"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 pulled in."
"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?" George asked.
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 race."
"Those were your dogs I saw being unloaded," Claire said.
"Yes, ma'am." Fatigue pulled at the lines around his mouth. "Would either of you know where I can put up sixteen dogs?"
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' chow."
"In that case, I accept." Dillon Cord smiled.
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 minute."
"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 before.
Just not lately.
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