Stephanie kicked off her boots. “Do you know how long it’s been since Jared invited a woman home for dinner?”
Melissa knew she needed to dial Stephanie’s excitement level way down. “He didn’t exactly-”
“Never,” sang Stephanie. “He’s never invited a woman home for dinner.”
“Your equestrian center is not his actual home,” cautioned Melissa. “And I was already here.”
Stephanie waved a dismissive hand. “Technicalities.”
“Seriously, Stephanie. You can’t get carried away with this. Jared and I barely know each other.”
Stephanie heaved an exaggerated sigh, dropping down onto the couch. “Are you always this much of a downer?”
Melissa took the armchair again. “I’m always this much of a realist.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“It saves a lot of heartache in the long run.”
“Disappointment, I can handle. It’s never leaving the starting gate that would kill me.”
Inwardly, Melissa conceded there was some logic to the argument. “It’s only dinner,” she said to Stephanie. “And I’m still planning to leave in a couple of days.”
“But you’re here now,” said Stephanie with a sly wink. “What are you going to wear?”
Melissa’s cell phone jangled from her bag on the floor.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” she said, knowing in her heart the call was from Seth. There was no way in the world she could answer it in front of Stephanie.
It rang again.
“Do you want to get that?”
Melissa shook her head. “It can go to voice mail.”
“You sure? I don’t mind.”
Another shrill ring.
“I’m sure. What do you think I should wear?” Truth was, Melissa hadn’t seen anyone wear anything but blue jeans and riding clothes since she’d arrived. Her own wardrobe was plain and meager, since she was pretending to be on a bus trip.
The damn phone rang again.
“You sure you don’t want to-”
“Completely sure.” Melissa reached for the slim phone. A quick glance told her it was, indeed, her boss. She sent the call to voice mail. “There.”
Stephanie paused for a moment. Then her expression grew animated once again as she sat forward. “I was thinking, since it’s Royce’s first night back, we should dress up a little.”
Melissa’s attention went automatically to the downpour and the rivulets of mud streaking the narrow cottage road. Even if she had brought anything dressy, it was a virtual mud bog between the cottage and Stephanie’s house.
“We’ll do it up at the house,” Stephanie went on. “We’re about the same size. You can take a shower up there. We’ll play around with your hair. Put on a little makeup, and you can borrow one of my dresses. I have a bunch I’ve never even worn.”
“I’m not Cinderella,” Melissa admonished.
“Oh-” Stephanie all but jumped up from the sofa “-that makes me the fairy godmother.”
“Did you miss the word not?” Melissa struggled to keep a grip on the conversation.
“This is going to be great.”
Still in Melissa’s hand, the phone rang again. It was Seth. She hit the voice mail button one more time. She was going to have one heck of a lot of explaining to do. Good thing she would have a kick-ass story to offer up.
“Girl talk while we get ready.” Stephanie laughed.
Girl talk? Girl talk.
Why was she trying to get out of this? Girl talk was exactly what she needed for research.
“I’ll meet you up there,” she agreed. A quick call to Seth, and she’d be ready for all the girl talk in the world.
“Don’t be silly.” This time Stephanie did jump up. “You’d drown. I’ll drive you over in the truck.”
Stephanie’s house was rustic but undeniably gracious. A large, practical foyer led into a massive great room with polished floors, a high, hewn-beam ceiling, and overstuffed leather furniture decorated with colorful pillows and woven throws. There was a huge stone fireplace at one end of the rectangular room, and a row of glass doors down the side opened onto a deck that overlooked evergreens and snowy mountain peaks. A wide passageway opposite revealed a gourmet kitchen with a long, polished-wood breakfast bar and padded stools and a formal dining room that seated twelve, with a wood-and-brass chandelier and an impressive woven carpet under the cherry table and wine-colored armchairs.
As they made their way up a wide staircase to the second floor, Melissa wished once again for Susan and her camera. Stephanie’s bedroom was at the front of the house. It had its own small balcony, a walk-in closet, an en suite bath and a small sitting area set in a bay-window alcove.