Thunder Point Book #7
February 24, 2015
#1 New York Times bestselling author Robyn Carr delivers another smart, funny, emotional novel about the complexities of life in the small Oregon town of Thunder Point.
Grace Dillon was a champion figure skater until she moved to Thunder Point to escape the ruthless world of fame and competition. And though she’s proud of the quiet, self-sufficient life she’s created running a successful flower shop, she knows something is missing. Her life could use a little excitement.
In a community where there are few eligible singles, high school teacher Troy Headly appoints himself Grace’s fun coach. When he suggests a little companionship with no strings attached, Grace is eager to take him up on his offer, and the two enjoy…getting to know each other.
But things get complicated when Grace’s past catches up with her, and she knows that’s not what Troy signed up for. Faced with losing her, Troy realizes Grace is more than just a friend with benefits. He’s determined to help her fight for the life she always wished for but never believed she could have—and maybe they can find real love along the way.
Grace drove to North Bend to grab an early skate before the rink got busy. Figure skating classes were suspended over Christmas break and people, mostly kids who wanted to try out their new skates, would dominate the rink later in the day. No one knew Grace stole these secret early morning skates. She had a deal with Jake Galbraith, the rink owner. She could call him and if it was convenient, he’d let her skate for an hour or two while they were getting ready to open. He didn’t want to charge her, but she paid him fifty dollars an hour anyway. It was a point of pride.
He smiled at her when she came in and told her to have a good skate.
She stretched out and then warmed up on the deserted ice, closely following the Zamboni ice resurfacer that had just finished. She did forward and backward crossovers, backward half-swizzle pumps, figure 8’s, scratch spins and axels. She noticed Jake was standing right up front, leaning his forearms on the boards. She threw him a forward spiral and a leaning tower spiral. She executed a perfect sit spin next. She circled the ice a few times, a jump here and there. She had been known for her straddle split jump, touching her toes with her fingers. When she looked for Jake again, he had disappeared.
Then the music started, filling the rink with the strains of Rhapsody in Blue. She glided into an arabesque, arms stretched out, fingers pointed, wrists flexible. She looked to see that Jake had returned, watching her every move. She went for a double axel and fell on her ass. She got up, laughing to herself. She went around the rink a few times, tried it again and nailed it, but it wasn’t pretty. She moved through Rhapsody and the music changed to another Gershwin tune. She’d practiced to these as a little girl; they were familiar and comfortable. Memories of skating during her young years always filled her with nostalgia and comfort. That was before the competition get really fierce.
When she was fifteen, stronger but lighter and more flexible, she could really catch the air. She’d been on the ice for an hour when the music segued into Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and it lit her up. That was her signature music. She was on fire! She skated like she was competing. She noticed other people watching — a guy leaned on his broom and gazed at her, a couple of teenage girls who worked in the skate rental had stopped working to watch, the Zamboni driver leaned a shoulder against the rink boards, hands in his pockets. Two hours slid by effortlessly when she heard the sounds of people arriving to skate. She slowed and got off the ice.
“Beautiful,” Jake said. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”
“Holidays are busy at the shop,” she said. She tried to get to the rink on Sunday mornings, but the last month had been frantic — wreaths, centerpieces, two weddings and just day to day traffic in the shop.
“You should spend more time on the ice. I have a long list of names of people looking for a good coach.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I’d be a good coach. I don’t have time for one thing. And I’d never go back on the circuit, even with students. I left that world.”
“I thought the day would come that you might be interested in going back, maybe not in competition for yourself, but coaching. I think on name alone you’d make a fortune.”
“I left the name behind, too,” she reminded him with a smile. “We have an agreement.”
“I haven’t said a word. People ask me, who is that girl, but I just say you’re training and asked not to be identified. Some of them guess and would show up to watch you if they had any idea when you would be skating. The ice misses you. Watching you skate is like seeing music.”
“Phooey. I don’t train anymore. I spent as much time on my ass as on my blades. I look like crap.”
“Your worst is better than a lot of bests I see. I’ve missed you. Maybe you’ll have more time in the new year.”
She took off her skates and pulled on her Uggs. Sometimes she doubted her decision to leave it all behind because being on the ice made her happy. Then she’d remind herself that while a couple of hours felt great, the difficult routine of a competitive figure skater was grueling, exhausting. As a coach she’d never be able to push young girls the way she’d been pushed.
She pulled out a hundred dollars in cash for her two hours alone on the rink. Jake had told her he put the money in a special scholarship fund for young wannabe Olympians who couldn’t otherwise afford lessons. She told him however he wanted to spend it was fine with her. As long as he didn’t sell her out.
As she left the rink she reflected that her life in Thunder Point was so much more peaceful than it had been in competition and her freedom was hard won. She had friends now, even if they didn’t know who she had been before. At least no one thought of her as tragic or complicated or as one of the saddest yet most triumphant stories told on the competitive skating circuit. No one was threatened by her, hated her, feared or resented her. No one called her a rich bitch or a dirty liar.
Of course, the weight of her secrets sometimes wore on her. Jake Galbraith had recognized her at once. All she had to do was ask the cost of a private rink for a couple of hours and that was it. She hadn’t confided in anyone else.
When she got into the van she saw that she had a voice mail on her cell phone. She listened to it before leaving the parking lot. It was Mikhail, her old coach. They kept in touch. Sometimes they left each other a series of brief messages because he could be anywhere in the world. He kept tabs on her. “I am wishing you happy Christmas,” said the Russian. “I think I am day late. If so, you will understand.”
Grace waited until she was back in her tiny apartment above the flower shop before returning the call. “I thought you had forgotten all about me,” she said to his voice mail. “It was a happy Christmas. I was a maid of honor for my friend Iris yesterday — that’s how I spent the day. I’ve never been in a wedding before. It was small and intimate, a beautiful experience. And this morning I went skating. I fell three times.” Then she mimicked his accent. “What can I say? I am clumsy oaf with no training.” Then she laughed, wished him the best New Year ever and said good bye, signing off.
Grace’s beloved father and coach died rather suddenly when she was only fourteen and he was sixty. Her mother, once a competitive and professional figure skater, responded by hiring an even better coach, a very short Russian of huge reputation who could take Grace all the way. There was no time for grieving, they had work to do. Mikhail was a tough, brilliant coach and they were together for eleven years. He had been very unhappy with her decision to leave competition and for a couple of years he pestered her return to the sport, “Before you forget everything I taught you!”
Her mother, Winnie Dillon Banks, who had herself been a teenage skating wonder, was worse than devastated. She was furious. “If you quit now, after all I’ve invested in you, you are dead to me.” After the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Grace walked away from everything and everyone. All she’d ever wished for was to be like everyone else. To not be constantly judged every time she took a breath. She wanted to be normal.
“Don’t newlyweds lay around in bed for several days after the wedding? Doing it until their parts give out?” Grace asked, only half teasing.
“Maybe when one of the newlyweds isn’t the town deputy,” Iris said. “We did eat breakfast in bed and Seth didn’t go to the office until about one. I cleaned the house, thawed something for dinner and….” She paused. “I called Troy to tell him.”
“You didn’t tell him before, huh?” Grace asked.
Iris just shook her head.
Troy Headly, high school history teacher and the fantasy of all the high school girls, had had a very big crush on Iris. They had dated for only a few months last spring when Iris told him theirs would have to be a friendship only relationship. She was the high school guidance counselor and before getting involved with a teacher in the same school, she had to be powerfully sure. And she hadn’t been. But Troy had pursued Iris right up until Seth was in the picture. Even then, it was pretty obvious he still had a serious thing for Iris and wouldn’t mind if Seth fell off the face of the earth.
“How’d he take it?” Grace asked.
“Like a man,” Iris said. “Is it too early for wine?”
“Certainly not!” She pulled a bottle of Napa Cellars from her little refrigerator and opened it. “Was it awful?”
“Nah, it was fine. Good, really. He said he was surprised we got married so soon, but then so was everyone. So were we, when you get down to it. He congratulated me and said he hoped I’d be very happy — all the right things. Then I asked him if he was going to be all right and he laughed, but he didn’t sound amused. He said he was real surprised to find himself disappointed to hear an old girlfriend got married. First of all, it’s hard for me to think of myself as his girlfriend — it was never that serious. Second, even Troy admits he’s not looking for a wife! Not now. He said maybe when he’s thirty-five or forty, but he’s in no hurry. He likes the single life.”
Grace poured the wine and put the bowl of popcorn between them. “A gourmet treat,” she said. “Or maybe dinner. So, is it different? Being married?”
“Not yet,” Iris said. “Ask me again when we merge checkbooks; we’ve been solitary, single adults for a long time. Right now we’re each taking care of our own obligations until Seth either rents or sells his townhouse. There’s plenty of closet space at my house but we could have issues when his manly furniture looks for space among my decidedly female things.”
“You’re staying in your house,” Grace said in relief.
“It’s perfect for us. I like to ride my bike to work in good weather.”
“I love your house,” Grace said. “Aren’t you ever going to have a honeymoon?”
“Eventually. We’re looking for deals online right now. We’re going to sneak away in a couple of months, hopefully somewhere warm and sunny. But what about you, Grace? Why aren’t you seeing anyone?”
Grace burst out laughing. It wasn’t the first time Iris had asked. “First of all, who? Second, when?”
“Don’t you ever meet a groomsman at any of the weddings you do?”
“Never. They all come long after I’m gone and I’m not invited to the receptions. Besides, isn’t that the kiss of death? Hooking up with someone in the wedding party at the reception? No thanks.”
“We have to get you out more,” Iris said.
“Right,” Grace said doubtfully. “Maybe I could help you chaperone the prom and meet some very promising eighteen year old? Nah, I don’t think so.”
“We’ll go clubbing or something.”
“Clubbing?” Grace sputtered. “In Thunder Point?”
“Okay, we’ll go up to North Bend or something. And graze.”
“I’m sure Seth would appreciate that!”
“Well, I won’t take any phone numbers or bring anyone home….”
“Iris,” Grace said, lifting her wine glass. “Let it go. I’ll handle my own love life. In my own time, in my own way.”
“There’s always Troy,” Iris said, sipping.
“Nah, we’re pals. There’s no chemistry.” On his side. “We had a beer together once, followed by grilled cheese and tomato soup. It was swell. Besides, I’m not interested in your sloppy seconds. I read, you know. Rebound boyfriends are not a good idea.”
“You can’t just work all the time, you know,” Iris said.
“No?” Grace asked. “I thought you could.”
Her name was Isabella Grace Dillon Banks. She’d given up most of her name and went by Grace Dillon because Izzy Banks was very well known in some circles. Probably not among her Thunder Point acquaintances, but for those who watched champion figure skating competitions around the world, Izzy was known, both for her skating and for her involvement in dramas and scandals that rocked the skating world.
Grace’s mother, Winnie Dillon Banks, a wealthy heiress whose grandfather had made most of the family money in tobacco, had been well known before her, though she hadn’t made it as far in competitions. Winnie’s best show as a competitive skater had been second place in Nationals. But she saw her chance in Izzy/Grace. Talk about a stage mother!
Grace had a privileged, isolated childhood in which skating was everything.
Grace was born to an ice skating icon and her coach. Winnie Dillon had a love affair with her coach, Leon Banks, when she was twenty-six. Some cynical rivals and professional observers suggested she succumbed to marriage and motherhood because all signals pointed to her competing days being just about over. But Winnie and Leon had Grace on skates before she was four years old. They pushed and trained her hard.
In those early days, when Grace was a little girl and skating was only fun, when she yearned to be the best, she was happy. She begged to skate and hated her time off. She’d have been on the ice eight hours a day if her father had let her. She was coddled and loved and indulged. She only had a few friends, other little girls who were training and taking lessons and part of a skating club, some of them Leon’s other students.
Grace loved her parents very much and didn’t quite understand until after her father’s death that theirs had been a difficult marriage. Her father was much older than Winnie and more focused on his students than his wife. Her mother was a demanding diva and socialite; she dragged a reluctant Leon to charity events and parties. Her mother and father constantly disagreed on almost everything, especially Grace’s training and education. Grace never went to traditional school, public or private — she had tutors. Leon thought this might be a mistake, feared she wouldn’t be a well-adjusted girl.
It was at about the age of twelve that things took a shift and the competition turned serious. But Grace was winning everything in her age category and was quickly feared as the unbeatable. She trained on the ice several hours a day, took gymnastics, ballet and practiced yoga. They moved from Atlanta to Chicago and finally settled in San Francisco, following the best opportunities for her training and education as well as for her father’s coaching prospects. Her father contracted pancreatic cancer when Grace was fourteen. Winnie sought a tougher, stronger, more famous coach the moment Leon fell ill. It was almost as if she’d chosen Mikhail before he was needed. Then Leon passed away rather swiftly, within months of his diagnosis.
Winnie and Grace took a few days off, then it was back on the ice. “Your success meant everything to your father,” she kept saying. It was true that Leon wanted the best for Izzy, but it was Winnie to whom winning was everything. No matter the personal cost. And skating became less for fun and more for life. Winnie blew a gasket when Grace didn’t take first place.
Grace didn’t leave the world of competitive skating until she was twenty-three, right after the Vancouver games. She went to Portland to stay with a sweet older couple who had once worked for her mother. Grace had known Ross and Mamie Jenkins since birth. They’d been part of Winnie’s staff, Ross a driver and Mamie in housekeeping. They had retired a few years before Grace quit the circuit to open a flower shop and they took her in.
She collapsed. She was exhausted and depressed and afraid of the future. Mamie pampered her and gave her time; it seemed as if she’d slept for a month. Then one evening Mamie said, “If you lay around one more day, you won’t be able to walk. You have to do something — it’s your choice. Get a job, go to school, something.” But Grace didn’t want to be around people and she didn’t believe she had any marketable skills. So she started helping in the flower shop, in the back, learning to make beautiful bouquets and arrangements. Portland was a funky, interesting, welcoming city — not too big, not too small, not uppity or flashy. Little by little Grace came out of the back room to deal with customers, sometimes delivering flowers, even helping Mamie and Ross with weddings. No one made a fuss over her or asked her a lot of questions.
Every time a major skating competition was covered by the major mainstream or sports networks, Grace was glued to the TV, watching every move. And invariably there’s be some short vignette about Izzy Banks, the girl who had it all and threw it away. One sports caster noted her, “Izzy Banks, the brat on the ice, the fiercest competitor in figure skating, obviously couldn’t take the pressure.”
Brat. Boy, that stung.
Her mother would usually get in touch, proving that Winnie couldn’t ignore the competitions any more than Grace could. She’d pressure Grace to return home, return to skating and the few conversations they had would end in a fight and they wouldn’t speak again for months.
A year before the 2014 winter games in Russia, when the dramatic story of her life might be publicly examined yet again, she went in search of a new place to settle and tackle life on her own. A little money had been set aside for her by her father and she found Pretty Petals, the shop Iris’s mother had owned. She’d been in Thunder Point almost a year when the winter competition took place. When Grace couldn’t watch it, she’d tape it. There had been the usual newsy dish about the more stunning events of the life of Izzy Banks, but no one seemed to notice. There were, thankfully, more interesting sport scandals that year. And Thunder Point was more of a football town than figure skating.
All she’d ever wanted was a life she understood. A life that didn’t include backbreaking labor, cruel rivals, endless travel across too many time zones, the occasional crazed fan, or terrible loneliness. She wanted to know what it felt like to have real friends, not a staff of coaches, therapist, a security detail and competitors. She’d never had a boyfriend.
She did, however, have more than one gold medal. She’d been first in every significant competition in the world.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.