She dried the last of the washed tack, laying it out on the bench to be polished later. Then she slung her canvas bag over her shoulder and headed for the cookhouse while she waited to see if Jared would call.
A couple of steps out the stable door, Jared startled her, blocking her way. She stopped short.
“What the hell?” he demanded.
She glanced around. “Is Stephanie with you?”
“What was this about seeing me in private?”
She didn’t see Stephanie anywhere. “I’ll explain in a minute. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Jared hesitated. Then he nodded at the stable. “There’s an office up those stairs.”
“Great.” Melissa turned, and he followed her in.
They tapped their way, single file, up the narrow staircase. It opened to a short hallway with three doors.
“Far end,” Jared rumbled. “And this better be good. My secretary was scrambling the Saxena team for damage control. She thought you were warning me of a hostile takeover.”
Melissa cringed. “Sorry. Did you call them off?”
“Of course I called them off.” His boots were heavy on the wood floor behind her. “This better not be some flirting thing.”
“It’s not flirting.” Melissa stopped at the closed door.
Jared reached around her and pushed it open to reveal a small desk, a couple of filing cabinets. Three open, curtained windows showed a cloud-laden sky, and a comfortably furnished corner with armchairs, low tables and lamps. Through the window, Melissa could see a crowd of people at the arena. She assumed it was a jumping class and that Stephanie was there.
“Take a seat.” Jared gestured to a worn, brown leather armchair.
Melissa sat down, and he took the chair next to it. They were separated by a polished pine table, decorated with three small, framed horse portraits.
He leaned back, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee and folding his arms over his chest. “What’s going on?” he asked directly.
Melissa took a deep breath, giving herself a second to compose her message. “It’s Stephanie.”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“She lost patience with you? Fired you?”
“No.” Melissa sat forward. “Will you let me finish?”
“Your sister, for some reason, has decided I’m…well, a good match for you.”
Jared planted his feet and sat forward. “What did you say to her?”
“Nothing. This is about her, not me. I was minding my own business. She saw you helping me yesterday. Apparently the first time you saw me you said I was pretty.”
“Well, Stephanie thinks you did. And she’s a determined and romantic young lady, and she thinks she can subtly throw us together without you noticing. I was guessing you’d catch on, and I thought you’d appreciate a heads-up.”
Jared’s mouth thinned into a grim line. His hands moved to the arms of the chair, and he gave his head a subtle shake. “It’s worse than I thought.”
Melissa waited for him to elaborate.
He fixed his gaze on her. “If she’s targeting you, things are really getting out of hand.”
“Excuse me?” Melissa couldn’t help the defensive tone in her voice. “I’m the bottom of the barrel?”
“No, you’re not the bottom of the barrel.” He paused. “But you’re definitely from the unlikely half of the barrel.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“The last person she targeted was a lawyer.”
Melissa nodded. “She told me.”
“Just how long was this conversation?”
“Not long.” Melissa shifted back in her chair. “For the record, I tried to talk her out of it.”
Jared’s expression turned thoughtful, and he glanced toward the window and out to the arena. “Did she seem…upset?”
Melissa shook her head. Stephanie hadn’t seemed remotely upset. “I’d call it enthusiastic, even excited.”
He stood up and walked toward the closest window, looking through the opening to the crowd in the distance. “It’s about Sunday.”
Melissa stood with him. The clouds were thickening in the sky and the wind was picking up.
“It’s got to be,” he continued.
“What about Sunday?” she dared to ask.
Jared kept his gaze glued outside. “The twentieth anniversary of our parents’ deaths. And the first time my grandfather won’t be here to commemorate it with us.”
Melissa took a few steps toward him. “Your grandfather died?”
Jared nodded. “In April. It hit Stephanie pretty hard.”