Man, oh man. It had been everything he’d dreamed of – and that was only the first time. He had no doubt they could rock the rafters when they really got down to it. He should have found a way to get her on a horse sooner. She just never made it easy.
All those years grinding through school, working, saving his money. It had all paid off. She wanted him. She wanted to come back to the ranch.
She just didn’t want to admit it yet.
* * * * *
Claire bent over the sink in the bathroom off her old bedroom in the Big House, lathering her hands furiously, her tears mingling with the water running down the drain.
She’d made love to Jamie, and it had felt so good. And now that it was over – well and truly over – she thought her heart would tear in two again. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t forget the way he’d felt inside her, the way his mouth had trailed kisses down her neck. The way he’d looked into her eyes as ecstasy ripped through her core. Baring herself to him had felt as right as slipping into Chance Creek on a hot summer afternoon.
She loved him.
After all this time and what he’d done, she still loved him.
It wasn’t fair – he was playing a game and she was losing her mind. And, damn it, his stupid ring wouldn’t come off her finger.
Swiping hot tears away, she flipped open the medicine cabinet doors and searched through the products she’d put there the preceding evening. Hand lotion. Maybe that would do the trick.
She squirted a big dollop on her finger and worked it in. Tugging on the silver band once again, she groaned when it still hung up around her knuckle.
She hated Jamie for doing this to her – reducing her to a sniveling, shaking, furious mess. She had to get the ring off. Had to show him she wasn’t buying his tricks. Wouldn’t be a victim of his games.
The ring popped off.
Claire half-laughed, half-sobbed as she slid down to sit on the bathroom floor. Cool tile reminded her she was still in her sundress. Her bare feet poked out from under its long skirt.
She studied the ring, a ring she’d be proud to wear under different circumstances – if Jamie really loved her, and if he was capable of sustaining that love. Her finger felt bare without it and she felt empty, too – as if she’d shucked off her connections to her old life on the ranch when she’d taken it off.
In a way that’s what she’d done, wasn’t it? She was choosing a trip abroad and then life in Billings over trying to build some kind of a new life here on the ranch. She thought about how it might have been to go through with the wedding; working together, having children someday, sharing the property with Ethan and Autumn, being surrounded by all their friends.
Making love to Jamie every night.
She leaned her head back against the wall, closed her eyes, and a tear slid down her cheek. It was the life she’d dreamed of growing up. The man she’d dreamed of these past two years.
Now it was time to put all of that behind her. Time to cut all her ties to the past and march forward into a new and brilliant future. So why did the thought of purchasing that round-the-world-cruise make her want to cry?
Because she wanted to come home. Needed to come home.
If only she was young again and her mother was smoothing her hair back from her face. Once upon a time Aria had loved her. Had kissed away her tears and tucked her in at night.
What she would give to go back to those innocent days.
She forced herself back to her feet, put the ring on the counter and washed her hands and face. She couldn’t go back, but she wished someone would advise her what to do next. She wanted to stay on the ranch and wanted to spend time with Jamie. The safer choice was to go on her cruise right away.
What would Aria do?
Claire smiled lopsidedly at her reflection in the mirror. Her mother never held back. Whatever she wanted, she went after full-bore.
When tears threatened to fall again, she grabbed the ring, jammed it back on her finger and fled the room.
"So, the wedding’s on Labor Day?" Rob asked, leaning against the stable door.
"Yep." He hoped. Jamie kept on his inspection of the horses in their stalls.
"Claire really agreed to marry you after all? She looked pretty pissed yesterday."
"Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. But I’ll marry her in the end." He stroked Storm’s head, hoping she knew how proud he was of the way she’d stolen Claire’s heart. Getting Claire back on a horse was just the first step in making her fall back in love with ranch life. But it was an important step.
"Hmm. I don’t know, buddy. I think Claire might be out of your league. I bet she worms her way out of it."
"Oh, yeah?" Jamie straightened, angry that Rob’s words reinforced his own doubts. "You want to sweeten that bet we made?"
"Two hundred bucks?" Rob took a pace toward him.
"Five hundred." Jamie met him halfway.
"Whew – high stakes. You sure you can afford it?"
"Can you? I know your Daddy don’t pay much allowance." Rob winced and Jamie knew he’d scored a point. It wasn’t any secret that Rob still lived at home and received a pittance for the work he did around his father’s ranch.
"I can cover it," Rob said, shaking hands, then turning on his heel. "I’ll see you around."
* * * * *
Thank goodness, a parking spot.
Claire zipped her Honda Civic close to the curb several blocks from work, grabbed her purse and her briefcase and sprinted for the front door of Ledstrom Designs. In the seven years she’d worked here, she’d never been late before now. She still couldn’t believe she’d slept with Jamie during Ethan’s wedding reception – or that she was still wearing his ring and keeping up this farce of an engagement. She didn’t want to examine too closely why the ring still graced her finger. Instead, her mind kept filling with memories of her time with Jamie under the stars.
They hadn’t even seen Ethan and Autumn leave for their honeymoon. By the time they got back to the Big House, even the guests had begun to leave. The next morning she felt like a zombie as she put Autumn’s mother, sister and friend Becka back on the plane, then spent the rest of the afternoon setting everything back to rights after the wedding. Thank goodness Jamie hadn’t come around to help. She’d been as jumpy as a cat waiting for him to stroll over the knoll that hid his cabin from the Big House and bunkhouse, but he hadn’t and she was thankful for that. She might not have been able to resist him if he had. Or she might have dropped everything, turned tail, and run.
She wished she could run back into his arms.
A memory surfaced of a sunny day back when they were teenagers when they’d lain on the banks of Chance Creek listening to the water bubble past and talked about their plans for the future. Both of them wanted a rodeo career back then. She’d been teasing him that she’d beat him across the boards.