His brand of claustrophobia made relationships with women all but impossible. Not the act—no, that was possible in a wham, bam, thank-you-ma’am sort of way. But Taylor wanted to cuddle afterwards. She wanted to talk about the future. She admitted she’d been looking for him since she arrived at the conference, eager to see for herself the handsome heir to billions.
The familiar tightening of the muscles around his neck and shoulders had warned him an attack was coming on. As she outlined her plans for them, including her intention to meet his parents when she moved to San Jose the following month, Evan panicked. He leaped out of bed and kept on running.
The next day he tracked down her number and apologized, but it was too late. Taylor went on a one-woman warpath, spreading lies about him to everyone who would listen.
His lack of sexual know-how.
The unimpressive size of his manhood.
He still burned with embarrassment when he thought about it. His father’s money paid for a countercampaign that erased her tweets, blogs, and forum posts when possible, or buried them with favorable replies. Suddenly he gained quite a reputation in the industry as a player and a stud.
But his father never let him forget it.
He believed the lies. He believed in Evan’s inadequacy.
Why wouldn’t he? Evan never brought home another girlfriend in the years before his father’s death. Instead he lived with his dad’s none-too-subtle gibes and kept away from women—far away—while the humiliation spurred him on to succeed in every other realm in his life.
He wanted to turn around and apologize to Bella, but he wouldn’t do that to her on camera. He could tell she was barely holding it together—she refused to meet his gaze, or anyone else’s, her expression stony, eyes on the ground. What should he do? Win the remaining contests and spend the next year making up for his crappy trick? He could buy her ten animal shelters, save every pet in Chance Creek, expand her services, hire her employees—whatever it took.
Or should he throw the challenges and lose gracefully so she could do all of that for herself?
Without him screwing up her life.
They burst into a clearing and Evan stumbled to a stop, his jaw dropping open at the sight before him. A horse stood tied to a post at one end of a fenced-in field. Saddle and tack lay in a heap on the ground near it. A large sign detailed the proper procedure for saddling it, each step laid out complete with illustrations. A course of obstacles filled the rest of the fenced-in space.
Evan began to laugh. He shouldn’t have worried at all about whether or not to throw this contest. He couldn’t compete on horseback against a cowgirl who’d been riding all her life.
He had his answer—the universe had issued it loud and clear. Evan was going to lose by a mile. Bella would win, take the money, and leave his life forever.
Bella fought the urge to throw up. She knew her face was pale and waxy, and if anyone had touched her brow they’d find it damp with sweat.
Damn it—that was a horse. Madelyn couldn’t expect her to go anywhere near it.
She could, if her eyes weren’t deceiving her. The challenge was all too clear: saddle the horse, and ride a circuit of the course, guiding it over five obstacles. Bella’s experienced eye told her none of the obstacles were difficult for an experienced rider. She wasn’t an experienced rider, though. Not lately, anyway. She was probably the only woman her age in Chance Creek who hadn’t been on a horse for twenty years.
And there was no way in hell she’d get close enough to one to saddle it, let alone climb on top of it.
Evan was laughing. Probably just another trick of his to throw her off. He called out, “Guess you’ll take this one,” over his shoulder as he stalked off toward the horse. He stood in front of the sign and read the steps one by one, and it wasn’t until he moved to sort out the pile of tack that he looked back and noticed she hadn’t budged. “Sorry, this might take a while, but I’ll figure it out in the end. I may be beat, but I’m going to give it my best shot.”
Terrific. She hoped he did figure it out, rode the course and got out of here. Hell, why was she even standing around here waiting for him? She hadn’t been able to ride a horse in years; there was no way she could do it now.
She wouldn’t score a point in this challenge, so she might as well head right on to the next one.
She walked forward, straight past Evan and around the corral, heading in the direction she hoped led to the next section of trail. Her vision blurred from tears and she picked up her pace. She was done for now. No way to win if she skipped a challenge entirely. Paul and Nita followed her, muttering to each other in confusion. If they moved in front of her they’d see she was one second from falling apart. She was so close to having enough money to finally right all her wrongs and now fate dished out this. She should have known better than to think she could win.
Memories beset her, flashing images of the day she’d ruined her family’s lives.
Caramel racing after the ball and bringing it back to drop at her feet.
Hugging the dog and burying her face in her fur.
The commotion behind her, Caramel’s sudden barks.
Looking up. Seeing the hooves flailing above her.
Her father’s shout: “Bella!”
His body flashing between them. The stallion twisting away in fear.
Hooves flashing, the horse’s giant body falling. The sickening crack as its foreleg shattered.
Her own fear bitter in her mouth. Caramel twisting around their feet.
Her father’s hand upraised.
She blinked faster and picked up her pace some more, trying to leave those memories behind.
Damn. She broke into a run, unable to control her tears any longer, the pain of her memories finally catching up to her. She’d vanquished that awful day from her mind for so many years, refusing to speak of it because nobody else in her family spoke of it.
“Bella, stop—where are you going?”
Bella ignored Nita’s call and dashed onward, unaware of her surroundings. She was back on the family’s ranch, back in the chaos of men running, the stallion falling, Caramel barking, her father watching his dream implode.
This time the voice was Evan’s. “Bella.” He caught up to her and pulled her to a stop. “What are you doing? Come back—ride the horse. It’s okay—you’re going to win fair and square, I can’t complain. Bella?” Lifting a hand to trace the tears running down her face, his expression changed from laughter to concern. “What’s wrong?”