My Wolf’s howling had echoed in my mind, panic and devastation ripping through her as she watched her mate walk away. But now, the only thing that remained was silence.
I needed to comfort her. She would make it through this just as I would, but I was in no frame of mind to be of use to anyone right then. Tears coursed down my cheeks. I’d dreaded the moment I had to walk away from Leander. I’d known it would hurt. I just never anticipated feeling such striking emptiness and...lack of purpose. There was a gaping hole in my chest that I suspected would never be filled again.
I also hadn’t been prepared for Leander to bring up his mother right then, and I certainly wasn’t emotionally prepared for the conversation, not while we were on the cusp of saying goodbye. I cringed as remembered the harsh words spoken. I wished there’d been a way to speak the truths of my heart without destroying him, but my chaotic frame of mind had resulted in cold, hard responses.
On one hand, I understood and couldn’t deny Leander’s motivation for what he’d done. We were wolves who engaged in violent wars. Our packs had fought over territory as far back as I could remember. Devastating losses had been inflicted on both sides.
But my father had found a way to take out Alpha Cyril. Using one of the many strategies of war he taught me—the most efficient way to take down an Alpha was to take out his Luna—their targeted strike resulted in exactly what he wanted. Alpha Cyril stepped down within six months of his mate’s death, unable to manage his duties as alpha and grieve at the same time, leaving Leander in his place.
And that was where my parents had gone wrong. They’d underestimated Leander. In return, Leander had taken his just revenge. I got that. I knew why he did it. I never needed him to tell me why he’d killed hundreds of people. We were at war and wars had casualties. It was as simple as that.
And it was because I understood what drove his behavior that I was able to separate his two identities in my mind—avenging alpha versus loving mate—and still care for him.
I’d forgiven Leander because his motivation was no different than my parents. Unfortunately, in war, someone always had to win at the cost of another. It pained me deeply to know my parents were the cause of Leander’s mother’s death, especially the violence of it. My father and mother started a devastating catalyst that ended with our pack gone and me standing right where I was now.
I saw the truth of it all, quite clearly...but it didn’t change anything.
My forgiveness didn’t mean I could just forget. Nor did understanding Leander’s motivation negate my choice in the matter. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay. I did.
Yes, damage had been done on both sides of our packs and despite that violent history, his pack seemed to partially accept me. Our interactions had been mostly positive...until I brought up any of my family or my past. They weren’t ugly to me but they shut down. It pained me that even though I hadn’t been the one to personally trespass against them, their distaste for my family and pack was so ingrained that so many precious moments I had while growing up were not welcome to be shared.
But even though I felt disappointment at not being able to share fifteen years of my life, I would accept the burden that it was just the price I had to pay to atone for the actions of my pack and parents, if it meant we could create new memories, happy times that we could all look back on and enjoy together.
Gwen and Willow were precious to me. I had gone so long without female Wolf companionship and friendship. I craved their closeness and connection so much, it hurt.
My love for them was the reason I’d willingly gone through the Claiming Ceremony. Years of infertility had caused unbearable pain and suffering. By this point, it was clear their only hope to have a pup of their own was a ceremony that transcended natures usual course, but an opportunity so rare, that it only came around once in a generation, and only between the Alpha and his fated mate—me. On this occasion, when the Alpha claimed his rightful mate, the impossible was possible—the mated pairs in attendance could conceive without being in heat.
I had given them everything I could before I had to say goodbye. Again, the pain in my heart flared brightly. I would be losing so much when I walked away, but Leander had killed my parents and my pack. I didn’t deny the justification but desperately wished that it had been anyone else...just not Leander’s hands that ended their lives. That harsh truth would always be between us.
Leander had resolved himself to our unfortunate circumstances—bound by the moon but doomed by events neither of us had put into motion. He was ready to put it past him, but he wasn’t facing the same challenge that I was—it had not been my hands that had taken his mother’s life.
If I had been the one to kill her, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would already be dead by now, making my choice of whether or not to be with him irrelevant. Would Leander have really been able to get past the awful images in his head like he was asking me to? I hadn’t personally witnessed their deaths, but I’d seen enough war and devastation for my mind to conjure scenarios so painful, they took my breath away—Leander’s razor-sharp teeth at the throat of my mother; his claws ravaging my father’s body until no life remained. My heart clenched. I missed them so much, it hurt. For three long years, I’d desperately shoved the unwanted truth out of my head so I could function and survive my fate.
It just wasn’t the same. Maybe that’s the question I should have asked Leander before leaving. Had he really considered how he would have reacted if faced with the same scenario I was? Regardless of any just cause, could he have even touched me, knowing it had been my hands that snuffed out her life? The alternate reality ran through my head. The mate bond would have compelled him forward and he’d already made it clear, the Claiming Ceremony was his first priority, enough that he was willing to mark me against my will if he had to, so yes, we’d probably be exactly where we were now if the tables had been turned.
But once I’d given them everything that they wanted, would Leander have just let it go and foregone his natural instinct for retribution? My parents hadn’t been the very first to kill between our packs. We were at war. The killing had gone on before them for decades. It was our way. It was hard enough for me to deny my base wolf instinct for retribution and Leander was an Alpha.
I highly doubted we would have lived happily ever after, and I certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to just walk away right now because regardless of my mate status, punishment for a war crime as severe as killing a parent would have to have been enacted. Heck, Leander had spanked me in front of his entire pack just for slapping him. It wasn’t very realistic to think he would’ve just let it go if I had been the one to kill his mother. No, that truth would remain with him day and night just like it did me.
A knock at the door interrupted by chaotic thoughts.
Lifting my head, I realized I was on my knees. When had I fallen? With a shaky breath, I stood on unsteady feet.
Reaching the door, I opened it to find Lucky. I wanted to hurl myself into his arms and take the comfort his agonized eyes promised me, but having his scent wrapped around me would not help while we were still on Leander’s territory.
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Are you ready to go?”
“Just a minute,” I mumbled. “I need to get dressed.”
He waited silently at the door while I went to the closet and put on a pair of pants, a T-shirt and combat boots. I wasn’t taking anything else with me. I’d come here with only the clothes on my back, and that was how I would leave.
As Lucky and I made our way through the packhouse, I noticed how eerily quiet it was. Not a sound could be heard. I looked around in confusion.
“Ever had everyone leave,” Lucky answered my silent question, “They won’t be back until you’re gone.”
Oh, okay. I nodded, unable to speak around the lump in my throat. I guessed it was fair. Goodbyes were never really good. And what else was there to say? Nothing.
Blinking back tears, I followed Luca out the front door to a wide porch. He settled his large frame down in one of the chairs and motioned for me to sit next to him.
I sat down and anxiously bit my lip. “When will Tommy be here?”
“Another ten minutes.”
After a moment of silence, Lucky turned and stared at me intently. “Cinn, there’s something you should know.”
The intensity of his dark green gaze caused my unease to peak. “What is it?”
“When I spoke to Ever earlier, he told me that our old pack...still exists.”
I gasped, “What do you mean ‘still exists’? But...Leander destroyed them all.”
Luca shook his head. “Is that what Leander told you?”
“Um...well, no.” My brain replayed the events of that fateful night, working to form a cohesive thought. “His reputation...you’ve heard the tales of the horror he unleashed. It’s what Leander’s does. He was there to kill daddy...and destroy our pack. The hate in his eyes...” my voice trailed off.
“I did too.” Luca rubbed the back of his neck.
It didn’t make sense. Even if I was wrong about Leander’s intention and actions, why hadn’t he said something? “But...why didn’t Leander just tell me?”
“I asked Ever the same question when he told me this morning. He said Leander left the pack intact as a lure. He’d hoped you’d return, and when you did, he had wolves waiting to capture you.”
I couldn’t deny that was sound strategy.
“But...” Lucky began again, opening his mouth but then closed it.
A slow minute ticked by as I waited before finally pressing, ”What? What are you not telling me? What else do you know?”
“There was something in Ever’s voice.” Lucky’s brows pulled together. “He’s angry, Cinn...like, really angry. I’ve never seen Ever like this...and at least a part of what he told me was a lie. I could feel it.”
My heart twisted. There was no doubt who Ever was furious with, but I needed to focus. “You think the pack doesn’t exist?”
“No. Not that. Why would Ever even bring it up if that were the case? We could easily verify the truth.”
“So, what do you think he was lying about?”
Lucky’s absinthe eyes locked onto mine. “I think he lied about Leander’s reasoning. Yes, it was strategic to leave the pack intact. We might have reached out if we knew anyone remained, but when we left, we never looked back because we assumed they were all gone, and we were avoiding packs at all cost.”
I frowned, still not understanding his point.
Lucky continued softly, “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I’ve watched Leander with you. The man loves you. I think his choice of leaving the pack intact had more to do with you being his mate than his purpose of catching you. I suspect that you being his mate actually saved the lives of a lot of people.”
Sorrow flared in my chest. I inhaled sharply, unable to catch my breath. Lucky wasn’t wrong...at least on one count.
“He...told me,” I whispered.
Luca tilted his head and waited for me to explain.
“That he...loved me,” my breath hitched, tears welling in my eyes.
"Fuck, Cinn...,” Lucky leaned further into me, dark liquid orbs locked on mine. “Are you sure you’re making the right decision? We don’t have to go. You can change your mind right here and now, and I’ll support you.”
I choked back a sob and shook my head. Swallowing thickly, I tried to get back on track. “So...once he had me, why wouldn’t he tell me? If Leander let them live for me, why keep me in the dark about it? Why wait until we’re leaving to mention it?”
Lucky undid the tie holding his shoulder-length locks at the back of his neck. “From a strategic standpoint, I see using the pack as a lure while you were free, but once he captured you, my best guess? Maybe, keeping you in the dark also eliminated you’re trying to reach out or escape back to the pack for protection. But now they’re your free, none of it matters anymore, so Leander made sure you knew before we left.”
“Free,” I repeated flatly, staring off into the distance as I listened to the familiar rumble of approaching motorcycles.
The rumble became a roar when ten Harleys surged on all sides of us. Coming to a rolling stop, engine idling, Tommy’s sharp gaze zeroed in on me. Piercing brown eyes evaluated me slowly from head to toe.
From behind him, Leroy, the Grimm MC’s Road Capt. and Frank, their Tail Gunner, as well as seven other Grimm MC Enforcers scrutinized every detail of our surroundings, bodies rigid and alert, ready for a fight.
I tried not to cringe. It had been several months since the Grimm MC bikers had witnessed my kidnapping. Thankfully, Tommy and Leroy had escaped with their lives.
We owed them an explanation, both for our absence and our call for assistance; however, as soon as Tommy’s gaze swiveled to Luca, Lucky shut him down, grunting, “Not here.”
Tommy’s eyes narrowed and then he nodded hard, barking out, “Let’s ride.”