PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS
OF CHRISTINA LEE
Also by Christina Lee
We can probably all agree that there needs to be more diversity in romance novels. Probably all novels in general. Having said that, writing about diverse characters in books can feel daunting for an author. It can be tricky and scary to take on the challenge, because we desperately want to get it right.
This is my second time writing about the Nakos family and this Native American community. The first time was in WHISPER TO ME, a book in my New Adult series. But what makes this experience different is that the nature of the plot required me to take an additional amount of time to consider all options and points of view. I immersed myself deeply in the culture through dozens of hours of research.
Even still, there was much more to learn and discover. All of it awe-inspiring and devastating and beautiful.
But as this book goes out into the world, I remember what one of my sources said. That within each culture, gender, age, or socioeconomic status, there are differences—in opinions and traditions and mind-sets. And unless you’ve actually lived in the community or culture you are writing about, you won’t inherently know it. You can only try your best in your interpretation of it. That’s what I’ve aimed to do here.
Still, any mistakes or misinterpretations are my own. I painstakingly tried my best to create a story that I hope you will thoroughly enjoy.
I inhaled a shaky breath as his coffin lowered into the solid ground. The drumbeat echoed in my bones and the tortoiseshell rattle reverberated in my veins. The holy man murmured his final offering in each direction of the wind—north, east, south, west—and then thanked the Great Spirit for safely seeing my father home.
My mother’s quiet whimpering added mass to the hard ball developing in my throat, and my vision blurred through the haze of my own tears. But still I held on to that breath—because when I finally expelled the air from my lungs, it would all be over. Different. Altered forevermore.
My father would truly be gone. And I’d be left in charge of operations at the Golden Arrow Casino.
For the past two weeks, I’d been going through the motions while the police conducted their investigation and the autopsy was performed. But this—the actual cemetery, the sacred ritual—made it absolute. And the finality of that was staggering.
I averted my gaze from the six-foot hole because the throbbing in my chest became so severe; it felt as if my heart had vacated my torso, leaving an enormous crevice. Thank goodness I remained steady in my sensible black heels and had kept my swollen eyes hidden behind my shades. I needed to stay strong for my mother and this community.
My brother Kai’s fingers slid beyond my mother’s arm to reach my shoulder, and finally I released a puff of air. I gave him and his wife, Rachel, a slight nod, then offered a brief glance to my uncle Elan and his family, standing on just the other side.
Stuart, my father’s most trusted employee and friend, stood across the rectangular pit next to Chief Red Hawk and other casino employees. He was always the rock, the voice of reason, and he’d let me lean on him the last two weeks as pressure mounted and decisions were made about the casino going forward.
Finally, I allowed my eyes to scan across the grass to the crowd gathered around. Old and new friends, members of the reservation and of the tribal nation respectfully mourned my father’s death. Later, these same people would be whispering about how his passing had impacted our community and our family’s business. The thought of their gossip made my stomach churn.
Making a sweep past the trees, my gaze collided with a set of vivid blue eyes, like two pieces of sea glass lying in the warm and calming sand. The slice to my gut was so intense my shoulders slumped forward like I might be cut in half. Mom grabbed my arm right at that moment, either to hold herself or me up, and my eyes snapped back to my father’s grave.
But Shane’s gaze remained fixed on me. I could feel it pressing in—cool and heated at the same time—similar to how that sea glass feels in your palm after hours in the surf. I gave him a cursory glance, quickly scrutinizing him the best I could, hoping my dark glasses hid my intentions. I hadn’t seen him in years, not since Kai’s wedding. Even when my brother, who’d been his best friend all throughout high school, had met with Shane during the holiday season, I always found some excuse to keep myself busy.
Besides, it wasn’t like he’d tried reaching out to me the past five years. The last real conversation we had, if you could even call it that, was just before he left for his intensive Marshal training.
But as I stood at my father’s funeral, my emotions raw and at the surface, all my feelings for Shane hit me like a thunderclap, much the same way that sorrow always railroads me. Everything became clear, like the gleam on the edge of a knife. How I’d secretly adored him for years, even though I never said it aloud. And how once he finally returned my affection, we never got the chance to see it played out.
My gaze traced the sweep of his eyebrow, the curve of his mouth, the indent in his cheek. Then it moved down to his long fingers that now tap, tap, tapped his muscular thigh. I remembered how those same nails had dug into my hip as he’d thrust me forward so he could bury his head in my neck. Remembering was so overwhelming that I nearly sank to my knees in the grass.
His years of chasing fugitives as a United States Marshal had kept him fit. His broad shoulders filled out the black suit and his close-cropped hair illuminated those baby blues. I had to force my gaze away, which only sent me back to the tragedy at hand. My senses pelted from all sides. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the rest of the day. Let alone the year.
As the funeral attendees filed past the grave to throw handfuls of cornmeal or evergreen boughs onto the wooden casket, an ominous fog arose from the ground. Gloomy clouds aligned overhead, casting a dusky silhouette, and almost at once it began to mist. The wetness soothed my heated skin and I welcomed it, tilting my cheeks to the sky.
Rachel’s hand grasped my arm, her low voice urging me to move forward, and when I cast my gaze around, only our immediate family remained. The funeral attendees had drifted back to their cars, some already pulling away from the curb and heading toward the exit. As a group, the four of us moved closer to the remains of my father.
We stood with our arms intertwined in a semicircle. No one spoke as we each said our private, ultimate good-byes. I closed my eyes and whispered my final peace. I’ll make you proud, Daddy.
My shoulder took the brunt of her weight as my mother’s knees gave out, so I shifted and tightened my grip on her waist. As her sobs set my teeth on edge and carved deeper grooves in my soul, Kai took firm hold, tugging both of us into his arms.
When I turned to the parking lot, I spotted Shane and a flare of nostalgia wrapped over my senses, swathing me in comfort. But everything about him seemed different. He stood near a sleek Range Rover, which was a stark contrast to his beat-up high school truck. Even his very being seemed larger, not just in stature but also in self-possession. He was an imposing figure, monopolizing all the air in the space between us.
His hands were shoved deep in his pockets and his muscular chest filled out his crisp white shirt almost too well. His eyes remained glued to mine and I nearly faltered, so pure was my longing for him in that moment. Instead, I tipped up my chin and stayed poised.
I’d never forgotten how it felt to have him leave, first after our secret summer together and then after college graduation. He’d always been the one to go. Which meant that I never was important enough for him to stay. But the problem was that nobody else since had felt essential enough to fill the void that Shane had created in my world.
Now another important man had disappeared from my life. My father. My pillar. My heart. And I was left holding all of the pieces. Again. It’s simply not true that leaving is the hardest thing. Being left was a far worse penalty.
I gazed across the expanse of trees and lawn, trying to keep in the tears threatening to escape my eyes once again. Then I looked down at Shane, who mouthed a single word to me.
Two syllables that could mean so many things, given our history.
I drove through the cemetery’s ornate gates with my thoughts still entirely centered on Dakota. Five years later, she was still the most gorgeous girl I had ever laid eyes on. And now she was even more beautiful. She was all woman. Her legs long and solid, her hips lush, and her breasts full. Allowing my mind to drift to those few times she’d been wrapped around me, her scent like new grass after a fresh rain, was pure torture.
This was her father’s funeral and I needed to snap the hell out of it. Still, the idea of holding her, comforting her made my fingers itch, my skin flush. I wanted to be there for her in her grief. True, my best friend, who just so happened to be her brother, looked worn out, but there was no one I felt the urge to support as much as her.
Mr. Nakos’s death had been a huge blow to his community. Knifed in a parking lot and robbed of a few bucks, it was such a senseless death and one that reminded me of how fragile life was. The thugs I dealt with pulled shit like this every day, not even realizing the pain they put the families of their victims through. It was hard for me to keep my cool and not want to tear their heads off.
Out of habit I looked at each and every guest who had attended this funeral and even scouted out the perimeter of the grounds to see who else might’ve been lurking around this huge crowd. It was in my blood to be on constant alert, aware of my surroundings, and to proceed with caution.
Everything seemed to check out despite the tension in the air. The reservation was on edge. I could see it on the casino employees’ faces, ones I recognized from when I used to work there in high school and college. Stuart and Sam, Meadow and Grayson, all still employed in the family-friendly casino. They were hurting, sure, upset about this death. But there was something else there—an undercurrent that I couldn’t quite place my finger on.
As I hung a left at the light in the Commons where Kai’s studio was located, I considered whether or not to drive directly to the Nakos estate where I had been invited after the ceremony. Because that would place me in close proximity to Dakota again. But being around her would bring back that same feeling I’d just had at the ceremony—that tightness in my chest. That overwhelming urge to pull her into the safety of my arms. This was why you didn’t date your best friend’s sister.
In reality, I should just drive the hell back out of town. But this is where I had grown up. They were like family to me, and they had just suffered a huge loss. I wanted to be here for them. I needed to be here for me.
I had worked in that casino for years, knew this culture, respected it like hell, and felt relaxed around this community. The Nakoses had always been successful and Dakota was no exception. I always knew she’d make a name for herself.
After a couple of left turns, my eyes scanned the horizon, connecting with the outskirts of the reservation and the looming structure of the casino. I couldn’t help feeling curious, wanting to know what had people up in arms besides this great man’s death. It felt comfortable being home, almost too much so. But I couldn’t get swept away in this community’s problems. I had plenty of my own to take care of.
As soon as I heard about the funeral, I had taken a few days’ leave from my duties. I needed the time off from work to get my head screwed on straight. I was told that it happened to the best of us. The defeat, hopelessness, and frustration you experienced when you’d dealt with one too many scumbags. The problem was that I had reached my limit.
I pulled in to the only gas station this side of the reservation, all the while considering how my job had taken its toll on me, body and soul. I’d put in a special transfer request weeks ago because I was done with fugitives. With their bullshit, their fucked-up logic about how the law worked. I no longer had the need nor the drive to deal with the underbelly of the world—and maybe I never did.
I stepped out of the car, lifted my hand to an elderly gentleman with shiny black hair and wrinkled skin behind the counter, and stuck the nozzle in my gas tank. As I stood there, I considered how I had worked on a couple of protection cases—for witnesses and federal judges—and wondered if a transfer to that department would solve my itch to leave the field altogether. The job had its perks for sure. I had traveled a fair share and developed a close network of task force buddies—I’d definitely miss them. But fugitive work and I had never felt like a solid fit.
Maybe it was because of how easily Dakota had let me go. We’d never had the opportunity to get anything started. By the time I had graduated with my criminal justice degree, things had already been strained based on distance alone. So when I announced I’d be heading to Marshal training, that had obviously sent her over the edge. She had said the words I’d always feared I’d hear from her: Let’s take a break.
That had been one of our final conversations, other than some random text messages where neither one of us got to the bottom of anything. We definitely weren’t truthful with our feelings, anyway. And I was partially to blame for that. I’d never been one to openly express anything. Just like my dad.
It felt like I was steering on autopilot as my Range Rover followed the curve of the road to the Nakos estate. I considered driving my beat-up red pickup truck from college while in town, because I liked the way her engine purred when I fired her up. But she was from another life, one I had tried hard to leave.
The street was so crowded that cars had piled up on the lawn. I parked several houses down so I could make a quick escape if I needed to. My parents had gone home after the cemetery, so I was in this alone. Not that anyone would’ve been able to place a buffer between Dakota and me.
The first person I saw as I headed up the driveway was my former boss at the casino and Mr. Nakos’s best friend.
“Stuart,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Son,” he said. “Looking good. Atlanta’s been treating you well.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Not that I get to enjoy it much. Been on the road a lot.”
He nodded. “Proud of you, son. Knew you’d find your peace, make something good of yourself.”
“Thank you,” I said, not really certain his portrayal was accurate—but I let it go. “Sorry that this is the reason I’m back in town. How’s everybody holding up?”
Lines grooved on his forehead and sadness filtered through his eyes. “This is a huge loss to the family and to this reservation.”
“It certainly is, sir,” I said. “And still no suspect has been apprehended.”
“Sounds like the trail has run a little dry,” he said, and I wondered if he was hoping I’d use my connections in town to inquire about the case. My father has been on the police force my entire life. But the crime had occurred outside the communal jurisdiction.
“The rez is anxious about some other things,” he said, looking around the street and lowering his voice. “But this is a conversation for a different day.”
My chest pounded. Mr. Nakos had always been outspoken about the struggles of modern-day Native Americans. He firmly believed that the solution would be found by keeping resources in his community. He was well respected; so hearing that people had become anxious after his death made my blood turn cold.
“I’d like to be briefed, Stuart.” I’d worked security at the casino so my words felt familiar. Yet this issue felt bigger than anything we’d had to deal with in the past. “Maybe I could help, yeah?”
“Not sure how, son. Don’t want to drag you into tribal business,” he said in a cooler voice, but his eyes told me otherwise. And I had gotten good at reading eyes. “Besides, you’re only here for a short visit.”
And now my interest was piqued. Stuart was always a calming voice of reason in the casino. For him to look this restless was disconcerting.
“I’m actually here for a few more days. A long vacation, if you will,” I said and followed his line of sight as two men walked out the front door to head to their cars. “I’ll come up to the casino tomorrow. We can discuss this further.”
I didn’t leave it as a question, only as a statement, and he had no choice but to nod in agreement. Besides, knowing Stuart, he wouldn’t have told me if he hadn’t wanted me to know.
I headed inside the house and was greeted by several employees who I used to work with during summers and holidays. It felt good to see them, even if we only made small talk, navigating the correct things to say to one another during this somber occasion. Meadow, who had always had a crush on Kai, had grown into a gorgeous woman with a toddler hanging on to her legs. Things around here had certainly changed.
I spotted Kai and Rachel in the kitchen, loading what looked like cornbread onto a tray. Rachel’s hair was longer which softened her pretty face, and Kai stood close to her, his arm slung around her hip in an almost protective manner. In a house full of people they considered family, this gesture seemed odd, out of place.
Based on the conversations I’d had with Kai over the last couple of year, I knew that they were trying to have a kid of their own but that it had become a struggle. One thing was for certain, though: When they finally did, that baby was going to be a gorgeous mix of their genes.
But I also knew that due to Rachel’s health scare years ago—when she had suffered a closed-head injury—her pregnancy would be like a gift after all that she’d been through. Is that why Kai seemed defensive, his fingers shifting across her belly? She’d had a few early miscarriages, so I knew they needed to be extremely cautious. Was she pregnant and not telling anybody yet?
“Kai,” I said, greeting my best friend. “Rachel. You good? Can I help with anything?”
“I think we’re all set,” she said, lifting the tray and handing it to her husband to take to the guests. “I need to use the bathroom. Be right back.”
When she walked away, Kai’s lips quirked up in a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“You guys cool?” I said, knowing he’d get my meaning.
“A conversation for later,” he said. Now that I’d heard that line for the second time from a trusted friend, I was practically crawling out of my skin. My eyes automatically scanned the gathering. I spotted their uncle Elan against the far wall. Once we made eye contact, I lifted my chin in recognition.
His son, West, spotted me and offered me a tight smile. Despite his father’s decades-long feud with Mr. Nakos about casinos sucking the soul out of the Native American culture, West had still nabbed a job at Golden Arrow in the parking garage, the compromise being that it wasn’t actually inside the casino. I wondered if he still worked there.
Kai placed the tray of bread on the side table, grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, and motioned for me to follow him outside to the back deck. I still hadn’t seen Mrs. Nakos or Dakota since I’d gotten to the house. I breathed a sigh of relief that this hadn’t been too awkward. Yet.
“How’s your mom holding up?” I asked, my elbows on the railing and my eyes scanning the perimeter of their property. They owned a couple of acres and the landscape was pretty back here. The property boasted some apple trees, a stream, as well as a field of sunflowers that bloomed in the late summer.
“She’s holding up okay, I guess. Mom’s unbelievably strong and Dakota has that quality too, you know? She just threw herself into the casino,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m surrounded by strong women on all sides. I look like a damn pussy in comparison.”
I grinned and clapped him on the back. It was true. Even his wife was a force to be reckoned with. Dakota was always stubborn as shit and good at holding grudges. Christ, it was tough to be back here and around her again. I wanted to shake her and stick my tongue down her throat all at once. That woman made my blood boil like no other.
“It was such a long wait for the autopsy, and in a lot of ways it’s a relief to get this part over with,” Kai said and then took a longer pull of his beer. “We needed this . . . this ritual, for some closure.”
I nodded because I got that. Even I needed it, having been away for so long.
“My aunt Emily is going to stay with Mom for a few days,” he said. She had stood near the family at the funeral with her two sons, Nate and Luke. “I think that will help.”
“Definitely,” I said, thinking how important it was to surround yourself with the people you loved and trusted. Sometimes out in the field, and especially on surveillance, it could get lonely.
“Can’t believe my dad is gone.” His voice was soft, almost worshipful.
“Me, neither,” I said. “He was such a strong presence.”
“So messed up,” he said. “I hope they catch the motherfucker and lock him up for life.”
“I hope so, too.” I had already planned a visit to the station to find out some info myself. It helped to have family on the force.
“I can’t help getting a weird vibe around here,” I said, lowering my voice.
Kai’s eyes darted around the deck as a couple of employees emerged with plates of food. “I’ll tell you some other time, man.”
I nodded. “I’ll stop by your studio this week.”
Sooner rather than later. I needed to get to the bottom of this.
I primped in front of the mirror, attempting to get my shaky breaths in order. My dad was gone, my mom was a wreck, and I was in charge of operations for an entire damn casino. On top of that, my ex-boyfriend, the only guy I ever cared about, was back in town.
I didn’t know if Shane would show up to my parents’ house, or even what I’d say to him if he did. Part of me wanted to ignore him. But that would be wrong. For whatever little history we had together, he was Kai’s best friend and he had come home for my father’s funeral.
I needed to pull up my big-girl panties and just let it all go. It’d been five years, and I’d had other relationships since he and I went our separate ways. I could do this. For me. For him. For our friendship.
I heard a soft rap on the door and froze as if he’d be there, behind it. “Dakota, you in there? I gotta pee.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. It was just my best friend, Rachel. “Come in.”
She flew past me, practically molding me to the vanity. “In or out, I don’t care which, just lock behind me.”
I closed the door, not quite ready to face that crowd out there. Then I turned my back, to give her what was left of her privacy. “What gives, Rachel? Are you—”
“Don’t even say it,” she said, cutting me off. “Don’t want to jinx anything.”
Rachel and Kai had been having trouble conceiving the past couple of years. Since they’d already suffered three miscarriages, Rachel now kept any pregnancy-related news to herself. Even if she suspected she was pregnant. It bummed me out to see her so jaded. But she’d had enough heartache to go around.
Not only that, some of the elders on the rez had superstitions about women who couldn’t conceive and had given Kai a jade turtle pendant for Rachel to wear. I explained that it was akin to an old wives’ tale, but understandably Rachel had reached her limit.
Truth be told, with my father’s passing and our family finding ourselves in these new circumstances, many believed that we were cursed with evil spirits that needed to be cleansed from our dwellings.
“Okay,” I said, cautiously. “So you might be pregnant, and you’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
She stood at the sink washing her hands. “Yep. That’s about right.”
I gave her a good looking over. Her cheeks were flushed and her breasts looked bigger; she was most likely in the early stages of pregnancy. I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a squeeze.
She hugged me back and then quietly said, “Shane just got here.”
I sucked in a deep breath and immediately went back to primping in the mirror. She would understand enough not to ask any questions.
“How long has it been?” she asked, watching my fingers go to town on my long thick hair, which was now on top of my head in a makeshift bun.
“Not since your wedding three years ago, and even then it was a brief wave and a hello.”
“Not to mention you had a date,” she said, her eyebrows grooving in disapproval over my choice.
I thought of how beautiful that wedding had been in my parents’ backyard. I had brought Ridge, a local business owner, because I was dating him at the time and I thought having him there would help keep my mind off of Shane being in attendance. In hindsight, it hadn’t helped at all.
Ridge knew something was up, asked me about it, and I was honest. I told him I wasn’t quite over Shane, and we broke up shortly thereafter. Now I was glad Ridge had to leave after the cemetery and wasn’t at my parents’ house—since Shane was here. I could only take so much.
“He looks good,” she said, tentatively.
I met her gaze in the mirror and sighed. “I know.”
“Maybe if you—”
“Stop,” I whispered and shook my head.
“I know better than anybody about miscommunication. You didn’t even know what he was truly feeling, and you just let him go,” she said. I glared at her in the mirror.
“I told him we should take a break, and he agreed. Seemed like a done deal to me.”
“You were testing him, and he didn’t respond the way you wanted him to. You were a stubborn ass—you both were,” she said. And I felt my throat constricting, because she was right, mostly. I had been immature and inflexible. “Maybe you need to talk just to get closure.”
“I’m afraid if we talk I won’t be able to shake it off . . . shake him off.”
“Dakota, admit it,” she said. “You still have feelings for him after all of this time.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m busy, he’s busy. It’s the day of my father’s funeral, for God’s sake.”
She gave me a look half full of pity. The other half called my bluff.
“Don’t have time to think about this,” I grumbled.
“Yeah, that’s the problem,” she said, slathering on lip-gloss. “Both of you assheads are too busy and stubborn and driven. You set high expectations, and he didn’t meet them. Maybe thought he couldn’t meet them.”
“What does it matter anyway?” I said, throwing up my hands. “Look at my mother right now. Her heart is broken. She loved my dad fiercely, and she ended up alone anyway.”
“Sweetie, I’m going to guess that for all the pain your mom is feeling right now, she would have never given up those years with your dad. Sometimes love makes life more vibrant.” Her fingers trailed over her abdomen with a faraway smile on her lips. “Do you think I’d give all this up with your brother?”
“I’m going to pretend that I didn’t just catch you rubbing your belly.”
“Good idea,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “I’m out of here.”
After Rachel left, I took a fortifying breath and walked out the door. I turned the corner to the hallway and almost smacked straight into Shane.
I inhaled a lungful of air. Seeing him up close was definitely worse. His cobalt eyes penetrated mine, his full lips tilting into a lopsided grin, making the indent in his cheek stand out. And the corded muscles in his neck tightened as he swallowed roughly.
“Dee,” he whispered, slipping so easily into his nickname for me from many years ago. The one word caused me to focus in on his mouth, and I watched how his lips dragged out that single syllable.
“Shane,” I said, momentarily shutting my eyes to gain control of my erratic pulse. “Th-thanks for coming.”
“I wouldn’t miss it. Your father meant a lot to me.” He stepped closer and reached out his fingers to touch my arm before they fell to his side. Still I felt it, the electric cable between us. As if his hand had indeed closed around my skin. “This community, this family does, too.”
I nodded because I couldn’t get any words out. My mouth had turned arid and his condolences were laced with meaning, some of which I couldn’t allow myself to process.
“I know how hard this is for you,” he said, moving disconcertingly nearer. I didn’t know whether to focus on his lips or eyes; they were both equally mesmerizing. “I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do to help—”
“We’re good,” I said, too fast, too tight. But I needed to rein it in, shove it all into a snug little package, or I’d be adrift again. I couldn’t afford to be lost—I needed to be strong. For myself, my family, my community.
“Shane,” my mother’s voice rang out across the room. My head snapped up, and I saw her heading toward us. I resisted the urge to back myself against the wall. “So nice to see you again.”
Even in her grief, my mother was a class act. She gave me a cursory glance, checking that I was okay. She understood how wrecked I’d been by this guy. How no other man I’d dated had ever measured up.
“Mrs. Nakos,” Shane said, his eyes turning soft. “I’m deeply sorry. I respected him, loved him.”
“He loved you, too, like a son. Was so proud of your accomplishments,” she said, and then tilted her lips into a grin that didn’t match her sorrowful eyes. “Even hoped you’d work for him again someday.”
Shane shifted uncomfortably on his feet as my eyes darted to the wall. “I know.”
“So tell me something good,” my mother said, letting him off the hook. “Tell me about your job.”
“It’s been . . . decent,” he said as if he was unsure of his feelings or how much he should confess. This was surprising in itself. That might have been because his job was the one thing that had kept us separated or because it was a sticky point for him. “It’s pretty rigorous, and I travel a great deal.”
Just hearing him talk solidified in my mind that I’d made the right decision where he was concerned. He was active, gone a lot. I was busy, too, and that was his biggest complaint about me—that I was always preoccupied, always working. But at least I was always right here. He knew exactly where to find me—and he never came looking.
My mother’s eyes darted to me and then over my shoulder as somebody new entered the house. She placed her hand on my shoulder and I turned to glance at our new guests. “Your uncle Jack is here.”
I looked back once more at Shane, who stood rooted to that spot. He briefly held my eyes until I turned myself away.
I stared at the warrior painting on the far wall of my father’s office. Even with each passing day, it still proved difficult to see this space as my own. His large and all-encompassing presence remained here—in his worn leather chair, the soothing tan fixtures, and the black-and-silver nameplate at the edge of his desk. He had always been such an enormous influence in my life and I couldn’t help feeling like all of my work, my ambition, my dual degree in business and finance was to prepare me for this day.
This past year, my father had begun to lay the groundwork, to offer further opportunities for me to run the casino in his absence. He said that he trusted me implicitly, that he and Mom would eventually retire and I’d be managing it myself one day. That the staff was familiar with me and knew that my philosophy was comparable to his.
My eyes stung with tears and I swallowed them back. I was glad to be able to give him that—the peace of mind that his business would be safe in my capable hands.
Those same proficient hands now shook remembering when we got the call that he had been mugged. That suffocating punch to the gut when we learned that he was DOA. My parents had only returned from a vacation in the Netherlands right before that tragic day. He had seemed so relaxed and at peace.
“Oh Dad. I miss you so much,” I said, running my fingers along the weathered arms of his chair.
He had worked hard to employ indigenous people even though Uncle Elan, his own brother, publicly argued that casinos were evil and stripped our people of their dignity. My dad debated that our community’s soul had already been sucked dry, proof of it in the high alcoholism and unemployment rates. He was doing his part by building it back up, brick by brick.
A knock on the door threw me back into reality.
Stuart entered with a somber face. I was so thankful to have him here with me, since there was so much unrest on the reservation. Yet in his own way, my father had even prepared me for this, by showing me how to fight for the things I believed in when the times were tough.
What my father had not factored in was that he would die before my Dutch mother, leaving her as sole proprietor of the casino. That there would be outrage and resentment and greatest of all: fear. It disheartened me that the same community who had become familiar with my mother over the years suddenly seemed to not know her heart and to not trust her to make the right decisions where our people were concerned.
The issue came down to our birthright. I was mixed race, part Dutch from my mother’s side, and preserving the Indian identity was key. Anxiety whirred through the community that we wouldn’t keep their best interests at heart, even though I had always identified myself as Indian. I even looked the part, outside of my dark blue eyes, which I’d inherited from my maternal relatives.
Stuart took a swift look around the space and squared his jaw. I suspected he missed my father just as much. “Is your mother prepared for the meeting?”
“I’ll be picking her up,” I said, nodding. “I think having Aunt Emily here has helped.”
My mother would remain in my childhood home and then return to work here, where she had always been head of finance. Still, there was no way to escape him; my father’s aura was everywhere. We had shut down for a couple of days after his death, telling the public that we were remodeling. But I was quickly faced with the realization that we needed to get things back to normal as soon as possible.
We held a meeting with the managers, explained what would happen going forward—that essentially nothing would change. We wanted to assure them that we weren’t going to ruin a good thing—that we believed in everything my father had built.
I had been so proud of my mother. She’d stood strong, knowing she had to prove the Nation wrong, understanding that my father would have wanted that. Yet even afterward, I continued to look into worn, suspicious, and fearful eyes.
Still, I understood their concerns on a soul-deep level, given our compelling history. And that left me feeling more conflicted than anything had in my entire life.
There were ten casinos in our area, operated by eight tribes, and the owners had formed their own allegiance to keep order and uniformity across the businesses. The Casino Association had immediately intervened, which had frustrated me because my mother was grieving. Their prompt action made it feel like they were playing on that emotion. They asked her to sell the business to one of the other owners, a man by the name of Flint Thornfall.
Flint was Ridge’s father and he had been interested in a majority share on the casinos for as long as Dad has known him. Dad seemed to like Ridge, but he had never cared for Flint. He thought he was slick and hotheaded. Dad might’ve felt sorry for Ridge because his mother had died young and he was left to be raised by a father who seemed greedy and impulsive.
Ridge was more soft-spoken than Flint and the two did not meet eye to eye, a fact that seemed to be on everybody’s tongue. Ridge always seemed to be apologizing for his father’s brash behavior he’d displayed for the sake of getting ahead in business. One look at Flint and there had been no doubt in my mind exactly who was feeding the rumor mill, leading to doubt and hesitation in our own backyard.
In contrast to his father, Ridge was handsome, kind, and a successful businessman in his own right. I had enjoyed our short time together, just not enough to make it something permanent.
“To-tsu-hwa,” Stuart said and my eyes snapped to his. He only called me that when something was important. In rough translation, it meant daughter of the sun, based on a legend of a redbird translated through the centuries by our people. I braced myself for what he was about to say.
“After the funeral . . . I spoke briefly to Shane.” I closed my eyes. I didn’t know if he was already gone. In a lot of ways, I didn’t want to know. Not knowing meant I didn’t have to track his every move. “He was very interested in the investigation.”
“No,” I responded immediately without even listening to the rest of what he had to say.
“Hear me speak,” he said, meeting my eyes, and I reluctantly nodded.
“Shane is law enforcement, skilled in what he does. He can use his contacts, find out if there are any more leads,” he said. “We’ll have our regrets if the police close the case and questions remain.”
Stuart was right, but still my entire body bucked the idea. Finally I sat down in my father’s chair. For a moment I imagined that it was warm from him, that the leather had molded from a recent hour he’d spent sitting in it. But in reality, it was cold and harsh and I practically shivered as grief lanced through my heart.
“He’ll be here for a few more days, on extended leave,” Stuart informed me. I sucked in a sharp breath. God, I wish I hadn’t known that. “He plans to come to the casino to meet with us shortly.”
I shut my eyes and tried to steady my pulse. I had to regain control. I was a professional. I could handle seeing an ex-boyfriend. Get ahold of yourself.
“Have I done the wrong thing?” Stuart asked, his eyebrows creased into one anxious line across his forehead.
“Absolutely not,” I said through clenched teeth. “It was smart. You’re looking out for my family. Thank you.”
As Stuart headed to the door, he turned to face me once more. “You should repaint. Make this office more to your liking.”
“I . . . I don’t want them to believe . . . ,” I said without finishing. He knew what I was getting at. I didn’t want the staff to think I was erasing his memory. I wanted the operation of the casino to feel as natural and normal as possible.
“It’s important to work in a space that feels comfortable to you,” he said softly. “You need to be able to do your job the best way you know how.”
“I don’t want to forget him,” I whispered. I was certain the other side of my grief showed plainly on my face now.
“To-tsu-hwa,” Stuart said, his eyes heavy with affection. He was more family to me than my uncle Elan. “He’ll always be around. In the sound of the wind, the melody of the crickets, and the brilliance of the sunset.”
I nodded and allowed my eye to squeeze out a single tear. Just one, before I straightened myself and fired up the computer. “Thank you, Stuart.”
Pulling into the Golden Arrow Casino parking lot was surreal in many ways. The place was so familiar and the long route I’d taken down the dirt road had felt almost automatic. I avoided the row where the employees parked and found a space on the patron level. Everything looked the same.
Apparently West had young kids under his charge at the garage—either that, or I was getting older. The boy who took my ticket looked to be about sixteen, with shiny black hair and a laid-back attitude. Man, those were the carefree days. Beer and school and bonfires. Nowadays, I threw back a cold one only after a long and crappy day to settle my nerves.
Taking the elevator to the second floor, I stepped into the ornate lobby. My gaze immediately darted to the awe-inspiring frescoed ceiling and the giant chandelier that centered the entire room. I was greeted with nods and shoulder pats by a couple different employees I’d already seen at the funeral and noticed that Marcus was still managing concierge and hospitality. He was busy with a line of customers.