Chapter 8

“I suppose that leaves us with one last question. Is this something you can handle, Violet?”

“The Cedar Grove Pack has never been my home, and I’m never going back.” I dropped my twinkling smile and let her see how serious I truly was. They’d sooner find me packing a bag in the middle of the night than willingly stepping back into that claustrophobic nightmare.

“Good, then on that note if you could open the bag in your hands, please.”

As it turns out, I’d been wrong. The lacey bra within the boutique bag was my first official test.

“I had my assistant pick it out. She’s an expert with this sort of thing. One look at you and that scrap of polyester you wear, and she knew your size. Elijah should be charged with neglect for allowing you to wear it a day longer, but as intelligent as the man is he truly is horrible with children—and even worse with teenage girls, it seems.” Sylvia waved a hand dismissively, like having her assistant rummage through my clothes was normal. “As comfortable as it may be, it’s the reason your shirt isn’t fitting correctly. If you’d allow me, I can help with the rest of your uniform as well.”

I couldn’t say no, even if I wanted to.

It was more than awkward to have Sylvia’s hands on me, tugging and tucking fabric while also doing her best not to leave me uncovered in any areas. Her fingers grazed the scar on my shoulder when she went to untwist one of the slender bra straps making me jump a foot off the floor.

“Apologies, cold hands are a curse all doctors and scientists must endure.” She tutted under her breath.

It felt strange to say the least. After tearing off my sports-bra and changing into the padded masterpiece Sylvia’s assistant picked out, I realized how horribly stretched my old one had become. I knew very little about actual bra sizes, but the C cups seemed to make my chest look larger and my cleavage more pronounced.

Sylvia purposefully left the top three buttons undone, and while I didn’t mind the glimpse of skin, it peeked at something more. The jagged scar across my chest was by far my worst, raised and pink even though the others were now flush against my skin.

She stepped back and eyed me from head to toe.

“There you are…a proper student at Darkling University.” Her smile was genuine and laced with warmth that filled my veins with a lingering sense of confidence. The feeling was short-lived when she said, “…now all you have to do is survive the other students and you’ll be well on your way to a life of success.”

“I’m sure I’ll be alright. I already love it here. There’s so much sunlight and flowers…I never knew how beautiful nature could be when it’s not covered in feet of ice and snow.” I gushed, threading confidence into my voice.

The last thing I expected was Sylvia’s dry but amused laugh.

“That’s because you’ve yet to meet the Vanderbilt’s. That family is this pack’s equivalent to feet of ice and snow.” She commented with a short shake of the head, her expression full of mirth. “I’ll admit they’ve run me out of town a time or two, only I have the luxury of calling them ‘business trips.’”

From the way she scoffed to the irritated wave of her hand, I gathered the Vanderbilt’s—whoever they may be, weren’t fans of Sylvia. Against my better judgement, I felt compelled to ask. “Who are the Vanderbilts?”

She lifted a sculpted eyebrow at me and scanned my face with her eyes before replying.

“I’m trusting you won’t repeat this—not that anyone would believe your word over my own I’m afraid. The Vanderbilt’s are one of the many families here descended from the original pack, and Imani Vanderbilt is the loveliest of them all.”

“Imani Vanderbilt?” I repeated, feeling each syllable roll off my tongue.

A blush ghosted across my face when Sylvia tutted and said, “Poor thing, you know nothing about this pack.” A flash of annoyance settled in her eyes, yet somehow I knew it was geared towards this mystery woman. “Imani Vanderbilt is as slimy as Lafont’s new water-based concealer. Her loyalty cost twice the amount and only lasts half as long, and much to my dismay happens to be the doting fiancé of Alpha Xavier—my ex-husband.”

Understanding crossed my face in the form of an unattractive cringe.

“Don’t make that face. You’ll get wrinkles and ruin those pretty eyes of yours.” Sylvia scolded me gently before clasping her hands together. “Now, I’d say were finished here. You have a few minutes left to yourself before my driver will be expecting you. I’m not positive when I’ll see you next, but I’d like to hear about your first day when we do meet again.” She said with a closed-mouth smile, like two friends who met occasionally for breakfast. “Best of luck, Violet. I do plan on checking in with your progress at the end of the week, so I hope you take what we talked about seriously.”

~                    ~                    ~                    ~                      ~    

Every organ in my body seemed to seize the moment the blacked-out Mercedes pulled into the University parking lot.

I followed the throng of students down the sidewalk and across the very street we’d stopped at on our way into town. There were eyes burning into my skin, but rather than seek them out, I kept my chin high and head forward.

The only good thing about my pale blonde hair and patchwork of scars was how easy it made me to spot in a crowd. It was all too easy for my assigned escort to find me, and judging from the puckered pout on her face, she wasn’t too happy to see me.

“Violet, right?” She said slowly, lifting a hand to shield herself from the oncoming sun. The second I nodded; she took off. After a rather impatient wave of her hand I followed, stumbling slightly in the clunky Mary Jane’s I wore. “I’m Roselle D’Marco. You probably know my sister, Naveah D’Marco. Believe it or not, but I was in a few of her movies. Only as a background character, but clearly you have no clue how hard it is too secure one of those positions.”

“Movies aren’t really my thing, but I love to read!” I exclaimed. “Roselles are such beautiful flowers, similar to violets in some ways.”

I’d been rather fixated on flowers as a child and remembered a time when all I’d ask for were books on the subject. Countless times I’d scour the forests, collecting any unique plant I found—well, until one of those unique plants happened to be poison ivy.

The rays of light bounced off her chocolate hair, which was curled and gave off a faint scent of musky perfume. The ends of each ringlet seemed to lighten in color until they reached a warm shade of dirty blonde. Rather than venture inside or head down one of the many winding paths like some of the other students, she cut straight across the lawn and veered towards the other wing of the castle-like building.

“Mmm, no. I don’t think Roselle’s and Violet’s have anything in common.” She chuckled through closed lips. “Did you know Cambridge University is modeled after this place? The humans were jealous that the acceptance rate for werewolves was 8%, while only one or two humans were chosen as students every year. That’s why my sister is so famous around here, and why one day I’ll be as well. She got in first, and when she graduated four years later, she completed the final ceremony and was turned.”

I tried not to pause but couldn’t help it as surprise filled widened my eyes. “Your sister was turned?”

Roselle flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave me a slight nod. I wasn’t positive, but I thought there might’ve been the slightest hint of jealousy when she spoke of her successful older sister. “Sure was, and I’ll be to in three years’ time.”

We stopped at the center of the large courtyard overlooking the entirety of Darkling University, and from there Roselle pointed out each wing of the castle-like building. There was the Dining Hall situated at the center, along with Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Humanities and Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Technology.

With every apologetic look she flashed her friends as we passed, all but screaming ‘I’m only doing this because I have to,’ Lacey’s snarl rang louder in my ears.

It became harder to listen as we ventured inside, veering towards a set of double doors at the center of the building. As we passed through, the scents of nature and sunlight shifted to that of old textbooks and mouthwatering foods.

“This is your Arts and Humanities class, or as everyone else calls it: Werewolf 101. We all have to learn the history of werewolves when we first study at Darkling. It’s actually not that bad, even though Professor Hopkins can be a real bitch at times.” Roselle sassed, raising an eyebrow at my pale face and glossy-eyed expression.

Standing two feet behind her was a woman with greying hair and piercing emerald eyes.

“Speaking of Professor Hopkins…” Roselle tittered, her giggle sharp and filled with a fake sort of sweetness that reminded me of pastries baked with Stevia instead of old-fashioned sugar. “Seeya, fresh meat. Best of luck on your first day.”

What startled me most was that Professor Hopkins hadn’t even reprimanded Roselle. In fact, she hadn’t even blinked.

It dredged up all manner of questions, but there was one that stood out from the rest. Did the students here—or their parents, really have that much power?

The middle-aged professor with the tightly wound bun of greying hair wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and scold the few students whispering or idly playing Zombie Crash on their cellphones, but her sharp tongue ended there.

I knew what it looked like when someone was biting back their words, stuffing them deep down where they’d never be seen again. That’s exactly what Professor Hopkins was doing as she went over the tumultuous history of the Original Pack and how they came to discover the extraordinary gift of turning a human into a wolf.

One student in particular, a sapphire-eyed jock with a head of chocolate curls, was on the receiving end of every reprimand Professor Hopkins wanted to say. More than once she’d open her mouth, eyes skewering him even though he was oblivious and scrolling through a social media app called the Link.

“Dax, did you ever connect to my profile? I just posted the pictures from this summer’s vacay.” A nameless girl whined, her ruby red lips curling into a pout. She flicked her ridiculously long ponytail over her shoulder and giggled, but the flirty expression dampened to one of murder when she caught my curious gaze.

I turned my head back to the professor, absorbing myself in her lecture about the original Alpha and Luna. Even as I listened to her recounting of Serafine Cromwell and Dominic Ashford’s earth-shaking bond, I could feel the eyes of the students pricking my skin like needles—the worst of them all came from the girl I’d been caught gawking at.

Accounting & Sustainable Investing was my next class, which happened to be halfway across the campus and was taught by an elderly man that reminded me of a snail rather than a vicious wolf. His tuft of snowy hair was combed over his head, which was speckled with pock marks. Despite his age and the horrendously slow and monotone way he’d speak, the lines around his eyes and mouth told me he’d had a long life of smiles and laughter.

With Archaeology and Business Fundamentals as my last two classes, I was relieved to say that I made it through half of the day.

Roselle was a few minutes early when she approached the open door of my accounting class and peeked her head inside.

Initially I’d been zoning out, listening to the Professor drone on and on about adequate note taking when I saw her waving out the corner of my eye. When she made a ‘come here’ motion with her hand, I shook my head sharply and nodded in the direction of the professor.

A delicate powder-blue nail tapped on my shoulder and as I turned around, I found myself staring into a pair of eyes that held small traces of the sea. Upturned ever so slightly, the girl they belonged to almost appeared friendly as she directed my attention down to the sheet of paper on her desk.

He’s blind in his left eye, but you better be quiet if you leave because the old coot hears everything.

I was momentarily lost in the perfection that was her handwriting, even though her eyes were dotted with little hearts. Looking in Roselle’s direction a second time, her ‘come here’ was just a tad more impatient.

As I stood from my seat, so slow that the chair was silent as it slid across the ground, all eyes turned towards me. Lacey coached me in the depths of my head, whispering even though no one could hear her.

Left foot, then right. Hold your breath, count to ten, then exhale. Rinse and repeat.

I’d made it to the door, but as my hand fell on the cold metal handle I realized there was no way I’d get out without the old professor hearing. It was wishful thinking to assume the class was holding its breath with me, when in reality most of them were waiting for me to fail.

A dainty and horribly fake sneeze echoed throughout the classroom, down the tiered rows of desks that filled the room. I whipped my head around, locking eyes with the girl who’d tapped on my shoulder. The thick French braid draped over her shoulder swished as she tilted her head in the direction of the door and sneezed a second time.

“Bless you, young lady.” The Professor wheezed in his flat voice.

“Oh, thank you Professor Jenkins. I must be allergic to this new perfume I’m wearing; my nose is horribly itchy.” My mystery savior confessed, then unleashed a slew of sneezes that I took as my queue to get the hell out.

“Finally.” Roselle complained, toying with one of her ombre curls. “You move slower than grandpa in there.”

My wonderfully cheery escort led me to the Dining Hall before pulling me into the nearest alcove, which many students used as a perch to read or eat under the warm beams of sunlight and lowered her voice to a sharp whisper.

“When we go in there, you’re going to have to find your own table to sit at. I can’t have you ruining my reputation, even if I did sign up for this. Besides, if the prince himself isn’t here by lunch, he’s not showing up at all—which means I have no reason to waste the rest of my day showing you around.” She grumbled, swiping some of the gloss from her lips with the tip of her tongue.

With jerky, frustrated movements she yanked a laminated map from her binder and grabbed a pen from her blazer pocket. Half a second later she shoved the paper in my hands, with respective buildings and rooms circled in black ink.

“There, job completed. See ya tomorrow.” She said, and glided into the Dining Hall, merging with the crowd without once looking back.

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