By: Diana Palmer

“So that’s why you were bidding so high against him.”

Jason nodded. “I had to push him to see how he’d react. The auctioneer knew what I was doing, so I won’t have to pay the higher price. I worked out a fair deal before the auction.”

Gracie pursed her lips and whistled through them. “Oh, boy.”

“I’ll bet that’s not what Barker’s saying right now,” Harley Fowler said gleefully. “And that’s what you get for taking people at face value. Nothing wrong with wearing comfortable clothes.” He gave Jason a grin and turned his attention to Gracie. “I don’t guess you go out with ranch managers, Miss Gracie, but if you did, I’d love to take you over to Shea’s and show you how nicely I can waltz…”

He stopped because Jason was now glaring at him, and with eyes even colder than he’d shown to the pompous cattleman.

“Uh, sorry, I’d better finish my lunch and get back to work,” Harley said with a sheepish grin, averting his attention to his plate.

Gracie was gaping at Jason, only diverted by the arrival of the waitress with their own salads and drinks.

“What was that about?” she asked hesitantly when they were back in the truck.

“Barker?” he asked absently.

“No. Harley.”

His jaw tautened. “Harley’s a boy.”

She was disconcerted. “He’s a nice boy,” she protested.

He didn’t say a word.

She shifted in her seat, frowning. Jason was very strange lately. She didn’t understand why there was so much anger smoldering inside him. He was probably still angry with that Barker man, she decided, and left him to his thoughts.

Jason was unusually uncommunicative during the ride home, keeping the radio between them while he drove. His attitude toward Harley puzzled her. It wasn’t like him to snap at underlings, especially cowboys, and he’d already made it obvious that he disliked men who put poor people down. He didn’t know Harley well, but he’d seemed to like the younger man. Or at least, he had until today. It was almost as if he were jealous of Harley’s interest in Gracie. That was silly, of course. He was affectionate toward her, but there was nothing out of the ordinary in his demeanor. It was just wishful thinking. She grimaced, thinking about how she might react if Jason ever really pursued her as a lover would. Love was one thing. Sex…well, that was terrifying. She wasn’t sure she could function in that respect. Not even with Jason, and he’d been the only man in her life and her heart for years.


TWO DAYS LATER, GRACIE WAS back in her flower beds. This time she’d pruned back some aggressive wandering vines that had exploded with growth after the passage of Hurricane Fay when it made landfall. The rains had been torrential. Now everything was overgrown because of the bountiful rain. After months of drought, it was wonderful to see green things again.

It was Friday and she was hosting an important party for Jason this evening. It was business. He hated parties, but he was wheeling and dealing again, hoping to add a new and imaginative software company from California to his roster of acquisitions. The two owners were in their twenties and crazy about soccer, so Jason had invited members of the Brazilian and American soccer teams to this gathering. It was like him to know the deepest desires of his prey and cater to them, when he wanted something.

She wondered absently if he was single-minded and determined like that with women he wanted. It hurt to think about that.

She didn’t dare think of Jason in any sexual way. It would only lead to heartache. Her mother had warned her about it, and she herself had seen the result from the time she was very little. Her father could only achieve satisfaction by hurting his wife, savaging her. The blood on her nightclothes testified again and again to the brutality of ardent men. Gracie’s entire childhood had been a nightmare of fear for her mother, and for herself. As a child, she’d prayed that her mother wouldn’t die, leaving her at her father’s mercy. God alone knew what the man might do to Gracie, although he’d never molested her. It was his temper she feared, especially when he drank. He drank a lot. He was violent when he drank.