I push myself up from the floor and wipe the blood from my split lip in pain. My bruised eye, swelling.
'Please, no more, Dad. Mum wouldn't want this. She wouldn't want you hurting me like this,' I plead.
'You should have thought about that before you killed your mother!' He shouts.
'Please, Dad! You know it was an accident. I didn't mean for her to die!' I plead. We stare at each other with cold consternation. 'Please, Dad! Please forgive me,' I beg.
He looks at me with hatred in his eyes before his expression changes. He smirks.
'Oh Astrid, you're no daughter of mine! You never were: your mother told me your birth father died when she was pregnant with you. However, I loved your mother so much I was willing to pretend to be your father!'
'No! That's not true! Mum would never keep something like that from me!' I yell.
'Your mother didn't want you to find out the truth until you were eighteen. She wanted you to live a normal life. She had said that you would find out your true identity once you were eighteen. I didn't know what she meant. I guess she was planning to tell you about your biological father then. You'll never find out who he is now!' He chuckles before kicking me in the ribs. I yell out in pain and hold my side. Locking my bedroom door behind him, he leaves me in my bedroom alone.
Dragging myself across the cold, hard floor, I carefully lift myself onto my quilted bed and lie on my side. I feel my broken rib under my clothing and burst into tears, not understanding how the man that once loved me and helped raise me could do this to me. I remember sitting on his lap in front of the fire when I was a small child. My mother would lean in the doorway and smile. She was so beautiful, and I loved I had the same green eyes as her.
I don't know how long I lie there this way before I fall asleep. The following day, I awkwardly pull my work uniform on and quietly creep down the stairs. Dad is asleep, most likely passed out in a drunken stupor. I pull my hoodie over my head, walk out the front door, and walk to work.
I used to go to school until my teachers saw the bruises on my arms and called Dad into the principal's office to question him. I begged my teachers not to contact him. They didn't believe me when I told them I was just clumsy and fell down the stairs. I haven't been allowed to return to school since I had to find a job as a kitchen hand and a server at a diner about a thirty-minute walk from home.
On my way to work, a black Mercedes moves conspicuously behind me. I have noticed this same car following me for a few months now. The driver is always watching me. I usually veer off the road when it approaches, choosing the longer route to work through the woods. I enjoy my job and my colleagues. My boss Jim is charming. He always knows something isn't right, but he never makes me talk about it. His offer to help is always there, in an unspoken, supportive and noted manner.
I walk straight into the kitchen and wash my hands to prep the salads and other food. Then, feeling too flustered, I walk over to where I left my bag on a stool, discarding my hoodie onto it and unzipping my jumper to cool down. Twenty minutes pass when Jim comes in to cook the first food orders for the day. A growl erupts. He sounds strangely like a wild animal. I look up at Jim, who isn't thrilled.
'Astrid, you know you can come to me for help, don't you? You don't have to go back home if you're not safe. I have friends in a nearby town who could look after you?' he offers.
'Thank you, but I'm fine. I just fell down the stairs. Jim gets a small smile from me.
'You said the same thing last time, Astrid...' he says.
'What can I say? My house is old, the stairs are rotting,' I say, bursting into tears and slamming my hands onto the prep table. Jim comes over to me, pulls me into his chest, and wraps his arms around me while I cry.
'Let me help you, Astrid.' he says. I stand back and shake my head.
'You don't understand. I can't accept your help.'
'Why not?' he asks.
'Dad won't let me go easy. He would rather have me dead and kill anyone who tries to help me. He hurts me because I am responsible for my mother's death,' I explain, wiping my tears from my face.
'Regardless of whether you are the reason for your mother's death. You don't deserve this. There has to be something I can do to help you, Astrid?'
'I know I don't deserve this, but I don't know what else to do. If you can't handle seeing a couple of bruises, I could always find a job elsewhere?' I offer and walk back to the prep table. I pick up the knife and start slicing the lettuce.
'I want you to stay, Astrid. I don't like seeing humans treating our kind like this, even if you are a rogue.' he frowns.
Pausing, with a confused expression, I stare at him.
'Humans? A rogue? I don't know what planet you're from or what kind of human you think I am, but we're all just humans,' I say and continue to chop some carrots on a blue chopping board.
Jim stands there in silence. I look at him and ask what his problem is now. He stands there looking very pale with his mouth open, completely frozen.
'Jim? Are you ok? What's wrong? Is it a heart attack?' I ask, walking over to him, concerned.
He blinks and goes to put his hand on my shoulder before I flinch and take a step back. I know Jim would never hurt me, I'm just not comfortable being touched. He frowns.
'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you,' Jim says.
'I know you wouldn't hurt me, I'm just not used to the gentleness,' I confess. Jim gives me a sad smile.
'Do you not know what you are?' He asks, on the verge of telling me something I sense I should already know.
'What I am? I don't understand the question. I am what we all are. Human,' I say, giving him a weird look.
'Can't you even smell the difference?' He asks me. I laugh.
'The only thing I smell around here is the food burning in the frying pan,' I chuckle.
'Shit!' He runs to the stove to turn it off and removes the smoking frying pan.
We remain silent in the kitchen for a while after that and focus on prepping and cooking orders.
'For what it's worth, Astrid, whatever happened to your mother, I'm sure she wouldn't want you blaming yourself for her death. I'm sure she would not want your father hurting you all these years because of it.
'Stepfather,' I correct him.
'Your stepfather? I thought--' he says before I cut him off.
'Yes, I only found out myself last night.' I explain that my birth father died when my mother was pregnant with me.
'I'm so sorry.' He looks downcast.
'I was sorry at first too, but I don't know now. Maybe it might be a good thing he isn't my real father,' I say. Jim nods and smiles.
'Do you think you could work late tonight? I have important people coming from the next town for an important meeting. It would be great if I could join the meeting for a change, instead of serving the food and drinks,' he explains.
'I'll have to ring Dad and ask, but I'm sure he will agree to it if it means more booze money for him.'
My Dad says I can work the extra few hours. All my money from work always goes into his account, anyway. Of course, I don't get to see any of it, but I'd still rather be at work if it means not being near him.
'It's fine. Dad says I can work the few extra hours,' I say. He gives me a wink and a smile.
'Good,' he exhales with relief.
A few hours later, I prepped food for the customers coming to the diner for their meeting.
'Is there anything I need to know about this meeting?' I ask Jim.
'We're just having some problems in Shadow Crest,' he says.
'Oh, in Shadow Crest? I've never been there before. I've heard it's full of aggressive people who act like wild animals. Jim lets out a laugh.
'It's not that bad, and I live there. Am I aggressive? Do I run around like a wild animal?' He asks.
'Good point, you aren't aggressive. And, no, you don't run around like a wild animal. Not that I know of anyway,' I giggle. Jim laughs.
'If only you knew, Astrid.' he says, laughing.
'They will be here any minute. Just take everyone's drink order, serve my friends and bring out the food platter when you're ready.'
'Sure thing, boss,' I reply with a smile. 'Oh, and Jim, I hope you don't mind if I wear my hood up? I don't want to be stared at or questioned about the umm, split lip, and bruise...' Jim gives me a nod.
'Of course, that's fine.'
A short while later, I hear the engines of several cars approach and then park in unison, several car doors slam. The doorbell on the diner door clangs loudly every time someone comes in. I stand on my tippy toes to see over the kitchen ledge into the dining room. There must be about eighteen men littered about the place. Not ordinary-looking men either. These men are big, bulky, extremely masculine, and ripped. They're all wearing suits and are extremely handsome.
When a very handsome guy walks in, everyone else moves out of his way as though he is someone significant. He has dark hair and gorgeous blue eyes. He is masculine, and his lips when he smiles - don't get me started on his full lips - all I want to know is what they would feel like against mine.
The handsome man sniffs a waft of something in the air and raises an eyebrow with interest.
'Jim, what is that smell?' He asks, looking in my direction. 'It smells like vanilla and cookies,' he says, still looking in my direction. I reflexively duck down and go back to finishing the platter for these handsome creatures.
'If you men want to make your way to the kitchen counter, Astrid will take your order. But, please, no one freak out - especially you, Alpha Ryker, when I tell you, Astrid is a rogue, that's what the strange smell is,' Jim explains.
'WHAT?' Alpha Ryker shouts, slamming his fist on the table.
'Alpha Ryker. Settle down! She is just a young girl who needs a job. She has been under my employment for almost a year now and is one of my best workers. We're also not in your territory, so she isn't trespassing. She has done nothing wrong. So, I suggest you sit down and behave!' Jim warns.
'Are you threatening me, Jim?' Alpha Ryker asks.
'Of course not, Alpha. I'm just reminding you. As much as you and everyone here hates rogues, she has done nothing wrong and will remain out of all this. Alpha Ryker growls.
Quietly preparing the platter, I hear a loud thump. Someone is angry. I'm just glad I'm in here and not out there with all that commotion. I pull my hood up to hide my bruised eye. Unfortunately, I can't cover my split lip, so I figure I'll bite over my lip to hide it when needed.After approaching the counter, I ask the first man for his order. I avoid eye contact and keep my head down as I write them down. All these guys sound very grumpy and annoyed. Then, finally, Jim comes over to me. 'Alpha, I mean Ryker, would like a vanilla milkshake with some cookies.' I nod and write the order. I have served everyone except for Ryker.Lifting an enormous platter of biscuits and dips, I wince with the weight in one hand. My broken rib is under strain. Ryker stares at me.Pausing for a moment, I inhale a deep breath and hold it, brace myself for the pain, lift the platter again, and put it on the table where most men sit. In the kitchen, I exhale while keeping my hand pressed against my ribs.
Chasing after me, I hear Ryker's footsteps crunching on the gravel. I run faster, but he matches my pace effortlessly. Eventually, when I am out of breath and my broken ribs cannot take any more, I am left with no choice but to stop and face him. 'Why are you following me?' I demand to know. 'You're my mate, whether or not we like it. I have to follow you. It's my business to know who did that to your face,' he says, firmly but calmly.'You didn't care about me when you slammed your fist into the wall above my head!' I yell. 'Astrid, please, I'm sorry. I would never have done that had I known you were telling the truth about not knowing you're not human. I would have been more civil.' He looks at the ground guiltily.'You have lost it now! Not being human? What is that supposed to mean?' 'How old are you?' His tone has changed again.'I'll be eighteen in two weeks.' I try to avoid his eyes. 'You won't meet your wolf till then. I've had my wolf for four years. But I want to show
A few of the same men I served the other night are standing outside the diner. They're staring intently at me. One man nods, and another enters the diner. I quicken my pace, knowing Ryker might be with them. I am left unbothered for a while, and I think this will be a non-event before Ryker is suddenly standing in front of me. You've got to be kidding me. How did he get here so quick? I step around him. 'Astrid,' he says. I keep walking, and Ryker keeps pace with me. 'Astrid.' he repeats himself. I keep my head down and keep walking. He grabs my wrist, and I feel a subtle sensation from his touch.'Ryker! Let me go!' I yell. 'No. I looked for you all night when you ran off and all day yesterday and today. So, we are going to the diner to talk,' he says. 'There is nothing to talk about!' I say, trying to pull away.Ryker grabs me by the waist and lifts me over his shoulder. I cry out in pain from the injuries I sustained. Ryker quickly puts me back down. 'What's wrong?' He asks. '
I look up to see Ryker staring down into my eyes with sadness. 'There's more I need to explain to you, but it can wait till tomorrow,' he whispers. I nod and look at the clock. It's late! My father will kill me. I should have been home ages ago!Pushing myself out of Ryker's arms, I bolt for the door to leave, impatiently turning the handle clockwise and counter-clockwise to no avail. 'Where's the key?' I ask. 'Astrid! You're not going anywhere yet, and you sure as hell aren't going back to that house!' Ryker argues.'Ryker, you said you would unlock the door when I'm ready to leave! Please, you have to let me go. He will kill me if I'm late home,' I explain, trying to force the door open. 'Astrid, I won't let him lay a finger on you again. Do you hear me?' Ryker says sternly.'He will hunt me down, Ryker. If I don't go home, he will kill me. He will look for me here,' I argue. 'Good. Let your Dad come. Because it's the last time he will ever see you,' Ryker says.'What are you g
As we run back to the diner, I fear what is about to unfold, holding hands. My Dad is sitting on the bonnet of his car with his shotgun pointed at some of the pack members outside. He watches me step out from the concealment of the woods, holding Ryker's hand. 'How many men are here waiting to have their turn with you, Astrid? Fourteen? Fifteen?' He spits. Ryker lets out a growl. 'Astrid, you need to train your pet dog to behave. Otherwise, I'll have to put him down, like the dangerous dog he is for touching my daughter.' A warning shot fires toward Ryker's feet, purposely missing them but warning him. I jump at the gunshot. Ryker doesn't flinch. Instead, he maintains a steady resolve and holds my hand tighter. He glares at my father.'The only one around here who needs to keep their hands off Astrid is you! I'm going to rip you to pieces,' Ryker yells, letting go of my hand and tackling my father to the ground. I try to grab his arms, but I'm useless. The scuffling is too unpredict
It's around 1 am when we arrive at Shadow Crest. I wake up to Ryker carrying me in his arms. It's dark and quiet. 'Ryker, I can walk, you know?' 'I know, but I want to carry you,' he says with a grin. 'Put me down, Ryker.' He gently puts me down.We are at the mansion's front entrance. It's three stories high. A giant white staircase ascends to the second floor. The balconies on the second and third floors are to die for, and I admire the white French doors and windows. Manicured green hedges border the mansion, and flowers grace the garden sweetly. A giant water fountain sculpted in the shape of two wolves is a glamourous outdoor focal point.'This is where we live. This is the packhouse,' Ryker says proudly. 'It's a massive house for just two people,' I say.'Oh, many of us live in this house.' Ryker scratches the back of his head nervously. 'You never said I'd be living in a house with a bunch of werewolves,' I say.'It's normal for the Alpha and Luna to live in the packhouse
It's a beautiful town with lush trees and plenty of parks. I see a shopping strip and some cute cafes and clothing stores. There are plenty of people around who are most likely werewolves. I feel many unwelcome eyes on me. I perk up when I spot the watchtower and go there.After climbing hundreds of steps, I take in the view Shadow Crest sure is beautiful. A dense, green forest surrounds the town for miles, and I'm unsure which way to go. Finally, I sit down, defeated, and dangle my legs over the ledge, resting my head on the rail. What am I going to do? Turning into a werewolf scares me, but I can't run from that. It's going to happen no matter where I go. I reflect on last night: My dad shot Ryker, and he protected me from my father, and how my heart ached at almost losing him.Suddenly, I feel a presence behind me. Ryker lets out a heavy sigh and sits down next to me, dangling his legs over the ledge. 'Ryker, I'm sorry I ran off. I panicked and didn't know what to do.' I explain.
We decide to watch some movies downstairs. 'Can we make some popcorn first?' I ask. 'Sure, I'll make it while you pick a movie.' I flick through the list. There are so many to choose from that I can't decide. I close my eyes and press play on a random movie. Ryker sits close beside me, holding a large bowl of salty, buttery popcorn.'What are we watching?' He asks. 'I'm not sure. I couldn't decide, so I closed my eyes and picked a random movie.' 'That's cute,' he smiles. I giggle. Then, the movie starts, turning out to be a scary horror film. I have my face in Ryker's shoulder halfway through it, too frightened to watch the spooky parts anymore.'You can hold my hand if you're scared,' he says. I laugh. 'You wish!' I laugh. 'I wish,' he says, grinning. I smile back at his confidence and jump in fright when the monster appears on the screen, out of nowhere, capturing and killing the human who tried to get away.'Aww, baby. Did the monster scare you?' Ryker asks as he swings my le