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"One oh four and forty-eight seconds," the checker said, marking the time on her clipboard. "You look like you've been sitting in a freezer for the last six hours. How's the trail?"
"Not too bad for the most part," Lainey said, signing in. She had to pull her face mask off to talk, and it crackled with frost. "But the wind's blowing fierce on the third ridge and on the trail between the cabins." She opened her sled bag for the mandatory inventory and grabbed a bag of moose liver treats for her team.
"Surprisingly, no," she said. She waited for the veterinarians to finish checking her team. "On Topkok it was bad, but not on the coast."
The checker nodded. "Good. I'll radio that back to White Mountain then. Maybe you won't be the only lucky one tonight. We had a couple of mushers pinned at the Kennel Club cabin for a few hours yesterday."
Lainey followed her normal procedures - feeding, massaging, salving, and putting on fresh booties. When she returned to her sled, she donned the racing bib she had started with. The rest of her gear went into three piles; one to keep, one to discard, and one to ship back to the kennel. She was only twenty-two miles from Nome and the less weight she carried, the better.
Once everything was divvied up, put into shipping bags or piled in the donations pile by the checkpoint entrance, Lainey carefully inventoried what remained. The packet of promotional materials and her mandatory gear stayed with her. She kept only one of the coolers, the one with the team's next meal soaking, and left both of the cookers and their pots to be returned home.
Again she checked the demanded gear. She had heard of mushers forgetting their axe or the promotional items having to turn around and mush back to pick it up. No way was she going to give someone else the opportunity to pass her. She sat on the edge of taking the Rookie of the Year award and any backtracking she did would handicap her.
Finally satisfied, she checked out of Safety and headed for Nome and Scotch.
The trail stayed with the road for half the stretch and the wind remained at her back. A lot of snow machine traffic during the winter kept the snow packed here and the going was one of the easiest sections Lainey had seen in a while. It was not as featureless as the path to Shaktoolik had been, for which she was grateful. An easy trail that did not involve mind numbing boredom was always a good thing. Occasional areas of construction spiced things up and her team veered past berms and and dipped into the infrequent ditch, but otherwise it was smooth mushing.
Ten miles passed quickly before the trail slipped off the road and onto the beach. For the first time in days, Lainey began to see signs of living human beings on the trail. Headlights from a car moved slowly on the road she had just left, pacing her run as she crossed snow covered sand. She wondered if it was a press car or an avid fan. At this early hour it could be no one else.
The car followed the road for the next five miles of her trek. Then it went over a bridge while she and her team dropped down to cross the Nome River. Three more miles to go. She could almost taste Scotch, a combination of the woman's natural scent, coffee, French toast, and syrup. Lainey swallowed. Nearly there.
Radio towers loomed to her right, their warning lights blinking, and the car on the road continued to pace her. She heard snow machines buzzing in the distance, coming closer as volunteers came out to check on her. A stupid grin crossed her face and her dogs echoed her sentiment, tails wagging and a frisky edge entering their steps. Her three trash talkers - Chibee, Montana and Himitsu - began yipping at their approaching company and the team picked up some speed.
"Almost there, guys!" Lainey called as she saw the lights of the first snow machine.
Two of the vehicles approached, each carrying two people who waved at Lainey. She waved back and they swung around to tail her. She was glad they stayed well enough back to not over excite her dogs. Chibee looked like he was ready to make an escape attempt and run with the newcomers rather than his team.
The car on the road slowed to a stop and the trail took a sudden turn off the river and up a steep embankment. On the other side, she saw the familiar view of Front Street, the famous burled arch of the Iditarod finish line crossing the road ahead. Flashing police lights caused her to blink, used to the darkness on the trail. She verified that the car that had been following her was press by the radio logo on the door.
It felt so odd to travel down this stretch of road. A year ago, she stood on the sidelines with the racing fans and news crews, taking photos of the half crazed men and women as they pushed their dogs and themselves to the limit for . . . what? A chance to torture themselves for ten to sixteen days and a thousand miles of deprivation? Ill equipped for the cold, freezing her ass off, Lainey had spent the entire time thinking the people here were loony while she daydreamed of a Mexican Caribbean gig.
The thought of an assignment on a tropical beach caused her to break out in a sweat.
She laughed to herself as she directed the team to the shoulder of the road. Here the snow did not cover the pavement but there was some on the sides to save her plastic runners. Not that it really mattered with only a couple of blocks to go. Shredded runners were the least of her concerns; it was an automatic gesture from months of running dogs.
The lights of the police escort faded behind her as she entered the barricaded chute. Even with it being the wee hours of the morning, people crowded the sidelines, yelling and cheering her on. Flash bulbs went off from all along the route, concentrated around the area reserved for press and she wondered if Howry was there. Would Scotch be here? Did anyone tell her she was coming in?
"Trace! Montana!" she yelled, hoping they could hear her over the mass of humanity waving their arms and calling to them. "Let's go home!"
She shared her table with Howry and Miguel, who had left the running of the kennel to the neighboring Schrams while he awaited the Fuller mushers at the finish line. After a week and a half on the trail, Howry looked bedraggled and grizzled. In comparison, Miguel was more animated, his beard well trimmed and minus the extra baggage under his eyes. Even Scotch was more alert than Howry, who had just come in that afternoon. High winds and threat of a blizzard had canceled his bush flight back to Nome and he had been forced to sit out the last few days as a volunteer at one of the checkpoints.
Scotch thought he was more angry at missing her finish than anything else, since the Cognizance story was assigned to him. He had spent the afternoon tracking down amateur photographers in an attempt to buy a picture of the finish instead of sleeping. She had consoled him with being able to catch Lainey's arrival on film. Strauss had called from White Mountain to say there would not be a flight in until morning due to high winds. Somewhat mollified, Howry had dragged his butt out of his hotel and now drowsed at the table, a mug of hot chocolate at his elbow.
A battery operated radio sat on the table between them, tuned to the Iditarod update frequency. Lainey had been spotted on the trail outside of Nome, moving at a good clip according to reports. In between mentions of her location and appearance, the reporters in the car chattered about her non-existent history of mushing and what they knew of her training. Scotch's name was mentioned fairly often, which brought the conversation to her third place win scant seconds before Drew Owens the day before. Then Lainey would navigate a pile of brush or move far enough ahead for another remark about her, and the entire thing would start over again.
It had been days since they had seen each other, and Scotch was feeling the withdrawals. She had come in almost a full day and a half earlier. After cleaning up and sleeping ten hours, Scotch had a huge steak dinner. With those needs met, she had spent the last day feeling empty. Now that she was not on the trail, there was nothing to distract her from the yearning.
How did Lainey get so strong a hold on her? What could become of them? Lainey would recuperate from the race, pack up her things and Scotch would be back to living alone.
Funny how that seemed so vacant now. It was less than a year ago that she had held reservations about sharing her cabin with a stranger. Now she did not want Lainey to leave her with the solitude, something Scotch had always treasured. Despite the heaviness trying to weigh her heart down, she hoped Lainey would stick around for at least a couple of weeks. And maybe she could come visit some time.
Scotch was not looking forward to summer.
The siren had already sounded once when Lainey was five miles minutes away. The radio announced she was almost to Front Street, interrupting Scotch's brooding on a future that would never take place.
She shoved Howry in the arm to wake him. "Come on. She's almost here." She did not wait to see if the men followed, pulling her parka over her head as she dashed for the door.
It was nearly three in the morning and very cold. Scotch pulled up her hood and snugged it tight, muscling her way toward the finish line. Even with the early hour, the sidewalk began filling with others who had been listening on the radio. This far along in the race, many of them would have been asleep, but this was the first rookie arrival and merited more attention than most.
By virtue of who she was - the trainer of the incoming musher and owner of the dogs arriving - Scotch was able to get right up to the finish line and out onto the street to help stop the team. Her appearance was fortuitous. Just as she stepped out onto the trail, Lainey's team came up from the river and hit the street.
Scotch's heart beat triple time at the sight of her even though she could barely make out who was on the sled at this distance. The parka and sled bag were familiar, though, and she felt a smile light up her face. Those dogs were familiar, too, and she shook her head in amazement. Montana in the lead and Bonaparte still with the team. Scotch would never have gotten that mutt to accept the harness for this long.
It seemed like seconds flashed by and then Lainey's dogs passed the finish line. Several volunteers reached out to stop the team before they kept going down the road. Scotch was supposed to do the same, but she completely forgot the animals as she made her way toward the musher.
"I made it!" Lainey yelled at her, trying to be heard over the applause and cheers. "I made it!"
"You made it!" Scotch agreed, picking her up in a hug. They were joined by Miguel and an exuberant Howry, the four of them dancing next to the sled with everybody watching.
Over the sound system, a race official announced, "Arriving in twenty-fourth place, Number Four, rookie Lainey Hughes for Fuller Kennels, two fifty-five am and twenty-three seconds."
More cheers and applause drowned out the speaker and he had to yell through the microphone to be heard. "Congratulations, Miss Hughes! You're no longer a rookie, you're a veteran, and you've won the Rookie of the Year award!"
Scotch ignored the words, ignored the slaps on Lainey's back from her well-wishers. She kept a tight hold on Lainey, basking in the contact, enjoying what could only be a brief and intense connection.
Scotch eased the bedroom door closed, glad she had the foresight to oil the creaking hinges before Lainey arrived. The room was dark as she stood there waiting for her eyes to adjust. Not too dark, though, as a dull light glowed around the edges of the curtains. The clock on the night stand said it was mid afternoon. Lainey made an enticing lump in the center of the mattress, and Scotch heard a gentle burr coming from the general direction of the pillows. Lainey never admitted to snoring, which did not upset Scotch. She thought it was cute; at least it was never loud enough to be obnoxious.
It had been taken a superhuman will to stay away this long. Once Lainey had finished checking in, she had mushed the team to the dog lot with Scotch and Miguel in the sled. Miguel took over handling the dogs, effectively chasing Lainey away when she tried to intercede. Scotch walked her back to the truck she had borrowed from her friends and whisked Lainey away. Lainey was introduced to her hostesses, stuffed to the gills with a good country breakfast, and sent to the showers. By the time she emerged from the bathroom, smelling of lavender, she could barely keep her eyes open.
Still tired from her time on the trail, Scotch happily joined Lainey in their bedroom. Cuddling with the smaller woman was a balm to her doubts and insecurities, and her worries about their future faded away. In no time, the exhausted Lainey fell asleep, Scotch soon following her.
Hunger drove Scotch out of the warm blankets a few hours later. When she had eaten, she forced herself out of the house, borrowing Beth's truck to get to the dog lot and check both teams. She had to admit, Lainey had done her proud. Not only had she won the Rookie of the Year award, but she had done a spectacular job with her dogs. All of them appeared happy and healthy and glad to see her. Except Bonaparte, of course. He gave Scotch the cold shoulder and kept scanning the handlers in the dog lot. She had the distinct impression he was looking for Lainey, as absurd as that sounded.
With her obligations met, she returned to the house to torture herself while Lainey slept. As much as she wanted to wake her and show her exactly how much she had been missed, Scotch sat in the living room with Beth and her partner, Wanda, discussing the race with a few of their friends who had come over. After the hundredth time of staring wistfully down the hall, Wanda plucked the coffee cup from her hand and shooed her off.
Now Scotch stripped down to her t-shirt and panties before crawling under the covers. Lainey was sleep-warm and cozy, and Scotch sighed as she fitted her body to the smaller woman's. Lainey mumbled in her sleep and stirred, turning to snuggle closer. Smiling, Scotch adjusted herself to accommodate until they lay wrapped about each other.
She was not tired, but closed her eyes anyway to better enjoy the feel of Lainey's arms and legs entwined with hers. This was the place to be, the rightness of their proximity overriding the reality of the situation. Lainey only wore a camisole and panties, and Scotch ran her palm along the bare arm. A smile curled her lips when Lainey hummed in sleepy response and sighed.
The temptation was too great. Several months spent necking on the couch in the cabin but sleeping in separate beds took their toll. Scotch slipped past Lainey's arm, caressing her shoulders and neck with a firm hand. Lainey's mumble encouraged her further, and she slid down to touch the bare skin of her lower back where the camisole had ridden up. It was a simple maneuver to slide beneath the waistband of her panties and explore previously untouched territory.
Well, not necessarily untouched. McGrath had given them both the opportunity to roam where they had not been before. The memory fired her already smoldering desires.
"That feels good," Lainey murmured.
"You're awake," Scotch said needlessly. Her touch became a little more forceful as she cupped the rounded flesh and gave it a gentle tweak.
Lainey chuckled, her lips finding Scotch's pulse point. "Mm hmm," she said, bringing her leg up to cross Scotch's torso. "In more ways than one."
Pleased, Scotch rolled onto her back, taking Lainey with her. Both her hands were free and while one remained where it was beneath Lainey's panties, the other crept up beneath the camisole. Her fingers brushed scar tissue and she examined the feel of the thick skin there, not shying away from the damage. She loved everything about Lainey, even this, and she wanted to get that point across.
Lainey shifted until she straddled Scotch's hips and pushed herself into a sitting position. The blankets fell away and she drew her camisole over her head, pausing to grind herself once against Scotch's belly before tossing the material to the floor.
Mouth dry at the vision before her, Scotch brought both hands up to caress Lainey's belly, slipping along the firm muscles there to reach the breasts above. The skin was soft and warm, nipples taut with anticipation, and Scotch wanted to taste them so badly. She squeezed their heaviness, her fingers rolling Lainey's nipples as she enjoyed the soft weight.
Lainey moaned and her hips moved again. She braced herself against the head of the bed as she rocked slowly on Scotch, her eyes half closed in concentration. "You feel so good, Scotch," she moaned.
"So do you," she said, her voice husky. Scotch pushed partway up, leaning on one elbow as her mouth found what it desired. She sighed in pleasure, echoing another moan from Lainey as her lips enveloped one of those inviting nipples. Surging upward, dislodging Lainey's grip on the bedstead, Scotch sat up, her hands now cradling her lover as she suckled.
Lainey caressed her back and shoulders, fingers digging into muscle at a particular sharp nibble. She gasped aloud, her hips bucking against Scotch. Then Scotch felt her hair being pulled, dragging her from her conquest until Lainey's lips met hers in a hard, wet kiss that made her forget all about what she was doing. The next several minutes were nothing but tongues and teeth, sighs and soft grunts of exertion, heated flesh and insistent touches.
It was the sound of rending cloth that brought Scotch back from her ecstasy enough to register what was happening. Lainey now lay on her back, one hand buried in Scotch's hair, the other gripping the headboard again. Scotch was paying homage to her firm abdomen with one of Lainey's legs hiked over her shoulder as she moved steadily down that luscious body. The torn cloth turned out to be Lainey's panties, two tattered ends gripped in Scotch's fists. The smell of Lainey's arousal was stronger with no underwear to impede it and Scotch hastened to get her fill, ruined panties forgotten.
Her first taste was intoxicating as she tongued the woman's clit. Lainey's cry was the sweetest music, matched only by the taste of her arousal. Scotch bent to her task with a purpose, exploring past the protective hood and outer lips to savor all of Lainey. In response, Lainey moaned and pressed against Scotch's mouth, her hips in constant motion. Scotch settled into place, Lainey's thighs cradling her head, one hand bracing against the bed and the other in Scotch's hair.
While she concentrated her attentions on the sensitive bundle of nerves, Scotch wanted more. Her fingers slick with Lainey's essence, she thrust deep within her lover, relishing how Lainey tasted, how she sounded, how her muscles contracted rhythmically around her fingers as she stroked the velvet skin.
The bed rocked with their exertions, the thump of the headboard against the wall interspersed with Lainey's harsh pants and demands. God! She could never get enough of this! She thrust deeper, filling Lainey as she teased the tender clitoris beneath her mouth.
Lainey's orgasm swept over Scotch, and she drew it out as long as possible, not wanting it to end. Her efforts were rewarded by another hitch in Lainey's breathing as she came again, calling Scotch's name. Only when Scotch was certain Lainey could not stand another round did she slow her attentions, pulling her fingers from the warmth of her lover.
She looked up Lainey's sweat slicked body to see very satisfied brown eyes looking back.
"Come here," Lainey rasped, weakly waving.
Scotch scooted up the bed, pulling Lainey into her arms. They lay together for several minutes in silence as her lover caught her breath. Despite a fiery need for Lainey's touch, Scotch's soul sprawled in the aftermath, a part of her hoping that perhaps her lover would decide to remain with her it Alaska.
"That was magnificent," Lainey murmured. She drew her hand along Scotch's t-shirt.
"I'll say," she agreed.
Lainey chuckled. "In a few minutes, I'm going to find out for myself."
"Take all the time you need," Scotch said. "We've got three days before the awards banquet." She caressed Lainey's cheek and closed her eyes. When would Lainey be leaving? Would she stop at the cabin only long enough to pack?
Her thoughts dumped ice into her blood, cooling her ardor. She must have stiffened because Lainey pushed up on one elbow to peer at her. Not wanting to see her lover's expression, Scotch kept her eyes closed.
She sat up, studying the blonde. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Scotch shrugged, not looking at her. "Nothing."
The expression an her face was an alien one, and it took Lainey several minutes to realize what she was seeing. When she did, her eyebrows rose to their zenith.
It was Scotch's inborn confidence that had first drawn Lainey down this trail. After a few months, she had finally figured out where it came from. By that time, Lainey wanted that self-assurance in her own right, which was why she continued to train for the race even in the face of falling in love with her coach.
But Scotch's inner sense of security did not reach into this realm. What Lainey was witnessing was uncertainty and diffidence in the normally strong young woman and it set her back on her proverbial heels.
Scotch was afraid.
Lainey's mind raced with this new information, trying to understand just what could put fear into the expression of a woman who regularly spit defiance into the teeth of the Alaskan wilderness. She pulled a little further away, though not far enough to lose physical contact. "Something's wrong," she insisted, lightly caressing Scotch's sternum through her shirt. "What is it?"
"It's stupid," Scotch mumbled.
"If it makes you feel like this, it isn't. Tell me."
Scotch reached up and took her hand, holding it tightly. With an obvious effort she forced herself to look at Lainey. "What's going to happen to us?"
Lainey blinked. In her mind, her plans for she and Scotch was already a forgone conclusion. The solution she had thought of on the trail seemed so right for both of them that she forgot she had not discussed it with Scotch. A relieved smile crossed her face and she dropped her head to rest it on Scotch's shoulder.
"I've got some ideas," she began.
Lainey took off her straw hat and used a kerchief to wipe the sweat from her face. Damn, spending nearly a year in Alaska certainly screwed up her inner thermostat. The mercury had not even reached eighty-five and she felt as if she were melting into a puddle. What would it be like in the full heat of summer?
Around her, villagers with yellow skin and round faces gathered, chattering in their native language with her guides. One of them, Ngawang, stood near her interpreting. They were surprised to see visitors here. That the strangers searched for a rare plant was even more bizarre. Most who came here were distant relations for the annual festival or the military searching out bandits. The women, dressed in layered skirts and scarves, smiled in their nervousness as they studied her. Men, being men, snorted at the new arrivals as if to say nothing good could be said about such craziness.
All of them, however, were far more interested in her companion than her, having rarely seen her coloring.
Scotch towered over the small people, listening to one of their guides with an intent frown. Someone made a crude joke about her golden skin and blue eyes, not realizing until the last minute that his words were being translated to the foreigner. The gathering collectively held their breath. Would the woman be offended at the rash speech of one of their people? Instead, she looked across the villagers to Lainey and smiled.
Deciding these strange women were honored visitors, the head man urged his wife forward to invite them to a feast. Since the invitation was given to Scotch, she accepted for the both of them.
Lainey grinned, seeing that ever present confidence in her partner shining forth. Next year they would return to Alaska to train for the Iditarod. Meanwhile, there was an entire world to show Scotch and Lainey looked forward to escorting her anywhere her heart desired.
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