"Why don’t you ask her today?" Ethan Cruz said, hauling a pile of folding chairs for the wedding out of the Party Plus Event Rentals delivery truck. In his jeans and t-shirt, his dark hair standing up every which way, you’d never know he was getting married in a few hours. He looked like he’d climbed out of bed a minute ago.
Jamie Lassiter snapped the velvet box shut, hiding the tasteful diamond ring he’d just showed to his friends, and shoved it back into the pocket of his jeans. He grabbed an armful of chairs, too, and followed Ethan toward the front lawn of the Cruz Ranch’s Big House – where he was helping to set up for Ethan’s wedding to Autumn Leeds, the city girl who’d only come to Chance Creek a month ago, but now was here to stay.
"It’s not time yet," he said. He wasn’t in a rush like Ethan and Autumn were, and he never jumped into things the way those two did. The only reason they even met was because of a practical joke. By all rights they should have taken one look at each other in the Chance Creek Regional Airport and gone their separate ways.
Instead, they’d fallen head over heels in love, and rumor had it Autumn was pregnant with Ethan’s baby. Talk about taking chances. Jamie liked Autumn, and he figured she and Ethan might just make a go of this marriage, but when he proposed to Ethan’s sister, Claire, he wanted to be sure of everything ahead of time – including her answer.
He definitely wasn’t sure of that yet.
"For heaven’s sake, you’ve carried a torch for her for what – ten years? Twelve?"
Try twenty. Jamie had decided to marry Claire back when he was eight. He’d practically grown up on the Cruz ranch, since he loved horses and his family lived in town. Ethan’s father, Alex Cruz, welcomed his interest and even nurtured it. Jamie learned to ride alongside Ethan and Claire, did chores with them, worked just as hard as they did to build the ranch by their father’s side. Sometimes Alex felt more like a dad to him than his own father did.
"Why you’d want to marry my sister is beyond me," Ethan said, breaking into his thoughts, "but if you’re going to do it, it might as well be soon. Heck, if you’d hurried up a bit we could have had a double wedding."
Rob Matheson came up behind them, hauling another load of chairs, his blond hair falling into his eyes. "Yeah, Jamie, you should have planned ahead. That way we’d only need to lug these chairs around once."
"What about your wedding?"
Rob snorted. "I’m never getting married. Plus, if I ever did – which I won’t – I’ll be married from my own spread. Not Ethan’s."
"So? Why not ask her today?" Ethan pushed. "Weddings are romantic. You might have a better shot getting the answer you want."
Cab Johnson lumbered up behind them, carrying more chairs than the rest of them combined. The large, quiet sheriff had obviously been listening to their conversation. "Jamie’s got a plan," he said. "And the plan doesn’t call for any proposals today."
Jamie knew he was laughing at him. They all were. But his careful planning had taken him from hired hand on the Cruz ranch to part owner, and it would lead him to the rest of his dreams as well – he was sure of it.
"What does Jamie’s plan call for today?" Rob said wryly.
"Planting the seeds," Jamie said. "I’ve taken the first steps. I always knew Claire wouldn’t look twice at a man who wasn’t a rancher, so here I am – a legitimate rancher now."
"Amen," Ethan said. Jamie had only bought into the Cruz ranch a week ago, but by doing so he’d saved Ethan from losing it all. He knew Ethan was more grateful than words could say. He didn’t want his friend’s gratitude, though. He just wanted a steady business partnership that would last for the rest of their lives.
"That’s all fine and dandy," Rob said. "You’re part owner of a ranch. But Claire still lives in Billings and she hasn’t wanted anything to do with this place for years."
"She will – you wait and see," Jamie said, but he had to acknowledge the truth of Rob’s words. When he was fifteen and Claire seventeen, he was just working up the nerve to ask her out when she fell head over heels for Mack Mackenzie, the Cruz’s much older horse trainer. When her mother pointed out that no thirty-year-old man was going to look twice at a little girl, they’d had their biggest fight yet, screaming at each other so loudly they frightened the horses out in the corrals. Claire left in a raging huff, and so far she hadn’t shown any sign of moving home, even after her parents died in a car accident last year.
"Planting seeds, huh?" Rob said. "You know, if I was going to plant something in Claire, it wouldn’t be…"
Jamie dropped his chairs on the lawn and turned on Rob, his fist raised, but Cab stepped in between them. "Wedding," was all he said and both Rob and Jamie backed off. Rob wasn’t worth getting worked up over anyway. The man ran off his mouth without ever thinking first. He bent down, grabbed the chairs and hauled them closer to the piles they’d dropped off on earlier trips.
"If you ever so much as touched my sister I’d deck you," Ethan said, putting his chairs down, too, and starting back toward the truck.
"So Jamie gets to touch her but I don’t?" Rob complained, as he dumped his chairs and followed Ethan.
"That’s about the size of it."
Jamie appreciated that his friend didn’t mind the crush he had on his sister. He couldn’t remember ever telling Ethan about it in so many words. Somehow Ethan just knew, and Jamie knew that he knew, and they both knew that it was okay.
Claire was the only one who had a different opinion.
A few years ago, just after New Year’s, he thought she might be coming around, though. Finally. As if she’d made a resolution to patch things up with her mother, she’d begun to make the two hour drive from Billings almost weekly, staying over in her old room in the Big House, spending whole weekends at the ranch. She’d been friendly to him. Smiled at him sometimes. Even flirted with him a little.
"She doesn’t want a rancher, she wants a hot-shot city guy," Rob said when they reached the truck again. He lifted his cowboy hat, and swiped his arm across his brow.
Jamie tamped down his anger and grabbed another pile of chairs. Rob knew all too well how to get under his skin. Growing up on the spread next door, he was here on the Cruz ranch almost as much as Jamie was. He was right, though; last time Claire did pass him over for a city guy. After a month of her weekend visits to the ranch, he’d decided this was his chance. He’d dumped his current casual fling, Hannah O’Dell, and readied himself to ask Claire out the following weekend when she arrived in town. Valentine’s Day weekend.