She shook her head, wishing she’d never opened her mouth. “It’s not important.”
“Sounds pretty important to me if it’s made you responsible for every pet in Montana,” Evan said, nudging her with his shoulder.
She wished she could recapture the lighthearted feeling she’d had just a moment ago. Wished he’d do more than nudge her. She wanted to run her hand down his arm, to clasp his fingers in hers and lean in and give him a kiss. Anything to deflect this conversation from its inevitable end.
A glance told her he wasn’t going to let her change the topic. She’d tell him the simple version, the one she told everyone who asked why she became a veterinarian. Leave the rest for another time…some other time that would hopefully never come.
“We had a dog when I was a kid. A lab named Caramel. I loved that dog.” For a moment, memories overtook her. “We all did,” she went on, straightening up. “My parents, my brother, Craig, and I.”
Evan packed away the remainder of his lunch slowly, giving her time to tell her story.
“When I was ten I was playing with her in back of the house. My brother was helping my father and the other men with the horses. My father needed to take a stallion to another spread to stud. They were loading him into the trailer.”
She’d relived this particular memory way too many times, but it never failed to bring tears to her eyes. “I wasn’t supposed to be there at all. I was never allowed to play out back when the men were working, but I liked the attention. I didn’t want to stay out front, away from the action. Craig was there helping. I wanted to be a part of it, too. Or at least to be close to it.”
“The stallion spooked. The next thing I knew he was rearing over me. I should have been killed. Caramel barked. I probably screamed. My Dad was yelling. I don’t know what happened next. Except the stallion crashed and broke his leg. Then something hurt Caramel. She took off like she’d been hit…”
Bella broke off. Like she’d been hit. Something twinged in her subconscious. A memory she couldn’t quite access.
Like she’d been hit.
She saw her father dash between her and the stallion. The stallion twisted away in alarm, and fell with a shattering crash. Caramel barked. Her father’s face went red with fury. His lifted his arm.
Bella shook the memory away.
“I tried to go after her but a car came down the road much too fast…” she trailed off again.
“It was an accident,” Evan said.
“If I had done what I was supposed to do, she would have lived.”
Evan turned to face her. “That was what—twenty years ago? More? She would have died by now anyway, Bella. Accidents happen. Pets die. Horses die. You can’t stop living your own life because of it.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, knowing he truly didn’t. No one did. No one outside of her family. Because that was only the beginning of the story. “I loved her and I caused her death. I was irresponsible, and selfish, and I didn’t listen, and Caramel paid the price. Cyclone did, too. Everyone did.” Despite her best efforts tears welled up.
Evan narrowed his eyes. “That’s what they told you, didn’t they? Your family? God, I can hear them say the words—your parents and Craig all blaming you. Didn’t they take any responsibility at all?”
Bella stared at him. “But…”
“But what? I’m serious—you were ten years old. How hard would it have been for your father to scan the yard before he moved the horse to the trailer? How did the stallion get away from him, anyway?”
Bella blinked, astounded by the vehemence of his anger. “Horses are unpredictable.”
“All the more reason he should have been careful.” Evan leaned forward, his jaw tight. “And the fact that he dumped all his guilt on you sucks. Do you still see these people?”
She forgot the cameras around her and searched Evan’s face for the source of his anger. Was he really upset that her family blamed her? “No. Well… sometimes. My parents still live on the ranch. What’s left of it. So does my brother.”
“What do you mean, what’s left of it?”
Bella’s stomach twisted. “We had to sell half of it. My father had mortgaged it so he could buy Cyclone.”
“So your father mismanaged his business and blamed you when it didn’t pay off? Didn’t he insure the horse?”
“I…I don’t know. But it wasn’t his fault he lost the land.” It was mine. Just like I’m losing my business.
Evan stared at her, his eyes narrowed. “You don’t know much about business either, do you? Tell me this. Do any of them ever help you with your shelter? How much time does your brother spend there?” He got to his feet and shouldered his pack. Bella followed his example, unnerved by the way this conversation had gone. Instead of condemning her, Evan was angry that her family had blamed her at all. She knew her own guilt over the incident was excessive. Still, Evan’s reaction startled her.
“None. He hates it,” Bella said. “Craig doesn’t care for pets—he’s a livestock vet. He never got over Caramel’s death. He never forgave me for it. Anyway, he’s busy.” She followed him as he set out down the path again.
“Busier than you? Really? I find that hard to believe.”
Watching him stride ahead of her, all too aware of his broad shoulders and powerful legs, Bella considered his words.
“I guess he’s not busier; it’s just his work is more important.”
Evan stopped in his tracks and she walked right into him. He turned and caught her, and didn’t let go even when she was steady on her feet. “Bullshit,” he said. “His work isn’t more important than yours. He takes care of animals that represent people’s business. You take care of animals that people love. Your work is more important. You’re important. How come you can’t see that?”
“Because I screw everything up for people,” she said. She bit her lip in anguish. Damn it, why did she feel the need to expose every flaw to his eyes? She liked Evan, and she wanted him to like her, so why was she trying so hard to make him loathe her?
Because she was used to being loathed by those she loved.
The thought hit her like a fist to her stomach. It was true. It was absolutely true.
She was used to it.