HEAT

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Chapter 20: Where We Belonged

Leander

I held my little mouse close, tucked under the crook of my arm, splayed fingers applying pressure to her lower spine to keep her exactly where I wanted her—no distance between us, not even an inch. The pert mounds of her breasts pressed against my side, her two hardened nubs, the evidence of her arousal, poking into my chest. Her little hands rested flat against my back and right pectoral muscle. She was a perfect fit tucked under the crook of my arm, her tiny shape molded and created for me, two halves of one whole, just right together.

I hadn’t anticipated clutching her tightly during the speeches part of the ceremony. Typically, the Alpha and Luna stood next to each other, holding hands. But after the sweet scent of her arousal filled the air, she was lucky that’s all I did, instead of listening to every primal instinct in my body, demanding I toss her over my shoulder and find the nearest den so that I could make her mine.

My posturing was much more than physical. Nature drove me. My Wolf and I ached to show her she belonged to us. Hell, his very image was inked permanently into the skin of her back! He was jealous of that tattoo. He wanted to be in its place, his body curled over her back, connected to her in the most intimate way possible.

It was where we belonged.

And for once, she wasn’t pulling away. Quite the opposite. She’d been drawn to me. Her attention had zeroed in on what her body craved, what the bond craved. Her gaze had fixated on my revealed flesh, visually feasting on what she saw. I smirked. Maybe I should walk around half naked more often. If I kept getting results like this, I had no problem displaying as much skin as she desired.

Right then, she was staring wide-eyed at the spectacle of Sydney’s punishment about to unfold in front of us…and petting my chest at the same time.

I didn’t think she even realized she was doing it, little fingers absentmindedly stroking along the curve of my pec. Maybe it was a nervous gesture or her body’s way of unconsciously seeking comfort from her mate, but whatever the reason, she was loose and pliable in my arms, content to stay right where she was.

And she was driving me crazy.

Out of my mind. Bat-shit crazy.

But I had no intention of pointing out her behavior. Far be it from me to say something that would cause her to stop, even when the result was the slow, painful death of my sanity.

With great effort, I forced myself not to think about her little fingers trailing over my flesh, and focus on the words coming out of Ever’s mouth.

His expression was fierce. Veins protruded from his neck, and his shirt pulled tight across his chest which kept flexing with his irritation at Sydney behavior. His eyes flashed dangerously as he faced her.

"Your less than honorable actions yesterday set into motion a series of events...resulting in the ruin of the Alpha and Luna’s Announcement Ceremony. As you know, the Announcement Ceremony is a prelude and necessary precursor to the Claiming Ceremony. Without one, there is no other.”

Sydney’s head dropped low, unable to face the authority and power exuding from Ever’s Wolf. She stared at the ground while he continued relentlessly, “Need I remind you that the pups conceived during the Claiming Ceremony will change the future of the pack. Those young ones will be blessed with fortitude and gifts above and beyond those of a normal Wolf. They will strike fear in our enemies and make us stronger. They are the hopes and dreams of the mated pairs and for some. Their last hope.” There was just a slight variance in his tone at the end. Most wouldn’t even notice the difference. Most wouldn’t catch the almost unintelligible strain in his voice. But I did. I always heard his pain and felt it with him.

Sydney’s head dipped even lower, shoulders hunching forward. She anxiously twisted her fingers together. She knew this was going to be bad. All of the wolves did.

“We will not stand by while you cause discord for your personal gain! Lies by omission or suggestion, interference and meddling will not be tolerated. Your offense was not only against your Luna, but it was against us!”

Sydney shuddered hard. Her Wolf whined.

I could almost see the realization coming over her, understanding the true scope of what she’d done. In her eagerness to hurt Hycinth, she’d lost sight of the bigger picture and the more significant consequences.

"As such, the penalty for your behavior was left to our discretion.” Ever took a breath and continued, “For your reckless interference, you will be collared for one month and publically spanked. Additionally, any Wolf, male or female, negatively affected by your behavior has been given the opportunity to spank you themselves. They will take turns until every Wolf is satisfied you’ve learned your lesson. ”

Sydney gasped loudly. Her head snapped up, genuine fear running through her eyes. She trembled. Hycinth froze in my arms, her mouth dropping open just slightly, as she understood just how significant a penalty the mated pairs had sentenced. Even I was a little surprised. Hell, if we were going to have to wait on every Wolf who wanted to spank her to take a turn, we’d be here all night.

Ever held Sydney’s gaze and said coolly, “However, we found none of them wished to touch you.”

Sydney’s overwhelming relief was palpable. The breath whooshed out of her lungs. She’d escaped a significant punishment, but still, my father did not have a light hand. Experience taught me well.

Ever pulled a moonstone collar from his pocket, different from the one I’d used with Hycinth, but similar in construction, opalescent, aquamarine Labradorite stones, polished to a smooth finish. They shone brilliantly against silver settings and a thick leather band.

“Kneel!” Ever barked out the command.

Instantly, Sydney dropped to her knees, unable to resist his Beta authority even if she’d wanted to. He stepped forward and secured the collar around her neck. My father then took his place, paddle in hand, on a low bench set adjacent to the one Hycinth and I would use when we received the wolves. Sydney stood to her feet and placed herself on his lap without a word.

Ever gave a hard nod to Alpha Cyril and stepped back. My father’s deep baritone voice was easily heard as he spoke to Sydney, “Your sentence is fifteen. Count each one out loud. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” she whimpered.

Fifteen wasn’t bad. It shouldn’t take too long. I was more than ready to move along to the next step.

My father didn’t waste any time. His hand came up, and the paddle came down, the slap against her bare skin resounding loudly in the air. Sydney flinched hard but made no sound other than to gasp, “One!”

As the punishment continued, and swat after swat rained down, Sydney was no longer able to contain her cries of pain. Her chest heaved as she panted hard. The wolves all watched on eagerly, twittering among themselves, pleased with the spectacle. I was a little surprised at their vocalness. They were usually reserved during public punishment, and I wondered what their conversation amongst themselves consisted of. It was hard to hear over the constant slapping of the paddle against Sydney’s ass.

Spank!

“Thirteen!” Sydney sobbed, her butt cheeks jiggling from the impact. Hycinth held her head erect and watched in perfect silence, her hard gaze never leaving Sydney. Just as she handled my punishment of Dagger, Hycinth stood perfectly poised during Sydney’s sentence. I wished I could ask her what she was thinking.

Spank!

“Fourteen!” Sydney cried out again, entire body shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Just one more.

Spank!

“Fifteen!” the word was wailed from Sydney’s throat as she gasped for air, unable to catch her breath. Her butt cheeks were bruised and flaming red. Nope, my father hadn’t held back. She wouldn’t be sitting down for several days even with her advanced healing.

When he finished, Cryil placed her on her feet, facing the crowd. Sydney stood unsteadily, like a newborn foal, her legs trembling beneath her. Ever stepped forward and looked out over the crowd. It seemed he knew what their conversation consisted of because he hesitated and then asked in a loud voice, “I promised satisfaction—have I given it?”

There was more twittering in the crowd, various hissed conversations and then a loud, “No!” came from a male.

Abruptly, Asher stepped out of the crowd and walked forward. With no further conversation, my father handed him the paddle and Asher planted himself on the bench, growling for Sydney to submit to him.

“Oh shit,” Hycinth muttered under her breath, unable to suppress her surprise.

Sydney’s eyes were wide as she pleaded in a whisper, “Please...no.”

Asher’s expression didn’t change, other than to glare angrily at Sydney’s delay. Sydney must have understood it would be worse for her without absolute obedience, so she quickly placed herself on his lap, wincing as she lay down.

I guess he must’ve gotten over his aversion to touching her. And if Willow’s fierce expression was any indication, Asher had her full support.

“Start counting at sixteen,” Asher ordered harshly.

And then it began again.

I just shook my head. It was crystal clear Sydney hadn’t quite thought out the repercussions of her actions toward Hycinth. To an extent, I wasn’t surprised the mated pairs had reacted with this severity, and I wouldn’t stop them for as long as they wanted to keep going. I had agreed to let them decide, and I wasn’t going back on my word.

Hycinth hung in there, never turning away, her head positioned as a Luna’s should be—alert and watchful, not missing a thing. But I felt her stress the longer Sydney’s punishment continued. Her posture became stiffer, heartbeat elevating. I was reasonably sure she would have been satisfied at ten. I squeezed her a little tighter. For just a second, lake blue orbs flickered up to mine, wordlessly communicating what I already knew—her anxiety. I did my best to offer her reassurance through my own eyes. She relaxed a little.

Asher stood up after five, only to be replaced by two more wolves, who administered five more each, for a total of thirty altogether between all four wolves that had decided to participate. No, it hadn’t been an easy punishment by any means. When it was over, two of Sydney’s elite shewolves assisted her. One wrapped a robe around her, and they both helped her hobble back to her room in the pack house.

Hycinth and I waited, still in position, while the wolves took a few minutes to transition into the Announcement Ceremony, changing places and readjusting the seating. I looked down at Hycinth to find her deep in thought. “Are you okay?”

She glanced up and whispered, “Do you have another jar of that crème?”

I stared down at her in surprise and then nodded. “I can get one, yes.”

“Good,” she mumbled, looking away, her gaze unfocused, concentrating on whatever plan was rolling around in her mind. I was intensely curious but suspected I could pretty much guess. Even though Sydney purposely tried to harm her, my little mouse planned on ensuring the shewolf got back on the right track, starting with her severely spanked backside. Once again, it was quintessential Luna behavior— to bring the she-wolves back into accord. Hycinth understood punishment had been necessary, but she also hadn’t written off Sydney’s future value to the Pack.

When everyone settled, all eyes turned on us. Hycinth stiffened once again in my arms, but I wasn’t about to let her go. I took a moment to look at all of the familiar faces in front of me. These wolves were my family. I would fight for and avenge and die for anyone of them.

My attention turned to the stunning shewolf standing by my side. I swallowed down the sudden rock in my throat. I wanted so desperately for all of this to be real. I didn’t want an end date. But I pushed those painful thoughts away. I had four more weeks to convince her to stay. I couldn’t control the future, but I could control this moment in time...and I would give her an Announcement Ceremony that meant something to me...even if it meant nothing to her.

I smoothed one of the bright red strands of her hair behind her ear and held her gaze as I began, ”I am a lucky Wolf...that a female so vibrant and bright and smart...ass,” I couldn’t help adding the last word. There were snickers from the crowd. Hycinth rolled her eyes, but her lips twitched. She knew I spoke the truth. She had quite a mouth on her, which I loved. I continued, “as you, has agreed to not only let me Mark you...but also to Claim you.”

Hycinth’s heart raced in her chest. Her eyes were wide and bright, swirling with nervousness. My hand rested on her shoulder, gently stroking her neck with my fingers.

“Tonight represents a new beginning—a new future, full of hope and life for the Pack.” Even as I said the words, my heart ached because I knew it wasn’t a new beginning for me—it was the start of the end, a countdown to when she would leave me.

My Wolf howled his pain inside my head, and for a moment, I couldn’t speak. Hycinth’s expression changed as she held my piercing gaze, and I wondered what my eyes had revealed. I wondered how much she saw of the real me, and not just the man of her nightmares.

I inhaled deeply, and once again, I shoved those thoughts out of my head. I would never get through this if I didn’t stop thinking in that vein. Instead, I focused on the one thing that mattered most. I cupped Hycinth’s face with my hands, feeling the electricity in the tingles of the bond flowing through both of us. She felt it too. Trembling.

The world around us disappeared. At that moment, it was only her and I. My voice lowered an octave, “I promise to always be there for you...to always cherish you...with everything I have.”

Hycinth’s expression turned stricken, not expecting my words of adoration. Tears clouded her eyes.

But I spoke the truth—I meant every damn syllable. Regardless of whether or not she walked away from me in the end, those words would never change. I whispered gruffly, “Will you let me Mark you...and in four weeks, will you let me Claim you?”

A single tear slipped past the border defenses of her eyelashes. I gently wiped it away with the pad of my thumb. Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. She swallowed thickly, and then nodded, rasping, “Yes.”

Instantly, every cell in my body heightened on high alert, twitching, kinetic energy bouncing through my bloodstream. My Wolf had been waiting in my eyes. He was ready. He had been ready. My canines descended, they ached and throbbed, unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

I stared transfixed, gently caressing the vein in her neck, letting my fingers trail down her silky smooth skin to the spot right where her necked ended, and her shoulder began. She inhaled sharply, her chest heaving. Lake blue darkened into swirling lapis with bright reflections of the Moon—both she and her Wolf staring back at us.

I brought my head down slowly until my lips hovered right over to where I would place my Mark. I kissed her softly, just a whisper, and let my tongue come out to taste her delectable flesh. She shuddered, and the fucking addictive scent of her arousal filled the air around us, further intoxicating my senses. Her trembling increased. As I hesitated, she whimpered, “Leander...please.”

I could wait no longer and sunk my teeth deep into her neck.

Fuck, it was like my own personal heaven.

Hycinth cried out and pressed her body close to me, clutching my back and shoulders with her claws.

I felt a door open between us. No longer were we separated—now I could feel her, a flurry of emotions and thoughts. I savored the connection of her, leaving my canines embedded deep, sipping on the very essence of who she was. She was also in no hurry to pull away. Instead, I found she was rubbing herself against me, her hardened nipples braising against my chest.

And I was rock hard. Outrageously fucking hard. Like I might burst into my pants at any moment...no more control than a pubescent juvenile Wolf. Shit! Thankfully I was wearing jeans. There was not as much give in the fabric, which meant my erection was still obvious, but not a complete tent in my pants. Still, it was damn near uncomfortable.

My hands found their way down to her ass, and I rocked my hips into her. She gasped. After a long moment of savoring everything she had to give, I gently eased my teeth from her throat and licked the wound as it closed.

When I pulled back, Hycinth was staring at my lips with unabashed longing in her eyes. For the moment, she wasn’t fighting it. She wasn’t fighting me. She was just as lost in the bond as I was. But I held back. Our first kiss would not be in front of the entire Pack. Because I was quite certain, I wasn’t going to be able to stop at just a kiss. And while I didn’t mind the thought of lifting her onto my cock right that moment and fucking her silly in front of everyone, I highly doubted my little mouse would be equally keen on the idea.

“Not yet, little mouse,” I whispered my words from earlier.

Before she could respond, the Wolves erupted around us— a blissful harmony of howls of joy and anticipation and hope.

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