Zander rose to his feet, grinning. He wore a full snowsuit and fresh snowflakes dotted his dark hair. “My buddy’s a dog musher, and I’m his backup when he’s out of town. He wants me to take these guys for a run. He says they’re getting antsy and need a real workout.”
“Wow.” Her mouth fell open as she stepped closer. One of the dogs cocked his head at her; his eyes were yellow, like a wolf’s. “Do they like this? Pulling a sled?”
“Hell yes. They love it. Fiona’s the lead dog.” He gestured to the dog he’d been whispering to. “She’s unbelievably fast. She was the lead of a team that came in second in the Iditarod. Now she’s retired from racing but she still loves to run. She keeps the other dogs in line.”
“What are their names?”
He ran down the line, naming each dog and bestowing rubs and pats to each. Most were some kind of husky mix, with thick fur and sturdy bodies and enough energy to power a train.
“In the old days, before we had so many roads, dog sleds were common around here. Some homesteads can only be reached by sled. The dog sleds can go across ice, frozen rivers…even the bay, when it used to freeze over. It doesn’t do that anymore.”
She crouched down and offered her hand to the closest dog so he could sniff it. “You sure they don’t mind being harnessed like this?”
“Dogs are pack animals. They do well in teams, like this, as long as they’re treated well. And these pups are treated like the champion athletes they are.” One more scratch behind Fiona’s ears, and he stepped over to the sled. He offered his hand to Gretel.
Gretel glanced again at the dog team. Fiona was looking curiously behind her, as if wondering who this unfamiliar human was. She caught the dog’s eye and got a whoosh of intuition—Fiona was wondering what the holdup was. She wanted speed and snow and woods.
Holding Zander’s hand, Gretel settled herself into the sled. Zander tucked a blanket around her. The proximity of his head, bedazzled with snowflakes, made her breath catch.
It stopped entirely when he paused, so close she could see his pupils darken, then slowly dropped a kiss onto her lips. She stayed still, letting him take the lead, giving herself over to the sensation of his firm mouth savoring hers. The contrast between his warmth and the cold air just outside their little bubble sharpened the sensation.
She sighed, her warm breath mingling like mist with his. His dark gaze held her for a moment, the strong lines of his face softening. “Hi there,” he said softly.
They smiled at each other, as if it was Christmas and they were just about to open the present they were most excited about.
He stepped behind the sled. “I have to push off, they can’t go from a dead stop. Be right there.”
He took hold of the back of the sled and yelled, “Hike!” to the dogs. As he pushed, the dogs lurched forward in a chaotic tumble. Gretel grabbed onto the side, ready for the sled to dump her into the snow—as usual. But it steadied as the dogs got themselves straightened out. Zander jogged behind, pushing until the sled was well underway. Finally he hopped into the sled and snuggled next to her.
He worked with the reins, calling out directions, as Fiona yelped at her team. The exuberant dogs settled into a coordinated pace and the sled glided forward from the snowy yard into the forest. The runners of the sled made a crunchy sound, as if they were carving through an ice field. The dogs yipped and bumped against each other.
In the woods, the dogs really got into their groove. They loped at an easy pace, smoothly synchronized with each other and with Zander. He chose a course over new snow, winding through the deep forest toward the valley below.
She scrunched down in the sled to avoid the lower branches of the spruce trees, but even so, her head brushed against one of them and a cold spritz of snow scattered across her face.
She didn’t mind; it felt like a “hi there” from the forest—a greeting in the language of ice. It made her laugh out loud. In fact, she’d been smiling ever since the sled had gotten underway. What a joy to be here with these trees, this snow, these dogs…this man. It took her breath away. It was magical.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish