Claire gaped at him, her eyes stinging once more. She couldn’t believe Ethan was in on this joke and would carry it to such an extreme – on his wedding day. She and her brother had their spats over the years, but he’d never been cruel. She opened her mouth to tell him so, but he pulled Jamie into a man-hug, pounding him on the shoulder.
"Congratulations! When’s the happy day?"
He was in on the joke, wasn’t he? But he was doing an incredible job acting like it was real. She couldn’t remember ever seeing Ethan this happy – especially not since their parents’ deaths.
"Labor Day," Jamie said emphatically and grinned at her, daring her to deny it.
She looked from one to the other, at a total loss for what to do.
"You’re getting married?" Autumn shrieked, grabbing her hand and pulling it close to see her ring. "Oh my gosh, Claire – it’s beautiful. I’m so happy for you!" She threw her arms around Claire and gave her a stifling hug.
This can’t be happening, Claire thought, waiting for Jamie to tell them it was all a joke – waiting for Ethan at least to let Autumn in on it. Her stomach twisted when she realized both of them were going to play it straight. Ethan was beaming, and Jamie…he looked like the cat who’d swallowed the canary.
Damn it, she wasn’t a helpless bird.
But as she turned to set Autumn straight, her new sister-in-law cupped her hands to her mouth and called out, "Everybody! Everyone – can I have your attention? Yoo-hoo!"
The crowd immediately quieted, all eyes turned to the bride.
"I just have to share the happy news – I’m so excited!" Autumn’s face was flushed and her eyes shining. She pointed to Claire.
"Wait…" Claire began, but Autumn rushed on.
"Claire and Jamie have just gotten engaged – they’re getting married on Labor Day, so everybody better save the date! We’ll all be right back here in a couple of months to do this all over again."
As the crowd cheered and clapped, Claire turned to Jamie, begging him silently for help. He just threaded an arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head. As people surged in to offer their congratulations, she once more pasted a happy expression on her face.
She would be a laughing-stock when September rolled around and no wedding took place.
If she survived this day she would never speak to any of them again.
* * * * *
“Can I get you a drink?” Jamie asked a few minutes later, touching Claire again – just because he could. Hell, he was having a hard time keeping his hands to himself. When Ethan kissed his bride, it was all he could do not to stride across the lawn, pull Claire close and kiss her just as long and hard. Now that Autumn had announced their nuptials to all and sundry he didn’t have to hold back. He knew Claire; she wouldn’t spoil her brother’s wedding day, and that gave him time to recover from his earlier tactical error. Why, oh why had he blurted out that proposal this morning? Given a chance, she’d bolt from the wedding early, get a jeweler to cut the ring off her finger and he’d never see her again.
Uh oh. That didn’t sound good. It didn’t sound good at all.
“Something wrong?” He stopped and turned her to face him, ignoring the throngs of guests around them all heading for the buffet where trays of appetizers had been laid out by some of the local ladies who’d volunteered their help.
“Of course something’s wrong.” Her eyes blazed up at him and he knew that if they weren’t in the middle of a crowd, she’d be tearing him a new one.
"Relax. Enjoy yourself."
"Like that’s possible now that everyone thinks we’re engaged. With this on my finger." She waggled her hand and the ring sparkled in the sun.
"Okay. I get it – I blew it. I should have spent a lot more time with you before I proposed. Maybe taken you on a date once or twice. I’m sorry – the romance of the occasion turned my head."
"You shouldn’t have proposed at all. It’s mean, Jamie. I’m not part of your little…gang," she waved a hand at where Cab and Rob stood next to Ethan. "I don’t play practical jokes and I don’t like it when you do."
Jamie swallowed the urge to march over to Rob and knock him upside the head. His stupid joke this morning had done some serious damage to his chances with Claire. "Hold on. This isn’t a joke."
"Of course it is. What else would it be?"
Jamie hesitated. He had one chance here to turn things around. If he tried to explain and kept apologizing, she’d walk away from him, disgusted. If he kept up the caveman act, she’d probably punch him. Time to get those competitive juices flowing. He hoped the brainstorm he’d had during the wedding ceremony worked.
"It’s not a joke. It’s a bet."
He could have laughed out loud at her expression. Frustration, anger, and something that looked an awful lot like desire crossed her face in swift succession. Maybe he was getting to her. He sure hoped so. Maybe he’d finally found the key to her heart.
"Would you stop saying that word?"
No, he didn’t think he would. "The foundation for my house is being laid this week. Pretty soon it’ll be framed up and ready to finish."
"So what?" His change of topic had her voice rising.
"I also need help with the horses when the guest ranch gets going."
"And?" She looked ready to explode, crowd or no crowd.
"Here’s the bet. You put off your round-the-world trip for six weeks. Design the interior for my new house and then help me out with the first batch of guests that come to stay."
"That’s not a bet. That’s a request. And the answer is…"
He cut her off. "At the end of six weeks of us living and working on the ranch together, you tell the truth – which do you want; city life and world travel or marriage to me? I bet you choose to be my wife."
* * * * *
Claire opened her mouth to tell him he could shove his bet where the sun didn’t shine, but before she could say anything, Becka approached with a wide smile. "Hey, congratulations, guys," she said. "Wasn’t the ceremony beautiful? I wanted to thank you, Claire, for all you’ve done for Autumn."
“I’ve hardly done anything,” Claire said automatically. “You helped out far more. Without you and Autumn’s mom and sister, there wouldn’t be a wedding.”
“I guess everyone helped out,” Becka said happily. “I’m having such a good time here. Who knew Montana was so beautiful?”
“We did,” Jamie said. He smiled at Becka and the young woman noticeably brightened.