"I’ve missed you all these years you’ve lived in Billings," he said and jolted her right out of her angry train of thought. That wasn’t self-satisfied or insufferable. That was…real. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again when nothing coherent formed in her mind to say. He went on. "When we were growing up I loved everything about this place, and I came here for a bunch of reasons. To hang out with Ethan, with your Dad, with the horses. But I also came because of you."
"You had a crush on me," she managed to say.
"Yeah, I did. Still do. But that’s not the half of it." He looked away, checking up and down the line. "You were so on fire for life. So brave, so clear about everything. You knew what you wanted and you took it, or at least you tried."
"That was a long time ago." She didn’t trust her voice suddenly.
"I enjoyed being around you," he went on. "It wasn’t just about lust. It still isn’t. Life’s better when you’re near me." He smiled. "And that’s as close to flirting as I’m going to get. The way you’ve been spending my money, I won’t have any left to buy your cruise ticket if I lose this bet." He sat back and looked at her straight on. "I’m here, Claire – whenever you’re ready. Just give me a sign."
She thought he’d ride off then and leave her to mull over his parting words, but after a few minutes she realized he meant what he said.
He wasn’t going anywhere.
The thought turned her on more than she wanted to admit.
Jamie had just congratulated himself on getting under Claire’s skin when she said something that jolted every nerve in his body awake.
"I’ve been ready for years." She caught his gaze squarely. "I spend every night dreaming about you touching me."
His mouth suddenly dry, Jamie just caught himself before he reached out for her.
Wait. Was this a trick? A sneaky way to win the bet?
He wasn’t allowed to touch her or flirt with her or she won automatically, and he would never be able to propose to her again.
Did she really want him? Or did she want him to reach for her so she could win once and for all? Damn it, he couldn’t tell from the crafty smile that played at the corners of her mouth.
"You admitting you want to marry me?" His voice came out like a rusty violin.
"You mean am I confessing that you’ve won the bet? Not by a long shot, cowboy." She grinned. "All I’m saying is I love the feel of your hands on my breasts."
Damn it, that wasn’t fair at all. Well, if she wanted to play this game, he could give as well as he could take. "You could always show them to me."
"That’s flirting!" she crowed.
"No, it ain’t," he said calmly. "I’m stating a fact."
She considered this. "Okay, you’re right," she said finally. "I could do that. How about now?"
He nodded toward the other riders ahead of them. "This doesn’t quite seem like the place." Cruel woman. She was playing with him – something fierce.
She pulled Storm to a halt. "Rob!"
"Yeah?" Rob reined in and looked back over his shoulder.
"Go on ahead. Me and Jamie’ll catch up in a minute."
Was she for real? Jamie fought against the desire flaring up in his body. No matter what she did, he was not going to rise to her bait. He would be damned if he lost over a trick.
A few minutes later the rest of the group were out of sight.
"You really going to do this?"
"Why not? It’s not like you’re going to touch me, right?" She draped Storm’s reins over her saddle, unbuttoned her shirt and slid it off her shoulders to hang over her arms. She unclasped the front hook of her bra and peeled it back.
Jamie scraped his chin with the back of his hand. "You do have lovely breasts, Claire."
"Just an observation." He was dying to do a hell of a lot more than observe.
"They feel pretty nice, too." She edged Storm closer to Walter and leaned forward to take his wrist. She lifted his hand to cup her left breast. "See?" She gave his hand a squeeze.
"Very nice," he ground out.
She transferred his hand to her other breast. "This one, too."
"I think the horses are getting in the way," she said. In a practiced move, she dismounted Storm and came to stand near Walter. "Come down."
"Yes, Ma’am." He did what he was told, although he knew he was a fool for it. Taking his wrist, she led him off the trail toward a small grove of pine trees. Stopping beneath one, she took both of his hands and lifted them once more. This time she made sure his fingertips brushed her nipples, which hardened under his touch.
"Now you can really get the idea," she said.
"Much better," he agreed. Surely this was hell. Standing so close to Claire, touching her, and yet not being allowed to pull her close.
"There’s a lot more to me, you know," she said after a moment. "You probably should check the rest of it out."
"As delightful as this is, you can’t trick me into flirting or touching. I’m not going to lose this bet."
"Oh, I know I don’t interest you in the slightest," Claire said. "I know you’d rather be fishing or something."
Jamie choked back a snort. Fishing? "Just so we’re clear. I’m in this for the long haul. I want a wife, not a one night stand."
"That’s what you keep saying," she said, kicking off her boots and unzipping her pants. She skimmed them off and left them in a heap by her shirt and bra. She slipped off her panties, too. Now she stood before him, naked except his ring on her finger.
It took every ounce of strength he had not to move. Laughing at him, she stepped closer, took hold of his wrists, wrapped his arms around her body and helped him cup her ass. His breathing hitched and for one awful moment he thought his fingers might move of their own accord. Another part of his anatomy certainly was.
"You can’t win this way," he said. His voice was strangled.
"Oh, I bet I can." She tugged him down to the ground and began to undress him. The next few minutes were some of the most agonizing of Jamie’s life. He couldn’t help her in the slightest with her attempts to get his clothes off without losing the bet…and she was so slow. He would have laughed at her struggles to free his pants from his torso if every inch of his body hadn’t been on fire. Finally, when he lay there as naked as she was, she began a new conquest of torture.