A last minute emergency causes nature photojournalist Lainey Hughes to head for the wilds of Alaska. It’s freezing, the men are men, and the women are far too rough. At least, so she thinks until she runs into the tenth place Iditarod winner, Scotch Fuller. As much as Lainey detests the cold, when a gig is pitched for her to run the Iditarod sled dog race under Scotch’s tutelage, she can’t pass it up. In the back bush of America’s northernmost state she’ll be forced to come to terms with her drinking, her emotions, and her love for Scotch.
Scotch stared nervously at the airstrip before her, tapping a staccato on the steering wheel in time with a bluegrass tune on the radio. The June morning had dawned beautifully, the temperature sitting at a balmy fifty-eight degrees. It was expected to reach sixty-five before the day was through, a perfect day to welcome a pair of newcomers.
It wasn’t clear why there would be two of them. There’d been a last minute change a week ago. Thom Fuller had been somewhat vague on the matter, possibly because he didn’t know either. Another bunk had been added to the handler’s cabin where Miguel Sanchez, the kennel‘s sole employee, resided. Once Scotch discovered the other photojournalist was a man, she felt a measure of relief. Perhaps the two were engaged or something. At least it would distract them from her to some degree.
Her ears picked up the sound of an engine. She turned off the radio, and leaned forward to peer out the windshield, locating the airplane. It cut into sight, emerging from the tree line on her left. The tiny plane swung around, lining up with the runway as it approached. There was just enough clearance for it to land, leaving little room to taxi. The plane halted no more than fifteen feet away. As the motor shut down, she got out of the truck to lean against the front side panel with one hip.
The door popped open, and a stool plunked beneath it to accommodate a gruff man in coveralls. He clambered out of the plane, spying her. With an exuberant wave, he marched forward. “Scotch! How the hell are you?”
Grinning, she met the pilot halfway, giving him a hug. “I’m doing great, Cliff. You?”
“Been better,” he confided. “These old bones are acting up. And Delores in threatening to quit on me.”
He said the same thing every time she saw him. “No way! Delores loves you. It’ll be a long time before her wings are clipped.”
He eyeballed the small charter plane. The only section of its hull not banged or scraped up was a carefully painted pin up girl by the pilot’s seat. She wore a skimpy red dress, and smiled coyly at her admirers. “You think so?”
Cheered, Cliff’s gaze shifted to the two people unloading luggage and gear. “That little girl there says she’s doing a big magazine article on you this year. That true?”
Scotch blushed. “It’s true. We’re hoping to get a national sponsorship out of the publicity.”
He nodded in agreeable contemplation. “Sounds like a plan. Hope it works out for you.”
His tone rang with uncertainty, catching Scotch’s attention. “You think it won’t?” she asked, lowering her voice.
Sucking his teeth, Cliff said, “I think it can go either way. She seems a bit high maintenance to me.” He chuckled, and nudged a worried Scotch with his shoulder. “But don’t mind me; I could be wrong. If I could judge women as well as airplanes, I’d be married six times over by now.”
She laughed with him, stowing his reservations for later perusal. The reporters finished unloading the plane, and she stepped forward to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Scotch Fuller. Welcome to Alaska.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you.” The woman offered her hand. She stood a few inches shorter, her curly dark hair cut short, and shot through with threads of silver. “I’m Lainey Hughes, and this is my associate, Don Howry.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fuller.”
‘Associate’? Scotch found the introduction lacking. If these two were romantically involved, they certainly covered their relationship well. She had the weirdest sensation she’d met Lainey before. Her father had said that the photojournalist had covered the last race, so maybe she’d seen her then. “Call me Scotch.” She led the way to the truck. “Since you’ll be with us a while, no reason to not to be an a first name basis.”
With Cliff’s help, they loaded the bags into the back. He declined an invitation to the kennel for coffee, but gratefully swapped his thermos with Scotch’s. Soon he was back in his plane, cranking it up for the trip back to Anchorage. They watched as he turned Delores around, and took off, the landing gears just barely missing the tops of the trees at the other end of the airstrip.
Left alone with the strangers, Scotch sighed. She had plenty of experience with public speaking and the local media, and reached for that knowledge. She forced a smile. “Let’s get you back to the kennel, and settled in.” Opening the truck, she folded the driver’s seat back. “I’ve only got jump seats here. It’s kind of small, so maybe Lainey should take the back.”
“That sounds fine.” Lainey smiled, and stepped forward. Howry went around to the passenger door.
Still holding the seat out of the way, Scotch leaned back against the door hinge to give Lainey room to maneuver. She couldn’t help but enjoy the snug fitting designer jeans, and a light scent of perfume. Lainey folded down the small seat behind Howry, and settled into the cramped space.
Soon they traveled on a paved rural road, heading into Talkeetna. The silence unnerved Scotch. She saw Howry within her peripheral vision avidly soaking up the sights of small town Alaska, but felt like she was being watched. A quick glance proved her instincts correct as Lainey looked away. Somewhat out of her element, Scotch reddened at the intensity of Lainey’s expression, and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
Lainey cleared her throat. “So, how long have you been driving dogs?”
Scotch grinned, welcoming the distraction of dog talk. “About twenty years.” At the abrupt quiet, she regarded her passengers, noting Howry’s puzzled look and Lainey’s expression of denial. “My parents started the kennel when I was two. As soon as I could stand and hang on alone, I was on a sled.”
“Wow.” Howry turned toward her in his seat. “Sledding as long as you’ve been walking. That’s cool.”
Scotch negotiated through the small town, waving to the sudden multitude on the streets that Cliff’s plane had called out. Considering the abrupt population increase, she thought the entire village’s friends and family had been invited to visit today. “I only had one dog for a team, but it was a beginning. My brother and sister started the same way.”
“That would be . . . Irish and Rye?”
Scotch nodded at Lainey’s question, turning off the road and onto a hard packed gravel lane. “Irish is nine; she’s running up to ten dogs now. Rye runs a full load.”
“Interesting names.” Howry hinted for more information.
Chuckling, Scotch shook her head. “Talk to my dad about that. He loves telling the story.”
“I will,” Lainey responded, her voice soft.
Scotch glanced sharply over her shoulder, not certain what she thought she’d see. Lainey smiled back at her. She turned back to her driving, unsettled.