It kept him up through long nights of imagining that stranger touching her – sleeping with her. Prevented him from eating, and brought up whatever food he managed to choke down, while he struggled to find a foothold in the mountain of debt that would allow him to keep the ranch – and a reason to keep on trying now that Lacey had abandoned him. He wanted to throttle his father. Why hadn’t he stood up to his mother? Why hadn’t he stopped her?
Why hadn’t he taken Ethan with them in the car that day, instead of leaving him to face this all on his own?
Driven by that last awful thought, he’d finally sought out Joe Halpern in town, the pastor of his parents’ church – the one he hadn’t attended in years – and let the whole thing spill out of him. Joe’s words had been a kindness to him that day and they’d stuck with him ever since.
“Your father wasn’t a quitter, Ethan. He worked hard every day because he saw opportunity around every corner. He loved your mom, maybe a little too much since it seems to have knocked the sense right out of him, but love does that sometimes. And that’s okay, because in the end that’s all that matters. You’ll find a way to turn things around, and even if you don’t, you’ll be all right, because in the end it’s the people in our lives, not the things we own, that make life worth living.”
He wasn’t sure if he agreed with that last part, but Joe was right about his father. Alex Cruz wasn’t a quitter, and if he’d let his wife overspend it was because he adored her and wanted her to be happy. He must have thought he’d be able to recoup those costs and pay down that debt. And if he thought so, there must be a way. Ethan just had to find it.
Even if he did, that wouldn’t fix the problem of the woman sleeping it off in his bedroom. A wave of heat ran through him although the air was still cool. She was something else. A beautiful, hot, curvaceous, willing woman who’d flown all this way simply to be with him. To join her whole life to his.
Always and forever.
The thought revved him up more than he wanted to admit.
Could it work?
No way. The whole thing was preposterous – outrageously stupid. If he’d learned anything in the past eight months, surely it was not to trust a beautiful woman. Or fate.
He had to sit her down, explain the whole thing, wipe away her tears and put her on that plane.
* * * * *
Autumn awoke with a start.
Something was wrong. Something was really, really wrong.
As she did a mental inventory, her stomach pulled into a sickening knot and the back of her throat ached.
Was she hurt? No, but she didn’t feel exactly normal…down there.
Where was she? In her apartment? No, and not at a hotel either. In a man’s bedroom, in…Ethan’s bedroom.
And it all came back in a rush. Arriving by plane, acting her part, going to DelMonaco’s, Rob announcing their engagement to all and sundry, the drinks, more drinks, more drinks, and then….
No. She couldn’t have. She…ohmygod she was naked and…oh, yeah, she’d definitely had sex.
With a stranger.
She sat up and the whole world swum around her as she clutched the comforter to her chest. Where were her clothes, dammit? No, scratch that – where was the washroom?
She dashed across the room and just made it before she heaved what was left in her stomach from the previous night’s alcoholic romp. Slamming the bathroom door shut with her foot, she blotted her mouth with toilet paper, flushed the toilet, and knelt on the cold, tile floor, wanting to lay down and die.
Why, oh why hadn’t she told Ethan he needed to use a condom? Much to her gynecologist mother’s disgust, Autumn couldn’t tolerate birth control pills and had discontinued them after several years of battling migraines. In the past she’d simply spoken up to her boyfriends about her need to use an alternate form of protection. She wasn’t embarrassed about it. Her only excuse for last night’s lapse was she was too drunk to think straight…and out of practice.
“Use protection. Every. Single. Time.” Her mother’s words – uttered at least once a week during her teenage years – rang in her mind.
How much more proof did she need that she was a complete and total failure? Not only would she go back to New York without the story she so desperately needed, she might return knocked up. She could picture her mother and sister’s reactions.
Autumn screws up again. Autumn never finishes what she starts. Autumn’s having a baby. At 24. Before she even gets her career off the ground.
Failure. Complete and total failure.
She forced herself to her feet, gripping the countertop when the room swam again. It was stark and practical – white tiles, a Formica counter, plain Jane mirror cabinet and fixtures. A man’s razor was plugged into an outlet and a can of shaving cream sat nearby. A bar of soap and tube of toothpaste near the sink. Forest green towel and washcloth. The bathroom of a man who didn’t waste time or thought on home décor. A cowboy’s bathroom.
She ran cold water in the sink and splashed her face, wiping away the tears she hadn’t realized she was crying. No, she wouldn’t let her family down or herself down – not again. What were the chances she’d gotten pregnant from just one time? More likely she’d caught some stupid disease – hopefully not a deadly one. She’d haul her ass into a doctor as soon as she was able and get checked out.
She’d grit her teeth, finish out this assignment, get her photos and get the hell back to New York. And if she was pregnant she’d deal with it. There were answers to every problem.
Grabbing the washcloth, she scrubbed at her face viciously until all traces of tears were gone, then swished some toothpaste around her mouth as best she could. As she retraced her steps to the bedroom, and began to search for her clothes, she refused to listen to the voice that told her if she was pregnant, she’d never give up the child.
* * * * *
Ethan walked into the bedroom as Autumn was pulling on a pair of panties. She swiveled around in surprise and with a small cry clamped one arm across her chest, but not before he got a good look at a part of her anatomy that had enthralled him the night before.
He stopped, cleared his throat and searched for something to say. “Good morning.”
She stared at him. “Uh…morning.” Her voice was shrill and high, and he realized she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation. Somehow that made him grin. He wasn’t comfortable with this situation, either – not by a long shot – but her current position, half-naked, her arm doing very little to cover the curve of her assets, was fine by him. He could watch this show all morning.