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Chapter 2

*** Present Day ***

JASMINE

After spending the last hour putting together dinner that consisted of crispy oven-baked chicken thighs, twice-baked potatoes, and a garden salad, my parents and I sat down to an early meal.  We always ate early on Sundays so that we'd make it in time for the weekly temple service that started at 6:30 in the evening.  As I was cutting into my chicken, my dad looked over at me and asked, "So, Jasmine, have you given any more thought to your college major?"

It was mid-June, and I had just completed my freshman year of college a month earlier.  Although I was quite clearly an adult now, my parents still treated me the same way they had in high school—micromanaging my life.  "Honey, she's going into biochemistry as we did of course!" my mom jumped in before I could reply.  "Then she can work at the pharmaceutical lab just like us.  I mean, clearly, there aren't many career options around here, so this would be perfect for a smart girl like Jasmine."

"Is that what you're planning to do, Jasmine?" my dad looked at me.

"We already talked about this," I replied, annoyed by the repetitive conversation.  "I'd have to move onto campus if I go into biochemistry because it requires taking lab classes."

"That's okay, right?  It's been years now since, well, you know," my mom said.  She hated the topic just as much as I did.  She couldn't stand anything that made anyone in our family anything less than perfect.

"Yeah," I agreed.  "I'll think about it."  Don't get me wrong, I would have loved to live on campus during the school year.  My parents still treated me like a kid, never allowing me to do anything.  I honestly thought my dad would never even allow me to get my driver's license!  After begging him for almost three years, he finally agreed to it after I graduated high school.  I was now actively saving to buy a car.  Hopefully, that would give me some of the freedom I was currently lacking in my life!

The problem with going to school in person was that we lived in the middle of nowhere northern Vermont, not far from the Canadian border, so I would have had to move onto campus.  That would have required me to be incessantly vigilant at keeping up the ruse of being human, something that wasn't always possible for me; something I felt so ashamed about but couldn't control. Most other werewolves had no problem blending in with human society, and many werewolves went away to human colleges.  But I had a flaw. it had been a couple of years since it'd been an issue.  Maybe if I could go another year, I'd finally feel comfortable enough to move onto campus and follow in my parents' footsteps.

For now, it was better that I just stayed a remote student.  Yes, it sucked—I was still under my parents' thumbs as an adult.  But it just wasn't worth the risk.

Werewolves generally preferred to live in sparsely populated regions, and they naturally felt at ease in the cold weather.  There were even more werewolf packs up in isolated parts of Canada and Alaska.  In fact, my mom's original pack was in Alaska, although we rarely saw that part of the family—we'd only ever visited them a few times and they never came here.  I was much closer with my paternal grandparents since they lived down the street from us and always watched me growing up.

My parents met in college, and, upon graduating, moved back here, to my dad's pack, to work at a pharmaceutical research lab owned by the neighboring Autumn Moon Pack.  To afford the upkeep, most packs ran large, lucrative businesses.  Our pack's business was the only casino in the state, which was a popular tourist destination for humans, especially during fall foliage and ski season.  It was located about 20 miles away, near a human town.

We ate quietly until my mom spoke again, "So, I heard tonight's service should be more interesting than usual!"

"Why's that?" my dad asked.

"I heard Alpha James will finally be announcing the transition of title to his son."

"About time!" my dad exclaimed.  "Alpha James is getting up there in age.  What is he now, sixty-five-ish?  I think I was around two when he and Beta Alfred took title from their fathers.  The whole pack is getting weak now."

"What was he supposed to do—give his title to one of his illegitimate pups?" my mom snickered.  "He's only got the one legitimate son otherwise."

"We don't actually know if the rumors are true," my dad responded.

"Oh please, I've heard so many stories around the pack about his mistresses that were banished.  It's common with alphas.  They don't want any issues with their title passing to their legitimate heirs.  Easy fix, right?"

"I'm just glad the transition is finally happening.  That last battle our pack fought had way too many casualties.  I could see passing title in your late forties max.  But sixties?  That's just asking for a hostile takeover by another pack.  I can't understand why he let his son go away to college for four years.  Anything could have happened during that time.  We need a young, strong alpha to keep the pack in good shape."

After we finished up eating, we all piled into my parents' Tesla SUV to head to the temple service.  Because we lived so far out in the forest, it was impractical to have any car except an SUV or truck.  My parents were environmentally conscientious, so they bought the Tesla once they came out with an SUV option.  Our home was located in the outskirts of the territory, closer to the border, which was heavily patrolled by warrior werewolves.  The main entrance, which connected our pack to the outside world, was gated to keep intruders and humans out, not that humans ever really made it out this far into the deep Vermont woods.  If a human did happen to stumble across our pack, it could easily be explained away as being a private gated community or commune.

We drove into the downtown area of the pack, where the temple, pack schools, library, and some shops were located.  I worked at the pack bakery café with Lucy and had picked up full time hours during the summer in order to speed up the accumulation of funds for my future car.

When we arrived at temple, the pews were fuller than usual.  My family took our normal seats, toward the front.  Temple services were held twice a week—on Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.  Most people only attended on Sundays.  However, my family was very religious and always also attended on Monday, the lunar sabbath.  The alpha and beta families similarly attended both services as part of their obligations in leading the pack.

After we completed our regular chants and meditations, led by the temple priest, Alpha James took his place at the podium in front of the congregation, with his mate, the luna of the pack.  He looked good for a man in his mid-60s—you could easily tell that he had been devastatingly handsome in his youth.  Even at his age, he still had a thick head of black hair that had only partially greyed, and it was clear that he kept up with his training regimen.  Even his face had barely sagged through the years, with just moderate wrinkles lining his face, crow's feet surrounding his most prominent feature, the most enchanting blue eyes.  When he made eye contact, it felt like they were piercing through you, right into your soul.

The congregation was silent as he began to speak, "Good evening, my pack family, Midnight Maple Pack.  Thank you to everyone for joining me tonight for another beautiful service, put together by our talented priest, Bernard.  As usual, his sermon was thought-provoking and profound."  He nodded at the priest who smiled back at him.

Alpha James continued, "Earlier this week, I asked Bernard if I could have a few minutes tonight to make an announcement to the pack.  Looking around and seeing how many have joined us, I can see that word travels fast!  I am sure you are all just as anxious as I am to celebrate the good news that I will be revealing tonight.  It is with great pride that my mate, Luna Sienna, and I announce that our son, Blake, recently graduated with his business degree from the werewolf-led Grey Wolf University in Siberia.  With this update comes even better news that he will be returning later this week and will spend the remainder of the summer preparing to become your new leader.

"I invite everyone in the pack to witness the passing of the Alpha title to Blake on the evening of the autumnal equinox."  He paused for effect as everyone clapped and cheered.  Once everyone calmed down, he continued speaking, "While I am overjoyed to finally watch the son I raised and trained for this moment to succeed me, it is also a bittersweet event for me.  While unorthodox to reign for so long, it has afforded me the opportunity to get to know and become close to many pack families over the years.  I had the privilege to witness many young pups turn into strong warriors that trained and battled alongside me during the past four decades.  I feel the same pride that my late father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did as they led this pack and watched families thrive in this community.

"The alpha ceremony will be held in our outdoor stadium.  Afterward, we plan to have a fair to celebrate, with a traditional pack run at midnight.  We will be emailing additional information in the coming days.  I look forward to all of you joining my son and me for this momentous event."

After the alpha completed his speech, the entire congregation erupted into another round of applause.  Alpha James then stepped down from the podium and went to go mingle with families after the service.  Many people went over to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his upcoming retirement.  My parents, of course, rushed over as they were always anxious to have a good standing within the pack.

***

A few days later, Lucy got a group of us together for a day trip outside the pack, to Sand Bar State Park, a large beach along a river that runs between Vermont and New York.  Lucy's older brothers, Jack and Kyle, helped us load beach chairs and coolers into their SUVs.  Two of our friends from high school, Emma and Madison, arrived with large containers of food.

Seeing what was happening, Lucy's younger brothers, Mark and Neil, complained they were being left out, and her mom forced us to let them tag along too.  Lucy's father was a pack warrior, and his sons were all following in his footsteps.  Jack and Kyle were already full-time warriors, and her younger brothers would be joining them as soon as they graduated high school.  As you can imagine, Lucy's family portraits all looked like pages ripped straight out of a human Swedish catalog—all tall, blond, and toned.

Once the cars were packed up, Emma, Madison, Lucy, and I, along with Lucy's younger brothers, divided ourselves up amongst the two cars to drive down.  We were soon outside the gates of the pack and on our way.  The drive to the beach took about 45 minutes from the pack since we lived a fair bit north.  After we arrived, we brought everything out and set up our sitting area near a grill on the beach.  Being werewolves, we had much bigger appetites than the average human, so having an abundance of food available was necessary.  Jack and Kyle had packed a cooler full of meats to grill, Emma had made potato salad, Madison had made her famous baked beans, and Lucy and I had baked a huge batch of cookies and brownies the night before.

Lucy, Madison, Emma, and I unfolded a portable table and began setting it up to lay everything out while Jack and Kyle cleaned the grill and began the charcoal chimney starter.  Mark and Neil wasted no time stripping down to their bathing suits and running into the water.

As Kyle started throwing meat on the grill, Emma kept distracting him, brushing up against him.  After being all over each other for months beforehand, Kyle and Emma realized they were mates after Emma turned 18, which explained the strong attraction they had felt before confirming the mate bond.  They were now planning to move into a house together after getting married later in the summer.

"Gross!  Get a room!" Lucy shouted at the two of them, making a gagging face.  Lucy had a difficult time hiding her bitterness about the situation assumingly since things had turned out differently for her and Luke.  After planning a big trip for her eighteenth birthday to visit Luke in Quebec, she was devastated to learn they weren't fated to each other.  And despite the blow, they continued seeing each other anyway, against everyone's better advice.

Once the grill was going and we all sat down, a very tall, well-built man in a fitted black t-shirt and swim shorts approached the group.  He was very imposing—I couldn't help but notice him as he walked toward us from the parking lot, his swagger and air of confidence commanding my attention.  The first thing I noticed was his size—he was easily taller than everyone in attendance, which was saying something considering Lucy's whole family could be mistaken for a basketball team, and his brawny arms made it clear he was dedicated to the gym.  Lucy, Emma, Madison and I all gawked at his ripped body as he approached us.  As he got closer, I noticed how striking he was with the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow covering his prominent jaw, and thick, dark hair that fell casually over his sunglasses.  To be honest, I didn't even know men this hot actually existed outside of book covers for bodice rippers.  He was so sexy that I suddenly understood what made women lose all inhibitions and forget about the Moon Goddess.

Jack got up from his beach chair and waved the hot guy over.  He quickened his pace and strode directly over to our group.  "Hey, man!  You made it!  Wasn't sure if you would!" Jack patted the hot mystery man.  After the two of them shook hands and patted each other on the back, they turned in our direction.

The four of us women sat there with our mouths hanging open.  "Ladies, you might not remember this handsome fella, but this is Blake, our soon-to-be alpha," Jack introduced him to us.  I had almost forgotten that Jack had been close friends with the future alpha in high school.  Jack never let Lucy or me hang around his friends when we were younger, and Blake had left when I was only 15.  I barely remembered him.  I definitely didn't recall him being this ridiculously hot.

Blake pushed his sunglasses onto his head and came over to give a firm handshake to each one of us as we introduced ourselves.  "Damn, Blake, you've gotten hot!" Lucy exclaimed, taking his hand.

"You're looking quite well yourself, Lucy," he replied.  Madison and Emma both pushed forward to meet him.  Kyle put his arm around Emma, pulling her toward him after she shook hands with Blake.

He approached me and I instantly noticed that his eyes were a very piercing shade of blue, the same as his father's.  I could barely get the words out as I told him my name.  He stared deeply in my eyes as we shook hands, something I'd only ever witnessed confident older men do up until now.  He repeated my name back to me, "Jasmine, very nice to meet you," winking at me.  His stare lingered for a moment.  I felt like a silly little girl in his presence.

Lucy pulled out two very large water bottles and some plastic cups.  "I made us all some juice," she winked.  She poured some of her cocktail for each person.  "Be careful, it's really strong!"

I was initially planning to just drink water but being in such an imposing man's presence brought out my self-consciousness.  I couldn't help but suddenly wish I were cooler and prettier than I was, all my insecurities coming forward.  It didn't help that Blake was not only ridiculously good-looking, but he was also essentially the prince of the pack.  Once he became Alpha, he'd be the equivalent of a king—the most powerful person in the pack, and responsible for all the laws and consequences.

I did my best to position myself in my beach chair in a way so that my stomach rolls wouldn't form from slouching forward.  I sat up straight and flexed my abdominal muscles, putting all the hours at the gym to good use.  I was thankful for the drink to calm my nerves, overtrying to hold it in a sophisticated way.  Lucy wasn't kidding—this drink was strong.  I drank it faster than I had initially intended and began to feel buzzed.  As if reading my thoughts, Kyle exclaimed, "Damn, Luce, what did you put in this?"

"Just an old secret recipe I have.  Like Mom says, nothing like alcohol to liven things up!" she laughed.  She refilled all our drinks and then we began making our plates of food as the meat was finished being grilled.  Blake handed me a plate, nodding at me.  Goddess, he was so hot.  I took less than usual, not wanting to overeat and become bloated.  After we finished eating, Lucy refilled all our drinks again.  Blake and Jack sat down in the chairs next to mine, deep in conversation.  I could sense his presence next to me as I tried to focus my attention on the conversation I was having with Madison, who was seated on the other side of me.  I normally controlled myself more than this, but my nerves had caused me to drink a lot more than I was intending.  While werewolves did have a much higher alcohol tolerance than humans, it was quickly becoming clear that I was overdoing it.  It didn't help that Lucy consistently filled my cup to the top, always eager to get me drunk.

After we cleaned up a bit, everyone stripped down to their bathing suits and Lucy led us to go in the water.  As I began to follow everyone, I lost my balance.  I was about to fall over when Blake caught me, wrapping his arm against my back to steady me.  I stared up at him, my eyes wide, speechless at the situation and in disbelief that the future alpha was holding me.  “Lightweight I see,” he smirked.

My face burned hot.

"Or maybe you're just so taken with me that you can't help but faint in my presence."  Holy shit, this guy was cocky!  I was so drunk I couldn't even think of a comeback.  I knew this was one of those times I'd think of a comeback hours later and hate myself for not coming up with it at the time it was needed.  "Come on, you can hang on to me.  Just don't act too obvious so we don't get arrested for drinking in public and, in your case, underage drinking."

He led me into the water, which was cold, but warm enough for those with werewolf blood, and alcohol blood, as in my case.  I couldn't help but notice his jacked body now that he had removed his shirt, his broad shoulders, large traps, and wide chest on display.  My eyes trailed down his body, noticing his rock-hard abs, each muscle projecting against the deep grooves etched in his skin.  His swim shorts sat low on his hips, revealing the well-defined v-cuts on his lower abdomen.  Damn, he had an amazing body—he could have been a fitness model.

He had me get on his back while we waded in the water.  I gripped his shoulders, which were extremely broad and hard.  He leaned forward and pulled my legs around him.  Holy shit, my entire body was pressed against his.  I could feel my boobs pushed against his muscular back.  This was definitely more intimate than I'd ever been with anyone of the opposite sex.  My heart was racing, and I was a bit light-headed.  But it also felt kind of nice, an energy pulsing through my veins, a greedy indulgence in feeling his skin against mine.  If I were sober, I'd be dying of nervousness right now.  I was very thankful for the alcohol because it almost made me feel relaxed laying against his back, my arms draped over his very broad shoulders and his hands gripping my thighs.  The thoughts, 'holy shit!  This guy is hot! And ripped! And the future Alpha!' repeated themselves in my head.  It felt surreal that this was actually happening.  Breaking my internal panic, Blake glanced back toward me and said, "So, Jasmine, tell me about yourself."

"Me?" I asked, completely blanking on anything I could possibly tell him about myself.

"Your name is Jasmine, right?"

I started giggling, the buzz overtaking me. "Yes, Jasmine, that's me!"

"Ok, well you still remember your name, so that's good," he chuckled.  I could feel his body shake against mine.  "How old are you, Jasmine?"

I stammered, "Twenty, no, nineteen, but I'll be twenty soon!  What about you?"

He gave another small chuckle and replied, "twenty-three." He moved us closer to the shore, and let me off his back, turning so he was facing me, taking my hand in his, a very intimate gesture, his large hand engulfing my small one.  His palms felt calloused—he must have worked a lot with his hands, or, I realized, pumped a lot of iron.  The water came about to my waist.  He gazed at me intensely—or maybe it was just his eyes that were so piercing that it felt intense.

"I'm an only child," I blurted out.  Why did I just say that?

He smirked at me, moving closer.

"It's just me and my dictator parents," my voice trailed.

"I have one of those too," his eyes seemed to soften.

"Your eyes," I said.

"My eyes?" he squinted at me, appearing to be intently focused on me, as if he was struggling to read my mind.

"They're beautiful," I replied.  Goddess, did I just tell the hottest guy I'd ever met he had beautiful eyes?  The filter that normally kept my every thought from being verbalized was clearly not functioning at all whatsoever right now.  "All of you is beautiful."  Did I just say that too?

If I didn't know better, he suddenly looked a little sad.  The corners of eyebrows and mouth drooped slightly.  If we hadn't been making such intense eye contact with each other, I would never have even noticed.  His free hand tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.

"Hey, Blake, catch!" Kyle called to him, throwing a ball his way.  Blake turned to catch the ball, and then threw it back to one of Lucy's other brothers.  I began to move my feet, losing my balance again just as Blake turned back toward me.  I fell forward and he caught me against his body, grabbing my sides to steady me, his large hands touching my bare skin.  My body burned from the compromising position I'd gotten myself into, my whole upper body pressed against his torso, my head pushed up against his muscular chest.

"Shit, I drank way too much," I said pushing myself off Blake and standing back up.  I can't believe I just did that.  He looked down at me, taking my hand again.

"Hey, you're fucked up just like me," he softly chuckled.  I stared at him, wondering what that could possibly mean.  It seemed like he was lost in thought.  Suddenly, he looked back down at me, and continued speaking, "But don't worry, unlike me, you'll be okay tomorrow.  I better stay here with you and make sure you don't drown.  It is my duty to protect the lives of all pack members after all."

"You're going to be the alpha.  Alpha Blake!" I blurted out.  What was wrong with me?

The corners of his mouth turned upwards.  "Yes, that's true."

"Do you want to be the alpha?" I asked.

"I don't really have much of a choice, but I heard you can get some prime pussy as an alpha," he smirked.

I couldn't believe how vulgarly he was speaking.  I glared at him and responded, "I guess that means you're not saving yourself for your mate."

He suddenly had a pained look in his face, and looked at me very seriously, "My mate is dead."

The water turned icy as I felt a chill creep up my back, instantly wearing off some of my buzz.  Taken aback, I replied, "Wow, I'm really sorry.  That's horrible." I felt like I should say more than that, so I continued, "If you ever want to talk about it more, I'm a good listener," I squeezed his hand.

"Thanks, I appreciate it, Jasmine.  You seem like a nice girl.  You probably shouldn't be talking to someone like me."  I stared at him, wondering what he meant.

"Why not?" I asked.

"There's a lot you don't know about me."  His eyes suddenly looked dark, ominous, dangerous, startling me.

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