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Lainey woke before Scotch's alarm went off. Her room was gray, a product of the eventual return of winter to this area. If she stayed up late enough at night, she could be treated to full dark instead of the impending nightfall that had been all she had seen since her arrival. She stretched in the warmth of her bed, noting the chill on her face. Was it colder than usual this morning?
Knowing from experience to not prolong the torture, she sat up and tossed off her blankets. Had she wanted to return to sleep, she would have eased out from the covers to preserve her body heat inside. At least this way she gave herself a reason to stay out of bed rather than to have a warm haven to which to return. It was colder. She cursed under her breath as her bare feet came in contact with chill boot leather. It was time to start sleeping with a change of clothes. She could kill for warm socks right now.
She shivered, feeling the beginning ache in her ribs. She could even see her breath as she stood and tiptoed toward the stairs. Quietly, she eased past the curtain dividing her half of the loft from Scotch's. She smiled as she passed through the room, unable to keep from studying her sleeping roommate. This was one of the reasons Lainey enjoyed waking so early; it afforded her an opportunity to examine her favorite subject unawares.
Despite the appearance of not noticing the cold, Scotch had graduated to a long sleeve t-shirt instead of the sleeveless one she had worn through summer. Still, she lay sprawled across her bed, blankets gathered at her waist. Lainey saw an appetizing flash of skin where the t-shirt had hiked up from the waistband of her sleep shorts. Glimpses like this were what fueled Lainey's desire. She supposed if Scotch had flaunted nudity, Lainey would have become inured to its effect. Instead, the bits and pieces teased her almost to desperation.
Lainey resisted the urge to cover Scotch with her blankets. She had no illusions that she simply desired to be congenial. What she wanted was to touch and explore the available skin, to finally taste it, and to see what remained hidden beneath the layers of cloth and personality.
She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. Scotch seemed to respond to Lainey's surge of desire. Sighing, she rolled over onto her side, facing her audience, the blankets falling further to reveal the incredible curve of waist, swell of hip, and the barest hint of a pale thigh.
Lainey fled. Considering the strength of her yearning, it was safer to stay far, far away; she was not sure she could fight the impulse in any other manner. It was helpful that Scotch had no return interest in her. At the door, she grabbed a jacket and stepped outside, closing the door softly behind her.
Christ! This was the worst case of infatuation she had ever experienced. Lainey leaned back against the door, its solidness a balm to her unstable emotions. She tried to recollect the number of times she had felt this way about anyone, and was not pleased to realize the answer was never. Part of her uneasiness stemmed from the fact that she was in completely new territory. Even her best friend and fuck buddy, Carol, did not cause this sort of confusion and desire.
There was nowhere to go, nothing to be done about it now. The Fullers had entered into a contractual agreement with Lainey to train her for the Iditarod. She had authorized the transfer of money from her magazine, Cognizance, months ago. Everything was signed, sealed, and - while not necessarily delivered - she expected to run the race of her life in March. If Lainey folded now, she would owe her editor, Strauss, a lot of money. Running was not an option.
The realities of her situation firmly in mind, Lainey took a deep, bracing breath. As soon as the snow hit, things would be different. Training would fill most of her days and nights. Rye had said that winter was a very busy season for the kennel in terms of weekend tourist outings, preparing for the larger races, and attending small sprints and the like. Lainey would just have to make an extra effort to exhaust herself over the coming months. Once the Iditarod was over, she and Howry would take their leave, and she could lose herself in Carol's arms. For about a month. Lainey had not been laid in a year or more; she had stopped counting the days long ago. All those unspent hormones had to go somewhere. Certainly that had a lot to do with her volatile emotions now.
Heartened with the possible explanation, Lainey stepped off the porch. The ground crunched beneath her boot, and she finally focused on the clearing around her. A thick layer of snow covered the ground, seeming to glow in the growing daylight. The air was crisp, and she saw a stream of smoke rising from the other side of the hill where the main cabin lay. Huddled within her jacket, she trudged toward the outhouse. Oh, yes, it was definitely colder today.
Howry was equally distracted. He had brought his camera with him this morning, pausing in his chores to grab several shots of Scotch and her dogs excitedly playing in the powder. The animals knew what the change of weather meant, as well, and showed it with an extra level of enthusiasm. Scotch ignored Howry's activities, having become accustomed to the endless attention. His constant presence was the price she had to pay for agreeing to the magazine articles about her. She had to admit that some days were very trying. Having a bad day sooner or later was inevitable; having one with an observer photographing her every mistake or temper tantrum did not improve matters.
She glanced at Lainey who had become a veteran at chopping the salmon into chunks. The shorter woman stood on the step stool, shovel in hand, as she used the edge of the tool to break up the boiled fish. This scene was a far cry from Lainey's first day, cringing away from the idea of feeding entire fish to the dogs, to include the heads. Scotch grinned at the recollection. She remembered Cliff, the bush pilot, and his remark that Lainey appeared high maintenance. Scotch was relieved that this had not been the case. If anything, Lainey was extremely low maintenance, more than capable of rolling up her sleeves and digging into whatever was required to complete a task regardless of the level of filth involved.
Sometimes it was weird how wrong first impressions could be.
Lainey finished the chopping, and Rye put the lid back on the kettle before turning up the propane for another boil. As soon as Lainey was clear of the stool, she retrieved her camera from a hook. She caught Scotch watching and promptly took a picture of her. Laughing, Scotch waved her away, stepping into the dog barn to consult the daily lists.
What would it have been like if the magazine had stuck with the original agreement?
Scotch had to admit the thought of Lainey pursuing her with a camera was not nearly as irritating as Howry doing the same. Come to think of it, Lainey already did follow her about; she probably had as many photos of Scotch as Howry did. It must be a requirement for all photojournalists, to literally have a camera grafted to their hands.
Lainey entered the barn. "Hey there. Anything new?"
"Nope. Same old, same old. We can start gathering the additives."Scotch shared a grin with her as they opened a cabinet to pull out large measuring bowls. They worked in silent tandem, almost as an extension of one another as they retrieved vitamin supplements, rice and bone meal to add to the morning stew.
"We'll have to alter the dogs' diets for the weather, won't we?"Lainey asked.
Scotch said, "Eventiually. More fats and proteins, less filler. That'll take place once we get them past seven miles a day."
"And when will that be?"
"Soon."Scotch finished what she was doing. She turned toward Lainey, resting a hip on the edge of the counter. "I think we'll skip a run today. Let's take the snow machines out of storage and out on the trails; get an idea of how they're faring, how deep the snow truly is, and to pack it down a bit. If we're lucky, the snow will keep up for a few more days. It'll give us a healthy base to run on."
Lainey nodded. "Sounds like a plan. I take it there are no tours today?"
"Nope. And even if there are visitors today, Miguel can do the deed. Once the snow flies, training begins. He and Dad are going to take up a lot of the slack as our winter tourists come through."
Frowning, Lainey said, "But your dad works."
"Construction,"she reminded her. "Business slows down enough he can leave a lot of the work to his foreman. There's some interior work to be had, but he'll have fewer jobs available until spring. If the snow holds, work will taper off enough that he'll be home a lot more."
Lainey smacked her forehead lightly at her momentary lapse of intelligence. Scotch smiled, enjoying the humor. Lainey certainly was a good looking woman, even wearing a pair of heavy coveralls layered in dog hair and mud. Her features were expressive, and her dark eyes always reflected cheer. All in all, it had been a good decision when she had agreed to this in-depth article last spring.
She pushed the thoughts out of her head. "Sorry. Just thinking I'm glad you're here."
Lainey's grin softened. "Thanks. I'm glad I'm here, too."
Scotch's heart thumped, and she took a step closer, not certain what she was doing. "That's good to know,"she said, her voice lowering. She focused on Lainey's face. Fascinated, she watched her friend's lips slightly part.
"Are you guys ready yet?"Irish asked, coming into the dog barn.
Bewildered, Scotch turned, barely noting that Lainey took a smooth step away from her. "Just about."
Irish stopped and stared at them. "What's going on?"
Lainey smiled at her. "We were just talking about what to do today."
"Check the trails, of course,"the girl said as if it were a foregone conclusion. She continued forward and grabbed the tin of rice. "Rye says it's time."
"Then let's go. We have a lot of dogs to feed."Lainey scooped up the bone meal, following Irish to the door. Once there, she paused. "Are you coming?"
Scotch took a deep breath, regaining her equilibrium. "Yeah,"she said. She turned to study Lainey, seeing a flush cross the woman's tanned skin and knowing an answering blush tinted hers. "I'll be there in a minute."
Lainey loitered a moment, on the verge of saying something.
"Hey, where's the rest?"Howry called from outside.
The moment passed. "On my way!"Lainey answered. Her expression flickered with regret, and she gave a little half shrug before disappearing outside.
Scotch turned back to the counter, placing her hands on the edge. Was she planning on kissing Lainey just now? In answer, her mind delivered up an erotic vision of just such an action. Her body responded with a rush of sensation that swept from her heart to her groin, and she swallowed hard. Good God, she had been!
"What's taking so long?"Irish asked, marching up to the counter.
"Nothing. I . . ."Scotch picked up the nearest clipboard. "I was wondering whether or not to start the dogs on the extra protein now."
Irish quirked an eyebrow, questioning. "Don't we want to wait until they've been training first?"
Scotch nodded. "Yeah, you're probably right."She slid the measured additives toward her little sister. "Here. I'll get started on breaking the snow machines out until the stew's ready for the dogs."
"Okay."Irish took the tin and left, unaware of Scotch's confusion.
Using the opposite door, Scotch walked to the storage barn, avoiding the dog kitchen completely. Entering, she switched on the overhead lights and located the vehicles, automatically going through the process of getting them out of their mothballs and prepared for use. The familiar actions grounded her, and she was better able to think about what had happened in the dog barn.
She had never been strongly attracted to anyone before, male or female. Scotch had had her share of kisses and heavy petting over the years, but those were with boys during her adolescence and a couple of semi-serious lesbian relationships when she attended college. She had always felt something had been lacking, however, some crucial linchpin of emotion that she seemed incapable of feeling. She finally gave up trying. Whatever people found in such relationships was not something she would ever share; or so she had thought. Nothing had ever come of it, least of all the amount of sensation she had just experienced at the mere thought of kissing Lainey.
Scotch pulled the tarps off the vehicles, her nose itching at the dust that flew from her action. A healthy round of sneezing later, she had the coverings folded up and set aside, and she began the process of preparing the snow machines for use.
This sudden desire to kiss Lainey certainly complicated things. Scotch grumbled under her breath as she forced a sticking gas cap open. Even if she did make the attempt, that did not necessarily mean that Lainey was a lesbian, too. What were the odds of that occurring? And what difference did it make, anyway? Once the Iditarod was over, Lainey would move on to other pastures, and Scotch would return to living alone. Besides, the Iditarod was far too important to screw up for a roll in the hay, no matter how appealing that roll seemed.
"What?"she demanded, glaring at the interruption.
Howry raised his hands in surrender and took a step backward. "We're getting ready to feed the dogs, that's all."
She slumped before giving the reporter a contrite look. "I'm sorry. Guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Didn't mean to snap."
He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. It's an exciting day for you, I'm sure."
Chuckling at the irony, she said, "You don't know the half of it."
Lainey kept the pleasant expression plastered on her face as she left Scotch in the dog barn. She poured the bone meal into the kettle, her actions on automatic as the sight of Scotch leaning closer filled her mind. Damn, that had been close! She had almost thrown herself at Scotch. Or did Scotch make the first move? Was it wishful thinking on Lainey's part? Had Scotch started the seduction?
"Where's the rest?"Rye asked, stirring the mixture.
"Scotch has it,"Lainey said. She made no move to return to the barn, not wanting to face her friend quite yet. Her priority was to slow her thundering heart, and quell the rich wave of yearning rolling through her.
Irish pursed her lips in pre-adolescent aggravation. "I'll go get it."She took the measuring bowl from Lainey and stomped toward the door.
Rye rolled his eyes at his sister as he continued to mix the stew, but said nothing.
At loose ends, Lainey took the opportunity to flee, picking up her camera and heading into the dog yard. Standing behind the lens calmed her erratic nerves, allowing her to detach from her immediate surroundings. During her counseling sessions after being shot, the psychiatrist had said the camera was a crutch, protecting her from reality. No argument there. At least this way she was able to chill out enough to contemplate what happened.
What had happened?
First they were talking, working side by side as they had for months, comfortable in their proximity. Then . . . Scotch had put the moves on her.
"No. That can't be right."Lainey shook her head, and returned to finding the right shot through the viewfinder. Bonaparte demanded a state portrait with his elegant profile, and she snapped the picture.
As far as she had been able to ascertain, Scotch was straight . Certainly there had been times she wondered if perhaps she was wrong. She had always chalked it up to wishful thinking on her part. Every instance of ambiguousness could be calculated as a simple misunderstanding. Living with a person for three and a half months had to count for something. She would know if her roommate shared her attraction to women, right?
Hell, Howry had done his fair share of talking with Scotch, attempting to discover the true nature of her sexuality. Even he had come to the conclusion Scotch was a very sheltered and innocent straight woman.
So, what just happened in the dog barn?
Lainey growled under her breath. Nothing but the obvious could explain what had transpired. She had too much experience in the art of seduction to not see an attempted kiss. Scotch did make the first move! But, why? And, more importantly, why now?
The steam from her sharp exhalation clouded the vision from her lens for a moment. It was no wonder she was constantly confused about Scotch's intentions. That could only mean that Scotch was probably just as confounded. Which explained, at the very least, that she was only now discovering who she was.
Great. Not only did Scotch not have the common decency to know her own sexual orientation at the tender age of twenty-four, she had to complicate Lainey's attraction by figuring it out now. The last thing Lainey needed was a virgin.
Despite the sardonic thought, she felt a tremor of excitement at that possibility.
"Stop that!"she ordered, forcing away ribald visions of what â•˘lessons' she could teach Scotch. "Dirty old woman."
Kaara cocked an ear at her.
"Not you, girl," Lainey said, rubbing her head.
What to do? It was one thing to have a crush on a straight roommate. Lainey had experienced such unrequited fiascos in her youth. All she needed to do in such a case was keep a tight rein on her desires and suffer the consequences.
But if Lainey's suspicions were correct, Scotch was waking up to something fundamental about herself. Such a revelation was difficult enough in the best of times; here in the backwoods of Alaska, however, it could cause major trauma. Lainey really liked Scotch. She did not want to lose their friendship because of a mistake. Scotch might make a pass in experimentation, but Lainey was not sure she could defend against one.
She snorted to herself, grinning when Jonah did the same as he nosed his empty bowl. "You'll be fed soon," she promised, scratching his back.
Irish's timely interruption was the only thing that saved the morning. Now that Lainey was aware of Scotch's mutual attraction, for whatever reasons, she was positive it would be three times as hard to deny her.
Perhaps she should move into the main cabin. She could cite the cold as a reason. Scotch knew of her ribs; it would be nothing to expand a bit on that to feign a need for a steady form of heating through the winter.
Unless Scotch offered a more entertaining manner of keeping warm in the evenings . . .
"Ugh!" Lainey wished there was something to pound her head against.
"Lainey! Breakfast time!"
She sighed and turned toward the dog kitchen. Waving to Rye, she trudged back to her chores.
Howry noted that his primary subject was less than enthusiastic, her brow creased in thought. She kept glancing at Lainey from across the table, and he watched the two of them carefully.
Lainey had her professional face on; he had seen it often enough over the years to spot it on sight. Something had happened, and she had tossed up the facade to keep anyone from noticing. In their business, it was required to be in horrible places or interview people with the moral integrity of a sewer. Such professionalism was required to get the job done, regardless of any negative opinions one had with the subject. Not to mention such a demeanor could mean life or death depending on who was involved.
He spooned a healthy dose of brown sugar onto his oatmeal, and stirred.
Things had been different this morning because of the snow. The Fullers had radiated a ton of energy, just as their dogs did, filling the air with a high level of breathless expectation. Howry supposed that the first snow of the season always evinced the same emotions for them. It had been pretty contagious; he fell sway to it, too. Lainey and Scotch acted as they had every morning. He had noticed that Lainey was a bit stiffer, probably from the cold, but just as excited as the rest of them. The time had finally come to do some serious dog training, and they all looked forward to the prospect.
Something had happened though. Scotch disappeared, and Lainey wandered off to photograph dogs. Howry about had his head ripped off when he finally found Scotch in the storage barn. She had not been irritated before she and Lainey had gone to collect the additives for the dog stew. Granted, some people reacted to fervor with crankiness, but Scotch was rarely bitchy. Why start now? There was no pressure, yet. He expected her to become more stressed the closer they got to the Iditarod, not now.
He focused on his friend, not buying the pleasant exterior as she joked with Helen over something. She, too, had transformed from simply enjoying the morning to become this ultra professional journalist putting her subjects at ease. He ate slowly, recognizing the subtle signs telling him she was flustered. And she would not look at Scotch except the occasional pan across the room.
Scotch also portrayed a cheer that was not quite real in its appearance. She kept giving Lainey furtive looks, searching for something and not finding it. At those moments her expression was closer to resignation than anything else, as if she were trying to buck up under the weight of her unpleasant thoughts.
Howry scraped the last of his breakfast from his bowl. Time to corner one of them and find out what was happening here.
She forced a smile and agreed, unable to come up with a valid reason to deny him.
After a quick lesson on the operation of the snow machine, she saddled up with Howry behind her. The controls were not much different than the ATVs she had used all summer. Too bad, she thought. If she could not drive one, maybe she could have ridden with someone else.
Rye, Irish, and Scotch each rode a machine, and the yard was filled with the whine of engines and the barking of the dogs. Scotch looked back and waved at Lainey to follow her. Her brother and sister each went in another direction, off to check the snow levels of their favorite stretches of trail.
Lainey surged forward with a jerk, causing Howry to clutch at her and curse. She grinned despite trepidation at his upcoming questions. As she became used to the vehicle controls, she felt him relax his grip, and she heaved a sigh of relief. Her ribs were definitely giving her more trouble today. She could already tell she would be spending a large amount of her free time at the hot springs.
The trails were almost alien to her, though she had just been on them the day before. White powder covered the familiar landscape, turning it into another realm. Branches which had been above her head now drooped under the weight of snow. In some places, only the brightly fluttering plastic markers indicated where she should go, jogging her memory. Scotch rode ahead of her, breaking the trail, and Lainey gave her plenty of lead to keep from running into her when she occasionally bogged down in snow drifts.
"So, what happened this morning?"
Lainey pursed her lips. "What do you mean?"she asked, not willing to give in so easily.
"Don't be coy, Lainey. You don't wear it well,"Howry said, his voice raised to be heard over the engine. "We both know what I'm talking about."
"What if I don't want to talk about it?"
He remained silent behind her for a full minute. "Think I should talk to Scotch instead?"
"Bastard,"she said under her breath.
Howry hugged her closer. "What was that?"
Lainey looked over her shoulder. "I said you're a bastard."
"Good to know I haven't lost my touch."
His laugh triggered her sense of the absurd, and she joined him. It was far better than crying.
"Seriously, Lainey, what's going on? You two have a fight over something?"
She sobered. Before her, Scotch took the left branch of a trail, standing on the machine as she disappeared down an embankment. Lainey braced herself and followed. Once they were back on level ground, she slowed to give Scotch more room. "I don't think Scotch is straight."
"What? I don't think I heard you right. Scotch isn't . . . ?"
"Straight!"she yelled. Up ahead, the topic of conversation must have heard something because she glanced backwards. No, surely Lainey had not shouted loud enough for that. Scotch was only checking the distance between them.
"Really?"Howry drawled. "How do you figure?"
"Oh, I don't know, Don. I guess when she tried to kiss me I kind of figured things were off."
He loosened his grip, slightly pulling away from her deep sarcasm. "You're joking."
Lainey grumbled to herself. "I wish."
He did not need to hear her to understand what she said.
As he digested this new information, she concentrated on driving. Scotch pulled onto another trail, waving Lainey toward one that paralleled her course. She gave the snow machine more gas and caught up to her roommate. Breaking the trail made the journey a bit rougher, but no less enjoyable. A thin line of deciduous trees flickered between them, giving Lainey the weird sensation of watching a reel of film at slow speed. Her heart warmed as she saw Scotch smile at her. At least the morning's oddness had not affected their friendship too severely.
Howry took advantage of their proximity to take a rapid series of photos.
"How're you doing?"Scotch yelled.
"Great! Where to next?"
"Let's head to the river, see how it's doing there. We'll need to slow down some."
"Okay. Lead on!"
Scotch nodded agreement and pulled ahead. At a break in the tree line, Lainey crossed over to the other trail, feeling the fine mist of granulated snow as Scotch picked up speed and rooster tailed. Howry laughed and she joined him.
"So, she made the moves on you, huh?"
Lainey rolled her eyes. She had hoped he would drop the topic, but she supposed she had not given him his due. He was a newsman, through and through. "Yeah. She said she was happy I was here, and the next thing I knew, we were closing in for the clincher."
"Did she come to her senses and realize I'm a far better catch than an old, broken down war horse like you?"
Despite the churn of emotions, Lainey smiled. "Actually, we were saved by the sister. Irish interrupted before anything could happen."
"Hmmm, my sympathies to you then."
"Don . . ."
"I know! I know! Even though you've wandered around for months mooning over her, you can't conceive of slaking your unrequited passions in her bed. I understand."
She wondered if she could find a ditch to jump and dislodge him from behind her.
"No. Scratch that. I don't understand,"he continued. "What's the problem? I'd think you'd be shedding your parka and skipping into her arms by now."
"God, you're an idiot,"she told him.
"That's not news."
She chuckled. "You don't get it. Scotch has just figured out she's either gay or bi. This is all new ground for her."
Howry whistled. "Lucky for her you're here to show her the ropes, huh?"
"What?"he asked in the same sharp tone. "I'm just a straight man; I'm not getting it here. Enlighten me."
Lainey refused to speak. Howry was not a dense man. If he could not figure it out, she certainly was not going to tell him. Scotch took the a trail to the right. Lainey pushed the snow machine to its limit as she turned followed, causing Howry to clutch at her in abrupt fear of being thrown.
At first, she thought he swore because of her attempt to lose him in a snow drift.
"You love her."
Lainey swallowed, her lungs suddenly not big enough to give her enough oxygen. She wheezed a couple of times, her heart thumping so hard, she was certain he could feel it through his thick gloves and her parka.
As she regained control of her body, a sardonic grunt left her throat. Of course. Infatuation was the wrong word entirely. Being a journalist, she needed a good command of the language. Funny how her mind had danced around the term but never allowed her to focus on it.
Her mother always said if you can name your demons, you can control them. Lainey wondered how to control this.
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