Free Fall, Page 2Jill Shalvis
“Yes. I’m sorry Grandma left Bay Moon to me and not you, and you’re sorry you’re uptight and anal.”
“But you’re not sorry Grandma left Bay Moon to you when she died last year.”
“Okay, you caught me.” She smiled, but Gwyneth did not, making her sigh. “Look, this place is small and perfect the way it is, and Grandma knew I’d keep it this way. That’s all. I’m doing this for her, for her memory.”
Gwyneth drew herself up to her full height of five foot two, the same as Lily. The resemblance between them was considerable. Both had unmanageable, untamable, wavy light brown hair, matching light brown eyes and full mouths that looked great in lipstick.
But only Lily had a ready smile.
Gwyneth’s mouth was turned down in a frown, as usual. “I wouldn’t have gone against her wishes.”
“I think you wouldn’t mean to, but you’d have found a way to justify it. The ski hill’s already at capacity on most weekends and our day lodge can’t handle any more than that. You would need to build another lodge, and then you would want more rooms…It would never end. We’d become one of those big, impersonal places I hate.”
“I’m not a bad person, Lily Rose.”
Lily had to grin at that. “Bad is relative.”
“As you would know.”
“Absolutely. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with being bad once in a while.”
Her sister sighed the sigh of a martyr. “I can’t reason with you, you don’t have normal reasoning. And all I’ve ever said about Bay Moon is that with a little expansion—”
“We’d make a killing,” Lily finished for her. “That would be great, but it’d turn into something that Bay Moon was never intended to be.” She was adamant on this. When she’d first been dumped here by her at-their-wits’-end parents, she’d had all rights rudely revoked. No phone, no TV, no car, no friends and especially no boys. She’d been forced to serve the guests and worked the shop, the cafeteria and the lifts, only getting to ski or board as often as she could sneak out.
As a result, no one knew better than she that the best part of Bay Moon was its size and charm. Like the fictional Cheers bar, everyone here knew everyone’s name, their likes and dislikes. Expanding would turn it into another Park City or Vail, where no one knew anyone and it was all about fashion and who the celebrity guests were. That simply was not going to happen. “Grandma knew what you and Sara wanted to do with this place. Just as she knew that as the older, responsible granddaughters, you two were the logical choices to inherit. But the fact is, she left it all to me.” A burden she’d neither coveted nor asked for. Hell, she’d have been happy working ski patrol the rest of her life.
“Yes, she left it all to you,” Gwyneth said. “Even though you’d never held a business or finance position, didn’t balance your own checkbook and had never had so much as a single lasting relationship in your life.”
“And what do relationships have to do with anything?”
“Shows a lack of ability to commit, Lily.”
No, it showed a lack of willingness to commit—a direct result of her bossy, demanding family. Love was a burden, Lily had long ago decided, and an unwelcome one. “Okay, listen. Let’s save my failings for another time. Maybe Thanksgiving, when everyone can join in on the fun. For now, we have jobs, good ones. We make extremely good livings just the way things are.”
“Yes.” Gwyneth dropped her gaze over Lily’s ski-patrol attire. “And I see you’re going to be earning yours screwing off all day.”
She’d already put in two hours at her desk, but hell if she’d defend herself. It didn’t seem to matter what she said to Gwyneth, or how often she said it—her sister just refused to see the hours Lily was spending chained to her desk, the paperwork she was shoveling her way through or the results. Fine. She was done arguing. “Ski patrol is hardly screwing off.”
“We have people for that.”
“Never enough. Safety first,” she said, imitating her grandma’s mantra with a smile, refusing to be baited into admitting that while she loved this resort, the day-to-day running of it had been infringing on her enjoyment of the mountain for some time. Actually, it was sucking the soul right out of her.
“If you’d only listen to reason,” Gwyneth said coolly.
“I don’t have normal reasoning, remember?”
With a frustrated growl, Gwyneth whirled on her heels. “I’ll be in my office.”
No doubt terrorizing Carrie, their shared assistant, as she micromanaged the lot of them.
God, Lily missed her grandma with a physical ache. She missed the simple understanding. Her grandfather had been gone much longer and she missed him, too. Her parents weren’t gone, just not around. Chin up, she pushed open the doors, sucked in the brisk twenty-degree air and stepped down the three wide stone steps to take in the glory around her.
Towering forests of pines heavy with snow, and steep, rocky valleys watched over by the awesome Sierras…it was an amazing celebration of contrasts, she thought, her breath crystallizing in front of her face. With a smile, she dropped her board to the snow and buckled a foot into her binding. The air was cold enough to burn her lungs as she inhaled.
She wasn’t on the schedule to patrol today, just on call. She’d only put on her ski-patrol jacket to get past any siblings, and—with the exception of that little run-in with Gwyneth just now—her plan had worked. She was free.
And free was just what the doctor ordered.
She pushed off and headed down a small incline directly toward Sierra Gulch, the quad lift that would take her to midmountain. From there, she’d get on Upper Way, yet another lift, to the top of the mountain this time. And from there, she’d take whichever run caught her fancy.
She checked in on her walkie-talkie to patrol base. Danny, a patroller, told her to have fun. Not a problem.
It was barely eight-fifteen, and the chairs officially didn’t run until eight-thirty, so there wasn’t much of a line yet. With her jacket, and the white cross on the back denoting her as ski patrol, she was entitled to move ahead of everyone else, but she didn’t. Unless there was an emergency, she didn’t mind waiting in the lines, visiting with the people on what she considered “her” mountain.
She moved in behind a couple and their two young children. Another skier came up on her right. Craning her head intending to say hello, she felt a sudden jolt right down to her toes.
The man who’d caused the jolt smiled at her. And whoa, baby, but the way he did caused a rush of blood through her veins more thrilling than any first run on the slopes could give her.
Before she could return the smile, she was jostled from behind, and might have fallen flat on her face but for the man with the brain-cell-melting smile on her right. His gloved hand settled on her arm, holding her steady. Grinning her thanks, she used the moment to take a good look at him, at the dark, wavy hair that called to a woman’s fingers, at the complexion that suggested both a tan and an Italian heritage and at the wide, firm mouth that immediately brought to mind a long night of hot sin.
She couldn’t see the eyes behind his mirrored Oakleys, darn it, but at her lengthy perusal, he arched a slow brow. His smile became just a little heated, and in his easy stance she detected an edge, an aura of danger, a delicious, spine-tingling shiver of attitude.
God, she loved a fellow rebel.
And then there was his physique—all hard length and sleek power. His lightweight black jacket fit snugly to his broad shoulders and chest, loosely at the waist. His cargo ski pants were loose, too, but in no way hid the effect of his long legs. Here was a man who kept his body in prime condition—possibly an athlete.
“Single?” he asked as the line shifted closer to the lift.
She knew he was asking if she was single for the lift, but she answered for both that and her personal life. “Very.”
He smiled again, and together they moved to the front of the lift. The op
erator was Eric, a twenty-five-year-old ski bum who’d been running lifts for seven years now. He gave her the thumbs-up sign. “Drop Off, dudette.”
“That’s where I’m heading now.” She couldn’t wait to have the icy wind in her face, the feel of the slope beneath her.
“Drop Off?” the magnificent male specimen next to her asked as they sat on their chair, swinging into the air over a popular intermediate run called Calamity Alley.
The snow looked like endless yards of corduroy, thanks to the grooming crew working nights on the snowcats. “Drop Off is a run on the back side, off the north cornice,” she said.
“Sounds like a good place to start.”
“Oh, no,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a horrible place to start. It’s a double-diamond run, expert only.”
And the Sierras had been dumped on last night, making it all the more challenging. A blanket of fresh white powder lay as far as the eye could see, coating the trees on either side of the runs below like stoically swaying hundred-foot-high ghosts. Lily’s adrenaline began to pump. She lived for powder days. Lived to huck herself off Drop Off, a two-and-a-half-mile run with a wicked three-thousand-foot vertical drop.
The man next to her pushed up his sunglasses, showing his eyes for the first time. Melting chocolate, was her first thought, and good Lord, but she was suddenly starving for some. “Double diamond?” he repeated.
“Yes. Have you been here before?”
He shifted his broad shoulders forward to adjust his narrow backpack to be more comfortable between his spine and the chair. “No.”
“But you have skied before,” she guessed, as evidenced by his ease getting on the lift.
“I do all right.”
He certainly looked all right. More than. And yet, just because he did, didn’t mean he was a good skier. She’d actually discovered that the more good-looking someone was, the less skill they required to get through life, skiing included.
Far too many times she’d been pulled in by a pretty face only to discover that all the expensive gear was merely a front. An illusion. Not that it had stopped her from enjoying said pretty face, but she understood and appreciated the fine art of one-night standing and happened to be extremely selective. It’d been a while since she’d indulged, but suddenly, looking into eyes the color of expensive, dark, rich mocha, she decided she was due.
But whether she slept with him or not, she wouldn’t have any casualties on her conscience. If this hunk of amazing flesh couldn’t ski, she’d happily point him in the direction of the bunny slopes and go on her merry powder way. “I’ll get you a map at the top so you can find the right runs for you.”
“Thank you,” he said, sounding amused. “But I can figure it out.”
A bunch of loud catcalls and woo-hoos burst in the air. The four guys on the lift behind them had gotten a nice look at Calamity Alley, smooth and freshly groomed. They were young and exuberant, brimming with an unmitigated joy that was contagious enough to make Lily smile.
The devastating hottie next to her had shifted to look, too, putting an arm up along the back of the chair to do so. The material of his gear crinkled, and through the icy morning came the scent of his soap, his shampoo…and more. Clean, pure male, she thought with an inhale that had her nostrils quivering.
His eyes met hers, first with humor—he’d caught her sniffing him!—and then with an answering crackle of awareness and attraction. She just knew that he was thinking stuff, all sorts of wicked, unspeakable, bad-boy stuff, and suddenly the morning chill dissipated. She didn’t look away, she couldn’t, and neither did he. The moment stretched out, sizzling in intensity.
Far beneath them, a lone skier took the mountain in a series of long S-turns. She shifted her attention downward, nearly quivering, though now she wasn’t sure it was just the need to follow the fall line on her own freshly waxed board that had her senses on full alert.
“You get down there a lot, I take it, since you’re a local.” He nodded to her ski-patrol jacket.
“Born and bred.”
“You’ve been boarding a long time, then.”
And skiing, too. Her grandpa had put her on a board at the tender age of two. She’d been a holy terror ever since, as any living member of her family could attest to. “How about you? Where are you from?”
“Long way from home.” She loved hearing their guests’ stories. Plus, she just loved his voice, low and just a little husky. “So what brings you here, besides the wonderful resort and the fact we have the best skiing on the planet?”
“My partner gave me a week out here. Said I needed a vacation.”
“Wow. Nice partner.”
Before she could ask more, or what he did for a living, they were at the top of the lift. They got off together and skied forward to Upper Way, which would deposit them at the top of the world—or what felt like it at 11,150 feet. They got on with two boarders, who managed to get between her and her beautiful stranger, and this time there was little talk and lots of awe as they all took in the stunning Sierras in full winter splendor.
When they finally reached the top, Lily stopped to wave to the lift operator and pulled her sunglasses out from inside her jacket.
The two boarders quickly vanished down the front of Surprise, a lovely, groomed intermediate run that would eventually take them back to the midmountain lift. Her mysterious rebel had shifted forward, meanwhile, to read the large billboard map that exhibited all the runs. A dry-erase board beneath it listed which of them had been groomed and their conditions. He bent to tighten his boots—which gave her the chance to notice that his butt was as extremely fine as the rest of him—then he straightened and pushed off, heading toward the back side and Drop Off.
“Hey,” she called out, but it was too late. “Damn it.” She went after him. At the lip of the run, she hastily bent and locked her other foot into her binding. He’d already begun his descent, and as she watched, her mouth fell open. He’d said he was an “all right” skier, but the man was beyond anything even close to all right. In fact, he moved like poetry in motion, perfectly in sync with the fall line of the mountain. Was that ever sexy.
With a grin of anticipation and lust and pure joy, she threw herself off the edge of her world, flying down the mountain after him.
LILY PASSED HER HOT MAN In Black, waving as she swooshed on by. The beauty of Drop Off was its combination of sheer length and vertical drop, never failing to give her a roller-coaster, stomach-to-her-toes feeling—but today the run had an extra edge to it, courtesy of her sizzling audience.
The trees on either side of the sharp, creviced run blurred as her eyes watered with the icy morning chill. Still she pushed harder, happily losing herself in speed and adrenaline.
Halfway down, she leaped into a quick stop and, as she often liked to do, turned to look back up at the cliff she’d just taken. Breath coming in quick, short pants, she swiped at her glasses to rid them of the flakes of powder blocking her view.
He skied up beside her, stopping close enough to spray her with snow. “Still worried about me?”
She shot him a droll look. “You failed to mention you were expert.”
He let out a slow grin. “You failed to ask.”
“Race to the bottom?” he asked casually.
The bad girl in her screamed, Oh, yes! But the sensible ski patroller in her demurred. “Racing on a hill not denoted for such things isn’t wise.”
He laughed, a sound that scraped low in her belly. “And here I thought you were so tough.”
She stared into his teasing eyes and nearly drowned in the dark orbs. “Tough and stupid aren’t synonyms.”
“We both know you’re dying to race me.” Leaning in close, he whispered, “I dare you.”
He had no way of knowing that she loved a good dare, that she’d never turned one down in her life. Not in second grade, when Tony Villa had dared her to pu
t superglue on their teacher’s chair. Not in sixth grade, when Eric Orlando had dared her to pull down her pants and moon the baseball team. Even though a dare had led her right down the wrong path many, many more times than she could count she’d long ago given up fighting the lust for life that throbbed in her veins. She looked around to make sure they were alone. “I’ll show you ‘tough.’”
His grin was slow and wicked. “Are we on, then?”
“You bet your sweet ass.” With no one in sight, making the dare okay in her books, she blew him a little kiss, then leaped forward, going balls out, straight down the mountain. She could hear him on her tail, and then he was right next to her, and for long moments they stayed like that, side by side, the swooshing of the snow beneath his skis and her board a wonderful sound.
Finally she edged free just a little and eyeballed the next sharp turn. I can take him right here, I can pull ahead—
Her walkie-talkie chirped, and with a grand sigh for what might have been, she stopped short and answered the call. “Go ahead,” she said to base.
“Skier disappeared out-of-bounds, on the north face between Surprise and Drop Off. Friends say he has no business being out-of-bounds, and he’s not responding to shout-outs. Danny said you’re already up there.”
“I’m on Drop Off. I’ll ski between the trees to get over there, see if I can see him.”
“Chris is on his way, too.”
Chris had her old, beloved position of Patrol Director, and loved the mountain as much as she did. He, too, was only on call today, but undoubtedly hadn’t been able to resist the fresh snow any more than she had. She clipped the radio back onto her belt and eyed the trees off to her right, knowing she could board through the tightly growing pines and come out just above the area where the skier had gone out-of-bounds. Or so she hoped. She turned to go, then remembered. She wasn’t alone. She eyed her perfect stranger’s long, most excellent form.