HEAT

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Hope

Leander

I sat back on my knees. A few wolves remained around us, but most had already left, sufficiently sated enough to stop fucking for the time it took to make it home where they would likely continue through the night.

Hycinth still hadn’t said a word after my pleas to stay and declaration of love. Instead, she lay perfectly still, eyes closed, her breathing uneven. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

I guess I had my answer...

My throat locked tight, unable to even swallow past the boulder lodged inside it.

After everything we had been through.

The last three days...

And she still wasn’t convinced.

The last spark of hope inside my chest died.

I lifted off of her and stood to my feet. Hycinth’s eyes snapped open at my movement. I held out my hand. She took it, letting me help her up.

“Let’s take a shower,” I grunted, working to keep my voice steady.

“Okay,” she whispered as she let me guide her back to the cottage.

I was almost surprised by her willingness to remain naked with me, given her intention to walk away. But by now, the point seemed moot. We’d spent three days completely bare together. What were thirty more minutes?

Our shower was a silent endeavor. My thoughts raced and my stomach churned. When we finished, I turned off the water and asked flatly, “What is your plan now?”

She didn’t turn to look at me as she stepped out and grabbed the nearest towel but answered softly, “Luca and I...will leave in the morning.”

The morning?

Behind her, I pulled the other towel from the back and briskly rubbed down my body. “You...don’t have to leave right away...if you don’t want to.” I was grasping for straws, anything to keep her longer.

“It’s better...” her voice hitched before she continued, “this way.” She wrapped the towel around her head, containing her wet hair, and pulled a waiting singlet from nearby over her head.

“Better for whom?” I demanded bitterly, unable to control my emotions.

Hycinth flinched as she reached for the matching sleep shorts. She stepped into them and pulled them up her lean legs. Finally dressed, she took a deep breath and turned to face me. The edges of her face were lined with sorrow. Her bottom lip quivered. “I’m sorry...this is how it has to be.”

It didn’t have to be this way...I wanted to scream. But instead, I just clenched my fists and put on a pair of shorts.

Once we were dressed, I avoided looking at anything in the cottage as we passed through and out the front door because everything reminded me of her. The walk back to the packhouse was equally quiet, both lost in our own thoughts.

Hycinth might have been leaving in the morning, but she readily followed me up the stairs into the room we’d shared and climbed into the bed. Turning her head away from me towards the wall, she whispered, “Good night.”

She clearly wasn’t waiting for my response and I didn’t say anything.

Instead, I just turned off the light and stood there with no idea what to do next. Sheer exhaustion pulled at me, but there was no way I was going to be able to sleep, so I made my way to the nearest chair and sank down.

Three hours went by and I was still in the same spot, just watching Hycinth sleep. Fatigue had overtaken her quickly and she’d dozed off within minutes of lying down. I didn’t wish for sleep. Not now. It was our last night together and I didn’t want to miss even one moment.

Abruptly, I was startled from my reverie by a soft knock on the door. I blinked. It was still pitch black outside which meant it was the middle of the night. Who could possibly be knocking now?

Pushing myself to my feet, I bit back a groan. Every muscle in my body ached from the last three days vigorous exercise. But I’d known ahead of time it was going to be a challenge. It wasn’t easy keeping a shewolf in heat satisfied.

Dragging my unwilling feet to the door, I opened it and was shocked to find Ever!

“What are you doing here?!” I whispered, alarm edging my question.

Tonight was his only opportunity to conceive as a result of the Claiming Ceremony. Something terrible had to have happened for him not to be buried inside Gwen all night long.

He didn’t answer, nor did he ask before stepping inside, making his way past me. I watched in stunned silence as his keen senses took in the details around him—Hycinth asleep in the bed, my side undisturbed—as he walked to the far side of the room.

Quietly shutting the door, I went to stand next to him. “Tell me what happened!” I demanded firmly but kept my voice low so we wouldn’t wake Hycinth.

With more sadness than I ever seen in his eyes, he replied quietly, “It’s you.”

What??

What the hell was he talking about?

A beat went by and he continued, “I can feel it, Leander. Through the pack-link. I can feel your pain.”

I stared at him in stunned silence, my mouth open but no words coming out.

How was that even possible?

Ever didn’t wait for my explanation. He already knew the truth. “She’s leaving, isn’t she?”

My throat wasn’t working. All I could do was nod.

“Fuck,” he swore under his breath. He paced five steps away and then returned. “Did you tell her the truth?” he demanded, his tone almost accusatory. I didn’t appreciate it.

I shook my head. We’d been over this again and again. I hissed, “Ever, it’s not going to fucking make a difference! I told her I loved her for fuck’s sake. I handed her my heart on a silver platter and do you know what she said?”

His jaw locked together and he asked through gritted teeth, “What did she say?”

“Nothing!” I spat. “Not a damn thing. She had no response whatsoever...other than to fuck me harder to shut me up.”

“Fuck...I’m sorry.” His shoulders slumped. He stared at me a long moment and then swallowed thickly. “I know you think it won’t help, but please, I’m begging you...tell her the truth before she leaves. Even if you aren’t willing to do it for you, do this one thing for me. If our friendship has ever mattered to you at all, I am begging you, do this one thing for me,” he pleaded, his eyes glistening.

I stared at him in disbelief. “Do you even understand what you’re asking me to do?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied softly. “I know it’s going to fucking hurt...and I’m sorry.”

He was sorry, but it was clear, it didn’t change his mind.

Fuck!

“Okay,” I sighed heavily in resignation. He still had hope for a good outcome but hope was a dangerous thing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted any. I was hanging on by a thread as it was.

..........

When daylight broke, Hycinth stirred beneath the covers. Not quite awake, she instinctually reached for my side of the bed. Finding it empty, she sat up and looked around the room. Hair disheveled, confusion colored her expression for a moment until her eyes rested on me. And then, I could see her remember that today wasn’t like our previous days.

Today, she was leaving me. Her face fell.

Without speaking, she got up and went into the bathroom.

I stared down at my hands. Dread churned an uneasy pit in my stomach.

Several minutes later, Hycinth returned, hair combed, the makeup smudges beneath her eyes removed.

Pushing myself wearily to my feet, I walked across the room to her.

Hycinth froze mid-step, one hand extended to stop me from coming any closer. “Leander, I can’t.”

“I know,” I muttered. “I just need to...tell you something.”

Hycinth’s brows furrowed, recognizing distress in my features. “What is it?” she asked softly.

My heart twisted painfully in my chest.

Damnit, Ever! Even though I didn’t want it, he’d made me hope. He’d made me think that just maybe I could change her mind with this conversation. But would she even believe me? That was the question. And even if she did, would it change anything?

I cut off my chaotic thoughts. Time to consider was gone. I just needed to tell her.

“Your parents...” I took a deep breath, “killed my mother.”

I waited tensely for her response, but when it came, it most certainly wasn’t what I expected.

Pain and sorrow flickered through her lake blue eyes. Those emotions made sense.

But noticeably absent was surprise.

Wait a minute...?

My heart skipped a beat, the truth ripping my chest wide open. I’d assumed Hycinth was unaware of the horrible things her father had done. But her reaction attested otherwise.

Oh, fuck...she knew!

Hycinth was silent.

The enormity of the truth hit me. My brain replayed all of the conversations we’d had about her parents. She’d never once asked why I did what I did. She’d been angry that I took her parents from her, but she never once confronted me about my reasoning. Even when I offered it, she didn’t want it!

My world tilted on a dime, leaving me unbalanced and faltering. How? How could she have known what that bastard did and still hate me? Judged me so harshly as to be beyond repair as her mate?

And how could I have so misjudged her innocence? Missed such a vital detail? I never once questioned her culpability. But in retrospect, it was glaringly obvious. Who in their right mind wouldn’t confront their parent’s killer and demand to know why? The answer was simple...someone who already knew!

The words rasped brokenly from my throat, “You...knew?”

“Lucky told me,” she whispered, looking down, avoiding my eyes.

“He told you,” I repeated, dumbfounded, “He told you everything?”

“Yes,” she replied, even softer, “He explained the...violence. I’m sorry...you had to find her like that and lost her...in that way.” She still refused to look at me.

Hands clenched into fists, I took a step forward and snarled, “And yet my action—my just retributionis unforgivable? Do you condone their actions?”

Head snapping up, she recoiled from my anger, taking a step back to keep distance between us.

“I’m not saying that. There are always casualties on both sides of war. The conflict between our packs started long before us. The killing and subsequent retribution has occurred on both sides for many years. But if I accept your reasoning for killing my father—because he killed your mother—then, using the same logic, the outcome is not my mating you, it’s my killing you. A life for a life, right?”

I stood in astonished silence that Hycinth could even compare what her parents had done...the depth of their depravity...to any other act of war.

Hycinth inhaled a shaky breath. “My parents killed your mother so you killed them. Should I employ the same justice you did? I know it’s the wolves’ way and maybe I should...but I can’t. I just can’t kill you.”

Tears filled her eyes. She wiped them away with her fingertips. “But I also cannot accept you as my mate. Please don’t ask me to do that. I will never be able to accept you...regardless of the bond or my feelings.”

Her words tore through me, leaving a hole in my heart, a void...never to be filled again.

It truly was over.

The realization left me unable to breathe. Howling his agony in my head, my Wolf was unable to accept her answer, but even he could see there was no hope left...for either of us.

Pain like I’d never felt before, seared through my insides.

Another tear rolled down her cheek. Hycinth reached for me, her hand trembling.

Recoiling, I took a step back to avoid her touch.

She inhaled sharply and dropped her hand.

I couldn’t let her touch me. Not now. Never again.

My Wolf was dying on the inside. He was fracturing into tiny pieces. I would be lucky to survive his devastation, let alone my own.

“I’m sorry...I’m not trying to hurt you. My primal nature is attracted to you, but I...I don’t love you.” She swallowed thickly. “I’m not saying it won’t be painful for me as well, but we will both heal. And it will take you no time at all to find someone else.”

Really??

Those were her parting words to me? I’ll find someone else? I wanted to scream but my throat was locked tight. There was no air left my lungs.

Lost to his anguish and confusion, my Wolf stared at her forlornly through my eyes, silently begging her not to leave him. He didn’t understand why his mate didn’t want him. What had he done so wrong that she couldn’t love him? Was he that worthless...that unlovable?

She had just broken him beyond repair.

I could feel it.

How could she possibly have judged us so harshly, knowing the truth...the horrible pain and torture they’d inflicted on my mother?

“You’ve never expressed any regret over taking away the two most important people from me,” Hycinth said, her tone accusing. “I can see it in your eyes. If you had to make the same decision now, you would do it all over again, even knowing they were my parents, wouldn’t you?”

“Are you serious right now?” I snarled.

Her face fell. “I guess I know the answer.”

Fury and pain exploded together in my chest. “You’re damn straight I would make the same decision!”

How could she possibly think anything else?

“The sadist bastards deserved everything I gave them. If anything, I showed mercy and didn’t drag it out, laughing and enjoying myself as they did while spilling the blood of an innocent,” I spat.

I couldn’t do this.

Not anymore.

Without another word, I spun around and strode out the door.

A whimper came from her lips...or maybe it was mine. I couldn’t turn around to see. I couldn’t bear to look into the face of the woman I thought she was, the illusion I’d loved and fought so hard for...and lost.

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