Emerald Graham and Lucky Tucker are an unlikely pair. She, accustomed to a life of privilege in which everything's a bit of a game, including her teaching career. He, who has not let his life of struggle keep him from giving to his family, his community and the skiers he rescues on Sugar Mountain. Yet they seem to be finding an uneasy bliss when a treasure hunt and an old murder mystery threaten all they value.
Maggie gives an overview of the book:
"If I live through this," Emerald Graham vowed, "I'll stay on the bunny slope forever." Pain, intense as a red hot poker, ran through her leg, and her knee throbbed. "Hey!" she squealed and threw up her hands to ward off the icy spray as some bratty kid made a parallel turn just above her.
Skiers plummeted past on the hard-packed snow. Sugar Mountain, North Carolina. Tom Terrific, the black diamond slope. Their looks of annoyance confirmed what her rather spectacular fall and the pain in her left knee already told her. Grandfather was right. It's only worth the risk if you don't get caught.
She'd really gotten caught this time.
She lifted one of her hands off the snow to brace her knee and knew immediately it was a mistake. Gravity was not on her side. The earth moved. Correction, she moved, slid a few inches. Her heart thudded in her chest. She automatically calculated the grade of the slope below her -- sixty degrees, if she discounted the big bumps. What were the odds of her getting down this North Carolina mountain in one piece?
"O-o-o-h! N-o-o-o..." Sliding and screaming, she went for long seconds down the steep incline. She had nothing to grab on to. Plowing her good heel into the snow as a brake only managed to swing her around backwards.
She slid further, fear gathering in her stomach as her speed increased.
Thwack. Her back slammed into a bump, stopping her descent. Afraid to breathe, afraid to move, she squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from escaping.
Thwack. Her back slammed into a bump, stopping her descent. Afraid to breathe, afraid to move, she squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from escaping.
The bump rumbled, like some deep-voiced person clearing his throat. "Hidy. I'm Lucky Tucker with the Ski Patrol. Kin I help you, ma’am?"
She nodded, keeping her eyes closed.
"What's your name?"
Her eyes flew open and she stared up at the broad shouldered, dark haired man in the red jacket towering over her. "Em," was all she could manage.
"The letter 'M'?"
"No, Sherlock, E-M," she spelled out. "Short for Emerald."
"The jewel of your father's heart, Dr. Watson?" He released his skis and propped them up in the snow beside them.
"More like my grandfather's." Despite the ache in her knee, she warmed to his bantering tone and smiled, then grimaced. "Are you my knight in shining armor?"
"More like Prince Charming in long johns. You hurtin’?" he asked, already taking off his bulky ski gloves and kneeling in the snow beside her.
"It feels like someone’s hammering on my kneecap from the inside."
"Did you hit your head?"
When she replied that she wasn't sure, he ran his fingertip firmly back over her scalp.
"Did I hurt you?"
"Uh, no." Actually, as tense as she was from the fall, his massaging fingers sent a shudder of relief down her spine, but she wasn't about to tell him that.
He reached toward her leg, and she flinched. He picked up the ski lying next to her which had automatically released from her boot when she fell.
"Here's the other one," the bratty kid said after side stepping back up the hill. Em mentally retracted the "bratty."
"Thank you," she called as the boy skied away. The pain in her leg subsided a bit.
"First I need to cross these to let other skiers know to avoid us." He sidestepped uphill about twenty feet to jam the two skies into the snow, forming an X, and then returned, already asking questions. "What happened?"
"I think I crossed the ski tips and fell sideways -- twisting my knee."
"Did you hear or feel a popping noise?"
"No. Is that good or bad?"
"Good. I want to examine you just to be sure nothing else is wrong."
"Are we playing doctor?" She couldn't help herself; he was so professional, so country and so good-looking. And so poor, she added silently after spying his ski boots held together by duct tape.
"Hum," he said, then asked her to look straight into his eyes. He covered one of her eyes for a moment, then uncovered it. She assumed that her pupil contracted correctly. His eyes were such a deep blue that she couldn't tell if his pupils were dilated, but he certainly didn't seem to be responding to her.
When he repeated the procedure with the other eye, he brushed her forehead with the lightest of touches. Was that just an accident? His gaze traveled over her head and face and Em stared into his deep-set cobalt eyes. A Roman nose dominated his sun-browned square face and firm lips. He looked familiar. Surely they had gone to high school together if he was a local. Of course, Em took all the advanced courses while he was likely in the auto shop. For just a moment she was back in high school hugging her books to her chest hurrying past the hallway of the vocational classes, past the hooded eyes of the country boys leaning against the wall smoking. Had he been one of those?
"Do you like what you see?" she asked. Bravado had always been her defense of choice. She shook her head. It had been too long since her last date.
"Uh huh. No evident damage."
"I told you that. It's my knee that's hurt."
He palpated her leg from the hip to the ankle, giving extra gentle attention to the area around her knee. Even through the ski pants, his probing fingers heightened her senses.
His next questions were all business, designed, she was sure, to set her at ease. His movements were efficient, distant and professional without a hint of impropriety. So why did the places on her body tingle with the familiarity of a lover's touch after he had checked them? This was ridiculous! She would accept the next blind date some over-zealous colleague offered her.
"Feel this?" he asked as he tapped on the bottom of her ski boot.
"Yes, but I don't think I can straighten my leg."
"Can you wiggle your toes?"
Happy that her foot, at least, was in working order, she replied. "Yes. Does this mean I'll live?"
"If you behave yourself and do exactly what I say." He pulled out a pair of scissors.
She sucked in her breath. "Uh, can we not do that?" She looked away, a little embarrassed. "These ski pants are Bogners. I picked the color to match my eyes." Until recently, she'd never had to be concerned with money since the estate's accountant took care of paying all the bills. "And really . . . my knee is already feeling better."
"Well, I guess blood would show up pretty well on that bright green, and you don't seem to have a broken bone," he said, replacing the scissors in his pack. "A more thorough exam can wait."
"Thanks for the good news." Stiff from sitting, she knew she would creak if she moved. The packed snow froze her backside, the cold seeped up her body despite the expensive padding.
He called on his radio for a rescue sled. Just then, three men skied up and stopped.
"Hey, Cuz, you need any help?"
Lucky glanced their way. "Not your kind. I’m still suffering from your last visit. Go on. Git. Let me work in peace. This lady don’t need any of your kind of attention."
"Grady here’s only got a few days leave from the army. Are you goin’ to treat your kin that way?"
Lucky sighed. "Em, these three ya-hoos are my cousins. They spent the night at my house. Grady’s the stiff one, comes from ‘yes sirrin’ those officers. Clayton and Wes are local. Wes got married not long ago, so he’s tamed down some."
"Think I can trust Lucky with my knee?" Em smiled at each of the men.
"Medically? Yeah. Otherwise, it’s hard to say." Wes grinned then nodded to Lucky. "Thanks for last night. This is our last run. ‘Til next time." The three swooshed away in perfect form.
"Do that again and I'm pulling your ticket!" Lucky yelled after them.
"Back to business," Lucky said, shaking his head. "Why did you try Tom Terrific? It’s one of the toughest slopes."
"Brilliant scholar that I am, I believed George when he said skiing is easy. He told me to take a left at the top of the mountain and to point those skis down the hill and let gravity do its thing. I have conditioned on a ski machine." At his knowing smile, she added, "You've heard this story before."
"You'd be amazed at the number of times. Is your boyfriend here today?"
"He's not my boyfriend, or even my friend after this. We're merely colleagues." Em shivered. "How much longer do we have to wait?"
"Another patroller will bring the sled soon. Where's your hat?"
"I didn't wear one. It would mess up my hair." At the telltale shake of his head, she added, "Another common mistake, I take it."
At the moment he nodded, a skier stopped near them. "Doctor Graham, are you okay?"
"I'm in capable hands, Kevin. Thanks for asking."
As he skied away, Lucky asked, "Medical?"
When she shook her head, he returned to the business at hand. She knew PhDs were a dime a dozen in this college town.
"We'll put a temporary splint on your knee, strap you in the sled, and take you down to the ski patrol first aid building. Get set for a few bumps on the ride."
"What? You don't have fluffy cushions in the sled to protect this fragile body?"
"No ma’am." Another red-jacketed patroller snowboarded down in front of a long, low, red metal sled. "Our main concern is to get you down quickly and safely."
"Lucky me," she murmured.
"I'm Lucky, you're Em. Remember?" He smiled at her before turning to brief the other patroller.
Em stared up at the dark-haired man who had rescued her. His eyes matched the clear, crisp, deep blue early January sky behind him. It might be interesting to get to know him better. So what if he was broke and local? He couldn’t be worse than some of the blind dates she'd been on.
"We'll be as gentle as possible," he said, maneuvering a hinged padded splint on both sides of her left leg."Your carriage awaits, milady, but we'll need your help getting you into it. Dean, my boss here, will lift your injured leg, and I'll grip under your shoulders and lift the rest of you. You'll have to hop up on your good leg."
"But I'll be facing uphill," she said, disturbed at the thought of not being able to see where she was going. That sensation had already happened to her once today.
He nodded. "The leg goes uphill to minimize further injury. Are you ready? On the count of three: one...two...three."
"You two have done this before," Emerald said as a way of complimenting the men as they laid her back and positioned Lucky's medical fanny pack under her head. They covered her with a blanket, placed her skis and poles beside her, and fastened her in with three straps. Before she could think of anything else to say, she whizzed backward down the slope at a much faster speed than she'd been willing, much less able, to ski.
"Whoa boy, whoa boy," she said, more to calm herself than to actually tell the men how to get her off the mountain. Bundled up skiers stared down at her as she passed them. The swirling wind tugged at her hair. Faster and faster she went, feeling only slight bumping through the cold metal shell. Some carriage, she thought, as her fingers curled into knots to control the terror of flying backwards. People appeared in her peripheral vision then swiftly shrank to the size of miniature dolls. Dean kept the rope taut behind the tail of the sled, snowboarding like he’d been born to it.
She could hear Lucky's skis cutting through the hard-packed snow when he turned, and she relaxed. They knew what they were doing. It reminded her of the sleigh rides she had taken at college in Canada, only she had faced the direction they headed and the horses responded when she called "whoa."
The ride ended at the bottom of the beginners' area -- easy to spot with so many people falling down. "Thank you, kind sir, for the ride," she said as Lucky loosened the restraining straps.
"My pleasure. To get you out of your carriage, we'll reverse the process and put you into this chair to wheel you inside. Ready?"
"Whoa! State of the art medical equipment?" Em stared doubtfully at what looked like a straight chair strapped to a hand truck like delivery men used.
"A regular wheel chair isn't maneuverable enough in these conditions. You'll be fine; just lean back and pretend you're a UPS package."
With his help, Emerald sat up, then awkwardly stepped on her good leg and fell into the chair. They paused inside the door. The walls were unpainted wood; the room was clean but well-used. Lucky wheeled her to a bed at the back of the long room and steadied her as she hopped aboard. None of the other eight beds were occupied; Em guessed nobody else had been stupid enough to get hurt yet that day.
The fluorescent lights were unforgiving, highlighting the wet boot tracks on the industrial carpet beneath the chair wheels. Medical supplies lined the inside of a cabinet a patroller just opened. A white-haired woman sat at a desk discussing a form with another patroller.
"Is this normal?" she asked, indicating the empty beds.
"Sort of. Most accidents happen between three to four in the afternoon when the light goes flat. People are tired, but too caught up to stop skiing for the day. ‘Course, a few have a couple of beers for the afternoon runs."
She felt better already. She shucked out of her ski jacket and draped it over the bottom of the cot.
"To keep that knee from swelling, we'll put an ice pack on it."
After she lay back in the bed with her splinted knee covered in ice, Lucky grabbed a clipboard and sat in the wooden chair beside her. "Do you want me to have this George guy paged?"
She shook her head. "I'm in my own car."
"OK, I have a few questions to ask you. . . ."
The questions ranged from address and telephone number to how many falls she'd had that day. The pain in her knee was almost gone. She eventually interrupted him with, "May I have a cup of coffee? I'm feeling much better now."
"We can only offer water in the patient area."
"Could we go somewhere else and finish with your questions? I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee. It's the least I can do." Now that she was safe and warm, she needed a pick-me-up.
"Our services are free but we do take donations to cover supplies." He pointed to a miniature foot cast with a dollar sign crudely drawn on it. But there was a twinkle in his eyes, and she knew he'd deliberately misunderstood her invitation.
"Let me put it another way -- I need a cup of coffee. Caffeine. The stronger the better. Where can we go?"
"What about your knee?"
"It doesn't hurt anymore. I'll prove it. Take off the splint and let me give it a try," she insisted over his protest. After he unbuckled the splint, she sat up and lowered her legs over the side of the bed.
Lucky grasped her upper arms to support her. "You should have your doctor examine that knee."
"I will, I promise. See," she said as she stood up and straightened her leg. She held her breath, afraid her bravado had betrayed her once again, but, remarkably, the knee did feel almost okay. "It's much better. Your healing fingers must have done the trick." When he released his firm grasp of her arms, she was almost sorry she had spoken so quickly. She straightened and tested her weight on the leg. It was stiff and sore, but the throbbing was gone.
With a tight hold on Lucky's arm, Em limped out of the patient area and into the ski patroller break room where the aroma of fresh brewed coffee greeted her. A mild locker room smell mixed with burnt toast lingered. Half eaten cake sat on one of the two tables. A handwritten notice was taped to the refrigerator "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s food ((:(."
Double racks of skis ran the length of the opposite wall. Boot heaters were plugged in at different points, some with boots attached. A blackboard listed initials and lunch break times for the day. A big sign stated no use of cell phones while working. Another one said "Take things home with you. Pearle has been known to donate heavily to RAMs Rack."
"’Mountain three, patrollers zero.’ What does that mean?"
Lucky glanced at the blackboard and shrugged. "Three of the pros have been hurt this year, and so far, the mountain is still undamaged."
Maggie Bishop is the author of a mystery series, Appalachian Adventure Mysteries, and two romance novels set in the Mountains of North Carolina in the Boone area. "I started with romance and have turned to murder."
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