When a woman and her young son seek safety in Broken Peak, his wolf decides she’s perfect. Eleanor is smart, gorgeous, and fiercely protective of her son. There’s only one problem. He’s the father of her son, but has no memory of Eleanor.
Eleanor Ward isn’t wolf shifter, but she’s the mother of one. The only thing she cares about is keeping her son safe. After an uncontrolled shift, Eleanor finds sanctuary and more at Broken Peak. The father of her son wakes up feelings she hasn’t had time for since becoming a mother.
With her son’s safety hanging in the balance, the love of a fated mate and father might be the only thing strong enough to stand against the danger looming over them, but will Broken Peak lose its Sage and Jackson lose his mate? Or will Jackson’s love for Eleanor and her son be enough to convince Eleanor to stay?
Eleanor Ward ignored the vibrating cell phone as it bounced across the desk. Unrestricted access to the century and a half year old journals belonging to the Appalachian folk healer was limited and rare. She wouldn’t allow the distraction of a phone call to shorten the brief time the librarian allotted her. Of the small number of grad students studying folklore at the University of Missouri, she was the only one working towards her Masters but had been enrolled the longest. Officially, the school didn’t have a part-time program for graduate studies, but the department head made an exception for her.
Her phone vibrated again. Either a bill collector or a telemarketer, and neither was more important than Eleanor’s time with Edna Hern MacAllister’s journals. Eleanor had given up her scheduled time last month. She couldn’t give up even five minutes or she’d never finish her thesis.
Last month Foster experienced several days of uncontrolled shifting right in the middle of her scheduled time in the restricted area. The journals had to wait. Eleanor wouldn’t risk Foster shifting at daycare in a room full of rambunctious three- and four-year-olds.
Foster usually experienced long breaks between shifts. At least six weeks, if not longer. Eleanor planned on taking advantage of the respite to make up for the lost research time. If luck became a close friend, she’d defend her thesis at the end of the fall semester, graduate in the spring with the others, and find a job that would help pay off her student loans and give her the freedom to keep Foster out of day care.
Twenty-five more minutes, then she’d pick Foster up before heading home for a quiet evening. After he went to bed, she’d sit in front of her computer and put in a few hours of entering data from some random survey full of push questions that would never give the company the answers they needed.
She could do it. She had the next three months planned out to the minute, but she could do it.
The phone vibrated again. Eleanor snatched it off the table and shoved it into the front pocket of her bag on the floor. Out of sight; out of mind.
She studied the entry on the fragile page she’d been reading before her phone interrupted. The entry made no sense. Taking into consideration Edna’s habit of spelling words phonetically and using local terms long extinct, the entry couldn’t be accurate. According to Edna, the young man she had treated for a bullet wound healed in a few days. No one healed from a bullet wound in days. Not now with the marvels of modern medicine and not a hundred and fifty years ago in what was likely the most rural part of the United States.
Edna made a mistake with the days. She had to. But Edna didn’t make mistakes. Edna was meticulous with the numbers in her notes. She recorded doses by weight and size, and times down to the second. The attention to detail was unusual, but especially so in the Appalachians. The entry had one other difference. Next to the patient’s name, S. Roosevelt, Edna drew five small circles with a line coming out the top of each circle and one large circle underneath the smaller circles. Eleanor hadn’t noticed any symbols on the entries before, but then she hadn’t been looking for them.
After a quick glance at the wall clock, she flipped through the journal pages. This time she ignored the words and focused on finding doodles or drawings in the margins. For the first time in months, Eleanor felt as though she wasn’t floundering with her thesis. She studied the role of magic in rural American traditions and folklore.
While Mr. Roosevelt’s treatment didn’t have any additional notes about spells cast, the speed of the recovery with the small symbol tickled at Eleanor’s researcher senses.
“Eleanor!” Wayne Ritchie, her adviser, whisper yelled at her from the door of the private study room she occupied.
Eleanor jumped and the page in the journal ripped along the spine.
Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. Eleanor didn’t curse in front of Foster, instead she thought her swear words. If anytime was appropriate for swearing, it was when she destroyed a priceless and irreplaceable book.
“Eleanor,” Wayne walked into the room, ignoring the torn page, “why didn’t you answer your phone? I’ve been calling.”
“What? Why? Is there something wrong? Did I make a mistake about my scheduled time?” As she said the last word, Eleanor glanced at the torn page still in her hand and swallowed. The librarian would never allow Eleanor access to the journal again. She’d probably ban Eleanor from the entire library too. With a deep breath, Eleanor filled her lungs with oxygen and willed heart to stop racing.
“Come on. We don’t have much time.” Wayne lifted her messenger bag to the table. Though the bag overflowed with heavy books and caused Eleanor to tilt to the side when she carried it, he had no problem. He didn’t speak while he shoved her papers into her bag.
“Wayne? Dr. Ritchie, what’s wrong?”
Wayne lifted his gaze from the top of the table and gave her a small shake of his head. Eleanor had only seen the gesture in movies, the ones with an action hero intent on saving someone, but wanted them to stay quiet. Whatever worry she had about her academic standing fled and a worry a hundred times worse took its place.
Foster. Something must have happened with Foster.
Eleanor reached down and helped her adviser shove her notebooks and pens in the bag. Once Wayne and Eleanor packed up everything on the table, he slung the bag over his shoulder, grabbed her wrist, and tugged her out of the room. She stumbled behind him, doing her level best not to scream out her need to know what was happening.
Dr. Wayne Ritchie was unflappable. Four or five years ago, a student’s water broke during the middle of his class. He calmed the student and found someone to take her to the hospital while he continued to deliver his lecture. If he was this close to a panic, it meant the worst-case scenario had happened. Her greatest fear had come to life.
Hurrying through the hallways, they bypassed the elevator and used the stairs. And instead of heading out the main doors, Wayne pushed open a side door that led to a small alley between two buildings.
Once outside in the fresh air, Eleanor opened her mouth. “What’s going on?”
“Look, we don’t have a lot of time. Save your questions until your son is in your arms and we’re off campus.”
Eleanor’s stomach dropped. Not only was her worst fear materializing, somehow, against all reasoning, whatever happened was worse than she had imagined and planned for. Shit. All of her contingency plans included having enough time to do things like run to the bank and close out her checking account. Not that she had much money, but at least the balance wasn’t negative. Once they got far enough out of town, she’d find a job waiting tables until she saved enough to make a real run for it.
She held no delusions that Foster’s secret was still a secret. The only reason for her adviser to drag her from the library and say the words he just had was if Foster shifted in front of someone.
As soon as Wayne opened the back door to an older model SUV sitting at the end of the alley and Eleanor slid into the seat, the crying started. Fear and anger merged, feeding the tears sliding down her cheeks. Keeping Foster safe should have been her priority. This was all her fault. If she hadn’t tried to finish her degree and put Foster in daycare when she had classes, none of this would have happened.
She worked from home so she didn’t need to put Foster in regular daycare. In another year, she planned on filling out the forms for home schooling. But she convinced herself a few hours a week would be okay, and Foster would benefit from the socialization with kids his own age. The excuses didn’t absolve her of the sin of putting her education ahead of Foster’s security. It wasn’t like Foster’s life was all that spectacular to begin with, and Eleanor made it worse with one selfish decision.
Wayne got in the passenger side of the front seat. Eleanor didn’t recognize the man behind the steering wheel. He looked similar enough to Wayne to be his brother and her mind categorized him as a friend. Since Foster came home with her, she learned how to assess and categorize strangers. Eleanor brushed the back of her hands against her cheeks, erasing the tears, but not the red blotches on her cheeks. She couldn’t hide the blotches with a tub full of expensive makeup way out of her budget once Foster entered her life.
The driver pulled into traffic with the slow caution of someone learning to drive. It didn’t take long to drive across campus, but they took the back roads and avoided the heavier traffic. By the time Eleanor’s brain processed everything that had happened in the last ten minutes, they were pulling up in front of the daycare center and there wasn’t time for her to ask questions.
Wayne turned in the seat and offered a reassuring smile. “Go inside and pick up Foster, Eleanor, then come right back out. Everything will be fine, we just need to get him out of there as soon as possible. Keep things normal, okay?”
“Yeah. Normal. Okay.” Eleanor nodded. She would do this. She’d done it before, this wasn’t a new task she’d never attempted before. Except once her feet hit the cement walkway, it was impossible to stop her feet from hurrying. She needed to see Foster. She had to keep him safe. No matter what happened or would happen, keeping Foster safe needed to be her only concern.
Not knowing what to expect, relief washed through her when she didn’t find police officers swarming the building. Maybe the worst didn’t happen. As soon as she opened the door, Foster threw himself at her and wrapped his arms around her knees. Eleanor looked over at the teacher as she bent down and hugged Foster close to her.
“How you doing, little man?” Eleanor combed her fingers through his blond hair. Foster didn’t look anything like his mother and Eleanor figured he must have gotten his hair, and possibly other things, from his father.
“Good. Ms Sara helped me today.” Foster struggled with the R sound the way so many children did and replaced it with a W sound.
“She did? That was nice of her.” Eleanor glanced back at the front door, remembering Wayne’s advice to leave as soon as possible. “Where’s your coat and backpack? In your cubby? Why don’t you go grab them, then we can pick up a pizza for dinner.”
It was only the afternoon, but she didn’t have any other excuse to hurry Foster out of the building. As Foster raced down the short hallway to the cubbies, Sara approached Eleanor. With nowhere to run, Eleanor practiced several lies in her head. She didn’t know what happened, but just because it wasn’t the worst didn’t mean it wasn’t bad.
Sara reached out and squeezed Eleanor’s shoulder. “There was an incident today. It will be okay, but you need to accept the help being offered, Eleanor. You can’t do it alone, no matter what you think.”
Eleanor gaped at Sara. What did the teacher know about Eleanor’s needs? Sara kept her lips together when she smiled, but the hint of a sharp and long tooth peeked out before Sara’s blue eyes did the same glowy thing that Foster’s did. And it wasn’t caused by the light hitting them and reflecting back in an odd way. Sara’s eyes had the full-on glowing like the ass end of a lightning bug thing happening.
Sara did the slight head shake, the same gesture Wayne made in the library. Eleanor snapped her mouth closed. Wayne’s appearance at the library made a little more sense. Maybe. If she closed one eye and twisted her head to the side and pretended everything that happened since bringing Foster home was normal. She still didn’t understand what was happening or why, but at least she wasn’t alone. Well, Foster wasn’t alone. Others, like him, existed.
“Hurry Scurry, little mouse.” Sara called down the hallway and the sound of Foster’s pounding feet against the linoleum immediately followed. Sara smiled at Eleanor and gave her a quick one-armed hug. “It will be okay. Now hurry up or Wayne will worry.”
Eleanor reached for Foster with one hand and his backpack with the other. Before heading outside and into an unknown future, Eleanor mouthed the words thank you to the young teacher. Eleanor had a feeling Sara kept Foster safe today and prevented the worst thing from happening.
“Who’s Wayne?” Foster tilted his head back so he looked at Eleanor when he asked his question.
“Dr. Ritchie. He gave me a ride today.” Eleanor wanted to say more, but the teacher was already walking down the hall to the classroom.
“Oh. I know him. Why did he give you a ride?” Foster’s questions never ended once they started.
“He just did. Wasn’t that nice of him? Come on, let’s go.” Without Sara in the hallway with her, Eleanor no longer felt safe and wanted to leave the building and get back into the SUV as soon as possible.
As they walked out of the building, Eleanor’s mind reeled with all the new information assaulting her. It hadn’t been more than thirty minutes since Wayne grabbed her and her life had changed even more than it had the night she became a mother. When she suddenly had the heavy weight of the responsibility of a newborn resting on her too small shoulders.
Wayne got out of the SUV and greeted Foster with a fist bump. “Let’s get you in the car and buckled up.”
Eleanor hadn’t even thought about a car seat, but someone had. It hadn’t been in the back seat when she got out, but there it was now. Foster crawled up into the SUV and then into the seat, insisting he could do it on his own the entire time. He turned four in a few weeks and his independence streak was a mile wide. It always had been. When he took his first steps, he refused any help from Eleanor and relied on the furniture instead. When Foster turned two, he announced to Eleanor it was time to stop wearing diapers and potty trained himself.
Wayne looked over at Eleanor and gave a slight head tilt toward the front seat. “Why don’t you sit up front with Victor?”
Well, that was unexpected. Wayne checked that Foster was secure then hurried around the back of the SUV instead of crawling across the car seat. Eleanor got into the front seat. Again, Victor pulled into traffic with all the caution of a new driver. He also went exactly one mile over the speed limit and used his turn signals even in the right turn lane where no one used them.
The low rumble of a man speaking quietly came from the backseat, but Eleanor couldn’t make out the words. When Foster’s high-pitched voice responded, she could only make out a few words, but it seemed they were just talking about what Foster learned in school.
Victor glanced over at Eleanor before returning his gaze to the road. “Who’s the father?”
Eleanor closed her eyes and let out a long breath. She didn’t hide the fact Foster was technically her nephew and not her son. But then she didn’t make a point of telling everyone either. Foster saw her as his mother and anytime someone learned of his parentage it always caused weird conversations that left Foster confused. When he was older, she’d explain it to him, but it was too much for a three-year-old, even one who was a few weeks away from turning four. “I don’t know. And neither does his biological mother. Why?”
“Because you can’t do this alone. We have someone who can help if you don’t have an idea who the father is, but you can’t stay here.”
Eleanor looked over her shoulder, but Foster wasn’t paying any attention to her. Wayne captured all of Foster’s attention.
“What happened today?” Eleanor asked the question she’d been wanting the answer to since Wayne interrupted her research.
“He shifted. Sara and two kids witnessed it, but no other adults. We don’t know how it’s going to play out with the kids, but you can’t stay here. Taking Foster to his father would be best, but since you say you don’t know who he is–”
“Fine. The father is unknown, so that leaves you with a last resort.”
In Eleanor’s experience, last resorts never ended well. She’d accept the help on a temporary basis, but she was going to find Foster’s father and get the answers she needed.