Claire laughed, a painful, torn sound. "It made me keep buying materials for your house until I had four times as much as I could possibly use."
"It made me jump the gun and propose before we’d ever gone out on a date."
She took a deep, shuddering breath and wiped her face with the back of her hand. "It’s kept me from loving you."
"I know." He tightened his embrace. "Please stop being afraid. I want to make a life with you."
Claire lowered her head onto his chest and listened to the beat of his heart. She could change history right now, she knew. She could stop the cycle of fear and pain if she only had the courage to do it.
"What if I screw this up, too? What if I get scared again and can’t do it?"
"I’ll wait for you," Jamie said. "You’re worth waiting for, Claire."
* * * * *
In the end they slept out on the open range, making love once more under a crescent moon while the horses stood nearby. This time their lovemaking was slow and sensual, a thorough exploration of each by the other. When Claire fell asleep in his arms, exhausted by the long day and heavy emotions, Jamie watched the moonlight trace shadows over the contours of her face.
This woman he knew so well held enough mysteries to keep his attention riveted for a lifetime, and he had no doubt they would dream up plenty of schemes to keep themselves busy throughout it, too. It had seemed important to him that Claire give up her interior design work and return to the ranch business when she was his wife, and he saw now that was based on fear, too.
It didn’t matter if they worked together, or if they spent their days apart; he and Claire would last – he would bet on that.
In the morning, when he woke up, she was gazing at him.
"Hey, how’re you feeling?" he asked, coming up on one elbow.
"Good. Peaceful." She rolled onto her back. The sight of her brought lustful thoughts swirling into his brain, but he kept them in check. He wanted to hear what she had to say.
"The open country helps me sort my thoughts, you know what I mean?"
He nodded. "Yep. Same for me."
"Mom tried to have it all – she tried to be everything to everyone without admitting she’d made mistakes and she ended up hurting us all. But what she did isn’t who she is. Was." Jamie braced himself, ready for more tears, but Claire remained dry-eyed. "She loved all of us. Every last one. Me, Ethan, Dad, Morgan. She did her best."
"I like Morgan."
Jamie laughed. "As much as you don’t want to?"
She rolled to face him again, nodding ruefully. "I really wanted to hate her, but I can’t. She’s pretty cool."
"Crazy, too. Going with you after Daniel."
"You should see her swing a bat." She sobered. "You said she’s hurt? We should get her to a doctor."
"It’s just a really big bruise. Really, really big. We’ll get her checked out but she’ll be okay."
"I should never have gotten her involved."
"You should have gotten me involved. I’d do anything to help you, you know that, right?"
She was silent a minute. "I guess I do now."
"Claire," he sat up and drew her up, too. "Will you marry me?"
"I already said yes."
"I need to hear you say it again."
"Yes!" She lunged forward, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him until he fell over. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!"
"I’d put a ring on your finger, but it’s already there," he said, holding it up.
"And it’s never coming off again."
A more ragged and woebegone group of riders had probably never straggled their way onto the Cruz ranch, Claire thought as she followed the rest of them up to the stable yard. Half the participants were nursing a horrendous hangover. The other half had barely slept. The long ride and bright sunshine tired everyone out.
"I hope Autumn’s got a hell of a dinner planned," Ethan mumbled as he helped them begin to unsaddle the horses. The guests made their way slowly up to the Big House. The Mathesons stayed to unpack gear, then went home to clean up. They would return for dinner since it was their guests’ last big meal, but she had a feeling it would be an early night. The women would board a plane back to Pennsylvania in the morning. Morgan’s flight would leave soon after.
"I wonder what kind of reviews they’re going to write. I hope this was all worth it," Claire said as she and Jamie staggered back to his cabin. She’d already picked up a change of clothes.
Jamie shook his head. "I can only imagine."
"I call the shower first."
She sagged into him, laughing, and he put an arm around her waist.
This is good, she thought, relishing the feel of him. I can get used to this.
* * * * *
"I’ll see you in September," Morgan said.
"That’s a long time." Rob looked awfully serious, Jamie thought as he and Claire hung back to give the other two some privacy before Morgan got on her plane.
"You’ve got my email."
"That’s not the same."
Morgan cocked her head. "So, come visit."
"Canada? Hell, I’ve hardly been out of Montana."
"The change will do you good."
Amen to that, Jamie thought. Rob was a good friend, but the man’s interests were limited. He could stand to broaden his experience.
"You could come back here sooner," Rob said.
"I have a job."
Rob sighed. Claire laughed out loud at his hang-dog expression. "They’re boarding your flight, Morgan."
"I know." She touched Rob’s hand. "You know where to find me, cowboy." Turning to Claire and Ethan she added, "I’ll miss you guys so much."
"We’ll miss you, too," Claire said. "We have so much more to find out about each other."
"I’m looking forward to finding it all out. ‘Bye. Love you!" With shining eyes, she hurried away to join the line of passengers waiting for their turn to show their tickets to the flight attendant.
Claire looked wistful, but judging by Rob’s expression, he was going to miss Morgan more than she was, Jamie thought. Normally, Rob was a love-’em-and-leave-’em kind of guy, but he sensed this ran deeper. Maybe his friend had finally met his match. Judging by the quick, furtive kiss he and Morgan exchanged when Claire wasn’t looking, she returned his interest, at least a little.