I tried to dance with Bryce, but for some reason my body got all stiff and clumsy and I stepped on his toes repeatedly.
“Sorry.” I said with an apologetic smile. “I’m not really used to all this.”
“It’s okay.” He assured me. “I’m not really good at this either.”
It had felt so natural when I was dancing with Ryker, but now I just felt awkward and clumsy in Bryce’s arms. And I swear for a moment I thought Ryker was going to kiss me. I couldn’t tell if I was disappointed that he didn’t, but it gave me this strange feeling deep in my stomach. Why was I even thinking about this? I was here with Bryce. Sure, we were here as friends, but he was handsome and kind and went out of his way to make me feel welcome here. Ryker had been conceited, arrogant, and intrusive. If I was going to get close to someone, Bryce would be the obvious choice- wouldn’t he?
“You know, I never thought you would agree to come here with me.” Bryce said, pulling me closer to him, his hand warm on the bare skin of my back.
“Well, to be honest I didn’t know if I would come at all.” I confessed. “When I look around, all I see are people staring at me like I’m some sort of sideshow freak- like I don’t belong here.” It was true. Even now, as my eyes scanned the grand ballroom, I was met with curious stares and lingering looks.
“I don’t think it’s because they think you’re a freak.” He said gently. “The people here have known each other their whole lives. We get a lot of visitors from other packs, but no one quite like you.”
“What do you mean quite like me?” I asked warily.
“I don’t mean it in a bad way- not at all.” Bryce quickly explained. “I just mean your strength, your background, your bearing. It’s very different from anything our people have known.” He spun me through the room as we danced, me trying my best not to trip over his feet.
“Nothing is stopping them from learning a new thing or two.” I chimed in, looking up to his kind face several inches above me.
Bryce laughed, the sound booming from is chest. “And will you be the one to teach them? These people are nobility- and old habits die hard, Asenna.”
As the song came to an end, we broke from our dancing position and went to stand with Samantha, who was badgering a rather professional looking Soren. He stood in a corner wearing a sharp, black suit, and a black cord dangling from an earpiece in his right ear.
“Soren, I swear if you don’t get the stick out of your ass-”
“Aww, having another sibling bonding moment?” Bryce interrupted her.
Samantha rolled her eyes and shook her head in exasperation. “I tried to get him to ditch the security detail. Dad’s got it covered, but he just won’t listen.”
“Man, we haven’t had an attack in years. Tonight is supposed to be about our futures.” Bryce said, placing a hand on the small of my back.
“When it is time for the Howling, I’ll meet up with you guys.” Soren said as he continued to scan the room. “I don’t see the point in drinking and dancing beforehand.”
Bryce and Samantha shared a look as if they were both saying, “I give up.”
“I’m going to find the restroom.” I told them, sliding out of Bryce’s reach.
“Do you need me to come with you?” Samantha called.
“No, I’m fine! Thanks though.” I said as I walked away from them.
It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable with them, but I felt restless. Everywhere I turned someone was talking about the Howling. It was a nerve-wracking notion- that one night, one moment could change your entire life. True, not everyone met their mate at these ceremonies, but it was a possibility. A possibility that was making my heart stutter erratically.
I made my way to a secluded hallway off the ballroom and leaned against the cool stone of one of the walls. I tried to calm my heavy breathing, but before I could compose myself, I heard voices approaching. I quickly ducked into a decorative alcove and pressed myself into the corner as far as I could manage. The last thing I wanted was for someone to walk in on my panic attack over one of the Royal Packs most important ceremonies.
“Just drop it, Sky! I’m tired of hearing about it!” It was Ryker’s voice.
“I want her gone, Ry!” Skylar whined. “She stole Marcy’s date tonight, she’s causing too much talk around the city, and who knows what her agenda even is? She could be here to kill you or Marcus!” Her shrieky voice was hysterical.
My brows furrowed at that preposterous notion. Why would I want to kill anybody here? They had taken me in, fed me, clothed me. I may not want to stay here, but I didn’t harbor any murderous thoughts towards them.
“Skylar what are you so worried about?” Ryker asked. I could tell that his temper was rising, and he had lost his patience a long time ago.
“I saw you dancing with her.” Skylar’s voice was venomous. “I saw the way you looked at her, Ryker. You have feelings for her don’t you.”
“I hardly know her!” His voice was growing louder, angrier. “The only reason she’s here is because my dad wants her here. She means nothing to me! She’s just some sad, lonely rogue that everyone feels sorry for. Goddess, Sky, how many times do we have to go over it? She’s here with Bryce for fuck’s sake! He can have her for all I care! You’re going to be my Luna, the Queen of Varcolac, so just shut up about Asenna already!”
Every word felt like knives in my stomach. I had been through endless amounts of physical torture growing up, but none of it had prepared me for these blows. Here I had thought that I actually had friends here, that they actually cared about me. But I was only the pathetic charity case. I was a joke. A laughingstock.
I waited for them to leave the hall, hearing them say something about a speech. My lungs felt shaky and my chest was trying to heave against my will. I kicked my heels off in the corner of the alcove and gathered the layers of my skirt in my hands before running down the hall to a back staircase leading away from the party. I moved so much quicker without those damned shoes. I flew up the stairs, running down different halls, getting twisted around with every new turn. I came to an open balcony that looked over the party from the second story. Everyone was quiet, looking to the main platform where Alpha Marcus was standing with Ryker.
My eyes narrowed into a glare, focusing the pain I was feeling into the look I was giving him from a distance.
“Now, my son will say a few words before we begin the Howling.” Alpha Marcus said to the crowd. They all clapped as their prince stepped forward.
“Good evening, everybody.” His voice was strong and authoritative. His true Alpha nature was showing for his people. “Tonight, we raise our voices to the Moon Goddess, the mother of us all, in hopes that she might show us the path to our true mates. Some of us will leave here tonight in celebration- starting a new life and a new adventure. Some will remain in limbo, waiting for their next opportunity to ask the Goddess for her aid in finding their other halves. But we will all remain united, one people, one pack!”
Ryker was dangerously handsome, charismatic, assertive- a natural leader. He was also a Class A jackass. As the crowd below roared with applause, I continued my hurried retreat from the area. I couldn’t be around them. I fought against tears as a ran through the halls, trying my best to navigate my way to my room, but they spilled over in streams.
I finally found my room and fumbled with the door handle until it opened. I slammed it shut and paced around the room, unable to stop moving. My chest was heaving, my breaths shallow and scratchy. Why had I allowed myself to hope? Why had I let myself think that I finally wasn’t alone? I though maybe, just maybe, I had found somewhere where people wanted me- Bryce, Soren, Samantha, Larken… but I was only here out of pity. I didn’t belong. I wasn’t wanted. I was alone. Everything I had ever suspected and feared had been validated by Ryker’s words.
I needed air. My lungs were on fire and it felt like electricity was burning through my muscles. I opened the doors to the balcony and stepped out into the cool night air. I let the breeze blow my hair back and bring chills to my skin. The full moon covered everything in its soft silver light. As the wind picked up, I could smell the scent of wolves gathering in the distant forest. They were all there- probably talking about how sad and pathetic I was, happy that the charity case hadn’t showed up to their gathering. My hands clenched the banister of the balcony, my fingers splitting into claws and digging into the stone.
I lifted my face towards the moon and poured all my pain, loneliness, and anger into a howl so loud that it rang in my ears.
What happened next was everything I had never wanted.