By: Diana Palmer


GRACIE MARSH’S CELL PHONE exploded with the theme to the newest science fiction motion picture. She jumped, and dirt from the ground where she was busily cleaning out her flower beds splattered her spotless yellow sweatshirt.

“Oh, darn,” she muttered, wiping her hands on her old jeans before she dived into a pocket for the very loud instrument.

“Where’s that music coming from?” Mrs. Harcourt, the housekeeper, called from the front porch, where she was setting out pansies in a massive planter.

“It’s just my phone, Mrs. Harcourt,” Gracie assured her. “It’s probably Jason…hello?” she gasped.

There was an amused pause. “Don’t tell me,” came a deep, drawling, masculine voice. “You’re up to your neck in dirt and now your pocket and your cell phone are smeared with it.”

She laughed in spite of her frustration. Her stepbrother knew her better than anyone else on earth. “Yes,” she admitted.

“I’d be cussing.”

“I did say ‘darn,’” she replied.

He sighed. “I’ll have to take you in hand, Gracie. Sometimes the situation calls for something more elegant and descriptive than ‘darn.’”

“You’d know,” she retorted, recalling that he cursed eloquently in two languages, “especially when one of your cowboys does something you don’t like.” She frowned. “Where are you?”

“At the ranch,” he said.

The ranch was his property in Comanche Wells, where he ran purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle and a new equally purebred Japanese breed that was the basis for the famous Kobe beef. Jason Pendleton had millions, but he rarely stayed in the family mansion in San Antonio, where Gracie spent most of her time. Jason was only here when business required it, but his heart was on his huge Santa Gertrudis ranch. He lived there most of the year. He could wheel and deal with the international business set, chair board meetings, run huge corporations and throw incredible parties, with Gracie’s help as a hostess. But he was most at home in jeans and boots and chaps, working cattle.

“Why are you calling me?” she asked. “Do you need somebody to come help you brand cattle?” she teased, because he’d taught her to do that—and many other things—over the years. She was as much at home on the ranch as he was.

“Wrong season,” he replied. “We drop calves in the spring. It’s late August. Almost autumn.”

She frowned. “Then what are you doing?”

“Rounding up bulls, mostly. But right now I’m getting ready to come up to the auction barn in San Antonio for a sale,” he said. “They’ve got some open Santa Gert heifers I want,” he added, referring to the purebred native Texas Santa Gertrudis breed that was founded on the world famous King Ranch near the Texas coast. “Replacement heifers to breed so they’ll drop calves next spring.”

“Oh.” She tried to remember what that meant.

He sighed loudly. “Open heifers are young cows that haven’t been bred for the first time,” he explained again. “They’re replacements for cows I’ve had to cull from the herd and sell off because they didn’t produce calves this year.”

“Sorry,” she murmured, not wanting to emphasize her memory problems. She forgot things, she plunged down steps, she lost her balance in the most unexpected places. There was a physical reason for those lapses, one which she’d never shared with Jason, not since she and her mother had moved in with him and his father almost twelve years ago. Her mother had been frantic about keeping the past secret, swearing Gracie to silence. Cynthia Marsh had even told everyone that Graciela was her stepdaughter, not her real daughter, to make sure any background checks on Graciela didn’t turn up information on her daughter, herself and her late husband that would damage Graciela’s place in the Pendleton family. Graciela’s father, a widower with a young daughter, had died in the Gulf War, Cynthia emphasized again and again. He was a war hero. It wasn’t the truth, of course. The truth was more traumatic.

“One day you’ll get the hang of it,” he said easily. He was patient with her, as some people in her life hadn’t been.