Authors: Lyla Bardan
Table of Contents
A SPRINT TO HIS HEART
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
A SPRINT TO HIS HEART
Cover Design by Wren Taylor
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my wonderful, bicycle-racing husband,
thank you for being the inspiration for this book!
To my children, thank you for your encouragement and willingness to be a sounding board (and putting up with me talking about writing ad nauseam). Thank you to all my friends who said they liked my writing—your kind praise kept me going, particularly when I felt like throwing in the towel. Big kisses to Amy, Luisa, Vicki, and Patricia. I would also like to thank the many authors who took the time to critique or beta-read my work in progress—your advice has been immeasurable—with a special shout-out to Kathleen Fleet for her wisdom and great eye and Tameri Etherton for planting an idea in my head that ended up as a brand new chapter. And finally, a gazillion thanks to my editor Samantha McMahon and cover artist Wren Taylor for turning my work into an actual book!
On the way to registration check-in, I steered my racing bicycle around a corner. Today’s race would be my ticket to the Olympics. I could feel it in my bones.
Too bad I wasn’t looking where I was riding.
A goblin on a stunt bike, laughing like a maniacal hyena, popped a wheelie right in front of me. I hit the brakes hard. My rear tire skidded on the pavement and started to come around. Oh, hell no. Struggling to stay upright, I leaned into the slide.
Come on . . . come on . . . Yes!
Nearly at a standstill, I toppled over and landed on the lawn of downtown Chicago’s finest apartment building.
An old woman yelled for her husband to come outside. For God’s sake. If I could just get my shoes unclipped from the damn pedals. I crawled deeper onto the wet grass, dragging my lightweight carbon-fiber bike with me so I could get it off the sidewalk.
“May I help you?”
Peering in the direction of the accented voice, my gaze traveled from long legs clad in faded jeans to a T-shirt pulled tight across a broad chest. A long braid of hair so blond it could have been spun platinum hung over the shoulder of the unbelievably breathtaking Guardian Fae.
Iridescent eyes sparkled with amusement, a quirk on his lips. “Are you all right?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, I’m fine. Thanks.”
Reaching down to tug on my racing shoes, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and jerked back.
“You have mud on your cheek.” He leaned forward.
Perfectly proportioned fingers neared my jaw, and my breath faltered. I hastily smeared a palm across my face . . . and shoved a blob of mud up my nose.
. Then I sneezed, and mud splattered all over my bare leg and his sneakers.
Could I just start this day over? Please?
Tugging on the clips on my bike pedals, I was finally released and jumped to my feet. “I’m . . . I’m good now. See you later.”
Arggh. Yet another inane comment. Why couldn’t I just shut up? Avoiding the Guardian’s curious gaze, I mounted my bike.
Twelve years since the Revealing, when we discovered the mythical Fae weren’t so mythical after all, and not much seemed different. Maybe because I was only nine at the time. Sure, cops had Faezers to keep the most dangerous dark Fae in line and Fae magic was regulated, but goblins were still annoying little shits and the Guardian Fae, regardless of their modern dress, were still distant visions of beauty and grace.
At the moment though, I didn’t care about the Fae. In less than an hour, I needed to race in one of the most important events of the summer and I still hadn’t checked in.
I turned another corner and groaned. Professional racer Jose Arcañes pedaled straight for me. Quickly veering down a side street, I craned my head left and right. Come on, there had to be an escape. I had no time for his slime today. Shit. The street was nothing but a dead-end alley. No choice but to exit the way I’d come.
Spinning my wheels, I pivoted my bike and froze.
Jose followed me. Wearing only racing shorts, he came up alongside me and grabbed my seat post, forcing me off the saddle. His gaze roamed over my body, and a sardonic smile crossed his lips. “Bailey. How are you?”
I nearly lost my lunch. What I would have given right then to be wearing baggy overalls instead of a spandex racing suit. Cursing under my breath, I struggled to wrest my bike from his grip. “I’m fine, Jose.”
His focus settled where my thighs straddled the top tube of my bike frame. “You sure? This is a big race for you.”
Understatement of the year. The Midwest Women’s Cycling Championship was a huge race, not just for me, but for women’s cycling. I tugged on my racing suit self-consciously and looked around. Wonderful. Alone with the biggest jerk on the planet. Not even a dark Fae around to help me. Like any of them would anyway. If only I had a can of mace. No, if only I had the ability to outride him. Would serve him right to be aced by a woman.
Jose’s lip curled. “Think you have a chance of placing in your race today?”
“I don’t know,” I said between clenched teeth, gripping my handlebars. “I’ll try though.”
Oh yeah, that was telling him off. Why did I let him get to me? He was just like those juvenile frat guys from the nearby university who heckled me on my training rides.
Except something about Jose made me think of monsters under the bed.
I finally managed to wrench my bike away. Before I could remount, he grabbed my shoulders and pulled me close, his dark eyes lidded. “How about a kiss?”
With a grunt, I jerked my head to the side. “How about not.”
“I can show you a real good time.” He wore his amused, arrogant expression like a blade, ready to slice my confidence to ribbons. “Give you what you’ve never had.”
Ugh. No thanks. I clipped my feet back into the pedals. Just because I’d been without a boyfriend since junior year of college didn’t mean I’d settle for a creep like Jose. A smooth, slick creep with inflated pecs to match his inflated machismo. Why my teammate dated him last year made no sense to me. He cheated on her with anything that walked upright.
“You know you want to, Bailey.” He laughed, his white teeth all the brighter against his deep tan. “Who knows, maybe this is your lucky day.”
My stomach roiled, the scent of his cologne assaulting my nose. I cranked down on the pedals, and his mocking laughter trailed behind me. Cheeks burning, I sped off to find the start of the racecourse. I didn’t need a reminder I’d never been super popular with guys. Being taller than most didn’t help. Factor in the broad shoulders and muscular thighs and calves, and no surprise most boys ran for cover.
I’d always envied Kelsi, my petite, younger sister, the poster child of girliness. She even had the prerequisite cute dimples, outgoing personality, and innate ability to accessorize.
After finding my way to the check-in area, I waited in line to pick up my race number. The mid-June sun beat down on the back of my neck.
As I signed in, Jose’s voice carried over my shoulder.
“Just got back from Spain where I spent the last six weeks racing with the pros. I competed in the amateur men’s race this morning just for fun. Blew those puppies away.”
“Asshat,” I said under my breath. The conceit in his voice made me want to smother him with a pillow. I sure hadn’t missed seeing him on the Midwest racing circuit.
A volunteer handed me my registration packet, while Jose continued to brag to his teammates while they hung out with—or in Jose’s case, drooled over—the female cyclists. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Circling back to the parking lot, I noticed Kelsi talking with . . .
no fucking way
The Guardian Fae.
Rarely had I’d been up close and personal with a Guardian. Although many of the more human-like dark Fae had joined our societies, the more dominant Guardians seemed to have a harder time integrating. Maybe because for millennia they’d held themselves in such high regard. Without our knowledge, they had intervened on our behalf whenever dark Fae stepped over the line. Something about a sense of honor and duty.
Kelsi waved me over. Well, I wasn’t about to ignore my own sister. Sucking in a breath, I walked my bike to her, removed my helmet, and hung it from my handlebars.
“Bailey, this is my friend, Piran of Sava. He’s a fellow student at the Chicago Art University.” She turned to him. “Piran, this is my sister, the soon-to-be professional bike racer.”
They knew each other. Of course. Resisting the urge to run and hide, I plastered a polite smile on my face.
Piran dropped his considerable height to one knee, and I resisted the urge to giggle. I’d never been completely comfortable with the Fae greeting custom. So chivalrous. He rose again, and I gazed into twinkling blue eyes. I couldn’t stop staring. Rumor had it the Guardian Fae could hypnotize with their stare, and I idly wondered if I’d suddenly start barking like a dog.
He leaned down toward me, the corner of his mouth rising slightly. “A dog? No. Perhaps a clucking chicken.”
His rich, warm voice highlighted his delicious Fae accent—an indescribable blend of eastern European and smooth French, with maybe a touch of Irish lilt. Unlike some people, I didn’t really mind the intrusion, but I diverted my thoughts before I inadvertently revealed how I’d love to hear that voice in different circumstances.
“I have never seen a bicycle race before.” Piran surveyed the team cars and riders crowding into the parking lot. He gestured to a sloped skyscraper on State Street. “My apartment is on the top floor. I became intrigued when I saw all the cars and bicycles and decided that watching the races would be more fun than joining my friends at a baseball game.” He paused, his forehead creasing. “A game I still do not understand the appeal.”
I wasn’t surprised he’d never seen a bike race. Cycling wasn’t a popular sport in America, and even in Europe, cycling didn’t have the following of soccer or tennis. And the Guardian Fae didn’t participate in the violent spectacle of dark Fae blood cycling—a sick, twisted, gladiator-type competition that naturally attracted bigger crowds than a human bike race, particularly a women’s bike race.
“So, you’re an artist,” I remarked, attempting to make conversation, then groaned internally. Wow. That was mindless. Of course he was an artist. He went to an arts university.
Piran gave me that wry half-smile again. “Yes, I am. I particularly enjoy working with natural paints. I do not have the knack for sculpture that Kelsi does.”
“Don’t play yourself down,” Kelsi chided. She tilted her head toward me. “Piran’s wildlife paintings have garnered so much attention that Professor Bangaree sent photos of them to prospective buyers.”
Piran snorted. “Professor Bangaree is an old marsh hen. He wouldn’t know a good painting if it licked him.”
I gave Kelsi a quizzical glance.
“Do you mean
him?” she asked Piran.
A streak of green swirled through his eyes, and he smiled. “Indeed, I did.”
Kelsi laughed. “Come on, Piran. Let’s find a good spot on the racecourse to chill until Bailey’s race starts.”
“Wait,” I said, removing a square piece of laminated paper from my registration packet. “Pin my number on, please.”
She carefully safety-pinned the number to my back, and I donned my helmet.
“Break an arm!” Piran shouted with enthusiasm.
Kelsi sighed, giving me a resigned look. “Just tell her good luck, Piran.”
“Good luck.” He flashed a grin that brightened the air around him. Around us both. Wowza.
“Thanks.” I wiped my hands on my grass-stained cycling suit, my temperature rising by a gazillion degrees. Before imploding, I dropped my gaze and headed to the start line.
I needed a top-five finish in today’s race to have a prayer of being picked up by the U.S. National Development Team. This was the summer to prove myself. Three weeks ago, I’d tossed my college graduation cap in the air with a huge sigh of relief. No more books, no more boring teachers. Now I had one year to show results on the racing tours. One rent-free year my nervous parents had begrudgingly granted for me to decide between a real job and professional cycling.
The women’s race contained only forty or so riders, a pittance compared to men’s races. I butted my way through the riders, angling to the front of the starting line. Shaking my feet one at a time to dispel nervous energy, I took a deep breath to ease the tightness in my chest.
The starter raised his gun and fired. We were off. Fifty kilometers to ride.
The course looped the streets of downtown Chicago, encompassing Michigan Avenue. Nearly flat terrain. With only one moderately steep hill on the backside of the course, the race promised a fast and exciting ride. Although I had good strength in my legs, I wasn’t much of a speedster, and the starting pace seemed a bit fast to maintain for the full length of the race.
Fortunately, the cheers from the spectators, as few as they were, gave me a jolt of energy. I passed my buddy Nick and his friends standing on the sidelines, and gamely braced for alcohol-fueled projectiles. They simply raised their beer cups to me, their loud, drunk voices singing my praises.
“Kick ass, Bailey!” Nick shouted.
Grinning, I threw him a quick salute. I’d met Nick my sophomore year in college when I started working at Harbor Bike and Ski in Evanston. Before long, I became the little sister of the shop. Although a collegiate cross-country skier, Nick loved watching bike racing.
During the first three laps of the race, I managed to remain in the middle of the pack. In the second corner of the fourth lap, a rider miscalculated and went through a curve too quickly, her bike sliding out from under her. She landed on her rear, spinning and skidding until she smacked into the street curb. Three other riders collided with the downed rider’s bike, and more bodies and bikes spilled to the pavement. Swerving to the inside, I passed the throng of riders forced to slow for the crash.
The chaos allowed five riders to break away and open a gap between them and the rest of the field. This was my chance. I jammed down hard on my pedals, gave it everything I had, and rode into no-man’s land. Alone, with the break in front of me, I struggled to avoid being swallowed by the chasing field of riders behind me. The breakaway group still in sight, I rode faster than I’d ever ridden. By the next corner, I’d bridged the gap and drafted behind the last lead rider, exhausted but hanging on.
The five leaders didn’t let up though, forcing me to maintain their punishing pace. In my head, my own voice spurred me on.
Ignore the pain. Go faster. Go harder
A group of dark Fae sporting little more than pink quills ran down the road alongside us, their disgusting comments helping me ride faster. No, I didn’t want to know what they would do to me with a bike frame fork and a tube of axle grease.
One lap to go. Sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes. My mouth hung open as I gasped for oxygen, my lungs about to explode. My legs were jelly, the lactic acid burning in my muscles. The finish line came into sight, and we jockeyed for position. Knowing when to jump in a finishing sprint was a crucial riding tactic. Three lead riders jumped simultaneously. I hesitated for only a heartbeat, then cranked down hard on the pedals. Slipping between two other riders, I swerved to the outside of the breakaway group and sprinted for all I was worth.