Authors: Eve Langlais
She’s allergic to me!
If he’d thought himself stunned at the realization that the trembling woman was probably his mate, then it was nothing compared to his disbelief that fate thought it would be funny to pair him with someone who couldn’t get near him without going into a sneezing fit.
And forget a petite ladylike sneeze. Nope. This woman might not stand taller than his chin, and she might present herself as the epitome of womanliness with her epic curves, but there was nothing delicate about the exhalation that came bursting out from her. It was also quite wet, which his inner feline didn’t like at all.
But her embarrassment and red cheeks were quite cute and mollified his indignant cat.
Before he could say a word, she ran away from him.
She runs. We should chase.
Hayder almost did, but he refrained long enough that she returned, bearing a towel.
“Here.” She offered the cotton fabric to him.
With a hint of a smile tugging at his lips, he took it to wipe at his face and shirt. He didn’t especially mind a little bit of spit—and would dearly love to maybe wear some of her cream—but accepting her towel of apology seemed to ease her somewhat.
If only she would stop trembling and ducking her head. He could smell the fear rolling off her, and it irritated the hell out of him.
Surely she didn’t fear him? Perhaps he’d entered a little abruptly, but still, he’d done nothing to deserve this level of trepidation.
When she didn’t seem inclined to speak, he broke the ice, gently this time so as to not startle her. “Let’s start over, shall we? I’m Hayder, the pride’s beta. Arik sent me to guard you.”
“Oh no. He really shouldn’t have done that. I’m not important enough to warrant that kind of protection. Surely an important man like yourself has better things to do.”
Yeah. He probably did, but he suddenly couldn’t think of a single thing more important than the duty of keeping the timid she-wolf before him safe. Okay, that was a lie. He did know something more important—
What do her lips taste like, and how will she fit into my arms?
Perfectly he’d wager. Just like she’d look even better naked on his bed. But he might be rushing things a little. He should probably first put her at ease—and invest in a pocket handkerchief, seeing as how she sneezed again, this time aiming away from his face.
“I don’t mind guarding you.” Forget what he’d thought a few minutes ago. Arik was right. Her protection was a priority.
“Surely they could send someone else. A man of your position shouldn’t lower himself to babysitting me.”
How dare she think so little of herself, never mind he’d entertained the same reasoning. “I don’t mind doing it. You’re Jeoff’s sister. We might not be the best of buds, but he is a cherished ally of the pride. It’s our pleasure to help him out.” Oh, how Jeoff would have busted a gut to hear him lying so hard. While he liked and respected Jeoff, they had a rivalry that went back to college when they’d constantly vied for positions on sports teams—and the attention of the same hot girls.
“But by helping me, you’re inviting trouble.”
Trouble? His lion perked up. Trouble meant fighting. Which, in turn, meant fun. Bring it. “We can handle any trouble that comes our way.”
“You don’t understand. My old pack…” She trailed off.
“What about them? They won’t dare mess with you here. The laws”—created centuries ago by some unknown entities, were something they all abided by—“will keep them in line.”
“No they won’t.” She wrung her hands as she turned from him, and he almost reached out to reel her back, to tuck her against his chest and hold her safe. But she might not welcome such intimate attention quite yet. Give it a few minutes.
“The laws are the laws.”
“To most. However, my old pack, they don’t abide by normal rules. They thrive on violence. They make their own laws.”
“If they break them, then they’ll face the consequences.” And yes, he might have sounded a little more gleeful than necessary. “Exactly what is the situation anyhow? I didn’t get many details.” Mostly because he’d spent most of the time after being given his orders bitching and moaning—in a manly way of course.
“They want me back.”
“Well, they can’t have you.” It might have come out a tad more vehement than necessary.
She froze and shot a glance at him over her shoulder. “But they will try. I only barely escaped. Once my mate died—”
“You were mated?”
Turning away from him, he noted the roll of her shoulders. “More or less. Harry claimed me right out of high school.”
“Harry.” He rolled the name around on his tongue. “The name sounds familiar.”
“He was alpha of the Northern Lakes Pack.”
“He was your mate? But he was the same age as my da.” He couldn’t hide the incredulity in his voice.
“Yes, he was much older than me.”
He winced as he grasped how his words might sound. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like a dick. I’m sure you loved him, and age wasn’t a thing.” A sudden flare of irritation, as well as an angry mental swish of a tail, left him confused. Why should he care about her previous mate? He couldn’t expect the women he dated to be virgins. But it bothered him. The idea she might love another irked him. Or did she love him?
She made a noise. “Loved him? Hardly.”
“But you were mated.”
“Because he tricked me.” She clamped her lips tight.
“How?” She shook her head, but he wanted to know, so he pressed. “How did he trick you?”
“I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
But it wasn’t anguish he sensed oozing from her at the subject she tried to avoid, more a dread. The fear had returned.
“Tell me what happened.” He used a commanding tone, refraining a wince as her fear level spiked. But she spoke.
“As I said, Harry was several years older than me. On a visit to an aunt who lived in his pack, he met me. He decided he wanted me as wife and pursued me. I was young, stupid, and flattered.”
“I am getting the impression he wasn’t a great husband.”
She didn’t prevent the wry twist of her lips as she replied. “Understatement. But I accepted my fate.”
The resignation in her tone made Hayder want to hunt down Jeoff and shake him then beat him for letting his sister suffer in a bad marriage. “Someone should have killed him. No one should ever abuse a mate.”
His statement brought her around again so she faced him. “That’s what Jeoff used to say all the time.”
“So why didn’t your brother kill him?”
“Because I wouldn’t let him. Because he didn’t have the numbers to face down the pack. Because he shouldn’t pay for my mistake. And I’m glad I stopped him. In the end, Harry was killed, a victim of circumstance—also known as a hunter with a gun who saw a wolf and fired.”
No one could have begrudged the petite woman the triumphant smirk, a hint of spirit hiding beneath the timid surface.
“Okay, help me out here. If the guy died, then why the hell are you in danger now? Since when does the widow of an alpha decide the next in power?”
“She doesn’t. They’re not looking to claim me just to become the next leader. They want me because of the fortune I inherited. Harry was rich. Stupid rich. I was his sole heir. When I wouldn’t immediately pick a new mate, the fighting started. Everyone thought they had a claim. The only reason I made it out at all was because they were too busy fighting over who would get me. Since too many men stepped forward wanting a piece of the pie, they arranged a Lycan duel on the next full moon. Winner take all—me, the role as Northern Lakes Pack alpha, and the fortune.”
“Wasn’t there a contender you could have tolerated?”
No other male.
His lion bristled at the very thought.
Calm down. Obviously none appealed since she’d chosen to escape. It mollified his lion for the moment.
“Perhaps, but…” She let her words trail off.
“See the problem is, while I might have handled a new mate, after all, I survived living with Harry, I wouldn’t have lived long past the wedding. Rumor has it that, as soon as whoever claims me gets their hands on my fortune, I will end up dead because, as the pack beta said before locking me up, no one wants to keep sloppy seconds.”
Ouch. The ugly insult had Hayder wincing. “That’s harsh.” He’d have to make a point to meet this so-called wolf pack beta and teach him some manners. His knuckles were well versed when it came to imposing civility.
Her nose wrinkled. “Harsh? Not really. I’ve heard much worse.”
That didn’t appease him. It just made his anger simmer hotter. He tried to change the focus on getting more details. “If this dude made you a prisoner, then how did you escape? Because I’m going to wager you weren’t exactly given a ton of freedom to come and go as you pleased.”
A small smile curved her lips, a tiny ray of sunshine that his feline self could have curled up and basked in. But it wasn’t a smile for him. “Jeoff came to my rescue. He and a few friends actually hired a helicopter, rappelled to the apartment where they were holding me prisoner, and rescued me. I’ve been in hiding ever since.”
“And you’re convinced they won’t let you go?”
“I know they won’t. They’ll do anything to get me back.”
While she didn’t elucidate what her old pack might do to get her back, Hayder had a general idea. “So we can expect them to come sniffing.”
“More than sniffing. They will get rough.”
He couldn’t help a wide smile. “Really? You think they’ll come poking around? Awesome.”
“What do you mean awesome?”
“Awesome because we’re a rough crowd too, especially the ladies in the pride. We also need plenty of exercise. Your old pack might think they can strong-arm or threaten us into giving you back, but guess what? That won’t happen. I guarantee it.”
Whether Arabella knew it or not, she was now part of the pride—and his.
And no one touches what’s mine.
If Arabella thought Hayder would keep her hidden away, out of sight from the pack that hunted her, she was wrong. The man seemed determined to flaunt her existence, or so it seemed when he insisted they go out to dinner.
Not happening. He might have somehow gotten her to spill her secrets, but she wouldn’t give in to his newest request.
“Go out, as in present myself in public?” She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“What are you talking about? It’s a great idea. I’m sure you’re tired of being penned in, out of sight. We’ll check out a bit of the town. Grab some food. I’ll bet you’re hungry, and lucky you, I know a great steak place.”
“I’m fine staying here. Really. And I’m not that hungry.”
It might have been more believable if her stomach hadn’t gurgled when he said, “You have to come. This place serves the most decadent brownies for dessert drizzled in a sweet, groan-worthy caramel.”
“Chocolate and caramel?” Double whammy. Had Jeoff tattled about her weakness? It didn’t matter. Hayder hit her hard with his tempting words, and her resolve crumbled. She slapped mental mortar on the cracks, trying to hold it together.
It might have worked if Hayder didn’t play dirty. “They’re the best chocolate brownies you’ll ever eat. Warm from the oven, moist, velvety and rich on the tongue. It’s accompanied by vanilla ice cream, not the store-bought kind. They make their own creamy version. Then imagine, gooey, sweet caramel sauce, zigzagged atop it. Utter decadence in your mouth.”
It wasn’t just the dessert that sounded like utter decadence. Stuffy sinuses or not, whatever vibe Hayder exuded wrapped her in a warm and relaxing cocoon, which, at the same time, proved invigorating—erotically so. His low, growly voice and chocolate promise took a sledgehammer to her remaining defenses.
Sultry seduction on two legs. Who could resist, not her, especially when he turned his smoldering gaze her way. Lions might not purr, but this man certainly did, and each syllable tickled across her skin arousing—
What was this? Arousal, and for a stranger?
How odd. And, no, she wasn’t mistaken. Abused and wary didn’t mean she was naïve enough to not recognize it. Once upon a time, she’d felt the same thing for Harry, but that changed once his true colors—and fists—emerged.
Don’t remember. Stay clear of that dark past.
She needed to remain in the here and now. Here with this man, this very attractive man who took a step toward her, his hand raised and stretching out as if he would touch. His proximity triggered a deep trembling, and her lips parted as—
! This time she caught the impending explosion and aimed it away from the man.
Protecting him from her persistent sneezing, though, didn’t stop his irritated utter. “I can’t believe you’re allergic to me.”
“I’m sorry. Usually my antihistamine pill prevents this kind of reaction. Maybe you’re more kitty than I’m used to?”
Too late, she realized how that sounded, and judging by the grin splitting his lips, he did too. “Oh, baby. I am a whole lot more
Nothing could have stopped the blush from heating her cheeks. Nor could she halt the quiver in her lower belly as his words stroked her. Staying close to him was not a good idea, and for so many reasons, and she wasn’t insinuating the allergic kind. “Maybe you should go to dinner without me.” Out of sight, out of mind, and maybe she could remind herself why she needed to steer clear of men.
“You think I’m going to leave you? Not likely. For one, as your acting bodyguard, that means you and me stuck together until the danger passes, baby.”
“But what of my allergies?”
“We’ll figure something out. Maybe the more time we spend together, the more your body will adjust to my scent. I refuse to have you allergic to me.”
How determined he seemed. Why did he care?
Because he’s ours.
What a strange certainty to have pop up out nowhere. Only it wasn’t exactly nowhere.
Arabella mentally queried, but her other side remained quiescent. But that didn’t matter. She’d heard her.
My wolf isn’t completely gone.
Although it had been a while since her cowed canine side had spoken.
How she’d missed her wolf side. Harry and the others had tamed the wildness from her years ago.
Not tamed, merely sent into hiding.
Another quiet thought. How nice to know her inner bitch wasn’t gone forever, simply hiding.
Did this mean she could—
No. Better not to think it and jinx it.
A hand clasped hers, and the jolt of awareness sucked her from her thoughts as it struck all her senses with lightning strength. Every nerve ending tingled, sensations amplified. She sucked in a breath, and her first impulse was to pull away. However, Hayder wasn’t letting go. On the contrary, his fingers tightened around hers, lacing them together as he tugged her toward the door.
“I—We shouldn’t—But—” Half-hearted protests slid past her lips, none of them complete or coherent, not that he would have listened. He seemed intent on going to dinner, and she was coming with him whether she liked it or not.
Sneezing or not.
She managed to only let the tickle overtake her once in the elevator and ducked her head even as her cheeks heated at the growl that rumbled through him. She wasn’t doing it on purpose. “I’m sorry.”
“Would you stop apologizing?” he snapped.
She didn’t want to anger him so she nodded and kept her head tucked low.
“And stop doing that. You’re not some beaten slave. Hold your head up, baby. Tell me to fuck off.”
The language didn’t shock her and cause the O of surprise. It was his insistence she defend herself.
She shot him a wary gaze, waiting to see the challenging smirk. She knew how this worked. Tell her to do something, and then tear into her because she dared.
“There’s those beautiful eyes,” he teased. “Now keep them up here. I want to see you staring at my face. You’re safe here. Especially with me. You can say what you want. Whatever you want. I would never hurt you.”
Where did that certainty come from? So what if perhaps, thus far, despite their less-than-auspicious introduction, Hayder had shown her nothing but kindness? She didn’t know him well enough to gauge if it was an act. She’d fallen for the lies before. “How do I know I can trust you? How do I know you won’t turn around and hurt me when I do?” The words spilled from her, painful in their honesty, and shocking him into momentary silence.
“Because you can,” was what he finally muttered.
“Of course I can,” she said in a soothing, placating tone. Best to not antagonize him and call his word into question. He might seem sincere, but Harry seemed nice once upon a time too.
Don’t fall for his charm. He’ll hurt you too.
How insidious her inner voice proved, cautioning and warning her not to trust so easily. Words were easy. Actions, though, proved much harder, and fists harder still. Honor was easier to break than maintain.
When the doors to the elevator slid open, Hayder, his hand still laced with hers, stepped in to a large lobby. Arabella couldn’t help but stare. When they’d arrived earlier, Jeoff had smuggled her in through an alley at the back, not daring to have her brazenly come through the front doors.
“The longer we keep you hidden, the better chance we have of any trackers abandoning their hunt and leaving you alone.”
It seemed Hayder harbored a much different view. He showed no qualms at all. As nonchalant—and handsome—as ever, he dragged—and, yes, she dug her feet in and tried to stand still—her out onto the marble floor. The wide gleaming expanse boasted a polished mahogany reception desk manned by a security guard in a dark blue uniform. The rest of the floor space was overtaken by a lounge area carefully arranged with leather chairs and divans.
The vast area also contained a multitude of curious eyes, all of them focused on her. Noses twitched. Being the object of so many stares had her tucking in closer to Hayder. He draped an arm around her, tucking her into the comforting strength of his body, which had the unfortunate effect of making her sneeze. Again. And again. And…
When she finished her attempt at breaking a record, she opened tearing eyes to see a half-dozen hands holding out tissues.
“Um, thank you,” she said as she plucked one. She dabbed at her nose one-handed since Hayder still hadn’t relinquished his grip. Brave man considering she’d only barely missed his shoes during her latest spell.
“Hey, Hayder, whatcha doing holding hands with a wolf in cat territory?” At the shouted question, the hum in the room quelled.
Damn, she’d forgotten for a moment she was surrounded by shifters. Lionesses to be exact, the true hunters in any pride. Vicious felines she wouldn’t stand a chance against, especially with her wolf in hiding.
“She better not pee in the halls. I hear their kind like to do that you know.”
“No they don’t,” said a young girl with rainbow-streaked hair. “It’s trees and fire hydrants you gotta watch out for.”
A woman with a ring in her nose snorted. “You’re all idiots. Those are the spots dogs mark. She’s a wolf, and you’re scaring the crap out of her.” Blue eyes, set in a face creased with age, turned to face her. The woman spoke to her soothingly. “Don’t worry about what they’re saying. We’re allies. You’ll come to no harm among us.”
“Unless you pee in the halls.”
“Or eat the last piece of cake.” Someone poked the chubby speaker in the side, and she whirled with a, “What? Just saying what we’re all thinking.”
“Forget thinking. It’s obvious it hurts too much,” yet another lioness muttered. “What I’d like to know, the smart questions here are, who is this girl, and what is she doing here?”
In a panic, Arabella peered up at her guard. Should she answer, and what should she say? Give the truth or spout a lie? Or would lying be worse? What if Hayder and his alpha had already established an identity for her? What—
Hayder saved her from answering. “Ladies—”
Snickers. “He called us ladies.”
“—this is Arabella, Jeoff’s sister. You all know Jeoff.”
“Yeah, he’s the hottie in the tight jeans who sings in that band.”
“Among other things.”
The matronly one, who asked who Arabella was, sighed as she planted her hands on her hips. “Would you all shut up? Some of us are trying to get answers here. I sense something juicy, so zip it before I do something that requires you getting your jaw wired shut.”
Funny how they all quieted, and yet none of them looked cowed at the threat. They were all, however, united in their curious stares aimed at her.
When Arabella would have tucked behind Hayder’s back to make herself less of a visual target, he pulled her forward and stood her before him, one hand on each shoulder, anchoring her in place. “Jeoff asked the pride to lend its protection. Some assholes want to force Arabella here into marrying some dick so he can get his hands on her fortune. There’s also talk of killing her once the paperwork is done. I don’t think we should allow that.”
As summaries went, it was accurate and succinct. What she didn’t expect was the outrage and…support?
Forget the cowed women of her old pack. The females surrounding her all bore a challenging glint in their eye and boastful suggestions.
“Let them come and try to take her. We’ll show them what women’s lib is all about,” one of them shouted.
“Woo hoo! A new fur coat and in time for winter,” another hollered.
“Someone make sure we replaced the mop from the last time we had to show someone a lesson.”
“Luna, we need to make an appointment to get our nails sharpened.”
Arabella blinked, several times, but she somehow resisted the urge to jam a finger in her ear and wiggle. Why bother? It wasn’t her ears that were defective. Either she’d finally snapped, or she surely dreamed. It was the only explanation for the insanity she’d encountered since her arrival.
More than likely, she’d fallen asleep in her old prison and dreamed everything from the rescue to the improbability surrounding her.
But what a dream. If only it were true.
And if only she had an ounce of their courage so she could face her old pack and fight for her right to make her own choices.
The faint whimper and reminder quelled any exhilaration she might have briefly felt. While their spirit and intentions were good, reality was another thing.
Apparently Hayder thought so, too, because he said, “Now, now, ladies. No starting any shit.”
Hayder was right. Head down. Voice meek. Don’t—
It seemed Hayder wasn’t done. “I mean it. No starting trouble, but you can taunt. Taunt loud. Taunt mercilessly. Drive them to the brink and make them hit first. Then you can bring it. Just be sure to save a piece of those curs for me. I’ve got a few words my knuckles would like to say.” He shook a fist as his utterly male announcement was met with cheers and fist pumps.