Excerpt: Just Perfect
Book 2: The Perfect Trilogy
Fear is a funny thing; without it, no one is truly brave.
–How to Have a Perfect Life
Christine couldn’t believe she’d let her friends talk her into this. Standing in the plaza at the base of Silver Mountain, she felt her heart palpitate as she looked at the chairlift. It carried a steady stream of skiers up the mountain, all of them sitting calmly in the chairs–which were nothing more than narrow benches dangling a mile off the ground–chatting away as if gravity didn’t even exist. As if the thought of slipping off that narrow seat and plummeting to the ground never entered any of their minds.
Growing up, she’d had a hard enough time riding the chairlift during her family’s annual Christmas vacations to Colorado, but after doing her residency in a hospital emergency room, she had an all-too-vivid image in her head of exactly what the result of such a fall would look like.
How had she let Maddy and Amy talk her into this? Of course, sitting in a bookstore coffee shop with her friends last spring, the thought of facing her fear of heights hadn’t seemed like that big a deal. Well, it had. Just not this big a deal.
She couldn’t back down, though. The three of them had made a pact. Maddy had already fulfilled her challenge to face her fear of rejection and get her art in a gallery, but Amy had yet to face her fear of getting lost in order to travel on her own. If Christine backed down, Amy would be off the hook.
She had to do this.
For Amy, if not for herself.
And the best approach was to get it over with as quickly as possible–like ripping off an adhesive strip.
The one problem with her plan was her ski instructor was nowhere in sight. They’d told her at the ski school to look for a tall blond guy wearing a green jacket who’d meet her at the trail map. Granted, she’d arrived a few minutes late, but not that late.
Please, Lord, let him be late too, not already come and gone.
Rubbing her gloved hands against the cold, she turned away from the slopes to scan the crowded plaza. People moved in and out of the festively decorated shops and restaurants. Miles of garland abounded, along with big red bows and holiday banners hanging from lampposts. Last night’s snowfall dusted the roofs and windowsills of the tall lodge-style buildings.
But nowhere did she see a blond man in a green parka.
Growing desperate, she abandoned her post by the trail map and headed for the lift ticket window, walking awkwardly in her ski boots. Maybe someone there could help her.
“Excuse me,” she said to the college-age girl behind one of the windows. “I’m looking for Alec Hunter. I don’t know if you know him–“
“Crazy Alec?” The girl’s face lit with a smile. “Of course, I do.”
Crazy Alec? Christine frowned as the girl craned her neck to search the plaza. What did she mean Crazy Alec? No, no, no, she didn’t want Crazy Alec. She wanted Very Sane Safety Conscious Alec. The man at the ski school had said they were too short- handed to spare one of their regular instructors for five days of private lessons, so he’d arranged for “a friend” to teach her. He hadn’t mentioned anything about his friend being crazy. In fact, he’d made it sound like a great privilege that Alec Hunter had even agreed to work with her.
“There he is.” The girl pointed. “That’s him over there.”
Christine turned but didn’t see anyone who fit the description they’d given her. “I don’t see him.”
“Over there.” The girl pointed again. “Talking to Lacy at the pub.”
Christine looked again and finally spotted him. All this time, she’d been searching for a dark green parka, not an eye-popping florescent green. He stood at the edge of an outdoor eating area in front of St. Bernard’s Pub talking to a very pretty brunette holding a serving tray. The woman shook her head and laughed at something he said.
“Thanks,” Christine told the ticket booth worker and headed across the plaza to meet her instructor, her stomach somersaulting the whole way. Maybe she should cancel today’s lesson and get a different instructor. But, no, she was here. He was here. And she wanted very much to get past the first trip up the mountain. Surely after that, it would get easier. Please God, let it get easier.
Her instructor stood in profile, tall and lanky with short golden hair that had been streaked lighter by the sun.
The waitress started to move away, but he grabbed her hand and placed his free hand over his heart. She shook her head even while smiling into his eyes. He dropped to one knee, holding her hand in both of his now, pleading in earnest.
“Oh, all right!” The waitress relented as Christine drew close enough to hear. “But this is the last time.”
“You’re all heart, Lacy,” he insisted. “And I’ll pay you back tomorrow. I swear.”
“You’ll take a week to remember and you know it.” The waitress laughed as she moved away.
“Alec Hunter?” Christine tipped her head to see his face.
Still down on one knee, he shifted toward her, revealing a boyishly handsome face with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen–brighter-than-the-sky blue–accented by long lashes a few shades darker than his hair. He didn’t look crazy. He looked like a choir boy. A very mischievous choir boy, she amended as his eyes twinkled up at her. “That would be me.”
“Oh, good.” She hoped. “I’m Christine Ashton.”
“Hey, you made it.” A grin flashed across his face as he stood, showing off sparkling white, perfectly straight teeth. Goodness, this guy could make a killing doing toothpaste commercials. “I was about to give up on you.”
“Sorry.” She blinked at his height. Being five ten, she was eye level with most men, but he topped her by several inches. “I had an emergency phone call.”
“Ah.” His inflection dismissed the word “emergency” completely.
Not that it was any of his business, but the call had been from the hospital back in Austin, where she’d recently finished her residency, with a question about a repeat patient. She couldn’t very well tell them to please ask Mrs. Henderson to postpone any more myocardial infarctions until after her ski lesson.
Pushing the wry thought aside, she studied the man before her, judging him to be younger than her own age of thirty three. Cute, but young. “I hope it won’t offend you if I ask, but you are a qualified instructor, right?”
He flashed another killer grin. “If you’re looking for someone to teach you how to ski, really ski, I’m your man.”
Since that was indeed what she wanted, she refrained from questioning him further.
“Okay, Alec,” Lacy returned. “Here you go.”
Alec took the large to-go bag Lacy handed over. When the weight of it hit his hands, he knew he’d caught her in a generous mood. Good thing, since he was down to one power bar in his pocket and had forgotten his wallet. Again. “Thanks, darling. I owe you.”
“Yes, you do. The receipt’s inside. I expect a serious tip.”
“Have I ever stiffed you?” He tried out a wounded puppy look, which she ignored with a snort and flounced off. Unfazed, he turned to the woman Bruce had begged him to instruct. “You ready?”
An odd look of apprehension passed over her face as she glanced toward the chairlift. Then she straightened her shoulders. “As I’ll ever be.”
“Great. Where are your skis?”
“I left them in a rack near the lift.”
“Me, too.” He headed across the plaza with her falling in step beside him, their boots clunking on the paving stones.
When they reached the racks to retrieve their gear, he couldn’t help but raise a brow. Whoever this Christine Ashton was, she had money, no doubt about that. If the ice-blue-and-white ski wear with the distinctive Spyder logo splashed everywhere hadn’t tipped him off, her gear would have. Everything from her helmet to her skis were all brand spanking new and probably cost more than three months rent on his apartment. Bruce had sworn up and down she was an intermediate skier looking to improve her skill, but her gear gave him doubts. Seasoned skiers rarely had all new equipment at once.
Darn it, he thought as he clicked into his well-used Salomon Hots. He’d actually been looking forward to this, once he’d resigned himself to playing ski instructor. The way he’d finally figured it, a week of private lessons with a decent student meant he’d get in some non-work-related ski time while burning up some of those vacation and sick days the county manager was hounding him to take. Cool deal–if it was true.
If not, his buddy Bruce was going to owe him big time for this.
His doubts grew as he watched her struggle with the bindings on her skis. There should be a law against people buying top-notch equipment they didn’t know how to use just because they could afford it.
Although, even if she turned out to be a total novice, at least she offered some serious compensation in the eye-candy department. His brows rose when she bent to adjust her boots and her pants tightened about her long, slender thighs. Legs had always had been his weakness. The rest of her wasn’t bad either–even if she had a little too much of that ice-princess polish for his taste–but man, those legs promised to have his libido whimpering before the day was over. He felt the first pitiful whine coming on as she bent even further forward. Her straight fall of white-blond hair slid over one shoulder in a slow, sexy glide. “You, um, need help with that?”
“No, I got it,” she insisted, and finally managed to step into the bindings.
“Great.” He cleared his throat. “Let’s get in line.”
She skied to the lift line with enough ease to reassure him that she had at least been on skis before. The line was fairly long, so he opened the bag to see what Lacy had packed: ham-and-cheese sandwich, sour cream-and-onion potato chips, a can of cola to feed his sugar and caffeine addiction, and . . . he tilted the bag to see all the way to the bottom. Yes! A giant chocolate-chunk cookie. “I love that woman.”
“I take it that was you’re girlfriend.”
“Who, Lacy?” He scowled at the idea. “Heck no. She’s engaged to one of the guys. Here, hold these, will ya?” He handed his poles to her, then pulled out the sandwich and went to work appeasing his overactive metabolism. He’d long since given up hope that it would slow down someday. Small wonder, though, with his daily exertion level.
By the time they’d reached the lift house, he’d inhaled the entire sack lunch. He pocketed the receipt as a reminder to pay Lacy back, and shot the bag and empty soda can into the trash.
“Thanks,” he said as he took the poles back, which was when he noticed his student was breathing a little too fast and had gone from pampered-princess pale to about-to-faint pale. “Hey, you didn’t just arrive today, did you?”
“No, yesterday.” She breathed in and out. “Why do you ask?”
“You look like you’re having a little trouble with the altitude.”
“You know, one of the dumbest mistakes people make every year is to step off a plane, hop on a ski lift, and faint at the top of a mountain. If we need to postpone your first lesson–“
“I told you, I’m fine.” A hint of snootiness chilled her words. “I know how to handle the altitude.”
Yeah, famous last words of low-landers everywhere. Before he could question her further, they were at the front of the line and the lift ops were waving them into position. Well, at least if she fainted, he had the training to deal with it.
The next chair came up behind them, scooped them off the ground, and carried them upward. He was just leaning back, settling in for a nice ride up the mountain on a clear, sunny day when he realized the woman beside him was clutching the armrest and chanting under her breath.
“Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod.”
“Hey.” He frowned at her. “You okay?”
“Actually, no, I’m not.” She turned to him with frantic eyes. “I’ve changed my mind. I really don’t want to do this. Get me off this thing!”
“There is no getting off once you’re on.”
“Then put the safety bar down! As in right now!”
“Okay, okay. Don’t panic.” He lowered the bar, which was a real nuisance with the foot rest banging on their skis, but one he’d gladly put up with if it calmed down the crazy woman. He looked over at her stark-white face. “Don’t you dare pass out on me. Not up here.”
“Did you have to say ‘up here’?” Gripping the hand bar in front of them, she looked down, then snapped her eyes skyward with a groan. “Why am I doing this?”
“Good question. I thought you said you’d skied before.”
“I have. But I gave it up because I hate riding on these stupid things. How can anyone stand this? I swear to God, I’m going to kill Maddy and Amy for making me do this!”
“My best friends. Ex best friends as of this exact moment.”
“Look, it’s okay.” He reached over and massaged her shoulder. “You’re not going to fall.”
“I’m not worried about falling.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m worried about jumping!”
“Jumping?” He frowned at her. “Why on earth would you even think about jumping? We’re at least fifty feet off the ground. You’d never survive.”
“Well, then, don’t do it!”
“I’m trying not to!”
“Why would you even want to?” His own panic level increased as he imagined the result.
“It’s a common compulsion brought on by anxiety,” she said. “The same compulsion that makes people think about driving off bridges, or straight into an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.”
Holy Jesus, was she serious? “Remind me never to ride in a car with you.”
“I don’t get it on the highway. Just on Ski lifts.”
“I don’t know!”
“All right, okay.” He massaged her shoulder harder. “Try not to think about it.”
The lift stopped, jarring the chair and making it swing. She let out a squeak, and her eyes squeezed shut. “Please don’t let me jump. Please don’t let me jump.”
“Hey, hey, hey, let’s do this.” His heart hammering, he took hold of her nearest wrist. “Let go of the bar–“
“Not on your life!” She glared at him with murderous intent.
“Come on, trust me. Let go of the bar and move your hand to the back of the seat.” He guided it for her. “There, like that, so you’re facing me.” He shifted his upper body to face her as well, trying to bang their skis together as little as possible. “Now look at me. Right here.” He pointed to his eyes with two fingers. “You just keep your eyes locked on mine while we breathe.
In…out…in…out…” Slowly her breathing steadied, but her grip remained tight on the seat back and safety rail. “Better?”
She nodded and continued to breathe. A gust of wind blew a spray of snow off the tops of the nearby pine trees, reminding him just how high they were off the ground.
“So tell me about you friends. Mandy and …?”
“Maddy and Amy.” She inhaled. “We have…a challenge going. We each have one year to conquer a fear that’s been keeping us from doing something we’ve always wanted to do.”
“And conquering you fear of the chairlift so you can ski is your challenge?”
“Not just so I can ski. So I can outski my big brother on the black runs. That’s where you come in.”
He lifted a brow. “How long has it been since you skied?”
“How good is your brother?”
“That good, huh?”
“Yes, dang it! And I hate it.” Color returned to her cheeks. “He beats me at everything. Skiing is the only thing I think I might be able to best him at. I know it sounds childish, but this means a lot to me. And I only have one week to get in shape before the rest of my family arrives for Christmas.
“The rest of your family?” he prompted to keep her talking.
“My parents, my brother and his wife and their two little boys. They spend every Christmas at my parents’ condo in Central Village. Since I don’t want them to know how much the chairlift frightens me, I haven’t had Christmas with the family in years.”
“Really?” He cocked his brow. “Me either. Although I’m sure for entirely different reasons. See, I’ve always thought family get-togethers are overrated. Especially during the holidays when everyone’s even crazier than normal.”
“Yes, but do you know how hard my brother, Robbie, would laugh if he knew why I never come for Christmas?”
The lift started moving again with a clanging of cables and a jolt of motion. She slammed her eyes closed.
“No, don’t do that. Look at me.” He waited for her to open her eyes. “Good. Just breathe and keep your eyes right here on mine.” Man, she had great-looking eyes. A pale silver with only a hint of blue. The rest of her face was…classy. No other word for it. None of the “she wasn’t classically beautiful, but there was something about her…” This woman was classically beautiful in every way, including the slender nose, high cheekbones, the smooth line of her jaw. And then there was all that pale blond hair falling nearly to her waist, begging for a man’s fingers to run through it.
His body stirred at the thought.
“So, um”–he cleared his throat–“tell me more about this challenge. Why did you and your friends come up with it?”
“Hmm?” She seemed to have lost the thread of their conversation while staring back into his eyes.
“The challenge.” He moved the hand he had resting on the back of the bench to her wrist and worked his bare fingers under the cuff of her jacket to monitor her pulse. It was racing like a scared rabbit. If she passed out, would he be able to stop her from falling? “Tell me how it came about.”
“Oh…” She relaxed a bit while he massaged her wrist. “The three of us were suitemates at UT. Actually, there were four of us back then. Three of us remained really close. Maddy, Amy, and me. The fourth was Jane Redding.”
“From the morning show?” He raised a brow.
“Yes. Jane moved off to New York and became a hotshot news anchor, then went into motivational speaking.”
“Didn’t she write some book?”
“A self-help book for women titled How to Have a Perfect Life.
“That’s the one.” He nodded. “I saw it at East Village Books and had to laugh. No offense to your friend, but nobody has a perfect life.”
“I couldn’t agree more, but that book is what started the whole thing. We all bought copies of it at Jane’s book signing in Austin to be supportive of an old friend. But then we discovered that she’d used us as negative examples of women who let fear stand in the way of pursuing their dreams. Can you believe that?” Her pulse picked up again. “That bitch!”
“Excuse me?” Alec choked back a laugh at hearing profanity from someone who looked so refined.
“How dare she use us as examples in her book!”
“So what’d she say about you? That you let your fear of heights interfere with your dream of becoming an Olympic skier?”
“No.” She gave a dignified snort, as if what she was about to say was ludicrous. “She said I was so afraid of parental disapproval that I put pleasing my father ahead of my own happiness.”
“Is that true?”
“No, it’s not true.” Indignation sparkled in her eyes. “But what if it is? What is wrong with wanting to earn my father’s approval? He happens to be a brilliant cardiologist. I respect his opinion, so of course I want to make him proud. That’s not fear, and it doesn’t mean I put my own happiness aside for him.”
“How did all this turn into your ski challenge?”
“Oh.” That reined her in some. “Well. It’s a little complicated to get into while we’re dangling a million miles above the ground.”
“Don’t think about that. Tell me about the challenge.”
“Basically, we agreed that Jane was wrong about the big fears holding us back, but that we did have some smaller fears that were stopping us from doing things we wanted to do. So we came up with a separate challenge for each of us. Whoever hasn’t met hers at the end of one year has to take the other two out for a really nice lunch and put up with ribbing for the rest of her life. Since my challenge is to go skiing. I thought as long as I’m going to do it, I’d really like to make my brother eat my powder in front of my dad. Just once in my life, I want to hear my father admit Robbie isn’t perfect at everything. That there is this one thing, at least, that I can do better.” Her gaze grew pleading. “Can you help me?”
“I guess we’re about to find out, since…we’re here.”
“We are?” Christine turned forward to see the top of the lift right ahead. Before she had time to protest, Alec raised the safety bar.
Her whole body sang with relief as they hopped off the chair and skied down a gentle slope to an open area at the top of the run. She turned to take in the view.
The wide blue sky domed the Rocky Mountains while snow dusted the tall pine trees lining the slopes. Skiers and snowboarders swished down the mountain beneath the never-ending line of lift chairs. Wow. She looked at how high those chairs hung in the air–and felt triumphant.
“I did it!” A rush of gratitude made her want to throw her arms around Alec Hunter. Checking the impulse, she smiled instead. “Would it be entirely inappropriate if I kissed you?”
He chuckled. “Wouldn’t bother me.”
She let out an exuberant laugh. “Teach me what I need to know and maybe I just will.”