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“You went to see that woman too, didn’t you? Iris. You went to see her. How could you do this to me?”

“I didn’t do it to you. Nor did I do it to spite you or to hurt you. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.” But Marcia sure liked to make it about her.

“Doesn’t it matter to you that your mother is dead because of her son? If she hadn’t mated with him—”

“I wouldn’t have been born. Does that not matter to you?”

Geoffrey intervened then. “Francesca, you know we love you. You may not wish to hurt us, but this situation does cause us pain.”

Frankie looked at him. “I’m sorry if that’s the case.”

“I don’t think you really are,” clipped Marcia. “Don’t you see that they’re beasts? They’re barbaric. Pitiless. Vile.”

“They’re people,” said Frankie. “They drink coffee, play video games, make cookies, and watch TV.” They just also happened to shift into animals—no biggie.

“You will not see them again, Francesca, I won’t have it.”

Again with this shit? Frankie sighed. “I’m going home. You all enjoy the rest of your day.” She strode out of the room and down the hallway.

Brad jogged after her and caught her by the arm. “Frankie, wait. You have to see why they’re hurting.”

“It doesn’t have to hurt them. I’m not shoving it in their faces. I’m not living on pack territory or denouncing the family. And I won’t be made to feel guilty for this. Not by them, and not by you.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I just can’t approve of it. They’ll never approve of it.”

“That’s the thing, Brad. I’m not asking for their blessing. I understand that this is hard for them, so I’d never dream of expecting them to be okay with it—that truly wouldn’t be fair. I just want them to let me be. But they won’t—not about this, not about any decision I make that they don’t like. After all, they know best. I live in a fantasyland where I’m a sculptor.”

“Frankie—”

“I have to go, I’ll see you later.” She pulled her arm free and left.

Anger kept her muscles tight throughout the drive home. But by the time she got there, the anger had fizzled out. She was no longer pissed. She was tired. Weary. Sad. It seemed that no matter what move she made, there was someone she disappointed.

Any other time, she’d have shut herself in her studio and disappeared into her own world as she worked on her sculpture. While her hand was still sore, that wasn’t going to happen.

So instead she poured herself a glass of red wine and headed through the patio door, out onto the deck. The breeze was slightly chilly, so she flung some logs into the fire pit and then settled on one of the rocking chairs. She sighed at the feel of the sun-warmed wood at her back and the scents of woodsmoke, herbs, and fragrant flowers.

Yes, this was what she needed.

It was a pretty garden. Stepping-stone path, patches of colorful flowers, and plants growing in cute little planters. But she couldn’t take credit for it. The only real contributions she’d made were the sculptures and the mermaid fountain. It was Marcia who’d done the rest. Marcia who’d bought the magnolia tree, the wisteria on the trellis, and the flower boxes of mock orange, roses, and lily of the valley.

“Every woman needs a little sanctuary where she can relax,” Marcia had said.

Frankie had refrained from saying that her studio was her sanctuary, because she’d known that Marcia was trying to be nice. Known that Marcia wanted good things for her, wanted her to be happy, and wanted to find ways to connect with her.

She’d heard enough stories about her mother to know that Caroline and Marcia had shared some hobbies, like gardening, playing the piano, and listening to classical music. Marcia had no doubt hoped that her granddaughter would be much the same. Instead she’d ended up with someone who barely remembered to water plants (hence the sprinklers), who would rather play with metal and clay than a piano, and who enjoyed blasting rock music as she worked.

Really, Frankie felt bad that they didn’t share any interests. Just as she felt bad that she was at odds with Brad and her grandparents. They might not particularly understand her, but they did care for her. They did want her to be happy. They just wanted to be in control of what made her happy. And that made her wolf crazy.

Currently her wolf was in a shitty mood, which meant it probably wasn’t the best time for Frankie to be having negative thoughts. She needed to relax.

She cast a glance at the hot tub at the end of the deck. A dip in that might help . . . Maybe later.

Letting her head fall back, she closed her eyes and soaked in her surroundings. All she could hear was the chirping of the birds, the gurgle of the fountain, the wood snapping in the pit, and the rhythmic creak of the chair as she rocked. Little by little, the tension in her body slipped away, and—

Frankie snapped awake at the knock on the front door. She blinked, surprised to realize she’d dozed off. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep, but the sky had darkened a little.

Knuckles again rapped on the door. Sighing, she pushed to her feet. It was probably Geoffrey, she thought. When Marcia was unsuccessful in getting Frankie’s cooperation, he would often later come and try to “reason” with her. In other words, he’d try persuading her to back down.

But as Frankie swung open the front door, she found that it wasn’t Geoffrey. No. It was Trick, leaning one hip against the rail of her porch. Her wolf instantly perked up. As for Frankie . . . it was like her system took a long, relieved breath. “Why are you here?” she asked, though not unkindly.

He gave her a pitiful look. “I’m hungry. Feed me.”

“You’re not even kidding, are you?”

He pushed away from the rail and stalked forward. “I never joke about food.”

“I’m positive that if you went home, Grace would make you something.”

“But then I wouldn’t have your stimulating company or access to this amazing mouth.” Trick planted a long, lingering kiss on her lips. Tasting. Teasing. Possessing. He’d missed her. Barely knew her, really, but he’d missed her sultry voice, her secret smile, her quick humor, and her little mean streak.

Ending the kiss with a nip to her lip, Trick framed her face with his hands, drinking her in. That was when he noticed the lines of strain there. His hackles rose. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just been one of those days.”

Trick gently backed her into the house, kicking the door closed behind him. “Tell me what’s wrong. Don’t say ‘Nothing.’ Tell me. Get it out.”

She sighed. “I had lunch with my uncle and grandparents. It didn’t go so well.”

Pissed that the fuckers had upset her again, Trick felt his jaw harden. He didn’t voice his anger—she didn’t need to deal with his shit on top of theirs. He rubbed his nose against hers and skimmed one hand down her hair. “Want my wolf to go piss on their tires?” As he’d hoped, she laughed. It was a quiet, tired sound, but still.

“Nah, but I appreciate the offer.” Frankie released a sigh of pleasure as his fingers feathered over her nape. “I really don’t think I’ll make good company, but if you want to take your chances you can grab a beer and join me on the deck.” His face went all warm and lazy, and she figured it had pleased him that he hadn’t had to coax his way farther inside. Well, she wasn’t going to pretend she didn’t want him there. That would just be stupid.

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