*** Two years ago ***
Rules. I was good at following rules. Rules like always bring home report cards with a vertical line of As; go to temple to worship the Moon Goddess, Artemis, every week; prepare dinner for the family on weeknights; help keep the house clean. My parents had lots of rules, and I followed them, the number one being: never ever date anyone who isn’t your mate.
I liked rules. They kept my life simple. If I followed the rules, my parents would be pleased, and I’d be rewarded with future success and happiness. At least that was what I believed for a long time. Looking back, I could pinpoint the day my feelings began to change—exactly a month before my eighteenth birthday.
It was one of those perfect days at the end of August where the sun didn’t scorch you, and the breeze was cool on your skin. Engrossed in a book, I had lost track of time when the loud drumming of a woodpecker broke my concentration, and I realized—s**t!—I was late meeting my best friend, Lucy.
Wasting no time, I hopped on my bike and sped through the woods to meet her at what was dubbed the “party lake,” where we had made plans to decorate for her boyfriend Luke’s goodbye party happening later that night. I was in good shape, so pedaling quickly wasn’t a problem.
The scent of damp wood, pine sap, and decomposing leaves surrounded me as I pedaled through the lush Vermont forest—thick with trees, ferns, and pine needles littering the ground. Years of traveling these paths had made me confident in my ability to dodge rocks and tree roots on the uneven terrain. Maybe too confident.
Changing gears, I pushed my legs harder, racing downhill along a path through the woods. I was well on my way when suddenly I lost balance, my bike shaking underneath me. I stretched my leg out to steady myself, only to step on a slippery leaf on a rock, and—s**t, that hurt! My ankle contorted all wrong, bent sideways, crushed by the weight of my body.
I crawled out from under my bicycle and stood, hobbling a bit, searing pain shooting up my leg.
Damn, I must have fractured my ankle.
I picked up my bike and limped beside it to get to my destination. I wasn’t going anywhere fast now. My ankle would take a good few hours to heal, possibly the whole night depending on the severity of the fracture. I’d have to live with the pain until then.
A twig snapped nearby. Instinctively, my head turned in that direction, taking my attention from the throbbing pain pulsing up my leg. That was when I saw him. Well, I didn’t see his face exactly, because it was partially obscured by a branch and a ray of sunlight directly in front of me, but I couldn’t have concentrated on his face at that moment anyway. Without even realizing it, I stopped dead in my tracks. I lost all sense of my surroundings, time—I could only stare at this tanned Greek god standing before me. My gaze slowly made its way down his body, from his broad shoulders and picture-perfect pecs to his six-pack abs.
Oh my Goddess! I was completely in awe. My gaze continued down his rock-hard stomach to where his body made a chiseled V, directing my attention farther south, a place my eyes had never gone before.
Shit, it was hot! Where had the breeze gone? My whole body was overheating, revealing feelings I’d never felt before. My stomach quivered, flames engulfed my skin, and a tingling sensation sparked between my thighs. My injured ankle was now long forgotten as I stared at the golden-brown Greek statue that had come to life before me.
He ducked his head under the tree branch, coming forward, blocking out the rays of the sun. And when he looked up, our gazes locked; my lips parted.
“Oh my Goddess!” I actually said it out loud, yet it had a different meaning this time. I instantly recognized that it was Luke! Lucy’s boyfriend. I had been ogling my best friend’s boyfriend! Both our faces reddened in recognition. And just like that, Luke quickly shifted. He was a huge wolf with gray, black, and brown fur on top and white fur on his bottom half. I was stunned and beyond embarrassed. Before I had a chance to look away in shame, he glanced at me for a moment, then used his mouth to pick up his shorts from the ground and broke into a run, heading back through the woods from where I had come.
After spending the day helping Lucy string up lights, streamers, and balloons into trees by the party lake, we now stood together admiring our work. The small gleaming bulbs contrasted against the dark forest created the ambience of an enchanted forest hideout with fairies twinkling above us.
“Thanks for your help today.” Lucy threw her arms around me. “Goddess, I’m so heartbroken about Luke leaving. But at least we put together a pretty awesome party for him, right?” My cheeks burned at the mention of his name, recalling what I’d seen earlier that day. The reminder evoked a fluttering in my stomach and a pang of guilt for having unintentionally lusted after my best friend’s boyfriend.
“How’d you get away with it anyway?” I asked, pushing the image from my mind. “Don’t they normally have warriors patrolling the area, especially with all the recent safety concerns?”
“I talked to Luke’s dad, and he agreed to turn a blind eye to tonight’s party. There are perks to him being the beta’s son!” Lucy gave one of her winning smiles. Above all things, Lucy was beautiful, with a supermodel stature, long blonde hair, and sapphire eyes. And she was persuasive—very, very persuasive—and not someone that took no for an answer.
Lucy was always getting away with things—for example, dating. She was the only person my age that openly had a boyfriend. Our pack was very religious, and we were all taught from a young age to wait for our mate, a gift granted to us by the Moon Goddess, a person we’d innately be able to sense beginning at dusk on our eighteenth birthday. So long as our mate was also of age. Dating anyone other than your mate was looked down upon, but Lucy didn’t care. She was convinced that she and Luke were mates anyway. While Luke was nineteen and old enough to recognize his mate now, Lucy was still seventeen like me, so they had yet to confirm the bond.
Luke arrived at his party not long after we did. After greeting his buddies, he made his way toward Lucy and me. Lucy jumped into his arms, pulling his face against hers, zealously kissing him. Although I tried to look away, for the most part, I caught a glimpse of Lucy gently biting down on his bottom lip just as they separated. The scene in front of me awakened the feelings from earlier that day—my body overheated, and my breathing turned erratic. Before I could stop myself, I was imagining what his solid muscles would feel like under my fingertips.
No! I pushed the thoughts from my mind. Girls like me didn’t have thoughts like the ones going through my head right then! I didn’t date or even think about dating anyone that wasn’t my mate. Especially not when the person in question was my best friend’s boyfriend!
After they pulled apart, their eyes fell on me awkwardly staring back at the two of them. Luke gave me a big smile and said, “Glad you could make it tonight, Jasmine.”
I smiled back at him, hoping he couldn’t tell I was blushing in the dark.
“How about I go get you ladies something to drink?” he asked.
“Yesss!” Lucy cheered.
“Sure, I’ll have a Coke, thank y—”
Lucy cut me off and said, “Don’t listen to PJ. Get us some real drinks and fill them to the top!”
PJ was my nickname, which was short for “Perfect Jasmine.” My classmates came up with it years ago as a taunt for being a religious, straitlaced, perfect student. Lucy was the only person I tolerated using it. I found her use of the nickname a bit ironic considering she was the perfect one, being so magazine gorgeous with a charming and sociable personality to match.
Luke came back with red plastic cups filled to the brim and handed one to each of us. Lucy stared at me, beckoning me with her head to take a sip. I sighed and tipped my cup back. I wasn’t a big drinker, but Lucy always convinced me to at parties. Before long, a large group of friends from school had joined us, and everyone was starting to let loose. I was thankful for the buzz that came on as it helped distract me from how awkward I felt in Luke’s presence.
The late-August full moon was glowing above the lake, making the water sparkle. At least a hundred werewolves from our pack had come to say goodbye to Luke and a few of his fellow warriors who would be leaving on a mission the next day. It was a mix of older high schoolers, such as Lucy and me, and young warriors who trained and patrolled with Luke and his friends. Our pack was a community of about forty-five hundred werewolves located deep in the woods of northern Vermont, where humans didn’t normally venture, a heavily forested area surrounded by mountains.
As the party progressed, people began jumping into the water, some coming out of the woods shifted into their wolf form. Lucy and the others ran toward the shoreline to join everyone in the festivities. Because my ankle still wasn’t 100 percent, I decided to hang back and chill out on a blanket by the bonfire. Getting comfortable, I pulled my long, dark hair into a ponytail and stretched my toned legs out in front of me.
A red cup appeared over my left shoulder. I could smell his cologne. I glanced over my shoulder at him and smiled sheepishly.
“Jasmine, you’ve been nursing the same quarter of a cup all night,” Luke said as he gently shook the cup for me to take it.
My mouth agape, I took the cup and replied, “No, I haven’t!”
He laughed. “I know, I’m just kidding.” He sat down on the blanket next to me. “I saw the way you wobbled over here.” Damn, he smelled so good. It was almost intoxicating—a musky, sensual fragrance.
“Oh, stop!” I said, “I’m having a rough day.” I stared down at my ankle that was still a little swollen and flinched at the sight of it.
Clearly noticing the look on my face, Luke asked, “What’s wrong?”
He pressed. “Tell me.”
“It’s not a big deal. I think I fractured my ankle earlier, but it’s almost healed now.”
“Which one?” he asked, looking down my bare legs. The shorts I’d worn suddenly felt much more revealing and inviting than previously. “Oh, never mind, I see it. It looks pretty swollen.” He moved down the blanket to get a closer look and gently touched my ankle, his touch more intimate than it normally would have been. A soothing sensation radiated from his hand. “If it doesn’t feel better by tomorrow, definitely drop by the clinic to have it looked at.” He slid back up the blanket to sit down next to me and looked at me seriously. “Anyway, the reason I came over is to talk about what happened earlier today in the woods.”
My face burned, recalling vividly what had happened earlier that day, trying my best not to visualize it while he was right in front of me, thankfully clothed!
Luke continued, “Don’t feel bad about it. I’m not embarrassed, and I didn’t say anything to Lucy.” He put his hand on my knee, shaking it a little and then retracting. I felt the soothing sensation again as he touched me.
“Thanks, I didn’t say anything to Lucy either,” I replied, relieved that we were mutually agreeing to just forget about it. His scent filled my nose. Trying to decipher the fragrance, I could almost sense notes of cedarwood and maybe amber. For the past few months, I’d noticed that he’d been wearing the most divine cologne.
“We’re always taking our clothes off to shift during warrior training, so I’m used to it by now.” He gave me a reassuring smile. While it was true that nudity wasn’t a taboo in werewolf culture, there were still more timid ones, like me, that preferred to shift away from others.
Desperate to change the topic of conversation, I asked, “How do you feel about becoming the beta soon?”
Luke relaxed and spread his long legs out on the blanket, leaning back on his hands. “I mean, I’ve been training for the job forever, so it just feels natural at this point. I was supposed to take title from my dad after graduating from high school last year. But because of the whole battle and everything that happened, it’s been put off until the alpha heir gets back from college in a couple years, and we’ll both succeed our fathers then.”
We all remembered the battle that happened three years ago. Our pack, the Midnight Maple Pack, had been called in to defend our ally in Quebec, the Lune Nordique Pack, against one of their enemies, the Bois Sombre Pack, who had waged war on them. The battle lasted at least a week, and we lost many of our warriors. Our pack was still affected by the loss, as it had happened so recently, and many people’s children, mates, and parents had never returned.
Luke continued, “I was too young to go to battle back then, but the Bois Sombre Pack is still a threat, so that’s why I’m heading up north with some of the other guys to keep an eye on things for now. I’m actually pretty surprised my dad was okay with this party happening tonight with everything going on.”
“Do you think they might attack us?”
Luke considered my question, looking out into the distance, appearing as if he were deep in thought, and finally replied, “We shouldn’t worry about that tonight. Let’s talk about something less heavy! Like, how long did it take you to put up all these decorations? They look great!”
“Thanks,” I replied, relaxing into the conversation, and feeling hopeful that things wouldn’t be awkward between us. “It took us a few hours. It was all Lucy’s vision—I just followed her directions. She’s great at throwing parties. I’m really more of a nerd and normally prefer to be at home with a good book.”
“I’m kind of a nerd too, to be honest.” He gave a coy smile. “What’re you currently reading?”
“I just started a book called The Disasters. It’s really good so far!”
“You’re into sci-fi?” Luke raised his eyebrows at me. “I read that book a few months ago. I didn’t think you were into that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, I really enjoy sci-fi,” I replied.
“Cool!” He smiled. “I never admit this to anyone, but I actually love my name because of Star Wars. I grew up watching it with my dad, and I used to pretend I was Luke Skywalker as a kid.” He chuckled. “Okay, I told you something embarrassing about me. Now you have to tell me something about you.”
“Okay, okay.” I laughed. “I never tell anyone my favorite sandwich because people think it’s really weird. But I have a guilty pleasure for peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.”
“Seriously?” Luke stared at me wide-eyed.
“I know, it’s really weird.” I put my hands on my face in mock embarrassment.
“No, it’s just crazy because it’s my favorite sandwich too. I’ve never met anyone else that eats them.”
I laughed. “Wow, that’s a crazy coincidence. I don’t even remember how I came up with it, but I’ve been eating it for years.”
We fell into easy conversation while lively music played in the background, contrasted by the cheerful clamor and howls of partygoers. I’d never really spent any time one-on-one with Luke before but found that we avoided awkward pauses and never stopped having something to talk about. I regretted never being more friendly with him now that I knew we had so much in common.
Luke moved closer to me, and I took a sip from the cup he had brought over. And then. . . was he? It seemed like he was smelling my neck. I looked over at him and he smiled. He did have a really nice smile that lit up his whole face. He was really quite attractive, with deeply tanned skin, faint freckles dotting his nose, and long lashes that surrounded his vibrant brown eyes.
Being so close to him now, his scent overpowered my senses, filling my nostrils with the most intoxicating and salacious fragrance. As his hand casually touched me in conversation, a relaxed feeling came over my body. The feeling stretched through me, mixing with my buzz. We, again, moved closer, something within us drawing us to each other, his face now only inches from mine. As he spoke, moving his full, rosy lips, I had an illicit thought—I wanted to feel his mouth against mine.
“Hey, guys! Come on, let’s go dance with everyone!” Lucy stirred me from my thoughts, coming over half-dressed, her jeans missing from the lower half of her body, and her underwear exposed. I shook the thoughts from my head, realizing that I was about to commit the ultimate crime against my best friend. But I couldn’t control how I felt—it was at that moment that something rose up from deep within me, a raw desire—I wished that I had been the one that had met Luke first.