THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 23 - LUNA

As the sun rose the next morning, Janus delivered me to Jessamy’s house without a word, keeping his eyes firmly anywhere except the bite on my neck that my shirt didn’t quite cover. He gave her a long look before turning back to his truck, but she had eyes only for me.

“Oh doll,” she crooned, pulling me into a tight hug I needed more than I was willing to admit. She was easy to hug, her form slight but soft under the large cardigan she had draped around her frame. She smelled of rosemary, maybe lavender, and a hint of charcoal. Pulling away and holding me at arm’s length, she studied my face, lips pulled in a tight line. Those turquoise eyes of hers glistened with unshed tears, and she looked truly devastated to be seeing me. I couldn’t help the low sigh that escaped me, shoulders drooping under her hands.

“Come in,” she urged, pulling me with a gentle hand into her brightly-colored home. “I’ll bring your stuff in later - let me give you the tour first.” A cheery smile plastered on her face, her attempt to move on from the crushing weight of what had happened the last time we saw each other. Jess held my hand as she showed me around her space - the small living room overflowing with mismatched pillows, the stuffed bench and tidy dining room just off the kitchen, the long table that was laden with books and empty mugs and objects of all kinds. It was charming, cluttered, homey and a bit otherworldly to stand in her space, to see where she lived and worked and used magic so freely.

“The library is mostly upstairs,” she pointed to the spiral staircase that led up to the atrium of books, overflowing onto the floor and stacked to fill every inch of space. I found my feet moving, dragging me back to the center of the room to stare up at the shelves above. There were books of all shapes, sizes, with covers in all textures and colors. They seemed disorganized in their arrangements, accumulating faster than they could be shelved, and I felt a sudden sense of urgency to discover all the contents between those pages. Rolling ladders were propped intermittently, and I wondered absently what Jessamy might have been reaching for the last time she moved them.

“I’ve been thinking about expanding,” she said, interrupting my slow rotation to look at everything I could. Turning my eyes back to her, I noticed she had moved to wait in the threshold of a door off the kitchen, patiently waiting for me to look my fill at her collection. “The shelves were already mostly full when I acquired the house, and all the books come with the position. I’m thinking another level will be necessary soon.” She smiled and cocked a brow. “You’re welcome to spend as much time exploring as you’d like, but let’s get you set up first.” She inclined her head to the space behind her, so I moved to follow.

She led me through a hallway lined with shelves of herbs stored in jars of all sizes, pausing to show me a bathroom with mosaic tiles in every color of blue, covering every surface. The bedroom was through the next door, the side wall laden with more shelves of books and strange objects of all varieties, mixed in with jewelry and purses and a collection of diadems on clear stands. Her bedspread was layers of faded knit blankets, the wooden headboard supporting at least a dozen pillows of all colors.

Something uncomfortable settled in me as I examined her personal space, feeling like an intruder in a place I didn’t belong. “You’ll sleep here,” she murmured behind me, and I felt myself nod. Guilt and shame warred within me, and I felt a flush building on my neck as I surveyed her bedroom.

Jessamy was so sweet, so kind to take me in after knowing me for such a short time, but the gesture felt like too much. Her reception of me had been so instant, so genuine, I truly didn’t know how to feel. It was overwhelming, her gentle offer for me to stay in her home, but my stomach twisted with a sick feeling. I’d overstayed my welcome with Knox, that much was clear, and I couldn’t bear the thought of doing the same here. How many days of lingering in her space before she grew sick of me? How long before her patience with me ran out?

Was the whole room to be mine during my stay, regardless of how that infringed on her life? There was only one bed, which would technically be large enough for both of us, but was she really offering it to me to occupy alone? Or would she climb in next to me as we went to sleep, content to share my warmth in the night? There was a couch in the living room, maybe I could just offer to take that….

A tinkling laugh interrupted my thoughts, drawing my attention to where Jessamy stood in the doorway. “Stop fretting over there, you’ll give yourself wrinkles. I have…other sleeping arrangements.” My cheeks heated in embarrassment, but I was glad the little witch wouldn’t be my bed-mate for the near future. She hadn’t elaborated, but her eyes were clouded with a suspicious look, one I wondered at but tucked away to revisit later.

I thought back to Knox’s final statement before he disappeared, the memory of it hazy in my mind. It is your right to choose your own accommodations if you wish… It felt wrong to ask for my own space when so many people had already gone out of their way to help me. Janus had been driving me around, Mira was handling my wardrobe since I had almost nothing to my name…Knox had insisted on protecting me from Draven though he had no true obligation to do so. If I started counting the ways I had been made to feel welcome, to feel included, I would run out of fingers before I covered even most of them. I was forever indebted to Knox and his Pack, even if no one would say so out loud, but it left me with a desire to prove myself…to prove my worth.

A rush of ocean waves receded in my mind, and I snapped my eyes to Jessamy. Finally processing what she had said, I noted that she had acknowledged the specific source of my worry - as if she already knew what I was thinking. Realization crested over me, and my brow furrowed as I frowned at her. “Were you just in my mind?” I asked, tone a bit snappier than I intended. Embarrassed, I dropped my eyes to my feet on her carpeted floor. “I mean, were you Visiting my mind just then?” Peering up at her through my lashes, I saw her leaned casually against the wall, hands shoved in the pockets of her cardigan.

“Not intentionally, though sometimes you make it hard. You practically scream everything you think, whether I try to hear it or not.” She looked a little sheepish, but not sorry in the slightest. I didn’t know how to feel about her revelation. When I was very young, my mother had teased that I was an open book, always wearing my heart on my sleeve. Her death, a strict father, endless tutors and a murderous Alpha ex-lover later, I would have argued I was better at controlling my reactions than ever before. Apparently maintaining my facial expressions wouldn’t be enough around these people…I was always at a disadvantage against those who had magic. I ground my teeth unintentionally.

“Stop worrying,” she assured me, stepping closer and reaching out a hand to squeeze mine. “It’s often the people with the loudest minds I find most interesting. You see more than you say, think more than you do, and I think that’s admirable. Just…really easy to pick up on. But I’m especially tuned in to you now, with your…connection to Knox.” She let out an awkward chuckle and allowed my hand to drop as she glanced at the bite on my neck. I tried not to shift in response, keeping my hands at my sides to prevent myself from covering the bruising skin.

Turning and heading back towards the front of her house without a word, I followed quietly behind Jess with shuffling feet. Once in the kitchen, she waved and snapped her fingers a few times, food and plates and utensils floating out of their places to prepare a brunch of fruits and bagels and sliced cheeses. She prepared the mimosas herself, uncorking the champagne with a pop and pouring just a dash of orange juice to top them off. The spread floated to settle on the low coffee table before her couch, and she gestured for me to follow her to take a seat. She chose the same armchair she had sat in the first time we met, and handed me my flute once I settled in place against the cushions and pillows.

“I figured you probably have a lot of things you want to talk about, so why don’t we have some breakfast and get to your questions?” She offered me an encouraging smile, helping herself to a bagel and selecting from the options of spreads before us. We ate in silence, sipping our drinks and licking sticky fingers. It amazed me how quickly I had grown comfortable with the idea of household magic, my reactions as it happened around me more controlled than before - though I was certainly still enamored to watch it in action. The practical uses of magic felt equally amazing as flashy shows of power in my mind, the time-saving qualities alone appealing to my ingrained sense of duty surrounding keeping a home. That’s what I had been raised to do, after all, as my only purpose was to be the Lady of an estate and manage all the goings on of the household. But with magic…there was time for so much more, so much besides cleaning dishes and sweeping floors and running around micromanaging the staff.

I studied Jessamy with casual interest as we ate, watching her mannerisms and wondering what she could hear of my musings. It didn’t feel like I was shouting my thoughts, though I did suppose my worrying was pretty loud inside my own head. But if she could pick up on my mind without trying, then surely Knox could as well, especially now with this…something between us. It hadn’t felt the same when I noticed Jessamy brushing against my mind, her magical touch not carrying that lingering sense of familiarity I had started to associate with Knox. She felt like an ocean breeze, the way I imagined the warm sun would feel against the sea.

Jessamy tucked her legs up under herself, refilling both our mimosas with a wave and sending an expectant look my way. She was ready for my questions, but I felt too tired to come up with the best thing to ask. There were so many things I wanted to know, so many things that had transpired - both past and present - that I wanted more details about. Talking to Jessamy is different, I reminded myself privately. She doesn’t mince words like Knox.

I swallowed down more of my drink, willing the champagne bubbles to fill me with the energy to start somewhere. Stomach full, propped against the mountain of pillows, I allowed my shoulders to relax, my eyes to close. It was easier to ask for everything when I wasn’t looking. “Please,” I asked, my voice a bit strained, “no more questions. I never know where to start, and I’m tired of feeling confused. I want to know it all, from magic to the Pack to…Knox.” I couldn’t help the deep sigh that escaped me at the mention of him. A moment passed, and I felt anxiety build at her silence. I hated feeling this way, practically begging for the pieces to connect the snippets I had picked up along the way.

“Doll, that’s a lot to cover in one day…” she said hesitantly, her voice soft. “There’s no rush to figure everything out right now.” I knew she was right, but I was impatient. How much of my life had I wasted behind closed doors, pretending not to hear conversations I couldn’t understand and avoiding questions that might engage suspicion? So much time was lost, time I could have spent learning histories actually relevant to my kind or practicing magic. My eyes had been opened the further away from home I had gotten, and the secrets of this Pack had ignited a thirst for understanding I hadn’t felt with such intensity ever before.

Back home, I did as I was told, smiling politely when directed, keeping quiet unless specifically addressed. I didn’t want to be that anymore…the perfect daughter or perfect mate I had spent my entire life training to become. I wanted to learn, to change, to become part of something greater than me. It felt like the life I might have once dreamed of was within my sights, just a bit too far away to grasp. There were too many things I wanted to know - needed to know - to close that gap and take what I wanted for myself. The events of the meeting had posed a setback, one laced with rejection and shame, but I had come too far to be redirected now.

“If you could just…start at the beginning,” I pleaded, hating the slight whine I could hear in my voice. “Maybe explain things to me how they were explained to you? I don’t know.” Peeling open my eyelids, I looked directly at Jessamy and tried to think of how it had felt when she was lingering in my mind. I need to know everything, I thought at her, hoping she would understand. I have to make sense of things. Her eyes widened in surprise, softened, then her gaze turned thoughtful. Her lips pursed sympathetically, and she topped off our glasses with a wave. I took the motion as a victory, settling into the couch and preparing to interrupt as little as possible, lest she change her mind. Black-tipped fingers lifted her mimosa to her lips, and once she set the flute to the side, a conspiratorial smile spread across her face.

“The beginning, then.”

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