When my best friend Sylvie turned eighteen, I took her to an amusement park with the tallest roller coaster in Oregon. She had a blast. I lost my voice, screaming in terror, but I did it for her.
I made her promise to keep things low key for my birthday. She won’t tell me what she planned, but insists we need to do it the day before my birthday and promises I will love it.
I try to stay as still as possible when I hear the door to my room creak open because I know what’s next. It’s the same every year.
Three…… twwwoooo…... one……
“UMPH!” All my air gets pushed out when Sylvie pounces on my mountain of bedding. She laughs maniacally while she tries to tickle me through the blankets.
“ZeeZee! I know you’re in there somewhere!” She squeals from outside my fortress. “We have so much to do today! GET UP!!”
“Sylvie! Come on, you promised low key,” I groan from the bottom of the pile at her weight on top of me.
The covers pull away and I’m uncomfortably close to Sylvie’s megawatt smile, sparkling brown eyes, and short brown hair, “How do you feel? Is she awake yet? Can you feel her?”
“No, Sylvie. She’ll wake up at the Mating Gathering tonight.” I squint against the bright light. My head is pounding from yesterday’s whiskey. Sylvie and Liam turned eighteen a couple of months ago and have been talking non-stop about their wolves ever since. Sylvie's boyfriend Mark turned eighteen last-week. He hasn't said much about his wolf except that he's pretty cool.
“Whoa! Are you okay, bestie?” She looks concerned and crawls under the covers with me. “Were you crying? No crying the day before your birthday, Zara. What happened?”
“Liam and I, well, we sort of had a fight last night.” Tears pool in my eyes again. She wipes them away while I tell her exactly what happened. “It was like he couldn’t control himself, Sylvie. I was so scared that I bit him and now he won’t answer my texts or calls.”
“Put your foot down, Zara.” She looks at me sympathetically. “I know it’s difficult for you to stand up for yourself, and he’s about to be your fated mate, but you can still have boundaries.”
“You’re right. Thank you for listening. I can always count on you.” Her warm hug makes me feel better.
“Well, before your birthday surprise, there is a surprise waiting for you downstairs.” She raises her eyebrow and pinches my cheek while she gives me a mischievous look. “Get yourself cleaned up. I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
I shower quickly and go to meet Sylvie. When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I stop short and feel my heart hit a hard beat. Liam is in the living room with an enormous bouquet. Sylvie is peeking through the front door, but steps outside and closes it when I make eye contact with her.
“Hi, Z, I-I’m sorry I didn’t call you back last night. The whiskey got to me more than I realized.” He gives me an apologetic look and smiles, melting my heart. “I promise I won’t get drunk like that anymore. It’s not fair to you.”
He still has a bite mark on his neck and I see he wrapped his hand in a bandage when he hands the flowers to me. His wolf hasn’t healed him yet? I didn’t know I bit him that hard. I step forward to touch his neck. “Liam, a-are you okay? You aren’t heal-”
“I have something else for you.” He flinches away and ignores me. If I didn’t know better, I would think something is wrong, but I can’t tell what it is. He pulls a thin box out from behind him and hands it to me.
“Liam! Wh-what is all this?” I smile and blink back tears. Liam didn’t have a job while we were in school so he could focus on training to be accepted into the pack guard trainee program. Once we graduated, he got accepted, but he has only had a couple of paychecks so far. We both agreed he should save his money so we could start looking for an apartment together after the Mating Gathering.
“Just open it, Zara. It’s not the real thing yet, but one day, when I make senior guard, it will be.” His hazel eyes search mine, as if he is hoping to never talk about last night again. “Until then, I want everyone to know you’re mine.”
The way he says the last part makes me take a sharp breath. It should be comforting, right? He wants everyone to know we are together. So why does it feel like there is more to his tone?
I open the box slowly and find a gold necklace with a heart-shaped pendant. The pendant has a diamond in the middle. There is an ‘L’ engraved on one half and a ‘Z’ on the other.
“Oh, Liam… it’s beautiful!” I gasp, holding up the necklace to the light. The little diamond sparkles brilliantly. “Can you put it on for me?”
“Of course, Z.” I hand him the necklace and turn around. He secures the necklace and wraps his arms around me from behind, leaning over to kiss my neck. He takes a deep breath in, taking in my scent. It’s something he’s done a thousand times before. Why does it feel uncomfortable now? “I can smell your wolf waking up, Z. I bet she’s going to be just as beautiful as you.”
“Thank you.” I turn around in his arms and give him a soft kiss. “You and Mark are picking us up tonight, right? We are all going to walk from here?”
“Yeah,” he caresses my cheek and admires me, “we’ll be here before sundown.”
“Okay.” I relax a little and let myself put my arms around him in return. “Thank you for the gifts. You didn’t have to.”
“You deserve it, Z.” He kisses me again and steps back. “I have to get going. Have fun with Sylvie today.”
“Okay. Thank you.” I smile and watch him leave, stopping to talk to Sylvie for a moment. I put the flowers in water and wait for him to leave.
When I’m sure he’s gone, I go outside to meet up with my best friend.
“Everything good now?” She tilts her head and smiles at me.
“Yeah. J-just a misunderstanding.” I nod at her. It’s not a misunderstanding, I think to myself. Something is going on with my boyfriend that he isn’t telling me about, but I don’t want to disappoint Sylvie.
“Okay, good. Ready for your surprise?” Sylvie asks, bouncing up and down on her toes.
“Yeah, I’m ready.” I smile at her excitement.
“For your eighteenth birthday... we are having... a spa day!” She says in a grandiose sing-song voice. “Massages, nails, hair, make-up, the works.”
“Sooo… just the two of us? No boyfriends?” I squeal with glee. She nods her head and pulls me to her car.
“Whoa, ZeeZee. You look like a supermodel.” Sylvie’s eyes get big when the stylist finishes my hair and make-up.
“Thanks,” I look at my hands in my lap and blush at her compliment, “but you’re the one who looks like you could be on a runway, Sylvie.”
Sylvie rolls her eyes in frustration at my timidness. “Fine, you look like dog vomit. Let’s go. We need to get changed before the guys get to your house.”
We get back to my house, where our moms help us get into our dresses and touch up our makeup. They sit down and explain what it will feel like when the moon is at its peak and the Moon Goddess sends down her blessings, allowing us to find our mates.
“You might feel warm inside, even though it’s supposed to be cool out tonight,” Mom explains. “It’s a little uncomfortable, but completely normal.”
“Just remember, once you find your mates, you don’t have to go out and, well... mate right away. You’ll have the rest of your lives together for that.” Sylvie’s mom lectures us about mating etiquette.
“Mom, Mark and I have been dating for five years. Zara and Liam have been together for over six years. We’ve BEEN waiting!” Sylvie exaggerates with her hands when she talks, making the rest of us giggle.
“If it turns out the boys are not your destined mates, try not to be disappointed. Be happy for them if they find someone else,” Mom adds, “and don’t be obnoxious if you find someone else, either. It’s not polite.”
I roll my eyes and tell her there’s no way Liam and Mark are not our destined mates, but I’m interrupted when the doorbell rings. Sylvie and I jump up, ready to greet our boyfriends.
“Zara, you look amazing.” Liam stares at me in awe. He takes my hand and kisses it. “I don’t know if I’ll even notice the full moon tonight. I won’t be able to take my eyes off of you.”
“Thank you.” I murmur, not able to look at him.
“Zara?” I hear Mark say. He drops his arms from around Sylvie’s waist and stares at me. He is silent for a moment too long, making things uncomfortable. “You look so… damn hot.”
The tone of his voice isn’t one you use with your best friend’s girlfriend. It’s not one you use with a friend you’ve known since elementary school. It’s thick with passion and lust. I feel my mouth open and put my hands up to cover my face.
“MARK!” Sylvie pushes against his chest and growls.
“Dude, what the Hell?” Liam positions himself so I’m standing behind him. I peek around his arm to see what is happening.
Mom steps forward to defend me. The growl in her voice shows her wolf, Daisy, is close to the surface. “Mark Pearson, what’s gotten into you?”
Mark blinks a few times and shakes his head, almost exactly like Liam and Dad did yesterday. “Oh Goddess. I-I’m sorry, Zara. I don’t know what... Liam, I’m sorry, man.”
“Don’t let it happen again.” Liam’s tone is defensive, still holding me behind him. “Why don’t you and Sylvie get a head start? We’ll catch up in a minute.”
Mark nods and gives me an apologetic look while Sylvie leads him out of the living room.
“You okay, Z?” Liam takes my face in his hands and searches my eyes.
I clear my throat. What I want to say ‘no’, but it comes out as, “Y-yeah. I’m fine. L-et’s get going.”
Mom gives me a heavy hug and a long kiss on the cheek before Liam leads me out the door and we walk in the direction of the pack territory’s main gate.
“What do you think your wolf will look like, Zara?” Sylvie turns around and asks, her brown eyes sparkling in the evening light. “Oh, I hadn’t even thought about it.” I put my finger to my lip, contemplating the idea. Mom’s wolf is dark russet brown and Dad’s wolf is a dark gray, “I guess she will be a dark color, but I’m not worried about that. I just want her to be nice.” “Don’t worry, Z. The Moon Goddess chooses the wolf that’s right for each of us.” Liam takes my hand and kisses it reassuringly. “Whatever she looks like, I’m sure she’ll be as beautiful as you.” My concerns about yesterday and this morning fade away as we get closer to Emerald Mountain pack territory. I can’t believe after six years of dating, we are finally on our way to our pack’s Mating Gathering to find out if we’re destined mates. There’s no way we’re not. I can’t imagine being with anyone other than Liam. “Z, in less than three hours, you’re gonna be eighteen. How does it fee
I look around, confused. Panic is building in my chest. People around us are finding their mates, smiling and laughing, but something seems off. The guys close to us put their noses in the air, then look toward Liam and I. There is an odd look on everyone’s faces as they hone in on me. “Mate,” Mark says from next to me. I turn and look at him, confused. He is looking at me with a mix of desire, anger, and confusion at his confession. “Mark, what are you talking about, babe? You’re my mate. Not Zara’s,” Sylvie tries to get his attention off of me, but he is staring me down, making me feel very self-conscious. I try to hide myself behind Liam. Next to Mark, several other guys look at us the same way. “Mate,” they murmur when they see me. All of them. The meadow grows quiet except for the sound of the male werewolves calling me their mate. I look beyond Liam and see that even Alpha Williams is calling me his mate. I shake my head, “No. What’s wrong with all of you?” Sylvie is tryin
Keller’s POV “Hey, Jensen. Ping my phone and send a car to my location. I think I got one with some potential.” I pull my car over and park. When I double check the rearview mirror, I can see the girl still sitting on the curb. “You sure?” Jensen asks with a sarcastic tone in his voice, making me roll my eyes. “Have I ever been wrong before?” I snarl into the phone at my oldest brother. “Hey, don’t get an attitude with me, you little shit." He snarls back. “I’m not sending out a car unless you’re sure.” “Send a car, asshole." I say, and hang up on him. I take a deep breath and frown internally. Now it’s time for the part I hate the most. It feels more slimy and disgusting every time. Secretly, I want to get out of the family business. I don’t know how I could even approach Dad with the subject. I step out of the Range Rover and smooth my clothes down before I approach the shabby-looking girl sitting on the curb. “Uh, hi. This is kinda a rough part of town. A-are you okay?” I sq
I pick up my phone and dial Dad. “Ah, Keller, my baby boy. Jensen said you hooked one already.” I can hear the pride in his voice when he picks up. “Two actually. They’re twins.” I correct him, feeling good about the acquisition. “Keep them together if you can. I sort of promised them.” “Twins!” He exclaims. “Haha! They’re way more valuable together than separate. Definitely keeping them together. Good job, son.” “Thanks, Dad.” I can’t help but smile at the rare compliment from my old man, even if I feel like a slimeball. “I’m putting a little extra in your account as we speak, and I want you to take the rest of the day off." He starts off happy, but his tone quickly changes. "But first, I have other things to discuss with you.” “What’s up, Dad?” There’s always a catch with my dad. “Mom and I have been talking. We decided it’s a good time for me to think about retirement.” He sounds serious now. “That means I’m most likely going to be handing the business over to Jensen if he ca
I stand up from the booth and walk toward her. “Guys, I-I’ll be right back.” Sam peeks over the top of the booth. “Oh man, is that chick okay?” Jasper says something too, but all I can hear is my heartbeat and Rocky losing his mind at the sight of our mate. The night manager, Lucy, is patting the girl’s hand, trying to comfort her. The girl’s eyes get wide with fear as I approach, and she tries to pull away. “No! Lucy, no! Don’t let him hurt me, please.” She backs away and sobs. I grab her by the upper arm before she can take off and lead her to the kitchen. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” I announce a little too loudly. “Lucy, can I take her to the back?” “Uh, y-yeah, that would probably be a good idea.” Lucy looks nervously at the other customers who are staring at the scene. “NO! PLEASE! DON’T HURT ME! PLEASE!” The girl claws my hand, trying to pull away. “I’ll pick up their tabs.” I point to the customers and drag the screaming girl into the kitchen. As I tow her along, I no
Fifteen minutes later, I pull up in front of a white house with blue shutters. There’s a silver car in the driveway as well as two sedans from the pack fleet. “Mom is here!” She sounds relieved and tries to open the door. “You stay in the car with Sam and Jasper for a minute, Zara.” I lock the doors before she can open it. “I need to have a word with your mom first.” I look in the rearview and watch Sam take a swig from a bottle of rum he found in the back seat and try to hand it to her. She shakes her head sadly at him and looks out the window at her house. I step out of the SUV and walk up to the house. I’ve never met a sigma who still has a family. How did they not know they were putting her in danger when they sent her to the Mating Gathering tonight? There are a couple of lights on even though it is after two-thirty a.m. I ring the doorbell and stand back. After a minute, a woman peeks her head through the skinny window beside the door, then cracks the door open an inch.
I pull into an empty shopping center parking lot so I can concentrate. “Ahh, I hate when he gets like this.” Jasper says into the back seat. “Give him a minute, Zara. He’ll have something brilliant to say soon.” I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, then get out of the car. I open the back door. “Zara, can I talk to you outside for a moment?” “Here?” She asks, looking around the empty parking lot. “What? Now you don’t trust me?” I put my hands on my hips. She tries to get out, but it’s a far drop to the ground for how little she is. Especially since she isn’t wearing shoes. “C-can you help me… Please?” “I could just put you in my pocket.” I smirk at her, holding out my hand. Sam, who usually laughs at my dumb jokes, is suspiciously quiet behind her. I look over and see him passed out, hugging the empty liquor bottle like a baby. Jasper is scrolling through his phone, pretending to ignore us. Zara slowly slips her hand into mine and lets me help her out of the car. “You don
When I get back into the thick trees, Zara is curled up in a ball, crying silently and rocking herself back and forth with her arms over her head. Rocky flashes an image of me giving her a comforting hug. I consider it for a moment, then I sigh heavily and roll my eyes when I realize he is trying to manipulate me just as much as she is. “No, Rocky. Just be happy I’m cutting this one loose and not in for processing.” I snarl at him. “Get up, Zara." I reach my hand out to her. “I want to teach you something before I leave.” At first she doesn’t answer, she just stops rocking and holds still in her crouched position, just like they all do. I stand patiently with my hand outstretched for at least ten minutes before she lifts her head up and looks at me with fat tears rolling down her cheeks. “Wh-what?” “I’m going to teach you how to shift.” I lean forward so she’ll take my hand to stand up. “You need to shift before the sun comes up so your wolf can get her full strength. Otherwise, y