He began to kiss his way up her neck. "Just once," he said, pressing a kiss below the curve of her ear and drinking in her responsive shiver. "You can even set a time limit."
"Stop it." But she made no effort to halt him as he nibbled his way along her jaw and back up to her mouth. "We aren't going to sleep together."
"Fine, we can do it with you on the kitchen table," he murmured, drowning in the rapid beat of her pulse. It echoed the thunder of his own. "Or maybe on the cushions with you on your hands and knees. I like that one."
She moaned and the kiss this time was open and hot and wet. When they broke apart, her eyes were huge, her lips bruised. "No."
He gave in to the leopard's urge to bare his teeth. "Why not? We're good together." And she sure as hell wasn't going to be touching any other men. A growl built up in his throat.
"You're my friend." She scowled. "Sex will mess that up."
He looked at that stubborn mouth, those expressive eyes, and suddenly understood what she couldn't say. Sex had ruined her childhood, scarred her so badly that she'd used it as a weapon to hurt herself. For her it was nothing good, nothing that could be allowed into this relationship.
Because, he understood at last, this relationship was important.
His beast calmed. It wasn't the calm of surrender but that of a predator sizing up his prey. "I'm a healthy adult male," he began.
"And you have needs." All softness leaked out of her face. "Spare me the lecture - if I don't give it to you, you'll get it from somewhere else. Do I have it right?"
Clay decided it would be impolitic to laugh. If she'd been a leopard, she'd have been showing him her claws about now. "Not quite."
"What, there's been a new development?" she snorted. "Men are all the same."
"As a healthy adult changeling male," he continued, ignoring her glare, "touch is part of my life. I won't turn into a raving lunatic if I don't get it - living without a pack for so many years taught me how to go without the kind of touch most of DarkRiver takes for granted."
She continued to watch him, eyes narrowed.
"But," he said, "it's important to me." He was known as a loner but that had never meant exclusion. Not in DarkRiver. "Same as when I was a kid."
She folded her arms. "You just said you got used to not having it so much when you were young."
"No, I said I got used to living without the kind of touch the pack takes for granted," he corrected. "I had another kind of touch to keep me sane. I had you."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said, arms falling to her sides.
But he could see she did remember. All those times when she'd crawled into his lap, neither of them saying a word as he held her and they watched the sun set over the broken edges of the city. All those hugs she'd given him without guile. All those days she'd held his hand as he led her safely through the junkyard.
"That was friendship." Her eyes filled with memory. "You were my best friend."
"I still am." He always had been, in spite of what he might've said in anger.
"Is that all you want? That we be friends?"
A hesitation, then she nodded. "Friends." Talin needed this relationship to be something pure, unsullied by lust and the evil it spawned.
"And if I need the touch of a friend from you, will you give it to me?"
Wary of the cat's nature, she looked into his face. "Friends don't kiss."
"Actually, a small kiss given to a packmate is considered normal," he told her, "but I won't ask that of you if it makes you uncomfortable. I'm asking about the things you did before."
The hugs, the friendly contact, without expectation, without the dark stain of sex. "Yes." She smiled and wrapped her arms around him. "Yes."
His own came around her. "Good."
Her smile threatened to crack her face. This would work. Without desire to sully up the waters, maybe they could forget the mistakes they had both made and go back to the innocence of what had once been between them.
Clay hoped to God he knew what he was doing. Sitting there on the carpet in Nate and Tamsyn's living room, his legs sprawled out in front of him, it was all he could do not to groan aloud in frustration. A few hours ago, Tally had agreed to a friend's touch. What if she never took the step into accepting a lover's? And he would try to become her lover, of that he was certain.
By leopard logic, he was her friend, therefore any touch of his was a friend's touch. That bit of feline reasoning gave him space to play with her and slowly, oh-so-slowly, convince her that sex between them didn't have to mean the loss of everything good. What he refused to consider was that he might fail in that endeavor.
"Sorry I'm late," Mercy's voice broke into his thoughts.
With her arrival, all the sentinels - Clay, Vaughn, Nate, Dorian, and Mercy - were there. Lucas sat on the floor opposite Clay, Sascha curled up on the sofa behind him. Vaughn's mate, Faith, usually attended, too, but had decided to sit upstairs with Tamsyn and Tally today. Clay was a little worried about that. Then again, he thought with a burst of possessive pride, Tally was more than capable of looking after herself.
"Okay," Lucas said, "this is about the Rats." He laid out the facts. "Do we accept their offer and give them free run of the tunnels?"
"Would they be reporting back to us?" Mercy asked from her armchair.
Lucas nodded. "The pact equals a formal acceptance of our rule."