Charli slid out from the booth as a waitress delivered pizzas to the table. She’d only been in Australia for two days and was still suffering the effects of jet lag after the long flight east. Her body clock was telling her she’d been up all night and her stomach heaved at the thought of pizza for breakfast even though it was just a little after ten pm.
Her sister and her friends looked as though they were preparing to kick on and Charli needed something soft to drink if she was going to last any longer. Amy and her fellow ski instructors seemed to be able to hold their drinks far better than Charli ever could. She’d heard the Australians partied hard and she doubted she’d keep up even if she wasn’t exhausted.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent night’s sleep. It felt like years ago. She’d spent the past seven years studying hard and working part-time in her hours off. While she’d had plenty of late nights very few had been because she’d been out having fun. Medical school had been hugely demanding of both her time and effort and her two years of Foundation Training had been even more exhausting. Sleep had been hard to come by for many years and, most recently, it had been thanks to her lousy ex, but she’d come to Australia to forget about him and she refused to waste any more time thinking about past mistakes. She’d make a trip to the bar and order a round of drinks and then maybe no one would notice if she sneaked away early.
The bar was crowded, the crush of the après-ski crowd several people deep and Charli could feel herself swaying on her feet as she waited to be served. Her eyes drifted closed, just briefly, but it was long enough to cause her to lose her balance and stumble. She staggered backwards, bumping into the person behind her. Large hands grabbed at her elbows, steadying her.
‘Woah, are you okay?’
She heard a deep voice in her ear. She turned around and looked up into a pair of very dark eyes.
She blinked as she tried to clear her head. She felt foggy, disoriented and she focussed hard. Her first thought was that this man who had her by the elbows was cute. About her age, several inches taller than her, maybe a smidge over six feet, with messy dark hair to go with his dark eyes.
‘Are you okay?’
She could see his lips moving, she could see his teeth which were even and white in contrast to the shadow of a beard on his jaw. She heard him speak but the combination of jet lag and his broad Australian accent meant it took her a few moments to translate his words into something she could make sense of. She nodded. ‘Yes, sorry about that.’
‘Are you sure you should be ordering more drinks?’
‘They’re for my friends.’
He raised one dark eyebrow and she noticed he had a small scar just under his left eye. She must be standing way too close if she could notice that but the crowd around her, coupled with the fact that he was still holding onto her, meant she couldn't move away. His hands were warm and gentle and she found she didn’t actually want to step away.
‘I promise,’ she said, ‘I’m having a lemonade. I’m just jet-lagged.’
‘In that case, let me order for you. What are you having?’
‘A jug of beer-,’
‘And a lemonade,’ he added as he dropped his hands and turned towards the bar.
Charli nodded as she pulled her purse from her handbag, wishing he hadn’t let go of her. She still felt a little unsteady but this time she didn’t think it was solely because of the jet lag. She studied his back as he placed the order. Her eyes took in the breadth of this shoulders and the way his hair curled over the collar of his t-shirt. His shirt fit snugly, showing off his muscular physique. She lifted her eyes up to his as he turned back from the bar. ‘How much will it be?’ she asked.
‘Twenty bucks should cover it.’
‘Twenty? What colour is that again?’
‘I’m still getting used to your money,’ she said as she fished in her purse for the colourful note. ‘It’s pretty.’
She nodded. ‘Just arrived. Hence the jet-lag,’ she said, holding out the note. He reached for the money with his left hand and her fingers tingled as she placed the note in his hand. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring she noticed. Maybe her jet-lag wasn’t as bad as she thought.
‘Whereabouts are you from?’ he asked her.
‘London. Have you been there?’
‘Did you like it?’
‘To be completely honest, I prefer it here. Fewer people, better weather.’ He smiled at her, softening his words but she wasn’t offended. He’d probably be able to say anything that he liked without upsetting people as long as he said it with a smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners and his mouth turned up at the edges, his smile suited him.
‘In case you haven’t noticed,’ she said, ‘you’re in the snow. Snow is snow all around the world.’ Somehow, she managed to continue the conversation even though she was distracted.
‘Yes, but in Australia we choose to go to the snow, we don’t have to put up with it unless we want to and even in the snow we get our fair share of sunny days. There’s nothing better than wearing a t-shirt and getting a sun tan while you ski.’
‘You ski in a t-shirt?’
Her eyes roamed over him again, taking in the view from the front this time. It was even better than the back. His chest was broad, his stomach flat, his arms were tanned and muscular, lightly covered with dark hair - enough to be masculine, not enough to be off-putting – and his skin was olive. The t-shirt was tucked into a pair of red ski pants that had some official looking emblem on them but she couldn’t make out what it said in the dim lighting of the bar.
‘You bet.’ He spoke in the same laid-back, friendly manner that Amy’s friends used. Unhurried, relaxed. She’d have to get used to the Aussie way of speaking.
He paid for their order but made no move to pick up his drinks and leave the bar.
‘Hey, Reeves, a man is not a camel!’
Charli saw him turn a head at the comment. She followed the direction of his gaze and saw a group of men, all wearing the same navy and red uniform, standing around a tall, round table. ‘Are they talking to you?’ she asked.
‘I’d better let you go,’ she said, hoping he’d say he didn’t have to. ‘Thank you for your help.’
‘It was my pleasure-,’ he paused and she knew he was waiting for her name.
‘Charli,’ he repeated. She liked the way it sounded when he said it. ‘Maybe I’ll see you around.’
She hoped so she thought as she took the jug of beer and her lemonade back to the booth, sliding in next to her sister.
‘Who was that?’ Amy asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, realising belatedly that she had no idea. She had a name but no idea if it was his first or last.
‘I bet he could take your mind off your troubles for the next few days,’ her sister added.
Charli smiled but shook her head. She’d decided she was a terrible judge of character but even she could tell he had trouble written all over him. He was cute and confident and his smile had made her knees wobble but she suspected he had that effect on a lot of women and she wasn’t about to let him add her to his list. ‘I’m not looking for someone from ski patrol to take my mind off things.’
‘You should be, he was hot. But he’s not ski patrol, their uniform is red and white, not red and navy.’
‘Do you know what he does?’ She should have got more information she thought, even as she tried to tell herself she wasn’t interested. The last thing she needed was a rebound fling with a hot stranger. But she couldn’t deny he’d caught her attention.
Amy shook her head before she was dragged back in to conversation with one of the other ski instructors, a handsome, blonde Canadian. It looked as though Amy might get her own distraction tonight.
Charli scanned the room but she couldn’t see the cute guy or his friends from where she sat and she wasn’t about to go looking for him. She needed to clear her head, not complicate it, but if she had been looking she suspected he was just the type she would have fallen for. It would be safer if she just took herself back to Amy’s apartment and got a decent night’s sleep. Tomorrow was another day.
She leant over to Amy. ‘I think I might call it a night,’ she said as she picked up her jacket.
‘I’ll come with you,’ Amy said as she started to stand.
‘No, no, don’t leave on my account.’
But Amy was already up and had tucked her arm through Charli’s elbow. ‘You’ve come all this way to see me, Canadian Dan will understand,’ she smiled and raised an eyebrow, ‘unless you’re going to find that hot guy and don’t want me cramping your style?’
Charli shook her head. ‘No, I’m going home to bed, alone. I’m tired of being disappointed by men, I’d rather just go to bed with my fantasies than find out that the reality isn’t what I hoped for.’
‘Oh, Charli,’ Amy sighed as she hugged her younger sister close, ‘I know Hugo hurt you but not all men are bastards.’
‘Maybe not, but I’m not game to find out tonight.’
‘Well let me know if you change your mind. There are plenty of cute guys here who will happily let you try out your fantasies on them.’
Charli laughed. ‘Seriously, I’m fine. I’ll go and tuck myself into bed and I’ll see you in the morning.’ She kissed her sister’s cheek and gently pushed her back into her seat. ‘There’s no need for both of us to have an early night. Stay, have fun.’
She’d meant it when she said she wasn’t looking for a man to take her mind off things but, even so, she couldn’t resist one last glance around the bar on her way out.
He was still there.
He was leaning against the wall, surrounded by his mates but he was watching her. Her heart skittered as his eyes locked onto hers. He straightened up and her step faltered as he put his glass on the table and moved towards her. Somehow she managed to keep walking but her eyes didn’t leave his. He weaved through the crowd, his path at an angle to hers and she knew he would reach her before she got to the exit.
He waited for her and she stopped beside him, her feet deciding her course of action for her.
‘Are you leaving?’ His voice was calm and his dark eyes held her gaze, making her feel as though he could see into the depths of her soul.
‘Will you stay and have a drink with me?’
Should she? She wanted to but she really didn’t trust herself to make good decisions. Even when she wasn’t jet-lagged she made terrible decisions. ‘I don’t even know your name.’ She stalled for time.
‘It’s Patrick. Patrick Reeves.’
He continued to watch her closely and the rest of the crowd faded into insignificance as she hugged the sound of his name to herself. It was a nice name and he had an even nicer face and a fabulous smile. She was tempted, very tempted, but she was also exhausted. ‘I don’t think I’ll be very good company,’ she said, barely able to string two words together, although whether that was the effect of jet-lag or Patrick’s intense gaze she wasn’t sure.
‘May I walk you home, then?’
She hesitated, but only briefly. She knew she’d regret it if she walked out alone. She nodded. Decision made. ‘I’d like that.’
He held her jacket for her, helping her into it. ‘Where are you staying?’ he asked as they left the bar and he shrugged into his insulated jacket.
‘At Snowgum Chalet, with my sister.’ Her boots slipped on the icy path and Patrick reached out to steady her, wrapping an arm around her waist, catching her before she could fall. He lifted her slightly, settling her back on her feet.
‘Thank you.’ He still had his arm around her and her tongue felt too big in her mouth making her stumble over the words. ‘I seem to have trouble keeping my feet around you.’
He knew the feeling. She was looking up at him with big blue eyes. His heart missed a beat and he felt like he was falling too. ‘I’ll have to remember to watch out for you on the slopes,’ he said as he took her hand. It was small but fitted perfectly into his grip and he tucked her hand into his elbow. ‘I have a feeling you could be dangerous.’
‘I’m usually ok on skis,’ she replied, completely missing his meaning, ‘but I am very wobbly today. I’ll sure I’ll be alright after a decent sleep. Are you skiing tomorrow?’
He shook his head. ‘Unfortunately not.’
‘Do you work here? I saw your friends were all wearing the same uniform.’
‘Not exactly,’ he said as he changed direction, taking a path to the right that turned past Ironbark Lodge and headed down the hill to Snowgum Chalet. ‘We’re all paramedics, we’ve been doing alpine training exercises here. We’re part of the High Country Special Operations arm.’
‘That sounds exciting. What did you have to do?’
‘Avalanche training, helicopter drops into the back country, abseiling down cliffs, that sort of thing.’
‘Exciting and exhausting.’
He supposed it was both but there was nothing unusual in the hectic pace of his life. Working as a Special Ops paramedic meant his life moved rapidly from one disaster to another and he embraced the pace, especially over the past two years. Being busy meant he didn’t have time to think. Didn’t have time to dwell.
‘It’s been challenging,’ he admitted as they reached the front door of her lodge, ‘but it’s exhilarating too.’
It had been busy and he was knackered. He should be going home to bed, not chatting up pretty strangers in the snow but he’d been powerless to resist her. When he’d seen her heading for the door he’d known he couldn’t let her walk out without talking to her once more. He knew that if he let her walk out of the bar he would never see her again.
Charli let go of his hand as she searched in her bag for the key. She turned to him and for the briefest of moments he thought about what he’d say if she invited him in.
‘Do you think we could have that drink tomorrow night?’ she asked.
He should have been relieved that her words weren’t the ones he’d half-hoped to hear. A lack of an invitation meant he didn’t have to wrestle with his conscience, didn’t have to remind himself of all the reasons why he should say good night and go home to his own bed. She made the decision for him. He should be grateful but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
‘I’d love too but I have to go back to Melbourne.’ He was due to leave first thing in the morning but the disappointment left a sour taste in his mouth. Maybe he could postpone his departure for just a few hours? He’d have to make some phone calls, ask for more favours, but it would be worth it. He had to try. ‘Could I take you to brunch instead or are you planning to be out skiing bright and early?’
‘No, brunch sounds lovely.’ She smiled up at him and made him wonder if it was too soon to kiss her goodnight.
He’d known her less than an hour. He figured it probably was too soon.
‘Great,’ he said as he resisted temptation and waited for her to unlock her door to her ground floor apartment. He had no reason to delay the farewell any longer. ‘I’ll meet you here at ten.’
He headed towards his bed, feeling unexpectedly hopeful and positive.
Snow blanketed the ground beneath his boots but the evening sky was clear and dark. There were no clouds and no moon but hundreds of tiny stars studded the darkness, relieving the blackness. He stopped outside the bar and the background hum of the alpine resort village faded as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the fresh mountain air. The scent of snow gums, wood smoke and barbeque filled his nose.
He stood still for a moment longer, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere.
He could see the lights reflected off the snow as the machine operators traversed the slopes, smoothing out the ski runs ready for tomorrow but he turned his back on the runs and looked instead past the chalets and buildings of the Wombat Gully Ski Resort and further up the mountain where the stately snow gums lined the ski runs. They stood sentinel, their trunks smooth and ghostly white, lit only by the light coming from the lodges. There was no wind to rustle their leaves, the air was still and so was he.
He knew he was ok. He’d kept things together for two years. He’d come through the worst of it. He had a career he loved, he knew it could be all consuming but it had saved him from depression and misery and had given him something else to focus on. Between his work and Ella he had everything he needed. Not everything he wanted but life was good. He was doing ok.
He opened his eyes and took in the natural beauty that surrounded him and thought, for the first time in years, that it was good to be alive. No, not thought, but believed. There was a difference.
He breathed out and his warmth breath condensed into white puffs of steam in the frigid air. Perhaps it was time to look to the future.
He ignored the drone of the snow groomers and the constant thrumming of the snow making machines and the music drifting into the night from the bar behind him - none of that was anything to do with him – as his thoughts drifted back to Charli.
A sudden gust of wind swirled around him, startling him after the extraordinary stillness of the night. A jet engine roared behind them, its sound swallowing the background noise and the ground shook beneath their feet. Pat looked up but the sky was just as dark as before. He could see nothing untoward but the rumble continued, the ground unsteady, testing their balance. He felt his heart rate accelerate as he turned around, his eyes glued to the mountain searching for the source of the noise, his gut telling him it wasn’t a plane.
Was it an avalanche? Even though they’d spent hours on avalanche training he’d never heard, or seen, one. They were a rare occurrence in Australia.
His eyes scanned the slopes, glancing over the buildings as he looked to the tree line. Ironbark Lodge sat highest on the mountain and he could see it silhouetted against the snow, its windows lit up against the night sky. He saw the lights waver and flicker as though candles illuminated the glass instead of electricity. And then the lights disappeared leaving the lodge in darkness.
Pat looked down the mountain, expecting power outage, but the other buildings remained bright. Movement in the corner of his eye drew his gaze up again.
Ironbark Lodge at the top of the mountain looked as if it was moving.
He must be more tired than he thought.
He shook his head and rubbed one hand across his eyes before opening them again. He must be seeing things.
No. He wasn’t. The lodge was definitely moving.
‘Bloody hell!’ It took him a moment to process what he was looking at and meanwhile Ironbark Lodge continued to move. He watched on in horror and disbelief as the lodge slid down the side of the mountain.
Snowgum Chalet sat directly in its path.
Snowgum Chalet was where he’d left Charli.
He took off, sprinting along the icy paths, retracing his steps from moments before, running right into the path of the disaster.
He only had one thought as he ran towards the lodge.