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Sultan, Colorado January
RORY GORENZI WAS on time for the 10:00 a.m. meeting with her father. She was usually punctual and she'd never lost a job because of absenteeism or tardiness. She'd lost none of her previous jobs because of incompetence, either. Instead, she had lost them for speaking before thinking-or, rather, for speaking her mind as her thoughts occurred.
It was imperative that she keep her mouth shut now. She wouldn't say anything unless her father required her to speak.
But she would focus on the conversation at hand, rather than dwelling on her recent loss or on the other minor problem in her personal life. The problem wasn't really her problem: a disagreement among her fire-dancing/belly-dancing troupe regarding a living creature in the household they shared. A living creature that had long since ceased to be useful to their troupe, a living creature that no zoo or reptile rescue facility had so far agreed to adopt.
It was a bad situation, but Rory couldn't think about it now.
Nor could she think about her beloved pet, Gandalf, now, or she would break down in tears. The vet had put down the old dog after a long illness only the day before. Now, he was out of pain, at last, and she mustn't cry about that.
In his office at the Sultan Mountain School, Kurt Gorenzi sat behind a scarred walnut desk, a remnant of Sultan's earlier mining days. His hair was thick, gray-flecked, wavy, a little long. Rory's curls, sunlightened brown and reaching to her waist, had come from him, from her father. As had her nose-straight, lightly dusted with freckles. And her brown eyes.
It was unlikely that her personalityhad been influenced by him, however, since she'd had little contact with him over the years, despite having grown up in the town of three hundred where he lived.
Kurt Gorenzi wore a plaid flannel shirt, Carhartts and Sorels. The driving force behind Sultan's recently reborn economy looked like the unapproachable mountain man he was. He stood when she entered, considered her formally, did not invite her to sit-and did the talking. "You'll be forming the program for Seamus Lee's family," he said. "I've given them the Empire Street house, and they're bringing a dog."
Gandalf had been fourteen, old for a German shepherd.
She blinked away the thought of Seamus Lee's dog. Rory was unlikely to have another of her own-not now, in any case. She lived with the two other members of Caldera, one of whom was allergic to both dogs and cats and had put up with Gandalf only because Rory had refused to live there without him.
"Seamus Lee is a cartoonist and animator," Kurt continued. "He employs five people full-time in Telluride and is considering moving his business and family to Sultan. He has four children."
Rory understood the importance of all this. Four children was four children's worth of funding for the public school. Five full-time employees meant population and economic growth.
"He and I have known each other for-well-a while. We were skiing buddies years back, during a winter I spent in Telluride. He wants to get his kids out of there because he thinks they're being corrupted by the-" He chose his words carefully. "Atmosphere of affluence."
She pressed her lips tightly together, finishing his sentence in her mind. The atmosphere of affluence that you hope to bring to Sultan. Her self-restraint made her proud.
"But none of that is relevant. In fact, the family's enrollment at the school wasn't his idea. He received an anonymous gift package and he's agreed to take it.
"They're signed up for a three-month program, and I need you to plan activities that will give the kids each three months' worth of school credit. Except for the youngest, who's just four."
"Four?" echoed Rory. The Sultan Mountain School provided an outdoor education, as well as academics, for children as young as kindergarten age and up to grade 12, and, in certain cases, even offered university credit. The academic work was tailored to complement outdoor programs and provide school credit for the periods enrolled children would be absent from their regular schools. The longest SMS program lasted three months.
"In this packet-" Kurt handed her a thick ten-bythirteen envelope "-you'll find background to fill you in on the Lees' skills and interests."
"Is the dad supposed to get school credit, too?" That didn't sound the way she had intended it to sound.
"I just mean," she said, "what is he looking for?"
"Exactly what the Sultan Mountain School offers. Backcountry experience, tutorials in free-heel skiing and ice-climbing, natural history, mountain science-"
And more. The Sultan Mountain School was dedicated to "increasing appreciation for the mountain environment through education and experience."
Of course, SMS wasn't the only local enterprise that bore Kurt Gorenzi's fingerprints. He was a town council member and he'd even helped create the Sultan Childhood Learning Center-ironic, thought Rory, considering how much he'd had to do with his own child's early life. He'd led the push for the Sultan Recreation Center and had brought a chairlift to Silver Slope, the town's small family ski area. He'd helped restore a historical mining tramway up into Eureka Gulch for the use of sightseers and had promoted kayaking and river rafting on the Sultana River. He'd done everything he could to keep the town of Sultan, elevation 9,632 feet, from dying. But this was the first time he'd made Rory part of one of his projects.
He hadn't sought her out. She'd applied for the job of instructor and assistant director of the Sultan Mountain School. Her father had interviewed her, had made no comment regarding her extensive and varied work history and then he'd hired her. It was the first time in her life she'd ever asked him for anything. She couldn't remember her mother, who'd died when she was small; she'd been raised by her mother's mother. Her father had simply cut himself out of her life, although she knew he'd given Gran money every month to support them both financially.
And now, as during her interview, she was grateful to him for not mentioning the reason she'd been fired by the State of Colorado-which the entire town knew. She'd been an avalanche researcher with the misfortune to be in the field when a United States senator from Colorado accompanied a Realtor and a land developer into a backcountry area just outside Sultan. The group of visitors had stopped to ask about her work and she'd demonstrated the volatility of current avalanche conditions, using a snow pit she'd just dug. After they told her their destination, listened to her strenuous advice to avoid the area because of extreme avalanche danger and started forward anyway, she'd said, Are you on crack? Which was probably not the most tactful way to comment on their foolhardy behavior.
The senator, to his credit, had tried to prevent her from being fired-he was a politician after all and no doubt wanted her vote. But the Realtor also had friends in high places, and he had been massively annoyed.
Her previous job had been with the local towing company. Speaking too frankly to customers who told her how to use equipment they'd never been trained to use had cost her that job. Well, actually, it was one snowy night when she'd finally said, Fine. I've got other calls. Dig it out yourself.
She had taught skiing at Silver Slope until she'd told one parent that he was spoiling his daughter and turning her into a brat.
She'd taught avalanche-awareness classes over the mountains in Telluride until a wolf dog she was watching for a boyfriend destroyed four beacons and two shovels she'd left in her car. He'd also consumed the passenger seat, but since the avalanche school didn't own that, it hadn't figured in the complaint. Rory'd replaced the equipment, which had left her in debt, but it hadn't mattered.
This time, however, nothing was going to go wrong. She reached for the packet. "Sounds good. When will they be here?"
His lips smiled slightly. "Today."
Rory nodded. "I'll get right on this, then. Thank you." She didn't say for what, because her gratitude took in so many things. Thank you for giving me a chance. Thank you for believing in me.
Thank you for noticing me.
She was at the door when her father spoke. "Where is the snake?"
Rory bit her lip. Of course her father knew about Lola; everyone in Sultan knew. He probably didn't know Rory had just put down Gandalf. "At the house," she said. "She's-contained."
"Maybe," her father suggested, "you three should simply move her home outside."
"Yes," was all Rory said. Let Lola freeze in her reptile palace? At the moment, and despite Rory's recent loss, the suggestion was not entirely unappealing. Besides, snakes were different from dogs, and Rory could not believe that Lola had any feelings whatsoever for her human family. Finally, she said simply, "She's not my snake."
Just a member of her household.