A woman with no roots…
Naomi fled the cult-like nightmare of her childhood and learned to rely on one person—herself.Her resourcefulness keeps her alive during a catastrophe in the mountains, but it’s no help at all when it comes to Chaska Belcourt, the sexy EMT who saves her life. Raised to feel shame about her body and sex, she is putty in Chaska’s hands as he strips away her armor, exposing the vulnerable woman beneath, awakening desires in her that she’d been taught to ignore.
A kiss that changes everything…
Chaska Belcourt grew up on the reservation, the son of a hereditary Sun Dance chief. He left all of that behind for a new life in Colorado as an engineer with an aerospace firm and a member of the elite Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team. He doesn’t share his sister’s belief that fate led him to find Naomi. But from the first moment their lips touch, he can’t get enough of her.
A love that transforms…
As the passion between them turns into something more, Chaska is forced to admit that his sister is right. There’s no other way to explain the depth of his feelings for Naomi—or the fact that he and his people might hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of her past. But she will have to learn to trust again before the two of them can find the answers she needs—and claim this once-in-a-lifetime love.
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Read an excerpt below...
Roosevelt National Forest
Above Scarlet Springs, Colo.
Naomi Archer put another log on the fire, the blaze offering warmth against the evening chill. The sun had set behind the mountains a few minutes ago, its last rays stretching pink across the sky. Although it was July, there were still patches of snow on the high peaks, their summits bright in the waning light.
It was breathtaking.
She sat back in her camp chair and inhaled, the soft crackling of the fire and the mingled scents of smoke, pine, and fresh mountain air bringing a sense of peace. How long had she dreamed of this vacation?
Forever, it seemed.
She’d first come to Denver for a silversmithing workshop, had seen the mountains through the dirty window of her cheap hotel room, and had promised herself she’d come back to visit those mountains one day when she could afford it. It had taken her five long years of waiting tables and making jewelry on the side to keep that promise, but here she was—not in a cheap hotel room, but camping on National Forest land with her own gear.
A big raven landed on a pine branch across from her and gave a throaty caw.
Naomi wished she had her camera within reach. “Hey, there.”
She used ravens in her jewelry more than any other creature, and when a client had asked her why, she hadn’t had an answer. She’d mumbled something about ravens being intelligent and playful. Only later, after she’d had time to think about it, had the answer come to her. For her, ravens were a symbol of freedom.
She had watched them fly over the fields of the farm where she’d grown up, watched them tumble in the wind, watched them defy Peter’s attempts to keep them out of his corn, and she had envied them.
The bird cocked its head at her, its feathers gleaming blue-black in the twilight. It hopped down the branch and cawed again, moving a bit closer.
Oh, this would have been the perfect shot. Damn!
She supposed the little guy was hoping for a handout, but she knew better than to feed wildlife. Even if it weren’t bad for the raven, National Forest rules prohibited it. “Sorry, buddy. I don’t have anything for you.”
The bird cawed once more, then flew off, as if it had understood her.
She watched it until it had disappeared into the forest canopy. She’d seen a small herd of mule deer and a tiny kit fox while hiking today. They hadn’t seemed afraid of her but had gone about their business with barely a glance in her direction while she photographed them. She was hoping to use her photos and sketches to inspire jewelry when she got home again—if she went home.
She’d been here for only two days, and already she was in love with Colorado. She could imagine herself living in a little mountain cabin, stands of aspen for a front yard, maybe a little creek gurgling somewhere nearby. True, she would have to start from scratch, meeting with merchants, getting her jewelry into their shops, building her clientele. But most of her income came from her website and catalogue sales. If she wanted to relocate to Colorado, she could make it work.
The idea excited her. If she relocated, she’d be able to spend every day up in the mountains, not just rare vacations. She might even be able to open her own boutique in one of these small mountains towns. Best of all, she’d be able to make a new start far from everything that reminded her of her past.
She got to her feet and washed her supper dishes, then packed them and the rest of her food in the back of her battered old Honda CR-V, her mind lost in thoughts of her imaginary boutique. It would carry her jewelry but also that of other artisans, along with paintings and photography and maybe even textiles if—
“Well, hello, there.”
She spun around, a startled cry trapped in her throat.
Two men stood just beyond the firelight. She took in their appearance at a glance—unkempt hair, scraggly beards, ill-fitting jeans and jackets—and took a step backward, instinct telling her to jump into her vehicle, lock the doors, and drive.
One of the two raised his hand in greeting, his unshaven face breaking into a smile. “Sorry to spook you, miss. We’re just camping yonder and thought we’d say hello. I’m Arlie, and my buddy here is Clem. We’re from Texas.”
“Hey.” Clem gave her a nod.
“Hey.” She slipped a hand in the pocket of her jacket, searching for her cell phone, then remembered she’d left it in her backpack, which was in the tent a good ten feet to her right.
She couldn’t be sure the two men meant her harm, but she knew better than to ignore her instincts. These men were predators.
Arlie pointed toward her license plate and turned to Clem. “Don’t you have a cousin in South Dakota?”
Clem nodded. “Small world, I guess.”
“Mind if we share your fire for a while, keep you company?” Arlie took a step forward. “If you’d rather keep to yourself, we can go. We don’t mean to intrude.”
There was something silky in his voice, as if he desperately wanted her to trust him. Too bad for him.
She took a step to her left, ready to pivot and run. “I came up here to get some space, so I’d really like my privacy. Please go.”
Her pulse ticked off the seconds as she waited to see whether they would respect her wishes—or whether they were as bad as her gut told her they were.
“That’s not very friendly, is it, Clem?”
Naomi tensed to run—then froze, heart seeming to stop in her chest.
Clem held it in his right hand, the barrel pointed straight at her. “We haven’t had a decent bite in a few days. You’ve got plenty of food. Get to cookin’, woman.”
Naomi sat near the fire while Clem and Arlie ate the chili they’d forced her to make for them, a needle file she’d snuck from her toolbox hidden in her coat pocket. She knew where this was headed.
Arlie’s wandering hands and the slimy grin on Clem’s face left no doubt in her mind what they planned to do once their stomachs were full.
She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
There are two of them and one of you, and Clem has a pistol.
She squeezed that thought from her mind. She couldn’t let fear get the best of her, not if she wanted to get out of this untouched and alive.
Naomi had gleaned from the men’s conversation that they had escaped from a Texas prison and had been hiding out in Roosevelt National Forest for at least a week, eating food stolen from campsites and sheltering in some old abandoned ranger cabin. She and her SUV were their ticket to getting out of here and moving down the highway.
Arlie belched. “Bring some firewood, squaw. The fire’s burning low.”
Naomi glared at him, got slowly to her feet.
“That’s what you are, ain’t you?” Arlie reached for her, but she dodged him. “You’re part Indian. Your daddy must’ve been white on account of them blue eyes.”
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t have answered even if she’d wanted to because she didn’t know. Not even the people who’d raised her had known who her parents were or where she’d come from.
“She’s part Indian?” Clem sniggered. “Which part? Seems like we open her up and find out.”
His vile words sent frissons of fear through Naomi. She picked up an armload of firewood from the stack near her truck and carried it back to the fire, the needle file burning a hole in her pocket. She would do whatever she had to do to defend herself, though the idea of killing someone made her stomach hurt.
Don’t think about it.
She dropped the wood beside the fire, took one of the smaller pieces and poked at the fire, embers glowing orange. And then it came to her—a way out.
She adjusted her hold on the wood, jabbed at the fire again, her body tensing, her pulse beating faster. All at once, she scooped up flaming wood and embers and flung them into Clem’s lap, then swung the wood like a bat into Arlie’s face, knocking him onto his back.
“Son of a bitch!” Clem howled.
Arlie grunted. “Fuck! Get her!”
Naomi bolted toward forest. She didn’t wait to see how badly the bastards were hurt or to find out whether Clem was pointing his gun at her. If she could just get far out of the firelight where they couldn’t see her…
A gunshot split the night. The blast made Naomi shriek, turned her blood to ice, but she kept running. It was only after the darkness of the forest had swallowed her that she realized she’d been hit.
Chaska Belcourt hiked up the trail with his sister, Winona, the sun just up, the air fresh and cool after a night rain. Ahead of them, Shota loped down the trail, stopping every so often to sniff something before taking off again. The wolf had a large enclosure—almost a square mile—but he got restless if he didn’t get out to run a few times a week. In his heart, Shota would always be wild.
The only place they could let him run free was on National Forest land. No, it wasn’t strictly legal to run a wolf off leash here, but it was better than scaring people. Folks had a tendency to freak out when they saw a big, gray wolf running toward them down the trail.
“Are you going to do it?” Winona asked.
“Ask Nicole out.”
Not that again.
“I like Nicole. She’s a good climber. She’s smart. She’s—”
“She’s pretty—and she really likes you.” Winona said that last part as if it were impossible to believe.
“She’s on the Team, Win. You know how I feel about that.”
“Don’t dip your pen in the company inkwell, I know. Okay, but you don’t work together. You volunteer together. Lots of people meet that way.”
Chaska had been a primary member of Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team for a little more than four years now. Though the Team was an all-volunteer organization, he and everyone else took it every bit as seriously as they did their day jobs. “I won’t risk getting distracted or bringing personal baggage with me on rescues.”
Lives were at stake.
“Oh, come on. I don’t believe for a moment that you or Nicole are so unprofessional as to let your relationship get in the way during a rescue.”
“We don’t have a relationship.” He aimed to keep it that way. “Besides, she’s not my type.”
“A gorgeous climber who adores you isn’t your type?” Win looked up at him. “Is this because she’s wasicu?”
“You know me better than that.” It’s true that Chaska had always imagined himself settling down with a woman who shared his heritage and way of life, but that didn’t mean he’d turn away from loving a woman because she was white. “Why are you still going on about this?”
“You’re thirty-three. When our parents were your age, they—”
“Were already divorced, and Mom was drinking.”
Alcohol had killed their mother as surely as if she’d put a gun to her head.
Winona was quiet—for a moment. “I just don’t want you to be alone.”
He reached over, tousled her dark hair. “I wish I were alone, but I have a pesky little sister who thinks she’s my granny and acts like a matchmaker.”
Win laughed. “Someone has to watch out for you.”
He supposed that was true. They were far from family, far from Oglala Oyate, far from Pine Ridge. Then again, he and Win had looked out for each other ever since they were small children. When he’d left the reservation to study mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he’d known she would follow. Now he worked on propulsion and launch systems for satellites for an aerospace engineering firm, and she was a wildlife vet with her own clinic.
Life was good.
As for having a woman in his life, yeah, that would be nice, especially at night. But sex was a bad reason to rush into a relationship. As far as he knew, no Lakota man had ever found his half-side — his perfect, matching female half — by going wherever his dick led him.
“Don’t you want to be with someone?”
“Of course, I do, but I’ll wait till the right woman comes along. Creator can feel free to put her in my path any time.”
Ahead of them on the trail, Shota stopped. He raised his head, seemed to sniff the wind, then gave a strange howl. His ears went back, and he took off, running off the trail and disappearing among the trees.
Chaska ran, following the animal through the forest, Winona’s voice following him as she ran behind him, calling for him, shouting for him to stop.
But Shota didn’t stop, didn’t so much as glance back, running until he had disappeared from sight.
Chaska stopped when he came to the place he’d last seen the animal, Win close behind him and breathing hard.
“Do you think you can track him?”
The ground was wet from last night’s rain. “Maybe.”
From nearby came Shota’s howl. He was calling to them, calling his pack.
“Maybe I won’t have to.”
“That way.” Winona set off again.
Chaska ran beside her, the terrain rocky and dropping steeply to a ravine below.
“There!” Winona stopped, pointed with a jerk of her head.
Shota lay on his belly partly concealed in what looked like a small cave or an old mine shaft, his gray fur like camouflage in the shadows. He craned his head to look over at them and whined.
Chaska moved toward him. “What’s gotten into him?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Aren’t you the vet?”
They approached Shota slowly, not wanting to spook him into running. Chaska let Win take the lead. She was the expert, after all, and Shota’s official guardian.
She switched to Lakota, spoke in a soothing voice. “Waste, Shota. Lila waste.”
The wolf stayed where he was, tail thumping on damp pine needles.
Winona reached him first. “Oh, God. Chaska!”
But Chaska had already seen.
There beside Shota lay a woman, eyes closed, blood on her jacket, her dark hair damp, tangled, and full of pine needles. She was partially hidden inside a shallow depression that must have been a collapsed mine shaft.
Had the wolf attacked her? No, the blood was old.
The wolf had scented her—and come to help.
Chaska dropped to his knees beside her, felt her throat for a pulse, relief rushing through him to find her alive.
“What happened to her? There’s blood and bruises. Did she fall?”
“I don’t know.” Chaska had seen a lot since he’d joined the Team, and this didn’t look like a simple accident to him. A half dozen ideas chased each other through his mind, none of them pretty—kidnapping, sexual assault, partner violence.
He shrugged off his backpack, pulled out his first aid kit and radio and hand mic. He turned the radio on, waited for traffic to clear. “Sixteen-seventy-two.”
“Sixteen-seventy-two, go ahead.”
“I’m at about the four-mile mark of the Lupine Trail with an unconscious adult female, break.”
“Sixteen-seventy-two, copy. Go ahead with your traffic.”
“She appears to have multiple injuries, possibly from falling or a physical altercation. Tone out the Team and medical emergent. Better send a deputy as well. I’ll be on FTAC Two going as Lupine Command.”
“Sixteen-seventy-two, copy. Six-twenty.”
It would take most of an hour for the rest of the Team to get here. Until then, it was Chaska’s job to do what he could for her—which wasn’t much. She had a pulse and was breathing. He pressed a hand to her shoulder and gave her a little nudge, taking in the bruises on her cheeks, her long lashes, her pale brown skin, the blood on her jacket. “Ma’am, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
She moaned, but didn’t wake up.
Shota whined, inched closer to the victim, licked her cheek.
Chaska tried again. “Are you okay, ma’am?”
Her brow furrowed, but her eyes didn’t open.
He grabbed his hand mic again, switched his radio to FTAC 2, the county’s tactical and rescue channel. “Sixteen-seventy-two.”
“Sixteen-seventy-two, go ahead.”
“I’ve tried to rouse the victim without success. Her clothes are damp. I suspect she’s hypothermic. There’s also blood from unknown injuries.”
“Sixteen-seventy-two, copy. Six-twenty-two.”
He set the radio aside and reached into his pack for hand warmers. “We need to get her core temp up.”
Hypothermia killed people every summer in Colorado’s mountains.
He bent the metal discs at the bottom of the gel packs to start the exothermic reaction and handed them to Win. “Massage those to distribute the crystals evenly, and then tuck them inside her jacket. Don’t put them against her bare skin.”
While Winona did that, he reached into his pack again and drew out an emergency blanket.
“Look.” Win held up a leather cord that hung around the woman’s throat, a small beaded medicine wheel dangling from it like a pendant. She tucked it back inside the woman’s jacket. “Do you think she’s Lakota?”
Win might have time to wonder about such things, but Chaska didn’t.
“I think she needs to get to the hospital.” He knelt over her, about to tuck the emergency blanket around her, when he noticed something in her clenched fist. He pried her fingers open and took a small, needle-sharp something from her hand.
“Is that a knife?”
He handed it to Win. “It looks like a file.”
“Maybe she was trying to defend herself.”
“Maybe.” Chaska studied his sister for a moment. “Are you okay?”
Two years ago, she’d been assaulted by an injured fugitive who’d forced her to give him medical aid. The bastard had paid her back by drugging her with an overdose of animal tranquilizer that might have killed her had help not arrived. Chaska wouldn’t be surprised if seeing a woman in this state dredged up those memories.
Chaska covered the woman with the blanket, tucked it around her. It would help hold in her body heat and the heat from the hand warmers. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
This time, the woman’s body went stiff, and she cried out. “No!”
Chaska found himself staring into a pair of terrified blue eyes.