Coveted

By: Stacey Brutger


He paused for so long she didn’t think he’d answer. “Night vision. I’ve been in the dark for a long time. My eyes have adjusted.”

That made sense.

So why did it feel like a lie?

Shayla tore her gaze away from his, unable to bear his scrutiny. For some reason, it was important to him that she believe him, and until they were out of this mess, she had no choice.

She’d just have to be more alert, watch him closer.

“Come.” Aiden tugged on her hand. “We can’t stay here.”

Without the shelter of his warmth, the wind cut through her, stealing her breath. She couldn’t stop shaking.

She had no idea where they were. She’d only glanced at the map posted at the bed and breakfast, unable to recall any sort of cliffs. She debated using her gift to get back to town, but she had a feeling they would have to survive the dogs first. “Do you know where we are?”

She followed him step-for-step, but ended up stumbling over the craggy surface, nearly taking a tumble. Aiden reached out to steady her, not even giving her a glance, as if he knew her exact position. Then he quickly dropped her arm as if disgusted by her ungainliness.

Not wanting to be more of a burden, Shayla reached for the strap of her satchel. “I can carry it.”

Aiden just nudged her forward. “I can manage.”

Shayla cocked her head at his gruff tone, a little taken aback at the rage that hovered around him. No matter what she did, it only made it worse.

“My phone! Do you still have it?” She bit back a groan, feeling like an idiot for not asking sooner.

She swore she heard his teeth grind at her question.

He hunched his shoulders, refusing to even look at her. “I dropped it in the struggle.”

And any thought of rescue slowly faded.

He sounded so furious that Shayla clamped her mouth shut to keep from asking more. He marched ahead, a slight limp to his gait, and her brows furrowed in consternation. “Did that dog bite you?”

Aiden clenched his fists, cursing his weakness. He could not allow her to doubt his ability to keep her safe.

The past few months of inactivity made him slow.

Made healing sluggish.

The only way to reverse the effects would be to shift. Impossible to do so while in her presence unless he wanted her to run. He was so focused on listening to her breathe, reassured by her light steps behind him, that his foot landed wrong and he went down on one knee.

Agony shot up his injured leg.

Aiden gritted his teeth, mortified at the simple misstep. When he tried to rise, his arms shook under his weight. Neither of them could go on like this. No matter how much it pained him to admit it, how much he wanted to deny it, he was worthless to her in his current condition.

He had to keep her safe and that meant getting rid of the threat. For that, he needed a distraction, a way to keep her busy and out of harm’s way while he dealt with the problem.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine.” He brushed away her hands when she reached for him, nearly shoving her off her feet. Heat spread up his face, his humiliation complete. When he stretched out his arm to steady her, she flinched. Shame tightened his shoulders, and he turned away.

She was a human, damn it.

So why did it matter that she thought him an oafish boor?

“You’ll be able to move faster without me. Head north. Follow the path. We are at the perimeter of my land. The hounds won’t venture beyond the border.” Werewolves were the bigger predators. The scent of so many wolves would stop the search dead in its tracks. “The patrols will find you. Tell them I sent you.”

Shayla was already shaking her head. “You can’t ask me to leave you in the middle of nowhere. You’re injured.”

“My men will come back for me.” He peered into the darkness, unable to look her in the eye as he abandoned her. Without her near, he’d be able to loop back and stop those who wanted to harm her.

His wolf whiffled in agreement.

He heard her rise and tensed.

She slowly circled, her dainty shoes coming into view when she stopped in front of him. He followed the curvy line of her legs, past her lush hips, the nip in her waist up to the gorgeous set of—

“Eyes up here, mister.”

Aiden blinked and snapped his head up. A wave of heat flashed through him at being caught gawking like an awkward teenager. The blush on her face eased his discomfort, and the corner of his lips curled, ridiculously pleased to know that he had the same effect on her.

Then he frowned.

Flirting when he should be formulating a plan to keep her safe.

His wolf’s tail thumped once in playfulness, before he went back to healing the damage his body had sustained as best he could with what limited energy that remained. All the restlessness of being imprisoned should have left him a raging beast. He’d expected his wolf to burst out of his skin at the first opportunity, killing anything in his path, but her presence kept him in check.

All because his beast didn’t want to scare her off.

He floundered at the realization. For the past fifty years, his wolf never had time for humans unless they were a threat, something to hunt. Now he was acting like she was one of the pack.

Shayla stubbornly crossed her arms. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Don’t you understand? I can’t keep you safe.” When she didn’t move, he gave into the fury that had settled over him the last two months and roared. “What do you think will happen if you stay? They will use you against me. Once they have you, we’re both dead.”

“But—”

She wasn’t going to give up. He had to make her leave. “You smell.”

A fiery blush filled her face, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. He clamped his teeth shut against an explanation, cursing his damned interfering mutt. That wasn’t what he meant to say. She didn’t stink, though he wished to God she did, anything to cover up her tantalizing scent and ease the hunger that continued to rage under his skin.

He was a step away from losing control.

He had to get rid of her before he did something stupid…like ravish her out in the freezing cold with danger lurking in the shadows.

“You aren’t exactly a bouquet of daisies either. I’m not your responsibility. Let’s not forget that I’ve saved your life more than once. I can be useful.”

“Yes, by bringing back my men. The people chasing us are ruthless killers. I can’t be holding your hand anymore.” Aiden ignored the way his wolf bared his teeth at the impending separation. He lifted the straps of her bag over his head, his grip tightening, reluctant to let her go even though it had been his idea.

This was what he’d wanted.

He should be pleased.

So why then did a howl of denial scrape against his throat at the idea of leaving her alone and vulnerable?

* * *

“Stupid, idiotic man.” Shayla snatched up her bag and stomped away, fuming at his caveman attitude. He pounded his fists against his chest, ordered her around, and expected her to obey like some helpless twit. She wanted to demand he take her the rest of the way, but his volatile mood warned her not to push or she’d find herself trussed up and left behind like some prize to be claimed.

She had half a mind to do what he asked and leave.

But that’s what he wanted.

The man who’d saved her life wouldn’t send a woman off alone in the wilderness without a reason. She slowed her pace, racking her brain to figure out his plan. He wasn’t as stupid or helpless as he wanted her to believe.

She should be furious about being left in the dark.

Literally.

After another minute, only one answer came to mind, but she couldn’t believe he’d be foolish enough to go after the people chasing them. He was injured and weak from his stay in that nasty prison. It wasn’t a fight he could possibly win.

She nearly stumbled over her feet when she recalled one important fact…he was a man. Of course he would go charging off into danger.

His gaze branded her, urged her to turn around, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Maybe the more important question was what kind of man needed patrols? Ones who were tossed into dungeons, obviously. No way in hell was she going to allow herself to be managed by him or his men. He was an idiot if he believed otherwise.

A large rock loomed out of the vast nothingness around her. She sidestepped around it, half expecting Aiden to come charging after her. The absolute silence preyed on her nerves. The night seemed darker as she counted down the seconds. When she was sure that he’d stopped watching, Shayla crept around the boulder and sneaked back.

Only to find her caveman gone.

“I knew it!” Being right did little to ease the anxiety pounding inside her skull. She almost felt defeated, worried about what trouble he’d land in on his own, before her natural confidence reasserted itself.

She’d just have to go rescue him herself.





Chapter Seven



Aiden stubbornly placed one foot in front of the other, his mind screaming at him to turn back. She had him so twisted in knots that he wasn’t sure if his instincts were warning him of danger or if his need to be near her was making him stupid.

His damned wolf remained silent, punishment for sending the woman away. His leg muscles stretched and pulled as he climbed the bluffs. The position allowed him to overlook the stretch of land in all directions. After so many days and nights in a tiny cell, the vastness of it threatened to crush his chest. Wind whipped around him, and he greedily inhaled, battling the unexpected, paralyzing fear that left him out in the open and exposed, just waiting to pick him off.

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