By: Diana Palmer

People wondered why a sister and brother spent all their time together, she knew. But she and Jason weren’t married, and apparently neither of them would ever be. Gracie wanted nothing to do with any physical relationship. Jason had girlfriends, but he was never serious enough to consider marriage. He didn’t bring women home. But then, he was considerate about what he called Gracie’s medieval attitude toward modern relationships. She didn’t sleep around. She didn’t like men—or women—who did. Jason bowed to her prejudices. But she knew that didn’t stop him from doing what he liked out of her sphere of influence. He was a man, after all.

She grimaced as she noted a new spot of dirt on her spotless but aging white embroidered sweatshirt. She was wearing disreputable jeans with it, relics from a weekend she’d spent on the ranch with Jason while he taught a foreign dignitary how to ride. Gracie was deputized to teach his wife. He was amused at her patience and her skill on a horse. She also knew he appreciated her lack of vanity. She wore her long, pale blond hair in a perpetual bun or pigtails. Her soft gray eyes dominated her oval face with its exquisite complexion that never needed makeup to enhance it. Her lips were a full, soft bow, naturally pink. She didn’t even bother with lipstick unless she and Jason were going to some really posh bash, like the opera or symphony or ballet. They had similar tastes in music and theater, and they agreed even on politics and religion. They had enough in common to make an uncommon match. But she and Jason were like brother and sister, she reminded herself firmly, even if they weren’t related.

The rosebush she was pruning looked lopsided, and it dredged on feelings of her own inadequacy. She wondered sometimes why her mother had gone to such pains to make sure Gracie’s personal history was kept secret even from her new stepfather and stepbrother. But she hadn’t questioned Cynthia’s resolve. Perhaps her mother had been afraid of Myron Pendleton’s attitude if he knew the truth about the beautiful woman he’d met behind the counter at the men’s suit warehouse. It was easier—and safer—to lie and tell him that her husband had died in a forward infantry unit in Operation Desert Storm, and that Graciela Marsh was her stepchild, not her real daughter. This elaborate ruse had been concocted to ensure that Cynthia and her daughter could escape from the grinding poverty in which they lived. But the pretense hadn’t carried over to the bedroom. Cynthia had sobbed in Gracie’s arms the morning of the day she died, confessing that she hadn’t been able to let Myron touch her since their marriage. Myron had been furious and hurt, but Cynthia couldn’t get past her own history with marriage. She said she couldn’t go on living a lie. And later that day, she’d died in an apparent car accident. Gracie knew it wasn’t an accident. But she couldn’t say so without explaining why. That wasn’t possible.

Gracie swept back a loose strand of blond hair with the back of her hand and only then noticed that it was covered with dirt. She laughed softly as she imagined what she must look like by now.

“For God’s sake, don’t tell me you’re clearing even more ground to plant more flowers?” came a deep, amused voice from behind her. “I thought you finished this job the day we went to the sale barn.”

She turned, looking up into dark eyes under a jutting brow. He wasn’t smiling; he rarely did. But his eyes smiled in that lean, tanned, rugged face.

“That was making room to plant bulbs this fall. I’m pruning back these rose bushes right now,” she replied jovially.

He looked at the bushes that overlapped in the small space and grimaced. “You planted roses on top of roses, honey. You need to transplant some of them.”

She sighed. “Well, I ran out of room and I had leftover bushes this spring. It all sort of grew together and the rain made it worse. I guess I could dig up another plot,” she murmured to herself, looking around for new unbroken ground.

“Gracie,” he said patiently, “our guests start arriving in two hours.”

“Two hours?” She stared at him blankly. “Oh. Right! I hadn’t forgotten,” she lied.