HEAT

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Steps

Leander

A sudden northeastern gust of wind rustled through the trees, causing several russet-colored leaves to lose their already tenuous hold on the branches above us and flutter to the ground. Autumn had settled in since Hycinth had left me. Three long months. More than half of her pregnancy. The thought was staggering.

Ever’s head came up, his astute gaze automatically scanning the horizon.

“But I don’t think so,” Luca murmured quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“After Oracle Memoree visited us and we finally knew the truth, in all of its ugly glory,” he flinched, green eyes losing focus for a moment before continuing, “the plan was to contact you...figure a way to reach out as soon as I returned from our old pack. Hycinth wasn’t in great shape...she didn’t think you or the pack would want her back...but she wanted to try.”

“The pack?” I raised an eyebrow. “Why would Hycinth think the pack wouldn’t want her back?”

Luca’s shoulders pulled back, his tone clearly communicating his personal feelings on the matter. “Because no one told her goodbye.”

My gaze cut sharply to Ever.

Ever opened his mouth to speak, but Luca wasn’t done. “Hycinth has not had the luxury of a pack her entire life. Yes, she thought she had a pack until she was fifteen. Unfortunately, she found out that was a complete fucking lie. And then you came into her life and forced her to run. It wasn’t easy for either of us...three long years without a pack.” He swallowed thickly. “And then she was here. You had to see it yourself. She flourished with female companionship. She needed it. So did her Wolf.”

Fresh pain slashed through my heart at the mention of her Wolf.

Luca’s expression registered he saw my anguish, but there was no leniency in his next words, the timbre of his voice dropping into accusation. “Leander, she didn’t go through the ceremony for you. She did it for them. Regardless of her relationship with you, it was no small gift that she gave your pack.”

My heart sank lower and lower with each word he said. He was right. So much damage had been done, so many obstacles stacked against us. How was I ever going to get Hycinth back?

“I’m sorry,” Ever spoke quietly, “That was my fault. Leander did not give that order. I did.”

Luca turned to face him and demanded fiercely, ”Why? What hurt could it have caused? They were happy to be around her while she was having sex in front of them and allowing them full access to her body so you could have what you wanted most.”

Ever’s face paled. Eyebrows knitted together, he had to swallow before he could speak. “You’re right. I did it because I was angry on Leander’s behalf and terrified of how her leaving would not only crush Leander but also open the door to neighboring packs all too willing to take advantage of the situation. But I was wrong to take my anger out on her in that way.”

“Ever, she’s only eighteen...a child for fuck’s sake...a child who is now going to be a mother and without a Wolf. She wasn’t trying to hurt you, and she shouldn’t be personally held accountable for anyone else’s actions, particularly evil bastards of other packs. Believe it or not, she never wanted to leave. She loved the people here. They never truly accept her but she loved them anyway...because that is who she is. She denied herself the love of her life and the people who had become family because she thought she was doing what was right.”

Unable to speak, Ever could only nod.

Luca wasn’t done. This time, he focused on both of us. “She didn’t know what you knew. What might have been obvious to you was certainly not obvious to her because she was carefully insulated against the truth. We both were. All she saw was what that bastard of a father wanted her to see. For as cruel as he was, he loved her more than anything, letting her dress him up and have tea parties with her and her bears. He played and sang to her almost every night. What Alpha does that? What was she supposed to think?”

“Fuck,” Ever swore under his breath.

Chest feeling as though it had a million bricks stacked on it, I struggled to breathe. In all of our conversations, except for our goodbye, I had suspected this truth. Hycinth’s words clearly held him in high regard so I assumed she didn’t know. It wasn’t until the end when Hycinth revealed she was aware her father had killed my mother that I made the grave mistake of not being explicit with my questions. I had asked if she knew the full extent, and she had confessed she did. She had answered truthfully, even giving me what little detail she had. But we had both been wrong. “Luca, I swear to you on my life, I don’t know how yet but I will fix it.” I had never felt words more strongly.

Again, he seemed to recognize the fervor of my intent because he exhaled heavily, “I know. It’s a fucked up situation that you both played a part in. I get that. She made mistakes as well. This pregnancy...” his voice trailed off.

We sat quietly for a few moments, the harsh truth weighing down on all of us. Only time would tell the outcome of her pregnancy, the health and well-being of the tiny shewolf frozen in her belly.

Jaw tight, Luca asked hesitantly, “Do you think he told her...about your sister?”

I thought back to what Luca had already shared regarding their conversation with the Oracle and clarified, “You knew the first chance baby was my sister but Hycinth didn’t?”

“No. The Oracle never explicitly stated it was your sister, just that a child had been conceived and then murdered. It wasn’t until I went to our old pack that Sydney revealed your mother had been pregnant when Alpha Grant killed her. That was when I put two and two together. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. When I returned that night, Hycinth was already asleep so I didn’t have a chance to tell Hycinth before Dagger took her.”

“I don’t know if he did or not.” I ground my teeth together. “But if I had to guess, I would say yes. Dagger didn’t hold back in damaging her physically. Most likely, he took every advantage to torment her emotionally as well.” My hands clenched into fists as I tried to control my anger.

Forest green eyes blazing, his Wolf now front and center, Luca’s feral expression matched mine. “What...exactly...did he do to her?”

“They beat and raped her,” I replied plainly. Luca had been present so I wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking.

“I know,” he replied, “and I’m sorry to put you through this again, but I need to know...what her body went through.”

I studied his expression.

He explained softly, “I can’t help her if I don’t know.”

“Okay.” I ran a hand roughly through my already disheveled hair as I pulled back images I never wanted to think about again. “From the glimpse I saw into her mind and confirmation from those in the room, I think only two penetrated her vaginally but her wounds indicate her bottom was also violated, probably with claws.”

Luca’s brows went up. “You could see that...in her mind?”

“Yes,” I ground out through my teeth. In my head, my Wolf snarled furiously at the memories. “Thankfully, it appeared Hycinth was unconscious, at least during the time those two bastards defiled her.”

“What else?”

“The bruises and wounds on her body were too many to count. She had several spinal breaks that we could feel, likely incurred from multiple kicks due to the massive boot prints left behind on her back, but I suspect she had even more fractures to various parts of her body that we could not detect through touch alone.”

Vibrating with fury, Luca hissed, “They all need to die. Every last one of them.”

“They did die,” I reminded him.

“No. Not just the ones present. All of them. Both packs,” he growled.

Oh. I understood what he meant now, the fervor and unfettered hate in his eyes. I felt it too. I just wasn’t sure Lucky was mentally ready for the actuality of it. The somberness of the subject tightened my throat, making it difficult for me to ask, “Have you ever killed a pup before?”

Instantly, Luca’s expression altered. Brows pulling tight, conflict and pain reflected in his eyes. “No.”

“It’s terrible,” Ever whispered, his own response labored with emotion, caught up in memories both of us would rather forget. “You don’t want that blood on your hands.”

“Is that what happened when you came to my old pack?” Luca asked quietly.

I nodded without elaborating further.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he considered my response. “Would you have killed Hycinth as well if she had not been your mate?”

My gut twisted, but I would not lie to him. “Yes. I intended to kill both of you as well as the pack. The only thing that stopped me was finding out she was my mate.”

He was silent for a long moment before admitting slowly, “It was a mistake, wasn’t it...letting them live?”

“Yes, it was” I spoke the truth, but I hated it. “I don’t know how I can let any of your old pack live now. Time and time again, they have proven they are pure evil. Just when I think I have weeded out all of the bad ones, more crop up. And in the end, my lack of action costs this pack wolves. From a peripheral perspective, even Hycinth paid the price for my choice. Dagger wanted revenge on me and maybe he would have found enough muscle to carry it out without your old pack, but it was clear, they played the most prominent role in his scheme.”

“What about Nightshade? I saw their Delta as we were leaving...in the field out back. What have you determined about them?”

I repositioned my weight on the log to make the position more comfortable. “It’s bad enough that we have to wipe out one pack; I don’t want to have to take out two, but am I making the right decision? I have already left this pack at risk by war mongering wolves. Alpha Cade seemed sincere. He said he didn’t know of the plans, and even swore fealty to me.”

Luca’s eyebrows went up.

Now wasn’t the time to get into the details of that arrangement so I only answered what he had asked about. “But I needed more than just his word. His wolves came after me and hurt Hycinth in unimaginable ways. He bears responsibility for that, and if I’m to grant leniency and let them live at the risk of our own wolves, I needed a sacrifice as proof of his loyalty.”

Luca’s expression remained neutral, both understanding and accepting my responses.

Frustration welled in my gut. “But even now, I still don’t know. There was something about that Delta that my Wolf didn’t like. It was the reason I chose him over their Beta.”

“I had wondered if it was because the Beta is Willow’s father.”

“He is,” I acknowledged. “And I was glad for a reason to pass him by, but if he had given my Wolf even a small amount of the unease the Delta did, I would have taken both of their lives without even blinking.”

“So for now, the target is only the Diamonte Pack?” Luca questioned, his voice tight. “All...of them?”

Ever leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “The pups are innocent now bu—”

“They get revenge,” Luca interrupted, already on the same page.

“It is the price we pay to coexist with nature in the way that we do,” Ever murmured. “Half animal. Half beasts.”

I could see the gears of Luca’s mind churning. “Have you ever tried it the other way before...eliminating all of the grown males and females as well as the juvenile wolves down to a certain age and then taking them in instead, trying to nurture them out of the hate they came from?”

“I have thought about it before,” I acknowledged, thinking back to conversations I’d had with Ever. “But the question isn’t only whether the pups have enough fortitude even with a loving environment, to go against their natures as they become older, but do our wolves have enough fortitude to give them that love and attention?”

“It’s a hell of a concept to love the child of the male or female who caused so much pain or even ended the life of a mate,” Ever said. “Would you have it in you?”

“But I already do,” Luca replied softly. “I do love the daughter of the male who killed my mate.”

His words were profound in one sense, showing that the end result could be achieved, but the circumstances we were facing were different, and I wasn’t sure it was that easy. “Would it have been the same if you had known this fact about Hycinth at the very beginning of your relationship? Would you have welcomed her with open arms? It’s going to take an incredible amount of selfless love and the entire pack to have even a tiny chance of making it work. You are part of this pack now. Would you be willing to take a pup on as your own?”

Luca’s eyes widened. “Be a father? Are you serious?”

I nodded. “As I said, it will take the entire pack for an influx of pups in that number. We do not have enough mated pairs for them to bear the burden alone nor should an excessive number of pups be in any single home. This isn’t just about caring for their physical needs. It’s about forcefully overcoming their very nature.”

Ever interjected carefully, “And with a task this difficult, what are the odds we will all be successful?”

Luca turned toward him.

“It’s incredibly unrealistic to think we will have a one hundred percent success rate,” he explained, “and if just one of us fails this impossible task, who will pay the price? I couldn’t bear to think I allowed another pup into my house...only to have him end the life of my own child or another innocent of our pack...simply because the task was impossible from the start. Then who is to blame?” Even eyes glistened with the pain of this very real potential.

“I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe we just pray.” Luca held Ever’s gaze, green eyes swirling with determination. “But I can’t imagine myself doing the alternative. I don’t know if I have it in me to kill a pup or a baby even. So, if that means they live, then yes, I am willing to do whatever it takes...even become a father.”

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