I rounded the corner and appeared in the dining hall just in time to spot Elijah and the woman who I’d only seen in photographs.
For half a second, they were wrapped up in their own world. One of his hands came to rest on hers as he said something that made them both laugh. Elijah had been right when he said the camera didn’t do her justice.
His phone couldn’t capture the bounciness of her glossy brown hair, or the beauty mark above her perfectly symmetrical lips. If it weren’t for the charcoal pants suit that fit her slender figure as though it had been tailored for it—which it probably had, I would’ve thought she were a model and not the Luna of an entire pack.
“Ah, there she is.” Elijah’s eyes lit up as he spotted me at the other end of the table, hovering just a few feet from the doorway. When Sylvia turned to face me, he gave me a look that said he knew exactly where I had been and what I’d been up to. “Sylvia this is Violet.”
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting the girl Elijah’s told me so much about, although—you’re not a girl anymore, are you?” Her eyes settled on my face, and while they were firm and assessing, I was surprised at the lack of intimidation I felt.
She approached me and took in everything from my pinned back curls and tattered jeans with a single look. It was instinct for me to notice how long her eyes lingered on my scars, and I couldn’t help but be taken aback when they flitted over them as though they weren’t even there.
“I suppose not.” I shook my head, hoping my manners weren’t too rusty from how much time I spent tucked away in the cabin. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you, Luna.”
“Oh, call me Sylvia. That title will be useless to me once Xavier remarries in the spring.” She waved a hand, gesturing to the table in a silent command. The diamond bracelet around her wrist twinkled from the movement. I took the seat to her right and Elijah her left, giving her my full attention as she spoke. “Has he told you much of what I do for a living, Violet?”
“Well, I didn’t know about the Luna part until today. Elijah has told me about your work with the hospitals in the area, and that you own a research center, but I’m afraid I don’t know much else.” I admitted somewhat reluctantly, already determined not to disappoint this woman.
“Oh, it’s perfectly fine. It just gives me an excuse to explain, and I always take an opportunity to go into my work.” She said with a proud smile.
I gave my undivided attention, nodding and making sounds of interest as she explained her life’s work and passion. The fervor in her voice made it impossible not to get sucked in. The title of Luna was just another achievement under her belt, one that came with her marriage to Alpha Xavier. Science and all things unknown were her true passions.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Violet. How much do you know about the rogue gene?” Sylvia’s hands were clasped together as she waited, and as I looked down at them I couldn’t help but notice the very obvious tan line where her wedding ring once was.
“I know some things…” I told her, swallowing back the sour taste that filled my mouth and threatened to ruin my appetite. “Like how it’s caused by wolves reproducing with someone other than their mate. There’s no way to test for it, and it can suddenly appear at any point during adolescence and make them go crazy. It’s impossible to prevent and can’t be stopped or slowed down. Well, not permanently anyway.”
Only wolfsbane, a potent and addictive substance to our kind, had some semblance of an affect on the gene that made werewolves across the globe turn feral.
Pride like golden fireworks filled her eyes, turning them a myriad of dazzling colors. Her lightly painted lips tilted up in a wry smile as she said, “Elijah told me you can keep a secret. Is that true, Violet?”
Thankfully, all she wanted was a nod because I wasn’t sure I could trust my voice.
Sylvia leaned forward in her seat, her voice taking on an excited tone. “The scientists I employ have found a way to test for the rogue gene…” For a split second my heart threatened to break free from my chest. Its rapid beat was deafening in my ears, but subsided when she said, “…but only after the patient has completed their first shift. We’re so much closer to coming up with a way to determine how strong the gene is before it’s activated.”
Lost in surprise, I hardly noticed Horace come through the kitchen doors, pushing a large metal serving cart full of steaming plates of food.
Only Alphas could reproduce with someone other than their mate, since they were required to have children that could take on the duties of the pack. Hundreds of years of history and research proved that an Alpha’s genetics were simply too strong to be affected by the rogue gene.
According to scientists like the ones Sylvia employs, the rogue gene had various levels of severity. The worst was what the warriors protected us from, the beasts no longer able to take form of a man, frothing at the mouth as they werewolf and human alike. A mild case might look like some severe anger issues and a disposition for trouble.
“Do you think it’s possible to erase the rogue gene?” I asked, flushing at how clueless I sounded.
The mountains that surrounded our town, the ones that provided endless snow and freezing winds, they were what protected us from the rogues who had lost their human forms.
“Erase? Unfortunately, no. Our goal is to eventually isolate and neutralize the rogue gene entirely.” Sylvia clasped her hands together. “It’s not that we want to encourage having children with another unmated wolf, but it’s an option our kind deserve. Even with the find your mate programs, there are thousands of werewolves whose mates have passed or who are in engagements of their own.”
“What is the find your mate program?” I tried and failed not to sound too curious, but I had never heard of such a thing.
“I knew you would be interested; everyone is.” Sylvia laughed. “We get together with packs around the country, and have our unmated citizens meet in a safe environment. Over time affordability has increased exponentially. Even our low-income citizens, students, and elderly, can apply for the program.” Her smile turned brittle and dry, “Ask Xavier who was responsible and he’ll tell you he backed my ‘little program’ for months. Only when he saw its success did he even care to turn his head.”
“That’s amazing.” I took care not to lie, because Sylvia seemed like the type of woman to see through that in a minute. “You’re going to change things for everyone.”
Finding my mate was an innocent fantasy fueled by the daydreams of an outcast who wanted more. It’s not that I’ve given up hope, but with years came the understanding that not everyone was destined to find their mate in this life.
What I now wanted was companionship, a partner that could see past the scars marring my body, even if it didn’t come with a mate-bond attached.
“That is the plan.” Sylvia nodded proudly, but then narrowed her eyes at the empty seat beside me. “Where is that boy…Horace, have you seen—”
“I’m here, mother!” A young voice shouted from down the hall, followed by the fast patter of small feet. A head of curly brown hair rounded the corner, followed by hazel eyes, and flushed cheeks. “I’m here!”
It was the boy I had caught raiding the pantry, who I now knew was Sylvia’s youngest son. He pulled out the chair beside me, his little huffs loud in comparison to everything else, and sat down. In his haste, he had skipped over a button on the shirt he wore. The cuffs were undone as well, flapping at his small wrists.
“Graham, I thought I told you to change as soon as you got home from school.” A frown twitched at the corners of Sylvia’s lips. “It’s impolite to show up late and half-dressed when we’re expecting company. We will talk about this later, once your brother gets back from his trip. It’ll save me from giving the same lecture twice.”
“Sorry, mother.” Graham smiled sheepishly.
I had no problem waiting a couple days to meet the future Alpha of this pack. The one in our old pack was only kind and empathetic when his Luna was within sniffing distance. It was her soft spot for me that kept him from tossing me back into the woods.
Thick trails of steam curled and danced above each of our plates, forming faces that winked and smiled before dissipating. Sylvia took a small spoonful of soup in front of her and brought it to her lips.
“Norma is from Louisiana. She visits her family there occasionally, and always comes back with new recipes. She’s incredibly stingy with them, but I think it’s because she doesn’t trust anyone to make it better than her.” Sylvia’s laughter was warm.
It was impossible for me not to notice the small garden salads placed in front of Sylvia and I, or the heaping plates of jambalaya and lack of salad Graham and Elijah received.
‘Is that shrimp on Elijah’s plate?’ Lacey whined, the sound a low whistle in my head.
‘This isn’t our house, Lacey. Let’s not be ungrateful.’ I scolded her.
The salty and spicy taste of soup danced across my tongue, heavy with herbs and what I thought might be a dash of hot sauce. The thin broth warmed my mouth and soothed the snarling of my stomach.
I forced myself to slow down and match Sylvia’s pace as she turned to her son and said, “This is Elijah, the man I’ve been telling you about, and his adoptive daughter, Violet.”
No matter how impervious I’ve become to harsh words, some part of me always tensed when meeting new people—especially children. They had no filter; no problems voicing their curiosity and often disgust.
His eyes flitted down to the thick scar along my neck, and to the one across my shoulder, ending just above my collar bone. The long sleeves and jeans I wore covered the rest. Even though I vowed not to hide the evidence of my forgotten past, I wanted to make a good impression this one time.
I didn’t look away from Graham, even though I could feel Sylvia open her mouth to scold him for staring. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Elijah place a hand on hers and shake his head softly.
“Like the color?” Graham inquired, the same curious expression on his face as he had in the pantry.
“Just like the color.” I nodded, an amused smile blossoming across my face. “You’re Graham, right? Like the cracker?” I swallowed a nervous giggle at my own horrible joke.
“Exactly! That’s what mother named me after.” He grinned proudly.
“Nice try, but you’re named after your great-grandfather.” Sylvia smirked playfully and turned to me with remnants of humor dancing in her eyes. “I apologize for my eldest son’s absence. He and some of the others at the University are on a late summer break of sorts. They’ll be returning within the next few days.”
“Oh, its alright.” I replied, eating the last few bites of soup, silently wishing it were something more substantial. “I can’t begin to imagine what all of that must be like, running a pack and going to college…”
“No, I don’t suppose you could.” Sylvia said thoughtfully. Her words threw me off a bit, but I remembered what Elijah said about her meaning well. Sylvia moved on from her half-eaten soup to the garden salad that sat beside it. “If you don’t mind my asking, what are your plans for the future? I understand this pack and my family’s wealth are foreign to you, but we aren’t without our opportunities.”
The spicy broth lodged itself in my throat, making me sputter and reach for a glass of water. Instead of guzzling the icy liquid, I forced myself to drink slowly, giving it time to cool the fire that stung my cheeks.
“I—I finished homeschooling a few months ago, but I haven’t exactly thought of what to do afterwards.” My voice was small, but Elijah’s encouraging smile brought me the faintest shred of relief.
After the assault that made me snap, I withdrew from school. I hid from the pack and the rest of the world. Feral was what they called me, like I was no better than the rogues that stalked this pack. They claimed that was how I slipped past them at ten years old, because how else could a child venture miles through the mountainous wilderness and evade every single rogue she came across?
It didn’t matter that Elijah had been studying me the past nine years, looking for any hint of aggression that might lead to my having the rogue gene. Even when he found nothing, I was still condemned.
“I like to cook—I’ve thought about possibly having a restaurant someday…” I trailed off, feeling silly for spouting dreams I had never intended on working towards. “I also love reading. I’ve thought about writing, I just never seem to find the words once I sit down to try.”
Sylvia gave me a long look, and I now understood why Graham squirmed under those intense hazel eyes, churning with splotches of emerald and honey. I had a strong feeling that even without the title of Luna, Sylvia was a force to be reckoned with.
“Everyone who steps foot into Darkling University becomes something. It’s the oldest and most prolific school in the world. The only way into Darkling is by knowing someone important who knows someone even more important.”
“Oh, I could never afford something like that, and I’m not sure I’m cut out for a school that prestigious…” I sounded breathless, even more so when I let out a nervous laugh. “Maybe there’s a community college nearby?” I suggested, cringing when her nose wrinkled with distaste.
“I will not have a member of my household attending a community college. It’s in poor taste. I took the liberty of pulling your school records and as far as academics are concerned, you have what it takes to keep up with the workload at Darkling U. I hold a seat on the school board, so getting you in would take little effort.” Sylvia said, a satisfied look on her face as though she just solved a complex problem. Noticing the look of surprise on Elijah’s face she tutted and said, “I had her best interest in mind, darling. I didn’t want to embarrass her if her grades weren’t up to par. Really, I’m sure she doesn’t mind.”
It took me a moment to realize she was waiting for a response. All I could do was shake my head and swallow back the taste of broth as it rose in my throat, covering the burn with a reassuring curve of my lips.
“See? She’s much stronger than you let on.” She patted the top of Elijah’s hand, and I felt my chest swell from the compliment. With a thousand-watt smile, Sylvia shook my hand and said, “Without further adieu, I am honored to present you with Darkling University’s first ever scholarship. Welcome aboard, Violet.”
‘We’re actually doing this, Lacey. We’re going to college. Did you see how proud Elijah looked?’ I laughed, spinning in place while some obscure pop song trickled from my phone. ‘This is all he’s ever wanted for us…but you know we can’t back out now, right?’ She replied, and her uncertainty caused the first crack in my giddy exterior. I sucked in a breath, held it for seven seconds and exhaled just like my old therapist taught me. Even now I could see his face, speckled with deep lines and pock marks, that flap of greasy white hair over his head. Those long, drawn-out meetings where I talked about my feelings and lack of memories were my primary motivation to act normal. So long as I took my daily cocktail of medication and went to my bi-weekly appointments there was no need for a grueling three sessions a week. ‘We’re not going to back out.’ I insisted, determined to ride out this euphoric high for as long as possible. My romance novel infect
I carried the consequences of my past on my shoulders for years. I’d tiptoe downstairs and to fumble with the lock on the front door for a couple minutes before curling up in bed. That was what I considered a good night, and thankfully they happened rather frequently. Last night, however, wasn’t one of them. My stomach was full but the conversation I had with Norma left me feeling anxious and jittery. I needed to make sure the doors were locked, that the house was secure from the inside out. It was an urge I no longer questioned, and one I’d stopped fighting years ago. The lock on my bedroom door was wrong. It felt too flat between my fingers, nothing like the heavy thud of the deadbolt that was on the front door of our cabin—the same kind downstairs. This one was one of those cheap locks that stuck out from the doorknob like a button. Even the click it made was wrong. I face planted in my bed hours later, swallowed whole by exhaustion
Her frame seemed even smaller from a distance and was swimming in the billowing fabric of her muumuu. Even with Lacey shouting ‘abandon ship’ in my head as she urged me to flee like a gazelle, there was nowhere for me to run. Norma’s face was impassive as she asked, “…you do this kind of thing often, child?” “No, of course not.” The lie came out much too fast and yanked my voice up an octave or two. Instead piecing together it’s shattered remains, I went into damage control mode. “I mean—only when I’m stressed…or in a new place.” “Both of which you currently are.” “Right…” I swallowed as embarrassment heated my face. “Look, I—" “This isn’t you freaking out about going to the University is it?” She asked, and just a hint of accent peeked through. “No, not at all.” I stammered. “It’s something I’ve done back at the old house. Look, Elijah knows about it. He and Sylvia have so much going on…I just didn’t want him to worry about me, especi
“I suppose that leaves us with one last question. Is this something you can handle, Violet?” “The Cedar Grove Pack has never been my home, and I’m never going back.” I dropped my twinkling smile and let her see how serious I truly was. They’d sooner find me packing a bag in the middle of the night than willingly stepping back into that claustrophobic nightmare. “Good, then on that note if you could open the bag in your hands, please.” As it turns out, I’d been wrong. The lacey bra within the boutique bag was my first official test. “I had my assistant pick it out. She’s an expert with this sort of thing. One look at you and that scrap of polyester you wear, and she knew your size. Elijah should be charged with neglect for allowing you to wear it a day longer, but as intelligent as the man is he truly is horrible with children—and even worse with teenage girls, it seems.” Sylvia waved a hand dismissively, like having her assistant rummage through my cl
As I waited within the lunch line, I couldn’t help but scan the Dining Hall. There were rows upon rows of padded booths, each one pristine and new. Circular tables, much like the ones you’d see in a public school, filled the empty spaces. From afar, close to the wall of spotless glass that overlooked the back half of the courtyard, I could make out a salad and fruit bar. With a tray in my hands, I steered past the busiest part of the Dining Hall and towards the one empty table nestled in the back of the room. The Lobster Risotto and Chipotle Garlic Seaweed Butter spewed an interesting assortment of scents into the air. Each one was a different colored shred of silk, weaving around one another until their shades muddied and turned into something new. As I approached the table, I realized I’d been wrong. There was a single person perched on one of the round seats, an Asian girl with granite eyes and choppy layered hair. When she turned her head to stare me down
A feminine gasp to my left threatened to pull my attention away from him…away from my mate. Just hearing the words in my head, seeing them unravel in the way he smiled—it was all so surreal, so idyllic. I should’ve listened to the girl, maybe then I would’ve been better prepared. The fact that I tuned into their hushed conversations seconds too late would forever weigh on my mind. “Hael’s back early?” “Something must’ve happened between him and Mykelle…” “Can you believe it?” “Does that mean he’s finally single?” Voices both male and female overlapped one another, growing steadily with excitement while my own seemed to falter and plummet. Cold realization took its place. I’d already caught his scent in the lunchroom, when his friend heckled me for eating a cupcake. It reminded me of salty waves, of the earth after a long, harsh rain. Before I could question why our bond hadn’t snapped into place back in the lunc
Hael – One Day Earlier“What the fuck did you just say to me?” I drawled, not bothering to lower my voice since most of the wolves here were too piss drunk to locate their cocks let alone eavesdrop on our conversation.Even if I had wanted to go unnoticed, it didn’t matter. Mykelle had a big mouth, and only a threat against her mate would shut her up. Too bad she knew I couldn’t follow through on them, even if I wanted to.“Stop looking so fucking miserable, Hael. Do you want your father to kick your ass when you get home?” She hissed, her lips peeling back to reveal straight white teeth.The liquor that rolled off her breath was pungent, bringing back urges I’d long suppressed. There was no time for a drink, not for me anyway. Now wasn’t the time for slip ups. These wasteful excuses for werewolves were intoxicated from the alcohol and nicotine, from the women that were ordered to faun over their every
Hael“Send him in. I’d like a word with my son.” My father’s voice sounded from his office, never failing to incite a flash of rage deep in my bones. It turned my skin to sandpaper, making it all too unbearable staying locked in this fleshy form.Fan-fucking-tastic“Hael, Alpha would like a word with you.” Macon, my father’s Beta appeared from around the corner.I held back a dry laugh as I always did when I heard the three-hundred-and-fifty-pound man call my father ‘Alpha.’Only Alpha Xavier could occupy the same office for twenty-three years and not have a single spec of personality within the bland egg-shell colored walls. There were no pictures, no awards, no plaques. Just a pristine office with crisp blinds and a desk that had never seen a single scratch or spec of dust. Sitting behind it, on the Givenchy leather chair my mother had gifted him four Christmases ago, was my father.&ld