He considered that notion and nodded. She couldn’t tell him that she didn’t itch to be back among the Cruz horses, training them, riding them, living and breathing those magnificent beasts. Claire rode like the wind and understood animals better than she did people – just like him. Five weeks on the ranch while she designed his interior, and one week helping him run the trail rides and she’d be hooked all over again.
He hoped. Because if she left Montana to travel the world he didn’t know what he would do. All his plans depended on her marrying him. Besides, he didn’t think world travel was the answer for her, either. A few years ago when she’d started hanging around the ranch again, she’d been happier than he’d seen her in years. Then she’d quit coming. These days she looked so pale and drawn he knew she was miserable. She was doing a good job keeping that fake smile plastered on her face anytime Ethan or Autumn or one of the guests wandered by, but her eyes gave her away. Maybe a trip around the world would bring the bounce back to her step, but he doubted it. Something was really wrong with Claire and his gut told him she needed to come home – to the ranch, to her family – to her horses, or she might get to a place where she couldn’t be healed.
“Deal,” he said aloud and her eyebrows shot up.
“Really? You think you can handle six whole weeks without flirting with or touching a woman?” Her playful tone was at odds with the coldness in her eyes, and for one second Jamie thought he was getting close to the truth behind the mystery of her defeated expression. Some man had hurt her – bad. Ledstrom? The thought made him clench his fists.
“Easy,” he forced himself to say. Well, not really, but hell – he should be able to survive it. Most guys did, right?
She laughed, a sound too bitter to suit him. “Well, this I gotta see. Okay, I’m in, too.” She put out a hand and he shook it, reveling in touching her. He pulled her in and stole a kiss, not surprised when she pushed him away roughly.
“See – you can’t even last a minute.”
“Our bet hasn’t started yet.”
“When does it start?”
“Tomorrow. And you have to keep that ring on until the bet’s done.”
She pulled her hand back and wiped it on her dress, then tugged at the ring he’d put on her finger. He hadn’t meant it to be so small she couldn’t get it off, but he liked seeing it there. Liked that she was stuck with it. “And if I lose?” she asked.
“If you lose, that ring stays on your finger forever, and we get married on Labor Day. I happen to know the lawn will be free that day.” He waved a hand to encompass the wedding festivities in front of them.
"This is ridiculous."
He sat back and gazed at her. "Are you afraid I’m capable of not flirting for six weeks or are you afraid you actually want to marry me?”
He crossed his arms. “If it’s neither, then you shouldn’t be worried about the bet.”
“You’re such a pain in the ass.” Her sharp face had grown even paler.
“Yeah, but I’m a pain in the ass who’s completely in control of my libido. Ah, you didn’t think I knew fancy words like that, did you? I’m a surprising guy.” He grinned again, and watched her fight her reaction to it. Fury, desire, and for one split second, anguish. Then she forced her face into its familiar pleasant expression.
“Your libido is in no way under control,” she said. “You’ll lose before we even hit the trail with those greenhorns, and I’ll laugh myself all the way back to Billings and onto my round-the-world tour. And even if you don’t, nothing can convince me to marry you.”
Jamie smiled as she walked away. He might be facing the toughest six weeks of his life, but, oh, the reward was going to be sweet.
She was losing her mind.
How else to explain the seesaw of emotions she’d felt during this endless day? Happiness for Ethan mixed with the ache that came from knowing no man had ever loved her the way he loved Autumn. Fury at Rob’s stupid trick. Sadness that her parents weren’t here on the most important day of their son’s life. Dread of her own future.
All mixed up with the swirl of lust and anger Jamie’s fake proposal and bet stirred up within her. Libido was certainly the word for the day. She didn’t know if it was Ethan and Autumn’s tangible love for each other, the romance of the wedding, or Jamie’s talk about getting married but she wanted to feel his hands on her body, and she more than anyone knew that desire led to nothing but heartbreak.
Although she tried to put some distance between them, Jamie sat next to her at the head table when the real dinner started, and took advantage of the situation by brushing her arm, bumping her shoulder and re-filling her champagne glass at every opportunity. When she confronted him angrily, he smiled his slow smile and reminded her that their bet didn’t start until the next day. As more and more people stopped by to offer their congratulations, Claire realized how hard it was going to be to undo this farce.
Thank God she already planned to travel for at least a year. Maybe by the time she came back, gossip would have died down.
As dusk set in, the Cruz lawn was lit by fairy lights and the band began to throw in some slow songs among all the popular dance tunes. When Jamie appeared by her side again and pulled her to the dance floor, Claire threw caution to the wind and actually let him draw her in close. After all, everyone thought they were engaged.
She scanned the crowd, noting Rob dancing with Autumn’s friend, Becka, and Cab Johnson squiring Rose Bellingham around the floor.
“See, this isn’t so bad,” Jamie said.
She made a face. “It is now that you’re talking.” But he was right; it felt good to be in his arms. Too damn good.
“You know you belong here.”
On the Cruz ranch or in his embrace? “Never. Get that in your head right now. I’m not marrying you and I’m not coming back here to live.”
Jamie abruptly stopped swaying to the music. He took her hand and pulled her through the couples.
“Where are we going?” She tried to tug free, but he gripped her tighter, probably guessing she wouldn’t make a scene. He nodded at friends and acquaintances as he dragged Claire across the lawn, around the back of the house and toward the stables.
When she saw their destination, she dug in her heels. “No. No way.”
“Come on, quit squirming. You’ve been in the barn before.”
“Not in a hell of a long time.” She pulled him to a stop. “I don’t want to do this. Not now.” She wobbled slightly where she stood. Too much damn champagne.