The Cowboy's E-Mail Order Bride (Page 41)

The Cowboy’s E-Mail Order Bride(41)
Author: Cora Seton

Teresa shook her head. “Autumn? What’s going on?”

“Mrs. Leeds,” Ethan scraped back his chair and rose to his full height. “What’s going on is the wedding is off. Your daughter and I are done. I don’t know if you are in on it or not and at this point I don’t give a damn. Collect your things, get out of my house and get the hell out of Montana. All of you!”

His heart nearly gave out when he saw Autumn’s face. Pale as a sheet, stricken, desolation writ large in her eyes. Those lying, scheming, cheating eyes.

She probably had a boyfriend back home – some metrosexual guy who didn’t give a damn if his girl slept with a cowboy as long as she brought home a good story to tell. And made a few bucks off of publishing the story. God damn it all to hell.

He slammed through the restaurant, shaking Jamie off when the man caught up with him.

“Ethan, I’m driving. You can’t get behind the wheel like this.”

“The hell I can’t!”

“I’m not going to let you. Give me the keys. Now!”

Jamie was right, he could hardly see through the haze of red in front of his eyes, let alone navigate a highway without killing someone. He wanted to kill someone, though. He wanted to rip someone to shreds.

Instead, he allowed Jamie to push him toward the passenger seat and soon they were out on the highway, cruising as fast as the speed limit would let them.

He was thankful the man kept his mouth shut. The last thing he needed right now was pity. Or advice.

Ten minutes passed before Jamie opened his mouth. “You know that’s Lacey back there, showing you those files. You didn’t even ask Autumn if it was true.”

“It’s true.” He’d seen it in Autumn’s eyes.

“There might be an explanation.”

“Doubt it.” He knew enough of the world to know people did things for several basic reasons. Greed. Desire. Or hate. Greed in this case.

“Autumn deserves a chance to give her side.”

“Does she?” They rode in silence for several minutes. “Shit.” His head bowed under the crushing weight of all his dreams collapsing on him.

“What?”

“Autumn’s pregnant.” Or at least he thought she was. Had she faked that, too? Could you fake a pregnancy test? “I think.” He met Jamie’s brief, pitying gaze. “I don’t know.”

Jamie slowed the truck and pulled to the side of the highway. “I don’t think you can run from this one, Ethan. It’s fucked up every which way from Sunday, but you need to see it through. Things weren’t right on your side at the beginning, either, remember? The ad was a joke and by all rights we should have sent Autumn home on the next flight when she landed at the airport, but you didn’t because you were attracted to her and you wanted to see how things turned out. You fell in love with her over time and changed your mind about the joke.” Jamie shrugged. “The joke became real. What if it’s the same way for Autumn?”

Ethan felt a pang of guilt. Jamie was right, he hadn’t been truthful with Autumn, either. “What do you mean?”

“What if she answered the ad as a joke – as a funny way to write an article? Then, when she came out here she fell in love with you and decided to make the marriage work. She got pregnant, she’s been sleeping with you for weeks, right? Hell, she figured out how to save the ranch and got the two of us to be business partners!”

“That could all be for the story.”

“Sure, it could be. But is it? How far did those notes of hers go?”

Ethan tried to think back. There was the picnic, getting the ring…and hardly anything after that. She’d stopped writing about their relationship and she hadn’t even downloaded any more pictures.

“The first couple of days, I guess.”

“See?” Jamie leaned forward. “Just like you – it started out fake and then turned real. Shouldn’t you at least give her a chance to say something?”

Ethan leaned back in the seat and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know.”

“I do.” Jamie started the engine and spun the wheel around.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Autumn faced the people grouped around the table, feeling like she’d been suddenly stripped in public and made to confess her deepest sins. Becka was pale and wide-eyed, her sister confused and alarmed. Her mother was steely-eyed and Autumn dreaded that conversation the most. Teresa hated lies and would not abide a daughter who could perpetrate a scam like this, even if she had fallen in love for real and given up any idea of writing the article weeks ago.

Rob got to his feet. “Autumn – I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Lacey slammed her fist down on the table so hard the silverware jumped. “Of course you should have said something! You want Ethan to marry a lying whore? What kind of woman does something like this?” She pointed to the words and photos still visible on the laptop screen.

Autumn cringed. Why had she done it? What was wrong with her that she’d ever considered taking on such a story? She’d proceeded from such stupid assumptions – that a man who advertised for a wife was an idiot. That cowboys in general were ignorant – ripe for exploitation. She thought of how she and Becka had laughed until they cried milking every stereotype while they made her video – how she’d considered it perfectly acceptable to have a fling with a man who stated up front he was seeking a wife, and then go home and write about it. She’d been subverting her values for years in order to reach some kind of success, and what did she have to show for it?

Hell, CityPretty magazine as a whole was an exercise in exploitation. If she wasn’t skewering someone or something for her readers’ benefit, she was writing articles calculated to leave them dissatisfied with their lives or worse. The day she called her editor and quit was one of the happiest of her life. She hadn’t realized what a strain it was to work there until she’d felt the relief of letting the job go.

She’d been a jackal, making a living off other people’s unhappiness.

And Lacey was right – she’d been a whore.

She’d come out here and practically spread her legs for the story. Yes, she was attracted to Ethan – more than she’d ever been attracted to any other man – but she slept with him without knowing him, without understanding the pressures his own life put upon him. She’d gambled with his heart.

She’d gambled with a child’s life.