Authors: Eve Langlais
As if there was enough space in the world for her to ignore the charismatic man across from her.
He didn’t seem perturbed at all by her scowl or the fact she’d soaked his shirt. He poured them both a drink.
She might have refused it except she needed something to cover the taste of him in her mouth. She grabbed the proffered glass stem and tilted the contents of the flute into her mouth.
The bubbly champagne tickled its way down, leaving in its wake a warm lassitude.
Dinner passed in silence, and the occasional groan as she ate. It was that good.
As for the dessert, it proved even better than he claimed.
The low, rumbling hum rolled from her mouth as the chocolate and caramel hit her tongue. “Oh my god that’s good. So good. So incredibly delicious.” She groaned that last bit.
“Holy fuck, baby. Stop that, or I won’t be responsible for what I do.”
She opened her eyes to find his smoldering gaze on her. The tension in his body practically vibrated the space in between them.
Say something. Tell him to stop staring at you. To stop looking like he’ll devour you.
But I like it.
She wanted his ardent flirtation. But she also wanted control. How to achieve it? The solution seemed too simple.
Fight sensuality with…sensuality.
“Stop what?” she innocently said.
Holding his stare, she brought a heaping forkful of nirvana to her mouth. She slid the top of the spoon between her lips, lapped it with the tip of her tongue.
A nerve twitched in his cheek.
The spoon pushed its way into her mouth. She sucked the sugary bite from it.
Slowly, she withdrew the spoon and licked it clean.
He groaned. “That has got to be the cruelest thing anyone has ever done to me.”
She could have giggled at his woebegone expression except someone big, blonde, and wanting-to-die flounced up and practically threw herself at Hayder.
For a wolf who wouldn’t come out of hiding, someone was acting pretty dominant.
No, she’s jealous.
It was the green-eyed monster making her agitated and with good reason, given the giant hussy hugged Hayder and smooched him on both cheeks. It took a lot of will to not dive across the table and claw out her eyes. Instead, Arabella’s nails dug crescents into her palms.
“Cousin. It’s been so long,” the hussy gushed.
“If you ask me, it hasn’t been long enough,” he replied. “What trouble has brought you out this way, Meena?”
“Did you know it’s been over ten years since I visited Arik’s pride?”
“Let’s make it twenty before the next.”
If Arabella expected Hayder’s odd cousin Meena to take offense, she was wrong. The big blonde giggled. “Oh, Hayder. You know you love me.”
“Like I love a tick. I still haven’t forgiven you for that stunt you pulled on me.”
“That was years ago, and I see your eyebrows grew back.”
With a growl, Hayder dumped his cousin off his lap and slid away. But Arabella did notice that, however much he grumbled, he was gentle in his manhandling.
Arabella did not prove so gentle when Meena made a stab at her cake.
Before Arabella could blink, she’d slapped the blonde girl’s hand and sent her fork flying.
They both gaped at each other.
“I guess you’re not into sharing,” Meena stated.
Nope. Not her dessert, or her man.
He’s not my man.
Again, Meena didn’t take offense, not judging by her wide smile. “Feisty. Awesome. I like her, coz. You should keep her.”
“No.” Arabella spoke instantly.
So did Hayder. “Yes.”
His answer was the complete opposite of hers, and stunning.
For a moment nothing was said.
Meena swung her head one way then the other, obviously noting the relationship tennis match going on. “Damn. Looks like I got here in time to catch some drama. When are you going to admit your undying love and passion for each other?”
Again with the polar-opposite answers. Arabella tired of the game. Ignoring them both, she slid from the booth and stood. “I’m going back to the condo. I’m tired.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t bother. I don’t need you.” Such a lie.
“And since you don’t need this cake, mind if I finish it?” Without waiting, Meena snared the edge of the plate and dragged it to her.
Arabella almost snatched it back.
My precious yummy.
Instead, she spun on her heel and stalked away. The prickle between her shoulder blades let her know she wasn’t alone.
“You do know I can’t let you leave unaccompanied.”
“What about the check?” she tossed over her shoulder. “Or are you going to dine and dash? Oh, sir.” She waved at the maître d’. “He’s trying to leave without paying.” Her sudden temerity should have made him roar in rage—and she should have started running to avoid his revenge.
But clumsiness took her grace, and she stumbled as he chuckled. “Put it on my tab.”
Wouldn’t that just figure?
Angry, but why she couldn’t have truly articulated, Arabella stepped from the noisy elegance of the restaurant onto the sidewalk. It still surprised her that they’d managed to avoid having the police called in over the hit and run by the kidnappers’ van. Apparently, the pride owned the city in more ways than one.
Her sneakered feet didn’t make much sound on the pavement, and Hayder made even less. With the wind blowing in the wrong direction, she didn’t expect the arm that snaked around her waist.
She screamed and stiffened.
Hayder drew her in close, and she craned to peek up at him, caught a whiff, and sneezed.
Hayder resisted the urge to wipe his face. He knew she’d soaked him intentionally. She thought to provoke him. Tried to get him to react.
She is testing me.
And he intended to pass with flying colors.
So he let her get her little jab in. He let her spray him using her allergies as an excuse to keep him at bay. Now wasn’t the time to push her. On the street, where he needed to remain alert, wasn’t the place to discuss their impending future. A future together.
Burn the black book, disappoint the hundreds of women who’d never gotten to enjoy him, Hayder was officially off the market. He’d succumbed to the mating fever. It apparently had a lot in common with catnip. Irresistible and addictive.
Now if only he could get Arabella to feel it too. He’d caught a glimpse of her passion for him in the restaurant. Now to make her admit it and stop fighting it.
Once they reached the relative safety of the condo, and the heavy door shut behind them, he pounced. “So tell me, baby, why do you insist on pushing me away?” He tackled the question head-on.
“What makes you think I am?” She evaded the question as she sank into the armchair, effectively placing herself out of reach. Or so she thought.
He didn’t reply to her sidestepping query. Why bother when he could prove the truth of his statement. He scooped her from the chair, plopped down, and then tucked her onto his lap.
She bounced off it quicker than a bunny on its third cup of cappuccino.
“That’s what I mean. Why won’t you let me touch you?”
“You seriously have to ask?”
“I could ask while laughing, but I don’t think it’s funny. I want you to want me. I think you want to as well. And yet you’re fighting it? Why?”
“Because I’ve known you only a few hours.”
“Haven’t you heard of love at first sight? Or we can call it the mating fever. Whatever the name, you know something is happening between us.”
“Because I’m still technically in mourning.”
“For a man who didn’t treat you right.”
“I never said that.”
“I’m not a blind idiot, baby. Someone hurt you. Someone close. And while it pains me to admit it, I don’t think Jeoff is the type of guy to cause that type of pain. Which means it was someone else close to you. Like your mate.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“Or what? He’ll come back to haunt me? I’d like that so I could teach the prick a lesson about being an asshole to a lady. He hurt you. He doesn’t deserve any respect. I just wish I could have saved you from him sooner.” Apparently something he said struck a chord because tears threatened to spill from her eyes. “Baby, don’t cry. Why are you crying?”
“I’m not,” she sniffled.
“You don’t actually miss the prick who abused you, do you?” The very idea appalled him, and yet why else would she cry?
“Oh god, I don’t miss him. At all. It’s just…” She stopped.
Hayder told his kitty and his impatience to sit in a corner and wait. Give her a chance.
A tremulous breath wobbled from her. “You know, my brother would have taken care of Harry if given a chance. But he would have done it because he had to. I’m family.”
“I’m not, and I’ll tell you right now, had I come across that prick abusing you, I would have killed him.” Laws or not. Abuse should never be tolerated.
She blinked rapidly, failing in her battle against the tears. Her voice trembled. “And that’s just it. You really would fight for me. You already did, earlier today. You could have let them take me and washed your hands clean. Yet you didn’t. You came to my rescue, and the weird part is, I think you’d do it again.”
“As many times as it takes to keep you safe. I know it’s crazy, and we haven’t known each other long, but there’s something happening between you and me, baby. Something crazy. Wild. Meant to be. Don’t tell me you don’t feel it too?”
“I do.” How soft the admission. How fearful the truth. “And it scares me. You scare me. What if I’m wrong?”
It was that genuine terror that let him say, “You’re not, but I won’t push.” Not tonight at least. He’d give her a little space to come to terms with what was happening. “Go to bed. Alone.” Oh, how he wanted to yowl mournfully. “If you need me, I’ll be here or not far. You don’t have to worry anymore. I won’t let you come to harm.”
He’d guard her with his life.
As if fearful he’d change his mind, Arabella fled without another word—or even a good-night kiss—the click of the lock a scraping wince to his pride.
What happened to her that she was so scared to trust? How dare her mate and pack break her so thoroughly? And broken her they had.
During the course of the day, he’d seen the glimpses of another Arabella, a brave one. How much had this Harry, so-called pack alpha, and the others hurt her to quell such a fiery side?
Watching that bedroom door close—separating them—proved harder than he would have expected. Only a few hours since he’d met Arabella and already his life had changed. His whole mental state had.
For the first time he could understand why people claimed love at first sight. In his case, it might have been scent, but it didn’t change the fact that he was falling fast and hard for the timid she-wolf. While her skittish side brought out the protector in him, he loved the hints of the fighter in her, the spirit that struggled to free itself.
He wanted to help her unleash that inner courage and feistiness he suspected lurked. It would happen, once he got her to rid herself of that awful fear.
A fear some assholes seemed determined to perpetrate.
Hayder didn’t bother checking the time when he left the condo. He banged on the closest door and waited with arms crossed, foot tapping. It opened a moment later on a tousled-hair Luna, who scowled.
“What do you want?”
“A lifetime supply of porterhouse steaks in my freezer.” Like duh. What feline wouldn’t?
“Thank you. I knew those IQ tests I took in college were wrong. But enough of my mental greatness, I need a favor.”
“I am not lending you my eighties greatest hits CDs again to use for skeet practice,” she grumbled.
“That’s not a favor. That’s just making the world a better place. No, I need you to watch Arabella’s place while I talk to the boss about her situation.”
Obviously the rumor mill had been busy because Luna didn’t question what he meant. “You really think those wolves would be stupid enough to try something here?” Luna slapped her forehead. “Duh. Of course they are. Must be something in their processed dog food that inhibits their brain processes.”
“One, while I agree that pack is mentally defective, you might want to refrain from calling them dogs or bitches or any other nasty names in the near future.”
“Why? Aren’t you the one who coined the phrase ‘ass-licking, eau de toilette fleabags’?”
Ah yes, one of his brighter inspirations after a few too many shots of tequila. “Yeah. But that was in the past. If I’m going to be mated to a wolf—”
“Whoa there, big guy. Back up. Mated? As in”—Luna hummed the wedding march—“dum-dum-dum-dum.”
Hayder fought not to wince. Knowing he’d found the one and admitting it in such final terms were two different things. “Yes, mated. To Arabella.”
“The girl who is allergic to you?” Luna needed the wall to hold her up as she laughed. And laughed. Then cried as she laughed.
Irritated, Hayder tapped a foot and frowned. It just made her laugh all the harder.
“It isn’t that funny.”
“Says you.” Luna snorted, wiping a hand across her eyes to swipe the tears. “Oh, wait until the girls hear this.”
“Could we hold off on that? It might help if I got Arabella to agree first.” Which, given her past and state of mind, wasn’t a sure thing.
“You’re killing me here, Hayder. This is big news. Real big.”
“I’ll let you borrow my treadmill.” Damned thing was nothing more than a clothes rack in his room. Indoor running just couldn’t beat the fresh adrenaline of an outdoor sprint.
“Really big news,” she emphasized.
He sighed. “Fine. You can borrow my car. But don’t you dare leave any fast food wrappers in it like last time.”
“Who, me?” The innocent bat of her lashes didn’t fool him one bit.
Despite her playful demeanor, Hayder felt confident enough in her abilities as a fighter to leave her in charge of guarding his woman, a woman who snapped when he got hurt. It was enough to make a grown lion smile. But the locked door of his alpha’s penthouse suite made him roar.
“Arik, damn you, I know you’re in there. Open up.”
“Doesn’t anyone know how to use a fucking phone?” was the yelled reply.
Oh yeah, that stupid electronic device that he lost so often. Hayder kept a box of them in his place, along with some pre-paid phone cards so he could rapidly activate another each time he destroyed one.
“Fine. You want me to call. Ring! Ring! I need to come in and talk to you.”
With a loud sigh that Hayder heard through the closed door, Arik, mumbling about pesky betas that didn’t know their place and needed an ass whooping, opened the door.
It didn’t surprise Hayder to see Arik clad in only track pants. Since the man had gotten mated to that hairdresser a little while back, he spent most of his evenings in private. Wagers were being placed on how long before that ‘privacy’ took fruit in his new human mate.
“What do you want that couldn’t wait until the morning?” Arik asked as he led the way inside. The Pride’s king headed to the bar he’d had installed in the corner of his living room. He pulled a bottle of whiskey from a shelf. He poured them each a generous dollop.
“I want permission to go after the Northern Lakes Pack.”
“Am I going to regret asking why?”
“They’re threatening Arabella.”
Arik tossed back the fiery liquid before asking with a frown, “Why the fuck would I let you start a war over Jeoff’s sister?”
“Because those pricks attacked us on home turf.”
A snort escape Arik. “Ah yes, that puny attempt at a kidnapping. You caused quite a stir with your antics. Part of your stunt even made it onto
before we could squash it. I had to have our PR department spin a Twitter thread on how it was part of a scene being taped for a movie.”
“You can’t blame me for that. I had to stop them.” He did, but what he didn’t tell Arik was he’d never once thought of the repercussions of his actions. He saw Arabella in danger and had to go to her rescue. Bystanders and witnesses be damned.
“I can see why you’d feel like you had to act. I mean, they made you look silly by catching you off guard like that, but, next time, could you be a little more discreet?”
“No.” Why lie?
The reply took his leader aback. “What do you mean no? Discretion is a fact of life. One girl isn’t worth drawing undue attention to ourselves.”
“One girl might not be, but my mate is.”
Want to stop conversation dead? Drop a bombshell.
“Close your mouth, Arik, before you catch flies.” Only Arik’s mate could hope to tease him like that and get away with it. Dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, Kira emerged from the bedroom and perched on a barstool.
“Did you hear what he said?” a still astonished Arik demanded.
“Yes. He’s fallen victim to the love bug. I think it’s cute.”
“I would have said impossible,” Arik muttered.
“You and me both, old friend. But, the fact of the matter is, I’m like ninety-nine percent sure that Arabella is supposed to be mine.”
“And the one percent that isn’t sure?”
“Is going to get eaten by my lion.”
Kira snickered. “Someone’s got it bad. And I’m not talking about your ragged split ends.”
Affronted, Hayder slapped a hand to his precious mane. “Take that back. I do not have split ends.”
“Come see me at the barbershop, and you won’t. I’ll get you fixed up.” She made snipping sounds as she scissored her fingers then laughed at his wince.
“She’s evil, Arik.”
“And all mine,” his alpha said with evident pride.
“So about that war on the Northern Lakes Pack?”
“As leader, I can’t outright condone starting shit, but I’m also not going to stop you from taking care of unwanted visitors to our city. I hear the dog population has gotten out of control and could use some culling.”
Oh he’d cull all right. Hayder would wipe any threats to Arabella clean. And enjoy it.