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"Zane? I'm glad you called me back!"
Zane Lawson was the brother-in-law of Sadie Cor-kin's late mother, Eileen, and uncle of Sadie's half brother. The recently retired navy SEAL had just gone through a painful divorce, yet Sadie could always count on him.
"You sound upset," Zane said. "What's wrong?"
She picked up the Vienna sausage two-year-old Ryan had thrown to the floor and put it in the sink. Her half brother, who had clear blue eyes like his mother, thought he was a big boy and didn't like sitting in the high chair, but today she hadn't given him a choice.
"I got a call from the ranch a little while ago. My father died at the hospital in White Lodge earlier this morning."
Quiet followed for a moment while he digested the news. "His liver?"
"I thought he had years left."
"I did, too. But Millie said the way he drank, it was a miracle that diseased organ of his held up this long." Daniel Corkin's alcohol addiction had caught up with him at a young age, but the impact of the news was still catching up to Sadie. It had been eight years since she'd last seen him. She felt numb inside.
"With news like this, you shouldn't be alone. I'll drive right over."
"What would I do without you?"
"That goes both ways. Have you made any plans yet?"
She'd already talked to Mac and Millie Henson, the foreman and housekeeper on the Montana ranch who'd virtually raised Sadie after her parents' bitter divorce.
"We've decided to hold the graveside service at the Corkin family plot on Saturday. That's as far as I've gotten." She had a lot of decisions to make in the next five days. "I'll have to fly there on Friday."
"Rest assured I'll go to Montana with you so I can help take care of Ryan. See you in a couple of minutes."
"Thank you. Just let yourself in," she said before hanging up. No two-year-old could have a more devoted uncle than Zane.
Ryan had never got to meet his father, Tim Law-son. Tim had owned the software store where Sadie had been hired after she'd moved to San Francisco to be with her mother, Eileen, eight years ago.
Sometimes her mom dropped by the store to go to lunch with her and that's how Eileen had met Tim. It must have been fate because the two had fallen in love and married soon after. But Tim had died in a car accident while Sadie's mother was still expecting their baby. Tragically, Eileen had passed away during the delivery from cardiac arrest brought on by arrhythmia. Age and stress had been a factor.
Sadie suffered from the same condition as her mother. In fact, just before she'd left the ranch, she'd been advised to give up barrel racing and had been put on medication. If she ever married, getting pregnant would be a huge consideration no matter the efficacy of today's drugs.
Sadie had continued to work in sales for Tim's store even after new management had taken over. Since Eileen's death, however, and taking on fulltime duties as a mother to Ryan, she worked for the store from home.
Tim's younger brother, Zane, had been a tower of strength, and the two of them had bonded in their grief over Tim and Eileen's deaths.
Zane knew the whole painful history of the Corkin family, starting with Sadie's great-grandfather Peter Corkin from Farfields, England. Due to depressed times in his own country, he'd traveled to Montana in 1920 to raise Herefords on a ranch he'd named after the town he'd left behind. When he'd discovered that Rufus Bannock, a Scot on the neighboring ranch who ran Angus cattle, had found oil, the Cor-kins' own lust for oil kicked into gear, but nothing had turned up so far.
Sadie's father, Daniel Corkin, had been convinced there was oil to be found somewhere on his eighty-five-acre ranch. His raging obsession and jealousy of the Bannock luck, coupled with his drinking and suspicions about his wife's infidelity, which were totally unfounded, had driven Eileen away. When she'd filed for divorce, he said he'd give her one, but she would have to leave eight-year-old Sadie with him.
Terrified that if she stayed in the marriage he'd kill her as he'd sworn to do, Eileen had given up custody of their daughter, forcing Millie Henson, the Corkin housekeeper, to raise Sadie along with her own child, Liz.
Zane also knew Mac and Millie Henson were saints as far as Sadie was concerned, and she felt she could never repay their goodness and devotion.
It was their love that had sheltered her and seen her through those unhappy childhood years with an angry, inebriated father who'd lost the ability to love. The Hensons had done everything possible to provide a loving family atmosphere, but Sadie had suffered from acute loneliness.
Once, when she was fifteen, there'd been a mother-daughter event at the school. Never really understanding how her mother could have abandoned her, Sadie had been in too much pain to tell Millie about the school function and had taken off on her horse, Candy, not caring where she was going.
Eventually stopping somewhere on the range, Sadie, thinking she was alone, had slumped forward in the saddle, heaving great, uncontrollable sobs. With only her horse to hear, she'd given way to her grief, wondering if she might die of it
"What's so terrible on a day like this?"
Sadie knew that deep voice. Jarod Bannock. She lifted her head and stared through teardrenched eyes at the striking, dark-haired eighteen-year-old. She knew two things about Jarod Bannock. One, his mother had been an Apsaalooke Indian. Two, every girl in the county knocked themselves out for his attention. If any of them had succeeded, she didn't know about it-although he was a neighbor, her family never spoke of him. Her father, whose hatred knew no bounds, held an irrational predjudice against Jarod because of his heritage. "I miss my mother."
Jarod smiled at her, compassion in his eyes. "When I miss mine, I ride out here, too. This is where the First Maker hovers as he watches his creation. He says, 'If you need to contact me, you will find me along the backbone of the earth where I travel as I guard my possessions.' He knows your sadness, Sadie, and has provided you a horse to be your comfort."
His words sent shivers up her spine. She felt a compelling spirituality in them, different from anything she'd experienced at church with Millie.
"Do you want to see some special horses?" he asked her. "They're hard to find unless you know where to look for them."
"You mean, the feral horses Mac sometimes talks about?"
"Yes. I'll take you to them."
Having lost both parents himself, Jarod understood what was going on inside her better than anyone else. Wordlessly he led her up the canyon, through the twists and turns of rock formations she'd never seen before.
They rode for a good five minutes before he reined to a stop and put a finger to his lips. She pulled back on Candy's reins and waited until she heard the pounding of hooves. Soon a band of six horses streaked through the gulch behind a large, grayish tan stallion with black legs and mane. The power of the animals mesmerized her.
"You see that grullo in the lead? The one with the grayish hairs on his body?"
"Yes," she whispered breathlessly.
"That's his harem."
"What's a harem?"
"The mares he mates with and controls. Keep watching and you'll see some bachelor stallions following them."
Sure enough a band of eight horses came flying through after the first group. "Why aren't they all together?"
"They want control of Chief's herd so they can mate with his mares, but he's not going to give it to them."
She darted him a puzzled glance. "How do you know his name is Chief?"
"It came to me in a dream."
Sadie wasn't sure if Jarod was teasing her. "No it didn't." She started laughing.
The corner of his mouth twitched. It changed his whole countenance, captivating her. "He has a majestic bearing," he continued, "like Plenty Coups."
From her Montana history class she knew Chief Plenty Coups was the last great chief of the Crow Nation. "Where do these horses come from?"
"They've lived here for centuries. One day Chief will be mine."
"Is that all right? I mean, isn't it against the law to catch one of them?"
A fierce expression crossed his face. "I don't take what doesn't belong to me. Because he's young, I'll give him another two years to get to know me. He saw me today, and he's seen me before. He'll see me again and again and start to trust me. One day he'll come to me of his own free will and eat oats out of my hand. When he has chosen me for himself, then it will be all right."
Sadie didn't doubt he could make it happen. Jarod had invisible power. A short time ago she'd thought she was going to die of sorrow, but that terrible pain had been lifted because of him.
That was the transcendent moment when Sadie's worship of Jarod Bannock began in earnest and she'd fallen deeply in love.
For the next three years Sadie had spent every moment she could steal out riding where she might run into him. Each meeting became more important to both of them. Once he'd started kissing her, they lived to be together and talked about marriage. Two days before her eighteenth birthday she rode to their favorite spot in a meadow filled with spring flowers- purple lupine and yellow bells. Her heart exploded with excitement the second she galloped over the rise near Crooked Canyon and saw him.
His black hair gleamed in the last rays of the sun. Astride his wild stallion Chief, he was more magnificent than nature itself. The stamp of his Caucasian father and Apsaalooke mother had created a face and body as unique as the two mountain blocks that formed the Pryor Mountains on both sides of the Montana-Wyoming border. Through erosion those mountains had risen from the prairie floor to eight thousand feet, creating a sanctuary for rare flora and fauna; a private refuge for her and Jarod.
She'd become aware of him as a child. As she'd grown older, she'd see him riding in the mountains. He'd always taken the time to talk to her, often going out of his way to answer her questions about his heritage.
His mother's family, the Big Lodge clan, had been part of the Mountain Crow division and raised horses. They were known as Children of the Large-Beaked Bird. Sadie never tired of his stories.
He told her about archaeological evidence of his ancestors in the area that dated back more than 10,000 years. The Crow Nation considered the "Arrow Shot Into Rock" Pryor Mountain to be sacred. Jarod had explained that all the mountain ranges in the territory of the Crow were sacred. He'd taught her so many things .
She looked around the meadow now. Two days before her birthday their talk had turned into a physical expression of mutual love. They'd become lovers for the first time under the dark canopy of the sky.
To be that close to another human, the person she adored more than life, filled her with an indescribable joy that was painful in its intensity. They'd become a part of each other, mind, heart and body.
She never wanted to leave him, but he'd forced her to go home, promising to meet again the next night so they could slip away to get married. He intended to be with her forever.
He pulled her against his hard body one more time, covering her face and hair in frenzied kisses. She was so hungry for him she caught his face in her hands and found his mouth.
After a few minutes he grasped her arms and held her from him. "You have to go home now."
"Not yet-" She fought to move closer to him, but he was too powerful for her. "My father will think I'm still at Liz's house studying for finals."
He shook his head. "We can't take any more chances, Sadie. You know as well as I do that with his violent temper your father will shoot me on sight if he finds out where you've been tonight. You need to go home now. Tomorrow night we'll leave for the reservation and be married. From then on you'll be known as Mrs. Jarod Bannock."
"Don't send me away," she begged. "I can't stand to be apart from you."
"Only one more night separates us, Sadie. Meet me here tomorrow at the same time. Bring your driver's license and your birth certificate. We'll ride over to the firebreak road where I'll have the truck and trailer parked. Then we'll leave for White Lodge.
"The next morning you'll be eighteen. We'll stop to get our marriage license. There'll be no waiting period. All you have to do is sign a waiver that you accept full responsibility for any consequences that might arise from failure to obtain a blood test for rubella immunity before marriage. That's it. After that we'll drive to the reservation."
She'd gone to the reservation with him several times over the years and once with his sister, Avery. Everyone in his Crow family had made her feel welcome.
"Remember-you'll be eighteen. I've made all the preparations for our wedding with my uncle Charlo. As one of the tribal elders, he'll marry us. There'll be at least a hundred of the tribe gathered."
"Yes. Our marriage is a celebration of life. You'll be eighteen and your father will have no rights over you by then."
She stared into his piercing black eyes. "What about your grandparents?" Sadie had loved Ralph and Addie Bannock the moment she'd met them. "How do you think they really feel about us getting married?"
"You have to ask? They're crazy about you. I've already told them our wedding plans. They're helping me any way they can. Earlier today my grandmother told me she can't wait for us to be living under the same roof with them until we can build our own place. Don't forget they loved your mother and like to think of you as the daughter they were never able to have. Surely you know that."
The words warmed her heart. "I love them, too." Sadie shivered with nervous excitement. "You really haven't changed your mind? You want to marry me? The daughter of the man who has hated your family forever?"
"Your father has something wrong in his head, but it has nothing to do with you." His dark brows furrowed, giving him a fierce look. "I made you an oath." He kissed her throat. "I've chosen you for my wife. How could you possibly doubt I want to marry you after what we've shared?"
"I don't doubt it," she said, her voice trembling. "You know I've loved you forever. Having you as my husband is all I've ever dreamed about. Oh, Jarod, I love you so much. I can't wait-"
He caressed her hair, which cascaded to her waist, and then his hands fell away. "Tomorrow night we'll be together forever. But you've got to go while I still have the strength to let you go."
"Why don't we just leave for the reservation now?"
"You know why. You're still seventeen and the risk of getting caught is too great." Jarod reached into his pocket and pulled out a beaded bracelet, which he fastened around her wrist. "This was made by my mother's family. After the ceremony you'll be given the earrings and belt that go with it."
"It's so beautiful!" The intricate geometric designs stood out in blues and pinks.
"Not as beautiful as you are," he said, his voice deep and velvety soft. "Now you have to go." He walked her to her horse. Once she'd mounted, he climbed on his stallion and rode with her to the top of the hill. They leaned toward each other for one last hungry kiss. "Tomorrow night, Sadie."
"Tomorrow night," she whispered against his lips.
Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night. Her heart pounded the message all the way home.