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It hurt! Aww, God, it hurt! Holding her arm close to her chest, Amanda hurried away from the bustling commons area, hidden behind the towering four-story StoneCrow manor. Zig-zagging in near knee-deep snow to the parking lot, she jammed a gloved hand into her coat pocket and fumbled for her keys.
Replaying what had just happened in her head, she struggled to figure out what she’d done wrong. One second she’d been leaving the bonfire being held in the communal area and the next, Mason had her arm wrenched backward as he sneered down at her.
What had she said? What had she done?
Replaying the scene over and over, she couldn’t come up with a single reason for Mason’s….attack. And an attack was what it had been.
Amanda had been leaning forward on a horseshoe-shaped bench. Arms wrapped around herself, her mitten-clad hands were squeezing her biceps to get her circulation going. She and Lilly Mulholland were laughing at a story Cindy KillsPrettyEnemy was telling. Next to Cindy and Lilly, their mates, RedKnife and King, smirked at the tale while on Amanda’s left, Mason stared distractedly into the fire with a crooked grin on his handsome face.
And he was handsome, beautiful almost, in the way that sharks were beautiful. With a commanding presence, Mason EnemyHunter exuded power. His strong jawline was always clean-shaven, his nails always perfectly manicured. He wore his crisp business suits like they were suits of armor, and he never failed to make Amanda feel dowdy and underdressed in comparison. No matter the situation, Mason always appeared to be in his element. Even sitting at a bonfire alongside BDU-clad Sentries and bundled-up human women, there wasn’t a single wisp of Mason’s soft pecan-colored hair out of place. His hair was combed back, styled perfectly in a manner that Amanda envied as she lifted a gloved hand to try to trap her long ebony locks as they billowed in a gust of arctic wind.
Watching Mason out of the corner of her eye, Amanda wondered what had his mind so enraptured. It was obvious he was only half-listening to Cindy’s story. Piercing sea-green eyes narrowed in on the flames but didn’t blink as his grin slipped. He was deep in thought. It was obvious by the way everyone laughed at the punch line of Cindy’s story while Mason’s gaze merely sharpened on the crackling fire. His jaw ticked once and Amanda ached to know what he was thinking, but she didn’t ask because she didn’t know Mason. Yeah, she’d seen him around the estate and knew he was StoneCrow’s Chief Financial Officer, in charge of managing the estate’s finances and bookkeeping, but she’d never officially met him. She wanted to but didn’t dare. She’d only just broken up with Remy McCabe and StoneCrow Estates was too small and close-knit of a community for her to try to move on with any of the other Skin Walkers who called it home.
Skin Walkers. Even after years of knowing them, being around them, even dating one of them, she was still awed by their existence. They were shapeshifters, creatures only heard of in mythology, but the Skin Walkers were very real. They were keepers of these mountains, protectors of wildlife and each other. It’s why she’d been so surprised by Mason’s actions. It wasn’t typical Skin Walker behavior. In fact, it was the polar opposite. She hadn’t been the only one shocked by his behavior either. Cindy and Lilly had been just as stunned by Mason’s actions. As Amanda had backed fearfully away from the melee that was a half dozen Skin Walker Sentries rushing Mason, she’d heard Cindy and Lilly demanding to know “what his problem was”.
Now, pulling her jeep up in front of her cabin, Amanda’s arm was screaming for medical attention. She didn’t live at StoneCrow Estates. Her life in the Highwood Mountains pre-dated the erection of StoneCrow Manor and the arrival of the Skin Walkers. It’s how she’d met them. Skin Walker Dominant, Monroe StoneCrow, had sent scouts to survey the land for any potential issues. She was their closest neighbor and didn’t understand their frequent visits back then, but knew now they’d been vetting her. Apparently, she’d passed muster. Monroe had even offered her residence at his compound, but she’d opted to remain in her cabin just a few short miles down the road from their sprawling estate.
At the moment, she regretted that decision. There was a state-of-the-art medical facility back at StoneCrow, but Amanda had been too afraid of what she’d done to elicit Mason’s ire that she’d run home like the little coward that she was.
Shimmying out of her coat was painful. Toeing off her snow-covered boots, she padded in her purple thermal socks to her bathroom and flicked on the light before gingerly pulling down the collar of her shirt to look at her shoulder. There was no visible mark, so she tried to push up her sleeve to inspect her elbow, but it hurt too much. Aborting the effort, she set about stacking a couple of logs on the embers still smoldering in the wide hearth in her living room. Unlike StoneCrow Manor or the cabins on the Estate grounds, Amanda’s cabin wasn’t equipped with natural gas or even propane. She had to rely on firewood to keep her home warm. In a pinch, she’d turn on the electric heaters she had in each room, and right now that was looking like her only option because she was having great difficulty getting the large logs into the hearth with just one hand.
By the time she got one log into place, she was sweating and sucking back tears. She’d gotten pissed and forced her bad arm to help lift the log and now she was paying for it. Fuck it hurt!
Dropping back on her ass, she pressed her shoulders into the soft cotton of the sofa behind her. Pulling her cell phone out of her bra, she glared at the screen. It wasn’t late, just a little past five, but daylight savings time had just ended, so it was already pitch-black out. Amanda didn’t like driving at night, she never had, but there was no way she was going to get an ounce of sleep with the agony coursing through her.
Blowing out a pent up breath that sent blue/black strands of hair lifting out of her eyes, she fisted her phone and shoved to her feet. Quickly, she made the rounds to each of her rooms and set all her electric heaters to the lowest setting so the cabin would be warm by the time she got back. If the roads were good, it’d be a fifty-minute drive just to get to the city. All the walk-in clinics would be closed by the time she got to Great Falls, which meant a costly visit to the emergency room.
She couldn’t afford a medical bill right now, as it was, she’d be lucky if her old-ass Dodge Ram made it to town. Her rig had been acting up lately, but she just didn’t have the money to take it to a shop.
In quick order, she snatched her keys off the hook by the front door and hit the auto-start button. It gave her ten minutes to pee, get her shoes and coat back on, and grab her purse before she was hustling back out the door.
It was going to be a long night, and it was all Mason EnemyHunter’s fault!
Sitting in a plush chair in Dominant Skin Walker Monroe StoneCrow’s office, Mason didn’t know what had come over him. He was still dazed. One minute, he’d been staring into the dancing flames of the giant bonfire lost in thoughts of his missing sister when someone had grabbed him. No, not grabbed. That human woman, Amanda, had absently placed her hand on his leg to help herself rise from the seat beside him. He’d acted instinctively. In a flash and with a testament to his animal speed, he had her arm wrenched backward as she towered over her. Snarling down at her, he’d behaved abhorrently. Once he’d realized his mistake, he’d released her instantly, but it was too late. The acrid scent of her fear and pain still stung his nostrils and had guilt searing through him.
He’d fucked up, and he’d done so in front of Cindy and RedKnife KillsPrettyEnemy and Lilly and King Mulholland. In a flash, RedKnife and King were on their feet and rushing him. He couldn’t blame them.
I attacked a woman.
Still in shock, he shook his head morosely. He needed to get it together. He was getting worse and if he’d worried over the past few months if anyone would notice just how distracted he’d been, he knew now there’d be some explaining to do for sure.
The door to Monroe’s office opened and in strolled the Dominant himself. A smirk on his lips, eerie crystalline blue eyes, sharp as a hawk's, narrowed on Mason as Monroe bit into a crisp apple and shook his head slowly.
Speaking around his bite of food, Monroe drawled, “Heard you lost your shit and attacked little Ms. Chandler.”
It wasn’t a question, so Mason didn’t respond.
Circling his desk, Monroe used one hand to unbutton his black suit coat before swallowing his bite of food and sitting.
Mason followed Monroe with his eyes and waited. He knew Monroe well enough to know the little barb wouldn’t be the end of it.
The two men were compared to each other often. Mason wasn’t sure if it was because they dressed similarly or because they were both renowned for their ruthless business practices. Their looks weren’t far off from each other either. Same sleek hairstyle, they also shared the same rugged good looks. But where Monroe’s eyes were that icy blue, Mason’s were deep green. Where Monroe’s hair was black as a raven’s wing, Mason’s was a soft pecan brown. Where Monroe’s face was always clean-shaven, emphasizing his powerfully cut jaw, Mason donned a mustache and often had just the hint of a five o’clock shadow along his jaw. Their accents were different too. Monroe was one hundred percent American, while Mason had been raised in England and carried a thick accent.
Tossing his half-eaten apple into the trash, Monroe placed his elbows on his desk, lacing his fingers together before leaning forward, his eyes intent on Mason. “Stop fucking staring and explain yourself,” Monroe demanded.
Heaving a little sigh, Mason lifted a thumb and pressed it into his bottom lip a moment before dropping it. “I was distracted.”
Unclasping his hands, Monroe leaned back and his mouth rounded in a mocking silent ‘O’. “Her again, eh?”
It irked Mason because he knew that Monroe knew good and god damn well what had happened. Mason was often getting distracted and having little…slip-ups. Yeah, this was the first where a human or a female had paid the price, but…
Leaning back in his chair, Monroe brushed the pad of his thumb against his other fingers while he stared at Mason.
Mason hated that look because it wasn’t ever the casual perusal that Monroe played it off to be. No, it was a penetrating assessment. Mason could feel Monroe weighing whether or not he was a liability. No doubt, Monroe was inwardly weighing whether or not Mason was worth these little spurts of inconvenience.
“It won’t happen again,” Mason gritted out.
Without blinking, Monroe countered, “You said that last time.”
“That was different,” Mason fumed. “That was an accounting error that…”
“Cost me thousands of dollars,” Monroe filled in. “Whereas this,” he left the sentence open-ended and stared pointedly at Mason, allowing him to fill it in.
Reluctantly, Mason lowered his head. “Was a highly unacceptable show of dominance against a human female who wasn’t expecting it and couldn’t have prevented it had she been expecting it.”
An explosive sigh filled the air, as Monroe’s stony mask slipped. “It’s been six years, Mason. Maybe it’s time we start considering the possibility that she might be…gone.”
The words pissed Mason off. Mostly because they could very well be true. Still, he raged, “If it was your sister? Would you give up? Would you just stop looking? Would you just give up?”
Jaw ticking once, Monroe’s eyes went hard. “I don’t give up.”
Satisfied that Monroe was at least honest, Mason sat back in his chair. “I’ll do better. I’ll schedule an hour or two after my shift to dedicate solely to finding her. I won’t let the search or thoughts of her to filter into the rest of my day. I’ll be more focused.”
“And you’ll apologize to Amanda Chandler.”
“I’ll apologize to Amanda,” Mason agreed.
“You may have Remy to deal with too. You know they were lovers.”
Chuffing, Mason rolled his eyes. “I’m not worried about Remy fucking McCabe.”
“I’m just saying they had a thing for a minute. He might still feel a little possessive of her.”
And that pissed Mason off too. “If she were his, he would have been sitting next to her at the bonfire. She’s always showing up to these Walker events, her sad little eyes always seeking him out, and he’s always a no-show. He’s a piece of shit who took advantage of a beautiful and lonely woman.”
Monroe’s brows winged up at Mason’s outburst, but Mason couldn’t stop himself now that he’d started, finally finding a fitting outlet for his anger.
“That pretty little punk can come see me if he has issue with my mistake. I’ll gladly make amends with this Amanda chick, but I don’t owe Remy shit.” He shoved up out of his chair. “And if he dares to come around playing the valiant hero, I’ll put him on his ass.”