Rob cocked his head. “Get to know her? Buddy, I think you got to know her pretty good last night. Just how do you plan to get to know her better?”
Ethan turned back to his work. “I don’t know. Move her into the spare room, set some ground rules.”
More laughter all around.
Rob urged his horse forward. “You think you can put her in the spare room and pretend you two just met? Ain’t going to work. I bet you ten to one you’re back in the saddle with her tonight. Hell, probably before lunch. Don’t forget, you two are getting married in 29 days. I’ve already booked the chapel.”
“What do you mean, you booked…”
Cab leaned over his saddle. “We got lucky. Some out of town couple canceled for June 21st. Hell of a coincidence, eh?”
“Coincidence, my ass,” Ethan said. He couldn’t believe Rob had persuaded the normally sane sheriff to be a part of this farce. “Don’t you all think this joke has gone too far?” He looked from one to another of his friends’ much too cheerful faces.
“You saying you want us to take her to the airport today?” Jamie said slowly. “Because if you’re that sick of her I’m more than willing to take her off of your hands.”
Just like that, Ethan saw red. He took a step forward. “You stay away from her!”
They were laughing at him again before he even managed to spit the words out.
“Admit it, Ethan – you’re hooked on her,” Rob howled.
Ethan shook his head and went back to work.
* * * * *
Autumn hoped like hell she was pulling the weeds and not the vegetables. Regardless of what she’d said in her video, she’d never really gardened, unless you called repotting a begonia now and then on her apartment’s balcony gardening. Luckily, it was far enough into the growing season that the plants looked like plants. She’d already gotten through two rows of the large kitchen garden and was partway through a third when hoofbeats pounded up behind her and she scrambled to her feet.
Brushing the dirt from her knees, she shaded her eyes and was surprised at the dip of disappointment in her stomach when she realized it wasn’t Ethan, but one of his friends – Rob.
“Howdy!” he said, pulling up a few feet from the garden.
“Howdy? Do people really say that?”
“Yes, Ma’am, they do.” Most women would call Rob handsome, but something about him set her teeth on edge . When he and Ethan talked, tension ran between them like an electric fence. Something was wrong between them, so the fact he’d come to visit when Ethan was out put up her guard. He slid from the saddle and tossed the horse’s reins to the ground.
“Won’t he run off?”
“No, Ma’am, not Monty.” Rob smiled and came closer. “Just talked to Ethan. Sounds like you two had a hell of a night.”
She felt the heat rise in her cheeks. Ethan had been bragging to Rob? Just what had he said?
“Oh, he didn’t share the details,” Rob said as if reading her mind. “I inferred them from the glazed look in his eye and a certain hitch in his step.”
Now she was really blushing. Damn it, who was this cowboy to stand here and talk to her like this? “Is there anything I can do for you?” She hoped the chill in her voice would back him off. She was enjoying her time in the garden and didn’t really appreciate the interruption. She’d spent several hours wandering in ever-widening circles around the grounds and taken dozens of photographs with her digital camera of the landscape, the distant river and mountains, and the various buildings on the property – especially the pretty big log house that sat on a rise of land just a few hundred feet away. Ethan’s real home, she assumed. The one he’d lived in before his parents died.
“Nah, this is just a social call. We westerners are mighty social, you know. It gets lonely working on these big spreads, so we like to mix things up. Visit each other. Ask each other in for a drink of lemonade and a slice of cake.” He trailed off, obviously waiting for his invitation.
Well, he wasn’t getting one. Regardless of his over-friendly tone – actually, because of it – she had the feeling Rob was looking for trouble. Probably thought she was easy, coming out here and hooking up with a stranger her first night in town. Maybe he thought he could get lucky, too. Or maybe he somehow sensed her scam, she thought with a sudden chill. Maybe he was here to investigate.
“Look. I don’t know you from Adam and I’m not inviting you inside for a piece of…cake. Why don’t ride on into the sunset and let me get back to work.”
“Whoa, honey, I think you’ve misunderstood my intentions. I’m just trying to help things between you and Ethan along. I think the two of you are a match made in heaven. I’m not trying to rustle his cattle.”
She didn’t know what part of that declaration to take offense at first. “Okay, first of all, I’m not a cow. I’m a woman, in case you haven’t noticed. Second, what do you mean you’re trying to help things along? What exactly needs helping here? He put out a video, I answered it. Here I am. Here I’m staying. We’ll be married in a month.” She put her hands on her hips and tried to look like an aggrieved fiancée.
“Slow down. I never called you a cow. I am definitely aware you are a woman. I think every man in the county is aware of that.” He smiled in a way that made her squirm. “As for you and Ethan, you’re exactly right; he put out an ad and you answered it. Heck, we’ve even booked the chapel for the 21st. But whether you actually get married is up to you, isn’t it? Ethan’s got 29 days to change his mind. If I were you, I’d put some thought into how to keep him on track, and while tending the garden is all well and good, I’d spend some time tending…Ethan…if you know what I mean.”
They’d booked the chapel? She only spared a moment on that unsettling tidbit before moving on to the next thing Rob said. Tending Ethan? Ethan changing his mind? “What did he say?” The thread of fear in her voice was no act. If Ethan was losing interest, she had no story. She needed the whole shebang – the back story, the courtship, the ring, wedding preparations…
“He likes you, honey. He really does. But he thinks you want to take things slow. He said he got the impression you wanted to move into the guest room and go back to holding hands until you get to know each other better. And that’s not what he asked for in his video, is it? He asked for a wife. You don’t win a man like Ethan through conversation. You win him through his stomach and his…well, you know. Food and sex. That’s what counts.”