The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire(9)

By: Cora Seton

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.”

“Wait a minute,” Bella said. “There’s a question I’ve got to ask. Why would a billionaire want to marry me?”

Madelyn frowned. “Billionaires are not like you or me, Bella. Who knows why they do what they do? But the terms of our contract state that if you lose the contest you will marry him. Do you understand? There’s no surprise here—we discussed this at length in our emails.”

Bella glanced at Hannah again, who chewed on her pen, a sure sign of nervousness. Madelyn must be referring to emails she’d exchanged with Hannah. A momentary urge to throttle her receptionist swept over her, but Bella remained in control. Barely. “Right. I just think it’s strange, that’s all.”

“Moving on,” Madelyn said.

“Can I see him?” Bella interrupted.

“See who?” Judging by the way she tapped her foot on the clinic floor, the director was getting irritated.

“Mr. Mortimer. Can I see what he looks like?”

Ellis juggled through the file folders and pulled out a photograph. “Here he is. Meet Evan Mortimer—billionaire. Must be nice, huh?”

“I guess.” Bella chewed on the end of her hair thoughtfully as she looked over the photograph. It showed a man in his early thirties with dark hair and cool, assessing eyes. He had a strong face that spoke of a sharp mind and decisive personality. He looked to be an impressive adversary.

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