The fresh air must be making progress in her brain. Maybe Hannah had been right all this time; maybe getting away from her business once in a while could help her get a new perspective on her problems.
Could she begin to get her message across to viewers even before the contest was over—that her clinic needed help? She would have to be sly about it; she had a feeling Madelyn would edit out overt calls for donations. But what if she mentioned the clinic during the exciting moments she knew Madelyn had to keep?
That ought to keep everyone off balance, she thought with a grin. Feeling lighter on her feet than she had since she landed in Jasper, Bella continued down the track with renewed vigor. If she played her cards right she could solve the clinic’s problems no matter what the outcome of the show.
* * * * *
Evan knew he must be setting a record pace for the descent of Whistler’s Mountain. His camera crew was hustling to keep up with him, judging by the muffled curses and skids of shoe leather on stone he kept hearing behind him.
He didn’t care. He was furious with Madelyn, furious with fate, and most of all furious at himself. How could he screw up a stupid photography shoot, when there were obviously animals and birds all around him? How could he be such a stupid loser?
His father had loved that word. His business associates were losers, his squash opponents were losers, anyone who didn’t earn seven figures or more a year was a loser. In his father’s world there were two kinds of people: those who counted and those who didn’t. Each time Evan screwed up, he knew he skated closer to the line that separated him from the unwashed hordes.
Well, he counted now. Even his father would have to admit that. He was a billionaire for crying out loud and long before he inherited the majority shares, he’d brought millions of dollars of profits to the family business. He was a winner. He had been for years, and with his father’s death the last person to question that was gone. He had a clean slate.
Except now he was screwing up again.
He walked faster. So he’d blown one challenge—one stupid challenge that depended on luck, not skill, mind you. He’d work his way back into first place and he’d stay there.
And if he couldn’t do it through strength and skill, he’d intimidate the hell out of everyone until they handed him the victory.
Evan stopped dead.
Chris and Andrew stumbled to a halt behind him and for one long moment everything was still. Evan scanned the valley that still unfolded beneath him, fringed in all directions by forbidding, snow-topped mountains. A breeze tinged with the breath of arctic winter played across his face and dried the sweat from the back of his neck. Quiet reigned. True quiet.
And in it Evan heard the voice of the conscience he no longer knew he had.
He sounded just like his father with his emphasis on winning at all costs. Just like the man who’d made his childhood miserable and turned his mother from the pretty girl he’d seen in photographs to the querulous clinging woman who’d kept him locked to her side.
What had winning gotten him? An empire? An amount of money in his bank account he couldn’t spend no matter how hard he tried?
A life of unending loneliness?
He sat down heavily in the center of the track, ignoring the whispered conversation among the crew behind him.
“What’s he doing?”
Slowly, he pulled the water bottle from his daypack and took a swig.
Then he began to laugh.
Had he really thought he could get away from his past just by burying everyone who’d been a part of it? His mom and dad were gone—great—and he thought that was going to set him free? It obviously hadn’t, because here he was acting like his mother could still stifle him at any moment and his father still watched him like a hawk for any sign of failure.
When was the last time he simply acted from the heart?
He couldn’t answer that.
Here he was—a billionaire—locked in competition with a little cowgirl veterinarian from Montana who just wanted to feed her kittens, and he was acting like he was personally in charge of storming the beaches of Normandy. When had his perspective flown out the window? He could buy and sell Bella’s business ten times over. He could buy a hundred wives.
What was wrong with him?
For one awful moment his laughter hitched on a sob and he thought he might lose his grip right here on national television. He refused to do that. He pushed himself heavily to his feet and turned around.
Chris and Andrew scuttled off the path and several moments later Bella strode into sight. She faltered when she saw him and slowed to a halt.
Holding his hands out before him as if to show he wasn’t armed, he simply said, “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“Really, Bella. I don’t know how to explain what happened up there except to say that competitiveness is an occupational hazard in my business and sometimes I don’t know how to shut it off. You might not believe this, but that’s not me—not the real me, anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think of you, does it?” she said slowly.
He was struck again by her wholesome beauty, a kind he didn’t often see among the women in his social circle. She didn’t need makeup or surgery to create the illusion of prettiness. Bella defined prettiness, just as she was.
She defined other things, too. Honesty. Compassion.
“It matters to me. Come on—can we walk together?”
She still eyed him warily as they went forward side by side, and he decided not to press his luck. No need to fill up the silence with chatter, anyway. His own insights were still too new to share and he didn’t want to pave them over with platitudes about the scenery. He figured when either of them had something real to say, they’d say it.
Their silence stretched ten, then twenty minutes, so when Bella finally spoke up, it startled him.
“Do you know anything about fundraising?”
“I know who to call if I want investors,” he said. “That’s probably not what you mean, though.”
“No.” She looked pensive. “I think I need to make some changes when I get back home—regardless of whether or not I win. I don’t think I’m running the Chance Creek Pet Clinic as well as I could.”
He remembered joking with Amanda about her lack of business skills back in San Jose. “You really have two businesses, don’t you? A normal veterinary office whose clients pay for the care you give their pets, and an animal shelter that relies on donations?”