Madison Worth knew she was in trouble the minute the manure hit her Prada heels.
Actually, the trouble had started months ago, during the Fall Collection Show in New York. One little incident with a chocolate cake and Kate Moss, and all of a sudden, Madison had been labeled as difficult. Temperamental.
And the unkindest cut of all—a diva.
That one hurt the worst. It wasn’t like she went around insisting all the orange M&Ms be removed from the candy dish. Or pitched a fit because someone handed her a Dasani instead of Evian. Why, she rarely ever complained about having to smile and cavort in the ocean for a swimsuit shoot in March.
She was not a diva. Not even close. The cake throwing had been completely justified. Maybe not smart, but explainable.
It had merely been a bizarre twist of fate that Kate Moss’s face had to come between Madison and winning an argument.
So now, because of that, she stood in the circular dirt driveway of the Pleeseman Dairy Farm, located in one of those no-name, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it towns in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, trying to ignore the brown lump on her seven hundred dollar stilettos. The late July heat only intensified the odor, the experience. Madison had to force herself not to turn her nose up in distaste, not to retch right there on the driveway. That wouldn’t do, not when she needed this job so desperately. If she’d had a choice, she’d have been out of here on the first private jet—
But those days were far behind Madison Worth. So she put up with the crud. Literally. She put a hand on her hip, another shielding her eyes from the sunshine.
Ahead of her, the poop perpetrator—a massive green and black truck thing—a dump truck?—chugged along the curve, leaving a cow patty trail in its wake, several of which bounced off the dry, caked dirt and spattered in her direction. Ewww. She shuddered, resisted backing up and running as fast as she could back toward the sanity of New York, and instead raised her hand, waving, trying to catch the attention of the driver. Surely someone should be outside, ready to meet her, to show her where her dressing room was and to escort her to her hotel suite.
To civilization and crisp, white sheets.
But the tractor, truck, whatever, kept right on chugging toward a barn and trio of silos on her left. A one-horned goat trotted along behind the machine, baaing and nipping at stray blades of grass along the path. The breeze picked up, whisking with it the distinct smell of manure, tinged with sour milk. Madison grimaced, swallowing back the bile in her throat.
She’d put up with worse, hadn’t she? That photo shoot in Greece, with the grabby photographer who had a habit of “making sure” her top was properly adjusted for the lens? The video she’d shot on the yacht, which had turned into a disaster when a storm whipped up, sending most of the crew and the models scrambling for the nearest bucket. Her agent had gotten an earful about that particular job, and ended up sending Madison a case of Dramamine and a hot-off-the-runway pair of Jimmy Choos as consolation.
This, too, was a job, like any other. And one she had to do without complaint, if she ever wanted to restore her career to its former beauty.
Now there was irony—modeling for a cheese company, steeped high in the scent of manure, as a way to get back into the pages of Women’s Wear Daily.
Madison picked her way further up the drive and past the cow landmines, still waving futilely, and in between, waving her hand at her chest, trying to head off the perspiration before it started to show. Why had she worn a suit? Who was she trying to impress out here on “Green Acres?”.
Anyone who wanted to hire her, that’s who. She didn’t care that Eileen Ford had dropped her from her model roster faster than Britney Spears could say “I do.” That all the other top agencies in town had turned her down, refusing to see her, lest she darken the doorsteps of their Naomi Campbell built offices.
That she had had to go groveling back to Harry, her agent from the early days, and hear him chortle with glee.
One—okay, maybe two or three—crying jags in front of the camera did not constitute a breakdown. She still had her looks, her body and most of all, her ability to model the pants off Cindy Crawford. And she was damned well going to prove it to the industry—
As the spokesmodel for the Cheese Pleese Factory.
Behind her, her Benz made an odd clicking noise as it cooled, definitely a sign of owner neglect. It had sputtered to a stop halfway up the drive, leaving her to navigate on her own.
Surely, she had landed in hell, she thought, avoiding yet another dung disaster.
Around her, the scent of manure seemed to multiply, to take up residence in her nose. A bird swooped down, nearly decapitating her in its journey toward a nearby birdfeeder. And leaving her a nice surprise on the opposite Prada heel.
That was it.
Forget the whole damned thing. She couldn’t do this. She wasn’t that desperate.
Madison tugged her cell phone out of her purse, flipping open the cover. She had not driven all those hours along the crowded turnpike for this. “I’m out of here,” she muttered, holding one in-need-of-a-manicure finger over the first listed contact. In an instant, she could erase the manure, the cheese factory, that itty bitty nervous breakdown during Fashion Week.
All she had to do was push that button. Well, that and maybe grovel a little. Okay, a lot.
One phone call would put her back into her Manhattan apartment, give her Benz some much-needed TLC, and send her on a shoe shopping spree that would make Imelda Marcos salivate.
She hesitated. One button. One call. And it would all go away.
And leave her right back where she’d started, except without any cake ammunition. Madison clicked the phone’s flip top closed.
Somewhere along the way, Madison Worth had gotten the insane idea that she needed to grow up.
“Hey,” Madison called to Mr. Green Jeans up there on the truck, making her wave bigger, using her phone to catch a glint of sunshine. “Hey!”
Farmer-guy put his foot on the brake, turned, cupped a hand over his ear and stared at her. If he was surprised to see a five-foot-eleven blonde in designer duds standing in the drive, he didn’t show it. He just gave her a blank look, then one short nod. “Ma’am,” was all he said.
“Do you know where I can find Jack Pleeseman?”
The engine of the tractor continued its low rumble. The guy lifted a shoulder, then dropped it, and shook his head. “Can’t say that I do. He’s a pesky one to keep track of. Always off on one idea or another.”
Idiot, Madison thought to herself. She hated dealing with anyone lower on the totem pole than the top. He was probably hired help, which meant he had no idea of the boss’s whereabouts and wouldn’t be a bit of help anyway. Madison waved a never-mind hand at him, squared her shoulders and marched the rest of the way to the front door.
She’d do it herself. It wasn’t like she was completely incapable of self-care. Most days, anyway.
The tractor backfired, releasing an explosive boom and a plume of black smoke that surrounded Madison, surely turning her pink Chanel suit gray.
Okay, so, this wasn’t the high profile runway work she was used to. It wasn’t the cover of Cosmo or hell, even an inside quarter-page ad. It was small town, hokie work, the kind the other models laughed at behind their thousand-watt mirrors.
But it was going to be Madison’s saving grace, by God. If not, she’d have to find a real job and Lord knew she wasn’t fit for anything more involved than returning a purse to Nordstrom’s.
She reached the porch and made her way up the steps. The wood was worn in places, the white paint peeling back to reveal a gray of years gone by. Each step let out an ominous squeak. And then, just when she reached the top, the spiky heel of her right shoe poked right through the landing.
And stayed there.
Madison yanked, but the porch still held her hostage. She had two choices—stay there and wait for rescue or bend over, undo the pain-in-the-ass buckle and take off the shoe.
Since her only chance for rescue seemed to be Hector the Tractor Guy, who had already chug-chugged away, backfiring like Patriots fans belched, she opted for the second choice. Madison bent over and tried to get her acrylic nails under the teeny buckle to slip it out of its brass tether. She nearly had it off and then—
The red tip on her index finger popped off, flying across the porch. It skittered across the wood, then slipped through a crack.
“Better watch out for our bull,” a voice said behind her. “Big George sees that view and before you know it, you’re having a calf.”
She whirled around, her skirt whooshing against her bare legs, and faced the man behind her. It wasn’t Hector—it was someone far younger. He was tall, probably taller than her, and tan in a rugged sort of way that said he spent time outdoors, not at the Mist-N-Go booth. He had broad shoulders, easily defined by his pale blue cotton T-shirt and jeans that hugged along his thighs, tapering down to cowboy boots that were dusted with dirt. His hair was dark, with a slight wave, offset by even darker eyes, nearly the color of a good chocolate.
But worse of all, he was grinning at her. Like he found her predicament amusing.
“I’m stuck,” Madison said. “In case you didn’t notice. Could you find the boss or better yet, help me? Like the gentleman I presume you are?”
“That porch,” the man said, ignoring her and rubbing his chin with one hand, that grin still shaded by the brim of his hat, “why, it’s nabbed many a woman. My cousin Paul married the last one who got her foot caught.”
Still that smirk. “Only if you’re already spoken for.”
Madison let out a gust, gave her shoe a solid yank, pulling it from its wooden prison—
And sending her off balance, scrambling for purchase against the peeling wooden columns. Before she could fall to her humiliation on the cow patty drive, a pair of strong arms had scooped her up and carried her onto the middle of the porch.
“Put me down,” Madison said. “Before I—“
“Sue me for saving you from falling on your ass?” The man tipped forward, dumped her onto the porch, then stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest. Madison teetered, then, as a woman who had spent her formative years in three-inch heels, regained her balance.
“You’re pretty damned ungrateful,” he said.
“And you’re pretty damned touchy-feeling. You could have helped me without using your hands.”
He quirked a brow at that. “Hmm…now there’s a talent I haven’t yet cultivated. Picking up a woman without using my hands.” He thought a minute. “Can’t say I want to learn to do that, either.”
Madison bit back her first retort. And her second. She was here to work on her self control, with the bonus of earning a living. Lashing out at the hired help might make her feel better, but it wasn’t working toward her goal. “I’m looking for Jack Pleeseman,” she said, naming the man who had hired her, and who held the future fate of her career in her hands. “Do you work for him?”
“Do you know him?”
The guy considered this, tipping his hat upward an inch or two. “Better than most.”
“Can you point me in the direction of where I might find him?”
“Don’t need to.”
Madison took a step forward, pointing her naked nail at his chest. “Listen, buster. I have been spattered with cow crap, used as a Port-a-Potty by a low-flying bird, and suffocated by tractor exhaust. I am in no mood for your games.”
“Too bad. Because you sure seem like you’d be fun to beat at checkers.”
A shriek of frustration resonated in her mind. Whoever this guy was, she was going to make sure Jack Pleeseman fired him for treating her so rudely. “If you won’t tell me where your boss is, then I’ll find him myself, wherever he is on this godforsaken hellhole farm.” She pivoted on her heel and reached for the brass doorknocker.
“’Fraid you won’t find him in there,” the man said.
“And why is that?” Madison lowered the knocker hard against the door anyway.
“Because he’s standing right here.”
The manure had been nothing. This time, the shit really hit Madison. Square in the face.