Tamsyn shook her head. The stranger was wrong. The Psy might rule, but their world was limited to towers of steel and glass. They knew nothing of the joy of running under a full moon and listening to the music played by the wind, of feeling the sensation of a packmate’s fur against human skin, of the sheer life that existed in the forests that were her world.
But the woman had been right about one thing—how could you miss something you had never experienced? Nathan had never been hers. Their beasts might cry out for each other, but if the human half of Nathan chose to repudiate that bond, who was she to stop him?
SHE LEFT THE NEXT DAY. THERE WAS NO OTHER WAY. IF SHE remained within reach, Nathan’s beast would eventually push him over the edge. And she couldn’t bear to lie with him knowing their intimacy was nothing more than the result of a physical compulsion. It would be a glimpse into her own personal vision of hell.
Her friend, Finn, was more than happy to fly in on short notice.
“The healer in our pack’s not even forty, so I’m not going to get to do anything serious for a while,” he told her when she met him at the airport and escorted him into their territory. DarkRiver wasn’t known for its friendliness toward unknown males. They couldn’t afford to be, not after the attack by the ShadowWalkers.
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I asked you rather than Maria.”
He gave her a smile but his eyes were watchful. “I appreciate it.”
She ignored the unasked question. “I’m going to introduce you to the alpha. He knows you’re coming, of course, but the hierarchy has to be maintained.” The laws of rank and hierarchy were there for a reason—they balanced the predatory nature of their animal halves with order.
Finn nodded. “I’ll feel better once he adopts me into DarkRiver. It wouldn’t do for one of your pack to slice me up because they figured me for an intruder.”
Since she thought the same, she made sure to take him to Lachlan first thing. Even with that delay, she was ready to be on her way out of DarkRiver territory by late afternoon. “Take care of my people, Finn.”
The twenty-one-year-old healer didn’t bother to conceal his worry this time. “What about you, Tam? Who’s looking after you?”
“I’ll be fine.” She tightened her hands around the straps of her bag. “It might be permanent, you know that, right?”
“Yes.” He stroked his hand over her hair, offering comfort in the changeling way. “But it shouldn’t be. You were born to be DarkRiver’s healer.”
“I can work with another leopard pack.” But Nathan couldn’t be replaced. Not when it was clear that Lachlan was preparing Lucas to step into his role as alpha sooner rather than later. When the time came, Lucas would need to rely on Nate’s experience and rock-solid advice. “Try it here,” she made herself say. “If everything works out…”
“No rush.” Finn’s tone was gentle. “I’ll hold your place until you come to your senses. Then I’ll happily return to the civilized world of our territory instead of this jungle.”
She smiled at his joking, but as she walked away, she had the sick feeling she might never return. When she neared the fir she’d strung with Christmas decorations and lights, her eyes stung. “I’m sorry, Shayla,” she whispered to the ghost that reproached her for leaving her pack when it still needed her.
They would be okay, she told herself. She’d started them on the road to healing. All they had to do was follow it. Tempting as it was to pass by quickly, she made herself look up. There was the ornament Vaughn had painted, right next to the one by Cian. Around them wove the string of lights Nate had hung after he’d growled at her for putting her fool neck in danger. And there was the star she’d almost thrown at him, she’d been so mad.
NATE RETURNED HOME CLOSE TO DAWN, COMING FROM A night raid to “suggest” Solias King look elsewhere for his development. The damn, encroaching Psy would follow their advice, of that Nate was certain. Even in leopard form, he wanted to grin.
He’d stood watch for hours as Cian and a couple of others with tech training had methodically taken apart every piece of Psy equipment already onsite. While that might have been enough, Nate had gone a step further and buried several of the most expensive pieces in a section of DarkRiver land that bordered SnowDancer territory. No Psy would dare venture that close to wolf land. The feral pack had a reputation for ripping out intruders’ throats and using the bleached-out bones as fence posts.
Just in case Solias King missed their point even after all that, they had also removed the semi permanent survey markers and disabled the rudimentary comm tower erected a few days ago. It was why DarkRiver had allowed the thing to go up in the first place—so they could destroy it, and in a fashion that made it clear they would brook no further trespass on their lands.
Nate was particularly proud of the crowning touch. Inspired by Tammy, he’d taken along a large Christmas ornament—an old-fashioned picture of the man in red and white—and hung it from the now useless comm tower. Then he’d wrapped a string of blinking multicolored lights around the metal skeleton.
He couldn’t wait to tell Tammy—she’d bust a gut over it. Taking on the Psy wasn’t usually a laughing matter, as the cold psychic race didn’t hesitate to kill. But from everything they had been able to unearth, it appeared that Solias King’s darker impulses were currently being curbed by his political aspirations. He couldn’t afford to come down hard on the changelings. Any violence and his own Council would turn against him.
Nate had no illusions that the Psy Council cared about changelings, but they damn well did care about their bottom line. And that would suffer massive depreciation if people thought the Psy were declaring a racial war. The Council would never allow such a panic to start over a small piece of land in the territory of what they considered a minor pack. Nate had a feeling DarkRiver wasn’t going to stay minor long, but until then, they could and would use the Council’s sense of arrogance to their advantage.
Shifting the second he cleared the doorway to his home, he pulled on a pair of jeans and an old cable-knit sweater. He had to see Tamsyn, no matter the ridiculously early hour. The royal blue sweater had been a gift from her. Maybe it would thaw her mood—she’d been more than a little distant when he’d dropped by this morning.
But his hopeful frame of mind disappeared the instant he got near her house—the area was blanketed in the scent of an unfamiliar male.
Unbidden, scenes of the carnage that had taken their last healer from them filled his mind. “Tammy!” He pounded on the door. “Tammy!”
The door swung open to reveal a young male. “Hel—” His voice cut off as Nate gripped him around the neck and lifted him off the floor.
“What have you done to her?” He tried to ignore the fact that the male was dressed only in a pair of pajama bottoms, his hair mussed.
I’m sick of stroking myself to sleep.
No, she wouldn’t do that to him. The agony he felt at the thought of Tammy, his Tammy, with anyone, much less this runt, was enough to call the beast to the surface. His eyes shifted to cat. He couldn’t hear anything through the pounding roar of blood in his head, was dangerously close to killing.
The single reason he didn’t do so was that his leopard suddenly started scrambling to find Tammy. He threw aside the other man and strode into the house, preparing himself for what he would find. If she was in bed—Something tore inside him.
He wouldn’t hurt her. He could never hurt her.
But that boy was going to die a slow, cruel death.
He shoved open the bedroom door…and found the bed made, with no signs of recent occupation.
“I slept on the couch,” a raspy voice said from the doorway.
He turned to find the stranger supporting himself against a wall, one hand rubbing at his throat. “Didn’t seem right to sleep in Tam’s bed.”
Tam? The leopard growled, harsh and vocal. “Who are you and what are you doing in my mate’s house?”
The other man’s eyes widened. “Mate? She never—” He slapped up his hands, palms out, when Nate started advancing. “I’m a healer. Name’s Finn.”
That stopped Nate midstep. Healers, even enemy healers, had automatic protection. Only blood-hungry packs like the ShadowWalkers broke that rule. “We already have a healer.” Claws raked his gut, twisted through his body like hard fire.
“She asked me to fly in and take over for a while.” Finn coughed a few times. “Said it might be permanent. Our pack’s got a senior healer and another apprentice, so they were happy to let me go.”
“I said we already have a healer.” Nate glared.
Finn didn’t back down. “Not anymore you don’t. She left.”
The beast wanted to lash out, to tear and scar. “Where did she go?”
The healer held up his hands a second time and Nate wondered what the other man had seen in his eyes. “I swear I don’t know. I figured she’d talked it over with your alpha—maybe a sabbatical or some extra training. She introduced me to him.”
Nate left on a mission to find Lachlan, but it was Lucas he ran into first. He would have pushed past except that Lucas stepped into his path and said, “Looking for Tammy?”
Nate stilled. “You knew she left?” At that moment, the first rays of the rising sun hit the tree line, throwing light across Lucas’s savage facial markings.
“Sure.” The juvenile folded his arms. “I heard her ask Nita to drive her out of the territory.”
The urge to grab Lucas and shake Tammy’s location out of him was so strong, Nate looked away and took a deep breath before saying, “And neither of you tried to stop her from leaving?”