Authors: Lyla Bardan
His gaze slid down. Knowing he was thinking of my bare hip sent a tingle of electricity under my skin. Picturing his full lips caressing that spot sent my pulse quickening.
Oh God. Was he reading me?
I quickly turned on the car radio and hummed along to the music, trying not to think of anything inappropriate.
Before long, Piran deftly guided his fancy car into a metered parking space in front of the bike shop. “Do you know Nick has a crush on you?”
Gear grind. My head jerked back. “What?”
He turned down the radio. “I said Nick has a crush on you.”
“I heard you, but I don’t believe it. Look, when I said Nick was like a big brother to me, I meant it.” I lifted my hands. “He’s just worried about me dating a Fae. The whole . . . um . . .”
“Yes, our reputation.” Frowning, Piran gripped the steering wheel, then twisted the key from the ignition. He turned in his seat and looked at me. “Do you have feelings for him?”
I pulled in and slowly released a breath. I’d never thought of Nick as anything more than a friend. If I’d known how he felt about me before, could something have developed between us? I shrugged. Didn’t matter. Not as long as I had Piran.
“Not in the way you’re thinking,” I assured, tracing my fingers down Piran’s arm.
The corner of his mouth lifted. “I see we Fae are not the only mind-readers.”
He reached across the console and pulled me into his arms, his warm mouth finding mine.
His tongue licked my bottom lip, and a shudder ran through me, spurring me to seek more. I opened my mouth fully, welcoming the deeper French kiss. Heat flushed over my body as I tasted him, cinnamon and spiced tea.
He wrapped his hands around the back of my neck and drew me closer. Feeling his heart beating against mine, I clung to his broad shoulders, my head swimming. His tongue seemed to dance inside my mouth, touching nerve endings I never knew I had. I couldn’t help the moan in my throat. I’d never felt like this before. So desired and hot. And unashamed to show I felt the same way about him.
Twisting in my seat, I fought to sneak in a breath, but the seatbelt snapped me back, sapping the air from my lungs.
“Ah!” Pinned, I rocked against the locked seatbelt to no avail.
Piran’s deep laugh echoed in the confines of his sports car. He leaned over and adjusted the strap. “Seems like my car does not want to let you go either.”
“I have to race tomorrow,” I said, feeling a touch pensive. I didn’t want to leave him.
He traced his finger along the side of my face and down to my chin, then gave me another spine-tingling kiss. “Until tomorrow, sweet Bailey.”
“Until tomorrow,” I whispered and reluctantly opened the door.
My brain in a fog, I walked to my car behind the bike shop. Drawing in a giddy breath, I watched as Piran’s car pulled away from the curb and roared down the street.
Touching my lips, I smiled. Damn, that boy could kiss.
Since Saturday’s race wasn’t until the afternoon, I planned on sleeping late, but Mom had other ideas. She knocked on my bedroom door until I couldn’t take it anymore. After dragging myself out of bed, I opened the door, fully prepared with the ‘I am an adult and can do what I want’ speech, but her stern expression stopped me short. Instead, I stood there silently as she droned on about shared responsibilities and how she and Dad had helped pay for my college and were allowing me to live back at home rent-free.
Total guilt trip.
And it worked. So even though I’d already paid the registration fee for the day’s race and desperately needed to prove to Coach my dedication, I stayed home and did chores—weeded Mom’s garden, cleaned the garage, and washed Dad’s car. Almost got trapped into helping Dad stain the deck, but thankfully, Mom said I could relax…by making dinner. Real funny.
An entire race day in the tour lost, but that meant nothing to her. Yes, I understood my obligation to help around the house, but throwing this in my face during the biggest cycling series of the season was just cruel.
Couldn’t she for once understand how much racing meant to me? This wasn’t just a ‘passing fancy’. Racing was my passion, my life.
And I never should have shown her the DVD of greatest bike-racing crashes.
Thankfully, on Sunday morning, not a word from Mom, and I convinced Kelsi to accompany me to Wisconsin for the third day of the Grand Prix racing tour.
Driving down the highway, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d botched my last two races. Sure, shit happens. Even the best riders can have a bad day, but was I losing my game? My palms grew sweaty around the steering wheel. The pressure of doing well in this tour was getting to me. I glanced over at my sister sitting in the passenger seat. “Kelsi. Talk to me. I need to stop thinking about today’s race.”
“Not now,” she replied without looking up from her e-reader. “I’m at a good part.”
I scowled and switched on the car radio, muttering, “Damn you, Kelsi. All you do is read, read, read. How can you read at a time like this?”
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. “What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know. Forget it.”
“Stop being so nervous. It’s not like this is your first race.”
“But this is the Grand Prix Tour. I have to do well today. I blew it in Friday’s race and thanks to Mom, I didn’t even get to ride yesterday. If I don’t get picked for the national development team this time . . .” I relaxed my death grip on the steering wheel until blood once again flowed through my fingers.
Kelsi scoffed. “Come on, Bay. You won that race in Chicago. You know what to expect. Last year you came close to qualifying for nationals. I think you’ll make it this time. You’re strong and fast. But if you don’t, so what? It’s not the end of the world.”
“So what?” I yelped. “I need a win here if I’m ever going to have a prayer of being picked up by a pro team.”
She thumbed her e-reader, then set it down. “You take this cycling thing too seriously. You’ve practically given yourself an ulcer.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t have artistic talent like you and Mom, and I wasn’t spectacular at traditional sports like Dad. Plus, my GPA isn’t exactly law school material. Bicycle racing happens to be something I’m good at.”
“Come on,” she said in disbelief. “You have a degree in math!”
“Yeah, I guess. What does someone do with a bachelor’s in math? Teach high school? No way. High school kids are evil.”
“Then why did you major in math?”
I shrugged. “Easier than English. Anyway, I’d rather race. But what if I’m not good enough to turn pro? I want to be on a team in Europe and make some real money. Not bring home worthless merch—”
“Bailey! Pay attention to the road!” Kelsi braced her hands on the dashboard.
I swerved to avoid hitting the car in front of us.
“Damn you, that was close,” she said, elbowing me in the ribs. Hard. Not that I could blame her. She shook her head. “If you race like you drive, it’s a wonder you’ve managed not to crash your bike.”
“Sorry,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Got a little distracted. And sometimes I forget I’m driving a car and not riding a bike where I can slip through narrow gaps.”
After spotting the exit sign, I steered off the highway and headed into a grassy parking lot. “Let me know if you spot my team car. Coach Vinson said he was coming, and my teammates Mia and Shannon said they’re racing today too.”
“I don’t know about your teammates, but
is here,” Kelsi teased.
After parking, I exited the car. A sideways glance revealed Piran walking across the lot toward us. Trying to act cool and ignore the quivering in my stomach, I opened the hatch and pulled out my bike frame and wheels, connected them, and pumped up the tires. Then I peeled off my jeans and T-shirt, exposing the racing suit I wore underneath. Finally, I traded my flip-flops for cycling shoes and settled my helmet on my head.
“Bailey, Bailey,” said an all-too-unwelcome voice behind me.
“What, Jose,” I grumbled, adjusting my bike’s brakes. Did he have some sort of radar?
“You were so close in Friday’s race in Caledonia,” he said, leaning against my car. He gave me a slow once-over. “Such a shame you choked in the finishing sprint.”
“Oh, suck it,” I snapped without thinking.
His lips curled in a disgusting leer. “Anytime, anywhere, baby.”
Gagging, I turned my head. Enough with the gross come-ons! He sauntered off, but not before I noticed a curtain of black glide across his eyes.
Piran kissed me on the cheek, and I whispered to him, “Did you see that?”
“Jose’s a dark Fae. I saw his eyes blacken!”
Piran narrowed his gaze on Jose. “No. He is human, Bailey.”
“I saw his eyes blacken,” I insisted, jerking my chin. “Somehow he’s shielding himself or using Fae magic to appear human. No wonder he wins every race! If he’s dark Fae, he can’t ride in human races.” I stalked toward Jose.
“Stop, Bailey,” Piran admonished, guiding me back to my car. “You are overreacting. If Jose were Fae, he would need a powerful shielding ability, and I do not know of any dark Fae who possesses such magic.”
My irate growl drew a sigh from him. “Nonetheless, if Jose
dark Fae, and using magic to appear human, he could become violent if you confront him. The dark Fae are unpredictable.”
“I should have suspected he was dark Fae.” I stamped my foot. “His slimy come-ons. The way he looks at every woman. His stamina in races. I have half a mind—”
“Hold on,” Piran said. “You have no proof of this accusation. You cannot go to the racing authorities and claim Jose is Fae simply because of his libido.”
My breath hitched. “Why are you siding with him?”
“I am not siding with anyone. I am simply saying you have no proof Jose is Fae.”
A sickening feeling curdled inside me. “I know what I saw, Piran. You should believe me, and you don’t. Which means . . . what?”
“What?” he repeated quietly, his eyes a calm blue.
Was he hiding something from me as well?
“I need to go,” I said, lifting my racing bike onto my shoulder.
Trudging over the grassy hill to the start of my race, I noticed Piran hadn’t accompanied me. Couldn’t really blame him. I wouldn’t want to be around me today either. This racing tour had me so riled up. Was Kelsi right? Was I giving myself an ulcer over cycling?
My anger at Piran faded into guilt. I had no legitimate reason to doubt his sincerity. He was a Guardian, for God’s sake. Honorable. Altruistic. Defender of the natural world. Although that probably didn’t include calling out cheats in minor human sports.
Except . . . who was I to know the ways of the Fae? The dark Fae and their Guardian overlords had a long and complicated history, one humans hadn’t exactly been privy to until the Revealing.
I hopped on my bike and rode to the starting line, but was unable to stop thinking about dark Fae, Jose’s eyes, and Piran. Struggling to find a good starting place among the other riders, I quickly fell to the back of the pack once the race started. Damn it. No more distractions!
I shook off the haze clouding my concentration.
Lap by lap, I forced my way through the throng of riders crammed together on the narrow road. Rarely was I scared in a race, but the punishing pace and sharp curves had me major-league on edge. Two women crashed in the first corner and another five in the second lap. The road was still slippery from an earlier rainstorm, the painted centerline particularly slick.
The tight turns demanded my complete attention, yet by the last lap, I’d worked my way to the front of the field. Adrenaline shot through my veins. I had this baby nailed. Due to the short racecourse, riders jockeyed early for sprint position, and I was not about to be left behind.
I rose out of my saddle and cranked down hard on the pedals. The snapping sound registered a microsecond later. Oh shit.
Unclipped, my racing shoe slid across the top of the pedal into nothing but air, and my right foot dropped. Without the support of my body on the saddle, the bike sheered sideways, and the back wheel slid out from beneath me. I reached out to brace my fall, my mind zipping through the consequences. Some road rash, for sure, and I’d be out of the top finishers, but I could jump back on my bike and still turn in a decent finish.
My hand scraped gravel at the side of the road. I had this totally under control.
The beeping just didn’t stop. Was that my phone alarm? No, it sounded like the fryer at McDonalds. My God, would someone turn off that damn thing?
Someone’s fingers touched my arm, and I opened my eyes. I recognized a nurse when I saw one. Not good. Acid churned in my stomach, threatening to erupt. The woman in the green, baggy top and a nametag clipped to her enormous chest smiled at me and removed something from my nose. An air tube.
I closed my eyes, feeling the gurney beneath me moving. Someone murmured, “We’re taking you for a CT scan now.”
Then a never-ending stream of questions. Yes, all my parts moved fine. Oh, and thanks for removing the gravel embedded in my knee. After that, they left me alone for what seemed like an eternity. Muffled voices drew closer. I recognized my sister’s voice and then my mother’s.
This was not good at all.
My mother’s voice rose in pitch. “I need to see her now. Bailey?”
I tried to turn toward the door, but a tug across my arm stopped me. The nurse adjusted the IV drip tubing. “I’ll let the doctor on call know you are here,” the nurse said to my mother.
Crossing the room, my mother sighed, wringing her hands. She was small, like Kelsi, whereas I took after my college linebacker dad. Sometimes it seemed she’d never forgiven my father for bestowing his jumbo genetics on their daughter.
My mother’s gaze lowered, and her jaw hardened.
I followed her line of sight to the bandages covering my right arm. “Just a bit of road rash, Mom. No biggie.”
Her lips pursed. “This is exactly what I was afraid of.”
I rolled my eyes. Thankfully, Dad was a lot less anal. At least he understood the excitement of competition and the need for athletic challenge.
The doctor entered the room and without a word typed something into a computer terminal. Without glancing up, he said, “Your daughter has a mild concussion. No broken bones. Moderate skin abrasion on her right arm. No physical activity for at least twenty-four hours. Monitor her for signs of severe headache, dizziness, or memory loss.”
The doctor continued staring at the screen.
“Is that it?” my mom prodded.
He nodded, then looked at me. “Good thing you were wearing a helmet. Bicycle accidents are one of the leading causes of head injuries in children. Remember to pay attention to your surroundings when riding on the street.”
Really? I almost laughed out loud. Thanks, Doc.
Piran stepped into the room, and my mom’s eyes widened. Her head tilted back. “Tall,” she murmured.
“Our mother, Gayle Meyers,” Kelsi said to him, gesturing with the hand holding my cracked bike helmet.
Piran bowed to his knee while my mother fussed. The Guardian Fae fascinated her. That old-world style and classicism thing. Must be the artist in her.
Rising, he smiled politely. Then his focus shifted to me, and his smile faded. His stride brought him to my bedside in two lengths.
The nurse re-entered the room, holding a clipboard. She stepped abreast of Piran, and placed the clipboard on my lap. “As you are an adult, you can legally sign your discharge papers. You’re covered by your parent’s insurance, correct? Also initial here and here.”
I dutifully signed before glancing at the clock on the wall. “How long have I been here?”
“About three hours,” Kelsi replied. “I called Mom as soon as the ambulance arrived on the racecourse.”
“Well, this has been fun, but I’m outta here.” I tossed off the blanket and noticed a tear in the hip of my racing suit. Crap. Team suits were expensive. I’d have to wear black riding shorts, and hopefully Coach Vinson would have a team jersey I could borrow.
Standing, I smoothed the bandage that covered where the nurse had removed the IV needle from the back of my hand. “Looks like I’ll be missing tomorrow’s race, but Tuesday’s race is in Milwaukee.”
“No.” Piran’s voice echoed in the small hospital emergency room.
“Excuse me?” I narrowed my eyes.
Mouth agape, my mom had that deer-in-the-headlights look. Then she clasped her hands together and smiled, no doubt thrilled to have a partner in crime to stop me from racing.