Morning dawned. And with it, a flood of memories from the night before crashed over me. Oh, no...what had I done?
The vivid scenes played like a movie in my head. Leander’s passionate words right before he placed his mark on my neck, a symphony of wolves celebrating Nature’s course, letting go of my inhibition at the shifter bar, caught up at the moment.
The realization caused guilt to ricochet through my belly. I was wrong...so wrong. What I’d done was despicable. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair for me to lead Leander on, to give him hope that didn’t exist. I’d given the bond free reign. I allowed it to make me forget my reasons for being here...and why I had to leave.
I had to stop this damaging behavior. I was leaving because I couldn’t be with him, but seeing him hurt, hurt me as well. I couldn’t stop it. It was as Nature had decreed. And I didn’t want to make that pain any more severe than it would already be. I dreaded that moment...telling him goodbye. I already knew he wouldn’t make it easy. My Wolf whined in my head. She didn’t like my thoughts. They made no sense to her. Leander was our mate. That’s all that mattered in her mind.
I wished it could be that easy for me. I desperately wished I could forget those moments, seeing Leander for the first time—only minutes before he killed my father, and only minutes after he’d killed my mother. Those were the reasons I had to say goodbye. I couldn’t dishonor their memory. I couldn’t allow myself to love the one who’d taken their lives, no matter what just-cause he felt he had, in doing so.
I turned my head to find Leander still asleep, his breathing steady and even. He had one arm thrown over my waist, holding me tightly to him. It wouldn’t be easy to escape his grasp without waking him up, but I desperately needed a few moments to myself to regroup and get my head back together.
Moving as slowly and silently as I could, I gently picked up his arm and inched my body out from beneath it. When I was free, I set it back down. He mumbled something but didn’t wake up. Grateful, I got off the bed and made quick work of my morning routine in the bathroom, washing my face and brushing my hair and teeth. When I was done, I pulled on a pair of pants and hunter green singlet, the color a good contrast to my bright red hair. Shoving my feet into a pair of combat boots, I was finished and headed down to the kitchen.
The scents of bacon and eggs, combined with freshly baked cinnamon rolls hit me in the hallway. My belly rumbled with hunger. I picked up the pace and arrived in the large kitchen only minutes later. Mimi turned around, her face breaking out into a grin when she saw me. She wiped her hands on her apron and quickly made me a plate, piling it high with more food than I could possibly eat in one sitting, or even an entire day. I still eagerly accepted it and popped a bite of fresh fruit in my mouth. “Mimi, you know there’s no way I can eat all this.”
She glanced up, eyes soft. “Young one, your heat is coming in four weeks. Your body has different needs now. It will start to prepare for the future inside your belly.” Her words were meant to teach and encourage me. Somehow she understood that I didn’t have even basic knowledge of such things as pup bearing. I appreciated her motherly influence and kind words, but at the same time, they tore through my heart, leaving an open, bleeding wound.
A pup wasn’t in my immediate future. And if truth be told, there was a good chance I would never be a mother. The bond didn’t work that way. After I was gone, Leander would select another shewolf. They would mate and destroy his side of the bond with me. He would have an heir with his choice of Luna. But even though I couldn’t keep him, I couldn’t fathom letting another Wolf touch me now or in the future. I tried for three years to achieve intimacy with another Wolf, and that was before I even knew Leander. How much harder would it be now that I knew what I would be missing?
The expression on my face must have been somewhat transparent, because her smile fell, concern taking its place in her chestnut eyes. She handed me a glass of orange juice. “Are you okay, young one?”
I had to pull myself together. The mated pairs understood the truth behind our claiming ceremony, but not the rest of the pack. I couldn’t fall apart every time someone brought it up. I schooled my expression, gave her a nod and took a sip of the orange juice, appreciating how the cool liquid soothed my dry throat. I managed a small smile. “Yes, I’m fine. Just a little nervous.”
Her eyes sparkled, concern wiped away. “Of course you are my dear. We all were once.” She patted my hand. “You will be just fine. Just let Nature do what Nature does.” I nodded again and avoided any more talk by filling my mouth with food.
After several minutes, I put my fork down, my belly stuffed. My eyes drifted to the almost empty plate. Oh, she’d been right. I’d eaten much more than I anticipated.
Suddenly, a delicious scent behind me interrupted my thoughts—Leander!
He came up behind me, wrapped an arm around my back and kissed me softly on the cheek. “Good morning.” His tone was kind, but also wary. “I missed you earlier.” It was a statement, but it was also a question. He was an intelligent male. My absence in his bed when he woke up said something, he just didn’t know what.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to have that conversation with him right now. I didn’t want to destroy the ease of being together. And I certainly didn’t need to remind him once again that we had no future. Instead, I decided to use the excuse Mimi offered. “I, um...was really hungry when I got up...I didn’t want to wake you.”
He settled on the stool next to me. Mimi pushed a plate of food in front of him. Taking a sip of coffee, he studied my expression. I held my breath. Finally, he nodded. I could tell he didn’t fully believe me but was thankful he decided to let it drop for now. The three of us made small talk while he finished eating.
When he was done, he took the last sip of orange juice and looked at me. “Are you ready to go?”
Nerves rose in my belly, but I pushed it back down. I gave him a smile and a nod. He rose from his chair and took my hand, leading me out into the warmth of the sun. He didn’t let my hand go as we walked. When we made it into the woods, he murmured, “Are you okay? Do you regret—?”
“No,” I interrupted him. “I don’t regret anything we did.” How could I ever regret his touch? It wasn’t possible. He was my mate. No, it wasn’t the physical aspect of what happened. It was only that I’d let it go that far because I knew it meant something more to him.
And now, as much as I understood I shouldn’t have let it go so far, I also understood it would not help his mentality for me to constantly be telling him I was going to leave. For now, we just needed to get through the next four weeks on friendly terms, and I would face our goodbye when the time came. I decided to change the subject.
“Did Alpha Cyril and your mother complete the ceremony?” I asked curiously.
The abrupt change in his demeanor was startling. Tension rolled through his body. His spine went rigid. He let me go and backed away. I spun around to face him. “I’m sorry! You don’t have to answer that.”
He’d lost his mother about six months before we met. Apparently, it was still a tough subject for him.
He stared with darkened eyes. It was like he was staring at me but also staring through me at the same time, lost in his memories. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
I waited silently, not knowing what else to say, worried I might say the wrong thing.
After a long moment, he purposefully drew in a breath and pushed it out slowly, his shoulders relaxing just a little bit. His expression turned apologetic. “No, it’s okay. I just...wasn’t prepared for the question.”
I nodded like I understood, but really, I had no clue how to navigate this minefield. I made a mental note not to bring up his mother again.
“Yes. They completed the ceremony. I was conceived at the same time.”
“Were any other pups conceived?”
He nodded. “Ever and Asher.”
“Really?” My eyebrows rose. “But I thought they would be stronger than other wolves. Wouldn’t that mean it would be easier for them to conceive, not harder?”
His expression twisted. “You would think so. They are most definitely stronger than a normal Wolf. Their prowess on the battlefield is unparalleled. We do not know exactly why neither has been successful in creating a pup. It isn’t the norm. Most wolves born as a direct result of the claiming ceremony have no trouble bearing young.”
I just nodded, thinking about what he’d said. It did seem unusual, but I knew even less about it than he did. I didn’t really have anything more to contribute to the subject, so I reached for his hand. I breathed a small sigh of relief when he curled his fingers around mine.
We walked for about another mile in comfortable silence and came out in a clearing. I sucked in a sharp breath. Not only was there a perfect little cottage, but the landscape around it had been meticulously planned and cultivated with mixed grasses, flowerbeds, and saplings. The structure sat on the edge of the lake.
Leander squeezed my hand. I looked up at him. Violet and cerulean orbs practically glowed as he stared at me intently. “What do you think?”
I struggled to come up with words. Even from the outside, it was obvious an immense amount of love and care had gone into crafting every detail. “It’s beautiful,” I answered honestly. The word beautiful was pitifully inadequate, but for the moment, I didn’t have a better adjective.
His full lips curled into a stunning smile. Pride radiated in his eyes. Something stirred in the pit of my belly. I loved seeing him happy. It made me happy. He squeezed my hand again. “Come on.” He guided us forward to an area with a large fire pit and cut logs, providing seating for several wolves.
About twenty feet away, close to the tree line, I noticed a large pit had been dug. I motioned with my hand. “What is that?”
Leander followed my line of sight. “It’s where they’ll cook the pig.”
"The pig?” I murmured. “Like an entire pig?”
“Yes. It’s quite an elaborate production. The night before, a huge bonfire will be set. The wood will burn through the night until it has turned into charcoal. Early the next morning, the pig will be rubbed with seasoning and wrapped in cabbage leaves and aluminum foil, followed by several thicknesses of newspaper, and lastly, wrapped in burlap and wired closed. It will be placed in the ground, covered with coals and then dirt and left to cook until the evening.”
I considered his words. “So the mated pairs will be here ahead of us?”
He continued, “Yes. On the first day of your heat, your Wolf will decide when she is ready to come to the den. Normally, it’s close to the evening after the sun has gone down. The mated pairs will already be here. During the day, the males play ancient drum beats, the same songs our earliest generations played. We’ll be able to hear the music from the pack, and many who remain behind will join them in the music, playing back and forth. The music is a call to your Wolf, a supplication of their love and a plea for her to come and give them what they need.”
My breath caught in my throat. Almost the entire pack would be serenading my Wolf for hours. My Wolf was listening to Leander’s words very intently as well. No doubt, her body would respond as nature intended, but she was just as unaware of exactly what would happen as I was.
“Once she is ready, you and I will come. We’ll walk through a line of wolves, similarly to the Announcement Ceremony. We will all be dressed in tribal leather. The females will dance while the males continue to play.”
I drew in a deep breath, trying to keep my heartbeat from careening out of control. “What happens after that?”
“Once we go inside, the music will quiet down. The wolves will be restless. Many will shift so they can hear and smell better.”
Heat ran up the back of my neck, turning my cheeks pink. I remembered this part of his story from before. “They’re going to be listening to us,” I whispered.
Leander took my face in his hands, his response gentle, “Yes.”
I shook my head slightly, my eyes pleading with him. “Leander...I—I don’t know if I can do this.”
He rubbed his thumbs over my cheeks. “You can do this. When the time comes, you will only be focused on me. You’ll know they’re here, but you won’t care.”
Somehow I doubted his words. I couldn’t imagine, not caring so many wolves would be listening, to our every word and sounds, smelling our mating pheromones and arousal. Nothing would be hidden from their ultrasensitive ears and noses.
“Come on.” He released my face and tugged on my fingers. I silently walked with him as he guided us around the left side of the cottage, to a large open deck. The deck hovered right over the water, more like an expansive dock. I looked out over the beauty of the water and then turned around, only to suck in a shocked breath. The entire wall of the cottage was open!
No wall and no door, just gauzy curtains that ran along the length. The curtains were currently open, held with tiebacks, making the room—and large king bed—inside completely visible!
My skin tingled with panic and adrenaline running through my system. “You said they could hear...and of course, I knew they’d be able to smell... but you said nothing about watching us!”
His eyes were tight. He spoke soothingly, “Just listen to me for a minute—”
“No!” I cut him off, shaking my head vigorously. No reasoning would change my mind. “I can’t...I’m not going to have sex in front of anyone!”
He gathered me into his arms. “Shh...everything will be okay. I promise.”
I trembled against his chest.
His chin rested on the top of my head. “Watching us is not a prerequisite. And no one will force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
I pulled back, staring up at him in confusion. “But why then?”
“I know this is hard for you, but the more immersed they are into our mating—the more they can hear, smell, see and at the end, touch—the higher their chances of conception. We can keep the curtains closed throughout the claiming if that’s your choice, but I’m asking you to consider it.”
I shook my head mutely. He couldn’t possibly think I would agree.
He grasped my hands. His expression turned pleading. “We are the participants but since we will not be trying to have our own pup...,” his voice broke. He swallowed hard before continuing, “The ceremony is mostly for them. Please. All I’m asking you to do is think about it, remember the anguish you heard, the sorrow you saw. That was just one moment in time. Many have endured that same sorrow and pain and hurt for years. If there was something we could do, even if it’s uncomfortable or embarrassing, to take their pain away and give them the most amazing gift in return, wouldn’t you do it?”
I didn’t know what to say. His words tugged at my heart. Of course, I wanted to help them. It was the reason I was going through with the ceremony. I just wasn’t sure I was capable of that. He saw the conflict in my eyes and whispered again, “Please...”
I couldn’t tell him yes...but I also couldn’t tell him no. I bit my lip. “I—I’ll think about it.”
His lips curled into a breathtaking smile. He pulled me to him and pressed his lips against my forehead. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
I held him tightly.
What had I gotten myself into?