by E. J. Noyes
When you spend your life at the top, there’s only one direction you can go.
Pro alpine skier Aspen Archer’s downfall happened in the worst possible way—a career-ending crash on a gold medal run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Aspen packed up her broken life, picked up her broken body and now hides in comfortable obscurity at ski resorts around the world, coaching tourists and ignoring her problems.
Cate Tierney knows who Aspen Archer is, but the last place she expected to meet the former Olympian was during a ski trip to Australia. Hurt by a past relationship, and with a teenage daughter to protect, Cate’s initial reluctance is quickly overcome by her intense attraction. But with Cate’s vacation ending in a few short weeks and Aspen’s aversion to staying in one place, can their encounter be anything more than a fling?
When Cate discovers Aspen’s secrets, Aspen is forced to face everything she’d been trying to forget. And everything she’d forgotten she wanted. Aspen already knows the route from start to finish doesn’t always go as planned. Now she needs to figure out how to get herself back on course for good.
|Publication Date||June 14, 2018|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
GCLS Goldie Awards
Gold — Winner, Contemporary Romance: Long Novels.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I have this annoying writing habit that makes me give my characters occupations I know very little about, and also makes me set my books in other countries. When I first wrote Gold, I had it set completely in Colorado, until I had a brainwave during a road trip to Thredbo (ski resort in New South Wales, Australia for those who’ve never heard of it). Why not shift part of Gold to Australia? Then I could not only give people a taste of what Australian ski fields are like— not very many of them, small-ish and with a whole lot of manufactured snow—but for the first time I would have been places that my characters had been. Knowing I’d skied at Thredbo, walked the paths around the village and been to certain bars to drink copious amounts of Kosciuszko Pale Ale, just like my characters, was thrilling."
—E. J. Noyes
Read more about E. J.'s thoughts on Gold at Blog.Bellabooks.com.
The Lesbian Review
This is Noyes third book, and her writing just keeps getting better and better with each release. She gives us such amazing characters that are easy for anyone to relate to. And she makes them so endearing that you can’t help but want them to overcome the past and move forward toward their happily ever after. If you’re in the mood for some great skiing, great friends, and hot and steamy encounters, I expect you to pick this book up right away.
Lex’s Reviews - In so many romances lately you watch two people get together, than some big angst drama moment happens at the 85% mark. They break up and then the characters get back together right at the end of the book, never really working out their issues. I don’t want to spoiler anything so I will just say that this was not the case in this book. This book is exactly the way I wish romance authors would get back to writing romance. This is what I want to read. If you are a Noyes fan, get this book. If you are a romance fan, get this book. I didn’t even talk about the skiing… if you are a skiing fan, get this book. As a big Noyes fan I might be a little bias, but this book just really worked for me. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did.
Pin’s Reviews - I love everything about it—the setting, the protagonists, sweet and convincing romance, a nice bunch of secondary characters, the skiing…The writing is excellent with great dialogue and pacing. There is some well-placed angst along with a really believable conflict. On top of all that, the ending (the entire last chapter) is truly great. I love when the author knows how to write a really satisfying ending.
Gaby’s Reviews - Gold is the third book by Ms. Noyes that won't disappoint her growing fan base. I think by now lesfic readers can agree that she has evolved from a promising writer to a damn good one. Ms. Noyes doesn't give in to the urge to make us understand or to explain what's going on. The characters and the story talk for themselves. As a result, the book is a delightful read with a good balance between enjoyment and angst.
On a scale of one to ten, the ache in my legs sat at a stubborn five. A five was fairly typical after teaching back-to-back lessons all morning, and certainly nowhere near as bad as it could get. Snow had fallen steadily all week, and the temperature remained consistently below freezing which was prime for skiing. Not so great for my chronic pain.
Though it was only mid-July, barely a month after the mountain opened, Thredbo Resort was busier than I’d seen it in my three Australian seasons and the list of clients showed no sign of easing up. Which meant the ache wouldn’t ease up either. By the time I’d hurried into the staff room to scoff down a granola bar and take care of my legs it was almost twelve forty-five, and I was in real danger of being late for my next lesson.
I pulled off my ski boots and thick socks to apply a generous dose of heat gel to my left shin and both ankles. My eyes drifted closed and an unconscious groan slipped out as I massaged. A couple of the other coaches laughed and made crude comments. Seven years ago, a headline of Aspen Archer Pleasures Herself in Public would have been guaranteed. Now it wouldn’t even rate a mention, especially not eighty-five hundred miles from home.
Without opening my eyes, I told my coworkers good-naturedly to, “Shaddup.” I pushed a hand under the waistband of my ski pants and thermals to rub some gel into my left hip.
The banter and chatter eased, and by the time I’d finished rebuckling my boots the room was empty. Way to go, Archer. Last one across the line again. It was a relatively new, and unpleasant feeling. As quickly as I could, which wasn’t very, I negotiated the stairs up from the staff room. Every now and then I’d almost forget about my compromised gait. Until I had to run or climb stairs or do anything that wasn’t walking or skiing, and then I’d remember how it used to be. Whenever I felt self-conscious or annoyed, I reminded myself to be grateful that I could still walk and still ski.
After Vancouver I hadn’t been sure about either.
Once I’d assured myself that my left leg wouldn’t be amputated, and after a ton of physical therapy, I was back in ski boots. I’d had to learn to walk again but I hadn’t needed to relearn how to ski. It’d been in my cells from the day I was born, the thing that kept me alive even when it seemed like it wanted to kill me. I had to ski. Now, skiing was the closest my body ever came to feeling like it was mine again.
At the top of the stairs, Friday’s Bistro and Bar was packed with its usual lunch crowd. With some tricky maneuvering and more than a little elbow I pushed my way through the mass of bodies. The smell never changed—sweat and snow-wet gear mixed with fried food and spilled beer. Clients waved and smiled and I returned their greetings, commenting on the weather and the like.
Given I was wearing a resort ski instructor uniform, chitchat was sort of a requirement but I really didn’t mind having to talk to people about mundane things. It was a hell of a lot better than talking to them about my old life. When I’d started coaching, my sister said I should change my very recognizable name, and I considered it for about five minutes until I decided I’d already lost so much of myself already.
Most of my clients had no idea who I was and my fellow instructors rarely mentioned my former pro career. Hiding at ski resorts around the world in an endless winter, I liked the odds of not having to explain why I’d missed Sochi 2014 and why I wasn’t training for PyeongChang 2018. Telling people that the thing I loved sometimes made me feel like I was choking would have made it seriously awkward.
I tucked my scarf into my jacket, tugged my goggles down over my eyes and headed toward my coworkers being assigned their next clients. Edward, the guy with whom I shared a house in Jindabyne, waved me over. “I won’t be home tonight, and we’re almost out of milk,” he informed me in his posh British accent.
Before I could answer, Tess our lesson coordinator, materialized with her ever-present clipboard. “Aspen, you’ve got a private three-hour.” She pointed out a purple helmet standing near the clock tower where clients waited for us. “Gemma. Thirteen years old.”
“Thanks.” When Tess moved out of earshot, I leaned down to Edward. “I’ll pick up some milk on my way home. Who’s the lucky winner?”
He tilted his head, subtly indicating a leggy brunette on a snowboard ten feet away. Pretending I was adjusting my jacket, I took a good look. “Very nice,” I said over my shoulder as I walked away to collect my skis. Very nice indeed.
I might have been envious if it weren’t for Rachel, who lingered by the racks that held assorted skis and boards. At my approach, she smiled up at me cheekily. “Get together tonight after Après?” Her voice held more than a hint of suggestiveness.
I shifted a snowboard resting carelessly against my skis. “Sounds good.” Rach and I had a thing. A casual, no-strings, non-exclusive thing. She was allergic to long-term commitments, and I hadn’t found anyone I wanted to be in a relationship with since the great almost-fiancée disaster of 2010. It worked for both of us.
We’d met here at Thredbo at the beginning of last season in the bar at the top of the Merrits lift and fell into bed—technically the backseat of her car—soon after. One of the many Australian instructors working her native ski fields, Rachel was easy to get along with both in and out of bed and had no expectations of me beyond orgasms. She didn’t push me to talk about the mess of surgical scars on my legs. I didn’t ask her about the very faint and faded non-surgical ones on her left wrist.
Rach flashed me another coy smile, the one I knew heralded a very pleasant end to my day, then sauntered off. I grabbed my skis and poles, and made my way as quickly as I could to the girl with unruly blond hair poking out from under her helmet. “Gemma?”
“Hi, yeah that’s me,” she answered in an accent I’d only heard from my mouth and fellow international instructors in the past few months.
Grinning, I offered her my fist. “All right, USA!” She bumped it tentatively as I introduced myself. “I’m Aspen.”
“Nice to meet you.”
The irony was so delicious I couldn’t help laughing. “So, you came to a whole other country to take a vacation and some ski lessons and get stuck with someone from the States.”
Gemma’s smile was shy. “Kinda weird, huh.”
“Seriously weird.” I pulled my goggles up to rest on my helmet so she could see my eyes as we talked. “Tell me about your skiing experience. What sort of stuff are you wanting to do?”
She gave me a quick rundown—skied at home every few weekends, was okay on the blues but always got scared on the steeper stuff, wanted to not be scared, and to learn to go off-piste like her mom.
I nodded and clipped into my everyday on-piste Rossignols. “Sure, we can totally get started on that. How long are you in Australia?”
“Um. Three weeks? We only flew in a couple of days ago.”
I herded her over toward the quad-lift and directed her into the dedicated private lesson lane. Gemma shuffled her feet, then glanced up at me. Her mouth fell open. “Is that Rey from The Force Awakens?”
“Mhmmm.” My hand went to my helmet, lightly brushing over the monogram of Rey behind my right ear. “Pretty cool, hey?”
“So cool,” she breathed.
I grinned down at her, and made a mental note that talking about Star Wars could help draw her out if she was a shy kid. The chair came quickly to scoop us up and the familiar rush started in my stomach when we began to rock forward on our climb up the slope. I checked the other occupants were seated, then pulled the bar down and double-checked it. Lifting my thigh, I carefully threaded my ski poles under it, wedging them between leg and seat, and turned away from the young snowboarders to my right who were chatting about conditions in the terrain parks. “So this is your first day of lessons this season?”
Gemma leaned on the bar, her posture teenage-casual. “Mhmm.”
“Ever been to Australia?”
“Are you enjoying it so far?”
“Yeah, it’s cool. We’re here with my mom’s friends, and their kids.”
I hid my smile at her use of “kid.” Apparently thirteen was adult now. “Dual family vacation?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Are you guys staying in the village?” Thredbo Village was mostly just chalets and apartments built into the slope that sat opposite the actual ski field. At regular intervals, restaurants and bars were dotted along the narrow winding road that curved around the mountain. It reminded me of European ski chalets where people packed in during winter and then melted away along with the snow.
“Nope. We’re all in a big house on a lake at uh, it’s about half an hour away? In…Janda-something?”
“Jindabyne?” I was pretty sure I knew the area she was talking about. Her parents must have some money—to stay in one of those houses for three weeks would be a five-figure sum. My first season, I’d considered renting one of the properties myself. Then I realized I’d be living the same way as I did back home, before I’d run away from my life. Alone in a too-big house.
Gemma exhaled a visible puff of air. “That’s it.”
“Aussies have some weird names for places, hey.”
“Oh my gosh, I know! I can’t figure out how to say most of them. It’s so embarrassing. I can say deoxyribonucleic acid but I can’t pronounce a place?”
Smart kid. Grinning, I swung my legs, the tips of my skis popping into view then disappearing over and over. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re making our final approach to Easy Does It. Please ensure your luggage is stowed safely, hands inside the aircraft and I hope you’ve enjoyed flying with Aspen Air today.”
The smile I got from her started as you’re crazy but morphed into you’re weird. Both were true.
* * *
As well as being a smart kid, Gemma was a good kid—polite and friendly, interested in learning and with noticeable gains in confidence on each run. But she was shy and still a little reserved with me. Halfway through our three-hour lesson, up on The Village Trail, I settled away from people ripping down the mountain so we could take a breather. “Quick break to have a drink and a snack if you’ve got one. Clip out and sit down if you need to rest your legs, but no butt slides down the hill. That’s cheating.”
That got a small smile out of her. I pulled my boot heater remote from my pocket and thumbed the heat up.
“What’s that?” Gemma fumbled a small water bottle from inside her jacket.
I winked. “My remote controller. Just setting myself to relax mode. Can you remind me to turn myself back into instructor mode before we start up again?”
She grinned and leaned over to study the unit. “Thermic.” She mouthed the word a few times then asked, “Is that a heater?”
I nodded and unscrewed the cap from my water. “I don’t like having cold feet.” Without the heat radiating up to my ankles I wouldn’t even be able to walk at the end of the day unless I doped myself up. Taking daily painkillers wasn’t a habit I wanted to get into and most of the time my ankle pain was tolerable, background static really, so I just dealt with it.
After resting for a few minutes, I stood and offered her my hand. Some parents didn’t like the fact that instructors would take a five-minute break in the middle of a lesson they were paying for, and I didn’t know what sort of parents Gemma had. A short break seemed safer, and she was doing so well that I’d had an idea. “What do you say to something just a little trickier?”
“Do you think I can?”
“I know you can. When we get to the bottom, we’ll take a different path to get to another chairlift, okay? So don’t go zooming off without me.”
Once we’d made it down to the terminal and boarded the lift for her final run of the day, Gemma went quiet. Trying to distract her, I pointed out the alpine stream running under the chairlift, and a few of the animal tracks I’d learned to recognize. The scenery was unique—evergreen alpine eucalypts, all bending under the weight of the snow.
A flock of glossy black cockatoos flew by, and once they’d quietened down, I explained what they were. The large birds were hard to miss with their screeching which was thankfully less obnoxious than their white sulphur-crested cockatoo cousins. Gemma nodded, following their path across the sky and I could almost imagine her filing the information away.
We hopped onto another shorter lift to ride to the top of the new run. I was going to be cutting it close to get her back down by four p.m. “We’ll go left when we get off the lift.”
She glanced over the side, a panicked squeak escaping her mouth and I drummed my fingers on the restraint bar to catch her attention. “Trust me on this. You’re more than ready for it, there’s no rush and we’re starting on a green section, okay?”
“What if I freak out?” she mumbled.
“Then we’ll deal with it. But you’ve improved a whole lot today. You’ve got the mad skillzzzz.” I drew out the z, trying to make her laugh. It worked. “You’re my last lesson so we’ll take all the time we need.” I shifted on the seat, trying to find a comfortable position. After a day of riding hard lift chairs my butt had gone past numb to “Oh my God stop sitting down!”
It went exactly as I’d expected. She had a few wobbles but managed to recover and keep going, even smiling a little when she nailed a tricky section of Dream Run. On our last portion of the trail, the easiest point where it joined back up with the green run we’d been skiing most of the lesson, I was twenty feet below, watching her. Gemma cut a turn too steeply, moved her weight up the hill instead of down, and fell. My stomach dropped to my feet as she tumbled over and over then skidded on her back to a stop a few feet below me.
I slid down to her, leaned over and placed my hand on her arm, checking her for any obvious breaks. “Don’t move. Stay still.”
Gemma ignored me and rolled over. She wasn’t crying. She was laughing. “Oh man. That was stupid. I was doing so great!” She grabbed the hood of her jacket and shook out the snow, then flicked it back over her shoulder.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” The dryness of my mouth made it hard to get the words out.
“Nope. I’m fine.” She swung her legs around, planted her skis sideways on the slope and pushed herself up with her poles.
I bent to brush snow from her knees. “You sure?”
Gemma leaned down and checked she was still clipped into both skis. “Yeah, totally. I was feeling really awesome.”
“You looked it.” After another quick physical and verbal check that she was okay, I asked, “Can you tell me why you fell?”
She brushed her knuckles against the strap of her helmet. “Forgot to have a heavy outside ski and I crossed them. My legs are kinda tired,” she admitted.
I held up a hand for a high five, our gloves making a dull puff sound as they connected. “Nailed it. You good to keep going?”
“Okay, ski two more big S turns and I’ll watch from here.”
She skied off as though nothing had happened. Kids. I pulled a roll of chewy candies from my pocket and stuffed one into my mouth. Chewing hard, I tried to push away my trembling fear. The girl was fine, no need to get myself worked up. Yeah, right.
I pushed off and followed her down. After a couple of feet, the familiar tightness hit my gut like a churning, muscle-trembling punch. I turned across the face of the trail and slowed down, skiing long wide turns for the rest of the run, avoiding people making their way down to the bottom. The anxiety would dissipate soon enough, as long as I wasn’t racing down the mountain. Just breathe. Nothing’s wrong. The kid’s okay. You’re okay.
I caught up to Gemma, made a few observations and adjustments then skied backward for the rest of the way, watching her. Together we glided slowly back onto Friday Flat toward the clock tower where we’d started. Weaving in and out of tiny bodies on tiny skis, and unsteady adults and kids, I did a quick recap of everything we’d spoken about.
I found us a spot, ignored the tightness in my chest and yanked my goggles up. “All right, you had some really great improvement, Gemma, and I hope to see you for another lesson. But if I don’t, remember everything we talked about today, yeah? And feel free to come find me if you want to chat.”
Gemma fiddled with the straps on her poles. “That was really great. Thanks, Aspen.”
“My pleasure.” I pushed off and did a glide-past high five. “Stay safe, and enjoy the rest of your vacation!”
The tremble of adrenaline stuck with me while I completed an incident form for Gemma in case her parents were litigious types. By the time I’d removed my high-tech knee brace, changed into jeans, swapped ski boots for snow boots and reapplied some heat rub, my anxiety was just an uncomfortable memory. Thank you, brain, for your cooperation. Hurrying as fast as my useless legs would let me, I arrived at the stop just in time to board the shuttle back toward the village.
When I disembarked it felt like the temperature had dropped another few degrees, and the wind had picked up. Miserable. I tugged my scarf up around my neck and hunkered down with my hands stuffed into my pockets. Keeping my eyes on the damp concrete to make sure nothing lay in wait to trip me, I made my way along the sidewalk and then up a flight of stairs from the street. A few yards ahead of me, a couple walked arm in arm, pressed closely together as they talked quietly. For the briefest moment the surge of loneliness rose inside me, bringing an almost panicked feeling along with it. As always, I shoved it away into the place where I kept all the other things I didn’t want to think about.
Music from Poolside, the outdoor bar, provided background noise for people talking and laughing around the fire pits. A couple of friends waved me over and raised questioning beer bottles at me, but I shook my head and pointed toward Schuss, the bar nestled inside and upstairs. Their disappointed jeers and catcalls followed me across the narrow courtyard before I was out of sight and apparently out of mind.
Trudging up the second set of stairs, with a hand on the railing and eyes on my feet, I collided with a body on the top step. Instinctively reaching out to steady the person, I offered an automatic apology before I realized who I’d almost sent flying.
Gemma’s smile was fleeting, but bright. “Hey, Aspen.”
“Hey! Long time no see,” I joked, letting go of her shoulders and moving out of the way of people going up and down. “How’re you?”
“Good thanks.” She was still dressed in skiwear, holding her helmet and goggles. It was the first time I’d seen her eyes. Huge, inquisitive, and a clear light blue. A few feet behind her was a very attractive ash blonde who I assumed to be Gemma’s mother. They had the same features and smiles, though the woman’s eyes had a touch more gray in them.
I saw so many people during my workday, most of them hidden under helmets and behind goggles, that even the people I knew became featureless blurs. Not this woman. She seemed older than me, maybe late thirties, with an attractive face—all angular symmetry. The kind of woman that if you passed her on the street, you’d take a second and probably third look. Dressed in expensive, but well-worn ski gear, her messy ponytail, smile, and flushed cheeks softened any aloofness her patrician features might have conveyed.
I noted the woman’s expression but couldn’t make sense of it. Expectant and curious, but with no trace of the instant recognition that usually accompanied such intense scrutiny of me. How interesting. She acknowledged me with another smile, but seemed happy to be quiet and let Gemma take the lead. I straightened my beanie and tugged it down over my ears.
Gemma swung her helmet on a finger. “I’m booked in with you again tomorrow.”
“Awesome! Can’t wait,” I said, genuinely pleased. “We’re gonna nail the trails.”
Gemma nodded vigorously and I allowed myself another quick look at the woman. At my glance, she stepped forward, the uncertain smile turning confident. She shifted her gloves and beanie into one hand and offered the other to me. “Hi, I’m Gemma’s mom, Catherine Tierney. She hasn’t stopped talking about how much fun she had with you.” Catherine’s voice was delicious. Low with the tiniest trace of gravel, it was warm and soft, like a gentle caress.
Even with me standing a step below, she was still looking up at me. My six-foot-plus body was part of what made me a good skier. Or so my dad had said when I was a gawky, self-conscious teen. I dipped my head, returned her smile and took her hand. It was soft and smooth, delicate but with a firm grip. “Aspen. Nice to meet you and I’m so pleased to hear it.” Reluctantly, I released her.
“Oh. I thought…it is—” Wide-eyed, Catherine stared at me for a long moment, then her shaped eyebrows came together to deepen the crease between them. “You’re the Olympic medalist, Aspen Archer.”
Here we go. Four-time Olympic medalist, thirty-eight World Cup podium finishes, two World Championships in Super-G, overall World Cup champion, and at the time of my downfall I was on track to win that big crystal globe for the second season in a row. Then there was a whole bunch of other sportsperson awards, and Athlete of the Year a couple of times. I nodded and responded with a calm, “Yes.”
Gemma squeaked. “What? Olympics?”
Catherine placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, effectively quieting her. “Wow, I don’t know why I just called you an Olympian, like that’s all you are. That’s really rude of me. Sorry. You look different than I…from…” She trailed off and flashed me an apologetic smile. A stunning apologetic smile. If I’d actually been offended, that smile would have changed my mind in an instant.
“No worries.” I ignored my racing heart, grinned and tugged at a section of short wavy hair that stuck out from under my beanie. “I changed my hair after I retired.” Back to its natural muddy brunette, instead of the almost-black I’d had for years because my ex liked that color with my swampy green-ish eyes. Disguising Yourself 101. Apparently it worked.
Catherine shook her head as though shaking off a thought. “I’m a big fan of yours but uh, I’m also a physical therapist. I work predominantly with college athletes, mostly post-surgical rehabilitation. Actually, I was at a conference last year and you were one of the case studies.” She paused, her smile dimming back to uncertainty. “Sorry, I’m sure it’s weird to hear that.”
My eyebrows took a trip north. A fan? It’d been a while, and I almost didn’t know what to say. Was she a fan of my career or my knee replacement? Years ago, I’d signed a release for my medical files to be used for teaching, and my scans and x-rays were now porn to hundreds of wannabe orthopedic surgeons and other medical professionals. They were identity redacted of course but I was fairly sure everyone knew it was me. The case history coupled with the initials A. A. were a bit of a giveaway.
“No problem,” I assured her. The replacement was a damned good knee and I really didn’t have an issue talking about it, or my two ACL repairs, or the rods holding my tibia together, or even my unplanned nose job. My last ever competition run, Super-G at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, had been cut short by a spectacular crash.
A group of snowboarders approached the doorway of Schuss, talking and laughing. They bore down on us and I hopped up the final step, then shifted out of the way to let them pass. After a few awkward steps, I managed to get both feet underneath myself again.
Catherine took a deep breath, her eyes tracking down to linger on my legs. A warm flush ran over my skin at her not-so-subtle checking out. Okay, so she probably wasn’t checking me out so much as wondering what my issue was, but I could dream. Catherine’s tongue slid out to wet her lower lip. “You still have pain?”
Pain yes, and also a feeling I’d never been able to describe, like my leg wasn’t mine. Like it didn’t know how to match my right one or it wasn’t quite there. I waved dismissively and trotted out a well-used line. Just a little lie. “Oh, uh, yeah but it’s the old injuries. I’ve got so much titanium in me, I’m practically a robot.”
She grinned at my lame joke. “Then the knee is fine?”
“Absolutely. Bionic Knee is incredible.” I glanced down at it then back up to meet her piercing gaze. “I almost wish I had two.” We’d pushed for the joint replacement rather than a reconstruction because I needed to be back up and running for 2014. Pity they couldn’t give me a psychological replacement while they were at it. When they’d picked out the shattered fragments of kneecap, the last microscopic traces of my competition nerve were picked out along with it and never came back.
“That’s great to hear. I’m sorry to talk shop with you about it, but yours is a really fascinating case.”
“Really, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” Anything to keep talking to this attractive, captivating woman.
“So…if the joint’s okay and the leg is stable, why did you retire? You were only twenty-five?” A faint blush colored her cheeks, and I could almost imagine her mentally clapping a hand over her mouth.
I gave a casual shrug and pushed out another of my standard not-quite-truths. “All the other injuries just added up and I couldn’t risk another big one. But I can’t stay away from the mountains so now I teach instead.” Knowing the only real paths for me once I retired were commentator or coach, I’d attained my certifications early during my pro career. I’d just never expected to use them so soon.
If Catherine suspected that I wasn’t being completely truthful, she didn’t let on. “That makes sense,” she said evenly. “How do you find the joint flexibility?”
Gemma shifted, clearly bored with listening to our conversation. “Mom, really? We’re on vacation.”
“Mmm, yeah. Okay, sorry.” Catherine’s eyebrow crease came back as she absently patted her daughter’s shoulder. Adorable. When she looked up at me, there were unspoken questions in her eyes. Questions that I sensed had nothing to do with my medical history. We regarded each other for another few seconds until she looked away, the pink coloring her cheeks leaning more to red.
I shifted my gaze to Gemma. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Gemma nodded. “You bet!”
“Awesome.” I tilted my head toward her mother. “Great to meet you, Catherine. Enjoy your time at Thredbo.”
I stood politely until they’d collected their skis leaning against the outside wall, and waved as they walked off. Pushing through the door into the bar, I spotted my friends settled at a table, in full view of where I’d just been standing. Edward was about three minutes from putting his hand down Girl of the Moment’s shirt.
Rach was already at the bar and she snapped her fingers in my direction. “Aspen! What do you want?”
“Beer would be great, thanks,” I called back.
“Mhmm.” I was still trying to figure out how I could smuggle a shipment of Kosciuszko Pale Ale out of the country when I left at the end of the season.
Rach’s mischievousness rose to the surface. “What size?”
“Don’t make me say it…”
She clamped her lips together and I knew I’d get no beer unless I said what she wanted. In my best Australian accent, which was pretty awful, I muttered one word. “Skoon-ahh.”
“Schooner of Kozzie coming right up!” Rach’s laugh echoed through the bar.
I stretched over the table to flick Ed’s ear, then sat down, exchanging greetings. His hand was making good progress and I was glad he wasn’t coming home, or it would be an earplug night. Kyle shook a basket of fries at me until I took a handful.
Rach pounced the moment her butt hit the seat. “Who was that?” She pushed my beer along the table toward me.
“Thanks. Who was who?” I picked at a piece of flaking navy blue polish on my short thumbnail before taking a deep swallow of beer. Heavenly.
Rachel’s eyes moved to where I’d been standing outside the bar a few minutes earlier conversing with Catherine Tierney. “Blond Goddess,” she clarified.
Blond Goddess indeed. “Oh, just a parent.”
“Didn’t look like a standard thanks for not letting my child break its leg chat, A.”
Nearly every head at the table nodded. It looked like a bobblehead convention. Clearly, they’d been spying on me. No, most likely they were checking Gemma’s mother out, the same way I had been. I admit freely and shamefully that we could be a shallow group.
“Ah, and she’s just a, uh…” I lowered my voice to mumble, “…fan.”
Next to me, Kyle spluttered and coughed. Patting him on the back until he stopped wheezing I got in first before anyone could say something smartassed. “She’s also a PT, okay? I’m sure she was just interested in the bionic wonder here.” I tapped my left knee.
Kyle wiped beer foam from his mouth. “Maybe if I had four Olympic medals, I’d have more luck with women.”
I nudged him under the table and smiled sweetly. “I’m pretty sure it’d take a whole lot more than that.”
The table quickly dissolved into laughter and trash-talking. I stole another lukewarm fry from the basket and tried not to think about the expectant look in Catherine Tierney’s eyes.
Much to the disappointment of my friends, I skipped out early on Après and headed back to my accommodation in Jindabyne, a forty-minute drive from Thredbo. Rach promised to follow me in fifteen minutes or so, giving me enough time to shower before she came around. The house was a small two-bedroom on the edge of town, with great views and an enclosed deck we kept meaning to use for a party.
Ed truly lived by the unspoken code of the ski instructor—as much sex and booze as you could handle during every season—and was hardly home at the same time I was. All in all, he was fairly easy to get along with, tidy to the point of OCD, and he made an orgasmic peanut butter chocolate cheesecake.
I set fresh milk in the fridge and noted the carton already sitting in the door was actually half-full and well in date. His good qualities were balanced by the fact that he could also be an airhead, and had an annoying habit of playing my saved games on the Xbox. I showered quickly and was changing my nose piercing from the clear stud I wore during the day at work to a small ring when Rach knocked on my door. I yanked her inside, closed the door behind her and covered her mouth with mine while pulling her to the couch.
Rachel unzipped my jeans and began to wriggle out of hers. “So many sexy mums today. I’ve been wet all day.” It was always like this with us, frantic undressing giving way to frantic screwing. Days of looking at hot clients made her, well…hot. Some days I was just as bad, and at that moment I was insatiable.
“I got one for you,” I murmured as her tongue made a wet path over my neck.
“The chick you were talking to at the bar?” Rach bit my earlobe.
“Mhmm.” I groaned when she bit me again. My hands suddenly got very busy.
“Nice,” she breathed, pulling my shirt over my head, making me wonder why I’d bothered to dress after my shower. “That woman won the genetic lottery.” Rach made her way down, kissing my breasts and sucking a nipple into her mouth. We weren’t going to make it to the bedroom.
I gasped when her teeth grazed flesh and suddenly, was overcome with lust. Most of it directed toward Catherine Tierney. Those piercing eyes, the way she’d flushed, her delicate hands, her voice. I yanked Rachel up and kissed her hard. She moaned, tongue meeting mine when I lifted her and bore her toward the couch.
I rolled her onto the couch and climbed on top, slipping my thigh between hers. This was a familiar tune, the frantic ending when we couldn’t keep a lid on our desire anymore.
“Fuck me,” she begged, wriggling out of her panties. “Now, please. Hard.” She grabbed my hand and thrust it between her legs.
My stomach curled again, a current shimmering down my legs and pulsing in my groin. I gave Rach everything she asked for, and begged things of her, but the whole time I thought of a blond woman with questioning blue-gray eyes.