AS I walked down the long, cold gray corridor behind the medical examiner, I realized that my heart had stopped beating. I had no idea when the organ that pumped blood through my body had given up, but I suspected it had been the day before, when I had received the phone call that my best friend, Crane Adams, was dead. Everything inside me had ceased working. I had stopped breathing at that moment… I just hadn’t noticed.
I could not drag air into my lungs, form words, or, for one terrifying moment, see. Not that the terror had been able to be conveyed, as I was mute. Funny how quickly your life gains perspective when something real happens, something that changes everything.
Never could I be expected to be the same from that moment on.
I turned my head to look up into the honey-colored eyes of my mate, the semel, leader, of our werepanther tribe, the tribe of Mafdet, Logan Church.
“I can go in alone.”
It was what he wanted, but there was no way. I had to know; I had to see for myself. I shook my head—it was not even a possibility.
I looked back at the man we had followed from the front desk. We had all stopped at a door. It was steel, and there was a small window cut at eye level for someone at least my size of five eleven.
He cleared his throat. “Just you, Mr. Rayne, and Mr. Church,” the man told us, glancing at Domin and Yuri. “You both will need to stay out here.”
“Sure,” Yuri agreed fast, his eyes flicking to mine.
He was worried, had been since the day before, when I had stopped talking.
“We’ll be right here,” Domin assured me gently.
And when my eyes met his, I found that between his steady gaze, the cadence of his voice, and his musky, sweet scent, I could momentarily stave off a breakdown. His presence was soothing, girding.
That revelation was disconcerting, because we weren’t friends and I knew he was only there out of duty but… after we picked him up, just the calm that washed over me when he sat down in the back of the limo, the way his hand slid over my knee as he moved by, had helped. And we weren’t friends, we weren’t close—the maahes, or prince, of my tribe and I were more like roommates than anything else, or had been before he moved out. Now, when he came to see Logan on tribe business, we barely had two words for each other, so it was weird that his being there meant anything at all. Yuri made more sense; he was my sheseru, there, as always, to protect me, keep me safe, and so his solid presence comforted me. But Domin, that he mattered at all, especially since his duty was to Logan and not to me, was confusing. Why being swallowed in the deep dark-brown gaze shored me up I had no clue.
Logan put his hand gently but firmly on the back of my neck before he told the man that we were ready. As I walked into the antiseptic-smelling room, I realized that his touch was the only thing keeping me vertical. If Logan were not standing beside me, I would have been on the floor. I had no strength of my own, only his. As werepanthers, touch was always comforting—animals craved contact—but at that moment it was all there was.
Inside the room we were introduced to Althea Nelson. She was the assistant medical examiner for Clark County, and she began with an explanation.
“There was a fire, his townhouse burned, so I want you both to be prepared for what you’re going to see.” She was a small woman, thin, compact, with clear, piercing brown eyes. Her look managed to be sympathetic and matter-of-fact all at the same time. “Are you ready?”
The body of my best friend was lying under a black plastic sheet on a cold metal table in a brightly lit room. I had never been less ready for anything in my entire life. My heart hurt.
Two hands came down on my shoulders as I felt my mate’s chest press against my back. There was more of his strength coming my way, transferred by heat and touch through my clothes, through my skin, deep into me. It was all I had.
The sheet was folded back.
It took a second because my brain questioned, but my stomach rolled, and so I was briefly overwhelmed, drowned under a landslide of emotion before the scream tore through my brain. Because I was the reah of my tribe, one of my gifts was that during the change from human to animal, I normally retained my logic. Being a reah was the only reason that I was able to take a breath and finally speak. In that moment the cat in me, and not the man, was more useful.
“That’s not Crane Adams.”
Seconds of time clicked by before the assistant medical examiner figured out what she wanted to say to me. I watched her, saw the concern flit across her sharply cut features. She probably heard disbelief a lot. “Mr. Rayne, you—”
“This man looks like him.” I coughed because my throat was dry from not being used. “But that is not his face.”
She cleared her throat. “Mr. Rayne, how can you tell what—”
“No,” I cut her off. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m positive. I’ve been looking at him since I was six years old. It’s not him.”
“And if you check for an appendix and find one, then you’ll know you’re looking at the wrong man too.”
There was thundering silence.
I heard the clock on the wall. It was one of those white faces with black numbers, nothing artsy about it, function being its only offering.
“Mr. Adams had his appendix out?” She looked startled. “That wasn’t in his health records that we received from Chicago.”
“Because it happened in Arizona when he was twenty-one,” I informed her, and even though it was horrible and some poor man was dead, my relief was overwhelming. A whimper passed my lips as I recalled Crane insisting that he was not hungover, he was really sick this time, goddamn it! The whining had gone on for hours before I finally broke down and took him to the emergency room. He had been way up on his high horse as they wheeled him into surgery, all that righteous indignation because for once I was wrong. The last thing I’d heard as the doors swung closed was that I was a self-righteous prick.
“Do you remember the hospital, Mr. Rayne?”
“Good Samaritan,” I told her.
“Let me see if I can get those records to confirm, but if you’re certain….” She trailed off, leaving the question for me to confirm.
“I’m very certain.” I sighed, and it was a long drawn-out one, because from the look on her face, I was guessing that the man lying there in front of me still had his appendix. “I was there.”
“Does this man have an appendix?”
Her eyes met mine. “Yes, he does.”
“Yes, he does,” I echoed her before I turned around, lifting up to wrap my arms around Logan’s neck, pull him down to me.
My mate buried one hand in my hair; the other was pressed to the middle of my back as he held me tight.
“I’m so sorry for putting you through—”
“No,” Logan cut her off as his arms tightened around me. “You were doing your job.”
“I’m just so sorry.”
So was I, since my brain was starting to wrap around a new truth. Leaning my head back, I looked up into his face.
“I know, love,” he said, nodding. “We’ll find him.”
Slowly, insidiously, I started hyperventilating.
“I swear, Jin. We’ll find him. Please breathe.”
And I had to believe him, since he’d never let me down before.
I HAD known Logan Church for a year and a half, but in that time my entire life had gone through a drastic metamorphosis. I had changed from being a loner, traveling from place to place, town to town, with my best friend, Crane Adams, to finding my mate and having a home. I was the reah of my tribe of werepanthers, the mate of the leader, the semel, and my voice was second only to his. I went from having nothing to having it all.
Normally reahs were women. Since I wasn’t, when my father and my old tribe discovered what I was, I had been beaten and exiled from the home and family I had grown up in. The only person who remained loyal, who loved me and stayed with me, was my best friend, Crane Adams. And first he’d been dead, and now he was missing. I was barely holding it together.
When the door opened, I rose from where I had been sitting on the couch in the luxury suite at the Venetian in Las Vegas, flipping channels on the TV. Domin came in first, holding open the door for those that followed him, a stream of people, some I didn’t know, before finally Logan was there. I would have crossed the floor to my mate, but Yuri Kosa, the sheseru, enforcer of my tribe and my guardian, put a hand on my shoulder, holding me where I was.
“They all come to you here, even your semel.”
And I knew that. The hotel room was like a home away from home, and as such, Yuri was there with me, as was Artem Varda, his second. Because we were in the territory of a semel who shared a bond with Logan, Yuri did not bring any more men with him to guard me. But still, when strangers were entering the room, Yuri kept himself at my side, and everyone moved forward to me. I wasn’t allowed to defer to anyone, being seen instead as the power player. It was stupid werepanther posturing, but there were rules that had to be observed, so I minded my sheseru without question.
When Logan was close enough, I reached for him, and he took my hand in his. He did not look pleased.
“What happened?” I asked quietly.
Quick shake of his head before he turned to look at Domin. I saw the maahes of my tribe holding court, facing the men who had followed him into the room.
“I present my reah,” Domin said, acknowledging me with his hand.
I watched as they all knelt in front of him. I recognized Calvin Reynolds, the semel of the tribe of Opet, the tribe that called Las Vegas home; his sheseru, Roger Tsang; and his sylvan, Amanda Dove; but no one else. I assumed the other ten or so men were his khatyu, fighters. As my eyes traveled over those on one knee in front of Domin, I found my gaze drawn to Amanda. She had a good face and gave me a trembling smile when she noticed my regard.
I had been surprised that in the two tribes I had regular contact with—my own, and the tribe of Pakhet, that of Christophe Danvers, who lived in Reno—there were not more women in one of the two roles that served as counsels for the leader. In my travels across the country with Crane, I had seen many tribes that had a woman as either the sheseru, tribe enforcer, or sylvan, tribe teacher. In Logan’s tribe, both places were held by men, as they were in Christophe’s. It had struck me as odd.
Certainly Logan would have chosen the person most qualified, but I didn’t know about Christophe. I wasn’t sure how antiquated his ideas were about women. And he had a scary, jealous mate who probably wouldn’t have liked another woman living under her roof. Normally the sheseru and sylvan lived with their semel until they found mates of their own.
I looked up at my mate. Usually I could find myself in his amber eyes, find any needed salvation right there in his loving gaze. “Tell me what happened.”
“Calvin will tell you,” he said, gesturing back to the semel of Opet, who, having shown me the proper respect as befitted my station as the reah of my tribe, was now standing. All the others were still kneeling, as Domin had not given them permission to stand. Only Calvin didn’t have to wait.
I lifted my eyes to his.
“My reah,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m so sorry that I let you walk into the morgue thinking that your friend was dead, but the men from the tribe of Anuket had my daughter up until an hour ago, when they released her for my compliance in this charade.”
If Logan hadn’t grabbed me and tucked me under his arm, against his side, I would have dropped to the ground.
“Anuket, that’s your old tribe, right?” Calvin asked.
“You know it is,” Logan told him. “Finish so we can go.”
He let out a deep breath, took a step closer to me. “Jin, they kidnapped my baby and held her and threatened to rape and kill her if I didn’t let the whole thing play out. I’m so sorry, but we’re talking about my child.”
I nodded fast, hating him and being completely sympathetic at the same time. I thought about his daughter Jacqueline: Jackie, Jack, J…. She was cute and adorable. She got straight As and was captain of her swim team. Since I had been the captain of mine back in the day, back in high school, we always had lots to talk about. I loved her sweet face, her huge chocolate-brown eyes, and her bubbly personality. With Crane living and working in her father’s territory, I had been seeing a lot of him, and her. She had confessed to me that she had it bad for a guy at school.
“He’s a white boy, Jin; can you see me with a white boy?”
I told her I could. White, black, any color, any flavor she wanted. “Your dad won’t care,” I told her, certain I was right. Calvin had every color of the rainbow in his tribe, just like Logan did, just like most did. What you were on the outside didn’t mean anything to him, to Logan, just as long as you were—
“But he’s not a panther.”
—a panther on the inside. “Oh crap,” I had breathed out.
“Oh God,” she’d moaned, hurling herself back on her bed. At sixteen, it was the end of her world.
I shook my head, clearing it. “I get it, Cal,” I assured him. “I do. Just tell me what they said.”
He coughed softly. “You need to call, or I should say that Logan was directed to call Archer Pike as soon as you realized you weren’t looking at Crane Adams.”
“Who—” I coughed. “Who was that at the morgue?”
“I have no idea.”
“Not one of your cats?”
“No, I was told he was not a panther.”
“He was a panther,” Logan told him. “I suspect you’re missing someone.”
The look on his face was like Logan had hit him. I didn’t understand that. Whether the man was a panther or not, I didn’t care. Human life or panther life, both were precious and sacred to me. In my mind, and I knew in Logan’s, as well, there was no difference.
“Jin.” Logan said my name, drawing my attention. “We have to call Archer Pike.”
Logan had to get on the Internet, which he did from his phone, access the secure database, and look for the number he needed. It took only moments.
“Are you ready?” he asked me softly.
My nod let him know that I was.
Minutes later, we all sat around the phone in the living room listening to it ring. Logan had put it on speaker.
“May I speak with Archer Pike?”
“This is he.”
“This is Logan Church,” my mate growled, his voice low, hard. “You have the beset of my reah; I want him returned now.”
Heavy sigh. “I apologize for the ruse, semel-netjer, and I apologize to the semel of the tribe of Opet for borrowing his daughter, but I needed to get your attention.”
It felt like ice water had been injected into my veins.
“You have it.”
“I tried to speak to you in Sobek, but you wouldn’t listen, and then you announced to the priest that we were khet, dead to each other, and so I had no recourse but this. The tribe of Mnevis is trying to take over my territory. I need you and your sheseru and your khatyu to come and align with us and help us drive them out.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Your reah is the son of my sylvan, this was his first tribe, and we have a covenant bond.”
“You’re insane,” Logan said flatly. “We have nothing, and your sylvan is dead to me, as are you and the rest of your tribe.”
“If this is your final word, then I will have no choice but to put to death the beset of your reah, who I have in my possession.”
I didn’t make a sound, and when Logan’s gaze caught mine, I saw his eyes glow with pride. That I trusted him, that I had remained silent, I could tell, touched him deeply.
“If you do not return the beset of my reah, Crane Adams,” he began, turning back to look at the phone, “I will come and take him, along with your head. I have, as you know, a member of the Shu living in my home, and once he speaks to the priest on my behalf, I will have a mandate for your life, semel of the tribe of Anuket.”
There was a long silence.
“You thought I would just say yes because you know that Jin loves Crane. Your sylvan, Jin’s father, and your sheseru, Crane’s father, were probably in agreement with this plan, but I will not grant you aid for one man, especially as I have a true covenant bond with the man seeking to take your territory from you, Derek Jackson.”
“He’s filth! He’s—”
“He’s passionate,” Logan said, cutting him off, “and younger than you and stronger than you. He wants a tribe that is racially mixed, not racially pure. He wants diversity because he wants the strongest tribe, the best, and accepts all based on nothing but their desire to stand with him. It makes sense to me.”
“I have, I did. It cannot be undone; it’s sealed in blood, mine and his. So you will return Crane Adams and all will be well, or I will come with my sheseru and my khatyu and however many members of the Shu the priest decides to send with me and I will kill you, your sheseru, and your sylvan, destroy the tribe of Anuket, end its lineage, and leave it to Derek Jackson. Choose your course.”
Archer was breathing hard over the line.
Every eye in the room was on Logan. He was absolutely still, absolutely certain of his decision. And I held my breath because I wanted Crane more than anything, but I knew, in my heart I knew, that if they didn’t choose to give him back to Logan, I wasn’t getting him back at all.
“You must come for him and speak your words to my tribe, in front of my tribe, and tell them all that you refuse to aid us,” Archer told him.
“I will aid them, semel,” Logan assured him. “They are all welcome to come and take refuge on my land and with my tribe if they do not want to become part of the tribe of Mnevis. I would welcome them all.”
“You said my tribe was dead to—”
“Your tribe, semel,” he clarified. “If any panthers come to me seeking sanctuary, seeking shelter, I will take them in, and so they are then members of my tribe. Do you understand?”
Archer Pike had no idea the kind of man that Logan Church was, and that had been his biggest mistake. Logan would never, ever turn his back on fathers and mothers and children. He’d pay to relocate them all, speak to Derek Jackson on their behalf, and do whatever was necessary to create a smooth transition if and when he had to.
“Your answer, semel,” Logan demanded.
There was a deep exhale of breath. “Come, then, and claim the beset of your reah.”
“I will leave tonight,” Logan told him. “I will call you after I meet with the semel of the tribe of Mnevis, and you will grant he and I, our sylvans, and our retinue safe passage.”
“You will not bring your sheseru?”
“I will not.”
“Then who will—”
“As I stated before, I have a member of the Shu here on my land, Taj Chalthoum; he will act as my sheseru and come in Yuri Kosa’s place.”
“I do not understand you leaving your sheseru behind if your reah is—”
“Never, ever concern yourself with my reah,” he said, his voice going from cold to warning in seconds.
“But we request the presence of your reah.”
“Your request is denied.”
I would have said something, because I wanted, needed, to go, but if Logan forbade it, I could never protest… at least in public. He was going to get an earful when we were alone.
“My sylvan wants to see his son, as does his mate, your reah’s mother.”
My mother no more wanted to see me than my father did. It was crap.
“My reah will not step foot into your territory, and that is my final word. Now I will speak to Crane Adams, or you will prepare yourself for a challenge in the pit.”
I heard him suck in his breath. Everyone had seen Logan fight in the pit the previous summer. All the leaders of the werepanther tribes traveled to Sobek, between Giza and Cairo, in Egypt, once a year for the feast of the valley. At the last feast, Logan had killed the semel of the tribe of Dendera because he had kidnapped and tortured me. In the pit, everyone had seen his size and seen how very lethal he was. The idea of a one-on-one challenge could not have been appealing to Archer Pike in any way.
“I cannot grant your request, Logan Church, for Crane Adams is not conscious at this moment. Before I was present at his inquisition, he was scourged by my sheseru.”
I had to grab for the back of the couch as the room tilted sharply to the left. A wave of nausea hit me, and I started to shake.
They had tortured my best friend, and I hadn’t been there to stop it.
“He was scourged,” Logan said like he was confused.
There was no air in the room; my chest was in a vise as my eyes filled with tears. I bit the inside of my left cheek so I would not make a sound.
He had been tortured and then disfigured. To be scourged meant you were cut into with a blade, your blood was spilled, and in some way, your body was mutilated. It was different from being marked as apophi, disgrace to your tribe. When a semel marked one of his cats, scarring them or taking an eye, it was done fast, never meant as a killing stroke but as a testament, carved in flesh, of a failing. It was done at a tribe gathering or during a challenge in the pit with everyone there as witness.
Scourging a cat was what a group of panthers of one tribe did to another that trespassed on their land without permission. Scourging was normally done at the end of a hunt and was led by the sheseru. The first night I had met Delphine, the sister of my mate, she had been alone on another panther’s land. She could have been scourged had Crane and I not interfered and if Markel, Domin’s sheseru at the time, had wanted to do anything more than scare her. A cat who was scourged could, or could not, be expected to live based on the level of punishment that the enforcer of the tribe chose to inflict. Pain was a precursor to being maimed and, in some tribes, defiled as well. There was no way to know what my best friend had been forced to endure without asking. The fact that his own father had disfigured him, allowed others to hold him down and torture him, hurt him, make him bleed, was beyond my understanding. There was no way I could not go now. None.
I turned and walked to the window, looking out at the Las Vegas strip.
“Semel,” Logan said, his voice low and edged in ice, “I have changed my mind.”
“About bringing your reah?”
“About bringing my sheseru,” he told him. “I will bring Yuri Kosa with me, and when I arrive, your sheseru will meet mine in the pit, and it will be a fight to the death.”
“You cannot demand—”
“I do demand!” Logan roared at him. “And I will contact the priest tonight and have Shu warriors there to witness it!”
“He’s dead! By my sheseru’s hand or by that of the priest, he is dead!”
“Yes,” he said breathlessly.
“What made you think that you could touch the beset of my reah? Mine! I am not a friend, semel; we have no covenant bond between us!”
“I am semel-netjer!”
Even over the phone, not even standing face to face, Logan’s fury terrified Archer Pike. His whimper came over the line.
“You will give me the names of any man who helped the sheseru maim the beset of my reah.”
The word conjured too many horrors to think about.
“Did you hear me?”
“If Crane is not in a bed, bandaged and cared for by a physician when I reach you….” He took a breath. “I will end your house, Archer Pike. Do… you… hear… me?”
“We will be there tomorrow with Derek Jackson and his men. Do not make the mistake of having me look for Crane or you. Understood?”
“Yes?” he hissed, his fury and hatred boiling over.
I heard Logan hang up, and then I heard something shatter. I didn’t turn around. My guess was that he had wrenched the phone out of the wall and hurled it across the room. I saw his reflection behind me in the glass seconds later, saw him heaving for breath, saw the pain in his eyes, and felt the heat rolling off of him.
I shook my head. If I spoke I would break down, and I was not ready to do that.
“Go,” I heard Domin say behind us to the men still kneeling on the floor.
“Semel-netjer,” Calvin Reynolds began. “I am so—”
“Leave us,” Yuri said, cutting him off. “We thank you for our accommodations here, and we will leave shortly.”
There were no more words. I heard them go, and when the door was closed, a silence fell that sucked all the air out of the room.
“I’ll call Taj from the car,” Domin said, his voice dark and low. “Let’s get home and get you all packed.”
I turned, walked around Logan, and headed for the door. Yuri was right behind me.
“I’ll kill them all, Jin.”
And even though as a reah my first instinct was usually forgiveness, in this instance his words wrapped around my heart and gave me comfort.
It was all I could ask.