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Scotch doled the last of breakfast into Idduna's bowl. The dog gazed at her with adoration, ignoring the food as she wriggled in pleasure. Dropping the feed pail, Scotch lavished her with a thorough scratching. Only then would Idduna attend her meal, a combination of moistened chow, rice and hot water.
Around Scotch, the rest of the kennel greedily ate up their offerings. Her brother and sister had finished their sections, both threading through the canine population toward the dog kitchen, and she joined them. After years of habit, they hardly spoke as they continued their daily ritual. Irish, nine years old, collected the feed pails to rinse out, and store inside the barn. Scotch and her brother, Rye, pulled the fifty-five gallon drum that doubled as a huge pot off the barrel stove. While Rye rolled it outside the kitchen area for cleaning, Scotch hung the stir 'spoon' - a snow shovel - on a hook. Then she threw sand across the floor to soak up any spills before sweeping the concrete floor clean.
As she worked, she kept her mind occupied with thoughts of Idduna. The dog had gone into heat a week into the Iditarod, considerably distracting the team. It had taken quite a bit of creative management to keep her separated from the eager boys, but Scotch had succeeded. When the race was over, she had allowed one of her leaders, Sukita, to breed the bitch. She expected Idduna would give birth by mid-May, and she already contemplated the potential of the pups. Idduna was a solid dog in her team, and Sukita one of the smartest. He could sense a blown out trail where most dogs would get lost. Scotch wondered if she should have called him Sonar, because he certainly had the gift. Would the pups inherit that gift, too?
When she finished her chore, she and Rye returned the pot to its place in preparation of the next feeding that afternoon. In the meantime, Irish gave their two large free run kennels a cursory inspection. They evidently met with her approval, and she began the process of transferring five dogs into each one for some playtime. Ten more would have an opportunity to carouse together that afternoon.
Turning back to the cabin, she saw her mother leaning out the back door.
"When you're done with the scooping, we've got a board meeting."
Rye waved comprehension. "Okay, Mom."
"Wonder what that's about," Scotch said, pulling two shovels from their storage pegs. She followed Rye, who lugged a plastic trash barrel, out to the dog yard.
"You got me," he said. "I didn't expect a board meeting until the first of the month."
"Me neither." They began the job of scooping excrement from around the dog enclosures, a nasty yet entertaining one as the canines did their level best to distract them. As usual, the dogs succeeded somewhat, receiving scratches and pats as the siblings worked their way through the crap left by ninety-five animals. Fortunately, break up had not yet occurred, making the chore not as filthy as it would have been had there been melt off and mud on the ground. That would happen soon enough.
"Maybe it's your adoring public," Rye eventually said, grinning as he wiped sweat from his forehead with one arm.
Scotch snorted, a smile on her face, and kept shoveling. "If my 'adoring public' will bring in money to sponsor me for next year, I'm for it."
"I hear you, sis."
With the job completed, they put things away, and headed into the main house. The minimal heat of the entry was uncomfortable after her work out. Scotch divested herself of boots, work gloves, and jacket. She followed her siblings inside, inhaling the aroma of bacon and eggs with appreciation as she removed further layers of clothing. After cleaning up, the family sat down to a big Sunday breakfast.
Leaning back in his chair, Rye patted his belly in contentment. "That was wonderful," he said to his mother who had begun clearing the table.
Helen Fuller, still clad in a bathrobe and slippers, put dishes in the sink for later washing. She wiped her hands on a towel. "Thank you."
Scotch passed her, pausing to kiss her mother's cheek. Dodging two-year-old Bon, who precariously balanced his silverware on his plate, Scotch rid herself of her dish before scooping him up.
"Sco' help!" Bon exclaimed as his older sister lifted him high enough to put his brightly colored plastic plate with the rest.
"Bon help," Scotch said. She planted him on her hip, reaching for a washcloth to remove the sticky residue of pancakes and syrup from his grinning face.
"So what's up with a board meeting?" Rye asked, ruffling Bon's white blond hair in passing, and returning to the table. "Is it that phone call you got last night?"
Scotch drifted back to her chair, and Bon contented himself for the moment to remain in her lap. "What phone call?"
"It was after you'd gone back to your cabin, dear," her mother said. She sat down, and retrieved a notepad and pen from an armoire behind her. "Shall we begin?"
Thomas Fuller nodded, and he wiped his red mustache and beard with a napkin. "The Fuller Kennel board of directors is called to order," he said. "All members present and accounted for."
Scotch smiled. She had been a member of the board since she was Bon's age when the kennel had come into existence. Her parents had legally incorporated it and, at the birth of each child after, officially added a new member.
"Last night we got a call from a reporter for Cognizance."
"They just published an article about the Iditarod," Helen informed them.
Both Rye and Irish immediately looked at their sister. Scotch felt her face heat up. She smothered a shiver, and her entire being seemed to pause between one heartbeat and the next. It was similar to what she experienced when the team first took off from the starting line; anything could and would happen in the coming moments.
"They want to do an in-depth piece on Scotch for next year."
Irish whooped, clapping her hands. Bon followed suit, enthusiastic as he enjoyed the atmosphere.
"That's fantastic!" Rye said, when things died down. "So, why the meeting? What's this got to do with the kennel?"
Thomas leaned back in his chair. "The reporter has requested to live and work here from sign up to the race next year."
Scotch's innards swooped low. It was one thing to get decent publicity, opening avenues of sponsors to help defray the costs of the kennel and racing itself. But to have some stranger living with her family? The idea of being under constant surveillance was creepy at best.
"Live here?" Irish asked, wrinkling her freckled nose. "I'm not giving up my room."
"You won't have to," Thomas said.
"I get to move into my cabin?" Rye's eyebrows rose in anticipation. The property was large enough that several cabins and out buildings had been erected over the years. As his sister before him, one was being built for his eighteenth birthday and official adulthood.
"Not at sixteen, mister," his mother said.
Rye's face fell.
"Well, providing we vote to accept him, where's he going to sleep?" Scotch asked.
Her father grinned. "He's a she, and there's room at your place."
"My place?" The entire idea was going beyond creepy now. "Why my place?"
"She'll be here to do an article on you, honey," Helen said. "What better place for her?"
Unable to argue the logic, Scotch held her tongue.
"This reporter, Miss Hughes, she says the magazine will either do an intensive issue after the race, or do a series of articles leading up to and past it." Thomas leaned his elbows on the table. "You know how tight money is. She's willing to pay room and board, and work at the kennel on top of things. With this exposure, Scotch, you could get national sponsorship. Hell!" He slapped the table, causing the detritus of their meal to rattle. "You might even get the magazine to sponsor you!"
Scotch considered her father's words. Being intimately acquainted with the kennel and finances as all of them were, she saw the truth of his words. Granted, the Fullers were well enough off to afford nice things, but that was in large part due to Fuller Construction, Thomas' business, and Helen's veterinarian practice. The kennel itself paid for Scotch's racing fees, and she spent summers running tours and adventures to bring in money to cover costs.
She weighed the absence of financial problems against the thought of some stranger living in her cabin with her. For months. What if this woman was a shrew, or a neat freak? What if she snored?
Realizing that everyone was looking to her for a cue, Scotch blushed, covering her embarrassment by jostling Bon who was still in her lap. "What did she sound like?" she asked, not pleased with the wistful tone in her voice.
Her father seemed to understand the true question. "She sounds excited with the idea. Apparently she was at the awards banquet, and that's where she came up with it." He gave his oldest daughter a serious look. "I think she's done her research, and really wants to make this work."
"Regardless of the vote, you are the most affected," Helen said. "If you don't want to go through with it, that's that."
Scotch scanned the people around the table. Her parents remained carefully neutral. In her arms, Bon clapped twice at the expectant feeling in the air, then made a dive for a slice of bacon still on the platter. She got it for him, and he succumbed to quietly nibble the meat. Irish watched with wide blue eyes, twirling a lock of strawberry hair with one hand.
It was Rye who gave her the answer. He all but yelled at her to accept the proposal with his expression. Still too young to run the Iditarod, he had placed well in the Junior Iditarod the previous two years, and was heavily involved with the Junior Alaskan and Sled Dog Racing Association. Any national exposure to his sister would naturally shine on him, as well.
The reporter would only be there a few months. Scotch would be so busy training through winter, she probably would not even notice the woman's existence. The payoff would mean an easy season, free from financial concerns.
"All right. Let's vote."
"Those in favor of accepting Miss Hughes' offer?" Thomas asked.
Everyone around the table raised their hands except Bon. Seeing the movement, he grinned and waved his half-.eaten bacon, almost swatting Scotch in the head.
"Whoa there!" she said, laughing with her family as she ducked out of the way.
"You'd better put that thing away before you poke an eye out."
"Poke, poke!" Bon crowed at the attention.
"Meeting adjourned," Thomas said, standing. "I'm going to call that reporter, and give her the good news."
Scotch watched him leave. Bon demanded down, and he slid out of her lap. Everyone else took her father's lead, and stood. Chores needed doing, even on a fine Sunday morning. As she helped finish clearing the table, Rye leaned close, his voice low.
"You won't regret it, sis. This is a hell of an opportunity for you."
She risked a glance at their mother when he cursed. "Mind your tongue or Mom's going to cut it off."
He grinned impishly, and sauntered away with a handful of plates.
Watching him, she hoped he was right.
End of June
Scotch stared nervously at the airstrip before her, tapping a staccato on the steering wheel in time with a bluegrass tune on the radio. The June morning had dawned beautifully, the temperature sitting at a balmy fifty-eight degrees. It was expected to reach sixty-five before the day was through, a perfect day to welcome a pair of newcomers.
Over the last three months, her father had remained in close contact with the reporter, Lainey Hughes. Or was it the other way around? She seemed to call the house fairly regularly to discuss the best time to arrive, what sort of clothes to pack, and other particulars with the senior Fuller. In May, Lainey had also added another photographer to her entourage, increasing the Fuller population by an additional body. Rye was still not allowed to move into his unfinished cabin, as much as he tried to change his mother's mind. Instead, another bunk had been added to the handler's cabin where Miguel Sanchez, the kennel's sole employee, resided.
Scotch wondered why the woman needed a cameraman when she was an accomplished photographer in her own right. A quick search on the Internet had provided a wealth of information on the mysterious reporter. Scotch found her body of work fascinating. Early in her career, Lainey had spent time in Africa, covering a civil war in Rwanda. Her photos of the atrocities between the Hutu and Tutsi people eventually helped convict the prime minister for war crimes, and made her career. From there, she wandered the globe, following wars and military coups. The scenes she revealed to the world showed the true brutality of war, fresh corpses and celebrating radicals. They also highlighted the humanity. Scotch's favorite was one of a Middle Eastern boy, maybe five or six years old, playing in the dusty street before a bombed out building. She liked it so much, she had the image printed up and framed. It sat in her cabin on an end table.
Lainey had been wounded in Kosovo, though all Scotch could find was that she had been shot. After a year of nothing, the photojournalist returned to work. Instead of war, this time, she focused her lens on nature. She still traveled extensively, but seemed to avoid the hot spots of the world. Scotch could not blame her; being shot must have been a terrifying experience.
The extensive research did not calm Scotch's nerves, though. She continued to be leery of having a stranger live with her. Scotch enjoyed her solitude. When she had moved out of the main house and into her cabin five years ago, it had been wondrous not having to share the space with her little sister. Attending the college based in nearby Anchorage, she had taken online and correspondence courses, never having to resort to a dorm or roommates. This would be an alien experience for her, and she did not know how she would handle it.
Scotch's ears picked up the sound of an engine. She turned off the radio, and leaned forward to peer out the windshield, trying to locate the airplane. It cut into sight, emerging from the tree line on her left. The tiny plane swung around, lining up with the rudimentary runway as it approached. There was just enough clearance for it to land, leaving little room to taxi, and it halted no more than fifteen feet away from her. As the motor shut down, she got out of the truck, to lean against the side panel with one hip.
The door popped open, and a stool plunked beneath it to accommodate a gruff man in coveralls. He clambered out of the plane, spying her. With an exuberant wave, he marched toward her. "Scotch! How the hell are you?"
Grinning, she met the pilot halfway, giving him a hug. "I'm doing great, Cliff. You?"
"Been better," he confided. "These old bones are acting up. And Delores in threatening to quit on me."
She looked properly horrified, though he said the same thing every time she saw him. "No way! Delores loves you. It'll be a long time before her wings are clipped."
He eyeballed the small charter plane. The only section of its hull that did not appear banged or scraped was a carefully painted pin up girl by the pilot's seat. She wore a skimpy red dress, and smiled coyly at her admirers. "You think so?"
Cheered, Cliff's gaze shifted to the two people unloading luggage and gear. "That little girl there says she's doing a big magazine article on you this year. That true?"
Scotch blushed. "It's true. We're hoping to get a national sponsor out of the publicity."
He nodded in agreeable contemplation. "Sounds like a plan. Hope it works out for you."
His tone rang with uncertainty, catching Scotch's attention. "You think it won't?" she asked, lowering her voice.
Sucking his teeth, Cliff said, "I think it can go either way. She seems a bit high maintenance to me." He chuckled, and nudged a now worried Scotch with his shoulder. "But don't mind me; I could be wrong. If I could judge women as well as airplanes, I'd be married by now."
She laughed with him, stowing his reservations for later perusal. The reporters finished unloading the plane, and she stepped forward to introduce herself. "Hi, I'm Scotch Fuller. Welcome to Alaska."
"It's nice to finally meet you," the woman said, offering her hand. She stood a few inches shorter, her curly dark hair cut short, and shot through with threads of silver. Scotch knew from her research that she was only six years younger than the reporter, and found the premature coloring of interest. "Obviously, I'm Lainey Hughes, and this is my associate, Don Howry."
"Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fuller."
Hands were shaken, and Scotch offered to take one of the bags. She had the weirdest sensation that she had met Lainey before. Her father had said that she had covered the last race, so maybe that was the connection. "Call me Scotch," she instructed, leading the way to the truck. "Since you'll be with us a while, no reason to not to be an a first name basis."
With Cliff's help, they loaded the bags into the back of the truck. He declined an invitation to the kennel for coffee, but gratefully swapped his thermos with Scotch's. Soon he was back in his plane, cranking it up for the trip back to Anchorage. They watched as he turned Delores around, and took off, the landing gears just barely missing the tops of the trees at the other end of the airstrip.
Left alone with the strangers, Scotch sighed and forced a smile. "Let's get you back to the kennel, and settled in," she said, opening the truck and folding the seat back. "I've only got jump seats here. It's kind of small, so maybe Lainey should take the back."
"That sounds fine." Lainey smiled, and stepped forward as Howry went around to the passenger door.
Still holding the seat out of the way, Scotch leaned back against the door hinge to give Lainey room to climb inside. She could not help but notice the snug fitting designer jeans, and a light scent of perfume. Shaking her head, she waited until Lainey folded down the seat behind Howry, and settled in the cramped space before clambering into the truck.
Soon they were on a paved rural road, heading into the village she called home. The silence was unnerving to Scotch. While she could see Howry with her peripheral vision avidly soaking up the sights of small town Alaska, she swore she felt the eyes of Lainey staring at her. A quick glance proved her instincts correct as the photojournalist looked away. Scotch, somewhat out of her element, reddened at the intensity of Lainey's expression, and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
Lainey cleared her throat. "So, how long have you been driving dogs?" she asked.
Scotch grinned, welcoming the distraction of dog talk. "Almost twenty years." At the abrupt quiet, she regarded her passengers, noting Howry's puzzled look and Lainey's expression of denial. "My parents started the kennel when I was two. As soon as I could stand and hang on alone, I was on a sled."
"Wow," Howry said. "Sledding as long as you've been walking. That's cool."
She negotiated through the small town, driving automatically. "I only had one dog for a team, of course, but it was a beginning. My brother and sister started the same way."
"That would be . . . Irish and Rye?" Lainey asked.
Scotch nodded, turning off the road and onto a hard packed dirt lane. "Irish is nine; she's up to ten dogs now. And Rye runs a full load."
"Interesting names," Howry said, hinting for more information.
Chuckling, Scotch said, "Talk to my dad. He loves telling the story."
"I will," Lainey responded, her voice soft.
Scotch looked sharply over her shoulder, not certain what she thought she would see. Lainey merely smiled back at her. Turning back to her driving, she wondered why the woman unsettled her so.
Her sexual interests were no mystery to the man; they had worked together in South America once. Two months of close association left little in the way of secrets. By the time they returned to the states, they were old hands at discussing the topic of bringing a woman to climax, bragging about their abilities and sharing techniques.
Watching Scotch's profile, her libido kicked into overdrive. Her masturbatory fantasy of the last three months sat merely inches away. Good God, how was she going to survive this? What ever possessed her to pitch this idea in the first place? Lainey's sudden rush of nerves unsettled her. She had never felt this way about any woman she was interested in.
Scotch held an unconscious beauty. She needed no make up, and apparently did not wear any. Her nose was lightly crooked, and Lainey wondered if it was natural or the result of a break. Otherwise her features were flawless. Scotch's skin was tanned with a light brushing of freckles across her nose. It was not as weathered as when Lainey had first seen her, but back in March, Scotch had just come off the Iditarod trail. Tawny golden curls stuck out haphazardly from beneath a cream-colored baseball cap, curling at the nape of her neck. Lainey was hard pressed to not reach over and finger the tresses.
Her perusal was interrupted by a growing cacophony of sound, distracting both she and Howry. Scotch drove the truck down a driveway, past a sign welcoming them to Fuller Kennels. Hours of operation were posted there, and Lainey wondered why. She made a mental note to get a picture of the sign, focusing her attention on the nearing buildings.
The drive was a huge loop, with a central rest area holding a smattering of wooden chairs and a stone barbecue grill. A station wagon with Virginia license plates sat in a rudimentary parking area to the left, the back piled high with camping gear. Two log buildings were central to the drive, one with a rustic wooden sign proclaiming the Fuller Veterinarian Hospital. That would be why there were hours of operation, of course.
Lainey identified the noise as several dogs barking in excited welcome.
Scotch grinned as she parked in front of the second cabin. "Don't worry. The dogs only make that kind of racket for our dog trucks. They won't wake you up for everything on wheels that passes by."
"That's a relief," Howry said, opening his door. "I need my beauty sleep."
"I'll say." Lainey grinned, unrepentant at her dig.
The canine enthusiasm seemed to be contagious. She took Scotch's hand to steady herself as she climbed out of the truck. A shock traveled up her arm at the touch, and she quickly drew away, lest she follow her body's natural instincts. Lainey promptly began fishing for the luggage in the bed of the truck, receiving another questioning look from Howry. She ignored him. Now was not the time to get into a discussion of what was going on with her. It was bad enough the head honchos at Cognizance had altered her plan, thereby insuring she would have a colleague witness her foolishness. She did not need to give him any more ammunition than necessary.
Scotch said, "We'll wait until after lunch to get you settled in." She hefted a duffel bag with ease, and clambered up the steps of the cabin, setting it near the front door. "In the meantime, let's leave your stuff here, and I'll take you on the guided tour."
"Guided tour, huh?" Howry asked, dropping a suitcase on the porch. "That sounds like you do it regularly."
"We do," she said. She relieved Lainey of a full sized backpack, an expression of surprise flickering on her face as she noted how heavy it was. "Two tours a day, Monday through Friday. We also arrange day trips, overnight camp outs with the dogs, weekend excursions, and sled rides or lessons."
"Impressive," Lainey said. She pointed at the building they passed as they swung into the drive. "Plus an animal hospital?"
Scotch grinned. "Yeah. That's my mom's. She takes care of all the dogs here, and is a volunteer vet for the Iditarod."
Howry, his camera already in hand, fiddled with a lens as he eyed Lainey with a cocked brow.
She realized she was staring at Scotch with more than average interest, and quickly dissembled.
The cabin's screen door burst open, a welcome distraction for Lainey, and two bundles of energy rolled out, one human and one canine.
"Dey here! Dey here!"
Scotch scooped both of them up in an effort to contain the potential disaster. Only then were they still enough for Lainey to register what they looked like.
Hefting the child, Scotch said, "I'd like to introduce you to Bon, my youngest brother." Turning slightly to indicate the puppy, she continued, "And this is Aphrodite."
Lainey reached out and shook Bon's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you." The boy extended a bashful smile, and she grinned as he clung to his sister. There was no doubt they were related; both had wavy golden hair, though his coloring was much lighter. Hearing a shutter click, she saw Howry taking a picture.
"Oh, watch out," Scotch warned, setting her burdens down. "He's a major ham."
Bon laughed, and bustled to the screen door, throwing it open. "C'mon, Aph'dite!" The pup gamboled forward, tail wagging eagerly, and they disappeared inside.
Chuckling, Scotch stared after them as she removed her ball cap to run her hand through her hair. Lainey wondered if it felt as wonderful as it looked, mesmerized until Howry bumped her from behind. She gave him a quick glare, knowing she would have a lot to explain the next time they were alone.
Breaking the silence, she smiled brightly. "Well! How about that tour?"
He snorted at her, but followed Scotch's lead as she headed down the steps and around the cabin.
What was it they said? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Lainey did not know if she had grown more interested about Scotch over the last three months as she planned this excursion. Her attraction was just as strong as it had been the minute she had first laid eyes on the musher. It seemed as if the intrigue was much stronger in Scotch's presence than when Lainey was in New York. At least there she could fool herself into believing this was all a legitimate gig with a little eye candy to stimulate the senses. Here in Scotch's presence, everything quadrupled.
She dearly hoped constant contact would break her of this infatuation.
"Lainey? You coming?"
Startled from her musing, she waved at Scotch, noting the guarded expression in her eyes. Small wonder, since Lainey was acting bizarre, even in her estimation. She trotted down the steps to join them.
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