The 800cc motorcycle growled under Charil Ross, causing her legs and sex to vibrate. Breathing in exhaust fumes and dust, she gripped the handlebars with her leather gloves and stared at the forty-five-degree hill. The manmade dirt mountain had been rutted by the hill climbers who’d gone before her and keeping her cycle erect would take all her strength and skill.
But this was her four-hundred-foot-long challenge, and she knew the black and red beast under her as well as she did her own heartbeat.
To her left, a timer waited. Spectators and other competitors were everywhere, but only this man and the one with the stopwatch at the top mattered.
Smiling the smile of someone who knows what the hell she’s doing, she kicked off. The cycle screamed and bellowed, wheels biting into the loose soil. As the slope steepened on its way to a seventy-five-degree angle, she leaned further forward. Fought gravity. Fought the cycle that had turned into a raging stallion. This was about balance and sturdy boots and strong legs and arms, about not giving a damn about injury and practically fucking the machinery.
There. The top, the prize, challenge faced and conquered! Just beyond her reach.
Suddenly her rear wheel fishtailed, caught in a deep rut. Bellowing in determination, she clawed the ground with her boots and willed her cycle to keep going. Now the front end was threatening to flip backward but she’d expected this. Like a bronc rider forcing a stallion’s head down so it couldn’t buck, she settled her weight over the handlebars.
“Take that, you damn stinking pile of dirt! Think you’ve got me? I’ll show you! Show you!” Feel alive again.
“Hey, no fair! How can we compete with you?”
Charil removed her helmet, freeing the mane of dark shoulder-length hair, and faced the lanky young man who’d just approached her. “I didn’t complete my registration, which means my time doesn’t count,” she explained. “I’m just here for the exercise.”
“Well, you sure as hell got that.” The comment came from the lanky man’s companion, who was yet another of the countless earnest racers she’d met over the years. “Fuck, I never thought some little gal—”
“Not just any gal,” the first speaker interrupted. “Charil Ross, holder of the women’s world record for sanctioned hill climbs.”
Shaking her hands to settle the tingling brought on by gripping the handles, Charil breathed in the scent of her world. She’d been so consumed by emotional and legal matters over the past year that she’d only rarely had time to compete, but the love, the joy, the danger came rushing back. It wasn’t just the racers in their bright protective outfits or their made-to-go-like-hell dirt bikes, and it certainly wasn’t exhaust fumes and yelling spectators. Starting to return to life had given her this high.
“The promoters and organizers have put together a first-class event,” she said. “The course is a killer.” Her mind stumbled over the last word.
“Ain’t it though. I’ve been following your career for years. Even with you being away from the circuit for a while, you’re not going to have any trouble holding on to your record.”
“I hope you’re right.” Her response was automatic because although she owed dedication and determination to her sponsors, she wasn’t sure she still had the fire necessary to keep ahead of the pack of up-and-coming female racers. In addition, she wasn’t sure she cared anymore. Racing was still an incredible turn-on, but she wanted to ride against and with herself, to pit her strength and skill against impossibly steep and twisted tracks for the hell of it. Those challenges were for her, not the racing world she’d embraced for as long as she could remember—the world that had killed her brother and destroyed her family.
Fighting the weight of reality, she turned the conversation toward the two men she’d been talking to, and for the benefit of the crowd that had gathered around her. She asked how long they’d been competing, whether they’d gone to any of the established racing schools, what they thought of their bikes and maybe most important, how much they’d sacrificed for their sport.
As they and a number of others joked about how expensive maintaining their bikes, entry fees, and traveling to various races was, she acknowledged that not long ago her comments would have been the same. No doubt about it, motorcycle racing was an expensive addiction.
Unfortunately, the addiction had killed her brother.
No, she amended. An evil man had snuffed out a fourteen-year-old’s life.
Blindsided by emotion, she scanned her surroundings for distraction. Now that the competition was over, kids on bicycles were taking over the track. Families were everywhere, the casual approach to crowd control obviously making them feel free to duck under the caution tape that lined the course.
How that took her back to when her family was a vital part of this scene!
Not good! Think of something else, like how hot this damn long-sleeved shirt is, how you’d give a month’s pay for a shower, how much your shoulders and legs are going to ache tomorrow.
She smiled as a girl who couldn’t be more than a few weeks out of training wheels struggled to power her pink bicycle over a bump. Oh, yes, there was Mom beaming and Dad trotting over to lend a hand.
And there, standing alone on a rise, a big, hard man with too much black hair in a faded blue skin-tight T-shirt and even more faded jeans. He wore sunglasses. That coupled with the distance between them made it impossible for her to learn anything important about him. But there was no doubt—he was looking at her.
Fire licked her nerve endings. There wasn’t enough air in her lungs.
No, not just looking at her. His intense gaze moved over her body, lingered at her throat and breasts, took in her waist and hips, reached her crotch and stayed there. Saying everything and nothing.
Don’t communicate with me like that! You think you know what I’m about, you arrogant bastard, but you don’t! I’m stronger than you. Immune.
However, the wet heat between her legs made a lie of her protest. And as his study of her continued, she realized that something else was buried deep in his hard gaze. This was no chance meeting or come-on.
He knew things about her. Had things he wanted of her.
“Hey, where are you going?” an older man wearing a shirt with the word Volunteer on it asked when she started pushing her bike away from the crowd.
“Time to load this and get on the road.”
“No way. You have to stick around for the celebration.”
“Please, Miss Ross,” a female volunteer with him said. “The press is here. You talking to them’ll go a long way toward keeping this race going. Make the sponsors more generous, you know.”
“I won’t be getting any trophies.”
“But you could if you’d bothered to acknowledge your first-place finish. Hell, you’re big-time while the rest of us are local yokels.”
“And you’re good-looking,” a young woman said. “Hardly what outsiders expect to see when a hill climb competitor takes off her helmet.”
Not quite ready to commit to another teeth-clenching session with the media, she looked around for inspiration. The man with the sprayed-on T-shirt was no longer standing watch, which made it easier for her to see the truth about this hill beyond the city limits with a deeply rutted racetrack snaking down it like a Frankenstein scar. These were real people, ordinary people, men, women, and children drawn together by the love of competition and long summer weekends, the scream of motorcycles and dirt flying, an I dare you attitude in the air and athletes eager to take on the dare.
Hill climbs and other motorcycle events were more than blowing a wad of dough on a piece of two-wheeled machinery that no sane person could justify buying. In addition it was families bonding over a shared experience, hard-working people forgetting their jobs and bills, hot dogs and soft drinks, laughter and cheers, wrecking and commiserating, bruises and burns and cheap trophies.
In other words, it was her world.
Or rather, it had been.
A large red and orange tent had been set up not far from the finish line. It was crammed with people looking to escape the sun. A wooden box served as the awards platform. At the moment, the mayor was handing out trophies and ribbons and reading from a script about what it had taken to put the race together. He asked everyone to thank a half dozen businesses for promoting the event and the local hospital for providing the ambulance which, thankfully, hadn’t been needed.
How many times had she heard words like these? Had she once taken those images of fathers with their arms around their dirty, sweating sons for granted? What about the swaggering young bucks clutching beer cans as firmly as they had their bike handlebars and flirting with girls in short shorts, halter tops, and too much makeup? How could she have forgotten that?
Feeling too alone for her sanity, she wished she hadn’t agreed to stay. But she had, and not just because she’d committed to do what she could to help the event’s bottom line. A man was responsible for her continued presence—a man who hid behind reflective glasses while somehow giving out a message her too-long-alone body couldn’t ignore.
She needed to fuck. That’s all, plain and simple, a hot, hard, sweating roll in the hay and she’d be good for… for how long?
Was that why the stranger had been staring at her, because he’d sensed her sexual frustration and was willing to lend a hand, or rather his cock?
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the hoarse mayor said. “I’m sure you all noticed that a certain young woman blew away the competition. She paid her admission fee but made it clear she was racing for herself and not for a share of the purse. From what I’ve been told, she doesn’t need the few dollars we can offer here. She’s one of the top moneymakers on the pro circuit, and the top woman rider.”
I used to be, before fighting for justice came first.
“I’m proud to introduce our modest and unofficial champion, Charil Ross. Hop on up here, Charil.”
Not bothering to see if her racing jersey was tucked in, she did as ordered. From her elevated position of maybe three feet above the crowd, she had a clear view of the upturned faces. The mayor, with frequent references to what someone had written for him, clicked off a number of her accomplishments. She smiled and shrugged. All the time, she wrapped his words around her. Yes, she had done those things! Yes, she’d worked her ass off and risked her neck and every other bone in her body and had been damn proud of her guts and strength and skill.
In the past.
A microphone was thrust at her. Taking it, she took a steadying breath. Racing hell-bent for leather was one thing, public speaking quite another. “I need to thank whoever dug up all that information about me,” she started. “Damn. I was an overachiever, wasn’t I?”
“I’m not going to take up your time because it’s too hot and there’s beer and soft drinks waiting.”
More laughter. On a roll now.
“What I do want to say is simple. Have a dream. Every one of you, have a dream and don’t let go of it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s racing bikes or climbing a real or metaphorical mountain or getting all the laundry done, latch onto a goal and be as good at it as you possibly can. Share those dreams and goals with those you love—and listen when they tell you about theirs.”
Oh, god, there he was. Like her, alone in a sea of human beings. Glasses off now and revealing hell-dark eyes, thumbs hooked into his back pockets and hips thrust forward, shoulders too damn wide for any woman’s libido, a just try to ignore me bulge, unruly hair. And his eyes—black. That’s all she could tell from here. Deep. Probing. Piercing. Saying something to her.