[Prologue Part 1]
(POV - Ayla)
If there was a way to melt away into the words of a book and settle among the whimsical pages forever, Ayla would do it in a heartbeat.
It wasn’t that she hated her reality, really, she was just not a fan of pack politics and how they always landed her right in the middle. Being only sixteen, she’d believed once that she would be exempt from it all, but her father really hadn’t made that easy.
Shaking the thought from her head, she flipped a long brain over her shoulder and turned the page, her eyes swallowing up the words hungrily in a desperate attempt to be anywhere else.
Sitting at the foot of a large oak, the gnarled roots twisting into the perfect seats, Ayla paged through her latest literary obsession. The sun had begun its descent, casting an orangey glow over the brand new pages of her book. It had been a warm day, warmer than usual and that meant anyone looking for Ayla would be bound to find her in the shade with her nose in a book.
There was no better way to spend a summer evening.
Tasha had left a little while earlier for her run, something Ayla had very little interest in. She’d promised not to take too long and Ayla had agreed to wait for her out in the clearing where most of the younger wolves of their pack gathered to train. It wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory given that all young wolves were required to train at least once in their lives, but it certainly made her feel uneasy. She could almost feel the burning glares from her peers who’d been training hard while she lazed about in the shade.
She picked up on faint, not-so-distant mumbling, the wolves who were whispering stood just out of earshot despite her sensitive ears. She was still too young to have all her lupine senses fully developed, and she relied more on her human senses because she was more familiar with them.
It didn’t help when she was trying to determine whether those mumbles were something she could safely ignore.
The mumbling continued, getting louder the closer they got, but she was hesitant to look up. She didn’t want her fears to be confirmed if they really were talking about her, and she wasn’t interested in sparking up a conversation with a passing wolf just because she’d accidentally made eye contact.
It was difficult to ignore, though, especially as more voices joined in, the accompanying footsteps multiplying and growing heavier as they inevitably approached. She willed her entire body to still, allowing that preternatural sense of quiet to take over her mind until she barely breathed. She tried to do what her father had taught her, breathe with the wind so that any prey would be completely unaware she was right behind them. But it was difficult when the bark dug into her back, reminding her that she was essentially caged.
There was a group headed straight towards her, just a few feet away, and she had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Swallowing a shaky breath, Ayla tried to keep her eyes on the words of the book in front of her. Her fingers threatened to tremble where they clutched the book, the pages slightly creasing from her tight grip. She willed her heart to slow down, willed the tension coiling along her shoulders and spine to ease, but her instinct warned her that danger was too close.
“Well, well,” one of them drawled, his muddy toes appearing in her line of sight. “If it isn’t the princess of the pack.”
Maybe if she pretended they weren’t there, they would just give up and leave her alone.
Or maybe it would just piss them off.
“What? Are you too good to talk to us common mutts?” another mocked, earning a few hearty sniggers from his friends. “Come on, you’ve been reading all day, why don’t you pay us some attention instead?”
She knew what sort of attention they wanted. And she refused to budge an inch.
“Oh, did we scare the little Delta’s daughter?” the first one guffawed, leaning in far too close for Ayla’s liking. “Maybe if you were training like the rest of us, like a real Delta’s daughter, you wouldn’t be so scared of us.”
The book she’d been staring right through disappeared from her hands, held high over her head while the first wolf laughed cruelly.
She glanced up, not wanting to cause a scene and wishing Tasha would hurry up and come back so that she could help Ayla out of a stupid situation.
The wolf holding her book above her wasn’t very tall, but he was bulky enough that Ayla knew challenging him would be a mistake. His three friends were all more or less the same, each of them built like brick houses, thick-necked and wearing matching expressions of vapid malice. Almost as if they only followed the ring leader around because his proximity promised them a way to quench their thirst for blood.
It made her stomach roil with nausea.
“Please can I have that back?” she asked quietly, not moving to get to her feet or otherwise provoke them in any way. She knew to be careful when wolves were on the hunt, and she didn’t want to become another statistic in the Wolf 101 handbook.
“What was that, princess?” the first wolf, Isaiah, if she remembered correctly, simpered at her. His eyes gleamed with the need to inflict pain, his fangs visible in his toothy grin. “You want your book back? Maybe you should come and get it.”
He shifted, as gracelessly as she could have predicted, his friends following suit until her back was pressed to the bark of the tree. They closed in, low like they might lunge at any moment.
Ayla felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand as her wolf clawed its way out, the pain from cracking and bending bones fleeting before she was on all fours, hackles raised in warning. She snarled and tried to rip the book from Isaiah’s maw, only to have another’s jaw catch her flank. She yelped in pain and jumped back, trying to keep all of them in her line of sight. They spread out, and Ayla’s heart thundered in her chest, her ears flat against her head.
She knew there was no way she could take any of them on, let alone all of them at once. She glanced away, praying Tasha would hurry up, when Isaiah leapt forward, his teeth catching her undefended side. There was no scent of blood, but Ayla’s eyes watered with the sudden pain. She sank low to the ground, readying to pounce when Isaiah clamped his teeth around her neck and every single nerve in Ayla’s body screamed for her to get away, get away, get away. But he had her pinned, and if she moved too much, his fangs would tear right through fur, skin and sinew.
A low, warning growl echoed across the clearing, pulling Isaiah’s attention from Ayla for a brief second. She managed to turn her neck enough to stop the brassy, almost golden wolf approaching them from between the cluster of trees. His ears weren’t pressed back, but casually flicking left to right, picking up every breath in his vicinity. Isaiah didn’t let go, but his attention had now fully turned to the newcomer, who padded towards them almost soundlessly.
That low grumble grew closer, until the wolf was feet away, snout pulled back in a snarl. In one swift move, he’d snapped at Isaiah, pulling him off Ayla effortlessly and pinning him to the ground. The soft whimpers of submission were drowned by the earth-shaking growl that rattled Ayla to her very core.
Isaiah and his friends fled, their tails between their legs, leaving Ayla’s book tattered in the dirt.
Ayla stared after them, slowly shifting back until her toes curled in the grass. The other wolf walked towards her book, shifting with each step until he bent down and lifted the book with human hands. Silently, he walked over to her and held it out.
“Here,” he said, his voice deep but not at all as intimidating as his snarl. Aiden. It was Aiden, the son of the Alpha, who had come to her rescue. His dark brown eyes seemed to glow in the gold of the sunset, his hair the color of polished brass. Ayla was sure her lungs had jumped out of her chest.
“Thank you,” she whispered, taking the torn book back with shaking hands. He only nodded and walked away the same way he came. Ayla watched him leave, her stomach doing strange somersaults and her brain refusing to believe any of that had happened.
“Oh my God, I can’t leave you anywhere,” Tasha said, sweaty as she jogged up to Ayla and threw a smelly arm around Ayla’s shoulders. “Did you just get rescued by the hottest guy our age?”
Ayla scrunched up her nose and shrugged her best friend’s sticky arm off.
“Our age? Should we even be looking at guys at our age? Shouldn’t we be waiting?”
Tasha snickered and looked at the spot where Aiden had disappeared beyond the treeline.
“Wait until I find my True Mate?” she scoffed, grabbing the bottle of water she’d left beside Ayla near the tree. “I’m going to look at any male I please.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Ayla sighed, her mind still full of the bright blur of gold that had released her from Isaiah’s maw. “With that attitude, I’m surprised you haven’t found him yet.”