The Cowboy's E-Mail Order Bride (Page 20)

The Cowboy’s E-Mail Order Bride(20)
Author: Cora Seton

Ethan turned slowly around. “I’m sorry. Claire’s right; I should have told you. I just didn’t expect…”

“How bad is it?” She didn’t know why she was asking. She’d be gone in a week or two, back to her old life and old job. She hoped, anyway. This man was nothing to her. So what if he lied? The cold burn of fire in her gut told her it mattered a lot, but she forced that thought away. All men were liars. She’d known that since she was nine and watched her mother – her fun-loving, wonderful, warm mother turn overnight into an icy automaton, too busy and too hurt to open her heart to anyone – even her own daughters. She remembered the pain of that first year after he’d left. Her attempts to make her mother happy again.

Her failures.

“Bad. My mother,” he waved the folder in dismissal. “I loved her, but she didn’t belong on a ranch. She wanted to travel, live the high life. My Dad let her spend all he had, and then let her spend a whole lot more he didn’t have.”

A familiar tension twisted in her stomach as she remembered taking on the task of managing her family’s budget. Always good with numbers, and a better cook than Lily, first she took over the grocery shopping and meal preparation, then the rest of the bills as Teresa finished med school and began work. Adding up numbers that didn’t add up over and over again. Trying to make too little money stretch too far. Finding fifty ways to prepare beans and rice. “And just exactly when did you plan to say something – on our wedding night?”

The fury in her words made him flinch and she barely understood her own anger. After all, she was lying to him as much as he’d been lying to her, so why did it hurt so bad to find out that her cowboy groom was as big a jerk as her father?

Because her father hadn’t just broken her mother’s heart when he left; he’d broken hers, too. How many nights had she lain awake as a girl wondering what she’d done to drive him away. Was it the way she looked? The way she cried sometimes when she got hurt? The way she got a bad grade in spelling? For nine years he’d been a mainstay in her life – at the breakfast table in the morning, reading the newspaper when he got home at night, tucking her into bed with a tousle of her hair and a kiss on the forehead. Telling her he loved her.

But he didn’t. One day he was there. The next he was gone. And her mother might as well have gone, too. Even Lily changed. Suddenly mad all the time, ordering her around, pinching her when she made mistakes. “The house has to be clean. Hurry up, the dishes need to be done before she gets home. Clean up your toys, you want Mom to leave, too?”

“You have every right to be mad. I didn’t…” He hesitated. Making up more lies? “Listen, Autumn – I had no idea this would work.” He waved a hand to include the two of them. “I thought you’d leave as soon as you got to know me and saw what life out here looks like. You’re a city girl – why would you want to marry me and live like this? Even without the debt, it’s not like we’re ever going to be rich. You could have any guy. Why would you stay here with me?”

His question struck her squarely in the gut. Why would she stay with him? Was it possible this handsome, self-confident cowboy had doubts of his own?

Maybe he did, she conceded, his explanations finally catching up with her. Sounds like his childhood wasn’t all roses and sunshine, either.

Well, she wasn’t going to stay, was she? Except she wanted to with every fiber of her being. She knew that a life with Ethan meant hard work and the ups and downs of being dependent on your own two hands to make a living, but she also knew it would never be boring and that the challenges would most likely bring them together in a way city living never could. And Ethan…over the last few days he’d driven her all over the ranch, showing her the land he loved and the cattle herds he depended on to make his living. He talked about how he was considering raising buffalo, and he told her stories about growing up here and learning to ride. The funniest stories, however, were the ones that included Rob, Cab and Jamie. She couldn’t believe how much trouble they’d found over the years, or the way they tormented each other with practical jokes. It was amazing they’d never landed in jail – and even more amazing that Cab grew up to be a sheriff.

Ethan was so patient around the animals, and so dedicated to running the ranch right. After dinner each night he spent time in the tiny office off his bedroom updating the ranch’s accounts. She had a feeling he kept track of his money down to the penny. Now she knew why.

But it was the evenings she loved the most. After he’d done his books and she’d downloaded her photographs and written her notes, they’d meet again on the back porch to hold hands, talk and swing. They’d decided heavy petting was allowed, which often turned into a romp on top of the covers on Ethan’s bed. As much as they did their best to satisfy each other without actually making love, Autumn didn’t think she could ever be satisfied until she had him again – body and soul. She wanted to stay here with Ethan more than anything else in the world. She wanted to be his wife.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Ethan said gruffly when she hesitated too long. “You don’t. And Claire’s right – I probably have to sell. Might as well get it all over with. I’ll take you to the airport in the morning.”

With that he strode to the back door and let it shut behind him with a bang. Alone in the garden, Autumn looked at the neat rows of plants reaching for the sun. She surveyed the fields that ran to far off mountains.

She didn’t want to go.

The large house across the yard caught her attention and once again she thought it was a shame no one lived in it. It was a beautiful log home, with wide decks and a stunning view of the mountains. If she was on vacation she’d spend a mint to rent one of those rooms.

Autumn’s heart skipped a beat, recalling a bunch of brochures Becka brought home from a travel agent’s office back in New York when she was trying to learn all she could about her prospective cowboy husband. They were advertisements for guest ranches and together she and Becka had laughed about the rustic accommodations and tourists dressed up like cowboys in shiny new boots.

A guest ranch – that was the answer to Ethan’s problems.

And she could help.


Ethan leaned on the rails surrounding the north pen and watched Jamie work with a black Appaloosa, trying to figure out where everything had gone to hell. He’d tried to stay indoors, but when Autumn didn’t follow him into the kitchen, he knew he’d been right. She was leaving him. He felt sick to his stomach and he wasn’t sure he would be able to stand if the rough wooden railings weren’t holding him up. Autumn was probably packing her bags by now and he had plenty of chores to do – especially if he was going to blow tomorrow morning hauling her to the airport. So why was he standing here wasting time, feeling like he’d been sucker-punched?