The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 30)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(30)
Author: Cora Seton

She looked at him in surprise. “Yes, that’s it exactly. Except the shelter doesn’t get enough donations. Chance Creek, Montana is a small town and most of its population lives on the ranches which surround it. They’re hardworking people, but ranching doesn’t pay all that well. Not everyone has money to give.”

“But you’re interested in learning more about fundraising.”

“I am. You’re right—the Chance Creek Pet Clinic pays its way, but the Chance Creek Animal Shelter needs all the help it can get. We have loads of cats and dogs that need good homes, and other animals unfit for adoption that simply need enough food to eat and room to run around. How would you suggest I raise money for the Chance Creek Shelter?”

Evan narrowed his eyes. Was it his imagination or was she giving that very shelter a plug on national television? Maybe she didn’t need all that much help with fundraising after all, but he knew that Madelyn could easily edit out those sentences. Best to sandwich it between footage she couldn’t afford to cut. He reached out and took Bella’s hand, holding tight when she made to yank it free. He knew both cameras had zoomed in to capture the motion, so he hurried to say, “I’d start by building a website that told all about the Chance Creek Shelter’s mission, with plenty of photographs of your facility and the animals who live there, some information about each specific goal, and a way for people to donate online. Do you have a favorite animal?”

Bella smiled although she was still trying to disengage her hand. He gave it a sharp tug, trying to send her a message. Leaning close to her ear, he whispered, play along, without moving his lips. She looked at him askance, but he was sure she heard what he said when she stopped pulling her hand away.

“I love all the animals that come to stay at the Chance Creek Shelter in Montana, but I love Rusty the best. He’s a mutt who was dropped off on my doorstep a few months ago with a damaged paw. He must have stepped into a trap, because two of his toes were nearly ripped off his foot. We did emergency surgery that turned out to be highly successful and today he can run and jump like he was never even injured. I swear Rusty lets me know he loves me every time he sees me, and the gratitude in his eyes and the way he’s so happy and so playful now just makes my day. I miss him.”

“I bet he misses you, too. I’ll tell you what. You get that website up and running and I’ll be the first one to donate to the Chance Creek Shelter.” He smiled at her.

Bella smiled back, somewhat uncertainly. He wondered if Madelyn would cut all that, or if their unexpected hand-holding would be enough to make her keep it in the show? Hell, why risk it? Evan stopped, pulled Bella close and kissed her square on the lips.

He meant it to be short and sweet, but when her body slammed against his and his arms tightened reflexively around her, he didn’t want to let go. He slid one hand up her back and under her curls to cup her head, while his other hand remained at her waist, pulling her close. She made a surprised noise and he deepened the kiss, groaning when her arms slid around his neck. She was answering him, kissing him back with as much fervor as he was her.

“Bella,” he whispered against her neck when he finally pulled away. “Sweet, sweet Bella.”

* * * * *

“Cut!”

Bella leaped back out of Evan’s arms when Madelyn’s strident voice cut through the mountain air. One hand to her throat, she fought to get her heart rate under control. Evan and the camera crews looked just as surprised to see her here, but Madelyn was as cool as always, dressed in pin-neat dungarees and sparkling clean hiking boots, paired with a short-sleeved button-down blouse that looked newly ironed.

“You two are supposed to be competitors, not fuck-buddies!”

Bella cringed.

“Hey,” Evan said. “Watch your language.”

Madelyn fixed him with a look that could melt tar off a roof. “Watch your hands, mister—and your lips. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. Trying to convince Miss Just-Off-The-Turnip-Truck over there to think you’re falling in love with her so she’ll throw the contest and waltz off with you into never-never land? That’s not how this show works!” She turned to Bella. “We research our contestants carefully, did you know that? Did you also know that Evan Mortimer here has never dated a woman for more than two weeks before dumping her? And once they sleep together he doesn’t even spend the night. Very nice, Mortimer.” She gave him a disgusted look.

“That’s the man who’s kissing you, Bella. That’s the guy who wants to win this contest so bad because he’s too cheap to pay a woman to be his wife for a year. That’s the guy you’re going to live with day in, day out for three hundred and sixty-five consecutive days—and nights—if you lose. A man who’s so selfish he can’t even be bothered to sleep through the night beside the woman he fucks. Are you going to fall for that?”

Bella glanced at Evan, heat rising in her cheeks. He had turned away and stood staring into the distance, a muscle twitching in his jaw. He didn’t deny any of it.

She let out a shaky breath. If Madelyn hadn’t come along, she would have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. His touch made her hum with excitement and his lips on hers transported her away from her daily life into the possibility of a future in which she was worthy of love.

But she wasn’t worthy of love, was she? Or respect. Or anything else. She was just Bella—the one who always screwed up. The rancher’s daughter who was terrified of horses. The veterinarian who couldn’t even keep a roof over the heads of the animals who depended on her.

She shook her head at Madelyn and pushed past her, tears clouding her eyes. A powerful, successful man like Evan Mortimer wouldn’t think twice about using her to get what he wanted. He sure as hell wouldn’t fall in love with her.

Barely three minutes later, she rounded a bend in the path and realized how Madelyn had found them while remaining so spotless. They were down the mountain and here were the SUVs. She climbed into the nearest one, slid down in the seat and closed her eyes.

* * * * *

“You really thought you were going to get away with that?” Madelyn asked, fixing Evan with a beady glare.

“I wasn’t trying to get away with anything,” Evan said tiredly. He wasn’t sure why he bothered—it wasn’t like Madelyn would understand.

“I know you better than you know yourself, Mortimer,” she snapped, stepping forward to put a finger in his face. “You may think you’ve found a woman you can truly love, but you can’t escape your nature. I guarantee that if I make you share a tent tonight, you’ll be crawling out of there before an hour is up. You are physically incapable of staying with a woman.”