Tangle of Need

By: Nalini Singh

Dropping to the firm ground, he made his way through the dark and narrow tunnel built to provide no purchase for claws and nails, its walls seeping a slick gel that frustrated forward movement. He’d created the obstacle, but he was swearing by the time he got to the end—beside an Adria who had tendrils of jet black hair stuck to her temples and cheeks, and then they were wiping off the gel and scrambling across the jungle gym.

Focusing only on navigating the complex structure, he shut out the presence of the woman he could still taste, still feel clenching so tight and liquid on his fingers. He’d always known he would one day take a lover. Lisette—a near-blinding stab of pain—was happily married, would never belong to him. It was a truth nothing could change, and he’d understood he’d have to accept that before it destroyed him.

But he wasn’t ready yet.

Even if he had been, he’d always assumed the woman with whom he ended his celibate existence would be warm, affectionate, someone who understood the wound that was his heart.

Not a near stranger who might as well have been a razor blade.

His arms aching, he came down on his feet after successfully reaching the end of the jungle gym and looked back to see Adria hanging on to a section that had fallen in, courtesy of the random algorithm that had almost dumped him on his ass halfway through. There was no way she’d catch up to him now, but teeth gritted, she pulled herself back and onto the top of the structure.

Impressed despite himself, he didn’t do her the insult of not putting his all into the rest of the course, the ground hard beneath his bare feet. He was cooling down when she crossed the finish line and collapsed to her knees. “Sienna was right,” she gasped, her braid falling over one shoulder to lie against her breast. “You are a sadist.”

“An easy course teaches them nothing.” Leaving her to recover, he ran to the den to grab two bottles of water from a cooler kept close to the nearest exit and jogged back.

Stretch completed, she took the bottle he held out. “Thank you.”

No sound, except that of water being drunk.

Twisting closed the lid of her bottle, Adria pushed back the sweat-damp strands of her hair and said, “Look, what happened—”

“It’s over with.” The memory of his betrayal brought bile into his throat—regardless of the raw pulse of his body, he wasn’t yet willing to accept the inevitable and forget the woman meant to be his. “Doesn’t need a postmortem.”

Flawless creamy skin with the barest touch of sun gold pulled taut over Adria’s cheekbones. “Burying your head in the sand won’t make it go away.” Her tone made it clear she hadn’t missed the rigid evidence of his arousal.

Forcing himself not to pulverize the bottle he held in hand, he took his time replying. “What exactly would you like to discuss?” he asked in a tone that told her to back off if she knew what was good for her.

Adria didn’t take the hint. “We’re sexually attracted to one another,” she said, feet slightly spread and hands by her sides. “Maybe you didn’t realize it consciously until today, but now you do.”

“I’m also a lieutenant,” he said, furious he hadn’t understood his own antagonistic response to Adria in time to strangle it, “and that means I can control my urges.” Neither part of him had any intention of giving in to this unwanted desire, the wolf’s rage as primal as the man’s.

“So can I.” A hidden tone in that husky voice that rubbed against his skin, a near tactile caress. “But I’m saying we don’t necessarily have to.” She held the brutal dominance of his gaze for a long moment before her wolf forced her to look away, her hands fisted so tight, bones pushed white against skin. “I don’t want a permanent relationship, and Indigo told me you wouldn’t be interested in one either.”

“Did she?”

At the silken question, Adria once again met his gaze, though her chest rose and fell in jagged breaths, her wolf undoubtedly fighting her because it knew he was the stronger, more dangerous one in the clearing. “She didn’t breach your confidence.”

He respected that she’d stood up for Indigo at once, but that didn’t excuse what she’d dared to suggest. His anger turned quiet, deadly, cold. “You just want to sleep together, is that it?”

Slender fingers flexing, clenching again. “I’m talking about sharing intimate skin privileges”—red painted her cheekbones—“nothing forbidden or taboo among packmates. I don’t see why you’re reacting like I’m suggesting something awful.”

“Because I don’t like you,” he said, saw her flinch.

Ruthless though he could be, he wasn’t usually such a bastard, but Adria had torn open the greatest wound on his heart, then rubbed salt on the injury with her casual approach to something that savaged him. He could barely see straight, much less think, but he knew one thing. “You’re not a woman I’ll ever want in my bed.”

Adria could feel her face burning, the heat blistering, but she didn’t run off, tail between her legs. “Can’t get much clearer than that.”