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LAUREL’s POV

Tears stream down my face as I run through the woods, ignoring the dry branches and twigs that scrape my feet. In my haste to leave the house earlier on, I had forgotten to put on my shoes. But it doesn’t matter. The pain from the scrapes is nothing compared to the agony my heart feels inside.

Growing up, I kept telling myself that my parents loved me, that they were just stricter with me because I am the oldest, and that they wanted only the best for me. But who am I kidding?

No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. Never.

So, I studied harder, trained harder, and worked harder than everyone else, hoping that one day, my parents smile at me and say, “We’re proud of you, Laurel.”

And when I was finally appointed as Beta of the Morningstar Pack a few years back, I thought that I would finally gain their favour, that they would finally acknowledge their daughter. But they never did.

Even the blind can see that they do not love me.

Soon I reach the lakeside, deep in the woods and fall to my knees. This is the very lake that I almost drowned as a child. It is a beautiful place, really, but this place holds only sad memories, and it is the place that I come to whenever I feel scared, alone, and hurt.

“WHY?!” I scream at the moon.

Still caught in the web of grief, I pound my fists on the grassy ground, letting go of all the emotions I had kept pent up inside of me.

“Why…?” I am racked with sobs but the Moon Goddess does not answer me.

I sit on the ground, hug my knees and bury my face in them as I cry. I do not know how long I stay like that but the tranquillity of the forest and the fragrance of the wild dandelions and pine trees start to calm me down.

“Laurel?”

My head snaps up and to my surprise, I find myself staring at Helios. He towers above me with a gait and posture accustomed to power and the glow emanating from the moon shines on him from behind, creating a halo around his head. 

Dumbfounded, I freeze for a split second before I quickly wipe away the tears with my sleeves.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, suddenly feeling very embarrassed. Did he see me cry?  There’s a tuff of clouds covering the moon right now, so surely, he can’t see my puffy red face, can he? 

“Here.” He hands me a handkerchief with an outstretched muscular arm. “Wipe your snot.”

Oh, guess he did.

Awkwardly, I accept the handkerchief from him and notice that it has his initials sewn on it. Must have been one of his many admirers. I take it anyway and blow my nose into it.

Without a word, Helios takes a seat beside me in a cross-legged position and picks up a pebble. He throws it at the lake and it skips and skims the surface a few times before sinking under the waters. Then he closes his eyes and merely sits there without speaking.

I am the first to break the silence.

“How’d you come here? I didn’t sense your presence.”

“Laurel, why were you crying?” he chooses to counter my question with his own instead.

I let my head sink low and my tresses fall and cover my face. I am too ashamed to tell him.

As if sensing my reluctance to talk, he chuckles and reaches out, tucking my hair behind my ears. His touch sends tingles throughout my body and my chest starts to rise and fall rapidly. I can feel his jet-black eyes resting on my face and I have to will my eyes to remain fixed on the tuff of grass in front of me. I can only hope he doesn’t hear my thunderous heartbeat.

“You shouldn’t be crying; your tears will ruin your pretty face,” he says casually as if his touch didn’t just almost send me into a cataclysmic shock.

Then I blink. Pretty? Did he just call me pretty?

No one’s ever called me that before…except for that little boy I met in the woods many moons ago as a child.

Unconsciously, I let out a chuckle, “Do you really think I’m pretty?”

Shit. I did not just say that! Me and my big mouth!

Helios nods. “Yes, you are...”

He gestures for me to look into the water. The clouds have shifted and no longer cover the moon, hence making the lake look like a very large mirror. The night is now clear and the stars shine brightly above our heads without twinkling.

I lean forward to see what he wants to show me and to my surprise, I see my own reflection.

I see my mousy brown hair, dull blue eyes and plain unpainted lips. Helios points to it and says, “This, Laurel…this is beauty. Any guy would be lucky to have you as his mate.”

His words lift me up like no word ever has before. And yet, at the same time, I feel my heart sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of despair. The man is merely being kind, but he does not love me.

I am disappointed; a part of me had hoped, in spite of what he sais, he would have some romantic feelings for me but his words tonight have proven that there is not an iota of affection for me other than the fact that I am his Beta, his loyal supporter.

Well, at least he thinks of me as a friend. That to me is more than enough.

I smile and hug him. “Thank you, Helios.”

My act catches him by surprise and for a moment, I feel him tense up before he gently pats me on the back.

Helios and I sit a little longer and just as the moon starts to dip below the horizon, we bid our goodbyes and each head back to our own residences.

The moment I reach home, I walk into the parlour very slowly, expecting to be scolded and hit by my parents for running out on them in the middle of their ‘lecture’. But to my surprise, all is quiet.

My brows furrow. There is no one in the parlour but I smell tea brewing in the kitchen. There’s also a whiff of freshly baked bread. Strange…mother doesn’t make breakfast. I’m usually the one who prepares all this.

Cautiously, I walk into the kitchen. To my surprise, I see my whole family there; mother, father, and Jamie. They all stand up from their sitting position at the island table when they see me.

“Laurel!” mother calls out and I flinch a little. I brace myself for yet another slap, or maybe a punch but instead, mother embraces me.

What the?

She has never done that before. I look at both father and Jamie, feeling confused and they just smile at me. Mother finally pulls back and cups my face. Worry lines etch across her forehead and she starts to cry.

“Oh, Laurel…do you know how worried we were about you?”

I blink. “You were?”

“Yes.” Father nods as Jamie proceeds to pour me a cup of tea. Wow…am I dreaming about all this?

Mother wipes away her tear with a tissue and motions for Jamie to pass me the steaming cup of tea. It smells like chamomile, my favourite.

“We went overboard last night, Laurel,” father says. Mother nods, her head bobbing up and down like a yoyo.

“Yes..yes,” she says. “We were wrong to blame you. You were only doing your job.” She takes my hand and smiles sheepishly at me. “Will you forgive us?”

All my life I’ve dreamt of this moment. And even if this is merely a dream, I have to seize it.

“Of course, we’re a family,” I say.

Family. It is the sweetest word in the whole wide world.

Jamie passes me the tea. “I made this for you,” she mumbles, not really meeting my eye.

I take it and inhale the wonderful scent of the tea. And with one big gulp, I down the whole cup. Then, passing the cup back to Jamie, I smile at her, feeling tears well up in my eyes.

I am crying tears of joy. “Thank you…I’m sorry I ran away like that. I love you all. I’m so happy you made me this…”

No sooner do the words leave my mouth than the world around me starts to spin like a merry-go-round. My vision tunnels and in a desperate bid to grab onto something, I hold my hand out to mother.

But just like that day at the lake, she does nothing. She merely stands there looking at me as I fall to the ground. And the last thing I see before everything goes black is Jamie looming over me with a smirk on her face.

*****

Everything is cold and dark when I open my eyes. Pitch black darkness. I am blindfolded. Try as I might, I can’t move either. Both my hands are bound behind some chair, I wriggle my fingers and feel the cold steel chains sneaking around my wrists. My ankles, they are chained up too. Damn!

“Mmmph? Mmmph!” I try to call out but I am gagged.

For some reason, there is a dull throbbing pain in my head. Everything feels hazy when I try to recollect my thoughts. The last thing I can remember is drinking the chamomile tea Jamie served me…

The tea!

Then everything comes rushing back at me like a tidal wave. I was drugged!

I struggle, but it is no use. My heart pounds furiously as my mind tries to come to reason who all this came to be.

Then a voice speaks, chillingly close. “Laurel…you’ve been a bad girl.”

Mother? Why couldn’t I smell her scent?

My blindfold is suddenly yanked away and the sudden onslaught of brightness momentarily blinds me. It takes a few moments before I can adjust my vision.

I am in the basement of our home and three people surround me in this dingy, damp place; mother, father, and Jamie. They are all wearing hazmat suits. No wonder I couldn’t detect their scents.

Both confusion and fear bubble within me and a shiver that has nothing to do with the cold run down my spine. What are they doing? I struggle some more and try to speak but I cannot.

“Tsk tsk tsk…” Jamie speaks, shaking her head in dismay. “You’re such a hypocrite Laurel. You say you love us, but I saw what you did in the woods earlier. I saw who you were with by the lake.”

She begins to circle me like a hawk. “You were with Helios! You bitch! You –” She starts to raise her hand to strike me but father stops her. Then he steps close to me, and when I look into his eyes through his face shield, I see nothing but hatred.

“You gave us no choice, Laurel,” father says cryptically before he steps back, allowing mother to walk up to me now. 

No choice? What choice? Choice for what? What the heck are they talking about?

Mother comes to me at a leisurely pace and as she does, she pulls out a needle from the pocket of her suit.

No…

I try to scream but my terror-filled cries for help are muffled by the gag. I will myself to shift, I beg for my wolf to come but she does not.

Mother stops laughing bitterly, “You won’t be able to shift, Laurel. You see, the tea that we gave you had a suppressant and with that liquid in your bloodstream, you won’t be able to fight back.”

“You tried to seduce Helios by the lake! He hugged you!” Jamie chines in and father once again stops her, allowing for mother to take centerstage.

“No wonder Helios appointed you as his Beta,” mother says, pressing the syringe a little, and glowing blue liquid squirts out. “Is that why only you alone are allowed to enter his chamber every full moon?”

I shake my head, desperate to explain myself. Why won’t they believe me? I’ve told them a thousand…no a million times. There is nothing going on between us!

Mother shows me the syringe, gently waving it before my eyes. “You don’t deserve to be Beta, neither do you deserve his affection. Only Jamie is deserving of all this…”

I trash in my seat, furiously trying to free myself. The chain cuts into my wrists and the suppressant inside my body has greatly inhibited my healing abilities. I am unable to heal and my wrist starts to bleed.

Mother continues, “You leave us with no choice, Laurel. We will have to switch your face and body with Jamie’s.”

Fear consumes me, I am unable to fight back. Tears slowly roll down my cheeks and I shake my head in protest. No, please no. Don’t do this, please. I’m your daughter too!

Mother rolls up my sleeves while father and Jamie hold me down.

Stop! Please, for the love of the Goddess, please, stop!

“With this switch, Jamie will be able to own everything that you have. Jamie will have the happiness she truly deserves.”

Don’t touch me!

“Laurel,” mother speaks my name like a curse. “You deserve nothing.”

And with that, she plunges the syringe deep into my arm. My muffled cry is drowned in agony. The poison seeps into my body and it is as if a wave of parasitic worms has taken hold of me. They fill my every pore and dig under my skin. The poison burns and yet it sends a chill into my heart that not even the Moon Goddess could ever warm. I am in pain. As if a thousand swords are plunged into me.

Mother help me…father, please don’t leave. Jamie…Jamie, why do you do this?

Then I begin to choke, to smother. I gasp for air I can no longer attain.

And then, I know no more.

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