Authors: Lyla Bardan
I shrugged and reached for the tire pump. “Whatever it is, they seem awfully excited.”
“A car.” Shannon made a disgusted noise in her throat. “What is it with guys and cars?”
I glanced again. The crowd parted, revealing a sleek, red car. A futuristic red sports car. A rush of adrenaline set my body tingling.
Piran strode forward, jeans slung low on his hips, sunglasses glinting in the bright rays. He radiated sex appeal like a modern-day Greek god stepping out of a Bacardi commercial. The twitters from the fawning girls reminded me of buzzing gnats.
The riders from Team Ibsy pushed their way through the throng.
“Hey, isn’t that your boyfriend?” Shannon asked.
Someone snorted behind me, and I turned around to face Caroline from Team Ibsy. She sneered. “Boyfriend? You wish.”
Laughter erupted, even from the women on the other teams.
“He really is her boyfriend,” Shannon said with a huff. “Tell ‘em, Bailey.”
A dark-haired rider, the one who had referred to me as an Amazon, body-checked Shannon. “Out of the way. You two are pathetic. Get a life.”
My teeth gritted, but my retort withered on my tongue. I had no intention of earning a reputation on the racing circuit as a snark.
Smirking, the rider thrust out her chest. “Watch how it’s done, losers.” She glided toward Piran, adding sway to her hips.
I didn’t break a sweat. She could be naked, and I wouldn’t give a damn, because I knew my Guardian Fae
didn’t give a damn. Other women would always desire him, but he’d chosen me.
His pace didn’t slow. In fact, he didn’t give the Ibsy rider a second glance, his long legs chewing up the distance between us. I gazed at him in rapt attention, my pulse quickening. The disbelieving looks and whispered denials around me faded into oblivion as he drew close.
He pulled me into his arms, and his firm lips found mine. Oh God, I nearly died. If he hadn’t been holding me up, I would have liquefied into a pool on the ground. His kiss left me breathless and greedy. If only he could transport us to somewhere . . . more private.
“Now, now,” he chided in my ear, the warmth of his breath setting off a rush of tingles. He leaned back, a crooked smile on his face.
Oh yes, he knew exactly what he did to me.
“The feeling is mutual,” he murmured, removing his sunglasses and resting his forehead against mine.
My heart rate took a quantum leap, and I couldn’t contain my grin. A grin he matched.
to be kidding me,” said a shrill voice nearby, killing the moment.
“I told you,” Shannon said, sounding indignant.
“What does he see in her?”
Piran stiffened, and spots of black streaked through his eyes. Uh-oh. He turned his head. “Ladies.” His voice held no warmth.
The Team Ibsy riders took a step back. Even the sun hid behind the clouds. He said nothing further, allowing his expression to say it all. The crowd around us dispersed.
After a moment, he returned his focus to me. “I am sorry I could not join you yesterday. I had a meeting with the director of a private art gallery in Canada.” His eyes brightened. “They wish to purchase several of my paintings.”
“Really? Hot damn.” I mock-fanned myself. “Have you heard? I’m dating the famous painter, Piran of Sava.”
His deep laughter enveloped me. “Sweet Bailey, I adore you.”
“I adore you, too.” I buried my face in his neck and pressed my lips to his warm skin. “You didn’t have to come down here, but I’m so glad you did.”
He cupped my cheek. “You need never cross the finish line alone.”
“Oh Piran.” My heart overflowing, I squeezed him tight. We could do this—remain a couple while I raced. Since I was joining the Lady Spinners in Colorado, I no longer had to worry about my former coach’s no-dating rule. Sure, the distance would be a hassle, but we’d have video chats, phone calls . . .
My eyes widened. “Where did you learn that word?”
A discreet cough brought me out of my giddy cocoon, and I glanced over my shoulder.
Shannon pointed to our bikes. “Come on,” she urged. “We need to warm up.”
After giving Piran one last kiss, I allowed my teammate to drag me away. She rolled her eyes at me. “You do remember why you’re here, right?”
When I winced, she laughed. “Can’t really completely blame you though. Your boyfriend is a total hottie. Did you see those Team Ibsy girls gawking at you two? No, of course, you didn’t.” She laughed again. “You were too busy making sucky face.”
“Okay, sheesh.” I ducked my chin, heat creeping across my cheeks. “Let’s just race.”
Best weekend of racing ever. After winning the time trial on Friday, I placed third in the criterium on Saturday and nailed a top ten finish in the road race on Sunday. And Saturday evening, while Shannon hung out with other riders, Piran gave me a full-body massage . . . and more. Absolute heaven. I couldn’t ask for a better boyfriend.
Sunday evening, Shannon and I packed up our bikes and joined Dylan, Sean, and a bunch of other riders at a local IHOP, the only restaurant we could find open. I thought all the bike-racing talk would bore Piran, but he obviously had been doing his homework, because he knew the names of the top pro riders in Europe and even discussed the merits of their teams.
It was dark by the time Shannon and I made our way to her car. As we stood in the restaurant parking lot, Piran and I shared one last amazing kiss, drawing cheers and whistles from the riders. I finished the kiss with a giggle.
During the drive back to Illinois, Piran drove behind us until he veered off for his exit. I thought the traffic north through Chicago wouldn’t be bad this late on a Sunday night, but highway crews were out working on road construction. The only time they could, I guessed.
Finally, we made it to my house.
Not even the porch light left on. Thanks, Mom. Fumbling in the dark, I punched in the garage door code and slipped inside. I stashed my bike frame and wheels against the recycle bin and unlocked the door to the house.
Faint light from the clock on the stove helped guide me to the kitchen. Almost. Bumping my hip on the counter, I hissed, swearing under my breath.
A door opened upstairs. Damn. So much for evading detection. Quick footsteps pounded down the stairs. Too quick for even Mom.
“Kelsi?” I whispered as a shadowy form approached.
“Nope, the monkey from the closet. Kelsi’s dead. You’re next.” She opened the fridge, and I squinted against the flood of light. “You were out late,” she said, selecting a basket of grapes. “Are these clean?”
I shrugged, and she popped a grape in her mouth. “Clean enough.” She closed the fridge, enveloping us in darkness again. I flipped on the light over the stove. No need to attract any more attention from upstairs than necessary.
Kelsi pointed to the pile of mail on the counter. “Sorry, I forgot to text you. On Friday, something arrived for you from the U.S. Cycling Federation. Looks official.”
“My certificate?” I’d been waiting for weeks for my certificate from winning the Chicago nationals race to arrive. I planned to enshrine that baby.
“Could be, if the certificate is small and made out of tissue paper.” She laughed.
“Shh. Don’t wake Mom and Dad.”
“Please. They spent the evening across the street at the Bronsteins. When they came home, Mom was giggle-snorting. She kept repeating some lame joke as if it was the most hilarious thing in the world. I bet she won’t even remember how many glasses of wine she drank. And Dad kept pawing at her. Eww. Didn’t anyone ever tell them that parents become virgins?”
I laughed, sorting through the mail pile until I found a standard-sized envelope with the U.S. Cycling Federal seal in the upper left corner. I picked up the envelope and turned it over in my hand. No heft. Just a letter.
“Open it.” Kelsi’s eyes shone in the shadows cast by the stove light. “Maybe it’s an offer to join the nationals team!”
My heart skipped a beat. Could it be?
I slid my thumb under the outer edge of the envelope and worked a tri-folded letter free. With trembling fingers, I unfolded the paper.
“Well?” Kelsi prompted.
My heart suddenly stopped. Ice ran through my veins, and the air in my lungs vaporized like liquid nitrogen.
No, no, no.
I must have read it wrong. But the page glared at me like a stinging slap to my face.
“What does it say?”
I stared at the paper in my hand, blinking several times, the words now blurring.
“Bailey? Are you all right?”
Kelsi’s strident voice pierced the numbness in my head, and I held out the letter to her. I watched her expression change as her eyes flicked from left to right, her lips silently moving.
She raised her head. “This is bullshit, right? Tell me this is bullshit.” She smacked the letter with her other hand. “You would never—”
“I didn’t,” I croaked. “Never.” My voice grew stronger with conviction. “I never doped, Kelsi. I won the nationals race in Chicago fair and square. Why is the U.S. Cycling Federation accusing me of this?”
Kelsi read the letter again. Her eyes narrowed, and she tapped a finger to the paper. “This says
, Bay. Maybe they’re investigating everyone on your team?”
Damn it. Because of Mia. Light-headed, I rocked back on my heels, trying to gain a semblance of equilibrium. This wasn’t about
. Mia’s doping had sullied the entire team.
Kelsi’s arms encircled my waist, and I realized how badly I was shaking.
“It’s okay,” she said in a soothing voice. “You’ll get through this.”
I grabbed my sister and hugged her tight. “Thanks, Kelsi. I really wish you’d been there to see me win in Friday’s race.”
“Yeah, me too,” came her muffled reply. “God, you need a shower.”
I looked down at her face squished into my armpit and let her go. “Good idea.” Pocketing the impending notice of doom, I headed upstairs.
Fresh from the shower, I flopped down on my bed.
Although late, I texted Shannon about the Cycling Federation’s investigation. She replied right away. No, she hadn’t received a letter. After a few minutes, she texted me that the three other girls on the team also hadn’t received a letter. The back of my neck prickled.
Just me. Not the team. Investigated for doping. Why?
Rolling onto my side, I stared at Piran’s painting, the wheels on my bike rotating in time to my ceiling fan. Calming, but not calming enough.
I shoved my pillow into a ball. Looked like another sleepless night.
Early the following morning, I dragged myself down the stairs and sucked down a badly needed cup of coffee, barely tasting it. Then I called Coach Vinson. I didn’t know what else to do. While I waited for him to answer, my fingers drummed a tense beat on the kitchen counter. Would he doubt me or did he already know about the letter? Was this why he was so keen on getting me off his team?
When his voice mail answered, I let out a sigh, although not sure if more from relief or disappointment, and left a message.
My stomach growled, and I paced the kitchen, periodically stopping to stare blankly into the fridge. But nothing looked good. Finally, I grabbed a cereal box from the cupboard and mindlessly popped a handful of dry Wheaties into my mouth, then washed them down with orange juice. Breakfast of champions.
Running a hand through my mess of hair, I vowed to put the doping investigation out of my mind. Piran was coming over in less than an hour, and the implied accusation from the Cycling Federation’s anti-doping agency was not something I wanted to discuss with him.
I jogged upstairs and jumped in the shower. Standing under the spray, I let the warm water ease my tension and soothe my muscles, still sore from racing. No way would I let that stupid letter tarnish what had been the most amazing weekend in my life.
After washing and conditioning my hair, I shaved my legs. A vision of winning the time trial race faded into Piran working his magical hands across my body. Taking his sweet time. Torturing me. Damn, that boy knew how to—
Ow! I glanced down. Blood dripped from a shaver nick on my ankle. I rinsed off, stepped out of the bathtub, and applied a bandage from the medicine cabinet.
The screen on my cell phone flashed. Piran had arrived.
I dressed in record speed, flew down the stairs, and opened the front door. After he stepped inside, I reached up and gave him a quick kiss. “Almost ready. By the way, I promised my Dad I’d bundle up old newspapers for recycling before I left the house.”
Piran followed me into the garage, and I grabbed a stack of papers and a ball of twine.
“What are our plans for today? How about the amusement park in Gurnee? Ever been there?” I took his lack of response as a no. “The place is huge. We won’t be able to go on all the rides in one visit, but we can target the roller coasters first since the lines are so long.”
I stopped twining a bundle and peered up at him. The corners of his eyes creased, and he nervously licked his lips. “Piran, what’s wrong? Are you afraid of roller coasters?”
His hands curled into fists then straightened into long, tense points.
Whoa. A little severe for amusement park phobia. I dropped the paper stack I was holding. “What is it? Are you sick?”
“I have to go,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.
“But . . . but you just got here.”
“No, I must return to Sava.” His blue eyes swirled with white, reminding me of a glacier floating in the artic sea. Cold. Empty.
“To visit your parents?” I asked, hopeful, but a shiver deep inside my bones felt like a premonition. A bad premonition.
“I do not know how long I will be gone.” His stared at the floor as he wrapped twine around his fist. “Because I do not know how long it will take to resolve this.”
My throat tightened. “Resolve what?”
He released a heavy sigh.
“Piran?” I held my hands over my knotted stomach.
He lifted his chin and looked directly at me. “I am to be betrothed.”
“Betrothed,” I repeated slowly, the word dusty and formal, like furniture covered with white sheets and cobwebs in an old house.
“Engaged,” he clarified. “To the Fae Princess Chanel of Silesia.”
The planet suddenly stopped revolving, and I had to grab the wall to keep from falling.
I sat down on the pile of newspapers. “I don’t…I don’t understand. You have no choice?” I gaped up at him. This wasn’t the eighteenth century. “Is this your father’s doing?”
His jaw tight, he nodded. “There are those in our land who have challenged my father’s positions on humans. Although not fond of them, he has nonetheless encouraged our interaction since the Revealing. But he says the time has come to show where he stands. To prove his point, he has offered up his only son . . .” Piran shielded his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “To strengthen our Fae alliances.”
“By marrying a Fae princess.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or smash something, so I stood and simply wiped my hands on my shorts. “Well, that settles that.”
“Bailey, please.” Anguish marked my Guardian Fae’s perfect features. “This was not my decision. I must return home to convince my parents that while I support their efforts, I cannot go through with this betrothal.”
Trying to make sense of the thoughts at war inside my head, I squeezed my eyes shut.
This wasn’t fair!
He was a prince. His first duty was to his land.
Whatever made me think a relationship could work between us?
He just needed some time to sort out the situation with his father.
I should walk away from him before I got in any deeper.
But I loved him with all my heart and soul.
Who the hell was Princess Chanel anyway?
Piran’s rueful laugh brought me out of my internal debate, and I opened my eyes.
“The youngest daughter of King Weimar.”
Mouth compressed, I shook my head. Then it hit me. Chanel von Casimir of Silesia. The Fae princess always in the news—partying at clubs and getting drunk. I kicked the side of the recycle bin. “So, how does
feel about being a player in this marriage deal?”
“Chanel seems unconcerned.”
I stiffened. Something about the way he said her first name, minus the title, sounded altogether too
. My fingernails bit into my palms. “How well do you know her?”
“Not well.” His expression pensive, he tossed the ball of twine aside. “Our parents introduced us last winter over the holidays.”
“You . . . you knew about this since last Christmas?” A muscle in my cheek twitched as my teeth ground together. “And yet you still pursued me.” My voice dropped to a growl. “Why, Piran? Tell me why?”
His eyes widened. “Neither Chanel nor I took the arrangement seriously.”
Pressure built inside my chest. I could barely breathe, let alone speak.
“She told me she had a boyfriend,” he explained, his voice sounding faint from the blood rushing through my ears. “More than one actually.” Squinting into the distance, Piran frowned. “The first night at dinner, she had too much to drink and insulted the staff. Then she insulted the other dinner guests. Her father exploded in anger, and yet she laughed, saying she did not care what he thought.”
Piran returned his focus to me, and I couldn’t ignore the pleading look in his eyes. “Bailey, I assure you, I am not interested in marrying Princess Chanel.”
He reached for me, and I could only stand paralyzed while he gave me a deep but all too brief hug, which did little to warm my shriveling heart.
“I will be back before you leave to Colorado. I promise.”
Nodding faintly, I stepped back, my hands dropping to my sides as if tied down by weights. I watched him go and one question loomed front and center in my mind.
Would I ever see him again?