"You hurt yourself, Tally. You f**king did to yourself what - " He bit off his words, refusing to bring Orrin back from the grave. "That's what makes me really mad. And yeah, maybe I'm too possessive with you, but f**k that. You were ready to claw out Faith's eyes over some flowers."
She sat silent, mutinous.
"I figure we're even in the forgiveness stakes."
A narrow-eyed glance. "How's that?"
"I'll try to handle you being with other men that way, and you try to forgive me for not saving you from Orrin all those years ago when he hurt you."
Silence in the car. So deep. So painful.
"How did you know?" she whispered, such na**d vulnerability on her face that his leopard shuddered under the blow. "I didn't even know until you said it."
"Because I can't forgive myself either." He kissed her and it was soft, a whisper. "I'm sorry, Tally. I'm sorry."
Talin's heart broke into a thousand pieces. With a jerk, she wrapped her arms around the big body of this man she adored beyond reason. Her fingers dug into his back and she buried her face against his chest, able to hear the powerful beat of his heart under her ear. "I never blamed you," she whispered. "Not consciously."
He leaned back against the seat, taking her with him until she was almost on his lap. "You have every right to blame me."
"No, Clay. We were children."
"Speak the truth now, baby. Only I and the forest will hear you."
She didn't answer for long minutes, letting the hush of the trees settle around them. So many years, she'd kept that knot of anger and pain inside of her, letting it fester, sharing it with no one. And all that time she'd been telling herself that she was doing fine, that she'd make it. But how could she?
"I called your name," she whispered, ripping open a wound so painful, it had never before seen the light of day. "When it started, I didn't have anyone to cry out for. But the first time it happened after we met, I called your name."
Clay's arms squeezed, threatening to cut off her breath but she didn't complain.
"Maybe I blamed you," she admitted, bleeding inside, knowing how much her words had to cut him. "But it wasn't anything so simple. You were the most important thing in my life. I wanted to protect you, too. That's why I never told you the truth." So many layers, so many hurts. "And you blame me for my silence."
"Not for what happened, Tally. Never that."
But she knew he did blame her for stripping from him his chance to help her. "I would still make the same choice." This moment, this instant, it was about honesty. "Orrin would have killed you if I'd told and you'd come after him. You were too young when we met." Nine years old and mostly skin and bone, as if he couldn't eat enough to keep up with his growing body. Not to say he hadn't been tough - but Orrin had been a killer.
"I'm a leopard," he said. "Our women are everything to us. I would rather die than have you hurt. Don't ever try to protect me again."
"I can't promise that." He was her life. It was that simple.
"You're the female." His teeth grazed her ear. "You have to be submissive."
She was tempted to use her teeth on him in retaliation. "Does that ever work?"
"It worked when you were five."
That made her laugh and though it hurt, it was also good - with her acceptance of the truth, a truth that was a child's, not a woman's, she had unlocked the shackles binding her to the past. But even as she laughed, she wondered and worried about the impact of her words on Clay. He was protective and loyal to a fault. He also had a temper that could simmer for hours, days, sometimes weeks, before snapping. If that temper turned inward...No!
She set her jaw. She would not let that happen to her beautiful, wonderful Clay. Let this damn disease try to kill her. She would not let it win, not until she'd brought the light back into Clay's eyes.
Safely alone in the car with Clay, it had been easy to make a promise to help him. Now that Talin was in the presence of his packmates, she wondered at her arrogance. He was clearly a much loved and respected member of DarkRiver. What had made her think he had any need of her interference?
Then he glanced at her from where he stood with Nathan and her panic calmed. No matter how much he belonged to these leopards, he belonged to her first.
"I've never seen him look at a woman that way."
Startled, she turned to face the tall brunette who had walked up to stand beside her. Clay had introduced her as Tamsyn, the pack healer. Nathan was her mate. "You don't have to say that," she began, leaning back against the kitchen counter.
"Don't worry." The other woman shook her head. "I might be a healer, but I'm no soft touch. Just ask Kit and Cory." She nodded out the window - at the two teenagers who appeared to be running herd on her twins. "They want chocolate chip cookies, they babysit." She grinned.
Talin found herself smiling in turn. "Excellent trade."
"I thought so." Tamsyn's eyes were warm, an unusual color closer to caramel than true brown. "And what I said earlier, I wasn't doing it to be nice. If you'd been a threat to Clay, I'd have kicked you out of DarkRiver land myself."
"You could've tried." No one was going to separate her from Clay.
"Atta girl." Tamsyn's grin widened. "Sascha said you had spine. She likes you."
Talin didn't drop her guard, though the abandoned child in her melted at the small sign of acceptance from Clay's new family. "Do you? You don't think I'm not good enough for him?"