The Cowboy Wins a Bride (Page 5)

The Cowboy Wins a Bride (The Cowboys of Chance Creek #2)(5)
Author: Cora Seton

How could he keep Claire on the ranch for a few weeks – maybe even a month – so he could convince her this was where she wanted to stay? How did you get a stubborn, unreasonable, competitive terrier of a woman to admit she’s wrong and you’re right?

He glanced at Rob, standing next to him in the line of groomsmen. Rob rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together – a not-so-subtle reminder that he thought he was going to win their bet.

That stupid bet.

He stiffened, a crazy idea forming in his mind.

Jamie began to smile.

* * * * *

Ethan and Autumn took turns repeating their vows. They exchanged rings. The ceremony wound down.

Claire did her best not to look at Jamie, but she couldn’t help it – he was standing right up there with Ethan, Rob and Cab. As Ethan’s best man, he stood beside the groom. Rob came next, his blond hair glinting in the sunshine. Cab was last, having walked Autumn up the aisle, standing in for the father she hadn’t seen in years. With the backdrop of ranchland sloping down toward the creek, and mountains in the far distance, the wedding looked straight out of a fairytale. Claire’s heart ached at the thought of leaving all of this behind again.

For the first part of the ceremony, Jamie’s face was stony and she knew he was still angry. Because she’d ruined his game? Certainly not because he’d been serious. As the ritual came to an end, however, some silent message passed between him and Rob. Then Jamie smiled suddenly – a wicked, triumphant smile.

It made her insides flip, and then tighten with the realization that she’d been right – Jamie and Rob were in cahoots. Once again she tried with all her might to pull the engagement ring off her finger, inadvertently nudging Autumn’s friend Becka, who sat beside her. Becka peered down at her hands to see what she was doing, and Claire quickly covered up the ring. What was Jamie planning now? Had he decided to humiliate her further?

Why?

Because she’d left his house last Saturday and driven home rather than spend the night with him? Was he that pathetic? Did he really need her particular notch on his bed post to feel like a man?

She glanced at the thin silver watch on her wrist. Five hours at least until she could make a break for it. No matter how badly Jamie behaved she couldn’t ditch Ethan on his wedding day. He was depending on her. Her gaze slid back to Jamie. He was still smiling.

The former hired hand had been full of surprises lately, and she didn’t want to guess what he’d do next. He must have saved every penny he earned since he came to work on the spread. And done incredibly well with his investments.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised he wanted to buy into the ranch. He respected Alex Cruz, her father – worshipped him, in fact. He stuck closer to Alex than even Ethan did, and that was saying a lot. She guessed Alex was the father Jamie wished he had, instead of the dour man who pressured him through four years of business school when all he wanted to do was live and breathe horses.

Jamie was born a cowboy the way other people were born athletic, or smart, or pretty. Every move he made around horses was a symphony of understanding of the beasts. Claire always appreciated that about him, because she loved horses, too. Adored them.

Of course, she hadn’t touched one in thirteen years.

Damn her mother. Damn Mack. Damn Jamie, too.

Jamie – sensing her agitation, perhaps – lifted an eyebrow.

She fought to keep her ragged emotions in check. The cowboy had soothed the jangled nerves of many a mare with a touch or a murmured word, but he wasn’t soothing her at all. Instead, she felt all too exposed in her thin, cotton sundress – a new, pretty one she’d bought especially for the wedding since her usual severe suits didn’t fit the occasion. She felt silly, too, in her old cowboy boots, but she knew the combination would garner a smile from Ethan, and after this last year, she’d do anything to make her brother smile.

But the damn engagement ring made her feel most conspicuous of all. It wouldn’t come off – her knuckles were swollen from the heat. She tugged at it again.

Under the lattice archway, Autumn lifted her veil and Ethan leaned in to kiss her soundly on the mouth. The crowd cheered and clapped as the kiss went on and on, and when the happy couple pulled apart, Autumn was flushed and Ethan grinning ear to ear.

They will be happy, Claire thought, surprised at how sure she felt. They really are in love. A pang of deep loneliness followed that thought. Would she ever experience that kind of connection?

As the wedding party filed out, Jamie stopped next to her chair, bent down, and before she could push him away, he leaned in and kissed her cheek softly. “Look at them,” he said in his husky, velvet voice. "We could be like that." He kissed her again. There was nothing she could do about it and he knew it – not in this crowd. Not without making a scene. She was trembling with rage when they stood up along with everyone else as Ethan and Autumn paced up the aisle together.

Jamie took her arm. "I like the way that ring looks on your finger. I hope you never take it off. You’ll need a wedding dress like Autumn’s before too long," he murmured as the crowd surged around them. "Better start looking."

She confined her answer to an unladylike snort, turning the ring around so only the band showed. "Fat chance."

"Wanna bet?"

Those two words again. That knowing look. What did it mean? And why did his low, confidential tones make her hum all over?

Before she could question him, she realized Autumn’s mother was watching her with raised eyebrows.

Right.

Since she was the only other remaining member of the Cruz family besides Ethan, and the marriage was taking place on the Cruz ranch, it was her place to keep this shindig going smoothly.

“Okay, everyone,” she called out in what she hoped was a happy, steady-sounding voice. Heaven knew she was a master at masking her emotions. “The barbecue will be ready shortly and the bar is open. Please help yourself to appetizers and drinks and we’ll call you to dinner in a few minutes. Thanks for coming and celebrating with us!”

Autumn’s mother headed over to check on the buffet table, and Claire knew she was off the hook for the moment – at least as far as her wedding duties went. Autumn and Ethan disappeared into the Big House for a moment to themselves. Once they returned, the wedding party would have to take photos while hors d’oeuvres were served to the waiting guests. The bulk of the crowd meandered slowly toward the area of the lawn where tables and chairs were set up for dinner, stopping to chat with each other and exchange news. Claire knew all the guests, of course. How could she not, growing up in a small town like Chance Creek – population 7865? That’s why she moved to Billings – for the anonymity a city afforded you, even a relatively small city.