Collision by Cassandra Carr

Chapter One

Standing just inside the door of the weight room was the most motley assortment of men figure skater Leah Fitzpatrick had seen in a while, and that was saying something. “This ought to be good,” she muttered as she wiped the sweat off her brow. Her manager, James Shortley, a flamboyantly gay ex-figure skater, was standing next to Rex Johnson, the head of the US Figure Skating Association. Rex was dressed in an expensive, custom-tailored suit, while James wore pressed chinos and a red and black short-sleeved button-down shirt with the top two buttons undone, exposing his smooth, shaved chest.

To Rex’s right were two men Leah didn’t recognize. The first was a hulking man, also attired in a suit which wasn’t up to the task of concealing his ample girth, while the other was a man in dark jeans, a blue oxford shirt, and a huge black cowboy hat. Leah cocked an eyebrow. Rex spotted her and motioned her over to the group. Groaning to herself, she slowly rose and made her way over. Why was Rex here? What in God’s name could he want?

“Good morning, Ms. Fitzpatrick. I’m sorry to interrupt your workout. Do you have a few moments to spare to speak with us?”

Leah glanced at James, who gave her a short nod. “Sure.”

“Great, how about if we go into the conference room down the hall?”

“I’ll grab a jacket and meet you in there in a few minutes.” As the men turned to leave, she said, “James?” He turned back to her and waited while the others filed out. “What’s this all about? Who are those guys?”

James looked uncomfortable. “I’d rather you waited to talk to Rex.”

Leah snatched up a towel from the stack on the counter and glared at James. “What did you get me into?”

“I want to let Rex and the others explain it. Just hear them out, please,” he pleaded.

“I’m not in the mood for games, James.” Taking a swig of water, she kept her gaze steadily on James, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. She’d been in the game long enough to know that whatever was going on, she wasn’t going to like it. Throwing her jacket on over her t-shirt, she started for the door, calling over her shoulder. “Let’s get this over with. I still have a lot of work to do here.”

James skulked along behind her and she didn’t bother to ask him again why the men were here – she knew that was an exercise in futility. Arriving at the room, she ducked inside and sat down at the small conference table, taking another drink. “I’m here. What’s up, Rex?”

“First of all, I’d like to introduce David Nelson from Nelson Motors.”

David, the large man in the straining suit, stood up and offered his hand, smiling. “It’s a true pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fitzpatrick. I’ve been a fan for years. You’re a beautiful skater.”

Leah returned the smile. “Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”

“And this is Aaron Jackson, the CEO of the National Bull Riders Tour, or NBT for short.”

Leah blinked. “The NBT?”

Aaron smiled, tipping his hat. “Yes Ma’am. I take it you’re not familiar with our sport?”

“Um, no, I can’t say I am.” Glancing over at James, she saw he was snickering. She was going to kill him for this – whatever it was.

Rex broke in. “If you’re not familiar with the NBT you probably don’t know that Nelson Motors, in addition to being our major sponsor, is also the major sponsor for the NBT. They’ve been looking at outside-of-the-box ways to get more mileage out of their sponsorship dollars, and have come up with an interesting idea.”

Leah didn’t like the sound of it already. “Uh-huh…”

“We’d like to send you on tour with the NBT,” David told her, his face splitting into a huge grin, as if Leah should consider his news the greatest gift she’d ever received.

“Tour? What do you mean, like perform at the rodeo?” She couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of her voice. These people had to be out of their minds!

Rex spoke first. “Not exactly. It would be wonderful if you could skate at the competitions, but we know you’re rehabbing that ankle injury and we would never ask you to do anything that would jeopardize your recovery. What we’re thinking is more of a promotional tour. You know – go to the events, sign autographs, take pictures – that sort of thing.”

“We’d like to cross-promote bull riding and figure skating, and build up Nelson Motors at the same time,” David explained. “Both sports are hugely popular, but their demographics are very different. However, we think there’s an untapped market of fans out there – they just don’t know enough about the other sport. So if the fans of bull riding get to know you, see how beautiful you are, and they’re shown some video of your skating, we know that they’ll be instant fans. And they’ll have Nelson Motors to thank for introducing you to them.” His head was nodding like one of those Hawaiian hula girls you see on the dashboards of cars.

“Well, I am trying to rehab my ankle, but I guess I could take a few days out and visit a rodeo or two,” she answered.

Aaron cut in then. “They aren’t rodeos, by the way, just so you know. These are professional bull riding competitions.”

“Right…” Leah slowly nodded. James was about to have an apoplectic fit and it was all she could not to kick him under the table. She was already planning her revenge for later, though. Sending her on a dog and pony show at a freaking rodeo…

David cleared his throat. “We were thinking about more than a few competitions, Ms. Fitzpatrick. We’d like you to go on tour for a couple of weeks.”

Leah’s head snapped up. “A couple of weeks? No way. Absolutely not. As I said, I’m in the middle of rehab – I can’t be away that long.”

“You can just as easily rehab your ankle on the road. Skaters do it all the time, as you know. And if you have any questions or problems, there are full medical and rehab facilities available at each event on the pro bull riding tour,” Rex told her. “It is a professional sport.”

Leah barely suppressed a snort. How did they figure getting bucked on the back of a bull was a sport? She felt her color rising as anger took over. “That may be true, but if I’m going to be running all over the country with this so-called tour and expected to spend all my time gladhanding rednecks who don’t know the first thing about figure skating, when do you expect me to find time to work out?” She leveled her best stare at Rex.  He may be the head of the Association, but that didn’t mean he could just run roughshod over her life.

The room had gone deathly silent. She looked around. James looked distinctly uncomfortable, Rex looked angry, David looked flabbergasted and Aaron looked, well, almost amused.

Oh shit, did I just call those people rednecks?

She turned slowly to Aaron.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean…”

Aaron held up a hand. “No need to apologize, Ms. Fitzpatrick. It’s not the first time I’ve heard our fans referred to as rednecks and it won’t be the last. I would ask, though, that you refrain from calling them rednecks to their faces.”

She felt the flush on her chest and face worsen. Never in all her years of professional figure skating had she ever said something so derogatory in public. Where had that come from? She knew better.

“We know Leah will conduct herself with the upmost in professionalism and respect as a representative of the US Figure Skating Association,” Rex said, a thread of steel infused in his voice, and Leah knew she’d lost this battle with her idiotic slip of the tongue. “Your expenses, along with a generous stipend, will be paid by Nelson Motors, and they will be in charge of your schedule, in conjunction with the wishes of the NBT. Any questions?”

“No, sir,” Leah answered. She was equal parts angry and mortified. She didn’t like being manipulated but knew when she’d been bested. There were times when it was better to simply do what you were told in this sport, especially at this point in her career, and now was one of those times.

“Great. Then we’re understood. We’ll let you get back to your workout. We’ll be in touch.” The men all stood up and began to exit the room, Leah trailing behind.

David turned to her. “I’m very much looking forward to getting to know you better. I know we took you by surprise today and I apologize for that. I promise to do everything I can to make sure your time with us is as comfortable as it can be.” He extracted a card from the inside pocket of his suit. “Please feel free to call me at any time, for any reason. Thanks for coming aboard.” He shook her hand again, and trundled off down the hall.

Aaron tipped his hat again, saying, “See you soon, Ms. Fitzpatrick.”

Rex nodded at her and walked away, leaving her with James. “What was that outburst about?” he asked her.

She rounded on him. “You’re fired.”

His mouth dropped open. “What?”

“You heard me.” Heading back to the weight room, she removed her warm-up jacket and headed toward the machines. She’d already lost time and would have to stretch out all over again. She was tired and hungry and her mood was crap. The last thing she wanted to do was coddle her manager.

“You don’t mean that. We’ve been together for six years, Leah. You’re angry.”

“Damn right I’m angry. You knew they were sending me to this circus and you did nothing to even warn me. I was so caught off guard I said the dumbest, the most horrible thing I’ve ever said out loud in my entire career, and now I’m totally screwed. So yeah, you’re fired.”

James backed away, his face ashen. “We’ll talk when you get back.”

“Don’t bet on it.” As she sat down and began to stretch, she hastily wiped at a tear that had formed in the corner of her eye. There was a reason her nickname was “The Ice Queen”. She was unemotional. She did not cry. She would not cry. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly. She’d serve her sentence for her stupidity, concentrate on her rehab, and get on with her life.

***

Brady Parrish leapt from the dirt, darted a glance at the bullfighters as they diverted the bull’s attention away from him, and scurried toward the rail. Jumping onto it, he turned toward the scoreboard. He needed an eighty-eight to win, and he knew he’d stayed on the full eight seconds, so his chances were good. The bull he’d drawn was a tough one, which would help his score.

Man, if those fuckin’ judges would hurry up already…

His best friend, Conner Raub, clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice ride, man.”

Brady didn’t spare him a glance, his eyes glued to the scoreboard. “Thanks.”

Come on…

The announcer finally got on the horn. “Folks, it looks like the King can sit high on his throne for another night.” Brady’s face broke out in a grin as Conner clapped him on the shoulder again. “The Rodeo King, Brady Parrish, has scored an eighty-nine on The Undertaker. Guess that bull didn’t have what it took to unseat the champion.”

Brady turned and swung his legs over the fence, dropping to the ground on the other side. He exchanged high-fives with a couple of the guys before taking off his vest. Grabbing his rope, he wound it around his arm and shoulder. Turning to Conner, he asked, “Wanna dump our stuff and grab some food before I pick up my prize money?”

Conner grinned. “Sure, as long as you’re buyin’.”

Brady snorted. Conner hadn’t finished in the money in the last two events, but was still ranked fourth on the tour – not exactly shabby. Neither one of them was hurting for money at the moment. Of course, if either got hurt or their luck turned, it would be a different story, but for the moment, at least, they were sittin’ pretty.

An hour later, Brady had collected his check and was about to skedaddle when he was stopped by Aaron Jackson and another man Brady didn’t recognize.

“Nice ride tonight, Brady,” Aaron said, pumping his hand.

Brady smiled, nodding. “Thank you, sir.”

“I wanted to introduce you to David Nelson, of Nelson Motors. He’s just taken over the reins from his father.”

Ah. Nelson Motors, major sponsor of the tour. Their name was plastered all over everything, from the boards to the riders’ protective gear. Brady held out his hand to the man. “A pleasure to meet you, sir. We appreciate the sponsorship.”

“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Parrish.”

“Brady, please. Mr. Parrish is my daddy.”

David broke out in a grin. “You make bull riding look like artistry.”

Brady laughed. “It’s certainly not artistry. More like my sheer stubbornness and will against theirs.”

“Well, obviously you’ve got stubbornness and will to spare then.”

“That I do,” Brady answered.

“I’d like to run a proposition by you, son,” Aaron said.

Brady’s eyebrows rose. “A proposition?” Normally he was a big fan of propositions, but not when they came from wiry men in their fifties. He much preferred beautiful brunettes.

“David is fixin’ to do some cross-promotion. You see, besides being the largest corporate sponsor of the NBT, Nelson Motors is also a major sponsor of the US Figure Skating Association.”

If possible, Brady’s brows shot up even higher. “Figure skating?”

“Yes,” David answered. “We’ve asked one of their top skaters, Leah Fitzpatrick, to do some promotion on tour here over the next few weeks. We’d like you to do some joint appearances with her. In fact, we’d like to design a joint promotional campaign. It’s kind of a cool angle, actually.”

“Uh-huh…” Brady prompted.

“You’ll never believe what her nickname is,” David told him, grinning like a loon. He waited for a few beats, and when Brady didn’t say anything, he began to chortle. “The Ice Queen! It’s perfect! The Rodeo King and the Ice Queen!”

Aaron looked sideways at David and then back at Brady. “David has arranged for the two of you to be photographed in New York City on Wednesday.”

“But the Wichita Invitational starts then,” Brady protested.

Aaron waved off his complaint. “As you know, if you miss an event because you’re doing something at the request of the NBT, your ranking will not be affected.”

“And as for the prize money you could potentially be forfeiting,” David continued, “We will compensate you ten thousand dollars for your time, and, of course, take care of all your expenses, including getting you back to Colorado for the event in Pueblo.”

“So you want me to fly to New York, take a bunch of pictures with some chick figure skater, and then do a couple of appearances with her?”

“If you wouldn’t mind, yes.”

Brady shrugged. As long as it wasn’t going to hurt him in the rankings or cost him financially it was no skin off his nose. “Sure, I’ll do it. So who is this figure skater again?”

David let out a breath and smiled. “Her name is Leah Fitzpatrick. She was the gold medalist a couple of years ago in the Olympics – a beautiful skater.”

“Should I ask why they call her ‘The Ice Queen’?”

“She’s a perfectly lovely person,” David insisted. “But people have said that when she competes she’s in this whole other world – she blocks out everything and focuses exclusively on her performance. Some say that bleeds over into her personal life, but I’m sure that’s just gossip.”

Brady nodded. He’d find out soon enough. “Well, I should be gettin’ back to my buddy Conner – he’s waitin’ on me.”

Aaron shook his hand again. “We appreciate you doing this. We think this will be good for both sports.”

Brady wasn’t so sure, but if Nelson Motors wanted to foot the bill for a couple of promotional snapshots, that was fine by him. He was used to catering to sponsors – you did what you had to do to keep them happy and then went about your business. “I’m sure it will be.”

“I’ll have your plane tickets and itinerary dropped off to you first thing in the morning. Are you staying at a hotel?” David asked.

“No, I’ve got my trailer with me. Cheaper and easier to travel that way.”

“Oh. Well then, where are you parked?”

“Out in the back corner of the lot. It’s an Airstream – can’t miss it. A classic.”

“All right then. I’ll have everything delivered tomorrow morning. You’ll fly out by noon, if that’s all right.”

“Not a problem. It was a pleasure to meet you, David. Aaron.” He tipped his hat to both men and made his way back to the Airstream.

Conner handed him a beer. “I was afraid you’d been dragged away by a hoard o’ buckle bunnies. Where the fuck you been?”

“You’ll never believe this,” Brady answered, as he lowered his weary bones into a lawn chair outside the trailer. Sighing, he stretched his legs out. “Feels good to sit down.” He took a long pull of his beer and tilted his head back.

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. Spill it, man.”

Brady turned his head to look at his best friend. “I’m flyin’ to New York tomorrow to do a promotional photo shoot with a chick figure skater.”

Beer spewed from Conner’s mouth. “A figure skater? What the hell for?”

“Nelson Motors apparently sponsors the US Figure Skating Association and wants to do some cross-promotion. There’s some figure skater whose nickname is ‘The Ice Queen’. They thought it would be real cute if the ‘King of Rodeo’ and ‘The Ice Queen’ got together and did some appearances.”

“You’re jokin’.”

“Nope.”

“What does this chick look like?”

“No idea.”

“Let’s look ‘er up!” Conner fished his Blackberry out of the pocket of his Wranglers and pulled up his Internet browser. “What’s her name?”

“Leah Fitzpatrick.”

Conner typed it into the search engine. After a moment he whistled. “Uh, buddy, I hate to tell you this, but this ‘Ice Queen’ is a big fuckin’ deal in figure skatin’.”

“So?”

“So if she’s a big deal, n’ her nickname is ‘The Ice Queen’, I’m bettin’ she’s a major bitch. Probably one o’ them divas.”

“Maybe,” Brady conceded. “All I’ve gotta do is take a coupla pictures with her and then do a coupla events. It ain’t a big deal.”

“They payin’ you for it?”

“Yeah, ten grand just for this week. Hey, can you drive the rig up to Pueblo? I’ll meet you there after the shoot is done.”

“’course. Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,” Conner answered. “So, you wanna ride a coupla fillies?” He jerked his head, indicating the girls who were currently headed their way. “Looks like the pickin’s pretty good tonight.”

Brady grinned. “I’m always up for a little horseplay.”

One Response to “Collision by Cassandra Carr”

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