Claire Simmons awakens to the same cluttered four walls, the same familiar smells, the same busy noises as she always has for the past eighteen years. She knows, however, that as of today, nothing will be the same for her. She's turning eighteen, the age of adulthood for her kind. Most eighteen-year-old girls worry about graduating high school, attending prom, finding a job, and maybe even move out to their own place.
For Claire, turning eighteen means embracing the responsibilities, duties, and expectations typical for an only daughter of a loup-garou alpha pair; one such 'duty' includes becoming the mate of any wolf-man her father approves. She knows there is one in particular, one boy, who has always had her father's vote of approval and this is possibly the only factor of her 'destiny' Claire is having troubles coming to terms with. Luke Thornwood has always been adored by many other wolf girls in the pack, but Claire just can't find anything desirable about his personality.
I honestly don't know what my father and mother see in him. He's just an arrogant pup with an inflated ego. For males, being twenty-one makes one a full-grown, well-aged wolf; he is eligible to become Alpha, claim his she-wolf, and be sure his good genes prosper for the next generation. For Luke, it seems being twenty-one means having all the freedom and fun he desires, since he is in limbo between being just a commoner and the top dog.
"Luke has proven himself time and time again to be very enduring and strong, capable of protecting the pack from any danger. He would make a strong alpha, and a proficient mate who could make you happy and keep you safe," Claire's father always tells her in earnest faith. Sure, he's good looking, strong and fit, but I can't be with a man who just sees me as an accessory or a vessel to carry and whelp his pups. How can my parents want such a life for me?
Sometimes, being a werewolf is just too damn complicated.
"There's the birthday girl!" Claire's mother sings as Claire saunters through the kitchen, still in her purple pajamas. She grinds her teeth at her mother's greeting; unlike other birthdays in the past, this is one she does not want to have rubbed in. It is not just her parents that will recognize this day; many members of the pack will. As if I don't have enough pressure already.
"Come on, Claire," her father objects toward her solemn attitude. "It's your birthday today; you're turning into a full-grown woman. You should feel happy and proud."
"I should," Claire mutters miserably, callously pushing down on the lever of the toaster.
Once at school, Claire sees that even today everything is as plain and uneventful as always. Unlike elementary school or middle school, there are no intercom announcements of special notes or birthdays, which she is grateful for. The last thing she wants is to have people fussing over her simply because she is turning a year older.
The day goes by quickly for some reason, and Claire finds herself dragging her feet through the halls as the rest of the students hustle and bustle out to yellow buses or individual cars. Claire usually rides the bus home, but, today, she does not want to return home yet—she doesn't want to be restricted to the four walls of her little bubble of misery. It is her birthday, after all.
Walking along a suburban road in Battle Ground, Claire finds it easy to submerge her consciousness in a calming meditation, while effortlessly multi-tasking in navigating her way through back roads of the small town. Traffic has become slow, even following the after school rush; the air is sweet with light humidity, the grounds damp from the earlier rain showers this morning. Claire takes a deep, indulgent inhale of the fresh, wet essence of nature, the aroma filling her nostrils in the most pleasant sensation. How wonderful it is to have such a keen and enhanced sense of smell!
Or maybe not, she suddenly contradicts, recalling quite a few unfortunate instances where she caught whiffs of old garbage, bad cooking, and various livestock odors around her little town. Her nose wrinkles, the odors having been embedded deep in her senses enough to haunt her upon thought.
She suddenly feels lonely, inconvenienced; she wants to sit down, nestle in the grass somewhere and draw in her sketchbook. Even if it's just doodles lines or words, this need to have her hands moving and working is almost too unbearable. Maybe the park will be a quiet, pleasant place to spend the day. Perfect, she decides, her spine tickling with delight.
A deep, throaty car engine hums alongside her at a slow pace; glancing slowly over her shoulder, Claire finds an older black Toyota pickup matching her pace on the shoulder of the road. She recognizes the car immediately, not daring to make eye contact with its driver, as she hustles her pace. The blasted truck pulls in front of her at the curb, nestled in a suburban corner, giving her very little chance to escape. The driver slides easily and effortlessly out of the driver's seat, and leans against the car.
Luke. He's just standing there, looking so untouchable and godly; his hands tucked casually in his jeans pockets, eyeing her with those mocking hazel eyes of his. His straight, modest lips eventually pull up at the corner in a small smirk, his dimples accentuating the minuscule expression. Claire felt her fists tighten in her coat pockets. Knowing Luke, he didn't stumble upon her by accident. She knows the arrogant son of a bitch has been waiting for this day, counting down to it, till the day he could officially have the right to claim her as his own.
Pervert, she growls, slowing down to a stop a few feet from her admirer.
"Hello, Claire," Luke greets in a strong, smooth murmur. "Having a nice day, I hope?"
"I was, until you ruined it." Claire keeps her lips pursed, glaring up at him, but also making sure not to make her grimace too harsh. She may not have much respect for him as a person, but she did have a sense of respect for his power and strength. Just like everyone else in the pack, she's seen him get into—and win—quite a few brawls.
Luke grins with a deep chuckle, revealing white, sharp teeth. The way he looks at her is neither sickening nor comforting; it is in a strange point between the two. His face is easy and smooth-surfaced, but not without refinement. His eyes are glossy with life, health, and humor.
"You hungry? We can grab a bite to eat at Charlie's, if you'd like."
Damn it, Claire growls. She hates it when he acts polite; it has to be feigned, it must be. She cannot deny such charm, forged or not, does make it difficult to keep a grudge towards him.
With a huff of reluctance, Claire trots over to the passenger's side door as the rain comes pouring; the truck is already warm and dry and clean, with the radio softly playing selections from a rock station. Glancing over to Luke, Claire finds him rather pleased, but it's not in arrogance or ill will; she can't put her finger on the meaning.
As promised, they pull into the small restaurant and grill called Charlie's, a local burger joint. Inside it smells of old leather and hot grease, the signature smell of the town. It isn't that filled, either; just a couple truck drivers here and there, maybe a soccer mom treating her kids to an after-school lunch. Good. Claire hates crowded places, regardless of the space or who occupies it.
Worrying Luke would pick the booth closest to the socialization and people, Claire finds herself surprised when he instead asks for a secluded booth in the back corner of the restaurant. Ordering a simple Caesar salad, Claire does not want to give Luke the impression she is completely comfortable yet, despite the fact she is rather hungry. Claire feels a slight twinge of aggravation when she sees Luke order nothing but a simple cup of black coffee. She narrows her eyes, almost snarling in disapproval.
"Why did you bring me here if you're not going to eat?"
Luke glances up from his coffee mug as he sips. "I figured you were hungry. And besides, I think that starting now, this could be a good chance to get to know each other better."
"And I can only imagine why you would propose such an engagement. But no thanks; I know you quite well already," Claire drawls, pointlessly jabbing her fork at her salad; her damp hoody and jeans suddenly feel horribly uncomfortable.
"Do you?" Luke's perfect dark brow arches. "I know you are not very fond of me, in spite of what your parents think. Why don't you tell me what it is about me that bothers you so much?"
Claire gawks at him. Are you serious? Fine, she would gladly oblige. But when she is about to speak, she finds herself stupefied at the fact she cannot utter or even find any flaws about him. There must be something! She does not just develop grudges against people without reason!
Think, think, think. When she looks up and sees him grinning, it takes her all the willpower in the world not to unsheathe her claws and rake his eyes out. He must know he pissed her off, because he suddenly withdraws his smirk, continuing to stare into her defiant brown eyes. Her long, burnt sienna hair is tangled and messy from the humidity and rain; normally, she would be going frantic, running a brush through it to make it decent, or tying it back in a ponytail. Now, she could care less.
"Why don't you want to be with me, Claire?" he asks, now in a solemn, soft tone she would never expect of him. Her eyes flutter to the window, then to her plate, somewhat disconcerted of the subject of them being 'together'. Don't let him in, her conscience warns her. Though today, this voice is especially dim; it's tucked deep away in the back of her mind. Now, she just wants to focus on solving Luke's mysterious mind and intentions. But she would not tell him what he wants to know.
When Luke notices she isn't going to talk, he is not upset or made impatient; he simply speaks in her place. "Betrothed pairings have been our people's tradition for centuries, Claire. They help guarantee strong alpha pairs and good pedigrees for future litters. But do you honestly think this is all based on the generic aspect of life? To pick the best bloodlines in the stable and breed the stud to the broodmare and let that be it? For our kind, being mates is based off far more than just rank and good genes."
In awe, Claire fixates her eyes on Luke's intent face. She suddenly forgets he is only twenty-one, as he speaks with the wisdom of those like Claire's father and their elders.
"How would you know?" she retorts, still unwilling to surrender completely. With a small tilt of his head, Luke grasps her eyes with his own in an impalpable clutch, and doesn't let go. To her frustration, he does not answer; he just…stares at her.
"Your parents came together because of the same tradition, just as you and I, and our ancestors before us. And they are happy, aren't they?"
The mention of her parents startles Claire; she doesn't such a tactic. However, she finds herself thinking about her parents; her father is a strongly aristocratic Alpha, but not without sentiment and compassion, and her mother is the most lovely and fun-loving person Claire has ever known. Everything her parents do, they do together; in the mornings, they are always greeting each other with smiles and pecks to the lips, doing favors for one another and comfortable around each other. A casual love, perhaps, but love, nonetheless. Claire has been raised in a shroud of their love, so a fool she would be not to believe in love.
Unable to find words, Claire nods in reply to Luke's inquiry. The waitress returns with a refill for Luke's coffee and asks if everything is okay, for Claire had only taken a few bites of her salad. Having her concentration taken off of Luke for the moment, Claire is allowed to finish scarfing the vegetation. She notices how other customers in the diner are glancing back and eyeing her and Luke, probably concerned or curious of their rather serious conversation. Hell, it's probably why the waitress had asked if everything was going okay.
"Nobody is saying you have to become my mate now, Claire; not even me."
Claire's brows rise up. "But then why have you been watching me like a hawk ever since I was sixteen? Why have you taken my parents' approval so seriously?"
His eyes are suddenly glinting with that confident, almost seductive twist again. "I didn't say I don't want to have you as my mate. Because believe me, I do. There's a difference between wanting something and willing to be patient for it. But it just may come to surprise you that I want you to come to me on your own terms; I like to work for what I want, makes me feel I actually deserve it."
Indeed, this does surprise her. Claire knows her mouth is now parted, gaping at him in astonishment. What happened to the self-confident asshole she remembers? To think Luke has something more, something deeper than his egotistical surface, makes her mind spiral. Through her vertigo, she hears him chuckle; it's a new sound, light, fun, and amused.
"Why me?" is all Claire can find the voice to ask. Luke's eyes become mysterious, his face soft in expression, his index finger aimlessly tracing the lip of his coffee cup.
"Other than being utterly adorable, you're also different—a good kind of different. You're headstrong, independent; you don't like being told what to do."
"Usually, those would be undesirable traits, especially in a future alpha female," Claire mentions, perplexed. Luke smiles.
"Typically, yes. But the way I see it, it makes for a strong alpha queen. You aren't a pushover, you can make your own decisions; these are just as vital traits to have in an alpha female as they are in an alpha male. Wouldn't you agree?"
Claire half shrugs, half nods and Luke chuckles again, sipping the last few gulps of his coffee. It is here Claire takes a moment to observe Luke in this new light. She pays special attention to each characteristic and attribute; his short black hair, messy and damp from the rain; his straight and solid frame, down to his sculpted forearms exposed by rolled up sleeves. Then finally back up to his face that held far more substance and depth than Claire could have thought possible.
"Just give it some thought, Claire. Give me a chance, that's all I'm asking. Who knows, you may like what you find, if you take the time to look."
Once retrieving the check from their waitress, Luke and Claire head out of the restaurant, not exchanging any words as they drive along. The rain is reduced to a mere drizzle now, the clouds still dark and heavy as the evening hours creep up on the town. Luke drops Claire off at her house, with a simple goodbye before driving off. Once in her house, Claire greets her parents indifferently as she walks for the hall and into her bedroom, where she stays and ponders for the rest of the day.
She replays that hour she spent with Luke over and over again in her mind, analyzing and memorizing each word he spoke; each gesture, each little movement in his eyebrows, just so she can find an answer to wrap her head around. But the only thing left for her to realize is that there is far more to Luke than she thought possible.
Is it just her pride that has made her think otherwise of him for so long? She doesn't know. She does know this: everything will be different now, whether she chooses Luke or not. She is an adult she-wolf now, a first-born Queen of the Night. No longer can she hide behind the excuses of adolescence for anything; no longer can she hide from Luke.
And lying flat on her bed, staring up at her ceiling, she comes to the rousing conclusion that she no longer wants to.

© 2010 Jordane "Fang" Arnold