Besides, if she and Evan were to have a future, it had to be as equals; two adults coming to a relationship because they both wanted to be there. No games. Neither of them holding power over the other. Five days wasn’t enough to prepare for a life together, and when she got married she wanted it to be for good.
She tensed, waiting for Jake’s signal, and when it came, she raced into her hunting grounds and got to work searching for animals.
She found the grizzly bear right away, tucked behind a cedar. A few minutes later, she located the moose in a clump of bushes. The rest of the animals remained hidden, however, and as the seconds ticked by, she began to panic a little.
She decided she needed a more methodical approach. Quickly moving to one end of the enclosed square, she began walking swiftly back and forth across it, covering every inch of ground. She found the black bear several minutes later, but it wasn’t until she’d nearly searched the whole space that the fox turned up.
That left the cougar. She didn’t have a watch, but she knew her twenty minutes must be nearly up. As tension tightened her shoulders, she returned to the search, quickly covering the rest of the ground. She couldn’t find the last stuffed animal. Her panic surging, she moved to cover the ground a second time, knowing she couldn’t possibly search it all again in the allotted time.
Damn it, where was that animal?
Desperately raising her eyes to the heavens in a plea for help, she spotted the answer.
The cougar rested in a notch of a pine tree.
Fifteen feet off the ground.
Bella began to laugh. Not the hysterical kind of laughter that quickly turned to desperate sobs. No, this was laughter, pure and simple.
Madelyn might know her well enough to realize stallions scared her to death, but the director hadn’t done her homework as thoroughly as she thought.
She obviously had no idea how many kittens Bella had rescued from trees.
* * * * *
For once Evan had to concede that maybe the game wasn’t stacked in his favor, because he was having a hell of a time finding those damn animals.
Or maybe it felt like it was taking forever because the end to this whole darn show was so close.
Every time his mind wandered he saw Bella in a fairy-tale wedding dress, saw himself putting a ring on her finger.
Then pictured the two of them going to bed to celebrate their wedding night.
Pushing that highly distracting thought from his mind, he concentrated again on finding his remaining two animals. He had the cougar, the black bear and the fox, but the moose and the grizzly remained hidden somewhere in this tangled mess.
It wasn’t until he decided to climb a tree and look down at the forest floor from above that he spotted the moose set high in the crotch of a cedar. Scrambling up to get it, he quickly noticed the dark lump in another tree that heralded the grizzly.
Mentally kicking himself for not thinking to look up sooner, he retrieved both animals and made a dash for the enclosure entrance. He bolted through it, head down, ready to make the final run for the finish line, when something crashed into him and spun away.
He took in the scene in an instant; Bella’s arms full of stuffed animals, Jake standing far off just visible at the finish line, Madelyn and Ellis arguing off to one side, the path they had to race along the dirt bank of a swift-running stream. He had no doubt it all made for great television. Tangled forest behind them, rushing water beside them. Ahead of them, sunshine and the finish line.
Bella glanced back at him and ran faster. Evan raced after her, determined to win.
Their pounding course brought them alongside the river, and he had a crazy, half-hysterical thought that maybe she’d push him in. The water wasn’t wide, but the current looked powerful. Better keep his footing, and keep an eye on Bella.
Bella who was ten feet in front of him.
Bella who was going to win if he didn’t get a move on.
Evan redoubled his efforts and in a second his longer legs brought him even with her. Another few steps and he took the lead.
“Damn it!” she swore and the pounding of her footsteps behind him told him she was doing her best to catch up again.
But just as he put on a burst of speed, he heard Madelyn shout as she grabbed something from Ellis and hurled it into the middle of the path.
* * * * *
Bella raced after Evan, her lungs bursting, her chest heaving for all she was worth to get more air. He was pulling ahead, edging forward, stretching the boundary between her and victory until it pulled taut.
Digging deep inside herself for her last shred of strength, she lowered her head and charged. Beside them roared a narrow torrent of water, and ahead lay Jake Cramer and victory.
Just as she threw herself into a flat-out run, moving faster than she’d ever dreamed she could, Madelyn grabbed a small, dark shape from Ellis’s arms and shouted something:
Police the creatures?
Excuse the killers?
The raging torrent beside her made it too hard to hear. She didn’t slow for an instant, however, not until a fluffy ball of fur landed in the dirt in front of them, streaked out across the track, and Evan stumbled, nearly hurtling himself to the ground.
Bella raced forward, unwilling to give her opponent an inch no matter what the circumstances. She was drawing even. She was pulling ahead!
Madelyn’s shouted words filtered through her subconscious:
RELEASE THE KITTEN!
The kitten who even now streaked toward the raging stream beside her. The kitten who was about to plunge over the bank to a watery death.
Save the kitten, or win five million dollars?
She dove for the black ball of fur even as the thought crossed her mind.
* * * * *
What the hell?
A kitten—a black ball of fluff no bigger than his hand—made a beeline across his path toward the foaming torrent beside them, and in an instant Evan knew exactly what would happen next.
Bella would dive for the kitten and save it. He would cross the finish line and win the show. He would have her hand in marriage for one year.
And for three hundred and sixty-five days Bella would hate his guts because once again his priorities betrayed his selfishness.
He didn’t stop to think what he might be giving up. For the first time in his life, he thought only of someone else. Diving for the kitten, he scooped it up before Bella could even reach it, and in a feat worthy of a pro-sports greatest hits reel he scooped up Bella in his other hand and hurled her toward the finish line.
She landed with a thud in front of Jake Cramer, flinging her arms out to stop herself from rolling into him.
“We have a winner!” Jake crowed and reached down to haul Bella to her feet.