Guardian Cougar (Finding Fatherhood #2)

GC_cover

In the Finding Fatherhood series, these shifters become daddies in unconventional ways.

Cougar-shifter Jackson Sperry rescues Hannah from the ocean, and she has no memory of how she ended up floating in the Pacific. She also doesn’t remember who she is or how she came to be pregnant. He’s drawn to her and determined to protect her as they unravel the mystery of her past. It isn’t long before he’s ready to claim her as his mate and raise her son as his own—but without knowing the details of her past, the future remains uncertain, and he fears someone is still hunting Hannah and her baby.

Excerpt

The wet sand provided firm resistance under Jackson Sperry’s running shoes as he sprinted down the stretch of public beach. It was early enough in the morning that he had the place to himself, and he’d started jogging while it was still dark. Being a cougar-shifter, he was able to see as clearly in the dark as he would have during the light, so he always timed his runs to start before dawn, culminating with the spectacular sunrise that occurred daily. It was always subtly different each day, but never failed to impress him.

It hadn’t been like that in Los Angeles. Oh, it had been the same sun on the horizon, and there’d been a beach he had jogged at when hours permitted, but it never looked so beautiful. He didn’t know if that was because there was less pollution in San Diego, or simply because the city wasn’t tainted with the oppressive bitterness of Los Angeles that he carried in his mind. Whatever the explanation, the rising sun was the best part of his day.

Today, he waited for it, freezing when something in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He turned to look, and though it was still hazy, with only predawn light, his eyesight was excellent, allowing him to pick out whatever it was that had caught his attention. Almost instantly, he recognized it as an orange lifejacket, and it was attached to someone.

With a smothered curse, he kicked off his jogging shoes and waded into the ocean. The cougar inside him hissed at the water, but he ignored that response. He could swim well, but he didn’t enjoy submersing himself in large bodies of water any more than his cat did. It couldn’t be helped under the circumstances, and he dove in as soon as the water was deep enough, swimming out to the lifejacket-clad person floating in the ocean.

It was a fair distance from the shore, and he was certain normal human eyes wouldn’t have even seen the lifejacket. Anyone else running on the beach would have overlooked the floating person. He grabbed hold of the person awkwardly, quickly realizing it was a woman by the blonde hair trailing out in the water that clung to his arm and chest. He towed her beside him as he swam back to shore as quickly as possible with his awkward stroke. He could only use one arm, since he held her with the other.

Despite the handicap to his swimming form, he soon had her back on the shore, lying on the beach. The sun chose that moment to rise over the horizon, filling the sky with purple, gold, and yellow that provided extra illumination. The first sight of her face took his breath away, but he couldn’t allow himself to dwell on how gorgeous she was. Instead, he focused on stripping off the lifejacket and checking to see if she was still breathing. He was reassured to find a pulse, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have water in her lungs. He wasn’t certain if he should help by trying to compress her chest or not. Instead, he turned her on her side and gently thumped her back.

A moment later, she let out a ragged gasp and started choking as she spat out water. He supported her, keeping her from rolling to her back as she shed the contents of seawater that had accumulated inside her. When she was done coughing, he lifted her into his arms, shoved his feet into his running shoes, and rushed toward the parking lot. It was a bit of a jog, especially with the added weight of another person in his arms, but he moved rapidly, knowing she had to get to the hospital. She hadn’t yet spoken, and he wasn’t clear if she was semiconscious, just terrified, or simply incapable of speaking from all the coughing she’d done. He didn’t have the extra breath to spare for conversation since he was running for two.

Make that three, as he abruptly discovered when she shifted slightly in his arms, pressing her distended abdomen against him. She was pregnant. He almost stumbled, but his innate feline grace righted his foot before he could do so, and he continued on.

The public parking lot was still deserted this early in the morning when he finally reached it, though he wished someone else had been around. He would have had them call emergency services. They were only a few minutes from the nearest hospital though, so he made the decision to drive her there himself. When he reached his car, he carefully lowered her to her feet, keeping an arm around her waist as she swayed unsteadily.

He used the fob on his keychain, relieved to find it still worked after a dunk in the ocean, and the doors beeped to indicate they had unlocked. He opened the passenger side for her and carefully eased her inside. Her frightened gaze collided with his, and the open vulnerability made him catch his breath. They were sparkling blue, and he could have lost himself in them if they hadn’t been filled with fear.

“I’m going to take you to the hospital.” He hoped the reassurance would remove at least a small trace of fear from her gaze. It didn’t seem to, but she did nod. He helped her position herself so he could fasten the seatbelt, carefully ensuring the lap belt went under her bulge. Then he ran around to his side of the car after closing her door and slid inside. The car started immediately, and he drove more carelessly and quickly than usual as he rushed her to the closest hospital.

He was concerned about her, and the fact that she still wasn’t speaking, as he turned into the parking lot. “It’s going to be okay. What’s your name?”

She didn’t answer, and tears appeared on her face, spilling from her eyes. She made no move to wipe them away.

Her response troubled him, and he parked in the closest space available before rushing around to her side and lifting her from the car. Perhaps she could have walked, but she still seemed so shaken, and he couldn’t deny he felt reassured with her in his arms rather than trying to stumble on her own.

As they entered the emergency department, a nurse came forward with a wheelchair, and he eased her down into it, following behind as the young woman wheeled the chair to the intake desk. “I found her in the ocean. She was unconscious, but breathing, though she coughed up a bunch of water,” he said to the nurse as they walked across the lobby.

At the desk, a thick stack of paperwork awaited, and he winced when the first question from the registrar’s mouth was, “Who is your insurance provider?”

He looked down at her, and she was still trembling. Jackson abandoned the clipboard of papers that had been thrust at him so he could kneel down beside her chair and take her hand. “Can you help me fill out the paperwork for you? I need to know your name and insurance carrier. There’s basically a lot of information, and I’m going to need your help to fill it out.”

Tears came to her eyes again. “I don’t know.”

He wasn’t certain what her answer meant. He squeezed her hand reassuringly, encouraged by the way she squeezed back and clung tightly to him. “We’ll just go slowly, okay? Why don’t we start with your name?”

“I don’t know,” she said, almost hurling the words at him. “I don’t know my name. I can’t remember anything. I don’t know how I ended up here, and I don’t know who I am.”

She began to sob, and without thinking about it, he put his arm around her and pulled her from the wheelchair, holding her against him. He looked up at the registrar, annoyed by her expression of impatience. “You heard her. She doesn’t remember anything. The paperwork will have to wait.”

“I really need her insurance information on file.”

With an angry snarl, Jackson used his free hand to pull his damp wallet from his jogging pants, flipping it open to extract his American Express Black card. He slapped it down on the counter. “Hopefully that’ll be enough to get her seen.”

With an angry huff, the registrar took his card and sent for the nurse who had wheeled her to the desk to start with. Fortunately, that young woman had much kinder eyes and clear compassion, though she insisted Jackson return the unknown woman to the wheelchair.

He felt a pang as she started to depart from him, wondering about her fate, but froze when she refused to relinquish his hand. The nurse had stopped wheeling the chair, and the blonde gave him an imploring look. He couldn’t refuse, and didn’t want to, when she asked him to come with her.

The nurse moved quickly after that, getting her into the back exam rooms and settling her in one. Jackson helped steady her as she moved to an exam table, and then he slipped outside so the nurse could help her disrobe from the flimsy nightgown she wore and slip on the hospital gown instead. He hovered outside the doorway until the young nurse came out, nodding her head. “She’s all set, and the doctor should be in quickly.”

He nodded his thanks and slipped back into the room, moving closer to the bed. It was completely natural to take her hand again, and as he ran his thumb over her wrist, he discovered she wore a gold bracelet he hadn’t noticed until now. “Is it all right if I take this off?” At her nod, though she looked puzzled, he carefully removed the anti-theft clasp of the gold bracelet and turned it over in his hands. As he’d hoped to find, there was an inscription.

For Hannah, The brightest star in our skies. Love, Mom and Dad

He looked up at her with a small smile. “Hello, Hannah.”

There wasn’t a hint of recognition, and she blinked. “Who’s Hannah?”

He showed her the inscription on the bracelet. “I think we have to assume you’re Hannah, though there are other ways you could have come into possession of her bracelet. Does Hannah sound right or feel right at all?”

She shrugged, though she appeared to be thinking about it. “It sounds familiar, I think. I don’t know though. All sorts of things sound familiar, and I can give you the definition or the names of things, like this is an oximeter.” She held up her left hand to show him the device clipped to her second finger. “I just don’t know anything personal. I can’t remember anything about me.” She blinked rapidly, clearly on the verge of tears again.

He patted her hand before carefully putting on the bracelet once more. “At least we have a name to work with. Do you want to be Hannah?”

She nodded. “Why not? It’s as good a name as any.”

Feeling the need to elicit a smile, he tried teasing gently. “There are other options, of course. We could go with Brunhilda or Matilda.”

Her lips twitched lightly. “Do I look German?”

He studied her face closely, under the auspices of answering her question, though he was really drinking in the sight of her high cheekbones, delicate complexion, and silvery blonde hair. With her bright blue eyes and bone structure, coupled with that hair, she looked Norwegian. “Perhaps. Do you prefer Hannah though?”

She nodded. “If my alternatives are Brunhilda or Matilda, Hannah sounds like a winner.”

The doctor stepped into the room then, and he looked younger than Hannah, who couldn’t have been much past her early twenties, but he seemed competent. He thoroughly examined her before sitting down on a wheeled stool. “You look all right physically. I don’t think there’s any water left in your lungs, but I do need you to disrobe.” He shot a look at Jackson. “Would you prefer privacy for that? I can have a nurse come in, but would you like your rescuer to leave the room?”

Jackson was surprised when she shook her head. “No, please don’t.”

He took her hand, squeezing gently. “I won’t leave if you don’t want me to.”

The doctor stood up from the stool once more, stethoscope hanging from his neck. This time, instead of pressing it to her chest through the gown, he carefully untied the back and draped it around her chest modestly. When he moved around behind her, Jackson tensed at the doctor’s hiss of surprise. “What is it?”

The doctor looked angry for a moment, though his tone emerged impassively. “How did you acquire these whip marks on your back?”

She shuddered, turning her head as though she could see them for herself. “What whip marks?”

The doctor grimaced, and Jackson peered over her shoulder. He grimaced as well, appalled to see the scars on her back. They were thin lines, and some had started to fade to white, but a few still looked angry, though they had to be at least several months old. Whoever had done it to her had been angry, to say the least. A surge of protectiveness welled in him, and his cougar roared in his head, calling for the blood of whomever had marked her in such a horrible fashion.

The doctor finished examining her back before moving around to the front again. Jackson looked away as he draped the gown to preserve her modesty while revealing her stomach.

She let out a gasp, and he looked back in time to see the doctor probing her abdomen gently. She was looking down at her swollen stomach, and she appeared horrified.

“I’m pregnant?” The tears she had suppressed for a while fell again, and she was clearly distraught. “But how? Who?”

“I’m not certain how far along you are, so I’d like to do an ultrasound before we discharge you.”

Jackson frowned at the doctor. “What do you mean, discharge her? You can’t let her go.”

The doctor looked up at him, his expression cool. “Technically, she’s in good enough health to be out of the hospital, barring a complication from the pregnancy. She’s traumatized, but that’s no reason to keep her in the hospital.”

She was trembling, and her panic was evident. “Where am I supposed to go?”

“I’ll send in a social worker to discuss your options,” said the doctor as he lowered her gown and raised the sheet. “I’m going to get the ultrasound machine first.”

As the doctor moved away, Jackson acted on instinct, curving his arm around her shoulder and giving her a half hug. “I have a spare room at my apartment, and you’re welcome to stay with me while we figure out this mess. My friends and I run a security company, so we have the right contacts to find out your identity. You don’t have to do that, but it’s an option if you don’t like the ones the social worker presents to you.”

She stiffened against him for a moment, and then turned her head into his chest, burying her face against his damp T-shirt. “I’d like to stay with you,” she said in a soft whisper. It was so quietly spoken normal human senses might not have heard it, but he caught it clearly with his enhanced shifter hearing.

“That’s what we’ll do then. You come home with me, Hannah, and we’ll try to figure out how you ended up in the ocean.”

“And pregnant,” she said in a broken voice. “Who did this?”

It was an odd phrasing, but he didn’t call her on it. She probably didn’t even realize it herself, that she was casting someone as the architect of her misery. Perhaps the memories were just buried at the moment due to trauma, and she would quickly regain them.

It didn’t matter how long it took, because she could stay with him for the duration. He was concerned about her, and he was drawn to her. She’d clearly been through something horrible, and he wanted to help her.

The doctor returned a moment later, wheeling in the ultrasound machine himself. He approached the bed, using the controls to lay her mostly flat. Once more, Jackson looked away as the doctor helped her arrange the gown and sheet to expose her stomach while providing the maximum amount of modesty elsewhere. When he turned back a minute later, her adorable baby bump was visible, but no other sections of skin around it.

She let out a small gasp when the doctor poured gel on her stomach. “That’s cold.”

The doctor nodded. “So I’ve heard.” He reached for the wand and ran it over her stomach, keeping the screen angled toward him so neither Jackson nor Hannah could see anything. After a few minutes of looking at the screen himself and repositioning the ultrasound wand, he finally turned it so they could see too. “He looks healthy. I’d estimate you’re around thirty weeks, and he seems to be on target for growth. I don’t see any anomalies, and your placenta is fully intact with no rips or tears. There’s no reason to keep you here in the hospital.”

Hannah was staring at the screen, transfixed, but looked troubled. “It’s a boy?”

The doctor nodded, appearing unbothered by the fact he’d revealed the gender. It probably hadn’t occurred to him she might not know or want to know. “I’ll refer you to an obstetrician, and you should get a checkup quickly, but there’s nothing urgent. With your past being ambiguous, we don’t know if you’ve had proper prenatal care, so just follow up with Dr. Quimby.”

As soon as the doctor had left, she started sobbing. Jackson sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her against his chest. The level of trust she showed in him overwhelmed him as she curled against his body while he rubbed her back. He let the tears abate before trying to speak. “What’s wrong, Hannah?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s the problem. I don’t know anything about who I am, or who fathered my child. It’s terrifying. What if he’s out there looking for me right now?” There should have been hope in her tone, but instead, it was laced with fear.

He pulled away slightly, examining both of her hands. He focused most of his attention on her left, but neither hand had any mark suggesting she regularly wore a ring that might have been lost in the ocean. “There’s no ring, so you might not be married. If someone’s looking for you, your face will pop up all over the news, and we’ll be able to find your partner quickly. Maybe your memory will return as soon as he’s there to fill in the blanks.”

Her eyes widened, and she seemed to reject the idea with her entire being. “I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want him to find me.”

He frowned in concern. “Have you remembered something?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know anything, but I feel afraid.”

It could have simply been what she’d been through affecting her emotions, but he wasn’t one to dismiss instinct. As a shifter, instinct was a big part of his life, especially his cougar side. If she was afraid, perhaps she had reason to fear, and he wouldn’t discount the idea. He only hoped her memory returned quickly, so she could answer the questions for herself.

As she curled against him, he found himself hoping maybe not too quickly, because the sooner she regained her memory, the sooner she would leave him. His cat growled its dissatisfaction at the idea, and he tightened his arms a little more around her. The idea of losing Hannah didn’t sit well with him, though he barely knew her, and she certainly didn’t belong with him.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed