Sarah M. Anderson

Contemporary Westerns with a KICK

Nick Longhair got out of his Jaguar, his Italian loafers crunching on the white rock that made up the parking lot at tribal headquarters for the Red Creek Lakota. The building might have had a fresh coat of paint in the last two years, but otherwise, it was as he remembered it. Narrow little windows, low ceilings, and an overall depressing vibe.

For the last two years, he’d worked out of a corner office on South Dearborn, one of the priciest blocks in Chicago. Marble floors, custom furnishings, and floor-to-ceiling views of Lake Michigan. It had been the height of luxury, and a true measure of how far he’d come.

He looked around his current surroundings. A three-legged dog hopped across the lot a few feet away from him. The other cars in the lots weren’t Bentleys or Audis or even Mercedes, but rusty pick-up trucks and cars with mismatched hoods and plastic sheeting for windows. This wasn’t a measure of how far he’d come. It was a measure of how far he’d fallen.

All he had ever wanted was to get off this rez. He could still remember seeing The Cosby Show on the working TV at a friend’s house and discovering that other folks lived in great big houses where kids had their own rooms, water came out of the sink and lights turned on with the flip of a switch. The shock of realizing that some people had those things—and that those people weren’t always white—had made him look at his childhood with brand-new eyes. The discarded trailer with cardboard patched over the windows and the holes in the roof? Not normal. Having to share a bed with his brother and mom? Not normal. Having to haul buckets of water from the stream and then hope he didn’t get sick drinking it? Not normal. Not even acceptable.

Yeah, it sounded stupid to say that a sitcom had changed his life for the better. But at the age of eight, he’d realized there was a different life off the rez, and he wanted the big house, the fancy cars, the nice clothes. He wanted it all. And he’d spent his entire life earning it.

So being forced to come back to the rez felt worse than any demotion. If he hadn’t been ordered to take this case—and if his future promotions didn’t rest upon a clean victory—he wouldn’t be here. Maybe he should have quit instead of taking this assignment. He could have gotten another job at another firm. Anything to stay off the rez. He didn’t want to feel the stink of poverty on his skin again. It had taken years to clean the poor out of his pores. But he was the best at what he did, and this was the kind of case he couldn’t walk away from. This was the kind of case that made people’s careers.

Nick shook his head, forcing himself to focus on what he was here to accomplish.

That was the problem with being the best at what he did, and what Nick did was lead lawsuits against energy companies. As the youngest junior partner in the history of the Law Firm of Sutcliffe, Watkins, and Monroe, he’d won judgments for clients against BP for the oil spill in the Gulf, coal mines for the toxic run-off they dumped into the ground water, and even nuclear power plants with lax security. In the past five years, he’d gotten very good—and very rich—being environmentally friendly. He’d earned his place at the table.

Then his tribe, the Red Creek Lakota, had hired Sutcliffe, Watkins, and Monroe to sue Midwest Energy Company for polluting the Dakota River when they used  hydrolic fracturing, or fracking, to drill for natural gas. The tribe claimed the chemicals used in the drilling had seeped into the groundwater and contaminated the Dakota. They wanted Midwest Energy to clean up the water and pay for any health problems that resulted from the pollution. But this kind of case was beyond the scope of general counsel. The tribe’s lawyer, Rosebud Donnelly, had needed someone who specialized in this kind of case. And that someone was Nick.

Nick had been surprised the tribe could afford the Sutcliffe, Watkins, and Monroe price tag, but they’d recently built a dam and the funds from the sale of hydroelectricity had actually put the tribe in the black for the first time ever. Of course they’d picked Nick’s firm. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised that Rosebud had gone looking for him, but it still irked him. He’d always felt his tribe didn’t want a damn thing to do with him when he was a dirt-poor nobody.

Now that he was a somebody who’d made something of himself, though, the tune had changed. No one had missed him when he’d left—not even Tanya Rattling Blanket, his high-school sweetheart. But now that they needed him and his uncanny ability to win in the courtroom, they wanted him to come home. Nick had been informed that the tribal council wanted him to lead the legal battle on-site. It wasn’t enough that he had to work for people who’d rejected him. Now he had to go back and live with them.

Marcus Sutcliffe, the founder of the firm, had never been one to turn down a paying client. In no uncertain terms, Marcus had told Nick to pack his bags. And he did it in such a way that made it clear ‘no’ was not an option. “Those are your people,” Marcus had said, a look of distaste flitting across his face as he waved Nick away. “You handle them.”

The hackles on Nick’s neck still stood up just thinking about Marcus’ dismissive tone. With a wave of his hand, Marcus had reduced Nick to the token Indian. His legal victories, top-notch law degree, his years of experience and dedication to the firm—meaningless if Nick only earned them in the name of affirmative action. He’d fought for years to be recognized for what he could do, not what he’d been born. Apparently, he still had a long way to go.

The question Nick hadn’t been able to answer was if Rissa Sutcliffe, Marcus’ daughter, felt the same way. Nick didn’t think so. He and Rissa had been dating for almost two years—exclusively dating for the last year. He knew she was attracted to what she called his “tall, dark, and very mysterious” appearance, but that had never bothered him until Marcus had thrown that “those people” out onto the table.

But the fact was, if he won this case, he’d be first in line to succeed Marcus when he retired—an event that was only a few years off. So Nick nodded and smiled and acted like he was thrilled to be handling ‘those’ people and their case. Better than giving the case to Jenkins, Nick’s rival in the office. He wasn’t here for the rez. He was here for his career. The sooner he won this case, the sooner he got back to Chicago.

Then he took a deep breath, the smell of last night’s rain and the grass surrounding him. No, this wasn’t the Magnificent Mile. But that smell—the scent of wide-open spaces—was something he couldn’t find in Chicago. Last night, he’d sat on his new front porch and done something he hadn’t been able to do in two years. He’d watched the stars.

Maybe some time away from Sutcliffe, Watkins, and Monroe would be a good thing. The interoffice sniping had reached new levels of Machiavellian backstabbing—so much so that Nick spent more time fending off sideways attacks from the likes of Jenkins than he did building cases. Some days, he felt less like a lawyer and more like a pawn struggling to be a knight.

If that had been all he’d been dealing with, Nick could have sucked it up and dealt with it. But it wasn’t. For the last few months, Rissa had been buying bride magazines and discussing outdoor summer weddings versus a Christmas-themed wedding. Even Marcus had been calling him “son” more and more. On paper, that had been the plan—marry the boss’s daughter and take over the family business. No doubt about it, Nick would have arrived. No one would have been able to take that success away from him.

Nick should have proposed to Rissa before he left to seal the deal. Should have, but didn’t. He had always enjoyed Rissa’s company, but he couldn’t wrap his head around Rissa and the Red Creek Reservation in the same thought. Rissa wasn’t exactly high-maintenance, but she required a certain amount of upkeep—shopping, spas, servants. Nick had enjoyed the hell out of being on the receiving end of that upkeep, but the moment the tribe had barged back into his life, his expensive lifestyle had suddenly felt forced. Almost unreal. Untrue at the very least. Up until that exact moment, he’d been so certain of his plan, but now . . . he didn’t know if he loved who Rissa was or the fact that she had been born a Sutcliffe. Which meant he was in real danger of being the world’s biggest living hypocrite.

So he’d taken the job . He’d given Rissa a little talk about how some time apart would be good for them, help them know for sure if they were meant to be together. She’d taken it well enough, he supposed. “So you won’t mind if Jenkins takes me to the Parade of Sails, then,” she had said, her voice needle-sharp and her words just as pointed.

But Nick had already made up his mind. He was a big fan of clean breaks, anyway. He’d reassured Rissa that she was free to see whoever she wanted, and when Nick’s case was over, they’d “catch up” and “reevaluate” where the two of them stood with each other. He needed a break from the whole lot of them—Jenkins, Rissa, and Marcus. As much as he told himself he was back on the rez involuntarily, a small, hidden part of him was relieved to be here. Even though he was no longer the same man who’d left this rez behind, he still felt more like himself just being here.

The case would probably take a year, maybe two before all the dust settled. That left him plenty of time to catch up with his family. He could look up Tanya Rattling Blanket, for starters. True, he hadn’t seen her in—man, it had to be almost two years—but he knew she was still here. She was one of those idealistic people who was determined to make a difference. She had made her preference for the rez over the real world clear back when they were dating. But if she was here and Nick was here, he didn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be here together. As he remembered her, Tanya was whip-smart, bitingly funny, and the kind of beautiful that most women spent their lives chasing and never catching. Thinking of Tanya was like watching the stars—he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed her until he’d crossed the South Dakota state line.

In this distracted state, Nick walked into the Tribal Headquarters.

“Good morning, Mr. Longhair.” At the sound of that voice, Nick tripped over his own foot and came to a stumbling halt. He looked up and saw Tanya sitting behind the front desk, wearing a fake smile and a pale pink blouse. “How are you today?”

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 had been almost two years ago, he suddenly felt as if it had just been last night. He remembered her as beautiful. He hadn’t done her justice, he saw. 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, sShe didn’t seem happy to see him. What—was she mad that he hadn’t called? This wasn’t the 1950s anymore—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 into his face—or worse, his lap? Not in his favor. “No, thanks.” A shot of whiskey, maybe.

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 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 intense and 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 two 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 some place 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 a couple of times 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 that last night together. What did those new curves look like? More importantly, 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 his clothes off. 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. It wasn’t top of the list, but it was on the list all the same. She’d always understood him on a different level that 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 last 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 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 former lawyer 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 Where’s Bear today?” 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 daycare. 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 her Tanya for accessorizing with an animal, for that, but then, he wasn’t safe making any guesses about the new Tanya.

“Good. At Mom’s. She 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 ‘co-conspirator.’ “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 any more. 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. A whole minute had passed since the last time she 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 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. She wanted to get Bear, rush home, and bolt the door. As much as she had dreamed about Nick to come back and sweep 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. After all, hadn’t 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. Permanently.

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 now.

“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.

“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 the 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 in that moment. 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 high-tailed it 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 and 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 wanted to say, but the words just popped out. She 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 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 this mistake 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 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.

A Man of Distinction

CHAPTER ONE

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September 2012 from Harlequin Desire
ISBN-10: 0373731973 ♦ ISBN-13: 978-0373731978

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