The man pushed the trunk closed and gazed critically at the Bentley. “I suppose dust is better than mud.”
She guessed he was about her own age, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. He was attractive, in a farmboy-fresh kind of way, with blond hair, a straight nose and a narrow chin. He was clean-shaven, and his hair was neatly trimmed.
She slowed her steps, taking in the Montana license plate and committing the number to memory. “Did you have a long drive in?” she asked pleasantly.
“Couple of hours from Helena.”
Helena. Good. That was a start. “So you work in Helena?”
“Three years now.”
She stayed silent for a moment, hoping he’d elaborate on his job or the company. She scanned both his uniform and the car for a logo.
“Your first time at Ryder Ranch?” She tried another approach.
He nodded at that. “Heard about it, of course. Everybody in the state knows about the Ryders.”
“I’m from Indiana,” she supplied.
“Grew up south of Butte myself.” He gave the dust on the car another critical gaze. “There a hose around here someplace?”
She had no idea. “I guess you meet interesting people in your job?” She struggled to keep the conversation focused on his employment.
“I do some.” He glanced around the ranch yard while a horse whinnied in the distance, and a tractor engine roared to life. Unfortunately he didn’t pick up the conversational thread.
But Melissa wasn’t giving up, not by a long shot. She moved in a step closer, tossing back her hair, hoping it looked disheveled, instead of unruly.
Her actions caught his attention, and he glanced at the ground.
She lowered her voice as she gave him her brightest smile. “I’m a little embarrassed,” she cooed. “But should I know the man you dropped off?”
The chauffeur looked back up. He didn’t answer. Instead, he swallowed hard, and his neck flushed beneath the collar of his uniform.
“I only ask,” she continued, tilting her head to one side, surprised it took so little to rattle him, “because I don’t want…”
He worked his jaw.
She paused, waiting for him, but he didn’t make a sound.
She suddenly realized his gaze wasn’t fixed on her. He was focused on a spot behind her left shoulder. Her scalp prickled.
Uh-oh. She twisted her head and came face-to-face with Jared Ryder.
It was clear he was annoyed. He was also taller than she’d realized, and intimidating, with that strong chin and those deep blue eyes. He wore a fitted, Western-cut shirt and snug blue jeans. His shoulders were broad, his chest deep, and his sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms, revealing a deep tan and obvious muscle definition.
“Don’t want to what?” he asked Melissa, his tone a low rumbling challenge.
She didn’t have a quick answer for that, and his deep blue gaze flicked to the silent chauffeur. “There’s coffee in the cookhouse.” He gave the man a nod in the appropriate direction.
The chauffeur immediately took his cue and hustled away.
Jared’s tone turned to steel, the power of his irritation settling fully on Melissa. “I’d sure appreciate it if you could flirt on your own time.”
“I…” What could she tell him? That she wasn’t flirting? That, in fact, she was spying?
Better to go with flirting.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, offering no excuses.
He gave a curt nod of acknowledgment, followed by a long assessing gaze that made her glad she was only pretending to be his employee.
“I don’t know why Stephanie hired you,” he finally stated.
Melissa wasn’t sure how to answer that, or even if he expected an answer. The only thing she did know was that she was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to talk to him alone.
“You’re Stephanie’s brother?” she asked, pretending she hadn’t been poring over his press coverage on the Internet.
“She tells me you grew up around horses,” he countered, instead of answering the question.
“I did.” Melissa nodded. Technically it was true. She gestured to the northern paddocks. “You obviously grew up around a lot of them.”
“My qualifications aren’t at issue.”
“Stephanie seemed fine with mine.” Melissa valiantly battled the nerves bubbling in her stomach. “I saw the main house yesterday. The one your grandparents built. Were you born on the Ryder Ranch?”
A muscle ticked in his left cheek. “Since you’re obviously not busy with anything else, I need you to move my horse to the riverside pen. The one with the red gate.”
“Sure.” The brave word jumped out before she had a chance to censor it.