First Nations Constable Jordan Chartrand’s guilt can’t handle the accusing stares from the family left to mourn their son after that horrible night…so he flees from his Ojibway community and the woman he loves. Two years later, his mother’s cancer diagnosis forces him to return to help her.
Devoted schoolteacher Ellie Quill wants nothing to do with Jordan after he bolted to the city and left her behind. Her life goals are set. As for her secret, she’ll keep that to herself, even if Jordan’s begging to know the truth about her child.
When the two are compelled to work on a community project to address the rampant drug problem, their forced proximity slowly melts Ellie’s icy walls. But no matter how much her heart desires to give Jordan the second chance he’s begging for, she refuses to because providing a life for her son in the tradition of the Ojibway culture is her top priority now, not moving to the city where Jordan continues to hide.
For daring to return to Ducktail Lake First Nation after scuttling off like a coward, Jordan expected a slap across the face from the woman he’d left behind and knuckles to his nose from the Pemmican family for killing their son.
He shifted back and forth on his heels. The crunch, crunch of gravel beneath his running shoes helped ease the tension digging into his shoulders. A flutter from the breeze soothed one side of his cheek. The air carried the scent of spruce, something he’d missed after being away for two years.
Nothing had changed at the reserve. Charlie’s Chicken & Things still needed a new coat of paint. The white siding on the restaurant had peeled away. Potholes continued to call the many dirt roads in dire need of grading home. If someone drove by, dust scattered everywhere.
Yep, same ol’ same ol’. Even him. He remained the shaky, guilt-ridden man who’d fled this place of lakes, marshes, and reeds.
The blinds to the restaurant were closed against the bright sunlight. Those inside the diner couldn’t see him lurking about, and he offered up a silent thanks.
The walk from Mom’s place had given him a chance to try and work off the nervous edge prickling his skin—the same needles he’d experienced when he’d flown in last night from Winnipeg.
You’re thirty. Man up. He squeezed his fingers, huffed out a big breath, and pushed on the glass door.
The tinkling bell seemed louder than the boom of the sacred drum the community used at each powwow, feast, and ceremony. Every head in the diner swiveled in his direction, as if he’d beaten the deer-hide skin and had demanded their attention to begin the opening prayer.
A line of sweat trickled down Jordan’s back. Maybe he shouldn’t have come in on the late flight. If he’d hitched a ride on the morning plane, the moccasin telegraph would’ve been abuzz, announcing his return. By arriving at nine-thirty at night, he hadn’t given the local gossips time to spread the news.
Jordan ran his finger along the collar of the polo shirt tightening around his neck like a noose.
Bertha, as always, staffed the counter. Instead of her gray brows furrowing, the lines around her black eyes softened and her big smile erased the wrinkles peppering the outline of her mouth. “Stah hii. When’d you get back? Huh? Your mom never told me nothin’.”
She patted the white counter and turned over a coffee mug.
Someone must have glued Jordan’s running shoes to the floor, because he couldn’t move. Maybe the trickster Nanabush was lurking about, playing one of his mischievous pranks. It took all of Jordan’s strength to peel his feet from their rooted position and force himself forward. The walk to where Bertha waited was longer than the Trans Canada. Stares from the customers bore into Jordan’s backside.
One thing had changed, for sure. Whenever he’d arrived for a coffee in the past, he’d received greetings of aniin, boozhoo, and aaniish naa ezhiyaayin. So much for a welcoming hello and how ya doing.
The clatter of a pot coming from the kitchen interrupted the ear-piercing silence.
“Dat. Who dat?” The playful question belonged to a toddler.
Jordan turned his head. His eyes almost jumped from their sockets. Ellie sat at the table by a window, along with the child he’d texted her about before she’d blocked him on her cell phone.
He’d never expected to bump into her so soon. At quarter to nine, she should be at the school in her classroom, instructing thirteen-year-olds.
No matter that Jordan’s ears were hotter than the rocks in a sweat lodge or that self-consciousness was flaming his face, he couldn’t tear his gaze from Ellie’s deep-set dark eyes or the plush, red lips he used to taste.
The little boy, Raymond, possessed the same features as Ellie—a true Cupid’s bow to his mouth, pouting stare with his little finger resting on his plump lower lip, and brilliant dark eyes as magnificent as a moonless night on the reserve.
Once more, Jordan drew his finger along the collar of his shirt. Dammit, he had a right to know if he was the father.
Studying the child’s black, straight hair, chestnut-brown skin with red undertones, and oval jawline, he couldn’t find a hint of himself reflecting in Raymond’s features. Even the boy’s ears were average in size and close to the head—the same as Ellie’s.
The unforgiving look Ellie shot Jordan’s way was the point of a knife poking his heart. If not for that night, he’d be sharing their table, instead of standing at the counter under suspicious stares everyone tossed at a wiindigo. He wasn’t some monster who went around consuming human flesh, but after that night, they’d probably always see him as a ravenous, evil, vile being.
Ellie shifted her hard stare back to the child. She held a spoon. Her hand shook slightly as she slid the glob of scrambled eggs into Raymond’s mouth.
Maybe Jordan would remain the despised wiindigo. He’d chosen his guilt and self-loathing over her love and understanding, while she’d picked her classroom of children.
She wouldn’t abandon the kids or the reserve. Ever.
But he’d abandoned…everyone.
* * * *
Ellie didn’t wish to sneak a peek, but her treacherous eyes had a mind of their own. The stupid things kept wandering toward the counter where Jordan stood. He’d lost weight. His muscles didn’t almost burst from his polo shirt the way they once had in his police uniform.
The same for his sunken chest. It’d once proudly withstood the thickness of the loadbearing, bulletproof vest he’d preferred over the kind that went underneath his shirt. It’d clipped to his belt so he didn’t have to worry about carrying the additional weight of his gun, handcuffs, magazine, taser, flashlight, pepper spray, and baton on his waist.