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He put a finger to her lips. “I would have told you at some point. It’s just not an easy thing to talk about. But now that you know, maybe you can understand what I’ve been saying to you. My mother doesn’t want love or affection, but she’s still needy and clingy in her own way. You worry that I want to control you. You don’t get that your independent streak is one of the things I like most about you. You’re not needy. You’re not weak. You’re not self-centered. You’re self-reliant, strong, protective, and good to those who matter to you.”

She gave a soft snort. “That’s quite a glossy picture you painted there. I have my flaws.”

“We all have our flaws, sweetheart. If we were perfect, we’d be boring and predictable. You are never boring.”

“The Seer said your mate would be like your mother, didn’t she?” Roni guessed. It would explain why he believed he couldn’t make his mate happy and vice versa.

He nodded. “Teagan confides in Kerrie, so she knows about my mother. She said she thought it was fair to warn me that my mate was the same.” He raked a hand into her hair. “But I’m not interested in visions or spiritual bullshit. This—you and me, here and now—is real. You’re what matters, Roni. I want you. You said back there to Kerrie that you wouldn’t walk away because of some vision. But did you really mean it? Do you really want me the way I want you?”

Surprisingly, the answer to that was easy. “I do.” If he’d tried to steamroll his way into her life, Roni could have fought that. But he’d done it so sneakily, so subtly, that she initially hadn’t even realized it was happening. And then it was too late; he was inside her now, embedded deep, and there was no pushing him out.

It was her own fault, really. In the very beginning, she’d branded him a smooth-talking player who could never truly interest her, thus deciding he was of no threat to her defenses. She hadn’t been on her guard, and he’d taken advantage of that, slipped through the cracks of her shields and began to worm his way in, little by little.

The guy was so different from her, it was laughable. He was charming, very likeable, at ease dealing with people, and easily accepted by those around him. But he was also similar to her in some ways. He was loyal, perceptive, protective, and he took care of those who mattered to him; he knew what was important.

Honestly, he could do so much better than her, but she’d be dumb to push him away. She didn’t want to. Being the focus of such a strong, solid, dominant wolf . . . it wasn’t just thrilling and flattering. It made her feel safe, secure, respected . . . even cherished. He defended her, but he didn’t do it in a way that disrespected or undermined her. Although he worked hard to get his own way, he didn’t try to manage her or dictate to her. What’s more, he made her feel like she was fine just the way she was. Nobody had ever done that before.

“Be certain, Roni. Be absolutely positive that you want this, because there’ll be no backing out.” If she were his mate—which he was afraid to hope for—then great. But if she wasn’t, he was still going to keep her. He wasn’t kidding when he’d told her that he’d kill her mate before he let him take her.

“I’m sure. But are you? Is this going to be something you can handle if we do take things another step further? Everything you saw growing up has made you confused about what it means to care. You’ve never seen it as a positive thing. To you, it was toxic: misery, suffering, and pain.”

“But not with you.”

“How do you know that, when you’ve never really let yourself care about me? You wanted to own me, because you thought that if you did, I couldn’t reject you and leave,” she now realized. “That’s different. To take things further is to take a step that would most likely lead to imprinting. You have to be sure you want that.”

Thinking on that, Marcus realized she was right. From the beginning, he’d wanted to possess her, own her—but that wasn’t “caring” about her. The fact was, though, that he did care about her. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t seen it coming. But then, he hadn’t expected Roni. “I’m positive. This, you, is what I want.”

Assured by the conviction in his tone, she nodded. “Good.”

“Then it’s done.” The words were final, a vow. There was no going back now, not for either of them. Pulling her closer by her hair, he kissed her hard, needing her taste in his mouth. “Mine. All mine.” She actually rolled her eyes at him. He smiled. “You can be just as possessive, Roni. Gets me hard every time.”

She snorted. “A burger gets you hard.”

“But it doesn’t taste as good as you do.” He licked along her bottom lip. “When we get back, I’m going to bite my way down your body, marking every bit, until I get to your—”

“Enough.” Seeing that his smile had grown to epic proportions, she asked, “What?”

“You just smiled.”

“I did not.”

“I saw it.”

“You were hallucinating.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Nope, I saw you smile. I saw those pretty little dimples.”

“I do not have dimples, Fuller!” She had to resist the urge to immaturely stomp her foot.

“Here comes that schoolteacher tone again. Will I have to stay behind after class? I’ll do whatever it takes to get an A.”

How was she supposed to keep a straight face when he said stuff like that?

“You’re smiling again.”

“Fuck. Off.”

“Now that’s just mean.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Having finished drying her hair in Marcus’s room, Roni began making her way through the tunnels en route to the kitchen. She’d sent Marcus ahead of her, tired of listening to him whining that he was “wasting away” and needed breakfast. She honestly didn’t know how his system coped with the amount of food he consumed on a daily basis, honestly couldn’t believe that—

She halted at a junction as she came almost face-to-face with none other than Greta. Marcus had repeatedly asked Roni to avoid being alone with the old woman, suspecting that Greta would ignore Trey’s warnings and set out to aggravate her. Well, duh. Over the past two months, Roni had done just that in order to keep the peace.

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