The Beast’s Mate: Fated Mates by Mila Crawford
"You don't have to leave. We'll figure it out," my father said, his withered hands clasping mine. I couldn't help but notice how much those hands that were once strong now looked frail to me.
"Daddy, we need the money," I said, smiling at my father while I continued to pack. It was just the two of us, had been for our whole lives. I sometimes wish the mating bond weren’t for eternity. Losing his mate to childbirth hadn’t been easy for my dad.
"Moving to Badlands is bad enough, but that man is a monster. You've heard the stories, Calli. What kind of father sends his child to live with that thing?"
"I'm sure it's all exaggerated. The Bare Mountain pack would never have let him go if he were that feral."
"He may not have been then, but a lot can change; that man has been living in isolation for over ten years. That can turn a sane person into a monster, let alone someone who already had those tendencies."
"Daddy," I said, my hands on my hips and a scowl on my face, "you don't know if he was sane or not. He could have just needed to be alone. There are such things as lone wolves."
My father looked down. I could hear the beat of his heart; it was a soft and heavy sound building up and down in an erratic symphony. I hated knowing that I was adding to his stress.
"Daddy, come sit with me." I grabbed his hand, and we both sat on the bed. I smiled, remembering all the nights that I had made up every excuse in the book to prolong bedtime just for five more minutes. "You know that it's fine. I am strong, just like you taught me to be. We need the money, and the medical expenses are just piling up. We might lose the house. The rabbit fluffe is doing everything they can to help, but we aren't as well off as the pack, clan, and pride. We need to do what we can to survive." I bumped my shoulder to his gently. "I believe you taught me that." I smiled at him, hoping to reassure him that everything would be all right, even though I wasn't sure if I believed that myself.
"You're just like your mother," he whispered under his breath, but a smile started to form on his face. "Brave, smart, and beautiful."
"I'm all packed up. You want to walk me outside?"
I closed the suitcase, pulling it off the bed. Dad got up, and he grabbed my hand, walking us out of the room.
"You'll finish school," he said, his head hanging down, his shoulder slumped. Those words seemed to be more to him than directed at me. I hated to see my strong daddy so defeated, but that seemed to be what was happening.
"Hey," I said, turning to him. "I thought you said I was like my mother?"
"Then you know I never quit." I kissed him on his cheek.
"You have your phone?"
"Yes, Daddy," I said, smiling and rolling my eyes at the same time. "Daddy, please don't worry."
"I love you, Calli," he said, his eyes misting with tears.
"I love you too. Okay, I'm going to get in the car before you have me blubbering right here."
I started the car and watched my father the whole time in the rearview mirror.
I hated that I had to be away from him, during a time that he was so sick and actually needed me around. I couldn't help thinking about my dad, wondering if he would be okay. The fluffe had said they would watch over them. One good thing about bunnies was we liked to be around each other. We needed the interaction. I knew the fluffe would take care of Dad in my absence, but I was still worried.
* * *
The drive to Badlands was long but overflowing with beauty. The forests surrounding the mountains were filled with luscious pines and other trees' vibrant colors changing from the autumn air's cool crispness. The mountains were capped with snowy peaks, as a river ran through the scenic valley, creating the most beautiful scenic picture. It was spectacularly breathtaking. I couldn't help thinking how much it reminded me of Bare Mountain. I liked the reminder of home. A sense of calm washed over me. My hands on the steering wheel loosened, making me realize how tense I’d been until that moment.
Before heading deep into the mountains, I stopped at a little diner called Pete's. A cute place with a large blue-and-pink neon sign. The building had blue siding and was shaped like a small house. As I walked in, my nose picked up the scent of various shifters—bears, wolves, lynx, lion. I couldn't help smiling, thinking that maybe this place wouldn't be that bad. Already it felt like home. Bare Mountain had the same kind of appeal, many groups living together in harmony. I slid into a fifties-style booth. There were two menus with Pete's written on a plain white page. It was uncomplicated and straightforward. My nose wrinkled when I opened up the menu and stared at the options: meat, meat, and more meat. Pete’s was not used to catering to bunnies.
A plump older waitress with the name tag that read Mabel approached me wearing an apron with Pete's scribbled on it.
"What can I get you, hon?"
Human. I wondered if she knew what shifters surrounded her. I’d learned that many humans mated to shifters and were the kindest people you would ever meet, but not all of them felt the warm and fuzzies.
"Do you have anything vegetarian?" I asked, cringing while waiting for her answer.
"You don't want any meat?"
"No, I'm a vegetarian."
"We've got a garden and Caesar salad."
"Great, I'll take both."
"So what kind of shifter are you?" she asked, smiling sweetly, her sunspot-covered hands grabbing the menu and tucking it in at her side.
"You know about us?" I was a little shocked at her question and then figured maybe Badlands was the type of place where humans lived in harmony with shifters. There were a few spots in the States, but I hadn't realized this was one of them.
"Of course, honey. I've lived in Badlands my entire life—my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before me." She straightened up her shoulders, pushing them back, as if ready to salute. "It's a beautiful place."
"I'm a rabbit shifter."
"You just passin' through town? We've got no bunnies in these parts."
"No, I'm starting a job here."
"Oh, where?" she asked, pushing her way into the seat across from me, altogether abandoning her job and wanting to gossip.
"With Arkin Rivers." As soon as the Beast's name left my lips, every eye in the diner turned to look at us.
"Oh, dear," she whispered. Her hand automatically came up and covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. But dear, you know about the Beast?"
"All I know is that he is a recluse, left his pack ten years ago, and now lives in the mountain of Badlands."
"He's called the Beast honey for a reason. The man is so ferocious that the biggest, baddest shifters around these parts are terrified of him. A few years back, some bear shifters dared to walk on his land, and he tore them apart."
"I thought that was just a rumor."
"No, ma'am. Trevor Mister witnessed the whole thing. He was up there hunting, and he got in his car so fast that it'd have your head spin. He came straight down and told us the whole story. That thing up there is a monster."
My heart started beating wildly. Maybe I hadn't thought this through. What if the Beast wanted someone to torture? I had no idea what I was walking into, but I also knew that the wolves of Bare Mountain wouldn't let someone feral leave and cause havoc somewhere else. That would draw too much attention to shifters.
The conversation with Mabel and the shifters' reaction in the diner turned my stomach. Unable to eat, I looked at Mabel, smiled, and got out of the booth.
"Thank you. I'm going to just get something later," I uttered before I stumbled my way out of there and into my car.
Driving through the trees, I began to settle my nerves and my erratically beating heart until my car started sputtering. The next thing I knew, it stalled and smoke was coming out of it.