HOT IN THE SADDLE
(First Chapter only)
by Rob Preece
Copyright 2004 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. This work
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The meeting had started badly, then fell off a cliff.
Joli Start pasted on her best smile and tried again. "It will only be for a few months. Trust me, I don't want to be doing this any more than you do."
"Right." If way-too-handsome Max Sandow knew how to smile, you couldn't have proved it by Joli. "Neither of us want this, right. So here's a concept. We don't do it. Now get the hell out of here before I throw you out."
In general, Joli wouldn't have minded the idea of being manhandled by six feet of gorgeous hard-muscled male. The only way she was going to let this particular hunk rub her was the wrong way, though. And he'd done that in a big way.
"Why don't you let us run through our offer before you toss us out. We did fly halfway across the country to see you, after all."
Max ran his hands through thick wavy black hair, but the look in his jet-colored eyes said he was at the point of tearing every hair out. Which would be a pity. His hair was a little longer than she usually liked, and that earing would have to go but--Joli yanked her mind out of that gutter.
Max glared pointedly at his watch. "All right. You've got five minutes."
Joli stared around Max's office and finally found a small patch of desk that wasn't littered with empty coffee mugs, welding equipment, or bits of bicycle paraphernalia. It took less than thirty seconds to set up her laptop and projector and she flashed the first slide on the wall.
She and her friend and co-worker Terri had spent hours on the presentation. There was no way they could do justice to it in five minutes. Still, Joli let Terri go through the PowerPoint charts, pointing out the benefits of working with Start Bicycles, and showing the royalties that Max stood to earn if he agreed to Joli's unconventional proposal.
Joli was about to launch into her conclusion, a strong plea to help her save her grandfather's company, Start Bicycles, when Max glanced at his watch, stood, yawned and turned away.
"I gave you your five minutes. I listened. I didn't even interrupt. I did my part. Now you're going to do yours. Get out."
"Now you wait just a minute," Terri shouted. Her hands balled into fists and for a moment, Joli thought her five-foot in heels friend was about to attack the man. "We've given you a fair offer and I think we deserve the courtesy of some careful consideration."
"If I was the kind of guy who thought about things, I never would have given you the appointment in the first place. I've been polite and patient, but that's about to end. And don't make a fist in my presence unless you intend to use it."
Joli wrapped her arms around her friend and half-dragged her out of Max's office. A decade before, when Max had been king of the sprinters and dominated professional bicycling, he'd had a reputation as a man who never backed down from a fight. Although she'd never heard of him fighting a woman, Joli wouldn't put it past him. The funny thing was, she suspected he really did think he'd been patient and polite. Talk about a tenuous connection with reality.
"Come on, Terri. This was a bad idea from the start."
"Now that's the first intelligent thing either of you has said since you got there." Max's voice was a deep-pitched drawl with just the slightest hint of a southern accent.
"Screw you and the horse you rode in on," Terri shouted.
"Shut up," Joli hissed. "Do you really want to keep on
talking to this jerk?"
Terri ranted for the first ten minutes as they drove back to the Austin, Texas hotel where they would spend the night. The trip hadn't been a total bust--they'd had the chance to meet with their Texas distributors and pitch the following year's Start Bicycle Company designs--but Joli couldn't wait to get back home to San Jose, California.
"So, what are we going to do?" Terri asked when Joli pulled into the Marriott parking lot.
"I'll just train myself. I mean, I've been hanging around bikes my whole life. You don't seriously think I need some jerk to tell me how to clip my feet into a pedal system, do you?"
Terri didn't look convinced. "Your cousin Tyler has been hanging around bikes all his life too. He won the Santa Rosa Triathelon last month, and he's got two members of Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Team working with him. So, yeah, I think you need Max."
Joli shifted into park, set the emergency brake, and flicked the automatic door locks open. "Well, we don't have him. So what's plan B."
"Plan B is you lose, honey. Which means that your jerky cousin takes over, fires your butt, and sells Start Bicycling to the highest bidder. Probably some company in China that will take the brand and use it to produce a bunch of cheap trash-bikes."
Terri reached into the back seat for her laptop computer and the portable projector and stood, straightening out the charcoal gray business suit she'd worn for the meeting with Max. Terri was right, Max had been their best hope.
It wasn't as if Joli would go hungry even if she lost her job. Still, she had fought for this chance, insisting that a woman was as good as a man, pushing her grandfather to be fair, to give her a chance. He had, and now she was going to blow it. All because one jerk, Max Sandow, wouldn't even give her a fair hearing.
"There are other coaches," Joli reminded her friend.
"I guess," Terri agreed. "I mean, who knows. Maybe Tyler will break his leg or something."
Which was about what it would take for Joli to win this crazy race anyway.
Terri grasped her arm. "Hey, I was kididng. Women have the advantage over men when it comes to endurance. If this was a sprint, or even say a century, Tyler would beat you for sure. But a cross-country trek is over three thousand miles. You'll grind him into the dirt."
Joli forced another smile. "I guess I'd better." Joli wasn't the only person who would be out a job if she couldn't pull out a win in this race. Terri and their entire marketing department would probably join her in the unemployment line. They'd had too many confrontations with Tyler to believe he would keep anyone from her team on.
Max had earned his reputation as a miracle worker, turning around one of the worst teams in history into Tour de France champions, then taking another bad team and doing the same thing. If anyone could help her, it would be Max. The only problem was, he wouldn't even talk to her.
"We really do need Max, don't we?" Joli finally concluded.
"We've got to do something," Terri urged. "Maybe we could hold him up or something. Ambush him."
Joli couldn't help thinking about those dark eyes and those strong muscular arms. If he hadn't been such a jerk, she wouldn't mind ambushing.
She tried to tell herself that his good looks had nothing to do with the plan that started to percolate through her mind--but was only partly convinced.
"You're right," Joli agreed. "I've got to ambush him. But somehow I don't think a gun is the tool to use."
"Want me to--" Terri gave a sexy wiggle that showed off curves way out of line with her slender form.
"Uh-un. He's got a bug in his butt about Start. Well, I'm the Start around here and I'm the one who's got to persuade him." Joli paused for a second. "If you want to help, though, why don't you come up to my room and help me doll up. I need a little more ammunition before I go back for the ambush."
"Hey, I've slept with guys a lot less attractive than Max Sandow." Now that she thought about it, none of the three guys she'd slept with had been anywhere near as good looking as Max.
"I'll bet none of them were as big jerks, though."
Joli wasn't going to take that loser of a bet. "Can I borrow that little black dress you brought?"
Terri nodded. "Are you sure this is worth it?"
To save her friends' jobs and her grandfather's company, Joli would be willing to do just about anything. "Yeah," she said. "I'll close my eyes and pretend it's someone else."
Max brought the hammer down on the extruded graphite compound he'd designed--and watched it shatter. Damn. He'd been sure they had the formula this time. In the business of high performance racing bicycles, a few ounces could mean hundreds of dollars, but an equipment failure meant nothing but a ruined reputation.
Well, chalk up another interesting failure.
"Got a minute, boss?" His partner, Bart Pierson, stood in the entryway to the shop.
Max nodded, then grabbed a shop rag and wiped off his face. The shop was always warm but today was a real scorcher. "I've got a couple of beers in my office."
The faintest hint of perfume still clung to the air like a memory that wouldn't go away.
He fished the beers from the mini-refrigerator under his desk and handed one over to Bart.
"Want to tell me what the chicks from Start wanted?" Bart demanded.
Max shrugged. "I guess word got around that Sandow Bicycles was kicking their butt at the high end. They wanted me to let them license my name again."
Bart took a long swallow from the bottle. "Uh, it wouldn't hurt to have a little more income."
Max shook his head. "We built this company out of nothing, Bart. After those doping charges, you were the only one to believe in me. But in the past couple of years we've started to get some credibility back. What do you think associating with Start would do to that reputation?"
Bart picked at the label on the beer bottle, refusing to meet Max's eyes. "They make some good bikes."
Max forced himself to be fair. "Yeah, a few. But half their line is made by licensees now. Ever since old man Start stepped back and started letting Tyler run things, they've moved toward the discount store market. Not that that's bad, I guess. It just isn't anything I want my name associated with."
Bart's phony smile let Max know that there was something seriously wrong.
"All right, give me the bad news."
"I just got word. The Belgian Bank team canceled their order. Start signed up to sponsor them."
Max rubbed his eyes. "Guess I should have wrung those Start female's necks while they were here, then. Instead of sending them packing with their tails between their legs."
"That one was a honey, though."
"Neither one hurt any to look at."
"I meant the Asian lady. Va-va-voom, if you know what I mean."
Max took a hit on his own beer. Bart was right, of course. Terri had been a doll. The other, Joli Start, had been a little too pale, a little too skinny. And he'd always liked tiny brunettes rather than model-tall blondes. Yet Joli had been the one that had sent his hormones into overdrive. "Well, we're not taking their offer. So we'll just have to find another customer for those bikes. I'll call some friends."
"Right." Bart finished his beer and stood. "Well, I guess I can stand another month where I don't get paid. Heck, my landlord would probably have a heart attack if I paid my rent on time anyway."
"We'll make this work," Max assured him.
"I hope so." He tossed the empty in the trash. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow."
Max picked up the phone. He needed to move some product. It wasn't fair to Bart to make the poor guy worry about his next paycheck. Too bad those Start women hadn't been able to offer anything interesting.
An hour later, Max had run out of people to call and had sold a grand total of one bike. His friendly banker would float him a loan on the receivable and he'd be able to pay Bart something--at least enough for his apartment. But if Max didn't figure out something during the month, he would be out of business. Damn. That Belgian deal had been a real coup. The publicity alone would have been worth millions and the order would have paid to expand his plant, hire a couple more techs, and really go after Start for the high end of the racing market.
Well, all that would happen eventually. The Belgian thing was just a delay. He stood, stretched, and took a deep breath.
The perfume that Joli Start had worn still lingered in the air. In fact, it seemed to be getting stronger.
"You're working late, big guy."
Joli was wrapped in some black outfit that plunged in front, had a cutout that showed a surprisingly cute belly button, and demonstrated a pair of legs that would stop traffic any day of the week.
His hormones kicked in a fractional second before his brain and he felt a surge of desire. Desire he ruthlessly suppressed. "What part of go-away didn't you understand?"
"I thought I would sweeten my offer." She took a step toward him, swaying slightly as she walked.
His traitor body responded. What was it about this woman that sent his hormones into a eighteen-year-old state? He was thirty-five, for Pete's sake. He was supposed to be all grown up.
"I've been screwed by Start before," Max told her. "I didn't enjoy it last time so I think I'm going to have to take a pass."
He caught her slap only inches from his face. "You are quick, though. But I wonder if you can go the distance."
"I'm a woman," she told him as she wrenched her hand free. "It's men who can't keep it up in the long haul. Of course it's common knowledge that you're a specialist in the sprint."
He dropped her hand like it was on fire. "That's the problem with groupies," he told her. "If you take a lot of time with each, you never get through the line. Got to speed things up."
Joli went red in her face. From her faster breathing, Max knew that anger rather than embarrassment caused the reaction.
"You are just about the most arrogant, annoying, tasteless man I've had the misfortune to meet. It's no wonder you got fired from Start."
Max reached into his refrigerator and took out two more beers. He tossed one to the steaming Joli and popped the other with his opener. "Sounds like you need to cool down," he told her.
"Yeah? Well, you can just--"
"You were the one who came here and talked about
sweetening the offer," he reminded her. "You were the one who
implied that I couldn't make it work. You're pretty good at
dishing it out, aren't you. But you don't seem so good at
taking it. What's the matter? Poor little rich girl never
had a man who would talk back?"
Joli looked at the bottle in her hand, at the outrageous dress she'd borrowed from Terri, and at the floor. Pretty much, she was willing to look at anything but Max.
What had she been thinking? He had been a bicycle champion. He'd had women throwing themselves at him for years. Joli wasn't painful to look at, but she had never been recruited as a model, either. Whereas, a few years ago when he'd been in his prime, Max had been cover material for half the magazines in Europe. To her mind, he looked even better now than he had then. The faint lines near his eyes spoke of pain and experience, not of the cocky certainty he'd had years before. His smile seemed more scarce, but more precious when it came. Not that he'd smiled much lately. Of course that could be just a reaction to her.
Not knowing what else to do, she twisted at the top of the beer bottle--and sliced a good hunk off of her hand. "Ouch!"
"Oh, great." He sounded disgusted. "Better let me take a look at that."
It only took her a second to realize what a bad idea that would be. Unfortunately, during that second, Max seized her hand.
His strong fingers unclenched her fist, then he was all business.
He reached into a large first aid kit, dabbed off the blood with a Handiwipe, smeared ointment over her palm, and finally taped a butterfly bandage over the wound which, she realized, wasn't quite as serious as she'd first thought.
Her brain seemed to have gone into slow motion. All she could think about was the warmth of Max's work-hardened hands as they brushed against her skin, the way his dark tan contrasted with her sunblock-protected arms, and the warm fluttery feeling that had taken root in the base of her stomach.
Then he lifted her hand near his lips and blew on it gently.
Max Sandow was a proven jerk. He'd snubbed her when she had gotten herself into her most vampy role, and he was going to cost her and her friends their jobs. So why was this one of the top ten erotic moments in her life?
"Next time, you might want to use the bottle opener," Max told her, one sardonic eyebrow lifted slightly.
She pulled herself back to her mission. "Yeah? So there's going to be a next time?"
He dropped her hand like it had burned him. "I was speaking generically."
"I wasn't. I really need your help, Max."
He nodded, then went and sat behind his desk.
She pulled up a chair and sat down herself. The ambush had backfired badly and she was the one who had gotten burned, but the battle isn't over until one side retreats and Joli didn't intend to retreat again.
"Let's see," Max said. "So far you've offered me my own bicycle line at Start and your body. I'm thinking that the next offer is going to be a killer."
Joli wanted to bristle about his descriptions, but his characterization of her offers had been accurate, if unkind. "Why don't you tell me what you've got against Start? Maybe I can come up with that killer offer."
"You're kidding, right?"
"I know this is going to be a shock to you, but you aren't the center of my universe. I was working in the BMX bike line when your doping scandal broke out but I wasn't surprised when Start dumped you. What did you expect, kisses?"
Max trashed her bloody bottle and pulled another one out of his refrigerator, opened it, and handed it over. "I might have thought they'd listen to what I had to say."
"You know how serious doping charges are. If Start gets tarnished, it could take the whole company down."
"Trust me, I know that."
"So Start fired you? And you're still pissed?."
He slammed his bottle down on the table. "You didn't just fire me. You sued me for everything I had. Supposedly to repay Start for its loss of reputation."
His anger with her company, with her family, and with her made more sense now, Joli realized. Still, it would have cost Start millions to scrap their marketing plans, recall all of the Max Sandow bicycles and repaint them, and rebuild its relationship with the bicycle racing community. If Max was responsible, of course he should pay.
"Looks to me like you've done all right out of it." She waved her hand around his small factory. "I hear you get something like ten thousand a bike. That's even more than the top of our line."
He narrowed his eyes, then laughed bitterly. "You really are one of them, aren't you. I'll bet you think it was perfectly justified to go after me. Might as well rob the man while he's down."
Joli thought she'd been patient long enough. "All right, you've had a tough break. So what do you want me to do about it, cry? Well boo-hoo. If Start really did do something to mistreat you, you could think of my offer as being a partial recompense. Or would you rather just sit here and whine about how badly life is treating you?"
Max's eyes narrowed as he glared at her. His knuckles whitened around the beer bottle he held like he intended to choke it to death--and it didn't take a genius to realize who he was thinking about choking at the time. Then the bottle shattered in his hand splashing beer and blood all over the place.
"I was wondering why you kept the first aid kit in your desk," Joli taunted. "At least I know it wasn't for me."
"You've got a smart mouth, don't you." He wiped blood and beer off his hand and desk with a handful of shop rags. "And, yeah, I'm still mad at Start. They dumped me when I needed supporters. Now that I've got my head above water and have developed a reputation as one of the top bike makers in the U.S., you want to come back in and ride on that name recognition."
Joli gaped. "Is that what you think this is about? You think I'm trying to rob you?"
"Oh, I forgot. You're just trying to help those less fortunate. Call me Mr. Charity Case."
"You weren't listening to us at all this morning, were you?"
"Hell yes I was listening. Do you want me to feed back how many units you can sell and what that means at one percent royalty?"
Joli grinned. "Okay, our sales pitch was a little too
practical for you. You want revenge against Start. Well,
listen. I can give you that."
Max squeezed his fist against the rag he held to stop his hand from bleeding. "What are you talking about?"
"What would you say to a bike race between someone riding one of your bikes and someone on a Start?"
He yawned ostentatiously. "I'd say it was just another race. Unless it's critically close, the better rider wins."
Joli smiled at him. "What if the result was for control of Start Bicycles?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm sure old man Start would bet his company."
Joli hopped to her feet and paced across the room. Now that she wasn't being intentionally vampy, she looked twice as sexy to Max as she had earlier. Damn.
"That's exactly what he's done," she explained. He's been planning on turning over the company to my cousin Tyler but I got him to agree to turn it over to me if I could beat Tyler in a cross-country race."
"One Start or another. And I'm supposed to care?"
"How about if I ride a Sandow?"
"You racing against Tyler? Even on one of my bikes, you'd lose. Hell, you'd lose if Tyler rode an old Schwinn. I've seen him ride. He's not top professional quality but he's not bad either. And you." He let his gaze take in her slender form, the almost model-thin legs, slender arms. "A decent wind would blow you off your bike."
"That's why I need a trainer. A coach."
"You need a miracle worker."
Joli smiled. "Funny, that's what everyone says you are. So, take a chance. Work the miracle. If I beat Tyler, you can claim that your bike was responsible. And I'll give you the license deal if you want it."
"What about your body?"
Joli stared at the floor. "If you want that," she muttered, "I guess we can throw that into the deal."
Max wasn't used to apologizing but he realized he'd stepped way over the line here. "Sorry. That was uncalled for. I don't know what kinds of stories you've heard about me and I know that there are a lot of really bad ones floating around. So I'll just ask you to believe this on blind faith. I've never had sex with a woman who didn't want it and I don't think I'm going to start with you."
Joli hadn't taken her eyes off the floor. "Well, the offer is on the table."
Max looked at his watch and was surprised to see that it was already midnight. Well, he spent the night at his plant fairly frequently. It wasn't as if his tiny apartment held a lot of appeal. Joli, on the other hand, probably left work at three every afternoon to socialize with the rich set--before heading home to the family mansion in San Jose.
He shook his head. They weren't talking about a romantic entanglement. This was business. And Joli was right. If he could coach her to beat her cousin, it would give his bicycles a boost that could leapfrog the competition.
"Let's get into details," he demanded. "When is the race? What are you planning on paying me? And how much training have you been doing up until now?"
Joli raised her eyes from the floor. "You're going to do it?"
"We're still discussing the terms."
"Ohmigod, you're going to do it."
Without any warning that he could see, Joli threw herself on him, her arms snaking around his neck, her uncovered midriff against his embarrassingly swollen arousal. He couldn't resist sliding his uninjured hand down her naked spine or savoring the smooth warmth of her skin.
"You won't regret this," she promised.
Max regretted it already. His body burned wherever she touched him, the perfume that had haunted him all day drugged his senses. Her pale blue eyes darkened as her pupils dilated. Her lips were dangerously close to his own.
Resist, he told himself.
He might as well have told himself to fly.
Joli brushed her tongue against her lips, then left them slightly parted. Her eyes drifted shut and she shifted her weight bringing her small, but perfectly formed breasts into contact with his chest.
The hard points of her nipples thrilled him with their obvious evidence of Joli's excitement. He wasn't the only one who couldn't fight the physical attraction.
He pressed his lips to Joli's and was surprised by her eager tongue as it sought its way into his mouth.
One of Joli's arms slid down his back to his rear, then pressed him more firmly against her body.
Once, years before, he'd spun out around a dangerous mountain curve and plummeted over the edge, falling hundreds of feet to what seemed like certain death.
Somehow, that day, he'd managed to keep his bicycle between his legs and scraped his way down into a field--with only one broken leg and one sprained ankle to show for it.
He felt the way now that he'd felt then. Except then he'd been young, been certain of his immortality and invincibility. Now, he was certain of nothing other than that he had fallen over a ledge with no bottom in sight. This was one ride that he knew could hurt him, could destroy him, yet he knew no way to go back.
This concludes the first chapter of HOT IN THE SADDLE by Rob Preece. Want to read more? Click the Buy Now button and download the entire e-book for only a $3.50. And check out the other great e-books available on www.booksforabuck.com.