The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 54)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(54)
Author: Cora Seton

“I know. Shh.” He pulled her even closer, and kissed her forehead.

“All right, all right, enough of that,” Madelyn said, elbowing her way through the crowd that had gathered around them.

Evan let go of Bella and swung around to face her. “I can’t believe you did that! You could have killed her!”

“What I did?” Madelyn faced him down. “I didn’t do anything. One of the caterers tipped over a cart of trays carrying the crew members’ lunch. Purely accidental.”

Evan opened his mouth. Closed it.

Bella shut her eyes, wanting nothing more than this contest to be over. She wanted to go home. She wanted to see her family. “We have one more challenge, right? Let’s just finish this.”

Evan let out a breath. “Fine. An accident. But no more games. No more hiking, either. You drive us to wherever it is we’re going. You got that? And feed us a decent lunch first.”

“Okay,” Madelyn drew out the word to make it clear she thought he was over-dramatizing the whole affair, and flounced away, shouting orders at the crew. Soon Bella was seated in a folding chair, a tin of lasagna perched on her lap and a sugary soda in her hand.

“For the shock,” Ellis said when she initially demurred. “It’ll help. Trust me.”

“Are you okay?” Evan asked, taking a bite of his lunch. His gaze never left her, and she remembered the way he’d pulled her into his arms. How tightly he’d held her.

Evan cared for her, she realized. Really cared. She thought back to his earlier words; that he didn’t want just any wife, he wanted her. This wasn’t just about winning anymore for him. This was about winning her.

Did he really think the only way to get to know her was to win her hand in marriage for a year? Was he that insecure?

She peered at him from under her lashes. He was handsome, wealthy, powerful. She’d assumed he was egotistical, predatory and ruthless, too, but he wasn’t, was he? He kept helping her whenever she had trouble. Although the trick he pulled last night was pretty predatory.

The trick he pulled to try to win another three hundred and sixty-five nights with me.

“I think so,” she said. And for the first time in years, she thought it just might be true.

* * * * *

“Our two contestants are tied at 32 points apiece,” Jake Cramer said in his oily television announcer voice. “After a thrilling morning, the entire contest comes down to this final challenge. Bella, Evan, whoever comes out the victor will win the entire show!”

“Can’t wait,” Evan said unenthusiastically.

“Whoo,” Bella said.

Evan expected Madelyn to yell, “Cut!” and take all of them to task for their poor showing, but she just nodded.

“Get on with it.”

“Your final challenge is a simple treasure hunt,” Jake said. “Behind me you’ll see some thick woods, the perfect hiding place for wild animals. And wild animals are what you’ll need to find—stuffed wild animals, of course.” He handed them each a stack of laminated cards showing photos of various animals that apparently might inhabit a northern forest—cougars, moose, brown bears, grizzly bears, and foxes. “Each of you will conduct your search in a fenced off patch of forest. You have twenty minutes to find your animals and carry them to the finish line, marked an equal distance from your hunting grounds. The first to reach the finish line with all ten animals wins!”

Twenty minutes and this would all be over. Bella would either be his to wed or his to woo. Either way, he knew he would build his life around her. He hoped she knew it, too.

As he followed a crew member to his starting position, he looked over to where Bella walked toward hers.

“Bella—even if you lose, you’ll win. I promise!” he called out.

Jerking toward him, Bella shot him a look he couldn’t decipher, and Evan knew with a jolt of fear she’d misinterpreted what he’d said.

“I mean…” he tried again, but Madelyn stepped in front of him.

“You aren’t trying to rig this contest, are you, Mr. Mortimer? Because the contract you signed has some things to say about that.”

Thwarted, Evan let the words he longed to say to Bella remain unspoken. He’d made himself clear earlier, hadn’t he? She must know he meant to help her no matter what happened. “No, I’m not,” he said to Madelyn.

“Good. Get ready.” She nodded to Jake Cramer.

“Twenty minutes from now, we’ll know who is going to win Can You Beat a Billionaire. Bella, will you take home five million dollars and save your veterinary practice and animal shelter? Or Evan, will you take home a new, blushing bride?”

Evan flashed a last look over at Bella, and took in her determined expression. She meant to win the contest. She’d take the money and she’d leave this nightmare behind. Would she associate him with the whole debacle? Would she even want to see him again afterward?

No.

Probably not. He’d hit on her, slept with her while cameras were rolling, left her in the lurch just when she opened up to him, and kept putting his own needs ahead of hers. The only shot he had was to win fair and square and afterwards open a chain of clinics and animal shelters to make up for it.

He braced himself, his laminated cards in his hand, ready to run for it the moment Jake gave the signal.

“Ready?” Jake said. “Set. Go!”

* * * * *

So she’d win even if she lost, would she? That was all fine and dandy because she didn’t plan to lose no matter how much she liked the man. No matter how much she lusted after him. It might be nice to be Mrs. Evan Mortimer, but not like that.

In fact, she felt grateful for his poor choice of words because it yanked her right back to the present moment and the goal she’d come on this show to achieve. As much as she wanted to be with Evan, as much as she hoped they would find a way to be together after the show, no way in hell would she throw the contest. She didn’t want to be a billionaire’s wife.

She wanted to be a millionaire.

She couldn’t save every animal, she knew that now, and she no longer wished to drive herself insane trying. Instead, she planned to make good decisions and ask for help. She would start by building a better animal shelter. Perhaps she’d extend her care to larger animals, too. And she knew the perfect person to help run a ranch for old or injured horses. Someone who’d wanted to expand his spread back to its original size for a long, long time.