A pain so raw it made her bite her lip welled up inside her as she realized they were all in the same boat. Each and every member of her family still torn apart from that one awful day. Her father had waited for twenty years for her to forgive him; just as long as she’d waited to receive forgiveness from him.
A ragged sigh escaped her lips. No matter whose fault it all was, the time had come to end all of this sorrow and pain. It was time to win this show and buy back the land.
Time to put her family back together again. This was something she could fix, if she could just ride this horse.
Taking a deep breath she began to croon to Thunder again. She had no reason to fear him. The horse had no malice towards her—he was just confused by her fear, and starting to be afraid of what she’d do next. She had to convince him that she had confidence in him and that she wouldn’t upset him again.
“You’re a big, strong horse, aren’t you, Thunder?” she murmured. “And you’re a smart horse, too. You can do this course.”
Thunder shifted beneath her and shook his mane.
“I trust you,” she whispered. “I trust you to do your best, and that’s all any of us can do.”
She’d done her best since the day her family fell apart, hadn’t she? Studying hard, building her practice, opening a shelter that took care of hundreds of unwanted animals… She’d done everything she could. Her father had done his best as well, saving what he could of the ranch. Even her mother had done her best, torn between them.
Some of the tension went out of her shoulders. She really had done everything she could, and if she failed, if she had to give up her practice, she wouldn’t stop trying, either. She’d work to help animals for the rest of her life. Could she help her parents? She didn’t know, but she’d try. She could reconnect with her mother. She could forgive her father. She could speak of the past with her brother. She could find a therapist and get help for herself.
Her gaze shifted to Evan and he nodded back at her. He wasn’t a bad man either, was he?
Too bad they couldn’t both win.
She returned her focus to the course ahead and guided Thunder toward the third obstacle, the random jumble of logs and stones. With Bella breathing deeply and remaining calm, Thunder stepped through the course with ease.
“One point,” Madelyn said. She sounded disappointed.
Bella grasped the reins with more confidence now and urged the stallion toward the man-made ditch. She didn’t like the look of it, but she let her resistance go and trusted Thunder to get her safely through. In a flash they were down and up out of the obstacle again. Bella smiled. They’d done it!
Only one obstacle ahead, a jump so tiny it barely deserved the name. She’d done jumps like this as a child, before she’d become afraid of horses. Still her heart beat hard in her chest as Thunder wheeled around to face it. As he started to pace toward it, building speed into a trot, Bella tightened her grip and fought for the same faith she’d shown during the last obstacle.
She had just managed to let go of her fear and put her trust in Thunder when a sound like a shot rang out through the air. Startled, Bella shrieked, and Thunder’s pace hitched beneath her. He stumbled, recovered, jerked right.
Reared up in terror.
* * * * *
He was absolutely helpless to stop the disaster unfolding before his eyes. Why hadn’t he stopped Bella from getting on that stallion? Why had he even played this stupid game? Because he didn’t know how to love someone enough to find a wife the normal way?
Because he’d been too scared to love a woman?
Well, now he loved a woman. And as he watched that woman cling desperately to the rearing stallion, he knew he was going to lose his chance for a real marriage. A good marriage.
His chance for any happiness at all.
What was money, success, winning—control—compared to the love of the woman who was just about to fall and be trampled to death while he watched? Why hadn’t he told her he’d save her animals if he won?
Why hadn’t he lost and let her go?
He would never forgive himself if Bella died for his stupidity. Never forgive himself if he lost the woman he loved just as he found himself capable of loving at all.
She was ten again, standing outside a corral, her mother pleading with her to just touch the mare. Just give her a pat.
“Sylvie!” Her father’s voice boomed from across the yard. “Sylvie, what are you doing?”
“She’s got to ride again, Walter. Otherwise she’ll always be scared.”
“Get her away from there! She’s got no business around horses. Bella, get into the house!”
Shame suffused her at the anger in his tone.
“I can’t afford to lose her, don’t you understand that? She’s the only one I’ve got.”
Something clicked in her mind. Bella opened her eyes. I can’t afford to lose her. She’s the only one I’ve got.
He hadn’t meant the mare. He had plenty of mares. He’d meant his daughter.
He’d meant her.
The jolt of Thunder’s landing threw her forward and Bella grabbed for his mane instinctively, opening her eyes to find the ground solidly beneath his feet. He shuffled to one side, still anxious, but as she held her breath he calmed down and came to a halt.
She’d stayed on the horse. She was alive. And she was loved, too. Her father loved her.
She looked back and saw Evan reach the fence, throw himself up to grab the top rung and scramble to climb over into the corral.
Thunder shook his mane and ducked his head. She’d swear he was embarrassed by his bad behavior. Dazed, Bella slid off his back, nearly falling to her knees when her feet touched the ground.
Thunder whickered behind her. Pushed her with his large muzzle, once, twice.
He’s sorry, she realized. He’s apologizing.
“It’s not your fault,” she whispered to him. She caught his head in her hands and stroked his neck. “Someone scared you.” Fear made people and animals do all kinds of awful things.
Evan and the rest of the crew raced up to mob her, their cries ringing in her ears.
“Bella! God, I thought I’d lost you!” Evan swung her into his arms, gripping her like he’d never let go.
“I wasn’t sure I’d make it,” she said, her voice unsteady. “I thought…”