Julie groaned and curled further into the ball she’d rolled into. She wasn’t shivering, praise the Lord, but her entire body ached from the cold. She’d lost count of how many times she’d woken up frozen to her core. One would think after more than twenty years of mushing, that she’d be used to the cold. During the day, she was constantly on the move and the temperature didn’t get to her as badly. Nights were miserable, though.
She’d eventually fallen asleep, so she shouldn’t whine, even if the big baby session was only in her head. Stretching out in her bag, she let another groan out and buried her head deeper into the cover pulled up to her face. Why did it smell like Gunnar and rush all kinds of memories into her morning brain fog?
Slowly emerging from the cocoon, she blinked to focus her eyes to the light and narrowed her eyes at Gunnar’s parka clutched in her fingers. Her heart swelled in her chest as she pulled it up to her nose and breathed in his scent that reminded her of the outdoors and happier days.
She opened her eyes and found him feeding snow to the pot with a satisfied smirk on his face. Had he seen her sniffing his coat like a lovesick dog?
“Good morning.” She might as well get going.
Hanging out in her sleeping bag all day wasn’t an option, especially when they had good weather. There might be days ahead with them stuck inside if a storm blew in. Then, she’d have all the time in the world to make a fool of herself.
“Morning.” Gunnar smiled at her.
It was the one where only one side of his mouth hitched up. Oh, how she wanted to press her lips against that lift. That would make this morning good. Why shouldn’t she? Because she wouldn’t be the first one making a move, that’s why.
Her reasons for keeping her distance made little sense now.
“Thanks.” She sat up and handed the parka to him.
“You were shivering. I wanted to help.” Gunnar slid his fingers along hers as he took the coat. “You’ve always been so cold.”
His low voice and warm touch tumbled excitement into her stomach like a litter of wrestling puppies. Memories of how he used to pull her close to warm her up flooded her cheeks with burning heat.
Not only had he caught her sniffing his coat. Now, her cheeks were broadcasting his effect on her. The last thing she wanted was to make their circumstance uncomfortable for him.
“Coffee?” Gunnar went back to tending the pot.
She crawled out of the sleeping bag and got to work rolling it up, grateful Sunny had taken the first morning watering the dogs. Julie loved that about being part of a team rather than how she normally dogsledded. They all worked together and took turns with jobs. That few minutes of extra time in the morning could be what helped keep their spirits up.
When she finished packing her gear, she worked on stowing Sunny’s sleeping bag. Team spirit brimmed from Julie, giving her a delightful buzz. Maybe she needed to find a way to continue dog sledding but not in such a solo atmosphere.
“Here.” Gunnar extended a steaming mug to her. “Two sugars and one creamer?”
Delight morphed into euphoria. He remembered? Biting her lower lip to control her smile, she took the mug and moved to sit next to the stove… which just happened to be next to him. The small tent proved to be the best part of the expedition so far.
She took a sip of the coffee. The instant brew shouldn’t taste like gourmet, but it did. She closed her eyes and savored the next sip.
Gunnar cleared his throat. When she glanced at him, pink climbed up his neck as he fiddled with breakfast. Interesting. Why was he blushing? She grinned into her mug. Now they were even.
“Looks like banana-flavored buckwheat this morning.” Gunnar read the instant breakfast packet, then poured hot water into it. “Wonder if it tastes like your banana bread?”
She’d gotten more words out of him in the last five minutes than all the days before. Heck, aside from his purge of words at the pool, he’d turned downright chatty. Which meant one of two things. Either he had nervous energy rushing through him like she did, or he was getting comfortable around her again.
The only time she’d ever seen Gunnar Rebel nervous was when he’d finally made a move on her in high school. He’d been a complete mess, vacillating between tripping over his words and rushing them out so fast she hadn’t been able to keep up with his train of thought. Then, as if he’d snapped, he’d grabbed hold of her arms and kissed her softly on the lips. It was one of her favorite memories. Well, almost all of her memories of Gunnar were her favorites.
What was stopping her from doing the snapping this time? If there was the possibility of something between them, why didn’t she dive in and see? Sure, it might make things awkward between them, but they already were, weren’t they?
She was tired of waiting, tired of running the trails solo. After everything that had happened to both of them, all the heartache and adversities they’d been through separately, she finally had the love of her life around her again. Staring at Gunnar as he prepared breakfast, she set her mug down. Her heart raced at full speed in her chest. If there was a chance at not having to do life alone anymore, she would grab it, all two hundred plus pounds of him, and hold on for dear life.