"Jamie’s a player? Who has he cheated on?" Rose turned all the way around to face her, the orange she was peeling still in her hand.
"I just mean…all those women he’s been with. He’s a total flirt."
"Being a flirt is different than cheating," Rose pointed out.
"Whatever. Well – what about us?"
Rose sized her up, then turned away and busied herself cutting up fruit. "What do you mean?"
"What do you think I mean? Are we one of those couples? Are we going to be together forever?" She couldn’t believe she was even asking the question.
For a long moment, Rose didn’t say anything. Finally she shook her head. Glancing back over her shoulder, she said, "I’m sorry, Claire. I want to say yes, but I can’t. When I look at the two of you I see all the energy on Jamie’s side. He’s there, one hundred percent – just waiting for you. But you’re not even close to that. All your energy is…" she trailed off.
"What?" Claire forced herself to ask.
"It’s…" Rose’s cheeks pinked. "Well…it’s all swirling back on itself."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Oh, I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t know you very well, and I’m no counselor…"
"Spit it out. You might as well at this point," Claire blazed.
"Well…I think it means that you’re so busy thinking about yourself you have no love to give."
Claire gripped the edge of the counter with shaking hands. "You know what, Rose? You’re right. You shouldn’t have said a god-damned thing."
What the hell was he going to do about Claire?
Jamie lathered up for his morning shave. Was he chasing a lost cause, or would she come around in time? He had hoped once she got involved with decorating his house and riding with their guests, she’d realize how much fun they could have together, but so far it had been a bust. He couldn’t shirk his duties with his guests, but he needed to step up his game, think of something that would remind Claire that he was a man and she was a woman and they belonged together.
He thought back to the night they’d made love under the moon. Only a month ago, but it felt like ancient history. God, she’d been a sight, silver and sleek in the unearthly light. Writhing in his arms, calling out his name…
Best not to dwell on it.
He made short work of the rest of his morning routine and opened the door to head on over to the Big House for breakfast. No one had exactly planned that everyone would eat together – the guests, Ethan and Autumn, Claire and him – it just worked out that way, and it worked well. They were able to talk about the day’s plans in an informal setting and the guests got to hear more about the running of the ranch. Today was the last day they’d stay close to home. Tomorrow he and Claire would take the ladies on an overnight ride and camp out on the range.
Ought to be cozy.
Smiling, he stopped in his tracks when he saw the vase on his front porch holding a single red rose. Claire’s apology, no doubt. Maybe she felt the time was right for romance, too. His grin widened and he picked it up, finding a note tucked underneath.
Been thinking about you. I want to see you tonight. Meet me at the stable at midnight.
He frowned. Was that Claire’s handwriting? It wasn’t like he’d ever studied it. He thought back to the notes she’d written on her first set of interior design plans. It was blocky and bold, like hers, but it wasn’t a match.
So who had left him a rose? Who wanted to meet him in the stable?
When he was a younger man, he’d have been there with bells on, no matter who it was. Not anymore. Now Claire was within his sights, he wouldn’t come within a mile of the barn tonight.
But if he left a client waiting for him at midnight all alone in the stables, would they make some kind of a fuss? Maybe bad mouth the ranch on the internet? He needed this business to succeed.
He tapped his foot until inspiration struck.
He needed a stand in.
Rob. About time the man started making up for the trouble he’d caused.
* * * * *
"If you keep showing up here, we’re going to have to put you on the payroll," Claire said to Rob as they saddled up. This morning’s ride was a long climb into the hills north of their property to a site with a vista their guests hadn’t seen before. The sloping ground and curving track would provide more of a challenge than their previous rides and the longer time spent in the saddle would be a good preparation for their two day trip starting tomorrow.
"Well, Jamie says you’re not as keen as he thought you’d be for the job, so maybe I’ll be your replacement."
She was still raw from Rose’s earlier words and now she felt a stab of wounded pride mixed with regret. Jamie was giving up on her already? She still thought his proposal was a joke – she couldn’t believe she’d asked Rose about their chances as a couple – but it hurt her to think that he was already looking for her replacement as a business partner. Couldn’t he give her a little time? Once she’d finished his house and secured Carl Whitfield’s contract she’d be able to clear her head and make decisions more rationally. With Morgan’s arrival, Daniel’s attack and packages arriving at her Billings condo on a daily basis, she didn’t have time to choose her path for the rest of her life right now. Maybe once she’d showed Daniel she’d always beat him at interior design she’d be ready to try something else.
Like staying on the ranch and raising horses. Helping with the guests. She needed time to figure it out.
Jamie ought to know that. He ought to back off and be helpful, not yank this job away from her before she’d even given it a fair shake.
She paused while tightening a strap around Storm. Not that she was giving it a fair shake; not really. She’d been so wrapped up in her other problems she’d barely thought about the trail rides. If Jamie had given up on her, it served her right – she’d shown so little attention to what she was doing. Maybe Rose was right – maybe she was too busy thinking about her own problems to worry about anyone else.
Maybe Jamie would be better off without her. Ethan and Autumn, too.
She had the strangest feeling, just for a moment – as if the ground tilted and was sliding away – all her happiness sliding away with it. Her knees felt weak and she wondered if anyone would notice if she just sat down and put her head in her hands. She held onto Storm’s saddle for balance until the dizziness passed, shaking her head to clear her thoughts.
Did she even want to be an interior designer? Did she really need to beat Daniel before she moved on?
What about that trip she was supposed to take? What about seeing the world?