by D Jordan Redhawk
Warning: This story contains a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women.
Author's Note: A couple of years ago, I was bored and flipping through the channels on television. I landed on a movie with Kate Jackson about a single mom who ran a kennel in Alaska. The whole thing piqued my interest, so I did some research about the Iditarod dog sled race and came up with the tale.
Keep in mind that this is a first draft. While my beta readers are quite good, there are bound to be some errors and the like. Take them with a grain of salt and read on.
Many thanks go to my initial beta readers - Kim, Shawn, and tlc along with a host of others. They kept me on my toes, filled in the blanks that needed filling, and gave me the needed boot in the butt to continue writing. You guys ROCK!
This story currently has no title. I'm open to suggestions! Drop me a line by hitting the contact link on the menu bar to the left for that, or comments about this story.
Contact me via my website with criticques, suggestions, or praise.
Scotch led them around the side of the cabin on a gravel path. Instead of a traditional back yard, complete with manicured grass and rose bushes, the bed of rock opened up before them, encompassing most of the available area. The cabin had a raised deck attached where Bon played with his canine goddess and two other puppies. A handful of out buildings and what appeared to be a carport peppered the expanse, though the covered concrete section did not seem accessible to a vehicle with the clutter of equipment there. Two large kennels held a handful of dogs receiving cautious attention from a family of four.
Beyond them, Lainey saw the dog yard. She was amazed at the sheer number of animals, having never seen so many at once. No, she corrected herself. She had seen many more during the race in March. What she had not been prepared for were the neat rows of wooden houses, each with a dog chained nearby. Lainey immediately wondered how this could be healthy for the animals. Literally kept chained, she noted some sleeping in the sun. Others played enthusiastically with toys or bones, and a few stood atop their homes, tails wagging as they yipped for attention from the people in the yard. They hardly appeared to be abused.
A young man waved from the group at the kennel. Lainey recognized him as the boy who had been with Scotch last winter. "C'mere!"
Scotch waved at him. "I'll be right back. Go ahead and poke around some. Don't worry; all the dogs are friendly."
Howry gave a non-committal murmur of agreement, and she trotted toward the kennels and, presumably, her fans.
"So. Is this attraction fatal, or just a minor infatuation?"
Lainey scowled at him, then glanced around to see if anyone overheard. "It's not like that," she said.
"Oh?" He raised an eyebrow. "She's cute, in an athletic sort of way. I mean, if you're attracted to that type - and I know you are." He busied himself with taking a picture of their subject of conversation as she shook hands with the visitors.
"That's not why we're here."
He turned his lens toward her, adjusting the focus. "You can't lie to the camera, Lainey." Click.
Her face was hot, and she placed her hand on the lens to block further photos. She did not need photographic evidence of her folly. "All right," she said, rolling her eyes. "I saw her last March. There's something about her that won't leave me alone."
Howry dropped the camera, giving her his undivided attention.
She looked away, knowing she turned several shades of red. It was one thing to plot and daydream; speaking the words aloud gave her scheme a shock of ludicrous reality it had previously been missing. "I thought if I could spend some time with her, I'd get over whatever this is." She glared at him. "But I still think it's a good idea. That's why I pitched it to Ben in the first place."
"Must have been a hell of a wrinkle when his boss added me to the equation."
She looked at him, noting no rancor in his expression. Relaxing a little, she said, "To say the least."
"What did they say when you told them?" he asked, tilting his head at the gathering by the kennel.
Lainey watched as Scotch knelt down to be on a level with a small boy, patient and smiling as she explained something to him. Her chest went tight with an unidentifiable emotion, and she resisted an urge to approach. "I haven't told them, yet."
Howry was silent for a moment before whooping in laughter.
Irritated, she turned her back on him as he bent nearly double in his mirth. Lainey plastered on an apologetic smile as the others regarded them curiously. "It's not that funny," she said from between clenched teeth.
It took a few more moments before he regained control, straightening and wiping his eyes. "Not from where I'm standing," he answered.
"Are you the reporters?"
Lainey looked up to see a girl hanging over the railing of the deck. She promptly put on her best diplomatic face. "Yes, we are. I'm Lainey Hughes, and this is Don Howry."
The girl smiled, and Lainey could see another echo of Scotch in the girl's face. She had to admit that their parents certainly threw good-looking offspring.
"I'm Irish Fuller." She gave them a once over, tucking a length of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear. "I heard the truck drive up, so I made coffee. Where's your stuff?"
"On the front porch. Scotch was going to give us the ten dollar tour, but got sidetracked."
Irish screwed her face in thought, spying her older sister leading the family toward the carport structure. "They're just getting started. I can't leave Bon alone, or I'd take you."
Howry said, "That's okay. We can manage on our own."
"Why don't you come up here? I can bring you coffee, and you can wait for her to finish." Irish opened a child and puppy proof gate, deftly intercepting a dog with her foot as it made a bumbling lurch toward freedom.
"Oh, no. We don't want to put you out." Lainey took a step backward in mild protest.
Irish's expression cooled, a flash of displeasure that was quickly replaced with comprehension. "Mom said you wouldn't understand," she said, almost as an afterthought. Taking on a slight lecturing tone, she continued. "It's really rude to not offer guests something to drink when they arrive."
Lainey realized that, by extension, it was considered impolite to refuse an offer, as well.
Her companion also caught the hint, and slung his camera over his shoulder. "We'd be grateful for some coffee."
Irish smiled, and gestured for them to come up the steps.
At least on the deck, Lainey had a better view of Scotch's activities. Sitting on a patio chair, she leaned against the railing and watched the woman explain the operations of the kennel to her audience, her voice not quite carrying. Rye went into the building by the carport, and pulled out a racing sled. The group drifted toward it, and Scotch pointed out the various parts of the vehicle.
Lainey saw movement in the dog area. A Hispanic man in jeans released a chained animal, and brought it to a four-wheel ATV with as odd contraption attached to the front. It looked like a roller coaster car made of wood and painted with the logo she had seen on the sign out front. As the man moved through the yard, the dogs barked joyfully, jumping about to gain his attention. When Irish returned from inside, she asked, "Who's that?"
After setting a tray of refreshments on a table, the girl skillfully stopped Bon's attempt to climb into Howry's lap. Keeping her little brother wrapped in her arms, she looked where indicated. "That's Miguel. He's our handler."
Howry stood to get a better angle, looking through his camera. "What's he doing?"
Irish set the squirming Bon down who immediately wrapped himself about Howry's leg. "He's hooking the dogs up to the ATV. Those people have paid for a tour. They get a dog ride, too." She shrugged, a slight grin on her face. "it's not a sled, but it does the trick when there's no snow."
Lainey split her attention between her lust object and the handler. No dog was ignored as he filtered through, though he only picked half a dozen to lead to the vehicle. Meanwhile, Scotch whistled, and a single unchained dog trotted over to her, tail wagging. She began to demonstrate how the canines were attached to the sled with the help of the boy who proudly beamed at his father.
"Why is that dog running loose?" Lainey asked.
At the same time, Howry asked, "How does he choose which dogs to use?"
Irish looked between them, uncertain who to answer first.
Bon had no problem, however. "Rock big dog!" he yelled.
Grinning, Irish nodded. "Yeah, Rock is the Big Dog today. Every day one dog is allowed to run free. It's usually run on a rotation except for race days or when the girls are in heat."
Her question answered, Lainey watched as Scotch finished the lesson, barely hearing Irish's response to Howry.
"The rides are on a rotation schedule, too, at least during the tourist season. Once race training starts, at least half of them are dropped from the list. Those that aren't going to be racing take up the slack." She set a steaming coffee cup in front of Lainey. "Any tourists wanting a real sled ride don't know the differences between first or second string."
By now, Miguel finished his task. He climbed onto the ATV, and called out a command to the dogs. Lainey could not help but smile at the enthusiastic barks as the team leapt forward.
She watched him direct the animals to circle the dog yard, sending up a round of excited howls from those left behind. The clamor distracted the visitors, and they watched wide-eyed as Miguel expertly drove the team toward them, pulling to a halt nearby. Lainey felt the most amazing thing was that there were no reins, no method of control except verbal commands. Sure, the ATV could be steered, but the dogs followed their commands rather than tried to go a different way. Scotch made a show of greeting each dog, urging the children to do the same. Then she helped everyone aboard the cart, standing back as her brother joined them.
Lainey stared as sun dappled through the trees, lighting the golden highlights of Scotch's hair. A trickle of desire eased along her spine, exploding to mild warmth when the musher turned and smiled at her.
"Interesting," Howry said.
She tore her attention away to give him a glare, but he ignored her, reaching for a cookie from the tray before resuming his seat.
"This cabin doesn't look all that big," he observed. "Where are we going to bed down?"
"There's an extra bunk with Miguel for you, Mr. Howry. Miss Hughes will be sleeping with Scotch." Irish said, watching Bon as his gaze fell upon the cookie in the man's hand.
Lainey almost choked on her coffee.
"Out of the mouths of babes," Howry murmured, grinning.
Her attention darted to the girl, praying she had not heard him. Fortunately, Irish had zeroed in on Bon, scooping him out of reach of the cookies he made a dive for. Safe for the moment, Lainey whispered, "Shut up!"
"Is everything okay?" Scotch asked. She climbed the steps, and opened the gate.
Howry, his expression impudent, and his eyes never leaving Lainey's, said, "Everything's fine. I hear Lainey's sleeping with you."
Lainey seriously wondered how much of this she could stand. Surely there was some way to arrange a fatal accident for her associate, something that would result in extreme pain for an extended amount of time.
Guileless, Scotch looked from Howry's glee to Lainey's irritation. "If that's not a problem," she said, appearing uncertain. "Unless you'd rather bunk alone. I guess I could move back in with Irish."
The expressions of both the Fullers indicated their distaste for such an arrangement, and Lainey hastened to relieve them. "No! This is fine. I'm just . . . I tend to be a loner sometimes, that's all." She wished she were close enough to kick Howry's shin and wipe that smarmy grin from his face.
Scotch relaxed, and she said, "I can understand that. I'm a loner, too."
The gentle smile on her lips washed away Lainey's anger at the cameraman's teasing. She smiled back, lifting her cup in salute, not caring if her intentions were transparent to Howry. Right here, right now, under the friendly regard of Scotch was the only place to be.
The promised tour eventually took place. Lainey learned that the carport was actually referred to as a dog kitchen, and the building attached to it the dog barn. Like any standard barn, the loft held straw. Scotch told them it was for bedding during winter. The lower floor had nine fenced animal runs, all of them empty. These were used primarily during winter for injured dogs or new mothers, since this building was heated. Two chest freezers hulked in one corner, and the remainder of the room was relegated to storage - five sleds of varying styles, bins of dry dog chow and rice, assorted tack lines and cables, shelves of vitamin supplements, and cabinets filled with doggie blankets and booties. Several clipboards hung near the door, each clearly labeled. Lainey read "Big Dog" on one, and scanned down to see Rock had a grease pencil checkmark beside his name. Others proclaimed "Kennel Rotation," "Vaccinations," and "Rides."
Barking dogs interrupted their lesson as the visiting family returned from their outing, urging those left behind to give enthusiastic greeting to their companions. Miguel brought the team to a halt just outside the barn, and the dogs grinned at Lainey, panting from their exertions. While Scotch and her brother helped the family out of the cart, their handler tied the team to a post. He gave Lainey and Howry a nod of greeting as he passed them, emerging a few moments later with chunks of frozen treats that he fed to the dogs.
"I'm going to see these folks off," Scotch said. "You'll be okay for a minute?"
"Yeah, we'll be fine." Howry waggled his camera, indicating he had plenty to keep him entertained.
Lainey smiled in agreement, unable to contain the slight increase in her respiration as she received one in return. She was really beginning to think this was a bad idea. Scotch escorted the tourists away, and Lainey swallowed as she watched the slight sway of her hips.
"So, what are you feeding them?" Howry asked Miguel.
Steeling herself, Lainey remembered why she came here. After spending extensive time with Scotch this obsession would fade. The woman was young, probably stubborn, uneducated here in the wild, smelled of dog crap. She was also athletic, vibrant, possessed of an extraordinary confidence, and cute as a button . . . With an inner groan, Lainey turned her attention to the conversation nearby.
Miguel was halfway through the team. He had started at the leaders, and worked his way back, heaping praise and caresses as he treated each animal. "Frozen whitefish," he said. His tenor voice held little in the way of an accent. "Sometimes frozen salmon or chunks of liver. It helps them cool off from a run, and rewards them for a job well done. Isn't that right, girl?" he asked the next in line.
"How long have you been working here?" Lainey asked, forcing herself to at least make an attempt at doing her job.
"Since the beginning." Miguel returned to the front of the line, and began closely inspecting each dog. He massaged shoulders, hips, and spines before checking feet and wrists. "I worked for Thom on a couple of construction sites. When he conned Helen into starting a kennel, I volunteered to help build the vet hospital and this barn." He shrugged. "Ended up hiring on permanently."
They watched his thorough examination of each animal in silence. When he finished, he stood and stretched, arching his back.
"So, you're the reporters, right?"
Lainey smacked her forehead lightly. "Whoops, sorry! Yes, I'm Lainey Hughes and this is Don Howry."
Miguel wiped his hand on his jeans before offering it to them. "Miguel Sanchez, handler."
Introductions over, Lainey now smelled of dog, and she fought the urge to rub her palm on her shirt. She was always fastidious upon first contact, some ingrained habit of cleanliness that would dissipate as she submerged herself into a new situation. Smelling of dog was better than some odors she had been forced to carry during her career. The handler appeared amused, and she wondered if she had given something away in her expression. As she worried the question, he continued speaking.
"You'll be sleeping in my cabin," he told Howry. "it's kind of dormitory style, but all right. it's just over there along that path." He pointed out the trail, a cabin barely visible among the trees. "We even have running water."
Alarm bells went off in Lainey'shead. With a feigned casualness, she asked, "No electricity?"
"Not yet," Miguel said, chuckling. "I've been meaning to get a generator set up out there. Haven't had the time."
Howry digested this information admirably. "So, propane lanterns are the rule rather than the exception?"
"For the most part," Miguel said. He gave the man's camera a significant look. "The main house, the clinic, and the barn here all have power, though. If you need to recharge batteries and the like, I'm sure we can accommodate you." He waved at the cabin where Bon played under the watchful eyes of Irish. "They even have an internet connection."
Lainey stared out over the dog yard, seeing a bleak winter without the simple amenity of electricity. Certainly, she had been in places as rustic as this - war-torn cities in the Middle East, tramping through the bush of innumerable countries. But this was America, for crissakes! She had expected a certain level of civilization. Another thought occurred to her. No electricity meant no water heater. Good Lord, what had her libido gotten her into?
"Where's Scotch's cabin from here?" Howry asked.
Lainey followed where Miguel pointed, seeing another path winding through the trees. She could not see the dwelling at all. "Is it far?"
"Yeah, a bit. It's actually tucked back behind a small hill." He sucked at his teeth. "Scotch likes her privacy."
The unspoken warning brought Lainey'sgaze around. Her subject was a private person who not only agreed to be constantly followed about by strangers wielding cameras, but was allowing one to move into her sacred space for nine solid months. Lainey'sjob was a mainly solitary pursuit; she understood the sacrifice Scotch was making in return for the publicity.
She resolved to tread lightly around Scotch. Regardless of her idiotic reasons for initiating this fiasco, Lainey could not let the gig disrupt her subject's equilibrium. Yeah. Scotch was merely a subject, just like so many others over the years. Lainey simply needed to keep the proper perspective.
Scotch rounded the corner of the cabin, her brother beside her, and Lainey felt her proper perspective float away like a helium balloon.
Relaxed in spite of the reporters at the table, Scotch nursed her after dinner coffee as Howry regaled her family with an anecdote from one of his assignments in the Amazon. His voice became quieter as he described being in a canoe, evading another people's war party, trusting his native guides to keep him alive, and his audience collectively leaned forward in anticipation. Even Lainey seemed enamored of his tale about the indigenous people he had come in contact with, and Scotch used the opportunity to study her.
Lainey seemed a contradiction. She carried an air of professionalism that appeared watertight. Yet Scotch had seen her blush and stammer like a schoolgirl over the smallest thing several times over the course of the afternoon. Was that because she worked predominantly with nature instead of people? Maybe she was uncomfortable around strangers. That did not sound right, but she could think of no other reason for the behavior.
Her features were a bit more careworn than the only picture Scotch could locate of her. Scotch supposed that made sense; that photo had been taken when Lainey was about Scotch's age now. Since then, she had seen a few military actions and been wounded. Truth be told, Scotch liked the way Lainey looked now, and that pesky deja vu would not go away. Where had she seen Lainey before? It was somewhere other than the photo she had found. Scotch would have remembered meeting her at the banquet function; she always had a good memory for faces.
She scanned the slight body, seeing the maroon plaid flannel shirt neatly tucked into the waistband of her jeans. Worn hiking boots were at odds with the designer label on her hip pocket. Where had Lainey been wounded? There were not any obvious scars anywhere, and she did not limp. Her sleeves had been rolled up during the day, and her forearms were as tanned as her face and neck. She had told Irish that she had been working in Africa earlier in the year. Scotch thought that seeing all those exotic places must certainly be exciting. Her hands were callused, so she was not a stranger to hard work, a plus in Scotch's book. Winter in Alaska was hard, and not for the faint. Barring any unforeseen incidents, she thought that this agreement might work out very well indeed.
Her gaze returning to Lainey'sface, she found hazel eyes regarding her, an eyebrow raised in question. Busted in her visual perusal, Scotch hid her embarrassment as best she could. She smoothly brought her attention back to Howry, and sipped her coffee, knowing her blush contradicted her outward indifference.
Howry wrapped up his story, and there was a lull in the conversation. "Well, now that I've told you one of mine, Thom, maybe you could answer my question."
Scotch's father leaned back in his chair, Bon sleepily seated in his lap. On his face was a knowing grin. "Who named my kids?" he asked.
Helen tsked good-naturedly, feigning irritation. Scotch grinned, and winked at her equally amused brother. Irish rolled her eyes.
Lainey said, "I'm betting you did. I think the question is why the names you chose."
Smug, Thom considered carefully before answering, though everyone could see it was a ploy. Scotch had seen the same expression on his face every time she heard the explanation. Her father enjoyed the attention.
"When I got married to this pretty little woman here," he said, ignoring Helen's snort, "we made a bet. Whoever guessed the gender right could name the kid."
"And Mom's shooting blanks in maternal instinct," Rye said, shaking his head.
"She does well enough in the motherly things," Thom said in his wife's defense.
Helen waved him on. "Finish it, Thom. Don't get distracted."
He gave his wife an air kiss, and looked back to his guests. "Anyway, when Scotch arrived, I told Helen what I would name her, and she about had a fit."
Lainey glanced at Scotch, bemused puzzlement on her face. Scotch smiled widely, ignoring the request for information.
"Tell them what it was."
"I'll let Scotch tell them," he said, magnanimously.
Scotch set her coffee cup down, waiting for the right moment before speaking. 'scottish, as in Scottish Terrier." The look in Lainey's eyes was priceless, and she tried hard to control her laughter.
"You're kidding!" Lainey seemed unable to believe what she was hearing, her gaze traveling around the table, seeking confirmation.
"Oh, no," Helen said. "He was quite serious at the time."
"You were going to name your children after dog breeds?" Howry demanded, flabbergasted.
"Oh, yeah," Rye said. "Dad loves his dogs."
Scotch enjoyed the confusion on Lainey's face as she struggled with the idea of a man labeling his kids in such a manner.
"So, why the change?"
Thom shrugged, appearing disappointed. "Well, you know women," he said, dropping his voice as if responding conspiratorially, though they could all clearly hear him. "Can't live with "em. Can't live with 'em." He yelped when Irish slapped his shoulder, and then laughed. "She told me there was no way she"d let me call my kids after dogs. But we still had an agreement."
"Dad loves his dogs, but he also loves his whiskey," Scotch said.
"And you let him get away with that?" Lainey asked Helen.
She smiled. "It was better than having a son called Labrador."
Rye groaned, and covered his face with his hands, while the rest of them laughed.
When the amusement died down again, Howry said, "Okay, I can see Scotch, Rye, and Irish. But Bon? I'm a newsman, and we have livers of iron. I've never heard of a whiskey by that name. Did Helen finally win a bet?"
Bon, who was lounging half asleep in his father's arms, barely roused at the mention of his name.
"Actually, that's a nickname," Scotch said. "His full name in Bourbon."
Howry threw his hands up in the air. "Of course!"
As everyone had another good laugh, Scotch's eyes met Lainey's. She felt an odd connection forged between them, a simple joy of sharing something good. While a part of her relaxed into the sensation, Scotch wondered if perhaps her initial curiosity about the photojournalist had gotten too big, too obvious.
Since this morning she had become less worried about having an outsider living with her, and more concerned that she would appear to be an unsophisticated rube to the worldly woman. Miguel had mentioned Lainey seemed a little surprised that there was no electricity at her cabin. And the bush pilot, Cliff, had said she seemed high maintenance. Scotch had never set foot outside Alaska except to run the Yukon Quest in Canada. She had no earthly idea what her humble cabin would look like to the well-traveled Lainey Hughes.
Would they survive nine months together?
Her family began their nightly ritual of cleaning up, distracting Scotch from her meanderings. She helped clear the table. It was her turn to do dishes, so she started to fill the sink with hot soapy water. When Lainey offered to help, she wondered why she felt so happy.
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