Authors: Cindy Hiday
Tags: #love, #ptsd post traumatic stress disorder, #alaska adventure, #secret past, #loss and grief, #sled dog racing
By Cindy Hiday
Copyright 2013 Cindy Hiday
Cover art Jack Hiday
This is a work of fiction. While the Iditarod
Trail Sled Dog Race is an actual event and every effort was made to
keep details of the race and setting as accurate as possible, the
characters and situations in this story are fictitious. Any
similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not
intended by the author.
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Dedicated to the men and women of the
And the dogs.
Always the dogs.
On the first Saturday of every March, a
diverse group of courageous men and women from around the world
converge with their teams of four-legged athletes in Anchorage,
Alaska, for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. They'll
attempt to make their way across 1,049 miles of the state's most
striking, challenging terrain, encounter harsh weather conditions
and battle sleep deprivation to reach the burled arch in Nome, on
the coast of the Bering Sea. Some compete to be first; for many,
the goal is simply to finish, go the distance, no matter how long
it takes – and not lose a dog. The training is intense, the
exhaustion extreme, the rewards life-altering.
"What do you mean he's not coming?" Claire
asked. She unzipped her parka at the heat in the cramped air-taxi
office. The bitter smell of stale coffee insulted her sinuses. It
was bad enough she'd been coerced by her matchmaking friend into
driving to Talkeetna to pick up a man she'd never met. She didn't
need complications. "I saw animal carriers being unloaded when I
"Weren't his," George, the whip-thin,
sixty-year-old flight service owner replied. His office chair gave
a rusty squawk as he leaned across his desk and handed Claire a
slip of yellow note paper. "Got the call about ten minutes ago.
Some of his dogs came down with kennel cough."
"Oh." Claire's irritation gave way to concern
as she glanced at the note. The canine malady was a highly
contagious respiratory infection that could develop into pneumonia
if not properly treated.
Antibiotics and rest. Tell Matt and
Janey I'll see them next year
"He apologized for not getting word to you
sooner," George said. "Guess he was hoping the dogs would pull out
of it in time to make the trip."
"He must be terribly disappointed." Claire
put her career on hold for two years to train and qualify for the
Iditarod. To have to withdraw ten days before the race would be
heartbreaking, but the Alaskan bush was no place for a sick dog.
She shoved the note into the pocket of her parka. "Well then, I
suppose that's – "
The office door blew open, cutting her off
mid sentence. A surge of frigid Alaskan air entered on the heels of
a tall, solitary figure in a forest-green parka and moose-hide
mukluks laced to the knees of faded denim. His dark brown hair
swept back untamed. Clear blue eyes, like glacier ice, tracked the
small room and settled on Claire. Unlike ice, she felt heat prickle
the skin beneath her thick flannel shirt.
George asked, "Can I help you?"
Those intense eyes held Claire's a second
longer, then shifted to the man behind the desk. "I'm looking for
Ted Warren," he said, a raw huskiness in his voice.
He moved away from the door and stood with
his back to the room's only wall without a window. Whether a
conscious move or not, Claire couldn't be sure. But her experience
as an attorney taught her to notice the learned habits of a
cautious man. A cop, perhaps.
"You just get off the plane from Nome?"
The older man referred to another slip of
paper. "You must be Dillon Cord."
George shoved his knit cap higher on his
forehead, exposing a thick shock of white hair. "I'm afraid Ted
won't be showing. He's in intensive care at Providence Hospital,
down in Anchorage."
Claire drew a sharp breath. Ted and Helen
were neighbors. "What happened?"
"Heart attack, late last night," George
replied. "His wife called just a bit ago from the hospital."
"What's his condition?"
"He's stabilized is all Helen could tell me."
George returned his attention to the man named Dillon Cord. "You a
friend of Ted's?"
"No. Somebody I know put me in touch with
him. I had arrangements to board my team at his place until the
"Those were your dogs I saw being unloaded,"
"Yes, ma'am." Fatigue pulled at the lines
around his mouth. "Would either of you know where I can put up
Claire didn't waste time analyzing the
feeling that some force beyond her control had taken charge of the
moment. "I was supposed to pick up a musher and his team from
Teller," she said, "but I just got word he won't be coming. The
vacancy is yours if you want it."
She could have called Janey and Matt first,
but she knew her friends well enough to already have a good idea
what they'd say. The fact that Ted and Helen Warren had been
willing to take the man in helped. But Claire relied on her
intuition more than anything else. After seven years in criminal
defense, she considered herself an accurate judge of character.
With one notable exception, the memory
bringing a familiar, bitter knot to her stomach.
George leaned back, causing his chair to
shriek. "Well, Mr. Cord, looks like this is your lucky day. Matt
and Janey Sommer run a topnotch operation and they're only a couple
miles down the road. Claire here's been training at their kennel.
She'll be a rookie in this year's race."
"Are you sure I won't be imposing?"
The corner of Claire's mouth tipped. The
musher she'd been sent to meet, according to Janey, was
thirty-seven, good looking and single. Dillon Cord appeared to be
in the same age group, maybe a couple years younger. And from what
she'd seen so far, he met the second criterion. She wasn't going to
ask about the third. "My friends are expecting me to bring back a
musher and his dogs," she told him. "You'll be asked to help with
chores and contribute a little for groceries, but the bunk in the
cookhouse is free. Of course you're responsible for your own dogs'
"In that case, I accept." Dillon Cord
Claire's breath stopped somewhere short of
her lungs. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, she thought. But the
sensation didn't last. She was more than capable of guarding her
heart against a man's attractive smile. She'd had two years to
practice. A strand of hair had worked free of the braid at the back
of her head and she tucked it behind her ear. "As George said, I
think you'll be happy with the arrangement."
"I'll help you load your dogs." George made
to stand just as his telephone rang. "Darn thing. Hang on a
"That's all right," Claire said. "You take
care of business. I'm sure the two of us can manage."
The older man gave Dillon a quick sizing up,
then nodded. "S'pose you're right. Give my best to Matt and Janey."
He shot Claire a wink and reached for the phone.
"I'll do that." She turned toward the door.
Dillon got to it first and held it open for her. "Thank you," she
said, feeling inexplicably feminine over the simple gesture, then
silly for having such a reaction. Men had opened doors for her
Just not lately.
Stepping from the over-heated office, she
zipped her jacket and pulled on her insulated gloves. The cold, dry
air purged the smell of old coffee. A thermometer mounted to the
outside of the building read fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. The low
afternoon sun shown bright against a new layer of powdery snow
dusting the paved airstrip. Dillon's dogs, still in their airline
carriers in front of the hanger, yipped and barked when they saw
"It's all right, kids," he called. "Not much
longer now." The noise level quieted to random whines.
The Sommers' truck was an old one-ton Ford
pickup, the bed an enclosed wooden box divided into twenty
compartments – two levels of five on each side – with space down
the middle for equipment.
"Have you run the Iditarod before?" Claire
asked as she helped him stow harnesses, lines and personal gear.
The sleds – a toboggan and a lighter sprinter – went on top of the
"Mind if I ask how you did?"
"I made it to Nome both times."
Claire gave a light laugh. "I can only hope
for as much." She found a space for his snowshoes and secured the
rear compartment. "Let's get those kids of yours loaded."
He led a blue-eyed white Siberian from the
first airline carrier and hefted her into one of the truck's top
compartments, murmuring unintelligible endearments to the dog while
You can tell a lot about a man by how he
treats his dogs, Claire thought, and felt that unexpected rush of
heat again. She shifted and cleared her throat. "Beautiful
"Bonnie's my best leader. Not the fastest,
but I can depend on her." He nodded toward a carrier containing
another Siberian, this one with a tan blaze on its muzzle. "That
character over there is her brother Clyde."
"Bonnie and Clyde?"
"When they were pups, they'd steal anything
they could get in their mouth." He shot her a half smile that made
her pulse miss a step.
"Thanks for the warning. If something comes
up missing, I'll know where to look." Though judging by her
reaction to the man and what she suspected Janey was going to say
when she got a look at him, Bonnie and Clyde might be the least of
Dillon gazed out the passenger window of the
Ford at the frozen banks of the Susitna River and the snow-covered
Alaskan Range in the distance. Talkeetna was located at the end of
a fifteen-mile paved spur that branched off Parks Highway, the main
route to Denali National Park. A brief break in the clouds
shrouding Mt. McKinley, Denali by its native name, gave him a
glimpse of the mountain's sharp, arresting peak before it slipped
under cover again.
But the trees interested him more.
Cottonwood, birch, spruce and alder, their branches struggling
beneath thick layers of snow. Another world from the flat,
black-sand beaches of Nome. He had his work cut out for him,
getting his team accustomed to running in dense vegetation. He
should have started sooner, but money and time were tight.
He glanced over at the woman sitting beside
him, her gloved hands wrapped firmly around the steering wheel as
she squinted against the glare of the lowering sun. With sixteen
huskies and all his gear, the truck was heavy, but Dillon had the
feeling she could handle it. He'd noticed the way she moved.
What man wouldn't? She had an athletic
strength that defied her slenderness. Smooth, high cheeks, a
determined set to her chin. Light blonde hair pulled into a braid
that disappeared beneath the collar of her parka. She pulled off a
glove and pushed a strand of it behind her ear, her fingers
work-roughened. Then apparently deciding the cab had warmed enough,
she removed her other glove and dropped them both on the bench
seat. Her gaze caught his for an instant before returning to the
road. Her dark amber eyes made him think of aged whiskey.