Sedona Sin by Lisa Kessler
Danger tainted the scent of the cold winter wind as it howled across the red rocks. Since being bitten and becoming a werewolf, I’d learned that emotions carried unique scents, and malice stung my nostrils like sulfur and wasabi. Something wasn’t right. I took another deep breath: rabbit, coyote, white-tailed deer. Then I isolated it.
My last hiking tour group from Wild Sedona Tours was gone, and shadows stretched across the Sedona Valley. Usually the massive red rock mountains were my sanctuary, but the jaguar shifters who kept encroaching on our territory were making peace harder to come by. Ever since a few of us had joined forces with the Reno Pack to take down the Nero Organization, the rogue jaguar assassins seemed fixated on revenge. We were the weakest target, the soft underbelly of the secret shifter world, perfect for them to sink their claws into.
I thought of our group as a pack, the Sedona Pack, but the sad reality was that since we broke free from our last Alpha, we were sorely lacking a leader. Luke Reynolds, from the Reno Pack, had given us a glimpse of the power of true loyalty, and I hungered for that unity and strength. But many of us weren’t born into this shifter world, and we weren’t here by choice. We’d been bitten and changed into werewolves against our will. We were never going to the be the family Luke had described up in Reno.
Naomi Rossi’s dark eyes were the first thing to flash through my mind when I caught the scent of danger. She was bitten like me, trapped in the Sedona Pack and a single mother now, after her “mate” was killed in the uprising against our former Alpha. He assigned the men and women of his Pack mates, but again, after meeting Luke from the Reno Pack, we learned that our inner wolf recognizes his true mate. No one assigns that kind of bond.
Naomi was also the strongest woman I’d ever met, and I cared for her much more than I should. There was too much danger to contemplate dating, and we’d become friends under the worst of circumstances. She didn’t need the complication of anything more.
Besides, in light of the constant threat of attack from the jaguar shifters just outside of Sedona, the best course of action right now was to somehow pull this pack together. It was the only chance we had to live in relative safety. If that day ever came, I could try to navigate my true feelings for her. For now, she was my closest friend. Nothing more. I pulled out my cell phone and called the ranch.
The sprawling desert oasis had belonged to Allen Caldwell, our previous Alpha, and through a trust, we were able to keep the property for our pack.
“Hello?” Naomi answered.
“Hey, it’s Asher. You better lock things down over there.” I scanned the gathering darkness for any movement. “We’ve got another jaguar shifter in town.”
Two nights until the new moon. Then the jaguar shifters would become deadly four-legged hunters with night vision far better than mine. I needed to get them out of our territory. Now.
“Again?” She cursed under her breath. “I’ll call the others and warn them.” She paused, her tone softening. “Be careful out there.”
“I will. Keep those little ones safe.” I ended the call and stuffed my cell back in my pocket, ignoring the warmth that spread through me at the sound of her voice. There were more pressing issues to focus on than the effect this woman had on me.
A year ago, lethal jaguar shifters never would have wandered into Sedona. Hell, less than two years ago, I hadn’t even known shifters existed. But I’d learned plenty since then. Traditionally, a werewolf pack was like a big family. The shifter gene was carried on the Y chromosome of the males and passed on to their twin sons. Every man born a werewolf had a twin brother.
But two years ago, the former Alpha of the Sedona Pack, Allen Caldwell, had been eager to grow the ranks rapidly, and he made his own fucked-up traditions. Allen had chosen strong men and women without family ties nearby, and then he’d assigned pack members to attack humans during the full moon. Each month, one or two humans were bitten—humans like me—and were changed into werewolves. Then he’d locked us up until he could be certain of our loyalty.
His mental torture and physical threats had broken most of the newly bitten wolves, but the strongest of us survived. I was never loyal to him, but I did my best to hide it, waiting for an opportunity to escape. But I couldn’t leave the others behind. So when Luke Reynolds came to town whispering about a rebellion, I had been the first in line.
Taking down Caldwell hadn’t been easy. We lost too many in the battle, but once the sick bastard was dead, we were free of his sadistic torture and fear. Free, but floundering.
Maybe the jaguars could sense it.
Even though werewolves were stronger and faster with heightened senses, humans still outnumbered us. We’d never survive if they ever went on the hunt for shifters. Now it was more important than ever for us to keep our secret. Humans could never discover we existed. But the jaguar shifters tended to forget this, slaughtering humans during the new moon and leaving the rest of us to try to explain the animal attacks.
Since Nero’s destruction, they also seemed hellbent on taking over Sedona. After we helped the Reno Pack’s Alpha, Adam Sloan, destroy the Nero Organization’s headquarters in Virginia, the jaguar assassins, bred and trained to kill, were determined to find a new home.
We were an easier target than the pack up in Reno. Adam was a strong Alpha, surrounded by loyal wolves and strong psychics. They were organized and had one another’s back no matter what. Attacking them wouldn’t go well for any jaguar shifter who ventured into their territory. But here in Sedona, we didn’t have an Alpha, and without a leader, we didn’t even have a pack, not really. We were just a group of people who survived psychological tortures and imprisonment at the hands of a tyrant. Shared pain and trauma didn’t make a pack.
There were days I contemplated leaving Sedona for good. The memories of the cruel acts Caldwell had forced me to do plagued me. I should have resisted, or fought back sooner, but I hadn’t. The shame haunted me, and the idea of a fresh start tempted me to run. I had a cousin out in California. No one would miss me.
But it wasn’t that simple. There were children now, two sets of twin boys, werewolves, who never asked to be born. And even though they weren’t my blood, I couldn’t turn my back on them without knowing they’d be safe. I lost my parents when I was only fifteen; I wasn’t going to let that happen to these boys too. My soul was tarnished enough already. Until the jaguar problem was solved, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I tracked the scent off the main road. At least the jaguar wasn’t headed for the more populated tourist areas. I parked my Jeep and grabbed my holster and gun from under the seat. Until I was bitten, weapons had never been on my radar, but they were a necessity now.
No one knew the trails and landscape of the Red Rocks better than I did. I grew up here. My mother had been a member of the Hopi tribe up on the Mesas, but we lived in Sedona with my father until a car accident took them both from me. My passion for hiking eventually led me to open my own touring business in Sedona. If a jaguar shifter was hiding out here, I’d find him.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. “Yeah?” I kept my voice hushed.
It was Ryker, the bartender at our Wolf Pack Bar. No human tourists would ever believe the bar was owned by real werewolves. Ryker was a bitten wolf, like me, and a mountain of a man. We both figured his size was what probably got him marked. He’d been a biker stopping in for a beer. The next night, he’d been bitten. He’d been here ever since.
“Naomi called me about the…trouble brewing, and I think it just wandered into the bar.”
I frowned, sniffing the air. Now that I was a werewolf, my sense of smell was my greatest asset in tracking, and there was no doubt a jaguar’s scent lingered out here. It was faint but headed in the opposite direction from the Wolf Pack Bar. “You sure?”
“I know a jaguar when I smell it.” Ryker paused. “Plus, we know this one.”
“Vance is back in town?” Vance was the only jaguar shifter I knew other than Sebastian Severino, but Sebastian married into the Reno Pack, so I doubted he was in Sedona tonight.
“Apparently,” Ryker replied. “I just wanted you to know so you didn’t have to go out hunting. You’ll freeze your ass off out there tonight.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes. Wait for me.”
I ended the call, scanning the shadows one last time. It wasn’t a coincidence that the jaguars kept crossing into our territory. It was as if they were testing us. And if we didn’t get organized soon, the tests could quickly escalate into a war we weren’t capable of winning.
The jaguar’s scenthit me the second I walked into the Wolf Pack Bar, but this was a cat I recognized. Vance. He was one of Nero’s best assassins and talked as though he just came in from the Outback, but when we took down the Nero Organization, Vance had fought at our side. He’d been willing to give his life for freedom from being a hired killer for Nero, but unlike me, somehow Vance had left the sins of his past behind him. Mine stared at me every time I looked in the mirror.
Vance grinned, got up from his stool at the bar, and met me halfway across the bar. We clasped forearms in a traditional pack greeting, the only tradition we still had in Sedona.
“How you been, Asher?” His thick Australian accent made me smile.
I shrugged. “I’m all right. When did you get back in town?”
“Today.” He lowered his voice. “Sebastian asked me to check something out for him in Flagstaff. Thought I’d swing down your way and see how the wolves are doing.”
“We’d be better if we could keep the…cats out of town.” The Wolf Pack Bar was in the center of the tourist area of Sedona, and humans came and went, drinking beer and buying souvenir T-shirts. There were a couple humans at the bar right now, so I kept things vague. “Can we talk in back?”
Vance nodded. “Lead the way.”
I walked him past the bar, glancing at Ryker as we passed by. “This wasn’t the cat I warned Naomi about.”
“You sure?” Ryker was built like Juggernaut from the X-Men comics; made him a formidable werewolf. Luckily, he had a good heart. I’d never witnessed him use his size as a weapon against anyone who didn’t have it coming.
I nodded without stopping. “Stay alert.”
Ever since we overthrew Allen Caldwell, Ryker had settled into the bartending job at the Wolf Pack Bar. And a new wolf from Kentucky had joined the crew, too. Shane’s pack had been massacred by Nero jaguar shifters. Another reason I couldn’t leave town—I didn’t want to see what had happened in Kentucky be repeated here in Sedona.
Shane helped out in the bar for now while he looked for work in town. His mate, Piper, was a human veterinarian. At least for now. They were planning their wedding with the honeymoon timed during a full moon. If they ever wanted to start a family, Piper needed to be a shifter, too. In healthy wolf packs, the women had a choice as to whether they wanted to be changed or not. The bite became an intimate union, a private vow for the couple. Nothing like the bite so many females in Sedona had experienced.
I moved into the back office, allowing Vance to follow me inside before closing the door behind us. I faced him, crossing my arms. “Any chance Sebastian sent you here tracking another Nero defector?”
We were the same size physically, but our similarities ended there. My long black hair and dark eyes were in stark contrast to his shorter, disheveled, light hair and bright hazel eyes. He was also quick to smile. Those weren’t so easy for me to come by these days.
“They were displaced. They never defected. That’s part of the problem, mate.” Vance shook his head. “We all played a part in destroying Nero, and now these jaguars have no home base. Sebastian and I are trying to make it right.”
“What’s to make right? Antonio Severino was a madman, conducting breeding experiments on psychic women, and trying to give werewolves the ability to shift at will without the lunar phase cycle. We gave them freedom from all that. They don’t have to be hired guns for Sebastian’s dad anymore.” I leaned against the wall. “Why aren’t they getting regular jobs? Making a fresh start?”
“For some of them, being an assassin-for-hire is all they’ve ever known. Sebastian’s father raised them to kill.” Vance shrugged. “They don’t have any other skills.”
“I’m not going to feel sorry anyone who comes into our territory looking for trouble.” I narrowed my eyes. “We’ve got four little boys who have already lost far too much.”
“That’s just it, mate. This isn’t your territory.” Vance paced the small room like a caged lion. “As I see it, werewolves need the unity of a pack, and it’s not happening here. Nero fell two years ago and you’re all still pretending this is an episode of Friends or some shit. The Nero jaguars sense that weakness, and as long as they do, they’re going to expose it.”
“We can’t have a pack without an Alpha.”
Vance nodded and reached for the door. “So you better find one, mate.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “We just discovered one of Nero’s satellite facilities is in Flagstaff, out in the woods. Pretty remote. Sebastian asked me to check it out. I’ll let you know what I find. ’Til then, watch your back.”
After the door closed, I sat behind the desk and rested my head in my hands. I didn’t know how much Vance understood about werewolves. Hell, I only knew what I picked up from Luke and the pack in Reno. But I understood enough to know the Alpha title was passed down to his eldest son, and Caldwell didn’t have any children. The only other way to ascend to Alpha was a physical challenge, a fight to the death for the position, and this pack had lost too many already. No one was willing to risk it. Instead, we limped along like a dysfunctional family joined together by a mutual secret.
But if there was a Nero satellite facility in Flagstaff, it was only a short trip down the highway to Sedona. If the jaguar shifters ever came at us in numbers, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves. At least not in our current fractured condition.
I raked my hair back from my forehead and stared up at the ceiling. My hands were tied. Even if I was willing to step up, I had become a wolf through a bite that had altered my DNA. Only wolves born with the animal in their blood rose to Alpha. Adam had told me that when he ascended to Alpha, his senses grew in a new way, connecting him to his pack and their well-being. He was the eldest son of an Alpha. Leading his pack had been in his blood from birth.
We were fucked.