“Bella,” Jake swiveled to face her. “Sounds like you lost a special pet. Do you want to tell our audience more about that?”
“Oh, come on,” Evan said, stepping in between Jake and Bella. “You guys caught everything we said on film—do we really need to hash it all out again? I think our viewers are smart enough to get it the first time.”
“Cut, CUT!” Madelyn yelled and strode forward. “You are walking on very thin ice, and any minute you are going to be in complete violation of your contract. Jake asks the questions, you answer them. Do I make myself clear?”
“It’s all right,” Bella said, flashing him a tired grimace. “I don’t mind.”
She obviously did mind, but getting himself thrown off the show wouldn’t help matters any. He balled his hands into fists and shoved them in his pockets.
“Let’s try this again,” Madelyn said and stepped back behind the cameras. Jake repeated his question and Bella answered it in short, neutral sentences. Yes, she’d lost a pet early on and it prompted her to become a veterinarian. Yes, it was a very sad occurrence, but things like that happened in life—what was important was how you moved forward after them. Madelyn couldn’t complain about Bella’s answers, but Evan knew she must want to—this was television at its most banal.
When he finished grilling her even Jake looked defeated.
“Well, after this exciting day, the scores of our contestants are still closely matched. Evan, you began the day with 21 points. After the bridge debacle you still had 21 points. You did much better in this afternoon’s miniature golf tournament, however, scoring 6 out of a possible 10, for a final total of 27 points!”
Bella made a face and Evan wondered if all her cheering and dancing had been just a ruse. Maybe he’d pulled ahead into a comfortable lead today. He sure hoped so. He wanted that year with her so bad he could taste it. Three hundred and sixty-five days of hot, languorous, mind-blowing sex with the most beautiful, sweet, tempting woman he’d ever met…
“Bella, you also fumbled the bridge challenge,” Jake went on. “You started the day with 19 points and gained none this morning, either. But this afternoon you proved yourself a fair hand at miniature golf. How did you learn to play?”
Evan sighed. Couldn’t the man get on with things and just announce her score?
“Golf was one of my family’s favorite activities when I was growing up. I always lost back then, but I didn’t mind because we were all together. I guess I remember more than I thought I did from those days on the course.”
“You sure did. You scored an amazing 10 out of 10 points, and got the bonus point for finishing first. That brings your score to a grand total of 30 points. You have a three point lead!”
Evan’s mouth dropped open in shock. Three points ahead of him? What the hell? Bella was dancing again, bouncing up and down with her arms upraised and her fingers fluttering. “Whooo!” she yelled and twirled in a circle. “Whooo—stray pets of Chance Creek, here I come, and you’ll never go hungry or cold again!”
* * * * *
Bella faltered to a stop when she saw Evan’s face. “Uh…sorry, just got carried away. You have to admit it’s pretty cool I scored so high, though.” Was he going to have another of his temper tantrums? She’d been through the ringer today, and though she’d regained her equilibrium, she didn’t think she could take that.
“Yeah, really terrific,” he said. “When’s dinner?” he asked Madelyn, pushing past her.
“Evan,” Bella said to his back. “Come on, what’s the big deal? You don’t really need to win this game anyway. You’ve got all the money in the world.” Disappointment in him soured her stomach. She liked the man, but she hated this side of his personality. Why did he always need to win so badly?
“I don’t need the money; I need a wife,” he said, rounding on her. “That’s why I’m on this show.”
“You need a wife so you can keep the money,” she said, “and let’s face it, if push comes to shove you can just buy one off of any street corner.”
“What if I don’t want to buy one? What if I want someone in particular?” he challenged her.
Bella shrugged, taken aback by his vehemence. Obviously she’d hit a nerve and she’d better back off, let Moneybuns cool down for a minute. Funny, she hadn’t called him the derogatory nickname for at least a day…since…
Her face warmed as she thought about their tryst. Evan was much more to her than an adversary now. He was someone she wanted to know. Someone she hoped to see more of, even after the show.
But would he want to keep seeing her if she won and left him high and dry?
“I’m talking to you,” Evan said, following her as she turned and made her way to where crew members were setting out their dinners. Fish was on the menu today, with rice and some kind of vegetable mixture.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, grabbing a paper plate and loading it up with food.
“I mean, I don’t want to spend a year with a stranger. I want to spend it with you.”
“You already know I can’t do that,” she said, but her cheeks heated and Evan narrowed his eyes. Did her expression betray her regret? Had he guessed she was beginning to want to spend a year with him?
Hadn’t she almost admitted as much at lunchtime?
“You won’t regret losing, I promise you,” he said, his gaze sliding to the camera crew hovering over them. “I…” he grimaced, obviously unable to say what he’d like to in front of them. “Bella, I promise.”
Several hours later, Evan stripped down and slipped into one of the twin makeshift showers the crew had rigged for a surprise for their last night out in the open air. They consisted of large, sun-warmed plastic bags of water hanging from trees and plastic curtained stalls for each of them.
It took Evan a moment to figure out the mechanism of the shower, but when he did the warm water sliding over his trail-dusty body felt wonderful. Off to his left Bella moaned in delight.
“Hey, what’s going on over there?” he called out playfully. “Better keep it down or I’ll come to investigate.”
The thought made his body hum all over. Bella moaned again. For a second he forgot they were surrounded by crew members, some setting up for the night, others still training their cameras on the shower stalls, although they’d been assured they would not be filmed during pre- or post-shower dressing periods.