I clutched my chest as I fell to my knees, unable to stop the agony that consumed me. My heart felt like it was being ripped from my chest. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes clenched shut as I tried to figure out what was happening to me. My best friend Augie was yelling my name, but I couldn’t talk. If I opened my mouth, I feared all that would come out would be screams.
After what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, I opened my eyes to find Augie kneeling next to me with his face inches from mine.
“Taya? What happened?” he asked, voice filled with grave concern.
I opened my mouth to respond, but no sound came out. I closed my eyes again, this time of my own accord, and took a shaky breath. Once I was in better control of my emotions, I opened my eyes. “I have no idea. Help me up before someone sees.”
He stood back up, and I took his outstretched hand. I was consumed by the tremors rocking my body as I put weight on my legs and dusted myself off, glancing around to see if anyone else saw. I didn’t need anyone running to tell my father. I’d be on house arrest until the pack doctor had run every possible test on me. My dad was nothing if not overprotective.
The pain eased, but it didn’t entirely go away. I rubbed my chest, trying to think of what could cause that kind of pain so suddenly, yet disappear almost as quickly, but nothing came to mind. I’d been under some stress lately, though I didn’t think it was enough to cause that kind of reaction, especially since nothing had triggered it. We’d been heading to the target practice area on our property. My happy place. If anything, I’d been feeling pretty damn good right before that.
“What can I do?” Augie asked.
“Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen and continue to the range,” I said. “I’ll check in with the pack doctor when we’re done. Promise.”
He eyed me curiously but didn’t argue. “If anything remotely close to that happens again, we go straight to the doc. I mean it.”
I nodded and smiled at his concern. “Of course.”
I picked up my gun case from the ground, and we continued. Augie had been my best friend since the age of four, but we were total opposites. He was a lover, not a fighter, choosing to have book smarts over street smarts even though he was capable of holding his own in a fight. He likely wouldn’t even shoot with me, but he loved me enough to keep me company. My other best friend and brother Cord was busy learning all there was to know about being an alpha, as usual.
After I set up my targets, I spent a good thirty minutes sending rounds down the range. Once I was done with that, Augie helped me set up one explosive target. Blowing stuff up was the best way to relieve some stress. Hopefully, it would ease the last of the ache still lingering in my chest.
Deep breath, in and out. With both eyes open, I stared down the scope of my long-range rifle toward my mark. This was my favorite training activity, one that I thrived in. Once my aim was on point, I pulled the trigger, quick and steady, watching as the bullet sailed down the range and hit the target. Not even a second later, the boom of exploding tannerite was like music to my ears.
“Nice shot, Taya!” Augie called out from behind me as I removed my earplugs. I glanced back at him and grinned at his goofy smile.
“Thanks. You ready for a turn?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“Nah, let’s head back. We’ve been gone a while and should probably check in with your dad before he sends someone looking for you.”
I nodded. He was right. My twin brother Cord had all the freedom in the world when he wasn’t training to fulfill his role as future alpha. I, on the other hand, had zero freedom, no matter how often I proved I could take care of myself.
It had become increasingly worse as we got older, and I was beginning to tire of it. I loved my dad and brother, but they could only push me so far with their overprotectiveness before I was bound to snap.
I was supposed to be a boy. There had never been a set of boy/girl twins in my dad’s lineage before; yet, here I was. All female and proud of it.
Since Cord had been born first, he was first in line to replace our dad as alpha, though I had been able to attend the same trainings as Cord. It was my birthright in case something happened to him, but the primary focus had always been on him.
I didn’t mind it too much. Cord had the caring and thoughtful personality needed to lead a pack. He had the drive to take care of others. I loved my pack, but the responsibility was a lot. I enjoyed sneaking off like I’d done today with Augie and rarely felt guilty.
Typically, it took decades for a shifter to conceive. Even then the probability of the mother carrying to term was slim. Multiples were often common, but usually of the same gender, especially when an alpha was the father. I was the rare exception.
There was still a risk of mortality during delivery. Shifters healed quickly, but blood loss wasn’t something we could survive.
Since my mother carried twins, my dad had done everything he could to make sure she survived along with us. He knew the risk rose with multiples and had kept doctors present around the clock leading up to our due date, but the blood loss in her afterbirth had been too great, and we lost her.
Shaking off the thought, I began putting my rifle back in the case, along with the leftover ammo and protective gear. Before we made it down range to clean up our target mess, my dad’s beta Davis arrived.
“Taya,” he said in a disapproving tone. Not only did I have a domineering father, but Davis stepped in whenever necessary. I loved him like family, but sometimes I wanted to kick him in his junk as well.
I rolled my eyes. “Target practice, Davis. I wasn’t doing anything illegal, and I’m still within the property lines. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
Augie coughed to cover his laughter and Davis’s face twisted in irritation. “I’m not here about your recreational activities. Your father needs to see you.”
Of course, he did. I adored my father. He had been an incredible parent, acting as both dad and mom to Cord and me while growing up, but his alpha duties always came first. Based on Davis’s manner, something had happened within the pack, and he probably wanted to tighten his invisible reign on me even more.
“We’ll finish cleaning up and be right there,” I said.
Davis shook his head. “You need to come now.”
Augie tugged on my arm. “Come on. I’ll come back later and deal with this stuff. Your dad normally isn’t this insistent.”
I nodded, agreeing with him. I grabbed my rifle case and left everything else behind. I had momentarily forgotten about the massive pain I’d had in my chest earlier, but the lingering ache wasn’t letting up. I idly wondered if it had anything to do with the reason why Dad needed to see me. Maybe someone did see me drop to the ground and he wanted to check on me.
We followed Davis back to the pack house and the closer we got, the more my unease grew. Augie took my hand in his, giving me a tight squeeze. I glanced up at him and couldn’t help the smile that formed on my face.
Augie was tall, dark, and dorky. He was also the best friend a girl could have. I loved everything about him. He was broad in the shoulders and of average height in our shifter community at six feet tall. His eyes were a soft blue and his hair a messy, tawny brown. When he grinned at the ladies, they practically fell at his feet, but he was an old soul and kept his distance from most of the females around here. He liked to joke that he was waiting for his one true love. He needed to read fewer romance novels.
I didn’t get along with most of the females in our pack. As I got older, I realized some of them had befriended me in an obnoxious attempt to get closer to my brother. They were ladder-climbing assholes, and I wanted nothing to do with them. Augie and Cord were the only friends I needed in my life. Sure, I dated. Shifters craved touch, and I had to get it from somewhere on occasion. Though, I preferred not to date any wolf more than once and liked them to come from outside our pack. I wasn’t ready for commitment or a mate.
“Your father is in his office,” Davis said, interrupting my internal thoughts about my interesting dating life.
“Do you want me to wait out here?” Augie asked, but before I could answer, Davis did.
“You should go with her, Augie.”
I eyed Davis carefully, trying to ferret out any information, but his voice was monotone and his expression blank. He was a damn good beta, even if he annoyed me most of the time.
I set my rifle case on the table nearest to us and tugged on Augie’s hand, picking up my pace so we could get to my dad as quickly as possible. I needed to know what was going on now.
Our pack resided in Raven Point, an isolated stretch of land in Southeastern Oregon. My grandfather had chosen the location when he was alpha over a century ago. When he passed away about forty years ago, my dad decided to stay.
The main pack house looked like an old plantation home from the South. It was all white with thick pillars out front. An extensive deck wrapped around the front, with a smaller one above it on the second story. There were ten bedrooms, three offices, a basement, and much more.
My dad’s office was on the first floor and closest to the door. He liked it being there. He said it made him more accessible to the pack, but I liked to joke that it made him lazy. When we arrived at the oversized cherry wood door, I didn’t bother knocking.
When we walked in, my gaze immediately landed on my father’s heartbroken face, causing me to falter. My breath hitched, and my body froze momentarily. I glanced around the room, surprised not to see Cord here already.
Augie whispered in my ear. “Whatever it is, we’ll handle it together.”
I attempted to smile at him, but it probably came out as more of a grimace as I walked closer to my dad. “What happened?”
“Why don’t you two sit?” My dad gestured to the chairs in front of his oak desk.
“I’d rather not,” I snapped. The irritation of my day having gone to crap was causing me to be even more abrupt than I meant to be.
My dad was the best alpha out of the five main territories in the United States. He was chief of the alpha council. Things rarely shook him. He had seen so much in his time as pack leader. He was a survivor. Whatever had his golden eyes shimmering was big, and I had a feeling I wouldn’t be in here long enough to sit.
“Gerald,” Augie cut in, his voice full of kindness instead of the snappiness I had used. “What’s going on?”
My dad ran his hands through his short salt-and-pepper-colored hair. Once upon a time, it had been a midnight black. His golden-brown eyes implored me to catch on, so he wouldn’t have to say the words, and suddenly, his six-and-a-half-foot-tall frame seemed so frail to me.
Finally, everything clicked. The pain I had felt. The hollowness within me, as if something was missing. The urgency from Davis. The tears in my father’s eyes. The fact that my twin was missing from the room.
“No.” I yanked my hand from Augie’s as I stomped the rest of the way to the desk, slamming my hands down. “Where. Is. Cord?”
Each word was sharply spoken. A deeper part of my heart already knew the answer but was refusing to acknowledge it, just like it had been for the last couple hours. Somehow, I managed to keep my emotions in check, but how long that would last, depended on my father’s next words.
“I’m sorry, Taya. They found his body right outside the property lines about an hour ago. I sent my best trackers to follow the trail of whoever did this, but it went cold outside of Idaho. My men are still out there hunting, but there’s not much to go on unless they pick up the scent again. All of the other packs have been alerted to expect our wolves to be passing through.”
I howled out in pain as Augie’s strong arms wound around me. Not my brother. My twin. My closest confidant. He couldn’t be gone.
I jerked out of Augie’s embrace and ran from the room, heading straight for the front door as I heard my dad tell Augie to give me some time. The door was closed, so I yanked it open, enjoying the thud it made against the wall, needing to let out at least a miniscule amount of the aggression I felt.
As soon as my feet touched grass, I let the shift take over. My clothes shredded, flying in a million directions. I took pleasure in the phasing process as all of my bones broke and shifted to my wolf form. Silver fur sprouted along my golden skin and my long auburn hair was no longer visible. Typically, I let the shift come slower, and it wasn’t painful, but the quick agonizing shift matched the pain within my heart.
My vision became precise, and I was on four legs before I knew it. I let loose a deep, distressing howl and several more from our pack members did the same. Everyone would mourn the loss of Cord, but none like me. Though we couldn’t communicate verbally while in wolf form, pack mates could feel each other’s emotions, so I knew those currently shifted would all be hurting with me. The emptiness I’d been assaulted with earlier would never be filled. I should have known something was wrong when the previous agony plagued me. I should have done something sooner.
As my wolf’s mind rose to the surface, I gladly let her take over. Her thoughts were more black-and-white than mine. She could handle the heartache better than I would.
I needed my wolf. We needed each other, because the hurt was not just mine. It was ours. We were one.
As my paws pounded against the dense forest floor, I had one singular thought:
I would hunt down whoever dared to hurt my family, even if it was the last thing I did.