“You want to give her some gloves?” asked Stephanie.
“Somebody better,” he conceded. Aimless wanderer or criminal on the run, if they were going to employ her, the least they could do was make sure she avoided injury.
“Hey, Melissa,” Stephanie called.
The woman paused and glanced up.
“Grab some gloves out of the storeroom.”
Melissa gave her hands a puzzled look.
“She hasn’t a clue,” said Jared, hit with an unexpected flash of pity. Maybe she was running from an angry ex. He quickly reined in his thoughts. None of his business.
“You sure you don’t want me to introduce you?” Stephanie singsonged.
Jared turned Tango toward the house. “You going to show me your trophy or what?”
“Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“Yes, I can.” But Jared glanced over his shoulder one last time as they moved away. Manure fork balanced in the crook of her elbow, the woman named Melissa was wriggling her fingers into the pair of stiff leather gloves. The fork slipped and banged to the wooden floor. The sound startled a horse. The horse startled the woman. She tripped on the fork and landed with a thud on her backside.
Their gazes met once more, his amused, hers annoyed.
He turned away, but the flash of emerald stayed with him as he followed Stephanie to the hitching rail in front of the house.
By the end of the day, the bruise on Melissa’s left butt cheek had settled to a dull ache.
While she swept the last of the straw from the stable floor, a late-model Bentley rumbled its way to the front of the farmhouse. The glossy black exterior might be dusty, but it was still one impressive automobile. And the chauffeur who jumped out of the driver’s seat was crisp in his uniform.
She moved into the oversize doorway, leaning on the end of the broom handle while she waited to see who would emerge from the backseat.
It was an older man, distinguished in a Savile Row suit. He was tall, with a head of thick silver hair. He nodded politely to the chauffeur, then headed up the stairs to the wraparound porch, where both Stephanie and Jared appeared to greet him and usher him inside.
The chauffeur shut the car door. He glanced curiously around the ranch yard before moving to open the trunk. Melissa peered at the house, but there was no way to guess what was going on inside. The man might be a friend, or perhaps he was a business associate.
Jared’s sister’s house seemed like an odd location for a business meeting. Unless, of course, somebody wanted to keep the meeting a secret. Now that was an interesting possibility. Was there something clandestine in the works for Ryder International?
As the chauffeur had before her, Melissa glanced curiously around the yard. Several young riders were practicing jumps in the main ring, their grooms and trainers watching. A group of stable hands were loading hay into a pickup truck beside the biggest barn, and three cowboys were urging a small herd of horses across the river with a pair of border collies lending a hand. Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to the Bentley.
Then another vehicle appeared and pulled up to the house. This one was an SUV, larger but no less luxurious than the Bentley.
A thirtysomething man with dark glasses and curly dark hair stepped out of the driver’s seat. He looked Mediterranean, and he was definitely not a chauffeur. He wore loafers, well-cut blue jeans, an open white dress shirt and a dark jacket. He also offered a polite greeting to the Bentley driver before striding up the stairs of the porch.
Melissa’s journalistic curiosity all but ordered her to investigate. She leaned her broom up against the stable wall and started across the yard. She told herself she’d put in a good eight hours today. It was close to dinnertime, and the Bentley was at least vaguely in the direction of the cookhouse. She’d have a plausible excuse if anyone questioned her.
Ironically she’d been disappointed not to get a job down at the main ranch. The foreman there had all but sent her packing this morning when she’d told him she was a stranded traveler. Luckily Stephanie Ryder had been there at the time. The younger woman had taken pity on Melissa and offered her a job at the Ryder Equestrian Center. Melissa had been plotting ways to get back to the main ranch when Jared and his horse had wandered into the yard. Talk about good luck.
Now she was looking for more luck. She smiled brightly at the chauffeur, smudging her palms along the sides of her thighs, wishing she wasn’t covered in dust and sweat, and was wearing something other than blue jeans and a grime-streaked shirt. She wasn’t the greatest flirt in the world, but in the right party dress, she could usually hold a man’s attention.
“Very nice car,” she ventured in a friendly voice as she approached.