22. First Strike
I voiced aloud without any thought and his back went rigid at my words. He turned to me, his shoulder-length hair swishing with the wind. The bright sheen in his irises spoke volumes of his answer. My plan to lead him off track didn’t work and I didn’t know whether to be angry or fearful.
“You’re easy to read,” He said gruffly, the anger in his eyes never fading. Looming over me, his eyes blazed with heat. “Do you know what you’re getting into?”
I frowned. “What do you-?”
“With the hunters,” He interrupted, jerking his chin over my shoulder. “You had no strategy. For fuck sake, Izabella, you were almost caught!”
I flinched at his harsh tone, stumbling back at the force beneath his words. I pushed my shoulders back, tilting my chin up as I met his gaze defiantly. In an instant, he paced back of forth, his chest heaving rapidly with his deep breaths, his jaw tense and his eyes wild.
“They saw you,” Shocked, my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. They what…? I was careful. I was sure of it. At my expression, he continued. “They’re not gonna stop, not until every single one of us is dead,”
Lowering my gaze to the ground, I nodded stiffly, my heart racing as pressure built in my chest. I couldn’t deny the fear lurking inside but I kept it at bay. All I could think was to tell my brother and I couldn’t help but feel like a child. Naive and reckless - that’s what I was - too bad it only took now to realise it. My nose stung with the prospects of tears but I turned before he could catch my dejected mood.
“I’ll tell Hunter,”
I did. I told him everything. After gathering the courage to wake him up, I went into every detail: my plan, my intentions... what I saw. He was deadly quiet and dad stood next to him with his arms crossed, frowning with his eyes cast down. Despite the silence, I knew he was angry, I could feel it. The bubbling sense was so potent, especially for an Alpha male. His face tightened, the roughened lines on his smooth skin becoming more prominent while clenching his fists.
“What do you mean they saw you?” He rasped, straightening his body and his folded arms dropped to his sides. My eyes widened and they flickered between my brother and Basil. The words were caught in my throat as apprehension loomed in the air.
He tilted his head, waiting for an answer.
“I went after them,” When his scowl didn’t lift, I continued. “I mean, I went to check if there were any more but...”
“But they saw you,” He finished my sentence, running his hand down his trimmed beard. His eyes met dad’s and seconds ticked by as they communicated with each other through their link. The wait was unbearable. My dinner from before decayed, causing my stomach to churn. Hunter returned his stern eyes to me, his decision clear with a quick jerk of his head.
“You need to be made an example of,” He said harshly but his eyes were almost apologetic. Almost. I couldn’t be sure. I still felt his anger. Tipping my chin up, I drew my shoulders back, nodding stiffly as I accepted the consequences of my actions.
“Do what you must,”
“Get the whip,”
He brushed past me, heading for the back garden. My dad’s eyes – identical to my brother’s – held mine. There was a hint of worry in them but they drowned beneath his anger. I looked away, unable to handle the disappointment he showed. He spun on his heels, following his Alpha’s orders. I made a mistake, I could admit that, and I needed to own up to it. Soon, the wide spaced garden would be filled with pack members to witness my shame. I followed Hunter, sensing Basil hot on my heels. Just when my feet met the grass, he gripped my upper arm with a sharp tug and I spun widely to face him.
“Let me go,”
“You don’t have to go through this,”
“I need to, I made a mistake,”
“You shouldn’t be whipped for this,” Growling, he dragged his fingers through his hair, the ice in his eyes simmering to a silver colour, revealing the storm raging inside him. He paused for a second, the creases on his face softening with an idea. “There is another way,”
I wrinkled my brows. “What do you mean?”
He didn’t answer me; instead, his eyes travelled over my head and I followed his gaze, watching as the pack infiltrated the garden, woken from their sleep. Jackson emerged from the crowd with a whip in hand, his expression hard as he handed it over to Hunter. He turned to me, beckoning me forth with a jerk of his head. Refusing to meet sympathetic eyes of those around me, I kept my chin up, walking to the tree that’ll mark me for the rest of my life. Deep down, behind the mask I’d shown, I was scared. The closest I’d gotten as a punishment was a painful twist to my ears both in wolf and human form. Usually, whipping was for the rebellious - a sign which I revealed tonight because I didn’t listen to my brother.
I didn’t follow my Alpha.
Taking a deep breath, I watched my father and saw his agony tearing him apart. He was conflicted with the need to obey his Alpha’s orders and protect me as his daughter, his first princess. Right now, I didn’t feel like one. Right now, I just wanted to escape everything and wallow in my own self-pity. Hunter may be his son but first and foremost, he was his Alpha, succeeding from his power and must obey whatever he saw fit. Wrapping my arms around the bark of the tree, I smiled at him reassuringly. Hell, if he was acting this way, no doubt, my mother must not be taking this well. A wreck, I suppose.
His hold of the rope tightened and he shook visibly. “Don’t fight it, dad. I’m gonna be okay,”
The muscle in his jaw flexed as he nodded, refusing to meet my gaze again as he bound me to the tree. I took another deep breath then exhaled, turning to the sky, the Moon nowhere in sight to hear my cry. I closed my eyes, the soundless air seeming more foreboding than it was earlier. Mentally, I counted the numbers in my head, hoping it would provide some distraction from the pain I’d soon have to endure.
1... 2... 3... 4...
Basil’s gravelly voice thundered through the crowd, ringing in my ears as an involuntary shiver crawled up my spine. I turned to him, our eyes locking and I could see every spectacle of his face despite the distance separating us. Without another word, he reached for the back of his shirt, pulling it over his head and tossed it to the ground.
“Take me instead,”
Hunter cocked his head to the side. “How noble of you but she must learn. There are consequences,”
“Usually, I’d agree,” His eyes never left mine. “If I wasn’t concerned that she’s carrying my child,”
Gasps filled the deadly void as I felt all eyes turn to me, particularly, my stomach. But my eyes never swayed from his. My peripheral vision blurred as I focused all my attention on him, on his words and the sound of my own heart pulsing a dull echo in my ears.
I took wolfsbane and felt the burns roil my stomach into pieces as I accepted the death of my unborn child. I couldn’t be pregnant. I made sure of that. The possibility of pregnancy was slim to none. I shook my head violently, unable to accept it or his sacrifice for my own.
Hunter nodded before facing him.
“Let her go,”
“No!” I screamed, feeling the weight of gravity as I crumbled to my knees. Relief flooded Jackson’s face as he lowered next to me to help me stand. “Don’t hurt him! I’m not pregnant!”
“Izabella!” Basil snapped and the command in his tone forced me to meet his eyes once again. He shook his head, willing me to keep quiet but I couldn’t. My sins weighed on his shoulders and he was paying the price.
Uncontrollable tears slid down my cheeks, kissing the earth as I watched two wolves lead him to the tree, binding his wrists. Scrambling to my feet, I ran to him only to have arms cage me in my place.
“It’s alright,” Jackson whispered in my ear. “He’s a strong wolf. He can handle it,”
“Let me go!” I clawed his forearms, thrashing around violently but my attempts were futile. Broken, I repeated. “Let me go,”
Another wolf, Hunter’s second in command, Daniel, walked forth, ensuring the rope was tight enough. The scars from his past were on display and collective gasps ran across the crowd but he didn’t seem fazed by their reaction. It only made me cry harder.
I winced when the deafening crack of the whip connecting with skin echoed into the air. My body fell limp in Jackson’s arms and I watched helplessly as his warm bronze complexion reddened before splitting, allowing blood to seep through his wounds.
Knowing his past - witnessing the horrors of his attack through his memories - I died on the inside and my skull throbbed violently. A thousand years passed when Hunter dropped the whip, the crowd went silent as they absorbed the gruesome image before us. Never in my existence had I ever seen something like this, never has anyone been whipped to the point of bloodshed. He collapsed to the ground, his body weak, his skin so raw that I gaged at the revolting stench. At this, dad loosened his grip and I ran to him, my fingers skimming his tense shoulders and another broken sob escaped my lips. Lowering to my knees, with all my strength, I lifted him onto my lap as he groaned in agony.
Ignoring the eyes of others, I kissed his forehead, rocking side to side in an attempt to comfort him. It was the only thing I could think of. I hoped my tender touched chased away the stinging pains lingering in his flesh. With his hands wrapping around my thighs, he nuzzled into my chest, growling when I tighten my hold on him.
“Izabella,” Hunter’s voice rang through the haze of my consciousness. Hunter moved closer to us and my wolf rose to the surface. My eyes flashed bright gold as I glared at him, baring my teeth with a lethal snarl.
He held up his hands, his jaw rigid with a hard scowl. “Calm down,”
Like swarms of insects, wolves all around inched closer. My defences were up, the need to protect my mate so prominent my loud growl rippled through the entire pack. It oozed menace and most men stepped back. I was on edge and at this point, I was ready to kill.
“Don’t touch him!” I screamed, pushing those who tried to come close. “Leave us alone!”
And they did. I didn’t know how long time passed but soon, signs of dawn approached. Basil drifted in and out of sleep, and I only ran my fingers through his hair, rubbing his scalp, mumbling gibberish to myself as I watched him. Only him. Nothing caught my attention, not until I sensed Jackson’s presence. I didn’t realise he was around, leaving me to wonder how long he was watching me.
“Daddy?” I whispered, my eyes adjusting to the brightness settling over us. Frowning, I searched for him.
“I’m here,” In a nanosecond, he appeared next to me, crouching low as his blue eyes scanning over Basil’s form.
“I... I can’t carry him, I need help-”
Without another word, he leaned down, gently lifting Basil’s heavy’s body over his shoulder. He huffed at his weight before marching to the packhouse, towards our bedroom. Sabrina appeared from the living room, holding a bottle of lotion in one hand whilst herbs in the other. With wide concerned eyes, she followed after us, rushing forward to open doors, making things easier for dad.
Steadily, we passed the threshold to my bedroom, slowly lowering Basil, my senses alert whenever he winced in pain. Mom threw back the duvet as we lowered his body to the bed, his back facing the ceiling. My eyes burned at the horrific sight of his skin blemished with my sins. Shaking my head, I turned away. My actions had consequences and ultimately, this was it.
In a way, this was my punishment.
Straightening his posture, Jackson sighed and rolled his neck, moving his shoulders before meeting my tear stained eyes. He held my chin, wiping away a stray tear.
“Thank you,” I whispered, my bottom lip wobbling with shaky breaths.
“Anytime,” Holding my head in place, he kissed my forehead. “Get some rest, I hope you learned something from this?”
He raised a knowing brow and slowly, I nodded. “Okay,”
Turning to my mom, he wrapped an arm around her waist as they headed for the door. I took the herbs and lotion she left behind, glancing at Basil as I rubbed them in my hands.
The raw welts on his skin caused my throat to burn and his light brown skin brightened to angry red, marking his agony. Lightly dabbing the herb on his wounds, I paused, frightened when he released a threatening growl, watching his fists clench around the pillow as he restrained himself.
“Sorry,” Leaning forward, my lips grazing with his. Gripping my waist, he slid my body closer to him, nuzzling my nose affectionately. “I didn’t mean to scare you,”
“You didn’t,” I breathed, swiping my thumb back and forth his lips. “You shouldn’t have taken my place,”
“I had to,”
Sighing in frustration, I wiggled in his arms but his fingers dug into my hip, pinning me in place. “I’m not pregnant,”
“Why wouldn’t you be?” He asked and his eyes brightened as if he knew. It was unnerving, causing me to squirm under the intensity of gaze.
“It’s too early to know,”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” It does, I banished any further thoughts, knowing he’d take advantage when I wasn’t forthcoming. Trying to break free of his hold, held on tighter, refusing to let me go. His lips pressed my cheek gently, so much so it was rare of his nature. His fingers traced the curve of my hip. Involuntarily, I shivered and our eyes locked with unspoken desires.
“Stay with me,”