“Mike, you’ve got this!” Evan’s waiting at the bottom of the trail. I can’t actually see him, but I know he’s there because I watched him ease his mountain bike down the path barely wide enough to fit his body like he was strolling down the sidewalk in front of his house. I adjust my grip on the handlebars. My arms are too stiff—he’s told me that a hundred times—but you try to relax when you’re facing a twenty degree incline with nothing but a plastic helmet and a few scraps of spandex to break your fall. With one final squeeze to test my brakes, I take a deep breath and let gravity carry me down the trail.
A girlish shriek pierces the air. I’d be embarrassed except I am a girl—Mike is short for Mikayla—and I’m more worried about staying on my bike and not decapitating myself on a tree branch than anything as silly as my pride.
My front tire winds its way down the path and I focus on staying upright. On staying on the path, where the trees are sort of cleared away. A rock catches my back tire and my center of gravity shifts, but I’m moving fast enough that it doesn’t topple me over.
Deep breath. You’ve got this.
The dirt on the next turn is churned up—Evan keeps telling me it’s called loam or something, but whatever—and I tighten my grip. The ground hardens as the path straightens, but the danger isn’t over yet. A root snakes into the clearing up ahead and if my wheel isn’t perfectly straight I’ll be up close and personal with that cypress in two seconds. I squeeze the brakes as the root nears and yank up on the handlebars like Evan taught me. The front wheel clears the ground and a smile breaks over my face.
“Yes!” Evan shouts from the bottom of the trail. “You show that root who’s boss!”
A giggle escapes me but I don’t look up. Wiping out at the bottom is not an option. I guide the bike through the final turn and come to a shuddering stop next to Evan. My arms and legs are rubbery and I collapse against the handlebars.
“That was your best run yet.” Evan’s voice is close to my ear. I turn my head and startle for the millionth time at how bright his green eyes are and how beautifully they contrast with his dark skin. A smear of dirt on his cheek only makes him look better. He’s half a head taller than me and I fit perfectly into the space beneath his arm—when I’m not wearing a helmet.
I push a loose piece of hair out of my eyes and look up at Evan. “I don’t know how I let you talk me into this.”
“Because you can’t resist me.” His lips curl into a smile that lights up his eyes, but rather than kissing me like I deserve after tackling that hill, he tucks my hair under the strap of my helmet. “Ready to go again? We can fit in a couple more sessions before it gets too dark.”
I glance up the trail and scowl at the cypress that almost jacked my run. Part of me wants to be done and relax on the tailgate of Evan’s SUV while the sun sets before we head to Austin’s party, but another part—a newer part that I’m still learning to appreciate—wants to get this right. “One more.”
“Two.” It’s neither question nor command. More like a challenge. Like he can sense the old Mike battling with this new girl who stands up for herself and doesn’t take crap from anyone.
Well, I’m still working on that part.
“One and a half?” I flutter my eyelashes at him and he closes his eyes in an attempt to resist my charms, a smile playing on his lips.
It doesn’t work.
His eyes open and lock onto mine. “One it is.”
I stand on tip-toes to press a quick kiss against his full lips, then fling my leg over my bike and give him a nod.
He leads me along an easier route that winds uphill to the top of the trail I just barreled through. It’s marked as a green—they’re labeled the same way as ski slopes—and I can’t imagine what blues or blacks look like. I’d love to try going back up the way we just came but Evan doesn’t think I’m ready.
My thighs burn as I force the pedals down, down, down. We’re in granny gear and going so slow I could walk faster, but as Evan likes to point out, that’s cheating. Everything about mountain biking is challenging. Going up is brutal because it takes all your leg power to keep moving. Going down is a lesson in willpower overcoming the sheer terror that you’ll lose your grip and smack into a tree, or you won’t turn fast enough and smack into a tree, or you’ll hit an obstacle like a tree root or rock and—you guessed it—smack into a tree. I’m also afraid of breaking my arm falling on a rock, but right now the trees are my biggest concern.
We stop in a small clearing that’s semi-level and Evan faces an opening in the trees to take in the view. The parking lot looks tiny down below, and miles beyond that sits Boulder and the smaller town of Louisville, where we live. It’s crazy to think my whole world is right in front of us. The drama and everyday problems that seem so big and threaten to overwhelm me can disappear in a blink. I close my eyes and they’re gone. Open them, and they’re still far enough away that I can push them aside—for now. But in two more days my biggest problem will be back: it’s the first day of junior year and I’ll have to face Brianna for the first time in months.
Evan faces me. “Ready?”
“Last one, right?”
He touches my arm. “Yeah. We should probably head back if we’re gonna make the party.”
No sunset lounging for us. It’s Austin’s end-of-the-summer bash and I’ve never missed one. A twinge of sadness catches in my throat. Our group has changed so much since last year—the Snow Bunnies and Moguls are disbanded and Reece, Evan’s best friend, is dead. I’m not sure what to expect tonight.
Evan peers at me from beneath his helmet. “You okay? We can take this one slow if you’re tired.”
I run my hands over my thighs. They’re aching, but it’s a pain I’ve learned to appreciate. I smile. “I don’t think it’s possible to go slower than I already do.”
He fiddles with his gears and laughs. “Mike-speed coming up.” He mounts his bike and pushes off, moving as slowly as we were during the climb.
I take a deep breath to steady myself, then plunge into the trees behind him.
Want to read more? Pre-order The Trail Rules now.