From the Top

by

Dani Collins

Their hot New Year’s Eve wasn’t supposed to have consequences…

Fiercely independent after a difficult childhood, Ilke Lunquist devotes herself to one thing: skiing. She’s on the cusp of gold when an unexpected pregnancy throws her future into chaos.

Nathaniel Hart takes on the daunting project of restoring Whiskey Jack Ski Resort to be close to his young son, but with one failed marriage behind him, he avoids serious relationships.

They might be virtual strangers with only a baby in common, but Nate is determined to be part of his child’s life. Ilke didn’t become a champion by ever backing down from a challenge, especially not one where her child’s happiness and her own heart are on the line. When tragedy strikes, heartbreak draws them closer together. Nate discovers he’s more than ready for a bigger family and maybe, just maybe, Ilke will find the home that has eluded her all her life.

Enjoy an Excerpt →

Other Tule AuthorsYou'll Also Love:

More Tule TitlesYou Might Enjoy:

Secretly, deep down, Ilke Lundquist was a romantic.

Not that she could afford to be. She had tried at every turn to curtail it and, God knows, the world had certainly done its best to beat that streak out of her. She possessed classic Nordic beauty, which should have been an asset, but in reality, it meant she was treated like a dumb blonde or as if she was easy—most often both. Women in sports were taken almost as seriously as pigtails on a goat, especially when they were pretty, and her mother’s example of happily ever after was an abomination of the phrase.

Out of self-preservation, Ilke had put away childish dreams that included knights on white chargers. She had pushed herself to become resourceful, disciplined, and logical. A realist. A cold bitch, some called her, which didn’t bother her. Much. She made sure no one knew it bothered her. Besides, it meant less was expected of her and it allowed her to focus on her goals. The one dream she did allow herself to have.

And yes, living that way was lonely as hell, but she didn’t want to need anyone. That was her mother’s way—financially dependent, afraid to be alone, seeing what she wanted to see so she could believe she had everything.

Every woman’s marrow-deep fear was to turn out like her mother so, no. Ilke wasn’t going to be that. She allotted herself one passion, one crazy aspiration that crowded out everything else. The podium was her happily ever after. All the moves she made were aimed at standing there. If an action didn’t serve that dream, it didn’t need to be taken.

So why was she overcome by a swell of hot emotion when she arrived at Blue Spruce Lodge? Not misery at this detour, either. Her eyes stung with something like homecoming. She was here. She hadn’t cried in years, even in the last few weeks as her life crashed and spilled itself in pieces across media outlets around the world.

She turned off the engine of her rented SUV, squeezing the wheel as she tamped down on the swell of anxiety that lurked beneath her carefully restrained surface.

Maybe the way the feathery flakes swirled rather than fell was affecting her. If she did have a home, that’s where it was—in the snow. Not inside some throwback lodge glowing like a scene in a child’s snow globe.

She leaned forward, taking in the low, flat ceiling of dull gray and what looked like a cut-out of snow-covered peaks forming a backdrop behind the lodge’s blue roof. Floodlights tucked into the landscape at the front of the building cast pale funnels of light upward, bathing the laden branches of the shrubs in hints of gold, warming the creamy daffodil-color of the building’s walls. With the amber glow through the yellowed glass on either side of the door, the lodge was a beacon of welcome on this gloomy March morning.

Not much had changed since she’d been here at the turn of the year, but it was significantly improved from the eyesore she’d seen last July. At that time, she had privately wondered what the Johanssons were thinking.

For decades, this had been a family-run lodge on the Whiskey Jack ski hill. The resort was off the beaten track and only had a handful of day buildings and a chalet for overnighters. Oskar Johansson, founder of Wikinger Sports, had seen a diamond in the rough and bought it to develop as a training facility for his sons.

That had been fifteen years ago and an avalanche had promptly wiped out everything except this old lodge, which had been shuttered until last year.

That was when Rolf and Trigg Johansson took up the challenge of resurrecting the resort. They had the pockets, the passion, and the capacity to build a world-class winter destination from near-scratch, but they had left the refurbishing of the only on-site accommodation in the hands of an ex-professor from Seattle and his romance author daughter, Glory.

Progress was being made, Ilke supposed. She folded her hands on the wheel, noting that since last summer, all the broken uprights in the exterior balcony had been repaired. The rails and shutters had been painted Bavarian-blue to match the roof. With the muted light turning all the colors mellow and quaint, Blue Spruce Lodge looked like an enchanted place straight from a fairy tale.

But fairy tales weren’t real. She knew that better than ever now. The ones where children were eaten? Those were legit. In the last few weeks, her hopes and dreams had been spat out like broken bones and wasted years, completely without regard.

Just when she had begun to believe she was done with rundown chalets and clawing her way into better circumstances, here she was all over again.

Because of one stupid night.

It was supposed to be a virus. That’s what she had told herself, trying to explain why she was sluggish and nauseated and forgetful. That’s why she had had so many slow starts and fudged a gate, getting herself disqualified from one event. Once she had started second-guessing herself, the whole thing had gone to hell and her finish times had sucked balls.

This was supposed to be her year. Her arrival on the podium.

Instead, she’d come away fifth and seventh and nineteenth. They’d scratched her from a team event because she’d been performing so poorly.

How was she pregnant? How? She barely even had sex. People whispered that she was a closet lesbian, she turned men down so consistently.

Yet the stars had aligned two months ago. She had impulsively shared her bed with a man who had—apparently—worn a faulty condom while the prescription she’d started as a travel precaution had rendered her birth control patch useless.

She had fallen twice since then. Not bad falls, but she could have miscarried any time over the last weeks, maybe without even knowing she was pregnant. Instead, she’d hung on to that baby and embarrassed herself in front of the world, lost the backers who would have given her a full ride if she had medaled—and soon, the entire Alpine racing world would know why she had choked.

Still time to end it, she kept thinking, but what was the point? This baby had already cost her the most important four years of her life.

And she wanted to have it, which didn’t make sense to her at all. This wasn’t a book where everything worked out in the end. It was real life. From the day she had become sexually active, she had always believed she would terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Her goals were too important, her trajectory impossible to interrupt. Not to mention there was no such thing as a man good enough with whom to procreate.

Even so, after the team doctor had quizzed her with routine questions and she had assured him that, no, she couldn’t be pregnant, she had taken a test on the sly. She had then skipped the closing ceremonies, too chagrined by her failure, too astounded she was expecting, to stay in Korea. She hadn’t even considered going to see her mother in New Zealand, which was far closer than Stockholm or the Montana Rockies.

No, she had bolted on the first available flight, taking her gear back to Sweden and leaving it in storage with the club that would likely expel her for someone who knew how to ski. Then she had declined to renew the lease on her furnished apartment, since her income was dropping like a barometer before a hurricane.

In a move that had truly gutted her, she had flushed her season down the toilet by pulling out of the World Cup finals, to which she’d been invited. Until the games, her point standings had put her in a contender’s position for overall champion. If she had done what she was supposed to do in Korea, she would have pulled herself into the lead in the rankings and finished the season with precious medals around her neck and a crystal globe in her hands.

Instead, she had to set all of that aside and talk to the father of her baby. That was the only decision she had been able to make.

Two days and three stopovers later, she felt like hell and not just from the travel. She had woken with morning sickness after a restless night in a cheap motel in Kalispell. She was feeling trapped in a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time and hated it.

At least she was surrounded by her true friends now. Tall, jagged peaks and clean, pure snow. Snow was nature’s miracle, whitewashing imperfections and providing a clean start to a new day. Watching it calmed her. It always did. She only wished she could snap on her skis and lose herself in its glittering powder.

A streaking pang of loss hit her as she realized she wouldn’t be allowed that vital meditation for a year.

She worked her hands on the steering wheel, trying to believe gold would be hers in another four years—when she would be pushing thirty and the upstart eighteen-year-olds with uninjured knees who had surpassed her this year would be reaching the top of their game.

What was she doing here?

Every single day she battled toward the top, training through hardship, qualifying, beating her last time and beating her competitors. Winning this race, then going after the next one. She couldn’t put her conditioning on hold for a year. She would lose too much ground.

But what was her alternative? Fly to Queenstown and ask her mother for help?

That thought was so repulsive, she threw herself out of the car to get away from it. Not bothering with her luggage, she turned up the collar on her insulated jacket, tucked her chin against the wind and kicked her knee-high boots through the inches of snow that had accumulated since the last time the lot had been cleared.

How was this place keeping the lights on? There were only two snow-covered vehicles in the far corner of the lot.

Would they even give her a room? She planned to prevail on Vivien, a friend of her mother’s, kind of. Maybe she was Ilke’s friend, not that Ilke encouraged close relationships, but Vivien had reached out once, a long time ago, when Ilke’s mother had been turning a blind eye.

Ilke had been too afraid to let Vivien interfere at the time, but a thread of something had remained between them. Trust? She wasn’t sure what it was, only that each time she crossed paths with the older woman, Vivien acted happy to see her. She made Ilke feel seen and valued. Even though Vivien was Vivien. She was entitled and demanding and overbearing. Not in a hurtful way. She simply made assumptions that she would get what she wanted and always did.

Somehow Vivien had talked Ilke into bringing her here last summer, so Vivien could see what her ‘boys’ were up to. Then she had invited Ilke to join a heli-ski trip over the new year. Ilke didn’t know why Vivien was so nice to her, but Ilke was a slut for powder so she had accepted.

Was Vivien even back from Korea? She’d been there to watch her son, Trigg, win a hat-trick of gold in his snowboard events along with two silvers. The bastard. Must be nice not to worry about a stowaway taking up residence in your uterus, throwing off not just your stamina and coordination, but your entire life.

What if it wasn’t even open? The ski hill didn’t have any chairlifts yet and only a quarter of the rooms at the lodge had been guest-ready when she’d been here in January. Maybe it had gone belly-up?

The door opened when she pulled.

A cheerful gas fireplace with gorgeous stonework separated the lobby from the adjacent lounge. The mantel held a sweet cuckoo clock and comfortable-looking chairs were arranged to face the flames, but they were empty.

Ilke paused to take in the staircase that rose on her right, fully restored with polished woodgrain and new carpet in a rich red with gold accents. A sparkling chandelier hung over it. On the far side of the lobby, paneled-glass doors formed a wall that closed off the dining room.

She crossed to peek through.

Her heart pounded the way it did when she was waiting for her name to be called before a race, but the dining room was empty. He wasn’t there. No tall frame with brawny shoulders. No lean face with smooth, brown skin, dark straight brows, and hair so closely trimmed it was more of a black cap, matching the neatly shaved stubble that framed his strong jaw. His irises were dark brown and somber, his lashes so ridiculously long, his eyes bordered on pretty. His mouth… If she were the type to objectify a man, she would call his mouth erotic. That night, she had thought she could feast on him for the rest of her life.

Of course, her ovaries had been waking up from hibernation, starving and sending her libido on the hunt. Biology was a cruel mistress. Witness how her nerves were firing on all cylinders when she wasn’t planning for this to be a scene. Her emotions were still firmly packed in the suitcase she’d left in her rental. She was here to inform and plot a way forward. It would be very civilized.

Pragmatic and dispassionate, even.

Seriously, where was everybody? This was creepy.

Glancing into the lounge behind the fireplace, she found it empty, too. There wasn’t anyone tending the bar or drinking at it.

Nate was at the base, she supposed, working. It was only ten o’clock in the morning.

Her palms were clammy and she shoved them into her pockets.

This was eerie, finding the place so quiet when it had been a hive the other two times, especially on New Year’s Eve. With the arrival of winter, all the activity had moved inside. There’d been a cute brunette who’d called herself the lodge’s manager at the reception desk. She wasn’t there today, however. No staff was visible.

Ilke pinched her lip, growing quite convinced they had either run out of money, or there was a carbon monoxide leak and her body would be found along with the rest.

She glanced at the bell on the reception desk, but didn’t press it. She looked down the hall that led toward the kitchen and a suite that Marvin, the owner, lived in. Halfway along was his office.

Starting down that way, she paused as she neared the cracked door, hearing voices as she came alongside it.

“—going to kill him. In fact, you can tell him he can do this fucking job himself, since it’s his fault she quit. I don’t need this shit! What am I supposed to do now?”

That sounded like Glory, Marvin’s daughter.

Ilke wavered between knocking and going back to tap the bell.

“You know my feelings on this, schatzi.”

That was Rolf, Vivien’s stepson and owner of Whiskey Jack Resort, President of Wikinger Sports and self-appointed king of all he surveyed.

His tone suggested disinterest. What did Glory even see in him? Beyond the physical, of course. Ilke couldn’t fault Glory’s taste since she’d had a brief fling with Rolf herself a few years ago. When Ilke did have sex, it tended to be hit and run so her thing with Rolf hadn’t lasted more than an hour from lobby to shower. Nate had been an exceptional—pun intended—all-nighter.

But still a one-off. She didn’t allow herself to expect anything from her affairs and good thing, because nothing ever came of them.

“You promised you would intervene if this happened.” Glory sounded really bitter. “What the fuck? Why couldn’t he keep it in his pants?”

“I’ll speak to Vivien.” So flat and unaffected. “Ask her to help your father find someone else.”

“Oh, it’ll be three weeks before this gets sorted out and we both know what I’ll be doing all that time. I didn’t move back here to run this place. Your fucking brother’s unstoppable dick is ruining my life and you don’t care.”

A thick pause where Ilke could imagine one of Rolf’s dead-eyed looks dissecting Glory into tiny pieces for daring to get strident with him.

“Any other day I would give you the fight you’re begging for,” Rolf said in a voice that was calm and—was she crazy? Did he sound gentle? Tender? “Today you get a free pass to blame me for Trigg’s dick and Vivien hiring a woman who couldn’t stay off it and your father’s inability to solve his own problems. If you want to stay here and work, I’ll stand here and listen to how much you resent it.”

Another loaded silence, then Glory spoke again, voice choked. “If I don’t yell, I’ll cry.”

“I know.”

“She’s not even my mom.”

“I know.”

“I hate funerals.”

“Come here.”

“I can’t. I’ll ruin my makeup.” She sniffed. “We should go or we’ll be late.”

A resigned feminine sigh and the scuff of footsteps.

Ilke smoothly retreated to the desk in time to watch the door swing inward.

Glory emerged, Rolf behind her. He gently pulled her around to face him and they exchanged a brief make-up kiss. They were dressed for a service, Rolf in a dark suit, Glory in a black dress and heels. He wasn’t as lean as he’d been when he’d been racing and waving flags on podiums, but his increased bulk was all muscle. He was ruggedly handsome and a gorgeous foil for Glory’s slender, redheaded femininity.

Their somber expressions flickered into surprise as they noticed her. Rolf’s expression darkened and his hand went to Glory’s waist, drawing her closer to his side.

Ilke wanted to smirk at how protective he was, but she felt a weird pang instead. She doubted he felt any guilt for their hookup. She never gave more than a passing thought to the time they’d collided body parts, but now he and Glory were a thing, he betrayed that caution whenever he saw her, wary of their extremely brief history hurting his beloved fiancée.

The idea she had designs on him was laughable, but she found his concern for Glory endearing. Something to envy even, which was odd since Glory wasn’t someone she aspired to be, especially if she had a man dominating her life. Ilke admired her, though. She was funny and had a cool side job. She also didn’t take shit from a man who didn’t seem to possess a human bone in his body.

Rolf’s reaction to Ilke’s coming here had been dead last on her list of worries when she had booked her flight, but she belatedly realized he could become a problem if he felt his relationship with Glory was threatened.

“Ilke.” Glory frowned in confusion.

“Shouldn’t you be in Norway?” Rolf asked.

You could take the racer off the circuit, but you couldn’t take the schedule out of his head. She had to admire his economy, too. He managed to scold her for Korea while trying to get rid of her in five short words. True precision. That’s why he was a champion, she supposed.

“I believe Vivien will have a room for me.” She deliberately made it sound as though she was here at Vivien’s invitation when she hadn’t even told her she was coming. “Is—” She had forgotten the manager’s name and realized that’s who had probably fallen victim to Trigg’s relentless libido. “Shall I wait in the lounge for Vivien?”

“We’re locking up for a funeral.” Rolf’s gaze told her to wait in her car, preferably in Billings.

Ilke showed no reaction, even though his hostility stung. Even though an anxious sweat rose on the back of her neck. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.

“We don’t have any finished rooms available,” Glory warned. “Rolf has a heli-tour group coming in late tonight. Paula’s up there now, prepping for them.” She tapped into the computer. “Your contractors are in these three, aren’t they?” She pointed at the screen while glancing at Rolf.

He shrugged.

“Oh, screw it,” Glory muttered and pushed the mouse away. “I’ll register you when I get back. We’re already late. Here.” She grabbed a key from behind the desk. “I think that room’s habitable. If not, ask Paula to find you one that is. Oh, the sign for the door.” Glory spun and hurried back to the office.

“Who—?” Ilke started to ask about the funeral.

“Why are you here?” Rolf asked, blunt and confrontational enough she had to fight taking a step back.

Ilke licked her lips. Fortunately, Glory came back with a piece of paper and moved to pull a piece of tape off the dispenser, which gave a little screech as she did.

“We’ll be in Haven most of the day, but Dad and Vivien are coming back right after the service. Suzanne Adams passed away. Do you remember her?”

“I don’t. I’m sorry.”

“She owned the bistro in town. We’re friends with the family.” Glory’s face darkened as she moved to stick the sign on the door and turn the lock. Her shoulders lifted and fell as she took a bracing breath before she came back to Rolf. “Oh, do you need to go out for your luggage? Can you lock up when you come back in?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks.”

Rolf set his arm across Glory’s back and they moved down the hall, passed the kitchen where there was a back exit to the staff parking lot.

Ilke hated when a man threw his arm around her. It always felt very possessive and controlling to her. She had loathed it since she’d been fourteen and had had to pry herself out from under her stepfather’s thumb and the rest of his straying hands.

Glory wasn’t a teenager or a wilting violet like Ilke’s mother, though. Watching the pair, she thought Rolf’s hold seemed protective and supportive. Loving.

Not that she cared, she reminded herself, heading out into the snow. She didn’t want or need a man in her life. She was independent. Cold, tough. A pragmatic bitch.

Although, as she pulled her heavy case from the back of the SUV and carried it across the thickening snow, she had a worrisome thought that she might be hurting the baby with her exertion. It would be nice to have a man do things like this as her pregnancy progressed. And what about the coming months? She would burn through her savings. Why was that all on her when it had taken two to conceive this kid?

As she walked back into the hotel, and she was surrounded by silence, she told herself being alone was the way she preferred it.

Except she wasn’t alone. She was pregnant.

What was Nate going to say when she told him she wanted him to raise it so she could continue competing?

End of Excerpt

From the Top is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

February 27, 2018