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Mackenzie Standfield took a deep breath when she saw Luke Madaris excuse himself from the group of men that he'd been talking to—other rodeo riders—and head over in her direction. Irritation washed through her, but she forced it away, thinking that it wasn't his fault he was such a good-looking man; one who oozed sex from the Stetson he wore on his head all the way down to the well-worn leather boots on his feet.
He was tall, probably at least six foot three, and from the fitness of his body it was easy to tell that he worked out regularly. He was too toned and had too many muscles not to. The front of his Stetson was worn low and nearly covered his dark piercing eyes, making him look the part of a renegade. A very handsome renegade.
As she watched him approach, she remembered the first time she had seen him. Had it been almost five years already? It was the night of the Brothers' Auction where the proceeds had gone to benefit the Children's Home Society. He had been one of the men auctioned off.
Nothing in her life could have prepared her for the man who had walked onstage after being introduced as championship rodeo rider Lucas Madaris. That night, even while dressed in a black tux and white shirt, he had exuded an air of ruggedness, arrogance, and maybe even something a bit untamed. He had looked across the audience and seemingly his penetrating gaze had latched on to hers.
At the time she couldn't bring herself to believe such a thing was possible. After all, Sisters, the upscale restaurant and nightclub where the benefit was held, had been packed that night with over three hundred people, and she had purposely taken a table in the back so as not to be seen until the appropriate time. She had been there on an assignment for her newly opened law firm's first client, who just happened to be her cousin Ashton Sinclair.
But still, Luke had proven her wrong when his gaze kept returning to hers time and time again. She had been tempted to bid on him and had almost given in to that temptation. The only thing that had kept her from doing so was the reminder that her presence at the auction had a purpose and that purpose was strictly business.
There had also been Lawrence Dixon, the man she had fancied herself in love with six years ago while living in Louisiana. The same man who had betrayed her trust. She had eventually left Louisiana and moved back home to Oklahoma to start her own law practice. And that was a decision she never regretted making.
Which brought her focus back to Luke . . . not that it had ever left him. That night after the auction she had gone out for drinks with him and his two cousins, twins by the name of Blade and Slade, who had also been auction participants. And since she was a relative of their family friend Ashton Sinclair, they considered her a close friend to their family as well. As she'd gotten to know the Madaris family—and there were a lot of them—she had discovered they were good people.
She basically got along with everyone in the family . . . except for Luke. They didn't consider themselves enemies, but for some reason they were always trying to avoid each other. The only reason she was here to night was because he had personally issued an invitation. At least some may have considered it an invitation, but she had seen it for what it truly was. A dare. He hadn't expected her to show up. And from the expression on his face she wasn't sure whether or not he was glad to see her.
It was a hot June night in Oklahoma. Everyone had come out to see the rodeo riders perform and the arena was filled to capacity. As far as she was concerned all of the riders had nerves of steel and a skill she couldn't help but admire. This wasn't her first rodeo but it was the first she had attended in a long time. She hadn't been to one since she was twelve and now in a few months she would be celebrating her twenty-eighth birthday.
She held her breath and forced a smile when Luke came to a stop in front of her. "Mac," he remarked, calling her by her nickname.
"Luke," was her reply.
"Thanks for coming," he said, taking his thumb to push his hat back on his head. And the grin that touched his face almost made her breathless. It showed dimples that usually were kept well hidden. "I didn't think that you would," he added.
She had figured as much. "I told you that the next time you were in my neck of the woods I'd come."
"Yes, so you did."
She glanced around and saw the group of men he had been talking to earlier were looking at her curiously. Then she saw the women staring, too, with both envy and dislike in their eyes. And she knew why. Not only was Luke Madaris a rodeo superstar, he was also a body magnet. He had the ability to draw women to him in droves. And from what she'd heard, he made no promises and preferred no-strings-attached flings. But to some women that didn't matter.
"Do you like your seat?"
She looked up and met his gaze. His eyes were dark, appeared almost chocolate, and she tried at that moment to forget how she was known to have cravings for chocolate on occasion. "Yes and thanks." He had reserved a seat for her toward the front.
"You were to sit with Blade, but he called earlier today and won't be making it. Something has come up."
"All right. When was the last time you talked to Slade?"
Another smile touched the corners of Luke's lips. "I talked to him earlier today as well. He and Skye were flying out to visit with her aunt in Maine."
"It doesn't seem like they've been married almost a year," she said.
"No, it doesn't but they have. I'm happy for them. They make a great couple."
She was happy for them as well. She liked Skye. Mackenzie had known that of the three cousins who were thick as thieves—Slade, Blade, and Luke—it would be Slade who would settle down first. Blade, she figured, wouldn't be settling down any time soon since he loved his bachelor status too much. Luke wasn't any closer to settling down than Blade, but for a different reason. Unlike Blade, who enjoyed chasing after women, Luke was chasing after his dream of another national championship. Over the years he had received numerous awards and had several titles under his belt, but she knew that what he wanted more than anything was to regain the national title he had lost last year.
"Hey, Luke, it's time to chute up, buddy," one of the men called out.
"Okay, I'm coming," he called back.
"I guess it's time for me to take my seat," Mackenzie said.
"Yes, I guess it is."
"Hey, Luke, you haven't been doing so hot lately, maybe you ought to kiss the lady for good luck," another man called out.
"Go to hell, Bobby Joe," Luke threw over his shoulder. But the look he was giving her made Mackenzie think he was considering the idea. She decided it was definitely time to leave. "Good luck to night, Luke," she said, and took a step back.
"For some reason I'm not feeling so lucky. Maybe Bobby Joe had the right idea after all," he said, recovering the distance separating them. And before she could utter a single word, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
This was not a good idea, Luke thought, feeling Mackenzie's mouth open beneath his. Then he quickly thought, when her tongue twined with his, that although the idea might not be a good one, her taste was the best he'd ever sampled.
He would be the first to admit he had wondered how she would taste from the first time he had laid eyes on her. He had anticipated and fought this moment ever taking place between them. Yet now, he couldn't resist this sampling even if he wanted to, which was just plain crazy. Luke Madaris never kissed a woman in public. Doing so would be like laying a claim, which was something he just didn't do when it came to women. However, here he was, standing in front of both friends and enemies alike, kissing Mackenzie as if his entire life depended on it.
Was he trying to convince himself that he could share a kiss with her without any undue hardship? Or that, contrary to what his great-grandmother Felicia Laverne thought, he did not have designs—of any kind—on Mackenzie. Hell, he would be the first to admit that he was attracted to her and had been from the first. But he would also be the first to admit that some things just weren't good for you, and he had decided five years ago that Mackenzie Standfield was not good for him. The last thing he needed in his life was a woman who could make him lose focus. A woman who could make him realize that at thirty-three he couldn't take bruises, scrapes, and broken bones forever, and that at some point in his career as a rodeo star, he needed to think about settling down and starting a family to continue the Madaris legacy.
And the last thing he needed was a woman who could drive him to take her mouth with a hunger he didn't know he had while crushing her to him so tight she could barley breathe.
Like he was doing now.
And damn it, she was so responsive. Who would have thought that buried beneath all that primness and properness was a high degree of passion and sass? Enough to make even the most unwilling man consider how it would feel to have the liberty of taking that passion and sass over the edge any time he wanted.
The realization that he was even considering such a thing had him suddenly ending the kiss. But he felt a sense of loss the moment their lips separated. Sensations he wasn't used to feeling crept up his spine and began invading his body, and he had to inwardly admit that the real thing had been better than the dream he'd had of her.
He watched her shake her head, as if she were trying to force some sense into herself, saw how the mass of jet-black hair swinging around her shoulders gave her a blatantly sexy look, especially with her just thoroughly kissed lips. At that moment he thought what he did whenever he saw her: Mackenzie was a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman he had seen in his entire life, and he was used to seeing, as well as being around, plenty.
He would never forget how she had come forward that night at the Brothers Auction. As Ashton Sinclair's attorney, she had followed her cousin's orders to place a bid on him so that Ashton could end up choosing the woman he wanted—Nettie Brooms. The moment Mackenzie had come forward, both men and women alike had been spellbound, taken by her exotic beauty—a mixture of African American and Cherokee Indian. Her features were flawless . . . especially the lips he had just tasted. Now he watched her eyes, darker than any color he'd ever seen, narrow as they looked at him.
"Why did you do that, Luke?"
He sighed, knowing he could give her a number of reasons. None that he actually liked since they would only verify that he hadn't been able to resist temptation. So instead he said, "For good luck."
"You took me by surprise."
He started to say, "welcome to the club," and that he had been taken by surprise himself, but decided against it. He was a man known to always be in control and could just imagine what Bobby Joe and the others, who had to be standing over there staring, were thinking. Hell, Nadine Turner was probably lurking somewhere in the shadows. He had dated the spoiled and wealthy socialite, who was the daughter of a rancher in Austin, a couple of times last year, and for some reason she'd figured the two of them had become an item—although he had taken the time to tell her up front that they weren't, as well as several times after that when she'd begun making a pest of herself. She saw him as a challenge, was determined to bring him around to her way of thinking, and refused to accept that it wasn't going to happen.
"Don't you like surprises, Mac?" he asked, forcing a smile on his lips. He was tempted to pull her back into his arms and taste her mouth one more time for good mea sure, but knew that wouldn't be a smart move.
"No, I don't."
Now why wasn't he surprised? The one thing he had discovered about Mac was that she liked being in control. That facet of her personality didn't bother him, since he liked being in control as well. However, what did bother him was that she tended to be way too serious most of the time, was always focused, and didn't seem inclined to have any fun. He took his work as a cowboy seriously but liked letting his hair down too. He was a man of passion and enjoyed messing around with it every once in a while. Evidently she preferred keeping her passion hidden, which was probably the reason she was glaring at him now. He had long ago decided that he and Mackenzie were from different worlds. He was from the hot hemi sphere and she was from the cold . . . at least he'd thought so until their kiss. Now he was convinced that no matter how cold she was, with the right man she could definitely thaw out.
Another thing he had discovered was that he liked hearing how she said his name. She seemed to develop a huskiness in her voice whenever she said it. "Yes?"
She lifted her chin, met his gaze. "Keep your kisses to yourself, or better yet share them with those women who make it their business to fawn over you. I am not one of them."
She definitely wasn't. In the five years they had known each other, he had formed a fairly good picture of the women that came in and out of his life. His list wasn't as enormous as Blade's, but he could boast of having women whenever he chose since they seemed to enjoy throwing themselves at him. Although he wasn't a moody person, he was selective. Not just any woman could share his bed. He avoided those who might be candidates for a serious relationship. He didn't want or need a woman, especially not now. In fact, he couldn't even imagine becoming involved with someone in the near or distant future. His life was built around his rodeo career. He enjoyed what he did and it was what he'd wanted ever since his uncle Jake had given him his first horse at six and had taught him how to rope his first steer at eight. He had won his first steer-roping title at twelve.
"Don't take it so personally, Mac," he heard himself saying, even though that kiss had been the most personal thing he had shared with a woman. Oh, he had kissed women before, but never with the same intensity and lack of control as this.
"Good. Now I guess you'd better go take your seat if you want to see all of the show." He knew he sounded cool and distant, nothing like the fire and heat he was still feeling in his bones. Mac was the last person who needed to know just how he was feeling. Just how much he had needed that kiss from her. And only her.
He forced those tempting thoughts from his mind to keep from pulling her back into his arms and kissing her again. He took a step back and came close to asking her to meet him afterward when he and some of the guys—along with their favorite girls—would be going out to one of the nearby restaurants after to night's show. But the last thing he needed or wanted was to be in Mackenzie's presence any more than he had to. He had kept his promise to Great-grandma Laverne and had invited her to the rodeo. His great-grandma claimed it would be so ungentlemanly to show up in her hometown and not at least invite her. Okay, he had done it, and as far as he was concerned, that was enough.
"See you around and thanks for the ticket, Luke."
Then he watched as she turned to leave, and thought how nice she looked in her jeans and pullover top. And she had a walk that was perfect. She could have been a model easily since she had the looks, height, shape, and size for it. He felt the racing of his pulse and the pounding of the blood in his veins at the same time he heard Bobby Joe call his name. He tried ignoring all three.
"Here, take this."
He glanced up, but only after Mackenzie had disappeared in the crowd, to find his good friend Camden Bannister standing beside him offering a plastic cup with a cold soda.
He took it, grateful, since he definitely needed to cool his overheated body down some. "Thanks," he said, taking a big gulp.
"So, was that her?" Camden asked, raising his brows ever so slightly.
"The attorney. The one you talk about sometimes."
Luke frowned. Did he actually talk about her? Damn. Things were worse than he'd thought. "Yeah, that's her."
"She's definitely a looker."
He shot Camden a glare and then quickly decided he couldn't get upset because what Camden had said was true. Mackenzie was a looker. She was also a pretty damn good kisser even when she wasn't trying to be.
"So, will you be joining us after the rodeo or have you made other plans?" Camden asked.
Luke raised a brow as he took another sip of his drink. When he lowered the cup from his mouth, he said, "Nothing has changed, Cam. I'm joining you and the guys to celebrate our victory."
"You feel that lucky, huh?" Camden asked, grinning.
Luke remembered the good-luck kiss he'd shared with Mackenzie and gave him a smile that touched each corner of his lips. "Yeah, I feel that lucky."
Mackenzie leaned forward in her seat, watching with rapt interest and anticipation as steer ropers and daredevil bull riders took center stage in the arena. The crowd surrounding her was energized and she couldn't help being affected by it. Again she was reminded of the last rodeo that she had attended with her parents, the year before they had gotten killed in that plane crash.
Her mother had been a Cherokee Black Freedman and her father a full-blooded Cherokee. She had been their only child. After their deaths she had remained in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, under the care of her paternal grandfather. After he died she was sent away to Boston to live with one of her mother's distant relatives, Aunt Gloria. At eighteen, she had made the decision to return to the Cherokee Nation. After college she had a job offer from a well-known law firm and had made the move to Shreveport. A few years later, a broken heart had brought her back home to Oklahoma.
Although she tried not to think about it, she couldn't help but remember Luke's impulsive kiss. What had he been thinking? She knew the answer without giving the question much thought. For him it had been all in fun, nothing more than that. She seriously doubted his lips were still tingling, or he was still trying to downplay the adrenaline rush it had caused. Men. Did they ever take anything seriously? She had found out the hard way that they didn't thanks to Lawrence. Those lessons had come hard but would stay with her forever. Trust was something she wouldn't give easily to another man, and her love was something no other male would ever claim. She just didn't need the heartache and pain.
A short while later, after intermission, it was time for the steer ropes. She glanced down at the printed program supplied by the Professional rodeo Cowboy Association. It seemed that Luke was last man up. She couldn't help but read his career highlights and found them impressive. Just this year he had been the all-around and steer-roping winner at the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Frontier Days; had taken first place at the Grand National rodeo in San Francisco; and had set the PRCA team-roping record in Utah.
An hour or so later she stretched out her legs thinking her seat was very comfortable as well as accommodating. She had a front-row seat close to the chute that Luke would be coming out of. It wasn't long before she saw him. She leaned forward and placed her arms across the top rail to get a better look at him. She tried to ignore the flutter in her heart as she watched the chute team assist him as he swung his long legs over his horse's back. Beneath the black Stetson on his head he looked fearless, strong, and invincible. Handsome as sin. And just like that night five years ago, as uncanny as it seemed, his gaze found her in the stands, held a moment before an irresistible smile touched his lips. She couldn't help but smile back, thinking his smile was contagious.
Apparently she wasn't the only female who thought his smile had been just for her. The cheers that came from the women in the crowd indicated he was a cowboy who was appreciated in every sense of the word, and although he might be a heartache just waiting to happen to some, Luke Madaris had still won the hearts of most of the women there that night.
The arena suddenly quieted, and Mackenzie watched as the gate flew up and the steer was released. Seconds later Luke, riding expertly and skillfully, was right on its tail. In less than three heart-stopping seconds, Luke was off his horse with his rope in his hand. Dirt and dust flew everywhere but it was evident who was in control; before anyone could bat an eye, Luke had the steer on the ground and efficiently roped.
When he began walking away the people in the stands broke into cheers, whistles, and applause. Luke hadn't made it back to the chute when the judges posted their scores. There was no doubt he was the winner. The crowd went wild and the announcer's voice beckoned Luke to come back onto the field to take a bow for his cheering fans.
Then suddenly everything got quiet and Mackenzie saw why. Behind Luke a chute gate flew open and out tore the most ferocious-looking bull Mackenzie had ever seen. A scream caught in her throat as she watched everyone go into action to stop the bull, which was headed right in Luke's direction. Clowns tried doing everything they could to distract the bull and some got more than they bargained for, when the animal's horned head sent a number of them flying.
From where Mackenzie sat it wasn't apparent whether Luke had managed to jump out of the way before the bull could charge him. All she saw was that a number of cowboys had finally gotten the bull under control and were returning him to the pen. But Luke was lying flat on the ground, unmoving. Paramedics were rushing out on the field with a stretcher.
While fear of the unknown gripped the suddenly hushed crowd, Mackenzie whispered his name out loud. "Luke." And then she sprang from her seat, threw her legs over the top rail, and was running down from the stands and toward the fallen cowboy.
Excerpted from Taste of Passion by BRENDA JACKSONCopyright © 2009 by Brenda Streater JacksonPublished in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press
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