Creak. Hanna shot up, staring crazily at the door. Was it Jeremiah, back for his money clip? There were no shadows through the frosted glass, though. Another creak sounded from the opposite direction. She whipped around and stared at her reflection in the darkened window. Her eyes were wide and huge, and her face was pale.
“H-hello?” she called out. “I-is someone here?”
Snow fell lightly on the sidewalk out the window. Across the street, a parked car idled, its headlights blazing. A figure sat in shadows in the driver’s seat. Was Hanna crazy, or was the person’s head arced up toward her father’s office, staring right at her?
Taking a deep breath, she crouched down and assessed the safe again. The combination had to be something she knew. The photo from the wedding on her dad’s desk caught her eye again. With shaking hands, she punched Isabel’s birthday. Red lights. Gulping hard, she typed in her own birthday, December 23. Red lights. She glared at Kate’s smiling photo once more, then keyed 0-6-1-9—June 19, Kate’s birthday.
The lights turned green. The barrel released and the door swung open. Hanna was filled with a moment of horrible hurt—of course he’d set the combination to Kate’s birthday—but she forgot about it when she saw the piles of bills stacked in tall, neat piles. She pulled out a wad and counted it. Three more wads made it ten thousand exactly. There was so much more money in the safe; she wondered if her father would even miss it.
She shoved the cash in her bag and pushed the safe door closed. Then, as the final coup de grace, she dropped Jeremiah’s money clip a few inches away.
Her head spun as she stood. The money felt like it weighed a thousand pounds in her bag. She peered out the window again. The car still idled there, the driver motionless in the front seat. Did the person see her? Was it A?
A moment later, the engine revved. And then, noiselessly, the car pulled away, the tire tracks making crisp indents in the otherwise pure dusting of snow.
Every guy’s fantasy
A waitress set a mug of hot chocolate on the table in front of Aria and clucked her tongue. “Wow. You look cold.”
“You think?” Aria muttered sarcastically, pressing her hands to the warm mug and willing the waitress to go away. Coldness was exactly why Aria was sitting as close to the fire inside the ski lodge as she could—in fact, she’d climb into the fire if she could. Outside, as the snow swirled past the huge overhead lights, tons of skiers zoomed down the slopes, not looking chilly in the slightest. Guys slalomed without hats on. Girls snowboarded in Fair Isle sweaters and jeans. Then again, they probably hadn’t spent hours on their butt, the cold snow soaking through their supposedly high-tech ski gear straight to their sensitive, non-skier skin. Aria was pretty sure even her eyelids were frostbitten.
The evening had been miserable. After Klaudia took off up the lift without Aria, Noel shrugged. “Maybe you’re better off getting a lesson from a real instructor anyway.” Then he deposited Aria at the Ski School and disappeared up the same black diamond slope himself.
Honestly, Aria wasn’t sure why she hadn’t just called it a day right then and there, but she’d somehow had this notion that skiing might be easy; maybe she could quickly learn and join Noel on the hill. Right. The beginner lesson was filled with seven- and eight-year-old children. The instructor, a good-natured Australian guy named Connor who kept assuming Aria was one of the kids’ nannies, led them to the bunny slope and taught them how to snowplow. Needless to say, every single one of the kids mastered it way before Aria did. The only time she made it down the bunny slope was when she’d slid down on her butt. Occasionally, she saw Noel and Klaudia swooping by, kicking up lots of snow when they stopped at the bottom of the hill. Neither of them looked in the direction of the bunny slope. Why would they? Why would they want to check to see how the peikko was doing?
“There you are!”
Aria looked up just as Noel clomped into the lodge, snow and ice caked on his jacket and ski pants. Klaudia followed him, her cheeks pink and her blond hair still perfectly styled. They both looked breathless and happily exhausted, like they’d just had tons of sex. Aria quickly bit the inside of her cheek and turned away.
Noel’s two brothers, Eric and Christopher, staggered in behind them. “You were amazing out there, Klaudia!” Eric cried when he saw her. “How long have you been skiing?”
“Oh, I hiihto before I walk!” Klaudia unzipped her coat.
“Did you guys see her on the moguls?” Noel removed his hat and goggles. “She got amazing air. Everyone on the lifts was cheering like we were at the Olympics.”
“It was good mountain.” Klaudia admitted. “A little easy, maybe, but still fun.”
Aria let out a sarcastic snort, which made everyone stop and stare. Noel walked over and sat down in the studded leather chair next to Aria. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Aria answered in a monotone, staring at her pruned hands. They’d probably never go back to normal.
“Where did you disappear to?” Noel asked. “I kept looking for you on the slopes but didn’t see you. I figured we’d meet up on the top of the mountain after Ski School.”
Aria wanted to dump the hot chocolate on his head. “Sorry, but Ski School didn’t teach me to ski moguls. But I hope you and Klaudia had a good time.” She hated her tone of voice, but she couldn’t hide her feelings any longer.
A crinkle appeared between Noel’s eyes. “You were the one who didn’t want her to give you a lesson. Don’t be mad because she went off and did her own thing.”
Aria balled up her fists. Of course this was her fault—Klaudia was totally blameless.
“Hey, do you guys know what time it is?” Christopher interrupted. “Hot tub!”
“Sweet!” Eric gave his brother a high five.
“I love poreammeita!” Klaudia jumped up and down like a kindergartner.
Noel looked at Aria. “What do you say? A soak in the hot tub before dinner? You’ll love it. I promise.”
Aria stared at the melting marshmallows in her hot chocolate. The sulking, pissed-off girl inside her just wanted to go upstairs, take a long shower, and watch a foreign film on pay-per-view. But she was freezing. Maybe a soak in the hot tub would melt away her irritation, too.
Fifteen minutes later, Aria had changed into her bikini and wrapped herself in one of the lodge’s terry-cloth bathrobes. She scampered across the freezing outdoor pool deck to the hot tub. Steam rose high into the air. The jets bubbled. The Kahn brothers were already soaking and drinking bottles of beer. When Noel saw Aria, he moved over to make space. She stripped off her robe, shivered in the subzero air, and slipped into the tub next to him. Ahhh.
“This is beautiful.” Aria tilted her head up to the sky. Tons of stars twinkled brightly. The moon blazed just over the mountain. The glistening, falling snow on the mountain looked like a scene inside a snow globe.
“Told you you’d like it.” Noel squeezed her hand.
Eric Kahn leaned back and stretched his arms out on the deck. “I can’t wait to hit the slopes tomorrow morning.”
“I heard Klaudia say she’s really eager to go back out, too,” Noel said.
“That girl could really carve,” Christopher murmured. “I wonder what else she’s good at.”
The older Kahn brothers snickered crassly. Aria stiffened and stared hard at Noel, daring him to laugh too. Luckily, he didn’t.
Then, as if on cue, the door from the hotel opened. A figure appeared in silhouette. “Hallo?” Klaudia’s chirpy voice pierced the snowy air.
“Hey!” Eric yelled for Klaudia. “Come on in! The water’s awesome!”
Klaudia pranced over to the tub. She wore a similar bathrobe to Aria’s, the belt knotted tightly around her waist. Her blond hair spilled over her shoulders. Her bare legs protruded beneath the hem. The Kahn boys watched her, their tongues lolling like dogs. Then, slowly, like she was performing a striptease, Klaudia undid the belt to her robe. It dropped to the floor. She shrugged out of the robe and let it fall, too. Noel gasped. So did Eric. For a moment, Aria’s eyes couldn’t focus—all she could see was skin, lots of skin, like Klaudia had worn a flesh-colored bikini.
But then she realized. Klaudia wasn’t wearing anything at all. She was totally and completely naked.
“Holy shit,” Christopher blurted emphatically and appreciatively.
“Whoa.” Eric groaned softly.
Noel gawked at her, too. Klaudia just stood there like a freaky Finnish exhibitionist, her boobs swinging for the whole world to see. Not a single one of the Kahns told her to cover up. Why would they?
It was just too much. Letting out a pent-up scream, Aria pushed out of the tub, grabbed a towel, and ran for the door, barely feeling the frigid air on her skin or the icy concrete beneath her feet. Once inside, she wrapped the towel around her, staggered toward the elevators, and pressed the call button repeatedly. Of course this would be the one time the elevator decided to stop on every floor.
Aria jumped and turned. Noel stood in the doorway, steam misting off his half-naked body. There was a trail of wet footprints from where he’d come in. “Where are you going?”
Aria pressed the call button again. “To my room.”
“Shouldn’t you apologize first?”
She whipped around. “To who?”
“Klaudia didn’t do anything wrong, Aria.”
She gawked at him. “Are you kidding me?”
Noel just shrugged.
It felt like a billion blood vessels just burst in Aria’s brain. “Okay. Okay. Whatever. If you want to have your little foursome with Klaudia, that’s fine. But not in front of me, okay? I didn’t think I actually had to watch.”
Finally, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Aria marched inside, but Noel pulled her back out. His green eyes were full of hurt. “Aria, Klaudia’s crying out there. She didn’t realize she was supposed to wear a bathing suit in the hot tub. In Finland, nobody does! Guys go naked in hot tubs. Girls go naked in hot tubs. They’re not as prudish about it as we are. You shouldn’t have screamed at her—I would think that you of all people would understand the meaning of cultural sensitivity.”
Aria wrenched her arm from his. “Cultural sensitivity? Noel, Klaudia showing up naked at the hot tub isn’t a cultural thing—it’s a slutty thing!”
Noel’s mouth dropped open. He closed his eyes and shook his head like he didn’t believe her. Like he thought she was just being a jealous bitch.
The elevator doors started to slide closed again, but Aria thrust her foot between them and caught them. “Klaudia wants you, Noel,” she said icily. “And if you weren’t so smitten with her, you’d notice she’s being really obvious about it, too.”
She stepped inside the elevator doors and pressed down hard on the CLOSE button. Part of her hoped Noel would step inside and ride up with her, but he just stood in the vestibule, blinking at her, his face full of disappointment. With a whoosh, the doors closed, and in moments the car swept Aria up to her floor. Where Noel went after that, she didn’t know.