Over time, he'd become better at controlling that hunger. The fact that he was a DarkRiver sentinel spoke to that control. But it was inside of him, a pulsing need. He knew that Tally was his greatest vulnerability, the trigger that could push him over the edge. What he felt for her - protectiveness, rage, affection - it was all tangled up in a caustic stew. Each time she flinched, he came one step closer to going rogue. But today she had leaned into him and that had had an even more unpredictable effect.
Extreme, blinding, violent sexual attraction.
He'd been drawn to her as a man is drawn to a woman from the instant she'd walked back into his life, but with her small act of trust, that attraction had ratcheted up into a craving that scratched at his gut, made his c**k hard with the need to claim, to brand. But he knew Tally. She had been sexually betrayed by the very people supposed to protect her. For her, trust and sex were incompatible. If he pushed her in that direction, it might equal her last straw.
Then there were the other men. So many she couldn't remember their names.
He roared again, the sound vicious.
Why? Why had Tally sold herself so cheap?
Lost in the coils of sleep, Talin frowned, turned, then settled back down. A few minutes later, she did it again. And again.
Fear twisted the sleeping peacefulness of her face, shuddered over her body, locked around her throat. Gasping for air, she sat straight up. She didn't scream. She never screamed. Never had. Not even as a child.
For five long minutes, she sat there, adrenaline pumping, as she examined every corner of her well-lit room. Only when she was satisfied that no one had opened the trapdoor, that no one had entered while she'd been sleeping, did she get out of bed and pull on a cardigan over her sweatpants and tank top combo.
Walking into the bathroom off the room, she threw some water on her face, then tucked her hair behind her ears before walking back out. The bedside clock told her it was four a.m. The hour of nightmares. The time of night a terrified child's bedroom door had creaked open for so many years.
Shaking her head to clear the vile memories, she went to the security panel and turned off the lasers. She wanted a cup of hot chocolate. Maybe the Larkspurs hadn't been able to banish her demons, maybe she hadn't let them love her like they had wanted to, but they had helped her sometimes. Ma Larkspur had been a light sleeper - even with Talin's quiet creeping about, she'd noticed. Those nights they had spent sitting in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate were some of the best memories of Talin's life after Clay. Before, he had been the only good thing, the only wonderful thing, in her life.
Pulling open the trapdoor, she glanced down. Clay had left on a light, but she couldn't see him from where she was. She made her way down on silent feet. Once she reached the bottom, she scanned the room. There were a couple of cushions on the other side, below the window, but the room was otherwise empty. She realized Clay must have bunked downstairs. She frowned. The cushions on the first level were huge but he was a big man. It couldn't be comfortable sleeping on those. Maybe he had a collapsible mattress.
Her curiosity almost made her open the second trapdoor but she stopped herself. Turning up the light from soft to super-bright, she headed to the kitchen alcove and began to search for the ingredients. She found milk and sugar but no chocolate.
"Idiot," she muttered under her breath. Clay had never liked sweets. For his eleventh birthday, Isla had given him a box of knockoff Godiva chocolates. He'd given the whole lot to Talin. She'd made herself sick gorging on them. And loved every minute of it.
She stared at the milk, thinking about simply having a warm glass of it. But she wanted hot chocolate! Tears pricked her eyes. Stupid. Stupid. But the emotional reaction kept gaining speed. She was in a house she didn't know, with a Clay who was almost all stranger, someone had crushed her cherished photographs and splashed blood on her walls, and her kids were dying. All she'd wanted was a moment's respite.
Something moved below, snapping her out of her bout of self-pity.
She rubbed at her eyes and waited, back against the counter, as Clay climbed up. His hair was tousled and he didn't look in a particularly good temper. He'd pulled on his jeans before heading up, but the top buttons were undone, the denim perched perilously low on his hips. That was another confusing thing - this sudden sexual attraction to Clay.
Intellectually, she could understand it. He was a prime example of beautiful male. Women probably begged to be allowed to crawl all over him. Add in that brooding sexuality and it was no wonder her body reacted. But...this was Clay. Her friend. Well, when he wasn't furious with her. She fisted her hands, dreadfully aware that if he yelled at her right now, she might just burst into tears. "Sorry if I woke you."
He thrust a hand through his hair and yawned, the act full of a lazy feline grace that held her spellbound. "You walk like a cat. I was already awake."
"Oh." She bit her lower lip when it threatened to tremble. "You don't have any chocolate."
"Christ, you never grew out of that sweet tooth?"
She shook her head, still feeling a little fragile.
He closed the distance between them with three long strides. "Move."
Eyes wide, she shifted to the side as he leaned up and opened a high cupboard she hadn't been able to reach. Her eye fell on his right biceps, on the tattoo there - three slashing lines, they reminded her of the markings on Lucas Hunter's face. "When did you get inked?"
A grunt was his only response. Curious, she peered at his back to check out the tattoo she'd glimpsed earlier. There it was, on the back of his left shoulder, an exquisitely detailed leopard curled up in sleep. Animal and human in one, she thought, understanding his need to acknowledge the leopard as he had never been allowed to do as a child. "I like the cat," she said, watching him close the first cupboard and open the one beside it. "Who did it?"