"She thinks you will."
It didn't surprise him that Lucas had picked up on Talin's skittishness. "I'm no Prince Charming. She knows that better than most." Twenty years apart had done nothing to diminish the blood-soaked bond between them, warped though it might have become. "She'll get over it." No other option was acceptable.
"Our animals starve without touch, Clay." Lucas's tone was a reminder of the consequences of such starvation. "It's not healthy for you to be in a relationship with a woman who isn't willing to give it to you. Ask Vaughn if you want to know how badly that kind of thing can screw up a man."
"You and Vaughn both courted Psy," he said. "At least Tally doesn't try to hide her emotions." She might make him furious but there was no doubt in his mind that her feelings for him were just as strong. "So back off."
"Good point." Lucas shrugged. "Your woman, your call."
Yes, Tally was his. His to protect. His to possess. Of that the leopard was as certain now as it had been the day they'd first met. That didn't blind him to the second vicious truth - that she had run from him and into the arms of other men.
She was his. But Clay wasn't sure he could ever forgive her.
Talin looked at Clay over the top of her coffee. Though they were in Joe's Bar again, Clay, too, had stuck to coffee as they waited for Max to arrive.
"How long have you known Max?" he asked.
The question was like all the ones he'd asked since Sascha and Lucas's departure from his lair earlier that day. Crisp, unemotional, to the point. That hadn't changed even when he'd ferried her around the city - in an untraceable vehicle - after she had told him she needed to check in with some other Shine children.
Since she had been steadily decreasing her workload in preparation for giving notice, none of those children were actually under her direct care. Jon had been the final one she'd had to place into a stable situation. The San Francisco Shine Guardian was Rangi, but due to a major family emergency back home in New Zealand, he'd had to leave his charges, and the hunt for the childrens' killer, in her hands. She'd told Clay all that as he'd driven her around, but his responses had been monosyllabic - when he'd replied at all. The cool distance was easier on her nerves than that smoldering temper of his, but she felt shut out.
If she had been an unselfish woman, she would have left it. Clay would take her eventual demise far better if he hated her. But Talin discovered she wasn't that good a person. She was horribly selfish when it came to Clay. "What's put a burr up your butt?" she said instead of answering his question.
Those beautiful forest-in-shadow eyes fixed on her with a predator's unblinking stare. "Be careful, Talin. You don't want to wake this sleeping leopard."
"Maybe I do." She pushed aside her coffee cup, adrenaline spiking through her bloodstream. "Maybe I want to see the real Clay."
His laughter was derisive. "You saw him, remember? The sight of claws and blood made you run."
"I was a child," she said, unwilling to be silenced this time. "I was eight years old and I had my foster father's brains splattered across my face. And that was after what he'd already done to me. Excuse me if the whole thing left a few scars."
He blinked and it was a lazy, quintessentially feline move. "Where did you find your spine all of a sudden?"
"You make me so mad!" She blew out a frustrated breath. "I wish I did have claws. I'd use them to scratch out your eyes." Never in all these years had she been as close to violence as she was now.
Clay got up.
Her heart stuttered.
With a dark smile that said he knew exactly what she was feeling, he came around and got into her side of the booth, trapping her between the wall and the muscular stone of his body. "Keep talking." It was a dare.
Fear threatened to swamp her, especially when he moved one hand behind her and closed his fingers over her nape. "Lost your voice, Tally?"
The taunt snapped through the vicious haze of memory. Putting her hand on his thigh, she dug down with her nails. Her intent had been to teach him not to goad her. Except that his muscles proved about as pliable as rock. "Shit."
"Such language." He crowded her even more, big, dangerous, and more than a little pissed with her. "But keep petting my thigh and maybe I'll let you use your little human claws on other parts of my anatomy."
Red filled her cheeks as she snatched her hand from the heavy warmth of him. "Stop it." His fingers tightened on her nape and it was such a possessive, territorial act, the feminine independence in her rebelled. "You don't want me. I'm used goods, remember?"
Clay's entire body stilled and to her shock, his eyes shifted to cat right in front of her. Feral. Wild. Inhuman. As they had been that day in Orrin's bedroom. Memories of slaughter - vivid, perfect - crashed into her mind and suddenly she was that shell-shocked girl again, terrified her best friend would turn on her, use his claws and teeth to tear her to pieces. "C-Clay." She hated that involuntary catch in her voice. "Clay."
He released her without warning. "Don't worry, little bird. Fucking a woman who sees me as a monster isn't on my top ten things to do list." Harsh words, an even harsher tone. "You want me to act human" - a pitiless renunciation, a reminder of what his mother had demanded from him - "don't try to change the status quo of this relationship. You came to me because you needed my help. I'm helping you because, hell, you were a kid I knew once. That's it."
Talin knew she'd failed a very important test. Only hours ago, that knowledge would've turned her silent, made her cry internal tears. Now, a latent fury awoke in her. "Not fair," she whispered. "Maybe I'm not what you wanted me to be, maybe I made some mistakes, but who went and made you God? You have no right to judge me. My Clay, the boy who was my best friend, never would have."