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The sound of a gun echoed across the wilderness, and Scotch cocked her head. Hunting season was over for most game. Besides, had there been hunters in the area, someone surely would have mentioned seeing them during the many evening visitations winter always seemed to draw. The only people with guns in the immediate area were she, Miguel, and Lainey.
Another shot rang out, and Scotch felt her heart jump in her chest. With hunters out of the equation, the only reason someone would shoot a firearm would be in defending him or herself. Providing Miguel's tour followed the usual route, they were much too far away for that to be them. Those shots had to have come from Lainey. It had been like pulling teeth to get her to carry a pistol in the first place, something dire must have happened for her to shoot it.
Scotch scanned the trail ahead of her, seeing in her mind the paths that branched away. Her team had yet to reach their destination; the creek bed was several miles from the kennel. She knew where Lainey had headed, now she had to find a way to get there. Shaking her head with a grimace, she realized her only route would be too round about and delay her arrival at the switchbacks. All the nearest side trails moved away from Lainey's position.
She called, "Whoa!" and put on the brakes. As soon as her team halted, Scotch jumped from her sled and ran to the head of the line. She grabbed the collars of her lead dogs, Cleatis and Sukita, and brought them around. The rest of the team followed until they faced back the way they had come. Muscling the sled about, she popped the snow hook when everything was ready and yelled, "Let's go! Get up!"
The dogs happily trotted along at a brisk pace per Scotch's command. She heard no more gunshots, but that did little to ease her mind. What could have coerced Lainey to use the pistol? Scotch was not even sure Lainey knew how to use the thing. She had flat out refused to do more than listen to a general run through about the weapon before putting it in her sled bag with a distasteful expression. Only Scotch's threat to terminate their contract made Lainey accept the gun as part of her racing gear.
They were not moving fast enough. "Get up!" she called again. "Let's go!" Her team put in a little more effort, but she knew it would not last for long. This speed was primarily for sprints, not extensive runs. She fought the urge to jump off and run with them, knowing they were sliding along faster than her feet could carry her, but feeling an overwhelming need to do something to get there faster.
Anxiety raced through her as she conjured up all manner of scenarios, none of them pretty. As the visions ran through her mind, she gave the commands to get them to Dupont Circle. Several minutes passed until they pulled into the meadow, and she wasted no time getting the dogs on the proper trail. In the distance, she heard a snow machine nearing, and felt a vague sense of relief at the added assistance on the way.
The switchbacks were fairly hazardous on the best of days. Going at breakneck speed increased the danger of tangles and falls, but Scotch and her team had extensive experience with the even more perilous trails of the Iditarod trail and the Yukon Quest. Still, she barely managed to remain upright as the dogs took the fourth turn. Jubilant barking met her ears and she barely registered Lainey's team before she stood on the brakes and halted her dogs beside her sled.
Setting the snow hook was an automatic gesture as Scotch flung herself from the sled. Lainey sat in the snow amid a tangle of tuglines and dogs. She seemed well enough and Scotch looked over the mess, glad to see that none of the animals were so snarled that their lines choked them. A few feet away blood from a dead moose stained the snow where it had collapsed. She carefully noted it was dead and dismissed it as a threat.
Scotch almost swooned as the weight of fear lifted. She had a good idea what had happened, and Lainey was safe. Her knees became rubbery with relief, and she stumbled forward. Lainey held a bleeding dog in her lap, and Scotch's initial respite faded into dread. The pistol lay nearby, its black metal sunk into the snow.
"Are you all right?" she asked, kneeling in the snow beside her. She grimaced as she saw the wounded dog was Cochise. He panted and whimpered, but held still in Lainey's arms. His snout was bloody and one eye had swollen shut. Scotch could not tell if he had a simple head injury or the blood around his mouth was from internal bleeding.
Lainey nodded in response to her question. "There wasn't any time. He was already a few feet away when I came around the bend." She sniffled.
Scotch hugged the crying woman, resting her cheek on the dark head. "It's okay. It's all right. It's over."
She sobbed and burrowed closer, her hands never leaving Cochise, gently stroking his fur.
The snow machine drew closer and then stopped. Scotch heard the motor drop into an idle, and a voice call out.
"Hang on, help is here," she told Lainey. Reluctant to release her, Scotch did so anyway, standing to yell back, "Over here! In the switchback!"
She received an answering shout, and the motor revved. As much as she wanted to return to Lainey's side, this disaster had to be cleaned up. The smell of blood would draw any predators or scavengers in the area, and the dogs needed to be straightened out and returned to the kennel. Scotch bent and unhooked Cochise from his neckline as the snow machine came into view from the other side of the switchback.
"What the hell?" Ray Lafferty exclaimed, swerving at the last minute to avoid the bull in his path. He turned off the engine and clambered from the snow machine. "I heard the shots. Everybody okay?"
"For the most part," Scotch said, stepping forward to shake his hand. "I'm glad you're here. Cochise has been injured, and I don't know how bad."
"I'll take him to your mom," he volunteered. He looked over her shoulder at Lainey. "Should I take her, too?"
Scotch turned to regard the quietly weeping woman. "Yeah. Maybe you should. I can rig the dogs together and pull her sled in."
Lafferty nodded his grizzled head. "Let's get going then. Time's a wasting." He went back to his snow machine to start it anew.
"Lainey?" Scotch said as she neared. "Ray's going to take you and Cochise to Mom's hospital."
"What?" Lainey asked, looking confused.
"Ray's here," Scotch said, gesturing to the old timer who neared with the vehicle. "Cochise needs to get to a vet. Ray will take both of you to Mom."
Lainey studied Ray as he dismounted and neared, then the dog in her lap. She scanned the tiny clearing. "What about my team?"
"I'll get them in, don't worry about that." Scotch's voice was calm and soothing. Lainey was obviously in shock. With the right tone, she would be compliant and follow orders. Killing was not an easy thing to do, regardless of the situation. The photo journalist had seen a lot of death over her career, but had never been its cause. It had to mess with her head.
"Excuse me, miss?" Lafferty asked. "The sooner we get in, the better chance that dog has to survive."
Lainey wiped her face, lifting her chin. "I'm not going with you. It's my team, and my mess. I'll help clean it up."
Lafferty blinked at her, taken aback at her sudden defiant attitude. He shook himself and gave Scotch a rueful grin. "Whatever you say, ma'am."
"That's what I say." She glared up at them.
Scotch regarded her for a long moment. She saw the stubborn need for Lainey to follow through, no matter how difficult the task. Most women, those of a less hardy nature, would have taken the offer for what it was - an escape from the emotional upheaval of dealing with the state of affairs. Lainey had not only overcome her fear of guns, but had successfully defended herself with one. She had kept her head when others would have crawled under a rock, defeated.
Her opinion of Lainey Hughes, already high by most standards, raised a notch. This was one tough lady. If any Outsider rookie had a shot at completing the Iditarod, this one did.
"All right. Let's get a move on."
Her words were a catalyst and Lainey's shoulders squared in determination. With Lafferty's help, Lainey wrapped Cochise in her sleeping bag and helped him cradle the dog between his legs on the snow machine. When they were ready, he told her he would take care of her lead dog, and slowly drove the vehicle toward Fuller Kennels.
Scotch used the time to untangle the team and get both of them facing home. She tied off the snub lines on both sleds. Lainey snacked her dogs on frozen white fish, heaping praise on them for their level heads, and Scotch did the same. Once that muddle was cleared up, Scotch approached the moose. Close inspection showed two bullet wounds, one on its forehead and one in the neck. From the amount of blood, it looked like Lainey had nicked an artery.
Behind her, she heard the crunch of snow as Lainey approached.
"Damned good shot for not knowing what to do," Scotch said. She poked at the head wound, noting a streak of damage that went up past its ear. "Looks like your first shot hit him at just the right angle to deflect the bullet. It was your second shot that did him in."
"He reared up. He didn't look like he was leaving, and I didn't want him trampling the team, so I fired again."
"You did what you needed to do," Scotch said simply. "Now you're going to learn what to do if this happens again. If you kill a game animal on the trail, you're required to gut it and report it at the next checkpoint. Here at home you have to report it to the Fish and Game department."
Lainey swallowed, her complexion growing pale. "How often does this happen on the trail?"
Scotch heard the tremor in her voice. "On the Iditarod itself? Not often. Maybe once every couple of years. For the most part, a moose will leave the trail rather than fight it out. If you were as close as you say you were, he probably didn't think he had any other alternative." Unable to stop herself, she reached out and cupped Lainey's cheek. "I don't think this will happen to you again."
She closed her eyes and nodded, leaning into the touch.
Scotch was familiar with the forceful steel of Lainey's personality. This hint of vulnerability slipped free of that and the rare moment called to her. Ever since her aborted attempt to kiss Lainey, she had forced herself to stay aloof. They never discussed what had happened in the dog barn, and for a time Scotch was not even sure Lainey had realized what had almost occurred. But this felt too right to pass up. Scotch leaned forward and brushed her lips against Lainey's, her desire overshadowing her vow of abstinence and fear of driving the woman away.
Far from being appalled at the forward behavior, Lainey returned the kiss, her hand drifting up to touch Scotch's. It was sweet and gentle, and Scotch fought the urge to demand more. Now was not the time. She only wanted Lainey to know she was there for her, a friend to support her rather than a sex crazed roommate.
Even with the promising response, she ended the kiss, reminding herself that Lainey had never shown an inclination toward sleeping with women. Wishful thinking would not change fact. She leaned her forehead against Lainey's a moment, regaining her equilibrium. "Are you okay?" Scotch opened her eyes to see Lainey peering at her.
"Yeah. I'm good."
Nodding, she released her and sat back. "As I said, you have to learn to gut the carcass. Watch closely." With businesslike movements she began the process, not speculating on Lainey's lack of complaint at the liberty she had taken.
When they arrived at the kennel, they were met by friends, family and neighbors alike. Howry, Thom, and Lafferty, alerted by the dogs in the yard, stood out on the back deck. Rye and Irish had returned from their races, and promptly set to work taking over Lainey's team despite her insistence that she was supposed to take care of them.
"You've done more than enough today," Irish said in no uncertain terms. Her manner was brisk and business like as she turned Lainey away. "Get over to the clinic and check on Cochise."
Lainey still felt a little numb from the ordeal, but recognized Helen's mannerisms in the nine year old.
"Don't argue with a Fuller woman," Thom said, draping an arm around Lainey's shoulder. He and the other men had gathered at her sled to look over the moose carcass. "It's a lost cause."
She glanced at Scotch who was snacking her dogs again before kenneling them. Her lips tingled at the remembered kiss, knowing that her promise to not come on to the woman had not been as strong as she had thought. It had shattered in that instant like the thin, beautiful icicle it was, and there was no going back.
Scotch glanced up from checking one of her dogs and smiled at her. "I think you're right."
Thom chuckled. "I'm right. I've just had a few years to get used to the idea." He released her and turned to Lafferty. "Since you were kind enough to help out, what do you say to a couple of steaks for dinner tonight?"
"That sounds like a fine idea." Lafferty licked his lips.
Lainey shuddered. It had been horrible having to gut the moose and carry it home. She did not want to know where her meat came from, preferring the tidy package found in the butcher's department at the grocery store. Unfortunately, even the Fullers diet held a large proportion of game rather than hamburger. Subsistence hunting and fishing was an Alaskan institution.
She stepped away from her sled, and headed for the clinic.
"How are you?"
Lainey gave Howry a wan smile. "I've been better."
He walked with her, hands in his pockets. "I heard Lafferty say you got a hell of trophy there. He thinks that moose is close to a thousand pounds."
"It sure felt that way," she said, shaking her head. "I'm going to be so sore tomorrow. I'm surprised Scotch and I were able to get it into the sled at all."
He was silent a moment. "How did you get it loaded, anyway?"
"After a lot of messing around, we finally harnessed our wheel dogs together, wrapped rope around the carcass, and used the dogs to roll it into the sled."
"Should prove to be an interesting article, huh?" he said. "Intrepid reporter takes down bull moose in the wilds of Alaska."
Lainey snorted, but said, "It might sell copy, but it's not something I want to repeat."
"Were you scared?"
"Terrified," she agreed.
"I would be, too."
She debated on whether or not to admit to Scotch kissing her, but remained silent. He would figure it out sooner or later; he was an astute man. Until then it was her secret. She and Scotch needed to sit down and have a serious talk about where things were going anyway. The closer the Iditarod came, the less inclined Lainey was to upset the training - not for Scotch's sake, but for her own. As stupid as the original premise had been, the racing fever had rooted firmly in her heart and, come hell or high water, Lainey was going to be at that starting line in Anchorage come March. She would much rather do it without the emotional turmoil that hung over her head, however.
They took the steps up to the cabin that housed the veterinary hospital two at a time. The waiting room was empty though the lights blazed against the early Alaskan sunset. Lainey stomped snow from her mukluks and promptly shed her bloodstained parka.
"In here," came the answer. "Second door on the left."
Lainey hastened down the hall, Howry on her heels. "How is he?" she asked, entering the examination room.
Cochise lay on the table, his breathing easy. Stark white bandages covered his eye, a hint of pink blushing the center. His chest was tightly wrapped, and he was unconscious. Lainey went to his side to run her hands over his fur.
Helen, wearing a white smock over a heavy ribbed sweater, smiled. "Actually quite good. He's got a couple of cracked ribs, but I think they're nothing more than hairline fractures. No internal bleeding. There's damage to the eye - we won't know whether he's lost his sight for a couple of weeks. He'll have a grand headache when the drugs wear off."
Lainey's shoulders slumped in relief and tears spilled down her cheeks. "Thank God." Cochise would live through his injuries, maybe even heal well enough to pull a sled again. She had been intensely worried that the moose had done serious damage to him.
"What exactly happened?" Helen asked. "I know there was a moose in the trail, but how did Cochise get hurt?"
Lainey explained the incident to both of them, how she had not seen the moose until it was too late, trying to get the dogs out of danger, and the ultimate act of killing the animal as it began a rampage through her team. By the time she was finished, she found herself sitting on a stool, shaking and crying, feeling very much like a complete idiot. Howry handed her a handkerchief and she blew her nose while he rubbed her shoulders. She heard footsteps and looked up to see Helen returning from somewhere with a glass of clear liquid in her hand.
"Here. Drink this down. Doctor's orders."
Lainey almost did, but caught a pungent whiff of alcohol. Her entire being sang with the need to bring it to her lips, the yearning almost overwhelming in its strength. Instead, she handed it to Howry. "No, thank you."
Helen gave her an odd look.
Howry drained the glass in one swallow and wheezed. "Good!" he gasped.
"Four years, eleven months, and twenty-two days," Lainey said without a pause.
Helen gave her a respectful nod.
"What the hell is this?" Howry asked, handing her the glass.
Smug, Helen took it from him and set it on a nearby counter. "White lightning. Not everybody pays cash for my services, you know."
Scotch arrived in the door, her expression worried as she scanned Lainey's tear stained face.
"It's all right, Scotch. He'll be fine."
She leaned against the door jamb, and blew out a breath. "Good." She dislodged her cap and ran a hand through her hair.
"He's out of the running this year," Helen said. "But I expect him to heal up fine for another season."
Her manner was a weird echo to Irish's out at the sled, and Lainey fought to not laugh. She saw the answering humor in Scotch's eyes, and felt warmed to her toes.
Helen continued, not noticing their distraction. "Now I want both of you to get a change of clothes and get up to the main cabin for a hot shower. Thom should have the grill going by then, and dinner will be not long after." No one moved. "Scoot!"
"Yes, ma'am." Scotch grinned. "Come on," she said to the others, "before she gets out the broom to chase us."
Her mother snorted and turned away from them.
Out on the porch, Scotch turned to Lainey. "If you want, I can go get your clothes. You can go on up to the main cabin and get the first shower."
Was this an attempt to avoid discussing what happened out there? Lainey studied Scotch's face, liking the blush that sprang across her cheeks. No, this did not look like she was dodging the issue. She thought only to help Lainey deal with the emotional repercussions of the gun and killing.
Howry cleared his throat, his reporter instincts picking up the smell of a story.
"No, that's okay," Lainey said. "We'll go together."
"Yeah." Lainey raised an eyebrow at her colleague. "We'll see you there."
Howry squinted his eyes at her, knowing something was up. He also knew he would get nothing now, so he smiled. "You got it." He trotted down the steps and toward the main cabin where a fire blazed merrily in the barrel barbecue on the deck.
Lainey was still warm enough in her bibbed snow pants that she did not don her parka. It was stained with blood from both Cochise and the moose, and she hoped a thorough laundering would remove the worst of the discoloration. She carried it in the hook of one elbow as they left the clinic.
Scotch had a small flashlight which she used to illuminate their way along the now familiar path. Lainey remembered her first time down this trail, sunlit at ten o'clock at night, lugging gear and belongings, and dreading being alone with her lust object. Now it was barely five in the afternoon and dark.
She reached for Scotch's hand, smiling as their fingers twined together. Squeezing, she felt the answering grasp.
At the cabin, she reluctantly released Scotch and followed her inside. "Let me stoke up the fire," Scotch said, heading down into the living area. "You go get your things."
Lainey stood on the landing, a fond smile on her face as she watched her friend hunker before the banked coals in the fireplace. As Scotch stirred them to life and added kindling, the orange glow both highlighted and silhouetted her, warming her.
When Scotch rose, Lainey was beside her. She turned, startled at their proximity. She swallowed hard. "Thought you were going to get your things."
"I've got something more important to do," Lainey said. She took Scotch's hands in hers and leaned close, kissing her.
At first, the kiss was as gentle as it had been on the trail. As Lainey debated escalating it, Scotch beat her to the punch, her tongue brushing Lainey's lower lip in polite request. Her mouth opened, and Scotch slipped inside to explore with lazy insistence. Lainey moaned against the welcome invasion. She released Scotch's hands, her fingers finally enjoying the softness of those tawny curls that had so interested her in the beginning. They stepped into each other, and she felt strong arms encircle her waist and shoulder as Scotch tasted her, warm hands roaming her back and sides.
It seemed to go on forever, yet hardly lasted a blink of the eye as Scotch toned things down. She drew back, humming in amusement as Lainey tried to force the issue, and eventually pulled away. Lainey grumbled under her breath, but secretly reveled in the lips caressing her nose and eyelids.
"I've been wanting to do that with you for a long time," Scotch whispered, resting their foreheads together.
Lainey's fingers stroked the back of Scotch's neck. "I've been wanting to do it longer."
Scotch drew back enough to look at her, a grin on her face. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Ever since the first time I saw you."
She tilted her head. "At the banquet in Nome?"
Lainey chuckled, realizing it was time to confess. "No. Before the banquet. You helped a klutz of a woman to her feet that afternoon, and received nothing but an attitude for thanks."
Scotch looked blank for a moment. When she recalled the incident, she jerked back even more. "That was you?" she asked, a mixture of amusement and dismay on her face.
"Guilty as charged." She watched a myriad of emotions cross Scotch's expression and winced a little. "I made that bad of an impression?"
Laughing, Scotch hugged her. "At the time, yes. I think I can forgive you now, though. You were in pain from your ribs, weren't you?"
"Yeah, but that's not an excuse for rude behavior."
"Not in this family," Scotch agreed. "But you were an unsophisticated rube from Outside at the time. I can cut you some slack."
Lainey dropped her head, leaning against Scotch's chest. "Gee, thanks." She received a hug in response.
"About today . . ."
"Yeah, about today." Lainey stepped away. "As much as I would love to march you upstairs and show you a thing or two, I don't think we should."
Lainey blinked. "You do?"
Scotch grinned. She took Lainey's hand and led them to the couch. As they sat, she pulled Lainey close, draping an arm over her shoulders. "We've got a lot of energy invested in the race. I don't have much more to spare, and I don't think you do, either. We can't afford to be distracted."
"Like I haven't already been distracted," Lainey said, disgruntled. When the hell had Scotch gotten so responsible and adult? She certainly did not act like a lesbian on the verge of awakening to her sexuality.
"Man, do I agree with that." Scotch brought her free hand up to chuck Lainey's chin. "But we have time, and I think we can swing a wonderful celebration in Nome when we both get there."
"Is this enticement for the rookie?" Lainey asked, raising an eyebrow.
Scotch looked into her eyes and the world fell away. How had she missed the expressiveness in that sky blue color? She saw how much the waiting would affect Scotch, as much if not more than it would affect her. Lainey also saw the truth of their situation, the same truth she had arrived at a month ago when she barely avoided the last kiss. There was no time, and could be no distractions. Not yet. They had to focus on their teams and the ultimate goal.
Lainey nodded in understanding, pleased to see the answering agreement reflected back. Her reward was another long kiss, and she accepted in with relish.
"We should get our stuff," Scotch murmured when they were finished.
Neither of them moved.
"First one back down here gets another kiss?" she suggested.
Scotch bolted for the stairs, Lainey in hot pursuit.
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