After what felt like hours under mother’s scrutiny, she finally gave a stiff nod, and I was free to go. Stepping into the hall, I immediately spotted Axel closing his bedroom door and looking sharp.
“Nice lip gloss, little bro,” I teased, falling into step with him.
“Interesting dress choice, Barbie,” he retorted.
I watched him as he moved next to me, fixing the collar of his shirt under his black suit jacket. When he noticed my stare, he winked and said, “You gotta look it to hook it.”
Cocky, arrogant bastard. I rolled my eyes.
Axel was known for his antics with the ladies. They practically fell at his feet and kissed the very ground he walked on. He was widely known as a heart breaker, although I knew he had a heart of gold when it came to his family. To me.
Because Axel wasn’t the heir to Hollow Stone, he was often overlooked by my parents and could probably get away with murder if he wanted to. I wasn’t sure whether they had given up on him over time or never really cared to begin with. He didn’t care about the petty things that often bothered my parents. His lack of regard for his reputation made him the ultimate bad-boy; any girl’s fantasy come to life.
Just before stepping into the grand hall, two strong arms snaked around my waist, tightening from behind and hoisting, swinging me through the air. I yelped in surprise, but as soon as my feet touched the ground, a familiar pair of light grey eyes greeted me.
His smile instantly reached his ears. Snapping out of my stunned state, I dragged him closer, burying my face into the crook of his neck. Inhaling deeply, I whispered his name against his skin, Ray.
“You’re here,” I breathed, pulling back only enough to gaze into those pools of smokey grey yet again. I didn’t want to go too far away, loving the way his body pressed against mine.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he answered, his eyes falling first to my lips and then travelling down my body. “You look amazing, Lily-flower.”
Ray took a step back, keeping my hand in his as he slowly twirled me around, inspecting me from all sides. The heat of his stare warmed my skin, leaving me all hot and bothered before the evening had even begun. No one else could have this effect on me. It was both unnerving and exhilarating. We stared into each other’s eyes for a moment longer, when a loud, obnoxious cough came from behind. Together, we turned, finding Axel leaning against the wall with a smirk. Had he been standing there the entire time?
“It hasn’t even been five minutes,” he said, tapping his watch. Heat rose up my neck, warming my cheeks.
Raiden flashed me an apologetic smile before stepping towards Axel with his outstretched hand, “Axe.”
They shook hands.
“Nice to see you again,” Raiden said as the three of us walked together, nearing the grand hall.
“You too, Man. I’m so happy you’re here. Now I don’t have to babysit my sister for the rest of the night anymore,” Axel joked, sending me a sly smile.
“Any time. Happy to take her off your hands.” Raiden teased. “You can send me a cheque in the morning,”
I smacked him on the chest, “as if you’d ever need money as a motivator.”
He looked down at me with a smile and then lowered his gaze even further, “you know, you might be right, Lily-flower.”
“Money can’t buy love,” Axel announced, his mouth right beside my ear, chin almost touching my shoulder.
I swung around, ready to shove him away, but he danced out of my reach, somehow ending behind Raiden. I glared at him over Ray’s shoulder. He had butchered our little moment, the ass.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats,” my father’s voice drifted through the open doors. I pointed to Axel, mouthing the words, ’this isn’t over yet.’
Everybody started moving to their tables and Raiden took my hand, leading me to where I was to be seated with my family.
Before leaving, he pulled my chair out, whispering, “I’ll see you in a bit.”
I nodded and watched him move off to his own seat. Luckily, he didn’t go too far, as Hollow Stone and Shadow Creek’s Alpha households shared a long rectangular table in the front of the hall.
Finally turning away from him, I looked up and locked eyes with my mother. A look of either sadness or disappointment flashed across her face before she averted her gaze to my father.
Dinner dragged by at a snail’s pace. Adults babbling about pack business surrounded me as the youngsters tried to act polite. We did our best not to interrupt other people’s conversations, which resulted in a stiff and exceedingly boring evening.
Occasionally, I would glance over at Raiden, and we’d lock eyes and smile for a moment. It brought me a sense of comfort knowing he was this close and stuck in the same situation I was. He was bored out of his mind, by the looks of it, having been placed in between his father and an elderly lady I wasn’t familiar with, both of which were turned away from him, talking to people on either side of them.
There was also the absurd rule of no cell phones at the table, so we were left to gaze at each other without any means of communication. Unless I wanted to yell over the table. Grinning, I eyed my mother. I could already hear her outraged remark about how I acted incredibly rude and un-Luna-like during dinner. I scoffed at the sight of her. Perfectly straightened back, wrists and silverware angled in perfect harmony with her frame. She was the portrait of utter poise and elegance.
Straightening in my chair and forking the last piece of fillet into my mouth, my eyes flicked to the wall clock for the millionth time. I desperately wished for dinner to end so that we could be excused and join the party outside. Mingle informally without the watchful eyes of adults and their radar ears twitching whenever we spoke.
“Alpha Anderson, I hear you’ve been having trouble with rogue attacks near your borders,” my father’s deep voice sounded from across the table, drawing my attention away from the clock and the slow movement of time.
“Indeed, Leonidas,” Raiden’s father replied, looking up from his plate. He chewed slowly, his eyes drifting over towards my father. Everyone stared, waiting. “The attacks are very unusual,” he shook his head in thought as he spoke. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
My father set his fork down and gave the Alpha his full attention. “What do you mean?”
“Well, my warriors and border patrol can’t seem to pick up any rogue scents near the killings, even though the damage inflicted was clearly from an animal, probably a wolf.”
Everyone around the table had gone quiet and was now staring at Alpha Anderson. It was odd, having no scent to trace, especially since wolves relied primarily on our sense of smell. All animals had a natural scent which clung to their bodies. It was in their fur, their sweat, saliva and excrement. Having an animal attack without a scent was unheard of.
A worried crease set on my father’s brow as he cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “How many killings?”
“Three in the last month.” An audible intake of breath from the lady beside me.
“I’ve instructed all my pack members to stay within our borders for the time being. Until I can solve this matter,” he continued as he looked at the shocked faces around him. The lady beside me wasn’t the only one troubled by the news.
A sudden eerie atmosphere loomed over us as we waited for him to continue.
“Well now,” my mother said, breaking the tangible silence with a forced and professional smile, “let’s leave the blood-talk ’til after dinner, shall we?”
Her shoulders were squared, chin lifted as she brought her wineglass to her lips. A proper Luna.
“Of course, Luna. Leonidas and I shall discuss this matter later. In private,” Alpha Anderson replied. When more faces turned to him, he said, “we’ll also be addressing it with the other Alpha’s at next week’s provincial gathering.”
My mother nodded, finally taking a sip of wine.
“I do hope it can be resolved as painlessly and unobtrusively as possible,” she said. “I wish you all the best.” Her smile in Alpha Anderson’s direction was warm and friendly, but I knew it well. Knew its actual meaning was to end the conversation. And it did.
We continued eating in silence until my mother spoke again. “Raiden, dear, your mother tells me you will begin your Alpha training by the end of this year?”
I looked up, flicking my eyes from my mother to Raiden, wondering what her intentions could possibly be by starting this conversation.
“Yes, Luna,” Ray answered respectfully, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “I’m to start training under my father’s guidance within the next two months.”
“So soon?” My mother asked, eyeing him with a cocked brow. “You’ve not even turned eighteen yet. You’re barely a pup.”
My stomach clenched at her words, at the disrespect and utter distaste in her tone. Was she trying to belittle him? Humiliate or discourage him? My eyes flicked back to Ray, who remained stoic for a moment, clearly at a loss for words.
I could see him trying to read my mother, her demeanour, while everyone at the table turned to face him, waiting for his reply. Although my mother didn’t directly call him a pup, she’d implied it. It made my blood simmer, especially after the conversation we had earlier. It wasn’t a jab at Ray, it was a jab at me.
“Well,” Ray finally said, plastering a smile on his face and picking up his own glass, “I’m sure the Moon Goddess will one day bless me with an exceptionally beautiful mate,” he glanced towards me. “I might have to fight off a few wolves in the process of winning her heart. Better be prepared,” he teased, raising his glass and ending his sentence with a wink.
I could hear light chuckling around the table, but didn’t dare to look at my mother, fearing that she was already watching me. Ray’s answer had been cocky and would be borderline disrespectful in her books. I didn’t want to see that look on her face; the look of distaste.
Axel, never passing up on an opportunity to mess with Raiden, also jumped in. “Yeah, or Celene might bless you with a big, mean lady, and that requires a different set of special skills,” he said, dragging his last words out a little longer than necessary.
Everybody laughed and Alpha Anderson ruffled Raiden’s hair. The gesture was light and loving, but I could almost see how deep his father’s affection ran. I smiled. Even though Ray hadn’t been a boy for quite some time, in his father’s eyes he would always be his boy.
Ray let out a playful groan and tried to swat his father’s hands away. It was useless, of course, and he ended up with rosy cheeks and messy hair. I loved his father. He didn’t care for stiff manners. He was down to earth and sometimes acted without thinking to the endless embarrassment of his wife, Luna Margret.
Pulling his fingers through dark, messy hair, Raiden peered in my direction. In return, I gave him a smile and slight nod, indicating that he did well in handling my mother.