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The Inn at Oak Creek
By Linda Barrett
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Linda Barrett
All right reserved.
On her skis at the three-thousand-foot mark, Molly Porter paused beyond the lift station, pushed her goggles to her forehead and scanned the horizon in her usual deliberate manner. First to the left, then to the right, her eyes absorbed what Mother Nature had provided. A smile tugged at Molly's mouth. Beauty. Today she was surrounded by beauty.
Snow-covered mountains glistened in the bright winter sun. Virgin snow mostly, pristine white blankets barely marred by skiers' tracks. Overhead in the never-ending sky, small, fluffy clouds were scattered across the field of blue. Molly blinked back incipient tears. No artist could reproduce this panorama that so touched her soul.
She sighed with pleasure as she snapped a mental picture of the view, then tucked the memory away and shifted her attention to the challenge ahead. No, not this slope. The run down this mountainside would be for sheer pleasure, a time-out to mentally prepare herself to win the gold. Olympic gold. For her country, for her family, for herself.
She dug her poles into the hard-packed snow, shifted her weight and started her run, dreaming of what the medal would mean to Diamond Ridge, her family's ski resort in Vermont. Mom and Dad would burst with pride, but her sister and brother-in-law would couple their cheers with an advertising campaign to grow the business yet again.
At the base of the mountain Molly checked her watch and quickly caught up with the rest of her teammates. Respect, affection and loyalty had already bonded them into a unit. An American unit, seeking a medal sweep for the United States. They were competitors, every last one of them. They were athletes, healthy and strong, both physically and mentally.
She grinned at her friend Julie, who jabbed repeatedly at her watch. "Sorry," said Molly. "I needed my own space for a minute."
"Find your own space later," Julie replied. "Now get ready for a timed run." Julie inclined her head toward the rest of the group as they made their way to the lifts.
"Not to worry, Jules," said Molly. "I am ready. I've been ready for twenty-two years, my whole life. Centered and focused. Even have my number on." Molly pointed at her vest, where the number six stood a foot and a half tall.
"Jeez, I don't know why I worry about you," Julie grumbled. "You've already posted the fastest time during our trial runs so far. And you're always in total control."
"Is that a polite way of saying I'm a control freak?" Molly laughed, unconcerned about the answer. Control was the name of the game when the game was played at seventy miles an hour or more.
"Nah," said Julie. "Maybe I wish I had a little extra."
Molly glanced at her friend and squeezed her shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with you or your skiing. In fact, I've never seen you in better form."
A moment passed before Julie answered. "Thanks, Molly. Coming from you, it means a great deal."
Coming from her? Molly shrugged. She wasn't the captain of the Olympic team as she'd been of her high-school team. And Julie had only known her since they'd met at the nationals two years ago. But Molly was used to leadership, of taking the initiative. If she could inject a fraction more confidence in the other girl, so much the better for everyone.
"Our turn," Molly said, slipping onto the chairlift and leaving room for Julie. "Look," she said seconds later, pointing at some men with video equipment riding the big cats partway up the hill. "Seems like we're being filmed today."
"Does it bother you?" asked Julie.
"Of course not," Molly replied, a little surprised at the question. "I'm so focused on my skiing I don't even notice. And besides," she added with a grin, "I like to study myself later. If I can increase my speed even a fraction of a second by doing something a little differently, I'll do it."
"I know, Molly," Julie said. "We all know."
Then Julie grinned. "And we all do the same thing."
Molly returned her friend's smile. Skiing at top form was their job. It was definitely her goal. She was at one with the mountain, in Vermont, in Colorado or here in Lake Placid, New York, at the Olympic Training Center. In every season of the year she ran to the mountains - climbing, hiking or skiing. During every school break from college during the past two years, she would first visit her family and then head to the sky-high summits. She craved that time, that space. Her older sister, Amanda, understood it best because she'd run to the mountains, too, years ago, when she'd needed solitude.
Now Molly slid from the chair, skied into the start house and waited for her turn, after Julie. She spoke to no one. Instead, she stood near the entrance, goggles in place, and studied the terrain. Little by little, the people and noise around her faded until she was in her own world, concentrating only on the mountain, on what she was born to do.
"Porter, get ready."
Molly nodded, stepped to the start gate and leaned forward into position.
"Ready ... set ... go!"
She shot down the slope, legs pumping, skis gliding, picking up speed with every stroke against the snow. The wind whipped her cheeks as she banked into each turn, pushing and pushing, hoping her skill, along with gravity, would take a second or more off her time.
She hit sixty miles an hour, sixty-five, then seventy by the halfway point. She was on! Might even establish a new personal best. Shifting her weight, she took a turn, then headed straight downhill again.
Faster, faster and into another turn. What the ...? Ice. Hidden ice. Her skis chattered and slid. Applying pressure to catch an edge, Molly leaned over hard. And then everything happened at once.
Her skis slipped out from under her, catapulting her into a backward somersault. Her shoulder slammed into the slope, the skis now above her head. Ice tore at her cheek as she continued to slide down the mountain. Roll with it! Roll with it! She twisted to get control. Too fast. She was spinning too fast. Head over heels, she pinwheeled. Her legs tangled. One ski off, one ski still on. She couldn't breathe. Over and over, cartwheeling, banging her head against the hard-packed snow. Her vision dimmed, blackened. Inhale! Blinking as she hurtled down the hill like an out-of-control missile, she glimpsed the orange safety fence looming in front of her, a virtual brick wall.
Good-bye, family. I love you.
Excerpted from The Inn at Oak Creek by Linda Barrett Copyright © 2003 by Linda Barrett
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.