"Yeah. Weird, huh?" She shook her head. "I wish all the episodes were like that. But I guess you know they're not. Once I woke up in a bar in Harlem about to get into a taxi with two strangers."
The red glazing his vision was starting to burn, but he knew that if he walked away from her tonight, he'd break something very fragile. "Go on."
"Beds, sometimes I wake up in beds. Beside men I don't know." Tears trailed down her face. "I hate it! I hate myself! But I can't stop it!"
"Shh." He ran a hand over her hair, shaking with the need to hurt what had hurt her. But this disease, it mocked him, hiding in the body of this woman he would never so much as bruise.
"Sometimes the blackouts last for half a day. The longest one I'm aware of was sixteen hours." She was crying in earnest now, deep, hiccuping sobs that made him bleed on the inside.
"Come here, Tally." He tried to gentle his voice but that wasn't who he was. It came out rough, almost a growl. "Come on, baby."
She scooted a little bit closer. Carefully, he closed the gap between her body and his bent knees, one hand stroking over her hair, the other clenched into a fist so tight, he was bleeding from cuts in his palm as his claws broke through to bite into skin.
Ever since joining DarkRiver, he'd been taught to take care of the pack, to protect. He'd taken to the task like a natural, funneling all his anger and rage into something that made him feel like a better man. His packmates might find him a loner, but not one would hesitate to come to him for help. But tonight he could do nothing for the one person who mattered most to him. In spite of how badly they clashed, or how angry he was with her, she was his to protect. "Baby, I need to help you."
"Don't," she whispered, "don't treat me like a patient." Like Isla.
He heard the words she would never say. "You give me far too much lip to be a patient. You're Tally." His to fight with, his to keep safe. "Do you want me to call Sascha?" He wasn't too proud to ask the pack for help, not if it would lessen Tally's pain. "She's good at this kind of stuff."
Talin bit her lower lip again, a lip already swollen from previous bites. He wanted to kiss the hurt, lick his tongue over it. The leopard couldn't understand why he didn't.
"I want to say no," Talin replied even as he fought the internal battle. "I don't know her. She's a stranger and...well, I'm not sure what she feels about me."
Knowing she would hate platitudes, he gave her the truth. "I didn't smell any hint of dislike on her, and I'm damn good at picking up scents."
"That doesn't mean she likes me." Talin took a deep breath and sat up straighter. "I don't think anyone in your pack will ever like me. Look what I do to you." Her hand brushed over his fist. "You're bleeding."
He released the fist and flexed his fingers, soaking in the heat of her touch. "It's not the first time and it won't be the last. Don't worry about it."
"Your pack worries about you," she insisted. "I'm hardly bringing flowers and butterflies into your life."
He gave her a tight smile. "I'm not sure I'd know what to do with those things anyway." Giving in to the needs of the leopard, he cupped her cheek with his good hand. "I am who I am. They know that. If they worry, it's because of things you can't control."
Her hand rose to lie over his, soft, fragile. "But part of who you are is because of me and what you did for me."
"That goes both ways - part of who you are is because of what I did." And what he had failed to do. He sat unmoving as her hand clenched on his, as her eyes darkened, that fine ring of bronze almost cat-bright against the gray.
"Do you think we can ever get past that?"
He shrugged, his leopard gaining strength as a fiercely sexual hunger uncurled inside of him, fostered by the delicacy of her touch, the soft warmth of her scent. The leopard needed to mark her, to convince itself she was okay. "Who says we have to?"
She frowned. "It's like a white elephant between us, Clay."
"No." He moved his hand from her cheek to the side of her neck, closed. Careful, he told himself, be careful of your strength. "That would imply we aren't aware of it. Which is definitely not true."
Her frown turned into a scowl. "Are you saying you're sick of talking about it?"
"Talking never solves anything." He could feel her pulse, thudding hard, out of time. A panicked beat? Or something else? He was sure it was the latter - she wasn't scared of him right this second. "I have no idea why women seem to like doing it so much."
"It's a good thing I make you talk - left alone you'd forget how to speak," Talin said, trying to tease. "I'll talk to your Sascha, too." She was no use to anyone if her mind kept crashing out of control. "But not now." Not when she was at such a huge disadvantage. The cardinal Psy was so composed, so elegantly beautiful, that Talin felt like a drab sparrow in comparison.
Clay's eyes were on her lips and suddenly she remembered what had started this whole thing. Her palms dampened. "I told you not to look at me that way."
He blinked, but it was the slow, lazy blink of a predator very sure of his prey. "Why does it bother you so much?"
"Because even as you touch me, you're hating me." She saw the truth in the rich, sensual green of his eyes. "Admit it - you hate me for what I did."
"Why?" A stark demand, his hand remaining clasped around the side of her neck. "Why did you give away what you should have protected?"