Chapter 12

Paden offered to pull the car around.

I waited inside the coffee shop, clutching the warm cup between my fingers. The thought of being alone with him made me uneasy. I feared that the physical attraction might be too much to resist. If being a werewolf meant living with such a strong desire to be close with Paden, I wanted to give it up—especially now that I knew the feelings were not mutual. I needed to curb my feelings towards Logan. The task seemed impossible.

Every time I thought of Paden, it was as though a furnace burned low in my stomach and radiated heat between my legs. My skin flushed a shade of red and tingled in anticipation of his touch. My heart galloped in my chest. I had never wanted any man the way that I wanted him.

Paden pulled to the curb in a black BMW. I should have guessed. He and his brother seemed like the type to indulge in expensive toys. They were the same breed as my father. They had money and had no problem with flaunting it. I frowned at the comparison between Paden and Colton, shaming myself for even considering the similarity between the two.

I pushed out of the warm confines of the coffee house and went to meet him at the car. I reached for the door handle, but curiosity drew my attention across the sidewalk to the park.

Xagan stood at the edge of the forest, hovering like a phantom. I swallowed the lump building in my throat. Setting the chai on the roof, I turned away from the car. When Paden noticed my indecision, he turned off the engine and threw open his door. He must have expected me to run. I had only seen him move that fast once before.

"Aria, where are you going?" He asked, grabbing my arm.

I felt the spark and jerked away.

"Stay away from him." Paden warned.

"Let me do this." I shot back and started towards the park. Paden followed on my heels.

"He could hurt you. Go back to the car." Paden tried grabbing my arm again, but I was quick enough to dodge his effort. He growled in frustration, matching my pace. A few teenagers lounged on a wooden picnic table, watching us pass by and exchanging a glowing joint. "Knock it off, Aria." Paden demanded.

I walked up to the edge of the forest and stopped. Xagan stood only a few paces in front of me, hands sunk in the pockets of his grubby pants. His skin appeared translucent. His lips looked blue. I wondered if he felt the cold, but how could he? Did he feel anything? I shivered at the thought and looked up to him. "What do you want from me?" I tried to sound strong, but the words emerged trembling and uneasy.

I never expected to be facing the creature that had turned all my dreams to nightmares as a child, but now he stood in front of me. He appeared just as I remembered, down to the filth on his feet. He smiled his trademark smile and tilted his head. He seemed surprised by my boldness.

"The same thing I have always wanted from you, sweet Arianna." He responded with a seductive tone. "And now that you have returned, I will have you on the next full moon." He seemed rather pleased with the idea.

"Like hell, you will." I growled back, my emotions blocking out all sense of reason. I took a step closer without even recognizing the boundary between the grass and overgrowth. Xagan reached out to snatch my wrist and pull me into the forest, but Paden reacted in an instant. He grabbed my arm and yanked me back against his solid frame. His arm trapped my body against his, guarding me against squirming away.

"Are you okay?" He asked, but I refused to look up at him. He hooked his finger under my chin and tilted my head to face him. "Are you okay?"

"Fine." I whispered, staring up into the lenses. A sense of security radiated from his body into mine. His arms helped me feel safe. The fear of almost being dragged into the woods somehow subsided before even sinking in.

He raked a strand of hair behind my ear. His fingers grazed my cheek. I closed my eyes and tried to block out everything else. The contours of his body pressed against mine. I could feel the tone of his muscles, the definition of his abs, and the shape of his hips. I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek, trying not to let my mind wander too far. I opened my eyes and swallowed hard, fixing my gaze on the curve of his lips. I wanted to kiss him so badly that my body ached.

He smiled down at me. How could he not feel the same way?

"I remember you." Xagan turned his attention to Paden. "You seem to have healed up pretty well after our last encounter." He offered a smirk, but Paden did his best to ignore the creature and instead keep his attention trained on me. "I remember your sister. She could scream! I wonder if Aria would scream like that."

"You come near her and I will make your head explode." Paden snarled, turning a deadly look at Xagan. The quality of his voice made me cringe. He broke the embrace and stepped closer to the boundary. "When that spell breaks on the Hunter's Moon, I will find you and I will kill you."

"Not before I get Aria." Xagan chimed on a playful note.

"You can die trying." Paden growled and jabbed a finger at Xagan.

Xagan just laughed.

Grabbing my hand, Paden towed me back towards the direction of the coffee shop. I glanced over my shoulder, but Xagan had vanished. His words resonated in my skull over and over again. My eyes burned with the threat of tears. I blinked and the moisture erupted over my cheeks. I never cried. How could Xagan make me cry? "He will get me, Paden."

"You'll be fine."

When we reached the car, Paden yanked open the door and waited for me to drop into the leather seat. I did. He handed me the cup of chai, but the heat had been stolen away by the crisp autumn afternoon. He hesitated, leaning on the door frame and sighing loudly.

"This is what I was talking about, Aria." He cautioned, crouching down and shaking his head in exasperation. I stared at my reflection in his sunglasses. "You need to protect yourself. Xagan can sense that you are vulnerable. Your emotions are a mess. I need you to focus on your life right now. You are marrying my brother. You are turning into a werewolf. Stop acting like you have something to prove." I could see the frustration in written across his face.

I jumped when he slammed the door. He rounded the car and dipped into the driver seat. The engine roared to life and heat poured out of the vents, fanning my chilled frame. We drove in silence for a few miles. He eventually found the courage to glance at me.

"Remember when you asked why I hide my eyes? Sometimes there is no point in fighting anymore. You just need to accept the way things are."

I frowned and looked back at him. "You obviously don't know me, Paden. I'm a fighter. And I will fight this stupid marriage and this stupid curse until it kills me."

"Why do you have to be so goddamn stubborn?" He shouted and slammed his fist on the steering wheel. The outburst caught me off-guard. I stared at him. How could he pretend not to have feelings for me? He did. He could deny it, but his actions spoke far louder than his words.

The rest of our journey unfolded in silence.

When the BMW finally rolled under the carport, I took a deep breath. "I wish this could be easy." I choked, feeling a tickle of emotion in the back of my throat. "I feel selfish for wanting this nightmare to be over. All these werewolf people are depending on me. I have to be miserable so that they can be happy. How is that fair?"

"It's not supposed to be fair. This is what it means to be a werewolf, Aria. Sometimes you need to sacrifice what you want for the good of the pack." He leaned back in the leather seat and stared straight ahead. "We both have a roll in this. I need to know that you will follow through with your end."

"You mean marry Logan?" I blinked for a long moment. A tear escaped, dripping off my eyelash and splashing on my cheek. Paden reached to wipe it away, but caught himself and retracted his hand.

"You have to. I have nothing for you."

I wanted to argue, but I simply nodded. Maybe Paden was right. After a while, there was just no use fighting anymore.