“Bro?” Royce prompted.
Jared cleared his throat. “She said it was the same reason Gramps did what he did.”
Royce’s hand came down on the steering wheel. “All this, and the woman’s talking in riddles?”
Jared rolled it over in his mind. “Why did Gramps do what he did?”
“To protect Dad.”
“Because he was his son.”
The brothers looked at each other, sharing an instant of comprehension. Gramps had protected Jared’s father because he loved him.
“Holy crap,” said Royce.
“Not what I needed to know,” said Jared.
“Do you care?” Royce pressed.
Jared swore out loud. “She lied to me. She duped me. She invaded the hell out of my privacy.” He slammed the pages onto his lap.
“Yet you love her, anyway,” Royce guessed.
Jared clamped his jaw shut. Did he love Melissa? How could he love an illusion? He didn’t even know which parts were her and which were the lie.
“And she loves you,” Royce continued. He slowed for a stoplight, gearing the car down.
“I need a drink.”
The woman was a damn fine illusion. If even half of what he’d seen of her was real, it might be enough. Hell, it would be enough.
“What are you going to do?”
“Drink,” said Jared.
Royce laughed. “Since you’re not denying it and since you’re even considering her, I’d say you absolutely need a drink. You’ve got it very bad, big brother.”
“It doesn’t matter why her. It’s done.”
“Nothing’s done.” Jared certainly hadn’t made any decisions. He was barely wrapping his head around falling for Melissa.
“You forget, I watched you watch her,” said Royce. “You were never letting her go to Seattle.”
“She never was going to Seattle. It was all a lie.”
Royce shook his head and laughed. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Then he spun the steering wheel, yanked the hand brake and pivoted the car in a sharp u-turn.
“What are you doing?” Jared stabilized himself with the armrest.
“You do need a drink.” Royce screeched to a stop in front of the Hilliard House tavern’s valet parking. “If only to come to terms with the rest of your life.”
Melissa should have realized her brother Caleb would call in reinforcements. She’d found herself at his house Saturday morning, looking for emotional support. Caleb was the most sympathetic of her brothers, and she’d really needed a shoulder to cry on.
Within an hour, Ben and Sheila had arrived, their baby and two-year-old in tow. Then Eddy showed up, without the new girlfriend, demonstrating how seriously he was taking the situation. He was quick to envelop Melissa in a protective hug, and she had to battle a fresh round of tears.
Soon all her siblings and her nieces and nephews filled Caleb’s big house with love and support. The jumble of their conversations and chaos of the children provided a buffer between Melissa and her raw emotions.
She’d told herself she couldn’t be in love with Jared. Maybe it was infatuation. Maybe it was lust. She hadn’t known him long enough for it to be real love.
But then she’d remember his voice, his smile, his jokes, his passion and the way she’d felt in his arms. What if it was real love? How was she going to get over it?
She swallowed, smiling as one of her nephews handed her a sticky wooden block, forcing her thoughts to the present.
The doors and windows of Caleb’s house were wide open to the afternoon breeze. Some of her brothers were shooting hoops in the driveway while Adam cranked up the grill on the back deck and distributed bottles of imported beer. His wife, Renee, was calling out orders from the kitchen.
Melissa and her sister-in-law Sheila were corralling toddlers on the living-room floor, amid a jumble of blocks, action figures and miniature cars.
“Mellie?” Caleb’s voice interrupted the game.
Melissa glanced up.
Her brother’s brow was furrowed with concern, and she quickly saw the reason why.
Jared stood in the foyer, his suit and tie contrasting with the casual T-shirt and jeans Caleb wore.
She scrambled to her feet, drinking in his appearance, wishing she wasn’t so pathetically glad to see him as she crammed her messy hair behind her ears. She hoped her eyes weren’t red. She hoped he couldn’t read how lonely she’d been the past few days. She’d fallen asleep each night with his image in her mind, longing to feel his strong arms wrapped around her.
She’d second-guessed herself a million times. What if she’d come clean right off? What if she’d told him who she was? Maybe he’d have thrown her off the ranch. But maybe he’d have given her an interview. And maybe, just maybe, they’d have had a chance to get to know each other without a lie between them.