My Kind of Wonderful
The wind whistled through the high Colorado rocky mountain peaks, stirring up a dusting of snow as light as the powdered sugar on the donut that Hudson Kincaid was stuffing into his face as he rode the ski lift.
Breakfast of champions, and in three minutes when he hit the top of Cedar Ridge, he’d have the adrenaline rush to go with it. As head of ski patrol, he’d already had his daily before-the-asscrack-of-dawn debriefing with his crew. They’d set up the fencing and ropes to keep skiers in the proper runs and safe. They’d checked all the sleds to make sure their equipment was in working order.
Now he had time for one quick run before they ran rescue drills for a few hours, and then he was on to a board meeting — aka fight with his siblings. One run, ten glorious minutes to himself, and he was going to make it Devil’s Face, the most challenging on the mountain.
Go big or go home. That was the Kincaid way.
Just then the radio at his hip chirped news about a report of someone in trouble at the top of Devil’s Face and Hud shook his head.
So much for a few minutes to himself.
Ah, well, it was the life, his life, and he’d chosen it. At the top of the lift, he hit the snow at a fast clip. He’d seen a lot here on their mountain and even more on his ten monthly shifts as a cop in town. It was safe to say that not much surprised him anymore.
So when three minutes later he found a girl sitting just off-center at the top of Devil’s Face, her skis haphazardly stuck into the snow at her side, he didn’t even blink.
Her down jacket was sunshine yellow, her helmet cherry red. She sat with her legs pulled up to her chest, her chin on her knees, her ski boots as neon green as neon green could get, staring contemplatively at the heart-stopping view in front of her.
Hud stopped a few feet away so as to not startle her, but she didn’t budge. He looked around to make sure this was the person of interest. Sharp, majestic snow-covered peaks in a 360-degree vista. Pine-scented air so pure that at this altitude it hurt to breathe. There was no one else up here. They were on top of the world.
Not smart on her part. The weather had been particularly volatile lately. Right now it was clear as a bell and a crisp thirty degrees, but that could change in a blink. High winds were forecasted, as was another foot of snow by midnight. But even if a storm wasn’t due to move in, no one should ski alone. And especially no one should ski alone on Devil’s Face, a 3,500-foot vertical run that required a great deal of skill and in return promised dizzying speeds. There was a low margin for error up here where one little mistake could mean a trip to the ER.
Even Hud didn’t ski alone. He had staff all over this place, a few of them at the ski patrol outpost only a few hundred yards away, another group at the ski lift he’d just left, even more patrolling the resort boundaries — all of them connected to each other by constant radio contact.
“Hey,” he called out. “You okay?”
Hud glided on his skis the last few feet between them and touched her shoulder.
She jerked and craned her neck, pulling off her helmet, yanking out her ear buds. Tinny music burst out from them loud enough to make him wonder that she still had any hearing at all.
“Sorry,” she said. “Did you say something?”
Not a girl but a woman, and without her helmet, he realized he’d actually seen her before. Earlier that morning she’d been in the parking lot, sitting on the back bumper of her car and pulling on her ski boots, while singing along on the radio to the new Ed Sheeran song. He couldn’t tell now behind her dark sunglasses, but he knew she had eyes the color of today’s azure sky and that she shouldn’t give up her day job to become a singer because she couldn’t hold a tune. “I asked if you’re okay,” he said.
She removed her sunglasses and gave him a sassy look that said the question was ridiculous.
She’d worn a tight ski cap beneath her helmet, also cherry red, with no hair visible and enough layers of clothing that she was utterly shapeless, but that didn’t matter. Her bright eyes sparkled with something that look a whole lot like the best kind of trouble.
He’d been running Ski Patrol for years now and a cop for long enough that he was good at reading people, often before they said a word. It was all in the posture, in the little tells, he’d learned.
Such as all the layers she wore. Yes it was winter, and yes it was the Rocky Mountains, but thirty degrees was downright balmy compared to last week’s mid-teens. Most likely she wasn’t from around here.
And then there was the slightly unsure posture that said she was at least a little bit out of her element and knew it. Her utter lack of wariness told him something else too, that probably wherever she’d come from, it hadn’t been a big city.
None of which explained why she was sitting alone on the one of the toughest mountains in the country. Maybe … dumped by a boyfriend after a fight on the lift? Separated from a pack of girlfriends and just taking a quick break? Hell, despite appearances, maybe she was some kind of a daredevil out here on a bet or a whim.
Or maybe she was simply a nut job. As he knew, nut jobs came in all shapes and sizes, even mysterious cuties with heart-stopping eyes. “So are you?” he asked. “Okay?”
Her smile faded some. “Do I not look okay?”
Hud had a sister and a mom, so he knew a trick question when he heard one and knew better than to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Instead, he swept his gaze over her but saw no visible injuries. But then again, he couldn’t see much given all the layers. “You’re not hurt.”
“No, that’s not the problem.” She paused. “I guess you’re probably wondering what is the problem.”
“Little bit,” he admitted.
She rolled her eyes. “Did you know that people who don’t understand ski maps, or maps at all really, shouldn’t ski alone?”
“No one should ski alone,” he said, but then her words sank in and he pulled off his sunglasses and stared at her in incredulous disbelief. “Are you saying you’re on Devil’s Face, the most challenging run on this mountain, because you misread the ski map?”
She bit her lip, trying to hide a rueful smile, which didn’t matter because her expressive eyes gave her away. “I realize this is going to make me look bad,” she said, “but yes, yes, I’m here because I misread the map. If you must know the truth, I had it upside down.”
Upside down. Jesus. “We color code the things, you know. Even upside down, green is still for beginning, blue for intermediate—“
“Well, I know that much!”
“–This run is black — a double diamond expert,” he said. “It’s marked all over the place.” He pointed to a sign three feet away.
Caution: Double Diamond, Experts ONLY!
“I saw that,” she said. “Hence my thinking position because trust me, I wasn’t about to be stupid on top of stupid.”
He let out a low laugh. “Good to know.”
“And you should also know that I’m not a complete beginner. I’ve taken ski lessons before, at Breckenridge.” She grimaced. “Though it’s been awhile.”
“How long is awhile?”
She bit her lower lip. “Longer than I want to admit. I thought it’d be like getting on a bike. Turns out, not so much. But if it helps, I realized my mistake right away, I really was just taking in the view. I mean, look at it…” She gestured to the gorgeous scenery in front of her, the stuff of postcards and wishes and dreams. “It’s mind boggling, don’t you think?”
The wonder in her gaze mesmerized him. A little surprised at himself, he turned to take in the view with her, trying to see it through her eyes. The towering peaks had a way of putting things into perspective and reminding you that you weren’t the biggest and baddest. A blanket of fresh snow stretched as far the eye could see, glistening wherever the sun hit it like it’d been dusted with diamonds.
She was right, it was mind boggling. He tried to never take this place for granted but the truth was that he did. Interesting that it’d taken a pretty stranger to shake him out of his routine and make him notice his surroundings. He turned his head and met her gaze. Yeah. He was definitely noticing his surroundings.
She smiled into his eyes. “I figured after I got my fill of the view, I’d just head back to the ski lift and ask if I could ride it down. No harm, no foul, right? But then came problem number two.”
“Which is…?” he asked when she didn’t continue.
“I broke my binding, and while I’ve got lots of stuff in all these pockets, I’m not packing any tools. I think I just need a screwdriver or something. I thought I’d locate a ski patroller.”
“I’m ski patrol,” he said.
Looking surprised, she ran her gaze up and down the length of him. Usually when a woman did such a thing, it was with a light of lust in her eyes but she didn’t seem overly impressed.
He looked down at himself. “I’m not in my ski patrol jacket,” he said. “I was hot from putting up the fencing—“ Why the hell was he defending himself? Shaking his head, he removed his skis and walked to hers. He laid out the one she pointed to and took a look. Yep, she’d broken a binding. “The hinge failed,” he said.
She crouched next to him and the scent of her soap or perfume came to him, a light, sexy scent that made him turn his head and look at her.
But what held his interest were those baby blues. They were wide and fathomless and he found himself utterly unable to look away.
As if maybe she was every bit as transfixed as he, she blinked slowly. “Can we fix it?”
We? “I could rig it enough to get you down the mountain if I had a piece of wire.” He pulled out his radio. “I’ll just call for—“
“Oh, I’ve got it.” She rose and pulled a small notebook from one of her pockets. Clipped to it was a paperclip. She pulled it loose and waved it proudly. “I’ve a piece of wire right here, see?”
“Nice.” He took the paperclip, straightened it, then used it to thread through the binding and twist it in place. During the entire two minutes this took, she remained hunkered at his side, leaning over his arm, her soft, warm breath against his neck, taking in everything he did.
She sucked in a breath. “You’re…”
When she didn’t finish the sentence, he turned his head and watched her gaze drop to his mouth, which was only a few inches from hers.
“…handy,” she finished softly.
“And you’re …”
She smiled. “Stubborn? Annoying?”
“Set to go,” he said.
She laughed, and he smiled. “I’ll help you back to the lift,” he said.
“Oh, I’m good now, thanks to you.” Rising, she nudged her ski into place so that she could secure her boot into it. She struggled with that for a minute, unable to snap her ski in, her arms trembling a little bit with the effort.
Hud started forward but she stopped him with a raised hand and he checked himself.
Ski number two took her longer because she had a balance problem. He lasted until she started to fall over and then all bets were off. Again he moved toward her but at the last second she managed to catch herself on her pole. When she finally clicked that second ski in, she lifted her head and flashed him a triumphant smile, like she’d just climbed a mountain.
“Got it!” she said, beaming, swiping at her brow like maybe she was sweating now. “See? I’m good.”
“You were right about the stubborn,” he said. “But not the annoying.”
“Well, you haven’t given me enough time.” And with another flashing smile, she pushed off on her poles.
In the wrong direction.
Hud caught her by the back of her sweater. Even with all those layers, she was surprisingly light. Light enough that he could easily spin her around and face her in the right direction, which was one hundred and eighty degrees from where she’d started.
She laughed and damn, she really did have a great laugh, one that invited a man right in to laugh along with her. “Right,” she said, patting him on the chest. “Thanks. Now I’m good.”
At his hip, his radio was buzzing. His guys were checking in, getting ready for their high- and low-angle rope rescue drills. Hud was supposed to run the exercise but he wanted to make sure she got safely on the lift first.
“Sounds like you have to go,” she said.
“I do.” But when he didn’t move, she went brows up. “You’re cute. But you do know that even an intelligent person can screw up reading a map, right? That despite whatever it looks like, I really don’t need a keeper.”
Wait a minute. Did she just call him cute? He’d never once in his life been called cute.
Taking in his expression she laughed, like he was funny. “It was a compliment,” she said.
Not in his book. His radio crackled again. Dispatch this time, making sure he’d located the “troubled” skier. “I’ve got her,” he confirmed, eyes narrowed in on the skier in question. “It’s handled.”
The dispatcher went on to fill him in on two other incidents. Hud told her how to deal with them both and then replaced the radio on his hip.
“Okay,” his wayward skier said. “I stand corrected. You’re not cute. You’re kinda badass with all that bossy ‘tude. Happy now?”
Happy? More like dizzy. “Let’s just get you to the lift,” he said. Calm. Authoritative. The same tone that people usually listened and responded to.
“I’m good now,” she said and with a wave, pushed off on her poles, thankfully heading directly toward the ski lift.
Not surprisingly, she wasn’t all that steady. This was because she kept her knees locked instead of bending them, incorrectly putting her weight on the backs of her skis. Whoever had given her those lessons at Breckenridge should be fired.
But she hadn’t asked him for tips. And he no longer worked at the ski school.
She’d be fun to teach though. The thought came unbidden, and he shrugged it off. All he cared about was that she was on the right path now, leaving him free to take Devil’s Face hard and fast the way he’d wanted.
Except … Her helmet lay in the snow at his feet, forgotten. He had no idea how anyone could forget the eye-popping cherry red thing against the white snow, but she had.
And so had he, when he rarely forgot anything. It was those pretty eyes, that sweet yet mischievous laugh, both distracting as hell. “Hey,” he called after her. “Your helmet.”
But she must have put her ear buds back in because she didn’t stop or turn back.
Hud scooped up the helmet and giving Devil’s Face one last longing look, headed toward the lift as well, catching up with her halfway there.
She’d stopped and had her weight braced on her poles. Bent over a little bit, she was huffing and puffing, out of breath. They were at well over 8,000 feet and altitude could be a bitch. It affected everyone differently, but breathlessness was the most common side effect.
Although an uncomfortable and worrisome thought came to him that maybe it wasn’t the altitude at all. When he’d lifted her before, she’d been light, almost … frail. People didn’t realize it took a lot of strength and stamina to ski, and he was nearly positive she didn’t have either. He put a hand on her shoulder.
She whirled to face him, saw the helmet dangling off his finger and pulled out an ear bud with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I think the altitude’s getting to me. I really should’ve gotten some caffeine down me before facing the mountain.” She slid on the helmet. “Thanks, Prince Charming.”
“Cinderella,” she said. “You know, the prince had her slipper and you had my helmet… Never mind,” she said with a pat to his arm when he just stared at her. “Ignore me, probably I should’ve put far more practical things on my list than skiing in the Rockies.”
And then before he could ask her what the hell she was talking about now, she’d tightened the strap beneath her chin, put her hands back into the handholds at the top of her ski poles and pushed off.
He watched her head for the lift that would carry her back to safety, thinking two things. One, he really hoped she knew how to stop. And two, she was definitely a nut, but possibly the prettiest, most bewildering nut he’d ever met in his entire life.