Even his toenails hurt.
This year was his last shot, though. He had one more chance at winning the World Cup in alpine skiing, then hopefully a medal in the Winter Games, before he got too old.
So he was going to have to live with the pain, and learn how to treat it.
Thus, the hot tub.
He leaned his head back and looked up at the stars overhead. Steam rose from the bubbling water, obscuring his vision a bit, making the stars waver and blur. He was glad to have access to the hot tub, on the deck of the Running Deer Ski Lodge. He was even more glad that no one else had braved the frigid temperatures to take advantage of it, because he had the deck to himself. He could let his mind wander back over the day’s skiing. What he’d done wrong, what he’d done right.
One of the things he’d done wrong was going up that one last time. He’d thought he was in good shape after skiing all summer in South America, but man. The courses there hadn’t been outlined the way this one was, and some of those turns had hurt.
He hoped the decision didn’t cost him this weekend in the downhill race. He needed to come in the top five to bring up his ranking to increase his chance of being chosen for the U. S. team. So he replayed the course in his head, the twists, the dips, and worked out how he could improve his time, each step of the way.
The door to the lodge opened—he heard the noise from inside grow louder and then become muffled again—and he lifted his head to see who had joined him.
The woman who walked toward him was long and slim, even wrapped in the thick robe from the resort. Her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, revealing delicate features and big eyes. She crossed straight to the hot tub and stood over him, smiling down.
“Hey, mind if I join you?”
Man, he did not have time for a flirtation, for a woman seeking him out. Okay, sure, that sounded conceited, but ever since his first appearance in the Games when he was twenty, well, women had been interested. And he just didn’t have time to deal with the distraction right now. He’d rented a cabin on the property instead of staying in the lodge to be away from people.
But he couldn’t exactly deny her access to the hot tub.
So he drew his legs in and sat up straighter, lifting his hand out of the water to motion that she was welcome to join him.
She loosened her robe and draped it over a nearby chair, and he had to concentrate to keep his expression neutral.
Long and slim, yes, but with curves in all the right places in the sporty two-piece bathing suit she wore. Her legs and arms as she stretched to drape the robe were toned, her stomach cut. When she turned back to him, lifting her arms over her head to readjust her ponytail, she smiled.
“Long day on the mountain,” she said, and stepped into the water.
Her big long-lidded eyes closed for a moment in pleasure as the heat seeped into her, then she opened them again and sat across from him, ducking so even her shoulders were immersed. She closed her eyes again, and he knew he should avert his gaze, but he just couldn’t.
No time for this, Griff.
He told himself not to ask questions, not to engage, but his curiosity overwhelmed him. “You’re a skier?” Most people at the resort were. Duh, Griff.
“Yup. Today wasn’t fun, though. Ski patrol put a call out for help finding a missing little boy. It all ended well, though.”
He must have been on the mountain at the time, because he hadn’t heard that call. “That was good of you to go look.”
She lifted a hand. “I do search and rescue part time. The team leader today knows me, knows I was here. I couldn’t say no.”
He leaned forward, his curiosity betraying him. “For real? How did you get into that?”
She fidgeted with her ponytail. “Oh, well, you know, I love being on the mountain, and there’s not really a lot of ways to get paid to do that.”
“So you’re ski patrol?”
Something shifted in her gaze. “No, I used to be, but that’s pretty time-intensive. I’m part time, usually on cases where they need more people, where they need someone who’s a trained paramedic.”
“And you are? A paramedic?” Why was he questioning her? He didn’t care, except yes, he did.
A slight smile curved her full lips. “I am.”
“So what—if you don’t mind my asking—was the case today?”
“Little kid, separated from his parents, found himself really lost. Took four hours to find him. This time, they just needed bodies up on the mountain searching, no paramedic, thank God. I think the parents are either going to put a leash on him, or tie a bell around his neck or something. They were pretty frantic. And they’re from Texas, so not a lot of experience with snow.”
“Glad it ended well.” He wanted to ask more questions, but the side of him that would remain aloof told him to shut up. She wanted to relax, and he needed to.
“Yeah, more often than not it does.” She trailed a hand through the bubbling water. “Otherwise I don’t know if I could keep doing it.”
“That makes sense. So I guess in the summer you’re a paramedic?”
Her face scrunched into a sort of grimace. “Yes, that’s actually harder because it’s a lot more iffy on outcomes. So many car accidents. And, well, it’s not on the mountain.”
The questions just kept piling up in his head, like what made her want to be a paramedic in the first place. But he didn’t ask, instead shifted and eased his head back, closing his eyes and trying to close her out of his thoughts.
“So long day on the mountain for you, too?” she asked.
“Yup. Too many runs.” But his conversation with her was making him forget the pains, was letting his muscles loosen. He knew his own tension at being able, or not, to qualify for the team was part of the reason he was in so much pain. If he could relax on the mountain, enjoy the skiing like he used to, he could probably do better. But he wasn’t in that mindset yet.
He didn’t know how to get back there.
“Been there,” she said in commiseration, and leaned her own head back against the edge of the tub.
Because his mind had wandered, a second passed before he understood what she meant.
“I imagine you’ve seen some hairy accidents on the mountain, as well.”
“Oh, sure, but cars do a worse number on the human body than gravity does. I’ve seen plenty of bad accidents, more than my share of compound fractures.”
He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I’ve had one of those.” He stretched his arm out in front of him and pointed to the scar on his right deltoid. He’d been lucky as hell he had broken his arm and not his leg, or that could have ended his career.
Her turn to draw in a breath. “Skiing?”
She held up her arm, wrist out. “Skateboarding. I was trying to master dropping in on a ramp. Not a compound fracture but I had to have surgery and they put some screws in there. Needless to say, I did not get back on the ramp.”
Skateboarding? He was having trouble picturing her in a helmet and pads. “How old were you?”
“Oh, ten, eleven. My mom took me to the skatepark every week, until that happened. She tried to teach me to sew after that. I was not good at sitting still.”
He chuckled at that. “I have screws in this ankle.” He lifted his leg out of the water and pointed his toes the best he could, because face it, feet were ugly. “Also skiing.”
“And yet you get back on the mountain.”
He shrugged. “I was twelve at the time.”
She lifted her opposite leg and held her toes straight, as he’d done, and what had he been saying about feet being ugly? He had the weirdest urge to stroke his hand down the top of her foot.
“No screws, but I did have to have surgery when I broke this one. Skydiving.”
That surprised him enough to look away from her shapely leg. “Skydiving?”
She lowered her leg back into the water. “I was convinced I wanted to be a smokejumper. The skydiving part was fun, but one summer on the mountain convinced me I’m a winter girl.”
“You were a smokejumper?” He was incredulous. He’d met some of those guys, and they took some big risks.
She shook her head. “No, a hot shot. I’m glad I didn’t do all that training. I might not have quit and would have just been miserable. But before I joined the crew, I went skydiving just to see if I’d like it.”
“The first few times. The last time was when I broke my ankle. Have you ever gone?”
He shook his head. “I never have.”
“I have a friend who’s a pilot, if you ever decide to try it.”
Just what he needed, to kill his damn self jumping out of a plane. He’d never make the team if he was broken in a million pieces. But he didn’t want to say that to her. “Maybe.” He leaned forward, the ache in his body a whole different thing now. “What else did you want to be?”
She grinned. “Well, I went from hot shot to park ranger to ski patrol to paramedic to part-time search and rescue.”
He was absolutely riveted. “So you weren’t a paramedic when you were ski patrol?”
Her eyes sparkled in the light from the hot tub. “Not when I was full time, but I saw the benefit of becoming one. I hope to go back to using it full time soon. ”
He wondered what caused that comment. He didn’t recall being so curious about a woman before, but he supposed he’d never met a woman like her before either.
She angled her head at him. “I’ve been doing all the talking.”
“You have a lot more to say,” he countered, and she laughed, her head tilted back, that long sexy neck so inviting. He could almost feel it beneath his lips.
Wasn’t he just telling himself that he needed to stay focused? Like, just now telling himself that? And now he was focused on just one thing.
The wrong thing.
“You want to go get some dinner?”
“Um.” She looked at him, looked up at the stars. “Um. Sure. I guess. Okay. But only since I’ve been doing all of the talking and you’ve done none.” She reached her hand across the hot tub. “I’m Mackenzie. Since we haven’t really introduced ourselves.”
“Okay, then. Meet in half an hour in the lobby?”
When he nodded, she braced her hands on the side of the tub and launched herself up and out. She did a full-body shake, then reached for her robe. Once she had it wrapped around herself, she looked over her shoulder at him still in the tub.
“See you in half an hour.”
As he watched her walk away without making a move to get out, he wondered what the hell he was thinking.
Mackenzie Burton shivered as she hurried through the warm lobby and up to her suite. Even though she and her nephew Paul lived only forty-five minutes away, his coach had wanted him staying in the resort before the race on Saturday. Right now she was both glad and anxious about that choice.
What was she doing agreeing to go to dinner with a strange man?
Okay, well, he wasn’t strange. He was Griff Davis, four-time member of the U. S. Team representing men in alpine skating, three-time medal winner in the Winter Games, if she recalled correctly. So she knew who he was. She just didn’t know the man.
She did find it interesting that he hadn’t said anything about being a professional skier, just acted like he was a regular guy with a tough day on the mountain. She wondered why. But she didn’t mind. Better than him being all, “Don’t you know who I am?” to get his way.
She probably should have skipped the hot tub. Searching for a little kid had taken a lot out of her, and the cold had seeped into her bones. But when James had called her, knowing she was in the area, needing her experience, she hadn’t been able to say no. After the stress of the day, even though it ended in the best way, she’d wanted some alone time.
When she’d seen someone was already in the hot tub, she should have just turned around and come back up to her room, settled for a hot shower.
But when she’d recognized Griff, well, she hadn’t been able to help herself.
She’d always thought he was cute when he was younger, dark-haired with those blue, blue eyes. Age had only improved him, carved his features even finer, and that scruff on his jaw was sexy as hell.
Her heart was jittery as she opened the door to her suite, called out, “Paul?”
Her nephew didn’t answer. He was eighteen now and they’d agreed she wouldn’t keep such close tabs on him. That allowed them each a bit of freedom. Right now she was relieved that he wasn’t here so she didn’t have to explain where she was going. But tomorrow she was going to remind him that she at least deserved the courtesy of knowing where he was as long as they lived together.
Now, however, she was grateful for privacy as she shrugged off her robe, peeled off her wet bathing suit and pawed through her suitcase, trying to decide what to wear. She didn’t want to take too long, didn’t want to make Griff wait, possibly change his mind, so she grabbed a sweater and tugged on her favorite leggings, checking the mirror to make sure they were as flattering as she remembered.
She needed to do something with her hair, which was currently scraped back in a ponytail, and she should at least put some eyeliner on. Maybe some eyeshadow. And mascara. And lip stain. She didn’t know why she’d packed all those things—she rarely used them.
What had she gotten herself into? She hadn’t wanted to impress a man in, well, she couldn’t remember how long. Taking in Paul six years ago had put a crimp in her love life. She’d managed to hook up every once in a while, but she hadn’t met anyone who wasn’t freaked out that she was a package deal with a teenager.
She was overthinking things. She had been fine out in the hot tub, when they had just been flirting. What did she really think was going to happen? He was a celebrity. She was a nobody.
But who knew?
The look on his face when she found him in the lobby by the fireplace made the additional effort she’d put into her appearance completely worth the fact that she may have taken over half an hour to get ready.
He motioned to a table on the other side of the double-sided fireplace, set for two, complete with wineglasses. “Since it’s so late, I was able to get us a good table. Okay with you?”
“Perfect,” she said, and let him hold her chair for her, and who did that anymore? “I’m not drinking right now, if it’s all the same.”
“No, neither am I.” He motioned for the waitress to remove the wine glasses and sat back in his chair. “The truffle ravioli is really good here.”
She knew what was good here, since Paul skied near the resort often, but she merely nodded. “Sounds rich.”
“It is, but tasty.”
“What are you going to get?”
They both decided on a chicken dish with lemon dill sauce, which still sounded rich but less so than some of the other options.
She thought they’d have trouble picking up their conversation from the hot tub, but no, it flowed pretty easily. He wasn’t seeing anyone, had married once when he was younger, but it hadn’t worked out. No kids, a sister who was married to a retired Air Force colonel who lived in Texas now.
“She hated leaving Hawaii, though,” he said. “She had to give up surfing, but he wanted to be closer to his family.”
“Oh, surfing! That’s one thing the beach has over the mountains,” Mackenzie said with a sigh, almost able to smell the ocean.
He lifted an eyebrow. “You’ve surfed?”
She’d actually loved it, and if she didn’t love the mountains so much, she would totally move to the beach. “Oh, yes. I went to California one summer when I was on break from school and learned, and man, is it a rush. Have you gone?”
“I’ve been, but I think my paranoia about sharks probably kept me from enjoying it.”
She leaned forward. “You’re afraid of sharks?”
He turned his attention to the round loaf of bread the waitress brought to the table. “I wouldn’t say afraid so much as aware of the damage they can do.”
She laughed. “I saw a couple, when I was surfing, but they left me alone, thankfully.” She remembered that rush, the danger just a little more adrenaline-pumping than the actual sport.
He folded his arms on the table. “What other adventurous things have you done?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know that I’d call learning to surf adventurous.”
“I mean, yeah, it is. So is skiing, I guess, and jumping out of planes.”
“You make me sound like an adrenaline junkie.”
“I mean, if the shoe fits.” He lifted his hand to indicate, well, her.
“I just like trying new things. I try to do one new thing a year.”
He narrowed his eyes. “If you’ve only done one new thing a year, based on what you’ve told me in the short time I’ve known you, you’d have to be fifty years old already.”
She grinned. “Well, maybe some years have had more adventure than others.”
“Okay, what have you done new this year?”
“Well. Hm.” She tapped her chin with her finger, enjoying the way he was studying her as she tried to remember. “I’ve done zip lining, and white-water rafting. I’m trying to remember what it was this year. I think it was rock climbing.”
His eyes widened in appreciation, and a warmth flowed through her. She hadn’t set out to impress him, she just liked to try new things. Take a few risks.
Ahem. Like now.
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