Authors: Lyla Bardan
“Mmm, no.” I stroked his jaw line.
“I wish I had met you earlier.”
Warmth radiated throughout my chest. I couldn’t believe a guy as wonderful as Piran wanted and loved
“My sweet Bailey,” he said, taking my hand and lightly kissing my fingertips. “You do not see yourself as others do. You are indeed most lovable.”
Giggling, I rolled onto my side and traced the deep furrows of his abs. “How did you get muscles like these? You don’t strike me as the ‘work-out’ kind of guy.”
“Swimming. Since I was a child, I spent every day swimming across the lake near my home, racing against Tolmin. It took me many years before I could beat him.” Piran laughed. “I understand the motivation to win a race.”
“I always wondered what it would be like to have a childhood friend,” I said, a touch wistful. “My family moved so many times for my dad’s job, I never stayed close to friends I had in each place. Maybe that’s why Kelsi and I are so tight.”
Piran reached over and thumbed my chin. “Do not be sad. I know how you feel. I also do not have many friends.” He stared off into the distance for a moment before returning his focus to me. “Yet Tolmin and I are as close as brothers. We even came to America together.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Studying for a degree in business. A useful degree, so my father says.” Piran sighed.
I rested my head on Piran’s chest. My turn to comfort him. “Not all jobs should be about how much money you make. I want to be a professional athlete in a sport that will barely pay the bills. But hey, it’s what I want to do.”
Pausing, I stroked a strong band of muscle near his hip. “We’re pursuing our dreams, Piran. Do you really want to spend all day in an office barking orders just to make money for shareholders or whatever it is that business people do?”
He laughed and wrapped his arms around me. “You are wonderful and refreshing. I am so happy I found you.”
I flushed, my pulse beating fast in my throat. “Me too.”
His gaze traveled to my lower hand. “I am sorry I finished . . .”
“Don’t be sorry. That was amazing.”
amazing and nothing like what I’d experienced before. My fingers continued their leisurely trek down his abdomen to where his soft pubes began. I gave him a knowing smile. “Guys get hard again, right?”
He nodded, grinning, as I encircled him in my hand and stroked lightly. Yup. The rumors about the Guardian Fae weren’t an exaggeration.
I sat up and straddled his thighs. He let out a rough groan, his eyes flaring with red.
Looking down at him, I licked my lips, loving the feel of his erection growing strong in my hand. “Seems I was right.”
On Sunday, I met Piran downtown at the Museum of Natural and Unnatural History. He loved the ancient human exhibits, particularly the Egyptian mummies. We wandered through an exhibit on Fae fashion, past and present, including a display of Fae jewelry both bizarre and fascinating. Piran pointed out a necklace his cousin, the duchess, had loaned for the exhibit.
After a couple hours, we went downstairs to the cafeteria, and I bought Vienna hot dogs with the works for us. While I scarfed mine down, Piran shook off the toppings, pulled his hot dog out of the bun, and wiggled it. “This is food?”
“Um, yeah,” I replied with my mouth full. “Try it.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Exactly what animal is used to make this?”
“Pig or cow. Not sure exactly. It’s a mix of ground up meat in casings made from the intestines of sheep I think.” I took a drink of my soda.
Frowning, Piran set the hot dog back in the bun.
“Are you a vegetarian?” I asked. My eyes suddenly felt hot. Damn it. I’d offended him. Stupid, stupid. I hadn’t even thought to ask first. The deep-dish pizza we’d eaten the previous weekend had been only cheese.
I reached over to remove Piran’s Vienna dog, and his hand covered mine. “No. I simply do not eat what I cannot identify.”
“Oh. Okay. Just try it?” Knowing I hadn’t offended him, I relaxed and finished my last bite.
He picked up the hot dog and wiggled it again, an amused expression on his face.
I sighed. “Really? At least don’t play with your food like a child.”
His eyes widened at the scolding, and he immediately plopped the hot dog down on the bun and squished it into the mustard, relish, tomatoes, and hot peppers. After shoving it into his mouth, he bit off a chunk, and his eyes narrowed while he chewed. One eyebrow rose in surprise, and he took another bite. His second eyebrow rose, and he hummed, his eyes drifting closed for a moment.
He smacked his lips. “American food is the rocket.”
“The bomb. And nobody says that anymore.”
Piran smiled, seeming not to care, and wolfed down the remainder in just two bites. Laughing at him, I tossed our trash in the garbage, and we walked toward the next museum exhibit, his arm slipping around my waist.
A group of Guardian Fae girls stopped in front of us, and they did not look happy. One stepped up to Piran, her eyes a swirl of brown and gray.
“A human, Piran of Sava?” Her disdainful gaze flicked to me.
He released me, bowed to one knee, and rose. “Murain. I trust your parents are well.”
She nodded and gave him a dismissive sniff. “And yours.”
Murain looked me up and down, then shuddered. The other girls laughed.
“You are appearing quite slim, Murain,” he said, giving her a sympathetic look. “Has your family fallen on hard times?”
The Fae girl’s jaw dropped. Piran pushed me forward and grabbed a handful of my butt. I whirled to face him, and it was my turn to gape. Granted, I could have fit two of Murain in me, but seriously?
“Now this is a healthy woman,” he declared with a grin. His hand traced the curve of my hip.
Miss Skinny Fae turned beet red, her lips twisting like an angry snake, and I was pretty sure only the laws against magic protected me right then. With one last glare over her shoulder, she stomped off toward the restrooms.
Still grinning, Piran winked at me. I waited until the other Fae girls had skittered away before breaking into laughter. “I can’t believe you did that!”
He shrugged. “Murain is a thorn in my donkey.”
I shook my head. “You just mangled two sayings, Piran.”
His shoulders squared. “No, that is a Fae saying.”
“Uh-huh. Since when did the Fae ever ride donkeys?”
His smile turned mischievous, and a glint of green colored his eyes. He clasped my hand in his. “Do you wish to visit my apartment today?”
About to say yes, I hedged. “Wait. Isn’t your art show tomorrow night?” I caressed his palm with my thumb. “I’m sure you have last minute preparations. I don’t want to get in the way or distract you.”
Without warning, he grabbed me around the waist and lifted me up with such force, I was nearly tossed in the air. With a startled squeak, I slapped at his arms. “Hey, let me down!”
Laughing, he lowered me until our foreheads touched. “I love that you value my time and understand my commitments.” He gently kissed me. “I love you so much, Bailey.”
“I love you too,” I whispered, squirming as people around us stopped and stared. A flush swept up the back of my neck and across my cheeks.
He set me on my feet and placed his hands on my shoulders. “Do not be embarrassed. I do not care what others think. Nor should you.”
Tearing my gaze from his, I couldn’t help wilting under his scrutiny. If only I possessed half of his self-assurance and confidence.
He forced my focus back to him by tipping up my chin with his finger. “When racing, you
confident, and more. You are transported to another world. A world where only the brave and fearless live.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, hugging him so hard it felt like I broke a rib.
He let out a laugh, or maybe a grunt. “My rib or yours?”
“Both?” I asked, resting my head against his chest.
As he stroked my hair, the museum, exhibits, and other visitors faded away. No other sound reached my ears but Piran’s strong heartbeat. In his arms, I felt safe, appreciated, and loved.
After a moment, I reluctantly pulled back. “It’s getting late. I should go home and you have an art show to prepare for.”
I tried not to sigh. An art show he’d purposely told me not to attend.
Monday afternoon, I sat behind the counter at the bike shop, listening to the owner drone on about how we needed to sell more bicycles, particularly, high-end racing bikes. What did he expect me to do? Grab people off the street, drag them into the store, and somehow convince them to shell out a few thousand bucks on a fancy road bike? Right. They’d only fall on their asses while trying to clip their hundred-dollar cleated shoes into the spring-loaded pedals.
Leaning my chin on my palms, I glanced over at Nick tapping a water bottle on the counter. Then I noticed ear buds in his ears. He wasn’t even listening to Mr. Wittenberg! Nick caught me staring and grinned. Mike, the store manager, cleared his throat, and I dutifully turned my attention to Mr. Wittenberg’s bobbing double chin.
Ugh. Would this day never end?
Finally, the clock on the wall ticked four, and I signed out. But the moment I got home, Mom handed me a scrub brush and a bottle of bathroom cleanser.
“Your bathtub is disgusting.”
“Yeah, because of Kelsi and all her stupid hair products.” Scowling, I set the scrub brush and cleanser on the kitchen counter. “Make her clean the tub.”
Mom picked up the scrub brush and cleanser and thrust them back into my hands. “No. I told you to clean the bathroom. Don’t argue.”
“At the store getting groceries.” My mother turned and sorted through the mail, but repeatedly picked up the same envelopes and set them down.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
Her hand fluttered to her throat. “Well, your father said there’s talk at the firm about moving some of the mid-level managers to the Pennsylvania office.”
My breath hitched, and a heaviness stole into my chest. “Another move?”
“I don’t know, honey. We’ll have to wait and see.” With a sigh, she looked out the kitchen window facing the street and smoothed her hands down the sides of her pants, which bagged around her hips. She’d lost weight. Damn it. I hadn’t even noticed before.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep, pained breath. When was the last time I hung out with my mother? She tended to spend time with Kelsi, shopping and getting pedicures. Girly stuff. And I’d always bow out, wanting to train on my bike instead.
“This is the longest we’ve stayed in one place,” Mom said. “I love our life here. I have a great job, great friends. The neighborhood is wonderful.”
I’d never really thought about how all the moves had affected her.
“I’ll get the bathroom clean,” I said quietly. “Then help you with dinner.”
Her worried eyes glistened, the fine lines at the corners more pronounced than ever. She reached out and gripped my hand. “Thank you, Bay.”
On autopilot, I turned and lumbered into the living room. The climb upstairs seemed to take forever, as if my muscles had wasted away.
In the bathroom, I sprayed cleanser in the tub, sank to my knees, and began to scrub. Damn stupid soap scum. Damn Kelsi for never rinsing the tub after she showered. Damn Dad and his mid-level manager job.
I ground the brush into the porcelain, scrubbing until my hands hurt.
I didn’t want Mom and Dad to move. Not again. This was a great house. I liked the city of Evanston and working at the bike shop, at least when the owner wasn’t there. I liked hanging out with Nick at bike races. And Kelsi attended college nearby, able to live at home.
Brushing the hair out of my eyes with my forearm, I tossed the scrub brush in the bathroom sink and ran the shower to rinse the tub. I stood, rubbing the stiffness in my lower back, and stared at the mess on the sink vanity. Kelsi’s mess. My throat thickened. If all went according to plan, I’d join a pro team and leave home anyway.
Would it even matter if Mom and Dad moved?
I trudged to my bedroom, and Piran’s painting drew me in. The wheels of my racing bike spun as my legs pumped up and down, working the pedals. I traced my finger around the edge of the painting. I could almost feel the vibrations.
An idea popped into my head, and I ran down the stairs into the kitchen. The wonderful smell of sautéed onions and garlic made my mouth water.
“Yes, honey?” She turned from stirring a pot of stewed tomatoes. “I’ve everything started already, but could you make a salad?”
“Uh, sure.” I grabbed a bunch of romaine lettuce and a cucumber from the fridge and set them on the counter. “Do we have any avocados left?”
“No, your sister ate the last one.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course she did.
“There’s some purple cabbage in there, I think. Or add some Greek olives.”
“Sounds good.” I grabbed the jar of olives, avoiding the cabbage. “Listen, how would you like to go see an art show tonight?”
Mom stopped stirring, and her eyes widened. Then she smiled. “Why, Bay, that sounds like a lovely idea.”
I finished slicing the cucumber and added it to a large salad bowl. “Yeah, Piran is part of a student art show at the university.”
“I see.” She raised an eyebrow, but the smile never left her face. “Well, I’d love to see his work. What’s his medium?”
She laughed. “Fiber art, ceramic sculpture, glass, woodworking?”
“Um, painting.” I racked my brain to remember what he’d told me. “With natural dyes made from plants, insects, and minerals.”
Mom released an appreciative sigh. “The Fae create such beautiful paintings.”
She took a taste of her sauce and nodded, but the warmth in her expression faded when the front door opened, and my father’s booming voice announced he was home. She glanced at the clock over the stove, and her brow creased. “What time is the art show?”
“No rush. We can go after dinner.”
“Good. Could you drop the pasta in the boiling water, please?” She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and tossed it on the counter. “I need to talk with your father.”
From the abrupt change in her voice, this didn’t sound good. My hands shook as I poured a box of macaroni into a big pot of water. Footsteps thumped behind me, and I spun around just as Kelsi plopped down two full grocery sacks on the counter.
“Damn heavy,” she said with a huff. She began unloading the groceries. “So what’s going on with Mom and Dad?”
I pulled up a kitchen chair. “I guess Dad’s job might be moved to Pennsylvania.”
Kelsi dropped a carton of milk. “Shit. When?”
“Don’t know,” I replied, retrieving the milk. “Hey, can you set the table?”
Glassy-eyed, Kelsi rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, sure.” She grabbed a set of plates from the cabinet and set them on the kitchen table. After a moment, she whirled around and stared at me. “Do you know what this means?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but had no idea what to say.
Kelsi sagged against the table. “If Mom and Dad move, I can’t afford to stay enrolled at the Chicago Art University, much less pay rent on an apartment.”
“Can’t Mom and Dad pay for you to live in a dorm?”
She snorted. “Are you kidding, Bay? On top of the tuition?”
I chewed my lip. I had no idea how much her tuition cost.
Kelsi and I finished dinner preparations in silence.
During the meal, Mom toyed with her pasta. As usual, Dad avoided the salad and instead chomped down extra servings of garlic bread. No one spoke, as if we all had fallen under some evil spell outlawing speech.
With every passing minute, the tension magnified. God, I couldn’t take it anymore. My stomach cramping, I excused myself and rinsed my plate before running up to my room.
I flopped on my bed and for several minutes just stared at the ceiling fan going round and round, the slight whir comforting, almost mind numbing. Except when the damn thing started to wheeze and shake. Was it possible for the fan to come whirling off the ceiling and land on me? I cringed just thinking about it, then rolled off my bed and adjusted the fan’s setting.