“So, when are you leaving?”
It’s such a blatant subject change that I can’t help laughing. But I go with it because as fun as it is to mess with Z, it’s more fun to hear his voice go all low and sweet and gravelly when he talks to me. “I get off work in an hour. We’re heading out right after.”
“You’re coming up with Ash’s parents, right?”
“And his brother, yes.” I might be more confident driving around here, but there’s no way I’m driving seven hours through the snowy mountains that are between here and Aspen. “Thanks for setting that up. His family seems great.”
“They are great. His parents are the only reason I even made it through high school.”
“What do you mean?”
But I already know he’s not going to answer. The noise in the background has suddenly gotten a lot worse, which means he’s just gotten off the ski lift. Amazing how ten days of being with Z has turned me into an expert at all the different sounds on the mountain. Not to mention the different snowboarding tricks.
“I got to go, baby. I’ve got one guy in front of me and then it’s my turn to throw down another practice run.”
Nerves flutter in my tummy, but I ignore them. Z’s a snowboarder, has been all his life, and being with him means dealing with it. Which is fine, I remind myself, as long as he doesn’t do anything colossally stupid. I’m prepared for crazy—this is Z, after all—but not for blatantly suicidal. So far he’s been keeping up his end of the bargain, which means I have to keep up mine not to worry over every little thing.
“Have fun!” I tell him. “Spin around a bunch of times.”
He groans. “You know, you’re really going to have to learn the terms. Because ‘spin around a bunch of times’ just isn’t cutting it.”
Which is one of the reasons I keep saying it, even now that I do know many of the terms. Messing with him is entirely too much fun. “So what should I say?”
“You should say ‘barge your run,’ or ‘have a sick ride.’ ”
“Okay. Have a sick ride.”
“You too. I’ll see you in about eight hours.”
I laugh. “We might have to stop to eat, you know. Or pee or something.”
He sighs. “Fine. Nine hours. But not one minute later.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Good,” he says with a slightly wicked laugh. “And once you get here, we’ll see what I can do.”
It’s my turn to groan. “Good-bye, Z.”
“Bye, Ophelia. I love you.”
My heart stops for a second before starting to beat double time. He says it all the time, every time we talk, and it still gets to me. Still turns me inside out. I’m beginning to think it always will. “I love you, too.”
The last hour of work drags, partly because it’s lunchtime and everyone’s at the restaurant and partly because I’m watching the clock, waiting to get on the road. Ash’s parents, Gemma and Todd, show up with his fourteen-year-old brother, Logan, about half an hour before I’m supposed to get off, so I set them up with some coffees and start counting down the seconds.
I can’t believe how excited I am. Not just about seeing Z, which will be fun, but it really has only been two days since I saw him last. But about seeing a real live snowboarding competition that he and Ash and Luc are all competing in. And Cam—Cam’ll be competing in the women’s segments, which I’m just as excited to watch.
I’ve caught snowboarding competitions on TV sometimes, usually around the X Games or the Olympics, but I’ve never actually had a vested interest in one before. Never known anyone who was involved or watched them practice their tricks beforehand.
Z’s done nothing but practice this last week and a half. Well, practice and hang out with me. But I’ve been out with him a couple of times, and though the things he does freak me out on a regular basis, I know he could be doing things that are a lot worse. Like throwing himself off a mountain or not being smart about the tricks he practices.
Ash says they’ve got this, that there’s a chance they’ll all place in the top ten, which would be totally wicked. Admittedly, I’m pulling hardest for Z. Between all the press and added sponsorships that came pouring in after that backcountry run and how much he’s been practicing lately, I really want him to do well. Really want him to see that it’s okay for things to go well for him.
The clock that refuses to move finally strikes one, and I all but run to the employee break room, where I’ve been storing my overnight bag. And then we’re on the road, Gemma, Todd, Logan, and me, laughing and chattering about the boys like we’re old friends. Logan’s actually really cool for a fourteen-year-old and we spend much of the trip talking about music and movies and—of course—snowboarding.
Turns out he’s determined to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. Which is no surprise. I’ve only been hanging out with Z’s friends for a couple of weeks and already I can tell what a great guy Ash is. Not as great as Z, obviously, but still pretty awesome.
“I’m so glad you and Z are dating,” Gemma tells me a few hours into the trip, when we stop for snacks and gas. “I’ve known that boy since he was five, and I have never seen him happier than he is with you right now.”
“Never?” I ask her, wondering what he was like before his mom and sister died.
“Never,” she tells me firmly as we walk back to the car. “If you ask me, things were always a little off in that poor boy’s house, even before everything happened. The way his father reacted only proves my point.”
“His father?” I ask. Z almost never mentions his dad, and the few times I’ve gotten up the nerve to ask about the man, he always deflects. Which is just weird. My mom and I aren’t super close, but still we talk every couple of days and I’ve told Z all about her.
Gemma makes a rude noise. “A bigger son of a bitch has never walked the planet,” she tells me. “That man is a selfish monster, one who has put himself and his own grief above that of a young boy for too many years. I can’t even imagine where poor Z would have ended up if he didn’t have snowboarding and Luc, Cam, and Ash.”
“Actually, he told me just this morning that he thinks you and your husband are responsible for him turning out as well as he has.”
Her eyes fill with tears, and though she blinks them away quickly enough, I can see how much my words—Z’s words—have affected her. “I love that boy as much as if he was my own son. And I hate what he’s been through.”
I know it’s low, but Z never talks about his family, and certainly never talks about how his mom and sister died. I really want to know—not out of idle curiosity, but because the last thing I want is to do or say something that might hurt him out of ignorance.
But Todd and Logan finish pumping gas and climb back into the car before I can ask, and then, as the three of them chatter about what snacks she bought, the moment slips away. I refuse to let it go completely, though. Sometime soon somebody is going to need to tell me about Z’s past. I want it to be him, but at this point I’m okay with hearing it from somebody else. As long as I know how to avoid hurting him, the source doesn’t matter.
It’s complete pandemonium when we pull up to the resort where the competition is taking place. There are reporters and snowboarders and fans everywhere, along with some pretty famous faces—both in the sport and outside it—who are there for the event. I text Z as we pull up to the valet parking, and by the time we get our luggage and walk into the hotel, he’s there.
“Ophelia!” He swoops me up into his arms and gives me a kiss that would probably be more appropriate if we’d been separated for two months instead of two days. All around us, flashes go off, and when he finally pulls away and I can think again, I realize that there are a lot of press people standing around with their cameras all focused on Z and me.
“Who’s your girl, Z?” one of the reporters calls.
“Can we get another picture?” someone else yells.
“Just one more? One more!”
Z ignores them all as he wraps his left arm around my shoulder and pulls me against his side. He quickly shakes Todd’s hand, drops a kiss on Gemma’s cheek, and murmurs a quick thank-you to them as he bumps fists with Logan.
Gemma’s eyes are wide as she surveys the crowd. “Wow. This is intense.”
Z shrugs, looks uncomfortable. “It’s just Olympic stuff.”
She looks at him knowingly. “More like it’s just you.”
“And Ash. He can’t move without being mobbed. It’s been nuts since we got here.” He gives her a quick hug. “Thanks again for bringing Ophelia. I appreciate it.”
“No problem at all,” Todd says. “Now, any idea where we can find our son?”
“I think he’s in his room, 927.” He whispers the number, and I can see why. The last thing they need is for the mass of people around us to get ahold of their room numbers.
“Great. We’ll head up after we register.”
Z nods, then pulls me closer as we prepare to make a run for it.
“Is it always like this?” I whisper to him a couple of minutes later as he cuts a swath through the crowd for us. I manage a last wave at Gemma and Todd before Z sweeps me into an elevator and away from the crowd.
“Sorry. I should have warned you. Things have been really crazy for me this time around. With Olympic trials starting in a couple of weeks and that stupid f**king video, it’s like every reporter in the country wants a sit-down with me.”
“So, are you sitting down with them?”
The look he shoots me is pure Z, all arrogance and disdain mixed with just a hint of vulnerability. “Does it look like I’m sitting down with them? I have better things to do.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” We step off when the elevator gets to top floor. Looks like Z really is moving up in his sponsors’ esteem.
We barely get three feet off the elevator before more flashes go off. And then suddenly we’re surrounded by people shoving cell phones and cameras in our faces. Fans, I realize, as Z doesn’t go off the way I expect him to. Not reporters this time, but fans who just want to meet or talk to or get a selfie with Z.
It’s crazy. I mean, in Park City people talk about him all the time, but rarely does anyone try to take a picture with him. Here, it’s like he really is a celebrity. Everyone wants an autograph, everyone wants a picture and a minute to talk to him.
I’m so shocked that I just stand there like an idiot as the crowd ebbs and flows around me. I end up getting jostled and bumped some, and that’s what finally pulls me out of my surprised stupor.
Z handles it all like a pro, however, and I can’t help wondering if this happens to him at every competition or if it’s new and he’s just had time to get used to it since he’s been here a couple of days already.
Either way, he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me out of the ever-growing crowd. Right now there are about thirty-five people around us, but as the elevator dings and lets a bunch more people out—all of whom seem to be here for Z—I realize that this thing can blow up really quickly.
It freaks me out a little, and I move closer to Z until I’m pressed right up against him. He tightens his arm around me, then leans down and murmurs, “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll take care of you.”
“If you can all just give me a minute,” he tells the crowd. “Let me get my girlfriend settled in the room and then I’ll come back out and sign. I promise.”
He has to say it a few times, but it finally seems to get through to people and they clear a path so that we can get through. Z stops about halfway down the hall and scans a keycard before pushing the door open. Then we’re inside what turns out to be a really nice suite, and I’m staring at him, wide-eyed, as everything that’s just happened kind of rolls over me.