The two women looked guilty, like Bella had caught them dipping into the petty cash, and she felt the usual pang she did when she saw them together. Hannah was twenty-five and she had worked for Bella for four years. Bella counted her as her closest friend.
However, when Rob Matheson brought his fiancée in to pick out some kittens last month, Hannah and Morgan instantly took to each other. As soon as Morgan returned from her honeymoon, she began to stop by the shelter several times a week. She spent a lot of time with the animals, and even more time with Hannah—often inviting her out to lunch when she came by. It wasn’t that the other two women excluded her exactly—Bella always worked through lunch, as Hannah knew all too well—but she still felt left out. Bella knew she’d neglected her friendship with Hannah; while they saw each other at work every day, they didn’t hang out after hours, or go out to eat, or shop, or anything else women did together for fun. She simply didn’t have time. She worked all day at the clinic, all night at the shelter, fell into bed as soon as she got home, and woke up and did it all over again.
Not to mention it was getting harder and harder to look Hannah in the eye when they both knew Bella would have to let her go soon. The one time she brought it up Hannah told her not to talk crazy, but the woman needed the money as badly as she did. She couldn’t work for free.
She had to fix things, but she didn’t know how. Her only option was to institute the same euthanization program all the other shelters had for their unwanted pets. She wasn’t ready to do that.
“Bella! Great, you’re here. I’ve figured it out!” Hannah said, breaking into her thoughts.
“Hi, Morgan, Rob.” She nodded to the Mathesons and turned to Hannah. “What did you figure out?” She gratefully accepted the cup of coffee her receptionist offered her. Hannah lived a few miles out of town and passed the Bagel Bookshop—Chance Creek’s best source of java—on her way in to the clinic. As much as it shamed her that her receptionist was buying her coffee these days, she hadn’t been able to make Hannah stop, and she did love her coffee.
“How to get all the money we need!” Beside her Morgan nodded like she knew all about it, her thick, dark hair swinging. Bella suppressed another pang at the thought the two had discussed her situation behind her back. Judging by the grin on Rob’s face, he was in on it, too. A tall, blond cowboy with wide shoulders, and an easy-going personality that had gotten more serious in the time he knew Morgan, he was one of four brothers who’d grown up on a ranch not far from town. Now Morgan and Rob were busy starting a winery and lived with two other couples on the Cruz ranch, next door to the spread where Rob lived as a child.
Bella grew up on a ranch, too. Her parents still lived there, although they’d had to sell about half of the land, but she hardly ever went home to visit, even if it was only ten minutes away. Her family wasn’t close anymore; they hadn’t been in a long time. She envied Morgan and Rob’s tight-knit group of friends who all worked together to support each other. In these difficult times, a person needed friends like that. She knew the Cruzes, the Mathesons, and the Lassiters, but she wasn’t among their inner circle.
Looked like Hannah was getting there, though.
Suppressing that catty thought, she grabbed the daily patient list off of the high counter that separated Hannah’s reception station from the clinic waiting room. She was pretty sure she had some paying customers coming in today. That would offset the ongoing cost of spaying and neutering all the abandoned and feral animals she had in the kennels out back. Bella bit back a sigh. Maybe if she didn’t spend all her time taking care of animals, she wouldn’t have declined so many invitations and she’d be part of that inner circle, too.
“Bella?” Hannah said, breaking into her thoughts.
“Don’t you want to know how?”
“How?” she said as she scanned the front end of the clinic to make sure all was ready for the day. Shelves of pet food, common medicines and accessories stocked? Check. Floor swept and front windows clean of streaks? Check. “Oh, you mean how I’ll get all that money? Sure—how can I strike it rich overnight?” She tried not to sound as impatient as she suddenly felt. She was going to lose everything she loved—her clinic, the shelter, the animals who depended on her…
“You’ll be the winning contestant on Can You Beat a Billionaire?”
Bella had reached to tug the venetian blinds on the front window a little higher, but stopped mid-pull. “I’ll be what?”
“You know that show—the one where they pit a poor person against a billionaire? If the poor person wins they get five million dollars. If the billionaire wins, he or she gets to pick some humiliating punishment for the loser. Last time the billionaire made the poor guy clean his house for three months. And it was a mansion! As in—huge!”
“You’re kidding, right? You know those shows are all fake. I bet no one actually wins anything.” She shook her head. Hannah was so gullible., Why didn’t Morgan say anything? Morgan was in her thirties; old enough to know better.
She glanced at Rob, whose smile grew even wider. “Some of them win,” he said.
“Actually, they do,” Morgan said. “I’m sure some scripting goes on and the producers stick people in situations guaranteed to show their rough spots, but the contests are real and several people have walked away with the five million dollars.”
“Remember that guy last year who used the money to refurbish a whole block in his inner city neighborhood?” Hannah chimed in. “I read a follow-up article about him. He turned around the lives of a bunch of people. They have testimonials from the families on the website.”
Bella did vaguely remember that. She never watched the show—she didn’t have time—but Hannah watched it religiously and filled her in on the latest gossip every week. Her receptionist cried with relief each time the poor contestant won and got the money, as had happened once already this season, if memory served her. And if the rich contestant won, she’d stomp around angry for a week.
“Okay, so maybe it’s not all fake. So what? I’m just a country vet who’s going broke. I bet they get thousands of interesting applicants—what makes you think they’d pick me?” Satisfied with the height of the blinds she turned around in time to catch the look Hannah and Morgan exchanged. Hannah began to blush, and since she was blonder than Bella—her hair a corn-silk tassel compared to Bella’s honey locks—the red stain was all too obvious on her pale cheeks. Rob leaned forward, as if eager to see how this next bit played out.