Vaughn Taggart's knuckles blanched as he fought to keep the loaner sedan from spinning out on the way up a snow-covered western Wyoming Forest Service road. His younger sister, Shelby, needed him.
Finally reaching the gravel parking area, he pulled behind her Subaru and his brother's horse trailer. He threw the car into park hard enough that the seatbelt locked up on his chest. Goddamn buckle. His fingers fumbled on the release; finally, he unfolded his frame from the vehicle and braced himself against the frigid, biting air. Scowling upward, he imagined the sun setting behind the thick, gray clouds. With any luck, the snow would hold off until he could check in with Shelby.
Pulling his sturdy insulated boots from the back seat and shoving them on, he unfurled his unwanted but sometimes necessary supersensory power. Like shaking out a blanket, he opened himself up and stretched his mind as if opening a gate on his tightly fenced consciousness, probing for danger. Sometimes he got prickles on the back of his head and could control his focus by squeezing his hands into hard fists. Sometimes, the sensation of danger just grabbed him like an invisible hand and yanked him toward the threat.
As he stood still in the silent forest, his power encountered... nothing.
A virtual finger of ice chilled his neck. He whipped around, his power flaring to life, trying again to sense the environment around him. Ouch. He rubbed his temple to soothe the headache that always accompanied a telepathic search as he peered into the cold forest. Woods. Light snow on the ground. A few intrepid animals foraging in the leaf litter. Nothing else.
Right now, he had to find Shelby and figure out why she was freaking out over the danger to their family. Needed to make sure she was okay.
She would have never called him and left a message unless things had gone beyond manageable.
A wave gripped him, blanketing him in a suffocating heaviness. His hands shook. This time, it wasn't his power that affected him.
Damn it, no. No way. Not today.
Plain and simple, he needed a drink.
Jumping neck deep into the suds had helped create the nightmare that ruined everything a year ago. Sure as hell wouldn't solve any problems now. Or ever.
His heart sped up until he forced a few big breaths in and out of his lungs. No time for regrets. No time to wonder what ass kicking waited for him back on the family ranch. Time to help Shelby.
Tracks from boots and hooves traced the route away from the vehicles.
Good enough. Vaughn buttoned his jacket, cinched the laces on his boots, and took off into the forest.
An hour later, as night fell, Vaughn stomped his cold and weary feet into Kerr's hunting camp. He spared a glance at three customers in brand-spanking-new hunting gear, huddled around a roaring fire. Only they weren't feeling hand-warming, s'more-roasting cozy, judging by the deep frowns on their clean-shaven faces. Interesting.
Then his kid brother emerged from behind a tent. Kerr had only a slight limp now. Good for him. Their quick hug and back slaps triggered a lump that Vaughn couldn't swallow past.
"How'd you get here so quickly?" Kerr asked. "Shelby called you this morning."
"Pulled a favor with someone who owns a private jet."
"Mr. Big Bucks."
"Not exactly. MMA connections." He cringed. He'd been used for those connections before, too. "Where's Shelby?"
"Wow, you're really here. Good to see you, too, Houdini. Long time, no see. You look, um, not exactly good. And you're still ugly." Kerr shot him a crooked grin, then raked a hand over his bright red hair before cramming the Stetson on his head. "Eric's with Shelby." He pointed into the quiet, snowy forest. "They haven't returned yet."
"What the hell do you mean, they haven't returned? She left me a weird message but no details this morning. What's going on?"
Damn, it was good to see Kerr's cold-reddened face. The shadows from the flickering flames made his youngest brother appear years older than, what, twenty-eight? A baby compared with Vaughn's thirty-five.
Kerr had aged far too much in the past twelve months, but everything else about him was familiar. Kerr appeared... healthy. Like before his accident. Before Vaughn had iced the cake on the disaster of his life choices and had to leave town, for his family's sake as well as his own.
Later. Vaughn would deal with the fallout of his return to Copper River later. For now, his sister needed him.
"They should be here soon. Not sure why they're still out there." Kerr's head whipped back and forth between the forest behind him and his hunting guide service guests in front of him. "We located a lost hunter," he lowered his voice and nodded toward the three guests, "this afternoon, but she found him. Of course. On the way back, Shelby wanted to check on something suspicious in the woods first. Why couldn't she just leave well enough alone? She found the missing guy. Mission accomplished, right?"
Yep, because of her supersensory power to become a human radar. She could find anyone, anywhere. That tool sure came in handy, but, like all Taggart powers, caused pain.
So Shelby had left her message before she headed here, at least six hours ago. Crap. That meant her other ability had fired up–sensing when something terrible was about to happen. When she got a hunch, a smart person listened. That was the exact reason Vaughn took her panicked and short message to heart and got his ass from New York to Wyoming in record time.
He frowned. "So you all found the missing guy?"
Kerr crossed his arms and leaned on a tree trunk. "Yes."
"Then why is she still out there alone?"
"I told you. Eric's with her." Kerr rubbed his leg absently, and Vaughn flinched in sympathy. "I had to take care of my clients."
Kerr and Eric's fledgling hunting guide business would be devastated if they lost a wealthy client.
Vaughn checked on the hunters huddled next to the fire. One guy looked like he'd seen a ghost, but his buddies were giving him a good dose of "atta boys" and something in a flask. Whatever they were drinking didn't improve the terror etched across the man's face.
Didn't improve Vaughn's stress levels either as he stared at the metal bottle and licked his lips until he dragged his gaze back to his brother. With effort, he tamped down the liquor cravings. Barely.
What the hell had his brother so freaked out? Vaughn rubbed his temples again. His ability to detect danger had gone on neck-prickling high alert in the past few minutes. He checked over his shoulder. Nothing there.
"Yeah, something about this situation feels... wrong." He tapped his head. "In here. You feel me?"
Kerr pointed at Vaughn's head. "Bro, when you get the danger heebie-jeebies, it's the real deal." He shifted from foot to... well, foot. One was prosthetic.
"Yeah. Damn it." Silence while his brother watched him. Ah, right back into the oldest brother role. Vaughn rolled his shoulders. Now wasn't the time to buck responsibility. Now was the time to man up. "Let's track down Shelby and then get the hell out of here before I crawl out of my own skin."
Vaughn curled his hands into fists. Damn, what he'd give for a solid punching bag right now. Or a huge sparring partner or two. Or a drink. Anything to burn off the unsettled, nervy sensation. "Something's sideways. With... I don't know... maybe with everything. I can't pin it down. Can you read anything from Shelby?"
"I've been checking every few minutes, and everything seems okay." Kerr tilted his head to the side, going into that faint connection he could access with his twin sister. He blinked his gold-flecked eyes, a family trait, and focused on Vaughn. "She's maybe nervous and... curious about something. That's all I can tell right about n—" Kerr dropped to his hands and knees, sawing air in and out of his gaping mouth. "Holy crap, dude."
"It's Shelby. Something just happened. She's hurt. Oh, shit, the pain." Kerr reached under his long duster and grabbed his prosthetic leg.
Vaughn put out a hand. "What's happening?"
White lines formed around his brother's mouth, and he gasped in response.
"Screw this. We're going after them," Vaughn growled.
Kerr pushed himself to a shaky standing position. "Roger that."
The old Vaughn would run straight into the woods, guns a-blazing. But impulse control issues had gotten him nowhere except a long trip out of town for the past year. At least he could learn from his past fuckups. He took a deep breath and calmed his mind, like he did before a fight.
"What about calling the police and EMS?" Vaughn asked.
"We called several hours ago when my guest went missing. All emergency services have been occupied elsewhere but should be headed here any time now." Kerr yanked out his satellite phone and dialed. "Garrison? Call 911 again. Get their asses up here." A pause. "Yeah, I know you can't leave the ranch. I get it. Just have them park near us and follow the tracks into the woods. I'll have one of the guests direct them in." Another pause as his mouth tightened. "Don't know. Something with Shelby. Something bad."
Kerr turned the phone off, laid out succinct plans with his clients, and turned back to Vaughn. "Let's go. Hopefully, EMS won't be far behind. I have a feeling Shelby's going to need help."
* * *
Twenty minutes of pushing their skittish horses past the limits of safety and then hiking through the dark forest while following tracks in the snow from Shelby and Eric's last known location finally brought Vaughn and Kerr to a ridge.
Vaughn ran to the edge of the bluff. Two sets of footprints stopped there, illuminated by his headlight.
His temples throbbed. An invisible hand squeezed his head and cranked it until he peered down the rock face. Dimly, he registered Kerr's slower steps as his brother caught up.
"What?" Kerr panted.
Their flashlight beams bounced off the bottom of the bluff, about fifty feet down.
The whistling scream of Vaughn's ability blasted to redline levels and sliced through his skull. Like acid poured onto whip-raw skin. His vision went blood red.
There, at the bottom of the cliff, lay his sister's broken body next to Kerr's business partner, Eric. They were partially buried under and surrounded by rubble and rock fall. And a weird, lurid, green fire licked over their bodies. Vaughn reared back as a blast of hot sulfur shot up the bluff.
A few feet away from Shelby and Eric loomed a cloudlike, dark shape, with two red glowing points of light where eyes should be. That green fire came from within the goddamned thing.
Kerr yelled, "Shit!"
"Is she alive?"
His brother froze and cocked his head to one side. "Yes. Barely." The words ripped out of his throat.
Vaughn's ability drove him as he half slid, half fell down the slope, the scree shifting underfoot. He didn't care if he joined the motionless mess of humanity at the bottom of the drop-off. All he wanted was to get between his sister and that... thing.
As he slammed into the ground, the air left his lungs. No matter. He didn't need to breathe to take care of that bastard creature in front of him.
His power ramped up as light and sound whirled then reconstituted into different forms. He stepped in front of the black creature that sucked up light and oxygen. Vaughn's head burned.
But this time, his power didn't want to protect Vaughn.
For the first time in his life, his ability indicated danger to another person. Shelby.
Then he mentally whiplashed, head snapping back, as pain clicked to a brand-new agonizing level.
A boiling mass of pressurized, pissed-off, super-charged fury grew out of his mind, expanding from Vaughn and toward the black figure that reached dark fire-coated claws toward his baby sister's limp body.
Get away from my sister.
With a roar, he stepped in front of Shelby's bruised face and battered body. Too long. He'd been away too long, and this was the price paid for his absence. No way would his sister die. No way would Eric die. Not today.
The creature emitted a horrible sound halfway between a dying wolf howl and a blast furnace. It grew larger, the fiery dots of what passed for eyes in its shadowed depths glowed brighter red.
More terrified of his sister's death than his own, Vaughn gritted his teeth, rolled his hands into fists, and his power followed, pushing out into a desperate sphere, creating terror to match the beast in front of him. Pure hell faced pure hell. He ignored the headache that ripped through his skull.
He pressed harder.
With a roar that turned into sucking vacuum of a sound, the creature receded, screamed once more, and disappeared, leaving hot sulfur in the air that stung Vaughn's nose. Desire to hunt down anything that threatened his family gripped him, but his sister's hoarse voice stopped him.
"Vaughn?" she croaked before she crumpled over Eric's body and the pile of rocks. Dark smears of dirt tracked over her face. Even unconscious, she maintained a death grip on the back of Eric's shirt. One of her legs bore a makeshift splint, but the angle of her limb beneath the straps seemed all wrong.
"Yeah, sis." When he gave an awkward pat on her head, she didn't move. "Shelby?"
Her eyes rolled back in her head. His heart stopped.
"Kerr?" he yelled.
"On it." His brother picked his way over rocks to reach them. "Shel?" He pressed fingers to her neck. "Still alive. Damn it, Eric's half buried. Is he...?"
"They're both still alive, but they don't look good," Vaughn said. "What the hell was that thing?"
"Probably the reason why Shelby tried to contact you. She had a feeling. And also, we've seen that thing before." He held up his hand. "Details later." Kerr whipped out the sat phone and mumbled then looked up. "Okay. Search and rescue guys are nearly at base camp. We are getting these two out of here. Now."
"Fucking A, you bet we are."