She said yes. I didn’t realize how much one word could mean until it slipped past her pursed, pissed-off lips. Lips that had my attention from the first second I saw her. I brought her up to the platform where Landon waited, subtly shaking his head at me.
I’d had easily a dozen girls beg me to tandem them on this, and he knew it. Instead, I’d told them all, including Zoe, to basically fuck off, and brought my uptight tutor in the hopes that it would win her over. Leah looked anything but won over.
She’d stiffened even more as I buckled her in.
Once John secured the rigs, he gave us the lowdown. “Okay, drop zone is marked. Pull the kill strap, and you’ll fall. It’s about ten feet and thickly padded, so don’t worry.”
“Wait, we’re falling, too?” she squeaked, her hands white-knuckling the harness. “You didn’t say fall. You said safe.”
“It’s into a huge pad, Leah. It’s either that or we slam into the wall, right? We have brakes, I’ll slow us down, don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry, he says,” she muttered. “Safe, he says. Asshole.”
“Hey, I heard that,” I sputtered. It usually took me dumping a girl the morning after I fucked her to get that kind of label. Not that I’d mind fucking Leah—hell, I was already itching to get my hands on her incredibly perfect ass—but that would ruin any chance of me getting through this year with the GPA I needed.
“Good,” she spat back.
“Oh, I like her.” Landon laughed.
“Shut up, Nova,” I threw back with his stage name, knowing the cameras were on us, and reminded myself to warn Leah about how he got that “Casanova” nickname in the first place.
I buckled in behind Leah and pulled her tight little body back against mine by her harness. The minute she made contact, she nearly sagged against me, and I had the strangest instinct to wrap her in my arms and carry her back to the ship, fuck the stunt, the cameras, all of it. Something told me that all that anger thrown my way was masking another emotion—fear. “Are you sure?” I asked, my lips brushing the shell of her ear.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” she whispered.
We moved forward to the edge of the platform the Renegade team had built, and she stiffened again. “I…I don’t do heights.”
Now she fucking tells me. God, I was an asshole. “Say the word, and I’ll call it off, Leah. We’ll find another way to get you onto the ship.”
“No.” Tremors ran down the length of her body, but her voice was sure and strong. “I’ll do it. Just…” Her breathing picked up, and I wrapped my arms around her, nearly enveloping her tiny frame. “Just don’t let me fall.”
She trusted me. An almost unrecognizable feeling unfurled, stretching through my limbs, the need to protect her making me feel simultaneously like a prick for putting her through it and as strong as Superman with her in my arms.
But why did I suspect this slip of a woman was going to be my kryptonite?
I shook the stupid thought out of my head. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I swear it.”
“Okay, then let’s get this over with.”
I gave the thumbs-up to Landon. “Nova?”
“Good to go! Wilder?”
“Let’s rock this!”
A running leap and we were airborne, the exhilarating rush racing through my veins in a familiar hit of the only drug I was addicted to—adrenaline.
Leah’s breath stuttered in her chest, and then she let out a gasp, her hands not reaching for her own tether, but my arms still wrapped securely around her waist. I should have let her go, given her the foot or so of space that safety dictated, but something told me she’d be safest closer to me.
Or maybe it was my own insane need to get a little closer to her.
We passed over the bow of the ship, then the bridge, until we neared the top deck, the bass from the party reaching up to welcome us to our temporary home. The thousand or so students on board partied beneath us, cheering as we soared overhead, passing too quickly for any of them to come into focus.
The drop zone was before the pool, a huge air cushion with a giant X, as if there was any chance I was going to miss it. I reached up right around the same time as Landon to apply the brakes and slow us down.
I pulled, but nothing happened.
We flew past Landon, and I pulled harder. Fuck.
Don’t panic. I reached forward for the separate braking mechanism on Leah’s harness, but it gave way with too much ease. If anything, we were moving faster.
The drop zone would be on us in one second, and we were going way too fast. You promised her she’d be safe, that she wouldn’t get hurt. At this speed, she was in real danger of hitting the air cushion and flying straight off it into the crowd, or worse, off the boat.
“Can you swim?” I shouted, squeezing her ribs.
“Yes?” she responded.
“Good!” The drop zone sped underneath us in less time than it took to breathe. “Hold your breath!”
I felt her chest expand. Right before we reached the pool, I grabbed both of our kill straps and pulled with all my strength, saying a little prayer those worked. They gave way.
I tucked her into me and raised my knees so I’d take the brunt of the impact.
Fuck, this is going to hurt.
We hit the water so hard I was astonished that we didn’t bounce. My breath abandoned me and pain shot up my back, but I didn’t let go of Leah, not until my ass hit the bottom of the pool. Then I pushed her up with all the strength I had so she popped to the surface.
I kicked my way to the sun, then filled my lungs with pure, sweet air. “Are you okay?” I asked Leah, who treaded water next to me. Her eyes were huge, her breaths choppy and verging on hyperventilation. “Leah?” I closed the distance between us and pulled her against me, moving us back to the shallows until I could touch the bottom.
Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound emerged.
“Dude, that was epic!” a student called out from the side of the pool, and I became aware that we were very much in the public eye.
“Renegades! Renegades!” A chant erupted.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t give my wild Renegade grin to the camera, didn’t throw my hands up in victory. Instead, I cupped Leah’s face in my hands and tilted her chin so I could meet those whiskey-colored eyes. “Leah, I need you to say something. Anything.”
She took a full breath, and her tremors stopped as she brought her hands to my chest. “You. Are. An. Asshole.”
Well, I guess that was something.
Then she shoved me backward. My feet slipped and I went under, water shooting up my nose. I got my bearings and came back up to Leah walking out of the pool, her wet T-shirt clinging to every one of her petite curves, her jeans pasted to her thighs. Why the hell was she wearing jeans in the first place?
She was okay, right? She wasn’t limping, and I thought I’d done a good job of cushioning the drop as much as possible, but still. She looked okay. Pissed, but okay.
“Wilder, you’re on!” Bobby shouted from the side of the pool, his clipboard and earpiece fully in place.
I raked my hair back from my face and forced myself to walk in the opposite direction of Leah, toward the stage where Landon dwarfed Penna’s slight frame next to the DJ. The music was drumming a deep beat, and usually this was the pinnacle of my high, reveling in another stunt accomplished. Girls, guys, they all touched me or slapped me on the back as I made my way to the stage.
I plastered my fake-ass Wilder smile on my face and took the stairs two at a time. “I want both those fucking rigs,” I said quietly to Bobby as I passed him.
His eyes widened, but he nodded. “Sure thing, Wilder. I’ll have the crew grab them.”
I needed to rip those brake assemblies apart and find out why the hell they both failed. God, that stunt could have gone wrong so easily. I could be carrying Leah to get a broken bone set, or worse, scraping pieces of her skin off the wall where the end of the line was mounted.
Penna gave me a million-watt smile and raised her hand for a high-five, but I saw the worry in her eyes. I pulled her into what looked like a celebration hug, keeping my hands way above her waist. Putting my hands on her while she was in a bikini was always weird. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
“Yeah. We need to meet up after. No cameras.”
She nodded and pulled back with a huge smile, then brought the microphone up. “Talk about a wild ride, huh?” she asked with a contagious laugh.
The crowd of students cheered, and Landon raised his hands in victory, but he arched his eyebrows when he looked back over at me. “Later,” I mouthed, and he nodded.
Penna passed me the mic, and I was on. “What’s up, Renegades?”
The crowd went wild, and I shot them the grin I was famous for. “In case you hadn’t caught on, I’m Wilder, this here is Nova”—I motioned to Landon who raised his fist—“this is Rebel”—Penna gave her signature wave—“and we’re the Renegades.” Another cheer went up from the crowd. “We figured since the Summer X Games are over, we’d take a break from winning medals and doing stupid shit you guys like to watch on YouTube and sail around the world with you. Luckily our sponsors agreed. What do you say?”
The crowd screamed.
Landon took the microphone. “Now don’t go expecting any crazy antics on board. We promised to be on our best behavior.”
“As you can see, they’re already obeying those rules,” Penna said into Landon’s mic, and the crowd laughed.
The ship moved away from the dock, and Landon handed me the mic. “This is it, guys. Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime?” I asked, using our signature line.
“You little Renegades,” Penna teased with a grin.
“Then let’s get this party on!” I shouted and cued the DJ.
The music returned to full volume, and the students all started to dance, drinks waving in hands. I handed the mic to the DJ and motioned Penna and Landon to the side of the stage before the cameras could get there.
“What the fuck happened?” Landon asked, all business.
“The brakes failed. Both of them.”
A knowing look passed between us. “Before you even ask, I double-checked the assemblies in my room before we left for the tower.”
“Before or after you brought your new Twinkie into the picture?” Penna asked. “She wasn’t part of the plan, and you know I hate it when you go off map.”
“She’s my tutor. Nothing more. And you both know if she isn’t fully invested, I’m fucked. We all are. I was hoping to get on her good side.”
“That plan kind of backfired on you there, brother,” Landon added.
“Tell me about it. Look, I’m not going to get paranoid, but until I get my hands on those rigs and figure out what I missed, we all install our own gear. Deal?”
They both nodded. I hadn’t messed up a rig, and they both knew it, but the only other option was unmentionable, and I refused to think that someone had deliberately sabotaged the stunt, especially once I’d put Leah on there tandem with me. That was the least risky stunt we’d pulled in the last two years, but it easily could have had the worst ending.
“Eyes open, and let’s try to meet up later to talk about the next site. And not a word about this in front of the cameras. Or Leah.” I looked them both in the eye until they nodded.
“Wilder.” Bobby jogged over, his forehead all puckered He’d been producing our footage the last twelve months or so, and I’d never seen him stress.
“The rigs are gone. I don’t know who removed them, but there’s just empty cord. Nova’s is still swinging, but yours are both gone.”
“Fuck,” I swore.
“Eyes,” Penna said, motioning behind me, where the camera crew had caught up.
“We’re all done here guys; you can film the party and stuff, but I’m going to head back to my room and make sure everything is in order to start classes tomorrow,” I said.
“Class…yay,” Penna added with false clapping.
Landon rolled his eyes and walked away, no doubt headed to find the next girl to add to his Casanova legacy. I normally didn’t give a shit about my friends’ sex lives, but Landon’s was borderline self-destructive. The guy he’d been slipped away a little more with each of his conquests, his eyes a little dimmer, more vacant. And, of course, I didn’t get to say a fucking word about it, not until I could fix what I’d broken…if he was still fixable.
The camera crew took the invite to check out the bikini-clad co-eds and left me standing with Penna at the end of the stage.
I scanned the crowd, but it was stupid to think I’d be able to spot her in a crowd of a thousand students.
“She left,” Penna said, smirking.
“I just need to make sure she’s okay. I think I may have royally fucked up when I put her on that line. It never occurred to me that she’d be that terrified.”
“Not everyone is built like we are, Pax. Most people are cool with watching us pull stunts, jump bikes, ski insane slopes, but they’d never actually do it. Plus, from what I saw in the suite, she didn’t exactly know who you were. Even the famous Paxton Wilder has his limits of reach.”
I put my hands up in surrender. “Okay, point taken.”
“Plus, if you want her to have some privacy, you might consider not putting her in the middle of a stunt, jackass.”
She smacked my chest with the back of her hand. “Also, don’t go to her suite through the front door. You’ll start a rumor fire you can’t put out, and she didn’t exactly strike me as the kind of girl who wants the attention you bring, so go through the balcony.”
“Good idea. What would I do without you?”
She leaned her head on my shoulder. “You’ll never have to know. Now go. If you mingle with the crowd they can get some good shots, and you can sneak off by the bar to check on her.”
I hugged my oldest friend. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” she said as we broke apart. “And yeah, the girl was terrified, but she’s stronger than you think.”
“What makes you say that?” She’d been shaking, hardly breathing, and I had white sheets with more color than her face when we’d splashed down.
“First off, she did the stunt. She could have said no and demanded you get her back on the ship, and you know you would have. But she didn’t. She strapped up and trusted you.”
“Yeah, well, look how that turned out.”
“We’ll figure out what happened to the rigs. We just have to find them. I bet one of the crew took them for storage before Bobby could get there. Don’t stress about it.”
I hoped that was all it was, an accident, a quickly cleaned-up site, but something nagged in the back of my head that this wasn’t how it looked, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. “Yeah, let’s find the rigs. I’ll catch you later.” I faced the party and looked for the quickest route out.
“Pax, she didn’t scream.”
“What?” I asked, turning back around.
“That entire ride, even when you dropped her over the pool. When you fell, she didn’t scream. She might have been scared, but she didn’t let it show. Remember that when you go apologize.”
“What makes you think I’m going to apologize?” I never apologized. Sorry wasn’t a word I said. Why be sorry when everything you did brought you to where you were? Made you who you were? Even the most epic mistake was merely another thread that wove into whatever tapestry we were.
“I saw the way you looked at her. Believe me, you’ll apologize, if not for this, then for something else.”
The one thing I could hardly stand about Penna? She was almost always right.
I looked down both hallways before I knocked on Leah’s door. Penna was right, I didn’t want her at the center of some kind of rumor storm, but I couldn’t exactly barge into her room through the sliding door yet—not after she’d made those easy access comments.
The door swung open, and Leah glared up at me, her face shiny from a shower, wearing a white tank top and pajama pants. Holy shit, did she have to have such a killer body? Why couldn’t she be average? Bitchy? This attraction was damn inconvenient.
“What do you want, Wilder?” she asked, crossing her arms under her perfect breasts. But I wasn’t looking. Hell no. My eyes were firmly on her face, where they’d remain. She leaned to look behind me. “And where is your legion of cameras and adoring fans?”
I grimaced. “No cameras. No fans. Can I come in?”
She arched an eyebrow. “And if I say no?”
“I’ll be forced to sit outside your door until said cameras and fans show up.”
She snorted but backed up, letting me into her suite. The door shut behind us, and she led me to her sitting room, which was smaller yet more welcoming than mine. I ran my hands over my still-damp trunks to make sure I wouldn’t leave a puddle of water she could slip on later. “I like this room.”
“Good, since you insist on paying for it. How long do I have before the camera crews show up and demand entrance? Because I’m not letting them in here. I didn’t sign up for that, Wilder.”
“Paxton,” I corrected her. “I’m Wilder to the rest of the world, but since we’ll be spending an insane amount of time together, I’d like to not have to keep that public face up around you, if that’s okay.” Damn, I bit that out harder than I intended. Something about this girl set every one of my nerves on edge, made me forget the cool, collected demeanor I’d worked so hard to perfect over the last few years. I could tell with a single glance at her crossed arms that this girl—this puzzle—had walls a mile thick. Walls that I desperately needed to breach if I wanted to keep her happy, wanted her to give a damn if I passed or failed. “And no cameras. They don’t have the right to be in here. Your room is completely off-limits to filming and the crew.”
Her shoulders relaxed in obvious relief. “Well, thank you for that consideration.”
“And you can tell your roommate that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Leah shook her head, the wet strands sliding along her top. “Rachel can’t make it until next term. She has mono.”
Damn. Three whole months. How the hell was I going to keep Leah happy until Rachel got here? Penna’s research showed they were basically inseparable. What if Leah hated me and left before the term was over? This definitely had the potential to fuck my carefully laid plans. “So you’re all alone in here? Are you going to be lonely?”
She rubbed her hands down her arms. “I’m perfectly okay. Besides, if you need to study, you’re right, you’ll be doing it here, because I’m not going anywhere near those cameras unless I have to.”
My muscles relaxed as I realized she wasn’t going to renege on our deal and not tutor me. “I understand.”
“Okay then. Do you have your schedule so I know what classes you have?”
“I have every class you do.”
Her mouth dropped open. “How is that even possible?”
“I needed to know you could help me, or take notes if I had to miss class.” Because I engineered it that way.
“Did you sleep with the registrar or something? How did you make that happen? You know what? I don’t even want to know. We have seminar at nine a.m. tomorrow. Do you think you can make it? Or were you planning on waterskiing behind the ship or something?”
“That’s not even…” Huh. I wondered if it was possible. Maybe if the rope was long enough, and we launched from—
“Unbelievable. No wonder you need a tutor. You’ve killed off all your brain cells doing stupid crap. Tell me something—are you just here for the Renegade Channel?”
My eyes widened. “I thought you didn’t know who I was?”
She rolled hers. “Come on. We’re still close enough to port to have good internet, and there’s not a lot of Paxton Wilders running around. Google is pretty nifty with the whole search thing.”
I swallowed. How much did she know? “What did it tell you?”
“That you run a YouTube channel with a few friends who all have ridiculous stage names, you’ve won a couple X Game medals in motocross or snowmobiling or something.”
“Both,” I answered automatically.
“Great. You enjoy flinging yourself off mountains and buildings and generally see exactly what it would take to kill yourself, and I’m responsible for getting you through this academic year while you’re doing it all over the world, right?”
Fuck. She put it together so quickly. “What makes you think that?”
“Well, I doubt those hugely expensive cameras are here to document some boring reality show featuring your academics center stage, so the only plausible explanation is that you’re here to take your little channel international. Or is it bigger?”
“Bigger,” I answered truthfully. “Some of the things we have planned aren’t exactly legal in the U.S., so it seemed to be a great time to shoot the documentary. What else did you learn?”
“That you prefer leggy blondes who have a disproportionate ratio of breast to waist. Which is fine with me, I’m sure there’s a full treasure trove here to select from, and I’m safe since I don’t fit any of that criteria.”
“Whoa, when did I even hint—?”
She threw her palms out. “You didn’t. I just figured I’d get ahead of you. Look, you almost killed me, dumped me into a huge pool, and now I’m stuck with you if I want to stay on this trip. I understand what I signed up for. But I will not be involved in anything you do—like I was today—ever again. You and I are business only, got it?”
I nodded slowly. “Got it.” What the fuck just happened?
“Good. Now you can leave. I’ll see you at seminar in the morning.” She walked to the door and held it open until I left her room, closing the door behind me with a loud click.
I was halfway to my room before I started laughing. Little Eleanor Baxter had done the one thing no other girl had done in my lifetime—dismissed me outright.
I knew I liked her for a reason.
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