Stephanie grinned happily. There was a freshness about her, Melissa thought. Maybe it was the freckles or maybe it was the complete lack of cosmetics. Or it could have been the perky upturned nose. But Stephanie looked young, carefree, almost mischievous.
“I saw Jared helping you with Tango,” she began, her expression friendly and open as she turned the cup handle to face the right direction.
Melissa nodded, even while her stomach tightened with guilt. She couldn’t help but like Stephanie, and she was sorry the woman was caught up in her charade.
“It was very nice of him,” Melissa acknowledged. Then she paused, choosing her words carefully. “My horse skills are…” She let out a sigh, feeling like a heel for lying to Stephanie in the first place. “I guess, I, uh, exaggerated my skill level when I first talked to you.” She cringed, waiting for the reaction.
But to her surprise, Stephanie waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever.”
Melissa gazed at her. “But-”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to shovel manure.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Nah.” Stephanie lifted the stonewear mug and took a sip of the steaming coffee. “I imagine people exaggerate on their résumés all the time.”
“I guess they do,” Melissa agreed, relieved-yet again-that she wasn’t about to get fired.
“So what do you think of him?”
“Tango?” Was Stephanie going to try to get her to ride the horse?
“Oh.” Melissa caught the speculative expression in Stephanie’s eyes. Oh.
This could not be good.
“He seems, well, nice enough,” Melissa offered carefully. Truth was, she thought Jared was demanding and sarcastic. Okay, in an intriguing, compelling, sexy kind of way.
Stephanie nodded cheerily. “He’s a great guy. Lots of women seem attracted to him. I mean, it’s hard for me to tell, being his sister, but I imagine he’s pretty hot.”
Melissa turned her attention back to her soup. “He’s a very attractive man.”
“You should have seen the woman he dated last weekend. They had their picture in the paper in Chicago. She was a knockout. A lawyer.”
Melissa spooned up a bit of soup. She was not going to be jealous of some smart knockout lawyer in Chicago. Who Jared dated was absolutely none of her business.
“I told him he should see her again. But he’s not interested.” Stephanie gave a shrug. “So, really, he’s not committed in any way, shape or form.”
Melissa fought a smile. Again, there was an endearing quality to Stephanie. She was probably only four or five years younger than Melissa, but she seemed so innocent and untarnished. Maybe it was from living in the protected world of rural Montana.
“Honestly, Stephanie, I think I frustrate your brother.”
Stephanie shook her head. “We can change that.”
“I’m only here for a few days, remember?” The last thing Melissa needed was for Stephanie to give Jared a reason to avoid her. And she sensed that was exactly what would happen if he guessed his sister’s intentions.
“He thinks you’re pretty.”
The assertion took Melissa by surprise.
“He told me,” Stephanie continued. “The first time he saw you.”
“This is a bad idea, Stephanie. Jared and I are from completely different worlds.” And she was spying on him. And he was going to despise her in about three weeks when the article hit the newsstands.
“So were my parents.”
“My dad was a rancher, and my mom grew up in Boston.”
Melissa knew this was exactly the point where she should press Stephanie for some information. But for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“My mom was gorgeous and classy. Blonde, like you.” Stephanie sighed. “I wish I looked more like her.”
“But you’re beautiful,” Melissa immediately put in, meaning it completely.
Stephanie wrinkled her little nose. “I have freckles and red hair. And, you know, I haven’t bought myself a dress in three years.”
“Well, that’s easy to fix.”
“I bet you own a lot of beautiful dresses.” The speculative look was back in Stephanie’s eyes.
“Very few,” said Melissa. She pinned Stephanie with an earnest expression. “Promise me you won’t do this, Stephanie.”
Stephanie reached out to grasp Melissa’s forearm, taking a careful look around the room. “I can be very discreet.”
Given the woman’s exaggerated spy-versus-spy room check, Melissa sincerely doubted that.