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As they neared the kitchen, the smell of greasy food made her stomach roll. But her attention was on the sound of someone crying. No, a recording of someone crying.

“I love you, Taryn,” sobbed Greta. “I really do. I should have told you that before.”

A loud voice overrode the recording. “That is not me.”

“Greta, it’s a video,” said Taryn. “We can all see you on it, clear as day.”

“It’s not me,” Greta insisted.

“Woman, we know what you look like.”

At that moment Frankie and Trick walked into the kitchen. Heads turned their way, and several pairs of bloodshot eyes met theirs. It made her feel slightly better to know that she wasn’t the only one suffering . . . though she had to admit that none of them looked quite as bad as her.

Lydia winced. “Damn, sweetie, I thought I looked like shit.”

Frankie wanted to speak, but all that came out was a grunt.

Trick sighed and spoke to Lydia. “Frankie’s body is here. She is not.”

Asshole.

A few hours later, Grace suggested a pack run. Everybody, including the kids, went along. The wolves all padded through the woods, ambushing one another and play fighting. Riley’s raven repeatedly dive-bombed Greta and circled the kids to make them laugh.

After a while they all settled in a small clearing. Some rested on the ground or lapped at the river, while others pounced and wrestled each other to the ground. Savannah dangled from a tree branch and threw acorns at the other kids—Dexter then collected the acorns and either put them in his pocket or tossed them in the river.

Frankie’s wolf sprawled on the ground, enjoying the heat of the sun. Her mate stayed close at all times, protective and possessive. Whenever he crowded her too much, she snapped her teeth. He either licked at her jaw in apology or growled in frustration.

Hours later, when she shifted back into her human form, Frankie was feeling a lot better. Which was a good thing, since she’d previously agreed to have dinner at Clara’s house that evening. The invite had also been extended to Trick, Lydia, and Cam, so all four of them hopped into the SUV, and Trick drove them to Bjorn Pack territory.

Honestly, Frankie was a little nervous. Not just because she had no idea if Clara’s sons would be there, but also because it still felt weird to be around relative strangers who treated her as though she were one of their family.

Clara’s cabin wasn’t far from Iris’s. Neatly planted flowers surrounded it, some exotic, some common. The floral scents gave the place a restful, welcoming feel.

Clara eagerly ushered them inside and kissed their cheeks, chattering happily. Looking around, Frankie saw that the decor was earthy and rustic, full of antiques and knickknacks. Clara had good taste.

While the home was smaller than Iris’s cabin, Frankie couldn’t help but note that she didn’t feel cramped, whereas the house she’d grown up in was three times this size, yet she’d felt more confined in that house than she had anywhere else.

Frankie couldn’t have been more relieved to hear that Clara’s sons wouldn’t be there. The scents of lavender, lacquered wood, and sizzling-hot food also went a long way to putting her at ease. And when Clara and Cesar sensed that Frankie and Trick were mated, they were so delighted that more of her tension slipped away.

Everyone talked and laughed at the dining table. All the while, the TV played low in the background since, as Cesar told his mate, “If I can’t watch the game, I can at least listen to it from here.”

Trick was constantly touching Frankie—toying with the ends of her hair, rubbing his jaw against her temple, pressing light kisses to her cheek, skimming his fingers over the back of her hand—reassuring her that he was there, that she wasn’t alone, and keeping her wolf steady.

Aside from the moment where she almost knocked her wine over, everything went pretty well. The food was spectacular. For their first course, they had tomato soup with hot, freshly baked rolls. The second course was steak, ribs, fried onions, and chunky fries with a side salad. For dessert Clara brought out a Mississippi mud pie in honor of Iris, as it had been a favorite of hers.

Before anyone could cut the pie, Lydia piped up. “Wait!” She pulled out her cell phone. “I have to snap a picture of this to show Grace. She’ll think it’s amazing.”

The ice tinkled against the glass as Clara lifted her drink and said, “I noticed that you and Trick were close, Frankie, but I didn’t think you were mates. I was so caught up with what was happening with Iris that I wasn’t really paying much attention. Did she know?”

Frankie nodded. “I told her.”

A smile curled Clara’s mouth. “I’m glad. That will have eased her worries for you. We talked about you during her last few days, and she said how wonderful you were. She was proud of the person you’ve become. It broke her heart that you’d felt so alone all these years. I know you had your maternal relatives, but a wolf without a pack can often feel very lonely.”

“I suppose they weren’t happy to hear you’ve moved to pack territory,” guessed Cesar.

Frankie bit her lower lip. “They don’t know yet.” Under the table, Trick rested his hand on her knee and gave it a comforting squeeze.

Cesar sighed. “I’m sorry that things have worked out this way, Frankie, and you’ve been forced to choose, but I can’t be sorry for their sake. They caused Iris a lot of pain when they kept you from her.”

Feeling unexpectedly defensive of them, she said, “They’re not awful people.”

“Of course they’re not.” Clara cut into the pie and began serving everyone pieces. “They love you, Frankie. Always have. I must admit, I was initially worried that they wouldn’t accept you at all.”

“Why?” asked Cam, taking the word right out of Frankie’s mouth.

“We were overjoyed when we heard Caroline was pregnant,” said Clara. “It never occurred to me that they might not be so pleased. But I found her sitting under her willow tree behind her cabin, crying. They were already upset with her for giving up her teacher’s job, even though she’d been unhappy at the school, and she thought that hearing she was pregnant might appease them. It didn’t.”

Lydia sighed. “They’d hoped she’d one day leave Christopher.”

Confused, Frankie said, “But my parents were mated.”

“Yes, but I don’t think the Newmans quite understand the concept of true mates.” Cesar paused, stroking his mustache. “In fact, I don’t think they want to understand.”

Clara nodded, but she didn’t speak until she’d swallowed the food she was chewing. “Iris once told me that she overheard Caroline telling her mother how amazing it was to find and bond with the other half of your soul—that she felt complete. Her mother told her not to be so adolescent and foolish, said there was no such thing as soul mates and that Caroline needed to wake up and see that she didn’t belong here.”

Sounds like something Marcia would say, Frankie thought as she forked up some pie.

“I don’t believe that your grandmother is a bad person,” Clara went on. “Not at all. But I think she felt like she was losing Caroline. Her daughter used to live quite close to her. Suddenly she was living on pack territory, surrounded by other people and madly in love with a male who had a bond with her that no other connection could ever surpass.”

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