“Why should you be sorry? You’re the one who made it possible for Ethan to buy me out of the ranch. Now I have six times the money I lost. You’re right – I should just walk away.”
“But you want to get back at him.”
“It’s stupid, isn’t it?”
“Nah. That ninety thousand dollars is the money you made yourself, with your own hard work. Of course you want it back.”
“That’s why I can’t let this go – I have to get Carl Whitfield’s contract.”
Jamie looked her over. “If you win the contract, you think you can make peace with the rest of it?”
She finally turned his way. “You mean, forget about Daniel and what he did?”
She nodded slowly. “Yes. I think so. I think that would be revenge enough.”
“All right then.” He clicked his tongue at Walter and swung around to head on their way. “Do whatever it takes.”
What was Daniel doing right now? Claire wondered as she rode at the tail end of the line of women on their first short ride on the trails around the spread. Her thighs were sore from the unaccustomed exercise and she was sure she’d pay for jumping back into riding so suddenly after so many years away from horses. She couldn’t say she regretted it, though. Storm was a sweetheart and it was all she could do not to throw her arms around the mare’s neck and hug her again and again like a child who’d just received her first pony. Poor Storm; that wouldn’t become her at all and nor would it become an old hand like herself. So she held back, even though it was difficult.
Was Daniel going through her contact list, sucking up to the people she’d cultivated with hard work and great design skills? Was he completing the contracts in progress and stealing more of her money? Her hands tightened on the reins.
She turned her attention to the women and horses strung out along the trail ahead of her. Maddy, the ring leader who’d made all the reservations and whipped everyone into shape when it was time to head out on the trail, had dark brown curls so thick that when she wrapped them into a ponytail holder they almost stood out straight. She was athletic and strong with a pep that made Claire tired just watching her, and she wasn’t surprised to find out she taught physical education at a private school.
Adrienne was tall and thin, almost bony, and moved like a dancer, her blonde hair so white it was practically silver. Apparently she taught cello lessons and managed a city theater in Philadelphia.
Christine was married with a single child and Claire could tell she had some reservations about leaving her toddler behind. Evidently the year before she’d begged off the annual trip because she’d still been nursing and this year the rest of them ganged up on her and forced her to come. Of average height with short brown hair, she wasn’t exactly plain, but she wasn’t exactly pretty, either.
Liz worked for a publishing company and Claire just bet she looked snazzy in her business suits. Shapely, yet model thin, she wore her sleek, auburn hair up in a severe knot, but Claire had a feeling when it came down, the woman would be spectacular. She’d be the one who gave Jamie a run for his money on this trip.
Angel rounded out the group. A plush, sweet girl – Claire somehow couldn’t make herself call her a woman – with wide blue eyes and honey blonde hair, she was obviously the mascot of the group, and the rest of the women seemed to automatically assume she would need extra help navigating her way through the world.
As Jamie assigned each of them a horse, they’d exchanged glances behind his back, biting their lips, widening their eyes and raising their brows to express their appreciation of his fine physique. Claire wanted to slap each of them upside the head, and was grateful she’d had the presence of mind to initiate the no flirting or touching rule. Sure, Jamie had to help the women on their horses, and more than one of them tried to take the opportunity to cop a feel of his muscled arms and broad shoulders, but he was doing his level best not to encourage them and she could feel the effort that took from here.
Would he make it through the week? She followed Christine’s Appaloosa around a bend and ambled on. Maybe the question she really ought to be asking was, why did she hope so?
* * * * *
Jamie was relieved to confirm all five female guests were more than comfortable riding. Autumn had told him their background, but you never knew about a rider until you saw them in the saddle. They each had the easy grace of someone who’d grown up around horses, and Angel was the only one he’d had to switch mounts for. He’d seen right away she needed the most docile of geldings, and gave her an older bay named Sweetness.
Even the cattle herding had gone just fine. He’d positioned the women carefully and for the most part they’d stuck where they’d been told to be and did just what he asked them. Liz, the hot woman who looked like a model but did something with books, often jumped the gun instead of waiting for instructions, but her instincts were good and no harm had been done. Now he hobbled the horses while the womenfolk whooped and hollered their way into the lazy current of Chance Creek.
“Aren’t you joining us, Jamie?” Maddy called. Spunky girl, that one.
“Be there in a minute,” he called back. Just like the women, he’d worn bathing trunks under his jeans. Strange way to take a swim if you asked him, but then it wouldn’t do to leave the family jewels on display with all these women around. Might start a riot.
When he made his way down to the river’s edge their guests were all swimming in the shallow pool carved out by the bend in the creek. Claire was standing on the bank, just struggling out of her top, her jeans already in a heap by her feet. He smiled at her flushed cheeks when she reappeared. She wore a scarlet bikini with white trim that looked spectacular against her tan skin.
He bit back the flattering words that rushed to his lips. Nope – even compliments counted as flirting this week, and he wouldn’t be caught.
“Last one in’s a rotten egg,” he said and cannonballed into the center of the shrieking women. When he bobbed up to the surface and found himself surrounded by them, he realized he’d made a serious error. Dripping, gasping women eyed him with a mixture of attraction and playful fury and barely a second passed before Liz splashed him full in the face with a wall of water.
They attacked from all sides. Splashing, shouting, laughing women in the skimpiest of skimpy bikinis vied with all their might to douse him. Jamie defended himself as best he could, smacking his powerful arms down and across the surface of the creek to send tidal waves of water back at them. He glimpsed Claire still on the bank, her hands on her hips and her head cocked, like a coach about to blow her whistle the first time she spotted an infraction.