Ax trekked the sixty miles from the Canadian border to his former pack’s campgrounds trying to empty his mind. The deep meditation technique usually worked, but today his mind was too distracted by a gnawing hunger he couldn’t seem to satiate no matter how much or how often he ate.
The scent of the blooming forest surrounded Ax, and vivid memories assaulted him. To him, it was like living the dreaded past again and again.
By the time he reached the outskirts of the pack grounds, adrenaline ran wild in Ax’s veins, and his wolf pawed inside his mind, eager for a good fight.
And then there was the matter of his empty stomach, even though he consumed his last meal only a few hours ago. Fortunately, the reserve teemed with wildlife, and a herd of deer called Ax’s wolf like a siren. He stripped and gracefully shifted, letting his wolf free to provide food for him. The hunt was on the moment the wolf’s paws hit the compact dirt of the forest. An hour later, his belly was filled with a big deer that had stopped to drink from a brook. His wolf didn’t always eat an entire animal—especially one this large—but Ax’s edginess had clearly affected the wolf as well, and Ax was a nervous eater if there ever was one.
After licking his fur clean from the blood, his wolf drank from the brook before loping back to the beginning of the trail where Ax’s clothes lay strewn on the mossy ground. Ax was surprised to feel light when the meal his wolf just devoured should have filled him for several days. Coming back to the pack screwed him up, and he hated the feeling, as if he weren’t in control when control meant everything to him.
Grinding his teeth, he passed his hand over his scruffy beard and trudged forward, toward the camp. His scent announced his presence better and faster than any intercom would have.
Not even a minute passed after he stepped inside Seattle’s Wolf Pack Ranch than a gangly youth ambled toward the gate to check on the intruder. Rifle tucked under one arm, the boy studied Ax as he approached him.
Squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun, Ax called, “Is that you, Alejandro?”
The boy’s lips curved up in a bright smile. “Ax!” He hurried to close the gap between them. “You came—”
“Off course I did,” Ax responded by rote.
Every single member of his former pack knew that Axelrod McKenzie would have rather hunted killer orcas barehanded than come back to the ranch.
“Kendall has been waiting for you—”
“And we don’t want to make Ken wait,” Ax said.
Alejandro flinched at his remark. Nobody called Kendall, the new alpha and Ax’s brother, with a doll name. Flustered, he opened and closed his mouth.
Again, the silence of the unspoken words. It had always been that way with Ax. Ever since he’d been slightly younger than the youth in front of him, Ax knew he made people uncomfortable. A long time ago, he cared enough about what people thought of him and tried to be pleasant. It hadn’t lasted more than a week, maybe ten days all in all. Now, he didn’t care one way or the other. He had left civilization behind and sought refuge in the wilderness of Alaska to escape the everyday drudge of pack life.
“Let’s go.” Ax ruffled Alejandro’s unruly blond mane.
The boy chatted the entire way from the gate to the camp proper, the whole forty-five minutes of the jog. Ax tuned Alejandro out after the first two or three minutes he kept blathering about renegade attacks and impending betrothals. It was the same old shit Ax had left behind without looking back once.
Seattle’s Wolf Pack Ranch was a large compound, nestled between two high ridges, and hidden from the rest of the world by its geographical position. Carlton McKenzie’s grandfather bought the land when Washington state was a province. The deal set the industrious man back a few years, but it proved a smart decision. As an alpha, he established the largest and most successful pack in the entire Pacific Northwest, setting the example for the rest of the packs in North America. His son Ira was as successful as his father, and his grandson, Sean, added to the property another one thousand acres and more years of prosperity and peace by having the land declared a natural reserve for wolves.
Now, Sean was dead, and Kendall would be the new alpha. Deep inside, Ax didn’t envy his brother. The burden that was about to fall on Kendall’s shoulders was enormous. Had Ax ever wanted that burden? Like everything else concerning Ax’s life, it truly didn’t matter what he thought. His place in the pack was and had always been precarious.
At the edge of the small city that lay at the very center of the reserve—a place only a handful of mortals ever visited—Alejandro lingered as if he wanted to give Ax a moment to regroup his thoughts. Or maybe, the youth hoped Ax would be calm enough when he met his brother.
Ax smiled at the boy. “Let’s get this over with.”
Alejandro gulped but nodded and trudged his feet toward the pack hall, raising dust in his wake. At the double-paneled door with the silhouettes of wolf heads carved into the darkened cedar wood, the boy turned toward Ax.
Readying himself for the onslaught of scents, Ax nodded and pressed his hand against the panel before Alejandro could open the door.
The place was packed. Ax had expected the crowd, but was still overwhelmed by the sea of shifters filling the entire first floor of the hall. Not only had the neighboring packs converged to Seattle to honor the life of Sean McKenzie, the unmistakable scents of were-bears, coyotes, pumas, and even lions wafted toward Ax’s sensitive nose.
His nostrils flared, and his wolf paced back and forth in his mind, still hungry and overly nervous.
“Ax, your fist is always faster than your mouth,” Sean once said.
On that particular occasion, Ax broke Kendall’s nose. He was about thirteen, and his annoying little brother twelve. As always, Ken fought back, cracking Ax’s jaw. In all fairness, though, Ax started it. He couldn’t remember what prompted that fight, but he was sure that his brother deserved it.
And here he was, the handsome Ken, emerging from the crowd that opened for him.
Were they all gathered to witness the final showdown between the golden boy and the black sheep? If that was the reason so many people had come to Sean’s burial, they would be disappointed. Ax was done with pack’s politics.
“Brother—” Ken opened his arms, inviting Ax to a hug he refused.
Standing at a safe distance from his brother, Ax managed to growl, “Kendall,” instead of Ken. He briefly thought he deserved some karma points for not humiliating his brother in front of everyone else. He also realized that he wouldn’t win the brother-of-the-year award for being a decent wolf.
“Dad waited until the very end for you—” Kendall said.
Ax’s repressed temper made an ugly appearance. “Don’t start or I’ll leave.” His hands fisted of their own volition, and more than one set of eyes zeroed on them.
Kendall’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Ax’s ready fists. “Ax—” His warning was low.
“I’ll behave.” Ax relaxed his hands against his legs and focused on the rough pattern of the jean fabric under his fingers. Sean had taught him several techniques to stave off his aggression. Sometimes they worked better than others. Fortunately, this time, they did.
“Come.” Kendall opened his arm to the side, motioning for Ax to follow him to the center of the room.
Again, the crowd parted, letting them through. An oppressive silence permeated the place, thick and warm, scented with anticipation and grief.
Then Ax saw the casket surrounded by flowers. His heart stopped.
The whole trip from Yakutat, his emotions ran the entire gamut of feelings. Now, at the sight of Sean’s body, resting on a blanket of evergreens and white lilies, Ax felt numb.
The alpha was dead.
His father was dead.
All the rage that had been keeping him company for as long as he could remember was gone. In its place, a void so deep Ax wished he could feel something again. Because pain and blind anger were preferable to the black hole devouring him from the inside.