“Name’s Tango.” Jared pointed to a paddock on the other side of the driveway turnaround where a black horse pranced and bucked his way around the fence line. Its head was up, ears pointed, and it was tossing his mane proudly for the three horses in the neighboring pen.
Melissa’s bravado instantly evaporated.
“You can tack him up if you like,” Jared continued. “Or he’s fine bareback.”
Bareback? She swallowed. Not that a saddle would help.
Okay. New plan. Forget the interview, it was time for a quick exit.
“I…just…” she stammered. “I…uh…just remembered, I’m off shift.”
His brows twitched upward. “We have shifts?”
“I mean…” She blinked up at him. What? What? What the hell did she say?
She rubbed the bruise on her left butt cheek, making a show of wincing. “My fall. Earlier. I’m a little stiff and sore.”
“Too stiff to sit on a horse?” He clearly found the excuse preposterous.
“I’m also a little rusty.” She attempted to look contrite and embarrassed. “I haven’t ridden for a while.”
He cocked his head, studying her all over again. “It’s like riding a bike.”
She was sure it was.
“Tack’s on the third stand. Don’t let him hold his breath when you cinch the saddle.”
As far as she was concerned, Tango could do any old thing he pleased. She wasn’t going to stop him from holding his breath. Quite frankly she’d rather chase lions around Lincoln Park.
“I really can’t-”
“We fire people who can’t get the job done,” Jared flatly warned her.
The threat stopped Melissa cold. If she got fired, she’d be thrown off the property. She could kiss the article and her promotion goodbye. And if Seth found out she’d been here, she could probably kiss her job at the Bizz goodbye, too.
“I hope you won’t,” she said in all sincerity.
Jared searched her expression for a long moment. His voice went low, and the space between them grew smaller. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t.”
“I’ve been working really hard,” she told him without hesitation.
“Not at the moment,” he pointed out.
“It’s six o’clock.”
“We’re not nine to five on Ryder Ranch.”
“I’m prepared for that.”
He edged almost imperceptibly closer, revealing tiny laugh lines beside his eyes and a slight growth of beard along his tanned square jaw. “Are you?”
She ignored the tug of attraction to his rugged masculinity. “Yes.”
“You’ll pull your own weight?”
“You can’t depend on your looks around here.”
Melissa drew back in surprise.
“If I catch you batting those big green eyes-”
He leaned closer still and she shut her mouth. “You mess with my cowboys, and your pretty little butt will be off the property in a heartbeat.”
A rush of heat prickled her cheeks. “I have no intention of messing with your cowboys.”
A cloud rolled over the setting sun, and a chill dampened the charged air between them.
Jared’s nostrils flared, and his eyes darkened to indigo in the shifting light. He stared at her for a lengthening moment, then his head canted to one side.
How his kiss might feel bloomed unbidden in her mind. It would be light, then firm, then harder still as he pulled her body flush against his own. A flash of heat stirred her body as the wind gusted between them, forming tiny dust devils on the driveway and rustling the tall, summer grass.
The ranch hands still shouted to one another. Hooves still thudded against the packed dirt. And the diesel engines still rumbled in the distance.
“See that you don’t,” he finally murmured. “And move my damn horse.”
“Fine,” she ground out, quashing the stupid hormonal reaction. She’d move the damn horse or die trying.
Later that evening, in Stephanie’s dining room, Jared struggled to put Melissa out of his mind. His sister had obviously hired the woman out of pity. Then Jared had kept her on for the same reason. He wasn’t sure who’d made the bigger mistake.
“We’ve had thirty-five new requests for assistance this year,” said Otto Durand, moving a manila file to the top of his pile. Otto had been a board member of the Genevieve Memorial Fund for fifteen years. He was also the CEO of Rutledge Agricultural Equipment and a lifelong friend of Jared and Melissa’s parents.
“We do have the money,” Anthony Salvatore put in, flipping through a report. “Donations, they are up nearly twenty percent.” Anthony was a distant relative, the son of Jared’s mother’s cousin. The cousin had met and fallen in love with Carmine Salvatore on a college trip to Naples, and their only son had held a special place in Genevieve’s heart.