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Authors: Donna Clayton

Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction

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BOOK: Bound by Honor
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Chapter One

Two months later

"This is absolutely insane." However, the murmured opinion didn't discourage the determination in her step as she tramped across the neatly trimmed grass between the house and the gravel drive. "The man is not going to help you. He probably won't even
remember
you."

Normal, everyday behavior for Jenna didn't customarily include talking to herself. But her life had been anything but normal over the course of the past eight weeks. Thick emotion threatened to consume her when she contemplated all she'd endured, all she continued to endure; the sadness, t
he grief, the overwhelming frust
ration of dealing with the Lenape Council
of
Elders. So she thrust the thoughts from her mind and, instead, focused on the reason she'd come to Broken Bow —
fin
ding a solution to her problem.

Yes, coming here might be crazy. And, yes, once she presented her proposition, the man might laugh her into next week. But she'd turned the situation over in her head
every which way, and this was the only answer she'd come up with.

The plain plank steps leading to the door of the rustic but contemporary ranch were sturdy under her feet. The covered porch offered a shady respite from the sweltering summer sun. The house was built with rough-hewn timber. Lifting her hand, she rapped on the door before anxiety stole away her nerve.

During the past weeks, the reservation had become a familiar place to her ... a place filled with little more than apprehension and defeat. When the idea of garnering the help of Gage Dalton had popped into her head several days ago, she'd begun asking around about him.

However, as hard as she'd tried, she'd been unsuccessful in getting anyone to talk about him. What little information she had been able to gather about the man had left her feeling extremely unsure as to whether she should even attempt to approach him. But she simply had to do something.

Jenna hated feeling desperate, but that was exactly how she
and
her circumstances could be described. If he turned his back on her, she didn't know what she would do.

When he didn't answer the door, unexpected relief swept through her.

"Get in your car and drive away," she muttered under her breath. But instead of listening to reason, she reached up and knocked again. This time even harder. A mocking voice inside her head warned once again that this scheme was utterly outrageous.

The house showed no sign of life.

Dalton pretty much keeps to himself.

Rarely leaves his ranch.

Prefers to be left alone.

Those were the few pieces of information Jenna had accumulated while trying to locate Gage Dalton. Those who had talked to her had made him sound like some kind of hermit. And each and every person she'd approached, whether they offered information or not, had cast a peculiar glance, obviously wondering why she was searching for the man, but thankfully they'd been too polite to probe.

At a nearby service station, the talkative teenage boy who had checked her car's oil had commented, "We haven't seen much of Gage for the past year." Then he'd offered
t
he most curious clue of all when he'd
added
,
"The accident changed him."

Although she'd wanted to query further, other customers had occupied the boy's attention.

She should have taken the teen's words as a warning. Put together with her own tense experience with the man the tragic day of that horrendous storm, she should be running for the high hills, not seeking him out with a request for what was sure to be an awesome benevolence,
if
he agreed to help her. Doubt reared its head, hissing like an ugly snake, but she refused to surrender. She wouldn't —
couldn't
— back away from this. She had too much at stake.

Gage Dalton was her only hope. Her only chance of getting what she wanted.

The people of Broken Bow had inferred that Gage was an island — a lone and wounded man who kept himself isolated from the world. Well, he couldn't avoid her. She meant to see him.

"Gage Dalton!"

Several birds in the treetops were startled into flight. She descended the porch steps and rounded the corner of the house. To her surprise, she saw a fenced paddock where two black-and-white horses moseyed about. There were several outbuildings, as well as a large stable located down a short, dusty lane.

The property was substantial, she realized, amazed she hadn't observed its size as she'd approached the house in her ear. She
turned, her gaze scanning the hard packed, winding gravel drive. Fences spanned as far as she could see, and more horses grazed in one of several enclosed meadows. She'd seen enough western movies to identify those horses. Gage Dalton bred pintos. She called, "Hello!"

He stepped into her view, stopping in the open double doors of the stable. Shirtless, he clasped a metal rake in one hand.

Her eyes cruised down the length of him. Sunlight gleamed against his bronze chest. Abdominal muscles rippled all the way down to the worn blue jeans that rode low
on
his trim waist and hugged his thighs. She dragged her gaze back up to his face. Those black eyes homed in on her, making her feel as if the very air around her had constricted, liven though he must have been nearly fifty yards away, she could sense the same tense displeasure pulsing from him as she'd felt the terrible, stormy day when they'd first met. Clearly, he hadn't been expecting a
visit
or, nor was he happy to see one.

The sight of him impelled her to turn tail 11ul run. But thoughts of little Lily whispered through her mind, prompting Jenna lo stand her ground. Her motive for being here was all-im
portant. Even the formidable G
age Dalton couldn't keep her from
getting what she wanted.

Well, he
could.
But she planned to do everything in her power to see that he didn't.

Ignoring his unwelcoming countenance, Jenna trudged toward him. She hoped her cheery smile hid the emotions warring inside her.

The closer her steps brought her to him, the heavier her doubt about his help grew.

A soft summer breeze fluttered the ends of his long hair.

"Hello, there." She was pleased that her greeting came out so smoothly. But then the stammering started. "I — I was a little wet and disheveled w-when we last m-met . . . and it's been weeks ago . . . so . . . well ... I don't know if you remember me, but —"

"Jenna Butler."

Her shoulders relaxed as relief soothed the anxiety that provoked the awkward song and dance she'd just performed. Without thought, she softened her tone to nearly a whisper and murmured, "Oh, good. You do remember."

The seconds ticking by felt like eons as the warm sunshine beat down on her head and shoulders. Finally, he shifted his grip on the wooden pole, planting the rake's prongs into the ground. The impatience in
the
gesture
had her
nervousness sprouting
to life all over again.

Jenna had known the task at hand was going to be tough, but she hadn't realized just how tough. Now that she was face-to-face with Gage Dalton and about to ask an awesome favor . . . why, she couldn't remember a time when she'd felt more ill at ease.

"H-how are you?" she blurted. "You hit your head during the accident, I remember."

"I'm alive."

She couldn't read much from his deadpan expression. Feeling the need to infuse some amiability between them, she chuckled. "That's good. Sure beats the alternative."

Her humor seemed lost on him.

Grasping for something more to break the ice, she looked around her, commenting, "You've got a nice place here."

"I like it."

So he wasn't much of a talker. She should have guessed as much, judging from what she'd learned of him. But it sure would be nice if she didn't have to work so hard.

She had to warm things up a little before
br
oaching the favor she needed from him. If she just blurted out her question, cold
turkey
he'd think she was insane.

Jenna, my girl,
a voice in her head
groaned silently,
you
are
insane.

She tried again. "The horses are beautiful." Glancing over at the animals in the pen, she added, "I've never spent much time around horses, but I know those are pintos from the old cowboy movies I watched as a kid. They sure are majestic-looking creatures. Proud. Untouchable. They might be enclosed, but they sure do look wild."

As if on cue, one of the horses snorted and clawed at the dusty ground with his hoof.

"They're tame," he assured her. "What you see is attitude. If a horse is broken to the point that it's docile, it's no better than a pack mule. My horses are intelligent and strong and spirited."

Seemed Gage Dalton possessed a healthy share of attitude himself. Life sparked in his onyx eyes as he talked about the animals he raised. Then he leveled his gaze on her.

"Is that why you're here? You're interested in a pinto?"

The question elicited another chuckle from her, this one completely natural. "Oh, no," she told him. "Not me. I wouldn't know one end of a horse from the other."

She couldn't tell if the tiny crease that suddenly marred his high brow was a sign of curiosity or suspicion. He glanced down at
the ground, tapped the rake absently with his foot, and then lifted his chin to meet her
gaze.

"Well, you've found out that I weathered the accident just fine," he said. "And you've complimented my ranch. And my horses. We could talk about the weather, if you like. Or how rising gasoline prices are thinning our wallets. But I'd prefer it if we cut the small talk. I have stalls to muck before I can stable those horses. Why don't you save us both some time and tell me why you're here?"

The blunt qu
estion left her momentarily spee
chless. But then, before she'd even had time to think, words began tumbling off her longue.

"My sister died. The day of the storm. The day you and I met on the road. I remember telling you I was on my way to the hospital." Anguish gathered in a tight ball high in her c
hest. "Her husband was killed, t
oo. They . . . they ran off the road. The car
s
lipped.
Into a ravi
ne. My brother-in-law d
ied instantly. Amy . . . my sister . . . sh-she
held
on for several hours."

The emotion
rose
to knot in her throat. It became so over-w helming that she had to glance toward the
horizon
as she whispered, "But she passed soon after
I reached t
he hospital."

Jenna blinked back the tears that burned her eyes. She would not cry. She didn't know this man, refused to show her vulnerability to him. He had to know her story, though. Otherwise, how could he understand her plight? The tribal council had forced her into a desperate situation, and that was the only reason she was here. But Gage Dalton must not see her as weak. Because she wasn't.

It was the stark silence that drew her from her thoughts. Why didn't he say something? What kind of person didn't offer condolences after learning about a death in the family? In this case, two deaths.

Her gaze clashed with Gage's, and the sentiment clouding his eyes shocked her. Sympathy rolled off him in waves. He didn't have to say a word; everything he felt was expressed in those soft black orbs.

The muscle in the back of his jaw went taut, and he seemed to be engaged in a mental struggle of some sort. His tone was tight, his words grating, when he finally spoke.

"I know grief well." He swallowed.

His keen, too-intense focus on her made her feel as if she were the only person alive on Earth at that moment. "May your heart find healing."

Of all the cards and letters, flowers and prayers she'd received from friends and business acquaintances since losing Amy and David, Jenna couldn't recall a more comforting wish. She found his words both simple and beautiful. Abundantly so.

Hot tears made a fresh attack, but she blinked them back. She still had a great deal to explain before she could broach the sensitive subject of why she'd come to him for help. Losing herself in sorrow was something she couldn't afford to do.

"Thank you," she murmured, her breath hitching between the two short words. Willing a vibrant potency into her voice, she
repeated
,
"Thank you very much."

Another gust of warm summer wind blew
a
cross
the Montana prairie lands. The sun high overhead continued to heat her shoul
de
rs
and back through her light cotton top. Slowly, she was able to push the sorrow at bay and latch onto the resolve that had
br
ought her here in the first place.

BOOK: Bound by Honor
2.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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