The question took him by surprise. “Why the heck would you think that?”
“You’ve got it all,” she responded, taking another sip of the merlot, which he couldn’t help but note was exactly the same shade as her lips. “Money, success, community standing, charitable work, and now you’re palling around with the mayor of Chicago.”
“How did you know about the mayor?”
She concentrated on setting down her glass. “One of the cowboys mentioned something about your building and the city.”
Jared turned to glare at Stephanie. “How does anybody get any work done around here?” he demanded. “Melissa’s been here three days, and she knows everything but my birth weight and shoe size.”
“Don’t be such a bear,” said Stephanie.
“You’re exaggerating,” said Melissa.
“Not by much.”
“Eight pounds nine ounces,” Stephanie put in with a giggle.
“Ouch,” said Melissa.
“Don’t let that put you off,” Stephanie came back. “It’s not necessarily hereditary.”
Both Jared and Melissa stared at her, dumbfounded.
“What?” Stephanie glanced back and forth between them. “You guys don’t want kids?”
“Several,” said Jared, deciding his sister deserved everything she got from here on in.
He took Melissa’s hand and raised it to his lips. “How does four sound to you?”
“Are you going to hire me a nanny?” she asked, surprising him by playing along.
“You bet. A nanny, a chauffeur and a housekeeper.”
“Okay, then.” Melissa gave a nod. “Four it is. But we’d better get started-I’m not getting any younger.” She reached for her wineglass. “Better enjoy this while I can. Once I’m pregnant, it’s off the alcohol. And this wine is fantastic.”
“I know you’re messing with me,” Stephanie put in. “But I don’t care. I have hope, anyway.”
“We have a very good wine cellar,” said Jared. “It was a hobby of Gramps.”
“Why don’t you show it to Melissa?” Stephanie quickly suggested.
“You hoping I’ll get her pregnant on the tasting table?”
Melissa sputtered and coughed over a drink.
He squeezed her hand by way of apology.
“I think Stephanie’s overestimating the power of this dress,” she wheezed.
Jared hesitated. Then he stepped into the breach. “No, she’s not.”
Stephanie clapped her hands together in triumph.
It was ten o’clock when Stephanie succeeded in getting Jared and Melissa alone together. They were in the truck, and Melissa peered in pitch-darkness and driving rain as they rounded the bend to the row of cottages by the river, the headlights bouncing off the oak trees and the dark porches.
She had to admit, she wouldn’t have wanted to walk all the way back. And she wouldn’t have asked Stephanie to slog through the mud to get to the truck. And that left Jared.
Then he had insisted on carrying her from the ranch house porch to the truck-which was an experience all on its own.
Now they pulled up to the front of her cottage and he killed the lights and turned off the engine.
“Stay put,” he told her as he opened the driver’s door and a puff of cool wind burst in. “I’ll be right around.”
Part of her wanted to insist on walking, but her shoes were impractical, the mud was slick, and she knew the black road would be a patchwork of deep puddles. So she waited, her heart rate increasing, her skin prickling in anticipation and her brain fumbling through sexy projections of being in Jared’s arms again.
Her door swung open, and she shifted from the seat into his arms, wrapping her own arms around his neck. She’d put a windbreaker over the dress, but her legs were still bare and his strong hand clasped around the back of her thigh.
“Ready?” he asked, husky voice puffing against her cheek.
“Ready,” she confirmed with a nod, and he pulled her against his chest, his body protecting her from the worst of the rain. He kicked the truck door shut and strode over the mud and up the porch stairs, stopping under the tiny roof in front of the door.
He didn’t bother putting her down. Instead, he swung the door open and carried her into the warm cottage.
It was completely dark, not a single frame of reference.
He slowly lowered her to the floor. “Don’t move.”
“Do you have matches?” she asked as he stepped away from her.
“There’ll be some on the mantel.” Something banged, and he cursed.
“You okay?” she called.
Then she heard a crackle, and a small flame appeared across the living room. She could just make out Jared’s face as he lit three candles on the stone mantel. There was a mirror on the wall behind, and the light reflected back into the room.