The Mountain Man's Secret Twins(7)

By: Alexa Ross & Holly Rayner

The tiny town held no more than 1,000 people. It was a strip consisting of the grocery store, the diner, the pub, and a liquor store, a single paved road running down the center. A few people stood outside the diner, smoking cigarettes and kicking the snow. With the nearest city an hour away, Kenzie couldn’t imagine who lived here on purpose. Surely there weren’t enough people to sustain the place long term.

She parked her car outside the diner, not bothering to lock it, and wandered into the small establishment, which looked like it had last been decorated in 1955. She grinned at the waitress, a stout woman in her late 40s with a bad blond dye job. “Hi, honey. Sit wherever you like. You want me to grab you a cup of coffee?”

“Please,” Kenzie said, taking a seat at the second booth, which had a good view of the mountains. Just two other couples were in the diner, both of them aging, eating toast slowly and allowing the crumbs to build up on the plastic table. They didn’t speak, but it wasn’t awkward. They’d get to conversation later, in time. There was always time.

Kenzie ordered a stack of blueberry pancakes, feeling giddy and childlike. She sipped her coffee after adding too much sugar and grinned to herself, looking forward to the ski slopes ahead. She hadn’t skied in nearly three years, when she’d gone with a few girls she’d met in downtown Concord. Then, she’d been uneasy, rickety on girlish knees. Perhaps today, as a 25-year-old, newly single woman, she would stand tall with her eyes toward the horizon and her skis racing over the fine snow.

She paid just four dollars, giving the woman a 100 percent tip, and then drove slowly toward the ski resort, growing more fatigued with each passing minute. The pancakes seemed to reaffirm that she’d had a difficult previous day, and that her sleep—although warm—had been fitful. Her eyelids began to droop as she waited in line to rent a ski lift pass. When her lips moved to speak to the attendant, she knew she was mumbling.

She forced herself up the mountain, though, knowing the slicing winds would wake her. At the top, standing near several pine trees, she gazed out over the slopes at the dots of dark trees surrounding her and the numerous, multi-colored coats whipping down the hill in front of her, each of the wearers seemingly pros. She leaned forward, feeling tentative, and felt her skis tilt over the edge. In an instant, she was going full speed, the wind biting into her soft cheeks and her brown ponytail whipping behind her.

She careened over first one hill and then the next, her skis shifting quickly, right and then left in the form she’d begun to learn as a younger woman. “Be patient with yourself,” she whispered, her voice lost in the wind. “Give yourself time.”

After what seemed like forever, she reached the bottom of the mountain. She dropped her ski poles, leaned forward, and grasped her knees, coughing. A man appeared beside her, removing his scarf from his face to speak to her. At first, Kenzie felt certain the man would be Bryce—that he had followed her all the way to the ski resort just to be near her. But of course, this was magical thinking.

“You okay, champ?” the man asked her, smiling. Three of his teeth were crooked, but his eyes were bright, friendly—without that color of loneliness found in Bryce’s.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Kenzie said, rising from her stance. “Just not used to this anymore.”

“Been a while?” he asked.

“A few years, yep,” Kenzie said, her smile faltering. She could tell this man was flirting with her, and she wanted to brush him off, to return to her daydreaming about Bryce. “Sorry. I think I’ll just—I’ll go back to the lodge.”

“Do you need help getting back?” he asked, anxious to stay around her.

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head and waving her ski poles. “I’m quite certain I can manage. Thank you!”

She stabbed her poles into the snow outside the lodge and removed her large ski boots from the skis before stomping into the warmth of the lodge. A massive fireplace crackled in the center of the room, warming the feet of many wives and mothers, all of who were taking a rest while their men continued their outdoor trekking.

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