By: Diana Palmer

She shivered, hearing her mother’s sobs as the memories washed over her. She remembered comforting the older woman just before her father’s death, helping to bathe away the blood and treat the cuts and bruises. Men would be sweet and attentive and tender until they got you into bed, her mother lectured. Then, behind closed doors, the truth was revealed. What was in movies and on television and in books was all lies. This was the reality—blood and tears. Graciela must remember and never allow herself to be lured into marriage. She must remain chaste and safe.

Gracie heard a car screech its tires on the road nearby and she grimaced as her mind returned to the present. Some poor driver had almost wrecked. She knew how that felt. She wasn’t the best driver in the world, either. Jason worried when she got behind the wheel of a car because she’d had so many mishaps. It wasn’t really that she was a poor driver. Physical trauma from years ago had caused minor glitches in her brain. She would compensate for the injury, a doctor had assured her gently, because she was highly intelligent. But that wasn’t much comfort, when most of the world saw her as a flighty, clumsy airhead. Poor Gracie Pendleton, one woman had commented to a friend, was the dodo bird of local society.

She laughed bitterly, recalling the remark she’d overheard at an afternoon tea only a couple of weeks ago. The comment had obviously been made by someone who didn’t know her. She knew that if Jason had been privy to that cruel remark he would have made that woman sorry she’d ever opened her mouth. He was fiercely protective of the people he cared about. Her earliest glimpse into his chivalry occurred shortly after Gracie’s mother died. Her strangely ungrieving stepfather, Myron, had rushed into marriage to Beverly Barnes, a woman who had a young daughter in foster care. Jason had rescued Gloryanne Barnes from a dangerous situation, taking a young Gracie along to comfort the other girl, who was four months younger. If it hadn’t been for Jason’s involvement, she and Gloryanne probably wouldn’t have bonded so effortlessly.

Jason, she thought as she struggled to cut back the thick vines, was an enigma. She’d lived with him for twelve years and she still felt as if she knew nothing about him. Myron Pendleton had died the year after Beverly Barnes, his third wife, passed away from a stroke. By then, Gracie and Glory were sixteen. Jason had assumed responsibility for both girls, and took great care of them while they finished high school. In fact, he’d spoiled them rotten. He was still doing it. Gloryanne’s Christmas present the year before had been a racing-green Jaguar XK. Gracie’s had been a meteorite, a fabulously expensive one sold at public auction from an estate. Gracie was crazy about fossils and meteorites. She had quite a collection. She had no great affection for jewels, and she hated furs. But she loved rocks. Jason indulged her.

He even indulged her mania for Christmas decorations, which she started putting out even before Thanksgiving. Jason had never asked why she was so obsessed with Christmas. She hoped he never would.

Thanksgiving was three months away, but Gracie already had garlands of holly and fir ordered, along with three new Christmas trees and a box of new ornaments. She looked forward to the times when Jason left his beloved ranch and came to San Antonio on business. That was when he lived up to the image of a Fortune 500 tycoon and had Gracie hostess society parties for him, to which they invited Hollywood A-listers and sports stars with whom Jason’s prospective colleagues could mingle. It often gave him the advantage, his association with the fabled few. Any number of people in the arts and sports were flattered by Jason’s friendship. Not only was he dynamic, but he was rich beyond the dreams of avarice and he wasn’t stingy with his wealth. Single women mobbed him.

When he wasn’t rubbing elbows with the other Fortune 500, he was wearing jeans and boots, chaps and a big Stetson hat, working cattle with his cowboys. Even there he was generous, looking out for his men if they needed help.

Since he was an introvert who didn’t mix well with others, he didn’t seem the sort of man who had a big heart or even a kind disposition. But there was much more to this man than anyone imagined. He had a business degree from Harvard, but he didn’t advertise it. His annual income could have funded the annual budget for two or three small impoverished nations. He didn’t live like a multimillionaire. He left the socializing to Gracie, but she had as little love for it as he did. She spent her time doing charity work and finding projects to help people. Jason didn’t know it, but she had a good reason for providing funding for women’s shelters and soup kitchens and community charities.