Lydia spoke. “Frankie, this is Clara—my godmother and honorary aunt. And these are her sons, Cruz, Eke, and Wendel. If you need to tell the triplets apart, just remember that Cruz is the one with an earring, Eke is the one with shoulder-length hair, and Wendel is the one with the scar on his forehead.”
Frankie forced a smile and said a quick greeting, hoping she was hiding that she was shockingly locked in an inner battle with her wolf. The moment the strangers walked in and the scent of rain, brine, and burned wood hit her nose, the animal had gone crazy. Snarled, growled, and swiped out with her claws. Her wolf wanted to surface and lunge. The scent had set her off—a scent that belonged to all three of them, since the triplets were identical.
Clara clasped her hands together. “You look so much like your mother it’s uncanny. Doesn’t she, boys?”
“It’s good that you’ve reconnected with the family,” said Eke.
Cruz nodded. “We’ve wanted that for a long time.”
“I have one of your sculptures in my cabin,” Wendel told her. “I bought it a few years back. Rosa.”
Eke looked at Wendel and tilted his head. “You mean the clay woman’s head? Her face is beautiful, but it’s rotting in places?”
“That’s the one,” said Wendel. His gaze returned to Frankie as he added, “The eyes—I don’t know how you did it, but whatever angle I stand at, I feel like its eyes are on me. Always feel like it’s looking right at me.”
“Oh, I’ve seen that piece,” said Clara. “I have to say, it scared me. I hope you’ll come for dinner sometime, Francesca. It would be lovely to get to know you.”
Frankie just smiled, thankful that Clara didn’t notice how strained the smile was. Wendel noticed, though. His eyes narrowed slightly, but he didn’t comment. Only once the four Bjorn wolves disappeared down the tunnel with Jaime as their escort did Frankie’s wolf settle down.
Taking a centering breath, Frankie rubbed at her chest. Her wolf had never had such a visceral, violent reaction to a scent. Frankie could only conclude that the animal didn’t have good memories of one—if not all three—of the people it belonged to.
“You okay, Frankie?” asked Lydia, concerned.
Frankie blanked her expression. “Sure.”
Lydia didn’t appear convinced, but she smiled. “Good. How about we go see Iris now?”
“Won’t she be too tired to stand another visit?”
“Clara and the triplets weren’t in there very long, and seeing you will lift her spirits.” As Lydia led Frankie through the tunnels, she said, “I have to be honest with you, Frankie, this may be the last time you’re able to speak with her. She’s weakening fast. I’d give it two days at most before she’s gone.”
In that case Frankie was glad she’d come. “I won’t keep her too long.”
Finally they reached Iris’s room. Lydia entered first. “Hey, Mom. You up to seeing another visitor?” She opened the door wide, revealing Frankie.
Iris beamed. “I was hoping you’d come back.”
Frankie smiled, veiling her shock at just how much Iris had weakened. Her face was pale and haggard, and her voice was weak and hoarse.
“How are you?” Iris asked.
Frankie sat in the armchair near the bed. “Good, thanks.”
“You smell like Trick. Do I detect a romance? Going by the mark on your neck, I certainly should.”
Iris swallowed. “I’m relieved that I was here long enough to see you find him. Now I don’t have to worry about you. Trick’s a good boy. My favorite of the Phoenix boys, but don’t tell the others I said that. He’ll take care of you. And you’ll let him,” she insisted. “Now, you’ve had some time to think since we last spoke. You said you were curious about your father. I have some photo albums I’d like to show you, but there’s no pressure. If you’re not ready for that yet or would rather not see them, that’s fine too.”
Kind of curious, Frankie said, “Show me.”
At Iris’s request, Lydia dug them out of the closet and placed them on the bed. She then perched herself on the side of the mattress.
Iris selected the first album and opened it. “As you can probably tell by the Christmas tree in the corner, this was the first Christmas they spent together. They hadn’t realized they were mates, but I think they may have suspected it. That sack Christopher is carrying was full of gifts for her. The handsome hunk in the background is my Alfie.”
Frankie leaned forward in the armchair as she studied the photos of her parents, which showed them opening their gifts, eating turkey, drinking wine, feeding each other pudding, having a snow fight, and celebrating New Year’s Eve. They looked so happy and infatuated with each other.
There were pictures of other people too, such as Iris, Lydia, Clara, Clara’s sons, and someone Iris told her was Clara’s mate, Cesar. They truly looked like one big happy family.
Opening another album, Iris said, “Ah, these are of the mating ceremony. It was simple but beautiful. Not sure how much you know about the ceremonies, but I’ll tell you because you’ll be having your own soon enough. You’ll get all dressed up, and then someone will escort you to a clearing on the territory. The others will already be there, gathered in a circle around Trey and Trick. Once you’ve been escorted into the circle, Trey will recite some words. They don’t have any true power, they’re just ceremonial, but it’s a public way of saying you accept and love each other.”
Lydia stroked a finger over a photo of a younger version of herself holding Caroline’s hand. “Her dress was so beautiful. She looked perfect.”
She really did, thought Frankie. Caroline’s diamond-studded dress of lilac silk was long and hugged her body just right.
“Christopher was so nervous,” said Iris. “But he instantly settled once she walked into the circle.” Turning a page, she added, “These are shots of the after-party.”
Frankie blinked in surprise at seeing Brad and her grandparents in the pictures. “They attended the ceremony?”
“Oh yes,” confirmed Iris. “I don’t think they were very comfortable, though we did our best to make them feel welcome.”
In one picture Frankie noticed Brad in the background, glaring at Christopher. “Brad didn’t like him much, huh?”
“No, he didn’t,” said Lydia. “He took an instant dislike to him. It didn’t seem to be prejudice. Maybe he just felt that his sister could do better, or maybe he just wanted her to live among humans. Marcia and Geoffrey were cordial enough, though I don’t think a shifter would have been their preferred choice of partner for Caroline. The hate they feel for us now didn’t come until after the murder. And who could blame them for that hatred?”
As Iris slowly flicked through the album, Frankie couldn’t help but observe that . . . “Wendel watched my mother a lot.”
Iris looked amused. “So did his brothers and most of the unmated males in the pack. She had such a fragility about her that it made everyone want to sweep her up and protect her.”
The fact that the other males seemed to covet his mate didn’t appear to bother Christopher. He was always laughing and joking with them in the photos, especially Cruz, whom he was pictured with often. “Looks like Christopher and Cruz were close.”