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Authors: Donna Clayton

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BOOK: Bound by Honor
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11
Amy was married to a Lenape Indian who lived on Broken Bow," Jenna told
G
age.
"David Collins was his name."

"The artist?" Gage propped the metal
h
e he'd been holding against the stable door
.

I knew he lived on the rez, ev
en met him a couple of times. I’v
e seen some of his
work. Very abstract-looking. Canvases that incorporate paint as well as three-dimensional material."

"It's called mixed media."

"He's very talented." His tone lowered an octave as he said, "I guess I should say
was.
He signed his works Foxfire, didn't he?"

Jenna nodded.

Gage continued, "I think I read somewhere that his wife was an artist, too."

Jenna nodded. "Amy was a painter. She met David in Chicago when she attended a showing of his work. They got married shortly thereafter."

Gage shook his head. "I hadn't heard about the accident."

From what she'd learned of this man's solitary existence, Jenna wasn't surprised.

"They left behind a baby," she told him. "Lily. My niece. She's just over six months old."

Emotion softened the harsh angles of his handsome face. Could that be sadness?

His reaction took Jenna aback. She hadn't expected his compassion. Not at all. She'd anticipated he would be completely unemotional. Relieved that she'd been wrong, she hoped his empathy might impel him to help her.

Reaching up, she tucked a wayward
strand of hair behind her ear before she spoke again. "The night of the accident, Lily had been with David's parents. I thank God every day that Lily wasn't in that car. Health problems make it impossible for Mr. and Mrs. Collins to care for my niece, so she's been staying with a sitter here on the reservation. A woman named Arlene Johnson. I went to collect Lily, but Arlene refused to allow me to take Lily home with me. Arlene said I'd have to get permission from the Council. I had no idea at the time what she was talking about. Amy and David left no will. But I'm family. I didn't need anyone's permission but the state of Montana's to take custody of my niece.

"A lawyer in Billings told me he couldn't help me," she continued. "He said the residents of Broken Bow aren't held accountable to the laws of the United States. That Native Americans govern themselves. That I would be at the mercy of the Council
of E
lders overseeing the tribe." Her voice went hoarse as she
added, "He didn't offer me mu
ch hope of getting Lily."

Gage's ch
in tipped up a fraction. "Every
thing
you were told is true. We are managed by the Elders. There are eight men and women on our —"

"I know. I've
met them.

Her response
was flat, but she couldn't help it. Those people had made the past eight weeks of her life utterly miserable.

Evidently, he took exception to the impudent implication in her tone. He crossed his arms over his broad chest, and she wondered just how hard his pecs might feel beneath her fingertips.

Gage shifted his weight.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, embarrassed by her inability to suppress her feelings about the Elders — but probably more so that she'd become too aware of his physique.

She looked him in the eye. "I don't mean any disrespect. Honestly, I don't. It's just that. . . well, I've spent the past two months feeling terribly frustrated. I've done everything the Council has asked of me. I've answered a battery of questions. I've opened myself completely. Revealed my past. My present. My dreams for the future. I've confessed that I've spent my whole life building my e-commerce business, maybe to my own detriment since I have no husband or children of my own. I've revealed my financial situation. I've proved that building commercial Web sites is profitable. I've submitted to a physical. I've laid out my philosophy of life. I've told them all they
want to know. I've pleaded with them. Told them that I'm willing to change my whole life in order to raise Lily. Explained that losing Amy and David has opened my eyes to what family means. I begged them, Gage, during meeting after meeting. For two long months. Yet they continue to thwart me at every turn." Her tone grew nearly frantic. "I need some help. I need an ally. And I need one now."

Suddenl
y, the sympathy Gage had shown f
or her situation seemed to have evaporated like morning dew under the heat of the sun. At some point during her explanation of her dealings with the Elders of his tribe — she couldn't say exactly when — his entire body had gone rigid.

He'd transformed back into the hardhearted man she'd met the day of the storm.
This
was the response she'd been expecting when she first thought to seek him out.

"The only
reason you came here," he acc
used, "is because I'm Indian. You think I can influence the Council in some way."

Nearby, she heard one of the horses Whinny, She didn't dare break eye contact With Gage. Doing so would send the message that she was someh
ow ashamed of c
oming here.

Well, she wasn't ashamed. Obtaining custody of Lily was her only concern. And she'd face a bevy of Councils to get what she wanted. She'd face one angry Lenape Indian, too.

Her niece needed her. And Jenna needed to raise her sister's baby.

An ache wrenched her heart when she pondered the notion of forever losing the guardianship of Lily. But Jenna swallowed the pain. She had a cause to plead. And she'd better come up with a damned good argument.

She squared her shoulders. "I'm not going to lie to you. Gage," she began quietly. "I
am
here because you're Native American. Lenape, specifically. David was the only man from Broken Bow that I knew. I've done some work for Cheyenne-owned businesses. But I don't know any of those people well enough to ask for their help now."

"And you know me?"

"No. No, I don't. But I'm desperate, Gage. One of the reasons the Council won't let me have Lily is because I'm white. I might not like the position I find myself in, but I need help from someone of Native American ancestry. Someone from the Lenape tribe. Someone from Broken Bow. And you fit all those criteria."

His expression turned stormy, and Jenna began to feel the first pangs of hopelessness. But she plowed ahead. "Lily and I need to be together. That baby is all I have left of Amy and David. I'm the only maternal relative Lily's got left. And David's parents aren't able to care for her. Like I said, they haven't been keeping Lily. She's been living with the sitter, for goodness' sake!"

Despite her determination not to look weak, utter frustration made her eyes well. A huge, watery tear rolled down her face, heeling it tickle her skin, she lifted her hand and dashed it away.

"Please try to understand," she whispered.

I
love that baby!"

The muscles in his jaw constricted. Reaching up, he rubbed his hand over his chin, then scrubbed the back of his neck, his gaze drifting off toward the horizon.

Finally, he turned his gaze to her again. "Jenna, it's not that I don't want to help you. It's just that
. . ." He shook his head a
nd looked away again, dragging his fingers through his long, glossy hair.

H
is hesitation lifted her spirits the merest
fr
action. Was there a chance she could make her plan come
to fruition? Was there a chanc
e she'd made him grasp the gravity of
her
situation?

Gage moistened his lips then, riveting Jenna's gaze to his mouth. She wondered about his kiss. Would it be searing? Would it be sweet? Would it be soft?

A strange current danced through her. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her nose, exhaled through her mouth. Anxiety was wreaking havoc on her nervous system, making her entertain the most peculiar thoughts.

"Look, Jenna."

The intensity of his black eyes jolted her.

"I just don't see how I can help you. I do understand that you need someone to do something. You need someone — an Indian — to plead your case to the Council. You need someone to stand up for you. But this doesn't have anything to do with me. It's none of my business." He pressed his palm flat against his chest. "I'd give you a character reference. But I don't even know you."

Oh, God. He was turning her down. Misery sank in her gut like a lead weight.

"It's not a character reference I need, Gage." She might as well come completely clean. What could it hurt at this point? "As I told you, one of the reasons the Council won't let me have Lily is because I'm white. The other reason is because I'm single."

Confusion knit his brow. Jenna bit back a frustrated sigh. He still wasn't getting it. She was going to have to spell it out.

"What I
need
—" she spoke slowly and succinctly, "— is a
husband "

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Gage gaped at the woman standing before him. Staring was rude. His parents had taught him that long ago. But he couldn't help it. The request Jenna Butler had made shocked the words right out of him and made him forget good manners.

"You're looking at me like I'm nuts," she said. "My idea isn't all that crazy, you know."

Nuts. Crazy. Perfect adjectives to describe her
and
her suggestion.

"For weeks, the Council has used my ethnicity as an excuse for why I can't have Lily."

Nervous agitation had her clenching and unclenching her fists. Gage could tell she wasn't even aware she was doing it.

"I met with them last week. And that's when they claimed that if I were to take her from Broken Bow," she continued, "and raise her in the 'white world,' as they put it, that Lily would lose touch with her Native American heritage, that she'd forget who she is and where she came from. That she'd forget she was Delaware. I promised them I wouldn't let that happen. But evidently,
they don't believe me."

Gage's gaze strayed over her lovely face. Her features were delicate — gracefully arched eyebrows, thick lashes framing almond-shaped eyes, a pert little nose. Her pale skin glowed with the iridescence of moonlight, fresh and shimmery. The noonday sun burnished her shoulder-length auburn hair, the ends curling softly and testing against the topmost part of her full, rounded breasts.

Awareness tightened deep in his belly and made his mouth go dry. Gage frowned. Admiring this woman's body was the
last
thing he should be doing. He forced his gaze back to her face and immediately noticed that her eyes were doe-brown, soft and dewy. Shadowy half circles smudged the skin beneath them, evidence that she'd spent many a sleepless night wrestling with her problem.

"Finally, I became so frustrated that I lost
my
temper," she continued. "I reminded
t
hem all that Lily was half white. I told them that it was wrong to keep me from raising
my
niece because of my race."

H
is brows rose heavenward. Customarily, deeming what was right and wrong was the lob of the Elders, not those who stood before them.

"I told them that I loved that baby, and that I would treat her as my own. Gage, she
is
my own. I was so angry. My tongue got away from me. I blurted out that if they didn't give me custody of Lily, that it would be a sin. One that they would have to answer for."

He imagined the Council receiving a good dressing-down from this woman and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Luckily, he wrestled it under control.

Jenna Butler was a fighter. That much was undeniable.

"How did the Elders respond?"

Fire sparked in her eyes. "They called a halt to the meeting, then and there. I phoned every day for nearly a week. I thought I'd lose my mind. Finally, they agreed to see me again. Just yesterday. That's when I discovered their trumped-up concern that I was single and unable to give Lily a stable upbringing."

She shook her head in aggravation, her hair brushing those luscious mounds of —

Gage cut his eyes to the ground, studying the toes of his dusty work boots.

"It's not fair, Gage. And it's not right! I'm not going to let them do this to me. Or to Lily."

H
e couldn't help but admire her determination and strength. She had a will of iron. That was good. Going head-to-head with the Council, she would certainly need it.

Her chin tipped upward.
"I
don't want to lower myself to begging. But if that's what it will take to get you to help me, then
I
will. Please, Gage,
I
need you."

What the hell could he possibly say to this woman?

Reaching behind him, he pulled a kerchief from his back pocket and swiped it across his brow. Not that he was hot or perspiring. He was stalling for time. He needed to think. He needed to come up with some way to let Jenna Butler down easy.

"Gage."

Something in the way she said his name eased the tension in him. "Please."

"Look," he began, "there's a big difference between asking for my help and asking me to —"

His throat caught, making it impossible for him to voice the words he never thought he'd utter again.

"Marry me," she supplied.
"I
'm asking you to marry me, Gage, so that
I
can get eustody
of
Lily.
If
you'll do this for me, the Council can't possibly refuse me. Their ex
c
uses
will be
worthless,
for
I'll no longer be
single, and my husband will be Delaware."

Great Spirit above! She presented her plan as if it were a completely logical course of action.

"You're asking me to deceive the Elders of my tribe." He bunched the handkerchief in his palm. "If they discover that I'm helping you trick them, they could force me to leave Broken Bow."

Such drastic action hadn't been taken for generations, as far as he knew; however, the possibility remained.

Surprise momentarily slackened her jaw. "I hadn't realized that." Instantly, her resolve sparked anew. "But I won't let that happen, Gage. I promise you, I won't."

Although he'd had his share of run-ins with the Council, he felt the need to speak up for his leaders now. "They're not looking to torture you, Jenna. Their number one priority is your niece's best interest. You have to understand that. Priority number two is the tribe. David Collins's daughter is considered by the Elders to be Delaware. It doesn't matter that her mother was white. The child is Indian. She is an important part of the tribal clan. Think of it as an extended family. The Delaware family. The child —"

"The child's name —" ire tightened her facial muscles
is Lily. And she's got
Butler blood running through her, too. She might be an important part of your tribe, but she's the only family I have left."

Anger evidently got the better of her, and with her fists balled, she dug her toe into the dirt. A tiny tuft of dust billowed and then settled over her white canvas sneaker.

"You're spouting off the same hogwash that the Council has been giving me for weeks."

The woman's steel was to be admired, but she was also beginning to annoy him. "You have no idea just how serious the Elders are about their responsibilities to this tribe."

Defeat rounded her shoulders. "I'm terribly sorry, Gage," she said. "I never meant to . . ."

She didn't finish her sentence. Tilting her chin sharply, she looked at the sky, exhaled and then swallowed. Gage couldn't help but notice the elegant length of her throat. Again, he dragged his attention to her face, but found himself enthralled with the ripeness of her mouth — full, moist lips that promised passion. Her kiss would taste as sweet as wild honey, he was sure.

Irritation churned in his gut as he remembered being a
ssaulted with the exact same th
ought the day of the storm. The first time they'd met. That day, rainwater had
streamed down her face, making her coral-colored lips glisten with tantalizing wetness. How many nights since then had he dreamed about suckling the moisture from them? Like an elusive wraith, she had haunted his sleep for weeks. He never knew when she would appear in his dreams, and when she did, he always awakened in a sweat, yearning and need pulsing through his body.

His indignation smoldered. However, his anger wasn't directed at her, but at himself. Why wasn't he able to control his own mind? His own flesh? These damnable carnal thoughts?

He'd concluded that his anxiety was the cause, that he was being plagued by the dreams because he was worrying about repaying the woman what he owed. However, why the night fantasies would take on such an erotic tone continued to confuse him.

"Losing Amy and David has been so hard," she whispered. "And not being able to have Lily with me has been . . . well, it's been like losing my entire family."

Moisture made her brown eyes shine, and a tear rolled down her milky cheek. He experienced the most peculiar reaction. He wanted to comfort her. To reach out and wipe away that tear. To offer the solution
she so desperately searched for.

What the hell?
Had he lost his mind? Was he honestly contemplating her crazy scheme?

No!
a voice in his head shouted. A union such as the one this woman was suggesting would make a mockery of the marriage he'd had — and lost. A loving union that had ended much too soon.

Marrying Jenna Butler would denigrate the memory of the woman he'd loved. The woman he continued to mourn.

Taking sacred vows that would tie him to a complete stranger in order that she might obtain custody of a baby would disrespect the infant daughter he'd lost so tragically ... a child for whom Gage grieved every day of his miserable life.

"I'm sorry." Emotion swam in the pit of his gut, hazed his thinking. But he fought to remain resolute. "Jenna, I understand your pain. More than you realize." The lump that had swelled in his throat made it difficult to breathe. "But I cannot help you."

Her chin trembled, and Gage had to force himself not to look away from the heartbreak expressed on her angelic face. He couldn't let her tears affect him. He braced himself by gritting his teeth so tightly that a dull ache began to
pulsate
in
the joints
of his jaw.

"You
can't?
Or you
won't?"

"What does it matter? I refuse to participate in your foolish plan. You cannot dupe the Council into handing over your niece. You try, and they'll forbid you from having any contact with her."

Jenna's eyes went wide. "They can't do that."

"They can. And they will, if they come to the conclusion that that's what's best for your niece. They are the law on Broken Bow."

Suddenly, her resolve crumbled. She buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking with soft sobs. Discomfited, Gage stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. He sympathized with her, but there was nothing he could do.

"You owe me!"
she exclaimed, jerking up her head to glare at him as she dashed at her tears. "You told me so yourself. You owe me for saving your life that day the storm washed out Reservation Road. You called it something. A present. Wasn't it? A life present?"

Of course, he hadn't forgotten. The debt he owed had weighed heavy on his mind over the past weeks. But since she'd presented her ludicrous proposal, he'd hoped like hell she wouldn't remember
. He had
every intention of returning the favor. Somehow. Someway. If he did not, he would suffer for all eternity, for his soul would not be permitted to cross over to the other side. However, he refused to believe that the gift would take the form of a wedding band. It wouldn't if there was any chance he could avoid it.

"Life Gift," he corrected her. "I owe you a Life Gift." He pulled his hands free from his pockets and lifted them, palms up. "Before you left me there on the road, you asked me to pray for your sister. I did that."

"But your prayer didn't keep Amy alive, now did it?"

They stared at each other in silence. Finally, he said, "You can't expect me to marry you."

"Why?" True concern creased her forehead. "Do your beliefs dictate against such a union? Marrying out of need rather than love?"

"No." He shook his head. Were he not an honorable man, he'd lie his way out of this. "But you have to agree, you're asking an awful lot of me here. Even if I would consider it, the Elders aren't going to be fooled, Jenna. They won't trust a marriage that's coming at them out of the blue. They'd be suspicious. Surely, they'd require that you live here. On
the rez. With me. Your husband."

"I'm prepared to do that," she told him. Her face was still damp, but hope shone in her still-moist eyes and eagerness brightened her tone. "A couple of months should do it, don't you think? Surely not more than three."

"But I don't even know you."
He planted his hands on his hips, baffled by the fact that she was truly serious about this outrageous idea.

"Within three months," she continued in a rush, "I'm certain I can win them over. I can prove to the Elders that I'm worthy to raise Lily. They'll see me everywhere with her. I'll attend all of the community functions. I'll even participate. You have gatherings and special celebrations, right? I read about them in the paper all the time."

She didn't wait for an answer. "And anytime we're away from the ranch, I'll play the part of a loving and devoted wife so no one will ever know of our marriage pact. I promise you that the truth will never come out. I'll need to learn all I can about your culture if I'm to teach Lily. I can't start too soon with something so important, right? The Council will love my at
titude on that subject, don't you
—"

"Jenna! Stop!" She went quiet.

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