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A Man of Distinction

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For a moment, all Nick could do was stare. He hadn’t seen her since the last time he’d come home to the rez, to celebrate his little brother’s high school graduation. She’d been there, as radiant as he’d ever seen her. They’d done a little celebrating together—one more time, for old time’s sake. Despite the fact that that had been almost two years ago, he suddenly felt as if it had been just last night. He remembered her as beautiful. He hadn’t done her justice. His pulse began to pound. No, he’d been a fool not to realize how much he’d missed her—but now he did. “Tanya? What are you doing here?”

The fakeness of her smile grew more forced. “I’m the receptionist. Would you like some coffee?”

They’d dated all through high school, but their contact since then had been sporadic. Intense. Satisfying—but only when he’d come back to the rez. He’d always been glad to see her, and this time was no different. Except this time, she didn’t seem happy to see him. What—was she mad that he hadn’t called? This wasn’t the 1950s—she could have picked up the phone just as easily. But not calling was a small thing, and Tanya seemed one shade short of furious. They’d lost contact before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it felt huge. What were the odds that he’d wind up with coffee thrown in his face—or worse, his lap? Not in his favor. “No, thanks.”

She stared at him for a few more seconds until he thought that smile was going to crack right off her face. “Ms. Armstrong is running late, and Councilwoman Mankiller is on a call. They asked me to show you around.”

When he’d been here, Nick and Tanya had had the most intense, passionate relationship he’d ever been in. In the beginning, especially when they’d started having hot-and-heavy sex, he’d dreamed about taking her with him when he left. But Tanya wasn’t the kind of girl who would blindly follow a boy to the ends of the earth. As much as he’d wanted her to go, she’d wanted him to stay. They’d had huge fights about it, then had the kind of makeup sex that made a man willing to admit that he’d been wrong.

In the end, the sex—and his feelings for her—hadn’t been enough. He’d left. She’d stayed. Those were the choices they both had to live with.

Still, that wasn’t enough to explain the animosity he was picking up on right now. The last time he’d seen her, she’d welcomed him back with open arms—and much more. The sex had been amazing—as passionate as anything he’d experienced with her before. He’d sort of been expecting the same kind of reception—but it was clear he wasn’t going to get it. He hadn’t exactly been burning up the phone lines during the years before he’d last been with her. She couldn’t possibly have expected him to start calling just because they’d spent another night together—could she?

Nick squared his shoulders. He’d gotten very good at pretending he belonged someplace he wasn’t truly welcome. Why should this be any different? “That would be fine, Ms. Rattling Blanket.” He didn’t need a tour—he’d been here before, in high school, when he’d come to talk to Rosebud about law school—but he wasn’t about to stand in the lobby in total awkwardness until hell froze over.

She stood, her eyes cast down. She had on a slim gray skirt that hugged every inch of curves he didn’t remember. She’d filled out—more generous breasts, a sweeter backside. Her hair was pulled away from her face, but it hung loose down her back. She looked good, in the primal sort of way that brought back memories of that last night together. What did those new curves look like? More important, what did they feel like? He had to physically restrain the urge to pull her into his arms. If he tried that right now, odds were good she’d deck him.

“This way.” Without so much as a dirty look for him, she headed down the hall and opened a door on his right. “The conference room.”

Why wasn’t she glad to see him? As she stood with her back to the door, he leaned past her. His lawyer instincts told him to keep a safe, respectable distance from her, but he couldn’t help himself. Her scent swirled around him—something soft and citrus and clean, all at once. Every second he was around her made him miss her that much more. All of a sudden, he found himself wondering how the hell he’d managed to survive the last two years without her smell, her voice, her face in his life. How had he survived without her? “I want to talk to you,” he whispered in her ear.

A ruddy blush sprinted across her cheeks. Maybe he was imagining things, but he swore he felt the heat radiate off her skin. She’d missed him, too. He could tell by the way her pupils dilated and her breathing grew shallow. He knew that look. She’d been looking at him like that for as long as he could remember—usually right before she had begun ripping off his clothes. She could pretend to be all mad at him for leaving the rez behind, but he knew she couldn’t deny the attraction that had bound them together since they were teenagers.

But she was going to try to deny it, that much was clear. She cleared her throat. “As you can see, the table and chairs are new.” Then she shoved her shoulder into him, pushing him away. She shut the door and continued down the hallway. “This is Councilwoman Emily Mankiller’s office.”

This whole treat-Nick-like-a-clueless-outsider thing was starting to irk him, and the fact that she was fighting her obvious desire for him did nothing to improve his mood. “I know who Emily is. She hired me.”

Tanya didn’t even blink. She walked him past all the other council members’ offices, ticking off familiar names, until they reached the end of the hall. “And this is your office.” She swung the door open on a room so tiny that Nick was surprised to see someone had actually managed to wedge a desk into it.

What a hole. His coworkers in Chicago would be horrified. All of his desire ground to a painful halt as he was confronted with the professional embodiment of poverty on the rez. “This is a broom closet.”

“Correction—it was a broom closet. Now it’s the office of the legal counsel of the Red Creek Tribe.” Tanya motioned to the desk, her hand brushing against the wall. “The computer is brand-new, and in theory, it prints to the copier behind my desk.”

“In theory? I don’t even have my own printer?” That was not good. Communal printing wasn’t exactly the way to maintain confidentiality.

She glared at him, which was something of a relief. Better than being ignored. “You don’t like it, you can leave. You’re good at that.”

He shut the door with more force than was required and turned to her. She tried to back away, but the wall didn’t let her get very far. Her gaze darted toward the door. No way in hell he was letting her escape before he got some answers. He put his hands on either side of her shoulders, pinning her in. He wasn’t touching her, but he could smell her. That was bad enough. “We both knew that night was a one-time-only thing. What’s with you? I thought you’d be glad to see me.” He cleared his throat. This close, he could see the way her pulse pounded in her throat. He could feel his own pulse matching hers, beat for beat. They’d always moved in harmony like that. That’s what had always made being with Tanya so good. “I’m glad to see you. I missed you.”

She flinched, but she didn’t back down. “It’s been two years, Nick. You clearly didn’t miss me enough to visit. Not enough for one phone call.”

“What was there to call about? You didn’t want to come with me—you didn’t want the kind of life I could have given you. And there’s no way in hell I was going back to living in a shack on the rez. I thought it was best if we kept things neat and clean.” Although “neat” and “clean” didn’t exactly describe the effect she was having on him at this moment.

She glared at him, and he saw that the passionate feelings she had for him had changed somehow. Before he knew what was happening, Tanya had ducked out of his arms and was out of the tiny office. He faintly heard her say, “Red Creek Tribal Council, how may I help you?” and he realized way too late that he’d talked to her on the phone several times and never figured out that it was her.

Stunned, Nick sat in his new chair and tried to figure out what had just happened. He hadn’t lied—he had missed her. Enough that seeing Tanya—and maybe rekindling their relationship—again had made the list of reasons to take the case and come home. She’d always understood him on a different level than any other woman had. That wasn’t the sort of thing a man forgot.

But the woman answering the phone wasn’t that same girl. Something had happened in the past two years. She didn’t want to understand him any longer. She didn’t even want to try.

The phone on his desk beeped, a loud, insistent noise that bounced around his new closet-sized office like a pinball. Nick jerked his head back. Man, that was going to take some getting used to. “Yes?”

“Ms. Armstrong is here, Mr. Longhair.”

He had to give her this—she was a good receptionist. No trace of the argument she’d been winning lingered in her voice. “I’ll be right out.”

As he walked down the long hall, Nick got his head back in the game. Rosebud Armstrong was the general counsel for the tribe. She was here to get him up to speed on the current litigation status of the tribe. He was a lawyer, damn it. A good one. Youngest junior partner in Sutcliffe, Watkins and Monroe’s history, and the only minority to achieve that accomplishment.

“How’s Bear?” he heard Rosebud say. Curious, he slowed down. Did Tanya have a dog? Maybe she’d become one of those women who carried small dogs around in purses and put them in day care. Rissa had gone through a small-dog phase that still had Nick scratching his head. Some days, it felt like he’d never understand women—and this was shaping up to be one of those days. He wouldn’t have figured the old Tanya for accessorizing with an animal, but then, he wasn’t safe making any guesses about the new Tanya.

“Good. Mom spoils him rotten during the day, but …” Tanya’s voice trailed off in a “what-can-you-do-about-it” kind of way. Sheesh, women and their dogs.

“I understand. How’s the job going?”

The pause was longer this time. “Fine,” Tanya finally said, and Nick could hear the forced smile from around the corner.

“I see.” Rosebud’s voice dropped from “lawyerly” down several notches to “coconspirator.” “My earlier offer stands.”

Offer? What offer? Nick didn’t like the sound of that.

“You know I want to stay here. I’ve already learned so much. But …” her voice trailed off. “I’m going to see how it goes for now, but I might have to take you up on that.”

He liked that even less. They were talking about him, weren’t they? Finally, he wasn’t able to take it anymore. He walked around the corner in what he hoped was a natural, non-eavesdropping kind of way. “Hello, Rosebud. It’s good to see you again.”

“Nick.” She shook his hand and patted his arm, professional and friendly at the same time. He owed Rosebud a great deal. She was the one who’d pushed him to go to law school. More than anything in the world, he’d wanted off this rez. Rosebud had shown him the way to accomplish that. “How are you adjusting? Getting used to home again?”

He knew he shouldn’t look at Tanya, but he did anyway. Just a quick glance, but more than enough for Rosebud to infer a variety of things. Tanya’s attention was focused on her computer. “It’s been a long time,” was all he said.

Rosebud gave him the same look she’d been giving him since she’d written his recommendation letters for law school. That look combined a don’t-screw-this-up scolding with a you-can-do-it sentiment. He hated that look. “A lot’s happened since you left.”

Wasn’t that the freaking understatement of his life. “I saw you all built a huge dam.”

Rosebud laughed in that polite way that said she was going to let him go this time. “You have no idea. Shall we?”

Tanya checked the clock—4:27 p.m. A whole minute had passed since the last time she’d looked. Would this day never end?

She wanted to get the hell out of here before Nick could corner her in the conference room or office again. At least, she needed to not get cornered. She’d be lying to herself if she said she hadn’t felt the pull between them, or if she claimed she didn’t want to feel it again.

She didn’t know if that was because it had been two years since she’d last been with a man or what, but for a crazy second, she’d wanted him to kiss her. Which was strictly off-limits. She could not, under any circumstances, get involved with Nick Longhair again, not even for one night. Not after what happened that last time. And the time before that. After all the previous times, in fact. Only a fool would get involved with Nick Longhair and expect him not to leave her heartbroken. Tanya was no fool. Not anymore, anyway.

Besides, interoffice relationships were frowned upon. She needed this job. Councilwoman Emily Mankiller had hired her when Bear was two months old. Even though Tanya didn’t think Ms. Mankiller would fire her without a good reason, Tanya felt like she had to keep proving herself. This job was the difference between having her own place and living with her mother.

What a mess. For twenty-two long, frustrating months, she’d dreamed of Nick Longhair walking back into her life like a white knight rescuing a damsel in distress. Tanya didn’t know if she was a damsel, but being a single mother struggling to make ends meet provided lots of distress. Now Nick was back, and nothing about it felt like a rescue. Instead, it felt like a threat.

4:28 p.m. She wanted to get Bear, rush home and bolt the door. As much as she had dreamed about Nick coming back and sweeping her off her feet, now that he was here, he scared the hell out of her. What would he do when he found out about Bear?

If Nick found out about Bear, he could want nothing to do with him—or her. He could accuse her of getting pregnant on purpose, like she’d been trying to trap him. He could flatly deny he was Bear’s father. He could cut her out of his life permanently. In some ways, he’d already done that. This time, though, there would be no hope for her to cling to, no bright, shiny fantasy of Nick coming back to her. It would just be the end.

That thought was terrible enough, but Tanya knew it wasn’t the only possible outcome. Nick could decide he’d always wanted to be a father. He’d always talked about kids, back when they were wild-eyed dreamers without two nickels to rub together. Now Nick had all the nickels he had ever wanted. Did he still want kids? Maybe he did, maybe he’d outgrown that dream—just like he’d outgrown Tanya. Tanya knew any fatherly interaction would be on Nick’s terms, and his terms alone. He had already decided that Tanya wasn’t good enough for him—why else would he have bailed on her without a second look? What if he decided that she wasn’t a good-enough mother? If Nick wanted to, he could take her son—their son—away from her. He could run her into the ground in a courtroom and take Bear to Chicago. She’d be lucky if she got to see him once a year. She wanted to think Nick wouldn’t do that to her, but she didn’t know the man he’d become. She wouldn’t put anything past him.
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