“Come here.” Ellison pulled her rigid body close again, knowing what she was really talking about. “You didn’t let what happened to you happen, sweetheart. They were feral Shifters. They wanted you—they took you.”

“You don’t know. You weren’t there. I did it to myself. I walked right into it, took my own life away from me. And now my family won’t forgive me, and I’m alone. With no one. Just me.”

“And me.” Ellison let his voice go low as he stroked both hands down her back. “And what are you talking about, you did it to yourself? It wasn’t your fault, honey.”

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“Yes, it was. I was stupid. So stupid.”

Ellison smoothed her hair, letting the satin warmth of it fill something in him. “Well, once you tell me all about it, love, I’ll know too. And I’ll keep explaining that Shifters do whatever they want, and ferals don’t even bother to be polite about it. Don’t keep this inside yourself, Maria. What happened?”

“What I did made my own family turn against me. My brother didn’t want me around his little girls, didn’t want them influenced by me. That’s the main reason I came back here. I could take it if my brother hated me, but he was teaching his kids to be afraid of me.”

A red haze of anger rose in Ellison, wolf anger. “Marquez is right. You’re brother’s a bastard, and I’d like to explain it to him. Now, I want to hear your side of the story, so I can tell you again that it wasn’t your fault.”

When Maria looked up at him, the heartbreak and anguish in her eyes stabbed pain through Ellison’s heart. He understood the loneliness he saw in her—he too had been ripped away from everything he knew and loved when Shifters had been discovered and rounded up twenty years ago.

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He’d watched his sister lose her mate to a freak infection, and he’d watched his own parents make a pact to die together rather than submit to the Collars. He and Deni had been left alone, bewildered, with Deni’s two little cubs to take care of.

“I fell in love,” Maria said, tears of anger in her voice. “No, it wasn’t love. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. Luis was a stranger, exciting, handsome. And I fell for his lies.”

“Luis was the Shifter who kidnapped you, right? And took you to Miguel?” Dylan had told Ellison what he’d pried out of Maria—that a wolf Shifter had abducted Maria to add to the pack at Miguel’s instigation. But Dylan had given Ellison only cursory details, and only after Ellison had badgered him. He’d wanted to know everything about Maria.

“I didn’t know Luis was a Shifter, not until later,” Maria said. “I was a stupid girl, bored with being a good daughter and with waiting to marry the right man. Luis convinced me to run away with him. And I did it. Because I’m an idiota.”

The tears finally came. She didn’t sob uncontrollably, but beads of tears formed on her lashes then splashed quietly to her cheeks.

“And the asshat Luis turned you over to Miguel.” Ellison’s anger made his voice harsher than he meant.

“I didn’t understand what he wanted. I thought Luis was taking me to a big house, where he would marry me. But then he revealed he was a Shifter, and he took me to the abandoned warehouse. When I saw the other Shifters, I was scared and tried to run away. But they dragged me down into the basement and said I had to stay there with the female Shifters. They locked us in.”

Dylan had pretty much related all this, but hearing it in Maria’s halting words made Ellison’s anger escalate to furnace-level rage. A spark snapped in his Collar, warning, and he stepped away from Maria, the wolf in him ready to kill.

“My family might have forgiven me if I’d been abducted,” Maria said. “But I walked away from them. I went with Luis in the middle of the night, and then I thought he’d protect me.”

“Maria. Sweetheart.” Ellison took a breath, trying to cool himself down, but he was finding it hard. She didn’t need a Shifter going kill-crazy in front of her, but Ellison fought the instincts that made him want to race away and find Miguel now. “You didn’t go of your own free will, so stop saying you did. Shifters know how to coerce. Trust me, I’ve lived with them the past hundred years. They do what they want, Collared or no, and these were crazy-ass ferals. You might have walked out of your house on your own two feet, but you didn’t go of your own free will, sweetheart. But even if you had, Luis should have protected you. That’s what mates do. They protect you from all others. Every evil in the world. He didn’t do what he was supposed to.” And for that, Ellison wanted to taste his blood.

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“Luis did try to protect me.” Maria wiped the tears from her face. “Miguel killed him when he tried. And Miguel killed Luis’s cub before that, or as good as—he let the cub die. My cub.”

“Goddess.” Ellison’s Collar flashed another spark, but his rage negated the pain. “Maria.”

In the wild, males who headed a pack or clan sometimes killed the offspring of the other males, but that practice had died out years ago as Shifters became less barbaric, and also realized they needed diverse blood to survive. The instinct to kill a rival’s offspring, though, was still there. In a community of Shifters going feral—losing every bit of compassion they had and letting themselves be driven by the needs of the beast—the alpha’s instinct to kill another’s cubs would be strong.

Ellison hadn’t known until now that Maria had lost a cub. She’d never spoken of it, and Dylan hadn’t mentioned it—maybe Maria had kept it from everyone. But Ellison should have known from the emptiness in her eyes.

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