“His name is Ethan Cruz. He owns a ranch here in Montana.” Autumn bit her lip and hunched lower on the bed, every muscle in her body clenched in anticipation of her mother’s next words.
“You’re getting married to a man who owns a ranch in Montana.”
“How long ago did you meet this Ethan Cruz?” Teresa’ voice was icy cold. Damn, that wasn’t good.
“Three weeks ago.”
“And he owns a ranch.”
“A cattle ranch, yes.”
“This is a profitable ranch?”
“Umm…” Shit! “It’s got a few problems, but we’ve figured out a way to…”
“And the wedding is next week.”
“A week from today you’re marrying a man you barely know who owns an unprofitable ranch in Montana. Do I have that right?”
“Yes,” Autumn whispered. This was going worse than she expected.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You get your ass on the next plane back home – tonight – or I’m sending Lily there after you. You’re going to tell that insolvent cowboy to get back on the horse he rode in on, and we’re going to sort out your future once and for all. There’s still time for you to get your master’s degree. You can get your MBA, if you’re so keen on working in the hospitality business. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner.”
“Now, Autumn. Do I make myself clear? You get on that plane right NOW.”
A tear spilled down her cheek. “No, Mom. I’m not coming home. I love Ethan, and his financial situation is just fine – we’ve already figured out exactly what we’re going to do. I’m getting married next Saturday at 4 o’clock in the afternoon right here at Ethan’s ranch, and I’d love for you and Lily to be here – but only if you come to support me. I don’t need any more lectures about the right way or wrong way to live my life. It’s my life, Mom. I’m choosing what I want to do. I’ll email you all the information. I hope you’ll come and walk me down the aisle, since Daddy won’t be here to do it.”
She hung up before her mother could answer and walked on unsteady legs out to the back porch. She lived here in Chance Creek now and this ranch and the nearby town would be her home from here on out. Maybe she wouldn’t have any family attending her wedding, after all, but the rest of the guests would soon be her friends if she had any say in it. This was where she was making her stand. Here with Ethan on the Cruz family ranch.
“Good to see you, Matt, but I still don’t understand why you couldn’t answer my questions over the phone,” Ethan said as he took the chair Matt offered him in front of the large, walnut desk.
“I’ll explain everything.” Matt took his own seat but left the door to his office open, presumably because his secretary wasn’t in and he wanted to see his mystery buyer when he arrived.
“So who is this guy who wants my 100 acres?” Ethan said, settling back in the chair.
“Before we get into that, let’s talk about Autumn’s idea. I’m assuming she’s filled you in on everything. Did you get a chance to read over her numbers?”
“Yep.” Ethan nodded. “Looks like a good idea, as long as I can stay concentrating on the cattle and the day to day operations of the ranch. I’m not what you’d call a social butterfly, and I don’t think I’d be all that good at riding herd on a bunch of tourists. Autumn says as long as I make an appearance now and then and tell a few stories to the guests in the evenings, it’ll be all right. She wants to handle the cooking and supplies, and we’ll hire people to help out both in the lodge and to entertain guests with trail rides and chores.” He used finger quotes to express his opinion of this last part. A bunch of greenhorns wouldn’t be a lot of help with the cattle, but he was sure he could come up with something to keep them busy and out of trouble.
“I think it’s a terrific idea. There are lots of successful guest ranches in Montana, but none in Chance Creek that I know of. Your Big House has a terrific view and as far as I remember it’s the lap of luxury inside.”
“Thanks to Momma,” Ethan said wryly.
“So what you need is a little ready cash for starting up and a means to buy out Claire – am I right?”
“That about sums it up. Think we can swing it?”
“I do. I took the liberty of calling Claire and setting up a meeting later. Meanwhile, I think our buyer for your acres has arrived. I’ve done up the paperwork for the sale and for buying out Claire. If all goes well, we’ll plow through it all this morning.”
“You work fast,” Ethan said, surprised.
“I felt it behooved us for me to do so. Claire has another buyer lined up for the ranch – the whole ranch.”
Ethan looked away. “Lacey,” he said, his jaw tight. “I heard.”
“Claire’s more than a little miffed that you keep putting her off and she let me know about it. I figured it would be best for everyone concerned to avoid that outcome,” Matt said. He glanced out the door .“Good, he’s here – let’s get started.”
You could have knocked Ethan over with a feather when Jamie walked in, the same grin plastered on his face that stole the hearts of every woman within a hundred miles. “Hey, Ethan.”
“Jamie. What’re you doing here?”
“Looking to buy me some land. Actually, I’m looking for more than that. Matt will explain.” He took the other chair in the office and tipped it back, resting one booted foot atop his other leg, supremely confident, as usual. Nothing ever seemed to faze Jamie.
Ethan wished he felt anywhere near as confident. He turned to Matt. “I’m listening.”
“Jamie, here, has saved up a fair whack of cash,” Matt began. “Seems he should have been an investment banker rather than a cowboy.”
“My Daddy tried his damndest to make me one,” Jamie interjected. “Didn’t take.”
Ethan suppressed a smile. He hadn’t thought about that in ages. Poor Jamie had spent four years sweating it out at Montana State while the rest of them got right to living after high school. He’d hated every minute of it and spent every available weekend and summer on the Cruz Ranch working with Ethan and his dad until he felt more like a brother than a friend. The minute he graduated with his BA in Business Administration, he’d booked it back to the ranch and hadn’t left since. Jamie was the quintessential cowboy, as far as Ethan was concerned. He lived and breathed horses and was one of the best ranch hands he’d ever worked with. The idea of him working a desk job was laughable.