Yellow eyes slit. “You care for him?”
The silence behind her was thick. Good thing Jude couldn’t see her face right them. “What I feel for him is not your business.”
But her mother saw too much. Always had.
After a moment, Theresa rose to her feet. Tossing back her hair, she said, “You’ve grown up hard.”
Yeah, because being abandoned by her mother should have made her grow up easy. A growl built in Erin’s throat.
Jude’s hands came down on her shoulders. Squeezed.
She stiffened. He shouldn’t touch her. No. Don’t do that. Don’t show her any weakness.
Too late. Her mother’s gaze had already noted the telling move.
“Attached to her, are you, tiger?” She smiled and seemed satisfied. “I hope you’re a fighter.”
“I am.” Close to a snarl.
Her eyes raked Erin. “Long time, baby girl.”
Baby girl, her ass. This wasn’t some movie-of-the week reunion. “What do you want?”
Red lights danced before Erin’s eyes. “Then get out.”
Jude pulled her back against his chest. “Easy.” Breathed in her ear.
But she didn’t want to be easy. She wanted to scream. To rage. Like she’d done years ago.
The yellow eyes dropped. “Been looking for you,” Theresa said, lifting her hand to rub the back of her neck. “You disappeared on me. I got…worried.”
What? “You left me years ago. You knew where I was.” She hadn’t moved until her dad died. “Not like I was real hard to find.” Theresa had never come looking for her. Not once.
Still gazing at the floor, her mother said, “Not then. I…watched you then. Had to stay far back. You would have caught my scent.”
It wouldn’t have hurt more if someone had carved her heart out with claws right then.
“Lost you…a few months back.”
What? All that time? All that damn time, her mother had been close by—and she’d never contacted her. Why?
Theresa glanced up. Her mother had to see the question burning Erin alive because she said, “You didn’t fit in my world.”
Like Erin didn’t know that.
“I didn’t fit in yours.” Another shrug of Theresa’s shoulders. But this time, the move seemed…tired. Sad. “But I still…wanted to make sure you were okay. I-I needed to see you.”
Erin shook her head. Jude felt solid behind her. Strong and steady—just what she needed then. “You threw me away.” A whisper, one she hadn’t meant to voice.
That stare bored into her. “Had to. You couldn’t shift—”
“—and the pack would have torn you apart. No way were you strong enough to handle what they would have thrown at you.” Theresa’s shoulders set. “I did what I had to do in order to protect you.”
Erin stared at her mother. At the tense expression on her face. The steady hands. And she said, simply, “Bullshit.”
Theresa’s jaw dropped.
“You didn’t leave me on that doorstep because you wanted to protect me.” Not buying that. Not for a minute. Jude’s hold on her tightened. “You did it because you were ashamed of me.”
She saw the hit in the slight widening of her mother’s eyes.
“You think I didn’t know?” Erin asked, stomach knotted. “You think I didn’t see the way you looked at me?” Not a proud mama. Never that. Always pushing her into the shadows. Away from the others who might see her.
“You were supposed to be like me!” A scream of fury and pain that broke fast and hard from her mother’s lips.
“Supposed to shift and fight— just like me!”
“But I wasn’t just like you.” Sadness there. “I was like my dad.”
Theresa’s head jerked. “I should have been mated to the alpha! He loved me! We were supposed to be together, but then I screwed everything up and—”
“And had me.”
Her mother’s mouth snapped closed but she gave a grim nod.
Honesty, at least.
“You had me,” Erin continued, “and you didn’t think I was good enough for the pack—or for you.” This hurt.
“I wanted to be with him,” a stark whisper. “I loved him.”
Erin knew the him hadn’t been her father.
“He saw me,” Theresa said, voice soft. “Such dark, dark eyes that saw into me so well.” Her shoulders sagged. “He didn’t look at me the same way after he learned about your father.”
And what? That was Erin’s fault? Her father’s? Erin bit back the snarl that rose within her.
“When I got pregnant,” her mother said, “he knew I wasn’t his mate. Knew that somewhere out there, another woman waited…only a matter of time.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “I lost you.”
Not real hard to lose something when you threw it away.
“But first, I lost him.” She swiped away the tear with the back of her hand. “He left the pack before you were born. I-I kept thinking he’d come back, but he…turned his back on everyone. On me.”
Just like Erin’s mother had turned away from her. The woman wasn’t going to be getting any sympathy from her.
“Why did you come here tonight?” Jude’s gravelly voice.
Her mother blinked. “To…see Erin. I caught her scent at Mort’s. I wanted to…talk to her.”
“And what? Make up for lost time?” he demanded. “Or just jerk her around some more?”
Theresa’s hands fisted. “I wanted to make certain she was happy and safe. I didn’t know what you were to her, I was afraid—” She exhaled. “Shifters go after the weak.”
Weak. Was that how her mother truly saw her? Erin glanced down at her hands. Her claws were gone.
But they could come back in a second’s time.
“Other hybrids were in the pack,” her mother said, swallowing, “but you were the only one who couldn’t change. You were in danger, you were—”
“When I was fourteen,” Erin said softly, cutting through her words, “the girls in the pack jumped me.”
“They thought I was weak, too.” They’d taunted. Teased. Then attacked her with claws and teeth.
But, luckily, they’d been in human form.
So she’d wiped the floor with their asses.
Erin met her mother’s shocked stare. “They were wrong about me, too.” She’d bet some of them still had the scars to prove just how wrong they’d been.
“Y-you never said—and they didn’t—”
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry.” She’d always tried to protect her mother. Stupid really. Theresa was the last person on earth who needed protection. “They didn’t tell—well, I guess because they didn’t want everyone knowing the little freak had kicked their furry butts.”
They’d left her alone after that. No more teasing. No more taunts. She’d thought she was fitting in—
Until she’d been forced out.
Her spine straightened. “So don’t talk to me about being weak, okay? I know why you left me, but what I don’t know is why the hell you’ve come back now.” Or why she’d been coming back. Spying, all these years.
She’d never known. It hurt.
She wouldn’t weaken.
“I wanted to see how you turned out.”
“And when Dad died? When I stood by his grave, crying, alone, where were you?”
No answer. She hadn’t expected one. Enough. “The reunion’s over, mother. Time for you to go.” Hopefully, before her mother decided to go after Jude—or her—with claws and teeth.
Theresa held her gaze, then gave a grim nod.
Erin and Jude stepped away from the door.
Her mother hesitated. “Things are…good for you. I know you used to be a lawyer—”
“—but now you’ve got a mate.” A smile. Wistful, dammit. Her mother had been given a wonderful mate. “A strong shifter, someone who can—”
“My mate is a fucked-up wolf shifter, a hybrid like me who kills and tortures people because it gets him off.”
The smile vanished. Horror took its place on her mother’s face. “A-a hybrid…wolf?”
“Erin.” Jude’s tense voice. “Don’t. There’s something that I need—”
But she just rolled right over him, the rage too much to hold back. “So don’t think I’ve walked off into some sort of happily-ever-after la-la land for wanna-be shifters. I’ve got a mate, all right, mother. A mate who thinks he’s my perfect match in every single, sick way.”
“She doesn’t know, does she?”
Jude led Erin’s mother outside and closed the door behind him. A thud shook the motel room wall. Huh. Wonder what Erin threw. “Ah…Doesn’t know what?”
“That she’s yours.”
His brows rose. Oh, but he hoped the door and walls were thicker than he’d thought.
He grabbed the woman’s arm and hauled her away from the room. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His jaw locked.
“I smell her on you. Smell you on her. That’s the way with mates. Like she’s under your skin and you’re under hers.”
He wouldn’t deny it, because Erin was under his skin. In his very blood. “Then you tell me…how is it possible for a woman to be a mate to two shifters? One a wolf and one a tiger?” Because it wasn’t possible. No way.
“Erin’s not your usual shifter. Maybe the rules don’t apply to her.” Her fangs flashed as she said, “Or maybe that asshole who’s claiming her is dead wrong.”
Good emphasis on dead.
“I want to be with her again,” she told him. “I know I’ve screwed up, but I miss her. I’ve missed her for years and I want back in her life.”
“That why you’re in Lillian? Hunting the locals? ’Cause you’re looking for her?” This setup wasn’t making sense to him.
“Yes.” A hiss.
He just stared at her.
“Hunting the local idiots was just bonus.” Her hands went to her hips. “I didn’t hurt anyone. Just had some fun.”
Right. The kind of fun that had led the gnome to his shotgun. Jude figured he owed the wolf before him for that. Another damn scar on his body.
But, curious now, he asked, “If I’d been after Erin at Mort’s, if I’d been going to have some…fun with her, what would you have done?”
“Ripped your throat out.” Said immediately.
Good to know.
“I know I’m messed up,” she told him with a straight stare. “And I know I’m not the mother she needs.” The woman wet her lips. “But I need her.” Her hand dove into her back pocket. When her hand came back up, she shoved a bent business card at him. “When… if she ever wants to talk to me, give her that number, okay?”
Not waiting for his answer, she spun away from him and marched toward the line of cars waiting in the parking lot.
After five feet, she stopped. “You gonna get that bastard claiming to be her mate?”
“Count on it.”
She tossed a quick glance over her shoulder and the smile on her face was pure Erin. “Good. Do me a favor—rip his throat out for me.”
Then she jumped into one of the cars and spun out of the lot.
“Will do,” he whispered, watching her go. Ripping the bastard’s throat out was the plan, after all.
The early morning sunlight burned her eyes. Thanks to her mother and the not-so-small matter of a murder, last night had been a real bitch. Erin marched away from the motel room, her bag clutched tightly in her hand. Coming back home had been exactly as hard as she’d thought it would be.
And just when she’d thought her life couldn’t get any more screwed up…
“Erin.” Jude grabbed her arm, jerking her to a stop. She blinked, trying to shove her way out of the pity party and focus on him.
“Company,” a breath of a whisper from Jude.
She followed his gaze and saw the gleaming curves of a BMW sweep into the old lot. Erin caught a glimpse of the driver’s face.
Judge Harper. “He must have another meeting,” she muttered. A meeting at the motel. No big surprise for the judge.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” She was more than ready to hit the road.
The BMW jerked to a halt, and Harper shoved open his door. He sprang from his car and his gaze instantly zeroed in on her. “Jerome! Erin Jerome! Wait!”
Great. Erin took a deep breath, aware of Jude stiffening behind her. Pasting a fake smile on her face, she asked,
“Something I can do for you, judge?”
He stalked toward her. As usual, he looked all determined and cocky and confident—then he stumbled. The judge jerked to a halt and stared down at her.
She lifted a brow and stared right back.
“I-I had to find you. Cartwright told me you were leaving.” A heavy pause. “I went to Katherine LaShaun’s house.”
Erin blinked. “What?” The last thing she’d expected.
“I had to go! When I heard about the body”—his nostrils flared—“I needed to see for myself what was happening out there.”