"Gin." Jamie Hunter slapped the cards down on the table with a flourish and grinned. It was the last night before the final plane returned to carry him, along with David Tucker and Brendan Aaronson, back to civilization. The rest of the twenty-one-man lab crew had been airlifted out the day before, as February moved to a close, signaling the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
At the last minute they'd decided to take back some equipment for calibration, so there ended up being a shortage of space on the plane sent to collect the crew. The three scientists had volunteered to stay the extra two nights until a plane could return for them.
Jamie, at twenty-five the youngest guy on the team, had been thrilled to get the position as research assistant. He owed the assignment to Tuck, who worked with him at the Wexler Institute in Monterey. Dr. Tucker, who worked in a different lab and, Jamie had thought, barely knew he existed, had recommended Jamie for the position when someone had dropped out at the last minute.
It was an incredible project to be involved in, with recent advances in deep core drilling technology enabling their drilling engineers to extrude core samples from the ice divide that contained an accumulation of snow and ice from previous time periods. The composition of these ice cores would allow them to study greenhouse gas emissions over forty thousand years.
Tuck and Brendan, both with PhDs in molecular bioscience and some major publications already under their belts, were regarded as experts in the field. Jamie admired them both for their work and dedication, but he couldn't deny he also admired them for their seriously hot looks.
Tuck wasthe tall, dark and handsome one, with straight black hair, deep-set dark eyes and a sexy five-o'clock shadow even when he'd just shaved. Jamie had been aware of him back at the labs in California, but had never had the chance to get to know him. He'd seen him from time to time in the company of women and had just assumed he was straight. Beyond that, he'd always promised himself never to get involved with someone he worked with and so far that policy had stead him well.
Brendan, with gray green eyes and a muscular build, had sun-streaked blond hair curling down the back of his neck and a spectacular smile that made Jamie's heart clutch the rare times it had been bestowed upon him.
The only available place to jerk off was in the shower stall, since the men shared sleeping quarters. Many hot scenarios involving both Tuck and Brendan, together and alone, had played through Jamie's mind while he pumped himself to a rapid orgasm, mindful not to use up the hot water before the next guy had his turn.
Not that he'd ever given either guy the slightest indication of his attraction to them over the six weeks they'd been in such close quarters. Though he never pretended to be straight, nor did Jamie advertise his homosexuality. It was nobody's business. Especially not in the confines of an enclosed science lab built on a slab of ice in the middle of nowhere, with no way out if things became awkward. Nevertheless, a guy could dream.
Tuck threw down his hands with mock exasperation. "What, again? Are you sure these cards aren't marked?"
"Food's ready." Brendan leaned his head into the sleeping quarters where Tuck and Jamie were playing cards. All the cots had been stripped of their bedding, except for their three, still covered with sheets and bright red thick down quilts.
The kitchen was located just off the sleeping quarters and tonight Brendan had volunteered to make the meal. As they sat at the long table, now set only for three, Jamie glanced out the window. "Hey, it's snowing." The other two men looked up.
"I noticed a storm system working its way toward us on the radar." Brendan frowned. "I didn't think it'd get here so quick, though. It wasn't predicted to get this far until sometime after we flew out in the morning. Hopefully it won't affect our plans." They watched the whirling snow for several moments. It was falling fast, though the winds seemed relatively calm.
"Well, nothing we can do about it now," Brendan continued philosophically. "In the morning we can shovel out and make sure there's a decent landing strip for the plane. Meanwhile, help yourselves to my specialty."
They dug into the plates of spaghetti and meatballs he had set before them, which was the only thing Jamie had seen Brendan make when it was his turn to cook. He'd made lemonade from a powdered mix to go with it. Though there was still some canned and packaged food in the pantries, food that would be left in the lab over the winter, the refrigerated supplies had been depleted in anticipation of the project's end.
The whole place had been cleared out, all the expensive lab equipment carefully packed and removed to labs in warmer climes until the work resumed in October. Without all the usual hubbub of the rest of the crew, the place was empty, almost lonely.
"Hey, I almost forgot. I was saving this for a special occasion. Be right back." In a moment Tuck returned, waving a bottle of wine toward them. He pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket and used the small corkscrew to remove the cork.
The lab not being equipped with wineglasses, Brendan retrieved three juice glasses from the cabinet. Jamie watched as Tuck filled them. He noticed, not for the first time, Tuck's large hands and long, thick fingers and marveled how he could handle delicate scientific equipment with the precision and accuracy that he did. He couldn't help the road along which his thoughts invariably meandered, wondering how his hand size compared to other parts of his anatomy...
Tuck lifted his glass in a toast, jerking Jamie from his sexual speculation. "To a job well done. I can't believe it's ending already. You guys have been really great to work with." He turned to Jamie with a smile. "Jamie, your support over these weeks has been invaluable. You should have more than enough data to complete your dissertation, but beyond that, you're making a vital contribution to the global scientific community."
"Thanks." Jamie felt curiously let down by the rather formal commendation, though he appreciated it. He stared at Tuck, searching for something more personal behind the words.
If he hadn't been scrutinizing him so closely, he might have missed the sudden glimpse of desperate yearning that flashed over his features as Tuck turned to Brendan. As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, Tuck's face again composed into a bland smile as he offered praise for Brendan as innocuous as that which he'd offered Jamie.
The meal over, they washed and put away the dishes. "It's weird having nothing to do, with the labs emptied out," Tuck observed, as they settled on the beat-up old sofa in their sleeping quarters to watch a video on Brendan's large laptop.
Brendan assumed his team leader persona. "We could do some more analysis on the latest ice core readings. I have some detailed graphs worked up--"
Both Jamie and Tucker threw their pillows at him. He lifted his hands in surrender, laughing. "Okay, okay. We'll watch a movie."* * * *
The room was dark, save for the silvered light emanating from the screen, etching the profiles of Brendan and Jamie beside him. Both appeared to be engrossed in the film but Tuck couldn't have even said what it was about. All he could think of was Brendan, who sat so close he could reach over and touch his thigh.
It was hard to believe this was their last night together. Tuck and Jamie would return to their lab in Monterey--Brendan to his research at the Kramer Institute in Washington State. Was he really going to blow it again? To let Brendan get away without even telling him how he felt?
He'd hoped to find a way during this project to get closer to Brendan--to try to rekindle the heat he now wondered if maybe he'd only imagined because his own desire loomed so large. Yet in the six weeks they'd been working on the Antarctica project, he'd had no opportunity to be alone with Brendan.
They had played several games of football on calm afternoons with some of the other guys. Though the air was below freezing it felt much warmer with the sun reflecting off the white snow causing them to sweat beneath their layers.
Each time they'd been on opposite teams and each time Tuck had managed to tackle Brendan, the only physical contact he dared to make.
Two days before, Brendan had been the one to bring Tuck down onto the hard-packed snow. He'd fallen heavily over Tuck as they grappled for the ball. When he'd landed, they'd been cheek to cheek for a moment, Brendan's breath crystallizing in the air just beside Tuck's ear. He'd had a nearly uncontrollable desire to pull Brendan's face to his and kiss him.
Brendan had lain on top of him for several long, tantalizing seconds, during which Tuck's cock had risen hard against Brendan's thigh. Brendan scrambled up, catching Tuck's gaze. Tuck could have sworn he'd seen something there--a spark of desire--secret and fleeting, but undeniable.
Back when they'd worked together the prior year, Brendan had just broken up with a girlfriend he'd been seeing for a while. Tuck still remembered the conversation, especially Brendan's seemingly offhand comment: "I just don't get women, you know? Sometimes I think it would be easier to be involved with a guy. At least they say what they mean. You know where you stand."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Tuck had agreed, not daring back then to follow up in a more serious vein. As he thought over the conversation several hundred times over the next year, he had to laugh at the irony of Brendan's remark. Tuck certainly hadn't said what he meant and as far as he knew, Brendan had no clue Tuck was attracted to him.
They'd lost touch and though Tuck had thought many times about him, he hadn't taken any real action to find him. He couldn't stand to take the chance of a rebuff, which was almost surely what would happen if he made his feelings known.
Tuck, who hated to fail, no matter what the endeavor, tried to tell himself it was just a passing infatuation, based on as little as the moss green of Brendan's eyes, which crinkled into half moons when he smiled.
Yet how Tuck's heart had leapt when he had been offered a position as a research analyst on the West Antarctic Deep Ice Project, and discovered Brendan Aaronson was on the roster. He'd decided then it was fate that they meet again and this time, he'd vowed, he would find a way to let Brendan know his feelings, and then let the chips fall where they may.
But the six weeks had come and gone, each of them extremely busy with their work. With the communal, cramped sleeping quarters and twenty-one guys always milling around, there had been little-to-no opportunity to make his feelings known.
Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe on the plane ride back to the States he would make a move.* * * *
It took Brendan a moment to realize he was awake. The low, whistling howl that had manifested itself as wolves in his dream was in fact a tearing wind. The frame of their modular building shuddered, causing a ripple in the insulated fabric covering the walls and ceiling.
Brendan sat up, reaching for the flashlight beneath his cot. He clicked it on and shone it around the room. Both the other men were sleeping, Jamie completely hidden beneath his quilt, Tuck with one arm flung over his face.
Brendan stood and walked over to the window. He pulled back the insulated flap. It was pitch black outside, the wind louder without the muffle of fabric, the glass rattling and icy to the touch. He looked at his watch. It was still a few hours until sunrise. Taking his laptop with him so he wouldn't disturb the others, he made his way through the kitchen and down the narrow hallway toward the wet lab.
Flicking on the light, he sat at the workstation and booted up his computer. When he opened the browser to check the weather, he found there was no Internet connection. The site was set up to receive satellite cell and Internet service and in the time they'd been there, it had worked fine. They'd experienced some weather-degraded performance during high winds before, but it usually reinitialized within a few minutes.
He shut down the computer and gave it a cold boot, but when he tried again there was still no connection. Returning to the sleeping quarters, he fished in his pants pocket for his cell phone and flipped it open. There was no service.
Brendan slipped back under the covers and stowed the flashlight beneath his cot. Closing his eyes, he told himself not to worry. Probably the storm would pass by morning. A few hours delay wouldn't make much difference in the scheme of things.
He was awakened by someone shaking his shoulder. "Brendan, wake up." Jamie's voice was urgent and tinged with panic. "I got up to bulldoze the landing strip but I can't even open the door. It's blocked by snow drifts."
Brendan sat up, instantly awake. Tuck came out of the bathroom, wiping his face with a towel. Brendan turned toward him. "Jamie says we're snowed in. When I woke last night, I tried to get the Internet to check the forecasts but we had no access." He reached for his cell phone again, flipping it open. No service.
"It's still snowing, from what I can see out the windows." Jamie peered out. "And the wind is insane. Listen to it." The building was shuddering and creaking from the gale-force winds, which whistled and howled like the wolves in Brendan's dream.
Tuck sat heavily on his cot. "We're not going anywhere in this weather, that's for sure. The wind is whipping up the snow already on the surface. No way a plane could land in these blinding conditions. If you were out there, you wouldn't even be able to see a few feet in front of you, much less find a landing strip."
"We're not going to get any satellite transmissions either," Brendan observed. "The maximum operating wind speed for the satellite dish is sixty miles per hour. From the sound of it, those winds are gusting at over a hundred."
"Oh my God, you mean we're stranded?" Jamie's voice rose.
Brendan could hear the edge of hysteria in Jamie's tone. "Hey, take it easy. We've got enough provisions to last a month here if we had to. We have our portable oil-burning heaters and the propane stove in the kitchen. The diesel generators have enough fuel to power the whole building for at least a week. If we shut down the labs and only heat this immediate area, we could keep it comfortably habitable for a month."
"In a month it'll be deep winter." Jamie bit his lip.
"Relax, this thing is going to pass in a day or two." Brendan put his hand on the younger man's shoulder and, forcing down his own trepidation, smiled. "We'll be fine. I promise."