How the hell did you have a water fight with five bikini-clad women without flirting or touching? Jamie wondered wildly. He locked eyes with Liz and saw the challenge there.
Sure enough, she moved closer and he read her intentions in her face. She wanted to dunk him, and in the process she’d get her hands all over his wet, slippery body.
Nope. No can do, lady.
Jamie gulped in a breath of air and submerged himself, fought through the tangle of arms and legs of the women paddling in the water around him and came up some ten feet away. He took another breath and stroked to the farthest side of the creek.
“Okay, ladies, give our cowboy a break,” Claire called from the bank as several of the women made to follow him, Liz in the lead.
Just like children, Jamie thought. Ravenous, man-eating children.
He stifled a laugh, knowing damn well if it wasn’t for Claire’s presence and the hope of being with her at the end of this week from hell, he’d still be in the midst of that water fight, taking advantage of every opportunity those women offered him.
But that was the old Jamie – the man who hadn’t invested in the Cruz ranch, the man who wasn’t building a life for himself here, a life he hoped included Claire.
If he was sleeping with her, he’d never give any of these women a second glance. He floated on the water, already getting cold in this lazy bend in the mountain-fed stream, and watched Claire carefully pick her way in. She was lovely, but far more cautious than she used to be. Her mother’s betrayal had driven her from the ranch and while he read her love for this land in every glance she caressed it with, he also read the fear there. How angry she must have been – how hurt – to leave home, practically abandon her family, and stay away from horses – horses, for crying out loud! – the one thing she loved above all else.
He had to convince her that with Aria gone, it was safe to change her mind and stay.
* * * * *
That Liz was a pushy one, Claire thought as she took a few strokes through the water. Now that their fun was over, the women were chatting and laughing, playing in the water like teenagers, but rapidly beginning to get chilled. A couple were already headed to the banks to climb out and lay on their towels in the sun to dry off. Claire kept to herself, barely rippling the surface with a smooth breast stroke. She loved this time of day, when the afternoon wound down and the comfort of a Montana summer evening loomed ahead.
Normally she’d still be hard at work designing interiors and fielding phone calls from clients who needed reassurance that yes, she’d get their projects done before the deadline. But growing up, this was the time she’d be shirking her duties in the kitchen to eke out a few more minutes with the horses before heading up to dinner.
There was no way she could get out of cleaning up the dishes and tidying the kitchen after dinner, however, so she raced through those chores, then joined her father outside on the porch to watch the sun set and the shadows gather first in the valley, then finally on the distant hills. Her father didn’t talk much, but what he did have to say meant something, so she patiently waited for his words, watching him whittle away a stick to pass the time, sometimes with her own pocket knife in hand.
She used to be like Liz – pushing and pushing for what she really wanted, but that had changed the day she found her mother and Mack MacKenzie together. She’d left the ranch, left her family, left her dream of being a rodeo queen and becoming her father’s partner in the business. She was still pushy, but only for surface things – only for things that didn’t really matter one damn bit.
She struck out for the far side with a determined overhand crawl, suddenly needing movement to block out her confusion. She was beginning to think this week of ranch work was the worst idea she’d ever agreed to. Every familiar landmark around here dredged up old emotions best left undisturbed.
When she bumped into something hard, she splashed to a stop and came up for air gasping. Jamie stood chest deep in the water looking down at her quizzically.
“No touching!” she sputtered.
“I didn’t touch a thing, you swam right into me,” he said, holding his hands up.
“You could have gotten out of my way.”
He stepped to the side. “Be my guest.”
Claire turned her back on him and swam the other way. Time for her to join the ladies sunning themselves on the bank. Maybe if she kept herself surrounded by the women, Jamie’s charms would stop insinuating themselves into her like streams of liquid fire into her veins. Even when he wasn’t actively flirting he had to be the sexiest man she knew. In fact, without the shallow flirtation, he was sexier. Because underneath all that smooth charm was a man who loved horses, was as smart as a whip, and who knew what he wanted and exactly how to get it.
Up on the grassy riverbank, she spread her towel near the other women and lay down, tuning in to their conversation.
Liz sat up. “Tell us the truth, Claire – is Jamie a real cowboy or did you hire some model and train him?”
“He’s the real deal,” she said, instantly on alert. She didn’t like the way Liz had set her sights on Jamie like a heat seeking missile locked on its target.
“Autumn’s husband is a knockout, too,” Adrienne said. “Too bad he’s off limits.”
Murmured assents from all around.
“Any more handsome cowboys hidden on this ranch?” Liz asked.
Claire shrugged, then realized they wouldn’t be able to see the gesture since she was lying down. “I guess. We employ about fifteen hands on and off. You would have seen most of them this afternoon.”
“There were some cute ones,” Angel spoke up in her dreamy voice. “They didn’t get too close to us, though.”
“Too busy working,” Claire pointed out.
“I guess. Will they join us for dinner?” Liz asked.
Jeez, did the woman never let up? “You’ll have to ask Autumn about that. I just do horses, not dinner.” She’d let Autumn know what the women were saying, though. The hands might not mind hanging around for supper and entertaining the female customers. Although, that might open a whole new can of worms. Would they expect to get paid for their time? She pictured Ethan and Autumn building a bunkhouse for studly cowboys somewhere on the property and running a reverse bordello. Rich eastern women could fly in and pick their man for the weekend. They’d make money hand over fist.
“I wouldn’t mind renting a cowboy for the week,” Maddy piped up, echoing her thoughts. "Especially Jamie."