Evan narrowed his eyes. There was a lot of venom in Madelyn’s voice for someone who had only known him a matter of weeks. “Why do you care so much what I do with Bella?” he asked cautiously.
Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. “I know men like you—selfish, self-absorbed men who don’t realize the good thing they have even after they toss it away. You are not screwing up my show, Mortimer. Get out there and fight like a man!” She stomped off back down the trail and he followed her more slowly, wondering how he could possibly repair the damage she’d just done to his budding relationship with Bella.
Behind him, Chris and Andrew were whispering, and although he hadn’t been paying attention to their conversation, one phrase carried clearly and nearly brought him up short.
“Of course she wants him to win; the network doesn’t want to shell out another five million bucks.”
He masked his surprise as a stumble and kept going, hoping his camera crew hadn’t realized he’d overheard them. Madelyn wanted him to win? Was that why she was so angry?
The network didn’t want to spend another five million, eh? He knew they’d already had to pay one contestant the money this season. So despite the debacle up on the mountain, the show was actually stacked in his favor—not Bella’s.
Somehow that knowledge didn’t sit well with him.
The kayaking contest had nearly killed Bella. Just how far was Madelyn willing to go to get the result the network wanted?
Mulling over these questions and more, he continued walking. Soon the trail widened and he realized they’d made it down the mountain. Madelyn showed him to a different SUV than the one Bella was riding in and moments later the vehicle whisked him away to a new destination.
He labored to sort out everything that had happened. The elation he felt on the mountainside as his revelation overtook him was long gone, decimated by Madelyn’s devastating recap of his prior love life, and the knowledge the show might indeed be rigged. Bella hated him more than ever, despite his attempt to help her promote the Chance Creek Pet Clinic and Shelter.
How to get things back on track?
He leaned back and considered this. What were his final objectives? He learned long ago that the best way to accomplish anything was to start with your goal and work backward. His first goal was to secure his control over his company. He’d prefer for Bella to be his wife for the year, but if it meant she’d hate him for all eternity there were other options. His second goal was to prove he wasn’t like his father. He wanted to show that he could be a good loser and that he understood other people’s dreams and aspirations were just as important as his.
His third goal was not to let Madelyn control the outcome of the show. If she stacked the contest against Bella, he could very well lose Bella for good. On the other hand, if he decided to throw the show and overtly tried to lose the challenges, both women would catch on, and he’d lose just the same. Madelyn would charge him with breaking his contract, and Bella would hate his guts.
Where did that leave him? Should he try to win and use the year with Bella to change her mind about him? Somehow he didn’t think that would work.
No, if he really wanted Bella in his life, he had to lose, and convince her to marry him just the same. Which meant he had to lose in such a way he looked like he was trying to win.
Okay, that was confusing.
He shook his head at the craziness of his situation, and puzzled on through the rest of it. From now on he’d make Bella go first when it came to the challenges so he’d have time to plan how best to lose inconspicuously. He needed to act angry when he lost, too—but not so angry he turned Bella off even more than his temper tantrum on the mountaintop had. He had to lose gracefully but realistically.
Hell, if he pulled this act off, he would deserve an award.
And if he didn’t pull it off, he’d lose Bella.
Several hours later, Bella slipped into the steaming pools of the Miette Hot Springs. They’d dined well but silently at a picnic area along the road while the cameras rolled, and were whisked here as an end-of-the-day treat. The hot water felt terrific, even though the evening was still warm. Her muscles relaxed almost immediately and after a day which had included a near-death experience and a kiss that rocked her to her toes, she was grateful to rest against the side of the large pool and merely float.
Unlike some hot springs she’d visited in her youth, these weren’t smelly little pools of sulfurous water. The Miette Hot Springs looked like any other public outdoor swimming facility, except the water was so deliciously hot—it felt like taking a bath under the open sky.
She opened her eyes at the sound of Evan’s voice. “Leave me alone,” she groaned.
“I will in a minute. I just want to say that Madelyn’s right—we need to finish this contest before anything else happens between us. She’s right about what she said about me and the women I’ve dated, too. I’m not good at relationships. Hell, I suck at them. There’s a reason for that, though. I don’t feel like explaining it on camera, but maybe someday we’ll have the chance to talk privately about it. I hope so.” He swam a little closer. “My life is hectic. You wouldn’t believe how hectic it is. Taking a couple of days off without a computer or even a phone…” He made a face. “It’s like I’m seeing things clearly for the first time in years. And I don’t like what I see. I need to make some changes.”
“What does that have to do with me?” She tried to sound sharp, but in truth she was surprised. He sounded like he’d had a similar revelation to hers.
“Not much—not at the moment.” He smiled wryly. “We’re competitors and I still need a wife. I want it to be you. So I’m going to do my best to win this thing.”
“So am I,” she said, but his words made her insides dance with some emotion she couldn’t even fathom. He wanted her for his wife? That sounded close enough to real desire to make her sink into a swirl of feelings best left unlooked at. She leaned back against the edge of the pool. “I don’t want to be your wife. I want to be rich enough to make a difference to the animals who depend on me.”
He held her gaze long enough she felt the heat of it down into the deepest places within her. What was he telling her with his eyes? That he truly wanted her? That his kiss was for real? She was afraid of what her own gaze betrayed about her—that his kiss swept her right off her feet, that if he swam any closer she’d meet him halfway and betray herself and her furry charges for just a few more moments pressed against him. A smile curved his lips again and she knew he must have seen some of that in her expression.