The ten-second countdown had begun.
“Ten... Nine... Eight... Seven... Six... Five... Four... Three... Two... One. Happy birthday, Caleb!” my guests chanted in unison.
The ballroom filled with celebratory cheers. Then, moments later, the mini-orchestra resumed playing.
My mother had been planning this occasion ever since I was born. I wasn’t keen on parties. It was an excuse for people to freeload and snoop around our house. When I become Alpha, I intended to ban any such functions.
“Caleb, do you see her? Have you felt drawn to anyone yet?” Aaron asked.
Aaron, my comical best friend, was standing around trying to look all sophisticated with his champagne glass like James Bond, dressed in his black Tux, white shirt, and bow tie. He glanced over his shoulder at a group of giggling girls while running a hand through his dark-blond hair, his blue eyes sparkling with a hint of mischief.
I rolled my eyes. “No, not yet,” I replied, managing a strained smile.
Aaron clapped me on the back. “Don’t worry, man, she’ll be here. I mean, your mate has to be someone from around here, right? Our mates have all been from our town,” he attempted to reassure me, despite the lingering doubt evident in his voice.
I gulped down the champagne that they had given me to toast with. I hated the sweet effervescent taste on my tongue, but at that moment, I just needed something to take the edge off.
I saw my mother across the crowded hall. Her hand raised, signaling for me to stay put. She swayed across the dance floor in her black jewel-encrusted ball gown and designer heels. She had pinned her raven black hair into an elegant style, making her dark, almost black eyes more prominent as they greeted me.
“Caleb, you remember Rachel? Ava and Julien’s daughter,” she introduced, in a superficial, honeyed tone.
Rachel shied away, but it was all part of her ‘sweet and innocent’ performance. I remembered her from school. The words ‘shy’ and ‘Rachel’ didn’t belong in the same sentence. Mom may have fallen for her girl-next-door act, but I hadn’t.
Rachel had to look up to me. I stood at six-foot-five inches in my socks. Alphas were taller than everyone else in the pack. The moment I hit puberty, my body changed, and now I was as broad and as muscular as my father.
“Yeah... Hi, Rachel,” I responded out of politeness.
“Hey, Caleb, maybe you could save a dance for me later?” She suggested, in her practiced sultry tone.
“Um, yeah sure, why not?” I returned a disinterested reply.
Rachel giggled, toying with the blue diamond pendant that hung around her neck in an attempt to draw my eyes towards her cleavage.
She was good, I’d give her that. Weaker men would’ve fallen for that trick because that’s all it was: a con.
It was a tactic she used to draw me in like a fish, in the hope I would take the bait and bite. Her efforts were futile. The only emotion I felt for her was pity. She had gone to the trouble of dressing like my mother to impress her, and she had tried to seduce me, today of all days. I pitied her fated mate, whoever he was.
I grabbed a fresh glass of champagne from a passing server, bringing the delicate flute to my lips. Swallowing the contents down in several chugs, I shuddered with a grimace.
“Caleb!” Mom hissed through her gritted teeth, embarrassed by my actions.
I placed the glass down onto a side table.
“If you don’t mind, I’m expecting someone,” I excused, leaving them both stunned as I weaved my way through the crowd.
A prodigious crystal chandelier glittered above me, casting particles of sparkling lights onto everything it touched. The delicious scent from the canapés drifted past my nose, causing my stomach to growl.
A server stopped me as I passed. “Sir, would you care for some caviar?”
I waved my hand in dismissal, not wanting bad breath. “No, thank you.” I made my way to the exit, pushing through the ornate doors and out into the entrance hall.
My behavior was rude and was out of character for me. I was growing anxious. Rachel’s flirting didn’t help. What if my mate had seen it and left the party early? My mother should have known better, but that was her problem. She didn’t think. Rachel didn’t care about me. She only cared about who I was. I wasn’t stupid.
Plenty of girls propositioned me just because I was next in line to be Alpha. The attention was flattering, but I wasn’t interested. Not when my soulmate was out there somewhere.
I had spent the entire day feeling as if I had knots twisting around in my stomach. Tonight was the night that I was supposed to find my mate. My head snapped towards the door, every time someone emerged through it, but each time my heart sank with disappointment. I took a seat, slumping down at the bottom of the sweeping staircase with my elbows resting against my thighs. Burying my face into my hands, I exhaled a weary sigh.
As the hours flew by, it dashed all my hopes. It wasn’t happening. I had waited all this time for nothing.
Aaron approached, stopping to lean against the curve of the banister rail.
“Anything?” He inquired again, his eyes winced with a look of sympathy.
I shook my head in annoyance, losing count of how many times someone had asked me that tonight.
“You never know, she may be late like Cinderella.” He attempted to cheer me up with his light-hearted wit.
I groaned, scrubbing a hand over my face. I loved him like a brother. We had more or less grown up together, but sometimes, he could utter the weirdest crap.
“Well, at least she showed up,” I retorted with sarcasm.
“Oh yeah, my bad,” he replied cringing, having taken the time to think about it. “I better find Angie. I said I would get her a drink. Will you be OK?” He asked, reaching out to place a hand on my shoulder.
I nodded. “Yeah, go.” I jerked my head towards the ballroom, noticing the pace of the music had quickened.
Guests rushed off to grab their dancing partners. Then the sound of jubilant laughter, clapping and cheering, filtered out through the entrance. The floor vibrated with the thrum of thundering footsteps. Everyone clapped in time with the melody, all taking part in an age-long traditional dance. The tempo matched my pounding heart.
As the hall emptied all around me, I hung back until I was sure that I could slip away unnoticed. I could not maintain the façade I’d been putting up, not mustering the willpower to smile. My throat swelled, making my voice sound strangled.
I couldn’t let anyone see me like this. I had way too much pride. So, I loitered around in the entrance hall, pretending that I was looking for someone. I waited until nobody was around before slipping out through the front door and into the night.
Rain fell from the heavens in a dense grey blanket, hitting the ground like a scattering of pebbles. I didn’t care that I left my party early. I wasn’t interested in plastering a fake smile on my face and saying my goodbyes. ‘Thanks for coming.’ ‘Have a safe journey home.’
I couldn’t stomach it. All the patronizing comments, like ‘Aww... Never mind, Caleb, you’ll find her soon’. And the comforting words that my father would say ‘Patience, son, these things take time. You’re still young’.
It was easy for them to say. They had found their mates. Being the youngest out of my friends had its disadvantages, meaning that I was the only one still single.
I could imagine their words of pity. ‘Poor Caleb, next in line to be Alpha, and with no Luna, too.’
I shed my Tux and made for the treeline. It took seconds to rip through my shift. This was my escape from all the fake ‘hello’s’ the superficial ‘how are you’s’ and all the meaningless pleasantries that were expected from me. Disappointment flooded my gut as my pride had taken a blow. I had my heart set on tonight, ever since I could remember. All those years of getting my hopes up... And for what?
Such a let-down.
Running through the forest during a rainstorm allowed me to clear my head. Scents held potency. Sounds we’re amplified. My sight cut through the darkness like spotlights. The strong earthy aroma of the trees and damp loam brought me a little comfort. I had never felt more at home than I did in this form. This was a small taste of freedom. It liberated me from the woes of man, embracing my animal side to escape my torment.
Werewolves could only mind link members of their native pack, but they could only do it when in their wolf form. The pack soldiers that patrolled the forest knew to maintain their distance whenever I needed space. I could feel them close by, but none reached out to me via the pack link. That was fine with me. I didn’t much care for their company tonight, anyway.
The pattering raindrops on the canopy of trees calmed me down, like nature’s own therapy. I felt the tension ebb away, allowing me to relax and to think things over.
I slumped down on the ground, contemplating whether to stay out here all night or go home and face the music. My pride got the better of me, and I punished myself instead.
‘Happy birthday, Caleb’ I thought, feeling more and more despondent.
My ears picked up on the faintest echo among the heavy rainfall. I lay listening to it for a few moments, unsure what it was. I sensed panic and confusion amongst the soldiers. Whatever it was, it had them all on edge. The sound troubled me. I couldn’t seem to block it out despite the rain.
There was only one thing for it. I would have to investigate the incessant noise myself, curious to know what was causing the disturbance. I didn’t have to travel far when I smelled strawberries and shortbread.
That’s weird; there isn’t a dwelling around here for miles.
The weeping grew louder the closer I got, as did the sweet scent. I dipped my head low, unable to rationalize what I was seeing. It was a human girl. A kindergartener. No doubt lost in the forest. She sobbed, rubbing her eyes on the sleeve of her bright red jacket.
So, this was what all the fuss was about.
The surrounding ferns rustled as each of the pack soldiers backed away, allowing me to handle the situation myself.
The little lady sniffed, then cleared her vision with her tiny pale fist. She was carrying a toy wicker basket that contained food.
What on earth is she doing out here?
Her sobs came out in short, sharp blasts as she stared at me in bewilderment.
Why was she still standing there? Didn’t she realize what I was? Wasn’t she afraid of me?
She reached into the basket and pulled out a round shortbread biscuit, then offered it to me.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, stepping a little closer.
I couldn’t believe this. Her ladybird wellington boots stopped a mere step away, and she pushed the treat beneath my snout. I didn’t want to frighten her—she intrigued me.
Taking great care not to nip her fingers, I took food from her hand, chewing it, then swallowed, licking my muzzle clean. She let out a sharp breath as she smiled. My cooperation gave her the confidence to do what she did next.
She reached out and buried her fingers into my wet fur. The moment her skin came into contact with me, I felt our connection. Her touch struck a chord in my soul. I had discovered her. My soulmate. I was so happy, my heart sang with euphoria.
What was she doing out here, all on her own in the forest? Where were the hell were her parents? Weren’t they out looking for her?
It was my responsibility to bring her home safe and sound. The urge to protect her rose above and beyond all else.
“Hello, what’s your name?” she giggled in her sweet, childish voice.
She had a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and her bright blue eyes sparkled with a sweetness of the purest kind. She smiled, showcasing a mouthful of milky white teeth. Her blonde curls remained dry beneath the hood of her coat.
“My name is Ruby Knight and I’m six. I wish you could talk,” she spoke with a sigh. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, but you’re just a friendly dog so that doesn’t count,” she continued to chatter.
Her comments amused me. My tongue lolled out as I panted, mimicking my laughter. She was such a sweetheart. I wonder what had made her want to roam the forest during a storm.
“I’ve always wanted a dog, but my mom said we can’t because nobody is home all day and it wouldn’t be fair,” she chatted, stroking her hand through my fur.
She leaned toward me. “If I tell you a secret, you’ve got to promise not to mention it to anyone because then I’ll get into trouble.”
“I smashed my parent’s wedding photo. I just wanted to look at it, but I’m not supposed to climb on the cabinet. Dad lives in heaven now, and I miss him so much. Sometimes Mom gets sad. She’ll be mad at me for sure. So, I ran away.” Her sweet voice became a strained whisper.
My heart broke for her. She ran away from home because she was afraid of getting into trouble. All she wanted was to remember her father’s face.
There was no way that I could shift back without scarring her for life. It would be traumatic enough without seeing my naked butt thrown into the mix. She thought I was a stray dog, so that is what I shall be.
I nudged her hand, forcing her to stroke my head. It made her giggle.
“Do you think she’ll be mad?” she asked, her eyes glistening with tears.
I gave a huff, jerking my head from side-to-side as a sign for ‘no’.
“Are you sure?” she whimpered.
I licked the side of her face, keeping in-line with the dog act.
“Eww!” She flinched back, giggling.
“You’re right, I better go home. I’m tired and I have school tomorrow,” she mumbled, scratching behind my ear.
Ruby and I strolled side-by-side as I led her back through the forest. I couldn’t believe how far she had wandered all on her own. Anything could have happened. It was a good thing it didn’t. At least I knew who she was. Sure, there was a significant age gap, but I didn’t mind waiting. It would be worth it.
We reached the edge of the forest, stepping out of the trees onto a dirt track that led up to an old farmhouse. I knew that place. It hadn’t been lived in for years. Yet there it was, with the lights on in the windows and smoke billowing out through the chimney. Someone had moved in since the last time I passed by this way.
“Well, this is my house. You’re welcome to sleep in the barn?” Ruby offered.
She placed a hand on my back, guiding me toward the barn. I wasn’t ready to receive one of my mother’s lectures. I could sympathize with Ruby. We were both likely to be in a whole heap of trouble for our foolish behavior.
I was happy to hide out here for the night, but I knew my mom would hunt me down like a bloodhound. At least I could go back and tell her I had met my mate. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to explain that she was only six years old.
Ruby opened the creaky door, and I loped inside. Ruby shielded her face as I shook my fur, ridding it of the rain.
“Eww!” she squealed.
I planned to wait out the rain, then leave at first light. Now that I knew Ruby was home, I could rest easy. I just hoped that she got no more crazy ideas about running away.
My way of saying ‘Goodbye, I will see you again one day’ was to swipe my tongue across her cheek.
She wiped it off with the back of her hand. “You’ll be here tomorrow when I get home from school, right?” she asked, her blue eyes shone with hope. “You’re the only friend I have. I’m going to think of a name for you.”
A guilty feeling coiled around my heart and squeezed it tight. I couldn’t go through with this, could I? This was bad. It felt deceitful.
She flung her arms around my neck, burying her face into my fur. As soon as she spoke her next words, it changed everything.
“Can I keep you?” Her voice came out like a fragile whisper.
I stilled, feeling the moral conflict flood my heart and my mind. The right thing to do was to stay away from her and to let her grow up in a carefree way.
But I knew I wouldn’t be able to.
Not if she needed me.