"I'm an idiot." She felt her lips curve, despite the fear inside her soul. If she died, Clay wouldn't make it. She knew he wouldn't. It wasn't anything either of them could change and it had nothing to do with courage. They were simply too deeply linked. If one fell, so would the other.
The unfairness of it made her want to scream bloody murder - she and her beautiful leopard had paid their dues a hundred times over. "How did you do it?" she asked Sascha. "How did you learn to be in a family?" She had to learn, too. Pack was important to Clay, and whatever time they had left, she wanted him happy.
"There's not much choice with these cats," Sascha responded. "They have a way of accepting you that's pretty hard to resist."
Something bit Talin's bare toe. Yelping, she looked down. "Good Lord, how adorable are you?" Reaching down, she picked up the leopard cub.
Sascha leaned over and kissed his nose. "Hello, Roman."
The cub butted his head against Sascha, but seemed content to remain in Talin's arms. Stroking her hand down the cub's fur, she felt him purr as he lay there. Her and Clay's child would have been able to shift, she thought, would have had fur as soft. Such intense emotion seared through her that it hurt. "Did you get tired, baby?"
A nod of his head.
Amazed at the beauty of this creature she held, she looked up and met Sascha's eyes. "Like I said," the cardinal murmured, "they make it very hard not to be family."
An hour later, having talked it over with Clay, Talin made sure Jonquil was included in the conference call they placed to Dev. Noor was engrossed in a board game upstairs, having become fast friends with Julian and Roman. Dorian had volunteered to continue babysitting. He seemed to have developed a soft spot for the shy little girl.
Good, she thought, with painful practicality. That meant Noor would be loved no matter what. As for Jon...he'd be okay. He wasn't as trusting as Noor, but his spirit was full of a warrior bravery she knew he didn't see. But she did - because Clay had been the same at that age. That thought in mind, she reached out and rubbed Jon's hair. It was now military short, the stunning white-gold dyed black.
He'd taken a seat on the floor, his back to the armchair where she sat. Clay was standing behind her, arms braced on the same armchair. She smiled. She was happy at this moment and she gloried in the sensation. Everyone she cared for - even Max - was safe. "You have any questions?" she asked Jon.
He leaned against her leg. "It's weird to think we have Psy blood. It makes us mutts, I guess."
She laughed. "Hey, watch who you call a mutt."
Smiling, he wrapped one arm around her leg. Clay tugged at her ponytail and when she looked up, he bent down to kiss her. One touch and he was in her soul, in her deepest, most secret heart. I love you, she mouthed.
His response was a nip to her lower lip that promised all sorts of things once they were alone. Another burst of happiness taking root in her heart, she looked back down - to find Jon watching her and Clay, those amazing violet eyes carefully neutral. "You'll need contact lenses," she said. "At least for a while." His eyes were too unique.
His expression didn't change. "Sure."
Recognizing that his protective walls had gone up, and able to guess why - he was afraid of losing her to Clay, to DarkRiver - she gentled her voice. Jon hadn't ever had anyone stick by him, didn't quite understand that he, too, was now part of the pack. "About being mutts," she said, "the truth is, I never knew who my parents were. At least now, I know something of my genetic history."
The Shine records had listed the name of her mother, though they had been unable to trace her father. Talin had no intention of making contact with the woman. She had no need to chase love, not when she was adored by a predator who would take on the world for her. But..."I think knowing is better than not knowing, don't you?"
"Even if what we learn isn't something we want to know?"
"Haven't you ever wondered why you can do the things you can do?"
He shrugged. "I can't do shit."
"Watch your language." Clay kept his tone quiet but infused it with steel. He knew teenage boys. They needed Talin's kind of softness, but they also needed discipline.
Jon's spine straightened. "Or you'll throw me out?"
Clay saw echoes of himself in that angry pride. "No, we're like the mob. Once you're in, you can't get out. Try it and see."
The boy's eyes widened, then shifted to Talin. "Is he joking?"
"I don't think so," she whispered. "They're a bit possessive." Her words were for Jon but Clay knew her mischievous tone was for him. "Would you really leave Noor?"
The boy shook his head. "How come you want me?" he asked Clay point-blank. "I'm a piece of sh - " He paused at Clay's growl. "I mean I'm a troublemaker."
"So was I," Clay said. "I came into the pack when I was eighteen."
"But you're a sentinel."
"Being a sentinel isn't hereditary. Earn your place and no one will deny you." It had been eight months into his stay with DarkRiver that he'd truly accepted his new way of life. That was the day he had walked out with Luc, Nate, Vaughn, and several others and destroyed a bloodthirsty pack called the ShadowWalkers. No one had made his acceptance hinge on blood. It was the leopard who had decided - this was his new family and he'd do whatever it took to keep them safe.
"What if - " Jon paused. "Kit told me about pack hierarchy. I can't shift into animal form. Guess that means I'll never get a high rank, huh?"