“Whatever, sweetie. Just remember – all your current contracts are property of Ledstrom Designs.”
Claire started toward the door. She had to get out of here before she did something stupid – something violent. Like heaving Edie through the front plate-glass window.
She barged out onto the street, fury propelling every step. She’d earned those contracts, every one of them. Even the projects that started back when Daniel was boss were all her work. Daniel couldn’t just take them from her.
Except he had.
She came to a stop on the sidewalk outside the building, nearly colliding with a man hurrying by with a briefcase in his hand. After all her hard work, late nights, and worry over the bottom line, Daniel was going to screw her over. He was going to win.
She couldn’t let him do that.
Jamie looked up from mucking out Walter’s stall late Monday morning to see Claire standing near the stable door. Dressed in her city things, she looked pale and strained, with dark smudges under her eyes. He dropped his shovel and moved toward her, but she held up a hand.
“I didn’t know where else to go, but so help me God, Jamie, if you touch me I’m leaving.”
What the hell? Jamie leaned his shovel against the stall. Whatever had happened in the past twenty-four hours had shattered Claire and he longed to pull her into his arms and comfort her. Unfortunately, he knew too well that look in her eye. She didn’t want that kind of comfort. “What happened?”
She scanned the back wall of the stable like maybe the answers were written there. “He came back. Daniel came back.”
Jamie’s jaw tightened. “Ledstrom?”
She seemed surprised he knew the name. She really had no idea how much energy he’d put into knowing as much about her as he possibly could. He’d seen their picture in the paper several times last year – Claire and Daniel at a charity auction in the city. Claire and Daniel at an art gallery opening. Then he’d read in the paper that her weasel-faced pretty-boy boss had suddenly left town with his ditzy secretary. Ethan had come to him then, worried about his sister, but Claire had taken over Ledstrom Designs and carried on her work without missing a beat. Jamie had breathed a sigh of relief, figuring she didn’t care for Daniel, after all.
Now the bastard was back.
“What’s he want?”
“He can’t take your business away from you.”
“Yes, he can.” Claire’s eyes were huge in her face. “Because it’s actually still his.”
“If he walked out on his clients he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
“You don’t understand. I took over all his contracts. I kept working just the same way we always had. I even kept his name on the business – I couldn’t afford to make up a new sign, get a new website and all that. It was just easier to keep it. I just never thought he’d come back!”
“Why not? Because he stole another man’s wife?”
She turned away. “He stole something else, too.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to tell you.”
Jamie balled his fists. She didn’t have to. It was as plain as day – Daniel Ledstrom had stolen her heart.
And now he was back. He had to act fast or the bastard might coerce Claire back into his bed. Now that he’d slept with her, Jamie had no intention of letting another man near her. She was going to be his wife. He planned to spend the rest of his life with her. Ledstrom wasn’t going to screw that up.
"I thought you were quitting interior design. You said you were shutting down the company anyway."
"I was, but…not like this."
No, not like this, Jamie thought. Not when the bastard she’d loved but left her was coming back to steal the business from her. Her competitive spirit was rearing its head again. He knew Claire. She could walk away from a business, but she could never stand to have it taken from her. If he didn’t side with her, she’d count him as an enemy. He thought hard.
“I was never his client.”
“He can’t say I was on his list. I knew you way before you ever went to Billings. Design my house, and start over again. New company, new name. Clients will line up to work with you based on your merits alone.” At the end of the day he didn’t care if she designed interiors or organized trail rides. He just wanted her close by.
"What if no one wants to work with me anymore?"
Jamie forced himself not to take a step and pull her into his arms. He kept his voice even. “You’re terrific at what you do – everyone will want to work with you. You’ll be fine.”
"There aren’t enough clients in Chance Creek – I need to be in a city like Billings."
"There are plenty of clients here – real clients with real houses, not fancy-schmancy condominiums." He spit out the word like it tasted bad.
Claire shot him a look. "I live in a condominium." She tapped a finger against her arm. "No, it won’t work – there isn’t enough money around here to keep a design business afloat."
"Then work with me on the ranch," he said desperately. Damn it, why did Ledstrom have to come back now just when he was getting somewhere with Claire?
She turned on him. "No – don’t you see? That’s exactly what he wants. To eliminate his competition. I can’t let him do that."
Jamie ached to pound Daniel Ledstrom into pulp. Instead, he said carefully, “What are you going to do?”
She tapped her finger some more.
“The Whitfield contract."
Jamie raised an eyebrow.
"Carl Whitfield’s building a huge log mansion for Lacey. He’s going to need an interior designer. I planned to go after the contract before you guys bought me out. I’ll go after it now." She smiled triumphantly. "I can use your house as a practice run. Go get me your blueprints. I’m going to design the best log home interior Montana’s ever seen, show it to Carl, and nail that contract.” She turned fever-bright eyes toward him. "And then I’m going to bury Daniel and Ledstrom Designs."
Claire checked the mirror in her ensuite bathroom to make sure she looked neat and professional. A millionaire like Carl Whitfield was used to dealing with the best of the best.
For the last two weeks she’d lived in the Big House on the ranch, spending most of her time at the huge table in the great room with Jamie’s blueprints scattered about her, along with fabric swatches, sell sheets and her own handwritten notes. She’d pecked away at her laptop, creating a 3-D rendering of her designs in a CAD program. It turned out Jamie had been planning for years for the day he bought land and began to build. The minute he signed the paperwork with Ethan, he got on the phone to the contractor he wished to use. Luckily, Tom Bends had a gap in his schedule he was all too happy to fill in this slow economy, and construction started right away. Jamie already had ideas for the flooring, and in many of the rooms wanted the huge log walls to remain visible, but he had left the kitchen appointments and many other details to her. Plus he had asked her to pick out most of the major furnishings.