An hour later, Ethan still hadn’t caught up with Rob. By the time he made it to the parking lot, Rob’s Chevy was long gone. He’d gone to Rob’s house first, just to make sure his friend made it home okay, but to his surprise, Rob’s truck wasn’t among the other vehicles parked at the Matheson ranch and the cabin he lived in, a quarter mile from the main house, was empty and dark when he poked his head in the door. Numerous calls to his cell phone yielded no answer and he began to get worried.
Back in town, he searched two other bars and an all-night restaurant before heading to a dive on the county road. He couldn’t imagine Rob hanging out there, but it was the only place left to try. Rob’s truck wasn’t in the lot, but he slammed on his brakes when he saw Lacey pull in and get unsteadily out of her car. He pulled into a parking spot nearby and intercepted her before she could reach the front door.
“Hey – Lacey, what are you doing? Are you meeting Carl?”
She made a face. “I left Carl at home and I came here because I didn’t want to see any familiar faces. What’re you doing here – finally break up with that floozy?”
“No, I haven’t broken up with Autumn. We’re getting married on Saturday, remember? I’m just here looking for Rob.”
“Rob?” She shrugged. “Haven’t seen him. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Sorry – I’ve got to go, and you should go, too. You’re drunk, Lacey, and if you go in there some asshole is going to figure that out in about two seconds, get you drunker, and take you home. You don’t want that kind of trouble.”
“How the hell do you know what I want?” she hissed at him. “You walked away from me.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “I walked away? You gotta be kidding me. You left me, Lacey, remember?”
“You were supposed to fight for me!” she said, jabbing a finger into his chest. “You were supposed to man up, pay off those debts, come after me and give me what I wanted.”
“Uh…you made it pretty damn clear you didn’t want anything to do with me. Besides, you were with Carl – I’m not going to try to steal another man’s woman.”
“I’m not Carl’s woman,” she said, rearing back. “I’m not anyone’s woman. No one loves me enough for me to be his woman.”
“Carl loves you.”
“Carl says I drink too much. Do you believe that?” Lacey said, “He said I need to get my act together before we get married. All because I had a little, tiny glass of wine with supper.”
“Lacey, you’ve had way more than a glass of wine. Go home and sober up. Pull it together. You found a rich man who’s willing to put up with all of your shit and make an honest woman of you – you should be happy.”
“I’m not happy,” she said and lurched forward into his arms. “Ethan, I’m not happy at all. Carl bores me to tears, he isn’t any fun, and…” She flung her arms around him and kissed him squarely on the mouth. “I love you, Ethan. Not Carl. I’m in love with you.”
He was going to have nightmares about this night for the rest of his life, he just knew it. He firmly removed Lacey’s arms from around his neck and pushed her away. “No, you’re not, Lacey. And I’m not in love with you, either.”
“Yes, I am. And I know you still love me. You haven’t forgotten my body, have you? You used to love to touch me – you couldn’t wait to make love to me. Remember that picture you took of me sleeping in your bed – the one I put on your office wall so you would think about being with me even when you were working?”
Ethan sucked in a breath. Shit – he still hadn’t taken that stupid collage down. He’d even gone looking for a scraper once while Autumn was busy, but had gotten distracted by Jamie coming to see him about ranch business.
Watching him closely, she crowed with triumph. “You still have it, don’t you! You still look at my naked body every night when you do your accounts. You still dream about touching me. See – I knew you were still in love with me. You don’t have to go through with the wedding, Ethan. You can break it off and marry me, instead. It’ll be so beautiful…”
Ethan backed away. “You’re crazy if you think for one second I’ll have you back. Get it in your head – I love Autumn. I always will. Go home and sleep it off and see if Carl will still have you after whatever you’ve done to him tonight. Or better yet, figure out what you really want in life. Take a trip, or get a job, or go back to school or something. Stop trying to find a man to fill in all the blanks and start filling them in yourself.”
He opened the door and stuck his head in the bar for a minute, to assure himself of what he already knew – Rob wasn’t in there – then brushed Lacey aside and stalked off down the steps, back to his truck. As he pulled out of the parking lot, he saw her fumble in her purse and pull out her phone. He felt bad leaving Lacey standing there, but he had to find Rob and he couldn’t very well give her a ride home – not without fending off more drunken advances. He hoped she was calling a cab, or better yet – Carl.
Now where the hell was Rob? He’d just have to keep driving up and down the streets of Chance Creek until he found the man.
* * * * *
Autumn waved to Jamie and let herself into the dark, empty bunkhouse, flipping on the kitchen lights and pouring herself a glass of water before heading wearily to the guest bedroom. Ethan never returned to the Dancing Boot, even though she’d waited nearly an hour and a half for him. Finally, she’d accepted a ride home with Jamie and Claire, half-sick with worry, half-dead with exhaustion.
Who knew when Ethan would turn up? Maybe Rob was hurt, or needed someone to talk to. She hoped Ethan could soothe over the man’s obviously hurt feelings and patch things up between them. She knew how important it was to him to have all his friends stand up for him at the wedding.
If he was going to have three attendants, she guessed she’d better get her sister to be a bridesmaid along with Becka. If she was coming. There had been complete silence on the Eastern front and she had no idea if her sister and mother would be there on Saturday or not.
Maybe this is all a big mistake, she thought, sitting down on the bed. Maybe we’re rushing things because we know deep down we shouldn’t be doing it at all.