Beast (The Submissively Ever After Series Book 1)
breath of frigid air. I rubbed my arms, creating warmth from what little friction I could manage.
    I was sure hours slipped by until the soft boom echoed through the brush. The ground shook under my feet. I pressed my palm against the bark. The tremor grew as the thunder came closer, moving in like a deadly storm, ready to wipe the old man's existence away with one word. No .
    I gripped the tree until the barrage faded. The harsh heavy sounds of his breaths marked his presence. "Do you understand what you ask of me, boy?"
    The old man was slow to answer, as though he weighed each word carefully. "Yes, but, as her father, I must ask. No, I must beg you."
    The deep sigh echoed like a gust of wind. "You gave me something I'd longed for, something others never could give—friendship. For that, my friend, I thank you. But bind myself to someone who can never love me back is a damned existence. One filled with pain and loneliness. This is what you ask of me. No, this is what you demand of me. If I were to choose between pain or nothing, every ounce of my being screams for nothing. Yet, for you, I must choose pain. I must choose knowing there is no hope... there will never be hope."
    Pain ripped through my chest. The old man’s white shirt shimmered through my tears. I blinked and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. But there was nothing but my own pale skin and those desolate words echoing from my very soul.
    Pain. Loneliness. I felt the beast's words as though they were my own, because they were my own. I turned my hand and stared at my wrist. I didn't need to see the scar to know it was there. I felt every jagged tear. I don't love you anymore, Anna. I don't think I ever loved you.
    I shook my head, understanding with blinding clarity what the old man had come to ask for. I curled my hands into fists. 
    "Protect her. Care for you if you can. But please, I beg of you, see no harm comes to her, even at the expense of yourself. Can you do that? Can you promise these things?" The small thud resounded. This time I felt not pity, I felt no quiet desperation. I lifted my gaze to the darkness as something reached out of the night to caress the old man's shoulder. I felt only an empty sense of longing.
    The deep voice was soothing. "Do not weep my old friend. I will care for her. I will protect her where I can. This spell, sealed with blood."
    A hiss from the beast was followed in kind by one from the father. A loud slap scattered the silence. Palm against palm. The deal was now complete. I moved forward, needing to see what the shadows behind the old man held. Needing to see the beast for what he truly was.
    Dried leaves crunched under my feet. I slowed my steps, focusing on that shifting ebony gloom. He was there, if only I could reach him. If only I could see. My breaths were harsh rasping sounds. I slid my tongue over my arid lips and tried to slow my gasps.
    The towering pine seemed to grow bigger, the closer I came. The hunched figure of the old man was now mere yards away. One careful step at a time, I edged closer, moving through the forest. He was there. If I reached out, I could almost touch him. My feet were so cold they were numb. I didn't feel the stick until it was too late, sending a crack like a gunshot through the air around me.
    The night shifted.
    Blazing golden eyes pierced me where I stood.
    The snarl was soft, yet forceful. I know you're there . I fought the urge to run.
    He shouldn't be able to see me. No one else had seen me.
    "I will expect her tomorrow, then." The beast whispered, never taking those fiery eyes from me.
    Then he was gone, moving faster than I ever thought something that big could run. The forest floor quaked with heavy footfalls, leaving one thought floating helplessly in my mind.
    He saw me.
    The sharp cluck of a tongue had me spinning. The vicious grunt headed straight toward me. "You stupid fool."
    Something moved out of the gloom. I caught the glint of steel and raised my hand in

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