Walk in Beauty
Once, Luke Bernali’s proud Navajo blood and strong carpenter’s hands made genteel Jessie Callahan love him with youthful abandon. But, to his endless regret, Luke faltered and he let Jessie down. Hurt, Jessie left, with a broken heart… and unaware that she was pregnant with Luke’s child.
Now, eight years later, Jessie was back–with a darling daughter in tow. Luke was older–and wiser–and determined to recapture the beauty lost. Could a fierce, desperate long-ago love soar anew on the delicate wings of a child?
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A blue jay feather lay on the sidewalk as Luke Bernali climbed from his truck. He almost stepped on it. A flash of iridescent blue caught his eye in time, and he bent over to pick it up.
The feel of her and the sense of warning were so strong, he had to resist the urge to look over his shoulder. Luke twirled the feather in his fingers, admiring the shimmer of color banded with sharp black stripes. Blue jays had been her favorite birds. Luke once made her some earrings from a pair of tail feathers.
He half smiled at the bittersweet memory. With the respect usually reserved for the feathers of eagles and hawks and other such birds of power, he nestled it between the folds of a paperback science fiction novel on the front seat of his truck. Jessie had cared little for traditional explanations of the qualities of feathers. Even if no one else in the world valued blue jays, she’d told him, she did. She liked their colors and their sass.
For just an instant, he felt another small wash of warning. He brushed it away. Silly. She’d been gone more than eight years.
With a quick glance at the dark storm clouds gathering in the November sky, he lifted a pile of Navajo weavings from the back of his truck and flung their solid weight over his shoulder. Mountains towered behind the bank of shops along the street, their deep blue color shadowed beneath the clouds obscuring their summits. Luke breathed deeply and smelled snow.
A young Indian girl danced alone on the sidewalk in front of the store he was about to enter. Against the wintry background of the approaching storm, she looked like a wood sprite or a flower swaying in the wind. Grinning at the unselfconscious beauty she projected, Luke paused to watch her.
Long black hair flowed like satin ribbons to her slim hips. Her limbs were lanky and long, promising willowy height one day. In the dusky rose of her cheeks, a dimple flashed, elusive and charming.
She was the spitting image of his sister, Marcia, at this age. Luke stepped forward, intending to ask the child about her clan.
She spun around and saw him watching her. Luke caught a swift impression of beaded earrings flashing in her great mass of hair before his attention was snared by her unusual, exquisite eyes.
The color alone was startling in her powerfully Navajo face, against her dusky skin and broad cheekbones. Together with their enormous size and calm expression, they were astonishing.
In that single split second, Luke’s world shifted abruptly. He blinked, took in a breath and looked at her again. She had stopped dancing to look at him with those beautiful eyes.
His jaw hardened. There was only one person in the world who had eyes just that color. This child, beautiful against the dark day, was not just a relative to his clan, as he had first suspected.
She was his daughter.
“Hi,” the girl said. “You must be the guy they’re waiting for.” She pointed with her lips toward the shop selling rugs and pottery and various other Southwestern artworks.
Luke took in another slow, deep breath, trying to keep his emotions soft, quiet, fluid. “Are they waiting?”
Her lids flickered over the topaz irises, then swept up again. Mischief flashed in her dimple. “Not too long. The man in there said you were probably on Indian time.”
Luke chuckled. “Just another kind of time.”
“Where’s Daniel?” she asked.
“He’s—” he cleared his throat “—he’s not feeling well. Is he a friend of yours?”
“I’m Luke. Daniel’s a friend of mine, too—or he used to be, a long time ago.”
“Luke?” The child measured him. Her gaze flickered toward the rugs he carried over his shoulder, then narrowed on his face. “Luke Bernali?”
If he’d had any doubt that one of the people he’d find waiting for him inside would be Jessie Callahan, it was now erased. “That’s right.”
She shook hair from her eyes. “There’s a picture of you in my mom’s office,” she said, as she glanced through the windows of the gallery and then back to Luke. “My mom’s inside.”
“Don’t go away,” he said and pulled open the door.
* * *
Jessie shifted impatiently. She wore no watch at which she could glance with pointed severity, so she folded her arms and sighed. Loudly.
The man on the telephone didn’t even look up. He’d been absorbed in his conversation since five minutes after her arrival, and it was no accident, she was sure. Geoffrey Wilkes wanted Jessie to know he was a powerful, important man, a force to be reckoned with.
At moments like this, she really wondered why she had given up cigarettes.
She shifted, strolling away from the man at the desk and into the showroom. Just beyond the window, her daughter, Giselle, danced to the imaginary tune playing in her mind, as she always did. Jessie smiled. What a kid.
Her smile faded, though, as her attention returned to the inner walls, where Navajo weavings were displayed to best advantage on adobe-colored walls. Tasteful arrangements of Hopi pottery reclined on pedestals scattered around the natural clay tile floors, and several understated collections of silver and native stone jewelry were exhibited in glass cases. Everything in the store catered to the hunger for original Southwest art that swept the country, and every last article was genuinely American Indian made. Guaranteed.
For a price, of course. The huge rug on the wall dangled a tiny handwritten price tag in five figures. Undoubtedly worth it—the wool had been sheared from a sheep the weaver owned, then combed and dyed by hand, then spun and woven over many, many days and weeks of work. The highest possible quality.
Too bad the weaver had received less than a tenth of the price for her efforts.
A familiar burn welled in Jessie’s chest as she glanced at the man behind the desk. This time, he caught her eye. His expression, to her surprise, showed not the worry or coldness she expected, but a very definite male appraisal. He lifted his eyebrows in suave acknowledgment of her catching him.
Annoyed, she shook her head. Where was Daniel? She could handle the confrontation on her own, of course, but it all went so much more smoothly with someone from the reservation to back her up—someone with fresh, lovely products to display.
Wilkes ended his phone conversation and glided toward Jessie. “I’m sorry, Ms. Callahan, but you must know how temperamental some artists are.”
Dryly, Jessie inclined her head. “One thing after another.”
The glass door of the showroom whispered open.
Jessie murmured a prayer of thanks and turned toward the door. The showroom was dim in the cloudy afternoon, and all Jessie could make out was that the man in the doorway was not Daniel. Daniel wore his hair in a long braid, and he was not as tall as this shadowed man. As he shifted the rugs on his shoulders, Jessie felt a jolt over the way he moved his head, just so, as if—
She frowned, waiting for the man to come forward where she could see him clearly. He paused a moment, then moved toward them with a lazy, loose-limbed grace. His hair caught and reflected all the light in the room. Her knees shivered dangerously. Oh, please, she muttered to the universe at large. Not this. Not now.
But her plea went unanswered. In a softly accented voice, the man spoke. “Jessie,” he said. “I knew there was something familiar about that little girl out there.”
Only Jessie would have picked up the fury in the dulcet tones. And even after eight years, she was intimately familiar with that voice. Not deep, not rumbling, not loud. Indian men rarely had deep voices, and Luke was no exception. His was a voice rich with promises, a tenor of deceptive gentleness, musical with the accents of his first language.
Jessie clutched the fabric of her shawl tight in her fist. A roar of white noise filled her ears as Luke stepped into the light. For long moments, Jessie stared at the once-beloved face, unable to breathe or move or blink. When she felt a prickling blackness at the edge of her vision, she forced herself to breathe deeply.
Her mind cleared. “What are you doing here?” she asked, and her tone was more perplexed than she had intended.
His gaze locked with hers, straight and dark and penetrating. “Daniel is sick. My sister called last night to see if I’d pick up the rugs and bring them over. I drove up to Denver this morning and got them.”
“You think we could have old home week later, folks?” Wilkes cut in. “I’ve got work to do here.”
“No problem,” Luke said. The undertone of anger was now channeled toward the man in front of him. “It’s pretty simple, Mr. Wilkes. Unless you start paying a little bit more up-front, you won’t be selling any more rugs.”
For a pinch hitter, Jessie thought in some surprise, his opening remarks were pretty strong.
Wilkes pursed his lips, eyeing the weavings Luke carried over his shoulder. “I think there’s room for discussion,” he said reasonably.
Jessie swallowed a smile. There was always room for discussion, at first. The gallery owners knew they were soaking the weavers. Another grand wouldn’t cut into their profits much.
If it had been Daniel standing next to her, Jessie would have shot him an amused glance. Since it was Luke, she pressed her lips together.
“Why don’t we all sit down in my office?” Wilkes suggested, signaling a clerk. “Have a cup of coffee?”
“Fine.” Luke lifted his chin toward the window, where Jessie’s daughter peered anxiously inside. “What about your daughter? It’s gonna snow.”
Jessie lifted her eyebrows, about to comment on the intelligence levels of a seven-year-old. She thought better of it and lifted a hand to indicate Giselle should come in. The girl bounced in eagerly, her eyes alight with curiosity and excitement as she came to stand beside her mother. She threw a coquettish glance toward Luke.
In turn, his icy calm melted and he grinned almost helplessly at the child. His daughter. A fact both father and daughter had obviously figured out.
Once again, Jessie thought she’d like to faint. Or grab Giselle’s hand and run as fast as she could away from this man, away from the past, away from the confrontation she could feel brewing.
But she’d made a commitment to this project, so she dutifully followed Wilkes into his office and took a seat in one of the richly upholstered leather chairs. Giselle sank gracefully to the floor, her hair surrounding her like a cape. Luke took the chair next to the girl, winking at her as he sat down.
Luke’s physical presence, so vivid and close, slammed Jessie suddenly. In the strong light of the office she could see him well. His hair was the same thick, heavy black, a little too long. It flowed like river water when he moved. His eyes were the same—penetrating, dark, expressive beyond measure. A few time-etched lines fanned from the corners into his broad cheekbones.
The yellowish cast to his skin was gone, and he no longer carried the extra weight around his middle. All she smelled was the curiously foresty scent of his skin. The booze, then, was gone.
She wondered with a pang how long it had been.
The hands and mouth were still much too clear in Jessie’s mind. She’d seen them in miniature every single day since Giselle was born and didn’t care to renew her acquaintance with those details.
Wilkes sat down behind his broad desk. “What kind of money are we talking here?” he asked, cutting straight to the chase.
Luke folded his hands loosely. “Half the price you ask for the rug. And we’ll deliver.”
To his credit, Wilkes didn’t erupt in outrage as so many of the gallery owners had done. He absorbed the information for a minute, then looked at Jessie. “And I imagine your presence here signifies a little inducement?”
“You imagine correctly,” she replied and handed him a list. “These are the artists who will pull their work from galleries that refuse to pay a more equitable price for the weavings.”
“Has anyone given any thought to what will happen to all these artists if they can’t display their work?” He gave her a measured stare. “Your paintings, for example, Ms. Callahan. They’ve only been selling well for what—two, three years?”
“There are other methods of displaying our work,” she returned calmly. “And other ways of earning a living.” But he’d struck at her secret terror. What if, after all this was over, she could no longer sell her own work? It was a dream that had been long and hard in coming, and she’d hate to see it die.
“What about all those little old ladies out there weaving on the reservation?” Wilkes asked, leaning back in his chair. “Anybody ask them how they feel about giving up the tidy little sum they’re already getting for a rug? I understand it goes quite a ways out there.”
“In the first place,” Luke said in a deadly quiet voice, “they aren’t little old ladies. They are young women and old women and in-between. Many of them are the primary breadwinners in their families—as they should be with such talents. In the second place, you stand to make a profit of eight to ten thousand dollars on every one of those big rugs. And all you do is put it on your wall.”
Jessie knew she should be concentrating, but Luke’s dark honey voice flowed seductively around her. In the four years they’d spent together, she’d never once heard him raise his voice, except to call a dog. Grimacing in wry amusement, she remembered, too, how alarming that had been to her at first. Her own family had been unable to discuss the weather without a boisterous, loud argument.
She sobered as Luke continued. “Even at the new rates, you’ll make almost obscene profits.”
Wilkes dropped forward, arms on the desk. “I’ll tell you something. There’s no way I’ll pay a dime over twenty percent of my gross on those rugs. And from what I’ve been hearing through the grapevine, I’m not alone.” He gave Jessie a cool glance. “No artist on that list of yours will cause me any real loss of revenue, so you can take all your toys and go play somewhere else.”
Jessie shot Luke a glance. A thin smile curved his lips. “I forgot to mention something else,” Luke said, shifting the weavings on his shoulder. “We’ve taken an option on a shop around the corner here. You’ve got six months, and then we open—just in time for tourist season. When your customers find out they can get the same rug for half of what you charge, I bet I know where they’ll shop.” He stood up and tossed a card from his shirt pocket onto the desk. “You know where to find us.”
Hastily, Jessie scrambled to her feet, gesturing toward Giselle.
Wilkes laughed. “It’s been tried before, you know. It never works.”
“This time it will,” Luke promised quietly, and walked out.
Giselle skipped after him, leaving Jessie behind. Jessie picked up her scarf and purse from the chair. “I hope you’ll give this some thought, Mr. Wilkes,” she said. “It is going to work this time.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Lifting her purse and scarf to her chest like armor, Jessie headed outside—for the second confrontation of the day.
* * *
Luke patted his shirt pocket for the bag of tobacco he kept there, wondering if he had time to roll a cigarette before Jessie reappeared. He could use one.
He decided to try and pulled the makings out—a single thin sheet of paper, a perfect pinch of moist tobacco, a deft roll and quick lick. Done. He stuck it in the corner of his mouth.
“You shouldn’t smoke, you know,” said the little girl beside him. “My teachers told me it can give you cancer or heart attacks. I convinced my mom to quit.”
Luke pursed his lips, then squatted beside her. Such a beauty, he thought again with a twinge in his chest. His child.
“I don’t smoke a whole lot,” he told her. “That’s what’s hard for people to remember—a little tobacco, a little beer, a little cake, they’re all okay. If you smoke a pack a day or drink a bottle of whiskey or eat a whole cake, then you get sick.”
Her enormous topaz eyes rested on his face. “You’re my father, aren’t you?”
Luke held her gaze. “Yeah. I think so.”
“Are you mad at my mother?”
He took a kitchen match from his pocket and scratched the tip with his thumbnail. Mad? He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply before he spoke. “No,” he lied, to spare the child who had nothing to do with anything between her mother and father.
The door swung open and Jessie pushed outside, a swirl of color and glitter and fragrance. Luke saw her spy him and Giselle cozily talking together on the sidewalk; then he watched as she planted her feet and crossed her arms in a fighting posture. Squatting as he was, Luke was at a disadvantage.
There was also the small matter of his breath, which seemed to have deserted him.
Damn. He searched for his fury. She’d hidden from him for eight years, not only herself, but her daughter. There should be nothing but fury in him.
He had loved this woman once with an almost scorching intensity. Seeing her again so suddenly unnerved him, tangled him up inside like a can full of rubber bands.
How could anyone remain so unchanged? She was as beautiful as she had been the first time he’d seen her, almost twelve years ago. It was a beauty as wild and tender as the stubborn roses that grew by the sea in her father’s California garden. Her skin was pale and pure, her hair a rich chestnut that spilled in abundance over her shoulders, catching around the rise of one breast as if in a caress.
But it was her eyes that had bewitched him the first time, so many years ago, the same extraordinary eyes her daughter had inherited—eyes the color of the first golden fingers of morning sunlight. They bewitched him again now.
“Come on, Giselle, let’s go,” she said, and turned.
Luke was on his feet instantly. “Jessie,” he called in a harsh voice.
She whirled, ready to battle. He could see it in her stance, in her fisted hands, in the blaze of her eyes. She was scared stiff and as unsettled as he, but battle she would. “What?”
“You can’t just walk away.”
Her lips twisted in a bitter smile. “Can’t I?”
That brought his fury rushing back, clean and pure as a mountain stream. “Well,” he said quietly, “I guess you can. You’ve done it before.”
She just looked at him.
He crushed the stub of his cigarette under the heel of his boot, exhaling in an effort to curb his anger. “I’m asking you not to.” He touched Giselle’s hair in wonder, and she looked up at Jessie with hope, a hope and pleading that broke his heart.
Jessie saw it, too. Luke saw her swallow—and for an instant, he felt pity for her. He and Giselle had nothing to lose, everything to gain. For Jessie, quite the opposite was true. “Giselle,” he said quietly, “give me a minute with your mother, all right?”
“I don’t want a moment with you, Luke,” Jessie whispered fiercely, but Giselle had already skipped away.
He set his jaw. “Looks to me like you got caught red-handed, me and her in the same place at the same time.”
She refused to look at him.
“Look, Jessie, we can let sleeping dogs lie or we can have a bloody, screaming fight in the middle of the street. I don’t really give a damn about the past, but you can’t expect me to just walk away from my only child without a second glance.” He crossed his arms. “Be fair.”
“Fair!” She spat the word.
Light glowed like wine in the rippling fall of her hair, danced like moonlight over her nearly translucent skin. Luke could smell her perfume, a deeply exotic mix of frangipani and sandalwood and something he couldn’t name. It made him dizzy. “Well, maybe fair is the wrong word,” he admitted.
Her gaze, frightened and wary, met his. Luke felt the impact as a fist to his gut and he glanced away. “I’m sober now, Jessie,” he said, looking at a piece of mica caught in the sidewalk just beyond the toe of his boot. In his ears, his voice was rough.
She didn’t say anything for a long time, and in the silence between them Luke felt a rush of things spring and whirl like dust devils. “I can see that.”
“Just come with me now for a little while,” he urged. “We’ll get a hamburger or something. You’ve had a long time to know her, Jessie. Give me an hour or two.” He licked his lips. “Please.”
For a moment, he thought she would refuse. Her chin jutted stubbornly toward the mountains. Suddenly, she capitulated. “All right. But only an hour.”
He found his gaze on the curve of her cheek, at once intimately familiar and completely strange to him. A sword of that old, familiar grief stabbed his gut. In a harsh voice, he asked, “You want to go in my truck?”
“We’ll just follow you.”
In the instant before she turned, Luke thought he glimpsed a tear.