Jamie remained motionless in the folding chair as darkness settled over him, a new thought keeping him in place.
Is that what was going on here? Did Claire think he was the type to cheat?
He forced himself to stay calm as he thought this through. He considered himself a steady man, but did his actions match that view?
Not really. Not when it came to women. He wasn’t a Casanova, but he’d had his share of casual relationships over the years. And he flirted a lot.
He’d be damned. No wonder she’d made that part of the bet – it was the key to the whole puzzle of the way she acted around him. Claire wanted him – he knew she did now that she’d given in to her impulses and made love to him. It wasn’t a lack of desire that held her back.
It was a lack of trust.
Shame pierced Jamie like a white-hot knife. Why should she trust him? All she’d ever seen him do was flirt with every woman in reach. He’d behaved just like Mack, hadn’t he? Teasing her, touching her, showing her he wanted her, and then sleeping with other women every time she turned around. He’d always told himself he was just filling the time in until she was ready to see him for the man he was and date him seriously, but what if she’d seen the type of man he was all along?
Was he a player in her eyes – the kind of guy who used women and never looked back? He tamped down the flare of anger that twisted his gut. Surely Claire knew he would never give another woman the time of day if she went out with him. But was it fair for him to wait to change his ways until after she’d said yes?
It didn’t work like that at all.
He had to prove to her ahead of time that he was a man she could trust. How could he have made such a mistake when he thought he had everything planned out?
Damn, damn, damn. He’d really set himself up for failure. Now all his hopes for future happiness came down to this one week. He had to prove he could ignore five horny female guests all vying for his attention.
Maybe if he succeeded she’d realize he loved only her.
* * * * *
Claire was surprised to find Autumn in the kitchen of the bunkhouse when she got back. She was sitting at the small table, sipping a cup of tea and fiddling with an envelope. It still seemed strange to see the renovations her brother had done to the building. The kitchen was the same as ever, but the large room that used to hold ten old-fashioned iron-framed bunk beds for the hired hands had been turned into a fair-sized living room and two medium-sized bedrooms with walk-in closets. Ethan used the closet off of his and Autumn’s bedroom as an office. She’d hung up a few pairs of jeans and shirts in hers, but they barely made a dent in the empty space.
"Ethan’s doing the overnight shift at the Big House," Autumn said.
Claire helped herself to tea and joined her at the table. They’d set up a cot in the small laundry room off the back entrance of the Big House and whoever took the night shift could sleep unless a guest needed them. It didn’t seem right for newlyweds to sleep apart, though. Autumn took in her expression and laughed.
"I’m too tired for cuddling, anyway. It’s all right. Pretty soon we’ll hire someone to do the night shift. We just don’t want to spend too much money until we start making some."
Claire nodded. "What’s that?" She gestured to the envelope.
Autumn sighed. "I’m not sure, but something told me not to give it to Ethan. I hope I’m not making a mistake giving it to you." She handed it over and Claire examined it.
The paper was cream colored, the handwriting bold and sharp – but still a woman’s penmanship. It was addressed to Aria Cruz.
Claire’s heart sank. "Ethan must have dealt with plenty of mail addressed to my parents after their deaths. Why not give him this one?"
"All of your parents’ business and personal correspondence went to their post office box in town. Mail isn’t delivered out here – you know that. Look at the front of the envelope again."
She did so, not understanding at first. Then she saw what Autumn meant. "There’s no postmark."
"But the return address says Canada."
"I don’t understand." Autumn was right, the return address was Canadian, but there was no name – only a street number and city in British Columbia.
"I don’t either, but I think whoever sent the letter hand-delivered it."
"Meaning they’re here in town." A shiver traced down her spine, she couldn’t say why. "So why don’t they know my mother is dead?"
"Maybe they just got here. Maybe they haven’t talked to anyone yet. We need to let them know what’s happened." Autumn rubbed her forehead. "It isn’t fair of me to pass this on to you, but Ethan’s had such a hard time of it so far. I couldn’t force myself to give it to him."
"I know." Claire looked at the letter grimly. "You think I should open it right now?"
Autumn shrugged. "No time like the present."
She slid a thumb under the flap and tore open the creamy envelope. When she pulled out the pages inside, the same handwriting dashed thick, solid lines across the paper. She unfolded them and turned them over. The letter was signed, Morgan. Turning back to the front, she read:
Where are you?
She dropped the letter on the table as if she’d been burned.
When the back door opened at five the following morning, Claire was still sitting in the kitchen, the letter in her hand. Autumn had read it, too, of course, but she’d gone to bed hours ago, casting concerned looks back over her shoulder when Claire kept her seat.
Ethan’s face registered his surprise when he saw her there, but he crossed to the counter and started the coffee maker. “Morning, Sunshine.”
“I thought you might be over at Jamie’s.” Ethan grabbed a frying pan, put it on the stove and got a package of bacon out of the refrigerator.
She shook her head dully. “It’s not like that between us.”
He grunted. “If it’s not like that, then why’d you agree to marry him?” He spread the strips of bacon in the pan, then put some bread in the toaster.
That brought her out of her reverie. She still couldn’t fathom why Ethan was still pretending he didn’t know their engagement was a farce.
“I’m not in the mood for this.”
"All right, all right. You guys have a spat or something?" When she didn’t answer, he moved to the refrigerator and took out the eggs. "I think he’ll make you a terrific husband. He sure surprised me when he bought a partnership in the ranch,” he commented. “Who would have thought a cowboy like him saved his pennies like that.”