“So that about wraps it up for today.” Rosebud and Nick walked into the lobby, heads down, feet dragging. “When should I plan on coming back in?”
“Give me a week to get up to speed,” Nick said, cranking his neck from one side to the other, “and then I’ll give you a call.”
“Done.” Rosebud stopped and looked at Tanya. Tanya’s heart began to pound. Of course Rosebud had figured out that Nick was Bear’s father—she was the smartest woman on the rez. But most people hadn’t connected those dots. Tanya preferred it that way. Rosebud’s gaze slid back to Nick. “You should come out to dinner some night. My husband has an interesting perspective on fracking. Tanya knows where we live.”
Great. Any less subtle, and Rosebud would be beating Nick over the head with a sledgehammer. “Maybe we’ll do that,” Nick said. “If Tanya’s up for it.”
Up for being alone in a car with Nick for the drive out to Rosebud’s house? Hell, at this exact moment in time, Tanya wasn’t sure she was even up for breathing. Besides, she didn’t even know what “fracking” was. Yes, she’d learned a lot in ten months, but that was general stuff about tribal operations. She wasn’t allowed in on closed-door meetings yet. She was still just the receptionist, but she was working on being the best darned receptionist she could be. It beat the hell out of frying burgers at a fast-food joint an hour off the rez while fighting morning sickness, which was the job she’d held when she’d found out she was pregnant.
“You can let me know,” Rosebud said, letting it drop. “But think about it.”
Rosebud headed out, leaving Nick and Tanya alone in the lobby. For a few moments, neither of them moved. Nick looked out the front doors; Tanya stared at her desk. His head was held high, his shoulders back. Everything about his stance said that he was in control of this—or any other—situation. She’d always loved his ability to take control of any situation, but now it scared her. For her part, she was afraid to do anything but work on that breathing thing. What would Nick do now?
He pivoted on the balls of his feet. “Ms. Rattling Blanket, I’d like a word with you in my office.”
Her heart sank. He knew about Bear, and he was going to demand his rights. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those rights took the form of Nick realizing what he’d left behind and deciding that, finally, he would stay? But given how fast Nick had hightailed it out of town the last time, she wasn’t going to get her hopes up. He may have come home, but for how long? He’d made his point crystal clear. He was too good for the rez. He was too good for her.
Determined to maintain a level of professionalism, she grabbed a pen and a legal pad. When she made it to his office, the door was open and he was sitting behind his desk. That was a good sign—he wasn’t going to try to trap her again. Not right away at least. “Yes?”
“Sit down.” He didn’t look up from the document he was reading.
Tanya did as she was told. She felt a little like a lamb going willingly to slaughter.
Nick kept reading his paper. Why, oh, why did he have to look so good? It wasn’t fair, she decided. Why couldn’t he have gained forty pounds of beer gut or lost his hair while he was gone? Maybe grown a few warts—anything that would make it easier for Tanya to not miss him.
But no. He seemed taller now, and any weight he’d gained appeared to be pure muscle. His shoulders were broader underneath his crisp white shirt, his sleeves neatly cuffed at the wrists. She’d noticed his pants earlier. They looked expensive—nothing like the frayed jeans he’d always worn before. The light from his computer caught on a huge silver watch around his wrist. He wore those new, expensive clothes like he was born in them.
But the worst of it was that he’d cut his hair. He’d sworn he’d never do that. He was a Longhair. It went with the name. Instead of reaching almost as far down his back as hers did, his thick black hair was closer to his ears and slicked back.
He glanced up and caught her staring. “What?”
“You cut your hair.” Lord, that’s not what she’d wanted to say, but the words just popped out. She’d meant to keep their interactions strictly professional.
One side of his mouth curved up in a smile. Was he flattered that she’d noticed, or was the new-and-improved Nick just vain? “Occupational hazard,” he explained as he ran a hand through his close-cropped mane. “Where do you live now?”
She could not believe the audacity of this man. He’d all but fallen off the face of the planet for almost two years without sparing a single thought to her, but the moment he arrived back on the rez, he expected to pick up where they’d left off? No. Not gonna happen. She had her pride. And a mountain of bills. But she’d rather cut off her own foot than let Nick think she needed his money. She’d already made a mistake with him once. No way she was going to make it again.
So she didn’t answer. Several seconds passed before Nick realized that she wasn’t talking. “Tanya? Did you hear me?”
“I’m sorry.” Strictly professional. No need to get fired for insubordination. Not yet anyway.
A shadow crossed Nick’s eyes. She had his full attention now, and she was pretty sure that wasn’t a good thing. “Do you still live with your mother?”
“I’m not sure what this has to do with my job.” Or yours, she wanted to add, but that whole insubordination thing kept her mouth shut—for once.
His eyes narrowed. Combined with the expensive clothes and the new hair, Tanya realized she was sitting across from a complete stranger. “You’re not going to answer my question?”
“Is there something else you need help with? If not, I have to go. Councilwoman Mankiller lets me leave at 4:30.” She’d never needed to get Bear more than she did right now. But no matter what Nick did next, she could claim to have acted with all due respect.
Moving slowly, Nick set the paper aside. He put his hands facedown on the desk and then leaned toward her. Tension rippled between them. She could just catch a whiff of his cologne—something that smelled exotic and expensive. Even though she knew she was in danger of being trapped, she couldn’t pull away. Nick did that to her—drew her in and never gave her the chance to get out. All it had ever taken was for him to give her that half smile as he moved in on her, just like he’d tried to do in the conference room earlier. He must expect that she’d come running at his beck and call, just like she always had. The problem was, when he cornered her earlier, she had still wanted to come running. Just thinking about how close he’d been made her ache with a desire that she’d thought she’d long since buried. She took another deep breath, pulling his scent in deeper. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted out, not with the way his eyes flashed at her. He was like the mountain lion, using his silky brown eyes to hypnotize his prey—her—before he moved in for the kill. Then he said, “I’m going to find out one way or another. I’d feel better if you told me.”
There it was—the very real threat Nick Longhair posed to her life and to her child. One way or the other, he’d get what he wanted. The only difference was whether she got in his way or out of it.
Without rushing, Tanya stood. He might have all the power in this room, but she was going to be damned if she let him take her dignity. “Have a nice evening, Mr. Longhair.”
Someone should have a nice evening. But it wasn’t going to be her.
Nick didn’t show up at Tanya’s little house that night. At work the next day, he walked in at 9:00 a.m. like he owned the place, gave her a heated stare and headed back to his office. He was still in there when she left at 4:30 p.m. He never even asked her for coffee.
She spent another restless night shooting out of bed at the slightest noise to make sure Nick wasn’t prowling around outside. She doubted that he was the sort of fellow who prowled anymore, but once upon a time, before he’d left her the first time to go to college, he’d made a regular habit of tapping on her window at three in the morning and taking her on a joyride in whatever truck he’d “borrowed” across the otherwise-silent rez.
Those middle-of-the-night trips to nowhere had been when they’d talked about their dreams and nightmares. “When I leave this rez, I’m not gonna be a dirt-poor Indian anymore, Tanya. I’m gonna be rich. I’m gonna be somebody,” he’d muse, laying on a blanket, the night air cooling them off after the heated sex. “I’m gonna buy you diamonds and pearls and the biggest house in South Dakota. And our kids—they’re not gonna live like this. Our kids are gonna have the best of everything. Rooms full of toys, new clothes that fit, their own ponies—everything.” The way he’d always said it made it clear that was all the stuff he’d wanted and never got.
She’d loved him for wanting to take care of her. But Tanya had always told him the same thing. “I don’t need all that stuff, Nick, not as long as I’ve got you.”
At the time, it had all seemed like a bunch of wild talk. She hadn’t realized how serious he was. But then, she hadn’t realized how serious she was.
Tanya had left the rez once, too. She’d gone to college at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, just about two hours from the rez. She’d gotten her B.A. in Native studies with a minor in political science. When she’d first left home, she’d finally understood what Nick had always talked about. Everyone there had a car and an apartment, it seemed, with nice clothes and computers and stereos. The jealousy had been crushing.
That had changed the day she’d walked into her first political science class. She’d signed up because Nick had already been accepted to law school and she’d assumed that knowing more about politics would be a good way to support his career. But instead, the professor—some leftover relic from the 1960s counterculture—had gone on and on about how a single person could take on the political establishment and change things for the better.
Yeah, that guy had fried half his brain on acid trips back in the day, but that didn’t mean his words carried any less weight with Tanya. It had been then that she’d realized she could make life on the rez better—if she didn’t abandon it. She had to stay and change it from the inside. A fact made all the clearer by her time working as a fry cook. Minimum wage at a dead-end job didn’t help her tribe. It didn’t do her any favors either.
So she’d gotten Councilwoman Emily Mankiller to mentor her and had taken the receptionist job at tribal headquarters after Bear was born so she could have a front-row seat for the local political show. Things had changed now that the tribe had money. Tanya knew that Nick was here for a lawsuit against Midwest Energy, but everything was done behind closed doors or in low whispers. It was clear that Tanya wouldn’t be able to be a part of that conversation—not while she was a receptionist anyway. Some days that irritated her, but the posturing and maneuvering wasn’t her strength. Tanya was more concerned with making sure people had enough to eat and heat in the winter. No back-room plotting needed. Even though she was just the receptionist, she could say she was already making a difference. She kept a running tab on who was about to have their power shut off, who’s health was failing too fast and which kids needed another hot meal. Those were small things, but they counted. Sure, she could make a bigger difference if she had an ally who was good at the behind-closed-doors stuff. In fact, Tanya had always hoped that Nick would bring his fancy law degree back to her and the rez. Together, they could change things for the better. Together, they’d be unstoppable.
But Nick hadn’t come back. Until now.
Another noise outside had Tanya up again. 3:15 a.m. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, but at least it was Friday. She looked out the window, half hoping to see the old, carefree Nick out there. That was the Nick she’d loved since the day she’d turned twelve. She could still remember the jolt of electricity that had coursed through her when he’d ridden up to her birthday party bareback on his paint pony—and shirtless. He’d just turned six-teen—so out of her league—but that hadn’t stopped him from sliding off the horse right in front of her, leveling that devastating smile at her and handing her a hand-picked bunch of wildflowers with a “Happy birthday, Tanya,” thrown in for good measure. It had seemed like he was her present, already half-unwrapped. Tanya had fallen and fallen hard. Nothing and no one could ever compare to Nick.
Sure, he had hardly looked at her for a few more years, but by the time she’d turned fourteen, he’d given her her first kiss. By the time she was fifteen, she’d given him everything.
Part of her wanted that life again—where the only cares she had in this world were how she could slip out without waking up her mom to steal a few more hours with Nick. But there was no going back, and there was nothing outside but a full moon. Nick had come back only twice in the past six years—when he graduated from law school and for his brother’s high school graduation. She’d asked him to stay that first time, while the scent of their sex still hung in the air. “Stay with me,” she’d said, and even now she cringed at how pathetic the words had sounded.
“Babe, I have a life now,” had been his reply. He’d said it gently, like he knew he was tearing her heart out with a single swipe. True, he’d told her she could stay with him if she came to Chicago, but it was the kind of halfhearted offer that begged not to be taken up.
No, he had a life now. A life that didn’t include her or their homeland.
She got back into bed and checked on Bear. He was curled into the little baby ball that had his bottom sticking up into the air.
Tanya smiled. She didn’t need Nick’s money or diamonds or houses. She didn’t need any of that stuff, as long as she had her son. She was tied to this land by blood—the blood of her ancestors and the blood of her son. She couldn’t abandon this place because that would be the same as abandoning part of her soul.
She couldn’t leave.
Not even for Nick Longhair.
By the time she got home the next night with Bear in tow, Tanya was beat. Nights like this made her wish that she could afford a television and pizza delivered to her door, because Bear was being clingy and her head hurt and the three hours until Bear’s bedtime seemed like a month.