The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 35)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(35)
Author: Cora Seton

His words had hit her like a slap to the face. He cared more about the mare than he did her and he thought she’d kill any horse she got near, for heaven’s sake. She’d run into the house and cried for an hour.

After that, her mother kept her away from the ranch as much as possible. With no money for activities, she hit on the idea that Bella could make herself useful to elderly Maggie Silverton, the local pet veterinarian. Maggie, in turn, was grateful for any help she could get. A gray-haired, soft-spoken, gentle woman, she took Bella in every afternoon after school and all day on weekends. Bella wasn’t sure how she’d have survived her teenage years without her.

Her father acted as if she had died along with Caramel and Cyclone. He focused on Craig as the worthy heir to his diminished kingdom. Together they plotted how someday they’d recoup the lost land and restore the Chathams to their former glory.

Bella kept her head down and learned to be invisible. While her parents scrimped and saved to make up any gap between Craig’s scholarships and grants and the cost of his education, she’d never once discussed the cost of hers with them. A top-notch student—all those afternoons working on her homework under Maggie’s gentle tutelage paid off—she’d still needed to take out loans to fund the final years of her veterinary education.

At least she knew she had a job waiting for her with Maggie, and when Maggie had passed all too soon, she’d been shocked to find herself the sole beneficiary of her elderly friend’s will. Maggie was the only reason she had a clinic and shelter to run, and now she was losing it.

She wasn’t worthy of the old woman’s trust. Wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love.

She jerked to her feet, her lunch spilling to the ground. She had to win this thing.

“Bella?” Nita reached out a hand, but Bella batted it away. Blinking back tears, she grabbed her pack and the GPS, leaving her lunch scattered on the ground. She had to move, had to walk and keep on walking, until she left those memories far behind.

“Bella! Wait!”

She didn’t slow down.

She couldn’t.

And if Madelyn tried to put her on a horse, she’d just crumple up and die.

CHAPTER TEN

“What are you doing here?”

Evan, Chris and Andrew all swiveled to see Bella crash through the brush at the side of the trail, followed closely by Nita and Paul, who didn’t look at all happy. Bella’s hair was tumbling down around her shoulders, and a smudge of dirt streaked her forehead. She looked like she’d been crying, or maybe fighting hard not to cry. Evan’s stomach squeezed. Evidently, while he’d been taking it easy, she’d been working hard.

On what? These geocaches couldn’t be any easier to find.

“Damn it, we missed the shot!” Chris said, and he and Andrew raced to get their equipment set up again and rolling as a drizzling mist of rain began to fall.

Bella faced Evan down. “Why are you on my trail?” Her voice was thin and high, and he thought she might break down into tears any second. What the hell had happened to her out there? He wanted to pull her into his arms, but now was not the time.

“This is my trail,” he said, holding up his GPS. “You sure you know how to work that thing?”

She scowled down at hers fiercely. “I think mine’s broken. It keeps blinking on and off and giving me new directions.”

“Let me see that.” He swiped it from her hand along with her laminated card and went to work pressing buttons and checking the coordinates she’d put into it.

“Hey! Give it to me! I don’t need your help.” She made a grab for it, but Evan turned his back on her, engaged in figuring out what she’d done. He ignored her when she shoved him—he was quite a bit heavier than she was; she couldn’t budge him and she obviously needed his help. “Give it!” She whacked his arm this time. Evan held fast. “I said, give it!”

She locked her hands around his wrist and pulled hard. Evan pulled back, aware she was nearing the breaking point, but wanting one more minute to look over the GPS. If he could just help her, everything would be fine. “Hey, I almost figured it out…”

“Let go!” Bella dug her heels into the now-slick dirt track and pulled with all her might. Suddenly, Evan caught sight of the camera crew, all four of them ranged in front of him, their expressions blank with shock, the heavy mist dampening their hair and clothes. He realized how all of this must look—like he was helping Bella against her will. Which of course he was, but the viewing public—and Madelyn—weren’t supposed to know that.

He let go.

Bella slipped and landed on her butt with a yelp of pain, and the GPS flew from her hands, landing with a harsh crack that spelled the end of her search for her geocaches.

For one long moment, silence reigned as the rain began to patter down in larger drops. Then Bella leaped to her feet and charged him. “Where is it? Where’d you put it?”

Mortified by what he’d just done, Evan had no idea what she was talking about, and he stumbled backwards as her hands searched his jacket pockets, patted down his clothing and finally delved into his pants pockets, uncomfortably close to his groin.

“Hey!”

But she already had his GPS in hand.

“Bella—wait. Don’t….”

She hurled it against the closest rock where it smashed with a satisfying crack.

“Turnabout is fair play, right?” she demanded. “Right?” She glared at him through the damp tendrils that framed her face, waterdroplets dripping from their ends.

Damn, she was furious. Did she think he’d broken hers on purpose?

“Madelyn’s going to be pissed, you know.” He swiped a hand through his own wet hair to push it back from his face.

“That’s not my fault!” She met his gaze, eyes wide, and he knew she was picturing the director’s reaction to this chain of events.

“Think about it. The GPS maker has to be a sponsor of the show.”

With a wild groan, she covered her face with her hands. “Shit.”

Chris cleared his throat. “I’ll give Madelyn a call. See what she wants us to do.” He stepped away down the trail a bit and the rest of the crew trailed after him, forming a semicircle around him as he pulled out his cell phone and hunched his shoulders to keep it safe from the rain. Evan sat down on a nearby boulder, ignoring the dampness that soaked through his pants, and motioned Bella to join him. She did so, slowly, her reluctance evident on her face.