Kelli Stanton’s life has been tragically changed forever, her beloved brother’s even more so. She gives up her dreams to help care for him, even though he doesn’t want that. But how can she go on with her life when the stubborn man needs her? How can she be happy at holiday time when there’s nothing to be happy about? Worse, how can she possibly be attracted to the man she blames for ruining their lives? A man her brother lured to their ranch for reasons of his own.
A tragic accident that wasn’t Nic Battelli’s fault, took his sister’s life, and left her fiance, his friend, partially paralyzed tortures him with guilt and grief. He can’t get beyond it; can’t deal with his business, the holidays, or anything else. But his friend is determined to give him a kick in the ass to get him actually living again. Then he meets Kelli and her wrongly blaming him, her smothering Jason with too much attention, and her sassy temptation spark feelings he’d never thought to have again. But she’s too young for him, too innocent, too bratty, and his best friend’s sister. Still…
“If he is coming here, then I’m leaving!”
Kelli sped down the hallway, strode into the entry to grab her hat from the halltree and then her sheepskin jacket. She jammed her arms in the sleeves, struggling with fury, almost shaking with it. At the same time she wanted to fall to the floor and just cry. It was as if all that she’d learned to live with these past two years, all the pain she’d fought so hard to keep inside, had been for nothing.
Behind her, she heard Jason heading her way. She somehow managed to keep the tears at bay. She couldn’t look at her older brother. All she could think about was how he’d called her into his den and calmly informed her that Nicolo Battelli was coming to their ranch for a visit. She’d never met her brother’s friend and she never wanted to. He’d destroyed their lives?Jason’s even more than hers.
She snagged her keys from the bowl on the small table across from the halltree at the same time Jason rolled into the entry. The sound of his wheelchair barely made a noise on the tiled floor. But she heard it. Everything inside her wanted to scream out at the unfairness of life.
“Don’t you dare walk out that door, Kelli Anne,” Jason warned from a few feet away.
But she couldn’t stay. Losing the last of her control, she snapped, “What are you going to do to stop me?”
Then she realized what she’d said, froze in horror, and slowly faced him. How could she have said something as cruel as that? She wanted to take every word back. She wanted to go down on her knees in front of him and beg him to forgive her. Instead she just stood there, mortified as shame filled her.
To his credit, he didn’t condemn her for what she’d said as he should have. He gave her a sad smile and gentleness laced his tone. “It’s okay, Sis. I’m tougher than that.” He held her gaze and she could see how in control he was. “You’re tougher than this.”
“No, I’m not,” she countered miserably, blinking to keep the tears from falling. He hated it when she cried about him.
Anger returned and she shook her head so hard that her hat almost slipped off. “I don’t want him here.” She shoved the hat down tighter. “Clearly what I want doesn’t matter. So, fine, I’m leaving. I’ll go into town and stay with?”
Before Jason could try and order her not to leave, the sound of a car door closing on the circle drive in front of the house interrupted their disagreement. He stiffened, appearing to hold his breath. As much as her brother wanted to see Nicolo, he was apprehensive, too. She saw the vulnerability in his blue eyes so like her own, saw the way he fought to sit up straighter.
Her heart ached for him. She would protect him from ever being harmed by anyone or anything again. Including Battelli.
She turned and marched to the over-sized front door. As footsteps grew closer, she jerked open the door and a blast of cold air from the late November day rushed at her. It took her breath away, but nothing compared to facing the most striking man she’d ever seen. Tall, dark, and oh-my-god handsome. Even the long, thin white scar on the left side of his sexily beard-stubbled jaw didn’t detract from that. For a second all she could do was stare at him, feel a warmth firing low in her body. Lust. Longing.
His brow furrowed as he studied her, no doubt wondering about her inability to speak and only all but drool over him. He gave a wary smile. “I’m Nic Battelli, here to see Jason Stanton.”
Her momentarily forgotten anger returned with a vengeance. “You’re not welcome here. Leave. Now.”
One of his thick dark eyebrows lifted even as annoyance flashed in eyes as dark as sin. “I don’t know who you are, but Jason asked me to come here.” His voice was whiskey warm, lightly tinged with challenge and a hint of an accent she couldn’t quite define. She knew he was second generation Italian, but there was a mix of something else, too.
“Kelli Anne, step aside.” Jason rolled up beside her, his tone commanding.
“Jace,” she protested, using her private nickname for him, quietly pleading.
His expression had hardened. He’d made up his mind and arguing with him further would only strain things even more between them. The strain she put entirely on Battelli. Fair, not fair, it didn’t matter. Her emotions were impossible to control right now, as was her reasoning ability.
She turned back to who she considered to be an unwanted visitor to their home. “Fine. You can come in, but I’m leaving.”
Battelli stepped aside as she brushed by him. She flinched as she rubbed against his leather bomber’s jacket, feeling the heat of him, the power enfolded in his clearly physically fit body. Like Jason’s had once been. Again tears threatened and she swallowed hard, hoping he didn’t see her reaction.
“Don’t leave the ranch,” Jason said firmly. “I expect you to share dinner with us tonight. I expect you to have improved your attitude by then.”
Or else. He didn’t have to say the words; she understood what was implied. He disapproved of her rudeness now, always. Rudeness was not tolerated. Both she and her brother had been raised to be mannerly, but she didn’t feel that way at the moment. Still, she tossed her keys back at her brother and he caught them with a scowl. He wasn’t going to appreciate that behavior either.
Resigned to having an unpleasant discussion later with him, she tamped down her irritation. She avoided looking at the towering man who curiously watched the byplay between her and her brother. She spoke straight to Jason. “I’m going to take a ride. I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
She stormed away as quickly as possible, mumbling crudely to herself. She’d never acted this way with a visitor before and she wasn’t proud of her behavior. But he’d been a big part of what had changed their lives forever. She wasn’t ready to be civil to him, especially after how abruptly he was brought to her home. What had Jason been thinking? The two men had communicated fairly regularly since both had returned to the states almost two years ago?by phone and by email. But until now Jason had never even expressed an interest in seeing his old SEALs buddy in person again.
Until now. Why now?
“Your little sister, I take it?” Nic glanced back at the pint-sized blond rushing away. He’d been struck off-kilter when she’d opened the door, a murderous look on her delicate face. And when the look had faded to obvious feminine appreciation, heat flaring in her sky blue eyes, something like desire had unexpectedly struck him. A feeling that had been absent from his life for a long time. Anything remotely related to being attracted to a woman hadn’t happened to him since the accident. He’d emotionally isolated himself from feeling anything beyond grief and guilt.
“Yes,” Jason acknowledged, shaking his head in obvious frustration. “She isn’t usually like that. She’s generally pretty sweet.” His expression softened and his eyes hinted at amusement. “Okay, she’s a bit spirited, too. Keeps me on my toes?so to speak.”
Nic’s stomach tightened as he tried not to stare at his former SEALs buddy. Jason’s once powerfully built body was now significantly less impressive. He was confined to a damn wheelchair for the rest of his life. Again, unreasonable guilt washed over him.
“She blames me, doesn’t she?” He wasn’t actually at fault for the accident that had morphed all of those involved and those who loved them into this difficult existence. But he understood her anger, her frustration. He was still angry, still frustrated.
Jason studied him before answering. “Yes, in spite of knowing the truth.” He hesitated. “Don’t judge her by what you just witnessed. She’ll calm down. I didn’t tell her until a little while ago that you were coming today.”
“Why not?” Nic better understood her behavior now, not that he approved of it. She’d acted like a brat, storming away, grumbling disrespectful things he hoped Jason hadn’t overheard.
Instead of explaining, his friend maneuvered the wheelchair around, headed out of the entry. “Close the door and come with me to my den.”
As Nic pushed the heavy wooden door closed, a phone rang. Jason heaved a sigh and pulled a cell phone from a pocket on the inside of his chair. He glanced at the display and his expression tightened.
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to take this call.” He put the phone to his ear and said impatiently, “I’ll call you back in a few minutes?. Yes, just a few minutes.”
“This might take a while.” He didn’t look happy. “I’d hoped he wouldn’t call until tomorrow. But?”
“Not a problem.” Nic was grateful for some time to be alone. He needed to get used to seeing his friend in that damn wheelchair. He needed to make sure he could look at Jason without sympathy in his eyes. His friend wouldn’t want that.
Jason appeared relieved and motioned toward a wide stairway at the end of the short hallway ahead. “Why don’t you go take your bag up to the guest room and settle in. Maybe rest a little, take a shower.” He started wheeling away, stopping to glance back and add, “Sorry. Too focused on the phone conversation ahead. The room is upstairs, the last one on the left.”
“I’m not sure?” He was still wrestling with staying here or getting a hotel room in town. With Kelli’s attitude, a room in town might be a better idea.
As if he read his thoughts, Jason called out while continuing to progress down the hallway, “Don’t even think about it. You’re staying here. She’ll get over it.”
A few minutes later Nic stood in front of his bedroom window on the second floor of Jason’s house overlooking the main area of the ranch yard. He was completely out of his element here. He didn’t fit in any way you looked at it.
He couldn’t deny that the Stanton Ranch had been impressive from the moment he drove his Ferrari beneath the sign at the main gate. He’d never been on a ranch or even in Texas before. Not his kind of playground. Usually. Yet he had to admit there was something about the large ranch in the middle of Hill Country that drew him, gave him a sense of peace that he hadn’t felt any place other than at his grandparents’ vineyard home in Tuscany. At least that had been before?
He shoved that thought aside. The sun was rapidly slipping lower toward the horizon even though it was only four o’clock in the afternoon. Daylight savings time wasn’t his favorite time of year. He liked playing a late round of golf around this time of day in the spring and summer when he was at his home in Kansas City. Or taking a sunset sail on a cousin’s sailboat when he visited San Diego. He was never quite sure what to do with himself when the time first changed. It took him a couple of weeks to get readjusted. Being here only felt even stranger.
He watched a couple of ranch hands coming out of the large stable and heading toward the bunkhouse. Tomorrow he’d get his tour of the ranch, probably be introduced to the men. The idea unsettled him. He didn’t really want to learn more about any of the ranch operation. He shouldn’t have come here.
He ran a hand through his hair, neatly trimmed as always, and ended with a quick squeeze of the tight muscles in his neck. Guilt still weighed heavily on him. No matter how many therapy sessions he’d had, no matter what Jason said, he would carry this burden to his grave. He shouldn’t have come here, a thought that was becoming a litany in his mind. Jason had caught him at a weak moment, at a time when he’d been between plans and not quite sure where he wanted to go. He never liked spending the winter in Kansas City. And he wasn’t ready yet to go back to New York City to see his parents, as they persistently pressed him to do. Especially not with the holiday season almost upon them. He wasn’t ready to deal with the Battelli’s style of big family get-togethers with aunts, uncles, cousins, and long-time family friends. He’d avoided Christmas last year and he would do so again. Christmas had been his sister’s favorite holiday.
His thoughts quickly turned to his fraternal grandparents. They desperately wanted him to visit them in Italy. His beloved grandmother all but begged him to every time he called them. He couldn’t. The pain was still too raw inside him, the memories still haunting him.
Sadness seemed to smother him more and more every day. He needed to move past what had happened, but he couldn’t yet. Why, he wasn’t sure. Everyone else apparently had gotten over the tragedy of his younger sister’s death. His parents still grieved, wanted him to come home and grieve with them. Not his way. His grandparents also grieved, but they were to the point now where they liked to reminisce about Angeline. He wasn’t ready for that either.
He turned to face the large guest suite filled with expensive, custom-made Western-style furnishings. He knew that Jason had made a good share of the furniture throughout the large log house. Before the accident that had torn his world apart and left him paralyzed from the waist down, his friend had done a lot of physical things even after quitting the SEALs. He’d ridden the range with the ranch hands. He’d enjoyed working on the ranch vehicles and he’d been a master woodworker. Now?
His stomach roiled and he fought to breathe. Whenever he thought about Jason, he could hardly bear what had happened. It should have been him whose life had changed so drastically. It should have been him who died instead of Angeline. He should never have allowed her to drive that day.
Familiar moisture filled his eyes and he blinked it away. He’d never been a man to get and stay depressed, at least not before? He was sick to death of feeling this way. He needed to get focused on his life, on his investment advisory firm again. Fortunately he had a staff of highly competent people who held the business together, had even helped it grow with his sorry lack of assistance. But after this trip here, things would change!
Jason had found a way to move beyond losing his fianc? and what had been his lifestyle. Nic damn well could as well! First, though, he had to help advise his friend on some financial matters. Jason had been determined that he needed help and he needed it now. He’d refused to even consider talking to any of the investment advisors Nic had recommended. He’d even gone low enough to remind him that Angeline would have wanted him to help Jason. Jason and his sister Kelli, who had moved back to the ranch and become a thorn in Jason’s side because she tried to smother him with too much loving care. At least that was how his friend had put it.
Sitting on the side of the king-sized bed, Nic thought about the pretty little blond who had met him at the door. She was ten years younger than him, just twenty-three. A child in comparison to all he had survived as a SEAL, as a successful businessman, as a lover.
Lover! Where the hell had that come from? It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman, although lately he’d started growing tired of his self-forced celibacy. He was a passionate man by nature. Italian. But his sex life had suffered with his loss. Yet seeing that bit of a female with that over-sized hat covering chin-length hair and sporting a thick coat that hid whatever curves she had had sparked his interest again. But Kelli Anne Stanton was wrong for a man like him. Too young, probably still pretty innocent. His best friend’s sister. Definitely off limits.
Determined not to think about her, temptation, and certainly not sex, he went back downstairs to get his bag. Maybe he would take a shower, maybe even stretch out on the bed for an hour or so. He’d flown halfway across the country yesterday from Los Angeles to Kansas City. Then he’d driven since early morning to get here. He could have flown, but he’d missed driving his Ferrari. It was the only thing in his life that gave him pure pleasure these days.
“I won’t put up with this, Kelli Anne,” Jason snapped. He glowered at her from where he sat on the straight-backed chair kept in the corner of his den. “We’ve been over this too many times.”
She didn’t like seeing him upset, particularly when it was turning into one of “those” times. Even more than dreading what would inevitably happen, she hated how he’d had to struggle out of his wheelchair to get himself onto this chair. Not that he ever let her see that undoubtedly awkward move, but she could imagine what he went through. It never stopped her from putting up some resistance, though.
“I’m twenty-three now, Jason.” She gave the excuse she’d been trying out ever since her birthday six months ago, one that had never worked. “I’m too old for?”
“Get the paddle,” he said firmly, cutting her off.
Her ten-year-older brother had practically raised her since their parents had been forced to move to a nursing home after their father was stricken with Alzheimer’s eight years ago. She’d had trouble adjusting, had been a handful of trouble for him off and on over her teen years. She knew it and regretted it now that she was older. He’d been dealing with her bouts of backtalk, reckless behavior, and more as best he could. Most often by warming her bottom as he lectured her on the error of her ways. Before the accident he’d generally just spanked her with his hand, his hard hand. Then there was over a year when he’d not disciplined her. But he’d resumed “the unpleasant chore” a few months ago, although it was rare. Now, though, he used a paddle, which she really disliked.
She shifted uncomfortably where she stood a few feet away. She tried not to look at the wheelchair. Seeing it only made her angrier?at the man who had dared to come to their home today.
“Warming my butt isn’t going to make me any happier that he is here.” In her gut she knew the accident hadn’t been Battelli’s fault. But her heart hurt every time she looked at the man her brother was today. She couldn’t blame him. She couldn’t blame the woman he’d loved because she was dead. Battelli she could blame and feel a little better, wrong or not.
“Nic is my friend. I asked him to come here. I need him here.” Jason nodded toward the large mahogany desk he’d built years ago for his father. “You know where it’s kept.”
Nerves fluttered in her stomach. Slowly she walked to the drawer where the dreaded object was stored. She didn’t want to be paddled, but she respected her brother. He felt strongly about being a disciplinarian when necessary, just as their father had when they were younger. She’d even suspected that her father had disciplined their mother from time to time, although she tried to never think about that.
As she opened the drawer and looked at the well-worn wooden paddle, she knew she could refuse to accept this punishment. She wanted to. But she wouldn’t. Her brother needed this if only to prove to himself that he was still in charge of some things in his life, and that he was still the head of this household.
Resigned, she picked it up out of the drawer and walked quietly to her brother. He took the paddle without a word. Then he waited for her to take the familiar position. There had been only a few times when he’d insisted on pulling down her jeans and he had never taken down her panties. Only her mother or father had ever done that, for which she was grateful. Being bare bottomed over someone’s lap was embarrassing.
She drew in a steadying breath and stretched awkwardly over his legs. His thighs were no longer as muscled and hard as they once had been, which saddened her. But he worked with a therapist every couple of weeks and did some exercises at home. Miraculously he was improving and they prayed there might be a day when he would gain at least enough use of his legs to walk in some manner.
As she shifted until her hands were braced on the floor, she thought about all he continued to go through. Irritation curled within her and made her testy again. “He shouldn’t have come here. I don’t want him in our home.”
The paddle whacked hard against her bottom and she yelped. Even through thick denim it had stung.
“This is my home, too. I asked Nic here and you will get over this ridiculous attitude you have toward him.” He smacked her two more times and the sound echoed around the room.
She sucked in a breath; thankful she’d closed the door. It would be mortifying for their “guest” to hear what was happening in here. Yet she knew her brother was right. Battelli was not at fault for the accident. She detested carrying this grudge against the handsome man she had only met for the first time today. But she’d used her grudge as a crutch to get her through these years of pain. It was difficult to let it go.
“I will try,” she said reluctantly. Even she heard the lack of conviction in her voice.
He tucked her against him, held the paddle on her bottom. “You know why I’m doing this, Kelli Anne. Right?”
She stubbornly didn’t answer for a minute. That had been his cue for her to tell him why he was burning her butt. She preferred him to just lecture her. Having to explain was always iffy. If she got it wrong or left something out, he would encourage her with the paddle to get it right. If she got sassy about it, the paddle could really fly. Considering she would be expected to sit down and eat dinner with her brother and Battelli in less than an hour, she wanted this session over as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
“I was rude to him at the door.” But that had happened when Battelli had told her his name. Before that she’d been struck senseless by the sight of the extremely handsome man standing on their doorstep. Her heart had raced and feelings that had shocked her had swept through her. Stretched over her brother’s knee for a paddling, though, she didn’t want to think about her foolish first attraction to Battelli.
“You all but slammed the door in his face.” A fact that clearly angered Jason because he gave her three more sharp smacks.
She gasped, kicked her legs straight out, and then grumbled under her breath something coarse and unladylike before she could stop herself.
Which promptly earned her a half dozen more smacks that would have her squirming on the chair at dinner later. She tried not to, but she cried out. “Owwww! Blast it, Jason, that hurt!”
The paddle settled on her stinging bottom. “Now, about that little tantrum of throwing your keys at me and then stomping away like a brat.”
She’d hoped he might let that go, but she should have known better. Brat behavior was an absolute No-No. “I acted impulsively,” she admitted and braced herself.
She really hated it when he did these stupid tests. She hoped the man she one day married wouldn’t do them when he gave her a spanking. What? What am I thinking? First, no man she loved would ever consider disciplining her. Second, she wasn’t ever getting married. How could she? She was never leaving here, never abandoning her brother. He needed her.
“Kelli Anne, how many?” Jason asked again, sounding impatient.
“Two.” That seemed reasonable to her.
“Ten it is.”
Obviously their idea of what was “reasonable” differed. He, of course, was in charge. She focused on the floor and tried to think of what she needed to do tomorrow. She did not want to think about that darn paddle about to burn her butt.
Refreshed by the shower and a fifteen-minute power nap, Nic made his way downstairs and through the sprawling house until he found a closed door at the end of one hallway. He hadn’t seen anyone in any of the rooms he’d passed. And then he heard Jason’s voice stating grimly, “Ten it is.”
He thought he heard a feminine, “Five.” A counter offer?
He started to move away, knowing whatever was being negotiated in the room was a private matter. But when something that sounded hard landed against something else, he hesitated, trying to figure it out. After another similar action/response the woman involved?Kelli? ?cried out in obvious discomfort.
“Lie still,” Jason barked, giving Nic a fairly certain picture of what was happening. His friend was punishing his sister.
“I’m trying,” she snapped back. Crying out again as two more hard swats landed.
A paddling? Interesting. So his friend was a disciplinarian. Nic didn’t have a problem with that, especially since he also believed in it when necessary. But it did impress him that Jason was able to do this. Evidently he wasn’t as helpless as Nic had feared, for which he felt foolish.
Another pair of swats hit a surface clearly now in pain. Kelli cried out, sobbing, admitting how sorry she was for whatever reason she was being paddled. His gut told him it had to do with her behavior at the door. He would have spanked her, too, if he’d had the right.
He should have moved away, but couldn’t seem to do it. Curiosity had him listening to the final few swats, the last of her anguished cries. And he got aroused thinking about her pert butt face up over his lap.
“Put the paddle away and then you can either stand in the corner until time for dinner. Or you can go to your room until then.”
“I’m not standing in the corner,” she bit out and then said, “Sorry.”
“Your attitude better be a lot better when you join us for dinner,” Jason warned. “Or we’ll have another workout with the paddle after we eat. Understand?”
Nic heard her affirmative answer and a drawer closing, followed by footsteps headed in his direction. He barely made it back to the end of the hall before the door opened and Kelli walked out. Her hands covered her obviously tender butt as she sniffed away tears. When she glanced up and spotted him, her face turned as red as her bottom probably was and she dropped her hands.
He pretended not to have noticed her actions. “I was looking for your brother.”
She couldn’t meet his eyes. “He’s in his office.” She glanced up, saying nervously, “We?we had some matters to discuss.” Then she added, “I’ll see you for dinner in a little while.”
He stepped out of her way so she could hurry by him. He couldn’t help watching her walk away, sensing she was fighting the urge to reach back and rub at the sting on her bottom. She had a great ass.
Kelli had stayed in her room as long as she dared. They always ate promptly at 6:30. By now their cook would have returned from helping the ranch hands’ cook with their meal. She would have the meal on the table and probably already left for the night. It was up to Kelli to clean up after dinner. Tonight she dreaded both the meal and spending any extra time downstairs with Jason and Battelli.
Speaking of Battelli? He’d looked at her awfully curiously when she’d walked out of the den, but he hadn’t said anything other than he was looking for her brother. He’d seen her lower her hands from her tender bottom. Had he guessed what that had been about? Had he overheard the paddling? She was mortified by the very idea.
But she couldn’t stay up here in her room much longer. If she did, Jason would take the specially installed elevator and come get her. And he wouldn’t be happy.