“She won’t stand a chance against you, not with you weighing so much more than she does.”
Tray Nix didn’t need to be told that. After all, he’d yet to come across a woman who could hold her own against him. The same could be said for ninety-nine percent of the male population. Even though his pro football years were behind him, he still competed in weightlifting events. Just the width of his shoulders was enough to convince most people not to confront him.
“I can see why they arranged to have Carnal harvest her,” his companion continued as they waited for the next Copper County race to begin. “The bitch is making fools of the male jockeys here.”
By ‘they’, Carnal Incorporated executive Robert Smith was referring to several heavy betters who couldn’t bring themselves to back a female jockey. To them, horse racing was a boys’ club. Women could sit in the stands like he and Robert were doing. They could even own horses and work as trainers. However, pitting their racing skills against men, even if the men barely topped one hundred pounds, went against everything their betters believed in.
“They should lay down money on her,” Tray suggested. “Seems to me that would end what they consider a problem and turn it into an asset.”
Robert chuckled, not that anyone who didn’t know the expensively dressed fifty-something man would call it a chuckle. To an outsider, the sound probably came across as a warning, Robert’s way of saying he didn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion.
The thing was, Tray didn’t give a damn what Robert thought and Robert knew it. Their relationship was both complex and simple, two men with very little in common who nevertheless had agreed to work together.
Work? That was one way of putting it.
“I wagered a grand on her.” Robert had to press his shoulder against Tray’s so they could carry out a private conversation in the crowded stands. “What about you?”
Damn it, betting that much on a weekday ten-furlong race held in a rural county would stand out. Robert had gotten rich too fast helping run Carnal and had lost perspective. If they were going to pull off the harvesting, they had to keep a low profile—at least as low a profile as Tray was capable of. No matter that he was casually dressed in jeans and blue T-shirt, he stood out. He always did.
The eight thoroughbreds in this race were being loaded into the starting gates. From this distance, the animals didn’t look that imposing, but he’d been around enough horses to have a healthy respect for them, especially high strung ones. No way would he be on the back of a twelve-hundred-pound beast hellbent on galloping as hard as its heart allowed, especially with other straining beasts all around.
He and Robert had come to Copper County to harvest Marina Stenson, but he’d insisted on observing her in her natural habitat. It wasn’t that he gave a damn about the woman herself—years of being a broad-magnet tended to make them all blur together—but her choice of jobs fascinated him.
Some five minutes ago, he’d been standing near the paddock area watching the horses being mounted. Because the jockeys had all worn helmets, at first he hadn’t been able to make her out. Then one had turned sideways, giving him a glimpse of breasts under red and black silks. He’d thought the male jockeys might shun her, but they hadn’t. Interesting.
She’d hoisted herself onto the back of a chestnut mare, picked up the reins, and leaned over the mare’s neck to scratch her between the ears. Watching Marina, he’d wondered what her hands would feel like on him.
Hell, that wasn’t what today was about. In time, if things played out the way they were supposed to, she’d learn to accept his hands all over her. Maybe move from tolerating to—
The horses exploded from the starting gate, hooves pounding the packed earth. This was a far cry from the Kentucky Derby, but the crowd’s excitement was contagious. Silent, he leaned forward, his gaze locked on the blur of red and black now in second place. Marina’s mount ran as if she was trying to beat the ground into submission. Despite that, Marina seemed part of the animal under her, quiet water surrounded by raging rapids. Thanks to his familiarity with horses, it didn’t take him long to pick up on a key reason for her success. No matter what was happening around her, Marina remained calm, and that calmness reached her horse. The mare stopped attacking the turf. Her strides lengthened and became smooth. Two furlongs from the end, the duo flowed past the lead horse and cruised to an easy win.
“Damn!” Robert exclaimed. “That’s the easiest money I’ve made all year.”
The horses cantered around the track as their riders brought them down from the highs they’d been on. Marina’s mare still reminded him of moving water, while Marina now sat straight and proud, looking all around. He could see why someone who hadn’t bet on her might see her stance as arrogance. What he didn’t understand was how anyone could hate her enough to arrange to have her freedom taken away.
What did he care? By the end of the day, he’d start training Marina Stenson as a sex slave. She’d either be put up for auction at the end or sold before he’d finished working with her. Chances were she’d never sit on horseback again.
Hell, he knew what facing the end of something he loved felt like.
* * * *
Maybe she should have accepted Barker’s invitation to buy her a beer, Marina thought as she pulled into the carport next to her small house. After all, Barker had been the first to give her a chance to race and she didn’t like thinking about where she’d be without him. Unfortunately, sixty-eight-year-old Barker smelled worse than the fairground’s stables. He was also getting hard of hearing and spoke so loudly he gave her a headache. Her other option had been to join several of the jockeys, which was a pretty safe bet because she’d seldom seen one drink more than a single beer. However, by the time she’d gotten away from a reporter, almost everyone had taken off.
The interview questions had been predictable. How did she feel about being a woman in a male-dominated sport? Why had she decided to become a jockey? Was she ever afraid? What did she intend to do once her riding years were over?
She’d had no hesitancy about answering the first two questions but the others were no one’s business. Of course fear occasionally factored in, but so far she’d been able to transfer the emotion into determination and split-second decisions. As for her plans for the rest of her life—she had them all right. What she needed was a bankroll to make them come true, which was why she was living in what was little more than a cabin on the five acres she’d bought at auction. All the acreage needed was a water source and fencing to become useful but—
“Enough,” she muttered and unlocked the front door. Her fingers still tingled from gripping the reins during the three races she’d ridden in today and her inner thighs ached from holding on. Fortunately, she’d recently put in a new hot water heater and she intended to stand in the shower until it ran out.
Because she needed to check the oil level in her truck, she didn’t bother locking the door before tugging off her racing boots. The house was too quiet, eerily empty. Until a month ago she’d shared it with Zero, the mutt she’d found along the side of the road the week she’d turned eighteen. After Zero had died in her arms, she’d stroked his gray muzzle for hours then buried him in the shade of an oak tree. At first she’d been too heartbroken to contemplate having another dog. Then she’d decided that the best way to honor her companion’s memory was by giving another stray a home. Unless something came up, she planned to go to the humane society on Wednesday and adopt another mutt.
Smiling, she drew her top over her head and unfastened the confining sports bra on her way to her bedroom. She dropped her discarded clothes on the floor, took a ratty but clean T-shirt and shorts out of her dresser, and entered the bathroom with what she intended to wear after her shower. She leaned against the sink so she could tackle her leggings and the tight breeches that came to just below her knees. That left her with lacy white underwear, her only concession to her feminine side—except for the long, mostly black hair she wrestled into braids on race days. After shimmying out of the bikini, she turned on the water. While waiting for the room to steam, she unbraided her hair and shook her head. Ah, freedom!
Yeah, freedom, she acknowledged as she stepped into the small shower. Responsible for nothing and no one except herself and her future dog. Independent. Self-sufficient.
Pitting herself and her mount against the opposition, with her muscles straining and adrenaline flowing, left her more exhilarated at a race’s end than before the start. It took hours to come down off the incredible and nerve-wracking high, which meant she’d be wired until long after dark. Even hot water flowing over her did little to quiet the familiar jumpiness, not that she wanted it any other way.
Hell, she wasn’t getting any sex these days and frustration contributed to the jumpiness. Fortunately, she knew how to take care of that. Eyes closed, she leaned her back against the shower wall, spread her legs, and slipped her right hand over what her father had called her woman’s place. She flicked one nipple then the other, awakening her breasts. Poor Dad. He’d done an admirable job as a single parent right up until his little girl had started to mature sexually. That was when he’d started stammering and shoving sex education books at her.
Maybe they would have gotten past the awkward stage. She’d certainly hoped and expected that would have happened. However, Dad had died shortly before her fifteenth birthday.
No! No thinking about that tonight! She’d made five hundred dollars today. The evening was hers—time for a little self-satisfaction.
One caress. Two. Three. Then more and more strokes along her labia until her knees weakened and hot juices drenched her fingers. Her head fell back, her mouth opened and her nostrils flared. She switched from teasing her taut nipples to pinching them. Pain and something damn good radiated over her size C breasts. Sensation flowed down her middle and met with the sweet energy encompassing her sex.
Well versed in her hot buttons, she conjured up a naked male body. Unlike the men she’d spent her day competing against, the one residing in her mind was heavily muscled with impossibly wide shoulders. Tall and self-confident, he invaded her space and pulled her hands off her body. He made her stand with her arms at her sides as he slipped two fingers past her parted lips. He didn’t speak, simply commanded her with a dark look. Even though she wasn’t sure she could trust her legs, she remained where he’d ordered and started mouth-fucking his fingers. She repeatedly licked him while staring up into his hooded eyes. The drawing sensation radiated down her neck, spread over her breasts and began a familiar trail to her pussy.
Do what I command you to, his gaze said. Give me access to all your holes.
A calloused palm pressed against her mons. Desperate for more, she arched her pelvis toward him. He grunted and shoved more firmly. When she stood her ground, when she opened herself even more to him, he nodded. Fingers closed over her labia, making her moan in anticipation.
Then the intimate invasion shifted, the texture changed, and she reluctantly acknowledged it was just herself after all. She remained with her legs far apart as she withdrew her wet fingers from her mouth and stroked her breasts. The feminine fingers between her legs invaded then filled her opening. It wasn’t what she wanted, her fingers were too small, but she’d make do. Fuck herself as the water cooled.
She came, a feathery climax that made her skin burn, followed by lethargy. Feeling both satisfied and still frustrated, she aimed the water at her pussy and washed away the scant discharge. Hopefully she’d be able to sleep. If not, there were always her sex toys.
By the time she’d dried herself, put on shirt and shorts without bothering with underwear and wrapped a towel around her head, she’d mostly convinced herself that she was crazy for thinking she could achieve a teeth-rattling climax on her own. At least it hadn’t taken long. Once she’d dried her hair and found her sandals, she’d tend to her truck, starting with adding some oil. While she was at it, she should check the antifreeze and windshield fluid levels. Then, glory be, she’d rustle up something to eat.
The bedroom she’d just stepped into smelled—off. Different. Confused and a little uneasy, she stopped and looked around. Two men stood in the opening between her bedroom and living room. One was huge, an unbelievable mix of height and strength. The other barely registered.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded.
Neither man spoke. Her heart slammed against her chest as if trying to break free. At the same time, her thoughts slowed, focused on the only thing that mattered—survival.
“Leave. Get out of my place.”
They continued staring at her. Granted, the window was open enough that she could dive through it but she’d take the screen with her. Adding to the risk, she was barefoot.
She wanted to demand an explanation but didn’t because she wouldn’t like their response. This was bad, on the brink of a nightmare. If she was going to get out of right now alive, she had to do something.
Not taking her attention off them, she stepped over to her bed and reached under her pillow. She pulled out a utility knife and engaged the blade.
“Interesting,” the smaller man said. “I expected a gun.”
Her pistol, unfortunately, was still in the truck’s glove compartment. She’d never thought she’d need a weapon, but had taken the gun safety course and bought the pistol as insurance. The knife had been her dad’s and she’d been sleeping with it ever since he’d gotten sick.
After what seemed like forever, the big man took a forward step. She hadn’t wrapped her mind around his size, but at least he no longer shocked her. He simply was what he was, a threat to her existence.
The window. Dive through it while keeping the knife away from her body. Run no matter what happened to her feet. Run while the damn bastards were trying to decide what to do.
She was still trying to convince herself that she stood a chance of getting away when big man took another step.
“Don’t!” She sounded more scared than determined. “Damn you, don’t!” She pointed the knife at his throat.
He reached for her. Gasping, she scrambled back.
The way he studied her made her wonder if he was concerned she might cut herself. If he was, did that mean they didn’t intend to kill her?
“You’re not going to get away.” His voice put her in mind of rumbling thunder. “Don’t make it any harder than it needs to be.”
Were they here to kidnap her? That was crazy. No one would pay more than a few bucks for her return.
“Use the Taser,” the other man said. “We aren’t here to play games.”
The way the big man’s nostrils flared told her he didn’t like being given orders. All right, she wouldn’t make that mistake, which left her with one option—the window.
“I want to see what you’re made of,” Big Man said. “Do you go down without a fight or…?”
Not caring what he was trying to tell her, she jerked back her free arm. Her elbow struck the screen. The screen sagged but didn’t pop out. She hit it again, felt it give way.
Holding the knife out from her body, she spun away from Big Man, leaned over, and started to push off with her feet. Before she could dive out of the window, however, powerful hands grabbed her around the waist and yanked her against a solid body.
She screamed and twisted around, slashing wildly. Something struck her wrist, numbing her hand. The knife fell soundlessly to the carpet. She’d just started to kick out when monster-man lifted her off her feet, carried her over to her bed and threw her face-down on it.
“That’s how it’s done,” he announced. She didn’t care whether he was talking to her or his companion, just that with his splayed hand pressing against the small of her back, she couldn’t push herself off the bed. She managed to turn her head toward him but wished she hadn’t because now she was staring at his crotch.
“You could have injured the merchandize,” the other man grumbled. “That’s why the Taser—”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Not in this you don’t. Damn it, you’re supposed to follow instructions.”
The bed dipped as he climbed onto it, still holding her down. He straddled her hips and brushed her hair off her cheek.
“You’re all right? Nothing injured.”
Did he expect her to answer, maybe thank him for being so considerate? Not in this lifetime. Much as she needed to get out from under him, she knew better than to wear herself out attempting the impossible.
“I don’t want you talking to her,” the other man said. “Keep her off-balance.”
“Oh she’s off-balance all right. Trust me on that. Okay, Marina, time for me to get to work.”
He knew her name, which meant what, that they’d been following her? If they had they must know she lived alone.
Her arms had been out from her sides and useless because she couldn’t reach back enough to attack him. When the pressure against the small of her back let up, she sucked in a deep breath. He locked his fingers around her wrists. Even though she resisted, he easily crossed one wrist over the other behind her.
“This is why I don’t want her out of it,” he said. “I want her aware of everything that’s happening.”
The other man grumbled. His clothes appeared more expensive than her captor’s. Maybe that meant Little Man was supposed to be in charge, maybe her captor’s superior. Any other time she probably would have laughed at the notion of Big Man allowing anyone to order him to do anything.
Just as he had no intention of letting her up until he was ready.
A shadow at the side of the bed caught her attention. She stared at Little Man, hating him with every fiber of her being.
“What do you want?” her captor asked.
Little Man folded his arms across a silk shirt and stared down at her the way a hunter with a fresh kill would. “I wanted to see if she’s trying to fight you.”
She wanted to, all right. In fact, it still took every bit of self-control she had in her not to.
“Fortunately no, she isn’t.”
“What do you mean, fortunately?”
“I’ve tamed horses. It’s a lot harder getting through to the ones that fight than those that understand who’s in charge.”
Her captor had compared her to a bronc? She wondered if Big Man and she might have an understanding of horses in common—if she lived long enough to find out.
“Tray, I don’t want to stay here,” the other man said.
“Neither do I. Let me get her ready.”
Ready for what? The smaller man had called Tray by name because they weren’t concerned she could identify them. Was their intention to take her somewhere, rape then kill her?
For the first time since she’d spotted the men, terror threatened to overwhelm her. She didn’t want to die! Not at twenty-four. Her stomach knotted, her heart raced and she had to work at not losing bladder control. Early in her racing career, another horse had collided with the one she’d been riding and both animals had fallen. Even as the ground and flailing hooves had closed in on her, she hadn’t been as afraid as she was now.
“She’s shaking,” Tray announced.
“Good.” Little Man leaned down until his face was inches from hers. “Wondering what’s going to happen to you, are you? Go on. Conjure up every scenario you’re capable of. It’ll give you something to do, something that’ll contribute to your undoing.”
What are you saying?
“You’re messing with her mind,” Tray said as she willed her muscles to stop jerking.
“You’re damn right I am. Does that surprise you?”
“No.” Tray drew out the word. He closed one oversized hand over her crossed wrists, which left the other free for what? “I’m just taking note of your techniques.”
“My techniques are based on successful methodology. We know what works—and we expect new employees to follow protocol.”
When Tray didn’t respond, Little Man frowned. She didn’t know what to make of the relationship between her captors any more than she could make sense of what she’d heard about technique, methodology and protocol. With her nervous system on overdrive, she was hard-pressed to accept that her world had been turned on end.
Above and behind her, Tray changed position. She was afraid he’d rest all his weight on the backs of her thighs. Instead, suddenly her left arm was free. Before she could think what to do, metal touched her right wrist.
“No!” She tried to jerk her arm free then started bucking. Doing something felt good. Maybe useless but better than surrender.
Despite her struggle, Tray easily locked the cuff around her wrist and pulled up on the metal, increasing the strain on her shoulder.
Sweating, barely able to concentrate on breathing, she forced herself to stop fighting. Tray lowered her tethered arm so her hand again rested on her buttocks. Then he took hold of her left wrist, pulled it back, and handcuffed her. He released her and leaned back. Was that his erection against her crack? She imagined him thrusting his arms above his head like a cowboy who had just roped and thrown a steer.
“It’s simple.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and lifted her upper body off the bed. “All it takes is a pair of handcuffs and you’re under my control.”
That and his much larger, stronger body.
And her fear.
He continued pulling up until the strain in her back made her gasp. After holding her like that while she likened herself to a hooked fish, he let go. She fell back onto the bed, smashing her breasts. He didn’t have to speak for her to understand his message. He could do whatever he wanted to her and she couldn’t do a thing to stop him.
He’d rape her and she’d let him. Get the violation over with. Not let him get off on her resistance.
Unless the instinct for self-preservation made that impossible.
Tray’s companion brushed her wet hair away from her face. Instead of leaning close again, he stepped back. His gaze roamed over her, every inch Tray’s bulk didn’t hide. Even though the smaller man was no longer touching her, she felt as if he was mauling her, invading her private space.
Would she ever have that space back?
His attention settled on her face, and she returned his stare. “Lift her again,” he said. “I want to check something.”
She thought Tray might object to the command, hoped he would. Instead he vised his fingers over her shoulders and effortlessly hauled her back up. The other man grabbed her T-shirt in front and pulled it up, exposing her hanging breasts. She tried to twist away.
“There isn’t much substance to her,” Tray said. “Pretty small, are they?”
Instead of immediately answering, the man cupped the breast closest to him and kneaded it. She felt sick.
“Surprisingly,” he said, “they aren’t. What are they, Marina? C cups?”
Like she’d tell him! Like she’d acknowledge what he was doing!
“Decent knockers,” Tray said. “That’s good.”
“Damn good.” Little Man’s fingers slid down her breast. Instead of letting it go as she prayed, he caught her nipple between thumb and forefinger and squeezed.
Hissing under her breath, she again tried to twist free. Waves of helplessness washed over her. She’d never felt more alive.
“Hey,” Tray said. “I thought you wanted to get out of here.”
“I do, but the merchandise is distracting.”
The pain radiating out from her nipple, and now over her breast, distanced her from the incomprehensible word. The horrible thought that she’d been given a hint of her future seized her. She fought to keep from sobbing but couldn’t.
Her tormentor’s hold on her nipple tightened, forcing her to clench her teeth to keep from crying again. She was losing this battle, couldn’t keep her pain to herself. Just then Tray again let go of her shoulders and she hit the mattress. A moment passed before she realized Tray’s action had forced Little Man to let go of her.
“What the hell was that?” he grumbled. “I wasn’t through teaching her a lesson.”
“I’m going to be her trainer, not you.”
Trainer? As in sex slave trainer?
Her world blurred as she recalled a snippet of conversation she’d overhead between a couple of local businessmen who wagered heavily on horse races. She’d been coming out of the women’s restroom one afternoon when she’d spotted them standing near the men’s restroom.
“I’d love to see her with a collar around her neck,” one of them had said. “Naked and on her knees before me.”
“Yeah,” the other had responded. “A well-trained sex slave.”