“We aren’t looking to make much of a profit this year,” she told Jamie one day. “We’re looking to turn visitors into lifelong customers.” Sounded smart to him.
With all hands on deck – well, all hands except Claire’s, since she was too busy making ever more elaborate plans for the interior of his home – they’d scrubbed and polished the Big House until it shone, hauled supplies of every kind in, installed a professional grade washer and dryer in the basement to handle the new laundry load, and made a wheelchair accessible suite on the first floor.
“Why would someone who can’t even ride come to a ranch for their vacation?” he asked Ethan.
His friend shrugged. “For the scenery? Fresh air? Maybe to be close to family who can? All I know is we aren’t up to code unless we have one.”
Autumn worked hard to update the landscaping around the house, and Jamie and Ethan tidied the barn and pens enough to look prosperous, if not clean enough to eat out of. Jamie put some thought into daily schedules for the guests and rode all the trails around the spread to make sure they were in good repair. Without Claire. She had moved her things to the bunkhouse now that guests were coming to stay in the Big House, and he barely saw her these days. She’d asked for his credit card and made him up the limit to an uncomfortable amount, then proceeded to order things without even getting his approval. She even had a timeline for the interior, which counted on his contractors having the home built in record time. He had no idea what would happen should something delay progress. The one time he’d balked at Claire’s plans, she’d nearly decked him, and for the first time Jamie realized he was a little afraid of the woman he wanted to marry.
He wasn’t making any progress on convincing her to be his wife, either. All in all, a sorry state of affairs.
But now his patience was about to pay off, because the first guests were arriving soon and Claire had to follow through on her promise to him. He planned to take full advantage of the fact they’d be sharing a tent during the campout at the end of their company’s stay.
He shifted uncomfortably. Best not to think about that for too long, or he’d be unfit for company of any kind. He’d stuck to his side of the bargain – no outright flirting or touching. Not that she’d notice if he did, she was so hung up on her designs. But she was due any moment, and she’d be working with him for the next seven days. All the time in the world for him – and the horses – to work their magic. He hoped by the end of the week her eyes would lose the frantic look they always seemed to hold these days. He’d make it his business to see they did.
He looked forward to greeting the guests later this morning, too. They should pull in about an hour from now, delivered from the airport, and they would take some time to settle in their rooms and have a light brunch before their first ride. Autumn assured him that everyone in the party had prior experience on horseback.
“It’s a group of friends,” she explained. “Sounds like they do this every year but the lodge they usually stay at closed, so they’re looking for new stomping grounds. I’m counting on you to wow them with the scenery on your rides.”
“You just feed them up good every night, and leave the rest to me,” he assured her. A group of friends sounded great – a bunch of men looking to get away from their normal lives, wanting a break from girlfriends, wives and kids. He could deal with that.
He plotted a fairly vigorous week of riding and chores, banking on the fact these men probably worked jobs that bored them the rest of the year, so he should show them a little excitement. They could help herd cattle from one part of the property to the other, muck out some stalls – just enough to burn off some energy. Hell, maybe he’d let them repair a fence or two.
“Morning,” Claire said behind him, her impatient tone telling him she’d prefer to be back working on his interior design.
He turned and smiled from the sheer joy of seeing her look like herself for the first time in thirteen years. She wore an old pair of jeans that hugged every curve, the same pair of boots she’d worn on Ethan’s wedding day, and a plaid shirt that buttoned up the front. She even had her old cowboy hat on. The ring sparkling on her finger made his smile widen.
“Don’t you look a sight,” he said softly and reached for her.
“Uh uh!” she raised a hand. “Remember our agreement.”
Damn. Shrewish as an old maid. Keeping away from women had turned out to be way too damn easy this past month. He was too busy helping Ethan and Autumn and worrying about Claire to even talk to one. What the hell was wrong with her that she couldn’t see he only had eyes for her?
“Can’t blame a man for his natural reactions when you turn up looking like that.”
“What, these ol’ things?” she drawled, finally smiling faintly herself. “I can’t believe they still fit after all these years.”
“They fit mighty well,” he agreed.
“That’s not flirting, that’s a genuine compliment.”
“Fine, I’ll let it slide, but don’t push it. I’m in no mood for your shit.”
“All right, all right. Give me a second to get my game face on. You might want to relax yours just a bit, you’ll scare the guests away.” He turned around and composed himself. During the next seven days he had to work a miracle. Treat his customers well, do his job methodically, and show Claire every reason she should want to be his wife without using a drop of his manly charm.
Before he turned back, however, he heard the honk of a horn and the crunch of wheels on the gravel track that led up to the Big House.
“What the heck?”
“Crud – they’re early. Autumn’s going to have a fit!” Claire said, hurrying after the airport shuttle van.
Jamie strode behind her. Long before they made it up the rise to the Big House, however, the front door opened, and Autumn stepped onto the porch with a welcoming smile. The doors to the shuttle van opened as well, and guests began to spill out, all talking excitedly.
Jamie stopped in his tracks. Female guests. One, two, three….he counted silently. Five female guests.
None of them over twenty-five.
Claire stopped, too, and turned around, the biggest smile he’d seen in years stretching across her face. “Oh, cowboy – you are in trouble.”
* * * * *
The look on Jamie’s face was priceless when the ranch’s first ever paying guests climbed out of the airport shuttle van. Claire resisted the urge to backtrack to him and lift his jaw up off the driveway. She knew the five young women had first attended a very upscale private boarding school in Maryland together and then moved on to the same university. Riding was their passion, so even now that they had scattered to various jobs and relationships, they still took a yearly trip to a western ranch to catch up on each other’s lives and get the chance to spend some serious time in the saddle.