* * * * *
Bella stood in a crook of the trail and studied her laminated map. If she’d heard everything right, this contest wasn’t about speed—it was about accuracy. She would gain the points she needed to win at the challenges, not by exhausting herself racing from point to point. She looked at the map legend and back to the trail marked out by a dashed line. In total, she would cover eight miles today. That didn’t seem so bad. Of course, if the trail was hilly—and it looked to be hilly—it could be quite strenuous. She found the midpoint and noted that the two halves of the trail were bisected by the challenge points. So, she had maybe two to three miles to go before the first challenge, a longer four mile hike to the second challenge, and two more miles to the day’s campsite. She could do this.
She wasn’t exactly a fitness buff, but her work required her to move all day long, lifting animals, feeding them, exercising them. She had plenty of stamina. The trail looked very well marked, too, so she wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost, at least at first. Setting out at a steady pace, she tried to ignore the crew members following after her. How did her butt look in these shorts? She hoped it looked good, because with Paul’s camera pointed right at it, the viewers were definitely going to notice.
Before long, the path began to climb. They were traveling through a mixed forest in which cedar, hemlock and pine predominated. The air smelled different from home. Although the day was warming up fast, there was a sharp hint of snow in the air—probably from the wind sweeping over the mountains. On the drive the previous day they’d passed more than one glacier, so she assumed some nearby peaks never lost their snow cover, no matter the time of year.
As they continued, the going got rougher and she began to breathe heavily. Paul and Nita huffed and puffed behind her, and when she risked a look over her shoulder, she saw Nita push back her heavy, dark bangs, already damp with sweat. Good—she wasn’t the only one struggling.
She wondered how far ahead Evan was. He’d looked all too handsome this morning, completely at home in his hiking gear—even that funny, brimmed hat he wore. She felt kind of dorky in the brand new water-wicking shorts the show had provided for her, and the t-shirt they’d given her hugged every curve, making her adequate breasts look absolutely huge. Madelyn had allowed her to keep her cowboy hat—thank God. Although she avoided horses, it was as much a part of her daily uniform as her own skin. It would be too strange to part with it now.
By the time she’d traversed the first couple miles she was covered with a slick of sweat. She hadn’t stopped for a break yet, but if she didn’t find the first challenge soon, she’d need to stop and rest. The trail rose consistently and became quite steep in places. Add in the weight of her water pouch and daypack and she was tiring fast.
Just when she was about to give up and stop by the side of the trail, it leveled out and she entered a moderately sized meadow. Two targets were set up about fifty yards from where she stood. Evan stood in front of one, a recurve bow upraised in his hands. As she watched, he pulled the string back to his ear and let an arrow loose. It flew at the target and hit it with a thwap. His two crew members clapped. Another man she didn’t recognize wrote something on his notepad. “That’s four.”
Four? As in, four arrows in the target? If each arrow equaled a point, Evan had nailed four out of five points in the first challenge. She’d never picked up a bow in her life—there was no way she could beat that.
Evan took another arrow from a quiver at his feet, set it on the string and lifted the arrow again. She watched him carefully, trying to note his stance, the way he set the arrow to the string and how he positioned the bow. Obviously, he’d done this before.
Was Madelyn aware of that? Was this contest rigged against her? She realized she had no way of knowing. Maybe this whole thing was going to be an exercise in humiliation, with the loss of her clinic and animal shelter the final blow.
She had to do something. What had Madelyn said? They weren’t allowed to hurt each other, but trash talk was encouraged?
She waited until Evan pulled the arrow back to his ear and steadied it there. Right when she judged he would let it loose, she yelled, “Bear!”
Evan jerked and the arrow swung off course, missing the target altogether. Everyone in the clearing tensed and scanned the area.
“Sorry,” Bella called and stepped forward. “My mistake—it was just a tree. I’m a little jumpy.”
Evan turned on her. “You did that on purpose.”
She shrugged. “I haven’t spent a lot of time in the woods. My specialty is pets, not grizzlies. Like I said, I’m a little jumpy.”
“You’re going to be a whole lot jumpier before the day’s done. You realize you’ve only spoiled one shot of mine. I’ll be here to spoil all five of yours.” He held her gaze as he came to stand close enough to her she could smell the sweat from his morning’s exertions. It should have disgusted her, but instead it seemed to waken something deep inside. He was clean shaven this morning, still neat and tidy despite the hike, but as handsome as he was now, she had the feeling that the wilder this trip got, the hotter he’d look. Rugged outdoorsy activity suited the guy far better than his suits did. She doubted it had the same effect on her appearance, though.
He handed her the bow and Bella swallowed, all too aware of the way his hands wrapped around the polished wood. Strong hands with blunt fingers. Hands that could caress and squeeze and stroke…
“You’ll lose your head start,” Bella said, suddenly eager to send him on his way. Her hands weren’t shaking out of nervousness about handling a bow for the first time, nor because he obviously intended to taunt her while she shot. The thought of Evan touching her made her feel warm. Delicate. Womanly.
Crud. Of all the men to react to like that. Why couldn’t she fall for one of the businessmen of Chance Creek, or even one of the cowboys working the ranches around town, like Rob’s brother Jake? Or the county sheriff, Cab? She got along great with Cab, but there’d never been a spark between them—not like this.
Cab didn’t have Evan’s hands.
Surely she was losing it. Who cared about hands? It was a man’s heart, his brain, his capacity for love that was really important, if you cared about things like that. She didn’t care about men one way or another.
But her thoughts returned to the way Evan’s hands could make her feel alive. They could tease and torment her until she writhed with desire.