“Good idea,” she said, half-frozen. Kicking off the furry slippers, she turned on the laz-fire. The flames shot to instantaneous life. “Brr.” Rubbing her hands together, she sat down beside Nathan. She couldn’t quite think straight but that was okay. Nate was in her house. He was here. And they were alone.
He butted at her hand with his head and she began to stroke him, her body warming up from the inside out. “What were you doing out there, Nate?”
He lay his head on her thigh and growled softly in response.
“It’s because my parents are gone, isn’t it?” She sighed and tried not to tremble at the proximity of him. He was so lethally beautiful, his body pure muscle under her strokes. “When are you going to accept that I’m a grown-up? Huh?”
No response. The steady rhythm of his breathing told her he’d fallen asleep. She couldn’t bear to wake him. Tears pricked her eyes. If she shifted, they would both be cat and…No, she thought. She wouldn’t use the animals’ driving need against Nate.
It was the man who wanted to give her “freedom” and it was the man she had to convince. The animal already knew what was right. If only Nate’s human half hadn’t gotten in the way. Except, of course, she loved that part of him, too. Sighing, she stroked her fingers through his fur over and over.
It was a long while later when she curled up beside him and went to sleep.
NATE WAITED TO LIFT HIS HEAD UNTIL HE WAS ABSOLUTELY sure Tamsyn was fast asleep. The last hour had been both pain and pleasure, torture and redemption. The animal couldn’t understand why he didn’t claim her. One thought, a split-second shift into human form, and he could take her right there on the softness of the rug.
The temptation was shockingly strong.
She was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen. A long, tall drink of woman. He could spend all night stroking his hand up and down the sleekness of her thighs—exposed by that jersey she’d stolen years ago.
He’d known, of course. It had given him pleasure to think of her covered in his scent. Since he hadn’t seen her wearing it around, he had guessed, had wanted , it to be her nightwear of choice. His claws dug into the rug as he shifted his attention to the proud thrust of her br**sts. There was no question about it—Tamsyn was every inch a woman. And so heartbreakingly young.
No one would think to look at her that she’d been their healer for two years already. Oh, the few packs they had trusted after Shayla’s murder—packs with men and women seeded from DarkRiver—had sent senior healers to complete her education, but it was Tamsyn the pack looked to. She was their own and she was deeply trusted.
Because she had never let them down.
He remembered her at seventeen. Her mentor was dead and Shayla’s mate, Carlos, lay critically injured. Their son, Lucas, remained missing. Tammy had been so slender back then, a fragile reed he’d thought would snap under the weight of the dying sentinel’s wounds. But she hadn’t broken. Instead, she’d put every inch of her abilities into healing Carlos.
She hadn’t been able to save his life, but she had given him the strength to whisper his final words—ones that told them Lucas was still alive. Tammy had been completely drained by the effort to save Carlos, but when they had rescued a badly injured Lucas, she had somehow found impossibly more to give. And she’d kept doing it for weeks.
She had slept only when Nate forced her to, worried she’d collapse under the strain. Even then, she would crawl out of bed after a few hours at most. Finally, Nate had had to half-kidnap her. He’d held her in his lap and told her to sleep. And she had, curled up trustingly in his arms.
The girl who had been that slender reed was gone. She’d grown into a woman of courage and beauty, but one who had never been given the chance to be a juvenile. Leopards valued their freedom to roam—many left the pack and came back after spending time in the wild. He, too, had left DarkRiver for several years in his late teens. Tammy had never had that choice, her wings clipped at fifteen.
Backing away from the lush temptation of her, he dragged an afghan off the couch using his teeth and pulled it over her. It would’ve been easier in his human form, but he didn’t trust his willpower that much. One touch was all it would take. He’d crumble like so much dust.
He decided to keep watch over her from the outside.
TAMSYN WOKE UP WARM…AND ALONE.IT HURT. “I COULD hate you, Nathan.” Getting up, she hugged the afghan around herself and stared into the laz-fire. Her internal clock told her it was morning, sometime around six. Despite the fact that she’d done all she could to entice Nate, he hadn’t so much as kissed her.
Was she that disgusting to him?
A sob caught in her throat. It was the first time she’d considered that Nate’s recalcitrance might spring, not from his overwhelming protectiveness, but because he didn’t want to be tied to her. Her lower lip trembled. She hugged the afghan even tighter around her body in a vain effort to ward off hysteria.
Being unwanted by a mate was a nightmare beyond comprehension. Mating wasn’t marriage, wasn’t infatuation, wasn’t a connection you ever broke. She was tied to Nate on the level of her soul. More than that, she loved him. Some people said that there was no difference between the bond and love, but she knew there was. It was one thing to be compelled toward Nate, another to adore him like she did. She loved everything about him, from his strength to his laugh to his unashamed masculinity.
But what if, for Nate, the bond was simply a compulsion? One he couldn’t dissolve, but that he wouldn’t have chosen if he’d been given the choice? She was hardly a prize, she knew that, had always known it. Added to that, Nate was older, more experienced. Maybe he’d expected and wanted to find a mate who could match him, a woman who’d seen far more of the world than just their small corner of it.