Piper Gentry is not one to back down from a challenge, not in her international investments company or in her personal life. She tries to make sense of her father’s death while trying to find ways to make the family ranch profitable again in the wild heat of a Texas summer.

Jackson Knight has always loved Piper Gentry. His challenge is to remind her that she feels the same about him. He’ll stop at nothing to keep her near him and safe.

Piper’s plan does not involve taking orders from anyone, including Jackson. Who will pose the greatest threat to her safety – outsiders eager to get their hands on her family legacy, or Piper herself?

Publisher’s note: This steamy love story includes elements of domestic discipline.

Chapter 1 

 

Jackson’s steel-blue eyes stared hard at the appropriately overcast sky. The sun’s previously valiant efforts at pushing past the cloud cover seemed a victory unnecessary today. The somber gathering of nearly forty people stood at the graveside of Garth Gentry. Jackson flattened his dark hair down after taking off his dress Stetson, and resettled the impressive hat on his head. His brothers, Walker and Sawyer Knight, stood next to him as well as their foreman Cody Race, paying their respects and representing the rest of the Clear Knight Ranch.  

The Knight brothers were a striking trio. Walker, the eldest with his chocolate brown hair and brown eyes, Jackson with his almost black hair and intensely blue eyes, and Sawyer with his light bright blue eyes and blonde hair. The brothers stood over six feet tall and were each solid as a rock. Their personalities matched their coloring. Jackson was the more serious minded brother with a cautious, demanding way about him. Walker the most mellow brother often was the voice of reason. Sawyer was the brother who reacted first, and asked questions later. He was willing to try anything once, and often did. 

Jackson looked over at the Gentry family, and his heart went out to them. His eyes naturally sought out Piper Gentry, the girl and later young woman who had stolen his heart forever. Just at that moment, she lifted her sorrow-filled golden brown gaze. His chest seized in love, with an overwhelming desire to hold her, kiss her tears away, as he’d done once upon a time.  

This was the first sight of Piper he’d gotten since she returned home. Instinctively, he started to walk over to draw her to him when Sawyer grabbed his forearm and nodded his head in the direction of the minister. Oh, right, he was going to say a few words. He inclined his head in understanding and took one last look in Piper’s direction before turning to stride forward to stand next to the minister. Jackson tried not to focus only on Piper, but it was to her that he spoke. 

“My earliest memory of Garth Gentry was when I was a small boy. He helped a foolish young man down from a tree I never should have been climbing. And he never told my dad, which saved me a hot seat and earned him a spot nearly as high as my father’s.” There were smiles and subdued chuckles, as he’d hoped. “In all the years that followed he never fell from that pedestal. Our families helped each other over the years and he spoke just fifteen months ago when my brothers and I were mourning our own father.” Jackson said a few more words before ending with, “Rafe, Rosie, Piper, if you need anything just call the house. My brothers and I would be honored to continue our ranch’s tradition of friends as close as family.”  

He walked away from the minister who soon closed the service just as Jackson reached Piper.  

He whispered in her ear. “Piper darlin’, I’m so sorry.”  

She looked up at him. Her hazel eyes were red and watery with shifting emotions evident on her face, and showing her hesitancy. Suddenly, she let go a great sob and fell into his arms, weeping on his western shirt-covered chest. His arms wrapped securely around her as he gently rocked her in comfort. He had done this so many times over the years. It was almost as though time had stood still. He kissed her head and smoothed her hair inhaling her lilac scented sweetness.   

After a few more moments, Piper pulled away and started bringing herself back into some kind of order, brushing non-existent wrinkles from her black pant suit and placing a few strands of her hair behind her ear as she took another step away from Jack’s sheltering arms.  

She looked up at him sheepishly, giving him a watery smile. “Thank you. I’d better take my place beside the rest of the family.” 

He reached out to touch her, already feeling the loss of her presence. “I’ll come by later to see you, if that’s all right?” 

Piper nodded and smiled wanly. “Tomorrow?” 

He nodded as he watched her return to her siblings. The only Gentries left in this family. He observed how she straightened her spine and took measured steps with a great show of control. If you hadn’t seen the breakdown, you would never have known it’d happened. Tomorrow, baby cakes. You are mine and we will start again tomorrow. 

Jackson jumped in the truck where his brothers and Cody were waiting. It was quiet for a moment before Walker, the eldest, said, “Well, she looks just as she did last time, but things are different.” 

No one needed to identify who she was. They all knew Jackson was in love with Piper. They also knew he was devastated when she didn’t return home after college. No matter how much they had tried to find another woman to take her place, to turn his head, it was to no avail.  

Today, Jackson had felt frustrated and confused with his emotions churning up the old heartache again.  That had changed when she accepted his comfort without reserve. He was going to put things back the way they should have been all along. He would get her back.  

“How do you think Garth Gentry died, anyway?” asked Walker. 

“No telling. Probably a heart attack. No, wait, I think the obituary said an accident,” recalled Sawyer. 

“Wow, plenty of those on a ranch, but he was a cautious man. Such a waste,” said Cody, the manager of Clear Knight Ranch. 

They drove past the Gentry place on their way home. Sawyer, the fair-haired youngest of the three asked what they had all been wondering.  

“So, what do you think they’re going to do with Garth’s place now?” 

While Jackson had been the closest to Garth Gentry, their manager Cody was buddies with Andy, manager of the Gentry ranch. “Andy says it’s anybody’s guess. Rosie lives in Italy so unless her husband is moving, she won’t stay. Rafe, he always tolerated the place, but he has bigger plans with his journalism career.” He stopped and turned to Jackson. “Now your girl is the dark horse. Andy says she loves the place, but you couldn’t tell it by me. She hardly ever came up more than a weekend.”  

Jackson grunted. “Well, don’t look at me. I don’t know her as well as I used to, but one thing hasn’t changed. If Piper Gentry wants something, she’ll move heaven and earth to get it.”  

“Well, brother of mine, looks like there are several good reasons for you to get reacquainted with our Miss Piper. That land developer will be sniffing around again in no time flat, as soon as he knows Garth has passed on. We need to get our foot in the door, so they sell to us if they’re going to sell.” Walker looked at Jackson through the rearview mirror.  

Sawyer slapped him on the shoulder. “Now you have several reasons to talk to her. Don’t waste them.”  

*** 

Garth Gentry’s children walked slowly back through the front door of the home they’d grown up in, all now dealing with various stages of grief. Rosie decided to go and lie down to try to relieve the pounding headache that she acquired after the memorial. She missed her husband more than she had thought possible.  

Rafe went ahead and put in a call to his girlfriend hoping to relieve some of the tension by listening to her bubbly conversation.  

Piper tried to push away the thought that the woman was probably so perky because that’s all she had were bubbles in her head. She appropriately bit her tongue and went into the kitchen to peer out the window at the rolling hills in the back of the house. 

After standing there, allowing her thoughts to ramble to nowhere in particular, Piper decided she’d like to saddle up and go for a ride where there wasn’t anyone to bother her and she could simply exist in the vastness of the ranch. She had so many things she needed to think about, not only pertaining to the multitude of decisions they needed to make about the ranch, but the next stage of her business and even her own substantially lacking private life.  

Piper received a call late yesterday that she refused to answer because it wasn’t something she wanted to deal with yet. Staving off the last of her headache was the excuse she told herself so she didn’t have to deal with the inevitable which would come sooner rather than later. There was an undeniable knot in the pit of her stomach warning her of dramatic changes in the wind. Piper wasn’t good with change she didn’t initiate. Pops wasn’t supposed to die yet. 

Piper looked around the food-laden table and counters in the big farm kitchen her mother had loved, food to help them through the horrific days following their father’s funeral. It was something people in this ranching community did for each other. Her parents had done it for others, and it had been gladly reciprocated. However, now that all the friends and other family members had left, being at the ranch seemed awkward. It had been a long time since the Gentry kids had all been together. It was the first time without a parent. The first time they were alone. 

Rosie came back into the kitchen giving Piper a wry smile and a shrug. “I couldn’t settle down to rest.” 

“Do you two remember the last time we were all together?” Piper asked as she looked up to see Rafe entering the room. 

“Well,” said Rosie, “it’s just over a year since you and I were here last, but Rafe was gone then.” 

“Right, I was out of the country.”  

“Rafe, you’re always traveling somewhere,” said Rosie. 

Piper continued. “Now, if I remember right, I was here that Christmas. I had just done an acquisition. I’d burnt out and needed a rest.” 

Rafe chuckled. “So no news there.” 

Piper shot him a scathing look and then spoke to Rosie again. “It was when you got married, Rosie.” 

“Yes, yes, you’re right. I remember. Mama wouldn’t travel to Italy, so we had to have the big wedding in Italy because Tony has a huge family. And then a smaller one with a reception here.” 

The room grew silent after the mention of their mother. Each took a seat in quiet remembrance. She had passed away not two months after Rosie’s wedding. An aneurysm had taken Janine Gentry suddenly after their father had gone out to work on the ranch. She had been feeling off but that wasn’t unusual in the last year of her life. It was the cook’s day off so it was several hours before Garth had found the love of his life on the floor.  

“Pops was never the same after that.” Piper stifled a sob. “And now he’s gone, too.” 

The trio scooted their chairs closer to comfort one another. Soon Rafe stood, slapping his hands on his thighs as he did when he made a decision.  

“Okay, let’s take our glasses and some of this dessert we have everywhere and sit in the family room.”  

Rafe liked to take charge. The girls didn’t mind. They ruled their own worlds quite well enough so could allow him that little joy. Still, they would miss Garth’s voice taking the lead in family things. They reminisced for the rest of the evening before entering their old rooms and falling onto their childhood beds. 

The next morning came late as each of the siblings got up at their leisure.  

“Rosie, do you get to sleep in all the time?” 

“Time is so different. I’m used to getting up when you are going to bed and going to bed when the ranch is cooking dinner or earlier. I do get up to make Tony breakfast.” 

“What? You make breakfast and he eats it?” asked Piper. 

“Is that why he isn’t here?” teased Rafe. 

“Stop it. I can cook pretty well, now. I’ll be honest, though, it was hard learning in a new country with a different language. But I also learned you can figure out how to do anything for love.”  

Piper sighed. That was it, wasn’t it? She hadn’t tried hard enough to keep her love when she had him, and she’d lost him. Yes, yesterday he was kind, but she’d not been his to protect, and so he left her there. When they were together, he would never have done that. He’d have been here today taking care of necessities regardless of her words. He never would have let go of her hand. He hadn’t back then. It had been she who’d let go first.  

She’d walked away like a coward, without a word, years ago. She’d kept Jackson Knight in her heart because he was there standing in the way of every man she could have loved, waiting for her to love him back. Piper was doomed to a life of longing for a man who led a different life. One who took his ranching and breeding business as seriously as she took her investments. It wasn’t the commute, although it was quite a distance, but their lifestyles that kept them distant. And her. Really it had been all her fault. She had hurt him. She didn’t know how much until she matured and had gone looking for that elusive connection and discovered she already had one that she couldn’t sever. Maybe she didn’t want to sever it. 

Piper did a mental headshake. If I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be successful, respected, or wealthy enough to retire at thirty. The cupid on her other shoulder reminded her she was alone and lonely, with no one to share it with. Her prospects were many, but she still loved Jackson Knight, for all the good it would do her. He’d moved on. He had to have. She wondered what type of woman had scored that man. She’d handle this business and go find a man who would satisfy her longings, without tying her to a ranch that would never bring her what she had now.  

The cupid whispered in her ear that she had all of that and was still empty inside. Maybe it was time to look in a new direction. She kicked the weak, needy Piper aside and shoved the stronger, assertive Piper out front. No, she was a businesswoman and time to get down to business. Assess the situation, research the options, work possible plans, decide the best one, and charge forward. It had always worked for her in business. She was thorough. She was successful. She was desperate for permanence.  

Piper looked at her siblings. “Okay then, right after breakfast, I’m going to start working in the office and find out what there is to find. Rafe, do you think you could take a walk around with Andy today to see what Dad has for inventory? Help figure out what needs to be repaired, replaced, in order of the importance. That would be great. Take note of anything you feel is something we should know. I’ll look for an inventory sheet.”  

“Good idea.” Rafe nodded as though he let her take charge often. In fact, she didn’t think he had ever allowed it before this moment. They had indeed grown up. “We should bring Andy in on the discussion afterward as well. He’s going to be the best source for us.” 

“I agree. And Rosie, if you could do the same for the house that would be great. I know it’s going to be difficult for all of us but the sooner the better. Check the storeroom too, please.” 

Piper gathered her sister in a bear hug as they shared a quick cry before standing to tackle the tasks. Piper had always been the natural leader of any group or project she was participating in, and she was glad her siblings did not take offense. Others would part the way because of the efficient, confident manner she had.  

Her family had been different. Her family tolerated her, but the men were happily given the lead. She’d always been the youngest whom they tried to shelter. Even now, she lived on bravado sometimes, bluffing her way to the point of assured success. That worked for everyone except Jackson. Jackson gave her the lead until she was over her head and then he would step in to take over sometimes, yanking the reins from her fully engaged hands. 

If she didn’t yield the control, he… Her mind stuttered at the sudden reminder of why she had hesitated to continue her relationship with Jackson. How could she have forgotten? No, she had pushed it out of her mind so that she didn’t have to deal with it. She’d left because she’d been young, full of herself, scared she would be lost at the ranch, and Jackson Knight was a spanker. He spanked in sex, which was hot as hell, but he didn’t stop there. He spanked as a tool for discipline. Piper shuddered as she remembered her love-hate relationship with that reality. 

Coming back from college, Piper was smart, independent, and full of ideas on how to make her mark in the world outside of the ranch. Jackson had come back with plenty of ideas on how to make his mark in the world while living on the ranch. Piper had built her investment company with a manner that engendered trust using intellectual sweat equity, bringing it into international circles. Jackson had moved into breeding and training, also taking him into an international realm. Both successful and well known in their fields of expertise. Both driven in their life goals, but she was lacking in her personal life. Pushing all thoughts of Jackson out of her mind, she strode toward the office her father had sat in nearly every evening of his life. 

Preparing mentally for the difficult task of signing in to her father’s computer without his password she was surprised that after firing up the older version of technology, that he didn’t have a password on any of his work. Odd, for a man who was meticulous about locking up his log books and inventories that he still kept on paper, he would leave his computer open. 

“Why would he leave it unprotected?” she spoke aloud to no one and was startled when she got a response back. 

“Who did he need to protect it from?” sounded the deep, melodic voice of her most enduring source of longing.  

“Jackson.” She leaned back in the overly large chair and looked up. “I forgot how tall you are.” 

His bark of laughter eased the initial tension. “And you are as petite as ever.”  

She unconsciously sat up in her chair. “I’m average height.”   

He nodded and took another step into the office. “Yes, you are Miss Honeybun.” 

She shook her dark blonde waves. “Don’t call me that. We did that as kids. I don’t even eat those anymore,” she said, thinking of the unnatural number of them she had consumed growing up. 

There was a pause in the room as though he was choosing his words carefully. Piper found she’d held her breath until he spoke again. “Honey still okay?”  

“I-I guess, but not in public. You know, with people we don’t know. Besides, what’s wrong with my name?” 

“Pips?” he shrugged. “I guess I thought you wouldn’t want me using that since it was short for Pipsqueak.” His smile grew to irritating proportions. 

“Of course not, I mean… right… not that but my real name.” She felt her cheeks warm in her flustered state, angry her body was responding in the way it always had, arousal ignited. 

“Sorry. I’ll try to be careful. And nothing is wrong with Piper. I just love endearments when it comes to you. I want to cuddle you every time I see you, so using cuddle words make me happy.”  

Piper looked into his earnest blue eyes. She missed those eyes. 

Jackson abruptly sat in one of the chairs in front of the large rancher’s desk. Leaning back, he crossed one leg over the other and put his hat on his propped boot tip speaking casually, as though they did this every day.  

“So, baby, what happens now?” 

“Well, we look at everything and then decide what we need to do. Suggestions?” 

“Don’t know yet. I’d say do your inventory. Afterward, I could bring over Cody to help Andy and y’all tease things out.” 

“That sounds good. Jackson?” 

“Mm hm.” 

“We might find we need to sell.” She spoke the words gently, hoping to ease the impact. 

Jack’s hand paused from running over the rim of his hat for just a split second before continuing. “Well, I’d say we cross that bridge when we get to it. Until then, let’s not borrow trouble.”  

“Good, okay, I just needed to say it.” 

He nodded and stood. “Got a customer coming by soon so I ought to go. You let me know if you need help and call me when you’re ready to talk about… things.” 

“About the ranch, I will.” 

“And other things.” He leaned over and gently kissed her unsuspecting lips, before turning to walk out of the office.  

Damn. That man did it again with a look, a word, and a kiss. She was not prepared for an emotional tangle right now and not with Jackson. She played to win but he had already stacked the deck in his favor. Losing wasn’t always a bad thing, right? She got back to work. 

Three days later, the Gentry and Knight siblings along with managers Cody and Andy were sitting around the large dinner table catching up and discussing the ranches.  

“So how is it living in Italy, Rosie?” asked Sawyer as he lifted his forkful of corn soufflé.  

“I love it, mostly. I miss the life here sometimes, but Tony is so good to me, I could never complain. It hurt him that he couldn’t come, but it’s the beginning of tourist season for him, and that’s where we make the most money.” She shrugged in a characteristically Italian way. “And the weather is incredible.” 

“But we miss him,” added Piper. 

“And Rafe, I hear you’re moving up in the world of journalism,” said Walker as he accepted more coffee from Rosie. 

Rafe turned his full attention to Walker. “I love being a reporter, but want to move from newspaper to more correspondent work. That’s what my next assignment is. In fact, I fly out of the country for several months next week, so things here need to be in a semi-settled state by then. And honestly,” he sought his sister’s face, “now that Dad’s gone, I don’t really have a reason to come back. Ranching and country living is great to grow up in but not my thing now.” 

Piper redirected the group. “Let’s take dessert and this conversation into the family room, where we can settle in.”  

Piper walked into the office to gather her paperwork. Concentrating, she turned, colliding into a hard, masculine chest. She would know the arms that came out to steady her anywhere. The scent that wafted past her nose, tantalized, elicited a familiar but long absent tingle in response. She gazed up in time to see his head descending toward hers, blocking all but the reality of his lips taking possession of hers. The welcomed sweetness drew an unbidden moan from deep within her soul. She’d missed this—him—and would never get enough. His lips caressed as his tongue sought the moist warmth of her mouth.   

“Open for me baby, such a good girl,” he murmured. 

She complied without thinking, whimpering as she battled for supremacy in the war of tongues. Her breath became shallow and labored. Jackson matched her breathing efforts as he pulled away, leaning his forehead on hers.  

“Incredible,” he rasped. “I’ve missed this so damn much.” 

She shook her head and whispered, “Please, I don’t know if I can.” 

“What can’t you do, baby?” 

“This. With you. I don’t know if I can.” 

“Oh, sorry,” said Rafe. 

She tried to pull away, but Jackson made her wait by tightening his arms around her waist. He dropped one more quick kiss before releasing her.  

“No problem. We were on our way,” smiled Jackson as he stepped back to allow Piper to walk in front of him.  

He placed his hand on the small of her back and she felt the gentle pressure he exerted as he followed her and Rafe into the family room. She was grateful her legs held her up, but she had a feeling Jackson was there partly to make sure she didn’t stumble. She watched as he walked into the kitchen after she’d sat in the loveseat. The screen door slammed a few seconds later.  

“Where’s he going?” asked Sawyer.  

“Probably to get some air,” answered Rafe, looking hard in the direction of the kitchen.  

“Huh,” replied Walker. 

“Well, let’s get this started,” said Rafe. “It’ll take all night if we don’t.”  

“Maybe I should grab Jackson.” Walker stood up. 

“No,” sang the triple response from Rafe, Sawyer, and Piper. 

Walker raised his eyebrows but said nothing and sat back down. 

Rafe started with his information, and let Andy take over on the equipment and the other work needed. Andy threw out an estimate that had the men whistling and reaching for more coffee.  

“And that is if we don’t do any upgrades. I don’t think we can get away without some of them. Some equipment isn’t worth fixing.” 

Then came Rosie’s information. “The house is solid and other than a few areas of dry rot that we can easily repair, I don’t see any issues on the surface. Nothing consistent use and some TLC won’t cure, that is. Here’s an active inventory of supplies on hand. Dad didn’t need much, and he didn’t have a garden since mom passed.” 

Somewhere during the talking, Jackson had walked in to sit quietly next to Piper on the loveseat. She smiled at the irony that was Jackson, assertive to the point of aggression one moment and unassuming the next.  

Andy and Cody spoke for a few moments, throwing out things about the last year and how Garth had done things. The Knight men added their experience stating what they saw as potential. 

Rafe shook his head. “I’m sorry to say it, but I really can’t see myself working on this anymore past this week. I’m leaving soon. I prefer to just give it to a property manager and Andy. Let them figure it out.” He looked apologetic but resolved.  

The older Gentry siblings had similar olive coloring like their mother and dark hair and eyes like both parents. Piper had been different in some ways since she was born. She’d often wondered if she had been adopted because she had been the last and her coloring was so different. Blonde hair and golden eyes were not the standard family traits. Her mother had shown her photos of family members who looked like her. Nope, this was her family and she would stand up for what she thought they should do. 

Rafe turned to Rosie. “What do you think?”  

She stood and looked out the front room window. “I believe we should simply sell the ranch since no one really wanted it but dad. If we don’t work it, then we shouldn’t keep it. Besides, the profit that would come from the sale wouldn’t be a bad thing. I think we will be throwing good money after bad if we try working it.” 

After her siblings had their say, they turned towards Piper with expectant looks on their faces. Piper looked at Jackson. He nodded. 

“As you know, I’m pretty good at making things work. I have my own company that invests in properties and ventures of all kinds, turning them around and reselling them at a healthy margin of profit. I do a good amount of business in micro-investing suffering few losses. I have pulled the books, and I think I have a fair idea where things are now.”  

Piper looked over at Andy as he broke in. “I don’t know if they’re accurate. We did have several substantial losses this year.” 

She nodded. “Understood and there will need to be investment to make it work well. I can make that happen. It isn’t that the ranch wasn’t profitable, it simply seems like it was a lot of work for less profit than it should have had. That’s why I’m the perfect choice for the ranch.” 

“What?” asked a surprised Rafe. “I thought you didn’t care about the place. I mean, you live such a high and sophisticated life. Your hair is always done up, you’re dressed to the nines, and you run in high circles now.” 

“Packaging, Rafe, all for show. Actually, to be honest, until I moved into that life I didn’t realize I would miss the place as much as I do. When I come here I don’t feel the need to dress the window, if you will. Let me get my people to do some research on what makes these places profitable, and then I’ll look at how at least one of those options might work here.” 

Rosie asked, “Would you really be able to make a profit? I mean, I know you have your own business and all but this is big.” 

Piper smiled at the sound of disbelief from her older sister. What her siblings didn’t know about her would fill a library. Piper was the younger child by five years behind Rosie who was three years behind Rafe. That left Piper to grow up her last years without a sister on hand. Indeed, most of her growing up had been accomplished without sibling assistance. 

“I really love this place, Rosie. I don’t know animal husbandry or anything like that, but I can figure out what is needed and hire good people like Andy here for their expertise.” She loved the smell of the grass and the wildflowers, the buzz of the bees and the beauty of the butterflies. She enjoyed the tranquility of a stream in the immensity of pastureland.  

“You know, when I was at college,” Piper continued, “I was taking international finance and economy with real world applications.  It was stressful. So when I would get weekend breaks, I’d race home to the ranch to do nothing more than lie on the grass in the middle of the field with the blazing sun warming my face.” It was her solace. She had her own special place at the stream and in the woodland that was on one side of her father’s property and she wasn’t ready to give that up. 

Walker spoke up. “Yes, but you need to be realistic. You should look at the books and not romanticize this decision. I know your company is international now, but how many ranches have you invested in?” 

“Good point. None to date, however I know how to make the money. Let me look at the books closely to see just how much profit dad made last year and how much we could make.” 

She knew that the ranch didn’t have to make money, that it was all free and clear of liens. They could sell all the stock and just keep the property. However, she hoped that wouldn’t be their ultimate course of action. 

She looked pleadingly around the room after it erupted into differing points of view and what ifs. “I want it to make a profit not just sit here unused.” 

“I don’t want to do anything, so if you can make a profit for us great, but if not, sell. That is my opinion, but I’ll go with whatever you and Rafe agree on.” Rosie walked back over to her seat and flopped in it.  

Rosie, whose husband took control of all their finances and all their business transactions, was entirely happy to be done with her part of the decisions. The relief could be seen on her face and heard in her sigh.  

Rafe was a little different. He cocked his head to the side and looked at Piper for a moment before shrugging his shoulders as if to say do what you want to do.  

“Okay, wonder woman, if you want to pore over the books, figure it out in the next couple of days while Rosie and I settle other necessary business, that’s not a problem.” Rafe shook his head at his baby sister. 

“Great,” said Piper, “I’ll know by the time you leave.”  

Piper looked over at Jackson when the others began chatting about different things. “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” 

“Nope, but I do want you to know that if you don’t find that you want to make a go of it or feel it’s not your ball of wax once things are laid out, I’m interested, so consider me before any other offers. I’d like to have you next door to me but if that isn’t going to happen, let me be the one who gets first chance at giving you a fair price.” 

“Sure, but it won’t happen.” 

“I hope not because I like the idea of having you around.” He leaned over and brushed his lips lightly over hers but did not further engage. “Come on guys, time to hit the road. Morning comes awful early.” 

*** 

It was several days later as Jackson was sitting at the breakfast table after everyone had finished, that his ranch manager asked him what was going to happen with the property next door. Jackson leaned back a bit in his chair, turning sideways to look Cody fully in the eye. 

“Well, I’m not really sure right now. Piper’s still thinking she might want to take on the running of the ranch. She has it in her head that she can make the ranch more profitable than it was. She might be right. There did seem to be a lot of unused grazing land so it remains to be seen.” 

“Yeah, well I was talking to Andy yesterday afternoon and he seems to think that the two older kids want to just sell and get rid of it. They told Piper again last night they just want to unload it. She pitched a fit and told them she would buy them out. She really wants to keep it. You weren’t here often when Piper was a teenager, you were in college, but she did a lot of the running of that place when she was home before she graduated from high school. After she went to University of Texas, she never really came back around except the occasional weekend trip. I thought she’d pretty much outgrown the ranch. Sounds like I was wrong.” 

“What do you mean exactly? She was just a kid so how could she have pretty much run the place?” Jackson leaned in a little as he listened to Cody fill him in on how things were when Piper was home. 

“Yeah, that’s what I would’ve said if I hadn’t been around when it was going on. You were gone so the day to day things happened over there without you seeing. Garth pretty much gave that girl free rein when she wanted to try a new direction with something on the ranch. It was the damnedest thing but she would research everything, make meticulous charts, lists, then she would organize everyone, and put it into action. I’ll be darned if it didn’t always work. Her dad said she was a genius and after seeing what she did especially those last two years of high school I’m not arguing.” 

“Everyone has their limit though Cody. Piper is still young and has an incredibly intense corporation that she runs, hell, that she created. Working with the land is different. A ranch is different from finance. Yes, one works into the other but you gotta love the land. It must be part of who you are; as though some mornings if you didn’t have it to touch, to be on, to walk it, to work, life just wouldn’t be worth living.” 

“I get what you’re saying Jackson, but you don’t know this part of Piper like I do. You say the land has to be in you. I’m telling you, she communes with it and has an affinity not a lot of kids her age did. She put a lid on it so she could succeed in business but she loves this place. It’d be a shame if she couldn’t try to make a go of it.” Cody stood up pushing his chair back. Grabbing for his hat off the seat next to him, he prepared to leave. “The man who gets that girl will have found a treasure. The problem will be learning to be a good steward of her riches. I’ll see ya later.”  

Cody began to put his Stetson on as he walked to the door, letting the kitchen screen door lightly slam shut. Jackson watched Cody walk across the yard to his cabin and he wondered at the words Cody had said. He didn’t disagree that Piper was a smart cookie but too much on your plate, hungry as you might be, would still be too much.   

He stood a couple more minutes looking out across the front yard and wondered how long before he could sink deep in her sweetness. It had been too long. Not that he hadn’t embraced the softness of other women but considerably less than a man in his prime who didn’t hold a place in his heart for another.  He wondered if they’d survive a relationship where she belonged to him again, because he knew where his relationships typically went since being with Piper, no where. Oh, the women were willing, he just couldn’t commit. No, he could wait a while and see what Garth’s kids came up with on how to handle the ranch and if he needed to, he’d step in and help do a little guiding. That was if Piper would allow it.