By: Diana Palmer

He sat down on the wide stone balustrade that led down from the front steps. He was wearing dress slacks and boots with a white turtleneck sweater and a blue blazer. He looked expensive and elegant, a far cry from the ragged-looking working cowboy he’d appeared at the cattle auction two days before.

“Yes, you had forgotten,” he corrected, shaking his head. He drew in a breath and looked around at the lush, formal landscape. “I hate this place,” he muttered.

“You always did,” she replied. “It’s not the ranch.”

“What can I say?” He shrugged. “I like cattle. I hate high society.”

“Too bad you were born in the lap of it,” she laughed.

He studied her covertly. She was pretty, in a shy sort of way. Gracie wasn’t really outgoing, any more than he was. But she could organize a party better than anyone he knew. She was a gracious hostess, a tireless worker for her charities, and she dressed up beautifully. In an emergency, there wasn’t anybody with a cooler head. He admired her. And not only for her social skills. His black eyes lingered just a few seconds too long on the swell of her firm breasts under the sweatshirt before he averted them.

“We’ve had a politically incorrect observation from the state attorney general.”

“Simon Hart?” she asked. “What sort?”

“My cousin thinks we spend too much time together,” he replied easily. “He says one or the other of us should get married and start producing children.”

She stared at him quietly. “I don’t want to get married.”

He frowned. “Why don’t you want to marry?”

She averted her eyes. “I just don’t.”

“Simon’s happily married,” he pointed out. “He and Tira have two sons.”

Her voice tautened. “More power to them. I just don’t want to get married.”

“You’re twenty-six,” he remarked quietly. “You don’t date anyone. I can’t remember the last time you had a boyfriend. At that, you only had one steady one, for the four years you were in college in Jacobsville getting your history degree. And he turned out to be gay.” There was an odd edge to his comment.

Gracie recalled that Jason had been actively hostile to the young man. That was surprising, because he was the most tolerant man she knew on controversial social issues. He was a churchgoer, like Gracie, and he said that the founder of their religion wouldn’t have turned his back on anyone, regardless of their social classification. He couldn’t be jealous…?

“Billy was comfortable to be with,” she replied after a minute.

“Yes, but I assume he wasn’t given to torrid make-out sessions on our couch.”

She flushed and glared up at him. “I don’t have torrid make-out sessions with anyone.”

“I noticed,” he said curtly. “Simon noticed, too.”

“It’s none of Simon’s business how we live,” she said defensively. She hesitated. “Is it?”

“Of course not,” he snapped. “But he does have a point, Gracie. Neither of us is getting any younger.”

“Especially not you,” she teased. “You’ll be thirty-five your next birthday.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“You just get better-looking, Jason,” she said affectionately. “You’ll never be old to me.”

He held her eyes for a few seconds and smiled. “Thanks.”

She cocked her head at him. “Maybe you should get married,” she said, wondering why it hurt to say it. “I mean, who’ll inherit all this when you die?”

He drew in a long breath and looked out over the yard. “I’ve been thinking about that, too.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “Have you…thought about anyone? Any prospective brides?” she asked, sitting back on her heels.

He shook his head.

“There was that lawyer you dated, that friend of Glory’s,” she said.

“She wanted a doctorate in law and I could get her a grant,” he said with barely disguised contempt.

“Then there was the politician that Simon introduced you to.”

“She wants to run for the senate and I have money,” he scoffed.