The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (Page 6)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(6)
Author: Cora Seton

“Hi,” she said to them.

“Don’t mind us, we’re just providing local color,” Ethan said.

“Doesn’t get much more colorful than a county sheriff,” Cab added, pretending to polish his badge.

Bella turned to Hannah for an explanation.

“Bella, this is Madelyn Framingham, the director of Can You Beat a Billionaire, and her assistant Ellis Bristol. They arrived a few minutes ago,” Hannah said, waving to a woman who was just emerging from the corridor that led back to the shelter.

“Ten minutes ago.” Madelyn stepped forward and offered her hand, although everything about her radiated displeasure. The woman was intimidating. Tall, bony, with ebony hair pulled back into a sleek chignon, she wore scarlet lipstick, a dark power suit with a skirt that stopped just above her knees and three-inch-high stiletto heels. No one dressed like that in Chance Creek. The cowboys in the waiting room watched her as curiously as if she were a leopard in a zoo.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Bella said and shook her hand.

“So this is your…clinic.”

“It is. We’re very proud of our facility,” Bella said. She didn’t like Madelyn’s attitude one bit. The director was now making her way around the room checking out the furniture, shelves—even the paintings on the walls, done by the local artist Ingrid Deck.

“If you’re interested in the artwork,” Bella began. “I can…”

“I’m not.” Madelyn turned to her. “Tell me why you became a vet.”

“Uh…I…” Bella struggled to recite her usual pat answer to this question. It didn’t help that she had an audience of cowboys as well as Madelyn and her assistant waiting to hear what she had to say. “A family pet died when I was ten after being hit by a car. As you might expect, I was quite saddened by the experience. I guess I decided then and there to learn to care for hurt animals.”

She didn’t add that Caramel’s death had been her fault. Or that the incident had also nearly bankrupted her family. She’d been playing with the dog back behind the house near the stables and corrals where her father and his hired hands worked. She’d been told a hundred times to skedaddle when the men were handling the horses, but she hadn’t listened that day. Truth was, she rarely did. As the baby of the family and the only little girl on a ranch full of men, she was spoiled, which drove her older brother Craig wild with resentment. That day Craig was helping the men, though, and he’d lorded it over her that he was big enough to join in while she had to keep away.

Cyclone was a new horse; a thoroughbred stallion her father mortgaged the ranch to purchase with the hope that he could charge exorbitant stud fees and breed new generations of thoroughbreds to sell. Her father was thrilled that he’d landed his first customer, and his voice rang out as he called directions to the rest of the men helping to load the horse.

She’d been far too young to realize how precarious the family’s finances were. The ranch had been owned by Chathams for generations. Chance Creek was her whole world. As she ran and played with Caramel she felt just as safe and loved and carefree as she’d ever felt growing up there.

So she hadn’t stayed in the front yard as she’d been told to do. Instead she brought Caramel out back to play catch. She’d been crouched down beside the dog to congratulate her for returning the ball she’d thrown, rubbing her fur, too absorbed in her fun to hear the commotion behind her. She hadn’t noticed the men trying to load Cyclone into the trailer. She hadn’t seen him break free of his handlers and gallop away.

She didn’t see Cyclone at all until he was almost on top of her, rearing high into the air at Caramel’s sudden barks of warning. She looked up to see his hooves above her, the entire weight of the stallion about to crash down on her head.

That moment drew out impossibly long in her memory. People shouting, Caramel barking, the horse wheeling around, and the sickening crack as its leg shattered when it tumbled down to earth. Her father’s bellow. Another sound—sharp as a slap.

Caramel’s bark of pain.

The dog struck out like lightning across the hard-packed earth of the yard, past the house, past the driveway, and toward the country highway.

Bella leapt to her feet and raced after her. She heard the squeal of brakes and Caramel’s anguished yelp of surprise. By the time she reached the road Caramel was shuddering with pain. With the driver’s angry words in her ears, and tears streaming down her face, she held her dog in her arms as Caramel breathed her last.

Even today she remembered that gut-wrenching helplessness—holding Caramel, feeling the life drain out of her, unable to stop it, knowing it was all her fault…

And then the gunshot.

“We’re on a very tight schedule,” Madelyn snapped. Bella blinked, dragged back to the present too abruptly. “This morning we’ll do an interview and your paperwork. The camera crew will be in to get footage for our opening sequence—the contestants in their milieu.”

“Their what?” Still struggling to catch up, Bella caught Hannah’s eye behind Madelyn’s back and frowned. Hannah shrugged, but Morgan waved her hands at the office as if to say, the place where you live and work, dummy. Well, Morgan probably wouldn’t call her a dummy. Out loud.

“Their home environment,” Ellis explained, gesturing at the cowboys in the waiting room. “Hi, Bella—great to meet you. You’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed right now.” Ellis looked young—twenty-five or twenty-six, Bella guessed, dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck that must have been hot on this sunny fall day. He gripped a pile of file folders and kept fiddling with his cell phone.

“Of course she’s overwhelmed,” Madelyn said. “What does Bella know about being on television? Nothing. So we’ll teach you.” She put an arm around Bella’s shoulders in what she assumed was supposed to be a friendly hug but felt more like a vise grip, and led her to an empty chair in the waiting area. “Have a seat and I’ll quickly explain the layout of the show.”

As Bella sat down she saw Hannah pull out a small notebook and pen. Thank God—she doubted she would remember any of this. Morgan leaned on the counter soaking up every word, too. The cowboys relaxed in their chairs.

“The whole show is shot over seven days, with two days for travel and five days of filming. Once you step on our private jet you will have no contact with anyone except the show’s personnel. At the show’s conclusion we will either deliver you back here or to the home of Evan Mortimer. If you win, we will shoot additional coverage of us presenting you with your winnings, plus a follow-up show in three months’ time to check in on how the money has changed your life. If Mr. Mortimer wins, we will shoot your wedding, of course, plus a follow-up show in three months’ time to see how your marriage is going.”