The screen next to Jake remained blank.
Jake half-turned to the screen, one hand pointing toward it, ready to launch into his host-patter as soon as Evan’s first photograph came up, but after several long moments, he began to fidget.
“What’s the holdup, Maddie?” he said, finally.
“I’m not finding any images. What the hell did you do to your camera?” She straightened from her laptop and glared at Evan.
“Nothing. There are no pictures.”
“No pictures?” Jake repeated. “I don’t understand. Maddie, I don’t understand what’s happening here.”
Only by sheer force of will did Evan refrain from smashing his fist into Jake’s face. He hadn’t seen a single animal—not one, single animal, and he’d become so obsessed with finding one, that he obviously hadn’t spent enough time looking up into the air, because he hadn’t seen the damn bird Bella photographed, either. Instead, he’d gotten angrier and angrier—sure this was some sort of trick the network had played on them—until he’d come back and seen Bella’s stupid marmot and ptarmigan.
“Evan, where are your pictures?” Madelyn demanded.
“I have none. There were no animals on my side of the mountaintop. None. Not a single one!” He didn’t realize he was advancing toward Jake until the man’s smirk was a foot in front of his face. “What the hell did you guys do—send your goons to scare them all away?”
“Okay, Evan—calm down. It’s just one challenge,” Madelyn said, shoving the laptop into Ellis’s hands and trying to push between Evan and Jake. “Look—I get it. Tensions are high, the contest is close and you like to win, but you can’t win every time, can you?”
“Like hell I can’t!” He knew he was making an ass out of himself but he didn’t care. No way was he going to lose this show. No freaking way. Not with an audience of millions. “This contest was fixed. You don’t want Bella getting too far behind, so you rigged things against me. Don’t think you’re fooling anyone, because you’re not. It’s all fake!”
Evan spun on his heel to face Bella, who stood with her fists on her hips.
“What did you say?”
“Sore. Loser.” She enunciated the words carefully. “You’re really showing your true colors now, Mr. My-Innovations-Will-Save-The-World. Gee, you’re such a humanitarian. You really care about other people’s well-being, don’t you? One thing goes wrong for you and you’re ready to use your fists to get your way. Forget about the sore part—you’re just a loser.”
Loser. His father’s voice echoed in his mind.
Evan saw red. “I might be a sore loser, Bumpkin, but when this show’s over, I’m going to be the billionaire and I’m going to own you for a year. Then who’ll be the loser? Huh?”
“Okay, okay, contestants,” Jake said. He stepped forward to reclaim center stage. “Bella gains three points for this challenge, Evan zero.” He paused a minute to let that sink in, his smirk back in place. “Evan, you end Day Two with a grand total of eleven points. Bella…” His smarmy smile broadened. “You have taken the lead with thirteen.”
Bella whooped and jumped up and down in place. “Yeah! Kiss my ass, sucker!” She waved her hat around and did a sort of wriggling dance that almost caused Evan to smile.
His scowl resumed its place by the time she replaced her hat and stopped celebrating. When Jake cleared his throat, he reluctantly turned his attention back to the man.
“Evan, you’ll be thrilled to hear the two of you won’t take the tramway back down Whistler’s Mountain. Instead, you’ll hike down to give you more time to enjoy the spectacular scenery and stretch your legs. Here are maps to your campsite for the evening. We have a special surprise for you two tonight.”
Evan grabbed the proffered map and stalked toward the trail down the mountain without looking back. He was done playing the chump in this contest, and he wasn’t waiting for Bella to keep up with him. As far as he was concerned, she was just a pawn in his strategy to get control of Mortimer Innovations for good.
Bella hung back for a minute before she grabbed her map and followed after Evan, still shocked at the change that had come over him when he lost the challenge. Even his camera crew hung back, reluctant to be the next targets of his rage. Sure, he’d been annoying before, but this was different. She didn’t like the way he’d tried to bully Jake and Madelyn, and she didn’t care at all for the tone he used to address her. She monitored her feelings as she began the descent, hearing Nita and Paul take their places behind her. Her chest was tight, shoulders ached and she was finding it hard to breathe evenly. All her body’s normal stress signals.
In her family emotions had always been kept under wraps, all the more so after the day Caramel died, so when someone yelled or cried or even laughed too loud—it made her want to run away and hide. She’d never stood up to anyone the way she just stood up to Evan, and she couldn’t understand why she suddenly found the gumption to do so. Maybe because she’d cheated death this morning? She felt like she could take on anything and survive.
In fact, even if she lost this stupid television show and couldn’t return to Chance Creek for a year, she bet there was still some way to help the animals in her care. She could make an on-air plea during the last show for volunteers to open their homes, or to donate money. The producers had to give her some time to settle her affairs, didn’t they, before they shipped her off to become Mrs. Mortimer? She’d do whatever it took not to euthanize a single pet at the clinic, and even while she was stuck in California she could do something to help other animals. Evan couldn’t need her 24-7 and he was a money guru, wasn’t he? She could learn from him and the people around him how to raise money—real money—in order to help spay and neuter pets. Somehow, mired in the day-to-day details of her practice it didn’t seem possible to do anything else but navigate from crisis to crisis, but that was stupid; she had all sorts of options.
Heck, she might actually win this thing.
Maybe getting angry was good for her, Bella thought as she strode down the track, feeling the tension begin to melt away from her neck. The possibility of losing her business was still devastating, but she’d survived a lot already. She’d probably survive that, too.