Authors: Susan Bliler
Susan A. Bliler
Copyright © 2016 by Susan A. Bliler
Cover fonts, spine, and back cover done by
Cindy Hubbard at
Images courtesy of Shutterstock
Editing done by:
Leiah Cooper with
So I Read This Book Today…
CJ Jones, remember this?
When with us you never run,
you always stand and fight.
And with us you’ll battle plot and battle
into the bloody night!
Remember how they’re always counting us down and out?
Remember how hard we can get hit and still get back up?
Remember they didn’t think we could do it?
Remember we knew we could?
“I ain’t surprised motherfuckers!”
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidences are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Susan A. Bliler.
For My Stalkers!
Thank you for sticking with me, for supporting me,
for believing in me, but mostly I thank you for reading my books!
I truly cannot express how much it has meant to have your
support and positive feedback. Honestly, without you all
I would have given up fourteen books ago. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
“Hello? Hell-O!” When the phone went dead in her hand, Harlow Armstrong frowned and slammed down the receiver. She hated prank calls, but the fact that she’d gotten so many in the past few days was beginning to worry her.
Gnawing her full bottom lip, she quickly flicked off the lamp next to her sofa, instantly bathing her too-small living room into total darkness. For a moment she considered calling the police, but after a quick rehearsal of the anticipated conversation in her head, she quickly discarded the idea.
I’m being ridiculous!
She flipped the lamp back on and strode determinedly to her curtains, throwing them open in a show of defiance.
“There.” She slapped her hands together and stared out onto the darkened…street. Her heart nearly thudded to a halt when something moved just under the barely-illuminated streetlamp across the road. When a stray black dog wandered into view she clamped a hand over her heart, expelling a harsh breath while shaking her head, the hint of a smile curving her lips. “Jesus! It’s just a dog.” Whirling from the window, she headed for her small kitchenette in desperate need of a hot cup of coffee.
You’re sure it’s her?”
Mason EnemyHunter couldn’t hide the desperation in his tone at the thought that his long search was finally at an end.
Recker took a step back into the shadows beneath a tall elm tree, his eyes still glued to the small female who just nearly had a heart attack at the sight of a stray dog zig-zagging its way down the sidewalk. “
I’m looking right at her. Her hair and eye color match yours, and the age is right. I’d dare say she even resembles you.”
Dark eyes slammed shut and his breathing halted. Even while his heart sang,
Mason knew better than to get his hopes up yet again. He’d been searching for his sister for the past six years, and after countless unsuccessful leads and a half-dozen wrongful abductions, he didn’t dare trust that he’d finally found her. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes. “
I don’t want another incident like Aries. You need to be certain, Recker!”
The massive Walker Sentry stepped out into the yellow light of the streetlamp, watching as the woman moved away from the window, disappearing into her apartment. “
It’s her, Mason.”
Heaving a weighty sigh, Mason didn’t hesitate to send across the mist--the telepathic means of communication that all Skin Walker’s shared--
“Bring her in!”
It was all the direction Recker needed. Lifting one large fist, he held it in front of his face before opening his hand and spreading his fingers wide in a silent command to his team to move into position.
Harlow added cream to her coffee, then savored her first sip. Satisfied, she moved from the kitchenette, snagging her romance novel off the coffee table on her way to her small sofa as she performed a delicate balancing act with her cup, simultaneously fingering through her book to find the dog-eared page where she’d left off.
Halfway to the sofa, some sixth sense had the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. She closed her book, setting it on the coffee table as she turned and strained to listen. Hearing nothing, she was turning back to the sofa when a loud knock at the door evoked a startled shriek. “Shit!”
Hot coffee sloshed over the rim of her mug, leaving dark, wet dots on her cream-colored carpet. Anger surged to the fore. She didn’t like to be startled. It evoked bad memories and thrust her instantly on the defensive.
Heart racing at the unexpected visitor, Harlow set her dripping mug on the coffee table at her knee before wiping her wet fingers on her faded jeans. Crossing quickly to the door she tried to quietly latch the chain lock, using her voice to cover the noise. “Who is it?”
“My name is Recker. I need to speak with you.”
Throwing a longing look at her cordless phone lying useless on her coffee table next to her book, Harlow feigned a cheery tone as her eyes shot to her bedroom door. She had a shotgun beside her bed, but wondered if she were being over-cautious. “Don’t know any Recker. I’m afraid you have the wrong apartment.”
“I have the right apartment. Open the door.”
Open the door?
His command had her silently cursing the lack of peephole as she slowly backed away from the door, glancing longingly at her bedroom. Okay,
definitely warranted a shotgun response. She hustled toward her bedroom door, snagging her cordless phone on her way with suddenly trembling fingers. She cursed when it slipped from her fumbling hands, bouncing nearly silently on the carpeted floor. “Shit!” she whispered, then offered more loudly, “I don’t know you!” Annoyed at herself now, she added some heat to her tone as she dropped to her knees, snatching up her phone. “Go away!”
Lifting the phone, she hit the ‘talk’ button with the intention of calling the cops while she retrieved her shotgun when the room was abruptly cast into darkness. A low, whirring sound from the walls let her know that, not only had her apartment lost power, but the entire building had as well. For a moment, Harlow considered whether the guy at her door had anything to do with the sudden power outage, then snorted at the thought as better judgment prevailed.
Too many horror movies
Besides, somebody’d have to want me pretty badly to go through all the extra mafia-esque effort.
No. The fact of the matter was, she lived in a really shitty apartment complex, and it was typical for the building to lose power even sans bad weather. She knew she should have been terrified with the bum outside her door and blinding darkness inside, but it wasn’t in her.
Harlow had never been easily intimidated. Even now, with some stranger outside her door demanding she let him in, her emotions bordered more on the edge of anger than of fear. She hated fear, despised it. She’d learned quickly never to succumb. It left her vulnerable, and vulnerability was a weakness that was always capitalized on out on the streets where she’d grown up.
Harlow spent her youth bouncing from foster home to foster home. Once even the worst home refused to accept her, she was placed in a group home, where she remained until she aged out. Most of the lessons she’d learned in life were the hard ones, the expensive ones to body and soul, but well worth the price. She’d endured more in her twenty-seven years than most women, or men for that matter, had in an entire lifetime. Left on the doorstep of a local firehouse, abandoned by her parents and without even a name to call her own, Harlow fought her way through her youth, both figuratively and literally. She’d been expelled from three schools for getting in fistfights, and with no parent to defend her, none of the school staff believed, or cared, that she’d been defending herself on most occasions when she’d resorted to violence.
occasions. Developing a thick skin and even thicker wall to guard her heart and emotions, she rarely revealed her true self to anyone. From experience, she knew that letting people get close meant suffering the agony of betrayal…and there was
betrayal. In her eyes people were hideous creatures. Remembering that kept her from exposing herself to pain. She didn’t need more pain. Thanks to her parents’ abandonment she had enough to last a lifetime.
She wondered about her real parents often, but never made any attempt to locate them. After all, if her parents had thought so little of her, why would she want to ever meet them? No. She was a loner, a fighter, and that’s exactly how she liked it.
“Harlow, please don’t make this difficult. I just want to speak with you.”
Panic flared to life, sucking the breath from her lungs.
How does he know my name?
The useless phone dropped from her hands as she crept toward her bedroom and the gun she kept hidden there. The glow from the streetlamp outside her window cast just enough light into her tiny living room to illuminate the largest objects, which was a great relief as she felt her way toward her bedroom. Halfway there, a loud crash behind her had her jumping as she spun toward the sound.
Without light, she couldn’t make out his features, but there was no mistaking the sheer size of him. His head nearly brushed the top of the doorframe and his shoulders filled the entire expanse of its width.
outta my apartment!”
The command, issued through clenched teeth, seemed to have a surprising effect. The man’s eyes widened and he actually backed up a step before once more gaining control and rushing her.
Yeah, that worked out well!
She wasn’t going to make it to her shotgun.
Clenching her teeth, Harlow did the one thing she knew to do when presented with a fight-or-flight situation. Balling her hands into tight fists, she met the intruder head-on.
Have you ever dreamt that you were racing on the edge of a cliff? The wind whipping your hair back, the sting of the air pushing against you and forcing tears to your eyes, even as you try to blink them back. Your heart and adrenaline racing, knowing that at any second, with one wrong move, it could all end. Anticipation, apprehension, fear, and excitement. That’s how Harlow felt every single day for the past six months.
. She rolled her new last name around in her head for what felt like the thousandth time.
God, six months and I still can’t get used to it. Harlow EnemyHunter.
She snorted at the absurdity of it. She was no enemy hunter. She was no hunter at all. In fact, she’d been easily taken by the team of mercenaries her brother sent to secure her.
Entering Mason’s office, she steeled herself for what she knew wouldn’t fail to be another epic round. Her brother was having difficulty wrapping his mind around the fact that she wasn’t some teenage girl that needed watching over. She was a grown woman for crying out loud! She had no intention of sitting around StoneCrow and being taken care of. No. Way. She was no ‘stay at home and enjoy the lax life’ type of woman, not a do-nothing bitch. She needed to work.
to work. Otherwise, her bored mind started working overtime, and once that happened she’d find herself in trouble.
The first six months of her stay at StoneCrow had passed in a whirlwind of activity. Saying good-bye to her sucky old apartment had been cake. She’d gotten settled into her new suite in the main estate house and still marveled every day that such a beautiful place was now her home. Mason had offered to have a cabin built near his behind the main house, but she didn’t want that. No, too much of a good thing and all. Plus, she was still getting used to the idea that she had a brother. A brooding, nosey, overbearing, and mostly grumpy older brother. Thank God for Amanda. Mason’s wife—or Angel as Skin Walkers called them—was the only person who could settle him. When he got too bossy Harlow could always count on Amanda to calm Mason and still ensure Harlow had her way.
She thought about that word for the millionth time since arriving at StoneCrow.
The past six months had been more exciting, and more terrifying, than she could ever have imagined. A new brother, a new home, a new life, that was all well and good. But none of that compared to her introduction to Skin Walkers. They were shapeshifters, but not like any she’d ever seen on TV. No, the ones she knew from sci-fi movies could only turn into wolves, but these Skin Walkers had the power to shapeshift to many forms. The older and more skilled the Walker, the more animal forms they could take. The revelation of a totally new species, one which her brother was a part of, had been life changing for Harlow. And yet, for all her shock and excitement, it seemed Mason’s only concern was that she avoided the male Skin Walkers at all costs.
Brought to a place where gorgeous, powerful, single men were everywhere, and Mason was determined she didn’t “get involved” with any of them. Something about ‘affliction’ and ‘permanent bonds’.
Blah, blah, blah
. Honestly, the education she’d received on the Walker’s mating instincts and claiming of their mates, whom they called ‘Angels’, had been esoteric, to say the least. It was information overload and, after a while, fascinated as she was, she’d stopped paying attention, figuring she’d learn as she went. Plus, she wasn’t worried about being claimed. Getting tied down was the last thing on her mind right now. No, she wanted to form roots, get to know the community, and get to really know her brother and his people. But first, she wanted to find a job at the Estate.
It’d been six weeks since she’d taken up Mason’s suggestion to try her hand at several duties around the Estate. Before Mason found her, she’d worked at a call center for medical insurance claims, and while the pay had been okay, it was hardly her life’s joy.
The last six weeks at StoneCrow were spent testing her hand at everything from working in the gardens to volunteering in the daycare center; assisting with the school; and trying her hand in the cafeteria. And, worst of all? Spending hours on end shuffling paperwork for CEO and dominant Skin Walker himself, Monroe StoneCrow, a task that bored her to tears. She’d found no joy in any of those positions, yet, she’d given each job a decent shot to appease Mason. She knew where she belonged.
Mason had given her a tour of the massive StoneCrow Estate shortly after her arrival. Part of the tour had been a drive past the Walker Sentry barracks that had, as he’d stated, “Recently been erected on Eden’s field.”
Apparently, before the Dominant Walker met his Domina, he’d bulldozed her favorite field of wild flowers in order to erect barracks for his Sentry forces. While Mason rattled on about how things had worked out in the end for Monroe and Eden, Harlow tuned him out completely as her heart stilled and her mouth dropped open at the perfect line of men and women dressed in BDUs standing at perfect military attention. She wanted
! She longed for the camaraderie and kinship born of those who took up arms in battle. All her life she’d regretted not joining the armed forces and now? She had the chance to do all that and more. Skin Walker Sentries weren’t just soldiers, they were the cream of the crop, the elite, and she had a chance to train with them while living at StoneCrow. It was perfect. Well, it would be perfect, if she could just get Mason to agree.
Now, stopping outside his office door, she sucked in a breath and then knocked before she lost her nerve.
Keep it cool,
she chastised as she waited. After all, it wasn’t like Mason could tell her no. Could he? Hell no! She was twenty-seven and, as overprotective as he was, he’d just have to deal with the fact that she was a grown woman who was capable of making her own decisions.
She rolled her eyes at his barked greeting before opening the door and stepping into his office. Inside, she closed the door, waving awkwardly when he looked up. “Hi, Mason.” She didn’t really have an affectionate term of endearment for him as it seemed too soon and too familiar to be calling him brother.
Mason stood and rounded his desk, his eyes flashing as he scented the air. She hated when he did that. It was completely unfair that he could glean more than she wanted him to know simply because he could scent her emotions.
“Everything alright?” he asked in his thick English accent, as he rounded his desk, pushing the long sleeves of his sweater up his thick forearms.
“Yeah,” she sighed liking the way he talked. Something about his accent was comforting even if it reminded her that although they were siblings, they’d grown up worlds apart. Drawing in a deep breath, she focused on why she’d come.
Best to just get it out there.
She crossed her arms, unconsciously shielding herself from his rejection. “I know where I want to work.”
His brow furrowed as he eased down on top of his desk. “Okay.”
She lifted her chin defiantly. “The day we drove by the silos out in the wheat field, I saw the training happening out there.” He was already shaking his head, but she continued undeterred. “I’ve decided I’d like to train with the Sentries.”
His eyes had gone steely. “No. Absolutely not. Pick something else.
Indignation flared to life on her cheeks and she lowered her arms, straightening her back as she leaned toward him, aggression in every line of her body. “I’m not asking, Mason. I’m
you that this is what I want to do.”
Mason stood, circling back around his desk to reclaim his seat and taking up his pen again as if the conversation was over. “I said no.”
“Well, it’s not your decision to make. I am just letting you know where I’ll be.” She turned on a heel, stalking toward the exit.
“Harlow!” he barked, and she stilled at the door. “Wait.”
She could hear him rise from his desk and she slowly turned to face him, obstinacy in every line of her face.
“We need to discuss this.”
“I just tried to do that.” She watched him where he stood in front of his desk, his arms hanging awkwardly as if he wasn’t sure what to do, what to say. She felt the same. She truly didn’t want to argue with Mason, but he’d brought her to StoneCrow and introduced her to his life, his kind. And it seemed he thought he could dictate how she lived her life just because he was her brother. “I’m doing this, Mason.” Watching his eyes tense at the corners, she felt a little bad for him. He’d been good to her since she’d arrived, making sure she wanted for nothing and that all her needs were met. Sighing, she threw him a bone. “Look, I’ve tried everything else and nothing suits me. You said I should find something I enjoyed. Something I
to do. I’d like to give this a try, and I’d like for you to be okay with it.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched, and she recognized it now as a sign that he was about to force himself to acquiesce.
“I’m not trying to make things hard on you, Mason. I don’t want you to regret my being here. I just wanna pull my weight the best way I know how, and being saddled with some job I don’t enjoy won’t benefit any of us.”
“You do realize that Sentry training is tantamount to joining the armed services? It’s boot camp, Harlow. There’ll be no favors granted to you because you’re my sister, or even because you’re a female. It will
She smiled. “I know that. I just want a shot at it. That’s all I’m asking. If I suck, or I’m a burden or can’t carry my weight, then I’ll step down or get kicked out, or whatever. I don’t want anyone making any exceptions for me.”
Her brother plowed an angry hand through the thick hair that perfectly matched her own. “It’s dangerous!” He turned and began pacing his office, speaking as if he was no longer talking to her but debating with himself. “You might be okay if you just trained with the Sentries, but with Monroe’s attention on the Keepers and their Soul Sentries, it’d be the perfect time for the Megalya to strike.” He turned to face her. “There’s real risk, Harlow. War could be coming to StoneCrow.”
“Then what better time for me to be recruited?” She shrugged. “I’m as capable as anyone else.”
He shook his head sadly. “That’s the problem. You’re not. You’re not a Walker, and you aren’t as capable as them. You never will be.” He eyed her up and down. “Worse, you’re a female. A small one at that. Your mere presence in battle would be a distraction to a Walker. We can’t help but to protect the small and weak, and as strong as you think you are, your presence could get someone killed.”
Her shoulders slumped. When he put it like that… She didn’t want to be the reason anyone was hurt.
She lifted mournful eyes to Mason’s, watching his expression tighten as he studied her, as if he knew something he wasn’t sure he wanted to share. She waited. Finally, his expression softened. “There’s a fully human team. I could see if I can get you on with them.”
Her brow furrowed. “No. I’m not doing this if you’re coddling me before I even start. I don’t want you putting me on an all human team just because you think it’ll be easier for me. I want to earn my keep, Mason. No favors, no special treatment, no kid gloves. I want you to throw me to the wolves and have the faith that I can survive.”
“Damn it, Harlow! I’m trying to compromise here.”
She crossed her arms and shook her head. “And that’s just it. I don’t want compromise, or favoritism, or concessions. I want to do the work like everyone else. Don’t pamper me!”
“Fine!” he growled.
Her heart soared as elation tore through her. “Really?”
Mason reluctantly nodded. “I’ll do it for you. But you have to make me a promise. You have to
that if things get too hard, or too scary, or even too uncomfortable, you’ll come to me.”
“Things are going to be uncomfortable, Mason.”
“You know what I mean.” He sighed, dropping to sit heavily on the edge of his desk as if he suddenly bore the weight of the world. “You just had to pick the hardest job.” His eyes sparkled as he stared at her. “Why does nothing ever come easy where you’re involved?”
She shrugged with a grin. “Cindy said most humans here have to go through vetting, interviews and surveillance for months before they’re permitted a place here at StoneCrow. Doesn’t seem fair that I get a free pass just because you’re my brother.”
His brows speared down. “Is that why you’re doing this? To prove you’re no enemy?”
“Partially. I don’t want the others looking at me like I was given something I didn’t earn, or looking at me in suspicion. Plus, I want you guys to know that if anything happens, if battle comes to our doorstep, that I will be not only willing, but able, to take up arms and fight beside you. Fight
Mason began shaking his head.
“Wait!” She held up a hand. “Those aren’t the only reasons. I want to feel like I’m a part of something. I want to feel like I belong, that I’m doing good work and helping out. It’s vital that I pull my own weight here, Mase. I know you’re strong enough to carry us both, and I know that you would, but how could you ever grow to respect me if I let you?”