“I’m serious. I didn’t drop that off in your mailbox,” Jake said.
“Yeah, yeah, Matheson. I believe you.” Evan turned away.
“Time to get to work,” Camila said, bustling in from the kitchen. “Men—set up the seats in the solarium. Women—follow me. We’ll work on the table settings.”
Two hours later, the house was nearly ready. Ethan, Cab and Jake were busy repairing the bent metal support to one of the rental tables, so when Ethan’s phone warbled, he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to Luke.
“Ethan’s phone,” Luke said.
“It’s Autumn,” the voice on the other end said. “I’m ready to be picked up.”
“Hi, Autumn. It’s Luke. Someone will be right there.” He figured she must have stayed home to rest before the wedding. Nearly nine months pregnant, the last time Luke saw her he wasn’t sure how the woman kept her balance. Her belly was all out of proportion to her petite frame, and he figured she’d been smart to take it easy rather than try to help out with setting up.
She hung up and Luke handed Ethan back his phone. “I can get her. I’ll bring Mia along.”
“You sure?” Ethan looked up from where he was unscrewing the support.
“No problem.” It would give him a moment alone with Mia, something he was hard-pressed to get these days. A familiar frustration welled up within him. He knew nothing would come of it. No matter what he tried, Mia held back. How much longer could he wait for her to change her mind?
He found Mia in the kitchen and explained the errand. “Want to come along?”
“Sure.” She told the others where she was headed, and followed him to the front hall. Luke handed Mia her jacket and led the way back outside where they hurried to their cabin to pick up the truck. Soon they were driving down the dirt lane that led out to the country highway.
“You feeling okay?” he asked. Mia’s silence unnerved him. She’d been on the quiet side for weeks, which wasn’t like her. Since he wasn’t a big talker himself, he depended on her to fill in the silences.
“What? Oh! Yeah, I’m fine.” She perked up. “I got the gifts. Thank you so much. I nearly forgot with all the fuss about the wedding.”
“Are you wearing the bracelet?”
Guilt flashed across her face. “Not right now—I didn’t want to break it while we got ready for the wedding.”
“Oh… right.” Didn’t she like it? Did she think it was cheap? He remembered the ribbing he’d taken at the breakfast table that morning. Maybe he hadn’t spent enough money. “I thought maybe tomorrow we could go out to dinner,” he hastened to say. “Somewhere special. We’ll celebrate Valentine’s a day late.”
And maybe do more than eat. Finally.
“Maybe,” Mia said absently. She was gripping the armrest tightly, and Luke slowed down a notch, wondering if his driving had scared her. He wasn’t going fast, though, and he knew this stretch of road like the back of his hand. She didn’t react at all to the reduction in speed. No, something else was bothering Mia. He wished he knew what.
The Cruz ranch was just down the road from the Double-Bar-K, and the driveway was already coming up, so he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, which was to slam on the brakes, lean over and kiss Mia until she had no choice but to give him her full attention.
Why had he been such a damned gentleman all this time? It hadn’t gotten him anywhere.
The answer was simple. Because he had the feeling Mia needed him to be a gentleman.
He just didn’t know why.
Didn’t she understand that she could tell him anything? Didn’t she know she could depend on him to sort out any problem? He wanted to be her rock—her confidant. “What’s wrong?”
That got her attention. She straightened and smiled, but her expression remained guarded. “Nothing.”
“Something’s bothering you.” He pulled into the lane that led to the Cruz ranch and cursed the shortness of the drive between the properties. If he knew Mia, she’d use their arrival to cut this conversation short.
Sure enough, she said, “We’ll talk about it after the wedding, okay?”
Luke grunted. He could only hope they would.
Mia was surprised that Autumn didn’t meet them out on the small porch of the converted bunkhouse where she and Ethan made their home, even though it was February and a chilly day. She’d texted just minutes ago that they were on their way and Autumn was one of the most punctual people she knew. Maybe she’d forgotten some last minute detail.
She opened her door and slid off the truck’s high seat, her boots landing in an inch of newly fallen snow. She wore thick tights underneath her mini, but the cold made her skip over the driveway and up the porch steps. She heard Luke’s door slam and his footsteps behind her. By the time she opened the door and stuck her head in, he had a hand at her waist to guide her inside.
She would miss that when she moved out—his touch, his presence. She ached to show him what she really wanted him to do. Knowing she’d never get that chance made her ball her hands into fists within her pockets.
“Autumn?” Mia called. The door led straight into a small, empty living room. “Autumn, are you ready?”
She heard a noise and cocked her head.
At the strangled tone of her friend’s voice, Mia exchanged a quick, worried glance with Luke, kicked off her boots and dashed toward the rear of the house. She found Autumn in her bathroom, clutching the tile countertop for dear life, bent over in pain. Her hugely pregnant belly looked like it would overbalance her. Her loose, drawstring pants were soaked.
Autumn was panting. “My water broke! And it hurts!” As Mia watched, Autumn gritted her teeth and swayed, her entire body bowing with the pain. Was that a contraction?
Mia called over her shoulder, “Luke, call 911! Autumn’s giving birth! Autumn—we have to get you to the hospital. Come on, honey!”
“I can’t!” Autumn’s wail ended on an inhuman note, and Mia realized this was more than a contraction. Autumn was bearing down.
“No—wait! No, you can’t do that yet!” Mia had read enough about giving birth to know that wasn’t right. First the contractions were small and women walked around a lot, grimacing now and then. Then they got stronger and you took them to the hospital. Then—hours later, right?—they got really strong and the doctor—because there was always a doctor by then—told you when and how to push.