Authors: Debra Salonen
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Modern, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Love stories, #Suspense, #Birthparents
Char reached across Eli to open the passenger door. Her body touched him—that is, her wool jacket pressed against his thermal sweatshirt, which covered a couple of other layers. There was nothing sexual in the touch. Nothing sexual between them. Only anger and hurt on her part, and confusion and desperation on his. No reason in the freaking world for him to kiss her.
But he did. Hard, fast, deep, hot. And what flared to life like a fire carefully banked in a stark, barren hearth made less sense than anything that had happened so far. But, man, it felt good. It felt real. Like a lifeline that would keep him from falling into the bone-deep despair that had been his father’s ruin.
And how could Eli ever have known that someone from his past would feel so right in his present?
I came late to the romance genre table. As an opinionated college student, I had a preconceived, utterly baseless and unflattering opinion of paperback romance novels. I didn’t read “those” kinds of books.
Then I got married, had two babies and found myself craving multisyllable words. I still loved to read but didn’t have the time or money to devote to “serious” hardbacks. My beloved mother-in-law, Mae Salonen, took a chance and handed me a grocery sack filled with Harlequin novels.
To my surprise, the stories were rich, diverse and wonderfully entertaining. The characters were larger than life, true to life and “my life” all rolled into one. The authors inspired me with hope, humor and, of course, love.
Now I’m doubly blessed. Not only do I get to
stories that take me into new worlds with interesting people, I get to
stories that create these worlds. Take Sentinel Pass, for instance. Char, the heroine of this book, woke me from a dream one night to say, “I’ll tell you something about me you don’t know—an old black woman lives in my head.” I was hooked. Eli was a dream of a different kind.
I thank my cousin, Linda Thompson, an accomplished Lakota bead artist, and her lovely daughter, Donna Ducheneaux, for answering my questions about Lakota life—all mistakes are mine. And to Linda’s son, Damien—thank you for lending me your name and providing a source of inspiration.
And thank you, Harlequin, for sixty great years!
There was a time in Debra’s life when she told people she was part Sioux Indian. A six-year-old who spends part of the summer with her aunt and uncle and brown-skinned cousins on an Indian reservation in the middle of South Dakota has got to be part Indian, right? So she claimed—until her mother explained otherwise. “Your aunt is your father’s sister, so that means…” Yeah, whatever. But deep down, Deb’s love of the Lakota remains intact, and secretly she still wishes she could claim part of this wonderfully rich, proud and complex heritage.
1196—A COWBOY SUMMER
1238—CALEB’S CHRISTMAS WISH
1279—HIS REAL FATHER
1386—A BABY ON THE WAY
1392—WHO NEEDS CUPID?
“The Max Factor”
1434—LOVE, BY GEORGE
1452—BETTING ON SANTA
1492—BABY BY CONTRACT
1516—HIS BROTHER’S SECRET
1540—DADDY BY SURPRISE
SIGNATURE SELECT SAGA
BETTING ON GRACE
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
1114—ONE DADDY TOO MANY
1126—BRINGING BABY HOME
1139—THE QUIET CHILD
This book is dedicated to my aunt and uncle,
Helen Robson Thompson and the late
J. W. Thompson, who welcomed me to their
home on the Lower Brule reservation every
summer of my childhood. There I learned to ride;
I swam in the wide Missouri; and I explored the
beautiful hills and gullies of the Little Bend.
Uncle Jiggs was a gifted storyteller…
like Eli’s grandfather in this book.
Helen, your unconditional love was a blessing on
all the children who passed through your doors.
You’ll never know what an impression you left
on a young girl with a big imagination
and even bigger dreams.
AKED AND SHIVERING
in the mid-November cold, Eli took a deep breath of sage-scented air and forced himself to precede his patiently waiting host into the
, or sweat lodge.
The darkness was immediate and blinding. He stumbled slightly, relying on guidance from the old man everyone called
, Lakota for grandfather. “Sit, my boy,” the man said in the Lakota tongue.
Eli understood at what must have been a cellular level since he’d never been formally educated in the language of his father’s people. He sat, forcing his eyes to open as wide as possible. He assumed they’d adjust to the darkness in a moment or two, but as he looked into the saturated black heat he couldn’t make out a single shape or form, although he sensed others were inside the lodge, which was constructed of willow boughs bent and tethered to the ground to make a dome topped with tarps and blankets.
He’d attended sweats before but never like this. Those had seemed informal, more or less open to anyone. Even him. An outsider of two dozen years. More or less.
“You must complete
,” his uncle had told him, using one of the traditional names for the experience most people called a vision quest. For two days Eli had
fasted in the company of strangers. Men who belonged to other tribes, who came to this place for different reasons. He’d welcomed the fast as a way to offset the effects of the copious amounts of alcohol he’d drunk since his life imploded. Then, at the last minute before the ceremony was to begin, his uncle had taken him aside and invited Eli to share a pipe.
Knowing the smoking of the pipe was sacred to the Lakota—on par with the Christian ritual of communion—Eli had trusted his uncle not to spike the bowl with anything other than tobacco or possibly a bit of sage. He’d relaxed his rigid self-control, trying to get into the spirit of the moment. He’d allowed himself to be stripped and anointed with sage. All because his uncle claimed Eli’s life was in a shambles.
“You are missing pieces of yourself, nephew,” Joseph had alleged.
And how could Eli argue? He was missing a wife and the three—no, two—children they’d made together.
“It is time,” a voice said. “To put your fears aside and trust in the Great Spirit.” The darkness was so thick and the steam so suffocating Eli couldn’t say for certain whether the voice came from a real person or from inside his head. “Accept what is before you.”
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Moist heat and the scent of his own sweat blended with sage created a swell of awareness and energy that vibrated and expanded throughout his whole body.
Suddenly a flicker of light appeared, a slim orange reed, dancing like the flame of a candle. He watched, mesmerized, as a tiny, black-capped bird darted in and out of the flickering image. A yearning so deep and elemental it
seemed to start in the primal center of his being made him reach out. Hot tears scalded his skin and dropped like pellets of lead on his lap.
He opened his eyes again but nothing changed. Friendly and openly curious, the small bird flitted just beyond his fingertips.
. The brave little bird of tribal lore that was reputed to know the truth. If he followed where the chickadee led, he might finally see his life clearly, no longer allowing his mind to be deluded by what he wanted to see.
That was when Eli knew his true quest had begun. At long last, he would learn the answers to the question he’d never dared ask: Who am I, really?
And if the answer was as disappointing as he feared it might be…well, there was always his father’s way. He could drink himself to death and alienate everyone who ever loved him. The past few weeks had proven he’d learned that lesson all too well.
ONES HAD TIME
This almost never happened. She was a busy entrepreneur.
. The word tended to make her giggle—something she didn’t do well. She also didn’t idle away precious daylight. Waiting went against her grain, but she wanted to hold off filling the balloons for Megan’s birthday party until the last minute.
Silly, really. Mylar balloons could usually be counted on to hold air for six to ten hours. Much longer than a five-year-old child’s attention span. But Megan McGannon was Char’s best friend’s niece, and balloons could make or break a party at that age. Char took her responsibility as bearer of the balloons seriously.
That meant she had half an hour to fill.
She drummed her fingers on the glass countertop and looked around.
The store was a shoebox-shape cedar log building with a green metal roof that had been built from a kit in the mid-seventies by a pair of hippie artists who’d lived in the double-wide mobile home—where Char presently lived—behind the store. They’d used the home’s two-stall garage as a studio. According to local lore, the couple financed their artistic endeavors by growing and selling pot. After
they went to jail, the place changed hands several times before Char bought it, erected her trademark white teepee, which served as the building’s main entrance during the summer months, and changed the name to Native Arts.
This is silly
, she thought. There were a thousand things she could do. “Like dust,” she muttered. “My favorite thing.”
Stifling a sigh, she grabbed the textured yellow cloth from under the counter and walked to the nearest display.
Grace Yellowhawk had an amazing gift for pairing fragrances and fabric. Char had been thrilled to carry Grace’s potpourri, dream sachets and unique line of handmade soaps. She picked up a pale pink, heart-shaped sachet and held it to her nose.
Rock rose, she thought, inhaling deeply. A memory from her childhood flitted through her mind. She closed her eyes and pictured warm sunshine on her upturned face. A gentle hand on her shoulder reassured her that the loud, perplexing turmoil coming from inside the house had no bearing on her. Her grandmother? Maybe. Char couldn’t remember. But when her grandfather had been alive, visits to her grandparents’ home in Pierre had been punctuated with anger, disappointment and tears.
She efficiently swiped the dust cloth over the shelf, restacked the bars of scented soap and fanned out a display of stamped hand towels. She stepped back to survey her work. “Nice.”
Satisfied, but still oddly fixated on the shadow memory, she was caught off guard by the sound of a car door in the distance. She pivoted on the heel of her pink and silver running shoes to look toward the parking lot. The floor-to-ceiling picture windows that bracketed the store’s front
door would have afforded a good view if not for the various displays and the post-Halloween sales banners.
She squinted, trying to make out the driver of a newer model pickup truck that looked vaguely familiar. But a second later, the vehicle took off, churning up a small cloud of dust as it exited the parking lot.
Char was used to seeing people stop and go without coming into the store. Native Arts was located at the junction of Sentinel Pass Road and one of the main north-south highways bisecting the central Hills. Not only did the large, open driveway and parking lot make for a convenient meeting place, Char’s big white teepee made the rendezvous spot impossible to miss.
She might not have given the truck another thought if not for the passenger it dropped off.
“Hmm.” She sidestepped for a better view, but the person was too far away to see much detail. A man. Tall. Not skinny, but not fat. Not a typical hitchhiker because he didn’t appear to have any kind of luggage. The lack of a backpack with a rolled sleeping bag at the top told Char he wasn’t headed toward either of the prime Black Hills hiking trails in the vicinity. His boots looked rugged enough, but a bulky black sweatshirt—even the kind with a hood—wasn’t adequate protection from the extremely changeable weather at this time of year.
She was pretty sure she’d heard the morning weather report mention the possibility of snow in the next day or two. She watched the man stand unmoving, as if rooted to the spot, for another minute or so.
He’s probably waiting for someone to pick him up.
Wife. Girlfriend. Boyfriend, she thought with a rueful chuckle.
Shrugging, she quickly returned to her desk behind the
counter. She tucked the cloth back where it belonged and walked to the flat-screen monitor in an area her assistant, Pia, called the “Bat Cave.”
A composite image from four security cameras let her keep an eye on things. The upper left showed the parking lot in wide-angle. The hitchhiker was a shadowy form barely visible. Across the bottom were two views of the main showroom floor. The last gave a bird’s-eye view of the interior of the teepee, which was “attached” to the main building by a utility corridor that included a handicap-accessible restroom. Although Char kept the teepee stocked year-round with mostly low value items, clothing and children’s toys, shoppers were less likely to linger in the bright, interesting structure during the winter months since it had proven so difficult and expensive to heat. Char had even resorted to hanging two, colorful Navajo rugs across the opening leading to the adjacent corridor to keep the warm air in the main building.
She studied the monitor a moment longer then turned to the stereo unit squeezed between the TV screen and the cash register. She fiddled with her iPod until she found the folder of instrumental music she wanted. She smiled as Brulé, a Lakota band with a New Age sound, filled the room. Char normally could count on the group’s serene and evocative sound to calm her.
Not today, it seemed. She drummed her fingers on the counter, staring at dust motes. Her mind returned to the hazy memory of her grandmother’s garden. Maybe it was pure fantasy, but she could picture herself sitting under a decaying rock feeder, trying to be as still as possible so the tiny birds, white with shiny black heads, would hop near.
She blinked rapidly, suddenly overcome with an intense yearning, a strange sadness.
“What the heck is wrong with me?” she murmured under her breath, idly fingering the hand-beaded medicine pouch hanging from a tether around her neck. Her fingers squeezed the fabric to make out the shape of the object inside the pouch. A key.
Had it been the scent of the rock rose that set her on the path down memory lane today? She’d read somewhere that a person’s olfactory sense was the strongest link to memory. Or had the compulsion been lurking in her subconscious for days, waiting for a quiet moment to reveal itself?
She couldn’t say, but she knew from experience that sooner or later, she’d give in to the need to reexamine her past. So why not get the trip down memory lane over with?
Resigned, she dug out the tiny brass key and stepped to the middle of the counter. On a shelf at knee level rested a fireproof safe about the size of a toaster oven.
“This is such a bad idea.”
But once the safe’s door swung open she stopped berating herself. Nestled inside the thick walls rested the dozen or so cheap, lined notebooks she’d accumulated over the years. She wasn’t worried about losing them to fire, but she didn’t want her most private thoughts to fall into the wrong hands—or any hands other than her own.
On top was the only one that resembled an actual diary. It had been a gift from one of her aunts on Char’s twelfth birthday. The pink leather sported a black poodle with a rhinestone collar—not unlike the one Megan’s dog, Bella, wore.
“Megan.” Char looked at the clock again.
Still time, she decided.
She nudged the diary aside after sticking the metal tongue of the clasp back into the broken lock. She’d lost the itty-bitty key years ago. Not surprising since she was thirty-three now.
She lightly touched the stack of eclectic spines—wire, plastic, hard binding and soft. Like a divining rod to water, her fingers overshot then backtracked to one particular book.
She closed her eyes and let out a long, resigned sigh. One quick peek, she told herself. After all, Pia might arrive early.
Her conscience made an all-too-familiar tsking sound…which Char ignored. She quickly withdrew the notebook of choice and closed the safe, but before standing she paused to take a deep, calming breath. As she did, her gaze fell on the air pistol strapped to the underside of the counter above the safe. She’d never used it for protection, but she liked knowing it was there.
Sorta like her journals. She could go for months without reading any of them then suddenly she’d need a fix.
She stood and placed the hundred-page, blue-lined composition book faceup. The retro cover sported big neon-pink and yellow flowers. She couldn’t imagine why she’d choose something so gaudy. Possibly one of her aunts had given it to her. Her mother had been involved with Devon at the time, and the aunts had provided most of the things their sixteen-year-old niece needed.
Except birth control. Nobody had thought about that.
She glanced at her watch. She had time to skim a few pages—most of which she knew by heart.
Or you could write something new, chickadee.
Char mutely groaned. The voice had been mysteriously absent for a good week, but now it was back.
Char looked around to make sure no one else was present. Talking out loud to oneself was bad enough, but talking to an imaginary voice that spoke with a Southern accent and the dialect and inflection of an old black woman took
to a new level.
Oh, stop yer stallin’ and git this over with so we can go to the partee. Morgana Carlyle’s s’posed to be there.
Char rolled her eyes. She didn’t understand the old black woman’s fascination with celebrities. But even as a child growing up in movie star–free South Dakota, Char—and her very vocal conscience—had been titillated by stories of the rich and famous. A fascination that turned up-close and personal when Libby married Hollywood heartthrob Cooper Lindstrom.
Coop’s ex-wife and costar, Morgana Carlyle—aka Morgan James—was the latest celeb to fall for a Sentinel Pass local. According to a reliable source—Libby—Morgan and Mac McGannon were “in love.”
Le’s go, chickadee. Le’s get this trip down mem’ry lane over and done with.
Char had racked her brain over the years trying to figure out why her conscience spoke in a stereotypical voice so far outside Char’s personal frame of reference. She’d even invented a genealogy assignment in one of her classes to get her aunts to open up about the Jones’s family history, thinking perhaps some long-dead ancestor had been a slave owner. But both Pam and Marilyn had clammed up as if such knowledge was a state secret.
“We come from dirt-poor farmers,” Pam had told her. “They weren’t the kind to take photos or keep records. I don’t see any reason to start now.”
Char took that to mean none of her forebears had ever lived in the South or employed a maid/housekeeper/ nanny—black or any other color. Yet this was the voice she’d heard in her head for almost as long as she could remember. She’d even written about it in her journal.
Thumbing to a familiar spot, she read:
The old black woman is back. Maybe she never left. But if that’s true, then where was she when I needed someone to say, “This is a really bad idea, Charlene. One you’re going to regret for the rest of your life.
Char wished she could have blamed all her bad decisions on someone else—even an imaginary voice. Too bad life didn’t work that way.
Before she could resume reading, the phone rang.
“Native Arts. Char speaking.”
“Hi. It’s me, Libby. The party’s starting. You’re still coming, right?”
Pregnancy had turned Libby into an even bigger mother hen. “Of course. I’d never break my promise to Megan. I’m waiting for Pia to get here before I fill the balloons.”
“Great. Morgan is going all out to make this party perfect.”
“Why? Is the paparazzi invited?”
Libby laughed. “No, thank goodness. I think we left them all in California this time. But this is Morgan’s first attempt at organizing a little girl’s birthday party and she wants to do it up big.”
Char wondered if that was for Megan’s sake or Mac’s, but she didn’t ask. Mac had been through a lot in the past year. If anyone deserved a second chance at love, it was Mac.
She tapped her finger on the cover of her journal, knowing the reason behind her fall from grace was detailed on the pages in this book.
“Tell her not to worry. I’ll be there soon with a big bouquet of balloons in tow. I promise.”
In the background, Char heard the loud, joyous peal of children’s laughter. A lump formed in her throat and she could barely mumble a goodbye. Her fingers trembled slightly on the edge of the notebook but she couldn’t bring herself to open to the pages she had earmarked.
Well, chickadee? Are you gonna read it or not?
“Chickadee,” Char murmured. A nickname given to her by her father, Charles Ballastrad. Seed salesman by day, front man for a band called Chick Ballastrad and the Guys by night.
The Guys were losers, her mother always said.
Char barely remembered her father. Her parents divorced when Char was six, and, tragically, her father and two band members were killed three years later in a bus accident after a gig in Minnesota. Char’s mother took back her maiden name and changed Char’s at the same time to help them both “move on.”
Nobody called her chickadee after that.
Except the old black woman in her head.
Char opened the notebook, surprised, as always, by the meticulous penmanship.