HEAT

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Chapter 17: My Bastard

Hycinth

I was breathless. Literally. So much had happened and changed over the last few hours. I was reeling, struggling to keep up.

Leander dismissed the wolves, but a few remained behind to speak with him. While he chatted with the lingering wolves, I made my way over to Lucky’s cell. He’d had a front-row seat to the commotion. I was curious what he thought, but I also knew he wasn’t going to be happy with what he’d heard.

When I reached him, his intense glowing absinthe eyes belied his casual stance and signature smirk. He breathed, “Wow, Cinn, that was quite some show. I gotta say, after we talked earlier, that particular testosterone-fueled Alpha display was the last thing I expected to see. Wanna catch me up on what the hell happened?”

“I don’t even know where to begin,” I exhaled.

His gaze turned steel cold. “Why don’t you start by telling me what that dick-eating fucker did to you and why you didn’t tell me about it before?”

I cringed. Yep, he wasn’t thrilled. I sighed, “I didn’t want you to worry.”

A muscle twitched in his jaw. He ground his teeth together. “That’s not an acceptable answer, and you know it.”

I cringed, looked down and then back up at him through my lashes. “I know. I’m sorry. I should have.”

Before we could say more, Lucky glanced over my shoulder and tension rolled through his chest. I turned to find Alpha Cyril headed our way. When he reached us, his dark brown eyes studied me intently. He spoke with a slow drawl, his voice a deep, rich timbre, “I might have been wrong about you.”

“I, um...what do you mean?” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his comment.

“You’re not like them,” he stated.

I still wasn’t sure what he meant, but it was clear he was referring to my parents, and he thought my being different from my them was a good thing. Maybe that comment was to be expected. He and my parents had a long-standing feud. It stood to reason he wouldn’t think highly of them. But there was something in his tone that caught me off guard. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I didn’t know what he expected me to say, but I certainly wasn’t going to thank him for the backhanded compliment, so I simply murmured evenly, “Okay.”

I waited. But apparently, that was everything he intended to communicate because he just nodded toward Leander, who’d walked up while we were speaking, and then turned around and left.

I faced Leander. He said softly, “I’m going to take a shower. Will you be okay down here for the next thirty minutes?”

My eyebrow rose in surprise. Leander was going to let me stay with Lucky? Just like that? Alone? I queried, “Unsupervised?”

His mouth turned up. “Do you feel you need a bodyguard?”

I was so, so tempted to stick my tongue out.

Of course, I didn’t need a bodyguard. I could handle myself. And after today’s feral display, I doubted any Wolf would dream of touching me. “I think I’ll be fine,” I replied dryly.

He grinned, “Good.”

I couldn’t help returning his smile. I was pleased with my new freedom and his agreement that I no longer needed supervision.

“Ever, Gwen and a few other mated pairs would like to meet with us in thirty minutes in the study.”

My stomach dropped. It felt like days had gone by, but it had only been hours since I’d botched our Announcement Ceremony with my little outburst. Of course, the mated pairs would be upset. Leander noticed my hesitation. “Everything will be okay. I promise.”

His words and smooth tone washed over me—a protective cocoon that I could hide inside and be safe. I steadied myself. I needed to face them. There was not going to be a ‘good’ time. I just needed to do it—rip off the Band-Aid and see what bled. Hmm, maybe I was getting as bloodthirsty as Leander. I put the random thought out of my mind and refocused on the conversation at hand.

I gave Leander a small nod, which he returned. He then walked away with Ever by his side. I was glad he didn’t try to give me a parting kiss or hug, not when he still had Dagger’s blood splashed all over the front of him. Ew.

When Lucky and I were alone, I pulled over a nearby chair in front of the bars, and he sat down on the small cot, his back resting against the concrete wall, one foot on the bed with his knee bent, to get comfortable.

He gave me a hard stare. “Start from the beginning. And this time, don’t leave anything out.”

I walked him through everything that had happened during our capture, what Dagger had done and what the other Wolf had said. Lucky’ face was set in a frown as he listened until finally, he hissed, “He got what he deserved.”

I didn’t want to talk about Dagger any longer or what had just happened. What was done, was done, so I didn’t bother to agree or disagree. I just sat there while Lucky contemplated. After a long moment, he spoke, “So, what now? Are you continuing forward with the deal you made for our freedom or has he convinced you to be his mate?”

“I’m continuing with the deal,” I assured him quickly, picking at my nails. “I’m going to make sure you get out of here.”

He studied me for a long time. I squirmed under the intensity of his gaze. When he still didn’t speak, I muttered, “What?”

“Cinn, I didn’t ask you that question because I was worried about my future. Regardless of what happens now, I’ll have my freedom.”

I tilted my head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“It’s simple,” he replied. “Either you go through with the deal, and both of us are set free. Or you become his Luna. I’d still be set free. As his Luna, you wouldn’t allow him to keep your brother locked up. And after today’s demonstration, I’m hundred percent confident he’d listen to you.”

What he said made sense. I was just surprised he said it. “You say that so casually...‘become his Luna’....but just a few hours ago, you were dead set against my being with him. Why the abrupt turnaround?”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Both his display of possessiveness and anger on your behalf, and your display with that Wolf. I don’t think you realize what you did and accomplished.”

“Accomplished?” I repeated.

He dropped his propped-up foot to the floor and sat forward with his elbows resting on his knees. His intensity deepened. “Cinn, you are a born Luna. I didn’t see it before. Not because I didn’t believe you had it in you. I just didn’t think you would ever choose it. But it’s really fucking obvious now in the way you saved that Wolf’s tongue, in the way you asked the right questions and listened carefully to his answers, and in the way, you took responsibility for the portion of the confusion that belonged to you. And by the way, you suggested a resolution. You gave one hell of a logical assessment and reasonable conclusion, and then you deferred to your Alpha. I know that had both Leander and his Wolf all hot and bothered.”

I blushed, surprised that Lucky was discussing intimate or sexual feelings another Wolf had toward me. At least not without the intention of murdering said, Wolf. He normally ran far, far away from that subject. I whispered, “I thought you hated him.”

“I do hate him. I still think he’s a bastard. But he’s your bastard.”

Oh, that’s nice.

I was Leander’s whore. And he was my bastard.

What a perfect couple we made.

Lucky continued carefully, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to throw away your mate...even when it’s him.” His expression turned somber. My heart ached at the pain in his eyes. He was desperate to find his mate.

I swallowed around the lump in my throat, feeling a familiar pain in my heart. The same pain that overwhelmed me every time I thought about leaving and walking away from Leander. But it didn’t matter, the truth remained. “I can’t, Lucky. I just can’t love mom and dad’s, killer.”

He whispered, “Maybe it’s time to let the past go and move forward.”

I blinked. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard, not from Luca. I just shook my head. I didn’t want to talk about it any longer. He read the answer on my face and sat back. Absinthe eyes glanced at the clock on the wall to the right of us. “It’s been twenty-five minutes. You should go. You don’t want to be late for your meeting.”

I twisted my hands together, not excited about the upcoming meeting. “Yeah, right.” I stood to my feet.

“Come back and see me soon, little sister.”

“I will. Love you,” I murmured as I turned around and made my way out the door.

It only took a couple of minutes for me to reach the study. I stood outside the room and filled my lungs to the brim with air, forcing my chest to expand, and then exhaled slowly to calm my nerves. On the next inhale, I grasped the handle, opened the door and walked inside.

Leander stood just inside the door, waiting for me. He took me by the arm and led me to an open couch. His hair was still wet from his recent shower, and he wore a pair of dark jeans that hung low on his hips, and black T-shirt pulled snugly across his broad chest. I couldn’t help noticing his enticing scent—hickory, musk, and vanilla. I forced myself not to lean in and sniff him.

Ever and Gwen sat close together on one of the couches, his arm wrapped around her, her face tucked into his chest, her nose angled toward his neck. Her eyes were red-rimmed, the pain of her last unsuccessful heat still etched on her face. It had only been the night before when she’d howled her agony to the Moon.

Two other mated pairs were also in the room. I recognized Asher and Willow from my earlier conversations with Pack members. Asher was an Enforcer. He was a little bit bigger than Ever and older, probably in his mid-30s. His mate, Willow created amazing jams and jellies and other confections. She had a spectacular garden and collected every berry, nut, and spice the forest had to offer. She had proudly given me a tour of her kitchen, blissfully babbling on and on as she described each ingredient, explaining where it could be found on the territory and how it was processed and incorporated into each tasty treat. I had been fascinated as I listened to her talk, both by the sheer joy that exuded from her as she spoke, and the shocking extent of her knowledge. Many of the items I had never seen or even heard of before. She had promised to take me on her next trip to gather supplies.

She and Asher had met later in life than most mates. It wasn’t until Adamant Moon’s battle for territory against the Nightshade Pack, six years ago, that Asher had come across her in the woods. She had snuck out to gather the remaining Violet Berries before the frost destroyed them. Asher and several other Adamant Moon enforcers stumbled across the lone shewolf on their way to wage an attack. She was the only daughter of Nightshade’s Beta. She recognized he was her mate, but she wasn’t happy about it and refused to go with him. A battle for dominance and her freedom ensued. She lost—he pinned her to the ground and marked her right there, all the while she was kicking and screaming profanities at him. The small group of warriors turned back before engaging in the battle, returning her safely to Adamant Moon territory. Asher had stayed behind when they left again to strike, too frantic to leave his newly found and utterly resistant mate alone.

Willow hadn’t made fun of me when she saw my collar. Instead, her eyes had glazed over, and her mouth turned down into a sad frown as she remembered her own past. She explained how he’d forced her to wear a similar collar, even after her first heat when they completed the mating bond. She’d begged and pleaded with him to remove the collar, but he’d refused, still too afraid she’d run away. He would let her out of the collar for short periods only to allow time for her Wolf to run or when her heat returned. Two long years went by before he was fully convinced she would stay. Before he set her free. But by that time, the damage had been done. She’d gone through eight cycles—and no pup. They both took the blame for their inability to conceive. She felt it was her fault. She had rejected and resisted her mate, the gift the Moon had given her, for so long. He was convinced it was his fault. He was certain the prolonged collar use had somehow irrevocably damaged her body. Four more years had gone by. All hope lost—until now. The Claiming Ceremony was their last hope to conceive. Willow stared at me anxiously, twisting her hands together in her lap. Asher rubbed her back, trying to comfort her, but I could see an equal unease in his eyes.

I had seen both wolves from the third mated pair in passing, but not met them before. Leander introduced both mated pairs, “Hycinth, you know Ever and Gwen. This is Milo and Sophia.” He pointed toward the couple. I gave a small nod which they returned. “And this is Asher and Willow.”

Asher nodded, but his brow furrowed, his lips set in a hard line, telltale signs of his stress. Willow tried to give me a small smile. I appreciated her effort, but her expression looked more like a grimace than anything else. My heart went out to them all, having heard and seen their intimate pain. Even without knowing the details, I was certain Milo and Sophia’s story was just as heart-wrenching as the other two pairs.

Abruptly, the door opened from the other side of the room, and Alpha Cyril and Sydney walked in!

A hiss came from Gwen’s lips.

Leander stared at Sydney and said coldly, “Your input is not required for this meeting. You’re dismissed.”

“Leander, I’m your third in command,” she objected. “When it involves the Pack, my input is very much needed.”

Leander’s tone turned dangerous. “You can either leave on your own two feet. Or I can have you forcibly removed and then beaten for defying a direct order. Which one will it be?”

Her eyes turned wide and then narrowed when she glanced at me. Without another word, she spun on her heel and huffed as she strode out the door. Alpha Cyril made his way to settle into one of the chairs.

After a short beat Ever began and he didn’t hold back, “Leander, tell us what the fuck is going on! First, your mate lays into you right before the Announcement Ceremony, which I now realize she had good reason to. What I don’t understand is why the fuck you did what you did. I was there in the middle of your tornado of destruction. I heard what you said. Why the fuck did you almost sleep with Sydney the night before your Announcement Ceremony?! Are you purposefully trying to fuck this up? Please explain because I just don’t get why you would do something so stupid and cruel to your mate!”

Guilt crashed over me. I’d rejected Leander, that’s why. My words had driven him away.

Tension ran through Leander’s frame. His hands clenched into fists, and he replied gruffly, “It was a misunderstanding. It won’t happen again.”

“A misunderstanding?” Milo asked incredulously. “You almost cheat on your mate, the Luna of our pack, the night before you’re supposed to mark her, and you expect us to believe that was just a misunderstanding?!”

Ever chimed back in, “Don’t bullshit us! I’ve known you a long time, Leander. There’s more going on here. There’s no way you would have compromised the Claiming Ceremony like that. It doesn’t make sense. So what the hell else is going on?”

Leander remained silent, his mouth set in a hard line, his expression darkening.

“We deserve to know. This affects us,” Ever insisted, and then his voice softened, “We can’t help you if we don’t know what’s going on.”

Leander wanted our arrangement to be a secret so the mated pairs wouldn’t worry. However, now it appeared the mated pairs were already sufficiently worried. Finally, Leander sighed heavily. “We’ve made...an arrangement.”

“Arrangement?” Willow repeated in confusion. “What kind of arrangement?”

Leander looked at me to explain. Lovely. Where should I even begin? I guessed with the truth. I turned to Gwen and said softly, “I...I saw you...last night in the woods.”

Gwen looked stricken. Tears welled in her eyes. Ever’s face flashed anger.

I hurriedly explained, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to. We were at the treehouse...and had an argument..and I ran. I didn’t know you were going to be there until...it was too late.”

Ever clicked his teeth together, a muscle in his jaw twitching. “Okay, but what does this have to do with your arrangement?”

“What I saw made me realize that I...I want to help you,” I said quietly.

His eyebrows rose. “Help us...how?”

“Um, by going through with the ceremony.”

Their faces were a mixture of confusion. Sophia asked, “So, the only reason you’re going through with the claiming ceremony is to help us?”

This time, Leander spoke up, his tone hard, “Yes, she has requested that I let her leave once the ceremony is over. I agreed.”

All of the air emptied out of the room.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Six pairs of eyes looked back and forth between Leander and I. Finally, Gwen centered her attention on me and exhaled, “But...you can’t take his pup from him. It would destroy him.”

“There will be no pup for us,” Leander’s words rasped with emotion. “We will be taking precautions against that.”

I felt his loss...for the future he wanted but now gone from him forever. The pain in his words washed over me. It was sharp and piercing and devastating. I felt it too. But it didn’t change my mind.

Asher sat forward. “What exactly are you saying?”

“We intend to follow through with the ceremony, however not create a pup of our own at the time.”

Silence reigned again. I squirmed in my chair, feeling uncomfortable under their intense scrutiny.

“But why...why not mate for real?” Willow whispered.

“Her reasons are her own. She doesn’t owe that knowledge to anyone. I respect her choices.”

I swallowed past the huge lump in my throat. Leander spoke the truth. I could hear it in his words. He did respect my choices. When the time came, he would follow through on his part of the agreement and let me leave.

“All right,” Ever said slowly, “So how does Sydney play into your arrangement?”

“She doesn’t!” Leander growled. “She just caught me in a bad moment.” Then he turned to me, brow furrowed. “How did you know it was her? I never said where I’d gone, who I’d been with. Did you just guess?”

I laughed; the sound devoid of humor. “No. There was no need to guess. It was pretty clear when Sydney brought me to her room, and I had the pleasure of smelling your scent on her sheets.”

“She did what?!” he hissed, claws extended from his fingers. His body vibrated in anger, screaming an unspoken warning to all who would listen that lethal danger lurked just behind his darkening violet and cerulean orbs.

Goosebumps rose up on my arms. I briskly rubbed them away. I spoke calmly, trying to soothe his raging beast, “She stopped me in the hallway right before the ceremony...and told me our mating was a joke. I told her to let go of the past and to prove to me that you and she were not a part of the past, but very much current, she offered me proof—your fresh scent on her sheets.”

“Oh...and that was why you slapped him,” Gwen murmured in understanding.

“Yes...I got angry. I’m sorry...for ruining the ceremony.” I blushed with embarrassment at the memory of what I’d done and looked down. I muttered, “I should’ve handled it differently.”

Asher was on his feet and pacing, furious. “Leander, that shit’s not acceptable! I get that you were a dumb-fuck for going to her room, and I’m assuming there’s a good explanation why your scent was on her sheets even though you didn’t sleep with her. But, Sydney’s interference in this matter is not acceptable. I’m not trying to have a pity party here, but you have no idea the devastation all of the mated pairs felt. It was particularly cruel to get our hopes up and then shredded to pieces when everything fell apart right in front of our eyes. It would have been better never to have had the hope in the first place.”

My throat constricted. I hated that I hurt them so deeply with my actions. My voice shook, “It was my fault...she never lied...I made the assumption they had sex. I truly am sorry...for putting you through that.”

“Fuck that. It wasn’t your fault!” Asher swore. “Her words may not have been a direct lie, but she sure as fuck lied by implying there had been more that occurred between the two of them. She’s not stupid. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Ever added, equally angry, “And to do so right before the announcement ceremony was an opportunistic bitch act...one that resulted in you being publicly spanked and the announcement ceremony ruined. Sydney had to know her actions wouldn’t just affect you. They affected all of the mated pairs. The struggle for us has been...” Ever’s words dropped off, unable to continue from the raw emotion in his voice.

Leander was still vibrating with his anger. His words were deadly soft, “I’m going to kill her.”

He wasn’t kidding.

“No!” I placed my hand on his arm, forcing him to look at me. “Her actions do not warrant death as a punishment, and you know it. I’ll admit, I don’t like her, and I don’t like what she did, but she still has value to this Pack. If you didn’t put Dagger down for his grievances against me, then you certainly can’t kill Sydney.”

He stood to his feet, unable to sit still any longer. He strode across the room, poured himself Bourbon into a glass and took a long swig. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he looked at me. “What then should her punishment be?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted honestly.

Ever interjected softly, “That’s because you’re too close to the situation.” He turned to face Leander. “Let us—the mated pairs—decide her punishment. I understand her offenses were against you. But they were also against us in a big way. It would help tremendously for the mated pairs to feel retribution in the matter—deciding her punishment and ensuring she does not overstep her bounds or put us at risk once again.”

Leander studied him and then looked at me. He raised his eyebrows.

“I’m fine with it,” I replied. I agreed with Ever’s reasoning. It would empower the mated pairs, giving them back a small amount of the control they felt they didn’t have.

“Okay. I’ll go along with whatever punishment you decide.”

Ever’s lips turned up into a cruel smile of anticipation. Oh! I’d never seen him look feral like that and I shivered, wondering what was going on in his mind.

“Does this mean you still plan to proceed with the claiming ceremony?” Milo inquired.

Again, Leander looked to me for the answer. I whispered, “Yes.”

Willow clapped her hands together. “Perfect! We can schedule the Announcement Ceremony for tomorrow.” She hesitated and looked at me worriedly. “Is that enough time for you?”

“Tomorrow’s fine,” I breathed. My stomach was in knots at the thought of having to face the entire Pack again.

My expression must have caught her attention because Gwen asked quietly, “What is it?”

I looked down, another deep blush rising on my cheeks. I picked at my knuckles. Instantly, she got to her feet and sat down next to me. She took my hands in hers and urged softly, “We can’t help you...if we don’t know what’s going on.” She repeated Ever’s words from earlier.

“I just...I’m going to have to...stand in front of...everybody,” I trailed off.

“And you’re embarrassed after what happened earlier?” she guessed correctly.

I nodded, still refusing to look up at anyone in the room. I wouldn’t cower before any Wolf, but I wasn’t eager to have everyone’s attention riveted to me. I knew what they would all be thinking and probably laughing at me in their minds. Gwen put a finger under my chin, nudging my head up to look at her. Her deep chocolate eyes swirled with compassion, drawing me in. Her words were smooth as honey as a washed over me, “You have nothing to be embarrassed about. That was by far not the worst punishment he’s ever doled out, and I can promise you, everyone was more shocked at his leniency than you being spanked. In their minds, his actions proved he’s quite pussy-whipped.”

Leander snorted loudly.

The other wolves snickered.

I stared at her in shock, amazed by what she just said.

She continued with a grin, “Not to mention, it took balls to do what you did...a touched suicidal...but ballsy nonetheless. They don’t view you as weak. Far from it.” She squeezed my hand, and her expression turned somber. She spoke with a new intensity, her gaze boring into mine. “And after what happened with Dagger, he left no doubt for how he feels about you.”

I suddenly felt her words had taken on a whole new meaning, that she was trying to communicate something else to me...something I wasn’t ready for and didn’t want to hear. I pulled my hands away and mumbled, “Thank you.”
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