Duncan's Bride(8)

By: Linda Howard



He stepped forward, seizing on the excuse to touch her. He curved his hand around her upper arm, which felt cool and slim under his warm palm. "Are you all right? Miss Patterson?" Madelyn almost shuddered at his touch, her response to it was so strong. How could such a small thing produce such an upheaval? His closeness brought with it the animal heat of his body, the scent of him, and she wanted to simply turn into his arms and bury her face against his neck. Panic welled up in her. She had to get out of here, away from him. She hadn't bargained on this. But instead of running, she called on all her reserves of control and even managed to smile as she held out her hand. "Mr. Duncan."

Her voice had a small rasp to it that tugged at him. He shook her hand, noting the absence of jewelry except for the plain gold hoops in her ears. He didn't like to see a woman's hands weighted down with rings on every finger, especially when the hands were as slim as hers. He didn't release her as he repeated, "Are you all right?"

Madelyn blinked, a slow closing and opening of her eyelids that masked a deep shifting and settling inside. "Yes, thank you," she replied, not bothering to make an excuse for her behavior. What could she say? That she'd been stunned by a sudden surge of lust for him? It was the truth, but one that couldn't be voiced. She knew she should be charming to ease the awkwardness of this meeting, but somehow she couldn't summon up the superficial chatter to gloss things over. She could do nothing but stand there.

They faced each other like gunfighters on a dirt street, oblivious to the eddies of people stepping around their small, immobile island. He was watching her from beneath level brows, taking his time with his survey but keeping his thoughts hidden. Madelyn stood still, very aware of her femaleness as he looked her up and down with acutely masculine appraisal, though he revealed neither appreciation nor disapproval. His thoughts were very much his own, his face that of an intensely private man.

Even shadowed by his hat brim as they were, she could tell that his eyes were a dark greenblue-hazel color, shot through with white striations that made them gleam. They were wrinkled at the outer corners from what must have been years of squinting into the sun, because he sure didn't look as if he'd gotten those lines from laughing. His face was stern and unyielding, making her long to see how he'd look if he smiled, and wonder if he had ever been carefree. This man wasn't a stranger to rough times or hard work.

"Let's go fetch your other luggage," he said, breaking the silent confrontation. It was a long drive back to the ranch, and he was impatient to be on the way. Chores had to be done no matter how late he got back.

His voice was a baritone, a bit gravelly. Madelyn registered the rough texture of it even as she nodded toward the carry-on bag. "That's it."

"All of it?"

"Yes."

If all her clothes were in that one small bag, she sure hadn't made any big plans to impress him with her wardrobe, he thought wryly. Of course, she would impress him most without any wardrobe at all.

He bent down to lift the carry-on, still keeping his hand on her arm. She was pure, walking provocation, totally unsuitable for ranch life, but every male hormone in him was clanging alert signals. She was only going to be here for a day; why shouldn't he enjoy being with her? It would be sort of a last fling before settling down with someone better prepared for the job, and job it would be. Ranching was hard work, and Madelyn Patterson didn't look as if she had ever been exposed to the concept.

Right now, though, he didn't mind, because she was so damn enticing and he was dead tired of the relentless months – years – of sixteen-hour days and back-breaking work. He would take her out to eat tonight, after his chores were done; maybe they'd go to Jasper's for some dancing, and he'd hold her in his arms for a while, feel the softness of her skin, smell her perfume. Who knew, maybe when they went back to the ranch it wouldn't be to separate beds. He'd have to be up front in telling her that she wasn't right for the job, so there wouldn't be any misunderstanding, but maybe it wouldn't make any difference to her. Maybe.

His hand naturally moved from her arm to her back as he led her out of the terminal. Deliberately he set about charming her, something he had once done with women as effortlessly as he had smiled. Those days were far in the past, but the touch remained. She chatted easily, thank God, asking questions about Montana, and he answered them just as easily, letting her relax and get comfortable with him, and all the while he studied her face and expressions. Strictly speaking, she was merely pretty, but her face was lit by a liveliness that made her stunningly attractive. Her nose had a slight bump in it and was just a tiny bit crooked. A light dusting of freckles covered the bridge of it and scattered across her cheekbones, which were exquisitely chiseled. World-class cheekbones, just like her legs. Her lips weren't full, but her mouth was wide and mobile, as if she were forever on the verge of smiling. Her eyes were the grayest eyes he'd ever seen. They were calm, sleepy eyes that nevertheless revealed on closer inspection an alert and often amused intelligence, though he didn't see what she found so amusing. If he'd met her before his rotten marriage and disastrous divorce, he would have gone after her like gangbusters, and gotten her, too, by God. Just the thought of those legs wrapped around his waist brought him to instant, uncomfortable arousal. No way, though, would he let his gonads lead him into another unsuitable marriage. He knew what he wanted in a wife, and Madelyn wasn't it. She didn't look as if she'd ever even seen a steer.

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