She was quickly getting turned on. Arousal boiled in the pit of her belly and tingled along her thighs. Her nipples had grown hard, and for a mortifying moment, she wondered if he could feel them.
“Where do you live in Indiana?” he asked, voice husky.
“You have a job there?”
“Not yet.” She’d decided claiming to have a job would raise too many questions about why she needed money, and how she had enough time off to travel across the country. “An apartment?”
“I’ve been staying with friends.” Not having a job meant she couldn’t claim to be paying rent. Unless she had investments or family money. In which case, she wouldn’t need to earn money for a bus ticket.
As embarrassing as it might be, she had to pretend to be as big a loser as Jared had decided she was in order to maintain her cover story.
He grunted his disapproval, and she felt a twinge of regret that she couldn’t set the record straight. But it wasn’t her job to impress Jared Ryder. And it sure wasn’t her job to be attracted to him. She’d have to fight her instincts on both fronts.
Near the cookhouse, Jared helped Melissa down from Tango’s back. She staggered to a standing position, and he could see the pain reflected in her expression as she stretched the muscles in her thighs. If the woman had ever been on a horse before, he’d eat saddle leather. “There you are,” came Stephanie’s accusatory voice.
Jared felt a twinge of satisfaction at the thought of Melissa getting her comeuppance. But then he realized Stephanie was talking to him. He’d obviously missed her jumping practice.
“I gave Melissa a lift,” he explained.
Stephanie looked at Melissa. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I was-”
“Downriver,” Jared quickly put in. “Walking.” The explanation earned him a confused look from Melissa.
Too bad. He’d worry about that one later. For now, he didn’t want to plant any thoughts about the old cabin in Stephanie’s head.
Stephanie looked from Jared to Melissa, then back again. “Well, you missed a no-fault round,” she told him, putting her pert nose in the air.
“I guess you’ll just have to do it again.”
“You think it’s easy?”
“No,” he acknowledged. “I think it’s very, very hard. But I also know you’re a perfectionist.”
“I wish,” Stephanie retorted. But Jared knew it was true. You didn’t become one of the top-ten show jumpers in the country without a strong streak of perfectionism.
He handed Tango’s reins to Melissa. “He’s all yours. When you’re done taking off the tack, put him back in the red-gated pen.”
Melissa glanced down at the leather reins. Then she looked at Jared, her eyes widening with trepidation.
Yeah, he thought so.
He gave a heavy sigh and took back the reins. “Or I could give you a hand,” he offered. “Then you can grab something to eat.”
He felt Stephanie’s curious gaze behind him, and he twisted his head to give her an I-told-you-so stare. If she wanted him to have time to watch her jump, she shouldn’t have hired such a hopeless case.
He wrapped the reins around the horn of his saddle, clipped a lead rope onto Tango’s bridle, then walked the few steps to the hitching rail in front of the stable.
“You can start with the cinch,” he called over his shoulder, and Melissa quickly scrambled into action, hoofing it across the loose-packed dirt of the pen.
Stephanie watched them for a moment longer. Then he saw a small, hopeful smile quirk the corners of her mouth before she turned away.
Great. His good deed was obviously not going to go unpunished. He was helping Melissa out of pity, not out of attraction. She might be a gorgeous woman, but he liked his dates with a little more gray matter and a whole lot more ambition.
She came to a halt a few feet back from Tango’s flank. Her hands curled into balls by her sides, strands of her blond hair fluttering across her flushed cheeks as she blinked at the tall black horse.
“The cinch,” Jared prompted, releasing the reins and gently drawing the bit from Tango’s mouth.
Melissa didn’t make a move.
He flipped the stirrup up and hooked it over the saddle horn. “The big, shiny silver buckle,” he offered sarcastically.
She took a half step forward, then wiped her palms down the front of her jeans.
Jared turned, planting his hands on his hips.
She pursed her lips, reaching her hand toward the buckle. But Tango shifted, and she snapped it back.
“He’s not going to bite you.”
“What if he kicks me?”
“Just don’t do anything sudden.”