Excerpt from Chapter 1

HEARTBEAT BRAVES by Pamela Sanderson

Rayanne stared at the message on her computer screen:

Sorry R. A deadline is a deadline. The retreat lodge has been rebooked for another group. They already paid. There’s nothing I can do. The policy is no refunds on deposits. I’ll ask the boss but I think you’re out of luck.

Rayanne tapped her head against the screen. She’d been so certain she could fix this.

The executive director stuck her head out of her office. She had the bright smile you would expect from a nonprofit employee but her eyes said she was a person accustomed to getting less than she’d hoped for. “Tell me you have good news.”

“Working on it,” Rayanne fibbed. She typed out the beginning of a reply, but to say what?

Please reconsider your reconsideration.

Help, we’re desperate.

You have to give us another chance even if it’s too late, because jobs are on the line.

She let out a heavy sigh and met Linda in her office. “Sorry.”

Linda closed her eyes. “Don’t say it. Please don’t say it. I can’t stand one more piece of bad news.”

“I’ll say it by not saying it.”

“Did you convey how deeply important this is? Did you plead? Did you look for someone to bribe? I can’t walk into that meeting and tell our brand new board of directors, who were appointed specifically because of rumors that we’re incompetent, that we have screwed up yet again.”

“They already rebooked the space.”

Linda closed her eyes, her shoulders drawing tight. Even before Margie’s illness and resignation, they had struggled with everything from funding to a contract dispute. The process of buying the new building with its never-ending reports and forms had stretched them to exhaustion. They were all worn down, but Linda bore the worst of it.

“The task is to hold a retreat,” Rayanne said. “Why not have it here?”

“This place is a disaster,” Linda said, indicating the chaos that was the current state of her office. Their move into the new building had been delayed twice already. They were half in and half out of boxes. Stacks of extra chairs lined the wall, and computer monitors sat on the floor.

“So? We can use the front room. We push everything into a corner. Bring in some comfortable furniture and a nice rug.”

“A nice rug?” Linda said.

“Make it homey. Think of all the money we’ll save. Besides, what is the point of a retreat anyway? Do we need to be surrounded by mountains and trees?”

“The point of a retreat is to get work done without distractions,” Linda said.

“How are hiking trails and horseback riding less distracting than the dull brown walls of this place?”

“I don’t know. That’s what retreaters expect,” Linda said. She took a deep breath. “Can’t put this off forever. Can you make a fresh pot of coffee?”

“Got it,” Rayanne said. “Again, sorry.”

“Not your fault,” Linda said. “This one is all me. We need to organize me better.”

Linda’s office was a mess without the trials of moving. She liked to hang on to things, so there were files and booklets, and binders from conferences from years ago. In addition, they received oddball donations like a bag of kid-sized sneakers and boxes of insulated coffee cups from a tribal casino. She had several pieces of framed art leaning against the wall ready for bubble wrap.

Linda moved stacks of mail and newspapers around until she found a bundle of file folders. She flipped through the files searching for her meeting notes. Linda’s strategy was to keep everything on her desk. She resisted all of Rayanne’s attempts to put things away or at least put things in logically linked piles. For every hour they spent organizing Linda’s office, they spent two hours running around because she was panicked about not knowing where everything was.

“I’ll tell them you’re on the way,” Rayanne said.

She found her coworker Ester blocking the door.

“Did you know there is a super-hot guy sitting on your desk?” Ester said.

“Not right now,” Rayanne said.

“Yeah, right now. He’s has a kinda Prince Charming vibe, if Prince Charming were Ind’n. I’d hop on him.”

“Very funny.” Rayanne pushed around her. Ester was the person to lighten your mood no matter what happened, but they were in crisis mode. On the organizational chart, Ester was the manager of health programs but she also ended up doing everything related to computers.

Rayanne had to walk by her desk to get to the meeting room. Ester wasn’t joking. There was a super-hot guy with his actual butt parked on her desk.

“Hey,” she said. He looked up and her heart bounced to her toes and back. Her thoughts jumbled together in the glow of his gorgeousness. She broke into a huge smile. Dark hair, dark eyes, tall, and definitely native. “You here for the meeting?”

He smiled back. “No. I don’t do meetings.”

“Lucky.” She pointed at the meeting room, “I gotta–”

“Don’t let me stop you,” he said.

“I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be right here.”

He had an amazing smile. Pretty teeth. A surge of euphoria blotted out the frustration of the botched retreat. Maybe this guy was a good sign. Maybe her luck was changing. An actual Indian man her age at the center.

Please don’t be a jerk, please don’t be a jerk, she sang to herself.

She set up the coffeemaker, smiling to herself at the sudden jangle of nerves. She hated when she got like this when she met cute guys. Already she was inventing something in her head, and she didn’t even know who he was. Maybe he was here to inspect something or impose a fine for some other paperwork they’d bungled.

She filled a pitcher of water, and took a couple of sodas from the fridge. She put a sleeve of coffee cups under her arm, and hurried into the meeting room.

Arnie’s loud voice rang across the room. Their new board chairman said something about funding resources. He sat next to another new board member, Bernard, who was from the same tribe. Arnie mentioned a government website that any idiot who’d been working for an Indian nonprofit for more than thirty seconds would know about. She didn’t know why she was predisposed to dislike him. He was nice enough. Linda had been friends with him since college, and they’d graduated over ten years ago so she must see something in him. But Rayanne caught a whiff of arrogance around him. He talked more than he listened.

He stopped talking when she entered the room.

“Linda’s on her way,” Rayanne said. A few of the board members remained from the previous term. She passed out sodas to the ones that she knew didn’t drink coffee. She set coffee cups and a handful of sugar and creamer packets out for everyone else.

“There’s a fresh pot of coffee on the way. Anything else?”

They shook their heads. Linda came in and walked to her spot at the table. She set down a legal pad and a folder stuffed with a jumble of papers. She made a tiny gesture, and Rayanne went over and poured her a cup of water.

“You introduce yourself?” Linda asked.

“I’m Rayanne,” she said. “I’m Karuk. Northern California.”

“Ah, another fish-eating Indian,” Arnie said. “You have more diversity on the staff than I expected.” He smiled like he’d made a joke, but Rayanne didn’t get it.

“We’re going to get started,” Linda said. Her tone suggested she’d rather be doing anything else. “We’ll call you if we need anything.”