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November, Aspen, Colorado
Winning was everything.
Shannon de Croix stabbed her ski poles into the packed snow just in front of the starting gate.
If she placed first at one or more events at the nationals, it would bump her up in the rankings. Just one of many stepping-stones to put her in line for a nomination to the U.S. Ski Team. A dream that had already eluded her for far too long.
Focusing on the downhill course ahead of her, she sucked in a breath, the scent of evergreens, winter and fresh-fallen snow filling her nostrils, exhilarating her.
Shannon had practically been born on skis. She could do this. The downhill race wasn't anything she hadn't done a thousand times before, but on other hills and in other competitions. The only differencethis was a big race.
An important race.
The downhill event was all about speed. No skiing around gates. Nothing she couldn't handle, except, normally, she would have been allowed to examine the course ahead of time. Shannon never thought she'd rue the day it snowed, but the extreme weather had forced a delay in the race, leaving all the competitors to ski at a disadvantage. Skiing the course a day or two before the race was part of getting prepared, and there was nothing more important than being preparedher dad had ingrained that rule in her since the start of her ski career.
Ignoring this rule grated just under her skin. She needed to be in sync with the mountain. But she wasn't alone in thisher opponents were at the same disadvantage. No one, not even their coaches or staff, had been allowed on the course.
The signal came. None of that mattered now. She had ten seconds before the start.
Zeroing in on the course, she stared ahead, shoving aside the doubts and the fact she would fly down a mountain at breakneck speed on a slope she wasn't completely familiar with. In the roped-off starting area, race officials edged her vision, along with other skiers waiting their turn and Jackthe team captain, who watched her. The two of them were more than simply members of the same ski team. They shared the same dreams, the same aspirations, and Shannon was on the verge of losing her heart completely to the guy.
Next to him stood Coach Hudson Landersthe man who'd brought them this far.
The clock ticked as Shannon steadied her breathing, shoving all thoughts from her mind save one.
Ski hard. Ski fast.
The starter counted down the last five seconds. Five, four, three, two
The blast of a horn signaled the start of the race. In an instant, Shannon pressed her weight into her poles and leaned forward, pushing off onto the downhill slope, gaining momentum by skating on her skis for the first few feet.
She picked up speed as gravity and the slick bottom of her racing skis propelled her forward.
Racing down the hill at more than 80 mph, cold air pricking her cheeks, Shannon slipped into that place where she performed best and became one with the mountain. Everything around her a blur, time seemed to stand still. The familiar whoosh of the skis slicking through the crisp snow enveloped her, kept her focused on one thing ahead of herthe finish line.
At the top of her game, the doubts drifted away with each passing second. She prepared for a rise in the course, braced her knees for the jump and took to the air. The ground was fast approaching, and she readied for impact.
Hitting the snow-packed slope, her left leg slipped to the side, and the ground flew at her face. She raised her arms to protect herself and kept tumbling. Pain spiked through her hard and fast. Screams erupted somewhere around her. They were her own.
The blue sky finally stopped spinning and twisting with the evergreens and snow. She stared up. Seconds ticked by before she could draw in a breath. Could she move? Was she paralyzed?
Shannon flailed her arms and lifted her head. But moving her legs caused pain to sear through her. She cried out, reaching for her leg, her knee. Was it a catastrophic injury that could end her career, her dreams?
Emergency officials appeared. Jack, where are you?
There. He was there. He reached for her hand, pity filling his gaze. No, she didn't want pity. "Jack?"
"Don't worry, Shannon. You'll be back with us. You have to," he said, then disappeared when the officials pushed him aside.
Hudson's face came into view then, his encouraging smile failing to hide his concern. "I'm right here, Shannon. I'm not going anywhere."
But his words didn't soothe her. No. Jack's words rang in her mind instead. Suspicions swirled inside her. Didn't he care about her? Was it all about the race? But she knew. She knew. He would go on.
Every bit of confidence and determination threatened to deflate. She'd never been one to quit. Always a winner, always a fighter, but this time, Shannon couldn't help it. She succumbed to the awful possibility that, just like that, her future was over.
February, Ridgewood Ski Lodge
Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico
The snowflakes fell thick and heavy on the ski slopes. Wanting to look his students in the eyes, Hudson shoved his goggles over his helmet.
He stood with the junior members of the Ridgewood Ski Team, ages eight to twelve, at the top of Windstorm, one of several blue, or intermediate-level, ski runs. Just one of many at Ridgewood Ski Lodge.
Hudson started to speak, but one of the students interrupted and pointed behind him. "Hey, Coach Landers, I thought you told Shannon not to ski Terminator."
Hudson glanced at the ski lift that started at the top of this run and had only one destination. Just disappearing from his sight, Shannon sat in the chairlift, her auburn hair and turquoise ski suit giving her away. She likely figured he would be too busy to notice.
Terminator, the double-black-diamond ski run and Ridgewood's biggest draw, boasted mind-bending vertical drops and an unrivaled obstacle-course terrain. Terminator could be skied only by experts.
Skillful skiers who were in their best condition, not rehabilitating from a serious injury.
Grinding his molars, Hudson reined in his frustration and concern for the girl, and faced the group of much younger aspiring athletes, hoping they wouldn't follow her example when it came to his instructions.
All eyes watched him, waiting for his explanation. He pointed a finger at the boy. "Don't eavesdrop on my conversations." To the group as a whole, he said, "Shannon knows what she's doing."
They visibly relaxed, trusting his words, but he couldn't say the same.
If only their coach wasn't a dream killer. That was what Shannon had said to him when, moments before, he'd told her it was too soon for Terminator.
Hudson sighedhe'd hoped coaching, helping others achieve their dreams, would somehow erase his mistakes. Redeem his past.
Who was he kidding?
He had no power to make dreams come true. Sometimes they were elusivejust out of reach. Other times they crashed and never got up. Hudson knew all about the death of a dream, and he knew about killing someone else's, too. He'd done it once before, and he carried the weight of it with him every day.
Coaching a ski team should have saved him, eased his burdens.
Instead he'd made a bad call, and Shannon had taken a career-changing fall. He was her coach. He'd made the decision to ski even though they hadn't been able to inspect the course.
But thirteen sets of eyes peered at him now, bringing him back to the moment. After giving his instructions to his students, he radioed for Travisone of the six Ridgewood coachesto start the video.
The skiers took off down the run, and Hudson skied behind them between the gates he'd set up earlier. As head coach for the past two years, he typically worked with the older students who already had a great foundation but were ready to make a name for themselves in competitive racing. Today, he covered for assistant coach Jason Hawkins while the man was on his honeymoon. Hudson had looked forward to working with the younger age group againfeel what it was like to inspire them.
Or maybe he hoped inspiring them would ignite his own passions again and give him a reason to stay at Ridgewood and continue to coach. But his time with them was nearly over, and he knew now what he'd tried to ignorehe wouldn't be able to be passionate about the sport again until he somehow freed himself from his past.
As they raced down the slope toward the Ridgewood Ski Lodge, Hudson glanced up at the snowy peaks across the snow-covered plateau opposite Mount Monroe, or Momentum to the locals, the mountain on which he now skied. The ski crowd had grown since he had started with the students. Ridgewood was close enough to Santa Fe so that, in addition to the ski junkies on a getaway weekend, local enthusiasts could drive up for an afternoon jaunt on the slopes.
Drawing in a breath of crisp air, he watched the kids while he slowly skied behind. This group had an upcoming fun race in a couple of weeks. He could already see the potential in some, and he knew they would go far. But it required more than talentthey needed the fire to race. The drive to win.
And the racing circuit could be brutal.
At the bottom of the hill, the thirteen kids came to a perfect stop, just like they'd been taught, and Hudson smiled.
He whooshed in front of the group, sending snow into their faces, and earned a few laughs. Each of their expressions shone with exhilaration and hard work.
He tugged his goggles up and onto his head again so they could look into his eyes. "We're good for today. We'll view the video on Saturday. See you this weekend."
The junior team practiced once a week and on weekends, depending on the level. The Ridgewood coaches had been training racers and turning out successful career skiers this way for decades.
A few parents congregated near the lodge, waiting as their children approached. A couple of kids in the group headed back to the ski lifts to practice some more. That sort of persistence and drive would take them a long way.
And it drove his eyes back up the mountain to Terminator, which he couldn't see from here. Hudson's thoughts returned to the woman he'd tried to shove to the back of his mind all morning. Shannon's broken leg had healed just fine, but her knee continued to bother her, even after multiple surgeries. Even after the pain and trials of rehab.
Though she tried to hide it, he could tell. With today's technology, which was much improved from even ten years ago, the prognosis was good for a skier to return to the slopes again after a massive blow to the knee.
the injury wouldn't heal right no matter how much surgery or how many months, or years, of rehabilitation.
Sometimes, the knee simply wouldn't cooperate. Like Shannon's. Maybe she could learn to compensate for that in other ways, but it was as much a mental struggle as it was physical.
Hudson hoped and prayed that wasn't the case for Shannon. He couldn't stand to see her lose her dream after what he'd seen her go through. Her pain would be his pain.
She was impatient, and that could hurt her in the end.
Shannon didn't want to follow the ski progression that had been outlined for her: take it slow. Tackle the easy runs at first. Then a few gates, and if that went well, progress through the steeper ski runs. Hudson understood all too well her impatienceif she followed the progression as outlined, she wouldn't be back in the game by next season. She'd lose her momentum.
Then it could be over for her. She might never make world-class status or even come close to realizing her dreamsand Hudson had his own experience with that. On the other hand, she could make a big comeback if she were patient.
But the biggest risk of all? If she pushed herself too hard and too soon, she could injure herself permanently.
Any way he looked at it, it was a risk. The price was high. Too high, if you asked him, but apparently she didn't value his opinion.
Hudson headed to the T-Chairthe lift that would take him to the summit for Terminator. Maybe she'd already come down and he'd missed her, or maybe she was still up there, but Hudson needed a challenge of his own to clear his mind, give him clarity.
The decision he needed to make couldn't be ignored any longer.
He slid into the chairlift and rode up alone. This way he could watch the mountainside. Look for Shannon. She'd been his student for the past four years, starting when he'd come to Ridgewood as an assistant coach at only twenty-six years old, four years after his own alpine skiing career had come to a catastrophic end.
And that was why he had to make this decision. He cared deeply about what happened to her, like he cared about all his students.
He scraped his hand through his hair, silently repeating those words.
The time he'd spent helping her through rehabilitation, encouraging her and pulling her out of her manic state of mind, had created an emotional connection between them that he couldn't ignore. But it was one-sided at best.
He couldn't, shouldn't, feel this way about her. She was his student. She trusted him as her coach. He'd seen firsthand what a romantic relationship between a coach and a team member could do to the morale of the entire team. The reasons tallied up, but even if none of those stood between them, he couldn't let himself love. He didn't deserve it, after what he'd done.
The ski lift approached the drop-off and Hudson waited for it, then slid forward and out of the chair. With his poles, he shoved out of the way for the next chair coming up behind him, and he headed to the far side of the run to get a look at the skiers.
Shannon wasn't among those standing around, but it was a big mountain. For a second, Hudson considered skiing outside the resort boundariesthere, he'd be alone with the mountain and God.
What was he thinking to even consider it? That would be too risky, and he'd ended his life of reckless skiing years ago. Nothing could drive him out of bounds now.
He surveyed the challenging ski run below him and the surrounding view. No matter how many times he'd been up the mountain, been awed by its majestythe clear blue sky and fresh snow of a bluebird dayhe'd never get tired of it.
Positioning himself at the top of the slope, Hudson pulled in a breath, then shoved off. Momentum caught him quickly on the steep hill, and he tried to enjoy the feel of the mountain as he focused on the 45 percent grade and sharp turns. He couldn't afford to think about anything else, and yet Shannon edged into his thoughts.
Shoulders square to the fall line, he picked up speed and tuckedsquatting forward, ski poles positioned under his arms. Focus or die.
A fall at this speed could do significant damage. The thought turned his mind to Shannon again and the race in which she'd crashed.
He knew he'd never get over the accident that had hurt his sister, Jen, and coaching others was supposed to help him right a wrong. But after watching Shannon take that fall, and the panic that had ensued inside him, Hudson knew he should admit what he'd known at that momenthe couldn't do this anymore.
Maybe he shouldn't even be coaching alpine ski racers, and that was the crux. Young and rising ski racers were depending on him to deliver his best.
The slope drove him down, harder and faster. Thirty minutes later, Hudson neared the end of the run, and thankfully, he'd gained a measure of control over his unbridled thoughts. He spotted the familiar turquoise ski suit. Could be someone else, but the woman tugged off the helmet and goggles and shook out her long, auburn tresses.
Relief blew over him to see her standing uninjured. He skied toward her, insides tensing.
He wasn't looking forward to the conversation he was about to have with her.