She forced her thoughts back to the present. The man before her was ten times more handsome than he was in his video, and that was saying a lot. Dark hair, blue eyes, a chiseled jaw with just a trace of manly stubble. His shoulders were broad and his stance radiated a determination she found more than compelling. This was a man you could lean on, a man who could take care of the bad guys, wrangle the cattle, and still sweep you off your feet.
“Ethan, aren’t you going to say hello to your fiancée?” One of the other men stuck out his hand. “I’m Rob Matheson. This is Cab Johnson and Jamie Lassiter. Ethan here needed some backup.”
Rob was blonde, about Ethan’s size, but not nearly so serious. In fact, she bet he was a real cut-up. That shit-eating grin probably never left his face. Cab was larger than the others – six foot four maybe, powerfully built. He wore a sheriff’s uniform. Jamie was lean but muscular, with dark brown hair that fell into his eyes. They had the easy camaraderie that spoke of a long acquaintance. They probably knew each other as kids, and would take turns being best man at each other’s weddings.
No – she’d be long gone before the month was up. She had three weeks to turn in the story; maybe four, if it was really juicy. She’d pitched it to the editor of CityPretty as soon as the idea occurred to her. Margaret’s uncertain approval told her she was probably allowing her one last hurrah before CityPretty let her go.
Still, just for one moment she imagined herself standing side by side Ethan at the altar of some country church, pledging her love to him. What would it be like to marry a near stranger and try to forge a life with him?
Insane, that’s what.
So why did the idea send tendrils of warmth into all the right places?
She glanced up at Ethan to find him glancing down, and the warm feeling curved around her insides again. Surely New York men couldn’t be shorter than this crew, or any less manly, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been around so much blatant testosterone. She must be ovulating. Why else would she react like this to a perfect stranger?
Ethan touched her arm. “This way.” She followed him down the hall, the others falling into place behind them like a cowboy entourage. She stifled a sudden laugh at the absurdity of it all, slipped her hand into her purse and grabbed her digital camera, capturing the scene with a few clicks. Had this man – this…cowboy – sat down and planned out the video he’d made? She tried to picture Ethan bending over a desk and carefully writing out “Sweet. Good cook. Ready for children.”
She blew out a breath and wondered if she was the only one stifling in this sudden heat. Ready for children? Hardly. Still…if she was going to make babies with anyone…
Shaking her head to dispel that dangerous image, she found herself at the airport’s single baggage carousel. It was just shuddering to life and within moments she pointed out first one, then another sleek, black suitcase. Ethan took them both, began to move toward the door and then faltered to a stop. He avoided her gaze, focusing on something far beyond her shoulder. “It’s just…I wasn’t….”
Oh God, Autumn thought, a sudden chill racing down her spine. Her stomach lurched and she raised a hand as if to ward off his words. She hadn’t even considered this.
He’d taken one look and decided to send her back.
* * * * *
Ethan stared into the stricken eyes of the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. He had to confess to her right now the extent of the joke she’d been led into thinking was real. It’d been bad enough when he thought Rob and the rest of them had simply hauled him to the airport for a chance to laugh their asses off at him, but now there was a woman involved, a real, beautiful, fragile woman. He had to stop this before it went any further.
When she raised her clear blue gaze to his, he saw panic, horror, and an awful recognition he instantly realized meant she thought she’d been judged and found wanting. He knew he’d do anything to make that look go away. Judged wanting. As if. The girl was as beautiful as a harvest moon shining on frost-flecked fields in late November. He itched to touch her, take her hand, pull her hard against him and…
Whoa – that thought couldn’t go any farther.
He swallowed hard and tried again. “I…it’s just my place…something came up and I didn’t get a chance to fix it like I meant to.” She relaxed a fraction and he rushed on. “It’s a good house – built by my great granddaddy in 1889 for the hired help. Solid. Just needs a little attention.”
“A woman’s touch,” Rob threw in.
Ethan restrained himself, barely. He’d get back at all of his friends soon enough. “I just hope you’ll be comfortable.”
A snigger behind him made him clench his fists.
“I don’t mind if it’s rough,” Autumn said, eliciting a bark of laughter from the peanut gallery. She blushed and Ethan couldn’t take his eyes off her face, although he wished she hadn’t caught the joke. She’d look like that in bed, after…
“Give me the keys,” he said to Rob. When his friend hesitated, he held out a hand. “Now.”
Rob handed them over with a raised eyebrow, but Ethan just led the way outside and threw Autumn’s suitcases in the bed of the truck. He opened the passenger side door.
“Thank you,” she said, putting first one foot, then the other on the running board and scrambling somewhat ungracefully into the seat. City girl. At least her hesitation gave him a long moment to enjoy the view.
Rob made as if to open the door to the back bench seat, but Ethan shoved him aside, pressed down the lock and closed the passenger door. He was halfway around the truck before Rob could react.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Taking a ride with my fiancée. You all find your own way home.” He was in the driver’s side with the ignition turning over before any of them moved a muscle. Stupid fools. They’d made their beds and they could sleep in them.
He glanced at the ethereal princess sitting less than two feet away. Meanwhile, he’d sleep in his own comfortable bed tonight. Maybe with a little company for once.
Fatigue overtook her as soon as they gained the highway. Autumn hadn’t slept a wink the night before, excitement over the challenge of the undercover assignment, something she hadn’t attempted before, alternating with fear of exposure, or worse – failure. She didn’t know what to expect, or how far she could string this man along before she had to admit it was all a ruse.