By Darien Cox
When Shanti attempts to ski an icy black diamond trail beyond his ability, he suffers a major wipe out, shooting off into the woods and injuring himself. But when a stranger who's been watching him scrambles off the trail to help, he meets Mick Paulson, native Vermonter and the most gorgeous man Shanti has ever seen.
Smitten with the alluring stranger, Shanti asks him for date, but quickly learns his brawny rescuer isn't exactly the dating type. But then Mick offers him a compromise. He's willing to give a full scale, romantic dinner a try, if Shanti agrees to venture into Mick's world for a night -- a place where lust runs high and inhibitions run low.
Through this bargain, they both learn where their edges lie, and what happens when they step beyond them.
ISBN 978-1-60659-724-8 -- 29,700 words
The tips of Shanti’s skis teetered on the edge of the slope. Vertigo made his stomach lurch, his butt clench, and for a moment he thought he’d pass out.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, Shanti, you can do it. You’ve been skiing black diamonds all day!”
Shanti turned to his accountant, Wendell, who stood beside him, grinning with enthusiasm. “The other trails didn’t look like this,” he responded, wincing down at the narrow slope again. It was too narrow, too sheer, and had a hairpin turn at the bottom where it disappeared even farther downward and out of sight.
“Just take your time, go slow. It levels out after a bit, this is the worst of it,” Callie said.
Wendell and Callie had been taking him skiing a lot lately, likely to distract him from his obvious depression. Having been close friends to his parents, he guessed they felt responsible for him somehow. The frequent trips to the mountain hadn’t worked on his mood, but had succeeded in making him a better skier. That he could now manage some of the expert trails was starting to give him a smug satisfaction. Until now.
All the other black diamond trails he’d tried were far wider than this one; he’d had room to maneuver his wobbly, amateurish style across the vast, powdery hills. But this one wasn’t wide or powdery; the snow looked icy and hard, a crystal layer glazing the surface. They were at the summit, surrounding mountains gorgeous with snow-capped peaks, but everything felt a bit more primal up here, dangerous, like nature was affronted people would dare to venture where the earth met the sky.
And because they were so high, the trails were much steeper. Just looking down made his legs weak. There was no way he was getting over this thing without breaking himself, or someone else. He watched other skiers expertly swish over the vertical death trap like it was no big deal, and knew that this time he was in way over his head: a quivering puppy, pissing himself while he tried to run with the big dogs.
“You guys go on ahead of me,” he said. “I’ll only hold you back. I need to get my nerve up for this bastard.”
“You sure?” Callie asked, but she was already adjusting her poles, goggled eyes scanning the hill with anticipatory glee.
“Yeah, go on, seriously. I’ll catch up with you guys.”
Wendell and Callie took off down the hill, skis carving the icy surface, bodies tilting and swaying as they maneuvered it like the experts they were. Wendell let out a loud hoot as they took the hairpin turn, and Shanti’s stomach lurched again just from watching.
I am so fucked right now.
“Dude, either go or move, you’re in the way!”
Shanti barely had time to see where the scolding voice came from, as a kid on a snowboard whizzed past him, took the hill with a jump, then disappeared around the bend.
“Well, pardon me,” he muttered. Awkwardly, he shuffled himself backward, then sidestepped his skis so he was standing next to the trees, out of the way of the skiers. He looked back over his shoulder at the chair lift, dropping new victims off. He wished he could ride the damn thing back down, but that wasn’t allowed. Next to the chairlift was one of the ski patrol dudes in a red jacket, chatting up a pretty young girl as he leaned against a snow mobile with RESCUE painted in huge blue letters along the side.
For a moment Shanti considered wussing out, and asking the guy to take him down on the sled, but his pride won out. How humiliating would that be? And anyway, so what if he died today on the slope? It would be a reasonably noble death. People would find it poetic. How strange, they’d say, just a year after his parents’ car accident, the son dies too. Only the good die young, they’d agree, and exchange anecdotes about what a nice young man he’d been, exaggerating his positive attributes, making him sound like a saint. Plus, with a skiing accident, he’d go out looking like someone who lived life to the fullest, rather than the empty, brooding downer he really was.
The wind kicked up and blew a dusting of icy snow in his face, a few crystals blasting into his nostrils. Fuck, it was cold up here, the sky dark with ominous snow clouds, no sunshine to warm his face. Everything seemed shrouded in a gray mist, small, icy snowflakes dancing on the air without direction, making visibility confusing. His cheeks were so numb he couldn’t feel them when his gloved hand slapped the snow away.
Across the trail to his left, near the trees on the other side, a shadow in the mist caught his eyes. A tall, well-built man seemed to be watching him. Shanti gave a fleeting glance of admiration at the guy’s burly build, the way he filled out his ski pants, broad shoulders beneath a blue wool coat. The stranger’s face was hidden behind a ski mask and goggles.
Damn, I wish I was wearing a ski mask. Note to self: purchase one of those, regardless of how ridiculous they look. At least then he’d be able to feel his face.
He glanced down at the threatening black diamond trail, but his eyes were quickly drawn back to the stranger across the way. Still there, hadn’t moved. He was on skis, but standing stationary, wind rippling his jacket. Even with his face hidden, Shanti got the distinct impression the guy was staring directly back at him. His goggled gaze stayed on Shanti as he leaned on his poles, adjusting his gloves.
Feeling self-conscious, Shanti wiped the snow from his nose and turned away again.
He considered the terrible slope, hoping it would change somehow, become less threatening the longer he looked at it. But it still made his knees weak. Unfortunately, regardless of how it made him feel, there was only one option, and that was down. Tugging his hat low over his dark blond hair, he gripped his poles and sidestepped so his tips teetered on the edge once more. Bend your knees, cut and turn. Snowplow like a newbie if you have to; just get down the damn thing.
Glancing around, he was pleased to see the crowd had cleared a bit. Now or never, he thought, at least I won’t take anyone else out. Poles biting into the crusty snow, he took a breath, clenched his teeth, and took the plunge over the rim.
Though his quads burned with the effort, he managed to carve side to side across the narrow, icy slope, successfully preventing him from plummeting straight down. Heart pumping wildly, he made another pass, staying upright, though just barely. Vibrations coursed through his legs as he glided over grainy ice pellets—clearly the groomers hadn’t been up here in a while; the conditions were atrocious.
He was almost at the hairpin turn when he lost control. There was a bump on the trail, just before the bend. He usually didn’t mind a few bumps, had even skied a mogul field earlier in the day. But this one he didn’t see coming.
As the slope hair-pinned to the left, Shanti kept going straight, airborne, off the trail and into the woods. Pine needled branches whipped his face, the pain intense on his frozen cheeks. His skis popped from the bindings as they caught the branches, one of them shooting straight up like a rocket.
At least I won’t break my legs, was his last thought before his body smashed into a tree.
He felt like an unfortunate character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon as the thin birch tree yielded to his weight, then sprang the other way, bouncing him off and onto his back on the frozen ground several yards away.
He opened his mouth, an automatic response to cry out in pain, but couldn’t breathe, the wind knocked out of him as he hit the snow packed earth. His hat was gone, and he was bitterly cold as snow seemed to have gotten in everywhere: in his ears, up his nose, on his eyes, down his neck and the back of his shirt. I can’t breathe. I’m dying. Shit. I’m really dying. I was kidding! I don’t want to die. Not really. Please.
He heard crunching footsteps as someone came through the trees, just as his breath returned in a violent, gulping gasp. With the breath of life came the pain. He felt every hurt all at once: his ribs, his face, the cold numbness of his ears and bare head. With another gasp, he moaned as he tried to sit up.
A tall figure appeared above him. “Don’t move yet,” the man said, his voice deep and gruff.
Shanti blinked up at him, wiping snow from his eyes. He flexed his numb fingers, noticing one of his gloves was missing. The tall man knelt beside him, revealing his face as he pulled a ski mask and goggles off his head. Shanti recognized the blue woolen coat—the man who’d been watching him from across the trail. And now his face was revealed.
Holy shit. Gorgeous.
Sun streaked brown hair, with beautiful skin and a skier’s tan: a unique dusting of pink across the nose and cheeks. Slightly scruffy jaw...and those eyes. My God, those eyes, deep green with long, thick lashes; by far the most beautiful eyes Shanti had ever seen on a man.
Shanti gasped. “Am I dead? Are you an angel?”
The man’s eyebrows rose in response. Damn, Shanti thought, did I say that out loud?
The burly stranger’s face had been pinched in concern, but now his lip twitched with a grin. “An angel? Hardly. But it looks like you could use a guardian. The way you shot into the woods, I sure thought you were dead.” He reached beneath Shanti and gently touched the back of his neck, his uppermost vertebra. Shanti jerked with the shocking touch of fingers, and turned his head to the left. The stranger smiled. “Well, guess your neck’s not broken. Can you move your legs?”
Shanti shuffled his knees. “Yeah. Legs are fine. My side...hurts.” He winced. “And my face.” He lifted his hand, flexing his numbing fingers again. “I lost my glove.”
The handsome stranger laughed as he removed his own gloves and brushed snow off of Shanti’s face, his fingers warm and reassuring. “Yeah, you lost your skis, poles and hat, too, a real yard sale. Your face hurts because you got whipped good by a tree branch, it’s bleeding but not too deep. I’m gonna unzip your coat and take a look at your side, okay?”
“Are you ski patrol?”
He shook his head. “No, but I used to be back in high school. Can I take a look?”
Shanti nodded, wincing as he tried to sit up again. Strong hands gripped his shoulders, holding him firm. “You really shouldn’t move until I’ve had a look. Okay, buddy? Your back might be broken.”
He met the stranger’s eyes. The feel of his strong hands on his shoulders made him shiver. He relaxed back into the snow, amazed to feel himself stiffen inside his ski pants. “I’m freezing,” he said to hide the shudder of arousal.
As the big man unzipped his jacket, Shanti ordered his body to calm. But it had been a long time since an attractive man undressed him. Of course the last time had been in a nice warm bed, not while lying mangled in the woods with a pound of snow down his pants. Hell, this guy was trying to help him, to make sure he hadn’t broken any bones, and all he could think about was sex. Talk about an inappropriate time to get a hard on.
But then warm fingers were on his bare flesh as the guy lifted up his shirt, gently running them over his rib cage. Shanti winced. “Ouch. That hurts.” He was thankful for the pain, hoping it would counteract the swelling in his pants.
“Is it a sharp pain?”
He shook his head. “Not really, just sore.”
The gorgeous stranger nodded. “Yeah, you got a hematoma here, looks nasty but you got lucky. Your ribs don’t seem to be broken. And you keep trying to sit up, so I’m guessing your spine’s intact.”
He pulled Shanti’s shirt down and zipped up his jacket, then dusted some of the snow off his hair. The simple act warmed Shanti, making him feel cared for. He wanted those hands on him again.
“I’m never skiing again,” Shanti said, as the guy helped him sit up.
“I’ve heard that before,” his mystery rescuer responded. “Come on, can you stand?”
With strong arms, the guy lifted him up, and he was pleased that his legs agreed to hold him. “What’s your name?” Shanti asked once he was solidly on his feet.
The man’s eyes flicked to him, something like hesitation crossing his expression. He reached down and snatched Shanti’s hat up off the snow, handing it to him. “I’m Mick.”
Shanti took the hat, then reached out with his bare hand. “Nice to meet you, Mick. I’m Shanti,” he said. “Thanks for your help.”
Hesitating again for a moment, Mick finally shook his hand, his perfect face contorted in a smirk. “Shanti? You’re kidding, right?”
Heat flushed Shanti’s cheeks, and for a moment he was transported back to high school. Mick looked like the big, gorgeous hockey jocks he had crushes on, the ones that made fun of his name and called him pretty boy. Until the day he showed one of them that pretty boys worked out at the gym and could kick your ass if you got them mad enough. After that they left him alone.
But he didn’t know this Mick, and the guy had just climbed into the woods to help his dumb ass, so he forced his irritation into remission. “Afraid not. That’s my name.”
Mick walked a few steps to the right, and dug Shanti’s glove out of the snow, shaking it off. “Your parents hippies or something?”
“Were,” Shanti said.
Snow crunched as Mick stepped back over, his eyes meeting Shanti’s as he handed him his glove.
The big man nodded, gaze remaining locked on Shanti, who shuddered in surprise as Mick reached out and brushed a strand of his dark blond hair out of his eyes. His heart thudded, and for a moment, he thought Mick was going to kiss him. But the other man’s eyebrows pinched into a scowl, and he drew back again. “That cut looks nasty, we should get you down to the base lodge and clean you up.”
Looking over his shoulder, Shanti peered through the trees, the colorful blurs of skiers gliding down the evil slope. These few moments in the woods with Mick had transported him in a way; he’d nearly forgotten where he was. Reality slapped back into him, making him shiver. “Um, there is no fucking way I’m trying that trail again. Sorry. I’ll stay here and freeze. Save yourself. Just leave me to die.”
Mick reached out again and brushed some snow from his hair, took the hat from his grasp and tugged it down over Shanti’s head.
He keeps touching me.
“Let’s find your skis,” Mick said as he adjusted the front of Shanti’s jacket, zipping him up tight. “There’s a path through here that leads to one of the easy trails. Think you can ski down if we hike over there?”
Shanti nodded. His mouth had gone dry, and he couldn’t speak as he looked up into those deep green eyes. Mick looked straight back at him, eyelids lowering, and suddenly Shanti’s groin stirred again. The pause went on for too long. Mick’s gaze dropped to his lips, Shanti was sure of it. But then the brawny stranger quickly turned away. “Think I saw one of your skis shoot over this way,” he said, and stomped off through the snow.
Embarrassed, Shanti went hobbling around to find his other ski, which he did, over where the trail edged the trees. His side hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as he’d anticipated, just bruised it seemed, as Mick had deduced.
“Follow me,” the big man said as he cut through the trees in the opposite direction.
Shanti followed, admiring his back and wide frame. He carried his own skis along with one of Shanti’s over his shoulder, hat and goggles in his other hand, streaky brown hair blowing free and wild in the mountain wind.
Rescued by a handsome stranger—it was too good to be true. The guy was probably straight as an arrow, which would explain why he was practically running through the forest trail now. Running away from Shanti? Or maybe he was just in great shape and this was his normal hiking pace. He hoped. But his insecurities told him otherwise. Shanti had undoubtedly been making googly eyes at him, and it probably freaked him out.
When the woods eventually broke to a clearing on the other side, Mick turned around and grasped Shanti’s elbow as he stepped out onto the wide, intermediate trail. “You all right?” he asked. “Think you can ski?”
“Yeah,” Shanti said. “Thanks again.”
“Follow me down to the base lodge,” Mick said as they both snapped their boots into their skis. Then, to Shanti’s surprise, Mick gave him a full, mischievous smile. It was perfect, dimpling his scruffy cheeks, lighting up his green eyes. “I want to get you undressed, take a closer look.” His eyes scanned Shanti’s body, lingering on his growing erection, then drifted up to his face again. “Make sure I didn’t miss anything important.”
Shanti’s body heated like someone had flicked a switch. But before he could say a word, Mick turned on his skis and shot down the mountain. Shanti watched him go. His style was perfect, gliding swiftly atop the snow drifts.
“Yeah,” Shanti whispered. “I want that too.”
Planting his poles into the packed powder, he shoved off down the hill and followed.