“Is that normal?” I demand, whispering, though I’m not sure why. “Is it always like this when you leave Park City?”
He grimaces. “No. This is all because of that damn video—I swear, part of me wants to strangle Ash for this bullshit. I mean, sure, when I’m competing there are always some fans who want to talk to me or who want an autograph, but I’ve never been stalked through a hotel before.”
He sets my bag on the luggage rack, then walks over to the small fridge in the bar area, pulls out a Dr Pepper, and hands it to me. “Here. I got these for you, along with a couple of bags of red licorice and some apples.”
My heart just melts a little more, along with the last of my worry about the crowd in the hall. Of course they want to meet Z. Who wouldn’t? Once you get past the attitude, he’s an amazing person.
Not to mention a really amazing boyfriend, I admit as he heads for the door after giving me another toe-curling kiss. “I’ll just sign a few autographs,” he promises as he reaches for the doorknob. “And then I’ll be back in.”
“Don’t worry about me. Sign as many as you want to. I’m going to take a shower and then I’ll be here waiting for you. Naked. In bed.”
“That’s not fair,” he tells me. “I’ve been dying for you to get here.”
“Who’s got time for fair?” I ask him with a smile. “There’s a crowd outside the door that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Considering how early morning comes around here, I figure I need to stake my claim on your time any way I can.”
He grins, then comes over and gives me yet another kiss. I end up clinging to him, head spinning and knees weak. “Believe me,” he whispers into my ear before he heads out the door, “I definitely consider your claim staked.”
I smile at him as I watch him go, because, really, what else is there to say? As I step into a hot shower a couple of minutes later, I can’t help wishing for things to stay exactly as they are right now. Because for this moment, at this time, they’re absolutely perfect.
She’s here. She’s really here. And yes, I’m aware that being this excited that Ophelia is with me—that she’s going to watch me and then celebrate with me later—is a total pu**y move, but to be honest, I just don’t give a fuck. I’ve never, not once in my whole life, had someone in the stands who belonged to me. Who was rooting for me.
Oh, Ash’s parents have been there. So has Cam. But that’s not the same as having Ophelia, who really is here for me. Just me.
For the first time in my life, I’m going into this planning to compete, really compete. It’s strange how her being here has changed the way I approach these things. It used to be that I was here for Luc and Ash, that I competed because it was just part of the deal to hang with them and be their friend, but it was never something I was really into. Never something I wanted. And, more times than not, I’d blow it just to make sure that they did better. Not because I ever thought they needed me to, but because they’re my friends and it matters to them. Why wouldn’t I do whatever I could to help them do well?
They’re still my friends and I still want them to do well, but for the first time, I want to do well, too. I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of Ophelia, who has never seen me compete on a national level before.
“Hey, you guys are going to tear it up out there,” our agent, Mitch, tells Ash and me as we walk toward the lift that will take us to the top of the mountain. We’re about fifteen minutes away from the first round of slopestyle, and I’m more than ready to get started.
“We know,” Ash answers with a grin. “First and second, baby. And Luc’s going to tear it up in the half-pipe later.”
“Damn straight,” Mitch agrees. “I expect all three of you to place this time.” He looks at me hard. “No excuses. No stupid mistakes. You’ve got this.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Don’t see. Do.” He fist-bumps me, then Ash, before walking toward the stands.
“Is he planning a new career as a motivational speaker?” I ask with a snort as we watch him go.
“He’s just excited. All his plans are coming together.”
“Don’t you mean machinations? The two of you are like mad scientists, rubbing your hands together and cackling with glee as you put together your next evil plot.”
“Hey, someone’s got to dominate the world,” Ash says with a grin. “Why shouldn’t it be us?”
“You terrify me,” I tell him with a shake of my head. “You really do.”
“Just part of the plan, man. Just part of the plan.”
We head toward the magic carpet that’ll take us straight to the starting line. As we do, I catch a glimpse of Ophelia’s hot-pink-and-purple striped beanie in the crowds. I stare at her hard, hoping she’ll turn around. She finally does, and I wave to her. I can’t see her face, but I know it’s her from the way she moves. And the way she waves back.
I can’t stop what I’m sure is a goofy grin from taking over my face.
“Seriously?” Ash says with a roll of his eyes. “That girl’s got you whipped.”
I don’t try to defend myself. How can I when he’s right? I’m turning into a total pu**y about her. The thing is, I don’t give a shit.
“Why don’t you stop worrying about my love life and start worrying about your own? Oh right. Because you don’t have one.”
“Out of choice. I’m focused on the Olympics right now.”
I snort. “Yeah, which one of us is the pu**y here?”
He flips me off, but I just laugh. I’m doing a lot of that lately.
“You ready to do this?” Luc asks a few minutes later, clapping me on the back as he comes up to join us.
“Hell, yeah,” I tell him, my standard answer to that question, but this time I grin when I say it. Because I mean it, and that makes the difference.
“That’s what I want to hear.” He’s jonesing for the rush. I can tell by the way he’s fidgeting, his hands checking everything again and again because he can’t just be still. I’ve been there—we all have—so I recognize the symptoms.
I knock into him with my shoulder as we walk, shoot him a grin. “You solid, man?”
He nods. “Hell, yeah, man. Let’s take this bitch so we can get on to the good stuff.”
He means the half-pipe, since that’s always been where he scores best.
As we get to the lift, there’s a section of media behind a rope line. They’re taking pictures of everyone on their way up, hoping to get some quotes, all on the chance that one of us is going to be the new winner.
Normally these competitions aren’t so media heavy, but it’s an Olympic year and this is the last major North American competition before the Dew starts—and with it, the Olympic trials. So of course everyone is watching, trying to see who stands out. Trying to put together in their heads what is going to be the next winning Olympic team.
Again, not really my thing—I’m just in it for the adrenaline—but a lot of people really f**king care about the selection. Which is why the media, the fans, and everyone else are at a fever pitch today. Well, that and the stupid video that seems to have made me big news in the snowboarding world overnight.
There’s a part of me that wishes I’d never let Ash do shit with that ride down the mountain. I wouldn’t have if I’d known it would lead to this feeding frenzy, reporters and fans and sponsors in my face all the time, all wanting something from me. And while I don’t mind talking to the fans, signing a few autographs, the media are something else entirely. As long as they stick to the boarding questions, I don’t mind. It’s when they get to the more personal stuff that it f**ks me up, makes me nervous. There’s a lot of shit in my past that needs to stay in my past, and the last thing I want to do is explain it to a bunch of assholes who don’t know me and don’t know anything but the superficial aspects of the sport.
Ash and Luc wave as we pass the reporters, so I do the same. Ash even deigns to stop and answer some questions—something I’m not the least bit interested in doing. But as Luc and I hang there, waiting for him, it’s kind of hard to avoid the shouts being leveled at me. In the end, I walk over and the three of us pose together for the cameras while we answer the questions they keep throwing at us.
Most of them are pretty easy. What tricks are you planning on doing? Do you feel prepared? That video was insane, man. After throwing that out there, how do you cope with the pressure? Do you feel ready for this?
I give my standard answers, wait while Luc and Ash do the same. But just as I’m getting impatient to get to the top of the f**king mountain so I can lay down my first line, one of the reporters shouts out something that I don’t quite hear.
But I can tell it’s bad, from the way Ash reacts and the way the other reporters all kind of stiffen, too. It gets my back up, and deep inside I know that I should just walk away now. Get on the lift, go up to the top of the mountain, and put in the best ride of my professional career.
And yet there’s another part of me, the self-destructive core of me that’s right there under the surface just seething with the need to get out, that tells me not to run from this. That I need to handle it right now before it gets out of hand.
I search for the faces of the reporters until I find the one who’s staring at me, an intent, self-satisfied look on his face. I know the look—hell, I’ve worn it often enough—so I head toward him even as Ash curses beside me.
“Come on, Z.” Luc grabs my arm, tries to drag me away. “Let’s go.”
“In a minute.” I shake him off, then nod to the reporter. We’re close now, only a few feet separating us. “What did you say?”
“I asked if you had any comment about your role in your sister’s kidnapping and subsequent death.”
Though a part of me’s been expecting that question from the second the video went viral—reporters are nothing more than trained snoops—it still hits me hard. And wrong. I want to tell him to go to hell, to mind his own f**king business, but there’s a part of me that’s paralyzed by the words. By hearing them said like that, plain as day. By my worst nightmare, the worst f**king thing in my life, being dragged out for the whole world to see.
“Fuck you, man.” It’s not me who says it this time, but Ash, who looks angry enough to kill. “Get your facts straight.”
“Oh, I have my facts straight. And I’ll be running an article later today with this story. I just wanted to give Z a chance to comment on his side before I publish.”
“There’s no story, man. Z was ten years old. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Is that what you want me to write, Z? That you don’t feel any responsibility for what happened to your sister?”
“You son of a bitch.” Luc launches himself at the line, leading with his fist.
I step between him and the reporter, take the weight of the punch on my own face before he can stop. Still, I’m glad I was there. Luc’s got a temper, and the last thing that needs to go out over the newsfeed today is that he attacked a reporter who was just following a lead on a story.
“Shit, Z. Are you okay?” Ash tries to get a look at the side of my jaw where Luc landed the punch.
“I’m fine.” I shove him away. Cameras are going off all over the place and I don’t want to give the f**king bloodsuckers any more ammunition than they’ve already got. At least not about Ash and Luc, who are only trying to protect me.
“Fuck. I’m sorry, man.” Luc looks sick.
“No worries.” Once he’s calmed down, I make sure my face is totally blank when I turn back to that f**king bottom feeder. “Print whatever you want. It doesn’t matter to me.”