“I do.” He moved up behind her. He couldn’t help but admire Melissa’s decision-making process. “Do you think you could pretend to like me?”
He saw her smile in the blurry reflection of the window. “I’m a pretty good liar.”
“Good to know.” He restrained himself from resting his hands on her shoulders, even though he longed to touch her again.
She turned, and his desire ramped up. “What do you want me to do?”
Jared bit his tongue over the loaded question, but his expression obviously gave him away.
“You.” She poked him squarely in the chest. “Have to promise to behave yourself.”
“I will. If you tell me what that means.”
Her eyes narrowed. “It means…” She seemed to stumble. “It means not looking at me like you’re the big bad wolf and I’m carrying a basket of goodies.”
“It’ll probably help the charade,” he reasoned.
“It’ll make me jumpy.”
“It should,” was his blunt answer.
“Jared,” she warned.
“I’ll behave myself,” he promised. “But it’ll help if you do a couple of things for me.”
“Wear a gunnysack, and a veil, don’t talk in that sexy voice and, for the love of God, quit smelling so decadently delicious.”
Back inside her cottage, Melissa was all but shaking with reaction to Jared’s words. And to his kisses. And to the overwhelming opportunity he’d unknowingly handed to her.
She was having dinner with his family. Dinner with the Ryders-a private meal where she could ask as many questions as she liked, about growing up, their ranch, their charity trust, their businesses.
She already knew the article would show them in a positive light. Both Jared and Stephanie were hardworking, successful people. The fact that they commemorated their parents’ deaths was admirable, and their grandfather’s recent death would add a poignancy that readers would lap up like kittens with fresh cream.
She lowered herself into the armchair beside the cottage window, struggling to frame her thoughts. It was Friday today. She’d planned to give herself one more day, maybe two at the most, to gather facts at the ranch. Then she’d have to rush back to Chicago and write the article in time to have it sitting on Seth Strickland’s desk for Monday morning.
But that timetable was out the window now. Her greatest interview opportunities would be in the next couple of days. Which meant there was no way to be ready Monday morning. Which meant she’d have to call Seth and confess.
She drew a breath, squeezing the fabric-covered arms of the chair as she tried to still her racing heart. She could only hope her editor’s excitement over the article would overrule his anger that she’d lied to him.
She glanced at her watch. Two o’clock. That made it three in Chicago. No time to lose. She pulled her cell phone out of her bag, pressing the buttons for his number. It rang three times, but then jumped to voice mail, giving her no choice but to leave a quick, vague message.
She replaced the phone in her bag when, over the sound of the continuing rain, she heard footsteps on the front porch. She glanced through the window to see Stephanie, a dripping white Stetson pulled low on her head, waving cheerily through the pane.
Melissa sighed inwardly. She wasn’t ready for this. Being undercover to get a story was one thing, but leading Stephanie on was another thing entirely.
But Stephanie had seen her, and Melissa had no choice but to open the door. She crossed to the little foyer.
“Hi,” said Stephanie, beaming as she entered the cottage.
Melissa couldn’t help but smile in return. The young woman’s grin was infectious.
“I told you so,” Stephanie sang, hanging her hat on one of a long row of pegs on the wooden wall.
The entry area of the cottage was practically laid out. There were pegs for coats and hats. A small bench beneath, with room for footwear under it, and a bright, woven Navajo rug decorating the wooden floor.
The foyer took up one corner of the small living room. The rest of the room boasted a simple burgundy couch, a leather armchair, a small television and two low tables with ivory lamps.
There was a compact kitchen beside the living room, a table and two kitchen chairs under the front window, and a door to a bedroom/bathroom combination on the far side. Melissa had to admit, she adored the brass bed and the claw-foot tub. And the oak tree outside the bedroom window rustled in the night breeze, while the muted roar of the river outside filled in the background.
Melissa took a step back to stay out of the way of Stephanie’s wet raincoat. Not that she wouldn’t have to change clothes, anyway. Standing in front of the open window with Jared had been…well, it had been amazing, of course. But mostly it had been foolish. And not just because she’d ended up with wet clothes.