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Alpha Home, Miesville, Minnesota

“Vicki, take this over to the snack table,” my Mom said from the crowded kitchen. A dozen women were furiously heating, cooking, and prepping the mountains of food needed for the party. I grabbed the large metal serving pan full of Buffalo wings and took it to the side table where the warmers were ready. I slotted it into the holder, then lit the warming flame underneath.

I took one look around before going back. The dining room was all tables stacked with food now, and more was downstairs at the kitchen down there. You could feed an army with what they were putting out! Folding chairs were in all available spaces, and bulky furniture moved out to make more room. Banners, streamers, and balloons were everywhere. I must have looked overwhelmed because my Dad came up and hugged me from behind. “Nervous?”

I nodded, relaxing back into Brent’s chest. He’d mated my Mom when I was five, and he was my Dad in every way except by DNA. I’d always called him that, saving “father” for my bio-dad. He’d be here too, along with some of the Stillwater Pack. “It’s so… MUCH. You know me, I’d have been happy with a candle and a piece of cheesecake at Wiederholt’s with the family.”

“Your coming of age is a big deal, Sharkbait. Your whole life could change tonight.” I tensed up, and he felt it. “What’s wrong?”

I just shook my head, which didn’t stop him. He knew me too well. He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the alcove leading up to the upstairs apartment where we first lived with Uncle Leo. He sat me on the stairs and sat next to me, his knees popping as he did so. “Ow, that sounds like it hurt,” I said.

“Getting old sucks, and getting old as a construction worker sucks more.” Dad had joined Volkov Construction shortly after mating Mom and had worked his way around all the trades before becoming a Site Foreman four years ago. “Now spill.”

I pulled an envelope out of my pocket. “I got this in the mail today.” I handed him my acceptance letter to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, to their Marine Biology program. I bit my lip as I watched him read it.

“You’ve worked so hard for this, Vicki. What is this now, four acceptance letters?”

I nodded. “University of Minnesota, Duke, Oregon State and now this. Amy got one too. It’s where we both want to go; they have a dolphin studies program, and it’s right on the Gulf of Mexico. Year-round diving.”

He froze as he realized the problem. “There’s no Pack that far south.”

I nodded as he thought through what I’d already figured out. The University of Minnesota I could commute to from home, while Duke and OSU had friendly packs nearby. In the Tampa Bay area, we’d be on our own. “That’s why Amy and I would room together.” Alpha Leo would never allow me to be so exposed alone, and even with Amy along, it would be a stretch.

He looked at me as I took the letter back and put it in my pocket. I could see his face as he realized the problem. “The only way this works is if the two of you don’t find your mates in the next four years,” he said softly.

“It’s going to be hard enough convincing the Alphas and our parents of this, Dad. Add in a hormonal, overprotective mate, and my dreams are over. There’s no way I go to Florida for college if I find my mate this week. Even if I don’t, if I find him in a year? I’d have to transfer to another college if he even lets me go to school. I’ll end up here or at his Pack, and everything will take a backseat to him, our pups, and my stupid mantle.”

Dad put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer. “Finding your mate is not a bad thing, Vicki. It was one of the best moments of my life, even though she was clueless, and I had to suffer through her change for her to recognize it.” Mom had been human when Dad came to Leo’s and recognized her as his mate. “Your mother was in school, and she finished her degree and went on to get her Master’s. It wasn’t easy, but she had her family and her Pack to help her with you and the babies.”

“She would have been so much better off if she’d never gotten pregnant. She struggled so much before we met you.”

“She wouldn’t trade what happened for anything. She got both of us out of the deal, so it was worth it.” He pulled me up off the stairs and into his lap as I hugged him and laid my head on his shoulder. “You’re an amazing young lady, Vicki. Smart, driven, beautiful, a natural leader. Don’t be afraid of your destiny.”

“What if I want to choose my destiny for myself?”

“The Goddess laughs at your attempts to tell her what to do. Trust that she has your best interest at heart, and be open to what she gives you.” He looked at his watch. “You did a good job of hiding, but you better go change and get ready for the party. I’ll send Amy up after you.” He pushed me up to my feet again.

“Thanks, Dad. I love you.”

“I love you too, Sharkbait. It’s going to be all right.” He walked back into the dining room as I wiped the tears from my face before going upstairs. I changed into my dress and put some light makeup on, then went back down to the dining room.

“There you are,” Luna Adrienne said. “Come over here.” She led me to the entryway, where a long table sat along the wall. “You’ll be greeting guests as Jenna takes care of the jackets. We’ve got plenty of room for boots on the mats. Set the presents on the table and send them inside where your parents will meet them in the living room.”

“I can’t mingle?”

“Not until everyone is here, or people will keep trying to find you. Let the younger ones know the downstairs is open; Beta Susan is in charge down there, and Amy said she’d ‘handle the music for me.’ Whatever that means.” It was almost six, and the first cars were coming in the driveway. She turned to my parents. “Mike is handling the bar, and Anita is your go-to for food and drink issues. Point out the bathrooms to the visitors. Any questions?” We all shook our heads, no. “Great! It’s going to fun, Vivian. All the unmated males will take a good sniff when they come in, so smile and make the best of it.”

“If a stray hand grabs my ass, they might lose it,” I said. Beta Mike made sure all the Pack females knew how to defend themselves, and I’d become quite good at it. It helped keep the human boys in line too.

“Just try not to break the furniture or get blood on your clothes. Happy birthday, Vicki! We’re so proud of you!” I gave her a big hug before she ran back to the kitchen to supervise the last-minute preparations.

Despite my fears, the party was a big success. One hundred and sixty-two people came in before Adrienne said I needed to eat something and mingle before the cake, and none were my mate. I saw a lot of disappointed faces as they moved on in the reception line, and only once did I have to put a guy in an arm-bar when he tried to grab my breast. I ate a plate of food while talking with the adults, then grabbed a bunch of wings and ribs and headed downstairs to be with my friends. There were about twenty people near my age, and thirty or so younger kids. We took over the man cave while the younger kids and their babysitters watched a movie in the theater room.

I loved Leo’s man cave. On one side was a long bar and a shuffleboard table, while the other had arcade machines and a three-by-five-by-twenty-five-foot long aquarium. Dad and Leo built it in time for my seventh birthday; it was a monster, over twenty-seven-hundred gallons. It originally had hundreds of tropical fish and four sharks, but they had grown quite a bit since then. Now, it had a stable population of about a hundred fish, including two horned sharks, one coral catshark, and an epaulette shark. I still did maintenance on the tank every weekend, but Leo got the aquarium bug too. He now had a live coral reef tank in his office upstairs, which requires daily maintenance but is beautiful.

The tables had been moved to one side of the room with the food, leaving a small dance floor at the other end. I was having a great time dancing with the guys when Alpha Leo called everyone to gather upstairs for cake.

The sheet cake was HUGE, and I gasped at the decoration. A free diver, who looked like me, was swimming over a coral reef with sharks all around me. “HAPPY 18TH BIRTHDAY SHARKBAIT” was the title, and eighteen candles blazed away on top. Flashes popped as I stood by it. “Make a wish, Vicki,” Mom said.

I took a breath and blew the candles out. After cake, those who wanted to followed the Alphas on a Pack Run. Pack members had purchased much of the surrounding land, so we had a longer run than when I was a pup. The party went until midnight downstairs, and I was exhausted by the time we left. Tomorrow was another school day, and on Friday, we would fly out for the Alpha Summit.

So far, I’d gotten my wish.

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