“The range bulls are up in the hills right now.”
“Good to know. So how long are you in Montana?”
“About as long as you.”
“Something you have to get back to?” She tripped on a tree root, and he quickly grasped her arm to steady her.
“Why do you ask?”
“Just making conversation. You seem to like it here.”
He gazed around. The Windy River roared its way past, while an owl hooted in a faraway tree. A pair of truck lights flashed in the distance beyond the barns, while several horses whinnied to each other on the night air.
Melissa surreptitiously slowed her steps, not wanting to arrive at her cottage while Jared was still willing to talk.
“I’ve always liked it here.” But his jaw was tight and his voice seemed strained.
Melissa sensed an undercurrent. “Why did you leave?” she dared.
“To make money,” was the quick response.
“Cowboys need millions?”
“A spread this size needs millions. The past few decades have been hard on Montana ranchers. It’ll change in the future. It has to. But for now…”
Her footsteps slowed to a stop. There was no help for it, they’d arrived at her front porch. She turned to face him, scrambling for ways to prolong the inevitable. She wasn’t likely to get another chance like this for the rest of the week.
“So for now you’re building office towers to keep your cattle ranch and horse-jumping operation in the black.”
“How did you know I was building office towers?” The man was entirely too observant for her comfort level.
“Somebody also mentioned it at lunch today,” she said, bluffing.
Jared stared into her eyes for a long slow moment. Then his index finger went to her chin and he tipped her face to the starlight. “There’s something about you, Melissa.”
“I’m a decent flirt?” Better to feed into his misconception than to let him start thinking about other possibilities.
He gazed at her a moment longer. “That must be it.” He paused again, his expression going unexpectedly intimate. “So you going to put out now?”
His voice was smooth, his dark eyes sensual, and his lips full and soft. Melissa let herself envision delivering with a kiss. Would it be soft and sweet? Strong and sure? Sensual? Sexy? Or downright erotic?
“You really are frighteningly good at this.” His gruff voice interrupted her fantasy.
She blinked. “Huh?”
His jaw tightened, and he took a step back. “I can see why you’ve got so many men at your beck and call.”
She shook her head. “I don’t-”
“Be careful, Melissa,” he warned. “Not all of them will walk away.”
And with that, he turned on his heel.
She thought about calling out to protest. Her flirtation was normally light and inconsequential. She’d never let herself get carried away. This was the first time she’d ever even considered taking the next step.
And she wouldn’t have actually kissed him.
There was far too much at stake. All she wanted was some information on his business, his life, his background.
And she had some.
Melissa couldn’t help but smile.
Jared might think she was shameless, but at least he didn’t know she was a journalist, and she’d obtained more useful material for her article.
Ignoring the anger in his stride, and the stiff set of his shoulders as he made his way back down the dirt driveway, she skipped up the stairs to her cottage. She needed to make notes right away.
“What did you do to tick Anthony off last night?” Stephanie’s voice startled Jared as he tightened Tango’s cinch in front of her house midmorning. The meeting had ended late last night, and it had been simpler to sleep here than ride ten miles to the main house at the cattle ranch in the dark. Anthony and Otto had left immediately after breakfast.
He took one final reflexive look at Melissa cleaning tack inside a shed across the driveway. The woman was taking an inordinately long time on a basic bridle. Then he slipped the cinch buckle into place and turned to face his sister.
Stephanie was dressed in dressage clothes, obviously ready for another day of training with Rosie-Jo. They had a competition coming up, but Jared couldn’t remember the details.
“I told him to stop flirting with the help,” Jared answered.
“Melissa.” He pulled the right stirrup into place. “I don’t know why you hired that woman. She’s completely useless.”
“She needed a job,” said Stephanie.
“We’re not running a charitable organization.”
Stephanie stuffed one hand on her hip. “Actually we are.”