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“I’ll take my chances.” Trick grabbed a beer from her stainless steel double-door fridge. Outside he settled on the rocking chair beside hers. “Sweet setup you’ve got here.” Especially with the hot tub and the monster grill.

He was guessing she’d made the sculptures. One was a black, twisted, rickety, evil-looking tree that contradictorily had beautiful white blooms dangling from the branches. The second was a large black chess piece that was peppered with moths and had six crows perched on top. Neither sculpture should have looked right in such a beautiful garden, but they gave it an edge and made it look better. Balanced out the natural perfection of the flowers.

“How’s your day been so far?” she asked.

“Dull, really.” Trick tossed her a smile. “Much better now.” He drank some of his beer. “What was the first sculpture you ever made?”

Thinking back, Frankie smiled. “It wasn’t very good. Or very big. It was a volcano. Someone with severe burns was crawling out of the top. You can imagine how horrified my grandparents were. They even sent me to a therapist.”

“A therapist?”

“Yeah. I remember feeling really frustrated that he asked why I’d chosen to make it. I tried explaining that I didn’t realize I was making it until it started to come together. He seemed to understand. Anyway, he told Marcia that using art as a form of expression was healthy, and that she should encourage the hobby. In that sense he did me a favor. You said you like to sketch. Is it something you’ve always done?”

Trick used the heel of one foot to gently rock his chair. “It was my mom who encouraged me to try it. I was a restless kid. Liked having something to do with my hands. She thought sketching might help relax me, and it did. Still does. But I can’t say I have a drive to create art. I can’t even call it a hobby. It’s just something I do sometimes.” He paused to sip at his beer. “The first time I saw one of your sculptures online was a few years back. I wondered if you made them to purposely disturb people. But I can see now that it’s more than that.”

Frankie frowned. “You saw one of mine years ago?”

“I looked you up, curious about what you were doing with your life.”

“Why?”

“I’m a curious guy. I was surprised by how well you’ve integrated yourself in the human world. I wondered why you hadn’t ever contacted the pack. In your position I’d have wanted to talk to the other half of my family and hear their side of things. I didn’t think for one second that you’d been fed lies. What exactly did the Newmans say happened to your parents?”

“That they both died in a car crash. They said my father’s name was Dustin Turner. Said he was loving and loyal and devoted to my mother. I know why my family lied, I just can’t help being pissed that they lied for so long.” She rubbed at her temple. “They’re not happy about me having contact with the pack. The way they see it, shifters stole Caroline from them.”

“That so? Well, they stole you from me, your paternal family, and the rest of your pack mates. I don’t think this will ever be a situation that works for everyone. You just have to do what you feel is best for you. So what do you want?”

Frankie took a long breath. “Pizza. I want pizza.”

His mouth curved. “Then we get pizza.”

Pulling out her cell phone, she asked, “What do you like on yours?”

“Anything except anchovies.” He waited until she’d finished the call to the pizza place before he spoke again. “I know a thing or two about feeling like you’ve disappointed the people who raised you.”

“Yeah?”

“My parents were loud supporters of Trey’s banishment. They hadn’t suspected I’d leave with him. Oh, they knew I was close to Trey and that I didn’t respect Rick, but they never anticipated that I’d go against their wishes. That was the way they saw it—that I was choosing Trey over them. I wasn’t. I was choosing what was right for me. They were so angry with me, but they were positive I’d run back there with my tail tucked between my legs.”

Noticing her flexing her fingers, Trick took her hand and massaged it as he continued. “But I didn’t. I made a place for myself in a new pack. It was a small group, but we built something good and strong. I contacted my parents a few times, invited them to Phoenix Pack territory. I wanted them to see what we’d built, wanted them to see what a pack could be like. They just kept insisting that I go back. I wouldn’t say it didn’t matter to them that I was happy. I think it did—and does still—matter. They just wanted me to find happiness their way.”

That sounded familiar, thought Frankie as she drank the last of her wine.

“They’ve missed so much of my life. They don’t think that’s their fault. Dad blames me. Mom blames Trey. And that ate at our relationship. The point? Some people expect others to fall in line with what they want. They reject anyone who doesn’t, including those they love, for reasons only they can justify. And they won’t see that it’s wrong.”

“Marcia and Geoffrey aren’t bad people, Trick. Really, they’re not. They want everything on their terms, but I think that partly comes from having jobs with such high positions. They’re used to making the decisions and taking the lead. Brad mostly goes along with what they want.”

“It’s not bad that you don’t. I know what it’s like to have people who expect things from you. You have to do what’s best for you, because when it comes to people like that, there’ll always be something that they expect. You can never really please them.”

Frankie exhaled heavily. “I know. I frequently disappoint my grandparents. I used to feel guilty that I couldn’t be a lawyer or a doctor like they wanted. Sculpting isn’t a skill to them. It’s a wasteful hobby. I can’t give it up, though. Not even for them.”

“They shouldn’t want you to give it up. It should be enough that it makes you happy. But they’re waiting for you to ‘come to your senses.’ It would have suited them if you’d failed at what you do, but you didn’t. Yet they won’t admit that they were wrong. Probably never will.” He kissed the palm of her hand. “You don’t have to be alone anymore, Frankie.”

Her brow furrowed. “I haven’t been alone.”

“Yes, you have. You might have had the Newmans, but you’ve always felt like you didn’t quite measure up and fit in with them, haven’t you?”

Yeah, she had.

“You didn’t have your pack; you lived with the feeling that something was missing. And as much as I’m grateful that your grandparents took care of you, I’m pissed at them for what you missed. Pissed that you didn’t have all your family, that you were alone for your first shift, and that they made you believe we didn’t want you.” And that he’d missed so many years with her. If she hadn’t been kept from him, they could have been happily mated by now.

“They were protecting me.”

“Were they? Or is that their excuse for keeping you away from us?” He nipped the heel of her hand. “Maybe they did want to protect you, but that wasn’t the only reason they cut us out of your life. You know that.”

Yeah, she did know that. They’d wanted some measure of revenge against the people they blamed for their daughter’s death, and they’d used her to hurt Iris and the rest of the pack because . . . well, because they could.

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