“I can’t…” She couldn’t breathe for tears, couldn’t dispel the images from her mind. The dust kicked up by the horse’s hooves, Cyclone’s scream as his foreleg shattered.
Her father’s face.
“I can’t ride…I can’t…”
And her brother wild with grief when he found her in the barn that night.
It’s all your fault, he said. Caramel’s dead. Cyclone’s dead. It’s all your fault.
“I can’t…” Bella sobbed, her breath coming in great gasps. She clung to Evan, felt his arms go around her.
She couldn’t save Caramel. She’d run and run but she’d been too late. She couldn’t save Cyclone; his broken leg was his death warrant, and the destruction of her father’s business. She couldn’t save herself, either. She’d as good as died that same day, at least in her father’s eyes. He’d never seen her again; she’d simply disappeared. No matter what she did, she couldn’t fix it.
And she’d spent a lifetime trying to fix it. She’d spent a lifetime trying to save something—anything—to make up for what she’d done. But no matter how hard she worked, no matter how much she learned, no matter how much she earned—she couldn’t bring Cyclone back to life. And everywhere she looked there were more animals—more suffering—more sickness—more neglect—animals abandoned, hiding, starving—animals dying…and she couldn’t save them, she couldn’t…
“Come on, Bella, you have to ride. You’re going to lose if you don’t.”
She was going to lose everything. Just like her father did.
Another image flashed before her eyes. Her father dashing between her and the stallion, protecting her from his wheeling hooves. Cyclone crashing to the ground, the sound of his foreleg shattering.
Her father’s dreams shattering.
Her father’s face as he watched everything he’d worked for slip away.
Raising his arm.
Bringing it down on Caramel’s back.
Her father hit Caramel. Caramel ran into the street.
Bella staggered, blindsided by the realization. All this time she’d blamed herself for Caramel’s death, because her father had blamed her. He barely talked to her since that day. Barely looked at her. Kept her awash in guilt and pain.
And it was all his fault. All his fault. Not hers. But he’d blamed her all this time.
Evan leaned in closer and dropped his voice. “Sweetie, it’s going to be okay no matter what. Even if you lose I’ll take care of you, I swear.”
Bella’s gaze snapped up to him. Her adversary. The man standing between her and the means to fix everything. Did he think she would fall for his scheme? Did he think he could manipulate her feelings and ruin her life, just like her father had? Were all men like this?
“You’re the one making me lose,” she said and shoved him. He stepped back, but recovered quickly and came at her again.
“You tricked me! You’ve been tricking me all along!” Anger, thick and hot swirled up within her. It filled her until there was no room for sadness. No room for fear. If it wasn’t for her father’s manipulations she would have gotten over Caramel’s death and gone on to live a normal life. If it wasn’t for Evan’s sweet-talk, his kisses and caresses and pretense that he cared for her, she’d have won this contest long ago.
“Bella, listen to me…” He gripped her arm.
“No! It’s your fault! It’s all your fault!” He’d slept with her for heaven’s sake. Slept with her, and pulled out—just so he could win.
“Honey, it’s not like that.” He lifted a hand to touch her face and she stiffened with rage. He was calling her pet names? Now? Her clinic, her shelter, her chance to buy back her father’s land was all slipping through her fingers and he was pretending he still cared?
Rage boiled up within her, choking her throat, burning her lungs, setting her aflame.
She struck him with every ounce of her strength.
The slap of her palm against the flesh of his cheek brought the set to a standstill.
Evan lurched backward, stumbled, caught himself. “Shit.” He held a palm to his cheek.
Bella couldn’t move. Stunned, she went cold, then hot, then began to tremble all over. What had she done?
“You hit me.”
She’d hit him. She, who’d never hit anyone in her life, had slapped the man she loved.
She gazed at Evan, still rubbing his jaw, and knew it was true; she did love him. She’d fallen hard for the man in a record short time and now she’d ruined any chance she’d ever had to be with him.
Closing her eyes she bowed her head, wishing the ground would open and swallow her whole. Shame overwhelmed her. What kind of woman was she?
Her father’s daughter.
Rocked by the realization, she put out a hand to steady herself, found nothing there. She’d lashed out just as he had—out of fury, out of frustration.
Out of fear.
In a flash she saw that day through her father’s eyes. He was out of money, close to losing his business, losing his legacy. The horse’s death was the final straw. Evan was right; the stallion should have been insured. But her father must not have insured him. In an instant it was all gone; the stallion’s leg shattered, the chance to earn back his money vaporized, the chance to save his land lost for good.
Overwhelmed by his anger, he’d hit their pet, and Caramel—never treated like that before—had raced away to her death.
Evan turned back to face her and Bella ducked her head again, unwilling to meet his eye, not wanting to see the blame there.
Just like her father. He never looked her in the eye again after Caramel’s death.
Now she knew why.
Not because he blamed her, but because he knew it was his fault. Everything was his fault.
He’d blamed himself.
Speechless with understanding, she forced herself to raise her head. She didn’t want to look at Evan—didn’t want to see the blame in his eyes—but she had to. This was where her father stumbled. He could have apologized. He could have admitted his guilt and allowed her to forgive him, but he’d been so afraid that she wouldn’t he never even gave her the chance.
She lifted her gaze to meet Evan’s. “I’m sorry.” The words were barely a whisper. “Shit. Evan, I’m sorry.”
Evan made a kind of choking sound and she stiffened, afraid she’d done more damage than she first thought. No wonder her father hadn’t been able to face her like this. Fear clogged her throat and twisted her guts—the fear that he’d never forgive her.