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Chapter 1

Maverick

 

Which was worse – dreading eating dinner with his parents or seeing his sister and her boyfriend all lovey-dovey together? Maverick didn’t know before joining his family, but since they’d started, sitting across from Rachiah and Damon, Maverick was probably going to lump them in together.

The two love-birds hadn’t let go of each other’s hands and Maverick wanted to yell at them that there was a time and a place. Holding hands over fry bread, a roast, and mashed potatoes wasn’t the appropriate time.

In front of Maverick wasn’t the appropriate place.

A stray glint of warm light caught Maverick’s eye. He angled his head for a better look at Rachiah’s ring finger and caught himself before rolling his eyes. Engaged? Now they were engaged?

How pathetic did her engagement make Maverick? She had always been the last one he’d peg as the marrying type.

Maverick took a deep breath and stabbed his fork silently into a chunk of moist roast. At least he was getting a home-cooked meal out of the torture.

“MT, did you see my ring?” Rachiah smiled, holding her hand out toward her brother and grinning insipidly at Damon. “Damon proposed. I’m so excited.” Since dating Damon, Rachiah had lost a large portion of her stoicism and her anger. Maverick preferred the disenchanted woman she used to be and wasn’t pleased with the giggling, lovesick girl she’d become.

Another preference of Maverick’s was the use of his name. Everyone continued calling him MT from when he’d been growing up. No one wanted to call him Maverick when they’d called him MT for so long. Rachiah didn’t even understand that anymore and she used to at least get when Maverick’s heart had been broken. Lately, though she didn’t even care and he hated it.

Misery loved company and the two siblings used to understand loneliness together – even if they couldn’t stand each other sometimes.

Lots of things were irritating him that night.

“Maverick, can you please pass the gravy?” His dad never fancied calling his son MT. Mason Two-Claw’s reasoning against nicknames came with his formal and entrenched traditions. He declared he’d named Maverick and he would use that name. Anything else was being disrespectful. Mason owned the reservation casino and stood as an elder for the tribe. He often used unconventional methods to get what he wanted, but he’d never do anything to put his honor in question.

Nodding, Maverick passed the gravy and smiled tightly at some joke Damon had offered up. Somehow Damon had slid seamlessly into the family, like his blondness didn’t matter. Okay, it shouldn’t but there was so much wrong with the fact that Rachiah was allowed to marry a non-tribe member and Maverick wasn’t.

The home he’d grown up in was fast losing its familiar appeal. Every time he saw Rachiah he remembered how Sherri spurned him, turned him away every chance she had. The only times he was there anymore was when the family was together as a whole.

Sherri. She was a thought best shoved into the background until Maverick had time to go over the details and plan his next move. He didn’t have long, but maybe he would be able to work on something while he drove out of town.

Clearing his throat, Maverick shifted on his seat. He had to at least try with his mother. She was so anxious for the family to be together before he left that evening. “Mom, this roast is really good. I haven’t eaten home-cooked food in a while. Thanks for having me.”

She smiled, the lines of her lips still youthful. Jewel Two-Claw worked as a midwife for the reservation and took jobs outside the reservation. She didn’t seem to age as the rest of the world grew old around her. Maverick had her youthful regeneration. He’d always resented the baby smooth skin, but loved having the energy. She swung her long black hair to the side. “You’re always welcome, Maverick. When you get home, you need to come for dinner as soon as possible. I can’t wait to see you settled.” Her meaningful glance at Mason wasn’t lost on Maverick.

A wave of claustrophobia rushed over him. He carefully put his fork down, the ting of metal on ceramic loud in the silence as everyone ate their dinner. He pushed his chair back and stood, ignoring the startled glances from the rest of them. “Please, excuse me. I’ll be right back.” He calmly walked around the table and went through the back door to stand on the porch for a moment.

Getting outside opened his senses and he could breathe again.

The sun had begun to set in Clearwater and on the reservation, people gathered together to eat their dinner. Mountains lay to the west as the rolling hills faded into green plains which picked up the foot of hills to the east. Clearwater County nestled in the heart of Montana with many small towns and villages dotting its landscape.

Bright neon lights of the reservation cast competing light with the sunset past the mountains.

Someone barbecued, the scent of grilling meat and burning charcoal carried on the evening breeze.

Maverick braced his arms on the railing of the deck and leaned forward. He hung his head, his hair falling in a curtain around his face. He’d forgotten his band to wrap around his hair to keep it bound. The length was his pride and joy, a sign that he hadn’t experienced significant loss in his life and that he was connected to his world.

If Rachiah was getting married, Sherri would follow soon. The act was logical. Maybe Sherri felt like she was expected to marry Kyle. That wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened. People got married all the time because they were expected to.

Wasn’t that what he was doing?

Maybe Sherri didn’t know that Maverick still cared about her. He had backed off since she and Kyle had moved in together and he regretted his choice every day. He should push forward, fight for her. But he didn’t know what else to do to get her attention that he hadn’t already tried all his life.

Rachiah, Sherri, and Cyan were best-friends. Somehow they found one of the Montana Trail cousins to call their own.

Maverick wouldn’t. Not saying Hannah Rourke wasn’t a beautiful woman. She wasn’t the one he wanted. And Sherri… Sherri’s main goal in life seemed to be tormenting him.

The slider grated open, its old metal form scratching on the aluminum frame. Maverick closed his eyes. He didn’t want more reminders of what he was giving up, of what he might never have.

The door closed with a click. Mason’s heavy tread gave away his identity before he reached his son. Gray strands decorated his long hair as it trailed down his back. He stood beside Maverick at the deck, but instead of looking at the sunset, he focused his gaze on the casino. Lifting a finger, he pointed at the lights just off in the sunset. “Everything you see is for you. Rachiah has her own dreams. But these dreams of mine, they are for you. That’s why I have you working reservation security. That’s why I’m training you to manage renovations and maintenance. Everything I have will be yours one day. All the business schooling, all the training I’ve given you, has all been so you can run this company, so you can take care of your family and your tribe.”

Mason leaned forward, bracing his forearms on the deck and bending at the waist. He dropped his head for a moment and then stood, leaning with one elbow against the wooden railing. He stared at Maverick until Maverick met his gaze. “I know this isn’t easy. I know I’m asking a lot of you. The tribe is asking a lot of you. But preserving our bloodlines is all we have left. Preserving our way of life and not letting anything get mucked up with other cultures. We have to protect the Salish way. You are flathead Salish. You can’t lose who you are.” He repeated the words his father had told him that his father before him had told.

The generational expectations haunted Maverick in ways he hoped to never incite on his own children.

A sinking resolve hardened Maverick’s chest. He clenched his jaw, pushing his long black hair behind his shoulder. “I understand, Father. I know what is at stake here. I know what is expected of me. I’ll do it. I already said I would.” He straightened, pulling his shoulders back.

Mason nodded, looking back toward the casino. “I was going to get you a bus ticket, but Rachiah said you plan on driving. Are you going to take the week off from work to be with your new bride?” He turned his attention back to Maverick, watching his son as if he might have ulterior motives.

His new bride. Maverick had nothing else going for him. No other prospects in town who didn’t know he was already taken by Sherri’s heart. He had nothing else. Getting married was his last ditch effort to get Sherri’s attention before she married Kyle.

Matched his whole life, Maverick had only ever seen it as an annoyance. Sherri’s attention focused on Kyle and Maverick had turned toward the last option he had. Having his marriage arranged for him, having his life laid out before him, was so much easier than making the choices he didn’t want to make.

If he got married, Sherri could become jealous. Nothing was permanent. If, after a few months, Sherri seemed willing to give him another chance or even just one chance, Maverick could break it off with the new wife. Sherri would break up with her boyfriend and Maverick could divorce his wife so they could be together. He could shove aside the expectations of his family and his father to be with Sherri.

He’d wanted to be with Sherri his whole life.

All he’d ever wanted was a family of his own.

Would he get to have either? Would he have a family of his own without Sherri? Or would he get to have Sherri and lose everything he valued? He didn’t know what it was like to long for anyone else.

His dad clapped his hand on his shoulder, the heaviness of his palm dragged at Maverick’s shoulder.

Maverick stared at the sunset, away from the casino and everything his dad promised him. None of it would make him happy. All he wanted was someone to share his life with. Someone who wouldn’t worry if he was following all of the traditions or doing exactly what he was expected to do, but someone who would work with him and help him and be his companion.

Something he’d always wanted from Sherri, but she had never been willing to give him. He had even learned to like bugs for her.

“Come back to dinner. You have your mother worried. She thinks you’re not going to go through with it.” His dad’s voice was light, probably because he knew the family honor would be protected. Maverick did everything that was expected of him.

Even if he died a little inside each time.

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Chapter 2

Morgan

 

The remarkably clean Greyhound bus offered a quiet respite from the chaos Morgan’s home had become before she left. Crying and wailing from each sister as she’d hugged them goodbye. Her mother had held her far longer than her father deemed necessary. He’d grabbed her arm roughly and pulled her from the rest of the women in the family.

Yanking her down the stairs, he’d pushed her toward the truck. He forced her to sit in the bed while he’d ridden in the front.

Morgan had huddled in the corner, her sweatshirt pulled tight around her as the chilly wind tore at her clothes and hair.

Her father pulled up to the bus station and left the truck running as he strode to the ticket window. He’d purchased a ticket and tossed it at Morgan when he got back to the truck. She slowly climbed from the bed, clutching the ticket in her shaking hands. Approaching the driver’s side window, she plaintively called out to her dad, “Daddy, please…”

But he’d driven off, ignoring her with hard angles to his jaw.

The exhaust hit her in the face as he drove away. She was on her own. She had nothing but what he’d allowed her to carry from the house. No longer her home.

Morgan glanced out the bus window, wiping at the tears tracking down her cheeks. I90 was almost a straight shot to Spokane and Coeur d’Alene from the Seattle area. Every time they passed a mile marker or a sign that read how many miles were left until her target cities, she had to take a steadying breath and her stomach clenched tighter.

She would arrive in about an hour. The early departure or late, depending on how you viewed two am, would get her to the resort town about noon. Her hotel room was paid for one night. That was all she would get.

Her father had refused to give her money for food. The sandwiches her mother had packed her only lasted until Ellensburg. She wouldn’t have anything else to eat until the next night at the ceremony.

The next day she would be matched with her husband in a fun ceremony where the tribes would introduce the arranged couples.

She wrapped her arms tighter around her small backpack. She hadn’t been allowed to leave with anything else. She didn’t have a phone, or more than two pairs of pants, two shirts, two sets of underwear, and two socks. Her toiletries were basic because her father had said she didn’t need anything else from him. She would be stuck using the hotel shampoo and then whatever her husband happened to have his house or condescended to buy her.

Husband. In just over twenty-four hours, she would be married to a man her tribe had picked out for her. Actually, they had chosen someone else and that man – Roman – found out about her situation and he’d dropped out. Everyone in her tribe knew her situation. She had lost the only honor her father could have with four daughters. As the eldest, marrying and providing a pure bloodline was the only way she could gain back a portion of what she had cost him.

She wasn’t even supposed to be going to the matching ceremony. She wasn’t supposed to be doing anything normal. Roman was from her tribe. Their parents had matched them when they were younger, but because of recent revelations, no one in the tribe or even in the coastal Salish regions would take her.

She wasn’t supposed to be there.

Morgan’s tribe had made a deal with the Coeur d’Alene tribe. A man who had been procrastinating on his match had been found and the woman he was supposed to match with had already been married to someone else because she didn’t want to wait anymore. He was available for an arrangement.

She had never been to Coeur d’Alene before, but that was her new home.

Had she already forgotten what her mother looked like? Or her sisters? They all were similar but just different enough Morgan wouldn’t see them when she looked in the mirror. She pulled out her picture album where she’d shoved it in the bottom of her backpack. She clenched her fingers on the soft vinyl cover and took a breath. She wouldn’t see them again. At least until her father softened a bit.

That’s okay. He had every reason to be upset.

Morgan carefully pulled open the front page and blinked at the missing picture in the front. She turned the page and stared at more missing pictures. The clear page protectors hid nothing. Each page was empty and blank. She flipped each page faster and faster, her panic the only sound in the sleeping bus.

She covered her mouth with the back of her hand and whimpered softly. Turning to the back page, she stopped, freezing as she stared at the tightly written note taped to the back cover.

This isn’t your family anymore.

Morgan closed her eyes, closing the book on her lap. She leaned to the side until her forehead hit the cool glass of the window. Her tears were absent. She hadn’t cried since she’d wiped her cheeks at the bus station. She’d be hanged before she’d cry again. The Salish way wasn’t to weep and wail and gnash their teeth. Instead, she would hold it all in.

She would protect herself from any pain ever again.

As the bus barreled down the freeway, the trees were a green and brown blur. She didn’t even try focusing on any one thing. She’d never see her parents again. Her dad wouldn’t soften. He had banned her from his life and from her family’s life. She’d never see her sisters again. When her father made his decision, it was final. That was all there was to it.

Would things be different if she were his son? Would she feel more secure in her family position? Probably. If she’d gone out and gotten a woman pregnant, her father would’ve laughed and clapped her on the shoulder, making comments about being a man. He might even take his son out for drinks and brush everything under the table as the woman’s problem.

But not with his daughters. No, with his daughters he kicked them out, banished them to a life without family, history, or the backing of their name.

Morgan placed her hand over her still-small stomach.

No matter what, she would never do that to her child.

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Chapter 3

Maverick

 

Templeton’s Resort was located on the Spokane River. The blue building was unassuming with a marina filled with boats coming and going in the early summer afternoon.

Maverick had pulled into the small river town of Post Falls, Idaho shortly after dawn. He was too amped up to sleep unless he worked himself to exhaustion – or in this case, drove until his eyelids wanted to stay shut forever.

His room had a view encapsulating a small neighborhood across the glistening water and to the right, across Spokane Street, was Q’emlin Park where the matching ceremony would take place the following night. Sleeping during the day had its advantages.

Standing at his hotel room window, Maverick stared out at the summer sky with his hands on his hips. Early summer was never the best time to leave the reservation. All too often new tourists would frequent the casino and many of them didn’t play by the rules which meant Maverick and his fellow “security officers” had to take care of the situations.

He’d voiced his concerns to his father who had pointed out that Maverick had put off the match long enough. If he avoided it any longer, the elders would think he wasn’t going to go through with it and that would damage his father’s standing in the community. Maverick had already lost his original arrangement because he had given excuses, thinking Sherri was going to change her mind.

Plus, he wasn’t going to be gone more than a couple days. What could happen in seventy-two hours? Except meeting someone and marrying them all at once.

Sherri had never even given Maverick a chance. Call him stupid or a sap or weak, but he knew plenty of people who would do whatever it took to get the person they loved.

Pulling the top half of his hair back, he braided it quickly with deft sure movements. He wrapped a leather band around the end. When he saw the Montana Trail cousins they all had their hair cut short, there cowboy hats fitting neatly to their head.

Maverick wanted that. The short hair, not the cowboy hat. He wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those. The freedom from his hair would be nice. To not have to tie his hair back when he was working would be ideal, or getting up in the morning and just go, if he needed to, instead of making sure his hair didn’t look like a rat had lived in it.

Mostly though, he didn’t want to be anchored to his traditions so tightly. He needed something to be his. The length of his hair was a tie to his senses, to the surroundings of nature and the world around him, but he was hurting and he didn’t need the connection. Not right then. Not when everywhere he looked he ended up hurting.

Wasn’t he already doing everything that was expected of him? The freedom to be who he wanted to be was wrapped up in the responsibilities he had toward his family and his tribe. What could he do to establish himself? Not a lot.

The sun would set soon as the world settled into dinner. Maverick sighed. He would have to find his way to the restaurant. Eating alone had never appealed to him, but he did it every night at home.

The tribe members who had arrived for the ceremony had been warned there wouldn’t be any meals provided the day before the event. With nothing planned for their dinner that night, Maverick decided on an easy dinner in the hotel. Judging by low catcalls he could hear through the open window, it sounded as if a group of generational tribes people were already gathering below him in the restaurant and adjoining bar.

Maverick had a solid income which provided for more than he needed. He rarely spent his money on anything frivolous. He was going to treat himself to a good ole steak dinner.

Locking up his room, he walked silently to the stairs, taking them one at a time to the lobby. The restaurant was already filling with other diners and it looked like a karaoke station had been set up.

Only a handful of white people had claimed tables, leaving the rest of his copper-skinned brothers and sisters to fill the rest. He stood at the hostess podium, waiting to be seated. There weren’t any open tables, at least from his standpoint. Judging by the expression on the hostess’s face, he was right.

As he scanned the tables for any opening that he could just slip then, he noticed often the corner a woman seated at a four person table. She didn’t have the look of someone waiting for anyone. Instead she stared at this center of the table with her arms folded and one menu sitting beside her. She had a glass of water in front of her and that was it.

He nodded at the hostess when she reached him. “I just found my table. Thank you.” He patted the podium and walked passed her, ignoring her shocked expression.

Confidently, he strode across the room. He didn’t care if the woman was looking for companionship or not. He really just wanted to be able to sit down and eat. Bonus, if she didn’t want to talk.

The closer he got to the table, the more in focus the occupant’s beauty became. Putting any nepotism aside, he could confidently say that she was more beautiful than his sister – and Rachiah could win beauty pageants. This woman though, she had a sad melancholy about her which only increased her beauty. He wondered what she would look like when she smiled, probably competed with the images of Native American princesses.

He stood across from her and held out a hand toward the open chair. “Excuse me, there aren’t any other seats in the restaurant. Would you be okay if I joined you? We can eat in silence, if that’s what you want. I’m totally fine with that.” He smiled as charmingly as he could, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Maverick’s voice brought the woman’s eyes up with a jerk. He recognized her startled expression. She had a little bit of fear in the narrowing of her eyes. Nodding tightly, she returned to staring at her water and the condensation on the glass.

Her silence intrigued him and he suddenly cared if she spoke or not. “What’s your name?” He pulled the seat out and lowered himself into it, trying to wave down a waitress with two fingers raised in the air.

The woman looked around at the group, shaking her head softly. “Is it okay, if we keep it anonymous?” She pressed her lips together and watched him with unfathomable brown eyes. Her long lashes framed the almond shape of her eyes and he wondered if she wore makeup to make her skin appear so clear.

Maverick hadn’t expected the melodic tones of her voice. He’d expected guttural, maybe even something with a scratch to it. So many women were doing a husky thing with their voices that only came off as annoying. The woman in front of him was someone too beautiful not to have a flaw. The fact that she wanted to keep things anonymous threw him off. They were all parts of the same tribal region. What could she possibly want to hide?

“Of course. I’m just not sure what to call you. How about Warrior Princess?” He grinned, nodding his thanks to the waitress who showed up with his own glass of water.

“Are you ready to order?” The waitress looked between Maverick and the woman he sat with, glancing at the growing crowd with impatience and more than a little trepidation.

Maverick leaned forward, tilting his head. “I’m having whatever she’s having.” To the woman he had joined, he murmured, “Please, be eating a lot. I’m a starving man here.” He winked and leaned back.

“I wasn’t going to order anything.” She cast her eyes to the tabletop, an embarrassed flush tingeing her copper skin with more of a bronze hue.

Quirking his eyebrows, Maverick glanced at the waitress. “Well, that will never do.” He pointed between the two sitting down. “We’ll each have your prime rib, the largest cut, cooked medium. I’m assuming she’ll have mashed potatoes and I’ll have fries.” To the woman he muttered, “We can share that way.” Ignoring her wide-eyed doe expression, he returned his gaze to the waitress. “We’ll both have the salad with the house dressing. And, I saw a shrimp appetizer on your board at the front. We’ll have that, too, please.” He picked up the lone menu and handed it to the waitress who finished writing the order down and walking away.

Maverick laced his fingers together across his stomach and looked out the window beyond the woman’s shoulder. He pretended not to see her startled expression as she stared at him with her mouth half-open.  “What a great view. You got the best seat in the house. How did you pull that off?” He glanced at her, connecting with her gaze as her eyes flicked to the side to see past him and around the room. Why was she so skittish?

“I came in here first. They didn’t even have a hostess on, so I sat down.” She sipped her water, her shoulders hunched like she was cold. She had features that spoke to the nobility of the Salish with a straight nose, well-defined cheekbones, and luminous eyes that dominated her face.

He couldn’t stare at her forever, even if she did remind him of the Native American artwork featured throughout the family casino and his parents’ home. Maverick blinked to bring himself back to the conversation. “Ah, that is the smart way to do it. Sounds like you’re a restaurant veteran.” Maverick looked around, the silence spreading out between them but not uncomfortably. Her mood exactly matched what he was looking for.

A group to the side splashed water at each other. They were all young and probably not even ready to be married off yet. “Are you in the matching tomorrow?” He eyed her with interest. A woman like her would be a prize for any tribe.

“Yeah, I’m giving up my freedom just like all the other idiots in here.” She smiled halfheartedly, leaning back as the waitress placed a salad in front of her. After the waitress left, the woman leaned forward worry in her eyes. “Are you?”

Maverick didn’t know if he should be insulted or not because she had just called everyone – including him – in the restaurant idiots for being in the matching program. He shrugged with a wry smile. “I’m another one of the idiots.”

She leaned back, sighing, avoiding looking at the plate in front of her. “I thought so. Do you think we’ll be matched?”

“I doubt it. Actually, I have no idea how this is done.” Maverick considered her for a moment, studying her over the croutons and tomatoes on his salad. He sighed. “This will never do. If you want to continue being anonymous, that’s fine, but I need to call you something – at least in my head. How about… Tiger. I’ll call you Tiger.” He nodded as he settled it. He’d named her after his favorite animal. She had the sleekness of one and Maverick was willing to bet she had the sassy attitude of one on the prowl.

“Tiger, huh? Okay, I’ll play. You can be Bear. You look like you’re waiting to wake up from a hibernation, like you’re shut off from the world to protect your heart.” She arched her eyebrow and then picked up her fork. Picking at the salad in front of her with her fork, she watched with longing as the croutons tumbled down the lettuce. “I can’t afford this food. You shouldn’t have ordered it.”

Mentally stumbling around her astute description of him, Maverick spoke solemnly, “Well, I can afford it. Eat. You look like you need some food.” He considered her, trying to read her the way she’d read him. “Are you from here? You don’t seem like you’re very comfortable around all this. Do you know anyone here? Which tribe are you from?”

Tiger scooped a bite into her mouth and closed her eyes as she chewed. After a moment, she answered his question… kind of. “I’m from the coast. They made some ridiculous trades to get me over here.” She laughed, but the sound lacked humor and was filled with more pain than excitement.

Maverick stabbed lettuce and cucumber and dipped it in ranch. “Oh, well that answers your question. I’m from Flathead. I won’t be paired to anybody on the coast. I’ll be surprised to get anybody even from the Coeur d’Alene area. Most likely I’ve been matched to someone up in Bonner. Closer to Flathead so she can see her family.” The details didn’t matter to him. He really didn’t care. Although if he was going to be matched to someone like the girl sitting in front of him, things would’ve been a lot more interesting.

As she ate, the woman in front of him loosened up. She smiled and Maverick was right. She was even more breathtaking with something besides worry on her face.

Tiger leaned close, poking her fork at the glass plate. “Are you hoping to persuade me to… You know… Go to your hotel with you?” She motioned to the shrimp appetizer as it arrived, set up in the center of the table with small wisps of steam drifting from the meat. She curved her lip in a knowing smile that was rich with brazen suggestion. “Because this is definitely working.”

Maverick burst into laughter, almost spitting out the celery and lettuce he’d just eaten. “Well, the honesty is refreshing.” He picked up his water and sipped while he considered her over the lip of the glass. “Is that what you’re interested in?” He wasn’t sure if he wanted to even push the topic with her, but at the same time, what kind of pain was she in to consider that kind of a move on the eve of her wedding?

Considering the situation, maybe it wasn’t that hard to believe. She was going to be married to someone she’d never met.

“I’m very interested in a one night stand, as long as we promise to keep it impersonal and without any strings.” She arched an eyebrow and ate the cherry tomato sitting to the side of her salad.

Maverick wasn’t that type of guy, but how did he say that without crushing her, turning it into a rejection? Turning her down might not be the most important thing. He was very interested in spending more time with her. He lowered his voice. “Okay, let’s say we did do that. Are we going right now? Or did you want to eat the rest of your dinner?”

“Dinner first. But don’t ask me to dance. I’m not a fan.” She smiled and took another bite, tossing him a sassy grin.

“Fair enough. I’m not a fan of dancing either.” Maverick handed her a spear from the platter between them. He grabbed one for himself and pulled a shrimp off the pointed end. “What pushed you into coming this way? Why are you being matched in Kootenai? Family honor?”

She winced, picked at the shrimp and dipping it in the cocktail sauce. “Something like that. Can we talk about something else? I want to forget about becoming someone else tomorrow. At least you don’t have to do that right?”

Maverick shrugged, intrigued with the grace of her fingers. “I don’t know. I think the fact that I’d have someone depending on me that I don’t even know is going to be a lot like becoming someone else. I think we’re in the same boat.”

They worked on eating their food a bit longer and then she lifted dark brown eyes to focus on him. “I know we’re supposed to start over tomorrow and start fresh and follow all the rules, but is there anything before now you’ve always wanted to do?”

The list was endless, but Maverick had only one thing he’d considered over and over and it wasn’t permanent. “I want to cut my hair off.”

Tiger jerked her head to the side. “Was there a death? Are you okay? I’m sorry.” She stopped eating long enough to cast him a long sympathetic glance.

“I don’t want to talk about the details right now. The loss was big enough, though… I just want to start over.” In Native American culture men and women were encouraged to grow their hair for an increased connection to nature. Usually when there was a death, they would cut their hair to signify the loss of that life and allow the growth of new life.

Maverick had reached the time for him to cut Sherri from his life – at least the way he sought her affections. Nothing was working – not the way he used to do it. He had to change his game. If he wanted different results, he had to take different actions. He would still try to get her back when he got home, but at least he would have something to get her attention – a wife.

He shifted on his seat. “What about you?”

Tiger nodded slowly. “I always wanted a tattoo, but my dad said my husband wouldn’t like that.” She lifted her chin, her hair falling behind her. “I don’t care what he thinks, though. I should get something that’s mine for the short amount of time I have where I’m not under my father’s house or my husband’s.”

“Should we finish dinner and go get you some ink?” Maverick liked the idea of going on an adventure before he tied himself to someone he didn’t know. Plus, spending more time with the girl was taking the edge off the loss he couldn’t seem to recover from.

She smiled, but shook her head. “I would love to. But again, I don’t have the money.” She held up a hand. “And I’m not asking you to pay for it. You already bought all this for me. Thank you.”

Maverick slid his empty salad plate to the side. “Tell you what, you cut my hair for me, and I’ll pay for your tattoo.” Doing something for someone like her and not having it rejected was soothing and oddly empowering.

She angled her head to the side and watched him out of the corner of her eye. After a long moment, she nodded slowly. “Okay. That’s a deal.”

Maverick watched her as the waitress settled a plate in front of him and one in front of her. Tiger’s eyes widened and he could see just how hungry she really was.

He was going to regret the end of the night. The realization thrilled him and frightened him all at the same time.

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Chapter 4

Morgan

 

Bear fit him with his wide shoulders and large hands. He had stood by Morgan while she’d lain on the tattoo table, her back bare to the cool air, vulnerable to the multiple needles on the tattoo gun. He held her hand while the artist had inked paw prints into the skin alongside her spine. She didn’t tell him tigers were her favorite animals.

Morgan had promised to cut his hair for him. They’d stopped at a Wal-Mart, picking up a set of shears. At the hotel, they naturally navigated to his room. Asking for an extra set of sheets at the front desk, they turned back to the hallway, their arms full of takeout boxes, grocery bags, and tattoo care instructions.

Becoming suddenly shy, Morgan trailed behind Bear as she followed him to his room. Her room was only four doors down, but she wouldn’t say anything. They were standing on intimate ground she wasn’t ready for. She’d wanted a simple one night stand, not an evening where she enjoyed the man and every layer she discovered about him. Giving each other nicknames hadn’t made things any easier.

Bear grew quiet, glancing at her as he opened the door and motioned her inside. When had they grown uncomfortable together? Everything had been so easy since he’d sat down and just started talking at her table. Her stomach was full and her heart was filled with gratitude. However they had found each other, the wind had brought him into her life and she was grateful for the evening she’d had so far with him.

What would happen in that room would make or break their memories of the so-far-perfect evening.

“Let’s do this over here, that way we can watch the moonlight on the water.” Bear adjusted a chair, maneuvering it over to the window. He wrapped a towel around his shoulders.

Without thinking, Morgan motioned toward his chest. “You can take your shirt off.” Morgan pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “Sorry, I mean, so we don’t get hair on your clothes, you can… take… Ahem.” She had already offered him a one night stand, which, honestly, she was interested in. Unfortunately, the more they got to know each other, the more she realized it wouldn’t be just a one night stand. They were setting themselves up for heart break.

She was already hurting from the last destruction of the heart. She didn’t want to have to leave this guy tomorrow for another man. The knowledge that they belonged to someone else scratched her heart and brought her happy mood down to the melancholic void it had been in earlier.

After he lifted the hem of his shirt, revealing muscles and tan skin, she regretted asking him to remove his shirt. Her mood lifted, though. Leaving that room was going to be a lot harder with the knowledge he was built the way he was.

Morgan had promised him a haircut, and that’s what he would get. “How short are we going?” She pulled her professionalism around her like a cape, similar to the towel he wore. “Actually, let’s put the sheet on. I’ll braid it first. We can bind both ends. If you want to keep it, you can. If not, you can always donate it.” She smiled at him, as he replaced the towel with the sheet and sank onto the chair. She was more than a little relieved when he covered all his muscles. A body like that was distracting.

Reaching her hands up, she softly pulled his hair back into a braid. His hair was silky smooth and she had a feeling they would both regret the haircut. “Bear? Are you sure you want to do this? How short did you want to go?”

“I’m sure.” He met her eyes in the reflection in the window, their soulful depth studying her. “I want it short. Not shaved, but like the number two or three guard.” He stiffened his shoulders like he was going into battle. And in a way he was. For the Native Americans, it was a symbolic way of saying goodbye.

“Who are you mourning?” Keeping her voice soft, Morgan picked up the scissors that came with the electric clippers and began to cut, wincing as she sliced through his silky, thick hair.

“A woman. A woman I loved very much. She… picked someone who… She picked someone else. And… I’ve taken her rejection for so long, that I think this will be my way to get her back.” He pressed his lips together as if he had nothing else to say.

The woman he loved was lucky and, apparently, stupid. Morgan swallowed. “You’re saying goodbye to your old chances, and getting married tomorrow. Could your wife be the same woman?”

“No. Sherri was someone I wouldn’t have been allowed to marry.” He sighed as strands of hair trickled onto his knuckles. “I would’ve run away with her. So what if I’m getting married tomorrow? These things are never permanent. I’ve only ever seen five out of twenty in our community last longer than a year. That’s only twenty-five percent. I’m hoping that when I get married, it will make her jealous and she’ll come running to me because she’ll see what she’s been missing. It’s happened, you know. No to me, but it can.” He challenged her with his gaze in the window.

She nodded. Moving around him to reach the front, she looked down into his face as he gazed up. “I understand heartache. I was sent here by my family because I had been in a relationship with… Someone not of the tribe. I dishonored my father. He sent me here. I’ll probably be matched to some poor sod who has no idea I’m leaving him in three months.” She offered a sad smile, training her gaze on Bear’s hair. “Can you imagine if he knew my plans? Can you imagine if your future wife knew what you want to do?”

Morgan would hate to know that the person she was supposed be marrying for as long as the land would allow was just trying to use her to make someone else jealous. Just like she knew that whoever her husband would be, he wouldn’t like that she wasn’t planning on staying. A divorce so soon would be dishonorable to both of them. She had no one she cared about left. Nothing she cared about.

Bear shook his head. He closed his eyes as she buzzed more hair from his scalp, allowing the black chunks to fall across his face. He didn’t speak.

The intimate moment was further deepened by just the sound of their breathing and the movement of her hands upon his face and hair. Her leg brushed his knee and she stiffened, refusing to give in to the sensations.

As she cut away his hair and revealed the angles of his jaw and the strength of his neck she realized whoever he married would be very upset when he broke it off. Good thing the two of them had decided on only the night and nothing else. No other commitment.

After a few long minutes she realized she had finished his hair. If she went any shorter, she would reveal his scalp. She left enough in front he could style the bangs, if he wanted. “I think we’re done. I hope you like it.” She nervously reached out and gathered the hair from his shoulders and gathered the sheet so not to lose too much hair onto the floor. She didn’t touch his skin, afraid it would be warmer than she was expecting.

He reached up tentatively to run his fingers over his hair. Shock covered his face as his fingers encountered… Nothing. He shook his head, rolling his head back and forth on his shoulders. He looked up and met her gaze with his. “I really feel as if I’m starting over. Thank you. I didn’t realize how heavy my hair was.” For all of that, he didn’t look lightened. He didn’t look like the burdens had been lifted from his shoulders or the weight taken from his head. He looked like maybe he had added more to the worries around his decision.

“Are you okay with it? It’s too late now, but are you okay?” Morgan asked nervously. She crouched down on the carpet and brushed her fingers of the thick carpet strands to pull the hair together in a pile. Not very much escaped the sheet, but there was enough she could see it. That bothered her.

Bear bent beside her, smiling as he helped swipe up loose pieces of hair. “I don’t regret it, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m afraid to look in the mirror. I’m sure you did a great job, it’s just… What if I look too different, you know?”

“You look different, but it’s not bad. You’re actually…” She shook her head and pressed her lips together, crawling toward the garbage can by the television stand.

“I’m what?” He reached out and softly stopped her with a hand to her shoulder.

She looked back, taking in the hard angles of his face and the masculine lines of his neck. He’d seemed younger with the long hair, the shape of his face hidden by the curtain of his hair falling around his cheeks. “You seem older, stronger. You remind me of the pictures of Adam Beach. Charming and dangerous.”

Bear tilted his head to the side while he considered her. A softer look overtook his expression and he offered a side-smile. “Thank you. I’ve never been complimented before like that.”

The dark room suddenly pulled into focus. Music from the restaurant and bar pulsed under them.

“That’s too bad. You should be complimented like that all the time.” She turned away and stood, careful to finish picking up the electric shears and the other items.

He picked up the braid and held it in his hands. “Thanks. You have no idea what that means to me.” He glanced at her, his smile crooked and endearing.

Morgan mentally shook herself. She wouldn’t even let herself develop interest in him. Her heart was vulnerable. He couldn’t be her rebound recovery.

She couldn’t fall in love again.

Falling in love was painful.

Falling in love left you in pieces.

Falling in love left you pregnant and alone.

 

~~~

 

While Bear took a shower, Morgan finished cleaning up and claimed his seat. She drew up a knee while she stared out the window. What had she gotten herself into? She was spending an incredible night with a man she couldn’t have. The man that even if she could have, she didn’t want to destroy.

Isn’t that what she was good at?

After a while, Bear finally rejoined her. He had changed into soft jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt that did nothing to hide his muscles.

All good things had to come to an end. Morgan stood, reaching for the hem of her shirt. Might as well get started on what they’d set out to do. “Should we get this over with?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that’s the best way to start something – get it over with.” He held out a hand, staring at her. “Let’s not rush into anything. Let’s just talk. I like talking to you.”

The admission stole her breath and she swallowed. Cocking her head, Morgan watched him. Guys didn’t like just talking. Maybe she had done something and he didn’t want her now. “Okay.” She settled back on the chair and watched him warily.

Bear flopped across the bed, shoving the pillow up under his head and turning on his side so he could see her. “Don’t let on tomorrow. I think they’ll be mad that we paired off. We don’t need anyone knowing about this. I think it’ll just make things awkward.”

“I’m already keeping secrets about everything else. Adding one more certainly won’t hurt anything.” Their agreement silently covered mentioning their plans to the new spouses, if the chance even did present itself. The deal reassured her. She didn’t need anyone knowing she couldn’t stay. Having Bear know the truth was enough.

She was broken and couldn’t stay with anyone. She couldn’t handle the emotional breakdown of anyone else knowing what she’d done. Even Bear couldn’t know the full extent of the truth.

After a while, Bear patted the bed beside him. “Come lay down here. I promise I won’t push you into anything.” He reassured her with a wolfishly playful grin.

With his calming voice and his surreal magnetism, Morgan wanted him to push her into something, which made any more time she spent with him too tempting. It wouldn’t be good to long for a different man when she was getting paired to her husband the next day. Sadness over Quill and a what-if attitude for Bear and Morgan would have a miserable future ahead of her.

Even though she knew what was best for her, she didn’t fight the draw. She was desperately attracted to him, and she welcomed the respite from wanting Quill, especially considering she’d promised to never love anyone again.

Lying on the comforter, Morgan pulled her hair behind her and rested her head on the pillow beside him. They spoke of nothing consequential and in no time Bear fell asleep.

Morgan watched her Bear, sleeping, his chest rising and falling gently. In the silence of the late night, or early morning, she would claim him as hers. The more she thought about it, though, the more she couldn’t stay there. She couldn’t fall asleep beside someone else’s husband. She couldn’t do that.

Climbing from the bed, she carefully tried not to jostle the mattress. Softly, she snuck away to her own hotel room. The decidedly empty room didn’t seem as welcoming and she climbed into bed with a sinking longing that threatened her close to tears.

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Chapter 5

Maverick

 

Rolling to the side, Maverick looked for Tiger in the predawn light. He sat upright, searching the room for any trace of her. After finding nothing, he lay back down in a slump.

Of course she would sneak out. They had only promised each other the night. Now that she was gone, he realized that wasn’t what he wanted. What he wanted was… Crap. He didn’t know what he wanted. He used to think he wanted Sherri, but the way Tiger had treated him the night before hinted at a possibility that maybe Sherri wasn’t the one for him.

But no, that couldn’t be. Sherri was the woman he wanted his whole life. If he couldn’t stay loyal to the woman he was supposed to love, maybe that meant he didn’t know what love was. He shook his head, staring out at the rising sun. His doubt in Sherri was just the adrenaline of cutting his hair and being around someone new. Plus, the agony of getting ready to be married that day was probably getting to him.

He was saying goodbye to his dreams. He’d have to get Sherri back some other way.

Maverick ran his hands through his short hair. She had done such a good job, it didn’t even feel jagged. He could still feel her fingers on his scalp, the sensation sending chills down his spine.

How would he be able to go to the matching that night and see her get paired to someone else? He couldn’t ignore the feeling in his chest they were supposed to be together in some capacity, whether it was friends or something else. He wasn’t ready to rule out Sherri’s position in his life, but the connection he’d made the night before wasn’t something to just turn away from.

But once she was married to someone else and he was married as well, Maverick wouldn’t have many options. Did he want to stop their pairing and see if they had a chance with each other?

Maverick shook his head and rolled back to face the window. He was on his own and he wasn’t going to destroy someone else’s future because he didn’t know what he was doing with his.

 

~~~

 

The matching wasn’t as tribal as it sounded. He was expecting a big ceremony with the headdresses and other traditions that went on at standard tribal gatherings. But the only ones dressed in traditional wear were the elders and they sat at a long board at the front of the gathering. There weren’t a lot of families in the crowd, because the matching was just an acceptance of moving forward. As a collection of tribe members gathered to keep the culture in check, the tradition was a responsibility, just like tending the fields or feeding one’s children.

The men and the women were separated by curtains set up around the picnic areas at Q’emlin Park. Green grass spread down to the sandy beach leading to the river. Maverick hadn’t dressed up for the event like the men milling around him with their best on. Some wore suits and some wore slacks with button-up shirts.

Maverick stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his head tilted back. He didn’t want to talk to the young men talking about the women they had seen the night before. He did not want to know which idiot was going to be paired with his Tiger.

Because she was his. Even if no one else knew she was.

The ceremony began and one by one the men were called out. They stood, smirking and slapping high-fives as their names were called. The smattering of applause that celebrated each pairing grew lighter and lighter as the people left. The families came to see their loved one matched and they would leave. That was the way of it.

Maverick didn’t even know what her name was. He didn’t know which one she would be or who to listen for so he knew which man would be taking her home.

They went through age, youngest to oldest, and finally the voice called over the microphone. “Our final match is Maverick Two-Claw from the Flathead Salish Tribe in Montana. He has been paired with Morgan Castille of the coastal Salish tribe.”

Maverick climbed the steps, unable to see his bride he’d been matched with until they were both standing in front of the moderator. She slowly came into view, her dark hair, the large brown eyes he remembered from the night before.

She wasn’t an illusion. She wasn’t lost to him.

It was her. It was his Tiger.

And her name was Morgan.

Conflicting emotions wrestled inside him, which must’ve been the same for her because her face went through excitement, recognition, and then the realization they’d been matched. They both knew too much about each other already.

They took hands, and it was comforting but at the same time disorienting because it wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

Taking the center steps, Morgan – her name was going to be hard to get used to – and Maverick walked down the makeshift aisle to the altar set up at the end. The perfunctory ceremony did what it was supposed to and they signed the paperwork. Morgan didn’t look at Maverick as they continued stiffly through the motions.

A banquet dinner was set up underneath a large tent in the center of the park. Maverick and Morgan were ushered to their table and they sat beside each other while they were served.

Morgan waited until their chicken dinners sat before them. She leaned over and whispered, “I can’t be paired with you. We can’t be paired. We can’t do this.” She shook her head and sighed, leaning back to her seat and picking up her fork.

Rejection stung but Maverick knew it was only a matter of time before she would be gone. Three months wasn’t a long time in the whole scheme of things. And yet, as irritating as it was, and as dishonorable as it would be, he could use her goal to manipulate his. If she was going to leave, then he would be free and he could talk Sherri into being with him.

With Morgan’s imminent departure, Maverick had to return to his dreams of working things out with Sherri.

A waitress walked around with a bottle of wine. Morgan put her hand over her glass shaking her head tightly. Something in the protective way she covered the glass snared Maverick’s attention and he couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Well, we’re already matched. It’s done. The least we can do now is sit back and enjoy it. Nothing else we can do at this point, right? Let’s talk about the details later.” Maverick smiled firmly at the next waitress who placed a second plate in front of him. Honor demanded he go through with what they’d started. It didn’t matter that they were didn’t want to be together. She was in it for three months and he would only be in it until Sherri wanted him back.

Was his honor strong enough to handle the bruising?

The evening was stilted and formal as his fellow matched brothers and sisters began to loosen up with the alcohol, relaxing their relationships. Morgan and Maverick however remained in a formal pairing off. He couldn’t drink, if she wasn’t. It didn’t seem polite.

“Did you want to stay the night? Or should we just head to my… I mean, our place?” Maverick took his napkin and tucked it under the edge of his plate. He was done eating and, quite frankly, he just wanted to get back to the way things were at home. True, he would have an extra person with him and things would probably never be the same again, but at least he had done what he’d been asked to do. Now, he could focus on getting Sherri to choose him.

Morgan’s answer was so soft he barely heard it. “We can just go and get it over with.” Strange her phrase was similar to what she’d said the night before. The slight reminder shocked Maverick and he drank some water to steady his reaction. The night before he hadn’t wanted her to leave or for the evening to ever end. Now he knew the end was only three months away, leaving him locked in a perpetual rerun of disappointment.

“As soon as you’re finished, let’s grab our things from the hotel and we can check out. We have about an eight hour drive to get home.” He set the glass down and glanced at her, appreciating the straight lines of her hair and the bronze flush to her skin.

Maverick couldn’t hide behind his own hair anymore. He had cut it off and now he had to deal with the fallout when he saw his family. The consequences of what he and Morgan had done the night before rose up around him.

He didn’t want to see family and he didn’t want to do anything else to get back to what he was doing. The things he’d done with Morgan their current married state better not get in the way of his plans.

 

~~~

 

“Did you get everything?” Maverick watched Morgan slide into the front seat of the truck. She clutched a cheap looking backpack to her chest as she nodded tightly. Closing the door behind her, she snapped on her seatbelt and stared out the windshield.

As he pulled out, he hoped the drive wouldn’t be filled with tense silence, but he had a feeling the next three months would be filled with more uncomfortable moments than he was thinking possible.

An hour later they crossed the Montana-Idaho border at the top of Lookout Pass. Trees bordered on all sides and the Montana valleys stretched out before them.

Morgan cocked her head to the side and looked at him, breaking the tense silence. “Maverick, huh?”

Unsure what was going on between them and not certain he wanted to find out, Maverick shook his head, his tone on the cooler side. “MT to my friends.” But he didn’t want her to call him MT. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted.

“No. MT is for a child. Maverick fits you. Or Bear.” She turned away from him, a soft grin on her lips.

And she got him. Things weren’t comfortable between them. He knew what was going to happen – she would leave and didn’t want to stay, but she understood where he was coming from.

He could handle that.

 

~~~

 

Pulling into the house at three o’clock in the morning, Maverick glanced at Morgan. She slept against the window with her hand tucked between her cheek and glass. Her dark hair rested across her copper skin and he remembered what it felt like as it grazed across his face the night before.

They hadn’t talked much on the drive.

He longed for the familiarity they’d had the night before. They were able to be open with each other when they’d been anonymous, but now, with so much at stake between the two of them, the freedom was more difficult to get back.

Sliding from his truck, Maverick rounded the hood. He would carry her inside if he had to. Touching her wasn’t a chore. Morgan had been exhausted and looked like she was going to cry for most of the night. The last thing Maverick wanted was for her to be miserable the next few months.

Carefully opening the door and putting his hand under her before she fell out, Maverick positioned himself to pull her into his arms. She jostled, her eyes blinking open and then back to being shut. He tucked her face against his neck, easily lifting her from the truck seat. She was light and didn’t feel like she ate very much, if at all.

He carried her to the front of his house, angling to the side so he could open the door and get inside. Before leaving, he had set up a room for his new bride and it was right next door to his own bedroom.

Quietly carrying Morgan inside, he laid her on her new bed. Removing her shoes, he tucked the blanket up around her shoulders.

He grabbed their luggage from the back of the truck, unable to contain his surprise that Morgan had only brought a small backpack. He had used just a small backpack as well, but she was moving. She should’ve come with more. Maybe she was having the rest of her things delivered.

There was more to his new wife’s story and Maverick wasn’t sure he wanted to be invested enough to find out or not.

As he locked up and climbed into his own bed to wait for sleep to take him, he couldn’t help picturing what it would be like if he and Morgan did stay together. He hoped he wouldn’t long after Sherri forever, always wondering ‘what if she knew what if she’d had a chance?’ Either way, he needed children, a family, and a chance at finding happiness.

 

~~~

 

Maverick woke after a few hours, determined to get started with his new life and unable to let the day slip away.

Morgan wasn’t up and so he left the piles of presents and welcome-to-the-tribe gifts on the table. They could approach everything when they wanted to together.

He settled on the couch with coffee and the reservation newspaper. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it from his pocket. A text from Rachiah had him lower his cup of coffee while he stared at the phone.

Everyone’s getting married. You just got married and Sherri just announced she and Kyle are getting married. Happy endings for all.

Maverick couldn’t drag his gaze from the phone. No. Why would… No. Rachiah’s text had to be some kind of horrible joke. He couldn’t believe it.

Sherri was an early riser and Maverick had to go to her. He had to convince her she was making a stupid mistake. Did she already know he was married? Maybe that was what she had done. Maybe she found out that Maverick was married and so she agreed to marry Kyle.

Maybe she was trying to marry Kyle to make Maverick jealous.

That wasn’t like Sherri, but Maverick would clutch at anything to make sense right then. If her goal was to make Maverick jealous, then she didn’t have to go so far or take such a bold action.

Maverick was jealous, and he was sick of being jealous. He was sick of being mad that everybody else is happy and he wasn’t. What would that do to Morgan? Would it upset her if he spoke with Sherri?

He shook his head, setting his cup down on the coffee table. Morgan didn’t care. She wasn’t even staying after three months anyway. She already knew what his plans were. They both had been given the chance to fulfill their duties and pursue their dreams as well. Maverick was going to seize his, even if it was earlier than he’d planned.

A twinge of guilt stilled him. How was he supposed to go forward with what they were doing? Was he supposed to work on his relationship with Morgan? Even though he knew she was going to be leaving soon? There was no relationship there anyway. Maybe that’s what he was feeling. He was supposed to get her ready to go on with her own life.

They would both have to deal with the dishonor of the divorce, but maybe if he was able to get Sherri back, he would be able to ignore the dishonor and maybe his parents would be happy for him even though he would ruin the family name.

He couldn’t love Morgan anyway. Not when he loved Sherri. He didn’t have enough room in his heart for both women. He had to win Sherri back. Didn’t he owe it to himself to at least try?

Morgan was still asleep.

Maverick had to fix things. He had to try one more time, like a last hurrah to salvage his chance at love. He grabbed his keys and jumped in the truck.

The trip to Bella Acres was short, yet it took long enough to get Maverick’s nerves up. His hands shook as he climbed from the truck.

Bella Acres wasn’t too different from the reservation with its gently sloping plains and meandering fences. A large red barn with a newer coat of bright red paint stood off from the house a ways. Multiple cars and trucks had been lined up in a half-organized manner beside the barn. Maverick had ignored the unspoken parking instructions and parked in front of the house.

Climbing the gently creaking steps, Maverick took a deep breath. He didn’t know what he was doing or what he was going to say. His mind had gone blank and he wasn’t sure why he was there.

He persevered, knocking on the door and waiting with his hands tucked in his pocket.

Rachiah answered, her eyes widening when she saw him. She yawned, squinting at him. “Maverick? What are you doing here? What did you do to your hair?” She couldn’t focus as she jerked her gaze from his hair to his face and then behind her. “Shouldn’t you be with your bride? Did you bring her?” His lack of answers brought her gaze back to his face and her eyes widened. She stepped forward, lowering her voice. “You can’t be here. You better not be here to ruin things for Sherri. You’re married. Dang it, MT. I never should’ve texted you. I thought you’d be happy for her.” She narrowed her eyes accusingly at her brother.

Maverick searched his sister’s face desperately. “Can I just talk to her? Please.”

Something in his expression must have convinced Rachiah he had to see Sherri because she nodded tightly and stepped inside. But she didn’t let him through the door, which told Maverick Kyle must be inside, too. He didn’t hate Kyle, but he hated thinking of Kyle with Sherri.

Speaking of, Sherri came out the door after a minute with her chin tucked and twisting a lock of her hair. Maverick loved when she did that. She motioned toward the porch swing and made sure they sat on opposite ends.

Maverick wrung his hands in his lap. “You’re marrying him?” He didn’t even wait for niceties. He just had to get his question out there. He had to find out what was going on.

Sherri held out her left hand, the simple band she displayed had been engraved with bumblebees and ladybugs. The ring was exactly what Sherri needed. She was an entomologist and bugs were her life. The fact that Kyle understood that only made Maverick more irate.

“So, what, you’ll marry him and that’s it? Is this because I got married? You’re trying to make me jealous, right?” Grasping at anything, Maverick leaned forward, stopping the swing from swinging back and forth and bracing his elbows on his knees.

“Why would I be jealous? Why would I try to make you jealous? MT, we aren’t together. We’ve never been together. I have never been interested in you like that. You just got married. You should be with her.” The way she called him MT for some reason irritated him. He used to love when she’d call him anything, address him in any manner. She still saw him as Rachiah’s little brother. She leaned back, watching him like he might explode. “I want you to be happy. Why can’t you be happy for me?”

Why was there no jealousy on her part? Why had Maverick loved her his whole life? He’d loved her and she’d never given a second thought about him. Could he come to terms with the fact that she didn’t want him? And she never had?

His pride was shredded, but he had to try everything possible. He’d never forgive himself, if he didn’t give it his all. “Look, I won’t be married in three months. She wants to leave. Is there any chance you would consider waiting for me? Is there any chance you would consider trying this? At least trying.” He wouldn’t be who he was if he didn’t continue to try, and the rest of his life would be spent in regret, if he thought he hadn’t tried.

She twisted her head to the side. “That doesn’t make sense. Don’t you dare leave her for me.” Sherri watched him, suspicion rich in her gaze.

Maverick shook his head, sighing. “No, she doesn’t want to be with me after three months.”

Sherri repeated what she’d said. “That doesn’t make sense. Why?”

Shrugging, Maverick picked at the corner of his thumbnail. He didn’t feel like telling Sherri another woman didn’t want to be with him. “No idea.”

Sherri held out a hand and closed her eyes. After a moment, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes to focus on Maverick. “I’m going to make this very clear. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings but for too long I’ve worried about hurting you so I’ve held my tongue. Let me make this clear. I do not love you. I am not interested in you. You are, if anything, a friend. That is all. That’s all I will ever want from you. I’m in love with Kyle, We love each other and we are going to spend the rest of our lives together.” She put her hand on her leg and tilted her head towards him. “You and your wife agreed to be married. I don’t know why you want or are planning to leave each other after only three months, but you’re at least stuck together for that long. Get over me. Get over this thing that you think we have, and move on. I’ve never been the one for you. And I’ve always told you that. I’ve never led you on. Go and find someone that will make you happy, because it’s not me.” Her sad tone rang with goodbye, slicing through Maverick’s desperate hope.

She stood, and Maverick could tell that she really did not want to hurt him, but he had put her in the position that any friendliness that she sent his way he always interpreted it as interest.

Sherri didn’t want him. After a lifetime of longing and wishing, it was hard to swallow, but it was time.

He didn’t watch her walk away, or glance up when the door closed behind her.

Maverick stared down at the slats of the porch. Why had he always pushed? Why had he always tried to make it be there when it wasn’t there? Had he fought against the tribal expectations all his life?

Her rejection, the final rejection she handed him depressed him more than the fact that his hair had been cut off. Sherri hadn’t even mentioned it. She hadn’t noticed because he wasn’t her focus. Morgan would’ve noticed everything. He didn’t know her well, but she already picked up on the little things over the last couple days in the short times they’d been together.

Could Maverick get over Sherri? Was that what he was supposed to do?

And once again, Maverick’s life was in upheaval and he had no idea what to do.

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