First Chapter: Shooting for the Stars
Shooting for the Stars
She's been in love with her brother's best friend from the very beginning. On the night of her greatest professional victory, she finally gets her man. Or does she?
Stella Lazarus lifted her eyes from her snowboard to the shimmer of Lake Tahoe in the distance. She was standing atop a ridge so steep that the spectators below could not easily be seen. But that was just as well, since one spectator in particular might make her knees feel even shakier.
Chill already, she chided herself. This isn’t your first rodeo.
This momentary panic always arrived, though. At every competition. The scariest part of the race was not the actual descent. Those seventy-five or so seconds of bombing down the mountain were so adrenaline-filled that there wasn’t any time for nerves.
No, the worst bit was right now — these last three minutes before her run. From the moment the previous competitor disappeared over the cornice, Stella had to fight the surge of nervous energy fizzing in her gut.
By now, it was too late to rethink her line of descent. And it was too late to decide which of her many snowboards was the best fit for the icy conditions. All the important stuff had already been decided. Yet it was too early to exorcise the demons coiled like springs inside her chest.
So the seconds ticked by in slow motion. Each glug of her heart was audible, as was the wind whistling through her helmet. The weather was fierce today. Stella was too pumped up to worry much about the chill, yet the bystanders could be seen bracing against the wind, curling in on themselves during each harsh blast.
The snow underfoot was crunchy, icy stuff. There’d been quite a bit of complaining among her fellow competitors about the crusty conditions California had dished up for the freeriding competition, especially at this resort so famous for its lofty powder.
Bring it, Stella thought, bouncing her body up and down to keep her muscles warm. She was from Vermont, where hardpack was the norm. She’d grown up hearing that scrape of the board against the ice every time she swung into a turn. Today’s “poor” conditions actually favored her.
The loudspeaker, garbled by the wind, mumbled out her predecessor’s score. So now all eyes would turn to her.
No fear, baby.
A few yards away, the lead judge raised a hand, indicating she was free to begin. He cracked his gum and smiled at her. “Rip it up, sister,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Snowboarding was a sport that refused to take itself too seriously, and Stella loved that. A freeriding competition was not a race, per se. There was no gatehouse, and no fancy-ass timing equipment. Freeriding competitions weren’t about beating the clock. The judges cared about speed, but only as it related to style and prowess.
Stella bent down to check her bindings one last time. Standing tall again, she rocked her feet, testing the fit. Everything was solid.
Now it was just girl versus mountain, and Stella liked her chances. This was it right here. It could very well be her greatest moment as a snowboarder. The Master of the Mountain Championship was the biggest American event of the Big Mountain Cup. Not only was Stella in good shape and injury free, but she’d trained harder this year than any other in her life.
I can win this, she told herself.
The assorted coaches and competitors standing in the wind began to clap for her.
“Kill it, girl!” somebody shouted.
With a deep breath, Stella bent her knees and tipped the board over the edge. Just like that, her whole existence was reduced to motion and instinct.
Gravity kicked in immediately. The top of the course was a wicked fifty-degree pitch. The first three women had taken it with extreme turns, keeping their speed in check by jamming the board back and forth.
She straight-lined it, pointing the nose of her board directly downhill to maximize her acceleration. She was ready for the course’s sudden turn to the left. But when the lip of a fifteen-foot cliff rushed into view, there was barely enough time to flex her knees and watch the ground fall away. Airborne now, she snapped her hips and grasped for the board’s edge with one hand — she’d get points for the grab. And then she was spotting the landing, setting the board down smoothly enough to keep herself upright and moving fast.
The landing was almost perfect. She experienced a nanosecond of terror when her board wobbled. Clenching her quads, she rode it out.
You’ve got this, she reassured herself as more terrain came into view. The next rock wasn’t as big as the cliff, so Stella used it to throw a one-eighty. Lake Tahoe’s icy blue shimmer swung from one side of her body to the other. Landing the jump, she was now riding switch, her back to the fall line below. It was risky as hell, but Stella needed the points. She needed this win. Hanging on for all that it was worth, she dropped switch into another little chute, propelling herself toward the last section of terrain. It wasn’t as steep, but Stella was already carrying some wicked speed.
Time to lay down a few more tricks before the finish line.
And here her brain shut off entirely as she jumped and whirled and landed at a velocity too fast for logic and reason. Years of muscle memory and plain old reflex kicked in. There was a final snarl of trees to navigate, and then a sweet little double jump. By the time she landed the second one, the finish line was rushing towards her, the faces of the spectators blurring together as she swept past.
Less than a minute and a half since dropping in, Stella stood panting in the run-out.
Unclipping her bindings, she walked, chest heaving, over to the scoring area. She stood in front of the sponsor board, the corporate logos shining in the afternoon sunlight, trying not to shake. There would be cameras trained on her here. So the trick was to wait calmly for her score, even though her body was still coursing with adrenaline, her synapses quivering from hyper-stimulation.
There was no other rush like it.
It would take a few minutes until she felt fully human again. That kind of speed and danger brought you to a primal place. In high school biology class, when the teacher had explained the fight-or-flight response, Stella had had no problem grasping the concept. By then, she’d already been the most daring female snowboarder in her corner of Vermont.
She heard her score before she actually saw it. “Seventy three point five,” the announcer’s voice said. It took her heart a half second to process the news. But when she did, her giant smile could not be contained. On the leader board, she saw her name pop into first place.
This was the moment when an athlete was supposed to turn into the waiting arms of her… boyfriend? Husband? Parents? Stella unclipped her helmet, shook out her hair, and smiled for the cameras. Then she began looking around for her fan club of two.
“You rock, little girl!” someone shouted. But it was a stranger.
“Thanks!” she called, scanning the crowd. “Crowd” being a relative term, of course. Freeriding didn’t bring out the masses, like her brother’s superpipe events did. Hers wasn’t an Olympic sport, which meant that few people even knew what freeriding was. Also, the competitions weren’t very accessible. The hundred or so spectators here today had taken three different chairlifts to reach the finish line. Some of the fans were probably on the mountain for an ordinary ski day, and had stumbled on the event while picking out their next run.
When Stella’s gaze landed on the face she sought, her heart tripped over its own feet. Her whole life, Stella had been a fierce and graceful athlete. She’d had to be — how else could a girl keep up with a brother who was four years older and his best friend, Bear?
But while Stella’s body had always been sure-footed on the snow, her heart was a total klutz. The large object of her affection was now staring at her, a proud, quirky smile lighting up his handsome, scrufftastic face.
What she wouldn’t give to be the frequent target of that smile.
This thought was interrupted by something hard crashing into her chest. It was her brother, Hank. “That was sick,” he enthused, grabbing her into a hug. “The way you ate up that first chute. The jump in switch! The tail grab off that last boulder. I mean, dayum.” He pounded her back.
For once, Stella just hung there in his arms, eating up the praise. Because there was a chance that the run she’d just put down was every bit as good as Hank said it was.
Then, when Hank set her back onto her feet, Stella held her breath. Because it was Bear’s turn to congratulate her. Usually, when Stella knew she was about to come face to face with Bear, she braced herself. Because there was never any point to letting him read on her face how much she cared.
Just once she’d tried to let him know and had been brushed off so fast it had made her head spin. But that was years ago.
Today was special, though. She had just kicked some serious ass up there, and nobody expected her to play it cool. So Stella didn’t dim her smile when she looked up into Bear’s eyes. She just let it all hang out — her joy at doing well, her excitement at seeing him for the first time in months. Her love.
Not that he’d notice.
When those silver-gray eyes met hers, there was more unguarded warmth in them than Stella usually saw there. That gave her a zing that no drug could ever touch. Her run must have been spectacular to get that kind of approval from Bear. Given the choice, Stella would have stood there forever, soaking up that look in his eye. Instead, she found herself briefly crushed against his side, one of his big arms pinning her.
“Awesome job, buddy,” he said in that rumbling voice which she always felt everywhere.
“Thanks,” she whispered. Just as her mind formed the words Bear is holding me, he wasn’t anymore. There was nothing but cold air where his body had just been.
Meanwhile her brother was still singing her praises. “…so fast and so solid. Nobody is going to touch that run,” Hank said.
“Don’t jinx me,” Stella yelped. Like any red-blooded athlete, she was deeply superstitious.
“Honey, I couldn’t,” he said. “When you ride like that nobody can step in front of you. The first event of the season belongs to you.”
“Stop, already,” she laughed. “Jesus.” There were several more competitors to follow. Any one of them could put down the run of a lifetime, too.
But none did.
Thirty minutes later, she took her phone out of her pocket and snapped a picture of the final standings, showing STELLA LAZARUS on top. She forwarded the photo to her parents back home in Vermont. They would probably reply with “great job, Sweetie.” But their absence spoke volumes. They hadn’t really been listening when Stella told them how important this single competition was to her. Yet they’d bought their plane tickets to the Olympics three months ago. And Hank wouldn’t even be named to the American team for another four weeks.
Whatever. She had won this thing, and she was going to be happy about that. “I’m picking the cocktails tonight,” Stella announced.
“Oh, man,” Bear teased. “Don’t pick anything that will lose me my man card.”
She socked him in the arm, which was their usual form of affection. “Just for that, there’s going to be an umbrella in your drink.”
“Great,” Bear muttered.
“Stell-Bell, I’m going to have to take a rain check on the drinking,” Hank said.
“God, why?” Hank never took a rain check on partying. He’d earned his nickname “Hazardous” both on the snow and off.
“I’m flying back to Vermont tonight for the exhibition event.”
“Oh, shit,” Stella complained. “That’s this weekend?”
“Yep. I’m really sorry.”
For a second, she was disappointed. But then Stella realized two things. First, her brother had come to Lake Tahoe for no reason other than to watch her compete. And, secondly, for the first time in years, she was going to have an evening alone with Bear. Well then. “I’m sorry to see you go, but I totally understand,” she said.
“You do? Aw.” Hank ruffled her hair. “Will you still be this nice about it if I ask you to drive Bear back to South Tahoe? Then I can take my rental straight to the Reno airport.”
Stella laughed. “Fine.”
“I didn’t check out,” her brother added. He fished a key card out of his pocket. “You can have my room tonight, and it’s awesome. I got upgraded.”
“You always get upgraded.” Stella took the card. “For once, I’m going to be the lucky beneficiary.”
“The room is penthouse number one. Just like your standing.” He cocked his head toward the leader board. Then he hugged her one more time. “I’m outie. Got a flight to catch.”
“Bye, Hank!” Stella called after him. As she watched her brother duck under the roped-off boundary, a swarm of people descended to ask him for an autograph. That always happened, and not just on mountains. In shopping plazas and airports, people recognized her Olympic champion brother.
Stella shook her head. “Think I’ll be mobbed like that later?”
“I’ll fight ’em off for you,” Bear offered. He lifted his snowboard off the ground and mimed bashing heads with it.
She gave him another gentle punch to the bicep. “I knew you were good for something.” Weirdly, Bear actually flinched. Then his mouth drew into a tense, straight line. Stella watched him, studying his silver gaze, trying to figure out what she’d said to make him frown.
Bear turned away. “Let’s ride down,” he said. “I mean, if you’re ready. Is there a press conference?”
Stella sighed. “Nope. The back-country events don’t draw many journalists. And I already spoke to Outside Magazine and Snowboard today. Which way do you want to head down? I was thinking the Rock Garden.”
He hesitated. “There’s always Dead Tree.”
“Bear, you know where this is leading right?” Stella stuck out a fist. The two of them had always been competitive. Since they were preschoolers inventing stunts on their tricycles, he’d had a bossy, alpha-dog personality. And Stella could admit she was just a wee bit strong-headed herself. Their entire childhood had been a long series of petty disagreements which needed settling.
Even though they hadn’t seen each other in months, Bear knew exactly what to do. Removing his glove, he put his fist across from hers. In unison they chanted: “Rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT!”
Stella was about to protest that Bear had hesitated when she realized she’d won. “Scissors cut paper! Rock Garden it is.” She hiked her board under one arm and ran toward the cornice.