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It was cold that day, colder than usual, even for Norway. The sky was bright blue, the sun golden, the wind a gentle sigh. wendy stood poised in the chute at the top ofthe ski run. Excitement flowed through her blood like a river of quicksilver. she had never felt more alive.
"Empty your mind of everything but the mountain," her coach said, and then the horn sounded. She dug her poles into the snow and began her run down the slope. Through the first gate. Through the second, and the third, and
Too fast. Too wide on the turn. Recover, damn it! She'd made worse mistakes. Surely this wasn't enough to make her lose control .
She flew through the air, bindings never releasing. Somebody screamed as she hit the netting and bounced over it.
This wasn't supposed to happen, she thought with great clarityand then she saw the trees and the rocks.
After that, there was only blackness.
''Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Please keep your seats until the captain brings the plane to a complete stop.''
Wendy jerked awake. A dream. That's all it was, just a dream. she hadn't had it in a long time. Now she was returning to Cooper's Corner for the first time in the nine years since the accident, and she'd had the dream again.
Welcome home, Wendy.
Whoever it was who'd said you couldn't go home again had been right.
You can still change your mind, a little voice whispered. All she had to do was turn around and head back to Paris, where she'd been living for the past seven years. Yes, she'd given up her tiny flat in the Marais because she didn't know how long she'd be gone, but she'd made friends. Gabrielle or Celeste would be happy to let her sleep on the sofa until
Wendy wasn't about to regain the life she'd loved by teaching English to a bunch of French kids all day. One of the supporters of the American team had gotten her the job when she moved to Paris to continue therapy on her leg, but sitting in a stuffy classroom quickly lost its appeal even if your window looked out over a sea of chimney pots. she'd been born to schuss down a snow-covered mountain with the wind in her face, and if she was going to do that againski and race and feel as if she were truly aliveshe had to go home. For a little while, anyway.
The 747 lurched to a stop. People unbuckled their seat belts, stood up, sought their carry-on luggage. Wendy clutched the handle of her duffel bag and followed the other passengers from the plane, through the terminal and to the line snaking toward Customs.
Even if she'd wanted to change her plans, it was too late. What excuse could she give? Her parents were expecting her, and her mother was ecstatic that she was coming home. Only her father knew the real reason for her visit, and she'd asked him not to say anything to her mother. Wendy would have to tell her the truth, but she'd do it face-to-face. Gina would take it better that way.
That's what Wendy hoped, anyway.
And then there was Alison, driving the fifty or so miles from Cooper's Corner to Albany Airport to meet the connecting flight from Kennedy. Wendy's folks had offered to pick her up but she'd refused.
"You guys don't have to take the day off,'' she'd said when they'd phoned the last time. "I know how crazy things get at school. Besides, I haven't seen Allie in years. This way, we'll have time for girl talk.''
It was another half-truth. Gina and Howard had visited her every six months, but she hadn't seen Alison in nine years. So, yes, it would be nice to spend some time with herand if it also gave Wendy a little longer to adjust, out from under her mother's watchful eye, so much the better.
Wendy reached the Customs counter and handed over her passport and declarations form.
"Nothing of value to declare?'' the Customs officer said.
"Nothing," Wendy replied briskly.
Nothing the government would want to hear about, anyway. Only Oprah or Ricki would lift an interested eyebrow if she said, "Well, actually, there's a swarm of butterflies in my stomach right now because I'm coming home so I can convince a doctor to perform an operation my own physicians call insane.''
That kind of thinking wasn't good. This was her life. She had to do what she thought best, and why have second thoughts now? The thing to do was concentrate on how great it would be to see Allie. They hadn't done anything except talk on the phone since the night before the ski team left for France
The same night Seth made love to her for the very last time.
The thought was so sudden, so unexpected that it almost stole her breath away. She must have made a sound because the Customs guy, who was holding out her passport, raised his bushy eyebrows.
"Miss? You okay?''
"Yes. I'm fine.'' Wendy smiled brightly, took back her passport and walked to the exit doors that led into the terminal.
There was a sign just ahead. She paused to check the directions for the connecting flight to Albany. People brushed past her, everyone in a hurry to get somewhere. She was in a hurry, too. The sooner she got to Cooper's Corner, the sooner she could get started on the future.
Once she'd reached the right terminal, she limped to the waiting area at the gate. Her leg ached something fierce. The doctors had warned her that it would, after all the hours in the air. Inactivity wasn't good for bones that were held together with screws and steel plates. Muscles didn't like stretching themselves for the benefit of all that hardware, either.
Not that she'd never had cramped muscles until the accident. A weekend of hard, competitive skiing had often left her feeling as if a sadist had tied her in knots. Seth would see her wince as she rubbed her calf or ankle, and he'd know she was hurting.
"Here," he'd say, "let me help.''
She'd smile and put her foot in his lapnot easy to do in the confines of the cab of his old truckand he'd knead her flesh gently, stroke her gently, and after a while a sensation that had nothing to do with pain would turn her bones to liquid.
Wendy blinked. A middle-aged man had risen from his seat.
"Would you like to sit down?''
She wanted to. Lord, yes, she wanted to. Instead, she gave a thin smile. "Thank you, no.''
"I noticed '' He cleared his throat. "I, uh, noticed that your duffel looks heavy.''
"It isn't,'' she said, trying to sound polite.
Who was he kidding? What he'd noticed was the way she limped. She walked away as quickly as she could, never looking back, tired of people's good intentions, tired of wanting to scream and tell them that trapped inside the woman with the limp was a girl who'd once been graceful, who'd flown down snow-covered slopes and through the gates like a hawk after a dove.
A sign blinked on. The commuter flight to Albany was boarding.
Not a moment too soon, Wendy thought, and didn't slow her pace until she was on the plane and in her seat.
It was thirty degrees in Albany, with a windchill that made it feel more like eighteen, according to the pilot's cheerful landing announcement.
Wendy looked out the windows of the terminal as she made her way to the exit. Snow was piled in gigantic mounds. Fresh snow, from the pristine look of it. There'd been a time when she could tell how long snow had been on the ground just by the way the crystals reflected the light, especially on Jiminy Peak. Jiminy didn't have the highest slopes in the area; compared with the mountains she'd skied in Colorado and Utah, Jimmy was hardly worthy of being called a mountain at all. But she'd skied there as a little girl, discovered her passion for speed on its trails, and it would always hold a special place in
In what? Those days were gone. Damn it. Was a quick visit home turning her into a bundle of sloppy sentimentality?
An icy wind bit through her as she exited the terminal. She shivered, put down her duffel and zipped her anorak all the way to her chin. Her long, auburn hair was whipping around her face and she put up her hood and tucked the unruly curls inside while she looked around in search of Alison.
"I'll meet you right outside the door,'' Allie had said when they'd touched base a couple of days ago. And then she'd laughed and said how wonderful it was going to be to see each other again. "I can't believe you're coming home!''
"It's just a visit,'' Wendy had answered, correcting her oldest friend the same way she'd corrected her mother. Al-lie had said yes, sure, she understood that, but in a way that made it clear she didn't believe it any more than Gina.
Snow began to fall, big, fat flakes. Wendy tugged a pair of gloves from her pockets and put them on.
That was all it was. A visit. She was here for a purpose, and if she was successful, she'd be ready to begin life again in a place that was free of memories. Not France, where she'd lived in a kind of twilight world these last years. Not Cooper's Corner, where everything would only be a reminder of what had once been. She'd find a place where there were no ghosts, no shadows from the life she and Seth had once planned .
The snow was falling faster, tumbling down like feathers from a torn pillow in a heavily overcast sky. Someone was rushing toward her. A woman, bundled in a tweed coat.
"Wendy, oh my God, it's really you!''
"Allie?" Wendy laughed and felt tears burn her eyes. "Allie," she said, and she grabbed Alison Fairchild in a loving hug. "Oh, it's been so long!''
The women held each other for long moments. Then they clasped hands, stepped back and grinned.
"I don't believe it! Allie, you cut your hair!''
"Uh-huh." Alison bit her lip. "Cut it and colored it, too. What do you think? Too big a change or what?''
"I think it's wonderful! You look gorgeous!''
"Well, not gorgeous, but I finally figured that it couldn't hurt to try and improve on Mother Nature. And talk about gorgeous '' Alison cocked her head and her gaze swept Wendy from head to toe. "You look terrific!''
Wendy's smile tilted. "Yeah. Right.''
"I mean it. You haven't gained an ounce, for which I just might not forgive you. No gray hairs in those red curlsand please, do not, I repeat, do not bother telling me women don't get gray hairs at our age. Two years ago, and wham, there they were, silver threads among the gold. Not that the rest was gold then, but you know what I mean.''
"You used to talk about going blond when we were in our junior year, remember?''
Alison rolled her eyes. "Do I remember? How could I forget? There I was, everybody telling me I looked like Barbra Streisand''
"A compliment,'' Wendy said, falling into the old dialogue as if they were still in high school.
"Yes, if you're la Streisand,'' Allie said, picking up her end of the conversation with the same ease. "I may have her nose, but it doesn't work on my face.''
"You don't still believe that.''
"What I believe is that we're going to turn into instant snowmen if we stand here much longer. Let me grab that duffel. My car's in the first lot. Want to wait for the bus orI mean, the bus stop is right''
"I can walk.''
"Well, sure, but''
"And I can carry my own bag.''
"I know, but''
"Allie, listen. Let's get this out of the way right now, okay?''
"Oh, hell. Wendy, I didn't mean''
"I know you didn't. I just want to set the record straight. I'm strong as a horse. Honestly, I am. I spent years in rehab. I still do hours of exercise each day. I can walk. I can carry stuff. I can do anything I want .'' Her mouth twisted. "Anything but ski.''
Her voice broke on the last word. Horrified, she covered it with a cough. She'd only meant to let Alison know that she could handle the truth, but her emotions were right there on the surface. Well, why wouldn't they be? The long flight, too much sitting still, and under it all, the persistent worry that the surgeon she'd come so far to see wouldn't help her .
Alison was looking at her as if she didn't know what to expect next.
Wendy smiled. ''You know what?''
''What?'' Allie asked cautiously.
''How about we get out of the snow? That terrific haircut's getting plastered to your head.''
''Yeah. Good idea.'' Alison cleared her throat. ''So,'' she said briskly, ''you up for a stop at the Barn?''
''The ?'' Wendy looped her free arm through Alison's. Dipping their heads against the wind, they crossed the roadway and headed for the parking lot. ''You mean the Burger Barn? Is it still there?''
Alison clucked in dismay. ''Is it still there, she asks. Certainly, it's still there, only a ten-minute detour on our way to town. Of course, you're probably not into juicy, charcoal-broiled hamburgers and hot, crisp, salty fries after all these years of gourmet dining in gay Paree, but I thought, if there was the teeniest possibility that you were interested ''
''Gourmet dining?'' Wendy laughed. ''Not on a teacher's salary. If I never see another hunk of cheese or sausage, it'll be too soon.''
''You mean Mademoiselle DuBois was wrong?'' Alison unlocked the car door and Wendy tossed her things into the back seat. ''I thought it was supposed to be fromage and saucissonmuch more exotic sounding.''
''Cheese and sausage are cheese and sausage, whether it's French or English,'' Wendy said. ''Trust me.'' She shut her door and looked at Alison, who was buckling her seat belt. ''The Burger Barn would be paradise. Just tell me that the fries are still greasy.''
''Cholesterol City,'' Alison said cheerfully.
''Does a straw still stand up in a chocolate shake?''
''Scout's honor, nothing's changed.'' ''Great,'' Wendy said, but in her heart, she knew that everything had.
Alison took the long way home.
It was a pretty road that wound into the Taconic Mountains before they fell away into the more subdued contours of the Berkshires. The scenery, at least, was still the same. Cozy old houses, rolling pastures, deep forests mantled with white, and everywhere the sense that time had reached this place and decided to pause for a while before moving on.
Wendy sighed and laid her head back. ''I'd forgotten how peaceful it is here.''
''Peaceful's the word, all right.'' Alison raised an eyebrow. ''On the other hand ''
''What?'' Wendy looked at her friend. ''Something exciting happened in Cooper's Corner?''
''Well yeah, you could say exciting.''
''Don't tell me. Let me figure it out.'' Wendy put on an innocent look. ''Philo and Phyllis Cooper decided to give up gossip.''
Alison laughed. ''I said 'exciting,' not 'unbelievable.''' ''Well then, you'll have to tell me. What new and exciting stuff happened?''
''Well, Bonnie Cooperremember her? Bonnie was on a date with a guy in New York and they witnessed a mob hit.''
Wendy sat up straight. ''You're kidding!'' ''Cross my heart, it's the truth. Oh, and we had a visitor go missing, too.''
''Somebody hiking in the fall?''
''No, it wasn't like that. This was a guest at the B and B, and he''
''What B and B?''
''Remember the old Cooper place? Twin Oaks?'' ''Sure. Big house, up on the hill across from the green.''
''Uh-huh.'' Alison glanced in the mirror, signaled a turn. The sound of the engine deepened as they started up a hill. Ahead, the red taillights of a snowplow blinked hypnotically in the haze of the falling snow. ''Old man Cooper died and left the place to his niece and nephew. A sister and brother from New York. Well, originally they were from around here.''
''From Cooper's Corner?''
''Yeah. They moved away when they were kids. Anyway, they came up to see the house, and the next thing anybody knew, they'd kicked out of their old lives and moved here. Caught most people by surprise, especially when they turned Twin Oaks into a B and B.''
''I can't believe my parents haven't mentioned any of this. But wasn't the house in bad shape?''
''Not anymore. Clint and Maureen have done wonders. New paint, new wallpaper, and they found a load of old furniture in the attic that just needed cleaning and polishing.''
''And that did it? Fresh paint, old furniture and a good cleaning?''
''Well, no. There was more. Bonnie did the plumbing.'' ''Good for her.''
''Yeah, I said that, too. She put in new bathrooms, did some stuff in the kitchen .''
Wendy tried to concentrate, but it was hard. They were approaching a traffic light that marked an intersection whose claim to fame was two mini-malls, one on either side of the road. The Burger Barn was a couple of miles past them.