The Cowboy Wins a Bride (Page 16)

The Cowboy Wins a Bride (The Cowboys of Chance Creek #2)(16)
Author: Cora Seton

She’d done all this and more, and once she’d shown Jamie her results and he’d praised her to the skies, only asking for one or two minor changes, she’d polished her presentation and called Carl to ask for a meeting.

Lacey Taylor was once Ethan’s fiancée. She’d left him – thank God – after she’d discovered the extent of the ranch’s debts. Claire didn’t think she could have stood Lacey as a sister-in-law. Lacey latched on to Carl Whitfield, a millionaire and wanna-be rancher who’d managed to piss off almost everyone in Chance Creek. Things had settled down some, and Carl and Lacey intended to get married after Lacey finished her four months in a live-in counseling program in Bozeman. Apparently she had unresolved traumas from her childhood she wanted to work on before marrying Carl. Ethan had hinted something like that before the wedding, but who would have believed Lacey Taylor had grown up enough to make such an adult decision? Carl wanted to surprise her when she returned by having his mansion built and decorated. If she could score this contract, she’d be well on her way to establishing Cruz Designs as a company worthy of notice.

She’d called every one of her old clients the day she’d left Ledstrom Designs, apprised them of the situation and told them that unfortunately she wouldn’t be able to work with them on any current project they had with Daniel’s company. It killed her to give up all the work she’d done, but she knew many of the clients would seek her out in the future once they found Daniel wasn’t as good a designer as she was.

If she was honest, though, it was killing her to work inside while living on the ranch. She watched Jamie through the large floor-to-ceiling windows as he worked with the horses in the corrals. Ethan came and went, tending the cattle now that he and Autumn were home from their honeymoon. Autumn spent more time indoors, but even she worked in the kitchen garden.

Claire was the only one chained to a desk in the beautiful summer weather. Once or twice she’d ridden out at night with Jamie to see the building site, but she put him off whenever she could. It was so hard to turn Storm around and come back inside afterward.

Why was she torturing herself like this? Why not admit defeat and leave interior design to Daniel?

Because she refused to be defeated by a man like that. Not a second time.

She glanced at her reflection in the mirror again. Her suit was finely tailored, her hair brushed to a shine. Her makeup was understated but flattering. And Jamie’s elegant ring set the whole outfit off.

It glittered there as a constant reminder of what she really wanted. For Jamie to be the kind of man she needed him to be. A man who would stick by her through thick and thin. Now that their bet had kicked in and he wasn’t touching her, she was more conscious of him than ever. Every time he came near her she held her breath, wanting him to take her into his arms. But then he would lose the bet, and she didn’t want him to lose, did she?

Because then the ranch and Jamie would be off limits to her for good.

She wanted him so bad. Wanted to make love to him again.

Focus, Claire.

Time to go score one of the biggest interior design contracts in Montana.

* * * * *

A half-hour later, she sat at a scarred wooden table in Linda’s diner, waiting for Carl Whitfield to join her, alternately checking her laptop to make sure it was set to show him her portfolio and playing with the engagement ring.

The door opened, and Carl came in. At forty, he’d already made his millions and bought the spread next door to the Cruz ranch to live out his dreams of being a cowboy. When he’d arrived, everyone laughed at his shiny new boots and string tie, and they’d been angry at the way he bought his place for a song when he could have afforded to pay much more, but no one could turn up their noses at the way he was boosting the local economy with his building projects. And he sure seemed to love Lacey.

“Hi, Claire, how’s it keeping?”

“Hi, Carl. Thanks for meeting me.”

“A man’s got to eat.” He smiled. “Plus I never turn away the chance to spend time with a pretty woman.”

Claire cringed, but kept a smile pasted on her lips. “Would you like to see what I’ve been planning for Jamie’s house? That will give you a chance to see what I can do with a log home.”

“How about we order first, then get down to business.”

She took a breath and willed herself to calm down. She’d done a hundred of these meetings, so why was she acting like she was fresh out of school? “Sure, that sounds great.”

Tracey Richards, the young, blonde waitress, stopped by the table and handed menus to each of them, her high pony-tail swinging. “Should I give you a few minutes?”

“I know what I want,” Carl said. “A BLT, heavy on the mayo, a side of fries and a slice of apple pie.”

“How about you, Claire?”

Tracey had been several classes behind Claire, but she remembered her from high school, and besides, everyone knew everyone in Chance Creek. She scanned the menu. “Tomato soup and grilled cheese for me. Plus coffee when you have a minute.”

Tracey hurried away, came back a moment later with coffee for both of them and hustled off again. Linda’s Diner was a standby in Chance Creek, and was always busy at lunchtime on weekdays.

“All right, show me what you’ve got,” Carl said.

Swallowing another wave of nervousness, Claire slid the laptop over to where he could see the screen and pushed a button. “Here’s a mockup of the interior of the log home Jamie’s building. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the size of yours….”

“I should hope not. I plan to build the biggest house in Chance Creek. Only the best for my bride.”

She wished he didn’t feel the need to talk quite so loudly. The last thing she wanted was a crowd to form around their table. “Of course. I’m sure yours will be twice the size of Jamie’s.”

“Twice? Try four times the size. Ten thousand square feet.”

Ten thousand? With just him and Lacey rattling around in all that space? And the cost to heat it!

Claire composed herself. “That is a big house.” Carl nodded smugly. “Think of what I’m showing you as just a hint of what I could do for you.” She clicked another button. “Here’s the entryway. Notice the slate floors…”

“Everyone has slate floors. I plan to import marble from Bologna – it’s dark, imposing. Just the thing to let everyone know they aren’t dealing with a country bumpkin.”

“Oh, well that sounds nice.” Marble from Bologna? She scrambled to note that down.