From the back of the crowded Millennium Hotel's banquet room, Claire tried to focus on the veteran musher on stage recounting an experience he had during last year's Iditarod. But she couldn't hear anything over the dull roar in her ears. She couldn't seem to draw enough air into her lungs to shake off the blackness moving in on her peripheral vision.
The room tipped and the black curtain drew together. A strong arm circled her waist and kept her from diving to the floor.
"Let's get out of here." Dillon's breath brushed her ear.
Claire nodded. He grabbed their coats and guided her out to the parking area. Bracing herself against the side of the Land Cruiser, Claire gulped the crisp night air and felt her head clear.
"Yes. Thanks." She gave a self-conscious laugh and rubbed her arms. "I don't know what came over me."
Dillon helped her into her parka. "Too much excitement, too little sleep. I'm having the same problem."
She cast him a skeptical look. "Seriously?"
He shrugged into his own parka. "Seriously."
"I just thought, since you'd done this before – "
"I'd be used to it?" He leaned against the side of the Land Cruiser, his shoulder pressed to hers. "If anything, it's worse. I've been there. I know what to expect. Happy River, Dalzell Gorge, the Buffalo Tunnels. I almost scratched at Kaltag my first year. The wind and cold on the Yukon was brutal."
"Then why keep coming back?"
He looked up at the night sky; Claire looked at him. It was easy to do. "There's a raw beauty on the Iditarod Trail you won't find anywhere else. You'll discover what you're made of." The intensity in his eyes when he looked back at her stole her breath. "And you'll never be the same when it's over."
She felt it even now. Her work with the dogs. Time spent absorbing the culture and uniqueness of Alaska. She was already changed. Alaska had gotten into her blood.
And so had this man. She knew too little about him, outside of a past he refused to discuss and an ex-wife who resented his job, whatever that may have been. She didn't like secrets, especially the kind that might pop up to bite her on the ass when least expected.
But she could still taste his kiss.
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