A disturbing amount of possessiveness coated his latter words, and Frankie stilled as the truth hit her. “Did she know?”
“That you loved her a little too much?” It explained why he’d never been in a relationship and didn’t have a family of his own. All he’d wanted was Caroline. It even explained why he thought of Frankie as a daughter. “I’ll bet my father sensed it. No wonder he wanted her far away from you.”
Brad swallowed. “I was never going to allow him to keep her from me.”
“So you gave Cruz a gun, even knowing that if Christopher died, she’d die.”
He scoffed. “That’s what shifters say, but it’s not true. The bond isn’t some magical thing.” He paused at the beep of a remote car lock, but the owner of the car didn’t even look their way as they hopped into their vehicle. “She was convinced that the bond was unbreakable. Convinced that she couldn’t live without him. I knew that when he was dead, she’d see the truth. See that he’d fooled her, lied to her, manipulated her.” He swallowed. “If I’d known that Cruz really meant to kill Caroline, I would never have given him that gun. I would never have urged him on. You have to believe that, Frankie.”
“Do I?” She sneered. “You say you hate that pack because they stole Caroline from you. But you knew exactly who killed her. You knew . . . and you didn’t tell anyone. You protected his identity to save your own skin and because it suited you just fine that I was taken from the pack. And then you used him in other ways—maybe even threatened to expose his secret if he didn’t do things like steal her belongings, pass the sculpture to Iris, and God knows what else you asked him to do. By that point you’d truly convinced yourself that you played no part in my mother’s death.”
“If she hadn’t mated with him and joined that pack—”
“Oh, everyone else is to blame but you, aren’t they? The person who you should be angry at is yourself. You played Cruz. You armed him. You, you, you. If you’d have exposed Cruz for what he was, I wouldn’t have almost died yesterday. That’s right, I almost died. That’s on you.”
“And you deserve to be dead for that alone,” Trick rumbled.
Brad swerved to face him, eyes widening as he noted that both Ryan and Marcus were closing in on him. Brad turned to her. “You wouldn’t let them hurt me, Frankie. I’m your uncle. Hell, I’ve been a father to you all these years—”
“Because you helped Cruz murder mine,” she snapped. “And now you’re going to pay for it.”
Fear flashed across Brad’s face, but he jutted out his chin. “You can’t prove that I did anything. There’s no evidence. If you go to the police—”
“There would be no point in handing you over to the police, although I did record your confession on the cell phone in my pocket. See, the crimes occurred on pack territory, which is out of the police’s jurisdiction. Even if there was some way they could charge you for something like conspiracy to commit murder, a good lawyer would get you off—especially since recent events prove that Cruz wasn’t entirely stable. No, the human authorities wouldn’t make you pay for what you did. But someone has to.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead. “I’m not responsible for Cruz’s actions. He was the one who stabbed and strangled your mother. He was the one who fired the bullet that killed Christopher. If Cruz really wanted them dead so badly, he’d have done it regardless.”
“Maybe Cruz would still have killed my parents without you feeding his anger and giving him that gun—I guess we’ll never know. But you gave him that gun knowing he intended to kill my father. You say you loved Caroline, but it sure didn’t bother you that her killer wasn’t brought to justice. No, you protected his identity and let my father take the blame for something he never did. Heartbreakingly, both his parents died believing he was truly guilty of it.
“Because of you, I lost my parents and was taken from my mate, my paternal family, and my pack. Call me a bitch, but I can’t let any of that go. I don’t think either of my parents would want me to—not after all the pain you caused, not after I almost died. And I really can’t expect Trick to let it go. Not when we’ve been apart all these years because of what you did, and not when you betrayed me and my mother the way you did—he’s my mate, he’ll never be able to overlook that someone hurt me that way.” She cut her gaze to Trick. “I’m done.”
Brad’s eyes bulged as Trick grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. “Wait! What are you doing?”
“Like I said, you need to pay for what you did,” Frankie told him, astonished she could sound so very calm.
“They’ll kill me!”
“Maybe. To be honest, I don’t want to know what they’ll do to you. All I’ve asked is that they make you . . . disappear. They’ve assured me they can stage things so that it looks like you packed your shit and left. People will certainly believe that when they hear the recorded confession and I tell them how I assured you that I’d be sharing it.”
Fear blazed in his eyes. “This will destroy Marcia and Geoffrey.”
“You should have thought about that before you gave Cruz that gun,” said Frankie. “But I think it’s been a very long time since you’ve thought of anyone but yourself.” With that, she turned her back on Brad and strode over to the SUV.
Four months later
Frankie carefully swiped the fine paintbrush over the clay fang, making it a dull white to match the others. It was the last unpainted tooth within the ugly, prehistoric dire wolf’s mouth. She hadn’t yet decided whether to add drops of red paint to the jaws. She probably should, since she’d streaked it over his lower legs—as if he’d trampled through a river of blood during his travels. His claws were thick and long, but one was sharper and longer than the others; it looked more like a knife, and she’d painted it bloodred.
Yes, she was well aware that the creature symbolized Cruz in some way. He’d been metaphorically knee-deep in blood. He’d killed her mother with a knife. And if anyone were to look beneath the large paws of the sculpted wolf, they would see black spots resembling the gun residue that should have been on his hands. Christopher’s finger might have been on the trigger, but he never would have shot himself. His death was on Cruz.
After clearing the rubble and unearthing Cruz’s body, the Bjorn wolves had confirmed that he was in fact killed by the cabin’s collapse. His family was naturally devastated by everything. They were mourning him while also hating what he’d done and feeling ashamed for being blind to it all. Clara felt particularly guilty, knowing the pain her son had caused her best friend. So guilty, in fact, that she hadn’t felt she deserved to attend Frankie and Trick’s mating ceremony—nothing they’d said had managed to convince her otherwise.
Putting down the paintbrush, Frankie took a swig from her water bottle. The mating ceremony had gone exactly how Iris had told Frankie it would. The whole thing had still felt almost magical. Her wolf had loved every second of it.
The after-party had been a blast. Taryn had tried getting Greta rotten drunk, but she’d had no luck. The old woman apparently wasn’t going to take any chances that she’d pour out any more of her true feelings.