Handsome, eligible ranch owner Stuart York was not one to mince words. Ivy Conley, his younger sister's best friend, found out the hard way. During a night's stay at his Jacobsville ranch, Ivy wound up in Stuart's arms. The resulting fireworks singed them both and, knowing she was too young, Stuart closed his heart to her. Now, years later, Ivy is determined not to be treated like a little girl anymore. Although still an innocent, Ivy knows she has to fight her own battles, but for some reason Stuart is always fighting them for her, and keeping her from harm. And, safe in Stuart's arms, Ivy feels like a womana woman who belongs to him.
About the Author
The prolific author of more than one hundred books, Diana Palmer got her start as a newspaper reporter. A New York Times bestselling author and voted one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humor. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia.
Read an Excerpt
It was late, and Ivy was going to miss her class. Rachel was the only person, except Ivy's best friend, who even knew the number of Ivy's frugal prepaid cell phone. The call had come just as she was going to her second college class of the day. The argument could have waited until the evening, but her older sister never thought of anyone's convenience. Well, except her own, that was.
"Rachel, I'm going to be late," Ivy pleaded into the phone. She pushed back a strand of long, pale blond hair. Her green eyes darkened with worry. "And we've got a test today!"
"I don't care what you've got," her older sister snapped. "You just listen to me. I want that check for Dad's property, as soon as you can get the insurance company to issue it! I've got overdue bills and you're whining about college classes. It's a waste of money! Aunt Hettie should never have left you that savings account," she added angrily. "It should have been mine, too. I'm the oldest."
She was, and she'd taken everything she could get her hands on, anything she could pawn for ready cash. Ivy had barely been able to keep enough to pay the funeral bills when they came due. It was a stroke of luck that Aunt Hettie had liked her and had left her a small inheritance. Perhaps she'd realized that Ivy would be lucky if she was able to keep so much as a penny of their father's few assets.
It was the same painful argument they'd had for a solid month, since their father had died of a stroke. Ivy had been left with finding a place to live while Rachel called daily to talk to the attorney who was probating the will. All she wanted was the money. She'd coaxed their father into changing his will, so that she got every thing when he died.
Despite the fact that he paid her little attention, Ivy was still grieving. She'd taken care of their father while he was dying from the stroke. He'd thought that Rachel was an angel. All their lives, it had been Rachel who got all the allowances, all the inherited jewelrywhich Rachel pawned immediatelyall the attention. Ivy was left with house work and yardwork and cooking for the three of them. It hadn't been much of a life. Her rare dates had been immediately captivated by Rachel, who took pleasure in stealing them away from her younger, plainer sister, only to drop them days later. When Rachel had opted to go to New York and break into theater, their father had actually put a lien on his small house to pay for an apartment for her. It had meant budgeting to the bone and no new dresses for Ivy. When she tried to protest the unequal treatment the sisters received, their father said that Ivy was just jealous and that Rachel needed more because she was beautiful but emotionally challenged.
Translated, that meant Rachel had no feelings for anyone except herself. But Rachel had convinced their father that she adored him, and she'd filled his ears with lies about Ivy, right up to accusing her of sneaking out at night to meet men and stealing from the garage where she worked two evenings a week keeping books.
No protest was enough to convince him that Ivy was honest, and that she didn't even attract many men. She never could keep a prospective boyfriend once they saw Rachel.
"If I can learn book keeping, I'll have a way to support myself, Rachel," Ivy said quietly.
"You could marry a rich man one day, I guess, if you could find a blind one," Rachel conceded, and laughed at her little joke. "Although where you expect to find one in Jacobsville, Texas, is beyond me."
"I'm not looking for a husband. I'm in school at our community vocational college," Ivy reminded her.
"So you are. What a pitiful future you're heading for." Rachel paused to take an audible sip of her drink. "I've got two auditions tomorrow. One's for the lead in a new play, right on Broadway. Jerry says I'm a shoo-in. He has influence with the director."
Ivy wasn't usually sarcastic, but Rachel was getting on her nerves. "I thought Jerry didn't want you to work."
There was a frigid pause on the other end of the line. "Jerry doesn't mind it," she said coolly. "He just likes me to stay in, so that he can take care of me."
"He feeds you uppers and downers and crystal meth and charges you for the privilege, you mean," Ivy replied quietly. She didn't add that Rachel was beautiful and that Jerry probably used her as bait to catch new clients. He took her to party after party. She talked about acting, but it was only talk. She could barely remember her own name when she was on drugs, much less remember lines for a play. She drank to excess as well, just like Jerry.
"Jerry takes care of me. He knows all the best people in theater. He's promised to introduce me to one of the angels who's producing that new comedy. I'm going to make it to Broadway or die trying," Rachel said curtly. "And if we're going to argue, we might as well not even speak!"
"I'm not arguing "
"You're putting Jerry down, all the time!"
Ivy felt as if she were standing on a precipice, looking at the bottom of the world. "Have you really forgotten what Jerry did to me?" she asked, recalling the one visit Rachel had made home, just after their father died. It had been an overnight one, with the insufferable Jerry at her side. Rachel had signed papers to have their father cremated, placing his ashes in the grave with those of his late wife, the girls' mother. It was rushed and unpleasant, with Ivy left grieving alone for a parent who'd never loved her, who'd treated her very badly. Ivy had a big, forgiving heart. Rachel did manage a sniff into a handkerchief at the grave side service. But her eyes weren't either wet or red. It was an act, as it always was with her.
"What you said he did," came the instant, caustic reply. "Jerry said he never gave you any sort of drugs!"
"Rachel!" she exclaimed, furious now, "I wouldn't lie about some thing like that! I had a migraine and he switched my regular medicine with a powerful narcotic. When I saw what he was trying to give me, I threw them at him. He thought I was too sick to notice. He thought it would be funny if he could make me into an addict, just like you !"
"Oh, grow up," Rachel shouted. "I'm no addict! Everybody uses drugs! Even people in that little hick town where you live. How do you think I used to score before I moved to New York? There was always somebody dealing, and I knew where to find what I needed. You're so naive, Ivy."
"My brain still works," she shot back.
"Watch your mouth, kid," Rachel said angrily, "or I'll see that you don't get a penny of Dad's estate."
"Don't worry, I never expected to get any of it," Ivy said quietly. "You convinced Daddy that I was no good, so that he wouldn't leave me anything."
"You've got that pittance from Aunt Hettie," Rachel repeated. "Even though I should have had it. I deserved it, having to live like white trash all those years when I was at home."
"Rachel, if you got what you really deserved," Ivy replied with a flash of bravado, "you'd be in federal prison."
There was a muffled curse. "I have to go. Jerry's back. Listen, you check with that lawyer and find out what's the holdup. I can't afford all these long-distance calls."
"You never pay for them. You usually reverse the charges when you call me," she was reminded.
"Just hurry up and get the paperwork through so you can send me my check. And don't expect me to call you back until you're ready to talk like an adult instead of a spoiled kid with a grudge!"
The receiver slammed down in her ear. She folded it back up with quiet resignation. Rachel would never believe that Jerry, her knight in shining armor, was nothing more than a sick little social climbing drug dealer with a felony record who was holding her hostage to substance abuse. Ivy had tried for the past year to make her older sibling listen, but she couldn't. The two of them had never been close, but since Rachel got mixed up with Jerry, and hooked on meth, she didn't seem capable of reason anymore. In the old days, even when Rachel was being difficult, she did seem to have some small affection for her sister. That all changed when she was a junior in high school. Something had happened, Ivy had never known what, that turned her against Ivy and made a real enemy of her. Alcohol and drug use hadn't helped Rachel's already abrasive personality. It had been an actual relief for Ivy when her sister left for New York just days after the odd blowup. But it seemed that she could cause trouble long-distance, whenever she liked.
Ivy went down the hall quickly to her next class, without any real enthusiasm. She didn't want to spend her life working for someone else, but she certainly didn't want to go to New York and end up as Rachel's maid and cook, as she had been before her sister left Jacobsville. Letting Rachel have their inheritance would be the easier solution to the problem. Anything was better than having to live with Rachel again; even having to put up with Merrie York's brother, Stuart, in order to have one true friend.
It was Friday, and when she left the campus for home, riding with her fellow boarder, Lita Dawson, who taught at the vocational college, she felt better. She'd passed her English test, she was certain of it. But typing was getting her down. She couldn't manage more than fifty words a minute to save her life. One of the male students typing with both index fingers could do it faster than Ivy could.
They pulled up in front of the boarding house where they both lived. Ivy felt absolutely drained. She'd had to leave her father's house because she couldn't even afford to pay the light bill. Besides, Rachel had signed papers to put the house on the market the same day she'd signed the probate papers at a local lawyer's office. Since Ivy wasn't old enough, at almost nineteen, to handle the legal affairs, Rachel had charmed the new, young attorney handling the probate and convinced him that Ivy needed looking after, preferably in a boarding house. Then she'd flown back to New York, leaving Ivy to dip into a great-aunt's small legacy and a part-time job as a book keeper at a garage on Monday and Thursday evenings to pay for her board and the small student fee that Texas residents paid at the state technical and vocational college. Rachel hadn't even asked if Ivy had enough to live on.
Merrie had tried to get Stuart to help Ivy fight Rachel's claim on the bulk of the estate, but Ivy almost had hysterics when she offered. She'd rather have lived in a cardboard box by the side of the road than have Stuart take over her life. She didn't want to tell her best friend that her brother terrified her. Merrie would have asked why. There were secrets in Ivy's past that she shared with no one.
"I'm going to see my father this weekend." Lita, dark-haired and eyed, smiled at the younger woman. "How about you?"
Ivy smiled. "If Merrie remembers, we'll probably go window-shopping." She sighed, smiling lazily. "I might see something I can daydream about owning," she chuckled.
"One day some nice man is going to come along and treat you the way you deserve to be treated," Lita said kindly. "You wait and see."
Ivy knew better, but she only smiled. She wasn't anxious to offer any man control of her life. She was through living in fear.
She went in the side door, glancing over to see if Mrs. Brown was home. The landlady must be grocery shopping, she decided. It was a Friday ritual. Ivy got to eat with Mrs. Brown and Lita Dawson, the other tenant, on the weekends. She and Lita took turns cooking and cleaning up the kitchen, to help elderly Mrs. Brown manage the extra work. It was nice, not having to drive into town to get a sandwich. The pizza place delivered, but Ivy was sick of pizza. She liked her small boarding house, and Lita was nice, if a little older than Ivy. Lita was newly divorced and missing her ex-husband to a terrible degree. She fell back on her degree and taught computer technology at the vocational college, and let Ivy ride back and forth with her for help with the gas money.
She'd no sooner put down her purse than the cell phone rang.
"It's the weekend!" came a jolly, laughing voice. It was Merrie York, her best friend from high school.
"I noticed," Ivy chuckled. "How'd you do on your tests?"
"I'm sure I passed some thing, but I'm not sure what. My biology final is approaching and lab work is killing me. I can't make the microscope work!"
"You're training to be a nurse, not a lab assistant," Ivy pointed out.
"Come up here and tell that to my biology professor," Merrie dared her. "Never mind, I'll graduate even if I have to take every course three times."
"That's the spirit."
"Come over and spend the weekend with me," Merrie invited.
Ivy's heart flipped over. "Thanks, but I have some things to do around here "
"He's in Oklahoma, settling a new group of cattle with a sale barn," Merrie coaxed wryly.
Ivy hesitated. "Can you put that in writing and get it notarized?"
"He really likes you, deep inside."
"He's made an art of hiding his fondness for me," Ivy shot back. "I love you, Merrie, but I don't fancy being cannon fodder. It's been a long week. Rachel and I had another argument today."
"And over Sir Lancelot the drug lord."
"You know me too well."
Merrie laughed. "We've been friends since middle school," she reminded Ivy.
"Yes, the debutante and the tomboy. What a pair we made."
"You're not quite the tomboy you used to be," Merrie said.
"We conform when we have to. Why do you want me there this weekend?"
"For selfish reasons," the other woman said mischievously. "I need a study partner and everybody else in my class has a social life."
"I don't want a social life," Ivy said. "I want to make good grades and graduate and get a job that pays at least minimum wage."
"Your folks left you a savings account and some stocks," Merrie pointed out.
That was true, but Rachel had walked away with most of the money and all of the stocks.
"Your folks left you Stuart," Ivy replied dryly.