Then he turned away, sharply and with an absolute finality to his posture.
Before she could get another word out, he was past the fountain and heading for the elevators.
“Melissa?” Susan’s voice was hushed as she pressed against her shoulder.
“That was Jared Ryder.” Melissa’s voice was hollow. Her body was hollow. Her life was hollow. “No kidding.”
Melissa knew it didn’t matter what she wrote in the article, what secrets she kept or what she revealed, Jared was never going to forgive her. She’d never see him again, never be held in those strong arms, hear his voice, smell his skin, taste his passionate kisses. She realized now how very much she’d been counting on their last night together.
“You okay?” asked Susan.
Melissa forced herself to nod. Her eyes were burning, but she blinked the sting away.
“Wow,” Susan continued. “I hope your research was finished.”
Melissa didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Just then, she couldn’t have cared less about the article. “It is,” she told Susan.
“What are you doing here?” Susan glanced around the hotel lobby. “Brandon and I were hoping to catch the mayor.”
Melissa coughed a hollow laugh. “I chatted with the mayor upstairs.”
“Really?” Susan took in the dress. “You were at the Genevieve Memorial Fund ball?”
“Jared and, uh, his brother invited me along.” The last thing in the world she wanted to do was invite questions about her relationship with Jared.
“Wow,” said Susan, gaze going to the elevator where the two men had disappeared. “I am in awe.”
Where Melissa was exhausted, both emotionally and physically. It had been a week of hard work and long nights. She’d labored over the article every spare minute. Well, every spare minute that she hadn’t been falling-
She froze for a second, drew a stunned breath and closed her eyes.
Every spare minute that she hadn’t been falling in love with Jared.
Her hands curled into fists, and she fought against the knowledge that had just exploded in her brain.
“Your article is going to kick butt,” Susan was saying.
How could Melissa have been so stupid? Why hadn’t she seen it coming? She should have done something to stop it. But no, she’d hung around him like an eager little puppy dog, throwing herself into his arms, into his bed, pretending she somehow belonged in his life.
Susan squeezed Melissa’s shoulder. “You are so going to get that promotion. Seth might even smile.” She paused. “Hey, Brandon’s outside. You think we should go tell him?”
“No.” The word jumped out with more force than she’d intended. But Melissa didn’t want to talk to Brandon or anyone else. She wanted to go home and hole up alone in her apartment. Some way, somehow, she had to get over Jared and get words on the page in the next twenty-four hours.
“You slept with a reporter?” Royce confirmed the obvious as the hotel-suite door swung shut behind them.
The fact that Jared had slept with Melissa was the least of his worries. Sure, maybe she could write about seeing him naked or detail his kisses and pillow talk. But it wasn’t like he was into handcuffs or women in French-maid outfits.
“You didn’t suspect?” Royce went straight for the bar, snagging a bottle of single malt from the mirrored top shelf.
He flipped two crystal glasses over, ignored the ice bucket and filled the tumblers to halfway.
“Yeah,” said Jared. “I suspected. But I figured, what the hell? She’s got a great ass. Why not sleep with somebody who’ll splash it all over the front page?”
Royce rounded the bar again. “Sarcasm’s not going to help.”
“Neither are stupid questions.” Jared took one of the glasses and downed a hefty swallow.
“Nothing gave her away?”
Jared dropped into an armchair. “She was a stable hand. We have dozens of them. Yeah, she didn’t know much about horses. And maybe her background was vague. And maybe she seemed too smart for a drifter. Which was what attracted me in the first place. She was…”
Royce cocked his head meaningfully.
“Son of a bitch,” said Jared and polished off the scotch.
He’d let his sex drive override his logic. It was a clichéd, blatant, pathetic scenario. And he’d bought it hook, line and sinker. “She slept with me to get a story.”
“That surprises you?”
Yes. It surprised him. He knew there were women in the world who used sex as a bargaining chip. He met them all the time. But Melissa sure hadn’t struck him as one of those. She was down-to-earth, honest, classy.