“Maddy!” Several of the women pretended to be shocked, but from the giggles all around it seemed like they all had similar feelings.
“Our hands are real people, working real hard to keep themselves and their families housed and fed. You’re all adults and so are they, but we hired them to run a ranch, not to provide…entertainment…for our guests,” Claire said.
“You’re engaged, so you can’t lust after the cowboys,” Adrienne said, pointing at her ring. "But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t."
"I’m engaged to…" She shut her mouth with a snap. Had she really been about to say she was engaged to Jamie? Sure, it would keep the ladies from hitting on him – she hoped – but that didn’t make it a smart thing to do. Jamie would take that ball and run with it.
"Who are you engaged to, Claire?" Jamie drawled behind her, and Claire’s cheeks burned. A glance over her shoulder told her he was standing thigh deep in the water near the riverbank. She should have known he’d listen in to their conversation.
"No one," she said.
The women looked from her to Jamie.
She felt a distinct coolness settle over the group. "Are you engaged to him?" Adrienne asked.
"No," she said at the same time Jamie said, "Yes."
"Well, which is it?" Maddy said.
"I…haven’t made up my mind," Claire faltered.
Jamie climbed out of the water and stood dripping on her.
"You’re wearing his ring," Adrienne pointed out coldly. "Looks to me like you’ve made up your mind."
Claire searched for a way to explain what had happened without sounding like a complete idiot. She was grateful when Jamie chimed in, “Better get going or we’ll miss dinner!”
The women headed for the horses and Claire trailed after them. This was getting more and more out of hand.
Several hours later, Jamie sat down in one of the folding chairs perched on the tiny front deck of the cabin he’d lived in since Mack Mackenzie cleared out six years back, and Alex Cruz hired him on full time. With a back bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a front room that served as kitchen, dining room, living room and office, it was small but functional, and he welcomed it as a way to leave behind the father who never approved of his choices in life and the mother who understood her son but couldn’t stand up to her husband.
He appreciated the peace living alone afforded him, and he appreciated his work and the lifestyle the ranch made possible. At first he saved his money because he had little to spend it on, and the habits instilled by his parents went too deep to bypass, but soon his dream of buying into the Cruz ranch coalesced in his mind.
He worried that Alex Cruz would turn him down because he wanted to pass on the ranch unencumbered to his son, but as time went by, Jamie realized something Ethan didn’t seem to: Alex was worried about Aria Cruz’s expensive spending habits. More than once he caught Alex going over his books, muttering about income and expenses. From bits of conversations he overheard, he knew whenever his boss brought it up with his wife, Aria flew into a rage. Ethan remained oblivious, but Jamie went on saving every scrap of money he could drum up, convinced that someday Alex would look for a partner – if not an outright buyer – for the ranch, and he wanted to be ready for it.
When Alex and Aria died in a car accident the previous summer, Jamie braced himself for the day Ethan learned the truth about his inheritance. It had been worse than he’d imagined, and there were times he worried that Ethan would fold under the weight of his worries. Jamie had never imagined his chance to buy in the ranch would come under these circumstances and he was gripped with guilt every time he thought about stepping forward and offering the solution, afraid Ethan would see him as a vulture who’d waited for death to arrive to make his move.
So when Autumn came up with the idea of the guest ranch and convinced Ethan to sell part of their land to raise money to start the business, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. Here was his chance to step in and help – truly help – his friend without his good intentions being taken for bad.
Jamie didn’t want to split up the ranch, nor did he need to wrest control of it out of Ethan’s hands. All he wanted was a place to hang his hat and a chance to work with his beloved horses for the rest of his life.
And to marry Claire.
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
“Got room for one more?” As if conjured out of his daydreams, Claire stood at the base of the steps. She must have walked up the path from the Big House without him noticing.
He patted the arm of the other folding chair. “I saved this one for you.”
She sat down with a little groan and Jamie chuckled. “Feeling a little sore, greenhorn?”
“I can’t believe it’s been thirteen years since I’ve done any serious riding. What was I thinking?”
“I don’t know – what were you thinking?” he asked easily. Her warmth made it likelier than usual she’d open up to him, but Claire was like a skittish colt. One wrong move and she’d dance away from him and he’d be back to square one.
“I was thinking I had to put the ranch behind me. Put my family behind me.”
After a moment she nodded. “Yeah, Mom. I just couldn’t stand being near her after I knew she was sleeping around. I couldn’t stand that my dad put up with it. Their whole marriage was a lie." She shrugged. "Doesn’t matter anymore, does it? They’re gone."
"I think for all their troubles your parents loved each other."
Claire snorted. "Yeah. Look where that got them. If that’s what love looks like, count me out."
"People aren’t as simple as you’d like them to be. You don’t know what really went on in your parents’ marriage."
"I know that my mother slept with Mack."
"You don’t know why."
"Sure I do – because my mother needed everything to be about her. She couldn’t share the limelight for a second."
"She never seemed to really belong here," Jamie said. Just like Claire, Aria kept trying to leave the ranch. Her yearly trips lasted two, three, even four months at a time. But she always came back. "I think she loved your dad no matter how she behaved."
"If my husband ever cheated on me, I’d leave him so fast it’d make his head spin. And I’d never, ever come back."
She was on her feet, down the porch steps, and striding along the path to the Big House before he could stop her. So much for a nice, friendly visit.