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The courtyard looked nothing like it had hours before as I found myself standing between Jessamy and Amalthea, a drink shoved into my hand before I could think to ask. All weaponry and evidence of training had vanished from the space, with long tables organized end to end lining the glass wall of the dining hall. They were covered in foods and snacks of all kinds, already being picked over by boisterous groups of Wolves excited to be feasting in celebration of the Haze. Tables and seating were scattered around the large open space, some occupied by groups laughing over food and drinks. Music played faintly in the background, an upbeat song I didn’t recognize but found myself enjoying regardless.

In the center of the courtyard, there was a large bonfire, the flames crackling and flickering with some form of magic if the aura I could make out wasn’t just the blur of smoke. Floating balls of light bobbed and danced through the air overhead, the same kind I had seen Jessamy conjure multiple times during my stay in her home. The air was full of excitement, tinged with lust and an energy that had my skin pricking with awareness.

At some point I lost my group of gals as they scattered to find a table, food, male attention, and so on. Jessamy was engaged in conversation with a Wolf I didn’t recognize, but I had drifted off so as not to intrude if she was hoping to get with the male that had her laughing and touching his bare muscled arm. I found myself standing against the reflective glass on the outskirts of the party as it grew wilder, more and more people arriving and indulging in the freely-flowing alcohol available at any turn. The volume of the thumping music increased as a group of males carried in several kegs of beer, setting them up and earning cheers as the evening increased into a controlled frenzy.

Couples had begun breaking off from groups to dance around the fire, hands wandering and hips grinding to the music that was building with every thump of the bass. My gaze lingered on one couple for far too long, drinking in the sight of them as the female pressed her backside against the male, whose hands were gripping her hips tightly as he moved and spun with her, his lips never leaving her ear as he whispered words I imagined would have my blood heating. Their tangible desire pulled at something within me, a want for their level of passion for each other. The energy between them was so intense, I almost took a step forward towards the fire to be closer to their magic. The male broke their embrace for the tiniest of moments, spinning her quickly between firm hands and gripping her back against his chest, pressing his mouth to hers and kissing her fiercely.

I glanced away, feeling like an intruder, immediately searching the crowd that had formed in the courtyard over the course of the evening for Knox - even though I wished I wouldn’t. I didn’t see him amongst any of the males, though I did spot Janus laughing with a group and pretending not to glare at Jessamy, who was still chatting with her handsome Wolf. Before he could have the chance to notice my stare, I continued my search, hoping to see a familiar face and regretting my prior decision to ever leave Jessamy’s house at all.

My eyes fell on Mira, who was tugging Amadrya and Amalthea each by the hand towards the dancing couples as they smiled and laughed. She wove them in with the crowd, her barely-there dress glittering in the firelight. The dryads were mesmerizing to watch as they danced around Mira, their spiraling and graceful movements entrancing me enough to shuffle forward a few steps, drawn to their beauty like a moth to a flame. It was then that I caught a glimpse of Mira’s back, completely exposed as the low back to her dress was held across her ribs with only a simple chain. She was dancing too quickly for me to make out the details, but the unmistakable shape of a tree was tattooed across the entire expanse of skin, the roots bleeding down and disappearing beneath fabric as the branches rose to spread over her shoulders.

Not for the first time, I wondered at the women dancing together, noticing that the hands of the dryads never left Mira for long. They touched her waist, her loose curls, her arms, anywhere they could find exposed skin. She was radiant like this, laughing with her head thrown back as she moved to the beat, standing out sharply against the dryad's pale skin and modest green dresses. The three of them together…I’d never seen anything like them, so in sync with one another and glowing in the magic of the night.

My feet had carried me closer as I watched, and I almost stood within the groups of people standing around chatting, sipping on drinks and enjoying the party. The familiarity of the moment was not lost on me, standing so close yet still watching from the outside. But a quick scan showed no Knox, no Valeria or Daniella or Sienna. Jessamy, too, had disappeared, and I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for Janus. What options did I have, an outsider to the Pack and stranger to everyone at the party? Panic started to rise in me, and I found myself backing up, the spell of the dancers around the fire finally broken.

I didn't make it very far before my back bumped into something, a small yelp issuing from my lips before I righted myself and whirled to see what had stopped my retreat. The handsome Wolf who had been chatting with Jessamy was grinning down at me, hands extended forward as he watched me straighten. “You alright?” he asked, his voice kind, though a bit teasing. My neck flushed, and I nodded, silently debating if I should turn and make a run for it. Something in his eyes had me hesitating, waiting too long to make a dash for it. “You’re the Runaway,” he said, tilting his head to the side and looking me over. “My sister speaks very fondly of you.”

The flush spread up to my cheeks, and I averted my eyes, glancing down at the ground and then away towards the fire. “Your sister?” I managed, meeting his gaze and trying my best to seem polite in my interest. I didn’t think it was possible, but his grin grew wider as he pointed a finger towards the dancers. Following the movement, I saw Mira dancing with the dryads, just as beautiful and sensual as I remembered.

“I believe you two have been acquainted,” the male laughed, sticking a hand out in offering. “But I’m Rafael, though most people call me Rafe.” His grin was cheeky, and he didn’t try to hide the way he looked me up and down. My eyes fell to his extended hand, and I let my fingers rest against him, giving him my most proper handshake, my hand flat and grip light. His eyes glinted, and he brought the back of my hand to his lips, gentle against my skin.

“Mira was right,” he said as he straightened, letting his eyes rove over me again. “You are a pretty little thing.” I watched him spot the bite on my exposed neck, watched him quirk a brow. “But Knox doesn’t like to share.” I was blushing again, telling myself not to ask if he had seen the Alpha recently, telling myself not to think of the Alpha at all and just enjoy the party.

Surely I needed to say something to Rafe, not just shuffle awkwardly on my feet as I tried to clear Knox from my mind. As if that was possible.

“Do you dance, Runaway?” Rafe asked, extending a hand towards me and nodding his head towards the fire. I couldn’t control my surprise, glancing between his hand and his face as he patiently waited for me to recover, to say anything.

“Um,” I began, off to a great start. “I don’t know…I mean.” What did I mean? That I thought only couples were dancing before the fire, feeding the lust in the air? That I thought he was nice to look at but that I had seen him obviously flirting with Jess all evening? That Knox had Claimed me, only not really, but surely he would hear if I was in the arms of another male? That he seemed really nice but to be honest, I was a bit intimidated by his sister and her dryads? My hand wandered to my neck of its own accord, fingers touching the bite gently. Rafe noticed, his smile shifting into one of reassurance.

“Don’t worry, the Alpha likes me far too much to relieve me of my head for dancing with his girl.” He winked, nodding to his extended hand, encouraging me with fiery eyes to take the plunge. I took a breath, and then I took his hand. Rafe grinned in victory, pulling me along towards the fire, reeling me closer to him as we headed towards the flames. The magic was thicker the more we approached, and a sudden excited nervousness fluttered in my gut.

“My name is Luna,” I was calling out to him, squaring my shoulders as we found an opening and began weaving among the dancers. He tossed me a smirk as he brought me to face him, positioning one of my hands on his shoulder and presenting our joined fingers to the side.

“Of course it is,” he teased, though I didn’t see the joke, but he was leaning in with a mischievous grin before I could say anything else. “Hold on.” That was all the warning I got.

Rafe launched us into dance, leading me with practiced ease and spinning at a pace that had me stumbling a bit, leaning in to him and regaining my balance as I picked up the rhythm of his steps. He was doing a variation of a waltz, keeping us at a comfortable distance and style that stood out from the grinding and grasping around us. Rafe switched his pace, stepping us into more of a swing, waiting until I found the pace to spin me under his arm and pull me back to him. I was laughing before I could think, watching his eyes alight with joy as I poured my energy into learning his frantic style, picking up when to expect a shift in dance by the way his brows danced right before the new move.

He cycled us through several more dance styles, not caring that the steps weren’t all meant to be danced to the same count and timing. Each transition had him adding his own variations, giving a life and excitement to our movements as we slowly circled with the flow of the group around the fire. It was masterful in it’s own way, the disregard he had for the ‘rules' of the steps he employed, despite hitting every beat of the music with something of his own creation. Watching him plan the moves in his eyes only a moment before they happened gave the dance a feeling of freedom - something I had never felt in the ballroom of my father’s estate with my instructors.

I did have to credit my tutors for my ability to keep up with him at all, my knowledge of ballroom dance truly serving me well for the first time in my life. There was no way he could twirl me around with such grace and ease if I didn’t have the different patterns etched into my muscle memory. His expressive face and dramatic movements had me locked in on only us, my mind quiet of my worries as I concentrated on the way we moved together. We danced like that for what felt like hours, laughing and spinning and winding between the other dancers.

As we danced, I felt my mind go quiet, too concentrated on our movements to let my thoughts drift back to Knox…to wonder where he was, to consider what it might feel like to be dancing with him, turning out of a spin and into his arms. My worries and shame fell to the wayside, left in the dust churning around our feet. No one cast us a second glance, though our dancing stood out obviously against the crowd. The magic of the Haze was too intense for coupled partners to turn their faces from each other, lost to the energy of the night.

It was beautiful, it was freeing…and it felt good. It felt like what life should have been like before I left home, pulling that tender thing in my chest that would throb each time I experienced something else I was once denied.
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