“Let’s ride.” She moved toward Storm, who’d wandered off a few paces in the darkness.
“Claire, wait. Just a minute.” His hand on her wrist held her in place. “You have to forgive them or it’ll tear you apart.”
She tried to speak. Couldn’t. This time when she tugged, he let her go.
She felt better once she was back on Storm. Jamie took the lead again, retracing their steps and as the gravesite receded, she was able to breathe. Jamie was right – her parents were gone and there wasn’t anything she could do to fix the past. Despite everything that happened she missed them both horribly.
Would spending more time here on the ranch make that worse or better? It felt so good to ride again. Could she return to Billings after six weeks on the ranch? Could she take off to travel around the world after spending so much time at home? Would she be able to carry off her revenge or would she fall for Jamie’s charm? She snorted and Jamie looked back over his shoulder.
“You want to go back or go on?” Jamie asked.
Scanning the terrain, she saw the lights of the Big House to her left, the open range ahead of them. A flicker of a memory set her nerves alight. She knew one way to leave the past behind.
“Race you to the lookout!”
Storm responded almost before she issued her command, bunching her muscles and bursting into an all-out gallop that made Claire cry out in joy. Her hair whipped back behind her as her own muscles responded, naturally lifting her into a crouch over the saddle as Storm picked up speed. She gripped the reins firmly and moved with Storm until she felt it was her own legs running, her own heart pounding fit to burst as they flew over the ground. Her laughter pealed out as they raced on and on and she didn’t even look back to see if Jamie was following. She didn’t care.
This was freedom. This was living. How had she forgotten?
“Come on, Storm,” she urged and the horse responded, going even faster. Just as she had as a teenager, she was flying toward a ridge that overlooked the river valley, with a moon climbing the sky and the whole world to herself. She was invincible on the back of a horse. She could do anything.
“This way.” Storm knew what she wanted. They veered off down a slope and then up again, skirted a stand of brush. It was her own way to the ridge, the one Jamie had avoided last time they took this ride together. They’d been fourteen and sixteen then, before all the trouble with Mack started. Before her family fell apart. They’d snuck out one night onto the range, stole two of the ranch’s best racehorses and galloped over the terrain like they were chased by the hounds of hell.
“Claire!” he called now, but he was too far behind to stop her. She knew he’d divert her from this trail if he could. No one took this jump.
No one but her.
She rode flat out, skimming the ground, Storm’s stride so long she flowed like the river water so far below.
As one, horse and woman leaped out over the abyss, cleared the wash of logs an old creek had pushed together and jammed up against an outcropping of rock making an obstacle so high and wide that most horses would balk rather than go over it.
Storm cleared it like an eagle swooping to the sky with its prey.
Claire raced up the ridge, then slowed Storm to a canter, then a walk. Jamie caught up, flung himself off his horse and strode toward her, grabbing the reins out of her hands.
“What the hell are you thinking?”
“I knew she could do it.”
“It’s dark, Claire. That jump’s stupid in the light. You have no right to risk…”
“I knew she could do it.”
Claire gave Storm one last caress, pressed her cheek to her mane and hoped the horse knew half of what she felt at this moment. She slid down and faced Jamie.
“I knew…I got on her and I felt…I felt…” She couldn’t put it into words. “Oh, God, Jamie –“
His scowl turned into a reluctant grin as she grappled for words. “You forgot what it feels like, didn’t you?”
He was right – she’d forgotten everything about riding horses. What it felt like to work as one with an animal, to streak over the ground, to break free from the every day into eternity.
Her nerves on fire, pulse still racing in her veins, she felt a hunger for life she hadn’t felt in months.
And Jamie looked so good.
She took a step toward him, wanting something – wanting…
With a groan he pulled her to him, bent to cover her mouth with his, tangled his hands in her hair, devoured her. He tasted so good she forgot her reasons for keeping him at bay. She wanted more. She wanted to be closer to him, pressing against him. His hands sliding over her skin brought every nerve alight and she stood on her tiptoes, the better to crush her mouth against his. Jamie groaned, an animal sound, and she leaned into him, covering him with kisses. The bristles of his beard scraped her lips and she relished the feeling; it let her know this was real – this was happening.
She ripped at the buttons of his shirt, pushed it off him, smoothed her hands over his hard chest.
"Claire," Jamie breathed. He worked at the buttons of her dress, searching for a way to get it off of her. Claire dragged him to his knees and he cradled her in his arms.
It wasn’t enough.
She knew she would regret this, but she didn’t care. She’d wanted this for so long – wanted Jamie for so long, whether he was good for her or not. Whether he’d stay with her or smash her heart to smithereens. With one hand she brushed the ground free of sticks and pinecones, then lay back and pulled him on top of her, kicking off her boots.
“Claire,” he said. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” How had she waited this long? How had she thought she could resist him? Intoxicated by the night, the moon, the ride, the champagne, all she felt was the burning desire that pulsed within her – the desire only he could fulfill.
"You ready to lose our bet right now?" he said.
"That doesn’t start until tomorrow."
She fumbled with his jeans and he pushed her hands away, doing the job for her with the ease of long practice.
"You think one time with me is gonna do it for you?" Together they slipped off her dress and she unclasped her bra. Suddenly shy, she waited until Jamie’s calloused hands slid the straps off her shoulders.
“Let me see you,” he said, his voice husky with emotion.
She let it fall, leaned back and watched his face in the moonlight. She saw wonder in his eyes, his own hunger. Then he moved forward and covered her with his lean body. She had no idea if one time would satisfy her for a minute or a lifetime and she didn’t care. All she wanted was Jamie. Inside of her. Loving her.