I knew the moment I woke up and Hycinth was gone, we were right back to square one. Maybe it was unrealistic, but I’d hoped the progress we made the night before would continue. I’d hoped when she saw how good we were together, how good the bond was for both of us, she’d want to choose me.
I should have known better.
Fantasizing about our future together was not a good idea, not if I wanted to survive after our four weeks was over. The pain in my chest nearly suffocated me. Hope was a bitch when it was torn away, and the only thing left behind was cold empty despair.
But I had her in my arms now.
And I would do everything in my power to keep her there.
I kissed her on the forehead. She looked up, lake blue eyes finding mine. Stepping back, I took her hand. “I want to show you inside.” She nodded and walked with me through the wide opening.
Every aspect of the interior of the cottage had been carefully thought-out and crafted. I gestured to the floor, walls and exposed beam ceiling. “All of the hardwoods were cultivated from trees on our land in the forest.”
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, head swiveling around, lake blue eyes absorbing the details. Holding my hand, she walked with me through the spare room, bathroom, and quaint little kitchen.
“The kitchen isn’t really necessary during the Claiming Ceremony. The wolves will prepare and bring us food each day. However, the cottage will be used by the entire pack after the ceremony as a place to relax and have fun by the lake.”
She nodded, running her fingers along the edge of a kitchen cabinet. “That makes sense.”
“Also, once some modifications are made, it will be a place of sanctuary and protection for unmated females in heat.”
Her glance flickered to mine. She seemed to understand I was referring to adding a wall and door and didn’t ask questions about the details.
When we emerged back in the main living area, it wasn’t really necessary to point out the focal point of the room—a large king size bed. Complete with ultra-comfortable pillows and silky soft bedding. Not that we’d be doing much sleeping. The thought caused my groin to tighten. I pushed back my arousal. This wasn’t the time.
I’d never been with a Wolf in heat before, but enough mated males had shared their experience for me to understand it was unlike any other time together. Satisfying a shewolf in heat was no easy task. Three days. Three days of almost nonstop fucking. And my Wolf was chomping at the bit, restless, eager to take his female and stake his claim. He wasn’t holding back and had absolutely no filter on his fantasies. A collection of naughty images bombarded my brain. I bit back a groan.
Unaware of my internal struggle, Hycinth released her grip on me. I stood still and watched her as she walked forward, running her hand along the edge of the bed. Her fingers trembled slightly. When she reached the decoratively carved headboard, she turned to look back at me. Her irises swirled with tumultuous emotion, excitement, fear, arousal.
Shit. My control was tenuous at best. She couldn’t look at me like that and not expect me to respond.
Instantly, I closed the distance between us. My hands wrapped around her neck, fingers curling into her red locks. She shivered, her voice a breathy plea, ”Leander...”
Fuck. She was beautiful.
“I’m going to make it perfect for you,” I swore fiercely. “Everything your body needs and your heart desires.”
“I know,” she whispered.
I hadn’t planned anything physical, but couldn’t help myself. My lips found hers. She inhaled sharply and then melted into me, molding her body to mine. One of my hands came down to cup her bottom. I pulled her even closer as I deepened the kiss, groaning at her succulent taste. Little fingers tangled in my hair, tugging harshly as her breathing accelerated.
The world faded away, our focus only on each other. Her lips were soft, so fucking sweet. Her tongue tangled with mine, always challenging me, never wanting to back down. It was a challenge I’d meet gladly. Without breaking the kiss, I slid my hands down the back of her thighs and lifted her. She wrapped her legs around my waist.
But just as quickly as it began, she pulled back, her hand pressing against my chest. “W—wait,” she panted.
Fuck! The last thing I wanted to do was stop.
All it would take was one hard pull against my mark, and she’d let me take her right there. But I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. I never wanted her to regret intimacy between us, and given the push-and-pull in her emotions, it was clear she still wasn’t ready.
I pressed my forehead against hers and worked on controlling my own ragged breathing.
After a long moment, we were both breathing normally again. I reluctantly set her down.
My heart warmed when she tucked her hand back into mine. Just being able to touch her helped keep my Wolf calm. I wasn’t sure if her small tokens of affection were a conscious decision on her part or just reactive to the bond. I’d take either.
She bit her lip and looked at the floor. “I’m sorry.”
I lifted her chin so I could see her troubled blue eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
She studied my expression, searching for the truth. I prayed my face would not reveal just how much pain I was in. If she knew, it would only push her farther away. For now, I’d just have to suck it up and endure the agony alone. After a moment, she gave me a small smile, and her shoulders loosened in relief.
Our return walk was peaceful, filled with small talk.
Once we reached the pack, I led her to the training building. I needed to check on the upcoming competition. I opened the door for her to go in. She raised a brow as she walked through the door. “What are we doing here?”
When we got inside, my eyes adjusted to the change in light.
Hycinth walked forward hesitantly, her head moving slowly to take in all of the activity. In almost every square foot of free space, Wolves sparred. She glanced back over her shoulder at me, anxiety in her expression. “Are we going to war?”
I caught up with her quickly and pulled her into my arms. “No. We are not at war. The mated pairs have decided there are too many to get the best chance for conception. As a result, they will compete to be present on the final day of our ceremony when we emerge.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, okay. How many winners will there be?”
“A maximum of ten mated pairs.”
The sounds of grunts and fighting filled the air. No one even paid attention to us, too focused on the goal at hand.
“Are they competing now?”
I shook my head. “No. They are training. The competition begins in five days.”
I took her arm and walked toward where Gwen sat on a bench on the sidelines with Ever standing over her. He was intensely studying the other competitors. Sweat poured off of both of them.
Hycinth walked faster when she saw Gwen. When we reached them, Hycinth eagerly sat on the bench, cross-legged, facing Gwen. “Hi!”
Gwen gulped down water from a small jug, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She grinned. “Hey.”
I stood next to Hycinth and asked Ever, “Did you take care of what we talked about this morning?”
Ever glanced at Hycinth and then gave me a short nod.
Hycinth’s eyebrow rose at Ever’s response and our cryptic conversation. She tugged on my arm. I looked down.
“What are you talking about?” she demanded.
I cupped her cheeks and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Nothing, love. Ever’s just taking care of pack business.”
Her eyes narrowed. She knew there was more to it than that. But I had no intention of telling her. Not yet.
From the side, Sydney walked over to us. She held a clipboard and pen in her hands. She kept her eyes averted from both Hycinth and me. When she reached me, she gave a respectful nod. “Alpha.”
Hycinth watched her like a hawk, but she didn’t appear angry. Her expression was more intense, studying every detail of Sydney’s behavior.
I looked down at the papers in Sydney’s hands. “Do you have the competition brackets divided out?”
“Yes. I used the point system you advised, assigning different values based on length of time unable to conceive and rank. ”
Abruptly, Hycinth stopped paying attention to our conversation. Nostrils flaring wide, her head whipped around. She was on her feet in an instant when she saw her brother. A squeal released from her lips, “Lucky!”
I’d planned to surprise her with his freedom. It was the task Ever worked on for me earlier, getting his accommodations ready and him settled. I’d expected Hycinth to be pleased, but I stared in shock as she ran toward him with her arms open.
My Wolf lurched into my eyes.
A snarl ripped from his throat.
Hycinth halted in her tracks and spun to face me. But her expression wasn’t contrite. No, of course not. She was pissed. She stared at me defiantly and took a small step in his direction.
Fuck! Was she trying to get her brother killed?