I couldn't breathe for a moment, knowing I had to keep my expression from revealing anything but struggling to do so. It was like water had forced its way into my lungs, threatening to drown me. How I could be this cursed, this unlucky and unfortunate was incomprehensible.
One year, if I had just stayed one more year and waited for Cleo to give birth, so many things could have been different. I would have stayed here, with my pack, I would have watched all of these kids grow up. I could have been part of their lives. I wouldn't have felt myself breaking year after year. I would have stopped experiencing my never and started living in my forever. Winter would have been mine and not mated to this other male. I wouldn't have been alone anymore, but now I felt lonelier than ever.
My choices had taken all of that from me and there was nothing to be done about it now. Nothing but endure, endure as I had been.
So I forced a smile and stretched out a hand to the male that had gotten Winter before me. "I am Sitka, the beta of this pack."
The male clasped my hand in a firm shake, "Jeko."
I avoided eye contact with Winter as we took our seats. The food was like ash in my mouth, difficult to swallow and push past the lump in my throat. I tried to focus all of my attention on the questions thrown my way to avoid having to think about my mate just a few chairs away.
"So, what exactly have you been doing for twenty years?" Kieran was the first to interrogate me, "besides fighting a bear of course," he grinned to which Nahta snorted.
The other lycans looked lost but none of us cared to elaborate.
"Wow!" Elias perked up at that. "A bear? A real bear?" The little kid tugged at Sasha's arm. " I want to see you fight a bear! You never do cool stuff like that."
"Hey!" The male exclaimed, stabbing a tomato with his fork and pointing it at the young lycan, "I do cool stuff!"
"Like what?" Cahatta questioned her brother, "eating a whole turkey in under five minutes?"
Biting the tomato off his fork Sasha shot back, "I'd like to see you try that."
Setting her fork beside her empty bowl and wiping her lips with her napkin his mother cautioned him, "Just don't try to prove any thing by stealing a hornet nest again, honey."
"Mom," Sasha whined, "how many times do I have to tell you not to bring up the tree incident? I was like twelve!"
"Seventeen," Sani corrected his son.
I looked between all of the lycans, feeling left out, "Tree incident?" I asked and Sasha let out a pained groan as the pack eagerly filled me in on the time Sasha had climbed a tree to get a hornet's nest as a dare. He just had to knock it from the tree but it had caught on some lower branches. Too scared to climb down with the angry hornets in his way, Sani had needed to clim up the tree to save him.
"He cried the whole way drown," Iris laughed, "and he didn't even get stung."
Sasha sulked in his chair as the pack relentlessly teased him. It brought a smile to my face, experiencing the friendly banter, until Galay said, "You still aren't mated."
Hakota, Cleo, and my original pack members went somber but all of the kids didn't understand what a touchy subject it was for me, thankfully making it less awkward because they didn't give me pitying looks.
Kieran threw an arm around my shoulders. "Sitka and I know true freedom in our bachelor lives unlike all of you whipped people." Kieran went on, beaming up at me, "Who needs a mate when you've got me right?"
I mustered up a tight smile but I could feel my lips quiver, knowing my mate's eyes were on me. "Of course, Kieran, I wouldn't trade you for anyone."
"Right, well as much as I enjoyed that salad how about we eat something substantial now?" Terrin asked.
Syn flicked his mate's ear. "You and your vegetables. Malik gripes less than you for Lune's sake."
The main meal was served and then more conversation ensued. I learned a lot about the members of my pack I didn't know very well. Mathias and Milo were originally werewolves from the Old Kingdom. Milo had actually grown up near the castle and was two years younger than Yana. I learned the stories of how they met and how their transitions into lycans went.
Oddly, Jeko and Winter kept silent about their own story and Jeko's origins. None of the pack seemed to want to tell their story either and since I had no desire to ask, they went unexplained.
Iris was a little monster when she was younger, her two fathers and mother spoiling her like a goddess. Nahta was like her mother, a bitch on the outside but warm and protected on the inside towards the people she cared about. Sasha and Kieran where adolescent males through and through, despite having a few decades under their belts. They were unmated and hence lacked any real responsibility over themselves. Malik was a brilliant child but he caused trouble when he was bored. Many stories were shared about the teenaged boy, Syn laughing heartily while Terrin covered his face with his hands in exasperation.
Surprisingly enough, Terrin was the stricter and harsher parent of them. He took a lot more responsibility over Malik than Syn who seemed to believe letting Malik run free with mild supervision was the best way to control the kid.
Then there was Elias whose best friend seemed to be Sasha. He latched on to the the thirty three year old male more than he did his mother or father or even own siblings. Elias was a typical kid. He was loud, excited, cheerful, and of course tried to do everything the older children did. He didn't like Malik much, complaining that he couldn't understand Malik because he talked about adult stuff and liked to do weird things and called him names.
Apparently Malik wasn't very nice to the poor pup and to get the annoying kid away from him promised to play hide and seek and then would never seek him out.
The dinner ended up being one of the best things that had happened to me in a very long time. Excluding the whole mate issue that I couldn't even think about without almost breaking into tears. Even once the dinner was finished, we stayed at the table long after catching up and sharing stories. One by one our numbers dwindled, starting with Elias who was put to bed a couple hours before Cahatta and her mate took their leave. Jeko and Winter also departed at that time much to my relief as it was easier for me to enjoy the remainder of my evening. The twin brothers and their family left soon after and following them was Yana and her mate. And one by one they left until it was just Cleo, Hakota and their son Kieran with me. Cleo shooed Kieran out with her, giving me and Hakota some time alone.
"I have been thinking," he started when it was just the two of us, "that perhaps you need to give up on waiting for your mate. Two hundred years is unheard of Sitka, and as much as it pains me to say it, perhaps your mate died during the Lycan Wars. It's rare to never meet your mate because of an unprecedented death that Fate disrupts Lune's mating bond. But maybe you need to start looking elsewhere."
I almost blurted out the truth right then and there to him, desperate to get the heavy secret off of my shoulders. But she was his daughter, she was already mated, and I didn't want to make Hakota choose between his daughter and his beta so I kept my trap shut, swallowing down the words.
"Yeah..." I croaked, because I didn't really have much of a choice but to look somewhere else now. At least now I would have peace of mind about not cheating on my mate or feel guilty for not waiting.
Hakota embraced me tightly, "We're going to get through this together, Sitka. Just like we've gotten through everything else. Fate has thrown his worst at us but he hasn't broken us yet."
I wanted to scream at that. Shout at him that I was fucking cracking into a million pieces by his daughter's betrayal. I wanted to yell and curse that Fate and Lune could go off themselves for destroying me.
Instead I hugged him back before mumbling with fake tiredness, "I need to sleep. I was up at dawn to get here by evening."
We parted ways from there, him departing for his and Cleo's room while I went to my own. The room was how I remembered it but my scent was gone. It had obviously been cleaned and dusted regularly since my departure and the windows were still well oiled which meant they had probably been opened every day to air out the room and keep the air from going stale.
I collapsed on top of the bed, kicking off my shoes. I had no doubt that I wouldn't be sleeping tonight, my head spinning with too many thoughts, most of which revolved around my dirty blonde mate. I squeezed the bridge of my nose at the incoming headache.
Even the silence I wasn't allowed to enjoy because a quiet knock came from the other side of the door not long after I had arrived. With a groan I dragged myself from the bed and pulled the door open, the sight of my mate stopping me dead.
"Please don't close the door!" She said quietly but urgently, lifting a hand as if to stop the door if I were to slam it in her face. When I made no move to open the door beyond the small opening that I was blocking or to shut it, she nervously fiddled with her fingers, "Can I come in?"
I was silent for a moment thinking of the million and one things that could go wrong before deciding that we both needed this closure if we were going to continue with our lives. So I opened the door and stepped back in a silent invitation.
Winter entered my room, the light of the moon casting a white glow around her rather than the dark shadows from the hallway. I gave her a moment as I closed my door and then leaned against it, waiting for her to turn to me when she was ready so we could begin our confrontation.
Taking a deep breath, I watched her shoulders rise and then fall before she slowly turned around. Winter rubbed her arm, unable to look at me as she said, "This wasn't supposed to happen.
Crossing my arms I raised a brow, "You think I'm happy about this situation?" I growled. I had waited over two hundred years for my mate and yet she couldn't even wait twenty years before giving up on me and settling for someone else.
Winter shook her head, her arms dropping to her sides, "No, you don't understand. This isn't supposed to be possible. Lycans only get one mate."
I frowned at her, "I know that," I replied, "which is why I want to know why you mated with another."
The female scrubbed a hand down her face, a mannerism I had often seen Hakota do when he was overwhelmed and frustrated. "Don't you get it? Jeko is my mate. My mark turned him into a lycan, I have a mating bond with him. He is my mate but somehow so are you."
I pushed off the door, "Are you telling me you have two mates? Two lycan mating bonds?"
She shrugged helplessly, "I don't know. Maybe it's like my mom. She had more than one mate right?"
I shook my head, "Yes but she was a Hunter, not a lycan."
"But she was born of a hunter and lycan, just like me. So maybe I have Lune's mating bond but I also have Fate's." Her own realization seemed to shock her and she had to lean against the bedpost for support. She cupped her forehead laughing bitterly, "and I mistook Fate's bond for Lune's." She looked up at me sharply, rising to her feet, "I didn't know Sitka, I swear I didn't. I honestly believed Jeko was it for me, just like the rest of the pack. We all thought Kieran and Elias and I would get only one mate."
Understanding that she hadn't knowingly betrayed me just made it worse because I couldn't even be resentful towards her. "So now what?"
Her answer took my by surprise. "I don't want to think about that right now," she said, "I just want to be with my mate. You have no idea how happy I was when I found out you were my mate." She seemed to unwittingly come towards me, seeking my arms instinctually.
Being as old as I was, I had long ago mastered my instincts and was able to hold her at bay, clamping her arms down at her sides. "No," I said firmly, "we are not doing this, do you hear me, Winter? I am not going to be the other guy and I will not be a mate thief."
She blinked up at me with blue eyes a shade darker than her father's, "But I'm your mate."
"No," I said slowly but sternly, "Your his mate," I reminded her, tapping the mating scar on her neck before releasing her. "Look, I know the bond is hard to resist but you are going to have to learn how to ignore it. I don't intend on ruining your mating with Jeko so don't sabotage it yourself."
It was hard to push the words out but they needed to be said. I was the more levelheaded of us right now, not so affected by Lune's bond. It sucked I had to deny myself the female who wanted me right now, seeming to not give two shits about her other mate which secretly satisfied me. But she was not herself right now and she would regret this in the morning so I had to put an end to it now.
"We'll both sleep on it and discuss what we are going to do tomorrow, alright? Just go back to your room and give yourself and me some time to come to terms with this."
I ushered her towards the door but she pushed the door closed as I pulled it open. She twisted around, sandwiched between me and the door. She grabbed my face in her soft hands, her palms cupping my cheeks perfectly. I felt my eyes flutter closed, enjoying the sensation of her skin on mine for the briefest of seconds. "Sitka please, don't push me away," she pleaded hoarsely. "There is no love between Jeko and I. He...Jeko is the son of the Forest King," she admitted and I found my breath catching. "Do you understand now?" She asked with hopeful eyes that were still full of so much pain. "He only mated with me because his father wanted it. The Forest King wanted his son in the heart of the lycan empire."
The burden on my shoulders doubled at that news. Jeko being so closely related to our greatest enemy was a problem, especially if his mating with Winter did nothing to change his loyalties and morals.
"I believed he was my only mate and we would eventually grow to love each other but..." she shook her head, and tears trailed down her cheeks, "please, Sitka, I'm miserable. I'm trapped in a loveless mating with a male that loathes me and my family." She choked, pressing her forehead to my chest, "If only I had known that I had you Sitka."
My arms came around her, holding my grieving mate, my own heart bleeding for her.
"I need you," she breathed.
"Then I'll challenge him and take you fairly," I told her. I was not going to stand by and watch her suffer. I would not allow Jeko to steal my happiness and not even cherish my female in doing so. "I'm not a coward Winter, we will not be together behind his back and hide this from everyone." Because lying was exhausting and it always hurt people in the end.
"You can't," Winter's head shot up, her teary eyes boring into mine.
I felt fire lick at my jealousy. I didn't like that she was protecting him, especially if it meant not being able to mate properly with me.
Sensing my anger she grabbed my face again, "Look at me, Sitka, look at me," she commanded. Once holding my eyes she said very seriously, "You can't challenge him." My jaw clenched at that but Winter patted my cheek when I looked away to regain my attention and continued, "Mate fights are to the death and if you, a lycan, kills the son of the Forest King, they will declare war on us." Her words made my heart drop into the pit of my stomach. "We finally achieved peace. Peace you, my parents, and this pack worked so hard for," she explained unnecessarily. I knew that better than she did. We had bled to get where we were today and I didn't want to ruin it by being selfish and impatient. We'd have to deal with Jeko smartly.
"So what do we do?" I asked her.
The female pulled me into a hug, her arms coming up under my arms, her ear on my chest listening to my heartbeat, "We'll figure something out," she said gently as if to soothe my worries, "but right now we don't need to think about it. Ignore the complications," she told me, looking up at me, her chin pressing into the center of my rib cage. "I'm not gonna make you wait any longer Sitka. For tonight I'm yours."
And then I got the kiss I had been waiting over two hundred years for.