Buckle in – IF I've done this right it will be a rough ride. After this, I'm going back to my orig thingy for a while. If you're interested in knowing about whatever I try to do next, "follow" me. Thanks so much for coming on this little foray with me! {heart}


So, I figure you can look at this thing two ways:

You can trust me and sit back and enjoy the show by reading this like the emotional experience it is written to be…

Or you can walk out of the theatre, rent the dvd and watch it with the lights turned on by skimming to the end or trolling the reviews. ;-)


Either way… thanks for reading and hope you enjoy.



V – Reign

(2nd half)



The evening trundled toward midnight like a freight train while howls twisted with the lightning and the darkness splintered under sledgehammer skies.

The waiting.

It was always the hardest part.

As was tradition, the Pack had lit fires in steel barrels in both front yard and back. It was both warning and reminder of what would befall any leech that dared step foot this deep on their lands.

And it was always eerie. Watching flames sputter and dance, so hot and well-tended by the restless youngest of the Pack that it evaporated the rain- they could never forget that they were in the middle of a war.

"Honey you should come rest," Malia sighed from the doorway of the kitchen.

Bella looked up from where she was cutting up the left-over ham at the table for omelets when they returned (because they all would).

Dark circles showed the stress around her friend's eyes as she rocked a whining Liam against her shoulder - the kids always knew.

The older ones were old enough to be truly frightened this time, but they had fallen asleep at last, in a big puppy pile in Sam and Bella's bed - which was the only place they wanted to be. She wondered if it had anything to do with innate comfort and safety of their Alpha's scent. Children always listened to their instincts better.

But the younger ones wouldn't be put down anywhere and clung to their parents. Bella's own baby was tossing restlessly in her belly too.

With a soft gasp, Bella dropped the knife and pressed her wrist against a particularly sharp jab at a rib. She wasn't even that big yet but the kid was already playing hardball.

"You okay?" Malia frowned as she crossed into the room.

Bella looked up from the cutting board with a nod. "Yeah, he's nervous too," she smiled wanly.

"No," Malia corrected her as she stopped on the other side of the table. "Are you okay?" she asked with a pointed glance at Bella's hands.

Her gaze fell to where they were shaking like leaves.

Bracing both palms against the table to still the tremors, Bella hung her head for a moment. Frankly, she was going out of her mind with worry – like every last person in this house. Sam had known an attack by the Denali clan was inevitable, they'd drilled and prepared and had been warned… but it never made it easy. Their men (and woman) might have been destined to shapeshift and fight nightmares, but as mates they also had a unique fate:


Bella should be used to it by now. Over the span of her relationship with Paul, she'd endured five major conflicts – the worst of them being centered around her. But it was different.

Everything was different now.

In her periphery, she watched Malia sit down on the bench across the table, straddling it and casting dubious eyes her way. "Bella?" she whispered.

Bella pressed her lips together for a moment and then looked up. The fire from outside was casting spooky twisting shadows against the wall and the house was as still as a graveyard.

"I love him," Bella whispered.

Malia's brow raised and she nodded silently.

"I mean, like, in a way I've never loved anyone," Bella continued, collapsing sideways on the bench on her side. Her eyes darted to the licking riotous flames outside.

"We know."

Malia's whisper jerked her head around.

"C'mon, Jay's known for a while," she murmured out of the corner of a wry smile.

Bella sniffed and her gaze fell to the table. Her hand came up to fiddle with the knife while her mind spun. She hadn't talked to anyone about her feelings – Jacob was her best childhood friend but he was a boy and Angela and Malia had been uncomfortable plus had busy families to tend to.

"Sam loves you too, y'know," Malia whispered across the table. "It's a really pretty thing to see."

Bella's eyes cut up to where she was watching her carefully. "He wants to mark me," she breathed. "It breaks the imprint, but I'm scared."

"It's a scary thing," Malia shifted Liam on her shoulder.

Bella canted her head with a frown.

"I mean, it's scary to make a decision that's for the rest of your life," Malia said quietly. Liam mewled once and she stroked his sweaty head absently while those bright green eyes washed cannily over her face. "With imprinting-…" she laughed with a roll of her eyes. "You're not really doing much thinking."

Bella joined in with a chuckle and distracted smile.

"But here – after all you've been through - you have all cylinders running," she wiggled her eyebrows. "You know you're getting an intense guy. A 24/7 dangerous job. A million pounds of crazy wrapped in a bunch of bullshit too."

Bella scraped her lip with her teeth.

"Imprinting's about the heart, Bella," Malia's voice returned to serious. "Marking's about ownership. Is that what he wants?"

With a long sigh, Bella's gaze slipped back down to the table and she rearranged a piece of ham.

Marking bound a woman's body and soul to the man who marked her and all sales were exclusive and final in a bunch of different ways. Now she understood why only the Alpha was allowed to mark a woman– she was technically his property to do with as he wanted.

But Bella wasn't Sam's property. She never had been, really. Sam was a cutthroat strategist. And even if he'd used the almighty "Alpha's Prerogative" -whatever he had at his disposal - to get what he wanted, he'd done so because he wanted her. Because he loved her. The real kind - the messy crazy kind of devotion that had already brought them through the worst of times.

To this place: home.

And, all things considered, like Sam, she didn't really care about what other people thought of their road to get here. It was insane, strategic, twisted – but it was theirs and she liked where it was going.

No, marking wasn't about property. It was about something very different for them.

A soft silky smile fluttered over Bella's lips – it was ethereal kind that was a direct reflection of her soul.

Malia shifted on her seat and she looked up to where her friend was gently bouncing the child with that unassuming patience that she shared with her mate.

"Sam and I are changing all the rules," she whispered.

Sea green eyes paced back and forth between hers for several heartbeats while her mouth stretched into a slow sly smile.

"Yes. You. Are," she hummed as those lips cracked to show teeth and her own kind of sun.

For several minutes both women just looked at each other, while Liam gurgled and shook his fists and the fire outside threw supple snakelike shadows over the walls and rafters.

Finally Malia changed Liam to the other shoulder. "Y'know, Bella," she grinned "Jake's over the moon that you finally found someone who deserves you – because he knows best," she flicked her eyes. "But I think so too."

"Thanks," Bella sniffed a laugh. "Now we-…

Jackknife pain made the words shatter on her tongue.

Bella's shoulders caved at the same time her fingers snapped up to press against her chest. She hadn't felt that kind of ache since…

"Bella!" Malia worried, standing abruptly and making little Liam wail with the surprise.

Bella swallowed thickly, gathering herself for a moment before she looked back up. "It's okay," she whispered. "Just the baby."

She'd always been horrible at lying and the way Malia's eyes darted between hers told her that hadn't changed.

Bella yanked off all pretenses like a veil.

"Go upstairs, Mal," she ordered, quietly, firmly. "Don't come down."

"B-Bella-…" Malia stammered, taken aback even while eyes sped ahead of her brain and inflated with fear.

"Go," Bella repeated, standing up. "Tell Sam I love him if I don't get a chance, 'kay?"

Sensing his mother's fear, Liam's cries escalated.

Bella could see that she wanted to ask more questions but the strange compulsion she now seemed to have was almost physically dragging her back. She stumbled toward the door, casting frantic eyes over the room and then whipped around and ran down the hall.

She listened to her feet pound fearfully up the stairs.

Feeling like she was trying to swallow a golf ball, Bella pushed the bench and stepped back to her cutting board. Her hand slipped around the handle of the long chef's knife and her eyes ran the length of the shining blade while her mind spun.

And then started rhythmically chopping again.

Her eyes cut up from her lashes to the fire dancing across the far wall. Watching.

From shadow play flames, a hulking shape rose like a demon.

Bella's heart fluttered and flailed like a staked moth in her chest while she watched the silhouette of a man move across the porch while her knife counted the seconds with blind rhythmic chops.

The hinges on the screen door groaned… and then it clattered quietly closed.

And Bella waited.

"Did you miss me?" a dark whisper beside her ear made her jump – they were so quick and silent.

She squeezed her eyes closed and bit her lip harder as a fingertip ghosted up her neck to push her hair behind her ear.

"My wife," he breathed over the shell.

The stench of alcohol wafted over her, making her stomach turn – he was as drunk as the day she'd hoped she'd left him behind. Pressing the blade into the cutting board, her hand tightened on the knife.

"What do you want, Paul?" Bella bit out through gritted teeth. It was better than having them chatter.

His hand slipped around her neck, cradling her jaw between thumb and forefingers in a way that was sinister not sensual.

With a brusque jerk of his wrist he tipped her head to the side. "What's mine," he murmured over her skin and he drew his nose up her pulse.

Bella turned out of his arms and brought the knife up between them. "I'm not yours anymore."

But the blade nearly clattered to the floor - she wasn't prepared for the way it would feel to look him in the eye.

He was still just as handsome as he was cocky. Head tipped to the side with his signature smirk hitching up his mouth and the opposite brow, he was dressed in only cutoffs, with dark stains over his skin and down his pants –only highlighting that abnormally perfect body. He was clever, sexual, wry – the prototype bad boy with just enough heart in his eyes to make a girl think she could change him.

Bella knew better.

But fate didn't seem to care. The imprint dug painful claws into her heart and that wry smile deepened with a suggestive jump of brow.

"Barefoot, pregnant," his eyes darted down her body and then swept the room. "Nice house. Just what you always wanted - I couldn't give it to you good enough, huh?"

Bella took another step back, raising the knife up in warning. "It was n-never about any of that," she hissed, hating that her voice shook.

He turned back to her with a lupine tip of his head and that smirk deepened. "But I bet he doesn't fuck as good as me," he winked.

"Sam doesn't fuck me," Bella spat, the pilot light of temper flickering in the winds of fear.

"Liar," he leered, cocking his head the other way with a long suggestive sniff.

Bella's nose wrinkled in disgust as she took another step back. She kept one free hand on the paltry grounding of the table while she brandished the knife in delusional pretense.

This was a wolf.

Paul coughed a laugh, obviously thinking the same thing. "Bringing a knife to a dogfight?" His lips evened out in a slow disparaging smile. "Maybe it would have helped good ole, Seth 'n Toby."

With a gasp she suddenly realized just what he had to get through to make it into this kitchen…

And what the stains were on his chest and thighs.

Her eyes darted worriedly outside. "Paul! What -…?"

In a single head-spinning movement she was being pulled back against a rock-solid chest, a hand wrapped tightly around her wrist.

"You can't afford to fight, babe," he whispered in her ear, as he squeezed the tendons in her wrist until the knife fell from her numb fingers. "Risk his bastard son?"

He caught the blade before it hit the floor with casual reflexes.

"Paul, leave her alone," Josiah's deep voice called sternly from the doorway.

In the next instant that knife was whizzing across the room. It landed with a dull thud in the molding beside Josiah's head.

"Why don't you mind your own fucking business!" Paul snarled, volatile temper going from zero to sixty in a second flat.

Josiah splayed out placating hands.

"Babe, tell him," he ground out in her ear.

Her breath was hitching over bucking tears, but somehow she steadied it as she called out with as much confidence as she could scrape together.

"Josi, go upstairs," Bella soothed, trying to keep her voice low for both the wolf and the worried man across the room. "Please. Don't let anyone else come down."

Josiah's eyes darted up to Paul and then back to Bella even as his feet seemed to carry him backwards against his will.

"You always did have a mouth, didn't you," Paul snickered quietly in her ear. "It took months of eating rabbits before this BULLSHIT!"

He yelled as he jerked her around to face him. "WORE OFF!"

Bella's swallow squirted in the back of her throat past her frantic racing breath. She had absolutely no idea what to do – if it were just herself, she'd scratch and kick and bite and at least go down fighting.

But it wasn't just her. Not anymore.

Paul was just starting to understand that. A quick disconcerted tongue darted over his lips as his eyes oozed down her body, as if truly seeing her for the first time. "

"Holy shit," he coughed, as if trying to laugh but it stalled on his tongue. "You are so fucking pregnant. I didn't-…"

Bella snapped to attention in the uncertainty.

His eyes slipped back up to hers with a flash of human insecurity and suddenly she understood: he hadn't planned this out.

Bella would use whatever she could.

"You didn't realize I just had a few more months," she whispered, keeping her voice soothing and calm. "I know you'd never hurt a child." She didn't think he had that level of malice in him – even at his worst.

His double blink confirmed both of her theories.

Paul's wild eyes searched her face for a moment while his lips flashed up several uncoordinated times from his teeth. Then he released her so roughly, she stumbled back against the bench. He hadn't thought things through: he was running on pure illogical revenge exacerbated by months of running wild without Pack. He'd been unstable to begin with…

He turned his back on her and shoved his hands through his hair.

Bella tried to let all the terror slip from her shoulders as she searched for any image that brought her peace so she could offer it to that madness. The image swam clearly to the front of her mind's eye: looking into Sam's still black eyes while he made love to her.

Bella sucked in a slow breath, drawing strength from the memory. "I'll come back after," she murmured putting everything she had into the cashmere words. "I'm your wife, your imprint…" She suddenly discovered that it was easy to lie when so many precious things were on the line.

"Please, we can start again," she whispered pleadingly to his back. The muscles were rippling down it and she couldn't tell whether he was close to caving or exploding. "Honey-…."

"DON'T CALL ME THAT!" he whipped around on her with a snarl that sprayed foam. "Do you think I'm fucking stupid!?"

Bella shook her head brusquely as she backed away from him, holding herself up against the table.

"He took what's mine!" he bared vicious teeth as he stomped a step toward her. "My imprint. My wife. My mate! He doesn't get to fucking keep it!"

Picking up a bench he threw it across the room with a crash as he advanced on her.

"I know, it's unfair," she gasped, backing up, fear finally getting her in a chokehold. "But w-we can fix it -"

A heartbreaking human groan of agony from outside stopped her in her tracks and snipped terror's biting cord.

Bella's eyes darted out to the back porch. "Are they okay," she whispered.

"Yeah," he laughed darkly. "Toby's crying like a baby. Poor little bastard."

Bella froze. "What did you do?" she whispered.

"What I do best," Paul snarled. "Break shit."

Then he lunged and yanked her to his side – she didn't even try to fight it.

His gaze ran over her face with a crooked smile. "Seth's only got about 10 before he bleeds out, so you'd better shut the fuck up and do what I say."

Nodding solicitously, her eyes met his – wild and ruined there wasn't anything left of the man she'd known. As much a victim of fate as them all, he'd made his own choices on how to play the hand he'd been dealt.

The balance between compassion and accountability was always a razors edge and Bella was a bloody mess from toeing his line. She wouldn't do it anymore. She gave up and wasn't surprised in the least by the way hate seeped in almost instantly to fill the empty spaces.

Everything was about survival now - her baby's, her Pack...

"Let's go," she whispered.

He probably saw just what he wanted in her face – which was very nearly always control. A slow lazy smile nestled in the corner of his mouth as his eyes darted over her with a covetous intensity – like a kid who'd just gotten a new toy.

A rough hand slipped up to her cheek.

She blinked rapidly under his touch as he stroked clumsily over her jaw, eyes following his finger.

"Beautiful," he sniffed. "And so fucking mine."

Bella could smell the tang of her friends' blood and feel the hated imprint buckle in her chest, oily and goading. She hated it and she hated this man. It rallied behind her lips like convulsive vomit as he leaned down.

Then he kissed her.

Bella's eyes snapped closed like it could take her physically away from the way his mouth moved, hot and demanding over hers. The imprint's incessant prickle settled out into a low soothing hum, but it was nothing compared to the agony lancing through her heart.

No matter what the gods had scripted, this wasn't the man she wanted. This wasn't the man she loved.

Paul pulled back, breathless and pleased with himself and leaned into her ear. "I'm going to fuck you so good tonight," he whispered. "And mark you. Mine," he hissed.

Then he straightened and pulled her up in his arms like she weighed nothing.

"Tell him I took what was his!" He called out to the house as he strode through the kitchen toward the front door. "Tell him I won!"

Bella pressed her lips together over sobs that wanted to leap free, but there were still things that needed to be done.

As they passed through the living room she looked up to the landing where Josiah was peering down with anguished eyes.

"Seth's injured – and Toby too," she gasped up to them. "Come down and help them when we're gone." She didn't know how long the compulsion would last.

"Smart," Paul sniffed, as he pulled open the door. "Guess ordering people around comes natural. Was it fun being the Alpha's bitch?" He spat off to the side. "We'll have fun too."

Bella didn't answer but just closed her eyes against the rock and sway of his gait down the stairs and tried not to be sick.

Redemptive rain fell over her skin as they left the porch overhang. Out front, she could hear the crackle of the fire over the thunder breaking like a wave against the edges of the night.

She'd dared to start hoping. But once again fate had reached in with cold clammy hands and yanked her back from where she'd thought she'd managed to escape.

Paul rearranged her in his arms and she opened her eyes to see him rip open Jacob's SUV. The reflection of the flames flickered over the shiny black making it look like a chariot of fire.

He shoved her brusquely into the cab and then with a cocky wink and a jerk of his wrist, he snapped off the inside door handle.

But suddenly Paul's face jerked up with a frown. In the next heartbeat her human ear caught the long low howl, twisting in the distance with others like silken threads that hemmed the night.

"They're so fucking outnumbered how-…" his snarled words were lopped off by the slamming of the door behind him.

It was the first scrap of hope she'd been thrown and she snatched it up like a rabid dog.

Someone might be coming – she needed to stall for time.

Bella's hand darted out to the automatic lock and all the doors jumped with a pert snick. Snatching the keys from the cup holder, she threw herself up against the door and as far away from the driver's side as she could, biting her lip and hoping she wasn't making a mistake.

Paul was already peering through the window.

With a livid flash of teeth, he punched through the thick glass like a wrecking ball and a low threatening growl tumbled in his chest as he tore open the door.

As he was climbing in, Bella frantically lobbed the keys toward the back of the vehicle but he snatched them out of the air with supernatural reflexes.

Frantic, she clawed after his hand, trying to wrench them out of his grip. He pulled her off the seat with her effort and with last desperate measures, she sunk her teeth into his hand – as hard a she could.

Paul dropped the keys with a bellow of rage and his fist dove into the back of her hair. With a brusque twist of his arm, he slammed her face into the dashboard, hard enough to make her see stars.

"You think he cares about you?!" he yelled, snatching the keys from the floor while Bella pitched back against the seat, heated liquid oozing down her lips from a bloody nose.

"Fathers! Teachers! Alphas! They're ALL THE SAME!" he screamed at her. "They don't give a shit about anyone but themselves!"

She could feel his vehement spittle spray across her cheek, while she tipped her face up to the ceiling and tried to breathe through the pain and the blood pouring over her lip.

"You have to fucking TAKE what you want!"

Gasping, Bella turned dizzily to his berserker eyes. Face livid and wild he was foaming at the mouth with rage.

This man was her husband: the first man she'd let into her body and tried to hold in her heart. She'd accepted her fate and tried so hard.

"I gave you everything I had," she told him quietly.

"Yeah!?" he bellowed. "Then why do I have fucking NOTHING!"

Bella swallowed down the rusty taste of blood while the world spun. "Because you threw it away, Paul," she whispered.

With a savage snarl, he slammed his hands on the steering wheel so hard it dented. Bella pushed farther against the door as he bared rabid teeth, like he was contemplating simply ripping off her head while he fumbled blindly to shove the keys into the steering column.

Gunning the engine he whipped around to the front of the car.


Bella's woozy gaze darted out the front windshield. Illuminated by the headlights, Jacob Black was standing rain-slicked and silent in front of the car.

Baring his teeth, Paul punched the pedal to the floor to run him over.

But at the same time, Jacob threw his big body like a linebacker into the grill.

With a shriek over the deafening crash, Bella pitched across the cab and into the door while the vehicle fishtailed wildly, careening off into a tree. She hadn't even caught her breath before rough hands were dragging her across the seat and out of the car.

Paul held her against his chest by a choking forearm and Bella's hands went up frantically to try to pry free a lungful of air.

"You think you have a fucking chance in hell of beating me, Black?" Paul was roaring behind her. "That blue blood don't do shit anymore! I'm not a part of this Pack!"

Feet dangling ten inches off the ground, Bella clawed at his arm while he dragged her back like a cornered animal caught with prey– which was exactly what he was.

He froze at the sound of a deep voice slithering out of the darkness like a viper – slick and cold and deadly.

"That is true."

Paul whipped around to where Sam was stalking from the trees and into the flickering light of the fire. Loose damp hair flying behind him like a trail of smoke, his eyes were chilling black diamond set in indomitable bronze.

That stare didn't waver from the man holding her captive. "You're choking her," he hissed, lips flashing vicious canine points to his teeth.

Paul almost absently loosened his grip and Bella's toes stretched to the ground as she sucked in a breath.

"Th-there was a whole coven-…" he stammered, his shock obviously overrunning his defenses. Though he had the mind, Paul lacked the patience and discipline for strategy – he'd never gone for anything that couldn't be gained by brute force alone. He must have been watching and waited for this fight - but he could never plan enough for Sam Uley...

Sam tipped his head to the side while he continued to take slow slinking steps toward them. "I killed them all," he whispered.

"Seth is hurt," Bella coughed, as soon as she could draw enough air.

"Brady has him," Jacob hissed in her periphery.

Sam continued to take slow liquid steps toward them. "Are you ready to die, Paul?" His words were a hushed sing-song lullaby.

"You know how easy it is to snap their necks," Paul spat behind her, pulling her feet off the ground again in his vehemence. "It'll fucking kill them both!"

Sam's feet froze in their approach while Bella tried to find purchase on her tiptoes. His voice cracked like a whip. "She's my mate."

Paul exploded behind her. "She's MINE! My wife! My IMPRINT!"

"Then fight me for her like an animal," Sam hissed, his nose wrinkling with a flash of feral canines. "Not with the weakness of man."

"Yeah! That's fair," Paul spat. "As soon as I let her go, your Pack's gonna bring me down."

Sam cocked his head, the light breeze pulling at his hair. "I fight my own battles," he purred.

Paul barked a bitter laugh.

While she waited for her captor to decide whether she lived or died, Bella could do nothing but stare across the driveway at that man standing still and emotionless, backlit by flame. She begged for his eyes – that comfort, the stillness.

Unheeded tears gave halos to the fire on their way to mixing with the blood. It dribbled over her over her lips with rusted salt.

"A fair fight to show who's best!" Paul bellowed suddenly. But even he knew that every word of Sam Uley's was a blood oath. "Give me your word!"

Sam didn't hesitate a heartbeat and gave him a curt nod.

Then, for the first time, Sam's eyes darted down to Bella's. They paced back and forth between hers with brusque jerking movements and then did a crisp circuit of her face. Then they closed briefly before opening to the ground between them while the muscles jumped in his jaw.

He ground the words with his molars like broken glass. "Let her go now."

Paul shifted on his feet – she could feel him gearing up. His muscles flexing and the potent scent of testosterone rising off his skin.

"Your Pack won't interfere," Paul he checked again. "And if I win you give me everything."

Sam's black eyes snapped back up. "Yes," he whispered.

She could feel Paul nod behind her as his arm slipped from around her throat. She slouched over, breath heaving through her nose while she pressed her lips together over her rebelling stomach. She knew Sam was going to kill him.

The thing that made her sick was that she wanted him to.

A sudden hand fisting into her hair brusquely pulled her back. With a shriek of surprise, her gaze snapped up to Paul's sneer.

Goading eyes pointedly locked on the man across the grass, Paul bent down and smothered her mouth in a lecherous kiss.

Bella gagged on his tongue, as she desperately tried to push against his stonewall chest.

With a long prurient hum, he pulled back with a dark smirk as his eyes found hers. "For luck," he whispered. "Enjoy the show." With that, he threw her away and she stumbled to the ground, pushing up on her hands and knees while her gaze frantically found Sam's.

The muscles jumped in his face like it was all he could do to hold his human form.

"Careful," she mouthed silently.

Eyes that were black and human held hers for a heartbeat longer then his nostrils stretched and in one fell blink they flared with incandescent rage.

Whipping around, he prowled out into the front yard and away from where Jacob had fallen to his knees at her side in the grass.

Paul stalked after him slamming a fist into each palm cracking his knuckles with a rolling pop.

"You should know by now," Paul hissed.

And that's when she saw it: the kitchen knife, shoved into the back waistband of his shorts.

"Sam!" she yelled.

Paul drew the blade just as Sam spun around.

"I never fight fair," Paul ground out as he thrust the dagger home in his gut.

Not a sound left his lips as, Sam doubled over in his arms. Paul wrapped a burly arm around his neck and wrenched him back against his chest. Yanking the knife from his body, he plunged it into his chest.

It had taken two seconds.

Pack members swarmed from the shadows, tearing Paul away while he fought them with rabid snarls. The yells around her sounded a million miles away.

Straining against Jacob's grip, Bella watched in horror as Sam staggered a step, his hand coming up to the hilt of the knife, buried in his chest.

As if in slow motion, he keeled down to one knee catching himself heavily with a forearm against his thigh. Shocking viscous crimson, sluiced over his lips and onto the grass.

And time stood still.

Bella's rasping breath echoed in her ears, slow and jagged.

Each raindrop crashed against her cheek like a needle.

Soft soothing thunder swaddled her in fleece.

And in the halo of light cast by the fire, Sam looked up and met her eyes.

Then his head lolled forward.

Like a starting gun had gone off, sounds and time caved in on her with suffocating overwhelm.

Suddenly Jacob's body jerked violently behind her, jettisoning her free while a chorus of distant howls climbed the night.

Frantic, Bella crawled and scrabbled across the gravel, but careful hands caught her again, pulling her off torn hands and knees.

"Bella, stop," Jacob's voice whispered in her ear.

Something about the way he said it froze her instantly. Biting her lip, her eyes snapped to the man slumped in the flickering circle of firelight.

Her Alpha. Her lover. Her mate.

The man she loved.

Head bowed, for a moment Sam clumsily fingered the obscene wooden handle of the knife. Then his fist wrapped around it and he yanked it from his chest with a soft grunt.

Lurching unsteadily to his feet, he caught himself on the car and the knife tumbled from his fingers to the ground.

Hair plastered to his forehead in the rain and blood streaming from both nose and mouth, he lifted his head like it weighed a million pounds.

"You lied, motherfucker!" Paul was screaming, from where he fought the anonymous hands holding him to the ground.

Sam slowly smeared the back of his hand over his mouth. "Let him go," he rasped, the words sounding gurgling and wrong.

Paul pushed reluctant wolves away and fought to his feet with an ungrateful snarl.

Bella's pleading eyes turned to Jacob. "Help him."

"I can't," he breathed. "He gave me the Pack."

With ballooning eyes, Bella whipped around to Jacob's serious profile. Sam had given him everything so it couldn't be taken away.

"As leader I must respect his honor," his eyes cut over to her and he rolled his lips once. "Now, he's only fighting for you."

With a sob, her gaze darted back out to where Sam took an unsteady step, swaying on his feet. He caught himself against the vehicle again with the heavy thunk of metal.

"Like taking candy from a baby," Paul was rolling his shoulders and shaking out his arms as he slunk forward. "You watching this, babe?"

Sam pushed himself off the car, staggering a step. "I didn't fight hard enough the first time," he whispered, all silk cloak and daggers. "I should…" he swallowed thickly and took another wavering step toward where Paul bounced on the balls of his feet.

"The first time?" Paul barked a taunting laugh. "You just handed her-…"

Sam exploded forward, his first punch catching Paul square in the face with a deafening crack. His body flew across the grass but Sam had landed on his chest like a cat before he'd hit the ground, with the next brutal hit locked and loaded.

And the next.

"I… should… have… never," he snarled, each syllable accentuated by the thud of punishing blow to Paul's face that snapped it back and forth. "Let… you… fucking touch her!"

Paul finally recovered from being caught off-guard and blocked the next blow, using the momentum to throw his opponent.

Tumbling through the air, Sam landed heavily face-down and Paul twisted up… and onto four feet. Snarling, the grey wolf charged with gnashing teeth.

In a blur, Sam flipped over and caught the beast's jaws inches from his face.

For several of Bella's stumbling heartbeats, they stayed locked like this: giant maw drizzling liquid hate while a bloody Sam held it open with inhuman strength.

Somehow he'd managed to get his feet up between them. Sam struck out with a brutal kick that sent the animal flying through the air. It landed on the SUV with a yelp and crash of broken glass.

Sam pushed up to hands and knees and then sprang up after him, transforming mid-air into a jet-black wolf that ripped into his stunned prey.

In a flurry of fur and shadow and ferocious snarls, the two animals tumbled out into the woods past where Bella's mortal vision could follow.

Jacob had dragged her to the edges of the lawn and now he scooped her up in his arms. "Oh, God, honey," he whispered as he backed up, keeping his eyes trained on the woods and the sounds of crashing trees punctuated by snarls and yelps of pain.

His brother came running down the steps. "The imprints are out of the house," he hissed.

"Good," Jacob nodded as he set her down on the bottom step. "Seth?"

"On his way to the clinic," Embry gasped.

Bella's eyes were frantically trying to make out shapes in the woods. Lightning slashed the sky and thunder broke overhead like a dirge while the flames licked and ate at the hissing rain.

"Lee, Quil, Jared," Jacob called tensely. "When he comes back, we take Paul down together."

"What about-?" Embry began with a frown.

He interrupted his brother with a look. "You have the Pack."

"Jake," Bella hissed, pushing up to her feet. "Who's winning?"

She swayed forward as the world tilted on its axis and he steadied her with a hand.

Jacob pressed his lips together as he pushed her wet hair back from her face. "Sam's hurt bad," he told her quietly. He always gave it to her straight. "Honey, we can't heal fast enough-…"

Bella's eyes darted between his frantically, searching for hope.

She found none.

"I don't understand how he's still standing," Jared hissed under his breath.

Jacob's hand fell heavily to the nape of her neck and his thumb soothed over in that space behind her ear. "Love," he whispered.

Bella bit her lips on more tears while she listened to the chilling sounds of savagery out in the woods.

"Back up," Jacob murmured pulling her up the steps with him.

Seconds later, two wolves tumbled back into the ring of firelight. Yellow eyes burning with primal hate, their pelts were matted and soaked, with gaping patches of bared flesh torn into each hide.

Bella's hand clapped over her mouth as the two beasts rolled across the grass in a bloodthirsty no-holds barred melee.

With a twisting attack, the grey wolf had the black one pinned below it, but Sam quickly phased, using the human size differential to roll free.

Paul snapped back into his flesh and they traded blows with a round house kick and several fists to the face before Sam got the upper hand.

With a feint and a wicked elbow to the ribs he followed up with a lightning flip that slammed Paul into the ground so hard the porch vibrated. Sam pinned him to the ground by a burly forearm.

Snarling with bared teeth, a fierce bucking throw dislodged him. But as Sam's body flew through air, it transformed, barely landing on four paws before springing again for the throat.

With a lithe twist, Paul was on his feet again and diving into fur to meet the assault head on. And in a snarling tackle, he'd taken the black animal down again.

Immobilized, the ebony wolf squirmed, barely avoiding the wicked teeth snapping inches from his neck. Sam shifted desperately back to skin, but the grey wolf seemed to anticipate the move this time and kept the man pinned firmly to the ground.

Heavy forepaws impossibly restraining Sam's shoulder, the animal reared back, baring fang for the death blow.

Bella barely had time to scream before, eyes on fire, Sam bit savagely into the animal's forepaw with wicked hybrid teeth.

Then he phased.

The chalky crack of bone shattered the silence with the violence of the transformation before a feral wail of pain was beaten down by pitiless thunder.

No sooner had the black wolf slipped free from its stunned foe, rabid jaws were lunging again. Pulverizing a hindquarter this time, its prey flailed in pain loosing an agonized howl.

The front yard was suddenly silent.

The rain tapped against the metal roof and whispered over trees while the fire flickered and sputtered. Tears were streaming down Bella's face as she gasped, desperately trying to process what had happened through numbing shock.

Snuffling softly with plumes of steaming breath, the ebony wolf's assessing step stayed just out of reach while the beast futilely struggled to stand in the churned up mud. With two crushed legs it was crippled helpless.

Then the black wolf backed up, its hulking muscular form contracting. Shadow seemed to fall away from the hunched body of a man as the sleek black fur receded from skin.

Sam straightened slowly, and then stumbled forward a step, falling back to knuckles and one knee as his form seemed to buckle like a mirage.

On the second try he brought himself fully into his skin and stood until he was pulling his shoulders back.

Then with an animalistic snarl he lunged for the grey wolf, panting on its side. The muscles bulged down his arms as he ripped the beast up off the ground by scruff of the neck and into his chest. The creature was so big that the animal's front forepaws barely hung from the ground, one batting pitifully at the air and the other mangled and hanging useless.

Sam's hiss was like the whisper of death and something that had no right to be heard this side of hell.

"I want to kill you as a man."

With a whine, the animal feebly struggled in his grip.

"PHASE!" he bellowed, shaking the huge wolf.

"No," Bella gasped, fighting with Jacob's frantic hands.

Fur seemed to melt off skin like a nightmare as the beast slowly transformed until Paul's battered body was limply hanging from Sam's grip, wrenched back against his chest.

With a fist in his hair, Sam's hand clawed over Paul's throat.

"Sam!" Bella screamed, flailing against her restraints.

"Bella, no," Jacob gasped in her ear.

She whipped around with bared teeth. "If you love me, let me go," she hissed.

He stared at her a heartbeat longer and then she was stumbling down the stairs.

"Sam!" Bella called out again, her voice somehow steady and strong this time.

At the sound, Sam's face whipped around and Bella froze. Never had he looked less human.

Lit by unforgiving firelight, hell was peeking through his eyes and his bared canines were stained by blood. But still he had that savage grace, his spine was strait and proud while long black hair rippled across broad shoulders with the rivulets of rain. Every muscle held his body perfectly balanced and taut.

"Kill him as the wolf," she murmured, softening her voice.

She took careful steady steps toward him through the churned up earth while her wet cotton dress clung to her thighs.

Bella tried to just feel – to stay rooted by each rasping breath that echoed in her ear, each thudding beat of her heart.

She could feel the mud between her toes, the rain against her skin… their baby moving inside her.

She could feel that even lost to the beast, Sam still filled the whole of her being.

"But Sam," she said quietly. "Don't kill him in this skin."

The wind sighed through the trees bringing down handfuls of rain and wrapping her dress around her pregnant middle.

"Animals fight for mates," she continued in a hushed voice. "But the man won my heart long before tonight."

She could see the muscles jumping with his feral grimace, as if desperately trying to understand the human words.

"Don't kill for love, Sam," she whispered. She could hear both men's heaving breath, rasping and rough from abuse.

Bella stopped only ten feet away. "Kill him as the wolf," she breathed. "I've already given myself to the man."

Pressing her lips together, she waited.

Sam's nostrils flared once, even as his lips jumped up from his canines in feral contradiction. His clawed fingers were digging so fiercely into Paul's throat that blood pooled around his nails and ran in rivulets down his chest.

She felt small and fragile and human standing in the mud before these huge savage men. But she wasn't afraid. Her eyes stayed locked with his, feral, heated and wild.

Just waiting. She'd love him either way.

In the distance thunder murmured on the horizon, low and dusky. She could feel the heat radiating from the fire in the barrel, soaking through her wet clinging shift and warming her skin. She could feel the droplets of water dripping from her hair down her bare arms, the way it ran down her cheeks with her tears and joined with the rusted blood from her nose.

So much violence.

All she'd wanted was love. It's all any of them wanted – even if they didn't understand.

Sam shifted. Just a shuffle in the wet grass.

"Look at her."

It took a second for Bella to realize Sam had spoken – his voice was gritty and raw and as deep as the thunder steeping the night.

Yanking Paul's head back he hissed again in his ear. "Look at her."

Paul's wild bloodshot eyes blinked open and rolled forward.

Without an expression on her face, Bella kept her eyes locked with Sam's. She watched the struggle rage in holocaust eyes and met it with all the tenderness in her being. He'd been fighting for a while.

Now she was here to fight at his side.

Sam's bloody mouth quivered with jumps and starts of words before a tongue skimmed over his lower lip.

Inhuman eyes locked with hers, he bent down closer to Paul's ear. "You know what's worse than nothing?" he breathed, deep and rough and barely audible over the rain.

"Knowing you had it all."

With a flash of canines Sam released him, throwing his body forcefully to the ground.


For several silent seconds, he held her captive with those eyes - He loved her. He was a warrior in all things and he'd fight to the death for her - even if it was against himself.

Bella spread her arms in pleading invitation. "Come," she whispered.

Sam took two unsteady steps toward her and then crumbled heavily down to both knees. He sat back on his heels as Bella worriedly stumbled the last step, her hands hovering uncertainly over the damage.

He bowed his head and her fingers stroked his wet hair back from his face. At the heated touch of his skin, her instinct took over. Palms smoothed over his cheeks, frantically cupping his jaw, while her eyes ran over his stoic face and bathed him in her tears.

She wondered if he even felt the pain.

"Sam," she breathed, pulling his head tenderly to her breast.

Suddenly an invisible cord viscerally popped and fluttered free like it had been snipped, releasing her heart into an unfettered sprint. It quickly inflated to cradle all the love she had for the man in her arms.

With a gasp, her eyes automatically darted behind Sam. Lying on his back with his good hand clawed over his heart, Paul was panting softly. Dark eyes were locked with hers and reflecting the fire.

"It's gone?" she breathed, pulling Sam's head more fiercely to her chest while his arms clumsily snaked around her back.

Paul's hand slipped heavily down to the grass as his eyes raised to the falling rain. "The wolf knows who is the better man," he whispered to the sky.

Bella stared at him for a moment in disbelief while her arms feverishly clasped Sam's face to her breast. Squeezing her eyes closed Bella pressed a kiss to the top of his head.

Then his arms slipped heavily to his lap.

"Are you okay, honey?" she hissed, smoothing a worried palm over his temple and trying to see his face.

"Bella," Jacob squatted down next to her.

She met his grave eyes and froze. Shaking her head briskly, she pulled him closer.


Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, Sam crumbled to the ground and his big body was too much for her puny human strength to hold. Jacob caught her and lifted her up into arms while Sam's body fell to the mud.

"Sam!" she shrieked, whipping around to where Jared and Embry were falling to their knees at his side.

His face was still. So very still.

"Get him inside!" Jacob bellowed as he strode with her across the lawn.

Bella nearly climbed his shoulder trying to watch Sam's limp body being lifted into his packmates' hands.

"Where does he want to be, Bells?" Jacob whispered, jogging up the steps.

"No!" she whipped around, eyes wild.

He pressed his lips together as he took the steps. "We'll get Sue, but honey-…"

"Don't say it!" she spat fiercely.

Someone opened the door and Jacob hastened into the house, turning sideways and checking over his shoulder on the men hoisting Sam's hulking body up onto the porch.

"Bedroom," Bella whispered, and collapsed against Jacob's shoulder.

With a grim jaw, Jacob climbed the steps two at a time. "Are you okay?" he breathed as he strode down the hall.

She looked up at him with numb eyes. She couldn't feel a thing right now –but she knew she was about as far from okay as she could get.

His brow softened. "The baby," he soundlessly mouthed the words.

Bella's hand automatically slipped to her stomach as she nodded, closing her eyes. Sam's child was strong.

Bella was going to have to be stronger.

The lamp was still lit on the nightstand, making the room feel serene – like it was a million miles and worlds away from war.

It wasn't.

Jacob set her gently down on the foot of the bed and then turned, buffing his palms on his cutoffs as he watched his brother, just backing through the doorway.

Bella went up on her knees, scooting out of the way as they maneuvered Sam to the bed.

Oh, it looked so much worse in the light.

Aside from claw and teeth marks, angry bruises and lacerations, there was a long gash in his gut.

Worse still was the wound in his chest: blood trickled freely in lazy crimson rivulets along the harsh cut of his chest.

A shaking hand covered her mouth as she crawled up the bed beside him.

Someone brought towels from the bathroom and Bella grabbed at one and pressed it over the hole in his chest, trying to slow the flow.

At her touch, Sam's eyes fluttered open, immediately finding hers.

"Sam," Bella whispered, her palm slipping up to his cheek.

His gaze darted over her face for his usual inventory but his eyes were jerking and choppy.

A heavy hand fell to her shoulder, surprising a gasp past her lips. But it was only a pit stop on its weary way to her face. Gentle fingers fluttered over the swollen bridge of her nose.

"So sorry," he soundlessly mouthed the words then his hand fell heavily down to her knee.

"No," she breathed, shaking her head as she drowned in the endless stillness of his eyes.

They held her, swallowed her whole, took everything she freely offered. "Leave us," Sam whispered to the room.

Bella's gaze snapped up to Jacob. "Sue?"

"She's on her way," he murmured, his worried gaze washing over her face - and saying a million things she didn't want to hear. Ever.

Bella ripped her eyes away and returned them to the man staring up at her from the bed. "Leave us," she breathed.

As the door was quietly closed behind the last wolf, her hand smoothed over the ebony hair clinging to sweat and blood on his forehead.

"I found you. I've seen behind those eyes, Sam," she told him quietly. "I can't lose you."

His gazed washed over her face, collecting all the little jagged pieces of her heart. Then his lips softened in a pastel smile that completely transformed his face.

"Shh," he soothed. "It will be fine."

Suddenly she registered the wet heat under her fist and her gaze darted down to the rag, already soaking with blood.

With a gasp, she pulled it away and reached for another.

Her wrist was caught in his careful hand. Hands that she loved: patient, tender, loving hands.

"I need to hold you," he whispered, his voice husky and rough.

Bella searched his face… and then reached back and pulled the wet shift up over her head.

Relishing eyes traveled over her body and then back up to hers. His lips hitched up in a lazy smile as he held out his hand. "Come."

Bella lay down beside him as he achingly turned over, curling up behind her. Slowly, his heavy arm snaked around her, the fingers finding their usual way between her ribs and the bed.

He pressed his face into the back of her neck. "Mmm." His contented hum caught in her hair.

Tears were brimming to the breaking point in her eyes and she bit her lip fiercely to lock the gate. She tugged his hand out from her side and pressed it over her belly and the baby's flutters.

She heard him sniff a laugh and then his hand started to roam. Warm, tender, it caressed over her curves as he curled around her.

Bella nestled back against him, maximizing every millimeter of skin to skin.

"Sometimes words mean nothing," he whispered.

His calloused hand stroked over her, patient and indulgent like a Sunday morning.

She could feel him nestle close into her hair. "Sometimes they need to be said."

The words were nearly inaudible, the consonants crinkling intimately in her ear. "I love you. Since the beginning," he breathed. "Thank you for finding me, Bella."

Bella caught his hand and brought it up to her mouth. She pressed quivering lips to his knuckles while she tried swallow her tears.

"You can't leave, Sam," she whimpered over them.

"Shhh," he soothed.

She heard his thick swallow by her ear and then he drew in a long shuddering inhale …

It's counterpart exhale never came.

"Sam," she whispered, frantically rolling over.

She turned his head up from the pillow and sluggish lids struggled to raise over listing eyes.

Grabbing his face, she fell over him pressing a savage kiss to his mouth. His lips were lax and rusty with blood.

"You can't leave me," she hissed, squeezing his cheeks as her frenzied gaze ran over his face. "You promised Sam. It was part of the agreement!" she shrieked.

Desperately trying to raise his eyedlids, Sam's lips quivered with words that were too heavy to push over them.

"You told me I could decide! I want YOU! You said he'd know his father!"

Bella sat up on her knees, shaking his face back and forth. "You AWAYS KEEP YOUR WORD!"

Sam's lids cracked open over black eyes that were swimming, the pupils wide and wild. He always fought so hard.

"You promised," she wept while she watched them lose the fight.
















Days passed.

They slipped by so fast sometimes that Bella could barely believe it was the 10 year anniversary of that night.

Her gaze fell to the ceramic mug whose untouched tea was nearly room temperature now. She spun it slowly, fingering the handmade handle – she'd gotten it an annual Powwow a few years back.

She lifted the mug, drawing the scent of jasmine and green tea over her lips before she took a sip.

She just wasn't able to push anything down today.

And it was such a waste of sunshine.

Setting the drink down beside her on the steps, she braced her hands behind her and lifted her cheeks up to one of the rare perfect days of Washington's spring.

She'd always hated this day – her friends knew to steer clear with offers of babysitting by now. But whether it was the anniversary marking a decade or just the loneliness, this year it was really hitting her hard.


A boy's voice had her sitting back up, her heart leaping, before she'd even remembered.

Jacob offered her a grin and a two fingered salute as he traipsed behind the boy with a fishing rod over his shoulder and a home depot bucket dangling from his hand.

Sammy was wearing one of those rare smiles that transformed that usually sober face. He was getting so big – in a few months he'd hit a decade too and he nearly came up to Jacob's shoulder.

"Did you catch anything?" she forced a smile.

"Yeah we did," he nodded proudly. "Uncle Jay said it's even big enough to eat."

Bella stood up tentatively and peeked over the side at the poor fish that was still jostling with the sway of the water. She wrinkled her nose.

"Uncle Jay's cleaning it," she announced crisply.

Jacob shot her a cheeky wink. "For a price of course," he wiggled his brow.

"Blackmail," Bella mock gasped.

"I think he's going to barter for one of the pies," her child announced sagely. Sammy had his father's wit and wile, after all.

Jacob gave him a big fat snort that all but confirmed the failed ruse.

Bella's eyes returned to her son to find him studying her with those dark inscrutable eyes. They usually brought more joy to her life than she'd ever imagined possible… but today they just reminded her of Sam.

"It will be fine," her son told her soberly in a little boy's voice.

It made her heart seize in her chest.

"C'mere, honey," Bella tried to camouflage her disconcertion with mother-hen concern. "Your braid," she fretted, turning the child around on the steps.

He and Jacob exchanged glances that told her she wasn't fooling anyone.

While Jacob set the fish on the porch, Bella pulled off the band, slipping it over her wrist and then quickly combed out the braid with her fingers.

"You've got leaves and stuff," she scoffed, picking them out and flicking them down the stairs.

"God forbid he get dirty down at the lake," Jacob tsked sarcastically in her ear.

With reflexes born of lots of practice, her fist shot out and landed a good one on his shoulder.

"Oww!" he wailed melodramatically, staggering across the stairs with some of his cheesy best.

Sammy turned and watched him with a boyish chuckle that reminded her that despite his lineage and nature, some part of his childhood had survived intact.

"Yeah, just a mere mortal now," Bella tossed him a megalomaniacal cackle. "That playing field's a lot flatter."

Jacob rolled his eyes with a macho turn on a dime and a fruitless scoff: "You wish."

But despite his pouty lips, Jacob hadn't had any problems giving up the wolf. In fact, most of the original Pack had stopped Phasing years ago by now too. Though they all still acted like a Pack, one by one they'd left wars and weres and leeches behind and settled into the comfort of a normal human family.

But not Bella.

She tied off Sammy's braid and pressed a kiss to his temple

"I'm going to go see if the mail's here," he announced.

Bella nodded and he turned and strode up stairs. He had his father's dexterity and loved models – he was waiting for a new one to come that he'd bought with money he'd so carefully saved.

She watched him go, stopping to check on the fish with a curious finger.

It flopped and splashed in response and he turned and gave Bella one of those mischievous honeycomb smiles.

So much like his father.

She missed Sam so much.

"You doing okay, Bells?" Jacob pulled her under arm as they turned and climbed to the porch. She knew he was being even more rambunctious than usual today to try to get her to smile. She just didn't have it in her.

With a nod, Bella bent down and snatched her tea on the way into the house.

"Malia napping upstairs with the kids?" Jacob guessed as he opened the screen door and held it for her.

Again Bella nodded and took a numb sip of tea as she trailed toward the long wooden table that took up almost the entire kitchen.

But it was different now – just like everything always was each day. A few benches had been replaced, the corners repaired. There were the scuffs of roughhousing mishaps, the remnants of markers and crayons and the general wear and tear of huge supernatural men singularly focused on food.


Bella's eyes snapped up across the room, in instant razor focus. Sammy only called her that when something serious was going on.

"There's a strange man waiting outside," he reported in a voice too confident for his age. His little chin tipped up ever so slightly with the cant of his head –screaming of the lineage he bore. That sharp mind saw every detail already.

"He has scars on his throat… like from a wolf."

The mug dropped from Bella's fingers and shattered on the floor.

"Go upstairs," she hissed, glancing up at Jacob as she quickly crossed the room.

She pulled Sammy's head in for a quick reassuring kiss. "Go. Watch over the little ones with Auntie," she added – it was guaranteed to make him focus.

True to form, Sammy turned and scampered up the stairs to his duty.

"Think we should call someone," Jacob whispered as he followed in her wake.

Bella shook her head tersely. "I'm through with intimidation," she spat.

Bella burst out on the porch and then froze.

She hadn't been prepared for how surreal it would be to see Paul again after an entire decade.

Leaning against a sports car he was dressed in a leather jacket, jeans and one of his best double shot espresso smirks.

Bella quickly recovered – he had no sway on her now.

"Stay here," she told Jacob and stomped down several of the stairs.

"You have some freaking nerve coming here on this day!" Bella bit out.

That smirk turned under in a press of lips and his eyes darted down to the ground between them.

Bella's heart was going a million miles per hour at seeing this man, on this day, in this front yard. But she'd been through several major wars and cared for a Pack that grew faster than wolves aged out. She wouldn't fall apart the first time Paul Lahote swaggered into town. She wasn't the girl she'd used to be.

Bella quickly tried to gather clues.

Like Jacob, he was human now and had been for a while. Aside from considerably less bulk, she could see the little lines and subtle changes to his face. But there were other changes too. The clothes were worn, the car rented. His posture was relaxed and confident – but not arrogant, per se.

In his hands he held a manila envelope.

Bella's gaze darted back up to where he was watching her from under his eyelashes.

He lifted his head while his eyes washed over her. "It's been a while, Bella," he murmured, soft, silky. "And you haven't changed. Still as beautiful-…"

"Oh, believe me, I've changed," she nearly spat. "What do you want."

Paul closed his eyes for a moment. Then he took a breath as he opened them and squared his shoulders.

"I came to give you what I've owed you for a long time," he said quietly, simply. "Closure."

Bella's eyes darted back down to the envelope and then back up into a face that was similar enough in form, but somehow very different.

"I came to ask for your forgiveness," Paul lifted his brow. "And give you the divorce papers."

Bella didn't know what to say – there was no duplicity or resentment or snark.

When she just stared at him like a slack-jawed fool, he drew in a long open-mouthed breath and pushed off the car.

Bella's entire body tensed in response.

It visibly unsettled him. His brow furrowed as he studied her for a second before he closed his eyes and hung his head as if trying to reset.

"Look," he tipped his chin up with unadorned eyes. "I'm not here to make trouble - I'm just here to make things as right as they'll ever be."

Bella swallowed thickly as her hand twisted into the hem of her shirt.

"I never phased again," he told her in a hushed voice, tipping his head almost absently to show her the scars from where Sam had almost ripped his throat out.

"You told me to get help and," he barked a laugh as his eyes flicked up to the sky. "Eventually I listened." He arched a brow, with a wry smile at his own expense. Confident.

Comfortable in his skin.

It was what she'd always seen he could be.

He looked down at the paper in his hands as he fiddled with it nervously for a moment and then shoved behind his back with his clasped hands.

"I left the animal behind," he told her quietly, evenly - like a confession. "All the drinking, cheating, all the bullshit."

He paused, his eyes darting off to the side and she watched his Adam's apple bob with his swallow. Finally with a flick of his lip through his teeth, he looked back up with sincere eyes.

"I'm sorry I treated you like I did," he whispered, voice dragging with emotion. "I was so… so… so," he shook his head. "Fucked up."

He shoved a hand brusquely through his hair. "I'm sorry for what I did to Sam-…"

"What do you want, Paul?" Bella interrupted. He probably needed this – it was part of his therapy or program or whatever. But she didn't want to listen to his stammering confessions or awkward appeals for forgiveness.

Not today. Not ever.

"Nothing," he said quickly. "I don't want anything."

Bella tried to get a hold of herself – she drew in a resetting breath. She'd had experience managing a host of more complicated situations and wolves who were teetering on losing it big time. This was childsplay in comparison.

"Then why did you come," she managed to make it a statement, not challenge.

He sniffed a laugh as he shoved his free hand in the pocket of his jacket with that practiced cool. It'd always told her he was nervous in spite of the smirk and it spoke to her still.

He shrugged a casual shoulder. "I thought I should come and give you these by hand," he murmured with a little shake of the papers in his hand.

Bella pursed her lips. "There's certified mail. Hey, you could've had me served," she sniffed breezily as she sauntered down the rest of the stairs. "I happen to know a good sheriff in town."

She wasn't making it easy on him – but when was life easy?

"Why did you come, Paul?" Bella stopped several feet in front of him and folded her hands in front of her.

Paul's mouth popped open but words stalled on his tongue while his gaze washed compulsively over and over her face.

But up close she could see it and she really, really didn't want to: he'd done a lot of work but there were still repressed and unresolved feelings for her that festered behind those eyes. She needed to put an end to this. Now.

So, with the confidence and skill that had bloomed in whatever way was needed by their Pack over the last ten years, she deconstructed him in a nano-second flat.

"You came for you," she told him firmly.

The line between compassion and accountability was a razor's edge and Bella had learned to walk it without bleeding out.

"I'm glad you're doing better, I'm proud of you for doing the work," she said calmly, evenly. "But coming to my home… pulling me into your life again so I can make you feel better. So you can just see if anything's still there," she squinted and then drew a breath, settling her shoulders back.

"It's selfish, Paul," she told him flatly, with no emotion coming along for the ride. "And it looks like you've done a hell of a lot of work to try and leave that man behind."

Paul's eyes narrowed with emotion, darting restlessly between hers.

With the softest curve of encouragement to her lips, Bella raised her brow.

Paul's gaze raced across the ground, like he was collecting thoughts that had scattered like a broken string of pearls.

And then he showed her just how much he'd changed.

"You're right," he breathed, returning to her eyes with a candid bewilderment crimping his brow.

"If you came for forgiveness, I figured out how to give that a long time ago," she told him quietly. "I'm not going to spoil my life with bitterness and resentment."

Paul swallowed thickly while he watched her, obviously at an unsettled loss for words.

"I always wanted you to be happy and that hasn't changed," Bella continued, speaking firmly, but using the habitual register for the wolf to soften the sting.

"But Paul, I never want to see you again."

His eyes snapped up to hers from where they'd wandered.

There they stayed for just a heartbeat longer. She could see him searching for what could have been – stringing together a series of whatifs that would only bring him pain in the end.

Then he gave her a curt nod, and his gaze fell to the envelope he held out.

Bella took it with a business-like hand. She didn't need it, of course, but if she were truthful and searched corners of her heart, it had bothered her that she was still bound by a marriage she'd never chosen. It was too much like an imprint.

She'd decided a long time ago that if she bound herself to another man it would be by choice. Not for an agreement or practical arrangement or something that worked out well, but for love.

And she had.

"Are you happy?" Paul asked quietly, shoving his hands in his pockets.

Bella took a step back. He was still unconsciously searching for details… just a little personal sharing to soothe the separation and she wasn't going to give them.

"I want everything I have," she told him curtly, wondering if he even understood the turn of phrase.

"You were right. My art's doing good," he tried. "I've got a show -…"

She didn't want to know his either.

"Good bye, Paul," she cut him off with a cordial smile and then turned on her heel.

That rascal Jacob Black wasn't even trying to hide his shit-eating grin.

As she glared at him while she walked up the path, Paul must have finally acknowledged him. Jacob raised a casual hand with all but the middle finger curved just a little too much for her not to read between the lines.

Bella suppressed her snort but rolled her eyes as she walked with an unhurried gait back up the steps.

Without a pause or glance to her best childhood friend, Bella pulled open the screen while a motor revved outside.

She stalked straight for the kitchen and threw the envelope down on the table.

Then she exploded.

"What the effing hell!" she shrieked just as Jacob made it to the doorway to catch the show. She tried to keep her temper in check - she really did - but really, if there were ever a time it was warranted…

"God! And the bastard knew what today was!" She stomped across the kitchen, petulantly kicking the broken handle of her favorite mug and watching it skitter across the floor. "I mean, has he ever remembered even an effing birthday in his life!?"

Jacob leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest and a smug little smile on his face. He loved it when she blew… the little jerk.

"So help me, Jacob Black, I'm going to wipe that grin off your face," she threatened, wagging a finger and everything. She didn't need this on top of everything else. "You won't be so freaking smug when-.."

Her words disintegrated into a whooping shriek as she was thrown so high in the air she nearly crested the rafters.

She'd been artfully tossed so she came whizzing down to face her attacker and was caught in strong careful hands that absorbed her fall.

Hands that she loved: patient, tender, loving hands.

"SAM!" she screamed flinging her arms around him as her lips locked onto his like a magnetic seal.

For minutes or hours she didn't know and didn't care she tried to swallow him whole, ravenously soaking up his taste, his scent, the touch of his skin.

He'd been gone almost three weeks.

"Is it safe to come down?" a woman's voice came from somewhere in the house.

Bella pulled back breathless, searching his face. Endless inscrutable eyes stared back at her, softened just enough in the corners by his black strap molasses smile. Dark, sticky, sweet it looked delicious poured all over that intensity and made her want to lick it off those broad lips.

With heavy-lidded eyes, Bella leaned in to do just that.

"Depends on your definition," Jacob called over his shoulder with a punky laugh. A little softer he told the kitchen: "Bells, Mal's bringing the kids down."

Freezing with her mouth plastered over her mate's, she took stock of legs brazenly wrapped around his hips, one hand clawing into his shoulder while the other dug fiercely into his long loose hair at the back of his head. Bella was pretty much dry humping their father in the middle of her kitchen.

She pulled back with a gasp that amplified the vacuum and made the kiss pop.

She searched his face, trying to memorize every last pore –with a kind of desperation. This was the longest they'd ever been apart and coupled with the day and Paul's visit, truthfully she was feeling a little bit traumatized.

Sam waited patiently to see what she would do, watching her with eyes were their same starless midnight, composed and calm and filled with love. He kicked up a sultry brow that perfectly embellished his half smile while his hands smoothed with lazy relish over her bottom. It was up to her: the man would be content to follow her lead while the wolf would gladly take her right now on their table no matter who was watching.

Pulling her lip into her mouth, Bella's gaze did another feverish circuit of his face while she smoothed the hair she'd mussed. She wiggled her request to get down, but his hands held her fast, making her eyes dart up to his again.

"Missed you alot," he breathed slowly, his lips caressing the words. His eyes spoke volumes more and held her as he leaned in to rub his jaw over hers, savoring and sensual.

Bella's eyes fluttered closed while she luxuriated in the prickle and silk of his skin, his scent, that soft contented purr that she'd been ignoring but had been percolating in his chest the whole time.

She could feel him lowering her to the floor and she unclasped her ankles and let her feet slip to the floor, all while he nuzzled and snuffled and hummed his contentment in her hair.

Then with a butt of his nose to her temple, he straightened. Her eyelids fluttered open to dark eyes watching her with promises of more. Soon.

His thumb flicked her chin and then he swept those imperious eyes over the others in the room who had respectfully waited.

Bella turned to see Sammy standing beside Jacob in the doorway, holding his little brother Charlie's hand.

"Papa!" the little one was squealing, marching in place while his brother held him in back.

Sammy's eyes were locked silently on his father, waiting for his cue.

She never let them see the sexual side of their relationship, of course (the reason they were being shipped off for sleepovers for the weekend), but she didn't mind them witnessing the lupine affection between mates – she hoped it modeled behavior that would help them channel all that primal passion.

When the time came.

Because it would. As the Pack grew, society changed and vampires became more prevalent, Sam had decided to keep Phasing as long as he needed to lead them – and help his son take the reins.

It was hard for a mother to make peace with that fact, but it was part of her duty being the best friend and mate to a man who still understood the wolf better. He and their children had a legacy that even stretched beyond their tribe: Sam was becoming a leader who was respected and known far beyond these borders. These last three weeks he'd been in Canada with a tribe who was seeing a resurgence in their own shapeshifting gene.

At some cue she didn't catch, Charlie was released and, like a horse out of a gate, he charged pell-mell toward his father with an ear-piercing shriek of glee.

Sam reached down and caught him mid stride, tossing him high up in the air to his fearless laughter and then catching him in his casual arms.

"Papa! You were gone long time!" he exclaimed as he hugged his father's neck with complete abandon.

Sam's big hand stroked over the child's butterscotch hair while his eyes found his oldest, waiting for the right time like he so naturally did.

Sam held out a silent hand and the boy strode toward him, visibly squaring his shoulders and jaw. He was at that age when he copied his father in everything. But it was natural. As he always did, Sam gave him the space and neutrality to be whoever he wanted to be, but they were just so much alike in many ways.

Sam guided him gently while Bella followed his lead. They each took care of different parts of their children and respected one another for it. She knew that Sam was the only one who could teach them both how to be a wolf and a man, while she took warm loving care of their hearts and minds. No matter how much she wanted to jump in and appease or mother-hen protect them, she always held her tongue.

It wasn't hard – she and Sam respected each other in all things.

Sam pulled his oldest into his side. For a long moment he just held each boy while he bowed his head and softly closed his eyes like he was meditating. Sam took each moment as it came and some of them needed to be cherished - like this one. He drew in a long slow breath while Charlie tried to tug in his chin up toward him, babbling and trying to get his attention.

Then with a slow audible exhale he finally turned to the child, a brow cocked over his amusement.

"Patience, cub." A deep fleecy chuckle bounced under the words as he jostled the child.

Undaunted, Charlie threw his arms around Sam's big head and placed an indiscriminate slobbery toddler kiss somewhere in the vicinity of his cheek and eye.

"Charlie!" Bella stepped in to save him.

Sam squinted and blinked at the slobber as she pulled the child away. With a soft laugh, she pulled her shirt over the heel of her hand and reached up to wipe it off for him. His eyes met hers for a shared moment of amusement before he turned to his oldest.

Bella watched over her shoulder as he sat down on the bench, pulling Sammy around in front of him.

Malia was grinning beside her husband with her five year old leaning back against her front under her folded hands.

"Sarah, are you sure you're down for a sleep-over with this little guy?" she asked the rhetorical question with a humorous squint.

She nodded enthusiastically. Charlie was like her live baby doll – Malia and Jake had decided to stop at three and she was the youngest.

Sam and Bella had purposely waited a while before conceiving Charlie. With wars, healing, and the time it took to cherish each other and groom the next in line to lead the Pack, five years had been the right time.

There were other sons of Ephraim's line to step up if Sammy had chosen a different path (and still could) but at the tender age of three, even a fool could see he'd been born to the job.

Just like Sam.

Bella turned back to where Sam was seated on a bench, arms braced on his thighs while he listened intently to his son, standing before him, serious and erect.

Malia graciously took the younger ones upstairs to pack, while she took a few steps closer to hear what they were talking about.

She was pretty sure she knew.

"You handled it well," Sam told him in that warm velvet bass. "But you and your mother were always safe – we were watching."

His eyes flicked up to Bella's meaningfully before returning to his son.

She suspected that he had wolves watching their house while he was away, but he'd made it clear that Pack safety was his responsibility. And Bella trusted him to do that as he saw fit.

"Why, Papa?" Sammy asked him.

"Because I left your mother unguarded once and she was hurt," he told him simply. "It's inexcusable to make the same mistake twice."

His son nodded once. "Yes."

With the briefest glance Bella's way, Sam arched a brow as he canted his head. "But what else?" he murmured.

"Sometimes it happens," Sammy recited, squaring his chin with pride. "And if you don't forgive yourself it will happen again."

Sam's face stretched in a slow smile for his son. "Come."

He sat up and Sammy stepped into his father's arms. He pulled the boy's cheek to his shoulder for a long and tender embrace. Sometimes words meant nothing.

"I saw the fish," he murmured, stroking over his son's head and then pulling back, leaving his arms wrapped loosely around the boy.

Sammy nodded. "Uncle Jay said it's big enough to eat," he told him brightly – eerily switching back to being a few months shy of ten.

"Uncle Jay's taking it with him," Bella stepped in with a bland look over her shoulder at her childhood friend.

"Mom said Uncle Jay's got to clean it," he reported. "He's bartering for pie."

Sam's unreadable eyes swept the room, first to Bella then out to Jacob.

He returned his attention to his son. "You and Cody can clean it after his game," he told him, in a midnight bass. "If you decide to take a life, you must be strong enough to see it through yourself."

Bella bit into her lip to hold her tongue. This kind of thing was where it was so hard for a mother – to watch her son be prepared to kill…

But it was reality and the fate that her mate and her son had been born into.

"You need to decide if you're ready," Sam intoned with the neutrality that actually gave him the space to do it. "Sometimes the right choice is to let your prey go."

It was subtle, but Bella saw the tick of muscles on each side of his nose – a suppressed flash of lupine displeasure. No matter how much the man grew and learned, the animal lived in him still.

And this was the reason why Bella could bear to watch her son be groomed for war: the biggest one he'd ever fight would be with himself.

"I'll think about it." Sammy nodded soberly as his father sat back, brushing his knuckles over the child's face on the way.

"We'll still take it with us," Jacob stepped in with a wink for Bella and his usual undaunted sun. "Glad you're back, Cuz," he offered his hand.

Sam stood and the two cousins clasped forearms for a moment. "Thank you," he said quietly with just the minutest tip of his chin in Bella's direction.

The all shared the load with each other and Jacob and Malia had been awesome while he'd been away – helping with the kids, keeping her company.

Especially today.

While she watched their two children prepare for overnights to give them some adult time - somewhere between Embry and Jacob's house, they were utterly interchangeable for all of their kids – Bella gobbled every last drop of the mundane down.

It was an antidote that she couldn't get enough of – she'd never forget the night her mate had come so close to leaving her. In fact he had. He'd been lifeless in her arms for what seemed like lifetimes, until Sue had gotten there and he'd fought his way back.

Sam was a warrior in all things... and he never broke his word.

With wars and leeches and violence and wolves, all of the Pack had been through trauma at one time or another. The way survived it was to lean on each other as a Pack. But this was different. She knew perhaps some of her friends didn't understand – all's well that ends well, right?

But holding this man she loved in her arms, battered and mutilated. Without breath. Without heartbeat. Without hope. Bella had stared death in the face and wandered the barren landscape of despair.

She would never be the same.

Nor did she want to be. What she'd endured over her marriage and after – it had made her strong enough to stand at Sam's side. As far as she could tell, change was painful every single time.

So every year on this day, she allowed herself to remember, so she could also remember the rest. To appreciate each breath, each day, each heartbeat and to cherish each minute she had with this man.

Bella took each moment as it came.

Sam understood.

"It's over," he whispered as his arms wrapped around her and pulled her back against his chest.

Bella nodded silently while she watched the car pull out of the front yard from the porch. Jacob beeped and she raised a hand to her son, watching them so seriously out the window.

She thought Sammy just might understand too.

Without warning suddenly she was being lifted in strong arms. A giggle broke free as Sam settled her against his chest bridal style, and she wrapped her arms around his neck.

He leaned down and drew in a breath at her temple, humming with pleasure as he absently opened the screen and carried her into the house.

Closing her eyes in bliss, Bella leaned her cheek against his shoulder as he walked slowly back to the kitchen.

"I can't believe you could watch," Bella smiled, leaving her eyes closed and enjoying the liquid sway of his gait.

She knew the wolf still wanted to kill Paul with a vengeance. In fact, until today she hadn't been a hundred percent sure that Sam hadn't tracked him down and done just that.

"You needed to do it yourself," he whispered.

Bella's eyes popped open to that stoic face. He was right – it had made her feel strong. Strangely it had given her closure too. Being confronted by the demons of her past and not falling to pieces just confirmed that she wasn't that girl who'd traded self-respect and confidence for abuse and helplessness.

And even though he'd probably burned alive inside, he'd stood back and respected her enough to give her what she needed.

But Sam was a warrior in all things. She had no doubt he'd fight to the death for her… even if it was against himself.

God, she loved this man.

She reached up her hand and ghosted her middle finger down his profile.

When she reached his mouth his lips pursed with a kiss before stretching into a wry and feral smile. Sam cut his eyes down at her. "I did however send Toby and Joe after him to follow up your request with a little encouragement."

His eyes returned to his destination without waiting for her reaction.

Bella sniffed a laugh (that was a little too gratified) while she pulled a corner of her lip into her mouth - at least he hadn't done it himself. Paul would probably live.

Then she was being set down on their kitchen table. She'd always thought Sam had crafted it a little high because shapeshifters were so huge, until she discovered that it was actually the perfect height for other things.

Everything Sam Uley did was strategic.

Holding her gaze with smoldering coal, he stepped between her knees. Without a word or second's hesitation, he ripped her dress up the front, somehow ridding her of her panties too as he pushed the offending cloth off her skin.

She smiled, pulled him hungrily down and he rubbed his cheek over her stomach and then up between her breasts while a low purr of pleasure vibrated in his chest. She arched under him as his mouth took a nipple and her hands tangled encouragingly in his hair.

"Are you ready for another," he breathed, placing kisses over her collarbone on his way to his mark proudly sitting at the apex of her shoulder and neck.

"Yes," she gasped as he connected each of the four canine points with his tongue. Sparks lit like fireworks behind her eyes.

Bella wanted at least another two children and she certainly had time. Bound body and soul to the Alpha of the Pack she aged with him – which was not at all until he stopped phasing. Sam gave her the space to decide, but she knew he wanted as many as she'd give him...

"Good," he dragged the croon over her skin as brushed his nose up her pulse. "Because, you're already pregnant," he whispered and then marked her neck with his mouth.

Bella made an innovative sound somewhere between a laugh and groan as she tipped her head to the side to give him better purchase.

"What would you had done if I'd said no?" she chuckled breathlessly.

"Mm," he hummed over the tendon on the side of her neck. She could feel his smile against her skin. "I can be very persuasive," he breathed and then smothered his mark with a hungry mouth, suckling and massaging it with his teeth.

His mark was like a direct connect to her sensual nervous system - Bella nearly came on the spot. "S-Sam," she begged, fingers curling into his sides while her heels desperately tried to pull his hips closer.

With a dark chocolate chuckle of pure devilry he pulled back, eyes backlit by that feral fire but set in a face where human love plainly reigned. Bella's breath caught in her throat. How was it possible to love him this much? Every day it seemed to impossibly grow.

She wasn't sure how long she got stuck – drowning in his eyes and awe while remnant sparks and shivers tingled down all the way to her toes. Always patient, Sam stared right back with that sentimental smile softening broad lips that she could seriously look at all day.

Finally he shifted over her and cocked his head – a crisp feral movement. "You okay?" he whispered.

Bella bit her lip and nodded silently, but her hands wrapped as far as they could around his broad back. Just holding him. Tightly. In her arms.

On this day.

"You know with these papers," he whispered with a raise of his brow. "We could make our agreement official."

Bella blinked back into the present and her eyes darted between his, searching for clues.

She found it in that minute flare of his nostril. If wolves were anything, they were territorial – it had bothered him too.

"You've always had everything," Bella whispered, letting him know that no matter what fates or gods or pieces of paper had to say, she was his. "Plus it already is where it counts."

And that was also true – their relationship was recognized by Pack and Council and they'd had a ceremony in front of the Tribe (and her parents). And then there was the mark – it was as indelible and finite as bindings came.

He wrinkled his nose feigning the excuse of a wayward strand of hair – a suspiciously lupine-esque expression.

Bella smiled softly and wiggled a hand up so she could tuck his prop behind his ear. The humor faded from her lips as her fingers lingered, tracing his brow, ghosting down over his cheekbone, skimming over his shadow of stubble.

"What do you want?" she asked quietly.

Her eyes returned to his and found them watching. As usual.

But then a slow smile poured over his lips, sensual and lush and an oasis in all that intensity. "You can't say you don't know what I want, Bella," he whispered.

He shifted over her and one of his hands left its post beside her head to finally work over that button fly.

"Then why are you asking?" she hitched her lips up coyly. "Marriage isn't an Alpha's Prerogative too?"

They words were light banter, but they obviously did something to him.

He dipped down and drizzled dark chocolate kisses over her lips while that low rumble rippled like a shiver down her body.

"It is indeed," he breathed into her mouth.

And then he flipped her over.






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