Speak of the devil. Dressed in the cowboy uniform of jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of battered boots, he looked far too handsome to be the same scrawny, wiry little kid whom she used to tower over. Now he filled out his clothes nicely and the top of her head barely reached his shoulder.
"Damn it, you made me lose count," she said, plucking at her collar. It was already hot at nine in the morning. Six hundred thousand dollars. Plenty of money for whatever she wanted to do. She planned to close down Ledstrom Designs as soon as possible. Then she’d forget Daniel Ledstrom. Forget Jamie. Forget Mack Mackenzie and all the other men who’d ever given her grief. Take her round-the-world trip. After that – who knew? Make a home where people didn’t lie or cheat or steal or walk out on her.
Wherever that might be.
Too bad it wasn’t right here on this ranch.
Jamie stuffed his hands in his pockets, leaned against a table, and looked at her, his cowboy hat cocked back the better to see. With a deep breath, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand. One, two, three…
"You figure out yet what you’re going to do with all that money?"
She should have known he’d bring up the cash. When Jamie bought into the ranch, he and Ethan were able to re-mortgage it. That, in turn, allowed them to buy her out. Hence the six-hundred-thousand dollars soon to be deposited in her bank account.
His eyebrows shot up. "Really? What?"
Surprised you there, didn’t I, cowboy? "I’m closing down Ledstrom Designs and taking off."
"Taking off? Where are you going?"
He sounded angry, which confused Claire. It wasn’t like he gave a damn where she went. Sure, he flirted with her now and then, and he’d even invited her to celebrate with the rest of the crowd the night he and Ethan became partners. She’d gone along with it, but made sure they were never alone. And she’d made sure to leave in plenty of time to drive back to Billings. She wasn’t going to be another one-night-stand notch on Jamie’s bedpost. "Wherever I choose." She moved away from him, beginning her count again.
"For how long?"
"A year. Maybe two." At this rate she’d never figure out if she had enough tables set up for all the wedding guests.
"Damn it! You can’t do that!" Jamie’s fist hit the table and made her jump. When he took her arm and pulled her around to face him she could only stare.
"Why the hell not?" Once she was over her shock, anger flooded her. What was he playing at, scaring her like that? She tried to shrug him off, but he tightened his grip around her bicep. He looked furious, too.
"Because…because you’re marrying me on Labor Day," he blurted out. He fished around in his jeans pocket and pulled out small, velvet box. Letting go of her arm, he opened it, yanked out a ring, grabbed her hand and shoved it halfway onto her finger before she could react. She tried to pull her hand away as the ring’s setting dug into her skin, but he gripped her wrist with iron fingers and pushed it farther over her knuckle.
"What are you doing? Stop it!" Claire struck out, batting at his arms and chest. She’d had enough of Ethan’s friends’ stupidity today. It was one thing to switch the contents of her moisturizer and leave her a dorky note – she expected that kind of crap from Rob – but for Jamie to play along with the gag and take it to this level? She wouldn’t stand for it.
"No, I won’t stop it," Jamie growled. "I’ve got everything planned out and you’re not going to screw it up again! You’re not going on any god-damned trip around the world, because you’re going to stay here and become my wife." He rammed the ring the rest of the way onto her finger, then pulled her close, slid one hand around her waist and kissed her, hard.
When he released her, she rocked back on her heels, too stunned to speak. Clapping from across the lawn alerted her that Ethan, Rob and Cab had witnessed this whole debacle – hell, they were in on it, too, weren’t they? Heat surging into her cheeks, she shoved Jamie as hard as she could, and when that didn’t work, she went to peel the ring off and throw it in his face.
It didn’t budge.
"Shit." She pulled and tugged, but the ring refused to slide back over her heat-swollen knuckle. "Jamie, I’m going to kill you!"
"You can do anything you want to me after we’re married. Until then you’ll shut up and act happy."
What had come over him? Normally Jamie was laid back. He might laugh at Rob’s antics, but he didn’t participate in them. He’d picked a hell of a time to start. Outrage filled her until she thought she would burst with it. Of all the tricks he could think of to play on her, this was the cruelest one he could ever dream up. He’d already broken her heart once, but she’d gotten over it. Now he was going to pretend to care for her? Pretend to propose?
"I’ll bet I’ll kick your ass before sundown." Trust Jamie to make her sound like she was seventeen again. If only she was. Things were simple back then. He crushed on her and she ignored him. She was too close to him then to see him for the catch he was. It took her years to realize Jamie was the one for her.
By then it was too late.
A few years back, she’d made a New Year’s resolution to stop fighting with her mother and spend more time at the ranch. As soon as she came home to visit, though, it was Jamie who caught her attention. She hadn’t been able to stop watching him. She loved the way he moved, the way he did his chores. The way he lavished attention on the Cruz ranch horses even though he was only a hired hand back then. The way he was always present, how he offered his two cents when her father asked him for it, and kept quiet when he didn’t. How he attended to the day to day problems of running a ranch even when they weren’t his job to solve.
His words to her on those weekends were kind and teasing, and more than that. They started a fire within her she’d never felt before. When he wasn’t flirting, he was fun, warm, intelligent, a man who thought things through before he allowed them past his lips. She wanted to work with him, ride with him, build a life with him based on their shared love of the ranch. She wanted to be with him, too. Watching his hands when he worked made her buzz with longing to feel them on her skin. She fantasized about his arms around her – his mouth on hers.
Then one Friday night in early February, after another long, lonely week in Billings, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She’d packed a weekend bag, driven the two hours from the city to Chance Creek, parked down the drive and crept past her parents’ house to the path that led to Jamie’s cabin. Swallowing all her pride, she knocked on his cabin door and prepared to confess her feelings for him – confess that she was finally ready to be his girl.