“I can imagine,” Melissa said softly, her sympathy going out to the whole family.
“Look at her jump.” Jared nodded toward the arena, and Melissa shifted closer to where she could watch Stephanie on her big gray horse.
“Perfect form,” he continued as the two sailed over a high, white jump rail. “She’s talented, driven, unbelievably hardworking. Only twenty-two, and she’ll be a champion before we know it.”
“Then she was only two when your parents died?” Melissa ventured.
“Only two,” Jared confirmed with a nod, and his voice turned introspective. “And despite her success, all these years all she ever wanted was a mother.”
Melissa didn’t know what to say to that. Her own parents had moved to Florida only a couple of years ago. She saw them every few months, but she still missed her mother.
“I don’t blame her,” she offered.
“I understand the desire,” Jared allowed. “But ever since she was old enough to understand, she’s pestered the three of us to get married. Poor Gramps. And poor Royce. He was afraid to bring a date home in high school for fear of how Stephanie would embarrass him. She goes into matchmaking mode at the drop of a hat.”
“You could get married, you know,” Melissa offered reasonably, only half joking. “You’re what, early thirties?” “Thirty-five.”
“So what’s the holdup? I bet you meet eligible women every day of the week.”
Jared frowned at her. “I’m not getting married for the sake of my sister.”
“Get married for yourself. Hey, if you get proactive, you’ll have your choice of women. If Stephanie gets her way, you’re stuck with me.”
It obviously took Jared a stunned minute to realize Melissa was joking. But then he visibly relaxed.
“What about you?” he asked. “Would you get married to keep your siblings happy?”
Melissa coughed out a laugh. “I have five older brothers. Trust me, no husband in the world will be good enough.”
“Would they scare a guy off?”
Melissa smiled at that. “They range from six-one to six-four. All tough as nails. Adam’s a roofer, Ben and Caleb are framers, Dan’s an electrician and Eddy’s a pipe fitter.”
A calculating look came into Jared’s eyes. “You think they’d be interested in jobs with Ryder International?”
“I’m afraid they’re all gainfully employed.”
His eyes squinted down as he stared at her, and she braced herself for sarcasm about her own dismal career status. It was going to be hard not to defend herself from his criticism.
“Might be worth marrying you for the union connections alone.”
The words surprised a laugh out of her. She played along. “Plus, Stephanie would have a mother.” She played along. “Well, more like a sister, really. I’m only four or five years older than she is, you know.”
“Not a bad plan.” Jared nodded and pretended to give it serious consideration. “Stephanie’s pretty convinced the family would benefit from a few more females in the mix.”
“Smart girl,” said Melissa.
“Can’t argue with the logic,” Jared agreed. “It’s her methods that cause the trouble.”
As they spoke, Stephanie sailed over her final jump, completing a clean round.
“She really is good,” said Melissa.
“You don’t know the half of it.” Jared turned from the window.
He paused, and they came face-to-face, closer than she’d realized. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting his gorgeous eyes, his strong chin, his straight nose and the short shock of brown hair that curled across his forehead.
The force of his raw magnetism drew her in, arousing and frightening her at the same time. He was all man. He had power, looks and intelligence, and she suddenly felt inadequate. She wasn’t ready to work at his ranch or write an article about him. The phrase out of my league planted itself firmly in her brain.
For a second she let herself fear his reaction to the article. But then she banished the fear. It was her job to get the story, and she’d be far away from Montana by the time it ran in the Bizz.
The world outside darkened, and his eyes turned to midnight, sensuality radiating from their depths. The humidity jumped up, only to be overtaken by a freshening breeze.
There were shouts from outside as the wind swirled and a storm threatened. Doors banged, horses whinnied, and plastic tarps rattled against their ropes.
Meanwhile, gazes locked, Jared and Melissa didn’t move.
The wild clamor outside matched the cacophony inside her head. This attraction felt so right, but it was so incredibly wrong. Jared was her article subject, her employer, one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in Chicago. She had absolutely no business being attracted to him.