Authors: Lyla Bardan
“Look, Piran,” I said. “I know it must seem scary to see me like this, but crashing is a typical racing hazard. Every rider knows the risk.”
Kelsi handed me my jeans and T-shirt, and I slipped them on over my racing suit.
“I’m not gonna stop racing just because of a little concussion. The doctor said no physical activity for twenty-four hours. Fine. So I’ll rest for a day.”
His eyes whirled an angry purple. “Your brain needs time to heal, Bailey. Your skull is weakened. If you crash again and hit your head, your brain—”
“Then I won’t crash again,” I argued. “My shoe cleat broke. It was a freak thing. I’ve got another set of cleats at home.”
“Bailey, honey,” my mother began. “Perhaps you should listen—”
“Wait. Is he a doctor? I don’t think so. Mom, they gave me a CT scan. My brain is fine.” I hugged her. “I’m fine. Really, I am. I’ll stay at home, in front of the television. I’ll call you every hour tomorrow while you’re at work.”
“If you have any symptoms,” she warned.
“If I have any symptoms, I’ll take another day off. Mom, this racing tour is my big chance to make the nationals team and I already missed yesterday’s race. Okay? Please.” I gave her my best puppy-dog eyes.
Behind me, Piran made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a dog growling.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Ha, ha,” I said under my breath.
“I will stay with her,” he announced, not even looking at me.
Oh come on. I didn’t need a babysitter.
But my mother nodded. What? She and Kelsi walked ahead of us to the elevator.
Piran leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Then stop acting like a baby.”
I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t care how un-friggin-believably gorgeous and sexy he was, there was no way I was going to—
He spun around, a crook of a smile on his face. “You think I am gorgeous? And sexy?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh my God, Piran. Just walk to the damn elevator.”
He did, and I waited a moment before catching up. Even as though he was going all “Guardian” on me, I wasn’t about to admit how thrilled I was he wanted to take care of me.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said as we headed toward the underground garage. “I’ve heard Guardians can shield their minds. Is that how you block out all the random thoughts from others? I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to constantly listen to people’s perverted fantasies and rants against their jerky bosses.”
Piran laughed. “Yes, we can shield our minds to some extent, although it is not as bad as you imagine. Most of us cannot read another person’s thoughts unless we are physically near to them and have forged a mind-connection. Although certain thoughts do plow through uninvited and some individuals are quite difficult to read.”
He stopped walking and turned me around to face him. A crease formed between his eyebrows. “Is there something you need to hide from me?”
Squirming, I shifted my gaze to the garage wall and began counting the bricks.
Twenty-six . . . twenty-seven . . .
“Bailey.” Exasperation tinged his voice.
I peered up at him and ignored his stubborn expression. “What was I thinking about?”
“I do not know. You erected a brick wall in your mind.” He crossed his arms, clearly attempting to be stern with me, but he couldn’t hide the smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Are we done with this?”
“Yes.” I made a face at him. “So, I was testing how well you can read me if I’m concentrating on something else, but honestly, I have nothing to hide from you.”
He raised an eyebrow.
Giving him a teasing smile, I nudged him with my elbow. “Yet . . .”
I woke up Monday morning with a mild headache. Understandable. Nothing that a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and a cup of coffee wouldn’t fix. I plodded into the kitchen.
Kelsi grabbed her keys off the counter top. “Bay, I’m going out with Noelle. I need to pick up some modeling clay and wax. Maybe some wire too.”
“Uh-huh.” I plopped down on the couch with my bowl of cereal and grabbed the remote, scrolling through the television channels.
“And then we’re going to the mall where that new spa store just opened,” she continued. “You know the one with the million brands of make-up?”
Actually, I didn’t know, but since Kelsi sounded like a little kid in a candy store, more power to her. I waved my hand. “Have a good time.”
A couple minutes after the door shut, the doorbell rang. I groaned. Why did she always forget something and then expect me to get it for her? The doorbell rang again. Sheesh. Kelsi could have just taken the keys back out of her car.
I stomped into the hallway and unlocked the dead bolt. “There. Let yourself in.” Just as the front door creaked open, I continued into the laundry room to start a load. “What did you forget this time?”
“Are you always this courteous to guests?” an accented voice asked from the foyer.
I screamed. Wearing only pajama shorts and a skimpy camisole, I rummaged through the dryer. Towels, socks, my dad’s boxers. Nothing useful.
“Piran, um, why are you here?” I asked, hiding behind the laundry room door.
“I said I would stay with you today.” There was a pause. “And your attire is fine.”
I took a deep breath. Carrying the basket of laundry in front of me, I stepped into the hallway. “I just need to bring these upstairs.”
Piran eyed a pair of my dad’s boxers on the top of the pile, and I wanted to crawl inside the nearest available hole and disappear. He was looking at my dad’s humongous—could make a tent for pygmies—underwear.
“Your father is a gifted man,” Piran said. “A large man is a gifted man.”
I nodded as if I understood. Some Fae saying, no doubt.
He lifted the laundry basket from my hands and set it on the floor by the front door. His head tilted as he gazed at me, and his long braid slid over his shoulder. For a moment, I visualized his hair free. Guardian men always wore their hair braided. No idea why.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he cleared his throat. “Fae men in my land only unbraid for loving.”
“For loving,” I repeated. “You mean sex?”
“Oh.” My mouth went dry. I waited for him to say something else, but he stood silently, staring off to the side.
Finally, he held out a hand to me. “Is it not customary to sightsee?”
I rubbed my forehead, trying to interpret his meaning. “Sightsee what?”
“Your home.” He gave a slight shake of his head. “I misspoke. Tour. May I have a tour of your home?”
I stared at his mouth as if drugged. His accent really was to die for. He could probably say the dog was crapping in the yard and it would sound sexy.
Shaking off the spell, I took his hand in mine and led him down the hallway. Then it dawned on me. We were holding hands! Oh man, that was sappy. Doubly sappy. No, don’t think that. Nothing about sap.
I groaned inside. I should just stop thinking.
There was nothing super interesting or exciting about my parents’ home. Standard three-bedroom two-story. I opened the door to Kelsi’s bedroom and cringed. Clothes everywhere. We stepped into the bathroom I shared with her, and I gestured to the nearly bare side of the sink vanity. “My side.” My hand swept to the other side, filled with a multitude of tubes and bottles, my sister’s eyeshadow palette still open. “Kelsi’s side.”
Piran laughed. “I like that about you. You are natural and comfortable with yourself.” He squeezed my hand. “You have no need to cover your beauty with oils and paints.”
For the first time in his presence, I didn’t worry about what I was thinking, because my brain simply stopped functioning. Even my breathing stopped.
“Bailey.” The way he said my name, low and full of meaning, set my heart racing.
I couldn’t look at him even though I wanted to. Every synapse in my brain seemed stuck. He reached across and touched my cheek, and my skin tingled, warmth spreading over my face. A rant rushed through my brain. Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me . . .
And he did, gripping my shoulders and pulling me in, his mouth finding mine. In his arms, I had a taste of what it felt like to be delicate and feminine. I wasn’t ‘big Bailey’. He made me feel beautiful.
“You are beautiful,” he murmured against my lips.
His fingers sidled up my back under my camisole, stroking my bare skin, sending shocks up and down my spine. His mouth skimmed my jaw, then down to the top of my camisole, and I held my breath, heart pounding. His soft, warm lips spiked crazy sensations inside me.
Piran’s hands slid around my rib cage, and his fingers brushed against my breasts. My nipples hardened, almost painfully, and I bit back a gasp. Damn, he moved fast, but I didn’t push him away. I gripped his strong biceps, teetering on the edge of urging him to go further, yet at the same time, uncertain I could handle when to stop…or if.
I wanted him so badly, my thighs clenched.
But maybe this was a good time to find out just how
he was, before I got in over my head?
He suddenly dropped his hands to his sides and stepped back, a crease forming between his eyebrows as he gazed down at me. “Have you been with a man before?”
I stiffened, taken aback by his question, and wondering how specific he meant by
. What was he expecting of me?
“Are you untaken?” Piran asked, his tone guarded.
My nose wrinkled. “That sounds rather old-fashioned, not to mention possessive.”
“Intact,” he offered.
“Uh, not much better.”
I ran a hand through my hair, breaking eye contact. The moment was gone.
Stepping out of the bathroom into the upstairs hallway, I noticed the stain in the carpet where Kelsi had dropped a bottle of nail polish remover. It had bleached the fibers. Dad threw a fit. Mom used it as an excuse to say we needed new carpet. Dad wasn’t
ticked enough to agree.
Piran tapped his fingers on the doorframe, and I sighed. Distraction wasn’t going to work, but I didn’t know what to say. In high school, I was a complete disaster with guys. College wasn’t much better. A few boyfriends, only one serious. I lost my virginity in the back seat of a car where it seemed it was over before I even realized it had begun. And it never got better. Just clueless groping and grunting in the dark, leaving me frustrated and wondering if it was my fault.
So, no, I’d never been with a
I tugged my camisole back into place and shook off the memories. “Maybe we should go downstairs and watch TV or something.”
“I am sorry, Bailey,” Piran said, his deep voice breaking.
“Yeah, thanks.” But I didn’t need a pity party. I turned to face him.
“You are not interested in me,” he said, staring at his hands, shoulders hunched.
Damn, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it
. But no doubt I couldn’t compare to the girls he’d been with before. I wasn’t exactly sexually adventurous. I was a big, tall, athletic tomboy with barely any loss of sheen on my hoo-ha. I blinked away the rapidly forming tears. Hell, no, I wouldn’t cry. Bad enough to be an amateur, but a sniveling amateur?
Piran startled, his face turning red. “No, Bailey . . . ”
His jaw clenched, and his hands fisted by his sides. Struggling. But with what? He had the advantage. He could read my mind, but I couldn’t read his.
I waited for him to say something more, but he didn’t, and the stone lodged in my chest grew into a boulder. The ring of my cell phone floated up the stairs.
“I should get that,” I mumbled.
He nodded, and I dashed down the stairs and searched for my phone. Finally, I found it on the couch, but I’d missed the call.
Footsteps echoed across the kitchen floor.
“Nick called,” I explained, glancing up at Piran. “I should call him and let him know how I’m doing.”
Piran’s sharp intake of breath echoed across the room. “Certainly. I will leave now.”
He said it with such finality—no room to argue—so I stifled my urge to ask why.
“Goodbye,” I whispered in a daze as he made his way past me. This wasn’t what I wanted, although I didn’t know what I
The front door opened, and a melancholy tinkling from the wind chimes on the porch carried into the kitchen. When the door closed, my shoulders sagged. Had I really lost him because he was ready and I wasn’t? Damn stupid sex-crazed Fae.
I tossed my phone down on the couch, a bitter taste in my mouth. A dark cloud wrapped around my heart, and I curled up on the couch, hugging my knees to my chest.
Who was I kidding? This was as much about me. Afraid to admit my inexperience. Afraid to admit I couldn’t handle the comparisons. So he knew his way around a woman. Isn’t that what I wanted? And he wasn’t with other girls, he was with
Arggh. Everything had happened so fast, and now he was gone. All I had to do was call him, yet I clung to a sofa pillow. Humiliation had a way of paralyzing motivation.
The house phone rang, and I dragged myself into the kitchen.
I picked up the receiver. “Hello?” I said dully.
“Bailey,” my coach said, barking my name in his typical curt way. “I wanted to check and see how you were recovering.”
“I’m fine.” I didn’t bother to mention the mild concussion.
“Good, because you’re off the team.”
“Wait . . .” My heart suddenly went into overdrive. “Wh-Why?”
“I made it clear before. Outside interests lead to a lack of focus, and you definitely lacked focus on Tuesday. You don’t think I noticed your boyfriend at the race and how you kept looking at him? You crashed because you weren’t paying attention. And I can’t have riders on my team who don’t pay attention. They’re a danger to themselves and the other riders.”
I swallowed hard, trying to hold back the tears.
“I’ll need you to turn in your team license.”
And without another word, Coach hung up, before I even had the chance to tell him that Piran was not my boyfriend.
Definitely the worst day of my life.
Teamless. Without a rudder.
If I wanted my place back on Coach Vinson’s team, I had to kill today’s race in the Grand Prix Tour and prove my dedication. No way would I spend the rest of the season racing as an independent, and there wasn’t another women’s team in the Chicago area.
Except–I arrived late to the course in Milwaukee. With all the construction and detours, my GPS was useless, the exits off the highway made no sense at all, and I ended up getting lost in the city. Since Kelsi was at a gallery showing, I had no one else to coerce to accompany me. Mia and Shannon didn’t have room in their car for another rider and bike, and I didn’t bother calling Coach.
Yet another reason I wanted to be on a pro team rather than an amateur team. The support. A secure ride to races and a team van to transport gear and bikes.
Bike frame in hand, I stood in a grassy parking lot, dissing myself for my poor geographical skills. Now I wouldn’t have much time to warm-up, and I learned my lesson on that score. After hoisting my bike’s front wheel from my car hatch, I slid the axle into the fork dropouts and tightened the quick release. Gave the wheel a good spin to make sure it was centered, then adjusted the brakes.
While I pumped up the tires, a surge of pain drilled through my head. Staggering back, I gripped the handle of my car, and within seconds, the pain dissipated. I rolled my shoulders and drew in a deep breath. Just over-stressed and probably dehydrated from the blinding sun, no breeze, and a temp in the high eighties. I took a deep swig from my water bottle, then sent off a text to my mom letting her know I’d arrived safely at the race.
I decided to take a spin around the course to get a feel for the layout. Rounding a turn, I slowed. Just ahead, Mia and Shannon rode with Jose. Something about Mia’s laugh really grated me. Or maybe it was just her. Ever since she’d started placing in the top ten in every race, she’d become such a diva. And I didn’t know what was up with Shannon. We’d always been inseparable at races, now she acted like we’d never been on the same team.
Mia glanced over her shoulder, her oozing smirk matching her overly made up eyes. I mean, who wears make-up when racing? Especially in this heat? She said something to Shannon, and they picked up their pace. I shook my head. I knew the score. Whatever.
Jose lagged behind and veered his bike to ride alongside me. I braced for the usual onslaught of sliminess, but he gave me a sympathetic smile. “You need a new team, chica. I can make that happen.”
I snorted. “Your team doesn’t take female riders, Jose.”
“How about Team Synergy?”
I gasped. My dream professional team. Team Synergy raced in both the U.S. and Europe, and their women riders kicked ass.
“Their director is here today, and I’m tight with him,” Jose boasted. “He’s looking for riders willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
“Whatever it takes,” I repeated, frowning. My fingers clutched the brake levers on my bike. A slight chill lifted the hair on the back of my neck.
“My training regimen will get you there, Bailey.” Jose jutted his chin. “See what it’s done for Mia? She’s a winner now. And remember Chuck Miley? He was on my training regimen last season, and the Proto team signed him.”