The Billionaire’s Birthday Blind Date by Jo Grafford

 

The Billionaire’s Birthday Secret

is available in eBook, paperback, and Kindle Unlimited!

Much love,

Jo

Sneak Preview: Her Billionaire Champion

Jovie Cyrus pulled on her cheerful red balaclava and tugged on her goatskin gloves. Their heated lining closed around her fingers like a warm caress, defying the near-Arctic temperatures of the Riksgränsen Resort slopes. She was standing at the peak of one of the highest mountains in Sweden. It was ironic, really, considering she was experiencing one of the lowest moments of her career.

She was exhausted, both mentally and physically. Eight years of nonstop training and competing as an Alpine championship skier could do that to a person. She desperately needed a break during the upcoming holiday season, a real break from the daily grind. Not just a few days at her hometown in Wyoming, where she’d be constantly thronged by loving, well-meaning friends, neighbors, and extended family who were hoping for one last autograph from her on one last Christmas gift. Nope, she desperately needed to disappear from public view for a few weeks, far from the reaches of the paparazzi, so she could truly de-stress and get some much-needed rest.

“Heya there, Jovie!” Her manager, Christian Laurent, leaped off the ski lift and jogged in her direction. “Figured I’d find you up here.”

She paused in the act of digging in her poles for push-off, more than a little irritated at his interruption. Christian knew how much she hated being bothered on the slopes.

“I know what you’re thinking, cheri.” The Frenchman made a face at her, wrinkling his perfect nose that was chapped pink from the cold temperatures. He was way too vain to hide his face behind a ski mask like most sane creatures. “You can mentally strangle me all you wish after I leave, but you’d be more angry with me later if you found out I kept this from you.” He waved his electronic tablet at her. “It’s the Phantom, mon ami. He just posted his next episode.”

Jovie gritted her teeth, clomped her way back to the waiting area at the pinnacle of the slope, and waved the next skier in line around her. “Show me!” she snapped. The Phantom was her nameless, faceless nemesis. An extreme skier and wildly popular YouTuber who always wore a mask on the videos he taped of himself while he taunted her. In a nutshell, she set world records, while he strove to break them in the most outlandish ways possible. This had been going on for the better part of five years — since her eighteenth birthday, to be exact. And despite many tireless hours of searching on the part of her manager, publicist, and a handful of private investigators, she’d not yet been able to determine the man’s identity nor why he’d chosen her, of all people, for his special brand of devilry.

With a sympathetic smile, Christian pushed the play button. The video flashed into sound and motion.

There he was! Jovie caught her breath at the sight of the man in the white helmet. His broad shoulders and swagger always had that effect on her. He was one of those larger-than-life daredevils who did things for the sheer shock effect. And today he was filming live on a rugged snow-capped peak that plunged straight down.

A message in neon orange flashed at the bottom of the screen: Where am I? For a chance to win today’s autographed helmet, text your answer to #Phantom or #7426866. He always made a huge ordeal of taking off his helmet at the end of each performance, signing it with a flourish, and giving it away — all of which he managed to do without revealing his face to the cameras.

Jovie’s blood chilled as she recognized the unmistakable shape of the jutting mountain top where his skis were firmly planted. “He’s at the Grand Teton this time,” she breathed through bloodless lips.

“Omigosh! That’s the Grand Teton,” a woman echoed excitedly from behind them.

Jovie swiveled her head to take in the number of skiers and bystanders milling around with their cell phones in hand. She and Christian weren’t the only ones watching the Phantom’s latest antics.

Tant pis! Looks like his secret is out. Would you like me to hurry up and text in your answer, cheri?” her manager teased.

“Don’t you dare,” she threatened in a tight voice. Her gaze remained glued to the screen. Please, no! Please don’t do this for me or because of me. The mountain he was standing on was the highest peak in the Teton Range, a subrange of the Rockies, which also happened to be the second highest peak in all of Wyoming. She should know. It was her home state. Why, oh why, was the Phantom always pulling stunts in her honor? She didn’t want to be his professional muse. She didn’t want to feel in any way responsible for his quick and brutal end that was sure to come if he kept pushing his luck like this.

The YouTuber’s overly jovial narrator and partner in crime, some fool who called himself The Bullhorn, jogged up to the Phantom to press a mike to the mouthpiece of his helmet. “We’ll be dedicating today’s performance to none other than…” he paused and nodded at the daredevil behind the helmet.

She closed her eyes as he spoke in his signature husky baritone with the hint of a croon. It resonated straight through her from the roots of her hair to the toes curled in her boots, making her shiver. “This one’s for you, Jovie Cyrus, America’s darling of the downhill, slalom, super G, and grand slalom races. In case you missed it, folks, Jovie banked her twenty-ninth World Cup two nights ago. Watch out, Lindsey Vonn and all the other greats, because there’s a new champion in town! My favorite star nabbed her latest World Cup at a record-breaking speed of eighty-two miles per hour. And that eighty-two miles per hour, my friends, is the speed we’re going to demonstrate out here today on the mountain that will not be named until the end of our episode.”

The Bullhorn stuck the mike back to his own mouth and proceeded to describe the set of gates they’d rigged along the mountainside. One stretch of the path was so steep, he bragged, that the Phantom would be required to rappel it.

Oh, dear heavens! Jovie’s eyelids snapped open. As fearful as she was for the man’s safety, she found herself unable to turn away from the screen.

“Are you ready, Phantom?” The Bullhorn bellowed.

His partner nodded and pounded his ski poles into the icy ground for emphasis.

“Any final words?” The Bullhorn held out the mike to him one last time.

“Yes! This one’s for you, Jovie!” Christian and several bystanders chimed in to shout the man’s words to the heavens.

This time, she was unable to tear her gaze away from the video to chide her manager. She was glued to the screen in horror as the Phantom pushed off the mountaintop and began his treacherous glide down. He was followed by a camera drone that zoomed in for a closeup on the gates he cleared as well as the short rappel where he didn’t even bother removing his skis. Instead, he relied on his superhuman arm strength to heft himself down the uneven ledge.

“Please, God,” Jovie moaned softly, clapping both gloved hands over her mouth as she watched in agonized fascination.

“It’s her! Look!” a man declared excitedly, somewhere beyond her right elbow. “It’s Jovie Cyrus, in the flesh!”

“Are you sure?” a woman responded in an incredulous tone.

“See? Over there! Same build. Same blonde hair. I’d bet my new goggles on it.”

Christian stepped closer and put a protective arm around her shoulders. “We’d better get going, cheri. You’re attracting an audience. One armed with cell phone cams.”

“Don’t!” she commanded shrilly, clamping her hand around his wrist to keep him from lowering his tablet. She whipped off her balaclava so she could see better. There was no way she could stir a step or breathe normally again until the Phantom had completed his latest mad challenge. “I have to know if he makes it,” she choked. “When. I mean when.” Every nerve in her body was rooting for him to make it down the deadly precipice.

Christian nodded, a movement she felt rather than saw, when he pressed his cheek against hers. “If you insist, mon ami.”

As they pored over the video together, he slowly pivoted her away from the growing hubbub of voices around them.

Though Jovie sometimes deplored Christian’s methods of shielding her from the public, he was very good at it. Later. Later she would worry about her manager’s obvious and growing crush on her…that he seemed to be making no effort to hide these days…when she was assured of the Phantom’s safety once again.

“It’s her alright,” a woman crowed in delight. “Omigosh! It’s our lucky day!”

“Yeah,” her male companion answered. “Looks like she really cares about what happens to him, too. You can see it in her face.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Jovie perceived a fan maneuvering around Christian’s arm to position herself directly in front of them. The woman held up her cell phone, making no effort to hide the fact she was filming every moment of Jovie’s reaction to the Phantom’s stunt in progress. “Omigosh! Omigosh!” she kept muttering. “It’s really her. It’s Jovie Cyrus, in person, and she’s watching the Phantom ski the Grand Teton in her honor.”

But Jovie was beyond caring about any social media buzz that might follow a fan’s video. All she cared for at the moment was the lone figure on skis flying down the rugged mountainside. He’d cleared the most harrowing parts of the slope, in terms of the required jumps and rappelling, though that wasn’t exactly saying much. What remained in front of him was steep as the walls of hell, itself, and he was rapidly picking up speed.

“Please, God! Please, God!” she whispered over and over again.

“Ninety-two miles per hour and climbing,” The Bullhorn bellowed into his mike. “In a path no skier has ever before dared take down this famous peak. What you’re watching today, folks, is history in the making!”

Or a tragedy in the making.Jovie’s throat worked as she fought to swallow her rising panic. The Phantom was going way too fast for the Tetons. Way too fast for the zigzag turns he would have to make in order to clear the gates his crew had positioned so haphazardly in his path. Why couldn’t the man simply sign up to compete in a World Cup event like a normal skier? Or, better yet, throw down a challenge for a one-on-one race with her? What drove him to risk life and limb on such a fool’s errand as this?

“This is different from all the other times, don’t you think, honey?” her impromptu filmer asked her companion. “Before today, it was mainly the rails, trick jumps, and parodies. You remember the time he wore a blonde wig to look like her?”

Jovie remembered all too well. The Phantom had worn a custom mask printed with her features that day, but he hadn’t stopped there. He’d stuffed the front of his shirt in just the right places to give himself feminine curves, ones that looked nothing like her slender athletic build. Her cheeks burned at the memory.

“I sure do, hon,” the man chortled, “and you’re right. Usually, the Phantom is as funny as heck, but this time is different. Whatever he’s up to today is…whew!”

Jovie tensed. She didn’t need to be reminded that the daredevil cutting through snow across the screen might not survive his latest stunt. All it would take is one hidden boulder, one thinly concealed stump to send him crashing towards a maiming injury…or worse.

“Ignore them,” Christian muttered in her ear. “He’s a good skier. You know it. One of the best out there.”

“And not a single World Cup to his name,” she snarled, needing to lash out. “Why? He’s proven he’s good enough.”

Her manager shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, doll, but who really cares?” He lowered his voice so that only she could hear. “He builds great buzz for you, cheri. I know his pranks annoy you to no end, but all he’s ever done is boost your ratings.”

True. All too true. She bit her lower lip. That was the sticking point. The Phantom was more than a coat-tailer on her personal success. Not only was he entertaining, his antics drew mega amounts of attention to her many accomplishments. He had seriously helped to grow her fan base, though (in return) it had ultimately underscored his own superior athletic prowess.

She waffled between professional respect and professional resentment for the man, while remaining puzzled as to why he didn’t just pull off his mask and take his rightful place in the winners’ circle on the competitive circuit.

Expert after expert had examined the footage of the Phantom’s various videos, and all had come up with the same conclusion. None of them were photoshopped. They were very, very real. The risks he took were genuine. The records he challenged and broke were exactly what they appeared to be afterwards – broken records. Titles, awards, and honors by other hardworking athletes smashed to smithereens by a prankster who happened to be an extraordinary athlete in his own right.

The only remaining question was why? Why did the Phantom persist in operating from the shadows of anonymity? Why build an entire career on challenging and taunting the accomplishments of others, like herself? Mainly herself. In the past, he’d challenged other athletes’ records, both male and female. Not so much in recent months. All except one had been directed at her.

Did he not want the awards that would come with competing in a certified skiing event? The reputation? The validation? Or was a YouTube channel with millions of followers all he truly aspired to?

Then again, if he monetized a channel that size, he was probably bringing in a small fortune in advertising revenue — funds he apparently didn’t need, according to the disclaimer on his account:

All profits generated by this channel are donated to charity.

Did he truly expect his viewers to believe he risked his life on a regular basis merely to help those who were less fortunate? Because that would pretty much make him a philanthropist with a death wish! It didn’t add up any more than the speed at which he was taking his final turn.

“It’s too fast!” a woman shrieked in alarm. “He’s coming into the last curve too fast.”

“One hundred and thirty-seven miles per hour,” The Bullhorn announced excitedly across the air waves. “One hundred and thirty-nine. I know there are faster records out there, but I’m telling you this: No one, and I mean no one, has ever hit this kind of speed on the Tetons. There will be a new entry on the books tonight, folks.”

Or a new entry in the obituaries.Jovie glared at the screen. Why, in heaven’s name, was The Bullhorn acting and sounding so pleased? Couldn’t he see what was taking place before his very nose? If the Phantom didn’t slow his speed in the next few seconds, he would miss the last gate altogether and plunge straight over a cliff.

The surrounding chattering ceased and dissolved into gasps and moans of fear.

“He missed the last gate!” a woman screamed. “He’s headed straight for the edge!”

Jovie slid to the soft snow, no longer able to stand. Christian crouched beside her with the screen of his electronic pad extended in front of them. They watched, unable to breathe, as the Phantom who’d been taunting her for years zipped straight over the side of the cliff.

The screen transitioned from one camera to the next as another drone picked up the feed where the last one left off. In a heart stopping replay, Jovie watched the Phantom tuck his body and launch himself from the edge of the cliff in a calculated roll.

The air was punctured with shrieks and cheers as he spiraled in a dizzying free fall to the snowy foothills below the Grand Teton. By some miracle, he landed on his skis.

Jovie’s vision blurred, and her ears buzzed as the audience around her erupted in elation. The woman who was filming her jumped frenziedly up and down, bouncing her cell phone like a jack hammer in her gloved hands. “He did it! Omigosh! He actually did it! For a minute there, I…”

Jovie blinked several times, heart pounding as she waited for what came next, for what always came next.

The Phantom’s white helmet bobbed back into view as his movie crew converged on him with their many lights, cameras, and drones. Replays of his jump from a myriad of angles flashed in rapid succession across the screen. When at last his voice broke through the melee, he sounded winded but exultant.

Dozens of voices joined in on the mountaintop where she sat, and Christian was one of them, as the Phantom gleefully raised a fist and shouted, “I’d like to see you try that, Jovie Cyrus!” That’s how he always ended his videos.

The crowd of skiers pressed closer to her, chanting, “Jovie! Jovie! Jovie!”

“Answer him!” the woman, who’d been filming her, begged excitedly. She crouched down in front of her “Omigosh! Answer him, Jovie, and I’ll post it online for everyone to see.”

Jovie shot an anxious look at Christian who nodded his encouragement.

“Go ahead, cheri. I’ll manage any PR fallout. Promise!”

Adrenaline coursed through her at the knowledge that the Phantom would finally hear a rebuttal from her. All their interactions and “conversations” had been one-sided up to this point.

“My answer to the Phantom’s Grand Teton challenge this afternoon is this.” She stood and smiled at her audience, throwing down one of her ski poles as if it was a gauntlet. The pointy end buried itself in the snow and held upright. “I’m asking you out on a date, Phantom.”

The skiers around her gasped. A few titters broke out.

“Not the wine and roses kind,” she continued with a grin, “but a one-on-one race. You aren’t the only skier with a few tricks up your sleeve.” Only Christian understood what she was talking about, at this point. The rest of the world thought she was an Alpine skier and nothing more. No one else knew about the crazy extra hours she’d been practicing her jumps away from the cameras, preparing her long-awaited response to the Phantom. She’d hoped against hope — though she’d never quite been sure — that this day would come.

“I have two conditions, though.” She held up a gloved finger. “One. It’ll be a time and a place we both agree on. You may contact my manager, Christian Laurent, to set it up. And two.” She shot up a second finger. “At the end of the challenge, you’ll take off your mask. Don’t worry. I’ll keep whatever deep, dark secret you’re hiding from the rest of the world. Your unmasking will be for me and me alone.”

* * *

Her Billionaire Champion

is available in eBook, paperback, and Kindle Unlimited!

Much love,

Jo