Wheeler by Sara Butler Zalesky – Preview

Wheeler, just like its unique title and cover, was a breath of fresh air in the world of sports romance.” – Goodreads Reviewer

“The story line had it all – romance, jealousy, teamwork, rivalry, strength, weakness, and tragedy. With a little bit of Shakespeare thrown in as well!” Voracious Readers Only Reviewer

Wheeler put me firmly into that world and took me on one wild ride. I had no idea Women’s Cycling could be so exhilarating!” – Amazon Reviewer

“Sara clearly demonstrates her strong passion for cycling in this romantic account of one woman’s life journey. Meanwhile, highlighting her struggles, determination and perseverance…and throwing a celebrity babe into the mix, makes it that much more exciting.”  – Goodreads reviewer

11 June

Her elbow and hip complained at the abuse of moving but she got back on her bike to roll out behind the group. The pace soon ticked up for a couple of miles when her rear tire began to feel spongy. She stood on the pedals to get a look, and sure enough, it was flat. 

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” She pulled over to the side of the road, muttering curses in three languages.   

“I’d stop to help, but…” Cece pointed at the car when she passed. 

“Yah, thanks,” Loren snarked, then dismounted and removed her helmet, hooking the straps over the brake hood. A quick glance at the GPS unit on the handlebars gave an idea of her location relative to the training center. Wiping her forehead with the back of her glove, she squinted up at the cloudless blue sky. 

Maybe I should move. The lack of a breeze sent a bead of sweat down the side of her face. She stood on a wide gravel shoulder and away from traffic, but there was no cover from the sun. Opposite her, a small grove of trees provided a shadier spot. A car speeding down the lane quickly changed her mind. The driver seemed to not anticipate the tight curve and had to cut across the gravel shoulder to make the turn. 

Loren pulled off her fingerless gloves and shoved them into her back pocket. Strands of her hair tickled her cheeks as she bent to release what little air remained in the back tire. With a few clicks of the shifter and a spin of the pedals, the chain moved to the smallest rear cog for easier removal of the wheel. After loosening the quick-release skewer, she lifted the black matte frame of the bike to take the wheel off and a hot zing shot down from her elbow. The bike clattered to the ground while she sucked in a breath and shook out her hand.  

“I didn’t see any damn fucking squirrel.” Flipping the frame over to rest on the seat and handlebars, she removed the wheel and the items she needed from the slim bag tucked under the bike seat, then trudged over to the stone wall and sat down. Birds chirped overhead, chasing each other from branch to branch. The smell of freshly cut hay tinged with mulch wafted on the slight breeze, tugging at her memory. 

Smells like home. Shaking off the thoughts, she got to work removing the tire from the rim. After a quick inspection for debris inside the tire, she added a little air to a spare innertube with a C02 cartridge inflator before shoving it inside the tire without twisting it. The ache in her elbow and hand from just handling the spare tube was only just bearable. Putting the hard rubber tire back on the rim was going to be painful. 

Loren stood to wipe her hands on her thighs and stretch her stiff back and shoulders. The nerve pinch was coming from her neck, that much she could tell. She thought about calling her friend, Anthony, who was really more like a brother, but quickly discarded the idea. A blaring truck horn brought her head up in time to catch a dark gray Jaguar swerve out of the way of an oncoming lorry.

“Another idiot.” She picked up the wheel and sat down again. A few minutes of wrestling with the tire to get it on the rim had her swearing under her breath with the pain. Her frustration increased when the same gray Jaguar crept to a stop a few yards away.

They did not just turn around. Loren refused to look up at the thud of a closing car door, muttering, “Like I’m some fucking damsel in need of saving.” The man’s stifled chuckle stilled her hands. 

“All’s well, miss?”

“Uh, yes, everything’s fine,” she answered, giving the stranger the side eye. “I can manage a tire, thank you.” Loren continued twisting the last bit of tire over the rim and almost got it over when the opposite side popped off.  

“Dammit.” She stood with every intent to hit the Good Samaritan with a hard glare but froze like a deer in headlights at the sight of him. He was tall, and looked in need of a sandwich, dressed in a loose fitting blue and red plaid button-down shirt and jeans. 

Oh my god. Graham Atherton. Every single film she’d seen of him flashed through her mind, followed by the handful of times she had seen him in the coffee shop near her house. The last time was a few weeks ago, before she left for the Tour of Colorado when Loren had gathered enough courage to smile at him. She had nearly melted on the spot when he smiled back. 

Those blue eyes crinkled with the same grin, but now outlined by a trim goatee. His arm rose to drag his long fingers through his rakishly unkempt brown hair. 

 “I can help, if you’d allow me,” he said, a rich-toned British accent tickling her ears. “I’ve got strong hands. See?” He moved closer with his hands out and palms up. Loren stiffly bent to retrieve the wheel from where it had landed then cleared her throat.

Say something! But not something stupid. “Uh, thanks, but I’ve almost got it. Thanks, though, for stopping.” 

His smile grew, and she forgot how to breathe. “I thought I recognized your, um…uniform?” He gestured at her and squinted. 

She looked down at her jersey. “You mean my team kit?”

He snapped his fingers. “Kit! I’ll have to remember that,” he chuckled and glanced around. “I passed your mates back there, then I turned the corner, and here you are. The cyclist from the coffee shop.” 

She blinked. Did he just say… His expression drooping into a concerned frown shook her thoughts loose. 

“You’re looking a bit worse for wear,” he said. 

Loren flexed her elbow. “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Heat bloomed across her face when she noted he was actually looking at the angry abrasion on her hip. She quickly patted the tape back into place. 

“I’m fine. Just a bit of road rash, no biggie.” 

He gave a soft hiss. “I’d be complaining quite loudly about that, not shrugging it off.” His frown became more pinched. “Ah, your elbow’s bleeding a bit there.” 

She glanced at her elbow. The bandage had fallen off at some point and red streaks ran down her forearm. He reached for her then, and her startled flinch sent the wheel she hadn’t realized was in her hand clanking off of several rocks as it rolled away. Another hot flush hit her cheeks. In his hand was a white handkerchief. 

“Uh, thanks.” Loren took the square of cloth from him to hold it against her elbow, and in the minute of awkward silence, she tried to look anywhere else but couldn’t help herself. She grinned stupidly at him for what seemed far too long. A bead of sweat rolled down the small of her back.

Oh, god. He’s staring at me. A faint breeze caressed her cheek, bringing with it a hint of his cologne. 

“You smell very nice,” she said, then cringed internally. The broad grin was back, sending her blush to heat her ears. 

“Thank you,” he replied.  

She swallowed hard. “Um, I don’t need help with the tire.” 

“I’m certain that’s true, however, that elbow needs some attention.” He gestured to the stone wall a few feet away. “I have a first aid kit in the boot.”   

She backed up a step. “Oh, n-no, really, I’m fine.”

He raised a brow, looking unconvinced. “I’ll be right back.” 

Loren pursed her lips, watching him go to his car then come back with a small box with a red cross on it. He then claimed her spot on the wall and patted the flat stone next to him. Hesitating a breath, she joined him but didn’t present her injury. 

“How about I clean it myself and you can put the tube inside the tire there.” The smirk he gave was one she’d seen so many times before, but on a screen. 

“I reckon I can do that.” He opened the box and handed her a packet of towelettes. While Loren cleaned her scraped elbow, he quickly had the inner tube inside the tire again without twisting it. Impressed, she gave him a nudge with her shoulder. 

“That was pretty good. We should hire you for the team car.”  

“I am certainly not qualified for that.” He returned her shoulder bump with a little ‘heh-heh-heh’ chuckle. “I caught a few stages of the Tour de France last summer. Some of those descents were bonkers.” 

“Yah, some of them. Screaming down a descent, it feels like flying without leaving the ground.”

“I probably would be screaming,” he laughed. 

She then reached for the wheel he held. “Here, lemme me show you how–.” 

He teasingly batted her hands away. “No, no, allow me, please.” She consented with a nod, pinching her lips as he gripped the wheel between his spread knees. Spots of white sealant turned into streaks on his dark jeans. He let out a growl of frustration at the last bit of tire refusing to cooperate. 

Loren pointed to a spot near his thumb. “Hold it there with both thumbs, then roll it toward you.” He adjusted his grip and with one last pull, the bit of rubber slipped over the edge. 

“Damn, that was hard.” 

“Lucky for us, they change the whole wheel out, not just the tire,” she said and chuckled at his rolling eyes.

“Now she tells me.” 

Loren cleared her throat and stood. “Now comes the real test, inflation. So long as the tube isn’t pinched, it won’t go boom.” She puffed out her cheeks and mimed an explosion with her hands. 

They both cringed while the CO₂ cartridge inflated the inner tube, then chuckled when nothing happened. She brought the wheel over to her bike, held the rear derailleur arm down and slid the wheel into place. After tightening the quick-release skewer, a slow spin of the pedals re-engaged the chain with the teeth of the rings.

“There. I thank you, kind sir.” She bowed her head to him.

“You are very welcome.” He stood and returned the gesture, then dusted his hands on his jeans. 

Loren bent down to pick up her bike and helmet, a little nugget of thought grew, only to be smothered by doubt.

Oh stop it. He’s a movie star. You’re a nobody. “Well, I’d better get going,” she said, offering her hand to him. “It was good to meet you.” His fingers closed around her palm in a firm grip instead of a limp fish. 

“And you as well.” 

His touch was warm and dry, and a little sticky from the sealant. He took a breath as if to say something else but let it go, along with her hand. Raking his fingers through his hair, his eyes flicked back to his car for a second. 

“I-I could drop you wherever you needed to go.”

Her brows went straight up. “You would do that?” She coughed to cover her cracking voice. “Uh, no, that’s okay.” She then gave a crooked grin. “I’d lose all my street cred with my teammates.” He snickered, but his humor evaporated into an awkward shuffle backward. 

“Well, perhaps then, if it’s not too forward of me, may I ring you sometime?” 

All the blood drained from her brain. Loren stared at him, her lips in a small ‘o’ shape.   

“You’re asking for my phone number?” 

“Yes, but I understand if ﹘.”

“Okay,” she replied quickly. “I’d like that. For you to call me, I mean.” 

That gorgeous grin was back, stealing her breath. “Wonderful! Here.” He brought a mobile phone from his jeans pocket and swiped through a few screens. 

“If you would put your number in?” 

With shaking hands, she entered her number into the blank contact, added her first name, then handed it back. He touched the screen again and a few seconds later, her mobile vibrated in the back pocket of her jersey. 

“There. Now you have mine.” His eyes flicked to the screen. “I look forward to talking to you again, Loren.” 

“Me too, Graham.” There was a flash of amused surprise in his expression, and she took a guess. “You didn’t think anyone would recognize you with a beard?” His fingers raked through the scruff on his chin as his cheeks colored.    

“Ah, well, in London, yes, but not around here. To them, I’m just another brooding Millennial.” The sudden fading light brought their attention to the stormclouds gathering overhead. 

“Oh, dear. Do you have far to go?”

Loren shook her head. “No, 10k or so. I ride fast.” 

The smirk was back. “I bet you do. Stay safe.” Graham Atherton gave a wink and walked back to his car with the box of first aid supplies tucked under his arm. 

The growl of the Jaguar’s engine got Loren moving back to her bike. Her mobile buzzed in her back pocket again – a reminder of the unseen message, but she wasn’t going to take it out with him still watching. She strapped on her helmet then snapped her left shoe into the pedal. Pushing off the ground with her right foot to get the bike rolling down the lane. She swung her leg over the seat in a smooth motion, clipped into the other pedal and accelerated away. 

A few miles down the road, however, she had to stop. It was too good to be true, but a check of her phone showed a message from an unknown number. 

Lovely to meet you. We’ll talk soon! Graham

Her imagination took off on their own wild ride but she reined them in hard. 

Don’t be an idiot. Just get back to the center. 

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