A/N: Oh hai. Thanks for stopping by =) It's been a long while, but words haven't been my friends in recent months. I promise I haven't abandoned any of my fics, though. This one was written about 5 months ago, and I just never posted it. It's a one-shot, and I have no plans to continue it, JSYK.

Many thankees go to MeraNaamJoker for beta lovelies and keeping me from making Paul sound like an educated female instead of a 16 y/o boy raised by his working class dad. Any errors belong to me and changes I've made after her expert editing.

I heart you all. Thanks for reading!


~Bella~

I couldn't deal with this again. Jacob was nowhere to be found, Billy was being evasive anytime he actually answered the phone, and I couldn't get a hold of Quil or Embry, who were the only other Pack members whose phone numbers I had. And I knew it was something wolf related or Billy wouldn't be acting so weird. Jacob had promised not to do this to me again now that I knew, but he was. I couldn't imagine any possible scenario that would cause us to go around in this circle again.

My only option was to drive to La Push and find some answers myself.

Of course, I went to the Blacks' little red house first, but that didn't help. Billy told me Jake was with the Pack, probably out on patrol, and that he didn't know when he'd be home. I moved on to Emily's house next, hoping I could get some female sympathy (i.e. answers), but she wasn't home either.

By that point, I was frustrated and tired of driving all over, but I headed toward the little general store where they all sometimes loitered. Wouldn't it figure that my truck would stall on the way?

Damn it!

I got out and opened the hood, gazing down at the innards of my truck hopelessly. Hours spent in Jake's garage had taught me which part was the engine, what a battery looked like, and where to add oil, but that was about it on my mechanical knowledge. I would have had better luck with a motorcycle than trying to assess what was wrong with my truck.

And of course I didn't have a cell phone.

And of course I was nowhere near the store.

And of course the sky was darkening – a clear sign that the rain would start at any moment.

Even though I knew it was hopeless, I tried to start the truck again. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Giving in, I closed the hood and locked the doors so I could start walking. The wind was picking up, so I clutched my hoodie tighter around my body, hoping I'd get somewhere indoors before the cold spring rain started pelting down.

I'd only been walking for a couple minutes, grumbling to myself, when a figure emerged from the woods, scaring the hell out of me.

"Holy crow, Paul! You nearly gave me a heart attack!" I said loudly, completely startled. "Where the hell did you come from? Wait, never mind." He was shirtless and sweaty, so I didn't need him to answer that.

"What are you doing out here?" he asked, forgoing any pleasantries. Typical.

"Is Jacob patrolling right now? I haven't been able to get in touch with him, and I'm really starting to get upset."

Paul's expression changed instantly, turning to something strange. He knew whatever I didn't.

"What?" I demanded. "What's going on? Is he okay? Did something happen?" My words spilled out, and I knew I was beginning to panic. I needed Jacob; I couldn't bear it if anything had happened to him, especially if it had to do with Victoria.

"He's fine!" Paul barked, giving me his signature scowl. "Nothing bad happened; he's just . . . shit, it's not my place to tell you."

"Well, now I know something's wrong, and if you don't tell me, it's gonna drive me crazy!"

He huffed a laugh, and I heard him grumble something that included the words "leech lover" and "crazy" in the same sentence. I instantly felt like I was seeing red.

"Screw you, Paul! Just tell me where Jacob is and get out of my way so I can go call my dad." Just then, the rain began to fall, and I screamed in frustration. "Ahh!"

"Christ, woman! Chill out!" he spat back at me. "What happened to your truck?"

"If I knew, I'd be driving it!"

He shook his head, yanking the keys from my hand as he pushed past me. He opened the door and hopped into the driver's seat while I just stood there getting soaked. This was the worst freaking day ever. Well, that wasn't entirely true, but it sucked big time.

After several attempts to get the truck started, Paul popped out of the cab, less fazed by the rain than I obviously was. "I think it's the fuel injector. Not cheap, but it's fixable."

"Great," I muttered, not looking at him.

"Go sit in the truck. I'll run back and borrow my dad's car."

.

When Paul returned minutes later – he must have run to his house in wolf form – I unhappily sank into the passenger's seat of his dad's car. He said nothing, just turned in the direction of Forks.

"Where are you going? Take me over to Jacob!"

"I'm taking you home, Swan," Paul said without looking over at me. We were both soaked to the bone, but while I was shivering in my heavy, wet hoodie, he was shirtless and looking as comfortable as ever. Stupid warm wolves.

"I don't want to go home," I said through gritted teeth. "I wouldn't have driven out here just to turn around and go back to my own damn house! It certainly wouldn't be worth the three miles to the gallon of gas my truck gets. So just stop the car and let me get out if you're not going to take me to Jake's house. I can wait for him there."

He sighed heavily but remained focused on the road.

"I'm not doing that."

I huffed in frustration for what felt like the thousandth time, resisting the urge to punch and kick the dashboard. If it hadn't been his dad's car, my self-control would have been more difficult to rein in. I wasn't normally like this – so angry and short-tempered – but Paul had a way of getting under my skin. All I wanted was to see Jacob and make sure he was okay. If he wasn't . . . I could hardly breathe when I considered any other option. Paul had said Jacob was fine, but there were too many details missing. Something had happened, and I needed to know what it was. I turned my face toward the window when I felt unwanted tears.

"How do you know where I live?" I asked meekly when Paul stopped the car in my driveway. I still wasn't looking at him.

He barked out a sharp laugh. "You forget about those bloodsuckers trying to get you?"

"Oh, right," I said quietly.

We sat in silence for a couple minutes. I didn't want to get out of the car; I didn't want to give up on this. He didn't understand.

"Do you need me to walk you in or something?" he asked. I was surprised that he sounded so unsure of himself; I had expected more anger or malice, all things considered.

"Please," I begged weakly. "Please, will you take me back? I just need to see him. He'd want to see me, too. I know he would."

It was true. I knew Jacob had feelings for me. I did my best to skirt around the subject, needing his friendship so desperately, but he was making me better. Somewhere deep inside, a tiny little part of me held out hope that maybe, if I could ever love someone again, it would be him. I never let that speck of a thought develop, but now, fearing that something could be wrong and I could possibly lose Jacob forever, the panic that welled inside me was too much to handle.

I heard the loud gasping of my breath before I realized what was happening to me. My heart felt like it was about to burst out of my chest, and my hands were shaking in my lap.

"Are you all right?" Paul asked from somewhere far away. A string of expletives followed.

I lost track of things from there. My vision wasn't quite right, but I felt my door open and realized moments later I was in Paul's arms. He asked me where the key to the house was, and I revealed its hiding place without a second thought. Softness surrounded me, and I found myself on the sofa, an old afghan being wrapped tightly around my body.

"Shh . . . calm down. Just, gah! Chill, please, Bella. Just relax, okay?"

"I need him," I sobbed. "It hurts so much. He's the only one . . ." I trailed off.

"He can't be here right now," Paul said. "I'm sorry."

I continued to cry, no longer caring how much of a basket case I looked or sounded like. It didn't matter.

"I'm so cold. I need him to hold me. He'll make it better. He'd want to. I know how he feels about me."

"Christ, woman!" Paul said exasperatedly. "He can't!"

"Why?" I shouted back at him, finally meeting his eyes.

"He imprinted!"

Just like that, it felt like Paul had held a shotgun to my chest and pulled the trigger.

"Imprinted?" I eventually said. "On a girl."

"Well . . . yeah. Obviously," he answered cautiously.

I was quiet again for a while, thinking about what I knew of the imprint. The only real knowledge I had of the phenomenon was from seeing Sam and Emily together. I thought about the first time I'd met Emily at her house and the way Sam had been practically drawn toward her. Their reunion had been so passionate that it had been slightly awkward to watch, even though I knew it was just hours since they'd last seen each other. They were clearly connected on a very deep level, much like the loving bond I'd seen between other . . . sets of mates. Thinking back to them stung so much, but it was how my mind was rationalizing and understanding the imprint concept . . . and drawing the connection to Jacob having imprinted on someone.

He wouldn't care about me. Just like Sam, who had completely severed his relationship with Leah, all their love and past tossed to the wayside, and taken Emily into his life wholeheartedly. My Jacob was gone. My light. My sun. My hope.

First, he had abandoned me. He said he didn't love me anymore. I knew I wasn't good enough for him and never had been. Now, Jacob was leaving me, too. Destiny had made it shockingly clear that Bella Swan wasn't a suitable match for Jacob either; someone else was, and now his heart belonged to her, whoever she was.

I completely lost it, curling in on myself and wailing violently. Everything hurt – each inch of my body and every fiber of being within me. My mind, my heart, and my life were shattered. There was no hope for me to get better now. I'd live my life like this, and no one could help me.

Why? Why me? Or better yet, why not me? Why wasn't I good enough for anyone I loved?

"Bella? Bella? Come on. Let me help you up to your room. You're shivering and freaking out."

His voice sounded apprehensive and a little annoyed at the same time, but it was enough for me to open my eyes and look at him. Yep, the annoyance was there, but he also seemed uneasy. Regardless, I pushed the blanket away and let him lift me into his arms with little effort. My eyes closed, and I tucked my head into his chest as he carried me up the stairs to my bedroom. He set me down carefully, making sure I was steady on my feet before he let me go. Slowly, my eyes dragged up his chest, studying his face, until our eyes met. We shared a look of something I couldn't really explain before he broke apart from me hastily.

"You should probably get out of those wet clothes. I'll just go. I should go," he told me, turning to look out my window. "I'm supposed to be patrolling now anyway."

"Oh," I replied. "Okay. Yeah." Dry clothes would be good. And my bed, with lots of blankets.

Paul left my room, and I heard the front door close as I peeled my cold, uncomfortable clothes off, tossing them in a pile on the floor. Clad in sweatpants and one of Charlie's old flannel shirts, I crawled into bed and closed my eyes. Hot, fat tears slid across my skin until everything went dark.

.

"Bella? Umm, honey? You want to get up? I ordered a pizza."

My room was dark, and it was obviously night. I had no idea how long I'd slept, but Charlie was sitting on the edge of my bed, looking as uncomfortable as he normally did when I was upset.

"Come eat something."

"What time is it?" I mumbled, sitting up slowly.

"A little after seven."

I pushed back the blankets and let him help me stand, following his path down the staircase to the kitchen. I sat at the table and let him put a slice of cheese pizza on a paper plate in front of me, following it with a glass of soda.

"You're being weird," I said when he sat to join me. His face reddened immediately.

"Your friend Paul was here when I got home."

"What?" I said immediately, my head snapping up. "Why? And he's not my friend."

"For someone who's not your friend, it was pretty nice of him to give you a ride home and hang around when you were upset."

Oh god, no. What had Paul told Charlie?

My dad looked at me with an expression of utmost sympathy, his eyebrows more serious than I'd ever seen them.

"He told me that Jake has a new girlfriend," he said cautiously. "That you didn't take it well."

"I . . ." I started, but couldn't finish. I really didn't know how to respond. First of all, I was beyond embarrassed at what Charlie was implying, and second, I had little interest in this conversation. Not only was it awkward, but it was making me feel sick again.

"You and Jacob are good friends. I'm sure you can still hang out even though he has a girlfriend."

"Dad, it's complicated," I hedged, trying not to have this conversation.

"I didn't even think you liked Jacob that way."

"Dad, please! Stop!" I begged, pushing my pizza away and putting my head down on the table. "I really don't want to talk about it."

We were both silent for a while, until I finally picked my head up a few minutes later and took a tiny bite of pizza. I noticed that Charlie hadn't touched his since my mini-meltdown, and he only resumed eating once I did. We both chewed in silence, but I didn't have much of an appetite. It had been coming back lately, but not today.

"So," Charlie began again eventually. "I had your truck towed into town."

I managed to mumble my thanks, and after an easy cleanup of dinner, I excused myself to my bedroom. I sort of hated the fact that it was Saturday because it meant another day of nothing to occupy or distract me until school on Monday.

Sleep evaded me long after Charlie went to bed, thanks to my unplanned rest that afternoon. After tossing and turning for hours, I gave up and turned on a lamp. I would just have to read until I exhausted myself.

Three chapters into Great Expectations, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw a dark silhouette against my window. When my eyes were able to focus properly, I realized it was Paul.

What the hell?

"Open up," he said quietly, though loud enough for me to hear him through my closed window. Confused, I scrambled over and did as he requested, allowing him to come inside.

"Hey. Why are you here?" I asked, suddenly self-conscious about my frumpy bed clothes.

"I don't know."

"You don't know?" I asked incredulously.

He shrugged. "Not really."

When I continued to look at him expectantly, he went on.

"I feel . . . responsible . . . for you being upset. It wasn't my place to tell you about Jacob. You were freaking out, and I seriously don't know how to deal with that shit, so I had to bail. I came back to check on you 'cause I felt bad. I fell asleep on the couch until your dad got home."

I stared at him blankly. Had Paul seriously just said all that to me? It almost sound like he actually cared.

"You don't even like me."

A sardonic half smile curled his lips upward. "I think you're a crazy leech lover, but I know imprinting affects more than just two people. I've seen it before, and I saw it again this afternoon. It sucks."

"So you were what? Worried about me?" I asked, still completely confused about the entire situation. This was Paul. Hot-headed, mouthy, smartass jerk Paul.

A look of embarrassment overtook his features. "I just . . ."

"Oh my god. You were." I sank back down onto the edge of my bed, watching him. "I don't mean to be rude, but this is really weird. You'd think I'd be used to weird stuff by now. Vampires, werewolves, and imaginary ex-boyfriends."

"Huh?"

"Never mind that last part."

He breathed a short laugh, sliding down to the floor and leaning against the wall.

"I don't think I want to know," he said bluntly.

We both just sat their awkwardly for a minute, unsure what else to say. Finally, he broke the silence.

"So . . . are you okay?"

"Not really," I admitted.

"I'm sorry for the way I told you," he said apologetically. "You were just flipping out, and well, you already know I have a short fuse."

"Yeah, I get it."

"I know you guys were . . . close."

"Why do you say it like that?" I asked, noticing the strange tone in his voice. He hesitated, looking down at my bedroom carpet.

"The whole imprinting thing is messed up," he started. "Sam dumped Leah for her cousin. Jared fell in love with a girl he'd never given a second thought to before. Quil is devoted to a toddler. And Jacob was crazy about you until . . . this."

I swallowed thickly, feeling the burning pain in my chest creeping up again as my eyes welled with more unwanted tears.

"I understand the purpose of the imprint, but I hate seeing it screw up people's lives."

I cleared my throat and tried to speak without choking on the words. "I don't think I can talk about it anymore."

Fighting back the heartache was difficult, but it wasn't as fresh as it had been earlier, and I also knew that if I let myself lose control, Charlie would wake up. I had very little interest in explaining the boy in my bedroom in the middle of the night. Despite all my attempts, the tears still came, albeit quieter than that afternoon.

"Shit. I'm sorry," Paul said, moving across the floor on his knees. "I shouldn't have brought it up again. I came over because I felt bad and I was worried you'd have more nightmares, and all I've done is make it worse."

There was no more for me to say, so I let the hurt drain through my tears. I felt like an idiot losing it in front of Paul yet again, but strangely, he didn't seem to be going anywhere. When he laid his hands on my knees, slowing sliding them up and down in a comforting way, I was taken aback by the relief I found in his touch. He must have noticed the effect he had on me because he slid up to the bed, sitting close to me and pulling me into his arms.

"You're so warm," I managed to say, leaning my head against his bare chest. Slowly, my shaking stopped, and the burning in my chest lessened. I found myself wanting to touch him, to feel a true embrace, so my arms worked their way around him as well.

He told me to lie down and relax, but when he tried to pull away, I refused to let go.

"I . . . I know this is crazy, but I don't . . . . You're helping. Can you . . . stay?" I asked hesitantly, fearing that he would laugh or reject me. I knew it was completely strange, and I honestly didn't understand it, but I really did want him to stay with me. I was being selfish asking that of him, but if it helped, then so be it.

.

~Paul~

I felt like I needed to go check a mirror and see if I was still myself because I sure wasn't acting like it.

Forty-eight hours ago, my life had been much simpler, but a crazy chain of events had taken me from a typical day at school to Bella Swan's bed. Primarily, it all happened because Sara Beth Crane moved back to La Push. She was our age and had lived on the rez until eighth grade when her mom remarried. They moved out to Port Angeles and had been there since, but the word around school was Sara Beth had moved back here to live with her grandparents. I can remember her and Jacob being friends when we were younger, and when he saw her for the first time at school two days before – the first time since he'd joined the pack – everything changed.

Thank god Sara Beth knew most of us because once we realized what had happened, she was taken to Emily's house with the pack and things were laid out pretty clearly to her. Emily helped a lot, and Kim showed up later as well. Meanwhile, Jacob looked like he should have had cartoon hearts floating around his head. Sara Beth was incredibly receptive to everything she'd been told, and she left with Jacob to spend some time with him and get to know him again.

The whole thing was totally weird, but what wasn't lately? I was a wolf, for fuck's sake.

Honestly, I hadn't thought about how Bella would react to the situation. Jacob definitely hadn't, preoccupied with his imprint, and I didn't think the other guys had either. So when I found her stranded in the rain, the whole situation was sort of dumped in my lap. I'd tried to just get her home and avoid the subject altogether, but she kept insisting, pushing my buttons the hole time.

It had been stupid of me to let the truth slip like that, and after seeing her fall to pieces, I felt guilty as hell. I didn't think she realized all the things she was mumbling as she cried, and all of her fears and self-doubts were repeated while she slept.

The craziest part was I hadn't even really liked Bella before this; she had been somewhat correct when she called me out on it. But now, I felt a strange affection for her – or rather, a need to watch over the little basket case. She was just so innocent and vulnerable. I'd always seen her as a stupid, crazy bitch because of her involvement with the Cullens, and the thought of her spending so much time around a bunch of leeches still made me feel sick, but she was this delicate roller coaster of a girl. Half the time I'd ever been around her, she was spitting fire, and the next moment she was falling to pieces.

Now, as I complied with her request, lying on my side in her bed as she slept curled against me and using me as her personal furnace, I couldn't help but study her a little closer.

She was pale as shit, especially compared to me, but it sort of worked for her. Her hair was long and wavy – finer and more baby-soft than the girls on the rez – and it was the exact color of her eyes. Bella was sort of plain, but she was pretty; that added to the air of innocence she possessed. Really, when she wasn't acting like a lunatic, there was something captivating about the girl . . . something that made me want to guard her heart and protect her from harm – physical and emotional.

What had happened to her really did suck. That stupid fucking vamp had toyed with her and led her on, and then he took off when he was done playing around with the human. Now, Jacob and his imprint had made it even worse. I'd honestly thought Bella had been using Jacob and his affections to feel better about herself, but after seeing her break down the way she had, it looked like her feelings for him ran a little deeper.

Bella mumbled something, snuggling closer to me and shoving one of her legs between mine. The way she pressed her face against my chest put her hair right in my face, and I inhaled. She smelled really good. Kind of floral and fruity, but not in that perfumey, chemical way most girls did. Instinctively, my arm went around her, holding the waif of a girl close to me. Her heartbeat calmed to a slow, steady cadence, and I knew she was peaceful for the first time all day. It made me feel good, which was really strange because I wasn't used to taking care of anyone else, but I was glad I was helping.

Being with her that way was foreign to me. My virginity had been gone a while, and I'd hooked up with a handful of girls, but I'd never stayed in bed with any of them overnight. In fact, the sight of a crying girl normally made me bolt in the opposite direction, but with Bella, I wanted to be the one to comfort her and make sure she was okay.

I really had no fucking clue where this had all come from. It wasn't like me, yet my mind wasn't protesting either.

This chick was fucking voodoo.

.

"Paul?"

I stirred at the sound of a hesitant feminine voice whispering my name. It took another few moments of her prompting for my eyes to respond and open. Bella lay across from me, no longer pressed against my body but still nearby.

"Hey . . . sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep," I mumbled, rolling to my back and stretching. My feet hung off the end of her twin-size bed.

"It's okay," she said awkwardly, not meeting my eyes. "I shouldn't have asked you to stay. I'm sure it wasn't comfortable, and you probably have pack stuff to do, too."

"It's cool," I answered, still trying to wake myself fully. I didn't want to tell her about all my thoughts while she slept and how I actually liked being there for her.

"I appreciate it, though!" she added quickly. "This is weird, and completely unexpected, but it's nice of you. I'm actually surprised how well I slept."

I nodded, thinking of how to answer. "Hey, is your dad here?" I asked suddenly, that thought taking priority as I scrambled out of her bed.

"I just heard him. That's why I woke up," she replied. "He doesn't come in on Sunday mornings because he leaves to go fishing so early."

That still didn't calm me because – hello – he could decide to change up his routine today, especially given recent circumstances. The last thing I needed was to be caught in a girl's bedroom by her dad, even if nothing was going on between us.

"Chill out, Paul."

"I should go anyway," I said. "My dad will freak if I don't help him with the yard work today. I'm gone all the time, and he's been really pissed at me for not doing my share of the chores."

I moved toward the window but heard Bella move behind me before she touched my arm.

"Wait."

I turned back toward her, waiting for her eyes to meet mine. She looked like a scared animal, and that feeling of wanting to shield and protect her swelled in my gut again. I felt my features soften and my tension roll off my back.

"I want to know about her," she said quietly, her voice shaking a little. "If he's found his soul mate, I need to know what she's like and if she'll be good to him."

I wasn't really sure what to say in response. She was sort of masochistic, wasn't she?

"I don't want to be broken. Jacob was helping fix me, and he deserves someone good. Someone who isn't a mess. If I'm going to accept this, I need to know."

Once again, my body did something that my mind wasn't expecting. I reached out and pulled her shivering, fragile frame against my chest, holding her tightly for a few moments. When I released her, she looked just as surprised as I felt.

"Let me go help my dad. The sooner I get it done, the sooner I can come back. Okay?"

She agreed, giving me the phone number for the house, and I jumped from her window to a nearby tree, then down to the grass. I jogged into the woods, and once I was safely within the covering of greenery, I phased and ran for home.

.

As soon as I got home, I found a note on my bed in a messy scrawl, summoning me to Emily's house later that morning. Tossing it aside, I changed my clothes and started working on the flower beds and trimming back the hedges. My dad was still asleep, but the more I could get done before he woke, the better. By nine AM, I had all the assigned tasks finished, and I ran back inside to get a shower.

"Where are you off to now?" my dad asked when I appeared in the kitchen. He had made coffee and breakfast, which I was incredibly grateful for.

"Going to meet Sam. The council asked some of us to help clean up the beach a little. Tourists left a mess down there."

It was a complete lie, but what else was I supposed to tell him?

By the time I arrived at Emily's house, everyone was there, aside from Jacob.

We had our obligatory talk about patrols and an update – or lack thereof – on the red-headed bitch, but conversation quickly turned to Jacob and his new imprint. Sam told us that he'd had Jacob and Sara Beth over last night, and he and Emily had spoken to them a little more. Things were going surprisingly well with that situation, which was a relief because the last thing we needed was more drama around here. I didn't really want to bring it up, but I felt obligated to address the situation with Bella. Most of the guys had become friends with her, and she was the only non-Quileute, other than Emily, who knew about us.

"Has Jacob said anything about Bella?" I asked Sam. As expected, everyone looked at me oddly. "I found her yesterday; her truck was broken down. She started freaking out because she couldn't get a hold of Jake, and I got so worked up by her reaction that I accidentally let it spill."

A chorus of expletives and questions flooded the room, but I waved my hand to shut them all up.

"It was an accident, damn it! I didn't mean to tell her anything, but she's upset. I guess she did actually like him," I said with a sigh. "Anyway, she wants to know more about Sara Beth, and I'm going to tell her."

Sam cut in. "Paul, it is not your place –"

"She wants to be okay with it," I defended. "You didn't see the way she fell apart. Jacob is too preoccupied right now to think about anyone else. It's the right thing to do."

Their protests and hesitation continued, and I knew everyone was perplexed by my reaction. It wasn't like I'd ever expressed any interest in Bella Swan, especially since the day I'd nearly phased right on top of her, but things had changed. The damn girl had made me care about her, and if no one else was going to help her come to terms with this situation, I didn't have another choice.

I took off for home and grabbed the phone as soon as I walked inside. Bella answered, and I told her I would be over in a little while. My dad didn't have to go anywhere, so he let me take the car.

When I walked inside, the entire house smelled amazing.

"I made lunch," she said, giving me a soft smile. "I know how you guys eat, and I needed something to keep myself occupied." She shrugged and gestured for me to follow her to the kitchen.

I stuffed my face with manicotti, homemade garlic bread, and salad. When I noticed that she was picking at her little salad while I inhaled my lunch, I scooped one of the manicotti onto her plate and set a small slice of bread beside it.

"Eat. You're skinny enough already. Starving yourself isn't going to make you feel any better."

"I'm not starving myself," she said, scowling. "I just don't have much of an appetite."

"Eat anyway," I answered simply. "Or I'm not telling you anything."

She gruffly agreed, but her stomach stopped growling once she'd cleared half her plate.

"How about a walk?" I suggested after we cleaned up. "It's pretty nice out today."

She agreed, running up to her room to put on sneakers and a hoodie. Once she was ready, we headed out, walking down the side of the road rather than going into the woods.

Slowly, our conversation began, and I told her about Sara Beth. Mostly, Bella was quiet, just listening, but occasionally, she would ask questions about how Jacob had reacted or what Sara Beth was like. I explained that they had already known each other, but that it had been several years since any of us had seen Jacob's new imprint. I wanted Bella to feel reassured that Jacob would be okay because I knew she cared about that aspect of things, but I also wanted to make sure she wasn't going to slip into another panic. Each word I said was cautious, and I watched her reactions carefully. She did better than I had expected.

When we'd made it back to the house, we slipped off our shoes and sat on the living room couch together. I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was processing a lot, but I stayed silent until I saw heavy tears slide down her face.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

She shook her head and swiped at the tears, as though she was embarrassed.

"I don't know. I'm just a little overwhelmed," she admitted. "I want to be happy for him, and from what you've told me, it sounds like I should be, but I always thought . . ."

"It's okay. I get it."

"No, it's not. I shouldn't have assumed he would always be there. I did the same thing with . . . with . . . with Edward." She said the vampire's name so slowly that she nearly choked on it, and I wondered if she had even spoken it since the asshole abandoned her in the woods. "I thought we were going to be together forever, but I was wrong then, too. I should have known better than to expect that from Jake."

Fuck, this girl really did put her heart out in the open for guys to crush, and she was just beginning to realize it. It made complete sense that she seemed vulnerable and like she needed protecting. Making good on that instinct, I put my arm around her and pulled her into my side. She tucked her legs onto the sofa cushions and curled up against me. We sat in silence like that for a while, and I found myself stroking her soft hair, toying with the long strands and twisting them around my fingers. I felt her relax, and the feeling spread to me as my eyes slid closed.

I was awakened by movement. The weight that had been against my side shifted, and I opened my eyes to find Bella in my lap, her face extremely close to mine. My lips parted, ready to question her, but her mouth descended, stopping me. Very softly, she brushed her lips over mine. At first, I was too stunned to respond, but then my body realized what was happening, and my arms slid around her waist. I kissed her back, allowing myself to react and not thinking at all.

It had been a while since I'd been close to a girl like this. Since before phasing, actually. The combination of my temper and the crazy schedule I kept with pack duties prevented any opportunity for hookups, much to my dismay. So my body didn't want to deny the pleasure of having a soft, sweet girl pressing herself against it.

But this wasn't that simple, and my mind did eventually force me to pause.

"Bella, wait," I gasped, taking advantage of my superior strength by pushing her back enough to speak. "What are you doing?"

She shrank a little at my rejection, but the fire relit in her eyes just as quickly as she tried to slide herself back down my lap. I tightened my grip on her waist and looked at her seriously.

"Don't," she demanded. "Don't ruin this. I just want to feel something good. Please, Paul."

Fuck. My walls crumbled instantly. It was something in the desperate tone of her voice and the plea she made. I knew this was just going to be a distraction for her, and it would probably end disastrously, but the way she'd said my name . . . .

"This is a bad idea," I said, loosening my hold and letting her come closer.

"You're probably right," she answered, tipping her head down and pressing a kiss against the side of my neck. Her tongue dragged across my skin, and my hips flexed upward sharply. "But can't we just forget everything else right now? Have fun?"

My answer came in the form of my hands on the side of her face, pulling her to me for a kiss that was hard and greedy. I knew it was fucking stupid of me for so many reasons, but my perception of this girl had changed drastically. All I wanted to do was make her better – make all the fucked up realities she'd had to deal with a little easier. I couldn't deny that there was an unexpected attraction I felt to her, and by the way her body calmed when we touched, I knew I truly did help her in some way. She wanted something that would distract her enough that the rest of the world and all her problems would be shut out, even just for a little while. I could do that for her; I could let the horny teenage boy and the protective wolf-guardian give in to her request.

We lost ourselves for god knows how long, kissing, touching, and breathing heavily.

"When will your dad be home?" I asked as my hand crept under the hem of her shirt. My fingertips pressed against her stomach, sliding slowly back and forth. Her eyes widened as I crept up farther, and I enjoyed hearing her heart begin to race.

"Late. Covering second shift for someone," she said breathily. "Said he wasn't coming home between."

"Good," I replied, and without hesitation, I pulled my hands out, taking her shirt by the hem and pulling it up until she let me lift it over her head and arms.

She looked so astonished but smiled shyly at me. Shit, how inexperienced was this girl?

As we started kissing again, I slid my hands up and down her arms, wanting to keep her calm. I left one hand on her shoulder, and the other trailed over her collarbone, giving her goose bumps. Cautiously, I cupped one of her breasts in my hand. She may not have been busty, but she was round and firm and still so good. Girls had absolutely no idea how wonderful their boobs were. I palmed her ass and lifted her on her knees so that her chest was in my face. My lips slipped down from the dip in her collarbone. Slowly, I let my nose skim across her skin until I reached the top of her bra. While massaging both breasts, I laid tiny kisses over the swells, and I felt her fingernails dig into my shoulders.

"This okay?" I asked, as I brought our mouths back together.

"Yeah . . ." she replied, and her voice wavered when I pinched her nipples lightly. "Oh!"

Her reactions confirmed that she really didn't have much experience with this, but instead of making me stop, I wanted her more. I had to be careful, though. I knew she wanted a distraction, but not something she would regret later. I could make her feel good without going too far.

"Good," I said, shifting down a little on the sofa cushion and repositioning her so that when I bucked my hips up at her, she groaned from the new kind of friction. That was when she started to get the hang of things.

I kissed the hell out of her, touching the bare parts of her skin and thrusting against her parted legs. Our rhythm matched up after a minute, and I let her guide her own body over mine. Fuck, it felt good.

"Oh my god," she moaned, hiding her face in my neck and pushing roughly against me.

That's right, I thought, silently urging her on. I was so fucking close, and if she kept it up right where she was, I'd go off at any second.

She moved faster, the desperation in her movements clear. My grip was tight on her ass, keeping her as close as possible, and I squeezed even tighter when I came. Bella continued to cry out softly, sucking hard on my skin in between.

"Keep going," I whispered to her, and she groaned my name in response. Fuck if that didn't go straight to my dick.

After a few more hard thrusts, her body tightened up, and I knew she'd lost control. Her breathing was loud and heavy, and when she finally withdrew her face from my neck, she kissed me deeply.

"Wow."

I smiled at her, noticing sweat across her forehead and the way her body still shivered a little. We stayed close together that way for a few minutes, but I knew if I didn't clean up a little, I was going to be very uncomfortable, very soon.

Excusing myself, I went into the bathroom and removed my boxers. After putting my jeans back on, I rolled the shorts into a ball and took them out to the car. It probably would have been easier just to throw them away, but that definitely wasn't happening in her dad's house.

"Are you hungry?" Bella asked when I came back.

"Pretty much always," I answered honestly. In fact, I was starving.

I watched as she made me a stack of sandwiches and dumped half a bag of potato chips onto a plate. She was so much more at ease in this kitchen than anywhere else I'd ever seen her. It was cute watching her in her element.

When I was finished, she tapped her nails nervously against the table. I asked her what was wrong.

"Do you have to patrol tonight?" she asked in a hesitant tone.

"Yeah," I answered. "I should probably go soon. Have to make it look like I'm studying or going to bed, or my dad will have my ass for not coming home."

"Oh, okay."

"What? Is there something else?"

She bit her lip, and her eyes dropped from mine. Reaching across the table, I tipped her chin up so she would look at me.

"I was wondering if you'd be able to come back later," she told me. "I slept so well last night."

I nodded in understanding, and my stomach did a little flip-flop.

Really, Paul? Is this girl giving you butterflies?

"We each take night patrols twice a week. Tonight and Thursday for me, so maybe I can come tomorrow?"

"I'd really appreciate that."

I grinned. "So it's just a matter of appreciation?"

"I want you to," she clarified. "I don't know why I feel so comfortable around you, but I like it. I'm glad you've been here, and I do appreciate it. I like being around you; if I didn't, none of that would have happened."

I didn't respond because she was such a fragile-hearted person; she would probably overthink it anyway. Instead, I stood and pulled her out of her chair, bringing her body against mine. Leaning down, I held the side of her face and kissed her once. She gave me a small smile, and I gave her one right back.

"I'll see you tomorrow night then?"

"Yeah," she answered, walking me to the door.

.

~Bella~

Paul came over the next night and every night after that when he wasn't on patrol duty. I hadn't forgotten Jacob or the hope I'd had for us one day, but I was growing to accept things. If he had been meant for me – if I had been meant for him – then he would have imprinted on me. That meant there was someone else out there. Unfortunately, I hadn't done very well finding that person yet. I didn't believe it was Paul, necessarily, but I was enjoying the time we spent together.

It really was the weirdest thing. Of all the guys I could have found myself in this position with, I never would have guessed it would be Paul, but we had this odd sort of rapport. He'd stopped being a moody, aggressive jerk so suddenly, and there was something in the way he checked up on me . . . helped me . . . touched me . . . that made me believe that he truly did care. I didn't know why I was so willing to give myself to him physically when I'd held back with Jacob, but there was inexplicably no hesitation with Paul.

In the time since I'd initiated things with him, we had explored each other more. The first night he came to me, we had kissed and touched, but nothing had gone farther than before. Each night was a little different. We progressed to removing more clothing, kissing and touching one another in other places, and learning the different ways we could make each other come. I knew Paul had experience – Jacob had told me as much – but it was all new to me. I felt like he understood that because he was very patient and gentle with me. I never could have imagined that someone's fingers could make me feel so amazing or that I'd get the rush of my life when I saw bliss on his face when I made him come. We just kept going further, but never all the way. I wasn't ready for that, and he wasn't pushing me.

A week later, I came home from school to hear the phone ringing. Without an answering machine, Charlie's phone would ring until the caller hung up, but apparently, this person wasn't giving up.

"Geez, hang on, hang on," I huffed, dropping my backpack by the door and rushing to answer. "Hello?"

The responding voice was familiar and so good to hear I nearly cried. "Hey, Bells."

"Jake," I sighed.

"I hear you already know why I haven't been around. I'm sorry I didn't call sooner. I should have been the one to tell you."

"Yes, you should have," I answered, "but I guess I can understand." He couldn't help what had happened, and from what Paul had been telling me, Jacob was happy with Sara Beth.

"You probably won't believe me, but I really miss you, Bells. How have you been doing?"

My chest tightened. I knew he meant it, and I had missed him, too. I missed his presence and the warm sunshine of our friendship. I wondered if we could ever be as close as we had been.

"I . . . I was a little, um, surprised when I heard, I guess. I'm doing better now, though."

"Umm, yeah . . . I've seen some of that in Paul's head," he said with a lighthearted chuckle.

"Oh my god," I muttered, completely humiliated. I knew that Paul probably thought about me when he was phased, but I tried not to think about all those guys seeing me naked. "Please don't."

"Okay, I'll refrain for now, but you and I are going to have a talk about this thing between you and Paul. Soon."

I half-heartedly agreed, mainly trying to avoid the topic altogether, and he let our conversation move on. I could tell he was more interested in talking about his imprint than delving into my involvement with his pack brother anyway. Jacob explained that he wanted me to meet Sara Beth and invited me to La Push that evening for a bonfire on the cliffs.

"You sound happy, Jake."

"I am, Bells. She's really amazing."

I realized in our short conversation that for all my frustration and hurt, there was no way I could stay mad at him for disappearing from my life so suddenly. He was still Jacob. Maybe not mine in the way I'd once considered him, but he still wanted to be my friend nonetheless. Despite what I thought – what I'd assumed – we would have one day when I was better, there was something unspoken that told me our friendship could go on. I was tired of losing people I loved; this time, at least, I wasn't being abandoned. After everything Jacob had done for me, he deserved his new happiness. It wouldn't be easy for me, but I would find a way to be happy for him.

.

"You okay?" Paul asked as we walked into the clearing where a large group was gathered around the fire.

"I wasn't expecting there to be so many people here," I explained, studying the crowd. When Jacob had said they were having a bonfire, I'd thought five or ten people tops. This was the entire pack, their mates, a few younger members I hadn't known had phased, and a handful of adults I understood comprised the council. It made me feel incredibly out of place.

"Well, it's an important night," he said. "The elders are going to tell the legends of our tribe. They haven't done it since it was just me, Sam, and Jared."

I hesitated, uncertain if I should be there for something so sacred. "Are you sure it's okay for me to be here?"

"Yeah, of course it is. Come on." He placed his hand on the small of my back and guided me toward the crowd. We were greeted with smiles and suggestive looks (that I chose to ignore), and I immediately went toward Jake.

Jacob introduced me to Sara Beth, who hugged me immediately and told me she'd heard so much about me from Jake. Our time to talk and get to know one another was cut short when Billy and Old Quil called everyone to gather around. I was both grateful and disappointed by that; I wasn't as comfortable with this new girl as she seemed with me, but I knew it was important to Jake for us to get acquainted.

Regardless of my mixed emotions, the legends of the tribe were absolutely incredible, beginning with the original spirit wolf and continuing to the current pack. I began to shake when Billy spoke of the Cullens, when they had originally lived in the area years ago, and their recent return. Thankfully, he avoided speaking their names directly, but I could feel everyone's eyes on me. Jacob squeezed my shoulder, and Paul moved to sit behind me on the ground and wrap his arms around me, his legs caging me in on either side. I leaned back into him, taking comfort in his support.

Afterward, the social time picked up again, and I got to know Sara Beth a little better. I really couldn't deny that she was a sweet, gracious girl. She had a very sunny disposition and seemed like a good match for Jacob. It was still weird, in a way, but at the heart of things, I was happy for both of them.

Jacob managed to pull me away eventually, and I smiled when he asked what I thought of Sara Beth. He had the sweetest expectant look on his face.

"She's really great," I said. "You obviously care very much for her, and it seems the feeling is mutual. I'm glad."

"She's amazing," he replied, still beaming. "Now what about you?"

"What about me?" I hedged.

"You and Paul are pretty involved." There was no malice or anger in his tone; it was simply a matter-of-fact statement. "What are you calling this little relationship of yours?"

"It's not a relationship," I stated, doubting my own words. It was something; I just didn't know what, exactly.

Jacob pulled me close and hugged me, resting his chin on top of my head.

"You should talk to him about it, Bells. Seriously. First of all, I know you're not the kind of person to just do that kind of thing with any guy, and second, I've seen inside his head when he's thinking of you. It's more than a hookup."

I swallowed, hugging him tightly but unsure what to say. I cared about Paul more than I ever imagined I would, and I really did like him. I just didn't know what he wanted, and moreover, I wasn't sure how to transition a physical relationship like ours into something more. We were doing things completely backwards, and I was still questioning what I meant to Paul. Was I ready to really be with someone, body and heart in it together?

"You're overthinking it, aren't you?" he asked, making me smile in embarrassment.

"How'd you guess?"

"No one knows you like I do, Bells."

I laughed a little, and we hugged once more. I could see Paul talking to some of the other guys, but he kept looking in my direction.

"Go on," Jacob said, nudging me away. "He's waiting for you."

"I miss you," I replied. "Thanks for inviting me."

"You don't have to miss me anymore. I'll always be here for you. Please, talk to him. Now, maybe?"

I playfully punched his shoulder, knowing that if I really put any effort into it, I'd probably end up with a broken hand. Paul saw me and Jacob parting and moved in my direction immediately.

"Hey," he said, pulling me into a warm embrace. "Everything go all right?"

"Everything's great," I answered truthfully. "We're good, but there's something I wanted to talk to you about. Can we go sit down?"

"Here?" he asked, looking around. The group had spread out a bit, small groups having conversations amongst themselves.

"Unless you want to leave," I replied, a question in my voice.

He shook his head. "It's not that. Wolf hearing and all."

"Oh!" I said in understanding. Considering what I wanted to say, I didn't think there was anything to hide. If the pack had already seen me in Paul's thoughts, there really wasn't any use trying to hide our involvement. Not that it made things any less embarrassing for me, but I chose to avoid those kinds of thoughts.

I told him here was fine, and he let me lead him toward the fire, where he sat with his back against a log used for seating. I sat sideways on the ground, and he draped my legs over his.

"What's on your mind, babe?" he asked, taking my hand and playing with a ring I wore.

"Us."

"Something wrong?"

"Not at all. I really like this. I like you, Paul. I guess I just want to know where things are going," I explained.

He shook his head at me but smiled. "You want to know where we stand. Am I correct?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Where do you want us to go, Bella?

I took a deep breath and rubbed my thumb over the back of his hand. "I like it when you're with me at night, but I'd really like you to come around during the day, too. Like when my dad is around so he can meet you under better circumstances. I can make sure you're well fed, too," I teased, flicking his stomach.

I felt like I'd just bared my soul. I was letting someone new in, which meant I was putting my heart on the line. That also meant I could be hurt again. Maybe even worse.

"Really?"

I was drawn to Paul's face; his smile was, for lack of a more appropriate word, radiant. It was a little shocking how happy he looked because I'd never seen that kind of expression on his face.

"I think that sounds awesome, especially the part where you cook for me all the time."

I smacked his arm, and he leaned in to kiss me briefly.

"I don't know if you realize this, but you make amazing food. A hungry guy like me would be a fool to say no to you." He was still grinning playfully at me, slowing scooting us closer together.

"So you just want me for my lasagna?" I asked, pouting.

"You're pretty cute with your clothes off, too," he added quietly, right into my ear.

I shivered.

"Now you're just trying to see how much you can embarrass me," I whined.

"Your blush is even better when I see it other places," he said as he swiped his knuckle over my warm, red cheek.

"Oh my gosh! I think we should go now. I'll die if anyone hears you saying that stuff to me." I loved that Paul was expressing his attraction to me, but not in front of everyone. This was still very, very new.

"Babe, they've all seen it. You think I could spend nearly every night with you and not think about you?"

"All the more reason for me to leave now."

Standing, I pulled him so he'd join me on my feet. I dragged him toward my recently repaired truck and leaned against the door. He protested, but I knew most of it was in fun. He was more than happy to box me in against the side of my truck and kiss me silly.

"Let's go to my house. My dad thinks I'm staying at Jared's this weekend because he had to go to a training thing for work," he said, massaging my scalp.

"What about my dad?" I asked.

"We can go back to your house later, but I want to be alone with you for a little while. Sound good?"

I finally agreed, nervous and excited all at once. We were a couple now. We were going to try to have a relationship, not just a bunch of slumber parties. Yes, I wanted to be alone with him. Badly.

He took my keys and drove us to his house, holding my hand during the short trip. He guided me through his house, showing me around the modest-sized home until we reached his bedroom. He had a queen size bed with a dark green comforter, and it was really just a typical guy room. We were both too preoccupied with the bed to care about anything else, though.

"No need for this," he said playfully, lifting my hoodie over my head and taking my T-shirt with it.

"You too, then," I insisted.

We continued that game with the rest of our clothes, taking turns peeling off layers as we kissed and laughed. His fingertips traversed my skin, moving up and down my body. Front and back, circling and tickling, reveling in touching me. Standing there naked with him, my skin against his, I could have felt apprehensive, but I didn't at all. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

"Lay down," he said gently, nudging me toward the bed. I did as he said, and he soon joined me, hovering over my body. He kissed my lips, cheeks, down my neck, and stopped at my chest, licking across my nipples.

"Paul . . ." I moaned. He smiled up at me before descending further, parting my legs and moving himself to a comfortable position. When he flattened his tongue against me and licked up to my clit, I rocked against the mattress. "Oh . . . ohhh . . ."

He stayed there for several minutes, running his tongue and fingers over my most sensitive places. He'd done that once before, but it was a little less awkward this time. In fact, it made me want him so badly.

"Come up here," I told him, pulling on his arm. "Please."

He complied, kissing a few places as he worked his way up. He still looked so happy. When he was over me, I slid my hand down to his erection, pumping him a few times. His eyes closed happily.

"I want to be with you," I told him.

"You are with me," he said, kissing me.

"No. I mean that I want to be with you," I said as a means of clarification.

Paul sat back a little. "Really? You're sure?"

"Of course I am. I'm here, aren't I?"

He grinned and reached under his bed, and I heard the scraping sound of something sliding out, even though I couldn't see it. He came back with a condom and sat back, studying my face carefully.

"It might be a little uncomfortable for you at first," he warned. I rolled my eyes at him.

"Are you an expert on this or something?

"I wouldn't say that, but I care about you. I don't want to hurt you," he said tenderly as one of his hands rubbed up and down the side of my thigh. "If you need me to stop or move, you just have to tell me."

I nodded. "I will. I want this."

I watched as he carefully opened the package and prepared himself. He leaned down and pressed his mouth to mine, lingering in a slow, soft kiss. His hands guided my legs apart a little farther, and I watched between us as he guided himself into place.

"Oh!" I exclaimed as he pushed into me a little bit. It didn't hurt, necessarily, but his cock was a serious size difference from his fingers; I had to adjust to get comfortable. "I'm okay. Keep going," I urged. Once he was all the way in, his torso pressing down against mine, I lifted my head off the pillow for another kiss. I knew we couldn't stay still like that for too long, and I didn't want to, but the sensation of being so full was a little overwhelming.

"God, you are so beautiful like this," he said. "I'm gonna move now. Slow, okay?"

I let him lead from there, pulling his hips back and pushing into me at a steady, measured pace. I knew he was letting me acclimate to all the newness and trying not to hurt me, but I didn't want him to hold back. Trying to show him how good he made me feel and that I really was all right, I allowed my legs to wrap around his waist and tighten. My butt lifted, pushing up to him for more, and I clung to him with my arms. As his pace eventually increased, he unwrapped one of my legs and hooked his arm around it, changing our angle and pressing against places inside me I never knew existed.

"Oh god. Paul . . . so good," I panted.

"I know, baby. Fuck, you feel amazing."

As he continued to drive into me, sparkling sensations I'd never imagined possible all over my body, his attempts to kiss me became hard and frantic.

I hadn't really expected to have an orgasm since it was my first time, but I should have known Paul wouldn't let me go without. He worked one of his hands between us, stroking my clit with his thumb and continuing to pump into me until I fell apart. It was so incredibly different from climaxing during foreplay; this spread through my entire body and left me feeling exhausted and anxious for more all at once.

"That's so sexy," he said, voice gravelly. He moved his arms back to either side of my head, resting on his forearms, and set a new, more needful rhythm. After kissing me a few times, his forehead pressed against mine, and I felt the tension through his muscle that could only mean he was close.

"Tell me what to do, Paul."

"Just hang on to me. Almost there," he ground out. "Fuck, babe. I've never . . . feels so good. Better . . ."

I held him tighter, trying to let my body move with his and meet his frantic movements. It was so sexy watching his face scrunch up and his eyes squeeze closed.

"Ahh!" He came with a loud grunt, pushing me deeply into the mattress. I was trapped under his weight, but I didn't mind. There was something about the way his body felt on top of mine that made me warm inside and out.

He rolled to his side, but he kept us tangled together, and he was still halfway inside me.

"Kiss me," he said, and I did, smiling against his lips. When we broke apart, his hand was on the side of my face, stroking my skin and pushing back through my hair. "That was incredible."

"For me too," I admitted.

"Good. I love making you feel good," he said, hugging me closer. "I just . . . I don't know how to explain this. I've never felt the way I do with you. And now I have this unbelievable urge to phase." He must have noticed the concerned look on my face because he quickly added, "Don't worry. There's no risk of me losing control. I wouldn't hurt you."

We stayed in his bed a little longer, but we knew there wasn't much time left to linger. Eventually, I would need to go home, but I knew he'd be joining me later. When we managed to extricate ourselves from his bed, I stretched and moved experimentally, testing my body. I didn't feel too different, just good all over. There was a slight ache between my legs, but nothing terrible. It actually made me feel excited and happy.

Paul rode back to my house with me, but he didn't join me inside.

"I really need to phase," he explained. "I'll be back later, when we're sure Charlie's asleep."

"Do you think something's wrong?" I asked, concerned.

"I don't think so. The wolf instinct is just pushing pretty hard right now. I probably need to run off some of the adrenaline." He smiled at me, the amazing, wide smile I'd seen at the bonfire earlier. God, it was nearly blinding.

"I'll see you soon," I said, kissing him lightly outside my truck.

Watching as he ran off toward the woods to phase, I smiled to myself. He was incredible, and now he was my boyfriend. Weird and wonderful were the only words I could think to properly describe it.

.

Paul came back to me that night, as promised, but over the next several days, he was anxious about something. He insisted that nothing was wrong – that he felt more right than he had in a long time – but I didn't really understand it. Whatever it was, he remained sweet, caring, and affectionate toward me.

We told Charlie about our relationship later that week over dinner, and he was actually quite accepting of things. I thought that he was probably predisposed to like Paul after he found him at the house that first day because he knew Paul would watch over me. My dad was also glad to hear that I was getting along well with Jacob's girlfriend and that our friendship hadn't been severed because of our new relationships.

It was several days before we had the opportunity to have sex again due to Paul's patrols and finding time alone. I hadn't minded before when we would fool around at night, perhaps because I was more in control, but I just couldn't bring myself to have sex while Charlie was in the house. Finally, though, a night came when he was covering for someone until nine o'clock, and I took advantage. Paul's reaction was very similar to how it had been the first time. He was especially emotional and affectionate, not that those were bad things.

The next day after school, he sat me down at the kitchen table and held both my hands.

"I figured some stuff out."

"Okay, what kind of stuff?" I asked.

"Pretty much why I've been reacting the way I have. The wolf does a lot of crazy stuff to us, primarily imprinting, but I talked to Sam and some of the elders about things."

I swallowed hard. "About our sex life?"

"A little, yeah," he said, squeezing my hands. "I didn't give them details about anything. Really, I just told them how I feel when we're together, and how my wolf instincts are stronger after sex.

"Well, we know that wolves – real wolves, not shifters – are generally monogamous. Packs in nature usually consist of a mated pair and their offspring. Sometimes, orphans or lone young are able to enter the pack, but it's more like a family. It's rare for a random group to come together unless there have been human effects on their environment or they're in captivity."

"But you didn't imprint on me," I added.

"I didn't," he confirmed, "but when I'm in wolf form, he's very possessive. I think that's part of the reason I felt so protective of you right from the start and why I couldn't stay away. Now that we've added the physical side of things, I've instinctively claimed you. The wolf sees you as my mate because of the relationship we have."

"Wow. That's a little intense."

"Does it scare you?" he asked, genuinely concerned. "It doesn't have to change anything. We're still in control of our relationship. It just sort of intensifies my feelings, especially when we're having sex."

"Will you always want to phase afterward?" I wondered aloud.

"I don't know. Maybe."

"And how do you think the wolf would feel if he saw me when you were phased?"

"Happy, I'd imagine," he said with a smile. He stood and pulled me from my chair. He turned us toward the counter and lifted me up, settling between my legs and kissing me. "The same way I always feel when I'm around you. You've calmed us both a lot. I don't feel as angry anymore, and I'm not really bitter about being a shifter because it means I can protect you."

I reached up and draped my arms over his shoulders, scraping my fingernails up and down the back of his head and neck. His hair was thick and soft, and I loved touching it.

"I love that, but . . ."

"But what?" he insisted.

"If the Cullens ever come back – I know they won't, but if they do – please don't hurt them."

"I can't promise you that," he replied defensively, his voice hard.

I pulled him close and kissed him lightly. "Please, Paul. They left me, and I'll never forget how much it hurt because they were family to me, but they would never do physical harm to a human. Not intentionally. Hurting them would break the treaty."

"If they ever come back, we'll deal with them by the terms of the treaty. I just never want to see you the way you were before."

"I don't want to be that way again. I still miss them, but I don't think I could let any of them back into my life. I couldn't risk it, and I don't think I'd trust them not to disappear again one day."

He pulled me to the end of the counter, kissing me deeply and running his hands up and down my thighs, moving teasingly inward as we continued to make out.

"My dad's working late," he said after kissing a path to my ear. "Let's go to my house."

"I have calculus homework," I protested weakly. Truly, I wanted what he did, but I wasn't sure I'd get anything done tonight if we let this start.

"I'll drive. You can do it in the truck on the way there."

I laughed, slapping his arm playfully. "That's a reasonable compromise. Let me just leave Charlie a note."

As I followed Paul out of the house, I watched him closely. It was still surreal that a few weeks ago, everything in both our lives had been so different. Somehow, he had managed to make things better so incredibly quickly. Many scars still remained, and I didn't believe we'd have a perfect relationship, but I really liked him, and I liked where we were. Maybe the wolf wasn't just guiding his instincts; perhaps there was something that had drawn me in and helped soothe all my heartache and hesitations with its supernatural presence. I didn't really know, but it didn't matter. We lived in a weird, weird world, where vampires and werewolves were real. I knew we were good for each other, though, no matter how unlikely our relationship had seemed.

Despite all the secrets we lived with every day, this felt like the most normal relationship I'd ever had. We were just two teenagers enjoying each other's company, exploring romance and intimacy, and having fun together. We only had to live one day at a time, but I had a feeling there was promise for our future.

I'd just have to wait and see.