It was really a good thing that Frankie Newman had never needed a knight in shining armor, because she’d only ever come across complete idiots wrapped in tinfoil. The guy in front of her was no exception.
Vance studied her appearance, taking in her protective clothes and the goggles she’d pushed onto her forehead. “I, um, guess you were busy.”
“Good guess.” But he hadn’t had to guess. The sound of rock music blasting would have told him she was working. But then, Vance didn’t see her job as “work.” He saw it as more of a cute hobby that she should have grown out of by now. It didn’t matter that her sculptures were displayed in galleries or that she had an established reputation. Much like her grandparents, he didn’t take her profession seriously.
Ordinarily she’d have ignored the incessant knocking, but she’d thought he was her agent, who was due to arrive any moment now.
He patted the cardboard box he was holding. “I found some of your stuff lying around. I thought you might want it back.”
“Thanks,” she said, tone flat. He stepped forward, clearly expecting her to move aside and let him pass. Not gonna happen. She grabbed the box and set it beside her on the hardwood floor.
He cleared his throat. “How are you?”
“Fine.” She’d be a hell of a lot better when he left. The wolf within her stirred, raring to swipe her claws at the human to warn him away. She wasn’t a forgiving animal.
He scrubbed a hand down his face. “Shit, Frankie, I . . .” He sighed. “You have every right to be mad at me for getting back together with Layla, and I don’t—”
“I’m not mad that you went back to her.” She’d liked Vance’s company, and he was certainly good in bed, but Frankie didn’t love him. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t guessed that he still cared for Layla—a guy didn’t constantly trash-talk his ex unless she was on his mind a little too much. But Frankie hadn’t been mad about it back then; she knew that getting over someone wasn’t a simple thing and that feelings couldn’t be switched on and off.
While Layla had messed with his head by sending bitchy texts, posting pics of herself on Facebook kissing other guys, and even sleeping with one of his friends, Frankie had been there for him. The moment he’d “healed,” he’d gone right on back to Layla. It seemed that they both got off on the drama or something.
His brow creased a little. “You’re not?”
“No. But I am pissed that you led me to believe that you wouldn’t go back to her. I’m pissed that I spent time out of my life being there for you, worrying about you, supporting you while she hurt you, when you ultimately planned to go back to her.”
He held up a hand. “I swear, Frankie, I didn’t plan it. I didn’t want to hurt you, and I hate that I did.”
“If you want to prove it, tell her to stop stalking me online. Tell her to stop leaving stupid comments on my Facebook fan page. Every time I block her, she creates another profile and does it again.”
He winced. “I know. I told her to stop. She . . . obsesses about you. She refuses to believe that I’m over you. The more I deny it, the more she seems to believe that she’s right. I can’t win here.”
“Well, maybe if you stopped texting and calling me when you’re hammered and explained to Layla that you and I aren’t all that well suited, she’d simmer down.”
He bristled. “We suited each other just fine.” The sexual implication in his voice was clear.
“In bed, sure. Out of it? Not so much.” Which had disappointed her grandparents, because they’d loved the idea of her and the attorney—particularly her grandmother, who was close friends with his mother. “But that doesn’t matter now. Really, Vance, you should just go. I hope things work out for you and Layla, and I hope you’ll make her see reason and stop bothering me.” She tried to close the door, but his hand shot out to hold it open.
“I was hoping we could go back to being friends again. We were friends before we started dating, remember.”
Frankie wouldn’t have described them as “friends.” Acquaintances who’d met through her grandparents? Yes. Actual friends? Nah. “Look, I have no intention of bad-mouthing you to my grandmother, if that’s your worry, so the full story isn’t going to reach your mother unless you tell her.”
“I already told her, and she’s pissed at me. Not that she said as much. My mother’s a big believer of ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ ‘Silence is golden’ is one of her favorite phrases.”
The unnecessary use of a proverb made Frankie’s frown deepen. She just didn’t get the need for proverbs. Like ‘All good things come to those who wait.’ Really? Weird, because she hadn’t won the lottery yet. Like ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too.’ Well, why not? She wasn’t going to buy a cake for no good reason; it was stupid to think differently. Like ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ Um, no it wasn’t—and never had—rained cats and dogs.
Why use a proverb when you could just use a phrase that made sense?
Well, Frankie had news for Vance’s mother: silence was silence. It was nothing—couldn’t be heard, seen, or touched. It therefore did not physically exist, and couldn’t be any color whatsoever, let alone golden.
But she didn’t want to prolong her conversation with Vance, so she simply said, “I have to go. I hope things work out for you and Layla this time round.” Just then a familiar Mercedes convertible parked behind Vance’s car. Frankie smiled as a middle-aged redhead dressed in a tailored blouse and skirt hopped out of the car.
“Who’s that?” asked Vance.
His brow creased. “You have an agent?”
“You don’t need to sound so surprised. You may not approve of my job, but others do.”
“It’s not that I don’t approve. It’s that you could be so much more.”
Like sculpting was easy and something to sniff haughtily at. “You take care now, Vance.” The dismissal clearly rankled, and his jaw hardened. Yeah, well, his dismissal of her career rankled too.
Striding up the path, Abigail took in Frankie’s appearance and said, “You’ve been working. Good.”
Frankie smiled. “Well, hello to you too.” She counted Abigail as a friend, which Frankie didn’t have many of. She’d never been a particularly social person and often buried herself in her work.
“You know I’m not one for pleasantries.” Abigail eyed Vance curiously. “And who might you be?”
“Oh, the attorney who crawled back to his ex.” Yeah, that was Abigail—she didn’t spare anyone’s feelings.
His eyes hardened. “I didn’t crawl anywhere.”
“He has fabulous cheekbones, Frankie. You should sculpt his face. Then we can shatter the nose, break the jaw. Maybe even scalp it.”
Frankie saw some appeal in the idea, but . . . “It would be a waste of clay.”
Frankie stepped aside to let Abigail pass. “See you around, Vance. Give Layla my best.” She closed the door, headed down the hallway, turned right, and walked into the studio attached to the house. She’d had it built a few years ago to her specifications. The high ceiling, spotlights, large windows, and good ventilation system made it a perfect work space.
Sunlight streamed through the open roll-up door, outside which she’d sectioned off a part of her backyard to use for bigger, more challenging sculptures. Tools, materials, and other equipment lined the walls; some sat on benches or shelves, others on metal racks or the floor, ensuring she had plenty of space to work.
Abigail’s high heel clicked on the cold concrete floor as she stood near the locked door of the display room, tapping her foot impatiently. Frankie kept all her finished sculptures inside, and she’d recently completed a commissioned piece for the owner of a New York art gallery. She fished the keys out of the pocket of her coveralls and unlocked the door.
Eyes alight with eagerness, Abigail walked inside and pointed to a veiled sculpture. “This it?”
“It is.” Frankie gently removed the cover, and there it was. A life-size child sat on a rickety chair, her head drooping forward so that her long black hair covered her face. Her gray nightie was dirty and ragged and stopped just below the knees. Deep scratches covered her legs and arms.
“Jesus, Frankie, she almost looks alive. This is terrifying. Honestly, my nape’s prickling—like someone’s watching me. This sets off that same feeling of danger. You’ve never used synthetic hair in a sculpture before, have you?”
“No.” Frankie made mixed-media sculptures, liking to combine different materials in her projects.
“She looks spooky, and it makes me wonder if she’s a victim or a creepy evil kid. Makes me want to part her hair to see what her face looks like. At the same time, I don’t want to know.”
“That’s the point. Pierre wanted something that reflects how often we’re too scared to look close enough to see what could be a dark truth, how often we see what we want to see.”
“He’s going to love it.”
Frankie had gained quite a rep for creating dark sculptures. She rarely set out to make something dark, but often the finished result looked like something she’d plucked right out of a hellish nightmare.
“What are you going to call it?”
“Shit, even that’s spooky.” Abigail shivered. “You must have extremely bleak dreams.”
She’d had nightmares as a child, but she could only recall flashes of them now. Remembered the snarling. The crying. The scary shadows. The sheer terror that had seized her. But the images had never made sense, had never come together to create a clear picture.
“Really, Frankie, I wouldn’t have thought I’d like this kind of work. Wouldn’t have thought I could truly admire it, let alone properly represent someone who created it. But every piece is so powerful that it touches me on some level—and sometimes it’s a level that I don’t like.”
Frankie’s mouth curved. “Good. If they don’t touch people—” She cut herself off as her phone beeped. “Hang on just a sec.” She dug her phone out of her pocket and opened the e-mail she’d received. She read it. Then she read it again. Then she read it again. The words began to blur, and she realized her hand was shaking.
“Is everything all right?”
Unable to properly process what she’d read, Frankie burst out, “What the fuck is this?”
Lounging in an armchair, Trick Hardy twisted the small object in his hand this way and that, studying it from every angle . . . as if it could somehow answer the many questions he had. His pack mates were spread across the room—perched on the sofa, sprawled in the armchairs, and sitting on the floor. They’d waited until the children were in bed before meeting to discuss the issue.
Taryn, the Alpha female, gaped at Trick. “You’re seriously telling me that four of the pack’s vehicles had been tagged with GPS trackers like that one? Jesus.”
“Someone obviously wants to monitor our movements,” said her mate, Trey, his large form pacing in front of the sofa. “Why?”
Dominic, an enforcer, tapped his fingers on the arm of a plush chair. “Packs always have reasons to want to keep a close eye on others.”
Makenna frowned. “Yeah, but using trackers isn’t exactly normal, is it? It seems extreme.” Her mate, Ryan, grunted in agreement. The gruff enforcer didn’t talk much. Luckily—and weirdly—Makenna seemed able to translate his grunts.
“Could be that someone’s trying to learn our patterns,” mused Trick. “Or maybe they’re waiting until the tagged vehicles are all gone at once.”
Trey’s arctic-blue gaze narrowed. “Waiting for a time when the pack might be vulnerable, you mean.”
Trick shrugged. “It’s a theory.”
“By monitoring our movements, they’re monitoring the kids’ movements,” said Tao, the Head Enforcer, golden-brown eyes flashing. Sitting on the floor with his mate between his legs, he lightly massaged her stiff shoulders. Riley, a raven shifter, was the pack’s Guardian and watched over the five children.
“It would be a good idea to keep them on our territory as much as possible,” said Ryan. He cast his mate a pointed look, since Makenna liked taking their baby girl to the homeless shelter for lone shifters where she worked.
Sniffing, Makenna flicked her long, multicolored, beach-layered waves over her shoulder.
“There’s no way to tell how long the trackers have been here,” said Riley. “That bugs me—no pun intended—because it means we have no idea just how much of our movements have been recorded.”
“Whoever planted the trackers will know we found them—they switched off the moment they were removed,” said Marcus, another enforcer. “They didn’t look particularly high tech to me.”
Rhett, their IT expert and hacker, said, “They weren’t. You could easily buy a batch of them online.”
Taryn eyed the one that Trick was fiddling with as she said, “Thank God the mechanic spotted it when he gave the SUV a tune-up, or we might never have known about them.”
Dante, the Beta male, stretched out his long legs. “I doubt whoever did it will risk planting any more, but we should still be careful. If we leave our territory, we should check the vehicles afterward—it wouldn’t be hard to plant a tracker while we’re out and about.”
Perched on Marcus’s lap, Roni—his mate and another enforcer—took her strawberry-flavored lollipop out of her mouth and said, “We should also be on the lookout for people tailing us. If someone really wants to keep track of our movements, they’ll find another way.”
Trick pursed his lips. “Do you think Morelli might have something to do with it, Trey?” Nash Morelli had become a pain in their asses. The wolf had built his pack by recruiting lone shifters, many of whom were assassins. He called it the Mortelle Pack, the word being French for “deadly.” Trick found the idea a little pathetic. The pack had grown over time as Morelli had targeted small packs, challenging and killing their Alphas before then giving the rest of the pack members the choice to join him or die. As such,Trick doubted the Mortelle wolves would be particularly loyal to their Alpha. The way Morelli formed a pack didn’t really say “Alpha material.” He was quite simply an asshole.
Morelli had recently called Trey to request a meeting, which would take place in a few days’ time, and no one was looking forward to it. Trick didn’t think Morelli would be dumb enough to fuck with Trey—not given the Phoenix Alpha’s dark reputation—but some people were simply . . . well . . . stupid.
“It’s possible.” Trey rolled back his wide shoulders and turned to Rhett. “Have you found anything on him yet?”
Rhett blew out a breath. “If Nash Morelli truly exists, his history has been wiped. I’m more inclined to think that the guy changed his name.”
Jaime, the Beta female, tilted her head, making her long sable hair brush her mate’s jean-clad thigh; Dante immediately began playing with it. “Should we really assume this was Morelli’s work? We’re in contact with a few packs and prides. Sure, they’re all allies, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have some reason to record our movements.”
“Jaime’s right,” said Roni. “But since we have no way to find out who it was, the only thing we can do at this point is wait and see what happens next.” She sighed, green eyes glittering with frustration.
Greta, Trey’s antisocial grandmother, patted Roni’s shoulder soothingly. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, my boys will find out one way or another.” By “boys” she meant Trey, Dante, Tao, and the male enforcers. The old woman seemed to pretty much despise Taryn, Jaime, Makenna, and Riley purely because they were mated to “her boys.” Roni had somehow tricked Greta into liking her.
“What I really don’t get is why Morelli would look for trouble when the rest of our kind is trying to win favor with humans,” said Gabe, Jaime’s brother. “I wouldn’t have thought all the PR work would pay off, but it is.”
When the radical, increasingly violent anti-shifter extremists had resorted to acts of terrorism that caused many human casualties, the groups had lost a lot of credibility. Even prejudiced humans were no longer so willing to listen to them; instead they seemed to be practicing the “live and let live” ethic. A lot of packs, prides, and other groups had pounced on that and independently begun doing PR work for shifters, hoping to counter the negative stereotypes floating around about them. The last thing shifters needed was one of their kind attracting negative attention.
“Speaking of PR, your video now has over seventy million views, Trick.” Dante’s mouth twitched. “Bet you never saw that coming.”
Trick cast him a hard look. “It’s not my video.”
Dante grinned. “Well, you’re the star.”
When Trick had fought off a gang of human boys who were about to mug and possibly assault a human female, someone caught the incident on their cell phone. He’d become a YouTube sensation overnight, and he wasn’t pleased about it. He’d carried the terrified female—who’d clung to him like a barnacle—out of the alley, and the whole thing had been romanticized.
He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t a good guy human girls should crush on. And he was damn sick of people asking him if he was the shifter savior on YouTube.
“You should be glad, Trick,” said Jaime, smoky-blue eyes dancing with mischief. “Other shifters are working hard to gain acceptance and popularity with humans by going on the radio and appearing on daytime talk shows. You accomplished that for our pack just by doing a good deed. Although I’m not so sure it would have had the same effect if you weren’t so hot.”
Each muscle in his powerful build tensing, Dante scowled at his mate. “You don’t get to call another guy ‘hot’ unless you want to get your ass spanked.”
“Maybe that’s why I did it, Popeye,” Jaime shot back with a saucy grin.
Their byplay made Trick’s chest clench and caused his wolf’s mood to sour. A deep loneliness had steadily crept up on Trick and his wolf as they’d watched their pack mates and allies find their mates, one by one. Of the adult male wolves within his pack, only he and Dominic remained unmated. There was now a bitter edge to his wolf’s loneliness.
Dante and Jaime had known each other since they were children, when they’d all belonged to the Bjorn Pack. Trick had been a teenager when it split, and he’d left with some other wolves to form the Phoenix Pack. Jaime had remained behind, too young to make the decision to leave. It wasn’t until she’d transferred to the Phoenix Pack as an adult that she and Dante had realized they were true mates.
It wasn’t uncommon for mates to fail to immediately recognize one another. Several things could jam the frequency of a mating bond, including doubts, fears, and secrets. In other words, people often let their personal shit get in the way. They didn’t listen to their inner animals and sometimes even blinded themselves to the obvious out of fear.
Personally, Trick didn’t get it. What was so bad about having a mate? Nothing. Sure, your life would change in many ways, but you’d also be whole and happy in a way that you could never otherwise be.
Unlike some, Trick had no reservations about mating. He didn’t have any hang-ups about being bonded to someone, wasn’t fearful of commitment, and wouldn’t shy away from the sacrifices he’d have to make.
He’d always had a drive inside him to find his mate. He wasn’t sure if that was normal, but that need to hunt and claim her had always been there. Like an itch that needed scratching.
Since he didn’t have any hang-ups that could jam the frequency of the bond, Trick was positive that he’d recognize his mate on sight. Of course, the frequency might not be clear for her, and so he wouldn’t necessarily feel the tug of the mating bond straightaway, but that wouldn’t stop him from acting. He’d simply approach her, voice his belief, convince her that it was true, and then cleave himself to her. There was no reason for it to be complicated. Oh, sure, it was important for couples to get to know each other and build trust, but that could be done while they were mated as far as he was concerned.
From her position on the rug, Lydia cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “Um . . . if we’re finished talking about the trackers, there’s something I need to add.”
Trick frowned. Her anxiety was almost palpable. She was a submissive wolf who was usually laid back and easy to be around. At that moment, though, she was strung up tight. “What’s wrong?”
She licked her lips and then opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“What is it?” asked Trey.
Her mate, Cam, gently nudged her, and Lydia inhaled deeply. “You’re probably going to be mad,” she warned the Alphas.
Taryn gave her a gentle smile. “Lydia, tell us what’s wrong.”
“I won’t lose my shit,” Trey promised. “Whatever it is can’t be that bad. Now tell us.”
Lydia’s shoulders lost a little of their stiffness. “Those of you who once belonged to my childhood pack will remember that my older brother died when I was young.”
“Damn, I’m sorry,” said Taryn. “I didn’t even know you had a brother.” Unlike most of the Phoenix Pack, Taryn hadn’t been part of the Bjorn Pack.
Lydia swallowed. “He, um . . . he shot himself. He killed his mate, and then he shot himself.”
Taryn’s mouth fell open. “Oh my God. Wait, I think I once heard something about a wolf who turned on his mate before ending his own life.”
“Many packs got wind of the story.”
Trick had been just a kid at the time, but he hadn’t forgotten that night. Hadn’t forgotten the sadness, shock, and grief that had weighed heavily on the pack. After all, it wasn’t often that mates turned on each other like that.
“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 what exactly 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 do you know?”
He shrugged. “I looked her up a few times. I was curious about how she’d 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 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.”
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