True to his word, he’d spent the day holed up in his study, going over and over the accounts. That evening, he’d driven to her house to find she wasn’t home. She didn’t answer her cell phone, either. Typical Lacey behavior when she was mad about something. Unfortunately, he knew her other typical behaviors – getting drunk and flirting with other men. After spending half the night looking for her in every bar and restaurant within 50 miles of town and coming up empty, he’d returned to the bunkhouse to find a trail of roses leading back to this tiny room.
The photos she’d glued to the wall showed Lacey in every season, indoors and outdoors, smiling and pouting, in various states of dress and undress. In the very center she’d placed a photo he’d taken of her with her own camera one morning after they’d shared a bed. Only partially wrapped in a comforter, the early spring sunshine streaming in his bedroom window and cascading over her ripe body, the photo was as provocative as anything in a skin magazine. Even now it reminded him he was a man looking at a beautiful, naked woman.
He had the same thought he’d had every night this week when he entered the room to update his books. He’d better get rid of this before Autumn saw it. So far he hadn’t found the time to get it done and he wouldn’t be able to do it now, either. It was going to take time to scrape the pictures off the wall, especially since he had no idea how Lacey had attached them. Some sort of fancy craft store glue and then a layer of varnish over the whole damn thing. Autumn hollered from the kitchen to say that dinner was ready. Tonight, when she was getting ready for bed, he’d scrape them from the wall into a bag and hide them, and tomorrow when he was out working on the range, he’d light a little fire and burn them all.
* * * * *
Autumn jotted down another item on her shopping list. She’d ask Ethan if she could borrow the truck tomorrow. She planned to start the day by going over the ranch’s accounts and doing some research. Then she’d head to town, shop, and pop into his accountant’s office to get answers to any questions she might have. Then it would be back to the ranch to do a bit of work on the garden and prepare her presentation. She knew the guest ranch idea wouldn’t solve every problem right away, but she thought they might be able to pull it off. She opened the oven door and pulled out the stew pot, carried it over to the table and placed it on a square oven mitt she’d pressed into service as a trivet. Ethan might be able to pull it off, that is. She wouldn’t be here by then, of course.
Suddenly chilled, she crossed her arms and hugged them to her chest. Their passionate lovemaking and the afternoon spent gardening and cooking had driven all thought of her return to New York right out of her mind. She’d been thinking about the number of bedrooms in the Big House; how many guests they could hold and how to increase that number without building a costly addition. She was as adept with numbers as she was in the kitchen, and the hours had passed quickly and happily, but now that reality had burst her bubble she realized more than ever she didn’t want to return to city life.
The light from the workaday kitchen fixture made the diamond ring on her finger sparkle. Maybe the guest ranch idea could solve two problems in one fell swoop. Maybe it could save the ranch and provide her with a new career. If she was contributing as much to the bottom line as Ethan was, wouldn’t that count? Her mother and sister couldn’t gainsay that idea, could they?
Maybe it was time she stopped caring so much what they thought, anyway. No other man made her feel like Ethan did. No man had ever made her want to give up her independence and settle down. The idea of running a guest ranch, and better yet – cooking for a crowd every night, a crowd that someday would include her own children – made her heart lift with excitement. Surely that beat writing silly columns for a ladies’ magazine any day.
Glancing down at her ring again, she squared her shoulders. Why not grasp at the chance life was giving her. A handsome, caring fiancé who loved children. A chance to start a family and a new, exciting career. In less than a month she could have everything she ever wanted.
When Ethan walked into the room it was all she could do not to throw herself into his arms.
“Yes!” she said.
He stopped, one hand on the back of his chair, and cocked his head. “Yes?”
She nodded. “Yes. I want to marry you. Absolutely yes.”
And when the smile broke across his handsome face and he came to take her in his arms, she thought she’d found heaven right here on earth.
It was noon by the time Autumn reached Matt Underwood’s office. When she’d headed toward Ethan’s office earlier, he’d quickly forestalled her and went to fetch his accounting information himself. She’d nearly cried when Ethan dumped the stack of leather-covered old-fashioned ledger books on the kitchen table. She’d expected him to hand her a laptop with QuickAccounts or a similar program booted up and ready to access. What should have taken minutes ended up taking hours and she still didn’t have a complete handle on the Cruz operation.
A call to Matt’s office had gotten her commiseration and an invitation to come right in to get help. Apparently, Ethan had called earlier, letting Matt know who she was and why she was looking over the account books. As soon as Matt found out she was computer literate he begged her to use any and all influence she had on Ethan to get him online, as well.
Matt turned out to be in his mid-thirties, a trim man with a sharp face and horn-rimmed glasses. He listened carefully while she outlined her idea to turn the Big House into guest accommodations and offer trail rides, a cowboy experience, and trips into Billings for shopping and cultural events.
“It might work,” Matt said finally. “But you’ve got several obstacles, not the least of which is Ethan’s sister, Claire. You do know she wants to sell the ranch and pocket her half of the proceeds, right?”
“I know. What would it take to buy her out?”
It took nearly an hour for Matt to explain the exact state of affairs at the ranch. On the one hand, very few changes needed to be made to any of the existing structures to accommodate a fair number of guests. They would need a liquor license if they wanted to serve alcohol with dinner, and Autumn would need to take a food safety course. They might need extra hands to help with the trail rides; she knew very little about the men who worked with Ethan and their qualifications to interact with paying guests. Advertising would cost money and it would take time to drum up the interest and repeat customers that were the bread and butter of any guesthouse type arrangement.