Trouble was, he didn’t want one.
After a whole lot of looking, he’d found a loophole within all the legal gobbledygook that was going to save him from that fate—the marriage requirement only lasted a year. Evidently women in Abe’s time often expired early due to complications of childbirth, and Abe had taken that into account. He wasn’t required to stay married, therefore. No—all Evan had to do was find a woman whose time he could purchase for one year, or better yet, win for free. Betty Bumpkin might not know it at the moment, but she was doomed to be Mrs. Evan Mortimer for at least twelve months, right after he beat the pants off her on this stupid reality TV show.
“Yes, Amanda—I’m going to marry her.”
“Thank God for prenups.”
He’d made sure Hammer Communications, the parent company of the network that ran Can You Beat a Billionaire, knew there was no way he would expose half of Mortimer Innovations assets to some TV contestant. They’d fallen over themselves to agree—thrilled they’d managed to catch one of the West Coast’s richest bachelors.
“Amen to that,” Evan said, leaning back in his chair.
“Why don’t you just buy some prostitute? They’re a dime a dozen.”
Evan rolled his eyes. They’d been over this before, too. “And let the newspapers have a field day when they figure it out? Nope—not into it.”
The TV show gave him a bizarre, yet legitimate, excuse to get a wife no one had ever heard of before—someone his competition couldn’t possibly have tainted beforehand—and dump her a year later. The network assured him no one would care what actually happened to the couple once the show was off the air.
“What if she refuses to divorce you?”
“First of all, no court will make a couple stay married these days if one person wants out. Second, look at her résumé—the one time she left Montana it was for school, after which she made a beeline back home. She’ll hate it out here in California. The minute I let her go, she’ll be gone!”
“If you say so—not many women will walk away from a lifestyle like yours.”
“I’ll give her a nice donation to start her clinic back up again. I’ll give her some business tips, too.”
“Like—you can’t save all the kittens in the world?” Amanda said dryly.
“Something like that. What’s she look like, anyway?”
“I told you about the hat, right?” Amanda laughed. “I’m sending over her photo right now.” She hung up on him and he turned to his computer and clicked the refresh button on his email. He clicked again on the image Amanda attached to her message and stared at Bella Chatham.
A golden-haired beauty stared back at him. Well, maybe beauty was too strong a word. She was fresh, wholesome, wore little makeup that he could see. She stood in a yard filled with large enclosures, surrounded by dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals. She held a puppy in her arms that was obviously squirming and she was laughing—all bright eyes, thick, wavy hair, legs that went on for a mile, and a cowboy hat perched atop her head. She could be the poster child for middle-America—a healthy, happy, well-adjusted country girl.
His total opposite.
He’d never dated anyone like her, not that he’d dated much. When your family was worth billions a certain amount of suspicion crept into your personality. His mother, especially, thought they were surrounded by vultures ready to rip them apart at the slightest sign of weakness. She’d practically hand-picked Nate’s wife from the children of her small circle of friends. While Nate and Brenda seemed happy enough, Evan had no interest in marriage to a woman like that.
His own attempts at dating had been disastrous. A few girls back in college who made it clear they expected a steady stream of expensive gifts, and called him cheap when they weren’t forthcoming. Several more women in his twenties who didn’t mention money at all, but talked frequently of their friends’ impending weddings, all the while shooting him furtive looks from gleaming eyes that he swore held the reflection of dollar signs.
He never got past a few weeks of dinners, dancing and trips to museums or concerts before he broke it off. A constricting feeling would build in his chest until the idea of seeing them again made him physically ill. He was ashamed to admit he broke up with most of those women over the phone, several by texting, but that feeling of being caught—of being trussed up with no way to escape… He couldn’t bear it, and couldn’t take the risk that if he met with them in person, he’d end up running away.
That had happened once—only once—but he’d never forget it, and he’d never put himself in that position again.
He shook his head and dragged his thoughts back to the present. His money was a blessing. No way Evan would feel sorry for himself because it hampered normal relationships.
Bella was nothing like the sophisticated, calculating women who’d given him so much trouble in the past. He’d have no problem keeping her at arm’s length and controlling the outcome of the show.
She’d do fine for his wife.
“Here she is,” Hannah blurted when Bella came through the front door of the clinic for the second time that day. She had raced home to the trailer to shower, pluck her eyebrows, throw on a little lipgloss and smooth her wild hair back into a barrette, but she was still shaking with anger that Hannah had done this to her—set her up on a show whose outcome was fixed, for all they knew. Sure, she might win the five million dollars and solve all her problems, but she might just as well end up some city slicker’s wife. The sick pit of fear in her stomach grew a little deeper. What if she lost? What if she had to give up her clinic and shelter—and had to leave Chance Creek and everyone she knew to marry a stranger and live in California for a year?
What would the man expect of her?
There was no way she’d go through with this if it wasn’t for the sad smile Hannah had flashed at her as she left the clinic to go get changed. Desperate times called for desperate measures. If she won, she’d save Hannah, too—the woman who’d worked for her for years at slave wages because she loved the animals as much as Bella did.
She’d do it; she’d go on this crazy show and she’d give it her best shot. At least then if she lost she’d know she’d done everything she could to save her business and her home. She now wore a sundress she’d found in the back of her closet and a pair of sandals, which were slightly dressier than her cowboy boots. Behind the reception counter, Morgan gave her a thumb’s up. Bella’s heart sank when she noticed three more cowboys had popped up in the waiting room. Rob’s best friends Ethan Cruz, Jamie Lassiter and Cab Johnson sat near him on the stark, plastic seats. Hmm, maybe she was closer to that inner circle than she’d thought.