The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 27)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(27)
Author: Cora Seton

She accepted a laminated card that showed a variety of species of mammals and birds that made their homes on Whistler’s Mountain, and a compact digital camera whose workings proved nearly identical to her own. Taking her place next to the white-taped starting line someone had made near the end of the boardwalk, she waited for Jake’s “Go!” before plunging off it onto the rocky summit of the mountain itself, heading in the opposite direction that Evan took.

With the thud of her camera crew’s boots behind her on the rocks, she quickly realized what the true challenge was going to be in this contest. Gritting her teeth, she kept up her pace until she got a good distance from the crowds near the upper station, and slowed to a walk. She took a moment to peruse the laminated card, absorbing the types of critters she might see, rolled it up and shoved it into her pocket. From now on, she needed to keep her eyes peeled.

As she scanned the barren, rocky ground of the summit, she began to think this challenge was a joke. No sensible animal would make their home here, and even if they did, they’d hide until all the people left.

Except—what was that?

A scurry of movement stopped Bella cold and she crouched, as if that made her less visible on the barren mountaintop. She waved a hand behind her, hoping the camera crew understood she wanted them to stay still, and inched forward. There. Some kind of furry little beast ran around the rocks. She pointed the camera, clicked, and swore as she realized she still had the cap on. Before she could try again, the critter was gone.

Stifling another curse, Bella pulled out the laminated card. Was that a marmot? A glance over the pictures reminded her that birds counted for the challenge, as well, and she scanned the sky, scrambling to lift her camera when she spotted a black dot flying past. It took several moments to zoom the camera and find the bird again, but she snapped the photo and captured it successfully. She had no idea what type of bird it was and she didn’t care. One point.

An intake of breath from Nita had her alert again. The marmot was back. This was almost too easy, Bella thought as she composed the picture and snapped it. Two!

She stood up again and scanned the barren rock all around her, but no other animals came into view. Slowly, she began to walk. As minutes ticked by, her jubilation slipped away, replaced by panic. How many photos had Evan taken? Was he strengthening his lead?

She followed a trail farther away from the upper station, combing the ground for signs of smaller critters hiding among the rocks. Her camera ready in her hands, she stepped as quietly as she could, wincing every time one of the camera crew’s boots scraped against stone.

More minutes passed and her fingers gripping the camera became as sweaty as if she was running a race. Dammit, where were all the animals?

Wait a minute, what was that?

Bella froze, lifted the camera, and focused on what at first appeared to be a rock. This rock, however, had an eye. She took the picture, focused again, zoomed in closer and took a second shot. Satisfied, she moved toward it for a closer look.

The bird erupted from the ground in a flurry of wings, and Bella shrieked, nearly dropping the camera. Behind her, Nita and Paul, normally quiet as church mice, laughed out loud. She turned on them, but after a moment’s anger had to laugh, too.

“Scared me to death,” she gasped, knowing they were still getting all of this on film.

She only had a couple of minutes left, however, so she got back to scanning the ground and sky for more signs of life. When she came upon a spider, she took a quick picture although she figured it didn’t count. She also snapped another bird, but had the sinking suspicion it was the same one she’d photographed before.

When Madelyn hollered from the boardwalk that their time was up, Nita and Paul ushered her back, giving her no time to try to find one more animal. She stalked back over the rocks toward the director and tried to shake the heaviness pooling in the bottom of her stomach. If she didn’t take the lead today, she figured she might not ever pull ahead in this competition.

Jake stood right where they’d left him and as she approached, Madelyn held out her hand for her digital camera. She took out the memory card and plugged it into a laptop computer, which had been rigged up to a larger screen. Evan joined them, his jaw a rigid line. Maybe he didn’t find much to photograph either, she thought with a rush of relief.

“Bella, let’s see what you found here on top of Whistler’s Mountain, in Jasper Park,” Jake said. She’d become used to his stilted way of talking, knowing that when the show actually ran, each day would be broken into two episodes complete with many commercial breaks, after which the viewers needed to be reminded of what was happening and where the contestants were. Out of sight of the cameras Madelyn pressed keys on the keyboard and her first photo popped up on the large screen, a fuzzy image of a black bird in flight. A man Bella didn’t recognize whispered in Madelyn’s ear and she quickly typed something. Jake glanced down at the PDA in his hand, then looked straight at the camera. “Ah, a Cooper’s Hawk, common to these parts. Excellent. That’s one point!”

She let out the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

“Second photo. A yellow-bellied marmot—very common on top of Whistler’s mountain and throughout the park. That’s two points. Let’s see what’s next. Oooooh,” he let out an exaggerated sound. “Excellent shot, Bella. That’s a ptarmigan—very hard to spot when it’s camouflaged against the rocks. Well done—three points!”

Bella cringed, knowing what would come next. She wasn’t wrong.

“Oh, dear. Spiders are not mammals, Bella. I’m afraid this photo doesn’t count.” Madelyn flipped to her final photo, and an intense whispered conversation erupted between her and the man beside her, whom Bella now assumed was a local biologist. Madelyn typed furiously at her keyboard and Jake glanced down at his PDA again.

“While this photo shows the Cooper’s Hawk very clearly, the show’s producer has determined it to be the same bird you photographed before, Bella. I’m very sorry,” he didn’t look sorry at all, “but we can’t award a point for that shot.” He shook his head. “But three points is a fine effort! Now Evan, let’s take a look at your photographs.”

* * * * *

Evan considered tossing the camera at Jake—let’s see how good your reflexes are, buddy—but decided he’d better hand it over the normal way. He balled his hands into fists as he waited for Jake to pass it to Madelyn, and for her to fiddle around with the equipment until everything was connected.