“As most of you have heard, there was an attack on the Royal Pack borders,” Alpha Hugo announced to the Blue Moon Pack.
“But Alpha Sebastian has personally assured me that the threat has been neutralized, and the ritual will continue as planned.”
The whoops and whistles of our pack members filled the room.
“Now, as you all know, this week might be the most important time of your lives,” Alpha Hugo continued.
“Festivities begin with a cocktail party this evening, and the mating call is two nights away. There you’ll learn whether or not the Moon Goddess has blessed you with a mate.”
He looked around at all of us and smiled.
“I am proud of each and every one of you. Be yourselves. Try not to be nervous, because the Moon Goddess’s plan is out of your hands. Have fun this week.”
“One more thing before you go,” Beta Alexander chimed in, stepping forward. His gaze locked on mine. “If you are currently in a relationship with someone else attending, out of respect for this sacred event, please keep your displays of affection to a minimum.”
“Cas,” I started as the crowd began to dissipate around us. Removing his arm, I stepped back to put some space between us.
“I think your dad is right,” I told him. “Maybe we should cool it.”
Caspian’s smile faltered. “You want to take a break for the Summit?”
“Yes,” I replied with a wince, hoping to rip it off like a Band-Aid. “It’s not that we can’t spend time together, but I think we should be friends, not…lovers.”
Caspian bit his lip and nodded.
“It’s just a week. How hard could it be?” I rushed on.
“I don’t think you want me to answer that,” he replied.
As I stared at my boyfriend, I realized he had a point.
If one of us found a mate at the Summit, then we would never be together again.
I might never kiss Caspian again.
Just the thought made my stomach turn.
“Hey.” Caspian’s voice brought me back. He had regained his composure, and he touched my arm.
“I understand what you mean. We’ll make it through this, okay?”
He gave me that easygoing smile that I loved.
Even though Caspian was hurting and confused, he made sure to comfort me.
And that meant more than I could say.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
He pulled back his hand and gave me one last smile before turning from me.
I watched Caspian walk away, wondering why it felt like he was taking a piece of my heart with him.
Later, Teresa and I descended the grand staircase of the hotel. The party was already in full swing.
But I was beyond anxious.
“Look at this, Ly!” Teresa gushed. The lobby had completely transformed. A disco ball reflected off the white marble and gold accents, and the space was full of wolves having fun.
I wished that I could be so easygoing.
Lots of wolves made a point to stay single until their first mating ceremony to avoid the messy emotions I was dealing with right now.
Teresa wrapped her arm through mine and dragged me toward the bar.
While she ordered our drinks, I took in the scene around us.
I was just a few hours’ drive away from my hometown, but I felt like I was in a whole new world.
A world of wealth, power…and possibility.
A jazz quartet played by the bar, and the bass in the dance music pulsed from the far end of the room.
The event spilled out onto the back patio, which was covered in a canopy of twinkle lights.
The crowd was young and gorgeous. Even though we all lived in the US, the other guests seemed exotic to me.
There was a group of tan guys with long hair and puka shell necklaces that I recognized immediately as the Tidal Wave Pack.
I watched as a geeky-chic girl joined their conversation. She touched her wire-rim glasses and flushed for just a moment.
Legacy Pack from New England, I guessed.
I felt eyes on me, so I turned to the grand staircase…and then I froze.
Sebastian, the Royal Alpha, didn’t flinch when our eyes met. But his icy blue gaze caught me by surprise.
His strong arms were crossed, the sleeves of his button down shirt rolled up to the elbows. I couldn’t look away, wondering why anyone would look so serious at a party.
Then Sebastian’s gaze moved somewhere else in the crowd.
I tried to regain my composure, cursing my racing heart. The alpha wasn’t looking at me, he was just spacing out at my face.
I took a deep breath. Play it cool, Lyla. There were hundreds of people at the party.
A lot more to see than one moody alpha.
An eclectic troop of sequin covered, tie-dyed free spirits roamed in from the patio, and I wondered who they were.
“Live Fast Pack, out of Las Vegas.”
I turned to see Caspian’s smiling brown eyes.
My heart skipped a beat. Did Caspian see me staring at Sebastian?
“I just took a puff of their joint on the patio,” he added with a wink.
I’ll take that as a no.
I snorted a laugh. Any nerves I felt about seeing him here immediately disappeared.
“Hi Asspian,” Teresa said, passing me a shockingly green drink.
“Teresa, you actually don’t look terrible,” Caspian replied and Teresa rolled her eyes. “What’s the drink?”
“The strongest thing they had. They call it ‘the swamp.’”
I took a sip—and gagged. It wasn’t just strong, it was radioactive.
“I need one of those, too,” Caspian muttered as he turned to the bar.
I raised my glass to Teresa’s.
“To the best week of our lives,” she toasted.
“To the friends who get us through it,” I replied.
We each tipped back our glasses, though I could only manage a sip.
“Oh my Goddess, Lone Star Pack guys have got to be the hottest,” Teresa gushed as she ogled a group of denim-clad cowboys. “They’re heading to the dance floor!”
Teresa dragged me by the hand and Caspian followed after us.
Electronic music grew louder as we reached the doorway, and then we stepped into a big space packed with dancing werewolves.
Lights strobed around us as Teresa lifted my hand and spun me around.
As we danced, I started to let loose and took another radioactive sip.
“It looks like I found my people!” someone shouted over the music.
I lowered my drink and took in the girl before me. She was tall, blonde, beautiful, and clearly outgoing. She looked like a supermodel.
“I’m a swamp girl, too!” she explained with a self-deprecating smile, holding up her own nuclear green drink. “I’m Magnolia!”
She stuck out her free hand and I took it. Her grip was firm.
“Lyla,” I shouted in reply, “and this is Teresa and Caspian.” Caspian raised his glass and the two cheersed.
“Welcome to the Royal Pack!” she said.
She’s part of the Royal Pack…so that’s~ why she’s so perfect.~
“You guys have some sweet digs,” Teresa gushed.
“Thanks, girl!” Magnolia shouted as she danced.
As the song changed, the lights grew lower, and the strobes became more intense. I didn’t know if it was the hot room or the strong drink, but I needed to get some air.
Teresa and Caspian were having fun with Magnolia, so I slipped away.
I turned down a narrow hallway and into an empty room.
Pulling open the sliding glass door, I stepped onto a small terrace looking out over the pristine, dark lawn.
I sat down on one of the chairs and sighed.
The party was just the beginning of the Summit, and I was already overwhelmed.
Just then, the door slid open behind me.
Someone had joined me on the patio, and I turned to see who it was.
And then I forgot to breathe. It was him.
Sebastian. Looking just as preoccupied as before.
When he noticed me, he stopped in his tracks. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting to find anyone here.
But the door was already closed behind him. It was too late.
I was all alone with the Royal Alpha.
“Oh. Hi,” Sebastian said. Then he turned away from me toward the dark landscape before us.
“Hi,” I replied, trying to sound casual. Like I wasn’t freaking out about the fact that the Royal Alpha caught me snooping around the Fleur de Lis.
Sebastian sighed, and I watched the muscles of his broad shoulders relax beneath his shirt.
What is he thinking? He was such a mystery to me. And for some reason, I wanted to figure him out.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
Sebastian’s voice brought me back to reality.
“Be my guest,” I replied. “Well, actually, I’m your guest.”
He cracked a smile as he sat down. Making the alpha smile felt like an accomplishment. He seemed like such a serious guy.
“Welcome. What do you think of the Royal Pack?” he asked.
Why should the Royal Alpha care what I think?
“Um, it’s nice.” He raised an eyebrow, as if encouraging me to cut the bullshit. “I mean, I’ve never been to a nicer hotel. It’s just, the Summit is, uh…overwhelming.”
“Tell me about it,” he replied with a sigh. “Did you know at last year’s Summit only fifty mating bonds were formed during the call?”
I shook my head. Of course, I knew that the numbers had been dwindling year after year. But only fifty new mate bonds? Only a hundred mated wolves?
That meant this year’s odds were grim.
“It’s almost like the Moon Goddess is mad at us,” he went on. “Between the bad numbers and the rogues this year, it makes me wonder if we should bother with the Summit at all.”
He looked down at his hands. I could hardly believe he was being so candid with me.
“If there was no Summit, those hundred wolves wouldn’t have found their mates,” I said softly.
He met my gaze again. “That’s true. This is your first year?”
I nodded, wondering how he knew that. Maybe because I sounded young and naive. But his next words caught me off guard.
“Thought so. I would have recognized you,” he said, his lips turning up in a mischievous smile.
Oh my Goddess. Is the Royal Alpha FLIRTING with me?!
My heart was racing.
I’d pegged Sebastian as the brooding, serious type, but now I wondered if there was much more to him than met the eye.
“Lyla! What are you doing out here? I’ve been looking all over for—”
I turned around to see Caspian exit through the sliding door. His face fell when he recognized Sebastian.
If I wasn’t flustered before, now I definitely was.
“I guess this spot isn’t so secret if both of you guys found it,” Sebastian said.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean—” I rushed.
“I’m kidding.” The alpha frowned. “Sebastian.”
Caspian narrowed his eyes, sizing up the alpha. “Caspian. I’m Lyla’s boyfriend.”
“Hmm,” Sebastian murmured dismissively. He looked back at me, and there was something unreadable in his expression.
I felt myself flush.
And then none of us said anything, and the awkward silence stretched one painful second after another.
“Let’s go back to the party? Teresa’s waiting for us on the dance floor,” Caspian said.
“Sure,” Sebastian and I replied at the same time, standing up from our chairs.
The alpha passed through the door and Caspian touched my arm.
“He seems…weird,” he whispered, and I shot Caspian a warning glare.
When we got back, the party was even more bumping.
We crossed the room toward the dance floor, and it was easy to spot Teresa. She was dancing with Magnolia at the back of the crowd, having the time of her life.
“ALPHA SEBASTIAN!” Magnolia shouted.
As we approached, the gorgeous blonde threw her arms around him.
“I see you already met my fiancé!” she cried.
I met Teresa’s eye and tried to hide my shocked expression.
The Royal Alpha had a fiancé?! That was unheard of for someone going into a mating ritual.
“Congrats on the engagement!” Caspian replied, looking a bit too happy for them.
I, meanwhile, had a strange feeling in my stomach.
“Let’s get another drink?” I said in Teresa’s ear.
“Girl, you don’t even need to ask!” she replied, dragging me to the bar. “Another swamp?”
“You got it.”
I was going to need it to make it through this party.
I smiled at my phone, shaking my head. I glanced at Teresa on the other bed in the hotel room, snoring as she slept the morning away.
Unfortunately, I could never sleep in when I had a hangover.
And Caspian’s suggestion wasn’t exactly taking space, but it did sound like fun.
After a quick shower and clothing change, I opened the passenger door of Caspian’s trusty Ford and sank into the seat.
“Where to?” I asked.
He smiled at me, and I saw him wink through his sunglasses. He had an adorable level of stubble and his hair was tousled from the open window.
“That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”
Half an hour later, we pulled into a dirt parking lot. The drive had helped my hangover, and I was ready for some exploring.
As I hopped out of the car, a sign caught my eye.
“Cypress Swamp,” I read aloud, shaking my head. “Just can’t get enough swamp, can you, Cas?”
“It’s my new favorite drink,” he replied, winding his arm around my waist. I leaned against him, then remembered our deal.
Shit! This “friends” thing is harder than I thought.
I pulled away and he raised his hands, feigning innocence. “It seems like swamps are the only thing they have around here,” he said.
We started down a forested trail. Sun streamed in through the treetops, and we were the only people around.
“What did you think of the party last night?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It was alright. I don’t know, I’m not so into the Summit scene. Too many new people, too much pressure. I’d rather just be with you.”
I considered his words, wondering if Alpha Sebastian was one of the new people Caspian would rather avoid.
Part of me agreed with him. Last night had made me feel overwhelmed too, and I didn’t totally understand why.
There was pressure to put yourself out there, to make new connections.
And of course, to make one all-important connection…to find a mate.
The path led to a wooden walkway suspended over a neon green swamp.
We continued on, pointing out birds and reptiles to one another, when eventually I heard a strange grumble.
“Was that an alligator?” I wondered aloud.
“It was my stomach,” Caspian replied. “I skipped breakfast and all…”
“Let’s turn around and find you some food then!” I replied. “What are you in the mood for? Gumbo? Crawfish?”
I named all the regional cuisines I knew.
“I just want a burger,” Caspian admitted.
We doubled back the way we came. The time passed quickly, like it always did when we were together.
We didn’t need to talk the whole time. We just enjoyed each other’s company.
Even I was hungry again as the time passed, so I could only imagine how Caspian felt.
“Holy fuckin’ shit! Lyla, wait!” Caspian grabbed my elbow and I stopped in my tracks.
“You almost gave me a heart attack, what in the world are you—?”
Caspian looked like he’d seen a ghost. He pointed to the ground before us…and then the ground moved.
It was a snake!
“Actually, it’s kind of cute,” I said.
“Shhhhh!” Caspian pulled me close to him, wrapping his arms around me.
A low rattling noise filled my ears.
“Is it a…?” Caspian asked.
“Rattlesnake,” I replied.
Sure, they were poisonous. But if you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you.
Caspian’s strong arms held me even tighter. “Shhhh,” he whispered in my ear, comforting me…when he was the one who was terrified.
I smiled into his chest, playing along as a damsel in distress.
I peeked out at the snake. It flicked its long, forked tongue, its rattle held high in the air…
And then it slithered away, into the forest.
“I did it!” Caspian said, his eyes wide with wonder.
I threw my arms around him. “How did you know what to do?!” I asked, pumping his ego just a little bit.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I was fucking terrified.”
I pulled back, and maybe it was the way he looked at me…
But I couldn’t resist. I kissed him deeply, without reservation. And he kissed me back.
He pulled away, and the look in his amber eyes was so intense that my heart skipped a beat.
“Lyla, fuck this. The Summit, the mating call…all the things that are keeping us apart.”
My chest ached at the sincerity in his voice.
“I love you, Lyla. I choose you. I don’t need the Moon Goddess to tell me. Let’s run away. Right now…we can leave all that bullshit behind.”
Caspian struggled to catch his breath. He looked so handsome, so certain.
And why shouldn’t I be certain, too?
I loved the man who stood before me. I knew him.
And last year, only fifty mating bonds were formed at the Summit.
Why did I need the Moon Goddess’s approval when I had all I needed to be happy right here in my arms?
I swallowed the lump in my throat and met Caspian’s gaze…
Could I really run away with him?
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