Authors: Lyla Bardan
After hoisting myself onto my saddle, I clipped my shoes into the pedals. “Come on, Nick. Race you to the parking lot.”
He grabbed his mountain bike lying on the grass. I circled back to give Nick a fair chance and caught Piran’s stare, the intensity of his expression stealing my breath.
With a shrug to hide my conflicted feelings, I hammered down on the pedals and welcomed the rush of cool air against my flushed skin. Once again, I left Piran behind with no explanation. I couldn’t help it. He shouldn’t be flirting when he had a girlfriend, and I had no intention of encouraging him.
Damn Fae. Left me tongue-tied, and definitely not in the way I fantasized about.
The following week, when I wasn’t working at the bike shop, I focused on nothing but training. Not even Kelsi’s admission that Piran had asked about me fazed me.
Yeah, right. Only made it more difficult to stop obsessing about him.
On Friday, I dragged Kelsi to Wisconsin for the first day of the Grand Prix Tour, the largest competitive cycling event in the United States. Ten straight days of killer bicycle racing that could make or break an American cyclist.
Speed and maneuverability were the keys to winning races in the Grand Prix Tour, and I needed all the experience I could get riding fast. Top riders and teams from all over the country would be there. More importantly, scouts from pro teams attended, angling to find new riders.
The tour began in a small town south of Milwaukee, with the women’s race at noon. The men had raced in the early morning, so why was Jose still hanging around the racecourse? Once he spotted me, he angled his bike, cutting me off.
“Congratulate me, Bailey. I pocketed an easy five thousand bucks this morning.”
“Congratulations, Jose,” I replied dully. Was there no way to avoid him?
Jose heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Come on, Bailey. I get the feeling you don’t like me. I’ve been waiting around since my race to see you.” He flashed a wolfish grin.
About to respond with a particular hand gesture, I noticed Kelsi fidgeting next to me. My sister inclined her head toward Jose, a prodding expression on her face.
“Fine. Kelsi, this is Jose Arcañes. Jose, this is my younger sister, Kelsi.”
“Your sister? Well, well, well . . .” Jose redirected his lecherous smile. “Nice to meet you.”
Kelsi returned the smile, too eagerly as far as I was concerned.
“You won your race this morning?” she gushed, running a hand through her long, sleek hair. “How exciting.”
“Thanks, but not nearly as exciting as meeting Bailey’s hot baby sister.” Jose’s dark eyes gave her a slow and approving once-over.
Kelsi giggled, and I fought the urge to poke her in the butt. The last thing I needed was for her to fall for a sleaze like Jose. “Gosh, I’m sure it was
exciting,” I deadpanned, “but we have to go back to the car now. Come on, Kelsi.”
“Can’t you get ready by yourself?” Her perfectly lined eyes locked on Jose. “Or have your teammates help you? I thought I’d take a walk around the course.”
“I’ll walk the course with you.” Jose extended his arm courteously, but the predatory leer never left his lips.
I grabbed my sister’s arm. “No, Kelsi, I need you to help me get ready.”
She shot me a pointed glare, but no way would I leave her with Mister Stalker Pants. Once out of earshot, Kelsi yanked her arm free. “What is the matter with you?”
I shook my head. “That guy is a creep, an absolute creep.”
“Serious? But he’s so cute, Bay! Did you see the way he looked at me?”
“Kelsi,” I replied with a huff. “He looks at every girl that way. He’s a player, a manwhore, a snake, a—”
“Fine. I get it. Luscious, but creepy, cabana boy off my list.” She sighed. “But still, I would love to have a killer boyfriend that fine.”
“Don’t make me hurl. I need to race well today.”
My gag reflex stopped short when I spied Coach Vinson and Jose huddled up. I crossed my arms. What would my coach need to talk to Jose about?
Too far away to hear their conversation, I followed Kelsi to the concession stand.
After leaving my sister with her waffle cone and a cyclist with more piercings than I could count, I walked the racecourse to get a feel for the layout. A crack in the sidewalk tripped me up, and I landed flat on my hands. A stupid crack. Not even like a big hole or something. Wiping my stinging palms on my shorts, I shook my head, disgusted with myself.
“First day with the new feet?”
Will wonders never cease? Jose Arcañes had a sense of humor. I shrugged. “I guess I’m better on a bike.”
My mouth went dry, and I stared at him. Normally, he flirted with me, usually in a disgusting, juvenile way. No leer slanted across his angular face now.
“What the hell does that mean?” I choked out.
“Your coach doesn’t think you’re strong enough to be picked for the national development team, much less a pro team.” His heavy-lidded eyes flicked over me. “That win in Chicago wasn’t typical for you, eh?”
Trying to ignore the dig, I clenched my teeth so hard I nearly bit off my own molars. “Since when does
coach talk to you about me? What business do you have—”
“Since he asked me,” Jose tossed back, heavy on his trademark sneer.
This made no sense. Scowling, I planted my fists on my hips. “What would Coach Vinson ask you about me?”
“Whether I thought you’d perform better on my training regimen.”
training regimen?” I sputtered with a harsh laugh. “Since when have you gotten into the coaching business?”
Jose lifted his chin and stared down his nose at me, anger creasing his eyes. He grabbed my arm. “You have a lot to learn about professional racing,
Grimacing, I resisted his pull, and my flip-flops dragged on the sidewalk. “Let
Not releasing my arm, Jose got up in my face, his over-powering cologne making my eyes water. “You’re part of a team. Do you know what that means?” He didn’t bother to let me answer. “It means working hard and taking risks. Not just once, but every time you race.”
I swallowed hard, twisting in his grasp. His grip tightened, and I winced in pain.
Two tall Fae men suddenly appeared at my side. I glanced up to see Piran on my right, his eyes a swirling vortex of black and gray. I’d never seen a Fae’s eyes that color.
“The lady is not interested,” Piran said with surprising menace in his voice.
Jose stepped back, raising his hands. “Chill, dude, no need to go apeshit. What, are you her bodyguard now?”
“The lady,” I said, sort of liking the archaic phrase, “does not
Although it was totally awesome to have one. Then it hit me. Piran was here. In Wisconsin. At my race. Was he now a huge cycling fan, or had he driven all this way to see me?
Jose stalked off, and Piran introduced me to his friend Tolmin, who mumbled something about needing to find celery juice, leaving Piran and me alone on the sidewalk.
My gaze gravitated to his faded jeans, the edges around the pockets frayed, low on his hips, then to his neon yellow graphic tee with a roller-blading penguin.
He tugged at the shirt. “Belongs to my roommate. I seem to have difficulty bathing my clothes.”
“Washing,” I corrected, but I didn’t laugh. Nor did he. He seemed so serious.
He tucked his hands into his back pockets. “Bailey, why did you ride off when I saw you in Grant Park last week?”
I exhaled, my gaze darting over his shoulder. I did
want to talk about this. “Don’t you already know?” I growled, returning my focus to his unnatural yet hopelessly exquisite face.
His blue eyes paled, giving them an eerie opalescent shadow. He frowned, but didn’t answer my question. “Have I done something to upset you?”
I folded my arms over my chest, as if that would protect my heart. It had been so long since I’d been attracted to a guy, I’d forgotten how much it could hurt. My voice quieted. “You have a girlfriend, Piran.”
Piran cocked his head and gave me a quizzical look. “A girlfriend?”
“The Fae duchess?” I wouldn’t think I’d have to remind him.
“Ah, yes, the duchess.” A heartbeat passed. Then his irises popped with green flecks, shimmering in the sunlight. “She is my cousin. Third cousin once removed, to be exact. When visiting, she requires a family escort. The first time she visited Chicago, I escorted her to the museum and a gallery showing. Our picture ended up all over the papers and Internet.”
The tightness in my chest dissipated somewhat, but I kept my arms folded, holding the vestiges of pain in place, just in case. Hope could be fleeting.
“I never bothered to correct the rumors.” An impish smile crossed his face. “It helped cut down on the need for polite refusals regarding requests for my personage. Certain parts of my personage, in particular,” he added dryly.
I giggled. Fae men were legendary for being well-endowed, not to mention well-renowned for their skills in bed. Although curious, I wasn’t about to ask exactly
renowned he was. “Hmm, so why are you telling me
Piran’s smile turned shy. “I cannot very well ask you on a date if you think I have a girlfriend, now can I?”
Oh no. Resolve weakening. Hormones in control.
“A date?” I repeated, hoping a foolish grin hadn’t split my face in two. Catching myself, I casually brushed the bangs from my eyes. “Well, I . . .”
Then I remembered he could read my inner glee as easily as if I was jumping up and down.
He asked me on a freaking date!
I dropped the act and gave him a sincere smile. “Yes, I would love to go out with you.”
Piran jumped up and down, his eyes wide and glowing. “Is this about right?”
Laughing, I swatted his arm. “Maybe a little less giddy.”
“Ah, sweet Bailey, but you do make me giddy.”
My cheeks warmed. Since when was I such a blusher?
“Your skin is quite pretty when you do that.”
“I don’t do it on purpose.” I stared at the ground as heat spread throughout my chest. Man, I couldn’t believe I was such a sap.
“You are leaking sticky fluid?”
My gaze flew to his. Oh my God.
“Uh, no. Sap as in loser. No, I don’t mean I’m a loser for liking you. That’s definitely
what I meant. Sap as in, well, not tree sap, but sap as in—”
His mouth closed over mine . . . and lingered.
Wow, wow, wow. Ringing bells. Exploding stars. Soft, warm, honey-buttered biscuits.
Piran slowly pulled back, a look of confusion on his face. I laughed. No way could I try to explain the ramblings of my mind.
“I liked that.”
“So . . .” I fiddled with the hem of my shirt. “When do you want to go out?”
“Um, tonight?” I squeaked.
He leaned in and gently kissed the edge of my ear. “Would you prefer sooner?”
Oh. My. God. Brain freeze. “No, tonight is good.” I waited for my brain to thaw. “But after I get home from racing, I’m scheduled to work at the bike shop from four until eight. Can you pick me up from there?”
“Certainly.” He extracted his phone and handed it to me. “May I have your symbols?”
“Digits, Piran. You mean digits.”
“These are digits.” He wiggled his fingers.
“Yes, but so are—”
“Ha! Fooled you.” He poked me in the arm, his expression smug. “I am a master of American idioms. Am I not?”
“Straight up,” I teased. “Gotta give you props for that.”
His happy face took a nosedive, and he shook his head, brow creased. “What does that even mean?”
“Means you need to study more, oh master of American idioms.” I slipped his phone into his pocket…mostly just to touch him.
A bemused smile crossed his face.
Oooh, owned. Squirming, I rubbed the back of my neck. “My race is in an hour. I really should go change and warm-up.”
He bowed to one knee, his gaze capturing mine, and I followed his rise, drawn to the deep gold bursting in his mesmerizing eyes.
“Until tonight then, Bailey?”
I nodded, my stomach fluttering. “Wait. Are you sticking around to watch my race?”
Tilting his head, he gave me that wry smile of his. “Indeed.”
Waving goodbye, I turned and ran toward the parking lot. Fist pump! I opened the hatch of my car and reached for my bike frame.
“You seem awfully excited,” Coach Vinson drawled, and I jerked back in surprise.
He crossed his arms and leaned against the open hatch, a harsh squint in his eyes. “You need to remember why you’re here, Bailey.”
A dull pain wormed its way into my gut, chasing away my earlier happiness.
“Last Sunday in the Grant Park race you fell apart,” Coach continued.
“Yes, but I was sore from the previous—”
“No buts, Bailey.”
Heat crawled up my neck. I swallowed my defense and nodded.
“You understand I have a ‘no dating’ policy. No outside commitments.” Coach pointed a finger in my face. “I’ve already given you leeway with college and your job, but you can’t be a dedicated cyclist and have time for a boyfriend. Not on my team.”
I could only blink, my mouth frozen.
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”
Coach Vinson strode away, and I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. With trembling hands, I assembled my bike and tossed my street clothes into my car. I knew what Coach expected, but could I do it? I was grateful he’d accommodated my classes and work, but no dating at all? I mean, it wasn’t as if Piran and I were in a relationship or anything.
With one hand on my team bag, my gaze slid to my teammates Mia and Shannon getting ready across the parking lot. Mia already won a number of races this season. While she didn’t have a boyfriend, the girl was the opposite of celibate. And few knew Shannon was hot and heavy with Jose last season. Then again, he hung out with so many other girls, no one would’ve suspected. Or maybe the rules didn’t apply to dating a professional racer.