“What in the hell…” Anthony began.
“You need to get back to the meeting,” Jared ordered over his shoulder, propelling Melissa toward the stairs. It took her a second to get her feet sorted out under her, but he made sure she didn’t stumble.
He could feel Anthony watching them as they crossed the darkened yard toward the driveway lights. Jared knew he was going to get an earful back in the house, but he didn’t care. He could give just as good as he got.
He marched her forward at a brisk pace. He didn’t know which cottage Melissa had been assigned, but single women were usually on the river side of the arena, so he took a chance and turned right.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t about walking me back to my cabin?” asked Melissa.
Jared gritted his teeth, struggling to bring his emotions back under control. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not here to earn money for a bus ticket?”
Melissa ordered herself not to panic. There was no reason to assume he knew the truth. But even as she mentally reassured herself, the roots of her hair prickled in dread.
His pace was brisk, his large hand still wrapped around her upper arm. It felt strong and uncompromising as steel. She wondered if he intended to march her all the way to his property line.
“First the chauffeur.” Jared’s angry voice cut through the night air. “Then Anthony.” He sucked in a tight breath. “And I can guess what went on with the damn horse.”
The last took Melissa by surprise.
The horse? Why would she interview his horse?
“Ride it yourself?” Jared taunted.
Melissa struggled to make sense out of the accusation. She hadn’t ridden the horse herself, but how could that possibly be relevant?
“Or did you get a little help?” he finished on a meaningful lilt.
He obviously already knew she had. There was no point in lying about that. “I got one of the cowboys to help me. Rich or Rand or Rafe…something…”
“I’ll just bet you did.” The contempt in Jared’s voice was crystal clear.
“So what?” Her confusion was starting to turn to annoyance. Rafe had, in fact, offered to help her. The whole operation hadn’t taken more than fifteen minutes of his time. “So what?” Jared jerked her to a stop and rounded on her, glaring from beneath his battered tan Stetson.
Melissa caught her breath while she searched his hard expression in the shadowed light. Why was the horse such a salient detail? Shouldn’t he be more upset about the way she’d pumped Anthony for information? Unless…
It suddenly hit her that she’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. She wasn’t caught. Jared was angry about her interaction with his cowboys.
“Is there a company ban on cowboys helping stable hands?” she asked.
“No, but I’m thinking about banning frater nization.”
His obvious euphemism was more than a little offensive. “You think I had time to fraternize with Rafe before dinner?”
Something flickered in his eyes. It might have been regret. “I think flirting is your only life skill.”
“It’s not.” For starters, she had a university degree. She owned real estate. And she had a good job, soon to be a great job if she could pull off this interview.
“Do tell,” he challenged.
“I’m intelligent, articulate and organized.”
“You couldn’t even organize a bus ticket to Seattle.”
“Buying the bus ticket ahead of time wasn’t the point.”
“What was the point?”
“I’m experiencing America.”
“By batting your eyes and swaying your hips?”
She held up her blistered palms. “By shoveling your stable for eight hours.”
He reached for her wrist, moving her hands under the beam of a yard light, and his expression tightened. “You put something on this?”
“Work gloves.” And she wished she’d thought to do it sooner.
She pulled her hand from his grasp. “I’m fine.”
He took in her body from head to toe. “I don’t think you’re cut out for manual labor.”
She subconsciously shifted her injured hands behind her back. “I told you I was fine.”
“You know how to operate a computer? Type? File?”
Oh, no. She wasn’t giving up her ranch job. “I’ve never worked in an office,” she lied. “Besides, I only need bus fare. I’ll be out of your hair in a week.” At least that part was true.
“You might not last a week.”
“I lasted a day.”
“Maybe.” He paused. “But you know those guys you’re flirting with are going to eventually expect you to put out.”