“I still haven’t made up my mind and I have to have my applications in next week,” Dina sighs. Joey looks up from her salad just in time to see her friend run a hand through her long dark braids and then smush her cheek against her fist. She hasn’t missed the similar expressions on the faces of other kids in their grade as they surround them in the cafeteria.
“Have you narrowed them down?”
“From 10 to seven.”
Dina pushes her sandwich further back on their table and picks up her phone. “UBC, Granville College, Vancouver Career College, University of Calgary, King’s University, University of Alberta, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. I need to get down to three.”
“Well,” Joey drops her fork and swallows the last of her lunch. “Personally, I’d go with Vancouver Career College because it’s only an hour away but I’m biased. You can’t shut up about UBC, so that’s definitely one option. And I know you won’t admit it because you’re scared of leaving the province but you seem to really like the schools in Alberta, mainly U of C and U of A.”
Dina purses her lips and looks at her friend in thought. “You do have a point.”
“I usually do.”
“UBC is one,” Dina decides. “UC and UA are definitely contenders but I think you’re right about Vancouver Career College. It’s a good school and it’s close to home. I think I’ll narrow Alberta down to one and those are the three I’ll apply to.”
“Look how easy that was!” Joey smiles. “You’re taking your first step in a series of random steps toward your successful career as a veterinarian.”
Dina laughs. “Thank you, friend. Have you decided where you’re gonna go yet?”
“I think I’m just gonna stay here.”
Sumas University, right in the middle of the pack land and steps away from Sumas High School, is a relatively small university geared toward young wolves who see themselves working in and for the pack rather than in and for the human world. With high grades in sciences and math and a general awe toward anatomy and internal systems (particularly her own), Joey sees herself working in their hospital – the education for which she’d receive right at home.
Joey and her friends have just started their fifth year of high school. Their community realized a long time ago that four years isn’t always enough time to decide a career, so they added one more and have seen an uptick in student confidence ever since. It also means still having everyone in the pack when they turn 18 in case their mate is around.
“So you’ve decided on being a pack doctor?” Dina confirms.
“Yep. I mean, I know we heal in a second and don’t need that much medical attention but I think it’s an important job. I like the feeling of giving back, you know?”
“I know,” Dina nods. “Okay, enough about school and careers. You’re turning 18 tomorrow.”
“This is true,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Are you excited for your party?”
“I am, actually. Valerie’s put so much effort into it and I can tell it means more to her than she wants to let on. Plus, 18′s a big deal. I could m–... I can make my own decisions.”
“Don’t worry,” Dina smirks teasingly. “Valerie and Andrew aren’t here. Let it out.”
Joey sighs and feels some weight come off her chest. “I’m really excited to meet my mate.”
“There it is.”
“I mean, will he be at the party? Is he part of the pack? Is he from a pack that visits us a year from now? I don’t know, but I’m really fūcking excited and I want to gush to Valerie because she’s my sister and my best friend but I can’t.”
“Well, you can gush to me all you want,” Dina tells her.
“I know I’m a relatively independent person but I can’t wait to experience the love and dedication mates feel toward each other. The reliability, the openness, the comfort, the ease. It just seems like one big fairytale but in our world, it’s reality. But then... I’m also scared.”
Dina frowns. “Why?”
“Well, I’ve been an outcast my whole life. Not in the sense that people hate me and I have no friends because that’s not true. I feel very welcome here and I’m happy that my parents found me, but part of me has always known that this isn’t really where I belong. That I’m an add-on. An unexpected addition. And I don’t even have a sense of closure because I have no idea where I came from. And I wasn’t even wanted where I come from! They abandoned me. Just tossed me like trash. What if... what if the same thing happens with my mate? Like I’m a burden to him, and he doesn’t want me? Or what if I never even meet him because I wasn’t supposed to be left in an alley and picked up by my parents in the first place? I’m supposed to be wherever I came from and he’s there waiting and I never show up because I don’t know where that is.”
“Joey, you are the furthest thing from a burden. Robert and Jessica were meant to find you. You’re meant to be here. Your mate isn’t waiting for you in whatever pack you come from because you don’t belong there. Your path has been set and it includes being brought here. You’ll find your mate and he’ll want you, just like the rest of us do. Don’t ever forget that.”
She looks at her friend and inhales deeply. When she lets the breath out through her nose, her mind feels a little lighter but there’s still a voice telling her that everything Dina said is false. She lets it go when the bell rings.
Like most of the other students around them, they stand and throw their garbage out before making their way out of the cafeteria and toward their next class. Dina and Joey split up to head to biology and English, respectively, knowing they’ll meet up at the end of the day in time to watch the warriors train. Mainly Thomas, but the other guys are good, too.
“I could grate cheese on those abs.”
Joey giggles behind her hand as her friend, Harper, openly ogles the boys in the main square. Dina is just as taken but she hides it better. Their other friend Priya is focused on her phone, probably texting her mate, Derek, who’s away at school. As the only one of the girls who has found their mate so far, she’s the only one who doesn’t thoroughly enjoy after-school training.
Well, she enjoys it. But she won’t admit it.
“I can literally see the drops of sweat on Mason’s pecks,” Harper continues her in-depth observation.
“I must have died and gone to heaven,” Dina sighs, eyes locked on Ethan.
“This is just the best part of my day every day,” Joey bites her lip and routinely makes sure Thomas never sees her eyes on him. She really does hope he’s her mate.
Thomas Miller is the strongest and most built wolf in their grade. A few grades, probably. He’s also an academic with a great GPA, a promising future, and a good head on his shoulders. He’s well-respected and he respects others. He was raised in a house with three women – a mother and two older sisters – so he knows all about females. He’s got a killer smile, hair that fingers just need to run through and fist, and undeniable charm. So yeah, Joey does hope he’s her mate, but is the world really that kind?
Instead of dwelling on her chances, she takes to envisioning what their pups will look like. They’ll have three kids – one boy and two girls. Or is that too cliché? Two boys and one girl. That’s better. Their boys will get Joey’s regular straight dark hair and their girl will have Thomas’ brown, half wavy and half curly situation. Bright eyes on all of them. Thomas’ athleticism and Joey’s humour. Because not only am I a delight, I’m a hilarious delight.
What a world that would be. She doesn’t feel the smile forming on her face or how her whole body is sagging in admiration, just love. Thomas and Joey. Joey and Thomas. Josephine Miller. Mrs. Josephine Miller. Yeah... Yeah that sounds nice.
Harshly breaking her out of her daydream is Andrew, who’s standing at the bottom of Sumas University’s front steps where the girls are spread out and staring ahead at the main square. Priya, Harper, and Dina bow their heads but Joey just glares at his stupid smirk.
“Please step aside,” she waves him away. “You’re blocking our view.”
Her friends stopped freaking out about her attitude toward their future Alpha a long time ago. It was around the time she threw a snowball right at his face while he was leading a small meeting in the main square. She was 15, and her friends started spewing out apologies on her behalf until Andrew just rolled his eyes and told her to watch her back before continuing on with what he was doing.
He got her in the back of the head the next day.
“Wipe your chin, I’m taking you home.”
She groans, catching a glimpse of Thomas pinning a guy to the ground within seconds. “Why?”
“Because you’ll sit out here until they’re done and it’ll be dark and you’ll have to walk home by yourself. Val’s out with your mom picking up your donuts and your dad’s probably at home exhausted after work, so I’m your knight in shining armour. Let’s go.”
“Ugh,” she huffs, standing and swinging her bag onto her right shoulder. “Fine.”
“Harper, Priya,” Andrew turns his attention away from Joey. “Do you two have a way home?”
“My mom should be done teaching in a few minutes,” Harper uses her thumb to gesture to the school behind them.
“I can ask my dad to pick me up,” Priya says.
“Good,” Andrew nods. “I suggest you find a male or mature female you can depend on to get you home. Please don’t take any chances.”
“Yes, Sir,” they say together.
“And Dina, I trust you can find your way alright?”
She aims a few finger guns toward the Beta House on the other side of the square. “Should be a piece of cake.”
“Say hi to your brother for me, and remind him we have to make an appearance at the meeting tomorrow before the party.”
“You got it.”
“Goodnight girls. Get home safe, it’s gonna rain.”
Joey’s three friends lift their heads and sniff the air a few times before nodding in agreement and bidding Andrew goodbye. Annoyed, Joey sniffs a few times as well but gets nothing. Stupid, good-for-nothing human nose.
She waves to her friends before walking side by side with Andrew to where he parked. Most cars are shared amongst those who live on the main pack land, but the Alphas, Betas, and Gammas have their own. Andrew left his CR-V on the street between the side of Sumas U and Sugar & Spice, their local restaurant. Joey climbs into the passenger seat and sits back, her long day hitting her as soon as she’s off her feet.
Andrew gets behind the wheel and turns the car on, peeling away from his spot and starting down the trail through the wilderness and toward the Abbotsford side of the pack. “Thanks for not giving me a hard time about taking you home.”
“I get it,” Joey nods. “But hey, if I don’t have an escort one day at least my wolf’s small enough to hide in the good spots.”
“Jo–” he cuts himself off with a wince. When his face relaxes his sighs and closes his eyes for just a second so he doesn’t drive off their path.
“What was that?”
He keeps his face forward but she can see him peeking at her out of the corner of his eye, like he doesn’t want to say something. “My wolf.”
She feels a pang of disappointment. Jealousy. “Oh.”
“No, don’t be,” she tries not to appear too bothered. “Maybe it’s an 18 and over thing for me. Or maybe I’ll never hear her. It’s fine. If I can go my whole life without eating cheese I can go my whole life without hearing my wolf. Totally fine.”
Andrew says nothing but the silence is too much for her.
“What’s up with Cyrus?”
Andrew clenches his jaw quickly. “Your comment pissed him off.”
“He doesn’t like me very much, does he?” She remembers a few other times she’s set Andrew’s wolf off.
“He loves you, Joey, as much as I do. You know that. So you joking about what’s going on doesn’t sit well with either of us. If anything ever happened to you, I don’t...”
She takes a deep breath and nods. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll find someone to take me home everyday.”
He still doesn’t seem happy.
“I’ll tell you who they are?” She sort of asks, wondering what exactly he wants to hear.
“I’ll let you choose...” Close. “I’ll convince them to fight you to prove themselves...” Nope. She huffs. “Andrew, would you like to be my daily escort to and from school?”
He smiles. “I think that sounds like a fantastic idea.”
She smirks, about to open her mouth to respond but Dina’s voice in her head takes her attention away. Thomas ran up to me while I was walking home just now and asked about your party.
Her heart stutters and she feels butterflies in her stomach. What did he say?
He wanted to confirm that it was at my place, and he said he was going to ask you instead but he saw you leave with Andrew.
“He saw me,” she whispers to herself. “He saw me.”
“What?” Andrew asks.
“We have to go back, turn around.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Thomas saw me and was gonna come up and talk to me before you came and forced me to leave so we have to go back so he can fall in love with me.”
“How do you know this?”
“Dina just told me, now turn around.”
“No, you maniac,” he laughs. “You’ll see him tomorrow.”
“He could be less interested tomorrow because we didn’t interact today.”
“How often do the two of you have any interaction?”
“Not often, and I think it’s time to change that.”
“He’ll be at the party, relax and stop yelling at me.”
She lets it go but turns around in her seat to look back where they came from. They’re too deep into the forest to see the pack but she pictures Thomas watching the car drive off with a longing in his heart.
By the time they pull up to the Bennett house, Joey has forgotten all about Thomas because her specially-made gluten-free donuts are at home. Or, they will be soon. She’s practically out of the car before Andrew can come to a full stop on their driveway. Her bag bounces against her back while she jogs to the front door and bounds inside, knowing it’s unlocked.
“Hey, Fumble,” her dad greets her from the couch.
She huffs a laugh at the nickname and gives him a kiss on the cheek from behind the piece of furniture. “Mom and Val home yet?”
“No, and I’ve been told to tell you to stay away when they get here. Those donuts are for tomorrow.”
“Having one won’t hurt.”
“It’ll piss your sister right off.”
“Yeah, and then I’ll have to deal with it,” Andrew says as he enters the house.
“Hey, kid,” Robert looks back and nods to him. “Thanks for bringing her home.”
“No problem, think I’ll be doing that regularly for the time being.”
It gets silent for a moment and Joey doesn’t know how to get rid of the awkward feeling so she just leaves to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Eventually she can hear her dad and Andrew speaking – probably about whatever’s on TV. She grabs a bag of carrots and carries her snack and drink back out to the family room where the two men’s eyes are glued to Sportsnet.
She watches a Yankees outfielder drop a fly ball without realizing and then go to grab the ball he believes is in his mitt. Must be Misplays of the Month. She laughs. “That’s jokes.”
“Canucks are on at 7:30, eh?” Her dad reminds her.
“Yeah, I’ll come down,” she responds. “I’m gonna go do my homework.”
And, as usual, she face-plants on the way up to her room.