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Afrigid wind rushed across the frozen pond, slicing into Julie Sparks’s hood and skittering down her neck. It howled past her again with more force. Bare birch branches rattled like dry bones against each other as if in warning, then fell silent. She shivered and stomped her feet in the snow as her gaze darted through the forest.

“Come on, Jules.” Her whisper sounded loud with the wind gone. “If you’re freaking out in the outskirts of Fairbanks, how are you going to handle the expedition?”

If the expedition even happened now. With the Reeves’s accident that afternoon, she wasn’t sure venturing to the North Pole was possible. Mason Steele, their fearless leader, swore he had a plan, but he hadn’t had the time to divulge it. When she realized she wasn’t going to get any info, she’d come back to the bed-and-breakfast to get some sleep before the meeting in the morning.

Tolstoy, her lead dog and constant companion, leaned against her leg and whined. He must think she’s crazy, talking to herself. She rubbed his head to reassure him, though she wasn’t sure herself.

She’d been on countless dogsled races through the Alaskan wilderness, had solo trained for years on week-long trips, had run both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod the previous year, finishing higher than any other rookie, and had never had nerves raging in her gut like a wolverine caught in a snare like she did now. She had tried working with her dogs. They’d sensed her unease, whining and pawing at her, so she’d left. She couldn’t afford for them to be off their game.

Hanging out with the other guests lodging at the inn out toward Chena had only increased the suffocating sensation threatening to overwhelm her. She needed air. Needed space and the outdoors to calm her racing thoughts.

Her focus had to be on the next few days when the team finished any last-minute preparations before loading everything up and heading to Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska. The frozen ocean between the expedition’s launching point and the North Pole wouldn’t go easy on her. She knew that from experience. The memory of her father being hauled into the rescue helicopter during his last dogsled race flitted to the front of her thoughts, but she quickly pushed it away.

She would not end up like her dad, dying of a heart attack on the trail like he always said he would. Not that she had anyone waiting at home for her. Her cousin, Saylor, didn’t count, though she’d be devastated if anything happened to Julie.

Her lonely existence grated. She had no one to blame but herself. Seemed easier after every romantic relationship petered out to nothing. It didn’t really surprise her now. Her high school sweetheart, Gunnar Rebel, had taken her heart with him when he’d left her for the military, not once, but twice.

He hadn’t even cared enough to respond to the letters she’d sent him after they’d reconnected that weekend seven years ago. She wasn’t sure why she’d expected him to. Their agreement to sever ties so he could focus on being an Air Force Pararescueman hadn’t changed. If anything, Gunnar had been more insistent about not contacting each other.

Of course, that decision had been before she’d gotten sick and needed his support.

But it hadn’t come.

She’d learned she had enough strength of her own to survive. Survive being the key term, because for so long that had been the extent of her existence. Now, though, she’d found a sense of living she’d lost in the years after her illness. And that sense tangled completely in keeping her father’s legacy alive. Well, not just keeping it alive, but elevating it to new heights.

She had to.

She had to make her life count, to do the incredible, for all those whose lives were cut short.

She’d push to her breaking point if need be, and the expedition from Alaska’s northern shore to the North Pole could do it. Mason Steele’s desire to do the impossible would be her proving ground. If she failed to get him to the Pole, his sponsorship and her future would crack and tumble into frigid oblivion. Oh, he hadn’t come right out and said it, but the implication was there.

She wrapped her arms around her stomach as her meager dinner threatened to spew. The wind slapped her in the face, and she breathed the frigid freshness in. She squared her shoulders and turned to head back to the bed-and-breakfast.

Tolstoy trotted ahead of her, burying his head in the snow. She wished she could infuse his carefree manner into her bones. A wolf howled in the distance as a shiver raced through her. She stopped short on the edge of the yard, her heart pounding in her throat.

Doubts crept in from the thick darkness. Was she strong enough for such an intense expedition? Could she help lead them to their destination? What if she got off course and killed them all? She couldn’t disappoint the memory of her father, couldn’t let him down.

Her phone rang in her pocket, jolting her from her pathetic brooding. She rolled her eyes at her cousin Saylor’s picture staring up at her from the screen. What could she possibly want now? Did she have some kind of ESP that told her Julie was in complete freak-out mode?

She cleared her throat, hoping her pity party didn’t linger in her voice. “Hello?”

“Hey. I just heard about the accident. What’s going to happen now?” Saylor’s clipped tone pulled Julie back from her fretting even more.

“I don’t know. Mason says he has a plan. He’s laying it all out tomorrow morning at ten.” Julie stared at the lights shining from the bed-and-breakfast’s windows.

“I have a meeting with a supplier for Ascent at nine-thirty I can’t miss.” Saylor’s tapping on her computer came over the phone.

Julie didn’t know how her cousin could handle everything she did. Not only was she the head of distribution for the outdoor supply company, Ascent, Inc., but Mason had talked her into overseeing the expedition’s base. She’d be the one coordinating the resupply stops along the trail, which made sense given the large chunk of change Ascent contributed to the expedition. It was a massive undertaking, but if anyone could do it, Saylor could. She always excelled at being in charge.

“I’ll let Mason know you’ll be late.” Julie threaded her fingers through Tolstoy’s fur as he sat next to her with a whine.

“I could strangle that man right now for his lack of info. Would it kill him to send out a quick text to fill us in?” Saylor growled.

She tended to be intense. It made her a little scary sometimes, but Julie loved that about her cousin. They were the exact opposites, which Julie had needed when things got rough.

A shiver raked through Julie. “You know Mason. He probably figures there’s no need to discuss it until we’re together.”

Tags: Sara Blackard Alaskan Rebels Romance