THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 29 - LUNA

Knox’s dark eyes were wide as I finally froze before him, the gathering of people around us going silent as we stared at each other. “Luna…” he breathed, and I felt myself shiver. Shadows were forming around him, black and thick against his sweat-soaked skin. I couldn’t tell where his tattoos ended and the magic began, and I was lost to the pounding of my heartbeat, racing out of time with the pulsing of his magic in my blood.

I couldn’t be sure how long we stood there, oblivious to the not-small group standing awkwardly to the sides. Finally, someone cleared their throat and whistled, breaking Knox’s gaze as he remembered himself and busied his hands with putting away his sword. Stilted laughs found my ears, and my face reddened under the sudden scrutiny. Jessamy threw me a sympathetic look and ushered the gaggle of women away, Mira’s laughter growing before they were even out of earshot.

Left standing in the ring was the pale fighter, still holding their sword and staring at me curiously with light blue eyes - so blue, they almost looked white. Shifting on my feet, I dropped my gaze to the ground, feeling every bit of embarrassment and shame I had expected on the days I spent hiding from this exact moment. Though many of the fighters had dispersed from the rings for the evening, I felt on display in the courtyard, suddenly alone despite the group I had arrived with.

Picking at the seam on my jeans, I swallowed and tried to think of something to say. The weight of that pale stare left me unnerved, a chill rushing down my spine and urging me to turn around and flee. But I could hear Knox moving, see him out of the corner of my lowered eyes as he realized I was still standing in place, waiting for someone to break the tension in the air. He was in front of me again within the blink of an eye, fists clenched at his sides as he stared down at me.

As difficult as it was to meet his gaze, I finally raised my eyes to meet his intense look. His face was a mask, but one laced in tangible frustration. “You’re still here,” he said, voice low and tight. The ground felt like it was falling out from me, and I felt my neck grow hot. I couldn’t keep my eyes from moving to his lips, pressed into a straight line, and he stirred as he tracked the moment, shifting and raking a hand roughly through his hair. He searched wildly for something, anything to draw attention away from how the tendrils of his shadows were reaching for me, exactly how they had when Jessamy performed the spell that showed the magic swirling around me.

“Lysand,” he called, ushering the pale fighter closer. “This is…Luna.” Knox took a step back, allowing them to come closer. A pointed chin bowed graciously, and I tried to return the gesture with a smile. “Luna, Lysand serves as a weapons master for the Pack, working closely with Janus to oversee training.” Instinct had me nodding demurely, but I was too focused on the way my name sounded in Knox’s mouth to contribute anything outside of pleasantries. The three of us stood in heavy silence until Lysand nodded and departed without a word.

My limbs physically trembled as their chilling presence dissipated, and I felt Knox step forward, his arm rising and falling as he decided against touching me. His voice was soft, almost comforting when he addressed me. “Lys can have that effect before you get to know them.” His fingers betrayed him, moving to ghost along the back of my arm and twisting around the ends of my hair. “They are a half-wraith, one of a pair that serves the Pack. Lark is the other twin, though they are often off-site in the northern part of my Territory.” A hand found my chin, tilting my face up to meet his eyes. We were no more than a breath apart, suddenly much closer than we had been since he Claimed me with his bite. My throat felt dry, my nerves on fire at his proximity.

“Lark and Lys are bound to the Pack, so you have nothing to fear from them.” A thumb brushed along my bottom lip, pulling it free from where it was trapped between my teeth. I felt trapped in his darkness, unsure where the magic he could not seem to contain ended and where he began. My hands itched to thread my fingers through the pulsing shadows, the vibrations between us slowly syncing to the rhythm of our hearts. In my head, I knew we were still on display in the middle of the ring, but at that moment it felt like we were the only two people that existed in the world. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered if he could feel it too, the literal pull in my gut, so desperate to close the remaining distance between us and press my chest against his flushed skin.

Something sparked inside of me as his fingers trailed gently down my neck to reveal his bite. He sucked a breath in through his teeth as he touched the tender spot, and that spark grew into a flame that threatened to burn me alive. I couldn’t recall what we were talking about, my head full of nothing but the way his eyes roved over his mark, the dangerous quality that flashed behind his irises and excited something dark in me. “What about you?” I managed, voice breathy and softer than I would have liked.

“Hm?” he grumbled in response, his gaze locked on the strand of red hair he held between his fingers. I swallowed thickly, daring to touch the dark feathers tattooed on his chest. It was some type of bird that spanned his muscles, wings spread wide, I could now see with our proximity.

“You said I had nothing to fear from them,” I recalled, allowing my nails to scratch lightly against his skin. “But what about you?” My question was so quiet I wasn’t sure he heard, not until he groaned and took my face between his hands.

“My moon,” he whispered, his breath gentle against my lips, “you have nothing to fear from me...” His hands drifted lower, tracing over my shoulders and down my arms until his fingers found mine against his chest. “…for it is me who should be afraid.” Knox was gone before I could exhale, striding away and disappearing into the closest shadow without another word.

That was how Jessamy found me, stuck in place with my eyes glued on the spot he last occupied. She said many things to me, but her words fell of deaf ears, my mind too scrambled to pick up on anything as she took my hand and led me back towards the Pack house.

—-

I found myself seated in a chair before a large mirror in front of a window, in the suite that apparently housed Mira and her dryads. From my perch in the living room, I could spot the reflection of a bedroom to my side, and a hallway Mira said led to a bathroom. One bedroom, I thought to myself, noting that the center of the room was dominated by a bed that was certainly large enough for three. I wondered about the women who lived here, but no one seemed to pause at this arrangement. The group who I had quickly deduced were close friends were settling in like they knew the place, running back and forth to the closet someone had explained was down the hall, apparently commandeered by a smug Mira upon her move-in. Other levels had kitchens in those rooms, Jessamy had stated with a roll of her eyes, suggesting that Mira had used her powers of persuasion to convince Knox to let her build the space out into a huge closet.

They would disappear with laughter, coming back into the suite through the open doors with several options; trying them on in front of each other, changing and tossing rejects into a pile on the floor with an ease I envied. From the mirror, I watched as they flurried around, chattering about tonight’s party and males they thought would be good partners for the Season. Their words were muffled, like trying to listen to someone underwater, drowned out by my pounding heartbeat. They were gracious enough to ignore that I was clearly not participating in their conversation, and no one mentioned anything to do with the Alpha. The activity and lively conversation faded to the background, allowing me to let my mind run wild as I stared unseeing at my reflection.

His touch was a memory against my skin, one that I craved with everything in me. My thighs pressed together in an attempt to stave off the growing desire between my legs, my teeth biting into my lip as the image of Knox so close he could kiss me floated through my head. His words had left me breathless, unsure, more confused with where we stood than before. I had expected anger or annoyance, or maybe for him to straight up ignore me. But Knox never seemed to behave how I expected, brushing me off one moment and pulling me closer the next.

The distance between us these last few days had been by his design, due to his regret surrounding the Claim he had placed on me. He hadn’t wanted me near, had sent me away…but he couldn’t keep himself from touching me as we lingered in the ring. Was that just the magic of the Haze? Could he have desired me of his own accord, if Draven hadn’t shown up and wrecked the first good thing I’d found for myself? Our days on the Run had felt like the beginning of something sacred, something now overshadowed by everything I had hoped to leave behind. But what did he have to be afraid of? His parting words sounded in my ears, the soft growl in his tone making me shiver in my seat.

Gentle hands on my hair drew me back to the present, my eyes snapping into focus to spot the woman standing behind me. She was one of the newest I’d been introduced to, maybe Sienna? Her lips were pulled into a soft smile as she twisted my hair up onto my head. Holding the loose bun in place, she leaned forward over my shoulder, meeting my eyeline in our reflection. “You have beautiful hair,” she said, bringing a stain of pink to my cheeks. “But your neck…” she trailed a finger from her free hand from my ear to my collarbone, lightly tracing over the yellowed bite and down my clothed shoulder. Her grip on my hair kept me from shifting in place, but I blushed furiously at her casual perusal of me. “…your neck demands to be shown.”

As she straightened, she released her hold on my hair, allowing it to drop back across my shoulders, once again hiding Knox’s mark. Mira suddenly appeared at my other side, a grin on her face as I caught her reflection in the mirror. “I’ve always thought the same!” she exclaimed, pulling a strand to twist between her fingers. Her expression furrowed as her eyes moved from my hair to the flushed skin of my neck, and I found myself holding my breath as she worked through whatever she was considering. “It’s decided,” she finally said, her glee returning as she stepped out of my view. “You’ll wear it up for the party,” she called, her voice growing softer as she disappeared from the room.

Amadrya appeared next, her face unreadable as she quietly began working to pull my locks up onto my head, her eyes never meeting mine. I could hear Mira as she returned, presumably carrying several hangers and muttering to herself. A spirited debate started behind me, as Mira launched into the pros and cons of each of her options with Jessamy and their friends. At some point, Amalthea appeared and started working on my face, pressing products to my skin in the same gentle manner she had the first time. Before I knew it, I was being pulled from my seat by possibly Valeria, and shoved into an outfit I had no hand in choosing but was clearly expected to wear without argument.

I had to admit, I didn’t mind Mira’s selection. The soft blue dress was flattering on my figure, cinching with a tie around the narrowest part of my waist. The neck had a deep vee that left my sternum exposed, hinting at the curve of my breasts in a way I thought looked quite enticing. Most of my legs were on display as I surveyed my reflection in the mirror, the hem of the dress only falling to about mid-thigh. Thin straps held the material snug to my form, leaving my arms and a large expanse of skin exposed, including the clearly visible bite on my neck.

Amadrya had pulled my hair into a textured bun held in place by two bleached-white bones, and Jessamy was in the process of handing me different jewelry options to “dress up my look” as she said. I let her choose, barely registering as she settled on a pair of simple hoop earrings and opted to leave my neck exposed. A pair of white cowboy boots were thrust in my direction, and I vaguely recalled placing them on my feet as I struggled to reconcile that the person staring back at me from the mirror was in fact, me.

A strange feeling of deja vu washed over me, taking me back to the last time I had stared at myself and did not recognize the face in the mirror. She was me, yes, but also not, instead the more refined version that the dryads could craft with ease. It felt so trivial, considering the gravity of the situation I had found myself in, but I had to acknowledge that I liked this version in the mirror. She looked more confident than I felt, like the kind of person that could attend a Pack Haze party and emerge unscathed.

Standing there, I realized I wanted to feel comfortable in this skin, wanted to feel like a part of something larger than myself. I wanted to be accepted by these women, all preparing themselves excitedly and allowing me to think in silence. I wanted to know what it was like to have friends of my own, to be in on the inside jokes being thrown around with laughter.

But mostly, I decided I wanted Knox, even if I didn’t know where I stood with the Alpha. The girl in the mirror would make that fact known, I decided, and tonight was the perfect opportunity to try being that girl.
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