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Nova Blair drew in a breath of Colorado Rocky Mountain air, savoring its cold, pristine edge, wishing she could stop time. She was thirty-four. Staying thirty-four forever in beautiful Steamboat Springs could be fun.
But tomorrow, after six days of skiing, hot mulled wine, fabulous dinners, dancing, and good sex, she and David, who was skiing next to her, had to leave. Time did not stand still. In fact, only eight shopping days stood between her and Christmas and she still hadn't found perfect gifts for the loved ones on her remarkably short list.
Dead ahead, the Storm Peak chairlift would drop the two of them at almost 10,400 feet at the top of this last run of their Steamboat Springs getaway. Every tree hunkered under the weight of glittering white crystals, soon to turn pink in the sun's fading glow. Nothing here, at least in this moment, hinted at the dark side of human existence. How perfect it would be to remain in this moment, never doing a lick of work for the CIA again. Maybe the next time Smitty called, she would say no to him.
But go back to San Diego she must, to a tight schedule that would delay gift shopping still longer before flying out the next morning to New York to make an appearance at the latest showing of her photographs.
She took another deep breath as they neared the mountain's crest, soaking up snow-capped peaks and the azure-blue sky. Life can be good. She felt complete freedom. Was this joy? Had she ever felt true joy? Yes. At least once. Making love with Joe.
Joe Cardone. Her partner for two missions. Just thinking his name planted an iron fist of pain in the center of her chest.
The lift chairs arrived at the summit. She pushedout of her seat, David beside her, and dropped onto the hardpack. Their skis hissed on the snow as they glided to the side of the slope to avoid skiers coming up behind them.
For a quiet moment they shared the spectacular view, the trails heading down the mountain filled with skiers and snowboarders wearing the pastel "in" colors of the season: pale yellows, greens, blues, pinks and violets. The rainbow of color against the white snow reminded her of spinnakers against a cloudy sky on a windy day in San Diego's Mission Bay.
She wore a fuchsia jumpsuit. She looked good in cool, winter colors, and fuchsia especially complemented her black hair--French-braided at the back of her head at the moment. David, a skiing hot dog and oblivious to fashion, wore neon red.
As owner of David Lake Travel, a company with a dozen branches in resort cities, he spent significant time exploring exciting resort escapes. They shared a love of travel and adventure, one of the reasons she'd been attracted to him after breaking up with Joe six long months ago.
"Okay," she said, forcing a smile. "Let's make this a race."
"Straight down to Christie Base and the Sheraton," he said. "Triangle, Cyclone, Drop Out and then the easy cool-off on Right-O-Way."
All black-diamond runs, except at the bottom. "You got it."
They shoved off. She hit her rhythm, right, left, right, reading the slope, reading the snow. Adrenaline pumping, heart racing. Freedom!
The Sheraton Hotel snuggled in the snow, right at the base of the mountain--ski in, ski out--with luxury accommodations to match the convenience. David waited for her, his ski poles planted in the snow, his goggles raised, his gloves hung over the tops of his poles. She side-slipped to a stop alongside him, out of breath and thighs burning.
"Outstanding," she said, knowing she was grinning like she'd won a million bucks.
He slid her goggles onto the top of her forehead over her bangs and gave her a peck on the lips. "I love you," he announced, grinning. "You are the most exciting woman I've ever met."
She felt her smile freeze and she blinked, not sure what to say in return. Love? Love was a word they had agreed never to use.
Three hours later, showered, rested and dressed in the emerald-green, turtle neck cashmere sweater, a match for her eyes and her favorite, Nova looked into the bathroom mirror. She snatched the hairclip loose and her hair plummeted in a silky cascade to her shoulder blades. David loved to see her hair down, and, she reminded herself, it was David, not Joe, for whom she was dressing. She ran a comb through it as David stepped behind her. He moved her hair aside and kissed the back of her neck.
"We could skip dinner," he said.
She let the comment pass. Instead, she turned and gave him a slow smile. Already wearing his topcoat, David helped her into her black, ankle-length faux shearling cloak, then followed her into the brightly lit and thickly carpeted hallway. The uniformed Sheraton doorman opened the outer door and they stepped from comforting warmth into the exhilaration of Mother Nature's cold, thin breath. At the entrance stood a sleigh, complete with bell-bedecked horse and driver. David led her to it.
Joy suffused the child in her who had feasted on Russian fairy tales, read to her by a loving, handsome and doting father. "What a wonderful surprise, David," she said, grinning.
He helped her aboard, tucked a red-and-green plaid woolen wrap over her lap and joined her. "Maddie Silk's, right?" said their sleigh master, a man with rosy cheeks and nose and all bundled up in a black parka.
"Right," David said. They set off surrounded by the music of silver bells in the cold, black velvet, perfect night.
The ride was as lovely as any fairy tale. He poured her a mug of wine, but before he let her drink, he kissed her. He smelled deliciously of spice himself. For a moment she wished with a familiar pang that she could love him, marry him and settle down into a normal life. She took a sip of wine and pushed the pointless longing for normalcy away. She could love a man--she already did love one--Joe-- but thoughts of normalcy were a ridiculous indulgence in fantasy. She was with David, could be comfortable with him, because he agreed that their relationship was special but that it wasn't ever going to be what most of his friends, and hers, thought of as normal.
The elegant dinner setting was a perfect ending for their week. For the first time they talked music. David loved Mozart, too.
"He's my favorite," she said. "When I die, I want them to play Mozart. His music is so radiant it seems wrong he wasn't cherished all of his life and buried with great honor instead of in an unmarked pauper's grave." She stared at the bloodred of the wine in her glass and a deep sigh slipped out. "But then, life is often unjust."
David put his hand over hers, his gaze gentle and understanding. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, for your sadness."
She smiled and shook her head, regretting that she'd let some sliver of the past tarnish the beautiful evening for even a moment. "I'm not sad. Truly."
David knew a lot about her now. Obviously the superficial realities: that she was a professional adventure travel guide and that her hobby--if you could call something she worked that hard at, a hobby--was nature and portrait photography. He had also met her sister, Star, on one occasion, and on their fifth date he'd confided to Nova that he'd paid someone to look into Nova's history. It wasn't personal, he explained. Because of his wealth, whenever a woman really captivated him, he initiated an investigation.
And so he knew about her diplomat father's death when she was twelve and about her mother's marriage to a wealthy Argentinean, Candido Branco. David knew that when she was sixteen, she'd killed the man to keep him from molesting Star. He knew she'd been incarcerated for five years. David knew all that, he said, and it didn't affect how he felt about her.
What he didn't know was that she took her first contract job for the CIA when she was twenty-two, and in the line of duty through the intervening years she had already killed six men, as well as a villainously insane woman and a misguided teenage Muslim boy-terrorist bent on killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Her sadness didn't come from killing Candido. That had given her nothing but release. Her sadness came from all the others she'd killed and all the evil she'd seen.
She was a contract agent for the Company, not an employee. She never took Company assignments that served the government, such as planting false information or stealing plans for troop maneuvers or for development of weapons. They knew to call her only if the lives of innocents were at stake. She had saved many people. That was true. Still, she often relived the up-close killings in bad dreams, and memories of them had a way of slithering into even the happiest moments.
Like now. But her smile and words seemed to have convinced David. He looked away and gestured for the check. Their feast was over. Time for another magic sleigh ride.
The moment they were back on the snow he slid his gloved hand under their wrap and took hers. He squeezed. She squeezed back. "I know we said no falling in love, no marriage," he said, "but I want, I need, to change the rules of the game."
The unnerving shock of his words caused her to gasp, a cold breath. Oh, David. Please, please don't. You told me--we agreed.
He hurried on. "We are so good together, Nova." He leaned closer and wrapped her gloved hand in both of his. "I desperately care for you."
She pulled her hand free. She didn't love him. Maybe she didn't even love Joe since when he'd said the word marriage, she'd frozen, her feelings spinning, much like she felt right now. Joe was the only man in her life that she might...just might...love. But even for Joe, she hadn't been able to wrap her emotions around giving up her dearly won freedom. She'd never do so for David.
She clasped her hands together in her lap. "I told you up front that I'm a difficult person with a difficult life and that love and marriage were to be off-limits. We need to keep it that way."
"But you aren't difficult, Nova. And your life, while it involves lots of travel and pressure, isn't all that different from mine."
Oh, she thought, how wrong you are. "Please, David."
He shook his head and thrust himself heavily back into the seat. She could feel his hurt coming off him like body heat. If she stayed in the relationship, she was going to hurt David terribly. She had thought, wrongly, that she could set up parameters to keep it all safe.
Her spirit, soaring for hours, deflated: a gay balloon slashed by a serrated Ka-Bar, a knife with which she was all too familiar. Sometimes life was good, but too often those times didn't last long.
"Okay," he said. "We stay with our original agreement." No. That isn't possible now. You care too much.
Later, when he snuggled up beside her in bed after they'd made love, her heart aching with every kiss, guilty, sad, knowing that she was saying goodbye but unwilling to utterly destroy their last night together, she closed her eyes and sighed, dreading what she had to say to him tomorrow.