Take Me (Stark Trilogy #3.5) Valentine (On Dublin Street #5.5)

Suzette wrung her hands as the doctor administered the anaesthetic.

He hugged me as if I’d float away and only remained locked to him by force.I missed your fight, mon coeur. My heart, he murmured, pressing a delicate kiss on my temple.

Awake at Dawn (Shadow Falls #2)

I’m not afraid of fighting back anymore, I said softly, immersed in his incredible warmth.I’m glad. With a fierce squeeze, he let me go, returning his hands to my head. We stayed silent as he massaged more bubbles through my curls, before pushing my slippery body down his.Once upon a time, I would’ve fought at the thought of being pushed under water, but now…I didn’t care.

The Real Werewives of Vampire County (Guardians of Eternity #9)

I let him push me under, holding my breath while his worshipping fingers washed the suds from my hair. I was aware of every touch, every inch of him. I was nothing but a ball of oversensitive nerve endings.Once the bubbles were gone, Q hoisted me up his body, dragging me along his very hot, very hard erection.

I want him. Completely. No holding back.

The thought whizzed around my body, spreading eagerness and courage. I wanted Q to take me like he’d always wanted. I was no longer afraid. He wouldn’t go too far because I understood what lurked beneath all his darkness.Yes, I nodded. There can’t be that many zombies around here anyway. And summer only lasts a few months before it gets cold again. We can hold off zombies for that long.

Okay. He grinned, then leaned over and kissed my temple.He opened the book back up, and I rested my head on his shoulder and listened to him reading to Stella. For the first time in so long, I felt like I finally had a home, a family. And I wasn’t going anywhere.

All I Ever Wanted

CHAPTER ONE It was really a good thing that Frankie Newman had never needed a knight in shining armor, because she’d only ever come across complete idiots wrapped in tinfoil. The guy in front of her was no exception. Vance studied her appearance, taking in her protective clothes and the goggles she’d pushed onto her forehead. I, um, guess you were busy. Good guess. But he hadn’t had to guess. The sound of rock music blasting would have told him she was working. But then, Vance didn’t see her job as work. He saw it as more of a cute hobby that she should have grown out of by now. It didn’t matter that her sculptures were displayed in galleries or that she had an established reputation. Much like her grandparents, he didn’t take her profession seriously. Ordinarily she’d have ignored the incessant knocking, but she’d thought he was her agent, who was due to arrive any moment now. He patted the cardboard box he was holding. I found some of your stuff lying around. I thought you might want it back. Thanks, she said, tone flat. He stepped forward, clearly expecting her to move aside and let him pass. Not gonna happen. She grabbed the box and set it beside her on the hardwood floor. He cleared his throat. How are you? Fine. She’d be a hell of a lot better when he left. The wolf within her stirred, raring to swipe her claws at the human to warn him away. She wasn’t a forgiving animal. He scrubbed a hand down his face. Shit, Frankie, I . . . He sighed. You have every right to be mad at me for getting back together with Layla, and I don’t— I’m not mad that you went back to her. She’d liked Vance’s company, and he was certainly good in bed, but Frankie didn’t love him. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t guessed that he still cared for Layla—a guy didn’t constantly trash-talk his ex unless she was on his mind a little too much. But Frankie hadn’t been mad about it back then; she knew that getting over someone wasn’t a simple thing and that feelings couldn’t be switched on and off. While Layla had messed with his head by sending bitchy texts, posting pics of herself on FaceBook kissing other guys, and even sleeping with one of his friends, Frankie had been there for him. The moment he’d healed, he’d gone right on back to Layla. It seemed that they both got off on the drama or something. His brow creased a little. You’re not? No. But I am pissed that you led me to believe that you wouldn’t go back to her. I’m pissed that I spent time out of my life being there for you, worrying about you, supporting you while she hurt you, when you ultimately planned to go back to her. He held up a hand. I swear, Frankie, I didn’t plan it. I didn’t want to hurt you, and I hate that I did. If you want to prove it, tell her to stop stalking me online. Tell her to stop leaving stupid comments on my FaceBook fan page. Every time I block her, she creates another profile and does it again. He winced. I know. I told her to stop. She . . . obsesses about you. She refuses to believe that I’m over you. The more I deny it, the more she seems to believe that she’s right. I can’t win here. Well, maybe if you stopped texting and calling me when you’re hammered and explained to Layla that you and I aren’t all that well suited, she’d simmer down. He bristled. We suited each other just fine. The sexual implication in his voice was clear. In bed, sure. Out of it? Not so much. Which had disappointed her grandparents, because they’d loved the idea of her and the attorney—particularly her grandmother, who was close friends with his mother. But that doesn’t matter now. Really, Vance, you should just go. I hope things work out for you and Layla, and I hope you’ll make her see reason and stop bothering me. She tried to close the door, but his hand shot out to hold it open. I was hoping we could go back to being friends again. We were friends before we started dating, remember. Frankie wouldn’t have described them as friends. Acquaintances who’d met through her grandparents? Yes. Actual friends? Nah. Look, I have no intention of bad-mouthing you to my grandmother, if that’s your worry, so the full story isn’t going to reach your mother unless you tell her. I already told her, and she’s pissed at me. Not that she said as much. My mother’s a big believer of ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ ‘Silence is golden’ is one of her favorite phrases. The unnecessary use of a proverb made Frankie’s frown deepen. She just didn’t get the need for proverbs. Like All good things come to those who wait. Really? Weird, because she hadn’t won the lottery yet. Like You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Well, why not? She wasn’t going to buy a cake for no good reason; it was stupid to think differently. Like It’s raining cats and dogs. Um, no it wasn’t—and never had—rained cats and dogs. Why use a proverb when you could just use a phrase that made sense? Well, Frankie had news for Vance’s mother: silence was silence. It was nothing—couldn’t be heard, seen, or touched. It therefore did not physically exist, and couldn’t be any color whatsoever, let alone golden. But she didn’t want to prolong her conversation with Vance, so she simply said, I have to go. I hope things work out for you and Layla this time around. Just then a familiar Mercedes convertible parked behind Vance’s car. Frankie smiled as a middle-aged redhead dressed in a tailored blouse and skirt hopped out of the car. Who’s that? asked Vance. My agent. His brow creased. You have an agent? You don’t need to sound so surprised. You may not approve of my job, but others do. It’s not that I don’t approve. It’s that you could be so much more. Like sculpting was easy and something to sniff haughtily at. You take care now, Vance. The dismissal clearly rankled, and his jaw hardened. Yeah, well, his dismissal of her career rankled too. Striding up the path, Abigail took in Frankie’s appearance and said, You’ve been working. Good. Frankie smiled. Well, hello to you too. She counted Abigail as a friend, which Frankie didn’t have many of. She’d never been a particularly social person and often buried herself in her work. You know I’m not one for pleasantries. Abigail eyed Vance curiously. And who might you be? Vance Browne. Oh, the attorney who crawled back to his ex. Yeah, that was Abigail—she didn’t spare anyone’s feelings. His eyes hardened. I didn’t crawl anywhere. He has fabulous cheekbones, Frankie. You should sculpt his face. Then we can shatter the nose, break the jaw. Maybe even scalp it. Frankie saw some appeal in the idea, but . . . It would be a waste of clay. True. Frankie stepped aside to let Abigail pass. See you around, Vance. Give Layla my best. She closed the door, headed down the hallway, turned right, and walked into the studio attached to the house. She’d had it built a few years ago to her specifications. The high ceiling, spotlights, large windows, and good ventilation system made it a perfect work space.Sunlight streamed through the open roll-up door, outside which she’d sectioned off a part of her backyard to use for bigger, more challenging sculptures. Tools, materials, and other equipment lined the walls; some sat on benches or shelves, others on metal racks or the floor, ensuring she had plenty of space to work. Abigail’s high heel clicked on the cold concrete floor as she stood near the locked door of the display room, tapping her foot impatiently. Frankie kept all her finished sculptures inside, and she’d recently completed a commissioned piece for the owner of a New York art gallery. She fished the keys out of the pocket of her coveralls and unlocked the door. Eyes alight with eagerness, Abigail walked inside and pointed to a veiled sculpture. This it? It is. Frankie gently removed the cover, and there it was. A life-size child sat on a rickety chair, her head drooping forward so that her long black hair covered her face. Her gray nightie was dirty and ragged and stopped just below the knees. Deep scratches covered her legs and arms. Jesus, Frankie, she almost looks alive. This is terrifying. Honestly, my nape’s prickling—like someone’s watching me. This sets off that same feeling of danger. You’ve never used synthetic hair in a sculpture before, have you? No. Frankie made mixed-media sculptures, liking to combine different materials in her projects. She looks spooky, and it makes me wonder if she’s a victim or a creepy evil kid. Makes me want to part her hair to see what her face looks like. At the same time, I don’t want to know. That’s the point. Pierre wanted something that reflects how often we’re too scared to look close enough to see what could be a dark truth, how often we see what we want to see. He’s going to love it. Frankie had gained quite a rep for creating dark sculptures. She rarely set out to make something dark, but often the finished result looked like something she’d plucked right out of a hellish nightmare. What are you going to call it? Child’s Play. Shit, even that’s spooky. Abigail shivered. You must have extremely bleak dreams. She’d had nightmares as a child, but she could only recall flashes of them now. Remembered the snarling. The crying. The scary shadows. The sheer terror that had seized her. But the images had never made sense, had never come together to create a clear picture. Really, Frankie, I wouldn’t have thought I’d like this kind of work. Wouldn’t have thought I could truly admire it, let alone properly represent someone who created it. But every piece is so powerful that it touches me on some level—and sometimes it’s a level that I don’t like. Frankie’s mouth curved. Good. If they don’t touch people— She cut herself off as her phone beeped. Hang on just a sec. She dug her phone out of her pocket and opened the e-mail she’d received. She read it. Then she read it again. Then she read it again. The words began to blur, and she realized her hand was shaking. Is everything all right? Unable to properly process what she’d read, Frankie burst out, What the fuck is this? Lounging in an armchair, Trick Hardy twisted the small object in his hand this way and that, studying it from every angle . . . as if it could somehow answer the many questions he had. His pack mates were spread across the room—perched on the sofa, sprawled in the armchairs, and sitting on the floor. They’d waited until the children were in bed before meeting to discuss the issue. Taryn, the Alpha female, gaped at Trick. You’re seriously telling me that four of the pack’s vehicles had been tagged with GPS trackers like that one? Jesus. Someone obviously wants to monitor our movements, said her mate, Trey, his large form pacing in front of the sofa. Why? Dominic, an enforcer, tapped his fingers on the arm of a plush chair. Packs always have reasons to want to keep a close eye on others. Makenna frowned. Yeah, but using trackers isn’t exactly normal, is it? It seems extreme. Her mate, Ryan, grunted in agreement. The gruff enforcer didn’t talk much. Luckily—and weirdly—Makenna seemed to be able to translate his grunts. Could be that someone’s trying to learn our patterns, mused Trick. Or maybe they’re waiting until the tagged vehicles are all gone at once. Trey’s arctic-blue gaze narrowed. Waiting for a time when the pack might be vulnerable, you mean. Trick shrugged. It’s a theory. By monitoring our movements, they’re monitoring the kids’ movements, said Tao, the Head Enforcer, golden-brown eyes flashing. Sitting on the floor with his mate between his legs, he lightly massaged her stiff shoulders. Riley, a raven shifter, was the pack’s Guardian and watched over the five children. It would be a good idea to keep them on our territory as much as possible, said Ryan. He cast his mate a pointed look, since Makenna liked taking their baby girl to the homeless shelter for lone shifters where she worked. Sniffing, Makenna flicked her long, multicolored, beach-layered waves over her shoulder. There’s no way to tell how long the trackers have been here, said Riley. That bugs me—no pun intended—because it means we have no idea just how much of our movements have been recorded. Whoever planted the trackers will know we found them—they switched off the moment they were removed, said Marcus, another enforcer. They didn’t look particularly high tech to me. Rhett, their IT expert and hacker, said, They weren’t. You could easily buy a batch of them online. Taryn eyed the one that Trick was fiddling with as she said, Thank God the mechanic spotted it when he gave the SUV a tune-up, or we might never have known about them. Dante, the Beta male, stretched out his long legs. I doubt whoever did it will risk planting any more, but we should still be careful. If we leave our territory, we should check the vehicles afterward—it wouldn’t be hard to plant a tracker while we’re out and about. Perched on Marcus’s lap, Roni—his mate and another enforcer—took her strawberry-flavored lollipop out of her mouth and said, We should also be on the lookout for people tailing us. If someone really wants to keep track of our movements, they’ll find another way. Trick pursed his lips. Do you think Morelli might have something to do with it, Trey? Nash Morelli had become a pain in their asses. The wolf had built his pack by recruiting lone shifters, many of whom were assassins. He called it the Mortelle Pack, the word being French for deadly. Trick found the idea a little pathetic. The pack had grown over time as Morelli had targeted small packs, challenging and killing their Alphas before then giving the rest of the pack members the choice to join him or die. As such, Trick doubted the Mortelle wolves would be particularly loyal to their Alpha. The way Morelli formed a pack didn’t really say Alpha material. He was quite simply an asshole. Morelli had recently called Trey to request a meeting, which would take place in a few days’ time, and no one was looking forward to it. Trick didn’t think Morelli would be dumb enough to fuck with Trey—not given the Phoenix Alpha’s dark reputation—but some people were simply . . . well . . . stupid.

It’s possible. Trey rolled back his wide shoulders and turned to Rhett. Have you found anything on him yet? Rhett blew out a breath. If Nash Morelli truly exists, his history has been wiped. I’m more inclined to think that the guy changed his name. Jaime, the Beta female, tilted her head, making her long sable hair brush her mate’s jean-clad thigh; Dante immediately began playing with it. Should we really assume this was Morelli’s work? We’re in contact with a few packs and prides. Sure, they’re all allies, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have some reason to record our movements. Jaime’s right, said Roni. But since we have no way to find out who it was, the only thing we can do at this point is wait and see what happens next. She sighed, her green eyes glittering with frustration. Greta, Trey’s antisocial grandmother, patted Roni’s shoulder soothingly. Don’t worry, sweetheart, my boys will find out one way or another. By boys she meant Trey, Dante, Tao, and the male enforcers. The old woman seemed to pretty much despise Taryn, Jaime, Makenna, and Riley purely because they were mated to her boys. Roni had somehow tricked Greta into liking her. What I really don’t get is why Morelli would look for trouble when the rest of our kind is trying to win favor with humans, said Gabe, Jaime’s brother. I wouldn’t have thought all the PR work would pay off, but it is. When the radical, increasingly violent anti-shifter extremists had resorted to acts of terrorism that caused many human casualties, the groups had lost a lot of credibility. Even prejudiced humans were no longer so willing to listen to them; instead they seemed to be practicing the live and let live ethic. A lot of packs, prides, and other groups had pounced on that and had independently begun doing PR work for shifters, hoping to counter the negative stereotypes floating around about them. The last thing shifters needed was one of their kind attracting negative attention. Speaking of PR, your video now has over seventy million views, Trick. Dante’s mouth twitched. Bet you never saw that coming. Trick cast him a hard look. It’s not my video. Dante grinned. Well, you’re the star. When Trick had fought off a gang of human boys who were about to mug and possibly assault a human female, someone caught the incident on their cell phone. He’d become a YouTube sensation overnight, and he wasn’t pleased about it. He’d carried the terrified female—who’d clung to him like a barnacle—out of the alley, and the whole thing had been romanticized. He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t a good guy human girls should crush on. And he was damn sick of people asking him if he was the shifter savior on YouTube. You should be glad, Trick, said Jaime, smoky-blue eyes dancing with mischief. Other shifters are working hard to gain acceptance and popularity with humans by going on the radio and appearing on daytime talk shows. You accomplished that for our pack just by doing a good deed. Although I’m not so sure it would have had the same effect if you weren’t so hot. Each muscle in his powerful build tensing, Dante scowled at his mate. You don’t get to call another guy ‘hot’ unless you want to get your ass spanked. Maybe that’s why I did it, Popeye, Jaime shot back with a saucy grin. Their byplay made Trick’s chest clench and caused his wolf’s mood to sour. A deep loneliness had steadily crept up on Trick and his wolf as they’d watched their pack mates and allies find their true mates, one by one. Of the adult male wolves within his pack, only he and Dominic remained unmated. There was now a bitter edge to his wolf’s loneliness. Dante and Jaime had known each other since they were children, when they’d all belonged to the Bjorn Pack. Trick had been a teenager when it split, and he’d left with some other wolves to form the Phoenix Pack. Jaime had remained behind, too young to make the decision to leave. It wasn’t until she’d transferred to the Phoenix Pack as an adult that she and Dante had realized they were true mates. It wasn’t uncommon for mates to fail to immediately recognize one another. Several things could jam the frequency of a mating bond, including doubts, fears, and secrets. In other words, people often let their personal shit get in the way. They didn’t listen to their inner animals and sometimes even blinded themselves to the obvious out of fear. Personally, Trick didn’t get it. What was so bad about having a mate? Nothing. Sure, your life would change in many ways, but you’d also be whole and happy in a way that you could never otherwise be. Unlike some, Trick had no reservations about mating. He didn’t have any hang-ups about being bonded to someone, wasn’t fearful of commitment, and wouldn’t shy away from the sacrifices he’d have to make. He’d always had a drive inside him to find his mate. He wasn’t sure if that was normal, but that need to hunt and claim her had always been there. Like an itch that needed scratching. Since he didn’t have any hang-ups that could jam the frequency of the bond, Trick was positive that he’d recognize his mate on sight. Of course, the frequency might not be clear for her, and so he wouldn’t necessarily feel the tug of the mating bond straightaway, but that wouldn’t stop him from acting. He’d simply approach her, voice his belief, convince her that it was true, and then cleave himself to her. There was no reason for it to be complicated. Oh, sure, it was important for couples to get to know each other and build trust, but that could be done while they were mated as far as he was concerned. From her position on the rug, Lydia cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. Um . . . if we’re finished talking about the trackers, there’s something I need to add. Trick frowned. Her anxiety was almost palpable. She was a submissive wolf who was usually laid-back and easy to be around. At that moment, though, she was strung up tight. What’s wrong? She licked her lips and then opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. What is it? asked Trey. Her mate, Cam, gently nudged her, and Lydia inhaled deeply. You’re probably going to be mad, she warned the Alphas. Taryn gave her a gentle smile. Lydia, tell us what’s wrong. I won’t lose my shit, Trey promised. Whatever it is can’t be that bad. Now tell us. Lydia’s shoulders lost a little of their stiffness. Those of you who once belonged to my childhood pack will remember that my older brother died when I was young. Damn, I’m sorry, said Taryn. I didn’t even know you had a brother. Unlike most of the Phoenix Pack, Taryn hadn’t been part of the Bjorn Pack. Lydia licked her lips. He, um . . . he shot himself. He killed his mate, and then he shot himself. Taryn’s mouth fell open. Oh my God. Wait, I think I once heard something about a wolf who turned on his mate before ending his own life. Many packs got wind of the story. Trick had been just a kid at the time, but he hadn’t forgotten that night. Hadn’t forgotten the sadness, shock, and grief that had weighed heavily on the pack. After all, it wasn’t often that mates turned on each other like that.Christopher wasn’t a bad person, Lydia insisted. He worshipped the ground Caroline, his mate, walked on. They argued, sure, and he had a temper, but . . . it was just so out of character for him to harm her. There was no way to work out exactly what happened that night. There was only one witness—their daughter, my niece. She was only three at the time. Jaime smiled weakly. She was my favorite playmate. Trick remembered little Francesca well. She’d been the youngest of the pups, so they’d all been very protective of her. She’d been bright and full of life, and he’d teased her often by tugging on her curls and chasing her around. Even though she’d been tiny and delicate looking, no one had thought of her as weak. She was born prematurely and had gone through such a complicated birth that the pack healer hadn’t expected her to live more than forty-eight hours. But she’d pulled through and instantly earned a reputation as a fighter. Three? Taryn echoed. She shoved a hand through her hair, pinning back the different shades of blonde. Jesus, she must have been terrified. She was the prettiest, sweetest kid you’ve ever known, said Lydia, nostalgia in her voice. I was only eight years older than Francesca. We were very close. Her mom was beautiful—tall and slender with blonde spiral curls. Francesca was a mini version of her, only she had Christopher’s blue eyes and dimples. Trick drummed his fingers on his thigh. She’s a sculptor now, right? Lydia’s eyes snapped to him. Right. How did you know that? He shrugged. I looked her up a few times. I was curious about how she turned out. Her work’s good. Very good. And very dark. Sighing, Lydia rubbed at her nape. I don’t know how much she saw that night, or if she even really understood what happened. I didn’t get a chance to find out. Taryn’s brow furrowed. What do you mean? Her maternal family is human. They were devastated by their daughter’s death—blamed my brother, my family, the pack. They wanted to take Francesca, and they did. The pack would have fought to keep her, but she seemed so traumatized. Mom thought that being away from the territory for a little while would be good for her, but what Mom hadn’t counted on was that the humans would refuse to allow us to even visit her. They wanted all shifters out of her life, regardless of the fact that Francesca was half shifter herself. Bastards, muttered Riley. Mom appealed to the human courts for access to her, but her grandparents are mega-rich and they hired an attorney that ran circles around ours. We lost the case and were cut out of Francesca’s life. Once I was old enough, I started to watch over her from afar. I had Rhett check on her and keep me updated. I passed on that information to Mom, who was heartbroken about being parted from her grandchild. We just wanted to be sure that Francesca was happy, healthy, and safe. Is she? asked Makenna. It seems so, replied Lydia. The Newmans gave her a good life. So many times I thought about contacting her, but I was worried that she wouldn’t want to hear from us. I mean, my brother did kill her mother. It was enough for us to know that she was okay. But Mom isn’t going to last long. Though Lydia’s mother, Iris, was a proud woman who liked to look after herself, she’d agreed to transfer to their pack so that Lydia could help care for her. Having recently lost her mate, Iris was weakening fast—many shifters died after losing their mate. Trick suspected that Iris had agreed to move here mostly so she could spend what time she had left with her daughter. She’d like to see Francesca just once before she passes on, Lydia added. You’ve contacted Francesca already, Marcus guessed. I sent her an e-mail earlier today, asking if she’d agree to visit. It was an impulsive decision. I’m sorry I didn’t run it by you first, Lydia told the Alphas. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting her to answer. But she did. And? prodded Taryn. Well, it was weird. Trick frowned. Weird how? Lydia bit her lip. She doesn’t seem to have a clue who I am. CHAPTER TWO Tao opened and closed his mouth a few times. How can she not know who you are? I don’t know. Lydia lifted a shaky hand to her face. I wasn’t mysterious in the e-mail; I was clear about who I was. Riley leaned forward, but Tao pulled her back against him. Read me the e-mail you sent her, she said to Lydia, digging her elbow into Tao’s ribs—he only grunted. Lydia’s thumbs tapped at the screen of her cell phone a few times. ‘Dear Francesca, I doubt you’ll remember me well, if at all. But you knew me very well as a child, before you left the pack and went to live with your grandparents. Your father, Christopher, was my older brother. Given what happened all those years ago, I can understand if you don’t wish to have anything to do with the paternal side of your family. But we would very much like to see you. My mother, your grandmother, has been given mere weeks to live. She loves you very much—we both do. If you could find it in your heart to see her just one time, it would mean everything to her. I hope to hear from you soon. Best wishes, Your Aunt Lydia’ And her response? asked Trey. ‘I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong Francesca Newman. Good luck with finding who you’re looking for.’ Dante narrowed his eyes. Is it possible that you have the wrong person? No way. Lydia shook her head, adamant. I’m sure this is her. I’ve been following her life for a long time. I’ve seen pictures of her online—she still looks like Caroline. Trick scrubbed a hand over his jaw. If she doesn’t know who you are, I’d say her grandparents have fed her bullshit about her past. Crap. Lydia raked a hand through her hair. Now I don’t know what to do. If she doesn’t know about me, if they’ve fed her a different story, my contacting her will upset her life. I don’t want that. Maybe I should agree that I got the wrong person. She looked at Cam for advice, but he shrugged. This has to be your decision, sweetheart, Cam told her. I don’t think that backtracking will work, said Trick. There are enough facts in that e-mail to make her wonder. Her mother’s dead, she lives with her grandparents, she doesn’t have her father in her life. She’s not going to ignore all that. She’ll look into it, talk to her grandparents about it. Trick’s right, said Marcus, rubbing at the dark stubble on his jaw. There’s little point in going back now. But if you want to drop this, that’s your decision. We’ll respect it. Jaime nodded. I can understand that you’re reluctant to upset her, Lydia, but she has every right to know the truth. I’m mad as hell that they lied to her all this time. Lydia swallowed. But the truth is pretty harsh, isn’t it? She still has a right to know, Grace firmly stated. And I’d like to see her again. She wasn’t in my life for long, but I see her as one of us.

She is ours, said Dominic. Iris only stayed with the Bjorn Pack because she wanted to be near Christopher’s grave. But I think that if she’d had custody of Francesca, she’d have joined our pack for her sake. Francesca would have been a Phoenix Pack wolf. She was taken from us, and she’s been without a pack for long enough. Yeah, agreed Marcus. It’s time she reconnected with us. Lydia stroked her throat. She may wish she’d never found out the truth. You should send her another e-mail tomorrow that makes things a little clearer, Lydia, Dante advised. But don’t tell her too much. You want to make her curious enough to meet you. If she’s strong, she’ll face it and deal with it. Lips pursed, Trick shrugged. Guess this will show us just how strong she is. After pulling up outside her grandparents’ home the next day, Frankie switched off the ignition. The white three-story building was beautiful, there was no doubt about it. Stylish. Classy. Elegant. But when she was growing up, it had also felt constricting at times. When she was inside that house, certain things were expected of her—even as a child. Extreme politeness. Complete composure. Absolute obedience. She’d failed on all counts. Not purposely or spitefully. But because there was a wildness in her that wouldn’t allow for that sort of control. Her wolf had always bucked against her grandparents’ strictness—not in defiance, but out of her protectiveness toward Frankie. She walked between the white columns and dashed up the steps. The housekeeper, Edna, opened the door and smiled. Hello, Frankie. It was a very informal greeting for a housekeeper, but Edna had been good to Frankie over the years, encouraging and supporting her when her grandparents didn’t. Usually Frankie would talk with her a little. Today she was too anxious to speak to her grandparents. With only an absentminded greeting for Edna, Frankie headed inside. The house was as classy on the inside as it was on the outside. Bright and spacious, with chandeliers, antiques, and crown moldings. There was plenty of artistic decor throughout, but not even one of her sculptures—it was a statement that her grandparents didn’t approve of her chosen profession. Her grandparents loved her, but they’d never understood her. Never understood that there hadn’t really been a choice for her. Sculpting wasn’t something she did to pass the time or amuse herself. There was a drive inside her to create, to shut out the world while she disappeared into her own. It made her feel alive. Maybe they didn’t understand because, though they were both ambitious, neither of them had a passion. She didn’t expect them to understand. She just wished they’d accept it. Her heels clicked along the marble floor as she headed down the wide hallway. She found her grandparents in the cool, airy sitting room. Geoffrey stood in front of the high window, talking on his cell phone, while Marcia sat on the upholstered sofa, sipping what was probably iced tea. Marcia’s mouth curled. Francesca, this is a surprise. I’m glad you’re here. Selma White will be coming for dinner tonight with her son. I hope you’ll join us. She rose, clearly expecting Frankie to cross the room and kiss her cheek. But Frankie couldn’t seem to move. She felt rooted to the spot as she stared at them, looking at them through new eyes. Could they really have lied to her all these years? Why? Ending his call, Geoffrey turned to her. He smiled automatically at the sight of her, but that smile faltered as he took her in. Is something wrong? Frankie balled her hands into fists. Do I have an Aunt Lydia? There was a boom of silence, and her grandparents exchanged a brief look. You told me that my father was Dustin Turner, that he was a lone wolf and he didn’t tell you what pack he came from—that all you knew was that the pack wanted nothing to do with him or me. She forced herself to take a few steps forward. Was that story a lie? Geoffrey rested a hand on the back of an armchair. Francesca— Was it a lie? Marcia calmly took another sip of her drink. A top neurosurgeon, Marcia Newman was extremely intelligent, and always cool and composed no matter the situation. Sometimes she was a little too cool. Unfeeling, even. Just why would you ask that? Just why won’t you answer? Geoffrey sighed. You have an Aunt Lydia, yes. Frankie’s stomach plummeted. Was my father’s name really Dustin Turner? Geoffrey hesitated. No. A shaky breath left her lungs. She felt cold all over as several emotions rattled her. Confusion. Shock. Hurt. Betrayal. Her wolf curled her upper lip, eyeing them both with distrust. I don’t understand. Why didn’t you tell me about her? Why give me a false name? Why all the lies? Who mentioned Lydia to you? he asked. She did. She contacted me. Referred to my father as Christopher. Was that his name? Was it? Geoffrey’s mouth twisted slightly. Yes. Jaw clenched, Frankie blew a breath out of her nose. Why lie to me? Why? Be sure you want the answers to these questions, Francesca. Geoffrey crossed to the little bar. You won’t like what you hear. The truth can’t be worse than any lie. Not for Frankie. Don’t be so sure of that. He poured himself a brandy, and she knew he was stalling. Impatient, Frankie pushed, Who was my father? His name was Christopher Brooks, said Geoffrey in that authoritative voice she’d heard him use in court more than once as he sat at his bench, cloaked in a black robe. He shot himself. But not before strangling your mother to death after stabbing her several times. He killed both her and himself right in front of you. Nothing he said could have shocked her more. Nothing. She stood there, frozen, struggling to process his matter-of-fact delivery of such a horrific event. Frankie had grown up believing that her parents—loving, attentive parents who’d been devoted to her and to each other—had died in a car accident. She needed to sit down, but she couldn’t seem to move. Marcia set her glass on the table. You were three at the time. We expected to find you terrified when we arrived on pack territory. But you were quiet, subdued. In shock. Naturally we brought you here, away from those animals. And she seemed to think that Frankie should applaud her for that. You didn’t seem to remember what you saw—as if you’d blocked it out. Geoffrey took a swig of his brandy. You’d have nightmares, but you’d never remember them. We let you forget. We gave you a different story. We did it to protect you. Protect her? Lying to her all her life sure didn’t feel like protection. It wasn’t that she couldn’t understand why they thought they were protecting her when she was just a child; she was just pissed to all hell that she was only finding out now. She also felt embarrassed. She’d easily believed their story, easily bought their lies. Never once questioned them. Shouldn’t she have sensed the deception? Probably not. It was really only natural that she’d believed them. She’d had no reason to doubt them. Yet she felt disappointed with herself. Humiliated, even.What does Lydia want? demanded Marcia, distaste in her tone. Money, I’m guessing. To meet, said Frankie. Marcia huffed. Well, she’ll be rather disappointed when you turn her down, won’t she? Her mother’s dying. She’s hoping I’ll pay her a visit so she can see me just once before she passes. In other words, she’s trying to manipulate you with a sob story. Marcia sniffed. You will, of course, ignore her attempt to reconnect with you. Frankie’s spine snapped straight, and her wolf growled. Will I? Marcia’s eyes went diamond hard. Yes, you will. They defended him, Francesca. He killed Caroline, but they defended him. Said he must have been drunk or had a moment of madness—like there could be any excuse for what was done to her. They kept questioning you, trying to put words into your mouth, wanting you to say something that would somehow vindicate him. Over and over, you kept saying in a zombielike voice, ‘He hurt her.’ Hearing footsteps, Frankie looked over her shoulder to see her uncle waltz in. As usual, the accountant was dressed in a tailored suit and wearing a charming smile. Frankie, sweetheart, it’s great to see you. Brad kissed her cheek. Too beautiful for words. You knew the truth, didn’t you? Frankie accused him. You knew they lied about my parents. His grin melted away and he swallowed. How did you find out? It was Marcia who answered, each word curt and bitter as she explained the matter to her only son. Brad rested a hand on Frankie’s arm. Keeping the truth from you was for the best. Frankie shrugged him off. Best? Best for who, Brad? For who? For you, of course. Frankie snorted. She wasn’t a weak, fragile flower; she could have handled the truth. Turning back to her grandparents, she said, Look, I get why you’d want a child to forget something so traumatic. I understand why you’d rather never speak of what happened. But I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve been old enough to understand and deal with the truth for a long time. You could have told me at any point. You didn’t. I have the right to know. Geoffrey held her gaze steadily—there was no remorse there. Why hurt you with the truth? The lie hurts too. It makes me wonder what else you’ve lied to me about. Geoffrey exhaled heavily. You’re angry. You have a right to be, I suppose, but I can’t be sorry for doing what I did to spare you pain. Your life isn’t based on a lie, Francesca. We simply didn’t tell you who your real father was or how your mother really died. Would telling the truth have really made such a difference to your life or changed the person you are today? Maybe, maybe not. She looked at Marcia and said, I get it now. I could never quite measure up to your expectations, no matter what I did. You love me, I know that. But you’ve always held a little something back. I’m half shifter. I’m half of the person who killed your daughter. You’ve never been able to truly see all the way past that, have you? Marcia’s mouth hardened, but she didn’t confirm or deny it. She didn’t have to. Brad put his hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him. Look at me, Frankie. You’re loved deeply and unconditionally by every one of us. You’re hurt and angry and overthinking things. I can understand why—you’ve had one hell of a shock and it’s knocked you off balance. But don’t let that shake your confidence and trust in your family. The wolves want to meet with her, Marcia snippily announced. Brad’s eyebrows snapped together. Why? They were perfectly happy to watch her come live with us. They didn’t fight to keep you, Frankie. Didn’t even try to see you. Contacting you now and messing with your life this way—that’s not right. It doesn’t seem as if Lydia knows that I was lied to, Frankie told him, stepping back, needing her space. Brad gave a quick shake of his head. Doesn’t matter. Everyone knows that shifters are protective of their own, particularly their children. If they’d loved you, they would have fought tooth and nail to keep you. They didn’t. They turned their backs on you. Now you get to do the same thing to them. They’re not good for you, Frankie. You’re better off without them. Seething, Frankie clenched her fists. She needed some goddamn air. She spun on her heel and headed for the door. You will not meet with those wolves, Francesca. I forbid it. The whip in Marcia’s voice made her wolf snarl, but Frankie didn’t break stride. She just kept walking. Outside she slid into her car and let out a long breath. She’d come here hoping her grandparents would assure her that the whole thing was a case of mistaken identity. Honestly, though, she’d have found any denials hard to believe. It just seemed way too coincidental that there would be another shifter called Francesca Newman who had lost her parents and been raised by her human grandparents. So, yeah, she’d expected to hear that there were plenty of things they hadn’t told her. She hadn’t thought one of those things would be that her father had murdered her mother. Noticing a blue light flashing in her peripheral vision, she saw that she’d left her cell phone in the cup holder and knew she’d received a notification of some kind. Swiping her thumb across the screen, she wasn’t surprised to see she’d received yet another e-mail from Lydia. Dear Francesca, I’m quite sure that you’re the Francesca Newman I’m looking for. I’ve kept myself updated on your life, watching over you in my way. I don’t understand why you seem confused about who I am, but I hope you will meet with me tomorrow so we can discuss it and I can answer any questions you have. I will be at the coffeehouse on Cherry Avenue tomorrow at noon. I hope you will be there. Best regards, Lydia Frankie slung her phone back in the cup holder and twisted her key in the ignition. She needed to do some damn research. A little later she pulled up in her driveway. Inside the house she hooked her jacket over the banister before kicking off her shoes and heading down the hallway. The oak flooring was cool and smooth beneath her feet. Her wolf was happy to be back in her territory, surrounded by the soothingly familiar scents of lavender, wood, and leather. In the homey walnut kitchen, Frankie poured herself a glass of red wine. She had a feeling she was going to need it. She sure as hell could have done with one when she’d talked to her grandparents, she thought, as she made her way into the living area. Standing on the soft rug near the fireplace, she stared at the framed photo of her mother that stood on the mantel beside other pictures and keepsakes. What happened that night? Why did it happen? Frankie took a long gulp of wine and then set the glass on the coffee table. Sinking into the plush sofa, she dragged her cushioned lap tray onto her thighs and then set her laptop on top of it. Her nearest neighbor was half a mile away; thus she never received complaints about the amount of noise she made while working, and there were no sounds of kids playing, people talking, or loud music filtering through the open window. There was only the ticking of her laptop keys and the hum of the air conditioning.

There were many websites and blogs about shifters, which was how she’d learned so many things about her kind that she wouldn’t have otherwise known. The information had helped her understand her wolf and identify herself as a dominant female. Hopefully, there would also be information to help her understand what happened the night her parents died. Bringing up the Internet, she typed in Caroline Newman murder. Several results popped up, most of which appeared to be articles. She clicked on the first result, which took her to a blog that catalogued crimes committed by shifters. Leaning forward, she read it. Caroline Newman, a 25-year-old human ex-schoolteacher, was attacked and killed by her mate and wolf shifter, Christopher Brooks, on Bjorn Pack territory in California in May 1993. Brooks stabbed her eleven times in the chest with a Japanese chef knife on their kitchen floor before strangling her to death. Brooks, 30, later shot himself in the temple. The noise alerted pack mates, who raced to the scene. The only witness to the murder was their three-year-old daughter, Francesca, who was too traumatized to provide a statement. A photo accompanied the article, of Frankie being huddled into her grandparents’ car mere days after the murder. Below that was a picture of Caroline and Christopher together, happy and smiling like loons. Frankie studied him, took in each of his facial features. She had his eyes, she thought. Had the same slight dent in her chin and the same dimples when she smiled. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Frankie went on to read other articles. There were pictures of her mother in each one—a graduation photo, a picture of her on vacation, and a family shot of Caroline with her parents. There was even one of Caroline and Frankie together. There was nothing but speculation about what had happened. Some stated that sources claimed Christopher had killed Caroline in a jealous rage. Others stated that he’d been out of his mind on a drug that shifters had produced but denied existed. There were those who believed that he’d been mentally ill and suicidal, and he’d only killed Caroline because he’d wanted them to die together. Some bloggers expressed surprise that a shifter would hurt his mate, while others felt it was only to be expected, considering that shifters are a few evolutionary steps away from animals. Members of the Bjorn Pack had refused to comment. Marcia was quoted several times in various articles, defaming shifters and bad-mouthing the Bjorn Pack. One particular quote was included in several articles: My daughter was a beautiful person, inside and out. Christopher Brooks took her from us and robbed her of her life—stabbed her, strangled her, and then shot himself like a coward. He robbed their daughter of a mother. He was evil, pure and simple. Rubbing her nape, Frankie sank back into her seat. She’d hoped for answers, but now she had yet more questions. Was it true that Christopher had taken drugs? Was it possible that he had in fact been mentally unbalanced? Why had he killed her mother? And . . . why hadn’t he killed Frankie too? Wanting to know more about his pack, she punched the Bjorn Pack California into the search engine. Again there were plenty of results. Finding a site that seemed dedicated to recording information on wolf packs, she clicked on the link. There was only a brief history of the pack, which was hardly surprising since shifters were highly private and insular. Her mother’s murder was briefly mentioned in connection with the pack. However, the writer of the article seemed more interested in an event that later led the pack to divide. Allegedly the original Alpha, Rick Coleman, lost a duel to his teenage son, Trey. Instead of stepping aside to allow the teen to rule, Rick banished him. Many supported the banishment. Those who didn’t support it then left with Trey, grouping together to form the Phoenix Pack. Frankie clicked on the hyperlink that would take her to a page on the Phoenix Pack and found herself intrigued by what she read . . . Battled with the Bjorn Pack after Trey’s father died and the Beta took the position of Alpha. Clashed with anti-shifter extremists several times. Defended a shelter for lone shifters against a pack Alpha. Suspected to be related to the disappearances of local mobsters. Frankie wondered if Lydia had been one of the wolves to leave with Trey or if she’d stayed with the Bjorn Pack. Squinting, Frankie looked more closely at the pictures of Phoenix Pack members as they stood outside stores or diners—all had been taken from afar and most likely without the pack’s knowledge. She didn’t see any females who resembled Christopher, but that didn’t really answer the question of whether Lydia was part of the pack. Hell, nothing Frankie had read really answered any of her questions. Reading what her mother had endured . . . that had been hard. She hated that her mother’s life had been snuffed out. Hated that she’d suffered such pain before she died. Frankie should also hate Christopher, shouldn’t she? She should despise this person who’d killed her mother and himself right in front of her. But she didn’t. Maybe because none of it seemed real. Maybe because she wasn’t sure how to hate someone she didn’t remember. Maybe because she just couldn’t make sense of it. From everything she knew about shifters, they were loyal, devoted, caring mates who were often irrationally overprotective. The pieces of the story just didn’t fit. But then, she didn’t know enough about Christopher to really make any assessment about whether he was the sort of person who’d harm someone he loved. She needed to talk to people who had known him. There would be no point in going back to her grandparents with her queries—they’d either tell her to drop it or feed her more lies. Frankie wanted facts. Even if they told her the truth, their answers would be colored by their own hatred of Christopher. Not that she was likely to get the truth from the wolves. It was highly possible that Lydia’s answers would be colored by her love for Christopher, but there was really no way of knowing without giving the woman a chance. She’d offered to answer Frankie’s questions, hadn’t she? Maybe she’d be honest, maybe she wouldn’t. And, okay, maybe Frankie was curious about her. Downing the last of her wine, she switched off her laptop and once again stared at the framed photo of Caroline on her mantel. She wondered if her mother would be upset with Frankie for seeking answers—hell, Marcia and Geoffrey would, and they’d no doubt see her meeting with Lydia as a betrayal. But Frankie didn’t view it as a betrayal. In her opinion it was perfectly natural that she’d want some answers and to know about her past. This was her life; she was entitled to know every part of it. And if her maternal family couldn’t accept that, well, it wouldn’t be the first time that they’d disapproved of her choices. Still, she didn’t relish the idea of going head-to-head with the people who’d raised her. Loved her. But they never really accepted you, a little voice in her head whispered. Frankie couldn’t argue with it. And then another voice was playing in her head—a voice that wasn’t her own. You will not meet with those wolves, Francesca. I forbid it. Frankie scowled at Marcia’s words. Forbid it, huh? That was so the wrong thing to say to a dominant female wolf. CHAPTER THREE Sitting in the coffeehouse, Trick set down his half-empty mug. Around him were the murmur of voices, the clattering of dishes, the whir of blenders, and the ding of the cash register. The place was nice. Cozy. It was also busy as hell.He stared out the large glass window, keeping a lookout for Francesca. It was almost noon, but there was no sign of her. Cam laid a hand over Lydia’s, stilling her tapping fingers. Breathe, you’re going to be fine. Leaning forward, Lydia braced her elbows on the round bistro table and took a centering breath. I don’t know why I’m so nervous. Of course you’re nervous, said Trick. You want it to go well. This is important to you. If she didn’t initially know the truth about her paternal family, I’m guessing her grandparents will have told her everything by now. Lydia worried her lower lip. She might not want anything at all to do with us. If that’s the case, we’ll find out soon enough, said Ryan. He and Trick had accompanied Lydia and Cam for their protection. And, yes, because Trick was curious to see how Frankie had turned out. Massaging his mate’s nape, Cam asked, Do you think she’ll bring someone along? Ryan leaned back in his seat. In her position, I would. To her we’re strangers. Shifters too. The fact that we were once all part of the same pack probably won’t make her any less wary. Lydia nodded. If she doesn’t remember me, she probably won’t remember any of you. I don’t know about that, joked Trick, rolling his shoulders. I’m pretty memorable. Lydia snorted. I can’t even deny that. After a moment the amusement faded from her eyes. She’s not coming, is she? Damn, I should have just left well enough alone. She’ll come, said Trick. Cam tilted his head. You sound real sure of that, but I’ll be surprised if she does. Maybe it’s best if she doesn’t, considering it’s pretty likely that she’ll be a snob. Her grandparents are serious snobs. Caroline wasn’t, Lydia pointed out. She was a total sweetheart. Fragile, though. And very pliant and eager to please. Caroline’s parents have very strong personalities and insisted on compliance. Ryan straightened in his seat, eyes on the view outside. What are those little bastards doing? Following his gaze, Trick noticed a group of teenagers checking out their SUV. Admiring the new model, or gearing themselves up to plant a GPS tracker? Whoever had planted the trackers originally might want to replace the ones that had been removed. I’ll deal with it. Trick chugged the last of his coffee and strode out of the coffeehouse. He didn’t speak to the boys. Just stood near the hood of the SUV, arms crossed. One of them spotted him and froze. That got the attention of the others, and they all looked at Trick. He gave them a toothy smile. There a reason why you’re hanging around my vehicle? The tallest lifted his chin, belligerent. We didn’t do anything. We were just looking. Now you’re finished looking. Move on. Muttering harsh, derisive words under their breath, they swaggered away. Trick kept his eyes on them . . . right until a silver Audi whipped into the space beside the SUV. A female slid out, and Trick stilled. He knew instantly that it was Francesca—she just looked so much like her mother. Cute with her big eyes, round face, flawless skin, spiral curls, and the sprinkle of freckles across her nose. He raked his gaze over her. Designer clothes. Healthy skin. Good posture. Aura of confidence. It wasn’t hard to tell that she’d grown up in a family that had a housekeeper, skied once a year, ate at Michelin-starred restaurants, and sent its kids to private schools. He’d bet she’d also strained against whatever confines that lifestyle put on her, because the signs of a rebel were all there—rose-gold hair dye, smoky-eye look, dream catcher tattoo on her upper arm, and multiple ear piercings. He liked the piercings; the tiny diamond studs dotted the outer edges of her ear. He wondered if she had them anywhere else. As a kid she’d always looked so delicate. Not now, though. Cute and sweet, yeah, but not fragile. She was slender, but she had soft curves and an incredible rack that made his palms itch. There was a fierceness about her that would have caught his wolf’s interest if the animal’s focus hadn’t already been locked on her like a laser beam. Her Persian-blue gaze met Trick’s, and his surroundings just seemed to fade away until there was only her. Something inside him roared to life, and a strange possessiveness began to viciously claw at his gut and tighten his chest. It was as primal and basic as the need that twisted his stomach. His cock twitched, thickened, hardened—until he was full and aching like a bitch. The word mine pounded around his skull over and over. And that could only mean one thing. There you are, Trick thought with an inner smile. His wolf froze the way a predator would as he eyed his prey, watching it closely, looking for weaknesses, raring to pounce. Raring to claim what was rightfully his. Her gaze held Trick’s with a boldness that surprised him, considering she was truly the most harmless-looking thing he’d ever seen in his life. Trick was highly dominant, but she didn’t cower from his scrutiny. No, she returned his stare. Pride flared inside him and his wolf. Their mate was strong. A match for them. Trick saw a raw need in her eyes, knew she’d felt the same powerful snap of elemental attraction, but he didn’t think she knew what it meant. Not yet. Especially since he wasn’t feeling the tug of the mating bond. No, something on her end was jamming the frequency. Her head slanted, making her long, glossy curls slide over her shoulder. One brow imperiously arched. Do I have something stuck between my teeth? she asked drily. Not quite as sweet as she looked, apparently. But that wasn’t why he blinked in surprise. He just would never have suspected a voice like that could belong to someone who looked so innocent. It was . . . He didn’t really know how to describe it. Smoky. Raspy. Gritty. Like she’d spent a night doing nothing but smoking cigars, chugging whiskey, and screaming in ecstasy. His cock jerked. Yeah, that voice packed a hell of a punch. Trick gave her a lazy smile, like she hadn’t just turned his world upside down and changed everything for him. Actually, there does seem to be a little something wedged between your two front teeth. I’m saving it for later. His smile widened at the wry response. Been a long time, Francesca. Her eyes narrowed. Do I know you? You did, once upon a time. Trick inhaled, taking her scent inside him. He inwardly groaned. She smelled like mango, lime, and lemon fucking sherbet. When they were kids, he’d found it comforting. Now there was a zest to her scent that hadn’t been there before—the zest of a fully mature female. A low rumble of arousal trickled out of his pacing wolf, who wanted to surface and claim what belonged to him. Trick was in no better state. All he himself could think of doing was pinning her to the nearest wall and driving deep inside her. He didn’t just want to fuck her, he wanted to completely possess her. Wanted to keep and protect her. Oh yeah, she was his all right. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind. She pointed a finger at him. Wait . . . you’re the guy on that video who saved a human girl from being mugged, right?

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