What if Autumn took the baby back to New York? Could he stand that? A city was no place to raise a child – not by his way of thinking anyway. Kids needed room to run, horses to ride, trouble to get into – good, clean, safe trouble. He blew out a breath as his thoughts circled around again. He needed to think of some way to keep this ranch, to force Autumn to stay and marry him, and to raise his child here. Right here.
Because that would be his definition of paradise, wouldn’t it? Not just any ranch – this one. Not just any wife – Autumn. And not just any child – but theirs, the first of many more to come.
Autumn was in the Big House and he’d better get in there, too, and start explaining things to her. Claire was right; the sale would clear all the family’s debts and leave a little for starting over, but not enough to buy another ranch. Barely enough to buy a house in town.
Then what would he do? Put on a suit and tie and go to work for the bank? Not likely they’d have him, with his high school diploma and work-scarred hands.
What a hell of a mess.
Autumn wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting when she opened the door to the Big House. Cobwebs, maybe. Dust as thick as a carpet over everything.
Though the house had a whiff of the mustiness she expected from a home that hadn’t been lived in for months, it was otherwise immaculate. The electricity was on, she discovered when she flicked a switch in the entryway. She walked into a foyer the size of her New York apartment, that led straight into a great room whose ceiling soared two stories above. A massive staircase to her left led to a balcony from which she assumed one reached the bedrooms. The living room windows overlooked the ranch buildings in the foreground and on to a sweeping view of the Beartooth Mountains that took her breath away.
A counter separated the fully-equipped restaurant quality kitchen from the living room. The cook would never feel cut off from the action, especially not with the sink and oven positioned so she could face the living room and the view while making use of them. Her fingers itched to get to work. What feasts she could prepare here, and how lovely a setting in which to do so. She pictured guests taking their ease in the comfortable chairs and sofas by the floor-to-ceiling windows, resting their tired limbs after a day of trail riding and “helping” the ranch hands with their chores.
She’d circulate with trays of appetizers and cold drinks, making sure everyone felt right at home, while a roast or hearty stew sent tantalizing aromatic hints of the meal to come. A rustic plank table and chairs already sat in one corner of the huge living room. She counted 18 places and wondered how Ethan’s small family had kept from feeling overwhelmed at such a large table. Maybe the ranch hands lived on the property back in those days, and ate with them, or maybe they had frequently had company.
The house was beautiful and her heart ached at the thought of it standing empty for so many months. Ethan’s grief must have consumed him if he couldn’t bear to live here after his parent’s deaths. Who took care of it now? she wondered. Claire? Somehow she didn’t think so. She repressed an urge to shiver. The woman’s anger at finding her on the property had been palpable, but she had the feeling Claire’s anger went a lot deeper than being last to hear about Ethan’s engagement. She’d stumbled into a family with issues, that was for sure.
After examining the kitchen more closely – a six burner range, professional grade pots and pans that gleamed with care, a refrigerator twice the size of the one in her apartment, and every gadget and gizmo a chef could want – she took photographs of the main floor from every angle. She was halfway up the stairs to the balcony when the sound of the front door opening halted her in her tracks.
Ethan stepped into view, cocking his hat back the better to look at her. “One point two million,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?” Her heart was in her throat, but not at being found trespassing. Ethan was so handsome in his jeans, work shirt, and cowboy hat, she couldn’t tear her gaze from his face. How could she ever leave this man?
“The ranch. It’s worth about one million, two hundred thousand dollars.”
Her mouth dropped open. That was a chunk of change.
“Don’t get too excited; my mother had the uncanny ability to spend more money in a year than most municipalities.” He started up the stairs. “Add in an equally uncanny ability to find doomed investments and the money from the sale of the ranch will barely cover the debts she left.” He stopped on the tread beneath hers. She found his proximity made it hard to breathe. Neither could she look away from him. He held her gaze and leaned closer. “Whatever is left, I have to split with Claire. I’ll be lucky to be able to put a roof over my head. Not the best situation to bring a wife, and maybe a child, into.”
“We’ll manage,” she heard herself say. This close to him she couldn’t think straight. She found his eyes mesmerizing, the line of his jaw fascinating, and had to grip the banister to keep from running her own mouth along his collar bone to the hollow at the base of his throat. No one was around, and she couldn’t imagine they’d be interrupted. She’d bet those bedrooms would be furnished with the finest of beds, and if they couldn’t make it that far, the plush carpeting on these stairs would just have to do.
She leaned toward him, her lips parting.
Their kiss was as sweet as anything she’d known. He was hesitant at first, but when she put a hand on his chest, he groaned and swept her into his arms. She dropped the camera and clung to him, her hunger for his touch overriding her moment’s fear they’d overbalance and fall together down the stairs. She snaked her arms around his neck and kissed him with a passion that flared from tinder to full-on flame.
When his hand slid down the curve of her back to cup her bottom, Autumn gasped, then kissed him harder. Suddenly she couldn’t stand the layers of clothing between them. She wriggled in his arms until she could reach the buttons of his shirt. She made short work of them and was just reaching for her own when Ethan’s hand covered hers at the top of her neckline and he pulled apart her dress with a single tug. Buttons scattered and another rough tug took care of her bra – a front clasped one, thank goodness – releasing her breasts to his view. Ethan pulled back for a single moment, looked her over, then pushed her down to a sitting position, leaned her back against the stair treads, and bent to take one nipple into his mouth.
Autumn writhed beneath him, glorying in the touch of his mouth, his tongue on her flesh. As he swept from one breast to the other and back again, the sensation swirled over her, through her and heated her to the core. She knocked off his hat and fisted her hands in his thick hair, moaning again as he dipped lower, lower, and nuzzled her sensitive core.