“And you can still make the guarantee?”
“I can.” She didn’t have enough on the construction business yet. But she’d let Stephanie matchmake some more, and she’d find a way to meet Royce. She’d get what Seth needed or die trying.
“I have to have it Wednesday. Five o’clock. And the copy better be bloody clean. We’re not going to have time for much editing.”
“Five o’clock Wednesday,” Melissa confirmed.
“And, Melissa?” Seth’s voice was gruff. “Yes?”
“Lie to me again, and you’re fired.”
Seth hung up the phone, and she realized she was shaking. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and she barely had four days to pull it off.
“Have a good time with Melissa last night?” Stephanie asked as Royce’s pickup appeared in the distance on the ranch road.
“It was fine,” Jared answered, keeping his voice neutral. He fully expected Melissa to make herself scarce for the rest of the week.
He wasn’t sure what had gone wrong at the end of the evening, but he’d obviously made some kind of misstep. A woman didn’t go from crying out a man’s name to kicking him out of her bed in the space of two minutes if the guy hadn’t screwed up somehow.
He started down the stairs to meet Royce at the driveway.
“You going to see her again?” asked Stephanie, keeping pace.
“I expect I will. Since she’s living here.” Odds were that he’d run into her eventually.
“That’s not what I meant. Are you going to ask her out? I noticed you stayed down there for a while.”
“I bet you did.”
The sound of the truck’s engine grew louder. Mud sprayed out from the tires as Royce took a corner far too fast.
“Did you sleep with her?” asked Stephanie.
Jared shot his sister a glare of irritation. “What is the matter with you?”
She shrugged. “You were only gone an hour. Not a lot of time, but then maybe you weren’t very-”
“Young lady, you shut your mouth before you get yourself into a world of trouble. Where did you learn to talk like that, anyway?” Maybe he’d stayed away too long. Maybe leaving Stephanie here on her own was a mistake. Or maybe Gramps’s death had affected her more than Jared and Royce had realized.
“I’m just asking a question.”
“You’re out of line, little sister.”
Stephanie pursed her lips in a pout. “So are you going to ask her out again?” Jared frowned.
“That can’t be out of line. I’m not asking about sex.”
The truck skidded to a halt, and Jared walked forward. “Let’s just get through the weekend, all right?”
“I know I have to get through the weekend,” Stephanie muttered as they walked down the front pathway. “I was only hoping for something to look forward to at the end of it.”
Jared felt a pang of guilt. The whole reason he’d started the charade with Melissa was to keep Stephanie’s mind occupied. Sure, it had run way off the rails last night. But that wasn’t Stephanie’s fault.
He slung an arm around his sister’s shoulders, moderating his voice. “Fine. I’ll ask her out again. But I can’t guarantee she’ll say yes.”
Stephanie turned in to give him a tight squeeze. “I know she’ll say yes. I saw the way she looked at you.”
The words caused a sudden tightening in Jared’s chest. How she’d looked at him? What did that mean? He wanted to probe for more information. But Royce appeared across the hood of the truck, and Stephanie broke free to hug her other brother.
“Baby sister!” cried Royce, dragging Stephanie into his arms, lifting her off the ground and twirling her around.
Jared caught a glimpse of Melissa across the yard, and their gazes met. She was shoveling manure again, and for some reason, that made him angry. She was capable of so much more. She was intelligent, full of insightful opinions and thought-provoking questions.
It occurred to him that he could offer her a job in Chicago. She could work for Ryder International or even the Genevieve Fund. There had to be any number of things a woman with her intellect and curiosity could handle.
In a split second he realized what he was doing. He was working out ways to keep her close, ways that he could see her again, maybe sleep with her again. Though, judging by the expression on her face, the latter was unlikely. But what did it say about him? Was he buying into Stephanie’s fantasy?
He could almost feel a debate going on inside Melissa’s brain. She’d seen him, and she knew he knew. Did she duck her head and go back to work? Did she avoid him, or get the first, awkward moment over with?