Breathing slowly, I stepped out of the tree line. It seemed like ages had gone by since I'd seen the sun shine so brightly, and despite the darkness that had cloaked my insides I grinned. For a second I opened my arms and embraced the rays of the sun.
The rays partially burnt my bare shoulders and arms, but I didn't care.
I had missed the sun, I realized as I reached the center of the field. The white cotton sundress I wore danced around me as a light breeze swept around me. Anxiously, I wiped my sweaty palms against the cotton, before sitting on the dry ground.
I folded my legs and clasped my hands together in my lap, "I can do this." I murmured to myself reassuringly. The sun momentarily blocked out my depression and I lifted the sides of my mouth up into a grin as I took a deep breath.
The air smelt of flowers and the rich scent that only summer days had.
For a minute I let my mind wander and I recalled the past summer. Everything had been so simple back that. I hadn't worried about anything, except the upcoming school year. I'd spent my days swimming, running, and playing as many pranks as I could on Gabriel. However, when the summer ended, a nightmare began.
Once my thoughts drifted away from my happy place, I cleared my throat.
It was time to focus.
The sun was a great reminder of the heat in my stomach. They felt similar. Both were intense and alive. Just as the rays of the sun were easy to forget over the winter, I couldn't remember the warmth of my wolf inside my stomach. It had been three weeks since my last change and since then I had only heard her thoughts. She hadn't even paced impatiently, like she had done so many times when I was younger.
Perhaps it was because I was still used to being fully human. Before I reached 17, two months ago, I had only heard my wolf's thoughts and occasionally her impatience. However, after my first change in August, I'd felt her all the time. Sometimes she would push my human instincts away completely and take charge, but lately, she hadn't done anything.
Lately, I'd needed the help and supervision of my Alpha or Beta.
Asking Alex or Michael for help hurt a little. I wanted to be able to do this on my own and hated having to us them as a crutch.
Closing my eyes, I focused on my breathing for a few moments.
Then, I felt the warmth inside me stir. She seemed nervous and was nearly twitching as the warmth rose through my chest. I didn't concentrate on that though. As long as I could feel her, that was the only thing that mattered.
Practically flying on a natural high, I smiled broadly as I waited. I waited for the magic of my wolf to fully consume me, and change me into my real form.
Glass shattering in the next room caused my eyes to snap open and my meditation to disappear.
First, I swore. I had been so close. My excitement quickly dissolved and was replaced with a familiar dark fog. Then, I frowned.
"Mom?" I sprang to my feet and bolted through the hall.
She hadn't come out of her room, on her own, since we came back from Romania. I wondered if she'd finally started coming out of her depression. Maybe she'd eat… I thought hopefully.
The kitchen was empty, I noted as I stopped. "Mom?" I called out again. Maybe she'd gotten scared; I thought when I saw the broken glass near the refrigerator. I turned on my heel and started towards the living room.
A high pitched whine stopped me in my tracks. Spinning around, I saw my mom in wolf form, slowly coming out from behind the kitchen island. Her head was hung in shame while her tail tucked underneath her in submission.
My wolf growled. Instead of following through with my wolf's instincts, I fought against it. As much as I wanted to grab my mother and shake her out of this hole, I knew I couldn't.
"What happened?" I approached her slowly. Afraid to spook her, I slowly dropped to my knees.
My mom had always been strong. She fought along side of the men and held her head high when speaking with Alexander, the Alpha of the pack. Growing up, I'd wanted to be just like her. She could command a room, but also had a softness that made everyone love her.
After my father's capture she hadn't been the same. I could barely get her to eat, let alone out of her wolf form.
I'd been crying myself to sleep most nights because of it. As a child, and even as a teenager, my mom had been close to goddess status. She was everything I wanted to be, and it scared me to no end that she was hurting like this.
Being in wolf form, she couldn't answer me. Her golden eyes pleaded to me as she whined, and clawed at the basement door.
Frowning, I asked, "Anger management?"
My parents were the third and fourth commands of our pack. They were the mid-ranking pair and in charge of pack discipline. That was the main reason we had two rooms downstairs with thick padded walls. The Anger Management Rooms were used to get out the wolf's rage in a safe way.
Beating up a punching bag, or boxing with a fellow packmate, was a lot better than changing into your wolf form and attacking the first person you saw.
When the back sliding glass door slid open, I stood. There was no need to turn around because I already knew who it was. My wolf perked up and tried hard to push away my sadness. She adored Alex and Michael.
Before what happened in Romania, my human side had too.
Now, I didn't know who to trust.
"Good morning, Elaine." Alexander's steady and authoritative voice normally soothed me, but I forced myself to keep my distance.
Tense, I nodded, "Morning."
I had expected them to walk around the island, to get to the basement door, but instead I felt two large and callused hands cup my shoulders. Inwardly, I flinched, when I went rigid under Alex's palms. I wasn't scared of Alex and I thought I was being stupid by not trusting him, but I couldn't help it.
After what happened with Leo, I didn't know who was trustworthy anymore.
"Would you like to join Elizabeth and me downstairs? I think it would do both of you some good to go through some anger management." Alexander spoke gently, and I was surprised that I hadn't detected any kind of order in his tone.
I jerked away from Alexander's hands and took a few measured steps away from him. "I'm not angry…" I fought to ease my flustered mind and fought to find the right words, "I'm frustrated."
Before I had come into the kitchen, I was already tense after my failed meditation, but the feeling seemed to grow thrice as fear pulsed through my veins.
I wasn't sure what I was scared of, and neither was my wolf. I could feel her own anger as I continued to back away from my Alpha. She obviously thought I was acting foolishly. This was Alexander after all.
An Alpha is the leader of the pack. Alexander earned his place as first in command because of both this physical and mental strength. I knew he'd fight anyone who dared threaten the pack's wellbeing. He'd do anything to keep us all safe.
He had been more like an uncle when I was a kid. I could still vividly remember when I'd learned to ride a bike. My brother Josh had been teaching me, because our father was too busy, and I'd taken a nasty fall. Josh was practically having a heart attack. He was so upset that I was bleeding. Then Alex jogged up. He calmly picked me up and carried me into the house where he'd cleaned up my cuts.
Alexander was always calm. I'd only seen him loose his cool once, and that was in Romania.
Just like my wolf, I loved my Alpha.
So, I was just as confused as Alex by my fear.
I stopped once my back hit the round kitchen table. Alexander's eyes carefully surveyed me. I saw his concern, but that was the only emotion I could read.
Alexander was a lot older than he looked. If I'd been human, and completely unaware of the supernatural races, I'd have thought he was barely thirty. I wasn't entirely sure how old he was. Actually, I really didn't want to know. But I knew he was up there. That being said, he was good at hiding his emotions.
I watched as Alex turned to his son.
Michael, the second of the Durand sons, was also the Beta of the pack. The Beta, the second in command, only listened to the Alpha. He ruled with muscle and brute force. Seeing him, with his Greek-god like form, no one would question why I was scared of him. But that wasn't it. I knew Michael would never hurt me. Like his father, I trusted Michael; which was why it made no sense at all as to why I watched him suspiciously as he and his father talked almost silently.
Michael nodded once, and then Alexander went to the basement door. "I'll see you tonight for the pack meeting." It wasn't a question, I knew when Alexander looked steadily into my eyes.
I nodded once before lowering my gaze to my hands, which I had nervously clasped together.
Alexander opened the door and Mom jogged down the stairs. Alex followed her and shut the door behind him. I stared at the door for a second. When I turned to Michael and saw the look he was giving me, I wondered if I should have followed them.
I opened my mouth to say something, but decided against it when Michael's gaze hardened warningly. Biting my lip, I pivoted, and started into the living room. When I was sure he couldn't see my face, I rolled my eyes.
Michael's shoes padded on the wood floor and I cringed.
"I don't want to talk about it." I told him while plopping on the couch. Maybe, I'd meditate some more, I thought while getting comfortable.
However, I tensed right up again as Michael entered the room. He kept a big distance between us, but his presence was overbearing.
I felt his eyes on me, and crossed my arms defensively. I felt like crying. A part of me wanted to go up to Michael and wrap my arms around him. He'd been my rock for so long; it was hard keeping away from him. On the other hand, it was probably for the best. Things had been getting weird between us anyway.
Being 17 now, I was an adult in the pack laws. That meant my first change and it also meant I'd be expected to get a mate soon. I wasn't exactly looking forward to that. Things had changed enough.
"I'd accept that, if you'd already talked to someone, but you haven't." Michael stayed in the archway. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him casually lean against the frame. His own arms were crossed in an aggressive fashion. "You can't keep ignoring what's happened."
"Why not?" The tough exterior I'd crafted around myself was cracking. I turned my back to him and plotted an escape route. This was too much. I couldn't handle this.
"It's weighing down on you, Elaine. Don't you think what's happened to you father is part of the reason you can't change willingly." Michael spoke evenly, but I heard an underlying growl deep in his throat.
That pissed me off. How dare he jump to a conclusion like that! "I can't change willingly because everyone keeps interrupting me when I try those meditation exercises Alexander gave me!"
Michael growled at that, "That's another thing."
"What?" Flustered by the change of subject, I glared at him.
"Alexander? When have you ever called him anything other than Alex or Alexei? He…" Michael grew up in times when men never swore in front of women. Even though times have definitely changed, he still held tight too many of his old fashioned ideals. Normally I counted it a personal victory whenever I got him to swear in front of me. "Seriously, you've called him Sasha more than his full name!" He closed in the distance between us and approached me similarly to how a predator closes in on his prey. "You're distancing yourself from the pack." He concluded.
Huffing, I pushed myself off the couch and started across the floor with the sole purpose of putting lots of distance between the Beta and I. I made it to the hall when I heard Michael. He was very close behind.
Inwardly, I was pissed off. It didn't seem like anything was going my way. I was finally a full werewolf, but I still didn't have the strength, healing, or speed that older werewolves did. It wasn't fair. If I'd known I'd have to wait for all those abilities, I probably wouldn't have spent all those years longing to finally be of age to change.
Hearing Michael's sneakers pad against the wood floor, I gritted my teeth. For a while Alexander had given me my space. Apparently that was over. Obviously Alex was having Michael try and talk to me. Great. Just fan-bloody-tastic!
A month had passed since my first battle. It definitely wasn't what I expected, especially because it came way before I started my actual combat training. I'd been winging it the whole time while praying no deranged mutated version of a werewolf would remove my head with its claws.
A war had started amongst the European packs. A wolf gone rogue, Nicolais, had started trouble in Romania and then in Germany. We thought he was looking for revenge. If only things had been that simple.
Nicolais wasn't even the real bad guy. Nope, in fact he wasn't even a threat. The man we'd feared was nothing more than a parasite that couldn't even put a sentence together without stammering. The real menace behind the whole thing was a man who aspired to be like his crazed-lunatic of a grandfather who ruled Romania in the 17th century and created a new supernatural race out of the people he couldn't turn into vampires.
Apparently, to become a vampire, you had to have a certain type of blood. Who knew?
Thankfully we didn't need to worry about that too much. Vampires dwelled into nonexistence ages ago.
However, that didn't lessen the blow Mircea created. Mircea III Dracul was after the same thing Vladimir the Impaler had strived for: world domination. He wanted to reinstate his family's monarch and… have me as his Queen.
The most terrible thing was that, that wasn't even the worst part.
There are five Alphas who rule over all of the existing packs. Alexander was one of them and so was Leonard. Leo had put us all through hell before we'd realized his treachery. He'd tried to mate me to his son and overthrow Alex.
Of course, if I'd actually mated with Caleb, maybe I wouldn't have had to deal with Mircea at all…. No, that wasn't an option. Caleb was a good man. He was honorable and would make a strong Alpha, but wasn't the one for me.
After the battle against Mircea I learned that Hell Hounds were created to protect their master. Unfortunately Mircea is their master. And worse yet, my father was turned into one. That was the biggest blow of them all – one that none of us had started to recover from, especially mom.
While shaking my head I walked out of the house.
You'd think by slamming the door in his face he would have gotten the message, but no. Michael swung open the door and stalked after me. I could smell his rage, even while standing upwind.
"The argument doesn't stop just because you leave the room!" Michael seethed through gritted teeth. If I hadn't been fuming at that moment, I would have probably recognized the dangerous situation I was in. Apparently I sold myself too short. It had taken ten minutes or less to get Michael out of control PO'd. That was no easy feat.
"I'm not ending the argument." I fumbled over what to say as I scanned the yard. Conflicted over where to go I walked around in a tight circle, "I'm just putting it on pause."
Michael growled furiously, "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to get away from you!" I was so tight that I couldn't even sidestep out of Michael's way as he charged towards me. When he grabbed my forearms I nearly melted in his grasp.
His eyes burned into mine and I stood, horrified, as hot tears itched my eyes.
"Stop running from me." Michael pulled me roughly against his solid god worthy abs. If he hadn't been holding me up, I would have fallen to the ground. I wish he hadn't been holding me. My legs tingled with a want to run, but the rest of me just wanted to curl into a defensive ball. "Stop acting like I'm going to attack you at any moment."
Michael's tone made me go rigid. He'd lost his rage, but now that it was gone, I preferred his anger. Now, he wasn't really pleading, but it wasn't a direct order either. It seemed like I was making him as frustrated as he was making me.
I balled his shirt into fists, but that was the most comfort I would allow myself. I wouldn't let myself use him as a crutch. I couldn't let myself become that vulnerable in front of him.
Michael pulled me closer than I thought possible. I trembled in his arms and watched as his eyes searched my face. "You can't keep this up forever." He paused, "Let me help you."
Holding my breath, I held onto him. I knew I was acting childishly. There was only so deep I could go in this depression before I shook myself out of it, but I didn't know how to stop acting this way. The only thing I could think of was to get rid of the root of my misery, but at the moment I could. I couldn't get my father back alone and I couldn't fight Mircea by myself. It just wasn't possible.
I did need help. I just wasn't sure how to get it. I didn't know if the pack would give it. Worst of all, I didn't know if we could do it – if we could defeat Mircea.
"El," The hesitant and soft questioning tone of my brother rescued me.
Michael held tight to me for two seconds, before allowing me to go to my brother. Josh stepped out of the shadows and instantly developed me into a hug. I clung to him, and ignored the part of me that wished I was embracing the Beta.
I almost jumped when someone else came out of the tree line, but relaxed when I saw the familiar black hair of Gabriel Durand, the third son of my Alpha.
Gabriel was glaring at his brother and what made me frown was that Michael was glaring back. Those two had never gotten along extremely well, but seriously, they hadn't even exchanged one word. How could they possibly be in a fight already?
Not even I could get into a fight with Gabriel that fast! And that was saying something.
They stood like that for a while. I wondered if they were having a telepathic conversation, like many of the older werewolves did. If they were, it wasn't about anything good. Anger had quickly flooded back into Michael's features, while Gabriel stood alert and ready for a fight.
Josh and I shifted, which turned the brothers' attention to us.
"This conversation isn't finished, Elaine." Michael told me warningly.
I didn't say anything. I just pressed the side of my face into Josh's chest. As his aftershave overwhelmed my senses I pretended that everything was alright… that I was safe.
I didn't think there was anything to worry about, but I couldn't shake my fear. The last pack meeting, that had been over a month before, was still very clear in my mind. Sitting in the corner of the pack house living room, I could still see Alex's steady stare and stubborn jaw as he announced our entrance in the war – the very war that took my father from me.
Awkwardly, I dropped my gaze so I was staring at the floor. Like the rest of the room, the rug I saw on, was decorated in green and blue. Those colors were very calming, but were also bold and confident. They were everything Alex was.
Taking a shaky deep breath, I pushed the palm of my hand deep into the soft rug.
"Hey," Cassie whispered a greeting as he sat down beside me. Instantly his arm fell over my shoulders. That had become a habit lately, I noted. Normally, I'd think nothing of it, considering he'd always been one for embraces, but I couldn't help but wonder about his motives.
He seemed calm, but when his eyes met mine, I realized what was happening.
Everyone had been treating me like a China doll that could fall and break at any given moment. I had thought, at least, Cassiel would have been on my side. Yet, there he was, watching me with pity and concern.
Quickly, I shook off his arm.
Hurt replaced his sympathy and confusion twisted his lips.
"Stop feeling sorry for me." I practically growled at my best friend. Okay, logically, I knew he was only feeling a natural emotion. If he'd lost his father I'd try to comfort him as well, but at that moment I wasn't about to admit that to him. I didn't want to be pitied, especially not from him.
Cassiel's confusion turned to anger in a second, "Stop being stubborn."
I crossed my arms.
"El," His tone softened and Cassie rewrapped his arm around my neck. It was a possessive move, and it alarmed me, "I get it. You want everyone to think well of you. You want to be strong. But, sweetheart, you can't handle everything."
"You hang around your brothers way to much." I told him evasively.
Cassie knew what I was doing. It wasn't hard to figure out. I hadn't tried to be subtle. Thankfully, he let me off the hook. When he grinned boyishly, I relaxed. "I agree with that."
Sighing, I leaned against my friend and thought about what Michael had tried to drill into my earlier. He had been right. I was trying to distance myself from everyone. The less I saw them, the less it would hurt if I ever… if I ever lost them.
Cassiel, even without werewolf senses, could feel my fear and he tightened his arm so I was flush against his side.
The house started to fill up after that, so Cassiel and I refrained from talking.
Soon it was half after eight and the entire living room was packed full of overly muscular bodies. Odolf and his twin Martin were the last to arrive.
Martin, who was still scrawny in comparison to his twin, took his place on the floor a few feet away from me. He was a submissive wolf, and apparently knew his place well. Unlike his brother, I noted when I saw Odolf take a seat on the arm of the black leather loveseat. It was subtle, but him sitting there showed that he was more dominant and therefore higher ranked, than us on the floor.
Odolf was far from submissive. He was an arrogant idiot who didn't listen to anyone, except Alex. There were times when he challenged even Michael. Actually, I was surprised he'd survived this long, considering how prone to violence Michael was.
I got along with Martin than his twin. Martin listened, not only to orders, but what I had to say. He was a good kid, which was why it pained me whenever Odolf treated him like a floor mat.
I would have growled at Odolf, if Alex hadn't chosen that second to enter the room. There was no way that I'd growl then. Sure, Alex would know I wasn't threatening him, but I didn't particularly want to draw attention to myself after what happened earlier. I was positive he knew about the fight Michael and I had.
Alexander was like that. He heard all and knew all. Or at least, that's what I had believed. Now, I understood that even the strongest man I'd ever known had weaknesses. It broke my heart.
"I'll keep this to the point," Alex smiled gently at a few of the young pups of the pack. "I'm very well aware that tonight marks twelve days till Christmas."
Even I couldn't help but grin when he said that. Ever since before I could remember, the adults of the pack had made a huge deal about Christmas. Not even opening gifts on Christmas morning could match up to the twelve nights of storytelling.
Ah, the twelve nights of storytelling. The memories I had of those. Each night was a different story, which was acted out by the pack. It was so much fun!
Silently, I wondered what the story tonight would be.
Tobias, a boy who was barely seven, whispered, "I told you he wouldn't forget," into his older brother, Chris', ear. A few laughed at the comment and I watched the boy's face turn red when he realized how many eyes had turned to him.
"I just wanted to inform you that I'll be out of town for a few days." The room went uncommonly quiet when Alexander continued. "I'll be visiting Cologne until next Friday."
Going rigid, I held my breath.
Cologne, the capital of Germany, and the home of the West German pack was where a traitor lived. Leonard had been the Cologne alpha until a month ago when we found out he'd been working with a vicious and sadistic killer, Mircea. Mircea was the man who had my father, who was responsible for multiple deaths of werewolf and mundanes alike, and the reason for my constant fear.
His words, "You can fight me all you want Elaina, but I will have you" still haunted my dreams at night. Mircea and his demonic eyes kept me from enjoying the darkness of the night sky. Instead, I was scared he'd come out of the shadows and make true to his promise.
A sudden movement out of the corner of my eye made me jump. Scared that I'd summoned Mircea by thinking of him, I shifted to get to my feet, but stopped. I froze when I saw that it was Michael who was approaching me. He'd come in through the other archway, the one at my back, and was watching me as if he could look right through me. At that moment I wondered if he knew how hard it was for me to act brave.
"Michael will be in charge." When Alex spoke, I glanced at him, but quickly turned back to toe Beta. Michael stopped when he reached me and casually leaned back against the wall.
Confused, and unsure, I rubbed my arms. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with goose bumps. Cassie sent me a questioning look, but I could only shrug.
Having Michael so close to me put me on edge. I knew he'd never hurt me, but there was something about his gaze that made me tense. Full of nerves, I turned back to my Alpha.
"Alright, I guess it's time to start the evening's festivities." Alexander clapped his hands together and most of us, including Cassiel and myself, got to their feet. I was more interested in getting away from the Beta's fierce stare than to see the play that night, unlike mostly everyone else.
"Wait, I'd like to have the floor, if I may?" Odolf spoke loudly, though not necessarily authoratively; although I was sure that's what he was shooting for.
Every pair of eyes turned to the more built of the twins. He didn't seem fazed by the attention. Actually, he looked downright pleased with himself. I tensed. Whatever he had up his sleeve wouldn't be good, I knew that much.
"Alexei," Odolf started badly. He should have known to address the Alpha formally when taking the floor of a meeting. "I'd like to ask about my mating rights."
Cassiel and I glanced at each other. At least, I wasn't the only one confused. Cassiel looked just as bewildered as I did.
Marriage and Mating were completely different things, or at least, that's what I've been told. Marriage is where you're bound by law, and most likely live together. Mating, however, is when you are bound in human and in wolf form. Personally, I don't really understand what that means, but whatever.
Alexander stiffened, but nonetheless nodded at the boy in front of him.
Odolf took that as a sign to continue. A cocky smirk grew across his features, as if he could get whatever he wanted in the entire world, and said, "I'd like to mate with Elaine."
For one second, I was frozen in shock. His words made no sense to my brain and for that second I could only think, what the hell did he just say? However, when more than a half a dozen growls of warning sounded throughout the room, I snapped out of my daze.
In an instant, I was taken over by rage. I took a step forward, with my hands balled into fists, and started forward to make a quick grab for Odolf's neck. He had no right to ask for me. No rights at all.
I was barely a foot away when two arms, way too large to belong to Cassiel, grabbed me from behind.
First, I thought it was Michael, so I thrashed in the hold. I'd had enough of him that day and my anger towards him melded with my current violent rage. "Hold still." A deep hoarse voice that did not belong to the Beta hissed in my ear.
I froze. Out of everyone in the room I never expected Morris to be the one to stop me from starting a fight. But then again, maybe I was wrong. Morris had been my father's second in command for years. He was a strong warrior, with more determination for justice than practically anyone I'd met before. But still, I never would have guessed he'd help keep me out of trouble. It was no secret that he and I never got along that well.
The atmosphere of the room turned tense and dangerous within seconds, and it wasn't because of Morris.
A few of the males, unmated and otherwise, stood and advanced on the foolish newly changed man. Growls were coming from practically everyone, especially when Odolf growled back.
Alexander darkly cleared his throat, "Odolf, I will speak with you later tonight, alone." He stressed. "Until then you're dismissed. The meeting is over."
I expected Morris to release me immediately, but he held onto my arms a few seconds more. "Let Alexander handle this." He warned, before slowly freeing me from his iron hold.
Hesitantly, I took a step away from the large man, before nodding.
Morris, who towered over me a good three feet, gave me one strict nod. He seemed to trust my nod, because he turned away from me, so he was facing the Beta. While he and Michael had a nearly silent conversation, I noticed, not for the first time, the magnitude of Morris' scars. Because he had been changed, and not born, he had many marks along his skin. Most were still deep, even though he'd been a werewolf since before I was born.
When Cassiel came up beside me, I swung around to find Odolf. I'd let Alex handle it, for sure, but I wanted to let Odolf know that I'd never be mated or married to him. Ever!
But he wasn't there.
Damn coward probably ran out as soon as Alex called the meeting to a close.
"What's the story for tonight?" Cassiel asked his brother.
"The Nutcracker." Michael growled out. I winced at his tone. It wasn't uncommon for him to grow angry. Hell, I normally got into an argument with him at least every other day (not as often as his brother Gabriel, but still, it was a lot). But, there some something else that bothered me about his voice. He wasn't just angry. He sounded vicious.
However, I chose to ignore it, for now. I had other things to worry about. Like, at the moment, finding Odolf – which was what I was thinking about as I said, "How ironic."
As I left the room I heard a bunch of people start laughing over my 'joke'.