Did she really feel that way?
No – she loved Ethan, she was sure of that. And she wanted to be here at the Cruz ranch. It was just this business with Rob that had her spooked. What did he mean Ethan wouldn’t be marrying her if it wasn’t for him?
When the house phone rang, she jumped, then put a hand to her pounding heart and raced to get it. “Ethan?”
“No, it’s Lacey. Is this Autumn?”
Autumn looked at the phone. Why would Lacey be calling at this hour? “Yes.”
“Ethan will be home soon, but I thought you’d want to know why he’s so late.”
“He’s looking for Rob,” Autumn said sharply, moving to hang up.
Lacey laughed. “Well, that’s the excuse he’ll use, but he’s actually been with me.”
“You’re a lousy liar,” Autumn said, but a little voice asked how Lacey knew he wasn’t home with her.
“That may be, but I’m the one who’s been making out with Ethan for the past hour, and you’re the one sitting home alone.”
She paced across the kitchen, her free hand balled into a fist. The clock read past two in the morning. Where was Ethan? Why wasn’t he home?
“You know Ethan could never keep his hands off of me. We did it two, three times a day when we were together. Inside, outside, in his truck.” Lacey broke off with a throaty laugh.
“Whatever. Lacey, you’re past history. Go to bed.”
“You want proof Ethan’s still in love with me? Proof that he can’t get my body out of his mind even now that I’m marrying Carl? He goes into his office every night after dinner, doesn’t he? Know what he’s doing? I bet he’s never let you in there.”
“What?” How did Lacey know she hadn’t been in Ethan’s office? There’d never been a reason for her to go in there and he always kept the door closed to hide the mess, or so he’d said. “He’s doing the accounts,” Autumn snapped, but a little tendril of dread tightened in her gut. She hated to think that Ethan’s daily rituals were as familiar to Lacey as they were to her. More familiar, actually. Lacey had dated Ethan for months, right? Years, even. She’d only been with him for three weeks.
“Is that what he calls it?” Another throaty laugh. “Uh uh, darling. You see, he calls me every night. If I’m not in, he listens to my answering machine, and he looks at my photograph – my naked photograph – and…well, you can picture the rest.”
“That is such bullshit,” Autumn said.
“Is it? Check out his office. You’ll see exactly what I mean. Oh, and by the way, that YouTube video – the one that lured you to Montana in the first place because you were so desperate for a husband? Ethan didn’t even make it. Rob did. As a joke.” Lacey hung up and Autumn stood there, nausea crawling up her throat, the phone still held in her hand.
Lacey couldn’t be serious – about any of it. There was no way Ethan was getting off to her answering machine in his office every night and then coming out and making love to her with a passion that swept her off her feet. There was no way this whole thing was a joke.
But what if he was thinking of Lacey when he was with her?
No. No way could he fake that.
What if he was only with her because Lacey was marrying Carl?
She couldn’t believe that, either.
And what did Lacey mean that Rob had made the YouTube video instead of Ethan? That couldn’t be true – except…she remembered Rob’s words at the restaurant: “Without me you’d never be marrying Autumn…”
The whole thing had been a joke?
She was a joke?
She placed the phone back in its cradle with trembling hands and slowly made her way to Ethan’s bedroom, halting at the closed door to his office. She tentatively reached out and turned the handle. The door swung open, revealing a room so small the desk took up an entire wall.
She stepped in, turned on the light and cried out.
There on the wall beside his desk, just as Lacey had said, was a mass of photographs. All of them showed Lacey in various outfits at various locations, but smack in the middle of all of them was a very provocative, very naked image of Lacey. Right where Ethan would have to see it, every single night.
Tears filled her eyes and she flicked off the light. She backed out of the room, and blindly retraced her steps. He was still in love with Lacey – or in lust, or something. At the very least he spent nearly twenty minutes every night with her naked image before he was able to make love to her.
Shame burned the back of her throat and she stumbled to the guest bedroom and began to pack. She had to get out of here, right now. She was a pathetic stand-in for the woman Ethan truly loved and there was no way she’d spend her life as someone else’s second choice.
And everyone knew. Everyone in the restaurant tonight – at the bar – they all knew. She recalled the tension at the table as they waited with bated breath to see whether or not Rob would spill Ethan’s big secret – that the whole video ad for a mail order bride was a big, fat fake, and her wedding was probably a big, fat fake, too.
Wiping her face with the back of her hand, she pulled open the drawers of the bureau and began to pile her clothing on the bed. Was that it? Was the whole damn town in on the gag? When would Ethan have told her? At the altar? Before or after they exchanged their fake vows?
You were lying to him, too. If you’d submitted the article you came to write, all of New York City would be laughing at Ethan.
Tears spilled down over her cheeks. She bent to grab her suitcase and cursed when the lid swung open and a package fell out on her foot.
The pregnancy test.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
She sat down hard and covered her face with her hands as sobs wracked her. Ethan was supposed to be here. He was supposed to be as excited as she was to find out whether or not they were having a child, but instead he was who knows where, tangled up in a web of lies so thick he’d trapped her good and hard within them.
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and stared at the box for a full minute before slowly retrieving it. She might as well do it now, so she knew exactly what type of hell she’d be returning to New York City to face.
Five minutes later she sat on the closed lid of the toilet and stared at the plus sign on the pregnancy test stick.
Pregnant. She was carrying Ethan’s child. A few hours ago she would have been deliriously happy to see what she was seeing now, and she’d have bet her life Ethan would be happy, too. Now fear, disgust, and self-loathing gathered in her chest, crushing her. Not only would she be alone; her baby would be, too. She would do whatever it took to give this baby a good life, but just like her mother before her she needed to return to school, ask for help from her family, and leave the baby in the care of strangers while she took classes and found a better job. She would miss so many experiences with her child because she would need to be a breadwinner. And what about Ethan? What place would he demand in her child’s life? For all she hated him right now – for all he’d possessed her heart and then torn it into pieces – she couldn’t deny him his rights as a father.