But he didn’t answer. And when she walked around to the cabin’s back door, she saw why. He was too busy undressing Hannah O’Dell to hear her knock. Too occupied to even close the drapes on his bedroom window. She remembered all the other women she’d seen him flirt with over the years and finally understood.
His attentions meant nothing – they never had. They were just the ramblings of a man who couldn’t help but act interested in every woman in easy range. How had she fooled herself into thinking she was special? Now she knew she wasn’t – not to him, anyway.
The shock yanked her budding desire for Jamie and for ranch life up by the roots and tossed it to the wind, and she’d never allowed herself to consider it again. She’d redoubled her efforts at her job, and soon was promoted to lead designer at Ledstrom Designs. Then she began to date Daniel.
"I’d like to see you try to kick my ass." Jamie leaned in, and for a moment she thought he might kiss her again.
Wanted him to despite everything.
"Don’t think I can’t." Seriously. Were they ten? If memory served, she’d scuffled with Jamie right about here one day when he’d squirted her with a watergun and she’d wrestled it away and beaned him over the head with it.
"I’ll be happy to prove you wrong after you agree to be my wife," Jamie said.
"Ha ha hardy har har." She turned to Ethan and the rest of them lined up on the far side of the lawn. Raising her voice she called, "Very funny, guys. Now you’ve had your practical joke, can we get on with getting ready for the wedding? I don’t need this shit today." She tugged at the ring again and winced when the diamond’s setting pricked her.
"Hey – did she say yes?" Ethan hollered from across the yard. Claire was going to kill him.
"I’m not joking, Claire. I’m part-owner of the ranch now. I intend to breed horses and help Ethan and Autumn with their business. I want you here with me."
Something inside Claire snapped. She didn’t need this kind of baloney on a day that already had her emotionally wrung dry. Her mother and father should be here at Ethan’s wedding, but they were gone, killed in an accident last August. She hadn’t had the chance to set things all the way right. Hadn’t seen either of her parents for months before they died, and it was all Jamie’s fault.
"Quit fooling around," she said, trying to brush past him. He wouldn’t let her go.
"Jamie – what’d she say?" Ethan hollered again.
Tears pricked her eyes and she blinked them back. She was not going to cry. She couldn’t. Not in front of all of them.
Jamie’s tone softened. "I’m sorry, honey – I meant to do this right. Just…stop, Claire and listen to me. I’m as serious as I’ve ever been. You know I’ve wanted this all along. I worked and saved so I could become a man worthy of you. I’m building a house, I’m going into business. I have everything I need, except you. Claire, will you be my wife?"
He actually dropped to his knees as if he was going to propose for real, except if he was serious, he would have mentioned the word love somewhere in the last ten minutes. She blinked harder, her throat aching with the injustice of it all, until she thought she would scream. Maybe Jamie was a god-damned flirt who couldn’t even take marriage seriously, but that didn’t mean everyone was that way. Some other man might actually want to marry her. She was hanged if she was going to let her first proposal be a damned joke.
She glanced at the rest of the pranksters standing across the yard. Was Rob Matheson filming this mock proposal with his phone to use against her later? Was Ethan in on this, too? A tear spilled over.
She kicked Jamie square in the chest, her rage lending her strength. Over he went, landing flat on the ground. "Get off your knees and get the hell out of my sight. I don’t deserve this, Jamie."
"Hey!" Jamie lurched unevenly to his feet and swayed, one hand raised to the dirty footprint on his white shirt. "What are you doing?"
"Telling you exactly what I think of your little joke."
"It’s not a…"
"Stow it!" She was shouting now. She didn’t care who saw them or if Rob got it on film. "I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth."
He stiffened, glared at her, all trace of softness gone. A chill ran down her spine at the intensity of his gaze – she couldn’t remember ever seeing Jamie this angry before. When he spoke his voice was calm. Implacable.
Five hours later, Jamie stood next to Ethan under a latticed trellis watching Autumn process along the aisle between the rows of guests, as radiant as a movie star in her striking wedding gown. He knew Ethan could barely breathe for love of her, and he was happy for his friend, but try as he might he couldn’t keep his eyes on Ethan’s bride.
Instead, his gaze kept sliding over to a certain sister-of-the-groom who sat in the first row, her flowered sundress and cowboy boots a whimsical combination that was a far cry from the dark, severe suits she normally wore these days. She sat ramrod stiff on the plastic seat, her black bob shaking with every move of her head. She was still furious, but he could tell she was trying to put on a good show for Ethan and Autumn’s guests. It wasn’t working. That fake smile could cut someone if she wasn’t careful.
He’d blown it. All his careful plotting and planning were smoke up a chimney now. Forget about planting the seeds of friendship in her mind. Forget about getting her involved in the guest ranch operation, and soliciting her help designing the interior of the log house he was building on his plot of land. Forget inviting her to ride the horse he’d hand-picked for her and taking her all over the land and reminding her just how much she loved this place.
He had intended to walk her step by step through a process of falling back in love with the ranch, with horses, and with him.
Instead he’d demanded she marry him and shoved the ring on her finger with all the suaveness of a caveman bludgeoning his woman.
He was an idiot. But Rob was a bigger one for not telling him what he’d done: leaving that note in Claire’s bathroom, making sure she was furious before he ever had a chance to open his mouth. He knew now that she interpreted every word he said this morning as a personal attack rather than a proposal. He had a lot of ground to cover if he wanted to get things back on the right track.
But he was determined to marry her, and now that he’d broached the topic he wasn’t stepping back. Claire would bolt for Billings the second the wedding was over and who knew how quickly she’d shut down her business and leave for her tour around the world.
He needed more time with her – time to do all the things he’d meant to do before popping the question.