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Authors: Donna Clayton

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BOOK: Bound by Honor
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Her face flamed when she saw that her corny spiel had him grinning. His chuckle only increased her embarrassment.

He splayed his hands on rock-hard thighs. "Now
you
sound like one of the Wise Ones."

"The who?"

"The Elders. They're famous for diminishing one's troubles with encouragement. And they usually have a great folktale to go along with it. That kind of thing is a fundamental part of the Lenape culture."

Her embarrassment quickly turned to discomfort. "I would never profess to being wise. But there's nothing wrong with encouraging someone when he's down, is there?"

"No," he said. "Not a thing."

She loved the rich resonance of his voice.

"Since you've raised the issue of the Lenape culture," she said, "I'd like for you to tell me a little about your history. As a tribe, I mean. If, that is, you're not too tired."

"I'll tell you anything you want to know."

"I have to admit," Jenna said, "I don't know very much about Native American history. I remember learning about the Trail of Tears in high school. I understand that Indians were forced off their land when the Europeans arrived in droves. But other than that..." She lifted her hand, palm up. "It's kind of embarrassing, actually. That I'm not more knowledgeable about American history. But after my mother died, I was too busy after school doing laundry and cleaning and cooking to do much reading."

Understanding softened his black-as-midnight eyes, affecting her in a way that made her avert her gaze.

"The Lenape weren't involved in the Trail of Tears," he told her. "That event marked the displacement of our Cherokee brothers. In 1838, the entire Cherokee Nation was made to march a thousand miles from their home in Georgia to the government-decreed Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The conditions of the trip were deplorable, and over four thousand Cherokee died before they reached their destination. The actual Cherokee translation for ilie trek is 'Trail Where They Cried.' "

Chagrin once again heated her face, supplanting
the sadness t
he
story stirred in her.

"I'm sorry if it sounded as if I was lumping all Indians together. I wasn't being rude. Not consciously, anyway. I do realize there are different Nations of Indians. Even different tribes within each Nation. I know that Montana alone is home to Blackfeet, and Sioux, and Crow, and Cheyenne —"

"It's okay, Jenna. I wasn't insulted."

She clamped her lips shut, hoping the awkwardness she felt would pass.

"The Lenape's westward move began just under a hundred years prior to what you know as the Trail of Tears."

"A hundred years
before?"
She couldn't keep the surprise and indignation out of her tone. "Those early settlers didn't waste any time taking what they wanted, did they?"

She suspected his smile was in appreciation of her righteous anger on the behalf of the plight of all Native Americans.

"I think our suffering came because we happened to live on the land closest to the first colonies. It took longer for settlers to filter north into New England and south to Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida.

"In all fairness," he said, his tone a smooth baritone, "our oral historians have always claimed that William Penn dealt fairly with my ancestors. But after Penn returned to England, his agents began to sell land in order to pay their debts. Unfortunately, the land they were selling was home and hunting ground to the Lenape."

He inhaled, and Jenna couldn't keep her eyes from lowering to his broad chest.

"You have to understand," he continued, "Indians had no concept of owning and selling land. The idea was as ludicrous to them as selling air. Land belonged to the Great One."

Jenna offered, "Kit-tan-it-to'wet."

He nodded. "The Creator provided land for his children to hunt and fish. My ancestors simply didn't understand the notion of possession. And they were taken advantage of because of that.

"Penn's men cooked up a crooked deal as a means of convincing my forefathers to give tip the land. The agents found an old, unsigned deed and presented it to the Lenape leaders as a legal contract. They claimed l hat fifty years before, our ancestors had signed this agreement handing over to the government as much land as could be cov
ered
in a day-and-a-half s walk. It became known as the Walking Purchase."

"The document was completely bogus?"

"It was. But n
ot knowing that, the Lenape felt
honor
bound
to respect the deal made
by their ancestors."

Jenna murmured, "The crooks lied."

"The story gets worse. The Lenape leaders agreed
to allow the area to be 'walked’,
thinking that Penn's agents wouldn't be able to cover more than two or three miles. Instead, the agents had a straight path cleared. And they hired three runners. By the time all was said and done, the so-called walker who had covered the most distance had gone fifty-five miles."

The unscrupulousness made Jenna shake her head.

"Penn's agents acquired twelve hundred square miles of Lenape homeland that day," Gage continued. "An area about the size of Rhode Island. And for the next one hundred and thirty years we moved time and again, our clans broken up and scattered like wheat kernels on the wind. My ancestors ended up here, on Broken Bow Reservation."

"I think it would be wonderful to know where I come from as well as you obviously do," Jenna said. "I mean, I know my mother's parents were Dutch and my father's were Irish. But that's all I know." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I like the way your tribe keeps its traditions and holds on to its culture.

Gage twisted his body to rest his back against the porch post. Jenna was well aware that now he didn't have to turn his head to look at her. That should have bothered her, made her feel exposed. But she realized she liked having his undivided attention.

"Traditions are good things, don't get me wrong," he said. "But we'd be foolish not to take full advantage of all the technological advances that have come along. Still, forgetting where you come from is never a good thing. We do our best to remember our past. There are powwows and other celebrations that feature traditional music and songs and food —"

"Are any of those things happening soon? I'd love to go."

He went still.

"What is it?" she asked. "What did I say?"

"It's nothing." He reached over and plucked a long blade of grass that grew by the porch step. "It's just that it's been quite a while since I've attended any of the tribal gatherings."

Since he'd lost his family. Jenna didn't have to ask. She just knew.

"Maybe it's time for that to change."

There it was again. That amazing —
nearly
overwhelming — energy pulsi
ng from him, drawing her in l
ike invisible fingers plucking and pulling at her.

"Maybe." Leisurely, he wrapped the long blade of grass around and around his finger.

"I — I mean," she stuttered, suddenly nervous as a rabbit caught in the crosshairs, "I'd really like to attend. So I can show the Elders that I'm taking care of things. You know, that I intend to do what's right . . . learn what I can about your tribe. And I don't know that I'd feel comfortable going without you."

For some odd reason, that statement only made her all the more anxious. Her tongue darted across her cottony lips. This man shoved her off-kilter even during casual conversation. "Of course, we'd be going for Lily."

His eyelids lowered in a slow and deliberate blink. "Of course," he said. "For Lily."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

The door of the self-storage unit creaked as Jenna opened it. A breath of dry heat smacked her in the face. Nerves jittered in her belly like tiny fingers of dread tinkling out sour notes on piano keys.

"You sure you're ready for this?" Gage asked.

"Don't know," she admitted honestly, grateful to have him with her. "But I do need to look around. At least a little."

Having left Lily with Arlene for a couple of hours while she and Gage took a look around die storage facility, Jenna propped open the door allowing the summer sunshine to stream into the dark recesses. She stepped inside and searched for the light switch.

The bare overhead bulb cast stark light down on the stacks of cardboard boxes all neatly taped and labeled.

"Looks organized," Gage observed.

"It does, doesn't it?" She inched along the narrow aisle that ran through the piles of boxes. "The Elders took care of cleaning out the house. They asked me if I wanted to do it - - and I did - - but they wanted it done
immediately
.

"The tribe owns the house?" he asked, evidently realizing the situation.

Jenna brushed a smudge of dust from her trousers. "Yes. Amy and David rented from the tribe. And from what Amy told me, the rent was nominal."

"There are many such houses on the rez. It's my understanding that the waiting list to get into one is long."

Jenna nodded. "I was annoyed that the Elders were pushing me to make a decision about my family's belongings. They were rushing me, I felt. I was going through so much. Fighting for Lily. Planning the funerals. David's parents are both frail and pretty much left both burials to me."

"You had a lot to deal with."

The deep concern in his tone made her halt her forward movement and she glanced at him. Empathy softened his features. She smiled, feeling less alone than she'd felt in a long time.

"Not that I'm complaining," she said. "I was happy to be able to honor my sister and her husband's life together." Memories of the day she buried Amy and David crowded into her mind. "I planned a very simple service. I don't have any real family to speak of, and David's parents didn't say how many people they expected to attend. I probably
should have asked. But I was amazed at how many people came to the service. Apparently, some of them traveled long distances to attend."

"That doesn't surprise me. Remembering those who have returned to the ancestors is an important part of our culture."

Absently, Jenna smoothed the pad of her thumb along the edge of a cardboard box. "Before the caskets were closed, David's mother covered my sister and her son with these gorgeous blankets she'd made. It's something I'll never forget.

"And at the cemetery, people offered the most beautiful gifts. Jewelry, a perfect white feather, a silver mirror, a stuffed animal. One young man actually left money."

"Offering gifts is our way."

"But money?" She couldn't rein in her astonishment. "As we left the cemetery, I saw faded bills tucked next to many of the headstones. It's a wonder the cemeteries aren't looted."

"No one would ever dare disrespect the dead or the gift givers. Those offerings are made out of honor and love and remembrance."

"It was all so touching. And afterward —" she shook her head in wonder "—
I couldn't believe the meal that
just seemed to materialize. We'd gone back to David's parents' house, and it seemed like close to a hundred people were milling around inside and out. Tables and chairs appeared. And plates laden with chicken and ham and roast beef. Casseroles of every vegetable imaginable. I hadn't planned any of that. It just . . . appeared."

He nodded, clearly unsurprised by what she'd learned was Indian custom.

Jenna combed her fingers through her hair. "I hadn't meant to bring all that up. Thanks for listening to me ramble. I don't know how I got so off track. I was just trying to explain why I didn't have it in me to tackle the job of packing up the house back then."

She sighed. "However, as exasperated as I was with the Council, I did understand their need to get the house ready for new renters. So I agreed to allow them to oversee the job." She smiled ruefully. "I have a feeling they would have done it even if I hadn't agreed."

"Probably," he agreed softly.

"I made arrangements for this unit and the movers brought everything here. There's supposed to be a typed inventory somewhere."

"I'm sure it will turn up."

Jenna turned and made her way farther down the aisle. She saw boxes labeled by room and contents.

Kitchen: Small Appliances

Kitchen: Cutlery

Living Room: Knickknacks

Sighing, she plunked her hands on her hips. Eventually, she'd have to sort through everything, of course. Some items she'd keep for Lily. But she'd have to get rid of much of the stuff. Jenna couldn't see Lily ever needing or wanting a twenty-year-old clock radio or electric can opener.

But for the life of her, she couldn't imagine disposing of anything that belonged to her sister and brother-in-law, be it a can opener or a dry, crusty paintbrush. Not just yet. The grief in her was still too raw. But surely that would change. She hoped and prayed it would. Surely, time had a way of, if not healing, then at least lessening the pain of one's wounds.

Time. That was what she needed.

Her gaze fell on a box near her feet marked Master Bedroom: Family Photos and Albums. Without allowing herself to ihink about it, Jenna bent over and peeled
up
one corner of the tape. She gave a quick
and
forceful jerk and the box flaps came free.

There on top were two framed snapshots. The first one, faded with age, was a black-and-white image of Amy as an infant. A three-year-old Jenna cradled her new sister in her arms while their mother beamed at them.

The second photo was much more recent. Amy sat next to Jenna on a sofa, newborn Lily snuggled between them.

As she stared at the pictures, powerful emotions rumbled within her like so much thunder. She squatted down, resting her bottom on a cardboard box, and let emotion engulf her.

Gage made his way back from the far side of the storage unit where he'd wandered through the sea of brown boxes. He'd called Jenna's name to say he'd made a startling discovery, but when he turned to find her, she was nowhere in sight. It wasn't that the unit was all that huge, but many of the stacks reached near ceiling level.

He found her hunched near an open box. Whatever it was she'd found seemed to hold her mesmerized.

Although she'd clearly displayed herself as a strong woman in the weeks she'd been under his roof, he'd also discerned vulnerability in her. A vulnerability she was loath to
show. It w
as that tiny glimpse of defense
lessness, he believed, that stirred his response to her. His urge to protect her.

Of course, any man with a heart beating in his chest, with blood running through his veins, would respond to this woman. Her brown eyes were expressive. Her shiny auburn hair lured a man to explore its
silki
ness. And her delicate features would entice even the stoniest of men.

It wasn't as if he'd never encountered a beautiful woman before. But Jenna was more than that. For some reason, he wanted to wrap his arms around her and tell her that everything was going to be okay. He wanted to keep her safe from harm. Wanted to make her smile.

However, some self-preserving intuition told him that the desires she churned in him were dangerous to his well-being.

Even when he crouched beside her, it was clear that she was oblivious to his presence. Peering over her shoulder, he spied the family photos she held in her fingers.

He touched her upper arm and she gasped softly, her golden-brown gaze flying
to
his.

"I called you," he said.

"Sorry." Her cheeks fl
ushed and her gaz
e
returned to the pictures.
"I guess I got
wrapped up in the past."

Her light floral perfume floated on the still and dusty air, and an overwhelming impulse struck him. But he battled the itch to lean even closer, to press his nose to her warm skin and inhale the scent of her deep into his lungs.

Jenna placed the framed photos back in the box with what he could only describe as a gentle and loving hand.

Tipping her chin up, she asked, "Could we take this box with us when we leave?"

The despair coursing through her was laid bare, leaving her open. Exposed.

"Of course." The compulsion to shelter, to protect, hit him with astonishing strength. He knew the sadness of losing a loved one. If he could take that away for her, he would.

Then the emotion pulsing from her transformed, and Gage sensed that the heartache she'd suffered just an instant before dissipated to be replaced by something different . . . something perilously risky.

Desire.

He had the amazing sensation that he'd reached some sort of fork in the path of his life, a significant juncture that had the potential to forever alter his existence. His
thoughts
were whirling too fast for him to
figure out the what, why and how of the moment. He only knew this instant, this event, was important.

Her soft lips glistened in the light cast by the bare bulb overhead. She pursed her mouth slightly, seeming to beckon him silently to act. Then her eyelids fluttered closed. His heart hammered, his blood slogged through his body.

Dark lashes fanned against creamy skin that he easily imagined would be satiny soft. Helplessly, he reached out to run his fingertips along the rise of her cheekbone, down the fine curve of her jaw. At his touch, her nostrils flared a fraction when she inhaled deeply, expectantly.

Her breath quickened, her chest rising and falling. The swell of her breasts pressed against the cotton fabric of her top, and he ached to smooth his hands over their ripeness, feel their weight in his palms. But instead, he merely let his fingertips travel down the length of her throat. Her hot pulse throbbed against his skin. He stopped at the curve of her collarbone.

The rational part of his brain went to war with the desires of his body. Hunkered down next to h
er, he prayed for the conflict t
o come to some resolution. He thought his
pause
was merely momentary. B
ut evidently
it had been much longer than he thought because she opened her eyes, her questioning gaze clashing with his.

Discomfort settled over him, and he wanted to apologize to her. For what, he couldn't quite say. For not kissing her? For not tugging her down and taking her right there on the gritty concrete floor?

"It's all right."

Her voice sounded husky and sexy as hell. He knew his brow was knit with bewilderment as well as indecision.

Slowly, confidently, she ran her tongue over her bottom lip. "Nothing may have happened just now," she said, her tone so low it was nearly a whisper. "But I think we just experienced a momentous event."

A delicious tingle ran down his spine when she chuckled.

The momentous event, he suddenly realized, was that both of them were fully aware of the sexual temptation each posed for the other.

"Jenna —" her name rasped from his throat as if his larynx had turned into a rusty spring "— I, um, I'm not looking for this . . . well, for this kind of . . ."

"It's okay," she assured him once again. "It really is okay, Gage."

He hated that he felt so awkward when
she seemed so cool ... so at ease with this strange turn of events.

Not that he hadn't wanted her before this moment. He'd felt drawn to her from the very first. He'd admired her strength. She hadn't blinked an eye about taking on the Elders in order to acquire custody of Lily. She'd uprooted herself and changed her whole life in order to do what she had to do for her niece. And he'd be lying if he said he hadn't noticed her physical beauty. Yes, she had roused in him needs that were perfectly natural. But he'd been able to rein in his feelings. Until now.

He gulped in air, instantly desperate to focus on something —
anything
— else.

The artwork. Of course. That was why he'd come looking for her to begin with.

"I found something," he said. He rose to his feet. Held out his hand to help her do the same. "Something I think you'll want to see."

She slid her palm against his, curled her lingers and gripped tightly. The heat of her caused a hitch deep in his gut. The instant she was standing, he released his hold on her.

"This way." He turned and weaved
through
the boxes toward the left wall of the storage
room.

Gage knew the instant Jenna saw the canvases by her sharp inhalation.

"My God," she whispered, her tone awed. "I expected to find artwork among Amy and David's things, but I never expected anything like this. There must be two hundred pieces here."

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