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Will a disaster bring them together or break them apart for good?

Mount Tutoko, South Island, New Zealand

CHAPTER ONE

Leah

I carve one final, hard turn, my fatigued quad muscles on fire, then let my skis run, speeding so fast the snowy landscape becomes a white blur. My fast breaths echo in my ears and the icy air stings my cheeks but I might as well be flying. The helicopter passes over me, heading for the flat snowfield below to meet us. I arrive breathless just as lands, my body alive with tingles.

“Yewwww!” I cry into the alpine stillness. Squinting through the bright sunshine, I glance back up at the slope to admire my tracks, tracing the sinuous line down from the tight chute to the broad apron of snow and the epic drop over the rocky cliff. It looks pretty good to me, but we’ll see how it looks on film.

As I step out of my skis and snap them together, T.J., my counterpart for this descent, races down the bottom part of the slope like a red bullet. During my first winter freelancing, after a week of filming in Alaska together, we sort of hooked up. It was our final night and everyone was in the bar drinking whiskey and I was feeling lonely—first for me—and just reckless enough to do something stupid. I barely remember it, though there was some acrobatics involving and thankfully, neither did he, so we decided to just forget it happened. We’ve worked together a few times since then, but I’ve kept my distance. Even though he’s hot as hell, since that winter he’s become a total star, but according to my best friend Zoe, his dad owns a development company and their family has more money than God.

I couldn’t be with someone like T.J. aka Tristan James Scott III. Especially when I’m trying to make a name for myself.

With fresh, untrammeled powder to tear up and the sun casting bright, sharp rays over the jagged ridges and soft, white peaks, there’s an unsaid urgency to fit in as many descents as we have chopper fuel for. Especially with the storm coming in tonight which will shut down production.

T.J. comes to a hard stop, spraying me with powder. Annoyed, I shield my face.

“Do you have a death wish or something?” T.J. says, breathing hard as he steps out of his skis. “Dropping that cornice was stupid.”

I scoff. “It was totally solid.”

T.J. shakes his head. “You’re lucky it didn’t crack loose and trigger a slide.”

“Look, I evaluated the risks and made a split decision. Don’t get mad at me because you were too chicken.”

The whine of the chopper’s spinning rotors intensifies. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch our cameraman giving us a spin of his index finger, his “let’s go” signal.

“Chicken, huh? Well at least I’ll be alive,” he half-shouts over the increasing rotor noise.

Turning away from him and the feelings threatening to unleash, I wade through the deep snow towards the chopper. Doesn’t he know that because I’m a girl, I have to work harder than anyone else? That I have to take the biggest risks, take the steepest line, say yes when everyone else hesitates?

Once we’re both inside the ship, the rotors buzz to full power and we rise into the sky. Thin horsetail clouds that signal a change in the weather dot the horizon—a sign of the forecasted storm. In the headset, Robbie, our ace cameraman, shares the deets of our next run on the northeast slope of Tutoko.

Though T.J. and I are seated side by side, I look out the window at the stunning peaks, ridges, couloirs, all untracked. If I had my way, I’d ski every last one of them.

After a short flight up the valley, our pilot begins ascending the right side of the peak we’ll film, moving methodically in a zigzag pattern over the snow-crusted trees. The peak rises steadily ahead of us, but my eyes are glued to the line I’m going to claim. Energy pumps through me, tingling down my spine and fluttering through my tummy.

We crest the top of the trees when the rotor sounds suddenly decrease.

Alarm bells start blaring inside the ship—or maybe in my mind.

“What’s happening?” I say into my headset as the ship stars to tilt.

“We just lost an engine,” the pilot says. He’s flipping dials and doing something with the lever at his side. That he’s not frantic is reassuring but the bird is still falling out of the sky. Fast.

T.J. is silent next to me, his face white. But I can’t worry about him right now.

“Everyone told tight,” the pilot says, grimacing. He’s tilted the nose forward, likely using the autorotate function to slow us down. But the mountain is still racing at us at a rapid pace. “We’re making an emergency landing.”

Robbie sets his camera between his feet and leans back, as if to brace himself.

“You mean crash?” T.J. says, panic in his voice.

Below us is a steep ridgeline of gray rock and ice. How are we going to land here?

Before I can understand what’s happening, the helicopter collides with the side of the mountain. The impact shudders through me as windows shatter and metal parts scream as they’re ripped apart. There’s shouting and the feel of the frigid air on my face. And snow—swallowing us whole and filling the ship through the fractured front end. The bird is still decelerating nose-first into the mountain, metal creaking, then finally comes to rest.

I open my eyes to the icy needles of snow blowing in from somewhere, my breaths hollow and fast.

Everything hurts, but it only takes a minute to realize that I’m okay. At least I don’t think anything’s broken. Maybe it’s the adrenaline.

“Leah,” T.J. says in an urgent voice. “Are you hurt?”

Carefully, I turn to him, relieved that my neck doesn’t feel hurt or strained. “No. You?”

His face is as white as the snow surrounding us, but he nods. “I don’t think so, no.”

It’s then I realize that the pilot and the cameraman aren’t talking. Or moving.

I turn back to the front of the chopper. My stomach rolls and it’s like I’m falling all over again, only this time, there’s no ground in sight.

I call out to the pilot, then Robbie.

It hits me how bad this situation is. We’re miles away from the nearest road, let alone radio contact. Though helicopters have emergency locator devices, we have to be reported as missing before anyone comes looking. That’s not happening before dark—or before this storm hits.

Meaning we can wait for someone to come looking, which could be days from now…or go for help.

A groan sounds from the front. I unbuckle from my harness and free my feet from the snow that’s come in. I squeeze through the gap in the seats. My backcountry first aid training kicks in and I feel the pilot’s neck for a pulse—he’s alive, but unconscious. I give his body a quick scan, and my stomach drops. He’s bleeding from a head wound and there’s a deformity in his thigh—a sign of a broken bone. I swivel to get closer to Robbie just as his eyes flutter open. Snow is packed around his shins, and part of the dashboard has crumpled in. It takes him only a moment to realize what’s happened.

“Leah. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Everyone’s alive.”

That he asks me this while he’s pinned inside the cockpit of a crashed helicopter doesn’t surprise me. But it’s time for me to take care of him.

“What hurts?” I ask him.

“My back,” he says in a tight voice.

I try the radio but there’s nothing.

“We’re too far out,” Robbie says, wincing as he rubs his chest.

“Grab the emergency gear, T.J.,” I bark.

Thankfully, T.J. gets moving. Maybe giving him a purpose is pulling him out of his funk.

“You should stay here. Wait for help,” Robbie says as I bandage up the pilot’s wound and tuck an extra sleeping bag around him. The empty stuff sack I fill with snow and use it like a giant brick to cover the hole in the side of the chopper near Robbie that’s letting in the snow and cold.

“They won’t look for us in a storm,” I say. I leave out the obvious—that the white chopper will be practically invisible against the snow but even if it wasn’t it’ll be buried by morning.

“The pilot needs help now,” I add. “And you’re not in much better shape.”

His eyes fill with worry. “You sure about this?”

I wrap the other extra sleeping bag around him, my hands shaking. He groans in pain as I accidentally jostle him.

“Yeah, we’re sure,” T.J. says in a brave voice. His chiseled jaw is set and his eyes are determined. Maybe he’s tougher than he looks.

What we’re about to do will be extremely hard, so this small dose of solidarity is reassuring.

With our crew set up for their wait for help, I grab my pack from behind my seat. I yank unnecessary items from it—the small camera, an empty thermos, my stuff sack with extra parts and repair tools then stuff my extra coat and mittens, first aid kit, and a set of binoculars back in. At the bottom of my pack are some granola bars, a half-eaten sandwich from yesterday, two Swiss chocolate bars, and an apple.

T.J. has started reshuffling the items in his pack too.

“We’ll climb to the summit and see if we get a signal. If we don’t, we’ll descend the south face.”

T.J. shakes his head. “No, we should go down from here. Hiking up will take too long.”

“What if we get a signal? Plus there’s trekker’s huts in that valley,” I say because I’ve memorized the map of our area—something my dad drilled into me when I was nine and that I do on every trip. Knowing where you are and what’s nearby can save your life, Leah Bee.

I realize this knowledge is about to be put to the test.

T.J. glances at the two men in the front seat who need our help. A look passes through his features—like maybe he’s realizing that if we want to survive, we’re going to have to rely on each other to do it.

I certainly wouldn’t choose to take on this assignment with him either, but this is the hand we were dealt. We’ll just have to make it work.

“Okay,” he says, then swallows hard.

Every second we waste could mean life or death. I shoulder my pack. “Let’s go.”

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