The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 52)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(52)
Author: Cora Seton

Madelyn just shrugged. “What’s it going to be, cowgirl? You going to ride that horse or throw in the towel right now?”

Bella looked at Thunder, sidestepping and tossing his head as he was led to the start of the course, then back at Madelyn. She felt hollow, scoured and twisted by her fear. She wasn’t sure she could even walk the twenty steps over to the horse, let alone get on him. But she had to, didn’t she? She had to face this fear once and for all.

“I’ll ride,” she said.

Madelyn shook her head at her. “You don’t know when to give in, do you?”

Stung, Bella wheeled away and walked a few paces off, trying to get a hold of her emotions. No, she didn’t know when to give in. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be in the financial mess she was today, she wouldn’t be the self-proclaimed savior of all the pets in Chance Creek, and she wouldn’t be on this stupid television show falling apart before the whole world.

“Bella, you don’t have to do this,” Evan said, approaching her again.

That was the last thing she needed; Evan nearby, all sympathy and open arms. She had to be strong. Had to keep her emotions in check. She searched for a reason to be angry and found it. Evan wanted her to give in. He wanted her to lose. He wanted his fake little wife, and the show was going to hand her to him. Damn it, she couldn’t let that happen.

“Back off, Moneybuns,” she snapped, brushing past him. “I’m ready,” she called out. The crew member soothing Thunder and keeping him in place undid his lead and backed away. The horse stood by the tack area, but snorted uneasily. Madelyn had really picked a winner here, hadn’t she? Bella thought angrily as her hands began to shake again. A real fireball, ready to throw her like she’d always feared.

But as Bella approached, Thunder quieted, and for all his initial jitteriness, she sensed a dignity about him. No doubt Madelyn had made sure to ruffle his feathers, but he wasn’t a flighty horse.

Stepping toward him slowly, inch by agonizing inch, a song crept into her mind—one her mother used to sing to her when she was small and afraid of the dark. She found herself crooning it to Thunder, the way her mother had sung to her, back when her life was good.

Her voice was low and thin at first, just as shaky as her fingers, but she found it calmed her to be doing something—anything—amid this tense situation. She moved forward slowly, slowly, still crooning. Thunder settled even more and she stood still to let him catch her scent. She waited for him to bridge the last gap between them, her whole body quaking with fear, and after a long moment he did take a step. He breathed in her smell and nudged her shoulder with his nose.

His action brought tears to her eyes. The movement was so gentle.

So human.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to move again, bending to pick up the heavy saddle. It wasn’t easy to get it onto his tall back, and her fingers fumbled and slipped as she went through the process of tightening the straps. Once or twice she actually had to consult the directions the show had provided for them to make sure her memory hadn’t failed her utterly.

“Ten minutes left,” Madelyn sang out as she finished getting Thunder ready.

The knots in Bella’s stomach tightened some more as she stepped back and looked the stallion over. So he had consented to let her saddle him. That didn’t mean he’d be easy to ride. She’d overcome her fear enough to stand next to Thunder and work with him, but could she possibly ride him? Nausea rippled through her stomach as she thought of the last time she stood so close to a horse.

The wheeling hoofs.

The crack of shattered bone.

Afraid she really was going to lose the contents of her stomach, Bella turned away from him, a hand to her mouth. She couldn’t do this. She just couldn’t do this.

But when she glanced behind her and caught sight of Evan’s knitted brow and Madelyn’s triumphant smile, her resolve tightened.

She would do this.

Even if it killed her.

* * * * *

Evan watched Bella pull herself into the saddle and brace herself there on top of Thunder, as if the horse meant to pitch her off at any moment. The stallion sidestepped, but then held steady, and after a long minute, Bella’s shoulders eased a fraction, and he let out the breath he’d been holding. She was going to be okay.

His confidence was premature, however. Only a few steps into the course it became clear that Thunder had sensed Bella’s fear and was reacting to it. The horse danced nervously as he approached the first obstacle—an arched wooden bridge that should pose no problem.

Just as Thunder stepped forward onto the wooden rise, however, Bella gasped at his unsteady gait and the horse shied away, turning around back toward the start of the course.

“No points!” Madelyn called out. “Next obstacle.”

“Wait a minute,” Evan said, striding to her side. “She can try it again.”

“Thunder’s hoof touched the bridge; Bella gets one shot at each obstacle, just like you,” Madelyn retorted. “Next obstacle.”

He could see the set of Bella’s jaw, but she didn’t contradict the director. Instead, she urged Thunder back around, past the bridge to the maze of hurdles.

Come on, Bella, just keep calm, Evan found himself thinking at her. He still wanted her to lose, of course, but he wanted her not to lose too badly.

He didn’t want her to feel afraid.

Easing Thunder into the close and twisting trail through the maze, Bella looked like she’d taken control, until Thunder got too close to one of the rails. She jerked on the stallion’s reins and the beast shied away from the next turn. Bella scrambled to guide him in the right direction, but it was too late. He bumped one hurdle, panicked, and crashed right through another one. Bella gave Thunder his head and allowed him to dance around the packed earth ground of the course for a few seconds before reining him in and setting off determinedly for the third obstacle.

Evan closed his eyes. He couldn’t watch anymore.

* * * * *

Her dreams were slipping right out of her fingers. If she couldn’t get herself under control she was going to lose this contest right now. She couldn’t blame Thunder, either; it was all her fault. The poor horse was doing his best, but she kept scaring him when he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. She was sick with fear, sick at the memories that kept flooding back the longer she rode him.

So many years her family had wasted. So many years she’d felt hurt, alone and guilty.

“Five minutes,” Madelyn called out.