As soon as Joey opens her eyes on the morning of her 18th birthday, she expects to see her mate standing over her. She doesn’t. Then she expects to see every particle of dust around her. She doesn’t. Then she expects to smell the trees just outside. She doesn’t. Then she expects to hear the river by the pack. She doesn’t. And finally, she expects to hear a voice in her head telling her it’s her wolf who’s finally ready to come out to play. She doesn’t.
So, forgetting all that, she gets up and gets ready. She slept in until just after 11 a.m., and her parents are planning to take her out for brunch in about an hour. Even though her 18th birthday hasn’t lived up to her expectations quite yet, she’s still excited. So she takes a thorough shower, blow dries her hair, and throws on her favourite fall sweater and jeans. She’s going to enjoy her birthday even if she still doesn’t have any of the normal wolf abilities (minus shifting), and her mate could just be around the corner.
“It doesn’t have to happen all at once,” she tells herself quietly as she puts on some lip gloss. “I am exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to be doing, and everything else will fall into place.”
She gives herself a nod before running from the bathroom and back to her room to grab her phone before making her way downstairs.
In the kitchen are Valerie and her parents, all huddled around a small plate holding a gluten-free old fashioned donut with a candle stuck in it. Joey smiles and feels her heart grow as she approaches them. “Thanks, guys.”
Before she can get to the donut, her mom runs forward and tackles her in a hug. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
“Why aren’t you hugging me?”
“Because her arms are reaching for the donut,” her dad answers.
Jessica rolls her eyes and steps back, allowing Joey to grab the plate from Valerie and happily blow out the candle. “Thank you.”
“That’s the only one you get before the party,” her sister warns.
“You won’t tell me where you hid them so I can’t have more even if I wanted to.”
Valerie just smirks and walks around them. “You guys are going to brunch soon, right? Because it’s about to get busy here.”
“As long as Joey’s ready,” Robert says.
She gives a thumbs up while her mouth is full.
“Please don’t make yourself sick.”
She puts the plate in the dishwasher and throws the candle out before following her parents outside. They’re going to De Dutch, where Joey will get to have their gluten-free pannekoeken. The buckwheat flour and soy make her the tiniest bit sick but it’s not significant enough to last the whole day. And she would know, because there was a time she had one three times a week.
During their meal, she can’t help but stare out the window and try to make eye contact with any boys her age who walk by. There aren’t many, but there are some. She also tries to catch the attention of some who are in the restaurant. None of them are her mate.
One of the waitresses at De Dutch is a pack member and student in Joey’s grade, Haley. Because she knows her, she puts a heaping spoonful of Nutella on Joey’s pannekoeken and Joey almost cries at how nice that is. Before they leave, she makes sure Haley’s coming to her party.
At home, Valerie is ecstatic that everything’s done, ready, and ahead of schedule. Andrew, Tyler, and Scott, the current Gamma’s oldest son, made quick work of transferring everything from Joey’s house to the Beta House. All the tables, games, food, and drinks have been set up and all they have to do now is get ready and get there.
As soon as Joey steps foot in the house, she’s overwhelmed by a craving for more Nutella. Even though her stomach is slightly upset and she had a decent amount of it at brunch, she needs more. She grabs a spoon from the drawer in the kitchen and takes the jar out of their cupboard.
“Josephine,” her mother chastises. “You’re gonna make yourself sick.”
“I know, I couldn’t help myself,” she says, cleaning her spoon off with her tongue.
“Disgusting,” Valerie gags. “You and Andrew, both. I’ll never understand the love for that stuff.”
Her heart speeds up. She doesn’t know why but then her stomach is really grumbling. She throws her spoon and the jar on the kitchen counter and takes off for the bathroom on their main floor. She barely gets the door closed and the toilet seat up before she’s heaving and emptying her stomach. Ten seconds later, Valerie appears with a glass of water for her. She downs it and goes through just two more rounds before it’s done.
“You okay?” Her sister asks.
“Yeah,” she breathes, wiping her mouth with toilet paper. “That was weird.”
“Do you need anything?”
Despite vomiting, she still wants Nutella. “Just don’t let me have more today.”
Valerie rubs her back and she just lets herself breathe and calm down for a minute before she’s back on her feet and ready for the rest of her day. Next on the list is getting ready with her friends.
And no more Nutella.
Joey, Harper, Priya, Dina, and Valerie have found their own spaces in Joey’s room. Joey claimed her vanity table, Harper got the floor by the full-length mirror, Priya got the cushioned bay window seat, and Dina and Valerie got the bed. Dina’s playlist is blasting the Spice Girls, JLo, Janet Jackson, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and the like while they all get dressed and do their hair and makeup.
Joey’s in a nice pair of blue jeans with a black spaghetti strap bodysuit. It’s the middle of October but she knows she’ll get hot in the house. Her friends have the same idea. Everyone’s either in a t-shirt or tank top, but they all have cardigans just in case.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she makes sure her hair is out of her face so she can put her red lipstick on. As she twists it, her nose tingles and her head starts tilting back. The force of her sneeze sends her head forward and she feels her cheek press lightly against the varnish. She looks down and sees the nice shape that she always tries so hard to maintain ruined and smushed.
“No,” she sighs, then she looks in the mirror and startles herself. “No!”
What she thought was a light touch clearly was not, as she’s now got a thick line of red from the right corner of her lip all the way to the underside of her eye.
“Oh, Jesus,” Valerie laughs, rising from the bed and rushing over to help. Within ten minutes, the streak is gone, her foundation is redone, her lips are a deep red, and she feels like less of an idiot.
“Time?” Harper asks, eyes wide while she does her mascara.
“Fifteen minutes until our ‘fashionably late’ arrival,” Valerie answers.
“Alright, I’m done,” Dina announces.
“Same,” Priya says.
“Same,” Joey echoes.
“And that is why I look better than all of you,” Harper says, slowly continuing with her mascara.
“Just hurry it up, Kim K,” Dina rolls her eyes.
Five minutes later, they’re all piling into Valerie’s car and making their way through the trees. At this point, the party should be in full swing minus the woman of the hour. She’s currently jittery at the thought of making eye contact with Thomas and having her whole world turn upside down in the best way. Right side up, then.
Control your facial expressions, Dina tells her privately. You look like you’re barely holding it together at the seams.
That’s because I’m not. I’m so excited but nervous at the same time. I’m putting a lot of pressure on tonight even though I know I shouldn’t.
Well just remember that if it doesn’t happen tonight, it will soon.
You tell yourself that when you turn 18 next month.
I will, thanks. You give great advice.
Joey smiles and looks away from the trees and to her friend sitting in the backseat. Dina laughs quietly. The rest of the ride is spent listening to Valerie explain how excited she is that this night has finally come, and then the girls start asking about her wedding which just makes her even more happy.
A year from now, she’ll be Mrs. Valerie Ross. Pretty much everyone in the pack is excited for that day to come, when two people who first met and fell in love when they were 13 will finally be married. They’ve waited so long, but for good reason.
When they pull up to the Beta House, there’s a grumble of music and chatter in the air. Valerie turns the car off and fully ditches them to get inside first. Joey feels her excited nerves ramp up as she steps out of the vehicle. Her legs almost give out on her before Harper appears and links their arms together.
“There better not be any funny business going on in my room,” Dina says, closing her door. “I told Tyler to block it with something.”
“Like anyone’s gonna hook up where the Beta family lives,” Priya says, linking arms on Joey’s other side. “Can you imagine how much trouble they’d get in?”
“Well, yeah,” Dina agrees, grabbing Priya’s arm. “But I’m mainly worried about someone staking claim on the room reserved for Joey.”
“Hey!” She whines. “I’m not hooking up with anyone!”
“Even if your mate’s in there?” Harper asks.
“Even then,” she says. “No hooking up. Nothing. Nada. No touching, no kissing, not until we’re somewhere private.”
Priya snorts. “Okay, we’ll see how that goes. It’s not as easy as you think.”
Right. Priya’s actually been through this. Joey groans as they’re just 10 steps from the door. “Now I’m more nervous. I’m sweaty, I’m shaky, and I can’t stop smelling Nutella.”
“No more Nutella,” Dina urges. “Just go in there not thinking about your mate, just thinking about how awesome the party will be. Forget I mentioned my room.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
When they get to the closed door, all three girls look at Joey and wait. She listens to the thump of music for a few moments before she takes a deep breath and nods her head. Harper pulls the door open and gently urges Joey inside where the foyer is full of people.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOEY!”
Her nerves settle and happiness kicks in, seeing her pack celebrate her like this. Her sister’s right at the very front of the crowd beaming and she feels so loved and appreciated. She awkwardly waves and scans the faces she can see. Including Thomas’.
Her heart deflates a little but she keeps the smile on her face. Dina taps her on the arm and gives her an expectant look when she turns. She purses her lips and shakes her head. It’s okay, she tells herself. And then she gets a whiff of Nutella again. What the hell?
“Okay everyone!” Valerie calls. “Food and drinks are all over, we’ve got beer pong tables at the back, a pool table, foosball, dartboards – be merry and don’t forget to say hi to the birthday girl!”
The crowd disperses, some of them coming to greet Joey right away. Haley came, and Joey thanks her again for brunch. Thinking about it makes her heart race. Something’s really wrong with her. After a few minutes, she’s left with her friends and Valerie again.
“Do you love it? Is it too much?” Valerie asks.
“I love it,” she steps forward and hugs her. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, little sister,” when she steps back, she frowns. “You look a little pale. You okay?”
“She’s right,” Dina says.
“Yeah just... I don’t know. Do you smell Nutella?”
“What?” Valerie asks.
“I can’t smell anything but Nutella and–”
“Oh, Andrew!” Valerie exclaims when she catches sight of him. “You missed it!”
Her friends move apart from each other to make room for him and Joey looks up to see. As soon as she does, she freezes. Andrew looks just as flustered as she feels until he looks back at her. Nutella. Before it was making her lightheaded, now she never wants it to go away. She and Andrew stare at each other with wide eyes, and she feels tingly all over her body and there’s an inexplicable pull.
Until it clicks.
Andrew’s her mate.