Actually, she hoped she’d never have to admit to her deception. She and Becka had carefully concocted an escape story – a dead aunt whose funeral Autumn had to attend. If things got too rough, she’d whip out her excuse and be on the next plane to New York. Then she’d write her story and Ethan would never even know about it. Montana cowboys didn’t read CityPretty, did they?
She wondered if she could spin the article off into something longer. Maybe give it a “where is our culture going” edge and send it in to New Yorker magazine? Or play up the romantic aspect and sell it to Cosmo?
Perhaps she could write a book?
Autumn jumped. She’d all but forgotten the man driving the pickup. “Sorry?”
“Are you hungry? We could grab a burger.” He pointed at a mom and pop joint coming up on the right. She arched an eyebrow. Really? His first meal with his fiancée and the cowboy was going to take her to a burger joint? She bit back a smile. This article was going to write itself.
He seemed to realize his mistake. “Or, we could grab a steak at DelMonaco’s Grill.”
“Sure. That sounds nice.”
Darn, CityPretty’s readers loved snarky articles that skewered the mannerisms of the lesser orders – that is, anyone who wasn’t a young, upwardly mobile urbanite. If she could portray Ethan and his friends as a bunch of country bumpkins, so much the better. She frowned, as uncomfortable with this type of journalism as she had been her first day on the job. What could she do, though? She needed to eat.
Ethan accelerated and she watched the burger joint slip past into the rear view mirror. The silence between them lengthened until she clutched the floral print fabric of her dress with both hands to try to keep from talking. She wasn’t accustomed to long silences. New Yorkers talked a mile a minute; especially her co-workers.
“Did you grow up around here?” she asked several minutes later when she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Yep. I live on the same ranch where I was born.”
“Oh – is your family still there, too?” She’d never thought about that and she experienced a moment of real fear. She could fool a young cowboy…maybe. But a cowboy’s mama? That sounded a lot harder.
“My folks are gone. Died in an accident last year.”
“I’m sorry.” And she was. Really. But relieved, too. How sick was that?
“Got a sister in Billings. I see her now and then.”
She nodded, fascinated by the muscle that tightened along the line of his jaw. There was a story there, she was sure of it. What did his sister do that made him so tense? And how did he make every plain Jane sentence he uttered sound so damn sexy? He was talking about his family, but he could have been crooning a love song with that rough, masculine tone. Maybe she should have crossed the Mississippi a long time ago.
Hormones. Ovulating. Get a grip, Autumn.
“What about you?” he asked, glancing her way for a fraction of a second. “Your folks still alive?”
“Yes. My mom lives in Manhattan. Dad’s long gone. Last I heard he was in Rio.”
“You grew up in the city, but you hate it?”
“No, I…” She let the sentence trail off. Whoops, nearly blew her cover story already. “Right,” she said with a forced smile. “I hate it. I can’t wait to get out of there for good.”
He gave her a measured look. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“Right!” she said again. “Yeah. I just…I mean…maybe you and I…” Man, she had to pull herself together, fast, or he’d see through her in a minute. “I mean, I hope it works out – you know, between you and me.”
She couldn’t look at him, and she noticed he was keeping his eyes on the road now. “Yeah. Me, too,” he said gruffly. “Here we are.”
* * * * *
What the hell was he saying? Ethan pulled sharply into a parking spot and hit the brakes, grinding the Chevy to a stop. This was insane. He had to tell her she’d been fooled before the whole thing got out of hand. Oh, who was he kidding; the situation was already far past out of hand. He took a deep breath and considered his next move. The least he could do was buy the pretty lady next to him a nice steak dinner before he broke the news. That way he could ask her a few more questions – find out why a woman like her would ditch her job and family back in New York and fly all the way out here to get married to a perfect stranger.
Who did that kind of thing, anyway?
He looked her over out of the corner of his eye as he slid his seatbelt off and exited the truck. Walking around the cab, he opened her door and tried not to stare at the expanse of her leg visible as she slid out of the seat. She smoothed her dress down as soon as she hit the pavement, but not before he got a pretty clear view of her shapely thighs.
Come on, Ethan, you’ve seen lots of legs before.
But none that affected him quite like this. Not even Lacey’s.
He had to admit part of it was knowing this woman had voluntarily come all the way from New York to marry him. Him. Based solely on the asinine video Rob put up on the web, she’d deemed him worthy of being her partner, protector – and lover – for the rest of her life. The prettiest package he’d ever seen and she’d delivered herself right to his door – practically.
What if he didn’t tell her it was a joke? What if he just married her?
The idea was more promising than he ever could have imagined a half hour ago. He followed her up the walkway to DelMonaco’s, appreciating the way her thin cotton dress conformed to the curves of her body. She didn’t look like a city girl in that outfit. She looked womanly, soft, at home in the country – but maybe that was the point. She was selling herself to him, in a way.
DelMonaco’s was hopping, as it always was on Saturday nights, but they were lucky and got a table after only a minute or two of waiting. Sarah-Jane, the hostess, who he’d gone to high school with, led them to a small, square table in the middle of the restaurant. Ethan saw her give Autumn more than one appraising look, but she didn’t ask any questions and he was grateful for that. He pulled out a wooden chair for her, and took the one kitty-corner to it.
“The food must be good here,” Autumn said, looking over the menu.
“There aren’t that many places to go.” Ethan scanned his menu as well, although he knew it by heart. He ordered the same thing every time he came. Porter house steak, baked potato, coleslaw. None of that salad bar stuff for him.