Authors: Lyla Bardan
My bike swung precariously from side to side as I passed the first three lead riders.
A rider exploded into my peripheral view. Where’d she come from? The other rider edged ahead. No way, hon. This piece of road was mine. With a last burst of speed from God knows where, I shot forward and crossed the finish line, my mind as numb as my lungs and legs.
Gulping air, I continued riding so my muscles wouldn’t cramp. Slowing down gradually, I rode for another half-mile, then turned and headed for the announcer’s station. Someone screamed my name, and I glanced over my shoulder. Kelsi and Piran were running behind me. I stopped pedaling and stepped off my bike.
“Bailey!” Kelsi screamed, throwing her arms around my neck. “You did it! You won!”
“Serious?” I asked, breathless. My hands shaking, I unsnapped my helmet strap.
“Congrats, Meyers!” another cyclist called out, riding past.
Grinning, I waved, and the realization I’d won a nationals-level race sank in. Oh my God, I did it! I raised my face to the sky. Euphoria had never felt so good.
My fourth summer of racing, and I’d just won the Midwest Women’s Cycling Championship. Ever since my teammate Shannon turned me on to the sport back in high school—and I discovered I was finally good at something—I’d dreamed of this moment. Maybe now I could set aside the doubts and my parents’ objections.
I caught Piran’s stare. His gaze never wavered from mine, and I lowered my chin, my cheeks heating. Like all Guardians, he possessed an ethereal beauty, but also a devastatingly sexy quality that made me weak in the knees. And here I stood, all grimy, sweat streaking down my face, and probably a dead gnat or two stuck in my teeth.
Yet his smile seemed genuine. “Strength, speed, and bravery. I am most impressed. Will you give an acceptance speech now?”
“This isn’t the Oscars,” I replied with a self-deprecating laugh. “Although I do get to stand on the podium and have my name announced.”
I fidgeted in my cleated shoes. If only he wasn’t standing quite so close.
Kelsi accompanied me to the announcer’s station, where a volunteer handed me a towel to wipe my face. After slipping off the rubber band around my ponytail, I ran my fingers through my thick, unruly hair, hoping to achieve a modicum of presentability.
Jose smirked as I walked past.
Ha! Dickhead probably thought I would get dropped from the race. I didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence.
Ushered up the steps of the podium, along with the second and third place finishers, I stood and waited. As if I wasn’t hyped up enough, I noticed Piran leaning against a signpost. He watched me with this sort of lazy smile on his face that had me hyperventilating. After receiving my medal, I waved to the meager crowd of spectators and gave a thumbs-up to a grinning Nick.
Kelsi and Piran walked with me back to the car.
“Your race was quite exciting to watch,” he said.
I glanced at him, surprised. Few people appreciated bike racing, let alone found a women’s race
. “Um, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Spots of gold danced in his ever-changing eyes. “I would enjoy watching another race.”
“Really?” I wiped the sweat from the back of my neck and grimaced. Wow. Way to be cool. I fiddled with the zipper of my racing suit instead. Anything to keep my hands occupied.
Piran glanced at the race organizers taking down the course barriers, and I used that opportune moment to yank my sports bra back in place.
“Well, I’m racing again tomorrow downtown,” I offered.
He returned his focus to me. “Here again?”
“Um, no. Tomorrow’s race is around Grant Park. Late afternoon or so. I don’t remember the exact time. I’d have to look it up.” I blew out a slow breath, knowing I sounded like an idiot. All I wanted was to get out of my sweaty racing suit and into dry clothes.
A slight smile crossed Piran’s lips and he bowed. “Until tomorrow then.”
His long, lean legs easily chewed up the street to his apartment complex. Would he really show up to watch another race? The idea made me feel all hot and bothered inside, yet queasy at the same time. I didn’t need the distraction.
“Don’t bother, Bay.”
I cringed, bumping into my sister, and caught the amused look on her face. Naturally, she figured out I found Piran attractive. But come on. I might not be boy-crazy like her, but I sure as hell wasn’t blind.
“So, you two aren’t . . . ?”
She shook her head. “Just friends. You know I’ve been hanging with Matt from the coffee shop. The one with all the tats?”
I shrugged. Kelsi had a thing for bad boys.
“Anyway, every girl at the university gets hot and bothered around Piran. He’s taken though. Has a Fae duchess for a girlfriend. I saw her at a showing in the art museum once. She wore a formal dress with a train behind her, her gloved hand all proper on Piran’s arm.” Kelsi giggled and rolled her eyes. “And she had bodyguards.”
No surprise Piran would have his pick of women. He was totally hot. Why a stuffy duchess though? I scuffed the ground with my foot. He seemed so down-to-earth. Why did guys always gravitate toward stuck-up beauty queens instead of girls with brains or talent?
I scowled, though I had no reason to be pissed. I had no time in my life for a boyfriend, let alone lusting after an unattainable one. “Come on, Kelsi. Let’s head back to the parking lot.”
Gripping my bike’s handlebars with more force than necessary, I fought to block out the burning sensation in my chest. Jealousy sucked.
No problem. I’d just put Mr. Already Taken out of my mind.
I sighed. If only it was that easy.
Sleep, eat, ride. Repeat.
I threw an arm over my eyes to block the morning light streaming in through my bedroom shade, mentally preparing myself for today’s race around Grant Park.
First, in exchange for breakfast and a latte, I’d agreed to help Kelsi move boxes at the art university. I tossed off the covers, headed to the bathroom, and cringed at my reflection in the mirror. Hagrid on a bad hair day.
I grabbed my mane of unruly waves and attempted to tame them with a spritz of water and a ponytail. Whatever. Cheap labor didn’t need to look good.
Since Kelsi overslept, our breakfast ended up from a drive-through. Not what I had bargained for. I ordered a maple syrup and sausage burrito just to gross Kelsi out.
Once we found an on-street parking spot downtown, I followed my sister into the main building at the Chicago Art University.
And saw him.
Ignoring the exasperated edge in my sister’s voice, I lingered near a collection of paintings in the lobby. Not that I cared about the paintings. I cast a sideways glance his way. Piran’s braid of streaked-blue hair, slightly mussed, shone against his black T-shirt, tightened by his wide shoulders. The surrounding art paled compared to him.
“Fae duchess,” my sister whispered in my ear. “Remember?”
I groaned. “Yeah, yeah.”
Across the expanse, Piran turned and caught me staring. He flashed a bright smile.
My throat tightened. Such a perfect guy. Sweet. Funny. Enjoyed watching me race! With a sigh, I lowered my gaze. Who was I kidding?
“These boxes won’t carry themselves,” Kelsi chided, and I reluctantly gave her my attention. She fake pouted. “You said you would help.”
What a way to spend a Sunday morning. With a grunt, I hoisted two of the boxes stacked against a wall onto a dolly. “What the hell are in these? Bricks?”
She laughed. “Pretty close. Stones. Noelle and I are decorating a display case.”
While my sister filled out paperwork, I loaded the remaining boxes. The dolly’s rusty wheels squeaked as I pushed it across the lobby.
I chanced one more look in the opposite direction.
Piran had his back to me again, talking to other students. I waited, hopeful for some silly reason, but this time he didn’t turn around.
But Kelsi did. “Seriously, get a move on, slowpoke. Didn’t you say you were meeting Nick at Grant Park?”
Nick. Oh crap. I forgot.
I zipped the dolly into the hallway in no time flat. “Just tell me where to unload ‘em.”
“Upstairs and to the right.”
The arched, spiral stairway beckoned. “Um…All these boxes up the stairs?”
“Uh-huh.” Kelsi grinned.
“Not in this wing.”
I lifted the first box into my arms and eyed the staircase with determination. All right. This would be a helluva workout.
An hour later, I made it to Grant Park.
“This is not a sport,” I declared to Nick as we watched the dark Fae cycling race, the main event of Sunday’s races. With a disgusted snort, I shook my head, shading my hand over my eyes from the midday sun.
“Sure it is,” he countered.
Walking the racecourse, we veered around a television camera.
a sport?” I gestured to the riders floating above their bicycles. “Bicycle racing has a long and storied history of being tough and grueling. Riding for days over impossible terrain. The undefeatable human spirit. You know, the
Tour de France
A dark Fae with arms longer than his legs—a Fachan, I guessed, based on his mane of black feathers—yanked the front tire off the wheel from the bicycle next to him and wrapped it around his competitor’s neck. The crowd cheered.
I threw my hands in the air, exasperated. “This is not tough and grueling!”
“But it’s awesome,” Nick crowed, a gleam in his hazel eyes. “It’s better than WWE. This is bike racing, street martial arts, and a circus freak sideshow all in one.”
“Ugh,” I retorted, unimpressed.
Nick gave me a loopy—probably a drunken—grin, and I wagged a finger at him like a mom with an errant toddler, even though he was three years older than me. I could never stay mad at my goofy friend for long though.
He imitated my finger wag. “At least dark Fae races don’t have all those blood doping scandals.”
“Of course they don’t,” I replied, hunching my shoulders. “They’re allowed to inject, imbibe, and literally bathe in the blood of their non-human ilk.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Do I detect a wee bit of ‘otherism’ there, Bails?”
“No. I simply don’t grasp why the World Federation of Cycling refers to dark Fae racing as a sport. This is entertainment. And barely that. The word
should mean something.”
“Ice dancing is called a sport.” Nick scoffed. “So is golf.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”
With a mouth full of razor teeth, a bony goblin bit off the arm of a warlock dressed in a short kilt and argyle socks. The goblin shoved the bloody limb into the spokes of another kilted warlock’s front wheel. Both warlocks crashed in a blur of wheels and flapping kilts. The crowd erupted in catcalls. Big Jim, a gargoyle popular with the fans, rode past, scooped up one of the warlocks, and easily tossed him out of the way.
The television cameras zoomed in on the carnage. Feed the public. Feed the sponsors. The dark Fae riders clearly didn’t care. Most could regenerate limbs and those who couldn’t sported custom prosthetics like bling. They made more money than football players. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to get out from under the Guardian Fae, and the bike races channeled their need for destruction. But why cycling? Why not ruin some other sport?
“So when is your race?” Nick asked me, unperturbed by the bloodshed on the road.
“The woman’s Pro-Am is the last race of the day,” I replied, kicking a stone. “None of the spectators ever bother staying around. The television cameras sure as hell never do.”
“Cheer up. My friends will come watch you race.”
I smiled wanly. “Yay me. Will they be drunk and tossing their cups onto the road so I stink of beer by the time my race is done?”
“Hell, yeah!” Nick grinned.
He returned his attention to the dark Fae race. A rider who looked like Satan himself, red-skinned and horned, knocked down two other cyclists while retrieving the separated arm from the spokes of the warlock’s bike and then waved the arm over his head in triumph.
“Whoa, did you see that? What a jerk!”
Another kilted warlock grabbed the bloody stump and shoved it down the throat of the goblin that’d started the mess. The goblin vomited and writhed in pain, and the spectators booed and hissed. The rules prohibited such barbaric tactics in a race.
I could no longer watch. The entire bloody
And I had a real race to warm-up for.
Thirty kilometers of struggling to stay mid-field before I finally crossed the finish line. Hadn’t even placed in the top twenty, much less the top ten.
“Nice race,” said a smarmy voice from the sidelines.
Jackass. Didn’t Jose have anything better to do than harass me?
I slowly pedaled the course, my legs still sore from winning the previous evening’s race. Or maybe it was climbing all those stairs this morning.
Riding past the announcer’s booth, I caught a glimpse of blond braid, and my pulse skipped a beat. Nope. False alarm. I snorted to myself. Why was I so hyped up on seeing Piran again anyway? Thinking of him just mucked with my concentration. And nothing was coming between me and my goal to turn pro. Especially not some silly infatuation.
Even if he was sex on legs.
The cooling breeze from the lake helped with the scorching late afternoon sun, and I aimed my bike for spots of shade. Scads of people milled around Grant Park, drawn to the various events on Lake Michigan—a jazz festival, kids hoop day with the Chicago Bulls, and a dark Fae bridal expo. Whoa, now
stuff was freaky.
Crap. I’d never find Nick in these crowds, and he was my ride home.
My thoughts drifted back to Piran. Maybe he hadn’t come to the park after all. I stared absently at the worn black tape on my handlebars. Argh. Shouldn’t be thinking about him. I should be more upset I didn’t place in my race. Clearly, my stamina needed work. If I wanted to ride with the pros, I’d need to race day after day. Probably needed to eat more protein.
I sighed. Glad he hadn’t seen me finish at the back of the field.
A pedestrian crossed my path. Not bothering to look up, I deftly swerved around a pair of legs. When said pedestrian called out my name, my stomach tightened, and I gripped the brakes so hard I rose out of the saddle. Hopping on my back tire, I faced a smiling Piran.
He cocked his head. “How do you do that?”
“I have skills,” I replied, unable to squelch the grin building on my face.
Orange swirled in his eyes. “I bet you do.”
His voice sizzled like maple-sugared bacon. Rich, deep, and hot. I’m pretty sure my mouth popped open. Was he suggesting something?
His gaze flickered to the team logo across my racing suit.
No, no, no
. He wasn’t looking at the damn team logo. I glanced down. My wimpy sports bra did nothing to hide the evidence. Holy shit-cussing donkey brains.
I backed up my bike. Nope. Nada. Not happening. No flirting with a spoken-for guy. “Excuse me. I need to change.”
“Why, is there something wrong with you?” That wry half-smile again.
“N-No,” I stammered. “I need to change my clothes. Look, maybe I’ll see you around. I gotta go. I gotta, um, talk to my coach.”
Geez, totally lame, but any excuse would do. He had a girlfriend—a rich, undoubtedly drop-dead gorgeous, duchess of a girlfriend—who probably never sweated a day in her life.
I spun my pedals.
“Bailey?” he called after me. His Fae accent placed more emphasis on the second syllable of my name. Damn, I loved the sound of it.
But I kept riding.
I hopped over a curb and nearly plowed into my least favorite teammate walking on the sidewalk. Mia scrunched up her face. “Watch where you’re going, Meyers.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
Having dominated the women’s race, Mia had already changed into street clothes. Her outfit screamed Juicy Couture, and a Coach purse dangled from her shoulder.
She smirked, twirling her designer sunglasses. “Not your best race today. Did you fall so far behind you got lapped?” She threw her head back and laughed.
“No, I didn’t get lapped,” I snapped. “I finished in the field.”
“Coach Vinson won’t be happy.” Mia tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder and leaned in closer. “Didn’t take your vitamin shot this morning?” she asked, her sickly sweet voice conspiratorial.
Sucking in my cheeks, my retort burned in my mouth. Why couldn’t I stand up to her? Why did Mia make me feel like when I was back in second grade and Brianna Pastorski told everyone I peed my pants after she’d pushed me down in a puddle?
Her lips suddenly twisted. “Oh look. Your boyfriend’s here.”
I glanced behind me. About to insist that Nick was
my boyfriend, I fidgeted as he stared me down, one eyebrow lifted.
“Ignore her,” I replied, narrowing my eyes at Mia, who flounced off without another word to join other riders. If only I could take my own advice. “Look, Nick . . .”
Crossing the street a block ahead, Piran stared at us, changed direction, and headed our way with long strides. Dismounting my bike, I cursed under my breath. No way out of this one.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly as he approached.
Bowing his head, Piran seemed more interested in studying Nick. I cast my friend a glance, surprised to find his arms crossed, eyeing Piran with equal wariness.
“This is Nick,” I said to Piran, before turning to Nick. “And this is my sister’s friend, Piran. He and Kelsi both study at the Chicago Art University.”
Piran cocked an eyebrow at me. “We could be friends, as well.” His voice sounded even deeper than before.
“You ready to go home, Bails?” Nick set his hand on my shoulder and tried to steer me in the opposite direction.
Shards of gray shot through Piran’s eyes, and he wedged himself between Nick and me.
I took a step back from both of them. “Really?”
Both guys gaped at me with expressions of innocence. Yeah, right. Nothing more obvious than male posturing.
“Nick and I work together,” I explained to Piran. “He’s kinda like my big brother.” I gave Nick a hard shove. “And I can decide for myself, big brother, who to be friends with.”
But could I be friends with a crush?
A group of dark Fae riders hustled past us, crowding the sidewalk. Standing in my cleated shoes, my balance off, I stumbled into a fire hydrant.
“Damn it!” Rubbing my scraped elbow, I stamped my feet, my agitation only growing. “I hate dark Fae blood cycling!”
Nick laughed, his shaggy hair curling around his face.
Piran tilted his head. “Is there something you
I resisted the urge to reply, because I was pretty sure he damn well knew the answer. Or maybe he didn’t. I honestly had no idea the extent of Fae mind-reading.