“Hey, save something for the honeymoon!” Carl laughed. They broke apart and Autumn, breathless, noticed the furious expression on Lacey’s face. Poor girl. Probably just realizing the catch she’d let slip her hook. Carl cupped his fiancee’s elbow and moved her away, calling back a few last congratulations. The crowd settled down for the moment and she took the chance to sit again. She went back to studying the menu, although when Sarah-Jane returned to take their orders, she still hadn’t made a choice.
“Something light?” she said in desperation. For some reason she couldn’t focus on the menu’s printed words. The names of the specials danced in front of her as she relived, time and time again, the feel of Ethan’s mouth on hers, the way his hands caressed her, and the passion that had flared to life within her at his briefest touch. It must be the plane ride or the time change – or her hormones – that made her so sensitive. She wasn’t accustomed to falling hard for strangers.
Sarah-Jane saved her. “I’ll bring an order of Chicken Tuscany and you can make your way to the salad bar whenever you’re ready.”
“Thanks.” She waited until Ethan ordered his steak and Sarah-Jane carted off the menus, then rose again. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Ethan stood up, too, and helped pull back her chair. A gentleman. She liked that. “I’ll be waiting.”
His laconic sentence and the way his gaze lingered on hers brought another rush of heat to her cheeks. Waiting…for what? For her return, or for something else entirely? Had he felt some kind of connection, too? Was he looking forward to later tonight, when they were alone?
She hurried off and found the ladies room, refusing to make eye contact with any of the other patrons trying to get her attention and give her their congratulations. Locking herself into a stall she took a minute to sort out everything that had just happened. Ethan obviously took this marriage thing very seriously. Somehow she thought they’d spend some time together before he brought up the actual engagement, although now that seemed naïve. The man wanted a wife and he wanted one right now. Why else put a video like that up on YouTube.
I can’t do this. I have to leave tonight.
But even as she thought it she knew it was a lie. She’d do anything to get this story and clinch her contract with CityPretty. Writing for a magazine was the one goal she’d ever reached in life and she wasn’t going to lose that achievement now, just because a cowboy’s kisses sent her around the bend.
I’ll see this through until the end.
She wouldn’t give her mother or sister another reason to call her a failure. Bad enough she hadn’t gone into medicine like they did. Bad enough she’d ever mentioned going to culinary school. Bad enough when she’d listened to reason and gone to a university instead, she’d switched from pre-med to majoring in English. Bad enough she’d bailed from the internship her mother had set up for her to travel to England with Becka instead. Bad enough she’d refused to get her Masters and PhD so she could be a professor.
Bad enough she was a writer. A writer for a women’s magazine.
If she lost her job now it would mean one more family chorus of “I told you so,” and another disappointment for them to chalk up on their score cards. She could not bear that. So she would see this assignment through to the bitter end, no matter what it took.
As she flushed the toilet and made her way to the sinks, she didn’t allow herself to think about just what that might mean.
* * * * *
Ethan watched Autumn snake her way back through the tables, stopping every few feet to shake hands and receive congratulations from well-wishers among the diners. As she chatted with a few, he caught a look of naked worry on her face and realized she was out of her depth making up details of their relationship on the fly. They’d better put their heads together and sync up their stories tonight before one of them slipped up.
When she reached their table, she glanced at the extra chairs, now filled with Rob, Cab and Jamie, who were happily destroying the contents of a bread basket and quenching their thirst with a pitcher of beer. She slipped into the seat next to him and whispered in his ear. “I’ve been telling everyone you’d fill them in on how we met. I didn’t know what you wanted me to say. Don’t they know about your video?”
“No,” Ethan hissed. “Well, except for these guys. And I’d like to keep it that way. It’s embarrassing,” he added when she gave him a questioning look. “I didn’t think many people would see it.”
“You put a video on YouTube and thought no one would look at it?”
Damn. He thought fast. “Just follow my lead. We’ve known each other off and on for a couple years. After Lacey bailed, I got back in touch. We’ve had a long distance relationship for the past six months.”
She nodded. “Okay. How about, we couldn’t stand being apart any longer but I’m a traditionalist; no living together until there’s a ring on my finger. We’ll say I’m a bit of a control freak and wouldn’t let you pick it alone.”
“How much is that gonna cost me?” The words were out before he thought them through and she rewarded him with a look that seemed half-disgust, half-hurt. Shit. He kept forgetting she was here because she believed this was for real – she wasn’t in on the joke. A joke that had gone way too far. He wiped his hands on his jeans under the table and gathered his courage. He hated to do it like this – in public, especially after the upwelling of support from the community they’d just witnessed, but better to do it now – to pull the band-aid off quickly, so to speak – than to wait for things to get even worse.
“Look, Autumn,” he began, leaning toward her.
“I guess…I always wanted something simple,” she said, the hurt still there in her voice. “I don’t need a fancy ring to prove that I believe in always and forever.”
The words he meant to say vanished.
Always and forever.
Was she for real? After all the blows he’d been dealt this past year, was fate finally turning on its head and offering him a gift? Always and forever was exactly what he wanted. Well, what he used to want – until his mother and Lacey showed him how little a woman’s vows meant.
“We’ll find something pretty,” he heard himself say. “Something pretty for a pretty girl.”
She blushed. The sweet, curvy, beautiful woman sitting next to him actually blushed. He couldn’t help himself. He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Straightening up, he caught Rob’s knowing smile, but before he could think of something biting to say to wipe it off, Sarah-Jane came to the table with two more pitchers of beer.