The Cowboy Wins a Bride (Page 21)

The Cowboy Wins a Bride (The Cowboys of Chance Creek #2)(21)
Author: Cora Seton

“I don’t see the problem. This all sounds plenty do-able,” Claire said.

“A bunch of women herding cattle?”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know…it’s men’s work,” he said.

“I’ve herded cattle with you before.”

Jamie wasn’t sure why he was arguing the point. It wasn’t like there wouldn’t be plenty of men on hand – enough men to do the job without any extra help. “One or two women are fine, but a whole passel of them….I don’t know. What if they talk too much and spook the cattle?”

“For heaven’s sake, Jamie, it’s the twenty-first century. You sound like some ornery backwoods hick. That’s not like you.”

“Fine. You’re right – they can help herd cattle, but the river’s out, that’s for sure.”

She blinked. “What on earth is wrong with you? Have you got heat stroke or something?” She moved toward him as if to feel his forehead, but he stepped away.

“I don’t have heat stroke. I’m just not dumb enough to suggest to a bunch of female paying customers that they strip down and swim in a creek while I watch.”

Claire laughed out loud. “Actually, it sounds exactly like something you’d do if we hadn’t made that bet. Just tell the women to wear their swim suits under their clothes. Problem solved. We’ll tote some towels along and dry off in the sunshine before gearing up and riding home.”

Jamie nodded brusquely. “All right. Sounds like a plan. So we’ll stick to the itinerary for today, at least. Now, how about you? You remember how to ride one of these things? You haven’t been to see Storm in weeks.”

“Yes, I remember how to ride a horse.”

“Prove it. We got the rest of the morning to kill and Autumn doesn’t want us in for brunch her first time feeding guests, so I packed a couple of sandwiches. Let’s go for a little ride.”

“All right.” To his surprise Claire didn’t fight his suggestion. He thought she might kick up a lively fuss and come up with some chore he hadn’t thought of to fill the time, so his heart rose when she strode down the center aisle of the stable until she reached Storm. He watched her approach the gray quarter horse slowly and give her time to check her out before reaching out to touch her. Soon the horse was whickering pleasantly and nuzzling Claire as if she’d known her for years. That was something he shared with Claire – the ability to communicate with horses without saying a word. Claire crooned to Storm for a moment before opening the gate and moving into the stall.

Jamie met her outside a few minutes later astride his own horse, a bay gelding named Walter after his great-granddaddy – the last Lassiter to actually own a ranch. Claire let him take the lead without a struggle, which was odd for her, but he attributed it to her absorption in reacquainting herself with the mare. He could tell she was already half in love with Storm. A few more rides and he’d bet they’d become inseparable. He thought back to her mad dash on Ethan’s wedding night. Still half-wild after all this time. Who would credit it, when she acted like such a stick-in-the-mud these days?

Thinking about what else happened that night made him smile.

“Bet I can guess where we’re going,” she said some minutes later.

“Bet you can.”

“I’m not sleeping with you again.”

“No, ma’am, of course not. I’ll have to be satisfied with the view.” He turned his head so she couldn’t see his grin and accuse him of flirting with her. When they drew rein on the rise of ground where a scant few weeks ago they’d made love under the moonlight, he didn’t even look at Claire. Instead he kept his attention on the meandering river, and the hills far in the distance.

“It is lovely here,” she said.

“I won’t argue with that. All those years at school in Billings I just couldn’t wait to get back.”

“Must be nice knowing exactly what you want.”

"Hmph. You seem to know what you want.” That came out more bitter than he’d intended it.

She took a deep breath, then held it so long he began to worry. Finally she expelled it in a rush. “For now. I want revenge against Daniel. And against you. Then…I don’t know.”

“You don’t need to get revenge against me. You just need to marry me."

"Don’t start that again."

"Why?" He couldn’t keep the anger from his voice. "Because you’re still in love with Daniel?" There. He’d said it aloud.

“I hate Daniel’s guts.” Her eyes blazed.

“Then turn your back on him and walk away.”

She pursed her lips. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t know the whole story."

"Tell me."

For a long moment she stayed quiet and he was sure she wasn’t going to tell him anything, but then she scanned the horizon and said, "He stole money from me, okay? A lot of money.”

Walter sidestepped and Ethan got him back under control. “You call the police?” Once more the urge to beat Ledstrom to a bloody pulp pulsed through his veins.

“No.” Claire touched her heels to Storm’s flanks and moved away.

“Why not? What the hell happened?” He urged Walter forward, galloped around her and blocked her way. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“I lent him the money, okay? Without signing anything. I thought he loved me. I thought he was going to ask me to marry him, so I just handed it over. He said he only needed it to secure a deal for a week or two until another property he owned finished up the escrow process. It was no big deal.”

Finally he understood and he reeled from the realization of how Claire must have felt. Robbed by the man you wanted to marry. He forced himself to swallow. She’d wanted to marry Daniel – not him. “Then he ran off with that other lady instead and took your money. How much?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does. Tell me.” He waited, calming his own racing mind and breathing easily, like he did when he wanted to soothe a horse. He knew his own mood could transfer to the animals. Maybe it would work on Claire, too. He had to know it all. Had to know what he was up against.

“Ninety thousand dollars.”

He whistled low and long. “Damn. No wonder you’re so angry.”

She stroked Storm’s neck, still not looking his way. “There wasn’t anything I could do. We didn’t sign a contract – I just gave it to him. There’s no way to get it back."