"Not attacking you." He turned to throw the shirt on one of the large cushions that acted as his sofas. "I'm going for a run. I prefer that my clothes not disintegrate when I shift."
"Oh." She couldn't take her eyes off the shifting muscles of his back. Clay had always been strong, but now...now he could break her like a twig. And yet even as she thought that, she couldn't get past his beauty. Her fingertips tingled, her thighs clenched. She wanted to reach out and trace that tattoo high on his left shoulder, wanted to taste -
"Scat." His hands went to the snap of his jeans.
She jumped, heart racing for a completely new reason. "We need to talk."
"You need to sleep." He stalked toward her, revealing a chest thick with muscle. Dark curls of hair stroked over that luscious, glowing skin, arrowing down in a viscerally male fashion. "Get upstairs." His jaw was tight, his eyes anger bright.
Her jaw dropped. "You're still mad at me. God, you're stubborn!"
"I'm a hell of a lot more than mad." Turning, he kicked off his shoes and began to undo his jeans. "I'm through talking. Leave unless you want a peep show."
She could feel her cheeks flaming. "I don't like you very much right this second."
"Good. The feeling's mutual." He went as if to push down the jeans.
She ran to the ladder, able to feel his mocking gaze on her back. A huge part of her wanted to watch him shift, to experience the stunning sparkle of color and light as his form changed, then the wild intoxication of being face-to-face with a leopard. But another part of her was frustrated enough to scream. It was clear that the Clay she'd known hadn't changed in at least one crucial respect. He had seldom exploded in open fury, but man, could he brood!
"What if someone comes?" she asked, once she was safe on the second level.
"No one will." His tone dared her to question him.
"But what if - "
"Pull up the trapdoor on the third level and activate the internal security trap. The panel's hidden by the trapdoor. That will keep the bogeyman from you."
Her eyes narrowed. "Fine. Good night." No response. "I hope a bear eats you."
A growl drifted upstairs.
Smiling, satisfied, she made her way to the third level. The panel was exactly where he'd said it would be. She opened it and had a look. Her eyes widened. This was serious security. Once activated, this entire section of the aerie would be surrounded by lasers. Anyone attempting to cross that barrier without the access code would get one warning. If they didn't retreat, they'd find themselves cut up into neat little cubes of flesh and blood.
But it made her feel safe.
Fast and powerful in his leopard form, Clay wanted to run forever, but he stayed close to home. This was his range and he knew every shift of air, every animal resident, every scent. He'd be home before anyone ever reached Talin.
Right now, he was the real threat.
The leopard let out a short, sullen roar. The forest creatures froze. But he wasn't hunting tonight, too angry at Talin. She'd let him touch her at the bar, but he'd felt the tension in her body - as if she were bracing herself for violence. That wariness was a constant insult and it infuriated him. While that anger was on a leash right now, it threatened to break free and turn to a rage that might make him the very monster she accused him of being.
The danger was very real...because he wasn't like the others in his pack.
It wasn't his half-human blood. There were other half-bloods in DarkRiver. No, it was the fact that he'd grown up in surroundings incredibly wounding to a predator's soul. All those years of being trapped inside the stifling walls of apartment buildings had taken their toll. The animal wanted out, wanted control. But ironically, he could act human better than anyone in the pack, his leopard disguised by a veneer of silent calm.
It had made Isla cry to see the leopard in him and because he had loved his mother despite her flaws, he'd buried the leopard, crippling himself in the process. Changelings weren't human and they weren't animal. They were both. They needed to be both. To be one but not the other, it was a kind of amputation. Yet he had pretended to be fully human for most of his childhood.
However, in the past decade, his leopard half had made up for lost time. He could still pretend to be human, but blood hunger and animal wildness raced through his bloodstream every second of every day. Like the predator it was, the leopard didn't see anything wrong in the cold logic of survival of the fittest. It was willing and able to kill without compunction. And Clay didn't particularly want it to leave.
That was the real danger.
Lucas had never said it. Neither had Nate. But both men had to know that though it was Vaughn who was the more outwardly animal, it was Clay who was the most near to going rogue...to never becoming human again.
Shaking his head in an angry growl, he clambered up a tree with the lethal grace of his kind and stretched out on a high branch, from which he could glimpse the light in Talin's bedroom. If he turned rogue, he'd lose the right to touch her. To go rogue was to give in to the animal so unconditionally as to forget his humanity. But though a rogue's mind held nothing of the person it had once been, some spark of knowledge remained. When a rogue attacked, it inevitably went after those who had once been Pack.
Clay had been fighting his beast for years. At fourteen, when he'd violently repudiated the inhuman control that had been forced onto him by Isla's fragile mind, it had changed him. He had learned what he was, what he could do, learned the taste of blood and fear. Learned that part of him liked it. Exulted in it.
Being locked up for four years had only enraged the animal further. The day he'd walked out of the juvenile facility, he'd gone on a bloody hunt. He had taken down three deer and it was through blind luck that they had been true animals, not changelings. Back then, lost and unaware of the meaning of his heritage, he hadn't known how to distinguish between the two. More to the point, he'd been too blinded by eighteen years of stifled blood hunger to care.