The Mountain Man's Secret Twins(7)

By: Alexa Ross & Holly Rayner

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.

Kenzie ordered a hot chocolate and gazed out the window at the mountain, thinking she saw the man who’d just flirted with her as he took another sleek run down the slopes. His bright blue coat was obnoxious, flamboyant against the backdrop of the snow. She remembered the humble nature of Bryce’s clothes, the flannel, surely so warm and soft against his skin.

After 30 minutes indoors, Kenzie forced herself back onto the slopes for another few rounds, hating the wild feeling in her gut when her skis swept too swiftly down the mountain. She lacked control, and she was unable to stop when she wanted to. During her second round, she fell to her knees, watching as her snow pants took on splotches of chilly water.

Finally, during the late afternoon, Kenzie allowed herself to quit, feeling exhaustion creeping up her arms and legs. Her muscles ached as she removed her skis and snow clothes. She stood in black stretch pants and a black turtleneck, grateful not to feel the weight of her snow clothes and ready to return to her cabin, guzzle some wine, maybe, and fall into a deep slumber. If she was going to be single forever, there was no one stopping her from sleeping at least half of her life away.

She returned to her car and drove to the grocery store, where she bought several bottles of wine, some snacks, vegetables, cheeses, and meats, thinking she could spend the next few days alone in the cabin, nibbling on food and considering what to do next with her life—and whether or not she could, feasibly, quit her job in Concord.

As the woman at the grocery store scanned her items, she looked Kenzie up and down with fatigued, gray eyes. She spoke, revealing yellow teeth between her lips. “Darlin’, you been goin’ through something? You look tired as they come.”

Kenzie gave her an appreciative smile, inwardly hating that she looked tired enough to be called out at the grocery store. She piled her things into a paper bag and left, setting the bag in the passenger seat and taking a sip of cola for a jolt of caffeine.

The realization that the fire would be out struck her when she was about halfway home, her tires crunching over newly fallen snow. She hadn’t bothered to add extra logs to the fire that morning, not wanting to waste them. But she’d been away for hours, allowing the embers to cool, allowing the fire to recede. Surely, when she arrived home, the cabin would be dark, dank, the same cave dwelling she’d discovered the day before.

When she reached the cabin, she brought her paper bag in with her, slipping it onto the rickety table. She glanced toward the fire, affirming what she’d feared. The logs in the fireplace were black and gray, without a single spark of orange. It was a metaphor, Kenzie thought then, for her and Austin’s relationship. There was nothing left.

But Kenzie wouldn’t give up hope. Not on the fire. She turned toward the porch and gathered several logs, along with some twigs, remembering how Bryce had built the fire the previous evening. She piled the logs into a kind of teepee construction, with the twigs beneath, and tried to light them with a match. Each time, the twigs fizzled out without igniting the larger logs.

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