Because she had worked to humiliate the father of this child just so she could make a buck, even if she’d changed her mind and called the article off. And now, this child would grow up with a father who hated its mother. Nausea soured her mouth and she stood up, unsteady on trembling legs. She had no job to support the baby. She’d have to beg her mother for help, move back home.
Was it fair to live 2,000 miles from the baby’s father? What about visitations?
Would paying child support be the straw that broke Ethan’s back?
No wonder Ethan had run from the restaurant – she thought her own heart would break it hurt so bad. All she knew was that she had to get out of here as fast as she could. She had to get home – to New York. She would fall on her mother’s mercy, go back to school, get a real job – a high paying job.
She’d get a nanny to raise her child. And she wouldn’t take a dime from Ethan. In fact, she’d help pay off his debts, too. Their baby deserved a chance to learn to ride a horse, to help Ethan fix fences and care for the livestock. To one day stand beside Ethan and survey land that had been in the Cruz family for generations.
Would the child hate her for what she’d done? Would she be left all alone in New York as her son or daughter fell in love with the ranch and chose their father over her?
Blind with tears now, her arms already aching for the loss of a child she had yet to hold, she pushed away from the table, first stumbling, then running as fast as she could. She found the ladies’ room just as the heaving ache in her belly overwhelmed her, and she fell to her knees in a stall gasping, then was sick until her stomach was empty and she could be sick no more.
* * * * *
“Hey, Cowboy – you all right?”
When they reached the restaurant again, Lacey was the only one left at the table. She was nursing a shot of something, and looked tired.
Lacey. Figured. Ethan braced for the onslaught.
But she just played with the enormous ring on her finger. Would she take it off and declare herself free for the taking? Would she throw herself into his arms again?
He didn’t give a shit. Even with Autumn gone his answer was still no. Thank God his parents weren’t alive to see the mess he’d made out of his life. What would Claire say? By tomorrow everyone in town would know exactly the kind of idiot he was. Good luck finding a wife now.
“Have a seat. I’ll order you some coffee.” Lacey waved at a passing waitress. “Coffee, please?” The waitress looked at Jamie, who still hovered in the background. “None for him; he’s just leaving.”
“I’m leaving, too,” Ethan said.
“I know you are,” Lacey said, looking up at him at last. “But first you’re going to give me the courtesy of five minutes of your time. Can you do that?”
He hesitated, not knowing why he didn’t walk away. Something was different about Lacey, and he decided to hear her out. “It’s okay, Jamie. Why don’t you head on home. I can take it from here.”
“All right. Call me if you need anything – I’ll be back at the ranch.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
The waitress came back with his coffee and he gripped the cup thankfully. Maybe it would help clear his mind.
Lacey shook her head. “I thought I had it all figured out,” she said. “Even back in high school, I thought I’d graduate, marry you and everything would fall into place – I’d finally feel like I belonged somewhere – that I’d be worth something.”
Ethan frowned. This kind of introspection wasn’t normal for Lacey.
“I used to write our names over and over – Ethan and Lacey Cruz. I couldn’t wait to stop being a Taylor.”
Ethan nodded. He understood this. “I know things were rough at your place,” he said quietly. Lacey’s father had been a real piece of work when he was alive, heavy with the strap when his kids disappointed him. Lacey’s older brothers lit out for Billings as soon as they could. Lacey stayed with her mother until she hooked up with Ethan, then with Carl.
“You don’t know the half of it.” Lacey laughed, but the sound wasn’t pleasant. “I wish I’d been a boy. I could have stood the beatings. What he did…” she trailed off and Ethan’s chest tightened.
“Hell, Lacey, did he…?” He couldn’t say the words.
Oh, hell. “Why didn’t you ever say?”
“So you could look at me that way? All pity and disgust?”A tear slid down her cheek and Ethan reached for her, but she pulled away. “No, I know you don’t love me. And I don’t really love you, either. I just couldn’t stand that you and Autumn were going to be happy when I felt so…awful.” Ethan moved toward her again and she held up a hand to stop him. “Look, you can’t help me with this – I see that now – but I know I need help.”
He waited for more, but she didn’t speak.
“What made you see that?” he asked softly.
“This,” she said, turning Autumn’s laptop toward him. “I missed it the first time. You should be sure to read it. I’ve never loved anyone the way she loves you, and I finally get why – it’s because I hate myself too much.”
“Can I call Carl for you?” There was no way he was letting Lacey walk out of the restaurant alone. Not tonight.
“No – I can’t lean on him anymore than I could lean on you. I’ve got to try another way. Rose is coming to get me.”
Ethan took a breath. He sure as hell hadn’t seen this coming. “Everything will be okay, Lacey. I know it,” he said as she stood up.
“Well, that makes one of us.” Her eyes were bright with tears, and his heart ached for her. “There’s Rose. I guess I’d better get out of here before I make a bigger fool out of myself.”
“You’re no fool, Lacey Taylor. You’ll do okay.”
She nodded and hurried away. He watched her leave, then sat back down heavily. How could he have missed something so big? He’d spent years with Lacey and she’d never hinted at that kind of trouble at home. He knew one thing, though – if Lacey’s father were alive, he’d beat him within an inch of his life. What kind of monster did that to his own daughter?
He reached for Autumn’s laptop reluctantly, wondering what Lacey had seen there that changed her mind about love so completely. A document was displayed on the screen and he began to read.