The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(8)

By: Cora Seton

What would the man expect of her?

There was no way she’d go through with this if it wasn’t for the sad smile Hannah had flashed at her as she left the clinic to go get changed. Desperate times called for desperate measures. If she won, she’d save Hannah, too—the woman who’d worked for her for years at slave wages because she loved the animals as much as Bella did.

She’d do it; she’d go on this crazy show and she’d give it her best shot. At least then if she lost she’d know she’d done everything she could to save her business and her home. She now wore a sundress she’d found in the back of her closet and a pair of sandals, which were slightly dressier than her cowboy boots. Behind the reception counter, Morgan gave her a thumb’s up. Bella’s heart sank when she noticed three more cowboys had popped up in the waiting room. Rob’s best friends Ethan Cruz, Jamie Lassiter and Cab Johnson sat near him on the stark, plastic seats. Hmm, maybe she was closer to that inner circle than she’d thought.

“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.

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