“Tammy.” He grabbed at her wrist.

“Forget it, Nathan,” she snapped, tearing the shirt down the middle. Buttons went flying every which way. “I’m ready to lose my virginity and you’re going to help me do it. I don’t care if I have to kidnap you and tie you to the bed.”

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but then she flattened her palms on his wonderful, hard chest and he shuddered instead. The same head-spinning rush hit her, powered by the skin to skin contact. Skin privileges. She had the most intimate kind.

“What about your freedom?” he whispered in her ear over a minute later, bracing his hands palms down on the wall beside her head. He made no move to stop her as she stroked and petted every inch of that sinfully gorgeous chest, all hard muscle and gleaming skin overlaid with silky-rough strands of dark hair.

“Idiot.” She nipped at his jaw with her teeth. “The only freedom I ever wanted was the right to love you.”

One of his hands stroked down to slip under her sweater. It was her turn to tremble.

“Yes.” The roughness of his skin felt delicious on her.

He smiled and it was beautiful and strong and quintessentially male. “What, and give up the chance to finally see your pretty breasts? Not a chance.”

“Nathan!” And then his hand was squeezing her sensitive flesh and she was drowning in the rush of sensation.

“Why aren’t you wearing a bra?” he asked before kissing the wits half out of her.

By the time she could gasp in enough air to breathe, her sweater was in shreds on the floor. Nate had used his claws to slice it to bits. His hand returned to massage and mold flesh that had never known a man’s touch. She pushed into the caress. “Um…I forgot,” she whispered. “I was nervous about you—Oh!”

He’d lifted her up so her legs wrapped around his waist. “You were right to be nervous.” He kissed her again, then ran his lips down her neck to nibble on the tender upper slopes of her breasts.

She held on to his shoulders, trying hard to find a sensible thought. “Nervous?”

“I hope you’ve been exercising.” His mouth closed over her nipple.

It might’ve been hours before she spoke again. “Exercising?” Single words seemed to be all her brain could manage.

He released her sensitive flesh…after gripping it lightly between his teeth for a heart-pounding instant. “Because you’re going to be indulging in a lot of creative physical activity over the next few days.”

Had he said days ?

Then she lost even that thought and simply felt. Nate didn’t ravage her as she’d half expected, given their combined hunger. He was excruciatingly tender and she knew how much that control had to be costing him.

“It’s okay,” she said several times.

“It’s your first time. I’ll say when it’s okay.”

She might have taken that order badly if he hadn’t already brought her to orgasm twice by then. His tone may have been rough, but his hands were gentle and his mouth was pure magic. When he did finally decide she’d been pleasured enough, he took her with care that brought tears to her eyes.

The second time, she took him.

SOLIAS KING DID NOT LIKE TO LOSE. “HOW MUCH DAMAGE?” he asked.

Kinshasa repeated the number. “The missing parts will take weeks to reacquire.”

“I thought you said they were a minor pack?” He pinned his aide to the spot with his eyes. “Your risk analysis was faulty.”

“My variables were based on the known parameters of changeling intellect.”

Solias couldn’t fault Kinshasa. The general consensus among the Psy was that the animals weren’t that smart. “Find me another site.”

As Kinshasa left the suite, Solias wondered which one of his enemies had orchestrated the attack—covert Psy involvement had to be how the changelings had pulled this off. It was preposterous to think he’d been beaten by a pack of animals.

Arrogant in his belief of the Psy race’s genetic and intellectual superiority, he never once considered that he might be blind to the truth. The truth that things were changing…that the Psy no longer ruled every corner of the planet. And that this minor pack had shown the first signs of the lethal danger it would one day become.

A WEEK LATER, NATE WATCHED TAMSYN BANDAGE UP A JUVENILE’S arm and give the kid a stern warning about rock climbing without gear. She was firm and practical, her hands strong, her body tall. And she had breasts to make a man’s mouth water, sweet feminine curves his palms itched to shape.

Then she looked up and smiled and he felt it deep, deep in his core. He wanted to pick her up and kiss her silly, but since the juvenile’s eyes were already going wide, he decided to make himself scarce. “I’ll see you tonight. I have to make that run into San Francisco.”

Another smile. “Don’t forget to pick up the things I asked for.”

He nodded and left, recalling the list he’d shoved into his pocket. Tammy wanted a few healing supplies, a number of grocery items, and some paint to complete the Christmas decorations. He had the list in hand when he reached the city. It was easy to fill, as she’d included instructions about where to go and had called her suppliers ahead of time to let them know he was coming by.

“For Tammy?” a wizened old man asked as soon as Nate stepped into his tiny store in one of the older parts of Chinatown.

“Yes.” His beast picked up a thousand intermingled traces—herbs and spices, medicines and incense, but the mix was strangely soothing. “I’m her mate, Nathan.”

The man’s smile was fond as he bent under the counter and lifted up a box. “She’s a good soul, Tammy. You will protect her, love her. That is your destiny.”

Nate looked at the shopkeeper, startled. “Do you see the future?”

“No.” The man laughed. “I’m not Psy. Only human.”

Only human, and yet there was such ageless wisdom in those dark button eyes. Nate wondered if the Psy, for all their gifts, would ever be able to achieve that look of utter peace. “You’re right. About the loving and the protecting.”

Wrinkled hands picked up a leather-bound book and consulted something written in a strange, unknown language. “The stars say you’ll have a long and happy life.”

A hint of mischief entered the old man’s eyes. “The women, they don’t know what they do to us. It is our secret.”

Laughing, Nate exited the shop with Tammy’s things and began to walk back to the vehicle. He was putting the box into the trunk when he realized he’d parked in front of a florist’s, though he didn’t recall seeing it the first time around. Shrugging, he closed the trunk and wandered over to the shop, Tammy on his mind.

There was no stock displayed outside, probably because of the cold, so he pushed open the door. Hothouse air greeted him. The interior was a jungle of flowers, the air thick with their competing perfumes. “Some shop,” he muttered, trying to separate out the mingled scents.

He turned to find a tiny Chinese woman beside him, her smile beatific. There was a twinkle in her eye that reminded him of someone. “I don’t suppose you know the healer down the road.”

Somehow, that seemed right. “Oh.” He shifted his feet, slightly uncomfortable in a place that was so intrinsically female. “I want to buy flowers for my mate.”

The woman slid her small hands into the front pockets of her apron. “Does she like roses? I just received a new batch.”

“She’s a healer, too,” he found himself saying, never having thought to ask Tammy if she liked roses.

“Ah, a sensible woman.” The florist waved him to follow as she weaved through the wild tangle of her shop. “Here.” She pointed to a sturdy green potted plant with a few white flowers. “This will last for years with a little water. Doesn’t need much care or attention. Practical. It will suit your healer.”

She shrugged and moved to another area of the shop, to point at a bunch of daisies. “Sunny, easy to enjoy, but there will be no sadness when they fade.”

“No.” All of him—man and leopard—was getting angry and he couldn’t understand why. “That’s not what I want.”

Unperturbed, the florist took him around another corner in this shop that was far larger than it appeared from the outside. “Ah, I think this must be what you are searching for.” She touched the edges of a rough bouquet. “These flowers will survive no matter what. Very cheap,” she said with a shopkeeper’s smile. “Common, you know.”

“No.” The leopard’s claws pricked the insides of his skin, a growl building in his throat. “Show me something beautiful, something extraordinary.”

“Well…” The woman seemed to think for a while before nodding. She took him to the back of the shop, to a small glass case tucked away under special lights. “I have these. They aren’t very strong and, as you can see, require much care. But if you love them right, they will reward you with great beauty. They’re precious and rare, not easy to find or replace.”

“Yes,” man and beast said together, fascinated by the delicacy of the blooms he could see beyond the glass. “Give them to me.”

“She’s not a healer to me. She’s my lover, my mate.” Unlike these hothouse flowers, she was strong. But just like these rare blooms, she was both irreplaceable and beautiful enough to break his heart. “She’s mine to cherish.”

This time, the florist’s smile was pure brightness. “It is as it should be.”