Chance Cartwright knew who it was even before he turned around. Her low, honeyed voice had haunted his dreams for weeks now. He'd gone to sleep wondering what the indefatigable Madison Burnes from Dallas, Texas, looked like. Was the ad agency exec as sexy as she sounded? As determined? As flirtatious? The answer to all of that, Chance discovered as he turned and saw her, was, "Heck, yes!"
That voice again. His task would have been a far sight easier if she hadn't looked like an angel, too. Chance grinned at the sexy blonde in the fireengine red power suit, cell phone in hand. She was regarding him flirtatiously and had one hand propped on a slender hip. Her hair glinted with shimmery gold and silver highlights. It fell to her shoulders, flipped up at the ends and looked soft as spun silk, reminding him of pictures of fairy-tale princesses he'd seen in storybooks long ago. A pair of sunglasses was perched jauntily on her head. She was smiling as she looked at him?and she had a great smile. As well as soft lips, a terrific body and long, sexy legs that all but demanded a second?make that third and fourth?look as she closed the distance between them gracefully.
Chance touched the brim of his hat. "Madison Burnes, I'm guessing."
"You guessed right," she said in her soft, southern drawl.
At that moment Chance wished he were anywhere but backstage at the bachelor auction for the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys. He would've liked to spend some time with her before he delivered the bad news, but since time was short, he figured he might as well cut to the chase. What happened after that?after she knew where they stood?well, that was up to her, he figured. "The answer is no."
The angel with the delicately sculpted face edged nearer. "Now, Chance," she scolded playfully, "I haven't asked you anything yet."
Today, Chance thought. "But you're going to," he retorted, letting his glance drift over her high full breasts, slender waist and perfectly proportioned hips before returning to her pretty green eyes. He braced himself for the inevitable pitch. It wasn't long in coming.
She batted her lashes. "You know me too well, Chance Cartwright."
No, Chance thought, he didn't know her at all. But he wanted to know her. The nonstop phone calls, messages, telegrams, emails and gifts the last month had intrigued the heck out of him. He'd never met a woman so impervious to the word no in his life. But none of that changed the facts of the situation, he reminded himself. "I don't do commercials or endorsements," he told her bluntly.
Madison merely smiled and gave him a steady look. "There's a first time for everything," she said.
"There may be," Chance agreed, tipping his hat in acknowledgment as they signaled him that he was up next. "But not," he said heavily, "for this."
"Regrets?" Lindsay Duncan teased seconds later as Chance stood amid thunderous applause.
Chance grinned at Lindsay, the current owner of the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys. She'd been having a rough go of it financially as of late. Hence the bachelor auction fund-raiser and his reluctant?but heartfelt?participation. "I'm about to be sold to the highest bidder for the weekend," Chance teased his old friend as the hot Wyoming sun beat down on them and the air resounded with catcalls and whistles of distinctly feminine appreciation. "What do you think?"
Lindsay linked her arm in Chance's, and together they headed for the auction block that had been set up in the ranch's showring. The warm summer air was fragrant with the mouthwatering smells of mesquite-barbecued chicken and ribs, but any cravings in the arena were solely for the bachelors.
"Cheer up, cowboy. It's for a good cause." Lindsay smiled and patted his arm reassuringly.
How well Chance knew that. If the proceeds from this lunacy weren't going directly to the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys, he thought ruefully, he wouldn't be here. But he owed the ranch a heck of a lot. It had provided a good, loving home for him when he'd had no place to go. And now it was his turn to help provide a safe haven for other abandoned or orphaned boys who felt just as lost and alone as he had.
Lindsay winked at the audience of mostly women, and grinned as if Chance were quite a catch. "Besides, maybe someone wonderful will buy you."
Chance figured the odds of that happening were about the same as him winning the next Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. But given all he'd been through in the past, he could survive whatever the weekend brought. He wanted the ranch to have as much money as they could raise today. Which was why he'd brought along the bouquet of red roses he clutched in his fist. Anything to get the bidding going, he thought as he looked at the risers filled with women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
"Ladies, we have here in front of us Chance Cartwright," the auctioneer said, as Chance lifted the fistful of flowers like a victor's trophy in a competition. He leaned toward the mike and said, "Hello, ladies!" His words sent paroxysms of screaming through the crowd.
Lindsay kissed him on the cheek, eliciting a wistful sigh from the audience, then stepped away from the action.
"Some of you may already know Chance," the auctioneer said as the crowd continued to scream enthusiastically, "as the premiere horse trainer in the country."
Feeling like a rock star on a concert stage and hamming it up all the more, Chance swept off his hat and began a sexy pirouette while the auctioneer ran down the rest of his accomplishments. He told the audience how Chance had started his ranch from nothing twelve years prior, and through much hard work and a commitment to excellence had risen quickly to prominence. He talked about all the celebrities who had chosen to have their horses trained by Chance, and all the Lost Springs boys Chance had helped, giving them part-time jobs as grooms and teaching them not just how to rope and ride and care for horses, but how to be men of whom the community and the ranch could be proud.
Finding the pre-bidding hype mildly embarrassing, to say the least, Chance grinned and set his hat on his head. Baffled as to what type of woman would show up at an event like this, he scanned the audience curiously, moving his gaze past a pregnant woman, another with two small children and a group of older women in jogging suits. Then there was Madison Burnes. Looking too keyed up to sit, she was positioned at the very top of the bleachers, her cell phone pressed to her ear, pacing back and forth in the small space. No doubt, Chance thought, watching her frown as she talked, she was waiting to talk to him after the auction. He just couldn't seem to convince her that he wanted no part of her fancy ad campaign.
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?"
"You 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 Cart-wright. 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.