“Why would we?” Lucas’s tone was hard. “You made her cry, Nathan. You made your mate cry and then you didn’t hold her.”

The blow hit him with bruising force. “Where is she, Lucas?”

“I don’t know—you could ask Nita, but I don’t think she’s around.” He glanced at the sun-touched trees. “I have to get to the Circle for training.”

Nate didn’t try to stop him from leaving, and was still standing there when Cian appeared out of the shadows. “Nate? You after Lachlan? I just left him—he’s free for the next half hour or so.”

Cian’s face showed instant comprehension and not a little anger. “What the hell are you doing to that girl, Nate?”

“What’s right for her.” Cian didn’t understand what it was to watch a woman fall out of love with her man, turn bitter and self-destructive…and finally, suicidal. He’d held his mother’s dead body. He refused to hold Tamsyn’s. “She’s too young.”

“She was too young when Shayla died. But did you hear her complain?” The sentinel’s voice was a whip. “Seventeen years old and she took on a position most people don’t touch until they’ve reached their third decade.”

“Exactly!” He blew out a frustrated breath. “All that responsibility and then a mate, too? I’d demand things she has no conception of—”

Cian swore, low and pithy. “Isn’t that your job as her mate? To demand but to let her demand as much in turn? You’re supposed to fucking share the burden, not add to it like you’ve been doing with your self-pitying bullshit.”

“You might be my senior,” Nate said, the leopard in his voice, “but you are not my father.” His father was long dead, having literally driven himself to an early grave after his wife’s death—he’d wrapped his car around a tree. “You want to take me on, go ahead.”

“Screw that.” Cian shrugged. “If I damaged you, Tammy would have my head.”

With that simple comment, the other man defused every bit of Nate’s anger. “Tell me where she is. I have to make sure she’s safe.” The leopard’s desperation grew by the minute.

“I don’t know.” Cian shoved up his sleeves. “To be honest, I don’t think you deserve to know, either. And don’t bother asking Nita—she has no idea where Tammy went after getting out of the car.”

“What, none of you bothered to ask her?” He couldn’t believe that, not with how protective they had become after what had happened to Shayla. As this inquisition clearly proved. “You let her go off on her own without a word of protest?”

Cian’s eyes turned opaque. “She’s an adult leopard. No one has the right to question her decisions.”

And she’d made one to leave him. Nate leaned against a tree and stared up at the dawn sky. It promised to turn a pure, mocking blue. “Where did Nita drop her?” She wouldn’t be hard to track—she was carrying his heart with her.

Cian snorted. “Sorry, you’re on your own. You made the mess, you can damn well clean it up. But since you look like you’ve been gut-punched, I will tell you something she said to Lachlan when she made the request to leave and bring Finn in as cover.”

“She said you were more important to the pack. Since one of you had to go, she decided it had better be her.” The older male shook his head. “My Keelie is the most precious part of my life. How could you let your mate think she was less than you, Nate?”

Nate still hadn’t found an answer to that question seven hours later when he finally located the first hint of a trail. He was certain that this was where she’d left Nita’s car. He looked up and found himself close to Tahoe. Tamsyn had vanished somewhere in the lake city’s streets. Nathan had every intention of hunting her down.

UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN HE RETURNED TO THE DEN TO PICK up his gear, he found another surprise waiting for him, this time in his living room.

“Where’s my daughter, Nathan?” was Sadie’s first question.

He began to grab what he needed. “I’ll find her.”

“I don’t know if I want you to find her.” Tamsyn’s mother scowled. “You didn’t do a great job of keeping her this time around.”

“Why? So you can make her miserable?” She moved to block the doorway, fierce in her maternal protectiveness. “Let her roam. That’s what you’ve been telling her to do. Well, looks like she listened. Don’t you dare go after her.”

The blunt words brought him to a halt. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? It’s exactly what you wanted.”

“You gave up that right when you decided you didn’t want to be her mate.” Sadie shook her head. “You’ve done enough. Let my baby go.”

He stared at her, a sick feeling in his gut. “I never said I didn’t want to be her mate. Where the hell did you get that idea?” And did Tammy think the same?

“FROM YOU, NATHAN.” SADIE GAVE HIM AN ARCH LOOK AS she shook the foundations of his world. “Tammy was practically screaming for your love and you wouldn’t so much as hold her. She got the message—she can’t break the bond, but she might be able to mute it with distance.”

“What damn message?” Impatience, anger, and a painful hunger for the scent of his mate combined to roughen his tone. “The only thing I wanted to give her was a taste of freedom before—”

“I’ve heard it all before.” She lifted a hand. “If you really mean it, then you’ll put down that pack and go sit down. After all, she’s free now, isn’t she?”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said between gritted teeth. “I wanted her—”

“You wanted her on your leash—close enough to watch over so you could satisfy your beast.” Sadie’s eyes went pure leopard. “It didn’t matter to you that her need was turning into a kind of slow torture. You are not doing that to my baby again! You let her go. Let her find someone who’ll love her for what she is.”

Violent rage turned to lethal calm. “What the hell are you talking about? She’s my mate . That is not negotiable.”

“Not if you won’t let it be. If you set her free, maybe she’ll fall for someone who’ll adore her like she’s meant to be adored.”

“I adore her!” he yelled in disbelief. “No one else has that right!”

“Do you?” Sadie’s features settled into a resolute expression. “Then show her, for goodness’ sake. Otherwise, free her in reality instead of just giving lip service to the idea.” She vacated the doorway.

Nate walked out without replying, but her words wouldn’t leave his mind, no matter how far he went. Tammy thought he didn’t want to be her mate? How could such an idiotic idea have ever entered her head? The second he saw her, he was going to growl the truth to her until she damn well listened.

Well…maybe he’d hold her first. He’d made her cry and he hadn’t held her. Lucas was right. That was unforgivable. But Tammy was his mate. She had to forgive him. And she had to come home. He couldn’t exist without her close to him. Those months she had spent in New York had almost killed him, but at least then he’d been able to tell himself that she was still a girl, not a woman.

But now that he’d felt the lush heat of her, he could no longer kid himself. Tammy had grown up. And she’d left him. “We’ll see about that.” The leopard snarled, mad as hell.

Not much later, he reached the point where he’d first picked up her trail—close to Tahoe. From there, he could try to track her by scent or…or he could do the one thing certain to lead him to her. No choice at all, really.

Taking a deep breath, he released the stranglehold of control he’d held over the mating bond since the day she’d turned fifteen and he’d realized what she was to him. It felt like the whiplash unfurling of a coiled spring—a burst of pure power that actually hurt as it boomeranged off his chest, driving him to his knees.

When his head finally stopped spinning, he felt for the bond and found it stretched out taut and clear, a vibrating cord of need, desire, and belonging. He could feel Tammy deep within his core, as if he had a homing beacon tuned only to her signal. It was perfection. And he wasn’t sure he could ever block it again. But he’d think about that later.

Right now, he had to survive the intensity of the emotions shooting down the bond. It felt like he could reach out and touch her. She was sweetness and hope, woman and fire, erotic heat and gentle affection. And she was his. Not fucking negotiable.

IT FELT LIKE GETTING BROADSIDED WITH A BASEBALL BAT.

Tamsyn staggered under the point-blank surge of pure emotion, sliding down the wall to sit with her back braced against it.

She rubbed a hand over her chest, then realized the usual persistent ache, the hard knot of dull hurt was simply…gone. In its place was the blazing glory of a fully functioning mating bond. She trembled. Why had he taken that step now—after she’d done what he wanted and put distance between them? Surely he wasn’t trying to track her?

No, she thought, she wasn’t going to believe in fairy tales anymore. Nate had probably done it by accident. Okay, no. That was stupid. No one who’d been as determined as Nate to block their mating would lose that much control by accident. Her eye fell on the small silver phone sitting on the table by the sofa.

Her mother had called soon after Tamsyn arrived at the cabin. Sadie had been distraught to return from her run in the wild and find her daughter gone. Tamsyn had assured her over and over that she was fine, but knowing Sadie, she’d probably ordered Nate to locate her daughter and provide a firsthand report. Tamsyn shuddered, trying to breathe past the impact of the fully flowing bond. She had to think, had to stabilize herself before Nathan arrived, so he’d go back and tell Sadie there was no reason to worry.