Tears roll down my cheeks as my father holds me against my bedroom wall by my hair. Striking my face, he splits my lip, and bruises my eye after striking me again. I fall to the floor crying.
‘Please Dad! Stop this, stop hurting me!’ I beg.
‘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 eachother 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 real father was killed when she was pregnant with you. 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 while sobbing.
‘Your mother didn't want you to find out the truth until you were eighteen. She wanted you to live a normal life. She says once you’re eighteen you would find out your true identity. I didn’t know what she really meant; I guess she was planning to tell you about your biological father then. You’ll never find out who he is now!’ He cackles 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 my beaten figure across the cold, hard floor, I carefully lift myself up onto my quilted bed and lie on my side. With a sore right hand, I feel my broken ribs under my clothing and burst into tears. I don’t know how long I lie there this way before crying myself to sleep. The next morning, I gingerly 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 head to work.
I was going 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’m clumsy and just fell down the stairs. I haven’t been allowed to return to school since; I was forced to find a job as a kitchenhand and a waitress 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 away from 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 really lovely; 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. After feeling very hot 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 very happy.
‘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 perfectly fine. I just fell down the stairs. I'll be fine,’ I say, giving him a small smile.
‘You said the same thing last time Astrid...’ he says.
‘What can I say? My house is old; the stairs are starting to rot,’ 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 me dead and would kill anyone who tries to help me. Plus, I deserve it,’ I say, wiping my tears from my face.
‘No one deserves to be beaten and abused,’ he says.
‘I am the reason my mother is dead. It's my fault she died. And this is my punishment. If it's upsetting you seeing a couple of bruises, perhaps I should find a job elsewhere,’ I yell, walking back to the prep table I pick up the knife and start slicing the lettuce.
‘I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. I just 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? Are you having 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 just don't like being touched by anyone. He frowns.
‘I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you,’ he 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 really 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 say with a 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 either.’
‘Stepfather,’ I correct him.
‘Your stepfather? I thought--’ he says before I cut him off.
‘Yes, I only found out myself, last night. My real father died when my mother was pregnant with me,’ I explain.
‘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 if it means more booze money for him, I'm sure he will agree to it.’
My Dad says I can work the extra few hours. All my money from work always goes into his account anyway. 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. He 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’m prepping 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, umm, 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 all the time.’ 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 definitely 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 them and bring out the platter of food 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'd rather not be stared at or questioned about the umm, bruises...’ 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 one particular guy walks in, everyone else moves out of his way as though he is someone very important. He is incredibly handsome with dark hair, and the most gorgeous blue eyes. He is well-built in body, and his lips when he smiles - don't get me started on his lips - all I want to know is what they taste like.
The handsome man sniffs a waft of something in the air and scrunches his face.
‘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. 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 on your territory so she isn't trespassing. She hasn't done anything wrong. So, if you’re wanting that vanilla milkshake with cookies, 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 else here hate rogues, she has done nothing wrong and is to be kept out of all this. Alpha Ryker growls.