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In the small town of Verity, Texas, when the door to the Texas United Western Bank opened, Jake Calhoun's breath whooshed out as if a fist slammed into his gut. Through the years he had imagined this moment, yet he had thought it would never take place. Now every vivid detail became etched in his memory.
Across the street Madison Milan stepped into the September morning sunlight and glanced around. Sunshine glinted on her thick brown hair that was pulled back and tied with a red scarf. Dressed in jeans, a red shirt showing beneath her open denim jacket, with loafers on her feet, she answered a greeting of someone who passed her.
The shock of finally seeing her rocked him. She was not a figment of his imagination. She was real, alive and only two hundred yards away. Anger surged in his bloodstream, swiftly replaced by desire, intense, hot and startling. Gone was the momentary jolt of finally facing her, replaced by scalding memories. How could he feel desire? The hurt had been so deep, and so long ago.
The memories bombarded him, quick and relentless. She was the most fun female in the junior class, the prettiest football queen ever and had the best-looking legs of any Verity High cheerleader. But now that girl was gone. In her place stood a beautiful woman. Everyone who passed her on the street acknowledged her and she responded with a smile; some stopped to talk. He wondered if she had such a constant stream of people greeting her every time she came to town. Right now a tall, thin cowboy took his turn chatting with her and she smiled up at him.
Jake's emotions warred over the conflicts that rocked him. On the one hand, he wanted to take her family ranch from her and destroy her. After all, she was a Milan, as deceptive, deceitful and out for Calhoun blood as any other Milan in her family. At the same time, she was beautiful, sexy and the most desirable woman he had ever known.
She had been only a girl when he had gotten the closest to her. They had met in high school and the attraction had been hot and instant. He'd been the quarterback of the football team and she'd been a cheerleader.
His unwanted longing grew stronger, stirred by memories that made him weak in the knees. Memories of her soft lips and hot kisses, her silky hair that hung to her waist then, her laughter and boundless energy, her soft curves against him when they danced. The lightning flashes of memory continued to pound him: how they each fought the attraction because of the feud that raged between their families; their first kiss; the first time they made lovethe first for her ever. The recollections were so vivid they seemed recent instead of thirteen years ago. She had married the year she had graduated from college and the union had lasted two months. Since that time she had remained singlehe knew that much about herand it was long enough ago to be significant now.
She was probably as competitive in business now as she had been years ago in sports.
He brought himself back to the problem at hand. He wanted to talk to her, but he hadn't figured on a steady stream of locals who paused to chat with her.
From the background information his staff had put together he knew she usually drove a white four-door pickup to town. He'd spotted it two blocks farther west down Main Street in front of the grocery, and now he wondered if he should wait at the truck for her.
When she turned to walk in that direction, he crossed the street, lengthened his stride until he was half a block behind her. She entered the hardware store and he followed her inside. In minutes he found her in front of the paint section. As he approached her, his pulse quickened.
Madison Milan selected tubes of paint for her next art project, searching for the perfect shade of burnt umber. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone moving along the aisle toward her. When she saw who it was, she froze. Her heart missed a beat and then thudded. Anger swept over her, an intense, scorching fury that shocked her because she had convinced herself she had gotten over the past. This was the drawback about moving to the ranch after her parents gave it to her. She had come every fall and late spring for the past three years, being careful to avoid Verity as much as possible just to avoid running into Jake. This was the moment she had hoped would never happen. At the same time, an unwanted streak of desire heightened her fury. She didn't want to feel desire when she encountered Jake Calhoun.
He had grown taller. His shoulders appeared broader.
He had filled out and he was even more handsome. He wasn't the nineteen-year-old boy she remembered.
How had he found her? She hadn't noticed him on the street. Or was this coincidence? She didn't think it was.
He stopped only feet away and she hoped he couldn't hear her pounding heart.
"'Hello' seems a little ridiculous," he said, his voice deeper than she recalled.
"'Goodbye' is sufficient. I don't care to talk to you or anyone from your company about drilling on Milan land. I don't care to talk to any Calhoun. End of discussion."
She started to turn away and he placed his fingers lightly on her forearm. It was a feather touch, barely discernible, certainly not actually detaining her, but she stopped instantly and a current sizzled from that faint contact. She stood immobile, bound by a nonexistent hold and intense dark brown eyes.
"It isn't about drilling."
"You're not dredging up the past, are you? I definitely don't want to hear about that."
"No, I'm not," he said, suddenly looking hard, angry and withdrawn. A muscle worked in his jaw. His reaction startled her because she was the injured party, not Jake. Why was he angry? Instantly she blocked the question. She didn't want to know what he thought or felt about that time in their lives. She tried to focus and pay attention as he continued.
"This isn't the place to talk, but it's about a shoot-out between our families long ago on your land and the old legend of buried treasure. I think you'll be interested, so at least listen and don't miss out on something we both might want."
Surprised, skeptical, she suspected he was fabricating a tale about the ancient incident as an excuse to talk to her and to get on her land. It would be another deceptive Calhoun trick to steal something from a Milan. Their families had been feuding since their first respective ancestors had settled here in the days after the Civil War. She didn't figure the feud would end with them.
"I don't believe you and I don't trust you," she said, barely able to speak above a whisper and sounding unconvincing even to herself. How could he turn her to mush by his mere presence and one look from his dark eyes?
"Madison, at least listen and then make your decision. This is important. Let's meet where we won't be constantly interrupted. Come to dinner at my ranch. Or let me take you to Dallas to dinner. Whatever you want. Just somewhere quiet and private and on neutral ground. This concerns your family, too."
"Hi, Jake," a female voice behind him said as if giving emphasis to his request. He turned slightly and faced another local.
"Hi, Becky," he said, greeting a friend he had known since sixth grade.
Becky Worthington smiled broadly, looking back and forth between them and then focusing on Jake and stepping closer to him. "Nice to see you. You don't come into town often, do you?"
"No, I'm rarely at the ranch because I'm in Dallas a lot of the time and traveling some of the time."
"You should come to town and see people once in a while. Stop in and say hey. I still work at TBC bank, which, of course, I think is the best bank in town," she said, giggling.
"I'll try," Jake stated.
Becky looked back and forth between them. "I didn't mean to interrupt," she said and disappeared around the corner of the aisle from the direction she had come.
When she was out of earshot, Madison resumed their conversation. "An evening out with you? I don't really think so. Everything has been said between us that can be said."
"Far, far from it. You should hear me out. You'll be surprised, Madison. If you're not, tell me and I'll stop talking and go."
She could feel the clash of wills as she shook her head. "Whatever ploy this is, I'm sure a Calhoun itching to drill on Milan land is behind it."
"I want that, too, but it has nothing to do with this. I'm after something else and I think you'll be interested to know about this, too."
"If that's the case, tell me now."
He shook his head. "This is not the place. We were just interrupted, and we will be again. And anyone standing in the next aisle can overhear us. I don't want that and I don't think you will, either. Just go to dinner with me. It's not that big a deal. I can take you home whenever you want."
"Eating out around here won't be one degree better than talking here."
"We won't eat in Verity. We'll fly to Dallas and get a private corner. We won't see people we know. We won't be overheard. I'll bring you home whenever you say. Just trust me, you will not regret listening to me."
Debating what to do, she stared at him. There was no way a Milan could trust a Calhounthat had been proven to her in a devastating way. She couldn't imagine one thing he could want except to make a pitch to let him drill on her land and she was not going to do that no matter what he said or offered. She couldn't think of another reason he'd want to talk to her. Yet, surely he knew better than to tell her he had another reason and then talk about leasing land. Dinner would be over before it started. But she had to admit she was intrigued. What did he know that she didn't that concerned her ranch?
"All right, Jake. This better be good."
"Spending an evening with me is that bad?" he asked without a change of expression, reinforcing her opinion that he could be highly deceptive.
"I'm equally shocked you want to spend any time with me."
"This will be good, Madison. I'll come by to get you a little before seven Sunday night. Thanks. Absolutely no talk about drilling. I promise."
"I know how much your promise is worth," she couldn't keep from saying. She saw the flicker in his eyes and saw that hardness return to his expression, puzzling her. She turned her back on him and walked away, aiming to complete her purchases and get away from him.
She had intended to get two small brushes, but she wanted out of the store away from Jake more than she wanted the brushes. She had tried to put him and the past out of her thoughts, to stop remembering or hurting. She wished she could have faced him without any reaction instead of this heart-pounding longing. She wished the memories hadn't tumbled back into her thoughts as clearly as if they had parted months ago rather than over a decade ago. Instead, seeing him caused all the old pain and anger to return, as well as the intense physical reaction. He was still the best-looking man she knew. In spite of her hurt and fury, he still set her heart racing.
Suddenly she wanted to go back and cancel the evening with him. Her art career had succeeded beyond all her hopes and expectations. She was constantly busy with what she loved to do. She had remained single because there had been so little time for her personal life and her brief marriage had been disastrous from the first moment. Jake, she knew, was still single, which didn't surprise her. He wasn't the marrying type.
She didn't want to spend a whole evening feeling the way she did nowhurting, drowning in memories of a wedding day that never happened. Memories tore at her heart and fueled an ever-simmering rage when she thought about him. She didn't trust him in the slightest. For a little over one year in her life she had gone against all her family's warnings about the unscrupulous Calhouns and she had trusted Jake. Because of that mistake, he had broken her heart. One thing was certainno matter what excuses Jake presented, she would never let him drill on Milan land.
She hurried out of the store, striding quickly to her truck, planning to forgo her grocery shopping. She wanted to go home to the Double M Ranch, away from town and any chance of encountering him again. She had been careful, coming to town only once a month, usually getting someone else to pick up groceries and supplies. She would go back to that routine. How she wished she could just as easily obliterate all memories of Jake Calhoun.
Instead, the memories poured over her in a deluge. Growing up, because of the century-and-a-half-old family feud, she never spoke to any Calhouns, but she had been aware of Jake from her first year in high school. They were three years apart in age, but two years in school because she had been tutored at home on the ranch when she was little and when she had started school they'd placed her in the fourth grade instead of the third.
Her first close encounter with Jake had been at a school party in the gym to get everyone acquainted. For one of the dances they had two large circles of kidsboys in the outside ring, girls on the inside. They walked in a circle to a drumbeat until the band began to play, then the boy and girl facing each other danced until the music stopped and everybody resumed walking in a circle to get a new partner.
When the music started, she had been facing Jake. "No. Not a Calhoun," she had said loudly enough for him and everyone around her to hear. She had stepped close to the boy next to him, leaving Jake to the girl next to her. Everyone knew about the feud, and besides, the girl had been a friend and hadn't cared because Jake Calhoun was older, on the football team, well-known and popular.
The next time he passed her at school he walked up close and said, "Thanks for changing partners so I didn't have to." Madison had just continued on her way, wondering if he really would have grabbed a different girl in front of all the other kids. The rest of her freshman year she had never spoken to him again and he didn't speak to her, but she noticed him and he always glanced at her. She had thought it was a pity he was a Calhoun because he was the best-looking boy in the high school.