She’d tried not to love him. She really had. But it was a hopeless proposition. And seeing him again told her that she’d be weeks, months, maybe even years getting over her feelings.
She heard a rustle from the kitchen and turned to see the rest of her brothers file in. They moved behind her, and Caleb joined them. As if it was choreographed, their muscular arms crossed over their chests and they pinned their gazes on Jared.
To his credit, Jared looked levelly back. “I see you didn’t lie about your brothers.”
The five Warner men straightened their spines and squared their shoulders. The toddlers’ coos and burbles were at odds with the tension in the room.
“How did you find me?” Melissa managed to ask, searching Jared’s expression, trying to figure out what reason he could possibly have for tracking her down. Had he somehow read an advance copy of the article? Had he hated it? Did he want her to change it?
“Your personnel file,” Jared surprised her by answering. “Caleb is your emergency contact.”
“How did you-”
“You’re not fired, Melissa.” He took a step forward. “I want you to know that up front.”
She felt her brothers close ranks behind her.
“Oh, yes, I am,” she responded, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. Seth had been crystal clear on that point.
Jared shook his head. “Ryder International bought Windy City Bizz. Nobody is firing you for anything.”
Melissa peered at him, trying to make sense of his words.
“It was the best way I could think of to kill the story,” he explained.
The babies played on in the background, while Renee and Sheila moved in beside their husbands.
Melissa subconsciously moved closer to Jared. “You bought the Bizz?”
That was insane.
“You paid, what? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep my story out of the press?”
“I hadn’t read the story when I bought the magazine.” He offered a wry half smile. “Had I known it was so innocuous…”
“I did try to tell you,” she pointed out.
“I know.” His expression softened, and he moved closer still. “But you knew…” He glanced around at her family members, then peered at her to make sure she understood his code. “You know?”
She did, and she nodded. “I never would have used it.”
“You lied. And I couldn’t tell-”
“I am so sorry.” She wished she could start over. If there was one minute in her life she could do over, it would be the first time they met. She’d tell Jared she was a reporter up front and let him do whatever he would do.
“Mellie.” Caleb’s arm went around her. “You don’t have to apologize again.”
“Agreed,” said Jared, meeting Caleb’s eyes, squaring his own shoulders. “It’s my turn to apologize. I lied to her, too.”
Caleb tensed, but Jared stepped forward, anyway, clasping his hands over Melissa’s. His hands were warm and strong, sending sensory memories tingling along her spine.
His expression softened again, and his voice went lower. “I lied to you when I said I never wanted to see you again.”
Melissa felt a faint flicker of hope. But she instantly squelched it. She was going down a dangerous road, erasing any gains she’d made since that horrible night at the Ritz-Carlton.
“I do want to see you again,” Jared continued, and she was forced to redouble her effort at dampening her hope. “All the time. Every day from here on in.”
Melissa wanted to run. She wanted to hide. Her brain couldn’t comprehend that he might be serious.
“Excuse me?” Sheila popped out from behind the men. “What are you saying to Melissa?”
Jared flicked an annoyed glance at Sheila, and Melissa could feel her brother Ben bristle.
“I’m saying,” said Jared, a thread of steel coming into his voice, “I can propose to her here under, well, rather stressful circumstances.”
His gaze went back to Melissa while her heart thudded powerfully in her chest. “Or we can go somewhere private, where I can do it properly.”
Her mind scrambled in a freefall.
“I have a limo out front,” Jared continued. “A table on the deck at the Bayside, a florist and photographer on standby, also-” he tapped the breast of his suit “-a ring. I also have a ring.”
“Can we see it?” chirped Sheila.
Jared’s attention never left Melissa. “Only if she says yes.”
Melissa couldn’t do anything but blink. Emotions that had been close to the surface for days threatened to erupt. This couldn’t be happening. It must be some fevered hallucination.