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Her name was Raina, but perched on a ladder-back oak chair in the rustic lobby of Pine Lake Lodge, she was all sunshine. She could easily have been the solitary woman in one of those stippled paintings, the kind that seemed to equate fair women, white dresses and blue water with pure serenity. The lodge's big front window framed her quite nicely, with the lake in the background. Streaming through the glass, the afternoon sunlight embroidered her dark blond hair with threads of gold. She wore a flowered sundress and a straw hat with a big sunflower tacked to the band. Beneath the droopy yellow brim, all Gideon could see of her face was pink nose, pink lips and small white chin.
Standing in the dark shadows of the lounge, he tuned out the jangle of the slot machines at his back as he watched her flip through the magazine that lay open on her lap. Her lips moved slightly as some noteworthy bit of information caught her eye. Despite the passage of more time than Gideon had the heart to mark, the sweetly familiar habit hinted of the same old Raina. Soft and yielding, those lips had given him much pleasure the few times he'd been permitted to taste them. But in recent years she had pressed them only against his cheek and only briefly, then smiled and made some polite remark about being glad to see him.
Only snatches of her first words ever registered with him. She had a way of bombarding his senses, and it usually took him a moment to get his mental bearings. But this time he'd gotten the drop on her. This time, much like a time long past, he'd been the one to see her first
She looked like a fish out of watera goldfish that had somehow escaped the confines of a giant crystal brandy snifter and fallen into a shot glass. Seated on a stool in the company of two women who were polishing the bar with all four elbows, the lady with the big blue eyes seemed a mite uncomfortable. Gideon knew the other twoKristy Reese and Charlotte Croixboth seasoned teachers, both single and neither a stranger to the Duck's Tail Tavern. But the young blonde was new to the north woods, and Gideon was an expert guide. He knew all about taking fish out of the water, and he hated watching them struggle.
He felt especially charitable tonight. After he loaded up the jukebox with quarters, he was going to take this one off the hook.
"How's the three-R's business lookin' this fall, ladies?" With a subtle nod he suggested to Charlotte that she move over one stool. "Have you filled up all those little desks yet?"
"Gideon." Charlotte smiled, gave a quick, knowing glance at Gideon's chosen target, then obligingly vacated the stool to give him a clear shot. "It's been a while since we've seen you around here. Did you venture out of the woods just to check up on us?"
"If this is still the same Duck's Tail, I'm not out of the woods yet." He claimed his seat, acknowledging Charlotte's collaboration with another nod, this one more deliberate, more courteous. "Came in to see if we pulled in any new faces this year. Not that it isn't a pleasure to see the old faces, too. Well, not old faces," he amended with a deferential smile. "Returning faces. Friendly faces of old acquaintances who shouldn't be forgot."
"Nor offended when they can introduce you to a pretty new face," Kristy said. "Raina McKenny, meet Gideon Defender. If you ever get the urge for a real wilderness experience, Gideon's your man."
Charlotte's chortle nearly caused her to choke on her drink. She recovered with a rejoinder that got a giggle out of Kristy. "He has an excellent reputation for satisfying all kinds of wild urges."
Charlotte was trying hard to sound like the voice of experience, which gave Gideon his chance for a good laugh. With a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, he nodded in her direction. "This one's hoping I might take a run at hers someday."
The remark drew an indignant scowl, but his order for another round made the proper amends. "Care to dance, Raina?"
"Well, I "
Gideon waited while she exchanged meaningful glances with her companions. It wasn't like she was asking permissionafter all, this was what they'd come for, right? To meet guys. It was more like, Any last words of warning, girls? Any particular aberrations I should be apprised of before I take the plunge ?
When neither of them came up with anything, she slid off the stool and looked up at him.
Gideon cupped his hand under her elbow. "Nothing wild, I promise. I just stuck all my money in the jukebox. I picked all slow tunes."
Her tentative smile seemed real enough. "Is that supposed to be reassuring?"
"It's supposed to be romantic. I've been in the woods a long time, and I've had nothing but all-male fishing parties all summer." Locking her gaze with his, he took her hands and slid them over his shoulders, as though he were putting on a necklace. "I was about ready to put on an apron and dance with one of them, like they used to do in the old days at the trappers' rendezvous."
"You enjoy dancing that much?" He'd put both his arms around her. She promptly withdrew his left one and made him do the tea-spout pose with her. "I was taught this way."
"Really? How about this?" He made a silly face and started them rocking side to side.
"Are you serious?"
"Hell, no. Just trying to make you smile." And this time her smile came easily. "There. That took some of the tension out of your shoulders. I could feel it." He spread his hand over the middle of her back, pulling her closer. "Damn, guess I shouldn't have mentioned it. You stiffened up again."
Casting him an apologetic glance, she made a deliberate attempt to relax. "I don't know anyone here very well yet. I'm really not very good at this sort of thing."
"Not much of a barfly?" She shook her pretty head, and he chuckled. "Not much nightlife in a small town. You from the Twin Cities?"
She gave a tight nod.
Another nod. He pulled in the teapot spout and held her hand against his shoulder. This time she didn't object. He figured he'd hit on a compromise.
"What made you decide to start your career at Pine Lake Indian Reservation, of all places?"
"They offered me a job."
"Not your first choice, huh?"
"I wanted to start out in a small school, and I've always loved the northern part of the state." She glanced up at him, still unsure, but clearly, as far as he was concerned, attracted. "And I wanted to come to a reservation."
"Really." He slid his hand down her spine and let it rest at the small of her back. He led with his hips. She wanted to follow merely with her feet, but he was having none of that, and he could feel it the minute her hips stopped resisting the rhythm. He smiled and settled in. She was going to give him a run for his money, but he would reach the payoff window eventually. "Well, here you are. How do you like our music?"
"It's" she drew a shallow breath and gave a soft sigh "familiar."
"You've heard this one somewhere before?" She nodded. "How about our dancing?" She looked up. He indicated the two of them with a suggestive chinjerk. "Our dancing."
"I like it," she confessed. Unwilling to lose the ground he'd gained, he drew her only a fraction of an inch closer. She acknowledged his restraint with a smile. "I like it very much."
He had held her close on the dance floor, touched his cheek to hers, and later that night he had tasted her lips. And in the months that followed he'd found himself, much to his surprise, going for broke. Not only had he tried to make it with her, he'd also tried to make her love him. Unfortunately, he'd made a few mistakes. Maybe more than a fewhe'd been good at that then. But he'd made up for it by introducing her to the Defender who could do no wronghis brother, Jared.
When she finally looked up, she peered straight at him and smiled, as though she'd known he was there all along. His boot heels sounded an unhurried rhythm across the hardwood floor of the lobby. She closed the magazine, set it aside and slowly rose from the chair. He would greet her in the customary fashion, he thought. He would simply, properly shake her hand.
But her way was to greet him with a sisterly embrace and a peck on the cheek, and he gave in to it without objection. Her smile was easily mirrored, her greeting easy to echo, but her withdrawal came too quickly. His response lagged by a heartbeat. His hands lingered on her back just a little too long, and she beat him to the punch at stepping away.
"I wasn't sure you'd gotten my message," she said as she adjusted her hat. "It's not so easy to reach you."
"Easier than it used to be. I have an office indoors these days."
She nodded, and it bothered him that she seemed to smile only on cue, her eyes devoid of anything but the recognition of the rudiments of an acquaintanceship, an acknowledgment of the fact that they had seen each other only occasionally over the years.
With a shrug he told himself to shift into the same gear. "But things have been pretty hectic lately, and I'm in and out. Actually, I got two messages this morningone that you were coming, the other that you were here."
"It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision. I wanted to get away, but at first Peter didn't want to go on vacation at all. He didn't want to leave his friends." She sighed as she turned from him, snatching off the hat as though it had suddenly become troublesome. "You know how kids are at twelve, nearly thirteen. Suddenly their friends become their whole reason for living."
"Is he twelve already?" He didn't know why the number should hit him so hard. It was just a number. With a casual click of his tongue he tried to shoo the whole thing into an insulated mental box. "Almost a teenager. My God, that's really hard to believe."
"I know. I don't know where the time went. All of a sudden he's a young man, and I Sometimes I just want my little boy back." She brushed her hair from her temple in a nervous gesture, then summoned a bright smile. "Anyway, we hit on this idea, that we would just come up here for a week or so and explore the woods. Try boating on a little bigger lake than we're used to and maybe do some fishing or something."
"Not your first choice, huh?" The echo of his old challenge made him chuckle. It made her blush, which at last added some real color to her smile and told him that she remembered, too. He laid his hand on her shoulder and offered a sympathetic squeeze, then a teasing jiggle. "Come on, Raina, when were you ever interested in fishing?"
"I've always enjoyed the water. And the woods," she averred amiably.
But his hand lingered on her shoulder and drew her in closer, not so much physically as intellectually. It seemed as though she sensed his willingness to be her ally. "Truthfully," she began quietly, "Peter doesn't really know any other kids that share his Native heritage. We live in the suburbs, you know, and he's definitely in the minority. He's beginning to have mixed feelings about his culturedoesn't seem to know whether to take a serious interest or to pretend to be" her eyes shifted from his face to the front desk and back again, and she shrugged, unwilling to name an alternative "something else, I guess. I don't know how to, um Well, he's at that difficult age. With Jared gone "
She spoke her husband's name so softly that Gideon could barely hear it. With Jared gone, what? he wondered. With Jared gone, Peter was probably the only Native left in the upscale suburb he'd lived in all his life. With Jared gone, Peter was surrounded by people who didn't look much like him, including his mother. So with Jared gone, just who was going to tell Peter to stay away from mirrors and he'd be fine? Jared, for all his smarts and all his talents, had been the Chippewa who was not a Chippewa. That was his chosen alternative. If he'd lived a little longer, Jared would have helped his son learn the ins and outs of avoiding mirrors. And, Gideon had to admit, nobody did it better. It had once been one of the many accomplishments Gideon had envied his brother.
Gideon shoved his hands into his back pockets and banished all negative thinking about his brother with a quick shake of his head. A dead brother could do no wrong. Respect was due his memory. Respect and then some.
"So where's Peter now? You brought him with you, didn't you?"
"He's up in the room, playing video games." She glanced at the wide staircase with its dark, rustic banister. "He insisted on bringing them along."
"He doesn't want to rough it too hard?"
She shook her head and gave him an indulgent, just-between-adults look.
He let it pass. The boy could have his video games and his hiking in the woods both, no problem. He could have a little taste of life on the rez, maybe use it in a school essay in the fall, and tell his friends all about how his uncle, the chairman of the Pine Lake Band of Chippewa, had taken him fishing. The boy was welcome to take all that back with him. And then some.
Respect, and then some.
No, Gideon didn't really give a damn about the boy bringing his video games. But he did give a damn about being ignored.
"It's been over two years, Raina. I haven't seen either of you since the funeral."
"You know where we live," she said breezily.
Too breezily. His flat stare was intended to remind her that he'd never been there. He was never invited.
He wasn't sure she got the point.
"You do get down to the Cities once in a while, don't you?" she asked. "I saw you on TV recently. You were in St. Paul, I believe."
"Meeting with some people from the Department of Natural Resources about this treaty issue."
Okay, maybe he was being a little stubborn. Going back to the Cities was never easy. The best way to avoid old haunts was to stick to a business agenda. He never looked anybody up. Never tried any of the restaurants people suggested, never even stayed overnight unless he had to. But when he did, there were times when "I thought about calling you."