IF THERE’S one thing the Northwest does well, it’s cold weather.
Halfway through the second week in January, the Montana winter had set in with teeth and claws of ice, and Brett Derwent was wondering why the hell he’d decided to take this job in the first place. Sure, he’d done the training, and “apprentice ski instructor” looked great on application forms, especially where it concerned kids’ classes, youth leadership, and all that other total bull that colleges loved, but….
Right now, waiting on the lower slopes of Bear Paw Ski Bowl with a pack of twelve bored and fractious five- to seven-year-olds and windchill bringing the temperature to fourteen below, college applications just didn’t seem like the best reason to be here. If Lisa, the certified instructor, didn’t show up within the next ten minutes, Brett wasn’t going to be responsible for his actions.
“I have to pee,” one of the kids whined.
He sighed inwardly.
“There’s a Porta-Potti behind the concession stand, Jenny.”
The little girl screwed up her face in complaint.
“Unless you’re not brave enough to go on your own,” he said—a low blow, but he couldn’t leave the group unsupervised.
“I am so!”
“All right, then. Take your buddy and don’t be long, okay?”
“’K,” she said reluctantly.
Brett smiled as she stuck one gloved hand in that of her friend, Shannon, and started off toward the stand. Bear Paw had nothing like the bustle and chaos of a big resort, so he could keep tabs on all of the kids without leaving any of them really unattended, but that wasn’t the point. If Lisa didn’t get here soon, a riot might break out.
Cussing her under his breath, Brett broke up a rapidly escalating snowball fight at the back of the group and got the kids started on some warm-up exercises and positional practice. At least teaching them through games made it easier to keep them occupied.
It wasn’t the group’s first class, and even the most junior novices knew how to play “pizza and chips,” so, within a couple of minutes, Brett had the kids moving in parallels and practicing how to balance their weight without even realizing it. Sneaky education, he thought, still scanning the horizon for Lisa.
Her affair with Doug, the under-tens’ advanced coach, might be common knowledge, but it wasn’t really spoken about in town. Havre, like a lot of the Hi-Line area, tended to be about as accepting as a place can be without genuine tolerance; that is, you could get away with a lot, so long as you kept your business to yourself.
A lot, but by no means everything.
Right now, Brett didn’t give a damn about the sanctity or otherwise of Doug’s marriage vows (or Lisa’s, come to that), but he could do without her leaving him in charge of a class he wasn’t yet fully certified to teach while she got her après-ski in the back of Doug’s truck.
He spotted her coming to join them just as Jenny trekked back from the concession stand. Lisa, tall, blonde and—if you liked that kind of thing—really very attractive, looked radiant. Glowing. Well-fucked, Brett thought irritably, which was more than some people got the opportunity for around here.
“Hey,” he said as she gave him an exaggerated little wave.
“Hi, Brett. You started without me!”
“Just a few warm-ups,” he said, resisting the urge to smack her in her expensive Dragon goggles.
“Well, it looks like you’ve done a great job. Okay, guys, those are great ‘chips’…. We all ready to go ski?”
A ragged chorus of cheers sounded, and the lesson moved up to the bunny hill, with Lisa reminding the kids to keep doing their stretches and warm-ups on the ascent. The stuff, Brett realized, that he had already told them, though he wasn’t about to say anything. His pay might be pretty paltry, but he got free time on the trails and, if he could stick it out ’til the end of March when the season closed, his college fund would really benefit.
Brett was looking forward to college. High school graduation already seemed like a lifetime ago, and over the past few months, he’d been watching most of his friends segue straight into jobs in town. Fine, but not what he had in mind. He had the grades, he had the ability, he knew, and now he almost had the cash. With luck, this fall he’d be off to Washington State.
Sure, the Montana State University-Northern campus lay right here in Havre, but that felt a little too close to home. Washington would be just far enough to be off the radar, and Brett couldn’t help thinking of it as an application to life. He’d be leaving home, leaving Havre, leaving everything that made it hard to, well, come out. Not that he planned on throwing a pride parade the first minute he got onto campus. No way. It would just give him some time to meet new people, do new things, maybe even figure out exactly what he wanted out of life… which was totally different from knowing what he planned.
Brett planned to get into a good pre-med program, study hard, and be a doctor. He’d enjoy the challenge, he knew that. Helping people, making a difference. But wanting…. Whole different ball game, and a challenge he wasn’t enjoying; it taunted and poked at him until he felt six inches high and stupid with it.
He knew, in a way, what he did want. Same as anyone: love, respect, friendship. Passion, in an ideal world. Sex wasn’t a—okay, sex did present a problem. He preferred girls, mostly, to going solo, but they didn’t excite him. He’d dated Lynsey Schaeder for two years straight, no pun intended, because the thought of not doing so, of having to run the dating gauntlet over and over, scared the crap out of him. She’d been convenient—no, honestly, they had both been convenient for each other—but Brett’d had to try hard to be hurt when, barely a week after the senior prom, she dumped him for some guy on the wrestling team.
He still missed the release Lynsey could give him, her warmth and humor, but she’d never really moved him despite the times he’d told her he loved her. Brett knew just what kind of bastard that made him, and he’d hated doing it though he’d been too scared not to. However, the way she looked at him, now that she had a guy who really made her light up, felt much worse. Every time Brett saw her—and they still moved in the same social circles, still turned up at the same parties—she looked so happy, but when her eyes turned to him, Lynsey got awkward. Not with embarrassment, it wasn’t that. Even embarrassment would have been better than pity.
Brett figured she might as well chop off his dick and give it back to him in a box; it couldn’t make him any less of a man. He’d faced up to the fact that girls didn’t do it for him, but it stung to know he couldn’t do it for them. Brett knew what he needed, what he wanted, but that didn’t make it something he could translate to everyday life. The Treasure State might be big country, but the towns still acted pretty small.
Now, he supervised the kids off the lift, and Lisa lined them up, checking positions and talking to them in her broad, clear voice. He didn’t want to be the gay kid. He didn’t want to have to play all those games of acceptance and politics when, well, when he’d never even been with a guy in the first place. It felt… fraudulent.
Brett hunkered down, showing Jenny how to bend her knee without tightening up.
“Like you’re sitting in a chair, not hanging on a trapeze,” he said, and she laughed.
When she isn’t being irritating, she’s a good kid.
Her left binding, joining her boot to the ski, squeaked a little.
“Did Lisa check this for you when you put your skis on?” he asked.
“And did your mommy rent the skis, or are these yours, Jenny?”
“They’re mine. They used to be Sarah’s, but they’re mine now.”
Brett nodded. Sarah, Jenny’s older sister, had been consistently highly placed in downhill races for her age group, leaving Jenny justly proud of her. Sarah had nearly eight years on her sister, though, so that meant the bindings were at least—
“Brett? Is there a problem? We don’t want to hold the class up when we’re already running late.”
And whose fault is that, Lisa?
Brett straightened up and waved to her.
“Uh, Lisa? Has the DIN on Jenny’s bindings been checked? I’m not sure that—”
“They’re fine,” she called, waving the next group of kids on. “Old, but fine. All right, that’s very good, Kurt. Remember, big as a house, then small as a mouse on the end of the turn. And keep your elbows in! Okay!”
Jenny looked indignant. “They’re not old!”
Brett patted her on the shoulder. “They’re great,” he said wearily. “But you be careful, all right?”
“Brett?” Lisa clapped her mitts together and pushed the next set of kids into action when she called to him. “Brett, could you just scoot down there and make sure we don’t have any loose cannons at the bottom of the run, please? That’s it, remember, everybody keeps together!”
“Sure. Uh. You might want to look at—”
“Okay, guys!” Lisa turned back to the class. “Keep it comin’!”
Brett pushed off and went to haul in the group of three boys who were already ranging over the slope. They might have energy to burn, but it would be nice if they managed to do it without wiping out any passersby.
He squinted up at the mountain through his goggles. There might even be time for a few runs to himself after the class. He liked the freedom and the tranquility of the slopes, especially on fresh powder. A nice way to relax after having to deal with Lisa, though the chance wasn’t looking likely if World War Three broke out, the way it was threatening to do among the boys.
“Kurt! Quit that right now, or I swear I will tell your mother, and I know what she’s like when she’s angry.”
The scuffling ceased, and pretty quickly. Kurt Anders, a small boy with strawberry-blond hair and very pale blue eyes, looked briefly terrified. No one, least of all Kurt, wanted to risk the wrath of his mother. Gina Anders—PTA queen and part-time desk officer at the Sheriff’s department—knew the whole town’s business and was popularly thought to have eyes in more than just the back of her head.
The lessons weren’t long, only an hour and a half at most in consideration of the age of the kids and their beginners’ ability level, and perhaps because of that Lisa let her attention slip. They’d neared the finish time, but she still had Jenny under her supervision at the top of the trail.
Brett heard her fall before he saw it.
The girl screamed and slid, out of control. Her left binding had pre-released, shooting the ski out from under her, and from where he stood, Brett could hear the crack as the board flew up behind and hit her helmet.
Gasps and tearful screams burst from some of the younger kids, and he was moving before he realized it. Jenny skidded on her stomach, her arms pulled up in front of her face, and though she wasn’t sliding as fast as if she’d been traveling at real speed, she was still heading for a brush thicket. Brett got in between Jenny and the trees, stopping her from getting caught in the glade but landing heavily himself in a big, tangled wipeout.
There was a horrible, sickening crunch. Brett sat up in the snow, trying not to panic. Jenny started to cry loudly; more encouraging than the pale silence of a child who’s really hurt herself. With a scrape on her cheek and a cut on her lip, she was clutching her left arm to her chest, but seemed to be all right. He’d broken her fall, at least.
Brett ran through the first-aid drill as Lisa came running with the medi-kit. After ten minutes or so, swabbed and patched, Jenny acted pretty brave about the whole ordeal.
“You saved my life,” she told Brett very gravely.
He tried not to laugh at her pinched, white little face.
“Now you see why we ask everybody to wear helmets, right?” he said instead, smiling at her.
Though glad he’d been wearing one, he hadn’t come out of the tumble completely unscathed. A mild throbbing pain plagued his ankle and one wrist, together with more bumps and bruises than he really needed. A deep scratch on his jaw stung in the cold. Brett took off his goggles to assess the damage and almost cussed at a huge crack that ran the length of the lens. That had been the crunch, then. Really sickening, given how much they cost.
“…and coulda smashed my head right open,” Jenny was saying, with the ghoulish delight of small children. She was obviously feeling better.
“Ah-huh,” Brett said absently, getting slowly to his feet. “You know, if you spill brains on the snow, they make you come back and clean it up.”
Jenny gave him a disbelieving look, then grinned.
Brett glanced at Lisa. She was shepherding the kids through the collection of bags and rucksacks and looking rather nauseous. He felt kind of sorry for her—she hadn’t listened, but accidents did happen—and so he went to talk to Jenny’s parents when they turned up at the collection point.
“Brett saved my life!” she said again, and he groaned.
It wasn’t at all true; her helmet and pads would have saved her from serious harm, but she could have been badly scared, and for a six-year-old, that would last longer than any cut or scrape. He said the same thing to her father, Mr. Jaeger, while Jenny’s mother hugged her daughter. Mr. Jaeger shook his hand, and Brett caught a glimpse of Lisa giving him an evil stare as she put her gear in the back of her truck.
“Really, it’s nothing to, uh… really. Uh. Bindings can release unexpectedly, and that’s all that happened. It might be worth getting the settings tuned up. The sports store in town can do that for you. Actually,” he added, tucking the busted goggles in his back pocket, “I’m heading down there now, so if you’d like me to drop the skis in, it’s no problem. I’ll give Mr. Klass your number.”
The parents jumped at the offer, and Brett hoped they didn’t think he’d suggested, however obliquely, that Jenny’s accident had somehow been their fault. Equipment aged, kids got bigger, and DIN settings depended on the height and weight of the skier. Even a tiny little one like Jenny.
Lisa had already driven off by the time Brett loaded Jenny’s skis and his own gear into his elderly, decrepit, and pug-ugly ’88 Ford Bronco, but he figured that might be for the best.
BRETT parked as close to the sports store as he could. Havre’s wide and desolate streets gave plenty of room for biting winds to swipe at unguarded flesh. He grabbed Jenny’s skis and made a dash for the store through a vicious gust that chilled him with the burn of liquid nitrogen.
The door swung shut behind him, the electric bell above it announcing his presence with a brief, flat buzz.
“Cold one, huh?”
Brett looked over at the cash register. The guy behind it definitely wasn’t Mr. Klass. Younger, for a start. A lot younger, probably no more than twenty. He wore his black shoulder-length hair loose, and his skin was coppery though not that dark. Brett guessed at him maybe being half-Indian, though more than that, he found it hard to tell. Havre lay close to the Chippewa-Cree Rocky Boy reservation, but the Gros Ventre/Assiniboine Fort Belknap rez wasn’t far away either.
Whatever the guy’s heritage, he’d gotten damn good genes. Dark, expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and a very, very sexy mouth…. Brett quickly pushed those thoughts right out of his head. He’d grown used to doing that years ago.
Look, but don’t touch. And look away pretty damn quick too.
Whatever you do, don’t get caught.
“Sure is,” he said, and damn it because, but for the two of them, the store appeared to be completely empty.
Shit, this is going to be worse than trying to get through football season.
Brett knew by the law of averages that he wasn’t the only one. He couldn’t be. There had been nearly seven hundred students at his high school, and although not everybody who got called a queer or a dyke could possibly be one, there had never seemed to be any proof. Certainly not among his own friends, or in any kind of visible community. He guessed there must be people who came out… but he didn’t know any. Nobody ever seemed to make a dramatic gesture out of it, anyway. Not if they were smart. Havre might have been the biggest town on the Hi-Line, but there wasn’t a lot to do except bowl, go to the movies, or pick through other people’s lives. So far, no one had moved Brett to take what he saw as that kind of risk. He preferred the comfortable cowardice of secrecy, he supposed.
He cleared his throat awkwardly.
“I, uh, I’m looking for Mr. Klass. Need a DIN check on a kid’s bindings and some replacement lenses for a pair of Oakley Crowbars. HI yellow, if you have ’em.”
The vision in hotness at the register smiled. An easy, broad smile. He reached up and tucked his hair behind his ear, leaving Brett’s stomach in a confused knot.
“He’s out for an hour or so, but I can take a look,” the guy said. “Shouldn’t take long.”
“Sure. Uh, thanks.”
Brett passed him the skis and the portion of Jenny’s registration form with her height and weight on it. The ski classes required all the kids to hand over those details in case their settings needed checking. The guy took the skis and went through to slap them on the torque test machine, leaving Brett to occupy himself looking at the bindings and boots on the display shelf. Some sweet pieces of gear, but in the winter the stores always stocked up with new issues, trying to tempt him or—even better—the tourists into parting with some hard-earned cash.
“So, what? These your little sister’s?”
Brett blinked. He hadn’t been expecting the guy to carry on a conversation with him from in back, but he’d left the door open and he was looking out from around the machine, one of Jenny’s skis located on the plate. The board creaked as the machine’s gauge started to move.
“Uh, no. Student’s,” Brett said. “I’m shadowing the instructor on a beginners’ class for kids. One of the girls took a tumble when the left one pre-released, so I thought… y’know.”
The guy smiled that smile again.
“Man, this is a Marker binding. Don’t need a machine to tell you it’s gonna pre-release. Old one, too.”
“Yeah.” Brett chuckled. “Turns out they belonged to her older sister. I figured it’s worth checking the setting, but I wasn’t sure if the spring needs replacing. What d’you think?”
The guy made a few notes from the DIN chart taped to the torque tester.
“We-ell,” he said as he came back to the counter, “they could do with a tweak, but you’re right. The spring’s worn. Could do with a new one, especially for a kid. Accident waiting to happen.” He peered at the scratch on Brett’s jaw and arched one thick eyebrow. “Or maybe already happened.”
Brett half-raised his hand and smiled.
“Oh. Yeah…. She’s fine, though. I thought I could help, just completely wiped out. Go figure, huh?”
That smile appeared again.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” the guy agreed. “I’d do these for you now, only I’m supposed to wait for Mr. Klass so there’s someone on the counter. Should have ’em done inside twenty-four hours, though, so maybe you could come back and pick ’em up? We’re open for a couple hours tomorrow, or you could come by on Monday.”
He tucked his hair behind his ear again, and Brett followed the action with his eyes. He had incredible hands, graced with long, slim fingers, yet they weren’t at all feminine. His nails were short and blunt, one or two torn, and calluses marked his palms.
Slowly, Brett became aware that he’d been asked a question, but more than that, he felt the guy’s dark brown eyes on him, trailing over him as if he liked what he saw. It couldn’t just be his imagination, could it?
“Uh, sure. Monday’s fine,” he said and, blinking, he looked away.
What the hell are you doing? screamed a voice in his head. You idiot… he’s checking you out. He is! Freakin’ smile or something, moron!
Brett stared at the faded linoleum floor and gave himself a good, hard mental kick.
“Okay. I can do the lenses for you now, though. Be right back.”
Brett exhaled slowly and took another look at the rows of ski gear on the wall. He didn’t mean for his eyes to slide sideways, but it wasn’t really like he’d be checking out the guy’s butt if he did happen to look. And he definitely wasn’t disappointed that his fleece hung down so far. He focused on the kick-ass bindings on the second shelf instead.
“Anything you like?”
Brett nearly jumped out of his skin. The guy had reappeared at his elbow, mysterious as smoke. Brett’s pulse thumped in his throat. He turned, taking a step away from him and almost bumping into the display. He put out a hand to catch himself, turning it into a dismissive gesture.
“Ah, you know… a lot. But I think I have a few extra hours to work first.”
“I hear that.”
“Yeah, it’s the car, the college fund, and then the fun stuff. Kind of sucks, but….”
The guy leaned against the counter, legs out in front of him and hands resting on the wood behind him. A white crewneck peeked out from beneath his dark-blue fleece and a flash of brown skin beneath that. Ouch. The guy had shoulders, too. Serious ones. Not built, but clearly fit; broad where he ought to be, tapering down to slim hips and those long, long legs.
Brett tried not to let his gaze trail down his body, focusing instead on his face. Definitely not his neck. Hell, that’s a nice neck.
“If you really wanna torture yourself, we’ve got Atomic FFG 14s,” he said, all golden skin over fluid muscles and a voice like dark chocolate. “14-DIN, high elasticity. Adjustable toe wings, movable AFD; you’ll never wrench another knee again.”
“Oh, God… how much?”
“Three eighty-nine,” the guy said with a grin. “Or we got Rossignol Axial 2 140 Ti Pros, as per the World Cup circuit. You like freestyle, you’ll love ’em. Forty percent stiffer heelpiece than the old design, so you lose less power and get a more responsive ski. Titanium springs, superwide brakes… and they’re, like, indestructible. Of course, for $350, you’d hope so.”
Brett shook his head. “I’d love to say you’d convinced me, but there’s no way… looks like I have to learn to love my old Salomons.”
That smile danced over the guy’s face again.
“Forget it, I’m just practicing the hard sell. This is only my first week.”
“You working the ski season?”
“Uh-huh.” He nodded. “Weekends and two days a week ’til March. When I’m not here I work fittin’ stone counters and worktops with a kitchen company in Burnham. It’s a living,” he added with a shrug. “So, college boy, huh?”
Brett grimaced. “Maybe. Hoping to get into Washington on a pre-med. Kinda starting to wonder if it’s going to be worth the effort.”
“Aw, it will. I’m Tommy, by the way.”
He held out his hand. Brett shook it, and a strange, sad kind of smile crossed Tommy’s face. Brett’s gut flip-flopped, pulling him between panic and excitement for the briefest of seconds.
“Brett,” he said, praying his voice wouldn’t shake.
“Well,” Tommy said, brandishing the cloth lens case he’d brought out from overstock, “Brett. One pair HI yellow Oakley Crossbar lenses. Guaranteed to slay all low-light conditions and a steal at $70.”
Brett winced. “Ouch. Okay, and the torque check…?”
“Nah, that’s on the house.”
Tommy nodded, and Brett told himself sternly that he definitely wasn’t staring at that little arrow of flesh at the base of his neck, which absolutely wasn’t becoming more delicious by the second.
“No problem. Y’know, for a hero an’ all, saving little kids from tragic mountain doom.”
Brett groaned and handed over his card. “Oh, come on...!”
He would have said something more as Tommy ran the purchase through, but the electric bell buzzed, the door opened, and a family of weekend skiers entered, looking to rent equipment.
“There you go. I’ll see you around, Brett,” Tommy said, nodding at him as the weekenders clustered up to the counter.
“Yeah,” Brett said lamely. “See you.”
Brett would have liked to say his name in the same easy, familiar way that his own had tripped off Tommy’s tongue, but somehow it just wouldn’t come out of his mouth. He didn’t know why. All the same, a stupid smile washed over his face as he stepped out into the street.
It didn’t last long, because the wind blew in like a razor, and Brett dived back into the safety of the Bronco, cursing and reaching for the heater. It clicked and crackled like it normally did, eventually giving out a weak warmth only just better than nothing. Brett gripped the wheel and exhaled slowly.
What in the hell had that been about? He wasn’t sure, other than the fact that Tommy had totally knocked him out. God. Talk about gorgeous. Had he really…? Brett buckled up and drove home slower than he needed to, thinking over the thousand-and-one things in his head. Most of them involved that sneaking little glimpse of Tommy’s chest.