Melissa let herself imagine the long-ago family. Jared’s great-grandfather must have grown up here. Was he an only child? Did he have brothers and sisters? Did Jared have cousins and more-distant relatives around the country?
She made a mental note to research the family’s genealogy.
On the far side of the living room, next to the kitchen door, a narrow hallway led to the other side of the house. The floor groaned under her running shoe-clad feet as she made her way through. Her movement stirred up dust, and she covered her mouth and nose with her hand to breathe more easily.
The hallway revealed two bedrooms. One was stark, with plywood bunks nailed to the wall and a hollow cutout of a closet. But the second was a surprise. Intact yellow curtains hung over the window. The bed was obviously newer than the other furnishings, and a brightly colored quilt was shoved against the brass footboard, while the remnants of two pillows were strewn at the head.
“Can I help you?”
The deep voice nearly scared Melissa out of her skin. Her hand flew to her heart as she whirled around to see Jared standing in the bedroom doorway.
“You scared me half to death!” she told him.
“Shouldn’t you be working?”
“It’s lunchtime. I thought you were a ghost.” Her heart was still racing, and adrenaline prickled her skin, flushing her body, then cooling it rapidly.
“Still very much alive,” he drawled, expression accusing. “What are you doing here?”
“I was curious.”
“Last night. You mentioned your great-great-grandparents and, well, I like old buildings.”
“So you walked two miles?”
“On your lunch hour?”
“I wanted to come while it was light.”
He sighed in disgust and gave his head a little shake. “You’re flaky, you know that? Instead of eating, you take off on a whim to see a dilapidated old building. How are you going to work all afternoon?”
“I’ll manage,” she offered, already hungry and quite willing to concede his point. But she didn’t have a lot of time to waste.
“You’ll be passing out by two.”
She could have argued, but she had more important questions. “What’s with this room?” She gestured around. “It seems newer.”
Jared’s gaze fixed on the disheveled bed for a long beat. His eyes hardened to sapphire, and a muscle ticked next to his left eye. “Must have been a staff member sleeping here.”
“You think?” She wondered why they hadn’t fixed up the rest of the house.
He seemed to guess her question. “I imagine they ate at the cookhouse with everybody else.”
He turned his attention fully to Melissa and held out a broad callused hand. “Come on. I’ll give you a lift home.”
“You drove?” Why hadn’t she heard the engine?
“I rode Tango.”
She instinctively shrank back.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid to ride double on him.”
“Of course not.” She sure hoped there wasn’t a trick to riding double.
“Then let’s go. You need to eat something.”
“I’ll be fi-”
“No, you won’t. Skipping lunch was a stupid decision. Honestly, I don’t know how you’ve managed to stay alive this long.” He reached out and grasped her hand, tugging her out of the bedroom and down the hall.
“Did your great-grandfather have siblings?” she dared to ask.
“He had a sister.”
“That explains the bunk beds.”
“Yes, it does.”
Melissa blinked in the strong sunlight, her focus going immediately to where Tango was tied to the porch.
Jared mounted, then maneuvered the horse flush against the railingless platform, holding out his hand.
Melissa took a deep breath. She braced herself against his forearm, then arced her right leg high, swinging her butt to land with an unladylike thud, off-center behind the saddle on Tango’s broad back.
The horse grunted and stepped sideways.
Jared swore out loud, reached back to snag her waist and shoved her into place as her arms went instinctively around his body and clung tight.
“Sorry,” she muttered against his back.
“You’re a klutz,” he told her. “On top of everything else, you’re a klutz.”
“I never learned to ride properly,” she admitted.
“You need to learn some life skills,” he responded. “I don’t even care which ones. But damn, woman, you’ve got to learn how to do something.”
He urged Tango into a fast walk. The motion and play of muscles were unsettling beneath Melissa’s body. She kept her arms tight around Jared, slowly becoming aware of the intimacy of their position. Her breasts were plastered against his back, his cotton shirt and her T-shirt little barrier to the heat of their bodies. Her cheek rested against him, and every time she inhaled, her lungs were filled with his subtle, woodsy musk scent.