by D Jordan Redhawk
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Lainey walked easily, her laden backpack seated comfortably on her shoulders and hips, and her camera bag in one hand, while Scotch led the way to her future home away from home. She was hard put to not study the well-shaped ass in front of her. Fortunately, for Lainey's dignity in any case, the trail required her full attention so she would not trip.
It was not that late, but Alaska was far from the equator. The sun had not set, confusing Lainey's sense of time over and above the jet lag. Even in New York she was used to it being dark by now. With the cooler temperature up here, her mind tried to tell her it was early morning instead of ten o'clock at night. She had to admit the overall effect was reminiscent of youthful camping trips in New England, enjoying a breakfast of flapjacks as the sun warmed the lake. Lainey smiled to herself; it had been years since she had thought of that. She wondered why.
"Almost there," Scotch said, glancing over her shoulder. She carried Lainey's laptop case and another suitcase.
"I'm right behind you," she said.
They rounded a bend in the path, and Lainey got her first glimpse of the cabin. It stood one level tall, with a neat little covered porch in front of the door. From the angle they arrived, Lainey saw windows placed higher than she expected. Maybe that was to combat snowdrifts. She followed Scotch up three steps, noting a swinging bench hanging from the porch rafters as her hostess opened the door and set the bags inside.
"Come on in, and watch your step," Scotch said. She gestured Lainey to enter.
Mindful of her feet, Lainey understood the instructions when she found herself on a landing. Steps led down, and she carefully followed them into the cabin.
Scotch closed the door, and came after her. "Set your stuff in the corner, and I'll show you around."
Lainey dropped her pack and reached out to touch a natural stone wall. It was six feet high and was capped by the standard log walls she had expected this type of structure. "Are we below ground here, or did you build into the hill?" she asked.
"Both, actually," Scotch said. "Out here we had to dig down, but in the back, it's the depth of the hill."
Lainey nodded absently, looking around. The space was small, maybe four hundred square feet. The floor was wood, covered here and there with throw rugs. Central to the room was a large fireplace made of the same stone as the walls around her. A sofa and chair squatted before the hearth, accompanied by a couple of sturdy tables with odds and ends upon them. An old style dining table with chrome legs and green laminate top sat nearby, keeping company with three padded chairs in need of new vinyl.
Behind the fireplace was a kitchen area. Lainey noted a small metal stove butted up against the back of the hearth, and several pots and pans hanging from the stonework. Storage cabinets and counters ran the length of this side of the room. The surprising thing was a large metal sink with an old-fashioned water pump attached to it. Remembering Miguel's statement earlier in the day, she glanced at Scotch. "Running water?"
Scotch, removed her hands from the back pockets of her jeans, reaching up to pull off her baseball cap and run her hands through her hair. "Yeah, with a little elbow grease."
She seemed embarrassed at the quality of her home, and Lainey hastened to show her appreciation. "It's really nice," she said, smiling. "Did you to a lot of the work yourself?"
Flushing prettily, Scotch reset her cap, and dug her hands back into her pockets. "We had to get a backhoe in here to dig the pit, and the guys helped me set the logs, roof, and windows." She waved at the stonework. "I laid the rock and built the fireplace, put in the flooring and porch."
"Wow," Lainey said, impressed. She gave the area another look around before smiling. "So, where do we sleep?"
Only then did Lainey realize the kitchen area had a lower ceiling than the main room. She followed Scotch back to the stairs, seeing them lead up past the entry door to a sleeping loft.
The loft was open to below with a sturdy pine railing jutting out from the chimney. Long and narrow, it was divided in half by a curtain. Here was a window, and Lainey understood the reason for the high placement. Where else would a window be in a split-level? They passed a double bed with a large dresser at its foot, and a nightstand beside it.
"This is mine." Scotch opened the curtain by the chimney, and gestured Lainey in. "And this one is yours."
It was the same, in reverse. The bed frame was made of pine, just like the railing. The smell of the wood was pungent, telling Lainey that it was new; it was probably built just for her. The bed was made with a thick, inviting quilt and several pillows, and a rag rug draped the floorboards where she would step out of it. The dresser and nightstand were a bit more worn, but well cared for. On the nightstand was an oil lamp, and Scotch lit it with a wooden match before closing the thick curtains over the window.
"Is it okay?" Scotch asked. "If you want to swap or maybe move into the main cabin, I'd understand."
Lainey grinned reassurance. "No! This is great, really." She sat on the bed, testing the box springs. "You've put a lot of work into this, I can tell. Thank you."
Again Scotch reddened and looked away, trying to find something to say. And again Lainey wondered if this feeling of infatuation would pass as she licked her lips. God, she could almost taste her! The swell of lust was mild, but enough to set her heart thumping.
"Well then. I guess we should get your stuff up here so you can settle in. We get up pretty early in the morning, so it's best if we hit the sack soon."
Heartily agreeing with the thought of getting to bed with Scotch, Lainey scolded herself for her lewd thoughts. "Sounds like a plan. I'm looking forward to my first board meeting."
Scotch, back on secure territory, chuckled. "Chores come before breakfast or meetings," she said, heading down the stairs. "I doubt you'll be looking forward to that when you understand what all has to be done."
Lainey, enamored of the lithe body trotting down the steps, did not answer.
Not surprisingly, neither Lainey nor Don Howry were what she had anticipated. She was not sure what she expected, but then she had never been in this type of situation before. Scotch had spoken with several mushers since March, focusing her attention on the big names in the Iditarod world. Few had had this experience. The closest was a fellow whose major sponsor was an outdoor clothing company; they had put up an extensive web site about his training methods, but he had written most of the copy himself. The only other reporters Scotch had dealt with before were those involved with racing.
Lainey and Howry were not fans of the sport. Their ignorance was . . . refreshing. When questioned, Lainey said that she had not arrived at the last Iditarod until it was half complete, covering for a colleague who had injured himself. Whatever the reason, she must have been bitten by the dog racing bug. Why else would she return so quickly after the last one?
Scotch had expected sports reporters, people who knew their way around a kennel and sled, someone who understood the intricacies of racing, the specialized training and language. It did not matter that she had done her homework on Lainey Hughes, and knew the woman had never been involved in sports reporting of any kind. For some naive reason, Scotch's mind simply had not made the connection.
Their lack of knowledge would actually work to the kennel's benefit, in her opinion. With no prior experience, neither reporter could confuse things. Every kennel trained their animals in different ways. At least Scotch did not have to worry about defending her methods compared to others. Each racer trained in their own styles, some less scrupulous in caring for their dogs, some more interested in the process than the results. Sure, Scotch had hopes of coming in to Nome first some day, but not at the expense of her team.
She sighed and rolled over. On the other side of the room divider she heard the steady breathing of her new roommate. It had been five years since she had shared a room with Irish. Scotch wondered if that was part of her inability to get to sleep, this sudden communal space where once she had been alone. Her ears picked up noise that should not be there; the occasional squeak of bedsprings, the rustle of sheets as Lainey shifted, a gentle murmur when she spoke in her sleep.
Scotch had helped Lainey unpack, avidly curious about the woman. Why the backpack? Some of the gear was worn with use, like her hiking boots. Other pieces were obviously new. Why did she bring an arctic sleeping bag? If she followed the race with the rest of the reporters, she would hardly have an opportunity to use the thing. Usually magazines and newspapers had hotels lined up in Anchorage and Nome for their reporters. Did this mean that Lainey would follow the trail with the other hardcore journalists? The thought was actually comforting to Scotch, the potential to see a familiar and friendly face at each checkpoint a gratifying idea.
The suitcase had held clothing and toiletries. Lainey had taken her phone conversations with Thom to heart, for it held assorted woolen pants, flannel shirts, jeans, and thick socks. There were even two sets of thermal and silk underwear.
As they unpacked, they discussed inconsequential things, becoming acquainted with one another. It felt vaguely familiar to Scotch, and now in the dark she worried the sensation until she discovered why. Smiling in the night, she remembered feeling a similar sense of camaraderie during sleep overs at friends' homes. She had not attended one of those since she was fourteen. No wonder she felt practically giddy with Lainey's presence. Those rare moments of sleeping over at a friend's house had been new and exciting. The feelings were no different now.
Her eyes tired, she still could not sleep. She flopped onto her back. Regardless of the new arrivals, tomorrow was another day, another round of visitors, another set of chores. Tomorrow, she was scheduled to go into town and pick up a tour group of retirees for a day trip. She might even be able to swing a donation or two out of them if she played her cards right. Normally, the knowledge of a planned day trip lightened her spirits, but not this evening. Tonight she regretted the fact that Lainey would no doubt remain behind, beginning to learn the ropes of kennel life. The reservation for the day trip had called for ten people. That would fill up two carts, leaving no room for anyone else but she and Rye to lead them.
She finally drifted off to sleep, her thoughts aimlessly wandering between plans for tomorrow, Lainey's smile, the sight of designer jeans, and the sound of laughter.
The Big Ben alarm clock on her nightstand jangled Scotch awake. She slapped at it until it went silent, then sat up in bed, eyes still closed. The coolness of morning against her sleep heated skin felt nice, but she could not stop a shiver as she stretched and yawned. Why did she feel so tired this morning?
On the other side of the curtain, she heard a mumbled protest and squeaking bedsprings.
Oh, yeah. Grainy eyes opened wide in remembrance. Her guest. Scotch had spent too much time not being able to get to sleep the previous night.
Suddenly uncertain, she wondered if she should check on Lainey, make sure she was getting out of bed. From the sounds of things, she probably rolled over to return to her dreams, since Scotch heard no further movement. Her bladder insisted on attention, and she decided to wait a bit, giving Lainey a chance to wake on her own. Scotch climbed out of bed and shoved her feet into her boots, not lacing them. She paused long enough to stretch her full height with a light groan before heading down the stairs. At the door, she grabbed a light jacket from a peg. Opening the door, she stepped outside.
The air was crisp and cool. She trembled as a light breeze caressed her bare legs. Stepping off the porch, she made her way to the outhouse, the path familiar after years of travel. When she returned from her nature call, she stood silent on the landing, listening. It did not sound like Lainey had risen, and Scotch wondered if she should venture into the woman's space to roust her. She hung her jacket up, and continued down the steps. She would wait until the coffee was done. If Lainey was a morning sourpuss, it would be better to have some sort of offering to appease any ill humor.
Scotch had laid wood in the stove the night before to save time. Now she lit scraps of paper and kindling with a match, watching until she was positive the wood had caught flame. While the stove heated, she measured coffee into the percolator's basket. She pushed on the lever until water spouted from the pump and filled the coffee pot. Once it was full, she continued pumping to fill a couple of water jugs. One she poured into a large pan, and set both it and the percolator on the stove to heat. The kitchen warmed, and Scotch began to feel drowsiness return. She yawned and scrubbed at her face. Testing the pan of water, it was just hot enough for her purposes. She cast a glance at the ceiling, assessing her chances. It still did not sound like her visitor had awakened. Decided, she transferred half of the heated water into a large bowl, returning the pan to the stove. She pulled a washcloth and towel from a cabinet, and grabbed the soap from the sink. A quick sponge bath would wake her right up.
She became more conscious, the dream dissipating, intrigued by what her nose was telling her. Coffee. Definitely coffee. And something else. She finally moved, rolling onto her back and inhaling to identify what it was. Soap. Yes, that was it. Pleased with her deductive abilities, she drifted a little longer.
A frown crossed her face as her body reminded her how much coffee she had imbibed the night before. What had Scotch said? There was an outhouse around here, somewhere. Groaning, Lainey rolled into a ball and covered her head with a pillow. The sun teased from behind the curtain, but she did not feel rested. She did not want to get out of her toasty bed. She toyed with the idea of introducing chamber pots to Scotch, though the thought of leaving her bed for even that was not appealing.
Lainey uncovered her head. Was it early or late? It had to be late, else why was Scotch making coffee? And she thought she had heard an alarm clock. Or was that part of a dream? Her bladder became insistent, washing away any other considerations. Partially reluctant, partially in a hurry, Lainey tossed off her quilt and jumped to her feet. She rubbed her bare upper arms, resolving to sleep in her long johns instead of t-shirt and shorts as she jammed her feet into her boots. She barely registered Scotch's empty bed as she passed through, intent on relieving her demanding bodily functions.
Outside, Lainey cursed. She had forgotten to grab a sweatshirt. Shivering almost set her bladder to release itself as she glanced wildly about the cabin. She stumbled a few steps further from the door, relieved to see a small wooden building nearby. Thank God! She hastened toward it, the door of the outhouse slamming loud in the pre-dawn stillness as she proceeded to do her business.
If it was warmer, Lainey might have drifted off again. Her body returned to its lethargic state, her eyelids becoming heavy despite the chill invading her body. A gentle ache in her side reminded her of where she was, and she finished her task. She trudged back to the cabin, pausing on the porch to look back. Despite the vague pain in her ribs, it was kind of nice out here. She hugged herself, her fingers finding the familiar thick scar tissue beneath the thin cotton of her t-shirt, and returned to the cabin.
It was definitely warmer in here. Lainey shivered violently at the welcome heat, standing uncertain on the landing. She heard movement, saw a shadow as Scotch moved about the kitchen. The smell of coffee was wonderful.
She followed her nose. Scotch leaned against a counter, cradling a cup, eyes closed as she inhaled the steam rising from its contents. Her tawny curls were fringed in dampness, and she smelled heavily of the soap that had roused Lainey. She wore flannel shorts and a baggy sleeveless t-shirt, her feet covered by unlaced boots. Lainey did not know which made her mouth water more, the coffee cup's contents or the sleep tousled look of her roommate. She swallowed. "Good morning?"
Scotch smiled at the sound of her voice. "Good morning." She opened her eyes. "Coffee cups are in that cabinet. Cream and sugar containers are over there."
"Thanks." Lainey busied herself with attaining caffeine, trying to ignore the fact that the armholes of Scotch's t-shirt hung down almost to her elbow. If she moved her arms, Lainey would have a wonderful view of some compelling anatomy.
Lainey basked in the heat from the stove, using a dish towel as a pot holder. "Like a rock." She poured coffee, and inhaled deeply of its aroma. This was one thing she never took for granted. Not every culture had coffee, and Lainey sorely missed it when she was out of country. She sipped, pleased to note Scotch brewed it strong. Turning, she blinked. Was Scotch just checking out her legs?
Scotch said, "That's good. Sometimes newcomers have trouble sleeping with the constant sunlight."
Deciding she must have imagined it, Lainey moved to copy Scotch's stance, leaning against the counter beside her to worship her coffee. "So, what are we doing up so late?"
Scotch chuckled. "This ain't late."
Lainey liked the sound of her laugh, smiling. "What time is it?" she asked.
"About five thirty."
"Ugh." She stuck her tongue out, earning another warm laugh.
"We meet up with Rye and Irish in the dog kitchen at six. The dogs have to be fed."
"And then we nap?" This time she got a nudge with a shoulder. Lainey could not help but grin like an idiot. God, she had it bad! Surely Scotch had some horribly bad habit Lainey could exploit to thwart this attraction - nose picking, uncontrollable urges to spit, foul tempers. Something!
"No. Then we clean the dog kitchen and barn, do pooper scooper duty, transfer the kennel dogs, let the Big Dog out, clean up, and eat breakfast."
Lainey feigned horror. "All that before breakfast?" she demanded. Her voice became faint, her accent thickening into that of a Southern belle. "I think I have a case of the vapors." She batted her eyes at Scotch.
She received a smirk. "That's all right. I hear dog crap can make wonderful smelling salts."
"Hey!" She bumped her hip against Scotch's.
Scotch laughed, and drained her cup, distracting Lainey with the expected revelation of skin under her arms. "There's hot water on the stove, if you want to clean up some. I put out a towel and washcloth for you." She moved away to set the cup in the sink. "I'll go up and change, give you some privacy. Let me know when you're done."
Lainey lifted her cup in thanks, watching her disappear around the fireplace. She heard the tread of boots on steps, the light creak above her head as Scotch reached her room and began changing clothes.
She stared at the wood stove, her mind's eye upstairs. Separated by mere inches of wood, her lust object was getting naked, that beautiful body revealed as boots and sleep clothes were shucked. Sighing, Lainey was amazed at the flicker of desire tingling through her blood stream. Even at the crack of full sunlight, with little sleep, and the threat of sore ribs and hard work ahead, the mere whisper of sex could turn her on. What the hell was that about? It had not always been this way, had it?
The fishy mixture was brought to a boil, someone always stirring with a snow shovel, and then it was allowed to cool. The crew went over the lists posted by the door in the barn, figuring out which animal required something out of the ordinary and what sort of supplements were needed. The dog stew was brought back to a second boil. When allowed to cool again, Scotch utilized a stepladder and chopped the now pliable salmon into chunks. A third boil came and went, this time with Irish using a large empty coffee can to measure rice into the stew.
Lainey watched in dismay as yet a fourth boil was achieved. At the rate things were going, it would be noon before they finished. This time, Rye turned the propane completely off, and covered the pot. The reporters were given various measurements of vitamin supplements, bone meal, and dry chow that were added to the cooling result. Then they were handed pails to fill.
This was Lainey's first foray among the dogs. Fortunately, they seemed far more interested in the contents of her bucket than her, though there were one or two who gave her a suspicious eye. She noted the Fullers giving each animal a little undivided attention, and began to do the same. Before she was finished with her assigned section, she had stepped in three piles of dog crap, her sturdy work jeans were layered in dog hair, and her hands were slathered with saliva from polite dogs thanking her for their meal.
She returned to the kitchen with a stupid grin on her face, the canine enthusiasm having rubbed off on her as thick as their shedding coats.
More water was poured into the leftovers, and a second trip was made. Then followed a round of scooping up excrement. The dog kitchen was cleaned up, the proper animals put into the two runs, and one let off her chain to run free about the kennel. Lainey carefully placed a checkmark beside Heldig's name, wondering where the Fullers came up with the names and how they could keep them straight.
In the main house, she felt bone tired. It had been awhile since she had had a workout like this. She eyed the siblings with new respect; doing this day in and day out from childhood had to give them a hardiness that few their age acquired. She remembered seeing Scotch's bare arms that morning, seeing the play of muscle beneath the pale skin, and had a good understanding where it came from.
Breakfast was over. The family sat around the table, and Lainey realized this was standard practice for them. All meetings must take place here. Helen, dressed in sweater and jeans, had a notepad and pen. Her husband, Thom, was dressed in a long sleeve white shirt, the collar undone and a t-shirt peeking from beneath. Both of them worked today, and were ready to get with it as soon as business was concluded.
"The Fuller Kennel board of directors is called to order," he said. "All members present and accounted for."
Lainey blinked at the formality, glancing at Bon who played under the table with an empty shoebox.
As if reading her mind, Rye smiled. "Yeah, he's a board member, too. We all are."
"Interesting," Howry muttered, scribbling a note.
Thom said, "We're here to finalize some things with Ms. Hughes and Mr. Howry at their request."
Everyone, including Howry, looked expectantly at Lainey.
She refrained from chewing her lip at the sudden attention. Barely. All those blue eyes, patient as they regarded her, seemed guileless. What would they look like when she explained the changes the magazine had insisted upon last month? Lainey focused on Scotch, wondering if she would be all right with it or not.
"Well, as you know, I made arrangements for Don to accompany me on this adventure. I wasn't sure what to tell you as to the why of it." She took a deep breath. "I realize that what I tell you might be a deal breaker. If you don't agree to the changes my editor wants, then I understand."
"What sort of changes, dear?" Helen asked. "It certainly can't be all that bad."
Lainey steered her gaze away from Scotch's wary expression. What did she think would be said? Would she decide against the idea? "I originally contracted with Cognizance to do a series on Scotch's next run for the Iditarod. However, my editor's bosses have decided to do another piece, as well. Don," and she waved to indicate the man beside her, "will do the series on Scotch."
Irish frowned. "So, what'll you be doing?"
Lainey sighed. "I have been asked to run the Iditarod."
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