Zermatt, Switzerland, January 1986
Bloody hell. Bloody, bloody hell…
Claire’s nerves were spiraling as she swore under her breath, winding up tighter and tighter until she was a seething mass of jittery tension. Every second took her higher up the mountainside, farther away from the village below. Farther away from where she really wanted to be, which was curled up in front of the roaring fire of the lodge, reading…anything, really. Even the thought of meandering her way through War and Peace for fun was a pleasant fantasy at this point. She’d spied a shelf of books in English at a shop in the village, and felt certain that even if she closed her eyes and picked one at random from the shelf, she’d be happier reading it than she was sitting on this god-awful train awaiting her doom. But no — instead of reading a novel in front of a roaring fire while sipping the best cocoa she’d ever tasted in her life (honestly, the stuff was better than sex), she was stuck in the belly of the rattling metal beast as it crawled its way up the mountain.
It was all Geillis’ fault. Because of course it was.
Come skiing, she said.
It will be fun, she said.
I’ll teach you, she said.
But Geillis’ bravado had melted away in the fierce, blinding sunshine of the Swiss Alps as the train snaked its way ever higher.
“Claire,” she gulped, her voice shaky, “I’m no’ so sure about this. It’s a lot different than Seven Springs.”
“You said you knew how to ski!” Claire hissed as she cast a quick glance at her fellow passengers before nervously rubbing a bit of dirt off her jeans with her thumb. Not only was she dressed differently than everyone else on the train, she was beginning to seriously question her own sanity for so blindly trusting her friend. Geillis had spent a semester in America when she was 16, and for the past two years hadn’t stopped talking about how much fun she’d had learning to ski with the cute boys she’d met there, and what a good skier she was now. Claire knew her friend was prone to exaggeration. But this time, Geillis had apparently channeled her inner bloody Spanish Inquisitor as she strapped the truth to a torture rack and stretched it until it begged for mercy.
“I thought you practically lived on the slopes from the way you told it!”
“Well, ye’re no’ wrong there. I did a fair bit of skiing.” Geillis paused, apparently considering their situation. “But it was Pennsylvania, no’ Colorado. Everyone said it was a good place for a beginner to learn…and I did learn! Just no’ on slopes like this. I didna ken it would be so different here. I think I can manage, but I’m no’ so sure about you.”
“Since I’ve never been on skis before,” Claire replied flatly.
“Aye,” she sighed, “I’m sorry, Claire. It was stupid of me to think I was some kind of expert who could teach ye.”
They fell silent as the train continued its Sisyphean task of ferrying skiers up the slopes of the Gornergrat, located on one of the three major ski mountains overlooking the picture-perfect village of Zermatt, Switzerland. Geillis had looked at the map the day before and found a couple runs labeled as “easy,” and had talked Claire into giving it a go. And since getting out of her comfort zone was one of the purposes of this trip, she’d quickly acquiesced, not much considering the actual act of skiing down said Alp until now.
Of course, the real purpose was to get over her recent breakup, and trying new things was a means to that end.
Unfortunately for Claire, it now seemed that “trying new things” meant risking life and limb.
She sighed, unable to stave off the sense of creeping dread that had slithered around her spine and was now sending out tentacles to squeeze her stomach as well. Turning her gaze from the stunning landscape out the window, she glanced around at the other skiers in an attempt to distract herself with people-watching. It was a game she sometimes played while riding the bus in London—pick a random fellow passenger and create a story in her head about them. A balding middle-aged business man could become a Soviet spy, intent on infiltrating MI6. A housewife wearing sunglasses was really a movie star, hiding from the relentless paparazzi.
So, who was on this train with her? The well-dressed blonde in the corner was clearly an heiress. Or maybe Swedish royalty. The Italian man next to her was her lover, but they’d obviously had a huge argument since he was ignoring her. And the one next to him?
Claire’s stomach lurched along with the train as she locked eyes with what had to be the most gorgeous guy she had ever seen in her eighteen years on planet Earth. She could feel a blush pink her cheeks as she saw him raise an eyebrow and quirk the tiniest lopsided smile at her. His messy, wind-tousled auburn curls framed angular high cheekbones, a long, straight nose, and a jawline that could probably cut glass. And those eyes! The Aegean had nothing on that impossible shade of blue. She could tell that he—
“Claire!” Geillis’ voice broke through her daze. “Claire! Come on, ye wee fool. It’s our stop! They clear the train at the end, and ye dinna want to end up all the way at Stockhorn!”
“Right,” she replied, reluctantly tearing her eyes away from the object of her distraction, who nodded slightly as she did, bidding her farewell. As she stood up and made her way to the open door, Claire inhaled sharply before stepping out into the blinding light of the mountainside. The tentacled creeping dread from a half hour ago had transformed itself into a completely feral ice beast with claws that were now clenched around her neck, choking her with abject terror.
The train began to move, leaving Claire and Geillis standing on the snow-covered platform watching their fellow passengers snap on their skis. The sharp clicks of boots connecting to skis punctuated the silence as the train disappeared on its way up the mountain, and all thoughts of the handsome stranger disappeared as the reality of her current situation sunk in.
“I think…” Geillis squinted as they watched the skiers step off the platform in ones and twos before swooshing down the mountain, kicking up loose powder that caught the mid-morning light and sparkled. “I think I can do this. It’s steeper than anything I’ve done before, but the technique is the same. We’ll just go really slow, aye?”
Claire nodded, her voice having absconded to somewhere warm and tropical—somewhere with palm trees and pink sands, not feral ice beasts with razor claws. With Geillis’ help, she managed to clamp her clunky rental boots to her beat-up rental skis, only falling twice in the process.
The next hour was an exercise in humiliation, as Geillis moved diagonally back and forth at a glacial pace, trying to demonstrate how to control her speed and come to a stop by making a triangle of the tips of her skis. A pizza wedge. A slice of pie. A scone like the ones in that coffee shop in the village, where she could be reading a novel right now…
All the while, skiers from farther up the mountain carved confident arcs in the snow as they skillfully swished by and avoided crashing into the awkward pair. Occasionally, Claire heard what she assumed were obscenities called out in at least four languages from the passers-by. She picked up the occasional “merde” as she recalled her school French.
After stumbling and losing her balance yet again, Claire realized that the situation had reached a level beyond hopeless. It was hopeless on steroids. Hopeless squared, or maybe cubed. In spite of Geillis’ guilt-induced patience and encouragement, there was simply no way she could ski down the mountain without breaking a leg in the process, or at the very least, freezing to death. Rolling sideways, Claire shifted herself until she was sitting on the snowy ground. She could feel the wet already seeping through the layers of her jeans and long underwear. It was only a matter of time before she was soaked to the skin.
“I’m going back to the train,” she declared, “and you will keep skiing and enjoy yourself. And don’t even think about arguing with me.”
Claire could see the relieved look on her friend’s face, in spite of the feeble protest she offered.
“Are ye sure? Can ye manage by yerself?”
“I’ll be fine,” she replied with a certainty that she absolutely did not feel. “I’ll see you tonight at dinner.”
“At least let me help ye out of yer skis,” Geillis said, reaching down to free Claire’s boots, then helping her to her feet.
Five minutes later, Claire watched as Geillis slowly but gracefully sliced a zig-zag path downward, never once falling, before she sighed and began to trudge her way back to the train platform. She snuck into the car when the next train stopped, then sat in silence as it made several more stops before reaching the top. Theoretically, everyone was supposed to get out at the final stop, but after some pantomime to fake an injured knee, the conductor rolled his eyes, muttered in German under his breath and gestured for her to stay. Claire plopped down on the hard plastic seat and breathed a sigh of relief. Her arse suddenly felt rather damp, and she realized that she hadn’t brushed the snow off her jeans as well as she’d thought. No matter. The worst was over. After all, better-than-sex hot chocolate awaited her.
The train car was empty on the way down, so Claire couldn’t even play her imaginary game. Left to its own devices, her mind fixated on two topics, bouncing back and forth between them like a tennis ball.
Topic one was her own stupidity. Not only had she made a bloody fool of herself, but she had also spent a large chunk of her diminishing financial reserves to rent the rubbish skis, leaving her with only a few travelers cheques and a small amount of Swiss currency to see her through the last week of her trip.
Topic two was him . She imagined her stunning stranger speeding down the slopes, his hips gently shifting to one side then the other, guiding his long legs in their slick navy ski pants to chisel a graceful serpentine path through the powder. His large gloved hands would lightly hold the ski poles, only using them occasionally for balance as he glided effortlessly down the mountain. His cinnamon locks would peek out from under the beanie she saw him holding. Was he Swiss? German? Maybe Australian? She’d heard quite a few Aussie accents in her short time in Zermatt.
At long last, the train reached the base of the mountain, and Claire disembarked, returned her skis early (embarrassing), and put her ordinary boots back on. They felt strange after the awkward, chunky plastic of the ski boots, and walking in them felt rather like getting one’s land legs back after a journey at sea. After a cup of well-deserved hot chocolate at a shop, she trudged back to her hotel room and took a nap.
An hour later, Claire found herself staring at the ceiling, her mind ping-ponging once again between topics one and two. But with Geillis gone for the day, she couldn’t help but linger on topic two and indulge in some private thoughts of her handsome stranger as her fingers feverishly pressed circles over her center, desperately trying to relive the ache that had been building ever since their moment of connection on the train.
His ocean-blue eyes. His broad shoulders. His very large hands, which surely hinted at the size of other things, if the rumors she’d heard were true.
She shuddered through her release as she imagined him on top of her, pinning her to the bed, moving inside her with steady, thorough strokes…