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It was time for the ritual. Ashlan glanced around with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Her inner wolf stirred and her skin rippled while she continued her short walk toward the ceremonial field. The she-wolf in her began to rise; an ache like a taunt muscle in need of a stretch overtook her. She clenched her hands into fists to hold herself back from shifting. She longed to transform and face the ritual in her altered state, but knew that the Copine Rite demanded she maintain control. The ceremony insisted that she remain in her more vulnerable human form.
The dense woods blocked out all light from leaking through the thick branches of the trees. Ashlan continued to walk steadily toward the faint glow of the clearing where the ceremony would be held. The leaves crunching under her soft slippers seemed deafening in the reverent silence that surrounded her. The wind sang of the upcoming cold that would soon hit the mountains and she shivered despite the warmth of the white, velvet cloak.
Her stomach churned and for a moment her steps slowed. Uncertainty of how the night would end hung over her in a thick cloud that she tried to dissipate. After tonight things would never be the same. She took a deep, calming breath and quickened her pace. Women before her had gone through the ritual, and many women would follow.
She heard the excited voices of others in the pack talking of the night ahead even before the trees thinned and the meadow came into view. She glanced at several of the women in the distance. Those unmated friends would soon find themselves in her place within the year. She lifted her chin in preparation of entering the clearing. She would not allow the turmoil within her to be viewed by the rest of the pack when she left the protection of the dark woods.
Many of them fell silent and watchful as she made her way toward the center of the group. The full moon loomed overhead. The torches illuminated the old stone table the pack surrounded and gave it an orange tint. The restraints that would soon hold her in place reflected the soft light.
She approached the table and trembled as her gaze landed on the metal shackles lined with leather. Her anxious thoughts were surpassed by her growing excitement. Heat ran through her limbs and curled low in her belly. She imagined the leather biting into her flesh, keeping her captive against the table while she withstood the sensual test necessary to find her mate. Her gaze darted to the group of men at a distance toward the right behind her pack’s alpha. One would be bound to her by sunrise.
“Ready?” Cage’s deep voice questioned as he approached her.
Ashlan opened her mouth to respond when the voices around her rose and then fell silent again. A small group entered the field from the woods to the north. Instinctively the pack made a path for the man leading the others behind him toward where she stood with her alpha. Ashlan’s chest tightened and her breath caught when the deep blue eyes belonging to the group’s leader met hers before moving back to rest on Cage.