Chapter 1

 

 

“AAAAAHHHHH!”

James Connell hurtled down the ski slope. The frigid air slapped and stung his cheeks. Muscles burned, and nausea rolled through his stomach. He had to stay balanced and slow down; he needed to snowplow.

With his hands gripping the ski poles tightly, he bent his knees and pushed his heels out. Why wasn’t it working? The buzzing in his head grew louder.

He was going to die.

He windmilled his arms, and the ski poles whipped wildly through the air. His aching legs trembled as the world began to tip backward. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t hold on.

The buzzing stopped, and the world went quiet.

So… that’s it, then.

On an outward breath, his muscles relaxed… and he fell.

“Oomph.” The world flashed white. His skis detached and whipped past his head. With his back dragging against the snow, the downhill slide continued. Fiery pain shot through his knee. He had to stop himself. Now! Throwing his arms wide, he dug his fingers into the snow. Like anchors thrown overboard, they pulled and dragged, slowing his momentum.

Finally… finally he stopped. The giant clamp around his chest released its hold. Great gulps of air burned his throat, and his heart rate began to slow. It was over.

A lone white cloud drifted across a sea of startling blue. When he squinted, the cloud resembled a head with curly hair and pointy-ish hat. Probably a clown… laughing at him. He groaned. Everything throbbed, ached, and stung. Something burned against his lower back, sending a shiver coursing through his body. There was snow up his jacket. He really should move to get it out.

The insistent whirring in his ears became louder. What was that? An intermittent clanking joined in. He closed his eyes and sighed. Great! That would be the ski lift. The best seats in the house to view “the James Connell farce.”

Muscles groaned as he opened his eyes and sat up. Damn that hurt!

The raw scraping of skis digging into the snow sent an icy chill down his spine. No, it was not over yet. Now he really was going to die. Hunched over his knees with his arms curled over his head, like a diagram on an airplane’s safety card, he braced for impact. A vision of his broken bloodied body, skewered by a wayward ski, flashed through his mind. Where was the nearest hospital? Perhaps they airlifted people back to the city….

Wait! Why wasn’t he impaled yet? He released the breath he had been unconsciously holding and uncurled his arms.

A ski and boot rested solidly beside him upon the snow. There was a leg encased in black ski pants, a torso in a dark blue jacket, and… the smiling face of a young man. Short dark blond hair. Nice smile. Even nicer eyes.

“You look like you need some help.”

His stomach dropped. Great! A gorgeous young man just witnessed him obviously terrified and pathetically curled into a fetal position.

Now he felt better!

He ran a gloved hand over his dark hair and stared at the outstretched hand for a moment. “Umm… thanks.”

A shiver ran through him as firm hands pulled him to his feet. Impressive, considering he was at least a head taller than the young man.

“Are you okay? That was a pretty bad fall.”

His gaze lingered on the young man’s chest. Must be some serious muscles under that ski jacket.

The young man cleared his throat. “Well, if you’re okay, I’ll go get your skis for you. They fell off up the hill…. Okay?”

What? His gaze shot upward and locked on the smiling face. Heat crept up his neck and over his cheeks. Keep your eyes off his body and on his face! That really gorgeous, but too-young-for-you face. He swallowed. “Thanks.”

After efficiently removing his own skis, the young man jammed his ski poles into the snow in a crossed position. “Okay. Back in a minute.”

The ski poles mocked him from their crossed “hazard” position. Yes, that’s me! Just one big disastrous hazard.

From a few steps up the hill, the young man glanced back. “It’s Ash.”

“Pardon?”

“My name is Ash.”

“Oh.”

“And you are?”

“Umm…. James.” Oh, God help me, I sound like a moron.

“Well, nice to meet you, James.”

“Umm…. Yeah.” Damn it! Where were the words? He loved words. That’s why he owned a bookstore and had a university degree in English literature. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Nothing.

The young man’s mouth, Ash’s mouth, slowly curved upward into a smile before he turned and walked up the hill toward James’s wayward skis.

He couldn’t help it. His eyes zeroed in on the tight ski pants. Nice.

No, stop that! Not. For. You. He wrenched his gaze away. Mustn’t forget there was a very good reason for his self-imposed ban on younger men. A very good reason. That was one line he was not about to cross. And even if he wasn’t so young, and even if he did happen to be gay, the guy probably thought he was a pathetic, uncoordinated loser.

As he bent down toward one of his ski poles, his back muscles gripped and tensed, shifting into spasm overdrive. He snatched up the ski pole and leaned on it like a walking stick. Damn it! An old, pathetic, uncoordinated loser.

Limping a little, he retrieved the other ski pole and turned to the white powdered ski slope stretched before him.

…ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen….

He sighed. Too many people. No doubt, they would all be sitting by the fireside later talking about him, using the words “out-of-control” and “lunatic.” What a disaster! Considering he had never been very coordinated, trying to ski for the first time at the age of forty-two was perhaps not his brightest idea.

And he definitely should have gone to the beginner slope.

The soft ringing of a bell carried on the mountain breeze as a group of small children skied steadily toward him. Maybe if he had learned to ski at their age, the day would have turned out better.

They followed the bell ringer down the slope in a smooth snake-like formation. Yellow fluorescent bibs covered their small chests. There was something printed on them. He squinted and focused on the words “BLIND SKIER.”

He groaned. Of course. Great! Nothing like blind six-year-olds on skis to make you feel better about crashing and landing in a broken heap.

The crunch of snow beneath ski boots announced Ash’s return. “There you go.” Ash placed the skis at his feet.

“Thanks. It probably would have taken me half an hour to do that.”

Ash smiled. “No problem.”

Brown eyes. No, not brown. More like a nice shade of… “Caramel.”

Shit! Did I say that out loud?

“What?”

“Pardon?”

“Did you say something?”

“Ahh… no.”

Ash tipped his head, and his eyebrows drew down.

Probably trying to make sense of why you said caramel—you idiot!

“So, James. Where are you staying?”

“Bright Cabin.”

“Oh yeah, I know it. It’s a really pretty cabin. Well, it’s in the opposite direction to my place, but I’ll walk with you down the slope and up to the road. Unless you want to have another try and ski down the rest of the way?”

James laughed. “No. No, I think I’ve had enough for one day.”

The skis lay at his feet. Now, how to pick them up without revealing how much pain he was in…. With a push of his ski pole, he turned one of his skis.

“No! Don’t do that!”

The ski slid down the slope.

Of course. Great! Any fool would know that was why Ash had placed them across the slope and not pointing downward.

The ski gained momentum, rocketing toward a group of people farther down the slope. Like synchronized swimmers in an old Hollywood movie, people dove to the left and right to save themselves. Alerted by the cries of warning, a young boy at the bottom of the slope jumped out of the way just in time. The ski hurtled onward, eventually smashing into a stone wall outside the ski slope area.

The breath left his lungs with a loud whoosh.

Ash smiled. “Well…. No harm done.”

He really must think I’m an idiot.