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"Make way! Comin' through!" A man's shout rang behind her on the mountainside.
At the top of the run, Lexie Evans had just enough time to glance over her shoulder. A tall, muscled guy in black launched off the lift, dug in with his poles and flew toward her in a blur.
"Banzai!" His shout pierced the serene mountain quiet like gunfire. He was little more than a streak of black winging past. She caught the impression of a handsome profile, a shock of dark hair and an athletic physique as he shot down the run.
A daredevil type. She frowned, adjusting her goggles. She'd seen his kind before, sadly enough, and that made her raw heart ache. Romance had been hard on it. She thought she was over the strong burst of pain from her breakup with Kevin.
Okay, so she'd thought wrong. She dug in with her poles, ready to tackle the advanced grade run.
Here comes another one, she thought, looking over her shoulder in time to see a second guy fly by in a blur of red. His cry was the same war note as the first dude's.
Guys. She frowned. She was seriously done with the lot of them. There had been a time when she hadn't been so completely, one hundred percent distrustful of the genderalmost, but not totally. Until Kevin, that is. Pain filled her, and she did her best to keep it from showing. She'd been thoroughly crushed. Nothing in life could be worth risking that kind of hurt again.
She pushed off with her poles, bending her knees and leaning forward to make the most of the slope's quick descent. Yep, she was totally done with romance and glad of it, too. Icy wind breezed against her face. She loved the speed and the freedom. Snow spewed from her edges as she worked to keep her skis parallel and together.
Talk about exhilarating. The sky, woolly with gray-white clouds stretched out overhead. This was so much better than spending the afternoon studying in the library. Knees bent, she absorbed the shock of the groomed run, tucking her poles and preparing for the first curve. The snow was fast!
Echoing sounds of another round of "banzai" rang through the mountain stillness. They were probably mowing down everyone on the run. Not that she was bitter, but who knew what was going through men's heads? She pulled out from the curve, her view limited by trees on one side and the cut slope of the mountainside on the other. Suddenly a gawky teenaged kid, who must have been taking a break at the side, chose that moment to slide directly into her path.
"Hey, watch out!" She swished to one side, hoping he would go the other way, but did he? No. He panicked, his skis splayed and he wiped out directly in front of her.
Impending disaster. She poled hard, twisting toward the tree line. Her tip hit the loose snow. The shock rattled through the ski and up her right leg. She fought to stay up, but her other tip caught, her bindings gave and she tumbled headfirst through the air. One pole went flying as she threw her hands up to break her fall. She hit hard. Icy cold snow slapped her face. Pain exploded up her right leg as she stopped, stomach down in the snow.
"That hurt." The boy was struggling to get up. "You shouldn't have been going so fast."
"Too fast?" She thought of the banzai guys. They had been speeding. She had been going at a sensible pace. As she struggled to turn over, sharp pain carved up her calf. She studied the kid covered with chunks of snow. "Are you all right?"
"I think so. My wrist hurts a little and my face is real cold." He picked himself up, rubbed the ice chunks off his chin and handed her one of her lost poles. "You should be more careful, lady."
"Me?" She pushed up, managing to sit. Her ankle really hurt. Numbly she took the pole. "I think I"
That was as far as she got. He turned his back and pushed inexpertly off. He was leaving her. She blinked, not quite believing her eyes as he glided away with his brown coat plastered with snow and blond curls corkscrewing out from beneath his russet knit cap. He skidded sideways around the next bend, leaning heavily on his poles and disappeared from her sight, leaving her sprawled out in the snow.
Great. She took a deep breath, hoping that would make the pain go away. It didn't. She looked around for her skis. One was stuck in the snow, and the other was nowhere in sight. It had probably slid off into the trees and she'd never find it.
Now what? She looked up at the sky, gray and cottony. A snowflake hit her in the eye. Double great. She blinked against the discomfort, realizing that she had no way to get down the mountainshe couldn't move her right foot and it had started to snow. Since she'd left her cell phone in her SUV, she had to wait until another skier came around the corner and prayed that it wouldn't be someone who would keep on going.
Lord, please tell me this isn't punishment for blowing off my research paper. She stared up at the steep mountain peaks spearing into the clouds. She sensed no answer on the wind, just the icy cold seeping through her layers of clothing. She couldn't argue. If she had been in the library where she should have been, she wouldn't be hoping her ankle was badly sprained and not broken.
This was just her luck. While she wasn't a study-aholic, she was the kind of girl who always did what she was supposed to do. And why? Because the one time she was hurrying to an appointment and went four miles an hour over the speed limit, she got a ticket. The one time she skipped chemistry class in high school, she got caught. And now she had another story to add to those. The one time she didn't get her research done for her paper, she got stranded in a snow bank. Something to remember the next time she wanted to play instead of study.
Snow pelted her with blizzard force. Great. It was like a sign from heaven agreeing with her. She shivered harder. Now her insides were getting cold. That couldn't be a good sign. Maybe she could somehow ski down the rest of the run or at least far enough down to flag help? A little doubtful, but it was worth a try. She got halfway onto her good foot and saw spots in front of her eyes.
Maybe a better idea was to sit back down. She dropped into the snow, gasping for breath. Surely someone would be coming around the corner any second. She would just have to wait it out. The waiting started to feel like forever.
"Banzai!" The shout echoed from the slope above, sounding like a cry of glory and bravado.
Oh, no. Not the banzai boys. She rolled her eyes, trying to picture the carefree speed lovers taking time to stop and help her. Nope, she couldn't picture it. All she could imagine was them flying by, first in a blur of black and then one of red. A girl couldn't count on guys like that. She'd learned that the hard way. Her father had been the same.
Sure enough, her next glimpse of the banzai guys was a smudge of black zipping around the corner. Veiled by the now-heavy snowfall, it was tough to make out anything more. While she may have imagined it, that smudge seemed to stop moving.
"Whoa. What have we here?" a buttery-warm baritone belted out in surprise. "We have a man down."
A face appeared through the curtain of snow. She could make out a granite hard face and intense, shadowed eyes. He was really tall. With those broad shoulders, he looked just like a linebacker.
"No, correct that. A very pretty girl." He had a kind smile, one that made his eyes crinkle slightly in the corners.
She still couldn't believe that he'd stopped, but she could believe he was a charmer. Wasn't that just her luck? "You wouldn't happen to have a cell phone, would you?"
"Not on me. Looks like you took a bad spill." To her surprise he stabbed his poles into the snow and hunkered down beside her. He whipped his gloves off and studied her eyes. "Did you hit your head at all when you fell?"
"Mostly my face." Her skin felt red from the snow burn and the freezing temperature. "My head's okay."
"Your pupils are good. Wiggle your fingers for me."
"I'm not that hurt." He was all business, and that so did not impress her. "It's my ankle, nothing else."
"Humor me." He took her hands in his, gloves and all, looking every inch like Prince Charming come with a glass slipper.
Good thing she was smart enough to know better. And if her raw heart squeezed with painful memories, she did her best to ignore that. "My left foot is fine. See? I can move it. It's my other ankle."
"No movement at all?" He glanced over his shoulder, holding up one hand. "Hawk, hold up. We've got a casualty."
A red smudge through the snowfall became another wide-shouldered guy with a serious face. "I'll fetch the ski patrol."
"Oh, I really don't want that." That was a lot more fuss and spectacle than she felt comfortable with. "My ankle is probably just sprained. I can make it down to the lodge if I had my other ski."
"I'll look for it." The red-coated guy took off, disappearing into the snowfall.
"He's got eagle eyes, that's why we call him Hawk.
Now, let's get you taken care of. I bet you're pretty cold." He unzipped his jacket. "I'm Pierce Granger."
He looked like a Pierce. Dark haired and teeth-achingly handsome, he was total male confidence. He shrugged out of his jacket. "And you are?"
"You're going to be all right, Lexie. We'll get you down the slope one way or another, don't worry." He might look like a charmer and was probably the black sheep of his family. But his voice had a steady, reliable quality to it. Not that she wanted to notice.
"Here, we need to keep you warm." He held his jacket in both capable hands.
Before she could reach out to take it, he leaned forward and helped her into it. Her heart skipped four beats. His nearness was like the mountains, strong and incredible, completely out of the ordinary.
Not that she should be noticing that, either. She slipped her arms into the sleeves and told herself not to feel a thing as he settled the garment over her shoulders and against her neck. With her back to him, she could sense the faint flutter of his breath warm against her nape. She shivered, not from the cold but from something deeper.
He was too close. Every instinct she had shouted at her to scoot away, but did she listen? No. She would have looked ridiculous. He was only helping her into his much larger coat like a gentleman.
Not that there were any gentlemen left these days. The weight of the garment settled around her shoulders and she was glad when he put a little distance between them. "Thanks."
"Sure. I'm going to stabilize your ankle so it doesn't move around too much and cause further injury." He unwound his black scarf and rose, angling his skis away from her. "Don't move. I'll be right back."
"I wasn't planning on racing down the mountain."
"Funny." He liked a girl with a sense of humor. He kicked away, squinting against the torrential snowfall. Flakes pecked at him like sand as he spotted a nearby Douglas fir. A few quick flicks of his wrist and he had some twigs that ought to work. Where had Hawk gotten off to?
He caught a faint spot of red farther down the run. With any luck, his buddy had found the girl's ski and they could assist her down the slope. With the storm worsening, the mountainside would be clearing off. Most folks would rather wait it out in the warm lodge with a steaming cup of something hot. Why wasn't he that smart?
Shivering, he returned to the girlLexie. She looked like a Lexie, contemporary and sleek with long, straight black hair. Her white winter gear was classic and upscale. Even pale with pain, she was striking. She had a heart-shaped face with big, expressive blue eyes and a cute, sloping nose. Her delicate chin could have been carved out of ivory.
Not that beauty affected a hard man like him. "Where do you hail from?"
"Wyoming, for the most part."
"No kidding. Me, too. Grew up near Buffalo."
"I have family not too far from there, near Swinging Rope." Affection warmed her words.
She must have a great family. He stripped the needles from the small branches. "What are you doing in Montana, besides skiing?"
"Going to school. I'm a grad student at MCU."
"Montana Christian University. My sister goes there." It was a coincidence, he told himself as he gently secured her injury. "You wouldn't happen to know Giselle Granger?"
"Giselle is on my floor." Sometimes it was a very small world. "She's told me a little about her family. Not much. She's a fairly private person. You wouldn't be the brother who can't hold a job?"
"Not me. I've been working for the same outfit for the past eight years." He tied the last knot and checked the splinting. It would hold. "I'm going back for another four."
"You're the brother in the Army?"
"Hey, you don't have to look so surprised. And why did you automatically assume I was the derelict of the family?"
"First impressions. I saw you shoot down the mountain on your earlier run."
"Two weeks ago I was belly down in a sand dune being shot at. I was just letting off steam and really glad to be here." He pushed against the snow, sliding forward. "I'm actually a rather responsible guy."
"Really?" She didn't look as if she believed him, although she got prettier the more he looked at her. Snow-flakes sifted over her like poetry as she took a shaky breath. "What do you do in the Army? I don't think your sister ever said."
"I'm surprised she mentioned me at all."
"She's mentioned you in passing. I'm her resident advisor."
"Sure, she's mentioned her R.A. I got the image of someone much older. You can't be what, twenty-one, twenty-two?"