The wedding that was due to take place in less than four weeks.
He’d better make a plan, and soon, for how to turn around this place and make it earn its keep. Otherwise he and his new bride would be shopping for both a new home and occupation on their honeymoon.
Autumn was right. They had to stop making love until they’d sorted out their problems and tied the knot. It wasn’t fair to bring a new life into the world willy nilly without the kind of forethought that would keep a roof over its head. He’d go to his accountant in the morning and go over all the debts and income projections again. He’d figure out ways to cut costs and maximize his debt repayments.
He’d do whatever it took to start off his new life on a secure footing. His child deserved nothing less. His fiancée deserved far more.
“Who the hell are you?”
Autumn nearly dropped her hoe before she whirled to face the unfamiliar woman marching up the garden path. She was taller than Autumn, with a strong jaw and no-nonsense, chin-length, dark bobbed hair. She clutched a folder in one hand and a purse in the other.
“Where’s Ethan? What are you doing to my mother’s garden?”
That explained it. Ethan’s sister. What was her name? Claire – that was it.
“I’m waiting,” Claire said.
Autumn moved to meet her, and held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Autumn.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. “And?”
Autumn echoed her confused expression. “And?”
“So you’re Autumn. Autumn who? What gives you the right to pulverize my mother’s garlic bed?”
She glanced at the tidy rows she’d begun to take great pride in. She may have lied to Ethan about her green thumb, but she had found over the last few days that with a little common sense and a lot of help from the internet, she was able to sort the weeds from the useful plants and coax the garden back to life.
“Didn’t Ethan tell you about me?”
Claire tapped a foot. “No, evidently he didn’t. I take it you’re Lacey’s replacement?”
Lacey? A few things slid into place. She remembered Lacey from DelMonaco’s her first night in town. How the brassy girl had stopped by the table with her obviously wealthy wanna-be cowboy husband-to-be. That’s when Ethan announced their engagement. No – come to think of it, he hadn’t – Rob had. Did Ethan want to keep it a secret? He sure had started drinking pretty heavily after that.
So had she, which led to their night of unbridled, unprotected passion, and the current predicament she found herself in. Five days had passed, and the thought of a baby growing inside her had hardly left her mind.
“I don’t think I’m replacing anyone,” she made herself say calmly. “I’m Ethan’s fiancée.”
“His what?” Claire straightened up. “Where is he?”
“Not here,” Autumn managed to say before Claire pulled out a cell phone and punched in a bunch of numbers.
“Ethan? Dammit, don’t you dare ignore me. You can’t keep this ranch, not the way the debts are piling up. I want to sell and I want to sell now. You have something to say about that, you better come over here and tell me to my face.” She ended the call and shoved the phone back in her purse. “Probably isn’t even carrying the phone I gave him. He’s totally hopeless. I hope you like city life, girl, because that’s where my brother’s going to end up just as soon as I pry him off this ranch. He’s going to earn peanuts from the sale and he’ll need a new job, quick. Not many of those around these parts, I can tell you that.”
Autumn couldn’t find her voice. The ranch was in debt? He was selling? Ethan hadn’t mentioned a thing, and he thought they were getting married. When had he planned to tell his new bride about his financial troubles? After the wedding? When her money would be his?
Not that she had much, but what she had was hers – not his to use to solve his own problems.
“Just as I thought, he hasn’t told you,” Claire said, her expression hard. “Probably hasn’t had time. You’re not from around here, so who are you? Some fortune hunter? You saw the spread and thought you could cash in? You’re a little too late for that. My momma already spent this fortune.” She turned on her heel and paced away. “You might as well pack your bags and leave. My brother doesn’t need any more heartache. He’s had plenty already.”
“Yeah, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Claire?”
Autumn turned to find Ethan descending the steps from the back porch. He must have pulled in at the front of the house where they couldn’t see him. “Where have you been? I could use some help around the place, you know.” He faced his sister.
“In Billings, making a living. We can’t all throw good money after bad. Someone’s got to be smarter than that.”
“I can make a living right here; I just need a little help. There’s nothing wrong with the ranch – the only problem is Momma’s debts.” He ran a hand through his hair and glanced at Autumn. “Hell, Claire. You had to do it this way?”
Claire put her hands on her hips and leaned closer to him. “She said she’s your fiancée. Your fiancée! When were you going to tell me, Ethan? After the wedding? And you obviously didn’t tell her about your money problems. That’s not right! None of this is – where did you even meet her?”
Autumn felt her face burning and even Ethan looked flushed. “That’s none of your business. What are you here for, anyway?” He crossed his arms.
“This ranch is half mine. Did you forget that?” Claire shook her head at him and the severe edges of her bob brushed her chin. “It’s time to sell. Let’s get what we can from it and move on. I’ve mocked up a listing. Look it over and see if I got it all right.” She shoved the folder into his hands.
“And what about me, huh, Claire? It’s all right for me to be an employee all my life?” He kicked a watering can across the garden. “I’ve worked this ranch since I could walk.”
“You can do something else.”
“I don’t want to do something else.”
Claire clenched her fists. “Then buy me out. This dream is over, Ethan. The ranch is done.”
But she’d already stormed off across the yard. In a moment she was out of sight around the corner of the bunkhouse and they heard an engine start up.