“Feel free to leave if it’s past your bedtime.”
The bite of sarcasm made him grin. His cat liked being near Tamsyn, no matter her mood. And he was animal enough to appreciate her claws—no leopard wanted a weak mate. “So, what are you planning to do for an encore? A parade of giant jack o’lanterns? Maybe we can use them to scare off the wolves?”
“Good idea.” He could hear her smirk. “Shouldn’t you be out doing important sentinel stuff?”
“I’m not officially a sentinel yet.” Though he was already being allocated most of Cian’s work as the other man concentrated on his role as advisor to Lachlan and trainer to Lucas. “I have the night off.”
“And you’re here? What, Juanita was busy?”
He let her hear the angry rumble of his growl. “Are you really accusing me of cheating?”
“Not possible to cheat on something that doesn’t exist.”
“Tamsyn,” he began, intending to tear into her. Then his beast suddenly realized something. “You’re still jealous of a relationship that was over years ago.” He couldn’t understand why, not when he’d made it plain that he’d been celibate since the mating bond snapped into being.
Silence for several minutes. “It hurts me to know a woman who’s been allowed full skin privileges with you—while I’m not even worth a simple kiss.”
He froze at the amount of pain in that single statement. “Don’t you ever compare yourself to any other woman,” he said, his beast raging at the mere idea. The instant he’d realized she’d been born for him, it had blinded him to anyone else.
She didn’t answer.
“I don’t want to talk anymore.”
He was certain he heard tears in her voice. It shook him. His strong, beautiful mate never cried. “Tammy, don’t.”
“Don’t what? Decorate my tree in peace?” The acerbic edge was back.
“I thought…” He shook his head, relieved. “What’s next, after the lights?”
“Ornaments. They’ll take a while. I’m going to get the kids to make one each.”
He jumped easily to the ground and picked up the last rope. Stringing that took far too little time though he tried to stretch it out. Tamsyn was waiting for him when he jumped down the second time. “Thanks.”
He fisted his hands to keep from stroking the delicate line of her profile. “You going to turn it on?”
“Not until it’s ready.” She shoved her own hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I better get inside. It’s chilly.”
He was one step from pulling her into a hug, would have done so for any other packmate who needed it—touch was the cornerstone of who they were. But if he touched Tamsyn, it wouldn’t stop at a simple hug. He’d take all of her, claim proprietary skin privileges from head to toe, spending extra time on every seductive feminine curve in between. His voice was leopard-rough when he asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Working with the kids on the ornaments. Going over some study papers.” She turned on her heel. “Good night, Nate.”
He frowned. “You’re still angry.”
“No.” She gave him a tight smile. “But I’m also not a sucker for punishment. You might have had years to get used to resisting the full brunt of the mating heat, but I haven’t. So help me out and keep your distance.”
“KEEP MY DISTANCE.” NATE PACED ACROSS THE LENGTH OF his living room and back. “Keep my distance.” He was her mate—she belonged to him—and she’d told him to keep his distance.
Something growled deep in the forests that surrounded his home and he wondered which one of his pack was running under the moon. If he’d had to bet, he’d have said either Lucas or Vaughn, or maybe both. The two were still juveniles, but both had already seen death firsthand, been scarred by their losses. Now they waited to grow up so they could claim vengeance.
He would go with them when it was time to destroy the ShadowWalkers. The younger males would be fighting their demons, but he would be fighting for his mate’s right to be safe. Something dark and almost violent in him tightened at the thought of her, a sense of complete rightness filling his soul. She was his, wouldn’t ever be anyone else’s. The reminder calmed the visceral hunger of his beast.
He would never forget the moment when he’d realized what she was to him. Because of the disparity in their ages, they had had different friends, moved in different levels of the pack. But he had always known who she was, adored her in a way that was everything good—her laugh soothed the rough edges of his beast, her smile made him want to smile in turn.
On the night of her fifteenth birthday, she had hosted a small sleepover party at her parents’ home. He’d dropped in to wish her a happy birthday. It had been no fleeting impulse—he’d become used to swinging by to check if she was okay, especially during the times when her parents were out. As soon as she had opened the door, he’d felt the bond snap taut. The knowledge had been in her eyes, too, shocked and bright.
He’d touched her then, cupped her cheek with his hand. She had leaned into him, soft and welcoming and everything he had ever wanted. He’d known that, at that moment, he could ask anything of her and she’d give it to him. That was what had made him draw back. “Not until you’re ready,” he’d said, ending the contact.
It was a promise he refused to break.