Chapter One: Prologue Anastasia
There are so many things I’d always dreamed of hearing my fated mate say.
Things like, “You’re everything to me,” or “I can’t imagine my life without you in it.”
I never thought I’d hear my fated mate say, “I could never love you!”
I scoff, but it’s really not that funny. It’s not funny at all. Those words sting as much as they had the first time I heard them. I just can’t help but laugh because, well, there’s nothing else I can do about it.
I sigh, watching my breath fog up the glass in front of me, obscuring whatever lay just beyond the small window. Not that I could see much anyway; the window has a thick layer of grime from years of neglect. The dilapidated cottage is of a shell of a habitable space.
It probably hadn’t seen a living inhabitant for decades before me and I’m nowhere close to unveiling its secrets. There’s a locked closet I still haven’t dared to pry open.
But it’s the closest thing I have to a home of my own, even though it’s far from the pack and just as empty as the hole in my chest.
His fucking words chase themselves around and around until I ache with the urge to claw them out of my skull. But there’s nothing I can do to stop the torment. It’s ageless. It waits in the deepest reaches of my psyche, sharpening its claws and fangs to a fine, deadly point, ready to shred my sanity again and again.
If I listen closely enough, I can pick up the sound of life outside the walls I’ve caged myself within. Howls of celebration are coming from the packhouse. I can only imagine the scenes unfolding there now.
I stare listlessly through the glass, drawing little shapes in the mist my breath leaves behind. If the window was cleaner, I might see the little clearing just outside, lined by old, gnarled trees that were older than the pack itself. I haven’t been outside in a couple of days, and I have to rely on my sense of smell to tell me what the weather is.
Fine, I could probably admit it to myself: the howls echoing through the trees are for the engagement party. See? That wasn’t so bad. I’m still numb and they’re still happy without me.
I feel so pathetic.
“I could never love you!”
Rubbing my eyes until tiny stars burst behind my lids, my heart pleads with the Moon Goddess to stop the voice inside my head. I know, I know, I know they will never love me.
I can’t even love myself.
It shouldn’t hurt this much; it’s not like I haven’t heard that exact line before.
A lifetime ago, but nothing’s changed.
“I could never love you!”
Yeah, I’ve heard that before. At an age when no kid should ever have to hear those words, especially not coming from the person they have an embarrassingly huge crush on.
Jacob’s face blossoms in my mind, completely unbidden, but I let the memory play out, thinking it won’t hurt me again. I can’t help myself.
He’s twelve in this memory. His face is still soft and round, his cheeks pink with excitement, his head bowed close to mine like he’s telling me this huge secret he just can’t keep to himself.
“Alphas find their true mates when we’re twelve,” he says, like it’s a badge of honor. “You guys only find out when you’re eighteen!”
“I know that,” I retort, feeling a little defensive because every wolf knew that. I may not be the smartest wolf, but I knew that.
“What are you trying to do, show off or something?” I ask in return.
He giggles, his eyes bright and innocent as he says, “No way. My dad would kill me. He says an Alpha is above that kinda stuff.”
“Oh, I guess that’s why I caught you picking your nose during recess last week.” I watch his smile drop into a scowl and have to bite my lips to keep from laughing.
“You promised not to tell anyone!” He waves his little finger in my face indignantly. “You pinky swore!”
I chuckle, my fingers toying with the end of my ponytail. “I thought Alphas were ‘above’ that kinda stuff?”
He growls at me, though it’s playful and lacks aggression. Not that a twelve-year-old wolf could do much damage, but still.
“You’re so annoying, you know that?” he grumbles, kicking at a patch of grass near his feet. I shrug. “You should respect me more. I’m gonna be Alpha someday.”
I snort and use all my strength to shove him away. “You’ll still be the same annoying pup who picks his nose when he thinks no one is watching.”
“Will not!” he seethes, his face puffing up in anger.
It’s cute to me, like everything else he does. I don’t know why I tease him so much. I wish I could just tell him I like him a lot.
“Alright,” I concede, pulling him back down to sit on the grass beside me. “So, you’re meeting your mate soon?”
That instantly changes his mood. His little scowl disappears and he’s all giddy again.
“Yeah, my ‘fated’ mate,” he says, nodding with excitement. “I can’t wait to meet her. I wonder what she’s like.”
“What she’s like?” I echo, feeling a little inadequate. “What do you mean?”
His cheeks flush a little, suddenly getting shy. He stammers a bit, struggling to get the words out. “Y-you know, what she looks like, if she’s funny, and strong?”
He’s teasing. He has to be, right? He has to know how much I want it to be me.
Moon Goddess, I want it to be me so badly. I feel my hands bunch into fists, balling the light fabric of my dress at my sides.
I’ve had a crush on Jacob for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to be his fated mate from the second they taught us that Alphas find their fated mates as early as twelve. And every year, his twelfth birthday crept closer. I secretly prayed that it would be me.
And now he’s twelve, and I’m twelve, and he’s waiting.
It’s me, isn’t it? I can’t help but wonder.
“Maybe she has really pretty eyes,” he says, his own glazing over a little in thought. “I bet she’s really pretty, ya know?”
It doesn’t sound like he’s even considering me. Would I be so bad as a fated mate? I might not be super pretty or very strong, but I ‘could’ be. I still have time to train hard, maybe I can learn how to be prettier or learn makeup or something.
“Maybe she’s like, really cool too,” he says, looking out at something I can’t see. His green eyes are twinkling with something I wish he had for me. I wonder what her name is.
“What if it’s me?” The second the words are out of my mouth, I want to suck them back in. I didn’t mean to come right out and say it, but now the question hung in the air between us.
“‘What if it’s you’ what?” he asks.
He looks so confused, and I want to punch myself. But mostly me, because it hurts so much to see him look at me like that, like he can’t figure out why I’m asking at all.
It’s out there already, I guess. There really isn’t a reason to be weird about it. Well, weirder.
“What if I’m your fated mate, Jacob?” I ask him seriously. “What if it’s me?”
Jacob looks at me for a long moment, his lips parted and eyes blinking owlishly. And it hurts. It hurts because I can see the rejection shining in his eyes long before his lips move to form the words.
“What?” he laughs, a startled kind of sound that cuts like a knife. “You can’t be my fated mate.”
I hate the way his words make me feel. I hate how my stomach twists and my throat burns. The way my claws itch to drag across the soft flesh of my thigh. To draw blood.
I hate it, but I need to know.
“Why can’t it be me?” I ask, my voice smaller than it has ever been.
“I could never love you!” He’s laughing but there’s nothing happy about the sound. I think I want to throw up. I’m going to throw up. “Not like that. You’re my friend. You’re like my sister, Ana. It would be so weird if we were fated mates, right?”
Bile is scorching my throat, embarrassment and shame clawing against the inside of my chest and, oh my God, I’m going to be sick.
“Y-yeah, haha,” I manage to force out. I guess it would be easier to laugh it off, even if it hurts. “That would be so weird. Gross, huh?”
“Totally,” he sniggers, his shoulders hiking up to his ears like the mere thought of us being fated mates creeps him out. “We’d have to, like, kiss and stuff. That would be so gross!”
“So gross,” I mutter, willing the tears stinging my eyes to just go away before he sees them.
“You’re so funny, Ana,” he says, nudging my shoulder with his. “We could never be mates.”
With another scoff, I’m faced with my own reflection in the grimy window, the memory slipping away like smoke through my hands.
I think I’ve felt this way all my life. I don’t remember a time where I felt like I even belonged, especially as an Omega wolf. Having a fated mate who wants nothing to do with me is just keeping with the theme of my life.
And I’ll probably end up living in this dirty hovel for the rest of my life. Alone.
That awful numbness is blanketing my senses again, stealing away every sensation. I need to feel something, anything, something before I drown in the emptiness welling up inside me.
A shiver crawls down my spine and launches me out of my seat and to my feet. I need something more, something to make me feel.
I walk into the kitchen and haul open the top drawer. After weeks of wrenching it open, the swollen wood has finally smoothed enough to glide a little easier. I pause, staring at the knife glinting in the dim light shining in through the cracks in the shutters.
It’s been a little while since I last used it to… feel something.
But anything, even pain, is better than the abyss eating away at me.
I close my fist around the handle that’s so cold and smooth in my palm. The edges rounded from years of use. I need to be careful, the engraving is almost worn away. I thumb over it, the indents almost soft under my thumb.
I sigh and thumb the switchblade open, glaring at my reflection in the steel before bringing down the blade.
As familiar as the feeling of sun on my face, the warmth trickles down my arm and finally…
I can breathe again.