“After that, I didn’t care anymore what he did to me,” Maria said. “I spent my time planning how I would kill Miguel and escape, but before I could, Cassidy and Diego came and blew up the warehouse. And Dylan brought me here.”

Where Maria had been floating ever since, trying to make a life for herself. She now lived in the protection of Shiftertown, in a house with four strong Shifters and a cub, but Maria was alone, and she knew it.

The unmated male Shifters had been told to keep their distance from her, but Shifters like Broderick were tired of keeping their distance, and Broderick wasn’t the only one. He and others would swoop soon, and Challenges would come thick and fast. Liam would be forced to tell Maria to choose a mate to keep the peace or go live somewhere else.

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Ellison would never let that happen.

He wrapped his arms around her again and pulled her in for an embrace. Shifters needed touch for reassurance, for comfort, and humans, Ellison had discovered, pretty much did too, even if some pretended not to. Maria was stiff, shaking, and Ellison held her tightly against him, not letting her go.

It was hot out here, but Ellison rubbed his warmth into her anyway, hands smoothing her thin shirt, kneading her back. He felt her start to relax into him, but not enough. She was hurting, oceans of pain, and it would take a lot of loving to ease that.

Maria looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears, her eyelashes damp. Ellison kissed a tear from the corner of her eye then he leaned to kiss her lips.

Her mouth opened under his, her kiss hungry, needy. Ellison tasted her sadness—a mother’s loss, Maria’s fury, her despair—and the will that drove her to live.

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The length of her body moved with his as she kissed him, her br**sts soft against his chest. She had strength and gentleness rolled into one package.

Maria pulled away from the kiss, her beautiful face wet. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can’t . . .” She wiped her eyes.

Ellison’s breath came fast, his lips tingling from the frenzied kiss. “What the hell are you apologizing for?”

“I don’t know . . . I don’t trust what I think anymore.”

“You’ve been through hell, Maria. No one can think straight after that. I don’t care if it was a year ago. But you can trust me.”

“Trust you for what?”

“To take care of you.” He caught her hand, kissed her fingers, and laid his hand and hers over her heart. “Be my mate,” he said swiftly. “Let me protect you.”

The look she gave him was stricken. “You don’t have to. I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.”

“Go to school, yeah, I know. You can do that and be my mate at the same time. My sister loves you, my nephews think you’re cool, and everyone in Shiftertown likes you.”

She nodded and looked away. “Everyone has been good to me, yes.”

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“Let me be better. Come on, sweetheart. All the pretty ones get snapped up before I have a chance. This time, I’m cutting everyone else out.”

“Ellison . . .”

She was scared. Terrified from what had happened to her before. She’d trusted the wolf Luis, and he’d not been able to save her from the worst. Trusting again would not come easy for her.

“It’s not the same now,” Ellison said. “When I mate-claim you, when we’re joined under sun and moon, no one will get to you. Not Broderick, not anyone. I’ll be your protector, your first line of defense. And believe me, I’ll be a way better fighter than your Luis ever was. I’d never let anything happen to you. This, I promise.”

***

She wanted it. Maria felt the pull, the need to lay her head on Ellison’s shoulder and let him take her hurting away. His gray eyes were focused on her, unyielding, resolute, his body warm from himself and the Texas sunshine. He hadn’t worn his cowboy hat while they rode, stuffing it into the saddlebag instead, and his short hair was ruffled by the wind and gleamed gold. He was a delicious sight.

But Maria had woken up one morning months ago, after many weeks of not wanting to get out of bed at all, realizing that the person who needed to take care of Maria was Maria. Hence her plan to go to school, get a professional degree, find a job, and live in safety the rest of her life.

Becoming a mate of a Shifter had no part in that plan. Never again.

Then again, this was Ellison. With Luis, Maria had been not much older than a schoolgirl, and she’d believed Luis was a dream come true. She’d wanted to get away from her dull life of near poverty, of routine that would last forever. Luis had been handsome, romantic, a means of escape.

Ellison was a friend. The first time Maria had seen him, when Dylan had brought her straight from Mexico to Shiftertown, she was broken and barely able to speak. Ellison had made her want to laugh even then. He’d been so-over-the-top Texan—with his boots, hat, huge belt buckle, the Texas drawl, the ma’am. He’d touched his finger to his hat and called her that, nodding and smiling, his gray eyes warm.

Dylan had intimidated her almost as much as Miguel had, and she’d been afraid that her situation hadn’t improved. But Ellison had made Maria laugh from day one—he’d been truly funny, instead of using humor to be derisive and cruel. While she’d not been able to look up at Spike, or even Ronan, she’d raised her head and let Ellison’s smile make her feel better.

His smile still made her feel better, and his kisses were even better than that.

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