In a moment Bella would join Evan for the cake cutting ceremony, but she appreciated the quiet interlude to connect with her brother.
“Yes. It didn’t go too well,” Bella said. “Wait until you see that episode.”
“Still, you got in the saddle. That’s something.”
She waited for him to say something biting, like he often did. So she was surprised when his tone softened.
“It was all my fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“The day Cyclone died. I saw you there. I should have said something.” Craig turned toward her and she saw anguish in his eyes. “I was too busy showing off to do the right thing. Afterward—what I said to you—I hate myself for that.”
Bella stepped back, his words echoing the pain that had lived in her heart for so many years, until her ride on Thunder had put it all into perspective. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was an accident. They happen sometimes. Besides, you’ve done so much good in the world since then. Think about your work—all the cattle and horses…”
“I’m just a vet, just like you,” he said.
“But you help people with the animals that provide their livelihoods.” She couldn’t believe Craig blamed himself, too. They’d all sacrificed so much time to the bitterness of the past.
“But I’m not brave like you are,” he countered. “You save the animals that people love—the ones that are like family members. There’s a reason I don’t work with pets.”
“Because it doesn’t pay as well?” Bella joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere between them.
“Because I’m not worthy of them. I just stood there the day that Caramel died. I didn’t even go after her.” He shook his head. “It was like I was paralyzed because I cared so much. You’re the brave one. You went after her. You held her as she died. Then you went to work for Maggie. And you didn’t have to beg money from Mom and Dad like I did when you went to school. You did it all yourself. You became a vet, you’ve saved so many pets for other people. You kept on loving animals…” He took a deep breath. “I’m afraid to care about anything. I miss you. I miss our family—the way it used to be.”
Bella blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over. She didn’t want Evan to think she wasn’t happy. She was happy, especially now. “I’m right here.”
“You don’t blame me?” Craig said.
“Of course not,” Bella said. “I always thought you blamed me. We’ve all been torturing ourselves, stuck in our separate hells. It’s time to let it go.”
Craig drew in a ragged breath. “That sounds good to me.”
She pulled him into a quick hug. “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be different now, you hear?”
He smiled suddenly, though she saw the pain was still fresh for him. “Why, because you’re filthy rich?”
She grinned back. “Yep. And because we’ll restore our ranch to its former glory. We’ll restore our family back to its former glory, too. You’ll see.” She squeezed him, then let him go as another guest moved forward to congratulate her. Carl Whitfield, formerly Chance Creek’s richest inhabitant. The millionaire had moved to town to play at being a rancher, and had fallen in love with a local girl, Lacey Taylor. No fairy-tale wedding ended that match, however, and she felt a tug of sympathy for the man. Lacey had left town. Rumor had it Carl planned to leave as well.
Craig patted her back and excused himself. She hoped her words had offered him some comfort, and that they really would be able to regain a closer relationship.
“Welcome to the club,” Carl said, shaking her hand.
“The Chance Creek millionaires club. Although I guess we’ll have to rename it now that a billionaire is moving to town.” He didn’t look exactly pleased at the thought.
“It’s nice that there will be three of us,” she said. She wasn’t sure how to take Carl. She didn’t know him that well.
“Unfortunately, there will only be two pretty soon. I’m leaving. Heading back to California. Chance Creek and I didn’t get along that well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, touching his arm. “Really, Carl. I know you thought you would make a life here.”
“Well, I’ve got myself to blame for it, don’t I?” he said. “I’m so used to promoting myself I didn’t know when to quit. Folks around here think I’m a braggart and a fool.”
“No, they don’t,” Bella said. “I don’t, anyway.” Although if he’d showed this more human side of himself right from the beginning, Carl would have found lots of people willing to be his friend. “Maybe a break will be good for you—give you something to do and take your mind off Lacey—but I hope you’ll come back and give Chance Creek another try.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I won’t sell my house until next summer, just in case I change my mind. I’m looking for someone to live in it for the meantime, though. I don’t suppose you and that husband of yours are looking for a mansion?”
She shook her head. “I need to be close to the shelter. We plan to live in my trailer for now. When we get back from our honeymoon, that is.”
“That ratty old thing?” Carl sputtered. “Sorry. I mean, it’s a little rough for a guy like Evan, don’t you think?”
“He’s used to roughing it,” she said, her thoughts slipping back to their time in the little tent in Jasper. “Once we’re back, however, we’ll start hunting for enough land to build our house, plus a new, state-of-the-art clinic and shelter.”
“Evan doesn’t mind leaving San Jose?”
“No, he says he likes it here.” She shrugged. “Plus he wants enough land to run test projects about alternative energy sources and sustainable ranching.”
“Sustainable ranching? He better take care he doesn’t make himself as unpopular as I am around here,” Carl said.
“Actually, Jake Matheson seems pretty interested in that idea.” She nodded across the room at Rob Matheson’s older brother.
“Let me know if you think of anyone else who’d like to stay at my place.”
“What about Cab? Maybe he’d like to spend the winter there.”