For a second, it had seemed like his touch might alleviate the crushing weight that was making my bones melt. For a moment, I had thought his touch would ease the too strong pull that was pressing on me from all sides, forcing me into unconsciousness beneath a force I couldn't withstand.
For an instant, everything had made sense.
And then in a roaring rush, the weight had slammed back down on me, the pressure returning, my eyes fluttering from the wave of blackness that rolled over me. It was no longer just my legs that had failed me; my whole body fell limp, my head falling forward to rest on the bare chest of the man that was holding me.
The bare chest; how had I not noticed it? Smooth muscles visible across his stomach, his shoulders strong and his arms thick. His skin was a lovely russet that made his already attractive body even more so; and now I was collapsing against him.
It should have been weird. It was weird; barely a minute ago, I had never before set my eyes on him. But I didn't have the brain power, the strength, to process the weirdness. I could barely even focus on the world around me.
The only thing that stood out was him.
The hands on my waist had disappeared, to be replaced with a strong arm hooked around me to hold me up as he pulled me close. The other hand was on my neck, pulling my head away from his chest and turning my face upwards, my half-lidded and glazed eyes only partially aware of him gazing down at me with concern.
Concern. Concern didn't suit his features. His was a happy face; his eyes still holding a hint of happiness even as they crinkled with worry, his mouth perfectly suited to a smile that would consume him; a smile that I irrationally and desperately wanted to see. His hair was short and black, the dark strands matching his typical tanned Quileute skin perfectly. The overall affect was stunning, and if I'd had a choice, I would have continued drinking in his handsome features.
But as the pressing force of the imprint suddenly pushed into me with renewed vigour, making me gasp and cringe, I lost sight of his mesmerizing face. The hand on my neck had disappeared, and I felt my head spin as my unfocused vision was filled with a blur of green and brown. It took me a second to realise that the spinning wasn't just in my mind, but was actually due to my legs being swept from beneath me. The man's warm arms under my knees and bracing my back were strangely comforting, though they probably shouldn't have been.
But even stranger was the sad pang I felt when he released me, gently sitting me on the ground with my back against a tree. I felt the lack of contact immediately; I couldn't stop my breath from hitching from the separation. But through the bond, I could feel his presence; could feel that he was still close.
A fact that shouldn't have made me as relieved as it did.
It was strange, the panic that swept over me, as the small body already in my hold went limp. The initial shock that had left me staring at her in fascination was crushed by an irrational and powerful sense of fear, sense of worry. Worry that consumed me, worry that blasted through logic and didn't listen to reason.
Worry for her.
Worry that was only building as I hooked an arm firmly around her waist and cupped her neck with the other hand, turning her face up to mine to see her glazed eyes. Eyes that were not seeing me; weren't seeing anything.
Eyes that sent the spark of fear in me into a frenzy. A frenzy that, if not for my mind forcing rationality back into me, would have overtaken me.
Because while the imprint wanted to throw itself into a mindless panic and find out why the hell she was almost passed out in my arms, my brain already knew the answer.
It was the imprint. If it had slammed down on me as hard it had on her, it wasn't surprising. It had been enough to make me stagger; pressing down on me with the force of an alpha order when I was the alpha. Even with my natural born resistance to orders, it had been strong enough to blast through me; I couldn't imagine what it had been like for her.
Too much. It would have been too much. It had been too much.
I could only hope that the initial force of it, the searing power of it when I had first laid eyes on her, would fade.
But as much I hated that I had done this to her, as much as I hated seeing her so weakened by it, I couldn't deny that it was deeply satisfying to swing her up into my arms. To have her pressed against my chest, my arms around her waist and under her legs.
Mine. She was mine.
Wait, what? I paused as the thought ran through my mind. Hell, I'd only known her a minute and I was already getting possessive. Damn, this imprint was strong.
So strong that even as I gently released her, her back against a tree as she sat against the trunk, I couldn't stand to move away. Even sitting against a neighbouring tree, close enough to reach out and touch her, I could feel the separation; and the urge to remedy it. I fought it though; fought the urge to take her right back up in my arms. Because while the imprint was murmuring a litany of possessive phrases in the back of my mind, she was not mine.
But just because she wasn't mine, it didn't mean I couldn't watch her. Watch her golden brown hair, wavy and dark, strands fluttering in the breeze, spilling over her shoulders and looking so tantalizing all I wanted to do was run my fingers through it. Watch her now-closed eyelids flicker, long dark eyelashes brushing the lightly tanned skin of her cheek; skin that was only a few shades lighter than my own.
And watch her soft breaths blow through her parted lips, wondering what it would look like when she smiled.
It felt like eternity passed as I reeled from the imprint. Every time I thought I was close to recovery, thought that the never-ending force was abating, it attacked with renewed vigour. Another emotion hitting me, another unyielding strength pressing down, another link being formed.
Links, an endless number of links, to him.
And a few small, barely present links to others. Others that I could vaguely feel, vaguely sense; others that lingered, almost not there. Others that were pack.
And there were more pack members than I ever could have imagined. 21 members of pack that I could feel; feel dimly in the back of my mind. Pack members I shouldn't have been feeling at all.
The alpha felt the pack; they were his. That made sense. But me feeling the pack? That didn't. He was the alpha, so it made sense that the imprint was stronger.
I just hadn't anticipated how strongly, or how closely, it would bind us.
While the imprint may have slammed down upon me with abruptness, it took its sweet time calming down. And while it was nowhere near as intense or crippling, it was still there; he was still there. His emotions, mixing with my own. His heart, beating with mine. His very essence, his very being, connected, tethered, bonded unbreakably and irrevocably, to me.
But though I was no longer almost passed out from the weight, I was by no means free of all of its affects.
I felt drained. Drained of all my energy, all of it expended on fighting the pressure. My limbs were heavy, my eyes unwilling to open, my lungs still feeling suffocated and struggling to draw breath.
Weak. That was what I was. Too weak to even contemplate moving.
But that was before he spoke.
'How do you feel?' My eyes flew open at his voice, my body jolting. His voice was like honey; smooth and deep and rich and powerful. It rolled over me in a wave; a wave that was comforting and warm and concerned in a way it shouldn't be.
I half believed I'd imagined it until my searching eyes met his own. His gaze held the same emotions I had felt in his voice, his eyes watching me with an almost hidden intensity that should have been unnerving. Instead, it was compelling, and I found a reply flowing from my lips before I even had a chance to think.
'Like I've been run over by a bus.' I said quietly, and he smiled despite the situation.
His smile; I had been right about his smile. It suited him, transformed him. It made me want to smile back, even though I had no reason to.
But the urge faded, and his smile dropped, as I stretched, shifting against the tree with a wince. My muscles had locked, my limbs leaden and protesting the movement as I tried to get to my feet.
'Let me help you.' He said, standing and offering me a hand almost faster than I could follow. I blinked at him in surprise for a moment, before sliding my small palm into his. He pulled me up with ease, gripping my elbow to steady me as I stumbled.
'Thanks.' I replied with a small smile, his hand lingering as I stared up at him. The contact was intoxicating, and once again, his eyes were disarming, capturing my attention like nothing else could. That was, until his deep rumbling voice once again reached my ears.
'So where are you off to in such a hurry?' He asked with a hint of a smile, as I blinked at him in confusion. He elaborated, still looking strangely amused.
'As I recall, you ran into me.' I smiled sheepishly.
'Sorry. I was distracted.' He laughed; a loud and rich laugh that was music to my ears.
'Clearly. So where were you headed?'
'Away. I was trying to avoid your wolf.' He grinned.
'And you succeeded.' I gave him a dubious look.
'Not really. I ended up running into you, which didn't really fit in with my aim of avoiding shape-shifters.'
'And why were you avoiding us?'
'You have to ask?' He laughed again, softly this time.
'Well, I don't know about you, but I prefer not to be attacked by wolves.' He smiled again.
'Understandable.' He agreed, his eyes sparkling with something I couldn't quite identify.
'Is there a reason you're interrogating me about all this?' I asked, raising my eyebrows at him. He smiled innocently.
'Of course.' I waited for him to elaborate, giving him an expectant look, but he just continued to stare at me, a slight smile playing with his lips.
'Are you going to tell me what it is?' I finally asked, curiosity getting the better of me.
'I like mysteries.'
'And you are most certainly one of them.'
I grinned. 'I guess I can agree to that.'
'Thea!' Ani's shrill shriek cut through the air like a knife, and my head whipped to the side to look off in the direction her call had come from.
'Ani?' I called out, my eyes darting as I headed through the trees. A girly laugh that echoed through the trees was my only response, her complete and utter delight almost palpable. The slight worry I'd had was immediately quelled by her giggle, and I couldn't stop the smile that was slowly forming as I rounded a large fir tree to see her jumping up and down with a combination of glee and determination.
'Ani, what are you doing?' I said with a laugh, grinning at the sight of her petite body leaping into the air as she struggled to reach the clump of flowers that was just out of her reach. She was already proudly waving one beaten bloom in her right hand, the flower drooping and limp as she waved it vigorously.
'Thea, I can't reach!' She said plaintively, making another unsuccessful jump, and frowning sadly up at the out of reach flowers. Still smiling, I strode over to her, easily plucking the bunch from their position in a nook of a large fir trunk. Depositing the bouquet in her eagerly awaiting hands, she gave me a blindingly delighted grin.
'Yay! Flowers!' She called loudly, gently cradling the clump against her chest. 'Aren't they pretty?'
'Of course they are.' I replied, snapping the stem off one that had fallen to the ground, and tucking the bright blue flower into her hair as I crouched before her. She beamed, doing the same for me, carefully slipping the flower above my ear.
'Now we're both pretty too.' She said with a grin, which I returned. But her happy expression changed into one of curiosity as she looked over my shoulder with intrigue.
'Who's that?' She asked softly, her eyes wide. Even before I turned to see the object of her attention, I knew exactly who she was talking about. The imprint bond was telling me exactly who was behind me, and it was without surprise that I saw the alpha walking towards us through the trees, a curious expression on his face. I couldn't help but smile slightly at the sight of him, though I wasn't quite sure why. But with Ani giving me a curious and persistent look, I didn't have time to ponder it.
'A friend.' I said quietly, pulling her up with me as I stood to face him. He quirked an eyebrow at me, smiling slightly.
'So I'm a friend?' He asked, his tone light and a touch playful, curiosity lacing his words.
'You don't agree?'
'I half thought you were going to say attacker.' I laughed, and he continued. 'But I'm glad you went with the former.'
He held out a hand for me to shake. 'I'm Jake.'
I gave him a smile, and took his hand in my own. 'Thea.'