Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker
One hand draped loosely over the wheel, Chance regarded her drolly. “Good idea,” he said, and started the engine.
As she tried to get comfortable, it soon became clear Madison had a choice. She could sit with her legs straddling the hump, which meant that her knees would be apart. Not a good idea. Or she could tuck her thighs together and keep her ankles to the right of the hump, which forced her weight, and her thighs, to brush against the side of his jeans-clad legs.
Meanwhile, she was having more trouble trying to fasten this seat belt than the other one. In her attempt, she ended up bumping arms and shoulders, hips and thighs with Chance. Perspiration beaded her lip. He looked just as tense and uncomfortable.
Finally, he said brusquely, “Why don’t you let me help?” And then did. Accomplishing in two seconds what she had been trying to do for two minutes.
“Now,” he turned to her and asked, “all set?”
As well as out of breath. Madison wasn’t used to feeling so darn aware of a man she would be working with.
His heated glance slowly scanned her face. “You okay?”
I just don’t like the fact that you got the upper hand between us without even half trying.
Madison forced a smile and struggled unsuccessfully against a blush. “Why?”
He paid no attention to the running motor or the cool air coming out of the dash air conditioner. “You’re breathing kind of hard.”
More heat flooded Madison’s cheeks. Sitting this close to him had caused a greater reaction than she’d bargained for. There was a tingling in her stomach. Her thighs were fluid, her knees suspiciously wobbly. Higher still, a buttery warmth spread across her chest, culminating in her breasts. “It’s the heat,” Madison said flatly. It had to be. She did not get this turned on just sitting next to a man, no matter how ruggedly handsome he happened to be.
Chance sent her a sideways glance as he backed his truck out of the parking space and thrust it into gear. He drove carefully between the rows of vehicles, past the news vans that had been set up to cover the event, then onto the narrow lane that connected the ranch with the highway. A split rail fence lined one side of the road. In the distance, a herd of horses grazed in a sun-splashed pasture.
“Doesn’t feel that hot to me,” Chance observed.
Oh, yeah? Madison thought. Then why had a bead of perspiration broken out on his temple? And why did he suddenly appear every bit as physically aware of her as she was of him, she wondered, catching a whiff of his deliciously sexy leather and spice cologne.
Chance stopped to make sure the road was clear. He looked both ways, then turned his truck onto the main highway. He continued to study her off and on as they headed in the general direction of the Wind River Range. “So, do you date a lot of cowboys or am I your first?” he prodded.
Aware he had completely misinterpreted the reason for her interest in him, Madison studied the occasional stands of aspen and pine. “You’re my first.”
Madison shrugged. “I don’t meet any. I work in the city, remember?”
He fidgeted in his seat, his hard-muscled thigh nudging her much softer one in the process. “Then who do you date?” he persisted.
His questions were awfully personal. But maybe that was good, Madison thought. She needed them to get to know each other if she was going to persuade him to do what she wanted.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t normally date a lot.”
Chance lifted a brow. “That a fact?” he asked, clearly disbelieving.
Madison sighed, not sure how they’d gotten on this topic. Her personal life had been disappointing as far back as she could remember in just about every way. “Afraid so,” she said lightly.
He raised a brow.
“I work in advertising,” Madison explained. “For one of the most demanding and high-paying firms around.”
“I know that. Still, you must get plenty of offers.” Chance persisted, clearly more interested in her social life than her career.
Madison watched Chance bypass the road to Lightning Creek, the closest town, and turn the truck onto the bridge that crossed Sand Creek. “I guess.”
“And yet you turn them all down.”
“Most of the time, yes.” Without so much as a regret. She didn’t believe in wasting time, hers or anyone else’s.
He smiled. “So why—if you’re so particular about who you go out with—did you want to date me?” Chance asked lightly as they rounded a bend in the road. The sexy promise in his voice sent shivers of awareness racing across her skin.
“You know why?” Madison spoke flirtatiously, ready to do whatever she needed to build his ego to the point where he’d agree to be spokesperson for the Ranchero campaign.
Chance abruptly steered the pickup to the side of the road. He stopped so suddenly she lurched against him. The way he considered her, she knew she was going to have to come up with something convincing if she ever hoped to win his respect. “I liked your...smile.”
And the way you fit into a pair of jeans,
Madison added silently. “And...the way you pirouetted around on stage to make all the women laugh. And the roses. I liked the fact you thought to bring roses today.” She finished with a burst of inspiration.
“It seemed the least I could do for anyone who helped the ranch out with a contribution. Still—” Chance paused dramatically as he gave her another supercharged look
“—five thousand is a lot to pay for a date.”
Madison drew a deep breath and steeled herself with resolve. “Like I said,” she retorted determinedly, “the money wasn’t really mine, and it’s going for a good cause—the boys’ ranch. I’m just here on behalf of my company.”
“To grease the wheels...smooth the way to my cooperating with Connelly and Associates?”
Madison was glad he was being so grown-up about this. “You’ve got my number, cowboy.”
Without warning, he thrust the truck into gear and guided it onto the road so swiftly she lurched against him once again. “So what do you want to see first?” Chance asked long minutes later as he turned the pickup into a lane and drove beneath the wrought-iron archway of his Double Diamond Ranch.
Madison studied the acres of velvety green pasture interspersed with wildflower-strewn meadows, rocky outcroppings and thick stands of cottonwood and blue spruce. A picturesque creek wound like a ribbon through the property. In the distance, the jagged peaks of the Wind River Range seemed closer. In between, the foothills were rimmed with juniper and sage. It was wild and civilized, beautiful and rugged all at once. Nearly two hours from town, awesomely untouched, with a dozen beautiful horses grazing here and there—the perfect place for an ad to be filmed. The perfect place for American Motor Vehicles’ latest product to be launched.
Madison turned to Chance as they approached a small, two-story log-cabin-style ranch house and several barns. All were as immaculately maintained as the rest of the ranch. “First, I’d like to change.” She felt the pitch would go better if they were both wearing jeans, not just Chance.
Something flickered in Chance’s eyes as he parked in front of the house, but was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. “Why change when you’re perfect just as you are?” he retorted glibly, cutting the engine.
Madison told herself it wasn’t distrust she had seen. “Into jeans,” she explained, releasing the seat belt. She had to get him to stop looking at her legs or he’d never be able to concentrate on business. She’d counted at least ten surreptitious glances while he was driving.
Unfortunately, Madison had the same problem getting out of the truck as she had getting in. It wasn’t possible to do it alone, at least not gracefully. She scooted to the edge of the seat. He was right there to open her door, a grin of sheer male anticipation on his face. “Put your hands on my shoulders,” he directed.
And see if we fit like a lock and key again?
“Very funny,” Madison said.
Chance tilted the brim of his hat. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” Madison returned matter-of-factly. “I’m not falling for that again.” If they were going to talk business soon, she had to get things on a serious footing, pronto. “Just put your hands on my waist and lift me down, Chance. Now.”
Chance shook his head in a way that let her know he thought she was foolish beyond words, then did as ordered, his hold on her firm, his action purposeful.
Unfortunately, her plan to hold herself as physically aloof as possible during the transfer from truck to ground did not work. With nothing to hold on to, her arms flapped like a chicken. Thrown totally off balance, she crashed into him.
“Whaddya know, you can fly,” he quipped upon contact as she slid down him, thigh to thigh, the full body contact even more disturbing than before. Sparks flew between them, visibly arousing both of them.
Heart pounding, she pushed away from the hardness at the front of his jeans. Leave it to her to make a fool out of herself. Leave it to him to assist her in doing so. “Like I said,” she murmured tightly, “before we continue with this
of ours, I have got to get out of these clothes.”
Especially this skirt!
“Works for me,” Chance drawled, letting go of her with visible reluctance. He reached behind the bench seat to pull out her suitcase, flowers and purse. “Since I don’t have a guest house you’ll have to bunk with me.” He shot her a look over his shoulder. “That okay?”
Madison tried not to notice how delicious he smelled, how very clean and male. “Perfect.”
They fell into step and headed for the covered front porch with the chain-held swing. “You sleep on the left or the right?” he teased.
Madison’s spine stiffened. “I sleep alone.” Account or no, that was one thing they needed to get perfectly clear from the get-go.
Chance quirked a brow and made no effort to mask his disappointment.
“So if that means the sofa...” Madison continued, telling herself he was the only one disappointed. She didn’t mind the fact he was off-limits to her romantically at all. Men who constantly had to get the upper hand were not her type.
Chance grinned as if he’d read her mind. “Not to worry. I’ve got a bed and a room just for you,” he drawled as he pushed open the door and ushered her in. “We’ll have to share the bathroom, but I reckon we can take turns. Unless you’re in a big hurry. Then I guess we could shower at the same time.”
Madison rolled her eyes at the sexy promise in his low voice. “I’m not ever in that much of a hurry, cowboy,” she drawled, mocking his glib, teasing tone to a T. “I reckon we can take turns, too.”
Chance grinned, then strode through the sunlit living room, Madison on his heels. It was clearly a man’s abode. And the woman in Madison couldn’t help but love every inch of it. A dark brown leather sofa and two armchairs formed a conversation area in front of the stone fireplace. Navajo rugs provided splashes of color on gleaming wood floors. A rolltop desk was covered with stacks of paper, a laptop computer and phone. Next to it stood a rough-hewn table with a fax and printer. There were shelves of books—most appeared to be on horses or ranching—and there were several large wooden file cabinets. At the other end of the living room was a dining area with a large oak table, and a kitchen that was at once compact and well-equipped.
“Bedrooms are upstairs,” Chance announced brusquely. “I’ll show you the guest room.”
Madison followed Chance up the stairs, past a master bedroom dominated by a king-size bed covered with patchwork quilts. An old-fashioned cedar chest sat at the foot of the bed. The guest room sported a mirrored bureau and a double bed with a plain white cotton spread. Both rooms had spectacular views of the ranch and the mountains in the distance. As she looked at the view, Madison couldn’t help thinking about the commercial. “This is just wonderful,” she murmured. Sort of a rugged, everyman’s dream domain. Properly lit, it would be the perfect backdrop for the Ranchero commercial.
Chance set her suitcase on the floor, then straightened unhurriedly. “Thinking about moving in?” he drawled, his blue eyes assessing hers as if he could suddenly read her mind again and disapproved thoroughly.
She brushed off his remark cheerfully. “Just appreciating what you have here.” More determined than ever to win Chance Cartwright over to her way of thinking, Madison opened her suitcase and brought out a pair of jeans. “Where shall I meet you? Inside or out?”
“I’ll be downstairs, checking my messages,” Chance said.
Madison nodded. The sooner she made her pitch, the better. “I’ll be down shortly.”
* * *
to the phone when it began to ring. He expected a client. It was Russ Hall, another Lost Springs alum and auctionee. He and Chance, both avid supporters of the ranch, had been friends for years. “Where are you?” Chance asked.
“Backstage waiting my turn on the auction block.”
Chance sympathized immediately. “Dreading it?”
“What do you think?” Not waiting for a reply, Russ chuckled and asked, “How’s your date going? The two of you hitting it off?”
Almost too well, Chance thought, given the fact that he had known the minute she bought him for the weekend that Madison Burnes was not the woman for him. Sure, she was sexy as hell. He admired her drive and determination and the way she wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted, no holds barred. But when it came to being her quarry, in a business sense, he drew the line. Which was why he’d been working so hard to scare her off. He wanted her to think he was too hot to handle. He wanted her to decide on her own to cut short their “date” and go home.
“She likes you?” Russ persisted.
Chance grimaced. “Oh, yeah.” Too much, considering what she had in mind for him. She reminded him of the social worker who had sent him to the Lost Springs ranch. Everyone had told him he’d love it there, and they had been right. He
loved it in the end. But that didn’t mean he wanted to be told what to think or how to feel. And Madison Burnes, he was willing to bet, was determined to do both.
On the other hand, he’d made a commitment when he signed up for the auction. A five-thousand-dollar donation for the ranch was riding on this. He’d do his best to be hospitable and hope in the meantime she would reconsider and not make her business pitch.