Zoey Miller lives for her holidays in Aspen. Her time up on the mountain with the Madison brothers, Parker and Luke, is everything. But for the first time, it's not enough. This time, she's determined to win one of the brothers' hearts.
But the brother she has in mind is a renowned player, with hordes of snow-bunnies following him around Snowmass resort. And the other...well, he's her best friend and knows she deserves better. Namely him. And he's going to win her heart.
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By Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Kendra C. Highley
All rights reserved.
"Where is she?"
Parker paced back and forth, his boots leaving tracks in the snow. He probably looked like a caged cougar, but he couldn't help it. "Doesn't Miller know there are trails to be shredded? In this lifetime?"
His brother, Luke, chuckled. "Zoey always makes us wait, bro. How about we make her wait this time?"
"No." Parker stopped to scan the entrance again. Still no sign. He knew she was in Aspen. Her plane had landed ninety minutes ago.
Great, now he was a caged cougar and a stalker.
Luke's sigh held an "aren't these kids cute?" note. "Oh, I forgot — Peanut Butter can't go without Jelly."
Parker shot him a look. "Can't you think of a more original nickname for me and Zoey?"
Luke shrugged. "Shoe fits ... but if you're going to suggest something like Bert and Ernie or Leonard and Penny, I'm going to take points off."
"For what?" Parker asked.
"Because life isn't a sitcom, young apprentice. I'd be forced to charge you with a ten second penalty on our first run with Zoey." Luke shook his head, amused. "Not that I need the head start."
Parker's shoulders bunched up around his ears. Young apprentice? Seriously? "Are you really that eager to have your ass handed to you up on East Wall? Because if that's your deal, I don't need to wait for an audience."
"Ass handed to me? On a double black?" Luke laughed, and the crowd of girls lingering nearby giggled. He made a show of winking at them. "Since when? Last I checked, jibs were your thing, kid, not flying down a hill."
Parker went back to pacing, not bothering to answer. Luke had taught him how to board, but Parker had become the better shredder, both in speed and style. The student surpassing the master, or some Yoda shit like that. Not that his brother saw it. After winning tons of amateur downhill races, Luke still thought he was king of Snowmass. His horde of groupies thought the same thing, which made it hard for Luke to believe there might be someone a little better living in his own house.
"Seriously, we could hit a blue and be back before she shows." Luke nudged him off track. "Outrun me, and I'll let you borrow the Jeep whenever you want it."
Tempting offer — Luke's two-year-old Jeep was a much sweeter ride than Parker's ten-year-old Land Rover, a hand-me-down from their parents until he graduated — but not worth abandoning his post. "No deal."
"Aw, come on."
Parker shook his head firmly. "Nope. Go if you want, but I'm waiting."
"Fine, have it your way." Luke tromped off toward the lifts, the group of girls trailing in his wake, hurrying to keep up.
Parker sighed. He loved that jackass — most of the time — but everything was a competition between them. It had only gotten worse since Luke left for college last fall. Part of him wished his brother had stayed back in Arizona for the holidays.
He kicked at a pile of snow. For Parker, Zoey's arrival on the mountain went down as one of the top five things he loved. The other four had a lot to do with her, too: her smile, the way she egged him on, how they always thought the same thing at the same time, and the way she fit into his life like she was there all the time. So he'd wait, and be happy about it. Like Christmas morning, some things were better because of the anticipation.
Parker checked his phone. No texts. No anything. So he went right on pacing.
He'd been this way for years, watching the door for any sign when he was younger, and later, prowling around Snowmass resort, hoping she'd hurry up. Sure, he had his own friends in Aspen, both at school and at Snowmass, but Zoey was the only person who'd known him before he could walk. Their parents had become best friends in college in Texas and even though his parents had moved to Colorado, the Millers kept in touch, going so far as buying the house next door as a vacation home. As far back as he could remember, Christmas and the month of July meant Zoey. She made the holidays what they were, every single year.
Would this be the year he told her how he felt? He'd vowed to do it over the summer, but never managed to get her alone. Luke had lurked around like his purpose in life was to chaperon the "kids." His brother couldn't resist being center of attention, and what better way than showing up his "little" brother for Zoey's amusement?
Parker grumbled to himself. This year he'd find a way to ditch Luke long enough to tell her. Zoey going from best friend to crush two years ago had been a strange and wonderful thing ... and falling in love with her last Christmas break had been even more overwhelming. He knew it was a risk to their friendship. A big one.
Some things were worth the risk.
The crowd at the entrance started doing strange things. For one, it parted like the sea before Moses. For another, guys stopped dead in their tracks ... and those who didn't stop ran into walls or tripped over their own feet. The women and girls around these guys started rolling their eyes, some good-natured, some not so much.
Parker's heart hammered like a drunk carpenter had taken over his pulse.
Zoey was on the mountain.
She breezed through the crowd in a lime-green ski suit, her snowboard resting against her shoulder. Blond hair streamed out behind her under the hot pink knit cap she'd been wearing since they were kids, and her cheeks were flushed with the cold. Her smile could stop traffic ... no, really, it had stopped traffic. The sudden loss of coordination among the men near the entrance was proof.
He could only imagine what her real smile — the one she only gave him — could do.
Wait. No. He didn't want her smiling at any other guys that way.
She searched the crowd, oblivious as always to the way people stared, and Parker waved. Laughing, she barreled straight at him, tossing her snowboard to the side, before knocking him into a snow drift. They landed in a clatter of boots, boards, and limbs, with her on top.
Her grin lit up the world. "Parker Madison! How the hell are you?"
His entire body went supernova hot. He could feel every inch of her, despite the layers of ski clothes separating them. Jesus. He choked back a groan and tried to think of anything other than how perfectly they fit together. If she felt how his body responded to her ...
No, not happening.
He sighed heavily and brushed melting snow from her cheek. "How am I? Well, Miller, I'm bored." Lie. So much lying. Whole mountains of lie.
"Bored?" She blinked at him. "I'm not that late."
He pretended to scowl at her, enjoying the close-up look at her baby-blues. Huh, was she wearing mascara? Since when did she wear makeup on the mountain? Not that he was complaining — she looked amazing. "Zoey, two ages of the universe passed by while I've been waiting for you. Maybe even three."
"Is that so?" She smiled again and tugged on his cap. "I missed you."
There's the smile he'd been waiting for. His mouth went dry and he had to swallow a few times before he could speak. Maybe he should just kiss her instead. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." She clambered to her feet, then gave him a hand up. "Speaking of missing people, where's Luke?"
Of course she'd ask about his brother. Damn it. "He left without us."
"Figures." Lucky for his brother, she didn't sound the least bit annoyed. "I think we should leave him behind. Want to take me down a blue so I can get my legs back in shape?"
"I guess so," he said with a dramatic droop to his shoulders, waving toward the lifts. "I was planning to show off for you some, but we'll take it easy today."
"Showing off. Some things never change, do they, Madison?" She bumped him with her hip, and a rush of heat ran down his side. "Fine. You can show off on a blue just as easily. How about Creekside?"
They walked to the lifts in silence, bumping shoulders every few steps. With most girls, this would be awkward, but Zoey knew what he was thinking before he did, most of the time, so their silences were full and complete. She paused to tuck some hair behind her ear, and he blinked, realizing what was different. She had actually done her hair, and she was wearing makeup. This wasn't how Zoey usually rolled. He thought she looked great in pajama bottoms, a sweatshirt, and her hair up and messy, but she'd gone all out today, and it got his attention.
She glanced at him. "Okay, Mr. McStaring Pants, what's with the look over? You're giving me a complex."
She was smiling, but Parker's cheeks flushed at her catching him. He laughed it off. "I just noticed you look different than normal, is all. Where's the ponytail? You never wear your hair down. Did you agree to pose in one of those cheesy resort brochures or something?"
She shrugged, although it looked like her cheeks grew a little pinker, too. "I thought I'd make an effort for once, is all."
For him ... maybe?
"Besides, I couldn't go to the airport looking like a mess."
Or not. Parker frowned. "Why? Were you scared the TSA wouldn't approve?"
Zoey looked away. "Something like that."
Something in her tone told him she wasn't being honest, but he knew enough to let it go. Sometimes Zoey needed space to breathe, and he liked being the guy she could count on to make that happen. "That's cool. No big deal."
They made it to the lifts, and the line for the quad wasn't short, but when was it? He didn't mind the wait, not with Zoey by his side. Guys were staring at him in envy, and he straightened his shoulders. "How was the trip here?"
"Fine. The cold was a shock — it's sixty-five in Dallas today."
"That's spring weather. I'd be outside in shorts." He shook his head. "How do you even stand it out here, southern girl?"
She gestured at the mountain rising about them. "I accept it as a part of this. Without the cold, I wouldn't have snow to shred." She nudged him in the shoulder. "Or winter break with you. I live for this, you know."
She was going to kill him. He swallowed. "Yep. It's definitely worth it."
"Uh huh. All you heard in that sentence was 'Or winter break with you,' wasn't it?" She threaded her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder.
Yep, he was going to fall over dead. He tucked her head under his jaw. "That is the most important part."
She laughed a little. "I do like the snow a lot, though ... it's a tossup."
"Arrow, straight to the heart." He spun her out and twirled her around. "Guess my ego needed that."
"You know I love you." She gave him a quick hug, probably not realizing how bad that stung, because it wasn't the "I love you" he wanted to hear.
"Love you, too," he murmured into her hair before reluctantly letting her go.
The line shortened, and they took their places next to an older couple. The quad chair swung up, catching them behind the knees. Zoey plopped into her seat off-balance with an, "Oof!" then laughed. "People at school would never believe I'm a total spaz in real life."
In real life — because she didn't see her time at home as genuine. It made him sad. "You aren't a spaz."
"No?" Her expression turned a little wistful. "In some ways I wish I could be, though. At least every once in a while."
He wound an arm around her. "People would love the real you just as much, you know. Maybe more."
She rested her head on his shoulder. "Maybe. Back there I'm Class President Barbie, the girl with all her shit together and no doubts about who she is, or what she wants. You're the only person I can trust with me."
It made him a selfish bastard, but he loved that she felt that way — that she could be herself with him, and only him. Doubts and all. "Would it make you feel better if I tripped over some stuff, too?" He gave her a little smirk. "I could even fall when we get off the chair at the top, even things out a bit."
She smacked his chest. "You know what I mean. You don't care what I look like or what I do. That makes you a rare beast, Madison."
"Mmm. 'Rare beast.' I like that. Maybe I'll get that tattooed on my —"
"Yeah ... no. Do not even go there." She straightened and took a deep breath. "Just look at that view. This is what I've been waiting five months to see."
He took a deep breath, too, enjoying the bite and tang of pine in the air. The ski runs spread out below them, dots of color moving down the hill as people skied or boarded. The dark green tree boughs covering the mountains were speckled with white, glistening in the weak winter sun. Zoey was staring at everything, craning her head back and forth like she had to see it all, right this minute.
"The mountain will still be here tomorrow," he said.
"But it won't be the first look." She flashed him her quicksilver smile, then pointed down. "Is that Luke?"
Parker followed the angle of her finger. A guy in a red ski jacket was making one hell of a run down the hill, zigzagging through slower skiers and boarders, his cuts clean and precise. "Definitely Luke."
"Think he'll wait for us at the bottom?" she asked.
And miss a chance to show off for the kids? Never. "Yeah, he'll wait once he notices I'm gone. He knows I wouldn't leave unless you were with me."
"He still calling us PB&J?"
"That doesn't bother me, you know, being part of our sandwich." She leaned against him. "I don't know how I got so lucky. My besties are the best."
The plural made him think to ask, because it made her happy when he remembered details about her life in Dallas. "And how is Paige?"
"She has a boyfriend! He's this adorkable math geek who would walk on fiery coals for her, all while solving a calculus problem in his head. As she deserves." Zoey looked up at Parker. "You deserve that, too."
He raised an eyebrow. "An adorkable math geek?"
She laughed. "No — someone who would walk on coals for you."
This was it. She'd totally given him the opening. Now all he had to do was say, "How about you? And while we're at it, have any hot coals you need me to walk over? I might have to skip the math, but I could recite a poem instead," and she'd stare at him in confusion, then delight as she realized ...
"Kids, our stop is coming up," the older man said. "Just thought I'd let you two lovebirds know, in case you missed it."
He said it kindly, but Zoey turned bright red. "Oh ... no. We're friends, that's all."
With that, she hopped off the lift, leaving Parker to follow her. The old man gave him a sympathetic pat. "Sorry, kid. Maybe she'll come around."
Funny how obvious his feelings were to anyone but her. "Let's hope."CHAPTER 2
Zoey's cheeks steamed in the cold, more from embarrassment than the chill. Lovebirds? What was that guy thinking, calling them lovebirds? Sure, Parker was cute and sweet and pretty much everything she'd want in a guy, but he was her best friend.
Why wouldn't her cheeks cool down? Parker had her back, utterly, completely, no doubt. He was the constant in her life. Her fixed point, her conspirator, her North Star. She couldn't imagine being as open, as brutally honest, as she'd been with him with anyone else. You don't risk a friendship like that, not ever.
Luke, though ... She'd like to get closer to him — assuming she managed to catch his attention long enough for him to see how she felt about him. She'd probably have to take a freaking number, what with all the snow bunnies following him around Snowmass.
Zoey sighed, heart aching a little. While she was always glad to see Parker, she needed this trip to figure out if Luke could maybe feel something for a girl he'd watched grow up. She wasn't a kid anymore, not a tagalong or too young to do all the things he wanted to do. She was his equal — strong-willed and able to take on anything he could dish out.
Excerpted from Defying Gravity by Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2016 Kendra C. Highley. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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