The Cowboy Wins a Bride (Page 10)

The Cowboy Wins a Bride (The Cowboys of Chance Creek #2)(10)
Author: Cora Seton

“Too bad. You’re going to do it.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he practically shoved her into the stable, flicking on the light by the door.

The pungent smell of the horses took her immediately back to the long days of her childhood spent mucking out stalls, oiling saddles, and curry combing manes. Overwhelmed by memories, she looked for Starshine. But no, the mare she’d ridden as a teenager in countless rodeos was long gone, sold by her father when it was clear she wasn’t coming home. Tears pricked her eyes and she forced them back. She missed her horse desperately when she moved to Billings. Cried for her every night for weeks. What had the mare thought when Claire disappeared?

“Come see,” Jamie said softly, and led her down the center aisle. She heard the mounts shifting in their stalls, saw heads stretch over walls to see who had come to visit. Snuffling for treats. She hardened her heart. No way would she touch any of them.

Jamie opened a stall at the far end and crooned to the grey quarter-horse within. “This is Storm,” he said, maintaining his soft cadence.

“She’s beautiful,” Claire heard herself say. She was drawn forward against her will, wanting so badly to run her hand along her glossy coat. Storm turned and looked at her from one long-lashed eye.

Claire was a goner.

Later, she barely remembered stepping to the mare, barely remembered stroking her, pressing her cheek to hers, and feeling the acquiescence of the horse, the subtle shift that told Claire this animal would consent to bear her. She breathed in the warm, straw scent of the beast, and something unhitched in her heart, a little give like a crack in a dam. She ignored it, talking to Storm as Jamie saddled her, then took over from him, buckling buckles, tightening straps, her fingers going through the motions as if she’d never left the ranch.

“Let’s go,” Jamie said, and wonder of wonders, she was in the saddle, riding Storm, her dress bunched up around her thighs, thankful she was wearing her old boots. She followed Jamie, who rode a bay gelding he’d introduced as Walter. Dusk had deepened into night while they were in the stables, but she didn’t care. She knew all the trails around the ranch as well as the streets of Billings. Besides, all she cared about was Storm. The way she paced, the way her muscles shifted under Claire’s own.

To be back on a horse…

Jamie headed northwest, past outbuildings, pastures and onto open range, winding through the rolling land for nearly half an hour before he came to a stop. Claire finally took stock of her surroundings and her heart squeezed. Damn it, she should have known.


“Yes, Claire. You can’t let the past control your life.” He dismounted and turned to face her. “We’ll only stay a moment.”

After a second, she, too, slid down from her horse and dropped the reins to the ground. Cautiously, she followed Jamie the final few steps to her parents’ gravesite. The Cruz headstones stood plain and matter-of-fact in the desolate ground. There were no trees to shade them, no flowers, no bench. Her mother and father laid to rest together for all eternity.

“I came to the funeral,” she said.

“Have you come back to visit their graves since?”


“Why not?” Jamie moved to her side, but didn’t touch her.

She shrugged.

“Are you still angry at her?”

She thought about that. “I don’t know.”

“Still carrying a torch for Mack Mackenzie?” His tone was ironic, but she sensed the question was real.

“Of course not. What an ass.”

“Then maybe it’s time to forgive your mom for putting an end to all that,” he said.

She closed her eyes. Jamie didn’t know the half of it. He thought she left the ranch because her mother found out about her crush on Mack. He had no idea she’d walked right in on them. Mack and her mother, right in the stables.

“Was it all her traveling? Did you mind that she didn’t take you with her?”

“Hell, no. I liked it when she was gone.” Claire hugged her arms across her chest, the lie sitting heavy in her throat. “She was miserable here and she made all the rest of us miserable. She wouldn’t have wanted me on those trips of hers anyway. I would have cramped her style.”

“In what way?”

“Not you, too.” Claire shook her head. “I don’t know if all of you just play dumb or if you really are dumb.”

“Whoa, slow down there. I assume you mean Ethan and me.”

“And my father.”

“None of us are dumb.”

“You sure act like it.” She blew out a breath. “What exactly do you think my mother was doing in Europe?”

“Shopping, I guess. She sure spent a lot of money.”

Claire turned to him. “So you were paying attention. Sure, she shopped all right. Spent us all into debt. But that’s not the half of it.” She waited expectantly.

“I’m not following you.”

“She had affairs, Jamie. Lots of them, I bet. How do you think she blew all that money? Buying dresses? Uh uh – she was supporting lovers over there. Putting them up in expensive hotels, wining and dining them, doing God knows what. Then she’d get guilty, I guess, come running home and pretend to be the loving wife and mother for a few months before she went off and did it again.”

Jamie stepped back. “How on earth do you figure that?”

“Because she did it here, too.”

“You can’t know that,” he said.

“I saw them,” she blazed. “Up against a stall, Mack’s hands braced against the wall, my mom’s arms around his neck, her legs around his waist. Do you want to hear more?”

“Shit.” Jamie shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, Claire.”

“Well, sorry doesn’t fix it.”

He rubbed a hand over his face. “No wonder you left. Did you ever…say anything?”

“To my father? No. I couldn’t. I never looked him in the eye again, either. He had to know.” She shook her head. “I was so angry at him, too – angry that he didn’t stop her, or leave her, or something.”

“You hardly ever came home after that.”

“How could I?”

“And now they’re gone.”

A sob nearly escaped her at his plain-spoken words. Now they were gone, and she couldn’t ask her mother why, or tell her father how sorry she was that his wife betrayed him, or tell either one of them good-bye.