Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker
She was smiling at him, standing in a puddle of June sunlight, one hand propped on her slender hip.
“Now, who’ll bid five hun—” the auctioneer began.
Her eyes firmly on him, Madison Burnes raised her index finger, pausing in her telephone conversation just long enough to place the first bid. “Five thousand,” she called out cheerfully. “Do you take American Express?”
* * *
OU DID IT
!” Madison Burnes’s colleague and best friend, Kit Connelly Smith, crowed on the other end of the phone line.
“I told you I would,” Madison retorted smugly. Her high bid had cut off all others.
“And now you get to spend the entire weekend with that gorgeous man.”
He was that, all right, Madison thought, letting her glance trail slowly over his broad-shouldered, six-foot-two-inch frame. In Dallas, she worked closely with incredibly handsome male models and good-looking cowboys all the time; they were a staple in the Texas-based ads she designed and created. But when it came to sex appeal, none of the men she had worked with could hold a candle to Chance Cartwright. There was just something about seeing him in person that made her quiver inside and catch her breath a little.
Why that was, exactly, she didn’t know. Sure, his shoulders, abs and chest looked incredibly strong and fit beneath his starched white shirt. And there was no doubt he really filled out a pair of Levi’s. Or that the short, curly dark hair peeking out from beneath the rim of his bone-colored Stetson looked touchable and soft. Or that he had the kind of very sexy, all-American good looks and appealingly masculine smile featured in every toothpaste ad ever made. It had to do with the way he moved. Confidently. With the sense of humor he had about himself and this event. Simply put, he was the perfect man for her latest ad campaign. That had to explain it, Madison told herself firmly, because she was still quivering inside, just watching him.
“Uncle Ed is going to be so pleased about this,” Kit continued happily.
“He’ll be even happier when I get Cartwright to say yes,” Madison said determinedly. And she would, before their weekend together was finished. “Chance is headed my way.” Madison’s heart began to pound with anticipation. “I’ve got to go.” She cut the connection, folded the slim cell phone in half and slid it into her bag.
“I don’t know what you think you’ve just done.” His deep blue eyes locked firmly with hers as he presented her with the bouquet of fragrant red roses. “But you haven’t bought yourself anything but a date for the weekend. I am not for sale.”
We’ll see about that,
Madison thought. “Nothing wrong with the two of us spending a little time together,” she said. “Getting to know each other.”
“I agree.” Chance Cartwright regarded her steadily, in a way that let her know she had just grabbed a tiger by the tail. “As long as we don’t talk business.”
Since Madison couldn’t promise him that, she flashed him her winning smile—the one she reserved for her most difficult clients—and buried her face in the sweet-smelling blossoms. Now that they were just inches apart, she could see how closely he had shaved. And that there was a faint cleft in his chin, one that gave him a dashing edge.
The rules for the weekend laid down, Chance inclined his head at the table that had been set up to handle the formality of the transactions. “There’s some paperwork that needs completing before we talk specifics of our date,” he told her, his mind clearly first and foremost on the charity they were supporting.
Madison bowed to his discretion. “Just show me the way,” she said pleasantly, figuring the sooner they could get out of here, the better.
At the table, Madison quickly completed the necessary paperwork then handed over five thousand dollars of traveler’s checks, all issued in her name as well as her company’s. She had five thousand more earmarked for entertainment or wooing purposes—like first-class accommodations in whatever city Chance chose, dinners at whatever restaurants he chose and so forth. Madison could see by the prickly attitude beneath his surface civility that she was going to need every penny of it.
“Connelly and Associates, the company you work for, certainly is generous,” Chance murmured.
“They’re always contributing to worthy causes.” Madison smiled winningly again. “I convinced them this was one of them.”
Chance tilted his head as he continued to study her. “Buying you a date for the weekend?”
Warmth that had little to do with the sun shining overhead filled Madison’s cheeks. “Supporting the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys,” she amended dryly.
“So when do you want to do this?” Without warning, his expression became wary. Careful. As if he didn’t quite trust her not to try to turn the situation to her advantage.
“How about now?” Madison asked as they walked away from the table.
She tried not to notice how easily their steps meshed as he gallantly took her elbow to usher her through the crowd gathered to watch another bachelor be auctioned off.
Chance, who’d been studying the way the light summer breeze was lifting her hair, blinked in surprise. “It’s already Saturday.”
Madison tucked a strand of silvery blond hair behind her ear. “Saturday through Monday is fine.”
Chance frowned. It was apparent he did not like someone else calling the shots. He lifted his hat, revealing a suntanned forehead brushed with silky black curls, and resettled it on his head. “Like I said earlier, during the auction, ma’am, I’ve got a ranch to care for and horses to tend.” The unbending politeness of his low voice did little to mitigate his frown. “I can’t just take off on a whim.”
Madison was aware of that. Step One for her with every project was to do extensive research on everything and everyone likely to be involved. Step Two was to meet with the people face-to-face in a leisurely, comfortable setting. Get to know each other a little. Then, and only then, talk business.
“That’s all right,” Madison assured Chance pleasantly. “We can spend our date at your ranch.” Not only would Chance be more at ease there, she decided firmly, it would give her an opportunity to see him in his environment and thoroughly scope out his property in a commercial sense. The director they had hired to film the commercials was going to want a full run-down from her as soon as she was back in Dallas.
Chance glanced her over from head to toe. He rolled his weight forward, so he was balanced on the balls of his feet. He seemed as puzzled by her happy-go-lucky attitude as he was disturbed by her eagerness to be alone with him. “Funny, I wouldn’t have figured a city girl like you’d be at home on the range,” he drawled, regarding her with unconcealed amusement.
Madison knew what he meant. And he was right. She’d never so much as set foot on a ranch prior to her entry into the business world. “No, but I’m pretty relaxed around the refrigerator,” she quipped.
As Chance threw back his head and laughed gustily, Madison planted her hands on her hips and grinned. “Besides, it’ll be easier on both of us, don’t you think?” she continued, beseeching him cheerfully to do things her way.
“Okay.” He inclined his head. “Got anything with you besides those clothes?” he asked.
Madison nodded and tried not to appear self-conscious. Which wasn’t easy, given the thorough appraisal he was giving her suit and heels. “My boots and jeans are in my suitcase. I’m prepared for anything.”
“Anything you can dish out, cowboy,” Madison quipped, knowing that was the understatement of the year. Shifting the flowers to her other arm, she walked over to pick up the wheeled suitcase she’d left beneath the bleachers in the small arena.
Chance took it for her and headed for the parking area. “How’d you get to Lost Springs?”
“Taxi, so we’ll have to use your pickup truck.” That, too, had been planned.
Chance ground to a halt. “How’d you know what I drive?” He turned to confront her. His eyes turned the deep, stormy blue of a mountain lake.
Madison shrugged. “You are a cowboy, after all.” She paused. “What else do cowboys drive?”
“Depends on the cowboy, I expect.” Chance studied her shrewdly even as he accepted her answer, then resumed walking and led her to a truck that had seen better days, the outside splattered with mud and grime. He opened the door and slipped her suitcase, then the flowers, behind the long bench seat.
He held out a hand to help her up. Madison tucked her palm in his larger one. Ignoring the rush of tingling warmth his touch generated, she started to step up and, to her embarrassment, immediately hit a snag. Her skirt was too short and too tight to allow her to bring her knee up as far as was required to boost herself into the cab—without revealing more than she intended to, that is.
Watching, Chance said dryly, “Need some help?” Madison noted with chagrin he didn’t seem to mind how much leg she showed.
“Unless I suddenly sprout wings and fly,” she said, trying her best not to look as self-conscious as she felt, “it would appear so.”
Chance tipped his hat. “Toss your purse in,” he ordered.
Bristling at having been ordered around, Madison obeyed.
“Okay, step in close and put your arms around my shoulders.”
Trying her best to appear cool, calm and collected when she felt anything but, Madison swallowed and did as directed. The feel of her palms on his broad shoulders was electrifying, but to her mounting exasperation he did nothing to transport her into the cab of his truck. As they continued to stand there, snug as two peas in a pod, she tilted her head to his.
Chance’s eyes twinkled merrily. They were at the end of the parking area, where a grassy slope angled downward toward the soccer field. In the distance was a heart-stirring view of the far-off Wind River Range. With the sun high overhead, casting a golden sheen on the broken-backed mountains, swaying grasses and sage fields beyond Lost Springs, Madison felt as if they were caught in a sensual tableau. One that was as enticing and seductive—and ultimately false—as any commercial she’d ever created. “Explain to me how exactly this is going to help?” she queried.
“It isn’t. I just thought it’d be fun to see if we fit together like lock and key. Apparently—” Chance favored her with an unexpectedly wicked grin “—we do.”
Shocked, Madison dropped her arms and stepped back. No man had ever had the temerity to speak to her like that, never mind with a very sexy twinkle in his eyes. She planted both hands on her hips and gave him a withering look. Had she not had a very important business deal to tend to, she would have given him his walking papers, pronto. It was clear she had a bad boy on her hands. Cheeks flaming hotly, eyes flashing, she regarded him sternly. “You’re not going to be all that easy to handle, are you?”
“No, ma’am, I guess I’m not easy,” he retorted, and for the barest second there seemed to be some hidden meaning in his words. “But don’t you fret none, ’cause I do go down okay at night.” He paused, and at her startled expression continued with comically exaggerated solemnity. “You know, out on the ranch, you go down for the night.”
Madison thought with relief.
“Sort of like going down for the count in boxing.” Chance paused. He removed his hat and ran his hands through the rumpled layers of his curly hair. Another beat of silence passed. He narrowed his eyes and peered down his nose at her. “What’d you think I meant?”
A fiery heat climbed into her face as Madison blushed. “That’s just it. I didn’t know what you meant,” she mumbled. But images of ways to make love had crowded her mind at his words. And they were images of making love with him—long, slow, incredibly passionate love. She told herself sternly to get a grip. This was business. Even if Chance didn’t know it yet.
Determined to get the upper hand, Madison drew a bracing breath and put her hands on his shoulders. “Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”
“You’re the boss.” Just that quickly, Chance slipped one arm around her back, the other beneath her knees. He swung her off her feet, cradled her possessively against his chest and lifted her into the cab. Unfortunately, in her haste to be rid of him, she sat down too quickly, and his arm and hand got caught between her thighs and the bench seat. Worse, her short skirt had hiked up almost to her panties. Mortified at the feel of his warm palm and sinewy forearm trapped beneath her panty hose and the tingles of awareness that was creating deep inside her, Madison froze.
“You’re going to have to lift up if you want me to get my arm out,” Chance told her. “On the other hand—” he glanced at her and grinned, obviously content with the close contact “—we could stay like this for a while.” He shrugged good-humoredly. “Up to you.”
Madison gripped the dash, and using it for leverage, raised herself up. “Just get your arm out of there. Now!” she demanded, refusing to let his antics intimidate her. Nothing in her research had told her he was such a hellion. But then, she hadn’t exactly talked to anyone he had dated. Just those who knew of his business reputation, which had been stellar. And of his penchant for personal privacy, which had been unremitting. Nevertheless, she knew she could handle whatever roadblocks he tossed her way. He was a fool to think she couldn’t.
“Yes, ma’am.” Chance slid his hand across the seat, just missing the backs of her thighs as he did so. Still grinning appreciatively at the unexpected contact, he circled the cab and slid behind the wheel while Madison tugged at her skirt, finding it wouldn’t go anywhere near her knees.
“You’re going to have to sit over here.” Chance patted the middle of the bench seat.
Given the tomfoolery that had just occurred, she couldn’t help but regard the area next to him as if it were a moat full of crocodiles. “And why, pray tell, is that?”
Chance angled a thumb in her direction. “Seat belt next to the door doesn’t work. And I insist everyone who rides with me wear a seat belt. Safety, you know. So you’ll have to sit here.” Chance patted the place beside him again.
Madison, who was still on fire from where they had touched, swiftly decided they did not need to be sitting that close. Not now or at any other time. Doing so would take her mind off business. “I’m sure I can get it to work,” she said cheerfully. She tugged at the shoulder harness. And tugged. And twisted. And tugged some more. He was right. It was stuck. So Madison did the only thing she could do under the circumstances. She scooted beside him. “Maybe I’ll just sit over here.”