The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 23)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(23)
Author: Cora Seton

She windmilled her arms, but her body was still snapped into the kayak, and without a paddle she had no way of righting herself. She thrashed impotently, the coldness quickly dulling the strength in her limbs. She could see the sunlight on the surface of the water above her, bisected by the dark line of the kayak, but she had no way to reach it. The skirt still clung to her. She knew she was supposed to do something to release it—pull something—but she couldn’t stop thrashing long enough to do so. She had to get out, had to…

…save Caramel, had to reach her before the awful thing happened, had to stop her from dying, stop Cyclone from dying, stop her family from losing their land…

The kayak jerked, something plunged into the water next to her and fought with the snaps on the seal that held her in place. Hands grabbed her arms, her shoulders, and the next thing she knew she broke the surface and air seared down her throat and through her lungs. She coughed, spit, and cried out as she was pulled atop another kayak unceremoniously. Seconds later she was hauled to shore.

Lying on the banks of the Athabasca, she let tears run down her face without shame. She’d discovered one thing was worse than losing her job and her fight to save her animals.

Losing her own life.

* * * * *

“She’s got a fish!” one of the crew members cried out. “Look—she got the fifth fish!”

Evan scraped a hand across his stubbled jaw and turned aside in the hopes all the cameras were trained on Bella, newly rescued from the river, and wouldn’t catch him wiping his eyes.

She’d nearly drowned.

Hell, he wasn’t one to cry. He couldn’t remember the last time he had, so it freaked him out to find water seeping from the corners of his eyes now. He couldn’t believe how Bella attacked the kayak course, like she’d been born to the sport. She put his puny efforts to shame. He preferred land sports to water ones, but he’d kayaked before and he thought he knew what he was doing. The variances in the current completely threw him off, though. Bella must have watched his efforts and learned from them.

The lovely, vibrant woman who’d shared his tent last night—part of the night—had nearly drowned.

He wasn’t prepared for the pain that thought brought him. If she hadn’t been breathing when they rescued her… If she wasn’t lying on the shore now, responding to her rescuers questions…

He couldn’t even imagine how he’d feel.

Evan crossed his arms over his chest, not knowing what else to do with his hands. Thank God everyone was focused on Bella right now because he was making a fool out of himself. Over a woman he barely knew.

He couldn’t remember feeling like this.

He couldn’t remember feeling…

Evan dragged his attention away from that direction and refocused on his adversary. Because that’s all she was—an adversary.

And she was one hell of an adversary—going for the last fish like that, throwing away her paddle, for God’s sake. Or was she just reckless? She’d managed to hang on to the darn fish, too. He shook his head in disbelief. She’d made up two points in this challenge. He had to beat her good on the next one.

Beat her good. Hell, he sounded like his father.

A wry laugh escaped him. Bella was practically unconscious, lying on the shore near the water. She might be out of the contest for good and he was plotting his strategy to win. The acorn surely didn’t fall far from the tree.

He didn’t want to beat Bella. He wanted to scoop her into his arms, press his ear against her chest to hear the heartbeat that would confirm she did indeed live, and cover her with kisses from her lips to her…

He turned his back on the river—on Bella—and struggled to get himself together. Whether or not she was beautiful or vibrant or wonderful or took his breath away, or any of the other trite things men thought about the women they wanted, she was still his enemy. She still stood between him and a dignified—well, somewhat dignified—way to maintain control of his company.

He was glad she was alive, but he still planned to crush her in this game.

A ragged cheer escaped from the camera crew, and he turned back around to see two of them helping Bella to her feet. She walked under her own power up from the bank toward him. Jake appeared by Evan’s side. “She’s still in it, thank God.”

Evan shot him a quizzical look.

“Can you imagine the expense of finding a backup competitor now? Starting all over?”

No, he couldn’t. In fact, the thought left him cold. He didn’t want another competitor—he wanted Bella. He wanted to win this competition and he wanted Bella for his wife.

No other woman would do.

Evan watched her approach.

He wanted Bella? He wanted to spend a whole year with one woman? He waited for the surge of claustrophobia the thought should bring, but it didn’t come. Bella was beautiful, kind, smart… real. She wasn’t plastic, like all the California girls were—too beautiful, too grasping—and she wasn’t like his mother, either, always demanding he stay close, always preventing him from doing what he wanted to do. Bella was independent. Best of all, she didn’t want anything from him. The women he usually dated wanted to control all of his cash and they wanted to control him, too.

Still, he’d been plenty claustrophobic in that tent last night, so he hadn’t done some mental turnaround in the last twelve hours. He was still Evan, and he doubted anything could make him comfortable with a long-term relationship—even Bella.

Best to keep her at arm’s length.

Jake kept the point score announcement ceremony short and simple, while Bella shivered in the blanket the first aid worker wrapped around her shoulders. All too soon, it was time to move on.

Evan followed the crew toward the SUVs, knowing something had changed today—something in his heart—and he was going to have a hell of a time changing it back again.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Bella was grateful they didn’t have to hike to the next challenge. As she rode in the backseat of one of the SUVs next to Evan, the dull ache from the raw spot at the back of her ankle couldn’t compare to the pervasive tiredness in the rest of her body. Evan seemed subdued as well, but maybe watching your opponent nearly die would do that to you. Back at the river, the show’s physician had checked her out thoroughly and declared her fit to continue. She wasn’t sure she agreed with his diagnosis. More than anything she wanted to lie down and go to sleep.

She must have slept a little, for the next thing she knew the SUV came to a stop and a bustle began all around her. Evan opened the door and climbed out, and Bella forced herself to wake up and survey the activity. They had pulled up near a square wooden structure with a green metal roof. The camera crew was busy getting its gear together and Madelyn came into view, as polished as usual, barking orders at everyone.