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Running Wild by Jaye Elise and Jack Crosby – Sample

Part One

Fairbanks Daily Gazette, Sunday Edition

Calling all sports fans, adrenaline junkies, and dog sled lovers!

The 57th Annual Chimney Run 600 is nearly upon us and I’m calling on you—yes, you!—to come join us in North Pole, Alaska on Saturday, March 10, for the thrilling start of the race. There will be autograph signings with the racers, media events, specialized vendors, and fun activities for all ages. Or, if you’d like to see the sleds cross the finish line, plan to be in Anchorage starting March 17.

Come be a spectator to one of the most challenging and brutal courses in the sled dog racing world. The pot is rich—nearly $50,000 and a brand new Chevy Silverado for this year’s winner—and the stakes have never been higher. Ten of the world’s best mushers have been invited to take on the toughest course we’ve ever devised. And, if past years are any indication of future results, over half of our competitors won’t make it to the end of the course and will be forced to watch from the sidelines as we crown this year’s Chimney Run 600 Champion.

While we can’t tell you exactly who our ten mushers are—you’ll have to wait to find out like everyone else—I can share a little bit of insider knowledge with you. You’re likely to see some seasoned veterans, a fan favorite, an Olympic-caliber athlete, and even a few dark horses to round out the field. Trust me when I say you won’t be disappointed!

We look forward to hosting you in North Pole—bundle up and come join the fun!

All my best,

Gus Nelson

President, American Sled Dog Racing

Chapter One

Jordyn

I’d given up trying to figure out how long I’d been pacing outside that cheap particleboard door. It’d been long enough for the snow I’d tracked in from outside to start melting along the cracked tile floor. Long enough to start overheating in my thick down parka and knit cap. Long enough to realize that what I was about to do was never going to get any easier.

Knocking on the door, I heard a muffled c’mon in. Coach O’Malley sat in his cramped office, entering data from today’s sessions and loading tomorrow’s training schedule to send out to the team first thing in the morning.

“Well, hey there, Jordyn! What brings you down to the dungeon tonight?” Unfortunately, his humor and contagious enthusiasm couldn’t cut through the steel curtain I’d pulled around myself in preparation for this moment. He knew something was wrong right from the get-go. “What’s goin’ on? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine, Coach. I’m fine. The team’s fine. It’s all good. But…” With a long, deep breath, I surrendered to the feeling that had been building up inside me for months. I gave in. I made my peace with it.

“But what, Jordyn?” He stood up and leaned across his desk as I met his concerned gaze.

“But I’m out, Coach. I’m out.”

“What do you mean you’re out, Maxwell?” He was starting to get pissed. He only used our last names when he was really angry. I supposed this warranted that kind of reaction. After all, it wasn’t every day that the star of the Olympic biathlon team trudged into your office—four weeks before the games—and quit.

“I mean I’m out. I quit. I’m off the team. I don’t want this anymore.” I didn’t know how else to tell him. There didn’t seem to be that much more to say.

“You’d better be dying, Maxwell, because if you’re joking, this shit ain’t funny.” His nostrils flared as he struggled to calm his temper.

“No, Coach. I’m not dying and I’m not joking. I’m quitting. End of story.” My voice remained level even though my insides churned in distress.

Pulling back from his desk, he drew his arms across his chest after running a hand through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. “Why? And don’t bullshit me on this. Tell me why.”

Even after agonizing days, weeks, and months grappling with this decision, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on the exact reason. But I did my best to try. I owed him at least that much.

“A couple years ago, you came to my uncle’s farm, looking for the girl who could ski like the wind and shoot like Annie Oakley. And you found me under a pack of roughhousing sled dogs, liked what you saw, told me you could already see a gold medal hanging around my neck, and then brought me here to train. For an orphan like me, getting to compete against others, to see the rest of Alaska and the world, and to do what I loved seemed like a dream come true.”

I’d sensed them coming, but yet the tears that rolled down my cheeks in that moment still surprised me. I had to get this out fast or risk not finishing.

“And I got here, met the team, made some friends, and started to train. And I’d never worked so hard at something in my whole life. Ten-, twelve-, fourteen-hour days, running on a treadmill with funny machines monitoring my heart rate and breathing, fighting with weights, shooting at targets until I couldn’t see straight anymore, pushing my body as hard as it would go. And sometimes harder.”

“That’s what it takes to be a champion, Jordyn. Working harder and smarter than everyone else. And you’ve got that in you, down to your marrow, so why the hell are you giving up now? For Christ’s sake! The Olympics are a month away and you’re the closest we’ve ever come to having a real shot at the podium!” He’d given up trying to dampen his frustration and the volume of his voice told me everything I needed to know about how much I was hurting him.

“Because this isn’t who I am and I don’t want it badly enough. I want to go home. I want to be back on the farm. I… I want to be back outdoors on the trail. With my dogs.” Two final tears splatted on the linoleum floor. “I miss my life with the dogs, Coach.”

If he was irritated before, he was positively furious now. And he wasn’t holding back anymore. “You’re giving up on your shot at a gold medal because you miss a few mangy animals and you’re tired of working out? Well, shit, Maxwell. You should’ve started your little sob story there. You’re obviously not the champion I thought you were when I first met you. So why don’t you get the hell out of here and let me start calling alternates? I can damn well guarantee there are at least two dozen young women out there who’ll be only too happy to take your spot.”

His words hurt, but it was nothing I didn’t deserve. And it was exactly what I wanted—leave the program and give someone else an opportunity. I nodded and turned to leave. My time with the Team USA biathletes was over, but not without a parting shot from Coach O’Malley.

“Mark my words, Maxwell. You’re going to look back on this moment in your life and realize this was the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, and I promise you that everything in your path from now on will be nothing but regret and disappointment. Do you hear me? Regret and disappointment.”

With a final nod and a quick thanks for everything, I left his office for the last time, feeling lighter and more confident than I had in the twenty-six months since I’d started training.

I was free.

I was going home.

Back to the open snow and wilderness.

Back to my dogs.

Two years may have passed since I’d waved goodbye to my Olympic dreams—such as they were—yet here I was, pacing my way back and forth outside another flimsy doorway. But this time, I had a thick, embossed invitation in my hot little hands. And my stomach was turning in sweet anticipation as opposed to dread.

In the two years since I’d left formal athletics behind, I’d built up quite a track record for myself. And in a field much more to my liking.

Dog sled racing.

As promised, I’d gone back home to Uncle Ernie. And back to my dogs. With a team of champions pulling a sled that felt like a second home, I already had dozens of races under my belt. With fourteen wins and top three finishes, and a reputation as one of the fittest mushers—man or woman—on the professional circuit, the name Jordyn Maxwell was beginning to carry some weight with it, as the fancy letter I’d already read seventeen times had informed me.

January 6

Fairbanks, AK

Dear Ms. Maxwell,

It is my honor to extend to you an invitation to participate in this year’s Chimney Run 600 sled dog race. As you no doubt already know, this is an invitation-only event designed to challenge the ten best champions our sport has to offer. This year, your name was brought up for consideration and you were selected—unanimously, I might add—to enter the race.

Please contact me directly at your earliest convenience to confirm your ability to participate in the Chimney Run this March.

This year’s course promises to be one of the most difficult we’ve seen in the fifty-seven years since the first Chimney Run took place. As always, it will follow a predetermined route, running approximately six hundred miles from North Pole to Anchorage. With plenty of flats, mountains, and scrub to navigate, this isn’t a course for the meek, but we at the selection committee are convinced that you are up to the challenge.

I look forward to hearing from you and best of luck.

Take care,

Gus Nelson

When I’d gotten the registered letter from Gus, it was almost as if I were on the receiving end of one of his legendary bear hugs. An elder statesman of the sport and worldwide advocate for dog sled racing, Gus Nelson was like a grandpa to all of us, taking mushers under his wing and ensuring a strong future for us. Getting an invitation to the Chimney Run directly from him was going to be the highlight of my year, and it was only January.

Now, with the race only a week away and the other nine invitees, the media types, and all the spectators gathering in and around Fairbanks, the excitement was starting to mount. And I wasn’t immune to it, especially now that we were eligible to find out who else was participating in the race.

As part of the race’s tradition, the full contestant list didn’t get revealed until one week prior to the start. This added an additional layer of mental difficulty to an already challenging course. Without being able to strategize for your opponents’ likely approaches to the race, you needed to be comfortable flying by the seat of your pants all while fighting against the grueling trail.

I couldn’t wait to get out on the course.

And I wanted to win.

Still pacing around the hallway—this time outside Gus Nelson’s office—I only barely held myself back from barreling in and greeting my old friend and occasional financial backer. The only thing keeping me from barging in were the good manners my uncle had tried to instill in me—with limited success. After all, Gus had someone in there with him, as I could tell by the muffled conversation, and no matter how excited, I didn’t want to interrupt.

Gus kept the participant lists in his office and each racer was expected to visit and pick up their sheet directly from him. I wanted to be the first to get my hands on it so I could start studying as quickly as possible. But it seemed somebody had beaten me to the punch.

A few minutes later, the office door swung open and I ran, head-on, into the first person I should’ve expected as a contestant in the Chimney Run. And the last person in the world I wanted to see.

Curt Foyst.

Dog Sled Racing’s Golden Boy

The Standard Bearer for Mushers Everywhere

The Fantastic Face of Dog Sledding

Jordyn Maxwell’s Dickwad Ex-Boyfriend

Okay, okay. While the first three were typical media descriptions of Curt, that last one I reserved for my own personal satisfaction. In a sport as tight-knit as ours, our relationship—and breakup—were common knowledge, and I should’ve known better than to expect a quiet parting of ways.

After six intense, tumultuous months together, while many were speculating about when the wedding bells would chime, I was plotting my way out of one of the worst relationships I’d ever experienced. Yes, the sex was hot—two athletes in peak form, both into rougher play—sure, it made sense. But that’s where the compatibility ended.

It was hard to love a man who was already in love with his own reflection. It was even harder to love a man who, when the mood struck him or when I’d beat him in competition, was fully capable of treating me worse than the very dogs who pulled his sled.

“Nice to see you again, Jordyn,” he spoke with only the slightest hint of disdain, clearly preparing for the media gauntlet we were about to face over the coming week.

“And you, Curt,” I spat back. “Congratulations on making the cut.”

“Well, this is my third Chimney Run after all, so it didn’t really come as a surprise when the invite arrived.” The piece of shit couldn’t even take a compliment well.

“Yeah, well, they say the third time’s the charm.” I leveled a sweet smile on him before adding, “Especially when you weren’t even in the top three the first two times around.”

Typically, I tried to avoid most of the petty crap and pissing contests that surrounded race days and competitions. But for Curt Foyst, I’d happily make an exception.

What a prick.

With an arrogant hmpf, he turned on his heel and strode down the corridor. There’d be plenty of time for us to fling barbs at each other over the coming weeks, but for now, there were bigger, better matters at hand.

“Gus!” I ran into the office and flung my arms around the jolly old bear’s neck, loving the feel of his white, downy beard against my cheek. “It’s great to see you!”

“Aww, it’s wonderful to have you here, Jordyn! I’m so proud of you for making it into the top ten this year!”

“Thanks, Gus! I hope to do you proud, big guy.”

“I’m sure you will, darlin’, I’m sure you will.” He smiled down at me as he grabbed a sheet of paper off his desk. “Now, let me give you what you really came here after,” he shot me a sly wink, “and a copy of your media appointments. Then you’ll probably want to go get settled at the hotel and meet up with the other mushers, yeah?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I fibbed. I wasn’t into the social aspect of our sport—I still saw myself as an athlete—and hanging out usually led to partying, partying led to drinking, drinking led to hangovers, and hangovers led to lost training time. It just didn’t seem worth it. Plus, the last time I’d really partied at a musher event was when Curt and I started dating. We’d hit it off royally—I hadn’t seen past his thin veneer of humanity yet—and I’d finished off the night tied face-down on his bed and getting my ass spanked raw. All in all, not a bad way to spend a night. It might’ve even been perfect had it not involved Curt.

“Well, I’m sure I’ll see you around over the next week,” Gus stirred me from my thoughts, “and maybe we can grab some breakfast or lunch at some point, huh?”

“Sounds perfect, Gus, and thanks again!” With a final hug, I bolted from the room and started poring over the list as I made my way down the hall and back outside.

I’d competed against most of the people on the list, and those who I didn’t know personally, I knew by reputation. Curly Jackson. Katrina Moses. Tiny Blackmoor. This was some of the fiercest competition I could’ve expected. And we were all being pitted against one another. I’d had no reason to expect anything less, but it was still harrowing to know I’d be running against the best our sport had to offer.

As I entered the hotel through the main lounge area, my eyes fell on the last name on the list.

Rudolf Wyatt.

Dammit. Of all people, why did Wyatt have to make the cut?

Drawing the amused attention of the main receptionist behind the check-in desk, I let out an audible moan. Yes, Wyatt was a great musher—if not a bit flippant about training and competition—and his racing instincts and sense of humor were legendary. But all I ever got from him were stony silences and icy, slate-gray glares. Brooding, soul-crushing gazes capped off with a shock of disheveled brown hair. If Curt was the sport’s golden child, Rudolf Wyatt was its perfect misfit. And there was a small part of me that wished I could find a way to penetrate his stony façade.

I’d convinced myself he treated me like an outsider because he was a chauvinist, more interested in keeping sled dog racing an all-boys’ club sport than in being inclusive. It was the only explanation I could come up with, based on the limited interactions we’d had. If not that, what else could it have been?

And, as if on command, a burst of laughter rose up from the bar and there was Wyatt, regaling a small entourage of other racers with his best stories, stories I never got to hear no matter how much I wanted to be part of his circle.

“So that’s when I told her, ‘You can take my long underwear, but there’s no way in hell I’m gettin’ my ass in those panties of yours, no matter how good they’d look on me.’” And the crowd went wild. I’d heard this particular punchline before, back when Wyatt and I both ran the Kenai 200 race, but I’d never been able to get close enough to hear the actual joke that prefaced it. Or to share in the joyful aftermath. This time would be no exception.

As soon as Wyatt saw me approach, his face hardened. He pounded his pint, slapped a ten spot on the counter, said goodbye to his friends, and walked through the back of the bar toward the guest rooms. Evidently, this race would be no different than all the others.

Well, screw you and the sled you rode in on, Wyatt, I mused to myself as I went back to reception to check in and pick up my bags. If he wouldn’t give me the time of day, I’d just have to prove myself out on the course and let him mope in the aftermath of my success. I could handle that.

It occurred to me that in the span of less than an hour, I’d sent two men running for the hills.

One I was only too happy to see the back of.

The other was more intriguing than I cared to admit.

So far, the Chimney Run 600 was turning out to be even more challenging than I’d anticipated.

Chapter Two

Rudolf

“You can take my long underwear, but there’s no way in hell I’m gettin’ my ass in those panties, no matter how good they’d look on me.” And just like that, the room erupted into laughter over another well-timed Rudolf Wyatt zinger. All except one person—Jordyn Maxwell, Curt Foyst’s former girlfriend and a hell of a musher in her own right.

Hanging around the fringe of the group, she looked as mean as a hungry polar bear and, judging by the intense stare she was sending my way, clearly didn’t like my off-color humor. What a shame. Sure, she was damned attractive, but there was no way a straight shooter like her would ever go for a maverick like me. Plus, just looking at her and knowing her connection to Foyst damn near killed my buzz.

Why did the good women always seem to fall for the worst men?

Irritated by the universe’s plan to give me the high hard one when it came to women, I drained my beer and slammed it on the counter. With a final grunt to all the racers sitting around, I left the bar area. I sort of meandered around the lobby area until she was gone, which didn’t take long. By the time I got back, only Ollie Calhoun and Harvey Grimes were still there. That was okay; I liked them the most.

Harv was an old timer, and had been at the dog sledding game for years now. The Chimney Run 600 was his last one, as he had announced his retirement after the season at the Northern Lights Dash. The old sucker had pulled out a win at that one and was just one top three finish away from being the most successful musher in history. I was pulling for him.

Ollie Calhoun was from the other end of the spectrum. A lawyer from Calgary, he’d just taken up mushing three years ago. As a part-time racer, he’d done pretty well for himself. Ollie had to be maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine and hung around Harv and me because we were some of the most easy-going guys on the circuit. He was a good kid—he was going to do well for a long time.

The bartender dropped another red ale on the counter as soon as I sat down. “Glad to see Jordyn didn’t hang around too long,” I muttered.

“Aww, she ain’t all that bad, Rudy. In fact, she’s a sweet girl if you’d ever pull your head out of your ass long enough to try talking to her.” Harv was the only person alive that was allowed to call me Rudy. To everyone else it was either Wyatt or Rudolf. “You can’t judge a person based on a past relationship.”

“The hell I can’t, Harv.” I poured over half the beer down my thirsty throat. “She’s clearly got better taste than a former shit-shoveler like me, so why should I even bother?”

Ollie put his hand up and the bartender came back over to refill his and Harv’s glasses. “Let it go, Harv,” the younger Canadian came to my defense. “We all know Wyatt’s set in his ways, eh?”

At least one of them was smart enough to know not to push the matter. I quickly changed the subject, not wanting to spend too much time with Jordyn Maxwell on my mind. “So, the Chimney Run 600, you boys ready?”

“I heard old Gus really went out of his way to make this race the worst one yet,” Harv told us. “I’ve seen a map of the course; it’s a real doozy.”

Of course Harv had seen the map. None of us were supposed to get a glance of the course until the big presser tomorrow. “How’d you pull that off?”

He smirked and put the glass up to his lips. Ollie wasn’t the type to let a coy answer like that slide. “Come on, Harv. Don’t let us flap in the breeze now.”

“I can’t give up my source, you understand.” The one thing about mushers was that everyone always looked to get an opportunity to one-up the field. Nothing malicious or anything, but something innocent like Harv sneaking a look at the map was all fair in war and dog sledding.

Dark stuff like sabotage or hurting the dogs—whoa, boy—stuff like that was frowned upon big time. In fact, in the good old forty-ninth state, sabotaging sleds was a felony offense. You messed with another competitor’s equipment or huskies, and your sorry ass would end up in jail. And prison in Alaska ain’t no picnic, as I found out all those years ago when my brother had me arrested.

While the three of us were finishing up our brews, the loud and obnoxious sound of Curt Foyst making his grand entry into the bar area was all the signal I needed to get the hell outta there. I settled up my tab quickly as Harv and Ollie did the same. The fans that had arrived in early all jumped to their feet to get a picture with the golden boy himself.

Of course my getaway couldn’t be clean. On the way out, that jackass had the nerve to put his hand on my shoulder. “Well, well, Rudolf Wyatt—Gus invites any old musher to these races these days, doesn’t he?”

My fist was the size of his smug, repugnant face. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to break all the pretty white teeth that he probably spent half a year’s winnings on. I inhaled twice—big, long breaths—and swiped his hand off my shoulder.

He looked appalled. “You’re just the same prickly bitch you’ve always been, huh, Wyatt?”

The rivalry and disdain between us was very real and ran all the way to the core of the Earth. Curt was Gus’s prize stallion, the man who brought the money and sponsors to dog sledding. I was Gus’s redemption project, one of the best but never going to be the guy to give the media the time of day. Gus frequently had to remind me to play nice.

As much as I hated it, Gus was right. Before Foyst had arrived a few years back, prize money for our races tended to be anywhere from five to eight thousand dollars for the winner. Once Foyst burst on to the scene, those figures doubled and sometimes even tripled. The last race I won netted me fifteen thousand bucks and a brand new truck.

There were fans and other racers around, so I didn’t take the bait. “Yup. I just keep gettin’ meaner each year, Curt. See you around, unless you wipe out first.”

His mouth gaped open as he struggled to find a suitable retort. None was coming. He knew I was referring to the last race we were in together when he tried to accelerate when it was too icy. He had gone skidding off the trail and ended up with the always embarrassing Did Not Finish designation. Still, even with that, he was rated one of the best mushers on the circuit. I never understood how an idiot like that got the loyalty of his dogs.

With my small victory, I left the bar and headed up to my room.

It had been a long day traveling. I’d been down in Ketchikan before the race, doing some fishing to unwind. The Chimney Run 600 was not a race to take lightly, so some downtime before the start was always a good idea. Harv had been absolutely right earlier when he’d alluded to the fact that this race was going to be hell. Without telling anyone, I also had stolen a look at the race map. Poor Gus, as old as he was, he was getting forgetful and had left it sitting out on one of the tables in the hotel bar for about five minutes earlier in the day. And five minutes was all I needed to understand the mess we’d signed up for.

In the untapped interior of Alaska, we’d be going through some of the worst conditions and terrain in the whole damn state. It’d be six hundred miles of unmitigated punishment. The other big race—the Iditarod—the one that caught all the attention of the lower forty-eight states and the world, well, it didn’t have anything on the Chimney Run 600. There was a reason a lot of those pretty boys and girls avoided this one like the plague.

Just as I was about to call it a day, there was a knock on my door. Grumbling the entire way, I pulled the door open. “Yes?”

It was one of the volunteers from the kennels where all the mushers had our dogs bunked up until the start of the race. “Mister Wyatt, as per your instructions, I’m just letting you know that Leeroy and Jenkins ate and have settled in for the night.”

I felt bad at the way I’d flung the door open on the kid, especially since he was doing me a solid. “Thanks, friend.” I tried to smooth things over. “I’ll be down in the morning to feed and walk them, okay?”

“Yes, Mister Wyatt. Have a good night.” This time, I tried to smile as he went back down the hall and I closed the door, much more softly than how I’d opened it. However, before I did, I noticed another door was open and there was a face looking over at me.

Jordyn Maxwell’s green, almond-shaped eyes peered out at me, frank curiosity rendering her features even more fetching than normal. Great. She was the only person in this competition even remotely capable of getting into my head, and she was now my neighbor for the next week.

With a familiar tightness building in my groin, I shut the door and did my best to occupy my thoughts with less enticing matters.

Sleep wasn’t coming, no matter how much I wished for it. I rolled over and saw the clock read two in the morning. I could’ve tried to just lie there, but that wasn’t my style. I pulled on my winter clothes; a walk around the grounds was what this early morning called for.

There wasn’t a sign of anyone else up as I left the room and took the stairs down to the lobby. The overnight front desk clerk gave me a wave as she was going over her paperwork. I returned it and walked out into the brisk Alaskan air. This winter had been one of the coldest yet, something that didn’t bode well for the race in a week’s time. Rumor had it that heavy snowfall was in the forecast for the run.

There was at least four fresh inches of the white stuff on the ground outside the hotel from a clipper that came in earlier, before the racers arrived. I quietly assessed the situation as I began walking some laps around the parking lot. It was a good thing my big wheel dog, Moose, was as strong as they came. He’d be tested if that storm came this way, trying to get us through the fresh powder in good times.

As I rounded the second turn of the parking lot, I heard a voice. Dammit, it was Maxwell again. This time, it appeared she was on the phone.

“I know, I can’t believe Curt got an invite to this. It’s like my luck’s never going to change when it comes to him, you know?”

There was a sadness in her voice I’d never heard from her during any of our previous encounters. Since she was genuinely upset, and seemingly just as irritated with Foyst as the rest of us, I decided to give her some space and privacy. She didn’t need a scruffy yokel like me crowding her.

I retraced my footsteps back to the front lobby entrance. The warmth from the fireplace reached the lobby and soothed me as I slowly thawed out. My eyes were starting to feel a bit heavy, which was a good sign. Today was going to be a long one, with all the press shit to deal with as well as the care the dogs needed in the days leading up to the race. With my alarm clock set to go off in about five hours and drowsiness closing in, there wasn’t any reason to put off trying to get some more shuteye.

I traipsed back up the stairs, having never liked elevators. To me, mechanical shit like that could fail. Honestly, who would want to be stuck on an elevator for hours on end? You never heard of a person getting stuck on a stairwell because of stair malfunctions. Plus, it was good exercise. One of the traits of a musher was being as light as possible. Granted, at a shade over six feet and bearing the famed large Wyatt body type, I was never going to be a toothpick. But unlike my bear of a brother, I was toned, defined. My mom always said I reminded her of a river otter, although maybe that had more to do with my wayward antics than my body type.

By the time I reached my door, I knew the moment my head touched the pillow, I’d be in dreamland. Of course, no adventure could ever just finish easily. As I opened my door, the elevator sprang open, revealing the flushed, beautiful Jordyn Maxwell. Silently, cautiously, we stopped to consider one another.

Neither of us knew what to say, how to approach each other. There’d never been an easy conversation between us before and it didn’t look like tonight would be any different. Like two skittish porcupines, we circled each other, afraid of barbing one another, yet still curious to learn more.

With key cards in hand, we let ourselves into our rooms without exchanging a word, our standoff over for the time being. Yet after a final glance across the hall and before I shut my door, I could’ve sworn I saw the trace of a smile cross her lips.

But with the outdated fixtures in the hotel, it could’ve just been a trick of the lighting.

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