“Want to see her?” Cab pulled out a gadget and handed it over. Ethan held it gingerly. The laptop he bought on the advice of his accountant still sat untouched in his tiny office back at the ranch. He hated these miniature things that ran on swoops and swipes and taps on buttons that weren’t really there. Cab reached over and pressed something and it came to life, showing a pretty young woman in a cotton dress in a kitchen preparing what appeared to be a pot roast.
“Hi, I’m Autumn,” she said, looking straight at him. “Autumn Leeds. As you can see, I love cooking…”
Rob whooped and pointed. “Look – there she is! I told you she’d come!”
Ethan raised his gaze from the gadget to see the woman herself walking toward them down the carpeted hall. Long black hair, startling blue eyes, porcelain-white skin, she was thin and haunted and luminous all at the same time. She, too, held a cell phone and seemed to be consulting it, her gaze glancing down then sweeping the crowd. As their eyes met, hers widened with recognition. He groaned inwardly when he realized this pretty woman had probably watched Rob’s stupid video multiple times. She might be looking at his picture now.
As the crowd of passengers and relatives split around their party, she walked straight up to them and held out her hand. “Ethan Cruz?” Her voice was low and husky, her fingers cool and her handshake firm. He found himself wanting to linger over it. Instead he nodded. “I’m Autumn Leeds. Your bride.”
* * * * *
Autumn had never been more terrified in her life. In her short career as a columnist for CityPretty Magazine, she’d interviewed models, society women, CEO’s and politicians, but all of them were urbanites, and she’d never had to leave New York to get the job done. As soon as her plane departed LaGuardia she knew she’d made a mistake. As the city skyline fell away and the countryside below her emptied into farmland, she clutched the arms of her seat as if she was heading for the moon rather than Montana. Now, hours later, she felt off-kilter and fuzzy, and the four men before her looked like extras in a Western flick. Large, muscled, rough men who all exuded a distinct odor of sweat she realized probably came from an honest afternoon’s work. Entirely out of her comfort zone, she wondered for the millionth time if she’d done the right thing. It’s the only way to get my contract renewed, she reminded herself. She had to write a story different from all the other articles in CityPretty. In these tough economic times, the magazine was downsizing – again. If she didn’t want to find herself out on the street, she had to produce – fast.
And what better story to write than the tale of a Montana cowboy using YouTube to search for an email-order bride?
Ethan Cruz looked back at her, seemingly at a loss for words. Well, that was to be expected with a cowboy, right? The ones in movies said about one word every ten minutes or so. That’s why his video said she needed to be quiet. Well, she could be quiet. She didn’t trust herself to speak, anyway.
She’d never been so near a cowboy before. Her best friend, Becka, helped shoot her video response, and they’d spent a hilarious day creating a pseudo-Autumn guaranteed to warm the cockles of a cowboy’s heart. Together, they’d decided to pitch her as desperate to escape the dirty city and unleash her inner farm wife on Ethan’s Montana ranch. They hinted she loved gardening, canning, and all the domestic arts. They played up both her toughness (she played first base in high school baseball) and her femininity (she loved quilting – what an outright lie). She had six costume changes in the three minute video.
Over her vehement protests, Becka forced her to end the video with a close-up of her face while she uttered the words, “I often fall asleep imagining the family I’ll someday have.” Autumn’s cheeks warmed as she recalled the depth of the deception. She wasn’t a country girl pining to be a wife; she was a career girl who didn’t intend to have kids for at least another decade. Right?
Except somehow, when she watched the final video, the life the false Autumn said she wanted sounded far more compelling than the life the real Autumn lived. Especially the part about wanting a family.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want a career. She just wanted a different one – a different life. She hated how hectic and shallow everything seemed now. She remembered her childhood, back when she had two parents – a successful investment banker father and a stay-at-home mother who made the best cookies in New York City. Back then, her mom, Teresa, loved to take Autumn and her sister, Lily, to visit museums, see movies and plays, walk in Central Park and shop in the ethnic groceries that surrounded their home. On Sundays, they cooked fabulous feasts together and her mother’s laugh rang out loud and often. Friends and relatives stopped by to eat and talk, and Autumn played with the other children while the grownups clustered around the kitchen table. All that changed when she turned nine and her father left them for a travel agent. Her parents’ divorce was horrible. The fight wasn’t over custody; her father was all too eager to leave child-rearing to her mother while he toured Brazil with his new wife. The fight was over money – over the bulk of the savings her father had transferred to offshore accounts in the weeks before the breakup, and refused to return.
Broke, single and humiliated, her mother took up the threads of the life she’d put aside to marry and raise a family. A graduate of an elite liberal arts college, with several years of medical school already under her belt, she moved them into a tiny apartment on the edge of a barely-decent neighborhood and returned to her studies. Those were lean, lonely years when everyone had to pitch in. Autumn’s older sister watched over her after school, and Teresa expected them to take on any and all chores they could possibly handle. As Autumn grew, she took over the cooking and shopping and finally the family’s accounts. Teresa had no time for cultural excursions, let alone entertaining friends, but by the time Autumn was ready to go to college herself, she ran a successful OB-GYN practice that catered to wealthy women who’d left childbearing until the last possible moment, and she didn’t even have to take out a loan to fund her education.
Determined her daughters would never face the same challenges she had, Teresa raised them with three guiding precepts:
Every woman must be self-supporting.
Marriage is a trap set by men for women.
Parenthood must be postponed until one reaches the pinnacle of her career.
Autumn’s sister, Lily, was a shining example of this guide to life. She was single, ran her own physical therapy clinic, and didn’t plan to marry or have children any time soon. Next to her, Autumn felt like a black sheep. She couldn’t seem to accept work was all there was to life. Couldn’t forget the joy of laying a table for a host of guests. She still missed those happy, crowded Sunday afternoons so much it hurt her to think about them.