“Charity,” Ryan said, “come here.”
Charity Phillips took a step backwards away from where Ryan sat on the high-backed wooden kitchen chair that he had brought out into the living room so very calmly, upon which he had then just as calmly taken his place. Former Navy SEAL ran through Charity’s mind, as it had since the very first time she had ever heard Ryan Bedford’s name, spoken by her father: “a former Navy SEAL named Ryan Bedford. He’ll be over in an hour.”
“What?” Charity had said. “Oh, no. No spec-ops guys. No way.”
“Charity,” her father had said, even less patiently than usual, “this is non-negotiable. The negotiations are done. We’re letting you stay on at FPCH on this condition. You will accept Ryan as your bodyguard, and respect his judgment, or you will lose your trust fund and our donations.”
Even then, the second time her father had said “Ryan,” Charity had heard “Former Navy SEAL Ryan.”
The problem had only grown worse, of course, after she had seen him: six feet, three inches tall, chestnut hair still worn very short, chocolate eyes, and a chiseled jaw. Plus pectoral muscles that seemed to ripple even when he was wearing one of his dark suits that covered them entirely.
“Charity,” he said again, with a little more sternness, but without any more volume. “Come here. You have a spanking coming, and I don’t want to have to go over there and get you. If I do, your backside is going to be a lot sorer than it will be if you just come here and get over my lap.”
Charity Phillips’ first response to the death threat had been laughter when the chat message had popped up onto her screen.
Charity, stop looking into the Mithras material. If you do not stop, we will kill you.
The laughter had felt hollow, though, from its very first peal. Yes, she had named names in those interviews. Yes, she had said, “Cliff Hodges, I’m talking to you: your mining profits aren’t worth destroying irreplaceable cultural heritage.” But Cliff Hodges, CEO of Mithras Mining, was an elegant, super-rich, super-civilized rare-earth minerals tycoon, not some cinematic villain who would hire people to kill those who dared to look into the details of his mining projects, right?
But anyone who looked into Mithras’ deals to any extent had run across the stories: Cliff Hodges didn’t play fair, and he didn’t play nice. And people had gone missing.
He couldn’t kill John and Prudence Phillips’ daughter, though, surely?
Prudence Phillips, however, had freaked out, not to put too fine a point on it.
“I’m going to call Standish” (Standish Mather, the president of the Foundation for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Charity’s boss) “and tell him you’re resigning. He won’t mind, he’s such a sweetie. We’ll find you a new job at another foundation in a few weeks. In the meantime, you’ll come home to Greenwich, stay indoors, and, I don’t know, watch movies for a month while we make it clear to Cliff Hodges or whoever this is that you’ve stopped whatever stupid thing you were doing.”
“Mom!” Charity had shouted into the phone, suddenly much less freaked out herself about the death threat now that her mother had lapsed into what seemed full-on psychosis over it. “Don’t be silly. And don’t call Standish, for God’s sake! And if you call my work stupid again I’ll never, ever forgive you.”
“Sweetheart, I’m just worried about you!”
“Well, don’t be!”
“Charity, maybe I’m overreacting a little…”
“A little!” Charity realized that she had fallen into her old pattern of handling her parents with sarcasm, and that it felt false to her. Really, the death threat had freaked her out, too. But she couldn’t let her parents run her life like this, could she? She was twenty-two years old, and it was time that they respected her right to make her own decisions.
“…but this is the kind of thing we really have to take seriously. Here, talk to your father.”
While Charity waited for her father to pick up the handset, listening to her mother tell him what had happened as her parents’ conversation came faintly over the line, she pictured them standing in the shining chrome kitchen of the big mansion in Greenwich, and she knew she would do anything as long as it meant not having to go home. She loved her parents, but although she knew her life was far from the most admirable one for a social justice, cultural heritage warrior, she wanted to keep working in that direction. There must be some way she could placate them.
As she had expected, her father, though obviously less freaked out than her mother, took an even more protective stance on the matter. She could hear it in the very texture of his greeting as it came across the ether.
“Charity?” he said. “What’s this about a death threat?”
Charity sighed. “Someone says that if I keep looking into Mithras’ deal in Handristan, they’re going to kill me.”
“Is that the same one you did the video about?”
“Yes, dad.” Did she really have to go over the whole thing again? “And the interviews.”
“Where you called out Cliff Hodges?”
“Without any evidence?”
“Yes, dad. But…”
“But now you’re close to finding the evidence.” He said it as a fact, although no one but Charity knew that it was a fact. Sometimes her father could thoroughly astonish her. “I’m guessing here, obviously, Charity. But you don’t get death threats unless you’re close to something.”
Charity threw herself on his mercy. “Please don’t make me quit, okay, dad? Please?”
“I need to think about it,” he said. “Your mother and I, as you know, think there are more important things in the world than some temple that may or may not have been built by Alexander the Great. We like sustainable growth as much as the next people, but meddling in Cliff Hodges’ business is just not a smart thing to do, in my opinion, much as it pains me to say it.”
“It doesn’t pain you to say it at all, dad,” Charity said bitterly.
“Yes, it does, Charity.” He sighed very audibly at the other end of the line. “We love you very much, sweetheart, and we’re incredibly proud of the selfless work you do.”
Oh, God. Not the ‘selfless work you do’ crap again. Selfless work? Like mom throwing charity galas so that she can drink champagne with her friends?
“It’s not selfless,” she found herself saying mechanically. “It’s just non-profit, and it really matters.” It was only the millionth time she’d said it to her father.
“I know it does, sweetheart. Let me think about it.”
An hour later, he called back and told her the name of her new bodyguard, former Navy SEAL Ryan Bedford.
And now Ryan Bedford was telling her that if she didn’t get over his lap and accept a spanking from his enormous right hand like a good little girl, he would come and get her. She had noticed in the week he had been living in the spare bedroom of her apartment on the Upper West Side that he seemed a pretty old-fashioned guy. She had not minded that, because something about his chivalrous attitude seemed to make her feel more secure.
This, however, was ridiculous.
“Look, Ryan,” she said, her calves now backed up against the sofa on the other side of the living room from him. “I guess I understand, I don’t know, um, where you’re coming from, on this?”
Christ, she wasn’t that drunk, was she? Just three quick drinks with Becca at the bar down the street.
“Charity,” he replied, his arms folded across his chest as he sat in the wooden chair. “I know you know exactly where I’m coming from. You’re a smart girl—smarter than me, and I’m not exactly a moron—and you’ve had a world-class education, but all it takes is a little basic logic to figure out where I’m coming from. When your parents hired me, I told you that if I was going to keep you safe, you weren’t going to leave this apartment without me. Did you leave this apartment without me, Charity?”
“Yes, but… but that doesn’t mean you can…” Charity couldn’t even bring herself to say the word “spank.” “I mean, that’s for little kids, and, I have to say, not even for them, in my opinion.”
“Well,” Ryan said. “I happen to share that opinion. I don’t think it’s for little kids.”
Charity felt her brow furrow. “What? But if…”
“It’s not for little kids, in my opinion,” he said steadily. “It’s for adults who behave like little kids, and need a kind of discipline that in the past was used on little kids. You’re the one who’s into cultural heritage, right? Well, spanking is a part of cultural heritage, and in my experience it’s a very effective one, especially when it comes to young women who can’t behave like grownups.”
“Oh, my God. You can’t be serious. I am an adult, Ryan. You’re not going to spank me. I can promise you that.”
“And I can promise you that I will, and that if you don’t accept it graciously, your backside is going to be in a lot more pain.”
Maddening—that was the only possible word for it. Fine, maybe she hadn’t behaved like an adult when she snuck out, after he had said that she would have to wait to see Becca until another night because he couldn’t make sure the bar would be secure. Maybe she hadn’t even behaved like an adult when she had screamed, “You’re not the boss of me!” at him—yes, fine, like a little girl. But the notion that he could spank her for that?
Ryan stood up. Charity gasped: she couldn’t help it. She tried to move further back, not remembering that she had already gone as far as she could go in the living room, despite its being a very big living room for a New York apartment. She fell, and ended up sitting on the sofa, cowering back into its cushions as she watched her bodyguard approach. He had taken off his jacket and hung it over the back of the chair he had fetched from the kitchen for her spanking. He had loosened his red tie and unbuttoned his collar. He had rolled up his sleeves before sitting down. Charity had never seen anything so stomach-churning in her life as the sight of former Navy SEAL Ryan Bedford, his chin dark with stubble, coming to get her for her punishment.
It was worse than the death threat. It was worse, because Charity knew it was her fault for sneaking out, and because she knew there was no way she was going to avoid it: former Navy SEAL Ryan Bedford was about to spank spoiled socialite activist Charity Phillips.
“Please do it over my clothes,” Charity squeaked, looking up at him, not even knowing what she was saying.
“Bad girls don’t get to say how they’re punished, Charity,” Ryan replied. He had gotten to within a foot of the sofa.
“With my panties on, please? Please?”
Ryan shook his head and reached out his long arms. Charity felt herself freeze up completely. “Alright,” she whispered, her teeth chattering in fear so that she could hardly speak. “I’ll… I’ll…”
She had meant to say, “I’ll get over your lap,” but Ryan didn’t let her finish the sentence, which Charity wasn’t even sure she would have been able to make good on, so frightened was she by his huge form looming over her. She felt his hands take hold of her, one at her shoulder and the other around her waist, and then he was turning her, upending her, putting her face-down over the arm of the sofa.
At first Charity was so shocked, in her slightly tipsy state, that he had actually taken bodily hold of her, that she put up no resistance, but when she felt Ryan reach around to the front of her jeans and start to unbutton them, she started to yell and kick.
“No! You can forget about this, asshole!” At least she had made it impossible for him to take her jeans down, for the moment. He had to use his left arm to hold her down over the padded arm of the green sofa.
“You, Charity, can forget about me not doing this,” he said, still in that infuriatingly calm voice. She wondered suddenly whether she would ever be able to get him to lose his temper, and to her astonishment she found that even here and now, clearly unable to avoid getting a spanking from him in his calm state, she wanted to try to make him angry. Stupid, stupid, stupid! shouted a part of her mind, while another said, If he thinks he can make me obey him, he hasn’t seen disobedience yet.