“I’m so sorry,” she said again, her eyes filling with tears for what she could have had with Evan. A relationship. A marriage.
A life together.
Evan’s shoulders heaved and he covered his face with his arm.
Oh my God! He was crying! Bella reached toward him. Stopped. Pulled her hand back.
“Evan? Are you okay?”
His shoulders shook. Around them, the crew shifted uncomfortably. Paul switched his camera off. “I can’t film this, man. This isn’t right.”
“Dude, pull it together,” Chris said.
“Evan…?” Bella touched him uncertainly.
He dropped his arm and Bella flinched back.
He wasn’t crying.
He was laughing.
“You should have seen your face!” he said. “Oh, my God. Did you really think you hurt me?”
“Bella. Sweetie.” He swiped his arm across his cheeks and pulled her into an embrace. “Honey, I hate to tell you this.” He kissed her hard on the mouth. “You hit like a girl.”
* * * * *
Evan could hardly breathe for fear this moment would end. He sat on one of the catering crew’s ice chests, his arm around Bella who was snuggled up against him. Fifteen minutes after the slap heard round the world, as the film crew had already dubbed the incident, and she was still shaking. He wondered if she’d ever forgive herself for losing control. He’d forgiven her the moment her hand hit his jaw.
He’d deserved it for one thing. He kept treating her as if she was inferior to him. He acted like her worries were nothing to his, and that if she’d just let him take care of everything—and win—he’d sort out her little problems in no time flat.
What an idiot.
The camera crew was getting antsy, but he’d demanded they give Bella a cup of coffee and a donut before they went on with the challenge. He still didn’t understand why she couldn’t ride, but it was obvious she was terrified to try.
He wondered if Madelyn knew that when she planned this challenge.
One part of him wanted to pretend he was terrified, too. Maybe they could both just skip it—get zero points like they had at the bridges yesterday—but when he mentioned the idea to Bella, she just shook her head no.
“All right, campers, what’s the holdup?”
Evan winced as Madelyn’s grating voice cut through clearing like a buzz saw.
“Who’s up first?” the director demanded. “What’s with all the cuddling?”
“I’m first,” Evan said quickly. He wanted to give Bella some time to pull herself together. He got to his feet and paced to meet Madelyn, already missing the feel of Bella under his arm. He couldn’t wait until the show was over and they could be together without the constant scrutiny.
“Take your place. We’re well behind schedule. You have twenty minutes to complete the course,” Madelyn said. “Ready. Set. Go.”
Evan strode to the board that showed step by step how to saddle and prepare his horse to ride. He’d thought perhaps the show would have supplied a skittish steed that refused to stand still for the process, but Buttercup, as a crew member told him his mare was named, stood placidly while he yanked and tugged the saddle into place and fiddled with the reins. He relaxed a little. Even Bella shouldn’t feel frightened of this gentle mare.
He felt an inordinate pride when he got everything situated and tightened all the straps. He’d never even attempted to ride a horse before, let alone handle its gear. He placed a foot in one stirrup, reached up for a handhold on the pommel and pulled himself into place, if not gracefully, at least successfully.
A look told him Bella watched him with her full attention. She bit her lower lip, her body completely rigid.
Again he wondered if he should try to lose.
No. The only thing to do was play this fair and square. Despite what Bella was going through, he wanted a year with her and he wanted to retain control of Mortimer Innovations. He’d help save those animals of hers and help set her up with a new clinic in San Jose if she wanted one. He’d spend the next twelve months showing her just how much good a few billion dollars could do in the world. Together they could be a force for change—both for humans and animals. Uplifted by that idea, he urged Buttercup forward into an easy walk.
The horse approached each obstacle as if she’d been trained for weeks on the course, and Evan pushed aside the uncomfortable thought that maybe she had. The mare traversed a small wooden bridge, wove through a maze of waist-high hurdles, stepped delicately through a jumble of broken logs and rocks, navigated into and out of a man-made ditch, and finally executed a small jump with Evan clinging to her back for dear life. He knew he wouldn’t win any prizes for the elegance of his horsemanship, but he had made it through unscathed.
“Five points!” Madelyn called out. “A perfect score!”
Damn, couldn’t she even pretend she wasn’t playing favorites? Evan felt a blush creep up his neck as the camera crew shot looks at each other. Suddenly his elation at his accomplishment blew away like a morning fog before a noonday sun. Madelyn had made it easy on him. So how did she plan to make things difficult for Bella?
* * * * *
Bella knew that she should be able to saddle and ride a horse like Buttercup with her hands tied behind her back, even if she hadn’t ridden since she was ten. That didn’t stop her stomach from twisting into knots as she stood up to take her turn. Nor did it stop her hands from becoming slick with sweat as she walked toward Madelyn and the tack area.
“Give Buttercup a good rubdown,” Madelyn was saying to a crew member as she approached.
Rubdown? Why? Wasn’t she going to get her turn at the course?
Bella watched as Buttercup was led away and spotted another horse being led forward. A much bigger horse.
Her fingers clenched into clammy fists.
Madelyn knew. Somehow she knew.
The director smiled. “Thunder’s got some spirit to him—just right for an accomplished cowgirl like you, right Bella?
“That’s not fair,” Bella said.
“What’s that? You want to forfeit this contest?” Madelyn said, her grin growing wider. “You want to become Mrs. Mortimer right now? I’m sure I can find someone to perform the ceremony. Ellis? Get me a minister on the line!”
Bella’s eyes widened. “You should want me to win. Your audience loves it when the poor person wins!”