Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker
Madison brushed aside the memories of Chance’s kiss as she reached for her Day-Timer. “It’s just awkward between us right now,” she said finally.
Kit threw up her hands in dismay. “I could see that.”
But sort of intimate, too, Madison thought, amazed at how the baby was changing things, bringing them closer together despite themselves.
Aware her best friend was waiting for some explanation, Madison continued honestly, “I never should have bought him at that auction. He’s probably still a little peeved about me taking advantage of the situation to talk to him about the account. Especially when I knew from conversations with people in the horse business that he’s very much a low-profile guy at heart. I mean, he loves what he does, and he doesn’t mind being renowned for his work with horses, but he doesn’t have an interest in being recognized by the average person on the street or having his privacy disrupted. I know he really wants to help the orphanage, and the six figures he’ll earn for his work will go a long way toward that, so this whole experience is a mixed bag for him, too.”
Madison and Kit continued boxing up things. “Somehow, I had the feeling it was more than that,” Kit said finally. “Like maybe he was doing this to please you.”
Madison flushed self-consciously. She turned away from Kit’s probing gaze and reached for a pen. She began printing the address of Chance’s ranch on the first of a stack of shipping labels. “Now you’re really reading too much into this.”
Kit didn’t think so, Madison noted with dismay.
Kit closed a box and taped it shut. “Then why is he demanding that you and you alone oversee the filming of the commercial and stay at his ranch, if not to have time with you?”
“Because he knows how much I want this commercial to happen, and he trusts me to make sure it’s done right.” And though he hadn’t come right out and said as much, Madison sensed he wanted to share in her pregnancy, at least for a little while. Which wasn’t all that uncommon. This was his baby, too.
“I still say it’s more than that,” Kit said persistently.
Madison finished one label and reached for another. “Look, I know living in that all-male household of yours has given you an understanding of men in general that is unparalleled around here. But Chance is different.”
“Not that different,” disagreed Kit, who was happily married and the mother of two teenage sons. “Not in my book.”
Finished with the shipping labels, Madison paused. “He’s an enigma. Remember? That was one of the reasons we wanted him so badly for this account in the first place. In every photo we saw, there seemed to be so much going on behind his eyes.”
“There still is.” Ever the matchmaker, Kit smiled. “Only now it’s all directed at you.”
Madison was silent, knowing that was true, to a point. But she was not, she told herself firmly, foolish enough to romanticize this predicament they’d found themselves in any more than she already had done.
“He’s probably just thinking about the money he’s going to get for the ranch and all the good it’s going to do.”
Kit nodded. “You’ve got to say this about him, he’s a very decent guy.”
Generous to a fault. “Yes. He is.” Madison zipped her briefcase. Even though, on a personal level, he was constantly getting under her skin, and on a professional level, he could be very difficult, too.
Finished with the boxes, Madison and Kit opened the door and pushed them into the hall just as Ed walked by, cigar in hand. He looked happier than he had in weeks. “Madison, I’m glad I caught you,” he said.
“Chance got off to the airport okay?” Madison asked, glad Ed had offered to drive Chance.
Ed nodded. “He said to tell you he’ll pick you up at the Casper airport when you arrive.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Madison saw Kit raise a brow. “I’d planned to rent a car,” Madison said.
“He said he’s got a vehicle you can use out at the ranch. Besides, it’ll be a good opportunity for you to smooth things over and get to know him a little better—sell him on this project and remind him what a good thing it is for all of us.” Ed used the end of his cigar to punctuate the air as he talked. “I just got off the phone with Ursula Rodriguez. After meeting him in person and seeing how charismatic he is, she’s more determined than ever that Chance appear personally at the trade shows along with the Ranchero.”
Madison paused, her anxiety returning full blast. “You know that’s the one thing Chance said he wouldn’t do, Ed!”
Ed remained confident. “I’m sure you’ll be able to change his mind. You’re going to have plenty of time to work on him.”
Madison ran her hands through her hair, pushing it off her face. “And if I can’t change his mind?”
Ed sobered abruptly. “Madison, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how much this account means to us.”
“No, Ed,” Madison replied, feeling herself tense at the thought of the stakes involved, “you don’t.”
“Not just to the firm, but to you, too,” Ed continued earnestly as Kit slipped discreetly from the room and went to tell the mail room Madison’s boxes were ready for pickup. “I really want you to have that VP slot. But to get it,” Ed warned, “you’re going to have to prove that you can do the high-level wheeling and dealing that comes with the territory, no matter how difficult the situation. Am I making myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” Madison said. Advertising was a cutthroat business. To succeed she was going to have to play on the team with the big guys.
“Good.” Ed slapped her on the back companionably and stuck his cigar between his teeth. “’Cause we’re counting on you, Madison. Don’t let us down.”
* * *
late the following week as Chance Cartwright strode across the Casper airport to her side, was a feat easier said than done. Even though it was late afternoon, he looked freshly shaved and showered. He wore tight, faded jeans. As he neared her, she could see the crisp black hairs springing from the open collar of his freshly laundered light blue shirt. His curly hair sprung from beneath the brim of his Stetson, and for the first time she could recall, he was wearing sunglasses. He whipped them off and stuck them in his shirt pocket. Before she could stop him, Chance relieved her of her laptop and briefcase.
Cowboys should be illegal,
Manners, and gorgeous from head to toe, too.
Madison wished he didn’t smell and look so damn good even as she found herself coloring warmly and wishing irrationally for a welcome-back hug. But to her disappointment, he made no effort to wrap his strong arms around her or clasp her against his broad chest. Madison swallowed and reached out to take her belongings back. “Really, you don’t have to...I can manage.”
“No problem,” Chance said, not about to relinquish anything. “Besides—” he grinned at her, his teeth a dazzling white against his suntanned face “—you shouldn’t be carrying all that heavy stuff now, should you? Especially in your—”
That did it. Madison quickly went on tiptoe and shushed him with a finger to his lips. “Don’t say it.” She paused. Her senses swam as she drew her hand away from the soft, warm give of his lips. “But you probably have a point,” she murmured, not sure who among the locals cluttering the terminal Chance might know. “I’ll just get one of those little carts.” The same kind she had gotten for herself at the Dallas airport.
“No need for that.” Chance’s fingers closed warmly over hers. He forced her to put her dollar bill aside before she could insert it in the machine next to the baggage claim. “I can handle everything. Unless—” The corners of his mouth quirked up in amusement. “How many suitcases did you bring?”
Madison rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to apologize for the fact she’d need more of a working wardrobe than he would. Looking polished and professional was part of her job. “Two. But they’re on wheels.”
“No problem, even if they weren’t.” The mirthful crinkles around his eyes deepened.
“Did all my boxes arrive?” Madison asked, concerned. She wanted to be able to start work right away.
“Days ago,” Chance replied, a flash of disapproval in his eyes, as if he already knew she was planning to use her commitment to her work to help keep her on track and the two of them apart.
Acutely aware of his hand on her elbow, Madison followed Chance to the baggage carousel for her flight. They stood together, watching for her bags. “Thanks for picking me up at the airport,” Madison said awkwardly when the silence continued to stretch out tensely.
“No problem,” Chance said laconically.
Madison rummaged through her pocket for her baggage claim checks. “Although you didn’t have to do this,” she continued, trying her best to keep things on a businesslike level.
Chance apparently had no such compulsion. He gave her a look that said he couldn’t wait to get her back in bed. “Of course I’m going to pick you up,” he said softly. His glance slid surreptitiously to her tummy, checking it out. “Under the circumstances.”
“Will you stop that?” Madison asked, wishing he didn’t look so damn happy about this pregnancy of theirs, now that the news had had time to sink in. The next thing she knew he’d be resting his hand on her stomach, caressing it. “I don’t want anyone to know,” Madison continued crankily, wishing just the thought of Chance touching her again didn’t make her feel so buttery warm inside.
Chance shrugged. “They’re going to know soon enough anyway,” he pointed out calmly.
Madison flushed and stepped away from the other passengers. She took his hand and tugged him along with her until they were out of earshot of others. “Well, I’m not show—I mean, I don’t look—it’s not a problem now. So please don’t give anything away. At least until we get all the commercials filmed and make everyone happy.”
Chance leaned down, standing closer to her than before. Behind them there was a loud click and a whirr as the conveyer belt started up. “Then maybe it won’t matter so much anymore?” Chance guessed, equal parts sympathy and disapproval in his eyes.
“I’m hoping.” Madison watched the first suitcase glide out. Then another and another. She wished Chance didn’t have the power to make her feel so vulnerable. As if she needed to apologize for being career-minded and ambitious. It was her job and her devotion to it that would keep her and her baby safe and warm.
“So how was your flight?” Chance asked, his glance dipping surreptitiously to take in the increasing ripeness of her breasts before settling once again on her face. “Your stomach okay? Sometimes women in your, uh, you know, have a little trouble with, uh, air sickness.”
Madison rolled her eyes, wondering if Chance was going to be this oversolicitous the entire pregnancy. Would he want to touch her breasts, cup them with his hands, measure their increasing size? Later, would he be around to help her nurse the baby during the first six weeks, as the doctor had advised her to do?
Madison shut her eyes against the sudden image of her with her baby at her breast and Chance at her side. This was reality here, she reminded herself sternly, not some soft-focus fantasy of parenthood. Besides, right now Chance was focused on morning sickness.
His solicitousness was going to be every bit as irritating to her as his disapproval regarding her ambition. Turning away from the sudden tenderness in his eyes, Madison pointed to the first of her suitcases.
When it came around to them, Chance reached out and grabbed it and lifted it off the conveyer belt. He set it beside her. “Don’t tell me. You’re an expert on pregnancy, too,” she scoffed.
Chance grinned, as he always did, at the first sign of any crankiness from her. No doubt he thought her mood swings were due to her pregnancy.
He shrugged his broad shoulders in a way that made her want to lean into them and draw from his strength. “I don’t know about expert,” he drawled, looking at her with mock seriousness. “But I’ve brought a few foals into this world. Does that count?”
Madison refused to laugh at his gentle humor. “Not really, no,” she snapped. Realizing she had only been back a few minutes and it was already beginning to feel far too intimate between them, she pointed out her second suitcase and watched him grab it. “And to answer your question, Cartwright, thus far, although I’ve had my share of queasy moments, I’ve only actually been sick once. And I don’t intend to be sick again,” she announced loftily. “Mind over matter, you know.”
He grinned at her approvingly. “I like it when you do that, you know,” he said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears.
“What?” Madison flushed despite herself.
“Call me Cartwright.” He grinned and shook his head, all the while holding her eyes with his hot blue gaze. “When you say it—” he sighed, yearning openly “—damn, but it sounds sexy.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.” Madison attempted to cool his ardor with an icy glance. A lesser man would have folded. Not Chance. He still looked ready for anything—and she did mean anything. Madison blew out a frustrated breath. She’d been right to think she was going to have her hands full coming here again, even if she hadn’t been carrying his child. “Are you ready?” she asked impatiently.
Chance nodded. “Just follow me.”
Madison knew what he meant, but she rolled her eyes anyway. “That’ll be the day,” she muttered, even more cantankerously. Chance laughed, the sweet sexy sound filling the air around them. His mirth was so infectious it was all Madison could do not to chuckle, too. “Just go,” she said, hanging on to her straight face with effort.
Grinning, Chance strode toward the exit, carrying everything for her—two big suitcases, a laptop computer and her briefcase. She tagged along beside him, feeling ridiculous with absolutely nothing save the lightweight leather handbag looped over her shoulder. Not that it seemed to bother Chance. He bore the weight of her belongings as if it were a feather.
He strode through the automatic glass doors. They were buffeted by a warm summer wind and clear blue skies overhead as they headed for the battered pickup parked some distance away.
Madison paused. This wasn’t what she had expected. “Wasn’t the Ranchero delivered to the Double Diamond this morning?’