“Ski good or eat wood.”
At the top of Suicide Run, Sean Trenton jammed his ski poles into the snow and squinted in the bright sunlight at his patrol partner. “What?”
“Ski good or eat wood,” Todd repeated, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. “We were talking about Patrick on the lift up here. That’s what he said. Right before he slammed into a tree and cracked a rib three years ago.”
Sean laughed. “Can’t think of anyone who deserved it more.”
“No doubt. The guy’s an ass. Good thing he retired last year or we’d still be listening to his bullshit.”
“Yeah,” Sean said, smirking. “Now I only have to listen to yours.”
Ignoring Todd’s sputtering curse, he shoved off, cold air blasting his face as he shot down the slope. His K2s glided over the foot of fresh snow they’d gotten last night, scratching out quick turns and delivering bursts of speed in the straight lines.
God, he loved this. The biting sting of the wind, the smells of pine and fir and snow, the sound of his edges carving the ice. Life on the slopes was in his blood, his soul. He never felt more alive than when he was on skis. The moment he stepped out of his boots, the world bled out from Technicolor to fuzzy gray.
“We should be coming up on the victim!” he shouted back to Todd. They’d been sent out after a snowboarder in possible trouble, and as Sean rounded a bend, the guy came into view.
He was sitting in a drift just off the run, his head lolling back against a tree. His board lay at an angle beside him. Sean braked a foot away in a spray of powder.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?” The mohawk-haired twenty-something started to push to his feet, but Sean placed a gloved hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Stay still. If you’re injured—”
“Oh, no, dude,” the snowboarder replied in a California surfer drawl. “I stopped to take a leak. I needed a smoke after I drained the vein.” He held up an extinguished cigarette butt. “No need to save me from a cracked head.”
“I’d say we’re a little late for that,” Todd muttered, just loud enough for Sean to hear.
Ignoring his partner, Sean bent closer to the boarder. “You sure you’re not hurt?”
The kid jumped to his feet and grabbed his board. “I’m cool. Thanks for checkin’, though.”
Todd radioed dispatch and notified them of the situation as the guy slid away.
“Wanna head in?” Sean asked, after Todd replaced the radio on his belt. “We’re off the clock in a few minutes.”
“Beat you to the lodge.” And Todd was gone.
Cursing, he pushed off, his friend’s challenge burning in his veins. Todd had some good moves and a head start, but Sean had speed and pro experience and not a small amount of recklessness going for him.
And he hated to lose.
A rush of adrenaline pumped into his system as he tucked and accelerated, heating his body, prickling his skin, his scalp. Yes. This was life, the high he lived for. The ultimate snowgasm. Nothing compared; not money, not cars, not sex.
Well, maybe sex, but not lately.
The distance between Sean and his partner closed as he ripped turns and slammed over bone-jarring moguls. Oh, yeah. He was there. He took a jump and flew past Todd with a “see ya” wave.
At the bottom of the run he dug in his edges and slowed, careful not to wipe out any unsuspecting skiers. He slid across the flat through the crowd and arrived at the lodge with Todd on his heels.
“I’ll beat you one of these days,” Todd grumbled.
Sean peeled off his goggles and snapped out of his bindings. “Keep on dreaming.”
They locked their skis and poles into a rack near the lodge wall and started up the steps to the ski patrol office, stomping their boots to break the snow loose. Sean tugged off his gloves and shoved them into his jacket pocket. “Want to hit the Moose and get something to eat?”
Todd glanced at his watch. “Sounds good. We can check out today’s selection of ski babes. Get you out of your slump.”
“Slump? Nah. Remember Jenny?”
“Dude, Jenny was months ago. And you had what, one date?”
One date that had ended in disaster, but no way in hell he’d tell Todd that.
“So it’s been a while.”
“A while? Monks get laid more often than you.” Todd clapped Sean on the back as they entered the patrol office. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you back into prime playboy condition.”
“Thanks, I think.”
Todd grinned. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Chicks fall all over you even when they don’t know who you are, and there’ve been hordes of hot women on the slopes lately.”
“There always is before a ski competition.” Always. Women came in droves hoping to land in one or more of the athlete’s beds. He knew firsthand how it worked, had once considered groupies a perk of being the best of the best.
They punched their timecards and stowed their gear, and then clomped to the Moosehead Pub just off the cavernous main lobby. Six fires blazed in the tri-level, open-floor establishment, and he shivered as his body began to thaw after three solid hours on the slopes.
The bar was packed, but several barstools stood empty, so Sean and Todd took root at two that allowed the best view of the busy ski runs. The bartender, Earl, slapped napkins on the polished oak bar top.
“Hey, boys. What can I do ya for?”
“The usual,” Sean said. “Cocoa and a burger.”
“Coffee for me. Strong coffee.” Todd raked his fingers through his shaggy blond hair. “I need some serious juice.”
Sean raised an eyebrow. “Got a date?”
“I wish,” Todd muttered. “I’m on duty at the station tonight.”
“Man, I don’t know how you manage two jobs.”
“I can’t afford to only do EMT work in the summer.” Todd gave Sean a meaningful look. “Unlike some people.”
He shot his friend an irritated glare. “Fuck you.”
“Hey, I was joking.”
Sean scrubbed a hand over his face. It didn’t take much to set him off these days, which was unlike him. “I know.”
“The new job got you wound up?”
“Like a watch,” Sean said. “What if I screw up? The producers will never hire me on a permanent basis.”
Todd rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding, right? Who knows more about skiing than you? And once chicks see your mug on TV, you’ll be the most popular sports commentator in history.”
“You’re way too stressed. You gotta get laid.”
Earl set two steaming mugs in front of them, and Sean poked idly at the marshmallows floating on top of his cocoa. His stomach was too knotted to eat now. Announcing the ski competition on national TV was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to mess up.
Only it wasn’t about the money; it was about putting his life back together, and the possibility that he might fail drove him crazy. He needed a distraction, a release, but Todd’s insistence that the release be sexual in nature wasn’t the answer.
Then again, maybe it was. His sex life—or lack thereof—was entangled with his crashed professional life. Repairing one didn’t necessarily fix the other, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.
He glanced up from his cocoa to see Todd looking around the bar and ignoring his coffee.
“Change your mind about the coffee?”
“Nah. I’m finding you a hot babe.”
Sean sipped his cocoa, relishing the slow burn down his frozen throat. “Did it occur to you that I’m perfectly capable of finding my own ‘hot babe’?”
“Yeah, right.” Todd cursed. “There’s no one even remotely your type in here.”
“And what’s my type?”
“Blonde lap dancers.”
Sean laughed. That sounded about right. At least, that used to be right. He hadn’t had a date in so long he didn’t know what his type was anymore. The breathing type, probably.
“Yes! Got one.”
Todd cocked his head at a bleached blonde woman giggling with two friends near a window. Blondie tossed her long hair over her shoulder and looked in Sean’s direction. Her bright gaze took a leisurely ride down his body and then back up. Her lips parted, and her tongue moistened them with deliberation.
“There you go,” Todd said with a nudge of his elbow into Sean’s side. “I’ll bet she’s got a room upstairs. Go for it.”
Two years ago Sean would have had the woman out of her ski bibs by now. Two years ago he didn’t give a damn what or who he did. Two years ago he’d been a different person, and today the woman looking at him with an open invitation in her eyes didn’t appeal to him at all.
“Not happening.” He turned back to his cocoa.
Todd’s head whipped around. “Are you insane?”
Sean had to wonder. He wanted to feel alive again. He needed to feel alive again. A naked woman beneath him could get him there. So why wasn’t he jumping all over the blonde who might as well have sure thing tattooed on her forehead?
“Excuse me, sir.”
Sean turned, and all thoughts of the blonde dissipated because he was staring into the most amazing eyes he’d ever seen. Their color, a dark, pure green, reminded him of a pine forest at dusk. Of woodland moss on the mountain’s north face. Of the flannel sheets on his bed. Damn, but the cinnamon-haired beauty gazing back at him would look good tangled in those sheets.
What the hell? He’d just dismissed a slinky woman who no doubt would have guaranteed a night of steamy between-the-sheets play. And now this woman with uncontrolled shoulder-length hair and very little makeup on her pale, slightly rounded face—the polar opposite of the type of woman he used to date—piqued his interest. Piqued several things, as a matter of fact.
He swallowed tightly and willed his pulse to slow down. “Yeah?” Brilliant, Trenton. Just brilliant.
“Is the bartender around?” the woman asked in a sultry voice that sounded like early morning sin. “Oh, never mind. Here he comes.” She gave Earl a smile Sean would kill to have aimed in his direction.
Earl slid a plate overflowing with fries and a hamburger in front of Sean. “Can I help you, miss?”
“Lemon drop martini, please.”
Earl reached for a glass. “You got it. I’ll take it to your table.”
The woman thanked him and walked away, giving Sean a mouth-watering view of long legs and a curvaceous ass hugged by faded jeans. His pulse spiked higher than it had in a long, long time.
Todd, still drooling over the willowy blonde in the corner, seemed completely oblivious to her. “Sean. Buddy. Certain body parts are going to start falling off if you don’t use them. You said you’re ready.”
“I am,” Sean said, sounding idiotically short of breath and not nearly convincing enough. “I just have other things on my mind.”
It was a trap. An appeal to Sean’s competitive nature to prove Todd wrong. Funny, but knowing that didn’t stop him from falling for it.
“I’m ready. Need proof?” Sean nodded at the martini woman, whose lush rear still swung in an enticing rhythm. “I’ll ask her out.”
Todd stared at him like he’d suggested they use butter to wax their skis. “Who are you, and where the hell is Sean?”
“What? She’s hot.”
Todd cast another glance at the woman as she skirted around several crowded tables and plopped into an empty booth next to the fire. “She’s okay, but she’s no lap dancer. Too tame for you.”
Sean watched the woman wiggle into the seat and imagined her dancing—and more—in his lap.
Feeling a thrill of anticipation he hadn’t experienced in years, he gave Earl a sharp nod. “I’ll deliver the martini.” The little fox by the fire didn’t know it yet, but his dry streak was history.