By: Diana Palmer

“Jason, not every woman wants something financial from you,” she pointed out. “You’re not bad-looking and you have a big heart. It’s just that you scare people.”

“I don’t scare you,” he said.

She laughed. “You used to.”

“Yes, when you first moved in with us,” he recalled affectionately. “I lured you out of your room with Lindt chocolates, one at a time. It took months. You always looked at me as if you expected horns and a tail to start growing out of me.”

“It wasn’t personal,” she chided. “Besides,” she added with a wicked grin, “after I got to know you, I got used to the horns.”

He made a face at her. But his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “You didn’t go out with a boy at all until I made an issue of it in your senior year of high school. You were asked to the prom, but you didn’t want to go. I insisted. I thought you were unnecessarily shy.”

“So I went with the first boy who asked me,” she reminded him venomously.

He grimaced. “Well, he seemed nice.”

“Did he, really?”

His dark eyes glittered. “I understand that his new front teeth look almost natural.”

She shivered even with the memory. Violence still upset her. But the boy had been drunk and insistent. He’d left bruises all over her in a futile attempt to disrobe her. Gracie had to call Jason on her cell phone. She’d locked herself in the boy’s car and he’d been crashing rocks into the passenger window trying to force her to open the door. Before he could break in, Jason skidded to a stop in front of the car and got out. Even now, so many years later, Gracie could still see the sudden fear on the boy’s face when he saw the furious tall man approaching him. Jason was elegant, and usually even-tempered, but he could move like a striking cobra when he was angry. The boy had been tall, too, and muscular—a football star. But he hadn’t lasted ten seconds with Jason. Those big fists had put him down in a heartbeat. The confrontation had made Gracie sick. Jason had saved her, though. And it wasn’t the only time he’d stepped between Gracie and trouble. There was a saying on the Rocking Spur ranch, that any cowboy who wanted a quick trip to the emergency room only had to say something unsavory about or to Gracie in front of Jason.

After he’d rescued her, that long-ago night, he’d driven her home in a tense silence. But when they got home and he realized how frightened she was, even of him, he calmed down at once and became her affectionate stepbrother.

Now, he was as familiar to her as the flower garden she was working in. But there was still that distance between them. Especially since he’d been spending even less time at the San Antonio mansion. He had a way of looking at her lately that was disturbing. He went broody sometimes, too, as if his life was disappointing him.

While she was thinking, she nipped the last overlapping limb of a rosebush away from the fall chrysanthemums, which were just starting to branch out. She smoothed over them with her hand, smiling, considering how beautiful they would be in a few months, all gold and bright as the cold weather moved in. Her bulbs would need to be dug and separated, but that could wait for cooler weather. She’d planted some new bulbs at the ranch, too, last autumn, but Jason’s big German shepherd had dug them up and eaten them. Fuming mad, she’d told Jason that the animal was a squirrel. No self-respecting dog would eat a helpless bulb. He’d almost bent over double laughing at her outrage. But he’d replaced the bulbs and even reluctantly loaned her one of his cowboys to help her replant them; one of his oldest and ugliest cowboys, at that. He went to great lengths to put distance between her and his ranch foreman, Grange.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

She laughed self-consciously. “About Baker eating my bulbs last fall.”

He grinned. “He’s developed a taste for them. I had to put a fence around your flower bed.”

“A fence?” she wailed.

“A white picket fence,” he assured her. “Something aesthetic.”

She relaxed. “You’re nice.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “I am?”