If they hadn’t already.
“Cut!” Madelyn said with a sigh. “We’re filming back story. Our viewers want to know what makes you tick and I think we just found out. You care more about those animals than you care about your own sex life. Kinda sad, but makes for great television. There’s our plane. Come on, everyone—get your gear together. We’ll board in ten minutes.”
Now, viewing their first night’s rustic accommodations, Bella wondered for the thousandth time how she’d survive this week. If she won, she’d have smooth sailing for the rest of her life and the means to save thousands of animals. If she lost, she’d lose everything—including herself, body and soul, for a year to a man who cared for nothing except making money. What a lonely, awful year it would be as the puppet wife for a callous, jaded businessman. And then what would she do? She’d have to go home to her parents, her tail tucked between her legs until some other veterinary clinic took pity on her and hired her on.
Maybe she could move to a larger town where the pound was separate from the veterinary clinics and she wouldn’t have to see the animals who were doomed to die.
She’d know they were out there, though. And she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Chance Creek.
She had to win. That was all there was to it. No matter what, she had to win.
* * * * *
Several hours later, Evan stepped out of a second SUV and surveyed the log-framed lodge before him. As he took a long breath of the fresh mountain air, he acknowledged that this break from work was probably good for him. He’d return sharper, clearheaded.
He’d return with a wife.
She was in there somewhere, he thought as he ran his gaze over the rustic exterior of the lodge. A crew member informed him she’d arrived earlier and was already ensconced in her room. They’d meet over dinner tonight and hear a last round of rules and directions from Madelyn Framingham, and the taping would begin tomorrow morning at eight.
Would she be as lovely as her photograph?
What would their wedding night be like?
He knew he needed to keep his mind on the contest to come, but the idea of a wedding night had preyed on his mind during the long ride to Jasper. His situation had made him a loner and he missed female companionship more than he’d admitted to himself. Generally he was too busy to give his choice to remain single a second thought, but he wasn’t a monk, and Bella was beautiful.
If they were man and wife they’d have to spend time together, right?
He hadn’t actually planned on that. He’d figured he’d set her up in one of his extra bedrooms, and spend more time than usual in his laboratories and on his trips. They’d barely need to see each other, except for the occasional public appearance to make it all seem on the up-and-up.
Now, however, he was rethinking that strategy. With the question of marriage and money already solved, maybe he and Bella could enjoy each other’s company. Get to know each other.
Have some fun.
Something stirred to life within him; a part of himself he’d done his best to ignore for quite a long time. Would Bella be different from the women he’d known? Could the two of them get beyond his money to the things that really mattered?
No. No woman had ever gotten past his money. Bella would be the same as the rest of them; why else would she go on a show like Can You Beat a Billionaire?
“Evan Mortimer. Welcome to Jasper!” Madelyn’s jarring voice brought him back to the present.
“Madelyn. Good to see you again.” He put the image of Bella out of his mind. This was just another business transaction.
“Come right in. Your room is ready for you. Dinner will be in one hour and we’ll let you get some rest.”
* * * * *
Bella smoothed her hands over the long denim skirt she wore, paired with a mint green shirt and leather sandals. She’d been instructed to bring clothes suited for intense outdoor activities, plus one casual but dressy outfit for this first dinner. She hoped she’d gotten it right. She wore simple, small hoop earrings and a silver bangle bracelet as her only jewelry, and she’d kept her makeup light. All in all she looked neat and fresh, she thought as she fluffed her hair. She wore it down around her shoulders in soft waves for this occasion. She planned to return to her usual pony-tail for the rest of the contest.
Taking a deep breath, she grabbed her purse, turned out the lights and let herself into the hall just in time to hear the clack of Madelyn’s unmistakable high heels. Would she wear them when they got to the outside portions of the show?
“You’re dressed, good. Let’s get you to makeup.” Madelyn waved her along the corridor.
“I’ve already done my makeup.” But Bella, caught up in the director’s wake, followed her helplessly to another room.
“Television requires different makeup. Bolder. Otherwise you’ll look like a cup of milk onscreen.” Madelyn opened the door and pushed her into a room where the beds had been removed and additional portable tables set up. Bella sat down uncertainly in the chair she indicated and a small, cheerful, middle-aged woman with curly auburn hair in a jumble on top of her head pounced on her, makeup brush in hand.
“I’m Natalie,” she said, swiping the brush over Bella’s face. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me, so get used to it!”
She set to work with a vengeance, covering Bella’s face, neck, upper body, and even her hands in foundation. She pencil-darkened her eyebrows, lined her eyes and applied shadow and mascara. She swiped various shades of blush and powder all over her cheeks, nose and forehead, lined her lips with a pencil and filled them in with lipstick. Bella felt like she was wearing a mask by the time all was said and done—a stiff, itchy, uncomfortable mask.
“Voila!” Natalie exclaimed, turning her toward the mirror.
Bella gazed at her reflection with horror. She looked as made up as a rodeo prostitute. “I’m sorry—I’m sure you’re very good at your job,” she said to Natalie, “but I look…” she waved a hand.
“The cameras will love it,” Natalie assured her. “You don’t wear makeup very much, do you? I made you up to look natural. If we were going for a glamour shot, I’d have applied twice as much.” She laughed at Bella’s expression. “Get going—you’ll be late for dinner.”
Madelyn snagged her as she left the room and dragged her back toward the main entrance of the lodge. Bella’s forehead itched, but she was afraid to scratch it. She was afraid to touch anything. She was uncomfortable and suddenly felt ridiculous in her denim skirt with Madelyn still dressed for the city.