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His presence also reassured her wolf, who didn’t like being on Bjorn territory, which surprised Frankie. She had been born there. She’d spent the first three years of her life there. But her wolf wasn’t moved by that. Nor was she comforted by some of the scents that she vaguely recognized. Then again, graveyards weren’t exactly comforting places.

All in all, this particular graveyard seemed to be pretty well maintained. There were several rows of carved headstones, some granite, some marble, some concrete. Most were well kept and had decorative flower beds and framed portraits. Others were cracked and discolored, with patches of overgrown grass and dead wreaths. She wondered if the neglect signified that the people buried there hadn’t been well liked by the other members.

Frankie hadn’t failed to notice the marble headstone beside Iris’s: “CHRISTOPHER BROOKS, BELOVED SON AND BROTHER.” His grave showed no signs of neglect and wasn’t covered in graffiti, as she might have expected. He’d killed his mate and himself, after all. Maybe the headstone had been left alone out of respect for Iris, Alfie, and Lydia.

Speaking of Lydia . . . Frankie briefly glanced at her. The female was leaning into Cam, shoulders bowed, eyes raw, silent tears coursing down her face. She’d insisted that Frankie stand at the front of the mourners, among the other people who’d been close to Iris. Honestly, it made Frankie feel like a gawker, since she hadn’t known Iris well enough to grieve as deeply as they were, but Lydia had refused to budge on it.

Considering the two packs had once been one and there was some serious history there, Frankie would have thought that there would be some glaring or posturing going on. Instead everybody was reasonably civil. For the most part, though, the packs remained divided even at the graveside. The Phoenix wolves stood on the left, and the Bjorn wolves stood on the right. Only a few wolves had breached that invisible line and—

The whispering of her name snapped Frankie out of her thoughts. She didn’t look to see who was murmuring about her now. Instead she stared straight ahead and squeezed Trick’s hand. His thumb brushed over her knuckles. She wanted to force a cough to clear the thick lump in her throat, but she didn’t want to make any noise or draw more attention her way.

When the service finally reached its end, Lydia tossed some dirt on top of the smooth casket. Uttering something under her breath, she gave a quick, watery smile. Then she walked into her mate’s open arms. Others followed suit, throwing soil on the casket and whispering things. Frankie . . . well, she kind of just stood there, feeling lost.

As if sensing that, Trick pulled her to him, carefully brushing her hair out of her face. “Let’s go wait for the others in the SUV so you can privately let go of that sob that’s stuck in your throat.”

God, he read her so well it was frightening at times. “I’m okay.” Hell, her voice cracked. He kissed her; it was a mere brush of lips, but that gentleness made her feel treasured.

“No one expects you to be okay, least of all me.” Placing one hand on her back, he began to guide her toward the SUV, but they both halted at the sound of someone calling her name.

Frankie turned to see Clara fast approaching, dabbing her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “Frankie, I’m so glad you came.” The woman enfolded her in a massive hug. Pulling back, she said, “I shouldn’t be such a mess. Iris is with Alfie now, and that was what she wanted. But I’ll miss her. This is my mate, Cesar.”

The white-haired, jowly male behind Clara gave Frankie a gentle smile and shook Trick’s hand. “It’s good to see you both, but I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

“Do you think Iris would have liked the service?” Clara asked her.

Frankie nodded. “I think she would have liked that people told funny stories.”

“Yes. She wouldn’t have wanted everyone to be in a dark mood. Oh, Josh is signaling me. I’ll see you at the reception,” she added as she and Cesar walked away.

Frankie’s heart stuttered. She’d originally assumed that the reception would be held on Phoenix Pack territory, but Trick had told her on the way here that it was instead being held at Iris and Alfie’s old home. A place from Frankie’s childhood. A place where her father had grown up, that her mother had visited frequently, and where Frankie had played as a child.

According to Lydia, it was also the closest cabin to Frankie’s childhood home. She didn’t feel ready to go back. Wasn’t sure she ever wanted to.

Having a pretty good idea of why his mate had just gone stiff as a board, Trick ate up her personal space, cupping her face as he spoke quietly. “Baby, we don’t have to go to the reception. Iris wouldn’t give a flying fuck that you didn’t go to her cabin, eat finger food, and all that shit. She’d just be happy that you went to the burial.”

Frankie so badly wanted to grasp that out and just leave. But it would be disrespectful, selfish, and cowardly to miss the reception, wouldn’t it?

“We don’t have to go,” Trick repeated. “Honestly, my wolf would rather be home anyway. He doesn’t like it here. Too many shitty memories. And my mom’s pissing him off, because she keeps scowling at Trey.”

Yeah, Frankie had noticed that. She’d known Trick’s mother instantly because she’d seen him wear that same scowl. He’d inherited her brown eyes, high cheekbones, and full mouth. Frankie wasn’t sure where he got his height and burly build from, but it sure hadn’t come from his father. The guy was built like a rake and was a foot shorter than Trick.

“Aren’t you going to talk to them?” she asked.

“There’s no point when Trey’s around. Uma’s not so bad if I’m on my own or with Marcus, but she feels the need to maintain a bitchy demeanor when Trey’s around. Right now, my concern is you. I can’t guarantee she’d resist taking potshots at him right here at the graveside, even though she liked and respected Iris. I don’t want you exposed to that.”

“This day is about Iris.” Frankie licked her lips. “That’s why I’m going to the reception.”

Trick’s eyes narrowed a little. “It’s okay if you can’t handle it. It doesn’t make you weak.”

“No, but it would make me a self-centered coward.” She gripped his arms. “I’ve had my self-centered moments in the past, but I’ve never been a coward. I’m not going to start that shit now.”

He sighed. “That both irritates me and fills me with pride.” Trick didn’t want her in a place where she felt even remotely uncomfortable, but he respected why she felt she needed to be there, and he admired her for being able to push past that anxiety. His gaze pinned hers, all seriousness now. “An hour. We’ll stay for no longer than an hour. If you feel uncomfortable or want to leave for any reason at all before then, you tell me. I’ll claim that I received a call and I need to leave. Okay?”

She smiled. “You’re awesome. You know that?”

“Of course I know that.”

“It saddens me that you have such self-esteem issues,” she said drily.

Jaime appeared then, using her knuckle to wipe away a tear. “You guys ready to go back?”

Trick rested his hand in the crook of Frankie’s neck. “Actually, we’re going to the reception.”

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