The ten-second countdown had begun.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Happy birthday, Caleb!" Everyone chanted in unison.
The sound of clapping and cheering filled the ballroom. Then the mini-orchestra Mom hired, resumed playing once more. My parents had invited everyone we knew to the party. They called it a ball because the women were wearing gowns and cocktail dresses and all the men were dressed in tuxedos. To me, it was just an excuse to get drunk, make mindless conversation with people you wouldn't usually have anything to do with on a daily basis. My parents could barely stand half the people here and that was on a good day.
"Caleb, do you see her? Have you felt drawn to anyone yet?" Aaron asked.
He was my hilariously comical best friend. Aaron was standing around, trying to look all suave and sophisticated with his champagne flute 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. "Not yet," I replied, managing a strained smile.
Aaron clapped me on the back. "Don't worry, man, she'll be here. I mean, it's bound to be someone from around here, right? Our mates have all been from our town," he attempted to reassure me, despite the lingering doubt that was evident in his voice.
I gulped down the champagne that I'd been given to toast with. I hated the sweet taste on my tongue but at that moment in time, I just needed something to take the edge off.
My eyes met with my mother's determined gaze over the crowded room. Her hand raised as if to signal me to stay put. She swayed across the dancefloor in her black jewel-encrusted ball gown and designer heels. Her raven black hair was pinned back in 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 smiled, biting her lip in an attempt to act bashful but I could see straight through the act. 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.
Her green eyes greedily drank in the view of me as she tucked her brown hair behind her ear. I towered over most people, as Alphas were usually taller than everyone else in the pack. I stood at around six-foot-five in my socks. The moment I hit puberty, my body began to change and now I was as broad and as muscular as my father.
"Yeah, hi, Rachel," I replied out of politeness.
"Hey, Caleb, maybe you could save a dance for me later?" She suggested, in her practised sultry tone.
"Um, yeah sure, why not?" I replied, disinterested.
She giggled as her fingers toyed 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 trick.
Her whole façade was meant to draw me in like a fish, biting a worm on a hook. Although, I wasn't taking the bait. The only thing I felt for her was pity. Pity that she had gone to all the trouble of dressing like my mother, in order to impress her. Pity that she thought that she could try and seduce me, today of all days. And last but not least, I pitied that she thought so little of her fated mate, whoever, or wherever the hell he was.
I grabbed another glass of champagne as a waiter walked past, bringing the delicate flute to my lips. I gulped the contents down in one, then shuddered with a grimace.
"Caleb!" Mom hissed, through gritted teeth, clearly embarrassed by my actions.
I placed the glass down on a side table.
"Excuse me," I mumbled, leaving them both stunned as I weaved my way through the crowd.
A prodigious crystal chandelier glittered above me, casting particles of sparkling lights everywhere. The scent of the canapés drifted past my nose, smelling delicious and enticing.
I was stopped by a waiter who held out a tray in offering. "Sir, would you care for some caviar?"
I waved my hand in dismissal. "No, thank you." I made my way to the exit, sucking in a huge breath of relief when emerging through the ornate doors and out into the vast entrance hall.
I knew my behaviour was rude and that was unusual for me. I was upset and I wasn't known for being fake. There was no way I wanted to stand around making idle chit-chat with the high school whore, especially today of all days.
She didn't care about me. She only cared about who I was. I wasn't stupid.
I'd had plenty of girls proposition me, just because I was soon to be the next Alpha. I could appreciate that they considered me as attractive but I wasn't interested. Not when my mate was out there somewhere.
I'd spent the whole 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, each and 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. I buried my face into my hands and sighed.
As the hours flew by, my hopes were dashed. It wasn't going to happen. I'd waited all this time for nothing.
Aaron approached, stopping to lean casually against the curve of the bannister rail.
"Anything?" He asked again, his eyes winced with a look of sympathy.
I shook my head in annoyance. I'd lost count how many times that I had been asked the exact same thing tonight.
"You never know, she may be fashionably late like Cinderella." He attempted to cheer me up with his 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 actually showed up," I muttered, disgruntled and sarcastic.
"Oh yeah, my bad," he cringed, having taken the time to think about it. "I better go find Angie. I said I'd 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 to where the pace of the music had quickened.
Guests rushed off to grab their dancing partners. Then the sound of jubilant laughter, clapping and cheering, echoed out into the entrance hall. The floor vibrated with the thrum of thundering footsteps. Everyone clapped in time with the melody, all participating in an age-long traditional dance.
As the hall emptied all around me, I hung back until I was sure that I could slip away unnoticed. I was unable to 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 that hit the ground like a scattering of pebbles. I didn't care that I left my own 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 face them all. Especially 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, which meant that I was the only one still single.
I could imagine the words of pity 'Poor Caleb, next in line to be Alpha, and with no Luna insight'. It was humiliating.
I shed my tux and made for the treeline. The transformation from man-to-wolf took a mere split-second.
This was my escape from all the fake 'hello's' the superficial 'how are you's' and all the meaningless pleasantries that were expected of me.
Disappointment filled my gut and 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?
What a letdown!
While in wolf form, a run through the forest during a rainstorm meant that everything smelled more potent. The strong musky scent from the trees and ferns mixed with the earthy, damp scent of loam from the ground comforted me. I'd never felt more at home than I did in this form. This truly was freedom, where I felt liberated from the woes of man. I embraced my animal side as a means of escape.
Being out in the forest helped to clear my head, freeing me from unnecessary distractions. The trees provided me with the perfect hiding place, where no one could bother me. Weres could only link members of their own pack but they could only do it whilst in wolf form. The pack soldiers that patrolled the forest knew to maintain their distance. I could feel them close by but none reached out to me via the pack link. That was fine by me. I didn't much care for the company tonight anyway.
The pattering sound of raindrops on the canopy of trees overhead, calmed me down. Like nature's own therapy. I felt the tension begin to ebb away, giving me the opportunity to relax and to think things over.
I slumped down on the ground, contemplating whether or not I was going to stay out here all night or go home and face the music. I had way too much pride to face going back home so soon.
Happy birthday, Caleb, I thought, feeling more and more despondent.
My ears picked up on the faintest sound amongst the heavy rainfall. I lay listening to it for a few moments, unsure as to what it was. I sensed panic and confusion amongst the soldiers. Whatever it was, it had them on edge. So much so, they were discussing how best to deal with it.
The sounds troubled me. I couldn't seem to block them out, even though the rain.
There was only one thing for it: I would have to investigate it myself, curious to know what was causing all this disturbance. I didn't have to travel far when I smelled the distinct smell of strawberries and shortbread. Which was weird out here in the thickest part of the forest. There wasn't a dwelling around here for miles.
The sounds grew louder the closer I got, just as the scent grew stronger. I dipped my head low, hardly believing what I was seeing as I crept up slowly towards the trembling figure.
It was a little girl, all on her own. No doubt lost in the forest. She was sobbing, rubbing her eyes on the sleeve of her bright red jacket.
So this was what all the fuss was about!
The ferns around us rustled as each of the pack soldiers backed away, allowing me to handle the situation myself.
The little girl sniffed, wiping her eyes with her tiny pale hand. Clutched tightly in her other hand was a toy wicker basket. I could smell that she had packed food: which was where the scent of strawberries and shortbread was coming from.
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 her tiny hand into the wicker basket and pulled out a round shortbread biscuit, then held it out to me as an offering.
"Are you hungry?" She asked, slowly stepping closer and closer.
I could hardly believe what I was seeing. She crept slowly towards me in her ladybird wellington boots until she was but a mere step away. Her small hand was still holding out the food for me to take. I didn't want to frighten her-- she intrigued me.
I took the food from her hand carefully, then chewed it fast. I swallowed it, then licked my muzzle clean again. She let out a sharp breath, as she smiled. This gave her the confidence to do what she did next.
She reached out a trembling hand and buried her fingers into my damp fur. The moment her skin came into contact with me, I immediately felt our connection. Her touch sent a tingling sensation that ran straight to my heart. I had found her, or more surprisingly, she had found her way to me. I was so inexpressibly happy, my heart sang with euphoria.
Despite the feeling of excitement and relief at having finally found her, my mind began to boil with anger.
What was she doing out here, all on her own in the forest? Where were the hell were her parents? And was anybody out looking for her?
I wasn't going to leave her until I had made sure she was safe and sound. The sudden urge to protect her rose above and beyond all else.
"Hello, what's your name?" She giggled, in her sweet, child-like voice.
All I could do was stare at her innocent face that had a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her bright blue eyes sparkled with a sweetness of the purest kind. She smiled, showing all her baby milk teeth and I could just about see her blonde curls that framed her face beneath the hood she was wearing.
"My name is Ruby Knight and I'm six. I wish you could talk," she spoke with a sigh. "I'm not s'posed to talk to strangers but you're just a nice dog so that doesn't count," she continued to chatter.
I found her comments amusing. I tilted my head to one side whilst panting. My tongue lolled out on one side, giving the impression that I was laughing. She was such a sweetheart. I hoped nothing bad had happened to make her venture out here all alone.
"I've always wanted a dog but my mommy said we can't because nobody's at home all day and it wouldn't be fair," she chatted happily whilst stroking her hand through my fur.
She leaned towards my ear. "If I tell you a secret, you've gotta promise not to tell anyone because I'll get into trouble." Her voice trembled as she mentioned about getting into trouble.
"I accidentally smashed Mommy's and Daddy's wedding picture. I just wanted to look but I'm not s'posed to climb on the cabinet. Daddy lives in heaven now and I miss him. Sometimes Mommy 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, feeling it sink to the floor.
She'd ran away because she was afraid of getting into trouble. All because she wanted a look at her dead daddy's photo. Poor kid.
I couldn't shift back. I'd scar her for life. Seeing me shift would be traumatic enough for her without seeing me naked thrown into the mix.
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'.
"You sure?" She whimpered.
I licked the side of her face. "Eww!" She flinched back, giggling.
"Okay, I better go home. I'm tired and I have school tomorrow," she mumbled whilst scratching behind my ear.
I walked alongside Ruby, leading her back out of the forest. I couldn't believe how far she'd walked all on her own. I made a mental note that one day, I would be having stern words with her about the first time we met but that wasn't going to be for a long while yet.
Now I knew who she was. I'd never be too far away but I would have to keep my distance. Now that I had found her, I didn't mind that I'd have to wait for her because it would all be worth it.
We reached the edge of the forest, stepping out of the trees and onto a dirt track that lead up to an old farmhouse. The house hadn't been lived in for years. Yet there it was, with the lights on in the windows and with smoke billowing out through the chimney. Someone had moved in since the last time I'd passed by this way.
"Well, this is my house. You can sleep in the barn if you want?" She offered, kindly.
She placed a hand on my fur, guiding me towards the barn. I wasn't ready to face the music back home. I could sympathize with Ruby. We were both likely to be in a whole heap of trouble for our earlier behaviour.
I would've been more than happy to hide out in her barn for the night but I knew my mom would hunt me down like a bloodhound. At least I could go back and tell everyone that I'd met my mate. I just wasn't sure how I was going to explain to my parents that she was only six years old.
Ruby opened the barn door and we both went inside. I shook my fur to rid myself of the rain.
"Eww!" She squealed, giggling.
I decided that I would wait out the rain in the barn, then slip away at first light. Now I knew that Ruby had gotten home alright, I could rest easy. I just hoped that she didn't get any more crazy ideas about running away again.
I swiped my tongue across her dimpled cheek as if to say goodbye. It was my way of saying 'I will see you again, someday'.
She wiped a wet hand over her already rain-washed face. "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 gonna think of a name for you," she spoke with affection.
An overwhelming feeling of guilt washed over me. I couldn't go through with this...could I? This felt a lot like I was lying to her.
She put her arms around my neck, burying her face into my fur, then inhaled. As soon as she spoke her next words, it changed everything.
"Can I keep you?" Her voice came out merely a 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 her own carefree way.
But I knew I wouldn't be able to.
Not if she needed me.