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A champion ski jumper, Nick Walsh wants one thing: to win the gold for his late brother. Nick has always blamed himself for his family's tragic loss—and so does everyone else. To complicate things, sweet and shy reporter Julie Frost insists on doing a story about him. But as Nick gets closer to achieving his dream, someone will do anything to stop him. Somehow, Nick must keep Julie from getting too close as they confront a threat that can destroy them ...
A champion ski jumper, Nick Walsh wants one thing: to win the gold for his late brother. Nick has always blamed himself for his family's tragic loss—and so does everyone else. To complicate things, sweet and shy reporter Julie Frost insists on doing a story about him. But as Nick gets closer to achieving his dream, someone will do anything to stop him. Somehow, Nick must keep Julie from getting too close as they confront a threat that can destroy them both. Julie and Nick are on the verge of discovering the truth about his brother's death unless an unknown murderer finds them first.
"Welcome to this evening's segment of Northwest Edition. I'm Julie Frost reporting to you live from the annual Festival of Snow in beautiful Bend, Oregon. It's a crisp Friday night and a perfect way to start the weekend. The festival is proud to host the U.S. Aerial Freestyle National Championship. Excitement is in the air."
Julie kept her gaze on the round, black lens of the handheld camera in front of her. The temperature had dipped below ten on this January evening. Though she'd lived in central Oregon all her life, she couldn't remember it being this cold. Her smile felt frozen in place, like her toes. She should have worn thicker socks. Or boots made for the cold, not fashion. The station stylist had insisted the pink boots matching the pink ski suit completed the outfit. She felt like a big, pink lollipop. The price she paid to be on camera. She refrained from stomping her feet and settled for wiggling her freezing toes. It didn't help.
"As you can see around me, quite a crowd has turned out for the festivities."
She paused as Bob, her cameraman, panned the area, giving their viewers at home a glimpse of what they were missing. The Festival of Snow was held across the Deschutes River from the Old Mill shopping center. The mill with its three towering smoke stacks had been converted into a popular sporting-goods store and provided the anchor to the center. On this side of the footbridge, along the river path, white tents and canopies gave local vendors and artisans warm, dry places to show off their wares while local eateries tempted festivalgoers with tasty treats. A live band played in the amphitheater opposite the wooden structure erected for the skiing competition.
Every year more and more tourists traveled to the mountain oasis to attend the annual festival celebrating the best of winter in Oregon.
When the lens focused back on her, she smiled and raised her voice. She hoped the viewing audience was able to hear her over the cheers of spectators waiting for the aerial freestyle skiers to take to the ramp.
"Tonight's competition is a precursor to the upcoming winter games. Athletes will compete for points as well as a cash purse of twenty thousand dollars. Points for each jump will be added to the skiers' total season score. Names of the team members representing the U.S.A. at the winter Olympic games will be announced in one week. That will give the athletes two weeks to prepare before traveling to this year's games host city, where they will represent the U.S.A. and compete for gold, silver and bronze."
Julie's gaze slipped to Bob. He nodded encouragingly and made a rolling motion with one hand, letting her know to keep stalling as they waited for the first skier to take his jump.
"Behind me is a specially constructed snow ramp known as a 'kicker.' The skiers will perform two jumps consisting of single or multiple somersaults with or without twists. Each jump must vary by one somersault or one twist. Points are awarded for takeoff, form in the air, difficulty and landing."
Bob motioned with his hand, indicating the competition was starting.
Bubbles of excitement knocked against her ribs. Though she wasn't daring enough to ever try aerial freestyle skiing, she certainly enjoyed watching. It took a risk-taking, adrenaline-junkie personality to pursue a sport where you launched yourself off a fourteen-foot-tall ramp, performed flips and twists fifty feet above the ground, and then landed upright on a steep incline.
Unfortunately, Julie was drawn to that exact type of man. Drawn to and burned by them. She'd had her fill of men who lived life on the edge. Her ex-fiancé had been that sort of man. Only trouble was John Mateo hadn't limited his risky behavior to sports. Thankfully, she'd found out before she'd married him.
Never again would she allow herself to get swept into a relationship with an adrenaline junkie. Next time around-if there was a next time-she wanted stable and steady. Until then she would focus on her career.
Her first step had been convincing her boss at the television station to give her a shot at moving up from production assistant to on-camera personality. The second step had been successfully pitching the idea of a feature story on one of Bend's local heroes, aerial freestyler Nick Walsh, to her boss. He'd said yes. Then she'd contacted Nick's biggest sponsor, Thunderbird
Ski Equipment and Apparel, figuring the best way to gain access to Nick would be through his sponsor. The head of the locally based sports company had enthusiastically embraced the idea and looked forward to the promotional aspects of the story. Now all she had to do was put together an excellent story and she'd be given the promotion she craved.
To the camera she said, "Hometown favorite Nick Walsh is taking his position."
When the camera swung away to zoom in on the tall, broad-shouldered skier readying himself at the top of the ramp, a flare of feminine awareness made a joke of her being career-focused. And worse yet, there was so much more to Nick than his good looks.
With a shake of her head, she reminded herself what the story was as the camera came back to focus on her. "Early last year calamity struck the Walsh family when Cody Walsh, Nick's younger brother, had a horrible accident during a practice and died."
Her heart ached for the family. She remembered Cody as a sweet kid who worshipped his older brother.
"The Walsh brothers were taking the aerial freestyle world by storm and were poised to vie for gold against each other as well as the world's top aerialists. Many people speculated Nick wouldn't continue to compete when he dropped out of sight for several weeks after the tragedy." One of the topics she planned to cover later when she interviewed him.
"However, Nick did return to compete and is leading in men's aerials." Recalling the phone conversation she'd had with Nick's manager a few hours ago, she said, "According to Nick's manager, Gordon Lewis, Nick will be performing a new trick for us tonight.
One he hopes will take him all the way to gold in the biggest competition of his life!"
A roar for the hometown favorite went up from the crowd. Even as a kid, Nick's one and only passion had been skiing. He'd had his eyes set on winning gold one day. This could be his year.
Bob pointed toward the ramp.
Julie turned to watch, stomping her feet to stay warm, her gaze riveted to the skier waiting to take off. Walsh wore the U.S. team's bright blue-and-red ski suit. Though she couldn't see his face, she had no trouble remembering his vivid blue eyes, thick dark hair and strong jawline.
They'd grown up together, attended the same school and church all the way through to graduation. While she'd been the geeky girl who sat in the front of class, he'd been the one everybody gravitated to at the back. The guys tried to emulate him and failed; the girls vied for his attention and failed. Including her.
She doubted he'd remember her at all.
Nick Walsh flexed his legs, readying his muscles. He took deep calming breaths. The crowd's roar of expectation lifted on the chilly evening air. Floodlights illuminated the smooth ramp and pooled in a bright circle highlighting the landing track and outrun twenty feet below. A wiser man would resist the urge to scan the crowd for a glint of steel, the small black hole that would put him out of his misery once and for all.
But he wasn't wise.
However, he was definitely unnerved.
This morning he'd received a menacing note- letters cut from a magazine to form three words- TIME TO DIE.
After the failed attempt on his life a few months ago, it was little wonder he was edgy.
A flash of color snagged his gaze. A woman stood slightly apart from the rest of the onlookers. Dressed from head to toe in neon pink, she looked like a highlighter except for a long blond braid draped over one shoulder. He blinked and forced himself to focus, which took all his mental prowess considering the death threat looming in the shadows like a mountain lion that roamed the Cascades waiting for an opportune moment to pounce.
Tonight was about testing out a new trick. And moving closer to achieving his goal of medaling in the upcoming games. For Cody.
Nick's heart twisted in his chest.
He concentrated his energy into the moment, blocking out the noises of the spectators and the grief that stabbed at him with each breath. Blocking out the fact that he was back home in the place where his dreams of gold had been born. Blocking out the knowledge that his parents wouldn't be among the audience watching the competition. They still blamed him for Cody's death.
His jaw clenched. He blamed himself.
Heart pumping with adrenaline, Nick pushed off. Pointing his skis down the inrun slope, he picked up speed. He needed to reach thirty miles per hour for optimum liftoff. He approached the kicker. He had to hit it just right to get the height required to perform the quad back, double twist. Wind whipped over his helmet, whistling through the facemask. Keeping his gaze focused upward, he lifted his arms overhead to elongate his body, increasing his rotational inertia by moving more of his weight away from his hips and allowing for more flipping power.
The approach was perfect.
Wait. Something didn't feel right. His left boot slipped slightly against the toehold.
Someone had messed with his ski and loosened the binding. Sabotage!
His stomach clenched with anticipation and dread. He forced himself to remain calm. He could pull this off.
He hit the kicker and pushed off, soaring high into the air. Momentum carried him up and backward. The blur of stars in the clear night sky appeared like a comet's trail. He arched and gyrated his hips in a hula type move, beginning his first back twist.
His left ski detached from his boot, hitting his arm. Pain ricocheted through the bone. Shock seized his lungs.
The sensation of flying that normally brought him joy sent a shaft of terror shredding through him. A ripple of panic snatched his breath.
"Help me, God!"
Forget about keeping his body in alignment for the judges. He focused his gaze on the ground, estimating the distance. This wasn't the first time a trick had gone wrong.
He prayed it wouldn't be his last trick ever.
He had to land this in one piece. An injury could knock him out of the competition. He didn't want to wait another four years for the opportunity to go for gold!
He raised his arms overhead to slow his momentum. Pain screamed down his left side from the point of impact with the ski. He elongated his frame, keeping his knees soft and braced himself for the ground.
He hit the landing track with a jarring thud. For a heartbeat, he thought he'd maintain his upright position on the one ski. Then he tumbled, head over end, landing with bruising force against the track and sliding rapidly toward the barrier of the outrun. He curled to protect himself and hit the barrier like a ball bouncing off pavement.
The air left his lungs in a gush and stars danced before his eyes.
He prayed his dreams of gold weren't dead like his brother.
Shrieks of horror splintered the air. Nick's unattached ski flew into the bright orange safety net. He lay in a heap, butted up against the outrun barrier. The cries of the spectators echoed through Julie, heightening her own shock. Reality TV in the flesh.
"Lord, please don't let him be dead."
She did not want to gain ratings by streaming live the death of one of Oregon's-and the country's- favorite skiers. What would this accident to do his chances of competing in February? Would an injury force him to wait four more years or take him out of the running for gold forever by ending not only his career but also his life?
Sympathy and dread knotted her stomach.
Uniformed people and other skiers rushed to Nick's side.
Bob's hand gripped Julie's elbow. "Come on, get in there."
She blinked, letting his words sink in. Right. She had a job to do. Shaking off the shock, she pushed her way through the crowd. "Excuse me. Let us through."
She reached the barrier and flashed her press badge to the man guarding the makeshift gate. He pulled aside the wire mesh so she and Bob could move closer to where Nick lay on the ground. Even though they weren't on the mountain, two Mt. Bachelor ski patrols wearing black snowsuits with bright white crosses on the shoulders attended to Nick. One checked Nick's vitals and the other positioned a toboggan so they could lift him onto the sled.
Julie inched closer but was halted by a large muscled man in a black ski suit. "Stay back, ma'am."
As she peered around the man, dread curled in her belly. She hated seeing anyone hurt, let alone someone she knew.
Nick moaned and rolled onto his back.
Julie breathed out a sigh of relief.
"Whoa! Slow down," one of the ski patrol said.
"What happened?" Nick asked, coming up on his elbows.
"You took a nasty spill," Julie answered. The pressure in her chest eased. He hadn't broken his neck like his brother. Though she hadn't witnessed Cody's fatal accident, the stories of the event painted a harrowing tale.
Nick reached up and pulled his goggles down past his chin so they hung around his neck. "Do I know you?"
Her heart did a little leap. She smiled but was prevented from answering when the ski patrol stepped between them. "Sir, we're going to lift you onto the toboggan and take you to the clinic tent while we wait for an ambulance."
Nick shook his head. "I don't need to go to the hospital."
"Nick!" A tall man wearing a long wool coat over a double-breasted suit and wing tips shoved his way through the crowd. "Are you hurt? Oh, man, tell me you're not hurt!"
"No, I'm good," Nick said and sat up.
"Sir, please, let's get you onto the toboggan," the ski patrol insisted.
Waving off the guy, Nick said, "No way. I can go on my own two feet." He rolled to all fours and then rose.
A cheer erupted from the crowd.
Nick wobbled. Julie reached out to steady him, along with everyone else. "Stubborn man," she muttered.
He grinned at her. "You don't know the half of it."
"You need to be checked out ASAP!" the well-dressed man exclaimed, looking a little green. "You can't have an injury this close to the games."
"I'm fine. Relax," Nick insisted.
"I won't relax until the doctors say you're fine," the man shot back.
Two skiers, wearing ski suits matching Nick's, positioned themselves on either side of Nick. The Thunderbird logo graced the back of Nick's ski suit, distinguishing him from the other two. The muscled man in black fell in step behind them.
"Come on, dude," the guy on the right said. "Let's get you to the doctor."
They half carried him toward the Mt. Bachelor medical clinic tent set up nearby.
Julie blinked and forced herself to remember why she was there. She turned to face Bob and stared into the camera. "Nick Walsh, ladies and gentlemen. Undoubtedly one of the best aerial freestyle skiers in the country. Not many people could have dropped fifty feet in the air and walked away to ski again."
She prayed that last bit was true. The country was counting on him doing the U.S. proud by medaling.
"Come on," she said to Bob and followed Nick toward the urgent-care tent.
"Nick!" a woman in the crowd called out. "Nick, are you okay? It's me, Kitty."
Nick didn't acknowledge the female's cry.
Julie wasn't sure which of the numerous women pressing up against the barrier had called out. A girlfriend?
"Get a shot of the crowd," she instructed Bob.
As soon as he finished panning the crowd, she hurried around the corner of the urgent-care tent. She hustled so she was in front of Nick and his entourage.
Nick stopped, forcing his companions to do the same. "Jules, is that you?"
Surprise, closely followed by pleasure, rushed through her, heating her cheeks. "Hey, Nick." She gave herself a mental shake. Do your job! She thrust the microphone toward him. "Do you know what went wrong?"
He gave her a lopsided grin. "That wasn't meant to be a monoskiing trick."
"Any idea why your ski came off?"