There he went again, Claire thought. Flirting – even now.
Becka moved closer to him. “Yeah. Well, you have certainly done a great job keeping it a secret. I had no idea what to expect when I got on the plane. But as soon as I got here I understood why Autumn fell in love with the place.”
“Fell in love with Ethan, you mean.” Jamie laughed, a sound that tugged at Claire’s heart despite her fury. From Becka’s expression, the girl was entranced.
“Well, you know – no one can resist a cowboy, right?” Becka said.
Claire frowned. Suddenly she didn’t like Becka so much; the girl was flirting with Jamie right in front of her eyes – and they were supposed to be engaged. An emotion she couldn’t identify had her moving closer to him, putting her hand on his arm so the ring caught the light. “Good thing there’s lots of them here at the wedding. You should be able to find one of your own if you look hard enough.”
A smile lit Becka’s face and Claire felt her own cheeks heat. No doubt about it, Becka heard her message loud and clear, and thought it was hilarious.
“I guess I better get started on my hunt since this cowboy’s taken already,” she said. "Congratulations, again!" She headed off toward Autumn’s sister.
Jamie chuckled and slid an arm around her waist again, resting his hand on her hip. “Damn, Claire – glad you changed your mind. I thought you said you wouldn’t marry me if I was the last man on earth. Now I know you can’t wait to be my bride.”
“Yes, I can.” What the hell had she just done? Was she losing her mind? She pulled away and hastened toward the buffet, grabbing a plate and filling it with appetizers.
She hoped he would take the hint and leave her to her mortification, but he didn’t. As he took the plate from her and loaded it with more food than she could ever eat, she wondered how this day had gone so far afield. She wanted to climb on top of one of the flimsy rental tables and shout to everyone that the engagement was a fake, but instead she allowed Jamie to take her hand and lead her back up the lawn to the porch, where a sturdy swing hung in the shade. He sat down and patted the slatted seat beside him. “So how about it? Are you on board for my friendly wager?
"Let me get this straight. You want me to put off the trip of a lifetime to stay here and design your interior and run trail rides for Ethan and Autumn? All because you think that’s going to convince me to marry you?”
"Give it up – the joke’s over, for crying out loud."
Mary Needlebaum, entering the house with her young niece, looked over at her raised voice. Claire smiled and waved, then scowled at Jamie again. "I’ll play along for this one day because I don’t want to spoil things for Autumn. But as soon as the last guest goes home, this ring comes off and goes in the trash. You got that?"
"No – I don’t get it. I know you want me – we’ve got chemistry, Claire. You can’t deny it."
Chemistry? Hell, yeah. They had that in spades. And now she understood perfectly what this was all about – Jamie’s desperate attempt to get in her pants. He was mad about last weekend. He did want her notch on his bedpost. And he’d go through all this rigamarole to get it.
She sat back and stared at him. "You really think that spending six weeks with you will make you irresistable?"
"I hope so." He grinned his lazy, knockout grin. "You spend six weeks here with me, working at all the things you used to love and then you tell me you’d rather travel the world than get married. If you still turn me down, I’ll pay for your cruise around the world and I’ll never propose again."
He was unbelievable. They all were. It was high time someone showed Jamie, Ethan, Rob and Cab just what they could do with their practical jokes. “Okay,” she heard herself say slowly, a desire to turn the tables on Jamie and the rest of them growing within her. They weren’t the only ones who could play games. She’d take the opportunity Jamie was handing her to make his life miserable. And if she could figure out a way to get back at the other men, she’d do that, too. When her six weeks were up, she’d hop on that boat – free of charge. Not like she’d planned to leave tomorrow, anyway. “I’ll take that bet. Under one condition,” she added when he began to smile.
“Anything,” he said.
She fixed him with a triumphant gaze. “You can’t touch me during those six weeks – not one touch,” she said. His smile disappeared. “And you can’t flirt with or touch any of the women guests who come to the ranch, either – or I automatically win.”
* * * * *
“I don’t flirt,” Jamie said, indignation sending him to his feet.
“Are you kidding me? You flirt with everything that moves,” Claire said. She speared a mini quiche with her fork and cut it in two. Judging by the smirk on her face, she thought she had him by the short hairs.
Actually, she did.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he tried again. She had to know that. Flirting was like breathing to him – people expected him to act that way.
“Whatever. Those are my terms.”
“But…there’s bound to be women among the guests. How do I talk to them?”
She put down her fork and raised an eyebrow. “Really? You don’t know how to talk to women without flirting with them? No, why am I even surprised? Of course you don’t.” She shook her head. “Just talk to them. Pretend they’re men."
Jamie turned away. Hell, she had him this time. He didn’t mean to do it, but flirting came as naturally as the beating of his heart and it made life a hell of a lot easier. A smile and a look, and women just took care of your needs. It wasn’t his fault God gave him a handsome face. He wasn’t stuck up about it, either. He knew what he had and he used it to make other people happy, and if that meant flirting with a pretty girl at the local takeout place or an older woman manning the desk at some office in town, why not? It didn’t hurt anyone.
And if he’d slept with women from time to time during the years, so what? He wasn’t a monk. He’d always known the minute he got Claire’s attention all that would stop. And so it had. Except she’d instantly gone off with that Daniel guy.
Claire watched him, her sharp blue eyes taking in all the arguments he wasn’t speaking out loud. If he couldn’t touch her, then how was he supposed to convince her during their six weeks’ time together that she belonged with him back on the Cruz ranch?
By letting her figure it out all by herself.