They'd been close for years, but suddenly Madeline hungered for John in a new way. When they finally touched, passion set their souls on fire but their friendship turned to ashes. Now Madeline feared she was no more than a mistress to him. And John was tormented by desire forand doubts aboutMadeline's love. Yes, Madeline loved John. But would love sustain her as they made the sensual journey from friends to lovers?
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The clink of the cocktail glasses seemed unusually loud to Madeline Vigny's ears, and the expensive perfume of the other women was smothering. She'd been nursing a headache all day, and she would have liked nothing better than to give in to the exhaustion and go home to bed. But it wouldn't do to leave her own party. Not when she was the guest of honor.
She turned away from the bar and wandered back through the crowd, smiling politely at the elite members of Houston's literary community while her head throbbed like a bass drum. At twentyseven, Madeline was gaining a national reputation as a mystery writer, and the party was in celebration of the release of her latest novelThe Grinding Tower. She'd just come back from an autograph tour, only to find that her editor would need an additional thirty pages of revisions on the book she'd mailed to her publisher the previous week. She'd managed the revisions in one day, by pushing much too hard, and now she was exhausted. All she wanted out of life at the moment was an aspirin and a soft bed.
Her pale green eyes swept around the crowded room, bright with the effort of being kept forcibly open. They were the exact shade of her seductive sheath, a strappy creation with narrow pleats down the front and sides split up to her tanned thighs. The color also offset her reddish gold hair, pulled up into a loose topknot that emphasized her graceful carriage. When loosened, that fiery hair tumbled in waves down to her waist. She'd toyed with the idea of cutting it, but John had given her an affronted glare and proceeded to talk her out of it. He was a past master at convincing people to do things his waymost people, she amended silentlywhich probably explained the extent of his oil empire. He'd won two proxy fights in the past five years, retained control of Durango Oil with an expertise that dumbfounded even oldtimers in the business. What Big John wanted, he got. From everyone except Madeline.
She caught a glimpse of him across the room, already in the steely clutches of a petite little blonde with eyes like cash registers. Madeline thought, as she had often before, that nobody could hold a candle to Big John Durango. He was six foot four with a big, muscular frame to match, and despite his thirtynine years, there wasn't an ounce of fat on him. He had straight, dark hair swept neatly back over a broad foreheadso neatly that Madeline's fingers often itched to muss it. His eyes seemed dark at a distance, but were actually a slate gray at close range. His nose had been broken at least once, and it showed. He had a mouth that was utterly sensuous under a thick, neatly trimmed mustache as black as his hair. A square jaw that hinted at determination and a strong will completed the portrait. Although she and John had been friends, just good friends, for over two years, she couldn't help being aware that he was a man. The sight of him in his dark evening clothes would draw any woman's eyes, and Madeline, feeling a chill go down her spine, was no exception. Probably, her mind insisted, a survival mechanism. God knew she needed one around John.
She lifted the brandy snifter to her lips and took a long sip. Her eyes idly studied John and the blonde. It looked as though he was making quite an impression and she felt an unpleasant twinge of annoyance. Perhaps it was the strong friendship she shared with the oil tycoon that made her feel so possessive about him.
John certainly hadn't given her any other reason to feel possessive. He knew what her disastrous affair with Allen had cost her. She and Allen had been engagedor so she thought. But the morning after he'd seduced her, she'd learned that the wouldbe writer already had a wife and child.
John had understood her horrified reaction to that incident from the start. He'd respected her fear of physical involvement, and he hadn't approached her sexually, not ever. Madeline, on the other hand, wasn't interested in his money, which meant he could trust her in a very special way. Madeline guessed he hadn't been able to trust anyone that way since Ellen's death. He knew that she liked him for himself, not for what he could give her.
She sighed, sipping at her brandy. But now things seemed to be changing. John was usually the easiest man in the world to get along with, her best friend. Yet for the past few weeks he'd been alternately impatient and downright unpleasant with her. Last week things had gotten completely out of hand when one of John's cowboys had been drinking on the job and had made a blatant pass at Madeline.
Madeline had always been friendly with Jednot flirtatious, just friendly. But while she was waiting for John at the stables, Jed had suddenly grabbed her and tried to kiss her. John had come out of nowhere and sent the man flying onto the hard ground with one powerful blow.
"Get out," John had growled at the downed cowboy. "Draw your pay and don't ever set foot on Big Sabine again!"
Madeline, standing shocked and tonguetied a little distance away, had stared at John as if she'd never seen him before. With his gray eyes blazing like silver, his face granite hard, he was suddenly a stranger. The easygoing, pleasant companion she'd known for the past two years had vanished.
John hadn't said a word while the bruised cowboy picked his husky figure up off the ground, glared at Madeline and went ambling off toward the ranch office.
"I thank you," Madeline had stammered. Her hands had brushed idly at the smudges on her blouse while she fought for composure. The incident had shaken her terribly. She hadn't realized Jed had been drinking until he'd come close, and then it had been too late. If John hadn't come along when he had, it might have been much worse than a little rough handling and a kiss that hadn't landed anywhere near her mouth.
John had turned then, with a freshly lit cigarette in his bruised hand, and his eyes had been frightening, with a silver glitter that intimidated as much as his size.
"When will you learn," he'd demanded harshly, "that there's a difference between friendly and being provocative?"
"I wasn't!" she protested. "Jed's always been nice to me. I thought "
"He was a good mansober," he'd shot back. "I hate to lose him."
The unfamiliar harshness in his deep, slow voice, the censure in his gaze, had hurt. "Don't be mad at me," she'd murmured gently, putting out a tentative hand to touch his bronzed forearm in a conciliatory gesture.
The muscles in his arm had contracted as if he'd been subjected to a barrage of bullets. She'd felt them tense individually until he was as steely as drawn rope beneath her hand. Increasingly he hadn't liked for her to touch him, but she hadn't expected what he'd done next.
With a muffled curse, he'd caught her by the wrist, his fingers hurting, and forcibly removed her hand.
"Don't think you'll wrap me around your finger, Satin," he'd said harshly, giving her the nickname he'd coined because she "moved like satin when she walked."
"And from now on, keep your distance from my men. If you're looking for a little excitement, look for it off my ranch! "
That had pricked her temper. His harsh words had hurt, but being accused of enticing his ranch hands was more than she could stand.
"It'll be a pleasure to stay off your ranch, John Cameron Durango," she'd flung at him, her green eyes spitting sparks. "You've been the very devil to get along with lately, anyhow. And I wasn't trying to wrap you around my finger, I was trying to thank you!"
Without another word, she'd stomped off toward her car. And they hadn't spoken since.
Now she was feeling repentant and she wanted to make up. But that moneyhungry little blonde made it impossible to approach him, and John wasn't even trying to ward her off.
The worst of it all was that she recognized the blonde, now that she'd gotten a good look at her. Her name was Melody somethingorother, and she was wellknown in Houston circles for her habit of stalking wealthy older men. Her name had been linked with two Houston businessmen in the past year, and not in a nice way. For heaven's sake, didn't John know what kind of company he was keeping? Couldn't he see through that facade of kittenlike sweetness? Madeline scowled at the sight of the dark head bent so close to the blond one, aware of an ache deep inside her that she couldn't quite identify.
"Don't look now, sweetheart, but you're glaring," came the sound of a familiar voice at her shoulder.
She half turned, smiling at Donald Durango, whose boyish face was wearing a look of pure mischief.
"Is that what it's called?" she asked in mock amazement.
"You wouldn't be jealous of her?" he murmured dryly.
She felt herself bristling. "John and I are friends nothing more," she said curtly.
"So you keep telling me," he agreed pleasantly. "And a gorgeous creature like you wouldn't lie."
"My, but you're good for my ego," she murmured with a forgiving smile. She couldn't help thinking how little he resembled his cousin. Where John was tall and big and powerfully built, Donald was slight and bordering on thin. John was darkly tanned and had those piercing silver eyes and hair that was almost black. Donald's hair was blond and his eyes were a pure blue.
The two cousins didn't bear the slightest physical resemblance, but both were good businessmen and both could be ruthless when the occasion called for it. There were never two fiercer rivals. Some deeply personal conflict had kept them at each other's throats for years. Donald could be faintly malicious with the tricks he pulled on John; yet surprisingly, John's attitude was more defensive than offensive. After his father's death, Donald had led a vicious proxy fight against his cousin when John inherited a large block of preferred stock in Durango Oil. Donald's fatherJohn's uncle, who helped raise himhad surprised a good many people with that move. But John had been the stronger of the two and had the better business sense. He'd won that proxy fight by a staggering majority, and the sword had been drawn between the two cousins ever since. Donald never missed the smallest opportunity to needle John, right down to cultivating Madeline's friendship.
"Care to hang around with me for the rest of the evening?" Donald asked with a grin. "I'll save you from the lecherous advances and false praise."
"And who'll save me from you?" she countered with a meaningful smile. Her eyes had drifted back to John and Melody and she was scowling again. "If that girl gets any closer, she's going to melt all over his suit," she murmured.
"Rich bachelors aren't that thick on the ground these days," he offered. "And she is an eyeful."
Madeline barely heard him. She wanted to take the punch bowl and dump its red contents right on top of that bleached blond head.
"I've got to save him," she murmured. "It's my duty as a former Girl Scout to rescue your cousin from the lecherous clutches of that moneyhungry blonde."
Without another word, she started toward the two of them. As luck would have it, Melody must have asked for something to drink because at that moment, with a smile and a wink, John left her and headed for the punch bowl. Madeline, seeing her chance, waylaid him there.
"Are we speaking?" Madeline asked, peering up at him deadpan. "If not, just nod your head and I'll slink away into a corner and pretend I don't know you."
Once that would have made him laugh. But his face didn't soften at all, and his eyes were cold, like iced silver.
"I'm amazed that you could tear yourself away from my cousin," he said in a deep, cool drawl.
"His name is Donald," she reminded him, looking up. Despite her above average height and spiked heels, he still towered over her. "I've never heard you call him by name, but that's what it is. And I don't make a habit of ignoring people when they speak to me. You didn't even bother," she added venomously.
He looked down his straight, arrogant nose at her; the thick black mustache made him look mature and virile. Which he was, of course.
"That works both ways," he reminded her. "I don't run after women. I don't have to," he added with faint malice and a glance toward Melody.
That made her furious, but Madeline clenched the brandy snifter and tried not to show it. "She has quite a reputation, you know," she told him. "She's just been jilted by her latest conquest, and I hear she's looking for a greener wallet."
He was watching her intently, a slight frown creasing the forehead over his deepset eyes. "I don't mind paying for what I want," he said quietly. "I can afford it."
The cynicism in that statement made her want to cry. He'd never believed that a woman could want him for himself; he seemed completely unaware of his own attractions. But Madeline, watching him, wasn't. She studied his face as if she'd never seen it before: the thick, dark eyebrows, the silver eyes, the craggy contours, the hard yet sensuous mouth under its neat, bushy mustache.his mouth. Her lips parted involuntarily as she stared up at it unconsciously, and she wondered with a curiosity that shocked her how it would feel if she let him kiss her
"You're looking hard, Satin," he said quietly. "Searching for chinks in my armor? You won't find any."
"Are you sure? " She deliberately moved closer, toying with a pearly shirt button. Under the thin, white silk, she could see the dark shadow of the mat of black hair that covered his massive chest and flat stomach, feel the warmth of his flesh. The sheer masculinity of him made her knees weak, and her own new reactions to him were staggering. Lately she'd wanted to touch him with a hunger that was totally unexpected. And it was increasingly obvious that he didn't want her touching him in any way.
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This author kept the reader confused the entire book.