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“Christopher wasn’t a bad person,” Lydia insisted. “He worshipped the ground Caroline, his mate, walked on. They argued, sure, and he had a temper, but . . . it was just so out of character for him to harm her. There was no way to work out exactly what happened that night. There was only one witness—their daughter, my niece. She was only three at the time.”

Jaime smiled weakly. “She was my favorite playmate.”

Trick remembered little Francesca well. She’d been the youngest of the pups, so they’d all been very protective of her. She’d been bright and full of life, and he’d teased her often by tugging on her curls and chasing her around.

Even though she’d been tiny and delicate looking, no one had thought of her as weak. She was born prematurely and had gone through such a complicated birth that the pack healer hadn’t expected her to live more than forty-eight hours. But she’d pulled through and instantly earned a reputation as a fighter.

“Three?” Taryn echoed. She shoved a hand through her hair, pinning back the different shades of blonde. “Jesus, she must have been terrified.”

“She was the prettiest, sweetest kid you’ve ever known,” said Lydia, nostalgia in her voice. “I was only eight years older than Francesca. We were very close. Her mom was beautiful—tall and slender with blonde spiral curls. Francesca was a mini version of her, only she had Christopher’s blue eyes and dimples.”

Trick drummed his fingers on his thigh. “She’s a sculptor now, right?”

Lydia’s eyes snapped to him. “Right. How did you know that?”

He shrugged. “I looked her up a few times. I was curious about how she turned out. Her work’s good.” Very good. And very dark.

Sighing, Lydia rubbed at her nape. “I don’t know how much she saw that night, or if she even really understood what happened. I didn’t get a chance to find out.”

Taryn’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Her maternal family is human. They were devastated by their daughter’s death—blamed my brother, my family, the pack. They wanted to take Francesca, and they did. The pack would have fought to keep her, but she seemed so traumatized. Mom thought that being away from the territory for a little while would be good for her, but what Mom hadn’t counted on was that the humans would refuse to allow us to even visit her. They wanted all shifters out of her life, regardless of the fact that Francesca was half shifter herself.”

“Bastards,” muttered Riley.

“Mom appealed to the human courts for access to her, but her grandparents are mega-rich and they hired an attorney that ran circles around ours. We lost the case and were cut out of Francesca’s life. Once I was old enough, I started to watch over her from afar. I had Rhett check on her and keep me updated. I passed on that information to Mom, who was heartbroken about being parted from her grandchild. We just wanted to be sure that Francesca was happy, healthy, and safe.”

“Is she?” asked Makenna.

“It seems so,” replied Lydia. “The Newmans gave her a good life. So many times I thought about contacting her, but I was worried that she wouldn’t want to hear from us. I mean, my brother did kill her mother. It was enough for us to know that she was okay. But Mom isn’t going to last long.”

Though Lydia’s mother, Iris, was a proud woman who liked to look after herself, she’d agreed to transfer to their pack so that Lydia could help care for her. Having recently lost her mate, Iris was weakening fast—many shifters died after losing their mate. Trick suspected that Iris had agreed to move here mostly so she could spend what time she had left with her daughter.

“She’d like to see Francesca just once before she passes on,” Lydia added.

“You’ve contacted Francesca already,” Marcus guessed.

“I sent her an e-mail earlier today, asking if she’d agree to visit. It was an impulsive decision. I’m sorry I didn’t run it by you first,” Lydia told the Alphas. “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting her to answer. But she did.”

“And?” prodded Taryn.

“Well, it was weird.”

Trick frowned. “Weird how?”

Lydia bit her lip. “She doesn’t seem to have a clue who I am.”

CHAPTER TWO

Tao opened and closed his mouth a few times. “How can she not know who you are?”

“I don’t know.” Lydia lifted a shaky hand to her face. “I wasn’t mysterious in the e-mail; I was clear about who I was.”

Riley leaned forward, but Tao pulled her back against him. “Read me the e-mail you sent her,” she said to Lydia, digging her elbow into Tao’s ribs—he only grunted.

Lydia’s thumbs tapped at the screen of her cell phone a few times.

“‘Dear Francesca,

I doubt you’ll remember me well, if at all. But you knew me very well as a child, before you left the pack and went to live with your grandparents. Your father, Christopher, was my older brother. Given what happened all those years ago, I can understand if you don’t wish to have anything to do with the paternal side of your family. But we would very much like to see you. My mother, your grandmother, has been given mere weeks to live. She loves you very much—we both do. If you could find it in your heart to see her just one time, it would mean everything to her. I hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes,

Your Aunt Lydia’”

“And her response?” asked Trey.

“‘I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong Francesca Newman. Good luck with finding who you’re looking for.’”

Dante narrowed his eyes. “Is it possible that you have the wrong person?”

“No way.” Lydia shook her head, adamant. “I’m sure this is her. I’ve been following her life for a long time. I’ve seen pictures of her online—she still looks like Caroline.”

Trick scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “If she doesn’t know who you are, I’d say her grandparents have fed her bullshit about her past.”

“Crap.” Lydia raked a hand through her hair. “Now I don’t know what to do. If she doesn’t know about me, if they’ve fed her a different story, my contacting her will upset her life. I don’t want that. Maybe I should agree that I got the wrong person.” She looked at Cam for advice, but he shrugged.

“This has to be your decision, sweetheart,” Cam told her.

“I don’t think that backtracking will work,” said Trick. “There are enough facts in that e-mail to make her wonder. Her mother’s dead, she lives with her grandparents, she doesn’t have her father in her life. She’s not going to ignore all that. She’ll look into it, talk to her grandparents about it.”

“Trick’s right,” said Marcus, rubbing at the dark stubble on his jaw. “There’s little point in going back now. But if you want to drop this, that’s your decision. We’ll respect it.”

Jaime nodded. “I can understand that you’re reluctant to upset her, Lydia, but she has every right to know the truth. I’m mad as hell that they lied to her all this time.”

Lydia swallowed. “But the truth is pretty harsh, isn’t it?”

“She still has a right to know,” Grace firmly stated. “And I’d like to see her again. She wasn’t in my life for long, but I see her as one of us.”

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