“Fair enough,” Evan said. “Our cards are on the table. You know what I want.” He paused, his smile widening. “And I know what you want. May the best man win.”
“Best woman,” she called out after him as he swum away.
But she had a feeling he won that round.
* * * * *
The warm glow within Evan stayed with him until the SUVs dumped them at another campground—this one on flat ground. He stood next to Bella and eyed the small pile of equipment. She bent to pick up the tent.
“I think this is even smaller than last night’s,” she said.
“Yep.” Damn Madelyn.
She handed him the single, rolled-up sleeping mat. “Here—you might as well take this since I get the tent.”
“What do you mean?”
“We both know you can’t sleep all night in something this small—not with me beside you. That’s it, right—why you don’t stay with women through the whole night? They give you claustrophobia just like small spaces do?”
He hesitated, rattled by her insight, but shook his head. “Whatever. I’m sleeping in that tent tonight.”
“I’m not sleeping outside!”
“I didn’t say you were.” With more bravado than he felt, he flopped the ground cloth down, took the tent away from her and pulled it from its protective sack. He popped out the tension poles and threaded them through their sleeves. “Do those ends, will you?”
Together they lifted the tiny structure into position on top of the ground cloth.
“That’s got to be a one man tent,” Bella said disgustedly.
It was getting dark, but well after they’d both brushed their teeth and used the nearby outhouse they sat on logs around an empty fire pit, saying little. The day crew packed up and left, and the night cameraman installed his tent-cam, and retreated to the edge of the clearing, his assistant in tow.
Was there any chance he’d make it through the night in that…cocoon…pressed up against Bella? Just the thought of climbing into that little orange nylon excuse for a tent made his hands sweat. He regretted now he’d never taken Amanda’s advice to find a shrink—a therapist—to talk about his claustrophobia. Maybe if he had he wouldn’t be sweating like a pig right now.
“I’m turning in,” Bella said finally. She crossed the campground, took off her boots and left them neatly side by side to the left of the door flap, before bending to crawl into it on her hands and knees. For several minutes he heard her rustling around. Then all was still.
Ten minutes later, he finally worked up the courage to approach the tent himself. Mimicking Bella, he shucked off his shoes first, and bent to unzip the flap. Taking one last deep breath of air, he pushed himself into the small opening.
It was worse than he thought.
Even on hands and knees his back scraped up against the fabric ceiling and the whole tent shook as he inched his way to a prone position beside Bella. She held up one side of the sleeping bag and he slid beneath it, almost instantly tossing it off him again as the familiar suffocating feeling descended on him.
He heard Bella’s exhaled breath. “You really have this claustrophobic thing bad, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Pretty bad,” he wheezed.
“Are you going to be okay?”
He curled onto his side, his back to her, arms crossed over his chest. “Probably not.”
“Look, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You can sleep outside.” She sounded like she’d prefer it.
“I kind of do,” he said, fighting to keep himself from tearing the tent apart with his bare hands—anything to get air into this tiny space. Any second the fabric walls would wrap themselves around him, tightening until they’d squeezed every inch of air from his lungs. He didn’t think he could stand it for another minute. But he had to.
“Because it’s true—I find it just about impossible to spend an entire night with a woman. It’s…really screwed things up for me. That’s not how I want to be.”
He felt her turn to face him, felt a tentative touch on his back. “If you have a phobia, it can take time to overcome. You don’t do it all at once.”
“What do you know about it?” Her hand felt good on his skin. She stroked him lightly and he wondered if she knew she was sending streaks of heat straight through him to his groin.
“Sometimes I work with people who are afraid of animals—usually dogs. There’s a counselor in town who calls me up and I bring a really gentle dog to her office when her patient is ready for it. At first I stand with the dog near the patient—just for a minute or two. In later appointments I bring the dog closer. Finally the patient touches the animal. It’s not all at once—it happens over time.”
Her touch mesmerized him, and in a moment he wouldn’t be able to leave the tent without shocking their national audience. He reached for the sleeping bag and covered his traitorous body. Thankfully, Bella didn’t stop her ministrations. “So you’re saying I should only stay in the tent for a few minutes.”
“I’m saying you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t overcome a lifelong phobia in a single night.” She caressed his back, his shoulder, his bicep, running her hand up and down his skin until he wanted to turn over, scoop her into his arms and make love to her until the sun came up.
But he couldn’t. For one thing, there was a camera ten inches above his head capturing all of this, and it was bad enough the whole world would know about his phobia when these episodes aired; they didn’t need a front row seat to his lovemaking, too. For another, he never struggled to stay in bed with a woman while they were having sex. It was afterwards, when they snuggled up and he felt their desire to snare him forever, keep him tied to their sides, like his mother had all throughout his youth.
He thrashed to a sitting position. Bella’s hand fell away from him. “Sorry,” he said. Damn it, he could do this. He had to do this.
“It’s okay, Evan. Everybody has issues. You aren’t any less of a man because you’re claustrophobic.”
So why did he feel like a worm when he pushed his way out of the tent and went to sleep outside on the ground?
* * * * *
The pang of loneliness she felt when Evan fled the tent unnerved Bella. She supposed it was natural to bond to someone you’d just spent two straight days with—especially while being filmed the whole time—but she was surprised by the depth of his claustrophobia. While it had been funny on the tram, and giving him a hard time had definitely paid off in spades when she gained three points in the next challenge, watching him struggle against his fears right next to her in the tent made his pain too real to ignore. Evan obviously had demons. She wondered what made him so afraid to be close to people.