“Well, look who’s here!”
Ethan stiffened, his fingers crumpling the laminated menu. A week ago he would have given anything to hear that voice, but not now. Definitely not now.
He forced himself to loosen his grip on the menu and look up at the couple who’d stopped next to his table. Lacey Taylor, dressed in a skimpy sundress that barely grazed the tops of her thighs, strappy white sandals, and a diamond on her finger you could use to signal Mars, smiled down at him. Behind her stood Carl Whitfield, in denim jeans, cowboy boots, a blazer and a string tie. Reflexively, a slow burn started in Ethan’s stomach. Everything about Lacey’s new boyfriend made him want to punch the man’s lights out. He’d come to Chance Creek looking for a ranch to buy, and took his time ferreting out the most desperate rancher so he could cut a bargain that would make the devil applaud. Someone would be coming after Ethan’s ranch like that pretty soon, but he’d be damned if he’d sell.
Lacey’s smile widened as if she’d read his thoughts. “Hi Ethan! We’re celebrating our eight month anniversary. Can you believe we’ve been dating that long? Only six months to the wedding! I can’t wait until Carl makes an honest woman of me.”
Had Lacey’s smile always been so fake? And since when did she wear all that makeup? Suddenly Ethan couldn’t see why he’d always thought she was so attractive. Sure, she had curves in all the right places and her platinum blonde hair could dazzle a man, but next to Autumn she seemed so…plastic.
“We’re going on the Grand Tour for our honeymoon,” Carl said, reaching forward to shake Ethan’s hand. “France, Italy, Greece, Austria…”
“Carl says we’ll just keep going until we get so homesick we have to come back,” Lacey gushed. “Can you imagine ever getting sick for this little town? I told him we’ll be gone forever!”
“Can’t stay away forever, darling,” Carl said. “You have to decorate that mansion I’ve been building just for you.”
“I get to pick out all the furniture!” she practically squealed. “Can you believe it?”
When Ethan didn’t answer, her smile faded a notch and she turned her gaze to Autumn. “Oh, hi,” she said. “I’m Lacey. Ethan’s probably told you about me.”
Autumn shrugged and Ethan fought down the urge to kiss her. Nothing irked Lacey more than not being the center of attention – another fact about her that seemed much clearer than it had just 24 hours ago.
“Sorry, he didn’t mention you. Are you his sister?”
Ethan bit back a laugh at the look on Lacey’s face. Autumn definitely earned a kiss for that.
“Sister?” Lacey was outraged. “No. I’m his…was…his fiancée. Who are you?”
Autumn glanced at him. “Oh, I’m…Autumn. I’m Ethan’s…”
“His new fiancée!” Suddenly Rob was there behind him, trailed by Cab and Jamie. He put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder and gave it a not so friendly squeeze. “They’re getting married. Isn’t that sweet!”
“Rob!” Ethan growled. His friend let him go and tousled his hair.
“Sorry, I know it’s supposed to be a secret, but I can’t help myself. I spent thirty dollars on a cab ride just now so I could be here and share your joy.” Damn, he should have realized when he left Rob stranded at the airport he’d only added fuel to the fire of his need for revenge.
The practical joke he’d played on Rob last month was a good one, but Rob was doing a damn fine job of getting back at him. In fact, he’d say they were quits right about now.
Lacey’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. After a long moment, Carl said, “Congratulations! Well, hey now – marriages are bursting out all over the place, aren’t they!”
Lacey looked like she wanted to slug him. “You never said you were dating again, Ethan. When did you two meet?”
“Today,” Autumn answered at the same time he said, “A few years ago.”
Lacey looked from one to the other. “Uh uh, I smell a fake. You’re putting me on, Ethan Cruz. You’re just pretending to be engaged because you’re jealous of me and Carl.”
The anger that had simmered in his gut for the past eight months since she’d dumped him burst into flame. “Lacey, the last thing I am is jealous of you and Carl. I have Autumn, and I’m making her my wife. Next month. June 21st.” Before anyone could say a thing, he leaned over the corner of the table, cupped Autumn’s head, pulled her close, and gave her a kiss so smoldering it put a prairie fire to shame.
* * * * *
When Ethan released her, Autumn gasped for air, raising a hand to her lips. No one had ever kissed her like that – not even the man she’d lived with for nearly a year when she was twenty. For a moment her head spun and she couldn’t make out what the others were saying, but while Lacey looked furious, her fiancé – Carl, was it? – looked like he’d just taken the prize at a turkey shoot. He raised his hands above his head and clapped them together. The noisy restaurant crowd hushed, craning their necks to see what was happening in the center of the room.
“Folks! Folks, can I have your attention for a moment?” Carl called. “I’ve got great news! Our own hometown boy, Ethan Cruz, has caught himself a fiancée! What’s your name, honey?” He bent down toward her.
“Um…Autumn,” she said.
“Autumn! That’s her name. Let’s give a round of applause for the happy couple! May they have a long and happy marriage! Barkeep!” Autumn cringed – did people really say that here? “A round of champagne for the house – on me!”
Applause split the air as Carl thumped Ethan on the back. Then he made them stand up while the rowdy Saturday night crowd cheered. “Kiss! Kiss!” he crowed and the rest of the patrons soon joined in. Autumn wanted to sink into the floor. What had happened to keeping a low profile and slipping away before the month was out? Looking up at Ethan she saw the same glazed look in his eyes she was sure was in her own. He dutifully bent down and kissed her again.
She meant to keep it short and sweet and she was sure he did, too, but the moment their lips met electricity sparked between them and she found didn’t want to move away. His hand slid around her waist and soon she was pressed against him, tilting her head up and standing on tip-toe to meet his embrace. Her skin tingled every place she touched him, a heat building up inside her that had long been absent in her life. When he slid his hand down her back, she leaned into him, too far gone in their kiss to care that everyone in the room was watching them.