Authors: Cathy Gillen Thacker
“Are you and the baby planning to show up here a lot on a whim?”
This was trickier territory. Madison wasn’t sure what answer Chance wanted her to give. Not that it mattered. These were her decisions to make. “No,” Madison said with forced graciousness. “In fact, given the way things stand between us right now, well...I just can’t see myself coming back here once the Ranchero account is wrapped up.” Not even if they were invited. It would be too painful. She’d thought Chance, unlike her cheating, deceiving father, was a man of his word. To have him state, “I’m yours,” and then renege, to find out his promises to her were meaningless, too—well, to say it was a major disappointment was an understatement in the extreme.
At the mention of the contract he’d signed, Chance scowled at her and pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes. “I suppose your attitude would change completely if I were to become a crackerjack spokesperson for the Ranchero pickup truck,” he told her sarcastically.
Madison moved her shoulders in an elegant shrug. Although she sensed it would buy her some points with Chance, she refused to pretend otherwise about something as important as this. Aware her heart was pounding in her chest, she regarded him steadily. “I don’t deny my opinion of you would definitely become more positive again,” she told him coldly.
Chance draped the leather lead over the fence. He turned to her, blue eyes grim, and regarded her with increasing cynicism. “Don’t pull any punches, do you, Madison?”
Madison struggled to remain calm as her emotions soared and crashed and then soared all over again. “I call it like I see it. Always have. Always will. And right now, Chance—” ever the businesswoman, Madison took the opportunity to drive home her point “—you’re letting down an awful lot of people with your behavior.”
Chance smirked and rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. “Back to business as usual, right, Madison?”
Aware he was getting under her skin again without even half trying, Madison stiffened. Willing the warmth in her cheeks to go away, she stepped back a pace and clamped her folded arms closer to her midriff. “At least I do the job I was hired to do,” she told him archly. She gave her words a moment to sink in, waiting for them to have their desired effect, before she pushed on professionally once again. “So when can we expect to see you in Dallas?”
Chance’s eyes darkened as Shiloh finally came up behind him, stretched his nose over the fence, touching it to Chance’s shoulder, demanding attention. “You can’t,” Chance said grimly.
Infuriated, Madison glared at Chance even as she marveled at the trust Shiloh exhibited toward humans. Six weeks ago the magnificent stallion had been completely unapproachable. Now Shiloh stood quietly while Chance scratched him under the chin and down the throat. “You really want to be fired by AMV?” Madison asked incredulously. She’d thought he cared more about the boys’ ranch than that.
“Frankly, Madison, I don’t give a damn what AMV does or doesn’t do in regard to me.” Chance gave Shiloh a final pat, straightened and pushed away from the fence. “You and the baby, on the other hand, are another matter,” he warned her heavily.
This was the Chance who had the potential to rock her to her soul, Madison thought.
He grimaced and let out a deep breath. “I know you’re not looking for a marriage proposal.”
Nor was he about to give her one. “You’re right about that,” Madison told him in a matter-of-fact tone. She reached across the fence and took a turn petting Shiloh. “We barely know each other.”
Worse, Chance thought unhappily as he watched Madison stroke a delicate-looking hand down Shiloh’s throat, he and Madison apparently had very little in common besides breathtaking passion and the baby on the way. It sure wasn’t much to build on, he thought ruefully, remembering without wanting to how soft and giving and totally without inhibitions Madison had been in bed. If only she could be that way out of bed, too...
Madison turned to Chance and continued with a pragmatism that cut him to the quick. “So maybe we should just consider that both of our obligations have now been met.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts and assumed a militant stance. “You know about the baby, and you know I’ll take care of it.”
How Madison, Chance thought. How very Madison.
She was perfectly willing to step forward and do the decent thing by telling him about his paternity so she could then go off with
baby and live
life as if he had no real part in it, at least not day to day. She wanted a clear conscience, the freedom to do as she pleased, to take care of her needs and desires and those of their child, leaving nothing at all for him. “I’m willing to do my share, Madison,” Chance told her curtly. Whether she had meant to or not, she had really hit a nerve.
Studying his face, Madison paled. “I’m not asking for that much involvement, Chance.” Not anything like it!
Well, too damn bad, lady, because this is my kid, too, we’re talking about.
Chance didn’t know what kind of daddy he’d make. The thought of diapers and so on, not to mention trying to parent and love a child long distance, terrified him. “But whatever happens, I promise I’ll do the right thing for the baby,” he told her steadily, looking deep into her green eyes, knowing the repercussions of any further mistakes between them would be severe indeed, because they would end up affecting the baby. “That’s all either of us can do,” he said wearily.
Madison regarded him critically. “It sounds like you’re making excuses already,” she told him haughtily.
And maybe he was, Chance thought, but only because he wanted her to understand what they were getting themselves into here. “My own dad wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy guy,” Chance told her gruffly.
“So what does that have to do with us?” Madison asked irritably.
Behind them, Shiloh—upset by their rising voices and increasingly tense posture—snorted and pawed the ground, then wheeled away and raced for the other end of the pasture, halter still on. Chance swore softly. Had he known how heated their discussion was likely to get, he wouldn’t have brought her here to see the skittish horse. Figuring he’d tend to his horse later, he turned to Madison and forced himself to do what the ranch staff at Lost Springs had taught him—admit his own culpability in an unhappy past and then move on.
“I’m saying what happened between me and my dad was a two-way street,” Chance told Madison impatiently. “My dad loved me and
didn’t know how to show it. I loved him and
didn’t know how to show it. Things that should have brought us closer together always ended up driving us further apart.”
“Are you telling me you don’t know how to love?”
Chance shrugged and pushed away the pain he always felt when he thought about his dad and what should have been. “I can train horses. I can be a friend, a good one. Beyond that...” He let his voice trail off. When it came to normal family relationships, trying to be a father without being a husband, trying to forge a normal family life without being married or even living in the same state...well, they’d be making it up as they went along. He felt Madison should know that, be prepared for it.
For a moment, Madison looked as if she had the same fears. Not about him this time, but about herself. And Chance’s heart went out to her. He and Madison were both sure of themselves when it came to their work. They were both damn good at what they did. It was their relationship with each other—flirtatious and hotter than a firecracker one minute, totally over the next—that was a mess. He hoped they could keep their beefs with each other away from their child. Because if they couldn’t, if they continued to feel as passionately about each other as they did now, liking each other a little too much one minute, loathing each other the next...
“So if this long-distance, two-parents-who-are-strangers thing doesn’t work out,” Chance continued, figuring Madison of all people would appreciate his direct approach, “if it turns out it’s somehow less confusing for him or her to have one parent, then I promise you I’ll do the decent thing and step aside.”
I sure as hell won’t want to,
Chance added silently,
but I will.
“The bottom line here is we do what is best for our child. Not what is best for me or you,” he said firmly. He knew firsthand how complicated life could be. He was determined he would spare their child any hurt, and he would see Madison did, too.
“Why not make it simple then?” Madison challenged, chin lifting, perverse enough to take everything he had said the wrong way. “Step aside right now.”
“Before we’ve even given it a shot?” he countered, mocking her sarcastic tone.
Madison lifted her hands, palms up, on either side of her. “Think of the time it will save!” That said, she spun on her heel and marched toward his pickup.
Chance swore heatedly as he watched her provocatively swaying backside. So much for trying to tell
what was on
mind. Not about to let her have the last word, now or any time, Chance cut her off before she reached the passenger door. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting here?” He’d just been trying to cover all possible eventualities. She didn’t have to assume it was actually going to come to the worst-case scenario. She needed to be prepared to deal with it, the same way he was prepared to deal with lame horses and droughts and blizzards on the ranch.
Madison whirled. Her green eyes were hot with temper. She poked a finger at his chest. “You’re not the only one who suffered through a miserable childhood, Chance Cartwright! I grew up listening to parents make excuses about why they had to keep on making us all miserable,” she continued furiously, her hand curling in the sweat-damp fabric of his shirt. “Nothing ever changed. And you know why?” Using her grip on his shirt, she shook him lightly. “Because neither of them ever wanted things to change!” Releasing her hold, she shoved him away. “I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to live that way again. Never mind our baby! Our baby needs a daddy who will love him or her from day one on. No excuses! No halfhearted efforts! Because you’re right, Chance. Anything less guarantees only hurt for our baby, and that being the case, why even start down that road?” Giving him no chance to work in a word edgewise, Madison shoved her hands through her hair. “It’s not as if I don’t have enough on my plate as it is.” Grabbing her sunglasses off the top of her head, she angrily waved them around in the air. “Thanks to you and your stubborn refusal to fulfill your duties as spokesperson, I’m about to lose the Ranchero truck account and the vice presidency right along with it.”
Chance heard the fear in her voice. He blocked her way. “Are you telling me your job is in jeopardy?” he demanded roughly. He knew how important her career was to her. This must be killing her.
Madison bit her lower lip and regarded him truculently. “Let’s just say when you get yourself let out of your contract, I’ll definitely be on my way down the career ladder if not out on the street!” She stormed past him, vaulted into the pickup and slammed the door behind her.
His feelings in turmoil, Chance circled to the driver’s side and climbed in. He let his hands rest on the wheel and stared out the window. Damn it all, his life was spinning out of control and he didn’t even know how it had happened. He only knew that from the moment Madison Burnes had made contact with him, his life had never been the same. And now it sure wasn’t going to be. He swallowed hard, guilt flooding him anew. All of this was his fault, too. And it was time he did something to rectify it.
As he turned to face her, an unexpected wave of tenderness washed over him. He reached over and took her hand. “I didn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be a family for the baby, Madison,” he told her gently. “We’ll find a way, even if it’s unconventional.”
But Madison was jerking her hand away from his, shaking her head determinedly. To his dismay, she looked as insecure about being a mother as he felt about being a dad.
“You can’t fake a happy family unit, Chance, marriage or no,” she said bitterly. “That’s one thing I know from experience. A kid will see right through it.”
OU CRAFTY THING
, you!” Kit said, sticking her head in Madison’s office. “Pretending all was lost! I thought Uncle Ed was going to faint on the spot!”
Madison pushed aside the portfolios of models and actors and rodeo stars she had been sorting through in an attempt to find someone AMV Corporation would accept as a replacement for Chance. All were handsome, all wanted to be the spokesperson, and yet none had that Marlboro man quality Chance had in abundance. None of the men pictured in front of her was right, even if she somehow retooled the ad campaign. With her deadline looming and a secret baby on the way, she did not know what she was going to do. In fact, she could never recall feeling more lost or alone. Maybe it was time for a break. Even a short one. It might clear her head.
Madison sat back in her chair and turned all her attention to Kit’s glowing face. “What’s going on?” she asked casually.
Kit shook her head and came all the way into the room. “Honestly, Madison! Pretend you don’t know!”
Madison shrugged her slender shoulders, aware the waistband of her skirt was already feeling a little snug. “I don’t!”
“Pretend Chance Cartwright isn’t meeting with Uncle Ed right now!”
Oh, my gosh. Madison leaped from behind her desk. Sped out of her office and dashed down the hall.
“Madison!” Ed Connelly looked up with a smile. “We were just about to come down to see you!”
Madison gulped. She looked at Chance. “Mr. Cartwright.”
Chance touched the brim of his hat and moved toward her. She couldn’t help but admire the effortless way he moved. It wasn’t quite a swagger—that would have been too much trouble. But it was close. Very close. “Miss Burnes.”
At the sound of his low, sexy voice, Madison’s heart cartwheeled in her chest. Their glances collided, and once she’d looked into his eyes, she couldn’t seem to gather the willpower to look away.
Chance clasped her right hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “I was just telling your boss here how much I’m looking forward to working with you on the Ranchero truck account.” Chance gave her fingers a final, intimate squeeze. He turned to Ed with an affable grin. “Quite frankly, I’d been having second thoughts. Did I really want to do this? I was ready to pass it up when Miss Burnes came back to Wyoming yesterday to talk to me one last time. And then I realized she was right. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I can’t pass it up.” Chance inclined his head slightly to the side. “’Course, I’ve got my conditions,” he drawled lazily, “all of which I’ve already worked out with Ed and the legal department here.”