Jared inwardly groaned. Why the hell hadn’t he kept his hands to himself? Melissa’s reputation was about to tumble over the falls and be washed down the Windy River. Why the hell hadn’t he kept his hands to himself?

She was the first to speak. “It’s not what you-”

But he cut her off. “I was inviting Melissa to join us for dinner,” he told Stephanie, giving the two cowboys a warning glare.

“I knew it!” Stephanie beamed.

“The rain blew right in the windows,” he went on, to explain their appearance. Then he handed Melissa the hair clip. “Thanks for your help.”

She gave him a puzzled expression. “There’s no need-”

He stopped her with a stare. There was every need to protect her reputation, not to mention his own. She’d be gone in a week. In the meantime, he’d rather have the ranch staff think they were dating than carrying on a clandestine affair in the stable office.

He turned to his sister. “Did you need me for something?”

“Royce just called,” said Stephanie. “He’s at the airport.”

“A day early?” That surprised Jared. He hoped nothing was wrong.

“And McQuestin called,” Hal put in. “Some of the herd’s still in the south canyon, and there’s a risk of flooding down there.”

“Hal and Barry are going to take half a dozen men,” said Stephanie, but her goofy gaze was still on Melissa.

Jared knew he’d have to deal with his sister’s letdown later. But at the moment, seeing the pure joy on Stephanie’s face, he was inclined to wait until they got through the graveside visit on Sunday. He wondered if Melissa would be willing to go along with the charade. It would definitely distract Stephanie from missing their grandfather.

“Do you need me?” Jared asked Hal. He hadn’t played cowboy in a few years, but he was ready and able if they needed an extra hand.

Hal shook his graying head. “Should be done by dark.”

Jared gave the man a nod of acknowledgment. Then he looked at Stephanie. “I’ll be right down.”

She all but winked in return as she pulled the door shut.

“What are you thinking?” Melissa demanded as the footsteps receded down the hall.

“That you cared about your reputation.” He stated the obvious.

“This isn’t 1950.”

“It’s also not Vegas. It’s Montana.”

“People don’t kiss in Montana?”

“They didn’t know we were just kissing.”

“But…” Melissa took a step back.

“Your lips,” he told her softly. “Your hair, your clothes. You look like you just tumbled out of a haystack.”

“But we didn’t do anything.”

“We thought about it,” he told her gruffly. “And it shows.”

Her glance went down to her chest. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

Melissa swiftly pulled her hair to the base of her neck and fastened it with the clip. “What about Stephanie? You know what she’s going to think.”

Jared nodded. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

Melissa raised her brows.

“Would you mind playing along for a few days? Have dinner with us, pretend you like me, just enough to make Stephanie think there’s a possibility we’ll fall for each other.”

Melissa seemed genuinely astonished. “Why? Why would you do that to your own sister?”

“You saw how excited she was,” Jared pointed out.

“Yes. And I know how disappointed she’s going to be when she finds out the truth. Not to mention how ticked off she’s going to be at you.”

“Who says she has to find out?”

“I’m leaving in a few days.”

“That’s perfect,” he said. “It’ll get us through Sunday. Then we’ll act like it didn’t work out. She’ll be disappointed, sure. But she’ll also be past the hard part of commemorating our parents’ deaths and remembering how much she misses her grandfather.”

“I don’t think you can postpone grieving.”

“Sure, you can.” You could postpone it. You could ignore it. And you could replace it. With, for example, anger.

Melissa shook her head. “I’m not comfortable with this.”

Then, he’d simply have to make her comfortable with it. “How much are we paying you?”

“Minimum wage, why?”

“I’ll double it.”

“You want me to ignore my principles and fake being your girlfriend for two times minimum wage?” “Triple.”


“Name your price.”

“It’s not about money. It’s about integrity.” For some reason her voice trailed away on the final word. Her gaze focused on the window as she watched the rain streak down the pane of glass. “Do you really think it’s best for her?”

Tags: Barbara Dunlop Billionaire Romance
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