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“Elaborate.”

“And scare you off?” He shook his head. “That’s not on my list of things to do.”

“Why would it scare me? You’re not making sense. Are you trying to say that you’re a sadist or something? If so, that is going to be a problem.”

“I’m not a sadist.”

“Then I don’t understand what you’re getting at. Given that you’re very dominant, assertive, and you have a forceful personality, I’ve already figured out that a relationship with you wouldn’t be easy. Am I wrong?” It was a dare to lie to her.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been in a relationship.”

“Never?”

“There’ve been flings, but they were short and shallow. I never let my partners get too close.” Not even Marcus. Before the enforcer mated, he and Trick had scratched each other’s itches occasionally. Trick had let him close as a friend, but not as a partner.

“So that’s all you want with me—a fling?”

Trick shook his head and gently tapped her nose. “You’re different.”

Frankie frowned. “You mean you see me as yours, since we’re part of the same pack?”

“Something like that.” He pulled his cell out of his pocket. “I need to call Trey.”

Frankie watched him closely as he swiped his thumb over the screen and tapped it a few times. “Something like that,” he’d said, an odd glint in his eyes. And then her heartbeat kicked up as it all seemed to thread together. The way her body reacted to him, that fierce determination in his eyes, the possessiveness he displayed, the way her wolf tested him to see if he was worthy. Worthy as a mate, Frankie now realized. Her wolf didn’t fight her assumption. Oh hell.

She wasn’t quite as shocked as she should have been, so maybe she’d subconsciously suspected they were mates. Or maybe she’d just had so many shocks lately that she was immune to them at this point. Her primary emotion right then was unease. Not because she didn’t want it to be true, but because she did. She wanted Trick to be hers. She just didn’t want the shit-storm that could follow.

“Trey, we got a problem,” he said. “Or we had a problem until I shoved its face down a fucking toilet . . . Drake . . . I was at the movies with Frankie. He came at me in the restroom. Tried to bash my head in with a steel bar . . . No, I’m fine. I don’t know if Morelli sent him, but I’m more inclined to think that the motherfucker was retaliating for what happened at the meeting . . . Yeah . . . No, I’m with Frankie . . . Yeah. All right. Later.” Ending the call, Trick turned to Frankie. Whatever he saw on her face made his brows snap together. “You okay?”

She swallowed hard. “Are we mates?”

Trick stilled. Really, he wasn’t all that surprised that she’d figured it out. As he’d told the pack, she was smart and open-minded. He crossed to her, pleased when she didn’t back up. “Yes, baby, we are.” He curved his hand around the side of her neck. “At first I thought this was shit timing for you, what with everything else that’s going on. But I was wrong. If there’s one thing you need right now, it’s support, someone who’s all about you. Someone who’s on your side—not the Newmans’ side, not the pack’s side, just yours.”

Frankie raked a hand through her hair. “This is . . .”

“Going to make things a lot harder for you with the Newmans. I get that. And it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re not quite sure that true mate bonds are such great things, given what happened with your parents. But I’m not going anywhere, Frankie.” He skimmed his thumb over her jaw. “It eats me up inside that I missed so much of your life. Eats me up that I didn’t realize who you were to me when we were kids. I’ve been waiting to find you—or, as it seems, to get you back—for so fucking long . . . I’m not going to give you up. Not to spare the Newmans’ feelings, and not because you’re scared.”

“I’m not scared, I just . . . Look, I watched the mated pairs when I visited your territory. I saw how devoted they are to each other. I don’t think, just because something went wrong for my parents, that having a mate is a bad thing. But I feel so torn right now. I’m still struggling to find a way to make everyone happy—”

“You can’t,” he said softly. “I wish you could, baby, but you can’t.” His pack would be happy as long as they had contact with her, but she couldn’t give them that without hurting her maternal family.

“I have to try.”

“Then you try. But the Newmans will expect you to give me up and cut contact with the pack, just like they expect you to give up sculpting—like it isn’t part of who you are.” Trick draped an arm over her shoulders, hating how vulnerable she looked right then. “Come on. You need to sit. We’ll talk this out.” He led her to the kitchen, where she slid onto one of the stools at the island. “Wine or beer?”

“Beer.” Frankie waited until she’d had a long drink from the bottle before she asked, “How long have you believed we’re mates?” She thought back to the way he’d behaved at the coffeehouse, how he’d watched her like a hawk, touched her with so much possessiveness. “It’s been since that first day, hasn’t it?”

Trick planted a hand on the island on either side of her, caging her in. “I knew the moment our eyes met outside the coffeehouse and my world tilted that you’re mine.”

“You were so sure so quickly?”

He gently brushed her nose with his. “How much do you know about mating bonds?”

Being half shifter, she’d made a point of learning about mating bonds by reading blogs written by shifters. “They’re metaphysical. Once they’re fully formed, they’re only breakable by death. They join the couple so closely that it’s rare that one can live without the other.”

“That’s right. Some pairs recognize each other as their true mates instantly—not often, but it does happen. Then the mating urge kicks in, and it literally drives the couple to claim each other.”

She’d read about that, read that it was like a fever in the bloodstream that sent the person’s arousal soaring, and the arousal wouldn’t go away until the couple bonded. “I haven’t felt any mating urge.”

“Because something’s blocking the bond. It’s like a frequency; the way needs to be clear for the couple to pick it up. Fears, secrets, and doubts can block a bond. I don’t have to wonder what’s blocking ours. You’re struggling to balance everything. You’re trying to find a way to belong to both worlds—in doing that, you’re splitting yourself in half. All of you has to accept your shifter side.”

Frankie bristled, pausing with the bottle halfway to her mouth. “I do accept my wolf. Always have.”

“Not talking about your wolf. I’m talking about what comes with her: your heritage, your past, your pack—especially since mating with me will mean moving to pack territory. In case you’re wondering, no, you are not expected to give up your job. You’re not the only pack member who has one. The only thing you would be giving up is this house.” But accepting all that would mean the Newmans would likely turn on her.

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