Loren stood to wipe her hands off when a blaring truck horn bought her head up just in time to see a dark gray Jaguar swerve out of its way.
"Idiot," she mumbled, then sat down to pick up the wheel again. A few minutes passed with her wrestling to get the tire back on the rim when out of the corner of her eye, she saw the same gray Jaguar come to a stop a few yards away from her.
You jackass. You did not turn around. She refused to look up when the car door closed. I'm not some fucking damsel in need of saving"... you prat." She froze at a man's stifled chuckle. Did I say that out loud?
"All's well, miss?"
"Yes, everything's fine," she growled, not quite turning to look at him. "I can change a tire, thank you." Loren clenched her jaw, struggling to twist the last bit of tire over the rim when the wheel slipped, and the sharp edge of a wheel spoke sliced the base of her thumb. "Bloody fucking hell!"
"I can help," the man said, his voice coming closer. "I've got strong hands."
Loren stood to turn her glare to the Good Samaritan and her brain shut off. He was tall, and looked in need of a sandwich, dressed in a loose blue and red plaid button-down shirt and jeans. But, it was his bright blue eyes and wide grin outlined by a tight goatee she recognized immediately.
Oh, he's... uh. Her eyes slid away. Atherton. Graham Atherton. She blinked, recalling the handful of times she'd seen him in the coffee shop around the corner from her house. He smiled at me the last time. Oh my god. Say something, dammit!
"Uh, I'm sorry." Loren tried not to look at him as she stiffly bent to retrieve the wheel from where it had landed. "It hasn't been a particularly good day for me."
"I passed your mates a while back there. Not very considerate of them, leaving you in the middle of nowhere." His rich baritone mixing English and Scots accents hummed in her ears.
"Yah, well, it's not the first time." She flexed her elbow. "It wouldn't have been a big deal if I hadn't hit the deck earlier."
"Goodness, is anything broken?"
"No, no, just scrapes." She shifted her hip to look down at it. "Yah, a bit of road rash, no biggie." The angry abrasion on her outer thigh was visible through the tape holding her white Lycra shorts together.
"I'd be complaining quite loudly about that, not shrugging it off," he told her. Something cold and wet slid down her palm, and she held it up.
"Hey, you're bleeding!" He moved quickly toward her, causing her to let go of the wheel to bring both hands up. He took a gentle hold of her right wrist and lifted her arm to shoulder height, even as he reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief. She winced at him pressing the cloth against her wound.
"You needn't be afraid of me," he murmured. "I would never hurt you."
"I'm not afraid of you," she countered, the corners of her lips turning up slightly. "But you did. Hurt me."
"Oh, well, yes, but not on purpose." His pout held her frozen. Fresh air mixed with his cologne to compete for her attention.
"You smell very nice," she said, then cringed internally.
"Thank you." His eyes flicked to her mouth as she brushed the tip of her tongue slowly over the center of her lips. "I'll be certain to wear it around you in the future," he said.
"I'd like that," she replied softly. He leaned closer, and she didn't want to pull away. "Hi. I'm, uh..." Loren trailed off, forgetting her name in his blue eyes.
"Nice to meet you." His gaze swept over her face as he adjusted his hold on her hand, making her wince again. "Goodness, what's wrong with me," he said, taking hold of her uninjured hand as well. "Come over here and sit down so I may look at that."
"Oh, n-no, really, I'm fine." Her ears were burning following him back to the stone wall a few feet away. "I only need to get the tire back on, and I'll be on my way."
He looked unconvinced, raising a brow. "Are you certain?"
"Oh, sure. I crash all the time." She glanced away, crossing her eyes, but her reward was his chuckle as he released her hands.
"As you wish, my lady." He bent to retrieve the wheel. "Keep pressure on that cut, and you can tell me what to do." He sat down, patting the spot next to him and with a sigh, she joined him. With Loren occasionally pointing as she explained, Graham was able to put the inner tube back in the tire without twisting it and then the tire partially onto the rim.
She tilted her head. "Are you sure you've never done this? That was pretty quick."
"Oh, I'm quite certain" he replied. "I haven't been on a bicycle since I was in my teens." He bumped his shoulder into hers. "I think I just have a good instructor." Her ears were on fire as she bumped him back.
"Well, that's a shame. It feels like you're flying without leaving the ground."
"I would imagine it takes going very fast to feel that way."
She nodded, matching his grin. "Yes, or to be screaming down a descent."
"I probably would be screaming," he laughed. "I watched some of last year's Tour de France. Some of those descents were bonkers." She laughed with him, and they turned to each other at the same time. He winked. Her smile widened as she reached for the wheel he held.
"Here, lemme me show you how–." He playfully batted her hands away.
"I can do it," he grumbled and gripped the wheel between his spread knees, getting spots of sealant on his jeans. She bit her lip at his increasing frustration with the tire. "What the hell? One side of the tire pops off as I get the other side on!" With one last push, the bit of rubber slipped over the edge and he let out a big breath. "How do you do this in less than a minute?"
"They change the whole wheel out, not just the tire," she told him, grinning.
"Now she tells me," he muttered, massaging his palm with his thumb. She cleared her throat as she stood up.
"Now comes the real test, the inflation. So long as it's not pinched, it won't go boom," she said, puffing out her cheeks. They leaned away as she used a CO₂ cartridge to fill the inner tube, then both chuckled when nothing happened. "The wheel should go back in pretty easy." Loren held the derailleur arm down, slid the wheel into place and tightened the quick-release skewer. She then gave the pedals a spin to re-engage the chain with the teeth of the rings.
"There. I thank you, kind sir." She bowed her head to him.
"My pleasure, my lady." He stood and returned the gesture, then dusted his hands off on his jeans. She felt him watching her as she went about to pick up bits of trash she'd left on the ground and stuff them in the back pockets of her jersey. She turned, smirking as he quickly looked away.
"I'd like to thank you somehow for helping me," she told him. "You didn't have to stop, but I'm glad you did."
"I am, too," he said, then shook his head. "I mean, that's not necessary," He bent over to pick up a wrapper that had blown against his boot.
Her smirk dissipated. Right. What was I thinking. The darkening clouds behind his head caught her attention. "Well, I'd better get going. Those clouds don't look very nice." She picked up her helmet, then righted her bike, moving to point it in the opposite direction of his car.
"They most certainly do not," he replied. When she turned back, he had extended his hand to her. "It was very nice to meet you." She fumbled with her helmet as she transferred it to her left hand.
"Nice to meet you, too." She winced as his fingers closed around her palm. "Ow."
"Oh, sod it. I'm terribly–." He loosened his grip on her hand but didn't let go.
"No, no, I just..." They stood very close on the side of the road, holding hands and staring at each other. She stopped breathing when he raked his teeth over his bottom lip.
A passing lorry sounded its horn and they separated, laughing nervously and not looking at the other. He turned in a circle, running his fingers through his hair.
"I, uh, I could drop you wherever you need to go."
Her eyes widened. "You would do that? Uh, no. That's okay." She gave a crooked grin. "I'd lose all my street cred."
He snorted. "Alright then. Perhaps I'll see you around the coffee shop." She blinked at him. "I wouldn't forget a smile like yours," he said, giving a wink, then walked back to his car.
When Loren started breathing again, she flashed a grin as she adjusted her helmet then clipped her left shoe into the pedal. She pushed off with her right foot, and as the bike rolled down the lane, she swung her leg over the seat in a smooth motion and accelerated away. A few miles down the road, however, she had to stop to settle herself.
That was fucking Graham Atherton. How many times have I watched both Crusade of the Gods films or that King Philip miniseries? She closed her eyes with a groan. What the hell was I thinking, asking him out? He's fucking famous! She held her breath for a second. He recognized me. He actually recognized me. Her thoughts took off on their own ride but she reined them in hard.
Don't be an idiot. Just get back to the center. Then, a drop of water hit her amber sunglasses. "Oh, fuck."
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