HEAT

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Survival of the Fittest

Hycinth

Even as I chatted with Gwen, my attention was never far from Leander. He and Ever stood off to the side, silently watching the activity around us.

However, about ten minutes later, he walked away, without even a word to me.

My heart twisted.

I’d rejected him again. I shouldn’t expect anything than his rebuff, but still, it hurt. I wrapped my arms around my middle, trying to hold myself together. Abruptly, Gwen squeezed my knee. I looked up to find her brown eyes soft, silently trying to give me strength, but there was pain in her expression as well.

For the first time, I wondered if it wouldn’t just be Leander I hurt when I left. Gwen and I had become close over the short time I’ve been there. I’d forgotten how wonderful it was to have shewolves as close friends. Even though I knew it was the right path for me to take, I didn’t relish becoming a lone Wolf again. No one to understand me and no pack to call family.

My Wolf howled mournfully in my head.

But it didn’t have to be that way, I realized. We’d no longer be on the run which meant we could join another pack in the future. Lucky could find his mate.

Ever interrupted my thoughts. “What are you girls talking about?” He sat down on a bench next to us and reached into the cooler for another bottle of water.

I was thankful for the diversion away from my painful thoughts.

Gwen replied, “Hycinth was just asking questions about the competition.”

Ever took a swig and nodded. “What are you thinking?”

That was a loaded question if I ever heard one, but I decided to leave out my personal turmoil, instead, focusing on them. “I’m surprised, that’s all. I didn’t think you and Gwen would have to compete for a spot. Since you’re a Beta and considering your history...” My words trailed off. Pink crept up my cheeks, embarrassed as I realized I’d brought up such a painful subject. I continued hurriedly, “I’m sorry! Forget I said that.”

Ever’s lips curled into a smile, but it wasn’t a happy expression. It was feral and unrestrained. Deep chocolate eyes blazed with intensity. “Nothing will stop us from winning first place in this competition,” he spoke softly but I felt every word as a strike to my gut as power radiated out of him, more than I’d ever felt from him before.

I was stunned. He’d always kept himself in check. I’d seen a hint of this side of him during Sydney’s punishment. I’d struggled with Sydney’s pain after the first ten strikes. But Ever hadn’t even blinked. He’d looked on in stone cold silence, satisfaction on his lips for just punishment delivered.

But he wasn’t holding back now. No. Now, he was a true Beta, wild and aggressive.

The force of him took my breath away.

My glance cut to Gwen and her expression as she stared at him overwhelmed me even more than his display of power. Her eyes shone with unspeakable love and adoration for her mate who was hellbent on getting her what she wanted. He’d walk through fire for her and she knew it.

The pit in my stomach churned.

I had that—a mate willing to die for me. For all of his faults, Leander cared. The bond made sure of it. But that was just the thing. Without the bond, we would continue to be mortal enemies, his family, and mine. His affection was coerced by nature. Without it, he’d have tried to kill me that night just as easily as he’d slain my parents. He was forced to care, against his will, just as I was.

I gave myself a little shake. I needed to stop thinking about it. Forcing the troublesome thoughts out of my head, I refocused on Ever, curious about the way he’d phrased his answer. “I know you want to win, but why first place?”

“The ones who come in first will be given first-touch.”

“First touch,” I repeated in a whisper. My brain spun as I tried to wrap my head around what Leander and I would be doing in less than four weeks. “It sounds very...intimate.”

Ever’s eyes widened. I wondered what my facial expression looked like. Whatever it was, was enough to cause him to quickly apologize. “Shit. I’m sorry! I know the ceremony is going to be radically different from your perspective than mine. I don’t mean to sound insensitive.”

On some level, I already knew that. When I first met him, he was so different. Wary and distrusting. But we’d gotten to know each other. I saw more sides of his complex character now.

“It’s okay.” I raised a hand. “It’s just a lot to take in.”

He reached down and grabbed another water, holding it out to me. “Here. Would you like something to drink?”

I nodded. My throat was dry. The water would help. I turned it up and took a long drink.

Ever’s eyes softened. “All of the mated pairs are thankful for this amazing gift you are giving us.”

“How does it work, exactly?” I asked, wiping my mouth with my hand.

His brow furrowed. “Which part?”

“The ranking.”

“Oh. It’s based on a point system,” he explained. “Rank. History.”

Rank, I understood, but raised an eyebrow. “History?”

His mouth turned a little grim. “Yes. One of the more significantly weighted values is the length of time unable to conceive on our own.”

Gwen flinched.

I tried to understand, but one thing didn’t make sense. “How many mated pairs are there that struggle with conception?”

There was sadness in his eyes. “More than you would think.”

“Okay. But why not limit the ceremony to just those mated pairs? If a mated pair has been able to conceive or there hasn’t been enough time to suggest they would have trouble conceiving in the future, why potentially give them a spot over a pair that can’t conceive?”

Ever shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. A Wolfpack is based on hierarchy and survival of the fittest. Pups born as a result of the ceremony are highly coveted. They are unique in their abilities, stronger, some have special gifts. It’s a once in a generation opportunity that will define the future of our pack. We can’t afford to eliminate superior genetic potential from the mix.”

I considered his words. It was a painful reality but I couldn’t dispute the truth. It was simply the way nature worked. The strong thrived, while the weak fell behind, guaranteeing the next generation survived.


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