She tried to shove him away, and when that didn’t work she kicked him in the shin, but she barely grazed him, he was standing so close. Daniel just laughed. He bent down and whispered in her ear, "I always wondered what it would be like to get a little rough with you. You’re such a fighter. I bet you’d like it. What do you say? We could get a room."
"Leave her alone. Get off of her!"
Morgan appeared around the side of the van brandishing a baseball bat. When Daniel didn’t move, she wound up and swung it at him, landing a solid thump on his back.
"You bitch!" Daniel dropped Claire and spun on his heel, grabbing for the bat. Morgan pulled it out of his reach, wound up again and swung. "Damn it!"
"Go. Away." Morgan hit him again. "I’ll pound you into the pavement, asshole!"
Daniel warded off her blows with raised arms. "Keep away from Carl, Claire," he shouted as he darted toward his BMW. "You talk to him again and I’ll be back." The sportscar’s engine roared to life and he peeled out of the parking lot. Claire watched him go, stunned.
"Are you okay?" Morgan asked, rushing up to her and putting a hand on her arm.
"Yeah, I’m fine." She shrugged her off. "I’m totally fine. I could have handled that myself."
Morgan blinked. "You looked like you needed a little help." She leaned on the bat.
"Well, I didn’t."
"Look, Claire. I know you’re upset. I’m upset, too…"
"You don’t know anything," Claire blazed, realizing as she said the words she was being entirely unfair. She didn’t care. When had life been fair to her? "Just leave me alone, would you?"
This time she made it to her car and when she left the parking lot, Morgan stood back and watched her go.
"We’d better head back to the Big House," Jamie said to the women sunning themselves on the riverbank. "Autumn will have dinner ready for us soon. We wouldn’t want to keep her waiting,"
Maddy sat up and began to gather her things, but the other women moved more slowly. He’d wager half of them had fallen asleep where they lay in the sunshine. The Mathesons were long gone back to their own ranch, after Jake and Ned made pointed comments about how hard he was working.
Let them envy his job. It wasn’t turning out to be nearly as easy as he thought it would be, and he missed Claire today. Not that she was a whole lot of fun lately. He wished they could go back to their teenage days, just for a little while. Back then, Claire knew how to enjoy life. She’d pursued everything with a fearlessness that left him speechless with admiration. Unfortunately she’d pursued Mack just as fearlessly and he’d been more than a match for her.
Had Aria really slept with him? Was she so wanton? She’d always seemed so distant, so severe – such a force unto herself. She didn’t mix with the ranch work. Just decorated her home, cooked up a storm when she was around, and spent a lot of time in her garden. He hadn’t thought much about her when they were young and even less as he’d grown up. Ethan and Claire had always been closer to their dad than to Aria. But they’d loved her, both of them.
He hurried to help the women back on their mounts, eager to be back at the Big House, hearing about Claire’s day. She was already wound up so tight. He hoped this new wrinkle wouldn’t cause her any more pain.
Nearly an hour later, he’d finally gotten all the horses tended and the guests back up to the Big House. Ducking into his own cabin, he showered and changed, then headed up the path to join the rest of them for dinner.
"No way! I don’t want to see her ever again!"
Jamie stopped in his tracks. That was Claire’s voice, coming from the open back door of the bunkhouse. Who was she yelling at?
"I don’t want to see her, either, but I think we have to."
He hesitated. It wasn’t really his place to interfere, but his feet made up his mind for him and soon he was peering in through the screen door into the bunkhouse kitchen. "Everything all right?"
"No, it isn’t." Claire crossed the room and let him in. "Morgan’s an interloper. She wants something from us, I know it."
"You said she wants to talk about Mom."
"I already told her what happened. What more does she need to know?"
"I don’t know. Maybe we should find out."
Their voices were rising again. Jamie held out a hand. "Hold up. Claire, tell me what happened."
She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the kitchen counter. "I went to Morgan’s hotel room and told her that Mom had died. She cried. She knew all about Ethan and me. Turns out Mom got pregnant in college with a professor at the University of Victoria when she studied abroad. She had the baby there and left her with her fuck-buddy’s parents to raise. All those trips she took to Europe were lies; she was visiting her. Him, too, probably. That man she slept with – Edward Tate. Morgan claims Mom didn’t spend much money on her. She actually claims Mom worked while she was there – at the university with Edward – doing anthropology research, whatever that means. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course that’s where all the money went. She probably paid for his parents to raise her brat and never told Morgan."
Jamie had never seen Claire so furious, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t about the money. He’d watched her chase after her mother for far too long not to know it killed her that Aria was off raising another daughter whenever she left home.
"Let’s just have her over and talk to her. Get to the bottom of this," Ethan said.
"It sounds wise to me," Jamie said.
Claire rounded on him. "Who the hell cares what you think? You’re not even part of this family."
Ethan looked shocked. "He’ll be part of this family pretty soon," he said.
"The hell he will! You can buy your way into part-ownership of this ranch, but you can’t buy your way into my family, Jamie Lassiter."
"I’m not buying anything. I’m going to marry you."
"Oh, for God’s sake." She strode out the back door and let it slam behind her. Jamie met Ethan’s gaze.
"Sorry, buddy. You know I’m on your side," Ethan said.
"Too bad I’m not trying to marry you."
* * * * *
"Usually, I just tear lettuce up into bite-sized chunks," Rose said the following morning.
Claire looked down and realized she’d shredded the leaves beyond recognition. She was helping prepare a picnic lunch while Rose handled breakfast. Autumn had taken her up on her offer and hired Rose and Tracey Richards to take turns helping her with the cooking and cleaning, and somehow both the younger women knew more about preparing food than she seemed to.