had assumed the full-time cleaning position. True friendships were hard for Bella, and Tami had put up with a lot of crap over the last year.
Tourists armed with cameras instead of winter recreation gear prepared to take the chair lift to the mountaintop to get their fabulous ski resort view in its summertime splendor. Green grasses flowed with the breeze but the rocky crags of the mountain showcased an unforgiving wilderness, and Bella had always appreciated the scenery best from climate-controlled comfort.
The girls nestled under the large restaurant window and ordered iced tea to begin their afternoon. Their husbands would skin them alive if they’d had drinks before driving home, but the nonalcoholic beverage was an easy personal option for Bella. Despite her happiness, she still harbored deep regrets for the drunken accident that had brought her to Cloudcroft in the first place.
For years she’d filled her life with an unresolved anger and lashed out at enemies and the few people who’d tried to befriend her. Money, meanness, and good looks had filled her shallow social set until the middle-of-the-night accident on a deserted Florida highway. Her mother had leveraged her trust fund to force a yearlong guardianship with family friends at the Wyoming ranch. Given no other viable option, Bella had agreed. A few million dollars was a pretty good motivator.
Resentment had burned against everyone for a long time, but the year at Cloudcroft and Jack’s secure discipline had brought a newfound security. The family rift resolved slowly and shortly before she’d married Jack, her mother had married Jack’s father in a private ceremony. Faced with the reality that her powerful stepfather was also her new father-in-law, she simply avoided thinking about the creepy comparison, but it was nice to be a happy family again. The once-dreaded phone call to Texas was now a daily event, even if it was nothing more than a five-minute check to say she loved them.
After ordering their meal, face to face catch-up on a month’s worth of gossip quickly consumed their time. Tami remained enthusiastic about their decision to move to the bigger city. “Kyle loves working for the utility company, and the apartment at the community college has been a godsend. We’re living in about four hundred square feet and most of our things are stored in my parents’ basement, but it’s free rent and all we do is keep an eye on the dorm.”
“I’m really glad for you,” said Bella with true sincerity. “I’ve missed you at the ranch, but I know this is something you two have wanted for a long time.”
“We’ve talked to a realtor and should be able to afford our own house by the end of the year. I already have a whole folder with paint chips and carpet samples. You have no idea how exciting it is.”
The girls moved on to some subtle gossip about Linc’s latest sub. Bella wasn’t a fan of stupid, and this girl was clearly not good enough for him. Linc might be her brother-in-law, but their relationship within the BDSM world was close, and the little redhead was all giggles and sunshine without an intelligent thought in her head.
“I’ve refused to play with her.” Bella said flatly. “Jack’s annoyed because I can’t give him a good reason, but he accepts it.”
As the meal continued, Tami grew quieter, and soon Bella was carrying the whole conversation. When Tami reached nervously for her third glass of iced tea, Bella asked suspiciously, “You’re holding back. What’s wrong?”
Her companion had never been any good at deception and continued to pick aimlessly at the tablecloth. “I… I’ve got to ask something, but hear me out before you get judgmental. Are you guys still looking for garden help this summer?”
Bella’s guilty conscience returned to the morning’s horticultural disaster, and a glance at her watch brought destiny a little closer. “It wasn’t my fault,” she replied with a frown. “Marcus wasn’t very clear.”
Tami’s nonverbal confusion spoke for itself, so Bella continued, “Yeah, they’re looking. But you know how hard it is to find help. The person has to be qualified for the job, live in either Marion or Telfair so they can commute, and they really need to be BDSM players, or they just don’t last. It’s hard enough to find resort and ranch help, but the garden’s been impossible.”
Her friend took a deep breath. “I have this student, and she really needs a summer job. She has no family, and no friends who can take her in. She’s literally homeless, but she’d do a great job for you guys.”
Bella scoffed, “She must have known she couldn’t stay in the dorm all summer if she wasn’t taking classes. That doesn’t sound very responsible.”
“She had a nanny position all lined up, but the woman decided to quit her job at the last minute and didn’t give Sophia any time to find something else. She’s a horticulture major, so there are no problems with her qualifications. Great grades. Good recommendations… including from Kyle and me. She just needs one of the extra rooms on the third floor. It’s only for a few months. The guys considered opening that option up.”
Bella chuckled as she dipped her mozzarella stick in a gooey, sticky barbecue sauce. “Considered it for about a minute. They don’t like strangers in the family quarters all night long.”
It was hard to imagine dominant BDSM players who spent weekends in public sex scenes but valued their privacy when the real world returned. Playing was fun, but when the day was over, it was nice to leave the crowds behind and settle on the couch with a beer and no responsibility.
“Besides, why are you asking me? I don’t make hiring decisions at any level. This one would be up to Marcus.”
Tami hesitated. “She isn’t a player, Bel.”
Bella couldn’t hide the dismissive tone. “You gotta be kidding? Come on… you know that’s a deal breaker. She’d be out of there the first time she got her ass slapped at an event, and somebody would get arrested. Even if the guys could be talked into it, Elijah would never accept the liability.” Her father-in-law might live in Texas, but his legal expertise still influenced many daily decisions.
“No, Bel. Really. I’ve explained everything to her. She’s willing to sign the waivers, but she’s going to have to lie on them. She knows there’s a lot of butt slapping, and she’ll see some kinky stuff. But there are only three events between now and when she goes back to school. She can handle it. She just needs somebody who can help if she gets confused or has questions. Somebody who knows her secret, and it can’t be the guys.”
Bella continued scowling, but Tami remained persistent. “Please, Bella. She’s literally going to have to go to a homeless shelter. Her parents are dead. She spent years in foster care. She has nobody. If you’d seen her high school file, you’d have considered her for your trust fund scholarship.”
The subtle reminder of her selfish past breached her stubborn resolve. After spending most of her life acting like a selfish bitch, she really wanted to help others, but didn’t gain complete control of the fund until she turned twenty-five. With years of nagging guilt behind her, it bothered her that she wasn’t doing anything useful now.
But Tami’s plan had way too many risks, and Bella countered easily. “I really do want to help. But think this through. I’d not only have to lie to Marcus, but Jack and Linc too. They’ll murder me if they find out… I only have one ass, and that’s six hands.”
“Nobody knows she isn’t a player except for you and me. Even Kyle doesn’t know.” With no small amount of desperation, Tami repeated, “She’s lost both parents, Bel. She has nobody.”
Bella’s voice wavered with uncertainty. “Do you really think she can pull this off? It’s a lot of deception.”
Tami hesitated before glancing away. “I think she’ll do everything she can. But I understand that you’ll get your ass burned if she gets caught. I know what I’m asking.”
“You’ll get in trouble too. Kyle will be the first phone call they make.”
“Please, Bella. We just don’t have enough space to take her, and if she doesn’t have a summer job, she can’t afford to finish the degree.”
She knew she was going to say yes, but the logistics were problematic at best. “Fine. But I… uh… I can’t call the guys and ask right now. There was a small misunderstanding today, and none of them could hear from me and still talk about a gardening job. You call Marcus and set it up. If he agrees, I’ll take her home today and watch out for her.”
Tami’s relief was obvious, and she embraced Bella with a grateful hug. “You’ll love her. She’s sweet and gentle, and would even make a great submissive if she ever tried. She’ll be perfect for the job.”
Bella just shook her head while Tami dialed Marcus. A vanilla employee at an adults only resort was bad enough, but when the first person was fucked from behind on a spanking bench, the girl would probably pass out. Not only would her husband and their roommates murder her, the potential lawsuit would bring her attorney stepfather’s wrath as well, and the mental picture did nothing to ease her anxiety. Elijah had never laid a hand on her, but she really did not want to test his patience.
Tami described the favor to Marcus and lied faithfully in all the right places. “She’s great. She has all the gardening experience you need, and she’s even been to a few play parties.”
There was a pause as Tami listened carefully. “Uh… a few… I’m not sure exactly how many, but she’ll fit right in. She’s quiet and neat, and won’t be a problem. You won’t even know she’s there.”
As the call continued, Marcus’ voice rose along with Bella’s anxiety. She heard bits and pieces of his end of the conversation until the word ‘rhododendron’ triggered the memory of an elegant purple bush. That pruned mess was a rhododendron, not a wisteria and cutting a rhododendron in May must have been a terrible thing. She tried to picture a clematis as Marcus continued to express his displeasure in loud, persistent tones. His lengthy tirade brought a frown to Tami’s face, but after a few minutes, she gave Bella a thumbs-up.
His next line was as clear as if he were on a speaker phone. “I can’t take care of the gardens by myself, and I’m never letting Bella near them again. You can tell her to enjoy her little trip today because I’m going to tan her hide when I see her.”
Bella’s bottom tingled as she failed to come up with a solution for an improperly pruned plant.
Just as she was getting ready to hang up, Tami said, “Oh. Hi, Jack. Bella?”
She waved her hands dramatically to avoid a conversation, and Tami said, “Yeah, Bella’s here, but she… uh… went to the restroom.”
The conversation lasted just seconds before Tami responded, “Okay, I’ll tell her. And I’ll make sure she gets Linc’s message too. It was good talking to you. You sound great!”
The fake enthusiasm made Bella cringe. Tami was always way too honest to demonstrate the skills necessary for deception. Tami hung up and said grimly, “What did you do, Bella?”
“Wisteria… rhododendron… what’s the difference?”
“Well, according to Marcus, the expected blooms will not happen on several very expensive, heirloom plants. According to Linc, it means the ranch is going to have to pay for potted flowers for some resort wedding next weekend, and according to Jack, it means you were playing on your phone instead of paying attention at breakfast.”
Bella’s bottom twitched a second time. She’d never managed to make all three of them mad at one time and wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out. “Maybe Jack doesn’t care as much?” She was Jack’s wife and his submissive, and she clung to the slim possibility he would step up and get her out of this mess.
Tami frowned. “He said to ask you, and I quote… ‘Where the fuck is your cell phone?’”
Bella’s face fell as she grabbed her bag. A quick search found nothing so she dumped the entire contents on the table. Hairbrushes, wallet, makeup, gum wrappers, and three small candy bars, but no cell phone. Constant communication was the one serious restriction Jack had given her when she’d gotten her own car. Surrounded by miles of untamed Wyoming territory and seldom driven roads, she was never, ever to leave the yard without her cell. Now she knew why they hadn’t called her since she’d left the ranch.
“Oh, my God. I left it in the kitchen.” She put her head in her hands. “I am so screwed.”
Tami said softly, “It won’t be the first time you got blistered, and it probably won’t be the last. But can you try to arrange it when Sophia isn’t around? She might not need to see all three of them paddling your bottom at one time.”
Sophia’s potential trauma was the least of her worries, and Bella’s glare spoke for itself. “I need to leave now. Where do I pick this girl up?”