Chapter 1 - Animkii
“She’s not your mate.”
Heavy gray clouds glowered back at him through his bedroom window overlooking the valley with her house far off in the distance at the edge of the trees. A few dry brown leaves clung to the skeleton tree outside, curling in on themselves as a north wind threatened to rip them down. The same tree he climbed up and down whenever he wanted to sneak out and spend some time alone in the moonlight, contemplating his future.
“We don’t know that for sure,” he grumbled. “She’s not of age for me to know yet.”
“Anim...” His mother’s voice was soft as she stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek against his shoulder.
When had she gotten so small? Or rather, him so big? He was only eighteen and his growth spurt was shooting up. Soon he’d be taller than his father—an unfathomable thought to him, but one he knew would happen eventually.
“You know we can’t wait five years to find out. Your father and I are growing old and weak. We won’t be able to maintain our ground much longer. A few more years, yes, but our time is coming to an end. It is better for you to look for your mate than to hope and pray for something that may never be.”
Closing his eyes, he bowed his head. Shoulders slumped under the weight of the truth as a wrench twisted his heart.
He knew she was right. He knew he would love his mate regardless of who she was and his heart would forget her...
As much as it pained him to let Chloe go, he knew he had to do what was best for him and the pack. Chloe didn’t know of his affections anyway—she was too young. It wasn’t until his eighteenth birthday when his parents began to pressure him to start looking for his mate that he realized his feelings for her.
But he knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Chloe was one of his two best friends and chances were, he’d have to give up their friendship when he found his mate. His mate would surely become jealous, and he wouldn’t blame her. He’d be jealous of Chloe’s mate too if he held on too tight.
He had to let her go. Now was better than later while she was young and not as invested in him as he had become with her.
“I know, Mamaw.”
“I know it sucks. You two are really close and when Chloe joined the pack, she needed—more than anything—a friend. You two really took to each other. But this is for the best.”
“I know!” he snarled. Just stop talking already!
Wrenching himself away, he grabbed his travel pack from his bed and stomped out of his room.
The last five months since his eighteenth birthday had been the same. He and his Uncle Gekek, the pack’s beta, set out for a week to travel to various packs in hopes of finding his mate.
And each time, coming back empty-handed.
Part of him was glad. Part of him hoped that his mate was Chloe and they just had to wait for her to turn eighteen to find out the truth. But he understood his parents’ concerns as well. They were getting older and the younger males of the pack could sense it with an increasing thirst for power surging through their veins and driving them to challenge their alpha every chance they got.
His father and uncle were still in the kitchen, packing last-minute items in a cooler full of food for them to eat and some frozen water bottles.
His father lifted his head, his hackles raised as he entered the room in a huff. “Animkii,” he said in a tone that used to make Animkii submit... Not anymore.
“Let’s just go already,” Animkii grumbled as he grabbed one of the chilled water bottles from the fridge and unscrewed the cap.
Lifting the bottle to his lips as he turned, he nearly bumped into his father. He glared into his dark eyes lined with wrinkles—a crinkled tapestry of experience woven into the fabric of his flesh illustrating the good times with the bad. A rumble of energy and sound trembled the air between them, forcing Animkii to bend his head in submission.
“I know you don’t like it, but it is good for you to experience the outside world too. Not all packs think and operate the way we do. We are very fortunate to live where the land is rich and fertile with plenty of water—”
“Papaw, enough. I don’t want to hear it, okay? I get it. Let me go and get this over with.” He took a long drink from the bottle before screwing the lid back on and brushing past him to the living room.
Becoming alpha wasn’t always on his mind. It wasn’t until his two elder brothers were killed that the position fell on his shoulders when he was four. After mourning their deaths, it was all about preparing him to take over the pack. Training him in mind, body, and soul to be a strong leader when all he wanted was for his brothers to come back and play with him again.
A foot kicked him in the shin. Dropping the bottle and heavy pack from his back, he whirled around and grabbed the little monster, throwing her onto the couch. She screamed before bursting into fits of giggles as his fingers dug furiously into her sides and stomach.
She’d gotten into the habit of trying to sneak up and attack him before he left on these trips. Her way of telling him she didn’t approve of him leaving for a week. At eight years old, his little sister, Anwaatin, drove him crazy sometimes but he still loved her.
“Stop it! Stop it!” she squealed between fits of laughter as she tried to escape his tickle attack.
He stopped when he could tell she was struggling to breathe. She tried to kick him again, but he grabbed her leg and pinned it down, along with the rest of her body under him. “I’ll stop tickling you when you stop trying to attack me.”
He started tickling her again until she submitted, her face dark red with tears streaming down her cheeks. She lay limp, exhausted and gasping for air, as he scooped her up in a bear hug.
“I’ll see you next week.”
She whimpered into his neck as her arms circled around it. “Don’t go.”
“I have to.”
“Just take Chloe as your mate. She likes you. I know she does.”
Heaving a sigh, he sat her down on the couch next to him and brushed her dark hair from her wet face. “I can’t. You know that.”
“It’s not fair.” She pouted, giving him the puppy-dog eyes.
“You’re telling me. I don’t even want to go on these stupid trips.”
He heaved another sigh and shook his head. “It’s not that simple. You know that. I know Mamaw and Papaw have explained this to you. This is the last time before the snow comes. I promise. Then we will all be here for winter.”
“Then you’ll start again in the spring, won’t you?”
Hanging his head, he looked away. If he didn’t find his mate this time, he would have to continue his search in the spring. The thought of it pressed down on his shoulders. “Yeah,” he murmured. “Yeah, we would.”
She leaned against his side, her head on his bicep, and rubbed the moisture from her face. “Hurry back. It’s not the same when you’re gone.”
Leaning down, he nuzzled the top of her head. “I know.”
Their father strode past with the cooler to the door and their uncle on his heels with another small cooler, as their mother softly padded down the steps, rubbing her arms and watching everything unfold.
When their father returned, he kissed their mother quickly before pulling away and giving Animkii a nod of his head. Time to go.
He gave Anwaatin another big squeezing hug before getting up from the couch. His mother embraced him, rubbing his back and reassuring him that everything would be fine and destiny was destiny—with whomever it turned out to be. His father gave him a curt nod of his head before patting his back. He’d gotten firmer since Animkii’s eighteenth birthday. He hoped he would soften once his future was secured.
Grabbing his travel pack and water bottle from the floor, he tromped out the front door to the pickup truck where his uncle was waiting for him. Uncle Gekek patted him on the back before Animkii strode around to the passenger side and he climbed in behind the wheel.
They had a long way to go before they would reach the next pack that they haven’t visited before. Animkii climbed into the truck and heaved a sigh before buckling his belt.
Another week away from home.
Another week away from her.
It took two full days of driving, stopping at midnight to check into a cheap motel and getting up at six in the morning to continue the rest of the way before reaching the pack late in the evening. The Alpha and Luna served them a hearty meal at their house before setting them up in a guest house for the night. A nice hot shower eased away all the strain from driving and they hit the beds at ten o’clock. They were up again at six to dress and have breakfast before entering the pack’s lounge, where all the unmated females of age were gathered—but Animkii knew as soon as they had entered the territory that his mate wasn’t there.
He thanked them for their hospitality and dismissed all the females quickly and they set out on the road again at nine. It was an hour’s drive to the next pack, and again, just as soon as they entered, Animkii knew his mate wasn’t there.
The remainder of the day carried on in the same fashion, driving from one pack to the next before reaching their last stop for the night.
As soon as he stepped out of the truck to meet the Alpha and Luna for dinner, he smelled her.
The heavenly scent of his mate lingered on the air.
He stopped dead in his tracks. A stake thrust into his heart as his dreams shattered at his feet.
The alpha and luna emerged from their house to greet them and took one look into his face and knew that his mate was somewhere in this pack.
“Come, come inside and let’s discuss. We have two daughters, yes. One just turned eighteen, maybe she is your mate?” Their accents were heavier than the previous packs they had visited that day. Nevertheless, their smiles were broad and happy, urging him inside to see if this soon-to-be Alpha was the mate for their eldest daughter.
Stepping inside, her scent saturated the air and he clamped his jaw to stifle the whimper threatening to escape. He couldn’t help scanning the room quickly and in the blink of an eye, his eyes settled on her—a gorgeous brunette with hazel eyes, plump lips, and blushing high cheekbones.
Her eyes met his, nostrils flaring as she picked up his scent and stood up from her seat in the living room.
It felt as though the room was spinning. Joy and agony waged war within him as his world shifted under his feet.