Securing a loan to buy out Claire would be the toughest part of the battle. Autumn wished she had more to offer on that part of the bargain. Still, Matt thought two things might help. The first, oddly enough, was their marriage. He said bankers were old-fashioned in Montana, and they’d look favorably on a man who clearly planned to settle down and make a go of his spread. He also knew of a man interested in purchasing some land in the area. If Ethan could be persuaded to sell 100 acres on the riverfront, the profits would help swing them a second mortgage on the rest of the property. It might take a week or two for the buyer to get things together, but Claire would get paid and they’d have enough cash left over to advertise, buy some more riding horses, and get their guest ranch up and running.
As she stood up to shake Matt’s hand, her stomach rumbled, reminding her she hadn’t even eaten breakfast. She’d joined Ethan in his bed the previous night not long after dinner, and even though they’d been together more than once before falling asleep, both woke with an ardor that required quenching before any of the day’s work could begin.
She’d crammed half a loaf of French bread and an apple into Ethan’s hands as he ran out the door to meet Jamie in the south pasture. She hoped he wouldn’t be too upset at her absence from home at lunch time, but she still needed to do her shopping before she headed back to the ranch.
“Hungry?” Matt said. “I’m heading over to Linda’s Diner for a bite. Want to join me?”
“Sure.” Autumn checked her watch. “Are they fairly quick? I’ve still got a lot to do today.”
“We’ll have you in and out of there in a jiffy. I know all the waitresses – I’ll tell them you’re in a hurry.”
They crossed the road to a small restaurant sandwiched between the post office and a barber shop. Matt chose a table by the window and waved over a blonde waitress wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, black skirt, and a red apron with the Linda’s Diner logo stitched in white.
“Hi Matt, want the usual?”
“Yep. Tracey, this is Autumn Leeds. She’s in a bit of a rush today, so I promised lunch wouldn’t take too long.”
“No problem! What can I get you, Autumn?”
Autumn liked the young woman’s cheerful smile. “What’s the usual?”
“BLT, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll have one, too.”
“Coming right up. Cook’s probably got yours halfway done already, Matt.”
Tracey swung away, stopping at the next table to drop off a bill, before heading toward the counter that ran the length of one side of the building. She relayed the order to an older woman with graying hair pulled into a high bun.
“Is that Linda?”
Matt looked over his shoulder and laughed. “Naw, that’s Stephanie Lakins. Linda was her great grandma. It’s kind of a family business.”
“I guess so.” She returned Matt’s smile. “What made you pick accounting?” She settled back in her chair, confident that lunch would be tasty and the company enjoyable enough to pass the time.
As the door opened with a chime of bells, however, her feeling of contentment fell away in an instant. She recognized that brassy blonde hair, stiletto heels, and much too short skirt. Lacey Taylor, Ethan’s ex-fiancee. Was it too late to hide?
Lacey spotted her, narrowed her eyes, and dragged Carl with her over to stand before Autumn.
Yes, it was.
“Well, good morning – look what we have here!” she trilled, looking from Autumn to Matt and back again. “Are you negotiating your pre-nup with Ethan’s accountant, or moving on to greener pastures?”
Carl looked distinctly uncomfortable and Autumn wondered why he didn’t say anything. Probably out of fear Lacey would leave him like she left Ethan. Men seemed infinitely able to overlook a woman’s bitchiness if her breasts were perky and her feet stuffed into a pair of high heels.
“None of your business, Lacey,” Matt said. “You just run along and play.”
Autumn bit her lip to keep from laughing at Lacey’s expression. Clearly, she wasn’t used to being brushed aside so easily. She bent down, dangling her ample breasts directly in Matt’s line of sight. The accountant raised an eyebrow. “I’m just looking out for Ethan, honey. Who is this woman, anyway? She appears out of nowhere, suddenly she’s engaged to him and now she’s having lunch with his accountant? You better believe I’m going to tell him I saw the two of you together. If you think you can mess with my man, you’re highly mistaken.” She finished by narrowing her eyes at Autumn.
“Your man?” Carl and Matt chimed together. Autumn was too busy letting her jaw drop to the ground to say anything.
“Oh…you know what I mean,” Lacey said, her color heightening. “I may not want to marry Ethan Cruz, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have his best interests at heart. I don’t want to see him taken to the cleaners by some New York City call girl.”
“Seriously?” Autumn squeaked. “Did you just call me a hooker?” She stood up, but so did Matt. He put a hand on her arm and stepped between her and Lacey.
“Carl, if I were you I’d get Lacey out of here before she makes a complete ass out of herself. People are watching.”
Carl put an arm around Lacey and tugged her toward the door. “Come on, Sugar, let’s try the Soup n’ Salad today; I’m not in the mood for diner food.”
“I’m not done here!” Lacey shrugged him off and turned on Autumn. “You know Ethan’s broke, don’t you? You know he has to sell the ranch?” She took Autumn’s speechlessness as a negative. “See, Carl – he’s doing it again! Honey, he’s lying to you just like he did to me. Let me guess – first he wined and dined you, made you feel all quivery with those baby blue eyes, put his diamond ring on your finger…and didn’t even bother to let you know he’s up to his eyeballs in debt. Am I right or am I right?” She leaned closer. “That’s exactly what he did to me. I had to learn about his money problems from Claire – his sister. Have you met his sister?”
“Good. I hope she told you the ranch is for sale.”
Carl tugged on Lacey’s arm. “Sugar, that’s enough. Let’s go.”
“We’re going to buy it, you know. Me and Carl. Isn’t that right, Carl?”