I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t seem to remember how to force air in and out of my lungs. I’d been the unfortunate recipient of many physical altercations with members of the pack and had received less severe punishments, but I’d never been whipped before.
Coal faced his father, his expression a cross between absolute fury and guilt, the deep timbre of his voice much closer to wolf than man, “You can’t do this! I’m not going to let her be punished when I antagonized her. This was my fault, not hers. She was just defending herself!”
I was surprised Coal interjected on my behalf. Maybe he thought it would help, but I had no hope Alpha would change his mind. I knew better.
Exactly as expected, Alpha spat, “You know her status in the pack—she doesn’t have any status! The circumstances are irrelevant. She doesn’t get to speak out, causing disruption. She was well aware of that rule and chose to break it.”
A small crowd had gathered around us. Several Onyx Moon warriors automatically appeared behind Langdon. Eyes bright, heads held high, shoulders back with their chests pushed out—a unified force to be reckoned with. Langdon interrupted, “If I may ask, what was her crime to be demoted in such a manner?”
Alpha looked down his nose at him in disdain. “She’s not your concern. She’s no one’s concern,” he sneered.
Tension rolled through Langdon, the muscles in his chest pulled tight, his veins corded against his skin. Not to be put off, he shocked the hell out of me when he insisted, “Her punishment is a direct result of her conversation with me, let me take the stripes for her.”
What? I stared at him in confusion.
Why would he do that?
His request only seemed to infuriate Alpha further. “Only a mate can stand in her place, and she has none.” He made a point to emphasize the last word as if I wasn’t already acutely aware that the male the Moon had intended for me, wasn’t mine at all. He’d chosen another.
Langdon turned toward me. He held my shoulders in his firm grip. His eyes bore into mine. “You said he rejected you, is that correct?”
I stared at him with wide eyes, unsure why he asked me the question and mumbled, “Yes.”
Langdon’s eyes glowed brighter, his Wolf near the surface. “Then I want you.”
The world seemed to tilt a little. I breathed, “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“Accept me—choose me—to be your mate.” There was no hesitation in his voice, no glimmer of doubt.
“What?!” Coal roared. He took a step forward with his fists clenched. Langdon ignored him, focusing only on me.
My heart beat out of control, stunned at his offer. I whispered, “I can’t do that to you. I can’t take the place of the woman the Moon has meant for you.”
His voice carried sadness, “I’m twenty-eight years old, well past the age most wolves meet their mates. I feel in my heart that something must have happened to her. I think it’s too late for me.”
My heart broke for him, but I couldn’t accept. I rasped, trying to speak around the lump in my throat, “It’s never too late. You don’t even know me. I can’t let you give up your life and freedom because you pity me. I’ll be fine. Please let it go. Anything you say now will just make it worse.”
I dropped my head. It was true. Alpha would not take kindly that Coal had questioned his orders, or that someone from another pack had defended me.
Langdon’s eyes dimmed with resignation, and he stepped back, muttering under his breath, “From the looks of things, I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“Take her,” Alpha barked.
Beta Ford roughly grabbed my arm and yanked me forward, causing me to stumble before I caught myself. He pulled me along quickly. I had to jog to keep up.
A small crowd followed after us, including Coal, Calla, Langdon and several Onyx Moon enforcers. I cringed hard, knowing that so many would witness my humiliation.
When we reached the punishment area, I stared at the pole I would be strapped to, and couldn’t stop the tears that silently streamed down my face.
“Strip!” Beta Ford’s command filled me with dread.
My hands trembled as I worked to undo the buttons on my dress and let it fall to my feet. I shivered as I stood in my undergarments, with my arms crossed over my chest. The Beta stepped up behind me and used two fingers to unfasten my bra. I opened my arms enough to let it fall away.
It was only a small solace, but I was thankful I would be allowed to wear my panties at least. If I’d been wearing pants, I could have kept those on as well. The only requirement was my bareback.
But, alas, I was not a lucky wolf.
He jerked me toward the pole. I held out my arms for him to tie the straps tightly around my wrists, holding me in place. The restraint wasn’t to keep me from escaping. There was no chance of escape. It was to keep my body in place when my legs failed from the pain.
When I was securely attached, Beta Ford selected a leather strap. It would cause one hell of a welt at impact, but shouldn’t break my skin.
Without any further communication, he stepped back, out of my field of vision. Fear crashed over me for what was to come. And I was right to be afraid because when the first stroke of the whip sliced across my back, I thought I was going to pass out from the pain. It was ten times worse than anything I’d ever experienced before.
My entire body slammed forward into the pole from the force he used. I bit down hard on my lip to keep from screaming. Even though he wasn’t the one holding the whip, I knew Alpha would be listening, eager to hear my suffering. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
On the next strike, I gripped the pole tightly, my claws digging in. When it came, all of the air was sucked out of my lungs. I coughed and sputtered.
Strike after strike came relentlessly.
My back was on fire.
Warm liquid trickled down my leg.
He’d broken the skin after all.
No, not a lucky wolf.
My legs quivered out of control.
I could no longer hold myself up. My body sagged, a rag doll to be abused for Alpha’s pleasure. Tears streamed down my cheeks. With each kiss of the whip, my resolve to remain silent became more and more impossible, but I held on. Blood dripped freely from my mouth, where my canines had gnawed my lips to keep me from screaming.
My Wolf was crying out in my head, howling her pain, hurt and devastated. She didn’t understand how her mate could do this to her. How could he just stand by and let her be beaten? I didn’t have any answers for her.
Almost continuous low growls came from my audience. Both Langdon and Coal voicing their displeasure, but neither could help me...
…not without challenging Alpha.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the strikes stopped coming. Beta Ford stepped forward and cut my bindings. I fell to the ground in a heap, groaning loudly at the impact.
Calla sniveled impatiently, “Coal, let’s just go. It’s what she deserves. You know that.”
Langdon’s reply was biting as he repeated incredulously, ”It’s what she deserves? Your jackass of a boyfriend practically calls her a whore, just for speaking to me, and you think this is what she deserves?! Maybe if you kept a tighter leash on your mate,” he sneered the word, “he wouldn’t continue sniffing around other she-wolves. Or is that the problem? You know the truth. You know you will never measure up to the wolf she is.” He made a sound of dissatisfaction in his throat. “He’s a fool for letting her go, particularly with you as the consolation prize.”
Calla huffed furiously, “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
Coal’s voice dropped low and dangerous, “Go home, Calla!”
She protested, “But—”
He cut her off with an angry roar, “I said GO!”
She gasped. I couldn’t see her, given my face was currently planted in the dirt, but I heard her quickly run back in the direction of the Solstice Celebration.
I shivered uncontrollably. Beta Ford walked away, and suddenly, Langdon and Coal were crouched down next to me. I panted through the pain.
Langdon hissed, “We need to get her home. That bastard hit her hard enough to pierce her skin. Her wounds need to be cleaned, so they don’t get infected.”
Coal’s voice was flat with dismay, “She doesn’t have a home.”
“I’m sorry, what did you just say?” Langdon asked, his tone rising.
Coal’s words were even quieter, his shame coming through, “Alpha sentenced her to live in the wild once she shifted.”
I noticed he left out the rest of the story.
“What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” Langdon snarled. “She’s just a girl! A helpless and defenseless girl. I just met her, but even I know she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Where are her parents? Her family?”
Coal answered, “She has no family.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Langdon hissed. “Well, I’m not leaving her like this. It’s pretty clear that you’re worthless. I guess it’s a damn good thing you rejected her.”
Fierce growls rumbled from Coal’s chest as he spat, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I know what I can see—a future alpha, not just turning his back on his mate, but he stands by and does nothing while she is abused. So, tell me, what exactly am I missing?”
“There is more going on than meets the eye,” Coal growled, his voice dropping so low, I wondered if I had heard him correctly.
What was he talking about?
Langdon snapped, “Well, I don’t give a shit about any of it. Right now, this shewolf needs medical attention.”
“I know,” Coal replied, his tone hard and determined, “Take her five miles northeast, toward the mountain. Follow my scent markers, and you will find a crystal water steam near where she stays. I will get the supplies needed and meet you there.”
And then he was gone.
I couldn’t open my eyes. I didn’t want to. It hurt too much. Every inch of my body screamed in agony. Death was an alluring promise of peace, a sweet dream.
Why was I the holding on?
It made no sense. Why was I trying to survive in a world that clearly didn’t want me…when the sum-total of my existence was pain?
“Give me your shirts,” Langdon’s voice penetrated my tortured haze. Grunts of agreement followed. In the next minute, I was wrapped like a burrito, the scent and lingering body warmth of several wolves surrounding me tightly, all except my back.
Langdon lifted me against the solid wall of his chest. He tried to be gentle, but the movement caused stabbing jolts of fire in my back. I let out a small cry and bit my lip again to stifle the sound.
“Shh...” he soothed. “We’re going to get you taken care of soon.” He held me so that I faced his shoulder. My legs hung straight, while his powerful arm wrapped around and his hand tucked under my butt, securely keeping me in place.
And then we were in motion.
Langdon stayed in his skin, but the other Onyx Moon wolves shifted into fur, much preferring the advantage of their heightened senses of sight, hearing and smell.
Eyes closed. Teeth gritted. I desperately worked to keep the contents of my belly from coming up my throat. That’d be another fantastic way to make an impression. In addition to already subjecting him to the unfortunate experience of witnessing my punishment and humiliation, I could top it off with throwing up all over his back.
No, no matter what it took, I determined to keep the contents of my stomach exactly where they were.
After several minutes, the unmistakable scent of water filled my nose. Langdon carefully removed me from his shoulder and placed me face down against the cold, hard earth. I couldn’t hold back my cries, tears splashing down my cheeks. I panted, trying to catch my breath.
Langdon held my hand and whispered calming words while we waited for Coal.
I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by because my brain couldn’t register anything but pain, but abruptly, the earthy scent filling my nose changed into something much more pleasurable—cedar and spice.