Coast-to-Coast Hot Air Balloon Race – three days before race
Location: Barstow, CA
No one should have to stoop to asking a loathsome man for a favor, yet Emily Kerr was desperate. She paused at the double glass doors and smoothed a damp palm down her blue blazer for the umpteenth time. This was her last-ditch effort.
Three days from now she’d be out of time and out of the race. She might despise Reid Martin, but she had no other choice. Her ex-boyfriend had blackballed her with every other possible sponsor in town. The only reason she didn’t think he approached Engineered Materials in Barstow, California, was because he knew how she felt about the company and its owner.
Despite her desperation, it still went against her grain to humble herself to Reid Martin, but she would. She must convince him to help. Her chance to prove herself, her livelihood, and her future rode on this meeting.
It hadn’t taken but her first flight for her to fall in love with ballooning. The freedom, the romance, the serenity of being in the sky calmed her heart. She loved the idea of sharing her enthusiasm for hot air ballooning with others. That’s why she wanted to start her own ballooning business. Now was the time. A piece of land had become available that would be perfect for landing and taking off. She could use it as well as lease it out to other balloonist in the area. As her business grew, she would hire more balloonist. She saw the sky as the limit. But she had to have the prize money from the balloon race to make that happen. It all depended on securing a sponsor.
Emily took a deep breath and let it out bit by bit to settle her nerves. She couldn’t let her prepared speech sound as frantic as she felt.
Securing the folder with support papers under her arm, Emily entered the simple, warehouse-style building. No one sat behind the reception desk in the small area, but a door stood ajar just beyond. Stepping to it, she tapped. A tall man with a tech pad in his hand looked up from where he stood behind an oak desk that dominated the room. “Mr. Martin?”
Her eyes widened. Mouth went dry. No way could this be the same Reid Martin who had fired her father? This man wasn’t more than thirty-four or thirty-five years old and movie-star gorgeous. She couldn’t help but stare. Tall, athletic looking with thick hair and bedroom eyes. He wasn’t anything she’d expected. If she’d met him at a bar, she would’ve flirted with him.
If he had been the one to let her father go, he must’ve been fresh out of college. Her father had said the company had been around for a long time, so she’d assumed the owner would be much older. She had to forget about the tingle descending her spine and her skin flushing over the guy. He’d destroyed her father. Still the temptation to tell Mr. Martin what she thought about what he’d done to her family was strong. But she wouldn’t – she needed him on her side. Maybe later.
The man’s well-shaped brows rose in question. “Yes, I’m Reid Martin.”
His eyes were a vivid blue like a clear summer’s day made brighter by the warm tan of his skin. Couple with his trim muscular stature he must spend a great deal of time outside. If she hadn’t been so disgusted by the idea that she had to ask for his help she might act on her attraction but right now she needed to focus.
“Ms…hum…” He glanced down to his desk “…Kerr.”
He dropped the papers on the desk, stretched his arm across the file strewn area, and offered his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
With her hand surrounded by his larger one, she met his firm grip with one of her own. A sizzle of awareness rippled through her but Emily shoved it away. She pulled her fingers free. The roughness of his palm said he did more than sit behind a desk. There was more to this man than the typical paper pusher.
“Thank you for seeing me.” She gave the office a cursory glance. It wasn’t impressive in size or tidiness. Emily believed in everything in its place. She like her world organized and firmly in her control. Maybe that was why she loved piloting a balloon so much. Everything had to be just so for flight safety.
“Kerr? That name sounds familiar.”
“My father worked for you for twenty years.” She didn’t attempt to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
He glanced up. “I remember now. Nice fellow.”
A flicker of emotion filled his eyes and quickly disappeared. Was that all he remembered? Not how he’d pushed her dad out just before he’d qualify for retirement. Did he have any idea how devastating that loss had been for her proud parent?
She and her brothers had watched the sturdy man they admired fall into the depths of despair over having to take a menial job to provide for his family. Her mother had returned to work after being at home for years. Household finances had become so difficult at one point that even Emily and her brothers had to help contribute to the household bills.
“What can I do for you?” Mr. Martin asked with a distracted air as he gestured toward a chair in front of the desk. He sat in the large black one behind him.
He seemed as disinterested in her issue as he had been in her dad. Pushing negative thoughts away, Emily perched on the edge of the functional chair. She cleared her throat. Here goes everything. “I’ve a business deal which I think’ll be to our mutual benefit.”
His attention became fixed on her. His look implied her statement might have come out sounding more suggestive than she’d intended. Tempted to squirm, she swallowed hard not allowing herself the movement. Emily had no doubt the man could be unrelenting when necessary. It irritated her that he could rattle her. Her ex-boyfriend and boss, Brian had certainly mastered having control over her. But no more.
She’d shared her dream of owning her own ballooning business with Brian. When she’d seen this race advertised, she’d planned to prove her piloting skills during the race and come out with enough winnings to start her business. At first Brian had been supportive, until he wasn’t. He investigated the race and the earnings then decided she wasn’t a good enough pilot, and he should be the one to enter. She could go along as part of his team as she’d always done.
Emily knew it was time to break away from Brian, where ballooning was concerned and her day job as well. This race was the big one. The one with the largest prize money. Enough to help get her what she wanted, repay her parents, and move her toward her dream. She couldn’t give that up just because of Brian.
She squared her shoulders. Scooting further back in the chair, she gripped the folder tighter. “I’m looking for a sponsor for the Coast-to-Coast Hot Air Balloon Race. I estimate that it would cost not more than $7,500.”
Mr. Martin whistled. “That’s pretty steep.”
“If you agree, I’ll place the Engineered Materials name on my balloon and use its name at every opportunity to promote your company in exchange for your sponsorship.”
She handed the folder to him. “This is a cost break down in detail of where the money would be spent. Of course, I’ll supply receipts.”
Mr. Martin took the folder from her. His voice held skepticism when he said, “A hot air balloon race?”
“Yes. I’m a pilot,” she pushed on. “The race consists of ten flights in ten different cities across the US. It starts this Saturday.”
“Ms. Kerr, we don’t—”
Emily leaned forward putting a hand on the edge of the desk. “Please hear me out, Mr. Martin.”
His gaze found hers. He studied her a moment before he nodded his assent. Had he seen her desperation? He struck her as an observant man who missed little.
“In that…” She pointed toward the folder, “…you’ll find a copy of my pilot’s license, photos of my balloon, a sheet estimating my expenses and I’ve included references. There’s also a mock-up of what your logo might look like on my balloon.”
“We don’t do…” He hesitated long enough to look at her again. After a moment he opened the folder, studying it.
She needed him to agree. If he didn’t, her dream would have to wait or fizzle all together. A race like this one didn’t come around every month or even every year and certainly not with this large amount of prize money. The land she wanted to buy would be long gone in a few weeks. It was now or never. She’d already quit her day job, invested her savings, her pride, and her future. With her family’s support but a fair share of apprehension, she’d taken her mother and father’s savings to buy the balloon and basket. They’d scrapped and saved after her father had lost his job and now they might be without their retirement money because of her. She couldn’t let that happen. Somehow and in some, way she’d return their faith in her and have the money she needed to start her business. She couldn’t think otherwise.
If it didn’t, she’d go back to working in the corporate world, under some other person’s thumb and doing what they wanted her to do. She’d be clawing her way back to what she really didn’t want but had to do to survive.
Had the plea in her eyes been that obvious? Even if it had, it didn’t matter now. At least he’d taken the folder.
Opening it, he flipped through the pages. “You came prepared. This is very through.” He pointed to a figure on a sheet. “Still this figure is quiet high for a sponsorship.”
Emily peered across the desk at the paper he held out to her. She’d made the amount high so she could cover any unexpected problems. Was it too large? Emily swallowed. “Yes. But I intend to be a thrifty as possible.”
Mr. Martin regarded her for a moment before he placed the pages back in the folder and returned it. He was saying no. Emily’s heart sank and her shoulders sagged. Where would she go from here? Nowhere.
Her father had been angry when she’d told him her plans to approach Martin for the sponsorship after striking out everywhere else in town. Had told her not to bother, that Mr. Martin was a tough man who would never agree. Her father had been right. She prepared to make a graceful exit before she burst into tears.
“I must consider my return on investment. I’m not sure it will be there.” Mr. Martin looked to the right. “Roger.”
Emily’s head jerked around, searching the room to locate the person to whom he spoke. She’d been so focused on her mission when she’d entered the office, she’d failed to notice the man on the far side of the room.
“Yes?” The man leaned out from behind a drafting table.
“Can I speak to you a minute?” Mr. Martin turned to her. “Would you mind waiting outside?”
“This won’t take long.” He walked around the desk and reached the door before her, opening it.
What was going on? Emily stepped out into the entrance area and the door clicked shut behind her. She didn’t bother to take a seat. Instead, she stood looking out the glass door into the California sunshine. Why couldn’t he talk to Roger after she left? Had she said something wrong? She hadn’t made it all the way through her pitch. In her experience, powerful businessmen thought they could be rude to everyone. If she had a choice she’d walk out. But she didn’t.
Emily jumped when the office door swung open. Mr. Martin, with his sizeable square shoulders, filled the doorway. “Ms. Kerr, please come back in.”
She studied him closer than she had before. He had a cleft in his chin that reminded her of her mother’s favorite movie star. What would it be like to touch it? Where had that idea come from?
Mr. Martin stepped back and allowed her to enter.
Moving past him, she glanced up. He had the height to go with those wide shoulders. Over six feet of it. She wasn’t a short woman but he made her feel small. That didn’t matter. She needed to focus. What mattered was Martin agreeing to the sponsorship. With newfound resolve, she didn’t plan to leave until he agreed.
The other man was still in the office, but he now stood beside the desk. Balding, with wire-rimmed glasses, he had a pleasant face. She gave him a questioning look which he returned with a lifted brow.
Mr. Martin raised his chin in the direction of the man. “This is Roger Clark, my chief engineer.”
“Hello.” Roger didn’t offer his hand.
“Have a seat.” Mr. Martin indicated to her the chair in front of the desk. “I think that Engineered Materials just might be willing to help you out after all.”
Emily’s heartbeat increased. She’d done it. She would be in the race. Controlling the urge to jump up and throw her arms around him, she forced herself to remain calm despite the rapid tap-tap-tap of her heart. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”
Mr. Martin put up a hand, “Not so fast, Ms. Kerr.” He pushed book out of the way and sat on the corner of the desk, one long leg swinging. “There’re two non-negotiable stipulations.”
Her heart fell. “What stipulations?”
“I want the balloon to be manufactured by my company.”
“You mean the envelope?”
He nodded. “Yes. The envelope.”
Emily wasn’t pleased with the idea of demands. She’d had enough of them. But did she have a choice? She’d hear him out then decide. “What’s the other one?”
“I go with you.”
Her look locked with his. “What? Why would you want to do that?”
He straightened his shoulders. “I think I should go along to protect my company’s interest, especially for that amount of money. I want to see that our branding is done whenever and wherever possible. Plus, I can protect my interests and showcase our product to other balloonist.”
That did sound logical. But seeing him every day? He didn’t strike her as the type of man who took orders, more likely he gave them. This was her race and she would be the one making the decisions. All the decisions.
Emily narrowed her eyes. “Mr. Martin, just how much do you know about ballooning?”
“I know what the envelope is constructed of and the basic physics of flying.”
She huffed. That was next to nothing. What if she didn’t agree?
There would be no race for her and no chance to start her business. Was she willing to give up everything because she wouldn’t meet two demands? Then again this was her race, her balloon. She couldn’t let someone else tell her how to run her show. She’d had enough of that kind of treatment. She wasn’t going down that road again.
“I already have an excellent envelope. I know what it’ll do.”
Mr. Martin shrugged his broad shoulders. “Take it or leave it, Ms. Kerr. My envelope and me or no sponsorship.”
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