"Hell it isn't." He enclosed her in the circle of his arms. "We're stuck, me and you. It was never going to be anyone else for either of us." Clay waited for her to argue but she didn't. The leopard inside him stopped pacing, hackles smoothing down. Satisfied that she'd accepted the truth, he pulled at the material still bunched around her waist. "Want me to tear this off?"
She slapped at his hand. "Don't you dare. I'll have to sew the straps back on as it is."
"Sorry." He nuzzled at her neck.
"No, you're not."
No, he wasn't. Hiding his smile against her, he bit back a groan as she wiggled and did little female movements that succeeded in getting the slip to the bottom of her legs, where she kicked it off. Now she was fully naked, all glorious golden skin and pretty freckles for him to stroke. "Skin privileges," he murmured, his hand on her hip.
Talin smiled. Part of her - the part that had never quite believed Clay wouldn't one day leave her again - was now at peace. Mating was forever. But a far bigger part of her was distraught. What would happen to him if she died? She had to make sure he didn't fall back into the darkness. "Promise me something."
"No." His tone said he knew what she was going to ask. "Don't you dare ask that of me, Tally."
She ignored the growled order. "I need to know you'll be there for Noor and Jon." It was manipulative to bring up the children, but she'd do anything to keep Clay safe, give up her pride, her soul.
He released her, rolled off the bed, and stood. "You aren't going to die, so this conversation doesn't need to happen."
She sat up, tears in her throat. "Ignoring the truth won't make it any less true, you damn arrogant leopard!"
He shifted in a shower of brilliant multicolored sparks.
She was so startled, she couldn't speak. And then the most beautiful leopard was in the room with her, a glorious creature with defiance in its eyes. "Not fair," she whispered, throwing off the sheet to crawl over the side of the bed and slide onto the floor.
He came to her, laying his head on her thigh. She should have berated him for choosing to end the argument this way but what she did was stroke him. "Beautiful," she whispered, sinking her hand into the black and gold fir. "Magnificent." Petting words, because while he was big and tough, he was also hers to love, hers to adore.
Green eyes caught hers, a gleam of smug pride in their depths.
"Vain," she added.
He growled, bared his teeth. And still she stroked him. Her mate. Her everything.
Talin was still drowning in a confusion of happiness and fear late the next morning as she sat on Tammy and Nate's back steps. The only reason she hadn't come earlier was that she'd spent the morning catching up with Rangi. The other Guardian had returned at last. He hadn't blinked an eye when she'd informed him that Iain's murderer was dead.
"Good," had been his response. "Thanks for looking after my kids."
She'd passed on the details he needed, then headed back, clear of all Shine responsibilities. Her resignation was already typed up, ready to be e-mailed. She no longer dared take responsibility for the welfare of innocents, not when her mind could go haywire at any second. Her eyes fell on Noor and Jon.
They were playing in the yard with the twins, with Dorian riding herd. Thank God she had Clay to make sure she didn't cause any harm to these precious children. He was on the phone inside the house right now, organizing a construction team for the lair.
She looked up. "Sascha? What are you doing here?"
"I came to check up on Jon and Noor." The empath's eyes were without stars, but her face wore a smile. "Can I join you? I have coffee."
Thankfully accepting the cup Sascha held out, she shifted over so the other woman could sit beside her. "Where's Lucas?"
"Talking with Nate about changes to the protective grid we run on our territory. We've had some problems with Psy incursions so we're increasing security. But from the sound of things, the Council's going to be too busy with internal problems to bother us for the next little while."
Talin slipped at the coffee. "Things are changing, aren't they?"
"Yes." Sascha held her cup with both hands, forearms braced on her thighs. "Far faster than I would've believed. Judd thinks my defection acted as a catalyst."
Talin heard the skeptical note in the cardinal's voice. "You don't think that?"
"I was considered a weak Psy, a useless appendage to Councilor Nikita Duncan." There was pain in that statement but there was also anger. "I hardly think my defection capable of causing that big a ripple."
Talin thought about that as they watched Tammy's little boys tackle a tolerant Jon to the ground while Noor grabbed the ball and ran. "Maybe it was your apparent weakness that had the catalytic affect."
Sascha tilted her head slightly to the side. "In what way?"
"You were seen as weak, but you got out. Maybe now, others who never imagined they might beat the Psy Council...maybe now, they think that they can, too."
"I never thought of my perceived 'flaw' as a positive."
Talin shrugged. "I'm no expert - "
"But you are very good at picking up and reading nuances of emotion," Sascha interrupted. "Who knows, perhaps you had an empath in your family tree."
Talin shook her head. "I'm human and I'm happy with that."
"You should be," Sascha said, eyes beginning to refill with stars. "Without humans, the Psy and changelings would have destroyed each other eons ago, Silence or not."