With their extreme ideas about traditional Ojibway life, the radical Kabatay clan have made enemies in their fight to rid the reserve of Western culture and its religion. Disowned by her family for daring to love the church deacon’s eldest son, Jude, Raven Kabatay longs to put an end to the feud started by her mother, brother, and sisters against the Matawapits…people she’s come to think of as her own since Jude changed her life.
Jude Matawapit suffered a humiliating divorce after his wife left him for another man, but with Raven, he’s created a beautiful, new sanctuary after losing his previous one, and his new haven is everything he’s ever wanted for himself and his children. Only two things could destroy his pristine bliss: the secret he holds close to his chest, and the vengeance Raven’s family wants to exact on the Matawapits. A secret and vengeance that could cost the unlikely lovers their hard-won, much longed for happily ever after.
By eleven o’clock this evening, Jude would learn whether his brother-in-law or a man who despised his family and aimed to rework the reserve into a dictatorship would become chief of Ottertail Lake. Although the rich scent of coffee beckoned him to pick his mug off the desk and sip, the tightness in his gut forced him to rise from the high-back chair.
He slid his hands into his pants pockets and stood at the window. Snow covered the school parking lot. Winter was refusing to call it a day and let spring take over.
The office door opened. Jude didn’t have to turn around to see who’d bypassed his secretary—his brother-in-law.
“Did you go to the community center and put an X by my name yet?” A hint of concern lurked in Darryl’s question.
“Not yet.” Jude leaned against the windowsill.
Carrying a mug full of coffee he’d readied at the side bar, Darryl plopped in the chair facing Jude’s desk. “How’s Raven doing?”
“Good, but I think she’s a little lonely.” Jude pushed off the windowsill and sat at his desk.
“Y’mean Clayton still hasn’t tried to talk to her?” Darryl asked in disbelief.
Jude shook his head.
“I thought he might’ve come around when he backed off at the forum.”
“She hasn’t heard anything from them. None of her family’s been around.”
“Then I guess they’re still on the warpath.” The expression on Darryl’s face was a man experiencing a migraine headache. “If I don’t make chief—”
“You’ll win.” Jude crossed his fingers beneath the desk, since he couldn’t sign the cross as all Catholics did. Doing so might unnerve Darryl, and as his campaign manager, Jude’s job was to keep his brother-in-law as relaxed as possible today.
“I dunno, man. Clayton’s change in attitude at the forum really impressed everyone.” Darryl drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair.
“His new face didn’t fool me. He only agreed with you about if a leader can’t take care of his own family, he’s not fit to lead so clan Kabatay wouldn’t come across as jerks for disowning one of their own.” Jude made no attempt to hide his pfft of disgust.
“A lot of people said he seemed sincere.”
“He’s not any more sincere than a crocodile shedding tears after downing a live meal.”
“Welp, I told Em he has to vote for himself. Did you know he wasn’t gonna?” Darryl finally cracked a half a smile. “I mean, yeah, he’s voting for me for chief and band councilor, but not voting for himself? Geez.”
“Uh…that’s Emery for you.” Leave it to Jude’s too-modest little brother to put an X beside everyone else’s name on the electoral roster but his own. “Sometimes he takes fairness too far.”
“I reminded him each vote counts. I said if Clayton gets in, we’re in for a fight. We should get over to the diner. I need to feel everyone out.”
“I imagine it’s busier than the four-o-one during rush hour.”
Darryl set aside his mug. “You wouldn’t catch me driving that highway. Way too busy.”
“Where’s your zoo?” Jude stood and wandered to the coat tree.
“Outside somewhere. They came down with us in the truck.” Darryl stood, not having to bundle up because he’d yet to remove his coat or mukluks. “Em’s in the adult ed. wing. He has a lecture to listen to first. I told him to meet us there.”
Jude tugged on his thigh-length black leather commuter jacket, the one he’d worn last year when he’d still resided in Thunder Bay. The stylish coat was overdressed for the reserve, but just because he lived in the bush didn’t mean he had to resort to plaid and toques like ninety-five percent of the men around here.
“Walking over?” Jude ambled to the door. The school and diner were downtown, what everyone referred to as the main part of the reserve.
“Sure. It’ll do me good to stretch my legs.”
In a few moments, they exited the school. The three dogs converged on them, local strays Emery and Darryl had adopted.
“Hey, Bandit. How ya doing?” Jude petted her black-and-white patched coat while peeking at Darryl. “Have a good smudge when you got up?”
Darryl’s lips straightened to a line of trepidation. “All I can do is leave today in Creator’s hands. I did the best I could. So did you. You’re a great campaign manager.”
“And you’re gonna make a great chief.”
“We’ll find out tonight when the last ballot’s counted.”
Minutes later, they were at the diner and entered to the scent of frying bacon, diesel fuel, and fresh coffee. As predicted, every booth and chair was occupied. The rest of the customers stood, holding their mugs.
“I don’t think we’ll find a place to sit.” Darryl glanced around.
“It’s the chief,” someone called out.
“The chief!” another hollered.
“Laugh it up, you guys. But we won’t know until tonight.” Darryl wormed his way through the mob.
Raven was at the congested main counter, pouring refills into mugs, a pink apron wrapped her tiny waist. Leggings hugged her slim thighs.
“Hey, I’ll catch up with you.” Screw waiting around for Darryl’s answer, not when Raven was in the vicinity.
Jude snuck around the counter and crept up behind her. A laugh sat in his chest. He placed his hands on her waist and leaned in, whispering, “Need any help, gorgeous?”
Raven jumped. The tail of her black braid hit Jude’s face. “You scared me. I could’ve poured coffee all over George’s lap.” She motioned at the man seated at the counter responsible for the stench of diesel fuel and sans his false teeth.
“Hey, George.” Jude nodded. He squeezed Raven’s waist. “I know what I’m doing, beautiful. I made sure you were done pouring.”
“Just for that, you can start refilling the tables.” She fluttered her false lashes and shoved the pot between his still-gloved hands.