Susie Benjamin had been denied nine jobs in three days. She had served five years for a crime she didn’t commit, and it didn’t seem to matter to these jerks that she’d been exonerated and wasn’t an ex-con at all, just a victim of circumstance. If she didn’t find a job soon what little money she had left would be gone.
Susie was a panther shifter and no one had ever told her the rules of her kind. Mason Douglas was quick to bring her to task for her not reporting that she was in town to him, the local Alpha. She’d work her sentence off on the ranch, but then she’d be gone. She wanted to be as far away as she could get before her father could find her again.
Gerard Douglas knew his brother had a new panther on the ranch, but wasn’t in any hurry to meet her. Heck, he barely had time to sleep as it was he was so busy. But when he caught sight of her at the river it was all he could do to keep his distance. She wanted him too, he could tell, but he’d never seen anyone so skittish.
Susie knew from his scent they were mates. But he’d be better off without her because if her father found out he’d kill them both….
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“I don’t understand this.” Susie looked at the paperwork in front of him, then at the man who was questioning her application. “It says here that you’ve spent some time in jail and that you’ve been…what does this word mean? Exonated?” “Exonerated. It means that the charge of murder had been wrong and I was let out because they figured out that I didn’t do it. I should never have been in jail at all, and that’s what they’re saying now.” He nodded but still looked confused. “The next paper is a copy of my release. It tells you right there that I was—” “Yeah, you said that.” He stacked the papers up, including her application, and then handed them to her. “I don’t think this will work out with us. We have customers coming in all the time and they don’t want to be waited on by an ex-con. You’ll have to go someplace else. Just don’t expect anyone else to be as nice about you and your paperwork as I was.” Standing up, Susie wanted to scream at him that she wasn’t an ex-con but a real person, and more than that, she’d not done a damned thing but be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, she picked up her bag and coat and moved out of the office. Now what, her mind screamed at her. She had to find something soon or things were going to get really bad for her. This was the ninth job that she’d applied for in the last three days. Her money, what she’d gotten as a compensation for being wrongly accused, was going out faster than she had anything coming in…which was not a single dollar. Even living as cheaply as she was, she’d be broke in another month. Less if she had to move out of the hotel she was staying in, because they had a two-week limit on how long someone could stay there. Every place else was double what she was paying now. Nothing, it seemed, was going her way. Making her way back to the hotel, she bypassed the front office and just unlocked her door and entered. She didn’t owe any money for the room just yet, but the guy at the counter this time of day made her feel dirty, like she’d been bathing in slime for an hour. Putting her things on the bed after locking the door, she sat in the chair and closed her eyes. Five years she’d been in prison. Not a long time by some standards, and less than she had been sentenced to by a long shot. Her life sentence had been overturned, and she’d been let out a month after someone on the outside had admitted to the murder of the three people in a house she’d never been in, as well as a few others things the man had, up until then, gotten away with. He’d apparently had details that were never made public, and when he’d admitted to it, saying how proud he was to not get caught, she’d been told there had been a mistake. “A fucking big one if you ask me.” Susie Benjamin had never done a thing wrong in her entire life that would have gotten her into trouble. And certainly nothing like what she’d been accused of. She’d always been careful of what she did, what she said, and even what she’d written down. Having parents that were less than stellar had made her
into a very cautious woman and extremely terrified of the cops. She supposed she might have been a little too cautious at times, but there was little she could do about it now. Her mother had been in and out of jail most of Susie’s young life. Then when Susie had turned ten, her mom, along with three other people, had robbed a convenience store and had killed the young man behind the counter as well as a few other customers. It had been planned, they said, and since they’d brought guns with them that were loaded with extra casings, it was considered premeditated. She’d been found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five to life in prison. Which, when it came down to it, had been a life sentence, because she’d died there. And because Susie had been a minor, the courts had called in her father to care for her. It had been like going from the pan to the oven for her. Ernest Benjamin, Ernie to those few who were stupid enough to call him a friend, had been no better in caring for her than her mother, and he’d been meaner about it. The third time he’d hit her with his belt, she left. It had only taken them a week to find her and bring her back to his loving arms and his leather belt. And it never got any better after that. In fact, she’d say it was a good deal worse. Over the next five years, Susie would run away monthly. Sometimes she’d be gone for a couple of weeks, but mostly she’d be found and taken back for a more severe beating, as well as being locked in her room without food or water. Not that it caused her many problems. Getting out was easy since she was small and strong, but he’d hurt her enough on her sixteenth birthday that someone finally took notice of her situation. He’d broken her arm, beaten her so badly that she’d had hundreds of stitches as well as the concussion that made her sick when she blinked. But being put into foster care wasn’t that much of an improvement. The home she’d been sent to first had been all right. She had to help around the house a lot, but that didn’t bother her much. Then one day the man of the house had been hurt at work, and the wife had no more use for watching kids that would never be hers. She was dumped—no other word for what had happened after that—back into the system and into many homes with mean bastards or drug users for foster parents. Then there was the freaky little thing that she could do that made her a target for bullies. Being a cougar was hard to hide when she got pissed. She had learned to control her, but it wasn’t done overnight. That, unfortunately, wasn’t all that she could do, but no one had found out about that. But her father knew, and that was bad enough. Her ability to read animals and some people had gotten her into some major issues with her father. For some reason, he was under the impression he owned her, which, she supposed, he did as the leader of their leap, and she thought that he should simply go fuck himself and die. Her plan didn’t work out so well. The foster care, or the lack of it, lasted just until she was eighteen and able to move out on her own. And in that time she’d gotten her education—something that she wanted more than anything—and a job. It wasn’t a good job, and the people she rented the house with took most of her checks, but the tips were all hers. Sometimes they
amounted to more than her checks. Then when she’d turned nineteen, they came to her hovel and arrested her for murder. The knock at the door, firm but not loud, startled her from her morbid thoughts. “Susan, there’s a call for you.” Susie didn’t move from her position on the chair, but did glance over at the phone that had not rung since she’d been there. It was the only number she’d given out when she applied for jobs. Really, it was the only one she knew. “It’s about the job at that bar down on Seventy-Nine.” Susie still didn’t move. She’d not been anywhere near the state route, nor had she applied at a bar. She didn’t drink and certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with serving up drinks for men who got mean when they were drunk. When the guy at the door pounded on the door again, she moved to the bed to pick up the first thing she’d bought when she’d gotten out. The bat was her only defense now, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. The pounding got harder then, and she was sure the door was going to break under his fists. “Open the fucking door, Susan. I know that you’re in there. I saw you go in.” The voice sounded familiar, but she didn’t know who it might be, as fear was making her too nervous to think beyond what he’d do when he got inside. As the pounding on the door got harder and louder, she moved to the back of the room and away from the room’s only window, and near the bathroom door should she need to escape there. “You fucking cunt, open this goddamned door and let me in. I know that you have some cash, and I want it.” Then just like that, she knew who it was. Her father, Ernie. Still not going to the door, she reached for the phone just as he moved to the window and started beating it to shit. The service at the front desk answered right away. The window wasn’t going to stand up to his abuse any better than the door had. “You need to let him in so I don’t have to call the cops. I don’t need nothing like this going on here. This is a good family hotel and we don’t cotton to having domestic fights between families. Get him to shut up.” Nice, was all Susie could think about. And calling the cops would be less than preferable than her being beat to shit? No thanks. “Call them. He’s not coming in here. At least not unless he breaks down your door to do so. Or…fuck.” The window burst inward, and he tore the curtains down just as she was putting the bat on her shoulder to use. “Come in here and they’ll be taking you away in a body bag, you motherfucker.” “That’s no way to talk to me, bitch. I’m your boss and you’ll fucking do as I say, or so help me, Susan, you’re gonna regret me having to make you.” She wanted to laugh at him but didn’t. Prison hadn’t been good to him either, apparently. He was bruised on his face, nothing that had improved his looks, and his mouth had sores on it, like he’d had a blister and he’d worried it to death. When he started into the room again, screaming at her about what he wanted, she pointed the bat at him and made him pause. “I want what’s coming to me. And I know you got it. That there paper said you were given completion or some shit like that. Ten grand will go a long way to making me a happy daddy.”
“I’m not giving you shit. And it’s compensation, you dumbass, not completion.” He grinned at her, and she felt her skin crawl. His mouth was full of rotted teeth. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his lips were dry and peeling and there were sores, big ones, on his cheeks and forehead she could see now that he was closer to her. “What the fuck is wrong with you now?” “Nothing. But there will be with you when I get in there. You’ve been a disappointment to me since I squirted you in your mother. Where is she anyways?” He put his foot out to step into the room and then was gone. Not in that he fell back, or even into the room, but simply gone. Not trusting him or what he might be up to, she stood there with the bat ready in the event he returned. Then a woman was standing there messing with her hair. Her smile reminded Susie of the grandmother in those dumb card commercials. Like she was as happy as a lark. “You all right?” Nodding slowly, she watched the woman carefully. There wasn’t anything about her that was threatening, but Susie knew better than to trust anyone that she’d not touched at least once. “I won’t hurt you. I was going by and saw him trying to get in, and couldn’t let that happen. My name is Georgie Douglas.” “Yeah, and why should you care if he got in here or not?” The woman only nodded and moved away from the broken window. Then she knocked on the door. “You come in here without being invited and I’m going to knock you into next month. I don’t need your help.” Going back to the broken window, the woman turned to her right before looking back at her. There was something very calming about the woman, as if she was just as nice as she looked. But again, Susie wasn’t trusting her and stood her ground. “My nephew’s wife said that she’s on her way. Normally she doesn’t go out on calls because the mayor doesn’t do that sort of thing, I guess, but she was riding with one of the cops that have been called. Your landlord called in that you were making a disturbance.” Great, the mayor was coming, but Susie only watched her. “You’re not very trusting, are you?” “No shit.” The woman looked pained for a second but said nothing. “What did you do to Ernie? And you should really watch out in case he comes back. Because he will now that he knows where I am. And if you hurt him, which I applaud by the way, you will be in as deep as shit as I am.” “He’s going to be arrested. But he won’t be coming back here. Come out of there and let me see if he hurt you, please. I feel just horrible that he was able to break this window before I could come to your rescue. Not that you need it. Which reminds me, why didn’t you just take care of him yourself? You could have.” Susie wanted to move…felt like it was the only thing in the world she wanted to do, but she shook her head and felt better. “You’re very strong, aren’t you? I mean…well, you shouldn’t have been able to toss off my compulsion like that. You’re a cougar, aren’t you?” “So?” She felt her cat move along her skin but didn’t let her out. She had a great deal of control over her now, not like the little she’d had when she was younger. “So are you. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to be the best of friends.”
Georgie only smiled at her, and that was when Susie heard the sirens. Her body tensed up to the point where she wanted to run. It was as ingrained in her as much as breathing. Cops meant trouble, and trouble meant jail. Not necessarily, but it seemed that way to her and her cat. When the cops came to the door, it exploded open with no more than someone pushing against it hard. A man entered, his gun drawn and his face hard, and she knew that he, too, was a shifter, but not a cat. Wolf. When he pointed the gun at her and told her to drop her weapon, she did so without having to be asked twice. The woman who came in behind him told him to back down. “Did you hear a word I told you on the way here? That the woman in the room was not to be…put that fucking gun down before I hit you.” The gun was lowered, but he didn’t put it in his holster. Instead, he turned and looked at the woman with a sneer on his face. “You should know that I don’t take direct orders from you.” The woman nodded and then did the most amazing thing. She punched the man in the face, and he fell to his knees. As he was getting up, to no doubt hit the woman, she spoke, her words as soft as a gentle rain. “You do and you’ll be dead before you take your next piss.” He paused, fear only a little evident on his face. “You know who I am, and let me tell you that I’ve already contacted your alpha and told him what you’ve done.” “He’s on his way out too. I’m telling you that you’re just a little speck on my way to the top of the heap.” She asked him if he really believed that. “I do. He’s done nothing but coddle the pack for years now, and it is time for someone with a backbone to bring it around. He’s happier to hang around with you cats than he is to see to our needs. He has to go, and I’m going to be the one to take him out.” “I’ll be sure to tell him your opinion.” Two more cops came into the room with them, and the woman turned to them after taking a step back from the cop on the floor. “I want him arrested. I’ll give you the charges in—” The wolf lunged at the woman, and before Susie could think what a horribly terrible idea it was, she let her cat take her and leapt at the cop. He was dead before she finished shifting, her claws raking across his throat even as she took him to the floor. His head rolled toward the woman as Susie’s cat backed them into a corner. She was in deep shit, she just knew it. ~~~ Mason entered the station as calmly as he could. When Aunt Georgie had reached out to him a little while ago, she’d told him to come to the station but not to make a big deal out of things. He’d felt Emma’s anger and then her fear, then nothing. It wasn’t until Aunt Georgie had told him that she’d bumped her head but was all right now that he could reach out to his wife. Emma had some explaining to do. Don’t make me have to explain why my big bad husband had to come in here and make it all better. If you do, everything I’ve worked for will be for nothing. He asked her calmly, or as calmly as he could, what had happened. I was stupid. I turned my back on someone when I knew better. But I’m fine.
That does not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling, Emma. I felt your terror and it nearly took me to my knees. Please, I beg of you. What happened? She told him she’d explain it to him when he got there, but not to make a scene. The first person he saw when he came into the front of the station house was his aunt. Her smiling at him had him thinking that someone needed to be punched. Not her, of course, but someone, and soon. She was entirely too mean to hit and not expect to be hit back. “She’s fine. Shook up a bit but fine. She’s back there talking to the woman who saved her butt. That man…oh my Mason, he was going to kill our little Emma, and if that…if that other woman had not changed and took him, I’m not sure how it would have ended.” This wasn’t helping him or his cat. Mason had been out on the range with ten men when he’d nearly cut his hand off because the knife he’d been using slipped. They’d been putting up a fence that had been knocked over by a fallen tree and he’d been in charge of cutting the old wire off. Had Gerard or Jace not been there, he wasn’t sure what he’d have done. “Can I see her now?” Aunt Georgie told him she was calming the other cat…the one that had saved her. “What other cat? You mean another cougar is here?” “Two actually. Her father and this young woman. I saved her first, so you know. I’m telling you that so you don’t find out later and get upset with me. I was there visiting a friend of mine who has only just moved to this area, and I heard the commotion. She and her family have been wanting to move to this area for some time, and they’ve put a bid on a house close to the ranches. But there was this man, as I was saying. He was going to go and hurt the girl. I just had to act. Good thing too. I think he was going to kill her.” Mason only stared at his aunt. He was getting more and more confused by the second. Two cougars were here? And who was the woman and man? He started to ask her what the hell she was talking about when she smiled at him. “You’re confused. I’m sorry. To be honest with you, I’m a little shook up myself. But let me explain. There was this man who was trying to hurt who I found out later was his daughter. She wasn’t having him in her room, so he busted out the front window. Then he—” “Aunt Georgie.” She smiled at him. “I love you very much, but you’re driving me insane with this roundabout story. Either get to some point so my cat will be happy or…you know what? Never mind. Am I going to get to see Emma any time soon?” Then Mason felt her. She was coming through the door just as his aunt started again about her friend. As he moved around his aunt to see his wife, Emma nearly fell into his arms. Mason held her for several minutes before she lifted her chin up to look at him. There was a small stain of blood on her cheek, but he knew that it wasn’t hers. Mason asked her if she was all right. “Yes, I am, thanks to the…I want you to know that this girl is the most stubborn woman I have…I thought you said that I could make people talk to me when they didn’t want to. And especially other cougars.” He said that was true. “Well, not with
this woman. She’s as tight lipped as I’ve ever seen anyone be. And she just shakes off the compulsion like it’s nothing. I think she’s a half breed…is that what you call people who aren’t all cat? But I really don’t know. She could be a mountain goat for all I can get from her.” “I’m sure you’d know if she was a goat or not. Now, who is she?” Emma said she was still trying to work that out, but she did ask him to talk to her. “Talk to her about what? I’m assuming that you’ve arrested her or had her arrested?” “No. She did nothing wrong as far as I’m concerned. She’s free to go, but she just sits there staring at her lap like it’s got all the answers. The most I’ve gotten out of her is that the man that Aunt George knocked out is her father, and that didn’t come from her but from him. And let me tell you, he’s not shut up since he woke up. I have never met two people that are more ill-suited to be related in my life. She just calmly sits there while he spouts off about suing us and having your aunt arrested for poor treatment of him. Bastard. But I can feel her fear, Mason. She’s terrified of something or someone.” He asked her if she thought it was her. “I didn’t do anything to her. And if that were the case, why save me?” “I’ll talk to her, but I don’t know if I’ll have any more luck than you did. If she throws off the compulsion, she might belong to another alpha. Or has pledged to one. Whatever the reason, she should have let us know she was here and how long she was staying. It’s the law of our kind and she should have known that.” He was shown to the room she was in and turned to Emma when she started to go in with him. “This might be better if you let me handle her. I’m not sure what might happen, and if she shifts again she’s going to pull both our cats, and that won’t be good.” “Don’t hurt her.” Mason turned to look at her before he opened the door. “Just…trust me on this when I tell you that she’ll drive you to want to hurt her, but don’t. There is something profoundly sad about her that I don’t think she’s handling as well as she’d like to think she is.” “Even though you don’t know her, you can feel this from her.” Emma nodded. “Are you thinking that this man, her father, should be brought in as well? I mean for me to talk to?” “Oh yeah, that’s a given. But for now, I think you should just go easy on her. And you should know that your aunt is looking into some things. She said that she could smell Calendar on her, the guy at the restaurant that you had words with the other night. I think she might have had a run-in with him too.” He grinned. The man had been making passes at his staff and then taking away some of their checks for no good reason other than they’d not have sex with him. Mason had fun showing him the error of his ways. Zach had even helped him. “This is no time to tell me how proud you are of yourself. You could have hurt that man.” “But I didn’t, and I’m pretty sure that when he finds out who my aunt is related to, he’s going to be falling all over himself to help her.” Emma only sighed heavily. “What is it, Emma? This girl, what is it that has you so worked up?” “I have no idea. For all I know she could be this terrible person who runs over small dogs in her free time. But there is something about her that makes me want to protect
her.” He moved away from the door and took her into his arms. “Just don’t let her get hurt, Mason. By you or anyone else. For all her stubbornness, I think I like her. And she saved me from having to explain to you why I got hurt.” Kissing her again, he went to the door and let out a long breath. He was sort of nervous if he was honest with himself, but he opened the door and moved into the room. A man was standing behind her, another cop…a wolf that he knew from the local pack. She didn’t look up when he came into the room, but he could see by the stiffness of her body that she knew just who he was. Either that or she was bracing herself for pain. Either way, he had to take charge right now. “Do you know what I am?” She nodded but didn’t lift her head. “Look at me when I talk to you.” As her head lifted, he could see the blood on her face. He didn’t see a cut, but there was enough blood there to tell him she’d been hurt. Walking to her, he lifted her chin up and saw that her nose had been bleeding recently, and wondered if it was from when Emma had been in here. Fighting compulsions, especially from a leader, was hard on a person. Telling the cop to go and get her a wash cloth, Mason sat down in front of her. “Tell me who you are.” He could see her fighting him. Christ, she was strong, and when she shivered he knew that she’d won this round. “Tell me who you are now. And what that man at the hotel wanted from you.” She lost, but at great cost to herself. The blood at her nose from the pain of what she was doing wasn’t all that happened to her. When she looked at him, he could see the anger too. She’d also bitten her lip through, and the swelling was making his heart pull. “Susan Benjamin.” He didn’t think she was going to answer all of his questions, but she put her hands on the table and glared at him. Instead of pissing him off, Mason found himself liking her. “I’m not an ex-con, and that man, my father, will kill me as soon as I’m set free. If he doesn’t do the deed himself, I will do it for him because I’m not going to do what he wants.” Reaching for Emma, he let her know what she’d said about not being an ex-con and asked her to look into it. He looked at the girl. “What are you doing in this town without telling me who you are and why you are here?” He could see the confusion on her face, so he explained. “I’m the leader of this leap, and by law you have to report to me, or whoever is in charge, of your presence.” “Why?” He really didn’t know for sure why, but he knew it was law. “Not that it matters. I’m going to move on as soon as I’m sure that Ernie is going to be under lock and key for a while.” “Ernie would be your father?” She nodded and wiped the blood off her upper lip. “You’d not hurt if you’d just answer the questions instead of being stubborn. You know that, don’t you?” “Fuck off.” He nearly laughed at her but only just caught himself. “Am I in trouble? Can I leave? Or are you going to keep me here under some trumped-up charges for killing that fuck?”
“The other cop?” She didn’t even blink in his direction. “I have no control of what happens to you about the wolf you killed. His alpha is coming in here to talk to you as well. If he has any kind of punishment in mind, I can take care of that for—” “No. You stay out of it. That would be between the two of us, nothing to do with you.” He nodded, but knew as surely as he was sitting there with her that he’d intercede on her part. “What happens to Ernie?” “I don’t know. I’m not a cop, nor do I try and interfere with their laws.” The snort coming from Susan had him covering his mouth. She really was about as stubborn a person as he’d ever met. “What were you doing there? I mean, why are you here?” “Didn’t she tell you yet?” He leaned back in his chair and asked her who. “Your wife. The mayor. I’m assuming that as soon as you told her that I’m not an ex-con and what my name is, she got right on that. But let me tell you now. I’m moving on as soon as I find out where Ernie is and how long he’s going to be there.” “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.” She glared harder. He had no idea why he’d said that she couldn’t leave just yet, and was afraid she’d ask him. “You broke the law, and even if you weren’t aware of it, you still did it. There will be repercussions for your actions, and as soon as you’re free from here, you’ll report to me.” Mason stood up, and so did she. She was tall, nearly as tall as him. And he had a feeling that her cat was going to be big as well. He was going to have to ask Emma. When she did nothing more than stare at him, Mason had a sudden thought. She was terrified. “What will you have me do? Be tied to a post while you beat me? I won’t take it again. Or do you plan to put me in a cell, lock me away for another five years? If that’s your plan, then I’d prefer that you fight me and kill me.” Mason was so shocked by her words that he did not do or say anything. “I won’t be treated that way again. Do you hear me? I’m not going to live if you do that.” When she leapt at him, it was all he could do to keep her from hurting him. When he flipped her to her back and held her down with his weight, he thought for sure she was going to shift. He stopped her with a single command. And when she stilled, he watched her. “You thought that if you attacked me, I’d kill you. Was that your grand plan? To have me kill you so that whatever kind of thoughts are going on in your head wouldn’t happen?” She only stared up at him. “Answer me, damn it. I’ve had a shitty morning so far, and you’re so not helping it.” Nothing. Not a single word passed her lips, and he could see what it was costing her. When he commanded her again, just to see how far he could push her, she passed out, and Mason felt that this was only the beginning of the feud between them. For some reason, he was looking forward to it. Calling to the guard to have her taken to his home, he hoped to Christ he wasn’t making the biggest mistake of his life. Or that of his family if she decided to take some of her anger out on them. But he had a feeling that once tamed, she was going to be a hell of an ally.