Another wave of dizziness passed over her. Damn, was she getting sick?
No, this was stress, plain and simple. Everything was going wrong at once. In the past, she’d put her head down and run for the hills every time things like this happened. She wasn’t going to do that now.
She needed to concentrate. She needed to take things one step at a time. First she would show Daniel he hadn’t crushed her when he took her money and ran. That meant finishing Jamie’s house, showing it to Carl and landing the Whitfield contract. Next, she needed to sort out Morgan and send her back to Canada. No matter what Ethan said, she wasn’t becoming part of her family.
Last, she needed to make a decision about the rest of her life. When she had time to think it through – away from Jamie and everyone else.
She stroked Storm’s neck as she considered the man at the center of all the chaos in her life. Why couldn’t he be the man she needed him to be? Why couldn’t he be faithful?
Rose said she thought he was ready to be part of a lasting relationship. That he was one hundred percent committed.
Could his proposal possibly be serious?
No, that didn’t make sense – it was all part of that practical joke – the face goo, the stupid note, and his proposal in front of all his friends. Even if by some crazy chance he had been serious, it didn’t matter.
Jamie didn’t have staying power, no matter what Rose said. She had no doubt a wedding with him would be wonderful and the honeymoon spectacular. But the marriage… How long before another woman caught his eye and led him astray? She wouldn’t live through that kind of betrayal.
Let everyone think she didn’t care enough about Jamie to marry him. She knew the truth.
She cared far too much.
"Who’s that?" Autumn said. Jamie turned and held his hand up to shade his eyes from the strong morning sunshine. He was collecting the picnic Autumn and Rose had packed them to take along on today’s ride. He’d distribute the food and drinks among everyone’s saddlebags and warn them not to get into it until noon.
Rob had been more than willing to ride along and spend the evening with them, too, when Jamie asked. He promised he’d hang out at his cabin until midnight, then go to intercept Jamie’s would-be lover.
"I’m more than happy to take one for the team," was the way he’d put it when Jamie warned him that the guest who met him there might expect him to put out. Jamie just bet he was, after his long drought.
An unfamiliar car pulled into the drive and parked near the Big House. A woman in her early thirties got out. There was something familiar about her dark hair and strong jaw, but it wasn’t until she turned to face them straight on that Jamie realized who it had to be.
"Morgan," Autumn said, echoing his thoughts.
"Yep." He scanned the surroundings, hoping Claire was still in the stable.
Autumn walked down the front porch’s steps. "Can I help you?"
"I’m looking for Ethan Cruz." Morgan came to meet them. Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and cowboy boots, she could have been a local, but Jamie detected a slight accent in her voice. Nothing he could put his finger on, exactly, but enough to set her apart as different.
"I’ll go get him." Autumn shot Jamie a look, and went back inside.
"Why don’t you have a seat," Jamie said.
"I’m not sure I’m staying long enough for that to be practical," she said and smiled. "Hi, I’m Morgan. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me."
He nodded. "I sure have. Claire gave me an earful last night after she got home."
"Did she tell you what happened? With that guy, Daniel?"
Daniel. Jamie frowned. "No. What happened?"
The anger in his tone must have made her wary. She looked him up and down. "Who are you, again?"
He stuck his hand out. "I’m Jamie Lassiter. An old friend of the Cruz’s and now part-owner of the ranch."
"And you like Claire."
Taken aback, he let his hand drop. "She tell you that?"
Morgan smiled again. "It’s plain all over your face, cowboy."
"So what happened with Daniel?"
She moved over to one of the rattan chairs that dotted the wide verandah and sat down. "I’d better not say if she didn’t tell you herself. But he’s a mean sonofabitch. I think she needs to watch out for him."
Jamie narrowed his eyes, but before he could press her further, the door opened and Autumn came back out onto the porch, followed by Ethan.
Morgan stood up. "Ethan. I’m Claire. I’m…your sister."
* * * * *
"No. Absolutely not," Claire hissed when Ethan cornered her in the stable and told her that Morgan was joining her and Jamie and their guests for the trail ride and picnic today.
"I already told her she could come. Don’t make a scene in front of our guests; we’ve already kept them waiting too long this morning."
"Whose fault is that?"
"Mine. I take full responsibility. But now it’s time to get going."
"Why does she have to come with me? Why can’t she go with you?"
"Because I’m going with you, too. Now shut up and help me saddle Charlie."
Claire counted to ten before leading Storm out of the stable and leaving her brother behind. Let him saddle his own damn horse, and as far as she was concerned he could entertain their unwelcome half-sister, too. She sure as hell wasn’t going to talk to her.
But when she joined the rest of the group milling around on horseback at the front of the Big House, she realized she didn’t need to. Jamie was already deep in conversation with the interloper. As she watched, he threw back his head and roared with laughter at something Morgan said.
Rob pulled up Monty beside her and leaned over. "Damn, Claire, seeing your sister is uncanny. She’s like you, only pretty." He chuckled and moved away into the center of their female guests. Claire fought the urge to hurl something at his retreating back and wheeled around, waiting for Ethan to appear. She couldn’t wait until this farce was over.
Things only got worse from there, however. She found herself stuck at the end of the line while Ethan and Jamie vied for Morgan’s attention. Ethan was acting like Morgan was their long lost…well…sister or something, while from the way Jamie couldn’t stop talking to her, she figured she didn’t have to worry about his unwelcome advances anymore.
Somehow that left her feeling lonelier than ever.
Rob flirted with each and every one of the guests, making his way up and down the line with the ease of many years spent in the saddle. He should take on her job when the week was done. He’d be far more successful at it than she was. No one wanted to talk to her.