I sucked in as much air as I could. It didn’t matter though, the humidity was too high for me to get a clear breath. The air clung to my throat and lungs, becoming stuck before it could reach the parts of my body that needed it the most. Like my legs. They were burning.
I pressed two fingers to the shallow of my throat, counting my pulse out of habit more so than for any sort of real measurement. Taking my pulse after a run was more of a comfort thing than it was for health reasons. I wasn’t even sure how many times my heart was supposed to beat in one minute.
Stretching my hands over my head, I appraised the scene before me. I was standing at the edge of a large cliff that jutted out the side of Mt. Timbre and overlooked Blue Maple Valley. The mountain was wolf territory, the valley was a mixture. I tended to stay on the mountain.
It was only ten in the morning but the heat had already begun to peak. This summer had started off with a two week long heat wave that had most people laid out on their backs with a glass of lemonade perched dangerously on their chest.
I dragged my hand across my head and let out a long breath. The tingled pain in my throat and chest was starting to ebb as I stood there. I followed the lines of trees and hills and other mountains as they curved across the blue sky. Without clouds to block the sun, I had to hold my hand up and squint to follow the line of the river, which cut right through the heart of the valley.
I jogged often and sprinted more often than I jogged. I found exercise to be the only thing with the ability to keep my head clear. If I went too long without feeling the aching burn in my chest than that same feeling would sink into my mind and scramble everything up. It was better to run regularly than play catch-up.
The mountain I lived on provided a challenge in the ways of running. I appreciated this. Every morning I was leaping over brooks, dodging low slung branches, skirting around boulders and staying clear of pitfalls and sheer drops. Obstacles were another good way to keep the mind away from heavy topics.
I took a second with my eyes closed, breathing in the soupy air, allowing myself for one terrible moment to think of him. When my eyes opened the moment had passed and all thoughts had fled from my brain with only one remaining; home.
I turned my back on the valley and started at a steady speed, not picking up the pace until my legs felt warmed up. I sprinted until I came up to the outskirts of my property, slowing to a walk as I entered the backyard.
My mother was kneeling over her small garden, her hands and face covered in long smears of dirt. She perked up when I broke the tree line, turning to smile. Wrinkles gathered at the corners of her eyes as she wandered over to me, tucking her gloves into the front pocket of her overalls.
“Where did you run to, Caroline?”
I shrugged, kissing her cheek. “The usual spot.”
My mother grasped my elbow. “Libby and Mick stopped by.” It always felt like dry ice was sneaking its way through my veins when I heard this news. My eyes lingered on the back of my house for a moment before I forced myself to smile.
“Are they inside?”
My mother was the only one who ever saw through me. “Oh, Caroline. You don’t have to, you can leave. Mick will understand, you know he understands.” He didn’t.
I bit down on the back of my tongue. “Mom, stop fussing. I’m fine.” Just to prove it to her, I moved towards the back porch. Jumping up with as much enthusiasm as I could fake before I yanked the back screen open and let it fall shut behind me.
I smelt them almost instantly. Mated pairs had a distinct scent. The smell of two combined to make one, with the male’s smell the dominant portion. Libby and Mick were the odd combination of lilac and mint.
I gripped the back of the sofa for a long moment before I straightened out and drifted towards the kitchen. I heard all their voices but felt their laughs like blows to my gut. I loved my brother but watching him with his mate nearly killed me.
“Caroline!” Mick boomed, swooping forward to wrap me in a hug. Over his shoulder I spotted Libby. She met my eyes for a brief moment before looking downwards and turning her shoulder away. I felt heat rise in the pit of my stomach. I wished I was strong enough to endure her presence but she was a constant reminder of what I didn’t have. I hated myself for hating her.
I turned to Mick, arranging my face with the precise look of happiness. It was a feeling I knew how to feign but had forgotten how to feel. “Micky,” I cooed, “it’s been so long! How are you?” It had been so long because I had refused to leave my room last time he visited. Mick had gotten the message I had never wanted to send.
If Mick’s thoughts ran the same course as mine, he didn’t show it. “We’ve been really good, Care, really good.” Somehow, I managed not to flinch. Mates had this way of speaking, it was almost always plural and it was definitely subconscious.
“That’s good,” I told him. I ignored the fact that it felt like someone was rotating a dagger between my ribs and smiled anyway.
I heard a snort from my left. “Good would mean I’d have some grandbabies.” My father was sitting at the countertop, a pleasant smile lifting his pleasant face. My father’s hair was completely silver and had been since he was a teenager, somehow, it made him look more handsome than worn.
Mick grinned. “We’re trying, dad.”
Libby’s face flushed red, darkening her blonde hair. “Mick,” she reprimanded.
Mick was exhilarated by the thought. “I can’t wait any longer to start a family, me and Lib have already started talking about names and everything.” I don’t know if it was the smile that never left his face or the way his dark eyes lightened that made me leave the room but I did.
“Oh shit,” I heard Mick whisper, “I always forget.” And he did. But that was Mick, his head was always full of himself. He wasn’t egotistical or shallow, it was just the way he was.
“You’re such an idiot, Mick,” Han swore. Han was my other brother, older than me but younger than Mick. I heard his footsteps before I felt his hand on my shoulder. Almost as soon as he touched me, I shook him off.
“I’m fine,” I told him, “I just wanted to get changed.”
“Mick’s such an asshole,” Han told me, eyes burning. The darkness of his eyes contrasted with the silver of his hair, he had inherited our father’s gene. “He just runs his big fucking mouth like no one is around to hear him.”
“It’s no big deal, Han, he was just excited.”
“Yeah but he knows he shouldn’t say those things around you,” Han challenged.
I raised an eyebrow. “And why not?”
“Because―” Han faltered. “Don’t make me, Caroline, he was my friend too.” Sometimes I felt as though my kneecaps had been stolen from my body. I struggled to stand.
“I’m fine,” I repeated, when I saw that he wasn’t buying my bullshit. I punched his arm. “Seriously, Hanna, I’m cool.”
Han scrunched up his nose. “Don’t call me, Hanna.”
Han glared at me for as long as he could manage to keep his smile off his face. He caved after a moment, shoulders picking up with laughter. After a moment, Han composed himself but the moment couldn’t be taken back.
I poked him in the stomach. “Now there can’t be any doubt over which one of us is more stoic. I take that crown.”
Han rolled his eyes. “You’ve been a grouch for a year, I’ve been working this angle since I was born.” The sound of footsteps put my response on hold. Both Han and I turned as Libby moved down the hall, shuffling towards us.
Libby hesitated when she met my eyes, coming to a full stop. “Uh, sorry, I just needed to use the bathroom.” She tucked her long blonde hair behind her ear, a self conscious gesture. I didn’t know much about my brother’s mate, I had never really made the effort to.
I didn’t say anything as Libby moved her way past us, towards the small bathroom at the end of the hall. Han let out a low whistle when the door clicked shut behind her. I turned to him and raised an eyebrow, inviting whatever comment he had conjured.
Han raised up his hands. “You could try smiling at the girl.”
I rolled my eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with Libby.”
“Is that why you avoid her like she’s an infectious disease?” Han challenged. I didn’t answer. Han sighed and placed his hands on his hips. “I know it’s hard for you to see her but think about our lives, mates are always going to be around. We’re not a pack of rogues. We’re a pack built on the foundation of mated couples. You’re going to have to get over it sometime, Caroline.”
I took a rapid step towards Han and then froze, my upper lip curling. “Don’t go there, Han.”
My brother didn’t back down from my challenge. “It’s been over a year since the fire, Caroline. We’ve all moved on, it’s time you did too.”
“Moved on?” I repeated, shrill. “We didn’t move on. We moved away. We’re not even located inside the pack’s territory anymore. Mom and dad have completely shied away from pack life since Alpha Vex died!”
Han rolled his eyes. “At least they try, Caroline! You run away from your feelings.”
I crossed my arms defensively. “So do you, Han.”
Han’s dark eyes narrowed. “That’s not true, Caroline. I feel things. I let his death hurt me. I’m just trying to recover now. I don’t even think I saw you cry for him. You didn’t even cry after your own mate died―”
I reached out and slapped hand across the face. The hollow sound hung between us as he clutched his stinging face and I cradled my traitorous hand. After a moment Han rolled his tongue along the inside of his cheek and smiled grimly at me.
My entire face flushed with colour and then drained of all feeling. I pushed my way past my brother, catching his shoulder with my own. He grabbed my wrist but I yanked myself free, sending him a pointed glare before disappearing into my room.
When the door was closed I slid down it, hitting the floor with a soft thud and then pulling my knees into my chest. I closed my eyes, coaxing myself over and over to keep it out. Once you allowed yourself to feel one thing you could never shut the gates again and then you were overrun. I wasn’t going to let wayward emotions hijack my body. I couldn’t.
I came out of my room hours later to join my family at the dinner table. I took my seat opposite Han but made sure my eyes stayed away from his vicinity. Mick and Libby held hands while they ate, Libby’s thumb moving in slow circles along my brother’s palm.
My father chatted happily, unaware that anything was amiss or too stubborn to let the tension in the room ruin his meal. My mother’s eyes wandered to me more than few times over the course of the evening, mouth tensing when I met her gaze.
“The dinner is really good, Mom,” Mick complimented, “I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve eaten this well.”
Libby slapped his hand playfully. “I cook for you almost every night.”
Mick leaned over and pecked the side of Libby’s mouth. “You try, hun.” Libby’s laugh forced my gaze downwards. Their happiness broke something in me and it was all I could do to keep the glass shards from impaling my stomach.
“Your baking is wonderful, Libby!” my father exclaimed, “I must confess I snuck one of your muffins in before dinner, they were too lovely to resist!”
Libby blushed, making her blonde hair paler. “You’re too kind.” I gripped my fork, hard.
Mick put down his cutlery and leaned closer, making a show of grabbing our attention. “I have some great news, everyone!” He waited until he met all of our eyes before divulging. “The true Alpha is coming back!”
My mother was the first to react. “Tyler Trip? Back on Mt. Timbre?”
My brother nodded. “He’s back from his tour and ready to reclaim the pack.”
“About time,” my father grunted, “his Beta’s been in power far too long. This pack could do with a strong Alpha.”
Han rolled his eyes. “We have no idea what kind of Alpha he is, dad. He’s never actually held the title.”
My mother worried over her bottom lip. “How do you know he’s back, dear?”
“I was talking to his third, Rowan, there’s a ceremony taking place tomorrow. Everyone has to attend,” Mick said. I watched my father’s skin turn grayish. He had been close with the last Alpha, Vex. After his death, my father had tried to stay away from pack life.
Frown lines surfaced on my mother’s face. “We’ll have to wear our best clothes tomorrow. Caroline dear, do you still have that blue dress?”
I looked up, startled to be addressed. It was the first time anyone had spoken to me since Han and I fought that morning. I swallowed my mouthful of potatoes before answering. “It might be too small.”
My mother sighed, “Can you try to squeeze?” I met Han’s eyes briefly before nodding.
Libby timidly interrupted, “I have a dress that will fit you if the blue one doesn’t, Caroline, perhaps you could try it on after dinner?” I wished I could have thanked her or smiled but when I watched my brother beam at her, it was all I could do to meet her gaze.
My mother picked up my slack. “That’s so sweet of you, Libby.”
“Well I’m not getting dressed up for some half assed Alpha that abandoned his pack to fight in a war that was practically over,” Han mumbled.
My father nearly lost his head. “It was an honourable decision! If I had been fit enough I would’ve happily joined that cause! Those humans cost us everything, everything! You will dress up and you will show your respect!”
Han looked like he wanted to jump out of his seat. “He left an injured pack to the control of a Beta! What respect should I give him?”
This time, my father actually did jump out of his seat. “He went to avenge our previous Alpha, to make sure no pack faced the same devastation we endured!”
My mother looked strung out. “Please, Rick, just take a seat.” Neither of them listened to her.
Han stood, face flushed under his mop of silver hair. “What good does vengeance do when his pack was suffering, cut in half, and without a home or leader? As far as I’m concerned, Tyler Trip is a coward.”
“That’s enough,” Mick rumbled, “Trip is my friend.”
“Makes sense why you two get along,” Han spat. Mick stood but said nothing. All three of the men stared at one another, tension palpable. After a few terse moments, Han kicked out his chair and left the room.
My mother took a long sip of water and then smiled at Libby. “Dear, will you get the muffins?”
I woke up to the sound of howling. Feverish from my dream, I jerked my blankets off of me and dressed quickly, lacing up my sneakers in the dark and grabbing a light jacket before I headed out the back door.
The howling stopped every few moments to resume in another. I jogged, gradually moving closer to the sound. The sky was just starting to lighten as I reached the peak I usually ran to, just out of the Timbre Pack’s territory.
I took a few moments to catch my breath and then stretched my arms over my head, enjoying the familiar sting and ache in my muscles. The howling started up again, close enough to raise the hairs on my arms and entice my own wolf into stirring.
I moved through the trees, eyes wide as I spotted a few wolves with their heads thrown back in song. I watched their ears twitched as they howled, adjusting the notes they sang as the other wolves miles away changed their tunes.
I moved to my left and looked up the mountain, spotting wolves spread out sporadically along the path that lead into the heart of Timbre territory. After a few moments of watching, it became obvious what they were doing. They were welcoming their Alpha home.
The next round of howls was so strong it almost evoked a shift from me. I buckled over, grasping onto my human form as the sound of footsteps approached. A moment later, I saw them.
The first wolf was one I recognized. Pale yellow wolf with only the slightest touches of brown, intense hazel eyes and heavy paws. This was Ryan Steller, acting Alpha wolf but Beta to Tyler Trip.
Just behind Ryan was a wolf of medium build with quick eyes and shaggy brown fur which darkened to black around his muzzle and paws. If I had to guess, I would say that wolf was Rowan Moss, third in command.
Ryan and Rowan were acting as the private escorts for the last wolf who could only be Tyler Trip, the true Alpha who had been missing in action since the last Alpha died. Looking at him, it was obvious why he was the alpha.
The wolf was huge, hulking muscles supported his head and shoulders, his flanks were elegantly carved and powerful. He was covered in light brown fur with streaks of white and auburn. His eyes were focused, true, and trustworthy. Tyler Trip was everything an Alpha was supposed to be.
For one painfully long moment, Tyler Trip met my eyes. His were green and haunting honest. It didn’t matter that it was only a passing glance, I felt as though I had been turned inside out. And then he was gone.
The howling ceased once the wolves had moved on and the wolves that had been stationed in this area began to wander up the side of the mountain, following loosely behind their Alpha. A minute later, more howling echoed downwards from up the mountain side.
By the time I got back to my house, the entire family was in a flurry of activity. My mother spotted me in the front hall as she was sticking an earring into her ear. She yelped when she saw me, rushing forward to grab my arm.
“Where have you been, Caroline? We’re going to be late!”
I took a shower as quickly as I could and shoved myself into my blue dress, cursing myself for not taking Libby’s offer as I struggled to zip the dress all the way up. After five minutes of sucking in and hopping around, I got the zipper up and was jamming my feet in sneakers.
My mother tied my father’s tie and appraised me from the corner of her eye, scowling. “Couldn’t you have dried your hair, Caroline? It’s a mess of sopping wet curls!” I touched my hair and shrugged. We didn’t have the time. The heat would dry it in no time anyway.
Libby came out of my brother’s room in a beautiful white summer dress that made her soft skin glow enticingly. Her blonde hair was elegantly braided, strands of gold brown and pale blonde woven together in a bohemian way. She looked beautiful.
I caught sight of my freckled skin and pale legs and wished I could evaporate. Han flicked my shoulder from behind me, snapping me from my Libby induced trance. Han looked handsome in black, he always did.
“Let’s go, loser,” he encouraged, “don’t want to miss the incredibly late and not so great Alpha.”
My father glared at Han from the doorway of his bedroom. “Watch it, Han.” My mother pulled on his tie, trying to get her husband in check.
Mick left his room as he was dragging a brush through his red hair, a tie flopping loosely on his chest. He smiled at me when he spotted me, appraising my dress. The compliment only made me feel more insecure.
“Let’s go, everyone!” My mother rushed, herding us towards the car like sheep. We almost never used the old SUV parked out back but it wasn’t sensible to get dressed up and then shift.
We all piled into the stifling hot car, growing more agitated the longer it took for my father to get it started. It didn’t matter that it was only ten in the morning, the heat was unbearable and the collected six bodies present didn’t help.
“I’m going to arrive deep fried,” Han complained.
Mick’s face was blotchy from the heat and a bead of sweat was rolling down his temple. He smiled regardless of this, excited for the return of his friend. “I don’t even feel the heat,” he said, “yesterday was hotter.” It wasn’t.
The car rumbled to life and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Until we realised the air conditioner wasn’t working. The old car didn’t exactly go fast enough to pick up a solid breeze so we sweltered the entire ride up the mountain.
The altitude cut the humidity but the sun still pelted down on our backs as we parked the car and assembled near the trunk. All around people were heading towards the Alpha’s residence, excitement and sweet anticipation mixing together in the air.
As we walked, my father chatted with a few older members he hadn’t seen lately as my mother did the same with the elder woman. Mick found a group of his friends while Libby remained content at his side.
Han bumped my shoulder as we walked, just as uncomfortable as I was. I had only been in the new Timbre Territory a handful of times. Half of the scents present were unfamiliar to me.
“I’m sorry about last night,” Han mumbled, “I was way out of line.”
I peaked up at my brother. “I was the one out of line. I shouldn’t have hit you. That was wrong.”
“It was,” Han agreed. After a moment, we both laughed. As soon as the moment was over my face slipped back into its stoic mask. I challenged any wolf who met my eyes and avoided any potential connection. Han did the same so we stuck together.
After a few more minutes of walking the Alpha’s house came into view. It was a grand building, completely new and modern. No one had lived in it yet, not since it had been built. The acting Alpha, Ryan Steller, hadn’t been allowed.
I looked up at the house, watching as the curtain twitched and a face appeared. The curtain fell back into place too quickly for me to really see the person. I let my eyes fall downwards to the front porch which was acting as a makeshift stage. Standing in front of the grand stairs was Ryan Steller.
“Welcome Timbre Pack! Thank you all for coming! Today, it is my great honour to welcome back not only my friend, but the true Alpha of this land, this pack, and legacy that comes with each. After serving in the Feral War, Alpha Trip has returned to us, ready to assume his role as leader.”
Beside Ryan, the third in command, Rowan Moss beamed. Rowan couldn’t be any older than myself. He was tall and adequately built with thick brown hair that hung in waves and big blue eyes that made him too sweet looking to ever be intimidating.
“It has been an honour and a privilege to have been able to serve you all as acting Alpha. I hope my service was adequate. I now take my humble leave as Beta to the Timbre Pack and faithful servant of our new Alpha.”
The wolves gathered clapped or howled or did both. Han nudged me and then leaned down in my ear, whispering, “bullshit.” The crowd was silent as the front door opened and a man stepped out onto the porch.
He was tall, towering at six foot three. His jaw was square and roguishly covered in stubble. His hair was relatively short, raised messily in the front and a crisp brown. His eyes were beautiful, green as the grass underfoot and reliable.
Alpha Tyler Trip.