“And how do you feel your lack of training time has impacted your preparation for today?” Martin Sykes asked, thrusting his ESPN microphone in my face.
“It hasn’t been easy,” I answered honestly. “The Renegades put a priority on college this year, which is something we’re proud of, but we’ve had to balance schoolwork, field studies, and general fun with as strenuous a training schedule as we could handle.”
“How has training on board a cruise ship challenged you?”
“The boat moves.”
Sykes laughed, and I didn’t bother to tell him that I wasn’t joking.
“We found that when we were at sea, we were focused on our studies and physical training. We had limited facilities in port, but we had some great friends open their tracks and ramps to us, for which we are eternally grateful.”
I glanced to my left, where Landon was taking his own questions, and farther down, where Penna sat with a bevy of reporters, her leg, casted in bright pink from the hip down, propped on a chair.
“And the loss of Rebel after yesterday’s training accident?” Sykes asked, following my line of sight.
I forced a wry smile. “As you can see, she’s not lost, she’s healing.”
“Right. Bad choice of words. Do you think the priority on school is what caused that accident?”
He waited easily, unknowing that he’d just ripped open the still congealing wound.
“I think there are a lot of factors that led to Rebel’s accident, but I can assure you that we’ve taken protective measures to make sure nothing like that will happen again.” And it wouldn’t. If I ever had to sit in another hospital for one of my friends, it wasn’t going to be because I’d been too blind to see what was really happening.
“Right. And that trailer? You took a big risk going with that angle to draw in views.”
This time my smile was genuine, especially when I saw Leah coming through the doors behind him, wearing that flirty sundress she’d bought in Mykonos. I couldn’t wait to slide my hands up those smooth thighs— Concentrate! “Right, the trailer. That motive was purely selfish, but I wanted everyone to see that what makes life extreme isn’t always just pushing your body to the limit, it’s also about opening yourself to new experiences, whether they’re physical or emotional.”
“Has she seen it yet?” he asked with a sly smile.
“You know, I’m not sure. But I think I’m going to go ask her, if you don’t mind,” I answered.
Sykes laughed. “Ah, young love. For ESPN, this is Martin Sykes with the X Games Gold medalist Paxton Wilder, leader of the famed Renegades.”
I gave the camera a sharp wave and a grin and then headed toward Leah without asking if he’d want to talk again after. If I succeeded, they all would. If I failed…they all would. Either way, I wasn’t getting out of here today without a ton of cameras shoved in my face.
“Hey. I didn’t want to bug you, I just wanted to say good luck before I found my seat,” she said, nervously tucking her hair behind her ear. “Plus, our grades came out,” she added nonchalantly, like our entire future wasn’t riding on them.
My stomach dropped. “Okay?”
A slow smile spread across her face. “You passed with a 3.4. That physics class pulled up your GPA. Well, and your Lit final.”
“It was good,” I bragged.
“Yeah, like your ego isn’t big enough already.”
“How did you do?” She’d kept a 4.0 since freshman year, and the last thing I wanted was to be the one who pulled her down.
“All As! Physics was so close I could have taken a wrong breath and gotten a B, but I kept my 4.0.”
Thank you, God. I swept her into my arms, lifting her up so her lips were level with mine. “What should we do to celebrate?”
“I figured you’d go do that triple front you’ve been busting your butt for, and then deal with the media.”
“Maybe we could grab dinner? Talk about us?” I asked, her feet still dangling above the floor.
She looped her arms around my neck. “I think you might be the first man in existence to want to sit around and talk about our feelings.”
“Well, if some other man wants to talk about our feelings, I might have a problem with that.”
“You know what I meant.”
“I did, and I do. I want this settled between us so we can move on.”
Her face fell, and I immediately regretted my word choice.
“Have you seen the trailer yet?” I asked.
She shook her head, and I lowered her slowly to her feet, letting our bodies press against each other but denying her the kiss she was staring at my lips for.
“We’ll talk after,” she promised, but nothing more.
It killed me to let her walk away, but I had to prep. The show was starting in ten minutes.
“Hey, I need a second,” Brandon said from behind me, shocking the hell out of me. He wasn’t even in a suit; instead he was dressed down to look almost normal.
“Whoa, what are you doing here?”
“You’re our investment.”
I gave him a what-the-fuck look.
“Okay, you’re my baby brother, and I wanted to be here when you pull off the triple front flip, okay? Maybe I’m a fanboy at heart.” He shrugged. “Besides, after what happened yesterday, I wasn’t leaving.”
I nodded. “First, never say fanboy again. Brooke is in custody—psychologists have been called in—and so is the worker she paid to loosen the catwalk. If she hadn’t almost killed my girlfriend and her own sister, I’d almost applaud the genius of her planning.”
He nodded slowly. “Penna will recover?”
“Yeah. She’s heartbroken, but you’d never guess it the way she’s putting on a face for the cameras. She’s stuck in that cast for three months, but knowing her, she’ll be on the ramp in that wheelchair.”
“Okay. And speaking of wheelchairs…”
“Nick is here, but he’s sticking to the background. He’s not ready to deal with press yet, and I’m okay with it.” I canted my head. “You brought him, didn’t you?”
Brandon shrugged. “I may have told him that there was a seat on the jet if he wanted it. And then I may have sent that jet for him.”
I sucked in deep breaths, trying to get my emotions under control, and then I mentally said “fuck it” and threw my arms around my brother, slapping his back. “Thank you.”
He returned the gesture. “Don’t mention it.”
I pulled away. “I guess we’d better get up there. How many views are we at?” We’d been a thousand shy about an hour ago, and I knew Brandon—he was an asshole about numbers.
“You’re close, but you’re not there,” he answered.
I nodded. “Yeah. I figured. We took a gamble with the trailer, but she’s worth it.”
“What are you going to do?” Brandon asked.
“Use the ship.”
“If we don’t make it, I’m going to the board. As in put my ass in a suit, fly to L.A., and use the ship as collateral against the cost of funding the movie. We both know the ship is worth a hell of a lot more than the production costs.”
“There’s an idea.” A spark flashed in his eyes that I almost called pride.
“I know Dad will be pissed. It’s Mom’s ship.”
“Yeah, well, Dad’s in Mykonos right now…if you catch my drift.”
My mouth dropped. “No fucking way.”
Brandon nodded. “Why do you think he’s been working so hard to hand over everything? He told me that there’s a difference between making a living and making a life.”
“Holy shit.” That was incredibly unlike our type-A father.
“Then he told me that watching you is what taught him that.”
Okay, now I was speechless. “I don’t…I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll use the ship. Dad spent your entire life investing in you. Now it’s time for you to invest in yourself, and I honestly think he’ll be excited that you’re making a business decision for once. You’ve got this. Now go jump through the air.” He slapped me on the back again and walked off, passing Landon. “Break your leg, asshole,” he called out, flipping him off.
“Nice to see you, too, Brandon,” Landon answered. “Damn, that guy has a memory like an elephant. Is he ever going to let that go?”
“Steal a guy’s girlfriend once, and his brother hates you for life,” Penna answered, wheeling over to us.
Landon winced. If he’d known what had gone down the last week with Rachel here, he’d be doing a hell of a lot more than wincing. “Come on. That’s ancient history.”
“Not as ancient as you might think,” I said with a grimace, then pushed Penna away before he could ask what I meant.
All three of us made our way along the plywood path that had been set down for Penna until we reached the ramp that led to the raised dais. I glanced up at the Jumbotron. We were still a hundred or so views away from a million. So incredibly close, but not close enough.
“No regrets,” Landon said.
“None,” Penna agreed, squeezing my hand. I glanced down at her, but she already had her Rebel smile in place, and I hated that while we might be at the end of our crucible, hers was just beginning.
I found where Leah sat next to Brandon in the VIP box. No regrets. Well, unless she still didn’t want me after this trailer played. Then I would have basically laid my heart out on top of mortgaging my ship. Yeah.
The announcer did his thing, but I wasn’t listening. I only had eyes for Leah, and the way she fidgeted with the skirt of her dress that bared her legs.
Then I found the microphone in my face and slipped into being Wilder. “What’s going on?” I asked the crowd, and they roared.
“We’re the Renegades, and we thought we’d put on a show for you guys! I’m Wilder, this is Nova, and Rebel, of course, had a little mishap, so she’ll literally be sitting things out until her bones can catch up to the level of badass that she is.”
The crowd booed, but cheered when Penna took the mic. “Sorry, guys, I said go, and the bike disagreed. Don’t worry, it’s three months, tops. And if you’re nice, I’ll let you sign my cast,” she added with the flirtatious grin she was known for.
Then she handed the mic back. Damn, I was proud of her.
“Right, so how many of you have seen the trailer about what we’ve been up to these last three months?” I asked. The crowd went wild.
“At least they like it,” Landon said quietly.
True, but there was only one reaction I was interested in. I met Leah’s gaze and spoke only to her…well, and the fourteen thousand other people here. “We were asked to cut a trailer that would give you guys a glimpse at the crazy stunts we’ve been pulling, and I realized something. If you hang around the Renegades long enough, chances are you’re going to see one of us fall.”
The crowd booed, and Penna did a mock salute that turned the crowd to soft laughter.
“The truth is that I fell. Hard.” Leah’s lips parted. “And I didn’t realize just how hard until I was already on my knees, begging for mercy. Love does that to you—breaks you down and then builds you back up into something even better. I can tell you that it’s an extreme sport of its own, but it’s more dangerous, because the outcome isn’t solely in your hands, and there’s no parachute once you jump.”
Her eyes widened, and it took every ounce of my willpower to stand on that stage instead of going to her.
“So in case you missed it, here’s the first glimpse of our new project, International Waters.”
The arena darkened as the trailer began. Fuck, I couldn’t see her face, or watch her reaction. This sucked.
The music started, and I knew by heart what she was watching. It wasn’t just the stunts…it was me falling in love with her. It was the moment she’d agreed to zip-line, then when she’d called me an asshole and climbed out of the pool. It was me absorbed in her smile in Bermuda, and the moment I’d pulled her onto my lap when she fell off the ramp while we were at sea. It was me calling her baby, trying to get her to wake up, cradling her to my chest. It was her face watching me skateboard in Barcelona, and the far shot of when she’d kissed me on the beach. It was our kiss in Rome, on the bleachers, and the shots Bobby had snuck through the window as we studied, neither of us able to concentrate much on the books. It was the Mykonos sunlight in her hair, and the GoPro footage I hadn’t even realized Penna had taken when we BASE jumped at the shipwreck. It was the slow dance in the club, the way I watched her walk away when I was supposed to be practicing, all interwoven with the Renegades commentary about what experiences they were having on our trip. It went to me begging Leah to let go, and her jumping in Morocco, and landing in the water, and her flying into my arms after the landing in Madagascar.
I’d never in my life been as thankful for Bobby’s snooping cameras, or the masterful way he knew how to cut tape. He’d taken three minutes and, instead of putting out an extreme sports trailer, produced a love story punctuated with the adventure of a lifetime.
The crowd cheered as the lights lifted, but I kept my eyes on Leah, who had tears streaming from hers. “So what do you say, Firecracker?” I asked into the microphone. “Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Because I know you’re the only rush I need.”
I stood paralyzed until my play-by-the-rules girl vaulted over the divider and bolted for me. Then I dropped the mic, uncaring as it hit the ground, and jumped from the dais to meet her halfway.
My arms wrapped around her at the same moment her mouth found mine. I angled for a deeper kiss, knowing that I was claiming her not just in front of fourteen thousand fans, but everyone watching live on ESPN—realizing that she was marking me as hers, too, and loving every second.
I broke the kiss before we went to an NC-17 rating, and simply rested my forehead against hers as the crowd went berserk around us, taking in every single nuance of the moment. “I love you,” I said to her.
“You’re everything,” she said, using my own line on me. “Oh, and I love you, too, which is something I don’t see changing anytime soon…or ever.”
“I like forever.”
She smiled. “I said ever.”
“Yeah, well, you know me—I have to push everything one step further.”
“Forever,” she agreed, and kissed me softly, which sent up another raucous cheer. “Now you’d better go jump before the crowd turns on me.” Then she ass-smacked me in full view of our audience, and I laughed. “Go get ’em, Wilder.”
“Paxton. Always your Paxton.”
“Yeah, it’s a good thing that I love the other guy, too, even if he is king of all the wild things.” Then she flashed me a smile and went back to the wall, Brandon helping her over.
The show went off without a hitch. The junior Renegade crew hit every stunt, nailed their timing, and made the fans drop their jaws. Landon hit spectacular whips and air, pulling all sorts of freestyle shit that had the crowd screaming his name. We pulled off our tandem tricks, moving together with one heartbeat as we always had—brothers in all but blood.
When it was time, Penna kissed my cheek backstage, Nick gave me the thumbs-up, and I gunned it, soaring toward the ramp, hitting the kicker at the exact right moment, and turning once…twice…three times…before landing, my entire body tingling from the adrenaline and the roar of the crowd.
“Paxton Wilder is officially the first to ever complete a triple front!” the announcer called out, his excitement as palpable as mine.
“You did it!” Leah called out as she raced to me, and I lifted her up, spinning us to her laughter. “You flew!”
I stopped as the other Renegades rushed us, the cameras not far behind. “How could I not, when you gave me wings? Besides, I actually kind of like you,” I said, remembering the first time she’d told me that she wasn’t overly fond of me.
Her smile lit my world. “Good, because I’m head over heels in love with you.”
“Now that’s a stunt I’d like to see.”
“Later,” she promised.
And at the end of it, with Leah in my arms, the taste of her in my mouth, I found home, peace, and a victory so sweet that the rush would last me a lifetime…or until I could talk her into making that forever official.
I kissed her again, thankful for the miracle in my arms and the knowledge that we had a forever full of “laters.”