Wheeler Series Book 1
by Sara Butler Zalesky Genre: Sports Romance
Loren Mackenzie is at the top of her game, leading her team of pro cyclists through the highs and lows of intense road racing in the European peloton. But beneath her cool facade lies a darker truth, one she desperately wants to keep buried.
A change in the management of her pro team brings Loren back together with a man she’d rather forget. His attempts to resume their relationship strain her leadership role with her team. When a mishap on a training ride starts a whirlwind romance with an A-list actor, the affair not only attracts the eye of the tabloid media, but also a menacing obsession.
Emotions run hot with each exciting race in the Women's World Tour, testing the bonds between Loren and her teammates. As she rises to the top, her successes add kindling to a rivalry, threatening Loren's chances to win the World Championship.
When Love and Obsession collide in the first book of the Wheeler series, can Loren withstand the storm, or will she lose all she has fought so hard to achieve?
Thousands of cycling fans had braved the cold drizzle to watch the second La Course by Le Tour de France. The women’s race consisted of thirteen laps, up and down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, from Place de la Concorde to l’Arc de Triomphe and back and scheduled to finish a few hours before the end of the 21st stage of the men’s Tour de France.
The riders all gathered at the judges’ stand to sign in and receive any last-minute instructions from the stewards. Each team was announced from the main stage and photographed, then released to head back to their ready areas to warm up for the race under canopies. Reporters and their photographers roamed between the team vehicles to take pictures and interview the women on their trainers.
Loren put her headphones on specifically to avoid being interviewed. She adjusted her mirrored amber sunglasses, catching a glimpse of Graham with Aria as they glanced in her direction. She didn’t want anyone to see the dark circles under her eyes. After returning to her room, she slept an hour or two before the nightmares began. It got so bad she stared up at the ceiling until dawn. I just have to suck it up. This is a huge platform for us, and if I can put on a show, it’s gonna be a big fucking show. She ate several caffeinated cherry cola chews with her water before heading to the start line with the rest of her team.
La Course by Le Tour de France
Paris, France 89km, 13 laps of 7km
The drizzle had abated in time for the roll out of 142 cyclists, but it didn’t make for better conditions. The peloton stuck together, keeping the speed relatively sedate for the first three laps, but there were still several slips to the road.
On the fifth lap, there was a crash of more than fifteen riders, splitting the field into two parts. Loren, Ashley, and Chantal were in the middle of the pack, with Ashley and Chantal going down as two of the fifteen. Neither they nor their bikes were damaged and were able to get back underway quickly. While it is a courtesy for the lead group to let up to allow those who crashed the chance to regain their positions, Ashley and Chantal still had to push hard across the gap to reconnect with Loren.
With forty-five kilometers to go, Holly Parker took an early lead and held on for a lap before getting caught. At lap seven, another crash took down Ingrid and Cece, just as Loren crossed the line to mark the lap.
At thirty-six kilometers remaining, the main group strung out as the pace picked up on the long straights with speeds close to forty-three kilometers an hour. Several riders broke out of the turn at the Arc, working together to build a lead that topped out at thirty seconds. Team GoreTech, with Samantha Sharpe at the helm, dragged the main field up to the breakaway.
By then, the sun had started to shine however, the cobbles remained slick, with riders approaching the corners with caution, and jump out of the turns. Loren and Ashley kept Chantal at the fore and worked with other riders to keep the pace high and further competitors at bay. She glanced at the group around her. Chantal is behind me, with Ashley ready to blow herself up for us. Two from GoreTech, one from PZI. The blonde from FusionTurnstep, she might have something. Loren drew her energy around her like a tornado funnel. I am the storm.
The peloton had just passed the Arc de Triomphe when Ashley attacked with Loren on her wheel, catching the other riders off guard. Shouts from behind told somebody going with her. I hope Chantal remembered the plan and is behind me. Felix’s voice crackled through her radio then.
“Stand by.” He paused. “Let up! Let up! There’s been a crash. Just hang on.” She eased up on the pedals, glancing around at the five other riders who were being told the same thing. She then saw Chantal wasn’t with them. Dammit. She glanced back. They’re not that far behind but once we go again–.
“Go! Go! Go!” Felix yelled in her ear.
Two riders took advantage of the hesitation and took off, with Loren hot on their heels, but leaving Ashley behind. The trio pushed hard to increase the gap to twenty seconds to take the turn at Place de la Concorde to mark the final lap.
Loren stayed just behind the other two, biding her time as the kilometers fell under their wheels. One or the other rider would glance back. She had little doubt they were being coached from their team cars on how to defend against her.
She sneered. I’m no rookie, ladies. I’ve got time, and while I wait, you two are doing all the work.She began to tick up her pace with the two riders responding in kind as they swung into the turn at the Arc for the final time. Felix was soon in her ear to confirm her strategy.
“Let them worry, mon trèsor. Let them think they can defend against your strength, then make them suffer for their arrogance.”
It is the ultimate game of bluff. If Loren twitched, one or both riders could be fooled into going early, or they could block her when she took off. But like the man said, if you want it, ladies, you’re gonna to have to suffer to beat me. All three knew the peloton was closing fast and they still had two kilometers to go. Loren watched the riders closely, looking for signs of fatigue: a drooping shoulder, a lowered head, ribs expanding quicker with increased breathing. Her eyes narrowed at the rider in the purple jersey. Yes, there it is. The PZI rider’s pedaling rhythm began to falter. If I swing out around her, the other girl might not see me until it’s too late. The trio passed under the one-kilometer banner, and the rider looked back at Loren. You don’t have it, and you know you don’t. I know what that feels like. She had already shifted into a heavier gear when Felix was crooning in her radio.
“Wait for it. Start your surge… GO, GO, GO!”
At 300 meters, Loren jumped out of the saddle and slipped around to the right of the rider in purple, committing every molecule of energy to cross the finish line first. Her legs burned as her muscles consumed all available oxygen, but she forced them to go harder.
It was close, but the white line flashed under Loren’s wheel first. She sat up and pumped a fist in the air.
“YAH!” The rider from GoreTech crossing a tire width behind, and they glided down the chute together to the roar of the crowd. “That was fucking amazing! You were amazing!” Loren laughed to the other rider, and she grinned back.
“Congratulations,” the GoreTech rider said, patting her on the back. “You fought hard for the win, Mackenzie.” A flush heated her ears when she saw Ulrik waiting for her. Loren rolled to a stop before him, and he held her bike as she dismounted. They embraced, laughing and patting each other on the back. He pulled away, his brown eyes wet with happy tears.
“You did it! I am so proud of you!” He hugged her again. “Gabi would be proud of you, also,” he whispered.
“Thank you,” she replied and held him tighter. Her teammates called out to her and turned to into their hugs or to them bumping helmets with her. Ingrid pulled on her sleeve.
“I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected,” she said, not even hiding her glee. Loren looked up to see Aria waiting and pulled a face.
“Aw, come on! Really?”
“Come, Loren. Your wee cup is waiting.” Aria waved to her, trying not to laugh.
Graham stood off-stage as Loren was announced as the winner of La Course and watched her make her way across the stage. She accepted the offered assistance to don the winner’s jersey and bent stiffly for a medal to be placed around her neck. As she turned to accept a bouquet of flowers from a little blonde girl in a yellow dress, her eyes flicked up to the side of the stage.
“Thank you,” she mouthed to him, and his smile widened. Loren gave the child a kiss on each cheek then raised her arms as the crowd cheered. Movement caught his attention on the opposite side of the stage. A well-built, dark-haired man in a red IDC jacket stood there, his intense gaze locked on her. Who is that? A young woman in a yellow dress and sash with Le Tour on it stood next to him, and Graham leaned a bit toward her. “Pardonnez-moi, mais qui est cet homme?”
She smiled up at him. “That is L’Assassin, Felix Lalonde.” When Graham looked back, Felix was no longer watching Loren. His hate-filled glare was firmly fixed on him. And so, the gauntlet is thrown. He leveled an icy stare at the challenger, every muscle in his body taut, his fists clenched at his sides. I will protect what’s mine.
In Darkness, There Is Still Light
Wheeler Series Book 2
"Atherton Leaves Her! Has the Actor’s Whirlwind Romance with the Women’s Pro Cyclist Run its Course?"
Loren Mackenzie knew the headline in The Sun was misleading, but the Elite Women’s World Champion cyclist still felt the sting. With her team’s season winding down, reuniting with boyfriend, Graham Atherton is tops on her holiday to-do list. But as rumors and innuendo swirl around the couple, secrets they have kept from each other shake their relationship to its foundation.
Her fragile confidence is tested when Loren discovers details of her relationship with Felix Lalonde were provided to the media. Still reeling from the headlines, a bittersweet reunion with someone she thought lost becomes the catalyst for reliving the fractured memories of her childhood. Resentment and betrayal only add fuel to the fire already burning in her heart.
All the while obsession and greed churn into a storm on the horizon, threatening Loren and those closest to her. When the tempest hits, what is uncovered tilts the axis of her world.
In the second novel of the Wheeler series, can Loren believe that even in darkness, there is still light, there is still hope; there is still love.
NEW YORKAs Loren dressed after her shower, her thoughts were occupied with what to tell Maggie about what happened recently. She heaved a sigh and glanced at her watch. Band-Aid theory. You can do it. She picked up her mobile to begin a video call while moving to the desk near the windows.
“There’s my birthday girl!” Maggie sang when the video connected, but her expression changed to a deep frown. “Are you alright? You don’t look so good.”
Loren patted her cheek. “I’m fine. Nothing a bit of tea and a soak can’t cure.”
“What happened on Sunday?” Maggie narrowed her eyes. “Is Graham with you?”
“He’s here. He just went downstairs for a minute.” She glanced away, shrugging. “And nothing happened on Sunday. It’s just the tabloids trying to spin something.” Her aunt’s expression didn’t change, and Loren rolled her eyes. “Leave it alone, Mags.”
“Uh huh,” she muttered. “What do you have planned for today?”
“Honestly, I just want to sit here and stare out the window.” She changed the screen to share the misty view.
“Wow. Is that Central Park?”
“That it is.” Loren turned the camera back to her. “Fortieth floor penthouse on West 63rd, courtesy of Benny Wallace.”
“Damn. Maybe I should find myself an actor.” They both chuckled, but Loren’s didn’t last long. “There’s something else, isn’t there,” Maggie said.
“I got an early birthday present. A letter from Aaron.” She scrunched her nose. “His name is Adam, now.”
Her aunt’s mouth popped open. “You’re joking.”
“No. I’m sending you a copy of it now.” She grabbed her tablet to pull up her email and after she pressed send, Maggie’s tablet pinged almost immediately. Her aunt’s brows knotted as she read and when she was done, she looked up with tears in her eyes.
“Maggie!” She put a hand over her ear. “My virgin ears!”
“Oh, stop it,” she laughed but let it fade. “He was in Philadelphia? Do you know what he’s talking about?”
Loren nodded. “Yes, and I was a little freaked out, but I had to focus on the race.” She bit her lip as she opened her email again. “I emailed him back the other day, and I just sent you his reply.” The bedroom door opened behind her. Graham walked over and leaned down to see the screen.
“Hey.” She gave a distracted wave as she was reading, then looked back to Loren. “O’Connell is my maiden name,” she said.
“I imagine that’s why he chose it, but I’ll ask him about that when I see him.” She sat back and pressed her lips together as her aunt’s mouth dropped open again.
“You’re going to see him?”
“I talked to him last night.” Her eyes slid away and she swallowed hard. “Mags, I’ve started to remember more and none of it is good.” She glanced at Graham. “We were going to meet up today, but I’m starting to freak out.” He brushed her hair over her shoulder.
“You have to do what’s best for you, love,” he said. “You can’t think about hurting his feelings, but I’m certain he’ll understand.” Loren worried at her fingernail before looking to her aunt again.
“I need to know what’s real, and he’s the only one who can tell me.”
“I know, kitten, and I’m sorry I can’t help you more,” Maggie said, then glanced at her watch. “Poop. I have to get to work, but call back later, okay? Randall and the kiddos would love to hear from you.”
“I will.” Loren sat back in her chair after disconnecting and stared out the window. Graham touched the back of her neck.
“You’ve got your thinking face on.” She gave a soft smile, then pressed her lips together.
“I need to be in control, and I’m not.”
“Loren, you can’t control everything.”
She shot him a look. “I know I can’t, but I should be able to control my reactions. With everything that’s happened… ” She sighed, and Graham put his arm around her shoulders.
“Darling, you’ve spent years winding yourself up so tightly,” he said. “You’ve been able to function, but I don’t think you’ve actually lived.”
She raised a brow. “And then you came along, and my whole world started to unravel.”
“You make it seem like that’s a bad thing,” he said, his mouth somewhere between a frown and a smirk.
“In some ways it is, but I think my remembering was only a matter of time,” she replied, making a face. “James told me I had to stop looking down into the hole I dug, because if I looked up, I would see how many hands were reaching for me, to help pull me out.” Graham reached for her hands and squeezed them.
“I’ve got strong hands, you know,” he said. “I can change out a bike tire pretty quick.”
One Fire Burns Out Another's Burning
Wheeler Series Book 3
It's the start of a new year for World Champion cyclist Loren Mackenzie and already, her luck has taken a nosedive. Tensions rise at training camp in Mallorca, Spain, with the arrival of team sponsor, Ryzak Sports. There’s something familiar about Maksim Ryzak’s charm, and while Loren can see through it, she can’t shake the attraction.
The Spring Classics begin with races in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, where rivals become allies and friends become adversaries. Loren is tested in both mind and body, but she is determined to prove herself worthy of being a World Champion.
Fingers are pointed at Loren when a reporter hints at her involvement in a doping scheme allegedly begun by Felix Lalonde. She denies it, but her fears that no one will believe her drag her down. When pictures of Graham with another woman are published by the tabloids, a match ignites that could burn their relationship to the ground.
But, as one fire is put out, another takes its place. Loren is still haunted by Felix, and it’s his voice in her ear in competition, whispering she’s not good enough. Even with her friends and family rallying behind her, can Loren free herself once and for all?
11 JANUARYNorthaw, England
Loren Mackenzie padded into the gourmet kitchen, and the view out of the windows halted her steps. Mist clung to the fields of the Ridgeway.
“Like a scene out of a horror movie.” She shivered then smothered a sneeze into the sleeve of her thermal so she wouldn’t wake Graham. “My head feels like it’s going to explode,” she groaned and grabbed a tissue from the box on the counter. Eyeing the canister of tea next to the tissues, she bent down to rummage through the cabinet in search of the electric kettle. After filling it with water and pressing start, she opened the enormous double-door refrigerator, jumping away when a can of Ryzak recovery drink fell from the shelf to land near her foot. The bright red leaping horse logo brought forth an unpleasant taste in her mouth as she chucked the can in the trash.
Another shudder went down her spine at the freshly-remembered photoshoot in New York, thanks to her friend and agent, Ron Hudson. Last night, he had emailed a mock-up of the new promo using one of the photos, along with a note that the commercial she shot with Jon Haskins, IDC’s men’s team leader, would be unveiled during training camp.
Loren heaved a sigh and grasped the lemon juice for her tea when her mobile pinged on the counter.
“Speak of the Devil.” Her eyes narrowed at the text. Nice work on giving cozy a new definition? She opened the attached photo and her jaw dropped. The grainy shot was of them kissing with his hand was up her shirt in what Graham had assumed was a hidden alcove.
‘Hunky actor, Graham Atherton gets cozy with girlfriend, pro cyclist, Loren Mackenzie while on holiday together in Iceland.’
“Oh my god.” She rolled her eyes and plopped down on a stool at the island. “Hunky? Really?” Her mobile buzzed another text from Ron.
Never fear. I’ve taken care of it.
“You better have,” she muttered as she typed.
You’re up early, Lancelot. Hunky? Are they kidding?
Loren smirked at his reply.
Late. I’m up late. TTFN
After a quick glance at the still not boiling kettle, she swiped through her photos when she came to a video of her best friend and teammate, Cece Taylor, skipping around on a snow-covered street. Loren snorted with the laughter in the background when her friend slipped and fell on her bum. I’m glad they came with us. Her smile softened at a photo of Cece hugging her boyfriend, Anthony Ainsworth, Loren’s pseudo big brother. She swiped the screen again and gazed at the face of a man with a grin much like her own. And then there’s my realbig brother. Adam’s jaw was wider and his eye color was a tinge more brown than gray, but there was no denying the resemblance in their dark auburn hair, high cheekbones, and tapered nose, including the sprinkling of freckles. I’ve missed him since he moved out, even though we text all the time. She and Graham helped him move out of the house on Vineyards shortly before they were all supposed to visit their aunt and uncle in Rochester for Christmas. Adam begged off, claiming something with work.
“Yah, well, if you went, you could have drawn some heat off me,” Loren told his picture. Instead, Maggie and Randall cornered her almost as soon as she and Graham arrived, demanding a more thorough explanation of the events surrounding the death of Felix Lalonde. With a sniffle, she shoved the dark thoughts away and started a video she took dancing with Graham on New Year’s Eve with Cece and Anthony in Iceland.
Twenty-four hours of darkness was strange, and the foursome found themselves in a nightclub at noon, then skiing under the lights at three in the morning. Loren touched a picture to enlarge it, focusing on Graham grinning ear to ear as he stood in the middle of a hotel room made of ice. He loved that hotel suite, but soaking in the volcanic hot pools was way more awesome. Her smile vanished at remembering how Cece and Anthony also asked some hard questions. It took several false starts for her to explain why she hadn’t spent more than an hour in the house in Enfield. They were visibly shaken when she told them about the tiny camera in the ceiling light fixture in her bedroom, and the one the police found just above the fireplace in the living room. Felix took my sanctuary from me. The soreness in her throat ratcheted up as her gaze went around the great room. A natural stone fireplace dominated the wall opposite her and before it, a nest of giant bean bag chairs, similar to the ones at Benny and Alejandra Wallace’s New York penthouse. An ‘L’ shaped sofa sectional took up the center of the room, surrounding a square, concrete top coffee table. The huge argument we had over that thing when I wanted to acid wash it like Claire and Jared’s kitchen counters but Graham wanted to keep it natural. A crooked smile formed, recalling how they made up on top of it. Her humor faded though, taking in the remainder of the room. The colorful Art Deco prints and heirloom dining set were things they chose together. I thought I could feel at home here. The kettle began to whistle and she hurried over to the counter to silence it. “Enough wool gathering.” She got up, poured hot water over a tea infuser in her thermos, then headed back into the bedroom.
Pale light filtered through sheer drapes over the glass doors on the far side of the room. A red velvet chaise lounge and glass top coffee table faced the outside, with more abstract artwork in bright colors on the dove gray walls. Further into the room was the king size bed, featuring a luxuriously soft pillow-top mattress, flanked by dark wood night tables with matching lamps Loren found at an antique shop in St. Albans. Then she drank in the man on the bed.
Still asleep and sprawled out on his stomach, he faced the doorway where she stood. Lopsided eyebrows. Perfectly straight nose. The corners of his full lips turned down in sleep. Sable brown hair curled at the ends. Sideburns melding with a close-cropped reddish-brown beard. Her gaze continued over his broad shoulders and muscular back, trim waist and hips, then down his slim legs that ended with his large feet hanging off the end of the bed. Graham Atherton. A-list actor. My knight in a shiny Jaguar. How did I get so lucky? He shifted, and his movement pulled at the white sheet barely covering his naked bum. Seriously, what if there’s a fire? Her giggle turned into a loud sneeze, and Graham woke with a sharp inhale, popping up on his forearms.
“Who? What? Oh.” He let out a groan and flopped back down.
“Sorry,” Loren murmured, moving to the bedside. He turned over to his back and yawned, causing her to yawn back. “Stop that!” she laughed. Graham coughed, then cocked his head.
“Why are you dressed?” he rumbled. “You should be naked in bed with me.”
“I have to see Dr. Pallas this morning,” she replied, tracing her finger along his shoulder.
“Oh right.” A familiar pinched expression came over him. “I am rather proud of you for sticking with it. I know it’s not easy.”
“Oh ye who only went to two appointments,” she teased, leaning over to kiss him.
“I know, but I’d rather talk to you about all my shit,” he croaked. “You understand me better.”
“She’d understand you just fine if you gave her a chance, but I get it. She’s my shrink.” Loren dropped her chin, her hair falling over her face. “Still, I appreciate you went with me.” He moved her hair to uncover her smirk. “But I’d rather be naked in bed with you.”
“Would you now?” he chuckled, pulling her down on top of him, only for her to turn away and sneeze again. He touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “Bless you. You feel a bit warm, love.”
“That’s your fault,” she purred and kissed him again. His hands wandered under her thermal shirt to touch her skin, making her writhe away. “Cold hands! Cold!”
Graham pulled back, frowning. “You’re not usually this warm.”
“I’m fine, really, but I do have to get going.”
He kissed her nose. “Enjoy the drive in your new car.”
“Oh, I will.” She shot him a grin and scooted off the bed.
“Ah, any suggestions on what to make for dinner with your brother tonight?” His question turned Loren around.
“Make whatever you’re in the mood to make,” she said, then pointed at him. “Just no cream sauce!” they laughed in unison. She started for the door but turned back to him, her smile gone.
“I love you.”
“I know,” he said, and his come hither look made her want to jump back into bed with him.
“Would you stop that.”
“Stop what?” His eyes narrowed further.
“Stop giving me the smolder,” she answered, clenching her teeth.
“Is it working?”
Loren folded her arms over her chest. “Yes, but no.”
“Damn bloody shrinks,” Graham muttered, and her laughter echoed through the house.
Out in the garage, the rising door slowly revealed a royal blue hood with orange and white racing stripes to the morning sunlight. Loren breathed in the new car smell sliding into the smoke gray leather driver’s seat of her Mini Cooper Clubman.
“My first new car.” Pressing the ignition button, the engine growled to life. She depressed the clutch, pushed the gear shift into first, then gave it some gas. The Mini jerked forward and stalled.
She pursed her lips. “Damn parking brake.”
Sara has never lacked for imagination, but it wasn’t until the Fates decided to give the string of her life a tug, bringing her romantic leanings together with her passion for the sport of cycling and Poof! A story was written down and completed, much to her surprise and chagrin.
She is a (self)published author of women's fiction/sports romance novels, The Wheeler Series.
The author resides in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, with her husband and their son. Sara is a paralegal for a law firm in Chester County, Pa, an avid road cyclist, and indoor cycling instructor at a national chain.