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When Nordic ski jumper Maureen 'Mo' Clark set foot in Finland, she breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, escape from her famous skier father's shadow and a chance to jump in the renowned Lahti Ski Games. But Mo quickly realizes that balancing practice and classes is more challenging than she expected. So when a gorgeous bad boy teammate offers coaching assistance-for a little publicity in return-how can she refuse? Surely she can work in a few extra practices somewhere between studying for calculus and sightseeing ...
When Nordic ski jumper Maureen 'Mo' Clark set foot in Finland, she breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, escape from her famous skier father's shadow and a chance to jump in the renowned Lahti Ski Games. But Mo quickly realizes that balancing practice and classes is more challenging than she expected. So when a gorgeous bad boy teammate offers coaching assistance-for a little publicity in return-how can she refuse? Surely she can work in a few extra practices somewhere between studying for calculus and sightseeing in Finland? Amid snowmobiling and dog-sledding, ice hotels and Northern lights, Mo begins to discover what strength and perseverance-the Finnish sisu-is all about. Now it's up to her to take that final jump and cross the finish line in style.
Maureen Clark juggled her ski bag and rolled her suitcase over the polished floors of the arrivals lobby in the Vantaa-Helsinki airport. Electricity hummed in the glass prisms overhead, echoing the vibrations of excitement in her bones. After all those months of waiting, she was really and truly here.
She scanned the crowd for the representative from the Scholar Athlete Exchange program who was supposed to be waiting for her. Her smile faltered when she didn’t see anyone, but only for a second. The flight had come in nearly forty minutes early, so whoever was coming probably hadn’t had time to get there yet. No need to let it spoil the moment. She was sixteen, not six. She could wait.
She found the currency exchange booth and traded her dollars for euros and then bought a prepaid cell phone at the neighboring Nokia kiosk. Her dad had insisted she get one “in case of an emergency.” Like she didn’t know the real reason: control. He might have agreed to let her travel halfway around the world, but he still wanted to keep a leash on her. Since she was the youngest of seven kids—the baby of the family and one of only two girls—to say he was protective of her would be an understatement. Try smothering.
Whatever. She wasn’t going to argue about anything that got her a cell phone. She found a phone with a text-messaging option and bought an international calling card so she could use the phone for her own “emergencies”—like keeping in touch with her best friend back home.
She glanced at her watch. Too early in Utah for calls, but she could still send a text. Finding a quiet corner, she pulled out the phone and quickly thumbed in a message to her friend Janessa.
am in will call @ 5 2night b there
A hand touched her shoulder and Maureen jumped, nearly dropping the phone. Behind her stood a man wearing a GoreTex jacket and a pinched expression on his face. “Maureen Clark?”
His posture relaxed. “I was afraid we’d lost you. Arho Peltonen, coach of the SAE club. Sorry I was late.” He extended his hand and she shook it.
“Hauska tutustua, ” she said in her best phrase-book Finnish. “Pleased to meet you.”
His smile broadened. “Ah. You’ve been studying. Excellent. Shall we go? If you’d like to gather your things, I’ll pull up the car.”
And that’s how Maureen Clark found herself standing alone outside an airport halfway around the world from her home in Park City, Utah . . . grinning like a fool.
In the darkness, Maureen could just make out the silhouettes of trees beyond the airport parking lot. It was only four-thirty in the afternoon, but already black as midnight. She’d been warned that January days in Finland were short, but she didn’t care. Limited daylight she could get used to. The important thing was that she was here.
Twin beams of light skittered over the ice and snow as a sleek Volvo wagon crunched up to the curb. Coach Peltonen swung open his door and jumped out, hurrying around the front of the car to take Maureen’s suitcase. “Right, then. In you go. I’ll load the bags.”
She slid onto the leather seat and adjusted her lap belt, watching him in the rear viewmirror. So this was her coach for the next ten weeks. He was a little older than she’d expected, with gray, thinning hair and a face weathered by years of sun and snow. Still, he moved with athletic grace as he fitted her suitcase and long skis into the bed of the wagon and slammed the door closed.
Behind the wheel once more, Coach Peltonen turned to her. “So.”
“So,” she replied.
“I was honored to see your name on our enrollment.” He eased the car away from the curb. “I am a great fan of your father’s.”
The smile melted from her face. Not here, too. As if her huge family wasn’t enough, Maureen’s dad—the control freak—was a former Olympian who had parlayed his medals into a career of extreme ski movies and coaching. He ran a top-ranked ski school near Park City and had become something of a local celebrity. The kind of notoriety he generated was exactly what Mo had hoped to leave behind.
“Really,” she said.
“Yes, yes.” Coach Peltonen nodded. “Saw his final run in Innsbruck in ’76. Watched every one of his films.”
“Uh-huh.” She watched snowflakes swirl past the window and felt the long arm of her dad’s shadow reaching out to reel her in. She stiffened. No. None of that. She hadn’t come five thousand miles just to let his image dominate her life from afar.
“He’s quite a man, your father. We often hear of his school. You must be very proud, Miss Clark.”
She managed to give him a smile. “Please, Mr. Peltonen, my friends call me Mo.”
He chuckled. “And my athletes call me Coach.” The turn signal ticked rhythmically as he changed lanes. “Mo.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “Yes, I think it suits you. No nonsense. Strictly business.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that, so she just stared out the window again. Frost clung to the glass in random sketchy swirls, catching the light of passing cars and obscuring the snow-shrouded trees that huddled along the roadside. It looked so cold out there, yet inside the car was so nice . . . so warm . . . She yawned.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Coach Peltonen poked her arm. “Make yourself stay awake until the local bedtime and you’ll get over jet lag a lot quicker.”
Mo stifled another yawn and shook herself. “So . . . how far is it to Lahti?”
“About an hour’s drive. Should give us time to go over some of the details of the program since you weren’t able to make it for orientation.”
She grimaced. “Yeah, sorry about that.” The other students and their host families had met together the night before. Mo hadn’t been able to make it because she’d needed to stay in Utah for her older brother’s wedding. “Thanks for making a special trip to the airport to get me.”
“Not to worry. You’ll make up for it in practice.” He flashed another smile. “Now reach behind the seat and grab the SAE folder, would you? It’s that one on top there. Inside, you’ll see a yellow paper . . .”
They spent the next half hour reviewing the rules for the athletes in the exchange program. It was nothing Mo hadn’t already seen in the registration packet—no drinking, no drugs, ten o’clock curfew, treat the host families with respect, that kind of thing.
“So how many are in the program?”
“We have twenty-seven international athletes and about two dozen from local clubs. All of you will attend Lahden Upper Secondary School. It’s not far from the Sports Center. The green paper lists your course schedule.”
Mo riffled through the papers until she found the schedule. Just what she’d expected. Overview of Finland, computer science, and precalculus. “Um, Coach? It wasn’t quite clear in the handbook . . . will they be teaching in Finnish?”
Coach Peltonen nodded. “All except the overview class. That’s just for the international students, so it will be taught in English. But don’t worry. You’ll all be assigned native student escorts to help with the language in your other classes. I think you’ll find, however, that communication won’t be a problem. Most of the faculty and students speak passable English. Small country in a big world and all.”
Mo was glad to hear that. Even though she had been studying Finnish from the moment she signed up for the program, she still hadn’t learned much.
“You will attend classes from eight to eleven,” Coach Peltonen continued. “Training runs from noon until early evening—or later, depending on the day and how the club progresses. It might be a little difficult at first—”
Mo raised her brows. “Hey, I’m up for it. My club back home trains about three or four hours a day. This will just be stepping it up a notch.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” He gave her an approving nod. “We’ve also planned some cultural activities during your stay. You’ll find a sample itinerary on the pink paper.”
Mo’s smile faded as she looked over the preplanned schedule. Every possible moment was blocked in. “Wow,” she murmured.
She closed the folder and felt her newfound freedom slipping away.
The coach kept up a running commentary all the way to Lahti, not that Mo paid much attention. She was way too tired. What was up with all the chatter, anyhow? Her dad had always said that Finns were silent, brooding types. Coach Peltonen seemed almost giddy. She would have preferred the silence.
Finally, they pulled off the road and into a parking lot bordered by tall apartment buildings. “You’ll like the Aalto family. They have a daughter about your age. Kirsti, her name is. Spent the summer in Japan as a S.A.S.S. exchange student a year or so ago, so she knows what it’s like to be far from home, experiencing a different culture. I’m sure you two will get along famously.”
Mo flinched at his choice of words. “So, which one is theirs?”
He pointed to the unit straight ahead.
She climbed out of the car and regarded her new home with satisfaction. The building had a contemporary flair with clean lines and elegant lighting—the polar opposite of her massive six-bedroom, glorified cabin of a house in Park City. Towering, snow-frosted pines surrounded the building so that it looked as if it had been dropped right in the midst of some New Age enchanted forest. This she could get used to.
But the cold! That was something else altogether. Already the hairs in her nose were so frozen that they prickled every time she breathed in and out. Her skin felt tight and raw. Shivers penetrated all the way to her spine.
“Welcome to Finland,” Coach Peltonen said. “From now on, you wear a hat.” He shouldered her skis and walked toward the front of the building. Mo grabbed the suitcase and followed. Its wheels squeaked over the snow as if rolling through Styrofoam.
Inside the lobby, she stomped the snow from her boots and looked around. Nice. Very nice. From the polished-granite floors to the streamlined furniture and richly paneled walls, the place oozed Scandinavian chic. A far cry from her mom’s homey cottage-style decor.
She and Coach Peltonen took the elevator to the fifth floor.
“The Aaltos are in number 502,” he said, leading the way down the hall. “They should be expecting—”
At that moment, the door marked 502 swung inward to reveal a tall, barrel-chested man with a ruddy complexion and a salesman’s smile. He must have stood at least six nine and had the thick build of a Viking. “Ah! Maureen, is it? Tervetuloa! Welcome to our home.”
“Allow me to introduce you,” Coach Peltonen said. “Maureen, this is Mr. Aalto. And this”—he nodded at Mo—“is Maureen Clark.”
Mo inclined her head. “Hauska tutustua, Herra Aalto.”
“Ah. Hyvä! Very good! I am pleased to meet you, too.” Herra Aalto’s booming laugh echoed down the hallway. He stepped aside and swept an arm toward the open door. “Come in, come in.”
Mo pushed her suitcase into the entry and parked it against the wall next to a long bench. Several pairs of shoes were lined up neatly underneath. She stole a quick glance at Herra Aalto’s stocking-clad feet. Crud. She wished she had remembered that Finns didn’t wear shoes in the house. Mo’s lucky socks—the ones she had to wear on the flight—featured a hole just large enough for her right big toe to poke through. She’d meant to sew it up before she left home, but with the wedding and her farewell party and packing and everything, she’d run out of time.
Coach Peltonen removed his shoes and followed Herra Aalto down the hallway. Mo quickly pulled off her boots and padded over the blond-wood floor behind them, curling her toes as she went.
In the front room, a tall girl wearing straw-colored braids and a Nordic sweater stood next to Herra Aalto. “Allow me to present my daughter, Kirsti.”
Kirsti inclined her head. “Hauska tutustua. Pleased to meet you.” But there was no warmth in her voice and her ice-blue eyes told Mo that Kirsti was far from pleased.
“Won’t you have a seat?” Herra Aalto gestured to a low cream-colored sofa. He signaled to Kirsti, who dropped onto one of the matching chairs facing the couch.
Mo perched on the sofa, knees almost touching a heavy sculpted-glass coffee table. The thing looked like a big shaved-off chunk of ice with lines and bubbles running throughout the glass. Instinctively, she reached out and touched the glass.
“Do you like it?” Herra Aalto asked. “Had it specially made. Cost a king’s ransom, I can tell you.”
“It’s very nice,” Mo said. Kirsti caught her eye and smirked, looking pointedly past the table to where Mo’s bright red toenail peeked through the hole in her dark blue sock. Mo curled her toes under again as a woman in a starched apron hurried into the room balancing a silver teapot, tea glasses, and a plate of small rolls on a tooled silver tray.
Mo’s eyes widened. Wow. The Aaltos must be loaded. Servants and everything!
The woman set the tray on the coffee table and began filling the glasses with a pale pink liquid. Steam curled lazily upward, filling the air with a gentle scent of roses.
Herra Aalto settled in his chair, a proud smile on his face. “Eeva makes her own rose-hip tea. You must try it. It’s quite delicious.”
Mo accepted a glass and sipped dutifully as the woman hovered with an expectant look on her face. The stuff tasted like diluted perfume, but Mo smiled anyway. “It’s very good. Thank you, Eeva.”
Next to her, Coach Peltonen cleared his throat. Kirsti coughed. Mo looked from one to the other, face burning. Was it impolite to address the help? Or to call an older person by their first name?
Kirsti raised her glass. “Kiitos, Äiti.”
Mo almost heard her jaw clunk when it hit the floor. Thank you, Äiti? That was the Finnish word for “mother.” “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Mrs. Aalto—Rouva Aalto—smiled and nodded like it was no big deal, but Mo’s face burned hotter than the tea in her glass. Way to make a good impression. The rest of the conversation would be a goner. Mo sipped her tea in silence.
When Rouva Aalto invited everyone to come to the dinner table, Mo followed reluctantly. The combination of her less-than-stellar debut and her lack of sleep had killed her appetite. Besides, it may have been dinnertime in Finland, but back home she would just be getting up for breakfast. She picked at her meal—some sort of casserole served with crusty rye bread and lots of butter—and tried to act interested as Herra and Rouva Aalto droned on about the family’s tour company and its first-quarter earnings.
Rouva Aalto said something in Finnish and Herra Aalto nodded. “You must be very tired,” he said to Mo. “Are you ready to turn in?”
Coach Peltonen took his cue. “I should be going as well. Mo, enjoy your weekend. Rest up. School and practices begin on Monday.”
As Herra Aalto walked the coach to the door, Mo stood and pushed her chair up to the table. “Kiitos for the dinner, Rouva Aalto. It was delicious.”
Rouva Aalto beamed. “Ei kestä. You are very welcome.”
At this, Kirsti rolled her eyes and stalked away. Mo watched her disappear down the hall. What was her problem?
Herra Aalto returned, carrying Mo’s suitcase. “Come. I’ll show you to the room you’ll share with Kirsti. You girls have your own WC and shower. I’m sure you’ll find it quite suitable.”
He escorted Mo down the hallway and opened the door grandly to reveal a large bedroom with matching twin beds. A birchwood desk in the center of the room bore a very expensive-looking computer, virtual snowflakes drifting across the monitor. Kirsti lay on the bed against the far wall, thumbing through a magazine. She didn’t even look up.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.” Herra Aalto bowed with a flourish. “Hyvää yötä.”
“Good night,” Mo replied.
Kirsti waited until the door closed. “Nice socks,” she said. With that, she stuck a pair of earbuds into her ears and turned back to her magazine.
Mo pressed her lips together and set about unpacking her suitcase. Okay, so her Finland debut wasn’t what she had imagined. Her time was totally scheduled, she’d made a fool out of herself with her host family, and her roommate was as icy as the winter night. She wasn’t going to let it get her down, though. She’d just have to make sure tomorrow was better. If only she knew how to do that.
Posted February 29, 2008
Posted November 24, 2009
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