He knew from the day Autumn arrived he’d be sending her back home. This was all a practical joke, after all. Shit, he couldn’t believe how out of control it had all gotten. Rob was to blame for this and he’d sure pay him back good.
Except that’s what started all of this, wasn’t it? Payback?
No – it began earlier than that. With his parents’ death. If it weren’t for the accident they’d be here now and his father would be overseeing the ranch. Maybe he’d have confessed his debts and the trouble they were in and together they could have reined in his mother’s spending and turned things around.
But as he flipped through his memories, he had to admit his family was in trouble long before the car crash. Claire and his mother had been fighting for years. Claire was a difficult teenager. As soon as she got a figure and discovered boys, life in the Cruz family household went to the dogs.
He couldn’t remember how many mornings he’d showed up for breakfast after completing his chores to find his mother and sister screaming in the kitchen, or slamming their respective bedroom doors. Claire was wild, used to getting her own way, with just as big a desire as his mother to be the center of attention.
Ethan stiffened. Was that true? Did his mother want attention?
He thought back to the last few years of her life. He hadn’t paid much attention to the clothing, jewelry and home decorating which seemed the foundation of his mother’s daily rounds. He was too busy working for his Dad, going to school and competing in the local rodeos when he could. He was saving money for a car, and looking forward to the day he graduated and put school behind him for good. No university for him, thank you very much. He’d leave that nightmare to Claire.
Although, in her younger years Claire had no more desire than he did to attend college. She was the best female rider this side of…well…anywhere. A natural on a horse and completely fearless. No one could touch her – not even Jamie when she was really on fire. She’d spent every spare minute with the horses, in the training corrals or out on the range riding for hours, coming home far after dinner time, sometimes far after dark. The fights between Claire and their parents got so bad that Ethan learned to pack himself enough food he could go straight to school from his chores in his morning and straight back to his chores after school without ever setting foot in the war zone of the Cruz kitchen. He spent his afternoons working any job his father set him, but whenever he could get away, he’d make his way to this pen and watch Mack MacKenzie work with the horses.
Mack had lived and worked on the ranch since Ethan was ten and felt like one of the family. He was a cowboy through and through, with a swagger to his step, a joke at the ready, and a laugh that boomed out over the yard and made everyone in earshot turn to look. He seemed larger than life – a heck of a lot more fun than his quiet father, who only opened his mouth to issue orders, or so it seemed to him at the time.
His mother would come out of the Big House sometimes to bring him a glass of lemonade, and always brought one for Mack, too. He knew she did it for an excuse to step outside and get away from the cooking and cleaning that took up her days whenever she was home. He didn’t blame her – how any woman could stand inside work when the sun was blazing away in the wide Montana sky he never could fathom. He figured her frequent trips abroad were an antidote to the boredom of being a rancher’s wife.
Claire spent plenty of time at this corral, too, of course. Mack actually let her into the pen when he was working with new horses. For someone who spent half her day screaming, she had a way about her when animals were present.
Ethan smiled at the memory, then frowned as he turned to look at the Big House and saw Autumn striding purposefully up the walk to the front door. With her damn camera in her hand.
What the hell?
Jamie turned, too. “Hey Ethan. How’s it going with your new bride? Surprised to see you haven’t sent her packing yet.” He cocked his head as he watched her turn the handle on the front door to the Big House and hesitate, as if surprised to find it unlocked. She stepped inside.
Why hadn’t he sent her packing? Because he thought she was different than all the other women in his life? Because he thought maybe she might have more sense, or less avarice, or the ability to string a couple of sentences together in a row without lying? Had he lost her because of the ranch’s debts, or because he hadn’t told her about them sooner?
“I gotta go,” he said.
“Hey, take it easy on her,” Jamie said, and Ethan looked back at the wiry man who’d taken Mack’s job when the other man left the ranch. “She’s probably just curious, that’s all. She only knows as much of your history as you’ve told her.”
“What the hell do you care?”
Jamie shook his head and snorted at his hostility. “She’s a sight better than Lacey – any fool can see that, even at a distance. She’s not your mother or your sister. She’s a girl who came out here because she wants to live on a ranch with a cowboy for a husband. You need a woman around, so why don’t you give her half a chance before you go driving her away? Maybe she’ll surprise you.”
Ethan followed his gaze to the Big House, where Autumn was just visible in the living room windows. “Too late – I’ve already driven her away.”
“You sure about that? She doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.”
Ethan shrugged, squashing the tendril of hope Jamie’s words stirred within him. Autumn hadn’t brought much with her to Montana. She was probably already packed and bored and just needed something to fill the rest of the day.
Jamie turned back to the horse and Ethan strode for the Big House, his friend’s words echoing in his ears. Maybe she wasn’t leaving. After all, she might be carrying his child.
He waved off the thought. What were the chances of that?
You made love to her without protection – the chances might be better than you think.
Maybe that’s why she was walking through the Big House – to estimate how much they could earn from the sale of the ranch. Maybe she intended to file for child support and wanted to be able to tell the court exactly how much he was worth. His blood began to boil. That’s all he needed – another creditor to drive him under. If she thought he would sell just to support her and the baby…
Oh, hell. What was he thinking? Of course he’d do whatever it took support his wife and child. And if she refused to marry him now, he’d still do what he had to in order to keep a roof over his baby’s head and food on the table. He might pay for the rest of his life for that one, thoughtless night of passion, but he’d make damn sure his kid didn’t pay for it. That wasn’t fair.