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Authors: Donna Clayton

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BOOK: Bound by Honor
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"I can't do this." He let the words sink in, and then he firmly repeated, "I can't."

He braced himself for more tears, but what he hadn't prepared himself for was the tenacity that firmed her jaw.

"So your life isn't worth three measly months of your time?"

Accusation made her question uncomfortably sharp. Without breaking eye contact with him, she sniffed and reached up to rub the tip of her nose with the back of her hand.

Shame fell on his shoulders like a load of cinder blocks. He tried to shrug the feeling off, but it only grew heavier. He frowned.

He would not allow her to humiliate him into doing something —

"Do you owe me, Gage Dalton? The day of the storm, you made this Life Gift sound like a very serious thing."

She had no idea just how serious.

Chagrin shot through him like white-hot lightning, and she clearly sensed it. He knew she could tell what her allegations were doing
to him. And it only made her d
oggedness all the stronger.

She folded her arms across her chest. "So . . . are you going to pay your debt, or aren't
you
?"

Jenna Butler had him backed into a
corner, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it.

 

"And you have proof that this marriage is actually going to take place?"

Disapproval tightened the shaman's wrinkled face. Of all the Elders sitting at the long oak table, Chee'pai had presented Jenna with the most vehement resistance. A contrary man, he'd been adamant from day one that Lily not leave the reservation.

"Of course," Jenna told him. Nerves writhed in her stomach, turned her knees jelly-weak, but she made every effort to keep her hand from trembling when she offered the marriage license to him. He took it from her. Although he hadn't ever been blatantly disrespectful, Jenna never failed to feel the mighty weight of his condemnation during the many Council meetings she'd attended. The man was simply and clearly opposed to her gaining custody of Lily.

He didn't bother to look at the legal document but demanded, "Why did you not tell us of your plans to marry before today?"

Jenna squared her shoulders. "You didn't ask."

Chee'pai scowled at what he obviously perceived as impertinence.

"I have answered all your questions," she
reminded him. She let her gaze trail down the row of men and women. "I have held nothing back. Not one of you can say differently. How could I have answered questions that haven't been asked?"

No one offered an argument.

"And this man is Indian?" another council member asked.

"He is Delaware," Jenna said. "He lives on Broken Bow. And Lily and I will live here, too . . . with him. We'll be married at the courthouse in Forsyth just as soon as the blood test results are in."

Montana's required test for rubella was all that stood between Jenna and Lily.

"It shouldn't take long. The lab tech promised to rush things for me." She clamped her lips shut. She was talking too fast, submitting too much information.

Gage had offered to come with her to this meeting, but Jenna had felt the need to face die group alone, to see this fight to the end on her own.

Chee'pai almost shoved her license at the Elder sitting to his left, a man who actually scrutinized the paper. Something in the document made the man grow still, but Jenna didn't have time to wonder what it might be before Chee'pai addressed the group.

"For me," the shaman announced, "this changes nothing."

Disappointment assailed her. She must keep a positive attitude. This man was one voice among eight. Surely, someone in the group would see reason. If no one did, she was going to have to think fast.

Gage had warned her against lying to the Elders. To do so would forever jeopardize her integrity in the eyes of the Council. Jenna had planned to speak nothing but the truth; however, desperation often made people do things they wouldn't normally do, say things they wouldn't normally say, act in ways that were alien. Hopefully, the Elders wouldn't push her to those extremes.

That was one of the reasons she'd come alone. If she were forced to say or do anything reckless, she didn't want Gage to be tainted by her wayward behavior.

The marriage license continued down the row of solemn-faced Council members.

"I have a question."

The woman who spoke had vivid green eyes. Her long gray hair was parted in the middle and trailed over her shoulders in two thick braids. Her bony shoulders were rounded by the years.

"I mean no disrespect," the woman continued, "but I'd like to know
when
you met
your
fiancé
. How long have you known each other?"

Anxiety flared like hungry flames, threatening to consume Jenna. Although there hadn't been any direct accusation in the questions they'd asked, this was as close as any of them had come to suggesting she might be up to something not quite legitimate. Obviously, they'd be suspicious of the marriage. It would be silly for Jenna to think otherwise. However, before this moment, none of them had implied that she might be scheming in order to gain custody of Lily. She'd expected Chee'pai would have been the one who might make blatant charges, but it seemed that doubt had others willing to question her, as well.

Garnering control of her voice, Jenna said, "I met him before this . . . situation began. Before my sister died."

It was not a lie. Jenna voiced the words with a clear conscience.

The woman nodded and said nothing more.

Hoo'ma sat at the very end of the table, and she had just finished studying Jenna's license. The old woman's nut-brown eyes Mashed with astonishment, and Jenna grew curious. What on earth was the woman
thinking?
Why had many of the Elders reacted to the license with what looked to be surprise?

Hoo'ma radiated calmness, even in her silence.

Over the weeks of this ordeal, Jenna had discovered that Hoo'ma was well respected by the other Council members. It was apparent that she was the oldest member of the Council, and Jenna had inadvertently learned that her name meant
grandmother
in the language of this tribe. She didn't speak often, but when she did, everyone paid close attention.

Hoo'ma leaned her frail body forward, and all eyes turned to her.

"I see that you are to marry Gage Dalton," she said.

Jenna went still. Something had sparked in the wizened woman's tone when she uttered Gage's name. It was as if she wanted the others to pay attention, to take special note. The Elders who hadn't had a chance to see the certificate for themselves did just that; the ones who had read it nodded in silent agreement. But what exactly were they acknowledging? Their reaction was puzzling.

"Gage plans to take this woman as his wife?" Incredulity sharpened Chee'pai's
quest
ion.

Hoo'ma ignored him. Lacing her knobby fingers together, she rested her hands on the tabletop and addressed Jenna. "Marriage is a sacred union, my child. The ties that bind men and women may vary. Some are brought together by love. Others by necessity. Even others by —" one of her shoulders lifted a fraction "— who knows what reasons? But the bonds between a husband and wife are the threads that hold together the very universe, and they could not — and would not — happen if the Great One opposed."

Several aged gazes slid from Hoo'ma's. The woman's unspoken chastisement thickened the air. Evidently, Hoo'ma thought the doubtful questions about this impending marriage were inappropriate.

"I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you," she continued to address Jenna. "On behalf of the Council, I wish you and Gage every happiness." She swiveled her head to take in her fellow Council members. "Now, I think the time has come to allow Lily to go to her rightful home."

"Ma'ta!"
Chee'pai stood.

The opposition in the man's tone
couldn't
be missed, and Jenna knew the man said no in his native tongue.

"Our tribe is dwindling by the moment!"

The shaman's face was fury-red. "We send our children off to colleges and they do not return. Our young adults leave Broken Bow for jobs in the city. If we allow this to continue, our clan will be no more!"

Unruffled by Chee'pai's outburst, Hoo'ma looked past the shaman and directed her attention to the others at the table.

"Jenna has complied with our every demand with patience." The woman's wrinkled cheeks bore the hint of a smile as she murmured, "For the most part." She slid her folded hands into her lap. "She has promised to respect Lily's Delaware heritage. It is our tradition to give our children roots." She squared herself to Chee'pai as she added, "It is also our tradition to give them wings. If the roots are deep enough, they will not forget from where they come."

The shaman seethed, but he did not speak. "This marriage is a good thing," Hoo'ma said. "As soon as Jenna and Gage are wed, they should have Lily. They should become a family. I can feel healing and enlightenment approaching. For all concerned. I am surprised, Chee'pai, that you haven't felt it, too." After a pause that obviously called for r
eflection, she pronounced, "Let us vote.
"

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

"Are you upset about the civil service?" Jenna had finally garnered enough courage to ask the question that had been rolling in her mind since they'd left the courthouse. She glanced at Gage tentatively.

"Why would I be upset?" His attention never wavered from the road ahead as he drove his pickup on 1-94 toward Broken Bow. "Other than the fact that I hadn't planned on repaying a Life Gift with wedding vows."

She ignored his murmured aside. She couldn't regret having pledged herself to Gage in front of a Rosebud County clerk of the court. The marriage certificate in her possession was mandatory in gaining custody of Lily. To Jenna, it hadn't mattered that the ceremony was short and quite dispassionate. Even with the requested rush on i he tests, the wait for results had meant another excruciating week without Lily. The truth be know
n, Jenna was relieved to have t
he formalities over so quickly.

She had her doubts about Gage.

"Well," she began, "my guess is that you're, um, a very spiritual person. I
thought that you might have felt peculiar about going to the courthouse to get married as opposed to . . ." She faltered for a moment. "Well, as opposed to having a religious ceremony."

"And you came to those conclusions merely because I'm Indian?"

Accusation edged the question, and Jenna felt suddenly self-conscious. She hadn't meant to offend him. Before she could respond, he said, "You shouldn't form opinions about Native Americans based solely on stereotypes."

Now she felt insulted herself. "I was doing no such thing."

The raised brows on his chiseled profile were clear evidence that he was unconvinced.

"I wasn't," she insisted, shifting on the seat.

"So why would you think I'd be upset that we married at the courthouse?" he pressed.

She lifted one shoulder a fraction. "Because of the things you said the day we met. You used a name . . . Kitan To-wet —" her tongue tripped over the foreign word "— I think it was. You spoke as if this was some great force or entity. Like fate. Or God." Heat flushed her cheeks when she realized
how this must sound to him, as if she had
him figured out because of the things he'd said that day. "You said Kitan To-wet had plans for you, and that I'd messed up those plans."

"Kit-tan-it-to'wet," he corrected. "It's Algonquian for Great Spirit. It's our name for God."

She nodded, relieved that, although she hadn't pronounced the name perfectly, she hadn't completely mangled it beyond recognition.

"And you seemed very passionate," she continued, "about repaying the debt you felt you owed me. All that led me to believe you were —" again she shrugged "— a spiritual man."

He was silent as they left the interstate, the exit ramp winding around to a bridge that crossed Yellowstone River.

"I owe you an apology." His gaze connected with hers for a fraction of a second. "In my business, I sometimes come into contact with . . . people. People who tend to put me in some sort of box, or expect me to fit some sort of mold. Because I'm Delaware. Because I'm Indian."

"White people," she supplied.

His silence was proof that she'd presumed correctly.

"
Tell you what," she said.
I
promise not
to stereotype you because you're Delaware if you promise not to stereotype me because I'm white."

The lightness in her tone succeeded in dissolving the tension in him. His shoulders relaxed, and when he looked at her, he was actually smiling. It was the first time she'd seen him smile, and the curling at the corners of his wide mouth made his already striking features downright mesmerizing. Her pulse kicked into high gear and the interior of the truck's cab became unbearably hot.

"You've got a deal," he told her softly.

The smile she offered was weak, at best. For the first time since approaching him for help, she felt that they'd connected.

And the feeling was darned disconcerting.

Jenna swallowed, broke eye contact and gazed out over the Montana grassland. Her new husband could easily become a distraction. And a distraction was one thing she didn't need. She was going to have her hands full caring for Lily and keeping up with her business. She'd worked hard to build her reputation, and she didn't want to lose it. She'd been dubbed "the Webmaster whiz" by the companies who contracted her to build and maintain their Web sites. And as
Jenna figured it, with Lily st
ill a baby, she
would only be able to work when her niece napped in the afternoon or slumbered through the night. It wasn't going to be easy, but it wasn't any more difficult than what any other new mother experienced juggling a job and a child.

That was how she thought of herself.

Gage steered the pickup onto Reservation Road.

"You want to pick up your niece now?"

She hadn't expected the offer. "Yes. If that's okay with you, I mean. If you have to get back to the ranch to tend to the horses, I can come back for her. I don't want to put you out."

"If it wasn't okay with me, I wouldn't have suggested it."

"Oh." Excitement tickled the pit of her belly. "Okay, then. Yes. That would be wonderful."

No fanfare marked the entrance to Broken Bow Reservation. Just a worn sign with black block letters and a directional arrow. The reservation itself was quite basic. The main road wove through a small village that wasn't even big enough to be called a town, really. There was a general store, a sheriff

s office, a post office, a restaurant called Hannah's Home-Styl
e Diner, a community center that
doubled as an information office for the odd tourist who happened by for a visit and the Council building that Jenna had become so familiar with over the past couple of months. Small, neat homes lined both sides of the street. Anyone else would describe the place as plain, but at this moment she thought it was the most beautiful place on Earth. She was going to see Lily, and she would be taking the baby home with her at last.

Well, not home, exactly, but it was close enough for now.

Joy made her feel featherlight. She was so happy, she could barely contain the bubbly emotion. She pressed her fingertips against her lips, fearing she might break out in sudden laughter.

She'd done it. She'd bested the Elders. She'd won her battle for custody of her sister's baby girl. Surely, things would sail smoothly for her and Lily from here on out.

Gage pulled up to the curb in front of Arlene Johnson's house. In her mid-fifties, Arlene was a widow whose one grown daughter, Hannah, owned the restaurant down the street. Arlene loved children and ran a daycare center in her home. Jenna had come to know Arlene well over these past weeks of battling with the Council of Elders, and the two of them had become
friends. Although the woman had sympathized with Jenna's plight from day one, she'd also been staunch in her adamancy that the Council's dictates be followed to the letter.

Jenna opened the door of the truck even before the vehicle came to a complete halt. "I'll be right back," she called over her shoulder. She stopped suddenly, and turned back. "Unless you want to come in."

"I'll wait."

Was his grip on the steering wheel tighter than necessary? Jenna let the question go unexplored as the thrill of the moment swept her up once again.

"I'll hurry," she said, and then jogged up the cement walkway toward Arlene's house.

Her friend mu
st have been watching for her b
ecause the door opened when Jenna stepped onto the porch.

Arlene cradled a sleeping Lily in her arms. "Good morning. So everything's official?"

"Sure is." Jenna stepped into the neat living room, her eyes locking onto her niece. "Can I hold her?" she asked, grinning.

The transfer went so smoothly that the baby didn't even stir.
Jenna kissed Lily's forehead tenderly.

"Congratulations," Arlene told her.

"Thanks,

Jenna breathed. "I've been
dreaming about this day for a long time. I was beginning to think I'd never get custody of Lily."

Arlene was quiet for a moment. Then she said, "I'm happy about that, too. But I was congratulating you on your marriage."

"Oh. Of course. Thank you." Jenna occupied herself with smoothing out Lily's light cotton receiving blanket.

"Jenna." Arlene's tone was soft. "You did get married for the right reason, didn't you?"

She lifted her gaze to her friend's and never wavered as she proclaimed, "I got married for the best possible reason."

Although the woman nodded, Jenna could tell she remained speculative.

"I'd love to stay and chat," Jenna said, "but Gage is waiting in the truck and we need to get home and get settled."

"I've got Lily's things packed and ready to go. And the car seat is right here, too. I'll help you carry everything out."

"Thanks."

As the women approached the truck, Gage got out, rounded the truck and took Lily's small suitcase from Arlene. Jenna noticed that Gage's greeting to Arlene wasn't the friendliest, but it was clear he knew the woman.
He
moved to the
back
end
o
f the
vehicle to stow the case.

"Want me to secure the car seat?" Arlene asked.

"I'll do it." Jenna handed Lily back to Arlene. "I need to figure out how it works sooner or later."

Gage's pickup had a small bench seat behind the front seat. Jenna figured this would be a safer place for Lily. She struggled with the car seat's straps and buckles for several frustrating minutes and then turned to Arlene.

"The belt won't snap."

"Let me try." Arlene handed the baby over.

Jenna smiled. "Don't you just love baby juggling?"

Arlene chuckled. "It's the best kind of juggling there is."

While Arlene bent over the car seat, Jenna glanced to
ward the back of the truck at G
age. He looked tense, staring off at the horizon.

"Got it," Arlene pronounced. She backed her way out of the truck's cab and turned to Jenna. "It'll just take a little practice. Car
s
eats fit in each vehicle differently. You'll get the hang of it quickly, I'm sure."

Jenna tucked the sleeping Lily in the seat and fastened (he bell across her little chest
with a click. Then she gave Arlene a big hug. "Thanks for everything. Taking care of Lily. The endless cups of tea. And all the listening you did. You're a wonderful friend."

"So are you. Lily's lucky to have someone in the world who loves her so much."

They shared a warm smile.

Finally, Jenna called out to Gage, "Ready."

"If you ever need a sitter," Arlene said, "don't hesitate to call me."

"I won't." Jenna got into the truck. "Lily and I will come for a visit soon," she promised from the open window.

Arlene nodded and waved as Gage drove away.

Immediately, Jenna worried if the breeze was too much for the baby, and she pressed the switch to close the window.

"You okay?" she asked Gage.

"I'm fine."

"You don't seem fine. You seem uptight. Really uptight. Do you know Arlene?"

"Everyone knows Arlene Johnson. I attended school with her daughter, Hannah."

Lily stirred behind them, and Jenna twisted around to check on her. The baby sighed in her sleep.

"Do you not like Arlene or something? Has she done
something to
you?"
Jenna
pressed, settling herself in the seat once again.

"I like her fine." His tone sounded clipped. "Arlene has nothing to do with this."

"So there
is
something wrong?"

For a moment, all Jenna heard was the whine of tires on asphalt and she thought he meant to simply ignore her question. He was well within his rights to do so. She never should have pursued the subject this far.

Finally, Gage said, "There is nothing wrong, Jenna." His black eyes zeroed in on her. "Let it go."

The remainder of the ride was made in silence.

 

Gage's ranch house was larger than Jenna remembered. A gable roof cut through the center of it, wings extending to both the east and west sides. Jenna surmised that the windowed wall that was a focal point from outside must be the main living area. Beautiful in its rustic simplicity, the ranch blended well with the lush and sweeping Montana landscape.

Once Gage cut the engine, Jenna got out of the truck and immediately took Lily from
the
car seat. The baby opened sleepy eyes and yawned.

"Are you awake?" Jenna said softly.

Lily offered a sleepy grin, and Jenna's heart swelled with warmth.

"You're such a good girl."

"Are you coming?" Gage called from the porch. "I'll give you a quick tour before I head out to the stable."

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