The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 12)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(12)
Author: Cora Seton

Madelyn barked orders to all and sundry like an army lieutenant. The sun blazed in a clear sky, throwing all the mountains surrounding them into relief. They’d seen two bears and several elk grazing by the side of the highway as they made their way here, but although he’d kept a sharp lookout, he had yet to spot any of the mountain goats the park was known for.

Another SUV pulled up and Jake Cramer stepped out, followed by Natalie the makeup artist, a hairstylist and a third assistant whose job seemed to be to get yelled at.

“Great—Jake’s here. Let’s get started!” Madelyn said. “Evan, Bella—stand here.” She pointed to a spot on the ground. “Jake—you’re here.” She indicated another spot, facing them. Ellis took the coffee out of Evan’s hands and led him to his place. A moment later Bella stood by his side.

“Ready to get your ass kicked?” Evan said to her, figuring he might as well liven things up.

“Ready to die a slow, painful death?” she returned, her glare positively venomous. Evan was momentarily taken aback—he’d just been engaging in some friendly banter—but then he grinned. When was the last time anyone had spoken so freely to him? Apart from Nick and Amanda, that was. Most people treated him with kid gloves, as if billionaires were an entirely different breed who might explode at the slightest provocation. Bella just treated him like…dirt. It was kind of refreshing.

“I’m ready if you are,” he said.

“Roll ‘em!” Madelyn shouted.

“Evan, Bella, it’s great to see your shiny, happy faces this morning—the first morning of a grueling five-day contest of strength and stamina and cunning designed to push both of you to the limits of your endurance. I suspect you won’t look quite so shiny or happy at the end of the day.” Jake grinned as if the prospect pleased him no end. “Each day you will travel a number of miles. Each morning and afternoon, you will also encounter a challenge—an activity you must complete that offers the chance to pick up five points. Once you’ve reached the finishing point for the day, you will find supplies to set up camp for the night. Do you understand?”

Evan nodded. So did Bella.

“Cut!” Madelyn pushed forward. “Nodding does not make for good television. If Jake asks you a question you answer out loud. If he doesn’t ask you a question, keep your mouth shut. Got it? Let’s take it from ‘Do you understand?’”

Jake leaned forward, his expression serious, and repeated his line. “Do you understand?”

Enthusiasm, huh? “Yes,” Evan shouted.

“Cut!” Madelyn put her hands on her hips. “Seriously? Save the drama for later, this is only day one. Take it again,” she waved to Jake.

Jake seemed put out, too. Evan frowned. He wasn’t used to getting yelled at or taking directions. A glance at Bella told him she was enjoying this all too much.

“Do you understand?” Jake intoned a third time.

“Yes,” Evan said, hoping he sounded confident and calm.

“Yes,” Bella echoed in firm, but measured tones.

“Good. Here are your maps.” Jake moved forward to hand each of them a colorful, laminated tri-folded map. “These show your starting point, the ending point and the location of the two challenges. Grab your daypacks and set out as soon as you’re ready. Let the fun begin!”

“Cut! Okay you two—that’s your cue to cheer, shake hands and run for your packs! Roll ‘em!” Madelyn interrupted to say.

Evan exchanged a look with Bella. “Uh…right on,” he said unconvincingly.

“Yay?” she said.

“I don’t hear you!” Madelyn hollered.

“All right!” Evan said, hoping he didn’t sound like a complete idiot.

Bella let out a whoop that made his ears ring, grabbed for his hand and shook it awkwardly, and sprinted for her daypack. Evan hesitated for only a moment before he raced after her, unwilling to let her get a head start. She already had her pack on and was consulting her laminated map when he caught up. As she strode off quickly toward the trail, Madelyn bellowed, “Hold on—where are you going?”

“Um…I’m following the trail,” Bella said, halting in her tracks.

“Not so fast, chickie. You need your crew. Paul, Nita, you’re with Bella. Chris, Andrew—you’ll take Evan.” She tugged Bella back into the clearing as the crew members hustled over. A cameraman and assistant assigned to each of them, Evan noted. The assistant held a microphone and both packed extra equipment on their backs.

“Here’s how it works,” Madelyn went on. “One—your camera crew will be on your tails every minute of every day except for powder breaks, of course. If you’re not answering nature’s call, they have the right to monitor and record every move you make and every sentence you utter. No matter how tired, frustrated, annoyed or just downright ornery you might be, you may NOT take it out on the crew, do you hear me?” She waited for them to answer.

“Got it,” Evan said.

“Sure,” Bella said.

“Good. Two—your camera crew does not exist. I repeat—they do not exist. No matter what, you do not look at them, speak to them, ask them for help, ask them for a drink of water, ask them if you are headed in the right direction. At challenges you’ll find additional camera crew in position. At night there will be crew members camped nearby, but out of sight. You may not interact with them. They will not answer you. They will not help you.” She looked from Evan to Bella to make sure her point was driven home. “Ignore all crew members at all times, unless they give you a direct order. These guys are trained professionals. No matter how many times you break this rule, they will definitely ignore you.

“Three—you are competitors, but you may not sabotage each other. No holes in each other’s water pouches, no tripping or pushing, and so on. Sabotage equals automatic disqualification. You may, however, trash talk and generally annoy the hell out of each other. In fact, we’re counting on it. Is all of this clear?”

“Yes,” Evan said. He snuck a glance at Bella, who once more seemed a little pale.

“Yes.” She nodded, and her pony-tail swung.

“All right—go get ‘em!” She clapped her hands together. “Get out of here!”

Bella broke out into a run and Evan only hesitated a moment before running after her. In several strides he caught up, pushed past her and raced onward with a rush of speed designed to leave her far behind. When he looked back thirty seconds later, all he could see past his camera crew were the trees crowding the trail. This was child’s play.