“I’m trying to find Tammy.”
Cian’s face showed instant comprehension and not a little anger. “What the hell are you doing to that girl, Nate?”
“What’s right for her.” Cian didn’t understand what it was to watch a woman fall out of love with her man, turn bitter and self-destructive…and finally, suicidal. He’d held his mother’s dead body. He refused to hold Tamsyn’s. “She’s too young.”
“She was too young when Shayla died. But did you hear her complain?” The sentinel’s voice was a whip. “Seventeen years old and she took on a position most people don’t touch until they’ve reached their third decade.”
“Exactly!” He blew out a frustrated breath. “All that responsibility and then a mate, too? I’d demand things she has no conception of—”
Cian swore, low and pithy. “Isn’t that your job as her mate? To demand but to let her demand as much in turn? You’re supposed to f**king share the burden, not add to it like you’ve been doing with your self-pitying bullshit.”
“You might be my senior,” Nate said, the leopard in his voice, “but you are not my father.” His father was long dead, having literally driven himself to an early grave after his wife’s death—he’d wrapped his car around a tree. “You want to take me on, go ahead.”
“Screw that.” Cian shrugged. “If I damaged you, Tammy would have my head.”
With that simple comment, the other man defused every bit of Nate’s anger. “Tell me where she is. I have to make sure she’s safe.” The leopard’s desperation grew by the minute.
“I don’t know.” Cian shoved up his sleeves. “To be honest, I don’t think you deserve to know, either. And don’t bother asking Nita—she has no idea where Tammy went after getting out of the car.”
“What, none of you bothered to ask her?” He couldn’t believe that, not with how protective they had become after what had happened to Shayla. As this inquisition clearly proved. “You let her go off on her own without a word of protest?”
Cian’s eyes turned opaque. “She’s an adult leopard. No one has the right to question her decisions.”
And she’d made one to leave him. Nate leaned against a tree and stared up at the dawn sky. It promised to turn a pure, mocking blue. “Where did Nita drop her?” She wouldn’t be hard to track—she was carrying his heart with her.
Cian snorted. “Sorry, you’re on your own. You made the mess, you can damn well clean it up. But since you look like you’ve been gut-punched, I will tell you something she said to Lachlan when she made the request to leave and bring Finn in as cover.”
Nate straightened. “What?”
“She said you were more important to the pack. Since one of you had to go, she decided it had better be her.” The older male shook his head. “My Keelie is the most precious part of my life. How could you let your mate think she was less than you, Nate?”
Nate still hadn’t found an answer to that question seven hours later when he finally located the first hint of a trail. He was certain that this was where she’d left Nita’s car. He looked up and found himself close to Tahoe. Tamsyn had vanished somewhere in the lake city’s streets. Nathan had every intention of hunting her down.
UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN HE RETURNED TO THE DEN TO PICK up his gear, he found another surprise waiting for him, this time in his living room.
“Where’s my daughter, Nathan?” was Sadie’s first question.
He began to grab what he needed. “I’ll find her.”
“I don’t know if I want you to find her.” Tamsyn’s mother scowled. “You didn’t do a great job of keeping her this time around.”
“I’ll bring her home.”
“Why? So you can make her miserable?” She moved to block the doorway, fierce in her maternal protectiveness. “Let her roam. That’s what you’ve been telling her to do. Well, looks like she listened. Don’t you dare go after her.”
The blunt words brought him to a halt. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not? It’s exactly what you wanted.”
“She’s mine to protect.”
“You gave up that right when you decided you didn’t want to be her mate.” Sadie shook her head. “You’ve done enough. Let my baby go.”
He stared at her, a sick feeling in his gut. “I never said I didn’t want to be her mate. Where the hell did you get that idea?” And did Tammy think the same?
“FROM YOU, NATHAN.” SADIE GAVE HIM AN ARCH LOOK AS she shook the foundations of his world. “Tammy was practically screaming for your love and you wouldn’t so much as hold her. She got the message—she can’t break the bond, but she might be able to mute it with distance.”
“What damn message?” Impatience, anger, and a painful hunger for the scent of his mate combined to roughen his tone. “The only thing I wanted to give her was a taste of freedom before—”
“I’ve heard it all before.” She lifted a hand. “If you really mean it, then you’ll put down that pack and go sit down. After all, she’s free now, isn’t she?”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said between gritted teeth. “I wanted her—”
“You wanted her on your leash—close enough to watch over so you could satisfy your beast.” Sadie’s eyes went pure leopard. “It didn’t matter to you that her need was turning into a kind of slow torture. You are not doing that to my baby again! You let her go. Let her find someone who’ll love her for what she is.”