Authors: Kylie Brant
“That was what I said, and I meant it. Then.” Jed narrowed his eyes. “But I'm changing my mind. Fast.”
“Like I don't have a say?” Julianne's words came fast and furious. “I have more taste than to get involved with an insufferable baboon.”
“I'm giving you a say. I'm also giving you the responsibility. I'm about through fighting this attraction between us. If you don't want us to end up in bed, you'd better stay a good distance from me.”
He'd left her speechless. Her voice was strangled when she finally managed, “Believe me, it won't require much sacrifice.” She went inside, slamming the door behind her.
Jed made no attempt to follow. He'd given her fair warning, and some damn good advice. He hoped to hell she'd take it.
For both their sakes.
Silhouette Intimate Moments
An Irresistible Man
Bringing Benjy Home
lives with her husband and five children in Iowa. She works full-time as a teacher of learning disabled students. Much of her free time is spent in her role as professional spectator at her kids' sporting events.
An avid reader, Kylie enjoys stories of love, mystery and suspenseâand she insists on happy endings! When her youngest children, a set of twins, turned four, she decided to try her hand at writing. Now most weekends and all summer she can be found at the computer, spinning her own tales of romance and happily-ever-afters.
Kylie invites readers to write to her at P.O. Box 231, Charles City, IA 50616.
For Aunt Della, with many thanks
o, she was finally coming home.
Jed Sullivan narrowed his eyes against the thin stream of smoke trailing from the cigarette in his hand. He propped his arms against the fence post, one booted foot crossed in front of the other. Unaccustomed to indolence, he swept his gaze over the cattle, mentally estimating how much longer this pasture could be grazed before the herd would need to be moved.
He brought the cigarette to his lips, inhaled deeply. He couldn't help but wonder what Julianne would think of the changes at the ranch. She'd have an opinion. Julianne Marie Buchanan Richfield always did. He should have been used to the quick twist in the gut her name brought him. Since it couldn't be controlled, it was best ignored.
Had she dropped that weasel's last name when she'd had the good sense to divorce him? At one time he'd thought he'd known her inside and out, but that had been before she'd stunned the family by eloping with the play-
boy heir to a shipping empire. He hadn't been able to figure out Julianne for a very long time.
Taking a deep draw, he let the smoke filter through his lungs before exhaling again. Once this ranch had been the most important thing in Julianne's life. Their love for the place had bound them together in a way their parents' marriage never could. She hadn't been back but one time since her wedding, and that trip hadn't gone real well. The ranch obviously didn't mean what it once had to her.
He didn't bother to analyze the mingled regret and relief that accompanied the thought. He'd expected her to ask his help when her marriage had ended in a spectacular media scandal, but he'd been wrong about that, too. It seemed he couldn't predict Julianne's actions anymore. But he was still certain about one thing. She wouldn't stay.
He took another puff before meticulously stubbing the cigarette out against the fence post.
He'd be willing to lay odds on it.
he long drive from the airport was soothing. Julianne could have used that time to think, to devise answers to the inevitable questions that would accompany her home-coming. But she was short on answers these days. Hopefully, moving back to the ranch would help supply some of them.
She'd been purposely vague about her arrival date. She hadn't wanted Jed to have to free up one of the hands to come after her. And to be honest, she especially hadn't wanted to chance Jed showing up himself.
Her fingers clenched the steering wheel before she made a conscious effort to relax them. She'd managed to avoid him for another few hours by renting a Blazer at the airport. Once she arrived at the ranch there would be plenty of time to unpack and rest before dinner. She'd need all her wits about her to deal with the man who was technically her stepbrother. Their relationship had always been
a verbal and mental two-step, with each of them fighting for the lead.
The analogy brought a quick curve to her lips. Fencing with Jed had been her greatest joy, once upon a time. Childish, really, but simple pleasures sometimes were. He'd always been so darn controlled, even when he'd come to the ranch as a boy of twelve. Trying to get a rise out of him had quickly become her favorite sport, one that hadn't succeeded often enough to satisfy.
She reached up to push back a strand of blond hair that had escaped from the braid she'd confined it in. There was no reason to believe that after all this time she and Jed couldn't get along like two adults. She liked to think she'd matured some since she was seven, although admittedly, the process had been completed only recently. That thought had the slight smile fading from her face. There was nothing like an ill-conceived marriage, a public scandal and a messy divorce to build character.
She'd been driving alongside Buchanan property for the last twenty minutes. Slowing the Blazer, she swung onto the road that would lead to the ranch house. From here everything looked exactly the same. A part of her marveled at the fact, while another part was steeped in gratitude. There was something soothing about the endless sea of land that stretched farther than the naked eye could see. Something comforting in the knowledge that the land had been here long before humans began their foolishness, and would remain long after they'd ceased to exist.
Her eyes focused on the sign arching over the road, and her heart hitched once in her chest. She slowed the vehicle to a stop. The H/B Ranch had been named by her father, unabashedly after himself. After winning it in a high stakes card game, Harley Buchanan had lost no time making the ranch a home for himself and his daughter. She was aware
that it was often referred to by the neighbors as the Heartbreak Ranch, just as she was aware of the reasons for it. But despite her father's constant roller coaster of luck, her home had remained secure. Harley had promised that he'd always keep it safe for her. It was one of the few promises he'd ever made that he'd kept.
The emotion she'd struggled to hold at bay for the last few weeks slammed into her then. She rested her brow against the steering wheel, her eyes sliding shut. When things had gone so horribly wrong with Andrew, her first instinct had been to run for the shelter of the ranch. But if she'd learned one valuable lesson from her life with her husband, it was that need wasn't always an emotion to be acted on. She'd been married to a man who refused to assume responsibility for his life. It was past time, she'd thought, to take charge of her own. So she'd faced the media, the police and the federal agents alone. However frightening it had seemed at the time, there had been a measure of satisfaction in regaining control of her life.
She pressed on the accelerator, unmindful of the plumes of dust trailing in the Blazer's wake, but it was another five minutes before the ranch house came into sight. She pulled to a stop, pride and happiness tangling in her chest.
It was a sprawling structure of wood, stone and glass, and, she was told, it bore little resemblance to the original house. She'd only been three when she'd moved here with her father, and too young to remember the place before Harley had ordered the remodeling. Acres of glistening wood and shiny squares of tile covered the floors. The huge open staircase was of gleaming oak. There were four fireplaces, fashioned of wood and stone natural to the area, and enough space to keep Annie, their housekeeper
for as long as Julianne could remember, busy full-time. Julianne knew every inch of it, loved every square foot.
She turned off the ignition and jumped down from the Blazer, running lightly up the steps to the huge porch that stretched across the front of the house. She slipped in the front door and paused, letting herself become immersed in the quiet peace that always seemed to linger in the air here. Just breathing it brought her comfort. For several moments she stood and did just that.
As she walked through the hallway to the kitchen, she noted that nothing seemed to have changed in the house. The same pictures graced the walls, the same framed photos adorned tabletops. She hadn't realized until that minute how much she'd needed that unswerving consistency. Especially now.
She poked her head into the kitchen. “What's a person have to do to get offered a glass of lemonade around here?”
Annie didn't startle; Julianne never had been able to surprise the woman. She just looked over her shoulder as if she'd been expecting company, her voice matter-of-fact. “A guest would have one fixed for her. A woman without the sense to let us know when to expect her will just have to pour her own. There's a fresh pitcher in the refrigerator.”
Unfooled by her tone, Julianne put her arms around the woman's shoulders and squeezed. “How are you, Annie?”
The housekeeper took her hands from the dough she'd been kneading and wiped them on a towel. Then she turned around and gave Julianne a fierce hug, her dark head barely reaching the younger woman's chin. Though it hadn't been quite a year since their last reunion, Annie's hair was threaded with even more silver. Julianne tried not
to feel guilty for being the cause of the gray hairs, and failed.
“About time you came home, girl.”
Julianne loosened her arms and stepped back. “I just finalized my flight yesterday.”
Undaunted by the verbal dodging, Annie said, “I meant after that business in Florida.”
Julianne took a glass from the cupboard and went to the refrigerator, as much to avoid the woman's steady gaze as from thirst. “Oh. That.”
“Yes, that,” the woman mimicked. She followed Julianne to the table and sat beside her. “We read a little about it in the papers.” She went on, despite Julianne's wince. “You should have let us know you were in trouble.”
Julianne brought the glass to her lips and drank to cool a throat that had gone suddenly dry. “I wanted to come,” she murmured. “You can't know how much. But it's getting past time for me to learn to clean up my own messes, hasn't it? And I didn't want Jed thinking he had to ride to the rescue.” She particularly hadn't wanted that.
The other woman opened her mouth, then pressed her lips firmly together again. After a moment she said briskly, “Well, you're home now, even if you did take your own sweet time getting here. Things will get better, you'll see. Have you talked to Harley lately?”
Julianne nodded, the tightness easing from her muscles at the change of topic. “Tracked him down through his service about ten days ago. He was in Vegas. Sounded like he was having quite a string of luck.”
Annie raised an eyebrow when Julianne didn't go on. “That's all he had to say?”
“Pretty much. I told him I was coming back to the ranch, and he mentioned something about having a boda
cious babe waiting for him. He had to run.” She smiled at the obvious disapproval on the housekeeper's face. “What did you think, Annie? That he would suddenly go all fatherly on me? I've long since given up expecting that. So should you.”
Giving a sniff, the woman replied, “It shouldn't be too much to hope that the man would just once do his duty by you.”
Julianne stifled the pang the words brought. She'd long ago accepted Harley's shortcomings. Loving her father didn't prevent her from seeing him with realistic eyes. The reality might have fostered bitterness if there hadn't been other people in her life who had given her what Harley couldn't. The woman standing before her was one of them. Julianne didn't remember the mother who'd died shortly after her birth. Annie had always served as that figure for her, despite the fact that Harley had married Jed's mother. The beautiful Kimberley hadn't been much of a parent to the son she'd adopted with her first husband, and she and Julianne had done little more than co-exist. When the marriage had broken up after five years or so, Kimberley had left and Jed had chosen to stay. Her leaving hadn't mattered to Julianne. Annie had been the constant in her life, providing advice, admonitions and support with equanimity.
Rising, she went to the sink, rinsed her glass and set it in the dishwasher. Habits drilled into her a lifetime ago by this woman were still with her. “I think I'll go upstairs and rest a bit. Dinner's at six?”
The woman nodded, then a frown formed between her brows. “How did you get here? I didn't think to ask.”
“Rented a Blazer.” Julianne waved away the next words Annie would have spoken. “I didn't want to put anyone out.”
“Well, just leave your bags. I'll get one of the men to take them up for you later.”
Glad to agree, Julianne reached out to give the woman another tight hug. “It's good to be home, Annie.”
The housekeeper's eyes were suspiciously bright when Julianne stepped away. “About time, too. Get on with you. I've got just enough time to whip up something special for dinner. Isn't Jed going to be surprised?”
Smiling weakly, Julianne agreed. Jed was surely going to be surprised.
Once she was out of Annie's sight, Julianne took the steps two at a time. Her old bedroom had always seemed an oasis of tranquillity. Peace had been in short supply recently, and she was going to enjoy having it here. She was going to enjoy every aspect of being home.
Flinging open the door of the room that had always been hers, she stepped back in time. It was the only room in the house to have carpet covering the hardwood floor. She'd complained about its icy surface too many winter mornings, and for her sixteenth birthday it had been covered in a soft, plush forest green. The rest of the room had been redecorated at that time, as well, with the pale yellow walls and the tiny floral print in the matching curtains and bedspread. It had always reminded her of a corner of the forest, with its warm colors and quiet serenity.
But the serenity she'd been expecting was missing. As soon as she stepped into the room and saw the man bending over her luggage, she knew the reason why.
Her voice was a whisper trapped in her throat, but he dropped the bags he'd been carrying and straightened, as if he'd known she was there. Perhaps he had. Jed had always seemed to know all manner of things.
“Jules.” His voice was inflectionless, his face, below the brim of his hat, more so. He nodded to the mound of luggage at his feet. “Is this all you've brought?”
If there was a hint of sarcasm in his tone, she chose to ignore it. “I'm traveling light,” she said, moving into the room and facing him.
Time had always been very good to Jed. If anything, his shoulders had grown broader, his thighs harder, his jaw firmer. Though his hat shielded his eyes, she knew they were a cool, direct gray, a startling contrast to the tan he acquired from working outdoors. Beneath the hat, his dark hair curled a bit in back of his ears, telling her better than words that it had been too long since it had last been cut. His nose had a slight bump in it, a legacy of the time he'd lost a battle of wills with a half-wild stallion. He carried an aura of simple male confidence, and a maddening arrogance, glossed with a sheen of unmistakable danger.
She'd long since recovered from her adolescent fascination with that aura, just as she'd long since given up trying to impress him. So she blamed the sudden tripping of her pulse and the knot in her throat on a justifiable appearance of nerves. Jed Sullivan was the last person with whom she wanted to discuss the excruciating details of her marriage. The last to whom she'd admit just how alone she felt right now, how uncertain about her future.
She tossed him a careless little smile and crossed to the bed, dropping down on it in a studiedly casual pose. “Does Annie know you're wearing your boots in the house?”
His mouth curled a fraction. “What she doesn't know won't hurt her.”
“Well.” She aimed a bright smile at him and wished with all her might that he'd stayed outside, wherever he'd been. She'd counted on a few hours in which to gather her defenses before facing him. How like Jed to make that
impossible. “Thanks so much for the service.” She nodded toward the suitcases. “You didn't have to do that. How did you know I was home?”
“Hard to miss the dust you kicked up. You always did drive like a bat out of hell.”
Shoving down her annoyance at his words, she replied smoothly, “I didn't figure I'd see you until dinner.”
He gave a negligent shrug, one twitch of a massive shoulder. “I was at the bunkhouse talking to Gabe. Saw the Blazer tearing up the road and figured it was you. I expected you to call when your plane got in. I would have come and gotten you.”
“I didn't see any point in you wasting an entire day away from the ranch.”
“Wouldn't have taken me long. I bought a little four-seater Cessna a few years back. I could have picked you up at the airport. There was no need for you to rent a car.”
She looked at him in surprise. “You bought a plane? Do you fly it yourself?”
She didn't need his nod to have her answer. Of course he did. She had never known a man so completely self-sufficient. She doubted he'd ever failed at anything in his life. Somehow, right now, that knowledge seemed particularly intolerable.