That done, he would think the bond shut again.

Her blood flushed hot as the vibrant male energy of him raced through her veins. Mates were joined on an incredibly deep level. To other changelings, the scent of one half of a mated pair became difficult to distinguish from the other the longer they were together. Nate’s refusal to accept the bond had denied them that closeness, starving her. Now, her senses wanted to gorge.

“No,” she said out loud, forcing calm on herself. All healers had to learn such discipline. It allowed them to work in the chaos of a fight or when attempting to heal those they loved—a pack healer didn’t have the luxury of passing on the hard cases to another medic. Every one of their cases was hard, because Pack was family.

Finally, after ten long minutes, she could think despite the masculine strength of the emotional connection surging through her. Then, for the first time, she tried to close her end of the exquisite pleasure/pain that was her link to this man she adored beyond life…and discovered she couldn’t. She fisted her hands. Forget the known wisdom that said the bond couldn’t be blocked—if Nate could do it, why couldn’t she?

It took her an hour to come up with some sort of answer. She remembered what her mother had said—that Nate had had to learn to suppress his needs in order to allow her the time she needed to come of age. That control seemed to have carried over into everything he did in relation to her. But now he’d thrown off the reins and let the cat out to play.

It might be impossible to put the lid back on that bottle.

Her eyes widened. Nate was not going to be pleased if that proved true. More importantly, she wasn’t pleased. She didn’t want him to want her because he’d been forced into it by the primal cravings of his beast—cravings her own beast understood far too well. She wanted him to love her.

It was a terribly impractical dream for a practical, sensible healer.

EVEN WITH THE BOND, IT TOOK NATE THREE DAYS TO TRACK Tamsyn to an isolated cottage so far south of the lake, there was nothing else within shouting distance. “What the hell are you doing out in the middle of nowhere?” he said, the second she opened the door.

Her eyes narrowed. “Trying to get away from you.” Turning her back, she walked into the house, her hips encased in those damn painted-on jeans.

He was tired, sweaty, and hungry. Not for food. For her. Every soft, curvy, bitable piece of her. His cat wanted to test the resilience of her butt, while his—He slammed the door shut behind himself. “Jesus, Tammy. DarkRiver’s operating at red alert while we prepare to take on the ShadowWalkers and you choose this shack to hide in?”

“It’s not a shack and I’m not hiding,” she said, sitting back down to what appeared to be her breakfast. “It’s Cian’s place. He likes the water.”

Cian had lied to him. Not exactly a surprise. “It’s miles from the lake!”

“It’s not that far. He likes privacy, too.”

Nate dropped his stuff by the door and shoved a hand through his hair. “What, this was some silly little jaunt and no one bothered to tell me?” He saw red.

Then she raised an eyebrow and that red morphed into something darker, more intense, a blatantly sexual surge of dominance. “I’m leaving DarkRiver. Finn’s agreed to stay on permanently. His agreement was what I was waiting for.”

He didn’t believe her. “You’re leaving the pack.”

“Yes.” She put down her uneaten toast and stood. “There, you’ve seen me. I’m fine.” Her smile was sharp enough to cut, her eyes sparking with anger that intrigued the leopard even more than the spicy/wild/hot woman scent of her. “You can leave the same way you came in.” She began to clear the table.

She ignored him.

Covering the distance between them, he closed his hand over her wrist. She released the dishes softly to the table but didn’t turn to face him. “What do you want, Nate?”

“I want you to talk to me.” He found himself pressing against her. It took only a single move to enclose her in the circle of his arms and bury his face against her neck. He was ravenous for the scent of her, the feel of her. “Come on, baby.”

Her body trembled so violently he felt her skin move against his caressing lips. “I can’t do this anymore.” Her voice was a whisper. “Please let me go.”

A GROWL ROLLED UP FROM HIS THROAT. “FOR HOW LONG?”

“Why are you asking me that?”

He didn’t like the tremor in her voice. “Don’t you dare cry, Tammy. That’s not fair.”

“I won’t.” But there was a wet kind of pain her words. “I know you don’t really want me. I know it’s the cat pushing for mating. That’s okay. If I go far enough away, maybe you—”

“What?” He couldn’t believe his ears. “You really believe that load of shit?”

Everything went quiet inside him. Lifting his head, he turned her in his arms. Her head stayed down—she wouldn’t look at him. Keeping one arm around her, not sure she wasn’t getting ready to bolt, he used the fingers of his other hand to tip up her chin. Her eyes were shiny-wet, but she met his gaze without flinching.

God, she was so proud. Proud and strong and stubborn. And she’d decided he didn’t want her. He intended to teach her the error of her ways once and for all. Holding her gaze, he slid his hand down her neck, over her shoulder, and along her arm until he cupped the back of her hand with his. Then he lifted that feminine hand and placed it on his erection. She jerked in shock. The reflexive tightening of her fingers almost made him cry out.

“Does this feel like I don’t want you?” he grit out.

“It’s—” She paused, her breath hitching. “It’s a result of the mating dance. You don’t want me, not really.” She pulled away her hand, curling it up to her chest as if it hurt.

Oh Jesus. She was not doing this to him. “Or is it that you don’t want me ?” he asked softly. “Is that it, Tamsyn? Am I too old for you?”

Her head snapped up. “Don’t you put this on me!” The first hint of fire entered her tone. “I begged you, begged you, to make the bond real, to be my mate in truth. But you said no. You always say no! Well, you know what, I’m through with begging. I’m through with not being good enough for you!”

It felt like she’d stabbed him. “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said, the leopard alive in his voice. “I’ve spent every day of the past four years thinking of myself as the luckiest man on the Earth—frustrated as hell, but damn lucky.”

It was all he could do not to crush his lips to hers and kiss her into accepting his words. “I watch you work and feel such pride, sometimes I think my heart will explode. I look at your body and have to fight the urge to bare my teeth and warn off anyone else from doing the same. You want to know why I lost it when you wore those tight, sexy clothes?

“It was because others could see what was mine .” It was a possessive, animal reaction, one he usually tempered with human civility. But Tamsyn needed to see the real man, claws and all. “I don’t like to share.”

“I wanted to peel you out of those damn come-to-bed jeans”—something he was definitely going to do today—“and mount you right there in the Pack Circle.”

“I wanted to show everyone that you were mine. I wanted to put my hands on your breasts and my lips on yours and my co—”

She squeaked, slapping a hand over his mouth. “Nate!” The scandalized expression on her face was very Tamsyn. His mate had come back to him.

He pulled away the restraint, using his other hand to manacle her free hand, too. “Where was I? I have wanted you so damn long, my balls are permanently blue. As—”

“I don’t want any mistakes about this.” And her time was up. The things he wanted to do to her were probably illegal in some countries. Too bad.

He backed her into a wall with slow deliberation, not stopping until her breasts were crushed warm and tempting against him, her stomach muscles clenching at the granite-hard thrust of his erection. “The sex—hell, yes, I want the sex. I want it so much I could devour you right this second, take little bites out of all those soft, delicate places.”

Her breasts rose and fell in a jagged rhythm as she watched him through her lashes.

“But baby, I fell in love with you long before the mating heat kicked in this bad. Do you know why I came to wish you happy birthday when you were fifteen?”

“Because I adored everything about you as much then as I do now,” he whispered, giving her words because she needed them, and because he’d made her cry. There was no excuse for that. “It wasn’t sexual—you were too young. It was just this tightness inside my chest. Every time you smiled, my world lit up. All I wanted to do was keep giving you reasons to smile. The day I realized you were my mate, the happiness almost killed me. So don’t you ever say I don’t love or want you. I chose you, Tamsyn Mahaire. I chose you.”

Tamsyn wanted to burst out crying. “Oh, Nate.” She buried her face against his chest and, when he let go of her hands, wrapped her arms around him as he wrapped his around hers. She had never heard him speak in that impassioned, romantic way, never imagined he would. And to her? To his practical, sensible mate?

“You are not leaving me,” he ordered, his voice predator deep. “If you want to go roaming, I’ll take you. But you are not leaving me.”

She wondered if he expected them to go back to the way things were. If so, he was about to get a surprise. Half of the mess that was their relationship had been her fault. She’d let him think he was the boss. Well, he wasn’t. They were a partnership. Breaking the embrace, she pushed off his jacket. He was so surprised, he let her. Then she began undoing his rough wool-blend shirt.