"I'm not going."

My father, the alpha of our wolf pack, RainDancer, gave a fierce growl that would have scared the heck out of me if I hadn't been on the opposite side of my locked bedroom door. Then again, maybe I should have been scared. My father was definitely strong enough to break the door down. I don't know why he hadn't already.

"Hey, Dad?"

He stopped growling long enough to snap, "What?"

"Why haven't you kicked the door in or something?"

"Because eventually you're going to realize that you going to the CloudCatcher ceremony is nonnegotiable."

I sighed, rolling over on my bed so that I was facing the ceiling. I stared hard at the white paint, feeling like it was the reason for every last one of my problems.

You're being ridiculous, I thought to myself. It's only supposed to be half an hour. Chill out.

***(later that day)***

I looked around as we made our way through the woods and into the clearing. Every ceremony was held in a different place, and the CloudCatcher alpha had picked this area to hold his birthday ceremony. He was turning eighteen today.

If the leader of a pack didn't find their Life Mate by the day they turned eighteen, then a ceremony was held to find a long-term, but still temporary, stand-in. The pack leader had to choose a partner to lead with them. So for this ceremony, a group of women would basically be put on display and CloudCatcher's alpha would pick which woman he wanted to stand as alpha female. Most likely, nothing romantic would happen between them.

But sometimes the alpha, or alpha female, would get tired of waiting for their real Life Mate, so they would get together officially with the stand-in. I can't explain why, but every time I thought of the handsome CloudCatcher alpha taking another mate, even if just for pack business purposes, I felt like my heart was cracking in two. And that's stupid, because I've never met him.

But I've seen pictures. He's pretty freaking gorgeous. You know how it is: wavy black hair to his shoulders, so-dark-they-look-black eyes, rugged good looks, muscular six foot plus frame…

I felt my heart flutter at the thought of him, but I shook my head and tried to focus on my surroundings.

My mother was, in all her female alpha-ness, glaring at any guy who looked my way.

"Mom," I said pleadingly after she'd scowled fiercely at a middle-aged man with a wedding ring on his finger, "You're being silly. How am I supposed to find my mate if you don't allow boys to even come near me?"

She wrapped a slim arm around my shoulders and grinned dreamily. "Glendaya, sweetie, if he's really your mate, he'll know it. The boys feel it sooner than the girls, you know. The second he comes within a mile of you, he'll know you're around him somewhere. And then he'll find you, and look into your eyes, and you'll get to feel that wonderful merging of mind and soul where you hear every thought he's ever had and he'll know everything about you and you'll fall in love the first time he touches you and you'll live happily ever-"


"Sorry, sweets. My point is, when he finds you, he won't let a silly little thing like an overprotective mother get in his way."

"How do you know?"

"Because." She gave my shoulders a squeeze. "I know you, and I know what you need. Your mate is going to be strong and very…male. I can feel it in my bones. No wimpy submissive for you. He's going to be dominant, definitely."

I gave her a 'yeah right' look, but I was privately hopeful. I know it totally goes against modern day feminist values, but I really wanted a mate who would treat me like a princess and take care of me and protect me. I wanted a mate who wanted to cherish me for the rest of our lives.

A familiar face with dark eyes, a strong jaw, and those lovely full lips floated through my head before I was able to banish the thought.

God, I was going crazy.

I came out of my haze in time to catch my dad giving me a curious look. I didn't know what he was thinking, but I knew what he was seeing. I looked exactly like him. Instead of my mom's brown hair and blue eyes, I inherited Dad's crazy red curls, big green eyes, and a bunch of freckles. I did get Mom's petite body and pixy features, though.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" I asked him wearily.

He shrugged and turned away without an answer and I grimaced. He was always doing that.

"Come on, Glendaya. We need to be in our seats when the alpha comes out."

Stupid tradition. I really didn't want to be here, in this clearing in the woods, with hundreds of shifters from various packs in Southern California. We had to dress up, which meant I had to wear a dress, and there were too many people. I always hated coming to these stupid ceremonies. Especially because I knew, as the only child of my pack's alpha couple, that I would have to hold my own ceremony if I didn't find my own mate in the next four months.

I followed my parents through the crowd. The clearing was in the very heart of CloudCatcher territory, in the deepest part of the woods, and it was about the size of a football field. There were hundreds of foldable chairs set up in rows. Past that was a long platform about three feet tall. That's where the pack women would line up.

There was grass beneath my feet and when no one was looking, I casually slipped off my flats and shoved them under my chair. My dress went to the ground, so no one would be able to tell, and I wiggled my toes in glee and felt my muscles relax as I breathed in the familiar scents of the woods and saw how blue the sky looked today.

And then I sighed. "Hey Mom. How come the leading families from other packs have to come to these things? Why don't we keep events like this within our own pack?" I added in a mutter, "And then I wouldn't have to come."

She gracefully took her seat. "It shows loyalty, strengthens our alliances, and gives us the chance to get together and catch up on business. It's also a thousand-year-old tradition. Why would we stop now?"

The crowd in front of me gradually quieted. I looked up to see a tall, lean man with salt-and-pepper hair and dark, intelligent eyes, waiting patiently on the platform for everyone to seat themselves.

In a voice that commanded attention, he said, "Hello, everyone. Thank you for coming out today. For those who don't know me or are new to this area, I'm Riley Juniper, CloudCatcher's former alpha. The present alpha, my son Xavier, will be out shortly. As is tradition, because he has yet to find his Life Mate, he will be choosing one of our pack's women to be his alpha female. If he does eventually find his mate, the one chosen today will step down. And if she finds her mate, my son will choose a new alpha female."

I watched as the girls, fifteen of them from the strongest CloudCatcher families, made their way on stage in a neat single-filed line, and suddenly I wanted to punch them all in the face and rip their perfect hair out of their big heads. Maybe it was their gleeful, triumphant grins. Each one of them looked like they'd caught the biggest fish. Sharks. That was the word that came to mind when looking at them. Their tall, curvy bodies and perfect make up and too-short dresses.

It all made me want to scream in outrage.

I jumped when Mom accidentally nudged me and whispered, "Sorry."

"'S okay," I mumbled. I shook my head a little, trying to jerk the strange feelings out of me. What the hell was going on with me? I was having mood swings like nobody's business, which never happened. I was more of a calm, go-with-the-flow kind of girl.

So why was I so mad?

"Here comes the alpha," Mom murmured eagerly.

I tried to focus on the platform, the last of the girls having come out from the woods and now in place. But I kept getting distracted by a tingle on the back of my neck, and I swear my hair was standing on end.

I sat on the edge of my seat, absently wringing my hands. Something was going to happen. I could feel it.

Not ten seconds later, I froze when Xavier came out from behind a tree. He stepped onto the platform, looking distracted and rubbing the back of his neck.

I felt my heart speed up. He looked so good in his black button down and slacks. I looked down and noticed he was barefoot, and I felt a smile attempt to creep across my face, but I squished the urge.

His father started talking again, but a buzz went through the crowd when Xavier put a hand on his shoulder to cut him off.

Xavier's face was flushed and he was still rubbing his neck. His eyes scanned the crowd urgently.

He couldn't seem to find what he was looking for. He looked frustrated as he stepped forward.

"My mate is here right now," he announced bluntly, his baritone voice rubbing against my skin like smooth velvet. I felt myself start to shake and I gulped. What was going on?

The crowd went completely silent, waiting for him to make a move. The girls behind him all looked crestfallen, and I had the irrational urge to giggle.

My breathing was getting heavy. Oh crap. I think I'm having a heart attack.

Xavier lifted his head and seemed to be smelling for the scents in the air. Then he stepped jerkily off the platform. Striding forward down the center isle, he paused, then continued, then stopped again and stood there longer this time.

Riley, with a black-haired lady who I assumed was Xavier's mother having appeared at his side, cleared his throat loudly to get his sons attention. "Xavier. Are you sure you're not imagining it-"

The closer Xavier got, the faster my heart beat. Finally, finally, I felt my eyes go wide with realization.

At the very same moment he reached my row of chairs and turned towards me, I pushed to my feet, clenching the fabric of my dress in my hands and meeting his gaze.

His shoulders went stiff, black eyes meeting green. We were both tense for a moment, our breaths held in our chests. Waiting. For what, i didn't know.

And then we both relaxed.

I felt warmth fill me from the inside out, my cheeks going hot.

And he smiled. A big, bright smile that made his face light up and his eyes crinkle.

I felt a sort of magnetic pull, dragging me towards him. As he stood still and waited for me to reach him, I lost track of everything around us, taking it step by step until I was so close I had to crane my head back to see his face.

He slowly, carefully lifted his hand, our eyes held together by an invisible thread, and touched his fingertips to my cheek.

My breath hitched. My heart stopped beating.

In that touch, he gave me everything. Every thought, every feeling, all hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes. I learned everything about him in that touch: how he was a bigger chocolate fanatic than any girl I'd ever met, how he could play the guitar and had written a song for me before he even knew who I was, how somehow he'd known that his mate would be the domestic type and had planned his future around that fact. How he'd never touched another woman because he'd been waiting for me.

And I felt the love he had for me growing with everything he learned about me. I could feel how delighted he was at finding his mate had a dimple in her right cheek, and that she loved books just like him. He loved that I was looking forward to starting a family, and how I had a crazy temper that not even my parents knew the full extent of. And mostly he loved that his mate had never touched another man, that she'd waited for him, too.

But there was more.

I felt a piece of my soul fly free as it was lost to his touch. There was a hollow feeling in my chest for a brief moment, before I felt it fill in with a piece of his own.

All of this, in a minute or less.

And then it was over. And I could breath again. I reached up and took hold of his hand. Bringing it down and twining our other hands together, I stood on my toes and whispered in his ear.

"Happy birthday, Xavier."