She knew her father and brother didn’t understand why she left home and why she didn’t come back. No one but her knew about her mother or what she’d done. First Aria had made fun of her schoolgirl crush on Mack, the man who trained the Cruz ranch horses. Claire had put up with that, spending every possible moment in the stables or corrals watching the much older man work with the animals. But when she came home early from school one day and found Aria and Mack in the barn – together – she couldn’t stand to stay.
The apology she hoped for never came. In fact, nothing changed between her and her mother even after she moved out. Just like always, Aria Cruz came and went from the ranch like a hummingbird – beautiful, lively, and incapable of standing still. Surely she spent more time in Europe than she ever spent at home. How her father bore her escapades she had no idea.
Claire tried to push away her memories as she moved toward the photographer, noticing Autumn and Ethan had reappeared and were heading his way, too. But how could she not think of her mother – both her parents – on her brother’s wedding day? As for weddings in general, if she had her way she’d never go to another one.
"First we’ll take pictures of the bride and groom," the photographer said as he led the wedding party to an open-air pagoda her mother had had built on the property years ago. As she watched Ethan and Autumn pose on the pagoda’s steps, she knew she’d never be the one wearing a wedding dress. Whatever romantic notions she’d once had, her mother, Mack, Jamie and Daniel had long beaten out of her. Daniel’s betrayal had nearly killed her. Just when she’d convinced herself she was over Jamie, and pinned her hopes on him instead, he’d taken all her money and left town with another woman.
Ninety thousand dollars.
"Mother of the bride, sisters, join us, please." Claire moved stiffly to stand by Ethan’s side, with Teresa and Lily Leeds taking their places next to Autumn. "Smile."
She tried her best, but knew her attempt was a dismal failure, as memories of Daniel’s desertion swirled in her mind. She hadn’t reported the crime to the police. She had no proof. When she brought up signing a contract, Daniel had blown her off. “It’s just for a couple of days. By the time we get the paperwork drawn up and signed, I’ll have the money back to you. Plus interest, and maybe something else.” He smiled at her and took her hand. “Something sparkly to put on your finger.”
Marriage. She’d actually thought Daniel wanted to marry her. Like any man cared about her that much.
There wouldn’t be any justice for her – just the humiliation of the whole world knowing how gullible she was if word got out. Bad enough the whole office was talking about how she’d been dating Daniel when he ran off with Edie. At least they didn’t know she thought he was about to propose to her.
"Groomsmen and bridesmaids, come on up." It took several minutes for the photographer to arrange everyone this time. Jamie grinned at her as he took his place and she scowled back.
The day she realized she was back to square one – less than $5,000 in her bank account, betrayed by the man she thought would be her fiance – was devastating, but she didn’t shed a tear. Nor did she high-tail it back home, although if she had she would have gotten to see her parents one last time before they died. No, she’d dealt with the police as a representative of Ledstrom Designs since Daniel had cleaned out the business accounts, too. She’d handled their clients and her coworkers in a calm and professional manner, and she hadn’t missed a single day of work. When one of the other designers suggested that Claire should take over all the open accounts and keep the business running, that’s exactly what she did.
To her surprise, it worked – barely. She used her multiple credit cards to fund the supplies she needed for the current contracts, and when those jobs were finished and paid for she had earned enough money to do it all over again with new ones. She was managing to get by – just.
"Smile for the camera. Big smiles." The photographer’s flash went off again and again. The more Claire smiled, the more she wanted to cry.
Then came Ethan’s phone call in August, telling her their parents died in a car accident, followed soon after by the news of the ranch’s debt.
She couldn’t help Ethan even if she wanted to, since she was barely scraping enough cash together each month to make payroll and rent. She thought he would have to sell the ranch. There was no other way, or he’d end up in the same situation she was – running, running, running as fast as she could and still barely getting by.
But he found another way. Who would guess Jamie Lassiter, hired hand, would save the day? Together, Ethan and Jamie remortgaged the ranch and bought out her share – to the tune of six hundred thousand dollars.
She was rich.
Her ordeal was over.
"All right – I want a few more photos of the bride and groom. The rest of you can go."
Thank God. Claire walked to the house as fast as she could, shrugging Jamie off when he came to take her arm. "Not now, okay?"
To her surprise he actually let her go. Five minutes in the bathroom was time enough to splash water on her face and get her emotions under control again. She wouldn’t think about the past anymore. Time for a new start.
Just as she walked out of the front door, a cheer went up from the crowd as the happy couple rejoined them on the lawn, and people rushed to offer their congratulations. Jamie joined her and nudged her toward them, too, and she let herself be led over, playing with the ring on her finger once again. Get married to Jamie on Labor Day? A sudden image entered her mind of the two of them boarding an airplane, flying off to their honeymoon on an island shore where they could make love for days…
For heaven’s sake – what was wrong with her? If she was ever so stupid as to marry Jamie, she’d just find herself single again a week or two later when another woman turned his head.
She forced another smile to her face as she hugged first Autumn, then Ethan. She was happy for them – really. It was just that all of this – the wedding, the guests, even the ranch itself – made her feel as lonely as the sole survivor of a shipwreck trapped on a desert isle. She would never trust a man enough to marry him. Certainly not Jamie.
“Let’s get on with the eating so we can get the band going,” Ethan said.
“You got it,” Claire said, hoping her voice sounded normal.
Ethan tugged her closer. “Stop it – you’ll hurt someone with that fake smile. Why didn’t you just say yes to Jamie? You could be as happy as I am. Wait a minute – are you wearing his ring? Did you say yes?”