“Protection?” he breathed.
“I’m on the pill.” She let out a ragged moan as his hardness pressed against her core. “Please, Jamie – now.”
He pushed inside her with one strong stroke and she arched back, crying out. Sliding out and pressing back in again they soon found their rhythm and she gripped him, pulling him against her, gasping when her nipples bounced against his chest, matching his pace as his movements lifted her higher and higher, closer….
“Yes. Jamie, yes!” They moved faster, Jamie pumped harder within her and anticipation built until with one final stroke she fell over the edge of desire and cried out again, clinging to Jamie, digging her nails into his skin until she shuddered to a stop, sinking back against the rough ground.
Jamie collapsed on top of her, nuzzling her neck as she stared up at the blaze of stars that covered the sky. She wanted to stay here for all eternity. Wanted to hold her breath and forget everything.
Please don’t let this end. Please don’t let me think…
As her breathing slowed, reality came crashing back, leaving her emptier than she’d been before. Suddenly sober, horror washed through her. Jamie’s trick had worked. He’d stuck a stupid ring on her finger and she’d spread her legs. Now Jamie had what he wanted, he’d be on to the next woman before she could blink. Hadn’t she learned anything? Now she could never come home again, because there Jamie would be, watching her, laughing at her, swapping tales with the others of how he’d bagged her.
What had she done?
“Ah, Claire,” Jamie said. "Forget the bet. Let’s go find that preacher and get married right now."
She lay still while he kissed her cheek, her jaw. An hour ago she’d felt so alone. Now she’d connected – with Jamie. With Storm, too.
With her old life.
And she had to leave it behind again. All of it behind. A wordless agony built within her at the thought of turning her back on it all again. How would she find the strength this time? Fury at her mother, fury at Jamie had kept her at bay before. Now she was just tired. And sad.
Tears pricked her eyes as the ring’s glitter in the moonlight echoed the stars dotting the sky above her. No matter what words he said to her now, tomorrow morning the joke would be on her. Jamie wasn’t capable of staying with one woman. He’d propose tonight, and take it all back tomorrow. Just like Daniel making his empty promises.
She couldn’t stand it if she said yes to Jamie and he cast her off.
Meeting his gaze as he slid off her and touched her cheek, she realized she had to stop this right now. She sat up and began to gather her clothes.
“What’s the hurry?” he said, his voice warm and caressing. He looked at his watch. “We still have time. We could go another round.”
“No, we can’t,” she said, fastening her bra and tugging up her panties.
He stilled. “Something wrong?” He stood up, too. God, he was magnificent in the moonlight. Claire ached to toss her clothing to the wind and jump him again.
“This. Us. We can’t do this,” she forced herself to say, turning her back to him as she shrugged into her dress.
“Hell, you’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding, Claire.” He stalked around to face her. “This ain’t no one night stand.”
“Yes, it is. I’m sorry – I got carried away.”
“Came to your senses finally is more like it.”
Tugging on her boots, she stalked off toward Storm. Jamie followed. “Hey, we’re not done here.”
“Yes, we are.” She tried to keep going, but he refused to let her, drawing her into an embrace she knew just might be the end of her resolve.
“You can’t tell me you don’t feel something for me. Hell, you’re the one who started this.”
“I shouldn’t have had sex with you. That was wrong.” So wrong. It had pried the lid off the feelings she’d managed to clamp down inside her for months. Suddenly she was blinking back tears for the third time tonight. She was never setting foot on this stupid ranch again. Knowing it was fruitless, she tugged at the ring again. Stuck.
“Well, I’m not sorry,” he said and stepped away. “And I’m holding you to our bargain. You said you’d help me with my house and with the trail rides.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, her voice cracking. She folded her arms across her chest, cold now away from Jamie’s embrace. She just needed to live through the next few hours – see the happy couple off on their honeymoon, clean up a bit, and retire to the room she was occupying in the Big House for the weekend. She could do it – she knew she could.
“No, I’m serious. Unless you’ve turned into the biggest liar west of the Mississippi. You can stand there and tell me you regret making love with me, but I won’t let you go back on your promise to help me out.”
Why wouldn’t he let her go? He’d gotten what he’d wanted – did he really need to drag her through the rest of this farce? To prove what? That he held all the cards?
He was right. She was lying to him, but how could she tell him the truth? That she wanted nothing more than to be with him, to chuck everything to the wind – everything – and just make sweet love to him all night long, but she couldn’t – wouldn’t – because she couldn’t trust him or any man after what she’d been through. Because she’d been privy to far too many of the practical jokes he and Ethan and his friends played, and she couldn’t stand knowing she was the victim of another one of them.
“Fine, I’ll help you.” Anything to get away from him now. She had to get home before she lost her composure for good. Before she started crying and couldn’t ever stop again.
Jamie brushed past her to reach his clothes. He leaned close and spoke into her ear. “And you’ll marry me before we’re through.”
* * * * *
Long past when they’d brought the horses back to the stable, wiped them down and put away their saddles and tack, long past when he’d walked Claire back to the bunkhouse and left her there after kissing her softly despite her stony resistance, Jamie lay awake, sketching their future out in his mind.
Working together to design an interior for his home. Leading guests on trail rides and helping build the guest ranch business. Getting married and having babies….
Things hadn’t gone exactly according to plan today, but he wasn’t entirely dissatisfied.
He’d been with Claire.
He’d made love to her.