They broke apart, laughing, and Ethan quickly pulled on boxers and jeans. In another minute they’d rejoined Rob and were on their way.
DelMonaco’s was packed as usual when Ethan pulled the Ford up beside Rob’s Chevy in the parking lot. They didn’t even make it to the door before Jamie yelled for them to wait up. Autumn turned to see him leading Claire by the hand across the parking lot from the other direction.
“Jamie, Claire!” Rob called. “Perfect timing!”
Claire hung back a little as Jamie led her up the steps, as if she was embarrassed, Autumn thought, but the noisy greetings of the men covered up any awkwardness and soon the whole group was seated at a table.
No sooner had their waitress brought the first round of drinks when Cab appeared. “Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?” He didn’t wait for an answer – just grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat down.
Before long a whole crowd had joined them and the waitresses kept busy pushing tables together and bringing more chairs. Ethan caught on right away that Autumn didn’t want to drink and helped mask her abstention by switching glasses with her when he’d drained one. Rob seemed to be drinking the most of all and managed to make about half of the noise himself. Autumn wondered what was eating him. For all his laughter and toasts and cheers to Ethan and Jamie’s good fortune, she sensed he wasn’t happy at all. In fact, she couldn’t entirely understand the friendship between Ethan and Rob. Everyone said they were best friends, but how could honorable Ethan be so close to a man who would try to lure unsuspecting women into making porno movies? And if Rob liked Ethan so much, why would he be so angry tonight when Ethan was celebrating. She turned back to her meal, resolved to keep an eye on the situation.
Most of the men ordered steak, the women chicken. Autumn ordered eggplant parmesan and then poked at it, decidedly not hungry. She was just as pleased as everyone else about the progress they’d made on keeping the ranch, but she was way too distracted by the thought of the pregnancy test kit stashed in her luggage back at the bunkhouse to truly get into the celebratory mood.
Claire looked different tonight, she thought as she pushed a bite around the perimeter of her plate. She looked…younger. Happier. Must be the thought of all that money pouring into her bank account. What would she do with six hundred thousand dollars, if it was hers? Her gaze rested on Ethan. Invest it into the ranch, most likely. Her attention returned to Claire. She realized it was the woman’s outfit that made her seem different tonight. Gone were the stiff-looking business skirt and blouse, the sensible shoes, and in their place she wore form fitting jeans and a peasant blouse. Jamie couldn’t take his eyes off of her, she noticed with a grin. Was romance blooming there?
As she finally lifted the bite of eggplant to her mouth, she caught sight of Rob’s face. He, too, was watching Jamie and Claire, but his expression was hard. The hand holding his fork clenched tightly. But a moment later, he turned back to his meal and popped a piece of steak into his mouth. By the time he’d chewed and swallowed, he was back to faking good spirits, joking around with Cab, who sat across from him. Autumn shook her head. She barely knew these people. How could she translate the undercurrents swirling around her?
When the waitress returned to clear their plates, talk at the table turned to what to do with the rest of the evening.
“I thought we were heading to the Dancing Boot,” Jamie said. “I promised Claire we’d close the place down.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ethan said. “What about you, Autumn?”
“Sure.” She bit her lip, thinking of the pregnancy test again. Still, this night was a big deal to Ethan. She’d find out whether or not she was pregnant soon enough.
“Rob, Cab? You guys coming with us?” Ethan asked.
“Sure thing,” Cab said. “I’ve got nowhere else to be.”
Rob made a face. “Ain’t no point me going with you. Not like anyone’s going to dance with me tonight.”
Claire laughed out loud and more than one person at the table looked surprised. “Are you kidding, Rob? Since when have you lacked for partners – you always have some girl or other on your arm. Always have!”
“Not anymore. Not since this joker,” he stabbed a finger at Ethan, “pulled his last trick.”
“Uh oh,” Claire said. “More practical jokes? I thought you guys would have given that up by now.”
“What did Ethan do?” Autumn asked. Rose had said something about practical jokes back when they were buying her engagement ring, but she couldn’t imagine steady, solid Ethan planning out a complicated joke.
“Let me tell her! You gotta let me tell her,” Jamie said, his face splitting into a wide grin. Rob waved him off at first, then sat back as if giving up. “First, you gotta understand these guys have been playing tricks on each other since grade school – this ain’t nothing new. Rob deserved everything he got.”
“I didn’t deserve…” Rob began but everyone shouted him down.
“As I was saying,” Jamie said. “He deserved it. Ethan was looking for payback for a trick Rob played on him a couple of months ago.”
Ethan leaned forward. “Not just a trick. He moved all the cattle out of the northwest pasture onto his own land and left the fence all torn apart to make it look like someone stole them. Scared me half to death. That pasture doesn’t border Rob’s property,” he explained to Autumn, “so it didn’t occur to me at first it was him. What with all my debts, losing any of the herd would have put me under. I called the police, the sheriff’s office,” he nodded toward Cab, “I was about to call the CIA before I realized it was probably Rob playing a joke on me. Nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Appreciative laughter came from around the table as Jamie took up the thread of the story again. “So Ethan, here, makes a plan and bides his time. It’s kind of an ingenious plan, too. Rob’s a bit of a ladies’ man.”
“That’s an understatement,” Claire said.
“He tends to make friends on the dance floor,” Jamie said. “Good friends. Hardly ever goes home alone on a Saturday night. Ethan was counting on that, so when a Saturday night came up and he saw Rob getting it on with a fine, young thing out on the dance floor, he nipped out early, rode over to Rob’s cabin, and snuck inside.”
“What did he do?” Autumn said when Jamie hesitated.