AN: Congrats to GeezerWench for being my winning bidder in the recent Tricky Raven Author/Artist One-Shot Auction. The request was for a Bella/Paul story, using the Jason Aldean song, "When She Says Baby", and with the favorite line out of the song as "No matter what comes, ain't goin' nowhere."

GW: here you go…and thanks for being patient and understanding when I didn't have this finished by the official deadline. My abject apologies for being a whole month late submitting this, and I hope this long one-shot meets with your approval. For the longest time the muse just wasn't giving me anything (not that life was giving me the time to percolate ideas anyway), but I finally managed to punch this out. Thanks to mc7575 for being my sounding board and giving me the jump start I needed.


Narrator POV

For all that the tribal elders liked to talk about what an honor it was to become a protector—i.e. a werewolf—Paul Lahote thought it was nothing more than a pile of manure. Always focused on duty, on guarding people who knew nothing about them—who called them a gang or a cult in whispers that the pack heard only too well. The dark looks from those who didn't know the evil that lurked beyond the one square mile patch of earth the tribe owned. Evil that lived only sixteen or so miles away, in a mansion north of Forks.

The elders talked the talk, but not a single one of them had ever walked the walk. None had ever been a protector, and there had been times when Paul had bitten the inside of his mouth bloody to keep from mouthing off to the council about that very lack of firsthand knowledge and how they were talking out their asses trying to pretend they knew anything of what the pack was really going through. Growth spurts that should have taken years—if they could possibly happen at all to a normal person—occurring in the span of days and weeks. The shift from looking like an average teen to someone who appeared to be years past the need to be carded at the liquor store—an alien face staring back out of the bathroom mirror. The whispers in the community about them taking drugs or steroids, even after they'd run the dealers of that crap out of town. The threats from parents—at least for those wolves who had them—of being grounded for sneaking out and skipping school; heaven forbid that the council released the death-grip they held on information by telling the parents anything.

Paul didn't have to worry about that, really. His mom had taken off before he'd finished elementary school, and his dad had moved the two of them back to the ancestral homeland, left his son to fend for himself, and proceeded to drown his sorrows in the bottle. It ought to have been any boy's dream: going where he wanted, when he wanted, doing what he wanted, and his parent not caring one bit. But…more than once, in the dark vault of his mind, Paul had wanted 'it': two parents who loved him and cared about him, who'd raise holy hell if he was thirty seconds late for curfew, nagged him to eat his fruits and vegetables, and kept him in line. Sam had his mom and Jared had both parents; Paul only had himself, the child who neither parent wanted to be responsible for, and he'd naturally come to believe that everything that had gone wrong was his fault.

But to compensate the wolves for their new lives of secrecy, the gods had seen fit to give them a 'blessing': an imprint—a girl who would be their soul's perfect match, the mother of their children, their source of comfort and peace. Sam had found his imprint soon after regaining his human form following his first phase. Sam's imprint, Emily, was the cousin and best friend of his then-girlfriend, Leah. Personally, Paul thought that there was something messed up about that little triangle, but he kept those thoughts firmly to himself. Jared's imprint, Kim, had been sitting next to him in class for years without him really noticing her—their last names being sequential in the alphabetical seating chart—but he'd bonded to her on his first day back at school post-phase. Paul didn't like the idea that he could one day be tied to a girl for life—whether a total stranger or else someone he'd known all his life and never been interested in. But while he publicly relished his strings-free social life and the ability to sleep with any girl he wanted or who wanted him—and many did—at the same time, he was secretly jealous of his brethren. Envy for the care that the two girls lavished on their wolves had him regretting his own lack in that regard. But he was so screwed up inside that he probably wouldn't know what to do with a girl as considerate and thoughtful as Emily and Kim were, and whoever-she-might-be didn't deserve to be saddled with him, either, so they were both better off never meeting.


Bella Swan moved through her new daily routine and wondered yet again if she'd made the right decision in moving to the tiny town of Forks, Washington, where her dad had been born and raised, and where she'd also been born. Her initial residence in Forks had been brief, courtesy of her parents' divorce less than three years after they'd married. Bella and her mother Renee had had a migratory lifestyle in the years since then, moving to a new city that caught the mother's eye and staying until someplace else glittered brighter. It was still Renee's modus operandi, only now her traveling was tied to a new and younger husband who made his living as a minor league baseball player. Whether intentional on their parts or not, Bella had quickly come to feel she was in the way and a hindrance to newlywed bliss. So she'd volunteered to move to Forks to finish high school, living with the father she only vaguely remembered and had rarely visited.

Her transition to a new school had been as bad as any introvert could possibly fear. She'd shifted to a small town high school only a quarter the size of her old urban one, been forced by every teacher to stand up in front of each classroom and introduce herself, was mobbed by a crowd of eager students volunteering to show her around the disjointed campus to her classes and guide her through the lunch line, or connect her with the "in" crowd and best parties. It was overwhelming and annoying being the shiny new toy that everyone wanted. And then there had been Edward Cullen…

Bella had noticed him and his family in the cafeteria her first day at Forks High. They were albino-pale and freakishly gorgeous—even the guys. Jessica Stanley had told her that the five teens were the adopted children of a local doctor and his wife, and that four of them were paired up as official couples. Edward was the odd man out and even though pretty much every girl in school would have loved to change that for him—according to Jessica—he was never interested. Well, for never giving the girls here a second glance, he'd sure stared at her all through lunch, which was beyond freaky and made her skin crawl. Then, to top it off, the only empty seat in Biology right afterward had been next to him. He'd scooted as far away from Bella as possible, and if it weren't impossible, she'd have sworn he didn't breathe the entire time; but it was impossible, and she knew she didn't stink. She'd seen him in the school office right after school, trying to change his schedule, and then…he'd just disappeared. The parents and other four siblings were still there, but Edward was gone. The story started circulating that he'd gone to live with a cousin's family up in Alaska. Bella didn't give him a second thought, though. Being the center of attention for the school at large had been one thing; Edward Cullen had made her feel like the guest antelope at a lion pride's reunion picnic.

She'd had plenty of other things to think about before long, anyway. The small group of students she'd truly befriended—Jessica, Angela, Lauren, Mike, Ben, and Eric—had invited her down to First Beach at the La Push Reservation—home of the Quileute tribe. Bella's dad had been friends with several of the tribal leaders—including the chief, Billy Black—since forever, and so Bella had been dragged to La Push many times on her long-ago summer visits, to play with Billy's three kids, Rebecca, Rachel, and Jacob, while their dads went fishing.


Bella POV

I'd forgotten how wildly beautiful La Push could be. Smooth sandy beaches stretched along the coast, with a few cliffs rising up a hundred feet and more into the sky. Tide pools among the rocks offered chances to view the sealife without getting totally wet. And I got a chance to renew an old friendship.

"So is it weird being back?" Jacob Black asked me.

I shrugged, and kicked at a half-buried piece of driftwood with the toe of my sneaker. "I don't know. I guess, maybe. Charlie and I are getting acclimated to one another—and how pathetic is it that my own father and I have to get acclimated to each other? But it's okay. School is finally settling down, thank goodness."

"Center of attention, huh?" he quipped.

"Completely. But I've got some friends now, and they're helping keep the wolves at bay."

"Good luck with that," a new voice spoke behind me. I spun around to see that two more guys about the same age as Jake had approached us.

"Bella, these are my two best friends: Quil Ateara and Embry Call. Guys, this is Bella Swan. She's Charlie's daughter and just moved back to Forks."

Embry just gave a shy wave, without saying anything. Quil-I could tell from just his grin, wink, and brow lift-was a born flirt. Jake guided us toward a massive driftwood log and all of us found fairly comfortable spots to sit on and lean against.

"Liking Forks so far, Bella?" Quil asked.

"I suppose so. Better now that Edward Cullen moved away. That guy was creepy." My statement got everyone's attention.


"Yeah," and I shared the lowlights of that one weird day.

"Yeah, that family does seem kinda strange. All adopted, paired off, pale as ghosts…weird. My dad doesn't like them, but I don't know for sure why. He won't go to the Forks hospital now that the doc works there, and doesn't want the tribe going, either," Jake said. "They don't come here, either."

"Weird is like the smell of your gym locker," Embry told Quil, and the conversation rapidly degenerated into a contest of telling the strangest stories.

"If you want strange," Jake reclaimed the speaker's role, "then you want to believe the stories my dad tells at the tribal bonfires."

"You mean how we're supposed to be descended from wolves?" Quil asked.


"Descended from wolves?" I couldn't believe that.

"That's the story," Jake confirmed. And he started telling us—or maybe it was just me—the stories: an ancient chief; spirit warriors who could share a wolf's body and their mission to destroy their enemies, the Cold Ones. A chill I couldn't explain ran the length of my spine, and I put it down to Jake being just as good a storyteller as I vaguely remembered his dad to be.

I'd completely lost track of time when my new school friends found us.

"Bella?" It was Angela. "It's getting late, and we're starting to pack up. Are you coming back with us?"

"Stay," begged Jake.

"I can't," I demurred. "Charlie's expecting me home for dinner, and I don't want to put him out to make a special trip from town just to get me, or for anyone here to have to spend an hour driving me home. I did have fun, so maybe I can come again with Charlie sometime."

Jake and his friends all pouted, but accepted my decision. As the girls and I headed to rejoin the guys, my attention drifted to a small group of people sitting around a small fire part way down the beach. There were two girls sitting on the laps of a couple of guys, and another guy sitting a little to himself. The boyfriend/girlfriend pairs were all lovey-dovey, and I wondered if the other youth felt as out of place as he looked. Almost as if my thoughts had winged their way between our minds, his head turned and he looked straight at me. Even across the distance, dark eyes bored into me and I felt as if I was being laid bare before him. I didn't realize I'd stopped moving until Jessica nudged me.

"You still here?" she teased.

"Yeah. Sorry. Not sure what happened." And with a little shake of my head, I followed my friends to the van.

That night, my dreams were strange ones—and for me, that was really saying something; most of my dreams were filled with the bizarre and unexplainable. The dark eyed guy from the beach was there, watching and then talking to me in a language I didn't understand. Then he vanished and I found myself dreaming the stories Jake had told, as well as a trio of wolves: black, brown, and grey. The grey wolf paced the forest and watched me no less intently than the man had. I ought to have been afraid of him—yet I wasn't. I could never be afraid of him—them.


Paul POV

I felt like—and I was—the proverbial fifth wheel at this unofficially mandatory pack beach bonfire. But it was a rarity for all of us to be free at the same time—treaty or no treaty, Sam didn't trust our neighborhood "vegetarian" vampires farther than he could spit, so usually one of us was on patrol just in case. But we were all off today, the weather was great, and the girls had cooked a meal that filled even our stomachs, so here I was. Mostly I just ate, and tried to tune out the sappily happy couples I was with.

My attention was teased by a faint lavender and honey scent carried on the breeze, and was held by a conversation taking place nearby. It was La Push's modern day version of the Three Stooges: Jacob Black, Quil Ateara V, and Embry Call—and a girl who Jacob called Bella. I knew there wasn't anyone in our tribe with that name, so she had to have come with the group of hok'wats from Forks.

Wheelchair or no wheelchair, Billy will kick Jake's ass if he finds out what stories his son is telling to impress the paleface girl, I thought when I realized the nature of the conversation I was overhearing. Those stories were only told to members of the tribe, and this girl had no business being so well informed about our deepest secrets—stories that were much truer than Jacob Black realized.

"Paul, how many more hot dogs do you want?" Emily's question pulled me away from my eavesdropping.

"Three, thanks." I took the offered food and started eating it, while returning my attention to the group farther down the beach. Bella was leaving with her school friends. I looked her way, curious in spite of myself. She almost seemed to sense my gaze, because her head turned my direction. Our eyes met…my world rocked even though the ground beneath me didn't budge. Deep brown eyes set in a pale face surrounded by loose mahogany curls gripped my heart and pulled. Reflexively, I locked my muscles to keep myself from bolting across the sand toward her. Everything about her screamed "good girl"—too good for the likes of me. Our eyes stayed locked until one of her friends got her attention, and then they were gone.

"Earth to Paul!" Jared surfaced from his Kim-haze. "You still here?"

"Yeah. But I'm thinking I'll go take a run for a while."

Even though I didn't have a destination in mind, my paws somehow found the way to Forks, to a street near the edge of town, and the backyard of the police chief's house.

I knew what had just happened: I'd imprinted on her. But how could a screw-up like me possibly be anything that a girl like her could need or want? Impossible. Much better for her if I stayed away and kept her ignorant of everything. She didn't deserve to be dragged into my messed up life, let alone the supernatural world I was now part of.

Yet my dreams seemed designed to convince me of exactly the opposite. I saw myself walking through the forest with her, both as a human and as wolf. Coming home from a long patrol shift to see her setting a hot meal on the table for me. Feeling her beneath me in bed, her legs wrapped around my waist, finding heaven in her body while her murmurs soothed my soul.


Bella POV

After another week of school, where I finally felt like I was starting to blend in, a new weekend arrived. While most students would have welcomed two days off from school, I realized that I wasn't one of them. School at least kept me occupied for the hours of the day, and then more time in the evenings while I completed homework.

"What am I supposed to do with all this time?" I asked myself. Homework wouldn't take long—it usually didn't. I could take the grocery list to the store and restock the kitchen…do laundry and clean the house… But whatever activities I came up with, none of them would truly distract me from the topic that seemed ever-present in my mind: the guy I'd seen on the beach and who visited me nightly in my dreams. It was insane that I'd only glimpsed him once in person—and from a distance at that—and yet I couldn't forget about him.

"Any plans for your weekend, Bells?" my father asked me.

"Chores around the house, I guess."

"You need to get out of here—I didn't invite you to move in just to get a free maid service, Bella."

"I like to keep busy—"

"Then spend time with the new friends you've been making at school. Or you can come down to La Push with me. I know you don't like fishing, but there are kids down there you could get to know. Billy's daughters both moved away, but Jake's still here."

"I know. I met him and a couple of his friends at the beach last weekend."

Somehow, I found myself in the passenger seat of Charlie's cruiser, heading to La Push for the day. Jake's friends were with him in his small garage, helping him work on an old beat-up car.

"Does it work?" I asked.

"It will when I'm done with it."

"Yeah, in the next millennium," laughed Quil.

"See if I give you a ride anywhere, then," Jake retorted.

After a while, they took pity on me and we walked over to Second Beach. Faint shouts and laughter from high above us had me scanning to find the source. I nearly screamed when a body plummeted down from the heights to make a large splash in the water.

"Idiots," snorted Jacob.


"Sam Uley and his shadows: Jared Cameron and Paul Lahote. The Spirits' gift to La Push, if you believe some of the gossip."

"Should I know who they are?"

"Nah. Paul's our age, but Jared and Sam have already graduated. Didn't go off to college or anything, but they still walk around like they own the place."

"They did run off those would-be drug dealers," offered Embry.

"That still doesn't explain why the elders let them get away with everything. I mean, Paul skips school all the time, but he never gets in trouble for it the way any of us would."

Jacob kept talking, but my attention was distracted when the trio of jumpers waded out of the surf and shook water from their bodies like dogs did. One turned to look in our direction, and my heart jumped: it was the guy from my dreams. Dreams that seemed to progress sequentially from one night to the next, as if the events in them were really happening. His dark eyes bored into me just like they had last weekend and I wondered what he saw when he looked at me. For my part, I liked looking back at him. Black hair was cut short, unlike Jake's and Embry's long hair. Wet board shorts clung to his body, highlighting and impressively built physique which made my dream-self's nickname for him of "baby" wildly oxymoronic. One of the others punched him on the shoulder and he spun to answer an unspoken challenge. A tussle resulted, ending with one of them-the other guy, I somehow thought-tossed back into the ocean. The third guy appeared to summon them both, and they all disappeared into the forest.


Paul POV

I couldn't help staring at Bella Swan when I saw her on the beach for the second weekend in a row. My wolf really wanted me to walk across the sand and spirit her away from those juvenile boys who all lusted after his mate. His mate. The wolf was mad at me for not making a move on her, but I still believed that I was bad news for her. From what I'd heard Billy Black saying, Bella had moved here to finish high school and spend time with her dad before going to college. If she was tied to me, then she was tied here-and I doubted that a girl like her dreamed of attending the local community college branch to continue her education. I could watch over her from a distance and make sure that she was safe-I didn't have to get involved in her life and derail everything. The animal side of my nature didn't like that idea, though. He wanted us to claim our mate and care for her-and be cared for by her.

That urge only got stronger over time as I watched Billy Black and his son, and the Clearwater family, and the Ateara's all benefit from the food that Bella cooked up and delivered to them. I could smell the evidence that Bella had gone on a cleaning binge that Billy couldn't do and Jake didn't care to. I even eavesdropped on the study sessions Bella instituted for Jake and his friends-help that I could have easily used myself, what with how bad my grades were; like it was my fault, though, with how much school I had to miss with the wolf stuff.

The nights were even worse. Either I was at home, jacking off to memories and dreams of Bella-both erotic sex sessions and simple mundane moments of togetherness-or I was outside her house in wolf-form, guarding her from any dangers and feasting my senses on her scent and her sleep talking. My wolf really got roused hearing her breathe my name and the aroma of arousal that accompanied it. He wanted her beneath us, filled by us, growing round with our pup in her belly, living in our home...

A baseball game played out on the TV screen, but neither of us was watching it. I was stretched out full-length on the couch, head pillowed on Bella's lap, her fingers running idly through my hair-hair I'd started growing out some just so she could do this. My head rocked forward when the round firmness of her pregnant stomach was forced outward by a firm kick. I rotated onto my side, pushing up the hem of her maternity top to expose the mound where my pup was cradled and nurtured by his wonderful mother. "Be nice to your Mama," I told him, pressing my cheek to her skin so that my lips were close to the pup. I didn't let her hide the stretch marks that traced across her belly-"Marks of a warrior, protecting the young and innocent. Signs of what you have done-what awes me." And I proved it, lifting her up and over me, sliding her down onto my cock, loving my mate.

"When did you imprint on her?"

I jumped when my Alpha spoke behind me-I hadn't even heard or sensed him coming.


"Don't give me that, Paul," Sam stared me down. "I know you imprinted on Bella Swan. Don't know why I didn't see it sooner-you've been quietly focused on her for weeks now. When?"

"Beach cookout. She was down with kids from Forks and Jake Black and his friends."

"How have you not gone crazy?"

"I haven't gone near her-not as a human. I guess that makes the difference. I check on her at night as a wolf and that satisfies him." Mostly.


"Sam, I can't screw up her life. Look at me. I'm part of La Push's 'gang', no mom, alcoholic dad, living on charity, probably about to fail out of high school. You tell me what business a guy like me has even looking at a girl like her."

"The spirits clearly think otherwise."

"Or maybe they took one too many puffs of ceremonial herbs," I scoffed, not willing to listen to Sam's arguments.


Bella POV

After Jake and his friends had been released from the day's tutoring session, Billy Black held me back. "Wonder if I could ask a favor of you, Bella?"

"Sure, Billy. What is it?"

"There's another boy at the school-same age as Jake and his friends-who could use some help, too. He's not able to attend classes all the time, and he's gotten behind. We don't want to see him fail, and I wonder if you might be willing to work with him?"

"It's fine with me if he comes to the study sessions, too."

"I actually think he might do better with private sessions, at least to begin with. I'm not sure how welcome Jake and the others would make him, and that wouldn't help Paul any."


"Paul Lahote."

Oh boy. The hot guy I'd been unconsciously lusting over and having increasingly intimate dreams about for weeks now. Private tutoring sessions? How was I supposed to handle that without combusting? I finally realized that Billy was still waiting for an answer. "Um, sure. I guess I could work with him after my sessions here."

Over the next two days before the next tutoring day, I spent countless hours second-guessing my decision to agree to Billy's request. How was I supposed to concentrate on helping Paul with his studies, when all I seemed to want to do was jump him? But on the other hand, spending time with him might just give me the chance to figure him out. The way he kept staring at me anytime he saw me seemed to suggest he was interested, but he'd never approached me, and usually took off after he realized I'd noticed him back.

Sam Uley showed up at Billy's house and said he'd show me the way to Paul's house. He gave me a Cliff's Notes version of Paul's life, from parental abandonment to his living arrangements. My heart ached to hear everything he'd endured, and I firmly decided that I was going to do whatever I could to help him, no matter what. When we arrived, it was clear that Paul wasn't happy about seeing me.

"Paul, Bella is here to help. Listen to her, and try not to be a pain in the ass," and with that Sam left.

"So…what do you need help with?"

He leered—actually leered—at me. "Probably nothing you'd be prepared to help me with."

My face flamed. "Absolutely not!"

"Too bad. You're kinda cute for a pale-face."

"Textbooks? Assignments?"

He pointed to the table and I headed there to look things over. The rest of the session kept going in the same vein, Paul saying increasingly suggestive things to make me blush and squirm. Time after time he pushed the envelope, trying to see if I would stick around or not, it seemed like. But I'd made a promise to try and help him, and no matter what he tried, I wasn't going to leave. The next visit had more of the same. So did the one after that. But regardless of whatever he dished out, I still kept coming. It was hard, and I constantly felt overheated, but I attempted to ignore everything he did or said to get a rise out of me. Tried, but probably didn't succeed. Night after night, I dreamed; my dreams often—okay, always—featuring either Paul or a dark grey wolf. And dream Paul was just as outrageously suggestive as real Paul was.

"Paul, I don't care what you say or how you act, I'm not giving up on this-or on you. I know you can do this. You're smart and you've got drive-just channel it into this assignment and not into trying to piss me off. It's not going to work. You're not going to get me to run-I'm not going anywhere. Now, here's the formula. What numbers from the problem get plugged into each spot?"


Narrator POV

Day after day, Bella Swan kept showing up at Paul's door for their tutoring sessions. No matter what he said or did, she continued to come. Before long, her calm demeanor and persistence had him starting to feel bad for the hard time he was giving her—here she was trying to help him, and he continually tried to shove her away. Not that he was wholehearted about it; half of him wanted nothing more than to pull Bella close and never let her leave. But the wounded part of Paul was still convinced that she didn't deserve someone as damaged as he was.

Over time, though, Bella seemed to wear away at Paul's resolve just like the ocean waves crashing against the coastline. He'd thought of himself as immovable as a boulder…well, boulders eventually got eroded. He didn't tone it down completely—that was not in his nature. But he did try to do better, and—as Sam had said—not act like a complete ass. Bella still blushed a lot, and didn't meet his eyes much. When she did, though…it made the wolf wonder if the girl's dreams were anything like his. But she kept coming, drawn by the imprint—even though she didn't know anything about it—to spend time with him. Her brown eyes just pulled Paul in, made him think that nothing else mattered.

Their time together increased when Jacob and his friends got sick. Billy put a halt to their tutoring sessions until the bug was completely gone.

"Don't want you to get exposed, Bella," he said. Though, of course, none of the boys were actually sick. The natural consequence of a family of vampires living in close proximity to a tribe of shapeshifters had claimed another trio of victims. Jacob, Quil, and Embry all phase into pack membership, revealing Embry as a secret Quileute—and almost certainly Sam's half-brother. Not that Bella knew any of that—at least not yet. Paul was starting to think that he didn't want to keep her in the dark. If she knew, she could be here all the time. If she knew—if she accepted—then the wolf would be happy. So it was Paul, rather than the Three Musketeer, who spent time with Bella, teaching her about the area in thanks for her tutoring help, and starting to ease her into

One day—and it was a surprise to some that it had taken this long—Paul's preoccupation with Bella finally attracted the attention of someone other than Sam. Bella was down at the beach again with her school friends, and Paul couldn't stop staring. It was his bad luck that the one who noticed the staring match was Jacob. The younger wolf slammed into Paul with crushing force. Eyes focused on his imprint, Paul never saw the attack coming and went down hard, Jake landing no top of him, punches flying. With Jake's body pinning one arm-and with one of Jake's arms pressing down on his throat, Paul couldn't get the leverage to start punching back. Seconds later, Jacob was flying backward through the air, pulled off Paul by a furious Alpha. Bella raced to Paul's side and dropped heavily to her knees beside him.

"Baby, are you okay?" her hands ran through his hair, fluttered over his face and chest, tracing each rapidly forming bruise. The snorts, laughter, and catcalls of their audience sent Bella's face spinning through the color spectrum from pale peach to tomato red.

"Baby?" he asked, questioning the endearment.

"Gah. What was I thinking? Why did I do that? You must think I'm an idiot or something. I need to shut up. Gah! Why can't I stop this word vomit?"

"When we speak without thinking, we're actually saying what we really think."

"But why am I thinking it? Why can't I stop dreaming about you? Wanting…"

"What do you want?" he held his breath, hardly daring to hope.

Bella looked around in obvious embarrassment at their attentive audience. "Now?"

"We can go," he said, vaulting easily to his feet and making her squeak in surprise.

"Tell her, Paul. All of it," Sam stated firmly. "Don't screw this up."

"What's going on?" Bella begged once they were alone.

Finally done fighting and willing to try stepping out onto the branch of hope and trust, Paul finally told her everything: being a wolf, the imprint and what it meant, how he'd tried to put her first and leave her free to have the life she dreamed of.

"Why didn't you ask me then what I wanted?"

"I…I didn't want to hear you say 'no'."

"You thought I'd say no? I'm a babbling mess anytime I'm near you. My face glows as red as Rudolph's nose. I dream about you every single night, and I'm probably sort of in love with you. How could you think I'd turn you down?"

"I'm—I think I'm in love with you, too, but—"

"You're a great guy, Paul. Yeah, you got dealt a crappy hand in life, but you aren't letting it stop you. I've seen how hard you're working to get caught back up in school, and I bet you work just as hard at being a wolf protector."

"But you—"

"Paul, I'm not going anywhere."

Brown eyes met black. Nervous laughter filled the air. Two bodies moved in unison, unconsciously. Arms wrapped around waists and the wolf and his imprint melded together in an embrace.

Running a sweep past Paul's house later that day, Jared reported to the others that they should keep a wide berth—Bella Swan wasn't going anywhere. And she didn't. The second it was legally possible, Bella moved in with Paul, tending to him with such attention that the wolf purred in pleasure no less than the man did.