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Amalia Catalon set the coffee tray down on the low table between the sofa and the visitor chairs. The two men were in deep discussion, hardly noticing her. She stepped back, wondering if her boss needed anything else. A quick glance out the window showed the storm that had been threatening had arrived. Sheets of rain slid down the windows. It was so overcast it looked like dusk, though it was only late afternoon. She could hardly see the sea. Sighing softly, she regretted the wet walk she would have to take to get the bus and then again after her stop for the three blocks to the flat. She'd be soaked and cold by the time she reached home tonight.
Still, it couldn't be helped. She had an umbrella, but the way the wind was driving the rain, she knew it would offer little shelter.
"Ha, in your dreams," Stefano Vicente said, laughing sardonically at something his business rival had said.
Amalia turned to look at Rafael Sandoval. What had he said to cause her boss's outburst? Not that Stefano Vicente was the most complacent man. She'd worked for his firm more than seven years, and the last three of those for the head man himself. She knew how quickly he flew off the handle if aggravated.
"Care to wager fifty grand on it?" Rafael asked easily. He leaned back casually in the chair, watching his rival with calculating eyes. Amalia moved back a bit, preparing to leave, watching Rafael Sandoval warily. Despite being a trust-fund baby, Rafael had developed a thriving import-export business that was a major player in the Mediterranean area and was now moving globally, with offices around the world. He worked hard and played hard. Young to have achieved so much, he had the arrogance that went with amazing success. When he walked into the office, she always felt a bit in awe. He wasted no time with chitchat with a lowly employee. He knew his worth, and his time was valuable. Still, twice over the past several months she'd caught him studying her. When she'd met his gaze, he'd winked and looked away.
She watched him every chance she got—he was mesmerizing, fascinating. But if ever he caught her staring at him, she would be mortified.
"You're on. And I'll delight in taking your check," Stefano replied with an arrogance equal to Rafael's. Amalia shifted her gaze to her boss. In his late fifties, he was always looking for new challenges to prove to the world he was still in top form. What was it about men that they had to constantly be in competition with each other?
"You're mistaken, it's I who will delight in taking yours," Rafael retorted. Mid thirties, and gorgeous to boot, Rafael Sandoval had risen in the ranks of important men in Barcelona with meteoric speed, which was why she'd seen him numerous times over the last three years. The only men her boss dealt with were the city's high rollers. She would also bet her last Euro that Rafael had never paid enough attention to her to recognize her on the street. A quick glance, eyes trailing over her trim figure, and then he'd move on.
Stefano picked up a cup of the hot coffee and poured cream in it, stirring gently. When the small ritual was complete, he looked at Rafael.
"You have only been ballooning a couple of years. You're a fool to think you can outrace me. I've been doing it for more than a decade."
"I'm a quick learner," Rafael said.
His easy grin captivated Amalia's attention. What would it be like to have him smile at her that way?
"Or is that your way of trying to get out of the wager we just made?" Rafael taunted.
"I'm not trying to get out of anything," Stefano protested. "It'll be easy money."
"As will the deal we're about to sign. You are signing, are you not?"
Stefano looked at the contract that lay on the low table in front of him. "Should I have my attorneys review it once more?"
"They've had it for a week. Nothing's changed."
"So you say."
Rafael's easy manner dropped in a heartbeat. He narrowed his eyes as he studied Stefano. He said slowly, "So I do say. Do you doubt my word?" The silky tone of his voice belied the anger that showed in the clenched jaw, the flashing dark eyes. He would not be an adversary Amalia would want.
Stefano shrugged and sipped his coffee. After a swallow that had Amalia wondering if he was playing with fire to delay his answer, he deliberately put the cup back on the saucer.
"I do not doubt your word. It's not a small deal that can be brushed away if it fails," Stefano explained.
"It will not fail," Rafael replied.
Stefano stared at Rafael for a long moment, then nodded. He took his pen and signed both sets of papers with a flourish.
Rafael wasn't quick to relax. Amalia almost held her breath as the drama played out before her. Both men had forgotten she was in the room. She dare not move for worry of drawing their attention. She wished she could just ease out the door and be gone.
Tossing his pen on the table, Stefano leaned back in his chair. "How about we make the challenge a bit more interesting," he said.
"By?" Rafael asked, calmly reaching for the pen to sign his own name to the contracts.
"We'll limit people on board to ourselves and one guest— a nonballooner—chosen by the opposition. I choose who rides with you, you choose for me. We each have a man on the chase team to keep the records in conjunction with the chase team. We compete in the daily events at the festival and then begin our long jump."
Rafael considered the suggestion for a moment, then with an obvious change in demeanor, relaxed, leaned back and smiled. "That works for me. You'll be so far behind by the fourth day of the festival you'll concede without the long jump."
Stefano looked at Amalia. "What do you think?"
She glanced at her boss's longtime rival and regretfully shook her head. Stefano wasn't one to concede defeat in anything. "It'll never happen."
"Spoken like a true PA, loyal to the end," Stefano said with a grin. "You're my choice."
Amalia stared at him in shock. "I know nothing about hot air balloons!" Only that they looked lovely when quietly sailing by, far overhead. And that it made her sick to even think about being so high above the ground.
"The purpose of the bet is to pit Rafael's skill, such as it may be, against mine. By each having a novice, we'll equalize the competition. One on one, so to speak," Stefano said.
"The Barcelona Balloon Festival will be four days of races and events. For us after day four we make a long jump and see who can get the farthest in a week. Are you up to that?" Rafael asked her.
She looked at him, feeling the full force of those dark eyes as he regarded her. She shivered. Spend eleven days with him in the confines of those little baskets that dangled beneath the balloons? Not likely.
"No. I can't do that. Pick someone else," she said to her boss. She knew nothing about the sport, but she knew she feared heights. To spend days in the air was more than she could deal with. Not to mention spending that time with Rafael Sandoval.
The man was beyond gorgeous—tall and masculine, his dark hair shone beneath the artificial light. At thirty-four he had no gray marring the rich mahogany color. His dark eyes mirrored his emotions—when he wanted them to. Moving from amusement to anger in a split second, he fascinated her when she was around him—which wasn't often, thank goodness. He drew her involuntary interest like a flame drew a moth. And she would expect the same results if she let herself be drawn in—instant annihilation.
He was one of the best-looking men she'd ever seen, everyone thought so. Especially the society photographers who loved to have him on their pages—usually escorting a beautiful woman to some high-society event. Of course they also captured him racing his yacht last summer and when he won the single-engine airplane race from Cadiz to Barcelona two years ago. He participated in a wide and wild range of sports. She had seen the spreads in the Sunday newspapers and read with fascinated interest, since she could claim a brief acquaintance with him because of his dealings with her boss.
But she had no desire to spend even an hour in his company. He was far too dynamic and flamboyant to have anything in common with her. He'd find her boring and predictable and probably amusing.
With all the adulation he received, he was undoubtedly self-centered and self-focused. Did he ever approach life like a normal person—with worries and concerns? Probably not. Having the Sandoval fortune behind him didn't hurt, either.
"Yes, Vicente, pick someone else," Rafael agreed, turning away from Amalia.
"Like the woman you're dating now?" Stefano asked sardonically. "Maybe I should. You'd lose track of even the basics with the charm Teresa offers and I'd win easily. But I'd rather have a challenge."
"Teresa would dislike the early hours and the discomfort when it's cold. How do I know a person of your choice wouldn't sabotage the race?"
"I would never do such a thing!" Amalia exclaimed, incensed. How dare he impugn her integrity!
He shrugged and took one of the contracts, putting it into his briefcase. "Second choice?" he asked Vicente.
"I'll get back to you."
"I think I'll ask my PA to join you. Helena at least follows the sport, though she has never participated in any events. I gave her a ride last year and she liked it."
"Send me her name and phone number and I'll talk to her," Stefano said. "And I'll have one of my chase crew contact yours. There will be no sabotage. He'll help as a regular crew member—only be there to verify the times and distances."
"Do we get rights of refusal?" Rafael asked.
"If both agree," Stefano replied.
"Then start writing your check," Rafael said, deliberately goading the other man.
Amalia thought about the report that still needed finishing. She didn't have time to stand around and listen to two very wealthy men talk about a silly hot air balloon race. The fifty thousand Euros they bandied around so easily would make a world of difference in her life. To most people's lives. To these men it was chump change. Betting on a balloon race seemed frivolous in the extreme.
"Maybe we should sweeten the pot a bit. Loser has to present to winner in front of the Barcelona Business Alliance at the next quarterly meeting," Rafael suggested.
Amalia looked at Rafael, seeing the devilment in his eyes. He was wild and daring, and she strongly suspected he loved every moment of this. It was obvious he never expected to lose; he rarely did. Not only did he have pots of money, he had the best luck in the world, if the newspapers could be believed. From learning to fly a few years ago, to deep sea diving, to this newest hobby of hot air ballooning, he loved to challenge himself—and anyone involved in the sport with him.
Stefano gathered his copy of the contract and held it out for Amalia. She stepped closer to take it and then retreated to the door of his office.
Standing, Stefano held out his hand to Rafael. "May the best man win, and I intend to!"
Rafael stood, as well, and shook his hand. "Prepare your presentation speech for the BBA's meeting. It had better be good, to wipe out the sting of humiliation."
Amalia opened the door for the departing man. When Rafael drew level with her, he looked at her again. "It's not too late to change your mind," he said. "Find out what working with a winner is like."
"My boss will win," she said loyally.
He shook his head and winked at her before walking past. She could smell the expensive aftershave lotion he used—something fresh and woodsy. Perfect for him. She felt the attraction that seemed like an invisible aura around him and for a split second she wished that wink had meant something special.
When Rafael Sandoval left her anteroom and walked toward the elevators, she turned and looked at her boss. While not as notorious as his competitor, he could still claim outrageous behavior and daring escapades that made the papers. How his wife stood it all these years was a mystery to Amalia.
She looked at her boss. "Can you win?" she asked.
"Of course," he said easily. Walking back to his desk, he looked at her. "But I need your help. I want you to go with Sandoval."
She shook her head. "I'm afraid of heights. Besides, what would I talk to the man about?"
He laughed. "No need to worry about that. He'll be too busy trying to outmaneuver me. Don't worry about receiving a pass from the man, you aren't his type. He likes luscious, sophisticated prima donnas, not hardworking businesswomen. The intent is to make sure he isn't getting help from a ringer."
Amalia shook her head again. She couldn't go off on a hot air balloon ride. Even if she didn't have a phobia about heights, she had work to do. Her brother to take care of. She'd have to find a way to convince Stefano it would be a mistake. He was too focused on the need to one-up Rafael Sandoval to worry about a mere personal assistant's reasons for refusing.
"I need to get the Tunisia report finished. And you need to think of another choice. I really can't do it." Turning, she headed for the door.
"Then call Teresa Valesquez for me, will you?" he asked. "I might get her interested. Maybe she would distract Rafael long enough for me to have an easy triumph."
Amalia nodded and kept walking. Teresa Valesquez was Rafael's latest girlfriend. Amalia had recently read about them attending a reception together. The accompanying picture had captured the worldly look of his latest. Her sleek, short blond hair contrasted so well with her dark eyes. The gown she'd worn was the latest fashion and had looked fabulous on her figure.
Except, would she still be around by the time the balloon race began? The one thing Amalia had noticed was how frequently Rafael changed companions. The balloon race was still a couple of weeks away—plenty of time for him to find a new woman and for Teresa to be old news.
She sat at her desk and looked up the phone number for Ms. Valesquez. When she was on the line, Amalia clicked her over to Stefano's phone. She could finish the report if she had no more interruptions before close of business.