Chapter 5 - Crystal (Part 2)
Huffing, he turned and stomped away on two feet.
Her eyes followed his hulking form through the trees until he disappeared some hundred feet ahead.
She stayed put, knowing that he’d be back in a minute or two and didn’t want to risk running away again so soon.
Looking around, her stomach growling, she scanned the forest floor for plants she knew were safe to eat.
Although it had been a couple of years since she last went camping with her family, she knew exactly what she could and couldn’t eat. The only issue was that this wasn’t a lush, diverse forest, but a narrow little strip between a river and a farmer’s field.
Getting up, she peered around for familiar leaves and stems of plants. Pickings were slim, but she found a patch of greens that she knew was safe and dug them up to eat the small tubular roots as well. She took an armful to the river to rinse them off.
The snapping of branches caught her attention and she looked over to see the beast breaking down long sticks as he made his way toward her.
He glanced up as she froze at the edge of the water and looked away, his ears flattened back as he continued to break down branches.
Swallowing, she crawled over the edge of the bank and out over the rocks and crouched down to wash the greens. She could feel him watching her and glanced from the corner of her eye and caught him red-handed before he looked away, picking up an armful of branches and a bundle of fur in the other paw.
As he neared, she finished washing the greens and returned to the bank. He stopped a few yards from her and set down the stack of wood and meat. He crouched and started digging, creating a pit to build a small fire. He got everything set up—exactly like the way her father taught her—but he couldn’t grip the sticks well in his massive paws to get the fire going.
She noted the dead rabbit and wondered if he was trying to provide food for her.
Why? Why was he doing this?
She hesitated. “Am I… Do you really think I’m your mate?”
His fumbling paws stilled, the sticks shaking slightly. His head was still lowered and it took a minute for him to raise it. Gray eyes held hers.
He tapped the side of his head before shaking it, no. He lowered his claw and tapped over his heart and nodded, yes.
She stared at him. It was as if he was saying, I don’t think, I know.
She repeated those words out to him to make sure that was his meaning and his eyes crinkled and lips curled up in a slight grin as he nodded, yes.
With her heart pounding hard in her chest, her mouth dry, she asked, “Do you… feel… the matebond?”
She looked away, cheeks burning, and heart jumping into her throat. “Why don’t I?”
He scratched himself behind the ear, an awkwardness taking over his stance like a teenage boy with a crush on a girl in his class, before he returned to making a fire.
She watched him for a few minutes until he started to bare his teeth in frustration.
“Here, let me,” she said, sliding next to him and reaching out for the pair of sticks before he could snap them in two.
He huffed and thrust them over.
Having never been very good at starting fires, the thought of eating roast rabbit made her stomach growl even more, urging her to at least try.
After fifteen minutes, she finally created a small flame and the beast got to work skinning the rabbit for her and putting it on a spit.
For the first time in days, a surge of pride swelled within her as she fed the fire carefully and watched it grow.
The beast waited until she was satisfied with her creation and set the spit on the Y-shaped support sticks over the hot flames.
“My dad taught me how to make a fire, but as you can see, I suck,” she said, trying to fill the awkward silence between them. “We used to go camping all the time in the summer, but it’s been two years since our last trip, so I’m a bit rusty.”
She glanced at him and saw his ears perked toward her, even though his head was turned away, looking out over the water as it shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight. As if sensing her watching him, he turned his gray eyes back to meet hers.
His eyes really were expressive. They pleaded with her, playing with her emotions as she tried to regain some resemblance of control.
Twisting her fingers together, she remembered her injuries and quickly inspected them to see that they had healed, leaving behind pink scars.
The beast looked away as she did this and went back to the river for a drink. When he returned, he held his paw out, his claws clutched around something small.
Staring at his fur-covered hand for a moment, she swallowed and reached up before he dropped the engraved stone back into her palms.
She gaped at the word scratched onto the surface for a few seconds before looking up to catch his gaze, her heart squeezing and stomach knotting.
He pointed to her and then his heart before lowering his head and walking away to the edge of the river, putting distance between them. He lay down and put his head on his paws as he watched the ripples on the water.
Nervousness twitched, making her pick up a stick and scratching the tip into the dirt, longing for her sketchbook to pour out her nervous energy.
She didn’t know what to do or how to feel about him. He was adamant that she was his mate, but she felt nothing toward him. He was stuck in his beast form and unable to communicate with her.
How frustrating that must be…
Looking down at the mate stone, she rubbed her thumb over its smooth surface.
What if he was her mate and she couldn’t recognize the matebond because she never shifted? Should she reject someone who claimed to be her mate simply because she didn’t feel the same pull?
But what if he’s lying?
How could she determine the truth? How could she trust the word of a rogue?
Clutching the rock between both of her palms, she bowed her head and closed her eyes, asking the Goddess to give her a sign.
She didn’t want to reject her mate, but she didn’t want to trust a liar either.