She blinked. “No one’s telling me different.” Her voice was husky. “But I don’t like knowing you’ve had other women in your bed, that they’ve touched you, pleasured you.”

Her bluntness shocked him. Tamsyn did not talk to him like that. “What exactly did you do in New York?” The possessive fury that hit him was close to feral, a harsh thing with claws and teeth.

Her mouth dropped open. “I don’t believe this!” Breaking his hold with a quick move of her head—a move he’d taught her—she faced him, hands on her hips. “You think I would—” She gave a little scream. “You know what, if I had, whose fault would that be?”

He folded his arms to keep them from hauling her back against his chest and proving to his beast that she still belonged to him. “Tamsyn.”

“No. I’ve had it up to here!” She jerked the edge of her hand to below her chin. “All the other females my age are taking lovers left, right, and center, and the only thing I get is frustration!”

Her raw need was simple truth. Newly mature females were very sexual, their scent intoxicating to the young males. Then there was the fact that the mating heat had shifted Tammy’s natural hunger into higher gear. He could taste the woman musk of her, the lush ripeness just waiting to be bitten into—it was an exhilarating blend, and one he alone had the right to crave. Even the idea of any other male lusting after her pushed his temperature into explosive range. “If I take you,” he said quietly, “it’ll be for life.”

“I know that! And I accept it. I need to belong to you—in every way.”

His cock wanted to take her up on it. But she was nineteen . She didn’t understand what it was she was committing to. He wasn’t some kitten who’d follow her around with his tongue hanging out like the young males did with the females. He’d take her and he’d keep her. Sexually, he was far more mature than she was, and a leopard-changeling’s sexual needs only grew more intense with time. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Dammit Nate, I’m sick of needing you so much I can’t sleep.” Her hands fisted by her sides, caramel-colored eyes rich with heat. “I’m sick of stroking myself to sleep.”

Jesus. The images that hit him were hot and erotic and so detailed they threatened his beast to madness. “We’ve had this discussion before,” he reminded her. “You’re carrying too much responsibility as it is.” Shayla’s murder had forced Tammy to step into the older woman’s position—as DarkRiver’s healer—at seventeen years of age. She’d never had a chance to be a juvenile, to mess about, to play and roam. “I’ve seen exactly how wrong things can go if leopards bond before they’re ready.”

“We are not your parents,” she spit back.

He went silent. “I told you to never bring up my parents again.”

“Why not?” She was trembling. “They’re the reason you’re being so stupid. Just because your mother was miserable after deciding to take a permanent partner at age eighteen doesn’t mean I will be.”

His mother had been more than miserable. “She committed suicide.” If not in truth, then in effect. Her drinking had escalated to such an extent that even her tough changeling physiology hadn’t been able to repair the damage.

“We are not your parents!” Tamsyn repeated, her voice breaking on the last word. “You’re my mate . And I’m yours. Your mother and father didn’t have that connection.”

No, his parents had fallen in love the old-fashioned way, without being driven by the mating instincts of the leopard. It happened like that sometimes. Though mating wasn’t uncommon, not every changeling found his or her true mate, the one with whom they could bond on a level that was almost psychic. “Mating will demand more from you than a nonbond relationship ever would,” he told her, cognizant of the terrifying animal fury of his hunger for her. “I don’t want you walking into that before you’re ready.”

“And you’re the one who decides if and when I’m ready?”

“I’m older and more experienced.” She had years to go before she caught up.

She seemed to be gritting her teeth. “Fine! Enjoy yourself in your perfect little world where everything goes according to your plans. Don’t blame me if I get sick of waiting for you!” She turned and began to stalk through the trees.

“Tamsyn.” He used the tone of voice that made even the rowdiest juvenile stop and pay attention.

“What the hell?” Striding after her, he caught up just in time to see her clothes disintegrate off her body as she shifted into leopard form.

He froze, stunned as always by the beauty of her. Her pelt was glossy, the dark rosettes defined luxuriantly against the gold. Suddenly, she looked over her shoulder and gave him a look that could only be described as haughty. Her eyes were green-gold, not caramel, in this form, but they were very definitely all female.

He growled at the implied challenge. She snapped her teeth in response and took off. He almost went after her—his claws were already out by the time he brought himself back under control. If he ran her down in his current state…well, she wouldn’t be complaining about stroking herself to sleep again.

Now his mind was so full of images of soft feminine flesh and long stroking fingers that he was in danger of bursting out of his pants. “Shit.” Turning in the opposite direction from her, he ran toward a nearby waterfall. An ice cold bath was exactly what he needed to knock some sense into his head.

He wondered if she moaned when she brought herself to orgasm.

TAMSYN SHIFTED BACK INTO HUMAN FORM NEAR HER PARENTS’ home. They lived fairly close to the Pack Circle and it was where she was staying for the time being, her life in limbo—she should have been living with Nate by now. Eyes stinging at the reminder of his rejection, she went to retrieve some clothes she’d hidden for just such contingencies. Nudity was no big deal in the pack, but she was already going to be a crybaby. At least she could be a clothed crybaby.

Dressed, she walked to the front door. Her mother opened it before she could knock. With her dark hair and pale brown eyes, Sadie Mahaire was an older, smaller version of Tamsyn. It was Tamsyn’s father who had given his daughter her height. Her mother took one look at her face and opened her arms. “Come here, my darling.”

Sobbing, Tamsyn went into her mother’s embrace. “I don’t know what to do, Mom,” she said, what felt like hours later. She was lying on the sofa, her head in her mother’s lap and her legs curled up on the cushions. “This need I have for him, it’s clawing me to pieces. But…but he doesn’t seem to feel the same.” That knowledge crushed her, made her feel as if she were bleeding inside.

“Oh, yes he does.” Sadie stroked Tamsyn’s hair off her face with gentle hands. “He’s simply had longer to get used to it.”

“Longer? How? The bond awakened at the same instant in both of us.” He’d come to the door on her fifteenth birthday and she’d felt something in her snap taut, a connection so strong, it vibrated with how utterly right it was.

“Yes, but you were fifteen. Your sexuality was young, immature.”

She remembered the wave of heavy warmth that had uncurled in her stomach whenever she’d been around Nathan, the soft ache in low places. “I wanted him even then.”

“But as a girl wants, not as a woman.” Sadie pressed a kiss to her brow. “He, on the other hand, had to have had a brutal time of it. You were a baby and he’d never have allowed himself to touch you, but he was a man and his beast knew you were his mate.”

Tamsyn began to see what her mother was saying. “He had to learn to chain the mating urges of the leopard, wait until I was ready.” For the first time, she understood the pain it must’ve caused him. “And he couldn’t be with any other woman.”

“Mates don’t cheat.” Sadie sighed. “That’s a very good thing, but it’s also a hard thing to bear when things don’t work out perfectly. But you understand about Nate now, don’t you? He’s as hungry for you as you are for him—it’s just that he’s had years to build up his will against the need.”

“He’s going to be a sentinel, Mom,” she said, proud but afraid. “You know the kind of men who become sentinels. His will was already as strong as steel before he found out about the bond. Now I’m pretty certain it’s unbreakable.” She rubbed a hand over her heart, where the bond was a savagely twisted knot. Though it was meant to be an instinctive link, Nate had somehow learned to block it. Her animal heart kept reaching out to him…only to slam up against a solid wall of resistance.

“Oh, my baby.” Sadie squeezed her shoulder and Tamsyn sat up, wiping away the final evidence of her tears. “Now listen,” her mother said, pure love in her expression. “The man’s will might be unbreakable for some, but not for you. You’re his mate. You have a direct line to his soul.”

“But he won’t listen. He’s made up his mind that we’re going to wait and wait and wait and—” She shook her head, shoulders hunching in defeat. “I know he’s thinking in terms of years, not months.” A wait that long would drive her insane. She wasn’t being overly dramatic—the lack of tactile contact between her and Nate, the denial of what their beasts craved, it physically hurt . “And it’s not like I’m some sexy little thing that can seduce him.” It was out before she could feel embarrassed.

“You’re beautiful.” Sadie’s voice was full of maternal pride. “You have courage and strength and such spirit.”

Tamsyn didn’t have the heart to tell her mom that while those qualities might be nice, they didn’t exactly make her a knockout. Her hands were practical healer’s hands, her hair a plain brown, and her eyes…well, her eyes were okay. Sometimes she thought they looked like dark amber. But what man would care about her eyes when women like Juanita with their seductive, curvy bodies were sashaying around? Tamsyn was all legs and strong bones. More horse than leopard, she thought morosely.