Authors: Lyla Bardan
Feeling the sting from Coach’s words, I put my bike together in record time.
I mounted the saddle and snapped my helmet strap under my chin. Pushing aside the humiliation, I rode to the racecourse. Coach wanted focus? I’d give him focus.
After an exhausting twenty-five kilometers, I wobbled across the finish line. So much for focus. My leg muscles cramping, I slowly rode off the course toward the parking lot, grimacing in pain. Was Coach right? Had I forgotten why I was in the Grand Prix Tour?
I’d majorly screwed up by not warming up enough before the race and my cold muscles couldn’t handle the demanding pace. And seeing Piran standing on the roadside cheering for me hadn’t given me the motivation I needed to fight for a place in the finishing sprint. No, it only made me feel guilty. How often would I get a chance to have a guy like him, and Coach expected me to walk away? Totally unfair.
I’d worked hard training and racing these past four years. Always following the rules. No drinking. No smoking. No late-night parties. Just once, couldn’t I live on the edge?
My hands clenched. I didn’t know whether to be angrier at myself, my coach, or Piran for entering my life and threatening my self-control with his sweet smile and sexy accent.
I packed up my cycling gear and threw it into my car, banging my bike frame against the hatch in the process. I thumbed the line of scratched paint. Just fucking great.
Kelsi must have sensed my mood since she remained glued to her e-reader while I slammed the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot.
After several miles on the highway, I glanced at her. “What are you reading?”
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” she replied, thumbing to the next page.
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Is it a book about art?”
“No. Gothic fiction from the 1800s about a guy who sells his soul for eternal beauty. You know, Faustian.”
“Faustian,” I repeated, the word familiar thanks to junior-year English. My stomach twisted in a knot. “A person who ditches their moral integrity to achieve power and success.”
Blowing out a deep breath, I vowed to think only about the next race. I didn’t say anything else the remainder of the trip home.
Pacing the sales floor, I watched the clock at the bike shop with apprehension. I should cancel the date. Not worth jeopardizing my future. I removed my phone from my back pocket, but my thumb wavered over the screen as if controlled by some unseen force.
I frowned. Piran had nothing to do with my abysmal race performance today. I made the choice not to warm up enough today just as I made the choice to carry all those heavy boxes for Kelsi last Sunday when I should have rested my legs after the Midwest nationals.
No one was responsible for my failures except me.
And one date wouldn’t kill my race mojo. What gave Coach the right to tell me how to live my life? It wasn’t as if he’d find out anyway.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket and patrolled the bike shop until Tyler, one of the bike mechanics, called me into the back room. He tried to take my mind off the time by teaching me how to lace a wheel, but I kept dropping the spokes.
“Hey, Bails,” Nick called out, entering the back room. “How’d your race go today?”
I scrunched up my face.
He laughed. “That good, huh?”
“Jumped too late in the finishing sprint,” I said, scuffing my toe on the floor. “My timing was off. I’d been barely able to hang onto the lead group as it was.”
Nick shrugged. “It happens. You still earned points in the overall tour, right?”
I nodded. “There were pros in my race, so the pace was wicked fast.”
“Daaayum. And you still managed to stay in the lead group?” He high-fived me.
“Customer out front,” Tyler noted, setting a bike on the repair stand.
Nick peeked through the door slats to the front of the store. “It’s that Fae guy we saw at the Grant Park race.” He turned around. “Didn’t you say he was a friend of your sister’s?”
I glanced at the clock. Right on time.
“Bails?” Nick’s voice took on a decidedly distrustful tone.
With a sigh, I picked up a spoke and twirled it between my fingers, not wanting to look at my friend. “I have a date tonight with Piran.”
Nick heaved an exasperated groan. “Seriously? You know what those Fae guys are like, Bails. You remember my buddy, Aiden? His sister hooked up with a Fae guy, thinking he was the shit. After a few months, he dumped her to marry some Fae high priestess or something. He was only using her for sex. That’s all they care about.”
“Piran doesn’t seem like that. He’s real down-to-earth.” Biting my lip, I met Nick’s concerned gaze. “And it’s just a date. Not a big deal, you know?”
Except it was a totally big deal, and here I was standing arguing with Nick about whether I could go out, like he was my mother or something.
Nick brushed aside a bunch of tools from a workbench and hoisted himself up. “I’m only looking out for you, Bails.” He shrugged. “You’re not exactly . . . I mean, I’ve never seen you with a boyfriend or anything.”
Yeah. Don’t remind me. I shoved my hands in my pockets.
He must have caught my expression because he backed off, flashing me a grin. “Go on. Have a drink for me, okay?”
“Just one?” Tyler teased.
I gave them both a sardonic look. “Totally not getting drunk on a first date.”
Nick laughed. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
I shook my head, raising my palms to him. “You’re incorrigible.”
“Look, Tyler, now she’s comparing me to cardboard.”
Tyler grunted. “That’s corrugated, dude.”
Nick tossed a wrench at Tyler, who snapped it out of the air at the last second.
I opened the door to the sales floor. Piran sat on a mountain bike, his back to me. Had he heard everything Nick said to me? I swallowed hard, my stomach knotting. Nick was a good friend and I trusted him, but Piran did something for me. Something out of this world.
Piran gripped the brake handles. “Do you think this bicycle is the correct size for me?”
“Um, sure. Saddle could go up a bit though. You have long legs.”
Long legs, narrow hips, wide shoulders . . . Faedelicious.
Piran dismounted the bike, a knowing smile on his face.
Shit. Caught again. I closed my eyes, willing my mind to think of something else. Summer. Fresh air, warm sun, the smell of lilacs. Little kids riding their Big Wheels up and down our street while I tried to sleep. June bugs bashing into the screen door. The old guy across the street parading around in nothing more than shorts and a beer belly.
A snort of laughter penetrated my defenses, and I opened my eyes.
Piran cleared his throat, then gestured to the front door of the store. “Shall we go?”
I nodded, and he led me to his car parked on the street, his gleaming red futuristic car. I stopped and gawked. “Whoa. What exactly is this thing?”
“LaFerrari Hybrid.” His lip curved. “I care about the environment.”
He opened the car door, and I slid into the stiff leather passenger seat. How the hell could he afford such a car?
“A gift from my father when I left for America,” Piran replied dryly as I buckled in. “Or rather, his thinly veiled attempt to dissuade me from coming here, as always, reminding me there are plenty of art universities in Europe.”
“Needed to get away, huh?”
“Exactly.” Piran flicked me a quick glance, his eyebrows drawn together. Then he touched his lips, as if distracted or wanting to say more, but he turned his attention to driving.
I ran my hand along the curve of the car’s center console. “It’s beautiful.”
Piran hit the gas, and the car roared down the road.
My body hugging the sculpted seat, I resisted the urge to cling to the dash for dear life. “Your dad must be quite wealthy. What does he do for a living?”
“He’s a businessman and a landowner in my homeland.”
From the way Piran’s mouth tightened, I’d hit a nerve. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
He shook his head. “My father and I do not see the world the same way.”
“What about your mom?”
Piran grimaced. “As a proper Fae woman, she stands by my father.”
A prickle stole across the back of my neck. Something about ‘proper Fae woman’ gave me serious pause. Chewing on my thumbnail, I turned and looked out the side window, the neon signs blurring as we zipped down the expressway.
“Bailey.” The plea in his soft voice drew me back to him. “If I was interested in a proper Fae woman, I would not be here with you.”
Shifting in my seat, I drew my legs together, rubbing my knees. Something about his warm smile quickened my heart rate. “So, where are we going tonight?”
“Big Phil’s Pancakes near Lincoln Park.”
Huh? So much for my quickening heart rate. “A breakfast place?”
Piran grinned. “They have an apple pancake to kill for.”
“You mean to die for.”
He exited the highway, and his grin turned sinister. “No, to kill for. A pancake the size of a pizza, piled high with cinnamon apples and dripping with cream cheese icing.”
“Oh man. Sounds like a gazillion calories, not to mention super unhealthy.”
“But it has fruit,” Piran protested, eyes widening. He waggled his eyebrows at me. “And with you, I will share. A bite for me, a bite for you. Three bites for me, a bite for you. Two more bites for me while you look across the room, distracted.”
I laughed, and Piran’s eyes swirled with green and deep blue. Beautiful. Like a burst of cornflowers in a field of tall grass.
A shy grin crossed his face, and I think my insides melted.
During dinner, I barely had the chance to share Piran’s humongous, beyond delicious pancake because he asked me so many questions. Why did I start bike racing? How did my parents feel about me doing something so dangerous? What was my major in college? He wrinkled his nose when I said math, and I laughed. Finally, he asked me whether I preferred expressionism or realism. I stumbled with the art question, giving him a chance to share a bit of his world with me. Mostly I listened with rapt attention, although at times I simply stared at his beautiful face, his words dissolving into thin air.
“How do your parents feel about you being an artist?” I asked, watching him wolf down a double side of bacon. Where’d he put it all?
“High metabolism. A Fae trait.” He topped off his food with a cup of hot chai tea. “My mother is an artist, as is her brother.”
I nodded. “And your dad? How does he feel about you being an artist?”
Piran set his cup down slowly, and gray washed through his eyes. “My father would prefer I joined the family business.”
Uh-oh, fail. Under the table, my knees bounced as I tried to think of something else to ask. “So, what’s it like to be related to a duchess? Wow. That whole royalty thing would make me really nervous. Snobby types with all their money and rules.”
Piran flashed me an aggrieved look.
Oh great. Two for two.
Just shut up.
His fingers drummed on the table. “No. I feel the same way you do. My cousin and her family are far removed from the crown in my homeland, yet behave as though they are next in line for the throne.”
He paused and pressed his lips together. It seemed as if he had more to say, but instead he toyed with the check on the table, staring at it as if it held the answer to some great mystery.
“Sorry,” I offered.
Ugh, lame. Man, family issues sucked. I was super glad my parents were cool. Well, reasonably cool. Okay, mostly my dad was cool. Mom was flighty. Some days she accepted my choice to race. Other days, not so much. I know she worried that cycling was risky and not exactly a ticket to riches, or even a stable job, but lately, she’d been less than coy with her hints that ‘no man would ever want to be with a tomboy’ and I should learn to be more ladylike.
The waistband of my jeans cut into my stomach, and I leaned back from the table and willed myself not to dwell on being bloated. No need for Piran to have to hear about that. Someday I’d ask him how he handled being bombarded with everyone’s thoughts.
I opened my purse and withdrew my wallet, but a hand on my arm stopped me. I glanced up. Piran shook his head as if scolding me.
“At least let me pay for the tip?”
“Next time,” he replied with a smile and tossed thirty bucks on the check. “It is late. I should get you home.”
“You need to drop me off at the bike shop,” I reminded while we walked from the restaurant to the parking garage. “So I can get my car.”
I slid into his car and buckled the seatbelt. “Okay, my turn to ask the ‘this or that’ questions. Vanilla or chocolate?”
“Vanilla. Pure, smooth, and sweet.”
“Agreed! Okay, classic country or punk rock?”
“Classic rock,” Piran countered.
“Aww, I love classic rock too. I have an eclectic playlist on my phone. Some jazz, some show tunes, a bit of country, and trance music for training rides. Next question. Forest or beach?”
“Forest. The beauty of the trees and the abundance of wildlife.”
The wistfulness in his voice tugged at me. “Living in Chicago, you must miss it.”
He simply nodded.
Time to switch gears to something more fun. “Tattoo or body piercing?”
“Do you have either?”
“I got a tattoo three years ago on my eighteenth birthday. A star swirl.”
“Interesting. I have not seen it.” He raised an eyebrow.
“It’s on my right hip.”