Chapter 1 – The Alpha by the River
All I could see was haze.
Everywhere I turned, people were shuddering..
I ran through a forest, panting, trying to escape the carnal phantoms around me, which seemed to be summoning me. Saying, join us…
But the deeper into the woods I ran, the darker and more alive the forest became.
Some trees swayed like dancers. Others, with gnarled roots and spindly branches, looked like predators. Closing in on me. Chasing after me.
Something out there in the dark was chasing me. Something inhuman.
And now the mouths weren’t moaning. They were screaming.
Any second now, the darkness was going to catch me.
As I felt a root snake its way around my leg, I tripped and fell down a gaping hole at the center of the forest. But it wasn’t a hole.
It was a mouth, about to swallow me whole.
I tried to scream, but I had no voice.
Until I was one with the urge-filled madness...completely consumed.
I blinked. What was I drawing?
Sitting by the riverbank, sketchbook in hand, I looked down, disbelieving, at my own work. I had drawn a most animalistic vision.
That could mean only one thing: the Haze was coming.
But before I gave the Haze or my drawing another thought, the sound of nearby giggling distracted me. I turned to see a group of girls, surrounding him.
I’d never seen him here before. Not at the riverbank where I go to draw and clear my mind. You don’t find a lot of our kind hanging out around here. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the calm, when we’re always expected to be wild. Maybe it’s the water when every one of us burns with a fire within. Or maybe it’s just a spot I’ve only ever thought of as my own.
A secret place where I’m not one of the pack. Where I’m just me, Sienna Mercer, a nineteen-year-old red-headed self-taught artist. A seemingly normal girl.
The Alpha walked toward the water, ignoring the gaggle of girls following him. He looked like he wanted to be left alone. It made me curious. It made me want to draw him.
Sure, I knew it was a risk to draw the Alpha. But how could I resist?
I began to outline him. Towering at six feet five, with disheveled jet-black hair and golden-green eyes that seemed to change color every time he turned his head, Aiden was the definition of attractive.
I was just beginning to work on those eyes when he turned his head and sniffed.
I froze, mid-pen stroke. If he were to see what I was drawing…
But then, to my relief, he looked back out at the water, becoming lost again in some dark reverie. Even surrounded by others, the Alpha looked alone. So I drew him alone.
I’d always watched him from afar. I’d never been this close. But now I could see the size of his muscular arms, how his spine curved to accommodate his transformation. How quickly he could shift, I imagined. Bent over, eyes searching like a feral animal’s, he seemed, in this instance, already halfway there.
A man, yes. But even more so, a werewolf.
His looks reminded me that the Haze was fast approaching. It was the time of year when every werewolf from the age of sixteen and older goes mad. The season where everyone—and I mean everyone—is hungry for one thing.
Once or twice a year, this unpredictable hunger, this need, would infect all of us in the pack. Those who didn’t have mates got together with a temporary partner instead.
In other words, there was no one in the Pack older than sixteen who was still innocent.
Looking at Aiden now, I wondered if the rumors swirling around him were true. If that was one of the reasons he was here, ignoring the girls, brooding by the riverbank.
Some said it’d been months since Aiden had a girlfriend, that he was distancing himself from everyone.
Why? A secret love? No, the Pack gossips would’ve sniffed her out by now.
Then what was it? What was to come of our beloved Alpha if he had no partner when the Haze struck?
It’s none of your business, I chided myself. What did it matter to me who Aiden was with?
He was ten years older, and like most werewolves, only interested in someone his own age. To Aiden Norwood, the Alpha of the second largest pack in the United States, I didn’t exist. Putting aside my school-girl crush, I knew I was better off that way.
Michelle, my best friend, was dead-set on finding me a “buddy”. She’d already paired up in advance, as was common among unmated wolves before the Haze.
Trying to set me up with three of her brother’s friends, all who seemed perfectly decent and who’d been blunt that they thought me fit for a good time, Michelle couldn’t understand why I’d turned each of them down.
I could almost hear Michelle’s voice reverberating in my head. “Why are you always so damn picky, girl?”
Because the truth was, I had a secret. At the age of nineteen, I was the only innocent she-wolf in our whole pack. I’d been through three seasons, and no matter how crazed I became, I had never given in to my carnal desires.
I know. Very un-wolfy of me to care about “feelings” but I cherished my innocence. It wasn’t that I was a prude. In our society, there was no such thing. But, unlike most girls, I refused to settle until I found my mate.
I was going to find him.
I was saving myself for him.
Whoever he might be.
I continued to sketch the Alpha when I looked up and saw, to my surprise and sudden dread, he wasn’t there.
“Not bad.” I heard a low voice beside me. “But the eyes could use a little work.”
I turned to see, standing right next to me, looking down at my sketch...
Before I could catch my breath, he looked up and our eyes met. I tensed, realizing I was making direct eye contact, and immediately looked away. No one in their right mind dared to look the Alpha in the eyes.
My only option was to look away before it was too late and pray he didn’t misinterpret the meaning of my glance.
“Forgive me,” I said quietly, just to be on the safe side. “You took me by surprise.”
“I apologize,” he said. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
That voice. Even saying the most polite words imaginable, they sounded loaded with menace.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Really. I don’t bite..”
I was so close I could reach out and touch him. I lifted my eyes and chanced a look.
A brutal, jagged face that shouldn’t be handsome, but was. Thick eyebrows that looked coarse to the touch, like a hint of his werewolf form.
And a nose, even though slightly crooked—no doubt broken in some past scuffle—that couldn’t interfere with his distracting looks.
The Alpha took a step closer as if to test me. I could feel every hair on my body rise in trepidation.
“Next time you draw me,” Aiden said, “come closer.”
“Oh...okay,” I sputtered like an idiot.
And then, just as quickly as he’d appeared, Aiden Norwood turned and took off, leaving me by the river, alone. I sighed, feeling every muscle in my body ease.
It wasn't an everyday event to see the Alpha out of the Pack House, the headquarters for all pack business. Mostly, we saw the Alpha at gatherings or balls. Always something formal. What had happened here today was rare.
I could already see, from the jealous looks of Aiden’s adoring fans who had followed him here, only to be ignored, that this could quickly spiral out of control.
Even a whiff of interaction with a female, especially a young commoner like myself, would be enough to send the women into a frenzy, tearing down the Pack House’s walls just for a taste of him.
An event of that magnitude was sure to stress the Alpha out. And a stressed alpha meant a dysfunctional alpha, which meant a dysfunctional pack...you get the picture.
No one wanted that.
I decided, with the little light that was left of the day, I would finish drawing to clear my mind. Just me and the river in peace. But all I could see were Aiden Norwood’s eyes.
And how very wrong I had drawn them. The Alpha was right. I could do better.
If I could just get...closer. But when would I ever be this close again?
I didn’t know then what I know now. That within a few hours the Haze was about to begin. That I was about to become a beast. And that Aiden Norwood, the Alpha of the East Coast Pack, was going to play a very prominent role in my awakening...
It was enough to make a girl howl.
Chapter 2- The Haze
You don’t get to decide when and where the Haze hits you.
Driving? Better pull over fast or you’ll cause a fifty-car pileup.
At work? Punch the clock and run for the hills or you and your boss may become a lot more than colleagues.
As I sat down to dinner, I prayed it wouldn’t hit me while I was with my family—the worst possible place, in my mind. As I helped set the table and served a plate of homemade lasagna to Selene, I eyed the back door, in case I had to make an impromptu escape.
I sat down to eat with the whole family, who were already in the middle of a lively conversation.
“What is it, Jeremy?” my mom said, nodding to my sister’s mate. “You’ve barely said a word since you walked in. How’s work?”
“You don’t have to answer that, counselor,” Selene said, shooting Mom an amused glare.
“Well”—Jeremy laughed—“if you’re asking for gossip about our leadership, Melissa, you know I can’t divulge that kind of information.”
“Not even a nod to confirm or deny?”
“Mom,” Selene said. “He’s the Pack’s head lawyer. His job is to keep their secrets.”
“But…” Mom sighed. “I don’t need to know anything of consequence. Just a little chatter. Like…is it true that our Alpha and Jocelyn are no longer an item and now she’s dating his beta, Josh?”
“Mom,” Selene and I said in unison.
Jeremy grinned. “I plead the fifth.”
“Oh, you’re no fun, any of you.”
The woman acted more like a teenager than both of her daughters combined. But we loved her more for it. Most of the time.
“You could ask me about my work, you know,” Selene said.
“I did, didn’t I?” she asked through a mouthful of lasagna. “I’m sure I did.”
Selene rolled her eyes. Mom had always wanted Selene to pursue a more stable career. Fashion, my mother thought, wasn’t an occupation. It was a hobby.
“One day, something’s in, the next something’s out,” she would say. “That’s true with clothes and the whole industry, Selene! Think long-term.”
Well, now Selene had succeeded, proving years of mother’s advice wrong, and was actively working at one of the top fashion design firms in the city.
But Selene always let Mom’s insults roll right off her shoulders. On every level, she was the prettier, smarter, more successful version of me.
Whenever I said this out loud, which I did—often—Selene would shove me gently and just say, “You’re still young, Si. Give it time.”
But when it came to my dreams, to my future career as the world’s greatest artist, I’d never been patient. One day I was going to open my own gallery.
One day soon, I promised myself. I didn’t care what Mom said. Selene had proven that she wasn’t right about everything.
“That’s all right, Mom,” Selene said, changing the subject. “Gossip’s more interesting anyways. Speaking of which…”
Selene’s eyes flicked to me. I gave her a silent head shake. Don’t.
“Any idea who you might be teaming up with for the season, Si?”
“Ooooh, yes,” Mom said, turning to me. “What, or should I say who, is on the menu this year?”
“A she-wolf never reveals her secrets,” I said, playing coy.
For a second, my family actually seemed like they would move on. I had a way of doing that—steering conversations, taking control, keeping the attention on anyone but me. Although I was the youngest, I had always had that authoritative ability.
But my mother caught herself.
“There she goes again,” Mom said, shaking her head. “Our little dominant always making us submit to her whims. C’mon, Si. Tell us. Is there a boy?”
“Some of us like to keep our private lives private, Mom,” I said.
Mom shrugged. “There’s nothing to hide. I know your father is certainly looking forward to this year’s Haze, aren’t you, darling?”
“I’m counting the seconds,” Dad said, holding up his glass of wine, smiling mischievously.
“Guys. PLEASE. So gross.”
It was gross, sure. But that wasn’t the reason it bothered me so much. My mom had always been a liberated creature. No, what I didn’t like was the lying.
When I said my purity was my secret, I meant it. Not even my mom knew.
Which was weird because we had always been so open with each other about everything. She’d never kept the truth from me. Not about how she met Dad, who was a human. Not about how the two of them had their one and only daughter, Selene. And certainly not about how they found me.
They’re not actually my biological parents. I was discovered in an abandoned carriage outside the hospital where my mom worked. Not that it mattered, Mom had always said.
I was about to change the subject to anything, anything other than the Haze, when it happened.
I froze. A slow, pulsing molten heat ignited within me, making my body feel as if it were on fire.
Breathing became impossible, sweat covered every inch of my skin, and before I could resist, I quivered with sudden, unbearable longing.
A harsh gasp left my mouth before I could stop it, and when I opened my eyes, which I couldn't remember closing, I saw that everyone else in the dining room had the same reaction as me.
No, no, no.
Not around family.
The way my sister stared at Jeremy. The way my mom rose out of her seat, leaning towards my dad.
I couldn’t bear it. I ran from the room as fast as my feet could take me.
The front door.
And out into the cool night where I collapsed upon my knees.
The Haze crawled through my body like a venomous snake.
My throat was clogged, and I fought to breathe. Even in the windy night, my clothes stuck to my skin.
Oh God. The Haze had never been this strong. It was probably an accumulation of every frustration I'd repressed throughout the past three Seasons.
I should've expected that. Of course this was going to happen. What had I been thinking? I wasn’t. And now I was paying the price.
I looked behind me at my home, a place where I’d normally find safety and comfort. But not right now. No way. My parents were probably already making the most of the Haze.
The idea of Selene and Jeremy wasn’t much better. But they acted more like people, less like wolves—respecting boundaries, privacy, societal norms. They’d probably make it back to their apartment downtown before they finally acted.
I put them all out of my mind and ran for the trail toward the woods. I passed humans, totally oblivious, minding their own business, and some wolves who were, like me, in the first stage of the Haze and trying to catch their bearings.
Easier for them. They’d been through many past seasons. Not me. I was hazed out of my mind.
At the entrance of the woods, I needed to shift. I didn’t care if someone saw me.
Normally, I was in complete control when I shifted, but not when the Haze was taking over. No. I couldn’t stay in this human form any longer.
I closed my eyes and felt the bliss of shifting.
Usually, I would feel every bit of the change: the limbs stretching, the muscles tensing, the body growing tall, the red fur, matching my human hair, that sprouted from my skin. Covering me whole.
But not now. Now, I felt nothing but the Haze.
I breathed, and my voice was a growl. My fingers, now charcoal-black claws. Through the eyes of a wolf, everything was more exaggerated.
Especially now. When the Haze was just beginning.
Now in my full wolf shape, I raced deep into the woods. The cold wind blew over my fur, the hard ground was moist under my paws, and the scents of the woods filled my nose.
Howls resounded in the woods. The kind who were looking for a companion.
In my Haze, I’d forgotten to think of the implications.
Going into the woods at the beginning of the season was like begging to find a partner. These woods were like a college bar. All thirst and impulses.
Any second now, a wolf was going to get a sniff of me and recognize I was alone. They would stalk me. More than one, I was sure of it.
A game, a challenge, for who could win the she-wolf first.
I wouldn’t give in so easily. These wolves could have as much fun as they wanted. I wasn’t judging. But I was waiting.
Waiting for that moment, that instant, that sudden indescribable look of recognition when two weres make eye contact and know that they’re mates for life.
I couldn’t wait for that to happen to me.
But out here in the woods at the start of the Haze? It was unlikely to say the least.
I became hyper-aware of the male wolves, their every movement, their scent. I ran brazenly, luring them closer. And soon I knew they would have me cornered.
Five of them. All hungry male wolves.
For a second, I wondered if this would be the year. Would I finally cave? Would I finally lose my virginity, right here, right now in the middle of the forest?
As the Haze took over and all my desires to wait began to melt away, I asked myself, what was stopping me?