"It’s not my job to tell her."
"Whose job is it? Mine?" The edge to her voice surprised Claire. Usually Autumn managed to keep her calm.
"Sorry. I know I’m being a bitch," Claire said, "but what right does that woman have to come here and make things worse than they already are? I don’t need this right now." She surveyed the table. Napkins next.
"I know things have been hard for you."
"You don’t know the half of it."
"You’re right." Autumn put her knife down and leaned on the counter. Claire felt like a heel for being so cranky. "You hardly know me, so I don’t expect you to confide in me, but I’m here if you need a friend, okay?" Claire appreciated the words, but the color of Autumn’s face worried her. Although it was too early for Autumn to be showing, she’d suffered from morning sickness these last few weeks. Maybe all that energy she’d been projecting lately was entirely fake. She didn’t look good this morning.
"Look, I’ll handle it," Claire found herself saying. "Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll drive into town and see her at her hotel. I’ll tell her about Mom and make sure she gets back on a plane and leaves us alone. Please tell me you’ll rest this morning when breakfast is done."
"I need to do the bedrooms while you’re out."
"Let me make a few calls. We need more help."
Autumn shook her head. "We can’t afford more help."
"You might not be able to, but I can."
At least for now.
* * * * *
Jamie surveyed his future home with satisfaction. Now that the roof was done, the construction crew had begun work inside. The beautiful log cabin he’d envisioned had come into being, with a wide verandah and banks of windows to let its inhabitants drink in the view. It stood as one with the property, its log walls echoing those of the Big House, but it was far enough away from the main part of the spread to make a private home for him and Claire.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and let his gaze run over the portion of the Cruz ranch that was now his. Well, it was all his in a way, since he was co-owner with Ethan, but these hundred acres were marked as his to do with as he wished. And what he wished was to marry Claire and raise a family here. Maybe others would think he was foolish to bet on a relationship that so far had gone nowhere, but one thing he’d learned during the prolonged battle with his father for control of his own life was that if he fixed his goal in his mind, things had a way of arranging themselves so he got there. His goal was to marry Claire and settle down in this house, then run the ranch with Ethan and Autumn, his kids and their kids growing up together the way he’d grown up with Ethan.
First he had to get through the rest of this week, however. And pray the news about Aria’s other child didn’t send his intended into cardiac arrest. He urged Walter back around and galloped down the track toward the Big House. Time to get to work.
Back at the stable, he and a very quiet Claire helped their guests saddle up for a ride over to the eastern pastures for the age-old chore of checking and repairing fences. He’d argued that no lady guest was going to want to participate in that kind of activity, but Claire overrode him, saying, “They wanted a ranch experience, they’re getting a ranch experience.” He had a feeling that the women’s attempts at flirtation, combined with this latest development, were getting on her nerves and she wanted to punish them. That was all right by him; her jealousy told him she had some kind of feelings for him, even if she wasn’t ready to admit them.
The ride out to the pastures was calm enough. Even Liz seemed somewhat tired from the previous day’s activities, but as the sun climbed higher in the sky and temperatures rose, Jamie sensed dissension in the ranks.
“This isn’t nearly as pretty as yesterday’s ride,” Adrienne said, flipping her white-blonde hair over her shoulder.
“It isn’t a joy ride. We’re doing a job, right, Jamie?” Maddy said. “This is a working ranch, remember? We all agreed it’s what we wanted to do.”
“We’re just riding in a line,” Adrienne said.
“We’re riding in a line along fences,” Maddy said. “We’re making sure nothing’s broken. That’s an important job.”
“She’s right,” Jamie said. “Nothing cuts down a ranch’s profits like losing a few hundred head of cattle. One rotten post or broken wire can cost a rancher a bundle of cash.”
“And he can make it back by charging his guests a bundle of cash,” Adrienne said, just loudly enough he knew he was meant to hear the snide remark.
“Ma’am, if you’re feeling poorly, I can take you back to the Big House,” Claire chimed in from further down the line, her tone barely respectful. Jamie tensed, knowing she was already at the end of her tether and liable to snap at a problematic guest.
“I’m not feeling poorly,” Adrienne said. “I’m feeling bored.”
Jamie bit back the urge tell her exactly how he was feeling. “Well, you’re lucky, then, because here’s our first stop.” He dismounted Walter and gestured at a post that was bent so far over it would have scraped the short range grass if the wires attached to it weren’t holding it up. After a quick rundown of the correct way to repair such a problem, he let the women take turns using the tools and together they reset the fence post properly. All of the women seemed to enjoy the chance to get their hands dirty, so to speak, except Adrienne, who remained surly throughout the process. Jamie shot Claire a pleading look when they all re-mounted and breathed a sigh of relief when she managed to get Adrienne aside. Maybe the woman was having female troubles.
Or maybe she was just a spoiled bitch. Either way, he wouldn’t be hard pressed to keep from flirting with her. He couldn’t abide a whiner.
“Who wants to ride beside me and help spot the next problem?” he called and wasn’t surprised at all when Liz pushed forward.
“Bet I’m good at it,” she said. “I can spot a mistake a mile away.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” he said gallantly, and glanced back at Claire again. She and Adrienne were talking heatedly now, the blonde gesturing widely.
“I’m sorry this morning’s chore isn’t to your liking,” he heard Claire say. “I’ve already offered to escort you back to the lodge. I don’t know what else I can do.”
“Jamie! Claire! Good to see you.”
Jamie swiveled in his saddle to see Rob and Cab riding up.