After racking up serious injuries, world-famous snowboarder Nate Forrest returns to the West Virginia coal town that has been his family's home for generations. The transition's a challenge, but there's nothing more beautiful than snow. Except maybe Dr. Lacey Berryville. How can Nate resist this tender-hearted vet who adores every living creature and isn't the least bit fazed by his celebrity?
Just what Lacey doesn't need is for this larger-than-life, adventurous Olympic medalist to melt her caution away during the season's last snowfall. She's spent her girlhood moving from place to place, and soon she'll be leaving again. So, what's she supposed to do about the avalanche of feelings Nate is unleashing in her? Can she leave West Virginia's tree-covered mountains behind-with Nate giving her the best reason of all to stay?
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Richard and Margaret Forrest, known to their friends as Rick and Peggy, were even-tempered, intellectual people. Reading books, discussing meaning and significance or walking through the woods with even more books so they could identify the birds and the wildflowers, these were what they and two of their three children treasured. Their middle child, however, wanted to go to demolition sites and watch things get blown up. A little Tom Sawyer of a kid, Nate Forrest was happy to join the family in the woods, but walk? Who would want to walk when you could run?
His younger brother always finished his homework the night before it was due; his older sister seemed to do hers before it was even assigned. Nate did his at the breakfast table a day or so after it was due ... if he did it at all.
This apple had fallen quite a ways from the family tree.
They lived in southeastern West Virginia, former coal- mining country, a place that offered few opportunities. Boys like Nate often ended up with crashed motorcycles, dishonorable discharges, and judgments against them for child support payments.
Nate was luckier than those boys. He was a Forrest of Forrest, a town named after his something-great-grandfather who had gotten his start by pitching a tent outside the entrance to the mine and selling dried beans and cast-iron skillets. Nate's own father was the superintendent of schools, and his mother taught first grade. They were sensible enough to know that there was no point in trying to change Nate.
Fortunately, his appetite for risk came with extraordinary physical aptitude. One of his teenage babysitters and her boyfriend looped a little safety harness around his chest when he was barely four and took him to the nearby slopes. He started out skiing, but quickly switched to snowboarding.
At first, he was a miniature meat torpedo, a kid who barreled down the mountain joyously unaware of his speed and the danger he posed to himself and others. His parents, who loved him dearly even if they didn't understand him, found formal instruction for him, and when they saw how hard he worked, they tried to give him all the opportunities they could.
He picked up his first sponsor at age twelve, and by the time he was twenty, he had X Games and FIS Alpine World Ski Championship medals of every color. With his strength and speed, Big Air was his specialty. He muscled his way through tricks, hitting record-setting heights.
Riding like that was risky. Risk-takers get injured, often badly, occasionally enough to end a career. After Nate's last injury, the doctors had warned about spinal fractures, wheelchairs, and paralysis. His usually fearless mother had looked frightened. This was why, on a Sunday afternoon in late March, at age twenty-nine, he was back in his hometown.
He couldn't remember when he had been here last. He had been — not surprising — in the hospital when his grandfather had died and couldn't make it out for the funeral.
A lot had changed in the town over the past decade. The high school had closed. The dentist shut his office. The once- daily newspaper was publishing twice a week. After his grandfather's death, the Forrest family couldn't find anyone to take over the once-thriving hardware store. The beautiful stone building with Forrest Dry Goods chiseled into the stone over the door sat empty. The liquor store had expanded, although that wasn't necessarily a good sign. There was a major new construction project east of town, but it was outside the city limits. And Nate's parents had moved away.
He had been seventeen when his father's contract as superintendent had not been renewed. The school board offered him a teaching position. People assumed that if he didn't want to go back to the classroom, he would work in the hardware store. But once Rick and Peggy had sent their daughter off to college, they had gathered up their younger son and did the American thing — they went west, buying a failing winter-sports resort on Oregon's Mount Hood, renaming it Endless Snow because Mount Hood was the one place in the United States that had snow year-round.
The family tree had hopped closer to the apple.
The town had been shocked. It had never occurred to anyone, not even the school board, that demoting Rick would cause the family to leave.
After twelve years of very hard work, Endless Snow was a success. Just as the hardware store had been, the resort was a family operation. Nate's siblings had joined the business as soon as they finished college. Now their spouses worked there as well.
Nate had done his part. He was the face of Endless Snow. He was featured on every web page, on every piece of marketing material. He hosted happy hours whenever he was there. He handed out medals to the kids at the end of the weeklong training camps. He was the brand.
He wasn't a household name across America; only one snowboarder, Shaun White, had ever achieved that. Within the snowboarding world, however, Nate Forrest and his records for height and speed were a big deal.
But now he was on the other side of the country, sitting at the kitchen table of one of his mother's friends, listening her talk about people he hadn't thought of in fifty million years if he had even heard of them at all.
He learned that the McFarlands had so many tomatoes last summer that they ended up leaving them in a box outside the liquor store for the construction workers to take ... that the last winter had been dry and warm, and people were worried about scale on their bushes ... that the Lutheran congregation had gotten so small that it was having to share a pastor with a church in the next town over. And the high school closing! What a shame that was.
The school systems around here had been so strapped for money that several years ago they'd consolidated into a county-wide system with only one high school. "The county seat is only twenty miles away," Nate pointed out. That didn't seem too far to do the Friday Night Lights thing.
"It's not the same." Mrs. Pritchard sighed. "There were always bake sales and car washes going on. You remember how the marching band would get out of class to play in the elementary school Halloween parade? That was so much fun. The little kids loved it, but the new school won't let the band come this far in the middle of the day. If only your father hadn't left ... he could have saved the high school."
"I can't say, ma'am."
He was relieved when his phone chirped. He had warned Mrs. Pritchard that he was being picked up, so she broke off in mid-sentence and waved him to stand up.
"You know a storm's coming," she cautioned. "You boys need to be careful."
"We'll be fine."
Indeed, the sky outside was low and charcoal-colored; the air was thickening. When Nate had made his flight reservation this morning, he saw that the airlines had suspended all change fees in and out of the West Virginia airports because of an impending "weather event." He wasn't worried. Snow had always been his friend. While the rest of the county was dreading the storm, he was eagerly waiting to be picked up by another longtime friend, Pete Willston. As kids, they had had plenty of adventures together. Nate wasn't going to let their being grown-ups get in the way of that.
Pete was Nate's only friend outside the snowboarding world. They'd been in kindergarten together, and Pete, unlike everyone else Nate knew, had a normal life. He and his wife, Cheri, another kindergarten classmate, owned a garage in Frederick, Maryland, a rapidly growing suburb north of Washington, DC. He had come back to Forrest to work construction, something that made Nate wonder about how the garage was doing.
Nate was at the curb in front of Mrs. Pritchard's house when a midsized green pickup with Virginia plates pulled up. Nate reached the driver's side door just as Pete was getting out. They each had their right hand out, but the handshake quickly became a left-arm man hug. They were glad to see each other.
Pete was two or three inches shorter than Nate. Before he and Cheri had moved to Frederick, he had done four tours in Afghanistan, and his skin was still leathery from the harsh sun. He carried himself like an army veteran — seasoned, compact, and dense, with muscled posture and close-cropped hair.
The army had turned Pete into a wizard of a mechanic. If a part was supposed to move and wasn't, Pete could get it unstuck. If it was moving and wasn't supposed to, he could get it to behave. He could fix anything.
"This was some kind of sudden trip," he said to Nate.
That was true. Nate had decided to leave Oregon only this morning. "I was pissed at my family. They think I am too much of a wild man to have anything important to do with the business."
"And suddenly flying all the way across the country into a snowstorm is going to convince them of your maturity?"
Pete might have a point there. "I'm not seeing any snow," Nate said. "It looks like you're all upset about nothing."
"Let's hope. The system's moving slower than expected. So when it does get here, we'll be hammered because it's going to squat down and stay." Pete reached for Nate's backpack. Nate had spent too much time sitting around airports in wintry weather not to take his computer and a toothbrush everywhere. "We've got to go out to the job site to pick up Hex. There'll be time to show you around."
Hex was Pete's German shepherd. Nate had been visiting Frederick when Hex had been a fuzzy little puppy. Pete had wanted to name him Tool or Wrench, but Cheri wouldn't let him.
"So, what's up with your family?" Pete asked as he pulled away from the curb. "Why are you pissed at them?"
"It's my little brother. We were having this family meeting about long-range planning. I don't usually go to those, but I figured that since I am done competing, it was time."
"Are you really done with snowboarding?"
"With the serious part. I'm not supposed to leave the ground, which kind of makes it pointless. My last spill was a sparkler, and I don't think I'm cut out for life in a wheelchair."
"I wouldn't bet on that. You would have figured out something."
Nate laughed. "Like how to injure myself even if I were paralyzed from head to toe?"
"Something like that. But why are you mad at Cooper?"
"He went on and on about my value as a pretty face, how I represented the resort to the public."
"That's true, isn't it?"
"It sure as hell is." It had been a lot of work. "I don't even get parking tickets because that would reflect badly on the brand. I mean, seriously, am I the sort to have a clean driving record?"
"You would seem to err on the side of speed."
"It hasn't been easy, that's for sure, but I am squeaky-clean. Anyway, Cooper was saying that this was such an important contribution — which I know — but then ten minutes later, he was talking about how we needed to develop a more aggressive relationship with kids because dear Nate's value had a shelf life."
"He wouldn't have said that."
Pete liked Nate's brother. Once Nate got serious about his sport, he was gone for most of the year. Pete had played catch with Cooper, let him hang out in the locker room with the high school football team, and helped him with his little pinewood derby car. Sometimes Nate felt like Pete was more a part of his family than he was.
"Okay, those weren't exactly his words. He said that my Q Score would diminish with time. But he was clearly saying I was about to be a has-been."
"Isn't that inevitable?"
Now, this was the trouble with guy friends. Any pretty lady would have cooed and gone all goopy about how hard his fate was and how awful his brother was. Not Pete. "Sure, and I don't want to be one of these pathetic has-beens lurking around, trying to get something going for themselves again."
"I'm missing something here," Pete said bluntly. "You don't want to try to outlast your marketability, and Cooper wants to prepare for that day. It sounds like you're on the same page."
"I'm not saying I want to walk away from Endless Snow. I always assumed that I would take a more active role in the management, and Cooper shot that down. And my sister was right there with him. I am a piece of meat to them, out there risking my neck year after year for the resort. They think I'm some kind of hothead who can't be trusted around a balance sheet. Or probably even a bedsheet."
"What kind of role did you envision for yourself? Were they specific about why that wouldn't work?"
"Okay, so I hadn't gotten that far, and I probably should have thought things through a little more."
"That is useful in running a business," Pete said mildly.
Well, yes, it probably was.
Nate was done talking about this. He must be sounding like a big whiny-pants crybaby. What did he really have to complain about? He could walk and run without pain. He had plenty of money. So his family didn't treat him like a god? Oh, boo-hoo.
"Did my folks ever ask you to come out to Oregon to work at Endless Snow?" he asked ... although that wasn't a complete change of subject.
Pete nodded. "As soon as I got out of the army. Absolutely, they did. And it was a good job. Head of engineering."
"Why didn't you take it?"
"Cheri didn't think she should be that far from her mom, since they only have each other. Then after your grandfather died, they asked if I wanted to take over the hardware store, but by then things were going well in Frederick."
Nate had not known any of this. Clearly his family trusted Pete more than they did him. That didn't make him any less pissed off at them.
"So, the garage's still doing well?"
"It is. Some of the people around us have really long commutes. It's hard on their cars and great for us. Cheri's got us looking into opening another location."
That wasn't the answer Nate had expected, but he was glad of it. He knew that Cheri, with her endless enthusiasm, had been the force behind Pete taking the risk to open a business. It was great that the gamble had paid off. "If the business is doing so well, why are you here?'
"I came out supposedly for a week or so as a favor to a guy whose cars we work on. But right away the company offered me this salaried position that had great benefits, and if Cheri's mom moved into the house, they'd let me pick up coverage for her. If I stay on until construction's finished, there's a big bonus, and we won't have to pay through the nose for money to open another garage. At least that's the plan."
Once the mines had closed, the area's best hope for economic growth was either tourism or a prison. But the state already had a correctional center in Beckley, and the feds had a minimum-security camp in Alderson. There had been several attempts to build a resort in the mountains east of town, but this time it seemed to be working. The investors had fifty million dollars for top-of-the-line snowmaking equipment, a luxury spa, a hotel complex, and pricey condominiums. Construction had been going on for nearly two years. That's why Nate had to stay with his mother's friend. Out-of-town construction crews were taking up all the rooms in a twenty- mile radius.
The resort was to be named Almost Heaven after the John Denver "Country Roads" song. The song began "Almost heaven, West Virginia" and then ignored geographical realities after that. The Blue Ridge Mountains were in Virginia and North Carolina, and the Shenandoah River skirted into West Virginia for only a small fraction of its run, but most West Virginians believed that the songwriters had nailed the "almost heaven" part.
A new bypass road led out to the Almost Heaven site. The county had gotten the construction company to help pay for it. Its four lanes skirted town and were keeping all the construction and interstate traffic from lumbering down Main Street.
"Parts of the site still look pretty bad," Pete warned, "as ugly as strip-mining. But these DC guys are all about resource efficiency and environmental responsibility. If you're going to build in the mountains, this is the way to do it."
Pete slowed as they came to the construction gate. The guard waved them on through to a big gravel-covered lot. Although it was Sunday, the lot was nearly half full. Clearly there was a Sunday shift. The front row was almost empty, all the spaces marked with white Reserved signs. Those spots must be for the bigwig types who didn't work on Sundays.
Nate was a little surprised when Pete steered into one of those spots. Reserved for Head Equipment Manager, its sign read.
"Is that you?" Nate asked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Snowfall"
Copyright © 2019 Kathleen Gilles Seidel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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