Alone at last, their audience long gone, Autumn chucked all propriety to the wind. In for a penny, in for a pound. She was going to enjoy this night with this helluva man and damn the consequences. As he lay her down, the world spun around her and she knew she’d drunk far too much. She wasn’t thinking clearly. His mouth on her skin was doing delicious things to her insides, coiling them up into golden ropes of desire. He couldn’t kiss enough of her, couldn’t suck hard enough on her nipples, couldn’t touch enough of her at once.
She writhed in his arms as he moved from one breast to the other, playing with them, loving them, nipping and laving and teasing her until she wanted to scream from delighted agony. Then he moved lower, kissing her belly, her mound, and then….Oh, God… she clutched the sheets. Oh God, that felt good. She coiled her fingers in his hair, let him drive her to the edge of oblivion, and groaned when he pulled back.
“Ethan,” she cried, and he was there, the length of his body pressed against hers, one hand cradling her head, the other pulling her tight. “I can’t wait,” she breathed. “Now!” Something tugged at her consciousness – a little voice telling her she was forgetting something. Birth control. Shouldn’t she…?
And he was in her, one thrust taking him all the way home. She gasped aloud, then cried out in sheer pleasure. He smiled, a predatory, knowing grin, pulled out and stroked in again. She didn’t hold back, her moan filling the room, letting him know just how much she wanted him. She slid her hands to his ass, gripped him tight and pulled him against her. He got the message.
Their lovemaking was like nothing she’d ever known. Fast, hard, passionate, each of them wanting, needing more. He filled her and moved her and slammed into her until the heat and pressure between her thighs built to a peak of tension she couldn’t resist.
He pushed into her a final time with his own cry of triumph and they came together with an intensity that shocked Autumn to the roots of her soul. Wave after wave of heat and light consumed her body, and she cried out again and again. When it was over she lay back, spent, Ethan sprawled on top of her. She welcomed his weight, welcomed the touch of his lips on her eyelids, nose, cheeks and mouth. And as she drifted off to sleep, she smiled contentedly, knowing that tomorrow they would do this again.
What had he done?
Ethan stood on the front porch of the bunkhouse he’d converted into his home, and gazed across the yard at the big house he’d grown up in, letting the cool morning air blow over his shirtless torso. He gripped a cup of coffee in one hand like it was a lifeline, and in a way it was. His head ached, his mind refused to think clearly. All he knew was that in the 24 hours since he’d watched his last sunrise over the fields of his family’s ranch from this very same spot, he’d acquired a fiancée, lied to just about everyone he knew about his intentions toward her, and had the most riveting sexual experience of his life.
With a stranger.
A stranger he intended to put on a plane and send away this very morning.
The acid burning in his belly and the back of his throat wasn’t due to the copious amounts of alcohol he’d consumed the night before. It was the product of the knowledge that before sundown the whole damn town would be sneering at him. Ethan the cheat. Ethan the loser. Ethan, the man who lures defenseless women to town for a quick roll in the hay, then sends them packing. Ethan, who can’t even hold onto the ranch that’d been in his family for generations.
No matter that Rob was the joker who had set this whole fiancée thing in motion. No matter that Lacey made him a loser in the love department. No matter that his own mother had siphoned off the ranch’s earnings for years to support her outrageous spending sprees.
In the end it all came down to him. His inability to control his world. His inability to right the wrongs of others. No one else could be trusted to make things right. He had to do it all, or die trying.
His knuckles stood out white against the mug and he forced himself to relax his grip. He’d been through some tough times before and this one wouldn’t kill him, either. He thought his parents’ deaths would be the end of him; two of the people he loved most in the world snuffed out with no chance to say good-bye. He remembered the night the state troopers knocked on his door, broke the news man to man, then left him to the realization that he was all alone. He barely had time to absorb the shock before all the responsibilities of running a ranch came crashing down on his shoulders. Cattle, horses, men, all depending on him to keep things right.
He’d reached out to his sister then, but she’d turned him down flat. Claire had left for Billings years ago to become an interior designer after a particularly nasty argument with their mother. No way she was coming home to help, not even for a couple of weeks. She offered to find a realtor to list the spread and he’d hung up on her. It was months before they spoke again.
Then came another shock – the day he spent with his parents’ accountant, going over the books for the Cruz spread for the first time. He had no idea how much money his mother spent on her annual jaunts to Europe. No idea how thin the ranch’s margin was. His parents were in debt up to their eyeballs when they died and he was the lucky inheritor of the whole mess.
That night was the worst of his life – when he realized he hadn’t just lost his parents; he was losing everything his family stood for. Still living in the Big House, he’d gone over and over the printouts the accountant gave him, looking for any good news in all the bad. Sometime around 2:30 in the morning, he’d gone to the kitchen to refill his drink and he’d taken in the granite countertops, high end appliances and hand quarried slate floor. He’d been surrounded by his mothers’ excesses all this time and never thought to question it.
In that moment, the dim light of the refrigerator spilling across the floor, he had the awful thought that maybe his parents’ deaths weren’t an accident after all. Maybe broken under the load of debt, his father had deliberately crossed the line on the highway and driven off the road.
No. He knew that wasn’t right. He knew it.
But the thought haunted him for days. It was with him when he confessed to Lacey the state of the ranch. It rung in his brain when she recoiled from him, ran away and refused to take his calls. Stuck in his head when he began to hear the rumors that she’d taken up with another man – a rich outsider come to town to buy a show ranch.