Like a tiger prowling the darkest jungles, Sam Brightwater always sidestepped the terrifying trap of love. Still, he vowed to settle down. Start a traditional family. Do his tribe proud.
So the last woman Sam should have been attracted to was blue-eyed Julia Stedman, the half-Cheyenne visitor sampling her heritage before scurrying back to her ultramodern world. But Julia got under Sam's skin like a stubborn, sexy burr. And soon they were making love--making a baby!--and making mincemeat of Sam's grand plan....
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March 01, 2010
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Excerpt from A Father's Vow by Myrna Temte
Julia Stedman hesitated outside the Hip Hop Cafe, assuring herself that she wasn't really stalling. She was merely collecting herself after the long hot drive from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Whitehorn, Montana. The Hip Hop looked like one of those busy cafes found in almost any small western town--the kind that included a juicy serving of gossip with every cup of strong coffee and piece of homemade pie.
She'd certainly worked in enough of them to recognize one when she saw one, Julia thought with a reminiscent smile. This one even had a Help Wanted sign on the door. Her decision made, she stepped inside, sniffing the tantalizing aromas of fresh coffee and grilling meat. Perhaps if she ordered some lunch she would find the information she needed.
A cute blond waitress with a perky ponytail zipped toward a booth filled with teenage boys, her hands and arms laden with plates of burgers and fries. "Be right with you," she called. "Have a seat if you can find one."
"Thanks." Julia glanced around the room, but every table had at least one customer.
An older woman, whose blond hair undoubtedly had benefited from a hairdresser's magic, flashed a smile and nodded toward the chair opposite her own. "I always enjoy company."
Julia wasted no time accepting the invitation. Every cafe she'd ever worked in had had at least one customer like this woman--an unrepentant gossip who sincerely loved her work. If she didn't personally know the information Julia had come here for, she would know how to get it.
The woman offered her hand across the small table, three inches' worth of silver bracelets jangling with the movement. "I'm Lily Mae Wheeler. I don't believe we've ever met."
Shaking Lily Mae's hand, Julia smiled. "Julia Stedman. And I'm sure we've never met, because I've only been in Whitehorn for about five minutes."
"Are you here on vacation?" Lily Mae asked.
"Partially," Julia replied. "My father grew up and lived in this area. He's passed away now, but I'm hoping to find some of his relatives or at least some people who knew him."
"How fascinating," Lily Mae said.
The waitress arrived at their table, order pad in hand. "Watch out for Lily Mae," she said with a teasing grin. "She'll have your secrets out of you in ten seconds flat if you're not careful."
"Oh, hush, Janie," Lily Mae said with a laugh. "You make me sound like a terrible busybody."
"Well, that's what you are." Janie laughed and nudged Lily Mae's arm with her elbow. "You only get away with it because you're so sweet."
Lily Mae rolled her eyes in mock disgust. "You little stinkpot. Why don't you go find that poor J. D. Cade fellow you've got such a crush on and flirt with him for a while?"
Janie wrinkled her nose at Lily Mae, then turned to Julia and wrote down her order. When Janie hurried away to the kitchen with Julia's ticket, Lily Mae sipped from her coffee cup.
"I'll admit I do enjoy gossip, but I'm not malicious," she said. "People are just my... hobby."
Julia had to laugh. "No problem. I don't have any deep, dark secrets to hide."
Lily Mae leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table. A bell over the door jangled and five big, swarthy men wearing jeans, work boots and yellow hard hats entered the restaurant. Lily Mae automatically checked them out before turning back to Julia. "Well, then, tell me all about your father, and I'll see what I can do to help you find his family."
"I'm afraid I don't know much about him. He and my mother separated before I was born, and she wouldn't talk about him."
"Oh, hon, that's so sad," Lily Mae said. "I've been around here a long time. I wonder if I knew him."
Julia swallowed. Well, here it was. Time to find out the truth about Lily Mae Wheeler's character. "He was Northern Cheyenne. He lived at the Laughing Horse Reservation."
Lily Mae's eyes widened slightly and she tipped her head to one side, intently studying Julia for a moment. Then she smiled again. "Well, now, I guess that explains that gorgeous tan of yours so early in the summer. And I've seen Indians with blue eyes before, but is your hair naturally that auburn?"
Julia chuckled. "What can I say? I can't do much about how straight it is, but I like to see something besides black once in a while."
"I hear you, hon." Lily Mae patted her own perfectly coiffed curls, and glanced upward as if she could see through her fluffy bangs to the top of her head. "I get real sick of seeing gray hair, myself. I always figured why put up with it if you don't have to?"
"Exactly," Julia agreed.
Janie delivered her club sandwich and iced tea. Julia waited until the waitress left before bringing up the subject she wanted to discuss again.
"Is there a chance you would have known my father, Lily Mae?"
Lily Mae's expression turned serious. "I know a few folks from the reservation, but not nearly as many as I know here in town, of course. A lot of the Cheyenne tend to keep to themselves."
Janie hustled back to the entrance, counted out a stack of plastic-coated menus and escorted the burly men toward the middle of the restaurant. When they approached her chair, Lily Mae's expression brightened. "Well, Sam Brightwater, you're just the fella we want to talk to. Hold on there, will you, hon?"
The tall, powerfully built man at the end of the line paused and waved the others on, then turned toward Lily Mae. Julia's breath lodged in the center of her chest when she caught her first clear view of his face. Holy smokes, but he was... arresting.
His black, piercing eyes, his bold, uncompromising nose, those sculptured cheekbones and the long, thick braid trailing down his back from the rear of his hard hat, left no question about his ancestry. A century or two ago, he would have been a proud, strong warrior, perhaps even a chief. His dark skin and the brooding ridge of his eyebrows made his quick, polite smile seem that much brighter by comparison.
He shifted his weight to his left foot, removed his hat and held it against the side of his sleeveless blue work shirt with his elbow. Julia's mouth went dry. Lord, she'd never seen a physique quite like his outside of a movie theater.
His voice was pleasantly low with a raspy quality to it. "Good to see you again, Ms. Wheeler. Need some more work done on your road?"
"Not right now." Lily Mae gestured toward another empty chair at the table. "Sit down and have some lunch with us."
Sam Brightwater stiffened, shot a glance toward the table his crew had gathered around and took a step back from Lily Mae's. He'd been at the job site all morning, supervising while the guys staked out streets for a new subdivision on the south side of Whitehorn. He was hot, tired and hungry. Lily Mae wasn't a bad sort, but she could talk the ears off a month-old corpse, and he wasn't in the mood to listen to her prattle.
"I eat with my crew," he said.
Lily Mae flashed him a coaxing smile. "Oh, I know you do, hon, but my new friend here needs some information and I think maybe you can help her. Her name's Julia Stedman."
Sam looked at Lily Mae's companion, and felt a chill roll over him that had nothing to do with the Hip Hop's new air-conditioning system. Julia Stedman was striking, with long, dark hair, big blue eyes and a wide, sweet smile that faltered when his gaze fully met hers for the first time. There was a jolt of... what? Recognition?
No, it couldn't be recognition. The idea was ridiculous, of course. If he had seen this woman's face before, he knew he would've remembered it. And yet, the startled expression in her eyes told him she had felt the jolt, too. Whatever it had been.
Groping beside her plate, Julia found her iced-tea glass, took a sip, then nodded at the chair Lily Mae had indicated.
"Please, do join us. I'll be happy to buy your lunch."
Sam felt an urge to smile at her earnest offer, but resisted it. There was something going on here he didn't fully understand. Until he figured it out, he had no intention of getting involved. "I'll buy my own lunch, Ms. Stedman. I don't need charity."
"I was simply trying to be friendly, Mr. Brightwater."
She didn't add a pithy phrase about friendliness being a foreign concept to him, but her tone implied it.
Now he did smile, just enough to acknowledge her jab, while silently cursing his social ineptitude. He shifted again, distributing his weight evenly on both feet and straightening his posture, doing his best to intimidate her, though he wasn't sure why he wanted to.
Lily Mae glanced from Sam to Julia and back to Sam again, then uttered a soft chuckle. "Well, Sam, what's it going to be? Will you join us or not? You're giving me a crick in my neck just standing there like that."
"I'll tell you what I can." He pulled out the chair and lowered himself onto it before continuing. "But I'll eat with my crew. What do you want to know?"
Resting her forearms on the table, Julia laced her fingers together above her plate. "I'm trying to find my father's relatives or anyone who knew him."
"Why ask me?" Sam asked.
"Oh, come on, Sam, lighten up," Lily Mae scolded him. "The man's dead and gone, and this poor girl just wants to know what her daddy was like."
Sam rephrased his question. "Why do you think I would know anything about him?"
"Because he was a Northern Cheyenne," Lily Mae said. "You know most everybody out at Laughing Horse, don't you?"
Sam nodded, then scrutinized Julia again. Yeah, now he could see it, and now he knew why she'd bugged him so much. Her skin was definitely darker than Lily Mae's and she had the prominent cheekbones, but her blue eyes were rounder than most Indians'. The reddish streaks in her hair had to be dyed. With them, she could pass for white if you didn't look too closely.
Julia Stedman probably picked up and discarded her Indian heritage whenever it was convenient. Irritated and making no effort to hide it, he asked, "What was your father's name?"
"Talkhouse. Daniel Talkhouse."
Anger at the woman swept through Sam like a strong wind blowing through tall dry grass. Dan Talkhouse had become a surrogate father for him the day Sam's own father had lost his final battle with alcoholism and died in the charity ward at Whitehorn Community Hospital. Dan had badgered Sam into finishing high school, recommended him for summer jobs at the Kincaid Ranch and helped him sort through the mountain of Bureau of Indian Affairs paperwork to qualify for a college scholarship. He'd even gone to Sam's graduation from Montana State University, just to be sure at least one person would applaud when Sam received his diploma.
From Sam's fourteenth birthday straight on through until today, the only times Sam had ever heard Dan sound discouraged or sad were the times when he talked about the child he had lost to a broken love affair with a white woman. This young woman claimed to be that lost child, and she was only here now because she thought Dan was dead?
Stubborn and wrong as he sometimes was, Dan Talkhouse was a man of great integrity. He deserved better than a child who ignored him her whole life and then came sniffing around in case there was an inheritance. Dan Talkhouse deserved a hell of a lot better.
"Now, I'm sure I've heard that name before," Lily Mae said, chattering as if the sound of her own voice could stop the flow of hostility coming from Sam's side of the table. Ignoring Lily Mae, Sam shoved back his chair and stood, glaring down at Julia.
"What's wrong?" Julia jumped to her feet and her voice took on an imploring note. "I promise I won't bother anyone, but I'd at least like to visit my father's grave if you could just tell me where to look."
"That would be difficult, Ms. Stedman."
"Oh. You mean the Northern Cheyenne don't, um, bury people when they die? You still build those platforms--"
Sam snorted in derision. "No, what I mean is, Dan Talkhouse isn't a good Indian yet."
She shook her head in confusion. "Excuse me?"
Jeez, they didn't come any dumber. Sam muttered a string of Cheyenne curses under his breath at the unbelievably ignorant woman gaping at him. How could anyone so beautiful and at least half-Cheyenne be so damn dense? "You never heard the old saying that the only good Indian is a dead one?"
"Well, of course, but you can't possibly mean--"
"Hey, believe what you want," Sam said. "But Dan Talkhouse is alive and kicking. At least he was when I argued with him at the tribal-council meeting last night."
That said, Sam stalked away. When he sat down with his men, he saw Julia still standing where he'd left her, gazing into space with the blank stare of an accident victim going into shock. His conscience pinched him a little over the way he'd delivered the news about Dan, but he shrugged it off.
If Julia Stedman didn't care enough about her own father to know whether he was alive or dead, she deserved a shock or two. Besides, she'd get over it soon enough. Lily Mae was already on her feet, fussing over her as if Julia was a wounded chick and shooting Sam outraged glances at the same time. Julia's knees suddenly gave way and she dropped awkwardly onto her seat, knocking the shoulder strap of her purse off the chair back with her elbow.
If he didn't feel so outraged himself on Dan's behalf, it almost would have been funny to watch her reaction. Just how much of an inheritance had she expected when she came here, anyway? And why had she thought Dan was dead?
Sam munched his way through a barbecued-beef special, keeping one eye on Julia Stedman. She was having quite a discussion with ol' Lily Mae and she appeared to have lost her appetite. Truth was, she really did look...wounded. His conscience pinched him again, harder this time. He'd been called a hothead too many times to deny the accusation completely, but it really wasn't his habit to be cruel.
It was just that for all of her white features and mannerisms and ignorance about Indians, Julia was one fine-lookin' woman. She touched off some mighty strong urges inside him, but he had no business feeling anything at all for a woman like her.