Grey instructed his group of clients to double check their ski bindings and avalanche transceivers before approaching the edge of the snowy cornice.
“Only thing that beats a deep-powder day,” Trip began with a grin, “is a little après-ski action at On The Rocks. You in?”
Unlike his friend and employee, Grey’d had no time for women since he’d moved to Sterling Canyon in December to buy the backcountry ski-expedition business, Backtrax, from its founder. Detaching the skins from his skis and stuffing them into his backpack, he replied, “The only action I’ll be seeing tonight involves a shitload of paperwork.”
Trip smacked the side of Grey’s leg with his ski pole, his six-foot-three-inch frame casting a long shadow across the snow. “Hey, buzzkill, loosen up or this will be my one and only season working in this town.”
“Promises, promises,” Grey joked in a deadpan voice. “Seriously, I can’t chase women when I’ve got less than eight weeks to plan post-season climbing programs.”
“Oh man, you’re looking at this all wrong. The way I figure, we’ve got only that long to enjoy this little ski town while it’s still packed with women. Good-looking, fit women on vacation. Women who aren’t expecting a commitment. How ’bout you have some fun before you prematurely age.”
“I have fun.” Grey locked his bindings and zipped his jacket. “But I’ve sunk everything into buying this business.”
“Suit yourself, but don’t wait up for me.” Trip’s self-assured grin curled the corners of his mouth. “I’ll be snuggled up with a soft, warm body, preferably in one of the swanky hotels with quality bedding.”
“I won’t send out a search party.” Grey couldn’t help but chuckle, knowing Trip’s infamous charm and swagger would ensure his success. “Set your alarm, though. If the predicted storm doesn’t screw up our scheduled tours tomorrow, I need you ready to go by six thirty.”
“Hey, I welcome any excuse for an early-morning escape.” Trip glanced around the group and then over the cliff’s edge, into the Rock Creek coulee. “Looks like everyone’s set. You gonna lead?”
“You know it.” Grey’s entire body hummed in anticipation of the drop into the gulch.
The rush of adrenaline from cliff hucking always made up for the ninety-minute hike up the ridge to the twelve thousand five hundred-foot-high peak. Some might call it a sick addiction, but he’d been hooked since adolescence.
Only sex delivered a bigger bang.
“Yahoo!” he hollered as he shot into the canyon.
Champagne powder sprayed around him as he ripped down the steep slope under a fantastic bluebird sky. After several cuts to confirm stable conditions, he turned, stuck two fingers in his mouth and blew hard. Blankets of snow muffled his sharp whistle. He raised one pole over his head, giving his tour group an all-clear signal.
He’d witnessed nature’s finest while working as a ski instructor and backcountry guide at resorts from Utah to Alaska throughout the past thirteen years. But the out-of-bounds regions of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains ranked among the most starkly gorgeous—if not exactly death-defying—peaks he’d skied.
Few enjoyed his brand of freedom—flying downhill with the warm sun on his face and cool snow at his heels. Fewer got to live their dream. He traversed the remainder of the chute feeling like a lucky SOB despite the financial headaches awaiting him at the end of the day.
Three hours later, Grey collected the transceivers from the team, pocketed his three hundred bucks in tips, and headed into his office.
A perfect day.
Or it had been until now.
Grey dumped the transceivers in a plastic bin, stripped off his hunter-orange-and-black Gore-Tex outerwear, and collapsed into the desk chair. He flicked on the computer and stared at the nemesis threatening his aspirations—a spreadsheet. A seriously challenging nightmare for someone with dyslexia.
Numbers and text scrambled in the gray-white glare of the computer screen despite the intentionally enlarged font. His hand balled into a fist, but he stopped short of punching the keyboard, mostly because he couldn’t afford to waste seventy-five bucks on a new one.
Unfortunately, spreadsheets and insurance forms had become a permanent part of his life. Sighing, he stuffed another grape Tootsie Pop in his mouth and, after making a final entry, he then stowed his tips in the petty cash box.
Grey raked his hand through the heavy bangs hanging over his eyes. The vinyl office chair squeaked as he leaned back and stretched his legs. Smiling to himself, he scanned the small, windowless back office. Some might balk at the stark, dingy room, decorated with ugly metal file cabinets and a worn wooden desk with sticking drawers, but not Grey.
It may be ugly, but it was all his, thanks to an inheritance from his grandfather and the fortunate timing of meeting Bill Batton just when the man wanted to sell his business.
Now Grey owned a small commercial property, a bunch of equipment, and an exclusive U.S. Forest Service special-use permit to lead guided tours on certain acreage in the San Juan National Forest. Failure was not an option, and not just because he refused to prove his dad right by losing everything.
His stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten any real food since the two bananas he’d wolfed down hours earlier. He called in a take-out sushi order, grabbed his coat, and jumped on his mountain bike.
Overhead, the gray clouds swelled, obstructing the moonlight and stars. As he biked the several blocks to Plum Tree restaurant, he smelled the pungent mineral zing of the impending late-February blizzard.
Along the way, he surveyed the late-nineteenth-century, brick-and-clapboard Victorian buildings while navigating spotty patches of ice. The old silver-mining town, declared a historic district in its entirety, had grown into a premier winter-resort community since the early seventies. Despite its similarities to his hometown near Lake Tahoe, this resort didn’t suffocate him with sad memories.
Grey leaned his bike against an obliging tree and entered Plum Tree. While waiting for his order, he wandered over to the sushi bar to watch the itamae prepare futomaki. The chef’s precision with the knife held Grey’s focus until a bright, feminine laugh—almost a giggle—snagged his attention.
He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the enticing voice, to where a cute brunette was relaying a story to her friends. In a town filled with faded denim and muted, earth-tone pullovers, she stood out like a bowl of rainbow sherbet.