The Family You MakeJill Shalvis
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About the Book
Also by Jill Shalvis
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It wasn’t often that Levi Cutler came within a hair’s width of dying. But if he’d known biting the dust was on today’s agenda, he might’ve done things differently, like called the waitress who’d tucked her number into his pocket the other night or learned to brew his own beer.
Forgive himself for his past mistakes . . .
Sitting back on the gondola bench, he looked out the window at the afternoon winter wonderland of North Diamond Ski Resort. The sky had been clear when he’d arrived, but in the past twenty minutes, that had changed. Snow came down like white fire and brimstone, leaving visibility at zero. He knew what he’d see if it’d been clear—three hundred and sixty degrees of jagged snow-covered mountain peaks stretched as far as the eye could see, and a glimpse of Lake Tahoe due east, its waters so blue, so deep and pure, you could see a dinner plate three hundred feet beneath its surface. One of his favorite science facts, and he had many, was that if by some cataclysmic event the entire lake tipped, the spillage would cover California under fourteen inches of water. As a kid, he’d really wanted to see that happen. As an adult, he preferred the water right where it was.
A gust of wind jostled the gondola. The storm that no one had seen coming was kicking into gear. He’d hoped to get a few runs in before having to face the reason he was back in Tahoe in the first place, but that wasn’t seeming likely. Nearing the top of the mountain now, the gondola rose past towering pine trees coated in thick, powdery snow, swaying in the wind, resembling two-hundred-foot-tall ghosts.
The gondola, built for sturdiness, swayed with the trees, giving him a quick, stomach-dropping vertigo. But being in the business of knowing risks and algorithms, he knew the chances of dying in a gondola were nearly nil.
On the other hand, the risk of dying while skiing—especially in this weather—was a different game altogether. The smart decision would be to turn around at the top and go back down the mountain. Especially since the snow kept coming, harder and faster now, thick and heavy, slanting sideways thanks to the strong headwind. The gondola did the same. He might spend most of his time on a computer these days, creating tech solutions to fix supposedly unfixable problems, but he’d grown up here. He’d spent his teen years working on this very mountain. As he knew all too well, anything could happen in a blink of an eye.
Even as he thought it, the gondola swung again, hard enough to rattle his teeth. Yeah, he was definitely going back down. No reason to be that guy who didn’t pay attention to his surroundings and ended up splat, face-first into a tree.
The gondola peaked the top ridge and slowed as it slid toward the end of the ride. A lift operator opened the door. He was maybe seventeen, and he gave Levi a “stay seated” gesture. “Sorry, sir, but we just got word, right after you boarded.”
“No problem.” Levi had been there, with his job on the line as he told belligerent tourists that no, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t risk their lives on the mountain. “Need any help clearing people out?”
The kid shook his head. “We’ve been sending guests back down and got almost everyone off the mountain. The gondolas in front of you are empty. We’re just waiting on one more employee. After she loads, I’ll be right behind you on a snowmobile.”
A woman appeared in the doorway. She nodded at the kid, then stared down at the one-inch gap between the platform she stood on and the tram floor. With an audible gulp, she clasped her necklace in a fist and hopped over the gap the same way that Levi’s six-year-old niece, Peyton, did when getting onto an airplane.
The woman darted past him to the opposite bench, as close to the window as she could get, and even though they were the only two people on the whole thing, she didn’t acknowledge his existence. Instead, she closed her eyes and began to mumble to herself, something about how ironic it was to have “survived a whole bunch of bullshit only to die in the storm of the century while inside a tin can hanging by a hook on a mountainside.”
The gondola bounced and she gasped, flinging her hands out in front of her like a cat trying to gain traction on linoleum. She was covered from head to toe in heavy winter gear, the only thing visible being the long strands of her wavy dark red hair sticking out from under her ski cap.
As the gondola made the turn and began heading down the mountain now, she brought her legs up on the bench and dropped her head to her knees.
“You okay?” Levi asked.
“Absolutely,” she said to her knees. “Just very busy having a freak-out here.”
“About leaving my lunch—a triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich—in my locker back there. I don’t want to die on an empty stomach.”
“We’re not going to die. At least not today.”
Not lifting her head, she made a snort of disbelief.
Okay, so the unannounced storm had muted nearly all daylight, and the snow looked like white lines slashing through the air like spears. It was stunning, but he could admit it might also be construed as terrifying to some. “It’s actually far less scary if you watch.”
“I’ll take your word on that. We’re a million feet up.”
“Five hundred and fifty.”
“We’re five hundred and fifty feet above ground. Approximately the same as five and a half stories, or the height of a roller-coaster ride, at least a good one—”
“Oh my God.” Her head jerked up, hitting him with some seriously green eyes. “Why would you tell me that?”
“Sometimes, if you’re afraid of something like heights, knowing all the facts helps.”
She stared at him as if he’d grown a second head, but her spine snapped ramrod straight. “Do I look like I’m afraid of heights?” she asked, just as the gondola jerked so hard that she gasped and grabbed for the oh-holy-shit bars on the side closest to her.
“You’re right,” Levi said. “You’re clearly not afraid of heights at all.”
She tightened her grip on the bar and glared at him. “Hey. For your information, it’s not heights that get me. It’s tight, enclosed spaces. Especially tight, enclosed spaces that are swinging five and a half stories above ground.”
“Shift to the middle of the bench,” he said. “Away from the windows. You’ll feel better.”
This got him a vehement shake of her head that had her hair flying about her face. “I’ve got to be at the window so I don’t miss the crash.” She grimaced. “Don’t even try to make sense of that, or me for that matter—you’ll just hurt yourself.”
The next gust hit hard. Everything in the gondola flew to one side, including his compan
ion. He caught her and pulled her down onto the bench at his side, keeping ahold of her for a minute. “You okay?”
“No! Not even close! We’re an inch from falling and dying, and I don’t know about you, but I had things to do today. Like live.”
“A gondola fall is extremely unlikely,” he said. “Maybe one in a million.”
They rocked again and she drew a deep, shaky breath. “You know what I need? Silence. So if you could just stop talking, that’d be great.”
He laughed, because having come from a family of talkers, he was often mocked for being the silent one.
“I don’t see how this is funny—” She broke off with a startled scream as the next gust hit violently, knocking them both off the bench and into each other on the floor. On their knees, swinging wildly, they turned in unison to look out the window just in time to see . . .
The gondola in front of them appear to drop a few feet and then fall, vanishing from view.
She gasped in horror. “Oh my God! Did that gondola just . . . ?”
“Yeah. Hold on,” he said grimly. As he said this, their gondola came to a sudden stuttering halt, leaving them swinging wildly back and forth, flinging both of them and all their stuff far and wide. Levi went with the momentum and ended up face-planted against the window, kissing the cold glass.
Something hit him in the back.
And then a softer something. His companion. She hurriedly scrambled clear of him to stare out the window at the gaping chasm where the previous gondola used to be. “Ohmigod,” she whispered, her nose to the window, as if that could help her see past the thick, swirling, all-encompassing snow. “Was anyone in it?”
“The lift operator told me that the three cars in front of us were empty.”
She leveled him with those amazing eyes, narrowed now. “So much for a gondola fall being one in a million!” She yanked out her phone and stared down at it. “Dammit. I forgot it’s dead.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll know what happened at base. They’ll come for us.”
She let out a slow exhale, looking pale and shaky.
“We’re still on the cable,” he said, looking out the window in front of them. “It didn’t break. That gondola in front of us snagged on something on the track, or there was a malfunction in the grip—”
She let out a distressed sound and squeezed her eyes shut. “You know what really gets me? I put on mascara today. A waste of five minutes that I could’ve used to stop for a breakfast burrito. I mean, that’s what a girl needs on the day she’s going to die, a solid breakfast burrito to hold her over to the ever after.”
“I like breakfast burritos,” he said. He didn’t offer any empty platitudes because the truth was her fears were valid. Their gondola wasn’t moving now, no forward or reverse motion at all, nothing except the relentless swinging in the wind. He didn’t know what had caused the gondola in front of them to fall, but if theirs did the same, the odds of them walking away were slim to none. First up was getting them to stop swinging so freely, and he began to calculate the balance and weight needed to stabilize the car. “Hey, do you think you can get all the way into that back corner there?”
She blinked, but didn’t question him, just did as he asked, crawling to where he pointed while he moved into the opposite corner.
“You do realize this only works if we weigh the same,” she said.
“We’ll use our gear to even things out.” His backpack was at his feet. “What have you got with you?”
She lifted her hands out to her sides. “Just what you see.”
“You came up on the mountain with nothing on you—no snacks, no water, no emergency gear or equipment?”
“Didn’t say that. And judgy much?” She emptied out her many pockets. Steel water bottle, a single-serving bag of beef jerky, a pack of gum, and . . . a small first aid kit, which she held up for Levi to see. “Safety first, right?” she murmured, irony heavy in her tone.
He’d noticed the medical patch across the back of her jacket. “Ski patrol?”
“RN,” she said. “I’m a traveling nurse, working a rotation at each of the five urgent care medical clinics in the North Shore area.” She once again waved her first aid kit. “I’m qualified to save people’s lives—even if I can’t manage to get my own together.”
He started to smile, but another hard gust of wind hit and they spun like a toy, so fast they just about went topsy-turvy. There was a sound of metal giving way—the shelf above his head for passenger belongings—and Levi lunged to shield her body with his.
Everything flew in the air like they were in orbit, and for a single long heartbeat, gravity seemed to vanish. Levi wrapped himself tight around his companion, her head tucked into his chest when something hit his head.
And then it was lights out.
When the gondola finally stopped moving, Jane couldn’t breathe or see. Oh, God. She was dead.
Her eyes were closed.
She blinked them open. Okay, whew, but either she was paralyzed or something was on top of her, something heavy.
No, not a something, a someone. The guy who’d been unfailingly steadfast in the face of her rising panic, and he was a dead weight. Carefully, she crawled out from beneath him, because while they hadn’t yet fallen to their deaths, it could still happen at any second. At the thought, she broke out into a cold sweat, despite the frigid temps. “Hey.” She leaned over the man with her and checked his pulse, nearly whimpering in relief when she felt it. Thready, but he was alive. “Can you hear me?”
Not so much as a twinge.
Mr. Talkative was out cold, leaking blood like a sieve from a dangerous-looking two-inch cut that sliced at an angle through his right eyebrow and along his temple. Normally she saved swearing for bad traffic, but as she looked around them, she let out a string of pretty impressive oaths, if she said so herself. Because now what?
It was still snowing like a mother, but the wind had calmed enough that the gondola was now swinging almost gently compared to the violence they’d just endured. The floor looked like a garage sale gone wrong, their stuff scattered everywhere. On top of everything lay the steel shelving rod that had broken loose, probably what had hit Mr. Talkative in the head.
This was bad. Very, very bad. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty, time to rise and shine.” The guy had lunged across the gondola to tuck her into him, saving her from getting hit. What was that? She was a perfect stranger. She checked his pulse again. Still faint, but steady.
She looked around for her phone before remembering it was dead. And anyway, who was she going to call? Not the clinic she’d just left; she’d been the last staff member out and had locked up herself. Logically, she knew that security at the base would figure out what had happened to the gondola in front of them—after all, someone had shut them down, right? Surely they’d be working their way toward them for extraction.
The man still hadn’t moved. Not good. She ran a hand along his body, checking for other injuries. Nothing obviously broken, but when she turned him onto his side, beneath his jacket she found his shirt sticky with blood. Shoving his layers up, she found two slashes across his back and shoulders, also bleeding freely.
Well, hell. “You had to play the hero.” She shrugged off her jacket to stuff it beneath his head as a makeshift pillow. “Isn’t that just like a man.” She stripped off her scrubs top and the thermal she had on beneath, using the former against the scratches on his back. The thermal she pressed carefully against his head wound to slow the bleeding. “Okay, seriously, if anyone’s going to nap, it should be me. I’ve just worked a long shift. So rise and shine, okay? No fair letting me be the only one awake when we die.”
Stripping further, she pulled off her outer gear ski pants, which she rolled and used to prop him up on his side so he didn’t lie on those wounds. Then she checked herself over. She looked like a horror flick victim. She was prett
y sure the blood was all his, but dear God. She’d been through a lot of shit in her life, almost all of it she’d dealt with on her own. And most days she was okay with that, but today? Today wasn’t one of those days where she wanted to be alone.
She twisted around to look for her first aid kit, which was not in immediate sight. It had to be twenty degrees in the gondola and the blizzard didn’t seem to be interested in slowing down any. And here she sat, stuck a million feet in the air. No, make that five hundred and fifty feet in the air, in a glass prison wearing only her sports bra and thermal leggings because her patient was currently bleeding through everything she had. “Come on,” she cajoled, leaning over him. “If I have to be the one in a million to die in a gondola, you have to wake up to die with me.”
Not even a flicker. So . . . she pinched him, right on the ass. As it was a very fine, very taut ass, there wasn’t a lot to work with, but she managed.
He let out a grunt and she nearly collapsed over him in relief. “That’s it,” she murmured. “Now open those pretty gray eyes of yours and tell me once again how we’re going to be just fine.”
He groaned, sounding rough. “You actually talk more than I do, did you know that? How long was I out?”
“A few minutes.”
Still not opening his eyes, he gave a small smile. “You think my eyes are pretty. And you touched my ass. Admit it, you want me bad.”
Had she really told him his eyes were pretty? Maybe she’d hit her head too. “Why did you use yourself as a shield for me? That was so stupid.”
“Always save the person with the first aid kit.”
Leaning over him while trying to balance in the still-swaying gondola, she pulled back the shirt to check his head. Blood welled up. She quickly put it back.
“I didn’t want you to get hurt,” he said quietly, sucking in a breath when she applied pressure.
She didn’t want to react to his statement, but she honestly couldn’t remember when anyone had done such a thing for her, stranger or otherwise. Then she realized his color had gone from tan to white to green, and she knew what that meant. “Breathe in through your nose. Hold for four seconds, then slowly let it out to fight the nausea.” She breathed with him to keep him on track. “For the record,” she said quietly, “I’d have been fine on my own.”