Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker
Russ paused as the public address system rumbled in the background, then thunderous applause. “Think you might get lucky?” he asked.
The last thing Chance needed was to bed down with someone who only had plans to use him in an ad campaign. On the other hand, should her interest in him become personal instead...
Chance cast a look over his shoulder, all too aware how sound carried in his tiny ranch house. “It’s too soon to tell,” he murmured. He had felt Madison’s trembling when he had lifted her in and out of his truck. Breathed in the lily of the valley scent of her. If she’d been anyone else, been from anywhere else except that annoyingly persistent advertising agency, he would have already tested the chemistry between them with a long, heart-stopping kiss.
“Whoops,” Russ said on the other end. “I’m up next. Gotta go.”
“Good luck,” Chance said absently.
“Same to you, buddy,” Russ returned. Their connection ended with a click.
Madison came down the stairs. She was wearing a vivid blue camp shirt, stonewashed jeans and boots, and had a thirty-five millimeter camera slung around her neck. She looked even more beautiful than she had in the sexy red business suit. “Okay, cowboy, I’m ready. Show me everything there is to see.”
Curious as to how long it was going to take her to work up to her sales pitch, Chance walked her through the stables and around the grounds close to the house. He showed her the corral where he trained horses that were new to the ranch.
“It’s beautiful, Chance, absolutely beautiful.” Madison looked enthralled. She turned to him, pink color highlighting her cheeks. “Mind if I snap a few photos?”
Chance shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“Ready to show me those horses of yours?” Madison asked when she’d finished.
“I don’t own most of them.” Chance took her elbow and ushered her to a pasture. “I just stable, train and care for them. Most are owned by wealthy businessmen, movie stars and the like.”
Madison studied the two dozen horses in the south pastures. Ranging in color from light gray to dark brown, all were sleek and beautiful. But it was the big black stallion, pastured alone, that really caught her eye. Chance wasn’t surprised. Shiloh was one of the most magnificent animals he had ever seen, too. “What about that one?” Madison said.
Chance watched Shiloh graze contentedly. He looked docile as a lamb, but appearances, as Chance well knew, could be deceptive. “That’s Shiloh. He’s one of mine now.”
“Why isn’t he pastured with the other horses?” Madison took several pictures of Shiloh, all from different angles.
Chance got angry just thinking about what had happened to Shiloh. “His original owner tried to train him with cruelty instead of love and patience. Not surprisingly, that method didn’t work. Now he’s dangerously unpredictable and afraid of people, too. The owner thought the fault was with Shiloh and wanted him put down.” Chance shook his head in disgust. It would have been criminal to have such a beautiful, spirited animal destroyed because of maltreatment. “The local vets resisted and offered to find Shiloh a home instead. I heard about it via the grapevine, intervened and brought him here.”
Madison regarded Shiloh with compassion, as if her heart went out to him, too. She took a few more pictures then turned to Chance. “Does he trust you?”
“Not yet,” Chance told Madison ruefully. Then he went on to promise confidently, “But with time and patience, he will. In the meantime—” his voice dropped a protective notch “—you should stay away from him.”
Madison sighed, her disappointment clearly evident. She obviously would have liked a closer look. And perhaps a few more pictures, as well. “I suppose that applies to the Lost Springs boys who have part-time jobs here, too.”
Chance nodded. “They’re under the same restriction.” He turned to Madison. “Do you ride?”
Madison’s lips curved up wryly. “Not unless you count riding the pony around the ring at someone’s birthday party,” she admitted with regret.
Now, this was something he could see them spending the weekend doing. “Want to learn?” Chance asked on impulse.
“Maybe someday.” Madison smiled and took a deep breath. “But first, now that I’ve seen what I needed to, let’s talk business.”
ADISON PLASTERED A
too-bright smile on her face and plunged on recklessly. “You already know there’s a sexy new pickup truck—the Ranchero—that’s being introduced at the end of the year by AMV—that’s American—”
“Motor Vehicles Corporation, I know,” Chance interrupted impatiently. Clearly, he was anxious for her to get to the point.
“Yes, well...” Madison drew another bolstering breath. “I’ve proposed they use a real rancher, someone who works with horses, someone with charisma—like you—as a spokesperson.” Although Chance was giving her no encouragement whatsoever, Madison pushed on enthusiastically. “AMV agrees you’re perfect for the job. All we have to do is work out the details.”
Chance glared at her for a long moment then swung away from the pasture and headed toward the ranch house at a staggering clip. “There’s nothing to work out,” he growled without so much as a backward glance at her. His broad shoulders were rigid with tension. “I’m not going to advertise any product.”
Madison raced to catch up and jumped in front of him. To her dismay, he didn’t slow down in the least or try to move around her. Which left her with only two choices. Get out of his way or jog backward and keep talking. She chose the latter. “It’s not just a product, Chance.” Madison stumbled slightly on the uneven terrain as she struggled to keep up. Determined to persuade him no matter what it took, she kept her chin up, her eyes locked firmly on his. “The Ranchero is the most rugged pickup to come out of Detroit in years. If you don’t believe me, well, look behind the barn.”
That stopped him cold. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
The scowl lines on either side of his face deepened. Chance strode around the barn to the small parking area in the rear, the one his part-time help used. Parked there was a brand-new forest green Ranchero that put his battered pickup to shame. The agency had had it delivered while he was at the auction. Madison opened the door, revealing a plush leather interior with climate control and state-of-the-art stereo system. “It’s a great truck, Chance. Competitively priced so most ranchers and families can afford it, luxuriously equipped, built for extremely rugged terrain and all kinds of weather, environmentally friendly and, best of all, AMV is going to make a five-hundred-dollar donation to American parks and wildlife for every model sold.”
A muscle worked convulsively in his jaw. He charged forward and slammed the door. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“I know you’re not a professional model—”
He whirled on her. “I train horses, Madison.”
“And I know you’ve turned down other offers,” she continued hastily.
“So what else do you need to know?” Chance stormed. He strode closer, every inch of him primed and ready to do battle.
Madison paused, her heart pounding in her chest. She was unsure just how hard to push, yet also knew this might be her only opportunity to convince him. She could not let it go without giving it her all. “So why did you turn down the saddle maker, the creosote fence ads, the horse grooming aids and the electrically heated barn commercials?” she asked curiously, determined not to make the same mistake her predecessors had, whatever it was. “Did you just not believe in the products?” Tilting her head in a beseeching manner, she stepped closer. “Or was it something else, like the terms of the endorsement contract, that turned you off?”
“This is beginning to sound like a business meeting,” Chance warned gruffly. And he obviously wasn’t happy about that.
“That’s because it is one,” Madison countered flatly, dropping all pretense that it had ever been anything else. “But don’t worry. You don’t have to tell me,” she soothed pleasantly. “I’m just curious, since there was so much money involved on those other projects.”
Chance’s gaze narrowed. “How’d you know that?”
“Because people talk.”
Chance whipped off his Stetson and shoved a hand through his hair. “I didn’t tell anyone.”
“Word still gets around.” Madison smiled at Chance winningly and returned to the Ranchero. She let down the tailgate and hopped on it, letting her legs swing off the side. “And it’s not hard to understand why. You’ve got a national reputation for training pleasure horses. You’re the one all the rich and famous are coming to now. It only follows that requests for endorsement of ranch or horse-related products would follow.”
Chance wasn’t about to debate Madison over that. He had worked hard for every iota of his success. And along with it, he had also regained the privacy—and freedom—he had yearned for since he’d been sent to the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys years ago.
Chance regarded Madison stonily. “What do you get out of this?” he demanded. Odds were, a lot, if she was willing to go to all this trouble.
“A vice presidency, a big jump in salary and a big corner office.”
Chance sighed. Leave it to him to get stuck with someone who had a cash register in the place where her heart should have been. His dad had tried to buy him off, too, whenever he had been in the wrong. It hadn’t worked then. It wouldn’t work now. “You’ll have to earn it some other way.”
“Not even if you donated all your earnings to the Lost Spring Ranch for Boys?”
Chance propped one foot on the truck bumper. One forearm resting on his upraised thigh, he leaned toward her, not stopping until they were face-to-face. Then he said ever so softly and disparagingly, “You don’t get it, do you?”
His lazy drawl held an edge of menace, and her stomach twisted. “Get what?” she asked, as innocently as possible.
His gaze slid over her, lingering on the open V of her vivid blue cotton camp shirt before sliding down over her breasts, abdomen, thighs, and up to her face again with disconcerting ease. “I can’t be bought.”
He was talking nonsense. Madison planted her hands on the warm metal edge of the truck bed and crossed her blue-jeans-clad legs indolently at the knee. “Everyone has a price, Chance.” Even if the price was not for yourself but for charity, as the bachelor auction had been. Even though her mother had been devastated by her father’s constant betrayals, she had been bought off with diamonds and furs and expensive trips to exclusive spas. The lavish gifts hadn’t solved the problems in their marriage, of course, but the luxury had certainly eased her mother’s pain to the point that she was able to continue with the marriage. Just as Madison’s generous salary and the luxuries it had bought her had eased the pain of her loveless life. She didn’t see why a lot of extra money couldn’t make his life easier, too.
Chance planted a hand on the truck bed next to her and leaned in close. “Everyone has a limit,” he decreed, his tone brooking no disagreement. “And I’ve just reached mine.” He straightened abruptly, planting both feet on the ground. “You want to stay?” He reached over, took her hand and tugged her off the bed of the truck so she was standing in front of him. “You want to follow through on the date you bought? You won’t bring the subject up again.”
He was being so closed-minded and mulish, it was all Madison could do not to stomp her foot. And she was not the type of woman who ever stomped her foot! She gritted her teeth instead. “Just tell me what it will take to get you to say yes!”
“Well, let’s see. I’m already famous—in horse circles.” Taking her wrist, Chance pulled her away from the truck, slammed the tailgate shut and ushered her willy-nilly toward the ranch house. “And I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do to get there. As for money,” he said, forcing her to practically run to keep up with him, “I’ve already got more than I’ll ever need.”
Madison knew that, damn it. She used her free hand to grab his arm, simultaneously digging in her heels. The dual effort worked to at least slow them down. “You could be named the sexiest man alive by the time we’ve finished launching the truck.”
“And lose my privacy?” Chance skidded to a halt. Bristling with outrage, he shook his head. “Forget it.”
So maybe privacy was important to him. Madison guessed that in his years as an orphan, he probably hadn’t had enough of it. Not nearly. But times were different now. He had choices that he hadn’t had then. She had to make him see that.
“Look, I’m sorry if I appear to be pushing you into this,” she said hurriedly, cringing at the desperate sound of her voice. She drew a bracing breath and lowered her voice to a persuasive murmur. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it would be a winning proposition for all of us. You, me, the truck manufacturer, the ad agency I work for, the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys.”
“Okay. That’s it.” Chance looked at the blue sky and fluffy white clouds overhead. “Heaven knows I tried.” He turned to Madison, stepped in closer and looked at her. “Forget the weekend, and the five thousand dollars you paid. You—” he pressed his index finger to her chest “—are getting your money back.”
Madison’s jaw dropped. Knowing from her research what a truly generous man he was, she hadn’t figured this would happen. “You’d really deprive the ranch of five thousand dollars?” she asked incredulously.
Chance’s lips tightened into a thin white line. “No, of course not,” he growled bad-temperedly. “I’ll make it up to the Lost Springs coffers myself.”
Stung, Madison could only gape at him. “You can’t cancel our date!” She would never live it down if he did. Her career at Connelly and Associates would be ruined!
Chance moved past her, making sure he knocked into her shoulder as he did. “Watch me,” he said.
With Madison hard on his heels, he stormed into the house. She followed him in and up the stairs. He charged into her room, stopping dead when he saw the clothes she had already laid out for the celebration she had planned for the two of them that evening. He looked askance at the short, sexy evening dress hanging on the back of the closet door. “You planned to wear that on a ranch?”
“Don’t be silly. I had plans to charter a plane and fly us both to Denver this evening for a congratulatory meal.”