Authors: Donna Clayton
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction
Bound by honor
: « Do you owe me, Gage Dalton ? » His answer, like his vow during their unceremonious nuptials afterward, had been “I do”. Before each other, they had promised to love and honor. But unspoken was their own pledge. For Jenna Butler had saved this stranger’s life, which bound him to return the favor. And only marriage to a Lenape would grant her custody of her sister’s baby. So Jenna moved into Gage’s ranch house… but not Gage’s bed.
The wipers thumped furiously across the windshield. Jenna Butler leaned forward, straining to see the narrow road through the thick curtain of driving rain. Her knuckles were white against the gray steering wheel, every muscle in her body stiff. Worry and fear ripped at her gut.
to be okay. Jenna refused to consider any notion other than arriving at the hospital to find her sister bright-eyed and chattering away as usual. The harried E.R. nurse who had called from Deaconess Hospital offered little in the way of information, only notifying Jenna of the auto accident and urging her to come to the hospital as soon as the storm subsided.
Spring always brought rain to the southern plains of Montana, but storms of this magnitude were rare. Black clouds billowed and ill-omened thunder rolled across the sky. However, bad weather couldn't keep Jenna from Amy, not if her sister had been shaken up ... or hurt ... or worse.
Panic chilled her to the bone.
Jenna wouldn't think that way. Amy was fine. She was healthy, and whole, and fine
silent chant as the car c
small rise in the road. Her spine
n she registered the danger that
awaited her directly ahead. She stomped on the brake pedal. The tires
protest, and the back end of the
fishtailed. Jenna's heart hammered. A scream gathered at the back of her throat, but it died when the tires grabbed the blacktop and the car came to a sudden, jerky halt.
Inhaling a ragged breath, she blinked, realizing that she was staring at a field of sodden wheat. Luckily, she was still on the asphalt, but her car straddled both lanes, perpendicular to oncoming traffic. The wipers slapped a rhythmic tune, the engine purred, rain battered the roof in a torrent. She looked to her left and saw the sloped road from where she'd come. To her right, she saw the water. That wasn't just water, she realized. It was a river. A flash flood had washed out Reservation Road.
It was too late to regret not having taken the highway. Getting to the hospital in Billings as quickly as possible had been Jenna's only thought, so she'd taken the shortest route, the one that cut through Broken Bow Reservation. She pounded the steering wheel in frustration.
Lights in her peripheral vision drew her attention. The water coursing down the window distorted her view, but there was no mistaking the pickup that was racing over the small ridge in the road. The driver didn't slow down, but headed straight for her. Adrenaline surged. If she pulled her car forward to avoid a collision, the approaching driver might plunge headlong into the floodwaters roiling across the washed-out road.
Without hesitation, she shoved open her door. Fat raindrops pelted her full in the face as she bolted from the car, waving her arms frantically.
Rubber screeched against the wet pavement and the battered truck spun in a circle before skidding onto the narrow strip of weedy mud that separated the roadway from the wheat field. Stunned, Jenna shoved her hair from her face and raced to the truck. The handle felt icy against her fingertips as she pulled open the driver's side door.
"Are you all right?" Even as the question burst from her lips, she could see the trickle of blood oozing from a small cut on the man's temple. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Oh, Lord, you're hurt."
He looked up at her then, and Jenna felt
as if a rumble of stormy thunder had shuddered through her being. Never had she seen eyes so black. Like chips of polished onyx. His fierce gaze seemed to latch onto her, connect with something deep within, tug at her very soul.
Jenna swallowed. Suppressed the shiver that threatened to jolt through her. And then she took a tentative backward step.
What was the matter with her? Whimsy had never had a place in her thought processes. Romanticism was Amy's department. Jenna was logical. Rational. Suddenly, she understood. She was running on pure, high octane nervous energy.
"I-is anything broken?" she stammered. "Can you move?"
The man had the high, regal cheekbones and swarthy complexion distinctive of Native American ancestry. She had no choice but to admit that he was handsome. He was more than merely handsome. Striking would be a better word to describe him.
Again, she was astounded by his eyes. Black orbs that seared into her like laser beams. Suddenly, she had the thought that she should do or say something before she fell headlong into his inscrutable gaze.
Tilting her head a fraction, she carefully
enunciated, "Are you able to respond? Can you hear me?"
His sharp features grew taut with obvious annoyance.
Jenna thought. Dealing with an angry man was the last thing she needed.
"Of course, I can hear you." Accusation honed his tone to flint. "I could have run you over. What the hell are you doing in the middle of the road?"
Saving your lousy neck,
she wanted to snap at him, but didn't. Instead, she stood there with rain running down her face in rivulets, soaking through her clothes until they were plastered to her skin, and explained, "Porcupine Creek overflowed its banks. The road's washed out. I nearly drove into it myself."
Seemingly unmindful of the downpour, the man shoved himself from his truck and stalked up the road far enough to view for himself the flood churning and swirling as it
across the yawning gap in the asphalt. She wondered if he hadn't believed her when she told him why she'd flagged him down. What did he think? That she made a habit of standing out in the rain to direct
fic during every storm that swept across the great state of Montana?
As perturbed as she was, Jenna realized
she couldn't take her eyes off him. His shoulders were broad and muscular beneath his wet denim shirt, clear evidence that, whatever he did for a living, he worked hard. Rain saturated his long hair, turning it to a slick, black river that coursed down his back. He certainly was solid. Well b
uilt. A stone wall of a man..
. with granite for a brain, no doubt. She parted her lips to speak again, and tasted the sweet, cool rainwater on her tongue. Shaking her head, she forced herself into action, walking forward until she was beside him.
"It's obvious that Kit-tan-it-to'wet had plans for me today," he murmured. "Plans to bring relief." His black eyes raked over her.
For the merest fraction of a second, she considered how she must look. Surely, the pelting rain had smeared her mascara. With raccoon eyes and her hair plastered to her head, she must be a frightful sight to behold.
The man seemed oblivious to her appearance, though, as he charged, "You changed my path."
Jenna squared her shoulders. She didn't like his tone. She had no idea what he was talking about, but a person could only take so much insolence before losing it.
don't know why you would be angry,"
she snapped. "Anyone with an ounce of intellect could see that I saved your butt. I kept you from driving into
She pointed at the dangerous waters.
Evidently unimpressed, he only stared at her, his jaw muscle ticking. Finally, he choked out, "Not only did you change my path, but now I am indebted to you. I owe you a Life Gift. One that I am obliged to repay."
His gaze was as stormy as the sky overhead, and that completely baffled her.
"You don't owe me anything," she stated with as much patience as she could muster. "I did what any decent human being would do. I narrowly avoided a dangerous catastrophe, and I did what I could to see that you avoided it, too. Let's not blow this out of proportion."
Amy. David. The accident. Deaconess Hospital.
Like sparks flashing in the darkness, the thoughts rose to the forefront of her mind.
"Look, I've got to go," she told him. Her gaze darted to the cut on his temple. She saw that an angry lump had risen there. "I'm on my way to Billings. To the hospital. I could take you there. To see a doctor
With the speed of a boll of lightning, he
grasped her forearm. "I'm not going anywhere. And neither are you. I don't know who you are, or where I can find you ..."
He stopped speaking suddenly, apparently sensing her fear. He released his hold on her arm. Common sense told Jenna she should flee from this stranger who had put his hands on her, but she watched his tongue trace his bottom lip, whisking away the rainwater, and she felt something akin to static electricity dance along her nerve endings. Goose bumps rose on her arms.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't blame you for being leery. I had no right to do that."
His tone was softer now, but he didn't smile. Jenna got the distinct impression that smiling wasn't something that came easily for him.
"You don't know me," he continued, his words rolling faster from that wide, beautiful mouth.
The observation nearly shocked a gasp from her.
a silent voice screamed in her head,
anxiety over Amy has driven you halfway to the loony bin.
"Let me try to rectify that. I'm Gage. Gage Dalton. And I live here on the rez. On Broken Bow Reservation. I was on my way to Hillings. To meet someone."
He was attempting to put her at ease; however, some self-preserving instinct told her to get away from him. Now. However, something else inside her — something bone-deep — was calling for her to stay, to listen to his explanation, which only frightened her more.
"I have to go," she stressed, swiping the moisture from her face and backing away. "There's been an emergency. My sister—"
Alarm cut off her words and widened her eyes when he reached out to once again halt her retreat. But he caught himself, balled his hand into a fist and lowered it to his side without touching her. "I mean you no harm." Then he did the most extraordinary
ing. He splayed his palm against his chest, right over his heart. A pledge.
Although the fear pulsing through her subsided, the urgent need to get to Amy swelled like
the floodwaters of Porcupine C
Without knowing exactly why, she whispered, "Jenna. My name's Jenna Butler. I really do have to go."
s desperation seemed to hum like a
he knew she should be on her wa
y. Amy needed her. But Jenna simply
get the m
uscles of her legs to obey her frant
"Look —" his black brows inched together "— it would be impossible for me to make you understand what ... to understand my beliefs. But I cannot —" He stopped. His corded throat convulsed in a swallow. "Owing a Life Gift is —" Again, he halted. "I
repay you in some way."
Getting to Amy was Jenna's only thought now. The swollen creek had cost her precious time. She would have to backtrack nearly ten miles to get to the interstate.
"I really don't have time for this. I've already told you that you owe me nothing."
Irritation flickered in his taut features. "It doesn't matter what you think I do or do not owe."
A whispery thought floated at the fringes of her brain, telling her she should feel insulted by his blunt words, but then a sudden and desperate idea flashed in her head. "There
something you could do. Say a prayer that my sister, Amy, is okay."
With that, she turned on her heel and made a mad dash for her car. She got in, jammed the engine into gear and got herself turned in the right direction. As she sped back toward the rise in the road, she glanced in the rearview mirror at the tall Native American standing in the pouring rain.