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Chapter One

Take Life by the Balls

Try on something new.

When Milly Smartt decided to walk a mile in her sister’s shoes, she had no idea just how badly her feet would ache. She considered it a win that she’d been able to make it up the tiny slope and snap on her skis without breaking her neck. Or falling on her face. Or the other million ways a person might die when they decide to go skiing for the first time in twenty years. So she wasn’t surprised when, standing on the iced-over powder, staring down the ten-foot slope, her legs began to wobble.

To clarify, she hadn’t actually made it to one of the big-people slopes—that would require a ski lift, and the only way Milly’s feet would ever leave the ground would be for a pedicure.

No, she’d opted for the bunny slopes.

“Shins out, hands forward, shoulders in front of your hips,” the instructor, Kelly, called out.

Kelly had blue-streaked hair, enough body ink to fill a dictionary, and the patience of a kindergarten teacher on a field trip. Which was fitting since Milly was the only student over three feet tall. Yup, she was standing in the middle of a group of elementary schoolers, struggling to keep up.

Milly looked around at the snow-blanketed Sierras, the forest of deadly icicles hanging from the sequoias, and was surprised by how everyone hadn’t keeled over and died of hypothermia. The big flakes that were coming down were hindering visibility, and the winds coming off the white-capped mountains had turned her nose Rudolph-red. In fact, she would sell her soul for a hot cup of cocoa—spiked of course.

Except Milly wasn’t a quitter. Something she’d learned growing up with an independent, impulsive, don’t-take-crap-from-anyone older sister, who never walked away from an adventure and never gave up when things seemed impossible. Zoe was the outdoorsy and outspoken sister with this bold look on life, which was how she’d lived—spontaneous. On the other hand, Milly was more introverted and bookish, and god, did she love a good plan—color-coded with itemized checklists.

But today wasn’t about Milly’s lists, it was about reconnecting with her sister’s memory in the only way she was ready for. And that meant spending an afternoon in her sister’s skis. No matter how ridiculous she looked in Zoe’s Barbie-pink snowsuit and white snow cap.

She only had another couple of weeks to pack up her sister’s belongings before her parents showed up on the doorstep and insisted on helping. Sorting through her sister’s personal items was like sorting through her sister’s life—which always brought on an acute sense of loss. But it was time to stop grieving and move on with her own life. It had been nearly nine months since Milly had walked away from her dream life in New York and returned to Sierra Vista to become Zoe’s caretaker. Four months since cancer took her sister. And four months since Milly promised her sister that she’d live a full life—a life big enough for the both of them.

Then last week her dad had a heart attack and had to be airlifted to a bigger hospital in Reno. After spending three nights by his side, Milly was sent home at her parents’ insistence. Milly would have argued but she’d landed a contract job to help plan an event in town. Still, after only a few days home, she needed a distraction from the stress of everything.

“Chase happy,” Zoe had always said, and Milly was ready for some happy in her life.

“Using your poles, push yourself forward to get a little momentum going. As you pick up some speed, remember to use wedge turns for better control as you glide over the snow,” Kelly instructed.

Nerves rioting in her stomach, Milly did as instructed. She gave a little push, a snail-pace push, and slowed to a stop less than three feet from where she’d begun, while the rest of the class zigged and zagged down the hill that, from Milly’s angle, suddenly appeared to be a hundred-foot drop.

“Give it a little more elbow grease,” Kelly said. “The goal is to make it to the bottom.”

Milly glanced around and realized she was the only student still standing at the start of the run. Zoe would have laughed her ass off if she could see Milly now, scared shitless of a little adventure. Then she would’ve shoved Milly down the mountain, screaming for her to take life by the balls.

A twisting heartache knotted in her belly at the reminder of her sister. God, she missed her wit and brazen take on life. She also missed her over-the-top encouragement—which Milly could use a dose of right then.

Channeling her inner ballbuster, Milly took a deep breath, leaned her shoulders over her hips, and pushed forward with her poles. No longer at a snail’s pace—she’d managed to upgrade to sloth mode—Milly watched as three fellow classmates passed her while taking their second run down the mountain.

“Remember to make a triangle with your feet, turning your toes in. The wider your stance, the slower you’ll go,” Kelly instructed from beside her.

Milly made a tight triangle—Pythagorean theorem tight—then dug her poles twelve inches into the powder, scooching herself forward ten feet and stopping with the front of her skis sticking out over the ledge of the hill.

She closed her eyes and blew out a nervous breath. “Baby steps,” she whispered.

“Baby steps are for babies,” the little girl next to her sang as she walked back up the hill. She was barely taller than Milly’s ski poles but had the ’tude of a teenager.

“I am not a baby but a beginner, like you,” Milly said primly.

“Then how come you haven’t moved?”

“I’ve moved.” Nowhere near as much at the others, but she’d moved just enough to remain upright.

“Not enough to zig or zag like Miss Kelly told us to,” her powderpuff of a bully said.

Milly gave a little hop and landed with her skis slightly to the right. “Zig.” She hopped angling them to the left. “Zag. Happy?”

Powderpuff rolled her eyes and said, “Baby,” then took off down the slope, zigging and zagging like she was an Olympian.

Frustrated with herself, and feeling as if she were letting Zoe down, Milly bent at the waist to tighten her bindings, only she leaned too far forward. The slight shift in position caused the front of the skis to slide until Milly was teetering on the edge of the world.

“No, no no!”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the Universe said and suddenly she wasn’t teetering, she was moving. Slow at first, then picking up speed. As the trees raced by, Milly tried to remind herself the rules of skiing.

“Zig and zag, Milly. Zig and zag.” Forcing her feet to turn, Milly zigged to the left, but that put her on a direct route for the parking lot, so she zagged to the right. Only she zagged too hard, overcompensating and picking up speed. She tried to turn but her legs weren’t listening. Maybe because they had morphed into two big trembling wet noodles.

“On your left,” she hollered as she zipped past two of her classmates, nearly taking them out at the knees.

“Kelly,” she hollered over her shoulder, one octave away from manic. “What do I do?”

“Turn your feet in to make a triangle. Like a slice of pizza,” Kelly hollered back. But Milly’s legs stayed knees forward, pointed straight ahead.

Milly looked down at her feet, willing them into a pigeon-toe, but nothing happened. It was like her body wasn’t getting the memo that if they didn’t point in, they were going to die. And how embarrassing would it be to die on the bunny slope.

“Fore!” she called out to everyone around her, her gut telling her she was using the wrong sports metaphor. “Avalanche on the move!”

People scattered out of her way as Milly’s arms, neon-pink poles in hand, flailed in the air, grasping for balance as she barreled forward like Lindsey Vonn in the 2010 Vancouver Games. She nearly buzzed a massive sequoia, veering at the last minute, setting her on a direct course with—

“Oh shit.”

—the stone wall of Sierra Vista Lodge, a luxury ski resort based at the foot of the most treacherous runs in all the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The faster she went, the more imposing the wall became, until she was certain she was going to die. And wouldn’t that piss Zoe off. For Milly to die before at least trying to live balls-to-the-wall. Zoe would accuse her of purposefully dying rather than facing a few of her fears—like ski lifts.

Milly prepared herself for impact, raising her arms in front of her face and closing her eyes. Except when she plummeted into the wall with an oof, she fell forward, rather than bouncing back, in a landing that was softer than expected.

“Ow,” she moaned, putting her hands in front of her to push herself up. Instead of snow, her hands came into contact with hard ridges and valleys. Warm, hard ridges and valleys. Raising her head, she blinked up into the most mesmerizing green eyes she’d ever seen. Eyes that were swimming with concern and a tiny bit of recognition.

“Milly?” her unexpected savior said.

“Am I in heaven?” she asked, and that concern flipped to amusement, but the recognition remained.

“Why? You hoping to see me in heaven?” His voice was rough and low, like tossed gravel on steel, and so familiar she’d recognize it anywhere. It was her first crush.

Lucas Macintyre. Who also happened to be her newest, and only, client—at the moment.

When Zoe discovered she had just a few months to live, Milly relocated to Sierra Vista to live in the family’s weekend home. Not wanting to miss even a moment, Milly took personal leave from her job as a logistics coordinator for a publishing house in New York. She liked problem-solving and spreadsheets and anything color-coded. The way she viewed the world, like it was a big Tetris puzzle waiting to be solved, made her good at what she did. And even with the stress associated with her job, she loved what she did.

Her boss allowed her to telecommute for a time, but when it became too difficult Milly had to choose. She chose Zoe, and she’d choose her again, but there were times that Milly wondered what her life would have been like had she stayed in New York.

Would Dillon have followed through on the engagement? Would she have landed the promotion she’d been working toward? Mainly, would she be happy?

Everything had moved so quickly. One second, she was on her way to ticking off life’s boxes—dream job, dream husband, dream house—the next she was a caretaker to her sister. A job which had consumed the past nine months of her life.

After a while, her work friends had stopped calling, as if unsure what to say as the grief extended from weeks to months or somehow afraid that they’d remind her of her sister’s death. Not that it would have mattered. She remembered every waking moment of every day. Some of the sleeping ones too.

Her life was stuck on pause while the rest of the world moved forward without her.

“I’d be lucky if I saw tomorrow at this point,” she said to him.

His eyes lowered and she followed his gaze, realizing that she was cupping his pecs, one massive muscle in each hand, like she was copping a feel.

“Oh my god. I am so incredibly sorry. This is so unprofessional.” She tried to jerk her hands back, but his arms wrapped around her, holding her firmly against him.

“I’m the one who caught you.”

“You caught me?”

“I couldn’t let you crash into the wall, now, could I?” he said in a warm tone that had the power to turn Siberia into one big puddle. “That was a pretty epic run.”

“Followed by an epic fall.”

“Which is why you should take a minute to make sure you’re okay.”

“I should be asking you that.”

His eyes twinkled with mischief. “Never been better. Hey, Milly.”

At the sound of her name rolling off his lips, all kinds of warm fuzzies ignited—in her southern region. Parts of her that she thought had gone on a permanent vacation were stamping their passport and arriving home.

“Hey,” she breathed, feeling like a teen all over again.

Having a crush on one of her clients—especially when he hadn’t so much as given her a hint of reciprocated feelings—was a bad idea, which was why she’d never acted on it. That didn’t mean she didn’t take a moment to appreciate how good he looked in a pair of jeans and black snow jacket. It was strange seeing him out of his usual suit and tie uniform.

She wasn’t sure if it was seeing him outside of the office in such a casual setting, or that she’d lost her glasses in the snow, but he looked bigger, broader. Then there were the slight crinkles around his eyes as if smiling was his day job. And he was smiling now.

She slowly became aware of their position. She was on top of him, her thighs resting between his spread hips, all their good parts lined up. Clearly, she’d hit him head-on. “I should, um . . .” Using his yummy chest for leverage, she rolled off him, landing with a thud into a snow angel position. Her skis were standing up like roadkill, her poles scattered around her, and her snow cap lying limply a good foot from them.

He gracefully got to his feet and lent her a hand, pulling her up. Even through the double layers of gloves, a spark ignited. If he noticed, he didn’t let on.

“Thank you,” she said, dusting the snow off her butt.

“You need any help with that?”

Milly froze and met his gaze, pleasure and uncertainty playing a game of tug-of-war in her belly. Was he flirting with her? Was Lucas Macintyre really flirting with Milly Smartt? She wasn’t sure. It had been so long since she’d flirted with a man, she didn’t even remember what it felt like. The last man she’d flirted with was Dillon, who had bailed when life got hard.

Play it cool, she told herself. But her mouth didn’t get the message and before she could stop herself, she asked, “Are you flirting with me?”

Gah! As a logistics specialist she had excellent communication skills. Normally. Around him she became a blundering geek. Heck, she was surprised that he’d contracted her at all. She’d stumbled through her presentation, but her strategic approach to their upcoming Sierra Vista Cup—a snowboarding and ski competition—won her the job.

He looked down on her. Those crinkles deepened. “Do you want me to be flirting?”

She stood there, mouth gaping like a fish, because did she want him to be flirting with her? She needed this contract and she didn’t want to make things awkward—hard task since she was the queen of awkward. A title she’d worked hard to change. Sometimes she was successful. Around sexy, flirty guys? Not so much. So she went for honest. “I’m not sure how to answer that.”

He laughed, a low rumble of a laugh. “Let me know when you decide.”

He was even more funny and charming than she’d realized. Out of his suit he seemed taller and more filled out. Damn, the man was gorgeous. The last time they’d spoken about something other than ski wax and porta-potty deliveries, they’d both been teenagers, not even legally old enough to drink. That didn’t stop them though. Her sister, Zoe, and his wilder identical twin, Jaxon, always made sure that the kegs were flowing.

Not sure how react to that kind of laugh, she blurted out, “How’s work going?”

His smile dwindled. “Busy.”

“Are you excited about the Sierra Vista Cup?” she asked. “I can’t believe it’s almost here.”

It was just four weeks away and Milly was starting to sweat. Oh, she was on top of everything, but overseeing all the moving parts of an event that size was intimidating—and all encompassing. So that fun Milly was supposed to be chasing had taken a back seat.

“I’m guessing you’re not entering,” he teased, and she laughed.

He picked up her snow cap from the ground and settled it on her head, tugging at the dangling ties. “I like your hat.”

“It’s Zoe’s.” Millie looked down at her snowsuit and swallowed hard as a memory of her sister flittered through her mind. Memories of her sister that were slowly fading away. Milly didn’t want to remember those final images, but she didn’t regret spending every last minute caring for Zoe. Even when Milly’s fiancé walked away because her life was too much for him.

“I found it cleaning out her things.” Her eyes welled up and she knew she was about to lose it. She’d gotten better with talking about her sister, she really had. But after today, after attempting, once again, to live life full-out, it was all too much.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” he said quietly.

“I don’t want to talk about it. Today is about having a good time.” Her breath caught. “I just wanted to clear my mind before I clear out the rest of Zoe’s room. . .” She waved her hand in front of her face. “I don’t even want to think about it, which is why I came here, hoping a lesson would take my mind off everything.” She felt her throat closing in, a panic attack barreling down on her like a freight train.

Then he rested a hand on her shoulder and said, “Do you smell that?”

She took a deep inhale. “What?”

“Can you smell it?”

She took another breath. “I can’t smell anything.”

“It’s the scent of a fun, carefree day.”

Realizing what he’d just done for her, she swallowed hard. He’d distracted her. She was breathing regularly, and the panic was gone. “Oh, you’re good.”

Where her ex had chosen to walk out the door when she had a panic attack, this guy soothed her anxiety with his calm and reassuring patience. In that moment she didn’t feel that her life was too much.

“That’s the Macintyre way.” The adult male confidence was sexy as hell. He bent over and plucked her glasses from the ground, shook them off and snugged it on over her nose—which brought him into twenty-twenty view—and into breathing distance. He smelled like pine and fresh snowfall. “How about that ski lesson?”

“Oh no.” She shook her head. “I’ve had enough snow for one day.”

“You didn’t even make it to the slopes.”

She looked back at the imposing mountain and shook her head. “Close enough for me.”

“Well, then can I buy you a hot cocoa?” His gaze dropped to her mouth and a vaguely sensuous lightness passed between them. “Actually, I’d like to do something else.” He stepped closer.

“Like what?” She was strangely flattered by his interest.

“You know what or you wouldn’t have been sneaking peeks at my lips for the past five minutes.”

“I didn’t have my glasses on, who knew where I was looking.” Even saying the words, she felt a hive break out on her forearm.

“Now, that’s a lie.”

“Maybe I have been sneaking peeks, but I’m a little out of practice. I haven’t been with someone in a very, very, very long time.”

This time his eyes definitely dropped to her lips, then back to meet her gaze. “How about we go to Bigfoot’s Brews and grab a hot cocoa.”

She blinked—three times. “Are you asking me out?”

He moved even closer, resting a big, manly hand on her hip. “Is that a yes, Mills?”

Before she could answer, his phone blew up with texts. One after another in rapid succession. He took a deep breath and sighed. “Dammit, I have to go. That’s my sister bugging me about tonight’s dinner.”

“Is that like telling me you have to wash your hair?”

“No. This convo is to be continued at a time when my family isn’t hounding me.”

“I get it.” Oh, she really got it. She too was the good kid and knew what it was like to give up what one wanted in order to be what others needed. Lucas’s brother was a lot like Milly’s sister, a free spirit. Just like his troublemaking playboy of a twin, her sister used to find trouble like nobody’s business. Which was why she’d always felt a connection with Lucas. “Family always comes first.”

His expression changed into something more serious. “It’s not always that easy.”

Wow. It was as if they were speaking the same language. She really got what he was saying. And that made him all the more attractive. She’d never been attracted to just the physicality; it’d always been the thing between the ears. And she was definitely attracted to that right now. Still, when he bent to pick up her poles, she couldn’t help but admire his ass. And maybe it was a combo of brains and brawn.

 

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